“Mental” Theology

My friend Emily Perez recently preached a sermon that discussed prayer, depression, adoption, the psalms, community, God’s unrelenting pursuit, and grace. Exploring all those topics at a deep level and making them cohere gave the sermon a high degree of difficulty and Emily stuck the landing. She delivered the sermon at City Life Church in Sacramento, using Psalm 126 as her text and titled the sermon, “‘Mental’ Theology.” (The audio can be found here. It is dated 4/27/14.)

I recommend the sermon highly because Emily articulates the darkness of depression as well as the good news God offers those who suffer. For many, that good news does not come in the form of immediate alleviation from the pain, but in people willing to travel with the other person through the darkness. I think Emily clarifies the mission of the Church to be like Emmanuel, “God with us.” We are called to be with those sitting in darkness and who cannot yet see the light. We are not there to answer all their questions, correct all their confusion, but to be with them, listening. The Holy Spirit comforts us through friends who do not judge or frighten easily when we ask angry questions.

For those who preach or speak publicly, I also recommend the sermon as a wonderful example of story-telling and reflection. It really is amazing that Emily could cover all those topics and still craft a unified sermon. When preachers try to cover a myriad of topics in sermon, they often dilute their message. Emily’s sermon, however, grows stronger as she combines these important matters.

Civility Project: Political Polarization Trends in the U.S.

Pew Research released, “Political Polarization in the American Public,” a report detailing the widening gulf between American citizens along political lines over the last twenty years. More people now report being more consistently conservative and liberal than previously, leading to stretching the social fabric of the nation.

The report’s overview offers many things to consider from a civility perspective. First, let us dispense with a myth that being more consistently conservative or liberal makes people inherently less civil. Similarly we should not follow the temptation to think being moderate or centrist is somehow more civil. (Also, moderate or centrist is extremely difficult to define. Is someone a moderate because she takes a centrist position on most issues or because she holds a generally equal amount of conservative and liberal views on different matters?) Rather, the challenge for all of us—liberals, moderates, and conservatives—is how do we remain open to engaging in an appreciative manner views that are different than our own? How willing are we to be in community with people who disagree with us? How committed are we to not dehumanize others for holding views we find wrong? To this end, Pew’s report details troubling trends.

As Americans have grown more liberal and conservative, so has their distrust and even antipathy for the other side. “In each party, the share with a highly negative view of the opposing party has more than doubled since 1994. Most of these intense partisans believe the opposing party’s policies ‘are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.'” Clearly ideas and policies matter. One party may very well have plans that if put in place would hurt the nation. What concerns me is that this growing antipathy breaks the social fabric necessary for a pluralistic democracy. To credibly engage each other in the public square requires we give the benefit of the doubt to our neighbor, to trust he operates out of good intentions. I believe we must be able to say to one another, “Even though I may think your positions are misguided and possibly dangerous, I trust that you want the best for the nation.” Otherwise we have a rapidly decreasing amount of room to find mutually beneficial solutions.

This antipathy has serious consequences for our communities. Pew reports as people move more into “ideological silos,” they grow less likely to have friends who do not share their political views. More troubling, people express less desire to even live near those with a different political outlook. We’re becoming a nation that wants to be neighbors only with people who think like we do. Forget the redistricting fights that happen every decade—if we continue on this trend, we’ll gerrymander ourselves. This area of the report seems to be the most difficult to parse since the researchers found plenty of correlative but non-political data shaping the responses of how people choose where to live. For example, liberals voiced a preference for urban living where they could walk to the grocer, conservatives liked a rural environment with more space, and just about nobody loved the suburbs. One wonders how this data is any different than the realities that have shaped our communities historically. I live in the Bay Area of California, where many liberals flocked and many conservatives avoided for decades. Is the data new because what we’ve long suspected has now been shown with evidence? Or is this data new because more people are now saying explicitly, “it is important to them to live in a place where most people share their political views”?

Some might argue that for the sake of civility and the social fabric it would be better for consistent conservatives and liberals to moderate their political views, but I don’t think that’s a likely possibility. Asking people to give up, diminish, or silence core convictions isn’t a very civil request. Nor would a mass moderation movement necessarily change these disheartening trends. One could just as easily imagine moderates preferring only to live near other moderates and desiring to ghettoize the extreme left and right.

A possible solution I see would be a lot more messy and uncomfortable than our current situation. Silos and ghettos are a lot easier to maintain than choosing to live together. I believe we begin recapturing a positive view of our neighbors with whom we differ politically by committing to seeing them as our neighbors first before seeing them as a political adversaries. It is civil to give them the benefit of the doubt that they are operating out of good intentions. Finding ways to extend and ask for help from one another creates a neighborly environment. It becomes a lot more difficult to dehumanize someone when you help them change a tire or when they help you bring the groceries inside. That is, we remind ourselves that our neighbors have lives and concerns like us and they cannot be reduced to how far they lean left or right.

We not only try to see our neighbors for who they really are, we also take a hard look at ourselves. We ask if we are becoming more siloed, and if we are, we take steps to change course. That means fostering a willingness to make ourselves more uncomfortable by not receiving our political news only from a few sources that merely affirm our positions. We should engage news and thoughtful opinions from different sources, not to knock down or disprove those sources, but to really learn how our neighbors think. I also believe we have to take an appreciative approach, looking for what is good in our neighbor’s opinion, and seeking areas of agreement first, before we state our disagreement with him.

These trends pose special problems for the Church and they require us to ask ourselves hard questions. Are we shaped more by these trends in our society or by the gospel of Jesus Christ? How do we view our neighbors who hold political positions that are different than ours—do we see them as children of God, or would we rather avoid them? Do we prefer to live only near those who hold similar political views as we do or are we willing to love our neighbors no matter how they vote?

The Church and Stupid Fathers, All in Time for Mother’s Day

I don’t write much about being an at-home dad. One can easily find plenty of solid blogs written by good guys. That said, I want to address a couple of videos that recently crossed my path and deal with fatherhood. The makers of these videos seek to honor in a comedic way the hard work that mothers do. The videos they produced, however, rehash tired stereotypes found in the popular culture as they portray dads as bumbling incompetents who should not be trusted with the care of their children. I’m all for celebrating the unique work of mothers—I merely don’t think we need to make dads look like idiots in order to do so. I address these videos in particular because they are produced by Christians and are marketed toward the Church in preparation for Mother’s Day celebrations. (I wonder, how many churches will celebrate non-Church holidays like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and Memorial Day, but not the Ascension of Jesus or Pentecost? That’s another post.) I am concerned some Christians think the best way to honor one group of people, mothers, is to ridicule another group, fathers. Further, we should not be in the business of mocking dads as inept, but instead celebrating dads who are deeply involved in raising their kids and encouraging dads to be even more involved and Christlike. Let’s look at the videos.

First is the trailer for the film Mom’s Night Out.

I hesitate to comment on a film I haven’t seen since trailers can be cut in misleading ways, but we can at least discuss what appears in the trailer. Here we have overworked moms needing a break from childcare. They set up a mom’s night out and leave their husbands to take care of the kids. The dads are so inept they can’t think of anything to do except take their kids to a restaurant/indoor playground where they can lock their kids up, “like Shawshank Redemption.” This inevitably leads to a trip to the emergency room. Another dad leaves his child at a tattoo parlor and goes out on the town by himself. All this fatherly incompetence requires the moms to cancel their night out and save the day.

The second video comes from The Skit Guys, entitled, “Mom Goggles.” They make short videos with faith-based messages and often use humor to make their point. The set-up for this video is essentially the same as the trailer above: a couple moms take some time for themselves, leaving their children with the fathers. The dads worry about possible outcomes, realize they don’t have the necessary skills, and thus order “Mom Goggles” from a “Daddy Doomsday Survival” website—doomsday for a dad is apparently having to take responsibility for your children. Through this wonderful invention, the men are able to see the world as their wives do. Toddler babble suddenly becomes intelligible. A child’s painting becomes a masterpiece. And the greatest miracle of all, these men realize just how hard their wives work as mothers. Thankfully, “Mom Goggles” does not fully encapsulate The Skit Guys’ view of dads. As Chris Routly points out, The Skit Guys have produced an excellent video extolling the virtues of fatherhood and show dads being great in their roles.

Since these videos are intended for Christian audiences, we can take a look at the theology they communicate.

Positively, these videos seek to honor mothers, which is one of the Ten Commandments. It is right to remember how our mothers offer us unconditional love and grace and to thank them for it. It is no accident that biblical authors describe God’s love like that of a mother’s. To that extent, we learn more about who God is when we experience our mothers living into their vocation.

By adopting the dominant culture’s mockery of dads as 8-year old boys trapped in middle-aged men’s bodies, the Church offers no counter narrative, no city on a hill to be a contrast to the rest of society. Instead we say the dads in the Church are selfish, immature, and obtuse. Sure they have their moments of epiphany, but that only happens after some catastrophe or because of magical tools. As my friend Chad wrote, “If you need Mom Goggles to change a diaper or see the beauty in your kids’ artwork, well I’m just going to say it, you suck as a dad.” What we’re saying is that the gospel has largely not transformed these men into people who think of the interests of others before their own. At least they cannot be bothered to work at becoming better dads until after the kids are released from the emergency room. I do not think we need to present Christian fathers as though they are without blemishes, but it would be nice to see how the good news has made a difference in their vocation as dads.

I am also concerned that these jokes can only work in a world in which there are hermetically sealed gender roles. A mom is honored only when a dad crosses the boundary and tries to engage in a different role. Worse, these videos encourage keeping those roles entirely separate. These videos actually don’t encourage men to become more involved and caring fathers. Instead they warn dads away from engaging in childcare. The videos communicate, “Just stay on the couch and watch football. Don’t try to do what your wife does because you’ll hurt the kids and yourself.” Theologically, this is dangerous, because just as we learn about God from the examples of our mothers, we also learn about God from the examples of our fathers.

If you think I’m being obstinate or just can’t take a joke, which is a possibility, I invite you to engage in a thought experiment. Imagine someone made a video or a feature length film wanting to honor dads by employing the same gender stereotypes, but reversed the players so that the filmmakers mock moms. Are churches going to show a Father’s Day video in which a couple moms have panic attacks about mowing the lawn and needing to order special “Dad Gloves” so they can teach their kid to throw a baseball or work the circular saw without cutting their fingers off? Imagine a movie in which moms have to fill in for their husbands at the office and then make such a terrible mess of it that the dads have to come in and save the day because, well, you know, the office just isn’t the woman’s place. We would say those stereotypes are backwards and sexist because mothers—and women in general—are capable of excellence in the workplace and can skillfully use power tools.

I Saw a Man on the Ledge of the Golden Gate Bridge Today

My family saw a man standing on the ledge of the Golden Gate Bridge contemplating suicide today. We were on a bike ride across the bridge and back on a gloriously clear spring day. As we took some pictures near the south tower, we noticed the crowds strangely looking toward the center of the bridge and not out at San Francisco or Alcatraz, as is often the case. Two police officers on bicycles hurried up and a tourist near the tower pointed them toward a small group of people gathered near the rail about forty yards from us. One of the cops uttered, “Shit,” and they both pedaled hard to the location where a young man in a green sweatshirt and bluejeans stood beyond the rail, his back to the bridge.

My family stayed where we were and except for a few more onlookers, the majority of the pedestrian and bicycle traffic continued and seemed not to notice the crisis. I could see the two police talking with the man, who, at this point had turned around and faced the bridge, though he squatted on his haunches and didn’t look people in the eye. We eventually continued our trek across the bridge. At Vista Point, on the north side of the bridge we saw another police officer watching the scene through a pair of binoculars. I figured as long as he was there, the man was still on the bridge.

The Coast Guard deployed boats and jet skis near the bridge, but whether that is standard procedure whenever there is a possible jumper or only when they know they need to retrieve a body, I am not sure. I do not know what happened to the man. I only know that after several minutes, the police officer with the binoculars was gone and the Coast Guard vessels broke formation. On our return trip across the bridge, we saw no signs of the prior events. The crowd had dispersed, the police were gone, and new sightseers enjoyed their journey across the landmark, oblivious to the fact that just a short time before, a young man at least contemplated ending his life by jumping into San Francisco Bay.

The experience horrified me. Again, I do not know whether the policemen were successful in talking the man back onto the bridge. I pray that they were. I am not sure what was the appropriate response to this man’s situation. We left because we knew there was not much we could do—the police who work on the bridge are well trained in suicide prevention. During my internship as a hospital chaplain I saw death, but I have never seen a suicide. Today I did not want to watch a man take his life. I did not want that image in my memory. At the same time, I wonder if I should have stood as a witness, to be able to name I saw that man. To be a testament for him. To claim to someone his life is worthwhile. Should I have watched because though he may not want to live, I cannot accept that he would no longer exist?

I whispered prayers into my son’s ear as we rode along the bridge, asking for God’s mercy to be on that man. I asked that he might know the glory and hope of Christ’s resurrection. I prayed that he might know he is deeply loved. I hope he survived. I hope he came back onto the bridge.

For some reason, this passage from Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Crossing comes to mind:

Things separate from their stories have no meaning. They are only shapes. Of a certain size and color. A certain weight. When their meaning has become lost to us they no longer have even a name. The story on the other hand can never be lost from its place in the world for it is that place. And that is what was to be found here. The corrido. The tale. And like all corridos it ultimately told one story only, for there is only one to tell.

Stop Learning and Start Thinking

In his TEDx talk, “Forget What You Know,” Jacob Barnett says we should at times stop learning and start thinking. Barnett is the world’s youngest astrophysics researcher. His thesis and stories form a compelling picture despite the talk’s organization and delivery being a bit rough around the edges. Through recounting the history of his field, he shows how figures like Newton and Einstein developed some of their most seminal theorems when they were prevented from participating in academia—in the case of Newton he was avoiding the plague and Einstein could only find work as a patent clerk due to antisemitism in Europe. Innovation happens when we are free to think freely.

I found Barnett’s thesis challenging since my instinct is to do more research. When I write, I rarely feel confident that I have an adequate grasp of my subject. There are always more books and articles to read. I worry I am missing some important bit of information that will either make my point stronger, or disprove it altogether, which will make me look like a fool. Deadlines save me from endless inquiry because they force me to think and write.

I wonder how I can incorporate Barnett’s exhortation better into my life. I love learning and I don’t want to give up on it. I have to fight the temptation to learn just for the sake of learning. Learning must have a goal beyond the accumulation of more information. The challenge is not only to use what we have learned, but also think of new possibilities. Barnett reminds me that space for thinking doesn’t magically materialize. We must intentionally make space. Put the book down. Close the web browser. Silence the voices of discouragement. And think.