Gordon Myers

Articles on Life, Truth, Love, Computers, and Music


Backstage with Ryan Lerman

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."
-Robert Heinlein

"...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.


Higher Fidelity

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.


Fun with QR codes

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!


URL:
Text:
(optional)
Resize:
Download:
 


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.


Getting used to living with joy

"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."
-Jeremiah

"Divine Love always has met and always will meet every human need."
-Mary Baker Eddy


Mirrors and Light

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.


Have you been baptized today?

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?


Fear and Family

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.


Politics and Pedestals

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.


Casting the Beam out of Political Discourse

I don't participate in a lot of political discussions. But I do like to stay informed on current events (often through the Christian Science Monitor), and over the last couple of months I've seen an increased number of political discussions taking place on Facebook. Often these political "discussions" end up being entirely one-sided, or if someone does work up the courage to express an opposing viewpoint, it's quickly cut up into little pieces by an army of defensive friends. And this takes place on both "sides" of the political spectrum.

Frankly, a lot of the issues themselves don't really concern me. Or at least, they don't concern me nearly as much as the thoughts and behaviors of my friends who are expressing them. I already know where I stand on many political issues, and honestly... no Facebook status message (even one in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS!) is likely ever going to change another's viewpoint, when that viewpoint is already shaped by experience. But the political issues we so vehemently debate rarely touch on the real issues that people care about, deep in their hearts. Politics are often used as a filter, or a mask, for the underlying fears and frustrations that we face. So even after someone debates the popular issues until they're blue in the face, they're still left with the same lingering concerns about life and the future. Those concerns are what I try to discern, and what really matter.

Through this filter of politics, I have observed the following three qualities seep through most frequently, each of which I want to address separately:

  1. Self-righteousness
  2. Idol worship
  3. Intense fear

I'm only going to touch on the first one in today's blog post, namely "self-righteousness." What's the first thing you think of when you hear "self-righteousness"? Do you think of someone else, someone who has acted in a self-righteous or judgmental way toward you, or others? Maybe it's not even a specific person, but a hazy archetype that you've conceived in your head? Well, I've found it's been more helpful to check my own behaviors first, before condemning the behaviors of others. This isn't a new idea either. Here's a quote from Jesus:

How can you say to your brother, "Let me take the speck out of your eye," when there is a log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.

When I speak of "self-righteousness," I urge you to first examine yourself and no one else. This is what Jesus taught and practiced. Are you a self-righteous person? "No." Well if you say "no," do you really believe anyone else would respond to that question saying, "oh yes, that's me"? Few people ever truly think of themselves as being self-righteous. Yet we observe the phenomena anyway. So rather than focusing on correcting everyone else, start by watching for it in your own thinking.

If someone else has expressed a dissenting opinion, ask yourself: have I honestly been willing to listen to them? Or have I judged them to be a "hater," or "ignorant", or any other dismissive adjective? People sometimes believe that our politics will ultimately determine our legacy. They think that if we're just on the "right side" of things, we'll be remembered as loving and righteous. No, no, no! Be loving right now. How you treat others -- especially those who disagree with you -- says a lot more for how you'll be remembered. That doesn't mean you have to acquiesce to an opinion you don't agree with. But just because you don't agree with someone doesn't mean you can't have a civil conversation with them. And it certainly doesn't mean you can't still love them!

Jesus taught that to mistreat or malign the "least" of people was to mistreat and malign himself. But when he spoke of the "least of them," he spoke in relative terms. In other words, you don't get to pick who the "least of them" are in advance. The "least" are whoever comes into your experience, not only the predetermined social groups that you already love to defend. Ask yourself: am I equally willing to see, and defend, the divinity within those that I disagree with?

And you know, you're going to fail at this. I've failed at it before, and I'm sure I'll fail at it again. But that is where grace comes in, to rescue us. People have an innate desire to love and to forgive; it is hard-wired in the very fabric of our being. So what if you were dismissed or alienated in a political discussion? Be willing to forgive and forget, however many times it takes. What if you were the one who made someone else feel alienated or unwelcome, and you're just now realizing it? Well hopefully you can actually see that (which is a huge step!), and then trust God to present an opportunity for reconciliation, an opportunity for grace. When you see something in yourself that is in error, acknowledge it as wrong, learn from it so that you don't do it again, and then forgive yourself and move on.

This may make for some rather messy discussions. But I know that God doesn't care about what political party you voted for, or whether two people have differing opinions on taxes and gun control. He cares about what's in your heart, and how we treat others along the way. To close, here is an excerpt from The Master's Men by William Barclay, without further comment:

The constitution of the twelve [apostles] presents us with a situation which is nothing less than a miracle in personal relationships. Within that society there was Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot -- Matthew who had accepted the political situation, and who was profitably engaged in help to administer it, and Simon who would have assassinated any Roman whom he could reach and would have plunged a dagger into any Jew who dared to cooperate with the Romans.

The plain truth is that, if Simon had met Matthew under any other circumstances, he would have murdered him. [...] Here is one of the greatest of all examples of personal enmity destroyed by common love of Christ.


Gratitude and Spaghetti Sauce

When I got home from work, I was already feeling pretty "grey." I'm not quite sure what it was, but there seemed to be this fog, this mental haziness, that was pulling me down. I was fighting it. At the same time, I was in a hurry to make dinner as I have band practice at 7:00 on Tuesday evenings, which doesn't leave a whole lot of time for preparing and eating a meal. I decided on spaghetti as my quick and easy solution. There was an open jar of spaghetti sauce in the fridge with just enough left for one person, plus I was sure there was another, unopened jar somewhere in the kitchen. I had seen it just the other day.

As I was pulling out the noodles, my roommate arrived home, so I asked if he'd like some spaghetti too. He happily agreed. I got the water boiling, he went upstairs, and I started searching the kitchen for that stray jar of spaghetti sauce. I looked and looked. I opened every single cupboard, every single cabinet, every single drawer. I stood on chairs to get better vantage points. I double checked. I triple checked. I did find a tiny, 8 oz. can of store-brand tomato sauce, but I was looking for the 45 oz. jar of spaghetti sauce, loaded full of meat and vegetables. I just knew I had seen it!

"Wait!" I stopped myself. I knew how to handle this; I could pray. God was there. I stopped frantically looking around, sat down, and started to pray. "Father, I can't find this spaghetti sauce for the life of me. I promised my roommate I would make him spaghetti but there isn't enough here for the both of us. Please help!" I declared this was a right, honest activity, so God would help me. A lot of familiar Bible stories came to mind, like the one about the woman who poured out jars of oil and they miraculously just kept pouring, and the one about how Jesus fed thousands of people with only a handful of bread and fish. I had no confidence whatsoever that anything quite so miraculous could happen to me, but I was hopeful that I would at least hear some intuition that would tell me to look in a spot I hadn't already checked.

The trouble was, as far as I knew, there weren't any spots left. I had already "left no stone unturned." So I wanted divine assistance. And in my heart, it was more than just about finding a jar of spaghetti sauce. What I was really yearning for was to feel closer to God, because frankly He felt leagues away. To me, that jar of spaghetti sauce represented an acknowledgment that I wasn't trudging through life alone, that I hadn't been forsaken, and that I wasn't stuck. I didn't want to come up with any ideas of my own; I wanted it to be unmistakeably coming from God. But I didn't hear any answers. And then the water boiled over.

I went back to my own flustered reasoning. "I could have sworn I had another jar of spaghetti sauce!" "Did my roommate use it up?" "Did I throw it out?" I realized that I could try to make do with the 8 oz. jar of tomato sauce, but it probably still wouldn't be enough. Plus, that didn't feel like a "divine solution" to me, that felt like a makeshift, last-ditch effort I had come up with on my own to get this to work. But it was all that I had and the clock was ticking. I scraped out the first jar of spaghetti sauce using a spatula. Then I opened up the tiny jar of tomato sauce and added it to the mix. It surprised me. 8 ounces was a lot more than I had thought! As I mixed it together, I realized it was going to be just the right amount after all.

Dinner was lovely, albeit quick. But it wasn't until after dinner when it finally hit me: my prayer had already been answered before I ever sat down and folded my hands. I had just been refusing to accept that answer. I never found that extra jar of spaghetti sauce like I had hoped, but all of my needs were met and I was able to keep the promise I had made to my roommate. It didn't seem as great and wonderful as my original plan, but it was still wholesome. I realized that my error had been my attempt to be the author of this story, rather than a character in God's story. Characters don't get to write the ending of the story. They just have to humbly accept what the author has already written.

I pray a lot. I know plenty about Scripture and plenty about prayer. But tonight's experience made me ask myself, "Am I really grateful for all the good I have already received?" It's not the first time I've heard that wake-up call. When I first noticed that "tiny" jar of plain, store-brand tomato sauce, I dismissed it with scorn. And that is actually a really useful metaphor, I think. Didn't the early Jews do exactly the same thing to Jesus? They were searching and searching and searching for the promised Messiah. They knew plenty about Scripture and plenty about prayer, too. They had been raised on the stories of a mighty warrior king riding in to finally defeat the Roman empire and bring them into a prosperous kingdom of glory and abundance. In a sense, they were waiting for that 45 oz. jar of chunky, meaty spaghetti sauce. So when the son of a carpenter showed up, saddled on a donkey, they were less than impressed. That was just like the pathetic 8 oz. can of tomato sauce. How could that ever be enough?

I'm taking this experience tonight as a helpful reminder that sometimes the answer we're looking for is already right in front of our faces, but it's our own stubbornness that prevents us from seeing that. I've already had moments of desperation where I've cried out to God in prayer, looking for some sort of acknowledgment, and have gotten it in pretty remarkable ways. I'll have to save some of those stories, perhaps, for another day. Tonight I didn't get quite the same treatment, but I did get exactly what I needed to hear: a reminder that everything I need is already at hand, and it will be enough. It may not seem all that glamorous, but at the end of the day, it is nourishing and wholesome. I was left with two questions, so I leave you, dear reader, with the same two questions. Are we honestly grateful for everything we already we have on hand? And are we recognizing the solutions that may already be staring us in the face, or are we being stubborn?

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