Monday, September 10, 2012

Something New

To those of you who have continued to follow my blog for a long time: Thank You!

I have a few things I still want to post about here, and occasionally, I shall. But I have a desire to continue sharing my thoughts in a different manner than blogging or Facebook, and so I've started a newsletter.

If you'd be interested in following it, I'd be flattered. You can find it here:

If you follow, I'll be sure you see my initial letter, explaining a little more about why I'm doing something different.

And sooner or later, I really am going to get around to sharing some Israel photos here.


Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Thinking about a trip to the Holy Lands?

I thought I would give some reasons why a trip to the Holy Lands is worth your time. Having been there recently, I am convicted that every Christian who can go should go. Specifically, for those of you with Church of Christ roots as I have, you should really take a trip led by Evertt Huffard. I'll enumerate some reasons below.

1. You will understand your Bible in ways that are not otherwise possible. Just being able to sit in a boat on the Sea of Galilee, looking around the shore locations where so many things happened, or standing atop the Temple Mount, looking over at the Mount of Olives at all the white tombs, and envisioning Jesus' words to the Pharisees...there are some things that must be experienced to be understood fully.  Having a better grasp of distances, elevations, and places will make the stories you read in Scripture come to life like never before. Some have said that this trip helped them to read the Bible "in 3D."

2. You can support the cause of Christ in a place where the Church is weak. One of the highlights of my trip was worshiping at the church of Christ which meets in Nazareth. There are only a few Christians around, and they value their times of worship and fellowship so very deeply. It made me feel great to be there to encourage them however I could.

Another thing really surprised me. Many of the locations you visit have huge church buildings on top of them at this point. Most of these have awesome acoustics. Those of us in churches of Christ can do a cappella singing unlike any other fellowship I know of. While visiting some of the places, we decided to sing a few songs together. Our group was tired, and many of us were weakened from the journey and the jet lag. Our singing was not up to our average standards. However, to the ears of people who never hear singing like ours, it moved them to tears. I was privileged to lead our group in a few songs at one cathedral called St. Anne's by the pool of Bethesda. When we started, it was only us in the building. By the end of the third song, the church was standing room only. People asked me where all we were touring, because they were convinced we must be a professional choir. I have never been more proud of our singing heritage. We were able to minister to and bless a lot of people with our singing. We didn't have to go knock doors...they flocked to hear it. That was really special.

3. Forget the milk and honey, this is the land of HUMMUS.  Even if you think you don't like hummus, you need to try it over here. Unbelievably good with pita bread.

4. You can give your stomach a break. I have chronic stomach problems, and have frankly suffered a good deal in the last year here in the states. But in Israel, between the strictness of the Orthodox Jews and the food laws of the Muslims, their standards for food preparation and cleanliness are very high. The only rumble I had in my stomach the entire trip was when we ate at a McDonalds. Go figure. My stomach feels better than it had in months, which is not typically how that sort of thing goes on vacations. I not only had zero stomach problems from what I ate, I was even drinking tap water from the hotel sink. Not a single problem. My stomach was better there than it is at home.

5. Evertt & Ileene Huffard are as competent of tour guides as you'll ever find. Evertt worked with a tour guide who lives in Israel, and the two of them handled most of the teaching and presenting. Evertt grew up as a missionary kid in Israel, then returned with Ileene for a few years after college to do more work. They were foundational in building up the Galilee Christian School, which is an incredible ministry there. He speaks the language and he understands the culture. (You'll gain a lot of insights from him about the political situations over there that you'd never pick up from our news sources.) But not only does he understand the locals, he is a top notch Biblical scholar, and with a heart for ministry. (He is Dean of the Harding School of Theology.) Evertt is a truly rare combination of abilities and interests that make him invaluable for this sort of work. The Huffards lead a trip every year, and if you can go with them especially, you absolutely should.

Another perk about Evertt is that unlike some groups of Catholics or Orthodox folks who get all caught up in sentimentality, he really doesn't have any use for explanations about places that are not rooted in data and archaeology. He's happy to tell you about places and events, but he absolutely won't permit people to give you scoops about things that are only for the purpose of evoking "ooohs" and "aaahs" unless they are grounded in evidence. (A good example would be the stone of preparation at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. There were a bunch of Asian people gathered around it, weeping and kissing it. When I asked about it, our guide said, "It's just a tradition that that was the rock where they prepared Jesus, but there's no basis for it." I like people who live in reality. Evertt's is not a tour for people who are always forwarding sappy e-mails about modern miracles which has discredited. This is a tour for people who want to see real stuff and talk about real stuff.

Evertt leads a very fast-paced tour. He is aware that this trip was not cheap for you, and he works masterfully with the other guide and bus driver to navigate through places in ways that will maximize your time. You will see so much. I would dare say you'll see a lot more than you might with other groups.

6. It is a really easy place to visit. I had been brushing up on modern Hebrew, and brought about $300 worth of Shekelim with me for the trip. It was completely unnecessary. I realized as we were getting ready to go that I could have brought only American money and spoken only English, and I would not have had even a small kink in any of the trip. The people there are all trilingual (Hebrew, English, and Arabic). I have never been to a foreign country so easy to get around without knowing much.

7. It is a really safe place to visit. Yes, I know that Fox News says you're supposed to be afraid to go over there, and God forbid we should ever question what we hear from our nation's leading set of talking heads. There are tons and tons of tourists around wherever you go, but few of them are American. We're all scared to go, but the rest of the world continues to flock to Israel for visits. If the only thing holding you back from visiting is a fear for your safety, let me say emphatically, that safety here is a non-issue; especially if you are traveling with a tour guide (which you will be). They love tourists, and they rely on you for their income. They were friendly and helpful. Not a single time did I ever feel the least bit threatened or concerned for our safety. Occasionally you see some Israeli armed troops, but these are here for your safety as well. We were able to walk at night down to a couple of the sites without any trouble. I felt safer in Israel than I do at the local malls in Nashville. The issues with Iran do not all center around Israel, as you typically hear on the news. It is very unlikely that they are going to bomb Israel. It is such a diverse nation, and the people generally seem to live around each other desiring peace and harmony. Many of the locals would acknowledge to us that there is tension that exists between different groups, but all emphatically asked us to pray for peace. They live close together, and don't desire any conflict. Peace is better for everyone.

If you've never done it, you should do it. Totally worth what it costs. Totally changes your outlook on so many things.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Analysis of Humor

One aspect of myself that is not apparent to new acquaintances is my sense of humor. A lot of times, I have to go through an awkward time with someone to get them to understand how much I really love to laugh and joke. People perceive me as serious and reverent, and it takes a while for me to get them to see how much I enjoy being silly, because I try not to let my face give it away.

I really love dry or deadpan humor, such as Monty Python's or Leslie Nielsen's. My favorite story about Nielsen is that he used to carry one of those electronic fart noise machines around with him. When he was at a place like a crowded elevator, he would start pushing the button, making everyone else uncomfortable or tempted to giggle. He himself would maintain a straight face, as if he were unaware of it. He was being funny, but not letting on that he was trying to. He was content to be the only one in on his joke, letting everyone else believe he had severe gastrointestinal problems.

In preaching, I have struggled with how to use humor. There are lots and lots of preacher jokes, but in truth, I think most of them aren't funny. They get laughs, but I don't enjoy them, and don't particularly do well at telling them, with a few exceptions. I don't think it's good if you use so much humor that people forget you're talking about serious stuff. But I also don't like it if people can go through your lesson without smiling at any point. Sometimes that's appropriate, but generally, I think the use of humor is prudent rhetoric. It's good for endearing you to your listener and disarming them from thinking you're out to boss them around.

In a recent issue of Wired magazine, they focused on humor, and how the internet has changed it. They had some tips from a humor researcher (yes these exist--and get government grants) that I thought were fairly useful. How do we decide which humorous comments are appropriate?

Generally speaking, many of the same things that would make us cry in one circumstance can make us laugh in another. Watching Wile E. Coyote getting squashed with an anvil is completely different than watching the same thing happen to a 3-year-old child. What's the difference?

Peter McGraw and Caleb Warren are doctoral students researching humor. They say, "Laughter and amusement result from violations that are simultaneously seen as benign." Most humor stems from some sort of violation. Here are some categorical ways of thinking about it:
- Violations of Personal Dignity (slapstick humor, physical deformities) This would include the Three Stooges. Mike Myers really enjoys using this in his movies with characters like the partial ocular albino in Wayne's World 2 and the Mole character (with a huge mole) in the third Austin Powers movie.
- Violations of Linguistics (unusual accents, malapropisms) In Monty Python's Quest for the Holy Grail, who could forget the outrageous "French" characters?
- Violations of Social Norms (strange behaviors) Michael Scott and Dwight Shrute from the Office rely heavily on this for humor.
- Violations of Moral Norms (disrespectful behaviors) This is the root of what people are drawn to in the Jackass movies.

McGraw and Warren have found that the funniness of a violation depends on it not also being simultaneously threatening to the audience or to their world view.  I may post some more on the subject, but those are my initial reflections.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Knowledge and Wikipedia

So today, Wikipedia has created a blackout on their website to raise awareness of and opposition to the SOPA and PIPA bills that are being debated in the House and Senate. I understand that Obama intends to veto them if they make it to his desk, so I'm not particularly worried about anything to begin with.

I don't feel like taking the time to study the legal intricacies of what these involve, but I believe it has to do with fighting internet piracy. I think the desire there is good, but the implementation apparently isn't.

It really caught my attention when Wikipedia put this image up on their website that says, "Imagine a world without free knowledge."

I'll be the first to say how much I enjoy having online access to all sorts of helpful information. But it alarmed me to think that we've all become so dependent on the internet to tell us what we know, that we've stopped even considering other sources of knowledge. So much of my life is stored in my online accounts. 

But I've also been fairly deliberate about having some non-electronic means of recording and remembering what's important to me. Part of why I've blogged less the last couple of years is because I write fairly regularly in a journal. (I'm actually on my second one.) I have a separate journal where I've started writing down bits of things that I want to learn and remember. I may make a post explaining my method there some time.

This idea of "all knowledge comes from the internet" has me thinking a lot about just how much we feed ourselves from one source, in comparison to how much we feed on the word of God, and how much we ponder what we could be learning from our life's experiences. I'm challenging myself here with the content of Psalm 19, which describes some sources of meaningful knowledge that are neglected too often these days:

Psalm 19
    For the director of music. A psalm of David.
 1 The heavens declare the glory of God;
   the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
2 Day after day they pour forth speech;
   night after night they reveal knowledge.
3 They have no speech, they use no words;
   no sound is heard from them.
4 Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
   their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.
 5 It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,
   like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
6 It rises at one end of the heavens
   and makes its circuit to the other;
   nothing is deprived of its warmth.
 7 The law of the LORD is perfect,
   refreshing the soul.
The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy,
   making wise the simple.
8 The precepts of the LORD are right,
   giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the LORD are radiant,
   giving light to the eyes.
9 The fear of the LORD is pure,
   enduring forever.
The decrees of the LORD are firm,
   and all of them are righteous.
 10 They are more precious than gold,
   than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey,
   than honey from the honeycomb.
11 By them your servant is warned;
   in keeping them there is great reward.
12 But who can discern their own errors?
   Forgive my hidden faults.
13 Keep your servant also from willful sins;
   may they not rule over me.
Then I will be blameless,
   innocent of great transgression.
 14 May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart
   be pleasing in your sight,
   LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.

Library Card

One of my New Year resolutions is to start reading more.  Specifically, I am trying to broaden my knowledge in several areas that I see as possible options for future specialization.

Our church building shares its parking lot with the public library, and it seemed like a great idea for me to start going over and checking out books on a regular basis to keep feeding my interests.

I live in another county (less than 1 mile over the line), and apparently to get a free card, I need to live in Davidson County.  I have been really excited to get my new library card, but learned this morning that if I want one, I'll have to pay up.  So presently, I'm pondering my options.

I got tickled at 2 aspects of this e-mail they sent me:

  1. The title of the e-mail as compared to the content. A bit of a let down.
  2. The grammar in line 2.  I would have expected a little better from a librarian. :-)

Thursday, January 12, 2012

If you really love Jesus, you would have to love "religion", too.

Lately there has been this YouTube video popping up everywhere of Jefferson Bethke reciting a poem of his composition where he contrasts what he calls false "religion" with Jesus. I think it is an excellent example of what I see as a prevalent mentality among many of my peers.  If you want to read the full text of this poem click here. Let me say what I like about it first, then I want to offer a couple of critiques.

Jefferson is correct to be critical of hypocrisy. In every generation, there have been hypocrites and there have been sincere believers. I agree that it isn't ok to continue being involved in all sorts of sinful practices while pretending to be a strong Christian. I would also agree that there have been people in authoritative places within churches who have abused their power and have failed to show enough grace and mercy toward Christians who have made mistakes. He is right to urge that mercy, forgiveness, and grace should be shown to those who are struggling.

 But there are a number of issues here that I find extremely problematic.

 First, he equates all religion with hypocrisy. This is simply not true in history or in my personal experiences. I've known many people who like to skip out on church involvement who love to play the hypocrisy card. "Some church people do _____, and I just don't want to be around hypocrites." He is right to critique aspects of church life that are hypocritical or overly harsh, but it isn't true that all experiences with religion are inherently hypocritical. Many of his attacks are misdirected, in my judgment, because they seem to operate off of this assumption. He makes a rather weak statement near the end about how he loves church, the Bible, and believes in sin, but he hasn't left much room in his mindset for where these could take part in what is going on. I've known many Christians who are not hypocrites at all, and who would go out of their way to show repentance toward anyone they had treated in a way that was taken badly. He really overstates his case against whatever he means by "religion."

As is common with those influenced by Calvinist teaching, he goes too far in reducing the responsibilities of a Christian in response to Christ's sacrifice. It is absolutely true that Jesus paid the price for our sins and that nothing we do is capable of meriting our salvation. But he sets up some really bad dichotomies connected to his view of what Christ did and what Christians should do.

  • He says, "Jesus and religion are on opposite spectrums. See one's the work of God, but one's a man made invention." What do you say, then, about all the times in the Gospels that Jesus shows a clear dedication to following the laws, holidays, and teachings of the Torah? There was much patternistic behavior, both in Judaism, and later in Christianity. To suggest that anything involving rules and routines is man-made is misstated at best. 
  • He says, "See because religion says do, Jesus says done." Jesus indicated that his work upon the cross was finished, but upon his resurrection, he certainly didn't tell us we are "done." In fact, his last words begin with, "Go!" Jesus was very interested in our doings. 
  •  He says, "Religion says slave, Jesus says son. Religion puts you in bondage, while Jesus sets you free." This line, to me, reveals a disturbing lack of Scriptural knowledge for someone making bold faith statements. I'll probably never have trouble remembering the Greek word for slave (doulos!) because it shows up in the New Testament so frequently to describe Christians. Romans 1:1, Romans 6:18, Ephesians 6:6, James 1:1, etc. We are to be slaves of Christ. We're set free from the bondage of sin, but we are also meaningfully committed to serving our new Master, and not just kneeling at his cross.
  • He says, "Religion is man searching for God, Christianity is God searching for man."  I would think it is much more accurate to say that Christianity is God seeking man, but man also seeking God.  Paul says in Philippians 3:10, "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection."  Jesus instructs us in Matthew 6:33, "But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness."  Yes, God has sought us out and paid the price we could not pay, but if we are to find him, we must seek him. Seeking God is not the opposite of Christianity.  I think all of these dichotomies are really unfortunate.  
I think he is correct in saying that we're all sinners, and we shouldn't pretend that we've been otherwise.  But I don't agree with his harsh words about "behavior modification" not addressing some of the roots of the problem.  Jesus said in Matthew 12:34, "Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks."  Actions are an indication of what is inside of us.  Behavior modification should positively be an outcome of faith in Christ.  I think Jefferson would acknowledge this point, as he is so critical of people going to church while living promiscuously.  But his harsh words about the apparent non-merit of behavior, combined with his echoing of the false accusation of Jesus' enemies--that Jesus was a drunkard and a glutton--pave the way for tremendous moral laxity, despite his critique of hypocrisy.  Yes, you'll never be good enough to justify salvation on your own accord, but you are a much better person for trying to live by patterns, rules, and principles that the Church has tried to embody since the beginning.

I guess these days, people have started using the word "discipleship" to talk about what I think was really meant originally by the word "religion."  Religion came from a latin term that described the behavior of monks, who had very strict ways of ordering their life's rhythms.  Everyone has a religion.  Your religion is the way you prioritize and organize your life, combined with the way you live out these priorities.  You really can't get closer to God without regularly putting yourself in the presence of God through prayer, worship, Scriptural study, and other acts of obedience.  You can become a Christian, regardless of what you've been doing recently, but without a plan and pattern of action, you'll not likely be a very good one.

I am probably overstating some of my critiques, and I imagine that Jefferson would say his main interest is in taking on hypocritical practices that rely on legalism rather than on truly loving and knowing Christ.  In that area, I agree with him.

He has put together a really thought-provoking poem, and I appreciate his candidness in talking about the importance of Christ in his life.  I just think some of his Calvinist underpinnings end up causing him to create a set of priorities that doesn't ultimately make for good disciples.