Monthly Archives: June 2013

Waiting-A Poem


Hanging between possibilities
Trying to stay balanced between the past and future
Remaining focused on the present with eyes on the horizon
Each step carefully placed
One before the other
As I move along the mobile wire
No tether keeps us safe on the walk of life
it would be easier to be magically transported to the far side
But the journey must be made patiently
Slowly walking the wire
Each measured footfall testing the tension
Praying the destination is worth the danger
The unseen future beyond the visible horizon

Neil White, 2013

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Forgiveness in a Graceless World-A Sermon

Depiction of the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, Scot's Church Melbourne

Depiction of the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, Scot’s Church Melbourne

Ernest Hemmingway tells in one of his short stories called “The Capital of the World” an episode about forgiveness which goes like this:

Madrid is full of boys named Paco, which is the diminutive form of Francisco, and there is a Madrid joke about a father who came to Madrid and inserted an advertisement in the personal columns of El Liberal which said: PACO MEET ME AT HOTEL MONTANA NOON TUESDAY ALL IS FORGIVEN PAPA and how a squadron of Guardia Civil had to be called out to disperse the eight hundred young men who answered the advertisement.

Now the joke is all about the ubiquity of the name Paco in Spain, but it also expresses a deep seeded truth that I think many of us can relate to about our desire for forgiveness to be received. For I think we all have those times where we wish we could change an action that hurt someone in the past, or to be able to take back the words that we said. We wish those words could be like the cartoon bubbles that we could pull back into our mouth to where they were never uttered in the first place. SFC Rubley who was my platoon sergeant while I was a platoon leader in the army used to talk about wanting to be able to lasso the words and say come back. But there is no bringing them back, there is no undoing the past, there is no way to go back and take back the words that were said or put in words that needed to be said. And the reality is that there is truly no future without forgiveness, there is no way forward without a new start. In fact, while forgiveness is one of the hardest things we are called upon as followers of Christ to do it is also at the very heart of our faith. It is right up there with loving the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and loving your neighbor as yourself, in fact it is necessary for both of these for there is no way to love one’s neighbor without forgiveness. We might think that the world of the bible it might be easier to live into forgiveness, but that would be mistaken for you see the bible is written in the same world that we live in. The Old and New Testaments are full of stories of brokenness, unreconciled differences, and woundedness. Even very early in Genesis (Genesis 4) we encounter the story of Lamech which is the opposite of forgiveness, “I have killed a man who attacked me, a young man who wounded me. If someone who kills Cain is punished seven times, then the one who kills me will be punished seventy-seven times!” Or the very first family we follow for a long journey in Genesis, Abraham and Sarah or Abram and Sarai as they start out, is a story of brokenness-yet we don’t often think of it that way. God’s promised child had been a long time in coming and Sarai says to Abram ‘we’re not getting any younger, why don’t you sleep with my servant Hagar and have a child through her and that can be the child we have been waiting for.’ And so Abram does and Ishmael is born, and yet later-after God has changed their names to Abraham and Sarah and the promised child Isaac is born there is no longer, at least in Sarah’s view, anyplace in the household for Ishmael and Hagar and the image is from a sculpture of Abraham saying goodbye to Ishmael, Hagar is facing away and Sarah is watching from behind the rock to ensure this son of Abraham from Hagar will be sent away. Ishmael will never return until both Sarah and Abraham are dead and only then will Isaac and Ishmael be reunited to mourn the death of their common father. But just because the people that God works through in the bible don’t live out God’s vision of forgiveness-that doesn’t mean that is who God is.


As Psalm 103 says:

6 The LORD gives righteousness and justice to all who are treated unfairly.

 7 He revealed his character to Moses and his deeds to the people of Israel.

 8 The LORD is compassionate and merciful, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love.

 9 He will not constantly accuse us, nor remain angry forever.

 10 He does not punish us for all our sins; he does not deal harshly with us, as we deserve.

 11 For his unfailing love toward those who fear him is as great as the height of the heavens above the earth.

 12 He has removed our sins as far from us as the east is from the west.

 13 The LORD is like a father to his children, tender and compassionate to those who fear him.

 14 For he knows how weak we are; he remembers we are only dust.

The God who removes our sins as far as the east is from the west, who doesn’t remember them anymore and who is tender and compassionate as a father is to his children. This is the God that the bible points to again and again and again and yet it is so easy to try to transform God into something different, something less gracious and more judgmental. One of the things I find interesting is that there are a number of Christian theologies out there that try to understand God as somehow bound to a system of rules and laws that God must act in accordance with- and if anything the bible contrast God against the rulers of the nations around them that are like that.

Unlike King Xerxes in the book of Esther, who while he is drunk summons his wife Vashti to appear before him, a summons which Vasti refuses, and so he passes an edict that she shall never again appear before him. Then he wakes up the next day realizing what he has done, but it is now a law and he cannot break it-God is not like that. Unlike King Darius in the book of Daniel who loves Daniel and yet is tricked by his advisors to pass an edict where everyone is to pray to King Darius and when Daniel is caught praying to God, Darius has no choice-he is bound by the law to throw Daniel into the lion’s den. But God is not like that, no God is like a shepherd who has 100 sheep, and then when one is missing leaves the 99 in the wilderness in search of the one, or like a woman who has 10 coins and losing one searches the house until the one is found and then calls all her neighbors to rejoice. Or like a father who has two sons, and one of the sons, the younger one, says to his father in effect, ‘dad I wish you were dead, give me what is mine after you will be gone so that I may go away from you, away from my family, and away from all that has defined me.’ And the father grants him his request and when the younger son finds himself in a foreign land starving, feeding pigs (doing that which is completely against what he was before) and wishing for what the pigs eat and no one gives him anything and he says to himself, ‘you know my father’s servants are better off than I am’ and so he goes back home and he is expecting to be a servant-but the father seeing the son rushes out to meet him, wraps his arms around him, puts a robe on him and a ring on his finger, slaughters the fattened calf and throws a party to reestablish this son with the community. And welcomes him home not as a servant, but as a son-against every rule of the way things should be. Yet there is another son in the story, the older son, who knows the way things should be, the way the rules say they should be and so he stands on the outside of the party refusing to go in and enter the celebration. So the father goes out to this son who says in effect, ‘father, I wish you were dead, for welcoming back in this younger brother who brought so much dishonor, who broke all the rules, who did everything I haven’t done” and yet the father loves both sons. The son who has gone away, who was lost-who went away and who came home again and the son who never left but now stands on the outside of the party unwilling to go in, dealing with his own anger and unwillingness to forgive and his own woundedness.

Pompeo Batoni, The Return of the Prodigal Son (1773)

Pompeo Batoni, The Return of the Prodigal Son (1773)

We serve a God who relationships are always more important than rules and people are more important than ideas. Unfortunately, sometimes the very people who should be most receptive to this are the ones who understand this the least. Take for example the story of Jonah, Jonah is sent by God to go to Nineveh-but Jonah hates the Ninevites and doesn’t want them to turn but wants them to receive God’s wrath and so Jonah goes on a ship in the opposite direction towards Tarshish. But Jonah cannot escape the God who won’t give up and so in the midst of the storm Jonah asks the sailors to give him death, to throw him into the sea because Jonah would rather die than see mercy given to the Ninevites, and yet God refuses to allow that to happen and so God sends the fish and then places him back on land and Jonah goes to Nineveh and the people turn and Jonah pouts.

In the story of les Mis, whether you’ve read it in the novel or seen it as a musical or on the big screen there are two major characters throughout the story. There is Jauvert, the lawman whose life is bound to his dependence on the law for order. The main character though is Jean val Jean who begins the story in a prison camp having served twenty years for stealing a loaf of bread. Upon Jean val Jean’s release from prison he is defined by the reality that he has been a prisoner and that there is no one who will hire him, he is a thief-and to everyone it seems he will always be a thief until when he actually does steal from a bishop and after being captured the bishop says, ‘but you left the best’ and gives him the golden candlesticks as a part of the gift. A gift which allows him to start a new life with a new identity as Misseur le Mer, and yet in the eyes of Jauvert who continues to track him throughout the story he is always the thief, and even at the end of the story when Jean val Jean spares Jauvert’s life-Jauvert cannot live this new story, he would rather die than to forgive and live in a world where the law fails him and so he does die, he commits suicide rather than forgive.

There are many people who would rather die than forgive, who would rather carry their enmity to their grave rather than let go of it, rather than let something that they have that they can hold over someone else be given up. For that is what forgiveness is, forgiveness states that I refuse to let the actions which caused me harm in the past to define our relationship going forward. Forgiveness gives us freedom from having to seek a better past. It allows us not to be defined by the things that we have done, but rather to be defined by the relationships that have been opened to us. That’s what God does, God comes and brings that forgiveness that we need even before we are ready to accept it, in the hope that we will begin to live into it. But forgiveness is not easy for us, I know a person who is a Lutheran pastor now but she didn’t grow up in the Lutheran church and going for the first time to a Lutheran church she heard at the end of the brief order of confession and forgiveness, “as a called and ordained minister of the church of Christ and by his authority I therefore declare to you the entire forgiveness of all of your sins,” and she turned to the person next to her and said, ‘that’s it!’ For God indeed, yes that is it, God has already made the journey of forgiveness, but for us many times the journey still lies ahead.

In our gospel today we hear Peter wrestling with this forgiveness that Jesus is talking about:

 Matthew 18 21 Then Peter came to him and asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?” 22 “No, not seven times,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven!

At seven times Peter probably thinks he is being generous, but Jesus’ response of seventy times seven takes the world of power and revenge and retribution and turns it on its head. The world of Lamech is reversed. And it is not a point of counting up to 490, the calling is to forgive.

and then Jesus also answers with this parable (Matt 18: 23-30)

23 “Therefore, the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him. 24 In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him millions of dollars.

Now the millions of dollars is actually downplaying the size of the debt owed, in modern conversion we are probably talking billions, it was as one scholar put it the amount of money a worker could expect to make in 150,000,000 days-and if you want to figure out how many years that is-it is far more than you will ever live. It is a debt that is so large it could never be paid and this man find himself in a crisis. The story continues on:

 25 He couldn’t pay, so his master ordered that he be sold– along with his wife, his children, and everything he owned– to pay the debt. 26 “But the man fell down before his master and begged him, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I will pay it all.’ 27 Then his master was filled with pity for him, and he released him and forgave his debt.

He didn’t do what the man asked for, the man asked for more time ‘give me more time and I’ll pay it back’ but the master released him from this debt and gave him a chance to start over

 28 “But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment. 29 “His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it,’ he pleaded. 30 But his creditor wouldn’t wait. He had the man arrested and put in prison until the debt could be paid in full.

So many times I believe that is the way we may want to react, what’s in my best interest. It allows me to be the insider and the other person to be the outsider. Frequently the biggest critique of Christians is that they act, not like God, not like the Father in the parable of the prodigal son, but rather like the older brother or the forgiven slave. Forgiveness is good for me but these other people are still sinners, they still owe me, the things they have done still define them as people who need to be punished, shunned, set aside. I’ve got to be honest that in a lot of my conversations with people outside the church the most common reason they are no longer a part of the church has nothing to do with any philosophy, or anything on TV, radio or the internet and everything to do with how they were not met with forgiveness by others within the church. Somehow they were marked as the sinner, the outcast, the untouchable. And so it shouldn’t be surprising that the story continues with Matt 18:31-33 and the horror of the other slaves seeing how this forgiven slave acted in light of the incredible forgiveness he received.


31 “When some of the other servants saw this, they were very upset. They went to the king and told him everything that had happened. 32 Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’

You see God wants to meet us in grace, God wants to meet us in justice and it goes back to us not living out the love and grace we have been given. And I think it wounds God when we abuse the gifts that have been given to us, when we set ourselves up as better than everyone else. When we receive grace and turn to the rest of the world in judgment. And I think God wants to meet us in grace, but I also have come to believe that if the only place we can meet God is in law, justice and judgment, then God will meet us there as well. The parable concludes:

 34 Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt. 35 “That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.”

I’ve got to be honest, I don’t like the end of this, it makes me uncomfortable. Yet, I know that there are times where God has to come to me and remind me, ‘Neil this is not the life you are called to.’ ‘This is not who you are called to be, you are called to be on the journey of forgiveness.’ And it is a journey, and there are times where you may say ‘I forgive something’ and then something comes up and you realize you are still viewing your neighbor in terms of things they have done in the past. I had to learn this in my own life and journey, and I still bear scars from where I have been wounded. The reality is that there is a risk that comes with forgiveness, that you are opening yourself up to the possibility of being hurt again. And what happens if the other person doesn’t accept the forgiveness you offer. That doesn’t exempt you from the calling to be forgiving, and to be on that journey yourself. Forgiveness opens the possibility of reconciliation happening. And I know that there are wounds that may be too deep to forgive at that moment, but we are called to be on that journey. A person who I’ve learned a lot from is a man who grew up in the former Yugoslavia and is Croatian in background, a man named Miroslav Volf, and those who know a little of the history of Europe in the 1990s, this was the area of Bosnia and Kosovo where the Serbians and Croatians were in a conflict, an ancient conflict that had its roots hundreds of years earlier that was brought to the forefront in the 1990s when the Serbians were in power and began to move towards wiping out the Croatians, destroying entire villages, committing incredible atrocities and killing thousands while displacing tens of thousands. Sometime shortly after the events in Bosnia, Miroslav was working on his PhD in Germany working through the idea of forgiveness and embracing the enemy when another well known scholar, Jürgen Moltmann, said to him Miroslav could you embrace a chětnik, the very soldiers who had done all this to your people? And Miroslav’s answer was I believe an honest one, “No, but I don’t believe that is where God calls me to be.” Even genocide requires forgiveness. Doesn’t mean it is an easy journey and there may be something that is so horrible where our answer is also, “No, but I don’t believe that is where God calls me to be.” As Archbishop Desmond Tutu could say in the midst of the Truth and Reconciliation committees after Apartheid in South Africa, ‘There is no future without forgiveness’.

Forgiveness is the one thing we are called upon to do in the midst of the Lord’s prayer: to forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, or forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Or as one of my friends who is a pastor in Washington State related a story to me of a young girl learning the Lord’s prayer, and not knowing what trespassing was she said, “Forgive us our trash-passing as we forgive those who trash-pass against us.” The wisdom of children, so forgive us our trash-passing as we forgive those who trash pass against us.

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The Playground of the Mind



I wonder and imagine and play
With the past and present and future
Real and imaginary, fantasy and reality
All ready to coexist in the playground of my mind

And like a child entering a room full of toys
Anything is possible to be manipulated and combined
In the service of play and delight
The experimentation of the possible
And the boundaries of the unimaginable
Become the field of play

Sometimes I feel like the master of that universe
Able to manipulate the winds of creation
To serve my own whims and will
Oftentimes I am blown here and there by the winds of curiosity
Distractedly moving from one shiny object to another
And at the end of the day when I am exhausted by the work of the day
When I lay down upon my bed and close my eyes
The child continues to run untiringly in the playground of my mind
Reveling in the mystery of the subconscious
And dancing through my dreams with his muddy footprints

Neil White, 2013

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Dark Days


There are days where the emptiness takes over
And nothing can fill the abyss inside
When the successes of the past are transformed
Into the bars that the future can never measure up to
And the idealization of the way things were
Steals the joy of the present and the hope of tomorrow
And the emptiness of the house echoes
With the hollow sounds of failure.

When my own insatiable expectations overwhelm
My all too limited time and abilities
Where my spirit chastises weaknesses
Weaknesses others never see

Then as inexplicably as the appearance
Of the dark clouds the sun re-emerges
The dark day passes and the flowers
Of new life emerge in its light

On my journeys I know that the dark days
Pass and that the sunlight returns
Yet, my heart aches for those who dwell
Trapped within the darkness of their own minds
Isolated from their own brightly burning light
And I pray that their dark days
May pass into the breaking of a new dawn

Neil White, 2013

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The Grudge- A Poem

I captured a grudge to let loose on you
For grudges are common in Kalamazoo
I found one the right size, it fit in my hand
For a fully grown grudge can swallow a man

It started so small, such the simplest slight
But I held this small creature with all o’my might
I held it so tightly, there in my hand
’til its tail wrapped around my arm like a band

And it brought me some comfort right there a’first
As it fed off my anger and purred with each curse
But the longer I held it the more that it grew
And its fur turned to spikes which wounded me too

I want to let go but I no longer know how
For its beady red eyes are eyeing me now
The grudge in my hands that I’m holding so tight
No longer resembles the original slight

This once tiny grudge that I should’ve set free
I held it so tightly that it’s now part of me
What once was so small that it fit in my hand
Has grown up until it has swallowed this man

Neil White 2013

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Means of Perception



In her insightful survey of Romantic philosophy’s concept of the imagination and the 20th Century critique of that concept, Mary Warnock arrives at the conclusion that, “Imagination is our means of interpreting the world, and it is also our means of forming images in the mind. The images themselves are not separate from our interpretations of the world; they are our way of thinking of the objects in the world.” (Warnock, 1976, p. 194) The journey with her throughout the study was full of realizations, but what I want to focus in on was a leap I made from her final conclusion to think more about these interpreted images that form in our memories and worldviews and ideas. At this point this is an intuitive jump that may be played out in more recent philosophy and science and it bears further investigation, but one of the processes of discovery is stating an idea and seeing if it remains true under further dialogue and observation.

Philosophers like Hume and Kant would point to the concept of imagination which allows us to realize that objects continue to exist and are indeed the same object when we encounter them at a later point, but this level of imagination is exhibited very early in life and by the time a child surpasses 12-18 months and has a sense of object permanence to use Jean Piaget’s language our imaginations have already become far more intricate than Hume and Kant would suggest. If imagination is involved in the ‘image making’ in our mind it is also responsible for the interpretation of these images, and these images are not like pictures, nor are they merely like ideas-perhaps a better word is they form interrelated constructs. When I encounter a person, for example, I don’t just take a mental picture of that person and store it in my memory, not even a three dimensional portrait, I take in much more information than that. I also am taking in the environment that I meet this person within, I am making value judgments about this individual, I am interpreting who they are within a web of relationships, I am interpreting their communication (not just spoken words, but also body language, tone and many other ways of interpreting the meaning of their communication) and I am placing them within a narrative or story. In even the simplest interaction there is far more data around me than my eyes and mind can possibly interpret so my mind has to know how to filter and pay attention to what is important. In a familiar environment we tend to pay less attention to the objects within that environment unless something changes, we filter out noise to be able to pay attention to a particular conversation and we decide what types of things from an interaction might be worth remembering. Yet with all this data we are not just passively acquiring information, but we are constantly interpreting and seeking meaning within the data. Even our most basic interpersonal interactions require a huge amount of creativity as we try to understand and interpret what another person is thinking and how they might interact with us next. For example, in the context of a job interview the person being interviewed is probably observing how the person conducting the interview is responding to the answer they are given since it will probably impact whether they are offered the job or not. At the same time this same person is attempting to make inferences about what it would be like to work with this person and make a value judgment if this is a job that they want. In interpersonal interactions this is what had been referred to as theory of mind (the realization that the other person has thoughts, feelings, intents and desires and that are distinct from one’s own thoughts, feelings, intents and desires, combined with the ability to interpret and predict those feelings).

Yet, while imagination is certainly involved in interpreting and giving meaning to the communications and the images or constructs within the appropriate environment, time, story, etc. it also must be involved in much more. For our imagination is able to take these communications and constructs which have been stored in our memory and continue to manipulate them. Sometimes this manipulation will be within a normal frame of reality and may be as simple as replaying an interaction either for further interpretation (did they really think this) or for continued learning (if this happens again I would do/say this) and sometimes we place or manipulate objects and transform them into new things in a different reality.

If we want to imagine an unreal creature or an unreal world we, by necessity, start with the world we know. For example if we were to imagine an imaginary creature like a dragon, we would in this case have many other people’s images of dragons in many media, but if we were to create a new dragon we would probably begin with creatures we are familiar with, like a lizard or a bird and continue to modify it in a way that fit that new reality. Or if you were to design a life-form for an imagined world, or the landscape for an imagined world you would start from the world you know and modify it based on some creative leaps. We can also imagine interactions with people that have never happened but are intelligent guesses  based upon previous interactions.

I’ve quickly moved into the realm of speculation, but I wanted to get some of these thoughts down so that as I continue to encounter some more recent work on imagination and experience I can test some of these ideas.


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The Father’s We Seek

Saint Joseph the Carpenter, Georges de La Tour (1640)

Saint Joseph the Carpenter, Georges de La Tour (1640)

On Mother’s Day I wrote about women being more than mothers, and on Father’s Day I’m going to take a different angle because I think men struggle with a different issue and that is in society they are at best fathers only after they are whatever other role they have. To understand why this is I’m going to approach the male concept of shame, which is different than shame for women. For women shame comes from the inability to fit into the expectations of perfection defined first by looks and second by motherhood. Shame for women comes from how others view you and how you view yourself. Shame for men comes from being perceived as being weak or a failure. For men the societal expectations are: emotional control, primacy of work, pursuit of status and finally violence (the ability to take or protect that which is yours). Yet in relationships men are expected to put these things aside and be vulnerable, to share in the nurturing of children, to show restraint (it is very easy for a man to injure a child just due to the strength differential and the preponderance of rough play that is sought from fathers by boys and girls alike), and to enter into a world that is still defined by women’s expectations in the home. Just as women have struggled with the predominantly male expectations of the world of work, men have struggled with the very different set of expectations within the home.

Just as there was a time when a woman’s worth was tied to her ability to bear children, a man’s worth is still tied to his ability to provide security in terms of protection, shelter, food and comfort. Men are still primarily viewed as producers in society, and some of this is reflected in the way that employers view men taking time off for their family’s needs. Men do not give birth, but frequently they are expected to be back on the job within days of their wife or significant other giving birth. Men are looked upon as not having their work priorities straight if they take time off to be with a sick loved one, and this also  can extend to women as well-but the societal expectations are not as strong (although the expectations of perfection that women in the workplace put on themselves may be).

Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are important and should be celebrated, but I get the impression that of the two holidays Father’s Day is viewed as the lesser of the two. Perhaps this is because for men fatherhood is a secondary identity, second to their ‘real’ identity in the world of work. In the past couple generations while the role of men as fathers has changed the expectations in the working world have not decreased, nor has their compensation increased and like women they find themselves trying to live well between the worlds of word and home. As the workplace is learning to value women for who they are and the gifts they bring (and I understand that there is still a lot of work that needs to be done here), so in the world of the home as men become an increasing part of the world at home it will mean that the expectations in this world will need to begin to shift as well to be able to account for the gifts that men and women can bring.

I know I am leaving the issue of single parenthood unaddressed, which I definitely sympathize with being a single dad, but on Father’s Day I hope I was able to help us think about how we might help our young men be the fathers we hope they will be.

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The Glorious Freedom of Creative Mistakes


We are limited beings who do attempt to make sense of our world and we have the gifts of perception and communication which help us to do that. Our perception allows us to see and experience the world and communication allows us to learn from the experiences and intuitions of others and our minds are not machines. We cannot, like Descartes wanted to do many years ago, separate our mind from our bodies and senses-they are real, the mind and body are integrated and even if a sense doesn’t work, for example in the case of a person who is unable to see or hear, we find other ways of perceiving and communicating about the world around us. We make a lot of assumptions and inferences about the world around us and we try to set up closed systems to make everything fit, but combined with this comfort that comes from certainty is the joy that comes with discovery. As we encounter the world and interact with others there will be times where we discover new connections and have to expand our system to make sense of the new ideas or images we encounter. Sometimes these new paradigms come from outside us, when we through communication or observation come into contact with another person’s or group’s way of explaining something. So for example a person who encounters Newton’s physics in high school which would explain gravity in terms of the attraction between two objects may later in their life encounter relativity theory where gravity is explained very differently and in a way that makes more sense given what we know about the universe and perhaps sometime later would encounter a completely new explanation. Yet, we don’t magically jump from one explanation to another on our own, the road to discovery is paved with numerous failed attempts and creative mistakes.

Jacob Bronowski uses the example of a chess player when he says:

“Why does one chess player play better than another?”The answer is not that the one who plays better makes fewer mistakes, because in a fundamental way the one who plays better makes more mistakes, by which I mean more imaginative mistakes. He sees more ridiculous alternatives. (Bronowski, 1978, p. 110f)

Yet, as a person who knows the rules of chess but has never studied the strategy of chess, I would not play a challenging game to a chess master because I don’t have enough information to make new imaginative mistakes. There is something to understanding the systems that are already existent and then being able to manipulate them, experiment with them and see where there may be new places to discover. In the process of manipulation and experimentation we come up with possible explanations or visualizations which most of the time are not true. This is not just in the realm of science, but also in the realm of art where it is true that there are more bad works of art than good ones. It takes a lot of attempts to become good at any art, and in the midst of the attempts we learn. Every great imaginative construct, whether it be in science or art, begins as an exploration of past errors. One of our greatest freedoms is the ability to learn from our mistakes rather than being defined by them.

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The Gift of Self Reference and Necessary Imaginative Constructs


As I mentioned at the beginning of the post Metaphors of Reality we try to make sense of ourselves, the world and (at least for those who think in spiritual or religious terms) God. But one of the struggles we have is that we never have a ‘God’s eye’ view of reality and that our view is always provisional. Unlike in the gospel stories which sometimes have an all seeing narrator (who for example sees what is going on in the temptation of Jesus) we are limited to the things we have experienced through our senses, the creative leaps we have made through our imagination and the constructs we have learned from our conversations with others. We take all these pieces of reality as we perceive them and try to decode our world and experiences “by a highly imaginative, creative piece of guesswork. But we finish with something that is only a gigantic metaphor for that part of the universe which we are decoding.” (Bronowski 1978, 70) We attempt to make sense of things and we construct systems that seem to make sense of the world with some things we are fairly certain of, others less so, and some just our best guess at the time. Sometimes there are things we believe that we cannot prove, that doesn’t mean they are not true-just that they cannot be proved. That is the reality of living in which our perception and knowledge are incomplete and bound by constraints and self reference.

One of the vanities of the modern (note I am talking modern as a category, not necessarily in terms of recent) philosophy that emerged in the 18th century in the wake of the Enlightenment was that it believed that it could penetrate reality and get to absolute truth. That for example if you could peel away the encrusted layers of tradition you could actually get back to the real history of what happened-and while there were many useful insights gained from this dedicated effort to get back to the facts as well as the dialogues that came out of different interpretations of the same data, but we never are truly free of self reference. For a lot of people this is looked upon primarily as an issue to be apologized for, but I want to suggest this is one of the things that allow creativity to thrive. In contrast to a computer which understands its inputs in terms of its coding and programming that when it encounters a novel experience that doesn’t fit within the world of its programming either creates an error or the computer ignores the anomaly, humans are able to integrate experiences in creative ways into their worldview. We are not limited by one set of constructs which we make sense of the world; instead humans are constantly experiencing and growing in our interaction with others and the world around us.

We need the imaginative constructs, the language and systems and science we learn from others to make communication possible, so for example within linear mathematics we can feel confident that 1 + 1= 2, or that in speech the letter ‘c’ will make certain sounds, or that in the world of Newtonian physics every action will have an equal and opposite reaction. We need laws, theorems and systems to make sense of the world, but these laws, theorems and systems are not absolute because there are times when we will experience things that do not make sense within the constructs we may have accepted. As Bronowski alludes to when he states, “The fact that we are content, when running into this kind of difficult, to reanalyze the system, to seek a new consistent formulation, is terribly important.” (Bronowski 1978, 87)Without the ability to seek a better system that makes sense of ourselves and our world we would be limited in our understanding to the knowledge and systems that were handed on to us. The experience is always in reference to the self, it is using our senses and our intellect to interpret that experience within the memory of our previous experiences and knowledge, and yet because of this self reference we are able to challenge external references and experiences. We seek consistency, we want things to make sense, but the experience that does not make sense for many is actually an exciting process of discovery. Let’s say, for example, that we had received a way of evaluating others passed down from our parents that, “blondes have more fun.” So long as our experience of people having blonde hair being fun people to be around holds up we might assume this random piece of a world to be true. Yet, once we encounter a person who has blonde hair who is not fun to be around we have several options of how we might proceed: we might challenge the assumption (are blondes really more fun?), we might wonder if this person is an exception to the rule (and the ability for there to be exceptions is also an imaginative leap), we might wonder if blonde is really their natural color (providing we understand that people can change their hair color) but the reality is that we will attempt to make sense of a disparity we have encountered. This is the way for example that prejudices may change when a person has experiences that challenge that prejudice, or new scientific discoveries are made when data doesn’t fit the previously assumed construct, or a new challenge presents itself based on technologies not previously available. Our ability to take in new challenges and experiences and in light of our knowledge and memory to make sense of them in a new way, even if it is only a creative piece of guesswork, and then see if this piece of guesswork seems to hold true is a part of the experimentation that opens new horizons in the imagination.

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Church in a Risky Environment

Unstable environment

I had the privilege to be a part of a pair of lectures by Diana Butler Bass last weekend at my synod convention which really helped me get a better view of the spiritual climate change going on within the country. There has been a lot of press given to the decline of the mainline denominations, which includes the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America which I am a pastor within, and there have been a number of ‘self-help’ approaches to the problem trying to create better programming, better worship experiences, better outreach, better stewardship and the list can go on and on. It is not that the people doing ministry today are less skilled than people doing ministry in the 1950s and 1960s when many congregations were experiencing their peaks, but the reality is that they are trying to be church in a risky and changing environment. This first post will deal with some of the more depressing information, but be patient-I actually found a lot of hope in the midst of what I learned.

Over the past five decades the percentage of the population that identifies itself as Christian has gone from 97% to 73% with the largest drop being among white Protestant Christians, which have dropped from 66% of the population to 48% between 1960 and 2012. Most people would assume that when you split the Protestants into Mainline Protestants (typically more moderate to liberal including the United Methodist Church (UMC), Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA), Episcopal Church, American Baptist Church, the United Church of Christ (UCC), Disciples of Christ and the Reformed Church USA) and into Evangelical Protestants (which are too numerous to mention but for the purposes of study included groups that identified as Evangelical, Fundamentalist, and Charismatic) were declining at the same rate. This seems counterintuitive since there are most mega-churches are evangelical in their leaning, but the reality is that they are predominantly absorbing members from other congregations. Another surprise was the fastest declining denomination was the Southern Baptists, which in the current culture should not be surprising, but nobody has been talking about the Evangelical decline until fairly recently. Catholics are holding steady, primarily because of immigration and black or Hispanic communities of faith are either holding their own or growing as a percentage of the population. This has also been the time where the ‘nones’ which include atheists, agnostics, nothing in particular and spiritual but not religious went from registering as roughly 1% of the population to 20%, 1 in 5.

One of the most common reactions to changes in the environment around any person or group is fear, and fear has definitely been a driving force for many Christian groups in the recent years. There is almost a militant reaction against the current culture by some of the more conservative religious organizations and individuals. Especially after the last Presidential Election Campaign was complete there was a lot of evidence (which I will share in the next presentation) that they no longer were the decisive block that could determine who would remain in power, and as they look at the manner in which their cohort is aging the news gets worse. Sometimes this has even turned to rhetoric claiming that they are being oppressed for their religious viewpoints because not everyone will concede that their viewpoint is correct, when the reality is that they are now one within a much more varied religious landscape where there is no clear majority and no one group has a monopoly on defining religion and spirituality within the current culture. For some people what I have shared today is incredibly bad news, as will be some of the information I share in some upcoming posts, but it also represents an incredible possibility to re-imagine the way we are church in a changing culture and how we have a dialogue about issues of faith in our culture.

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