Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Spiritual Ligaments

Religion is a four-letter word.  Well, not really, but you know what I mean.  Nobody wants to be religious anymore.  Lots of people claim to be spiritual, but few claim to be religious.  “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual.”  “I’m very spiritual, but I don’t follow any particular religion.” 
I don’t blame them at all; a lot of things have been done in the name of religion that any sane person would disavow.  A lot, if not most, if not all wars have been justified by invoking some higher religious principle.  Few politicians are going to come right out and say, “We want that land, so we’re just going to go take it,” or, “We need oil, and we’re willing to fight you to get it.”  No, a higher principle has to be invoked in order to get the support of the populace, and religion is often used to justify what would otherwise be unjustifiable.  We all ought to be offended by this, and people of faith ought to refuse to allow politicians to use religion in this way—or in any way, for that matter, like getting themselves elected.
But religions can’t cast too many stones, because there are plenty of instances where religion wasn’t merely used  to mask the real reason behind some secular action but was actually the reason for the action.  While much evil has been done in the name of religion, it is also true that religion is responsible for a great deal of evil itself.  The Romans might have crucified Jesus because he was accused of leading an insurrection, but the Temple leadership wanted him killed because he threatened their religious tenets.  And lest we Christians get all high-and-holy with regard to the Jews, we returned the favor tenfold by characterizing Jews as “Christ-killers”, forcing them into ghettos, and stigmatizing them.  Christian anti-Semitism is a fact of history that only the most jaded revisionists can deny.
So if the word “religion” has a bad name, religion itself is mainly to blame.  People who reject religion without rejecting spirituality are often affirming that there is something life-giving that is larger than themselves and outside the material world, but that there is something life-sucking rather than life-giving that they have experienced in religion.  (To be fair, I suspect that some people who claim the “not-religious-but-spiritual” mantle pursue neither religion nor spirituality, and this is their way of not having to talk about it.)
A typical definition of religion involves a set of doctrinal beliefs as well as a set of ritual practices.  The turnoff for some people is the idea that a God who is wholly Other can ever be contained in or defined by a set of propositional statements that can be understood by human minds, and, you know what, they’re right.  I mean, there are some smart people out there, but nobody is that smart.  All of our doctrinal statements about God are metaphors that can at best shine a dim light on the Truth but can never fully contain it, and to act otherwise is dangerous—literally so, because it leads to a lack of humility and the kind of pride that is willing to burn at the stake those who threaten our understanding of the Truth.  (And while “burn at the stake” is now used as a metaphor of how non-adherents are abused by adherents, in Christian history it literally happened.)  And often the rituals of religion—and all religions have them, including non-liturgical forms of “free-worship” Christianity—become empty recitations or rehearsals which are still performed even though the meaning behind the rituals has been lost.  Life is too short to simply “go through the motions” in the hope that God is somehow still pleased that at least we made the effort.  In this at least the “spiritual-but-not-religious” crowd is honest.
But is that what religion really is?  I think we need to reclaim the word, because at its heart it’s a really good word.  Brian McLaren, in his new book Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words, points out that in the etymology of the word, religion is about connecting.  At the heart of the word is “lig”, as in the word “ligament,” which is the connective tissue that holds our joints together.  The prefix “Re-“ means “again,” so religion that is truly religion connects us together again.  It connects us with God, it connects us with each other, and it connects us again with all of creation.  So Jesus was being religious when he said that the first commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, and that the second commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself, and in the Sermon on the Mount he said to love your enemies, meaning everyone is your neighbor.  Love, forgive, have mercy, show grace, reconnect.  This is what it means to be religious, and I wonder how an honest reading of the Bible can lead us to any other conclusion.  Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows [for they were cut off from society] in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world,” James wrote.  And I think this is what a lot of people mean when they talk about being spiritual.  Anything that does something else—anything that destroys connections, that separates people, that keeps people from God and from each other, that defines an “in” group vs. an “out” group, isn’t real religion.  “Religion” that promotes conflict and selfishness rather than generosity and peacemaking, that teaches practices and beliefs that make some fear, dehumanize, and judge others—in other words, de-ligamenting rather than re-ligamenting, isn’t religion at all.  It’s ‘de-ligion,” to use the word that McLaren coined and that I  hope becomes part of our lexicon.
Maybe the day will come when religions can rehabilitate, not only their names, and not only their images, but also their practices in such a way that no one will ever have to pit “religious” over against “spiritual” again.  I hope we’ll start hearing people say, “I’m not de-ligious, I’m spiritual,” and everyone will know what they mean.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011


"You will find stability at the moment when you discover that God is everywhere, that you do not have to seek God elsewhere, that God is here, and if you do not find God here it is useless to go and search for God elsewhere because it is not God who is absent from us, it is we who are absent from God.... This is important because it is only at the moment you recognize this that you can truly find the fullness of the Kingdom of God in all its richness within you."

Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, quoted by Brian McLaren in Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words

Monday, March 28, 2011


Harry Coover, Jr. died Saturday at 94.

If you're wondering who Harry was and why I care, it's because he is the inventor of Super Glue.  He came up with the stuff accidentally back in 1942 while working for Tennessee Eastman Kodak.  You can read the Washington Post article about him here.

Prior to getting into guitar-building, I hardly used Super Glue, maybe once or twice a year.  Usually when I broke some knick-knack of Pam's.  

But Super Glue is used a lot in luthiery, so much so that experienced builders don't refer to it as Super Glue (which is actually a trade name that came to be used for all forms of the glue, like Kleenex and Zerox), but call it by it's chemical name cyanoacrylate.  Calling it that shows you are a real luthier.

It also shows that you are a real nerd, but whatever.

Cyanoacrylate is mainly used in guitar-building for fixing screw-ups, like the time I blew out a piece of headplate when routing a rabbet for binding, or when there was a big gap in some rosewood binding.  But there are a lot of other uses as well.  Binding a cutaway, for instance, can be pretty hairy around some of the tight curves, but using cyanoacrylate with an accelerator allows me to use a lot of force to eliminate gaps, and since it binds instantly, I don't have to hold it long.  It's also great for filling tiny gaps in the binding prior to sealing, pore-filling, and spraying finish.

Inlay artists use lots of cyanoacrylate to bind the various pieces of shell together.  There are some luthiers who do there own inlay work, but in some ways it's a different discipline, and for now I prefer to outsource it.

But cyanoacrylate is really important in regular guitar-building, so I make sure I always have a fresh bottle of the regular stuff as well as a bottle of the thick-viscosity variety handy.  It has saved my butt plenty of times.

So here's to you, Harry Coover, Jr.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Last Little Bit

I came across a YouTube video last week by a solo fingerstyle guitarist named Adam Rafferty in which he discussed the proper way to practice guitar and learn a song.  He started off by saying that there are four stages to learning a skill.  (This isn’t rocket science, so I’ll go through it quickly.)

Stage 1: Unconscious incompetence—you don’t know what you don’t know and you don’t know that you don’t know.
Stage 2: Conscious incompetence—you have to think through the entire process, every note and every placement of a finger on a string is a struggle as you learn the piece.
Stage 3: Conscious competence—you know the piece pretty well, have committed parts to memory, but still have to look at the fretboard as you play.  You are still thinking about the music as you play and maybe even worrying about the difficult sections.  At this stage you may be able to play the piece well in practice but get nervous when playing for people, and the nerves interfere with the playing.
Stage 4: Unconscious competence—you know the piece so well that it just flows.  The fingers know where to go without your conscious mind having to tell them—almost as if they have a mind of their own.  You almost become a spectator of your own playing.

Obviously the goal is to get to Stage 4, and this is true of just about any skill that we are learning.  Almost all of us are at Stage 4 when it comes to walking or running.  We don’t have to think about it, we just do it, and we do it well.

But Stage 4 actually isn’t the final stage.  I recently read a book about people who have developed their memories to an extraordinary degree—they have memorized pi out to thousands of digits, or can remember the order of multiple shuffled decks of cards after running through the decks just once.  There are actually memory competitions that these people train for and compete it.  (I don’t know which sounds more nerdy, that there are people who train for memory competitions, or that I actually read a book about them.)  The author of the book, a journalist who was training for a memory competition himself, got to a point where he couldn’t improve any more.  He could only memorize a certain number of random cards in an hour, and no more.  He called his coach, who told him, essentially, that he had reach the stage of unconscious competence, but to improve even more he would have to push himself to such a degree that demanded conscious effort.  He set a timer and forced himself to look at cards at a faster rate.  Initially he made more mistakes—his competence went down—but it forced his mind to break through the plateau, and shortly thereafter  he began improving again.

This makes a lot of sense.  Take running, for instance.  Most of us can do it without thinking, and really good runners do it better than most without thinking.  But world class sprinters, to keep improving and getting faster and faster, have to think about running again.  They have broken down the running process into its various parts and analyzed everything from their arm swing to their foot plant.  They know how many strides they need to take staying low out of the blocks and when to move upright.  They have analyzed their stride length, stride rate, and optimum lean at the finish.  And when they compete, they are mentally engaged.  In competition, they may run in stage 4, unconscious competence, but it’s a new level of unconscious competence.

Is spiritual growth any different?  You may find yourself in a situation where you are pretty competent at spiritual things.  You come to worship every week, participate in a weekly Bible study—or maybe two—and you pray and read your Bible on your own.  You have a place of service, and you give generously of your time and your money.  You are respected by other Christians—and maybe even some non-Christians, and you have been doing it long enough that it has become relatively effortless. You read the verses and automatically know what they mean.  You sing the songs and don’t have to think about them.

For some, they’ve reached the pinnacle of the faith, and there’s nothing more to do but teach others to reach the high place that they’ve achieved.  They become proud and self-righteous—and very dangerous.

But for others it doesn’t feel like they’ve reached a pinnacle but rather a plateau.  Maybe for a time it frustrated you, but then you accepted that this was as good as it gets.  You’re on autopilot, but it doesn’t feel right.

It’s time to take it to the next level.  Before you were depending on your own efforts, and they worked for a while, but to reach the next level, you need to consciously allow Christ living in you to take more and more control of your life.  There are a lot of things in our lives that it was easy to let Christ take control of, but that last, I don’t know, 10% or so is really hard.  For those who think that surrendering to Christ living in you demands a passivity don’t understand just how hard full surrender is.  You can achieve unconscious competence with partial surrender, but full surrender demands careful attention to foot plant and arm swing. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Creeds and Confessions

From the earliest moments of the church it appears—intellectual honesty as well as humility demands that one admit of a necessary lack of certainty regarding our knowledge of many things from ancient times—that the earliest confession of faith, spoken when a new convert was baptized, was “Jesus is Lord.”  That simple confession was actually quite dangerous in that it was scandalous to the Temple cult and subversive of Caesar.  It was scandalous toward the Temple cult because the earliest confession of faith for Israelites was the Shema from Deuteronomy 6:4—“Hear, O Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD is one.”  And now these Christians were confessing that this crucified messiah-pretender was Lord.  It was subversive to the Romans Empire because it co-opted the very wording of the Roman proclamation that all conquered people were forced to acknowledge: “Caesar is Lord.”
Within a couple of centuries the baptismal confession was expanded into a series of questions that the baptismal candidate had to respond to affirmatively.  The Apostolic Tradition by Hippolytus, written around 215, indicates that this series had achieved something of a fixed form used in most of the churches.
Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty?
Do you believe in Christ Jesus, Son of God,
Who was born by the Holy Spirit out of Mary the Virgin, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate and died and was buried, and rose on the third day alive from among the dead, and ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father, to come to judge the living and the dead?
Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Church, and the resurrection of the dead?
Over time this formulation was expanded even more, and was used in the church not just for baptism but as part of its regular liturgy.  By the seventh century it was fixed in the form that came to be called The Apostles’ Creed:
I believe in God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.  And in Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.  He descended into hell, on the third day rose again from the dead, ascended to heaven, sits at the right hand of God the Father almighty, thence he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.  Amen.
For those in our church who come from Christian traditions other than Baptist—and on any given Sunday that’s about half of our congregation—the Apostles’ Creed is very familiar to you.  Perhaps you recited it each Sunday in church growing up, or memorized it in confirmation class.  For most purebred Baptists, however, the creed is unfamiliar (I had never heard of it until my first year in seminary, when I had to memorize it as a requirement in a church history course).
This is because Baptists are non-creedal—we accept no human formulations as binding on any Christian.  Or so we say, although in practice we can be as creedal as the next guy, but that’s another story for another time.  In theory if not in practice Baptists have shunned creeds for a number of different reasons.
For one thing, it is in the nature of creeds that they expand.  From the simple Jesus is Lord we get 90-word formulation recorded by Hippolytus, a 30-fold expansion in less than 200 years.  The Apostles Creed is 107 words, but conceptually it is a much larger expansion i.e. it introduces many more theological concepts as necessary to the faith.  The Nicene Creed, which was adopted by the church in 325 and is perhaps the most widely used creed today, has 226 words, depending on which form and translation is used.  Christians may like to use the sentiment of Augustine in saying things like, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, love,” but history has shown that the list of what a group of Christians considers to be essential tends to grow while the non-essentials tends to shrink, and this according to that group’s pet theological distinctives.
We also have shied away from creeds because there are some things in them that we are not comfortable with, such as the statement that after his crucifixion Jesus “descended into hell”, which made sense when Christians still more or less held onto the Jewish concept of Sheol as a place where all dead went, good or bad, but not as much after Christians began to accept the Greek notion of Hades, which was a place of eternal torment.  (I reckon that’s another topic to be discussed some other time as well.)  And while Baptists insist on the importance of the Virgin Birth to faith, we aren’t as comfortable referring to the Virgin Mary, wanting to avoid what some see as the worship of Mary in the Catholic Church.
But perhaps the biggest single reason why Baptists have wanted to claim to be non-creedal is that throughout our history Christians have been unable to fulfill the third part of Augustine’s formulation in all things love.  Christians have used creedal formulations as clubs to beat other Christians either into submission or to death.  Instead of being used as a tool for teaching new Christians those mysteries of the faith most Christians hold in common, creeds have been used as a dividing barrier between the “saved us” and the “evil them”.  Instead of being used to bring Christians together in unity, they have been used to slander and injure fellow Christians.  Christians literally burned one another at the stake over creedal formulations, and love has been nowhere to be found.  And we still do so, figuratively if not literally, and perhaps no group is guiltier of doing so today than Baptists.
As long as they are not seen as binding, the historic creeds are interesting and useful as teaching tools.  Just because some have used them as clubs doesn't mean we can't use them to learn more about our faith.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

"Ands" and "Buts"

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, "Which commandment is the first of all?"  Jesus answered, "The first is, 'Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.'  And the second is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these." 
Then the scribe said to him, "You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that 'he is one, and besides him there is no other'; and 'to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,' and 'to love one's neighbor as oneself,'-- this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices." 
When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." After that no one dared to ask him any question.

Did you get that last part?  It bears repeating:

After that no one dared to ask him any question.

Look, I know that Jesus changed water into wine, he walked on water, he gave sight to the blind, helped the lame to walk, and even raised a guy from the dead: a pretty impressive body of work by any standard.  But, seriously, I don’t think he gets enough credit for this one.  I mean, here’s Jesus, surrounded by a the religious elite, experts in the things of God, guys who have a handle on the-way-things-are, the-way-things-should-be, and the-way-things-will-be, guys who know that they are in tight with God but have their doubts about everyone else, and when he gets done speaking—silence.
They. Have. Nothing. Left. To. Say.

As you can imagine, I spend quite a lot of time around really religious people, and there is no lack of words or opinions in that group.  What is usually lacking is silence, along with a lack of humility behind the words and opinions.  Maybe you’ve heard the saying, “Wherever two or more Baptists are gathered, there will be three or more opinions.”  Well, we Baptists are perhaps too hard on ourselves—we don’t hold a monopoly on opinions or over-confidence in those opinions.  What Jesus was dealing with had long been a problem and continues to this day, which is why the silence was so remarkable if not miraculous.

The word that stops them in their tracks is “and”.  They were all good with the greatest commandment being “Love God”.  This was the Shema, from Deuteronomy 6:4-5, and every Israelite knew it by heart from the earliest age.  But there was always a period after the statement to love God with heart, soul, mind and strength.  They believed in loving neighbor—defined as fellow Israelites who also were religiously observant—but this love was clearly secondary to loving God.  Loving your neighbor was important, but loving God was necessary for covenant membership.  Once in the club you should love the others in the club, but the only entrance requirement was loving God.  With that one word “and” Jesus removed the secondary and somewhat optional status of the second commandment.  In fact, he went even further, because the question was which (one) commandment is first, but Jesus’s answer was that the greatest commandment is actually two, essentially combining these two commandments into one with two parts.  Neither one is ascendant, neither one is primary.  To love God is to love your neighbor.  That this is how the earliest Christians understood Jesus is clear from, among others, the Apostle John, who wrote, Those who say, "I love God," and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.  The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.  (1 John 20-21)  And with the parable of the Good Samaritan, which was simply an illustration of Jesus’ injunction to love your enemies, Jesus made it clear that everyone is our neighbor—not just our fellow religious club members, or fellow citizens, or fellow whatevers.

With one little “and” Jesus shut the mouths of the religious elite.  We should follow suit.  “Love God and Love Everyone.”  ‘Nuff said, end of story, end of debate, nothing left to say.

But we don’t follow suit, unfortunately.  We roll right past the “and” by adding a “but”. 
  • But my neighbor is an unbeliever
  • But my neighbor is a jerk
  • But my neighbor is immoral 
  • But my neighbor ignores me
  • But my neighbor has hurt me
  • But my neighbor hasn’t repented
  • But my neighbor hasn’t apologized 
  • But my neighbor is trying to hurt my country
  • But my neighbor is wrong
  • But, but, but, but, but

Some people look for reasons not to love God, and we may be proud of ourselves for not doing that, but if we are constantly looking for reasons (excuses) to not love our neighbors, are we any different?  If it’s impossible to love God and not love your neighbor, then looking for a reason not to love your neighbor is the same as looking for a reason not to love God.


That’ll shut you up.

Jesus said “and”. 

Everyone got quiet.

No one dared to add a “but”.

We shouldn’t either.