Wednesday, December 27, 2017

2018: Year of Connection and Creativity

2017 has been a good year for me, Mindy, the blog, the dogs, the cat, and most other entities in my immediate circle. The other day, Mindy and I made a list of things we had accomplished in 2017, and it made us grateful for the ways we've grown together and individually. The three life updates I posted highlight some of the advancements I've made this year, and hopefully Mindy will write a guest post soon highlighting her personal progress. The one area I chose not to pursue was getting up at 5AM-- it just made me too tired in the afternoon to function. 6AM has been working a lot better, and I've still been able to find chunks of time for deep work on my off days.

But the most meaningful areas of growth are less tangible, the kinds of things that are hard to blog about. I'm pretty sure I've recently grown in my listen ability, humility, servanthood, and my connection with Mindy, but those are also areas we highlighted as major focuses for 2018. In fact, we made a list of six "Ways to Be in 2018" we wanted to focus on, and those areas were on the list. Which brings me to the first focus of 2018: connection.

To make it practical, we made a list of about 20 microadventures we want to make happen in 2018. Some are day trips, others should just take a couple hours. This was actually Mindy's idea, and nothing better fits with the goals of this blog than these kinds of activities. So, soon I will be inaugurating the series "Microadventures with Mindy" here on the blog-- and also on my new Youtube channel, "Mountain Survivalism!" It will be relationally connecting to not just do these little adventures, but document them together, and focus on cultivating the qualities listed above while doing so.

Which brings me to my other big picture ideas for 2018: creativity.

Now that I'm in my 30's, I've realized that my neurons aren't getting any more plastic, and they've gotta be regularly whipped out of their passivity if I'm going to keep myself from becoming a fuddy-duddy. Though there are little ways to be creative at work, I see much more possibility in the projects I can highlight on this blog and my new vlog... like the microadventures I mentioned above. So even though I've intentionally moved away from monthly goals over the last couple years...

 I'm bringing them back!

I'm just as unlikely to finish them now as I was in 2015, but aiming high and seeing what happens is what this blog is all about, so who cares? Thinking about all the latent possibilities over the next year just gets me excited. So today, I came up with 12 fairly SMART goals for the year, and tried to integrate them in a logical way with the trips Mindy and I have planned, which I include below in parentheses.

January (into February): Reach Level 2 in the Krav Maga self-defense course (See family in Roanoke Rapids and friends in Raleigh)

February (into March): Write a 1-day course on obstetrics, prenatal care, and neonatal resuscitation I will be teaching for Equip International's Missionary Medicine Intensive course 4 times per year starting in March (2-day marriage conference in Charlotte)

March: Focus on cultivating my marriage and applying concepts from the marriage conference (Camp in Uwharrie National Forest)

April-May: Design and build the library, build a barrel composter, help Mindy build the chicken coop (3-day weekend with college friends, kayak trip #1)

June: Work on my kayaking skills (Kayak trip #2, camp in Elkmont, TN)

July: Start growing oyster mushrooms, experiment with new dishes in the kitchen using home-grown produce (Goble family beach trip)

August: Morning meditation, practicing presence, positivity (Camping trip near Brevard, kayak trip #3)

September: Build a plyo box, lifting platform, and prowler (Trip with Mindy's family)

October: Do the ketogenic diet. It's time. (Backpacking trip with college friends)

November: We may be having puppy grandchildren around this time. If not, I'm sure something will have come up. (Travel to see Mindy's family in Oklahoma and maybe Colorado and Wichita)

December: Do Christmas here and plan for 2019. No trips (hopefully)!

So there you have it.

I've also really enjoyed doing book reviews this year, and hope to pick up my pace now that things around the house and with the dogs aren't quite so busy. I'm actually finishing up 6 books right now, so there will be a rash of reviews once I make the time to get those out. Hopefully I'll be able to really engage with the material.

 Other posts that I hope will become series include "La Piscina" (stuff about the pool / swimming, for those of you who don't speak Spanish) "GST" (Gymnastic Strength Training), "Survival Skills," and "The Farmstead." I'll may write brief posts here with links to videos on my vlog, but we'll see how it works out. My first idea? "Survival Skills: Cold-water Immersion." Stay tuned!

So at the verge of our arbitrary distinction between one elliptical journey around the sun and the next, I bid a grateful adieu to four seasons of growth, change, and new beginnings, and bonjour to yet another gracious opportunity to grow deeper roots, thicker skin, and denser foliage than ever before so that more people in this world can benefit from the fruit and the shade of my growings. I hope the same goes for you-- that you bloom where you're planted. Happy new beginnings!

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, Part 1

I heard about this book via The Deconstructionists podcasts, and was really impressed at what the author Brian Zahnd had to say about God and the Bible, and how highly the show’s hosts spoke of this book. And it has not disappointed. In fact, this book is blowing my mind so much, I couldn’t fit my summary of it into one post. So here’s part 1!

Ch 1: Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God
In Jonathan Edwards’ classic sermon, God is depicted as a sadistic juvenile hanging spiders over a fire. Is this true? Sure, we can cobble together disparate Bible verses to create this monstrous deity. But is it true? Or is the picture the prophet paints in Jeremiah 31:20 true: “Oh, Ephraim is my dear, dear son, my child in whom I take pleasure! Every time I mention his name, my heart bursts in longing for him! Everything in me cries out for him, softly and tenderly I wait for him.” This is the question Brian Zahnd asks and answers in Chapter 1.

The key to understanding the nature of God is to remember that Jesus Christ is the perfect representation of God. The writer of Hebrews starts his book by saying, “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son… He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.” Keeping that in mind, Zahnd delves into issues surrounding the wrath of God.

A critical concept Zahnd leads with is that the Old Testament is more a theological debate than a systematic theology text. Proverbs says if you fear God and do what is right, good things will happen to you. But Job says that’s not always the whole story. The priests and Levites say God requires animal sacrifice, but David says, “sacrifice and offering you do not desire… Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required,” and Hosea claims that God does not require sacrifice but mercy. Eventually Jesus will weigh in and affirm the position of Hosea. The Bible begins with a primitive assumption that God requires ritual sacrifice but eventually moves away from that position, which exemplifies the progression of revelation we find over the course of the Bible.

We see a similar dynamic in play with the idea of God’s wrath that Jonathan Edwards waxed poetic about. Psalm 2:12 says God’s wrath “is quickly kindled,” but elsewhere in the Old Testament He is described as “slow to anger.” Again, Jesus settles the dispute. This is where we come up against the challenge of using metaphors in describing the supremely transcendent. The wrath of God is a metaphor we use to describe the very real consequences suffer from trying to go through life against the grain of love. It is "divine consent to our own self-destructive defiance.” God no more literally loses his temper than he literally sleeps, even though the Bible says “the Lord awoke as from a sleep” in Psalm 78:65.

Psalm 7 hints at this understanding of the wrath of God. It starts, “God is a righteous judge, and a God who has indignation every day. If one does not repent, God will whet his sword; he has bent and strung his bow; he has prepared his deadly weapons, making his arrows fiery shafts.” These verses make it sound like God directly visits retribution upon sinners with personal indignation. But it continues, “See how they conceive evil, and are pregnant with mischief, and bring forth lies. They make a pit, digging it out, and fall into the hole that they have made. Their mischief returns upon their own heads, and on their own heads their violence descends."

So God is not mad at you— never was, and never will be. So what does it mean to fear God? It means to have the wisdom of not acting against the grain of love. The writer of Hebrews reminds us that “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”And no doubt it is, for in the hands of God, there is no place to hide. We will no longer be able to live in the disguise of our lies. And that can be a terrifying thing. As can the monsters of war, violence, greed, exploitation, genocide, oppression, and racism. But God is not a monster, and his hands are nail-pierced hands of love that reach out to every doubter and sufferer, inviting each one to come taste and see that He is good.

Ch 2: Closing the Book on Vengeance
In this chapter, Zahnd tackles the thorny issues of how God’s appears to condone genocide. Unless we simply choose to ignore the issue, this conundrum forces us to choose one of three options: 1) Question the morality of God. Perhaps God is, at times, monstrous. 2) Question the immutability of God. Maybe God does change over time. 3) Question how we read Scripture.

Zahnd opts for number 3, then launches into a very accessible discussion of hermeneutics. He compares the Bible to how John portrays John the Baptist: sent by God, inspired by God, witnessing about God, but not God. “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” Essentially, the Old Testament is the inspired telling of the story of Israel coming to know their God. Along the way, some unavoidable assumptions were made— namely, the Yahweh is vengeful and requires blood sacrifice. In addition, because Israel experienced great injustice at the hands of its more powerful neighbors, the crucible of suffering that forged a theology of justice “also produced then slag of vengeance theology.” He then explains the consequences of adopting a view of God in line with options 1 or 2 by giving explaining how the English colonists used the Old Testament to justify the genocide of Native Americans. Point taken. 

Isaiah 61:1-2 typifies this theme. “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God.” The Hebrew longing for justice and restoration was accompanied by a desire for revenge and retaliation. But retaliatory vengeance is not the only lens in the Old Testament for viewing Gentiles. In 1 Kings 17 we find the story of the (Gentile) widow of Zarepath, whom Elijah is sent to and who receives the miracle of a flour barrel that is never empty and a jar of oil that never runs out. Further, in 2 Kings 5, Elisha heals Naaman of leprosy— the very general of the dreaded Syrian army!

To go back to the theme from chapter 1, it is Jesus who perfectly shows us God. And how did Jesus interpret the Old Testament? In Luke 4, we are told that when Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth at the beginning of his ministry, he enters the synagogue and reads the very same passage from Isaiah quoted above. But he rolls up the scroll before the last line. And lest we think that this is an oversight or meaningless, he follows by telling the crowd in the synagogue, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land, yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” Jesus is announcing the arrival of the Lord’s favor, but is emphasizing that it is for everybody, even for Sidonians and Syrians, even for Israel’s enemies! Jesus takes the implicit subtexts of mercy and makes them his explicit primary text. And as soon as he makes this clear, the crowd tried to throw him off a cliff.

Zahnd concludes, “Does this mean there’s no divine judgment? Of course not. Certainly there is divine judgment, but it is a judgment based on God’s love and commitment to restoration… Jesus has closed the book on... lust for vengeance… Clinging to our lust for vengeance, we lose Jesus. But if we can say amen to Jesus closing the book on vengeance, then Jesus will remain with us to teach us the more excellent way of love."

Ch.3 Jesus is what God has to say
Continuing with this theme, Zahnd pulls out several related ideas in this chapter. His central discussion concerns the implications of the Transfiguration. Jesus was unequivocally revealed to be superior to Moses and Elijah (emblematic of the Old Testament), and Peter’s mistake of putting them on equal footing is addressed in no uncertain terms. This revelation confirms Jesus’ authority to supersede the Old Testament when he says, “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” This high view of Christ is also set forth directly in 2 Peter 1, where the writer references the Transfiguration, and Christ's supremacy over the prophets who came before.

Following this discussion, Zahnd gives examples of directly contradictory passages in the OT such as “Thou shalt not kill,” and “there is a time to kill,” or passages for or against mercy. And (getting practical), he notes various historical figures (including an obligatory Hitler reference) who have used OT passages to justify clearly un-Christlike behavior. He uses these examples to again highlight the movement in the Bible away from the violence that was normative in the Bronze Age to "God’s peaceable society where swords become plowshares and spears become pruning hooks."

This makes me mention a major value of Zahnd’s writing, which is his powerful, pithy statements. When he writes, “I’m a Christian, not a Biblicist. The Bible is subordinate to Christ,” everything in me says, “YES!” The Bible is sacred Scripture, but the more you study it, the harder it is to reconcile all the disparate things you encounter if you are reading it as systematic theology. Quoting John Dominic Crossan, he writes, “Christ does not read the Bible, the New Testament, or the Gospel. He is the norm of the Bible, the criterion of the New Testament, the incarnation of the Gospel. That is how we Christians decide between a violent and a nonviolent God in the Bible, New Testament, or Gospel. The person, not the book, and the life, not the text, are decisive and constitutive for us.” Though I could not agree more, this Christocentric orientation will no doubt be difficult for many people who are accustomed to a simplistic view of the Bible to get past. Anticipating their objections, Zahnd goes on to say, “this is not a low view of Scripture but a high view of Christ.”

To top off the chapter, Zahnd throws in a poem of his own making, which may help some people grasp his perspective better. The conclusion is especially quotable:
It’s a STORY, I tell you!
And if you allow the story to seep into your life,
So that THE STORY begins to weave into your story, 
That’s when, at last, you’re reading the Bible right.

Reflecting on the first three chapters, it’s becoming clear that the implications of Zahnd’s thesis will be centered around issues of violence such as hell, atonement theories, war, and the death penalty— all of which happen to be issues which I’ve wrestled with over the last few years. And flipping through the next couple of chapters, it does appear that that is where he’s headed. So let the controversy heat up, and the discussion continue!  

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Wintertime Update

It's been six months since my last life update-- which means it's time my vast blogosphere audience how a few select personal development projects have been going. Here you go!

1) Music

Ever since I was in medical school, I've kept lists of music, movies, and books that people recommend to me. I've been slowly chipping away at the book list over the past year, but the music and movie lists have been woefully neglected for years. This summer, I reached the tipping point of boredom with my same old music, so I decided to level up. My approach was to sign up for the free 3-month trial of Apple Music, then switch to the nearly-free Amazon Music trial for another three moths of unlimited music downloads. Though it took me 4 months, I worked my way through all 80-ish artists on my list, and downloaded over 1000 songs. More importantly, I've discovered new artists in genres I already enjoyed and expanded into genres like jazz fusion, samba and bossa nova, classical, and indie singer-songwriters. Though the list continues to grow, some of my favorite artists from the last few months are:

- Gungor (the trio of albums "One Wild Life")
- Yo-Yo Ma
- Astrud Gilberto
- Jenny Lewis
- Avicii
- Plej
- Bon Iver
- Snarky Puppy
- Derek Webb (new album "Fingers Crossed")

Though my explorations have recently slowed, I'm excited about continuing to discover new mid-expanding jams. Next up in this area would be to get back into playing music myself. I'm thinking 2019 will be the time for that, but we'll see.

2) Swimming

Sometime this summer, my back started bothering me more, resulting in a change of focus from weightlifting and gymnastic strength training to swimming, massage, and physical therapy. I'm happy to say that my back feels 90% better, and that I'm starting to refocus on gymnastic strength training. But in the interim, I've made huge gains in my swimming ability, cutting my mile swim time down from 43:00 to about 38:00 in just a few months. Counterintuitively, the key to making these gains was to not make improvement a goal. In fact, I barely even recorded my times for the first few months. My one and only aim was to get in the pool once a week. If that happened, it was a win. Only after several months of relative consistency in the pool did I start challenging myself to hit certain times. By that time, it was easy to get to the pool, because I had started enjoying it. In fact, I have been achieving a more meditative state while swimming than in any other activity right now. After all, gliding through water in a rhythmic fashion is the original, primal "flow state."

Another big factor was a tip I picked up from Tim Ferriss a couple years ago on swimming technique. The basic idea is to give one small kick for each stroke, just a little flick to help turn your body from one side to the other. This massively decreases the energy used up by the legs, and results in drastically less fatigue. The next time you're in the pool, try it out!

3) Relationships

After nearly a year in Boone without a sense of belonging, Mindy and I found a great small group through the Crossroads service at Boone United Methodist Church. In a stroke of providence, our first visit to the church happened to be the day of the first small group meeting. We've really enjoyed getting to know the other couples in the group, most of whom are also relatively new to Boone and relatively newly married. A few of us guys have also started meeting for lunch periodically to get to know each other better. Our relationships with some other local couples have also continued to grow, and we're excited to see that continue.

I've also been able to keep up with a few college friends better now that I'm back in the Southeast. Back in October, I was able to join my old buds Kevin Lloyd and Jacob Hall for a backpacking trip through Dolly Sods, West Virginia, which was totally amazing. And I've been able to see Ben Carr, Sam Cox, Andrew Shank, Lee Robeson, and Brett Hoffecker recently, which has been life-giving. If you're reading this and I haven't seen you lately, hopefully we'll fix that soon!

As we head into 2018, I've started ruminating on the big picture for the new year. I'll put up something soon along those lines!

Monday, November 20, 2017

Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang

I don't read a ton of short stories or science fiction, but Stories of Your Life and Others has made me rethink that choice. Each of Ted Chiang's eight stories in the collection truly deserves its own post, they were all just. so. good. Unfortunately I don't have the time or the attention span for that. But I will tell you why this book was so amazing, and hopefully in the process convince you to read it for yourself.

Good fiction explores how humans react to challenges and dilemmas. Good science fiction also takes reality, tweaks couple details, and explores possibilities that could result. Chiang masterfully does both of these things in each of his stories. He brings to life deeper, more challenging philosophical and spiritual ideas than I've come across in ages. And he does by exploring topics in physics, mathematics, biology, linguistics, and cosmology that are some of the most arcane I've ever encountered. As a result, the satisfaction of contemplating deep philosophical ideas is amplified by the excitement of exploring truly novel scientific and mathematical concepts-- in every single story. This, my friends, is a stunt few writers can pull off. It's why the stories have won several awards, the book has gone through several printings, and why people like me are still raving about this book fifteen years after it was first published. To put it succinctly, Ted Chiang is in a league of his own.

If all this sounds nerdy, that's because it certainly is. Mind-blowingly, wonderfully so. Even Hollywood has started to figure this out, as they released Arrival last year, a major movie based on the title story. It got really good reviews, and from the sounds of it, they didn't even dumb the story down for mass consumption. A rare feat. I can't wait to watch it. But if you haven't seen it yet, read the book first. It's always better that way.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Lula and Pepper

Part of the reason for the decreased number of posts over the last 6 months has been the addition of 2 puppies to our family. I wanted to chronicle my feelings on dog-rearing while in the throes of it, so here they are. And hopefully you'll see why my blogging has taken a backseat for the moment. So here are some pros and cons to dog ownership, many of which I'm sure carry over to child ownership, but I'll let you draw your own inferences.

Lula Mae
Pepper Dean

-Their infectious, uninhibited joy and zest for life. Dogs can teach you how to be totally in the moment. Lula Mae is always up to run after something and chew on whatever object is at hand. And Pepper practically melts with joy when you open the car door.
-I think canine companions have been demonstrated to lower stress hormones, which makes sense. But don't quote me on that claim because I don't feel like verifying it right now.
-They love to cuddle. Pepper, always. Lula, whenever she feels like it. Now that they're in the 70-pound range, though, the logistics of cuddling have gotten rather tricky. Sigh #1.
-They get you outside moving around more than you would otherwise. There is even some data that dog ownership lengthens your lifespan. Thanks, furry friends!
-They protect you, your house, your garden, and any animals you have from all sorts of intruders. Great Pyrenees and Anatolian Shepherds (both Lula and Pepper are 50/50 mixes of these two breeds) were actually bred to fight off wolves and survive temperatures as low as -30 degrees. They also can tolerate quite a bit of rain before getting cold. Neat!
-They are fun and interesting subjects to study. Lula and Pepper are vastly different in temperament, yet somehow complementary. Lula is always busy with something and has never met a stranger, while Pepper stays chilled out most of the time. They mirror some things about Mindy and me freakishly well. And more of their temperament comes out every day. This morning, Lula started pulling out carrots from the garden bed intact in between chewing on stakes she had pulled up, while Pepper alternated between staring longingly through the sliding glass door at us, keeping watch on the land, and fending off attacks by Lula.

-They take more time than you expect. And they are destructive. Lula, gleefully so. She delights in grabbing that one thing you don't want her to find and immediately prancing off to destroy it. Just this morning, I found Mindy's credit card in the front yard-- riddled with toothmarks. Sigh #2.
-They are expensive. Shock collars, invisible fences, home repairs, food, toys, treats, and last but not least, veterinarian fees. Though we're glad they've gotten the care they need, we've also learned how much of a scam vets can be. I get you're just responding to incentives but no, we don't need cytology on their ear crust, and you know what, I think they'll be perfectly fine without a Lyme disease vaccine, thank you very much.
-They interfere with your sleep. Not as much as a newborn, I'm sure, but some nights it seems like Pepper thinks the zombie apocalypse is descending on Ridge Rd, and despite our best efforts we've been unable to convince him by coldly rational arguments that zombies are, in fact, pure fiction. A bark collar has been more persuasive, but when he really wants to bark, shocks be damned, he's gonna do it.
-When the invisible fence is down, as it was a few weeks ago when some neighbors ran over it with a backhoe, the dogs. run. amuck. The good news is, they only played with the neighbors' chickens and didn't massacre them. But said neighbor was still understandably ticked off by the situation. Sorry! Sigh #3.

All in all, the dogs have been good investment. They've brought us joy, experiences, and lessons we otherwise wouldn't have had, and isn't that what's truly important in life? I'll accept some fitful nights of sleep and a modest hit to my bank account balance for that. And hopefully at some point in your life, if you haven't already, you will too.

Thanks for reading, everyone. I'm gonna go play with my pups now. And the cat. Sorry, Molive. I'll write about you one day too, I promise.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Level Up!

Part I

I’m always looking to level up. Though everyone has their type A tendencies, I am by nature and training more driven than most, and a big reason I blog is to spur myself to level up more frequently in more areas of my life. One example of this is my deep dive into personal finance early in the year, which resulted in a quantum leap in my financial literacy. But more important than this transformation has been the growth in my spirituality over the past six months. Here's how this has unfolded:

Like countless people throughout history, I've experienced my share of existential angst and “dark nights of the soul.” Like many postmoderns, it started with learning that evolution is actually true-- in college, in my case. And like most millennials, it ultimately resulted in disaffection with institutionalized religion. For me, it took from 2007 to 2014 to reach my breaking point. Yet break I did, and for three years I struggled to find my way forward out of intractable doubt and unbelief. It didn't help that I was consumed with my work as a resident, with little margin to even begin to dig deep into my mountain of doubt, fear, and anxiety. So I stuffed my doubts down, acknowledging them only to myself and a small handful of close friends. I stayed in the closet.

A key concept that started progress in the right direction last year was that I needed to be more transparent-- especially to Mindy. Stuffing wasn't working; it never does. Though I knew it would cause anxiety and uncertainty, I realized that the only shot I had to get through my doubts was to allow us to face them together. So last fall, I started being brutally honest. Fortunately, core values of Mindy's are transparency and faithfulness, and I experienced nothing but acceptance and assistance from her. She pointed me towards Mike McHargue's Doubt Series, which catalyzed my period of growth. And though the results weren't immediate, I started noticing a change within a few months. Challenges from atheists to my weak and wounded faith didn't quite break me anymore. Objections from fundamentalists didn't frustrate me quite as much. And then, I started to see it-- the middle way.

The middle way involves the idea that doubt is not a sin to be fought, but a power to be harnessed. The destination is a non-dual consciousness. And it turns out there’s a huge river of tradition created by people whose spiritual deconstruction has actually made their faith stronger. The desert fathers and Cappadocian fathers of the 3rd and 4th centuries. Ancient and modern Eastern Orthodox mystics. Western mystics like Francis of Assisi, Meister Eckhart, Thomas Merton, and Richard Rohr. Modern theologians and philosophers like Paul Tillich and Pete Rollins. Authors and popular intellectuals like Kara Tippett, Rachel Held Evans, and Rabbi David Wolpe. The Liturgists Podcast and The Deconstructionists podcast delve into the ideas of thinkers such as these. Though I’m just starting to digest some of the meaty ideas they’ve served up, here are few different frameworks that have helped me process my own spiritual transformation:

Part II

The first concept is that spiritual deconstruction and reconstruction is a never-ending journey of growth and discovery. It is the persistent “farther up and further in” that C.S. Lewis imagines at the end of The Last Battle, something we only start here and hopefully continue forever in heaven. Study, contemplation, and action are the keys to this process. To understand anything, it is first necessary to study both the object itself and the systems of knowledge that produced the object. But since God is not an object, but rather the force that holds all objects together, we cannot study Him directly or understand Him fully. In addition, our understanding of the systems of knowledge that produced our comprehension of God (including the Bible and our respective traditions) is severely limited. So if we are not frequently finding our philosophical and theological constructions to be inadequate in light of the infinitude and mystery of the divine and the complexity of human history, we’re doing something wrong.

Moreover, since language itself is built on metaphors, which can only reveal certain aspects of an abstract idea, it can never give us a perfect sense of the idea itself. So in its attempt to articulate truth, language itself will forever prove to be limiting. And if that wasn’t enough, theology and physics have both demonstrated that mystery and uncertainty are essential characteristics at the heart of our universe. So although study is necessary, it is not sufficient to discover truth. All of which should give us a hefty dose of humility.

Yet as I’m sure you’ve noticed, humility is something that seems to be in short supply in most camps these days. Exemplars of arrogance that come to mind include atheists Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, Christian fundamentalists Ken Ham and Jerry Falwell, and Islamic fundamentalists the world over. They easily garner media attention because they make absolute, inflammatory claims that are sure to evoke emotional responses from all sides. And even worse, they are blind to their own hubris. So how are we to respond? I would humbly submit that in order to prevent ourselves from being caught up in their egotistical and ultimately fruitless arguments, we must contemplate.

Mindfulness-based meditation and mantra-based prayer are a couple contemplative practices I am starting to integrate into my daily routine. With this kind of contemplative practice, we can silence the noise of our monkey brain enough to gain an awareness of the beautiful mystery of being and the transcendence and immanence and oneness of God. Words are inadequate to describe what happens subjectively in meditation, but the objective physiological benefits should be more than enough to motivate us all to have a regular contemplative practice. Unfortunately, the evangelical tradition is anemic at best in this area, so the best place to start with this is Eastern traditions such as Buddhism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Hopefully we’re all open and humble enough to not feel threatened by other traditions, because of how much we stand to learn!

Action, or service, is another essential of spiritual transformation. Theological and philosophical ideas become more real to us when they are experienced. Love in particular, the most essential element of God’s nature, is less an idea than a relational experience that can only be understood in community. By mindfully and generously giving time, energy, thought, emotion, and resources to others, we access the core “stuff” of the universe-- whether we call it God or something else. And that infuses our lives with Meaning. Conversely, if we do not love, we are nothing, and life becomes meaningless even if we happen to profess a belief in God. See I Corinthians 13 and I John 2 if you’re not convinced.

Part III

So that’s my best shot at explaining my new understanding of spiritual growth. If you’re still with me, I’d like to some frameworks of spiritual development that I have found extremely helpful. The first is James Fowler’s 6 stages of faith, which Sarah Bessey references in Episode 14 of The Deconstructionists podcast. Based on a neurocognitive model of development, it presents spiritual development as a linear progression from least to greatest sophistication. Here it is:

  • Stage 1: Intuitive- Projective

This is the stage of preschool children in which fantasy and reality often get mixed together. During this stage, our most basic ideas about God are usually picked up from our parents and/or society.

  • Stage 2: Mythic-Literal

When children become school-age, they start understanding the world in more logical ways. They generally accept the stories told to them by their faith community but tend to understand them in very literal ways. A few people remain in this stage through adulthood. Stage two persons have a strong belief in the justice and reciprocity of the universe, and their deities are almost always anthropomorphic. During this time metaphors and symbolic language are often misunderstood and are taken literally. People stuck at this stage are usually self-centered and often find themselves in trouble due to their unprincipled living. If they do end up converting to the next stage, it often occurs in a very dramatic way.

  • Stage 3: Synthetic-Conventional

Most people move on to this stage as teenagers. At this point, their life has grown to include several different social circles and there is a need to pull it all together. When this happens, a person usually adopts some sort of all-encompassing belief system. However, at this stage, people tend to have a hard time seeing outside their box and don't recognize that they are "inside" a belief system. At this stage, authority is usually placed in individuals or groups that represent one's beliefs. This is the stage in which many people remain. At this stage people rely on some sort of institution (such as a church) to give them stability. They become attached to the forms of their religion and often get upset when these are called into question.

  • Stage 4: Individuative-Reflective

This is that tough stage, often begun in young adulthood, when people start seeing outside the box and realizing that there are other boxes. Individuals here take personal responsibility for their beliefs and feelings, which leads to angst and struggle. As they critically examine their beliefs, they often become disillusioned with their former faith. As a result, people either lose their faith or develop a new complexity of faith. Ironically, Stage 3 people usually think that Stage 4 people have become "backsliders," when they have actually become more sophisticated.

  • Stage 5: Conjunctive 

It is rare for people to reach this stage before mid-life. People here begin to realize the limits of logic and start to accept the paradoxes in life. They begin to see life as a mystery and often return to sacred stories and symbols, but this time without being stuck in a theological box. Individuals resolve conflicts from previous stages by a complex understanding of a multidimensional, interdependent truth that cannot be fully explained by any particular statement.

  • Stage 6: Universalizing, or “Enlightenment”

Few people reach this stage. Those who do realize that there is truth to be found in all the previous stages and that life is paradoxical and full of mystery. More emphasis is placed on universal love and justice than on individual concerns, and people become free from worry and doubt.

So that’s Fowler’s stage of faith. But though it’s hugely helpful, it leads to pride if you start to see yourself as more advanced or sophisticated than other people. So along with gaining an intellectual understanding of this framework, it’s key to maintain insight into our own limitations. For which contemplation is necessary (see above).

Part IV

A less linear, more complex conceptualization of this process was described by The Liturgists Podcast in Episode 5: “Spiral Dynamics.” Even though this post is getting long, I think it’s important to briefly share this framework because of how helpful it is for understanding societal dynamics. Here is a link to a textual description of this concept if you’d rather read about it than listen to the podcast episode. And here is an image with brief descriptions of each valueMeme of level 1:

Part V

Finally, I’d like to share something from Episode 49 of The Liturgists Podcast: “Spiritual Trauma,”  in which psychotherapist and author Teresa Pasquale Mateus outlines 11 steps to recovery from spiritual trauma. Though these stages aren’t always experienced in this kind of linear fashion, it’s a helpful framework for understanding how a traumatic spiritual experience influences the stages of faith that are outlined above. They are:

1. Recognize the hurt, inconsistencies or wrongdoing in your faith system or with the persons within your faith system.
2. Begin to question.
3. Seek outside input.
4. Leave your spiritual home and/or faith of origin.
5. Begin your own pilgrimage into the spiritual desert.
6. Enter the anger stage of grief and loss.
7. Explore other ideas, beliefs and opportunities.
8. Begin to re-integrate meaning, values and beliefs in some way for yourself.
9. Begin to trust in individual and communal relationships again.
10. Move toward a non-dual consciousness (or the middle way) and away from absolutes.
11. Enlightenment. Game over. You win!

Though my spiritual trauma has not been as dramatic as many others’, it was was hugely encouraging to learn that I have been joined by countless others in my questioning, leaving, grieving, exploring, and reintegrating. Simply sharing this roadmap with someone who is questioning can give them hope when they may feel hopeless, and direct them down the path of healing when they feel like there is none to be found. It also removes the guilt from leaving the church and entering a time of “detox,” which is not something I was ever encouraged to do when I was in beginning my pilgrimage. That was probably because I didn’t seek enough outside input, but it still would have been helpful to hear that it was good to stop reading the Bible and going to church for a while, which is what I was doing anyway. Michael Gungor's song "You" and Derek Webb's track "Goodbye, For Now" poignantly echo this sentiment.

So if and when you find yourself in the wilderness, do not despair-- just be brutally honest with yourself, and with a couple close friends. Journal-- focus on wherever you feel stuck, no matter how painful. Read, listen, and learn from those who have traveled this lonely path before. Use this time as an opportunity to explore streams of thought beyond the tradition in which you were raised. Explore different contemplative practices. Meditate. Stay healthy. And above all else, love-- yourself, others, and all creation. And healing will come.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Summertime update

Now that summer has arrived, here's a quick update on a few totally unrelated areas of my life:

1) Home Gym!

The home gym is open for business! As you can tell from the photo above, I've purchased a barbell, bumper plates, kettlebells, dumbbells, and medicine balls, and installed gymnastic rings, a punching bag, barbell stands and a bench along with a large area of foam ground padding. Though there's more I'm ultimately planning to do with the space, it's very functional, and I'm pumped. Literally.

I'm also happy to report that over the last month, I have consistently worked out every other day, even during work weeks. I'm currently doing one major lift (squat, deadlift, powerclean, snatch, or bench) and spending the rest of the time working on developing my handstand using this great online program I found. I've been about 80% consistent on getting up before 6AM and doing 20 pushups, 20 squats, a minute of plank, and various stretches before heading off for the day. I've also been 80% consistent on extending my fast to 10 or 11 am, which makes a big difference in my energy level for the day. I'm also trying to do sprints once a week, and plan to add in a swim at a local gym or in the nearby river at least once a month.

Best of all, Mindy is getting more motivated than ever before to work out, too. Hopefully I'll also have some other workout partners soon, which will help to challenge me, maintain consistency, and keep me from developing too much of a rut.

2) Doubt

Image result for unbelievable podcast

A completely unrelated thing I've gotten into lately has been the Unbelievable podcast, which hosts debates between Christians and atheists or between different strains of Christians. It's been the most helpful thing I've encountered in my long process of weighing what I should believe about God, the universe, and everything. I honestly can't think of anyone who wouldn't benefit from a listen. I'm also working through the book Know Doubt, Science Mike's Doubt Series, and am starting his book Finding God in the Waves. I'm planning a full post on this topic once my ideas crystallize somewhat.

3) Gardening!

Ah, summertime, when planting turns to harvesting. As you can see, my main plot is a castle protected from deer with a 7-foot fence. So far, I've harvested radishes, lettuce, spinach, kale, cilantro, green onions, and a bell pepper. Carrots, tomatoes, other peppers, blueberries, and collard greens are just around the corner. I've also build a couple trellises for the squash, zucchini, watermelon, and cantaloupe, which have just started to grow. The potatoes, cauliflower, blackberries, some of the raspberries, and asparagus have also sprouted. Unfortunately, the celery, okra, sweet potatoes, and cabbage mostly failed, but I'll hopefully work out the kinks next year.

4)  Relationships

After four months in our new digs, Mindy and I are finally starting to feel settled. Progress is being made on many fronts, and I'm more and more thankful each day for all of our blessings. Though new relationships have been slow to sprout, we're excited that our friends Bryant and Rachel Ward are transitioning back to Boone after 1.5 years in Togo. Just the other day, my friend Sam and I decided to summit Mount Ranier in 2020. We backpacked across Europe in 2010, so it was time to decide to do something like that again. Mindy and I also got a cute puppy dog that is in need of some serious obedience training before she becomes too big to handle. Just as in other areas, I'm sure we'll get there.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

I decided to read The Power of Habit at around the hundredth time someone referenced it in an article, podcast, or conversation. As if to illustrate how much of a touchstone of the self-improvement movement the book has become, a guest of the Brute Strength podcast referenced it less than an hour after I finished the book the other day. Since I'd read several articles detailing various principles Charles Duhigg outlines in the book, I didn't know how much I'd gain by reading it cover-to-cover, but I decided to take plunge because of my need for fresh habits to match my fresh digs. I'm hopeful it will pay off in several areas of my life.

First, I'm starting a gymnastic strength training program, and the next few months are crucial for me to establish a habit of consistent mobility work, proper form, and fighting through fatigue to maintain positions. It's much easier to establish habits in new activities than override bad ones, and I'm excited to start some healthy ones.

Another area I've written about before is waking up early. It's been three months since I've gotten up at 5AM consistently, and by golly I'm going to get back to that this week. Along with exercise, getting up early is one of my keystone habits that make everything else in my life flow. I've been doing pushups, squats, and planks most mornings lately, and hope to continue that budding habit during my early morning hours.

I'm also actively cultivating healthy habits in my daily interactions with Mindy, such as emotionally and verbally empathizing with her and writing her more notes and letters. We are also hoping to start a routine of reading a relationship book and praying together on my weeks off. As I've observed, habits are especially powerful in the context of families, and I hope we can work together to create powerful and fun family rituals.

Finally, I'm always on the lookout for better ways to do my job. My hospital is currently promulgating the acronym AIDET (Acknowledge, Introduce, Duration, Explanation, and Thank-you) as a way to improve patient-provider communication, so I'll be looking for ways over the coming weeks to make that a standard part of my encounters with patients. Hopefully I'll have progress to report on that front in a few months.

If there's inertia in your life you haven't been able to overcome, I hope the ideas in the outline below will empower you to create new habits to overcome the old.

Prologue: The Habit Cure
A key to major life change is a focus on changing one habit-- a keystone habit- that teaches you how to reprogram other routines your life.

Chapter 1: The Habit Loop: How Habits Work
The basal ganglia is central to recalling patterns and acting on them.
Habits never really disappear. They're encoded into the structures of our brain. But we can create new neurological routines that overpower old habits.
Even people that have lost their ability to form new memories can still form new habits.
Studies indicate that families usually don't intend to eat fast food on a regular basis. What happens is that a once a month pattern slowly becomes once a week, and then twice a week- as the cues and rewards create a habit- until the kids are consuming an unhealthy amount of hamburgers and fries.

Chapter 2: The Craving Brain: How to Create New Habits
Choose a simple and specific cue and clearly define a reward. Over time, this will create a craving that drives the habit cycle.
Most successful dieters envision a specific reward for sticking with their diet, for example, a bikini they wanted to wear or the sense of pride they felt when they stepped on the scale each day. They cultivated this craving into a mild obsession that crowded out the temptation to drop the diet.

Chapter 3: The Golden Rule of Habit Change
The habit loop = cue--> routine--> reward. The golden rule of habit change is to use the same cue and provide the same reward, but change the routine.
Changing the habit loop works until a stressful situation arrives. That is when you need belief in something greater than yourself to get you through (e.g. AA). And belief is easier when it occurs within a community.

Chapter 4: Keystone Habits, or the Ballad of Paul O'Neill
Keystone habits like exercise, eating dinner together, and making your bed are small wins that set in motion forces that favor other small wins. Winning patterns convince people that bigger achievements are within reach. [see Admiral McRaven's 2014 University of Texas commencement speech.]

Chapter 5: Starbucks and the Habit of Success
Self-discipline predicts academic performance more robustly than IQ.
Willpower is a muscle that gets tired with exercise but which can be strengthened over time. [See The Art of Manliness series on this.]

Chapter 6: The Power of a Crisis
During turmoil, organizational habits become malleable enough for a leader to be able to both assign responsibility and create a more equitable balance of power. [This point was rather obvious to me.]

Chapter 7: How Target Knows What You Want Before You Do
If you dress something new in old habits, it's easier for people to accept it. [This connects to some of Adam Grant's ideas in Originals-- that people with original ideas that run counter to the status quo sometimes need to adopt a Trojan Horse approach to introducing their ideas in order to preempt resistance.]

Chapter 8: Saddleback Church and the Montgomery Bus Boycott
When the strong ties of friendship and the weak ties of peer pressure merge, widespread social change can begin.
Then people must put in place habits to perpetuate the change.
Finally, for an idea to become self-propelling, those habits must help them figure out where to go on their own, and which change participants' sense of self.
The only way to get people to take responsibility for their spiritual maturity is to teach them habits of faith.

Chapter 9: The Neurology of Free Will
"Some thinkers," wrote Aristotle in Nicomachean Ethics, "hold that it is by nature that people become good, others that it is by habit, and others that it is by instruction." For Aristotle, habits reign supreme. The behaviors that occur unthinkingly are the evidence of our truest selves, he said. So "just as a piece of land has to be prepared beforehand if it is to nourish the seed, so the mind of the pupil has to be prepared in its habits if it is to enjoy and dislike the right things."
If you believe you can change-- if you make it a habit-- the change becomes real.

Appendix: A Reader's Guide to Using These Ideas
Going back the idea listed in Chapter 3, the habit loop = cue--> routine-->reward.
The framework for habit change is to isolate the cue, identify the routine, experiment with rewards, then come up with an alternate routine using the same cue and rewards.
Cues include location, time, emotional state, other people, and immediately preceding actions.
An example of putting this process into action is the author's habit of getting a cookie at the cafeteria every afternoon, which had resulted in significant weight gain. He quickly discovered that the cue was simply the time of day, sometime around 3:30 PM. After some tinkering, he found this habit sprang from a desire for distraction and socialization (the "reward"). He was able to replace this routine with a new habit of getting up from his desk and finding a coworker to talk to for 10 minutes. After a few months, this new habit became automatic.

To bring things full circle, the cues for the new habits I'd like to start include my alarm clock, getting home from work or a reminder from my phone to work out, interacting with Mindy, and introducing myself to patients and families. The rewards are increased physical, intellectual, relational, spiritual, and professional flourishing.

What are the cues and rewards you can use to reengineer the unhealthy habits in your life? Give it some serious thought and let me know what you come up with!

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Originals by Adam Grant

A couple months ago, I worked by way through Adam Grant's Originals. In it, Grant lays out dozens of stories of how non-conformists were able to overcome the status quo and impact the world, and in the process identifies the keys to their successes. It was a fascinating read. I'm glad I took notes on each chapter, because there would be no way I could have remembered all the ideas I picked up. Below are the ones I found most insightful. If you'd like some context, head on down to your local library and pick up the book yo'sef! 

Image result for originals adam grant

Chapter 1: Creative Destruction

Contrary to popular belief, successful entrepreneurs are more risk-managing than others. 

A balanced risk portfolio means that stability in other areas of life allows originals to take extreme risks in their area of focus. 

Vuja de-- looking at familiar things in an unfamiliar way-- is a key skill of originals.

Chapter 2: Blind Inventors and One-Eyed Investors

Successful originals are more prolific than other creators. The number one path to original is to do a huge volume of work. There is no trade-off between quality and quantity. Most of what everyone does is a failure, but your odds of success are heightened with fecundity. Most people fail to achieve originality because they generate a few ideas and then obsess about refining them to perfection.

Artistic avocations help us to be more creative. Here is some data on how different types of hobbies stack up:

Chapter 3: Out on a Limb

Giving people the negatives about your ideas inoculates them against the negative and counter-intuitively makes them more open to the ideas.

Frequent, short exposure to ideas warms people up to them. It often takes twenty or more exposures to achieve the desired effect. Marketers know this.

If we could do things over, most of us would censor ourselves less and express our ideas more.

Below are the four strategies we can choose when we are confronted with a situation we'd like to change:

Chapter 4: Fools Rush In

Procrastination allows creative, engaged people to generate more original and novel ideas.

People have a better memory for incomplete tasks than complete ones, because once something is finished, we stop thinking about it.

The best architects and CEOs rate themselves the lowest on efficiency, promptness, self-control, and conscientiousness, but as more spontaneous.

Great originals procrastinate strategically, making gradual progress by testing and refining different possibilities. 

First-move disadvantage: Most pioneers fail, and most settlers succeed. Unless there are patents or strong network effects involved, it is usually better to wait, balance your risk portfolio, and learn from the mistakes of the pioneers rather than be impulsive.

Young geniuses vs old masters: there are two radically different styles of innovation: conceptual (young sprinters) and experimental (old marathoners). Conceptual innovators like Einstein and Cummings eventually become the captives of an important early achievement and become entrenched in their once-new mindset. Conversely, while experimental innovation can require years or decades to accumulate the requisite knowledge and skill, it becomes a more sustainable source of originality. The more experiments you run (or speeches you give, like MLK Jr), the less you become constrained by your ideas from the past. So be relentlessly curious and constantly tinkering.

Chapter 5: Goldilocks and the Trojan Horse: Tempered Radicalism

Our former adversaries are the most effective at persuading others to join our movements because they can marshall better arguments on our behalf because they understand the doubts and misgivings of resisters.

Transparency isn't always the best policy. Sometimes you have to disguise your real objective if it is going to be considered too radical.

Chapter 6: Rebel with a cause

Firstborns are raised by their parents and the path to success by conformity is open to them.

Laterborns are raised by their siblings and don't have as many responsibilities. If they are 2-5 years away from their older sibling(s), they are more likely to pick a more original, risky, creative niche. Laterborns are much more likely to engage in dangerous sports and behaviors, steal bases, and be comedians. But wherever we fall in the birth order, when we have compelling role models or mentors for originality, they expand our awareness of niches that we had never considered.

Originals are much more likely to have been raised in a family where principles were explained to them in age-appropriate ways rather than commanded to follow rules. Empathy and guilt are crucial emotions to draw out.

When children do something good, praise their character, not their action-- this will result in more internalization of those traits.

Chapter 7 Rethinking Groupthink

Popular ideas of the phenomenon of groupthink do not recognize that there are usually people in the group who dissent, but who do not feel safe or empowered to speak up.

Idea meritocracies occur when leaders exemplify radical transparency and openness to criticism and employees are rewarded for criticism and punished for staying silent. Healthy debate where strong opinions are weakly held and the most important principle is that people think for themselves. An example is Ray Dalio's Bridgewater Hedge Fund. 

Chapter 8 Rocking the Boat and Keeping it Steady

When we are not yet committed to a particular action, thinking like a defensive pessimist can be hazardous. Looking on the bright side and labeling strong emotion as excitement rather than anxiety activates enthusiasm and increases success in sudden, stressful situations. But once we've settled on a course of action, when anxieties creep in, it's better to think like a defensive pessimist and confront them directly. This enables us to harness anxiety as a source of motivation to prepare him to succeed.

It is important to get early small wins so that when doubts arise, one can look back and draw upon successes already attained.

Humor is a powerful tool in the face of oppression.

Adopting original causes requires a sense of urgency. 

If you want people to modify their behavior from the status quo to a risky behavior, it is better to highlight the costs of not changing rather than the benefits of changing, since people are usually comfortable with the status quo and want to avoid risk. You have to cultivate dissatisfaction, frustration, or anger at the current state of affairs. But if the new behavior is safe, it is better to emphasize all the good things that will happen if they do it.

Venting doesn't extinguish the flame of anger; it feeds it. Avoiding venting was a central theme in the training of civil rights activists. To channel anger productively, we need to reflect on the victims who have suffered from it.