Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Re-Engaging Questions

Mother Teresa is known for being, pretty much, the best person ever. She gave up everything and lived for the sake of the poor in Calcutta. There’s a story about how her feet were badly deformed, not from a birth defect, but because she never wore shoes that fit. The convent got cast-off shoes and she made sure that everyone else had the best pair leaving only poorly fitting, mismatched shoes for her.

She spent nearly fifty years serving the poorest of the poor in India. After her death in 1997 letters of hers were released as a book. She wrote the letters to confessors -- those in the Catholic Church that hear confessions -- detailing her failings. In one she lamented her doubts about Jesus. She talked about praying and hearing nothing in response: “...but as for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see--Listen and do not hear--the tongue moves but does not speak…”

The desperate father in Mark 9 (vs.14-29) is, in some ways, the opposite of Teresa. He is not remembered as a great believer. He is not held up for his faith and service to God. He is known for his doubt, while Teresa’s doubt only came to light after her death. But we also only know about this distraught, nameless father because the Gospel of Mark recorded his story.

Mark is the gospel of secrets. Jesus is constantly telling people to keep his secret. He tells the demons he drives out, the people he heals and even his disciples to not tell anyone about him. In the scholarly circles this is called the Messianic Secret and there are numerous theories about what it might mean. For some reason, Jesus wanted to keep things quiet and Mark thought it was important enough to share.

Most scholars think that Mark was the first gospel written. It’s the shortest and both Luke and Matthew borrow heavily from Mark. The first believers had told stories about Jesus and his life. They shared the stories that were most meaningful and heard other stories. Mark, and the other gospel writers, compiled the stories about Jesus into a written form for a specific purpose.

When the confessional letters of Teresa came out it started a media tizzy. Here was this great woman expressing doubt about her faith. She had given nearly seven decades of her life to the church, lived in poverty, and was revered by millions as an example of love. Yet she doubted. She confessed to feeling alone. She wondered if Jesus was there, if he would answer her prayers.

The early church didn’t know what the future held. When Mark wrote the Gentiles were just starting to be included and persecution had already scattered believers and threatened their lives. Riots were starting where Christians preached and believers were being imprisoned by the government.

When Mark wrote, and emphasized the secret of Jesus, he may have done it to show that faith isn’t easy. When Jesus told the parable of the sower to his disciples (4:1-20), they didn’t understand what he meant. He explained to them that the parables were designed to keep the secret of the kingdom.

But why would Jesus keep it all a secret? Why would he try to prevent people from understanding? Wasn’t he supposed to offer life for everyone?

Mother Teresa begged that her confessional letters be destroyed. She didn’t want people to be swayed in their faith by her struggles. She wanted people to look to Jesus and not her. As she understood belief, it wasn’t necessary to have all the right answers, but to have the right goal.

We don’t know for sure why Jesus kept things a secret for a time. We don’t know why Mark emphasized the secret. It could be that Mark remembered what it was like to doubt. We have some tantalizing clues about his life (Mark 14:51-52, Acts 13:13). He may have watched Jesus be arrested and run away. He started on a mission trip with Paul and Barnabas, but left them early on in the journey.

Maybe Mark knew what it was like to doubt. Maybe he gave us the story of the unbelieving father because he wanted other people to know that doubt isn’t fatal and running away isn’t final. Maybe he emphasized the secret of Jesus to entice us to keep searching.

The people around Jesus who had everything figured out and didn’t question at all were the same ones that had him killed. It was the Pharisees and Scribes that had no use for Jesus’ parables and questions. They wanted clear-cut answers. Are you the Messiah? Yes or no. Jesus refused to play their games and refused to offer certainty.

The unbelieving father shows us that doubt is not a fault, questioning is not a flaw, and searching for truth is not unfaithful. But he also shows us that there is risk involved. Living a life of faithful unbelief is risky. It means that no conclusion is safe. No belief is rock-solid. No teaching is beyond question.

It’s exhausting to question everything all the time. It’s not really possible to live life without any conclusions. Even the unbelieving father had convictions that drove him to do what he did. He loved his son and believed that there must be a cure. He acted on those beliefs and followed them to their conclusion. That’s where he met Jesus.

I’m not trying to suggest that you live a life of complete chaos. I’m suggesting that you follow your beliefs and see where they lead you. Some will lead to dead ends, cause cognitive dissonance, and prompt you to ask hard questions. Some will lead in circles and offer no real answers. But some, if you follow them long enough, will lead you to find Jesus where he will ask you, just as he asked the unbelieving father: What do you want me to do for you?


What historical or fictional character would you most want to meet? Why?

Whom do you look up to? Why is that?

Do you tend to prefer a settled life or one that’s more chaotic? Why is that?

How would you feel if your confessions were made into a book after you die?

How do you feel about the doubts of Mother Teresa?

What is keeping you from questioning? What is driving you to question?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Cognitive Consonance

When you listen to music that you love something special happens in your brain. The sounds and harmonies come together to create pleasure, to be sure, but you don’t love the resolution.

Yes the resolution of a song is great. The moment when it all comes together and lines up in perfect harmony sounds very nice. But the research shows that what we really enjoy is the moment just before the resolution. When all the tension and all the pent-up movement is at its peak, that’s the moment we love music.

Dissonance, cognitive or otherwise, is a state of unrest. It’s clashing, frustrating, unsettling agitation. It’s a sliver in your palm that you feel with every subtle movement that keeps you constantly moving.

King David had a rough life sometimes. Sure he had the moments when he was king over Israel and he got to enjoy his life, but it seems that he had many more moments where he was on the run for his life or hiding from his enemies. David also liked to write music. He wrote many of the psalms in the bible, one of the more famous is the 22nd psalm.

It starts out with the words that Jesus said: “My God, my God, Why have you forsaken me?”

The moment of dissonance in a song calls out for a resolution but it’s not there yet. If you think of the tune to “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” (or the ABCs song if you want something different). The first phrase of the song ends in expectation. It calls out for something more. If you just sang the first line it would feel incomplete. But once you finish (“How I wonder what you are.”), the resolution is there and the song is at rest. You could just stop and be okay.

The story goes that Beethoven’s wife would get so annoyed with him sleeping late that she would go to the piano and play seven notes: Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti… Then she would stop. Beethoven needed the resolution, he needed the notes to return to Do, so badly that it got him out of bed and to the piano to play that one resolving note.

David started out Psalm 22 with a lament. He started with dissonance. He quested where God was in his life. He doubted God’s presence. He was scared, alone, frustrated, and confused. So he wrote a song about it. It told God how he felt.

Spoiler alert: David didn’t feel great. He reminded God of the past and then questioned why God wasn’t doing that today. He told God about all his struggles and wondered where God was in the midst of them. But then something started to happen. Toward the end of the song something shifted.

When we’re listening to music the moment of dissonance is only really pleasurable when we know it’s going to resolve. In our favorite pieces, the ones we listen to over and over again, we anticipate the resolution. Our brains know what’s going to happen so they let us enjoy the conflict. It doesn’t work the same way in a song you’ve never heard or in a song that never resolves.

Jazz is music based on improvisation and dissonance. The basic idea is that you take a song that everyone knows and then you change it. You riff on it to make something new. You create new points of dissonance and different resolutions. We still have the familiarity with the original piece, but we get to experience the conflict and resolution in different ways.

David kept recounting all the ways that God had been faithful in the past and he started to see God’s faithfulness to him, even in the midst of his trouble. He remembered the past resolutions; he recognized the theme and he started to anticipate the resolution coming.

From the song that started out with the dissonance of feeling forsaken, David moves to singing: “I will declare your name to my people; in the assembly I will praise you. You who fear the Lord, praise him!” (Ps. 22.22-3).

When we encounter cognitive dissonance it can be frustrating or even frightening. Our minds crave rest, but they derive the most pleasure from the moment just before the promised rest. If we don’t know when the rest is coming, we can’t enjoy the conflict. But if we can see the pattern that has happened before and notice how it’s repeating in our lives, we can know that rest is coming.

Engaging doubt, questioning, searching, and changing are all dissonant activities. They are painful, fearful, and frustrating if we don’t know where we’re going. We’re afraid that we won’t ever have rest again. But once we’ve been through it or we’ve seen someone else go through it we can have hope that we’ll get to the rest again.

That hope allows us to enjoy the dissonance instead of dreading it.


What’s your favorite song? What’s your favorite part of your favorite song?

When you go on a hike or a drive to a new place, how does the trip feel? What about the second time? What about when you are going home from work?

What does your to-do list look like on your day off? What do you want it to look like?

How were you taught to deal with fear and doubt when you were growing up? Regarding school? Regarding sports? Music? Faith?

How would it change your life if you were familiar with the “tune” of moving from cognitive dissonance to consonance?

Wednesday, March 5, 2014


Mumford and Sons became incredibly popular after their album “Sigh No More” came out in 2009. They started playing sold out concerts to huge venues around the globe. Then, in 2012, they came out with another album called “Babel.” That album was panned by critics for sounding too much like the first one.

In the 2004 presidential campaign John Kerry was relentlessly attacked for being a flip-flopper, that is a politician who changes positions on an issue. Several politicians have done so (Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, John McCain, etc.) so it’s not as if Kerry was unique. Nearly every politician that does change positions, though, is branded as a flip-flopper and it often harms a politician’s career to make such a change.

Our culture wants changes in our artists (unless it’s too much, I’m looking at you 70s Beatles), but we want our politicians to remain forever unchanging no matter what happens.

There was a young rabbi who wanted to make a name for himself. He was doing well: he had the best teacher around and spent time attending to the important issues of Judaism. He was a rising star, but he wanted to do more. So he talked to the leaders and received a special commission. They asked him to go on a business trip on behalf of the leadership of Judaism.

On the road Saul of Tarsus was struck blind and confronted by Jesus. He flip-flopped pretty quickly after that.

Mumford’s second album did sound quite a bit like their first. They kept the same basic formula of starting out simply and then building the song to a powerful climax.

John Kerry did change his mind about the war in Iraq. He thought one thing was the right choice and then switched later.

Change is difficult. When we don’t do it we’re criticized. When we do it we’re criticized. It seems like there’s no good choice in the matter.

Saul, who became Paul, was so against the idea of change that he persecuted and killed Christians because they were trying to change his religion. He was so resistant to change that Jesus had to strike him blind to start the process. But then he became an advocate and champion of change constantly preaching and teaching about Jesus and his ability to change everyone from the inside out.

Change is tough.

Have you ever done one of those activities with the inflatable track and the bungee cords where you have to run against it as far as you can before it pulls you back? Sometimes change feels like that. We’re attached to the past and the harder we pull against it, the harder it pulls back against us. Other times it feels like the bungee cord is at the new place pulling us forward as we try to resist moving.

One thing that doesn’t get mentioned very often about the conversion of Saul is that he lost everything by making a change. He was the golden child of the Pharisees. His future was incredibly bright. He gave all that up when he converted to Christianity, but he didn’t gain a community of friends inside the church -- not at first anyway. He spent years in isolation where his old friends wouldn’t talk to him and his new community didn’t trust him (to be fair, he had tried to arrest and kill them).

Change is loss.

We give up something when we change. Mumford would have lost the audience that only wanted their original stuff. Politicians lose the people who supported them in the past. Saul lost both his old and new communities. We must give up something when we change. There’s a risk involved.

Change is life.

If we don’t change, move, and grow, we end up stagnating and dying. It’s impossible to stay the same, no matter how hard we try. We are born changing and we will change until the day we die. At first the changes aren’t voluntary. We are taught in school and we don’t have any say in the matter. But as we get older we have more choice in the changes that happen.

The bungee cord feeling is a good thing. It helps us to not change too quickly. If the cords are really strong, they’ll keep us from changing. If they aren’t very strong, we’ll be able to overcome them and move to a new place.

The process of doubt, questioning, searching, and finding truth is like looking at your bungee cords. You get to see which ones connect you to good things, which ones connect you to things you don’t really like and which way they’re pulling you. Knowing what cords are attached to you doesn’t stop them from pulling on you, though.

Change is a process.

You don’t change overnight. Even Paul, after Jesus smacked him down, took three years to process what had happened and to learn about Jesus. You’ll still feel the pull of the cords, even as you’re fighting against them. But you can know which steps to take and in which direction when you engage in change purposefully rather than just letting it happen to you.


What’s your favorite band (or author)? Do you go back to them because you’ll get more of the same or because they will always surprise you?

When you go on vacation, do you always go to the same place or do you like to try new and different things?

Have you experienced a significant changes in taste? Like do you prefer spicy food now, but you used to hate it? Do you like rap now but used to think it was dumb?

What has helped you to make changes in your life?

What has prevented you from making changes?

Would you prefer that your religious life had more or less change in it? Why do you think that is?

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Big T Truth versus Little T Truth

Einstein hated quantum physics. When asked about it he responded, “God does not play dice with the universe.” The problem was, Einstein helped to create quantum physics. Without his groundbreaking work, the pioneers of quantum theory like Max Plank and Edwin Schrodinger wouldn’t have been able to articulate the theory that Einstein hated so much.

The writer of Ecclesiastes -- usually just called “The Teacher” -- does not seem like a fun person to hang around. All throughout the book the refrain: “Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless” keeps coming up. The Teacher is kind of a downer.

The thought is that Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes. We don’t know for sure since the book itself doesn’t say, but in some ways it makes sense. He was the wisest man who ever lived, thanks to God, and he probably wanted to share that wisdom with the world. He also probably wrote big chunks of Proverbs and the Song of Solomon (surprise!). While the tone of Proverbs is very practical and the tone of Song of Solomon is romantic, the tone of Ecclesiastes is depressing. Seriously, Eeyore could have written a happier book.

Einstein rejected the ideas of quantum physics (at least at first) because of all the randomness involved. Without getting too technical, it says that sub-atomic particles aren’t in one place at one time, but in many places all at the same time. There are any number of possibilities for how the particles will move and exist and all of them are right, all at once.

The really freaky thing about quantum physics is that they’ve proven through experiments that the behavior of a particle changes because you observe it. Here’s a cartoon explaining it (it’s still freaky). In the quantum world everything is possible, all at the same time.

The Teacher lived a long life. If it was Solomon, then we know some of the details of having gobs of money, ruling a country, and having nearly a thousand women. Think of Warren Buffett as the unquestioned king of his own country; there is nothing that he couldn’t do. At the end of all of that the answer was this: “Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless.”

Wait, what?

It’s not just that money can’t buy happiness, but neither can sex, power, or even wisdom. It would almost be better to be a stuffed donkey in the Hundred Acre Wood. At least then you wouldn’t have so many people complaining all the time.

At the end of all of the depression and meaninglessness of Ecclesiastes The Teacher sums up the truth: “Fear God and keep his commandments,” (12:13).

That’s it. That’s the truth that The Teacher discovered after all that searching. Fear God; keep his commands. It’s almost like Jesus summing up the entire Law (which is really big, have you read all that stuff?) in just two commands: Love God and love your neighbors.

The intellectual and philosophical age known as modernity (from about 1500 to 2000) tried to use logic and reason to find the right answer. It worked well enough, but the longer it went on the more holes showed through. Eventually people noticed that there were different ways of looking at things and started to question to whole premise of having just one right answer.

That led to postmodernity, which was really just a reaction to modernity. From an intellectual and philosophical standpoint it wasn’t very satisfying. It basically took anything that modernity said and replied with a resounding: “Nuh-uh!”

While the critique of postmodernity is necessary, it doesn’t really offer a better way to figure out the truth. It doesn’t make a move toward truth, but away from it. In rejecting the modern goal of finding the right answer (to rule them all), postmodernity rejects any possibility of having a right answer.

What Einstein and The Teacher illustrate is that the pursuit of truth can be painful and costly. There is an emotional and even physical cost to pay in searching for the truth. And, when you get there, you may not like what you find.

Quantum theory gives us a picture of how our world is put together at the smallest level (that we can currently observe). Our world is not made up of precise gears moving in a specifically prescribed order, but it’s built on randomness and chaos. Yet, in the end, that randomness still settles out to the point where we can live life. We can move, eat, breathe, and send rockets to the moon. For all the randomness, we can still bank on things working a certain way.

Postmodernity is right to question the absolute nature of modernity. The world we live in is made of chaos that we can’t completely predict or control. But modernity was right in that we can use logic and reason to figure out quite a bit about what’s going on.

The difference between truth and Truth is perspective. God knows the Truth -- scratch that, God is the Truth (John 14:6) -- but try as we might we will never completely figure God out. We can come up with some good observations. We can use our logic, reason, and emotions to understand things. But the best we’ll come up with are probabilities.

The reason we can still send a rocket to the moon even though at the quantum level everything is a soup of weirdness is because it all shakes out into the most probable option. Sure our particles have the possibility of flying across the universe at the speed of light, but the overwhelming probability is that they’ll stay put and we’ll keep breathing.

We can’t know for 100 percent certainty that God will or won’t do anything. But we can know to a very high degree of probability how to fear God and keep his commandments. We may not ever know exactly what Jesus meant by every word, but we can know fairly certainly that if we love God with our whole selves and love each other, we’ll be on the right track.


What movie, TV show or other media just infuriates you? Why is that?

What would you do if you won the lottery?

How long do you think you would enjoy having won the lottery? Why?

Do you consider yourself to be more logical or emotional? Why do you think that is?

How is the church better for having the right answer? How is the church worse for thinking it has the right answer?  

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Discovering Truth

The story may not be true, per se, but that’s no reason to avoid telling it.

Archimedes was really good at math and things. He lived in Syracuse (the one in Italy) in the third century before Christ. Among the things he’s reputed to have done (like creating death rays!) one of them stands out for the simple fact that he was naked when he discovered it.

John was Jesus’ cousin. We know that Mary and Elizabeth spent some time together before Jesus and John were born, but we don’t really know if they cousins played freeze tag at the family reunions, or if they forgot about each other until they were adults.

We do know that John had quite a beard and people went to hear his beard preach (actually it was his mouth behind the beard). John taught about the one who would come. He taught about repentance and the kingdom of God. He proclaimed the coming Messiah. Remember that for the Jewish people the word “messiah” or in the Greek, “christ” simply meant “anointed one” which was a different way of saying “king.” For the Jewish people they had seen messiahs come and go (it wasn’t that hard to get some oil and be anointed), but they kept waiting for THE Messiah who would be their King forever.

The king in Syracuse wasn’t a nice guy. He thought his crown-maker was trying to cheat him by diluting the gold in the crown with silver. He told Archimedes to figure out if the crown was legitimate or not. The problem was that Archimedes couldn’t melt down the crown to test it. He had to come up with another way. With time running out and the pressure mounting (let’s just say that tyrants aren’t kind to people who fail), Archimedes went to have a bath. I don’t know, maybe he thought better in the tub.

In the middle of one of John’s baptizing sessions, Jesus shows up. John knows who he is and refuses to baptize him, but Jesus insists and is baptized by John. Afterward, God speaks and the Holy Spirit comes down on Jesus. It’s a pretty big moment and John is right in the middle of it. He sees a person anointed, not with oil, but by the Holy Spirit of God coming down from the heavens.

When Archimedes stepped into the tub for his bath he noticed the water rise up and flow over the sides of the tub. By getting into the water he displaced some of it, which would allow him to calculate his density by figuring out how much water got pushed out compared with how much space he took up (it’s all Greek to me). The short of it is that he figured out how to determine if the crown was fake or real. He was excited and shouted: “I have found it!” The story goes that he kept shouting that all the way home (and that he forgot to put clothes on first). The Greek word for “I have found it” is Eureka.

John’s eureka moment was when Jesus, the Father and the Holy Spirit had a party together two feet away from him (he needed the space for his massive beard). Jesus was not just a messiah, but The Messiah.

Or was he?

Not long after all that, John was imprisoned. Some think that it was because Herod was jealous of John’s beard, but the bible says it was because John wouldn’t leave Herod alone for marrying his brother’s wife. Herod really wanted to kill John, but he didn’t want the people to get mad at him, so he just put John in prison (without the possibility of parole, because it hadn’t been invented yet).

John sends a message over to his cousin asking: “Are you the one or should we wait for someone else?”

After his eureka moment. After Jesus was vouched for by God from on high and the Holy Spirit anointed him as The Messiah, John still wasn’t completely sure. He was sitting on death row after preaching that God’s kingdom was coming back and he wasn’t sure.

Jesus’ response was this: “The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news proclaimed to them.” (Matt 11:5 NET).

Asking questions, looking for answers, and finding meaning are all great pursuits, but even all of that might not be enough. You might have a eureka moment and see God clearly working in your life and, for a time, have no doubts about who he is or what he’s doing.

But you aren’t static. You don’t stay in the same place, mentally, physically, or spiritually. The eureka moment won’t be where you live forever, but a moment in your life that informs who you are.

By all means seek out those eureka moments, those holy experiences, those answers to the deepest questions of life. Find them. Cherish them. But don’t expect that they will be everything you need. Don’t expect one moment of your life to carry you through all the rest.

For both John and Archimedes all of the little questions and little answers came together and created meaning for them. Think of each question and answer as a clue to the path, it might be a tree or a rock or stream that you can use to determine where the path is. The meaning you find is the path that you walk. The answers to all the questions came together and pointed you in the right direction, but the path isn’t the goal. As you walk along the path you’ll get to spots with amazing views and picturesque scenes. These are the eureka moments. They confirm your path, emphasize your meaning, and should serve to spur you on down the path. You might rest there, take a few selfies, and post your progress to Facebook, but those moments aren't the end of the path.

Keep going.


Have you had a moment where you realize that the person on the show you’re watching was also on something else? How did that feel? What about before the existence of IMDB?

Do you like puzzles? If so, what kind and why? If not, why not?

Is there a question or problem that you worked on for a long time before finally getting the answer? How did that feel?

Why do you think John doubted Jesus? What do you think you would do in his situation?

How has discovery been treated in your religious life? How do you wish it would have been treated?