Skip to content

Every Monday (except for vacation), Pastor Ryan Ahlgrim will post a scripture passage and commentary, inviting readers to submit their comments for a readers\' dialogue. You are welcome to join the conversation!

The Sacred Journey

As far as I know, only humans tell stories. I suppose we tell stories to create order, to make sense of a world that is a stream of random experiences, to find meaning in a life that is otherwise without meaning.

Our stories follow fairly predictable patterns that I assume must lie deep in our psyches. Each pattern is an archetypal story. One of those patterns or archetypal stories is The Journey. It must be one of our most important stories because it has been there from the beginning and can be found everywhere and at all times. The earliest surviving great work of literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh, is a journey. The ancient Greeks also had a favorite journey story: The Odyssey.

Why are journey stories so important? Because the journey is a metaphor for each of our lives. We are not static beings who stay the same; we are always changing, developing, learning, growing–or devolving and dying. Even if our daily lives seem to be routine and repetitious, something is always going on within us. We are either withering or putting out new buds, but we are never simply staying unchanged.

So our lives can be compared to going on a journey. But where are we going? What will we learn and do on the way?

At the beginning of our journey we seek such things as security, belonging, building a reputation, and having “experiences.” These experiences make us more cosmopolitan (part of our reputation), but experiences for the sake of experiences do not make us wiser. It is popular in our culture to talk about having a bucket list: a list of things to see or do before one dies. As a result of such lists, the travel industry has taken off. But I question whether we’re actually getting anywhere on our journey by pursuing travel or experiences for their own sake.

The real journey, it seems to me, is within. It is coming to terms with our fears and our faults. It is a journey that surprises us with the unexpected, and often requires a response opposite of what we had been doing before. Joseph Campbell, the famous expositor of world mythology, says: “We have only to follow the thread of the hero path. Where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outwards, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.”

It is not coincidental that the Bible is a journey story. The main plot starts with God calling Abraham, in his old age, to leave everything behind and make a journey into the unknown. That journey takes on additional urgency and pathos when God calls Moses to lead the Hebrews out of slavery, through the wilderness, to a promised land. In a sense, that journey has never ended; we are still making our way through the wilderness. In the Gospel of Mark the journey intensifies. Jesus’ first words to individuals are, “Follow me.” No one who wishes to hold on to possessions or the past is fit to join his journey.

But where is this journey going? To the greatest discovery and destination of all: Those who seek to gain their lives will lose their lives, but those who willingly lose their lives will find their lives.

The journey is not ultimately about safety or reputation or entertainment or trying to gain immortality; it is about laying down one’s life, living in self-giving love and trusting the One who stands behind it all.

Whether you realize it or not, you are on a journey, a sacred journey. You can be a tourist or a pilgrim. You can be observing, snapping photos, or you can be engaging, taking off your sandals on this sacred ground and beginning a process of self-denial. Grow beyond your fears and your faults (without necessarily losing them; perhaps even embracing them).

Because you are human, you cannot help but seek meaning and make meaning. That is your purpose.

Advertisements

A Moral Debate With God

In July 1943 American bombers attacked Hamburg, Germany. The Allies wanted to cripple the Nazi war machine by targeting the city’s factories. Unfortunately, precision bombing was impossible. The only way to destroy the factories was to bomb the entire city indiscriminately–which is what the Americans did. It was called saturation bombing. So many bombs were dropped, setting so many intense fires, it created what is called a firestorm: a vortex of fire; literally, a tornado of fire that sucked out all the air as it burned everything. About 43,000 civilians died.

In February 1945, as the Germans were on the run and the end of the war was just months away, the Allies did this saturation bombing again on the city of Dresden. Again a firestorm was created. Tens of thousands of civilians died. But was this bombing a military necessity, or was it mostly an act of terrorism?

A month later, on the other side of the world, the Americans bombed Tokyo for two straight days. Again a firestorm was created. Sixteen square miles of Tokyo were annihilated, over 100,000 civilians died, and over a million were left homeless. It was the single most destructive bombing raid in human history.

A few months later a single bomb instantly killed 70,000 people in Hiroshima; three days later another bomb incinerated 40,000 people in Nagasaki–only 150 were soldiers. By the end of the year another 200,000 had died of radiation poisoning.

Wiping out cities is nothing new; humans have been doing it for 10,000 years. Today our bombs are more precise: we have drones and video and laser-guided missiles. So now, in order to “take out the bad guys,” we can avoid destroying a whole city by targeting individuals.

But when we target a terrorist today by firing a missile at his car, is it acceptable if that car is being driven by a cab driver, and the terrorist’s wife is sitting next to him in the back seat? When we target a terrorist by firing a missile into his house, is it acceptable that his children are also in that house? Even with drones and smart bombs, we still end up killing more civilians than enemy combatants. Is this moral?

That’s the question Abraham is wrestling with in Genesis 18:20-32. He’s wrestling with one of the toughest moral dilemmas of our time–of any time. If there are a large number of sadistic violent people living in a city, and you can’t separate them from the innocent population, are you justified in destroying the whole city? What makes the question more agonizing for Abraham is that it is God who is planning on destroying the city. So if Abraham has doubts about the morality of bombing Sodom and Gomorrah, he’s going to have to argue it out with God.

How do you argue morality with God? How does Abraham try to convince God to reconsider? What’s his central argument? It’s right there in Abraham’s first statement to God: “Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” The phrase “far be it from you” literally means “that would be profane–unholy.” Abraham’s argument is this: You, God, must be just. To be God means to be just. If you’re not just, you’re not God.

Socrates once asked the question: Is something good because it is God’s will, or is it God’s will because it is good? Socrates insists that goodness is what God must be and do. Abraham agrees. God does not define goodness; goodness defines God. Abraham is, in effect, telling God how to be God. He’s doing it with humility–with fear and trembling–but he’s still presuming to suggest how God should be God.

It’s not that God doesn’t know how to be God. In reality, it is not Abraham who is instructing God, it is God who is instructing Abraham. God wants Abraham to raise these questions. God wants Abraham to tackle these tough moral issues and discern what God ought to do. God has arranged this whole discussion (read verses 17-19). God is inviting Abraham to ponder whether destroying these cities would actually be just–that’s how Abraham will become morally ready to lead a new community that will bless all communities on earth.

When I was a boy I would sometimes question my father’s fairness. “But Dad!” I’d cry. And he would respond: “I don’t want to hear any buts about it!” He was shutting down any moral discussion. That’s not what God does. God invites moral debate so Abraham will morally grow.

Let’s say Sodom is a city of 1000 people. Abraham thinks it is inconceivable that it could be moral to destroy 950 wicked people if it also means destroying 50 innocent people. God agrees that for the sake of the 50 innocent, he will forgive the guilt of the 950 wicked. But what if the number of innocent is just a little less–say 45? Or 30? or 20? or 10? Each time God agrees it is better not to destroy all those wicked people for the sake of saving the lives of the small number of possible innocents. Abraham stops at 10; we expect him to go all the way down to one, but he doesn’t. Why not? Perhaps because saving one innocent life isn’t worth letting 999 wicked people continue their wickedness. Or, more likely, Abraham reasons that if the number of innocents is under 10, they can safely escape (which is what happens). But the overall principle is clear: Protecting the few who are good is more important and more just than punishing the many who are bad. Or another way to put it: Collateral damage is profane.

I think this passage is one of the most important passages in the entire Bible. It challenges us in two deep ways: (1) It challenges how we fight evil. If in our fighting we are harming many who are good, we have failed. We are not just; it is we who now share in the evil. (2) We can’t rely on an authority to do our moral thinking for us. We can’t say, “I was following orders.” That’s morally impermissible. We must use our own God-given sense of morality to work out what is right to do in a complicated, difficult world.

We can’t even fall back on the excuse: “I was following a Bible verse.” Are we guided by scripture? Yes. Are we guided by the moral principles we find there? Of course. But we still need to figure out how best to apply those principles in the most moral way in our situations. That’s how we morally grow. That’s how we become a faith community that can be a light and a blessing to the rest of the world.

[Based on a sermon from June 10, 2018]

 

Sympathy for Gaza?

For the past several weeks a human tragedy has been playing out day after day at the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel. Tens of thousands of Palestinians have been coming to the border to protest. They are protesting the desperation and poverty they live in, protesting the blockade imposed by Israel, protesting the recent opening of the U.S. embassy to Israel in the disputed city of Jerusalem, and protesting for the right to return to their lands and homes in Israel.

Most of the marchers are unarmed and nonviolent. Some youth throw stones toward the Israeli Defense Forces on the other side of the border. Some set tires on fire and roll them toward the fence. Some have tried breaking through the fence. No Israelis have been harmed. In response, the Israeli Defense Forces have been using tear gas to disperse the protesters, or shooting with live ammunition at the legs of those who approach the fence. As a result, thousands have been wounded, and well over a hundred have died–including children, women, a medic, and a journalist.

The response I’ve been hearing from people living around me has been mixed. Most, however, have little to no sympathy for the protesters. They point out that Gaza is in the deplorable state it is in because the Palestinians who live there elected the terrorist organization Hamas to represent them. Hamas is publicly dedicated to the utter destruction of Israel, and over the years it has been responsible for many of the most bloody terrorist attacks against Israelis. In addition, Hamas periodically (and currently) fires rockets into Israel, and has also been sending kites rigged with burning rags to set fire to forests and agricultural fields in Israel. Hamas has been using the protests for its own ends, to stoke anger at Israel, and it uses the protesters as human shields as it tries to get through the security fence. The reason Israel blockades the Gaza Strip is to try to prevent Hamas from receiving more weapons and materials for building tunnels to attack Israel. So the Palestinians have only themselves to blame for their situation.

As far as I am aware, that information is largely–maybe completely–correct. But I think we need to keep some other important pieces of information in mind as well:

  • Hamas won elections in 2006 because the Palestinian Authority was generally seen as corrupt, and Hamas had a better track record of providing social services. The election of Hamas in the Gaza Strip does not mean the Palestinians living in Gaza favor terrorism or are terrorists.
  • The protests and marches along the border in Gaza were initiated by the Palestinian people, not Hamas. Hamas may be trying to use the protests for its own ends, but the protests themselves are an expression of real and widespread grievances against Israel.
  • The population of the Gaza Strip is made up primarily of refugees (and their descendants) who fled from their homes in 1948 due to war and acts of terror by Jewish forces. They are now people without citizenship and without a state. Israel refuses to let them return to their homes (so as to maintain a Jewish majority in Israel). It is politically unrealistic that Palestinians will ever be given the right to return to their homes (homes which have either been destroyed or taken over by Jewish families), but they have never been compensated for their losses, and the Israeli government has never acknowledged the wrong done to them.
  • It is against international norms to fire live ammunition at protesters who are posing no immediate threat. Israel’s response to a largely nonviolent protest has been harsh and violent, resulting in the deaths and serious injury of many innocent people.
  • Until we have lived in the shoes of Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip, we are not likely to understand and fully appreciate their plight, and we should be slow to be dismissive.

The journalist Thomas Friedman has suggested that the Palestinians in Gaza would have a much more effective protest if they held signs saying, “Two states for two peoples.” In other words, if the Palestinians in Gaza would visibly show they are renouncing the aims of Hamas to destroy Israel, this would put moral and political pressure on Israel to get serious about peace negotiations.

No nation is perfect. Israel was founded on contradictions–but so was the United States. Despite its unjust  policies (such as building Jewish settlements in the West Bank), Israel is a remarkable nation serving the Jewish people and seeking to be a just democracy. Let’s support Israel and its very legitimate security needs. But let us also support the Palestinians and their very legitimate desire for equal rights and self-determination. The path forward must be a commitment to nonviolence by Israelis and Palestinians, a willingness to acknowledge the pain and injustices suffered by both sides, and a solution grounded in compassion and fairness. An impossible task? At the moment, yes. So let’s begin by changing attitudes on both sides.

Pro-Gun Gun Control

Another mass shooting at a school. And another. And another.

American society is caught in a cycle of gun violence. Last year guns were used to kill almost 40,000 Americans. The leading cause was suicide which is responsible for a whopping 60% of all gun deaths. Accidental shootings kill about as many people as self-defense killings. Gang shootings, robberies, and intentional murder also add significant numbers. And then we have mass school shootings. So far this year 36 students and staff have been killed.

Although the number of deaths is small compared with the other categories of gun violence, school shootings particularly affect us. These are children and youth mowed down in the midst of their innocence.

With school shootings on the rise, lots of proposals have been made to help prevent these tragedies: better intervention and mental healthcare for troubled youth, redesigned schools with fewer entrances, more armed security–including some teachers, and shifting our violence-oriented entertainment culture.

And, of course, better gun control.

This last one is quite controversial among those who see themselves as strong supporters of the second amendment. Any further gun control, in their opinion, is a slippery slope toward undermining our fundamental right to keep and bear arms. They fear that those who support more gun control are using this as a pretext for abolishing the right to own guns. Thus, whenever a Democrat is elected president, gun sales go through the roof because of an irrational fear that somehow the president will be able to stop the sale of guns. (And, ironically, when someone like Trump becomes president, gun sales fall so steeply that it jeopardizes some gun companies.)

Since this fear is so deep-seated, it seems to me that reasonable gun control at the national level is going to have to come from those who are strong advocates of the second amendment. No one else has a chance of being trusted.

Can we convince pro-gun senators and representatives to support a serious study of whether certain measures would likely reduce gun violence in America without undermining the right to keep and bear arms? Specifically, I’d like to see a non-partisan study that looks at the likely effects of the following:

  • universal background checks
  • universal gun registry
  • restricting gun ownership for those under a restraining order or undergoing therapy or medication for violent tendencies
  • mandatory gun locks or “smart guns”
  • outlawing bump stocks
  • restricting assault-type rifles
  • raising the age for ownership of certain types of weapons
  • limited-capacity gun magazines
  • outlawing armor-piercing bullets

I do not know whether all of the suggestions above would be useful or not. They may have minimal or no effect, or unintended negative effects. Gun proponents are correct when they point out that less guns does not necessarily lower violence. For instance, knife attacks may well become more common. But that’s exactly why we need to study gun violence more seriously and fairly, without ideology, and find solutions that will protect the right to keep and bear arms while at the same time lowering the rate of suicide, accidental killing, easy access by criminals and youth, and mass shootings.

Proponents of the second amendment oftentimes have no problem placing safeguards and restrictions on the fifteenth and nineteenth amendments (the right to vote). It seems to me, to be consistent, if you you support requiring identification and comprehensive record-keeping to vote, you should not be opposed to requiring identification and comprehensive record-keeping for owning a gun. That’s an argument I’d like to hear a pro-gun proponent make.

Finding our way to a healthier and less violent society will not happen by following the extremists on either side of the gun debate. The solution, at least on the national level, is probably in the hands of second amendment advocates in Congress who have the courage to see the need for reasonable gun control. And the more it is based on honest research, the better the result will be.

Superheroes

Over the weekend I watched the new blockbuster, Avengers: Infinity War. Although I enjoyed it, I am puzzled by–and a bit concerned about–the massive and continuous popularity of superhero movies.

Part of their obvious appeal is their fantastical action and mythic themes. Superhero movies allow us to escape to an imaginative reality filled with awesome good guys and bad guys who battle each other in clever and eye-popping ways. The fate of the universe (or at least the earth) usually hangs in the balance. Why don’t we get tired of this repeated formula? It is the primordial story of the hero–a story each of us internalizes during the process of maturation, helping us cope with and find direction in the adult world. Superhero movies are the modern fairy tales.

I suppose their current popularity also has something to do with the war on terrorism and our age of anxiety. Americans live, by and large, a very stable and prosperous life. But all of that is constantly threatened by forces we cannot see: terrorism, corruption, recessions, hackers, supposed conspiracies, endless foreign wars, and dysfunctional governments (including our own). Superheroes hold out the promise that our prosperous, stable American way of life can be protected and restored (the locus of the ultimate battle is usually in America).

And that is what most troubles me about most of the superhero movies. The implicit message is that America always stands for the good guys, and our salvation is dependent on advanced technology from an endless store of wealth (e.g. Iron Man, Black Panther), superior strength (e.g. Thor, Hulk), and superhuman abilities. But are we always the good guys in this world? And will superior abilities and resources save us?

This is where most superhero movies and the Christian faith collide. The subversive Christian message is that we are all bad guys and we cannot save ourselves–no matter how rich or clever or strong we are. The wholeness and well-being of the human race and our planet depend on our recognizing our own selfish tendencies and therefore relying on humility and the “soft power” of self-giving love. We do not believe in ourselves; we believe in that which is greater than us and is eternal: the source of all grace.

For Christians, the power that transforms and heals is embodied in one who was nonviolent, gentle, and inclusive. Enemies are not destroyed; they are valued, engaged, forgiven, transformed, and reconciled. Evil is defeated by being absorbed on a cross in an act of divine love. As soon as we congratulate ourselves on our superior goodness or ability, we slide into becoming the enemy–and then it is we that need to be rescued.

The superhero movies are not totally bereft of these themes. At their best, these movies reveal the foibles and weaknesses of their superheroes, gently poking fun at them. Avengers: Infinity War is particularly adept at seeing the flaws and humor in some of its beloved protagonists. It also features a more complex villain who is motivated not simply by power hunger but also by a well-meaning but horribly misdirected desire to solve the problem of environmental degradation. The superhero movies are most satisfying when the superhero comes to terms with his or her own foibles and limitations, and the solution to the hopeless situation comes through selflessness.

Overall, I think superhero movies are probably a positive influence on our culture. But they could be better. They could be more honest about where destructive forces come from: not an alien monster or madman from another galaxy, but from our own selfish and discriminatory systems and personalities that produce poverty and injustice and tribal fear. And instead of glamorizing wealth and warfare, they could find hope in simplicity and creativity.

The blockbuster movie itself is part of the problem. Because of its humongous budget and mass appeal, it squeezes out of production more thoughtful, riskier movies that would help us see ourselves more honestly and find solutions that don’t involve pummeling a fantasy monster.

Less Beef, Please

We humans have been having a devastating impact on the environment ever since we invented stone points and spears. This advanced technology wiped out the Woolly Mammoth and a wide range of other large animals. Today our presence on this planet is rapidly accelerating the extinction of other animals. The northern white rhino is down to one male and a few females. Its extinction is considered certain.

Today animals are going extinct not because of spears (or even rifles), but primarily because of habitat loss and climate change. Again, our advanced technology is to blame. We are clearing 80,000 acres of rain forest per day in order to harvest wood for furniture and to produce more agricultural and grazing land; and we are burning huge amounts of fossil fuels which pump 100 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every day, creating a “greenhouse effect.”

The only viable answer to this problem is a global answer: commitments by governments and businesses to “go green” as quickly as is economically feasible. But we also, as individuals, must be willing to move toward a more green lifestyle.

Although there are any number of ways we could move toward a more sustainable lifestyle, the simplest is to change our diet. Many people, for the sake of the environment (and to be kinder to animals), have become vegetarians or vegans, but it’s the rest of us meat-eaters who need to get a grip on how much meat we’re eating.

Several years ago I realized that I sometimes was eating meat three times a day: bacon at breakfast, a ham sandwich for lunch, and a casserole containing ground beef for supper. When I realized what was happening, I made a decision to eat meat no more than once a day. For certain designated times of the year (for instance, usually during Lent), I  decided not to eat meat at all.

That was a step in the right direction, but now it is time for me to reduce my meat consumption again. Instead of eating meat once a day, how about just four times a week? Not only is this more environmentally responsible, it’s also better for my health.

Not all meat is equal. Pound for pound, the one that uses the most resources and energy is usually beef. Each pound of beef, on average, represents 27 pounds of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere. That’s more than twice as much as pork, and more than four times as much as chicken. Because of climate change and drought, water is in desperate need in many places. Beef, unfortunately, is a huge consumer of water: 1847 gallons on average per pound. Pork uses 718 gallons, and chicken 518 gallons per pound.

So the other simple choice meat-eaters can make is to eat a lot less beef and instead eat pork, chicken, turkey or–better yet–fish. The average American eats 67 pounds of beef a year, or 1.3 pounds a week. Could we cut that in half? That would mean aiming for one or no more than two servings of beef per week.

The good news is that the average American is eating a third less beef today than in the mid-seventies. The bad news is that our total meat consumption per person is about the same as then–and now there are 50% more of us! So we have a lot of work to do: educating each other and making personal commitments toward a more sustainable lifestyle.

For me it boils down to  one simple moral principle: love my neighbor as myself. That includes neighbors not yet born who will have to contend with the planet we leave them.

Choosing a Good Death

Both of my parents were able to die the way they wanted to: at home surrounded by family. I hope this is the way I am able to die as well. Unfortunately, medical technology, combined with our own fearful choices, have made “a good death” at home less likely.

Medical technology can often keep our bodies alive even when we have lost all consciousness and control. We can be resuscitated, intubated, and ventilated. It used to be that the line between life and death was much sharper: the lungs stopped breathing, the heart stopped, and that was it. But now we can keep these prodded and pumping even if the person is no longer consciously present. Is that how we want to live? Is that how we want to die?

Or how about the often debilitating side effects of caustic drugs and chemotherapy that make life miserable and unfocused? For what? An extra month or year of additional suffering?

Compounding the dilemma is the massive cost of keeping a person alive through expensive technologies and exorbitantly priced drugs. Every dollar spent on squeezing one more miserable month out of our lives is often a dollar less that is available for someone else’s healthcare.

So why do we insist on prolonging our rapidly deteriorating and often unconscious bodies? I see two factors: misplaced faith, and fear.

By misplaced faith I mean the belief that it is somehow unfaithful and unethical not to do everything possible to prolong life. Human life is a sacred gift. So according to this line of thinking, we are obligated to do everything possible to prolong it. Not to is tantamount to murder. If we do not prolong life whenever possible, we will be slipping down the slope of euthanasia, making ourselves into God and deciding when life is worthwhile or not.

But isn’t it acting like God to hook up someone to a machine who is comatose and in a vegetative state? Isn’t artificially prolonging life, despite the misery, despite the healthcare resources being shortchanged for others, also a form of playing God? Human life is sacred, but so is death and dying. It’s all part of the God-created natural process, and it’s all essential in order to make room for a new generation. When the human body has reached its natural limits, and the person is no longer able to live meaningfully, how is it faithful to artificially prolong misery and skyrocketing costs?

Part of misplaced faith includes an insistence on waiting for a miracle, no matter what. I certainly believe in prayer and spiritual resources, and I certainly believe that medical science does not know everything. More is possible than what we know. But prolonging a person’s misery, or a brain-dead body, is not the time to wait for a miracle. This is an inappropriate insistence that God unmake nature.

I believe what really stands behind misplaced faith is fear. We cover our fear with what we think is faith. But faith means trusting in God no matter what the circumstances–including dying and death. Fear is why we pour money into treatments that have virtually no chance of helping, and are more likely to cause more pain. Fear is why we die in hospitals, bristling with tubes and beeping machines, rather than quietly at home.

To die well requires letting go of some of our fear; it requires the wisdom of acceptance. And once we accept that further treatment is not going to improve the quality of our lives, we can then receive hospice care–often at home–which maximizes our comfort and prolongs our ability to do what we want to do. Ironically, many people live longer with hospice care than they would have with all of the excruciating treatments.

When my mother learned she had lung cancer she chose not to have chemotherapy or treatments. She spent her remaining months visiting all of her children in their homes, and then returned to her own home to die in her own bed. When my father learned that his heart was failing and he was too old for another stent, he decided to go home. He sat in his favorite chair, surrounded by some of his children, and died quietly a few hours later. These good deaths were possible because both of my parents chose not to fear death. They accepted the gift they had been given–along with its natural limitations.

For myself, life is worth prolonging if it means I can continue to engage in meaningful communication with my friends and family–through talking or writing–and with reasonable comfort. But if further treatment is unlikely to accomplish that goal, then let me receive hospice care–and let me die at home. I think that would be a good death.