Thoughts on Ecclesiastes, the Second Great Commandment, and Homosexuality

I lived in the mid 1980’s with a man who – unknown to me at the time – was gay.  “John” was a broken, hurting, hiding individual – filled with conflict and deeply buried anger over who he was vs. who his church and his family and society as a whole expected him to be.  His own sense of self and self-worth was so deeply hidden under layers of self-deception, self-loathing and fear that it never surfaced in the time I knew him.  Compulsive and self-destructive behaviors filled his life: a vicious circle of turmoil and pain that he could not escape.

Conservative Christians focus on the Old Testament’s condemnations of homosexuality, especially verses like Leviticus 18:22  – “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable (NIV).”  Yet, Leviticus also condemns the eating of shellfish as “detestable” (Lev 11:10).  So, should we stone to death everyone coming out of “Red Lobster”?

Both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures condemn homosexuality to some extent.  Many argue this was because the ancient Jews lived in a world that had no room to care for (or even tolerate) people that we would have labelled as “unproductive members of society”, though the ancient Jews did not think in those terms (nor am I suggesting homosexuality falls into that category).  In that ancient time, homosexuality may have been seen as a behavior that was unproductive in terms of the critical need to sustain the culture through procreation.  It might also have been seen as an activity that threatened the status quo /or and gender roles within the culture.  Who knows?  Whatever the reasoning, it was seen as a threat to the community’s ability to survive in a world where the margin of survival was very thin.  Such threats therefore had to be dealt with firmly, if not harshly – since that same slim margin made less harsh punishments – such as prisons – impractical, if not impossible.

Homosexuality in the early Christian era was apparently not condemned of itself.  But, it is clear that it was often an expression of power and dominance or lust, not of love.  The New Testament has much to say in its condemnation of the misuse of power and wealth in many different dimensions and venues of life at that time.  So, is homosexuality itself being condemned by Paul and others, or its use as to express dominance?

Progressive Christians therefore question whether laws against homosexuality have a place in the modern world, a world where the challenge is not that of making sure enough children are born to carry on the culture, but is one of having too many: leading to the destruction of resources critical to our survival as a species.  Yet, in throwing out some Biblical teachings as outmoded or irrelevant, we need to be very careful: it would be too easy to throw out everything we don’t like if we pursue such a path.

A friend of mine once encapsulated the issue by asking me this question: “If someone close to you said they were planning to marry someone of the same gender, what would you do?”  My natural inclination and Jesus’ “Second Great Commandment” (in Matthew 22:36, where he quotes Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”) both tell me I should take the approach of love: accept them for who they are and wish them and their partner happiness in their life together.

Although homosexuality was only one of the factors contributing to his problems, if “John” had seen such love in his life, perhaps he would have had the inner peace he needed to build a meaningful and productive life for himself.  His inner torment and outward pain are evidence that we (as a society, as well as individually) failed to treat him as the Bible teaches us.

Another challenge is the teaching of “hate the sin but love the sinner” that many have adopted as their attitude towards homosexuality.  To me, this is hypocritical: if we criticize someone’s lifestyle or sexual orientation as a “sin,” how can we say that we “love” them unless we’re saying we accept them with a hidden agenda: that we want to change them into something they’re not?

We need to remember the conclusion to book of Ecclesiastes’ in the Hebrew Scriptures: “Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.”  This verse has two messages relevant to this discussion:

First, we all have a duty to keep the commandments as best we can, realizing – as the Teacher in Ecclesiastes did – that we can never fully succeed.  Also, Jesus taught us to not judge one another, and it was for this very reason: we all do the best we can, and have no right, nor sufficient wisdom or knowledge, to judge others in God’s place.  Since I know that I am not perfect, and will never be so (in this life, anyway), this plus Jesus’ Second Great Commandment teaches me I need to accept my neighbor for who they are, someone just as imperfect as myself: both of us trying to make sense of the world in which we live, and our place in it.

Second, hidden sin is no different than visible sin: a hidden agenda is hurtful, as it requires you to be false to another – requiring the relationship to be built on a false foundation.  I am certain God will judge such behavior more harshly than homosexuality, which, in the modern context of being a behavior shared by two consenting adults, hurts no one.  (Some will question this statement, noting that the Christian Scripture’s Book of Romans makes clear that God judges all “sin” equally.  But, what I’m saying is that homosexuality is not necessarily a sin at all.)

In fact, since Jesus constantly taught about how we are called to love one another across gaps that others claim cannot be bridged, why would homosexuality be any different? If anything, it would seem that being brave and caring enough to love another in the face of the judgment of the world around you is right up Jesus’ alley.  Some will say “Jesus was not talking about sex!”  Hmmm, maybe.  But, do not forget that sex is but one component of the many facets of the deep and healthy and loving relationship that can exist between two people.  Why are we trying to separate one aspect of that type of relationship out as “wrong” when approving of all the others?  Especially since Jesus never spoke against homosexuality himself?

Therefore, I know that I am being consistent with the teachings and spirit of the Bible when I conclude that I am to be concerned only about whether someone is living a productive and balanced life; and what I should (or can) do to support them in that regard.  A person’s sexual orientation is an issue only if they are not at peace with it themselves, or if it harms others.

Copyright (c) 2009, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my name or provides a link back to this site).

Thoughts on the Healthcare Debate

I have many years of experience in the IT side of the healthcare industry, having worked for ten years at a major medical center (the Mayo Clinic) renowned for its efficient and high quality healthcare system.  I also worked nearly three years for a major nonprofit that provided healthcare (and other support) to those in need, worked for three years in support of the Veterans’ Health Administration, worked with the Red Cross and UNICEF while Director of IT at a company that provided services to nonprofits, and worked for a year or so as a contractor supporting a small company in the medical insurance industry.

I’ve also dealt with the challenges of attempting to provide healthcare for myself and my family as a self employed, underemployed and unemployed person.  Finally, in my current status as a student working towards ordination, I am constantly meeting and working with those who are underserved, if they are served at all, by our current healthcare system.

In other words, I’ve seen many aspects of our current  medical system, and its’ evolution over the last 20 years or so, from the “inside” – working closely with Physicians, Nurses, Technicians and other support personnel; as well as from the “outside” as a person looking for affordable and reasonably good quality healthcare services and insurance.

Let’s start with the obvious: the current system is evolving in an unsustainable direction, of providing high quality healthcare to fewer and fewer people, with costs rising at a rate that significantly exceeds inflation, meaning that we pay more and more each year while getting less and less for each dollar we spend.  In other words, it’s broken, and it will get worse, much worse, in the foreseeable future.

That good quality healthcare at a reasonable cost can be achieved is a certainty: the Mayo Clinic does so by providing highly centralized, well integrated services to its patients, supported by sophisticated manual and automated systems that ensure that each and every physician seeing a patient has accurate and timely information when they need it, and that every patient is able to rapidly get all of the tests and procedures they need for a correct diagnosis, followed by a course of treatment that works hard to take into account all of the complexities presented by the patient’s medical history and condition.  No wonder Mayo is rated as the best place to go for treatment of complex cases involving multiple disease processes.

What’s really astounding is that Mayo does all this for a cost much less than most other medical practices can achieve.  This is due not only to the volume of patients Mayo sees, but also due to Mayo’s sustained (nearly century-long) effort  to integrate and standardize medical care while ensuring a consistently high level of care and quality across every medical discipline in the practice.

There has been much talk of how the implementation of databases for patient medical records and the building of interfaces to allow such databases to talk to each other will be a “golden bullet” for high quality medical care.  I’ll agree, as one who played a significant role in the building of such systems at Mayo, that such systems are needed.  But, let’s not forget that Mayo built such systems itself primarily due to their need to share medical information and test results rapidly, if not simultaneously, among multiple healthcare professionals.  Paper-based mechanisms to store and share such information, and ensure its consistency and quality, had already been in place at Mayo for decades.  The business case for the expense of such automation was built on the need to speed access and to handle the ever increasing volume of such information.  The quality of the data, and the quality of the care itself, was already there.

In other words, automation is a great tool in healthcare: one that can provide great benefits, but an infrastructure that can take advantage of such high quality information must be in place, too.  That requires the creation of business processes to acquire, manage and utilize such information.  It means rethinking how medical practices (hospitals, labs, doctors, insurers, and other healthcare professionals, services or organizations) are managed internally, how they interact with each other, how they are regulated, and how they are compensated for their efforts.

It is not a small task.  It cannot be done piecemeal, and we cannot afford to avoid the challenge of doing so any longer: if you want to have a healthcare system that can meet your needs ten or twenty years from now, then we need to begin to make such changes now, as it will take years to implement such changes across thousands of medical institutions, hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of healthcare professionals, and within every government agency, hundreds of insurers, and thousands of companies that are involved in every aspect of healthcare.

The changes also impact our schools, which need to train not only new healthcare professionals, and retraining many of  those already in the field, but also ensure the correct mix of skills are being taught – not just in terms of ensuring enough Primary Care physicians are there, but training thousands of new administrators skilled in managing to ensure high quality, or skilled in integrating systems and practices: not skilled just in generating maximum profits for their employers.

The system cannot fix itself.  Only external pressure can redirect current trends into a more constructive direction.  Any person with knowledge of business ethics will tell you that a company that ignores or avoids social responsiblity for its actions will always be able to provide services cheaper than those that do seek to be socially responsible: just as it’s always cheaper to dump raw sewage and chemical waste into a river than it is to clean it up.

In terms of healthcare, it is always cheaper and more profitable to squeeze those individuals out of the system who are likely to incur greater healthcare costs.  This includes the elderly, those with chronic medical conditions, or anyone with an increased risk of becoming ill.  We see this in the ever increasing list of “pre-existing medical conditions” that are not covered by insurers.

On the other hand, as insurance costs increase, it becomes more and more desirable for those of us who are healthy to simply avoid buying insurance.  We put off doing so as long as possible, and only buy insurance when we get older, and/or think we’re likely to need it.  This is a major problem because it means we are not paying into the system: we’re expecting the money to somehow magically be there when we need it ten or twenty years from now, even though we have not put anything into the “bank” for our own future medical care.

Who then is paying?  We are: those who do have insurance have to foot the bill, either in terms of paying more for insurance (to cover for those who refuse to pay into the system, or who cannot afford insurance to begin with), and the escalation of costs at hospitals due to the need to pay for expensive emergency room care for those without insurance.

Every aspect of the healthcare industry is facing greater and greater challenges every day because of the current situation.  Insurance companies have to cope with an unbalanced pool of “customers” for their services and have to cope with competitors who seek to increase profits by reducing costs through reduced insurance coverage in their policies, excluding more potentially costly clients, and finding new ways to avoid or delay payment for covered services.  Hospitals have to deal with increasing malpractice and emergency room costs.  Doctors are avoiding critical professions (such as obstetrics and pediatric care) due to the high costs of malpractice insurance.

We all feel the impact of overall inefficiencies of the system due to inadequate and management and sharing of healthcare information among (and even within) healthcare organizations and individuals.  We all pay for payment practices that encourage volume over quality, and for insurance rates that discourage or prevent many from getting insurance at all (which simply raises costs for everyone else).

We have vicious circle after vicious circle – an ever escalating mess that can only get worse, and which will rapidly escalate with each passing year: like the compound interest on an overdue credit card bill.

Those who think they are safe from loss of benefits or “rationing” of healthcare in the future are kidding themselves.  Within the lifetimes of most of those reading this, we are likely to see a situation where only the extremely wealthy will be able to afford decent quality healthcare — assuming the entire system doesn’t collapse well before then.

President Obama’s speech before the joint houses of Congress earlier this week certainly contained suggestions for healthcare reform that not everyone agrees with.  (Even I, a [relatively] Liberal Democrat, don’t agree with all of his suggestions!)

Yet, he had a critical message that we must all take seriously: the overhyped and overheated posturing we’ve seen from both liberals and conservatives must stop.  If the attempts that we’ve seen to derail reform through ridiculously overblown rhetoric succeed, then we will all lose.  No matter how good your healthcare is at present, the course we are on as a nation will inevitably turn all of us into “losers” if changes are not made.  A debate that is reasoned and constructive, one where moderation and respect are the order of the day for everyone at the table, is the only way that our healthcare system can be reformed.

As Obama has said, the status quo is not an option: if you don’t like the proposals on the table, then provide an alternative and back it up with facts.  Those who work to destroy the opposition’s position in a game where political “points” are all that matter are being irresponsible and playing with fire: they are putting everyone at risk, including themselves.  If they succeed in derailing healthcare reform, it will be a Pyrrhic victory: one where they will be called upon to pay the price for their irresponsible actions far sooner than they can imagine.

Copyright (c) 2009, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my name or provides a link back to this site).

Do It Again, Daddy!

Even though the Universe is huge and complex, and we ourselves are such a small and insignificant part of it, the Bible is filled with lessons and examples of how God is committed to us and cares for us. God emphasized this to me one night through a simple question asked by my young daughter.

Sermon delivered at Payson Park Church, UCC, Belmont MA; August 23, 2009

It was the evening of Friday, May 4th, 1991. My life was at a crossroads. Worries that had been looming over my family on every side for months, getting ever darker and more worrisome, hit as full blown crises – all at the same time.

At home, my marriage appeared to be on the rocks: divorce seemed to be unavoidable. Compounding this was a financial situation that was dire, due in large part to our buying a house that had far more problems than we’d been led to believe, or could have imagined.

My career was also up in the air: I had been managing a very successful two year-long project, but the economic recession of 1991 (sparked by the first Gulf War) hit just as we completed the effort. This resulted in a hiring freeze at my company: I was given a temporary assignment, but was also told I would be laid off if things didn’t improve soon.

I felt very alone. I felt like I had no one to turn to. I have not been in a more challenging situation either before or since that time.

Continue reading “Do It Again, Daddy!”

Muffin’s Love

Muffin is an example to me of how the Lord loves us: He finds us dirty, smelly, and unlovable; and accepts us into his home. He then patiently works to bind up our wounds, heal our hearts, and make us clean.

In 2000 my then-wife and daughter went to a SPCA animal shelter in nearby Lancaster County, PA and adopted a gray and black poodle that had been found and brought to the shelter nearly a month before. She appeared to have been a stray for quite a while. She had no name, so, after some discussion, my daughter named her “Muffin”. I must confess that I was a bit skeptical: Muffin was not a young dog. The veterinarians who looked at her thought she must be at least ten years old, perhaps older.

When we adopted her, she stank, she was weak, and her bones were painfully obvious to the touch underneath all of her very long and incredibly tangled hair. (Her hair was so tangled and matted that she didn’t like being touched over much of her body, especially her legs and underside. She was unable to wag her tail or move her rear legs due to the pain caused by the tangled hairs pulling on her skin. Feces were embedded in the mats of hair under her tail and between her rear legs as well.) To put it mildly, she was a weak, smelly, unlovable mess.

Despite it all, we loved her anyway: we immediately clipped off as much matted hair as Muffin would let us remove. She obviously liked the attention, stretching out and letting us work on her for several hours. we slowly worked through each mat of hair (and dulling a new pair of scissors in the process). She ate a huge amount of food that evening. Her teeth appeared to cause her pain, so we provided softer food for her.

We gave her a bath the next morning, which she relished. We spent a fair amount of time each day working away at the matted hair, slowly gaining her trust, and patiently working our way through the mats under her body, between her legs, and on her feet. Muffin ate good solid meals each day, and slept most of the time. She quickly put on weight, and her energy got better each day.

She was a sweet dog. She had obviously been well cared-for at one point. It appears that she was once in a home where she had been trained, and was allowed to sleep on her master’s (or mistress’s) bed, she begged to be allowed to get up on our bed the first time she saw it, and tried to jump-up, though her hind legs were too weak to do so. She was obviously much loved by her previous owner: she loved to be cuddled, and had no fear of people (which we thought might be a problem, given that many dogs in pounds come from neglective or abusive environments). We often wondered how she came to be a stray, and if her former owner missed her.

At first, Muffin always stayed near us as we moved about the house, and loved to be cuddled. Her presence in our family had a very positive impact on our lives. We loved her, and she obviously loved us, and returned that love. We, and especially my daughter, poured love into her from the minute they first met at the pound.

Through her whole life with us, she was a happy, joyful dog, but was definitely a tough old lady when she needed to be. In 2001 she developed into some major health problems including a severe infection of her oil glands, and so we took her to the vet: my daughter assisted in the operating room while Muffin was put under general anesthetic to have the infected area cleaned and some abscessed teeth removed. Despite her great age at the time, Muffin came through with flying colors, and I’m sure my daughter’s hard work and love had a lot to do with her successful recovery.

As another dog (Cappuccino) and then cats (starting with Misty) came into the home, and despite fading eyesight and arthritic legs, Muffin remained the queen of the roost: she was definitely the dominant personality. She lived with us until the summer of 2004: but then began to rapidly lose weight, was incontinent, and was growing significantly weaker every day. When it was clear the end was near, and rather than allow her to suffer, we put her to sleep. I held her in my arms and cried while the doctor gave her the injection. We buried her in the backyard of the townhouse we lived in at the time in Woodbridge, VA.

Muffin is an example to me of how the Lord loves us: He finds us dirty, smelly, and unlovable; and accepts us into his home. He then patiently works to bind up our wounds, heal our hearts, and make us clean. While healing us, He never does more than we can handle at one time, and He loves us unconditionally, no matter what condition we are in, or where we’ve been, or what we’ve done. All He wants us to do is return His love.

Copyright (c) 2009, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my name or provides a link back to this site).

Which is More Important: Social Justice or Faith?

Yet, in pursuing Social Justice, it is easy to fall into a trap, the same trap that Karl Barth resoundingly destroyed in his famous book “The Epistle to the Romans”: the trap of thinking that the pursuit of Social Justice has anything to do with achieving salvation, that our status as believers in God and our work to spread Christ’s message while performing good works makes us any more worthy than anyone else in God’s eyes. It doesn’t.

Historically, many African Americans disdained Paul’s Epistles in the Christian Bible because slave owners often selectively presented his writings to their illiterate slaves, quoting him out of context: crassly using religion to control their slaves.  Yet, most Theologians, including African American Theologians, would agree that Paul was committed-to a gospel of radical equality. Even so, some fault Paul for diluting his message in favor of expediency: for his retreating from his ideal of radical equality in the face of the dominant culture’s values. It is true that Paul allowed short term concerns to take precedence over the primary goals of his ministry and preaching. What some have overlooked is why he did so.

Some say that Paul lacked courage in his convictions; that the liberating ethics inherent in his theology are often set aside in favor of practical considerations. Yet, Paul clearly did not back down in the face of threats, even physical attack. If anything, he was more likely to confront such challenges head on. We have numerous examples of this, such as in Lyca where Paul went back into the city after being stoned (Acts 14:19-20); in Phillipi, where Paul and Silas revealed their Roman Citizenship only after being beaten and jailed (Acts 16:11-40); in Ephesus, where Paul had to be restrained by his followers from going into a murderously hostile crowd (Acts 19:30); in Jerusalem, where he addresses and re-incites a mob that had tried to kill him only a few moments before (Acts 21:31-22:29) and finally his imprisonment and eventual execution.

Paul was 100% devoted to his mission, which was to spread the gospel of Christ’s death and resurrection by every conceivable means, driven to redeem as many people as possible before the Day of Judgment came. He had a sense of urgency: derived from his Apocalyptic Theology, which stated that the day of Christ’s return was imminent.

Paul was very clear that Christians must “hold firmly to the message I preached to you … that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day” (I Corinthians 15:2-4). Earlier in the same epistle he says “I … become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some” (I Corinthians 9:20-22). Finally, he said in Galatians that the Gospel proclaimed to him was a direct revelation from Christ (Galatians 1:11), and that a person is justified not by the works of the law, but through faith in Christ (Galatians 2:16).

Clearly we see that, to Paul, the Gospel was more important than any earthly consideration. He was certain that securing a place in the Kingdom to come was far more important than any worldly goal. He was as flexible and approachable as he needed to be, even to the point of death, if it meant enabling a few more to be saved for Christ.

Therefore, it is no surprise that Paul, despite preaching a Gospel of radical equality of all humanity before Christ, had no problem with making accommodations so that a community of believers could survive within the oppressive and highly stratified culture surrounding them. What mattered to him was whether their faith was strong and pure.

Slavery was an inescapable fact of life in Paul’s time: it was a violation of his message that all are equal before the Lord. Yet, it was an issue of this world, not the next. Paul was not focused on trying to make the world better for its own sake, since he felt Christ’s return would soon reshape the world anyway; and since Christ’s return was soon, Paul was intent on reaching as many people for the Gospel as possible beforehand.

Being a slave is evil and wrong, and Paul certainly encouraged slaves to gain their freedom if they could (I Corinthians 7:21); but whether one is a slave (or not) is irrelevant to a person’s worth in the eyes of God. Paul would not have made any aspect of the issue of social justice central to his ministry since he would have seen any achievement in that area as, at best, a victory with only limited value in the face of Christ’s imminent return. Making it central to his ministry would have been a distraction from what he saw as his primary mission, which was to recruit as many into the Kingdom of God as possible in the short time left.

Where does this leave us in today’s world? Certainly, now that experience has taught us that Christ is unlikely to return any time soon, social justice issues should no longer be set aside in favor of winning over souls to Christ.

Yet, in pursuing Social Justice, it is easy to fall into a trap, the same trap that Karl Barth resoundingly destroyed in his famous book “The Epistle to the Romans”: the trap of thinking that the pursuit of Social Justice has anything to do with achieving salvation, that our status as believers in God and our work to spread Christ’s message while performing good works makes us any more worthy than anyone else in God’s eyes.   It doesn’t.

We no longer feel the urgency to “spread the Gospel” that Paul felt. It is also certainly true in this day and age that “spreading the Gospel” does not mean what it meant to Paul. Yet, Paul and I share a conviction, one he shares with us in his Epistle to the Romans, which is that none of us can achieve salvation through our own efforts, but only through Faith in God.

God’s infinite nature cannot be comprehended by the human mind. Therefore, and as I’ve said before, I find that I cannot condemn or dismiss the value of other faiths: they each have value in helping us to better understand God. Yet, even so, what matters first and foremost is that we have faith in God. I am convinced, based on what Paul and both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures and traditions teach us, is that how we chose to express and act on our Faith is between us and God. These great Faiths, and others, teach us how to live as creatures of God, but the starting point always is, and always will be, our Faith in God.

Copyright (c) 2009, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my name or provides a link back to this site).

Reflections on “The Prioress’s Tale”

Let’s not make the mistake of turning those beautiful, rich colors and patterns we are a part-of into a jumble of pastels or shades of grey.

1280px-Cliffords_Tower_York_UK
Clifford’s Tower in York, England

I recently saw “The Prioress’s Tale,” an Operetta written by Delvyn Case as a retelling of Chaucer’s famous story.  The story as presented by Case describes a cultural clash between the Jewish and Christian residents of a medieval community.  While watching this tale unfold, I was struck by several thoughts…

First, I remembered an episode from my journeys as a student in England in 1983: One day, on a whim, I visited a tower built on a high mound just outside the walls of the city of York.  Now known as Clifford’s Tower, it stands on the site of a massacre that occurred in March 1190, when most of the Jews in York took refuge there, seeking to escape the riots that had erupted against many “outsider” groups as “Crusade Fever” swept through Western Europe.

I read a description at the site of what was found after the riots had ended: the tower’s courtyard was littered with corpses.  Surrounded and without hope of escape, the families had lain down together in the courtyard.  The fathers then killed their own children and wives before setting fire to the fortress and committing suicide beside the bodies of their loved ones; a very Masada-like scene.  Those who survived were later massacred by the mob that surrounded the burning tower.

I reflected that many of my ancestors came from Northern England.  Therefore, it is possible, if not likely, that some of my own forebears were in that mob.  Yet, my family does not preserve any stories of that time or those events.  (Similarly, whites in the south are often unaware of the brutality their ancestors inflicted upon African American slaves.)  History likes to remember and celebrate the times when we were brave or victorious; but tends to forget the times when we were cruel, avaricious, or oppressive.

Second, I was struck by how everyone in the Operetta was seeking to do the best they could, despite the fear, loss and pain they were experiencing.  They realized their actions were wrong only after the fact, when it was too late to repair the damage.

We have all been in situations where our own actions, undertaken with what we thought were the best of motives, have resulted in harm to others.  So, we must avoid being cocky about being more “enlightened” than those who came before us.  I’m reminded of what Jesus said in Matthew 23:30-32: “And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have participated with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ By saying this you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up then the measure of your ancestors!”

Finally, in the mid 1990’s, I was a member of a church whose membership was mostly African American.  One Sunday, I was the target of a shocking act of racial prejudice.  After listening to me recount this a few days later, a friend of mine from the church said “…what that teenage girl did was wrong, but you need to understand, you’re white: if you experience discrimination, you can always walk out the door and never have to deal with it again.”  She paused and then added: “I can never leave my skin.”

The two lead characters in this production were in exactly the same positions as “that teenage girl” and me: she lashed out in fear and anger because of what I represented to her, not because of what I’d done.  I learned from this that I may never fully understand what it means to be the target of discrimination.  I can empathize, I can work to promote understanding, but I am limited in what I can achieve because I am not a member (at least, not yet) of a group that experiences such things every day.

Does this mean I should ignore that discrimination and prejudice exist?  No. Should I wallow in guilt and remorse because of my own past actions, or those of my ancestors?  No.  Should I try and remold myself so that I will never offend or oppress another person in such ways?  No!

I’ve come to believe, as a speaker said after the performance, that we need to respect and celebrate our differences.  Our differences make the world a place of vibrant colors.  Let’s not make the mistake of turning those beautiful, rich colors and patterns we are a part-of into a jumble of pastels or shades of grey.

Text is copyright (c) 2009, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my name or provides a link back to this site).

Thoughts on Job

God has a plan for all of creation: it is a comfort to know that I have a part in that plan…

One message of the Hebrew Bible’s book of Job is that God’s view of what our best interests are is based on His perspective, which is universal and all-encompassing; unlike our perspective, which is inherently limited and focused on our personal needs.

We all go through “dark tunnels” from time to time. It’s an unavoidable part of life. In my case, the estrangement from my daughter has been the most heart wrenching.  A separation that I still do not fully understand why or how it happened, and one so complete that I have had no significant knowledge of anything that has been happening in her life for almost four years.  In any such experience, we have an immediate desire to have the situation resolved.  Unfortunately, Job teaches us that God does not think that way.

One thing I’ve learned from this experience is that when these things happen, God always seems to open up new doors for us as a result of it. If the relationship between my daughter and I had not been destroyed, I would still be sacrificing my own needs and life goals in the face of my desire to be the perfect Dad – as I’d been doing since she was born. In fact, I would have been working at it harder than ever.   It was only through losing her that I slowed down enough to realize there were big holes in my own life, and eventually learn what I needed to do to fill them. Because of this I found my wife, who I firmly believe is truly the perfect life companion for me, and also because of this I am now going back to school. None of this would have happened if my daughter was still in the picture, and I would never have worked on what I needed to fulfill my own potential as a person or to pursue my goals and dreams.

Does this mean that I’m glad my daughter is estranged from me? No. But, I’ve come to see that God is using the situation to help me grow and become a better, happier person than I would otherwise have been. If He is doing this for me, then I can be certain he is doing the same for her: He is not worrying about how our relationship was twisted and destroyed.  To God, what matters most is that we each acheive His plan for each of our lives within the context of His Great Plan for all.  This enables me to forgive and forget the fear, misconceptions and perhaps even lies that led to our separation, and enables me to hope that someday she will be able to share in the joy, peace and happiness that is in my life now.  But, even if she never does, he will take care of her, too – just as He has done for me.

Job’s message for me is that God is looking out for our interests, but is doing so in the context of the best interests for all of His Creation, and in the long term.  That is not a terribly comforting thought when you’re in the middle of gutwrenching crisis.  On the other hand, I’d rather have a God that does that, than one that caters to my own personal, immediate needs – or to the personal, immediate needs of others.  God has a plan for all of creation: it is a comfort to know that I have a part in that plan, as does my daughter.

Copyright (c) 2009, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my name or provides a link back to this site).

The Languages of the Eternal

Our Faith is a language: the language we use to explain and explore our relationship with the Eternal.

What’s both wonderful and  annoying about being a Divinity Student is that you are always thinking: thinking about the next paper, this morning’s lecture, conversations in the cafeteria, email exchanges with friends, etc.  It is a constant learning experience, both inside the classroom, and outside.

You are (or at least I am) always ruminating upon the implications of the things we are learning.  I am always seeking to tie my latest revelations into that tapestry that is the sum of what I’ve learned to date in the long and rather meandering path I’ve taken through life.  I also love to write and to discuss these thoughts with others. So, voila, time for a blog.

My viewpoint from a pastoral / theological point of view is this: that our faith is for each of us like a language.  It is a language that helps us explore and express our relationship with the eternal.  Everyone has such a language, whether we are a Christian, Jew, Buddhist, Atheist, Shamanist or we (as our Australian Aboriginal cousins do) walk in the Dreaming.

Our Faith is a language: the language we use to explain and explore our relationship with the Eternal.  A major interest of mine has always been to learn more about our own “eternal language” and those of others.

The “eternal language” I use to explore my own relationship with the eternal, with God if you will, is Christianity.  That I am a Christian is in large part due to the confluence of my origins as a child born and raised in the Reformed Protestant tradition, my deep familial roots in New England, my education, and the choices I’ve made in life up to this point.  Christianity works for me.  I am familiar with it.  It is part of the “cultural wallpaper” of my life, and I find that the concepts it embraces and expresses are excellent and familiar tools as I explore and learn more about my relationship with God.  This does not mean that I feel Christianity is the right “eternal language” for everyone, or even anyone, else.

When meeting speakers of languages like German, Spanish, Tagalog or Warlpiri, we do not condemn such people for not speaking English.  (At least, I do not!)  We (hopefully) recognize that their language is an integral part of who they are, how they view the world, and how they relate to the culture in which they were born and (probably) still live.  Their language helps define who they are and their place in this everyday world we both share.

Similarly, one’s faith defines one’s understanding of who we are and where we stand in relationship to the issues of eternity.  Faith answers questions like “Why are we here?” and “Where do we go when we die?”  Faith is the language we use to explore the eternal world, it also shapes our view of that eternal world, shapes our relationship with it, and is how we communicate our views on such issues when talking with others about them.

Therefore, every Faith has value.  Every one provides a viewpoint on issues of eternity – a viewpoint that can be a new perspective that helps us more fully understand both our own faith and how we relate to eternity.  So, I am always looking to learn about the faiths of others, so that I can more fully appreciate where they stand, and because I find that learning more about their faiths enriches my understanding and appreciation of my own.

Our faiths are the sum of the millenias-old legacy of thought and belief that has been passed down to us.  What I find both interesting and distressing about this is how so many of us (including myself) are often ignorant of that legacy.  In that ignorance, we often do not think-through the implications of what we believe, whether the reasons for a particular belief we have has relevance any more, or how our beliefs impact, or are viewed-by, others.

My goal in this blog is to explore Faith both in the general and in the particular: exploring my own views on Christianity and how it relates to my day to day experiences in this world, and reaching across the boundaries to explore the faiths of others.  I also hope to help both myself (and you) better understand other faiths and how their understanding of the eternal can shed light on our own understanding.

This blog is therefore an exploration and a learning experience.  I am glad that you have taken the time to journey on at least part of this path with me, hope you’ll share your own thoughts as we go along.

Copyright (c) 2009, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my name or provides a link back to this site).