Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A quick not-post on "teachers"

Back in Jesus' time, teachers were probably not all that common. At least, not religious teachers.

To be a Jewish rabbi, you had to be pretty learned. Pastors are a dime a dozen nowadays. Back then, if you chose one teacher over another, by choosing one when the two conflicted, you were doubtless taking a serious side.

Nowadays, with "teachers" in every shade of gray there is...well, how do you know what teacher to pick? When everyone tries to justify their teachings from the Bible, how do you know which interpretation is true?

Some day, does it matter? Of course it matters. What you think is good and true, will affect your behavior and what sins you do or don't commit.

With a fairly continuous spectrum of teachers' interpretations and opinions, how can you tell if you're choosing just to make your life easier, or choosing what is true? How do you know that you're choosing someone who is false and just reinforcing what you wish were true, rather than teaching what is true?

After all, in order to recognize truth, you must know truth, right?

So what does the seeker after truth do?

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Music Box (2.5 Years Later)

I have a music box in my room. It took me an entire year to find it, or rather, it took my mom a year. It is one of my most prized possessions, and I give it so much sentimental value that I would go ape all over anyone who tried to steal it. Like, irreplaceable so much that I would track you to the ends of the earth to get it. If my house were on fire, I would grab that music box before jumping out the window. If I had to evacuate right now and take only a single bag with me, that box would be in the bag. It's possible I'll ask whoever is around when I'm old, to put that box in a container and set it on my grave when I die. It's that ridiculously important.

The box proper isn't very interesting. It's a little plastic and wood box, about 2x3 inches. The top section is a pale tan wood, and the bottom is clear. You can see the little turning cylinder with nubs, rotating inside the structure, when it runs. It has a silver key that you use to wind it up, and it's purely mechanical. No batteries, just a wire coil that tightens and loosens with the key. Pressed into the top of the box and inked are the words "How Great Thou Art."

As you would expect, turn the key and the cylinder starts moving, and the nubs flick little flaps of steel to the tune of "How Great Thou Art." Classic music box twang.

See, this is so important to me, because my grandmother owned this box. It's certainly older than I am; I don't know precisely how old it is beyond that. When I was a kid, I'd sit on her couch and wind it up as far as it could go, then watch the little cylinder turn, and listen to the music play until it got slow, then I would push the key and make it keep going until it couldn't run on its own. Then I'd do it again. It's just the chorus to the song, but I thought it was beautiful.

My grandmother died two days after my birthday, on March 23, 2010. That's also less than two months before my graduation, which I really wanted her to attend, so she could see a close to my school years. That never happened, though we kept her graduation ticket anyway. I only wanted three things from her old possessions, all of which she left to my mother: a gold locket on a chain, an old sewing machine mounted into a table, and that music box. Mom got the house and everything in it, and she said I could take whatever I wanted. Part of me really wanted to just grab everything that wasn't nailed down, as if I could keep her memory stronger and/or more reverently and/or just better by piling up stuff. I screamed inside at the thought that anyone would own her house, or any of her furniture, or any of her clothes, but us.

But we couldn't keep the house as some kind of shrine, no matter how much it smelled familiar, and how many times I'd played in that crawl space under the side, and how cute the faux-well was at the top of the hill, or...any of that. Some young couple owns it now. I hope they treat it with respect.

So in the end, I shoved back the desire to keep everything, and decided on those three things. Two of them are in Boston with me -- the shippable things, namely the locket and the box.

Two and a half years later, the memory has become more calmly solemn and reverent than piercing and empty in turn. I no longer want to scream at the universe so much about how unfair it was that Grandmother died only two months before she could see my landmark day that she would be so proud of, or that she didn't die peacefully in bed, but instead in a hospital after breaking both hips. I no longer feel quite so bad about fleeing the funeral as quickly as I could, or about having to force myself to cry at the ceremony despite feeling completely blank, just to convince everyone else that I wasn't trying to be an Overly Strong Person. Really it was as if someone had sucker-punched my soul and I didn't have any chance to react. I didn't viscerally get it the way others seemed to; I had these random spurts of intense despair, rather than a predictable "you cry when you see her stuff, or when you go to the funeral, or whatever." I walked around her house and ate the food others left for her family, without much of a thought, and I only cried when no one was around, because I think my subconscious decided that this was the appropriate time for it. Besides, my mom was so sad, that my guardian instincts kicked in and wanted to help her, rather than giving myself any time for much. I cried a lot when I got back to Boston, but not so much at home. I regret not going on the funeral procession, but...I don't know why I didn't.

If I had to say anything to people today, about that incident, I might. I might ask my aunt why she rarely visited her mother, and why she didn't contribute to the upkeep of her house and all that, while my mom was a tireless glad helper. I might ask my uncle why he was such a failure at life, having thrown his money away gambling and mooched off his friends for most of his time, and why he disappointed his mother so much. I might ask the doctors why there was nothing more they could do for a couple of broken bones. I might ask myself why I didn't throw classes to the wind to go sit by her side until something got better or worse, so I could have held her hand while she was moving on.  I might ask God why His sense of timing was so utterly cruel, as if it was deliberately planned to be a trip-at-the-finish-line. I guess I don't have as much of a desire to ask all that anymore, because what is it going to do?

The song from the music box is an old Christian hymn. It became Grandmother's song, over the years, because I always associated it with her, and she spent so much time with me that it rubbed off on her. I asked my mom to have it played at the funeral, and so it was, a music box made real for that while.

I don't pretend to understand why God let any of that happen when it did. I don't even know if God chooses things like that, really. Does God time everything right, to make sure the most good comes out of it? Or does life just really suck sometimes? Is Grandmother up in heaven tending roses and playing the piano? Can she see me? I don't really know any of that.

One point of regret I do have, is that Grandmother couldn't give me her music box herself. I had been asking about it for years, and she had lost it. Turns out it was just in a drawer of her nightstand, and Mom found it while cleaning out her things. So, a year after Grandmother's death, I took the music box home with me. It sits on my shelf and waits there, just like it always waited on the table in her living room. There's not much I can do with the memories these days; they sit like the box does, and they're not so powerful that they show up a lot, but there's always a little gap there when I go home.

Grandmother was a tireless Christian. She had more faith than some entire churches probably do. She firmly believed that God had everything under control, and even when life sucked, God was still there for you. If I had half the faith she did, I could move mountains. Even with an alcoholic husband, a delinquent son, and only one daughter who actually paid any attention to her, Grandmother was an unshakable pillar of stone. You could hide in her shadow, and the wind and the rain couldn't reach you. You could climb onto her strength, and no monsters could find you. She would be standing through Hell and high water. It would take an act of God Himself to make her back down from anything she had decided on. So I guess it's fitting, in the end, that her anthem is a song of praise.

The box is perfectly functional. If you wind it up, it still plays...

"Then sings my soul,
My savior, God, to thee
How great thou art
How great thou art."

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A Thing I Read Last Night

1 Timothy 4:3-4: "They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving,"


Including all humans.

Everything God created is good. Nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.


Friday, October 26, 2012

That Time I Broke Up With Someone For Two Weeks

Freshman year of college, I broke up with my boyfriend for two weeks. Both of us pretended it was the right idea; both of us agreed to it; both of us knew it was a stupid plan, done for really stupid reasons. There was a lot of crying, a lot of confusion, and a lot of underlying, "You idiot, just forget all this and go back to being happy" throughout the process. But let's go back in time and be really, really blatant.

It all started with the Baptist Student Fellowship and a woman I'm going to call Susie.

Susie was the most well-intentioned conservative Texan that she could possibly be. She was cheerful, had all that Southern charm, and to boot she exuded competence and kindness. She was enthusiastic and invited me to be with the Baptist folks on campus. I went to a couple of their gatherings, and Susie, being a good group cat-herder, said that as the new person I should go to lunch with her and we should get to know each other. I said sure, that sounded fine. I was at a particularly crappy spot in my life and really needed someone to talk to who knew about spiritual matters, and she was there. So we went to lunch.

Susie and I talked over Thai food, right next to the dorm that I would live in two years later. Most of this encounter is a blur. I don't remember a single word of what she asked me, up until the memory becomes quite clear in a sudden zing.

The waitress sets a plate of mango chicken down on the table. Definitely mango chicken. I remember that clear-as-day. The mangos tastes not all that great, but I'm hungry. Susie has something else, I don't remember what. I start eating; she starts eating. She asks me, somewhere in there, who I'm dating.I tell her, this guy from my hall, he's pretty cool, I like him a lot.

I ask her the question I never should have asked her, ever, but it was niggling in the back of my mind and I wasn't about to leave there without asking. "Is it okay if I'm dating him? He's not Christian."

She said that it was a sin.

That oh, but you're not going to Hell, but...well, it is a sin. You shouldn't be dating him.

And she gave me that look, the look of concern, the patronizing look that says you poor thing, you're falling away, let me bring you back. Let me dictate to you the life you must lead, the one that will bore you out of your skull, the one where you won't be able to find romantic options because MIT doesn't have that many people who are compatible with your interests and geeky in the ways you are and Christian and not in relationships already. Let me take something that is making your sad, depressed life better, and smash it to pieces.

Let me put you back in chains.

I lost ten pounds stewing over this issue. I worried so much I ate one meal a day for a month and came out of it lighter than I had been in years. I talked to my best Christian friend, but I couldn't shake it -- this woman was Authority. Susie wasn't just any person; she Knew Things. She was Right, because she was a pastor, and of course all pastors were right. If I thought I was right, well, then all her spiritual education and connection to God was worthless. She had to be right.

I broke up with my boyfriend because he wasn't a Christian, despite the fact that he was one of the kindest, most open people I knew at the time. He was great for me, at that point in my life, and we were very close friends. But Susie said so, therefore God said so, and so I had to do it. I couldn't live a life where I was sinning.

"Do not be unequally yoked." Or something. That verse would haunt me for years of my MIT life.

And in the end, had I followed her advice, I would be a sad, miserable person right now.

I broke the rules. I broke the rules because I refuse to be a Pharisee. I refuse to believe that anything in the world that makes me happy, has to be evil. I refuse to believe that romance, and caring for another person, and love, can't transcend religious boundaries. I refuse to believe that Jesus wants us to stick in our own little enclaves. I refuse to believe that God Himself, who is my Father and cares so deeply for me that He sent His own son to be tortured and killed so my sins would be absolved, would let Satan just run rings around me, that all the people that appeared in my life and loved and cared for me who weren't Christian, were just there to make me screw up. If I was truly a child of God, then God was not going to let "faux-good" things happen to me just to trip me up. God does not plant poisoned candy there for you, just to punish you for having a good thing in life. God does not set booby traps.

These non-Christians I dated had far more of the virtues that God desires, than many Christians I know. Patience. Perseverence. Kindness. Gentleness. Self-control. You know, all the Fruits. The ones that God wants us to have.

"And you shall know them by their fruit."

What Fruits have the conservative Christians I know offered me? Fearmongering. Inflicting pain. Creating despair and depression. Lack of empathy. Self-righteousness. Careless words. There is a time to hurt and a time to heal, but the people I know, didn't heal at all. They were like surgeons who went in and cut something out, then didn't finish the job and left you there bleeding, told you to stitch yourself up. After all, it was your fault you had the sickness, whatever it was in the end, so you should take care of yourself.

I am not one of them, not anymore. Non-Christians have done more for my faith, than Christians have. I'm tired of dogma. I'm tired of chains. I'm tired of being scared, and I'm tired of seeking refuge in the false sense of security that is, "So long as you don't do anything on this long list, you have no reason to be scared." I want adventure. I want experimentation. I want life to be interesting. I don't want to be constrained to boring old...fear.

I want to live.

We got back together, by the way.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

There Are Many Sins (Why I Hate Election Years)

I really don't like presidential election years.

My family doesn't really talk that much about Senate or House elections, but when the Presidency comes around, they're on that like white on rice. It gets a bit bothersome, especially since my dad loves to talk and try to convince everyone else that he's right about everything, while my mom stands by and just sort of lets people do whatever they want. I'm guessing they have never really had a political argument, if only because Mom sees it as a waste of time.

Now's the time of year that Dad appends a few political notes to all his phone calls to me, telling me I better not vote for the dirty liberal atheist Democrats, or else I'm going to be screwing over the country and we're all going to Hell or something. This is sort of exaggerated, but not by much, because dear Dad, for all his awesome qualities, believes that if we so much as sniff at compromise on social issues, we're horribly betraying society, God, and everything else. It got me thinking about how weird conservative priorities are.

I never hear evangelical folk talking about poverty in America. I'm sure they do once in a while, but I never hear one word of it. I never hear about the evils of corporate scandal, corrupt politicians, and environmental destruction. No comments about feeding the hungry, helping the disabled, or making medical care more accessible in any possible way.

I hear about the following topics: abortion, gay marriage, and contraception.

What the hell is wrong with evangelical culture these days? It's like they are centering every possible bit of effort they could ever have, on something that Jesus really doesn't seem to consider a priority in all of the Bible's lesson. The fact that my dad says not to vote for Obama because he favors abortion, strikes me as incredibly short-sighted.

I'm not disclosing who I'm voting for. As far as I'm concerned, both candidates suck, and since I'm in a hardcore Blue state and came from a hardcore Red state, my vote for the presidency has never mattered one whit. Still, the point being, you should never vote for a candidate based solely on one issue, no matter how emotional it may be, unless the issue is "should we blow up the Earth" or something. If the issue is at all controversial, in any significant way, it should not be the only reason you're voting against someone.

I don't care whether you do or don't think abortion is okay; it should not be the reason you're voting for a candidate, as a Christian. If a candidate were to have a proven-to-work, revolutionary program to raise families out of poverty, provide cheap and nutritious food, and promote inexpensive medical care without pissing off hard workers who want to keep their money, but he endorsed legalized abortion, is it really sensible to reject him on those grounds?

In a non-ideal world, we have to work with necessary evils. Even if you think abortion is evil, it is just one more ticker on the scale. Think about it this way: if God says that all sin is sin, and you can't just rank sin and say, "oh, I'll commit some little sins, they don't matter, as long as I'm better than the guy over there cheating on his wife," then we should realize that abortion is no greater a sin than anything else. Sin is sin. If your candidate turns away the poor and sick, isn't that just as great a sin as endorsing gay marriage would be? If your candidate spurns and wastes God's Earth like the Prodigal Son spent all his fortune, isn't that just as great a sin as promoting legal abortion? 

Let's not even get into the arguments of how many times various sins are mentioned in the Bible, and if they are even sins at all, and so forth. In the end, just look at the person in question, and ask yourself, how sinful overall is this regime going to be? Stack the good points on one side and the sins on the other. Make sure to count all the sins, not just anything related to people's genitalia. Despite what many evangelicals want you to think, who you sleep with, when, and in what fashion, are not the only topics for sin. Count all of them: greed, lies, cheating, taking bribes, depriving the poor of aid, fearmongering, selfishness...

Now choose, with open eyes. If you still end up choosing the original candidate you were voting for, that's fine. No one cares if you started out hardcore Romney, looked at both sides, and still said Romney was the right answer. Same for Obama. But at least make a real decision, not one based on the idea that sexuality is the only possible metric for sin.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


My boyfriend and I see God in completely different areas of the world.

He looks at numbers and sees the divine. Nature is full of uncanny mathematical patterns, and the laws of the universe fit together like laser-cut puzzle pieces, perfect in their simplicity and complexity. "I imagine God as having His hands around the world," he said one night. "He's everywhere." He sees miracles as unnecessary, as breaking the beauty of the world; to him, nature and its perfect fit, like gears in a clock, is the real miracle. He claims he doesn't need to believe in the miraculous, because what kind of God would need to go back in and patch up the work He already did? It's like Michelangelo returning to the Sistine Chapel and scratching a doodle in crayon on a corner of the ceiling. The universe is so perfectly designed from the start, from the moment God set "let it be," and the Big Bang went off, that the one miracle God ever truly did is still going, and going, and going. The things we call miraculous, are so miraculous because they are natural phenomena that were decided billions of years ago, a tiny butterfly flap that caused the cancer to be attacked at just the right time by just the right virus to pop the right cell, and so forth.

I see God in the cracks of reality. When something uncanny happens, just in the precise way it shouldn't. When a disease vanishes in a way that is impossible. When nature moves aside a little, so you can see the God behind the curtain, holding the universe in perpetually moving fingers, playing physics like a piano, throwing in a riff now and then that wasn't originally in the piece. "I imagine God peeking in between slips of time," I said. "He's hiding behind the world, always watching, waiting, and acting." All the world's a stage, and God is running the tech crew. I don't think God planned it ahead of time, or at least not to fit seamlessly; I believe that miracles are supposed to happen, that we can't actually exist without breaking reality at some point or another. That natural law is purposely and divinely imperfect and incapable of acting entirely on its own. That without God's direct intervention, humanity wouldn't have evolved; sentience would never have occurred; the nations wouldn't have lined up as they did when Jesus existed; so on and so forth.

In the end, I think we're both a little bit right.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Guard Your What?

"Above all, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life." - Proverbs 4:23.

This is probably one of the most altered, mistaken, and perverted (in the old sense, not the creeper sense) verses that is talked about in the church.

There are twelve words in that verse. None of these twelve include any of the following: virginity, penis, vagina, body, nakedness, sexuality, marriage. And that's just a partial list of all the words that aren't in this verse.

Proverbs 4:23 is unequivocally not about sex. This is not a pro-abstinence tract, nor is it restricted to women. This verse has been used for restriction, laid down like some kind of law, as if there were a punishment attached to the end. As if there were eighteen words instead of twelve, and the remaining six were, "Or you will go to Hell."

Guard your heart. What is the heart? It's the metaphorical center of love and caring. It's the part of the analogy-body that feels and empathizes. Even if people thought the brain was a giant radiator, the mind was the center of thought, wherever in the body it was thought to lie. The heart is reserved for pure emotions. So in the end, what are you guarding? You're guarding feelings, emotions like trust, love, dedication, kindness, and empathy. You're not expending your every last drop of energy on the pigs, who will not appreciate the pearls you've thrown before them. You're making sure to take care of yourself, not in a self-centered way, but in a way that will protect your stability and energy and enthusiasm for life. You're not letting other people take advantage of you, even though you may care for them and help them. You maintain a center, where you can be strong and capable, despite what the world may throw at you.

Guarding your heart isn't about keeping it in your pants. There's no mention about pants here, or any of the body parts under those pants. What it's about, is keeping your priorities straight, and not throwing yourself away. Wanton promiscuity is a definite danger, don't think I'm saying otherwise. Throwing caution to the wind and ruining your body is not taking care of yourself. Disease and unwanted pregnancy are torments to the mind and heart. But the point is the damage they're doing, not the overgeneralized whole.

Guarding your heart means having respect for yourself. It means choosing good lovers and good friends and good coworkers. It means not letting anyone crap all over you and not being a pushover. It means maintaining your cool and your stability among the hurricane that is humanity. It doesn't mean alienating yourself, or being prissy, and it certainly doesn't mean being abstinent, or not dyeing your hair, or not shaving your head, or not getting a tattoo, or caring about this or that political issue and not the other one, or preaching to every person you see, or...

It means, have respect for yourself. Take care of yourself. Treat your body right, and your mind right, and your heart right. Don't let humanity drown you. Don't let others destroy you. Don't throw yourself into a situation where you know you're just going to come out a ruined shell.

Does that happen to people? Yes. Does it mean they didn't guard their hearts? Not always. But sometimes you can see it coming.

You can only do so much. This verse is asking you to do just that: what you can do. Not what you can't, not what you couldn't account for. But what you can do, right now, to be good to yourself, to protect yourself.

Guard your heart. And go be free.

Friday, August 3, 2012

What I Learned from "Dogma" (spoilers)

Since it's a movie I've wanted to see for years now, I finally got around to watching Dogma. For those of you who don't know, it's a Jay and Silent Bob satire film about a couple of angels who, in a fit of drunkenness, lay aside their heavenly duties and get thrown down to Earth for all of eternity as punishment for their flippancy and disobedience. (Also, angels are no longer allowed to drink.) Now one of the half-related descendents of Jesus Christ (through Jesus' brothers' bloodline), a couple of modern prophets, and a reincarnated thirteeth Apostle named Rufus have to go keep the two angels from exploiting a cosmic loophole in their punishment and getting back into Heaven, which would reverse a mandate of God and end the universe. Along the way, the mob encounters the Metatron (angel serving as the Voice of God), demons appear in the form of hockey-stick-wielding teenage thugs led by fallen angel Asrael, and lots of wackiness ensues.

Anyway. On to the things I learned.

The beginning of the movie was the most satirical part, if you ask me, and the biggest punch in the gut came right at the entrance. It's the closest I came to being legitimately offended, and then I realized why.

At the very start of the movie, a cardinal at the local Catholic church has decided that he's going to try to make Catholicism hip and modern now. Being Catholic is antiquated, he says. Nobody finds it relevant anymore, so may as well fix it up so that people feel attracted to it again. It's a two-millennium-old religion, and the reason they're bleeding followers is because they need to shiny it up for the young folk. So, the cardinal decides to "retire" the crucifix as a symbol of Christianity and replace it with the "Buddy Jesus," a statue of a traditionally-attired European-looking Jesus (the one you usually see around America) making a thumbs-up gesture while smiling and winking at the onlookers. Jesus looked too morbid and pained before, says the cardinal. He's not a downer; he's a supporter and a friend, so why not show him as happier and more supportive?

This is...a surprisingly accurate view of two things: what many churches are trying to do to bring in more followers, and what the conservative folk say is screwing over Christianity as a whole. Let's start with Point One.

Lots of churches are trying to be modern and "cool." They have slick 21st-century-style logos, catchy names, and even ad campaigns to try to convince random onlookers to go for a visit. One church in Boston must be paying through the nose to post ads all over subway stops, and these ads even bribe onlookers with the promise of coffee and food after services.

What has the world come to, that we have to offer bribes and rewards and shiny new toys to people who are supposed to be coming to church to seek their spiritual value and fulfillment and all that? If you're going to church because they have free food and it's the most convenient one and you feel guilty not going to church so you may as well, does that mean anything? How does that help build community? Do these people really think that visitors won through shameless marketing are going to be committed or even care?

Back where I come from, you go to a church because your family goes there. The young folk grow up to be adults who have kids or invite their neighbors, and then they become old folk who mentor the new young folk. Alternatively, you get invited or check out a few churches and then stick with one because it particularly speaks to you. No one bribes anyone. There are no ads. You're just there, and you get to know the church and its people.

(I think I know why there are so many churches in America. The whole one-on-every-corner thing seems silly and hackneyed to a lot of people, but I think it's the nature of humans to want small tight-knit communities. When churches get too big, someone will inevitably start a new one, and a few people will gravitate there. Eventually, you get the little churches full of old people, that little pack of followers who really love the place, and someday they'll probably all die and someone will buy the building, but in the end, they like their twelve people. Not all pastors want hundreds of followers. In fact, I'm guessing the reason we have so many churches is because of this exact reason: people naturally group off into little packs when they want to be close to others. Sorry, off topic.)

What is going on now, smacks of materialism and modern advertising shenanigans. And I don't like it. I'd rather look in the Yellow Pages and find churches, or on the internet, and then try them out on their own. I don't want them to throw cool-looking logos in my face and go on and on about how modern and cool they are. This isn't a competition, guys. Communities are supposed to be small and tight-knit here, not to mention, if people don't come to church because they want to be at church, what are you really accomplishing? (Seriously, be honest, how many converts happen because some poor person wanted free food, or something like that?)

What is the solution here? Go old-school. Ditch the modern shenanigans and go back to the reason we really went to church. Cut the silly socialization games and the bribes and the advertising. Stop trying to hold a carrot over our heads and get us to jump. Focus more on community prayer, perhaps, or study classes, or maybe just days where people can come and spend time in silence in the sanctuary. Make church feel really holy and special again, rather than just a social playdate with a sermon once a week. Stop holding church in crappy old buildings and bring back the beauty and iconography when you can. Put down an atmosphere where people leave their lives behind and really talk to God. I'd also like to see "office hours" of sorts where authority figures in the church just talk to members and try to help them on their spiritual paths. Make this really be mentor-mentee style relationships. Go back to when church really felt like it was about something.

Second, a completely unrelated point: the conservative church basically sees the liberal church as the cardinal in Dogma. Liberals are, as they say, trying to put a pretty face on what should be a scary, intense, exclusive sort of religion that is supposed to really get all up in your grill and show you the Dark Frightening Things about reality that you should really care about. All the hellfire-brimstone gets swept under the rug in favor of this "Buddy Jesus" kind of figure, who is really there just to make you feel good. This follows pretty quickly to "churches that don't tell you about Sin and Punishment are evil" and so forth.

Some of this, I'd say is true. The modern church kind of does like to cut corners and talk more about what God likes than what God doesn't like. The concepts of sin and punishment get swept under the rug, and people really don't like discussing Hell and what it means. Oddly enough, televangelists (who are often very conservative) tend to push these points more, because they get more views if they spread around feel-good messages rather than moral lessons. I can't say I've particularly encountered How To Be Moral sermons up in Boston, and I expect this is because the churches up here try to focus way more on "how God is nice" rather than "how God is a Father who expects you to obey His rules regardless of how much you think it'd be fun not to."  Both of these points, when taken to an extreme, are both misguided. God is nice. God is also serious business. Both of these must be acknowledged.

There you go, things I learned from satire. Most of the rest of the movie is just fun plot shenanigans, and watching the two angels evolve as characters as well as the Last Scion (the descendent of Jesus' family) accept her mission and really go for it. Good movie, watch it.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Holier Than Thou

Christian Evangelicals have this complex surrounding miracles.

Now, first off, I'd like to say that I absolutely do believe in miracles. I am entirely certain that people have been healed of diseases, made to walk again, or see again, or what have you. Planes have been strategically delayed, and cars have been made to start again. Poisons have been purified and bullets steered off course. I firmly believe that these things can and do happen.

However, I don't believe that they come on command. Certainly it seems that despite God's myriad opportunities to wow us, He seems perfectly content to let the world do its thing most of the time. I can't explain it, but needless to say, God is not a lab rat or a dog. He can't be trained, and He doesn't bark on command. You can't wave your hands like a magic wand and expect God to do something flashy for you. (For those of you who still believe that televangelists like Benny Hinn work miracles on camera, just Google "leg lengthening." The people these guys call up for demonstrations, are total plants. People have seen the wheelchairs waiting for the plants that "stand up and walk.") Anyway, despite "God is not a trained dog," the Evangelical church is rooted in physical display. Funny, for a denomination that so vehemently protests science and other such "visible" things, they sure do rely a lot on what they can see and feel. Speaking in tongues is one such phenomenon, as is "being slain in the Spirit," which looks a lot like a pastor touching someone on the head and said person fainting. Every so often, you'll get the claim that someone has cast out a demon, but I can't comment on what that looks like because I've never seen an exorcism.  Either way, there are a nontrivial number of church members, usually well-known pastors or ex-pastors who now function as "prophets" or "healers" or what have you, who go around claiming that God has endowed them with a very Elijah-esque ability to call down miracles at will.

That's at the high level. Go one step down, and go back to speaking in tongues and being slain in the Spirit and what have you. When I was a kid, I always wanted to know what those were like. Did you just start doing something against your will, as if your body was suddenly being moved by invisible strings? Did you just have an overwhelming desire to do the action? Did you blank out and wake up five minutes later with everyone gawking at your words of Godly wisdom? What happened? Needless to say, I always went to the altar when we had special guests, or when it looked like the pastor was going to walk around doing that funny thing where he touched people's foreheads and they fell over.

It took me years to finally get someone to tap me on the head, and let me tell you, it was really underwhelming. Despite my praying, and wishing, and getting into the zone and all that...nothing really happened.

I was disappointed. I expected something transcendental. But I was young, and my legs were tired from standing up...so I figured, okay, maybe that means something. So I let myself sink to the ground. I got a vague curiosity about talking. So I started saying something, and I wasn't sure what it was. I don't think it was much of anything, even for an attempt at the neat babbling thing that the old ladies in church did.

I got up off the ground at the end of the service, and I didn't mention much about it. I went on with my life, wondering if anything had really happened. In the end, I figure it didn't, and I was just hoping really hard and doing what I saw everyone else doing in hopes that it was something it wasn't.

I'm sure that God does sent messages through unknown languages. I'm also fairly sure that they don't happen in 95% of cases. I'm guessing most of the people who fall over in church, do it because they're so psyched up that it seems like a good idea at the time.

This all culminated in the biggest letdown I've had: my friend Amy (not her real name), who I decided I would get healed of a bone issue she had in her hands. Her fingers were stiff and couldn't bend more than maybe an inch in arc, and she couldn't make a fist or even start one. So I was super enthusiastic and prayed as only an innocent believing little kid can, and I brought Amy to the altar at a healing service at church. We cried and prayed and talked with the guest speaker/healer guy and we begged and we tried really hard to be Good Christian People, and I secretly hoped to myself and God that her hands would be healed so that she would get off the fence about whether she was Christian or not, because look! There would be proof.

Nothing happened. Nothing at all. Zip, zero, nada. Her fingers were as straight and stiff as the moment she walked into the building.

Looking back on all this, two things have occurred to me. First off, 99.N% of people who claim they can zap miracles out their fingers, are clearly smoking something. Second, the Evangelical church teaches you to join the "holier than thou" contest of who can do or see miracles, and who can't. It seems like to them, the more faithful you are, the more crazy supernatural things will happen to you. If you can't even faint in church, seriously, how faithful can you be? As a kid, I felt deficient somehow, as if I just didn't believe hard enough. Maybe if I prayed more, or read the Bible more, then next time I brought an Amy to the altar, something would happen.

In the end, I have settled on the idea that Christianity isn't a contest to see who can rack up the most cool showoffy miracles. But in the end, it sure sets up the idea.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Off Topic: Tips on Rental House Hunting

I busted my butt for weeks (months? I forget) to get hold of the house I live in now. I think I got lucky in that there were no particular disasters, but in the end, I should compile a list of the Wisdom I learned from going through the process. For the record, "apartment hunting" and "house hunting" I expect are very similar in the Boston area, so consider this as such.

1. Never assume that anyone is going to do the work but you. And it's a lot of work.

Even if your roommates are the best project buddies ever, work at your maximum. When it comes to houses that can come and go at the blink of an eye, everyone kicking ass is better than everyone thinking everyone else will kick ass and suffering the temptation to apartment hunt tomorrow rather than today. And internet-searching and calling realtors and landlords is much, much more time-consuming than you think it is. People won't call you back, and you'll have to haunt them until they tell you what you need. Realtors will sniff at you for being too (young, unprofessional, not serious enough, whatever they think you are even if you're not). People will lie to you, string you along, and waste your time. And in the end, properties will appear and disappear and you will lose sight of what's going on if you drop the ball even for a little while.
2. Do the work today, even if you're not assuming you're the only one on the project.

If you violate principle 1, at least do whatever work you're going to do, today. The market is always cycling, especially in a location where there are more people than there are properties. September in Boston is lease hell, because all the college students are picking up apartments, and properties are flying in and out of the rental market faster than a pack of fighter jets. Get an assessment of the situation today. Tomorrow, get another. And then another the next day. Stay on the ball, and don't wait for the situation to unravel or your favorite property to vanish before doing something. I don't care if you think it'll be there tomorrow, do it now.

3. Force the realtor to show you the property as quickly as humanly possible.

If he can do it tomorrow, do it tomorrow. If he can do it today, do it today. If you can see that house now, get on your bike/in your car/on your feet and hoof it over there. If you don't, there's a reasonable chance that someone who has seen the house before you or who doesn't care about seeing the property in person will pick it up. We lost a sweet three-story place with a deck over that one. We were left standing outside the house and then getting a call of, "Oh, we already sold the place." So don't wait a couple days, see it now.

4. Remember that if you're there, so is your competition, and so you have to think fast.

My housing group was the second in a queue of about four groups looking at the house we eventually rented. When we got to the place, we had the awkward issue of having to stare down the other guys, because they too had that think-fast mentality and were muttering under their breath about checks and rent value. Here are some things you need to know before you walk in the door of the house.
- Are you willing and able to drop money on the house right now if you end up liking it?
- Are you up to speed with yourself and your housemates about what constitutes a good house, what kind of physical integrity you need, what neighborhoods are okay, and all the other safety and security logistics you need to know?
- Is there someone in your mob who can front large sums of money now?
- Have you worked out all possible major conflicts with your housemates, such as pet issues, allergies, and so on?

5. Landlords can and will raise rent between the time you see the house and the time you rent it.

I don't care if this is false advertising or what, but yes, this can happen. Be careful. Make sure you know all the statistics of the place when you sign the lease. Read the lease, talk to the landlord, read the lease some more, and make absolutely sure what you're getting is what you want to sign up for. That sweet $500-lower-than-everyone-else rent price may rise now that the landlord sees how much competition there is for the house.

6. The landlord/realtor will try to make a house sound amazing even if it's a pit of filth. Ignore this. Make your own judgment calls. No one will be offended if you don't call back on a place. Do not rely on "fixer-upper" statements, or the idea that a place will be happy and clean once the old tenants move out.

Realtors especially exist to be pushy. Push back, and don't be afraid to drop them even though they'll whine and wheedle after you. One of my housemates and I checked out a house whose floor was coated with sticky gunk, whose kitchen was flooded with trash and dirty dishes, and whose walls were covered in Sharpie. The lights were dim, the place was a sty even if it weren't so filthy, and well, it was filthy. Someone here clearly didn't care, and if the realtor was willing to show us a property like this, that says terrible things to me. There were holes in the walls, and he said that all the place needed was a little cleaning.

No. Trust your instincts. If the current tenants are living in filth, the house likely has a bug or mouse infestation (or both), and nothing short of a miracle will get cigarette or drug smoke out of the walls and carpet. Also, the more damage that is done to a property ahead of time, the more that the landlord can suck out your security deposit by blaming damages on you if you don't properly document them.

7. Corollary: buck up and don't be timid when dealing with realtors.

You have to be firm. I know they're trying to tell you that this house is really awesome and you should live here, and you feel bad for taking up their time because they could be doing their job somewhere else and actually making money and everyone needs money, but this is their job. Suck it up and turn them down if you need to, and by definition of this process, you will turn them down every time but one.

8. Carpe diem.

If a property looks good, throw down some cash now. Sign the lease now. Someone else will do it if you don't.

9. Use the Internet.

Look at realtors' sites, but also places like HotPads.com will show you properties in your area. There are rental house/apartment search engines, so make good use of them. Different engines will show you different properties, so check several.

10. Realtors often use the same picture for different properties, so see a house in person before you buy it. Also, even real pictures are an artistic lie.

Unless you are moving to Clone-House Suburbia, there is no way the realtor has that many properties with the exact same internal layout, colors, lighting, and that neat palm-frond fan. Don't believe this. Go see a property for yourself. Pictures lie, and they're also taken by people who know what they're doing, in the best lighting and conditions. It's like jazzing up someone with makeup and a good pose and precision lighting, when 99% of the time they just look frumpy.

11. Some realtors/landlords will hate on you for being young and a student, because odds are they've been bitten before by irresponsible types.

If you're a student or a young person (think 18-24) looking for a place, get ready for landlords and realtors to hate on you for being what they perceive to be a high risk. We were turned down once for not being "a family," due to some BS technicality about 4+ person houses having to be occupied by a family or something. This basically boils down to the landlord not trusting a pack of college students not to destroy the house. Probably somewhere down the line, one of their properties got nuked by a bunch of kids who didn't know how to be Real People and who trashed the place, or else they heard horror stories, or else they just decided that any chance of that was too great a risk. Keep calm and carry on, but know that you're not going to convince these folks.

12. Skip the realtor if you can, but don't expect this to be easy.

Houses on realtors' sites will never tell you the exact address of the place, because they don't want you to go to the landlord and rent it under their noses. You'll have to pay a fee to the realtor if you rent through them, but if you can skirt them and go to the landlord, do it. Alas, this was impossible when we tried; we even Google Street View-ed the place, but realtors cover their butts and don't post external images of the houses that give enough detail to peg the building. Sometimes the neighborhood is also inaccurate (remember, Inman Square is not Central, no matter how much they say it is), so your odds of finding it by brute-force searching of the area on Google Street View are very low.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Creative Interpretation

I was sitting in a Lutheran service at college, when I heard a familiar story being told. For those of you who aren't familiar with the healing of the ten lepers, here is how it goes:

Ten lepers approached Jesus one day, begging for them to be made clean. Back in Jesus' day, lepers were thought to be horribly contagious (insofar as people at the time knew what contagion was, but theoretically, if you touched a leper, you got nasty horrible things happening to you), which is now known to be untrue, but as such they were treated as outcasts. If they could be cleaned, and prove themselves to be clean, then they would be allowed to participate in society. Jesus healed all ten, telling them to go to any of the local priests and show themselves to said priest and ask him to verify their being healed and clean. The ten men departed and did so, and found themselves to be exactly that -- except the one man who, being healed, immediately turned around and found Jesus to thank Him even before seeing the priest.

One man came back to thank Jesus, and Jesus wondered out loud where the other nine were. Still, He told the man to go and be well, as he is now healed.

End of story.

It's a funny fact, then, that this is not the end of the story according to the church I'm from.

The version of the story I heard is identical, except that there is another section at the end that is not actually in the Bible at all. I didn't know this until a long time later, because I hadn't closely read the story, but it turns out that my old church amended the tale. In their version, the ten lepers depart, one turns around and thanks Jesus, and Jesus sends him on his way again, wondering where the nine are...and after that, the nine find themselves to be lepers once more, because they didn't say thank you. Essentially, Jesus curses them for their lack of gratitude, which is never something we see Jesus doing at all (ever -- the only thing He ever curses is a fig tree, which he withers as a demonstrative gesture accompanying something He said).

What does this mean, then, that some conservative churches feel the need to turn Jesus into some kind of punishing figure, even when the evidence they want is something they had to create themselves? That Jesus isn't a merciful healer, but instead some sort of divine overseer, rewarding the good but exactly strict justice the moment any mistake is made?

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Off Topic: A Primer on Long Hair

As a grad from one of the nerdiest schools you're going to find, I end up meeting a lot of people with long hair. For women, this isn't such a weird thing, but we have a fairly significant quantity of males with long hair of various magnitudes. As such, I wrote a primer on how to deal with long hair.

This isn't to say that all guys don't take care of their hair, by any means, or that all girls do. In the end, there are many on both sides who just sort of ignore it. Without further ado, some helpful tips from someone who has had long hair for 20 years. Note that I have straight hair and, as such, can't give as helpful advice for very curly hair. Wavy hair acts similarly to straight hair in a lot of ways, from what I've seen, but grain of salt and so forth.

1. Cut your hair.

I know this is counter-intuitive. You want to grow your hair out, so you ignore it and let it grow, right? This is incorrect, especially if you have blonde hair. Dark hair is thicker per strand than light hair, on average, so it tends to suffer less damage per unit time, but in the end, all hair will have split ends. Split ends are when the hair shaft divides near the end of the hair, causing a frizzy clump of skinny hair tips that gives your hair a ratty, tangled look. They make the hair weaker, and the longer they're around, the higher up the hair will split. Eventually, you can get inches of split ends, and it's made even worse if your hair deals with chlorine, heavy heat, salt water, or other such abuse on a routine basis. A friend of mine went hiking in the desert for three months and had to get about four inches of hair chopped off because it was utterly destroyed.

The solution to split ends is to trim your hair about half an inch when you see the frizz starting to appear. Don't cut it often, or much -- just go to a stylist or a friend and tell them to take the split ends off. Your hair grows faster than its ends split, so you'll slowly grow your hair out and keep it nice-looking. There's little sadder that can happen to hair, than having a foot and a half of ponytail with the last six to eight inches being ratty split ends.

2.Get a separate conditioner from your shampoo and use it every time you wash.

Conditioner is in no way overrated. When you shampoo your hair and nothing else, you strip off all the oils but put nothing back on to protect the hair. As a result, your hair gets dry, damaged, and brittle. When you brush it, it will break. Those two-in-one shampoos are atrocious -- shampoo strips off oil, and conditioner tries to moisten, and the two do not work well together. First shampoo, then condition. If you have particularly damaged/brittle/dry hair, leave the conditioner on for a few minutes, and consider buying something you can leave in after you wash.

When you wash with conditioner, make sure that you're not over-rinsing it. Notice how, after you shampoo, your hair gets that "squeaky clean" feeling where your fingers cause enough friction to actually catch on the hair. After you condition, you should stop rinsing when your hair feels smooth but not slick -- your fingers shouldn't grab in the hair, but nor should you be able to feel the conditioner either. It's a practice thing, but in the end, that's the magic point where the conditioner is doing its job without leaving a residue.

3. Don't use crap conditioner.

I know it's tempting to buy a two-dollar bottle of conditioner, but up to a point, you really get what you pay for. Six to eight dollars is the minimum for good conditioner on my hair; it probably varies per person, but if you're using a cheap bottle of Pert, it simply won't do much for you. It'll be like you didn't condition, and see above for the consequences.

4. Use a brush.

I know this sounds ridiculous. Still, some people don't brush their hair. Granted, some people's hair is magical and doesn't tangle, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't brush it. Brushing hair flattens the flyaways that form halos around your head after you wash, and it gets rid of shed hairs that are caught up in the rest of your hair. Finger-combing isn't going to get all of them. Even if you're losing hair, brushing softly isn't going to tear out any more; it's just going to remove the hair you've already shed.

There are two different kinds of brushes, loosely: bristle brushes and rubber-nib brushes. Rubber-nib brushes are the most common kind; they have spines that have rubber bulbs on the end. They tend to be stiffer and dig farther into the hair, which means that for most people they're better at getting all the tangles out, but for people with sensitive scalps, they're little torture devices. If you're like me, and pulling at your hair causes you nontrivial pain, you should use a bristle brush, which has thinner and more flexible strands with nothing on their ends. Bristle brushes are less powerful than rubber-nib brushes, but they're gentler. Try each one and see what you think. Most people prefer the nibs, but a few just can't deal.

Brush your hair from the ends upward. This will brush out any tangles without clumping them together at the end of your hair. It can be slow going, but it will do less damage to your hair in the process and make the tangles easier to get out.

5. Tame flyaways.

Fine hair tends to be really fluttery. Chances are that if you have fine hair, you get shorter strands flipping about and giving you a vague halo a la those Catholic saint pictures. What you can do for this is to take some anti-frizz cream or some hair shine liquid and rub a tiny bit on your hands, then run your hands through your hair. That should be enough to keep the loose strands back.

6. Pull back your hair.

I know ponytails aren't for everyone, but find some way to tame your hair when you need to. It will get in your way during sports, on windy days, and so on, no matter how much you like to wear it down. Sometimes it's just worth it to carry a hair tie or two. Get the kind with no metal -- the metal bits on old hair ties will snag strands and hurt when you pull them out of your hair. And seriously, don't even consider using rubber bands.

7. You don't need to go to a stylist to cut your hair.

Friends can trim long hair as long as you don't have a crazy cut. If you've just got hair of a fairly uniform length, all said friend needs to do is flatten your hair when it's wet and trim straight across. Put it in whatever part you like (middle, side, whatever) before the cut is done. If you have wavy hair, this gets even easier, because it's harder to see a slightly uneven cut on curly or wavy hair than on straight hair. Granted, if you want a special cut, you will have to go to a salon unless you know a particularly skilled friend, but odds are if you're an average guy with long hair, just get a friend to snip the ends off once in a while. It takes ten minutes, tops.

8. Consider a hair dryer if you have to look particularly nice.

I know hair dryers are said to completely ruin hair, but this is utterly false. They do some amount of damage, but it's nothing conditioner doesn't fix. As long as you don't over-bake your hair, you'll be fine. Hair dryers prevent hair from looking oily after you wash. When you dry your hair, keep the dryer moving so that no one section of hair sustains too much heat. Take a brush and brush your hair while facing the dryer toward the bristles; this will help it dry faster and look smoother. If you're one of those people that likes curling the ends, you can get a round brush and make some waves at the end of your hair by wrapping your hair around the brush and drying as you pull the brush through.

9. If you have oily hair, only condition the hair that is farther from your scalp.

Don't put conditioner directly near your scalp if your hair gets oily. Your head will naturally condition the roots of your hair, so worry about keeping the length from being damaged and breaking off. Conditioner will only force you to wash your hair more often to keep the greasy look away.

10. Try not to brush your hair harshly while it's wet.

Brushing wet hair tends to break it, so be careful. Combing is better, but long hair tends to resist combs.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

On the Age of Accountability (and More Eternal Hell)

There is a concept highly pushed in conservative Christianity, and that is the Age of Accountability. Through no particular Biblical text -- mostly just sane but partial logic -- someone down the authority chain decided that there was a maximum age past which people suddenly become accountable for their sins. I will refer to it as the AoA for sanity's sake, because Accountability is a huge word. The AoA is loosely defined as the point where a person has enough understanding of what is right and wrong to make good decisions and do what is right.

Very little kids clearly have no particular clue. They scream, hit, steal, whatever they want, they try to get. They have no reasonable concept of "moral" or "ethical" or whatever. They know they have needs, and they try to take the most direct path between the need and the fulfilling thereof. You can't really blame them for that, because they're underdeveloped and don't have the knowledge and brain maturity to do otherwise.

The AoA, despite its general definition, is often set at age 12. Why? No other reason than Jesus began showing consciously executed signs of divine knowledge at 12, according to text. We don't actually know if Jesus started exhibiting divinity before that, but the first recorded moment is when Mary and Joseph, through some mishap we don't know, lose Jesus while heading home and have to turn back and search for the missing child. They find Jesus in a synagogue, astounding the local teachers with His knowledge. Beforehand, obviously, there were the singing Christmas angels and whatnot, but this was the first voluntary action we see Jesus taking that is "superhuman." Never mind the fact that Jesus was clearly incredibly mature for His age as a human, and that He had a huge bank of knowledge that no one else could possibly have access to, the AoA is set at 12 from this story.

Ergo, according to Christian lore, at age 12, every human being now has the ability to damn himself.

Okay, when I was a kid, this scared the pants off me, I don't know about you. The moment my 12th birthday hit, it was like a huge weight came down around my shoulders. I now had Responsibility. I didn't ask for it. I certainly didn't want it. Who wants the chance to screw up their eternal fate?

And, in complete, unashamed seriousness, I would much rather die than have that opportunity.

This leads back to eternal Hell. If Hell is permanent, and your state of belief on Earth can screw you forever -- especially if by some shadow of a chance I've done it wrong and some other religion with a Hell figure is correct -- then I would much rather have been killed as a baby when I had no opportunity to ruin it for myself.

Even when you include religious mandate, what is God trying to get at when He gives us commandments? Love your neighbor. Treat him well. Do good to him. Be a nice person.

What is the nice thing to do, when someone is faced with the opportunity to completely destroy their fate? What is the only way to help them?

It's the same thing we do to wounded animals. We kill them. No fancy words -- that's exactly what we do. When the animal is faced with dire suffering, instead of letting it be tortured into oblivion, we do the kindhearted thing and end its life. This is considered humane, moral, and correct. Now this creature is at peace. So, when the difference is between heaven and even the slightest possibility of permanent Hell, the solution is very, direly, simple.

Kill every single human being before their 12th birthday. End the human race in a couple of generations. Everyone goes to Heaven and the world ends for us. This is is the only humane option for us.

There is one contingency plan, if you allow for those who have never heard of Jesus to go to Heaven. This is a big if for some people. If you consider that tenet, the other solution is to completely eliminate Christianity. By eradicating the very religion that is trying to promote salvation, you prevent anyone from losing salvation by gaining knowledge and then choosing to ignore it. If those who never hear, are considered to never have had a chance, then we should never give anyone a chance. The worst life on Earth, even a spiritually unfulfilled and miserable one, is infinitely greater than eternal torture.

When your most humane options become "murder the entire human race" and "eliminate your own religious system," something is incredibly, direly wrong.

And besides, what happens if someone is precocious? What if their brain develops fast and they gain moral understanding at age 10? The age-12 rule is silly and has no real basis in reality or Scripture, while you could argue for a moving AoA due to "innocents going to heaven." The mentally unstable or impaired may not even have an AoA. So in the end, it's a huge crapshoot as to when someone gets the chance to go to permanent Hell, when you have this moving target. Or what happens if someone dies at age 13, after having just a year -- and a year during adolescence, when people make crap decisions and are biologically screwed with regards to good sense -- to sort their entire lives out?