Thinking Differently

Dear Dr. Robert Jeffress,

Dear Russell & Friends,

I’ve cc:ed you on my open letter to Dr. Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church Dallas, Texas.  For point of reference, I’m responding to his sermon here:

Dear Dr. Jeffress,

My name is Pascal and I am a follower of Christ.  I have done so since I was a child, trained by imperfect but godly parents who loved me and taught me to to love scripture.  I had not heard your name or seen your face before you chose to address the world in the guise of addressing your congregation.  My first impression was that you must be a Republican politician.  Red tie.  Dark suit.  Dour expression with forced smiles.  When I searched your name, most posts were from Fox News.  First impressions can be illuminating.  Malcolm Gladwell would call it a blink.  That was type 1 thinking – – a heuristic reflex that recoiled and said – – this man is a Pharisee.  In this open letter, let me return to type 2 and carefully respond to what you carelessly constructed.

“As Christians we follow the Bible.  We follow the New Testament specifically.  You cannot find a verse anywhere in the New Testament that commands us to kill unbelievers.”  Jeffress, above: 1:50-

Your polemic was actually very short on the scripture that I love.  Let’s go to that scripture to evaluate your words.  First:

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.  James 3:1

Jesus’ brother James is talking to both of us.  We both teach.  You teach the scripture as a vocation and presumably well for you were called to teach at a powerful church in one of America’s largest cities.  By posting on YouTube you are teaching more people than could ever crowd that building and reaching those who would never darken its doors.  What about scripture?  What does scripture say about itself?  Second:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.  2 Timothy 3:16-17

Your assertion that Christians follow the New Testament specifically is constructed in a way that dismisses the Old Testament.  As a debater, I understand why you did it.  The Old Testament is rife with verses that say exactly what you assert the Qu’ran says.  As a believer, I must remind you that our whole story of redemption – – creation, fall, chosen tribe to bless the earth, saviour and much of what we learn about government comes from the Hebrew scriptures – – our Old Testament.  Paul, who wrote the precious verses to his young pastor mentee Timothy above, loved scripture and said that it was useful.  Christians follow all of scripture.  What is scripture useful for?  It is useful for one thing I’ve honestly never used it for before – – rebuking error, even from a pastor-politician.

You said that God does not intend man to live without borders and that securing borders is the God-given priority of government.  Be careful.  Using God’s name in vain does not only mean swearing.  It means speaking for him without sufficient study and respect.  A false prophet uses God’s name in vain.  In support of your argument you quoted this:

From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.  Acts 17:26

Paul was speaking in Athens on Mars Hill to believers in all current faiths, including those who believed in no God.  To read the words in context belies your thesis.  What does scripture say that God intends for the people of the world?

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.  Rev 7:9

At the outset of your speech, a version of which I expect to see at the Republican National Convention for which you were auditioning, Christ-following was constrained – – even reduced – – to the New Testament.  False.  Scripture rebukes you.  That allowed you to conclude that Donald Trump was right.  Shame on you. What does scripture say about refugees and immigrants?  Again and again – – it says this:

When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them.  The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born.  Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God. Lev 19:33-34

I realize your position.  You are an elder.  I recognize that scripture warns me to take accusations against an elder very seriously and to do so only in the presence of other mature believers.  That is why this letter is as open as the video that you posted.

You are wrong.  You have misrepresented scripture and handled it poorly.  You have used your pulpit for politics.  Change.  Bring back the prophecy of truth telling, not punditry.  Go back to the full counsel of scripture.  Repent (turn around) and pray for God to humble your heart.  He will if you ask.  I’ve been there and he’s forgiven me of my foolish pride too.

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. 2 Tim 2:15

Deeply grieved,

Pascal – – 1:16

 

Family Forgiveness

Dear Russell & Friends,

A brief companion to yesterday’s reflection on how a family must sometimes fight to preserve itself and maintain integrity.  Families also don’t leave.  They don’t stop when members do painful things.  They love deeply, especially in the context of disagreement and disappointment.  That is not acquiescence to wrong.  It is the decision to love someone even if her opinion is wrong.  It is the decision to love when you just can’t like.  It is patient and kind, neither envying nor boasting.  It is not arrogant, rude, irritable or resentful.  It rejoices in truth, not wrongdoing.  It does not insist on its own way.  It bears, believes, hopes and endures and never ends.  This is the love of a family in a fight and it is so damn hard.

By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.  John 13:35

Even when you’re wrong family, I love you and will not leave.

Pascal – – 1:16

Family Fight

Dear Russell & Friends,

This won’t be long or profound.  There is no image I borrowed to entice you.  It is only a heartfelt response to the last week and the people I love – – my family.  My family is now nuclear after the passing of my mother this year preceded six years ago by my father’s death.  One wife and three sons.  My older brother and I are not close at all.  My sister and I love and respect each other, but are not entwined, let alone enmeshed.

This family is the family of Christ.

I call myself a follower of Christ rather than a Christian for reasons that are apparent to any who have tried to unpack the baggage of the latter term.  I want to follow the example of Christ as a man, and I acknowledge the divinity of Christ as the firstborn over creation.  Perhaps that is the litmus test for a Christian.  Is Christ divine?  ‘No’ or ‘I don’t know’ are legitimate answers held with integrity by those I consider friends.  But, for orientation, my answer is ‘yes’ and now is not the time to argue why.  It does, however, identify me as part of the family of Christianity in at least the primary color of its enormous spectrum.

If you’d like to read this post by Russell’s wife, it gets very close to my heart on this. If you choose not to read, I’ll summarize the thesis:  she is confused and disappointed by Christians who don’t welcome Syrian refugees or Muslim refugees in general.  Further:  those who don’t welcome Muslims, or [insert other human here] confuse and disappoint her.

Do I, a member of the family of Christ, share her disappointment?

I do.  Deeply so.  It is like the disappointment I felt when I first discovered why Southern Baptists were so named.  It was like the disappointment that stained my subconscious even after the apology twenty years ago for that evil stance on slavery and racism.  How could that be prospectively tolerated 170 years ago then willfully maintained for 150 years?  Didn’t my family read the scripture?  Didn’t my family think?  Didn’t we argue?  It was like the disappointment I felt after learning that Martin Luther was a rabid anti-Semite.  I thought Jesus was Jewish.  What did I miss?  How could such a brilliant theologian have such a hateful blind spot?

So, here’s the thing about a family.  We will confuse and disappoint each other.  We will hold diametrically opposing views at times ensuring that one of us is wrong.  I’ve certainly been on the wrong side of many arguments.  On this one, I’ll stick to an anchor of scripture:

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.  Micah 6:8

Why would a follower of Christ cast out the refugee?  Why would the follower of Christ not welcome a fellow creature of God?  Why would the follower of Christ fear death from a bullet or a bomb?  I just don’t get it.  Isn’t this life to be lived to his glory with gratitude and the next life to be eagerly anticipated?

I love you family – – but you are wrong.  The brothers and sisters who want to love, want to accept, want to understand will need to disagree and even fight within the family to keep the family together.  Are we not light?  It doesn’t feel like it now.

Love,

Pascal — 1:16

Revery Interrupted

Dear Russell & Friends,

I had intended to post on stewardship this morning and was thinking about the structure of the post and the planned alliteration before falling asleep last night.  I awoke to the morning solitude, strong coffee, an open journal and the internet newspaper.

Again.  Terror again.  Violence directed at the unarmed and uninvolved. Violence without warning, without defense.  Violence by those wanting to die – – a locally uncounterable strategy.  And those who started a normal day weep.  And those loved ones lost.  And I just can’t write about stewardship or even the punchline – – time.

I grieve with you, those who suffer the sudden loss of love now fully recognized.  I grieve with you, those in physical pain and mental shock in Paris hospitals.  I grieve with you friends and families at the bedsides I have so frequently attended feeling – – helpless.

Dare I grieve for the misguided, angry and evil young men who convinced themselves that this was for God’s glory?  Dare I grieve for the mothers of these men and wonder if this was their aspiration?  Dare I grieve for those who hold their faith as preciously as I hold mine and see themselves disdainfully numbered amongst the criminally insane?  I dare.

Dear God – – I know these few sentences will be a thin slice of what is aching in my heart. Please comfort the broken.  Please heal the hurt.  Please walk amongst us with compassion and join our suffering as you did in Jesus Christ.  Please forgive these most despicable of our enemies and give us the courage to follow your lead.  Thank you for being there and for caring when we hurt too much to breathe.

Love,

Pascal – – 1:16

 

The Russian Winter

 

Minard grafficDear Russell & Friends,

A short post on a long book?  The graphic by Minard above is hanging in my study.  I first saw it in consultation with our hospital’s statistician.  He described it as the best information graphic ever.  I purchased the inexpensive print in an Edward Tufte conference on the graphical display of information that my oldest and I attended together 5 years ago.  Hobby Lobby did the rest.

The graphic depicts Napoleon’s march to and retreat from Moscow in the War of 1812.  And that was the extent of my knowledge until reading Leo Tolstoy’s War & Peace.  Like a visit to Israel, reading and reflecting on this book takes time.  Tolstoy has fascinated me since I read that his apologetic influenced but did not convince Gandhi.  I took Oprah’s advice to read Anna Karenina and found my favorite opening line ever, an explanation for my upbringing, and a hope for my children and grandchildren:

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way

Like so many of you, my history and future is an amalgam of the clauses of this brilliant sentence.  I found that Anna Karenina was a profound portrait of humanity and I found in Levin a man I could admire and even emulate in his pursuit of authentic faith.  So, when the the itch to read War & Peace arose, I was ready to scratch.  I listened to the story from Audible, just less than 1 hour a day with occasional splurges on the way to the airport.  It took a quarter of a year.

And here I am – – done.  I wrote the topics that Tolstoy approached in my journal and I’d like to share them here soon.  It is astonishing.  Calculus, astronomy, medicine, literature, theology, history, philosophy and so much more.  The characters, at least 20 major, became friends or even worthy opponents.  And here I am – – done.  As the Texas Winter begins I can’t help but feel let down.  Finishing an amazing book leaves me wistful.  Will my life ever be apportioned with the time and knowledge to write like that, even read like that in more than borrowed minutes?

Consider this an introduction if you will.  I missed you in the blog and hoped that writing about reading would help get me off dead center.  May I ask?

  • Do you enjoy long books?
  • Do you feel a let down when they are done?
  • Have you read Tolstoy?
  • What were you surprised to learn in War & Peace?

Pascal – – 1:16

photo credit:  Charles Joseph Minard’s work, hanging in my study

A Challenge for Atheists and Believers – Will You Accept?

Hello friends,

I am inspired by Pascal. While I do not share all his strengths, I do recognize his character is an image that my best self desires to reflect. If that sounds like high-praise, it is. As an oncologist, his compassion is regularly exercised and deepened by his engagement with others in their time of suffering. He fights for them and his hope and solicitude are a bedrock in the face of their own mortality. If you’re on the fence about Pascal, please get down and embrace him. Even in his disagreement, he’s respectful because his understanding of other people and their reasoning is immense. The genetic parts of his personality have been cultivated by years of actively struggling to learn about those who differ from him – and that foresight and sacrifice is what I value so deeply.

A model to follow

A few years ago, Pascal invited my family into his home. When he found that my faith did not match his own, he invited me to breakfast. When I couldn’t afford to go, he paid for my egg and cheese burrito. When I avoided faith conversations, he waited patiently, week after week, growing a friendship over hours spent in the enthusiasm of shared interests. The bond formed quickly because he’d already taken the time to strengthen his knowledge in areas that I enjoy, and he continued to do so over time. It took months, but eventually I opened up to him about my lack of faith and he accepted me. He challenged me, he listened, and we communicated. I read some books he like, and he read some books I liked so we could understand how we each think. Through the investment of time and the effort to understand one another’s point of view – especially where we didn’t share it – we grew from our opposing poles and related to one another in a stronger way. That transition was easier to the degree that we already respected each other. He had that respect from me from the beginning, because he’s a human just like me. This blog is a continuation of some of those discussions in a way that encourages others to join in the respect we already share.

Pascal and I still meet for breakfast, but we rarely spend much time on shallow things. Our topics often meander, but they’re usually quite deep and earnest. This isn’t a recipe that will work in every situation for every set of two individuals with opposing views – but it worked for us. My point is, it wasn’t easy, but he hasn’t given up yet and I’m much better for it. His actions are the inspiration for the challenge to come. I believe that everyone needs at least one person like Pascal in their life, and needs to be a Pascal for others. Ultimate, that will raise the bell curve. So…

The challenge

1) Think of someone who disagrees with you on some world-view issue (especially if they do so strongly) and schedule a time and place to meet with them this week.

Right now, give them a phone call, voice mail, text, email, Facebook message, Tweet, or something, and let them know you want to meet over a meal in your home or at a restaurant this week or next (include some dates/times). Confirm the meeting and then leave a comment letting us know your meeting is scheduled and anything you want to discuss with us before you meet with them (don’t forget to use good judgment if it’s someone of your gender-attraction).

2) Meet with them and work on your friendship (don’t try to convert or de-convert or tackle the issue(s) you see as extreme right away).

Try to understand them and see the world through their eyes. Find some shared interests to work on for next time. Feel free to refer them to this blog (or a specific post) or any other blog or information that may lead to mutual respectful conversation. Try to talk about something deep before you leave to set that precedent. Be honest, authentic and humble with them when you do, recognizing that you don’t have all the answers and that at least some of your closely held beliefs, statistically, must be false in some way. Their position is worthy of respect because they’ve had different experiences than you. If you were born in their circumstances with their parents and environment and DNA you might believe exactly as they do. If you see their view as extreme, they probably see yours the same way, so try to get to understand theirs in the same way that you would want them to try to understand the legitimacy of your own. So try to understand their views that you think are extreme, but don’t force the topic at the first meeting if the timing isn’t right. Schedule another and another until your friendship builds the needed respect. If you’re a believer, pray for them. Also, whether you’re a believer or not, spend time thinking about how you can prioritize friendship and respect with them rather than the issue you want to understand. That will come with time.

Remember that your goal through all this is to genuinely understand your opposition by seeing the world through their eyes. Don’t count what your group says about people who think the way they do as “knowledge” about how they actually think. There are likely more straw men than true representations of your opponents arguments in the impassioned cries of your in-group, because straw men are easier to knock down. Go with an open mind and a heart that seeks to connect with the heart of a friend.

Don’t wait to respect them until what you hear what they have to say. Respect them now, because they are you in a different set of circumstances, and you are them. As they speak, listen to how your life might have been if, outside of your control, you were born in their circumstances instead of yours. Find a way to legitimize them as a person and to help them grow through your shared time and your shared humanity. Love them as yourself. It’s likely that meeting them on this level, with this heart, will bring them closer to you as well. If so, encourage them to use this model as they engage others.

3) After your first meeting, comment back here in a response to your first comment and let us know how it went. Try to set a follow-up meeting if possible and appropriate.

I’m immensely grateful that we have the ability and privilege to unite together in this blog and others to discuss theology and world-views, but if those ideas never turn into action, we’re stopping short of achieving the level of potential improvement we seek in the lives of our friends and perceived enemies. If we rise above differences and focus on humanity, and if we commit together to act in the world, we really can raise the bell curve.

I’ll start the challenge in a comment below. If anyone else joins me I’ll do something unique for them in a future post. 🙂

Have a great week!

Gentleness and respect,
–Russell

Challenge Extremism by Raising the Bell Curve

Hi Pascal and friends!

This post is a set-up for the following one which will be a challenge to atheists, christians and everyone in between.

I often mention my desire to make the bell curve taller. Some may understand that intuitively while others may benefit from a bit of an explanation. I’ll try not to let this get too dry for too long. 🙂

A bell curve is a statistical model that can be representative of most sets of sufficient complexity and size, be it a set of heights in a population, grades on a mid-term in English class, or political ideologies. If you’ve had statistical training you’ll be thinking of standard deviations from the mean, but the specifics of that terminology are more advanced than we need for this illustration. What we’re focusing on is the ends of the curve (at the tails or the poles – “polarization”) which represent the less common entities in the set being modeled – the outliers, the extremes. When we talk about extremism, this is literally what we mean. Here’s an example of a bell curve…

bell_curve

The existence of extremes is a statistical certainty in most types of data of sufficient size. In things like height or grades, there’s little or no harm to the population as a whole due to the presence of the extremes. In things like world-views, political ideologies, or most germane to this topic, religious ideologies where a percentage of the population believes a divine agent wants them to act a certain way towards the general population – extremism can be very bad for humanity. It can quickly lead to impassioned conflict, loss of dignity, injustice, inequality, violence, war, and death. Gone are the days when the most harm a person with extreme views could do is the actions he or she could perform under his or her own power. Today we have unlocked many powers in nature (biological and atomic to name a few) that can greatly augment an extremist’s ability to affect a wide percentage of the population as their views dictate. This is one of the greatest threats to humanity today and in the foreseeable future.

But aren’t differences in opinion inevitable? Yes, but there is a difference between a disagreement and an extreme disagreement. That’s when those standard deviations from the mean are relevant. I’ll skip that and just say that some topics lead to wider bell-curves than others. Consider legalizing marijuana vs abortion rights. Also, in reality the threshold between healthy argument and extreme disagreement is often much more fuzzy when it comes to ideological issues.

So who decides what’s an “extreme view”? We each do. We believe things that, given our experience and way of reasoning, we think are most rational. Therefore, when we evaluate the beliefs of others, we tend to place ourselves in the middle of the bell curve and place their views somewhere in relationship to ours at the middle. What I see as extreme, you may not, and vice versa.

Sometimes this tendency to compare other’s beliefs to our own “right ones” leads us to place theirs at a wrong place on the curve. For example, if you’re an LGBT-equality proponent and you hear that Pascal is a Christian from the south, that may lead you to wrongly assume he’s anti-LGBT rights (thus holding a potentially extreme view in your opinion). Similarly, if you’re a believer, there may be some beliefs you think I hold that, to you, may border on extreme. If I admit that I’m an atheist you may naturally think I believe that God does not exist (I do not think that). That assumption may force you, consciously or subconsciously, to place me into an area of the bell curve concerning “how we got here” or “why we exist” that is “extreme” in your view (given Romans 1:19-21). Such cases are often the result of a misunderstanding based on the frequent reliance upon assumptions when information is lacking. Assumptions are often necessary, but we should remember to recognize assumptions and hold them in low confidence, since they can easily be false – driving a wedge between us unnecessarily.

The further tendency to draw lines around those we see as different from us in some vital way and then to view them as less (less logical, rational, moral, compassionate, educated, etc. – less fully human) is really an “us vs them” survival mechanism to help us justify using means we normally object to (e.g. hatred and/or violence) to dominate what we rationalize as a “lesser being.” Seeing others as sub-human is how we justify wars and every other injustice. There is a tool we can use to fight these tendencies, and Pascal wields it well.

So what can we do? We can follow Pascal’s example of making an effort to understand our opponents. Pascal and I have long realized and embraced the lesson from Ender’s Game that knowing your enemies makes them your enemies no more (knowledge often turns into compassion and love). I tend to think in sweeping mathematical abstractions, so I summarize all this as “making the bell curve taller” or “raising the bell curve.”

Making the bell curve taller (a buffer against extremism and a bridge to understanding and love)

raise_the_bell_curve

What does it mean to make the bell curve taller? It allows actual information directly from another person to supplant the often faulty assumptions we’ve made. It also lets people connect, relate to one another, empathize, de-propagandize, and generally care about another person, which makes them seem less extreme to you and you to them. It humanizes our opponents and breaks down the stereotypes our monkey-brain erects for our protection. It involves individuals investing time and interest into the concerns of other individuals with whom they have a fundamental disagreement, to the point that they can understand that person deeply enough that they respect them, despite their differing opinions.

The more often this happens in the society, the fewer people on average are assumed to belong (and over time, the fewer actually do belong) in the extreme ends, or tails, of the bell curve. As people see their former ideological enemies as fellow humans worthy of respect, the society begins to move in towards the mean (the center, tall part of the curve) but the number of people under the curve doesn’t change. As a results, the curve gets narrower and taller. That’s raising the bell curve (see the image I just made above).

It’s depolarizing humanity (at least the ideological extremes of humanity) to safer levels that are more conducive to peace and shared concern. It’s “bearing one another’s burdens,” “knowing them by their fruits,” “loving your neighbor as yourself,” and other such commands, but it transcends religious ties.

Question

It’s likely that there are many specific ways to raise the bell curves in our respective cultures. Do you have any suggestions we can try which will unite hearts across spanning ideological distances?

I want to highlight one approach to honor Pascal’s efforts with me which led to the eventual formation of this blog. I’ll do that in the form of a direct challenge to myself and to you in my next post. Stay tuned…

Gentleness and respect,
–Russell

A Little Lost

IMG_3817

Dear Russell and Friends,

This is the view from a place I had never been before on the trails in my morning run.  A man I admire had pointed out a new series of trails that I had not explored.  This was the morning to do it.  The kids were at school and I was off work, preparing to leave with my bride on a long anticipated vacation.  Grandparents waited at home, happy to take care of our sons.  So, as the sun rose I ran and found this trail that others had clearly trodden.  But not me.  It was new to me, so exciting and a little intimidating.  My mileage clicked up a half mile at a time and I ran farther and farther from the car, knowing that each new trail would have to be traversed to return.  And I got a little lost.  Only a little.  I could still hear sounds of traffic so had the reassurance that I had a point of reference.  But a little lost.  I couldn’t have directed you to where I was, and I’m not quite sure I’ll be able to find this trail next time.  Don’t follow me, I’m a little lost too.

Or, follow me, because I know what it is like to be a little lost.  I know what it is like to be hopelessly lost.  I will never judge you for your partial or complete lostness.  To the contrary, I’ll come to find you if you’re gone too long.  Off then with my bride.  Our friendship grows with each passing year.  Next summer we’ll celebrate half our lives spent in the marriage contract that strengthens us both.  Russell promises to write in my absence.

Pascal – – 1:16