A Little Drummer Boy Kind of Faith

Carol of the Drums

Come they told me Pa rum pum pum pum
A new born King to see, Pa rum pum pum pum
Our finest gifts we bring Pa rum pum pum pum
To lay before the King Pa rum pum pum pum
Rum pum pum pum, Rum pum pum pum
So to honor Him Pa rum pum pum pum,
When we come.

Baby Jesu, Pa rum pum pum pum
I am a poor boy too, Pa rum pum pum pum
I have no gift to bring Pa rum pum pum pum
That’s fit to give our King Pa rum pum pum pum
Rum pum pum pum Rum pum pum pum
Shall I play for you! Pa rum pum pum
On my drum.

Mary nodded Pa rum pum pum pum
The ox and lamb kept time Pa rum pum pum pum
I played my drum for Him Pa rum pum pum
I played my best for Him Pa rum pum pum pum
Rum pum pum pum Rum pum pum pum
Then He smiled at me Pa rum pum pum pum
Me and my drum.

John 12:46 – I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness.

… … …

The little drummer boy is the essence of what being a Christmas people is all about.  Imagine being a young child of about twelve. One night you are suddenly dragged from your bed, hastily dressed and told to grab your drum.  Your parents give you a quick hug before you are bundled into a cart which takes off to God-knows-where.  In the morning, a slave hands you a bowl of soup, thin and tasteless.  Too afraid to ask, the slave nonetheless sees the question in your eyes.

“You work for the Magi now” he says,” and they are going to see a new born king.”

Another questioning look.

“You can play the drums and they needed a new herald.  The last one died of dysentery a month ago.”

Great.

“The Magi saw a star in the west and took off like there were Skittles at the end of the rainbow.  Don’t ask me how they knew a new king had been born, but when they saw that star they were like a bunch of women with engagement announcement.”  Filled with doubts you practice your drum day after day as the cart rattles on westward always towards that star.

When you reach Bethlehem you find yourself outside a crowded city.  Due to a great multitude of people gathered for the census, the Magi have had to pitch their tent outside of town and, after a harrowing interview with the local despot, have spent that last three hours wandering around town looking for the exact place the star shines over.  A king, huh?  Auspicious start, really…

Then, in the darkest, dirtiest slums, there is one hovel (a barn according to some, lived in by both humans and animals regardless) illuminated by the rays of the star.  A barn?  Well, maybe the insides are all tricked out.  The slave knocks on the door and you play a sharp drum roll to announce the presence of the Magi.  As the doors open you are greeted with the sights, and smells, of stables.  And at the center of it all is an old man and a young girl and on her breast is a bundle which you assume is the “prince.”

Now, most people if they were that drummer boy, and someone told them this humble scene was God’s palace and that little bundle was God’s Son, they would have burst into incredulous laughter.  But the little drummer boy, we are told, doesn’t laugh.  He suddenly understands, with all the naivete and intuition of a twelve-year-old, that this baby is the Messiah, the true Son of God, a real king. Unlike the “kings” then occupying the throne of Israel and the more distant emperor of Rome, this king was born of the people – a craftsman, shepherd and teacher.

In the darkness of the night, this little boy sees something which is unbelievable and yet he believes.  As Christians today, we accept the humble beginnings of Jesus mostly without question, but the little drummer boy reminds us of the child-like wonder with which we should approach the birth of our Savior.  We try so hard to cram miracles into our rational world view.  Though the natural (rational) world is itself miraculous on its own terms, there is yet another layer of order around our natural, rational world.  It is in this space which miracles occur.  Faith is simple, even when our world view is not.  The birth of Jesus was and is a miracle, not only for the extraordinary state of grace into which Jesus was born, but for the extraordinary grace it bestowed on all people who believe in it.

It is no coincidence that both Matthew and Luke describe many of the events around the birth of Jesus as happening at night.  For the first century Jewish people it was night.  They were occupied by a foreign power, the Romans, and the temple and kingship was ruled by those more interested in money and power than serving God.  Jesus, his cradle marked by by a star, was literally and symbolically the light shining in the darkness.  He was the bringer of the long awaited, desperately needed grace that would be the salvation of his people.

But the story of the little drummer boy reminds us of something more.  The little drummer boy, looking at the extravagant gifts of the magi realizes that he has nothing to give the baby king.  In child-like embarrassment he pleads “Baby Jesu, I am a poor boy too!”  In desperation, he casts about for something to give the infant Jesus.  He gives the best thing he can.  “Shall I play for you?” he asks.  With Mary’s blessing, he begins to play.  As if recognizing the magnitude of the little drummer boy’s gift – of his beautiful, child-like belief – Jesus smiles his approval and acceptance of his gift.

We are reminded by the little drummer boy that God accepts all of our gifts, if we truly give of ourselves.  Just as the little drummer boy plays his best for baby Jesu, if we give our best to the purpose of God, then God will smile on us.  And like the little drummer boy we need not give money.  Our talents are gifts, and when we use them to comfort, entertain, rescue, and succor others they reflect the glory of God and become an offering back to their source.  Though the Wise men gave expensive gifts of the finest incense and gold, history records that Jesus smiled at the little drummer boy’s gift of music.

The little drummer boy is the prototypical Christian and reminds us that faith need not be complicated.  He is that little child within all of us as we contemplate the great Mystery of life and faith and an example of the reverence and humility with which we should approach God and each other.  Amen.

Storytellers All

Another of my assignments for my bioethics class was to write a preachable text.  So here is mine.

Psalm 130

Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;

Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
to my cry for mercy.

If you, Lord, kept a record of sins,
Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
so that we can, with reverence, serve you.

I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
and in his word I put my hope.
I wait for the Lord
more than watchmen wait for the morning,
more than watchmen wait for the morning.

Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
for with the Lord is unfailing love
and with him is full redemption.
He himself will redeem Israel
from all their sins.

Mark 5:21-43

When Jesus had again crossed over by boat to the other side of the lake, a large crowd gathered around him while he was by the lake. 22 Then one of the synagogue leaders, named Jairus, came, and when he saw Jesus, he fell at his feet. 23 He pleaded earnestly with him, “My little daughter is dying. Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live.” 24 So Jesus went with him.

A large crowd followed and pressed around him. 25 And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years.26 She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. 27 When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28 because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.”29 Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.

30 At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?”

31 “You see the people crowding against you,” his disciples answered, “and yet you can ask, ‘Who touched me?’ ”

32 But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it.33 Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. 34 He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you.Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”

35 While Jesus was still speaking, some people came from the house of Jairus, the synagogue leader. “Your daughter is dead,” they said. “Why bother the teacher anymore?”

36 Overhearing what they said, Jesus told him, “Don’t be afraid; just believe.”

37 He did not let anyone follow him except Peter, James and John the brother of James. 38 When they came to the home of the synagogue leader, Jesus saw a commotion, with people crying and wailing loudly. 39 He went in and said to them, “Why all this commotion and wailing? The child is not dead but asleep.” 40 But they laughed at him.

After he put them all out, he took the child’s father and mother and the disciples who were with him, and went in where the child was. 41 He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum!” (which means “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”).42 Immediately the girl stood up and began to walk around (she was twelve years old). At this they were completely astonished.43 He gave strict orders not to let anyone know about this, and told them to give her something to eat.

…………………

I will be the first to admit that in my head my life is narrated and comes with its own soundtrack.  Sometimes it’s in the cultured tones of David Attenborough or the soothing bass of James Earl Jones and sometimes it’s the guy from the Outback Steakhouse commercials…  Regardless whether it’s an action movie, documentary, mystery or science fiction, my life is one big movie script or novel.

We as humans tell stories all the time and we have stories for everything.  There are fish stories, bedtime stories, sob stories, inspirational stories, short stories, mythical stories, horror stories, and histories.  We narrate our own lives every single day.  These stories we tell give meaning and order to the facts about our lives; they give us identity.

Even as we live the story of our own lives, we are a part of larger plot lines; stories which define our communities and the ways in which we view and live in the world.  Every community has its own stories and these shape its traditions which shape us in turn.  We as the Christian church come with our own codex of narratives, the Bible, and we are called to continue to write new chapters in the story of God’s people.

The Christian narrative is that of both God’s Kingdom that has already been inaugurated through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and that of the Kingdom that is yet to come when all will be resurrected.  The party’s already started, but we are still out on the front lawn.  We can hear the music, but the good stuff is inside.  This not-yet-but-now story shapes the way we live our lives, how we suffer, and how we heal.

Today’s reading from Mark is a story about the healings of Jesus.  While on the way to heal the young daughter of the local synagogue leader, a woman is healed through her faith, by merely touching his robe.  She thinks, “If only I can touch his robe, surely there must be some relief for me.”  As she brushes the hem of his robe, power flows out of Jesus and heals her bleeding.  But she gets more than just physical healing.  Jesus turns around and asks “Who touched me?”  Terrified, the woman confesses, but Jesus, seeing what happened, justifies the woman.  He gives her affirmation that her faith has not been misplaced, that faith in God and the works of the Son will indeed provide relief for the suffering.  She lives in the Kingdom-not-yet while she is physically sick, but she lives in the Kingdom-now through the healing of Jesus.

Such glimpses of the Kingdom-now can be seen throughout the healing and resurrecting actions of Jesus and so all of Jesus’ followers are called to offer the world glimpses of the coming Kingdom by enacting Christ’s radical love in a Kingdom-not-yet world.  We are to be, like Jesus, healers, teachers, and sufferers.

As a healer, Jesus understands that healing involves more than just physical healing.  He heals in hope and faith.  In the passage from Mark, Jesus heals a woman with a hemorrhage saying “your faith has made you well.”  This echoes an earlier passage in Mark, when Jesus says to a paralytic seeking healing “your sins are forgiven” before healing him.  This makes the point that healing is not just physical, that it involves an embodied person whose deepest wounds won’t always be tangible.  Even if there are physical insults plainly visible, the insult to the soul may be much greater.

This is not to say that physicians, who are commonly perceived as being the healing authorities, are doing anything wrong or not doing enough.  On the contrary, much praise is to be accorded to the physicians, nurses, and scientists who work tirelessly to alleviate suffering and delay unnecessary death.  They are the finest examples of the Christian ministry of physical healing.

But without communities and the stories they bring, physical healing is only a fact.  Another disease cured, another bone set, another lymphoma in retreat.  Sickness, suffering, and healing never happen as isolated events and it requires the whole community to write these events into a story and give them meaning.  Instead of simply being a chart on the door of a hospital room, the story proclaims that this is another person healed.  Jesus heals in public so that the whole community might share in the suffering of the sick and the relief of the healed.

But what happens when healing seems impossible?  Or when healing will take a long hard road that might get the better of us?

We’ve all been there, at the bedside of a loved one with a one of those rare or unexplained diseases, or perhaps they are passing into the night of death.  Or maybe we’ve been there ourselves, when a cure seems a long way off and relief can’t come soon enough.

We suffer.  We suffer because it seems to us that body and soul have gone to war against each other.  We suffer because sickness and death threaten to tear us from our friends, our family, and our community.  We suffer because we feel distant from God or as my professor says, we no longer trust God so we no longer have God to lean upon.

But we do not suffer alone.  Most obviously for us as Christians, Jesus comes to us as Jesus the sufferer, as the one who bore the cross.  But the Psalmist serves to remind us that throughout history, God’s people have suffered.  His lament is timeless in its emotion.  How often have we felt as though we were in the depths crying out to God?  “Out of the depths I cry to you, O lord. Lord hear my voice!  Let your ears be attentive to my… supplications.”  When we cry out, we cry out in company with all of God’s people, with the whole community of the faithful throughout history.

The Psalmists offers us hope in faith.  “O Israel, hope in the Lord!  For with the Lord there is steadfast love and with him is great power to redeem.”  Jesus in Mark teaches us of further hope.  You see, there is a second part to today’s story.  Jesus was on his way to heal a young girl, the daughter of a synagogue leader, when he heals the woman with a hemorrhage.  As Jesus continues his trip to the synagogue leader’s home word reaches him that the girl has died.  “Why trouble the teacher any further?” people council the understandably distraught parent.  But Jesus rolls up his sleeves and says “Do not fear, only believe.”  He then goes to the house and raises the girl by saying “Little girl, get up!”

Jesus teaches us in this passage that faith redeems us even from death.    In this story, he offers a glimpse into the future resurrection in the New Kingdom of God in which sins are forgiven, sickness and suffering are no more, and all are close to God.  The act of raising the little girl from the dead and the subsequent raising of Lazarus are the first acts of new life in the Kingdom of God.  It is as if Jesus says, “Look, you might not be resurrected again into this world, but if God can raise these people here and now, surely he can raise you into the coming Kingdom.  Do not fear, only believe.”

Through the life, death and resurrection of Christ, death has lost its grip on us.  We have cried out to God and he has heard us.  We may find healing on this earth, but there is a greater healing to come.  We may find redemption in this world, but we will not only be redeemed in the coming Kingdom, but resurrected, perfected in body and spirit.

It is through this story that we as a community declare that health and life are great goods, but they are not the greatest good.  Suffering and death are great evils, the enemy to be resisted, but they are not the greatest evil.  For God is the greatest good, and to walk without God is the greatest evil.

What then of suffering?  Are we to believe that in this story, there is no “real” suffering?  That our suffering is merely an illusion? Or perhaps an artificial construct of our bodies?

No.  Suffering in this broken and imperfect world is as real as the promise of resurrection.  Death is the great enemy.  Sickness still needs a cure.  But, when our powers of healing fail us, or when there is no healing to be found, the Christian story assures us that God has our backs.  The resurrected Christ declares that neither sickness, nor suffering, not even death will separate us from God.

So, what story will you tell?

There’s a story about an older gentleman who was out for his morning walk along the beach.  He came upon a boy who was absolutely frantic.  The boy would run up to the high tide line, grab something, run down to the water and toss it in before running back up the beach.  The older gentleman realized that the boy was tossing stranded starfish back into the ocean.  The previous night had been a full moon and the lunar tide had been higher than normal.  Tens of thousands of starfish had been washed ashore.
Suddenly the older gentleman felt angry.  He marched up to the boy.  “Boy what are you doing?”  he asked.
The boy replied “I have to save the starfish.  I have to get them back in the water.”
“Why bother?” shouted the old man.  He gestured to all of the thousands of starfish.   “You can’t save them all.  There are too many of them.  What you’re doing doesn’t matter.”
The boy stopped, picked up a starfish and said, “It matters to this one.”
We want to be like the boy, frantic in our attempts to throw starfish back into the ocean. And it is good for use to struggle on behalf of those who are stranded.  But, lest our pride get the better of us, we are reminded we aren’t called to heal the whole world, the world has already been healed through Christ.  We aren’t called to save the world, the world has already been saved by God.

Most of the time, though, we’re like the starfish.  We need to be tossed back when we get washed up.  It’s not about saving starfish, it’s about recognizing the difference between when we can help those in need by tapping into the power of God and when we have needs that can only be met by God.

One of the more illustrative endings to this story is that the older gentleman after some thought joined the boy, the two of them running up and down the beach to save the starfish.  Passerbys on the beach saw them and joined in.  And the folks up in the village on the hill above the beach saw this and they ran down to help and tens became hundreds became thousands.  And all the starfish were saved.

We can change our own lives; we can live our story instead of just telling it.  And when we have our story straight, we can tell it to other people.  And we can build our community around a story of faith, hope, healing, and dignity.  Then we can tell the whole world that whenever we are washed up, stranded, God tosses us back into the sea of life.

We are called to not be afraid and to struggle.  Struggle against sickness, struggle against death, struggle to tell our story, struggle to touch the robes of God.  We all have our part to play.   The whole community is called to bear witness, to comfort, and to support those who suffer and those who seek to relieve them.

We won’t win all of our struggles, that’s just human nature.   But we remember that our story says “Do not fear, only believe.”  Amen.

(c) Brad Kern 2012

“Genetics”

This is the only “subject” blog entry I had written for class.  If you want me to address a different subject (end of life care, etc.) put it in the comments and I will try to address it over the next couple of months.

Here is the first and second installments introducing the subject of bioethics.

Genetics is a funny word.  It means a lot of different things to different people and depending on the way it’s used.  To some, genetics mean the collection of genes and alleles contained within a person’s genome.  To scientists, genetics is the study of genes and gene interactions. Others, when they speak of genetics, actually mean genetic enhancement or gene therapy.  As a scientist, I will stick to the scientific uses of genetics: the field of research involving genes and their products and as shorthand for the system of genes and regulators present in (almost) every cell that makes up the human body.  Genetic medicine will do to cover gene therapy, genetic enhancement and genetic analysis.

Genetics, genetic enhancement, and gene analysis have been received with mixed aplomb.  Two clear camps have emerged.  On one side are those who support all or most forms of genetics, gene therapy and various degrees of genetic enhancement.  This group believes, at its most modest stance, that gene therapy can overcome genetic diseases and, in the extreme, help humanity fulfill its full potential, whatever that may be, through genetic enhancement. The opposing camp agrees that genetics research and most gene therapies can be used beneficially, but genetic analysis and genetic enhancement demean our humanness.

This brings up the very good question: What is human?  We started in the previous section with the position that understanding the relationship between the soul and the body is essential to answering this question.  The simple Christian “top down” answer is that humans are embodied persons in a relationship with God.  The simple scientific answer is that being human is having one of the gene combinations particular to Homo sapiens.  Given the preceding discussion of the complexities of the relationship of the human soul with the body, it seems clear that a discussion of what it is to be human will be equally complex.

Human dignity is often invoked in these conversations about genetic medicine and it seems to stand as a proxy for certain visions of “being human.”  If the technology seems  to go against human dignity, then it must go against being human.  There is some merit to this.  A case can be made for dignity as “being human,” of flourishing as humans.  We are somewhere between animals and angels, according to Gilbert Meilaender, and this gives humans the unique position of having dignity.  Human dignity, according to Meilaender, is the display of the distinguishing qualities of humanity.  These qualities may be freedom of choice, intellectual or athletic accomplishment, or spiritual piety, to name a few.

Meilaender also defines what he calls personal dignity, which is the fact that “every person is equidistant from Eternity.”  That is, every person is due equal respect because of their intrinsic humanness and this humanness comes from everyone’s equal relation to God.  This can be seen in our common mortality and common “individual neediness.”

A word of warning.  Human dignity relies on some level of accomplishment of a defining human characteristic and is therefore too easily substituted for “value.”   This has the danger of causing us to value those who display more dignity over those who cannot fully display dignity such as the severely mentally retarded.  Personal dignity, according to Meilaender must have a transformative effect on human dignity.  This means that though a person might be incapable of fully expressing human dignity, their personal dignity refuses to allow us to see them as anything but human, equally distant from eternity as ourselves.

This is all well and good, but dignity seems to not precisely define humanness.  But that’s the point.  Humanness is the quality of having dignity, the expression of universally human characteristics.   Dignity situates us uniquely as a little above animals, but a little below angels.  Everything else about being human must fall within dignity.

Where do genetics and genetic medicine fall?  It would be too easy to discount genetics and genetic medicine as being outside human dignity as they mostly involve altering the “natural” human state and therefore human dignity.  However, given our complex relationship with our bodies and how that reflects our relationship with God, the answer should honor that complexity.
The demands of stewardship, that we use the appropriate means at our disposal – including gene therapy – to keep our bodies healthy, seems to be at odds with not changing our nature.  Recalling the example of metabolism, I showed how, though the body may change its molecular composition, the essential person remains the same.  It is too basic to define an entire human and is limited to defining physical phenotype.  Therefore, being human is not defined by the body, but by being embodied.

Does genetic medicine change what it means to be embodied?  I would argue no.  Even genes and gene products synthesized and expressed de novo in the human for the purpose of genetic enhancement must obey the biological rules governing gene expression and protein activity.  Our bodies will never overcome the physical boundaries imposed by our biology.  Therefore, genetic medicine cannot make us more than human, or transhuman, and is no threat to our personal dignity on its own.

What do threaten to undermine our collective dignity are issues of social justice.  Disparities in the distribution of the fruits of genetics research and availability of therapies threaten to place humans differentially closer or further from Eternity.  Those with the means and access to gene therapies or enhancements could place themselves in a better position to fully display human dignity which in turn could have a negative transformative effect on personal dignity.  Personal dignity might suffer the “Animal Farm” effect, that is, all are equal, but some are more equal than others.  With this in mind, it is clear that in order for genetics and genetic medicine to be consistent with human and personal dignity, it must first address issues of social justice and fair distribution of benefits.

Although social justice presents a clear stumbling block to the dignified use of genetic information and genetic medicine, we must press forward with research.  It is only through continued research that better and cheaper ways to give genetics-based therapies will be discovered.  If we allow fear of new technologies to dictate our path, then we will have rejected dignity, human dignity in the form of scientific achievement, and personal dignity in rejection of those we are too afraid to help with genetic medicine.  At the same time we must not allow our technologies to define what is human.

Genetics and genetic medicine can give a great many people hope that their genetic conditions might be overcome.  We must remember that the people who are treated using genetic medicine are embodied persons with dignity.  As physicians and scientists we must discover and create treatments that comport with the personhood and dignity of the patient.

Meilaender, Gilbert. Neither Beast nor God: The Dignity of the Human Person. Encounter Books, New York. 2009.

Foundations: An Embodied Soul or an Ensouled Body

This is part two of my four part series on bioethics.  Please see Part 1 for an introduction.

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” – John 3:5-8

Much has been said by secular bioethicist about the many and often disparate areas of the biomedical enterprise.  However, all questions of bioethics come back to a single question of the body and its subsequent corollaries: “Is the body something we are or something we have?” which is followed by “What is a body?” “When does a body become a person?” “When does a body stop being a person?” etc.  This question is essential to answering the question “What is human?” as so much of human life is dictated and accomplished through our bodies.

The answer to the prime question, I will argue, is both.  We are, after all, defined by our bodies in ways that are both duality and unity.  An easy example is “When I think about moving my arm, my arm moves.  But if I were quadriplegic, my arm would not move, no matter how hard I thought about it.”  There is no doubt that in illness and injury that we are reminded just how bipartite our existence can be, while when in perfect working order, our body and anima (animating principle or force, ie soul) seem as one.

Biblically, there seems to be this same ambivalence.  In Genesis, God creates man out of dust and breathes life into his body.  Literally the form of man existed before life and becomes ensouled through the breath of life.  In the New Testament, Jesus heals the crippled by proclaiming “Your sins are forgiven” recognizing that we are more than body, that our bodies and souls are interdependent and that forgiveness is a form of healing as important as curing disease.  Jesus tells Nicodemus that “what is born of the flesh is flesh and what is born of the [Holy] Spirit, spirit” (John 3:6)  Jesus himself dies on the cross, his body buried, but three days later we wake up to the reality of an empty tomb and the resurrection of the embodied Christ.

Science offers us another perspective.  Metabolism is the intake of raw biological materials in the form of nutrients (food) which are then converted into a form usable by the body to replenish and repair other biological systems.  Metabolism is significant in that it continually replaces the building block molecules that make up our body.  That is to say, that if you were to take a snapshot of our bodies from one moment to the next, no snapshot would have exactly the same molecular composition and if you looked at a sufficiently later snapshot compared to the first snapshot, not one molecule would be the same.  Despite this, the person would still be the same person and the total body would still look much the same.  And yet, without this constant change of material, the person wouldn’t exist either, because when metabolism stops, the organism is dead.  It is clear, even scientifically, that our bodies described as collections of biological systems is not sufficient to describe personhood, and yet without these core systems we would not be able to live.

What then are we?  Some secular ethicists would reduce us to mere agents of choice.  Some neurobiologist would reduce us to biocomputers, collections of interacting neurons and cells that encode the entirety of our beings.  Some theological bioethicists would seek to reduce us to our embodied spiritual selves, an embodied soul.  (A note: Theological bioethicist Paul Ramsey would hold that an embodied soul and ensouled body are the same, that they are two ways of looking at the “whole spiritual self.”  I prefer to use them separately.   An embodied soul implies that the soul is clad in a body and that they are one.  An ensouled body implies that the body existed without the soul and later becomes inhabited by the soul.)

Is it possible for us to be both embodied souls and ensouled bodies at the same time?  The answer is yes and furthermore that this embodied duet is important to our story as Christians.  Reductionist answers refuse to confront the complexity of our relationship with our bodies.  A “bottom up” view would state that we are on one hand physical beings, biologically defined, on the other hand, spiritual beings who in our own self awareness recognize a certain transcendence beyond and through our biology, and somewhere in between is a gamish of interdependent body and spirit.

Perhaps useful to this discussion is the Calvinist idea of total depravity, that all things human are subject to corruption by and through sin.  This would include the relationship between our bodies and souls.  While ideally our bodies and souls are one, as in the resurrected Christ, because of the corruption we experience our bodies and anima don’t always fit perfectly.  However, even when we experience duality we must remember that our life, our embodiment, and therefore our bodies are gifts from God.  This is the “top down” view which places us and our humanity in relationship to God.

I would like to take a moment and distinguish between duality, the experience of two different states, and dualism, the total separation between body and soul.  Dualism at its core, argues that what makes a person is the anima and that the same anima in any body is the same person.   This leads to all sorts of dangerous possibilities, from downloading human personalities into computers, to creating “humans” de novo through “programming” of “uninhabited” bodies.  It does not acknowledge the importance of our relationship with our bodies except as vessels for our “person.”  Duality allows for a total embodied relationship with other embodied beings as well as God while at the same time recognizing our existence in a broken world.

The Christian narrative demands that regardless of our state of embodiment, we use our bodies to enact the not-yet-but-now story of the resurrection of Christ and the New Kingdom that has come and is not yet come.  Our bodies have glimpses of the embodied resurrection when the relationship between our souls and bodies seems harmonious, but we live in the not yet, when our bodies and souls seem to be at opposition.  We must, then, accept the dual nature of our bodies.  We are at once defined as/by our bodies and our bodies are something which we have.  Our bodies come to symbolize the anima within and so are “who” we are, the gift of life, and yet our bodies are in their own right gifts.  Why is this duality important?  How then do we live this narrative?

One answer is in Matthew 25.  The second parable in this chapter has the most bearing on the present issue and is that of three slaves who are given money.  Two of them invest their money and double it.  The master is pleased with them and gives them great authority in his affairs.  The third buries the money, earning no interest, displeasing the master.  Important to this parable is the idea of stewardship, that we are to maximize the investment of what we have.  This includes our bodies, which I have already shown to be a gift of God.  Stewardship of our bodies require us to utilize them in ways which are consistent with the not-yet-but-now nature of the Kingdom.  We must keep ourselves healthy to the best of our abilities consistent with our embodied nature and a state of good health allows us to maximize our capacity to be embodied and therefore Christ-like.  Medical interventions and therapies which keep us healthy are thus justified.

A second aspect of stewardship that is consistent with our dualistic experience is also implied.   The use of our body for the benefit other people is a “return on investment” of our gift of body.  Since our bodies are God’s (as well and ours/us), it is expected that we use our bodies in the service of God to their full extent just as we might use any other gift of talent we might have.  This might entail giving or receiving blood and organ donations and even somatic stem cells and biopsies for research.  Again, this requires that we live healthy lives so that our bodies, when it comes to donate organs or other tissue, can best benefit those who receive them.

The body is important to our story as humans.  It is part of the way we relate to God and to each other.  Our relationship with it can be complex, sometimes harmonious, sometimes full of conflict.  We are reminded that our bodies, regardless of whether we feel like embodied souls or ensouled bodies, are gifts, to be used to the benefit of ourselves and others, to be good stewards.

Theological Bioethics: An Introduction

This is the first part of a multi-part series on bioethics.  These essays were written in place of my term paper for a bioethics class I had with Dr. Allen Verhey at Duke Divinity.  I’m hoping for a post a week.  Stay tuned.  But first, an introduction.

The term “bioethics” was first coined in the 1960’s, but its history is much older, dating back to the ancient Greek philosophers and the eventual adoption of the Hippocratic Oath by physicians.  For much of its early history, bioethics has been mostly driven by religion and theology, with the gods or God standing as the final arbiter of a moral ethic.  Important to this (relatively) early history is the medical and scientific ethic put forth by Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) that medicine and science should seek to eliminate human suffering and alleviate death.  For much of recent history since Bacon, this ethic (sometimes called the Baconian Project) has held sway in the medical and scientific communities and, though Bacon had Puritan leanings, set the stage for the future secularization of bioethics.Bioethics has recently arisen as a distinct field of study among ethicists.  Part history of science, part philosophy, part sociology, and part science fiction, bioethics is the study of ethics as it relates to medical, biomedical, and biological research practices. It addresses imminent issues such as current requirements for care, just distribution of the fruits of research, the choices to be made at the end of life, and the ethical conduct of research.  Bioethics also addresses the ramifications of far-future biological technologies and seeks to direct these to an ethical conclusion consistent with our humanity.

In the 1950’s, there was a move away from a theological basis for bioethics, described as an Enlightenment of sorts, that insisted that all moral principles be expressed in a universally understood lexicon.   Theological voices were silenced, or at least moved away from using explicitly theological language.  Then, starting in the 1980’s, there was recognition that there was a need for theological voices to re-enter the dialogue, and there was a Reawakening of sorts.  This brings us to today and the resurgence of strong theological voices being heard today in the discourse.

In the next months I hope to bring to you a fresh look at theology based bioethics from the perspective of one who is both a scientist and a Christian.  I will look at some key ethical issues and review a few case studies within the bioethics debates.

Helpful to my review will be several key concepts in ethics.  To start with, I will reference three primary ways of looking at moral dilemmas: teleology, deontology, and aretalogy; the management, political, and identity modes of thought respectively.  Teleology has been reduced in modern secular ethics to a concern with the goods and ends of a particular action.  It asks, “What good is accomplished?” and is subject to the corollaries “What is good?” and “Whose good is it?”  The result of teleological inquiry is that those actions that will bring the most good to the most people will be permissible.  For example, genetic therapies are permissible only if they maximize the positive outcomes and are made widely available.

Alternatively, deontology is concerned with rights, laws and duties related ethical decisions in its modern, reduced form.  It asks “Whose choice is it?” thereby placing emphasis on one’s agency for choice.  Rights under deontology come in two forms: positive and negative.  The negative right is that one has a right to something, but not necessarily to all of the means to achieving that something.  Positive rights state that other people have a duty to help you exercise your right.  For example, the negative right to an abortion allows any woman to seek an abortion, but does not require doctors to perform it.  The positive right to an abortion would require that any doctor with the ability to perform an abortion to assist any woman seeking one.

Finally, aretology is attentive to the identity of the moral being faced with an ethical question.  Central to an aretological line of questioning is the questioner’s narrative and relationships to communities with which they associate (church, school, neighborhood association, professional association, etc.).  Aretology asks “Which choice has integrity with my identity?”  For example when faced with the choice to remove a dying loved one from life support, one has to ask “What choice fits my story?”

Of these three, aretology is the most important for a theological perspective in bioethics.  The utility and legality of ethical situations has been thoroughly explored and debated by the secular bioethics community and are important for making value judgments (in both senses of the word value).  However, theology is based around a narrative, in the case of Christianity provided by the Bible, and a community, the church.  Any ethical decision by a professed Christian must conform both to the story and communal relationship of the Christian church.  Certainly, one can find goods and laws in the Bible, and the importance of these is not to be discounted, but integrity to identity is perhaps the most useful contribution of Christian theology to the modern bioethics debate.

The Christian narrative I confess is that only God is God and that the highest miracle is the miracle of salvation and resurrection through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  We live in a story in which our own salvation and resurrection in the New Kingdom of God has not yet been realized, but which has already been inaugurated by Christ and glimpses of which can be seen in our healing, teaching, and loving acts. This not-yet-but-now narrative demands attention to how we order our lives and health that is consistent with the resurrection that was, is, and is yet to come.

Thus, the Christian story rejects the Baconian project, as it is too easy to hold life and health as idols with in it.  Instead, the Christian story declares that life and health are great goods, but not the greatest good.  Similarly, death is a great evil, but not the greatest evil, because of the promised resurrection which has broken the spiritual power of death over us.  Therefore, when we as Christians seek to preserve life, avoid death and enhance health, we must do so in preparation for and within the New Kingdom realized.  We are freed from the duality that is body and soul, but are called to maintain life and health as goods, to oppose the evils of death and suffering, and to live the example set by Christ as embodied persons.   How is this simply expressed Christian ethic enacted in the world of science in medicine?  How does this ethic place limits on our actions and desires in seeking biomedical solutions to issues of health and life and death?

The following essays are not meant to be a condemnation of theology, bioethics, science or medicine.  They all have a part to play in recognizing the human condition and defining human nature.  These essays are meant to reconcile Christian theological bioethics, and more broadly Christian theology, with science and medicine in James Gustafson’s “dialogue of participation.”  By pointing out how each bears on the other, I hope to reveal the ways in which all are interdependent in discerning the human enterprise.

Classic Salmon Flies: An Introduction

If the Catskill dry fly and the Carrie Stevens streamer are considered the princes of trout fishing, then the classic salmon fly is undoubtedly the king of all fly fishing.  Originally tied in Victorian Europe for the pursuit of Salmo salar or Atlantic salmon, king of the salmon family, these gaudy flies have today become an art form.  Tied in their original forms, these flies represent the vast global economy of the 18th century.  Exotic feathers, silks and furs imported into Europe were used to make these flies.  Expert fly tiers could turn out hundreds of flies every year using materials that are today considered rare and expensive and even illegal.  Materials such as seals fur, kori bustard, swan, silk embroidery floss, precious metal tinsels, Golden and Lady Amherst pheasant, chatterer (cotinga cotinga), toucan and macaw feathers were all used to create these brightly colored flies.

Today, the decrease in material availability and the attendant rise in prices have limited the production of these flies to a small group of eccentric artisans.  Some specialty sellers struggle to keep these tiers supplied with all but the most illegal materials.  Often tiers substitute commonly available materials for those that are rare and prohibited.  Today, a fly tier may easily spend hundreds of dollars and tens of hours working on a single fly.  The classic patterns are considered the benchmark for skill and material collecting.

Beyond the classic patterns, many modern tiers push the limits of what may be done with traditional materials.  Modern artistic salmon flies often show traces of their Victorian predecessors, but overwhelmingly present modernistic ideas of proportion, balance and color.

While in the past these flies were swum for fish, today, outside of a few handful of eccentric anglers, these flies are destined for walls and display cases.  Enjoy!

Flies tied by me.

Text and images (c) 2011

An Adoption People

November 20th is National Adoption Day.  Please keep all of those children waiting for families and homes in your prayers.

Matthew 12: 46-50 – While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?”  And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!  For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

Ephesians 1:3-14 -  Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,  just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.  He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will,  to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.  In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.  In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.  In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

Romans 8:12-17, 28-30 -  So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.  For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.  For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. …  We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.  For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.  And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

… … …

I have a story for you.  And like many such stories this one begins with a young single woman who unexpectedly finds herself pregnant in a morally strict society where unwed mothers are considered a disgrace to their family.  She takes stock of her options.  She considers having an abortion, raising the child on her own or simply abandoning the child in the hope that some charitable soul would find it and take it in.  Were she to raise the child herself or abandon it, the child would have no inheritance, no name and, most importantly, little chance at a successful future because of the stigma attached to bastard children in her society.  However, being a true believer in the power and mercy of God, she prayed “Lord, what shall I do with this child?”  And God heard her prayer and said, “Have no fear.  The child you bear belongs to me.”  And so, when the time came for the child to be born, she gave the child up to the will of God.

Thousands of miles away another woman prayed that she might have a child even though she could not bear one herself.  For three years she prayed and one day an adoption agency called and told her the good news:  A child had been born and was in need of a family.  And so the child born to the first woman in this story passed into the care of the second woman and in doing so was given a name and inheritance that would have been completely foreign to the birth mother.

As unique and singular as this story is, this is a story that I am no stranger to.  You see, this is my story.  I am that child, given at birth into the care of an orphanage run by the Holt Adoption Agency in Seoul, South Korea and adopted by a childless couple from Michigan.  My birth parents were factory workers and never completed high school.  My life parents are white, from Wisconsin and own their own physical therapy clinic.  I graduated from one of the best universities in the world and I am starting my PhD in microbiology.  In being adopted I was given a new name, a new future and a new home.  Little could my birth parents have imagined the course my life would take, but, as the proverb goes, God works in many mysterious ways.  His will can move mountains.  He probably didn’t even break a sweat for a 6 pound baby boy.

The unconditional love of God for us is a central tenant of Christian faith, but it is something of such enormous consequence that few if anyone can imagine it.  For evidence of this, I have to look no further than my own story.  I have been fortunate to experience unconditional love in this world, twice.  My birth mother loved me so completely that she let go of me.  She trusted in God’s divine plan and let me go as a living sacrifice of her love.  On the other side of the world, for three years, my life parents prayed for a child and built up their lives around a child they had yet to even know existed.  They loved me before I was even born.  It is these two instances of unconditional love that brings me here, half a world away from where I was born, to share this story with you.

But, this is not just my story.  It is yours as well.

We read in Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus that God “destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ…”  Now at the time Paul wrote this letter, there were growing divides in the young church between Christians of Jewish decent and Christians of Gentile decent.  Those Gentile converts were feeling inferior to their Jewish brethren; a kind of theological new-kids-on-the-block syndrome.  Paul sought to heal this schism by pointing out that Jesus died for everyone and we are all equal in God through adoption.  Anyone who believes in the love of God and believes in Jesus Christ as their savior is adopted into the multitude that is the people of God, those that God calls children.   As can be found in the Gospel of Matthew when Jesus is told his mother and brothers would like to visit him, Jesus gestures to his followers and proclaims “Here are my mother and my brothers!  For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

But can it be that simple?  We believe and do our chores and we’re in?  Paul’s declaration of adoption to the Romans, that Christians have received a spirit of adoption instead of one of slavery, comes just before the oft quoted “We know all things work together for good for those who love God…”  I’m sure when you all saw Romans chapter 8 as the reading many of you went “Aw no, Romans 8, again?!?  It’s only the third most overused passage ever.”  But this is important because here Paul is linking Adoption by God with Predestination.  Now, I’m no theologian, I don’t pretend to fully understand predestination and, probably due to my Methodist upbringing, I’m skeptical of anything that doesn’t allow for at least a shred of human free will.  But who can deny that God chooses us, in so many ways, in the face of His unconditional love?  What if my life parents had waited until I had arrived to decide whether they loved me or not?  What if they had wanted a girl instead of a boy or a lawyer instead of a scientist?  What if my birth mother had decided that she did not love the child growing within her?  If humans can love a child before it is born, then imagine what God’s unconditional love is capable of.  It is so very simple, but it is infinitely powerful.  One of my favorite quotes on this comes from the mystic Work of the Chariot and says “When a man takes a step toward God, God takes more steps toward that man than there are sands in the worlds of time.”

Regardless of your theology, whether you are Catholic, Protestant or Reformed, whether you believe in predestination or not, whether you were born and raised in the church, born again or newly converted, God loves you.  And He loved you before you were even born.  And will love you for ever and ever.  God chooses to love you so that you may be blessed all the days of your life.  From Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, “In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance towards redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.”  Our inheritance is the new kingdom of God and everlasting life.

We, then, are adopted into the church according to God’s will, for adoption is a calling that is central to the church.  We Christians are called to a mission of adoption, to be an adoption people.  Adopting children is not the only way to be an adoption people.  We are called to make disciples of all people, to grow God’s family by inviting people into our family and choosing to love them even though we do not share ties of blood.

When you stop to think about it, even Jesus was adopted.  Granted, his was more of an open adoption.  Born of the Father in Heaven, his body – and soul – was nurtured for the first couple of decades on earth by Joseph and Mary, his adopted parents.  They needn’t have taken on the responsibility of raising Jesus for he was not of their blood, but they decided to adopt and history remembers them as Jesus’ life parents.   Adoption, it seems, is deeply woven into the Christian story, but sometimes we as Christians are not so good at being an adoption people.

Babies are easy to adopt.  They’re cute, make funny faces, and have all the potential in the world crammed into their tiny bodies.

Imagine a baby girl.

Would you adopt her?  What if I told you she would grow up to be a homeless single mother?  What if I told you she would grow up lesbian?  What if I told you she had a genetic disorder that necessitated lifelong medical care?  Would you still adopt her?

We are called to adopt all people and yet sometimes we fall short.  When we were adopted into God’s family, He did not put any demands on what or who we were.  God did not specify that we be white or Asian, or straight, or male or female or middle class.  He simply said “come as you are” and yet we often turn around and pass judgment on those whom we should be welcoming with open arms.

When you pass the homeless person on the street without even saying hello, are you adopting him?  When you reflexively judge a young single mother, are you adopting her?  When your child’s school sends school supplies to Haiti, but you miss the deadline because you are too busy this week to go to Target, are you adopting the children?

We are all children of God.  We have all been adopted into His family, our family, but some don’t know it yet.  It is the Church’s mission to find those people and welcome them into our family, to adopt them, to teach them of God’s gift of the spirit of adoption, and to welcome them home.

Occasionally, people ask me if I want to meet my birth mother; if I want to know what I could have been, what I was “supposed” to be.  I tell them, no, I don’t have to, because I already know the most important part of her, her endless love and sacrificial spirit.  And so it is with God.  Amen.

(c) 2011