Monday, January 31, 2011

Amends - Mountainside Chats

A college student, I will call her “Jill,” once complained to me about her ridiculous roommate (I will call her “Jane”). Jill said that she could not stand to be around Jane. When I asked why, she had many many reasons. Jill also said they were once good friends and had chosen to live together. 
It seemed like it started out as something simple, like Jane not washing her dishes. When Jill noticed the unwashed dishes, she did not ask Jane about them, but it made her angry. As a result of this anger, Jill started to notice every small thing that Jane did, while continuing to not actually mention it to her. After a while, Jane was shocked when Jill exploded in seemingly irrational anger over something relatively small. The ensuing argument led to even more anger, which finally led them to no longer be friends or roommates.
I think that Jill’s friends were supporting Jill’s decision to move out. They heard the story of Jane’s seemingly inconsiderate behaviors and also began to think ill of Jane. In the end, it seems that Jane fairly severe consequences of losing several friends simply because she made one small oversight that anyone could have made. It was like Jill’s small resentment multiplied over and over again into big consequences. 
I would imagine you have heard this story before. Personally, I have seen many times how seemingly small actions and accompanying resentment can ruin relationships. In Matthew 5: 23 - 26, Jesus communicated the importance of relationship reconciliation. It may sound harsh, but he compared anger with murder. Jesus even advocated his followers’ procrastinating on their religious duties so that they may confront resentment and produce reconciliation with one another. Finally, Jesus told them to do it quickly, seeking one another’s forgiveness before involving others.
So who do you hold out resentment towards? How could you be harming that person? I think we all need to take a sober inventory of the anger in our lives as well as the sources of it. Jesus has called us to make amends.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Letter of Law - Mountainside Chats

When I was a kid, I was even more absent-minded than I am now. One time in fifth grade, I left my chair pulled back from my desk when the class was leaving the room. Right as we were going to leave the room, the teacher noticed and asked me to push in my chair. For some reason, I was really frustrated. I stormed over to the desk and slammed the chair into place. As the line of students passed through the door, the teacher stopped me and gave me a stern rebuke. I argued that I had done what she said. Technically, I was right, but I knew my behavior was unacceptable. 
It seems to me that judicial systems exist partially to determine when laws allow for harmful behavior that does not adhere to the spirit of the law. As a social scientist, it often seems to me that the often arbitrary nature of laws is frustratingly simple. For example, there is nothing neurologically or physiologically magical that occurs on one’s eighteenth birthday which necessitates an immediate leap into the responsibility of adulthood. However, I definitely agree with the spirit behind those laws, which is that young adolescents are often not capable or the same self-regulation and/or complexity in thinking as older adults.
In Matthew 5:20, Jesus tells his crowd of listeners that they should obey and live by the spirit of the law, surpassing those who merely follow the letter of the law. The main law-followers of the day (known as the Pharisees) seem to have had a habit of excessive law interpretation and rationalization. They would use these intellectual arguments to satisfy their own purposes, missing out on what God intended as the law-giver. For example, they would give money to the poor so that they could technically get out of supporting their parents in their old age. 
I think this situation is very applicable to Christians today. I think we often act like I did in fifth grade, begrudgingly following the rules. May be we give, but to we have a spirit of generosity? We might worship, but do we do so in spirit and in truth? We want to love, but can we really seek someone else’s good above our own?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Hard to Miss - Mountainside Chats

A couple of days ago, I went to one of the classes for which I am the graduate assistant for the first time this semester. As I was setting up my stuff, it seemed like the students were noticing me more than usual. I like to be there sometimes to help the professor if needed, but I try not to interfere too much. After everyone had filed in for class to start, I think I figured it out. I was the only person that had not met yet, as well as the only male in the room. I think the combination of those two things made me kind of hard to miss.
Psychological research suggests that one of the first steps in learning is often noticing differences (Schwartz, 1998). It seems to be that our brains naturally look at our world and create categories in which to understand that which we perceive. The more we learn, the more numerous and complex our categories will be. A baby may categorize people simply as “parent” or “not parent.” Adults may use so many categories that we may not even perceive them all.
During Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” (which I am calling “Mountainside Chats”) he said that the world should have a category for Christians. He called us “light” and “a city on a hill.” The analogy suggests that Christians should be individuals who do good even in a world that does not. Jesus also mentions that when others see how this category of persons behave, they will inevitably examine the other element which differentiates us from others, our faith in God.
Unfortunately, Christians and Churches are not always perceived in these categories. In his book “Christians are Hate-filled Hypocrites...and Other Lies You’ve Been Told,” Sociologist Dr. Bradley R. E. Wright reflects a very honest analysis of religion-related survey research. His research analysis suggests that around 20% of the general population in the United States has unfavorable views of Christians. Tragically, Wright also mentions that only 24% of the population has confidence in the institution of organized religion. That number plummets to 8% among the religiously unaffiliated.
It seems to me that the Church needs to work on refining the perception of our category. As Jesus mentioned, a group of people known for their good deeds should be seen as different and valuable. How can the Church become hard to miss?

Monday, January 24, 2011

Expendable

Sometimes it is easy to feel expendable. A friend recently described to me a situation in he was spending time with some young women playing board games. As they played, he could tell that these ladies were not particularly excited about having him there. He felt like he was merely a warm body, easily replaceable. I have also had friends who made me feel like a placeholder. 
I also think living in a city may also tend to force the reality of one’s replaceability into regular consciousness. The mass of paired red lights you follow during the rush hour rat race may include somewhere the next person who is waiting to fulfill your role. If you cannot or will not perform, some else can or will. There are plenty of other people around.
In Matthew 5:13, Jesus says his followers are the salt of the earth. Salt was a very important commodity that was used in many ways during Jesus’ time. In addition, salt is an essential element for all human life. For example, the neurons in your nervous system requires sodium (one of the elements in salt) to pass chemical information signals throughout your brain and body. Without sodium, your brain would not work.
In a world where it is easy to feel expendable, how does it feel to hear God himself say that you are an essential element to the world he has created? In my limited view, I am not that much different from the next person in line. In Jesus’ full view of the entirety of existence, it seems that he does not agree.
Second, I am not exactly sure that many people see the Church as an essential element in society at large. Sometimes it seems like a glorified book/social/music club that has no significant impact or respect. How can the Church not only be relevant, but essential?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Comeback

On January 3, 1993, I was at Colter’s barbecue having a delicious Sunday afternoon lunch with my friends and family. We were also partially watching the NFL playoff game between the Houston Oilers and the Buffalo Bills. One of my friends, who was a Houston native, was very excited to see the Oilers were soundly shellacking the Bills 35 - 3 during the second half of the game. A Houston Oilers commentator even suggested it was time to turn out the lights on the Buffalo Bills. 
However, the Buffalo Bills’ backup quarterback Frank Reich was not finished. He was no stranger to this type of situation, having led the Maryland Terrapins back from a 31 point deficit to a 42 - 40 win back in college. Despite being a career backup and losing their future hall of fame running back Thurman Thomas to injury, Reich and the Buffalo Bills scored 28 points in one quarter and went on to win the game in overtime, 41 - 38. This amazing feat is to this day simply called “The Comeback.”
However, as a devout Christian and former pastor, Reich is merely a fan of the greatest comeback in the history of the world. At the climax of human history, Jesus Christ shocked them all to the point of disbelief. Mark 16 describes how he appeared to many people as a real, resurrected human being.
This good this morning! When everything was dark, a beam of light came piercing through to bring the dawn. So as Christians, let us keep on serving, loving, and seeking until the light breaks through. We serve the God of the comeback!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Are we Evil? Part 3: The Devil and Jared Loughner

At some point, Jared Loughner made a value judgment. He was fed up, unable any longer to silence the piercing conviction that kept rolling around in his disorganized mind. Before he did anything, the course of events was set in motion when he decided that his need to act out his conviction was more valuable than the life of at least one other human being. I believe this sinister decision was not made by him alone, it was the result of his finally surrender to the torture of evil.
In Mark 14 and 15, The members of the religious ruling body did not take too kindly of Jesus‘ criticizing their lavish position and lifestyle. It seems that they had to demonize Jesus, because taking him seriously would have required them to humble themselves and change. They chose to elevate their position of power above the life of Jesus. Although the Roman governor Pilate was highly conflicted about his role in Jesus’ execution, in the end he also chose not to pursue upsetting the status quo and saving the life of Jesus. 
Another fundamental element of evil that M. Scott Peck discusses in his book “People of the Lie” is the combination of narcissism and laziness. Narcissism involves an overly grandiose optimistic view of the self. Laziness in this context involves the inability to consider the possibility of being wrong or taking a different path. C.S. Lewis called this pride the “complete anti-God state of mind.”
To me, this is another frightening view of evil. I have personally seen and researched how every single person (especially me) is in some way capable of narcissism, laziness, and pride. It is like a cancer cell that seems to exist within all of us, with the danger of excessive replication always lurking close by.  
Thankfully, there is also an opposing force which also exists in the world. The grace of God has given us compassion, forgiveness, and humility wrapped up in the person of Jesus. It was this spirit that manifested itself on that day in Tucson, through the selflessness of George Morris, Dorwan Stoddard, and Patricia Maisch. The story of Jesus also testifies that love overcomes the power of evil. With his help, we are exceedingly capable of humbling ourselves and putting forth the effort to do good in our lives.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Are we Evil? Part 2

In 1963, Stanley Milgram shocked the scientific world with the publication of his experimental results. In the experiments, Yale undergraduates were given a role by an authority figure that involved administering an electric shock to another seeming participant (Click here for more information about the studies)
Before Milgram ran the experiment, a survey of his psychology students predicted that may be 1% students would continue in the experiment to the very end. Unfortunately, 64% of the students actually administered the full extent of the seemingly harmful shocks in obedience to the authority figure. In a variation of the experiment, 92% of the participants completed the entire experiment when someone else was given the job of pushing the button to administer the shocks. 
The results suggest that normal people are capable of being abnormally cruel when they are given a role, and when they are separated from the actual application of cruelty. 

M.Scott Peck used an example of the massacre at My Lai during the Vietnam war to describe the potential evil in specialization. As a member of a congress-appointed task force investigating the matter, Peck reported that no one would take the blame for what happened. The soldiers said they were “following orders.” Those at the pentagon said they were simply enacting policy. The policy makers likely saw themselves as simply representing the interests of their constituents who were afraid of communism.
A similar evil is described in Mark 14 and 15. The members of the Sanhedrin knew they did not have the authority to kill Jesus, so they would not have his blood on their hands. They deferred that responsibility to the Romans. The Roman governor, Pilate, deferred his judgment for the fury of the crowd. He also knew he would not be physically pounding the nails into Jesus’ hands. The soldiers who actually did pound the nails, were again just following orders.
The scary part of these scenarios is that you cannot put a face on the evil. It seems to be an ominous force which exists within and between people, like a deadly virus or a corporation. I think Christians need to be vigilant of the capability of evil in specialization, but how do we fight it?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Are we Evil? Part 1

Lately I feel like I have been learning a little about evil. I have been reading M.Scott Peck’s book “People of the Lie,” watching Showtime’s series “Dexter,” and now I have come to reading the events of Mark 14 - 15. Of course simply watching the local news or walking down the street can also bring to light many examples of evil in the world.  
In Mark 14:43, Jesus’ story makes an abrupt turn. It seems like the forces of evil take hold. Jesus is betrayed and subjected to a bogus trial by the religious leaders of the day, then he is determined to be worthy only of death. It seems hard to understand how religious people might involve themselves in such a sinister plot. The situation brings to light some interesting principles concerning evil.
Initially, Peck makes the assertion that human evil is not normally instinctual to humans. I think if it was, there would be a lot less of us in the world. If killing was natural, then may be Jesus would not have even been given a semblance of a trial. Personally, I have done bad things, but I rarely see them as evil at the time. Even the unscrupulous Dr. Horrible had a motive of love.
Given this assumption, it seems to me that ulterior motives always exist. The wikipedia article I read about the trial suggests that the leaders may have seen the elimination of the Jesus movement as necessary to maintain the political status quo between the Roman government and the Jewish people. They may have been afraid that any unofficial leader might be seen as an uprising that would prompt an attack by the Roman army. In their minds, they may have not thought they were doing evil. They may have thought they were saving the lives of their people.
The good news is that the forces of evil did not ultimately win the war. We know that for sure. However, I think that evil wins too many battles because the enemies of evil fail to recognize it. Look out for the next two parts in this series where I will continue to use M.Scott Peck’s principles to deconstruct the events of Mark 14 and 15.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Procrastinators Lying in Wait

After returning home three days ago from a two and a half week trip, I am sorry to say that my suitcase is still sitting in the middle of the floor in my bedroom. Some of my clothes are still in it. Needless to say, my bedroom is kind of messy. I find this happens quite often when I return from a trip. For a few days I will dance around the mess, thinking I should get the clothes back in the drawers where they belong. Eventually, sufficient motivation will arise so that I actually act on it.
I think this kind of strange procrastination is fairly common. We sit there and delay the inevitable. We hear the train coming, rolling around the bend, but we look in a different direction until the whistle blows. Then life becomes a series of near misses, dodging one train after another when we hear the whistle blow.
When he was in the garden of Gethsemane (as described in Mark 14:32), it seems like Jesus was standing in wait for the inevitable. He knew exactly what events would transpire in the coming hours, yet he chose to wait. It does not appear that he was denying that it was going to happen, his prayers (Mark 14:35) suggest that he was very anxious about it. Ultimately, Jesus knew he was in the hands of his father.
So may be there is a good side to procrastination. May be having an unsettled room for a while helped me appreciate it now that it is settled. Some researchers think that even when we are not consciously working out our problems, our brains tend to develop solutions passively. Therefore, waiting might result in having an “aha” moment that allows us to deal with the issue more effectively. In addition, being able to wait might also be a sign of faith that we can handle the situation when it arises.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Obligatory New Year's Resolution Post

I think January is an interesting month because of new year’s resolutions. People resolve to lose weight, quit smoking, read more, etc. The number of people buying gym memberships surges. As a frequent gym adherent, I have personally observed the increase. Unfortunately, the research on new year’s resolutions is fairly grim, it seems that people rarely achieve the goals they set. One study found that intentions only account for 20% of behavior (Orbell & Sheeran, 1998). 
Some interesting research has found that achieving your resolutions depends on the interaction of two factors (Koestner, Lekes, Powers, & Chicoine, 2002). One is called self-concordance. This means that your resolutions must coincide with your personal interests and values. If you do not really care about your health, you probably will not be able to get more healthy.
The second factor is your implementation intentions. Having implementation intentions involves considering various situations and planning one’s intended actions. So you would consider how you might still go running on a treadmill if it is raining outside. One might also plan a weekend workout if one is missed during the week. 
In Mark 14, Jesus tells his disciples that they will all fall away. Then all of Jesus’ disciples make resolutions to Jesus’ face that they would die before they would deny him. The rest of the story shows that Jesus was right. They did fall away. So did they lie? Were they just trying to make Jesus feel better? In light of the research mentioned earlier, may be they did intend to follow through. However, they did not adequately consider the weight of the situations they were about to encounter.
I think there are two lessons to be learned by this story. First, we need to be careful when we judge someone for not following through on their intentions. It might not be that they lied about the intention, but instead they just did not adequately consider the possible outcomes. 
Second, I think we need to be very honest in looking at possible situations that may derail our intended behavior. Relying on our fictitious “willpower” is rarely sufficient or sustainable. Instead, we must make a realistic assessment and use God-given insight to make a realistic plan. 
Now I am headed out to the gym, Happy New Year!
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