Monthly Archives: March 2012

Undisturbed Marauders, and the contempt of misfortune…

5 Those who are at ease have contempt for misfortune
   as the fate of those whose feet are slipping.
6 The tents of marauders are undisturbed,
   and those who provoke God are secure—
   those God has in his hand. (Job 12)

I teach business ethics.  One thing which is particularly troubling is how easily people will let themselves take advantage of others, do pretty obviously unethical things, and yet apparently sleep with a good conscience.  In Christian terminology this would be sin and self-deceit. 

The blindness which comes on someone who convinces themself that it is acceptable to do unethical is subtle and amazing.  People shake their heads wondering how that Ken Lay and Andrew Fastow could have done what they did at Enron and cashed out, knowing the whole thing was a sham and that the company was bankrupt.  People wonder how that Bernie Madoff could have lived with himself, duping close friends and associates he’d known his whole life, while all the while robbing them blind, essentially. 

If there is a way, people seem to find that way to convince themself that they are not so bad, and that others are clearly worse then they are.  How else could we explain why some people like to watch the ‘Jerry Springer Show’?  If you watch an episode where people who are extremely screwed up in bizzarre relationship feuds start throwing chairs at each other, at least you can say, “I’m certainly not that screwed up!” and rest in your semi-normalcy, and ignore your own faults…

But the danger of having our posterchild bad-guys like Madoff and Lay is that in focusing on their bad deeds, we will turn our attention away from our own faults and indifference to misfortune. 

The passage above from Job 12 says that “Those who are at ease have contempt for misfortune,  as the fate of those whose feet are slipping.”  When we are living in ease, we don’t want to be disturbed by the misfortune of others.  As we do our best to build up our own protected world for ourselves, we do not want the disturbance or risks of being actively involved in the misfortune of others.  I even find myself blaming those in misfortune for their predicament, rather than trying to help them.  After all, the lives of those in misfortune are often quite messy, and that means I may get messsy as I get intertwined in their life. 

The next verse is particularly ominous, as I read it:  “The tents of marauders are undisturbed,  and those who provoke God are secure—  those God has in his hand.”  The marauders are undisturbed, and it seems that they can ignore the misfortune of others and maraud and still be at peace– we see this daily all around us.  But the ominous part is that ‘those who provoke God are secure” and God has them in his hand.  They think there are no consequences to their marauding, their indifference– and we think this because life seems to go on pretty well despite our sins– but Job says that this safety is illusory.  There will be consequences, because God is in control of the situation– of the world. 

Just after this, he encourages his listeners to go “ask the animals”, the birds, the fish, any of Creation, and they will all testify that God is the source of life and the world, God is in control, and He knows what is happenning. 

In other words, undisturbed maraunding will not be undisturbed forever.  Our sins will come back to us. 

So, while I do use Madoff and Lay as model exemplars par excellance of bad business behavior, I always try to help the students (and myself) see how we have our own ways and means of deceiving ourselves as we also commit acts which we would not be proud of.  We are, in some ways, like Madoff et al insofar as we also deceive ourselves and do not take a full account of our indifferences.  We too show indifference to the misfortunes of others, and find our own success to be much more important than helping those who need it.

May God have mercy on us ALL.

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Going Against Convention: Snorkelling In Lake Michigan, and other Experiments in Living

Celeste and I went snorkelling in Lake Michigan last fall.  The water was cold, and we were the only ones snorkeling off the coast of Milwaukee.  (It may be safe to say that we were the only ones snorkeling (at least without a wetsuit) in all of Lake Michigan, as its not a popular passtime up in those parts)  We had got our snorkelling gear on our honeymoon, when we were on a cruise in the Carribean.  (That made more sense)  We would get to wherever we stopped on the boat, usually go rent a scooter, and find some beach to go look at Coral and fishes.  It was great.  In Lake Michigan there were just rocks– and a few tiny fish.  But it gave us a new perspective on Milwaukee– a snorkeling perspective.

When I was in college I went to Canada my first year, then came back to Nebraska and lived in the International Dorm with a Japenese student, then went to Israel to study in Jerusalem.  I was in pursuit of different perspectives, different experiences.  When I came back to Lincoln Nebraska for my third year of school, I slept in a sleeping bag on a wooden floor, just to see what it was like– for a semester.  The second semester I decided to live in my car– which was a VW van– until it got hit by a semi on the interstate on our way back from Omaha.  So then I had insurance money ($1200) and decided to purchase a 1956 Cadillac from a friends father (who collected old cars) for $700.  It ran, and I lived in it from February to May, enduring -20 degree nights in February under a pile of quilts and blankets. 

Some people asked why…and I didn’t have a great answer, except that I thought it would be good to see what I could do without.  Again though, it was a pursuit of a different perspective on my reality, I think .

John Stuart  Mill said that it is good for society to encourage ‘experiments in living’– I do not know what he meant by that exactly, and I suppose some would take that to be a license to do illicit or vulgar things.  But I don’t think of it like that.  It is important, somehow, to be willing to try to experience reality in a new way– to put yourself into situations which throw you off a bit– which make you catch your balance and not look again the same way at what you were used to before. 

Life is difficult, and full of challenges.  We tend, in this situation, to pursue regularity, peace, comfort– what we know.  We don’t feel we have the luxury to pursue oddball ideas, unfamiliar paths, new ways of doing or being. 

But our life is short, and we do not have long here.  There are opportunities which will come and go and if we sit waiting on the sidelines resting, we will lose out time after time after time. 

I don’t know that there is a biblical mandate to live one’s life bizzarely, but it seems that God tended towards bizzare people, and bizzare situations for those he loved.  Consider John the Baptist eating locusts and wild honey, Noah building a boat for 140 years, Moses leading a people in circles for 40 years in the wilderness, Abraham being asked to go ‘he knew not where’, and the list, obviously, goes on. 

God is strange, and a life lived for God will, I believe, lead us to take risks which we otherwise may not have taken.  In doing that, our lives will be filled with wonder.  I remember that my aunt Ann used to often ask people how they would describe their life in one word, and whatever they would say, when they asked her, she would describe her life: ‘exciting!’– even into her 80’s.  The main reason for that was that she lived her life with a higher calling– a purpose to seek Christ and to try to listen to God’s calling on her life. 

We can’t substitute snorkelling in lake michigan for a real live pursuit of the weird God who has created this very interesting world.  But I have to think that God kind of enjoys when we take the path less trod…

may God have mercy on us all

Anti-Tradition Tendencies in Protestantism: A Defense of ‘Being Religious’

It seems that people don’t like the concept of ‘being religious’.   There are all kinds of anti-tradition tendencies in protestantism, particularly low-church evangelicalism, which tends to reject Creeds and traditional religious rituals including hymn singing, liturgy, and observing the church calendar (lent, advent, epiphany, etc)  There are many books and movements about this anti-religious sentiment, including ‘How to be spiritual without being religious’, ‘Why I hate Religion but Love Jesus’,  and my favorite, a book I have at home called, ‘How to be a Bishop, without being religious’.  Jeff Bethke is evidently one of the more recent phenomena along these lines.  In a recent time article (3/5/12) he is quoted to say “Why I hate Religion, but Love Jesus”  His now-famous poem, which he has posted on youtube has drawn a lot of intention, including the New York Times and reformed pastors like Kevin DeYoung, who pointed out, “If religion is characterized by doctrine, commands, rituals, and structure, then Jesus is not your go-to guy for hating religion.”

I’m interested to hear what others think, but I think that one reason that “being religious” gets a bad rap is that people think that being religious is following a practice by rote– in other words, not authentically engaging in the forms of practice, but just going through the motions without being personally engaged.  I’ve heard friends who grew up in the Roman Catholic Church or Lutheran Church talk about how they went through the motions as kids without ever having it explained to them what they were doing or why.

Rote means to do something by habit or memory, without full comprehension of what is being said or done.  But obviously this is not always a bad thing– it is, in fact, part of habituation, and can be for good or for ill, depending on the habit that is done by rote.  If you memorize scripture, as some young Jewish boys do, or as some young evangelical (Awana) kids do, you may repeat it by rote, but I think its hardly bad that you know it, even if by rote.  And suppose that someone develops a blind habit of eating healthy, avoiding french fries or jogging 5 miles in the morning before doing anything else.  Its hard to imagine anyone saying to them, “well, your jogging is so mindless!” or “you eat so healthy, sure, but do you even think about it?”– I think that certain habits can be considered good, even if they are not thought through consciously at every moment.

In the same way, we may develop habits, such as reading scripture each morning, or praying, or even memorizing liturgical prayers or communal hymns which we say, at times, without thinking consciously of what we are saying.  

But it is not clear to me that doing such things, even by rote, is necessarily a bad thing.  It is clear to me that doing such things is better than many other habits, such as eating 7500 calories a day ‘by rote’ or not exercising ever ‘by rote’ or gossipping, being jealous, or smoking ‘by rote’– i.e.– without thinking about what we are doing.  Better to have good thoughtless habits than bad ones.  I only wish I jogged 5 miles each morning by rote– without thinking about what I am doing. 

But being religious also has connotations, I think, of being the same over and over– which most people can find boring, because we always want something new.   But when we or the church coddle this desire for novelty, we nuture a superficiality which can accompany this pursuit of ‘always something new’.

Simple Free started on a simple premise– that we wanted to keep things simple, and anchor our practices and worship in the tradition of the church– so that we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel, spend hours each week deciding what to do and then rehearsing it like a performance, etc.  We have used the exact same service outline for the last 3.5 years, and we haven’t revised it.  We could, and we probably will at some point.  But the point is that we don’t need newness, novelty and different things each week to keep us engaged. 

We are creatures of habit, like it or not, and establishing and sticking to practices habitually and in a regular committed fashion can bring a great deal of satisfaction and encouragement. 

We don’t have to eschew the past in order to have an authentic spiritual experience.  There is no doubt that religious practices which are done thoughtlessly too long can bring about a certain deadness of spirituality, but at the same time, religous practices which are rooted in a longstanding religious tradition can bring to us a richness of spirituality, in what they lack in novelty.  There is a reason why some practices have stood the test of time, and turning back to some of the ancient religious practices of the Christian tradition can be a powerful source of spiritual renewal. 

May God have mercy on us all.