Saturday, April 25, 2009

Worldviews Part 2: what about suffering?

In my last blog, I was sharing my interest in how religion and philsophy shapes world views. I rather boldly stated that "I love a respectful debate with anyone who wants to challenge the teachings of Biblical Christianity. I always learn something from what you have to share with me". No sooner had I finished writing this (with regard to a respectful debate I had with a friend who has a worldview influenced by Buddhism and Interbeing) then I was faced with another interesting challenge, one having to do with the issue of suffering.

Any religion must face the problem of suffering - if there is a God, why does he allow terrible things to happen? Innocent children starving to death? or being cruelly abused? (which is not just suffering but also a problem of evil).

The "interesting challenge" came in the form of The Sparrow, a book by Mary Doria Russell. In the reading guide at the back of the book, one reviewer says the Sparrow's theme is "the problem of evil and how it may stand in the path of a person's deepest need to believe."

This is a science fiction book, set in the near future when a scientist on earth hears radio signals coming from another planet - singing - and a team is sent to make first contact with an alien species. At first there is great "success" in meeting and communicating with the aliens. But then things go terribly wrong. All but one person from Earth is killed by the aliens. The survivor manages to get back to earth, but he is physically and mentally and spiritually devastated by what happened on the alien planet. This man is a priest, who had believed that God had called him to go to this distant planet to meet these alien singers. Then to witness the death of his companions and many other horrific things - he feels betrayed by God.

I couldn't put this book down. It's extremely well-written, and has equal parts of mystery, humor, great characters, amazing settings, and wonderful ideas. This review by Science Fiction Weekly is a good summary: "Russell's debut novel... focuses on her characters, and it hs here that the work truly shines. An entertaining infusion of humor keeps the book from becoming too dark, although some of the characters are so clever that they sometimes seem contrived. Reader who dislike an emphasis on moral dilemmas or spiritual quests may be turned off, but those who enjoy science fiction because it can create these things are in for a real treat."

But I also found it to be a very disturbing story. Almost like the author was determined to write the most shocking story she could possibly think of. Innocent children brutally murdered. Rape. Other things I don't even want to describe. But perhaps what troubled me most of all was a believer whose faith was shattered.

When he returned to earth, the lone survivor, the priest, was questioned about the terrible things that had happened. He says: "If I was led by God to love God, step by step, as it seemed, if I accept that the beauty and the rapture were real and true, then the rest of it was God's will, too, and that, gentlemen, is cause for bitterness. But if I am simply a deluded ape who took a lot of old folktales far too seriously, then I brought all of this on myself and my companions and the whole business becomes farcical, doesn't it. The problem with atheism, I find, under these circumstances... is that I have no one to despise but myself. If, however, I choose to believe that God is vicious, then at least I have the solace of hating God."

According to the story, in the face of heartbreaking suffering and cruelty, a person who believes in God has these three choices: 1) to be bitter, because suffering and evil are part of God's will just as much beauty and love 2) assume there is no God 3) to assume God is vicious, and therefore hate him (I believe there is a fourth choice... read on).

Here is what the others, who have heard the priest's story, say about his crisis of faith - why God did nothing to intervene: "He watches. He rejoices. He weeps. He observes the moral drama of human life and gives meaning to it by caring passionately about us, and remembering.... Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it (Matt 10:29). But the sparrow still falls."

From the reading guide at the back of the book, the author (who is actually a former Catholic, and now a convert to Judaism) says: "The risks [with religion] have to do with believing that God micromanages the world, and with seeing that what may be simply coincidence as significant and indicative of divine providence. It's very easy then to go out on a limb spiritually, expect more from God than you have a right to expect, and set yourself up for bitter disappointment in his silence and lack of action."

Bitter disappointment that when God sees the sparrow fall - or us - He lets us fall. He "weeps. He observes... and gives meaning to it [our fall] by caring passionately about us, and remembering." But he doesn't actively do anything about it or express His purpose for it.

Actually, that's not what the Bible says God does, at all. There is a very similiar story of suffering and cruelty in the Bible - when God let Job suffer the death of all his children, the loss of all his possessions, terrible physical pain, and the special torture of having three of his friends accuse him and say everything that had happened was really his own fault because he'd sinned in some way.

So yes, God did let His sparrow fall, and for a while - perhaps quite a long time - God was silent and did nothing. But then He did do something. He showed Himself to Job in all His glory and majesty, and revealed the purpose for the suffering. Satan had said "Job will lose faith in You." Job struggled with his faith, but he never completely gave into any of the three possibilities described above (bitterness, atheism, or hatred). And God rewarded Job for clinging to his faith - he restored all that Job had lost many times over - but perhaps the most important consequence of what Job went through was that He saw the majesty and glory of God.

God doesn't just observe our pain and suffering silently from a distance, or even lean down and whisper to us, "I can't help you other than to tell you, I still care passionately about you". What a meaningless statement that is! Like the good Samaritan going to the injured man and saying "I care passionately that you've been hurt, but I'm in no position to help you."

God does allow Satan to afflict terrible suffering. For a time. But as Job realized, "when I have been tested I shall come forth as gold." (23:10). Refinement. Gold does not shine until it has gone through the fire; a gem does not glitter until it has been cut and shaped and polished against stone.

But you might ask what about those that die in the process, what about the innocent children? I answer, again from the Bible, do they not shine in heaven even more brightly than they would have on earth? Death is not a loss, but a gain. It's those of us who haven't reached death yet who are still limping along trying to figure things out.

So I contend that the author of the Sparrow missed the mark when it comes to understanding true Biblical faith. The truth is all throughout the Bible, from Abraham being tested with the requirement to sacrifice his son Isaac, to Martha and Mary being tested with the death of their beloved brother Lazarus. And God did not make Himself immune to suffering, either. I thought it interesting that with all the Jesuit priests in this story, even with all its religious themes, not once was the name of Christ Jesus mentioned (other than once or twice as an expletive). If anyone tries to tackle "Christian" themes without bringing Christ into the story, that's a major oversight.

I didn't plan on blogging about this book, because so far all the books I've blogged about have been inspirational in some respect (some of them spiritually, some of them just inspirational from a writer's point of view). But the Sparrow did make me think - it did make me go back to the Bible to search for answers - specifically for that fourth answer to the question of suffering, because I knew that the three options the author offered were not enough. I welcome any debate to the fourth.... challenge me again! (Even I don't get any response, I still have plenty of material for another blog "Worldviews Part 3, more on suffering").

Here are some other challenges I've made. I love hearing responses and I'm always open to discussion.

Worldviews part 1: the truth is we need help

Why tolerance isn't enough

Some thoughts on Avatar and why it is so appealing

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Worldviews Part 1: the truth is we need help

The description of the website is a "community of seekers, skeptics, and believers" - and I have been all three of these. If you want to read my story of how I passed through the different stages of skeptic to seeker to believer, check out my testimony.

In some aspects I am still a skeptic and a seeker, which is why I love a respectful debate with anyone who wants to challenge the teachings of Biblical Christianity. I always learn something from what you have to share with me.

For instance, back in February I had neat discussion with an old friend that I had recently reconnected with via Facebook. He read my blog Thinking about how hard the truth is, and mentioned that he was currently reading "Mere Christianity" by C.S. Lewis. He said he wanted to read it because he had just read Hitchen's book "god is not Great" and thought he should "walk the open minded walk" and not just talk it. Wow, what a contrast in books! So I asked him what his current beliefs are. He replied that he has both practiced Soto Zen Buddhism and attended a Unitarian Universalist church, and he believe in Interbeing, as described by Thich Nhat Hanh.

Before I became a follower of Jesus, I was curious about Buddhism and did some reading on it. But it's been a long time since then (over 15 years ago), and I couldn't remember much. So, being the Wikipedia fanatic that I am, I looked up Soto Zen and Interbeing. Interbeing is the idea instead of God as separate entity, there is instead an inter-connectedness of all things.

Interbeing also stresses "selflessness" as in "not-self characteristic which reveals the inter-connected-ness of all things" (Wikipedia). I couldn't help but contrast this to the New Testament teaching of death to self, through identification with Jesus' death, Galations 2:20 "... I am crucified with Christ and I no longer live but Christ lives in me..."

The Order of Interbeing has "14 Mindfulness Teachings" which I found very interesting. To name a few: "openness","non-attachment to views", "freedom of thought" (which explains my friend's interest in reading both Mere Christianity, and god is not great); "awareness of suffering", "living happily in the present moment", "truthful and loving speech", "dealing with anger".

These are very noble teachings, and I mean that sincerely. True followers of Interbeing must be very compassionate, loving people... here is another statement from my friend: "I've been thinking lately about the idea that the idea of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is roughly equivalent to the idea of bodhicitta ("the arising of spontaneous and limitless compassion for all sentient beings" - see Wikipedia for more details)." "We understand suffering because we see that we can just as easily have a hand in it as anyone else. When we _fully_ feel compassion for each other, then we naturally _love_ our brothers and we instinctively _know_ what to do in those terrible moments. My understanding is that this is what Buddhists call Perfect Wisdom."

The Perfect Wisdom of Buddhism sounds remarkably similar the unconditional, agape love of the New Testament. Here is Truth! But my worldview says there is still something missing - in one word, "help".

Before I go into what I mean by "help", here is a quick review of the Four Aspects of Buddhist doctrine or dharma from an article by Peter Kreeft.

The First Noble Truth is that all of life is dukkha, suffering. The word means "out-of-joint-ness" or separation—something very similar to "sin," but without the personal, relational dimension: not a broken relationship but a broken consciousness.

The Second Noble Truth is that the cause of suffering is tanha, "grasping," selfish desire. We suffer because of the gap between what we want and what we have. This gap is created by our dissatisfaction, our wanting to get what we do not have or wanting to keep what we do have (e.g., life, which causes fear of death). Thus desire is the villain for Buddha, the cause of all suffering... "I want that" creates the illusion of an "I" distinct from the "that"; and this distinction is the cause of suffering.

The Third Noble Truth.... to remove the cause is to remove the effect, therefore suffering can be extinguished (nirvana) by extinguishing its cause, desire. Remove the fuel and you put out the fire.

The Fourth Noble Truth tells you how to extinguish desire: by the "Noble Eightfold Path" of ego-reduction in each of life's eight defined areas, inward and outward (e.g., "right thought:" "right associations," etc.).

So here is where I come back to the missing factor, "help".

It is so hard for humans to truly live perfect wisdom/unconditional love - we can only grasp it for seconds at a time and the rest of the time we're basically selfish creatures. Meditating certainly helps and the more time you spend meditating on perfect wisdom, or the Noble Eightfold Path, or the 14 Mindfulness teachings, the more you will be able to live out Perfect Wisdom. But it is still "work-based". You have to do the work; you have rely on yourself for the motivation, for the desire, to keep doing this and doing this.

There is the temptation to try to live the noble, self-sacrificing life in Christianity, too. Jesus is our example; we strive to live our lives by asking ourselves "What Would Jesus Do?" and then, we try to do that. But your average person (ie. me) fails that task miserably 98% of the time. So I take incredible comfort in the fact that Jesus is interceding for me in this task.

It basically comes down to this: do you believe you can be compassionate and loving by your own will, your own efforts? Or have you realized that you keep failing at it, and you need help? Jesus said "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick... I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners."

Here are some other challenges I've made. I love hearing responses and I'm always open to discussion.

Worldviews part 2: What about suffering?

Why Tolerance Isn't Enough

Some thoughts on Avatar and why it is so appealing

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

May this dream come true

I've been debating whether to blog about this, because it's really personal... maybe I should just journal it? But my blogs have been getting more and more personal over time.

I decided to go ahead and share it because, first of all, my most favorite blogs to read from other people are when they take a "risk" and share something really personal. Because I think we all need to know we aren't the "only ones out there" going through some particular challenge or trial - we're not alone.

And then secondly, those you who may read this who are inclined to pray, this is a prayer request. I'd love it if you'd pray for me, and my parents. (added 4/13 - add a comment if you'd be willing to add us to your prayers)

Okay, last night (or probably very early this morning) I had a wonderful dream. I almost NEVER have amazing dreams like this. So I'm hoping it's a sign from God.

In my dream, my family and I were having dinner with my parents to celebrate their return from Hilton Head in May (they head south every winter for South Carolina). Some how or other, in the mysterious way of dreams, one of my dear Christian friends and her husband had also joined us for dinner, and somehow we got onto the subject of religion. My Dad was sharing his beliefs on how religion is just a crutch, that he believes it's all a sham. Then my firiend's husband asked him something like "do you realize that Jesus died for you?"

And there was this long silence, and I was wondering if my Dad was going to be angry or offended, when he answered, "yes, I know that Jesus died for me."

At this point the dream gets a little fuzzy, because I think my unconcious self was suffering from shock and amazment. But I asked my Dad something along the lines of "you mean, you believe now?" or "you're saved?" and he nodded and smiled at me.

Then my Mom said, "you know I've always believed in Jesus."

This is true; she has always professed faith in Jesus. She just doesn't seem to have any interest or passion in Him... and when Jesus truly saves someone, He transforms them. He makes them a new creature. They are awed by the fact that He died to save them from sin. In the verse I memorized earlier this year, Matt 9:12-13, Jesus said "It is not the healthy that need a doctor, but the sick.... I have come not to call the righteous, but sinners" - that's what has been missing in my mom's faith: any sense that she's a sinner, in need of a doctor, e.g. savior.

So I asked, "But do you believe He died for you? For your sins?"

She paused, then suddenly smiled and said, "yes".

Pitter-pat, pitter-pat, my heart was going crazy.

But in my dream I was worrying to myself, are they just saying this? do they really believe? Has Jesus really opened their eyes, and saved them?

Then I felt this overwhelming joy in my dream. An assurance that yes, it was true. Amazing grace had really, finally, reached my parents.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I'm found, was blind, but now I see.

My Dad stood up and held his arms out to me and I ran to his arms crying, and then my mom was also hugging us both, crying.

I woke up with a such a sense of joy that for a moment I thought it had really happened. But even when I remembered it was just a dream, I still felt joy. I have felt joy all day long everytime I think about this dream.

May this dream come true!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Encouragement from the strangest place

As I mentioned in my last post, B. and I have been pretty discouraged lately. He hasn't been getting enough business to keep going, and the bills keep piling up. But since last week there have been a few positive signs.

One surprising blessing was the big snowstorm this weekend- B. got called out to put his skidloader to work pushing snow. Some much needed extra cash - thank you, Lord!

He also has about 2 weeks worth of new work lined up. 2 weeks isn't much, but still, part of the Lord's Prayer is to "give thanks for your DAILY bread".

Finally, the book Open Season by C.J. Box - talk about encouragement from the strangest place. It's not even remotely a Christian book, but God can use anything to lift our hearts. I borrowed this from my friend who is an inexhaustible source of great books (H.L.) and when I started reading it, I immediately thought that B. would really, really like this.

So I started reading it out loud to him that evening and sure enough he got hooked and finished reading it himself in record time (we almost had a wrestling match at one point over the book).

What fascinated us both about this book, besides being set in Wyoming (google Crazy Woman Canyon, Wyoming), and being a really edge-of-your-seat murder mystery, is that the hero's family is basically our family - very similar situation (minus the dead body in the backyard, thank goodness). Well, it could be a lot of families, I'm not saying our situation is unique.

Joe Pickett, Wyoming Game Warden, gets a call from headquarters in Cheyenne. He makes the six hour drive, only to discover that he's fired. He drives back home in state of depression (Game wardens live in state houses and drive state trucks, so not only had he lost his job, but also his home, and his pickup truck, and for a Wyoming man, your losing your pickup truck is the lowest blow possible). He's dreading having to tell his wife what has happened. He has to stop at a bar first, to fortify himself. Then he spills the beans. His wife listens quietly. He's expecting her to pack up the kids and leave. This is kind of the last straw - they've been through all sorts of other troubles leading up to this darkest moment.

But instead of freaking out, his wife stands firmly at his side. She believes in him, and she tells him so.

Of course everything ends up working out (a few gunshots and trips to the hospital later), but that was the defining moment for B. and I. We're at a pretty dark moment here, but we believe in each other, and we also believe in the Lord, which is a pretty awesome place to be.

A few other notes. Here is the latest verse I'm working on for Beth Moore's scripture memory challenge.

Psalm 34:1-2 NIV
I will praise the Lord at all times
His praise will always be on my lips.
My soul will boast in the Lord,
Let the afflicted hear and rejoice.

I plan to memorize this whole Psalm. Verse 4 "I sought the LORD, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears" has been a mainstay in my life for 10 years now, and the whole Psalm is worth memorizing.

Last, writing progress. I got bogged down at the end of chapter 3 with the introduction of new character who just wasn't "sounding" right. So, to keep momentum I skipped ahead. Got as far as Chapter 5 and bogged down again because I needed to reference that conversation in Chapter 3 that I had skipped because the voice wasn't right. After staring glumly at my computer screen for a while (and turning off my wireless because Facebook kept distracting me), I came to the frustrating conclusion that this particular character isn't developed enough to sound authentic, and he's an important character, so that means - research & development.

Last year I bought materials from author Holly Lisle's "Create A Character Clinic" - kind of glanced over it but didn't do anything. So yesterday I unearthed it and started shooting interview style questions at my character. She provides hundreds of different questions such as "what is the character's compelling need?" "what pain does he most fear?" and so forth. You can pick any of the questions that interest you and skip the ones that don't, though sometimes pursuing what may seem like an "n/a" question ends up leading down new and fascinating paths. Or, should I call it a rabbit trail? If it doesn't get me past the chapter 3 road block by next week, it's definitely a rabbit trail.