Punitive

The punitive God of the Old Testament.

That’s what people think.

Joshua and the Israelites are told in chapter 8 to do to Ai as they did to Jericho, only taking its spoil and livestock, but killing the people. This kind of thing is what skeptics hold up as barbaric and indicative of biblical madness meaning either that God is a gleeful and sadistic lover of violence, or that the Bible is not a holy and revealed word but made up by sinful people, leaving us no actual guideline from a lofty, non-specific kind of god.

Jesus passes most of the postmodern scrutiny, but Jehovah? Where do we find the punitive spirit of this bloody passage in the compassion of Jesus, if they are supposed to be one God? Actually, as I was thinking about it this morning, we kind of do. Jesus’ compassion extends to the depth of forcefully removing all that could separate us from him, surgically if necessary. Jesus calls on two occasions in Matthew’s gospel for us to tear out our eyes (Gloucester-style) and cut off our hands and feet if they cause us to sin. (Matt 5:29-30, 18:8-9)

Sometimes, when caught off guard, I don’t know what to say to such objections about Jehovah’s cleansing instructions. It is a matter of state of mind: If I’m not absolute enough with myself, I’m going to be offended when God is absolute with other people.

I normally do not consider cutting my arm off. It sounds barbaric. If I were Aron Ralston (in 127 Hours) trapped between a rock and a hard place with the choice to die there or to cut my arm off and possibly escape, I might consider it. And funny enough, Gloucester ‘saw better’ which son loved him and which one did not after he lost his eyes.

127 Hours

 

Gloucester Edgar

Edgar finding his father

The Scoreboard of Life

This is ultimately not about the World Cup happening right now this beautiful 2014, but the title was inspired by it being that I think scoring goals in soccer / football is not just due to skill and teamwork but also a matter of psychology. You know when you are so sure that a certain team is not going to catch up after losing a goal? I don’t think it’s purely thanks to skill and teamwork, but also the momentum of morale at that point.

Anyways, these are actually thoughts about living faith and the psychology behind it that I got from some insights about the psychology of learning.

Carol S. Dweck speaks about the psychology of learning in education, and has an acclaimed book entitled Mindset. This is my transcript from the first part (the first 2.5 minutes) of a talk she gave on the subject, entitled How to Help Every Child Fulfil Their Potential:

Here’s that talk:

  • [Picture of a happy baby.] We all come like this: infinitely curious, always experimenting, always learning, and addressing the most difficult tasks of a lifetime with tremendous gusto. You never see an unmotivated baby. [Picture of a bored, smoking baby ‘bum’, face propped by up a hand.] Nooo. And yet, just a few years later, you start seeing lots of kids who look as turned off as that baby. [Picture of a young student in a pose like the baby, minus the cigarette.] Not so different from the baby.
  • But what we have now discovered is that mindsets are at the heart of this kind of problem. Mindsets that make kids afraid to try, and make them easily derailed by setbacks. But what’s important is that we are also discovering why this happens, and what to do about it.
  • In my work, we find that some students have a fixed mindset about their intellectual abilities and talents. They think intelligence is just a fixed trait: you have a certain amount and that’s that. This is the mindset that makes kids afraid to try, because they’re afraid to look dumb.
  • But other students have a growth mindset. They believe that intelligence can be developed through their effort, dedication, learning, and mentorship from others. They don’t think that everyone’s the same, or that anyone can be Einstein, but they understand that even Einstein wasn’t the guy he became before he put in years and years of dedicated labour.

It’s a great talk on its own, but being the distracted listener that I am whenever someone gives an informative talk, I started to draw the parallels between a mindset about intelligence with a Christian walk and the mindset about faith:

  • Babies are born with an openness and willingness to know God, and most children too. After some years, you get teens who become doubtful, skeptical, or legalistic, and they can grow into adults who are even more so.
  • Our mindset about faith and its cultivation at the heart of this problem. Certain mindsets make us afraid to trust God and easily derailed by setbacks. As such, we do not live freely.
  • Some Christians have a fixed mindset. This could be because they see ‘faith’ as a binary of believing or not believing, so you either have it or don’t have it. God chose you and that’s that, so we have no obligation to do more. This could also be because they see faith associated with ‘legitimate’ activities showing the abundance of your faith: working in ministry, being a missionary, successfully making lots of money (to tithe though, you know), being married, being a mom/dad… This mindset makes Christians narrow-minded and focused on the Scoreboard of Life. If they are hitting certain checkboxes they are on track as Christians, and easily satisfied by things other than God and God’s plans. If they fail in that work or lose that role, they do not know their purpose or value, and this can cause them to be embittered with God. They are afraid of change, because it takes away the confidence of faith they’ve built up in their chosen check points.
  • But other Christians  have a growth mindset. They believe that faith can be developed through their effort, dedication, learning, and mentorship from others. It’s not that they think everyone can save themselves through those efforts, but they know that after God has set us aside and saved us, we must respond by taking personal steps of faith, and not just to meet a set of standard criteria set by societal norms or even church norms. They understand that even the greatest men and women of faith put in years and years of dedicated labour, and even Jesus as a child made an effort to learn and know God’s Word well. They understand that faith is a constant development and that there is no plateau to reach and no stagnancy in what God expects of us. We are not to look constantly at a Scoreboard of Life on which we decide how successful or unsuccessful we are being as Christians personally, but we are to fix our eyes on Jesus, author and perfecter of our faith, not to grow weary with sin or prideful with success. They understand that being too occupied with the things of this world that can be seen is not the best that God intends for us, and they hold things and people loosely before God, despite loving them deeply.

Alright, I don’t know if my theology is completely straight with every word there, and I know for sure there are other good parallels I am not drawing, but I think the general outline compares well. Am I fixing my eyes on the Scoreboard of Life (I have a job, I’m witnessing to co-workers, I have a Christian husband, I have a beautiful family, I have smart well-adjusted kids…) or am I fixing my eyes on Jesus, counsellor for the one who gives and takes away?

To go further, Carol Dweck lists 3 worlds in which the mindset about intelligence works:

  1. Goals
    1. Fixed mindset: look smart at all costs
    2. Growth mindset: learn at all costs
  2. Effort
    1. Fixed mindset: it should come naturally; if you have the ability you don’t need effort
    2. Growth mindset: work hard, because effort is key
  3. Setbacks
    1. Fixed mindset: hide mistakes and deficiencies
    2. Growth mindset: capitalise on mistakes and confront deficiencies

I can see this translated too for faith:

  1. Goals
    1. Fixed mindset: look smart faithful at all costs
    2. Growth mindset: learn develop faith at all costs
  2. Effort
    1. Fixed mindset: it should come naturally; if you have the ability faith you don’t need effort works
    2. Growth mindset: work hard, because effort actively trusting God in everyday things is key
  3. Setbacks
    1. Fixed mindset: hide mistakes sin and deficiencies
    2. Growth mindset: capitalise on mistakes and boast in deficiencies and confront deficiencies sin

 

Waiting (cont.) … then Beholding!

Behold, I am doing a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.  -Isaiah 43:19

When you speak of waiting, the wait times can vary. Taking a ticket for 098 when the counter displays 016 feels disheartening, but taking one for 94789 when the counter is 94787 is almost, just almost, like winning a lottery. When you wait on God, there is no counter, and often no definite outcome, there is only trust. He will do good.

Suddenly, all my troubles seem so far away…

Alright, that was in a quote offset, but it’s not actually a quote. It’s a misquote of The Beatles song, Yesterday. It actually goes, “Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away…” and, “Suddenly, I’m not half the man I used to be…”

My point is, though, that God works almost under the radar. Oftentimes it seems like He’s just waiting until you let your guard down, until you reluctantly lay down a burden of your own expectations and desires or whatever else, and as soon as it leaves your hand, BAM, he roars, “Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

I know this section in Isaiah is foretelling Christ as the new thing God is doing, the path to God in the desert of sin, but just like you seek God, find Him, and then continue seeking God for the rest of your life to know Him more deeply, Christ is The New Thing to a worn and weary generation, and yet God keeps reminding us to look to Christ anew, and to look to Himself for new things. New hope, new life, new beginnings.

No matter how much I try to guess what the new thing is, I never get it. Ever. It’s always always beyond what I could come up with, though I may come close. (I think I do like it that way.) It’s at a different time, or under different circumstances, or in a different way.

Here goes one more on the counter for a new thing that has sprung forth! God is funny, and I feel like Jesus must have been tremendously humorous as a man.

Waiting

Waiting, a topic which reminds me about why this blog exists. The point is to dwell on and consider ideas, expressing thoughts and testing them so that I give myself a mnemonic in some ways about certain themes and concepts that emerge as I write.

A long-ish while ago I wrote about learning to see “waiting” as an activity that is not a totally passive thing, but like waitressing. “Waiting” (tables) does not mean kicking back, relaxing, and zoning out. “Waiting” (tables) is certainly not constantly pestering where you are serving. “Waiting” (tables) is more like approaching to do what should be done at the suitable time, and hanging back at suitable times.

Now don’t take my waitressing advice too seriously in a restaurant business sense, as I once infamously waitressed a few times one summer, on my way to discovering what I am and am not good at. You can guess whether I was or was not good at waitressing. Anyhow, this past Sunday, I was reminded about waiting once again, but from a different perspective. God waits for us. Why doesn’t He reveal Himself to everyone if He wants humanity to worship Him? Why doesn’t He change us instantly if He really wants us to be a certain way, or be a certain kind of person? Why doesn’t He this or that and whatnot? Sometimes He waits for us to change our attitude first and return to Him broken and contrite; then, at the suitable time, He acts.

For thus said the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel,
In returning and rest you shall be saved;
in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.
But you were unwilling, and you said,
“No! We will flee upon horses”;
therefore you shall flee away;
and, “We will ride upon swift steeds”;
therefore your pursuers shall be swift.
A thousand shall flee at the threat of one;
at the threat of five you shall flee,
till you are left
like a flagstaff on the top of a mountain,
like a signal on a hill.
Therefore the LORD waits to be gracious to you,
and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you.
For the LORD is a God of justice;
blessed are all those who wait for him.
(Isaiah 30:15-18 ESV)

By nature, waiting implies that there is something that you are waiting for. In our waiting then, if we are waiting in the ways we should so that we can act at the suitable time, let us be watchful waiters. Watchful, for we do not always know what we are waiting for.

The Bottom of the Peanut Butter Jar

The best and worst experiences of eating peanut butter usually happen at the same time. Using the tip of a butter knife to scrape the bottom of a jar is like using a paintbrush to sweep the floor, or a Q-Tip to wipe down the counter. Be that as it may, it often works out that you need to open the next jar of peanut butter to finish spreading your piece of bread/toast/waffle/apple etc.. Dunking that knife into the smooth creamy surface of a full jar is very satisfying. You could take a chunk as big as your fist if you wanted.

Full and Empty PB

Life  seems to happen like that too. The best of times and the worst of times often come on the heels of the other. Although I dislike being in the worst of times, I’ve developed an acquired taste for them because when you’re on edge like that, high on discontent, high on consciousness of your limitations and faults, high on awareness of the forthcoming expiry of the broken world, you’re better at not letting the world drag you into slothful stupor. You are purposeful with how you spend your physical, emotional, mental energy, the little you can muster. Bittersweet.

Have you noticed that when you ingest something bitter, it can leave a nice sweet aftertaste in your mouth, and if you eat a bunch of sweet things, it can leave a nasty bitter-sour aftertaste? This is similar to life situations. When things are hard, you go looking to God for help, because you need reliable help. You actually seek Him like He is the water of eternal life. The Word on which to live, because man does not live on bread alone. This makes a bitter situation sweet. When things are mediocre, same old same old, kinda nice, sweet, smooth sailing, or some combination thereof, we get by on our own. This too, is bittersweet. Sweetbitter. You do it but you know it’s nasty.

Did Charles Dickens not write, in A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…?”

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Not that I agree with Dickens completely, but don’t you see in that quote a certain sense of awareness of eternity awakened in this state of superlative existence — in this state of living in the extremes? I hear many people tell me they wish life were boring and didn’t have all these ups and downs. I don’t think so: the middle ground is my least favourite time to be in. I am least proud of the state of my heart at these times. At these times I have, and I think it’s natural for most people to have, a take-it-or-leave-it approach to God.

James in light of Kony 2012

A few evenings ago, my roommate asked me if I had seen all the posts about Kony on facebook. What? Who?

That’s likely the reaction of most people upon first hearing this name… first, is that a name or a thing? Oh right. Joseph Kony is a Ugandan man wanted for numerous atrocities. There’s a video by the organization called Invisible Children that aims to catch him by making him infamous around the world; they plan to do that by encouraging any and everyone to share it, tweet it, blog it (hm… that would be what I’m doing I suppose)… I won’t link to this video, because not linking is part of my point. You can easily Google/Youtube it yourself.

[Since writing this post, I have watched the video, though I wanted to reflect first before watching it and being ‘swept off my feet’. Scroll down to see thoughts post-viewing.]

I have admittedly not watched it or thought much about it, being of the sort who generally avoids viral internet trends, but I have read a thing or two. First I read this blog post by Tim Challies (http://www.challies.com/articles/kony-2012), then I followed a link from that post to this one written by Kilama Dennis, a Ugandan survivor of some of those aforementioned atrocities (http://arccuganda.blogspot.com/2012/03/kony-2012-survivors-perspective.html). Finally, having read those two posts, I was reminded of several parts of the book of James that I studied some months ago.

James 1:19 -21
19 Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. 21 Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.

James 1:26-27
26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

James 4:11-12
11 Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. 12 There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?

James 5:7-11
7 Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. 8 You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. 9 Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door. 10 As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11 Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.

Now, the caveat here is that you read those two blog posts and at least the passages from James quoted above before reading on. Otherwise, what I say here rather briefly will not be as sensical as intended.

As Kilama Dennis admitted, “the thought of capturing Kony arouses more anger, more pain and feelings of revenge that are unbiblical.” According to James, that would be focusing more on taking justice into our own hands than on showing mercy and love to the “widows and orphans” who were oppressed and are still in despair. That is not to say social justice is unimportant or that capturing Kony would be a bad thing, but that social justice in the sense of showing mercy and giving hope to the oppressed is vastly different from the justice of retribution on the person of Joseph Kony. The important thing is less to capture him and more to show mercy and give support to the oppressed. To quote James verbatim, “the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” As Dennis points out, justice is not going to be inaugurated by the capture of Kony, for there are many others who are just as bad or worse, but justice on earth occurs if “the oppressed are restored and given living hope.”

Here is one more quote from Dennis that I appreciate. He naturally craves revenge — in his human and sinful nature. But, “Now,” he says, “I realize that revenge is for God, I personally have handed Kony over to God. The gospel of Jesus has helped me over come these feelings, the thought of arresting Kony arouses sin in me, reminds me of how hopeless I am and how people do not understand me.”

So as James says, “You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.”

The important matter is not capturing Kony, but making good our concern for the victims by restoring the brokenhearted and giving hope to the hopeless. This does not necessarily mean you need to support these specific Ugandans either! If you are supporting people who are poor/oppressed/hopeless elsewhere, that is just as good. That’s the kind of pure and undefiled religion that James 1:27 speaks of.

——————————————————
——— After watching the video ———
——————————————————

So, I’ve just watched the KONY 2012 video. I think I still stand by this post that I wrote before watching it. I also now understand why it’s “KONY 2012” in capitals with the year: It’s election year in the U.S.

This video is about human triumph. It’s about American triumph. It’s about the American dream, where one regular man can work his way up to make a difference. There are many great things about this video. First, it tries to make people care about something that matters. If Kony is caught, all the children in the LRA and all the children whom he could kidnap will be free. Second, it manipulates our emotions through the clips with the guy’s son and with Jacob to make us care. Third, it shows carefully selected footage and music to motivate us to act and be part of a great cause.

A slight concern I still have with the video is that it generalizes the success over capturing J. Kony to mean ‘saving the world’. Tell me that’s not what you feel in the panoramic shots of the ‘army of peace’ standing united and the plastering of posters all over the city to upbeat music.

The main reason I still stand by my prior post is… Mao Zedong, previous chairman of Communist China. Why? Similar to Kony, but in the 1960s, he brainwashed almost a million Chinese youth, who called themselves Red Guards, to be loyal only to him, and to tattle on parents who weren’t loyal to Mao, or just hadn’t memorized his Little Red Book or hung his picture in their mantleplace. Mao gave these youth whips and had them torturing parents, relatives and anyone else, sometimes killing them, and certainly handing them over to the Chinese Communist Army to then be incarcerated and subjected to brainwashing. One method of torture was to make them kneel on broken glass. Mao is dead now, but the youth who were scarred by this are still scarred. What I am saying, I suppose, is that stopping the tyrant is important, but it’s also easy to forget about those who live in the aftermath of a tyrant’s destruction when the tyrant is gone. Osama Bin Laden has finally been caught, but is the world a much better place, like the rhetoric prior to his capture suggested? No, because Joseph Kony is still out there. After Joseph Kony is caught, will the world be a much better place? No, because the next tyrant is is still out there.

What should we do? I can’t say definitively. I’ll admit that. You could join in the KONY 2012 cause. That wouldn’t be a bad thing. It would be a good thing if your heart is in the right place about it. But don’t go in thinking that it alone will change the world. And don’t be deluded that you will change the world and make it all better. That is for God.

If by this time you still have not read Kilama Dennis’ blog post, you should. (http://arccuganda.blogspot.com/2012/03/kony-2012-survivors-perspective.html) It’s from the perspective of a Ugandan survivor, not an American middle class man who wants to leave a legacy. It’s humble, and strikes me as the thoughts of a peacemakers who will be blessed, for they shall be called sons of God. Matthew 5:9

More on the topic:

http://newhopeuganda.org/2012/03/21/a-loving-caring-family-lets-them-know-we-care/ [plus a video response]

Seasons

SEASON of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

So begins John Keats’ ode To Autumn, the oft-chosen favourite of high school poem reciters. This is due to its great multisensual imagery as well as its accessibility: it’s not too lewd, not too metaphysical, and still a classic poem. I quote it here because it mentions seasons of fruitfulness and how full they seem; so full that you begin to think this is they way things will always be.

When you’re in a season of something, it is easy to imagine it going on indefinitely, whether in good times or bad. The thing is, we are not to know when everything will come to pass, or when seasons begin and end. What we do know is that God has fixed these times for his good reasons, and he changes the times. You may have a season of joblessness, or of loneliness, or of public acclamation, or of deep companionship. The fruit from these times will last, but they are fleeting in light of eternity.

6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:6-8)

20 Daniel answered and said:

“Blessed be the name of God forever and ever,
to whom belong wisdom and might.
21 He changes times and seasons;
he removes kings and sets up kings;
he gives wisdom to the wise
and knowledge to those who have understanding;
22 he reveals deep and hidden things;
he knows what is in the darkness,
and the light dwells with him. (Daniel 2:20-22)