Sunday, November 30, 2008

Public Schools, Release Time, and Separation of Church and State

A recent case in Huntington, IN demonstrates the fine line that government and government agencies must tread in an attempting to deal even-handedly with religion. The case in question regards release time from public school for religious education. The issue of release time is an old one, going back many years in American jurisprudence. Release time has both won and lost its day in court, and has been on trial almost more times than one would want to recount.

What release time is all about is allowing children to leave the regular school program, usually for an hour or less a day or week, to receive religious education during school hours. Usually, the children go to a portable trailer or some structure not directly connected to the school. Parental permission must be obtained. A student or parent may decline a child's participation.

At issue in the Huntington case is the use of the school parking lot and electricity. Since these are provided via taxpayer's funds and since taxation is to be conducted for the common good and not sectarian promotion, many find the idea of release time inappropriate. Others find the notion a school even making religious instruction available during school time to be a tacit endorsement of a particular religion on the school's part.

Although conservative Christian parents may point out that attendance is voluntary and that their children have a "right" to a religious education, it begs the question: Why on school and time (and possibly property or expense)? It's like the old "prayer in school deal." Why should a time to pray be officially recognized by schools when students can pray in school virtually anytime they want? If religious organizations are so keen on offering religious education to kids, why not offer it when school is not in session? Are they afraid that, given the choice between free time and religion, parents and kids will opt for free time? Is it a case of trying to "make" kids be religious? If it is so important to parents, why do they not see to it that kids receive religious education outside of school?

Schools walk a fine line. They are government agencies, and as such they are not in the religion business. On the other hand, religion is a very real part of society and culture. As such, schools should teach plenty ABOUT religion, but nothing about HOW to be religious, whether in a school building or in a trailer in the parking lot.

Friday, November 28, 2008

A Law Against Helping the Homeless?

In Brookville, PA, the First Apostle's Doctrine Church has open the parsonage to the homeless for the past several years.  The church is located about 80 miles from Pittsburgh.  Why does the church do this?  The pastor states that the church is attempting to following the Bible's teachings concerning the Christian responsibility to care for the poor, needy, and homeless. That would seem like a laudable goal.  If the church doesn't "step up to the plate" and help the homeless, who is going to do it?

It seems as if the city fathers don't agree.  The borough recently cited the congregation for zoning violations.  Although the church had been offering this service for some years, the city decided they had had enough.

Amazing.  In this time of economic upheaval and increasing homelessness, a city government would actually take away the only opportunity that some folks might have to find relief from the elements and perhaps a hot meal.

Still, this is nothing new.  I have seen battles in my own community over this very concern. Neighborhoods are concerned about safety.  While we must grant that the homeless certainly have an inordinate share of "problem people"-- many mentally ill (remember the Reagan Administrations little gift of dumping the very sick out on the streets in the 80's?), we are faced with the problem of what we are going to do with these folks?  I don't know about you, but I'm only stay a paycheck or two ahead of being broke myself.  What if we were in their shoes?  It's not impossible, you know (think economics-- think Great Depression).

It's been popular to ask, "What would Jesus do?"  If that is not just so much rhetoric, maybe it is time to ask.  What would he do?  (Matthew 25-- hint)

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Should Abortion be a Universal Human Right? Who is Really "Pro-life?"

I noted in my local newspaper that a Swedish feminist political party, known as the Feminist Initiative Party, is making a push for the EU to recognize abortion as a universal human right. This is a bold step.  Although it merited reporting in the international press, I would predict that the identification of abortion as a universal human right on a par with clean water or access to medical care (which the US unfortunately does not view as a right) has a very long "row to hoe."  Many European governments, while not outright banning abortion, make obtaining an abortion difficult.

We live in a very "label challenged" world.  Those who are inclined to make abortion generally easy and universally available (and sometimes paid for by the government) usually adopt the title "pro-choice."  Yet, when I listen to the pro-choice rhetoric, I really don't hear "pro-choice." What I hear is "pro-abortion"-- vehement and angry.  Still, that side of the debate, generally opposes capital punishment, supports social welfare programs, agitates for famine relief in Africa, and a whole slue of worthy positions.

The other side, the so-called "pro-life" are not really pro-life-- at least not all the way.  What they want is a legal remedy putting and end to abortion.  I don't think things are quite that simple.  Abortion was a major issue for 20% or less of the overall US electorate in the 2008 presidential election.  Further, this side overwhelmingly supports capital punishment, the Iraq War, very limited social programs.  I would hardly call their views consistent with the moniker "pro-life."

Let's get real.  I think abortion, in most cases, is morally wrong.  Still, I don't think that, after all of these years of legal abortion, making abortion illegal will result in anything but civil disobedience and outright "revolution" of a sort.  If one really wants to stop the tide of abortion, it would seem to me that enacting laws and social policies-- including incentives to give birth to an unwanted child-- would be the path to take.

Finally, let pro-life truly be PRO-LIFE.  Yet us stand for life and see that any attitude or action that diminishes life contributes to a death culture.  Those truly pro-life need to refuse the violence of the War, denounce capital punishment, lobby for children's and parent's health care and a livable wage, and act in life-affirming ways in all they do.  Any death-affirming policies diminish all of us.  It strikes a blow against the power of life-- strong though fragile as it is.  Let pro-life be pro-life indeed!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Education Reform, NCLB, the Religious Right, and Other (sometimes) Scary Stuff

One reads a great deal concerning education reform nowadays. It might almost seem as if this were some new trend in education. Indeed, it is not. I have been an educator for over thirty years. My field of expertise is reading. After teaching in a regular elementary classroom for a couple of years, I completed a master's degree in reading and learning disabilities. Except for a five year break to attend seminary and serve as a full time minister, I have been a teacher of elementary reading. In 1995, I completed a doctorate in reading/educational psychology. At that point, I began teaching reading methods in a college setting.

Over my thirty years of involvement in education, I have seen many, many reforms. Some have come from the right, others from the left. In the field of reading, when I began my teaching, basal reading programs were in, and we attempted to teach every skill known to humanity. Next, whole language gained quite a following. Next, an oldie, but a popular one, reappeared: phonics. Now we are emphasizing a balanced approached-I think that is likely a step in the right direction.

We can easily extend this discussion beyond the boundaries of reading. When I started attending elementary school in 1960, math was a "drill and kill" activity. The expectation was learning of the basic math facts and procedures whether you understood them or not. It is rather easy to see if you learned under this method. Just attempt to explain "conceptually" why 1/2 divided by 4 is 1/8, and why to arrive at that one must "invert and multiply." I am surprised at how many cannot explain the multiplication and division of fractions at the conceptual level.

When I was about half way through my elementary school education, the so-called "new math" hit the educational world. I remember well spending most of my fourth-grade year (when it started in Kansas City) marking that 5 + 2 > 1 + 3. I liked this math. I was not too good at the old stuff, and I found this a breeze.

People become very opinionated about educational reform. I have seen many a battle over the issue of whole language vs. phonics. It seems like everyone gets involves. Classroom teachers form strong opinions. Politicians form strong opinions and include reform as part their political platform. They know education is a hot button issue with voters. One group that I watch with great diligence is the religious right. It seems as if they have turned such aspects of educational reform as phonics-based reading instruction and support for the No Child Left Behind Act into something resembling religious dogma. It seems to make little sense, turning reading methods into a religious or quasi-religions crusade, but that is what the leaders of the religious right seem committed to support (James Dobson, for example).

I reiterate: educational reform is not new. With that notion disposed of, I would like to suggest three principles of any lasting and useful educational reform. These are characteristics of reform supported over the long haul by much research and dictated by commonsense. I have arrived at these through observation of reform cycles that I have seen throughout my years of work as an educator.

First, education reform cannot be test-driven. Currently, the watchword is accountability. From this perspective, teachers are cagey, lazy actors who need to have their feet held to the fire to make them perform. I have observed thousands of teachers over the years, worked with thousands of pre-service teachers, and supervised well over a hundred student teachers. I must admit, one does rarely encounter a lazy, careless teacher, but it is unusual. The attempt to control teachers and student achievement by means of standardized tests is a misguided approach.

A recent study by the Educational Testing Service, makers of the SAT and nationally used teacher certification exams, revealed that there is much in student performance that cannot be controlled by schools. In fact, ETS discovered four variables: absenteeism, the percent of children living in single parent families, the amount of television kids watch, and how much preschoolers are read to daily by caregivers (especially parents) were very accurate predictors of reading test results used for No Child Left Behind reporting in eighth-grade. It seems that learning involves many variables (the four factors accounted for over two-thirds of the differences in aggregated state testing results). Home factors are things that schools and teachers cannot control.

Instead of testing and testing yet more, a better use of funding would be the improvement of conditions for parents and families. Funding Head Start results in a measurable increase in IQ scores for disadvantaged children. Why not continue to fund enriched environments for Head Start children when they leave the program and help retain ground already gained? Why not fund more "parents as first teachers" programs to go into the homes and teach parents how to help get their preschoolers ready for school? Why not spend more money eradicating poverty-especially since that seems to be the real issue?

Second, an effective reform program would insist on scope and sequence. By scope, I refer to the content taught, by sequence, I refer to when content is to be mastered. This was one of the downfalls of the whole language movement. It taught reading without any real coordination of materials, curriculum, or expectations for mastery in terms of when expected benchmarks should be met. Much more coordination of teaching needs to take place and curriculum guides and agreed upon content are essential.

At the same time, I am not implying that methodology needs to be completely standardized. There needs to be some general guidelines on how to go about doing things. Still, teaching is as much art as science. To address methodology too much turns teaching into a mechanical act, and we know that the relationship, or blending, of teacher and learner are all important concepts. What we need are standards and benchmarks without denying teachers the authority to make hundreds and thousands of critical decisions each day. What we need are flexible standards and flexible benchmarks.

Lastly, we need a new way of doing things. After all of the years of reform, after all the years of researching what works, an amazing trend is notable. Educational critic and researcher, John Goodlad, notes that the most common activity one observes in today's elementary schools is seatwork (i.e. worksheets, quiet work from textbooks, etc). The most common activity noted in high schools is lectures. Both of these approaches are notoriously ineffective. Just consider lectures, for example, how often do you "zone out" during sermons? And, if you do attend, what keeps you "plugged in?"

We have lost the wisdom shared with us by John Dewey so many years ago and supported by study after study. Children learn best by doing. Kids need to make a classroom democracy, not just study government in their civics textbook. They need to come up with ways they can recycle and begin a neighborhood recycling program, not just read about pollution. Education needs to become real. The real is better than the contrived. As psychologist Jerome Bruner has pointed out, doing is better than seeing, and seeing is better than just reading or hearing about something. Probably the best approach combines all three methods.

Reforms come and go. However, on these three principles, we can arrive at a reform that will stand the test of time. All of us want our schools to improve. Isn't it time to skip the political rhetoric of the right (including the religious right) and the left and do what is best for kids? Isn't it about time?

Friday, November 21, 2008

Don't Confuse Faith and Knowledge-- They Simply Aren't the same!

When I was a seminarian, one of my professors was fond of reminding us that the Bible was "a book about how to go to heaven, not a book about how the heavens go." That was many years ago, and it was a transition time in my life. Having been raised in a fundamentalist church, I "chucked it all" when I entered high school. It wasn't long until I was fully caught-up in the tail end of the hippie movement, already petering out in the late 60's and early 70's. When I was still in high school, my dad, who was born in 1909, had taken all of the hair, rock and roll, political rebellion, and drug trips he could endure. He wanted me out. At age fifteen, I was kicked out of my parents home. Really, I was quite happy about the arrangement. Home was entirely too square. I lived for some time by panhandling, mooching, stealing, and getting stoned. I really was having a good time. Then, I encountered something new, the Jesus Freaks. Theses folks were just as fundamentalist as the church of my childhood, but they still managed to remain hip.

It is a long story, but I recognized they had something I wanted: certainty. Events went from there into a happy fundamentalist oblivion for the next several years. But, in the back of my mind I was always haunted by the question, "How do you know?" The answer was supplied by fundamentalist leaders. I knew that I knew that I knew because the Bible said so, or as a popular bumper sticker had it, God said it! I believe it! That settles it! The Bible became the court of no appeals. If the Bible said it, it must be true. That worked pretty well until I got to college. Then other notions came my way that made that approach appear as circular thinking. They were notions that made sense to me. I tried to talk it over with our leaders. They told me, "Believe your beliefs and doubt your doubts." It didn't help much.

Eventually, I arrived at the point that I was rapidly losing all faith. Then a revelation came to me. There are two ways of knowing. One way is by means of our senses and investigation. This is the way of science. That is "true" which can be empirically proven to be true. We live in a world of observation. The Bible is full of stories about the sea parting, the sun standing still (as if it moved), a fingerless hand writing on a wall, a worldwide flood in which one guy and his family, out of all the people in the world, and two of each kind of animal, escape on a boat, people living to be 900 years old and much, much more. Yet, no one can claim to have observed any of these things in reality. We are left with two choices: These things used to happen but no longer occur, or these things never really happened at all. Compare these stories to the religious myths of ancient Israel's surrounding neighbors, and you will discover they are full of similar, but different, impossible stories.

My conclusion about it all is that the Bible stories, likewise, are myths, intending to convey a point, and largely irrelevant when it comes to teaching about science, cosmology, or unbiased history. There is a second way to know truth. It is through the myths. Myth is an avenue of truth. But it is different from observational truth. Is it just "play" truth? No. I would argue that the ancient myths of the Bible are "super truth." They contain truth that will endure long after today's factual news is forgotten (as history bears out).

In Michael Shermer's book, Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design, Shermer cites research concerning the beliefs of Americans relative to creation and evolution. Reading his data, I would say Americans are rather evenly divided on the issue of natural selection vs. creation. This is interesting, since the weight of evidence is heavily in favor of some variety of evolution. As he points out, the US is the only industrialized western society where this is really an issue any longer. To what do we attribute this? Isn't all about a basic confusion and fear? It is about confusion because many Americans seem to have been taught that the Bible is indeed "a book about how the heavens go." It is based in fear because fundamentalist religious leaders have led the faithful to believe that if the Bible is anything less than factually true in all it proclaims, it is completely untrustworthy. It is a sad state of affairs. We are called upon to depart from commonsense and live in a world of make-believe. This leads to other problems. Seeing the Bible as absolute in all it affirms for all times and places leads to intolerance, bigotry, homophobia, sexism, xenophobia, and yet more fear of diversity. In our modern world, it is a price society can no longer afford to pay.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Atonement Story # 2

Here's Another version:

Story # 1...

God made people. God said, “Take care of things down here on the earth. Have a good time. But what ever you do, don’t go eating THOSE apples! If you do, you’ll die!”

The two young lovers had a great time gardening until one day they decided that MAYBE, God had misled them a bit about the apples. So they thought they’d just take a bite.

Boy! Was God mad! God was so mad that God said, “I’ve got to kill them both or the whole of creation will come unglued. They broke the rules. That means I must kill them. Probably have to torment them forever to restore balance to the universe too.”

But God is kind of soft hearted (although God already knew that all of this stuff was going to happen and already knew that God was going to be soft hearted). God said, “I love them too much to kill them, so I’ll come down to where they live as a human. I’ll still be God. I’ll be perfect. Since I’m going to be a perfect human as well as true God, I’ll kill myself in their place. I’ll die and they’ll go free. It is the ONLY way to make amends for breaking the laws I’ve given them. If they will accept this swap, I’ll cut them loose from the penalty they owe.

Story # 2...

My dad really loves me. He is a well known and prominent community leader. But, let’s say that I don’t go his way. Nope, I get a tattoo, put an earring in my tongue, and join a rap group. I get caught up in sex and drugs.

I steal $30,000 from my dad’s safe for drugs. Then, I get busted for possession. It hits all of the papers. Dad is really embarrassed, not to mention the loss of a considerable amount of hard earned money.

First offense, so I get probation on the drug charge. I’m living with my friends, depressed, angry, and lonely. This was not how I was raised by my loving, kind father. I am estranged from him.

One day, dad calls in tears. He says that he wants me to come home, to start again. But I am ashamed. I’ve ripped him off and I’ve brought dishonor to the family name (which I know means a lot to him). He says he doesn’t care. He will accept the loss of the money. He will accept and deal with the shame. All I have to do is accept his gift of forgiveness.

I’m not sure. If I accept the gift, I’m admitting that dad is right about how to live and that I’ve blown it. I have to admit that I have been in the wrong, that I’ve wronged him and that I need his forgiveness. I have to admit that the only way to get right is by the actions he takes. In his forgiving, in any forgiving, there is pain. The pain we cause others, the pain we cause “our DAD,” and the pain we cause ourselves

My dad could turn me over to the cops for taking what is rightfully his. He could forget about me and let me rot with my friends. But he takes the initiative as well as the pain and offers to set me free. But for the forgiveness to be complete, I have a part. I must admit my wrong and need. I must accept the gift.

Which version speaks to you?

Monday, November 17, 2008

Two Stories of the Atonement

Two stories which do you like best?

Story # 1...

God made people. God said, “Take care of things down here on the earth. Have a good time. But what ever you do, don’t go eating THOSE apples! If you do, you’ll die!”

The two young lovers had a great time gardening until one day they decided that MAYBE, God had misled them a bit about the apples. So they thought they’d just take a bite.

Boy! Was God mad! God was so mad that God said, “I’ve got to kill them both or the whole of creation will come unglued. They broke the rules. That means I must kill them. Probably have to torment them forever to restore balance to the universe too.”

But God is kind of soft hearted (although God already knew that all of this stuff was going to happen and already knew that God was going to be soft hearted). God said, “I love them too much to kill them, so I’ll come down to where they live as a human. I’ll still be God. I’ll be perfect. Since I’m going to be a perfect human as well as true God, I’ll kill myself in their place. I’ll die and they’ll go free. It is the ONLY way to make amends for breaking the laws I’ve given them. If they will accept this swap, I’ll cut them loose from the penalty they owe.

Story number two in two days! Come back and read it!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Isn't it Odd?

Isn't it Odd...

Isn't it odd...

  • That although the relationship of Christ to the church is often likened to a marriage in the Bible, people continue to view God as demanding their love? No one would want to marry a person who said "Love me and marry me or I'll kill you." Or, "If you don't marry me, I torment you forever." I asked Irene to marry me because of a deep abiding love for her. Still, I wouldn't have wanted her to agree to marry me if she did not freely choose to. We marry for love and because we want to spend our life with the object of our affections. We fall in love because of the tenderness, kindness, and respect of the other. We marry because we want to; because we want to spend our life with the other, not because he or she demands it. Isn't it odd that we are better lovers than God?

  • That although Paul says love does not keep a record of wrongs and Jesus tells us to love our enemies, do good to them, and treat them kindly, because this is being perfect like the Father in heaven, God is exempt from all of this? Isn't it odd that God requires us to be more loving than God is?

  • That we are told that God is love and that love is defined very plainly in the Bible (1 Cor. 13) as being humble, kind, caring, forever enduring, thinking the best of others, patient, and merciful, and, yet, God violates virtually every principle defined there?

  • That a parent would never consider killing his/her child for a wrong done and that we are encouraged to discipline them for their own good, but God will assign a person to eternal perdition for one (any) blunder? Isn't it odd that we are better, kinder parents than God is, although Jesus calls us evil parents and parents that fall far short of the Heavenly Parent?

  • That there is not a just judge on earth who would consider it justice to impose the death penalty on a brother or parent in place of the guilty party, but God calls that justice?

  • That we would never impose the death penalty on a child for stealing a cookie, but the merciful God Almighty does?

  • That Christians who believe the penalty for sin is annihilation or hell say that Jesus paid the debt. Why then do they celebrate his resurrection when the penalty he must pay is an eternal one?

  • That Jesus would die for our sins and yet kill us for them?

Now, I know some will say, "What about this Bible verse?" I can quote Bible verses too. In 1654, George Fox wrote, "No creature can read the scriptures to profit thereby, but who come to the Light and Spirit that gave them forth." No one can correctly understand the Bible apart from the character of God. This was shown forth most clearly in Christ on the cross. As Paul says, "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself..." Christ's act was to show God's love to the world, not to appease a hate-filled God.

We all have the same Bible. Why then do some see love, and others wrath? A simple story may sum-up the point well. I never believed chiropractors could solve any problems, but once I went to one out of desperation. As we discussed chiropractic, he told me that he had used many of the same texts as medical doctors in chiropractic college. "How could that be?" I asked. "The ideas of chiropractic are very different then those of conventional medicine." "We do use many of the same books," he assured me. "I guess it depends on how you read them!"

Isn't it odd...?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Perspectives on Spititual Direction

The purpose of this posting is to offer a reflective review and analysis of two books by Margaret Guenther, The Practice of Prayer (1998), and Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction, (1992) . I think it proper to begin with an observation that applies to Guenther’s books in particular. In no way can I say that I have encountered a satisfactory definition of the term spiritual direction. I am left with the sense that it is a bit like quality art. We cannot really define it, but we know it when we see it. Is that satisfying? No.

Nevertheless, after reading the books and considering the evidence, I must admit it to be the case. When Guenther struggles to convey what she speaks of when talking of spiritual direction, she is not playing semantic games. It is an enterprise (?) truly defying definition. She is clear that spiritual direction is not psychoanalysis. It is not pastoral counseling. It does partake of characteristics of both. Yet, it is different. Guenther stakes out her ground on this when she speaks of the role of self-disclosure in spiritual direction.

After carefully reading both books, I think that I would define spiritual direction as listening to and helping to create a story. The role of story seems to jump off the page and encounters me as a very necessary and central element in spiritual direction. It is the role of the spiritual director to help the directee tell his/her story. In fact, if I understand where Guenther is coming from on this one, the director becomes a very real and essential part of the story himself. He or she has a role to play in moving the story of faith along.

Another image that comes to mind is that of the Bedouin rover in the story of the patriarchs. They are always on the move. From the start, however, where they are moving to is quite another matter all together. It appears that it is the journey more than the destination that spiritual direction is concerned with. In that respect, it is about caravanning together.

Therefore, what then, is spiritual direction presented as something directionless? Hardly. It is a missional activity that concerns itself with the journey into ever greater wholeness (sozo=salvation). It is the task of the spiritual director to listen carefully and sense when the story of salvation in any individual life is at a pivotal point. When is a new phase on the horizon? In dealing with simplicity and prayer, Guenther moves our attention to the transitory nature of this life as a motivation to simplify. We are all going down that same road.

In terms of a listening spiritual director and a movement onward, this aspect of my life and future is not far from me. Being in the throes of midlife as I am, I think that a proper listening to my story needs to hear the echoes of anxiety, and meaninglessness, and fear that realization often engenders. That is my pivotal point in many ways. I look back, question the worth of it all, and wonder what and how much lies ahead. This type of careful listening is at the heart of holy listening. We all need someone who can listen to us carefully and discover where that cutting edge of growth is for each of us today.

There can be no canned program of holy listening. Spiritual direction is always individual. It is always the unique story that we are all writing at any given time. For aFor many the great difficulty is right here. We cannot focus enough to listen meaningfully to another. We are just too preoccupied with our own agendas and concerns. As our minds drift, and our concerns move away from the setting, we may encounter serious problems. We might lose sight of the journey. Or, we might embellish what is said with our own undisciplined agendas. While a director will surely share his or her own journey from time to time, the focus must be on the one who has come seeking direction. This can be a well-neigh impossible task for some of us. We are just entirely too self absorbed.

Under the rubric of listening, it is helpful to consider Guenther’s notion of spiritual direction as a teaching event and of the spiritual director as teacher. This is very near to my heart. I am a professor, an education professor to be precise. I spend my days teaching pre-service teachers the intricacies of pedagogy. I am constantly reminding them there are two sides to teaching. There is that aspect of teaching which is rightly the domain of science. In this, I wish them their practice informed by research. There has been considerable research into best practice. Best practice might be defined as those practices that teachers engage in standing solidly on the bedrock of science. Best practice derives from meta-analyses of many studies- high quality studies. The conclusions are rather in the undeniable category. Few would disagree about such practices. Yet, for all of the textbooks on teaching, it seems that consistent, widely applicable evidence exists only for nine or ten practices. Of course, these practices are hugely important to teachers. They are well established and we ignore them at our peril.

Likewise, there appears to be a science to spiritual direction. The fact of such a book as Guenther’s on spiritual direction demonstrates that things having been learned over the years by trial and error are proven to possess wide application. The same may be said of prayer. In The Practice of Prayer (1998), Guenther provides information on methods, history, effectiveness, and so on. These things speak of science, of experimentation, of trial and error.

If the science is any good, it must be applicable. It must have application that transcends the one synthesizing the knowledge. If the science is worthwhile, it will bear the scrutiny of repeated testing and experimentation. If this science is useful, it should be able to contribute to a general theory of spiritual direction or prayer. That is indeed the case. Once again, the mere presence of books about prayer and spiritual direction indicate something of a universal nature is distillable.

However, I always tell my students there is another part to teaching. That part is pure art. It is not possible to ‘can it’, sell it, nor distill it. It cannot be set forth in ‘easy to follow’ steps. Here, we are in an entirely different domain. We are sloshing around in murky, mysterious, uncharted territory.

As a teacher educator, a teacher of pre-service teachers, I believe that I can teach the science to those who will apply themselves to learn. However, I cannot teach the art of the teacher. That seems to be something that one just ‘has’ or does not ‘have’. I cannot begin to count how many student teachers I have supervised that, finally, could not teach. They had excelled when I had them in my classes. They all showed promise. Nevertheless, the spark, the art, just was not there. Many have gone on to be teachers, principals, and superintendents. However, they never really had the art that engenders greatness. They lack the flow of creativity. The love, and hate and passion I might add, are missing. Art is not teachable. One may improve art-- if one already possesses it. It may be shaped, guided, and molded. Nevertheless, it is not something created. It is a gift.

I think that spiritual direction is like that. We can learn the science. We might get the highest grade on the test in Spiritual Direction 101 and still not work as effective directors. I think I might be in this category. I know lots about history and facts about spiritual formation. What I lack is that ‘something’ I find when I am talking with my spiritual director.

Guenther is right to make a distinction between spiritual direction and pastoral care and counseling. I am very good at those things. They are more directive, goal oriented, and often more short term. I do well at this because I am adept at pastoral psychology and truly care about folks. However, direction requires a perceptiveness I lack. It calls for a listening I cannot provide. It asks for a detachment (Guenther talks about this in some manner throughout) into which I cannot tap. I do not believe that all pastors are spiritual directors. I am aware that Peterson sees that as a main task of the pastor (see Working the Angles, 1987). I think his statements on this topic placed side by side with Guenther’s views on direction are very instructive at this point.

How? Simply by the way that the topic is approached. Guenther is much more in the tradition of the classical spiritual director. This is apparent when she cites so many examples from the classical forms of prayer in The Practice of Prayer (1998). Peterson seems to me to be speaking more of mentoring. At the heart of mentoring is friendship, respect, and mutual accountability (at least that is often the case). In the classic idea of direction, one must approach some relationship in ways that are reminiscent of asceticism. I do not see how anyone could really deny that Guenther is more in the tradition of the desert while Peterson is more in the tradition of a cup of coffee at Denny’s. My distinction may well be semantic, but it certainly works for me.

The art and science distinction loses something when it comes to prayer considered as something separated from direction. We all pray, in some manner. We see many types of prayers in the New Testament and maybe even more in the Old Testament. There is no real indication that effectiveness depends on the criteria of spiritual direction as stated here. Prayer is a discipline. As a discipline, it responds to scientific inquiry. However, it is also the desperate cry of the heart in a time of need. At those times, both art and science go ‘out the window’ and necessity says it all. God promises to hear. There has been far too much written in an attempt to make prayer into some sort of science. I think we can speak of the discipline of prayer in scientific terms. But the prayer of necessity? The prayer that is the cry of the heart? That prayer transcends any categories we may choose to apply to it.

It is clear when Guenther writes of prayer; she does so in the same vein (i.e. The science of prayer) that she applies to direction. The notion of the director as a teacher is a helpful one. In fact, I would venture to say that preaching is also an educational activity. In that respect, both spiritual direction and preaching are concerned with proclamation. They are concerned with spreading the good news of salvation, wholeness. One works through a proclamation of immediacy. The other works through discipline.

In The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning (Kurtz & Ketcham, 1992), the topic of transformation as a process is addressed using the overall framework of Alcoholics Anonymous. One might argue that such a departure from the Christian tradition brings an element into discussion here that is out of place. Still, there is a wide tradition of spirituality from the educative direction. In 1902, James (1902/1962) articulated the varieties of conversion experiences. While noting that many are not of the ‘evangelical’ type, James does effectively delineate an experience of conversion that is more of an educative nature. Certainly, even those conversions that are dramatic and direct, such as that of Augustine, often contain a long educative process.

Applied to the spiritual director, we catch a glimpse of a conversion of an ongoing nature. It is the task of the director to use the science of direction, applied artfully, to achieve the desired objective: The transformation of the person.

Perhaps there is no time when a director is necessary more than those times when we must pray through devastation and desperation. In those times when God is conspicuous in his absence, the director’s task is to remind the directee that God is not truly absence. When God seems to have us on hold, we need someone whom we can tell of our aloneness without fear of being overridden. By the simple act of listening, a spiritual director can validate our feelings. In that respect, the director must often be detached and able to separate her agenda from the direction session.

My director tells me that she long ago discovered that one must talk at the feeling level if spiritual direction is to be of much use. My wife and I were presenters with United Marriage Encounter for several years. One of the points we always try to make when dealing with couples is ‘feelings are not right or wrong; they just are’. Since almost all of us tend to attach morality to feelings, where the attachment doesn’t fit, instead of boldly confronting when needed about actions and decision, where morality does fit, I firmly believe most of us would make poor spiritual directors.

There is a sense in which a spiritual director often fulfills the role of confessor. That is necessary and proper. Guenther describes a director sufficiently dispassionate that s/he can take in the feelings that make us human. This includes the pleasant nice feelings (of course, that is not so because feelings are amoral), but also the ugly and the frightening (or so we view them). She mentions the need to avoid being shocked. This is difficult but necessary if we are to validate the directee. Of course, this is ‘easier said than done’.

When you get down to it, about everything discussed in this posting is far ‘easier said than done’. I certainly do not believe that the completion of a program in spiritual direction will likely create a spiritual director. It is hardly that simple.

Maybe Guenther said it all in the title of her book. Spiritual direction is holy listening. Like all holy activities it deserves due reverence. As such, it is high calling. I do not think that a soul is a trinket to be trifled with. Jesus placed supreme value on the one lost sheep—the one lost soul. A spiritual director’s calling is to seek and be sought. It is a missional, outreaching task. I think it is something we all need. Maybe most of us just do not know it. We need a director to come along side, disclosing of him/herself as appropriate, and join our journey is a great gift.

For many the great difficulty is right here. We cannot focus enough to listen meaningfully to another. We are just too preoccupied with our own agendas and concerns. As our minds drift, and our concerns move away from the setting, we may encounter serious problems. We might lose sight of the journey. Or, we might embellish what is said with our own undisciplined agendas. While a director will surely share his or her own journey from time to time, the focus must be on the one who has come seeking direction. This can be a well-neigh impossible task for some of us. We are just entirely too self absorbed.


Guenther, M. (1992). Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction. Boston: Cowley.

___________ (1998). The Practice of Prayer. Boston: Cowley.

James, W. (1902/1961). The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Collier.

Kurtz, E. & Ketcham, K. (1992). The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning. New York: Bantam.

Peterson, E. (1987). Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity. Grand Rapids: Eerdsmans.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Why Fundamentalists Insist on Making Us All Righteous (no matter what we want!)

I wrote this some months back-- before the elections. Since I am "putting it in the que" for Nov. 7, and today is Oct. 31, I do not know who has won. It may seem a bit dated, but the major premise remains. One might view it as a bit of a retrospect...

Another election year. It is a time when our country has the opportunity to go in a different direction or stay on the same well-worn path. Too many years of neo-con philosophy. Too many years of the failed policies of George Bush. We have seen our nation led down the path to economic collapse. We have seen our country led into a war costing thousands of American lives and (by conservative estimates) tens of thousands of Iraqi civilian lives on the basis of sloppy intelligence at best and lies at worst. We have seen a lack of concern for the "common people" and tax breaks and economic advantage for the rich. We have seen the decline of America's public schools and the use of public funds to support private and religious schools.

A large part of the Republican base is made up of social conservatives. A large segment of social conservatives are found among the ranks of the Christian Right. The Christian Right is mainly comprised of fundamentalists and evangelicals. Therein lies much of the Republican base. The power of fundamentalism in our nation is real. As a voting block, evangelicals and fundamentalists are a force to be reckoned with. The Southern Baptist Convention alone represents nearly seventeen million members. Currently, members of fundamentalist denominations and churches outnumber those of the traditional mainline churches such as Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and the Disciples of Christ. Liberal and moderate voters ignore the Christian Right to their peril.

Fundamentalists are, unfortunately and surprisingly, rather deceptive. They have tried such tricks as voting in the Democratic primaries, though the GOP is without a doubt the party of the righteous faithful. They vote in the Democratic race and support the candidate they think is least likely to win in November. Another deception is to push the emotion buttons related to gay marriage and abortion. While they do so, they are well aware (they must be) that many thousands innocent civilian lives are being lost in a war initiated and prosecuted by a Republican administration, the darling of the Christian Right. Where is the concern for life so vocally proclaimed, as is the case with abortion? Granted, the unborn are important, but what about the "already born?" Our righteous friends will fight to preserve traditional marriages and traditional families while those they support put forth policies that make it difficult for such families to make ends meet.

One must admit; some of what they have achieved is a stroke of genius. Why do they do it? Very simply, they must work to make America a "godly nation" (as if it ever was). Fundamentalists and evangelicals are compelled to see to it that we collectively walk the "sawdust trail." It is a matter of duty. They must save us. Further, they are the representatives of God to save a corrupt American society. That is their task. It is their understanding of the Great Commission. They are not satisfied to "Go and make disciples of all nations." They must make fundamentalist disciples. So, by hook or by crook, they must make us all righteous. That applies to politics as well.

Many, if not most, fundamentalist churches distribute "so-called" unbiased voter guides. These guides aim to show which candidates will support fundamentalist causes. This ranges from school board member (or maybe dog catcher) right on to the highest office in the land. This time though, it may backfire. The neo-cons and the Christian Right have had their way for eight years. It hasn't been a pretty sight. They have had their day and rather made a mess of things. In addition, I sincerely doubt they have succeeded in making many of us more moral. Fundamentalists cannot take no for an answer, but many Americans are tired of being lied to, bullied, and misled.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

How I Left Fundamentalism-- Part 4

The last part of the story (that I'm telling here!)...

Done (almost) in a sentence

That led to a search. I began to investigate various denominations and their views of these things. I wrote dozens of letters, spent hours in the library, and read many books. I did not have to look far. I discovered the Mennonite Church held views concerning the Bible and non-violence similar to mine. That culminated in my awakening one Sunday morning and announcing to Irene that she did not have to come, but I was going to the Mennonite church down the road. She came, but reluctantly.

It was an easy transition because this Mennonite church decided to organize into small fellowship groups (termed “D” groups, or “discussion” groups), and it was largely Charismatic (neo-Pentecostal). We soon fit right in. We got very involved, and, after a time, I began to lead a small group. Then, the final event occurred. As I talked with the associate pastor one day, concerning something in the Bible, he announced he did not believe all of the Bible was historically, factually true. I heard my voice say, “Neither do I.” Then I was out. No longer was I an absolutist.

I wish that was the final happy conclusion to the story, but as we have discovered, leaving is hard. I enrolled in seminary. There I learned to question. I did question. I did think. Then I would get scared. A voice would say, “You’re not supposed to question.” Again and again, I had to remind myself I was no longer an absolutist. I had “been there and done that,” and I knew it no longer worked for me.

I served as pastor sharing my time between a Mennonite Church and a Church of the Brethren congregation (also a peace church) while attending seminary. However, I missed the closeness of the subculture. I started searching for that sense of camaraderie I shared as an absolutist. I aligned myself with the Charismatic (neo-Pentecostal) Movement in the Church of the Brethren but soon found them too absolutist for my liking. After my ordination in the Church of the Brethren, I began my full-time pastorate in Virginia; I affiliated with a conservative group trying to get the Brethren back on a path they thought they had forsaken. To me, that was the path of peace and community. However, it did not work. I could not accept the hellfire view of things anymore.

Frustrated, I resigned my ordination after a few years. There was anything wrong with the Brethren. The Church of the Brethren is a superb denomination with a long and honorable history. I was simply a victim of my absolutist past. I began looking for Christians who practiced community. I missed that close-knit subculture so much at times that it hurt. In the midst of our deciding to leave the Brethren, Irene and I visited with the Bruderhof community, an Anabaptist, peace oriented, communal denomination that holds all property in common. Irene found them too rigid and regimented in their lifestyles.

After a time I (we) joined the Seventh-day Adventist Church. I stayed with it for ten years. I even taught in the SDA school system, as did Irene. Still, the literal approach to the Bible kept smacking me in the face. (This is not to say anything negative about individual SDA’s. I must say virtually all my close Adventist friends are true free thinkers) They were non-combatants, but they rarely said anything concerning non-violence. In addition, I was back to the flat Bible. It just was not going to work for me.

For a bit, we attended an evangelical mega-church. The music was great, but they lacked the subculture of the Adventists. I began to get tired. I had lost the faith of absolutism. I did not miss the wackiness I experienced as a result of the subculture’s beliefs. I missed the closeness I experienced in the subculture (this is something most folks who attend mainline churches—and I do—cannot really understand). All of this running and changing went on for almost fifteen years. Eventually. I concluded the subculture was somehow a product of the absolutist version of conservatism. Finally, I just quit searching. I decided to learn to live without that closeness. It was too costly.

I stopped running and decided to start helping. I again accepted a pastorate at a small church, greatly needing leadership for its continued existence. Theology was not much of a concern to me. As long as I did not have to be certain of all the answers, I thought I could make this work. My association with the church began when a clergy friend convinced me that, no matter what my history, I had the training and concern to help. The church was near my home and the college where I teach. I stayed at the church for a number of years.

It has been about ten years since I quit running. I may have renounced absolutism twenty-seven years ago with one simple sentence. Nevertheless, I have discovered that it is hard to leave. It took a toll on my wife. It took a toll on my kids. It took a toll on me. Freedom is the prize, but the cost is high.

Several themes common to "quitters" appear in my story. Please be certain to note how, even after I left, I, indeed, experienced relapses. I continued to look for the community the subculture provided. I have never found anything resembling it, and I now wonder if such dependency is really a good thing after all. Still, my journey makes one thing clear. Leaving is a long process. It goes on and on. Some days, after all these years, I think I am still in the process of leaving. I still want order and predictability in my world. I must always remind myself that is not the nature of reality.

Friday, November 7, 2008

How I Left Fundamentalism-- Part 3

More from my book. Stick with the story, the plot thickens...

The issue of the Moral Majority

The second event that led to my exit from the absolutist church took place over a number of years. The reader will recall that the churches I attended had roots in Jesus Freak days. The Jesus Freaks, at least in the beginning, were largely ex-hippie counter culture participants. The Vietnam War was still ongoing and the draft was in full swing. Most of the young men in the absolutist church were conscientious objectors, who found the teachings of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount incongruous with military service. The church elders wrote many letters to draft boards in support of alternate service. Quite a few of the young men were performing alternate service at an area hospital.

As time passed and the Jesus Freak fellowships organized into Charismatic or fundamentalist churches, other things began to change as well. The newly formed churches were quickly caught up in the burgeoning Christian Right Movement. In my church, this began in embryonic fashion with Nixon’s second bid for the presidency. We heard from the pulpit that Nixon was “a godly man.” In the Carter campaign days, we fully supported of his bid because he was a born again Christian. President Crater turned out much more liberal than we anticipated. Then, things really accelerated. The Regan election machine was in full operation, and a new political force, the Moral Majority was on the rise. They were pro right-wing, supportive of fundamentalist causes, dedicated to bringing a Christian society back to America (as if there ever was a Christian society!), and they based virtually all of their support on a flat, verbal/plenary inspired Bible. They were also quite militaristic. They took the additive approach to arrive at this: consider Jesus’ call for non-violence, add the Biblical calls for violence and vengeance (there are plenty), divide by two and, there it was! Here one could find a platform for the just war (lately, preemptive as well).

The alignment of the absolutist church I attended with the Christian Right and the Moral Majority created several problems for me. My dad and I may have had our disagreements, but both Mom and Dad tended to find war a generally unsatisfactory method for solving problems. This was especially true for my mother. My mother and I usually have been quite close, so that impacted my thinking. Second, my Jesus Freak roots stretched back to a time when the flat Bible was somewhat less influential. It was not a well thought out position, but those facing the draft saw Christianity as supporting non-violence. I also, no doubt, retained a bit of the rebellious hippy streak that vetoed the idea of violence on general principles. However, despite these problems—the Moral Majority’s acceptance of violence notwithstanding—another, much larger problem arose.

The encounter with Bonhoeffer

Starting with the tithe business, I had come to wonder about the “flat Bible,” verbal/plenary view of things. I came to see that some parts of the Bible “trumped” others, and parts of it simply stood on a higher moral plain. Old Testament passages dealing with the end of violence and God’s reign of peace combined with the New Testament peace imperative grew in importance for me. Those upholding holy war or a crusade lessened in importance in my view of God’s will regarding war and peace.

Therefore, I found myself confused. I did not know what to think about the direction my church was going, but I had no clearly defined direction for my life worked-out yet. Some answers, however, were waiting in the wings—in the most unlikely of places, right where I found myself. I guess it was serendipity (or perhaps something more). The third event leading to my leaving took place when a young woman in the church lent me a book. I am not sure if she read it. If she did, she certainly received different messages from it than I did. The book in question saw its first publication in the turmoil of Germany in the late 1930’s. A young Lutheran pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote it. The title of the book is The Cost of Discipleship (Bonhoeffer 1995),

Bonhoeffer is a rather enigmatic figure. A devout Christian, his writings are profound and even poetic. He became involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler, something I will not deal with here, but which I have dealt with at length elsewhere (Alexander 2004). Although his book discusses many things, some might regard the main theme as “costly grace,” or some might see it as the price that must be paid for true devotion to the Kingdom that Jesus came to proclaim. However, it was the lengthy commentary on the Sermon on the Mount that seemed to speak directly to me.

Bonhoeffer did not see the Bible as flat at all. The pinnacle for him was the words, doing, and dying of Christ. Everything I read went against the Moral Majority thinking that I encountered in church. Above all, it confronted me with Christ’s call to non-violence. In the face of all of the violence in the Bible, in the face of Joshua and the military conquest of Canaan, in the face of David and his battles with the Philistines, in the face of St. Paul and his admonitions concerning obedience to the government stood Jesus giving a higher call. I knew a decision confronted me. It was another moment of conversion we so frequently face. If Bonhoeffer was right, my church and the Moral Majority it supported were wrong. I decided to cast my lot with non-violence and the superiority of Christ’s teachings over the rest of the Bible. I firmly decided that all things were not equal; the Bible was not flat.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

How I Left Fundamentalism-- Part 2

The stories continues...

It is true, I was an absolutist, but I never was a very good one. You see, I had both types of logic always going on in my mind. The logic of scientism made perfect sense to me (the reader will recall my struggles with evolution), and the logic of absolutism worked well too. I, like many absolutists, longed for order and a world that made sense. Both the logic of science and the logic of absolutism caused my world to appear more ordered and sensible. Always pulled from two directions, I became a bit of a “thorn in the flesh” to the absolutist leaders. I never could learn to stop “doubting my doubts,” as they so frequently recommended. Things worsened as the absolutist world began to seem more and more out of touch with my reality. Eventually, I reached the end of my rope. There were four events precipitating my leaving.

The issue of tithing

The first event concerned tithing. The Jesus Freak church, after Jesus Freak days ended, became an independent Charismatic (neo- Pentecostal) church, very loosely connected to other former Jesus Freak fellowships. After the constituency of the church began to settle down, finish college, acquire houses, and, in general, become more prosperous, the church began to teach quite frequently on tithing. Everyone was to give their ten percent, as required by the Bible, to support the ministers. You can imagine the effects of this. We had a church with several hundred members. Everyone was accountable to give an honest ten percent. The church leaders could investigate this any time they desired. Members’ finances were to be an open book in such an event. There were two or three or so paid leaders (It varied as the leaders desired. The members had no say in the choice of clergy, the setting of budgets, or the fixing of salaries). The tithe, so the teaching went, was only for the support of the ministers. The purpose of the tithe was not for covering general church expenses.

Indeed, I am sure you can imagine the results. On Sunday, the church parking lot accommodated two hundred different types of cars— Fords, Chevrolets, and VW Bugs, and so on. However, one row contained three Mercedes or BMWs or Audis, or, at least, very nice Volvos. These cars were, as you might imagine, the property of the church’s paid elders. A couple concerned with what the parking lot revealed became some of the first to defect from the absolutists church on principle. The couple that left told me, “You’re all a bunch of fools if you can’t see what’s happening. Just look in the parking lot, man. Can’t you see what the deal is?” However, it really did escape me. It was their tithe after all, and the elder’s tithe was none of my business—something over which I was to have no say. The church handled other expenses through additional offerings. Once I heard the official estimate of our personal giving: seventeen percent.

After leaving Kansas City and moving to a bedroom community, where Irene and I taught school, we attended a church that was an offshoot of the church with Jesus Freak roots in Kansas City. After a year or so, I came to the attention of the elders of this church as someone who possessed some research and writing skills. The leadership of the church drafted me and gave me an assignment. I was to write the church’s position paper on tithing, focusing on the teaching we received over the past few years. In this church, such an assignment was an honor and a duty. This was also an important document. I could not turn down an assignment like this one. I felt important.

I took to the task gingerly. I visited one of the seminary libraries in Kansas City and reviewed Biblical and historical foundations. I researched attitudes over the years. The longer I researched, the more I became convinced our leadership was wrong. Tithing was a strong principle in parts of the Hebrew Scriptures. However, that support seemed to vanish in the New Testament. It was a real stretch, both biblically and historically, to prove that early Christians followed the principle of tithing. Oh, you could prove the early Christians gave generously—often in ways that make a tithe look small. Nevertheless, no matter how I tried, I could prove tithing from the New Testament. Some of the historical documents considered such Old Testament laws as out of place in the Christian dispensation.

This resulted in basic doubt for me. Maybe it would be better to say it reinforced my already present doubts, since I tended to be a bit of a skeptic (as I have related). This was nearly thirty years ago. The experience initiated my first doubts concerning the principle of the “flat Bible.” Of course, this led to doubts concerning the verbal, plenary nature of textual inspiration. I had some serious questions.

I was to produce a document for use in the church. I did exactly that. It stated the position of our church, but it said more. It cited research concerning the differences between the New and Old Testament texts. It reviewed some of the views presented through the ages seeing tithing as a legalistic practice with no basis in early church history. It took issue with the notion that the first pastors received a salary from a tithe collected from congregants or that clergy were even paid in the early days of the Church. It suggested a discontinuity between parts of the Bible and hinted at the notion of progressive revelation, in which some commands of the Bible did not completely reflect the voice or will of God.

I submitted my report to the leadership. They received it; I was thanked for my work. The position paper did not “go to press;” no portion of it appeared in any church documents. Different methods proved more useful in enforcing the tithing principle. Never again did the honor of writing a position paper fall to me. Furthermore, the leadership began monitoring my actions and words with great care. They were not unfriendly, mind you. They simply made it clear that they viewed me as rather dangerous—someone who might “rock the boat.”

As for me, I began to peruse more seminary libraries and read more books about Biblical inspiration. The more I read, and the more I sat in church, the more confused I became. Something was definitely happening to me, something that scared me.