Thursday, September 19, 2013

Studying the Sacred Texts

I've discussed at length before the "elements of the sacred" that are seemingly found in all cultures as it pertains to their various religious systems. It warrants review here though, so I'll summarize. There appears five different cultural expressions of the "sacred" that arise in all cultures I've studied. They are:
  1. Sacred Times
  2. Sacred Space
  3. Sacred Rites
  4. Sacred Offices
  5. Sacred Objects
If there is a culture that does not develop all of these elements as part and parcel to their religious system, I've yet to study it. They appear natural human instincts no matter what the cognitive beliefs underlying those expressions. All cultures develop a sense of "sacred times," particularly as it relates to a cultic schedule of high holy days, feast times or astronomical/astrologically cyclical movements. Certainly they all develop a sense of "sacred space" as they spatially oriented themselves to the spirits, deities or magical currents around them. Humans are spatially oriented creatures, and therefore their cultic rites will naturally grow a corresponding sense of that in their sacred precincts and theological geography.  Obviously they develop their various rites, incantations, rituals, liturgies, etc. also. A pastor, priest, shaman, monk, medium or "holy man or woman" of some sort performs the ritual on behalf of those that need an oracle, a blessing, a curse or magic in some form. And the use of designated objects always accompany the rituals as well, with only authorized personnel able to use them without risking angering the spirits or gods with whom they are associated. These seem obvious enough, and are found everywhere in anthropological studies of various cultures.

What is less common is when these cultures develop writing systems and utilize that ability to codify some aspect of their belief system. First of all, comparatively few cultures developed writing anyway. Far more cultures exude religious expressions and a praxi fide of their beliefs than have developed writing systems. For those that DO develop that sixth element of the sacred though (the "sacred text"), the question remains "What function does the sacred text serve in their praxi fide?"Even in my own religion, Christianity, this is not uniform. In some cultic rites, the sacred text plays a major role, having numerous passages read aloud, displayed prominently in the spatial arrangement or carried overhead in the middle of the service. Whereas in others, its importance is asserted, but the actual content or even physical volume does not find a place in the flow of the service. Seeing as how I'm unacquainted with the customs of Muslim and Jewish services, yet know that they make great use of their sacred texts, it only heightens my curiosity.

These monotheisms are not the only religions using this element of the sacred though, others have their respective texts as well. Many contemporary religions have texts that record incantations, spells, and litanies which enable those holding "sacred office" (or even the practitioner at the popular level) to access the spiritual or the magical in ways they might not have otherwise been able to. Ancient religions (no longer extant) are replete with this. Cultures of the Old World (Egypt, Mesopotamia, Ugarit, etc.) all had their sacred texts to fulfill this function, only they often were written on clay tablets or on temple (or tomb) walls. Nevertheless, the element of the "sacred text" evolved into an integral requirement for performing sacred rites so as to access the divine, the spiritual or the magical in a purposeful way.

New World archaeology is revealing similar dynamics. If the culture has a writing system, it's a good bet that "sacred texts" will be included in the entire praxi fide of the culture. The question remains though: although cultures such as Aztec and Maya have their "sacred texts," it does not follow that they made use of them the same way other cultures with sacred texts did...How, then, DID they use those texts in their religious system, and what function did the texts play in the overall praxi fide (faith practice)?" Obviously since only the elites had access to them (and could likely read them), the texts themselves were not messages to the masses. Therefore, the value in writing genealogies of chiefs and priest, in recording cosmologies and funerary rites lies more in the magical use by those holding sacred office than with the general population knowing what to believe.

Nevertheless, I'm told that the Aztecs developed considerable complexity in this regard; even to the point of having "seminaries" for training priests in performing official cultic rites according to unified forms. In this case, the "sacred text" may well have served a similar function as the Scriptures do for modern monotheistic rites. My curiosity is piqued, and research here at the University of Houston is allowing those questions to blossom into full blown obsessions.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Drumbeats of War

We're now just a few weeks away from our long anticipated participation in the Spartan Race being held in Burnett, Texas. There's a sense of trepidation as the date fast approaches, with the realization sinking in that we've committed ourselves to a daunting physical task. However, we voluntarily challenged ourselves this way because of what races do for us. They force us to strive for better health than we might have otherwise without the accountability of an upcoming race date. Periodically running in local 5K races has done that as well, requiring preparation so that the race itself isn't an embarrassing performance from an out of shape slob. For some, running such races is a snap because they instinctively run on a regular basis anyway. They enjoy the "runner's high" and the time alone that it presents. Therefore, the race is just a chance to measure their time and enjoy the celebration of their already existing lifestyle. However, for the non-runner, setting a race date forces them to make preparations, through regular exercise, that they might not have otherwise done. Such is the case with me.

With the Spartan Race, however, we discovered something beyond the mere local 5K to support leukemia research, noble and enjoyable as they are. We found in it a comprehensive lifestyle of fitness that pushes us toward health in all aspects of strength and stamina, for it's designed to require all the physical rigors of ancient living (i.e. throwing, running, climbing, lifting, crawling, etc.). In addition, the themes and ceremony of the Spartan Race made it much more a fully immersing event to enjoy. The "warrior" themes concerning the "Spartan" title find origin in the events portrayed in the film "300," wherein three hundred Spartan warriors, elite for their day, held back millions of Persians from invasion at Thermopylae. That kind of inspirational history, attached to a modern fitness regimen, can produce inexplicable motivation to adopt new habits and prepare for an epic "battle" with one's own inclinations to grow fat, sloppy and complacent.

Selecting such a race demonstrates something about the necessity of leadership in a family. Military historian, Sir Michael Howard, excellently summarized leadership as "the capacity to inspire and motivate; to persuade people willingly to endure hardships, usually prolonged, and incur dangers, usually acute, that if left to themselves they would do their utmost to avoid." Applied to family leadership, this definition means that those assuming leadership in the home must "inspire, motivate and enthuse" those living with them to adopt practices for their own benefit that they might otherwise not give a second thought to perform, or that are easily set aside in the hustle and bustle of life. A good example is the role of spiritual leadership in the home. The one that assumes the role of "spiritual leader" in that context is responsible to ensure that spirituality (in our case, Christianity) is integral to the home's currents and dynamics, that family prayer times and Bible studies occur at regular intervals and that family culture has Christian rationale for various customs. The leader must "inspire, motivate and enthuse" the family to adopt such habits to foster Christian growth in the home that, left to themselves, they might otherwise avoid. Leadership in one arena becomes analogous to leadership in another.

When I first brought up the notion of the Spartan Race last year, everyone was enthusiastic, saying, "That looks cool! Let's do it!" In preparation to participate, two things were in order: (1) gain for my family some early exposure to what exactly they'd agreed to, and (2) raise the money for all of us to register for the race. As it happened, volunteering at the Spartan Race last December in Glen Rose, TX accomplished both. They got a good idea what the race was all about, and volunteering for a day earned us all free registration to a future race. Our experience at the Spartan "Beast" in December was a fun outing that we all enjoyed, and it only increased our enthusiasm to go back. However, now that the race is less than five weeks away, the sober realization of what is coming is starting to set in. This is the time when the training definitely needs to keep its intensity, lest the race be more torture than fun.

This race, on many levels, is serving as a living analogy for other areas of life in which we must "struggle and emerge." Academics, vocation or personal development find lessons in such a challenge. Even the historic Christian spiritual disciplines of the ancient Church were physical in nature to train with the body what was needed in the soul. In like manner, preparation for the Spartan "Sprint" can act as a spiritual discipline of sorts, forcing meditation and focus on things necessary for higher living beyond the status quo. The point is, a race such as this is not merely a race. It's an event loaded with life lessons to be applied across a variety of categories. I'm inspired to reflect much further on the Spartan Race as a spiritual discipline as the race draws near, and likely those reflections will find their way here.

The video below is a preview of the race we are going to participate in. As the date approaches, the "drumbeats of war" seem to get louder, forcing us to training harder and let the analogy be even more potent. This "war" is with our own tendencies toward complacency, laziness and sloth. This "war" is against the spiritual sense of gravity that weighs and pulls us down. The drums can be heard approaching, and we are galvanizing for this epic event for our family. Join us if you dare.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Fire Doesn't Care

One of the unfortunate expressions of prejudice that sometimes occurs in the fire service is how paid firefighters and volunteer firefighters are viewed differently. Somehow, because one holds a paid position, supposedly the work they perform is more legitimate that the labor accomplished by the volunteer. Certainly it may be true that paying someone offers a level of accountability not attached to the volunteer, for the salary cannot be capped or reduced for the one that is paid nothing. However, if the motive for excellence in both is their own safety and that of their comrades, then the motive is equal for both since the dangers do not distinguish between paid and volunteer personnel. In other words...

The fire doesn't care.

The dangers incurred by first responders do not care whether they are paid or unpaid, whether they are a veteran firefighter or a green rookie, whether they work for a large municipal department or a small rural department, whether their apparatus is a new creation or an old hand-me-down. The fire doesn't care.

It doesn't care whether it was started by a faulty electrical plug or a space heater, whether it was born in the kitchen or the den, whether it's destroying someone's home or business, whether the owner has good insurance or not, whether priceless heirlooms will be lost or just replaceable inventory. The fire doesn't care.

It doesn't care whether the firefighter is single or married, whether they are male or female, what age they are, what religion they practice - if any, whether they have children or not or how many, what their race, creed or country of origin might be. It doesn't care if they're rich or poor, tall or short, old or young, highly educated or simply degree'd in the "school of hard knocks." It doesn't care what might be the political affiliation of the firefighter, the sexual orientation, the family history or their reputation in the community. The fire doesn't care.

For this reason I have heard fire chiefs bristle at the differentiation of "professional" firefighters with volunteers, for indeed unpaid personnel can carry themselves and operate in a highly "professional" manner. I have observed this before. I have seen volunteer firefighters act with the excellence, initiative, diligence, pride and "professionalism" that many often ascribe to paid departments, but in which there is no guarantee of excellence merely because they're paid. On the contrary, I have seen paid departments plagued with the cancer of complacency because leadership did not demand of all personnel the standards required by the fire. Excellent departments, whether paid or volunteer, recognize that the fire has it's own standards, and does not compromise them for the sake of whoever might be responding to kill it.

Great departments recognize that the fire doesn't care. The fire sets the standard, we do not. Unsafe practice is still unsafe whether I'm paid to be unsafe about it. Paid shoddy and unpaid shoddy are all still shoddy. Because the fire doesn't care whether the department responding to it are volunteer or paid, departments do well to strive for all the same excellence whether paid or not. Volunteers do well to rival the performance of paid departments because they know that the fire doesn't care.The standards are set by the "dragon" that hates all people the same. "It's a living thing," asserted Robert De Niro in the movie "Backdraft." Going on to explain, "It's eats...and it hates." The fire hates all the same. It doesn't care who you are. It will burn up, collapse a building on, flash over, rekindle behind the back, hide in walls from or stare down any and all personnel regardless of their status as a paid or volunteer firefighter. The fire doesn't care.

Of course, this all serves as an analogy to the Church. The threefold "fire" or the world, the flesh and the devil all hate God, his people and the cosmos he has made. These destructive forces don't care whether one is clergy or laity, whether male or female, whether young or old, rich or poor, local or foreign, married or single. And this "fire" especially doesn't care whether the minister is paid or not who is charged to share the Gospel and spread God's grace, making disciples of all nations. The "fire" doesn't care whether you're well spoken or suffer from chronic stuttering, whether you're a "people person" or a shy recluse, whether you feel "called by God" or just read the command in the Bible, whether you've had years of seminary training or simply need the training of an astute Sunday school teacher. The spiritual "fire," that hates all that is good, doesn't care.

In a previous post I compared local churches to fire stations. Along that line, those that are sent out into the world, to combat the "fire" that destroys the human soul, must remember that the "fire" doesn't care. Therefore, all are just as reliant on God and his unwavering truth for guidance and strength. The trained clergy is no less reliant on the Holy Spirit than the fresh layman. The Christian is longstanding character is no less in need of Divine help than those recently redeemed from a formerly destructive path. The "fire" doesn't care...Christ is equally necessary to all for redemption, restoration and resurrection.

The analogy holds true concerning the Church because it is equally true concerning the fire service. The fire doesn't care, and it has been my privilege to serve with two departments now that realize this. As often as possible, my hope is to remind the Church of it as well.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Start a New Club

We've all been there. You have a group of friends in a tree house, or a fort at the end of the street, and you've all agreed on the name and nature of your "club." You're the "club at the end of the street," or the "club of the sandlot," or the "club of the tree house," and you're all about frog handling, spit wad shooting, acorn throwing, bike ramp building, fort-defending rough and ready business. You all have made a pact to get muddy - nevermind the scratches and scrapes - and sweaty, playing until dark or until someone's mom can be heard calling them home for dinner. There's a general understanding, and sometimes you even formalize it with spitting in the hand and shaking on it. That's the way it works! Clubs are like that. They have a culture, an understanding, a code. They work because they maintain the nature that drew together the club members in the first place.

Inevitably, somebody's sister finds the fort and decides it's perfectly okay to pay it a visit while you're in session. Sheesh! Who does she think she is?!? It's not necessarily an anti-girl thing. Plenty of "tomboys" have been members of tree fort clubs before without issue. At that age, girls are perfectly capable of not being "girly," and haven't turned all gross yet. Nevertheless, the intruding sister cares nothing for club integrity, but is plagued with the common mental disease that finds it completely acceptable to bring her Barbie doll to "The Bunker." Dolls?! In the FORT?? Heresy! Thus ensues that awkward moment when the brother, drawing on courage from his fellow club members, has to tell his sister, "Look, Sis. This club isn't like that. Dolls are okay and all, but not here. Why don't you and your friends start a new club?"

Oh, but she doesn't want to start a new club. She wants to change YOURS. Starting a new club would take too much work. It's too much effort. Perhaps she doesn't know where she'd go find members that will join her club. Maybe she can't think of a neutral spot for she and her friends to play with the Barbie set, and doesn't want them all to her room. Truth be told, she doesn't want to start a new club. She wants the camaraderie already present in your club and the fort already in existence, all without having to change her play habits to belong. She doesn't want to start her own new club. She wants to change yours to suit her! Not cool!

It's perfectly legitimate for the tree fort club to have their own club culture and rules, without the sister trying to turn it into "Barbie's tree house." That's how it works. Instead of taking it as rejection, the sister should realize that she'd be happier and more fulfilled by inviting friends over to play dolls on her living room floor. Leave the tree fort club alone. Start your own new club. What she's proposing seeks to change the tree fort club so much anyway, that by the time she's done it won't resemble the club that it was before. It will have been changed into something else. Some brave rascal needs to tell her, "That's not how we do things in the fort club. Go start your own new club."

It's the same with Christianity. Not that The Church is an exclusive club that hates women, and is focused on keeping "outsiders" out; far from it. To the contrary, Christianity has been at the cutting edge of elevating woman, championing the poor and down-trodden, including those that thought themselves not able to join, and generally existing for the benefit of its non-members. Nevertheless, having said that though, the Church has a culture. It has a history, a cohesion, a rationale for its customs and traditions. Those that join it can be confident that traditions are evaluated against its founding principles (Biblical mandates) and Founder's wishes (Jesus Christ) with each generation. To be "Christian" means that there are certain "fort club" norms to which you have agreed to conform. The Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ is not so complex a thing that it's difficult to get in, but it is rather distinct. The Church has a distinct culture; and that culture is comprised of people who trust the death, burial and resurrection of Christ, on their behalf, to be fully effective for paying the penalty for their sin, saving them from a deserved eternal judgment.

That central Gospel ("good news") would seem basic enough. But it has come under attack from varied and complex sources throughout time. Some challenged whether Jesus was really fully God as he claimed. Others questioned whether he really died, or just seemed to - later waking up from passing out. Questioning the physical resurrection of Christ has been fashionable in some circles. One of the most recent, and loudly vocal, attacks on the Gospel has been the push to undermine Paul's phrase: "that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures" (1 Cor 15:3b, emphasis added). The very concept of sin is falling into disfavor. A basic definition of this antiquated term (sin), is "to miss the mark." To say that someone "misses the mark" is to suggest that there exists a mark to miss. We all sin and fall well short of God's purity and whatever order he has established for us (cf. Rom 3:23). Thus, because we all sin (because we're "sinners"), we need saving from the eternal consequences of that sin. The assumption is that we simply cannot save ourselves (insert quicksand, or drowning analogy here). We need a Savior to rescue us. 

What if there is no "sin" though? What if what was formerly called "sin" turns out now to be just an alternate lifestyle? What used to be considered "missing the mark" is now just hitting a different "mark" that works for you. Many supposedly "scholarly" voices are now speaking and writing volumes in an attempt to persuade that former categories of "sin" now need to be accepted as "personal choices or involuntary orientations." As a result, they are introducing something totally foreign to Christianity. Without sin there is no Savior, for there remains no need to be "saved." Distinct to Christianity, for 2,000 years, is a eyes-wide-open acknowledgment of human sin (with its accompanying hopeless outcome), along with the "good news" that there is a Savior available for those who will accept his rescue. If people will not call their sinful thoughts and acts "sin" anymore, what hope is there for them? The drowning person asserts that their imminent demise is their "right," and that to offer the life ring is "preaching hate." As it relates the the sexual sins of the mind and body described in Holy Scripture, these are now being legitimized as supposedly missing no mark at all. It in effect condemns those immersed in those sins because it seeks to persuade them there is no need to repent of it. Why would I need saving from something the preacher tells me isn't "sin" after all?

Unfortunately, these voices suggesting that sin is not sin anymore have infiltrated the Church. They brought their Barbies to fort club. They are introducing concepts totally foreign to Christianity and trying to change it into something else entirely. During all of attending seminary, one of the most profound phrases I learned was, "You're welcome to believe as you want to, but you can't call it 'Christian.' THAT label is taken." That stuck with me so powerfully because it seemingly occurred to me for the first time, or in a fresh way, that to be "Christian" assumes certain other historic tenets of the faith; that it's not merely about having my faith, but instead is just as much about growing in The Faith. Fort Club DOES have a distinct culture and set of assumptions in which Barbie does not fit. Someone needs to tell these supposed scholars, pastors and "christian" voices that they need to go start their own club, calling it something else because the label "Christian" is taken already.  

It's important that someone have the courage to tell these voices of strange new ideas, "Your assertions are foreign to what can be called 'Christian.' Choose...either drop the innovations or go start your own club. Oh, and when you start your own new club, you can't call it 'Christian' because THAT label is taken." I don't mind being that rascal. I know others that don't mind being such a little rascal either. But it seems we're too few; more are needed. If you don't like being "Christian," as it has historically been defined, then go ahead and start a new club. No one is stopping you; certainly not in a free society like ours. The issues surrounding gay marriage and homosexuality in particular have produced writers and preachers that have left what can historically be called "Christian." It's time to point out that they're inventing something new that's not "Christian" at all, and they need to go start they own new club. Because "Fort Club" offers to the world the only Savior that will rescue them from sin, and those out-of-place "Barbie dolls" will not only upset the cohesion of the club, but also hinder the mission of saving the world as well.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Inventing Your Religion

Regarding one's belief and faith, it recently occurred to me that at the philosophical level the choices are twofold: you either are (1) a devout and consistent Atheist - a materialist that considers that nothing exists apart from the matter and energy of the physical universe, or (2) in the most basic manner, accept that an immaterial, spiritual (even divine) reality exists that transcends the material universe. Since many don't want to place themselves firmly under the "Atheist" label, they fall into the "faith" category - willingly accepting that something may exist or be true that cannot be proven through experimentation with matter and energy.

Now if you fall under the "faith" camp, then the options become (again) twofold: to (A) adopt an established faith previously attested in history, which has likely organized itself into a codified believe system (typically represented by an organization as well), or (B) invent your own beliefs that will secure for you (i) positive interaction with the transcendent now (i.e. God, "gods," spirits, etc.) , (ii) a moral code satisfactory to those transcendent forces and works well in the world as it operates, and (iii) a favorable afterlife when the present existence transitions to it at the end of the body's life cycle. When I encounter people desirous to invent their own "religion," I encourage them that the belief system they develop really needs to meet the above criteria, and do it well enough to convince themselves they've arrived at something better than anything previous attested or practiced in history. They'll need to be confident that they're more spiritually attuned, theologically insightful and sensitive to the transcendent than any who have come before. They will need to feel a high degree of certitude regarding the afterlife and how one can be assured a pleasing one. It will help if they have the testimony of a credible witness who has been there and come back to describe it, and how one's "place at the table" is reserved.

If you're not a devout and consistent Atheist, and you eschew an established religion, then the religion you invent for yourself needs to have a way of including others, since it's unlikely you'll enjoy yours much in isolation. After all, how does one expect to relate well to a spouse that you cannot share at least some religious conversation with? Nevertheless, even if one doesn't share their religion with their spouse, the inevitability of our communal nature compels us to seek a group (or form one) in which people of like minds on a matter can gather to affirm pursuit of the common belief. Encouragement is a universal necessity, so people naturally "congregate" to encourage one another to pursue the common cause. All religions, whether attested since ancient times or recently invented mere years ago, develop followers (plural).

Your new religion will likely develop some type of natural hierarchy. Yes, I know, why the need for hierarchical structures? Isn't that the "organized religion" you're trying to escape anyway by inventing your own? Good question. But what will you do if, after a group begins to collect, an attendee seeks to persuade others in the group to think differently than you or in some manner inconsistent with your new belief patterns? Yes, even if the group gathers to affirm that each member has their own beliefs and that none can be the same, inevitably there is bound to eventually enter that one ornery person that loves to debate and hope to win others over to believing like him. Who will be the one to enforce the integrity of the group? Who will say to that person, "Look. Believe as you want, but you can't come here and spend the time upsetting others like that. Either tone it down or you'll have to leave." Who is entrusted with that kind of voice? that kind of (dare I say it) authority? *cringe*

Ok. Let's ask something else. This new religion of yours... is it all in your head, or does it interact with stuff such as symbols, talisman's, charms or fetishes? Does is have any spatial or geographical specificity? Does it involve accessing the vibes emanating from a mountain or field? Will you utilize a structure, a house or a meadow to facilitate your religious practice? ALL religions wind up developing SOME type of praxis. It's a natural human instinct. Don't worry about the money. Your basement could suffice, or you could build an ornate building. It's up to you. It is YOUR religion, after all.

What about times and seasons? Humans have historically regarded time as their most precious possession. It's a non-renewable resource that is heading toward total depletion. Therefore, religions have typically gravitated toward specific times and seasons when their practices were most effective at interacting with spiritual forces, or at least different times and seasons resulted in different nuanced interactions with the divine throughout the day, week and year; yours will be no exception. Whether it be the summer solstice, the winter solstice, a specific day in spring or a moveable date in fall, "high" days naturally will occur as the followers of your system believe they're having particularly meaningful experiences on those days. Oh, and by the way, is this religion more a daytime system or nocturnal system? Yes, I'm serious. You need to think about this. Do the spiritual realities you want to interact with seem to respond better in the dark or in broad daylight? No, it's not dependent upon whether you're a "night owl" or a "morning person."

What procedures or protocols will you invent to prepare adherents of your new religion for interacting with the divine or the spiritual? We all go through our little "rituals" of some type to "get our head in the game" concerning an important activity. Whether you're getting ready for work, going through security at the airport or respectfully witnessing the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, we all interact with rituals here and there that convey the gravity of the occasion, adhere to protocols of approaching authority and get us in our right mind for participating. So what "rites" will you introduce in order to prepare your own mind, facilitate others with you doing the same, and invoking the presence of God, the gods or the spirits for your benefit? Will you standardize this set of "rites" so that others that believe as you do follow them to have the same effect that you do also? Will you right them down? What will THAT book be titled? Who can perform these rites for optimal effect? Anyone? Designated people? Is the designation gender specific? Many religions of the world have long standing reasons for why one is sex is preferred over the other in the context of religious rites? What would yours be?

Ok. We've covered the potential sacred times, sacred space, sacred offices, sacred objects and sacred rites of your new religion. What about a sacred text? Do you plan to codify into writing this belief system you're inventing? What will be the literary genre of this writing? Will it have one or many genres? Are you the sole author, or will you welcome the contributions of like-minded people? If a multi-author work, how will you ensure message continuity? Will you reserve full editorial authority to yourself? By what rationale do you claim such authority? Yes, I know, it's YOUR religion, but remember that it's bound to gain a following if you're serious about this. Will this "sacred text" contain poetry, history, myth, correspondence from you to like-minded people in another city? Does your religion attempt any predictions about the future? Does it express those predictions symbolically or with a high degree of detail? Do you include your rites in the sacred text, or are they contained in a separate companion volume? To what degree must your group of like-minded followers consider this sacred text "authoritative?" What I mean is, do they HAVE to believe, behave and practice according to what is written, or can they pick and choose according to personal preference? Just how "sacred" is this sacred text anyway?

Whew! That's a lot to think about. I don't mean to overwhelm you, but if you're going to invent your own religion, there's a lot to consider. I mean...if indeed you're really serious about this. Some may say that they have their "personal belief system" and "don't like organized religion" merely as a way of avoiding accountability and throwing a spiritual tantrum like some teen that refuses to grow up, but I don't think that's what you're doing. When you say that you have your "personal beliefs," I take you seriously and assume that you want to conscientiously approach the categories of religion we've considered above. If you're going to invent your own religion, there's a lot of work ahead. I don't envy you.

By contrast, I took the comparatively lazy route of simply being a Christian, and belong within that historic stream of Faith. Because I am a Christian, I derive comfort from finding my place in that "tribe," trusting those before me in history regarding the categories discussed here. Does it call for mindless adherence? Far from it, for each generation has to evaluate the extent to which tradition aligns with prescriptions and prohibitions of the sacred text (i.e. The Bible). Since I'm a Christian, the aspects of religion that you will have to invent are all pretty much invented for me already and are well attested in history. I suppose you could decide to take the "easy route" as I have, but I know you're committed to inventing your own religion.

You've sure got your work cut out for you.

Good luck with that.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Put the Shoe on the Other Hand

In the Bible, Jesus offers his followers the timeless "Golden Rule" by teaching them to "Treat others in the same way that you would want them to treat you" (Luke 6:31 NET). We can all agree that is an excellent plan and forms the foundation of interpersonal respect and dignity that can cross ages, culture and sexes. It seems simple enough, and should not be complicated to the point that we excuse disrespectful, demeaning or marginalizing behavior. If it had been followed better earlier in America's history, by more of the population, much of the current racial angst could have been avoided. I know that I have many beloved friends that are apologists for the South and the southern society of the antebellum period, saying that "slavery was on it's way out"and "not all slave owners were 'Simon Legree' from 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' with their people;" but the simple truth is that it remains doubtful the Army of the Potomac would have found the popular backing to invade Southern states had more land/slave owners in southern states heeded the admonishment to "Treat others in the same way that you would want them to treat you." There's no way around that reality.

Having said that, it seems human nature to avoid following Christ's directive no matter who you are or what "race" box you check in the census form. Concerning the issues and rhetoric regarding "race" in America, there appears two possible ways to look at the history, present and future of race relations: (1) correct the wrongs perpetrated on the group previously marginalized or victimized by offering that group emphasis and/or privilege now, or (2) recognize that the previous wrongs were the product of grouping people into categories and then treating everyone in that category wrongfully. I believe firmly that the great evil foisted upon society was not merely the victimizing of people ethnically from Africa, per se. It was the depraved tendency to think about people in terms of groups, ignoring the mystery of the individual, each being a "free soul" before God and being responsible to worship and obey him according to their conscience. For this reason, I find elements in our society that proceed from the 1st rationale (social justice through racial emphasis) to be very destructive. They are perpetuating the folly of focusing on groups rather than seeing how infinitely diverse people are regardless of skin color.

"Black History Month" (February) is a product of the 1st rationale. It supposes that by emphasizing the racial category of "African American," somehow it facilitates the benefits of pride among those in that demographic to presumeably "heal" from the wrongs of history, or raise awareness regarding the contribution of those in that category to significant moments in American history. If one is attempting to make the case that the contribution of Black figures throughout American history was artificially excluded because history books written in the 50's weren't yet enlightened enough to include them, I would concede that point. Historiography, prior to the civil rights movement finally exerting well-deserved influence on the content of textbooks, was regretfully thin in its reporting on the plight of Native Americans and the contribution of African Americans to significant historic events.

Nevertheless, such short-sighted omissions can hardly be called ubiquitous anymore. Cultural sensitivity is now the order of the day. While others might complain the the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme, finding the white man wearing the "black hat" in every page turn, I have no gripe whatsoever with history books accounting for the events, experiences and contributions of EVERYONE regardless of race or ethnicity. Therefore, I find the current notion of "Black History Month" highly inappropriate. For whatever benefits some might suggest it offers, its pitfalls are not worth it.

BHM encourages the inherently lazy instinct to think of people in terms of racial categories. People are SO much more than that; infinitely diverse and each can be personally fascinating. It also is a corrupt reversal of the famous line often quoted from Martin Luther King Jr's famous "I have a Dream" speech in which he visualized a future in which people were judged, NOT by the color of their skin, but instead by the content of their character. BHM is a betrayal of this "dream" of his. Those that perpetuate it operate in stark contrast to MLK's deep desires expressed on the steps of Lincoln Memorial so many years ago. In addition, BHM ignores the Golden Rule, for it carries in it no regard at all for those that might want their own "history month," feeling excluded in February (this I say with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek, for having a "white history month" would be the same depraved folly as BHM is).

All this frustration with BHM is also born of seeing it celebrated even in Christian circles. Of course I would expect such manipulative division in secular circles, where mobs wrestle for dominance in both societal milieu and political power; but it has no place in the Church, where the Body of Christ is supposed to be ONE, undivided and unstoppable, being one "race" in Christ. The Church is only interested in the "groups" of those converted to Christ, and those yet to be. Therefore, to separate out Christians based on the arbitrary whim and comparatively insignificance of skin color is to do violence to the unity Christ prayed for in John 17. Racial emphasis serves only to welcome sinful instincts, germinated by sinful men, into the pure and undefiled Church which is supposed to combat such dividing tendencies.

And besides, it runs contrary to the Golden Rule, for it fails to "treat others in the same way that you would want them to treat you" by emphasizing a race, knowing that the offense would be quickly pointed out were another racial group (mine in particularly) to designate a month to do the same. Obviously I am not lobbying for the creation of a "White History Month." Such a thing would definitely be offensive, insensitive and unduly dividing of society and especially God's people. However, I am also asserting that Black History Month can lay legitimate claim to no more virtue than such a travesty would also have. On the one hand, those that celebrate BHM may think they're helping to reverse the injustice of historiographers' omissions, but on the other hand, if they were to place this "shoe" on another colored foot, they'd see that they're performing the same racial emphasis that they rightly hated so much in the past when it exclude them at the time.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Bowhunting for No-Show Game

Some deer are just plain rude. We came for a visit and they spent their whole time away from the designated gathering area...

But I'm getting too far ahead in the story...

Back to the beginning.

Last weekend my daughter and I had the marvelous opportunity to go bowhunting for whitetail deer in the Texas hill country. A friend of mine had relatives living in a rural area where the deer are, according to their reports, so numerous as to be a nuisance for those attempting to grow flowers, trees or any other plants in their yard. "Come get'em," we were encouraged. "They're eating us out of house and home." Up until this point living in Texas, I had craved the chance to break into the local hunting scene. Frankly, because it differs so much with the west coast hunting paradigm, wherein you stalk your prey in a wilderness context, I had been skeptical whether I'd ever enjoy a predatory outing in the Lone Star State. Here so much of the land is privately owned that the notion of simply walking off into the mountains to be an ecological participant could not be more foreign. Instead it's necessary, in most cases, to pay for the right to hunt on someone's land (i.e. a "deer lease").

Ah yes...the deer lease. It's been described to me before. Apparently, one goes to this piece of pre-designated land (where you bought an annual lease), sits in a pre-fabricated "blind" (these booths often are elevated off the ground, contain satellite TV, an espresso machine, seat and hand warmers, concierge service and wifi) and points their weapon (rifle or bow) in the direction of a "deer feeder" (these strange contraptions disperse deer feed at pre-set times, along with soothing music, mixed drinks and various recreational drugs meant to offer deer a full pleasing experience) and wait for the appropriate moment when these trained animals of the wild (puh-leeeese!) respond to the dinner bell with crackerjack Pavlovian timing to hit their mark on the spot exactly at that range the marksman or archer had practiced the week before. This is called "hunting" in Texas. I find the term "harvesting" more appropriately applied to this practice. Nevertheless, whether "harvesting" or "hunting," the animal participating in this Circle of Life (shameless "Lion King" reference) has a greater chance of escaping unharmed than...oh say...the one that gave their life so that an anti-hunting activist can have their burger just the way THEY like it. But I digress...

If, however, one does not have a deer lease (they can be rather expensive), the other option is to know someone with land or a lease that is generous enough to invite you along. Such was the case when my friend invited my daughter and I to bring our bows and hunt near his relative's hill country home. I must say, the experience at their home was indicative of all things embedded in the phrase "southern hospitality." The cooking was rich and filling. The sleeping arrangements were plush and accommodating. The hostess' attention was reminiscent of a bygone era when "stewardesses" saw to passenger comforts to the degree unheard of among "flight attendants" today that toss you a bag of peanuts from three aisles away. In this way, the experience already felt nothing like the hunting I knew growing up in which the toughness of wilderness camping was part of the bragging rights. Warm showers available after the morning hunt? Heresy!...yet one I gladly embraced without reservation.

One hunting tradition to which I was accustomed was hiking at least a mile to the hunting spot away from camp, thus necessitating a 4:00 a.m. wake up time to allow for breakfast and hiking time, and be in the right spot at least 30 minutes before sunrise. On this hunt, the blind we were to use was approximately 25 yards from the house in the adjacent lot. This is akin to hunting in your neighbor's back yard. Now while this may not seem like adequate "roughing it" per se, it's important to note that this blind consisted of lounge chairs under low hanging tree limbs, with no espresso machine or wifi; HARDLY the luxury enjoyed by some...Don't judge me! In addition, our blind had two lines of fire that required the deer to stand motionless in front of the archer occupying each chair. In case the reader is thinking that we had it too easy, I'll remind you that the pre-dawn temperatures on both morning hunts were lower than what most people normally subject themselves too unless being initiated into the Polar Bear Club. Both mornings though, the deer exercised their prejudice against these west coast transplants to Texas and stayed warm in their lodge, popping open a cold beer, kicking back and laughing at the hunters shivering by themselves in the deer-less forest. No doubt their recreational drugs involved passing around a joint and giggling uncontrollably at the father/daughter team freezing their extremities, expecting deer to show up and introduce themselves.

Around 7:17 a.m., the silence was broken with signs of nearby animal life. A donkey from a nearby field proclaimed his obligatory "heehaw...heehaw" to accentuate the futility of our efforts. Roosters began their mocking chorus at daybreak, crowing sounds that, when roughly translated mean "You're freezing for no reason, silly people." At one point I did draw my bow back, prepared to let loose an arrow on a majestic "buck" approaching, but on further examination realized that this particular tree stump was never going to turn broadside for me. After the first day of finding about as much evidence of deer presence as can be found in the Houston Galleria, we decide to descend further into the Texas hunting customs with the addition of deer bait into the picture. Purchasing "deer corn" from a supermarket in the nearby town held promise of a different experience the following morning. We spread it along the trail in front of our blind, even pouring small piles of it where we wanted the deer to hold still so we could shoot them. Imagine our shame when, the following morning, we discovered that none of the deer corn had been consumed throughout the night. It was the ultimate insult. Not only did the deer rather stubbornly refuse to show themselves when we were present, but they even lifted their collective nose and rejected the free corn we offered for them to consume in our absence.

To those that feel I am overselling the embarrassment of this, I submit that the only time we DID see deer was, after leaving our blind with icicles hanging from our nose, when we were looking across over in a neighboring field and spied five does holding morning soccer practice. When they saw us from approximately 100 yards away, they pointed and giggled like popular high school mean girls, and bounded away to all go eat at the same table. With our deer corn untouched and our arrows having not flown on this outing, we sauntered back to the house to pack for the trip home. Of course, it was after all the gear was packed away, and our vehicle was leaving, that the once "missing" deer all lined the road leading out of the neighborhood, swaying back and forth, singing:

Na na na nah
Na na na nah
Hey hey hey

Once our SUV turned back on the highway, those lazy pothead deer that had been kick'in it at the lodge got the munchies and filed outside to consume the deer corn we had left for them. Those that were still hungry went back to eating the rose bushes our hostess was trying to preserve through our hunting efforts. I hope to return sometime to be that line of defense for her landscaping.

As this was my first time experiencing Texas deer hunting, I can say that it was indeed a great departure from the wilderness experience I grew up with. However, not all traditions from my youth were discarded. There was still occasion to cover my face with intimidating camouflage paint, looking mean enough to scare the deer to death should my skills as an archer be found wanting. Snickers bars (fun size...a childhood staple) still found their way into the "ditty bag" (fanny pack) to satisfy that special hunger that attacks you about twelve minutes before and after sunrise. All in all, though the deer obviously were better at surveillance of us than we were of them this time, it was rewarding to at least get our feet wet in this new arena, leaving with plenty of ideals to hunt those disrespectful, pothead, absentee animals next time.