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.