Articles on Life, Truth, Love, Computers, and Music
If love is merely an emotion, then perhaps. But the trouble with emotions is that they're unreliable and unpredictable. Sometimes they may seem alluring, but even that is temporal. "Unreliable, unpredictable, sometimes alluring" ... does that sound like love to you? I certainly hope not!
If you fell down a well and started crying, who would you prefer: someone who jumped down into the well and sat there crying with you, or someone who stayed above it and threw you down a rope? If, at some later point, you willingly jumped back into the well, would it be right to protest that climbing is difficult and it fatigues you? Yet, haven't we seen those very sorts of scenarios played out by others, or perhaps by ourselves?
I do not see a very strong connection between being loving -- expressing real love -- and being emotional. But I do see a similarity between emotions and drugs. Both have an addictive nature to them. Both can act as an alterative on the mind. If you would not knowingly trust your thoughts to mind-altering drugs, why would you likewise trust them to mind-alterting emotions?
Does this mean all emotions are bad, and that we should try to eliminate them, like in the futuristic societies of Equilibrium or The Giver? Hardly. There is a distinction to be made between genuine emotions, and being emotional. The love a parent feels for a newborn child is a genuine, honest emotion. Thinking of oneself as predisposed to "being emotional" is more often akin to vanity. Besides, it's not possible to eliminate anything real.
Difficult circumstances and big changes in ones life can throw a person into a very emotional state. When people find themselves in such a state, a question that often gets asked is: was any of that real? "That" refers to whole portions of ones life which once held so much meaning, but can appear startlingly meaningless after such an event. But when those waves of emotion eventually subside, that is actually a very hopeful state of mind. At that point, one can finally start to see what is really real -- and what value certain experiences really did hold for them.
Every experience we've been through, good or bad, has value. Sometimes this value is less than we might otherwise make it out to be, and unfortunately an overdose of emotions can cloud that. The real value of our experiences -- of our lives -- is not found in the highs and lows of emotionalism, no matter how glamorous they may seem. The real value of our experiences is found in the stillness, in the calm, and in the satisfaction that does not need to argue but rather just is. "Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. Love never fails."
Right now lots of people are glued to their TV screens watching the events unfold in Watertown, Massachusetts. With a host of cities in the area effectively shut down in a state of emergency, lots of people feel they don't have any other choice but to watch the news reports and wait. But there is one option that's always available, no matter the situation: prayer.
In the Bible, Jesus gives counsel on how to pray effectively. Here's how Mark records it:
What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them.
That's a very hopeful statement. A prayer, silent and confident, will be answered by God. But everyone knows that not every prayer they've ever said has been answered in the way they wanted. So what gives? Well, James has an answer for that:
Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts.
So prayers aren't answered when they are meant to be "consumed upon ones lusts." What the heck does that mean? Well, the word "lust" certainly stands out. But lust isn't just limited to things like prostitution and pornography. Lust, as a concept, is really about the "more, more, more" mentality that is never satisfied and never has enough. The word "consumption" also stands out. Though, consumption in and of itself isn't a bad thing. We consume food every day. Jesus even instructs us to pray for "daily bread" -- and not just to look at, but to consume. But it's the pairing of "consumption" and "lust" together that is really the key to this passage. That speaks to the concept of overconsumption. Because while consuming daily bread is normal and natural, consuming 300 pounds of daily bread wouldn't be.
And I believe the same is true when it comes to any kind of consumption -- including information consumption. We want to consume a normal and healthy amount of information. We don't want to hide away from the world with our heads in the sand. But on the other hand, we want that consumption to be natural and not in excess. Being glued to news reports isn't healthy. That isn't consuming in moderation. And there are more productive ways we can use our thinking than simply getting sucked into reactionary media reports.
What is the opposite of overconsumption? Satisfaction. Creation. Giving. Each of those things, as qualities of thought, can be very potent prayers in and of themselves. Rather than allowing the time to pass away glued to a TV screen, why not find ways to give? Why not find ways to love and embrace those around you, and not while looking over your collective shoulders at a TV or computer screen?
The events of the day will unfold whether you are watching the news reports or not, so instead of spending time worrying about them, why not silence the noise and spend that time praying about them? Your individual prayers matter. You are not insignificant. The gifts you have to give to your family, to your neighbors, and even to strangers, are invaluable, and are needed right now. So get praying!
Last week Thursday, I attended a concert by artist Nataly Dawn. She is touring with two other singer-songwriters, Ryan Lerman and Lauren O'Connell, and you couldn't ask for a better power trio. They were brilliant. I bought two tickets to their show, one for me and one as a very-belated birthday present for my friend Bob. And I also quickly snagged a chance to purchase a private, backstage guitar lesson from the very talented Ryan Lerman, who was offering that opportunity as first-come, first-serve.
I've been playing guitar myself, on and off, for over 13 years now, so suffice it to say that I am pretty comfortable with my own playing abilities. I know my way around the fretboard, and I can usually pick up most songs pretty quickly. Going into the guitar lesson, my motivations were less about learning new techniques and more centered on discussion of audio equipment, audio production, recording techniques, and songwriting in general. I thought I probably didn't have much to learn about actual playing techinque. And I was most certainly wrong! I got to witness firsthand what the difference between being an amateur musician and a professional musician really is.
I did still talk with Ryan about all the production value things I wanted to talk about, and he had a wealth of knowledge to draw from. I'm grateful I brought a pen and paper to write some of it down. But the best part of the lesson was talking about music theory and chord progressions with him. Like I said, I thought I knew my way around the fretboard, but I was wrong. That man knows his way around the fretboard, and traverses it so effortlessly and with such polish. And dammit, that man has swagger.
Now, let me share two quotations with you. The first is from a 20th century science fiction author, and the second is from a 19th century female pastor.
"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."
"...there is no excellence without labor in a direct line. One cannot scatter his fire, and at the same time hit the mark."
-Mary Baker Eddy
At first these quotes might seem contradictory, but I actually try to live by both. I love the Heinlein quote because he's talking about being a Renaissance man, wearing many different hats, being well-rounded. I love that idea; it's fun to learn and try new things. But I also recognize the truth in the Eddy quote as well. At the end of the day, I'm a computer programmer. It's what I do really well, partially because I spend at least nine hours a day writing code. I have all sorts of varied hobbies and obligations that I do after work, but the bulk of my day is always spent programming.
I'm decently good at guitar, because I've played it for so long, but I realized last Thursday that I will probably never be as good as Ryan Lerman. And the reason is that at the end of the day, I am a programmer and he is a musician. That's what he spends at least nine hours each day doing. And there really is no substitute for that; no shortcut to excellence for hobbyists like me. If you want perfection, you have to practice, practice, practice.
But I don't find this discouraging, not in the least. I know that I won't be a rock star, or have that same polish that has already become second nature for both Nataly and Ryan. But I'm not setting out to be a rock star. I'm setting out to be a computer programmer who happens to write songs on the side. And so, interactions with real, professional musicians like this are invigorating, because they give me so many new ideas. One of the things that was extremely helpful was when, during my lesson, I started playing some of the various fragments of songs I had written -- songs I started long ago but ran into writer's block halfway through -- to see if Ryan would have any pointers. He did! Here are a couple of things I remember:
- Songs are like bringing someone into your house. The verse is your living room, the chorus is your kitchen, and both are visible pretty much immediately upon entering. The bridge section shows people a brand new part of your house that they hadn't noticed before, maybe the backyard or basement, and so that's your chance to modulate and try all sorts of new things.
- Not every song needs a bridge. If it feels complete, don't try to force it.
- Try to have the melody land on, and sustain, the "cool" notes -- the transition notes outside the main triad, like the 9th or 11th (aka 2nd or 4th). That keeps things moving.
- Diminished and half-diminished chords are fun.
- Common tones are nice and Louis Cole uses them a lot.
- Open triads often sound better than closed ones.
- Try not to repeat notes in a chord.
It was so inspiring hanging out with Ryan. I'd really like to introduce you all to some of his music, so I thought about including one of his YouTube videos here. But rather than do that, I figured it would be worthwhile to record my own cover of one of his songs and perform that myself, just to show that his lesson paid off. And actually, the one I want to share isn't really his. It's a duet of him and Lauren, and Lauren wrote it. Now please keep in mind, I am a computer programmer first, a guitar player second, and a vocalist... well not really a vocalist. What I'm trying to say is that this won't be American Idol quality vocals. But without any further adieu, here's a video of me performing "I Belong to You" by Lauren O'Connell. Enjoy.
I've been thinking about the quality of fidelity lately. The dictionary defines fidelity as "the quality or state of being faithful," "conjugal faithfulness," and "strict observance of promises, duties, etc." Fidelity can also be thought of as the fulfillment of the Seventh Commandment. But is fidelity merely the absence of adultery, or is it something more?
In the Bible, Jesus doesn't have a whole lot to say about adultery. And unfortunately, I've seen people use his relative silence on the matter to justify all sorts of human behavior, saying, "Jesus never said anything about that!" He never spoke about writing computer viruses, either, but that doesn't mean he would condone it. And the few times he did speak about adultery and faithfulness, his remarks were pretty intense.
I teach a Sunday School class each week to a group of high schoolers, and so you'd better believe they are brimming with the kinds of questions that teenagers want to know about. Every once in awhile, they actually build up enough courage to ask me those questions. A couple of weeks ago, in response to one of my student's questions, I shared with the class part of the Sermon on the Mount -- one of the few times Jesus explicitly talks about adultery. It's in Matthew 5:27-28, and reads as follows:
Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery:
But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.
Now let me put that into my own words: "You have heard it said, 'Don't sleep around; that's adultery.' But I tell you that if you so much as think/fantasize about having sex with someone that you're not married to, you already have committed adultery." Ouch! I can imagine the reaction of the men that Jesus was speaking to. It was probably very similar to the reaction of some of my students a couple of weeks ago -- paralyzed with a deer-in-the-headlights expression, that still makes me laugh!
Shock is a common reaction for those who encounter that passage for the first time and really let it sink in, as people realize the great moral distance between themselves and Jesus. But sometimes people don't really progress much beyond that shock, and they start to think it's an impossible standard. And I think that's unfortunate. Is real fidelity an impossible standard? People will look at that passage and think, "well shoot, I've done that; therefore I must be bad." But I don't read that passage as condemnatory. I see it as a call to go higher.
What if, instead of approaching adultery as judgmental, we approached fidelity as progressive? Certainly, anyone overtly committing adultery needs to stop. The very next thing Jesus recommends is to cut off your right hand if it offends you -- meaning stop making excuses for immorality and cut it out of your life. But what about those who are not making any overtly immoral choices, and want to strengthen a relationship, but worry that perhaps they're not good enough? Or maybe they have had the kind of "wandering eye" that Jesus describes here, and although they haven't acted on it, they worry that it's a bad omen, or perhaps that their partner deserves better than them?
The worst forms of evil are often the most subtle, because while it's easy to distinguish an overt lie from the truth, we sometimes mistake a more subtle lie for the truth. It is a subtle lie to think "I'll probably never be good enough; my partner deserves better than me." That is a form of self-condemnation. The Christ does not come to condemn us, but to uplift us. So when we think about fidelity as it applies to our own relationships, it's crucial to approach things from a standpoint that saves and uplifts, rather than one of condemnation.
You can rise out of self-condemnation by focusing less on the negative, and more on the positive. Don't merely practice a lack of adultery; practice active fidelity. This means open communication with ones partner. This means building up a genuine desire to do things together, rather than apart, or with newer or more exciting friends instead. Your partner should be the most exciting person in the world to you. And what if they're not? Well, don't self-condemn, and don't condemn them either. Start by seeing the best in them. And give your best to them. Practice giving.
Alone time is still important. Time with ones friends is still important. But you should never have to dread the time spent with your partner. And what if you do dread it? It might help to start by remembering what it was that made you fall in love with them in the first place. And then look for fresh reasons to do it again. Find ways to give, to encourage, to celebrate. Carry the conversation if you need to. Rather than approaching relationships from a consumer mindset, approach them from a creative mindset. Each day with your partner is a gift, a new opportunity to express your best qualities, and to recognize the best in them. That is progressive fidelity. That is a higher fidelity.
Lately I've been a little bit addicted to QR codes, ever since installing a Barcode Scanner app for my phone. They are so cool! But they're also becoming a bit ubiquitous, as you see them on all sorts of fliers and posters and even postcards now, and so we're starting to tune them out mentally as the novelty fades. As a result, marketing people are looking for ways to make them more eye-catching, and one such way is by arbitrarily inserting other graphics into them that look nothing like QR codes.
Someone discovered/realized that it is possible to actually remove whole portions of the QR code and replace them with pretty much whatever you want, just because a lot of the data that is encoded in QR codes is not actually the data itself, but large amounts of "error correcting." The original designers of QR codes were smart enough to make them in such a way that even if you were missing part of it, it could still work. So marketing people, and now myself as well, have already begun to abuse that fact by ripping out the middle of QR codes and putting other stuff there instead. For example, here's a functioning code that will take you to my website, and also happens to include my initials.
In this case, the graphics I inserted actually do resemble part of the QR code itself. And I like that. I think it's more subtle and gets people to raise an eyebrow. So last night I built a little utility to generate these and have included it below for mass consumption. Basically all I am doing is using a library called PHP QR Code to generate the initial image, then arbitrarily removing the center and drawing text on top of it. It was a bit tedious to develop, as the default PHP text function actually drew things larger than I was hoping for. So I wrote a function that draws the letters myself, pixel by pixel. (Not difficult at all, just tedious.)
I think seeing text in the middle of the code is cool enough that people might look at it and say, "wait... does that really work?" and then scan it out of curiosity. I realize, too, that by sharing this information with the world, I am only speeding up the rate at which the novelty of that wears off too, but it's going to wear off sooner or later anyway, and for now it is still kind of fun. So feel free to start generating your own QR codes using the little utility I hacked together last night!
A few words of caution: I am literally just removing the center and replacing it with whatever text you enter. There is no fancy calculation involved, it's just quick-and-dirty replacing the middle and hoping for the best -- which means that if you enter too much text, it might not work. It's better to minimize the amount of data removed, because the more you remove the less likely it is to work. And I've found that using longer URLs is actually better than using shorter URLs, because the longer ones require more space to generate so you end up with a smaller text footprint. And also keep in mind that each generation is unique, so if you leave the "direct download" box UN-checked and then just keep hitting refresh, you'll see the little dots change each time. Sometimes one combination won't work, while another one will for the exact same input. So just make sure to test it.
"Life would be so much better if only I had this."
"Life will be perfect when I can do that."
"I really wish my life was more like hers, then things would be perfect."
How often do we push off goodness to some future date? How often do we limit the amount of goodness and satisfaction we let ourselves feel right now? I speak from experience, as someone who's done this a lot.
I still remember a time when I was 14 years old. I saw myself as kind of a weird kid. Although I always had many friends, I had very low self esteem. My friends all seemed to have everything together. Even the people I didn't like seemed to have things together. But I thought I was different. I remember sitting in my homeroom period one morning, thinking to myself with such an intense despair characteristic of middle school, "I'll probably never have a girlfriend." I didn't like that verdict. In fact, I hated it. But I was resigned to just accept it as a fact of life -- because after all, I was not as cool or popular or good-looking as most of those other guys, right?
Oh, 14-year old angst. Ha!
As I was sitting there moping in my pit of dark teenage despair, something incredible happened. A girl passed me a note, asking if I wanted to date her. Admittedly, I had never before noticed this girl, prior to receiving that note. I knew absolutely nothing about her. But you'd better believe I replied with a resounding "yes"! (after a little bit of internal deliberation)
Except... I had no idea what to do after that! I had spent so much time and energy convincing myself that I would probably never date, that when all of a sudden I was dating someone, I felt pretty ill-prepared. I didn't know what to do! I still remember a few telephone conversations that were less "conversation" and more "silence while neither one of us knows what to say." So maybe not all matches were made in heaven!
I look back on experiences like that fondly, and have to laugh at myself. I've come to realize that God loves to surprise us. Right in that moment, when I was so sure that I was totally and completely unloveable, God broke right through that dark spell in the form of my first girlfriend. That relationship, like most middle school and high school relationships, didn't last very long. But even as more of those came and went through the years, I started to hear, little by little, more of that constant whisper that is being spoken to all of us:
"You are worthy."
"You are loveable."
"You are so loved."
Listen for it; it's there. Right in those moments when we're so sure it isn't and that life is hopeless... you might just be in for a surprise. God loves to show up in ways that catch us completely off guard. I think it makes Him laugh. It makes me laugh! (In retrospect, anyway.) And it sure makes things more interesting.
Now here's a fun exercise for you: consider all the time you currently spend complaining about all the things you're missing -- all the time you spend worrying that things might never work out. If you spent even half that amount of time, instead, practicing for how things will be when they do work out, what kind of a difference would that make?
I encourage you to do just that. Spend less time worrying, and less thought and speech into planning for the worst. Start getting used to living with joy. Make room for it in your life. Don't act like someone who's a million miles away from their destination; start acting like someone who's already arrived. Practice living with joy rather than fearing it. Because you deserve it.
"For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end."
"Divine Love always has met and always will meet every human need."
-Mary Baker Eddy
Just the other day I got to watch a video about a deep-sea creature called the "mimic octopus." It was a fascinating display of how this animal can take on the likeness of many other, different animals. It's gotten me thinking about how we tend to do the same thing. At the beginning of the Bible, it says how God created mankind in His own image and likeness. And later on, St. James uses the imagery of a mirror as an analogy to explain what our natural condition is like. All of this can be summed up with one simple statement: we were built to reflect.
From the time we're children, we are constantly watching others, mimicking and imitating them, and incorporating the new behaviors we see acted out by others into our own ever-growing repetoire. Children learn entire complex languages this way -- at least in part -- and then continue to develop their abilities through further mimicry and repetition. And there's that old adage, "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery."
But there comes a point when you really need to stop watching others so much, and start doing things yourself. I say this because I've definitely been guilty of the former! In fact, I think most people have. It's something that we often have to learn to grow out of doing so much. Too much focus on watching others leaves us with less time in the day to really be ourselves; it tends to atrophy creativity. And it often comes hand-in-hand with the belief that we just don't matter. But nothing could be further from the truth!
Examples of "too much watching, not enough doing" are in behaviors like watching too much television, compulsively reading gossip columns, obsessing over politics, fantasizing and daydreaming, and pornography. Activities like that mistake consumption for real reflection. Those activities consume without creating anything meaningful. A good litmus test to tell if an activity is really "bad" is whether it leaves you with a mental or spiritual hangover. Honest activities never do. Honest, productive engagements inspire and uplift.
There was an interesting article in the New York Times about politics last October titled, I'm Right! (For Some Reason). The article examined the effectiveness of political "attack" advertisements, and how readily people will rally behind an attack ad against the politician they don't like. But when the same people were asked to explain policy ideas themselves, thereby putting themselves in the shoes of a politician, suddenly everyone became a lot more moderate. It's a lot easier for people to "attack" politicians when they don't feel any accountability for the process themselves -- when they're just passive observers. But if they are forced to think about how to create policy that will impact themselves, their neighbors, and even their opponents, often they become a lot more open to other ideas.
This highlights the importance of being active do-ers rather than just passive watchers. If too much focus on watching others tends to erode moral sensibility, then the opposite must be true, that a focus on being, living, doing actually strengthens self-esteem and values. In the Bible, Jesus sometimes used "light" as a metaphor for ones individuality, like when he said, "let your light so shine before men" or "no one lights a lamp and puts it under a basket, but on a lamp stand -- then its light shines on everyone in the house."
When we're actively filling our time with productive things we can be doing, that is letting our light shine. Then we become more focused on reflecting God rather than just reflecting others. That is the right kind of reflection, which brings with it a sense of freedom, goodness, and satisfaction.
How have you risen to start doing more than watching? How have you gotten over fears that your unique "light" somehow wasn't good enough? And how have you encouraged others to move away from the wall and start dancing, to take that candle out from under the basket and share it with the whole house? Please share your examples in the comments.
To most people, I think that question seems like a pretty straight-forward, yes or no sort of thing. Either you have or you haven't. Baptism is a central and vital part of a lot of Christian denominations. Some believe that a person becomes a "child of God" once baptized through an ordained member of clergy. Others have baptism later in life, a process that inevitably comes with fellowship and acceptance into a community. And some adore the cultural value of a water baptism, with family members coming together in harmony for a big celebration. Certainly, there's nothing wrong with any of these traditions. They are beautiful and sacred and very dear to many. But I want to talk about a different aspect of baptism than just the surface-level (pun intended) submergence into water. I want to talk about what actually goes on in a person's head, in a person's heart, beneath the surface and all appearances.
I'm submerged in water -- in some degree -- each and every day. But do I call that act of submerging myself in water every morning a "baptism"? Well of course not. I call that a shower. So what, then, distinguishes a baptism from a bath?
Also, is there more than one kind of baptism? The Bible uses the words baptize, baptized, and baptism a total of 80 times, exclusively in the New Testament. The eponymous John the Baptist practiced what's referred to as the "baptism of repentance" in the gospels, as a way of paving the way for Christ. But he also spoke of different types of baptism -- as did Jesus -- baptizing with the Holy Ghost, with fire, and with Spirit. Which raises another question: does baptism happen more than just once?
When people came to John the Baptist who were insincere, he detected that and told them to leave and come back when they could prove their sincerity through how they were living their lives. So I think this hints at the fact that baptism is more than just a shower; it's related to how you live your life. And while the baptism of repentance is a very important one, I actually want to table that one from discussion today and focus more on what's called the "baptism of the Holy Ghost."
In an article titled "Pond and Purpose," the Rev. Mary Baker Eddy talks about three different types of baptism and the different states of mind that they correspond to. Here's a little bit of what she has to say.
"The baptism of the Holy Ghost is the spirit of Truth cleansing from all sin; giving ... new motives, new purposes, new affections, all pointing upward. This mental condition settles into strength, freedom, deep-toned faith in God; and a marked loss of faith in evil... It develops individual capacity, increases the intellectual activities, and so quickens moral sensibility...
By purifying human thought, this state of mind permeates with increased harmony all the minutiae of human affairs. It brings with it wonderful foresight, wisdom, and power; it unselfs ... purpose, gives steadiness to resolve, and success to endeavor."
Fresh motives, deep-toned faith in God, success in endeavor... sign me up! I think this is really key -- discussing the states of mind a person experiences. Because regardless of whether you believe that water has to be blessed by a priest, or if you have to recite a specific set of words, or whatever your specific belief, wouldn't you agree that your state of mind and how you subsequently live you life is central?
Have you ever had a moment where you felt so inspired, so energized, like you had a million different things you wanted to do and you couldn't wait to get started? Perhaps someone who's just landed a dream job might be feeling that way, like they can't wait to get to work. Or perhaps someone who's just learned something brand new in school that they really enjoy and can't wait to show off. All these states of mind, where a person is feeling like they've unlocked whatever it is they were made to do -- whatever it is God has called them to do -- corresponds to the "baptism of the Holy Ghost," in some degree.
The simple fact is that water alone does little to inspire a person. It is what's behind it all -- the motives, ambitions, desires, and so on -- that really matters. In the 8th chapter of Acts, there's a story about a rich eunuch who's traveling on a caravan to Jerusalem. Along the way, he encounters Philip, a young Christian disciple, who shows him something he's never seen before. Immediately after being taught, the eunuch desperately asks to be baptized -- he wants to get things started as soon as possible! That encounter ends with the eunuch going on his way, "rejoicing." Then in the 10th chapter of Acts, the apostle Peter -- for the very first time -- welcomes outsiders (non-Jews) into his church and baptizes them. They were "astonished" and overjoyed, and celebrated with him for more than a week straight.
That astonishment, that rejoicing, that state of mind is something that we can cultivate each and every day. That's the state of mind that sees freedom, sees possibility, sees opportunity. That's the state of mind that knows you were made with a purpose and can't wait to dive into really living that purpose. And daily cultivation of that mentality is so much more important than just taking a shower. (Though, please do remember to shower!) Seen in this light, we can also look for ways that we can baptize others, daily. By that I mean we can inspire people, help them unlock their own talents and abilities, and find their own passion in life.
So I ask again: have you been baptized today?
Last week I wrote two blog posts about some of hazards of political discourse. Specifically, I named three hazards, but then only wrote two posts (until now). I confess that I was having a hard time trying to come up with some meaningful content to write for the last point, which is why this post is so delayed. But I think I finally have something.
As I mentioned in my first post in this series, I have observed "intense fear" expressed in the words I read in friends' Facebook posts, relating to politics. There's fear that a politician has a secret, evil agenda which surely means the end for America and all we hold dear. There's fear that a whole nation (or, conveniently, those in it who don't agree with you) have been "brainwashed" or hypnotized into apathy and subjection when they should be protesting. And ultimately, there's the fear that you are powerless to do anything.
Fear never has been and never will be a very productive activity. Nor is any reaction that is ultimately rooted in fear. However, it's important to understand just how challenging it can be for any of us to face our fears and overcome them. An unqualified, "Fear Not!" is often easier said than done.
I still remember when I was about 10 years old, my family and I went to Six Flags Great America. For those of you unfamiliar, Six Flags is an immensely popular theme park, filled with roller coasters, carnival rides, and obnoxiously expensive trinkets. That year was the first year I ever rode a roller coaster. I had been to Six Flags prior, but up until that point I had only ventured as far as "Bugs Bunny Land," the subset of the park specifically geared toward very young children. This was the year I was finally too tall for that section of park, and so now it was time to start thinking about roller coasters.
Except I didn't want to.
Roller coasters were SCARY. It seems so absurd to me now, and in fact I don't even remember the feelings of fear -- I only remember the details that I was very frightened of them at the time. So in a very clever ploy, my uncle made me a deal. He said that if I would go with them on the "Whizzer," which was the smallest and most tame coaster in the park, he would give me a dollar. After a bit of a struggle, I eventually conceded. The ride up that first hill seemed very frightening, but once we got going, I had a blast. And I wanted to ride it again! Hoping he could inspire a little more confidence, he then offered me $2 if I would ride on the "American Eagle" -- a wooden coaster that was definitely bigger than the Whizzer. He could not, however, get me to do that. Not even for $2.
Years later, I've now been on every single coaster in the park more times than I can count, and sometimes backwards. I don't hang onto anything any more; I let my arms dangle freely in the air. I can't get enough of the fast-paced coasters. The idea that I could ever be afraid of those seems so ridiculous. But try telling that to my 10 year old self!
Human beings will always be afraid of something new. It's very much a "human" condition. They will fight tooth and nail to resist thinking about new ideas, or even new presentations of old ideas. This isn't to say that all new ideas are good. But the point I stress is that fear is a phenomenon that every person has to face down in one form or another. So while someone else is dealing with fear (or even when fear is dealing with them), the choice we have to make is how we treat each other along the way. Questions to ask yourself include: how do I love someone that I disagree with, in a meaningful way? How can I bring grace into an argument?
Really removing fear usually requires more of a personal touch, a consistent, patient guiding that can take a lot of time and effort. Platitudes and arguments can never seem to do the trick. It requires the gentle nudging of an aunt or uncle, encouraging you to try new things, but also not chastising you when you're not ready. So in our political discussions with each other, even when feelings seem to run high, remember that ultimately we are one family. And even if that family tends to be rather dysfunctional at times, you are never helpless when it comes to your immediate environment.
Yesterday I wrote about three qualities that I've observed frequently on display in the political discussions we see going on around us. Today I want to address the second of those three, namely "idol worship." I have friends who are Democrats, and friends who are Republicans. During yesterday's presidential inauguration, there was a post circulating about the President, which quoted a line from Scripture:
Who knows whether you are come to the kingdom for such a time as this?
This was, effectively, a declaration that the President has been appointed by God to fix all of the problems the United States is facing (and perhaps more). On the other hand, I've also seen plenty of posts circulating, ever since December, that have drawn a direct comparison between the President and Adolph Hitler, in fulfillment of Godwin's law.
I disagree with both positions. First of all, to compare any U.S. President to Adolph Hitler is not only outlandish, but is just plain juvenile. Obama hasn't committed genocide, nor has Bush, nor has Clinton, and so on. That kind of comparison is immature, reactionary, and has no place in any educated discussion. That is sheer depravity, the lowest state of mortal thought. But on the other hand, to treat the President, or another politician, as some kind of holy Messiah sent from God to finally fix all of humanity's woes isn't really much better. There was only one promised Messiah, and he's already left his mark.
I prefer a more sober approach when evaluating politicans, one that doesn't so easily get sucked up into the pomp and circumstance of the moment, nor get dragged down into the hypnotic fears and conspiracy theories. Is the President a promised Messiah? No. Is the President Adolph Hitler? No. The President is simply a man -- an inherently good man -- who is trying to do his best, to the best of his ability. And while I'll probably never agree with every policy that a given president makes, I know that he (and other presidents) still needs my support, my love, and my prayers. He needs yours, too. I try to approach thinking about politicans from the perspective that asks, "what would I do if I were in that position?" This is the Golden Rule.
Jesus gave us a helpful hint in how to view politicians in their correct light, when he spoke with Pontius Pilate just before the crucifixion. Pilate, a high-ranking official in the Roman empire -- who had undoubtedly worked long and hard to earn his position -- asked Jesus, "don't you realize that I have the power to crucify you, or to let you go?" Jesus responed, "you would have no power at all, except it were given to you from God."
This shows Jesus' acknowledgement that Pilate was in his position because God had put him there. But he places no emphasis, whatsoever, on Pilate himself having any power to help or to harm. Instead, he sees things from the perspective that God's government is perpetually intact. I don't believe in a God who creates a universe that keeps falling out of alignment and subsequently has to find the right politician to fix it. That is a poor estimate of Omniscience. I believe each and every one of us, politicians included, are always right where we need to be in this divine adventure called life. We are each learning more about the realities of life, learning to love our neighbors better, and being who we were made to be more fearlessly, each and every day. I believe that I found the career I'm in by the grace of God, and so I similarly believe the President (as well as former presidents) have been led into their positions because God has ordained them. This does not put them on a pedestal, but instead recongizes that we each have a God-given purpose and place in life, no more or less needed than another's.
To view any person as having a special power or authority exclusive to only them, idolizes them as a god. But to fear and condemn them, hanging onto every word they say, idolizes them as a demon. Both perspectives are ultimately dissatisfying. So I say let's take people off these pedestals, and look less to people but more to ideas. Ideas don't belong to a political party. And most importantly of all, let's continually watch that we are practicing the Golden Rule in our lives and in our thoughts about others. Would you want hoards of people comparing you to Hilter because of a policy suggestion? Or would you want hoards of people displaying captioned pictures of you to show off how righteous and perfect and better than others you are? The Golden Rule is always sound advice.