Friday, April 29, 2011

William and Kate: Why They Matter

Of course the discussion about the relevance of the British Monarchy is going to come up when an event like the wedding of William and Kate occurs. The Monarchy is an institution that is more symbolic than it it is politically potent. It is also an institution that costs a lot of money perpetuate. So, what are the British and what is the world getting for all the cost and attention?

The wedding of William and Kate does several things that are relevant in our world today. Probably the most important aspect of the wedding of William and is that it serves as a benchmark for reflection in many areas of life that matter to millions of Westerners. Three areas of reflection that matter are marriage, tradition, and celebrity.  

With the most recent major benchmark of this kind being the wedding Charles and Diana 30 years ago, William and Kate provide an opportunity for comparison. Many people are comparing Kate and Diana, which is fine. What this article looks at is the tone and meaning of conversations about marriage when Charles and Diana got married and how do they compare to those same topics of conversation now that William and Kate are getting married.

Reflections on marriage. In 1981, the dominant conversation about marriage was really the conversation about divorce. In that year, the the divorce rate peaked. Questions about why this was happening, what feminism had to do with it, what emerging “no-fault” divorce laws were doing to marriage were being asked and debated. The soaring divorce rate also exposed some things about marriage that did not seem to match the myths of marriage that so many people believed and tried hard to show. With the divorce of Prince Charles and Lady Diana in 1996, they were certainly a couple whose lives revealed both the myths of marriage and the

Other questions about divorce had to with its effects on children. There were “broken homes” that were the result of the divorce. The damages that children experienced from divorce were assumed permanent. Children coming from a “broken home” were stigmatized. Efforts were underway to try to ease stigmas for children.

in 2011, the conversation about marriage is very different. It has move from the divorce scare into a three distinct directions: relevance, who can marry, and saving marriage.

RELEVANCE: The first 21st century marriage conversation is about the relevance of marriage. With the rise of cohabitation in 1990’s and 2000’s, the question is not whether a marriage will last, but rather will one even occur in the first place? There is a lot more relational ambiguity now as compared to 1981. With cohabitation, hook-ups, friends with benefits and other kinds of non-marital sexual, it is clear that marriage is one of many forms of romantic/sexual relationships people are having. The question about the relevance of marriage is not whether marriage is disappearing, but rather then what role it plays compared to other forms of relationships. The wedding of William and Kate is, in part, the institution and tradition of the British Monarchy asserting its values on this conversation of marriage. The power, wealth, and even celebrity of the Monarchy says that marriage still matters. 2 billion people watching are getting a lesson in cultural support for the institution of marriage through ceremony and ritual. There would not be this sort of gathering and pageantry had William and Kate decided to cohabit, hook up or become friends with benefits. 

WHO CAN MARRY? The second 21st century marriage conversation is about who can marry. No one had even considered that gay marriage was a possibility in 1981. Now gay marriage laws are being enacted around the world and in the United States. The Defense of Marriage Act looks like it is going be directly challenged and the Obama Administration has decided not to enforce it. There are strong advocates on both sides of the issue. So, on the one hand the relevance of marriage is in decline and on the other hand, expanding the definition of marriage to include same sex couples is a hot topic.

SAVE MARRIAGE: The third 21st century marriage conversation is about saving the traditional marriage. In a sense, it is a push back against the other two trends. Much of this effort is coming from religious groups. This conversation is about keeping marriage between a man and a woman, about keeping sex inside marriage, and about getting and staying married. This third conversation is not new, but it still holds a prominent place in the current conversation of marriage. It also harkens to the tradition of the Monarchy. It is expected that William and Kate will stay married. The message is this: A marriage is a permanent thing. 

Oh, and one more thing. There will be children. William and Kate are to have children – an heir and a spare at least. It is not an option, it is an expectation. The very existence of the Monarchy depends on this fact. Reproduction is required. Why? So the Monarchy can continue. So a son can marry in three decades, we will do this all again.

Yes, William and Kate matter. They provide us a benchmark to discuss marriage.

Monday, April 25, 2011

PhD 2.1: What is Science? Who is a Scientist? – The discipline

What is science?

This is a very good question. When I ask my middle school aged children, they think of science class in school. They think of test tubes, bubbling liquids, and cutting open small animals. Others may think of science as the thing that isn’t religion, a secular process that is seeking to undo religion, as though science were out to eliminate religion, spirituality, and faith. There are some who revere science and equate it with truth. If it is scientific, it is good enough for them.

Well, science really isn’t any of these things. Science is not limited to a few hard science methodologies, it is not hell-bent on destroying religion, and it is not the arbiter of truth. Science is more complex, less sinister, and more humble than any of the above caricatures.

Science is a way to ask and respond to questions. Science is always asking, “How could we know this better than we already do?”  and the science goes about finding a way (method) for responding to the question.

It should be stated that science doesn’t really set out to answer questions. Answers are so final in nature. Answers tend to end conversations. Science is not interested in ending conversations, but rather it is interested in just the opposite. Science wants to keep the conversations going. So, science responds to questions. Responses are more tentative than answers. Responses assume whole lot less than answers. Answers had better be right while responses can be what represents good thinking.

Science could be defined as a discipline meant to keep the conversation about knowledge going. Questions that inspire responses which bring about more questions which inspire even better responses and so forth.

Science is a fun discipline because it is essentially a process of having ideas (theory) that you try to figure out a way to test (methodology) to see how much of the idea is not supported (results) and then ponder the implications (discussion). Children do this sort of thing all the time. I did when I was a kid.

I did a science experiment once as a kid, although I thought I was playing and getting into mischief. My buddy had a toy called a “Stretch Arm Strong,” a doll whose limbs would stretch when pulled. We knew he could stretch (review of empirical literature), but was he unbreakable (theory – ideas that go past the edge of knowledge)? If enough pressure were used to stretch the arms, they would break (hypothesis). We tried to break him (methodology). Our first effort to break him failed. My friend was stronger than I was, so he pulled on both arms in the opposite direction. The arms of the “Stretch” extended as far as my friend’s arms, but did not break. We then tried a second attempt (there no one perfect methodology to test a theory). We got more clever (advanced methodology – we created a methodology that this question required). We knew that there were ways to exert more pressure on “Stretch,” so we did (Limitations of first experiment). We placed his torso on a strong tree branch, with one arm on one side of the branch and one arm on the other side of the branch. I pulled on one arm and my friend pulled on the other arm. We both put the full weight of our bodies into this effort as we pulled down on the arms. The arms stretched downward as the torso of “Stretch” remained on the limb. Finally, his arm broke. His  doll flesh split open (results - hypothesis supported). But there was also an unexpected finding. We learned that “stretch” was full of thick goo that was so sticky it was like superglue in gel form. We had to deal not only with the success of our intended finding, but also the surprise and problem of our unintended finding (discussion).

Science is a discipline, but it is also a natural approach to child-like curiosity. Maybe to become really good in the discipline of science, one must retain, restore, or rekindle their natural child-like curiosity. Science at its best innocently asks questions and innocently finds ways to respond to those questions. How could that be sinister?

Sermon on the Mount 16: Worry, worryworryworryworry

Scripture: Matthew 6:25-34

Focus: Worry

Reflection: You can live only one moment at a time. You can’t live both now and later. You can’t live both now and back then. You can live now. Living now is living to capacity. There is no way to fit anything else in there.

Should we plan for the future? Sure. Should reflect on and learn from the past? Of course. But there is a difference between planning and worrying; there is a difference between reflection and regret. How we live now may be informed by the future or the past, but we must confuse them. Now is now.

How much now has been missed by displacing it with possible future nows that have their own space later, if they are even to come about at all? Worry about the future is a set up for regret for the past.

Now deserves your full attention. Now deserves your best effort. Now is expecting you.

You’ve got questions? You’ve got uncertainty? You’ve got confusion? Of course you do. All the more reason to respect now. There is nothing that can be done before it is now. Those questions, uncertainties, and confusions will be addressed in their time. There is a now for each of them. But it isn’t this now. 

Sunday, April 24, 2011


After the darkest day of their lives, after the death of hope, after all was lost, a rumor began. Perhaps hope was not gone. Could it be that Jesus was alive?

It was not believable. He was as a dead a Roman cross could get someone. No one survived that sort of thing. People saw him take his last breath. He was dead. So any talk of him being alive was at best a mistake, but more than likely delusional. People don’t raise from the dead.

But there kept being more people claiming to see Jesus in the flesh, walking around. How? How could a delusion spread like this? Maybe it was a conspiracy. Desperate people do desperate things. Maybe a political uprising based on a story.

The number of people claiming to see him grew, but they had no agenda. They were not seeking power. They were full of joy or caught into disbelief, as though the impossible were swallowed by the undeniable. People were re-hoping.

If it were true, if Jesus had been dead for over 50 hours and now was walking among people again, then a lot of things were true.

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Saturday, April 23, 2011

Black Saturday

To hope is to believe. To hope is to risk. To hope is to be vulnerable.

When the people who got to know Jesus and came to trust him as someone who would make hope something worth doing watched him die, their hopes died too.

Before Jesus, their simple lives were predictable and they knew where the power was. Between the Roman government officials and the Jewish religious establishment, power accumulated in these two areas. So long as everyone else went along in their everyday life and didn’t make any trouble, things were fine. So long as the behavior modification tactics of church and state were adhered to, there wouldn’t be any trouble. So long as everyone agreed that people with mental health issues should be marginalized, people with illnesses should be ostracized, women were the cause of all sexual misconduct, foreigners should be mistreated because of their nationality, wealth equaled power, and any ailment a person ever had was proof of their sinfulness…so long as everyone agreed to these rules, there was peace.

They had lives, but subdued lives. They had lives of limited meaning and limited consequence. Yes, there were urges and impulses and fantasies about things being different. There were ideas and conversations about change, but they knew their place. At the end of each day, they took their places dutifully or even begrudgingly, but there they stood – in place.

And then someone comes along and breaks all the rules. He touches and cures the mentally ill, he touches the sick, he defends women, he engages foreigners, he had no cash and challenged the wealthy with surprising credibility, he redefined why people were sick. Jesus didn’t agree with any of the rules people were supposed to agree to. He did not disagree with violence. He did not disagree with anger. He did not disagree with his own set of oppressions. He just disagreed with love.

And that gave people hope.

Those urges and impulses and fantasies people had about something, maybe it was freedom, got lured out past their allowable boundaries. They got out into the open. People started the believe that maybe things could be better. They thought that maybe there was some sort of legitimacy to their hope. People let their hope out from under the blankets of rules and laws and fear and doubt and disbelief. People saw a person who loved people and it was so very different than anything else they had ever seen before. They knew love when they saw it, even if they had seen it before.

Some got curious. Some got interested. Some quit their jobs to be near Jesus. It was that big a deal. He was that different. But he was familiar. He touched people. He told stories that made people think. He told stories that embarrassed people in power, but usually in a playful way. He said the words that made sense to people, the words they had always wanted to say, but didn’t believe it was true. When Jesus said it, there was confirmation that the inklings in their hearts were true. They weren’t crazy for thinking things could be better.

Jesus never promised fame.

Jesus never promised fortune.

Jesus never promised happiness. 

People were not interested in Jesus for any of those reasons. They instinctively knew that life was not about these things. What brought them to him was that he was living the sort of life that showed them they were not crazy for their urges, impulses and fantasies of freedom and love and that there was a way live life that way.

Love was worth the risk.

People started to believe that if Jesus said it worth it, then it was worth it. They hoped.

And then something went terribly wrong. The old forces had had enough. The church and state collaborated to put an end to the rule breaking. Jesus’ freedom had gone too far. Jesus’ love had insulted the church and state enough. It was time to assert the true force, the true power. It was time for the church and state to demonstrate who was in control.

The church and state killed Jesus.

It was on a Friday. They publicly killed him. There was not going to be any chance of a rumor that he was still living in the hills somewhere outside of town. No. He would be killed in an undeniable way.

But the church and state were not just killing Jesus. They were on to the fact that people were hoping. Hope threatens power. Always. Hope threatens oppression. Always. What was worse than one man loving people was a lot of people believing in this sort of rule breaking. The church and state knew that if they killed Jesus, they killed hope. Jesus is one man. Hope is contagious. Hope can spread. Hope is a threat. They execution of Jesus was the execution of hope.

And it worked. When Jesus died on the Roman executioner’s cross, hope was nailed up there with him. No one who was there walked away with any hope. No one who heard about the execution had any hope left in them. Friday was a dark day. A lot died on Friday. There were tears as the space where hope once lifted the hearts of women and men was now just huge empty spot.

It was hard to sleep Friday night. Many people didn’t. They just cried a lot. The ache of lost hope left them with little idea of what might be next. The shock of the loss left them aching or numb or confused or angry or feeling duped or depressed or everything all at once.

Saturday morning met them as a day of long emptiness. Most people who just a day earlier held so much hope didn’t know what to do. Daily chores were going to be neglected. For some, ritual was all they had to help them to know what to do. Tradition, routine, and ritual would push the hours by, but with 100 pounds of grief strapped to the backs weighing them down.

Abruptly, hope was gone. And it was not just a bad dream. Saturday provided 24 straight hours of unrelenting reinforcement that he was really dead. Even though the minds of many wrestled to solve it, to figure out some way they was not really gone, they could not do it. Every thought lead to one place – death. People talked among each other. It was so hard to believe he was really gone, but impossible to deny it.

Some wept more.

Some betrayed themselves and said they never really hoped in the first place.

Some thought about ending their own lives.

Some were just quiet.

No one was left unaffected on this very dark Saturday.

The church and state had demonstrated that even the most clever, most engaging, most contagious man was going to submit to the rules one way or another. They had done so in a way that not only killed the man who broke the rules, and not only in a way that killed hope in the hearts of many people, but also in a way that was an obvious warning to anyone else who might try this sort of rule breaking. Rule breakers die. That was the message. And it was received.

On Saturday, all of the powers of oppression were reset. Order was re-established. The rules be followed once again. Everything people risked was proven pointless. People risked and became vulnerable – and got burned. Back to safety. Back to obedience. Back to hopelessness.

The only thing darker than the oppression before Jesus touched people’s hope was how dark it was when people realized that even someone like Jesus couldn’t pull it off. If hope for love and freedom and equality were improbable before Jesus came, they were confirmed impossible now that he was dead. The words of Jesus saying, “It is finished” echoed in the ears of many. Jesus was right – we’re done here.

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Monday, April 18, 2011

PhD 2.0: What is Science? Who is a Scientist?

The person who wants to find truth should not become a scientist. Science does not result in truth. Good science never claims truth.

Science is a way to ask and respond to questions. It is a set of rules which develops a narrative. Science is a discipline, a practice, a way of pursuing understanding. Science hopes, in some way, to approximate truth within a context.

Art tries to accomplish the same thing.

Theology tries to accomplish the same thing.

Intergenerational oral tradition tries to accomplish the same thing.

Scientists must remain humble and honest about the extent to which their claims can carry them. I fear the scientist who has found truth. Everyone should. The scientist who has found truth is selling something.

Science understands the difference between knowledge and truth. Knowledge is what we in the scientific community have concluded up this point. It is the best approximation of truth that we have right now, even if that approximation is a weak and sorry caricature of truth. Knowledge, therefore, changes when better theory emerges, when more rigorous methods are employed, and when less biased interpretations are rendered. Knowledge is child drawing stick figures of her family.

Truth is what knowledge is trying to say, but doesn’t have the vocabulary to pull it off. Truth is what knowledge is trying to paint, but doesn’t have a full palette of colors or much skill. Truth is true love and knowledge is a date.  

Sermon on the Mount 15: Master?

Scripture: Matthew 6:24

Focus: Master

Reflection: The term Master is against so many of the values and beliefs Americans have of how power is to be structured. NO one is to have a master. We are to be individualistic and most of all, free from any master. When Jesus says that we are not to serve two masters, a knee jerk response here is whether any masters should be served. Why serve a master? Why be oppressed? 

What seems like antiquated language here is highly relevant when Jesus identifies two competing masters: God and money. Some people might take issues with the idea of God as master, particularly since God makes freedom claims for humanity. But when the alternative is money, Americans are hard pressed to see money as not a master.

Wealth is certainly good when it is compared to poverty, but the problem is that people are generally not good at leveraging wealth toward good. Being not in poverty only goes so far. Getting out of poverty in and of itself has no virtue in it. We do bad things with wealth. We hoard wealth, spend it on unhealthy things, use it to resolve emotional problems, leverage against others in order to accumulate power, we measure our own value by it, we spend a lot of time counting it, and we find ways to outsource responsibilities with it. We think we can buy things with it that are actually unpurchaseable. Money is an evil master.

We are a greatest risk when we think that we go through life unmastered.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. God offers a way out of it all by being willing to be a good master. Ironically, a good master who is invested in freedom – your freedom.

Freedom is not self-reliance. Freedom is choosing the right master.


Saturday, April 16, 2011

PhD 1.3: Critical Thinking - Don’t Be Stupid

I had this nagging fear all through my PhD studies. It haunted me continually. I worked around it the best I could, but it never left me. Not one day did I ever escape my fear completely. I could ignore it, bury it, and fake that it wasn’t there, but it was certainly always there. I had this fear that I would be outed as…stupid.

Sometimes I read articles I didn’t understand. Stupid. Sometimes I listened to presentations in which I had no idea what the presenter was saying. Stupid. There were theories I couldn’t grasp, methods beyond my immediate reach, and conclusions reported that I would never have come to in a million years – stupid, stupid, stupid. There were days, especially when I was tired or stressed or overwhelmed when I approached the experience of new knowledge as the outing of my stupidity. I felt naked in a room of people fully dressed and tried to carry on a conversation about important matters. I sipped my drink, nodded my head, gave a confident tone of voice – all as if i were not buck naked. People were being kind when they did not mention the obvious.

Not everyone who enters into doctoral studies has this experience, but a number of us do. We spend as much time and efforts over the multiple years of studies to reduce the stupid that seems so powerfully lodged into our minds as we do gaining useful tools for the benefit of humanity.

There are two main problems with using doctoral studies as a stupid reduction program.

1) It is inherently selfish. My own insecurity and self-consciousness and let’s face it, pride, kept me from understanding the process of learning better than I did. I learned a lot, but I learned less because I was using too much of my energy trying to evade other people’s opinions of me – opinions that were for the most part my own imagination. I wanted to be seen as smart, intelligent, brilliant etc. Well, note to self, science is all about the peer-review process – formally and informally. Thus, there is little room for exaltation in the Academy. I used my doctoral experience as a way to reduce how stupid I already felt. The irony was that the more I tried to de-stupidify myself, the more stupid I felt.

By the very nature of the context, there are a million ways to feel stupid in doctoral studies. Not knowing something, for me, was evidence of stupidity. Talk about a self-defeating game. Here are some things I learned about my own purpose for being in doctoral studies in relationship to my own selfishness.

  • It’s not about me.
  • Not knowing is not evidence for the existence of stupidity.
  • Not knowing is an opportunity for knowing.

2) It is dangerous. When I was so worried about my own stupidity, I never considered what I would think of other people who did not know what I knew. What if I accomplished an eradication of my own stupidity through the accumulation of tons of knowledge? What category would I place other people in who had not made the same accomplishment? Well, if I were honest, they would have to be stupid in my eyes. Suddenly, this problem can no longer by offed as some sort of humility or naivete. Now it is leveraged against other people. It is just wrong.

I did better on this front than I did the first one. I generally had a view of others as intelligent. But I confess there were a few times when I had a better question, better response, or better idea than another person and I silently whispered to myself, “that question was idiotic.” It is embarrassing to confess this, but it is true.

So, what began as an inferiority complex mutated into a superiority complex. Neither of these is all that useful in life in general, nor are they useful in doctoral studies.

There is huge risk in doctoral studies in situating someone as stupid. It can come out in all sorts of ways. If it is “I” who is stupid, then I end up taking few risks and deprive the world of the better contributions I could have made. If it is “you” who is stupid, then another approach is taken.

For example, people who do not arrive at the same conclusions as I do are stupid – right? But in science we do not call people stupid all that often – at least not that crudely. We find sophisticated ways to call someone stupid. Rather than say, “you’re stupid,” we shred their methodology section beyond recognition. We dismantle the underlying assumptions, the processes of data collection, the analysis techniques and leave it as rubble on the floor and in the end may have a subtle, but oh so smug smile when our questions outlast the answers. Sadly, we use our critical thinking skills for evil and not for good. We apply a level of rigor so stiff that it would impossible to satisfy. And we secretly hope no one does this to our work because we set a bar no one, not even ourselves, can jump.

This, my friends, is stupid. Having a knowledge deficit is not the same as being stupid. There is an easy fix to that. Being a mean and selfish and prideful person is an altogether different situation. A virtue deficit is not as easy a fix. 

Sermon on the Mount 14: Seeing is Believing

Scripture: Matthew 6:22-23

Focus: Healthy eyes

Reflection: The images of the world get into a person through the eye. Two little holes situated in the head of a person. The eyes allow for massive amounts of information to enter into a person for processing. If there is something wrong with the eye, then there is going to be trouble with gathering the information accurately.

If the eye is unhealthy and does not allow for a clear image to pass though, then the images are distorted. The images received will not represent the images observed. How that image gets processed will be based not on what was actually observed, but by the faultiness of the instrument of observation.

An eye may be faulty on its own, by nature. Also, an eye may be faulty by intention. The eye may have a filter placed on it, or even be trained to act as a filter. It may gather information in such a way as to have an auto-interpretation on it. This observation always means that. There is no processing. Because of the filter, the processing has been accomplish prior to the observation. It would be impossible to attach any alternative meaning to an observation when the instrument for gathering information also pre-determines meaning.

There is light in this world. The eye can let it in. However, if the filter of the eye is darkened, nothing will look like light, even light itself.

This scripture is about honesty and the power of interpretation. It is about how people are able to access goodness and how they do or do not, even when the goodness is readily available to them.

Honest eyes do not always bring comfort, but they do see light. There is darkness in the world just as there is light. However, this is not about what exists in the world as much as it is what exists in the heart once the person experiences a piece of the world. Were the whole world light, it would not matter to one whose eyes are dark. Were the whole world dark, it would not matter to the one whose eyes are light. The main point of this scripture may be honesty, but it may be something else. Honesty may be biased.


Well, if God is good and powerful and loving and also allows for free will and also promises redemption (sooner or later) for all the pain and suffering in the world – and actually has the strength to pull that one off, then honesty does not see good and evil as equals or light and dark as equally distributed. Honesty is not the same as an agnostic, not knowing stance, giving every thing equal weight. If the world is rigged toward God, then honesty would be have to be biased toward God as well. A healthy eye would see light and not darkness.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

PhD 1.2: Critical Thinking – Things to Remember

Becoming a critical thinker is an important part of getting an advanced degree. For those of us who have made the decision to invest enormous time and money into getting an advanced degree, we have also necessarily taken on the responsibility to challenge the assumptions that prop up truth claims, to consider alternative ways to approaching a question, to carry skepticism with us as a means by which to shake out that which does not ring true.

In short, we should not neglect the lessons we are learning. We have the privilege of getting to learn this stuff and we had better use it. At the same time, we had better use it well. Here are a few things to remember while exercising critical thinking skills:

Skepticism: Medicine or poison: It is important that we do not simply swallow whole any idea just because we like it, it is popular, or it happens to support a part of political or religious agenda we happen to align with. carrying a healthy skepticism with us wherever we go is good. But we must make sure it is healthy skepticism. Healthy skepticism is good medicine. It keeps us honest. It keeps other people honest. A skeptical question or stance in a conversation can really prompt growth, creativity, and new insights.

However, unhealthy skepticism does damage. Unhealthy skepticism is used as a tool to destroy things. This occurs when it is used to dismantle something with which a person does not agree just because they do not agree with it or like it. When skepticism is elevated over the value of another person, then it becomes unhealthy. Sometimes unhealthy skepticism is leveraged against people in the name of truth and honesty, when it is really an attempt at conversion. Ironically, when it is unhealthy, it is the most dishonest thing to do. It is applied only to which an individual does not agree with and is not applied with the same emphasis to that the person embraces.

Wisdom crush: Knowing how much to use critical thinking skills, when to use them, how to use them, why to use them and so forth all falls under the category of wisdom, not knowledge. We must strive to gain a wisdom that matches our intellect. The extent that we fail to do this is the extent to which we become dangerous to this world. Science brought us the atomic bomb and must must never for get this. Wisdom is a guide that tells us when the use of our skills will be constructive or destructive, helpful or hurtful, kind or mean. There is no virtue in the skills themselves. There is only virtue in the constructive use of them. 

Humility: The reward for the good use of critical thinking is that you got to be helpful, had the opportunity to pursue truth, were given the privilege of helping make this world a better place. That is all. There is no need for exaltation or congratulations. Those may appear, but they are not to be expected. We must not be in this for ourselves. When something good happens as a result of the use of our skills, we must be gracious and grateful that we had the chance to make a positive difference.

There is a lurking and sinister thing called pride that wants to jump in and lay claim to a corner of your soul. We want to be seen as valuable, important, smart, and even indispensible. There is something within me that wants to “finally get the respect I deserve.” There is a sense of entitlement that wants to creep in. “I worked hard for this and deserve some privileges.”

The tricky thing is that I will probably get some privileges, respect, and admiration when I have used my skills well. That is not the point. The point is the extent to which I need them, crave them, lust after them, or seek to extract them from society is an indicator of my depth of character. Pursuing a genuine humility will result in not caring about rewards other than the reward of getting to do what you love to do.

Sermon on the Mount 13: Dude, where’s all my stuff?

Scripture: Matthew 6:19-21

Focus: Treasures in Heaven

Reflection: Wealth is fleeting. Wealth is so very needy. It requires so much attention. The more stuff a person has the more it requires of that person just to manage it, keep track of it, maintain it, and protect it. Stuff needs to washed, cleaned, stored, remembered, used, disposed of when it is no longer useful… wealth is needy.

The energy used in managing wealth is better used elsewhere.

My wife and I were at the St. Croix River once, enjoying a picnic and watching the people in their sail boats and motor boats. We talked about buying a boat. Look at how much fun they are having. Look at us, stuck on the shore. We’re watchers, but they are boaters. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a boat?

And then we wondered how much a boat cost. Then we wondered where you put a boat when you’re not using it. Then we wondered how you take care of a boat. Then we wondered how often would we really use a boat. Then we wondered how often would we need to use a boat to justify having a boat. We decided that if we were to buy a boat, then we would need to become boat people. If we became boat people, we would then become part of the boat people community, which meant getting all new friends because all of our current friends were shore people.

Suddenly, getting a boat was a really bad idea and we did not buy one. We didn’t have time for a boat and we really liked our current friends.

Everything you own, owns part of you. I think that is what Jesus is saying here. Do you want to own something that owns you that is going to be gone or worthless before too long? Well, when it is stated like that, no, not really. Kindness, goodness, love for other people, giving time for another person, lifting others up…these are another kind of treasure. Once a kindness is done, it cannot be undone. It is etched into eternity.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

PhD 1.1: Critical Thinking – Going Critical

One of my mentors told me that she when she was getting her PhD once upon a time, she struggled in her romantic relationship. Why? She was using her new critical thinking skills all the time. But she was not just using her critical thinking skills, she was applying her critical thinking to every conversation - and to her relationship.

When her partner confronted her on the issue, only then did she even realize what she was doing. So, she responded to the confrontation, “I am getting an entire advanced degree in how to find out the gaps, holes, and problems with claims made, assumptions, whatever supports beliefs. It is how I am being molded.” Her partner’s response was something like, “Well, keep it outside the relationship and we’re fine.”

At some point in the process of getting a PhD, the student “goes critical.” I suppose in some way it is like “going native” in anthropology or missionary work. What it means is that the student “gets it” and begins applying the critical thinking skills not just in the classroom or for assignments, but begins to use these skills as a way of thinking about life. The doctoral student finds that this education is not just some isolated part of life that will impact future employment; instead, the student finds that “this is my life.”

The student “goes critical” and begins asking questions, usually out of excitement or honesty or embarrassment for what used to count as enlightened thinking, and sees things differently. Now, here is the catch: Sometimes this happens partially outside of the awareness of the student. Sometimes the student does not consider how their morphing worldview will impact the world they are viewing.

One of the curious things about “going critical” is that a person asks more questions and provides fewer answers than they did previously. That shift alone is tremendous. Furthermore, the questions asked are generally on a different level than before. They are deeper and are concerned with things like the reliability and validity of claims made. This can be a really good thing. But it can be a really bad thing.

There is more than one way to question the reliability and validity of a claim of truth. One way is with humility and honesty. It is a gentle curiosity that wonders what could be true and is hopeful that there is a truth worth believing. Another way sounds like an accusation. It is coarse and sharp. A question about the validity of a claim feels like a personal attack – emotional invalidation. A question about the reliability of a claim feels like being called a liar or an idiot. The kind of harm that can be done here should not be underestimated.

There is no more virtue in critical thinking skills than there is in a hammer. Any tool can be used to build or destroy. Critical thinking is no different. Critical thinking skills cannot make you a better person. It is not their function. They are not a set of tools forged for the purpose of character development.

In fact, critical thinking skills are more likely to expose the sort of person you already are. If you are kind, gentle, honest, loving, generous, respectful, then gaining critical thinking skills isn’t going to change that. In fact, it will likely magnify those characteristics. If you are arrogant, mean, dominating, and cruel, then gaining critical thinking skills isn’t going to change that either. In fact, it will likely magnify those characteristics.

Since critical thinking is a powerful tool we should be prepared to be exposed for who we are.

Sermon on the Mount 12: The Power of Invisibility

Scripture: Matthew 6: 16-18

Focus: In secret

Reflection: Fame is fleeting. Little famebursts are even more fleeting.

It would seem that there is a human desire to be recognized as a good person. I have this desire. I bet you have it as well. I want to be good, yes, but I want to seen as a good person. And here is the thing: many people recognize good when they see it. It is the reward they give to other good people for being good.

So there is a system in place. A person does something good, another person notices it and then provides a small reward for the good person’s goodness by recognizing their goodness. The good person receives this recognition and feels good. And through this positive reinforcement, is likely to produce more good.

When a not so good person notices the pattern, he might also notice that what can get him some good feeling recognition is getting the other person to believe that he is a good person. Truth is not relevant, but appearance must be genuine looking. Energy is spent manipulating the system of goodness and recognition rather than actually being good. Good-appearing behaviors strategically placed in front of the eyes of good-recognizing people can result in a little fameburst.

I confess. I manipulate(d) system.

My motives to accomplish some good in this world are not always for the goodness of the good. I have desired and even craved recognition. I want to be noticed, to be honored, to be thought of as good. I want to be good and for that to be enough. Sadly, it doesn’t always turn out that way.

In fact, I have used this system as a means to resolve my own feelings of guilt. I carried guilt. I hated it. It felt bad. So, I tried to make up for guilty feelings by doing good. I figured if I did enough good then I would be able to feel good and not guilty anymore. I also figured that when I went about doing good that I needed someone else’s recognition of what I did in order to legitimize my goodness. If what I did was noticed by another and labeled as good, then I would feel good. If I felt good, I could forget about my guilt.

The problem was that the good feeling was temporary and the guilt was not.

Goodness doesn’t make up for guilt. That’s not how it works. Guilt is the emotional pain that indicates something is wrong, not a random feeling to get rid of. I was using my ability to perform goodness as a means to control pain. Goodness isn’t too great a painkiller.

Goodness is legitimate when it is accomplished for its own end. Rewards are not merely secondary, they are irrelevant. The power of goodness is in its invisibility.

Friday, April 08, 2011

PhD 1.0: Critical Thinking

If your best friend were to enter a doctoral program and the next time you were going to see her was when she graduated, what do you supposed you would notice that is different about her?

Well, she may have picked up some big new words like, “epistemology” or new phrases like, “conceptual framework” or “structural equation modeling.” These words and phrases may seem important to her even though to you they sound like something between mumbo and jumbo. She may seem to have gained some confidence, which may or may not be genuine. She may have an unusual concern for things like sample size and generalizability or even methodological rigor and you’re curious and a little perplexed at how many areas of life she thinks that these things apply to. She may have a great big group of new friends, the kind of friends that talk about epistemology and conceptual frameworks and structural equation modeling. They laugh and tell jokes that involve these words. You are trying hard to figure out how a joke with the punch line “n=1” has any humor to it at all, but you see them all laughing and you laugh a little trying to fit in, and then sip your drink to take the edge off this surreal world your friend now occupies. 

Of all of the transformations you would notice about your friend having gone through in a doctoral program, you would probably notice that she thinks differently than she used to. She’ll have more question than she used to. Sometimes these questions are brilliant and insightful. She will likely impress you with her questions. And then again, her questions may get to be quite annoying and pretentious. They may smack of an intellectual, yet dark skepticism, even about things like going on a picnic or waterskiing. You may begin to wonder if there is anything your friend likes, enjoys, or even believes anymore. It’s kind of a big deal because you have a whole friendship based on things you both like, enjoy, and believe.

One time, you were having a discussion about something and she systematically shredded the entire belief system with her questions. What was so shocking is that it was the belief system you recall her having before graduate school; it was one of the best things about your friend. She seems to have a newfound and unwavering commitment to find everything wrong with everything. You’re concerned because you’re afraid she’s become a negative person.

Sermon on the Mount 11: Rescue

Scripture: Matthew 6: 5-15

Focus: Rescue

Reflection: This is a world of boomerangs. What a person throws out there is going to come back a them. If you are kind, kindness returns to you. If you are mean, meanness returns to you. If you judge, prepare to be judged. If you forgive, then you will be forgiven.

Jesus dismantles the other narratives going on here. Power in this world is not about what is said in public like this group or how much is said in public like that group. Power is in how you treat other people.

He says in plain language that God’s forgiveness is linked our forgiveness. If we put forgiveness out there, then it finds its way back to us. God is not impressed by big words or lots of words. God’s great desire is for us to create space for forgiveness. How is that space created? By forgiving others. Forgiving others is our rescue.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Sermon on the Mount 10: Cash Money

Scripture: Matthew 6:1-4

Focus: Their reward

Reflection: Do something good and something good happens to you. What goes around comes around…sort of. Jesus was not a Taoist and did not practice dualism. It was not about Yin and Yang for him. At the same time, it did not mean he was unaware of the flow of goodness in human interaction. Just like he was aware of how evil spread, he was aware of goodness spread…and how it could turn bad.

When one person gives something to another, there is a gratitude debt of sorts. That gratitude does not have to come from the receiver of the given then, but it feels like it needs to come from someone. In order to give something, it requires a loss from the giver. Even if that loss is very minor, it leaves an empty spot. Gratitude fills that loss.

Of course people want to be appreciated for their giving. But, they do not have to be compensated for the loss. In fact, they could move toward not being compensated for it with praise and gratitude and it makes things even better.

OK, so imagine someone paid off your house. Cool. Now imaging that person posted a blog about about how they paid off your house, took out google ads promoting their blog about what they did, and then even created a clever series of television commercials about their generosity. How would you feel about their gift? Your house would still be paid off, but what would it mean? Was it because they really loved you or perhaps because you were useful in their self-promotion?

Jesus is busting people for doing the wrong thing and using the right thing in order to get it done. They’re milking the system for personal gain and using people along the way. The needy are objectified and oppressed by the kind of generosity the wealthy are using.

Jesus is upping the ante. In short he is saying that what these oppressors are doing is a grab for a little reward when something much larger could be theirs. When they look God in the eye and try to tell them what they did, God’s going to say, “You got what you deserved. You’re already even Steven.”

If we can delay our gratification when we are actually good to someone else, it legitimizes the act. And about that gratitude debt, well, God will make it all balance out in the end. So relax. The grab for an immediate congratulations demonstrates a lack of trust that God notices the good we do. Jesus is saying that we can do better.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011


I am still in my first year of having earned a PhD and I feel like I am wearing someone else’s clothes. When people call me “Doctor Gonzalez,” it sounds kind of funny. The thought keeps going through my head that I am placed in a class of really smart people, but I tricked everyone. What if they find out I am a normal person? Or perhaps they are on to me and they call me “Doctor Gonzalez” because they feel like they have to? What if they think I am all ”hoity toity” being a doctor? I actually had a situation like that. A woman at my children’s school learned I had a PhD and said, “Well, I didn’t know you were so hoity toity.” I love it. I interpret it like this: “You? You of all people have a PhD? What? Are they putting advanced degrees in vending machines these days? How you’d you get so hoity toity? Look at how you dress.” It is one of my favorite stories about earning a PhD.

As I am now employed as a professor and reflecting back on my experiences in doctoral work, I am having some important thoughts about what I learned while in graduate school. So much of what happened while I was there happened so fast I had little time to process it. I couldn’t think about anything the way I do thinking best. Things just happened too fast. Learning at the speed of doctoral studies didn’t afford me the opportunity to sit and chew on things. At least not when I had to get done as fast as I needed to. For my program, four years was fast.

I figure that which returns to me now is probably something of importance and that which I cannot access may not have been all that big of a deal. Here are some things coming back to me now. Each of these would make a decent post or even essay. So, I am planning a series of posts on the following;

  1. How to become a critical thinker without becoming a negative person
  2. Science: All you are doing is asking questions and making decisions based on a new set of rules
  3. Little Celebrations
  4. Developing a research creed
  5. Developing a scholarly network: profs, cohorts, and associations
  6. Getting the advisor you need is better than getting the advisor you want
  7. Pick a good official committee, then pick a good unofficial committee
  8. Every single person in the graduate school context can teach you something that matters
  9. Diversity: Fundamentalism lurks in every corner
  10. Spirituality: Faith and science meet in the Academy
  11. Oral Defense: A scholarly conversation about your favorite topic

Sermon on the Mount 9: Reverse Polarity

Scripture: Matthew 5: 43-48

Focus: He sends His rain

Reflection: Continuing from His previous thoughts on Social Judo, Jesus takes it one step further. It is one thing not to resist, which is what he lead with in the previous section. It is quite another to love someone who hurts you. Again, Jesus is interested in more than correct behavior; He goes to the heart and the soul. He is not about mere behavior modification; He is about soul transformation. He wants more than people who do good things; He wants good people.

How does evil spread? One of the ways that the flow of evil happens in this world is through people’s interpretation injustice. What is the meaning of being wronged? What rights do I have when I am wronged? In general, an equal response is justified. Jesus has just said to try doing something different. Now he is saying let it mean something different. Interpret injustice as a cause for love.


In short, two things happen when a person commits injustice to another. One thing is the injustice itself. One person takes something that belongs to someone else and thus the person has experienced a loss not of their own doing, but by the will of another. The other thing is the lesson of injustice. The victim just learned the power of injustice. They now must choose whether the put into practice the lesson just learned.

The obvious person to direct this new learning toward is the one who taught it to them – their enemy. If anyone deserves a dose of injustice, it is my enemy. In fact, if I give my enemy a dose of injustice, I can probably get away with calling it justice.

When this rationale enters into play, then there is the means by which evil is spread. Receiving injustice is interpreted as a cause to perpetuate it.

Jesus says, reverse the polarity. Interpret it differently. When injustice is directed toward you, then interpret it as a cause to spread love. Interpret it as a cause to be kind. Evil cannot spread when its presence is interpreted as a reason and a cause to do good. Jesus knows that all evil needs is to be legitimated in order to spread. When evil gets an OK from anyone, it can spread to anyone.

Jesus knows that you can’t stop anyone else’s evil, but you can stop your own. How would a person identify and become aware of their own evil? The quickest way is to identify an enemy and take inventory of how you think, feel and behave toward that person or group. Then compare that to how you think, feel and behave toward the people you love the most. If that were not hard enough, Jesus says to think, feel, and behave toward the people you identified as enemies in the same way you think, feel, and behave toward the people you love most.

Then he goes one step further – love them.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Sermon on the Mount 8: Social Judo

Scripture: Matthew 5: 38-42

Focus: Do Not Resist

Reflection: There are many pathways to justice and there are many kinds of justice. it feels right, fair, correct and effective to do people what they do to me. It is the golden rule in reverse right? “Do unto others as they have done unto me.” Well, the Golden Rule doesn’t work in reverse. It only works one way. In fact, when someone hurts me, the Golden Rule is even more important to adhere to. That is what Jesus is saying here.

If I were to wrong someone, would I want them to get revenge? Of course not. I would want them to be kind to me, even though I didn’t deserve it. I am not interested in anyone’s retaliation. However, once someone is aggressed upon, in injustice is put into motion. And as a rule, injustice is not the antidote to injustice. The accumulation of wrongs do not sum up to justice. [Here is an example]

Retaliation and revenge are not solutions. They are the perpetuation of the problem. They level the playing field at the lowest common denominator. Jesus calls people to raise up the interactions non-resistance, by non-violence. He is calling for social judo. In judo, sometime you let the opponent come full force and rather than try to absorb or block the attack, you move and let the opponent’s energy move right by you.

Not resisting is redefining justice to a higher plain.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Sermon on the Mount 7: I Had My Fingers Crossed

Scripture: Matthew 5: 33-37

Focus: Do not swear

Reflection: It’s pretty simple. Be honest. Everyone knows this rule. It is a rule of fairness and justice. It may be one of the most instinctive moral rules between people. Even from a very young age, children know that it hurts when they learn someone was dishonest with them. Upon experiencing dishonesty, a child is hurt, confused, and is trying to figure out what it means that there is a “what I say” world and there is a “what I do” world and that these worlds do not always match up. These lesson plans of dishonesty, sadly, are learned early and reproduced early. 

If dishonesty were left to children being dishonest with each other and when they grow up they learn to become honest, then I think Jesus doesn’t mention it. However, rather than become more honest, people become more clever and sophisticated with the ways in which they are dishonest. The goal, it would seem, is to get all of the benefits and credit for honesty without actually having to come through on promises, contracts, and deals.

So, in order to appear good and honest and true without actually having to be that way, rules are set up. Rules that some people know and others do not. Rules where I can say one thing and mean another, but you do not know the rules so when I say something, you think I actually mean it because you are not aware of the rules.

This happens all the time. It happens on the playground. It happens in the boardroom. It happens in the university hallways. It happens in governments. It happens in the church. “All men are created equal” didn’t actually include everyone. All white men with cash or status were created equal and the rest were there to perpetuate that bias. People with power make rules and don’t let anyone else in on them.  Although we’re all using the same words, some people are in on the secret of the double meanings while others are not. 

It is system set up in which the people who are actually honest end up looking stupid. They are stupid because they didn’t know the rules that no one ever told them. It is the old playground rule of crossing your fingers behind your back. One person tells another person something and the other person believes it and wonders why some of the other kids are trying to hold back their giggles. They are in on something, but what? Only later is the honest person revealed as the fool.

Jesus cuts through all this mess and says yes means yes and no means no. There is no more hierarchy here. Everyone plays by the same rules. And that means everyone, even the super religious people who know all the rules made up about swearing by heaven and earth. “Don’t drag God into your deceptions,” Jesus says. “Doing that is of the Devil.”