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For a long time I’ve been struck by the parallels between a whole grain of wheat and a whole Christian faith-life. Rather than wait until I had perfectly worked out the parallels (which might not ever happen), I’ve decided to share my imperfect thinking at this point.

Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health – Harvard University

Consider these three features of a whole grain:

A whole grain of wheat is a complex, multifaceted thing with three different and indispensable elements – the bran, the germ, and the endosperm.

The Christian faith-life is also complex, multifaceted, and made up of different elements.

It is about a fervent trust in Jesus that opens us to the Holy Spirit and a relationship with God as we live out our lives. It is about loving God with all our heart and all our soul and all our strength and all our mind. It is about gathering together with others to be part of the Church. It is built in large part on 66 books of the Bible and the diverse wisdom and insights they contain. It is a way of thinking and perceiving the world that is somehow consistent with books as diverse as Genesis, Deuteronomy, Psalms, Jeremiah, Ecclesiastes, John, Romans, and Revelation. It is submitting ourselves to God and living lives of creative action.

It is about God, people, and the rest of Creation.

The total package of a whole grain of wheat is incredibly good for us.

There are over 100 vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients as well as fiber in a whole grain of wheat. And this total package is quite good for us. Phytonutrients, which include antioxidants, are particularly unsung heroes. They are the suite of natural chemicals that plants make as a flexible defense system to fend off germs, fungi, bugs, and other threats. They help the human body as well, providing protection against cardiovascular disease, cancer, and type-2 diabetes. Interestingly, bran and germ typically represent only 15-17% of a grain’s total weight but hold 75% of all of a grain’s total phytonutrients. Bran and germ also hold 100% of a grain’s fiber, which is essential for good health.

The total package of the whole Christian faith-life is also incredibly life transforming and enriching: I hope you’ve had contact with Christians, in person or through books and movies, who were different people because of their faith that expressed itself naturally in the lives they led. William Wilberforce is a great example. As are Martin Luther King, Jr., Paul Brand, George Washington Carver, J.R.R. Tolkien, and many others.

The challenges involved in using the whole grain at a large scale and the sweetness of the endosperm have long tempted people to engineer simpler and more selective ways of using elements of the whole grain. 

The complexity of whole grain wheat make it hard to use in an automated, simplified way. As soon as the bran is broken, it releases fat which causes spoilage to happen quickly. It also takes considerable art to make a tasty bread out of whole wheat. What’s more, human cultures have tended to desire the pure whiteness of refined grains as well for aesthetic reasons.

So humanity has long tried to simplify the use of whole grains by using only one part – the endosperm. With the advent of the rolling mill, we had a way to do this more perfectly then ever before. The pinnacle of this development was white bread. It didn’t spoil and tasted light and sweet.

But the simplifcation deprived bread of the most important nutritional benefits (check out this useful graphic that shows what is lost). What’s more, foods using refined grains (with the bran and germ removed) tend to raise blood sugar levels far more quickly and at higher levels than whole grains. All kinds of health problems emerged as a result. Ironically, we now add nutrition back into bread that was lost in the milling process, but the net result is still not the same.

Too often we’ve reshaped the Christian faith into the religious equivalent of white bread.

We’ve refined out the complexity and mystery and life-changing purpose to which God calls us. The sweet kernel we’ve tended to hold onto is the atoning sacrifice of Jesus on the cross which promises us access to life after death. Salvation, when simplified, becomes the stamping of our after-life passport for guaranteed entry into the good country of heaven rather than the bad country of hell.

We remove mystery. Nor do we expect to have our lives nor the lives of our fellow believers to be transformed over time in this life. We don’t dive deep into the Bible and its wisdom and its challenges. We ignore God’s earth and make the faith just about people and God.

In the end, I wonder if a white bread faith may be what we think we want. Maybe we don’t want our lives transformed by being a disciple of Jesus if that will cause us discomfort or awaken us to how broken the world really is and the mending we are called to engage in. Maybe we don’t want to question the assumptions of the culture and economy around us.

And maybe this lack of wholeness, mystery, and challenge is what makes efforts to share God with others unsuccessful.

I started out writing this blog with a focus on how Christian faith and life has largely ignored Creation in its theology, church culture, and ethics. I believe this has dishonored God and harmed our neighbors.

I now see things even more more broadly.

The lack of attention to how we treat God’s earth is not a single thing that Christians  have somehow generally forgot about over the centuries. It is a symptom of a larger tendency to artifically simplify, sweeten, and hollow out what the Christian faith is all about.

God offers us a whole grain faith-life. Will we seek it out and live it?

 

Note: This Scientific American article about the problems with food labeled as containing whole wheat is a good read that will make you think about what exactly “whole wheat” claims mean in processed foods.

 

 

 

 

How should Christians think about regulations and limits?

it’s a topic that needs addressing more than ever on this Earth Day, especially when President Trump plans slash environmental regulations and gut the Environmental Protection Agency. But if we’re candid, we must admit that Christians have long had blind spots the size of Texas when it comes to thinking about limits and regulations on our treatment of Creation and protecting the vulnerable in general. Too often Christians have come close to worshipping freedom more than we worship God, except when we’ve called for severe resrictions on a few highly emotional and very tangible matters like abortion and homosexuality.

I’ll start this brief (by my standards!) meditation by calling your attention to the story of Adam and Eve.

In Genesis 2:15 we read the story of God telling Adam and Eve that they are free to eat the fruit of any tree in the garden with the exception of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

This was an environmental regulation. This was a limit on the use of Creation, It was a limit to protect Adam and Eve, and, because of their charge to rule God’s world, the limit also served as protection for Creation.

As you read on, we find in Genesis 3:6 that Eve was particularly tempted by the fruit’s appearance that promised culinary pleasure and by the wisdom that she would gain by consuming it. There, in a nutshell, are the two factors that drove the Fall as Christians understand it and what continue to tempt people today.

Our appetites. Our desire for power.

Today’s technologically-amped, Internet-saturated, self-gratification-focused, sacrifice-allergic, corporate-dominated world provides more options to act more impulsively on our appetites and desire for power than has ever been seen history.

This, in turn, makes the question of freedom for individuals and institutions an ever more challenging one.

If we’re honest, we’ll admit that we are as tempted by our appetites and desire for power as Adam and Eve were. Limits are needed to prevent all of us, in our worst moments, from ignoring what is good for ourselves, our neighbors, and God’s earth.

Efforts to remove all limitations and permit everything ignore what the Christians call the Fall and Original Sin. Ironically, the design of the United States constitution is based in large part on an awareness that people will be drawn towards selfishness and acting on their worst passions. Its designers wanted to do two things – provide some idea of where the dividing lines between state powers and the federal government’s powers were (orderliness includes limits) and to frustrate the ability of majorities of people to easily use the tools of government to harm the interests of people outside of the majority. Checks and balances exist to contain and frustrate sinful people from doing the worst that they can do.

Balancing freedom with limits on the use of power is a very Christian approach.

That balance is seen, for example, in regulations God gives to the people of Israel for how they will live in the Promised Land. Consider Exodus 23:10-11. It reads, “For six years you are to sow your fields and harvest the crops, but during the seventh year let the land lie unplowed and unused. Then the poor among your people may get food from it, and the wild animals may eat what is left. Do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove.”

This forced fallowing would have limited the freedom of a landowner to maximize profit from a piece of land but it would have benefited the poor and local wildlife while also allowing the soil itself to renew itself.

Notice, too, how in a way similar to the description of the Fall the interests of God, people, and Creation are interlinked. This is common throughout the Bible. You cannot love God nor your neighbor if you trash God’s earth.

So pay attention to the words leaders use when they speak of rules and regulations and limits. Ask these questions:

What values do advocates for reducing or eliminating regulations directly or indirectly appeal to in their rhetoric? Is it love for God and love for our neighbors? Or is it freedom for the powerful to pursue their appetites and power in ways harmful to the the vulnerable and the commonwealth?  

Do the advocates for eliminating regulations accept one of the fundamental elements of the Bible – the Fall and our continued tendency to do wrong, individually and collectively? If they don’t, you have an approach to life and policy that is not Christian in its fundamentals.

Is the push for reduced regulations driven by corporations or people representing the interests of corporations? What complicates matters in thinking about limits and regulations today is the increasing complexity of our world and the dominating role that corporations play. Because corporations are increasingly seen as the vehicles for meeting our personal appetites and desires for power, we are tempted more than ever to give them as much power and freedom as possible.

And, like bacteria that adjust their environment to make conditions more conducive for their existence and less conducive for others, corporations strive to manipulate the regulatory environment to allow them to prosper as much as possible. The more powerful corporations get the more they either seek complete freedom or, perhaps worse, shape our legal frameworks in ways that work for their benefit.

Are those advocating and supporting the elimination of limits in the economic realm equally open to the elimination of limits in other areas of life?

The poster child for someone who called a spade a spade and then was slapped down is Tomi Lahren. This young conservative social media sensation said earlier this month:

“I am someone that’s for limited government. And so I can’t sit here and be a hypocrite and say I’m for limited government but I think that the government should decide what women do with their bodies. I can sit here and say that, as a Republican, and I can say, you know what, I’m for limited government, so stay out of my guns, and you can stay out of my body as well.”

The blowback from conservatives was fierce, and she was fired from Glen Beck’s Blaze TV network. They accused her of being shallow in her conservatism. But, in fact, she was only saying aloud what a radical devotion to freedom in other areas of life would naturally lead you to conclude about abortion – limits on it restrict one’s freedom and do so in an area most intimate to a woman’s life.

It is fundamentally hypocritical for Christians to advocate for strict limits on the application of power against vulnerable life in one area and to go along with the wholesale elimination of limits on the use of power against vulnerable life in other areas.

For example, this article highlights that testing in 2005 and 2006 found that the average baby just out of the womb had an average of 200 industrial chemicals in its blood. Scientists at one point had thought the placenta shielded developing babies in the womb but this is now clearly not the case. And a young, developing infant is more vulnerable to harm from these chemicals than an adult. Where are the Christians fighting to protect the unborn from a chemical onslaught? Did you know that only a small minority of the industrial chemicals being used today have been tested for their safety because of the laxness of the Toxic Substances Control Act? Logic would dictate that Christians calling for limits on abortion should also seek out limits on what the unborn (and the rest of Creation) are exposed to.

Are the regulations and limits in question overdone and crushing goodness and creativity? Fallen people running governments are also tempted, sometimes even out of good motivations, to extend the power of government too far and too oppressively. Business influence can also shape the framework of laws and limits so that they favor the interests of large-scale industry.

It’s time for Christians to be coherent in what we believe so that how we act in society is also coherent. All of life is filled with meaning by God. God is on the side of the vulnerable even as our creativity also comes from God. We need to recognize how strongly our appetites and our desire for power tempt us. We should not only accept balances between limits and freedom where they are needed to protect all that God values, especially the vulnerable, but also advocate for that balance.

We should, like the Psalmist in Psalm 119:97, recognize our fallenness and welcome limits that guide our energies in right ways:

“Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long.”

Many of my posts over the last two years have been asserting that God’s Creation is an essential element in the ethical and theological considerations of a whole Christian faith.

I am now convinced that a primary reason that mainstream Christianity doesn’t naturally integrate thoughtful, perpetual concern for Creation into what a Christan life means is that the typical presentation of what Christianity is about is in itself incomplete. And it is this incompleteness that is behind so much of the blindness of professing Christians to not only the natural world but also to injustice and evil.

What you hear at most Christiain churches — that Christ’s death is an atoning sacrifice for our sins — is indeed a core element of the faith. To modern ears, it sounds odd and perhaps even clunkily superstitious. But I believe there is deep truth in it.

Yet there is more.

You see, you encounter much more when you read the 66 books of the Bible with an open mind. And you encountered much more when you spend time with devoted Christians and when you encounter God through prayer or spiritual experience.

But when Christians extract sacrificial atonement as the sole good news from the Bible, so much is  lost.

What you get is epitomized by the sign I saw while driving home today from Missouri. It read, “When you die, are you going to heaven or hell?”

Christianity in this boiled-down version becomes a question of one’s status before the courts of God in regards to one’s eternal destination after one has lived life on this earth. It becomes solely a matter of one’s spiritual-legal standing. It ignores the actions and words and meaning of Jesus’ life before he was crucified and after his resurrection.

In Renovation of the Heart, a book I’m now reading for the second time, Dallas Willards writes of the larger meaning of the Bible, “This present life is to be caught up now in the eternal life of God”

In other words, we can live, truly live, by allowing God to reshape our hearts and minds and souls by accepting Jesus. Salvation is about having the life God offers us and having it now.

This is the abundant life Jesus offered.

Here are more words from Dallas Willard, also from Renovation of the Heart, that resonate with me:

“Our soul is like an inner stream of water, which gives strength, direction, and harmony to every other element of our life. When that soul is as it should be, we are constantly refreshed and exuberant in all we do, because our soul itself is then profusely rooted in the vastness of God and his kingdom, including nature; and all within us is enlivened and directed by that stream. Therefore we are in harmony with God, reality, and the rest of human nature and nature at large.”

Church life should consciously be about promoting that profuse rooting of our souls in God. How different Christians’ relationship with Creation would be if that was the norm. That is the kind of church I’d like to be part of. That is the kind of church I’d like to help build.

 

One of the greatest temptations for a Christian is to give up one’s integrity as a Christian in the service or pursuit of power.

Sad to say, we saw two Christians do just during the vice presidential debate last week.

And the irony could not be deeper because both Indiana Governor Mike Pence and Virginia Senator Tim Kaine gave eloquent expressions of how their Christian faiths have formed their lives and character.

While Kaine incessantly interrupted Pence at every possible moment with criticisms of Donald Trump, Pence actually had no defense for Donald Trump’s character or behavior.

For all of Pence’s calm, reasoned, and sincere statements, you can’t read the Bible without coming to the conclusion that Donald Trump epitomizes an incredibly long list of attributes that are the exact opposite of those Christians are called to have. They are fruit of a heart turned away from a humble relationship with God.

To support a person like Trump in something minor would be problematic but to faithfully and energetically partner with a person like Trump who desires to be the leader of the United States is a whole different matter. I can only explain Pence’s decision this way – like any of us, he has his weaknesses and one of his is a commitment to the success and power of the Republican Party and its interests that enables him to rationalize his full partnership with Trump. I believe there is also a hypnotic quality to Trump’s comfort and confidence with power to which Pence and many others around the country unconsciously respond.

It would have said much more about Pence’s faith and about Christianity itself, however, if he had declined the invitation just as Daniel declined to bend his knee to the power of Nebuchadnezzar.

The worst thing is that the more Pence wears his Christian faith on his sleeve as he campaigns with Donald Trump, the more he taints Christianity for people who are not believers. If a Christian can ally himself with Trump and all that he stands for, then why would any rational person want to become a Christian? What exactly does the Christian faith stand for?

Kaine has some issues, too.

He has accepted the nomination with Hillary Clinton who cannot help herself from lying,untruths, and half truths. She also has a troubled relationship with power that can be seen in her history, her policies, and her tight Wall Street connections. While her issues may not be on the level of Trump and she’s clearly far more professional in her service and civic-minded in her policies, her failings are still serious.

Then there was Kaine’s response to Pence’s comments about partial-birth abortion.

For most of the debate Kaine used clear and concrete language, especially when criticizing Donald Trump. But you could hear the rhetorical shift when he began speaking about abortion.

Here is an excerpt of what he said:

“This is pretty important. Before Roe v. Wade, states could pass criminal laws to do just that, to punish women if they made the choice to terminate a pregnancy. I think you should live your moral values. But the last thing, the very last thing that government should do is have laws that would punish women who make reproductive choices.”

Do you hear the sudden shift to rationalization through abstraction?

“Terminate” is a Latin word that suggests something you do with a contract in its cool, antiseptic, abstract tone. “Pregnancy,” also Latin in origin, is pleasantly and rationally removed from the reality of what the word refers to – a developing human living inside the mother’s body in a world of intimacy, warmth, and shared fluids. When you use words like “terminate” and “pregnancy,” the actual violence of an abortion sounds so clinical and reasonable. Like the removal of a wart.

And there’s some rhetorical chicanery going on. The term “reproductive choices” is a contradiction. When there is an embryo/baby in the womb, reproduction is already an accomplished fact. Abortion has nothing to do with reproduction. Life, both human and nonhuman, is not a choice. It’s something we must seek to live with and make nuanced choices about.

Kaine should have had the guts to speak plainly.

In this context, reading Windows to the Womb by David Chamberlain is a revelation. Chamberlain shares findings of recent science that reveal how rapidly babies develop in the womb and how much evidence there is for their emotion and engagement with their environment

window-to-the-womb-image

Audible crying can be detected in the womb as early as 21 to 24 weeks gestational age. Evidence indicates babies in the womb can hear things outside of the mother’s body as early as 14 weeks. Spontaneous movements by the embryos, as opposed to reflexive movements, are happening before ten weeks.

This passage about the movements of young embryos was particularly paradigm-shifiting for me:

“Observers saw little embryos stretching in exactly the way people of other ages stretch – always at a slow speed, beginning with the head moving backward followed by trunk arching and arms lifting! One reclining ten-week fetus, legs semiflexed and body quite still for a few minutes, brought hands up and placed them behind the head as if relaxing in a hammock. Can you imagine these gestures with a sign of satisfaction following the explosive growth and mastery of new movements?”

I want to be clear. I am not saying there are not situations in which abortion is tragically justifiable.

Abortion can, like capital punishment, be the purposeful and nuanced use of power to do something that is normally abhorrent because there is a larger societal good at stake. Are there be situations where the tragic necessity of ending a baby’s life in the womb might be the relatively least awful thing to do? Yes. But the tragedy and awfulness of what must be done should not be ignored or evaded.

But absolute freedom to have an abortion at almost any phase of fetal development has become an issue where the Democrats have been seduced by the sirens of freedom and power.

In fact, both Republicans and Democrats have incoherent, contradictory positions around the question of abortion when you look at the larger framework of their thinking. Democrats have a long tradition of speaking up for the oppressed and those exploited by those with power. But when it comes to the baby in the womb who is the ultimate example of powerlessness and vulnerability, they suddenly embrace the Republican rhetoric of freedom and individual choice as absolutes.

Republicans, on other hand, passionately advocate for freedom, choice, property rights, and the power of corporations to do what prospers them without the hindrance of regulation. They do so, at their most extreme, no matter how profound and violent the impact of freedom, power, and corporate rights on the vulnerable, including the unborn, local communities, and the living things of which God has made us shepherds.

And yet the Republican Party selectively finds concern for the powerless and vulnerable when it comes to a baby in the womb and selectively wants to deny freedom and property rights to the people within which the babies exist – women.

I believe the world hungers for coherence, integrity, and goodness. This is why the choice between Trump and Clinton is so galling. This is why Pence and Kaine were also disappointing. As ambassadors for their Christian faiths they should be able to speak and act with whole truth, consistent love, and wise caution about power.

My sense is that people are ultimately hungry for a whole faith that will truly transform their hearts so that every fruit they bear is good and full of light. People are looking hard, too, for a whole faith whose followers hold onto it with integrity and coherence even when doing so puts them at odds with the powers and principalities of this world.

Why aren’t there more Christians whose lives point to the way that offers all that?

 

Where are the Stories?

Nathan Aaberg —  September 30, 2016 — Leave a comment

I just had a powerful literary experience.

I listened to James Lee Burke’s The Tin Roof Blowdown read by Will Patton.

This crime/mystery novel is set in New Orleans before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina and features Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Detective Dave Robicheaux and a cast of many other unique characters.

james-lee-burke-the-tin-roof-blowdown

It is harsh, brutal, and shattering. There were days when I could only listen to about 30 seconds and then had to wait until the next day to listen to a bit more because some of the scenes were so life-like in their rawness and so full of potential for tragic violence.

Yet, the story, especially with Will Patton’s skillful reading, is simultaneously eloquent, poetic, and richly layered. It is filled with wonderful evocations of the beauty of New Orleans’ bayous and live oaks. And there is a deft Christian sensibility to it as well.

Through the book, the tragedy of the impact of Hurrican Katrina on New Orleans, particularly on the most vulnerable, went from being abstractions that I had carefully inventoried away in back shelves of my mind to tangible, heartfelt wounds painfully etched in my imagination through details and characters and subplots of the story.

Where are the stories like this of our destruction of God’s world and the communities that depend on it?

Where are the stories of Christians perpetrating this?

Where are the stories of Christians trying to heal and shepherd God’s living world?

I want to read those kinds of stories. I realize I want to write them.

Would they make a difference?