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?