Saturday, July 23, 2016

Dissatisfaction as Resulting from American Devotion to Accumulation

Green Lake, Wisconsin

Political economist Robert Skidelsky's and philosopher Edward Skidelsky wrote a killer book,  How Much Is Enough? Money and the Good Life. If you're a Jesus-follower and read this book the connections between the Skidelsky's analysis of American money hunger and the words of Jesus will be pop up all over the place like Pokemon..

Isn't every culture money hungry? The correct answer here is: no. There have been cultures where having more and more money is not the good life. American, the Skidelsky's claim, is the sad exception. They write:

"Aristotle’s vision of the good life may be parochial, but his assumption that there is a good life, and that money is merely a means to its enjoyment, has been shared by every great world civilization except our own." (P. 78) Read thei book and watch the Skidelsky's back this up.

World-historical civilizations followed, largely, Aristotle's idea that life has a telos, a purpose, an "end" beyond which there was not "more" to be sought after. This goes logically with the idea of a contentment, a satisfaction, a resting place in life that is to be enjoyed for its own sake. Relate this to the Christian idea that the telos of life is the love and enjoyment of God, in which the faithful find their rest. "Rest" here is not to be equated with apathy or lethargy or "doing nothing," but rather an active state of being that is no longer wasting its activity in the pursuit of "more."

The Skidelskys write: "it is our own devotion to accumulation as an end in itself that stands out as an anomaly, as something requiring explanation." (p. 78) We Americans are the wacked-out ones who inseminate other cultures with the seed of greed.

We are the restless, overworked culture. Compare American work hours with, e.g., European work hours to see how Europe is still indebted to Artistotle. Thus,

"work for the ancient Greeks was strictly a means to an end, so not even a contender for the title of good life. Only activities without extrinsic purpose— above all philosophy and politics, both conceived non-instrumentally— could make it onto the short list. These attitudes were to leave a long legacy, as we shall see." (p. 73)

This legacy was picked up in the 13th century by Thomas Aquinas, who wrote: 

“The desire for material things as they are conducive to an end is natural to man. Therefore it is without fault to the extent that it is confined within the norms set by the nature of that end. Avarice exceeds these limits and is thereby sinful.” (Quoted in Ib., p. 79, from Aquinas's Summa Theologica)

In Aristotle, and Aquinas, and in Jesus and Paul, the idea of an "end" or "telos" is precisely not the sort of thing one would ever want "more of." But in a culture of no ends and limitless consumption such as ours there can never be "rest" and "enjoyment" and - note this carefully - "fulfillment." In this case the "desire for more" is the enemy of fulfillment. (Relate this to some Christians' cries for "More, Lord." Perhaps some of that is a manifestation of underlying American greed?)

This is a rich, beautiful, helpful, and troubling book that I was not able to put down. I'm doing some re-reading to deepen the insights.

Friday, July 22, 2016

The Best Preaching Decision I Ever Made

Monroe County Courthouse
The best preaching decision I ever made was to preach through the biblical texts rather than preach thematically. For example, I preached (along with some associates) through the 4 Gospels chronologically over a period of 7 years. Currently I am in the midst of preaching through the Book of James, which will take three more months - verse-by-verse, holding tight to the context and the big picture.

I don't preach thematically, since every theme one could ever want eventually gets addressed in the vast, comprehensive biblical text.

One result is that we have a church growing in biblical literacy. And our people love it.

One of the church's great distinctives is the Bible. The Bible is our text. The Bible gives us our rich, deep metanarrative. Therefore I will preach it. 

Emphasize distinctives rather than try to be relevant. 

See also:

How I Prepare for a Sermon

My book Praying: Reflections on 40 Years of Solitary Conversations with God will immerse you in the Christian theistic metanarrative. 

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Affirmation Is Not Equivalent to Love

Green Lake Christian Conference Center flowers (Wisconsin)
Loving someone does not mean affirming everything they do or believe in. If that was true love would be nonexistent.

Take the statement: X is wrong, with X referring to, say, a behavior. Or a moral position.

Now imagine I say, "The statement X is wrong is true." That is, I believe it is true that X is wrong. It's wrong to do X, or hold to the moral position of X.

Next, imagine you believe the statement X is wrong is false. That is, you believe it is not true that X is wrong. It's right to do X, or right to hold to the moral position of X.

This means we disagree on the truth-value of the statement X is wrong. It means that you think I am wrong about this statement, and I believe that you are wrong about it. Make no mistake about it. This is about right/wrong, true/false. Statements are either T or F, without exception. (This does not mean we know which it is. For example, There are an even number of stars in the universe.)

You, therefore, cannot affirm me in my belief that X is wrong. I should not expect that you would. Why would I expect you to affirm something you thought false, or wrong? And I cannot affirm you in your belief about the particular state of affairs that X refers to. You should not expect that I would.

OK. This may cause us to vote differently. It may mean we go to different churches. It may mean that I go to church but you do not. It may mean I believe in God, but you don't. It may mean we have different beliefs about guns, or about fidelity in marriage, or about marriage.

Even though you think I am wrong, you should not force me to affirm something I do not believe in. Nor I, you. Anyway, coercion cannot produce belief. 

But at least one of us is mistaken about our belief. We cannot both be right. Ethical relativism will not work here. This is precisely why we disagree; viz., because we believe there is such a thing as rightness, and truth. This is why you are concerned to convince me that it is false that X is wrong. Maybe you are upset with me, angry with me. You think I ought to affirm you because you are right, and I am wrong. Objectively so.

Let's say I have studied the claim X is wrong for forty years. I have read everything pro and con about it. I have taken classes on it. I have dialogued with contrarians over and over about this. And still, after all this, I cannot in my heart and mind affirm what you believe about this. Let's further say you have done the same, and come out thinking I am wrong. It happens. You cannot nor should be expected to affirm me regarding my belief, and vice versa. You should not expect me to endorse X, or to engage in X, or to champion X, or get all excited about X. Depending on the level of importance the matter has to us, this may result in a certain parting of ways.

But we can still love. 

I mean, Jesus said we are even to love our enemies, and my enemies believe things I vehemently reject. An enemy is someone who affirms a set of beliefs which you do not, and cannot, affirm. But even if I am to you the enemy of your deepest beliefs, you can still love me. And if you have the expectation that I should affirm what you believe, I feel misunderstood and disrespected by you. Perhaps we can agree on this, and agree to love in spite of, and in the process learn what such outrageous love is and then talk about where it comes from and what it means.

The Myth of "Complete Rationality" and "Perfect Knowledge"

Tomas Sedlacek, in  Economics of Good and Evil, cites Plato's use of myths as a source of modern economic theory. He writes:

"Plato uses myths and considers them as a potential means of discovering the truth. The fuzziness (they are not exact) of myths is a strength, an advantage, not a disadvantage. As a form of expression, myth has a much larger “frame” or reach than the “exact scientific” or mathematical approach. Myth reaches places where science and mathematics cannot, and it can contain the dynamics of a constantly changing world." (Kindle Locations 1871-1874).

Science, says Sedlacek, creates myths around "facts." "Facts" are not themselves seen physically. "We see that which we interpret to be their expressions. In the end, we all see the sun “rise”—but why, how, and for what purpose is up for interpretation. Here is where the story, the narrative, comes in." (Kindle Locations 1880-1881)

Plato believed that "reality," the "secrets of this world," can only be known through the lens of a metanarrative, something of a higher order. This happens via an archetype, a model, a "matrix" which lies above us, or perhaps within us. "Models," writes Sedlacek, " reveal the invisible laws of being."

This brings us to "faith." Science, as well as religion, rests on faith. Sedlacek cites philosopher of science Michael Polanyi, who said that "even science is “a system of beliefs to which we are committed.” Sedlacek writes:

“Faith is not an attack on science or a turn to superstition”; on the contrary, faith stands at the foundations of all science and all knowledge, for example, the elementary faith that the world is knowable. Myth, a faith in something unproven which we even sometimes know is not real (assumptions in economics, for example), starts to play a role as a superstructure." (Kindle Locations 1898-1902)

Such thinking is very European-philosophical, and very (philosophically) un-American and non-Facebookian. The American ideas that we can have a "complete rationality" and "perfect information" are themselves mythical constructs that are not found in science."

Sedlacek concludes: 

"There is nothing derogatory or shameful about myths. We cannot exist without faith in the unproven. But one must admit it and work with it as such. Only a myth can be set against another myth. Myth does not lead a fight with empiricism, with the real world (which revels in a large number of myths), but with other adepts at explanation, with other myths." (Kindle Locations 1910-1913)

My book Praying: Reflections on 40 Years of Solitary Conversations with God will immerse you in the Christian theistic metanarrative. 

My Book + Study Guide - Praying: Reflections on 40 Years of Solitary Conversations with God

My book Praying: Reflections on 40 Years of Solitary Conversations with God, in paperback HERE and HERE.

as a Kindle book HERE,

and hard cover HERE

I am writing a Study Guide to Praying for my book. This guide will not be published as a book, but will be available free as a Word file. It will be designed for groups who want to read and study my book together.

I expect to have the Study Guide finished by September 1.

If you would like a copy of the Study Guide please send me an email. I'll send it to you on (or close to) September 1, 2016.  My email address is: 


1– What Is Praying? 
2– Praying And The Nature Of God 
3– Praying As Relationship With God 
4– Praying Is Conferencing With God 
5– Praying And Listening 
6– Praying And Discernment
7– Praying For Myself 
8– Praying For Others 
9– Praying And Mono-Tasking 
10– Praying And Community 
11– Praying And The Kingdom 
12– Praying And Self-Denial 
13– Praying And Remembering 
14– Why I Pray 
15– The Need For Pray-Ers 
16– A Call To Praying 
17– Questions About Praying
18– Prayer And Death: A Note To My Dying Friends

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Screwtape Letters (Narrated by John Cleese)

When this came out on audio tapes I purchased it. Thankfully, all the chapters are available online. This is brilliant!

Divorce - The Kids Will NOT Be OK

A former cover of Time Magazine had the titillating headline "Is Monogamy Over?" Biologist-psychologist David Barash answered: "We should keep it [monogamy] for our kids' sake." Because:

"It’s very rare for any species to engage in biparental care unless the males are guaranteed that they are genetically related to the offspring—confidence monogamy alone can provide. And because human children need so much parental assistance, protection and investment, humans, perhaps more than any other animal, especially benefit from monogamy."

I meet all the time with young adults whose monogamous (if they really were so) biological parents have separated or divorced. Almost always, there’s devastation. 

I meet with married people who say they are thinking about divorce. They’ve picked up the village-idea that if they divorce, the “kids will be OK.” There is empirical evidence suggesting that is false. It’s their way of trying to justify their own inability to work through their failing marriage. (In my opinion there are only a few kids that do well, and they are rare exceptions. Many couples do not have the tools to fix their marriage. The current parentless generation is spawning teens who have never seen a healthy marriage before. Unless something transformational happens in them they will mirror their parents’ failures.)

The best book I’ve found about this is by former Columbia U. scholar Judith Wallerstein - The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce. She’s done the only longitudinal study of what happens to kids whose parents divorce. Wallenstein followed these kids into adulthood. Anyone contemplating divorce who thinks “The kids will be OK” needs to read this book. 

Wallenstein writes:
“By tracking approximately 100 children as they forge their lives as adults, she has found that contrary to the popular belief that kids would bounce back after the initial pain of their parents’ split, children of divorce often continue to suffer well into adulthood. Their pain plays out in their relationships, their work lives and their confidence about parenting themselves.”

If you are divorced your kids probably need more help than kids with healthily married monogamous parents.

In an PBS interview Wallerstein responds to a question.

adriana_rome: Is there any information on how divorce affects children at different ages? Say a toddler aged child vs. a teen?

Dr. Judith: Well, children who are little ... 2-6 .... are really very worried that they're going to be abandoned. They have so little capacity to take care of themselves. Their logic is that if one parent can leave another, why can't they leave me? They cling to their parents, they have terrible nightmares, they don't want to go to nursery school and all the times during the day and night where there's separation are filled with enormous anxiety because they're so afraid they'll be abandoned and there will be no one to take care of them, feed them, dry their tears, take care of them.

Youngsters who are school aged ... 8-11 ... are more worried about the fact that they're not going to get a chance to do the things they need to do. There's a stage that's being held up by their parents ... the mainstage is at school, on the playground, with other friends, with sports, with music, with ballet ... all the things they do at this age and they're very angry with their parents because they're afraid it will interrupt their activities. They think their parents are being very selfish as the very scaffolding that holds their lives up is going to collapse.

Teens .... are much more likely to be their parents' confidants at the break-up. They're much more likely to be aware of the trouble either parent has been having and they can be very compassionate and caring. But at the same time, they are very angry that the family is falling apart. They figure they need that family support,: especially at this time in their lives when they have so many questions about their own futures. And thirdly, they worry very much at 15-17, whether if their parents marriage went belly-up ... whether their own relationships are going to run into disaster and they're very frightened.

Pastoral Leaders - Beware of the Superman Mentality

In Exodus 18:17-18 Moses' father-in-law Jethro sees Moses doing too much. Jethro says:

What you are doing is not good.
You will surely wear yourself out,
both you and these people with you.
For the task is too heavy for you;
you cannot do it alone.

Moses' leadership flow chart looked like this:

Moses has taken on too much! Just like some pastors. If they don't have a Jethro in their life this will end in disaster. 

Ruth Haley Barton identifies some of the symptoms that might manifest themselves when a pastor-leader is dangerously depleted and may be functioning beyond human limitations.

  • Irritability or hypersensitivity
  • Restlessness.
  • Compulsive overworking. Bryan Robinson writes: "Workaholism is an obsessive-compulsive disorder that manifests itself through self-imposed demands, an inability to regulate work habits, and an overindulgence in work - to the exclusion of most other life activities." (In Barton, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, p. 104)
  • Emotional numbness.
  • Escapist behaviors.
  • Disconnection from one's identity and calling.
  • Not able to attend to human needs.
  • Hoarding energy.
  • Slippage in our spiritual practices.
Barton writes: "If even a few of these symptoms are true for you, chances are you are pushing up against human limitations and you, too, might need to consider that "what you are doing is not good" for you or for the people you are serving." (Ib., p. 106)

Many leaders have a Superman mentality, which is "a grandiosity that we indulge to our own peril." (Ib., 108)

Pastoral leaders who take my spiritual formation courses know that the antidote to spiritual depletion is returning to their first love which is Christ, and a committed life of praying and solitude and quietness before God.

My book Praying: Reflections on 40 Years of Solitary Conversations with God  can help you overcome overworking.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Too Dumb to Understand What God Is Making Out of Me

10:45 PM. I'm heading off to sleep.

I pulled out A Year with Thomas Merton: Daily Meditations From His Journals

The bookmark is set to July 19.

I read these truly comforting words:

"There is only one way to peace: be reconciled that of yourself you are what you are, and it might not be especially magnificent, what you are! God has His own plan for making something else of you, and it is a plan which you are mostly too dumb to understand."

Good night.

Happiness - A Strange Melancholy In the Midst of Our Abundance

Door, Green Lake, Wisconsin

Writer George McDonald once wrote: "The one principle of hell is: 'I am my own.'" Thomas Merton believed the most boring thing in life is self-obsession, and that the narcissistic life was living on the doorstep of hell.

Narcissism as the quest for self-happiness is the path to the empty self (J.P. Moreland), the highway to the false self (Merton). J.P. writes: 

"Most of what takes up the airwaves is the absence of life—a constant reshuffling of relationships, a preoccupation with wiping out the opposition as violently as possible, the pursuit and spending of the almighty dollar in a system that Vaclav Havel calls “totalitarian consumerism.” We see example after example of empty, self-centered existence." (Moreland, J. P., The Lost Virtue of Happiness: Discovering the Disciplines of the Good Life, Kindle Locations 125-126)

We Americans are both obsessed with happiness and confused about it. We have more material possessions than anyone who has ever lived. If stuff made us happy, then no one has ever been happier and more satisfied than us. But we are not. Our things are consuming our souls. There is, as Alexis de Tocqueville observed about America, “a strange melancholy in the midst of abundance.” (In Ib., Kindle Locations 143-144)

Where is the road to freedom? C. S. Lewis wrote, “You can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first.” Or as Jesus said, “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33). In other words, live for something other than your own happiness.

Happiness is a wonderful byproduct of a life well-lived, but it makes a horrible goal to quest after. The life well-lived exists for something other than its own fulfillment. That "something other" must be non-trivial and majestic. Such as God. 

My first book is Praying: Reflections on 40 Years of Solitary Conversations with God.