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


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.

Friday, March 11, 2011

I Lek You A Lot

Have you ever been tooling around facebook and noticed that young single women seem to love traveling to foreign countries? It seems like half of the girls I meet list traveling as one of their interests, much more than other activities. 
Back in the late 1990’s, some researchers utilized data from social surveys in the United States and Europe to study this phenomenon. Based on the data, they found that single women were more likely to travel internationally than single men, but the difference disappeared for married men and women. 
The researchers suggested that gender differences in determinants of attractiveness may account for this discrepancy. They call it “Lekking,” which is a term from zoology used for how members of one sex “show off.” Specifically, the main determinants of female attractiveness to men appear to be physical and universal. Men from Africa, New Zealand, or Cleveland recognize female physical attractiveness very similarly.
In contrast, the main determinants of male attractiveness to females are much more culturally bound. For example, a woman from another part of the world may not be impressed by the logo on a man’s suit, because she would be less likely to know the meaning of that logo. It seems it may be much harder for a man’s attractiveness symbols to translate, since he is judged more by what resources he has than how he looks.
In light of this research, it seems to me that Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 7:19 - 24 may be the most counter-cultural teaching in the entire Bible for men today. He says that we should not store for ourselves treasures on earth, or try to serve both God and money. 
This is a tough lesson because we know that people we meet (including prospective female mates and others) will judge us by our lekking (i.e.title, paycheck, or degree). Having material success in life also impresses our families and friends. To discontinue our seeking may appear to others (and ourselves) as a failure or a lack of ability.
I definitely do not have the answer to following Jesus’ teaching and fitting in with the world. However, I think it might involve taking a serious inventory of our strivings and the condition of our hearts.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Tripping Point

In his best-selling book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell talks about how trends start and spread throughout a culture or society. The theoretical tipping point comes when an inciting event leads a trend to spread widely. However, the opposite must also occur. At some point, these so-called “epidemics” of cultural trends are replaced by something else. I would call it the “Tripping Point.”
I think it occurs when a trend gets too excessive or moves too far from it’s roots. For example, the baggy jeans trend in the late 1990’s may have hit a literal tripping point. It seems to me that when the jeans were made so incredibly massive that you could not see the person’s shoes, that was the beginning of the end. At that point, no only was the trend widespread, it got so excessive that there was only one direction to go for those on the forefront of the trend. Now the normal jean leg width has swung in the other direction.
In statistics, we would call this “regression to the mean.” It is a natural and social phenomenon that tends to reign in excess, creating balance. Humans have a natural tendency to adjust to our surroundings, which involves moving back and forth from eccentricity to normality.
In Matthew 6:11, Jesus quoted a proverb within the Lord’s prayer when he said “Give us our daily bread.” Proverbs 30:8 says something similar, but it seems to have a different meaning than we may have assigned to it when reading it in Matthew. Getting our “daily bread” might be interpreted as depending on God to feed and sustain us. However, the writer of the Proverb took it to another level, praying that God would provide and sustain, but not in poverty or excess.
For some reason, our culture seems to have trouble with embracing the concept of balance. I feel like it is something you rarely hear discussed in Christian circles as well. Instead we move back and forth to extremes, turning around when we meet the tripping point. How different would our lives be if we prayed for God to give us balance?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

In Secret

Sometimes when people ask me about my research, I think they hear more than they desired. It is like a dam broke and they are soon bombarded with terms and analogies I have created to explain it. I try to reign it in to digestible chunks and generalizations, but sometimes still I get a look that suggests they may be sorry that they asked.
It seems that this may happen for a few reasons. The main one might be that I spend so much time thinking about my research. Sometimes I will be riding my bicycle, in the shower, or waking up in the morning thinking about it. It seems all of those mental gymnastics eventually lead to many expressible thoughts. Sometimes the hardest part for me is to transform all of that thinking in to a coherent paper or presentation. However, usually by the time the transformation has occurred, all of the time spent in thought bears fruit.
In Matthew 6:1 - 8, Jesus talks to his followers about what they do in secret. He discusses how their giving and prayer should often happen in times when no one else sees. One obvious implication for what Jesus said suggests that the point of our prayer and giving should not be just about looking good in front of other people. However, I would like to suggest an additional option. 
I think that what we do in secret transforms us. In the quiet times when we are alone, the true longings of our broken souls come to the surface. We also tend to attribute that which we do in secret solely to the desires that are within us. 
When it comes to my research, no one would want to hear all of the thoughts I have in secret. Without those thoughts, the public ones would be just as nonsensical to others. In our spiritual lives, experiencing and engaging with God in secret may also help us to live coherent lives of faith in the real world outside of our own minds.