Alive, on the Road Not Taken

My dad posted Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken this week on Facebook, in honor of the poem’s 100th anniversary.

I did not realize this poem was so old; as with many things that occur before our own time this poem was lumped in with “old stuff” in my brain and is kind of like my parents in that sense. Of course I know they lived through the Vietnam War but not WWII. I’ve seen my kids do this lumping thing with movies, “hey, was that movie made when you were a kid, dad?” (Um, no, Casablanca is a little older than I am.) All they know is it predates their own birth. So we all do this. There are only “before” and “in my days”. Before, there was Casablanca, Frost, Shakespeare, Lincoln and the Magna Carta. “In my days” includes things like Hank Aaron passing Babe Ruth less than two months after I arrived, Nixon resigning less than six months into my stay on this blue and green orb, then, not soon enough, Vietnam evacuations. I don’t remember it, I just know it was in my days. Something I lived through, albeit unaware. Let’s call that a grey area, perhaps, I was young and it was my time but all grey until Reagan was shot. Then I begin to remember. After that it’s not old stuff, it’s really my stuff.

But my father loves this poem (I did not realize how much until now) and in fact he enjoys a fair number of poems. He even committed some French poetry to memory. Je mis mon kepi dans la cage et je suis sortie avec l’ouiseau sur la tete… I remember him reciting it, it’s so funny, you see, because he does all the voices, the birdie and the commander, too.

I’m reflecting on the difference that it made, this path my father took. A way leads to a way and you never end up going back to try the other. Frost says it with a sigh, but I wonder, could it be a sigh of contentment? Sure, the poem seems to speak of potential lost, but, many choices, ways and ways down the Way, is one so disappointed?

Dad chose Mom, then, with Mom, to go to Africa when I was in a vulnerable stage, then to move to an out of the way town in Iowa. He chose to become a nurse and care for people who were dying, many of them living with great regrets and bitterness, but he loved them. He chose to live in a town, not a city, in a forest outside the small town. He chose to love his neighbors. Sometimes they didn’t appreciate him, or his best friends. Some of his friends, people he chose, were losers. He did not fall into bad company; he chose them as friends, another way among many ways, to love them. He chose to burn wood to warm his cottage like some kindly pauper in a fairy tale. He sharpened his chainsaw and hauled timber with a two-wheeled hand cart. The more ways that he chose along his Way, the deeper he went into the jungles and along the ponds and beside still waters and tucked in among the trees in an orange cap and knee-patched jeans and steel-toed boots. The more he chose these things, the less he aspired to anything some would call “bigger”. His father lived in Texas, where bigger is better. He chose smaller, instead. He acquired love like a real estate mogul acquires land, with ease and without a second thought, and with interest compounding. He spends his money now to visit his grandchildren. Compounding love is all.

Or did he choose? Was the poem itself ever really about choice in the first place?  Maybe  we’re all reading it wrong. [the link above takes you to an interesting article on that question.] Oh well. This has become more about my father and less about Frost now, so we leave Frost at this crossroad to debate the meaning of his poem posthumously with living academics, and move on. If it’s true that Frost thought we really didn’t get to choose, and it was all the same, well, he never met my Dad.

When ways have led to other Ways, and we find we can’t go back and be someone we never were meant to be anyhow, (or when we find that the choices were intertwined with destiny) why would the sigh be anything other than one of peace, of having come so far only to find that, way back when, sometime after Casablanca and before the internet, we made a choice and it was good and had much laughter and a good wife and friends who we never would have met, if we hadn’t chosen to meet them, and so we kept choosing them every day, drifting back into history with the great poems, eventually to be lumped into “before”, but not quite yet, and even when those friends we knew die and we miss them so, we know they never would have been what they are to us without us having taken the Way we took.

Sigh, old men, but not with regret. Some of your laughter may already be in the grave in the silent mouths of friends gone before, but much of it follows you from points along the path where you made those choices to know and be known; you thought you had moved on, but the forks along your paths are tuned to a resonance that harmonizes with the chuckle in your throat which I can hear and will be able to hear so long as it is my time. You laughed when I said “are you waking up yet, Daddy?” and you still laugh when I amuse you, I can hear it in my ears whenever I have been humorous or clever. I can hear it in my heart when my son does the same. Because whenever I come to those forks myself I can hear you laugh, so, then; I weep with joy. Sigh, old women, your childbearing is done and your gardens can feature flowers instead of food. Instead of preserving for winters to come, you can paint pictures of desert sunrises because the sun keeps coming over that horizon as it travels on its own way. The earth herself makes no choices, she turns and turns, and “by turning, turning, she comes out right.” You have chosen a Way. I have heard the sigh, and no matter how you meant it, I interpreted it as one of peace with each decision, for that is how it appears to me, so therefore, I will follow it. My brother and my sister will follow it. You have shown us what is good: To love justice, to desire mercy and to walk humbly with your God. It’s all lumped in with the “old stuff” and that’s just fine with me in my days.

When the world is in possession of the Way, 

The galloping horses are led to fertilize the fields with their droppings. 

When the world has become Way-less, War horses breed themselves on the suburbs. 

There is no calamity like not knowing what is enough. There is no evil like covetousness. Only he who knows what is enough will always have enough. –Lao Tzu

Family Values

Our family looks a lot like what they call “traditional”, mom and dad and four kids, we gather around the dinner table I’d say four nights a week on average and sit down and eat a meal together just like good old Ronald Reagan said we ought to, if we want to make America great. That was the example my parents set, it brings us all together when we eat as a family.

We sit down and we ask each child what their successes and their sayings are from the day at school. They’re still learning to accept the fact that each day brings with it at least some sort of small success, and a good saying can be that. A little piece of humor or poetry, you know? Something you said that was smart, or witty, or worth repeating in any way.

If my wife and I have any values at all, the first one is that each child is loved, and as they grow up it’s not going to matter what choices they make in life, they’re still going to be welcome at our table. But there are certain things expected of you when you sit to eat here. You’re expected to be grateful to the Creator for something, and you’re expected to give respect to the cook, and you’re expected to make sure that everyone else has enough. If you come to the table or even walk into the kitchen with some lesser attitude on any of those three items, you’re going to be asked to check your attitude at the door. And I mean literally. The other day, one of my sons came home from school to rummage through the fridge, then whined at my wife about how someone had eaten the last cinnamon roll, or some such nonsense, and I told him to go back outside, check his attitude at the door, come back in, and speak to his mother with respect. We aren’t strict, authoritarian parents. There are only a few behaviors that get you dismissed, but they are serious, because they destroy the culture we’re building, and bring everyone down. But when it comes to breaking bread at our table, you’re always going to be welcome, so long as you come with respect, thankfulness, and generosity towards others. It’s never going to be about their lifestyle, it’s about their attitude. A bad attitude at the table is like a virus, and I don’t want you sneezing on my plate. There’s a word for saying no to people who come to break bread and think they can bring the hate, too, and that word is “Excommunicate.” Definition: To remove from the table of communion. You don’t get to eat with us, clown, because you’re dragging us down.

And that’s why I’m calling for the immediate and unequivocal excommunication of the hate nation. I don’t care if you call yourself a Christian and read the Bible every day, hater, you’re not part of the church is what I want to very clearly say. You don’t get to sit down and eat with us when you bring that attitude through the door. I’m not really talking to anyone who doesn’t consider themselves a Christian, but the so-called evangelical voter block is making it clear that they’re ready to let anyone near know that what they hold dear is founded on this fear that makes their world a tight little comfortable bubble of hatred, and I personally excommunicate you, I ask you to go back outside, check your attitude at the door and knock.

Just go outside, change your attitude, and knock again. Jesus said if you knock the door will be opened, so there’s not really that much required. Respect, thankfulness, generosity.

When Jesus says “learn what this means: I desire mercy, not sacrifice” that means that no matter what your grandpa did in World War One or Two or Five, to sacrifice for this nation, means very little if you think it gives you the right to keep it all to yourself like a child who takes the last three cookies.

And let’s make sure to understand this isn’t about a certain candidate and his particular plan, because I realize that once he loses, which looks inevitable, we’re not over the hump. We still have a problem, and there are plenty of people who are attending a Christian church on Sundays who are fueling that fire, and it’s time for the rest of us to stand up and say NO. You don’t have a place at this table right now. Haters, I excommunicate you. I won’t eat what you eat. I won’t march to the drum that you beat.

Excommunication, man, it’s not for life. You can ask my wife – my kids know how to correct their attitude. They understand when they’ve been rude, and they eventually come around because you know what, when they sit down and eat with us they don’t just get food. They get loved. They get to be part of a family that’s more than just the kids, the wife and me. And when they get sent out, we all hope they’ll come back soon. It’s not the Wild West at high noon, I’m not saying there’s not enough room in this town for the both of us; in fact, I think there’s room for quite a few more at this dinner, but if you spoil it for everyone, we’re going to ask you to leave; it’s sad, because we all end up thinner.

Just go outside and check your attitude and knock, and we’ll be glad to invite you back in. But until then, you’re not welcome.

Update: I’ve spoken with Pastor David Araujo of Iglesia Del Buen Pastor this morning (3/30/16). He was kind enough to bring to my attention a concern in our community about this blog and the church building pictured with it. Some community members felt that perhaps this blog was an attack on that congregation. Pastor David has been a guest in my home when some good friends of ours were here to talk with a group of us about Christian-Muslim relations. I know pastor David and his passion for peacemaking among many cultures. I realized immediately what the misunderstanding must have been. David encouraged me to leave the picture of Iglesia del Buen Pastor up on the blog, because as I explained to him, I simply felt it was a beautiful photo of a beautiful building.  We have a mutual desire for diversity, not for a society based on hate and fear. I hope that it is clear that I do not want more walls. I want fewer ones. But the walls that keep the snow out while the congregation of Iglesia del Buen Pastor are worshiping are good and beautiful and welcome walls to me. Just to be clear, my intent is not to excommunicate the people of this fine congregation! I celebrate even more their presence here because Pastor Araujo was willing to come and bring this concern to me! What a great example of peacemaking in action. Thank you, Pastor. The last thing I would want is for a misunderstanding of this magnitude to go unaddressed. These brothers and sisters are exactly the kinds of people about whom we should be saying “do they have enough?” Pastor David is welcome at my table any day of the week!

Peace (Thailand #4 – ish)

We’ve been working hard to set up an entire room full of artwork. I think the team that has been stressing to overcome jet lag and install the gallery is ready for the conference to begin. I don’t mean that everything is installed yet (and we only have a few hours left) but I mean in the sense that we are ready for the peace of mind that comes with saying “It has begun.” In fact, several of us will be adding to the art or working throughout the conference, but it’s a bit like starting a race. You train and train, you warm up (jogging) but you wait for the starter’s gun just so you can run some more. And then, after the initial adrenaline rush, you settle into a moment of peace. There is serenity in the journey. Somewhere between the preparations and the finish line is that time when you say “we have now begun to really run.” And we are ready for that moment, even if not all the work is quite in place.

Offhand I’d guess we have about nine to twelve people exhibiting some visual work, (several of whom are not attending, and so we have a team of people installing for them via instructions), and a musical team of seven (I count sound guys) and lots of other creativity beginning to flow. Megan leaned over to me and said, “This is becoming an arts conference. But I guess that is the point.” Well, not entirely. But the arts are becoming more and more a part of how we live and breath in a world where we work cross-culturally. Languages lose something in translation, but image can gain communicativeness, as can melody.

Thailand is a great place to be at peace. This sovereign nation resisted colonialism due to a strong monarchy, and there is room for rest here. We are already feeling it, and yet in some ways we still wait for that to be wholly unleashed.

It takes some work to be at peace with being an artist. The value of the arts is much discussed during this time, but becoming established if still elusive.

It turns out I’ll be painting. I’m going to primarily use words, and I don’t have to worry much about color. Thematically there’s a lot of black and white work here, with reds. I can paint that way. I’m content to have a 4×8 panel to work on, and ran my concepts by Megan. There are things I wish I was doing; for example I love to sing but have not done it with a team for so long that it’s not on anyone’s radar. But with blogging, photojournalism, and now a painting to execute plus lots of opportunities to listen to people quietly and ask them questions, I’m at peace with my role. You can’t do everything, and I’m doing a lot. I like to DO stuff, but to be at peace, BEING is the key.

I’m bringing that edge to my painting, as you’ll see.

I’ll start with something that looks pretty abstract. Letters.

Want to join in? Okay, here’s what goes at the top of my canvas:

AAEEFGGHILLLNOOPRSSSUUVX,

AAAAABCEGILMMNRRSSTTUY.

Just letters? We shall see.

There’s more, but all shall be revealed in due time. The starter’s gun is about to bang, and then, we’re off. We’ll settle in, we’ll be at peace, we’ll rest together.

Who’s in your house?

How much community can you handle? Back when I was a young man our church identified the Biblical or Greek concept of oikos, a word which means, more or less, household. It annoys me to use Bible-sounding language when unnecessary, so I’ll just say house in italics to represent this concept of close relationships. I remember that the magic number for how many people you can reasonably have close relationships with at a time was 30.

We like to think we can handle more, but count out how many people you’ve had significant conversations within the last 21 days (since the beginning of the year, post-holidays).  Now look at how many of that group you have a significant conversation with on at least a monthly basis for the last year, or solid, tangible plans to do so this year. The number shrinks rapidly.

My house includes a wife and four kids. They are a sixth of my close community. After that, I had a meeting with my non-profit’s board chair (6). A small group that meets by phone, five more people (11). A significant conversation with one member of our congregation I talk to pretty regularly, on a deep level, oh, but he’s in the aforementioned small group. Nine coaching clients (most of these count as work relationships to some extent, but on another level my job is to provide a significant relationship in other peoples’ houses.) (20). Even though it is my job, I can still only participate in a limited number of deep relationships. I can build a bigger house by having this sort of “relationship hosting” as my livelihood, the money allows me the time for more than 30. At most, if I retain any sense of balance, the number doubles to 60. If i was meeting with three times more coaching clients per month, not only would I be maxed time-wise, I’d be falling over with relational exhaustion. And I’m an extrovert!

I have 899 Facebook friends. As if it is some sort of badge of honor, popularity, or marketing reach. It is, in fact, to some extent all of these things. But it should not be mistaken as part of my house.  

Think critically about who’s in your house. You need some who give something to you, a few you give to, and many who give a relatively even relational value exchange. If you get out of whack you start complaining on social media, because you’ve forgotten that the virtual world isn’t your house. It’s not pretty. Sometimes there are people like Goldy Locks Who are in your house breaking your furniture and eating your gruel. Get them out, unless you intentionally invited them and have some boundaries (Ok, you can eat the gruel, but no going into the parlor and breaking my china). Does this mean you can’t find a measure of community online? Of course not.

Think about it this way: coaches use a Wheel of Life to help you chart your satisfaction in a variety of areas, usually 8-12 areas like work, spiritual life, family, finances, health, marriage, and hobbies. Having at least one person you can share authentically with about your progress or failure in each area is critical. Perhaps your spouse is a great sounding board for work, your spiritual life, but tunes out when you bring up golfing. OK, find somebody else in your house to talk to about that. This is where the internet can prove handy, especially when you’re a Scrabble geek, or you like lengthy discussions about … community. Thanks for reading!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

a few of my favorite things

It’s time for a bit of a recap  as I analyze what I want to write in 2016, as well as what you’ve been reading. Here are the five most-viewed blogs I’ve released since last April (which might tell us all about what you’ve enjoyed reading), followed by five blogs which didn’t get many views but are worth your notice in my opinion.

I’d like to hear from you particularly on this subject: which blog topics have you most enjoyed reading about? Some of my most common themes are: writing, listening, community, void, reading, and occasionally humor. Which particular blogs did you like the most?

My number one most viewed blog, originally posted Nov 28, 2015: Intentional community, #2. To be a leader who finishes well, you will need an intentional community.

Second place, from May 6,2015: Do you drink the Kool-ade?  Effective techniques are self-evident to intelligent observers. You shouldn’t have to tell someone to drink the Kool-Ade.

The most recent blog in the top five most-viewed, jumping into 3rd in just 10 days: Ant farm. The value of diversity in community.

The sequel to the number one blog is in 4th place: Intentional community #3. Redundancy: Having one person you can trust is not enough.

my 5th most viewed blog, another old one, from May 19: She burns my ears. The Amish guy whose community told him so.

Chances are if you’ve been following my blog for a while you’ve seen those, and based on the thematic connections it looks like my writing on community is most relevant. Now here are some of my personal top five favorites out of my first 120 posts on this blog, ones with fewer views that you may have missed (I have avoided blogs that were edited and reused in my book The Art of Motivational Listening, because I would prefer you read them there instead):

June 23, 2015: Thoughtfulness is the main resource for listening. About making time to think so your mind is unpolluted when listening.

September 8, 2015. Muzak to my ears. About dating your spouse and listening.

Putulu payer. About authenticity in giving each other compliments.

Calm under fire. About leadership, and martyrdom… more or less.

Coming soon to theaters. .. comedy. If you’re only going to check out one of these and you need a laugh…

I do encourage your feedback and would like to hear: out of these second five blogs, which did you like the best? If I write a book about intentional community in the 21st century, would you buy it? Thanks for your feedback!

 

 

 

 

 

Is it a cult?

What makes something a cult?

My wife Megan came under fire because she’s reading a book called The Urantia Book, which has been classified as a “cult” by www.creationists.org. This discovery caused some distress among acquaintances, and I ended up writing much of this in response to their concerns. I’m skeptical myself about the legitimacy of The Urantia Book. I haven’t read the book — she shares bits with me– but I haven’t read it all.

Having grown up in a Christian communal church (commune) myself I am fairly sensitive to the use of the word “cult”. Up to age 12 I lived in a community which has been termed a cult by some people but was in fact a fairly healthy Christian church. The community, Plow Creek Fellowship (PCF), in Tiskilwa, Illinois, still exists today. Living together communally with most major property (land, houses, cars and cash) owned in common, PCF in the 1970’s and 80’s was modeled after the early church as described in Acts, Chapter 2. I say that it was a fairly healthy church, in spite of the fact that we later (circa 1993, 7 years after my family left) found out one of the elders had perpetrated sexual abuse of minors. On the other hand, I have several friends who were raised in a different Christian church community here in Indiana that was not healthy, and even now they will tell you it was a cult. For example, that group’s stance on faith healing didn’t allow people to go to the doctor at all, and so some children died of easily treatable illnesses, a very cult-ish practice to be sure, also illegal (which became their downfall, as I understand).

On Curiosity and the impact of reading: We all have books other than the Bible which have been significant in our growth as Christians. Any particular book which might be just that for one of us isn’t as impacting for another. It doesn’t have to be an overtly religious book like The Shack, but can also be a novel such as A Prayer for Owen Meany which can enhance our faith (I read a few pages of The Shack and got bored, but I highly recommend A Prayer for Owen Meany as a deeply spiritual and thoughtful novel, which is probably eighty times more complex and intricate than The Shack). I will always encourage anyone I know to read as much as they can, with curiosity.  Really nothing much else fosters reading as well as curiosity does. You can’t make people read something if they’re not curious, or not read it if they are!

I figure the more often a book is banned, the more important it is to read it; one of my favorite books of all time is Huckleberry Finn. It’s been banned twice, and for exactly opposite reasons! At first they thought it was too friendly to blacks, later they decided it was racist against blacks. In fact, it’s an incredible piece of artwork which forces you to decide for yourself what you think about race and doesn’t dictate what you should think. Banning a book is a sure way to make it a bestseller.

In fact, one major defining factor of cults is that they limit what sort of things you can read, or where you get your information. I’ve been reading about the woman who took down the cult leaders, misogynists, child abusers, rapists, and polygamists at the FLDS compound a few years ago in Utah (The Witness Wore Red) and this is a key component to how the FLDS leaders controlled people: they clamped down on what information they get and what they read or saw on television, much, much more than mainstream (LDS) Mormons do. This is part of what the Jehovah’s Witnesses do also. I visited my in-law’s Jehovah’s Witness neighbors at Christmas for half an hour, while they were watching a movie produced by JWs and that’s pretty much all they’re allowed to watch and read, stuff produced in New York at the JW headquarters. So I will never tell anyone what they can and cannot or should and should not read. It’s much preferable to me to have people read what they want to read, and then have an open discussion with them about it. That’s a major factor in how you avoid becoming sucked into a cult. No secrecy, no double life, lots of curiosity and plenty of open forum for discussion. Megan’s decision to share with her family about what she’s reading, rather than lead what she calls a “double life” is brave, and in itself is a strong indication that she’s not in a cult! Most people sucked into a cult tend to cut off contact with their families, they don’t share openly and vulnerably the way she is.

What makes a cult a cult is not so much what they believe as how they are structured regarding access to information. The Christian Church, from Greek and Russian Orthodox to Catholicism to Southern Baptists to the Harrist Church of Western Africa to cell churches in South Korea to PCF, all have different iterations of Christianity, so many forms and beliefs that there are people who follow Jesus and interpret various Biblical passages in ways that are sometimes a polar opposite from each other, all of them claiming that they stand on the Word of God (and so they interpret Scripture in the same way that Huck Finn has been interpreted: in opposite ways at different times in history). This doesn’t mean the Word is wrong, but it does show how wrong people can be (including myself)! The key difference between churches and cults is not as much in what they do or don’t believe (though that does play a part, there are definitely heresies within cults) but in how tightly they control what information people can have. As far as interpretation goes, only the very best literature has multiple legitimate interpretations. The Bible is such a book, praise be to God! And so is Huck Finn and A Prayer for Owen Meany. My understanding is that Urantia is not such a book, not so much, which squelches my interest in reading it.

Let’s suppose you write a book stating that the moon is made of cheese. Some might enjoy your story and laugh it off, while others may believe you and come along for the ride. This latter group might even start sharing with others this wonderful discovery that the moon is made of cheese, and say that if we could only get there we could feed all of Africa for years and years, and so on, and that’s fine, no harm done, really… Unless you begin to tell people they’re not allowed to read books about the lunar landings where Neil Armstrong picked up some moon dust and he discovered that it wasn’t Kraft Mac N Cheese powder, or unless you begin raising money (sorry, I mean “tithes and love offerings”) for a lunar voyage to acquire this cheese (which you pocket so you can buy vacation homes and a private jet, of course)… as long as you don’t do those things, you don’t have a cult. You just have a goofy idea that’s incorrect according to other sources. Your theory or claim might be misinformed, or it might even be correct (Galileo comes to mind here when it comes to theories about planetary stuff which people thought were anti-Biblical, because the Bible clearly states in at least FIVE different books out of the 66 that the earth has four corners, borders or extremities and everyone knows a sphere has no corners) but your Moon Is Cheese theory is not blasphemy worth burning at the stake over. It’s just a silly book. Good luck, sell lots of copies! Especially when it gets banned! (One last comment here: if your book does sell lots of copies, obviously you got some money out of people, but you still don’t have a cult. If you convince them that the book itself is some sort of talisman that will protect them so long as they have one in every room, or build an entire temple out of them, so that they’ll buy multiple copies, then you might be leaning towards cult-like problems. But just selling a lot of copies of your book doesn’t make you a cult leader. It just makes you a rich celebrity and perhaps a thought leader, like Rush Limbaugh.)

I did read through creationists.org to see their critique of Urantia. Now here is an interesting question that creationists.org raises in their refutation of Urantia: that “the Bible is God’s only revealed truth to us.”

This is a common statement, but a tricky claim to deal with, because the statement comes with implications that raise a lot of questions. The first implication to consider about this statement is “therefore we should read no other books, or at least expect to get no revelation when reading other books.” But as I’ve established, we’ve all had other books which spoke to us in some way that was beneficial. (For example, “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” made a huge impact on me just a few months before I met Megan.) Clearly other books have had some benefit, in the sense that God has revealed some of the truth of his love, mercy and justice to us through them. While we say that the Bible is God’s only revealed truth and we have a certain awareness of the correctness of this statement since the Bible includes the story of Jesus’ resurrection, yet we don’t act like it, because we read other books and we do get something out of it. It does not mean that we should canonize any of these other books, but that certainly happens informally. My brother likes “Culture of Honor” so much that he’s recommended it to me multiple times. He’s not canonizing Culture of Honor formally, but he sure seems to think it’s revealed something important for how his church leadership can build a desirable culture. Does Culture of Honor reveal a part of God’s truth to us? Most likely it does. Was Danny Silk writing while the Holy Spirit was dwelling with him? Probably so. Does Danny Silk think this book should be added to Scripture? I doubt it. Did Paul think we would canonize his letters? I’m not so sure he did! He may not have realized it! I think if he did, he might have taken more care to avoid sarcasm. When Paul discusses how all Scripture is “God-breathed and useful for teaching, reproof, correction, training” (2 Tim 3:16) was he referring to his own letter, the one he was writing at the moment, as well as the Torah? I suspect Paul only meant the Torah. So then where does that leave the entire New Testament? Or was Paul assuming his audience knew which books he meant? Does the New Testament get added to his statement retroactively? These are questions that the statement “the Bible is God’s only revealed truth to us” fails to really address. It’s simplistic.

A second implication is the idea that the Logos word of Scripture is all we need. The problem with this is that Jesus said what we need even more than daily bread is a “Rhema” word (spoken, uttered) from the mouth of God when he resisted Satan in the first temptation. In doing this he quoted Torah, of course, because that’s beneficial for reproof. Often times this passage in Matthew 4:4 is misunderstood to be a reminder to read the Bible every day, but that’s not what he’s saying at all. He’s saying our relationship with the Father should be such that we can ask him for daily bread in the form of a spoken word to our hearts. So there are some other ways that we get revelations. Jesus says that “my sheep know my voice” and so does not spend a lot of time explaining how we will know when we’ve heard a Rhema word uttered to our heart. He assumed we could hear it.

A third problem with the statement that the Bible is “God’s only revealed truth” is that it also gets tied to a particular interpretation. The bottom line is that this can lead to idolatry of an interpretation. Very dangerous.

I do see the admonishment in Galatians 1:6-10 as a significant reason to look into whether or not Urantia is “a gospel contrary to that which we preached” and I think that’s exactly why Megan is studying Scripture just as much as she is reading this Urantia book. Is it contrary? If so, “let that angel be accursed.” But if it is not contrary, then what is it? Jesus said it both ways: Whoever is not against us is for us (Mark 9:40) He who is not with me is against me (Matthew 12:30). The bottom line for Jesus here seems to be not so much how you interpret stuff, but who are you for? Which is known by fruit, not interpretation.

I was also curious about the link to ex-Mormons that creationists.org had, with a testimony of an ex-Mormon who (after leaving Mormonism) found a group of people studying Urantia. The person then encountered spirits who “visited me personally at my home and are very real” which were tested later by Christian friends and found to be demonic. Were these spirits coming because the person read the book? Or were they coming because the person was a ripe target for deception? I don’t know. It’s an interesting case study and a personal testimony that should give us good reason for caution.

If there are any books I would steer clear of completely, it would be things that invite people to openly invite demonic presence, like Satanic ritual books or whatever. There are a few things that are inherently unhealthy to even read. From the few passages Megan has read to me of Urantia, it does not sound like a book of Satanic rituals or invitation to the demonic. Strange, weird, goofy maybe, but not Satanic.

I wanted to address a second definition of the word “cult” which was presented to me. This definition has more to do with unorthodox teachings: the idea that Jesus is only God, or only Human, for example. I would like us to consider that if we’ve decided someone’s interpretation of Scriptures to be outside our broadest sense of Christianity, but they aren’t in  some single-leader, hyper-controlled, brainwashing situation, let’s just call it a “different religion” instead of a cult. I found the  usage of the term “cult” to be negative and hurtful. I’d rather have someone say “your wife has joined a different  religion”(which I would debate) than to say she’s  joined a cult.

For that  matter, I believe there are  cults  springing out  of other religious traditions too. ISIS is a cult springing out of  Islam, for example.

I am happy to say that Megan’s interest in reading The Urantia Book doesn’t look like joining a cult to me. There is no single leader trying to get your money, no secrecy, no organization of any kind in fact, and as far as I have heard there are no unhealthy or un-Christian practices taught, recommended or required. Whether or not the book is prophetic, or hogwash, I can’t say because I haven’t read it for myself, but I do know that Megan’s intellectually a critical reader and mature enough in her faith to determine for herself whether or not something is helpful in her journey towards and with Christ. Of course anyone can be deceived. I do not want a cult-like environment in my family, so it pays to be cautious, have discussions about what we read, and make sure to have accountability with a local church. And Megan does those things. And she gets healthy push-back from our church community, too!

In the meantime, as she figures some of this out, I know that Megan is also praying to Jesus for angelic protection and trust that Jesus will give her that. I’m also aware that creationists.org is concerned about people who believe in ETs. I am curious what Creationists think the Nephilim were, if not ETs? I looked it up on Answers in Genesis and they think the Nephilim were human but they admit they don’t really know that — so much for giving me confident answers for the questions Genesis raises! They’re picking a theory out of many just like the rest of us have to do. Recent evidence, however, from things like crop circles in Europe, from what I can tell, look like evidence that there really are ETs. Should we be surprised that modern evidence might teach us things the Bible did not, even though the Bible is our Number One Go-To Resource as God’s Revelation? I mean, after all, we figured out later that the Hebrew’s flat earth concept wasn’t accurate. Incidentally, the Book of Enoch is, according to AiG, not a revelatory book, yet it is quoted in Jude. AiG says that this only really means that that little portion of Enoch is revelatory, but how could Enoch be a true prophet sometimes and a false one the rest of the time? Scripture regularly teaches that prophets are either true or false, Elijah and Elisha and the others regularly get in the faces of false prophets and even say things to false prophets like “in a year you will be dead”. The bigger point is that the writer of Jude (probably Jesus’ brother Jude) is aware of the Book of Enoch and not afraid to quote it; ancient theologians read everything they could get their hands on (which may have only amounted to a couple dozen books, I think the assumption was that if someone went to all that trouble to write it, and then copy it over and over by hand, to disseminate the book beyond one village, then it must be somehow significant). Even as recently as the time when Charles Dickens was writing, educated people believed they could read everything worth reading that was published within a given year. Now, no literature professor worth their salt would think that they could read all the literature considered “important” by the critics. It’s impossible to keep up. So. Should Enoch be canonized? Does Enoch really endorse the idea that ETs exist? Are ETs real? And if they are, what does it mean to us? These are all questions Megan gets curious about.

There are many outstanding questions. This is why curiosity continues to be valuable! Dangerous, risky at times, but valuable.

So before people decide that Megan has joined or fallen prey to a cult it pays to be informed about what makes a cult. She has not joined a cult, she’s simply found interest in a book. That is a huge difference. I, for one, am open to continuing to hear what she’s reading and how it’s positively impacting her faith in Jesus Christ.

I will continue to encourage her to read whatever she wants to read, as I will do with all our children. Megan is right, curiosity brings with it a certain risk. The bigger risk, in my mind, is in becoming disinterested in the various perspectives and worldviews available through reading broadly, or to begin to control which books people can read and which they can’t. That is very risky behavior indeed.

Thanks for reading. Make sure to visit the bookstore before you leave!

Ant Farm: Power in Intentional Community

The Value of Diversity of Thought and Heterogeneous Influences

Consider a formicarium, or an ant farm. This is a toy made popular in the 1950s which takes a normally secluded creature found almost anywhere in nature (save perhaps the Polar Regions) and makes it easily observable in an isolated and controlled context. With an ant farm, and you can watch ants doing ant stuff: making tunnels, carrying their eggs about. However, when ants live in nature, they do all sorts of things that are also interesting. They fight other species of ants, as well as other insects, some of which are much larger, yet they haul them home. They tackle leaves from plants, rebuild their homes after floods, and so much more.

Shortly after we married, Megan and I became the caretakers for a small painted turtle inappropriately named Chauncey (because it was probably a female). Chauncey lived with us for 10 years. Early on, we attempted to introduce goldfish to the aquarium tank for some diversity. Chauncey considered them a diversification—of diet. She didn’t rush anything, just snapped the tailfins bit by bit until they couldn’t swim any more. Even without any hurrying on her part, the fish were all belly up (or perhaps I should say “spine-inverted” since the turtle liked to eat the belly first) within three days.

It’s exhausting for the fish to be in an environment so small that they’re swimming for their lives constantly. For the turtle, it’s not challenging hunting.

The same fish and turtle would be much more in balance in a larger ecosystem. The fish would have somewhere to hide. They’d also interact with a great deal more diversity in plants, deal with other variables such as increasing and decreasing flow in the river, other seasonal changes, and generally struggle to survive in a good way, a way that keeps them sharp, on their toes.

It’s a bit boring (but easier to control) when animals are in a tightly contained environment where only one species can live, or, if others are added they are at the dominant species’ mercy. In the same way, the environment of a human community where variation in thought is not tolerated is controlled but uninteresting, potentially stagnant.

Intentional communities look a lot more like cults when they resemble a closed off formicarium. You can see what everybody’s doing, and make sure they’re all in their place. You can keep the lid on, so none of them escape.

The kind of dangerous pattern which leads to cults is born of a desire for homogenous thought. It may begin with a healthy desire for righteousness, but it degenerates and twists, gets bastardized, when the word gets shortened to “right”. It’s much easier to be right than righteous, after all. Once we figure out what’s right, we can make sure nobody gets hurt. No outside influences are allowed, and the ants live a happy life. Or so we think. But when a thirst for righteousness gets supplanted by a twisted desire to be right, healthy authority also degenerates into a twisted desire for power.

Intentional community done well is a lot messier. Margaret Thatcher said that “being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell someone you are, you’re not.” Truly powerful people, strong and authoritative, don’t need to worry about controlling their image as powerful. They’re less tempted (I didn’t say “not tempted at all”) to exert control over the environment. They can live with a certain amount of mess, because they know that in the end, justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Their ants can live outside, encountering ants of other species and experience the world in a much more interesting way for the leader (and even for the observer) than those enclosed in a “farm”.

And isn’t the observer of some interest for those of us who deliberately join our lives in community with others? Don’t we hope they’ll say “That’s exciting! That’s unique and challenging!”?

In seeking intentional community, we’re overruling our perhaps more natural instinct to conceal our patterns and thoughts, like ants underground, and instead allowing our tunnels and actions to be known. We’re not living in an ant farm, but we do extend an invitation for others to observe us, to hold us accountable for our lives. Being known is a great thing! But how much do you want to be known, and by whom?

Choose your leaders wisely. To become part of community, you abdicate your considerable independence. You agree to leadership and observation from within, and you’re going to get observation from without, too. For example, few people love to argue more about how Christians ought to behave than atheists!

The questions people raise when they wonder if any intentional community is a cult or not present a fairly simple barometer: what is the tolerance level for heterogeneous thought? Who is in authority and how do they wield power? Are they constantly working to get more ants in their farm, or do they enjoy their ants in a natural environment, where they may interact and perhaps even be harmed? Where the people may get some different ideas from outside influences. For example, maybe they read things.

So as you think about whom to include (or exclude) as leaders and members (the members are future leaders) of a community you intentionally relate to, observe carefully the size of the tank and the teeth of the most powerful person when you’re abdicating your own power for the sake of mentoring, growth, accountability in some area. Ask yourself what they’re really about; and when will you check in on that question again? Will you give up this independence once, forever, or routinely for shorter periods of time? Because the nature of absolute power is so destructive when given to humans, I personally think committing to a communal situation for life is not healthy. But the question of whether or not those who have some power in a relationship will allow, accept, embrace and encourage heterogeneous thought on your part is perhaps the most tell-tale indicator. If you know that you disagree from the beginning and still agree to enter into community, you’ve given yourself (and those around you) a gift. The gift of diversity. I want to be like an ant in nature—a messier situation, to be sure, and perhaps more dangerous. To be sure, there’s are certain benefits that come with being in a place like an ant farm where everyone thinks alike: and I’ll get to that in my next piece. But if someone comes along and attempts to stuff everyone into an aquarium like goldfish, watch your tail.