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.