Monday, August 20, 2012

Biblical Priorities--Back to Love

I had a brilliant boss when I worked at the National Institutes of Health, one Michael Gottesman, the Deputy Director for Intramural Research. His job entailed decisions that a lot of people would find agonizing. For Dr. Gottesman, solving organizational problems was pretty much like analyzing research problems. He went about it methodically and logically ( and also with great compassion and good cheer, making it a joy to work for him).

One of the most useful lessons I learned by watching him was to ask the question, "What's most important here?" before you throw yourself at a problem. Dr. Gottesman used this approach very successfully in deciding how to make some excruciatingly large budget cuts. The first step was looking at where the Intramural Research Program was spending the largest amounts of money. It seems obvious, but cutting 5% out of an item that represents half your entire budget yields a lot more savings, possibly with less pain, than whacking a larger percentage out of many smaller pots.

I think it was this sort of thinking I tried to apply when I sat down with the massive text of the Bible. With people proof-texting right, left, and center, throwing out conflicting philosophies and advice, including stuff that is incredibly difficult to buy into here in the 21st century, where do you start? What's most the most important thing? The oldest bits? The most-repeated bits?

I think Christians would probably say, if you had to pick, the most important bits would be "What He said," i.e. the words and ideas attributed to Jesus of Nazareth. But where do you go from there? There are lots of red bits in the Bible -- including some parables and other passages that are very ambiguous.

I had one suggestion from a very reassuring article that I found yesterday, written by Jim Burklo, an ordained United Church of Christ pastor who serves as the Associate Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California. The article is reassuring in suggesting "How to live as a Christian without having to believe the unbelievable," as the title says. Basically, just get on with the important --and difficult -- things Christ said to do, Burklo recommends.

He goes on to tip the Sermon on the Mount as the key:
The key to Christianity is the Sermon on the Mount in the gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-7.  This is the first teaching that Jesus gave his disciples and a crowd of followers.   He exhorts them to love their enemies.  He urges them to be humble in prayer.  He tells the poor that they shall be blessed.  He asks them not to worry.  He tells them not to judge.
Pretty reasonable choice, I'd say. But still not what I would pick as the key. I would turn to Luke 10: 25-28, just before the parable of the Good Samaritan. An expert in Hebrew law is quizzing Jesus and asks what you need to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus kicks the question back to him, saying what does the law say? The man answers "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, Love your neighbor as yourself. " The words aren't actually Jesus' but he says this is the right answer.

There are a lot of things Jesus doesn't say here, including a good few that noisy Christians today claim are the critical keys to Heaven. I think this is an awfully good 30-word philosophy of life, with His stamp of approval, a fine lens for viewing most of life... First, love God. Then love your neighbor -- and if you have any questions about what's loving, use how you would be loved as a gauge. (And note well, all you people who have difficulty loving yourself -- He IS agreeing you should love yourself.)

Jesus goes on to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan to answer "who is one's neighbor?"In a general sense, He says you should define your in-group, the people you will help, to include anyone you spot who needs your care -- even people from what would normally be considered a different group than yours.

Jesus doesn't elaborate on loving God here -- I guess he figures everyone knows what that means. But sadly, I'm not sure that I actually do. I don't have any confidence that I can even know what God is like (except to the degree this was exemplified by Jesus) and I am very doubtful about the versions of God that some people confidently put forward-- sometimes they are remarkably and conveniently like the God that they would very much want to exist -- a God that punishes people they don't like and gives wonderful lives and riches to their sort of people.

Brain studies show that when people think about God while in a scanner, the same parts of the brain light up as light up when they think of their dominant parent. I gather that's what psychoanalysts have suspected for a long time. And, come to think about it, Jesus did refer repeatedly to God as "Father."

I'm humbly skeptical, beset with doubts about the limitations of the human brain when it comes to thinking of that which passes all understanding. Mostly we humans can only get our amazing imaginations launched a few steps beyond the earthbound.

So maybe the thing to do amidst doubt is just to imitate -- try to do what He did. When Jesus went to the wilderness to pray, was this his way of "Loving God?" Or was Jesus' version of loving God manifest in what he did every day -- healing people and helping them to put aside the things that separated them from God?

Preaching to would-be preachers, Rob Bell urges those who would proclaim The Word to start at the beginning of the Bible -- with Creation. He waxes eloquent in describing how we humans exercise our creative powers -- mirroring the Creator God and in small ways extending that work. Is it possible to love the Creator by immitating Creation through your own creating and nurturing?

Or is loving God just doing what it says on the license plate of my old pastor's convertible: being "OPN 2 GOD"? That might mean trying to tune out the usual voices in your head -- the voices that you know are your own nagging worries, doubts, desires -- and listening to the silence and the sounds just beyond the birdsong or wind whispers.... Looking for the unexpected, unsought notion; that moment when there is one certain answer, YES, to a question you had never previously thought to ask.

And loving our neighbor (as ourselves) -- how does one do that? Now I loop back to Love, the place I wanted to start this blog. The biggest part of Loving, says The Road Less Travelled, consists of listening, really putting yourself aside for the moment and listening deeply, to people. And beyond that, or more generally, giving of yourself to others (or even yourself) to help them grow in healthy ways. (The author, M. Scott Peck, says that this type of love is inherently beneficial to both the person receiving the love and the person giving it.)

So, when the proof-texting and arguing begins, my first response is to hold up the Luke verses and see how the different sides line up next to that ruler's edge. What is the best way of loving God or loving my neighbor (as myself)?

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Kay's Toothbrush & the Makings of Miracles

If everyone believes in something, implicitly or explicitly, perhaps the real foundation of my belief  is belief in belief. Or, more precisely, belief in the power of the mind to move a person to seemingly miraculous achievements and a "reality" otherwise unimaginable without this trick of faith.

I refer to this as a trick of faith from the cold, cruel standpoint of an outsider. If you don't share someone's belief system,  their world view, gods, and "miracles" may look delusional, silly, weird, desperate--even dangerous if they lead to unrealistic expectations or harmful behaviors.

Consider Kay's toothbrush. Our dear friend, Kay Ledingham, must be 93 now -- but don't go "Cluck-cluck, sweet old dear." Kay still has a very firm grip on her numerous and bodacious marbles. She has been a spiritual counselor to several people over the past decade and hosts a weekly Bible discussion group in her home. Over the course of her life, Kay has variously been a wife, mother, dog-breeder and trainer, commander of an airbase during WWII, church warden, and psychiatrist.

Kay is a trove of wonderful stories. One concerns her advice to clients when they were deeply stuck and couldn't find their way out of some rut: "Get yourself a new toothbrush." She says, in point of fact, this advice worked well for many people.

Or consider the miracle of Pip, the first grandchild of another dear friend. Pip was born months premature -- at about the term the National Health Service  considers the minimum gestation needed for viability outside the womb. Mother Charlotte first asked for prayers just that her pregnancy would hold up long enough for the baby to reach the critical gestation period. After delivery -- weighing 2 pounds -- baby Pip came through countless crises in the neonatal intensive care unit for weeks after she was delivered. The statistical chances are slim for babies born so prematurely.

I was among many people relaying texts and emails asking the folks I know who pray to hold this baby, her family, and medical team in their prayers. What else could we do? There was an incredibly difficult bit of surgery needed to drain excessive fluid from the ventricles of Pip's brain -- surgery with low odds of success. The doctors decided to chance it, and Pip was one of the lucky ones.

Charlotte, her husband Pete, and my friend, "Granny" Sandra, deeply believe in the power of prayer. They are part of a lively independent chapel in a nearby village. They enjoy the contemporary, low-church, friendly atmosphere there. I'm sure there were many, many people at their church praying for Pip, as well as lending personal support to the family.

Jess, then our Team curate, preached on the miracle of baby Pip one Sunday. She had probably been getting Pip prayer request from several directions. "It worked," Jess claimed in church -- the power of prayer, demonstrated! I pointed out that the "miracle" was also a testimony to the skill and dedication of the National Health Service staff at the neonatal intensive care unit.

I'm happy to say that Pip continues to defy the odds. She's been nailing her developmental milestones. Fact. She's alert, lively, and growing up quickly, still a miracle baby to her Mum, Dad,  and Granny.

But was there a "real miracle" here? If so, was it due to the power of prayer? Or was it the family's faith and deep belief in the power of prayer -- like a placebo effect, which has been shown to be very real? Or was it due to the people around the family continually supporting their faith and encouraging them with love (which they repeatedly said they felt) and the way this support kept up their spirits through the ordeal (community support effect)? Or was it the way the family's spirit, love, and ferocious belief in Pip inspired the health workers caring for Pip to do their very best for this long-shot baby (infectious optimism)? Does she continue to defy the odds because the family is super-motivated to give the very best of care to their living Miracle?

Maybe this miracle is, ultimately, a complex, self-reinforcing series of beliefs, interactions, and events involving everyone within the circle of people surrounding Pip and her family which was the potent force that ultimately drove Pip's outcome out of the "expected" range and way, way up to the far end of the curve of potential outcomes.  Could this "miracle" be reproduced, and, if so, how -- what are the key ingredients?

 I don't now recollect how I stumbled upon it, but last week I  found my way to a wonderful little Esquire article, (be warned, folks, this IS Esquire, which is your typical men's magazine website...)  by A.J. Jacobs. Here's a taste:

Self-delusion is not a defense mechanism or coping technique. It’s the most human thing we have. It’s faith, existential courage, essential to mixing a decent drink, loving our spouse, writing a sentence. It’s what separates us from the animals and the boring. 
I’m not just advocating positive thinking; I’m advocating a willing suspension of reality. Irrational exuberance. It’s not a matter of seeing the glass as half full or half empty. In reality, the glass is usually 5 percent full and 95 percent empty. But you have to force yourself to believe that it’s half full so that you can engage and try to solve problems and bring the real percentage up to 10. Because otherwise it’d drop down to zero... 
Jacobs goes on to say that this willful self-delusion--telling himself that the audience would like him just fine--was what made him "not bomb" when giving a talk following the comedian Jonathan Winters (who got two standing ovations) on stage. This is small potatoes as miracles go, but it does show the low-end value of belief. Even when it's as flimsy as self-avowed self-delusion, your beliefs can potentially improve performance and nudge outcomes a bit toward the brighter side.

I'm not sure exactly how this or any other trick of faith or self-delusion works -- maybe it's a placebo effect, but do placebos work even if you know you're getting a 'useless' remedy? Is there some sort of "positive priming" effect whereby positive stimulation to the brain of one sort spills over to other brain functions? I've heard of this kind of thing -- for example, telling students that they are really working hard during an exam (whether they are or not) actually helps them perform better. Touching a soft piece of silk improves your mood. Or perhaps more relevantly, touching newborns reduces their chance of death.

Maybe the real question is not how beliefs or self-delusions work, but rather, which ones will work -- even bring "miracles" -- for a given person in a given situation. As St Augustine suggested, our beliefs can't change the laws of physics. Nor can they push back the hands of time or bring back the deceased. In this sense, there is no such thing as miracles. But I do believe that your beliefs, can --maybe, sometimes -- change the odds a bit -- in ways science does not (yet?) understand within the realm of possible outcomes. No more, but no less.

So take your pick. Believe in the power of a New Toothbrush, Prayer, or Self-Delusion. Believe in the power of Love, Communion, Community, Caring for Others, or the Power of Relationships. Believe in your Therapist, your Priest, Yourself, or in Positive Psychology. Believe in Science. Believe Research will eventually show us how to solve any problem. Believe in your Heroes and Role Models, Rock 'n Roll, Heaven, or your Church. Believe your late Loved One is just there, helping you through this moment. Believe in being Really Present, right here, right now. Believe in Mindfulness, in Listening to Silence. Believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Believe in the Tenets of your Faith, the Bible, Placebos, Nature, or Grace. Be Open to God. Believe the Holy Spirit will whisper Great Truths in your ear. Believe in Jesus.  Believe in the Three-in-One. Or just believe in Belief.

Hearing a few of my thoughts about "miracles" put my Dear Husband in a foul frame of mind. He is unhappy to hear that anyone is invoking the power of prayer in an un-nuanced way as the source of miracles. Dear Husband asks, What does that say  in the case of the two kids from our village who died of brain cancer? We all prayed for them, too! Those evangelicals just gloss over the times when people pray for miracles and they don't come. Or they say the people praying aren't part of the True Faith and God really doesn't love them. And there have been lots of instances in which belief has been exploited over the millennia -- Just send us money and we'll secure that needed miracle!

I repeat, faith cannot accomplish the physically impossible, so it's unwise to put your God to the test that way. It might be empowering to stretch your faith as far as you can; but disillusionment, heartache, and their fruit will come from the expectation that Your Preferred God will, on demand, accomplish the physically impossible -- i.e. work miracles as most people understand that word.  Honest faith purveyors will acknowledge that. Be on charlatan alert if someone asks you to pay to procure the impossible.

I realize it's difficult, even impossible, to know sometimes what does defy the laws of nature. And science is only beginning to understand the powers of faith and what's susceptible to its nudges.  Beyond this,  there are all the serendipitous, unbidden  "miracles" -- dazzling grace that brings not what you asked for, but something different--and even better! Does belief make that more likely? Or does it just make you more likely to notice and appreciate such gifts?

Finally, if lots of different beliefs can improve people's lives, it's just wrong to disparage other people's beliefs. [Moment of self-doubt here -- is that what I'm doing here???] It's wrong to exploit others through their beliefs. And, as Jonathan Haidt's book shows, people are going to believe what they're set to believe, so however excellent your gods, you really can't expect anyone else to share them. So stop proselytizing--if your neighbor's belief helps them (and doesn't hurt others) -- let the miracles flow!

Friday, August 3, 2012

Teen Mortification & The Life Cycle of Faith

So where do you start solving the "wicked problem" of the collapsing church? Does it matter? Or can we just pick a place, anyplace, and work to solve the little bit we can or desperately must fix; Keep fiddling with that until it's working as well as possible; Figure out what we did and whether there are elements that might be applied to another bit of the problem; then start tackling that next bit? Was the eternally apropos, ever-sensible, and insightful early church re-builder, Francis of Assisi, the original solver of "wicked problems" when he said: "Start by doing what's necessary, then what's possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible"?

Call it random, but one possible starting point that popped up on my radar a few days ago comes from a blog article on church youth programs by Neil MacQueen (from "Sunday, A Church & Tech Blog"). (My thanks to Peggy Watts Jeffries for putting this link on Facebook.)

MacQueen, with 30 years' experience in youth ministry, argues that churches that pull youth out of worship for their own youth discussion groups are dead wrong. As the mother of a recently teenaged son, I know he's right about the forces he thinks are at work. MacQueen says the keys are: NOT taking kids out of worship services; and NOT putting them in discussion groups with other youth. Instead, he urges getting kids to DO activities with the church in a very individualized program geared specifically to their skills and interests, working one-on-one with them and letting them pick up faith by osmosis (i.e. seeing it in practice) rather than being preached at.

MacQueen doesn't put it this way, but the psychological truth is that teens and pre-teens are constantly on the brink of mortification. They are busy doing the important work of figuring out who they are; who their friends are; how they fit in; relationships with the opposite (and same) sex. There's nothing easier than embarrassing a pre-teen. So put them in a room together and ask them to talk frankly about issues that even adults find difficult to talk about... and you have the makings of instant mortification and long-term disinclination to be involved with the church. MacQueen says the disappearance of youth from churches as soon as they can get away is testimony to fundamental errors of this approach.

[As an aside, and to see if my dear son is reading my blog, I'll give my favorite example of pre-teen mortification. Dear son's name is "Sam" and I came up with what I thought was a good bit of physical schtick: I would take one of Sam's little hands, put it flat between my hands, hold up our three hands together like that and ask the friend/audience, "Do you know what this is?" And when they gave up, tell them: "A Sam handwich." Hilarious, right? Not for Sam! After about the age of 7, he absolutely refused to tell this joke or let me tell it, no matter the audience.]

Instead of agonizing personal disclosure in groups with other youth, teens should be put to work, MacQueen says, doing what they do best or whatever they can be inveigled to take on in the church. Being a bit of a techy, MacQueen's been successful in getting teens to tutor younger children in computer workshops. (Of course not every church can come up with a computer room....). He also suggests getting teens to help adults teach younger children in regular Sunday school; assist or attend adult Sunday school; or assist with the regular worship service -- ushering, etc. In a rather High-Candle Anglican church in Bonita Springs, FL, my husband was impressed with involvement of considerable numbers of youth (boys and girls) as incense-swingers, Gospel procession participants, acolytes, and ushers.

Another superb example of effective youth ministry -- which I think hits all of MacQueen's keys -- is offered by Bethesda (Maryland) UMC, led by the ineffable Amee Fansler and Pastor Ron Foster (who I see has actually written a book on the subject. I haven't read it, but the Amazon reviews seem enthusiastic.) Each year the BUMC youth have several opportunities to go off on service projects (the public schools affirm and support this by giving community service credits for working on these. All kids need community service credits to graduate in Montgomery Co.) Currently BUMC and Amee's Facebook "status" pictures show maybe 50 adults and youth who just returned from this year's service week in Tuscaloosa.

Some youth have been drummers, guitarists, and singers in BUMC's praise band; they organize and lead a (non-cringeworthy) worship service each year; and (with Amee's direction and a good supply of adult volunteers) run the gigantic, very community-based Vacation Bible School that attracts 300 kids for a riotous week in August. The youth do a lock-in 30-hour fast to raise money for WorldVision. They dress up to host elegant Valentine's Day romantic suppers as fund-raisers for the church. But my favorite of their fundraisers is "Mingo May": For a tidy sum, you can have a friend/ family/ neighbor's lawn "flocked" with large tacky plastic pink flamingos for 24 hours (then they disappear) in May.  Or you can purchase "Mingo Insurance" for a higher sum to assure that your lawn does NOT get flocked. (My dear sister got flocked the day before her home-garden wedding, but I couldn't possibly say who ordered that!)

BUMC youth don't leave the sanctuary during worship services, but do tend to have their own hangout section of the balcony. They have gatherings on various evenings of the week for different age groups (never been to one, but my impression is that they are action- rather than talk-oriented, especially for the pre-teens.) Members of the confirmation class are assigned a non-family adult mentor from within the church and meet with them one-on-one to talk about faith issues and to do a project together. My assigned confirmand, Sara Foster (yep, the pastor's daughter -- gulp), was interested in scrapbooking, so she and I made scrapbook pages of one of BUMC's service trips. Low key. I did talk about my faith a bit and ask her about hers. I hope I didn't do any permanent damage.

I'm not sure of all the other ingredients in the confirmation program, but I do recollect that memorization was required. Sam already knew his Lord's Prayer. But I think he also had to learn a Bible passage by heart -- maybe the Beatitudes or the 23rd Psalm or the Ten Commandments? As tedious as memorization can be, I approve of memorizing a few of the most essential tenets of the faith. Keep to the essentials and try to have some fun doing the memorizing, but require it-- memorized bits sink deep into the psyche and worm their way into core values, perhaps. Or maybe they'll just be there as comforting lyrics for a moment when you desperately need them--like "The Mary Ellen Carter" (the most inspirational song I know), which is credited with saving the life of Robert M. Cusick when he was lost at sea after his ship, the Marine Electric, sank.

Stealing a page from the large Jewish community in Bethesda, the BUMC confirmation class celebrates after the event with a mass "Confirmitzvah"-- a giant party for friends and family, replete with food and frolics. Sam and his good friend and fellow confirmand, Daniel, invited their best friends from school; Sam's "Ba" (Grandad), Aunnie, and future step-Dad traveled to Maryland for the event, and everyone had a fun time. I think it was a great showcase for a church that is doing youth programs -- and a lot of other things  -- in a way that serves Christian faith well in the 21st century.

One of the best things about the BUMC youth programs and other programs is that they continue to evolve, adapt, and, I hope, improve. What I've written about is just the tip of the iceberg that I know about from my now much-missed life at BUMC, which drew to a close when I moved in 2006. Overall, Amee, the youth program, and BUMC appear to be going from strength to strength. It looks like it's still a happy church, a place people want to go on Sundays (and other days and evenings). It's got the Right Stuff -- however you want to gauge that. Surely other churches and other church anti-extinction efforts can glean some ideas about the nature of their problems -- if not the solutions -- by looking at MacQueen's model and examples like BUMC.

The success or failure of some of these experiments for saving or at least improving the church may not be known for many years--if ever. Despite making it through BUMC's confirmation class, my son no longer has any interest in church. Of course he's not a good test case, as we've left the USA and I've yet to encounter any churches here that are even vaguely like BUMC.

Recalling my own confirmation in the 1960s, I think First United Methodist Church in Ann Arbor basically made most of the mistakes MacQueen identifies. I remember "MYF" (Methodist Youth Fellowship)  and confirmation class as mortifying -- large, excruciating, gatherings of kids I did not want to be with (who were doubtless also forced to be there by their parents). I can't remember learning a single thing about faith. I witnessed nothing of the personal faith of the few adults involved, nor do I recall an invitation to think about or develop my faith. And, given the way they did things back then,  if they had, it probably would have pushed me from mortified to petrified. When confirmation day rolled around,  my parents were on one of their few trips without the kids. I think I took a taxi to church on my own.

I don't know whether my youthful mortification or my parents' sabbatical trip were to blame, but I pretty much dropped out of church after confirmation. I was married at "First Church" in Ann Arbor, but I didn't have further involvement with any church until more than a decade later. When I finally did come back, in my 30s, it's been for good, and despite constant and numerous doubts--an equipoise endeavor.

Is there a natural life-cycle to faith? Should church youth programs aim at getting young people to stay with the church throughout their lives? Or should they aim lower -- just try to help teens see the church as a place that's not too awful -- that they might want to come back to some day? Or should the goal be just to try to instill  some Jesus-values that people can practice throughout their lives, irrespective of church attendance? The latter would be a difficult result to measure, and maybe isn't going to keep churches alive, but strikes me as an impossibly wonderful end to the rainbow arching out from what's necessary and actually possible.