Friday, July 14, 2017

Bowen on a Bicycle: Take II

Last night David and I went for a bike ride.  We were most of the way home, having just crossed the Ford Parkway bridge, heading east into Saint Paul.  The path on the St. Paul side is quite steep before it joins the roadway, goes under the bridge, where one can find a curb cut-out to get back onto the recreation trail.  I go down this hill very slowly; in addition to being steep, I have a stop sign at the bottom and there tends to be a lot of cross traffic on Mississippi River Blvd which does not have a stop sign.
As I creeped down the hill, I watched for traffic.  There were two cars coming from the south.  Not a big deal.  I was only halfway down the hill, creeping along so slowly I was at a near standstill.  I checked David’s location behind me.  The first car went ROARING by.  The second car reached the intersection a mere second later.  I was still a good 10 feet from the intersection and scarcely moving.
The car came to a complete stop.  The driver was attempting to (wrongly) yield the right of way to me.  I was farther from the intersection than this car that had stopped in the middle of it, trying to Minnesota nicely allow me to cross the road without stopping.
Except to do so, I would have to release the brakes, fully reengage my down-stroke, enter the roadway, and remain in front of this vehicle for a four-lane-plus stretch of underpass before I could re-enter the bike path on the other side.  I followed the rules of the road and obeyed my stop sign – acting exactly as I had promised to do when I signed a contract committing myself to obeying all traffic, safety, and trail laws, rules, and regulations upon the purchase of my two-wheel, leg-powered vehicle.
As I came to a complete stop, and the vehicle still refused to move, I had to dismount, not able to balance on two wheels for longer than a brief second.  I shifted my weight, put out my left foot to catch myself.  The toe of my shoe made contact with the ground and my leg collapsed beneath me as my calf muscle cramped so intensely I end up lying on the ground, shrieking in agony.  David had to dismount his own bicycle and press on the bottom of my foot to help gently stretch my calf and ease the cramp.
Another cyclist stopped to inquire if everything was okay, had I crashed, did we need assistance?  “Just a cramp,” David told him.  “Ugh!  Those are the worst!” the other cyclist said with sympathy.  “Sometimes you can’t even move!”  I know this well.  At this point I was moving again, but when the cramp first started, I was immobilized with pain.
And this is the shit about “Minnesota Nice” or “Iowa Nice” or niceness in general.  When people stop paying attention to the rules that govern their own lives and start living for the purpose of being “nice” to everyone around them – openly inviting others to violate the rules that govern their lives – the “nice” people are creating a DAMNED hazard for those of us just going about our business, taking care of our own shit.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Murray Bowen on a Bicycle

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30


One of the biggest questions we can wrestle with as humans being is, “What is the good life?”  And like it, “How do I live a good life?”  In my work as a hospital chaplain I have the privilege of serving on our hospital’s Ethics Committee.  The opportunity to explore what is ethical in the context of medical care has given me a framework for exploring what is ethical in other contexts.

There are four ethical principles which inform us in our search for the good.  These four principles are:  autonomy (or the right to self-rule), beneficence (or bringing about a good outcome), non-maleficence (or minimizing harm), and justice (fair and equitable distribution of resources).  Ethical dilemmas arise when two or more of these principles are in tension. 

For example:  If a very wealthy patient comes into the hospital and demands to have a procedure done no matter the cost (the patient is willing to pay out of pocket in full), a procedure which the medical staff deems to come with little to no benefit and a high chance of causing significant harm or suffering, we have an ethical dilemma.  In this scenario, the patient autonomy – the right to decide what happens to their body – is at odds with the principles of both beneficence and non-maleficence.  Because the patient is willing and able to pay for any procedure, justice – as an ethical principle – is not at play in obviously significant way.

As an ethicist, if a consult is requested, I get to hear all sides of the debate and make a recommendation for a course of action that is most ethical.  The surgeon then gets to decide whether or not to follow the recommendations offered.

Much of what we hope to discover and create in the context of religious life and community is another path to answer the question, “What is the good life?” and like it, “How do I or we live a good life?”

In seeking the good life, we often create all kinds of rules about what is permissible and what is not permissible, by whom, and where, and when, and how.  And Jesus was born in to a culture that had a LOT of rules, which we sometimes call Commandments.  We all know the big ten, but there are also an additional 613 commandments found in the Torah – what we know as the first five books of the Old Testaments.  These are made of up of positive commandments (“You shall do x, y, and z”) and negative commandments (“You shall NOT do a, b, and c”). 

All in an attempt to codify living a good life – something which probably seems impossible to do 100% of the time.  We’re only human, after all.  We all make mistakes.

In Joseph Keller’s book, Catch-22, we see reality of impossible situations laid bare.  Set in World War II, on an island in the Atlantic, a group of Army airmen try desperately to get out of flying missions, knowing they will be placed on the most dangerous fronts.  And it is possible to get out of flying missions.  Airmen can be grounded if they are crazy.

There was, however, a catch.  Any man who claimed to be crazy and applied to be grounded demonstrated a rational concern for his safety and could not be deemed unfit to fly.  At the same time, any man who expressed the joyful anticipation of these missions – no matter how dangerous the mission and how crazy the man – was deemed fit to fly because they needed airmen willing to fly the missions.

It was this novel from which the phrase “Catch 22” sprang – a type of unsolvable logic problem.  In psychology, this is known as a double-bind; an emotionally distressing situation in which a person receives two or more conflicting messages, each of which nullifies the others, such that the person receiving the messages will be wrong no matter their response.

This is a dynamic clearly seen in our gospel lesson today. 

Listen, I was a Religious Studies major in undergrad; I went to seminary; I was a leader in an ultra-conservative, bible loving, Evangelical student ministry through college and seminary.  I have read the bible in several contexts at various times in its entirety over the course of studies and ministry.  So, it was with a bit of surprise that I read the scriptures for this week and found myself thinking, “No really, what’s the joke?  Jesus didn’t really say that.  I have absolutely no recollection of reading this passage before.”

“But to what will I compare this generation?  It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn’” (Matthew 11:16-17).

What?  Seriously, I found myself thinking, what does that even mean?  And how have I never read it before!?

I was puzzled by this for a week and as I tried to come up with something relevant to say to all of you today, I just kept coming back to it.  Children.  In the marketplace.  Playing flutes.  No one dancing.  Wailing.  No one mourning.  Something in me couldn’t make sense of it even within the context of the full reading for today.

And then, it struck me.  A double-bind.  A catch-22.  God forgive me the coarseness of the phrase, but I’m sure we’ve all heard it before:  Damned if you do; damned if you don’t.

“We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed for you, and you did not mourn.”  “John the Baptist came neither eating nor drinking, and they say ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man [i.e. Jesus] came eating and drinking , and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’”  Double-binds.

We do one thing, you call us possessed; we do the opposite thing you call us sinful.  Two conflicting messages, each of which nullifies the other, such that the person receiving the messages will be wrong no matter their response.

This, is perhaps, the most important thing we can learn in life:  When we live our lives, no matter how well intentioned, with the purpose of pleasing or satisfying those around us, we generally end up pleasing no one.  We often find ourselves in impossible situations, acting out of our understanding of someone else’s values, failing to live within our own values – often failing to even define our own values.

When we live according to someone else’s values, we often find ourselves caught between two impossible options.  And Jesus tells us there is perhaps a third way.

Because it was never about playing the flute and it was never about mourning.  It was never about fasting and it was never about eating and drinking.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

This strikes me a slight understatement of facts.  Jesus’s personal burden, after all, included crucifixion.   And yet, yokes are created with incredible specificity.  They are not one-size-fits-all.  Yokes, when fitted properly, distribute the weight of the load evenly across the musculature of the wearer and realizes the full potential of the individual to bear the load.  By contrast, a poorly fitted yoke will cause discomfort, open the wearer to potential injury, and limit the potential to bear a load.

I recently experienced this phenomenon myself when buying my first bicycle as an adult.  I found one I liked – the frame material, gearing, and handle bar style all fit what I wanted.  I gave it a test ride and told the salesman it just wasn’t the bike for me.  It wasn’t any fun to ride.  I knew that biking for the first time in 20 years was going to require some effort, and the test ride it was pleasant enough, but it was a lot of work to just scoot down a relatively flat bike path for a quarter mile and back to the shop.

“Let’s give the next size up a try,” the salesman told me.  “Just to make sure.”  I wasn’t sure how I was going to muster the energy for another test ride when the 5 minutes we’d just spent on the first bike had nearly killed me, but I decided to give it a go.

The next size up was a frame that was 2 centimeters larger.  Less than one inch.  Looking at the bikes side-by-side, it was impossible to tell any difference at all.  We jumped headed to the bike path, rode for a mile before he insisted we return to the bike shop.  I felt like I was doing no work whatsoever.  It was amazing.  And it was fun!

And that’s the difference between living according to someone else’s rules and living in accordance with your own values.

To be clear – I am not advocating for throwing out all the rules.  We still have to live with one another.  Basic respect for the dignity of our fellow humans in aspects of life is still a really good thing.  And because we as human beings were created for and must live within communities in order to survive and thrive, being aware, mindful of, and respecting others’ values is pretty important. 

Experts tell us that those who are best at differentiating their selves and their values from the cohesive mindset of group thought are successful only 70% of the time.  We are created for connection – and connection sometimes means watching an action movie on date night when you’d prefer the latest animated Disney film because compromise and a shared experience are more important than getting your own way (which might lead you to sitting in a theater, watching a movie alone).

“To what shall I compare this generation?” Jesus asked.  It pushes and pulls and makes impossible demands.  So, stop working yourselves to death to meet their impossible standards!  Stop.  Rest.  And wear the yoke of your own values – for that will lessen the burden of the load.

And my I suggest today that as we continue in our journeys to live good lives, may we always consider that which:

  • Respects the autonomy of individuals;
  • Seeks to produce a good outcome;
  • Limits the impact of any incidental harm; and
  • Furthers the justice in the fair distribution of God’s resources for all of God’s people

Friday, July 7, 2017


This is a week that has kind of kicked the shit out of me.
I first experienced insomnia at age ten.  Since that time, I have struggled repeatedly – sometimes for days or weeks or even months.  I have come to realize that my insomnia is invariably linked to some experience of boundary violation in the course of relationships.  Today I am unsurprised by the revelation.
There are the things that bring my ten year old self out around the Fourth of July:
When I was ten years old we went on a family vacation some 1,300 miles from home.  It was in the course of this vacation that my father sexually abused me.  We were staying with extended family in various configurations and the night my mother and brothers stayed with her sister, my father stayed with her brother, and my sister and I stayed with our uncle’s estranged wife and two children who were close in age to us.
In the late evening, my father made his way to the house where I was staying and had an affair with my uncle’s soon-to-be ex-wife.  He made certain I saw and heard the whole thing.  I was not able to sleep the entire night.
I tried desperately to hold it in until I dissolved in an emotional meltdown the following afternoon - tears spilling out of me like a tidal wave of grief.  It was late afternoon when I told my mother, sobbing in the backseat of her sister’s car, what I had seen.  That night we sat as a family on the beach, watching the Independence Day fireworks explode over the ocean.
Our vacation was cut short.  The following morning the car was packed with luggage and children.  My parents stood on the front lawn of my grandparents’ house, spitting venom at each other.  “You do know that your daughter saw you, don’t you?” my mother shot at my father.
A tone between cool indifference and pride in a hit that landed well, “Why do you think I did it?  I knew that was what was going to hurt you most,” my father retorted.
I was filled with intense fear.  My father had never really seen me before.  And now he had seen me and I had told.  What would be the punishment for telling?
I was filled with so many feelings.  Horror.  Sadness.  Anger.  Confusion.  What did it all mean?  How does someone do that?
Later Thursday, I remembered the following:
Insult was added to injury when halfway down the Pennsylvania turnpike, my brother grabbed the My Little Pony unicorn toy with which I was playing (Glory – white with purple mane and tail, a shooting star mark on her hindquarters) and threw it out the window.  I screamed for my parents to stop, to go back, to find it.  My father never even tapped the brakes.
When I got home Thursday night, I lay down to rest for a bit as David ran to the office to collect research materials.  I inadvertently fell asleep.  I woke up remembering the following:
Somewhere in Ohio we stopped for dinner.  I slammed the car door in frustration as feelings without names, and too big for my child's body to handle, coursed through me the entire ride home.  The car window slipped off its tracks and fell into the body of the door.  Another layer of protection gone.
Early July temperatures in the Midwest can still get down in the 50s overnight.  This feels particularly cold as the wind whipped about at interstate speeds.  We were all dressed for warm weather, sunshine, and light breezes, not anticipating that we wouldn’t have a barrier of glass between us and the world on the ride home.
Trying to escape the cold wind, my family, the terribleness of the aftermath, to find a place of safety in the midst of it all, I huddled on the floor of the car behind the front passenger's seat. 
I remember the wet ice cascading down my neck, soaking my t-shirt and leaving me chilled to the bone.  My mother, in retaliation for the window, finished her drink from dinner, took the lid off, reached overhead, and dumped the remaining contents of her cup over me, knowing I was huddled there, trying to stay warm.
I had one thought in my mind when I awoke from my nap Thursday evening:
I do not want to know these people.
Later in the evening I realized that there is one word that most adequately sums up my childhood: 

Wednesday afternoon, I curled up in a chair at home to read.  I was feeling particularly low already, what with the week I was having.  Lois settled into the arm of chair to keep me company.  She purred and she purred as she looked at me.
At the thirty-six, I am treated with more compassion, more kindness, and more tenderness by my cranky elderly cat who’s dying of severe kidney disease than I received from my own parents at the age of ten.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

No Blood Sacrifices Required!

In his excellent book, “How to Read the Bible and Still be a Christian,” John Dominic Crossan proposes that the Bible tells us about two distinct Gods: 

One…God is a God of non-violent distributive justice [who expects and commands humans to act in similar fashion….]  The other [,] God is a God of violent retributive justice [who expects and commands humans to act in similar fashion] (18).

Original sin, as Crossan sees it, is not sexual impropriety, but rather escalatory violence.  And we see this escalation of violence in the larger text in which Abraham’s relationship to his sons is found.  When Isaac was born, Abraham had already had a child by his wife, Sarah’s, handmaid Hagar.  That’s child’s name was Ishmael. 

Fearing competition between Ishmael and Isaac for the family inheritance, we read last week that Sarah commanded Abraham to cast Hagar and Ishmael out of their encampment, out of their family, and left them in the wilderness to fend for themselves – the result of which was certain death if not for the intervention of God.  Sarah demanded retributive justice in an effort to protect her son’s inheritance.

From there, the violence escalated.  In today’s text, we read that Abraham took his son Isaac to the land of Moriah where Abraham intended to offer the boy as a burnt offering.  This is the original sin, played out once more, of escalating violence.  We fear scarcity, we cast out that which we find threatening, we seek to destroy that which reminds us of our fears and our failures.

The scriptures record Abraham’s experience – that God spoke to him (without witnesses).  Abraham alone heard God’s call and command for sacrifice.  How often do we hear God’s call in our life?  How often do we explore our experience in the context of God’s non-violent distributive justice and our call to act likewise?

We are given little information in the text as to what is going on for Abraham next.  He is deliberate and methodical in his approach.  He saddles his donkey, he cuts the fire wood, he invites with him two helpers and his son Isaac, and he travels for three days.  These three days are recorded without embellishment or even explanation.  There is no record of conversation or even of Abraham’s thoughts.

Neither are we given the thoughts of his two companions who must recognize wonder what this journey is about.  Neither are we given the thoughts of Isaac who must wonder what is going on.  How far will they travel?  How many days and nights?  What is the purpose of their journey?  Does Isaac know that they will be performing a sacrifice?  If so, has he yet considered the lack of sacrificial animal?  Nothing is given to us as readers.  It is three days of silence – a journey the purpose of which is hidden, kept secret, as though that part of the story was written behind closed doors.

So, they go.  For three days.  This is no accident – that it took three days for Abraham to arrive at the place where he was planning to perform the sacrifice.  Three days is typical motif in the bible and is often a waiting period for the time of appropriate preparation, particularly in Old Testament.

From the beginning, the third day has produced fruit – literally and figuratively.  For on the third day of creation, “The land produced vegetation:  plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds.”  Here, on the third day, Abraham’s escalating violence is about to be met with the non-violent distributive justice of a loving God.  Here on the third day we see juxtaposed what Crossan calls “the normalcy of civilization” against the “radicality of God.”

Civilization has always been about creating structures and strata between people.  One of the hallmarks of civilizations is the social domination by cultural elites.  Within SΓΈren Kierkegaard’s seminal work “Fear and Trembling” we find this truth played out in the dissection of our Old Testament story:

The ethical as such is the universal, and as the universal it applies to everyone, which from another angle means that it applies at all times…  As soon as the single individual asserts himself in his singularity before the universal, he sins, and only by acknowledging this can he be reconciled again with the universal (54).  The story of Abraham contains, then, a … suspension of the ethical.  As the single individual he became higher than the universal (66).

Abraham found himself within a culture that privileged some more than others:  stratified, the elite dominated and oppressed the lower classes – even within the family as Sarah dominated and oppressed her handmaid Hagar and Hagar’s son Ishmael.  The logical extension of a “call” within this stratified context is to normalize this domination and oppression, making violence a matter of divine mandate, believing it just.

This leaves Abraham prey to Original Sin – escalatory violence. 

We humans escalate our violence from ideological through rhetorical to physical violence.  Ideological violence judges certain others to be inhuman, subhuman, and lacking in one’s own humanity.  Rhetorical violence speaks on that presumption by debasing those others with rude names, crude caricatures, and derogatory stereotypes or by excluding them as political “traitors’ or religious “heretics.”  Physical violence, and even lethal violence, acts on those presuppositions either by illegal attack or, if one has attained social power, by official, legal, political action (173).

This is where the radicality of God steps in.  This is where the God of non-violent distributive justice enters the story.  “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him….  And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns.  Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son” (Genesis 22:12-13). 

The biblical God is a god of distributive justice, not a God who calls for the blood sacrifice of children.  The biblical God expects and commands us to act in similar fashion. 

…justice is about the fair distribution of the subject involved.  In the Bible, it is primarily about a fair distribution of God’s world for all of God’s people….  The heart of God’s justice is to make sure that the ‘weak and the orphan’ have received their share of God’s resources for them to live and thrive (17-18).

Ultimately, the story of Abraham and Isaac turned out okay.  For Abraham, it went like gangbusters.  He continued and continues to play a starring role in the Christian faith.  He is mentioned seventy-six times in the New Testament alone – more than half referencing his great faith.  And in Sunday school, generations of kids learn about “Father Abraham” who “had many sons and” the “many sons” who “had Father Abraham.”  God’s non-violent distributive justice will always win out at the end of the day.

Yet, when we decide that some are more worthy than others….  When we hold to ideologies and beliefs that declare some are lacking in our own humanity – that some could not possibly be made in the image of God, like we are….  When we begin to speak from those presumptions and debase with our language those who did not fit our narrative of what it means to be worthy or deserving of the same access to resources that we have….  It is only a matter of time before we enact physical violence.

We fall prey to the same sin that led Abraham to abandon one child to death and to attempt to “sacrifice as a burnt offering” the other.  The God of non-violent distributive justice never demands the blood sacrifice of children.  The Original Sin is the sin of escalatory violence.  Decisions made behind closed doors, decisions which privilege the one over the universal, decisions which demand the blood sacrifice of children – especially by those who proclaim that we are called as a nation by God to live the Christian message – are not of the God of the bible.

Lest we spend or entire sermon today in the New Testament, let us consider for a moment Paul’s reminder to us:  “For the wages of sin is death.”  Escalatory violence always leads to death.

Today then, may we:

Watch our thoughts, for they become words;
Watch our words, for they become actions;
Watch our actions, for they become habits;
Watch our habits, for they become character;
Watch our character; for it becomes our destiny.