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...

Monday, August 7, 2017

Bring on the Baby Kissing - A Weird Thought About Luke 18:15-17

If you grew up going to Sunday School, you're probably at least passingly familiar with the following passage from Luke 18 (NIV):
15 People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. 16 But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 17 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”
I must have heard an estimated bazillion lessons on this particular verse, and I remember a lot of coloring book pages showing a compassionate-looking Jesus laying hands on schoolchildren of assorted ethnicities.  (Sunday School teachers may not give a lot of lesson time to the many rape and incest stories of the Bible, but this passage was plenty safe to discuss.)  So I was a little surprised at my reaction when I stumbled across the verse again this morning.

You see, there was kind of a standard issue Sunday School commentary that typically accompanied this passage in my experience, and it went a little something like this:
"Back in the olden days of the New Testament, children were looked down upon, shunted to the side, and treated as somehow less than human, unlike today, where we rightly understand that children are the future and consequently schedule our entire lives around them.  So it may seem weird to us that the disciples would rebuke people bringing their children to Jesus, but it was just the culture of the time.  So when Jesus says things like 'The kingdom of God belongs to such as these,' he's being remarkably counter-cultural and shocking!"
I'm not entirely sure what the evidence is for this, and it may be right as far as I know (I wasn't there), but part of me kind of doubts this is true.  I mean, did people suddenly start sentimentalizing childhood sometime after World War II?  I think the reason that this explanation appeals to people, though, comes from the mysteriousness of the disciples' reaction in verse 15.  Why on earth would the disciples rebuke people for bringing kids to Jesus?  Did they think Jesus would be bothered by such trifling and unimportant matters as young human beings?  It's not out of the question, I suppose, but that explanation still feels weird to me.

But even weirder than that was the reaction that I personally felt this morning when I stumbled upon verse 15.  You see, here's what verse 15 did not say, that I nonetheless kind of expected it to say:
"And lo, the many school-age children of various ethnicities approached Jesus of their own accord, in eager expectation of learning at his feet with their pure, innocent, humble hearts."
Rather, it says that people (meaning, presumably, the parents) were bringing their babies to Jesus so that he could place his hands on them.  (As a quick note, the same account in Matthew and Mark uses a different Greek word, translated "little children" in the NIV, which explains why the word "babies" surprised me.)

The instant image that popped into my head was decidedly un-Biblical.  I remember back when I was really into the Beatles in college, I read a story of a lady in Australia who threw her mentally-handicapped child onto a passing truck in which the Beatles were sitting, hoping that the Beatles would cure him by touching him.  And there were many other stories like it.  People ascribed literal godlike power to four human beings (including Ringo Starr) for no other reason than that they were extremely famous and liked, and that meant people wanted the Beatles to touch their babies.

Now, how would you react to that story?  I found it tremendously sad.  I imagined that the lady could not have been terribly bright, and the poor kid getting thrown around was certainly an innocent in all this.  She clearly was longing for something to worship, but instead of directing that worship at Actual God (TM), she directed it at Silly Rock Stars, with potentially tragic consequences.

But imagine a less extreme example - say, people lining up to let famous politicians, actors, or whatever kiss their babies, without throwing them into traffic.  To me, there's both something kind of superstitious, and even something kind of self-centered about the practice.  "I'm gonna get my baby blessed!"  I honestly feel a little bit of... what's the right word... contempt for such people.

So when I read in Luke 18:15 that "people were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them," my mind immediately went to those silly people mobbing the Beatles.  Was Jesus the equivalent rock star of the day?  Were they just hoping to get a little positive mojo on their babies?  Didn't it matter to them that Jesus's blessings weren't supposed to be like a rabbit's foot or a good luck charm?  That the babies may have been too young to understand what was going on?  Didn't they know that it was Jesus's identity, his word, and the power he had from his Father that was important, not the literal laying on of his hands?  That Jesus really wanted obedience, mercy, forgiveness, and justice - things of the heart?

So I wasn't in the least bit surprised that the disciples rebuked these people.  During that split second emotional reaction, I wanted to rebuke them, too.

So when Jesus turned to rebuke his disciples, as it happened, he was also rebuking me, hundreds of years later.
"Let the little children come to me."
Implicit in that, though, I feel, is also:
"Let the little children's parents who you think are superstitious yahoos come to me."
Jesus did not turn away the "people" bringing their "babies" for him to lay his hands on. And in Mark, the account even adds an extra verse:
"And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them."
He gave the parents what they wanted.

Now Jesus was frequently highly critical of people, particularly people who thought they were the moral stuff.  But for people whose hearts were turned to him, he only encouraged them.  He only showed mercy.  Even if the particular way they were turning to him might seem inappropriate to someone else.

There's another account from Jesus's life that is highly similar to this, I think - the story of the woman who poured perfume on Jesus shortly before his crucifixion - perfume valued at a year's wages.  Mark describes the disciples as "indignant" because the money could've been given to the poor.  Here's Jesus response in Mark 14:
6 “Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 7 The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. 8 She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. 9 Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”
Performing crazy acts of worship toward Liverpudlian guitarists is crazy.  Performing crazy acts of worship for the actual Son of God is not - it's what those feelings are for.

How many times do we look with contempt upon people worshiping God in a way that's different than ours?  Are those people over there too superstitious or too simple-minded for you?  Are those people over there too emotional, too sentimental, too weepy-and-waily for you?  Are those people over there too traditional, too straight-laced, too button-down for you?  Does that man who thinks that he's worshiping God by dressing in his "Sunday best" and showing respect and being quiet bother you?  Does that woman who thinks she's worshiping God by dancing (rather poorly) with ribbons and soft rock music bother you?  Does that other lady who thinks she's worshiping God by sitting quietly in a room full of candles and incense with her head bowed bother you?  Does that king of Israel bother you when he worships God by stripping down to his linen ephod and dancing around the streets?  Do you feel contempt for people showing their love for their creator in the best and most sincere way they know?

Then Jesus's rebuke to his disciples may be for you too.