Sunday, March 20, 2016

Blogs Are for Political Opinions

Christians have been discussing and debating the proper relationship of the church and politics for centuries - from works by the Church Fathers, such as Augustine's “The City of God,” to more modern treatments from people of all political stripes; from scholarly books like Nieburh's Christ and Culture to bumper sticker slogans like the Sojourners' “God is not a Republican... or a Democrat”; from the Pilgrims' attempt to create an explicitly Christian society on earth to many Quakers' avoidance of all politics. With the American political scene in full swing preparing for the 2016 presidential elections, and with partisanship in American politics at an all-time high, Christians' discussions and debates are as active as ever, with blog posts and editorials and voter guides telling Christians how they ought to vote. Perhaps, before we get into specific issues of partisan politics, we should spend a bit of timing considering how we ought to approach politics in the first place. Here are some (hopefully!) non-partisan thoughts along those lines.

As Christians, we should seek the truth. Jesus said that he is the truth (Jn 14:6) and that the reason he came into the world was to proclaim the truth (Jn 18:37). Obviously, the Truth to which he refers is much bigger and of more ultimate importance than our political debates - but as followers of the Truth, we ought to be open to smaller truths as well. William Falk writes in The Week (December 18, 2015):

“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” Though this quote is often attributed to John Maynard Keynes, its provenance is uncertain. There's no question, however, about its instructive value. The world is confoundingly complex, and will make a fool of anyone who ignores contrary new information. But with our country so politically polarized… the process of adjusting to new facts - so essential to sound public policy - rarely occurs… For a change, wouldn't it be encouraging to hear a gun-rights advocate say: I'm all for the Second Amendment, but to reduce the death toll of mass shootings, let's ban magazines of more than 10 rounds and institute strong, universal background checks? Wouldn't it be reassuring to hear President Obama say: I can now see that a long war of attrition against ISIS isn't sufficient - we need an accelerated new strategy?

Humans are prone to confirmation bias - interpreting any and all information in a way that reinforces our existing beliefs, and rejecting information that challenges those beliefs. Unfortunately, the huge variety of Internet sites and the availability of partisan news media makes it easy to avoid information that challenges our preexisting ideas, but if we're committed to seeking the truth, we should do better than that.

As Christians, we should practice charity. Charity, in the sense of “a disposition to think the best of others that the case will allow” (to quote Jonathan Edwards) is never directly commanded in the Bible, but it's a clear application of Christian principles. So many political discussions involve assuming the worst of our opponents – conspiracy theories, impugning motives, and so on.

And, of course, we should love our political enemies. I like C.S. Lewis's description of what this means:

The real test is this. Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one's first feeling, “Thank God, even they aren't quite so bad as that,” or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies as bad as possible? (_Mere Christianity_i, p. 91)

Would we pass this test for Clinton? Cruz? Sanders? Trump?

As Christians, we should practice humility. I'll be honest: I have absolutely no idea what the U.S. should do about Syria. In between a years-old civil war, a dictator, ISIS, and now Russia, it seems that there are no good solutions, and our recent history in Afghanistan and Iraq shows that military solutions are far from certain. I'm glad that there are people better informed than I - but there's an arrogance in assuming that our particular opinion about what ought to be done is right and others must certainly be wrong. Even more chronic issues like poverty or the environment are wicked problems, with no clear solutions or even clear agreement on the problem. These complexities should give us some measure of humility in whatever policies we espouse for dealing with them.

We also need humility to realize that the problems are not, in this world, ultimately solvable. There will always be war (Mk 13:7) and poverty (Mt 26:11), and although we need to do the best we can, we should not be so arrogant as to think that we can destroy all of our enemies with the right application of military force, that we can befriend them all with the proper diplomacy, or that we can eliminate poverty if we just find the proper social programs.

As Christians, we should work toward peace. Partisanship and polarization in U.S. politics is, in many ways, higher than it's ever been, and numerous articles and news shows have discussed the growing rift between liberals and conservatives. However, Jesus blesses the peacemakers, and he did so at a time when the political scene included hated foreign occupiers, religious hard-liners, and radical Zealots.

Many of the political issues facing our country are serious, and our disagreements are correspondingly serious, but that doesn't have to be the full picture. We can find areas of commonality. We can look for compromise. We can look at both sides of each issue. I appreciated Joe Biden's statement: “The other team is not the enemy.”

As Christians, we shouldn't resort too quickly to force. In a fallen world, war is sometimes necessary (Rom 13:4), but it's never “good.” A decision to go out and destroy, to sacrifice lives, to kill those made in God's likeness, should never be made lightly. Moreover, we serve a Lord who set aside his own power (Phil 2:6) and who rejected the use of force to further his aims (Jn 18:36).

When and under what circumstances we should use force is too broad a topic to address in a single blog post, and it's a question about which Christians legitimately disagree. Hopefully, though, we can agree that it should at least give us pause to hear politicians boast how they'll obliterate our enemies overseas or talk about giving political power to Christians to use against our opponents.

As Christians, we should show compassion. This may be aimed at political conservatives more than liberals, since it seems that conservatives often promote political positions – opposing welfare or universal health care, opposing illegal immigration, closing borders to refugees, and so on – without considering the human costs of these positions – to people crushed by poverty or facing health problems which they have no way to pay for, Mexicans fleeing drug violence and trying to provide for their families, Syrians escaping a brutal civil war.

This isn't to say that there aren't legitimate legal, economic, and social arguments for any of these positions – but let's not be jerks about it. And, if Christian conservatives are going to spend our time and energy in politics, arguing that government isn't the answer, then let's make sure we spend at least as much time and energy as the church, meeting needs and being part of the answer.

As Christians, we should not give in to fear. So much of the current political scene is motivated by fear: of a weak economy, of terrorism, of climate change, of Wall Street and the 1%, of the other political party winning the White House. We fear that we're losing or have lost economic security; that we're failing to stop enemies overseas; that America is changing in ways we don't like or has failed to change in ways it needs to. There's all kinds of bad stuff to fear, and much of the bad stuff is real, but let's change how we respond: take the bad stuff to God, in lament and in prayer, and trust him to provide our security, even when the economy and international affairs and political power can't.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Beatitude

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Mt 5:3-12)
And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.
“Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.
“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
“Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry.
“Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.
“Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.” (Lk 6:20-26)

I have a problem when I go to study the Beatitudes. Sometimes, when I'm reading the Bible and I come to a part that I've studied or heard taught multiple times, I think, “Yeah, I already know this,” and I start skimming ahead. I feel like I've heard people talk about passages like the Beatitudes so much that I'm not sure what I can add. Supposedly the best book to read on the Beatitudes is Les Beatitudes, by Jacques Dupont. It's a three volume set, 1,500 pages, in French. I get lost in that kind of detail. I don't know what to say that hasn't already been said.

A second problem quickly arises when studying the Beatitudes. How are we to understand them? Scholars and commentators don't agree on how to approach them; for example, some argue that the Sermon on the Mount doesn't even apply to Christians today. Individual Beatitudes get debated—are “the poor in spirit” materially poor, physically poor, or both? At face value, the Beatitudes seem counter-intuitive, to say the least: how can we say that the poor, the mourners, the persecuted are truly happy? And how do the Beatitudes apply to me? When I read them, I don't really feel like the kind of person they talk about. I've always had a job. It's always paid more than adequately. I've never known real hunger. I've never been persecuted. As Philip Yancey says, “What meaning can the Beatitudes have for a society that honors the self-assertive, confident, and rich?… Why doesn't the church encourage poverty and mourning and meekness and persecution instead of striving against them?” (The Jesus I Never Knew, p. 108)

Most preachers and writers spiritualize the Beatitudes. The “poor in spirit” are those who recognize their spiritual poverty, “those who mourn” are mourning their sinfulness, and so on. John Stott is an eloquent example of this approach:

The beatitudes paint a comprehensive portrait of a Christian disciple. We see him first alone on his knees before God, acknowledging his spiritual poverty and mourning over it. This makes him meek or gentle in all his relationships, since honesty compels him to allow others to think of him what before God he confesses himself to be. Yet he is far from acquiescing in his sinfulness, for he hungers and thirsts after righteousness, longing to grow in grace and in goodness. We see him next with others, out in the human community. His relationship with God does not cause him to withdraw from society, nor is he insulated from the world's pain. On the contrary, he is in the thick of it, showing mercy to those battered by adversity and sin. He is transparently sincere in all his dealings and seeks to play a constructive role as a peacemaker. Yet he is not thanked for his efforts, but rather opposed, slandered, insulted and persecuted on account of the righteousness for which he stands and the Christ with whom he is identified. (Christian Counter-Culture, p. 58)

All of this is good and true and helpful, but I'm not certain that it's what Jesus primarily meant. I don't doubt that Jesus meant this—after all, part of the genius of Scripture is that it can have multiple layers of meaning and speak on multiple levels, and Jesus is certainly smart enough to do this when he talks—I'm just not convinced that it's what Jesus was primarily trying to communicate. Part of my uncertainty is that Luke's rendition of the Beatitudes and the “woefuls” doesn't sound very “spiritual” as we commonly use the word. Part of my uncertainty is that even Matthew's version is hard to understand, and I'm not at all convinced that I would have come to this understanding without the help of preachers and writers like Stott. While I'm immensely thankful for preachers and writers like Stott, Jesus' first century listeners didn't have the benefit of help like that, so I wonder if Jesus' teaching was perhaps intended to be more basic than that.

Yancey summarizes the Beatitudes: “Lucky are the unlucky!” Perhaps a lot of the point of the Beatitudes is simply to shock us out of how we view the world.

It's very, very easy to reduce God to our own terms. It's easy to think that God is just like we are, except bigger. For example, we know what human power looks like, and we know what it looks like when humans have and exercise power, so we expect God's power to look the same, just bigger. We know what we consider to be blessings—health, wealth and comfort, safety and security, success—and so we expect God's blessings to look like that. We have some idea of goodness and morality, so we expect following God to be a matter of having the right goodness and morality and of improving ourselves until we have the right goodness and morality. We think of love as a warm sentimentality, so we expect God's love to be a great big giant warm sentimentality instead of what Rich Mullins refers to as “the reckless raging fury that we call the love of God.”

We expect God to come to earth in power and glory. Instead, he comes as a baby in a manger. We expect God to reveal himself in overwhelming power, so people have no choice but to believe. Instead, he restrains himself, giving people the chance to love him or to reject him. We expect God to wipe out his enemies. Instead, he gets himself killed. Carl Trueman writes, “Who would have thought up the foolish idea of God taking human flesh in order to die a horrendous death on behalf of sinners who had deliberately defied him, or God making sinners pure by himself becoming sin for them, or God himself raising up a people to newness of life by himself submitting to death?”

Even if all of our expectations so far were wrong, we'd expect God to at least get respect and acknowledgement from people around him. Instead, the cross is “foolishness to the Greeks and an offence to the Jews, depending on whether your chosen sin is intellectual arrogance or moral self-righteousness” (Trueman).

Jesus is God's ultimate self-revelation. At the time he delivers the Beatitudes, his self-revelation is not yet complete; he has not yet gone to the cross. But he's started teaching the way of the cross here, teaching that God's power and God's blessings and God's wisdom and God's love are so often the opposite of what we think. The Jews of Jesus' day wanted a revolution, an overthrow of the worldly powers that opposed God; Jesus teaches that “when the kingdom of God arrived it would be a doubly revolutionary event. Yes, it would overturn all of the power structures of the world; but it would also overturn all the expectations about how that would happen” (Tom Wright, The Original Jesus, p. 32).

This idea shows up in many places in the New Testament. “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (Lk 14:12-14). “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor 1:27-29). “The wisdom of this world is folly with God” (1 Cor 3:19).

The point isn't that poverty or mourning, for example, is necessarily good. The point is that God reverses, and God completely ignores, what we in our fallen humanity and in our incessant jockeying for status and position and power think is good.

As Dallas Willard puts it, “Jesus' teaching does not lay out safe generalizations by which we can engineer a happy life. Instead, it is designed to startle us out of our prejudices and direct us into a new way of thinking and acting. It's designed to open us up to experience the reign of God right where we are, initiating an unpredictable process of personal growth in vivid fellowship with him” (The Spirit of the Disciplines, p. 205). We talk often about how many Jews of Jesus' day viewed following God mostly in terms of keeping his Law and believed that all you have to do is follow the law and God will bless you, and we talk about how Jesus instead re-framed things in terms of loving God and knowing God. The risk, though, is that we turn Jesus' teaching into a new set of laws. If we're not careful, we can find ourselves saying, “All I need to do is be poor in spirit—as soon as I find the right book or the right preacher to tell me what that means—and be merciful and meek and pure in heart, then God will bless me.” Willard continues:

In the Beatitudes and the “woefuls,” then, Jesus refutes, from the vantage point of the Kingdom, human generalizations about who is certainly unblessable and who certainly “has it made.” The Beatitudes are not a list one must be on in order to be blessed, nor is the blessing they announce caused by the condition specified in those said to be blessed. Poverty, for example, whether in spirit or in pocketbook, is not the cause or reason for blessedness—entry into the Kingdom of God is the reason, as The Teacher explicitly stated. In these teachings Jesus lays his axe to the root of the off-center human value center and proclaims irrelevant those factors the world uses in deciding who is or is not well off. To see riches and poverty for what they are we must stand firmly within the Kingdom view of well-being. The essential point can be put into one shocking statement: under the rule of God, the rich and the poor have no necessary advantage over each other with regard to well-being or well-doing in this life or the next. (p. 208)

All are equal at the foot of the cross.

We've had 2,000 years to learn this way of the cross, and we still struggle.

In Searching for God Knows What, Donald Miller talks about how, “as Christians, we might be obsessed with whether or not we appear cool to the world.” As an example, he tells of how he and his friend went to a Christian bookstore and were unable to find any discs with an ugly musician on the cover. He continues:

You can try the same experiment if you like. And I don't mean any of this to say that good-looking people are bad. I would actually like to be a good-looking person one day. I am only saying we are, perhaps, even more obsessed, in the church, with the stuff culture is obsessed with. We are hardly providing an alternative worldview. The mantra seems to be “Trust Jesus! He will redeem you to the world.”

The examples get worse. A friend told me recently he volunteered at a church only a mile from my house. This is a large church with a successful television ministry. He said his job was to usher everyone to their seats, and that after he had been on the job for a while, he was asked to put some of the more “pleasant-looking people” on the front rows as these people were more likely to be caught in the picture when the camera pulled out on the audience, or when the preacher walked down from the stage to make a point. (p. 210-211)

I know that there are churches that do things like this.

There are churches whose people target others like themselves, people of a certain socioeconomic class, and they spend big bucks building up their facilities and programs, and I know that facilities and programs can be good even when they're expensive, but sometimes I'm afraid it's just us trying to get position and respect, us thinking, “Blessed are the wealthy.”

Within a church, we gravitate to people like us, people having the same race and socioeconomic class and theological beliefs, because we think we're right, and we think we're blessed.

We think, “Blessed are those who do not mourn,” so we don't get close to suffering. We don't want to get our hands dirty. We start to think that “serious Christians will never have serious problems” and “God will never give you more than you can handle,” instead of facing suffering head-on, of being able to say with Paul, “we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (2 Cor 1:8-9).

Instead of saying, “Blessed are the meek,” we jockey for position and respect—we assert political power, and we try to get a Christian in the White House, and we force politicians to play up their spiritual lives if they want us to vote for them. Instead of saying, “Blessed are the persecuted,” we stand up for our rights and wage culture wars and form the Christian equivalent of the ACLU to file lawsuits against any whiff of persecution.

In my own life, I confuse the blessings I want with the blessings of the way of the cross. I want the blessing of health for my family and me, but God instead teaches contentment and faithfulness. I want the blessing of answers for my doubts and questions, but God instead teaches trust in him.

And I know that programs and facilities and church growth strategies and political involvement and health and answers can all be good and necessary things, but I also know how easily these overlap with our naive views of blessedness, with thinking that God's just like us but bigger, and I know how easily these can go against the Beatitudes, the reversals of the kingdom of God, everything being equal at the foot of the cross.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Nonnatural Praise

This was written one evening in June from a hotel room in Chattanooga.

“I love nature.” That's my five-year-old daughter's serene statement upon seeing some piece of the environment, even if it's as small as a wildflower. I tend to agree with her. Whether it's strolling through a greenway in my hometown or taking a hike in the Smoky Mountains or watching the surf on one of my once-a-decade trips to the beach, I enjoy God's creation, and I'm thankful for it.

There are no shortage of psalms and poems and songs echoing this sentiment, from contemporary songs like Steve Green's “Symphony of Praise” and Satellite Soul's “Equal to the Fall” to classic hymns like “Fairest Lord Jesus” and “How Great Thou Art” and all the way back to ancient psalms like Psalm 104 and Psalm 148. However, as C.S. Lewis points out in Reflections on the Psalms, there's a difference between the ancient nature poetry of the Psalms and our more contemporary expressions of our appreciation of nature. When we talk about nature, we're talking about it in contrast to the urban lives that most of us lead; when the ancients talk about nature, they're talking about their world, like a fish in water.

There is, in fact, very little material that I'm aware of that expresses appreciation for the nonnatural world of cities and civilizations – the work of humans, as opposed to the natural world of Creation around us. This is even a bit of a false dichotomy; humans are a part of Creation, and cities and civilization and culture are a carrying out of God's first commandment (Gen. 1:28), so surely God can be praised for humanity and its works just as he can be praised for the mountains, oceans, plants, and animals.

What would such praise look like, I wonder?

Praise God for the strength of the steel and concrete that towers above me and that can support me as solidly as the ground.

Praise God for the God-given ingenuity and skill that went into every aspect of my car, from the hundreds of tiny explosions a second that propel it down the road to the cupholder that gives me a place to keep my coffee while I drive.

Praise God for the splashes of nature that we've placed to brighten our cities: the trees, the parks, the birds singing overhead.

Praise God for the music that spills out into the streets from restaurants and performers. (Except maybe for the country music in the bar I walked past tonight. I have trouble praising God for country music.)

Praise God for the hundreds of people that I pass, each one made in God's image, each one either my brother or sister or a soul desperately needing Christ.

Praise God for the thousands of office and apartment and hotel windows and the thousands of tales behind them, each one as important to God as my own.

Praise God for the beauty which we can create, which we scatter across city as statues and architecture and murals, as a tiny reflection of God's littering the universe with beauty and creativity and wonder.

Praise God for the dozens of businesses that I pass; although business is often distorted by greed or reduced to drudgery, it is, at its core, all about serving other people's needs, and serving each other is a big part of why we are on earth.

Praise God for our ability, in spite of the Fall, to fill the earth and subdue it, so that I am blessed to live the lifestyle that I do. (I'm particularly thankful for the Internet and indoor plumbing.)

Praise God for the glow of mercury and phosphor and tungsten that banishes darkness.

Praise God for the incredible variety of culture of a city – Thai cuisine and Italian ice cream and sushi and symphonies and used bookstores and art museums – and the knowledge that this is just a small fraction of what we'll be able to enjoy in heaven, where “every tribe and language and people and nation” will live forever (Rev 5:9).

“All creation, come praise the name of the Lord” (Psalm 148:13, CEV).

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Glory of Play

Toy Story 3 is a fantastic movie, but its opening is very surprising for followers of the series. Instead of taking place in Andy's bedroom, it takes place in a desert. Instead of friendship, there's a struggle between good and evil. Instead of low-key play, there's high-stakes action. Spaceships! Force fields! Car chases! Children in peril! A race against the clock!

Then the scene changes, and you realize that it was Andy's room all along, and we were simply seeing the same toys and the same play that we've seen the whole series. In fact, many of the scene's details (“Force field dog! Dr. Porkchop!”) are identical to Toy Story 1. The difference is one of perspective. Previously, we've had the perspective of uninvolved observers; now, we see what it's like to be a kid.

As an opening scene, it's undeniably effective. It's exciting and high-action, and the unexpectedness of seeing the toys outside of the “real world” grabs your attention as you wait to see how the situation is explained. More than that, though, the opening scene is a celebration of childhood enthusiasm and wonder and imagination and of the friendship between Andy and his toys – a celebration of play. It's particularly appropriate for Toy Story 3 to open by showing the toys at their best, exulting in play, before the story moves along and Andy necessarily grows up and passes into another stage of life.

My children are fairly typical 21st century American kids. They like to watch TV, sometimes a bit too much. They like their video games. They have more toys than they strictly need. Sometimes they bicker with each other. For the past month or so, though, they've been playing a game they made up called Pokétown, based on their Pokémon toys. They play for hours, almost without argument, collaborating on the story and universe that they're creating. Although it started as a game involving their Pokémon toys, the Pokémon have since made allies with MegaBloks, Littlest Pet Shop, Happy Meal toys, and more. There have been plenty of battles, since that's what Pokémon do, but that's not all. The characters have bought homes and started businesses. They've met creatures ranging from space pirates to a community of sewer bugs (all named Fred) to the Council of Dragons. They've explored land, sea and space and have survived plane crashes and shipwrecks. There have been shifting allegiances and heroic sacrifices. Their home city was destroyed in an epic battle, and they've recently finished rebuilding. They've battled the Big Bad, who just last week was revealed to be a renegade Guardian of the Universe. In our suburban house's bedrooms and playroom, the kids have played out a storyline every bit as epic as a Pixar animated blockbuster. And I know that my kids aren't the only ones who play this way; similar stories of enthusiasm and wonder and imagination are made up and played out in playgrounds and basements and bedrooms across the world.

I'm often invited to join my kids' games. I've often said no: either I'm too busy, or I'm too tired, or I'm too stressed, all from the other commitments that I've allowed to enter my life and the worries that I've allowed to wear down my mind. Like Andy in Toy Story 3, I've moved on, and play – the freeform, imaginative kind, as opposed to plopping down in front of a video game – no longer comes naturally to me, and because of the decisions I've made in the commitments I've accepted and the respite I've neglected and the stressors I've permitted, it's too hard to do what comes unnaturally.

In Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton writes,

Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

Chesterton is reacting against the naturalistic worldview that was popular in his day (and to some extent in ours): the belief that all of nature and humanity follows deterministic scientific laws, so that every event is predetermined by the cause and effect of what preceded it, so it's as if “nothing ever happened since existence had happened.” (Some grown-ups' daily routines seem almost as monotonous.) To counter this, Chesterton suggests that maybe the earth rotates every day and seeds grow into flowers every time because God thinks it's fun, because he approaches the entire cosmos with the enthusiasm and wonder and imagination and creativity that Andy shows in Toy Story 3 or that my children show in Pokétown.

Of course, it's more accurate to say that Andy and my kids reflect the enthusiasm and wonder and imagination and fun of God. Chesterton's idea at first seems rather whimsical – fanciful words from a master writer, but little more – but then I read about how Christ actively sustains creation (Col 1:17, Heb 1:3) instead of winding it up like some cosmic watch eons ago and leaving it to run, and I read about how happy God is with the universe he created (Gen 1:31) and the people he formed (Zeph 3:17), and I read about how the universe celebrates God (1 Chron 16:31-33), and I think that maybe Chesterton is on to something.

I want to celebrate God's creativity in the universe with the same joy that Chesterton shows. I give thanks for the reflection of this aspect of God's nature in my children's play. I want to reflect more of that enthusiasm and wonder and imagination in my own life. And I want to accept their invitation the next time they ask me to join them.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Software Requirements

My day job as a software developer keeps me busy. Some jobs have the occasional lull or slow season, but it seems that in software development, there are always backlogged feature requests to work through, bugs to investigate, tooling to enhance, new techniques to practice. Therefore, while reading More About Software Requirements, I was surprised and somewhat dismayed to see the author argue that, on top of everything else I'm trying to do, I need to spend more time gathering software requirements (finding out and documenting what exactly people want the software to do). The author apparently anticipates objections, because he immediately adds, “High-quality requirements also ensure that the development team works on the right problem… Wasting less time implementing the wrong functionality accelerates the project” (p. 23-24). Having too much to do is bad, but spending time solving the wrong problems and working on the wrong functionality is even worse.

Of course, software development isn't the only field that faces the pitfall of being productive at doing the wrong things. Approaches such as pretotyping and the Lean Startup tackle this problem for innovators and businesses in general. But while businesses continue to look for ways to avoid the trap of spending time on the wrong things, doing the same in my personal life is at least as hard.

Once I get home from my day job, there's no shortage of things to do – a meal to help with, kids to put to bed, lunches to pack for the next day, and TV or computer games to relax and unwind. It's easy to not make time for prayer and devotions. Michael Mack writes,

Joel Comiskey’s survey of more than 700 small group leaders in eight countries revealed that the biggest factor in their “success” was not their gender, social status, education, personality type, or skills. Rather, it was the leader’s devotional life. He found that those who spent 90 minutes or more in devotions (prayer, Bible study, etc.) a day multiplied their groups twice as much as those who spent less than 30 minutes. Comiskey says the correlation is logical. “During quiet times alone with the living God, the leader hears God’s voice and receives His guidance.”

I don't know how to have ninety minutes a day for prayer and devotions along with everything else I try to do at home, but Mack and Comiskey report that that time makes a difference. Having too much to do is bad, but spending time on the wrong thing – by not taking the time to hear God's voice and receive his guidance – is even worse.

I was surprised to read Paul S. Williams, one of the editors for Christian Standard, say that he spent close to twenty hours preparing a single week's sermon. He seemed to consider this insufficient. I wondered if this was a fluke or an outlier, so I asked the preacher at my local church, and he said he spends close to that as well. (This kind of time investment isn't unique to the pulpit; Nancy Duarte, author of Slide:ology, estimates that a good presentation can take 36 to 90 hours to put together.) It's hard to imagine spending half of the work week for a single half-hour talk. How can you do that and still have time to do everything else that needs to be done during the week? On the other hand, that single half hour is the one opportunity that the preacher has to reach almost everyone in the church, to preach the Word and to convey its power to people's lives.

Having too much to do is bad, but spending time on the wrong thing – by not being in God's Word and making the most of an opportunity to impact others' lives – is even worse.

For much of my life, I've thought that making the most of time (Eph 5:16) was more or less synonymous with good time management: practicing discipline and efficiency with hours and minutes, avoiding obvious traps such as excessive leisure or sloth. But there's more to it than that. Good time management is valuable (as long as it doesn't become legalistic), but by itself, it doesn't save you from spending time on the wrong things.

There's an old joke about a wealthy man who can't bear the thought of leaving his wealth behind at his death. So, after considerable time and effort, he finally finds a way that he can take it with him. He shows up at the pearly gates with a suitcase full of gold bullion and asks St. Peter if he can take it in. “Well, okay,” replies St. Peter, “but why are you carrying pavement?”

I don't particularly struggle with materialism, so I don't plan on imitating this wealthy man. However, if I'm honest with myself, a lot of my life is focused on productivity (completing the next project milestone at work, marking the next item off my to-do list at home) or entertainment (catching up on my current TV series, reaching the next level in a computer game). What if, when I reach the pearly gates and tell St. Peter of all that I've accomplished, he replies, “Well, okay, but we have all the power in the universe up here, so if those tasks were all that important, we would have done them ourselves”? Or what if, when I review how I've spent my time, St. Peter replies, “Well, okay, but we have joy eternal up here, so why did you worry so much about consuming temporary entertainments on earth?”

Having too much to do is bad, but spending too much time on the temporary and the unimportant is worse. I pray that I can spend my time on relationships with God and people, instead of merely on my own agenda; on serving, instead of merely on productivity; on enjoying all of God's gifts, instead of merely on entertainment.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Prayer Will Make the Sick Person Well

We had a healing service at our church this week.

To fully appreciate this, you have to understand that the kind of church I usually go to doesn't really do healing services. In fact, in a display of the denominational snobbery that so often affects Christendom, a lot of us would probably look askance at the kinds of churches that do do healing services. But James 5:14-15 says that “if anyone among you is sick, let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well.” And my wife is sick, so when our senior minister offered to have the elders pray for my wife, we accepted. (To be fair, he never referred to it as a healing service, but when James 5 was quoted, that's where my thoughts immediately went.)

My wife has a couple of chronic health issues, but lately her health has been particularly bad. She's had maybe three weeks total of good days spread out over the last eight months. Her spirit is worn down enough that she's almost afraid to leave the house for fear that something will go wrong with her body and ruin whatever activity or errand she was planning. My kids and I bear some of the cost too, as we go through daily life without my wife and their mother able to participate with us and as we cover for daily tasks when she's unwell. As far as health problems go, it could be a lot worse. No one's going to die. But we're weary.

The service was a small affair: just my wife and I, our kids, the senior minister, and two elders. No anointing with oil was involved. Maybe that means it wasn't really a healing service. I don't know if the service worked or not; there was, at least, no immediate improvement in my wife's health.

This is the second healing service I've been to. At the first one, a little over ten years ago, my future wife was healed of crippling shoulder pain.

We did anoint with oil that time. Maybe that's why it worked.

My wife was not the only person for whom we prayed for healing ten years ago. For the second person, however, it did not work, and he had to resort to major surgery and a lengthy recovery period.

It is, of course, incredibly presumptuous to talk about whether or not requests for God's help “worked” as if the sole criteria of their value is the degree to which we get our immediate wants met.

While driving my family to the healing service this past Sunday, I was surprised to find within myself a somewhat vehement opposition to the idea. Over the past eight months, I've learned to some degree to live with my circumstances. I don't like them, but I'm becoming resigned to them. But once we start talking about James 5's promise of healing, that opens the door for hope, and hope opens the door for disappointment.

I don't want more disappointment.

In my head, I believe that God can do anything he wants, including healing those for whom we pray. As I look at the world around me, though, it seems that God rarely choses to do so. I can't point to a book, chapter, and verse of Scripture that says this; it's merely my observation over the last thirty-plus years of my life as I watch the prayers, lives, and deaths of people around me. Jesus says that, when we pray, we need to believe that we have already received it (Mk 11:24). How do I do this, when I think that odds are that God won't grant certain prayers? (Talking about the odds of God doing something is almost as presumptuous as talking about whether or not asking for his help “worked.”)

I'm not sure how to live in this tension, of believing that I've already received while understanding that I may never receive, of believing that God can act and hoping that he will act while accepting without disappointment or bitterness when he doesn't. I know all the church explanations for why a good God permits bad things to happen – the fallenness of the world, his decision to grant us free will, and so on. On top of all of these good church explanations, I have all of my own answers to the question of why God doesn't always act – how God is more interested in our spiritual growth than our physical comfort, how we shouldn't presume to know reasons why, how life is often more about being faithful in the midst of problems rather than solving problems, how Jesus' resurrection and the promise of heaven offers an ultimate solution that's far better than a temporary physical fix, how Kierkagaard's story of the king and the humble maiden helps explain why God limits his power. But how do I know that all of these answers and all of my thinking and explaining and writing and all of my words are true seekings after God's ways instead of merely rationalizations, intellectual barriers that I've built to protect myself from disappointment when God doesn't act, when my wife goes for months without healing?

Bible scholars disagree on why James instructs the elders to anoint with oil. Some scholars point out that oil was commonly used as medicine in those times, so they argue that James is simply saying that, along with prayer, the sick person should seek medical help. “Have the church pray for you, and go see a doctor.” This is easy for us today; Western medicine and technology are impressive, and we sometimes demonstrate more faith in them than in God.

Other Bible scholars argue that James intends anointing with oil as a sort of sacrament or ritual. I don't know how to know which interpretation is correct, and if James did intend it as a ritual, I'm not sure how to explain what purpose (for lack of a better word) that ritual serves. It honestly seems a little odd to me. At the healing service I attended ten years ago, the minister didn't even try to explain it, and I got the impression that it might have seemed a little odd to him too; but we were told to do it, so he did it.

It takes a certain degree of trust to do something without understanding why. There's a certain amount of vulnerability and risk, even if it's just the risk of finding out you made a mistake and looking silly. But it seems to me, in dealing with a God who chooses, for now, to be invisible, who is always beyond our ability to fully understand him and his reasons, that there's always an element of doing something without understanding why. It has to take a certain degree of trust. Maybe that's part of the reason for the oil – to remind us to trust God, to remind us to be vulnerable enough to hope.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Problem Solving

(I wrote this a couple of years ago. Some of the examples are out of date.)

Much of my job as a software developer consists of solving problems. If there's a request for a new feature, we implement it. If there's a tricky design issue, we resolve it. If there's a bug, we fix it. If a customer calls with a problem, we not only solve the problem, we try to figure out how to make sure that the problem never recurs. And, in case I ever feel like I'm not solving problems well enough, there are countless blog posts, books, articles, techniques, and methodologies on how to do it faster, easier, or better. In my professional life, problems exist only to be solved as quickly and efficiently as possible.

It struck me while listening to prayer requests at church one evening how many of the problems that people brought up simply could not be solved. The lady with ALS? Unless a miracle occurs, she's not going to get better. That man's unbelieving spouse? If the past is any indication, she's never going to change. If she does change, it will be because of the Holy Spirit and because of an act of her will, not because her husband applies the proper problem-solving techniques. The couple's son who's in Afghanistan? There's a good change he'll be okay, but thousands of other American soldiers haven't been. In our personal lives, often the best we can do is to remain faithful in the midst of our problems – keep doing right, remain thankful, and keep trusting in God's goodness, whatever unsolvable and sometimes heartbreaking problems are around us.