Friday, November 28, 2014

Sermon of the Week (11/23 - 11/29, 2014) Rick Hardison on James 4:11-12 - What does it mean to "judge?"

Rick Hardison of Great Crossing Baptist Church preached on James 4 on 11/2/2014 (mp3). He demonstrates "four wrong ways of judging and one right way." Many people misunderstand what James was saying in this passage (and what Jesus meant about judging others as well).
1. Don't judge with false or incomplete information. Hardison doesn't use this terminology or say "cognitive bias," but too often we err in our judgement due to the fundamental attribution error. Example: You see a woman you know from church coming home one morning in the clothes she wore last night and you assume it's a "walk of shame" when actually she's been at the hospital all night taking care of her mother, who fell and broke her hip.

2. Don't slander. Slander is the spreading of something false due to the errors made in #1 above.

3. Don't judge outsiders the same as insiders (church members). Hardison has a good summary of the importance of a biblical understanding of church membership.

4. Don't judge things that are not sin. Hardison reads from a Jerry Bridges book here. Not dressing up for church is not a sin. The Bible teaches temperance rather than abstinence from alcohol, etc. (I bet that went over real well).

One critique, I think Hardison misses that judgement also implies condemnation, contra Romans 8:1. Recently reading the book unChristian (my review) which points out that when outsiders call Christians "judgmental," they really mean "condemning." The authors point out that while Christians have an obligation to point out God's standards, that does not mean that we condemn people because all of us are saved by the grace of God alone, and there is no one who is beyond redemption. There is an air of pride that James is hitting on as well.
"What if our judgmental attitudes are just posturing to look good to other believers?" Are we trying to please God or polishing our holy credentials in front of fellow insiders?" Kinnaman writes.

Christians often forget that "God's judgments about people are perfect; ours are not."

I enjoyed this sermon, hope you do too.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Thoughts on Church Membership from a Member's Perspective

Mark Dever's Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (3rd Edition) (9Marks) includes a chapter on embracing a biblical understanding of church membership. Dever's book has spawned a host of other books on church membership and perhaps led many churches to embrace some better screening and education of members or potential members. But these books strike me as similar to human resource books-- written more for the organization than the applicant. The attitude is "why should we let you join us?" which assumes a superior position. I think churches would do better to turn the question around and ask "why would you want to join us?"

There are two ways to approach a job or organizational interview-- to try and look your best so that you're accepted, or to use the interview to size up the organization and figure out whether you want to belong-- to determine whether you accept them. Only the desperate do the former, a solid applicant does the latter.

When you join an organization like a church you bring valuable assets, gifts, talents, experiences, and skill sets. You may have experience teaching or managing dozens of employees. You might build computers or websites for a living. You might be able to sing or play a musical instrument. You may own a large house perfect for hosting small groups. You may have previous experience with other established churches or church plants. You may be more involved in the community than anyone on staff. You should come with the expectation that joining the church means you are actively going to put those gifts to work in service to the others. Thus, you should be the one interviewing churches, not the other way around, to decide which one is the right fit.

Yesterday, a large local church-- part of its own network in the area-- announced it was in serious financial trouble and laying off half of its staff. This church was the envy of many, it had rapid growth, multiple campuses, thousands in attendance, and buildings capable of hosting huge community events. "Come join us!" the church blared. Yet the church failed to meet one of the basic requirements of any organization dealing with finances: it did not have a balanced budget. It had unwisely taken on debt it could not feasibly repay. The report also suggests the church did not have a strategic financial plan. That indicates a huge, irresponsible deficit of leadership and management. I would not apply at a bankrupt company unless I was intentionally obtaining a position where I could help turn it around.

I definitely agree with Dever et al that church membership is a serious commitment and decision. But I see the impetus more on the member, not the body. You shouldn't get married without having known the person through several seasons, to see what her character is made of. You shouldn't get married without counseling, including coming to an agreement about expectations, parenting, finances, expectations, etc. Likewise, a prospective member should interview the elder body and deacons thoroughly. What are their qualifications? What is their accountability structure? How long do they expect to remain at this location? What is the leadership style? What are they reading? What is the strategy? How does the church body see them? Is the church proving responsible in its stewardship of money, people, and resources?

To join a church because you like the preaching, music, or the friendly people is like marrying a woman based solely on her looks and how she acts in public. To say "I knew I wanted to join when I walked in the door," is akin to the love-at-first-sight fallacy. Likewise, to treat a church or any organization like you're an unworthy applicant-- you hope they accept you-- is not a good start to a healthy relationship.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking (Book Review #111 of 2014)

The Grand Design
I read this book (published 2010) immediately after reading The Universe in a Nutshell (2001). I read Black Holes and Baby Universes a few years ago. I have read Brian Greene's works, so felt rather up-to-date on where quantum physics was at. I found this book to be more accessible than Greene's work, and a more interesting read than Nutshell since Hawking is contemplating theoretical physics' meaning for philosophy. That philosophical bent is a real problem for physics since the scientific method, which Hawking holds favorably in The Grand Design, requires hypothesis testing. For more on these problems, and a large criticism of Hawking I plan to read Lee Smolin's The Trouble with Physics.

The author begins by stating that philosophy has not kept up with science, particularly modern physics. Hawking gives a brief history of science with an emphasis on physics and a look at how philosophy looking at science developed from Aristotle (rejected atoms b/c soulless) to Descartes (believed that the body was machine governed by laws, but the soul was not) to Newton (discovered many laws of the universe but held that God was free to intervene against them).

If there are natural laws, can/does God violate them to perform miracles? That's an important question, as is the question of free will and determinism. Where does free will come from? If physicists nail down a Theory of Everything, will everything be deterministic henceforth?

Hawking writes the laws of (this) universe arose from the big bang, and lengthily establishes what those laws are. But the universe has an infinite number of histories and contingencies. Wrap your head around this:
"the probability amplitude that the universe is now in a particular state is arrived at by adding up the contributions from all the histories that satisfy the no-boundary condition and end in the state in question. In cosmology, in other words, one shouldn't follow the history of the universe from the bottom up because that assumes there's a single history, with a well-defined starting point and evolution. Instead, one should trace the histories from the top down, backward from the present time...The histories that contribute to the Feynman sum don't have an independent existence, but depend on what is being measured. We create history by our observation, rather than our history creating us...histories in which the moon is made of cheese do not contribute to the present state of our universe, though they might contribute to others. That might sound like science fiction, but it isn't."

Hawking explains M-theory, p-branes, and other developments in quantum physics. The last pages of the book are the most important as Hawking contends that M theory explains how a universe can arise from nothing. But it does not lead to determinism in the sense that it would be mathematically impossible to calculate the movements of any one being. So, a theory of everything that is not what Hawking desired to find in Black Holes and Baby Universes.

This book seems much more consequential than Nutshell. I found it more entertaining and thought-provoking throughout. For now, 4.5 stars out of 5.

The Universe in a Nutshell by Stephen Hawking (Book Review #110 of 2014)

The Universe in a Nutshell
I read this book followed by The Grand Design (back-to-back). Years ago, I read Hawking's Black Holes and Baby Universes, and it appears Hawking has changed his position on various things related to black holes and the Grand Unifying Theory since the 1980s, although he does not list them. How much of Hawkings remarks black holes does Hawking admit to be wrong on now? For that, I need to read Susskind's The Black Hole Wars. I have also read two of Brian Greene's works and was eager to compare. I found this book to be more accessible than Greene's works. Hawking's attempts at analogies describing time and space are brief and easier than Greene's drawn-out illustrations. Many of the negative reviews criticize the lack of depth, there are plenty of other works out there to choose from.

The reason the sky is dark at night is because not all of the light from the stars in the galaxy have reached us. This tells us that the universe must have been created at some finite point some time ago. Hawking details his own contributions to showing that the Big Bang happened. He discusses how it does no good to talk about what happened before time, which would require imaginary time. But Hawking believes scientists have a duty to investigate what happened before the Big Bang and what caused it. He has no patience for people like Carl Sagan who just weren't interested. Hawking explains Richard Feynman's concept of multiple histories. The concept of multiple histories still doesn't explain the cause of the big bang. While the crude form of the anthropic principle says the universe exists the way it is because we are here to see it, we can merge the principle with that of Feynman's multiple histories and supposedly explain why the universe is as we know it.

Determinism is obviously an issue in quantum physics. I would say that Hawking does not explain the multiple dimensions of M-theory very well; I would say he does a better job of that in The Grand Design (2010). To appeal to the sci-fi reader, Hawking has a rabbit rail on time travel. He explains how mathematically time travel is likely impossible, and would take an advanced civilization to figure out a way to do it without getting destroyed by radiation. He also has an odd divergence on human evolution and genetic engineering. While DNA doesn't seem to be evolving with new information, we're finding ways to engineer ourselves such that the human race will look dramatically different 400 years from now. We will have to do so to travel to the stars. This odd divergence on genetics is way outside his expertise and does not fit well in the book.

Hawking concludes with talk of a brane universe, and whether our universe is just a projected hologram. All of this is theoretical, which is a major problem for physicists. The scientific method, which Hawking holds favorably in The Grand Design, requires hypothesis testing. But Hawking ends the book by remarking that a particle collider larger than the universe would be required to test some of these theories. For more on these problems, and a large criticism of Hawking I plan to read Lee Smolin's The Trouble with Physics.

In all, good and accessible. 3.5 stars.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Sermon of the Week (11/16 - 11/22, 2014) John MacArthur on the Prodigal Son at Capitol Hill Baptist Church

The title and text of this sermon were mislabeled on the CHBC website. (It is not Isaiah 5-6, he apparently changed the text he used just before preaching). It is available here on iTunes.

This sermon comes from Luke 15:11-32. While this is a very commonly preached-upon text, I think this is the best sermon I've ever heard on it. MacArthur is looking partly at the joy of heaven, how there is a 24/7 party because people are always repenting. Jesus was telling an over-the-top story of grace here that would have enraged the Pharisees. MacArthur proposes a truly shocking but completely logical ending to this story that drives it home in a way you've probably never heard. Don't miss this one.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

How to Argue and Win Every Time by Gerry Spence (Book Review #109 of 2014)

How to Argue & Win Every Time: At Home, At Work, In Court, Everywhere, Everyday
This book is an enjoyable read written by a lawyer who, according to Wikipedia, has never lost a criminal case as either a prosecutor or defender, and hasn't lost a civil case in 46 years. This was written in 1996, a couple years after I first heard of Spence when he skillfully defended Randy Weaver and exposed major problems in the federal government's actions in the Ruby Ridge case. Spence has defended Imelda Marcos and a host of others.

The negative reviews of this book seem to be by people who wanted a quick silver bullet, which is not what Spence provides. "Winning" has to be defined, as does "argument." Spence states that not every argument can be one, there is no need for a suicide charge. A "tactical retreat" is often a smart maneuver in winning a larger war.

The first part of the book reminded me of Plato, it reads like Socrates' dialectic. Spence (an ardent environmentalist) has an imaginary dialogue with a lumberjack, showing that if you can empower someone ("would you serve on a committee looking at this issue?") in their compromise, you win the argument.  Argument is necessary. It's an important part of identity and personal growth. "Every boss should have a sign on his desk saying 'Argue with me,'" he writes. Spence proposes a new paradigm of argument: Argument is a means by which we bring about change, either in ourselves or others. It is a way to achieve an outcome you desire. What do you want to change?

"You are your own authority," and submitting to an external authority will stunt your growth. Both parties to an argument retain their authority, which makes "winning" somewhat problematic to define. You are simply changing someone without changing their authority, or accepting someone else's argument without relinquishing your own authority.

"All power, yours and theirs, is yours." Our power is creativity, joy, pain, experiences, belonging only to us. "Their power is my perception of their power." Others possess only what we give them. These philosophical/psychological points underpin his argument in the book. (These thoughts on not submitting to outside authorities will be problematic to those who look at an outside source-- like the Bible-- as their authority. Spence does not address absolutes in the book).

We should not live life skeptical of every little thing, but we should be skeptical. We want to trust the salesman, reporter, etc., but we need to listen and think. We also need to be aware of our own prejudices and cognitive biases, as well as the person you're arguing with. "I've learned more from my dogs" than any of the so-called "experts from on high."

Spence writes that you should always tell the truth. An admission on your part scores points with a jury while an exposure of yourself by your opponent undermines your case. Better to confess than be exposed and accused of hiding something.

Tell a complete story. Use pictures in your words. Do not appeal to the jury's intellect, but rather their emotions. Use simple language that paints vivid pictures. (He gives a wonderful example of how he did this in front of an audience hostile to his environmentalism, converting some to his side.) Practice putting emotion into your words. Think of certain situations where you have felt emotion X. Now pick a word you associate with that emotional situation. Say that word with the emotion you associate with that experience. Practice it in your car, the shower, etc. Practice growling, practice showing joy. Spence comes across like an old-time stump speaker or carnival barker; it's obviously effective. Make the "magical argument." "I know this man is innocent and I want badly to show you how I know..."

It is better to convince one person in your audience who will make a lasting change than your entire audience and they forget what you said by morning. "Winning" is the conversion of that one rather than the majority.

Spence concludes the book with great thoughts in regards to communication in marriage. If you want love or respect, you need to communicate love and respect. If you want a major life change, explain to your wife the entire story, what happens first, next, and what the end picture is ("... and we live happily ever after"). Spence regrets misspent years as a parent who saw his children as pupils rather than as independent individuals. He learned from his wife that it's better to show your children respect. If you want your children to respect you, show respect to them by giving them freedom to learn and fail, give them responsibilities, show them trust and watch them earn more. If you want to win the argument with your 16 year old, you have to star when he's 6. If you love unconditionally, people are more willing to listen to your argument-- the argument can be won without words.

The same principles apply at work. If you want respect from your boss, you must always demonstrate that you respect her. If asking for a raise, frame it in terms of the benefit to the company. "With a raise (tuition reimbursement, etc.), I will be able to devote less time to my outside activities, boost company productivity, increase profit, etc." Spence writes that corporations are amoral entities "No one has ever seen a corporation." The corporation exists to make certain people profit, so you win arguments with a corporation only by framing it in the interest of the shareholders.

I found this to be a highly entertaining and personally helpful read. I recommend it. 4 stars out of 5.

Monday, November 17, 2014

I'm sort of okay with Kevin Harvick winning it all in 2014

For those of you who missed it, Kevin Harvick won yesterday's final race, making him the champion. He had to finish in the top spot among the four finalists, and instead won the race outright. He gave a shout-out to Jimmie Johnson afterwards for helping him mentally during the week. As I've written earlier this month, the NASCAR championship format change was a real drag on those of us who like results, and not randomness, to decide the champion. Brian France made the change to put more emphasis on winning and winning at key times, but Ryan Newman came very close to clinching the title without having any wins (yesterday could have been his first win, he came in second-- his single highest finish of the season).Sagarin's results look like this:

                        RATING  1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th  6-10 11-20 RACES  HI  LO
 1 Jeff Gordon           84.61    4   8   0   1   1     9     7    36   1  39
 2 Brad Keselowski       82.89    6   4   5   2   0     3     7    36   1  39
 3 Joey Logano           80.20    5   0   2   7   3     5     9    36   1  40
 4 Kevin Harvick         79.96    5   6   1   1   1     6     9    36   1  42
 5 Dale Earnhardt Jr.    74.15    4   3   2   0   3     8     9    36   1  43
 6 Jimmie Johnson        68.36    4   1   3   2   2     8     4    36   1  42
 7 Matt Kenseth          68.33    0   2   4   5   2     9     7    36   2  42
 8 Kyle Larson           61.25    0   3   2   1   2    10    11    36   2  43
 9 Denny Hamlin          59.44    1   1   2   1   2    11     9    35   1  42
10 Ryan Newman           58.99    0   1   2   0   2    10    17    36   2  41

Logano had two bad pit stops yesterday and was done. He whined a little after the race about consistency no longer mattering, he's right (but I imagine my blog sounds less whiny than his voice). Harvick had won the most polls this season and led over 1,000 laps-- his car had been fast but hadn't always finished that well, so that allowed writers to say "the fastest car won." Harvick tied Keselowski, Johnson and Dale Jr. with 20 top ten finishes, behind Logano's 22 and Gordon's 23. This was also more than Hamlin and Newman had achieved, and Hamlin missed a race.

This Chase played out similar to the one three years ago when Tony Stewart barely beat Carl Edwards by one point. It came down to 2-3 drivers in the final laps. Some guys deserve it, and Harvick is apparently one of those guys. But he will always be remembered for this:

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Sermon of the Week (11/9 - 11/15, 2014) Matt Chandler on Woman's Hurdles

Matt Chandler of The Village Church is finishing a series entitled "A Beautiful Design," which is mostly about complementarity of the sexes. His sermon from 11/2 entitled "Woman's Hurdles" impressed me so much I had Joni listen to it so we could discuss it. Chandler is preaching on how anxiety, unfair comparisons, and insecurity often rule women's hearts moreso than men's. There is a Buffalo Trace Pappy Van Winkle bourbon reference. Chandler also quotes from articles I'd read in The Atlantic and elsewhere. I think this sermon is powerful and extremely important for men and women to listen to, particularly spouses. Some good thoughts on parenting as well. This is one of the best sermons I've posted in this series, enjoy!
(available in audio, video, and text formats)