Sunday, January 15, 2017

The 7 Habits of ... exactly what are we trying to become?

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People was a phenomenon when first published, and continues to be a respected book. At the start of the new year, reflecting on what I might like to accomplish, I found myself thinking about that book and wondering, "Effective at what?" With that thought in mind, here are some other topics I would like to understand:
  • The 7 Habits of Highly Compassionate People
  • The 7 Habits of Highly Hopeful Realists
  • The 7 Habits of Excellent Friends
  • The 7 Habits In Marriages That Go The Distance
  • The 7 Habits of Peacemakers
  • The 7 Habits of Joyful People
  • The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Parents
I'd be glad to hear of other peoples' wish lists there.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Following Jesus in Teaching: Do Bible Commentaries Carry a Risk?

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. (Matthew 4:23)
When we read the Bible, there are all kinds of commentaries to help us understand it. But what if they help us misunderstand it?
This Good news we call the gospel of Christ. After making people aware of their sinfulness and their inability to save themselves, Jesus assured them of God's merciful forgiveness. (From the Albrecht & Albrecht commentary on Matthew 4:23)
When I look at Jesus' ministry in Galilee, teaching in the synagogues and surrounding countryside, I don't see him spending a lot of time on "making people aware of their sinfulness and inability to save themselves". He talks about God as the God who blesses, who meets us with blessing exactly in the worst moments of our lives, whose answer to the problem of evil includes not only defeating it ("healing every disease and sickness among the people"), but proclaiming beautiful blessings for those who have suffered. I see him kindling a desire for holiness. I see him showing how "morality" is not about keeping rules, but about the time that someone's decency and goodness made them the hero of someone else's story (Good Samaritan). I see him reserving his harshest words for the religious leaders and the religious establishment (such as "the blind leading the blind").

As he went around the countryside teaching, he was rarely their accuser. Someone who bashes the people over the head with their sinfulness is not bringing good news; in many cases they are being verbally abusive. They may cover that by saying it is necessary; but if so, why doesn't Jesus do it so regularly? Neither does Jesus spend a lot of teaching time trying to create feelings of self-doubt and helplessness. He does not seek to undermine their hope or their self-love. Instead, he seeks to leverage their self-love into opening their eyes to the needs of others ("as you love yourself"). He seeks to leverage their wish for forgiveness into mercy for everyone -- because we desire not only mercy from God but the people around us as well.

Somewhere there are some passages where Jesus confronted people with their sinfulness; that does not provide a license for his followers to use those as the official general approach, when Jesus did not have that as his official general approach.

To what extent does fitting Jesus into our system, then commenting on Jesus from the viewpoint of that system, run the risk of making us blind to what Jesus actually said and did?

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Best of the Blogroll 2016

Here are my favorite posts of 2016 from the Christian blogs that I read regularly:
Thank you for all your dedicated blogging over the years! I'd encourage my readers to try a few of these links if you're looking for edifying material.

Best off-the-blogroll 2016: 
  • The return of my health, which had caused me to take several months' leave from blogging (amongst other things)
  • The 30-day chip received earlier this month by someone dear to me
  • My son's safe return from his first deployment
Blessed be the name of the LORD.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Christmas and the Light in the Darkness

The people who lived in darkness have seen a great light. (Isaiah 9:2, Matthew 4:6)
Sometimes we can't stop looking at the darkness. Sometimes it seems overwhelming. When we think about the direction of the world, it is easy to focus on the darkness, easy to lose hope.

But how many times have I been tempted to lose hope -- sometimes, have lost hope -- then later discovered that I was wrong? When I hear that "hope" is a virtue, in darker hours I mock that idea, thinking hope is baseless. And yet later events prove: really, it was the despair that was baseless. That has happened time and again over the years. If I have sometimes wrongly laughed off hope as baseless, when is the last time I laughed off despair as baseless?

Christmas -- Jesus' birth -- reaches a world where there is plenty of darkness. But there is also a lot of wallowing in darkness. "Hello, Darkness, my old friend" begins the haunting and resonating song -- we understand exactly what he means. We have lived there. There is a lot of seeing the world through dark glasses in order to be serious, and to be taken seriously. And there is a strange comfort in embracing the darkness.
The world loved darkness better. (John 3:19)
Today we light festive lights which cheer up the darkness. It's a visible reminder that the light is more lovely than the darkness. We remember that lights -- decorative lights on the tree or the home, candles, firesides -- are also our old friends. And in the light, we can remember what we did not see in the dark: that our old friends are also our old friends, that despair has often proved false. That there may be a lot of enmity towards that child in the manger -- and to the Holy Immortal that would light the world -- but there are many who hold his name dear, along with the hope he brings us.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Christmas: Holding an infant changes us

When was the last time you held an infant? Newborns bring out the best in many of us. There is such overwhelming tenderness and compassion. The connection has a heartbreaking intensity. It overwhelms our other thoughts and feelings. Each detail adds to our awe: the tiny fingers, the perfect miniature fingernails, the wobbly-uncertain movements of the new arms. People simply like to hold an infant. We can hold an infant for hours.

In this world, an infant is the closest we see to a pure heart: someone who has never been bitter, never schemed, never manipulated, never held a grudge, never laid a trap, never plotted payback. The innocence of childhood is something that we hope that each new child can maintain because that innocence has both beauty and power. In some measure we adore the innocence and the possibilities for good that come from it. We admire it because we desire it. Holding an infant re-awakens all that we hope for, all that we ever hoped for.

It re-awakens our knowledge of what God hopes for: Peace on earth, goodwill towards humanity. We hold onto a child because it re-awakens the best in us too.

It is easy to let the mockers win the day. We don't fully trust the good to last; since when did we have enough strength to withstand the mockers without becoming tarnished ourselves? But when we have a child in our arms, it is easier to say: I will enjoy this moment and its promise. And so God comes to us in a way that not only holds all the promise of what he can be, but renews the promise of what we can be.
"The weakness of God is stronger than man's strength."

Monday, December 12, 2016

If anything is worthy of praise

Finally, brothers, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honorable, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there is anything of virtue/excellence, and if there is any worthy of praise, think on these things. (Philippians 4:8)
When I read this, I have often been shamefully dismissive of it. There is a cynical part of my mind which sees it as wishful thinking, or a sort of determined naivety. The more open-minded voice inside me recognizes and acknowledges the value -- and then wants credit merely for speaking up against the cynicism, without actually doing what we are here encouraged to do.
  • What is true? The sun came up this morning. 
  • What is honorable? Those who stand by their convictions with modesty and reason.
  • What is just? The Day when hatred will cease.
  • What is pure? The hope for a spark of joy.
  • What is lovely? The out-of-season lily that is still blooming under the crepe myrtle.
  • What has a good reputation? I had to think really hard about this one. I'm going with: Green vegetables.
  • Is there anything of virtue/excellence (older translation: any virtue)? Joy.
  • Is there anything worthy of praise? The skill of a certain pianist that I have in mind.
Think on these things. Take inventory of them. Take stock. Some good things fade away for lack of recognition, or lack of care. May it not be on our watch.

Update 12/14/2016: Dr Platypus has added a list of his own, which is truly worth a read.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Sorting-Hat Questions: Fighting against polarized discourse

In our era, civil discourse is rare. And as we have seen, heated rhetoric can spill over into widespread violence. Over the last few years, riots have become more common than I have ever known them in my lifetime. Some of them are sponsored, and they have become increasingly coordinated, which is troubling. Once the infrastructure has been established for nationwide demonstrations-on-demand, will it ever be deactivated? Will its exercise make a fragile situation even more unstable? (How many would welcome that goal?)
Against this background, in a seemingly-civil conversation, a greeting is often followed by a question: What do you think of such-and-such?

In my experience, there is typically no interest in learning what the other person thinks on the topic: the reasons why, the personal perspective, the pros and cons, the deciding factors. The question is not asked in order to gain understanding of the topic or of the other person. It is asked in order to sort the person into Gryffindor or Slytherin according to the views of the person asking. Possibly the questioner has already decided that people failing to give the "right" answer are defective and dangerous -- deserving of hatred, according to leading voices. There are some in Texas who have considered secession as a way to preserve the right of self-determination; there are some in California considering the same. In our so-called culture war, the two sides may not be compatible. What is considered progress by one side is seen as a shocking devaluation of life by the other, and that cuts both ways. In our nation, if we can be said to have peace right now, it is a fragile peace.

Against this background, while there is hope for peace, I think I should work for peace. While there is hope for understanding, I think I should work for understanding. Which means that, when someone asks me: "Halt! Gryffindor or Slytherin?" I would like to find out, "Do you want to understand my reasons?" And if not, I think that the time is more suited to pushing back against the practice of judging people without hearing them, rather than the long list of things over which people judge each other.

I hope to write posts that honestly reflect the things that are overlooked in a "Friend or foe!" challenge: the reasons why, the personal perspective, the pros and cons, the deciding factors. I hope to be fair and honest even about views that I firmly believe are wrong (not supportive, mind you, simply fair and honest; that shouldn't need justifying). I have no wish to relativize the truth on divisive topics; I do wish to place the humanity of both sides at the forefront of the conversation. Right now there's not quite enough goodwill or trust to move the conversation forward, and so my focus is on those. I hope we can de-legitimize the "Friend or foe!" challenge; it assumes we're already at war.