Doing Vengeance Right

I take the Bible seriously (I did grow up Evangelical after all). You cannot escape the Beatitudes and think that violence is a good thing and you can’t read the end of Romans and think that vengeance is a good thing. Jesus taught what was called third way thinking: We are neither victim nor oppressor. So turning the other cheek was a gesture that made oppressors look like oppressors by attacking innocent people (thus, revealing their evil ways).

Now and then, we cannot let people keep beating up on us and allow them to continue hurting us. In my early 20’s I dated a girl for slightly over a year and a half, and the break up ended badly. Afterwards, she was malicious towards my family. She was psychologically abusive towards me. She tried to get back together so I’d help her move. She was engaged months later to someone else and was still sending me nasty emails. She wouldn’t even give me back my seasons of The Office (That Bi**h!!!). Anyways, in a season of depression after all of this ended, my friend couldn’t take seeing me this way anymore, so we devised a plan:

My friend and I knew where she was living. He picked me up in his car, and we stopped by at the grocery store. I went to the back of the store and picked up ten lbs of fresh fish. We drove 30 minutes to the apartment where she was living, and she was inside with another man (presumably her fiance). Anyways, while she was in there my friend and I went over to her car and started taking off the hubcaps. Slowly, we began placing fresh fish inside of her wheels. And, after we had crammed all of the fish we could into her hubcaps, we walked away.

By now she had already unfriended me on Facebook, but she didn’t unfriend my friend who helped me. Week after week, she would post things like, “My car smells like something died and I don’t know what happened.” Or, “My car smells awful, can someone tell me why?” She talked about looking under her seats, her engine, her trunk, her backseat but no one looks in the hubcaps.

I don’t advocate for hurting people; I just make their car smell. Do vengeance well, my friends.

The Spirituality of Dogs

The best thing to happen to me in 2017 was not getting my Master’s Degree or any other personal accomplishments but was adopting my Dalmatian, Jericho. Jericho is the most affectionate and playful dog that I have ever seen. When I come back from going somewhere, even if only for a few minutes, he pounces on me with overwhelming happiness. He even leads me to the couch and climbs on top of me where his hips are on one side of my head, and his neck is on the other, and he wraps his whole body around my neck while kissing and nibbling on my ear (it’s not erotic. Don’t judge him.) Jericho fills my life with tremendous joy.

Jericho lived with a hard task of following up my childhood dog, Riley. Riley was about half the size of Jericho (weighing slightly over 30 lbs). Riley was extremely loyal. Our family belief was that Riley didn’t perceive himself as a dog and thought he was a human. He didn’t like other dogs and seemed to look down upon them. Riley only wanted to be around us and to be a member of the family. He lived until he was sixteen years old and when he passed away, I wept like I hadn’t wept in years. I am not someone who cries much, so when I do, it’s often an indicator of not only mourning but the depth of relationship that I have just lost.

I remember several experiences in my past, however, were speaking like this would make this seem like an irrational act. I remember my freshman year of college when one of the leaders on my floor contested that dogs do not have emotions but are only driven by stimuli. Why would something be so devastating if I am relating to something that doesn’t relate back to me? I’m giving myself; he’s giving a neurological reaction.

The other was a coworker who told me that dogs are simply conditioned behaviors. Dogs only react the way we train them to react. Drawing from the behaviorist Ivan Pavlov who trained dogs to eat by ringing a bell. When a dog reacts, it’s programmed to do so. Andrew Root, when writing about his experience of dogs, is right when he contests that this is also a logical failure. If this is just hardwired behavior that made them perform these tasks that seem so loving to me, does an android phone love me when my alarm goes off each morning? After all, I have programmed this to do so. While something might be conditioned, the difference between some creatures and technological devices is that there are desires present within those creatures that are not existent within technology.

Root, in his book, The Grace of Dogs, discusses the work of Brian Hare. Hare, while doing his Ph.D. work, was working in a lab that was testing apes to see how they responded to human language and gestures. Over and over, the apes could not pick up on these aspects of verbal and embodied language. Hare brought up that he believed that his dog, Oreo, could pick up on them. Through many tests, it was shown that Oreo would respond to these gestures, and what separated Oreo (as well as other dogs), is that Oreo would look at the face before responding. If a treat were hidden under several cups, all the animals (including apes and wolves) would try and dig, knock it over, or do other means to try and attain the treat before giving up. After the dog tried to dig to get the treat, it would look upon the face of the human for some recognition or reaction. The dog would survey the face and eyes, unlike the other animals, to draw upon a solution for the treat.

As every human being knows, the face is a source of intimacy and connection. When people care for each other, they look at each other. When people are more intimate with one another, they can hold eye contact for the extended time. It is in this experience that we find a form of transcendence. We experience love in extended eye contact that makes us aware of something greater than ourselves and is bonded with one another. It’s an experience of being held, as the blind theologian John Hull, puts it in regards to the loss of his sight and the grief this caused his marriage.

This source of bonding isn’t the only means that dogs reach out to human beings. My mother often tells the story of our dog, Riley, when in one of her terrible tension headaches, Riley could sense her pain and came over and rested his head upon her to try and bring her comfort. This was not an act of sympathy, where Riley felt bad for her, but of empathy where Riley experienced her pain and shared it with her.

Root, also acknowledges the role of play, in this sort of transcendental relationship. He writes, “Play is the energy that moves us near to one another. When we take a break from the demands of everyday life, we enter a space in which we can see each other anew. For a mother with her child, playing both the way into and the witness of, a shared bond.” As I shared above, I have never met a more playful dog than Jericho. He lives to play with me. I have to constantly go to the store to buy him new toys for him to play tug of war. His embodiment communicates to us, “Let’s have fun. I enjoy your presence. You are a gift to me. I love you.”

While a dog may never be able to understand the doctrines and person of Jesus, there is a metaphysical witness present within them that reveals, Emmanuel, “God with us.” Jesus, like Jericho, like Riley, just wants to be with us. Dogs provide a witness to the type of character and love present within God.

Evangelizing to Millennials and the iGen

One of my constant struggles in reading things on social media, especially from a Christian perspective, is how they place all of the results upon themselves. A constant one that I have seen is how churches and Church leaders have treated my generation, the Millennials, in regards to faith. I have read many reports or commentaries that lives in a place of scarcity and fear that the Christian faith will die if we don’t somehow get the Millennials back into the faith and the Church. My response to this is that if they don’t want it, it’s their loss. The Church lives on not because of the sole work of Christians but rather the revitalizing work of the Holy Spirit. A fear that somehow the Church will die because some Millennials have lost faith is indicative of a mistrust of the faithfulness of God. The question then becomes, “Why would someone evangelize then, if this is predicated upon the work of the Spirit?” My answer to this is simply because God is a gift. God is continually giving God’s Self to us, and it’s our job to receive it. We, also, are made in the image of a generous God, and we should desire community not only with God, or with other believers, but with the world. We want to welcome them into receiving this beautiful gift.

It has become obviously clear, however, that in the case of the Millennials and the generation after it, the iGen, that they are less and less interested in either organized religion or spirituality altogether. For Millennials, they are increasingly identifying themselves as ‘None’s.’ These are people who don’t identify with a specific religion but try to live a more ‘Spiritual’ life. The iGen (1995-2012) are increasingly less interested in those spiritual matters altogether. What’s similar in this generation, and these will be my areas of focus for this blog, is that there is a heightened emphasis on science, technology and together they have more depression and self-esteem than past generations.

Charles Taylor, in his book The Secular Age, describes something called Excarnation. For Taylor, this idea can be described as, ““the transfer of our religious life out of bodily forms of ritual, worship, practice, so that it comes more and more to reside ‘in the head.'” The lived life of these generations is overwhelming entrenched in Excarnation. Life is more spent in front of our phones (social media), our TV’s (Netflix, Video Games, and our computers (porn). Similarly, their ideas around science are just that, ideas. Science may explain reality, but it doesn’t understand reality. It’s similar to a DSM chart around something like depression. A DSM chart may explain depression, but it doesn’t know what it is like to be depressed.

My belief in a faithful evangelism to these generation means that we don’t fight truth wars, where we battle over ideas or even try to create catchy Facebook videos to convince people of the Truth, rather, that we live flesh and blood relationships that embody and reveal the Truth of Jesus Christ. We don’t need more William Lane Craig vs. Richard Dawkins debates; these are embarrassing and unhelpful. We don’t need to have battles on Facebook about which religion is or isn’t right and why atheism is or isn’t wrong. We need people to show up, to listen, to care, to love, to understand, to know, to relate, and to be present in a way that reveals the worth and beauty that they have in God. People may think they want a like on a selfie but what they want is a friend who likes them in flesh and blood. They may think they want porn or a hookup but what they need is someone who loves them in a way where true embrace happens. They might try and escape into a fantasy of video games, but the real hope is found in God who presents the Truth within reality (Word became flesh).

The task of Christians is to also look at ourselves in the mirror and to understand how our lives might be preventing this to happen. Is our faith wrapped up merely in doctrine and ideas, or do we understand that the doctrines that we do have are centered around a person (Jesus) whose claims about who he was were proved by the life that we live? And, are we willing to live out this Truth so that we can know Jesus in the same way? Secondly, are we willing to be uncomfortable? Are we willing to listen to peoples stories of depression and hopelessness? Can we, without defensiveness, endure and listen to the frustration they may have, right or wrong, about what they believe about Christianity? Lastly, can we be committed friends, in flesh and blood, to a generation that is more detached to human beings than ever? I think that when we look at these tasks, we have some work cut out for ourselves so that we can become a hopeful, living witness to generations more disenfranchised with Christianity than ever. While it might be their loss in not receiving this gift, it’s our loss if we cannot welcome them into our lives.

Prayer and Changing The World

“The trouble with human beings is not really that they love themselves too much: they ought to love themselves more. The trouble is that they don’t love others enough.”

-Mary Midgley

Fortunately and unfortunately, we as human being tend to think of ourselves as the center of the universe. Since we do not live in the worlds of others, we only know how to operate out of our little world. The trouble with this mindset is that it tends to create a level of self-centeredness in which we operate out of our self-interest, and this tends to wreak havoc on the world.

Unfortunately, this has done a tremendous amount of damage to the world where war, exploitation, human trafficking or someone simply just being a narcissistic ass are normal parts of life. Typically, the human response to this evil is to pull up your boot straps and do some work, or, to try and vote someone in they people view as less evil as the other person. (Some people just exist in apathy too.)

However, as great as these things can be, I’m not sure how much we can change the world without prayer. The problem with simply acting like human beings is that our actions will produce the results of human beings. (Which isn’t necessarily working out so great for us.) Karl Barth in his book on prayer wrote that if we believe God answers prayers, we need to give God prayers to answer to. Paradoxically, I think this works well with Kierkegaard’s belief that prayer’s function is to change us into the image of the one we pray to. This dynamic of prayer is to create the ebbs and flows of a relationship where there are listening and responses.

In prayer, there can cause a great humiliation that occurs. Of course, people can pray in a self-centered way in which they only pray for things to bless their lives, or even in a way where we ask for our forgiveness (where we remain the center of the prayer) but I believe one of the core tasks of prayer is to come in awe of God. Jesus teaches us to pray to a hallowed God. Jesus teaches us to pray for someone who is far greater than us. In this way, prayer is a de-centering activity in which we realize that we are not the center of the universe. The paradoxical reality is that in allowing something to be the center of the universe, we allow it to speak to, to change, and to captivate us. I believe this is why people are so drawn to beauty is that they are exposed to something so much greater than them, but this experience holds them in a way that makes it a profoundly personal experience. This type of encounter becomes a prayer for us where we encounter and witness God.

This is what prayer does for us. We should pray because God wants to hear from us. God wants to advocate and act upon our desires. But, we should also pray so that we aren’t the center of our universes. In prayer, God hears us, God holds us, but God also opens up the world to us so that we can encounter God’s beauty. We are revealed to the beauty of God’s creation (and, therefore want to maintain it). We are revealed to the incarnation that shows us God’s image and beauty in human beings (and, therefore want to protect it and love it). And, in the process of doing this, we receive the love of God because it is God, not me, that makes my life possible. God’s creation, God’s people, my life, are not given or sustained by me but are God’s gift of love and grace. Through this, I am better at receiving and love my own life as a gift, as well as others. We are better able to love ourselves and the world when we are not the center of it.

Using Job to Treat Depression

When I was 23, I was undergoing a severe bout of depression. This was related to PTSD flashbacks that I had some traumatic life events that I experienced earlier in my life. However, during this state, many people became very troubled by the things I was experiencing. It is quite difficult to watch someone suffer because it causes us to feel pain as well. Some of them couldn’t handle what I was experiencing so they would come up to me and say, “You know, I heard about this book on this topic” or “Have you considered going on medication for this?” Obviously, these people didn’t want me to suffer, but it was also a reflection of what they saw as the cure for what I was going through.

If you see depression as a biological issue, as many psychiatrists do, you are going to prescribe medication. Why would you spend time on other “therapies” or “remedies” when this is a chemical imbalance in the brain? If you see depression as a psychological issue, why would you spend time on physical activities or getting involved in a church group when this is a “problem” with the way that we think about ourselves, the world, and our life?

The story of Job is interesting because it points to a similar reality. When Job is faced with desolation in his life, his “friends” came up to him and began asking him about how he may have sinned or done wrong that would have caused this to happen. Job’s friends were acting in a similar way that many people do when it comes to mental health. For Job’s friends, he needed to “fix” his relationship with God (which wasn’t true). For others, they want you to “fix” your biology or your thinking. This is problematic as it relates to spirituality because what it says is that there’s no place for brokenness or darkness in a person’s relationship with God. I want to use a quote by Addison Hodges Hart to illustrate two points,

“I want only to say here that to be completely devoid of melancholy in today’s world – a world rife with terrorism, war, a multitude of addictions, lack of moral direction, starvation, exploitation, poverty, pornography, abortion, senseless less violence (think of Columbine, think of Virginia Tech), vandalism, etcetera, etcetera – is to be lacking something thing vital to common humanity, whether one is overtly religious or not. It is to lack feeling in the most basic sense. If one understands that Mother Teresa’s own “darkness” was directly related to these somber facts of human life, conditions she faced daily and unblinkingly, one can also begin to understand, or at least intuit, how this was inevitably related to her faith.
Anything calling itself “faith” that sets itself against the essential human feeling that engenders melancholy is, in fact, a fraud. Even when melancholy becomes a malady, there are few things more intolerable, tyrannical, and oppressive than the inane injunction that “Thou shalt smile:’ When this absurd dictum goes on to get mixed up with mass-market religious drivel, such cheerfulness and baffling fling optimism are enough to drive a thoughtful believer to the brink of disbelief or even despair.”

The first point is that if human relationships and feelings are necessary for our spirituality, then depression (or melancholy as Hart and others prefer to call it) is a necessary experience and reaction to the brokenness that we find ourselves in. Secondly, if human beings are going to have vibrant relationships with humanity, with themselves, and with God, we need to be able to cry out and vent the brokenness we experience and witness. The Bible and the Christian tradition are witnesses to a God who redeems human brokenness and brings light out of it. To simply say this is a biological, psychological, or spiritual issue that needs to be “fixed” is to say that this is evil and it needs to be done. The Bible is clear that what Satan meant for harm, God will use for God.

The job of the Christian community is not to look at a DSM chart that says depression is, “the presence of sad, empty, or irritable mood, accompanied by somatic and cognitive changes that significantly affect the individual’s capacity to function.” but to understand that behind these phenomenon are stories. There are life events that have caused those feelings of sadness, emptiness, irritation and broken thought patterns. What Job needed was not someone going off a spiritual DSM checklist but friends who were present to him in his time of brokenness. It might be that people need to go on medication and to learn to adjust their thinking patterns but core to the human being is the need to be loved, to be cared for, to receive empathy and compassion, and to make sense of their broken lives. Those things might “fix” our biology or thinking, but it doesn’t necessarily heal the soul. John Swinton calls this understanding especially important to spiritual care,

“Therapeutic understanding is not a technique. Rather, it is a way of seeing the world and being with people which is sensitive to their inner experiences and the significance of these experiences for the therapeutic process. It is an approach, or perhaps better an attitude, that seeks to enter into the experience of people with mental health problems and in so doing focus on ways in which that experience can be understood rather than simply explained.”

The Church has a role in the caring and well-being of the world. One of our core tasks in doing so, in regards to health, is to look at somebody and not see a diagnosis but to see a human being. Sure this person may display symptoms of something that might get them labeled as “ill,” but that person won’t find healing unless they are seen, known, cared for and loved for who they are.

 

References

Hart, A. H. (2009). Knowing darkness: on skepticism, melancholy, friendship, and God. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub.

Swinton, J. (2001). Spirituality and Mental Health Care : Rediscovering a ‘Forgotten’ Dimension. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.