Monday, May 28, 2012

Remembering the Mountaintop

My son has just returned from a two week mission trip to Spain with his college choir.  As you might imagine, he has been pretty tired since he returned, so I have not gotten a lot of detail, but he was eager - jet lag or no - to share a particular experience as soon as he got home.  Seems that a subset of the choir nicknamed the "Adventure Club" found a mountain to climb.  Hiking a cliff above Laguna Negra, they found another cliff and scaled it. Suddenly, in Trey's words, they were surrounded "by more of God's glory than I have ever seen before."  As they stood there, surrounded by good friends who are "some of the best singers in the world," the hymns poured forth.  Their version of BRH's anthem "I Am" echoed names of Christ through the canyons below.  Trey has declared it a moment he will never forget.

I am reminded of the line of the kindly alien Griff in "Men in Black 3" - "This is my favorite moment of human history of all time."

That Trey's mountaintop experience actually happened on a mountaintop is neither unusual nor coincidental.  Mine was in Colorado.  My mother's was in the Alps.  There must be something about height and clarity and thin air and the people with whom we find ourselves when we take these trips.

Mountaintop experiences get a bad rap.  We tend to think of them as (1) temporary and (2) emotional.  Well, they are both, but so what?  Peter wanted to stay on the Mount of Transfiguration, and Jesus made him come down; so we tend to decide that being on the mountain is somehow bad or unworthy of followers of Christ.  I disagree.  After all, Peter would never have been on a mountaintop in the first place if Jesus had not led him up there.

It is those temporary, singular experiences that often sustain us.  We do not have to stay on the mountain to remember.  Trey will never forget how the harmony of those young voices singing "I Am" sounded through the crispness of that European springtime.  There will be many more temporary experiences, individual times when God shows up, when the face of God is within reach and the voice of God is unmistakably plain.  The hymn writer called them "foretastes of glory divine."  Modern authors tend to call them "Aha" moments.  They are moments when we touch heaven.

Yesterday was Pentecost, the day we remember a singular, temporary experience when a room was alive with tongues of fire and with (as my pastor so brilliantly put it yesterday) the translation of God into everyone's own language.  The apostles did not have daily returns of the mighty wind, yet that one experience was sufficient to start what we now know as the church.

My mother saw the Matterhorn appear through the clouds over fifty years ago.  For her, the song was not "I Am" but rather "How Great Thou Art."  Different time.  Same God.  Different place.  Same message. Different song.  Same power.

Of course, a faith built on emotion is doomed to fail.  If that is all you've got, you are in trouble.  If, however, that is not all you've got, then your emotional experiences with the Almighty Creator are of great benefit.  God speaks to those whose faith is centered on a real relationship with Him through our emotions as surely as through our senses and our experiences.  Think of your scripture - the wonder of Sarah, the despair of Elijah, the happiness of Zacchaeus, the eroticism of Solomon, the anxiety of Christ in the garden and on the cross, the "high" of John on Patmos.  These emotional moments must be tested, but they are real.  How we "feel" is not the basis of anything, but when we have a real basis, God can touch us and make us "feel" something that  verifies so much.

Yesterday, I sat and listened to our youth sing a song of great emotional import to them as they honored their graduating seniors.  That moment, for those of them who know Christ and love each other, was real.  The tears of joy and fear of the dark and wonderment as they examine these soon-to-be-stretched relationships mixed with memories of feelings from their youth group years.  Trey, no longer in the youth group, saw and heard the same thing I did, and he remembered how he had felt just last year when he had been one of those graduating seniors.  What he knows now that he did not know a year ago is that there is a bigger mountain waiting, that those youth group feelings are preparatory, not final.

Of course, we have to follow Jesus down the mountain.  The towns and the marketplaces are where we walk with Him most of the time.  And there are moments, yea, when we walk through the valley of the shadow, and there He carries us.

But remember, if you hear Him calling you down the mountain, you probably got there because He led you up in the first place.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Debater's Perspective on the Current Political Rhetoric: A Stock Issues Approach

When students learn the academic game of debate, there is a univeral starting place: the affirmative team, at least in traditional policy debate, is charged with presenting a "case and plan."  The plan is the what the team proposes to do; the case is why they propose to do it.

While there are countless permutations, strategies, and tactics, the most basic debates center around the "stock issues:"  topicality, harm, inherency, solvency, and disadvantages. (Those of you who are not debaters, stay with me. This will make sense.)

Topicality is what it sounds like - the plan must fit within the resolution, or topic, for the year.  Inherency means that that the present system cannot fix whatever is wrong, thus requiring the plan.  Neither of those is relevant to this blog.

The other three stock issues cross over into our everyday political rhetoric.  "Harm" simply means what is wrong in the present system.  The affirmative team identifies some "harm" of significance that begs for correction.  "Solvency" is the affirmative's proof that the plan will fix the harm.  Disadvantages are the negative team's arguments about why the plan is a bad idea.

A negative team need not win all these issues. Winning one is enough for a negative vote from the judge.  A negative team may, therefore, simply argue that the "harm" is not really so bad and does not need to be fixed; or the negative may argue that the harm is indeed significant but that the plan does not solve it; or the case may be granted in its entirety, but the negative may try to prove that the disadvantages to the plan outweigh whatever is gained from solving the harm.

Today's rhetoric ought to embody the same idea.  When somebody is against a certain political idea, it may be because she denies the harm, but that may not be the case.  She may agree that the harm is significant but may think that the proposed way to fix it won't work or is a bad idea, or both.

Take two ideas from today's headlines, Obamacare and the North Carolina state constitutional amendment on marriage.

Someone may oppose Obamacare because he truly believes that there is no health care crisis or because he simply hates poor people and does not care about a health care crisis. If so, in debate language, he would be denying the "harm" of the affirmative case.  But he may well believe that we have a health care crisis and may care deeply for the poor and still think Obamacare is a bad idea, or that Obamacare is the wrong way to address the problem, or both.

Someone may oppose the North Carolina amendment because she believes that gay marriage is a good or moral idea or because she believes the amendment is an imposition on minority rights.  But, someone may think homosexual marriages are a bad idea and still oppose the amendment because she does not think it is any of the government's business or because she thinks that the constitution is not the place to address the issue or because she believes that moral issues like this are for the church and not the state to address.

My point is that you often cannot tell how someone feels about what is important simply by how that person responds to a particular policy initiative.  It is not my point in this blog to tell you what I think about Obamacare or amendments outlawing gay marriages, but I can tell you that being against either one may not say what you think it does.  Being against them may be a statement about solvency and/or disadvantages, not the claimed harm in the status quo.

Many of today's pundits - whether they be on tv or on Facebook - clearly do not get this.  The level of condemnation of those who disagree on policies because of the assumed reasons for the disagreement is frightening to me.  The idea that anyone who opposes government-run health care must hate poor people is uninformed.  It is too narrow to think that quoting Bible verses will make all Christians be in favor of certain governmental action.

Don't assume that those against Obamacare do not care about the poor or the health care crisis.  Don't assume that all those who feel that gay marriage is wrong are therefore in favor of making it illegal.  They may absolutely agree with policy proponents on the harm but be against these polices becaues of a lack of solvency or based on disadvantages.

Remember that you can argue the negative for a number of different reasons.