Monday, April 16, 2018

On Being "Just Sad"

I'm not super proud of this, but sometimes when I pray for "peace" for a person or a family that's experienced a loss, what I'm thinking deep down is something like, "Oh well, there's not much to pray for now, but peace is better than nothing I guess."

Well, I may not have had these thoughts exactly, but on some subconscious level, it's as though I place a value on things like physical healing - things that alleviate the immediate cause of suffering - whereas things like "peace," "strength," "wisdom," and so forth are just kind of nice, fluffy words that sound good but don't really mean anything.  They're things to pray for when you don't have anything better to pray for.

Can anyone relate to that, or am I alone in this?

I'm starting to realize something about this, though.

I think specifically back to last year when my dad passed away.  He was in the hospital for quite a long time, and had been sick in various ways a long time before that, so it was definitely not sudden or entirely unexpected, but it was still very difficult.

I remember one of my friends asking me a pretty awkward and blunt question during the week of the funeral - "So what's it like," he asked, "losing your dad?"  I was a little startled by this - it's not something I was super comfortable talking about, but I tried to answer anyway.  "I don't know..." I said.  "I'm just... sad."  "Just sad?" he repeated back.  "Yeah."  It may have sounded like a cop-out to him, but that's really all I had.  I was just sad.

In my head, I wondered whether he thought I ought to feel a stew of other emotions.  Was I supposed to be angry?  Guilty?  Hopeless?  Fearful or worried?  For the most part, I honestly wasn't any of those things.  And it occurred to me.  I easily could've been.  I could've been angry at doctors and hospitals for not doing what I thought they should've been doing (as clearly I know so much more than everyone).  I could've easily felt guilty for things I should've done better - ways I didn't help enough, or wasn't there enough.  In fact, at various points along the way, I had felt these things.  But right then, at the moment where my sadness peaked, I didn't feel any of that stuff.  Whatever anger and guilt I might have felt was gone.  There was no hopelessness, no fear.  Just sadness.

And although it feels a little weird to me to say, being "just sad" suddenly felt like a huge blessing.  And I mean blessing in a very literal sense.  It felt like being able to be "just sad" had been provided as a gift.  It felt like I was being prayed for, and consequently protected to some degree.  It was a surprisingly strong feeling.  The book of James famously tells us that "the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective," and it felt to me like there were people out there praying for peace for my family, and God, mercifully, was answering it -- in a way that I could understand and feel.

I think about one of my favorite passages in Philippians 4:
"6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."
Do I believe that God will do that?  That God can give a peace that transcends all understanding?

I think he did.  It certainly transcended my understanding.

It turned out that peace, in that particular time, wasn't just a nice-sounding, fluffy word.  It was an actual, comprehensible, visceral gift.

This may be something that other long-time Christians are way ahead of me on, but where I am now, I'm starting to realize that things like "peace," "strength," and "wisdom" aren't just fluffy words that mean little - they're actual blessings that God can and does provide in ways that surprise and glorify him.  They're things we can ask for and things he can give, and they mean a lot.  And I'm grateful for it.

I know very well that not all prayers get answered the way we want, but there are times when God says "yes" to a prayer for peace, and I think it pays to keep those times in mind.  I now remember hearing other people share similar experiences in their own life - but I guess it takes experiencing it oneself to let it sink in sometimes.

So I encourage you to treat those prayers as prayers that God will answer, and in a way that people will notice, and will be to his glory.

Monday, January 29, 2018

How to Remember Which of Paul's Letters is Which

I like to think of myself as a "why" learner.  I learn things much better when you tell me why I should care - that is, when I have a larger framework to work from.  I got super frustrated in Algebra II when we learned about matrices (a system for organizing numbers into rectangular grids that involves a whole lot of pointless-feeling arithmetic).  I would ask the teacher, "Why?  What is this FOR?" and she would just say, "It'll be important in later math classes."  That didn't help.  It all felt very arbitrary.  I felt like I had to look up every formula every time because I didn't understand the PURPOSE that would have made it make sense.

Other math students were "how" learners, though.  They seemed to just want to be told what they needed to solve the problem, and anything else - any stories, any context, any larger framework - was just extraneous details that confused the issue.  They didn't mind straight-up memorization.  One time in college, when a substitute math professor came in, he told all kinds of funny stories and tried to explain the math from the perspective of why we care - I absolutely loved it, but I was shocked to hear other students complain afterwards about his teaching style.  Clearly, different people prefer to learn in different ways.

But perhaps there are other people out there who, like me, prefer "frameworks" to hang their knowledge on.  I CAN memorize lists of things for tests if I try hard, but I forget it pretty much immediately afterward.  But if you give me a framework for understanding things, I'm much more likely to retain the information later.

I feel that way about Bible knowledge.  As a kid, I remember wondering how grown-ups at church always seemed to be able to quote chapter and verse so often.  Sure, we had memory verses, and I would memorize them for Sunday School, but they didn't stay memorized long.  Is that what the adults were doing?  Memorizing a LOT of verses and which book and chapter they came from?  How did they retain all that info?

Growing up, the information in the Bible frequently felt unorganized - stories and teachings and individual verses would be quoted with no particular pattern to them, so it just seemed like the Bible was a random collection of stuff.  I had no idea how Sunday School teachers figured out which verses to have us go read.  It all seemed kind of mysterious.

It got a little better, though, as I got older.  At one point in Sunday School, they taught us a song with all the books of the New Testament.  Believe it or not, this was super helpful.  It meant that (at least for the New Testament), I didn't have to go to the table of contents to find any particular book.  I knew what order things were in, so I could flip there more or less quickly.  We had "Bible drills," where the teacher would call out a chapter and verse and we would race to see who could find it.  Unfortunately, if you had to stop and hum a few bars of the kid's song, you were at a distinct disadvantage.

Knowing the names of the books is helpful, but it's not really enough.  It still didn't tell me what each book was ABOUT, which is far more important.  One of the most helpful Sunday School lessons I ever had came from Jon Shoulders, our church's youth minister at the time, who came down to the kid's room to teach us about the different sections of the Bible.  This was HUGE to me.  I'm talking about how the first five books are the Law, then there's History, then there's Poetry, etc etc.  Suddenly the Bible felt organized!  I had a framework to go on.  Now if you asked me where such-and-such a story was, or such-and-such a teaching was, I had a much better chance of pointing you to the right part of the Bible, even if I couldn't have told you chapter and verse.

But is there anywhere else to go from there other than memorization?  Just read and keep reading the Bible and eventually get so familiar with it you can impress all your friends and relatives in class with your Bible knowledge (because, obviously, this is what impresses people...)?  Well, to some extent, yes.  But I wonder if there may be another in-betweeen step that we could teach people that would help them bridge the gap somewhat.

That is, what if we came up with a way to succinctly describe what each book is ABOUT in a way that's easier to remember?  Like, say, one of the major themes of the book?

I remember a preacher named Jeff Walling actually did this at a youth rally when I was a teenager, and I really appreciated it.  He went over the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) and gave us a single word for each one to describe the difference between them.  The only one I remember exactly is the word for John: "Whoaaa..." said like a surfer.  But I remember the gist of them all.  John was the emotional gospel, the one about all the cool, deep, theologial connections.  Matthew was the Jewish-centric one, Luke was the Gentile-centric one, and Mark was the short one - straight and to the point.  Jeff Walling was giving me a framework.  Because of the way I learn, it was very, very helpful.

So could we do something like that for the whole Bible?  What about Paul's letters?  It's easy to feel like Paul's letters just kind of all run together in a big blob sometimes, but there really are different themes and focuses in each one.

So I'm gonna try something.  I'm gonna try to come up with a word or phrase for each of Paul's letters that describes a major theme or something distinctive about the book, and that STARTS WITH THE SAME LETTER as the book.  And then you can tell me, if you are a framework-based learner like me, if you think this would be helpful!  So here goes:

Romans: Redemption
1 Corinthians: Church
2 Corinthians: Collection
Galatians: Grace vs Legalism
Ephesians: Encouragement
Philippians: Peace
Colossians: Counter-asceticism
1 and 2 Thessalonians: The End of the World
1 and 2 Timothy, Titus: Tending the Flock
Philemon: Personal letter

There may be better choices for some of these - perhaps you could help me think of some!  But I like the general idea.

Romans is a tough one, as it's so central and so important - it's basically the full gospel explained in lengthy detail.  So "redemption" covers a lot, but then, so does "reconciliation," "righteousness", and "right with God."  Could be the "roadmap to reconciliation."  Or "all roads lead to Romans."  There are a number of possibilities.

Thessalonians is also tricky, because the theme is so clear - dealing with Jesus's second coming - but that phrase (or anything related I can think of) doesn't start with T.  But maybe sticking a big "THE" in there is just silly enough to be memorable!

Most of the others I feel a little better about.  Ephesians really is a very positive, encouraging letter.  Philippians has a lot to say about peace (and joy) - the famous "peace that passeth understanding" passage is there.  Colossians is about more than fighting off bad theology like asceticism, but it's definitely in there.  Galatians could be just "grace," but it's such a combative book I feel like a "vs." is required.  1 Corinthians covers a lot of stuff about church practices and has a lot about church unity - communion, speaking in tongues, worship, etc.  To reduce 2 Corinthians to an appeal for money might go too far - but even though there's more to it than JUST that, it's still a big part of the book.  Timothy and Titus have a lot of stuff about being an elder or a deacon, or how to run the church as a practical matter.

So what do you think?  Would something like this be helpful?  How would you summarize Paul's letters?

And then, a bonus challenge... can you do it for the Minor Prophets? (sinister laugh)

Friday, November 10, 2017

Was Jesus a Democrat, Republican, Pharisee or Sadducee?

"Asking whether Jesus is a Democrat or Republican is like asking whether he was a Pharisee or Sadducee."

I distinctly remember my dad delivering this line to me.  I don't remember where he got it from, or whether he came up with it himself, but I do remember one thing very strongly:

I really liked it.

It made perfect sense to me.  Jesus did not conform to the labels and factions of his day.  The Pharisees and Sadducees, two Jewish sects, fought over various theological issues, but Jesus never identified with either.  In fact, not only did he criticize both sects during his ministry, but Jesus arguably reserved his harshest language for them both.  Jesus was interested in the truth, regardless of who it offended.

So dad's statement made sense to me.  I could more or less analogize the Pharisees and Sadducees to our modern political parties.  The Pharisees believed in the coming resurrection of the dead, angels, and spirits.  They were more small town, more religiously conservative, arguably more populist.  The Sadducees were more urban, more involved in the temple power structure.  They denied the resurrection, angels, and spirits.  So, very roughly, I could see the metaphor.  Jesus would probably be yelling at both Republicans and Democrats in the same way he yelled at both sects of his time.

And honestly, I think at some level, I liked it because it made me feel like I was "above" the petty tribal disputes of the political parties.  I imagined that Jesus simply had bigger fish to fry than whatever the sects were arguing about.  I liked the feeling that my fried fish were bigger, too.

So did that mean Jesus was some kind of... I don't know... moderate?  Did he have some "third way?"  Would he have registered as an independent?  Or would he have perhaps stayed home on election day?

Well, I've been rethinking this idea a little bit lately, especially after having read a certain strange passage in the book of Acts that I had long forgotten about.  Here, Paul is on trial before the Sanhedrin for preaching Christ:
6 Now when Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. It is with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial.” 7 And when he had said this, a dissension arose between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. 8 For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, nor angel, nor spirit, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all. 9 Then a great clamor arose, and some of the scribes of the Pharisees' party stood up and contended sharply, “We find nothing wrong in this man. What if a spirit or an angel spoke to him?” 10 And when the dissension became violent, the tribune, afraid that Paul would be torn to pieces by them, commanded the soldiers to go down and take him away from among them by force and bring him into the barracks. (Acts 23:6-10)
I actually found this a bit amusing.  It feels like Paul is cynically manipulating his accusers by playing them against each other - by taking sides in the battle of the sects, so to speak.  He's being very tactical here.  But there's an interesting little fact about what Paul says that I hadn't really considered until recently:

It's all true.

Paul may be cynically manipulating the court, but nothing he said was a lie.  He was a Pharisee. He did believe in the resurrection of the dead, and, in fact, this concept is extremely important to Christianity, which he was on trial for.  So I had this rather surprising realization (for me, at least):

While Jesus would never have identified with either Jewish sect, on the particular issues that divided them, Jesus agreed with the Pharisees down the line.

In that respect, you could even argue that Christianity was an offshoot of Pharisaic Judaism.  This is a bit awkward, as Jesus and the Pharisees yelled at each other a lot.  We also can't ignore the fact that the Pharisees spent a tremendous amount of energy trying to murder Jesus (and ultimately succeeding).  Jesus consistently spoke of the Pharisees as a "them."  He was not even slightly part of their tribe.  But on the question of the resurrection, he agreed with the Pharisees completely.
23 That same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to [Jesus] with a question. 24 “Teacher,” they said, “Moses told us that if a man dies without having children, his brother must marry the widow and raise up offspring for him. 25 Now there were seven brothers among us. The first one married and died, and since he had no children, he left his wife to his brother. 26 The same thing happened to the second and third brother, right on down to the seventh. 27 Finally, the woman died. 28 Now then, at the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her?” 
29 Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. 30 At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.31 But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, 32 ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.” 
33 When the crowds heard this, they were astonished at his teaching. 
(Matthew 22:23-33)
Did you catch that?  Jesus is vociferously defending Pharisaism from the Sadducees.  He is defending the positions of the people who hate him and want to kill him -- people who drove him to use his harshest and angriest language.

I suppose that's not too shocking, given that Jesus was just saying what he knew to be true, but still, it has implications for the here and now.

I think a lot of Christians, including me, have an easy time criticizing "our" political party (whichever one we identify with most).  We're happy to say that we may agree with the party on certain issues, but we're definitely NOT one of those "my party right or wrong" people.  Our faith comes first.

Fair enough.  But there's a harder implication.  To stand for the truth, you have to be willing to do more than disagree with "your" side.  You have to be willing to agree with the "other" side, even vehemently argue for it, if they happen to be right.  Even if they hate you.  Even if they wish you were dead.  Even if their leaders are as corrupt and evil as the Pharisees were.  Could you do that?  Or have you responded in anger to the point where you can't possibly bring yourself to agree with them on any issue?

Could you do what Jesus did and argue for a position taken by people who enrage you?  Can you be on God's side not only when it disagrees with "us," but when it agrees with "them?"

Maybe that's easy for you.  I don't know.  I find it challenging, and something to be praying about.

And I wonder how many of us are willing to take that step...

Monday, October 9, 2017

The Real Opposite of People Pleasing?

"People-pleasing behavior" has been one of my particular struggles for a long time.  The general idea, as I understand the term, is that you take on a lot of responsibility, run yourself ragged trying to meet other people's demands, never say "no" to anyone, and eventually burn out.  This is a struggle for a lot of people, as I have learned, both inside and outside the church.

Now, one of the typical solutions offered by the secular world is the idea of "self care."  The idea is that you're supposed to explicitly take time to rest and recharge - to allow yourself to be "selfish" from time to time so that you do not stress yourself out and die from a wicked case of acid reflux.  There is a certain amount of sense to this - even if your whole goal in life is to meet your responsibility to other people, it certain doesn't help your cause to make yourself sick by overwork.  Taking time to rest is important,  and that's a perfectly fair and even Biblical concept.

But this idea is, at the very least, remarkably incomplete, and possibly even problematic.  This is because I think the secular world frequently misdiagnoses the true root of people-pleasing behavior.  One of the underlying assumptions behind the idea of "self care" is that there's this fundamental split between "others" and "self."  The people-pleasing person is way too far on the "others" side, so they need to come more to the "self" side.  Generally, the diagnosis is that the people-pleasing person suffers from misplaced guilt about taking time for self, and so they need to question or even reject whatever moral standard it is that's causing them to ignore their own needs.  Therefore, the principal villain, in much of the secular world's eyes, is moral guilt.

This is not really my personal experience.

For me at least, the principal driving factor behind people-pleasing behavior is not guilt but fear - fear of people being angry at you, fear of being rejected.  In some people that have shared with me, this can come from a long history of actually being rejected.  As a result, people feel like they don't know how not to be rejected other than to do everything in their power to keep everyone around them happy.  People-pleasing frequently equates to a high degree of sensitivity to other people's anger or disapproval.  Because we people-pleasers fear rejection, we preemptively act in ways designed to eliminate the threat - take on all the responsibilities, meet all the needs, etc.

The issue is that, from a Christian perspective, a lot of the things that people-pleasers do are perfectly good and wonderful things to be doing.  They're frequently not wrong to be doing them.  After all, are we not told that the greatest commandments include loving your neighbor as yourself?  (Leviticus 19:18)  The Bible teaches a pretty radical kind of selflessness.

It's therefore not entirely out of left field that many in the secular world would love to saddle traditional moral authorities with the blame.  If the poor people-pleasers would just throw off the shackles of a higher moral authority, they would go binge watch Netflix and pornography and not care what anyone thought of them and be happy.  Right?

I've known a number of people throughout my life who appear to have reached precisely this conclusion - and at least one has told me so outright.  Sick of being "good" all their lives, such people decide that "self care" involves giving themselves permission to be "bad."  For them, the real enemy of their happiness was the moral authority they perceived to be condemning them.  If there are no more "shoulds" and "oughts," there's no more stress.

For a believing Christian, of course, this attitude is a complete non-starter.  But even for a secular person, I wonder whether it misses the point.  The people that I have observed to have made the decision to throw off moral authorities do not, from my vantage point, appear any more "free" than they did before.  Rather, they have swapped one emotional slavemaster for another.  Instead of being controlled by fear, they have given themselves over to resentment.

It kind of makes sense, though.  The people-pleaser, motivated by fear, gradually builds up a huge wad of unexpressed rage at the world around them - the world that rejected them in the first place and constantly threatens to reject them again lest they meet all the demands - until eventually anger kicks fear out of the driver's seat.

This is not, in my personal opinion, much of a win for the people-pleaser.  Neither the fear nor the resentment comes from a place of security, a place of love and acceptance.  You can trade a passive reaction for an active reaction (or vice versa) all day long but the problem isn't really being solved either way.  Whether giving ourselves up to please others, or raging at others in frustration, the underlying, incontrovertible fact of the matter is:

We don't have much control over whether other people reject us.

Not really.  We can fear it, we can react to it, but that little fact will still be true either way.  So what is to be done?  What's the real answer for a believing Christian who struggles with people-pleasing?

Well, I would propose that rather than trying to draw a line between "others" and "self," the truly important line is between pleasing people vs. pleasing God.  How can this be, you may ask?  Can't people run themselves just as ragged pleasing God as they can pleasing people?  How can that possibly help?  What's the difference?

I would propose to you that the difference is this:

God already loves and accepts you.

In Christ, we can be secure in God's acceptance of us.  People will sin.  People may hurt you or reject you and there's nothing you can do to prevent it.  God isn't like that.  For those who have turned their hearts to them, they have no need to fear his rejection.  By accepting ourselves that we are accepted by God through Christ, we can allow his love to inform who we are - I can become someone who is beloved, rather than someone who is always afraid of not being loved, or angry at having not been loved.  My desire to please God then comes from a place of security and love rather than a place of fear or anger.  God loved me first.  I didn't have to earn it - I received it by his grace alone.

Notice that Paul, who understood better than anyone else how radical and transformative God's grace is, still speaks of his desire to please God:
"So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it." (2 Corinthians 5:9)
There's nothing wrong with being a God-pleaser.  Truly pleasing God doesn't come from a place of insecurity, but a place of security.  Shortly before this verse in 2 Corinthians, Paul talks about how much he's longing for his eternal home in heaven - he has no doubt in his mind that he has a reward prepared for him.  He has no doubt that he's accepted and loved.  The presence of the Holy Spirit in him proves it -
"Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come." (2 Corinthians 5:5)
The purpose he speaks of is to be clothed in immortality - it's what we were made for!  Paul works to please God, but not from a place of fear or resentment.  God-pleasing, when one properly understands the nature of God, can only come from a place of love and acceptance - because that's what God wants.

Now, a lot of believing Christians have trouble with this.  For many of us, God appears almost exclusively as a judge - a condemning moral authority.  And God absolutely is a judge.  There's no denying it.

But if the people-pleaser struggles with feeling accepted by God, I would encourage them to read over passages like Jesus's parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.  If you don't know it, please read it - I think it's really important.  I promise I'll still be here when you get back!

The Pharisee, although he was, in fact, a sinner, refused to admit his sins before God, and consequently was not justified.  The tax collector, however, arguably a much worse sinner, "went home justified."  For having done what?  He confessed what he had done.  And he found justification -  acceptance by God - waiting for him.

It therefore seems to me that a believing Christian who struggles with feeling accepted by God does so because they have not really allowed themselves to be broken before him - to admit their sin to themselves and to God.  God will absolutely show you what grace means - what it means to be accepted in spite of anything you've done - if you only turn to him.  He longs for reconciliation with you.  And he will work in you, transforming your very nature into someone who pleases him.

So that's the paradox then.  The people-pleaser's real enemy isn't fear or anger, but pride.  This is because pride is the only thing that prevents us from taking the solution to our insecurities that God is longing to give us.  But if we do take it - if we do turn our hearts to him, if we have the Holy Spirit - then we have all the acceptance and love of God that comes from being adopted as his children.
"For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.”  The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children." (Romans 8:14-16)
Take the security that God is offering you.

(P.S. If you are already someone who understands God's love and acceptance, I encourage you to show that same love and acceptance to others.  Since God's love can feel very abstract to people, help make it real by demonstrating it at a personal level.)

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Uh... How Did I Miss This Story? (Jeremiah 35)

Ah, Jeremiah 35.  That's a great chapter of the Bible, isn't it?

I mean, I'm sure you've read it.

Jeremiah 35, right?

The one about the Recabites, of course.

You know what I'm talking about.


Ok, actually, I read this one recently and I realized that I had no recollection of ever having read this passage before in my entire life, or even having vaguely heard about the events in it.

I've "read" the Bible several times all the way through, meaning, of course, that my eyes saw every verse of it from beginning to end.  Whether any of it actually penetrated by brain by the time I got to the various prophets in the Old Testament is an open question.  (The anxiety-laden part of my brain would like to remind me at this time that it's entirely possible that I comprehended everything I read, but I'm just developing an early-onset case of dementia.)

At any rate, since there's a chance you may not have any more memory of Jeremiah 35 than I did, allow me to summarize (or you could go read it - that's always a possibility, right?).

The chapter concerns a nomadic tribe called the Recabites that lived in close proximity to Jerusalem.  Although they were not Israelites themselves, they appeared to be God-fearing, and the Israelites were friendly to them.  The story begins with God directing Jeremiah (the main prophet of the time) to go round up the Recabites and bring them into the temple and, for some reason, serve them wine.

The Recabites accept the invitation into the temple but refuse the wine, explaining that their ancestor instructed them to never touch wine, grow crops, or live in houses, and so, they don't.  (It almost feels to me that God knowingly ordered Jeremiah to commit a faux pas just so he would get hit over the head with their customs.)

God then instructs Jeremiah to hold these people up as an example to Jerusalem, basically saying, "These guys can obey their forefathers, but you won't obey me.  Consequently, I'm going to destroy you, and bless the Recabites."  And, of course, he did destroy Jerusalem, not too long after this story took place.

So what's so interesting to me about this?  Well, notice that list of things the Recabites were obeying - no wine, no agriculture, more or less adopting a Paleo lifestyle.  None of these particular things are things that God ordered the Israelites to do.  There is no command in Moses's law to be nomads or never touch alcohol.  Nevertheless, God seems super happy to see the Recabites following their forefathers' wishes.  The Recabites did good by tee-totaling not because God wants tee-totaling but merely because it's what old grandpa Jonadab wanted!  It struck me:

Does God value obedience for its own sake?

Well, God certainly wouldn't value obedience to a human being when it contradicted his wishes.  But you'll notice he never told the Israelites not to be nomads, right?

In fact, it seems to me that the whole Bible, both Old and New Testament, is shot through with an ethic of obedience and submission to authorities - parents, governments, even hypocritical religious leaders.  Even going back to the Ten Commandments, God listed "Honor your father and your mother" before "You shall not murder."  Both Jesus and Paul told their followers to pay taxes to Caesar (and Paul went one step further, commanding honor and respect be given to governing authorities!).  Jesus criticized the religious authorities of the day with harsh language, but then he turned right around and told the people:
"The experts in the law and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat.  Therefore pay attention to what they tell you and do it.  But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach." (Matthew 23:2-3)
So, in case you were thinking that Jesus's criticisms of the religious leaders of the time justified a general attitude of rebellion... nope!  Jesus told the people to obey them anyway, even if they were horrible hypocrites and "children of hell," a "brood of vipers," etc. as he called them literally just a few verses down.

Now granted, God did reward Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego for defying various Babylonian and Persian kings' orders to worship idols, and he did reward the midwives for not following Pharaoh's orders to murder Israelite babies in the book of Exodus.  So clearly, sometimes defiance of earthly authorities is called for.

And I think it's also important that the Recabites were not preaching their particular family traditions as absolute moral statements on the same level as God's commandments.  That's highly dangerous, as the religious leaders in Jesus's time found out.  Instead, they were up front about the fact that old grandpa Jonadab wanted this, so that's what they were doing.  They weren't contradicting God's will, nor elevating their traditions beyond their proper place.  They weren't imposing their traditions on anyone else.  They were simply honoring their forefather in the best way they could.

It's also interesting to me that God chose to honor this particular tribe while they were right in the middle of disobeying one of their traditions due to extraordinary circumstances.  You see, they had just moved into Jerusalem (also known as a city) to protect themselves from invading armies.  That seems remarkably reasonable to me.

So anyway, what do you think?  How would you interpret this little narrative?

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Let's Get Mayed

"Do not be dismayed."

It's a phrase that shows up more than a few times in the Old Testament, especially if you read the New Revised Standard Version. It struck me the other day while reading through the book of Isaiah:
"I said, ‘You are my servant’;
I have chosen you and have not rejected you.  So do not fear, for I am with you;
do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand."  (Isaiah 41:9-10)
(This comes shortly after Isaiah 40, which is, in my opinion, one of the most awesome chapters in all the Bible.  If you're ever in need of serious comfort, there's some great stuff in there, and chapter 41 continues the theme.)

So why should this particular verse strike me?  There are something like a bajillion other ones just like it throughout the Old Testament.  Well, because of that word "dismayed."  A lot of the times similar thoughts are translated "afraid" or "discouraged," but "dismayed" kind of hit me because I've been feeling that a lot lately.  "Afraid" and "discouraged" both seem to have more of a "fear" slant to them than "dismayed," which seems to communicate (to me at least) a little more the feeling of having given up.  Fear may be a part of it, but "dismayed" puts more emphasis on the hopeless feelings rather than the fear.

And yet, here's God again, telling us:

"Do not be dismayed."

Why shouldn't I be dismayed?  Sometimes, things are awful, aren't they?  I have a Twitter account.  I know what's going on.  Right?  Well, God goes on to say,
"Because your emotions are bad and you shouldn't have them.  So man up and no longer be dismayed, because I said so."
Oh wait, that's what Fake Stream-of-Constant-Criticism God (TM) who lives in my head says.  Let's hear from Actual God:
"I said, ‘You are my servant’;
I have chosen you and have not rejected you.  So do not fear, for I am with you;
do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
"  (Isaiah 41:9-10)
God gives evidence as to why we shouldn't be dismayed.  He's chosen you.  He's with you.  He's your God.  And there's a lot more where that came from if you want to hop back into Isaiah 40.

Do you believe God when he tells you that?

It occurred to me that there's "dismayed" in English, but no "mayed" or "unmayed" or "premayed" or "undermayed."  So, naturally, I went to the Online Etymology Dictionary to elucidate this mystery and not at all to waste time:
late 13c., dismaien, from Old French *desmaier (attested only in past participle dismaye), from Latin de- intensive prefix + Old French esmaier "to trouble, disturb," from Vulgar Latin *exmagare "divest of power or ability" (source of Italian smagare "to weaken, dismay, discourage"), from ex- (see ex-) + Proto-Germanic *magan "to be able" (source also of Old High German magen "to be powerful or able"), from PIE root *magh- "to be able, have power." Spanish desmayer "to be dispirited" is a loan word from Old French. Related: Dismayed; dismaying.
Neat, right?


Check out where it says the "may" part comes from Proto-Germanic "magan," or "to be powerful or able."  "Dismayed" literally means "powerless."

There's something to that.  I remember back when I used to *embarrassed cough* play World of Warcraft.  I was part of a raiding guild where up to 40 players could get together to fight incredibly difficult dragons - it was exhilarating, but occasionally frustrating, as the boss monsters kept getting more and more challenging.  More than a few times, we would be fighting some boss or other, and I could see we were making progress.  The raid leader (a.k.a. my brother) could see we were making progress.  Not very much progress, grant you, but we definitely had it in us to win.  But after several hours of trying and dying, trying and dying, some of the team members started to whine and complain.  It didn't seem like any progress was being made to them, so they quit.  And people would start dropping out.

Now, if we had a chance to win with 40 raid members, we really had no chance with 37, or 34, or 28.  One person leaves and it becomes a cascade.  No amount of persuasion or encouragement could stop the chain reaction at that point, and we had to call the raid.  It was immensely frustrating, because we could see that we could win.  It was not the dragon that defeated us.  It was our own dismay.  Thanks to the game's mechanic of infinite resurrections, we knew we hadn't really lost until we had given up.  To be dismayed really is to be powerless.

It's the same for many people I've tutored in algebra.  They would take one look at the x's and y's and arcane symbols and decide they've already lost, even when I knew full well that they had the intelligence to handle it.

Occasionally, though, people with math anxiety actually trusted me when I told them they could handle it.  I offered them evidence - showed them what they had already accomplished, and told them that algebra wasn't anymore complicated once you learned what the symbols meant.  I tried to communicate as much expertise on the subject as I could muster.  And if they bought it - they succeeded.  

I feel like God must be trying to do that to us all the time.  "I will guarantee you victory if you TRY!" he must be practically yelling at us.  "I am with you!  I am in control!  I've rigged the outcome already!  Don't give up before you've started!  Don't give up after the first several hours of setbacks!"

"Don't give up!  You can't lose so long as you don't give up!"

And if we take him up on that, if we believe what he's telling us, so long as we're on his side, we will, in fact, no longer be powerless, because we have his "strength" and "help" and "righteous right hand."

So, let's take him up on that, shall we?

Let's get mayed.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

That One Time I Changed My Mind About Something

Has another person ever persuaded you to change your mind about something?  Something important?  A big part of me can't imagine it happens very often.  Nothing personal, of course.  It's just that a lot of arguments about politics or religion always seem to devolve into moral accusation and condescension pretty quickly, if not immediately, and even occasionally devolve further still into name-calling and anger.  Very little actual persuasion occurs one way or another.

There have been a few times when someone has told me that I actually persuaded them about something, and my multilayered reaction surprised me.  I found myself, in order of appearance:
  1. Astonished - I'm not at all used to people changing their mind.  I assume that, when challenged about anything, even gently, most people just close up and get more stubborn.  So I'm always genuinely shocked when anyone says something, like, "Hmm... I never thought about it that way.  Maybe you're right."
  2. Afraid - I also remember suddenly feeling the intestinal-clinching of responsibility.  "Oh geez, what if I'm wrong?!  I may have just led someone astray!  I mean, seriously, what do I know?!"  It's like I wasn't taking things as seriously as I should because I assumed no one would ever agree with me, and so there wasn't any real risk.
  3. Guilty - Guilt is, after all, one of my more usual emotions, so this one's probably no surprise.  I remember feeling, "Gosh, what an open-minded and thoughtful person they are, considering evidence and being willing to change their position on something.  I don't think I've ever done that.  I just more or less believe what I've always believed..."  It's like I needed some big change-of-mind somewhere in my past to prove that I was a reasonable, open-minded human being and I didn't have the evidence.
As it happens, though, there IS a thing I have changed my mind about fairly recently.  It's not necessarily politics or religion, although for a lot of people, it's pretty much the same thing...


(No, wait, don't go!  I promise not to get all diet zealot on you!  For the time being!)

I was remarkably overweight for most of my childhood, all of my teenage years, and well into college.  But around my senior year, the Atkins craze hit, and I discovered it was pretty easy for me to lose weight by cutting out buns, fries, and McFlurry(R) simulated dessert substance.  I lost a lot of weight.  Now it happened that a fair amount of the literature on low-carbohydrate dieting was a little, shall we say, extreme.  It wasn't just that low-carb is a safe and healthy alternative for some people to lose weight.  It wasn't just that low-carb is a nice short term dieting solution for overweight people who haven't had much luck with other kinds of diets.  Oh no.  According to some of these books, low-carb was the way humanity had evolved to eat.  And I bought a lot of what these books were selling. Grains and sugar were nutritional enemy number 1, as far as I was concerned.  We didn't need carbs at all.  The Inuit didn't need them.  After all, there was no such thing as an "essential" carbohydrate from a nutritional perspective.  We could manufacture all the glucose we needed from other stuff.  Animal products were vastly more dense and nutritious than vegetable products (provided you ate organ meats, egg yolks, seafood, etc.).  So clearly, I hadn't just stumbled upon a workable diet for me personally, I had found the Holy Grail of Nutritional Truth for All Humanity.

Now I knew better than to preach too hard about this stuff.  After all, that way lies conflict, and conflict is unpleasant, so better just to smile and nod as you watch your friends slowly murder themselves with "cheez"-flavored gluten pressed into fish shapes.

Occasionally I would run into some yelling person on the internet, making a fuss about all those skinny Asians eating rice, or appealing to the authority of the American Heart Association or some long discredited study, and I would just roll my eyes.  People could be so silly.

But then something interesting happened.

Certain guests would show up on low carb podcasts I listened to - nutrition PhD Chris Masterjohn, psychiatrist Emily Deans, diet author Paul Jaminet, a few others perhaps - that weren't exactly low carb.  Or, really, low carb at all.  They would talk about other things on the podcasts for the most part - areas of agreement with the low carb community, but they themselves either advocated a moderate carb diet or were "macronutrient agnostics."  Importantly, however, none of these people tried to make me feel like an idiot for being in the "low carb camp."  Not a one of them acted like I was clogging my arteries with bacon.  They were always perfectly respectful, thoughtful, and intelligent.

When they cited evidence or studies, they did so without snark or bad faith.  They emphasized things that the various diet communities agreed on.  Whole foods are good!  Avoid added sugars!  Saturated fat and cholesterol have been unfairly demonized!  Animal products aren't the evil villain of nutrition!  But then they would make their case that carbs had been unfairly demonized as well, and while one should not go out and stuff oneself with Hostess brand snack cakes in celebration at the idea, the human body functions better with a certain degree of carbohydrate intake.  They would present their various cases, and well, it sounded... kind of correct.

By not attacking me, they made it much easier for me not to respond in defensiveness and anger.  Granted, it would have been tempting and easy to mock me, given that I was (as I now believe) in the wrong about things.  But they were merciful and gracious, and kept the disagreements to the facts, while emphasizing agreement where they could.  So slowly, over time, they converted me.

I find myself naturally attracted to the side of a debate that seems fair, well-reasoned, and willing to credit the other side when you can, because I naturally figure that if you aren't able to behave that way, it's probably because you don't have the evidence on your side, so you have to yell and call names to make up the difference.  Or, perhaps, it's because you are motivated by something other than a dispassionate search for the truth.

I realize that you may not believe this is possible in today's current very charged political climate, but I really want to assure you:

People can and do change their minds if you engage them respectfully.

It really really does happen.  Not as frequently as anyone would like, but it does happen.  So please don't give up on civility, respect, finding common ground, seeing things from another person's perspective, and peaceableness, even when it seems like the entire internet has abandoned the concepts.  I know they're all massive cliches, but they do have the capacity to get the job done.  You may not even realize you've persuaded someone, but a little respect can go a long way even without you knowing it.  

So please don't give up on those things!

And, hey, if you don't believe me, believe Paul:
"24 And the Lord’s slave must not engage in heated disputes but be kind toward all, an apt teacher, patient, 25 correcting opponents with gentleness. Perhaps God will grant them repentance and then knowledge of the truth."  (2 Timothy 2:24-25)
And if you're saying to yourself, "But Chris, it's not the same!  People don't take nutrition anywhere near as seriously as they do religion and politics," then all I have to say is this:


Oh wait, I guess that was kind of snarky and rude, wasn't it?  Guess I'm still learning...