Friday, March 20, 2009

Without Ceasing

One of the interesting things about the process of spiritual maturity is that we move through the "hyperbole stage." Here is what I mean - when you first become a Christian, especially if that happens when you are a child, you tend to accept everything you read in scripture literally. A "day" is a day and a "big fish" is a big fish and "all the animals in the world" are all the animals in the world. Then, as you mature, you start taking a more critical eye to the words of scripture; you still believe what you are reading, but you start looking for the poetic, the symbolic, the hyperbolic. You have no problem saying that the words don't "really" mean what they literally say; instead, you say, there is a symbolic message there, and we should look for what the words mean.

Indeed, of course, not every Christian goes through the hyperbole stage. Many never leave the literal understanding of scripture. I don't mean to say that none of those people has matured. What I can say is that I don't understand their maturing process. It seems to me that questioning and looking beyond our childhood reactions is a part of maturation. But that is just me.

As I continue to mature, I am noticing that there are a great many things for which I am coming out of the "hyperbole stage." Things that appeared to my immature or semi-mature Christian self as symbolic and hyperbolic are just now coming into focus as meaning exactly what the words say.

For example, I am just now at the point in my life where "love your enemies" really means "love your enemies." For a long time, it meant something to me like "don't take public vengeance against bad people." I am now starting to understand that love, which really has very little to do with my feelings in any situation, involves actions that can be taken toward enemies as well as toward neighbors.

Another example is the Apostle Paul's encouragement to us in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 to "pray without ceasing." This goes hand in hand with the words of Ephesians 6:18 to "pray at all times in the Spirit." For years, I have treated these verses as hyperbole - I have viewed them as exaggerations to encourage us to pray often.

Only now am I starting to understand what Paul means. I do not think Paul is talking about prayer as a formal event where we bow and close our eyes and fold our hands and make everyone around us be quiet while we "pray." I don't think he is discussing our "daily quiet time."

No, Paul was a man who understood that he never left the presence of God. Of course, if we are Christians, we also never leave the presence of God - that is what the indwelling Holy Spirit is all about. But Paul recognized it, while too many of us do not. Paul had a real handle on the fact that he was constantly in the presence of the Almighty, always in earshot of the sustaining Spirit of God, never outside the aura of the One who had died for him. And Paul figured out that one of the benefits of that constant contact was constant conversation. "Pray without ceasing" is a lot less formal and symbolic than I used to think - it is merely an encouragement to recognize the truth of the fact that God is with us, to talk to Him, and to listen to Him.

There is nothing symbolic about that - it is as simple as our childlike literal minds would want it to be. God is here, God wants to talk with us, God has things to say to us, and we should take advantage of His presence, of His desire to have conversation. He never leaves, so we have access to him "without ceasing."

I do not mean to suggest that there is no symbolism or poetic hyperbole in scripture. There clearly is. "The cattle on a thousand hills" is not a suggestion for us to count high places or cows, and since a day to the Lord is as a thousand years, I have no real idea what is meant in scripture every time the word "day" is used. I think that Jesus' telling us to pluck out our eye if it causes us to sin is an exercise in hyperbole.

Some verses, however, really do mean what they say, but we do little to understand them for long stretches of our spiritual lives. We work too hard at prayer, we struggle too much with trying to "find God" to be able to comprehend what Paul is talking about. "Pray without ceasing" is not a call to struggle or even to "find God." God is here, without our struggle or our search. "Pray without ceasing" is an encouragement to recognize what we already have.

We do not need to be encouraged to breathe without ceasing, because we don't search for oxygen or struggle to find air. If, however, we lived in the vacuum of space, and if a great supernatural being had come along and offered us an eternal scuba tank, we might struggle with the idea. So used to breathlessness, we might well have a great deal of trouble accepting the existence of free, constant, breathable oxygen in a never-ending supply at our disposal.

We have lived too long in a vacuum. Sin separated us from God, and it was only through the supernatural cross event that we obtained eternal life with God. We have accepted that life with Him, but we are so used to living on our own, we fail to recognize the basic essence of what we have - a personal relationship with the loving creator of the universe.

But we mature. We realize whose we are and what we have. And we start to understand that we can revel in that relationship, all the time, without ceasing.

I am not there yet. But I am learning.

Outliers

I just finished Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers. Interesting read. The focus of the book - the "outliers" of the title - are success stories who fall outside of normal expectations. Gladwell's thesis is that apparently unpredictable success stories are in fact entirely predictable if we know the whole story of opportunity, legacy, family connections, and lucky breaks.

Gladwell makes some good points, but none of them is earthshaking. He emphasizes that those who go to better schools tend to have better results. He finds great import in the idea that his examples of great success had opportunities that were not available to others. He seems particularly astounded by the idea that Candians born in the first third of the year have a better chance to be good hockey players because the cutoff date in Canada for age-based hockey teams is January 1; therefore, if you are born in January or February, you will be one of the "old" kids and thus bigger than the competition when you are 8 or 9, so you be more likely to make all-star teams and hence get better coaching and more ice time for practice. These are all true points, of course, but they are not quite as newsworthy as Gladwell makes them out to be.

To me, the best point in the book - also not exactly breaking news - is Gladwell's emphasis on hard work. In a chapter called "10,000 Hours", he cites some great statistics on how numbers of hours of practice make the difference between a professional violinist and a hobbyist. Gladwell then extrapolates (with great data and stories) the same idea to other fields - from playing rock-n-roll to programming computers - and asserts that the common denominator among the truly successful is that they have amassed at least ten thousand hours of practice time and experience.

Amid these interesting observations, however, there is a troubling aspect to Gladwell's book. He places great emphasis on racial, cultural, and ethnic stereotyping. He has a chapter on why a generation of the best lawyers in New York are Jewish. He studies the phenomenon of Hatfield-McCoy-type feuds in Kentucky and concludes that Kentuckyans are predisposed to such behavior because they descend from the Scotch-Irish and cannot escape the "culture of honor" of their forebears. He cites with approval a study from the University of Michigan that concludes that Southerners are slower to anger than our northern counterparts, but if pushed far enough (especially if you call us vulgar names), we Southerners will react with more vitriol than Yankee boys. To quote Gladwell, "who we are cannot be separated from where we are from."

That is a dangerous paradigm. Of course, we are all affected by the culture around us. Of course, our ancestors who immigrated from certain places brought aspects of home with them. Of course, life in the north is different from life in the south. Yes, Asian languages have words for numbers that are easier to say and memorize than are their English and French counterparts, and the result may be that Asian students show earlier adaptation for math. But to take these generalizations as far as Gladwell does is frightening. Am I really more likely to strike someone who calls me a name than someone from Minneapolis is merely because of where I was raised? Are Gentile lawyers really less likely to be good corporate takeover artists than Flom or Wachtell solely because we are not Jewish? What implications does that have for whom should be appointed to courts or who should be the recipient of government grants? Should I not let my daughter marry a boy from the South?

I doubt that Gladwell is a racist. I suspect that he would defend his generalizing by saying it is just that - generalizing - and that there are no doubt exceptions to the rules. But I believe that his basic thesis - that success can be predicted based on culture, home town, year and month of birth, wealth of your parents, etc... - is wrong.

There is no question that opportunity is critical - I got a scholarship to an exclusive private school in the seventh grade. Before the eighth grade, the headmaster told my father that the scholarship would be cut in half. My dad said "thanks but no thanks" and pulled me out of the school. The next day, I was back on the roll with a full scholarship that lasted through high school. Attending that school - one that my parents could never have afforded - was a key to many successes for me.

But added to that opportunity - and dozens of other opportunities that I have had - is hard work, skill and intelligence, and common sense. (Gladwell seems very taken by the idea of "practical intelligence" - that is, the ability to say the right thing at the right time to the right audience in order to get something done - that the rest of us know as common sense.) Gladwell poo-poos the idea of the "self-made man," going so far as to say that there is no such thing. I understand his point that it is easier to be "self-made" when you start with a leg up and when you get help along the way - that is obvious. But it is also clear to me that different people who have the same opportunities do not end up with the same results. For example, Gladwell focuses on Bill Gates and the unique opportunities he had. But what is true is that Gates had classmates in the exact same computer class and computer club in high school, classmates who were as well off as he was, and none of them did what he did with those opportunities. The Beatles were not the only group playing the Hamburg club scene in the late 50s, but only The Beatles became The Beatles.

Also curious is Gladwell's omission of religion in his examination of what makes a difference. (His discussion of Jewish lawyers has nothing to do with religion except tangentially - he discusses the Jews of New York as an ethnic class only.) In trying to find the differences between what makes different people different, Gladwell takes no notice of the protestant work ethic, the Judeo-Christian mission of helping others, or the Christian understanding of the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit. My point is not that religious people are more successful than heathens - that is obviously not true by any wordly measure. My point is only that in a study of what makes one group different from another - a study that looks at minutiae like month of birth, language structure, and grandparents' guild - it is striking not to examine religion at least cursorily as one factor.

I enjoyed the book. Gladwell writes well. I just don't buy it all. I don't think every success story is predicable, because my experience teaches me that if you take four people of identical home town, school opportunity, socioeconomics, and language and watch them for twenty years, you will get four very different results.

I think there are two big takeways from the book - one political and one personal: (1)The political one is the importance of opportunity for everyone - we can and must strive as a society to provide as many varied and rich opportunities as we can for everyone who has an interest in them. We cannot assure equal results, and we should not try; but we can do our best as a society to assure equal opportunity. (2) The personal one is the reminder of the importance of hard work. Again, Gladwell is not saying anything new, but the statistics and the observations and the "10,000 hours" mantra are instructive. Whether it is playing the piano or doing math problems or losing weight or being a better lawyer or understanding scripture or being a better husband, I am more likely to be successful if I work at it. The more time I dedicate to something, the more success I am likely to have. People who are unwilling to work that hard may continue to think that successes are just the result of opportunity, luck, or wealthy parents - those who have paid the price for their success know better.

I believe the successful "outliers" are the ones who took advantage of the opportunities they were given and worked harder - much harder - than the ones who had the same opportunities. There is a lesson in that for all of us.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

No More "Rest of the Story"

Paul Harvey died yesterday. I did not hear his broadcast every day, but I certainly enjoyed listening to his "Rest of the Story" pieces on the radio.

I can remember seeing Paul Harvey on Memphis television when I would visit my grandparents when I was a very small child. He was old then.

Somehow, the death of Paul Harvey seems like a milestone to me. He is someone I never met, someone I knew of only through TV and radio and the newspaper. But he is someone who has always been, as long as I have been alive. Movie stars, media personalities, sports figures, and politicians come and go. Paul Harvey has always been.

Now he is not.

That struck me when I heard the news of his passing this morning. I am sorry for his family's loss, but he was 90 and lived an obviously full life, and death comes to us all. The big thing that strikes me is that nothing about our world stays the same.

I am 44. My world no longer includes the Baltimore Colts, the world trade center towers, the Soviet Union, the Fairness Doctrine, the Berlin Wall, the ABC Superstars competition, manned space travel, cassette tapes (OK, I still have several hundred of my old cassettes, but you know what I mean), Circuit City stores, TWA, pro basketball in Seattle, Captain Kangaroo, and Shakey's Pizza. And, of course, we have lost countless people who, like Paul Harvey, seemed always to be there in our world - Paul Newman and Skip Caray and Johnny Cash and Bozo the Clown and Tim Russert and Jim McKay and Charlton Heston and William F. Buckley and Johnny Carson and so many others.

The building where I went to law school has been remodeled and is now used for undergraduates.

Popular music has captured this phenomenon for years. "Time keeps on slipping, slipping, slipping into the future." "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot." "If I could save time in a bottle...."

The world keeps turning. New buildings spring up and teams move to new towns and new stars arise and new styles come and go (whether I acknowledge them or not). These are not the things on which we count; they are not the things on which we depend. Our future is tied to something deeper and Someone permanent.

Still, it is a little jarring that we will never again here "and now... the rest of the story."