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?