Saturday, July 31, 2010

Observations from Driving

I have an essay that has been churning in my brain for quite some time—thoughts on the relationship between popular media, culture at large, and relational expectations between spouses. I hope to have it up by the end of the weekend.

In the meantime, however, I will content myself with two recent observations from driving.

As I have noted a few times recently, driving often provides an opportunity for reflection that we would not otherwise enjoy. For my part, I spent 50 minutes to an hour in the car every day: more than ample opportunity for reflection, if I will but take advantage of it. Sometimes I do; other times my mind drifts along like dandelion seeds on the breeze.

Two days ago, I was thinking—hard. Not about driving. I found myself reacting to other drivers' behavior at a barely conscious level. At some point, I began observing my own mental processes as I drove. The human brain is a fascinating thing. I could on the one hand be thinking quite serious about my wife, ministry to friends and neighbors, and how to relate to foreign exchange students, and on the other hand be correctly processing and interpreting immense quantities of data regarding other car's relative positions, velocities, and likely future behavior.

I could anticipate, on the basis of small motions of people's heads, slight alterations in their speed, and other factors barely perceptible at a conscious level, what the cars around me were going to do. Remarkably, given th complexities involved, so could every other person driving down the road at 70 miles an hour. Not one of us suddenly guessed another was doing something they weren't, slammed n our breaks, and caused an accident. We all kept driving, largely oblivious to the marvelous dance of neurons going on inside our brains.

It's stunning, really: these small, finite minds are nonetheless capable of processing and correctly interpreting incredible amounts of information without even being consciously focused on those particular data points. Especially with years of experience, we begin to subconsciously recognize and react to cues happening far too quickly and subtly to ever process them consciously, and so we all stay alive as we barrel down the highway in steel and plastic contraptions at speeds certain to harm and likely to kill a human being.

My second observation: I entered the north side of Norman yesterday afternoon, and the overwhelming familiarity of the drive arrested my attention. I make that drive daily—occasionally, even more frequently. It has become routine to the point that I no longer really see the fields and warehouses passing by; I see only home and my wife's arms waiting for me.

It was not always so, of course. I remembered driving into Norman four and a half years earlier—driving into Norman by myself for the first time, at the beginning of the second semester of my freshman year of college. It was a strange and almost surreal experience. I had left my home behind in Colorado, and was driving home to Walker Tower in Norman. Somehow, my life had changed, in ways I could not yet define. I only knew my world was different than it had been, could not and would not be the same. I did not know the turns.

Over the years that followed, that feeling intensified, even as I made that drive more and more frequently. Trips to Oklahoma City became less rare, and I had soon driven home along I-35 more times than I had ever driven on I-25 in Colorado. My home was Adams Tower, then Walker again for another two years. My friendships solidified, even as they changed. My world shifted on its axis in more ways than one.

The changes did not slow on graduation or marriage. Colorado is no longer home, however much I love it. A comfortable little apartment in Norman where my wife waits eagerly for me is home. I-35 is no longer a strange sight, the turns unfamiliar, because I drive it twice a day. The world has changed again, and will change again until it changes once for all.

All that from a drive home.

Friday, July 23, 2010

3:01 am

I have been up most of the night. Duty called. The hours have gone relatively quickly; the silence and solitude have been pleasant.

I was driving a little after midnight, a gibbous moon hanging low in the southwestern sky, pinprick stars dotting the sky even with city lights all around, and thinking of the night ahead of me. I am almost done with the night now, the sun is rising outside, and grayscale tones of night are coming aglow with color. I am still thinking about the night, though.

When awake in the middle of the night—when 3 am rolls around in the quiet darkness—we watch with the sort of expectation that strains to see the slightest hint of color in the eastern sky. We wait for black velvet to ever-so-subtly turn blue—because that means the night is ending. That first moment grows and spreads imperceptibly until the whole sky is aflame with color, clouds blazing orange and pink and the sky a stunning mix of gold and white and blue, until the sun itself comes burning over the horizon in a spray of fire.

That first hint of changing color is a long time coming at 3 am, though. The glimmers at horizon's edge are illusions or tricks or false hopes: city-shadows cast skyward, or moonlight shining on the tops of faraway clouds, or imagination coloring the darkness. Weary, middle-of-the-night minds see dawn long before it comes, are disappointed at how it tarries. Daylight comes in its own time, not the schedule set by a heart longing for an end to darkness. But it does come.

We who follow Christ wait in the dark. When the clock reads 3 am, it is easy to ignore the glimmers on the horizon: we know they are illusions. No clock measures down the hours till he comes again, though; no almanac proclaims the time of his arrival. Christians always wait urgently and hopefully, because the dawn could come at any time. Time and again someone cries out, "Look! First light!" Time and again we strain our eyes to see, and realize that no: this is no second coming, no dawn to end the night forever. The cry was a mistake. Still: the dawn could come at any time.

When it comes, it will not be a glimmer, barely perceived. The age of darkness will not end like nights do, slow and subtle and sure. The sun will leap over the horizon in one blinding moment, darkness crushed out of existence in an instant.

It is 3 am, and we wait with baited breath. He could come at 3:01.

Monday, July 19, 2010

A Long Process

I finished the duet. Or at least, I finished the semi-final rough draft of it. Four and a quarter minutes of music for clarinet and cello, a dance movement, written in about a week and a half. (That's why I am up late right now, and why I have not done much blogging in the same span of time.)

I will post a link to the piece once I get the recording of the actual performance of it (presumably in a few weeks). I have good sound sets... but they are still sound sets.

Yesterday was our one year anniversary. I will try to post some reflective thoughts on that occasion later this week. Tonight we enjoyed some of our cake, which was surprisingly good a year later (it was very well sealed).

I have a stomach ache. The two, gladly I suppose, are not related; I had the stomach ache first.

We will have another friend staying with us for a few weeks soon: the one and only Megan Tevebaugh, who is now counting down the days till her impending marriage to the equally unique Anthony Plopper. They will be living in the same apartment complex as us; it should be a wonderfully fun year (even as the next few weeks promise to be particularly fun as well.)

Sleep calls me now.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Wonderfully Tired

I feel wonderfully tired: the kind of deep but pleasant ache that can only come from a good workout. I also feel unpleasantly tired: the kind of deep but annoying fatigue that can only come from a day at work that was thoroughly frustrating. Life is ever full of contradictions.

My beautiful wife sits beside me; she has pumped out around 3500 words of her novel. I have written 30 seconds of a duet for clarinet and cello, and read half of a book on divorce and remarriage that I will be reviewing next week at Pillar. The piece for clarinet and cello is on a tight deadline; I have long since found that I work best and quickest under the pressure of a deadline where music is concerned. Two of the best pieces I have ever written have come together on extremely short time scales. Composition is thus perhaps the only area of my life where I understand the rush that procrastinators feel in accomplishing their goals in the nick of time.

(As a side note, "the nick of time" is a rather odd phrase. Think about it.)

In the last few days, I have started spending some time with GIMP, a free image manipulation program—it may not be Photoshop, but it's also $600 less expensive, and still incredibly powerful.logo for Independent Clauses Among other things, I have created a few buttons for the web, and I'm currently working on a render of a planet orbiting a star. The final product may not, in the end, be terribly impressive... but I am learning and enjoying the opportunity to stretch myself. I have always enjoyed visual art, but unlike Jaimie, I have no talent in sketching or painting. Software, on the other hand, makes sense to me; perhaps with some time I will actually be able to create some art with GIMP.

Our dear friends Chase and Julie Russell are in town tomorrow through Sunday... and, typically enough, we will be out of town Friday through Sunday, at a friend's wedding. The opportunity to see many of our friends excites us, but missing time with the Russells saddens us. We hope to spend some time with them tomorrow evening. While we have followed their adventures in Nicaragua via their blog, nothing compares to spending time face to face, sharing our thoughts and experiences in person.

Posts I hope to have up by the end of this week or early next week: something at Pillar on the Rock (I am still tossing around a few ideas), a poem for 52 Verses (that one is definitely going up; the only question is what the poem will be), and perhaps a post reflecting on the gospel here.

Go do something fun that glorifies God!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Technology, Distraction, and Pascal

Justin Taylor just posted a helpful reminder that there is indeed nothing new under the sun. The last few years have seen a flurry of articles proclaiming the myriad ways that Google Is Making Us Stupid. While there is probably some truth to that, as I have written myself, the ultimate source of those problems is not new, but age-old and an unchanging fixture of fallen human nature. We distract ourselves because we fear what we would see if we did not. From Taylor's post:

Pascal, to my mind, has written the most profound reflections on God, man, and “diversion.” I’d recommend getting Peter Kreeft’s edition, Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal's Pensees , where the relevant thoughts are all gathered in one section (pp. 167-187). Kreeft writes that when he teaches this material, his “students are always stunned and shamed to silence as Pascal shows them in these pensees their own lives in all their shallowness, cowardice and dishonesty.”

Here is one line from Pascal (from #136) that it worthy of a lot of meditation:

I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.

Taylor also quotes Douglas Groothius at length, and the full post is well worth your time. It left me thinking: how often do I distract myself, and how often do I allow myself to sit in the quiet and ponder reality?

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Hills to Die On

Two Johns are among the most well-recognized and respected voices of the Reformed stream of Christianity in America today: Dr. John Piper and Dr. John Macarthur. The two respect each other, and have occasionally partnered together in various ministries (in particular, Piper’s invitations to Macarthur to speak at Desiring God events). Both are gifted expositors; both are passionate about God’s word; both are dedicated to the good of the church.

In my listening to both of them, one distinct difference comes up—one that is probably as much personality as anything, and which I am not going to make too much of, other than as a starting point for the rest of this post. John Piper is a good deal kinder to those who disagree with him. Macarthur and Piper are both firebrands; that is a significant part of what I like about them. But Piper draws his circle in the sand a good deal more generously than Macarthur does.

He has encouraged the “Young, Restless and Reformed” crowd not to make the mistake of separating too quickly or easily from other believers with whom they (we) have disagreements. Macarthur, by contrast, is quite happy to pronounce that others are in serious, dangerous error over what I believe are secondary (if nonetheless important) issues: the exact timing and means of creation and a Calvinist soteriology being the two strongest examples I can think of. As I said, a great deal of this is probably personality, and I do not mean this as criticism of Macarthur, whose ministry I respect.

Even so, I appreciate Piper’s even-handed and courteous treatment of those he disagrees with—his strong but generous treatment of N. T. Wright in their ongoing discussion of justification being a prime example.

As I was thinking this through earlier, I realized that it goes to the heart of an issue I have mentally chewed on a great deal recently: the question of where we ought to condemn and where we ought to disagree. For example, I would argue that Open Theism fits in the first category, along with modalism, works salvation, and other major heresies. So do cultish views like those espoused by Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses. These views fundamentally and irreconcilably distort the nature of God, our relationship to him and the gospel itself.

By contrast, I think the Calvinism-Arminian discussion fits squarely in the second category. While I disagree with the Arminian view, that makes little difference fellowship: my Arminian brothers stand well within the circle of orthodoxy. I might say the same on a number of other issues, including baptism, eschatology, and church government. In each case, I have strong, carefully thought through views—but I recognize that in those cases, they are not grounds for sundering Christian fellowship. However important these issues are, and they are very important, they are not irreconcilable differences on the gospel and the person of God. That, I think, is the difference.

(Whether they are grounds for splitting churches in another, although closely related, topic. I will be taking it up at Pillar on the Rock sometime in the next few months, so keep an eye out.)

A few months ago, I led our small group in a discussion of Titus. One of the themes of Titus is contending for sound doctrine. The elders Titus appointed were to “give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (1:9). Titus himself was to “rebuke [insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers] sharply, that they may be sound in the faith” (1:13). Paul reminded him, “Declare these things [the gospel], exhort and rebuke with all authority” (2:15) and later reiterated this point, writing, “The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things [the gospel], so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people” (3:8). Immediately following, though, he continues:

But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.
Titus 3:9-11

The gospel summaries Paul offers stand as the foundation of the rest of the letter—and in stark opposition to the divisiveness Paul opposes. He allowed no room in the church for bickering and squabbling over secondary issues. People who stirred up division should not be tolerated. There is a hill to die on, in Paul’s mind—but it was not the hot-button issues of the day (genealogies may sound boring, but to a 1st-century Jew, they were as significant as many of our theological controversies today). He defines “these things” rather simply:

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.
Titus 2:11-14
For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
Titus 3:3-7

This is the hill I will die on. On every other point, I will be as peaceable as I can, doing everything possible to preserve the bond of peace between me and my brothers and sisters in Christ. Though I will argue strenuously for my views, I will not ultimately break fellowship over them. But on the gospel itself, and on the nature of God himself, I will not budge.

Here is where I have learned from Dr. Piper: he is deeply, passionately committed to getting Jesus Christ and his gospel right. As passionate as he is about believer’s baptism, church membership, and a host of other issues, he is first and foremost committed to the gospel—and when he rebukes another view (or even more rarely, publically rebukes another leader), he does so graciously and kindly, doing his best to preserve peace. Would we were all so committed to making Christ known by loving unity even in the midst of disagreement.

Our differences will not go away, and we should not attempt to trivialize them; yet neither should we allow them to divide us and so obscure the unity that Christ bought us with his blood.

Friday, July 2, 2010

This Marvelous Busywork

This has been a good week. I have written a fair amount, spent good time with friends, spend better time with my wife, been productive at work, and learned a lot.

One of the more interesting aspects of this week was work. As you may have noticed, work has been on my mind a great deal recently. On the one hand, I really like working. I enjoy doing good work well, and I like glorifying God through excellence. Programming has the benefit of being interesting at least some of the time; there are good intellectual problems to solve on a semi-regular basis. Alas, recent months have not afforded me much opportunity to do the best parts of programming; since coming on with this job, I have spent most of my time analyzing data and trying to identify the causes of failures. That is good, important work— but it is hardly work that stirs the mind, much less the soul.

That has led to a certain amount of quiet (and sometimes not-so-quiet) discontent. As my mother can attest, from years of homeschooling me, I loathe boredom; the only thing worse is busywork. Being confronted with both on a regular basis, and often starved of social interaction (programming involves solitarily staring at a screen for hours on end) has left me mentally fried. In this I do not think I am particularly unique. Whatever my oddities—and make no mistake, I have many!—the struggles that afflict me are common to everyone.

Each of us wants our life to have purpose and meaning. We all want our days tasks to accomplish something, no matter how small. The particular kind of work that will satisfy each of us varies gloriously; I praise God (not least out of gratitude) that there are people who enjoy electrical work and repairing cars; I am not among them. As the kindly gentleman I spoke with at Borders a month ago pointed out, though: we are all of us needed. What matters is that we take joy in doing our work well and hopefully find vocations where we can exercise our gifts. For him, that is laying floors. For me, right now, it is carefully crafting software. What it will be in the future remains to be seen.

Work is good. God did not create work as a punishment for the Fall; Adam was commissioned to tend the Garden first. Like everything in this world, it has been corrupted by our sin. Ingratitude and complaints obscure the gift God has given us. Our relationships with bosses, subordinates, and coworkers are poisoned by sinful relational patterns. Work itself can become a drudgery, especially when we are set tasks to which we are not suited. Yet still it is a gift, not a curse. However much we may find ourselves toiling with frustration instead of joy, work is a gift.

The questions, for each of us, are whether we will choose to gladly accept that gift and whether we will seek to use it to the glory of God. In each case, if we answer in the affirmative, we will find the work better. It may not be any more pleasant, but even the worst of work, done to the glory of God, is good work.

For me, then, the challenge is to recognize that the tasks I have to do each day are worthy of my best efforts. No matter how they frustrate me, and no matter how pointless they may seem, they are the work that God has set before me. I must remember that I am not merely allowed to work; I am called to work, and to work well. Even busywork can be glorious.