Friday, December 19, 2008

Trains, Personal Space, and Mission

Wherever this is (Asia somewhere apparently), they clearly have very different cultural norms of personal space than we do in America. How nice of the porters to help everyone cram in, though.

Question: What cultural differences (in a place you've either been to or heard about) have seemed most strange to you? Have you gotten over the culture shock to realize how arbitrary some of the things we take for granted are? For instance, I would not want to ride on this train. But our American sense of inviolable personal space is why we all drive planet-killing SUV-tanks instead of carpooling in smaller, more efficient cars, or (horrors!) taking public transportation.

How do we live out the gospel in places or cultures that seem so alien to us? (This doesn't have to be another country; crossing generational, regional, racial, and political lines can be just as difficult.) If the earliest Christians could do it (nearly all Jews who were taught from birth not to mingle with other cultures or people), surely those of us from the American melting pot should be able to, right?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Flotsam & Jetsam (& Lagan)

Are Christians at Christmastime like the Comic Book Guy? (via Steve Taylor)

Umm...don't name your kid Adolf Hitler, and maybe you won't have this problem

Postmodernism, comic books, and my favorite author

Vital unanswered questions

Still-President Bush: "I've abandoned free-market principles to save the free-market system." Points for honesty, I guess.

Almost-President Obama needs to bring back this pimpin' hat (and yes, that's an ordinary tobacco cigarette):

It's always time for unwarranted police brutality



A few days ago Scot McKnight (over at Jesus Creed) asked, "What are the essentials of the Christian faith?"

"To permit non-essentials to shape our concerns, our relations, and our reputations is, to use the words of Jesus, to "strain gnats." ... What we need is discernment to see again and again what is essential about our faith and to see what is non-essential. This requires a firm grip on the essentials and a loose grip on the non-essentials."

The comments section is always the most fun part of Scot's blog. RJS, who comments and posts there a lot (and is some kind of scientist in real life), posted this brief list, adapted from the historic church creeds, which I promptly stole and tweaked a little:

1. I believe in God, the Creator Almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth.

2. I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord: in His birth, life, teachings, death and resurrection.

3. I believe in the Holy Spirit as poured out at Pentecost,

4. I believe in the Spirit-filled church as the body of Christ and people of God, and in the communion of saints.

5. I believe that God calls us to total commitment: heart, mind, body, and soul – that this should impact everything we do and every decision we make.

6. I believe that the purpose of the church is to begin to embody the kingdom of God, here, today, in all creation.

7. I believe in judgment and forgiveness.

8. I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

So what do you think? Remember, we're talking about essentials of Christian belief, not an exhaustive list of all its implications, or even a list of what's most important in Christianity (that's an easy question: Love God, love others). Too many things? Not enough? Is the search for essentials problematic in the first place?

Monday, December 15, 2008

16 things

There's a thing going around Facebook wherein you are supposed to list 16 things about yourself and then pass it on. Well, somehow everybody I know did one, which means peer pressure kicks in and I felt obligated to do it as well. I might as well post it here too. So, here's 16 factoids about yours truly:

1. I am completely incapable of using the defroster on my car windshield. If my windshield is fogged up, I fiddle around with the air conditioner, yet always seem to make it worse. It's one of the many areas in which I'd be lost without Amy.

2. I can type extremely fast. I've been tested at 125 words per minute. I took a typing class in high school and actually learned to use the home row keys and all that sort of thing. It's basically what got me my job.

3. I like to discuss issues to the point that I basically end up debating, particularly with people who are smart, stubborn, and disagree with me. I don't think I'm argumentative, but I like to toss around ideas and argue different sides of a question. Usually I'm contrarian enough that I argue the opposite of whatever the general consensus in the room is, so don't assume I always believe what I'm saying. I find it fun, possibly to the point that other people find it tedious. Oh well.

4. I love movies. If it's a favorite of mine I could watch it probably endlessly. Even if it's not I like to watch things a couple of times. I am definitely not one of those people who gets bored at movies. I was a film minor, and my secret dream profession is film director, so even if a movie sucks I'm paying attention to camera angles and editing stuff. I have never walked out of a movie, except for...

5. Saw IV. Or maybe Saw III. I forget. We left in the first 10 minutes because I couldn't handle it. We had watched the other ones on DVD, and I didn't think it would be that different in the theater, but it was. Somehow my lovely wife's 16 things left out the fact that she loves horror movies.

6. I am a notary. I have an official stamp and I had to swear an oath and everything. Actually, I think I affirmed rather than swore. Let your yes be yes and all that. My commission expires November 4th, 2013, in case you're curious.

7. I grew up in central Florida, and had never lived anywhere else until we moved to Durham. We'll probably end up back in FL at some point. I'll miss the geography. And weather. And seasons. And people.

8. I miss the student schedule. 2 weeks of vacation a year just doesn't go far enough. I think about quitting my job at least once a week. Then I remember what not having a job feels like, and remind myself to stop whining, because I'm not doing this forever. I'll probably go back to school at some point.

9. Speaking of school, I was in the gifted program in elementary and middle school. What I recall of it was basically going to a different classroom a few days a week and learning about the Mayans. And playing Oregon Trail.

10. I'm not athletic. Never have been. I've been trying to run in the mornings. It's hard.

11. My favorite candy in the world is Peanut Butter M&Ms. Not Peanut; Peanut Butter.

12. I quit popcorn. That's right. I quit it. I like popcorn, but I would always regret eating it because of the little kernels that get stuck on the back of your throat. It's not worth the trouble, so I quit it.

13. I have a poor memory for people's names, and even things that happened to me, but I have a very good memory for random trivia and information. Consequently, I'm somewhat used to knowing the answers to questions, and it's easy for me to sound authoritative about a topic when someone asks. So sometimes I like to just make stuff up. Just lie and completely bullshit something unbelievable. I can usually only keep it up for a minute or two, and I never let the conversation end without coming clean. Am I using my powers for evil?

14. When I was 10 somebody tricked me into going on a roller coaster for the first time. They lied and said it didn't have any big drops or loops or anything. I've been hooked ever since, although I can only go on a few before the motion sickness gets to me. It was the Mindbender at Six Flags Over Georgia, which I'm sure I would think was quite lame if I went on it now.

15. I have worn glasses since I was 3. Most of that time I had bifocals; I've only fairly recently gone down to unifocals(?) or whatever. Amy sometimes wants me to try contacts, but I feel uncomfortable in public without my glasses on, and not just because I can't see. Psychologically, without them, I feel weird and naked.

16. I have four tattoos, and I want more. You heard right; they are addictive.

Life in Maryland

A legislative commission in Maryland has recommended that the state abolish capital punishment. This report cites several reasons to drop the death penalty, including racial disparity, jurisdictional disparity, substantially higher costs (yes, as opposed to life in prison), detrimental effects on victims' families, the risk of executing an innocent person, and no evidence of deterrence.

There are lots of reasons to be against the death penalty. There is exactly one reason to be for it: believing in the retributive justice of "an eye for an eye". I have little to say to people of non-Christian faiths, or no faith, who support the death penalty for this reason, other than to reiterate all the practical problems with capital punishment (Jews who support capital punishment should read this).

But to my fellow Jesus-followers who support, or are ambivalent about capital punishment, I'd issue this challenge: You have placed your faith in violence and revenge rather than in the Jesus who taught us to forgive our enemies, who flatly rejected "eye for an eye" thinking, and who died to save even (or especially) the worst of us. Who is not willing that any should perish. Who begged for forgiveness for his killers, while they were killing him. Repent.

I hope the state legislature of Maryland listens to this recommendation. Last year New Jersey abolished capital punishment. There is momentum to end this cycle of revenge and violence, even in the South. Let's pray for grace in violent times.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Boss fights are getting too hard these days

You Have to Burn the Rope

(This may not be funny if you don't play videogames, but I thought this was awesome. Stick around for the song at the end.)

Monday, December 8, 2008

Flotsam and Jetsam

Scot on the Third Way between liberal and conservative Christianity

Everybody answer my Christmas movie poll, to the right----->

This game sounds really freaking cool

I wish I could do stuff like this

I like to go to Wikipedia and look at the entries for everyday objects like the spoon. I don't know why.

Ba ha ha

Good King Wenceslas

At church last night we sang "Good King Wenceslas" by John M. Neale. You've probably heard it; it's a pretty traditional Christmas song, despite the fact that it doesn't mention Christmas, or little baby Jesus, or shepherds, or stars, or anything like that. Like me, you probably only know the first few lines:

Good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even.

But the song actually tells a story about the king, or rather, the duke. Wenceslas was Duke of Bohemia (which is part of the present-day Czech Republic) from 921 to around 935 A.D., when he was killed by his brother. He is considered a martyr, and is the patron saint of the Czech Republic. Legend, which I tend to believe unless I have a reason not to, depicts him as a "good king" who traveled around giving to the poor and needy of his kingdom (or dukedom or fiefdom or whatever). And if that's not enough, he was played in a movie by Jonathan Brandis.

So read the rest of the lyrics. The song has several good lessons, and features one of those characteristically low-key Christian miracles. The language is a little baroque, so I'll summarize each verse.

Good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even.
Brightly shone the moon that night, though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight, gathering winter fuel.

It's the day after Christmas, and Wenceslas sees a poor man gathering sticks to make a fire.

“Hither, page, and stand by me, if you know it, telling,
Yonder peasant, who is he? Where and what his dwelling?”
“Sire, he lives a good league hence, underneath the mountain,
Right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes’ fountain.”

He calls a servant over and finds out where the peasant lives.

“Bring me food and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither,
You and I will see him dine, when we bear them thither.”
Page and monarch, forth they went, forth they went together,
Through the cold wind’s wild lament and the bitter weather.

The duke orders food and logs for a fire, and goes with his servant through the winter to eat with the peasant.

“Sire, the night is darker now, and the wind blows stronger,
Fails my heart, I know not how; I can go no longer.”
“Mark my footsteps, my good page, tread now in them boldly,
You shall find the winter’s rage freeze your blood less coldly.”

It's freaking cold, and the servant doesn't think he can go on to feed the poor man, but Wenceslas advises him to walk behind him.

In his master’s steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
You who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.

The servant walks "in his master's steps", from which miraculous heat emanates. It's not in the song, but presumably they successfully find the poor man and dine with him. One historian wrote in 1119, "But his deeds I think you know better than I could tell you; for, as is read in his Passion, no one doubts that, rising every night from his noble bed, with bare feet and only one chamberlain, he went around to God’s churches and gave alms generously to widows, orphans, those in prison and afflicted by every difficulty, so much so that he was considered, not a prince, but the father of all the wretched."

I really like the idea of a barefoot king wandering around in the snow, giving away his kingdom to the poor and inviting people to walk in his footsteps. So even though on first glance "Good King Wenceslas" seems only vaguely Christmas-y because it mentions snow, I think it's a great song to sing as we celebrate the birth of another barefoot king.

Monday, December 1, 2008


One of my habits when reading a book is to not simply underline or highlight lines or sections I think particularly good or important, but to jot a little note down in the back of what the quote is about and what page it's on. I can usually remember who said something I'm trying to remember, and frequently I can recall what book it's from, but having the notes in the back is easier than flipping through the whole thing.

Here's a line I scribbled down in the back of "The Prophets", by Abraham Joshua Heschel:

"There are no proofs for the existence of the God of Abraham. There are only witnesses."

(Rabbi Heschel marched with MLK in Selma, and is one of the most important Jewish theologians of the 20th century. I highly recommend reading him. "The Prophets" is quite thick, but his book on the Sabbath is a quick read.)

Do you have any note-taking strategies when you read a book? I tend to do this more with non-fiction, but sometimes a novel will have a line or section I have to notate in the back. What do you do? Highlighters? Endless dog-eared pages?

The Grinch

Randel called me the Grinch after I posted the Christmas Dance. Well, now I'm feeling like it, because there are people in the park outside my office who are selling wreaths, I think...and caroling. Loudly. And extremely badly.

It sounds like drunken Christmas karaoke. Or like the rejects from American Idol were forcibly infused with the spirit of Christmas, and then trapped in some kind of wintery snowglobe, their only hope for freedom trying to break the glass with their horrible voices.

If only this guy was outside instead...