Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Are you religious?

Here's a weird story to start things off. Hal Johnson has a blog and makes comments here regularly. He's a guy I only know online, so our friendship is 100% virtual, in a sense. Yet I've been able to meet some of my internet friends in real life and it's always a seamless transition, so at the same time I realize that my friendship with Hal is 100% real, even if we've never shaken hands or eaten a meal together.

Anyway, on Hal's site is a section called "Frequent Landing Sites", a set of links to other blogs he enjoys. He was kind enough to add mine to his list and for a long time it read "Megaloi -- a religious Houston dad with an open mind." At some point he changed the word "religious" to "spiritual". Now his blogroll continues to grow so he's run out of room for descriptions altogether.

I was thinking about the change from "religious" to "spiritual" the other day (Hal and I never talked about it) and clicked on another link in his list. It took me to a lady's blog, and her post that day was about the difference between religion and spirituality. Whoa. Gave me the booboojeebies. So I figured I should write about it.

The word "religion" doesn't show up much in most English translations of the bible. One of its appearances is in the book of Acts, when Paul is in Athens trying to introduce the tenets of Christianity to a population who embraced the philosophy of Plato and created idols to many diverse gods. He stood up in the midst of a council and said, "Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious!" (Acts 17:22).

He goes on to give a very sophisticated, eloquent speech to a group of highly intellectual people. Underneath it all is the gentle reproach that while these people were great thinkers, they'd missed the true path of spiritual fulfillment. A man named Jesus had shown the way but this group of philosophers were too busy debating existentialism to notice. It's a pretty cool speech.

The Greek word that is translated to "very religious" is "deisidaimonesterous". It's a big word, big enough to have three root words buried inside it:

1) Deido -- to fear or show reverence to
2) Daimon -- deities or bad spirits
3) Stereos -- firmly

In other words, Paul was saying that these guys "dread demons". Yikes! I mean, most sane people probably dread demons, but hopefully that isn't the primary motivating factor in our lives. The Athenians were so worred about it that Paul noted their "idol to an unknown God". You know, just to cover their bases and make sure no gods were missed. They feared retribution from any god not served correctly.

I wonder if most Christians are really any different than the Athenians in that regard. One of the saddest stories I've ever heard was about my own great aunt. She passed away several years ago after a lifetime of serving others and serving God. She taught hundreds of students in the World Bible School program, gave food to the hungry, etc...

Yet on her deathbed, she mentioned that she "hoped she'd done enough" to get to heaven. I am simply heartbroken that this crossed her mind at a time like that. I've heard countless sermons about how Christians can rest assured of our salvation and trust in God, yet those are usually followed with warnings about how easy it is to slip away into sin and be removed from the grace of God. No wonder people are afraid! And for a sweet, sweet family member to be in fear as her life ebbed away... tragic.

If fearing God is what it means to be religious, then no, I don't qualify. I am certainly spiritual, but maybe not religious, so perhaps Hal was right to change his description of me. Yes, I know that Proverbs says that "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge", but I've also learned that fear is not an effective motivator for a healthy, generous life. At least not for me.

The word for "spirit" in the bible is usually "pneuma" in Greek. Pneuma can also mean breath or wind. I like that. So maybe a spiritual person is like someone who notices the wind, an invisible force that is always working and always impacting the world around us. You can't see it, but you can see the effects of it.

That's more my style.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

True north -- a metaphor from my strange brain

I've been told over and over again that I am a strange thinker. From schoolteachers to colleagues to friends and family, people say that I just don't think like "everybody else".

Here's something I've been thinking about lately.

True North

Whether we're navigating an ocean liner or driving to the grocery store, any type of travel requires some sense of direction. If you want to actually reach your destination, at least.

We've built our maps based on the idea that north is "up". It's a standard across every map we have. It's a useful standard, one that can give everybody the same information to work from. And north always points to the north pole of our planet (true north, with a latitude of zero). There's also a "magnetic north" that's not actually at the north pole, but that's not important right now. Back to the metaphor.

We've arranged our maps with north as a standard direction. This also provides us with a reference point to figure out south, west, east, etc...

Yet I don't think there's any great debate over whether our planet's north is also north for the universe. Heck, we don't even talk about directional standards for our solar system or galaxy, let alone the whole universe. It's too big, it's expanding rapidly and rotating on itself... the very fabric of space is curved! How do you pick a single point and call it "north" in a curved space? We don't bother. And even if we picked a directional standard, we can't really prove it's the "right" one anyway. We haven't seen the whole universe yet.

The concept of North is for our own planet, and with that standard we can drive to the library or use a satellite in orbit to take a picture of a house. It's amazing what we can accomplish once we all agree on a standard. Yet we know that the universe doesn't answer to our little human standard. North is useful here, and that's enough for planet-bound people like us.

The application

The vast, vast majority of religious debate is about concepts that we cannot prove in any way whatsoever. Debates about life after death or biblical inerrancy -- impossible to resolve. Ever.

Those are big-picture, universal issues that are far beyond us. If it was possible to get some sort of agreement and resolution on those things, we'd at least be headed in that direction, right? And where is Christianity? Fragmented into thousands of denominations due to disagreements over unsolvable mysteries.

I've given that up. I have no idea where "true north" is on a universal level when it comes to God. I don't know if Christians, Buddhists, Hindus or Mormons are closer to the universal truth. I can't even prove God exists at all, much less if it's a He or She or how it feels about using musical instruments in a church building. I've let all that stuff go.

Instead, I'm focused on what's useful. Here. In this life. Even if we can't agree on the universal truths, can the religious community still make progress toward a common direction for our little planet? Some principles or concepts that transcend culture and denomination? That's what I seek.

My True North is compassion and unconditional grace. My West is the realization that we are all connected to each other. My East is the desire to make the world a better place in my own tiny way while having fun. My South is the unflinching assertion that I'm no better, and no more valuable, than any other human being alive or dead.

I can live with these. I can navigate this life with principles like that. They're useful, and I know that they're useful because I've seen how those principles are changing me.

Doctrines and creeds never changed me like that, so I've quit trying them on. They don't fit.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Open letter on the "whiting store" email chain

I've received this email several times over the past few months. Here it is in case you haven't seen it:




This sign was prominently displayed in the window of a business in Whiting, Indiana. You are probably outraged at the thought of such an inflammatory statement.
However, we are a society which holds Freedom of Speech as perhaps our greatest liberty.

And after all, it is just a sign.
You may ask what kind of business would dare post such a sign.

Answer: Owen's Funeral Home
(Who said morticians had no sense of humor?)
You gotta love it!!!

God Bless America

It's obviously not true and has been making the rounds on the internet in a few different forms for a long time now. Sometimes it's 1,000 Iraqis vs. 1 Jew, for example. But the point is the same.

I agree that the email includes a very inflammatory statement, but for me, that statement is the punch line. The bit about "sense of humor" and "you gotta love it". Yeah, killing thousands of people is downright hilarious.

Every time I've received this email it's been from a professed Christian. Maybe they're not all the same denomination, maybe they don't agree on worship style or even the deity of Jesus, but they use the label Christian all the same. So here's my request:

If you call yourself a Christian and have gotten a kick out of this email, and maybe even forwarded it to others, I'd like to ask you to consider something. If you call yourself a Christian, then I assume you like Jesus Christ. His recorded teachings, his behavior, his kindness... these are traits I'll assume you aspire to. Then please consider this:

Would Christ laugh at the thought of thousands of people dying?

Would Christ value any person's life over another person's, based on race, religion or even past deeds?

Would Christ assign a high value to nationalism?

I personally don't think he would. But you have to decide for yourself.

To me, the email has exactly the same attitude as the Al-Qaeda terrorists. It's just on the other side of the conflict. The only difference between the email writer and a terrorist is which country they were born into, and which cultural heritage they picked up.

The email disappoints me. It infuriates me. It embarasses me.

We should do better.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Thing I wonder...

#1 -- Nerd physics stuff

A buddy at work was leaving the office at the same time as me, so we walked together to the parking lot. There was a slight drizzle and he mentioned that if we walked faster we'd just get more wet. I laughed and agreed, then we parted ways to our cars. But my mental gears had just begun, and the following wonderment went through my head...

Well, would I get wetter in the rain if I walked faster? Yes, I guess when you speed up in your car more water hits the windshield, and you have to turn the wiper speed up. So yes, I'd get wetter. Horizontal velocity increases the number of drops that hit you.

But that's only wetter per second, not necessarily wetter from point A to point B. If I walked really slowly I wouldn't get wet as quickly, but I'd be in the rain a lot longer. Overall I'd probably be more wet when I got to my car. So would it be best for me to sprint to my car? I'd get quite a bit of rain on me in just a few seconds, but then it'd be over.

Hmmm... it depends on the rate of rainfall, I guess, because there's also the potential for evaporation off my clothes. If I sprint, there's no time for droplets to hit me and then dry. If I walk, I get more total drops on me but some of them will be dry by the time I reach my car...

But really, who sprints in a drizzle anyway? I don't want to be that guy. I'll just walk.

I'm betting he wasn't having the same internal monologue.

#2 -- Driving stuff

I've only owned two automobiles in the past 12 years: a Honda Accord and a Dodge Intrepid. Both apparently are stealth models, with engines and tires that make absolutely zero noise. Because no pedestrian ever, ever seems to notice when I'm driving on the street and they walk right in front of me. Sometimes they just stand there, inches in front of my hood with their backs turned. Can they not hear me? Stealth models. My cars are awesome.

Another thing I wonder is about drivers in general. I would say that the vast majority of us spend the vast majority of our time driving on roads we're already familiar with. Think about it. Isn't most of your driving time taken up with areas that you know pretty well? So why is that everywhere I go, all the drivers seem like they don't have a freaking clue where they're going or what they're doing? They can't tell which lanes are turn-only lanes, which lanes close ahead (even after the third warning sign), and which lane has had a big pothole for six months. Don't act like you've never seen it before and then swerve into my lane to avoid the pothole. We both know you drive this route everyday. I wonder if they're all new to Houston, or just idiots?

#3 -- Radio stuff

I'm aware that there are certain words that can't be uttered on the main radio stations. George Carlin's "filthy words" monologue sums up the list pretty well.

I wonder why ZZ Top gets a free pass? Three times in the past month I've heard their classic song "Legs" on the radio. Not always on the same station. It's an undeniably romantic ballad, evidenced by the phrase "She's got hair down to her fanny" in the first verse. Gets me all teary.

Anyway, the last line of the song includes the words "Oh I want her, shit I've got to have her." Intense words, no doubt. I feel where they're coming from. But why does that always avoid an edit on the radio? It's always played loud and clear.

I wonder if the censors don't realize what ZZ Top is saying? It's pretty easy to understand. I looked up the lyrics online and about half the websites list the line as "said I've got to have her." Dummies. Listen to the song again.

I'm not a fan of censorship in general and am certainly not a prude when it comes to language. I'm not offended by the S-bomb. I just can't figure out why it gets through the radio censors on this one song, but no others.

And that's the kind of stuff I wondered about this week.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Fight or flight -- the real thing

It was the week of Christmas, 2003, and we were in Kansas City visiting my parents for the holiday. Samantha had just turned 1yo, and in essence it was her first real Christmas. She was an infant the previous year and we didn't really celebrate that one -- just crashed at home with Jamie recovering from a life-threatening surgery. A story for another time.

This year Samantha and Jamie were healthy and we were enjoying a week in KC with my family. It was cold, as KC should be that time of year. Felt like Christmas! My dad took most of the week off work to be with us (Samantha was the first grandchild, and those can be kind of a big deal).

One day my dad needed to make a quick stop in to his office, so we decided to tag along and let him showoff Samantha. Good decision -- his employees had a blast meeting her, and I always love visiting people's workplaces. It gives me more empathy and vision for how people spend their day. I hadn't been to dad's office in a while so it was good to update my vision.

As we left the office, dad needed to stop by the specialty meat store to pickup our brisket and chicken that had been cooking for more than a day. He parked the car, got out and went inside the store. I was in the passenger's front seat, and Jamie and Samantha were in the back seat together, with Samantha in her car seat behind the driver, and Jamie in the middle.

I was looking back and talking to them when Jamie's eyes opened wide and she said, "Michael, he's got a gun!" I turned to see a hooded figure creeping around the corner of the convenience store, right next to the meat store. Approximately 30 feet in front of us, and we were the only car around. He looked to be around 5'8", skinny. He was wearing dark blue jeans and a grey hooded sweatshirt, with the hood up and closed tight around his face. Sure enough, there was a gun in his right hand. He was crouched around the side of the building and was slowly working his way around to the front door of the convenience store. Then he ducked low, opened the door and ran inside.

My dad had been walking back to the car and was on his cellphone, and he had just reached the driver's side door. I jumped out of my door and hurriedly looked over the top of the car and said, "Dad, hang up and call 911! That store is being robbed at gunpoint right now!"

To his credit he only took about one second to register my unexpected statement. Then we both heard a loud noise and turned our heads to the front of the car. The robber had just run out of the building, waving his gun and shouting. He was running right at us. I couldn't understand what he was yelling about. Something was going to go down in the next five seconds.

I glanced at my dad, ready to follow his lead. If he jumped into the car, I would too. His vehicle is massive and has 500 horsepower, and it's one of the handful of models that KC police have been instructed not to pursue in a high-speed chase. It's a good car for getting away fast. But did we have enough time for that?

If he stayed put or made a move at the robber, I would too. We could close the gap pretty quickly and at least one of us had a good chance to get our hands on him. With our size advantage, adrenaline and a basic understanding of human anatomy, I felt confident we could put him out of commission fairly easily.

Get in the car or go on the offensive. This all went through my head in one to two seconds. Strangely I felt perfectly composed, almost like I was outside of the situation. No fear, but no jumpy excitement either. Just an intense readiness, ready to unleash at the slightest body language from my dad. It was decison time.

Then the robber's words finally came clear and pentrated my brain..."It's not real!" What does that mean? Then I heard, "It's a toy gun! It's not real! It's a joke!"

Good grief. It was a teenager playing a prank on his buddy who worked the cash register at the convenience store. I guess he didn't think about witnesses who might not understand the joke. Witnesses who could possibly injure or kill him when mistaking him as a dangerous criminal.

Idiot. We didn't even talk to him, we just got in the car and drove off. This was around noon, and I was still hyped up on adrenaline at dinner that night. It never had an outlet like it was expecting.

I was glad it was a false alarm. Yet I still had the opportunity to learn some things:

1) Even though I'm an adult, my dad is still my dad. Yes, he had the car keys so it was natural that I would defer to his judgment in our crisis situation, but that wasn't the whole story. I was following his lead because he was my dad.

2) Cliches aside, the father-protecting-his-family response is more powerful than I possibly imagined. Totally different feeling that my fights in high school. My own safety wasn't even a consideration this time, and this didn't make me special. It was natural. I can no more take credit for that than I could take credit for having red hair. The protective response is supposed to be autonomic, and I had discovered that mine was perfectly functional. Good to know.

3) Even though my body was amped up, my mind stayed calm and logical. Everything slowed down and I was able to think through my options and weigh them. Again, a natural response I can't take credit for or brag about, but something good to know. It's an assurance in the deep recess of my brain that if something crazy happens, I probably won't freak out and be useless to my family.

4) Teenagers are dumb.