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


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


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.