Life is Good. Life is Hard

My two year old daughter Marel came within a minute of dying this morning. I was lying in bed, trying to catch a few extra minutes of sleep, when I heard this horrifying choked off cry right next to me.

Marel had gotten her neck stuck in the cord of the mini-blind and was hanging there, unable to breathe. She had climbed on the bed with her siblings a few minutes earlier, and one of them had opened the blind, to let in light and wake me up.

The next minute or so were the worst moments of my life. Barely awake, I could hardly see as I didn't have my glasses, and I couldn't get the cord loose from her neck. "Get me a knife," I screamed at the two other kids, trying desperately to get here lose.

Thankfully, my brain kicked in and I lifted Marel up, loostening the cord, and I could get her free. She was terrified.

Within two minutes, she was happy as a clam, asking me to make her pancakes.

Life is good. And life is terrifying, all at the same time.

As the Real Live Preacher points out, few Christians are willing to admit this.

Here's how he put it:

I believed then and still believe that many Christians are not honest about their own failings, sins, and disappointments. Like Martha Stewart, they try to sell a sugary, imaginary world of happiness to people who are hurting and looking for real answers.

If you want to read a story about real life struggle from a person of faith, you may want to read The Monster in My Closet by Art Greco. Art is a pastor, and just about the most outgoing and enthusiastic people I know. He also suffered from a crippling depression years ago, a depression so bad at it's onset that Art was unable even to remember where he lived--he just drove through his neighborhood, clicking his garage door opener, and hoping one of the doors would open.

It's definitely not an "I'm a happy Christian" story. But it's real, and it's true.


Rabbits and Stem Cells

A few weeks back I got an email from a medical school student at Northwestern--a student group was putting on a forum on stem cells, and she wanted to know if I'd be a part of it. The forum got canceled when another, larger student group scheduled a stem cell forum the same day.

Still, I'd been thinking some more about stem cells, and wanted to post a couple of thoughts.

First of all, let me say right up front that the goal of embryonic stem cell research is to cure people. Potentially millions of people. It's a great goal, in theory. So is world peace. Making that goal a reality is the hard part.

As William Saletan pointed out, support for stem cell reseach has become a crusade, cloaked in quasi-religious appeals to the miracles of science. Here's how Saletan described it:

  • The stem-cell movement has become ideological. One scientist who is organizing his colleagues for Kerry told the Post that stem-cell research has become an "icon" for broader complaints about Bush's policies. He added that his group has adopted "ideology trumps science" as its theme. A Democratic political strategist told American Demographics, "It's more than just stem-cell research—it's the symbolism of announcing a plan to eradicate major diseases, and part of the Baby Boomers' health care crisis."

  • To protect the symbolism, facts must be shaded. Kerry's pollsters must phrase the destruction of embryos in the past tense to dissociate this unpleasant necessity from the benefits of stem-cell research.

  • The research must be insulated from comparative cost-benefit analysis by asking voters, through ballot measures, to designate billions of dollars exclusively for stem-cell work instead of other medical studies. California is now pursuing this; House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi wants other states to follow suit.

  • Any limit on stem-cell funding must be vilified as immoral. Stem cells pose a choice "between true compassion and mere ideology," Ron Reagan declared in his convention speech. In a statement yesterday, John Edwards warned critics, "It is against our national character to look the other way when people are suffering."

The Revealer found an LA Times piece that makes Saletan's second point crystal clear. Opponents of Proposition 71, a stem cell funding bill, have apparently given up the moral argument and gone for the cost benefit analysis. California is broke and can't afford the 6 billion dollars that a proposed new Institute for Regenerative Medicine focused on embryonic stem cells. The Times piece (and the Revealer) dismiss this idea out of hand:

"Arguing against Proposition 71 on its cost seems akin to opposing capital punishment on the grounds that a state can't afford the electricity bills."

I cannot make this point more plainly--if embryonic stem cells were as much a sure thing as the electric chair is, Proposition 71 would disappear. Private investors would be lined up to drop money in researchers pockets. They aren't because embryonic stem cells therapies haven't shown any evidence that actual cures would be forthcoming in the forseeable future.

It's worth comparing embryonic stem cells to a previous miracle technology--in vitro fertilization (IVF). IVF was so controversial that the US government refused to fund it in the beginning, even thought it's backers--infertile couples--were just as passionate for babies as stem cell supporters are for cures today. Here's the difference--someone figured out how to make IVF work, and so private funders fronted the money that made the technology go. That's not happening with stem cells.

Here's my second point. Even if someone could turn make embryonic stem cells work, pursuing this research is still a bad idea.

Here's why--to make it work, stem cells would need to pursue human cloning on a massive scale. There's no way around it, as far as I can see. There just aren't enought left over embryos around to supply the need for research, never mind therapies.

Amy Laura Hall, an ethicist from Duke Divinity School, put it this way in The Christian Century: By supporting embryonic stem cell research, "we endorse and encourage an elaborate, systematic, routine industry of embryo production and destruction."

We're just not thinking through the consequences here.

This past week I came across a story that makes exactly the point I'm getting after.

In his captivating and cheerful book Australia, "In a Sunburned Country author Bill Bryson relays the story of Thomas Austin, who set loose twenty-four rabbits near his home in Geelong, Victoria, so he could have something to shoot at during his walks in the bush.

It seemed harmless at the time--what harm could a few bunny rabbits do? Not much.

But 300 million of them, as Bryson points out, is an ecological nightmare.(As this before and after set of pics from an island where rabbits were finally killed off shows vividly.) By 1880, more than 2 million acres had been picked clean. A drought set in soon afterwards, and the combination of rabbits and drought made million of acres permanently desolate.

We are looking at the same kind of situation with enbryonic stem cells. If the federal government funds it and researchers find a way to make cures work, then a mass production industry, fueled by human embryos as commodities, is sure to follow.

That's not the kind of future I want to see become a reality.


Letters from God: Heavenly or Heresy?

For $5.95, you can get a letter from God's ghostwriter, who according to the Chicago Tribune, "drives a black convertible, smokes Tareytons and gives tarot readings in the kitchen of her suburban townhouse."

DirectfromGod.com is the brainchild of Linda Pearl of Bloomington, Illinois, who sends personlized letters from God to US troops and their families "to help boost morale and to bring comfort and solace into their lives during these difficult times."

James Halstead, chair of religious studies at DePaul University, is not impressed. "
"She's learned a little off the televangelists and is making six bucks a pop off it," he told the Tribune.

But the letters are OK with Adolfo Suarez of Las Vegas, who sent one to a family friend.

Suarez said critics "need to get a life. All through history there have been people who have spoken for God. The last time I checked, there wasn't a 12-page instruction manual on, `This is when God is using you; this is when God is not using you.' Who's to say that God did not use her as an instrument?"

Halstead replies that the letters don't stand up to theological scrutiny, instead offering a "confusing, highly individualized interpretation of the divine relationship."

Although they heap praise on military personnel, they also state that God mourns war. "When did humankind go so astray? " the letter asks. "When did the free will, that I wanted people to use so wisely, become so twisted and distorted, bending to rationalize even the most heinous, hideous and humiliating of choices?"

It's a slippery bit of rhetoric and fits Americans' "broader belief in God" that Halstead said allows believers to mold the divine relationship into just about any form the individual prefers. That individualistic interpretation doesn't often stand up to theological scrutiny, he said. And when such an amorphous relationship with God exists, Halstead said, he's not surprised that someone would write a letter in God's name and find a market.

"It tells me there's this longing in the United States of America for some kind of spiritual connection," Halstead said.

His advice--go visit someone you know who needs comfort, and buy someone a cup of coffee instead.


Re-Thinking Brown

"Think brown" when it comes to the future of the church. That was the advice
author and essayist Richard Rodriguez gave to a recent meeting of Episcopal bishops, according to Episcopal News Service.

The story of Christianity is the story of brown, the story of melded cultures and blended traditions, he said. An amazing array of racial and generational complexities challenge the world and the church today, Rodriguez told the bishops, who are discussing ways to deepen collegiality and hospitality.

"There is nothing browner in the history of time than the mystery of the Incarnation, of God, intruding into history, God entering history, in Jesus Christ, true God, true man, that's very brown, I think," Rodriguez said.

Rodriquez speech made some important points--one of them being that racial relationships are never as simple as black and white. But it's this question, from the ENS story, that stuck with me:

"For so many years now, we've gone all over the world teaching others. Now, can we learn from them?

That's the question facing the Episcopal Church, in the shadow of a probable censure from the Anglican communion.

Will the Episcopal Church be willing humble enough to accept the recommendations of the wider Anglican Communion, or will it fight back, witholding funds as a recent report in the Guardian hinted at?

Ironically, it is a question of browning: the majority of the Anglican commnunion is non-White and angry at the Episcopal church over the election of Gene Robinson, an openly gay bishop. This LA Times piece gives a little taste of that feeling of betrayal

There's a sense in which you are very much part of me and a very serious sense of being part of you," said the Rt. Rev. James Tengatenga, Anglican bishop of Southern Malawi in Central Africa who opposed Robinson's elevation to bishop. "I come from an angry people. I come from a very frustrated church, a church that feels it has been betrayed by its brothers and sisters," he said, referring to the dispute with the Americans.

Hopefully the Episcopal bishops will have a more enlightened view than Bishop Shelby Spong, whose views on conservative Third World bishops in Africa are at best elistist and at worst racist. Seemingingly unable to accept that these bishops are able to reach their own theological conclusions, he sees them as puppets of Western missionaries.

Here's a snippet of some of his opinions from Beliefnet.

These bishops of color, however, overwhelmingly reflected the evangelical background and style of the English, American, and Canadian missionaries who brought Christianity to the Third World during the past two centuries. The great majority of the African bishops, for example, appeared unaware of the past 200 years of critical biblical scholarship. They hadli also either not yet engaged or were resistant to new learning that had countered the old traditions on such great social issues as race and ethnicity, the emancipation of women, and the new understanding of homosexuality.

Indeed, when those issues were raised at the Lambeth Conference, the majority of the Third World bishops responded with biblical quotations designed to prohibit any further debate, just as their evangelical mentors had done generations earlier in the West. It was like listening to people caught in a time warp. They seemed not to realize that this same strategy had been used in the West to undergird slavery, segregation, and apartheid, to say nothing of protecting the divine right of kings, and asserting the flatness and centrality of the earth inside a three-tiered universe.

While I am not impressed with this response in the 21st century, I have no trouble understanding why the Third World bishops were led to adopt it. The Third World has for centuries endured colonial domination, which was used to keep the people of those nations in servile backwardness.

My impression at Lambeth was that a new form of theological colonialism was now being tried by the American, British, Australian, Canadian, and New Zealander conservatives who encouraged their Southern Hemisphere allies in these failed tactics.

So anyone who disagrees with Spong is a theological illiterate stuck in servile colonial backwardness. This from one of the most liberal minds of American Christianity.


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