By Jim Ginn
When I was a school age boy, I had a tendency to make up words, usually quite by accident. One day I complained to my mother that I had a troublem. I don't remember the problem that troubled me or if she helped me solve it. But Mom giggled at my new word, and we both never forgot it.
During the final week of our month in New Zealand I found myself ruminiscing (ruminate/reminisce) while actively experiencing the wonders of nature in this indescribably beautiful country far from home. I think the reason my soul is primed to ruminisce is a troublem that has nagged me for some time. I no longer find it possible to profess some religious beliefs that were nurtured in me by beloved and respected people in my life both past and present.
Three times I was spellbound by the southern night sky in a remote area called the Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve on New Zealand's South Island. The stunning clarity of the expansive view into infinity was heart-stopping, breath-taking, mind-boggling, thought-provoking, gut-wrenching, soul-searching splendor. I wanted to cry out, "What's out there? Who's out there?!" How can we be so insular in our beliefs when faced with the undeniable reality of an unfathomable universe, particularly a universe with an astoundingly high probability of intelligent extraterrestrial life?
What does this mean for we who have earnestly ordered our lives on biblical writings about a god who ruled over twelve tribes in a tiny region of the earth millennia ago? What bearing does it have on the message of a man named Jesus of Nazareth who couldn't possibly have comprehended the extent of the universe, but who fully understood the needs of an oppressed people in their own small world?
I've read a few books lately, and highly recommend them: "Hoping Against Hope" by John D. Caputo, "Anatheism" by Richard Kearney, "The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe" by Sean Carroll, "Worlds without End: The Many Lives of the Multiverse" by Mary-Jane Rubenstein, and "The Evolution of God" by Robert Wright.
Here are some of the things these books have caused me to think about.
As I consider the heavens, I am filled with awe and wonder. Perhaps God created the universe, or perhaps the universe just is. We cannot know which alternative is true. But this I do believe. If I am created, so are all living beings in the universe. If I am loved, so are they. The concept of being selectively saved, elect or chosen is a control mechanism and exclusionary nonsense. But love is real and eternal. I believe a spirit of goodness and love calls humanity to compassionate action. Could that same spirit of love reach beyond earth, beyond humanity? I believe it can. I hope it does.
So where does this leave me and my troublem? It's lent; perhaps I could just let it go, give it up. Perhaps I could lean in and be at peace with the unfolding evolution of my beliefs. I could embrace wonder, awe, love and gratitude, and redouble my efforts to help make this a better world for everyone.
By Jim Segaar
Even though Pastor Tim and I currently are in different hemispheres, we seem to be thinking about some of the same things! Last Sunday Tim preached about Truth, and about that time I was writing in my personal blog about Perception. Perhaps a bit of explanation is in order.
A few days ago JG and I bicycled along Lake Takapo in New Zealand, under the shadow of Mt. Cook, the tallest peak in the country. We did an out and back on a section of the Alps to Ocean trail, one of the gems of bicycle touring in New Zealand. It was spectacularly beautiful, and got me thinking about life, and work, and religion, and truth.
We began by riding 20 kilometers north toward the mountains, and the views were absolutely thrilling. Enormous glaciated peaks and aqua water and fall colors – it made us think that Lake Washington might have some real competition to host the “most beautiful lake ride” in the world. Then we turned around and rode the same section south – the direction most Alps to Ocean bikers travel, and the views were still beautiful – aqua water and hills – but not as magnificent as they had been to the north. I would not be surprised if the majority of Alps to Ocean riders focus on the beauty to the south – the view right in front of them – without realizing that even more spectacular scenery is right behind them, just 180 degrees away.
That experience reminded me of one of the silliest moments in my IT career. I was in a meeting with 30 other managers, and one of them was ranting about the poor quality of communication she got from her team. She was sick of options and opinions and theories. “I just want to know the truth!” she shouted. I apparently forgot where I was, and responded with a question. “But what if there is no such thing as truth? What if there is only perception?” She looked at me like I was speaking in Esperanto. An uncomfortable silence came over the room until we switched to another topic.
That exchange illustrates what I believe is a fundamental principle about our world. Truth, as certain and sure as we all want it to be, rarely exists. We deal constantly with perceptions – ours and other people’s – and those perceptions often vary significantly. Have you ever heard multiple eyewitness accounts of some event that vary dramatically? It’s not necessarily because someone is lying, but rather that the witnesses actually experienced the event differently. They are sharing their perception.
I find it ironic that we seem to get the most certain about our personal truths in the areas where we have the fewest facts to work with, like religion. In college as a freshman I took a required “Humanities” class in a huge lecture hall. It was taught by several professors, all of whom were riveting speakers. I think it was Dr. Mead who covered the topic of “truth.” “Here are three statements of fact,” he began. “E=MC2. 2 + 2 = 4. There is no God but Allah. Which of those is always true?” Someone correctly called out the last phrase, because Einstein’s Theory of Relativity will be proved wrong at some point and arithmetic depends on what base number system one is using. Only a religious truth could be eternal.
And that’s the problem, in my opinion. In an area of our lives where we have no facts, where what we believe most likely depends on where we were born and who we grew up with, we claim to have eternal truth, the only truth, the one truth. We claim to be forever right, and everyone else forever wrong. But what we really have is our own perceptions, our own interpretations, our own experiences. We don’t know, cannot perceive, would not understand the truth.
Jesus is quoted as saying “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” He made that statement in a specific context – while talking to a group of Jews who “had believed him.” (John 8.31-31, NIV) And to me, that statement represents Jesus’ perception at that moment, with those people. We are more likely to set ourselves and others free when we admit that when it comes to truth, all we really have is our own perception.
By Jim Segaar
Near the Anglican Cathedral in Christchurch, New Zealand, is a small stone wall with a large inscription on it: “Let these stones speak of a love that endures forever.” Just beyond those hopeful words sits the remains of the cathedral, which was badly damaged during earthquakes in 2010 and 2011 and has not yet been demolished, repaired, or replaced.
The irony is inescapable. Cathedral Square is in the center of downtown Christchurch. The old cathedral itself sits surrounded by a high wall, weeds 3 feet high, odd traffic cones and bits of equipment. The building is less than a skeleton – perhaps half a skeleton. Nearby many buildings are still boarded up. Others have been demolished. One or two structures look new, but not very many. Add to that a bunch of torn-up streets, and the effect is quite depressing.
I checked the cathedral’s website to see what is going on. The congregation has moved two blocks east to the famous “Cardboard Cathedral.” The structure is much nicer than its name implies, and dioceses calls it by the more suitable title “Transitional Cathedral.” Their website is firmly focused on life in their new building. We attended an Evensong service featuring the choir of boys and men, and it was beautiful. Even though the structural elements included shipping containers and lots of drapery, it’s easy to see that living in a cardboard cathedral is eminently better than mourning amidst a pile of rocks.
And yet the impact on downtown is sobering. All roads lead to the derelict cathedral. It was actually a bit difficult finding the transitional one amid the construction fences. I had to dig around to find any plans for the wreck. Apparently the town government is trying to encourage the dioceses to do something, but the church makes the point that it owns 290 buildings, 230 of which were damaged, and it has other priorities right now. So at this date the stone skeleton lays silent, falling further into decay inside its prettily-painted fence.
I was reminded of our own earthquake travails at Seattle First Baptist. When our building sustained significant damage during the Nisqually Earthquake in 2001, we acted swiftly and decisively. After a brief discussion we moved forward with repairs, and within a year or so the necessary repairs were made and paid for. Thankfully the damage to our facility was much less severe, but the cost and effort was still substantial.
In this season of Reimaging Lent, I find these church buildings to be powerful metaphors for my personal faith. My childhood faith was shaken to its core when I was young. By the time I was 13 things didn’t seem to make sense. In my 20s, when I came out as a gay man, my next three trips to my sister’s church each included a special mention of the “abomination” that I was, all recited by her pastor while his eyes rested on me. That experience cracked whatever foundation was left of my faith.
I let this crumbled mess lie fallow in my heart for years. Eventually I found a transitional church, and finally found a faith community I could call home at SFBC. But the wreck was still there, lurking in the background, generating doubt now and then, a source of depression. Only in recent years have I decided to demolish that old wreck and clear the debris, as well as one can clean up a psychic mess.
This year I am challenged to move on. My faith needed more than a few repairs. I needed a new place for my spirit, and I found one. And now I find that I need to formally declare the past to be just that – past. It’s time to stop focusing on what I don’t believe and start articulating what my soul is now passionate about. I feel free in a way I never have before, but to get here I needed to climb out of my pile of rocks.
I’ve seen several agonizing articles written by “former Evangelicals” recently who have discovered that the church they thought they belonged to has crumbled into an amoral heap. The writers are devastated, struggling to figure out where to go, what to do. My advice: clean up the mess and move on.
By Jim Segaar
With six grandparents (and one great grandparent) as siblings, I’ve spent a fair bit of time in the company of (or at least talking about) small children, even though I have no children or grandchildren of my own. As an outside observer, I’ve come recognize a combined look of pride and consternation on faces of parents and grandparents when their offspring begin to assert independence, loudly proclaiming “Me do it myself!”
Pastor Tim Phillips’ recent sermon, Tempted To Go It Alone, reminded me of that look. For me, it represents the uneasy relationship our culture has constructed with the concept of independence. We want our children to be able to take care of themselves so they can survive and thrive in a sometimes-hostile world. But most parents also recognize that “Me Do It Myself” should have some limits. It’s one thing to allow a two-year-old to select bananas in the Produce section. Quite another to let a toddler pick up a watermelon.
My career in Information Technology provides another perspective on this idea. I started out as a one-person development shop – designing, building, and supporting small systems on my own. I ended my career in leadership positions at a large corporation, where we spent seemingly endless hours convincing developers and engineers that they needed to talk to each other, to understand how what they did affected everyone else, how they could not succeed while maintaining a “Me Do It Myself” attitude. Even during my one-person development days I depended on others to do my job. Executives allocated funds, managers requisitioned equipment, co-workers installed networks and managed mainframes. Work was a team effort.
I’m struck how this plays out in politics. When I hear a politician’s version of “Me Do It Myself” I have one of two reactions – considering him or her either a disingenuous blowhard or a delusional baby, or both. Despite what our culture screams, very little in today’s world happens when we insist on doing it ourselves. The biggest successes and the most horrific disasters involve many people, each playing a part. Neil Armstrong needed help to walk on the moon, and Hitler relied on a nation to murder millions.
So what does any of this have to do with religion and spirituality? In my experience, that’s the realm where “Me Do It Myself” has run amuck the most. Over the years, I’ve met a few too many people who seem to use their “personal relationship with Christ” as carte blanche to trash their fellow human beings and the world we share. I hear people gush about Jesus as if he is their very own best friend. I am more impressed by the collective aspects of spirituality. Every significant spiritual experience I’ve had has involved other people. A “me do it myself with my buddy Jesus” attitude toward religion strikes me as disingenuous and childish. If Jesus had been a complete loaner, a self-made messiah, his message would have died on that cross.
I believe that spirituality and religion are group endeavors, and that we do ourselves and our neighbors harm when we insist otherwise. Our church’s mission statement claims that we are “a community of faith,” not a collection of faithful individuals. When my faith allows or requires me to forget the people, animals and plants that I share this planet with, it does me and them a great disservice. And I say that as an extreme introvert, who would fade away if I never had any alone time. Yes, at times I need to be alone, but to be fully alive I need to live in community.
I am supremely unqualified to use sports analogies, lacking even a modicum of what seems to be a “normal” fascination with teams playing games, but I do love opera, and I know it takes a company to put on a show. Soloists get nowhere without a crew and cast and orchestra and administration, not to mention patrons and audience members.
And so it goes with our life as a faith community. We can only be a people of God when we come together, when we grow out of “Me Do It Myself” and learn to celebrate our reliance on each other. We as individuals do matter, but we need each other to thrive. When one of us goes missing we all feel the loss.
This blog includes thoughts from various contributors at Seattle First Baptist