Friday, January 29, 2010

Competing Conclusions


After tonight, I have come to two competing conclusions. Either (a) God loves me and has something planned for me, or (b) I missed my calling as a Hollywood Stunt Car driver. Let me explain…

There I was, driving to my parents’ house for the weekend. I was tired. I had a hard time sleeping the night before, so I started to doze. I was about 15 miles outside of Lampasas, Texas, where I was planning on stopping to load up with some caffeine. I tried the usually things like changing the radio station, hitting myself, and calling people.

All of a sudden, I woke up hurdling 70 miles an hour down a grassy hill, straddling a ditch between the tires of my truck. I looked to the right and saw the steep grass hill dangerously close to my door. The rest of it was pretty much a blur. What I know is that I went into some type of hole, then I steered the truck back on to the road. Then the tire squealing began. I fishtailed one way, steered into it, and then fishtailed the other way and back again, for what seemed like forever. I was sure the truck would flip over; I had visions of it blasting through my head. I just could not regain control.

Even when I had slowed down considerably, still no control. Finally, I slammed the brakes. When I hit the brakes I felt the G-forces pushing me against my seatbelt, again I knew I would soon be upside down. It felt like there was a massive force pushing down on my roof. The truck did a full 180-degree turn on a completely dry road. Then it was over.

I got out of the truck. Several people had stopped to make sure I was okay. I was fine. One guy, who I actually almost hit, told me he thought my truck might have actually been in the air at one point. I inspected the truck and saw that the tires on the passenger side were completely flat. He offered to call me a wrecker, so I took him up on it.

The wrecker drove me into Lampasas to the Chevrolet dealership. I was thinking this would be incredibly expensive, if fixing it was possible. At that point I did not care about the money. I was a little in shock, but mostly praising God for saving my life.

Thankfully, the guys in the repair shop were able to mend one of the rims and the tire. We replaced the other one with the spare. It all took about an hour. Amazingly, they would not take any money from me. I was back on the road by about 6.  

Overall, I really do not know if I have mad stunt driving skills. I do not think so. More importantly, I think the better explanation is that God intervened. I guess I still have more to do. I spent the rest of the drive praising. I thank God for unseen forces, kind strangers, and the good people of Lampasas. 

New Normal


Lately my heart has been warmed by seeing how the world has responded to the needs of the people in Haiti. I have seen former presidents, musicians, medical professionals, Church leaders, movie stars, businesses, and regular people all stand up to extend helping hands. With all the evil and hate to which we humans are capable, it is good to see that we are also capable of compassion.

However, with tragedies such as this I often wonder if this help will be seen through to completion. It seems to me that entities such as governments and charitable organizations are often the ones that tend to stay the longest. However, I am also aware that Operation Nehemiah is a Christian organization that is still rebuilding houses in New Orleans. Most of the time people get accustomed to the reality of the tragedy, and then we go back to our lives as usual.

Psychologists call this the “adaptation-level phenomenon.” We seem to have a natural tendency to get used to a new environment and accept it. This phenomenon is why lottery winners are not generally happier after they win. It also describes how a husband can be able to recover after the loss of his wife. As things get either dire or ecstatic, we tend at some point to get back to a new normal.

Paul wrote two times in 2 Corinthians 4 that him and his fellow missionaries “do not lose heart.” He attributes this to his spirit being renewed by God. Even though it appears that Paul’s work was at a considerable cost to him physically and spiritually, he continued. He kept doing his work until he was killed for it.

So it seems to me that a connection with God may be the only way for humans to hold fast and stay strong in the long haul. When the new normal comes, we must seek God’s strength to overcome our tendency to quit. 

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Sexy Religion


I read a recent article in which psychologists theorized that people’s primary motivation for engaging in religion is sex and reproduction. They have theorized that being involved in Church may help support monogamy as well as help one come into contact with others with the same sex-related views.

Unfortunately, there is some truth to their theory. I think that religious groups can become meat markets. I think it is a good thing that being involved in religion can help support married people to stay faithful to each other. However, I disagree with the theory on several grounds.

One problem is that they used aggregate data from many different faiths. When you put together many different faiths, they may have very few values that are shared by them all. Yet one value that seems to be constant across almost all faith groups is chastity and fidelity. Since that is the one they share, it’s impact probably caused any other possibilities to disappear.

Second, part of their research seems to have been done on college students. I think it is a hard stretch to say that sexual and religious attitudes of hormonal 18-20 year-olds can be generalized to the rest of the population. It really seems like they are trying to serve an agenda.

This could be partly due to the way many people (both religious and non-religious) view religion, as a social institution governed by rules that designate behavior. Yet the real message of the Bible is very different. Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 3 that “where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” He also mentions being completely transformed, not just being nice or following the rules.

I am not saying that 2 Corinthians is saying that we should have sexual freedom. I am saying that being a Christian is a lot more than just rules concerning sex and being nice. It is a life transforming relationship with the creator and the created.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Thinking Smart



A researcher once gathered two groups of United States Army enlisted men. The groups were separated based on their scores on the army’s intelligence tests (which are not really good tests, but that is another issue). These two groups of men were then split into two more groups by how much they knew about baseball.

Once the groups were formed, all of the men were told about the events of a half of an inning of baseball. For example, “the first batter hit a double, the shortstop caught a fly ball, the third batter hit a home run” and so on. All of the men were then told to write down all that they could remember from the baseball half-inning.

The researcher’s analysis of all of their responses was that the men who had a lot of knowledge about baseball remembered much more, regardless of the level of intelligence. There could be many factors at work, may be familiarity with the situation led to better recall. Instead of just trying to memorize the words, may be those with baseball knowledge could visualize the actions described, leading them to better recall.  Another possible factor could be that some men may not have felt very confident when taking an intelligence test, while they would feel very confident in taking a test about baseball, and vice versa.

Nonetheless, reading this study (as well as other experiences) made me re-think some of my theories concerning the source of intelligence. There is much more to it than a genetically programmed functioning brain.

Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians that his confidence and competence comes from God. Although Paul was very persistent in his walk, it seems that God shaped and molded his experiences in such a way that his skills fit with his situation.

Sometimes it is tempting to use one’s current position to look down on others. We can think: “if they were smart, they would be where I am.” Yet when one looks at intelligence as a combination of a God-given brain, as well as God’s hand of providence in one’s life, it becomes more problematic. Then it seems the best response is to be thankful for God’s gifts.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Stench


Normally, I do not like the smell of cigarette smoke. I also usually do not like the stench of other people’s sweat. I usually do like the small of cooking food. Even though there are two bad smells and one good one, there are some times when the combination of these smells can actually smell good to me. It is this unique aroma of going to a public gathering, such as a football game, concert, or festival.

I think it smells good to me because I associate that smell with the good times that I have had at such gatherings. However, the scent seems less pleasing when I get home and can still detect it on my clothes.

In 2 Corinthians 2, Paul is talking about how God has enabled them to spread the message of the gospel. He uses the analogy of a “triumphant procession,” which includes a unique smelling aroma. I have read that this analogy would have been familiar to his readers due to a common occurrence of that time. When the Roman army completed a conquest, they would have a triumphal parade. Amongst the pomp and circumstance, they would burn incense, which had the effect of alerting the local people. Then they would parade through the streets, bringing the prisoners of war they had captured along with them. For the prisoners, the smell would signify the intense humiliation of defeat. For everyone else, the burning incense was the smell of victory.

I think Paul used this analogy because it is good for Christians to know that people may respond to us in different ways. Although I like that “public gathering” smell because of my good experiences, others may hate it because of bad experiences. Their responses will be reflective of their past experiences as well as how we present ourselves. Both are important. We should not judge people because of their negative experience, we should try to offer replacement positive experiences. 

Monday, January 18, 2010

Excessive Sorrow


I feel that working in the mental health field for several years has given me a pretty clear picture of the idea of depression. It is not too hard to gain a head knowledge of the symptoms, the causes, and the course of the disorder. It takes quite a bit more knowledge to learn how to differentiate a Major Depressive Disorder from similar diagnoses of dysthymia, bipolar disorders, or adjustment disorders. A mental health professional has to have such knowledge and do a fair amount of detailed diagnostic interviewing and testing in order to come to an accurate diagnosis. In my opinion, such a process is absolutely essential in guiding decisions concerning efficient treatment.

Therefore, obtaining antidepressants from your doctor after filling out a 10-question symptom questionnaire should not be sufficient. Identifying with some of the symptoms on “depressionhurts.com” does not suffice either. So many voices you hear on television make depression sound like a cold virus that you might catch if you do not wash your hands after you use the restroom.

In my experience, depression is usually excessive sadness that occurs in response to normal difficulties of life. For example, most guys tend to get pretty sad when they get dumped, that is normal. Yet a guy whose response includes several weeks of not being able to leave the house, sleeping too much or too little, appetite disruptions, and thoughts of suicide might be experiencing a depressive episode. Of course the intensity of the inciting incident has an impact on how some behaviors could be considered normal. Nonetheless, such an experience is very real to the sufferer and should be treated delicately.

In 2 Corinthians 2, Paul addressed the Church concerning a particular individual to whom the Church had withdrawn fellowship (mentioned in 1 Corinthians 5). Paul said that the believers should restore this individual so that he would not be “overwhelmed with excessive sorrow.” It seems that Paul considers the emotional health of Church members to be of particular importance, not something to be taken lightly. After a century of research, it seems that most churches are only now beginning to recognize the legitimacy of such difficulties. Paul also seems to believe in the healing power of community.

In light of this, I would advise you to look out for people around you and yourself. When you see “excessive sorrow,” consider suggesting help from a qualified professional. If you have questions about who is considered a “professional,” write me a comment and I can help you.  In addition, it is important that you should not be afraid and withdraw your friendship. Instead, these are the situations in which the closeness of a community can literally save someone’s life. Depression does hurt, but YOU can help.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Cost-Benefit



In some domains, it seems that people think in terms of costs and benefits. We mentally load the scale on both sides and try to make a decision. We expect that there will be a direct connection between the costs and benefits. For example, one would expect more from a computer that costs $2000 than one that costs $500.  An expensive wine should taste better than a cheap one.

We can also have this expectation when it comes to our work. When we work especially hard for something, we expect it to be exceptionally gratifying upon achievement. If you study hard for a test, you expect to make a good grade. If you do something good for someone, you like to get a “thank you.”

Unfortunately, life does not always work out that way. Some research has largely found that expensive wine is mostly indistinguishable from cheap wine. Studying hard does not always guarantee good grades. People do not always notice it if you do something good.

In contrast, Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 1 that God’s promises are always “yes” in Christ. That kind of sounds like a cheesy Sunday school message, but it is relevant to everyone. After reading this passage this morning, I took a look in the back of my Bible at a page titled “God’s promises from the Bible” which had several topics and scripture references. God promises love, forgiveness, peace, joy, freedom, and blessing. He will not cheat us with a dishonest price tag.

I propose you take some time and look over the list of “God’s Promises” from your Bible, especially the ones from the words of Jesus in the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Remember that they are all perfect!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Infectious Comfort


Last year, I had an appointment with an interesting student. He seemed very intelligent and he had overcome a great amount of adversity to get to where he was. I liked him immediately. We kind of “hit it off” verbally. Our hour and a half discussion seemed to fly by. As soon as he was gone, I could tell that I was kind of hyped up physiologically. A few minutes later, I started to feel kind of tired. As I thought about the possible reasons for this feeling, I realized that I had just spent that entire time with someone who was very energetic and enthusiastic. When I mentally rewound through the appointment, it seemed to be a whirlwind that was energizing at the time, but then tiring.

I am not sure why, but sometimes it seems that people can just rub off on us. Some people believe that such an effect has something to do with the human energy field radiating from the body. However, I spent some time internet researching the phenomenon. I found that most experts in physics and medicine have not substantiated such a claim. Most of the people who say it is true were either from eastern religious groups or companies trying to sell you something to correct your energy field.

I think it is probably much simpler. Rather than some sixth sense, I think humans are much better at unconsciously interpreting someone else’s behavior than we tend to think. I once read a research study in which women were supposed to evaluate the attractiveness of a man walking outdoors. The variable was that half of the men were given cologne to wear and half of them were wearing a non-smelling liquid. The results indicated that the women rated the men wearing the cologne as more attractive. But here is the catch; the women only saw videos of the men walking. It seems that the cologne affected the man’s confidence, which was visually detectable by the woman in seeing him strut.

In 2 Corinthians 1, Paul talks about the infectious nature of comfort that Christians receive from God. He wrote that God comforts us so that we can comfort others. It seems as if Paul takes all of the distressing aspects of his life with a sense of ease in knowing that God is faithful. Such a spirit is no doubt noticeable to others.

However, I do not think one can adequately fake such a comfort. It has to be real. People seem notoriously good at detecting false confidence. Yet when it is real it is incredibly valuable. I hope that we all receive infectious comfort.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Passive-aggressive

Passive-aggressive behavior drives me crazy, although I am sure I have been guilty of it in the past. After months of no contact, a friend once told me that he was upset about something I did months earlier. I had no idea that what I had done had upset him. I was completely caught off guard when he told me he was upset about it. I wish he would have just said something instead of passively showing anger by not talking to me.

The term “passive-aggressive” was introduced as a “personality disorder” in the third revised edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III-R) in 1987. In the current edition, DSM-IV-TR, Passive-aggressive Personality Disorder has been downgraded to the appendix. According to Wikipedia, the reason was that researchers have had difficulty defining the associated behaviors. As is, here are the criteria:

“A) A pervasive pattern of negativistic attitudes and passive resistance to demands for adequate performance, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicted by four (or more) of the following:

- Passively resists fulfilling routine social and occupational tasks
- Complains of being misunderstood and unappreciated by others
- Is sullen and argumentative
- Unreasonably criticizes and scorns authority
- Expresses envy and resentment toward those apparently more fortunate
- Voices exaggerated and persistent complaints of personal misfortune
- Alternates between hostile defiance and contrition
B) Does not occur exclusively during major depressive episodes and is not better accounted for by dysthymic disorder.”

Basically, passive-aggression is when someone shows discontent through actions that may be contrary to their words. They tell you they want to do something, yet they drag their feet and complain, showing you they never really wanted to in the first place. They say they are not upset and then they do not talk to you for two weeks. They make conflict worse by avoiding any type of verbal expression of their feelings. I have a different term for such behavior: cowardice.

The Bible addresses this issue in many ways. In Matthew 18:15, Jesus said that if someone has wronged you, go to that person directly to solve the problem. He also said in Matthew 5:37 that we should let our “yes” be “yes” and our “no” be “no.” Finally, Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 16 that we should be strong, have courage, and do everything out of love.  

It takes courage to confront someone, even if it is done in love (as it should be). It is sometimes uncomfortable to share your feelings directly.  Despite the inconvenience, it is worthwhile and the right thing to do. Think about it. Is there any resentment you have been trying to show someone, that instead you just need to tell them directly?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Wait


In a now-classic psychological experiment, Walter Mischel sat down preschoolers and gave them a marshmallow. Then the children were told they could immediately eat the marshmallow, or they could wait. If they waited fifteen minutes while the adult was out of the room to eat the marshmallow, they would receive another marshmallow when the adult returned. The majority of the children could not wait, but a few did (Mischel et al, 1972).




Years later, it was found that those particular children who waited were significantly more successful in life than the others. They retained the ability to delay their own gratification in favor of future rewards (Mischel et al, 1990). A more recent study also found that self-discipline is much better at predicting academic performance than IQ (Duckworth & Seligman, 2005).

Delaying gratification may be very important to success, but it can also be incredibly difficult sometimes. One needs to look no further than our society’s problems with addiction, obesity, and overspending. I want it now, I can have it now; do not give me any delays.

Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15 that there is a delay between when we work and when we get rewarded. We work in the physical body, our reward may come in the future spiritual body. Paul also wrote that God has given us victory over sin and death through Christ. So it seems that through Christ, I should have the power to delay gratification indefinitely.

Sometimes this is just a hard pill to swallow. There are some things I have been waiting for my entire life. The longer I wait, the more immediate rewards become more appealing. The rewards that lay beyond the grave seem so distant and intangible that it is hard to imagine how they could be better than more immediate rewards.

I definitely have not figured this out, but I reconcile it in three ways:
(1) I believe the Bible says God does reward us in our present reality when we do good things with good motives. Therefore, our rewards may not be immediate, but they are not all beyond the grave (Matthew 6 & 7).
(2) I believe that living according to the principles of the Bible may help one to be rewarded in this present reality. For example, loving other people does not always incur a reward, but very often it does. Doing otherwise also tends to incur punishment.
(3) Have faith. This one is the hardest. But just because those rewards seem intangible to me, that does not mean they do not exist. My perspective is limited.

So I pray that God will continue in teaching me and giving me the power to wait. Help me to love the delay, because it is in that delay that I can proclaim to my God and others that I trust him. I trust he has more for me than just a marshmallow.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Possible


There is a man named Daniel Kish who is visually impaired. He sees nothing. Yet if you watch this video, you will see that he rides a bicycle through the city streets and on wooded trails. As the video explains, he has learned how to navigate by making sounds and “seeing” by hearing the sounds bouncing back into his ears. It sounds impossible, yet it works.



Another interesting variation is a technology that interprets visual images into electrical impulses, which are then sent to the person’s tongue. This video shows people being able to distinguish even numbers on a page using this technology and the sense of touch. This also seems impossible.

 

In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul wrote about speaking in tongues. It seems from this scripture that the practice is the spirit speaking separate from the mind. Even more, the scripture also describes someone having the ability to interpret the tongues. Personally, I have never experienced speaking in tongues myself. It honestly seems impossible to me. Yet the Bible says that it exists (or at least existed) and people that I trust say they have experienced it. Therefore, I believe it is possible.

Things like this remind me that this is a peculiar existence. The limits of it may be much more blurry then they appear.  Who knows what kind of mysteries of creation God is still waiting to reveal?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Know

One of the difficult aspects teaching someone is understanding the perspective of a person who has not yet gained a particular bit of knowledge. Once knowledge has changed the teacher’s perspective, it can seem like that knowledge has always been there. What we call “common sense” or “basic logic” may be the sum of information we learned that we do not remember not knowing.


For example, take a minute and look at this picture below. What is it?



If you have never seen it before, or you do not know what it is, it probably looks like random dots. Ready for the answer? It is a Dalmatian (dog) drinking water from a creek. The large black jagged line coming from the left side is the shore of the creek. We are looking at the dog from the back-left side. Do you see it now?

If you did see it, look again and try to see the picture without the dog or the creek. Try to see it as you did before, a random group of dots. I do not think it is possible to go back once you have seen it. Once your brain has formed it, you cannot go back.

Amidst Paul’s chapter concerning love in 1 Corinthians 13, he talks about knowing. He says that we now know in part, yet someday we shall know fully. Right now we only see a poor reflection.

To me, this is encouraging. Sometimes life in general looks like a bunch of random dots on a page. No rhyme or reason. As much as I try, understanding is elusive. Yet God knows and sees the overall picture. Unlike an imperfect teacher, he understands that I do not know and gives me grace. I sometimes picture God watching and saying “Aww…he just does not get it yet.”  But someday, I will know. God give me the faith to follow until that day comes.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Warm Heart, Cold Shoulder



Love is not in the air right now. Even in Austin, Texas, it is 30 degrees outside. My experience has been that new relationships tend to struggle in the cold of winter. I have experienced the “Turkey Drop,” which is where you go home for Thanksgiving and your girlfriend realizes your relationship is no good, then she drops you shortly after. In Texas, that is about the time the weather gets cold.

Several research studies have investigated the effect of temperature on relationships. One study concluded that merely holding a warm cup of coffee led participants to judge another person as having a more generous and caring personality, as opposed to holding iced coffee. The same paper reported that participants holding a warm therapeutic pad were more likely to choose to receive a gift for someone else instead of themselves (Williams & Bargh, 2008).


Another study reported that recalling an instance of being socially excluded led participants to estimate the room temperature as colder than recalling an inclusion experience. The same study also concluded that actually being socially excluded led participants to a greater desire for warm food or drinks (Zhong & Leonardelli, 2008).

Of course, there are several implications one could make from this research. One could make sure to go to  warm places and have warm drinks and food on dates. One could also be hopeful that one’s relationship drought might end when the warm weather returns.

More importantly, it says to me that real love must be more than just warm feelings. Warm feelings may be necessary, but they are fleeting because the winter will always come, even in Texas. One of the most beautiful  and timeless descriptions of love is in 1 Corinthians 13. This chapter says many things about love, but it does not say that love goes away when it is cold. Paul says love perseveres, is patient, and never fails.

So beware of the turkey drop, know that positive feelings are fickle enough to be affected by the temperature. Yet also remember that love should be bigger than a warm heart or a cold shoulder.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Harry Potter and the Manhattan Project



Some of my Holiday reading has included a book called “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman” about the life of Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman. Amongst his many accomplishments, he was one of many scientists who worked on The Manhattan Project (which was an American led collaboration which developed the nuclear technology and the atomic bomb). I also recently watched “Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince” for the first time.

Strangely enough, I found some similarity between these two stories. In both, a community of like-minded individuals gathers in secret for a particular purpose. The have respective roles, but an overall goal. There are teachers and students, but all are learning together. In both stories, there is a deep dark force that looms in opposition to their efforts.

The outcome of the Manhattan Project impacted the world immeasurably. It is amazing to me that some nations continue to fail in replicating the project’s scientific breakthroughs 63 years later. It has been said that non-collaborating nations replicated largely due to spying on the project, not equivalent innovation. Since I have not finished the Harry Potter saga, I am not sure about it’s outcome. So far, they have had some success. I have a feeling the ending will be good.


The power of minds collaborating can be immense. In I Corinthians 12, Paul wrote about how people have different gifts, yet we work for the same purpose.  Different people have different roles, yet all hold value. Jealousy and division have no place in such an environment.

What do you suppose could happen in the world if the Church collaborated in the same way as the scientists of the Manhattan Project or the Wizards of Hogwarts? Could we have a huge impact?


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