Thursday, December 22, 2011

Do you Speak God?


I recently listened to the audiobook of one of my academic heroes, Francis S. Collins. He is a brilliant physician/geneticist, the former head of the Human Genome Project and the current director of the National Institute of Health. He also is a Christian and plays guitar.
The book, “The Language of God,” presents several scientific arguments which suggest that current scientific understanding is not incompatible with the existence of God. He also discusses some of the different viewpoints on the topic and reviews their scientific merit. Collins also weaves into the book his own journey from atheism to Christianity.
I really enjoyed how Collins challenged what he called the “God of the Gaps” thinking. This refers to the way people often want to ascribe to God aspects of the world which are currently unexplainable by science. He attributes many of the clashes between science and religion to such controversies, such as the conflict between Galileo and the Catholic Church. 
Instead, we can see God not only in the gaps of that which is natural, but as the author of the mechanisms which science has discovered. I think we can use such a paradigm to learn more about how our world is a manifestation of the one who created it, a word from God. I highly recommend that those who are curious about such matters should give this book a read!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

'Tis the Season for...Debate?


It is interesting to me how this time of year is one of two times in the year that major media outlets choose to discuss religion. A couple of nights ago, the national geographic channel was showing back-to-back specials which all included Jesus in one way or another. The History Channel also did a special on “Proving God” last week as well. It seems this is also the season in which the network news enjoys turning greeting statements and outdoor displays into overblown debates about the division between Church and State. 
Unfortunately, I feel that possible harm can result if one does not consume this type of media with a critical understanding of media. It has been my experience that the media prefers to tell a dramatic story instead of an accurate one. Scholarly discourse usually includes extremist viewpoints that are not very highly respected in a scholarly community, yet these viewpoints are what make it to the television. I can just imagine that many legit historians and theologians slap their foreheads over and over this time of year.
However, I think this discourse can be valuable, if nothing else, that it might inspire people to think about God and embark upon their own quest to know him. I tend to return to new writing concerning God and science this time of year. As a scientist and a Christian, I think it is valuable for me to be knowledgeable about the topic. 
What kind of feelings do you have about these public discussions? Are they harmful or valuable? Do they inspire you?

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Would Jesus Occupy?


It seems to me that the occupy movement has brought into the limelight political polarities among Christians because of the different reactions. One side seems to view the Occupy movement as a righteous crusade seeking justice for the poor. Other perspectives seem to suggest that the movement is a sad result of our increasingly entitled generation. Both sides have produced at least some Biblical evidence to support their views. 
In my view, the real question is this: What did Jesus do in response to the economic and religious injustice of his day? 
It seems to me that Jesus’ primary response was to take his message of love to both the perpetrators and the victims of economic injustice. For example, those who were entrusted with collecting taxes for the Roman government were known to be perpetuators of economic injustice. Therefore, Jesus spent time with them (such as Zaccheus) and sometimes chose them to be in his small group of apostles (such as Levi). Jesus also encouraged these people to be generous (such as the Rich Young Ruler). Finally, Jesus spoke to the rich and poor alike about the difficulties and meaninglessness associated with greed.
I am not sure what this type of ministry would look like in this day and age. Even though you might not see it on the news, I have no doubt that God is at work in our world to bring about his kingdom of justice. I think our task is to find how we can follow Jesus’ example in taking part in his work.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Suh-table Behavior?


Ndamukong Suh’s controversial “stomp” on another player in the Detroit Lions’ Thanksgiving game against the Green Bay Packers has sparked a lot of debate. Suh asserts that he was merely removing himself from the situation, although many say that his body movement as well as his aggressive playing style would suggest otherwise. Suh has since been handed a two game suspension from the NFL, which he is appealing.
Why do you think such a talented and articulate young man would behave this way? 
Psychological studies have suggested that humans tend to have an asymmetrical bias in our thinking about what causes behavior (Malle, 2006). When one thinks about his or her own negative behaviors, there is a tendency to cite situational factors. Therefore, it is not surprising that Suh has asserted benign intent in this incident.
When thinking about another person’s negative behaviors, we have a tendency to cite a person’s flaws in personality. Therefore, it is likely that the NFL will recommend anger management therapy for Suh to encourage him overcome his personality-based flaw.
I think this issue illustrates a very important concept in the way that humans view other people. The take-home message is that our view of what causes other peoples’ behavior sans investigation is usually fundamentally flawed in one way or another. Of course society has to punish and instruct to protect itself. I think we must continue to seek more accurate knowledge of human behavior that will lead us to treat each other with an increasing amount of justice and grace.  However, I think we must also know that doing so will always be imperfect because of our imperfect thinking.
Thankfully, Isaiah 55:8 suggests that God does not share our fundamental bias. His thoughts are higher than our thoughts. Also in Psalm 139, David also gives a beautiful account of the all-knowing nature of the creator, saying “Before a word is on my tongue, you, Lord, know it completely.” 
Therefore, I believe that in his infinite wisdom, God has the only perspective that can infinitely see both the situational and personal factors involved in human behavior. Thankfully, he is the one to which we must give an ultimate account.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Are You Free?


Yesterday, I listened to a podcast which discussed the significance of an accomplishment by researchers in which they were able to create a mechanism so that a monkey could control an electronic arm only using it’s brain. This may sound like merely a neat trick to some, but it is the process in which this was accomplished that was described as important. In order for this to work, the researchers had to successfully model the process of arm movement in the monkey’s brain. 
This is a big deal because the more we learn about the brain, the more we learn how complex it is. In the past, neuroscientists focused on finding nodes in which particular functions were accomplished. Modern imaging techniques now make it possible to see that brain activity is far more complex than we could have imagined. Therefore it is not surprising that the researchers noted that their model was not exactly correct, the monkey’s brain did have to adapt partially in order to move the arm effectively.
I think this discovery is interesting in regard to the free will vs. determinism debate. This research suggests that if we have a sufficient model, we can predict and model behavior. I see it as evidence toward a deterministic perspective. Being able to predict behavior suggests that there is a discoverable pattern in the brain which governs the process that we see in behavior. 
At the same time, a monkey moving an arm is quite a distance from many of the complicated processes and decisions that humans encounter on a daily basis. Theologians have also investigated this issue, often coming to many different conclusions. 
If you will, I hope the reader will engage with me as I review evidence from psychology and scripture concerning this debate. Are you free to come on this journey?

Monday, July 25, 2011

Shortcut in a Bottle

One time I walked into a college dorm room to find a friend of mine glued to the television, watching an infomercial. Of course I thought this was odd, I think infomercials may be the way that God punishes people who stay up too late at night. I am not sure why they even call them “info” instead of just really long commercials. It is not like that actually involve any thing informative. This particular infomercial was selling some type of dietary supplement which they basically said was “Exercise in a Bottle.”


It seemed that my friend was totally buying it. He seemed genuinely excited about being able to be slim and trim by just taking this pill when he wakes up in the morning. I had to laugh a little. Even as a young college student, I was learning that things are almost never that simple or easy. As an adult, it often seems comical how bent our culture is on attaining meaningful goals without putting in the necessary effort. May be you would not get exercise in a bottle, but how about a surgery? How about being able to skip over years of hard work and go straight into financial security simply by choosing the right lottery numbers?
In Matthew 16, Jesus calls Peter quite possibly the worst name thing he could - “Satan.” This seems really strange, because in the previous paragraph, Jesus was telling Peter that he was going to be the rocky foundation of his future community on earth. The reason why Peter was rebuked so strongly was that he had just rebuked his teacher. Jesus told Peter that he was going to suffer and die, but Peter could not believe that Jesus would have to suffer so mightily. Peter seems to have been thinking, “surely there is an easier way, some kind of shortcut around it.” The idea is actually very similar to what Satan offered Jesus in Matthew 4:8. 
It seems that there are an increasing number of shortcuts that arise around us. Sometimes even religious ones. Some would suggest that you can be close to God simply by donating to their cause. Other voices might say that you can shortcut religion itself and simply be “spiritual.” Unfortunately, Jesus’ words should echo in our minds a reminder of how the promise of shortcuts inevitably leads to something that is short-lived, or not even lived at all (as was the “exercise in a bottle,” which was probably just caffeine and Ephedra).

Monday, July 18, 2011

Theology of an 8 year-old

A friend and I recently had a discussion with a random stranger while eating lunch. My friend and I were discussing some of our theories related to the book of Genesis, science, and the creation of the world. My friend saw the man at the next table listening to us, then invited him to join. 
The stranger, who I learned subsequently had a huge sticker on his laptop that read “Athiest,” described his perceptions of inconsistencies in the character of God in the Bible. He said that he had read the Bible from cover-to-cover when he was 8 years old and discerned these opinions. Personally, I had a hard time believing that an 8 year-old could read the entire Bible, much less understand or be critical of it. However, this was turning into a very interesting exchange, the last thing I wanted to do was be condescending and criticize his perception. I wanted it to be a discussion and not an argument.
As we continued to conversationally ponder the mysteries of this ancient document, it was interesting how the complexity of the two of us who had studied and believe the Bible were met with the refutations of a confused 8 year-old from a man in his 50’s. It is not that they were necessarily entirely unfounded, but it seems like they were largely based on simplistic viewpoint.
In Matthew 16, the religious experts of Jesus’ day start to sound a little like 8 year-olds. They wanted Jesus to give them a sign from heaven, like when God sent fire on to a drenched wet sacrifice on Mount Carmel at the request of Elijah. They were not interested in hearing his words, it seems like they wanted to see Jesus do some kind of a trick. Of course Jesus knew their motives and responded accordingly, telling them that he would not be giving them a sign from heaven.
I think God probably sees most of our thinking about him like we are all 8 year-olds. We keep trying to force his infinite existence into our finite brains. It seems like our lunchtime conversation partner had decided to quit with his 8 year-old style questions, not accepting any chance of resolution. I think it is monumentally important that we continue at the quest of seeking understanding, while at the same time realizing that the reality is likely beyond our understanding. 

Monday, July 11, 2011

Snubbed

When I was deciding to go to graduate school for the first time, I had a meeting with a faculty member who I did not know at the time. I was definitely not prepared for what was coming during this meeting. I felt like this faculty member was trying to talk me out of joining the department to which he was a member. His questions were probing and his outlook was quite cynical. Several times, he got my heart beating fast and left me stumbling on my words, which is not normal for me. I left that encounter with some blaring questions and doubts about the whole endeavor. I also did not have positive feelings about the faculty member who blindsided me with his questions and demeanor. 
Looking back on it now, I see it completely different. Going through that level of scrutiny ended up being a very positive experience. I realized that I did not have it all together. It led me to think deeply and research widely my own motivation and to investigate my purpose. Eventually I learned how that faculty member was actually very helpful in my time there and I respected his honesty.
In Matthew 15, Jesus did something that seems out of character for him. A Canaanite woman comes to him for healing and he basically snubbed her, telling her that it was not right to give the children’s bread to the dogs. The woman then responds in her desperation, saying “even the dogs eat the crumbs from the master’s table.” Then Jesus tells her that she has great faith and heals her daughter.
To me, it really seems like Jesus was being a jerk to this woman, but that is not the whole story. We see that normally in the Bible that Canaanites are seen as less than holy people. They were the people that God instructed the Israelites to take over and destroy, creating in our minds a pretty negative connotation. However, a commentary I read about this passage suggested that in the time of Jesus, being a Canaanite meant that she was a Greek citizen of an elite class, higher on the pecking order of society than the Jews. 
Therefore, Jesus’ words to her likely required her to do something that she would not normally do as a member of an elite class, recognize someone’s authority above her own, calling him the “master.” It seems that Jesus was powerfully teaching her some humility, even though that lesson may not come blaring through the text.
As a new graduate student, I needed to learn a little humility myself. That difficult meeting helped me in a way that an encouraging meeting may not have. I wish I could say that these lessons are few and far-between, but they are not. I think we all need that lesson. I am thankful that God keeps working on me.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Injustice

After hearing about the Casey Anthony verdict, I joined the many people who have been hurting for the injustice that was done to an innocent two year-old girl. However, the injustice that Cayley experienced did not happen yesterday, it happened several years ago when she was neglectfully discarded by a very selfish person who was not able to consider the needs of someone else above her own desires. Unfortunately, Mrs. Anthony is not the only person who has a tendency to only consider their own needs above someone else.
Although the verdict itself may have been highly related to lots of legal pyrotechnics concerning the definition of “reasonable doubt,” I think it is also a commentary concerning the values of our society. May be we forget that in this country it is legal to kill a child, as long as that child is still in the womb and is not considered “viable.” The Guttmacher Institute reports that the most common reported reason for women having abortions is that having a child would “dramatically change MY life.” 
In Matthew 14, Jesus’ cousin experienced a similar injustice. John the Baptist spoke out against the selfish behavior of the king, suggesting what he was doing was against their Jewish law. As a result of his speech, John the Baptist upset the wrong people, leading to his death by beheading. As a point of contrast to the king’s behavior, Jesus seems to have desired solitude to deal with his grief, but he put the needs of others above his own and engaged the crowd who was following him.
Both John the Baptist and Jesus put other’s needs above themselves. John stood up for what was right despite the consequences, Jesus had compassion even through his grief. Such behavior is often at odds with the individualism of society. 
The dark side of individualism is that it rewards seeking the individual’s benefits at the expense of others. I am very often guilty of only looking out for myself. The issue becomes particularly poignant when the collateral damage in one’s pursuit is the life of an innocent child. Despite the fact that precious Cayley is finally with the one who loves her unconditionally, it still is not right what she experienced. Jesus’ example and his words would have us sacrifice for others, not make them sacrifice for us. This has many many implications for our behavior in the world. How can the church to stand up and look out for those who are marginalized in a system of selfishness? What can we do to look for others’ needs above ourselves?

Friday, July 1, 2011

Weed or Fish?

Through my years of study, it seems to me that brain-related science is much better at answering small questions than it is at answering big ones. Although the roots of the discipline involved asking and trying to answer the big questions, we have made much more progress on the smaller ones. The biggest question often encountered is the nature-nurture discussion. 
Lately the pendulum has been swinging in the direction of nurture. For a long time we were studying the function and structure of the brain, we are now finding out more about the plasticity of that structure and function. For example, Dr. Sally Shaywitz suggested that some individuals with reading disorders have something fundamentally wrong with certain structures in their brains. However, these individuals are able to learn to read because their brains will automatically change, recruiting ancillary brain areas to make up for the disfunction. Although this amazing change may result in these individuals never reading quite normally, Shaywitz suggests that this restructuring also has advantages, leading these people to other types of intellectual strengths. Although their nature may be flawed, nurture can allow them to overcome and thrive.
In Matthew 13, Jesus tells two parables that make me think about the nature-nurture debate. The first one concerns weeds in a field. He talks about humans as a growing field, in which the bad weeds will be harvested and thrown away when the time comes. In a second, similar story, he talks about fishing. He says that after the net is brought in, the fisherman will sift through and throw away the bad fish.
Although these parables both seem to be saying the same thing, they are different. Some have suggested the difference had to do with the condition of those elements which were discarded. The weeds mentioned in the first story were fundamentally flawed, born poisonous and always bad, even though they did not always look the part. The word used to describe the bad fish was better translated “rotten,” suggesting that they were once healthy, but became unhealthy. In using both metaphors, it seems that Jesus could in his own way be handling the nature-nurture controversy.
It seems Jesus’ answer is a familiar one to those who ask the nature vs. nurture question: “Yes.” There is fierce enemy whose depraved servants are among us. There is also the chance to become rotten within all of us. However, in both of Jesus’ analogies, there is only one who is charged with the task of choosing who is rotten and who is not. I will give you a hint, it is not me or you.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

In Past Lives

I think it is interesting to learn about what people were like in their former lives. I recently met a fellow graduate student at a conference in New Orleans, who I assumed was probably a nerdy academic like the rest of us. When we became facebook friends, I learned that she was a former beauty queen! I have met other people who are former professional athletes, musicians, and drug dealers. Some people are surprised to find I am a former hockey player and community college instructor.
I cannot help but wonder if many people I know would have been my friends had we known each other during our former lives. Usually I think the answer is “no.” Either our lives would not have had sufficient opportunity to intersect, or we would have found one another uninteresting. The same thing might also have occurred if we met each other in a later point in life, say five years in the future. When I think about it this way, it makes even acquaintances seem very cosmic and serendipitous. We had to meet each other at this time in our development and we just happened to be in the same place.
Jesus told a strange parable in Matthew 13. He talks about a farmer discovering that someone had planted weeds in his field. The workers suggest that they should route out the weeds, but the farmer tells them to wait until they have fully developed. He then explains the parable, saying that the weeds represent the evil among us, who will be separated when the day comes. His character is the farmer, the patient one who was willing to give them time to develop.
This parable gives me comfort because I know that I have closely resembled a weed in times of my life. An impatient farmer might have thrown me in the fire a long time ago.  In the same way, I need to daily realize that everyone I see may be at different stages in their spiritual development. Their current life will soon be their former life. It is not my job to assess them, only to play my part in helping them along.

Monday, June 27, 2011

An Open Letter to the Closed Mind

Dear Friends,
I know that I may like you as a person or love you as a brother or sister, but I struggle to love your closed-minded thinking. It is that arrogant disposition you exude when you think you have everything figured out. You see no room for debate, new evidence, or alternative explanations. You are likely very politically minded. You have decided that this particular issue is of the utmost importance and your particular solution is the only possible solution. I may admire your passion and dedication, but I find it difficult to ignore alternative points of view.
I know that I am not immune to such thinking. This might be why I can see it in you. At different points in my life, I have been sure about things, only to have my misconceptions blasted away by a much more complicated truth. I know in the future that many of the things I think I know now will likely go through a similar process.
In Matthew 13, Jesus did not speak well of closed-minded thinking. He quotes Isaiah who spoke of those who “hear, but never understand” and “see, but never perceive.” Actually it seems to me that Jesus did this quite often. Jesus also discussed how those who hear the gospel but do not understand it are vulnerable to their faith being robbed by evil. Then Jesus told his disciples that their eyes and ears are blessed because they were open to hear and see him.
I am sorry that people around you have not always encouraged you to open your mind. It seems unfortunate to me that the Church in the last century has largely not been in favor of open-mindedness. This is sad to me because it was not always the case in the first ten or so centuries of the Church. Now we tend to band together around people who think the way that we do, which is often very different across different church bodies.
I would like to suggest to you that you are missing out. You are missing the joy that comes from learning about the world. Although your canned explanations help you sleep at night, I pray that you will someday learn to embrace the complexity and simplicity of the God who created a world that is simple and complicated. I also pray this prayer for myself.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Jonah and the Anagnorisis

I like stories that contain plot twists and/or twist endings. It usually involves some aspect of the story that remains unknown to the viewer and possibly some of the characters, then it is revealed towards the end. Throughout the story, the storyteller will often give some clues that might lead to the real ending, while others might lead one to false conclusions.
My favorite part in this scenario is that feeling you get after the reveal. All of a sudden, your brain starts to connect the dots. Aristotle called this moment the “anagnorisis.” Often movie-makers will review the story after the reveal, although my brain has usually done that already. Along with the anagnorisis, often comes the hindsight bias. This is when you think, of course, I knew that all along.
In Matthew 12, a little bit of a plot twist occurs. Jesus tells the religious people who are interrogating him that they will see the sign of Jonah. Remember Jonah? He is the guy we sang songs about in Bible school: “Who did, who did, who did swallow Jon, Jon, Jon, who did swallow Jonah up?” It always seemed to me like the book of Jonah was a fairly random story that was haphazardly squeezed into the confusing netherworlds of the Old Testament. But now amidst all of his important rhetoric, Jesus references that random story about a man being swallowed by a fish. 
Now comes the point of anagnorisis. Jesus draws a parallel between the events he is about to experience and what happened to Jonah. Now the story of Jonah is not so random, it becomes a foretelling the most important event in history. 
I think it is easy for us to get caught in the seemingly random and meaningless nature of our day-to-day experiences. Often nothing seems connected to a brilliantly orchestrated story. Let this passage be a reminder, God is a master storyteller. I believe we all have an anagnorisis waiting for us.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Ice Ice Baby

Ever since the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, the world has known about the danger associated with icebergs. Unfortunately, ships have been sunk due to these large blocks of ice as recent as 2007. The problem is that most of the iceberg lies below the surface of the water, largely invisible to one who might be piloting a ship. Sigmund Freud is known for being the first one to use an iceberg analogy to explain his theory about the mind.


Although Freud may have been wrong about some things, his assumption that most of the activity that takes place in our brains happens outside of our awareness has largely been retained. I think the analogy is also useful for trying to understand one’s behavior. As we go through our lives, we come into contact with many people who can be incredibly confusing. They seem to act with extreme irrationality. However, we seldom attempt to look at the iceberg below the surface. Like a tragic cruise ship, not looking below the surface does not keep us from being affected by what is there.
In Matthew 12, Jesus uses a different type of metaphor. He talks about a tree. He says that if a tree is good, it’s fruit will be good, and vice versa. Some people seem to infer from this passage that some people are inherently bad and others are inherently good. However, Jesus talked about making a tree good or bad, suggesting that this is a changeable quality. Similarly, “storing up” is also something someone chooses to do. 
It seems to me that Jesus was saying that what is below the surface matters. If we spend our days in silent desperate contempt, our words and actions will eventually reflect it. Similarly, Jesus is saying that one can recognize another’s heart by examining the fruit of their lives. Although we may only see fruit, it is evidence to suggest that the entire tree is healthy.
Personally, this is a very convicting. It means to me that I need to say what I mean and mean what I say. I need for my thought life below the surface to be reflect the mind of Christ. I also need to be constantly mindful of how others’ below-the-surface may affect what is above.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Just Yoking

There is always something special that happens in me during the month of May. For the many years I have been in school (or teaching school), finishing the semester always brings me a brief feeling of euphoria. By then, I rarely care much about my grades. I am just happy to have worked hard and completed the task. 
After I have turned in my last paper or finished my last test, I feel like a weight has been lifted off of my shoulders. I walk around smiling at people and noticing the beauty around me. Although I know that my pursuit of learning is not finished and classes will start again, for some stretch of time, everything feels light. I will often continue to read and learn when I am between classes, but it feels very different when I am doing so out of my own enjoyment for knowledge and learning.
In Matthew 11, Jesus is speaking as a teacher to those who would become his students. According to Rob Bell’s article “Covered in the Dust of your Rabbi”, a Jewish Rabbi would often have a very complex (and very strict) system of rules for his students to follow during their apprenticeship, called a yoke. Matthew 23 even suggests that these teachers may have also had physical weights that they would impose upon their shoulders. 
In addition, Bell says that Rabbis were the Rock Stars of Jesus’ day. Becoming the apprentice of a Rabbi might have been like a young singer being invited to Hollywood by the American Idol judges. However, for the few who were lucky enough to become students of a Rabbi in those days, life was not easy.
Knowing this cultural context, the meaning of Matthew 11:25-30 changes immensely. Instead of imposing artificial difficulty on those who did not have natural difficulty, Jesus said he desired to offer relief to those experiencing difficulty. Instead of choosing the cream of the crop, Jesus addressed the weeds and the thorns as well. Most importantly, Jesus decided to bear our burden himself.
I wonder why Christians are not experiencing daily that euphoric feeling of lightness. Instead of that end-of-semester feeling, it seems to me that Christians bear additional weight because we are constantly trying to live up to our self-imposed yokes. Is your burden light?

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Deniers and Christians

Recently Frontline (a series on PBS) did a special concerning the anti-vaccine movement. The program shows both sides of the debate, including the leading vaccination scientists as well as the not-so-scientific leaders (my distinction, not theirs)of the anti-vaccination movement. The scientists cite leading medical journals, while the anti-vaccine activists made comments such as “I did not have all of these vaccines when I was that age, and I turned out okay.”
Although I think Immunology is very interesting, what interests me more is the thinking behind vaccine denial. National Public Radio’s “Science Friday” series also did an episode concerning vaccine denial in which they allowed vaccine deniers to debate with a top immunologist. In the end of the episode, most of the deniers basically said that there was nothing the scientist could say that would be sufficiently convincing for them to change their views. They were committed to denying.
In Matthew 11, Jesus confronts this type of thinking. He speaks of John the Baptist, who despite being on the same religious side, was in many ways Jesus’ opposite. John criticized the culture at the time from the outside, living in the forest and asking them to repent. Jesus’ approach was very different. He went into the city, accepted the wedding invitations, and spoke in the synagogues. In verse 18, Jesus mentions how both he and John were criticized for these approaches, suggesting that no approach would have been free of their criticism. 
I think this chapter is very relevant today because it can be very easy for Christians to assume that our opinions are always right. We stick to a set of talking points and fail to consider another perspective. In this way, we fail to show Christ’s love to others while trying to oppress them with our own agenda. 
What would it look like if the Christians around the world started to be open-minded, valuing others’ thoughts and perspectives? Would the Church be a more Christ-centered body?

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Golden Child and the Has-Been

My teenage years might be characterized by a type of existential awkwardness. I was just in between, not a golden-child or a rebel child. I was just looking around for a place to fit in, but  I never really found it. Therefore, I did not have a hard time leaving high school. 
In my graduation gown, sometime in 1998.

When I got to college, I noticed that not everyone was in the same boat. I saw some still sporting their letter jackets and high school football jerseys. I played intramural flag football with a guy who was decked out head-to-toe in his high school colors, with matching jersey and shorts that featured his number on both. It seemed to me that most of my cohort got the message throughout the first semester; high school stuff is not cool in college. The letter jackets and “Seniors” t-shirts were replaced by college-related event logos and more fashionable attire. 
However, some of my peers seemed to have a hard time letting go of the past and embracing a new sense of identity. They ran the risk of becoming a “has-been,” a tragic title given to those who continually hold on to an unrealistic identity that is behind their developmental stage.  
In Matthew 10, Jesus told his apostles that they must lose their lives for him. He also said that they must love him more than they love their parents. This sounds to me like a pretty tall order. They are being asked to leave behind all that they know and move on to a different type of life. Many of them made the choice and followed, but some (such as the rich young man mentioned in Matthew 19) did not.
It seems to me that Jesus is suggesting that we move always forward in our stages of faith. Although we have spent years and years building up artifacts of our identities, they will inevitably be pushed aside, like your high school letter jacket. If one refuses to lose it, may be one could tragically become a spiritual “has-been.” Have you seen this happen? What do you hold that you need to lose to reach maturity?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Bar Exam

A few years ago when I was in college, I went to a worship service which was led by a man who is now a well-known pastor in the world of evangelical Christians. He was very charismatic, told funny stories, and made a good point. At the end of his way-too-long sermon, he announced that he was getting a group together to go to a local bar to do “ministry.” 
Later I spoke to some students who attended this gathering, which consisted mostly of handing out tracts to patrons on their way into the bar. I even got a look at one of these tracts. It was a small booklet that featured a skull and crossbones on the cover and the question: “Where would you go if you died today?”
In Matthew 10:7, Jesus tells his followers to preach this message: “The Kingdom of Heaven is near.” It seems to me that many people interpret this passage to mean that Jesus wanted them to go out and strike fear in the hearts of the people, pointing them to the urgency of impending doom. However, many theologians suggest that Jesus’ proclamations about the Kingdom were always about pronouncing the availability of the Kingdom of Heaven to all in the present tense. 
According to this view, Jesus wants the apostles to tell the people that God has moved into the neighborhood to love them with impunity. The people of Israel had known God in many ways, but not always as a compassionate, loving one who was walking among them. Instead of looking into the future at their own mortality, Jesus sent the apostles to tell them that they could know God here and now as well. Although fear tactics may get a few butts in the seats (e.g. Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening of the 1730’s), I believe it was (and is) Jesus’ message of life-giving love and redemption that reached/reaches into the depths of our humanity. 
It seems the unbelieving among us today may also have a view of God that is not always positive or available. I think if you want to do a bar ministry, consider going out to have a drink with someone from work and let them tell you their story. Leave your scare tactics and tracts at home.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Pray for Rain

Two nights ago, Austin finally got a small amount of much-needed rain. Now it is finally actually raining. Rain has been hard to come by this year for pretty much the whole state of Texas this year. When I used to live in Abilene, long droughts were also pretty common. Praying for rain was a very common occurrence there, partially because rain was scarce, but also because a big part of Abilene’s economy is dependent upon agriculture. 
When I lived in San Antonio, one of my roommates was a beekeeper. He would pray for rain because the health of his hives depended on it. Without rain, the flowers would not bloom and the bees would not produce very much honey. This has been a tough year for his honey production.
For the most part, it does not seem like my life changes much when it does not rain. The biggest difference might be that I decide to take the bus instead of riding my bicycle. Although it is likely an illusion, I do not feel much dependence on life-giving water from the sky, because it still comes from my faucet.
In Matthew 9:18-34, Jesus encountered several individuals who understood dependence. One was a man whose daughter had died. Another was a woman who was continually bleeding internally, leaving her a childless outcast from society. Then there was the blind and demon-possessed. For these people, there was no medicaid or free service clinic. They basically had two options, healing from God or continuing in their lives of despair.
I think it is easy in this age of technology to forget about our dependence on God. A farmer hoping for clouds is very aware of being dependent and having very little control. Although our lifestyles are likely to be different, we must realize this truth; every breath that brings oxygen into our bodies is a miracle from God.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Jesus and John Nash

Sometimes I feel like John Nash (the scientist from the film “A Beautiful Mind”) when I am working on my research. No, I do not hallucinate or try to mathematically map out the patterns of pigeons. Like Dr. Nash did in the movie (and probably also in real life), I am looking for that one great original idea. It has to be something that is communicable and understandable by others. It needs to be different, but not so radical that it will be rejected off hand. In my field it must also have the ability to be investigated empirically.
I think one reason why John Nash and I share in this search is that new ideas are highly valued in the world of academia. We speak fondly of individuals (like Nash) whose revolutionary ideas sent entire disciplines of researchers hurdling in completely new directions. Of course it is quite common that in their time, the ideas themselves were rejected.
In Matthew 9:14-17, Jesus was questioned about his new paradigm for what it means to please God. Evidently, some people thought that Jesus’ followers were not fasting enough. Jesus used an analogy about wine storage in order to explain to them that the times, they were a changing. Pleasing God would subsequently be different than it was before. I think few would argue against the fact that the life and teachings of Jesus changed the world more than any great idea or life before or since. His words have continued to encourage the simple and baffle the learned for more than two millennia. 
This is good news to me, because I serve a creative God who is the source of great ideas. He is not afraid to shake things up a little.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Jesus and Jerry Springer

My father spent a large portion of his life working in the television industry. No, he was not a news reporter or a talk show host, that is what everyone asks. He worked more on the technical side of the news, starting out as a camera operator, then becoming the manager of the technicians who worked together to produce live television. 
When people would find out what he did, they often liked to make snide comments about “the media.” They would talk about how the media was responsible for polluting society with it’s wickedness, or discuss the mind-numbing nature of daytime television programs like Jerry Springer. One might infer from what they said that they were thinking “how any good person contribute in any way to such filth?” 
In Matthew 9, Jesus approaches a man whose profession was considered much more sinister than working for the media. He was a tax collector. At the time, tax collectors were seen as sell-outs to their faith, families, and ethnic group. Even though Matthew was Jewish, he was employed by the Roman government, who had forcefully conquered the Jews. Tax collectors were known for skimming off of the top for profit.
Amazingly, Matthew responded positively to Jesus’ call and became the writer of one of the books that has been continually changing the world for the past two millennia. Jesus, on the other hand, suffered ridicule from the religious for even associating with these types of people. My father would respond by telling people that he did not choose what was on television. He would explain that he thought there were also positive sides to the media, such as keeping people informed and connected with the world. 
I think Jesus’ encounter with vocational discrimination can help us discover our own biases. For example, do you think an oil executive could be a good christian who is doing all he/she can to serve God? How about a personal injury lawyer, an NPR Disc Jockey, or an environmental lobbyist? Who would you tell Jesus was a waste of his time?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Jesus and Dr. House

Research usually shows that when people are having difficulty with mental illness, they usually go to their primary care physician first. Often they will go to their doctor with  medical-sounding symptoms, such as pain, fatigue, heart-related symptoms, or insomnia. Hopefully, that is where the doctor’s expertise takes over. It is the doctor’s job to have the knowledge to conglomerate the patient’s symptoms with medical knowledge in order to suggest treatment. Even though it’s just television, I love to watch Dr. House and his team go through this process.
Unfortunately, I have seen many individuals whose doctors obviously did not have quite enough expertise in the area of mental health to make evidence-based recommendations. It seems that doctors just do not always have the time to investigate all of the recommended possibilities and patients rarely report symptoms accurately. As Dr. House says; “Everybody Lies.” Therefore, the doctor may treat the symptoms instead of the disorder. Then the patient and the doctor are surprised when the treatment does not bring relief. 
In Matthew 9, it seems like people start to treat Jesus as solely a miraculous healer. This is the story of the men who broke through the roof of someone’s house to bring their paralyzed friend to Jesus for healing. Jesus seems to have thought that was really cool. Then he proceeded to tell the man that his sins were forgiven, a statement that would have lit the fires of heresy amongst some of those listening. Finally, Jesus healed the man’s physical ailments as well. 
Although Jesus did heal people on many occasions, it seems like he is telling them that physical healing was not his only purpose. Many of them probably had yet to understand the universal significance of the mission of Jesus. He had not come to merely treat those fleeting physical deformities of life, but to alter the eternal states of a broken species.

Friday, April 29, 2011

The Cloud and the Storm

When I left the University on Monday, I noticed an ominous-looking cloud in the sky. Although it was beautiful in the evening sky, it looked like it was bulging with all types of precipitation and mayhem. While sitting in a coffee shop yesterday, I learned that I was not the only one who noticed this cloud. These college-aged kids could not stop talking about it. They called it "The cloud that brought Zeus." Whenever there was a lull in the conversation, someone would say “how about that cloud yesterday” and everyone else would say “yeah dude, that was awesome.” 


Personally, it made me remember my younger years when my family lived on a hill so that every spring we could see the bulging thunderhead clouds coming over the horizon.  Usually, seeing a cloud this massive would signify a coming storm. Unfortunately for the dying plants of central Texas, Monday’s cloud did not bring any rain to our area. It did supply us with a brief sense of joy and a bunch of facebook status updates.
In Matthew 8, the author describes how some clouds appeared that did bring about rain and wind. Even though Jesus and the disciples were in a boat, which is generally not where you would want to be during a storm, Jesus went to sleep. It seems that all of the men on the boat thought that their situation was dire, except for Jesus. When the disciples woke him, Jesus rebuked the storm and calmed the sea.
Some people interpret Jesus’ sleeping as a sign of his ability to feel at peace in tough circumstances. Although that is true, may be Jesus also knew that this storm simply was not that bad. He may have known that the boat was strong enough and the sailors were capable. In the end, may be Jesus knew how his life was going to end, but it was not from drowning in a rainstorm. 
May be we need to learn to see a cloud as a cloud. When our situations ominously tower above us, covering our view, we should try to take a step out and consider that things might appear worse than they are.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Healed

I feel that I am extremely blessed to have had an amazing childhood. Having a 2 acre yard meant that we had space to run around and do all kinds of boy things, like building forts and playing ball. We even had a sandbox. We could make a game out of just about anything. We also played with other neighborhood kids. We did not always enjoy showering, so mom would take us to my grandmother’s house for swimming so we would be at least a little clean.
There is a growing amount of medical evidence which suggests that my early exploration was not only good for my happiness as a child, but possibly also my health as an adult. The hygiene hypothesis is a theory which suggests that not coming into contact with bacterias and diseases early in life may impair the growth of one’s immune system, resulting in immune system-related problems such as allergies and asthma. It is similar to getting a flu shot which contains a small amount of the disease to build up one’s immunity to that particular disease. I have even heard of successful medical procedures in which the bacteria from a healthy person is transferred to a sick person, then the disease is eradicated.
In Matthew 8:14 - 17, Jesus heals many people of their diseases. First he heals Peter’s mother-in-law, then others who were brought to him. Matthew then quotes Isaiah 53, in which the prophet foretold that Jesus would be a healer, taking up our diseases and infirmities. It seems that Jesus’ healing was a powerful demonstration of God’s care for the pain suffered in humanity.
What about the rest of us who may have never had a serious infectious disease or have been possessed by a demon? Can we not know the love of God in the same way?
Using the logic of the hygiene hypothesis, one might suggest that there are actually three types of people: (1) those who are sick and yet to be healed, (2) those who are not sick because they have not yet come into contact with the disease, and (3) those who are pre-healed through immunity. 
I think this type of viewpoint might be helpful in the way we think about other people. We are all vulnerable to the brokenness of the world, but for some problems God has placed within us healing before our affliction. For other issues we may be vulnerable and yet to be afflicted. The most powerful set may be those things we have actually encountered directly and experienced healing.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

How to Ask

My four year-old niece knows how to ask in a way that is conducive to getting a good answer. She looks at you sincerely, with a cute little face that is hard to resist. I am not sure where children learn this, but it can be very effective. Even when they ask over and over again, it can still be hard to say “no.”
In Matthew 8, Jesus encounters two men who made very effective requests of him. One of them was a man with Leprosy, who said to Jesus: “Lord, if you are willing you can make me clean.” The second man told Jesus about the affliction (his servant was sick), but then also said he was not worthy to have Jesus enter his household. Jesus responded very positively to both of these men, granting their requests. 
It seems to me that the two things these questions had in common were faith and humility. Both men expressed their complete confidence that Jesus could grant their requests. They probably had heard many stories about Jesus’ power to heal the sick. However, neither man expressed much confidence that Jesus would grant their requests. They humbly asked, knowing that Jesus was under no particular obligation to acquiesce to their requests.
Although we may have learned how to ask when we were very young, I think we often forget about it when it comes to God. Instead we often ask God “Why Me?” with this glaring sense of entitlement. People sometimes even ask questions of God, while putting on the line whether or not they will continue to believe. We treat God like a vending machine, always expecting to get what we want when we push the right button. 
God is not a vending machine, or even some nebulous “force” in the universe. God is an  immense, omnipotent, and creative being that has a will, not an algorithm. I hope we can learn to treat God that way!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Desirably Difficult

Very often, we want our lives to be easier. We want things to be convenient, accessible, and user-friendly. For example, if you went to an important presentation, you might be really frustrated if someone gave you an outline of it that was organized differently from the actually presentation. You might think they were out to get you or playing a joke. 
However, when some researchers gave some of their students outlines consistent with the paper they would read and others inconsistent, something different happened. When it came to memory, the consistent outline was superior. When the students were required to solve problems with the knowledge they had gained, seeing an inconsistent outline was actually more advantageous (Mannes & Kintsch, 1987). Although the inconsistently organized information was more difficult, the end result was better than that which was easier.
In Matthew 7, Jesus talked to his followers about adding some difficulty in their walk. He presents an analogy suggesting putting his words to practice in one’s life is like building a house on a strong foundation. When the inevitable storm of life comes, the house stands firm. By contrast, hearing Jesus’ words and not putting them into practice is like building one’s house on an insecure foundation. In this situation, the house will not stand through the trials of life and is destroyed.
It seems to me that many Christians have interpreted this portion of Matthew 7 to mean that putting one’s faith in Christ is a firm foundation. I do not think that is necessarily incorrect, but it seems to me that Jesus is saying something else. Jesus suggests that actively putting his words into practice is a firm foundation. However, rock is much harder than sand, therefore building on a rock would likely be much more difficult than sand. 
One way that Christians traditionally have practiced difficulty is during the season of Lent. During this time, one may choose to abstain from something as an exercise in remembering the difficulty that Jesus encountered in his life. Of course practicing lent is not the only way to encounter difficulty, usually it just happens. When it does, I think it is useful to think that I am just securing that strong foundation, knowing it will be better if it is strong.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Potential and Evidence

One of the things I like about the area I live is that the city of Austin seems to be chuck full of idealistic visionaries. In this town, it seems like people have many big ideas, especially about technology and culture. Twitter was first introduced at a conference here 5 years ago. Gowalla also was started in Austin and is still based here. Forbes magazine rated Austin as the second most innovative city in the United States.
I think I tend to connect with the innovative culture because I am an optimist, I tend to focus on potential. I like to think big and imagine immense possibilities for the future. It is also exciting to get involved on the ground floor of something that may become huge.    
Unfortunately, focusing on potential can also lead to problems. Sometimes when I focus on someone’s potential, I fail to see the proof in the pudding, so to speak. For example, I once dated someone who I noticed did not go to church unless I was with her. Since involvement in a church community is something I think is important, I should have been concerned. Instead, I focused on her potential because we talked often about how God was very important in her life. Eventually I came to realize that the true importance of her faith to her was much more aligned with her church attendance than her words. 
In Matthew 7:15-23, Jesus uses an analogy to tell his followers how they should try to recognize the honesty of someone’s faith. He says that a good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit. It sounds so very simple, but it rings true in my life. In a recent book, sociologist and researcher Bradley R. E. Wright said that most survey research suggests that Christian behavior is much more aligned with regular church attendance than it is identifying ones’ self as a Christian.
As with most things, this has to start with me. As I examine my own life, I need to honestly ask myself: “Am I producing fruit, or just focusing on my own potential?” Would Jesus say to me: “Here is a man whose genuineness you can see through his fruit?” 
Second, I also think it is worthwhile to seek counsel from others whose lives reflect their ability to bear good fruit. I know that in the past I have tended to listen to just about anyone who offers advice. I think Jesus would have us weight their advice by the evidence of fruit in their lives.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Barking Stance

It is always funny for me to see my brothers dog, Molly, attempt to “speak.” She is a very smart and trainable Bichon Frise, she knows what she is supposed to do. She assumes a barking stance. She forms her face into a barking expression. Then she opens and closes her jaws. She looks like she is barking, but it takes a while for any sound to come out. When it finally does, it is not nearly as loud as the sound she makes when she is really barking. I think this happens because dogs usually bark instinctually as a reaction to something, so it is hard for her to re-create such an experience deliberately.
Even for humans it seems there are a few things in life which cannot be obtained by actively seeking to obtain them. One might be sleep. If you are trying to go to sleep, it often will not happen. It seems like you have to simply put yourself in a sleeping posture, then sleep comes. 
Several studies have found that happiness may be a similar process. Participants who listened to music in order to make themselves happy were less happy than those who just listened to it . Similarly, another study found that individuals who value happiness more, were actually less happy.
In Matthew 7:7-12, Jesus seems to be telling his followers two separate (seemingly contradictory) things. First he tells them to seek and they will find. Then he tells them that God is like their father, who will give them good things. It seems a little contradictory because if I find something myself, why do I have to depend on God giving me something? 
Although it seems contradictory, it fits with some of my life’s endeavors. Sometimes everything appears to be in order, yet something does not work, the reason for the failure is illusive. The opposite also occurs, where all signs point to failure, then success is the outcome. 

I think the reality of the situation is that we are supposed to use the resources God has given us to “ask, seek, and knock.” However, we also have to realize that our receiving good things or being successful is not entirely related to our efforts. May be we are a little like Molly, trying to act out the bark. We have to keep trying, trusting God that he will produce the sound.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Solidarity

It is a little hard for me to fight back a feeling of disgust related to the current labor dispute happening between the players and owners in the National Football League. On the news we see both sides going back and forth to negotiations with expensive lawyers, fancy suits, and luxurious vehicles. For the majority of people, such a lifestyle is a stark contrast from our own. When we see them arguing because both sides want more than the millions they already have, it is a hard pill to swallow. It seems like both sides should take their money and be grateful for having such success.
Underlying such a feeling may be my notion that I would NOT act that way if I were in their shoes. However, I think this is a pretty negative judgment on my part. I am failing to understand the relative nature of the situation. For example, I would imagine that a slave fighting for his or her freedom to exist might have a similar feeling of disgust for teachers in Wisconsin who are fighting for their collective bargaining rights.
In Matthew 7:1- 5, Jesus warned his followers against judging others. Immediately afterwards, he talks about not giving “pearls to pigs (verse 6).” Although it seems like the second part is unrelated, I think there is a pretty strong connection between the two teachings. I think that Jesus is saying that judging others is like giving pearls to pigs, a waste of useful resources. 
Surely if I were invited to the negotiation to give a pep talk to the NFL players and owners and tell them that they are highly blessed and being ridiculous, they would suddenly see the error of their ways and resolve the dispute immediately, right? Then I could be the knight in shining armor that saves football fans from the increasing likelihood of a weepy fall without NFL football. 
In my opinion, such an effort would actually be an exercise in futility, like giving pearls to a pig. However, if I were to take a similarly critical look at how similar scenarios may occur in my own life, some change might actually occur.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

At the Wheel

When I was younger, my parents would usually take us snow skiing a couple of times a year. One year, we took one of our days and went to a different mountain, partially because my parents wanted to eat at the Blue Spruce Steakhouse that night. While we were polishing off our steaks, the snow started falling, and kept falling. By the time we took to the treacherous road home, there was quite a bit of snow on the road.
That night my father drove our old Ford Econoline van through near white-out conditions over Berthoud pass. He said that we could have skied down the road. They also said we had to move very slowly to avoid sliding off the mountain or into it. However, the reason I have to rely on what “they” said is because I was not conscious during this endeavor. I was asleep in the back of the van.
May be there is something about being young that makes it easier not to worry. Now that I am grown, it is kind of hard for me to imagine what it looks like to live up to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6:25-34. He says that we should not worry about our lives, but we should seek him and have faith that God will meet our needs. 
I struggle with this idea on a daily basis. Usually I feel that if I do not actively attempt to meet my own needs, they go unmet. No one watches me closely to make sure I am eating healthily, sleeping enough, or being nice to my friends. My full laundry basket will be waiting there for me until I get the motivation take care of it.
Despite my feelings of agency, I know my independence is an illusion in which seeing the truth is hard. God is good to me and he has been my whole life. I have not done anything to deserve anything. I wonder if God still sees me as a kid in a van, but now that crazy kid will not stop reaching for the steering wheel.
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