The Hunt For Context

In both the sermonette and sermon message today, there was the curious phenomenon of there being two insightful and excellent messages that nevertheless failed to comment on particularly relevant contexts to the messages within the intended audience. I found it curious that the speakers were able to discuss much of great worth, but would entirely neglect very relevant contexts to the messages within the local congregation to open and obvious contexts. Nevertheless, both messages operated from the same principles that I operate from in my own reading and which others would be well-advised to do with my writing. In fact, both messages put together provide the opportunity to discuss some of these lessons at greater length, given that the principles themselves were discussed in some form, but were not necessarily applied in the most helpful or straightforward manner. Let us seek to do so now, as best as we are able.

In talking about the book of James the sermonette speaker commented that many people view James as the New Testament version of Proverbs, full of wise aphorisms but lacking in any kind of uniform structure. In his short message, he managed to admirably demonstrate at least two levels of unifying structure. The first layer of structure may seen from the concern that James has for controlling the tongue, which, in its expanded meaning, includes all communication from someone, not only spoken but also written communication, and both direct and indirect communication. This is obviously an area of strong personal concern. The second level of organization was described by the speaker, but the term for the type of organization that James uses was not mentioned. To put it directly, James uses a chiasmic structure [1], where he begins and ends with the same concerns.

An illustration of this can be seen when one first looks at the beginning of James and then the closing of James. James 1:2-5 reads: “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing. If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him.” Comparing this to the ending, in James 5:13-20, one reads certain parallels: “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain; and it did not rain on the land for three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth produced its fruit. Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.” In both of these passages we see a focus on what God gives mercifully, whether repentance or wisdom, but also that we must ask for it, and also that when we communicate with God and with others well, our lives will correspondingly be blessed. Oh, how I wish that was easier to do.

So, what lessons can we learn from this? A few seem straightforward enough to discuss. For one, we should always give the benefit of the doubt to the writer of a text. Although at times a writer may be incoherent on several levels [2], generally speaking writers have a purpose and intent and generally speaking it is a sensible one that is executed to the best of their abilities. If we are not sure of what a text reads, we need to be quicker to seek to understand the context and where the writer is coming from before we seek to condemn. Another lesson can be learned from the error of the speaker in assuming that the problem of controlling the tongue and interpersonal drama where harsh things are spoken of others and where people feel it necessary to pick sides of the kind spoken of in James was not a problem in our particular congregation. Although, to be sure, there does not appear to be a class conflict within our congregation, there are plenty of interpersonal problems relating to certain longstanding situations where communication has, not surprisingly, been difficult to maintain, and plenty of deeply divided families where people have tended to pick sides between one side or another. In such situations the problems spoken of in James concerning a lack of generosity to others, a tendency to speak harshly and contemptuously, and the problem of partiality are all serious ones that we (and I include myself in this) need to improve in.

Intriguingly enough, the sermon message, which featured an excellent passage analysis of a difficult and often twisted scripture (namely Colossians 2:14), also featured the same blind spot of not applying the insights discussed to relevant local context. Specifically, the passage is dealing with the general context of what is blotted out in the Bible, namely the record of our sins and debts as a result of disobedience. The message was resolutely focused on the debts that are owed to God, and the technical language of the promissory note that is used in Colossians 2:14 is one that is familiar to us in many other contexts that are worthwhile to examine. At the risk of embarrassing myself a little bit, I would like to talk about the issue of blotting out debt and wiping it away, or not doing so rather, in one personal context, and then look at a verse that expands this concern merely from looking at our relationship with God, where our inability to pay debts and our need for mercy is deeply profound and obvious, to the less obvious level of our relationship with others which is also discussed in scripture.

More than most people, I am painfully aware of the difficulties of the “handwriting of requirements” that can be against us. Recently, as a matter of fact, it became a matter of daily frustration. Like many Americans, I have had a particularly troublesome time with college loans, especially relating to my graduate studies. Once I had finally decided to seek to pay the debt I owed, and that I contracted fairly, I was faced with the need to sign a promissory note over and over and over again, because of various problems with the signature, because the amount of payment increased $1 after my income was precisely known from the tax return, and so on. What should have been a straightforward process involving a couple of forms filled out in one day ended up taking over a week, where the issue of promissory notes and the stereotypical language of the handwriting of requirements against us was continually brought to mind over and over and over again. At what point does it become overkill?

One of the very relevant passages in the Bible for discussing the matter of the debt we face to God and to others is a parable of Jesus Christ’s in Matthew 18. Not coincidentally, this is the chapter that discusses the process for conflict resolution in the Church of God about going to your brother and then seeking witnesses to show good faith efforts at reconciliation before taking matters to the general church assembly and congregational leadership. This is also the chapter that speaks about how often we should be willing to forgive our brother (or sister), a matter of surprisingly awkward personal relevance [3]. The passage in question that is our immediate context, though, is Matthew 18:21-35, which reads: ” Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made. The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, ‘Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt. “But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’ So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt. So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?’ And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him. “So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.””

There are a lot of lessons that can be drawn from this passage. Keeping in the context of particularly important congregational matters that would have been helpful to address, this passage would make it obvious that our focus on being forgiven of our sins by God through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ has massive personal relevance. If we are at any level reflective people who are conscious of our own sins, our own weaknesses, or our own shortcomings, we will be aware that the debt of sin we owe to God cannot be paid, and that if we are to enter into eternal life in the Kingdom of God that debt will have to be forgiven. Yet it is often difficult for us to transition between seeking and appreciating the forgiveness of our debt towards God and recognizing the seriousness of the command to forgive the debts of others. While we are aware that we cannot pay our debt to God short of our own death and destruction, we are often of the belief that others can certainly pay their much smaller debt to us. If there is nothing that we want them to do for us to repay the debt, we like to use the real or imagined offenses of others against us to wipe out the handwriting of requirements in terms of treating others with love, or respect, or concern, or kindness, or friendliness. Clearly, this is a subject of direct congregational relevance, given the fact that there are brothers and sisters in Christ in our congregation who find it impossible even to wave or say hello to others, or even attend services when others are there because of the level of personal offenses. If we praise the merciful nature of God towards us, then why do we find it so hard to apply that same standard of graciousness towards others? Since the Bible makes the connection clear between God’s mercy towards us and our mercy towards others, what is necessary for us to develop mercy towards others as part of our ordinary and daily personal example?

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/07/08/the-importance-of-chiasms/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/07/17/bookends/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/12/01/psalm-23-the-lord-is-my-shepherd/

[2] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/10/22/book-review-visions-of-the-last-adam/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/07/29/book-review-tales-from-the-time-loop/

[3] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/02/24/a-forgotten-model-of-conflict-resolution/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/06/06/where-two-or-three-are-gathered-together-in-my-name/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/01/12/be-careful-what-you-wish-for/

Posted in Bible, Biblical History, Christianity, Church of God, History, Musings, Sermonettes | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Anytime The Hunter Gets Captured By Game

It is strange when a lion becomes a sympathetic picture. The picture of many people of a lion is not far off from what Peter says in 1 Peter 5:8: “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” Lions are, of course, the supposed kings of the jungle and savannah, with their loud roars, their ferocious attacks, their ability to stalk prey. Most of the time, unless one has been spending too much time watching Disney movies like “The Lion King,” lions are not particularly sympathetic creatures at all. They are predators, and extremely proficient ones, and predatory beings in general do not tend to be viewed sympathetically by those who are potential prey. Yet the past few days have seen a great outpouring of sympathy on one Cecil the lion, whose status as a local celebrity of sorts in Zimbabwe was turned into the status of martyrdom thanks to the hunting prowess of one American dentist named Walter Palmer.

Normally speaking, a dentist would not appear to be a fitting predator of a fearsome African lion in his native territory. At least, a dentist without any kind of technology or resources would not generally be considered a fitting foe for a lion. Yet this was no harmless and unassuming dentist, but rather a dentist with a desire to be like Theodore Roosevelt or Juan Carlos II of Spain [1], a dentist with the skill and the cash to obtain a native guide skilled in the ways of flushing out lions, as well as the ability to persuade a local landowner to look the other way and allow the hunt to take place on his property outside of a nature reserve where Cecil held sway over his feline kingdom [2]. Better yet, this dentist had a strategy to go along with his skills in logistics and his fearsome hunting technology, and even better yet, he had a total disregard for the laws that governed hunting and fishing. For Walter Palmer was a hunter whose desire to bag a big kill led him to commit felonious acts of hunting outside of his range and lying about where he killed a bear some years before, which could have ended him in prison for five years. He was able to get a plea deal on that, on top of his small fry punishments for fishing without a license and paying to settle a sexual harassment case by a former employee [3]. An uncharitable person like myself might comment that such a dentist seems to have boundary problems and also more than a little bit of misplaced machismo in trying to be a badass dentist.

What was he thinking? Clearly, without putting too bad a spin on it, we may say that Walter Palmer was a predator, who enjoyed hunting and killing dangerous animals as a way of boosting his own belief in his virility or manhood or whatever one wants to call it. Presumably he had done this several times and he expected that killing a lion would neither be too difficult a challenge and also that it would be done in a low-key enough manner to be the subject of bragging on the part of the hunter and his circle of friends and associates, who no doubt would think him a particularly brave hunter for bringing down a famed lion in Africa, but it appears that like many people, his trust in his obscure identity did not hold as soon as his deed became worthy of international outrage, with Zimbabwe and the United States taking dibs on what course of action to take to get rid of this notorious predator. For just as a lion is a fearsome predator in its own domain, but vulnerable once it is on private land, so too Palmer is fearsome when it comes to hunting said lion, but is driven to ground and behaves as prey when it comes to dealing with the far more fearsome predatory power of the contemporary nation-state, even a nation as shambolic as Zimbabwe.

For we must not forget that our governments are themselves fearsome predators, and that if our small time predation or should receive significant attention, then we too will become the prey of such governments. We may be small-town dentists looking for a big hunt only to find our behavior creates an international scandal. We may be bloggers in Thailand making $1 a day, only to become painfully aware that our writings are attracting the scrutiny of royalty and their security apparatus. We may be plain pitchmen for tasty subway sandwiches only to find that an unfortunate predilection for underage young women attracts legal trouble as well as a threat to our economic and personal well-being. We may easily be focused on a small sphere of activities, maybe even only the narrow area around our personal lives, and be unaware that we too must take into account larger realities and the fact that more powerful entities than we ourselves may have an interest in acting against us to appear macho and virile and strong in the eyes of others. We must never be so overly focused on our own games that we forget the larger situation and context of which we are all but a small part.

Yet even here the levels do not end. While on this earth nations are certainly mighty predators, viewing themselves as the kings of the jungle, they too are but dust on the scales in comparison to the power of our Lord and Creator. For in the face of the predation of the wealthy and powerful, the rulers of this present earth, prayers for many millennia have gone up to God seeking justice against the rapacious cruelty of those who rule over our world. As it is written in Psalm 110:1-7: “The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at My right hand, till I make Your enemies Your footstool.” The Lord shall send the rod of Your strength out of Zion. Rule in the midst of Your enemies! Your people shall be volunteers in the day of Your power; in the beauties of holiness, from the womb of the morning, You have the dew of Your youth. The Lord has sworn and will not relent, “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” The Lord is at Your right hand; He shall execute kings in the day of His wrath. He shall judge among the nations, He shall fill the places with dead bodies, He shall execute the heads of many countries. He shall drink of the brook by the wayside; therefore He shall lift up the head.” At some point God too will go hunting, and the rulers of the nations who resist him will be no more able to withstand him than Walter Palmer is able to withstand the power of the United States government, or that the late Cecil the lion was able to withstand the hunting prowess of Walter Palmer, or that the poor helpless population of Zimbabwean herbivores were able to withstand the hunting prowess of the late Cecil the lion and his pride. Let us live so that no one lifts their hands to heaven and prays for God to put an end to our predation, but rather let us live so that we may be a light to others, and bring joy and encouragement to them.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/06/04/bigger-than-any-one-man/

[2] http://www.cnn.com/2015/07/31/world/zimbabwe-cecil-lion-dentist/index.html

[3] http://heavy.com/news/2015/07/walter-palmer-lied-federal-agents-2006-bear-hunt-guilty-plea-conviction-prison-fine-court-documents-criminal-record-wisconsin-minnesota-dentist-dds/

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Book Review: End Of Discussion

End Of Discussion: How the Left’s Outrage Industry Shuts Down Debate, Manipulates Voters, And Makes America Less Free (And Fun), by Mary Katherine Ham and Guy Benson

[Note: This book was provided free of charge by Blogging For Books/Crown Forum in exchange for an honest review.]

Although this is one of several books promoting the Conservatarian political viewpoint in recent months [1], and despite the fact that I am not a Conservatarian myself, there is much to enjoy about this book. Both of the authors have a humorous and breezy style that makes the book feel shorter than its length (277 pages) because it such an easy book to enjoy. There is a lot of wit and sarcasm to be found here, and the authors both manage to focus their attention on the way in which the partisan and biased social and mainstream media enforcers, well-funded by a cabal of left-wing political action committees, seeks to shut down any kind of debate, discussion, or even humor about areas it deems offensive. The book chronicles, in wry and deeply biting references, the way in which this behavior over the past generation or so has led to the shutting down of free inquiry in America’s colleges and universities, threatened the viability of our social and political order, and led to the growth of tendencies to self-censor and self-critique that are ultimately harmful for our honesty and openness as a society.

In terms of its organization, the book is divided into ten chapters, each of which deals with a different aspect of the Left’s manufactured outrage industry, although the book, to be fair-minded, does comment on the more limited efforts at manufacturing outrage from the right that have happened as a response to the Left’s actions. The chapters talk about the politicization of our contemporary existence, detail how the outrage racket works using case studies, discusses race-baiting as a silencing strategy for worthwhile debate and discussion, talks about the speech policing of colleges and universities, and then looks specifically at issues related to feminism, double standards for leftist radicals, gay rights, and the war on comedy. During the course of the book there are three smaller mini-chapters on the issues of voter identification, abortion, and gun control—clearly the authors do not shy away from a controversy. And despite the breezy tone of the book, which manages to discuss everything from Cards Against Humanity to the Vagina Monologues to RuPaul’s reality television show, the book has some surprisingly poignant personal touches, as when one of the authors of the book manages to out himself in a footnote, not coincidentally in the chapter on homosexuality and genuine tolerance [2].

Yet despite the fact that this book is well-written and humorous, there is an underlying tone of alarm present in this book. Even if the advice at the end seems somewhat reluctant, the situation is worthy of grave concern. After all, we are at the point where people lose their livelihoods over politically motivated witch hunts, where free speech is paid lip service, but where in practice some people’s speech are freer than others, depending on whether they are able to marshal a large body of people to support them in the case of a public controversy. Having witnessed in my own life the harrowing and immensely damaging results of oversensitivity and a lack of interest in understanding others but rather feeding personal grievances, this book is like laughing and whistling while walking past a graveyard, where what is buried is our ability for self-examination, our sense of humor about ourselves, and our ability to discuss anything of importance with those who disagree with us, because of the rapidly declining levels of societal respect and ability to agree to disagree without being disagreeable. Furthermore, the book encourages us to look at ourselves and to reflect upon the way that our times have changed us in ways that are not praiseworthy and that are ultimately threatening to ourselves and our ability to live lives as honest and candid people, without fear of repercussions for exposing the truths that lie in our hearts and minds in the harsh glare of our country’s outrage culture.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/03/27/book-review-not-cool/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/06/21/book-review-mother-should-i-trust-the-government/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/04/30/book-review-the-conservatrian-manifesto/

[2] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/07/27/book-review-slow-to-judge/

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Book Review: Microsoft SQL Server Reporting Services Recipies For Designing Expert Reports

Microsoft SQL Server Reporting Services Recipies For Designing Expert Reports, by Paul Turley and Robert M. Bruckner

This is the fourth book I have read on SQL relating to my job duties [1], and this is the most practical, but most difficult, among them. In saying that this book seeks to provide recipes for designing expert reports, the authors assume that readers are expert in a wide variety of programming, not only with Microsoft SSRS, but also familiarity with MDX, Visual Basic, SQL Server, T-SQL, and more. As someone whose expertise in many of these areas is limited, this made the book particularly difficult to read, even though the screenshots, supporting texts and graphics, and query recipes were immensely worthwhile even for a reader on such a basic level as mine. Suffice it to say that while the ideal reader of this book is someone far more skilled with SQL in its various forms, this book has a lot to offer anyone who works in building reports who has an eye for creating worthwhile report designs.

In some ways, this book shares a certain kinship with books about data representation written from the perspective of others, like Tufte. In fact, many of the recipes this book has for data representation, including its commentaries on best practices and its demonstration on how to handle drill down, linear regressions, histograms, bullet graphs, and so on, mirror the concerns of Tufte concerning the information value of data representations, giving Tufte’s theoretical discussion practical heft. And this book is all about heft, coming in at around 600 pages of very technical material, all of it focused on building better reports, and providing the steps and workarounds and code in order to do it effectively, so long as one understands what one is doing and can apply it to different circumstances where appropriate. At times the book gives multiple solutions for the same problem, allowing the reader to determine which solution would be best in which circumstances. To be sure, this approach requires a lot of trust in the competence of the reader in order to apply the solutions correctly, but for those who are able to understand what the book is saying and have a practical interest in various report elements, this book has a lot to offer.

In terms of its contents, the book begins with three chapters focusing on fundamental aspects of report design, discussing the paradigms of business reporting, basic report design concepts, and essentials on different types of report visualizations. After this the book then is divided into nine parts, each dealing with a particular type of report recipe, including: grouped reports and those organized by columns, business intelligence dashboards (including the highly worthwhile Australian Sparklines, something worth imitating), chart and gauge reports, interactive reporting (showing drill through and dynamic pivoting), reporting applications that are integrated with the internet and with raw data, enhanced report content beyond the usual limitations of SSRS, recipes helping with filtering and parameterization, custom and dynamic data sources, and even a couple of intriguing games. To be sure, this book was technical for me, and will likely be too technical for many people. That said, if someone is a report designer of some technical expertise who has an interest in doing design better, there is much that can be gained from this book even where one would not want to read it cover to cover. A book like this is designed to be gleaned for how it can benefit others where they are, and merits study and reflection, and encourages technical improvement as well.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/04/21/book-review-sql-in-easy-steps/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/04/23/book-review-transact-sql-cookbook/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/05/28/book-review-professional-microsoft-sql-server-2008-reporting-services/

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Verfremdungseffekt

In the mid 1930’s, the German playwright Berthold Brecht became familiar with a particular staging effect while visiting the Soviet Union that involved distancing the audience from an emotional connection with the characters on the stage. The goal was to force a conscious and intellectual understanding of the dilemmas faced by the characters, who were most often not portrayed sympathetically at all, and not let our compassion short-circuit the reasoning process. Given the many ways that our heart gets us in trouble from time to time [1], it would make sense that some sense of comic or ironic distance would allow one to preserve the illusion of an objective and unbiased view, and given the fact that this is the characteristic hipster response to life in general, it is little surprise that this stagey dramatic pose springs from the world of 20th century leftist art, with its smug belief in its own rationality and objectivity and its tendency to desire inducing a judgmental attitude towards others.

Let us not forget, though, that it was the absence of heart that has characterized the worst excesses of human history. Whether we are condemning the atrocities of Hitler’s Holocaust, the Communist terrors of the Soviet Union, China, or Cambodia, or whether we are looking further in history to castigate the Inquisition or the Muslim or Atlantic slave trades, the root cause of these problems is the same. If it must be conceded that the heart can be deeply and tragically unwise, it is also true that the absence of heart, the lack of compassion and empathy towards our fellow human beings is what makes catastrophe possible on a massive scale. Once we cease to see other people as human beings like us, and see them as others, then the only limit to the cruelties and injustices we inflict on them is our dark and easily corrupted imaginations. When we pit the head against the heart, both are losers, because the heart is left unwise and prone to being manipulated by emotional appeals and the head is left arrogant and cruel and smug in its judgmental criticism of others and unaware of its own need for grace and mercy.

How are we to provide ourselves the distancing necessary to make wise decisions but without losing compassion and empathy for those whom we deal with? In many ways, the perspective of the head and the heart is like my favorite type of Gestalt drawings [2], where looking at the same image different ways provides a different result. Yet both drawings are real and true, and it is only the change in perspective that changes our judgment of the drawing. Far from contradicting a viewpoint of objective truth, the existence of multiple true perspective affirms a belief in ultimate truth that also affirms the importance of context. It is here where being a critic can be detrimental to being a good human being. As someone who for a variety of reasons spends a lot of time critiquing art and politics and culture and being part of a generation that is particularly and similarly critical, it is easy to overstate the importance of criticism to a good life. It is an easy temptation to fall into to enjoy criticism too much, especially if one is very analytical by nature and skilled at critiquing, and one can fail to recognize that the worth of any critique is helping to encourage others to behave better by showing how one’s work falls short of what is ideal or what is acceptable.

Many times, distance is unhelpful to this goal, at least permanently. Distance provides the space to reflect for a time, so that we can return and engage, having profited from the reflection. Rather than think that it is in distance alone where wisdom lies, we would be better served to recognize that both closeness and distance provide different aspects of insight, and without both we are going to be missing part of the picture. It is in taking the time to get to know others, to build up intimacy, that we see what is worthwhile about having someone in our life, even if they present challenges to us. However, it is maintaining at least some sense of distance that allows us to see them as they are and not as we want them to be, and also that allows us the ability to see where they may fall short, where they may struggle. Yet regardless of our desire to be close to them, they may simply not see our compassionate and kind hearts, and likewise, they may reject our insights that we have gathered from reflection regardless of how worthwhile those insights are. Our need to wrestle with the tension of distance and closeness is for ourselves, so that we may be both wise and compassionate souls, for we cannot guarantee that our wisdom will be treasured or that our compassion will be recognized and appreciated. All we can do is be the best we can, and treat others the best we can, and hope that it will eventually be enough to keep us from being trapped either in being too far or too close, but that allows us to find the right distance where we might know both the big picture, as well as the view from up close.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/12/06/its-no-surprise-to-me-i-am-my-own-worst-enemy-part-two/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/12/13/the-heart-wants-what-it-wants/

[2] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/06/20/every-other-freckle/

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An Open Letter To My Company’s IT Department

[Note: As a way of dealing with the frustrations of a difficult day made worse by IT bungling, what follows is an attempt at dealing with my irritation through humor.]

To Whom It May Concern:

I don’t know who it was who had the bright idea to push phone system updates through during the middle of the day, but I am hoping the mandatory brain transplant for that employee will be covered by our company’s health insurance plan, once the employee pays for their deductible, of course. For whatever witless person decided that my computer needed to be updated and restarted a second time after I had just logged into it after my belated break while it restarted the first time, I do not know what medical interventions would be necessary to bring such a person into the normal range of human intelligence, but I imagine they would have to be particularly drastic. What urgent and important matter would justify two sudden restarts is beyond me, given that I am an employee whose job duties keep me off of the phone most of the time anyway.

Not only was the timing of this particular restart particularly unfortunate, but the way that the restart was done was highly questionable. There was no warning, at any point prior to the restart, that there would be an update today. There was no e-mail saying that a new update was available, or what issues it was intended to fix or repair, or what time the update would take place. The first hint that such a restart would happen was an ominous message telling me to save all of my files that only had one button—an okay button that would start the restart. As someone whose job requires me to work in massive spreadsheets that require several minutes to save each file, this is unacceptably short notice. When the same lack of notice was given when the system had to restart again after I was beginning the process of recovering all of the files that had been shut down improperly for the update, I felt a letter coming on. And those who know me, in any sphere of my life, know that when I feel a letter coming on the results are usually unpleasant. I would like to compliment you on at least one matter, though, and that is the fact that the timing of your update was impeccable. Had it occurred even five minutes before it would have wrecked the special project I was working on for our mutual boss, namely the President of our company. I’m sure you would have enjoyed explaining to him how a surprise massive computer update delayed an important affiliate contract because it interrupted the reporting process for the client’s due diligence. Am I right?

What we have here is a failure to communicate. So, in the interests of open and honest communication, I would like to communicate the nature of your offenses to me, in the hope that you may repent and amend your behavior accordingly. First, your behavior in forcing nightly restarts of a computer that require daily restoration of reporting settings is sufficiently flagrant that any further restarts during the middle of the day, when I am most busy doing my job, is unacceptable. All updates need to be during the off hours when they will not interfere with the work of my coworkers and I. Furthermore, the nature of any updates requiring a restart need to be communicated openly and in a detailed fashion to those whom it will affect. If an update is sufficiently massive, like moving forward several generations in our phone system, that it requires multiple updates, this needs to be communicated prior to the update being forced. Considering the massive effect your job, whether competently done or not, has on the work that others do, it is of the utmost importance that you recognize that your department is intended to serve the rest of the employees. A servant, however technically proficient, should know his (or her) place and act accordingly, with respect and consideration for those who are being served. To act as if massively important and disruptive universal system updates are a secret black ops mission that cannot be communicated to anyone ahead of time, unless they happen to be skilled at picking up on rumors, is totally unacceptable. Consider yourself informed.

Cordially,

A Concerned User

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Book Review: Rise

Rise: Bold Strategies To Transform Your Church, by Cally Parkinson with Nancy Scammacca Lewis

978-1-63146-440-9

[Note: This book was provided free of charge by Tyndale House Publishers/NavPress in exchange for an honest book review.]

There are many believers who would dislike a book like this on principle, given that it is an exercise in consulting, as the book is written by REVEAL, a faith-based not-for-profit that seeks to encourage churches to increase the membership of churches and the satisfaction of their members through the collection and analysis of data. Although this book does occasionally cite scripture, and it continually points out the need for the Holy Spirit to be at the basis of the lives of lay believers as well as ministers, this book reads far more like a series of business case studies than it reads like any kind of exposition of scripture, and the strategies and best practices are clearly written from a management perspective and not from a biblical one. The authors even somewhat cheekily make the following comment about their work: “we believe–as Moses wrote in Deuteronomy–that God has made known more “things revealed.” Moses, of course, was writing about the law. But the spirit of the words transcends the millennia, we think, to remind us that God holds us accountable–not for the “secret things” known only to him, but for those things he decides to reveal (10).” Whether or not you agree with that statement, and the belief that a largely consultantese book can be praised by the same grounds as God’s law depends on the reader.

In terms of its subject matter, this book contains much of professional and educational interest. Bookended around a commentary of things revealed, which discusses the summary of the findings and the process by which the authors discovered the patterns in their research are eight chapters that each present an archetype of a church. Each type: the troubled, complacent, extroverted, average, introverted, self-motivated, energized, and vibrant church, in order of their place from lowest to highest in the two-variable system of the authors, has a case study of a representative church, a discussion of its salient characteristics, and a discussion of how it can improve. The combination of critical analysis of church organizations, statistical analysis, and management theory is near and dear to my own personal and educational and professional background as a data scientist with an engineering management degree and significant interest in church leadership culture as well as a general appreciation of constructive criticism. On the face of it, this promised to be a book that provided a great deal of thoughtful material.

Even as someone with a great deal of interest in the subject matter of this book, though, I found much worthy of criticism. Even given the fact that this book is written by management consultants in their own language, with only slight concessions to biblical language and understanding in its content, the book was still problematic on its own terms as a data-driven presentation. For one, the book reads a lot like a pitch, seeking to sell the services (in particular the REVEAL studies) to potential churches. Much of the book reads like Power Point slides from a pitch meeting transferred into texts [1]. Furthermore, the data presentation provided is extremely thin, and could have (and should have) been far more robust. The authors of this book would be well-advised to read and internalize the data representation insights of Tufte [2] and to provide more detailed data representations, with representations of not only means, but also standard deviations, quartile ranges, and medians, and varying the graphics from the very superficial bar charts and pie charts used with alarming frequency here. Defining score ranges, rather than converting everything to a relative scale, would be useful as well, since the fact that all of the data in this book, even in its appendix where one would expect a more complete statistical apparatus showing the detailed experimental design of the study of the more than 700 churches that have taken part in REVEAL’s study, has been converted into relative percentile data, showing no hard data on the Likert scales and raw scores of member beliefs and practices and opinions of their ministers.

In addition to these significant failures from the perspective of data science, the way that the book defines its categories is frustratingly vague. For one, the book divides believers into four categories, eschewing the biblical language of babes, children, young men/women, and mature adults for more vague categories of: exploring Christ, growing in Christ, close to Christ, and Christ-centered. Additionally, the way the book defines core biblical beliefs as well as worthwhile ministry products is astonishingly superficial and unbiblical. For example, the authors of the book consider a belief in salvation by grace alone (not defined, it would appear, to differentiate between initial justification by grace and continued justification by works), as well as the Trinity, as being essential for Christian identity. Likewise, the book praises immensely superficial efforts at teaching biblical stories, apart from any desire to teach the weightier matters of God’s law, as being ambitious and difficult, as even areas like studying translations and doing deep studies of books like Romans are considered extremely advanced for believers, without any attempts to grapple with the application of biblical law in the lives of believers, which is fundamental for the godly practice this book promotes so heavily. Likewise, the suggestions of this book would need to be drastically translated into a more biblical language to avoid causing offense to many believers who lack any knowledge of or interest in the language of business strategy that makes up a large portion of the consulting done for churches. For those readers able to translate the material themselves, there is much to appreciate in encouraging transparent truthfulness, godly servant leadership, mentoring rising leaders, a renewed commitment to serving others and to recovering our first love for God’s ways and God’s people, all of which are worthwhile and biblical subjects. Nevertheless, such translation is needed, and this suggests that the intended audience of the book is for ministers and lay leaders who are already familiar with and favorable to business consulting and its jargon, and who can draw biblical truth from the largely secular advice presented here. For such readers, though, a focus on absolute scales rather than relative scales, and the presentation of raw numbers in tables and histograms and like graphics would have improved the strength of the book’s message. The use of such shallow graphics and vague terms suggests that the writers are seeking to hide the real meat of the data to those who have not paid for the consulting fees, while pitching their product in the hopes of furthering their consulting firm’s bottom line. This approach is unwise, even if there is a great deal of value, especially in the case studies, of the resulting book.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/07/10/book-review-the-cognitive-style-of-power-point/

[2] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/07/11/book-review-the-visual-display-of-quantitative-information/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/07/13/book-review-visual-explanations/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/07/14/book-review-envisioning-information/

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Domo Arigato

Psalm 150 is known as one of the places in the Bible where praise is most heavily concentrated in one small place [1]. A survey of its contents reveals why this is the case: “Praise the Lord! Praise God in His sanctuary;

praise Him in His mighty firmament! Praise Him for His mighty acts; praise Him according to His excellent greatness! Praise Him with the sound of the trumpet; praise Him with the lute and harp! Praise Him with the timbrel and dance; praise Him with stringed instruments and flutes! Praise Him with loud cymbals; praise Him with clashing cymbals! Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Praise the Lord!” In these six verses, the word praise is used thirteen times, more than twice each verse. It is not coincidental that this particular psalm, which tells us where we are to praise God, both in public prayer at church and in private prayer directed at God in heaven, what we are to praise God for, what instruments we are to praise God with, and what beings will praise God. The point is clear, that universal praise of God is the outgoing result of our faith in God, a fitting closing to the book of Psalms, where despite the ups and downs of the lives of believers, our works end in praise. Either people will praise God for our presence in their lives, or our judgment will lead others to praise God finally executing justice on us. Either way, the end will be praise.

As I blog about from time to time [2], I am a user of a data service called Domo and one of the more active members of their user community. Despite the fact that others are far more technically qualified than I am when it comes to writing queries or working with some of the more intense and esoteric elements of data feeds, I am still notable for being friendly and giving likes and kudos to others. As it happens, earlier today the June newsletter for the user community was released, and not surprisingly I ended up with a solution, and praise for giving the most likes, which I regularly and consistently do. In a note attached to a previous month’s report it was noted that I was the first user with an orange belt (the third level up on the Domo system), which happened about a month and a half ago or so. Although I consider myself fairly modestly qualified when it comes to technical applications, my interest in communication and culture does provide some advantages in helping others out, and directing them to places where their questions can be solved, and in helping them refine and explain their questions. Occasionally this results in solving their problems by conceptual understanding apart from a great deal of technical expertise.

For someone who delights in giving praise as much as I do, I often find it very uncomfortable to receive verbal praise, or to receive a panic-inducing surprise pat on the back. Nevertheless, in looking around it appears that an absence of praise in some form is one of the factors that makes it difficult for people to do and to keep doing what is good. One of the parts of social media I like the best is the ability to give discreet ‘thumbs up’ to others to give encouragement and support and approval of that which I like, be it a clever and witty and thought-provoking comment or post, or whether it is a cute photograph or drawing. I may not always feel it necessary to make a comment on something, but often I like to show appreciation of the sharing of others, especially where there is something praiseworthy to be appreciated. Yet while I find a lot that I enjoy praising, I also like to do it quietly, and in a way that does not draw too much attention to my identity as the one giving praise, lest instead of praise and encouragement it would bring discomfort and irritation to others, wasting my good efforts.

There are times, though, where the absence of praise can be a deeply unfortunate matter. Given my general personality and friendliness and personal interests, I have a wide variety of friends who are very accomplished, often in areas like sewing or visual art where I have virtually no native ability. Yet when I seek to give praise to them for their God-given gifts, with sincere and openhearted generosity of spirit, it is clear that these people are simply not used to being praised and appreciated. This is a great evil. If we are to be grateful to God for what we have been given, we must be cognizant of our gifts, must hone them over time and improve them, and then must use them in ways that bring glory and honor and praise to our Heavenly Father, from whom the gifts came. Yet this process is often short-circuited by an absence of praise. We may be afraid that too much praise will cause others to get a swelled head, but in our age of ridicule and difficulty, it is far more frequent that people are praised too little to recognize their worth. May we not be guilty of that sin ourselves with the people in our lives, for to the extent that we serve as discouragers of others, we will have to answer for it. Let us rather receive praise for the praise that we give, so that we may be good sons and daughters of encouragement.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/07/06/psalm-150-let-everything-that-has-breath/

[2] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/03/18/coming-attraction-domopalooza/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/04/23/hold-on-cause-the-world-will-turn-if-youre-ready-or-not/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/04/17/founding-members/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/04/10/data-humanism/

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Book Review: Tales From The Time Loop

Tales From The Time Loop, by David Icke

When I first received this book from my boss, I looked forward to really tearing into this book. From my social media feeds, I am aware of what Icke’s disciples believe about the world, and a lot of it is abhorrent. To be sure, I found a lot to tear into in this book, but the more I read the more dissatisfying I found merely tearing into this book. The more I read the book, the more its extremely unpleasant but coherent immediate context and argument, as illogical as it was, was a mask over a deeper and pervasive internal incoherence. This is far from the most incoherent book I have ever reviewed [1], but its coherence exists on a frightening level, so much more so that the more I read the book, the more I realized the depths of the darkness of the present mania for conspiracies, and where it was likely to go.

In terms of its contents, the book is organized as follows. It begins with several chapters dealing with a supposed five-sense conspiracy that tries to limit the understanding of people to the material world, then discusses extraterrestrials, before turning to the matter of the world being an illusion, and then suggesting how people can transform the supposed illusion. To go into the conspiracies at any more length is to be drawn into the quagmire for a particularly unprofitable and worthless goal. After all, even naming the many and flagrantly offensive conspiracies and any of their details, even to refute them, would merely be to help such preposterous claims gain legitimacy. Furthermore, it struck me as I read this book more and more that part of the secret to the appeal of this book and others like it comes in fact from its very incoherence, and in the way it throws so many accusations out so rapidly, and engages in such poor rhetoric, that readers are encouraged to hold to either one or both of contradictory but hostile positions. Here, a few general examples should suffice, without getting into the sordid details. On the one hand, the book discusses the obsession of various supposed bloodlines with genetic purity, while then also claiming that these same bloodlines are promiscuously interested in having lots of illegitimate children to spread their influence, while still trying to horde it to a small elite group. Which is it? Likewise, the book recycles bad ethnic theories from self-hating Jews like Arthur Koestler [2] that make an ethnic slur on Ashkenazi Jews (all while strenuously and vainly arguing not to be anti-Semitic), and blasphemously positing Sumerian and Egyptian origin for Sephardic Jews, who they had first claimed were actually Semitic, then saying Arabs are the true Semites, while simultaneously declaring that Jews are not an ethnic origin at all and casting special hatred on the Levites [3], which is a personal attack on some people.

The incoherence of this book is deep on every level. For one, the author condemns occult practices while simultaneously praising shamans who engage in drug-induced susceptibility to the spirit world. Despite all the language this book deals with, it is really arguing for the anarchist position of the Satanic false dilemma, opposing the authoritarian side of Satan and his minions while arguing for the existence of “white” magic and all kinds of alternative and New Age thoughts like reflexology, chakras, and telepathy. The book argues against materialist science and the demand to replicate research to demonstrate validity, but happily quotes any scientist with an interest in immaterial aspects of the universe. The book also talks about infinite love, but apparently that infinite love does not extend to political and cultural leaders, ordinary people who are apparently not smart enough to understand and agree with Icke, Christians, or Jews. Apparently Muslim terrorists are okay, though, as are drug-using shamans and the blond-haired and redheaded survivors of horrific child abuse who manage to escape. At least Icke shows compassion for some people, even if he is casually contemptuous of far too many people, tossing off horrific accusations without any qualms.

It is hard to see exactly what audience would find this sort of book appealing, or find a review like mine remotely helpful. There are many who would ridicule Icke out of hand, but rather than being a bad author, the author over and over again shows himself to have allowed himself susceptibility to demonic influence in a way that other books discuss in grim detail [4]. In a world where people are prone to believing any kind of wickedness about leaders or large groups of people like Christians and Jews, something immensely dangerous is afoot, like Hitler’s Germany or the French Revolution. Where such wildly inaccurate and self-contradictory beliefs as those espoused in this book gain any kind of public and open acceptance, we have reached the point where logical and rational conversation is deeply imperiled if not already too late. Where is one to go when one can no longer seek to rationally convince and persuade others based on evidence and the presumption of innocence? Nowhere I want to be.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/10/22/book-review-visions-of-the-last-adam/

[2] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/12/30/the-dinosaurs-prayer/

[3] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/12/27/nor-did-he-acknowledge-his-brothers-or-know-his-own-children-a-personal-reflection-on-the-tribe-of-levi/

[4] Most notably:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/07/11/book-review-the-paranormal-conspiracy/

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I Am Not A Human Being

Human beings are unusual in that the way we tend to feel about others is often based on the way we treat them, and that the way we think about ourselves is based on the way that others treat us. This suggests both a great deal of danger as well as opportunity. The danger comes that we may fancy ourselves to be good judges of the worth of other people, and that our mistreatment of others may lead us in a spiral of further dehumanization of others, with dire and potentially extreme circumstances. The danger also comes in that if we are mistreated, especially consistently so, we may easily see ourselves through the biased and hostile vision of our enemies and oppressors, and have no idea of our true worth to God or others. The opportunity comes in that if we want to think better of others, often all we have to do is treat others better and then let cognitive dissonance do the rest, by convincing us that others are actually worthwhile people in order to validate and justify our good treatment of them. To be sure, this may not be a common pattern of behavior outside of abusive families, but if we want to reverse the cycle of abusing others, then we have to resolve to treat others with kindness and tenderness and compassion, that we may think well of others and be disposed to treat them as we would wish to be treated ourselves.

As is often the case, the way we tend to act towards others is entirely contrary to God’s ways. While we may fancy ourselves to be good judges of the worth of others, the Bible tells us that we will be judged by the worst way we treat others. This is one of those Bible passages that keeps one up at night if one reflects deeply on it, as it is written in Matthew 25:41-46: “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” In reading the severity of this judgment, one should ask oneself, are there people who need to be cared for and treated kindly who I am ignoring or worse, actively mistreating? May it never be.

Our name gives a clue to how we ought to honor others. Even though we are rewarded, or judged, for our deeds, our worth comes from our identity. After all, we are not called human doings, but human beings. This is true not only in English, but in other languages like Spanish, where human beings are called ser humanos, a nearly literal translation of the English. There are, it should be noted, some serious implications to the fact that our dignity comes from who we are, before we have done anything to merit any sort of treatment. For one, it would indicate that as soon as someone is human, and for as long as they are human, they have the full rights and honors due to any human beings. It would further suggest that those who deprive other human beings of the right to life, for example, are worthy of condemnation, whether we are dealing with the beginning of life, the end of life, or anywhere in between. So long as our identity depends on our own possession of the image and likeness of God, a privilege of our species, then our rights trump the convenience of anyone else. The implications of this are profound when it comes to before life and early childhood and end of life issues, as might be easily understood.

I often ponder the generational cycles of different forms of abuse as one of the ways in which the repercussions of the sins of the fathers (and mothers) are visited on their children to the third and fourth generation. These patterns appear to operate by setting up a pattern by which we see ourselves the way we are treated by those who abuse us, and then we find others who treat us the same way, and then treat others out of the lack of worth they have, and in turn others will be raised to think as poorly of themselves as they have been treated, no matter how able or wonderful they may be as people. It is melancholy to reflect upon this cycle as one sees it generation after generation after generation. How are such cycles to be broken? How are we to maintain our dignity in the face of abuse in such a way that it can be combined with the humility and graciousness to see even those who oppress us as human beings worthy of concern and respect, even if from as far away as possible? Such a task can only be accomplished with God’s help. It is only through the grace of God above that we can rise above the horrors of this life without an arrogant hostility against those who have attacked us that turns us into merely different forms of the same enemy ourselves. In seeking to avoid the poison of abuse, we must be cognizant of the difficulty in avoiding treating others as we have been treated as we treat others the way we want to be treated, even if few people return the favor back to us.

When one is faced with the troubles in this world, and with the immense suffering and futility that one finds among the wreckage of human sin and error, it is tempting to attempt to save other people even if we are painfully aware that we cannot save ourselves. Yet at the same time we are solemnly commanded to give as we are able. What, then, are we able to give? Often, what we can give is our time, our patience, our concern, and at least some assistance in material matters. Whether or how other people respond to who we are is generally not within our power to determine, although we ought to do everything that is within our power to communicate ourselves graciously and honestly so that we cause no unnecessary offense. We must also remember that for any number of reasons others may simply not understand what we are about, and may respond inappropriately to it. The same, of course, is true for us. The barriers to effective communication in the absence of patience and trust and a willingness to give and receive the benefit of the doubt are massive, as are the difficulties in overcoming such crippling deficits in our personal background. Given the amount of brokenness in this world, it is a matter of deep sorrow and anguish to increase that because of our own behavior while we walk this earth. May God be merciful to us and direct our steps according to His wisdom, and not according to our experience. For are we not His children, created in the image and likeness of our Heavenly Father? May it be easier for others to see.

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