Thursday, November 29, 2007

To my devoted reader

      And I do mean that in the singular, though there is the outside chance that I am underestimating my readership by a factor of 2. I have realized that the longer I procrastinate from writing a blog post, the harder it is to sum up all that has been going on in my mind. So in order to update you on the last six months or so of my life, let me do so in a literary sprint for the sake of space and time (and space-time):

      I got married on 7/7/07 and spent a lovely honeymoon with my lovely wife on the coast of Maine. I moved into a lovely stone house (that we are renting) in a historic neighborhood with my lovely wife and got a new car. We had an amazing time in Michigan with family and an adventure or two getting there and back. We saw Nickel Creek in concert on their “Farewell for Now” tour and it was pretty awesome. My wife went back to school (she teaches first grade) and we settled down into a wonderful married routine that is rather predictable, but not at all dull. We bought lots of furniture, spent a weekend in the wilderness of Northern New Hampshire, and hosted our first Thanksgiving for her parents, her sister, and about 8 college students from at least 5 foreign countries (Singapore, China, Swaziland, Russia, Texas, and North Dakota). I do know that those last two are not foreign countries, but each is more or less half of a foreign country and together should make a whole one. After Thanksgiving dinner we took a walk and then watched “The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming!” That next Saturday we cut down our first Christmas tree and decorated it. Now I’m in New Orleans for a conference and staying in a nice hotel just outside the French Quarter. That is the last six months of my life in a paragraph.

      Of course any one of the above sentences is plenty of fodder for an entire blog post (especially the first one, which could probably be several), but you’ll just have to ask for more details (though I will tell you that the thanksgiving menu included brie cheese & mango chutney, raspberry pepper jelly & cream cheese, Vermont cheddar cheese, crackers, cranberry & pear sauce, salad, green beans, carrots, stuffing, cornbread dressing, blue mashed potatoes, smoked turkey & gravy, pecan pie, apple pie, pumpkin pie, and homemade vanilla ice cream). In addition to the many things that have happened in my personal life, there have been many blog posts kicking around in my head (“all of them so much more brilliant and convincing than the [blog posts] that I have written” to slightly misquote G. K. Chesterton). In similar fashion to the summary above, I will elaborate on a couple of them, but give each a paragraph rather than a sentence as above.

Blog Post 999 of those I have never written:

      For this post I have to beg the forgiveness of those who don’t live in the shadow of the new black hole at the new center of the sports universe (by which I mean Boston). Between the Red Sox, the Patriots, the Celtics, and the Bruins (though I confess I don’t care at all about hockey), sports in the New England area has become the focus of much national attention and even more local pride. The specific controversy (or controversies) I have been pondering is the phenomenon of the New England Patriots football team. The bare facts run like this: After the first game of the season, the Patriots were accused of videotaping defensive signals of their opponents and fined seriously for it. This year they have been dominating opponents regularly by 40 points, leaving their starters in until almost the very end of the game, going for it on fourth down when up by 30+ points, and generally breaking just about every offensive record known to football scorekeepers. Of course, there is much speculation on what causal connection there might be between the two previous sentences and I don’t want to indulge in any of that. There are two points that I want to make, the first being the most off topic: Most of the talk is gossip created by the media. The Patriots are very professional, play very well, and have said nothing at all about trying to humiliate their opponents, run up the score, or get back at the league for the punishment and the subsequent ill comments thrown in their direction. The media has painted them as a team with an overdeveloped sense of vengeance, a hulk-sized chip on its shoulder, and a burning ambition to be the best football team ever. With this as their literary assumption, the media has taken turns vilified and praising the Patriots for their tactics (“Don’t run up the score on Joe Gibbs, that’s unsportsmanlike” turns to “there’s no crying in professional football, if you don’t want them to go for it on fourth down when they’re up by 37 points then stop them”). The second point I would like to make about the Patriots is that they are to a man unconcerned about what the media or anybody else says about them. They are always respectful of their opponents and yet defeat them with an air of methodic humility that the scoreboard hides very well. I find that a very challenging example. Maybe they do leave their starters in a little longer than other people think they should and score an extra touchdown or three when they’ve got the game pretty well in the bag, but they have a faith in themselves and their coach that affords them a very humble outlook and they do their very best regardless of what other people think. I must confess that I often get by with enough effort to please others when I could easily do better. I also have to confess that I don’t have that much faith in God, though I profess him to be much more in control than the Patriots think Bill Belicheck is. I pray that I can fight my enemies with such calm assurance and humility.

Blog Post 42 of those I have never written:

      I have come to the somewhat obvious and probably misunderstood revelation that I am slow. Before you misunderstand my meaning, let me explain. I don’t mean that I am unintelligent (in fact I have a pretty high view of my own intelligence). Perhaps a better way to say it would be to say that I think slowly. John Steinbeck once wrote that he couldn’t just sit down and write about his experiences, but that those experiences had to simmer and stew and ferment in his mind before he could make sense of them on paper. That is what I mean. I mean I am not good at debating or impromptu speaking; I would not make a good politician or courtroom lawyer. In that vein, I have been stewing a couple of thoughts for a while. One such thought I think came from my pastor and it went something like this: “One great misconception that drives our culture today is that the universe is a closed system with a limited amount of resources. The practical effect of this is that there may not be enough to go around, so you’d better get all you can, can all you get, and sit on your can.” The last part I think came much later than the first, but in a relevant context. The obvious application of this principle is in the material realm. We are not generous with our money and possessions because we don’t really believe that God can or will shower his blessings on his people. The less obvious application is that the same idea applies to time and our safety or wellbeing. We act as if God has not put enough time in the day or that he will not work everything for the good of those who love Him. We are so enamored will all the many “opportunities” that we have that we do not trust God to give us the opportunities that we really need; we are practical atheists. Despite the many ways that He has provided for us (from our existence to our talents to our salvation in Christ), we still cannot bring ourselves to trust Him. God is the “I am” not the “I might be” or “I could be.” We need to trust God to be God and to unclench our fists and let go of all those things of which we don’t trust Him to give us enough, whether it be material wealth, time, or choices.

Blog Post 43 of those I have never written:

      If I were to make an entire blog post out of the previous paragraph, I would probably connect it to this other thought that is newly fermenting in my mind: We as a culture think that freedom consists entirely of a lack of all restrictions. There is some truth in that thought in the human sense; we can (wrongly or rightly) restrict and repress our fellow humans and take away their freedom. But I think we wrongly take that small truth and apply it to bigger things than it can rightly handle. We put our freedom in opposition to God’s conquering love and forget that our “freedom” has bound us in sin; we put freedom up as a divinely ordained right and forget that God gave us our freedom by restrictions and separations (we are no longer free to be the dust of the earth, but by insisting on our freedom we will get exactly that). We have forgotten the pleasure and joy there is to be found in the restrictions that God has given us and that rightly define who we are. As Chesterton put it:

      “It is plain on the face of the facts that the child is positively in love with limits. He uses his imagination to invent imaginary limits. The nurse and the governess have never told him that it is his moral duty to step on alternate paving-stones. He deliberately deprives this world of half its paving-stones, in order to exult in a challenge that he has offered himself. I played that kind of game with myself all over the mats and boards and carpets of the house; and, at the risk of being detained during His Majesty’s pleasure, I will admit that I often play it still. In that sense I have constantly tried to cut down the actual space at my disposal; to divide and subdivide, into these happy prisons, the house in which I was quite free to run wild. . . . This game of self-limitation is one of the secret pleasures of life.”

      Of course, there is much more to the quote about pretending the couch is an island and other such self-limiting activities, but if I did not stop there I might just go on quoting the whole of his autobiography. I think Chesterton is exactly right that children enjoy restricting themselves because such restriction is a mirroring of divine creativity; by restricting ourselves with such seeming arbitrariness, we are taking part in the divine activity of creating by separation. If there is that much joy and pleasure in the seemingly arbitrary restrictions, how much more will we find in those that God has built for our pleasure and existence?

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Suffering & Miscellany

      Well, it’s been two months since my last post. “Not a little negligence” indeed. As an excuse, it turns out that there is a little bit of planning that goes into a wedding. That is especially true when one’s fiancée is a schoolteacher and not able to do any of the things that have to be done during normal business hours. It is even further complicated if your wedding is nowhere near either set of parents and so they are similarly excluded from much of the business end of things. It is a good thing that God is in charge and I am not because I would be much lazier than I can afford to be nowadays.

      On the other hand, I get to be lazy this week. Somewhat. I am out in Salt Lake City for work, going to the Acoustical Society of America spring conference. There are morning and afternoon talks and poster sessions every day this week and a couple of social functions designed to keep us scientists from being so antisocial, but I am free to do what I want. Yesterday afternoon, after I checked in too late to get into any of the sessions, I found a cute little sandwich shop and had a late lunch, then returned and did some work on wedding stuff before going to dinner with my supervisor and a collaborator of his. This afternoon there were no sessions that piqued my curiosity, so I walked around downtown, saw the temple square, ate at Carl Jr.’s, and took lots of pictures and detours. Now I’m back in my hotel room on the free wireless, keeping up on my email and online comics and writing a new blog post. Also on the to do list for the next couple of days are thank you notes, some reading, and perhaps even fixing my photo slideshow on the right. I did send my lovely fiancée some flowers today since it is her birthday and I’m so insensitive as to be out of town on such an occasion.

      All that is, however, beside the point. What I really wanted to flesh out is only tangentially related to my aforementioned trip and not at all related to the fact that I haven’t posted in two months. While on my 3 hour flight from Chicago to Salt Lake, I pulled out and read a recent publication called “The Dartmouth Apologia” which is a new academic journal put together by some Dartmouth students (a few of which are friends of mine) as “A Journal of Christian Thought.” It was entertaining reading; very well thought out and put together, so I highly recommend it (you can find it online here). It was a pair of those articles and a book that I have been reading and discussing monthly with some of the men in my church that got me thinking.

      The articles are the last two in the Journal; an interview with Baroness Caroline Cox and “Final Thoughts” by my good friend Nate (or Nathan as they call him). Baroness Cox is a humanitarian in a way that few are. She uses her position to go to where people are suffering from injustice so that she can better understand their plights and how to fight for them. She is also an evangelical Christian. When asked about how her humanitarian work has challenged her faith, she told of seeing the murdered corpses of women and children being eaten by vultures in Sudan. She wept and cried out to God, but upon thinking about it, found that this isn’t anything new or unaddressed in the Bible. While Mary and Joseph were rejoicing in the birth of Jesus, hundreds of mothers were weeping as King Herod murdered their sons. Then at the end of Jesus’ life all Mary could do was watch and weep as the Romans hung her son on the cross. This “puts the fact that evil is a reality right back into the center of theology.” She also astutely points out that the very fact that God is love is the reason that this evil is possible. Love allows freedom and the possibility for evil.

      The other article is a story that hits close to home. Almost a year and a half ago Nate’s brother fell off a cliff in India while biking and broke his neck. As a result, his legs are paralyzed, he has limited use of his hands, and he cannot move his fingers independently. This hits home because last summer my older brother, a missionary in inner city LA, had a stroke and was in a similarly life threatening situation. I can identify with the rush to get airline tickets and having family thousands of miles away. Because he had been in India just weeks before, Nate accompanied his mother halfway around the world to be with his brother. I didn’t have that option, nor did my parents need me there, so my siblings and I kept a website with updates and prayer requests.

      Now both of our brothers survived their harrowing ordeals, but the outcomes seem painfully different. My brother is almost back to full strength and is off the blood pressure medication; we suspect the tumor that caused the problems is gone. Nate’s brother is learning to see life from a wheelchair. There is a large part of me that wants to scream, “UNFAIR!” They are both Christians with remarkable attitudes. They both had people praying for them around the clock and around the world. They both had supportive families and amazing witnesses in the hospital. I can understand at least part of why they went through that part of the process, but why does one of them get to regain their physical mobility and the other not?

      There is another part of me that knows I am wrong. The question is not wrong because God certainly has his reasons, but I am wrong to ask it in such a loaded way; it is wrongheaded. The book that I am reading is called “50 Reasons Why Jesus Came to Die” by John Piper. It is a book about how God himself came with the express purpose of suffering and dying. What is wrong about my question is that I don’t understand the implications of the suffering of Christ. In my head I can begin to grasp it, but I cannot get my heart around the fact that when Christ suffered, he not only paid for my treason and redeemed me, but his suffering redeemed the very act of suffering itself. Now suffering has been elevated to a divine activity worthy of the creator of the universe; now those who suffer have a better understanding of God himself.

      Baroness Cox tells another story about an Anglican bishop in Nigeria. His village was attacked, his sons beaten, his wife raped and beaten blind and made to walk naked through the town. If this story ends here it is a horrific tragedy, but it does not. The bishop and his wife praise God that they were found worthy to suffer. They understand the truth that I cannot accept. I cannot convince my consumerist, American heart to admit that all the toys and riches and security and fulfillment that I desire God tossed aside as rubbish compared to a horrific death on a cross. Maybe that is one of the myriad of reasons that God has for allowing such unequal treatment.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Stewardship and TVs

      This is a story I shared with a good (atheist) friend of mine and it's an interesting story, so I decided to post it here. Weekend before last, Emily and I were at Walmart and they had a DVD player for $30, so we got it. Her old television has been sitting unused at my house for a while and we were kind of tired of watching movies on her laptop or my desktop (neither of us have or want cable). When we got home we discovered that the DVD player won't plug into her old TV since it only has a cable connector. Then we thought that maybe we could use her old VCR, which has cable connectors and others. It won't play videos, but if it let us run the dvd through it, the old thing might be worth keeping. So in the middle of the week, she brought it up for me to try fit into the system. It did have the right connectors, but apparently won't transfer between them (cable in goes to cable out, rca in goes to rca out).

      We looked into getting a box that would convert the signal, but it wasn't cheap and would lower the quality of the video, so we started looking into TVs. We also contemplated just taking the dvd player back and continuing to watch movies on the laptop, but wanted to see if we could find a better TV.

      Now at church we've been talking about stewardship and something that the pastor said stuck with me. His reasoning was something like this: If God created everything, including the resources from which we get money and possessions, then it's all ultimately His. So when we encounter unexpected expenses (for which God is also ultimately responsible) then we should let God spend his money or resources how he apparently wants to spend them rather than grumble about "wasting our money" as if it we really had control over things.

      With that in mind, I prayed about it and Emily looked on Craig's List and sent me a couple of ads. There was only one that was listed anywhere nearby and it was in my town, so I gave the guy a call. It turns out he lives in the apartment complex right behind me. In fact, when I walked into the apartment, I could see my bedroom window out their back door and it would have been about the same distance to carry the TV out their back door and to my house as it would be to carry it to my car. We did carry it to my car since there is a small embankment and a sizeable brush pile out the back, not to mention a deck railing to climb over. In any event, I figured that if God made it that easy to get a TV, that must be how he wants to spend his money (and I'm certainly not going to object to His buying me a television).

Wednesday, March 21, 2007


      Disappointment is a strange thing. Our church is seven years old and seeking to build a building (currently we meet in the local middle school) and recently had some major setbacks with the town. We have a contract on a piece of land, but needed to get a zoning variance from the town to put a church there since it is zoned “office/laboratory”. We pursued both a variance to allow us to put a church in this specific location and a zoning law change that would let a church be a permitted use in that zone. A couple of weeks ago, the zoning board denied the variance and last night the planning board voted not to recommend the ordinance change to the town. I was at the planning board meeting last night and was surprised at the opposition to our proposal. The board itself did not seem overly opposed to it, but there was some very vocal opposition about putting a church on that particular property from several members of the community. In retrospect, none of their arguments were very good and all very site specific (traffic concerns, environmental concerns, obscuring the scenic view of the neighbors). All of these concerns would be things that would have to be addressed much later in the process by our church anyway and a church certainly wouldn’t be any worse (and in many cases better) than an office building or a laboratory of a similar size. In any event, I think what the board found persuasive (aside from the fact that there was loud opposition) was that there is a traffic problem in the area that is currently being investigated and that investigation might shed further light on the development potential of that area.

      I was pretty disappointed. I wish I had had more presence of mind to say the things that I think now and to clarify misconceptions about the size of the church. I wish someone else had spoken in favor of our church (a couple did, but certainly not as vehemently or eloquently as the opposition). I wish someone could have given our reasoning as persuasively as I can now that I have time to think about it. I think disappointment is in large part also a sense of betrayal. I feel betrayed by myself because I wasn’t able to stand before the board and clarify our arguments. I feel betrayed by the town for opposing it. I feel betrayed by the planning board for not seeing through their poor arguments. I feel betrayed by our church and pastor for not representing our church better and for getting our hopes up about this piece of property. I feel betrayed by God for the very same reasons.

      Ay, there’s the rub, as Hamlet (3:1:73) would say. I feel as if our church has a right to that property; as if I had the right to hope. A moment’s thought would render absurd the idea that I might have any right to even suggest to God how to do his job (even something as small as who should get a little plot of land in New England). As for the right to hope, “I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in” (Ibid. 134). Property and hope are not rights; they are gifts. This whole world was created through Christ that He might give it to us as a wedding present, not because it was ours by right. On top of that, Jesus died so that He could purchase hope for us to add to that already abundant gift. I guess that is something that we need to be reminded of now and again.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Famine, Persecution, and the Like

      I know it's been a while since my first and only post, but life is busy, especially while planning a wedding. In any event, I thought I'd put up a quick post on this chilly New England night. Every other Wednesday morning I meet with some guys from my church to pray. And before we prayed, we talked about the end of Romans 8, where Paul about writes tribulation, persecution, famine, and sword. These were probably pertinent issues for the church in Rome to which Paul was writing and that seems a little foreign to us in our safe little New England world. Yet we know that there are still those in the world for whom those issues are very much a reality on a daily basis. When we started praying, we prayed for those Christians and other people who find themselves in places where they have to deal with hunger, war, or persecution. And what I want to encourage you to do, is to pray for the church in such places and for those people. A couple of places that spring to mind quickly are Iraq and Sudan.

      There is something simultaneously terrible and divine in hunger, pain, and persecution. It is terrible for the obvious reason that it is hurtful, damaging, and evil. It is divine because God himself subjected himself to it and so clothed that evil with grace incomprehensible. Now He invites his church to participate in the divine activities of being hungry and yet fighting against hunger, of battling with weapons and yet laying aside differences, of being persecuted and yet opposing persecution. God took on pain, hunger, and persecution so that even though these things are evil, they now have divine significance. If Jesus Christ is found in these things, then there really is no separating us from Him.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Confession and Concession

      I did not want to start a blog. I didn't want to start a blog in the same way that I didn't want a cell phone and I am giving in to blogging for much the same reason that I gave in and got that first cell phone. It's not that I am wary of technology; I love tinkering with computers and electronics and anything else I can take apart. It's not even that I don't like accessorizing (in a manly sort of way of course); anyone who has seen my camera bag with its lenses and filters, my homemade meat smoker, my pair of guitars hanging on the wall, or even my very full clothes closet and shoe rack will know that I like my toys. The best way to explain my ill feelings towards blogging is to say that I don't like fads. In fact, I would probably go so far as to say that I hate them to a fault. I will often do the very opposite of what is currently "in" for the very reason that "in" is "in." However in some rare cases, I will eventually discover that the object of some fad is actually a useful thing and will begrudgingly concede the fight. Such was the case with the cell phone and such is the case with this blog. I will probably use this blog with much the same attitude as my cell phone; with a very slight disdain and not a little negligence.
      Now I want to make it clear that I have no problem with blogs or bloggers. In fact, part of the reason for this acquiescence is the number of my friends and my family who have good blogs, from my fiancee to numerous aunts and uncles to my grandmother. It is mostly that I don't want to do anything that might make me look unoriginal: It's a pride thing, really. At some point in school I realized that as a redhead, fitting in was too hard. So, being the somewhat apathetic and more than slightly lazy young man, I decided to be different. I wore goofy t-shirts and suit coats over them to high school; I spent a large portion of my time in college barefoot, wearing a fedora or golf cap; in grad school I decided to start wearing dress shirts and vests most days; twice I grew my hair for two years and donated it to "Locks of Love;" I did not want to start a blog.
      C'est la vie (that's "this is life" in French or your cue to say "la vee," your choice). I am starting a blog for three reasons. First, it has been far too long since I had a good outlet for creative writing. My parents are both writers and many forms of communication run in my family (writing, preaching, teaching, etc). I grew up in a house full of books and pencils and imagination and I have long enjoyed reading and writing. However, as God would have it (and perhaps partly as a result of my principles of nonconformity), I am not a writer by profession, but rather a scientist, and a government scientist at that. This is not a profession that is conducive to creative writing. In fact, it is pretty blatantly hostile to it. It is a profession in which A is done, resulting in B, as prescribed by C and D, respectively. No intricate syntax. No ambiguity. No artistic license. Even though I know this is how science works, I have to cringe every time I have to repeat my pronouns again and again in the same sentence structure with so many passive verbs. In fact I am often tempted to dangle a participle or preposition just out of spite (and to see if anyone would actually notice). This blog will be that creative outlet that I need to keep me from such temptations to poor writing.
      Second, this blog will serve as a welcome distraction from the regular internet procrastination to which I am prone. I have realized that I spend a lot of time in front of this computer screen, much of it just down time for me to rest and relax. It is a good and healthy thing to have some down time to relax and rest, but I don't really need to be ogling over classic cars on eBay or watching yet one more Arsenal-Liverpool highlight reel on YouTube. It is better to be tinkering with something at least potentially useful.
      Lastly and most importantly, growing up in a house full of writers, I learned to process my thoughts in words on paper or a computer screen. Typing these words out helps me clarify my thoughts and ideas and prayers. In reality, there is one great thought, idea, and prayer that I am forever trying to work out: The meaning of the full deity and humanity of Christ as it should play itself out in my life. Now mind you I don't mean that I am trying to figure out the details of how Jesus could be both God and human: I don't really think there is any understanding that. I mean rather that I am trying to figure out how that mystery can be applied to my life. The more I think about that mysterious fact, the more I am convinced that really applying it to my life is the single hardest yet most powerful thing I can do in life.
      Now this isn't something that I have dreamed up on my own. It comes from many sources in Christian literature, family, history, and personal experience. Most notably is the fact that the church spent the first several centuries struggling with, arguing about, and excommunicating heretics over the issue of what it meant for Jesus to be both fully God and fully human. They didn't seem to spend much time debating anything else and yet they transformed their culture in an unprecedented way. The last of the pagan emperors of Rome wrote these two things about the early church:
      "These impious Galileans not only feed their own poor, but ours also; welcoming them into their agape, they attract them, as children are attracted, with cakes."
      "Whilst the pagan priests neglect the poor, the hated Galileans devote themselves to works of charity, and by a display of false compassion have established and given effect to their pernicious errors. See their love feasts, and their tables spread for the indigent. Such practice is common among them, and causes a contempt for our gods." (reference)
      It's true that you won't really find the early church discussing how to care for the poor, how to set higher moral standards, or how to transform the pagan world around them, but they certainly did these things with remarkable success. I would argue that they did this by really grappling with the humanity and deity of Christ and what that meant for their lives and that is the greatest purpose of this blog.
      The word "alethinologia" means, "to speak truth" in Greek (from aletheia, truth and logos, word) and that is what I intend to do here. I chose this word partly because all the other names/words I thought of were already taken, but also partly because a linguist friend of mine once gave a talk about truth. In it he said that in Greek, truth could be an active verb, yet we do not have that option in English. The closest we have is to "be true" or to "act truly." This blog is an attempt to be truth in an active way. Perhaps it is a lofty goal, but it certainly isn't "in."