Friday, July 25, 2014

This bible story feels so surreal (and it's not because of the demon)

Image source.

When they came to the crowd, a man approached Jesus and knelt before him. “Lord, have mercy on my son,” he said. “He has seizures and is suffering greatly. He often falls into the fire or into the water. I brought him to your disciples, but they could not heal him.”

“You unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me.” Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of the boy, and he was healed at that moment.

Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”

He replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

Matthew 17:14-21 [but actually there is no 21]

He makes it look so easy.

And in this passage, it's so simple. Just ask Jesus to heal someone, and he does. That's all. Of course he will, he's Jesus. No question.

But it just doesn't feel real. That's not real life. There's nowhere you can go to ask Jesus to heal someone and get a real answer like that. You can just pray or whatever, but hey, Jesus isn't standing right here in person, so he can get away with not doing the healing, and leave you there with no explanation at all.

The disciples asked him, "Why couldn't we drive it out?" And man, that's exactly what I want to know. Why, in the bible, when Jesus is right there in person, does everything go right? Why does he tell his disciples "I am with you always" and "it is for your good that I am going away" because then the Holy Spirit would come... and ever since then, Christians have been asking, "Where is God? Where is God?"

Why, why can't we have God right here in human form, and we can make him heal us and make him answer our questions?

Maybe because this world couldn't handle him last time. We killed him.

Maybe because we would just want to control God and use him to prove that we're right.

But is it really better this way, like Jesus said?

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This post is part of a series on the gospel of Matthew.

Previous post: Jesus Got All Shiny (Matthew 17:1-13)

Click here to go to the beginning of the series.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Being Wrong When You Pray

Image source.

At first, Psalm 103 seemed to have no connection to reality.

"Forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases," seriously? Everyone knows God doesn't do that. And aren't we all tired of cliches that say he does?

Then there's a bit about "The Lord works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed." Yeah! Now that part I can get behind. Because I believe in resurrection.

But then the rest is punctuated with terms like "for those who fear him." So, God's blessings are just for the followers of the "correct" religion. Yeah, I don't buy that either.

So I read this psalm like, eh, I can't relate to much any of this.

But wait, don't the psalms teach us that you can tell God exactly how you feel, you don't have to censor anything? Well that's what the psalmist did. This is what he honestly felt, this is what he believed. That doesn't mean it has God's stamp of approval. Because the psalmist is wrong about some things.

And that bit about "healing all your diseases"- well maybe the psalmist had just gotten better from some disease and he was feeling really happy about it. So it's just an exaggeration. It's not really true, but that's how he honestly felt.

So let's talk about being wrong when you pray.

That's why I don't pray much nowadays. Because, I have some beliefs about God, some of which are very strong, but I'm definitely not confident enough to start monologuing at God with the assumption that he agrees with me.

I remember back when I was a teenager and I read bullshit about how teh gays were totally trying to destroy America, and so I prayed that God would stop gay marriage. I don't want to pray for stuff like that again. Stuff that's "us vs them" and I pray as if OBVIOUSLY God agrees with me.

Far far far too much of my life has been spent believing anyone who said "this is God's way." They acted as if "God agrees with me." They took his name in vain.

I so don't want to do that. I don't want to be wrong when I pray- it will only reinforce those wrong beliefs by making me feel like they have God's approval.

There's so much danger in assuming "God agrees with me." But I wonder if there's also danger in not praying because I never want to get that wrong.

I'll only assume a few things when I talk to God: that he's always with us, that he loves us, that he feels our pain, and that he created this world good and he will restore it all someday.

Everything else, I don't know. I don't know if a person can "have a relationship with God." I don't know if it makes sense to pray for this or that to happen. I don't know if God has an opinion about decisions I make in my life. I don't know if there are more answers out there or if this is all the faith I'm ever gonna have.

All I can do when I pray is tell God this is how I feel or this is what I want. But I don't know what role, if any, God has in my getting what I want. I don't know what the point of praying is anyway.

Ai ya. ("Ai ya [哎呀]" is an incredibly versatile Chinese interjection, for those of you wondering.) I don't wanna act like I know God when I really don't. I don't want to talk to God and have her sitting there like "what the heck are you talking about? Man I don't even know what to do with this prayer."

Is it okay to be wrong when I pray? On one hand, I know God will accept me. God loves me. God wants me to talk to her, just honestly say what I feel.

But if- when- I'm wrong, I don't want to be able to just pray it like everyone's cool with it.

And I don't want to be the kind of person who's so certain God agrees with me.

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This post is part of a link-up on the topic of Psalm 103. To read other people's posts, click here: How can we bless God?

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Spock Discovers Purity Culture

Fascinating. Image source.

During our visit to the planet Boaz-2, I encountered a race of humans with fascinating mating customs. I talked with Elise, one of the females of their group, who told me that she believes emotions, especially those of the romantic or sexual kind, can be dangerous and generally should not be trusted. Of course, I considered this idea to be quite logical, as I have always been mystified by the effect that romantic love can have on humans.

According to Elise, the males of her race are naturally quite illogical and incapable of respect toward females, particularly females they find sexually attractive. However, the females desire to be in monogamous commitments with males. Elise explained that the only way such an arrangement can be safely attained is for the females to refuse all forms of sexual contact with males until they have made a marriage commitment.

Furthermore, she told me that females' emotions can often be deceptive; if she were to allow herself to have a strong emotional connection with a male, she may be unable to make logical decisions about him. Therefore, she must not allow any kind of romantic behavior to occur between her and a male unless she already believes him to be a good choice for a marriage partner.

Also, she believes her romantic feelings to potentially be so strong and volatile that she may become permanently damaged if she is emotionally hurt by a male she finds attractive. This is referred to as a loss of "purity." As stated earlier, the males of her species are highly illogical; though they are unable to control themselves, they expect their female partners to be completely "pure."

Assuming these things to be true, her ideas for dealing with the difficult situation seemed logical to me. She would avoid all romantic and physical interactions with males, unless she had carefully analyzed one (using her own logic and the advice of her friends and family) and judged him to be a worthy candidate for marriage.

It was fascinating to me to meet a human who shared some of my views about controlling one's emotions. I quite agree with her assertion that romance can often cause pain to humans. However, Elise did not mention that such interactions can often be enjoyable too- a point that the captain and other humans constantly bring up when I question their illogical behavior.

Incidentally, I was able to get some further insight into Elise's thought process because of an emergency situation that occurred. Evidently, the crackers she had been eating while we conversed contained an ingredient which caused her to have an allergic reaction. She became unable to speak, and seemed to be losing consciousness. I summoned Dr. McCoy, who had been talking with some of the other young people of this planet. A few of Elise's companions rushed over to us, and one of them explained that she had seen this happen before, and that we needed to find Elise's medicine immediately.

The circumstances were urgent, and Elise was having trouble speaking and could not tell us where the medicine was, so I decided to meld with her. It is a risky procedure, but in this case it seemed to be the best course of action.

Once I had made a connection with her mind, I found that she was scared because of the allergic reaction, which is a typical feeling for a human in such a situation. Apart from that, I found her mind to be just as logical as I had judged it to be, based on our conversation. I was soon able to communicate with her, and she was able to tell me where the medicine was kept.

One of her companions went to retrieve the medicine, and just then another arrived- a young male. Though Elise showed no outward signs, I sensed a certain emotional quality in her, upon seeing the male. One might say she was delighted. What fascinated me was how her mind focused on his hair and the way it fell at the sides of his head. Many members of her species have hair which behaves in this manner; it is highly illogical for her to pay such particular attention to it.

The doctor suggested that Elise be moved to a more comfortable place where she could lay down. As I was still maintaining the mind meld, I was unavailable to help lift her, so the doctor and the young male of her species worked together to move her to a horizontal position on a nearby couch.

I was quite unprepared for the way her mind responded. Before this moment, she had been nervous but gradually calming down. However, as the young male's arm pressed against Elise's shoulder, her mind jolted awake, first into a state of incredible excitement which actually caused pain to me, as my mind was connected to hers and I was not concentrating as much as I should have been- a mistake I take full responsibility for. I suspect she did not intend to communicate to me the reason for her sudden reaction: she very rarely had any physical contact with males at all.

However, her happiness was soon dampened by a flutter of worried thoughts and questions. "Is this okay? Is this okay?" I was aware of her reasoning with herself that it was necessary in this situation and that it wasn't her choice for the male to touch her. On some level, I admire her attempt to cling to logic, even as she experienced such strong excitement and worry. In the end, she concluded that, as the physical touch was non-consensual, she would be able to indulge herself in enjoying it without being at fault (though I was aware that she also considered the option of shielding her emotions from it, as I do).

All of this happened in only a few seconds, after which she was laying on the couch with no physical contact with anyone, except where the tips of my fingers touched her head, as I maintained the mind meld.

One of Elise's companions returned with the medicine, and I continued the meld as she took it and began to recover. It is healthiest to terminate the meld only after she comes to a fully conscious state of mind.

However, as she lay there, aware of the male's continued presence by her side, another illogical emotion grew within her: fear. Not fear of him, but fear of her own romantic feelings toward him. I understood that this was an issue she had spent time every day meditating on, because she did not want to make a mistake and lose her purity. However, her behavior is quite illogical. Earlier she had explained that the purpose of her "purity" philosophy was to be free from the control that many humans' romantic or sexual emotions have over their lives. But in my view, she had done nothing more than trade it for being controlled by fear.

Needless to say, I was relieved when Elise regained her energy and I could safely terminate the meld. Human emotions are quite strong, and it was exhausting for me to handle them.

I still admire the logic in her ideas about purity and mating rituals, however, it is an impractical philosophy for humans to follow, as it fails to account for the reality of their emotions, which cannot be so easily controlled.

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Author's note: As Spock is incredibly attractive, mind-melding with him would definitely cause me to stumble.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Blogaround

Image source.

1. There’s No Reason to Thank God After He Nearly Killed You (posted July 7) "That’s a lot of unwarranted praise for someone who sent a great white shark to damn near kill you."

2. Altared: Altered Bible Coloring Pages (posted July 14) My favorite is "God makes toast for Moses."

3. Gay marriage: the database engineering perspective. "Note: By popular demand, this problem is now known as 'Y2gay'."

4. "Word Crimes" by Weird Al Yankovic:



5. “aha” moments: biblical scholars tell their stories (7): Christopher M. Hays (posted July 11) "One of my buddies asked, 'So, don’t you believe in inerrancy anymore?' I was taken aback. I was pretty sure I still believed in inerrancy. But he explained, no, no I didn’t; after all, I had just said that Peter (no scare-quotes at this point in my life) made a mistake."

6. Unlearning Purity Culture: Intentionality (posted July 16) "Using protection meant going out and buying protection and that meant that they were actively planning to have sex. And that took away their excuse that these kind of things 'just happened.'" Oh my goodness, amen to all of this.

7. The Table... (posted July 15) "He had never seen black people and white people drink from the same water fountain, much less the same cup."

Friday, July 18, 2014

Bread, Rice, and Bible Translation

Image source.

So I'm reading Psalm 102, and verse 4 says, "My heart is struck down like grass and has withered; I forget to eat my bread."

But my bible has both English (ESV with British spellings) and Chinese (Chinese Union Version, simplified characters) side by side. The Chinese version ends verse 4 with "我忘记吃饭", which, hold up, means I forgot to eat rice.

Or, not exactly. See in Chinese, "吃饭 [chī fàn]" means eat a meal. But the "饭 [fàn]" part comes from the word for rice, because, you know, if you're eating a meal but there's no rice... what are you doing?

You're confusing this baby, that's what you're doing. Image source.

(That's not entirely true. Noodles are a common substitute for rice. And I can think of a few other common Chinese meals that normally wouldn't include rice.)

But my point is, in modern Chinese, "吃饭 [chī fàn]" means eat a meal, which may or may not include rice, though the origin of this term assumes that you're eating rice.

So why does the ESV say "I forget to eat my bread"?

Well let's have a look at some other English translations. Here, I found a whole list. Some say "bread," some say "food," and there's even one that says "I have lost my appetite."

So I'm thinking, the original text in Hebrew probably said "bread" (yep, confirmed), but some translations changed it to "food" because they want to get across the idea that this is a staple food that is not being eaten, and in modern Western culture maybe bread is not as staple-y as it was for the psalmist.

And in Chinese culture, nope bread is not a staple at all. Rice is your staple. Bread is kind of like a dessert.

But my stomach needs bread every day or I don't feel full, so I'm always making sandwiches for myself (it is HARD to find decent sliced bread here!) or going to bakeries to get little bread-type pastry things (though if you're coming from an American/western perspective, whatever you just imagined when you read "bread-type pastry things" is definitely NOT what they have in the Chinese bakeries).

And I get Chinese colleagues asking me all the time, "How can you eat so much bread???!!!" and "You need to eat other things too!" No, seriously guys, Americans eat bread every day. Chinese people eat rice every day. It's the same idea.

But anyway. If the Chinese translation of the bible said bread here, that would totally miss the point of the verse. (It would be like if the English one said "I forget to eat my rice." Us Americans would read that and go "so? I mean we eat rice sometimes but no big deal, you don't like need to eat it.") In that case, "吃饭 [chī fàn]" is a good translation.

But hey, let's check out some other Chinese translations!

Chinese New Version: "我連飯也忘了吃。" "I even forgot to eat." This one again uses that word "饭 [fàn]" which means meals in general but people will assume you're talking about rice with a side of something.

Chinese Contemporary Bible: "我茶饭不思。" Hey this is a fun one! Apparently "茶饭不思" is a 成语 [chéng yǔ], a four-character Chinese idiom! "茶 [chá]" means tea, "饭 [fàn]" means, well, we talked about that, and "不思 [bù sī]" means not thinking about something. So together, it's an idiom that means you totally lost your appetite. Kind of a fun modern translation there, I guess.

In summary, translation is hard. But also really interesting. Maybe the more literal the translation is, the more culture you need to know to actually get the meaning.

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This post is part of a link-up on the topic of Psalm 102. To read other people's posts, click here: Do people of faith struggle with pain?

Thursday, July 17, 2014

God's actually not our Defender

Image source.

Samantha Field's writing is always great, and this part of one of her recent posts really hit me:
However, we’re also asked to think of God as our “Defender.”

I have a problem with that, mostly because God doesn’t defend us.

He promised to do a lot of things– love us, never leave us, forgive us, save us, prepare us, mold us– but he never once promised to “protect us from danger or harm.” My life– all of our lives– is living proof that he doesn’t do this. I was abused. I was raped. Even when the abuse I experienced was done in his name, he did nothing to stop it. Believing that God would “protect me from harm” almost shattered any belief I had because it is so obviously a lie.

Today, I believe that I can trust God, but it’s what I’m trusting him for that matters. I trust him the same way I trust my partner: I trust in his character, in who he is. I don’t trust my partner because I believe that he’ll be able to protect me from all harm– and neither do I trust God to do that. I used to– and when he didn’t come through on this “promise” I believed he’d made to me, I was devastated.

Wait, stop the presses.

I thought Christians were supposed to believe, you know, God protects us. But then bad things happen to good people, and some of us rebels start asking "Where the hell is God?"

I've written about that many times before. Stuff happens that's totally NOT OKAY, and why didn't God do anything, and what the hell does "trusting God" even mean if we can't trust him to not let violence and death happen...?

But here's Field's post, saying God is actually not our Defender, and she seems totally calm and okay with it, and even has a reasonable idea for what "trusting God" can mean, given that God doesn't defend us.

I just totally never heard anything like that before.

And it actually makes sense and is based in reality. Because, as I've said before (and felt like some kind of heretic for saying it), look around you. Look at the world. God doesn't protect people. Well maybe sometimes, but SOOOO not enough.

Image source.

But what about what the bible says? Psalms is full of verses about how God is TOTALLY our refuge, and how if we follow him, he will always take care of us.

But the bible is also full of stories of bad things happening to good people, and God not protecting them.

You know, just like the real world.

So maybe now we have an answer for "where was God? where was God?" The answer is that protecting people is just not what he does.

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Also you want to go read the rest of Field's post.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Well that's a mission trip.

Image source.

Today I was talking with one of my students, Charlotte. I mentioned something about going to church, and she said, "Oh, you believe Yesu?" (That would be Jesus' Chinese name.) And she said she'd met a new American friend that day who was also a Christian, and had asked her if she wants to have a relationship with Jesus. Charlotte told me, "I don't know if I can understand what she means."

And also, this "new American friend" is part of a group of college students who are visiting Charlotte's university.

For one month.

To study Chinese.

Yep, that's a mission trip.

(Like, could it be more obvious?)

Image source.

And I feel a lot of things. First, wow could it be that God is working in Charlotte's life? She just so happened to have a conversation with someone else about Jesus, and then I just so happened to mention to her that I'm a Christian... but wait, I'm not sure what I believe about that whole "God is working in their life!" thing.

Like where did that thought even come from? That's like, straight out of the days long ago when I was "on fire for God."

Also: oh man I want to meet these people! They are me from a few years ago! I really miss being with other Christians- even though I also fear they'll judge me when/if they find out I don't believe all the correct things.

I first came to China on a mission trip and well, you can see I kind of got sucked in. And maybe I want to meet them and tell them how awesome China is! (And when random friends ask me to donate money so they can go on mission trips, I totally do. Because I've been that person asking for money before. And going to China totally changed my life.)

But wait! Charlotte, look out! The real reason they're here is to make people Christians. Should I warn her? Am I supposed to keep the secret as some kind of group loyalty thing? (And also the threat of missionaries being kicked out of China- but I bet the Chinese government also knows it's a mission trip. They weren't born yesterday.)

Uhh... there's nothing to warn about though- I totally expect the mission trip kids to be loving and nice to all their new Chinese friends. They won't do anything disrespectful to her- at least nothing that she would be aware of.

And on that note, hey hold up! Don't treat Charlotte like some kind of mission-trip-project. She's a whole person and she's really great. She's one of my most kind and enthusiastic students. She helps me study Chinese. She's studying art at her university, and she gave me a painting she made. Isn't that the nicest thing ever?

There's nothing wrong with her, nothing that needs to be "fixed" by getting her to find Jesus.

Is somebody excitedly telling their friends, "I shared the gospel with Charlotte!" I don't know how I feel about that. Treating people like some kind of sneaky secret mission.

Like I get it, I did that. You know, I was excited about Jesus and excited about the idea of my friends becoming Christians, so yeah I told other Christians when I "had an opportunity to share the gospel." But now I kind of feel like... isn't it a little weird to talk about people (and speculate about their souls and deep needs) and say things you TOTALLY don't want them to hear you saying?

(Yeah I'm not sure how I feel about evangelism... hmm...)

But anyway, yep, that's a mission trip. Charlotte was so happy to meet them and make friends with them (even though they'll only be here a short time). I know that's a good thing- I just don't know where God fits into it. Or if he even wants to.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Blogaround

1. Series of posts from The Slactivist: Unlearning the lies we learned from the theologians of slavery. Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5.

2. Why Wright is Wrong About Same-Sex Marriage. Part 1. Part 2. Part 3.

3. What is Virginity? (posted July 9)



4. This is what happened when I drove my Mercedes to pick up food stamps (posted July 8) "One time, an old, kind-looking man with a bit of a hunch was standing behind me with just a six-pack of soda, waiting to check out. The entire contents of my cart were splayed out on the conveyor belt. When he noticed the flash of large white paper stubs in my hand, he touched me on the shoulder. I was scared that he was going to give me money; instead he gave me a small, rectangular card. He asked me to accept Jesus into my heart so that my troubles would disappear."

5. I Was A Female “Nice Guy” (posted July 9) "If a relationship started with me doing the asking, it was doomed to fail because that was not God’s plan." A-freakin-men to this.

6. How It Feels to Love and Hate a Sex Offender (posted July 7)

7. God’s triune sovereignty as provider, victim, and rebel (posted July 7) "Jesus stands in solidarity with all the people I have hurt directly through my participation in the world’s injustice and indirectly through my idolatry which is the source of all injustice."

8. Christians worship a child who fled violence in his home country (posted July 11) "But protesters have screamed epithets at them and blocked buses carrying them to processing centers, despite the fact that it is not illegal for people to cross the U.S. border and ask for protection under U.S. law."

Saturday, July 12, 2014

"To use naturally occurring events"

From Can Christianity work with a Mr. Rogers God? (Wrestling with “moralistic therapeutic deism”), on Morgan Guyton's blog:

Largely because I’m the son of a scientist, I don’t share Piper and Robertson’s Biblical inerrantist perspective. I suspect that the drought during the reign of King Ahab happened as part of a naturally occurring ecosystem, just as the conquest of Israel by Babylon occurred as a reasonably predictable sociological event in the story of ancient empires. To me, the fact that prophets attributed these acts to God doesn’t mean that the mysterious creator of the universe who is the source of being of every atom is an infinitely large invisible man who gets angry a lot and dives into history at some particular moments to punish people, but not at others. It is rather that the Holy Spirit inspired God’s prophets to use naturally occurring events in his cosmic order as teaching tools to call out God’s people on their idolatry and injustice. I would say that these inspired words of scripture are God’s accommodation of our need for divine teaching in forms that we can grasp. Where I am going to part ways with the inerrantists is when I say that God’s punitive acts according to the testimony of Old Testament prophets are provisionally conditioned to the historical needs of his Israelite people at each phase of their development and should not be analyzed as a primary window into God’s eternal character, for which Jesus is the fully developed, perfectly sufficient revelation. 

Because, wow, I have never ever heard that idea before and wow, now THAT MAKES SENSE.

(the rest of his post is worth reading too)

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Evidently this was the site of a horrific mannequin massacre


Just walking through a mall near where I live (in China). Actually it's pretty common to see naked or dismembered mannequins at little shops here, and it's really common for people to just leave huge messes when their store closes.

Oh China.