Wednesday, April 4, 2012

In Context


One of the core ideas that is inherent in individualistic cultures is the righteousness of human agency. We tend to think that a person who has ability and a little moxy should be able to succeed in any walk of life. Our heroes are people like Abraham Lincoln, who is said to have risen from humble beginnings to become one of the most beloved presidents and the one who put an end to the injustice of slavery.
Upon further inspection of Lincoln’s Wikipedia article, you can see that some of these aspects of Lincoln’s life were not accidental or solely due to his agency. It says that Lincoln attended a “Separate Baptist” church which opposed slavery. His father also moved their family from Kentucky to Indiana partly because of his father’s opposition to the slavery. It seems like Lincoln’s young life involved many encounters with slavery as well as moral teachings concerning it’s injustice.
In some ways, the life of Paul was not a whole lot unlike the life of Abraham Lincoln. Although he is known for his passionate missionary work, it is not hard to see the hand of God molding his pre-conversion life. His place as a Roman citizen and his Jewish education would later be used for his work. In his biography of Paul, John Pollack suggested even that Paul’s position as a prosecutor of Christians may have resulted in him witnessing the testimonies and devotion of hundreds of Christians prior to his conversion on the road to Damascus. 
When Paul was writing his letter to the church in Corinth, he seems aware of how life is much more than the result of one’s desire and hard work. In the third chapter, he casts himself in the role of only a sower of seeds. Although he worked very hard, he knew that the success of his hard work was always dependent on God’s agency.

In modern individualism, I think it is easy to forget the role of God. We start to blame others (usually) for our failures and credit ourselves for successes. We also start to believe what others say about our ability or lack there of. Although I do not see any harm in learning from mistakes or celebrating our victories, I think it is very important that we acknowledge the hand of God in all of them. 

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Understanding Tebowmania


Like many other people, I have been perturbed by the ordeal of Tim Tebow. The kid has not done anything wrong, he has merely done his job and represented his faith to the best of his ability. Despite his hard work and success, he has been met with tribulations ever since he left the confines of Gainesville, Florida. First he was welcomed with fanfare, then he was ostracized by his boss. What was his reaction? He continued to work hard for the team and was not afraid to speak out about his faith. The media then largely reacted by relegating him to the role of popular back-up and dismissed his popularity as a fleeting relic of his college success. 


When hardship and frustration led his boss to reluctantly put him on the field, Tebow continued to do what he does, play hard and win games. His success despite the odds inspired his team, but it still has not endeared him to the sports world. Many have even criticized and mocked him because of his unswerving spiritual commitment.
I think the church in Corinth may have had a lot in common with Tim Tebow and his predicament. The culture of Roman Corinth likely rewarded those whose mindset involved the abstractions of greek philosophy and the hedonism of the prevailing sexual idolatry of that city. In the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, Paul tells them not to be surprised when people do not understand them. Even though they are misunderstood, Paul continues to exhort them to have the mind of Christ, using their spiritual judgment to love others.
I think Christians are often good at being misunderstood, but we often use this difficulty as an excuse to disengage from loving others or to have an “us against them” mentality. The script for this type of situation has been has been championed by the religious right in the world of politics. An alternative pathway has also been to go under the radar and pretend that our faith does not motivate our actions.
I am sure Tim Tebow has many human flaws, but I think he is a pretty good example of the third way that Paul is suggesting to the Corinthians. May be Tebowmania is the result of Christians seeing a successful young man who is misunderstood, yet perseveres in loving and serving others. It is like the Christians of America now have our very own real-life Rocky. Although he is inevitably not perfect, I think Tebow’s example can help us to live out a misunderstood life with the love of Christ.

Friday, March 16, 2012

No Words


When I was a freshman in college, I found myself in the cafeteria of one of the largest jails in the United States. Staring at me were about 150 fairly rough looking incarcerated women in matching orange scrubs. As I had entered this room, I saw the dejected eyes of those who had just been admitted and stripped of their dignity and individuality. When it came my time to speak, I felt their eyes fixed upon me as my heart pounded loudly.
Before we went to this jail, I was told to prepare a short sermonette to share with the inmates. Although I considered myself to have fairly adequate knowledge of the scriptures, I had a hard time mustering a relevant message for these people. I am not sure if there exists another group of people in the world to which I shared less experience. At some point during my preparation, God must have led me to the first chapter of Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth.
In this chapter, Paul encourages the Corinthians that God has chosen the weak to shame the strong, the despised to displace the heralded, and the foolish to outwit the wise. According to what I have read, this message would have been particularly pertinent to the inhabitants of Corinth. Only seven years before Paul’s first visit, the Romans had re-established Corinth as a Roman city. Upon re-establishment, Corinth was re-populated largely with disparate freed slaves from all over the lands that had been conquered by the powerful Romans. The church in Corinth was likely made up of peoples who knew what it was like to be on the bottom rung of the social ladder.
As the words of Paul coming from my lips echoed through the linoleum of that Californian jail, I felt a sudden surge of confidence. Although this bony eighteen year-old white kid had no words for these people, God did have something to say. I think I was seeing firsthand what Paul was describing in the verse I was reading. 
In the end, the only person I know who was changed that day was me. I learned that the truth of God is larger than both my strengths and my weaknesses. It permeates through the deepest and darkest regions of all creation, seeping through the cracks of the most impenetrable barriers.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Stop Copying Me


Imitation might be the most basic form of learning in humans. Researchers have shown that infants who are less than an hour old are already capable of some form of imitation.  At two or three weeks old, babies can imitate tongue protrusion. I must say that this is my personal favorite skill to demonstrate in real life. I think it is amazing that at a time when connecting with a non-verbal, non-ambulatory being is so remote, you can stick your tongue out and they will likely do the same. 
This tendency to imitate does not go away when we become adults. Research also suggests that adults tend to unconsciously imitate the speech and gestures of their conversational partners. In fact, a recent study even showed that humans can unconsciously imitate a person’s speech patterns and sounds even if they only see the person’s lips moving without hearing the actual sound. For some skills, imitation may be the most efficient means of learning. By imitating others, we can avoid making the mistakes that we would inevitably make if we were to learn things through trial and error.
Knowing humanity’s very basic tendency to imitate, it is not very surprising that Paul encouraged the members of the Church in Philippi to imitate Christ. He is compelling them to take on Christ’s humble and loving nature and perspective. It seems that Paul spoke of the life of Jesus with the Philippians enough that the probably had a good vision of what that meant.
I see this aspect of the New Testament as a stark contrast from how God related to his people in the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, God started with a few general rules (the ten commandments) and then followed that up with some more “best practices” (see the book of Deuteronomy). With the coming of Christ and the New Testament, the overall message is basically “see what he did, do things like that.”
I know it sounds very simplistic, but I wonder what would happen if the Christians of today took Paul’s message seriously, instead of making it into a brief fashion fad for teenagers. Since God has created us in such a way that imitation is very natural, What should we do with it? How then should we be teaching our children? How should we be learning from each other?

Monday, March 5, 2012

Approach or Avoid?


One of the professors at the University of Texas at Austin recently did an experiment in which his undergraduate guinea-pig participants were instructed to attempt to achieve on a simple video game-like task. For one group, they were told that they would be entered into a lottery to win $50 for every time their score reached a particular goal. For the other group, they were told that they would be entered into the lottery based on their performance as long as it did not fall below a particular goal. 
Although these two conditions may seem equivalent, the results were quite different. When participants had the focus of trying to win entries to the lottery, they performed better than when they had the focus on avoiding a loss. It seems like the chance of loss leads people to be afraid and be anxious. In another experiment, participants who had unfairly lost a game due to a “glitch” in the system were more likely to make a selfish choice.
In Philippians 1, Paul encourages Christians to persevere without being afraid of individuals who oppose them. He even wrote that for him death and suffering are not in opposition to his mission in which he seeks to be with God. Paul seems to believe that a Christ-centered life is one of continuous pursuit, not avoidance of suffering. 
Unfortunately, it seems that many Christians often relegate their religion to the practice of avoiding feelings of guilt, shame, or even pleasure. As a loss averse species, we try not to lose our homeostasis with our status quo. By contrast, the life described by Paul involves a relentless quest of knowing God that is so epic that it will take us beyond the grave. Are you seeking, or are you still trying not to lose?

Friday, February 24, 2012

In Tents


One of my professors from college once told our class what he thought was a description of maturity. He addressed his comments to the ladies in the room and told them that if they were looking to date, that they should look for a man, not a boy. He said that boys are interested in getting and playing, while men are interested in giving and working. 
At the time his words were pretty convicting to me, because I realized that as a legal “man” of 19 years, I more closely fit his description of a boy. I had very little direction and was not contributing much to the world around me. I even started wondering if it was this type of life orientation that was stifling my ability to be successful in the dating world. If you want to motivate a 19 year-old toward self-examination, tell him that it may impact his dating life.
In the Apostle Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul warned the church in Thessalonica against becoming idle. He reminded them of how he chose to earn his keep when he was with them. Tradition has it that in addition to being a preacher and intellectual, Paul made tents from goat skin.
I guess I could argue that 19 year-old me did not really see how the world needed me to contribute. At least then my professor’s words inspired to start seeking. As my professor suggested, may be learning to find joy in contributing is a sign of maturity that only comes when it is ready. 
At the same time, once we are on the other side of maturity, I think we still need an occasional reminder. We need to be reminded that this broken world does need Christians to comfort the broken, feed the hungry, and give to the poor.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Cold Shower Chaos


Last year I was continually frustrated from having to take cold showers. Sometimes it would be fine, other times it would be cold. When the management company sent someone to test the hot water heater, he checked the temperature while running the water for 10 minutes and said it was fine. I knew it was not fine, although I did not know what was wrong.
Like a true scientific thinker, I developed a method of systematic observation in order to develop a theory of what was wrong. For a couple of weeks, my roommate and I logged the day and time of each shower, as well as a rating of the warmth of the water. I just knew there had to be some pattern or order that I (as well as the plumber) was missing. 
I am not the only one who seeks to make order out of the world, this ability seems to be an important part of being human. Paul’s encouragement in the first chapter of his second letter to the Thessalonians brings about thoughts of this utopian world of justice where good is rewarded and doing wrong brings punishment. It seems simple and right.
Unfortunately, my experience in the world, like the heating of my water heater, does not seem to be so simple. Sometimes I see the wrong, but not the punishment, sometimes the I see punishment, but not the wrong. I also see the good without seeing the reward, or the reward without the good. From such a convoluted picture, it is not hard to fathom that some would interpret all of this as chaos.
However, the perception of order depends on the capacity of the mind to perceive order. Although the plumber did not see order in the hot water heater problem, scrutinizing the results of our systematic observation revealed that if it had been more than 12 hours between someone using the shower, the water would be cold when the next person used it. 
In a world that seems very random, I believe that order is often difficult to see, sometimes so difficult that it can only be perceived by God. His consciousness is not constrained by time like our own. We can only see parts, he sees the whole.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

A Scientist in Church


It is part of the ethos of scientists to be skeptical in many areas of life. I think this is particularly true because as a scientist, we also have a particular incentive to make claims of discovery. Our propensity to discover new and important knowledge that may impact society is likely the fuel that keeps the flame of science from being snuffed out. At the same time, making claims that cannot be replicated is a sure-fire way to ensure that one’s career and reputation will be snuffed out. 
In addition, I have had personal experiences in which a rational and well thought-out experiment can have unexplained and counterintuitive results. Therefore, I can say unequivocally that there was at least one thing wrong with my thinking about that particular experiment. Unfortunately, I think many people outside of science rarely get to this process of their own flawed logic in such a tangible way. People largely prefer to support their thinking process despite the evidence.
In First Thessalonians 5:19-22, Paul tells the people that they should test what they hear people say about the scriptures. What he said implies that some of the information being spread was not in accordance with spirit and truth of God’s word. 
The first lesson Paul appears to be giving is that Christians should not automatically dismiss new ideas. Far too often, the culture of Christianity involves exactly the opposite of what Paul is suggesting. We retreat to our churches to find other people who agree with us, not those who might challenge us to think differently.
Instead of automatically accepting or rejecting ideas, I think Christians could use a little more science-styled thinking. The science-oriented thinker does not outwardly reject or accept newer ideas, but they tests them to assess their validity or utility. What if Churches started testing new ideas? How might that change how we treat people who think differently than us? 

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Flaming


I tend to be an early morning person. I have a hard time sleeping in even if I try. My mother says that she would have to fight tooth and nail to wake up my brothers for school, but I would often already be awake when she came in to wake me. I think I just do not sleep very deeply.
A scientific explanation is that it seems are bodies are largely created to be more active in the day and rest at night. We do not regularly use awesome raccoon night vision or dolphin echolocation to navigate our environment. We rely on the light to keep us from running into things or other things from running into us. Our bodies also intake necessary vitamin D from the sun’s rays.
In first Thessalonians, Paul wrote about being children of a different kind of light. He says that being in this light implies awareness and alertness. This light helps us to not be afraid of others knowing us and knowing others. It also involves being vigilant of our role in the world. 
Living in a pre-electricity world, I can imagine that Paul’s concept of night and day was probably much more potent to him and his readers in Thessalonica. Night may not have been considered a time when people necessarily I have read that people who lived in cities before electricity rarely ventured out of their homes after dark because doing so was not very safe.
As much as I find myself attracted to physical and metaphorical light, I know that I am not always living in this reality. My life rhythms get out of step and I find myself running and hiding in the dark. Usually it takes another person to notice it, someone says “Where have you been?” Then I know, then I see a flickering flame in a dark room. I hope you people in your life that may speak such truth to you, and I hope you feel the need to speak it to others.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Controlled.


I read about a study this morning about Religion and self-control. The participants were asked to do crossword puzzles in which the words were either religiously oriented or random. After doing the crossword puzzles, the participants went on to complete other tasks that required them to exercise willpower or self-control. The article suggested that the participants who saw the religious words performed better on the self-control tasks than the participants who saw the random words.
This finding is not too surprising to me, because people often associate religion with trying to control yourself and not sinning. Some people suggest that this may be the whole purpose of religion, helping us control our hedonistic urges. 
In his first letter to the Thessalonians, the apostle Paul seems to be endorsing self-control. He says that Christians should live a holy life, abstaining from merely following our basic desires. However, Paul did not say that this is the primary ends to which the life of a Christian is aimed. He said in verse 5 that this ability to be self-controlled is a trait which may overflow from knowing God.
I think the overall idea is that knowing God may help one to have a different purpose in life, rather than doing what makes you happy at the moment. If we are going about the aims of God in the world (loving our neighbors, seeking justice, showing mercy), controlling ones’ self becomes merely a means to a much bigger end of seeking his kingdom on earth.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Admirer


I once received an awkward love letter from a secret admirer. I found it in my college mailbox, covered in red hearts, written in red ink. Although I must admit that my inner 12 year-old received an ego boost, while my 19 year-old logical cortices were introducing some skepticism. I had received a prank love letter some years before and I was wondering which current friend of mine was riddled enough with cruelty to take the time to orchestrate such a prank.
The content of the letter seemed pretty standard for an anonymous love letter. It suggested that the author was really impressed with me. She gushed about my personality and how she found me attractive. She said she thought we would be a good match for each other, but she was afraid to divulge her identity. Even though I was in disbelief regarding the author’s authenticity, I still blushed. 
In reading the second and third chapters of the apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonica, I could not help but notice how it also sounds like a gushy love letter. Paul said that the Thessalonians were his “glory and joy,” he also described an “intense longing” to see them again. He also mentions overflowing love for them.
It seems to me that this type of outpouring is a largely unrecognized benefit of spiritual mentorship. Because Paul had taken the time to teach the Thessalonians and modeled a Christ-focused life, he had invested effort in their success. He had watched them slowly progress and cheered them on. This sounds like a lot of work, but as the letter suggests, the result was overflowing love for them.
What would happen to the Church if we looked beyond our own navels and opened ourselves to this kind of love? What if you gave your heart to spiritually mentoring someone else? To whom would you write a Thessalonians-type love letter? Could you be an admirer like Paul?
P.S. The love letter I received was not a prank, the author did reveal herself to me. It was so awkward that I just kind of laughed and we never spoke about it again.

Monday, January 16, 2012

King-dom.


Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed that his people would no longer be treated as second-class when compared to others. His inspirational life was focused on speaking for those who could not speak for themselves, calling all people to recognize our kinship as brothers and sisters.
Many years before, a similar message was written and spoken by the Paul, who seems to have been fighting a similar battle in different circumstances. He wrote in his first letter to the church in Thessalonica concerning the injustice the new Christians were facing from the Jewish people. In the book of Acts, we see Paul had many disputes with Jewish Christians concerning their belief that only Jews could be saved, making non-Jewish believers second-class in their eyes. Despite Jesus’ assertion that the kingdom was for all (Matthew 28), it still took a literal vision from God to convince Peter that the kingdom of God was for Jews AND everyone else. 
It seems like these types of struggles have been present for all of recorded history, when different groups of people do not accept each other and attempt to subvert the humanity of one another. Humans are by our nature relational beings who tend to form groups with many different purposes. Not surprisingly, we tend to prefer individuals who are in our groups over those who are not. It seems that conflict often arises when groups perceive some type of scarcity of resources between groups. For example, sports teams may have conflict because only one team may win.
In my opinion, many of the struggles with prejudice throughout the years are rooted in our misperception of scarcity and similarity. We somehow think that another group’s success may result in our failure, or another group’s power will require our submission. We also see certain groups as fundamentally different from ours, when it is likely that we are actually very similar.
On this day when the United States stops briefly to recognize the message of a great man, I think we need to search our hearts. We can ask ourselves; are we really in a power struggle between each other? Are we really so different? Jesus, Paul, and Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of a love that transcends our group boundaries, making us into one group, all brothers and sisters. Let your kingdom come...on earth as it is in heaven.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Changing?


It is amazing to me whenever I see genuine change occur in the life of a human. To me, it seems to be nothing short of a miracle. One side effect that we seem to have suffered from being given self-aware and analytical minds is an uncanny ability to justify ourselves and selectively attend to that which suits our current paradigms. When we cannot ignore, we will even take fantastically epic measures to slice and dice contradictory evidence which threatens that which we believe to be true. As a scientist, I have worked very hard at developing this ability.
For change to occur, it seems that something has to either circumvent or demolish our powers of explanatory mental gymnastics. As improbable as it is, it happens. There are those times in which reality bursts through our maze of consciousness with an elegant brilliance. Unfortunately, these moments of change are notoriously difficult to affect, predict, or understand.
In Thessalonica, Paul started a change in many people. Acts 17 says that he started in the synagogue, reasoning with the people. Soon after, Paul was run out of town by an angry mob. Despite the short duration of his trip, Paul wrote in First Thessalonians about how his words caught the fire of the Holy Spirit. The people of the town rioted upon his first visit, yet in his first letter he cannot stop talking about their love and generosity.
True change always requires God. Paul seems to have understood this truth. Of course humans may get the privilege to be involved, but God is the only one with sufficient power to orchestrate all of the factors that have an effect on whether change will occur. When I try to change without God, I always find myself trying again.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

In Step - New Series for 2012

It has been a while since I have studied and blogged about a book of scripture in order, which is what I have previously enjoyed doing. This morning I have a new idea. I am going to read the Pauline Epistles in step with the order in which Paul is said (by Wikipedia) to have written them. I think this might result in some interesting insights, as reading scripture usually does. Here is the order:
Would you like to join and contribute to the discussion? I think it would be awesome to get multiple perspectives on the same text. 
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