Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Cycle of Learning

Learning doesn't happen all at once. We aren't like Neo in The Matrix able to have information downloaded into our brain so that we can learn Kung Fu in an instant (though that is my deepest and truest desire in life). Instead we have to earn our knowledge.

Moses thought he was living a charmed life. He didn't know much about the slaughter of children and the trip down the river that started his existence. He just knew that he'd grown up in a palace as the son of Pharaoh's daughter. He got that he was Hebrew -- possibly from his appearance -- but not much more than that. So when he saw an Egyptian and a Hebrew he decided to take matters into his own hands. He beat up the Egyptian and killed him. Instead of being celebrated as a hero he was shunned and ended up leaving the country for forty years.

As I'm writing this the world is mourning the loss of Nelson Mandela. He died a hero due to his peaceful work toward change. But he went to prison for acts of sabotage as a part of a militant resistance group opposed to apartheid in South Africa. Over the next twenty-seven years he languished in prison waiting for the end to racial oppression and it appeared that he wouldn't be able to do anything about it.

But were the years that Moses spent in the wilderness and the years that Mandela spent in prison wasted?

Here's where we need to look at the cycle of learning. We go through different steps to acquire knowledge and make it a part of our lives. Alan Mumford says the four steps of learning are Doing, Reflecting, Concluding and Planning.

When you do something you have an experience, it affects you, but you aren't sure exactly how. Your senses are involved. Moses killed the Egyptian. Mandela joined a militant group. Action is often the beginning of learning.

The next step is reflecting on the process. This isn't fun and it can take a long time. In some ways it took decades for Mandela and Moses to reflect on what they'd done. During reflection both emotion and reason work to help us process what happened and what the results were.

You shouldn't really jump to conclusions (even if you have a mat). They are hard-fought prizes that you get from wrestling with your emotions and reason. Mandela concluded that peace was a better way than violence. Moses concluded that trust in God was better than trust in himself. But they didn't make those conclusions easily or quickly.

After coming to a conclusion you can start planning what to do next. Here's where the cycle loops back on itself, because enacting the plan leads to another experience which starts the whole process over again. But without engaging in the process, without working through the cycle of learning there is no growth or change.

It's fun to play the what-if game and think it would be cool to instantly know Kung Fu, but if we don't learn it, if the knowledge is just downloaded into our brains, then we aren't prepared to use it. If I instantly knew Kung Fu, I wouldn't have the understanding of when to use certain moves or how my body would react to them. I wouldn't have the necessary muscles or calluses to keep myself from getting hurt. I wouldn't have the emotional calm to know how to avoid violence. In short I would lose just about any fight, badly.

It's easy enough to look at Moses' story as a series of before and after pictures. He was terrible and killed an Egyptian (before), he went to be a shepherd and talked to a bush (after). But we don't look at the hard-fought, decades-long process of learning that transformed him from a rash, prideful, youth into the leader of a nation. We don't often focus on the transformation that happened within Mandela during his nearly three decades in prison because that's not a fun story to tell.

But that's the true story. It's the story we can follow. It's the story we need to learn, and relearn.


If you could instantly have any knowledge, what would it be?

If other people could instantly have one piece of knowledge that you already possess (and be able to pull it off) which one would make you the most upset? Or to think about it from another perspective, what have you learned that you are most proud of knowing?

Why do you think most people don't focus on the time that Moses spent in the wilderness and Mandela spent in prison?

What helps you move through the cycle of learning? What holds you back in learning?

Why do you think God made it so we have to learn the way we do?

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Cognitive Dissonance

Other than the fact that it's kind of an awesome band name, cognitive dissonance is also something we deal with on a regular basis.

But before we get to that we should talk about Peter. Peter was one of Jesus' three main guys. They spent a lot of time together, went on special trips to mountains to meet Jesus' friends, and in general got the most of Jesus' teachings. Peter wasn't afraid to jump in with both feet, even when it was literally jumping into the water and sinking. But he was also the only one besides Jesus to walk on water.

Peter was quick to act, but also quick to react. We get the story about Peter in Acts 10 being invited to the house of Cornelius, a Gentile. The Gentiles -- basically anyone who isn't Jewish -- were considered unclean by the Jews. Worse than that, if the Jews ate a meal or stayed in the house of a Gentile they would become unclean too. So good Jews would avoid both Gentiles and unclean food. Peter was a good Jew.

But he had a dream about unclean food. It looked like a giant sheet and it was filled with all sorts of food. Peter was hungry and there was probably some bacon on that sheet. He heard a voice telling him to eat the bacon. Peter, being a good Jew, said, "NO!" But the voice told him that it wasn't okay for him to call something unclean that God had made clean.


At that point some Gentiles came to invite Peter to go and spend time at the house of Cornelius. Peter experienced cognitive dissonance. He had been taught, his whole life, that Gentiles and non-kosher food would make him unclean. Now he had this message that food and people weren't unclean.

Cognitive dissonance is painful. It's difficult to figure out which is right, what you've always known or what you just learned. Having to contradictory beliefs in your mind at the same time is uncomfortable. Our natural inclination is to figure out how to resolve the dissonance and avoid any more pain. Sometimes we'll use numbing techniques to avoid the feelings of discomfort or we might avoid people or situations that make us aware of the dissonance. It's just easier that way.

Peter went up to the town of Antioch, north of Judea, and spent time with the church there. He would eat and worship with the Gentile Christians. Paul came around to say, "Hi." While Paul was there Peter kept doing what he was doing, but then some other people came up from Jerusalem, some Jews that made Peter feel uncomfortable.

So Peter quit hanging out with the Gentiles and only spent time with the Jews. His cognitive dissonance got so painful that he did whatever he could to remove the pain. He avoided his friends and went back on what he had learned because it was uncomfortable.

Now, lest you get all mad at Peter, I'm sure that you've done something similar in the past. I know I have. It's okay as long as we don't keep running away all the time.

In some ways cognitive dissonance is like getting out of the hot tub and into the pool. At first it's really uncomfortable and you want to stop. You want to just go back and get in the hot tub again. It's warm and comfortable over there and your big toe is freezing as you dip it into the pool. But, if you keep going and stick with it you can get used to the pool and then you can have fun playing Marco Polo (which is way less fun in the hot tub).

Peter had gotten up to his shins in the pool when the group from Jerusalem came to town. He got cold and ran back over to the hot tub. Paul jumped out, grabbed him, and threw him into the pool again. After the initial shock he eventually got used to it.

So, you might be thinking that cognitive dissonance is awesome and you should supersize your portion. Probably not. That would be like jumping from a hot tub into the North Atlantic, not only would it be really uncomfortable, but it could also be harmful.

If we look at Peter we see him learning to accept Samaritans from Jesus -- they're half-Jewish -- and then he stays with a Gentile, but only years later. Then, years after that, he has his run-in with Paul in Antioch. It's not until years after that when he starts leading the church in Rome (a place chock full of Gentiles). He didn't go straight from fishing and being called by Jesus to leading the church in Rome. God took him on a journey of change that allowed his cognitive dissonance to resolve over time.

How did you feel when Ben Affleck was announced as the next Batman? Why do you think a lot of people were upset with that choice?

What have you changed your mind about in the past? What was the process like? What is comfortable or uncomfortable?

What have been sources of cognitive dissonance for you? Relationships? Information? Art?

What journey of cognitive dissonance do you think God is taking you on right now?

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving

I'm taking a week off from writing the bible study and holding the small group so we can celebrate Thanksgiving.

Have a great time. We'll see you next week!
This is my famous smoked turkey we're going to enjoy tomorrow. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Being Uncertainly Certain

Job had a pretty posh life, if the accounts are to be believed. He had lots of stuff (mostly the kind of stuff that eats grass and poops, but it made him happy, so don’t worry about it). He had lots of kids. He had everything a guy in the Ancient Near East could want, including a loving wife and a cadre of faithful friends.

Then, bad stuff started happening to him. He lost his stuff. He lost his kids. The wife and friends he got to keep, but they stopped being so nice to be around. Then things got bad. Job got some sort of gross disease that made him break out in boils that hurt and itched. He felt like crap and no one brought him chicken soup and ice cream to make him feel better.

Instead, Job’s friends and wife brought him their certainty. They threw it into Job’s face and used it as a club to beat him while he was already down. Good thing he got to keep his friends and wife in the deal.

But what is certainty? Why do we want it so much, that is until we’re in an uncertain situation and then we don’t want certainty?

If you’ve ever been to a funeral you’ve heard the unwanted certainty come out. “I’m sure God had a plan for all this.” Or maybe you know someone who lost a job and heard, “Whenever God closes a door he opens a window.” Or someone miscarries and they hear, “God needed another angel in heaven.”

That kind of certainty is the last thing that suffering people want to hear. It pours salt into wounds, ignores the pain, and makes a mockery of the person. Not good.

How is it that crave that certainty though? We do. We want to know, for a fact, that things will turn out in a certain way. We want a recipe for success. We want a formula for faith. We want to know, to know, that everything will work out.

The feeling of certainty is, in part, a very useful thing to have around. If nothing else, it lets us get off the couch and get something done. Even flawed certainty is more useful than complete uncertainty.

Think about plopping down to watch something on Netflix. Your queue will be accompanied by some suggestions for movies you might want to watch. Sometimes Netflix is spot on with the recommendations -- but usually it’s pretty far off base. The only way for Netflix -- or any other recommendation service -- to get better at recommending things to you is to fail at it. A lot.

Online recommendations use machine learning and algorithms to figure out what it is you want. You don’t need to understand exactly how it all works, save to know that the algorithms are nothing without input and the only way to determine the output is to run the algorithm.

So, if you get onto Netflix for the first time ever and ask it or a recommendation it won’t be able to give you any because it has no input. Not only that, but you can’t call up someone at Netflix headquarters and ask them to figure out what the algorithm would recommend based on movies you’d like to watch. They don’t know. The only way to know is to enter the information into the software and let it crunch through everything, compare it to what other people think, and come back with a result.

So, what does this have to do with Job? I’m glad you asked. Job’s wife and friends were certain that the reason Job was suffering was due to a sin he’d committed. They knew it. Without a doubt. They told Job to just give up, admit his sin, and God would stop smiting him. Not really the most compassionate thing to say to a guy scraping his sores with broken pottery, but there they were.

They were certain of their conclusions based on the input they’d received and the way their brains processed that information.

So, what happens when you host a party and friends come over with kids who sit and watch your Netflix all night? Exactly! You get recommendations for “My Little Pony” and “Rainbow Bright” the next time you sit down to watch. The input was bad so Netflix gave you bad results.

Job’s wife and friends bought into the idea that doing the right things would force God to bless and doing bad things would force God to punish. They had bad input and drew the logical conclusion from that input: Job must be a sinner because of all the bad stuff that happened to him.

Job rejected that conclusion. He knew that he hadn’t been doing all the bad stuff his wife and friends thought he’d been doing. The current input was at odds with his conclusions.

Netflix might recommend that I watch some “My Little Pony,” but that doesn’t mean it’s right. It may have taken into account what’s happened in the past, but it can only determine what happened, not why. Our brains often work in the same way. They observe what’s happened in the past and draw conclusions about what is happening now and what will happen in the future. Most of the time those conclusions are great and they help us to live normal, productive lives. But in extreme circumstances, our input is limited and our conclusions are suspect.

Think about two people walking down the street. They both hear a loud bang and see a flash out of the corner of their eyes. One drops to the ground and the other keeps walking without flinching. They are both certain about their action, but for vastly different reasons.

One is an event photographer, used to random flashes of light and loud noises. They are certain that the flash and bang is nothing but another photographer tripping over a folding metal chair. The other person just finished a tour of duty finding and disabling improvised explosive devices. They are certain that the flash and bang are an explosion and people are about to die.

Both of them are certain based on their past experience. But neither of them has control over their certainty or their reaction in the moment. Just like the Netflix algorithm, the only way we can really determine our certainty -- or uncertainty -- is through experience. We have to live it, and sometimes get it wrong, to test our conclusions.

Job’s wife and friends were completely certain that Job was a bad person, but they were completely wrong.

What’s the worst online recommendation that you’ve gotten? How do you train computers to come up with better recommendations for you?

Have you been on the giving or receiving end of the general platitudes about purpose in suffering? What motivated you to say them? How did it feel to hear them?

Where do you think the two people who saw the flash are? What would it mean for them to be on a battlefield? What would it mean for them to be at a trade show?

Have you ever been certain about something and ended up being wrong? How did it feel? What did you do about it?

Introduction to Faithful Unbelief

In Mark 9:24 a distraught father, at the end of his rope, cried out his final plea to a God who had failed him: “I believe, help me overcome my unbelief.”

That father was in the midst of a crisis of faith. He had tried everything he could think of to heal his son, but nothing worked. He’d even come to Jesus’ disciples who were supposed to be able to do things that no one else could do. When they failed too it seemed like the end for this ever hoping, yet hopeless father.

Then Jesus walked up. He started to dig into what was going on and learned of the disciples’ failure. He made it clear that anything is possible for one who believes.

That statement is life and death.

When faith is easy, it’s a joy to know that God is on your side. It adds to strength to consider that God makes anything possible. When the blessings are flowing, faith flows with them.

But when faith is hard, the idea that anything being possible for those who believe feels like another boot to the back keeping you down. It’s just another indication of how hopeless you really are. If you could simply have enough faith, God would provide. So the failure is yours, not God’s. It’s your lack of faith. Your disbelief. Your failure. Your death.

But that desperate father wouldn’t give up. Even though faith was hard for him and he was filled with unbelief, he didn’t see just two options.

We live in an either/or world that likes to divide things into neat piles. It is either this or that. It’s either here or there. It’s either conservative or liberal. It’s either science or faith. It’s either logical or emotional. It’s either faith or unbelief.

The father refused to be bounded by either/or. He claimed both faith and unbelief. He scattered the neat piles and destroyed the divisions. So Jesus smote him. Smote him good.

No, Jesus loved him.

It’s almost like a Kobayashi Maru, the fictional test for Starfleet officers in the Star Trek universe. It’s a no-win situation. No matter what option you choose in the test it turns out badly. It’s designed as a test of character to determine how potential officers react to real-life no-win situations.

Captain Kirk didn’t accept the rules. He denied that there could be a no-win situation so he found another way. He reprogrammed the test.

The desperate father didn’t accept that there could be an either/or situation. He wanted both/and. And Jesus gave it to him. Happily.

Jesus healed the boy. The father’s son was well. The faithful unbelief of the father was rewarded.

The idea of faithful unbelief isn’t often explored. We usually read the bible from an either/or perspective. Either people are faithful or they are unbelievers. We don’t usually have categories for the both/and, for the faithful unbelievers.

Yet that happens all the time. Faithful unbelief is something that everyone deals with, if they’re honest. Death, loss, divorce, sickness, bankruptcy, unemployment: doubt-causers. For the desperate father it was the incurable sickness of his son. For others it might be years of unemployment. Or mental illness that won’t flee from medicine and therapy. Or a relationship that is so broken mending it seems impossible. Or a death that comes suddenly and leaves broken hearts in its wake.

Doubt-causers will strike every life. Guaranteed.

So what do you do? How do you cope? How do you process through a doubt-causer in a faithful way?

What does Faithful Unbelief look like?

Join us for thirteen conversations exploring faith, doubt, questions, answers, and how to have faithful unbelief.

    1. Why what we think we know isn’t always what we know.
    2. Job and his friends help us to know that we don’t know what we think we know.
    1. The power and danger of thinking two different things at the same time.
    2. Peter needs a dream and a kick in the pants and still has trouble.
    1. How our reason, experience and emotions combine to create knowledge.
    2. Moses thinks he has it all figured out, then he meets a bush.
    1. Exploring the different motivations for asking questions.
    2. Habakkuk won’t take no answer for an answer.
    1. A brief overview of logic, its questions and potential answers.
    2. Paul is a master logician, but also relies on emotion and experience.
    1. How feelings spur questions that logic may not be able to answer and what to do about it.  
    2. Gideon has a low opinion of himself, but a high opinion of God.
    1. Ways to begin processing questions: study, conversation, experience, journaling, meditation, counseling, etc.
    2. Thomas the doubter is an example not a warning.
    1. Touching on the difference between answers and meaning and what each one can offer.
    2. David’s song-prayers don’t offer many answers, but a wealth of meaning.
    1. How will you know when you know what you know?
    2. John baptized Jesus and then wasn’t sure if he was the one.
    1. How finding your truth may or may not have anything to do with Truth.
    2. The Teacher in Ecclesiastes doubts almost everything, but knows a few things for certain.
    1. How to use both feelings and actions to create change, and why you should do it.
    2. Paul on the road to Damascus changed completely; you can too.
    1. Re-aligning your brain to a new reality is painful and rewarding.
    2. Psalms show us how to reorient ourselves on our faith-walk.
    1. The cycle of faithful unbelief continues. Learn how to keep the process going in a healthy way.
    2. What an unbelieving-faithful father has to tell us about following Jesus.