Friday, December 31, 2010

My ten favorite movie viewings from 2010

With three young kids at home, Jamie and I don't get out much. And when we do, it's usually not to sit in the dark and be quiet to watch a movie in the theaters. So of my 10 favorite movie viewings for this year, only two of them were at the theater! The rest were on DVD thanks to Netflix, which is a great source of entertainment and education for us.

Without further ado, my top 10 viewings from this year, in ascending order, and with a sample quote from each:

10) American Splendor (2003) -- a biopic about Harvey Pekar, a regular Joe file clerk who got a short stint of fame in the 80s as a comic book author, and made multiple appearances on Letterman. The coolest thing about this movie was the style: part movie, part documentary, part animated film and it all blended together in exactly the right tone to sum up a very interesting man.

Quote: "We are going to get through this. I understand illness. I know how to handle these things."

9) Avatar (2009) -- we saw this one at the movies (in 3D, no less!) in January and loved the experience. Yes, the story is copied from dozens of other tales, but we got caught up in its magic, its setting, and its heart.

Quote: "It is decided. My daughter will teach you our ways. Learn well, "Jakesully", and we will see if your insanity can be cured. "

8) Doubt (2008) -- perfect title to a movie that causes you to wonder which side to be on, which characters to root for, and in the end answers none of it. It's not your typical Hollywood tale wrapped up with a bow on it with comfortable closure, but it's powerhouse acting that touches on themes such as theology, sexuality, trust and power.

Quote: "Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty. When you are lost, you are not alone. "

7) Eastern Promises (2007) -- if you'd never seen Viggo Mortensen before as an actor, you'd never believe he wasn't actually a Russian tough guy after seeing this film. It's typical Cronenberg style and the story arc is almost identical to a previous film also starring Viggo (History of Violence). But it's his total immersion in this deep and conflicted character that sticks with me months after seeing it.

Quote: "Sentimental value? Ah. I heard of that. "

6) Michael Clayton (2007) -- a real grown-up tale of corporate/legal warfare, family dysfunction and a man who's lost his place in the world. Only one small explosion in the whole thing but it carried more weight than 1,000 Michael Bay-directed bombs. The final scenes are filled with palpable tension and a conclusion that is both satisfying and makes us wish for a sequel.

Quote: "Uncle Timmy- and I mean this- on his best day, he was never as tough as you. And I'm not talking about crying or the drugs. I'm talking about in his heart. You understand me? "

5) O Brother Where Art Thou (2000) -- an exact and hilarious homage to Homer's The Odyssey, with enough catchy music in it to fill your head for months. The only downside is that it sorta felt like a combination of great scenes instead of a cohesive movie, but this is often what you get with the Coen brothers' work.

Quote: "That's not the issue Delmar. Even if that did put you square with the Lord, the State of Mississippi's a little more hard-nosed. "

4) How to Train Your Dragon (2010) -- My other theater viewing for the year, in a daddy/daughter date with Samantha. The amazing effects and visuals were only the surface of a surprisingly heartfelt story about believing in yourself, even if it means going against the grain of your community.

Quote: "Everything we know about you guys is wrong. "

3) Angels in America (2003) -- more of a miniseries, this is an HBO-produced translation of the Tony Award-winning play by Tony Kushner. I went to a speech/reading/Q&A by Kushner and he impressed me so much, I had to see some of his work. This one is a wrenching story of AIDS in New York City in the mid-80s, and doesn't take the easy way out with stereotypes for any of its characters.

Quote: "The white cracker who wrote the National Anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word 'free' to a note so high nobody could reach it."

2) Book of Eli (2010) -- big surprise, as I thought this would be a shallow action flick. I found myself connected to the story of a man with a mission, while also empathizing greatly with the "bad guy". And it had my favorite twist ending of the year.

Quote: "In all these years I've been carrying it and reading it every day, I got so caught up in keeping it safe that I forgot to live by what I learned from it."

1) Ink (2009) -- made on a nothing budget by a husband/wife producer and director team, it was the best bang-for-the-buck movie I've probably ever seen. Granted, its narrative lasers directly at a hard-working, career-pulled, spiritually-minded dad like me, and I recognize that. So your opinions might vary if you saw the movie. But it was far and away my favorite of the year, and perhaps the one on this list I'll actually buy. If you decide to give it a try, please be patient with it and understand that as the viewer you're supposed to be lost for a while, and the story gets clearer and clearer as it goes.

Quote: Sorry, the internet wasn't helpful here! I have a few general quotes in my head but they're surely not exact.

Honorable mentions: Persepolis, Zombieland, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Inglorious Basterds

Disappointments: District 9 (good, but overhyped), Surrogates (when will sci-fi movie producers respect our brains again?), Old Dogs (total paycheck-cashing travesty), The Wrestler (good, but did Mickey Rourke really need to act?)

Sunday, December 05, 2010

The muse departs

No, the ominous title doesn't mean I'm shutting down the blog or anything!

My previously-intended series of writings were being inspired somewhat by seeing what was happening with one of the leaders in my company. Specifically, he was unfortunately the model of what not to do if you want an inspired, effective group of knowledge workers in a 21st Century business. His decisions and his style of leadership were testing me and forcing me to quickly develop a leadership model of my own.

Recently, with no warning, he resigned from the company. A few days later he sold his house and moved out of state. Apparently we won't even be able to speak for a few more weeks while the legal details of his departure are ironed out. Messy.

I'm still working on the big-picture business topics I was thinking about earlier, but now it's not to answer daily crises.

So once again I have been reminded to quit promising a single blog post, let alone a series of posts!

I'm more of a "flow" writer. When it's there, it's fast and easy. When it's not there, forcing it doesn't work.

Be back soon when the flow is there!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Now for something totally different

Jamie has said that when it comes to faith, what I like to do every few years is throw everything into the air -- all my assumptions, worldviews, textual interpretations... -- and then start over and see what I end up with. She's seen me go through this process two or three times and I have to admit she's correct.

Interestingly, though, this type of regular creative destruction has been limited to my theology. I've never done that in other areas of my life. Until now.

I have an advanced business degree from a good school, and finished that degree a decade ago. For most of those 10 years I've flowed through my career without questioning most of the assumptions, worldviews, etc... that came with the curriculum.

Over the past year, however, I've finally put some real effort into my vocation and predictably gained more responsibility as a result. And what I've noticed is, much of my training isn't going to help me in my career. And it may even hinder me.

It's not that my training was wrong; it's just woefully insufficient. This epiphany knocked me over the head as I saw expert after expert fail when following the book on corporate management. The same book I was taught from 10 years ago.

I'm throwing it all up in the air. Starting over. And I'm well into the process of creating my new view of how I want to run a business. And it's incredibly exciting because what I see as the urgent needs in 21st Century corporate America happens to match very well with my own abilities.

I realize this is a very different topic for this blog -- most of the "tribe" who follows here likely comes to read slightly subversive religious ramblings. :)

So I won't stick on this topic long. But I may think this out through the keyboard. And who knows, since most of us work at a job, maybe we can even help each other with how half our waking energy is used Monday through Friday.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Why I think homosexuality is no more of a choice than your skin color

When considering any complicated topic, there are a few different ways I approach it as I try to form my own opinion. In general, I can usually sum up my approaches as:

1) Science/empirical knowledge
2) Logic
3) Personal experience

Where's the bible in this, you might ask? My perception of scripture heavily influences how I look at all three areas above! The text is so rich and so layered that I certainly include it in almost every major decision I make. But you've seen on this blog how I can dive into a passage of scripture and tie myself in knots with in-depth study!

Besides, on this topic (is homosexuality a choice) the bible is silent. So the three points above are what I've used to think about this, and all three approaches lead me to the same opinion.

Quick note before I begin: what I'm talking about here is homosexuality, the sexual and romantic attraction to people of the same sex. I'm not talking about homosexual behavior.

#1 -- Science

This one was pretty easy for me because the studies have been out there for quite a while. I won't cite them or link to them since they're readily available on the internet if you're interested, but there are two that quickly come to mind.

The first is at least 20 years old and was the result of scientists' efforts to better understand fetal development in the womb. Their discovery was that fetuses receive large rushes of hormones from the mother at different points in their development, and the amount of hormones greatly affects the growing fetus. In males, you can even recognize these effects by looking at finger lengths -- if the ring finger is significantly longer than the index finger, then he likely received a large rush of prenatal testosterone. And he's also more likely to be heterosexual. Less testosterone, his fingers are closer in length, and he's more likely to be gay. Sounds like an urban legend but the data supports it.

The second study is on brain anatomy and function. Hypothalamus size has shown to be correlated to sexual preference, and neuroscientists also discovered that gay people use their brains differently when given a mental task. Real-time MRI technology continues to show amazing things every year, and right now it looks clear that homosexual people have brains that look different and work differently from heterosexual brains.

If it's biological, it's not a choice.

#2 -- Logic

Our society has come a long way in dealing with people who used to be seen as "the least of these". Women's rights, minorities' rights, the end of child labor, and on and on... I'm very grateful to live in a country that continues to make a sincere effort to live up to the ideals of our founding fathers (equality and liberty).

But I say with sadness that it is still very difficult to be gay in America. Especially in some areas of the country. The South is notorious for this, and having lived most of my life in the South I can affirm that the reputation has been earned.

I've seen children mocked and brutalized for their sexuality. I've seen teens disowned by their families because they wouldn't "turn straight". I've seen adults cowering in fear that someone might find out about the secret they've been holding inside, terrified, for decades. (See here for a powerful video on this topic).

Who would choose that?

C.S. Lewis used this logic as proof that Jesus' resurrection was real -- he noted that only insane people would give up their lives for a blatant lie, and the disciples were all willing to give up their lives to spread the news of the resurrection. And they weren't insane.

Gay kids are giving up their lives every week in this country. Would they do that if they were faking it, or just to cause trouble?

#3 -- Personal experience

Lab results and news stories are all fine, but sometimes to really dive into a topic you need to put a face to it. A soul to it. You need a friend who is in the middle of the topic, living it.

I have gay friends. Some are single and still searching for a true love; others are partnered and hoping to have the legal right to marry one day. I can't think of any friends who are in a gay marriage, but I do have gay male friends who are currently married to women and are working through this massive challenge.

If they could flip a switch and be sexually attracted to their life partner, and leave behind the temptations to break their vows with men, I'm not sure if they'd do it. Being gay is part of who they are, and to me it's not right to just have them wish it away.

But it brings such turmoil to them on a daily basis. They haven't chosen it, and some of them got married in the hopes that over time the attraction to men would pass. It didn't.

They have faces, and souls, and are some of the most god-loving, respectful men I know. And they didn't choose homosexuality any more than I chose to be attracted to tall brunette women with nice legs and great smiles. My sexual preferences are just part of who I am, and haven't changed since I started becoming aware of them around puberty.

Wrapping it up

You certainly don't have to use my framework of these three approaches to the issue. But if you're starting from scratch and haven't really considered any of this before, you might want to do your own research on the science. You might want to think through the logic of what it means to be homosexual, the price that comes with it, and how Christians should treat them.

And finally, and most important, you might want to be a friend to someone who is gay. God has a way of blowing up our stereotypes and our prejudices one face at a time, and I'm so glad He's done that with me.

Friday, October 08, 2010

The final of five (not appropriate for kids)

Tonight I'll conclude what could have been titled "One more woefully short post about an infinitely complicated topic." To wrap up the week, here's what I think is the #1 most explosive topic facing Churches of Christ in America today: gay marriage.

Note that I didn't say homosexuality. The church has felt pretty secure and unified on that one for a long time. But gay marriage is a first for my congregation, since the CoC wasn't formed until about 200 years ago and has always been concentrated in the US.

For a different take than you might have seen before, let me share my opinion on what this fight over gay marriage is not about, no matter what Christians proclaim:

1) It's not about the sanctity of marriage. Divorce rates are embarrassing in the church, just like they are in American culture at large. If we were really serious about the sanctity of marriage, we'd be doing the basics (more premarital counseling, more mentorship, higher expectations of our peers) and the extreme (looking closer at arranged marriage customs and other worldwide practices that seem to lead to healthier, longer-term relationships than the American model) to protect it.

2) It's not about homosexuality as a whole, because it's not really about lesbianism. Besides the fact that the bible doesn't speak on lesbianism, two women being together just doesn't bring the "ick" factor to many heterosexual male Christians. And it's heterosexual male Christians who lead the way in the Churches of Christ on this issue (because women aren't allowed to serve in leadership capacities, as noted in my previous blog post).

3) It's not about freedom and the role of government. Most Christians in the south (where CoC is most prevalent) are in Republican-leaning states, and are linked with policies about small government and minimal regulatory interference in our personal lives. Dictating whether or not two single, consenting adults can get married is a pretty strong form of interference.

4) It's not about love and relationship. The church is all for relationships built on sacrificial love. A heterosexual couple, a men's fellowship group, a youth group of teenagers... all highly valued forms of social and personal connection treasured by the church. I have grown up greatly blessed by this.

So what's it about? Sex. Sex between men, specifically. To keep this post from being too long, I'll just list two of many reasons why I think the church is on dangerous ground here:

1) Marriage is much more than sex. We're saying that two men can't marry because they will have sex, and that sex might be a sin. So is the sin sodomy? What acts are okay and not okay, even within a marriage bond? Leviticus clearly lists "sex during a woman's cycle" as sin against God, but I've never heard a single sermon or church teaching on the topic.

Why not? Because it's none of the church's business what my spouse and I do behind closed doors to enjoy each other's bodies. Sex is only one part of marriage, and it's private.

2) Marriage is much more than procreation. This break between marriage and procreation happened early in human history, and even early in the Old Testament. King Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines -- the purpose of that had nothing to do with procreation. This was about sex and power, with Solomon the ruler and the women his subjects.

God looked on Solomon, with his 1,000 sex partners and perhaps no true love, and we believe God still accepted him despite the ridiculous gluttony of marriages. Yet there are people today with one partner, a truly loving relationship, and no path to marriage.

So there you go -- my fast opinion on what this debate isn't about, and what it is about. At the cultural level, this debate is already over and every state will have legalized gay marriage during my lifetime. But at the church level, the debate is just beginning and will continue to be a dividing point for decades to come.

May God bless this mess!

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Fourth of five -- the 2nd hottest topic in Churches of Christ

Why not go out with a bang this week? Tonight I'll briefly write about what is probably the 2nd most controversial topic in Churches of Christ (mine and my family's long-time congregation).

The role of women in church services.

That may sound ridiculous to those of you without a deep religious background in your family. And it probably sounds ridiculous to those from other walks of faith as well, but this is hardly just a Church of Christ issue. Catholics, Episcopalians, even Muslims are wrestling mightily with this clash of 21st Century cultural values and much older religous values and traditions.

I won't go into those cultural values... that would take too long. Instead I'd like to consider the writings of Paul that have led to this clash in the first place. Upon a quick reading of our English translations, it appears in his letter to the church of Corinth and in other places that Paul feels women should be silent in church.

More examination complicates matters, as usual. The context of his writings involved a time of pagan worship on a massive scale, which also came with prostitution, drunkenness, loud and chaotic assemblies, and role-reversal (women and men mixing clothes and mannerisms). Each of these topics get addressed in his letter to Corinth -- it appears to me that Paul wants to distinguish Christians from these other groups such as the cult of Dionysus. And 1 Corinthians 11 seems to make it clear that women are indeed allowed to pray and prophesy in worship assembly.

And if you dive into the Greek text, "silence" doesn't seem to be the only translation of Paul's instructions. In 1 Corithians, the word "gentleness" would be equally accurate, and in 1 Timothy... well, the Greek word "authentein" is the word translated as silence, and it appears nowhere else in the entire New Testament.

Perhaps today's church interprets the texts correctly, and women should have been held out of ministry, speaking and worship positions for the past 2,000 years. Or perhaps we have it wrong.

Either way, in my opinion this is one of the top two issues in our church today, in terms of tension and explosive potential. Tomorrow I'll wrap up the week with what I feel is #1.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Third of five -- more hot topics

I figured that since the first two posts went to religion, which is always controversial, we'll move to something easier like politics. Heh.

#3 -- Letter vs. spirit

I doubt God's a Republican or Democrat. I'm sure Jesus was neither since those parties didn't exist, our country didn't exist, and Jesus wasn't recorded to be active politically, which cost him dearly at the hands of all political parties of his day.

So on the letter of the law when it comes to politics, I can't place Jesus in either camp. I think Republicans have it wrong when they say that Jesus is on their side because he's for freedom (he lived in a culture of slavery and his freedom was not of this world). And I think Democrats have it wrong when they say that Jesus would want government to take care of the poor (he said that was up to us).

So forget the letter of the law, let's talk about the spirit. Are Christians people that our society recognizes as reasonable, peaceful and open to political conversations? Outside of the actual content of our discourse, are Christians seen as the types of people willing to extend grace on temporal matters like politics, taxes, etc...?

How we talk about things really is as important as what we say. So even though Jesus isn't a Democrat or Republican, I think I know how he'd talk to a rural farmer, a young minority in prison, an illegal alien or an investment banker.

So that's what I try to do. I fail, of course. Just about every time. But I'm trying!

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Second of five

You dudes rocked in your responses and in being patient with my absence -- thank you!

#2 -- Credit and Blame

In church last Sunday the sermon was about how God is the only source of good things, and we can take no credit for anything good we might do in our lives. It is all God. The scripture was Luke 18:19:

"Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone."

Then later in bible class, the lesson was about how the devil is an easy scapegoat but we are actually the cause of all bad things in our lives, and cannot cast away the blame on Satan. It is all us. The scripture was James 1:14:

"each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and

Which made me wonder -- why do we take none of the credit for the good, yet all of the blame for the bad? Is it possible that our actual contribution to the universe has some of both?

Monday, October 04, 2010

Out of my shell for the first of five

I can finally feel things lifting after what has been the most intense work/career phase I have ever had. Some of it has been good, all of it has been challenging, and although it may not have a "happy" ending I am still grateful because it has given me the chance to grow.

So back to faith/theology and the things that make me tick!

This is the first of five short daily posts I have promised to myself, and to you. If anybody's even got me in their RSS feed anymore, ha.

#1 -- Understanding and Forgiveness

I have noticed that whenever I'm having trouble forgiving someone who has hurt me, the path to forgiveness goes through the town of Understanding. If I can just focus enough on who they are, what they've faced in life, how their personality works, what they're afraid of, what they dream of... eventually I can empathize closely enough to see the world through their eyes.

And in that moment, when I start to understand who they are, I gain clarity on why they do what they do. And I can no longer fault them for it.

So the question is -- do you think God understands us?

Saturday, July 24, 2010

What must I do? An interesting look at the biggest question of all.

For most Christians I've met (and for most people, probably) the crucial question of their life is, "Will I go to heaven?" This is perfectly natural and I'd expect nothing less. If the stakes at hand are trillions of years of bliss vs. trillions of years of torment, you'd better believe that a lot of energy will be expended to make sure we're on the right side of the equation.

Jesus met a rich young man burning up with this question -- what must I do to inherit eternal life? The ensuing discussion is recorded in all the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke), although there are a few differences across the three accounts.

What fascintates me, though, is that Jesus is asked the big question two times, and neither time does he answer with anything resembling how a 21st Century Christian would answer. In fact, he doesn't answer the question at all! He ignores it and instead answers something else entirely. Here, bear with me as I go through it in three parts:

Part 1 -- The First Question

The rich young ruler chased Jesus down, fell on his knees before the rabbi and asked the big question, "Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?" Doesn't get any plainer than that. He's desperate for clarity on how to secure a spot in heaven.

And Jesus' answer couldn't be any muddier. After a sidenote of mentioning that only God is good, he says that if you want to "enter life", then obey the commandments. In the Greek text this is very clearly a rephrasing of the young man's question. Jesus was asked about eternal life, but answered about life in general, completely omitting the mention of heaven. Why would he do that?

The muddiness continues. Jesus tells the man to obey the commandments, and the young man predictably asked which ones. By this time the Pharisees had laid out over 600 commandments based on Mosaic law, split about half and half between "do this" and "don't do this" types of instructions. The rich young ruler knew these very well -- Luke's gospel hints that he was probably a ruler of a synagogue.

This time is Jesus' answer any more predictable? Not really! On the point of which commandments the young man should follow, Jesus gives him some of the Ten Commandments. But the order is all jumbled up and then he throws in a wildcard:

"Do not commit adultery" -- number 6
"Do not murder" -- number 7
"Do not steal" -- number 8
"Do not give false testimony" -- number 9
"Honor your father and mother" -- number 5
"Love your neighbor as yourself" -- not in Moses' commandments, but was called The Greatest Command throughout Jesus' ministry

Notice a pattern in that list? It only includes instructions about our relationships with other people. In other words, the "horizontal" aspect of our faith. The "vertical" aspect, how we respect, worship or speak to God, isn't mentioned.

Jesus also skipped Commandment #10 -- "Do not covet". At this point I have to wonder if it was just to mess with the young man's mind!

Part 2 -- The question repeated

Not to be outmanuevered, the young man tries again, saying he has kept those commandments but he must be lacking something else. Just like all of us, he simultaneously shows great pride ("all these commandments I have kept since my youth") and great insecurity ("what else do I lack?"). We wouldn't be human if we didn't have both. And it is at this point in the story, but only recorded in the gospel of Mark, where my favorite thing happens. Mark says that Jesus looked at the young man and loved him.

And from this place of love, Jesus planned his answer to the simple and heartfelt question -- "what must I do to be saved?".

But again, Jesus didn't quite answer it. Instead, in Matthew's account, he quotes Jesus as, "if you want to be perfect, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven." . The young man walked away crushed, knowing the summit was too high.

But should he have been crushed? Jesus later explains to his disciples that there will be some sort of reward system in heaven, and those who sacrifice much will inherit 100X more than the rest. So was he telling the young man how to get the 100X reward? Or does it really require perfection just to get in the front gate?

Part 3 -- So what's the answer?

In my lifetime I've probably read 30 commentaries on this passage. Most of them say that the moral of the story is along these lines:

-- If you value money over God you won't go to heaven
-- God requires more righteousness than we can imagine, if we are to be saved
-- Only the human part of Jesus loved the young man; the divine nature in Jesus was ready to condem him at his death (this shows up in a surprising number of commentaries)

I don't believe any of those. And I don't see how any of us can draw a conclusion about salvation from the story at all, since Jesus purposely rephrased the big question.

"What must I do to inherit eternal life?"... to have a good earthly life, treat people well and love them.

"What am I lacking for salvation?"... well, if you want to be perfect...

So if you're still reading this lengthy post, I have two questions for you:

1) What do you think is the answer to what we must do to go to heaven?
2) Look at your answer for #1. Why didn't Jesus say this to the rich young man?

Note: I initially overstated Jesus' rephrasing of the young man's second question, and have since fixed it.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

4 lessons I cherish from "Doubting Thomas"

For a long time I've wondered why the disciple Thomas, often referred to as "Doubting Thomas", has such a bad reputation in Christian circles. He only shows up a few times in the bible, and every one of those appearances show him to be somebody I respect and appreciate.

Even with his scant role, there are four key lessons I learn from him:

#1 -- Everybody doubts

Sure, Thomas didn't believe the stories that Jesus had risen from the dead and was walking around Jerusalem once again. But the other disciples didn't believe either! They were hiding out in homes, trying to figure out how and where to start the next chapters of their lives, probably seeing those three years with Jesus as a powerful, fascinating but failed journey.

So all the disciples were in the same boat of doubt -- Thomas was nothing special on that point.

#2 -- Everybody doubts, but not everybody admits it

Ah, here is where Thomas was special. He voiced his doubts boldly. That takes guts!

For some reason our world, including the church, values honesty and integrity very highly yet they look down on people who express doubt. Even when it's just honest and natural to be doubtul. Often it's seen as negative, pessimistic or like "giving up" instead of pressing ahead and living as if there's no problem.

I agree that negativity is dangerous and can be addictive. But who is wishing right now that the doubters at British Petroleum would have been heard more readily about safety risks? Because you know they were there, and someone spoke up.

Such a fine line between needless pessimism and normal (or even necessary) skepticism.

Why call Thomas' style of doubt only the former?

#3 -- Sometimes, even when you doubt, it's noble to follow your HOPES

In the book of John it is recorded that when Jesus told his apostles he would return to Jerusalem, they recommended against it. The Pharisees, Romans and other groups seldom mentioned in the New Testament (Gnostics, for one) were all out to use Jesus for their own means. And if they couldn't use Jesus, they would likely kill him.

Thomas jumps in and says, "Let's go and die with him." For some reason most of the preachers these days seem to recite this quote in a sarcastic tone, as if Thomas was saying the trip to Jerusalem was a dumb idea.

I strongly disagree. That quote is heroic. These are words from a man who thinks he'll probably be dead in a week because his teacher is leading the group into a trap. But he decides to go anyway. I love that!

I've got doubts about all kinds of things. And while it's honest to express those, sometimes it's also noble to set the doubts aside and take a risk.

#4 -- God is, at least sometimes, willing to meet doubters on their terms

The New Testament shows that Thomas just wasn't going to believe Jesus had risen from the dead until he got solid proof. And Jesus gave it to him, allowing Thomas to inspect the wounds from crucifixion.

If there's a sense of Jesus doing this reluctantly, I'm missing it in the text. I picture Jesus holding out his hands with excitement, love and a bit of pride as he witnesses Thomas making that step from doubter to believer.

And from that moment on, Thomas was one of the most powerful missionaries of the group. History suggests that he traveled farther than any other apostle, and even started churches in India that still exist today.

Thomas. I love that guy.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Seeing God in new places

A few years ago I started making the shift from a black/white view of the universe when it comes to what is spiritual and what is secular.

For a long time church was spiritual and school was secular. Reading the bible was spiritual and reading fiction was secular. Going to a concert could be either spiritual or secular, depending on the band. But it couldn't be both!

Now those worlds have collided in my mind and I no longer see any difference. Every Sunday I see all kinds of secularism in the traditions and practices of my church. And throughout the week I catch glimpses of God in the most mundane things.

Yesterday I got a chance to see God in my children, because I had spent the previous four days in California for business. Absense indeed made my heart grow fonder for them, and when I returned I had freshly empathetic eyes to examine their exhilarating ride in deciphering how this world works, and what their role will be in it.

Due to my travel and the insane number of hours I worked during the week, I worked from home on Friday and had time to take my 4yo son, Jack, to the mall. It is one of his favorite places and he's been asking to go there for weeks. So off we went!

With a great marriage, three children and a busy job it can be difficult to get a solid chunk of one-on-one time with any of my kids. When it happens, I make it a point to do whatever I can to make it special.

Jack is fun because he has so many traits that don't seem to come from either of his parents. Jamie and I are strong introverts, while our oldest son is the opposite. We like to follow a schedule, and Jack still doesn't recognize that time exists at all. We enjoy eating, and Jack would rather talk and starve. I loved sports as a child, and Jack could live just fine without them.

Jamie and I are curious how this might develop in the areas of artistic ability. She and I have very little of it (read: she has some, I have none) but perhaps Jack will flourish as a right-brained spark of life in a world that seems more and more oriented to we left-brained folk. Because of this possibility, we've tried to give all of our kids early and regular exposure to the arts. We regularly visit museums, have seen mutiple performances of the Houston Symphony, and have invested in art supplies for our home.

One area we haven't dabbled in is photography. We use a simple point-and-shoot camera at home, and have no clue about things like composition or lighting. What we do know, though, is that a great picture really is worth 1,000+ words, but I almost exclusively use words to communicate in my life. Writing and speaking fills up almost all of my communication. What if my son learned to communicate by capturing his perspectives visually? How cool!

So I redeemed the time with my son at the mall and decided to use it as an intro to real photography. A chance to clash the spiritual with the secular and find out how a simple lens could awaken the divine in us. Obviously I couldn't do this on my own, so I recruited some help from a mall photographer that has worked with thousands of people over the past few years. The photographer's task was to do a candid session with Jack and I, using odd framing and the element of surprise to snag a moment in time that was special in its normalcy. Proving to me once again that God is in the details, and that there is no such thing as mundane. Oh that my son can learn this lesson sooner than I have!

Perhaps he will never become a photographer, or an artist at all. But if he does, then just maybe he'll look back on "that day with my dad at the mall" as the event that started it all!

Of course we kept the photographs, on which we are placing so much hope and importance. How did we do?

Link to pictures

Thursday, February 18, 2010

What I'm not sure about

This week I visited some blogs with great conversations on the topic of doubt. It's amazingly polarized among the commenters on those sites. Some people think that skepticism is a good thing, while others feel that a good Christian walk leaves no room for vagueness (sometimes quoting Paul that "faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see").*

And as my dad and I recently discussed, this polarization isn't limited to religion -- there has been quite a lot of drama lately on the topic of global warming. Many people just know it's a sham, regardless of the data. Others know global warming is real and deadly, even if the newest data shows otherwise. The doubters who haven't picked a side are surely out there, but they're so quiet it's easy to assume they don't exist at all.

But we do exist! My name is Michael, and I'm a doubter.

So, not to shock you all into a coma, but here are some things I'm not sure about:

#1 -- I'm not sure God even exists at all

He supposedly did all kinds of miracles and supernatural coolness thousands of years ago, but unfortunately that era passed before videotape technology. And we don't have a single recorded event in modern history where someone irrefutably performed a miracle in God's name.

Supposedly He can heal people even today, but Christian death rates from cancer and heart disease are identical to non-Christians... so if He can save those who pray to him, why isn't He doing it? We all seem to know someone who made an amazing recovery from a serious illness after a time of prayer, but those are anecdotes. The data shows that non-praying people make amazing recoveries just as often.

Since I cannot definitely prove God exists, I must admit there is a shred of uncertainty in my faith. I'm just not sure.

#2 -- If God exists, I'm not sure I'm worshipping the right one

Look at human history and notice how many different gods have been named, praised and defended. There are thousands (millions when you include Hinduism). Is it possible that Christianity has it right? Yes, but the odds aren't overwhelming in our favor.

Even within Christianity, there are so many different perceptions of God. Benevolent father, vengeful deity, distant superpower... some Christians think God is just a big pile of love and others think God intentionally leveled Haiti with an earthquake to punish them for sin. That's a wide, wide range.

Is it possible that I won the lottery and was born into the denomination that got it right about God's true being? Yes, but the odds are overwhelmingly against it.

So I'm not sure that my God is actually the God.

#3 -- I'm not sure what happens after we die

At least in the first two points, even though there's a lack of proof we can still make a case for God based on experiential and circumstantial evidences. On the topic of heaven/hell, though, it's all conjecture. Every religion has a different idea on what happens, and many of them have adherents with an NDE (near-death experience) who shared what the afterlife is like. Amazingly, their NDE usually matches their preconceived idea of heaven or hell.

So I can freely admit I really can't prove if there is an afterlife. And if there is one, what it's like, or if you and I are going there. I'm just not sure

Where to go from here?

As I said at the start of this post, some people just know they are right about things. I don't have a problem with that, even if they change their mind later and know the exact opposite of their earlier stance (trace the life of Saul/Paul in the New Testament). These people are often the productive backbone of many trends and movements, both good and bad. They get things done because they don't get delayed by doubt!

I, on the other hand, always have that voice in the back of my mind that tells me I could be wrong. This is good in a way because it can bring humility and openness to new ideas. But the downside is that I'm sometimes slow to take action, and I can infuriate people who want to pin me down and find out what I know. It's like pinning jello to a wall.

And even though I'm not sure about much, I still have faith.

I believe God does exist.

I believe that Christianity, and my denomination, have hit on some good and accurate portrayals of who God is.

I believe that this life is only one step in an eternal adventure, and that most of us will be blown away with how good this whole universe thing is shaping up.

But I'm not sure.

*Hebrews 11:1, and yes, I realize that Paul isn't confirmed as the author of that letter. But c'mon, have you read it? It's Paul. :)

Monday, February 15, 2010

My spiritual diet

I consider spiritual learning to be almost necessary for my own survival -- the big questions of life are endlessly fascinating to me and I love looking around and using experiences (my own or those of others) to challenge my ideas.

This process is nearly as important to my life as food is to my body. And there's no such thing as total satiety. Do you ever get hungry again after dining at an all-you-can-eat buffet? It might take longer than usual, but sure, you'll always get hungry again. That's the way I am with big questions of faith, the universe and everything, and since I won't ever get "full', I just try to enjoy every meal!

Here's a peek at some of my recent diet:

Joel Osteen -- he's my coffee, good for an occassional pick-me-up but not enough nutrients for me to live on

Richard Beck -- Grilled veggies, because I tend to put them off for a while but when I finally dig in, I remember how good that taste, and how good they are for my health

Dalai Lama -- Indian food (no irony intended), because it's way outside my childhood experience but I love it anyway, and it teaches me how other cultures live on completely different diets to achieve the same health goals

Debby -- Boston Market, where although I've never met the cook, somehow it still tastes like a meal at home

Hackman brothers (here and here) -- Sea salt dark chocolate, two different ingredients that, when combined, remind me that diversity and a clash of flavors can reveal something wondrous

Ken Ham -- Candy corn, it's a revisit to a childhood taste that I end up spitting out while marvelling at how much I must have changed

RedWifey -- Water, one of the few absoutely essential substances. It's a part of me and I see semblances of it everywhere I go.

What have you enjoyed eating lately?