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?
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