Saturday Evening Blog Post

Posted: April 30th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Personal | Tags: , , | 1 Comment »

Even though it’s Friday night, it’s time once again for Elizabeth Esther’s Saturday Evening Blog Post! Go check it out! It’s a fun way to read a collection of self-selected posts by a group of interesting bloggers. This edition covers March and April.

I had a hard time selecting a post. March included much of my lengthy series on Original Sin and there were a few that I thought might be worth posting. I really liked today’s post, Funeral Reflections.

But I finally decided that my review and personal reflection on A Fractured Mind was the post I most wanted to share this month. I hope you enjoy it. And leave a comment if what I wrote stirs any thoughts or reactions in you.


Funeral Reflections

Posted: April 30th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Personal, Resurrection | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Lately I’ve attended too many funerals and seen too many people in our family’s extended circle of relatives and friends die. You could respond that even one such death is too many and I wouldn’t disagree with you. I’ve recognized death as the enemy from that day long ago when my eight year old self watched my beloved stepfather’s lifeless body wheeled out to a waiting ambulance and my reconstructed life fell apart again. But as I’ve listened to and read the things people tend to say today when faced with death, I’ve reflected on what I would want said at my funeral.

There are a number of things I know beyond any shadow of a doubt that I don’t want said. I don’t want those who might be grieving for me told that my body is not me, that it’s just a discarded shell. My body is most certainly part and parcel of who I am and is the only part of me with which anyone has directly interacted. No, I do not believe I am merely my body, but I also do not believe that my identity can somehow be extricated or separated from my body. I have believed things like that in the past, when I believed in the transmigration of souls, but that is not what I believe today.

Notably, I am not and have never been a Platonist, which is what too many modern Christians sound like. I forget who told the story, but I remember hearing one about a professor at a prestigious university. He was a thorough-going Platonist and, for example, would not say, “I am going for a walk.” Instead he would say, “I am taking my body for a walk.” When Christians speak of our bodies as vehicles that we discard and trade up for better models, that is exactly the sort of thing they are saying.

I also do not want my loved ones told that death is a natural stage of life, that I am happy now, and basically that it’s their own selfish pain and sense of loss causing them to grieve. Standing outside Lazarus’ tomb, Jesus not only wept, we are twice told that he was “groaning in his spirit”. He faced death and embodied God’s sorrow and anger at the death of the image-bearer. If anyone has loved me and is grieving, I want them to know that God grieves with them — that this isn’t how things are meant to be. We do not grieve as those who have no hope, but we do still grieve in the face of death.

I want everyone to hear somebody give voice to the story of God’s victory over death. I want Resurrection proclaimed! However, the words alone are not enough today. The uniquely Christian understanding of resurrection has become so distorted and obscured that most people don’t even know what it actually is anymore.

Christian resurrection does not involve trading in our physical body for some spiritual body after death in another realm of existence. That sort of story was common in the pagan world and would have posed no threat to Rome. It would not have been a “scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks.” It would have just been another story about what happened to you when you died.

No, resurrection means the resurrection of this body in this world. Yes, the body will be transformed (as will the world), but it will be recognizably continuous with the body I have now. After all, the message of Easter is that the tomb was empty, not that Jesus left his old body behind and got a new one in a place called “Heaven”. Although Jesus was certainly different in resurrection and was not always recognized until he willed it, those who had followed him did indeed recognize him. His body still bore the marks of the nails and the spear. And once again, the tomb was empty! It was that same body which had hung on the cross and been buried that was raised and transformed. And the promise of Scripture is that as he was raised, so shall all humanity be raised. In the Resurrection of Jesus death, the last enemy, was forever defeated. The gates of Hades were burst asunder.

Moreover, Christianity does not proclaim some two-story universe with a basement. That’s a variation of some of the old (and new) pagan stories about the nature of reality. No, heaven and earth are overlapping and interlocking aspects of our one reality. Heaven and earth are not intended to be separate, but for our salvation a veil currently stands between the two dimensions of reality. But heaven is never more than a breath away. And in places where worship has been valid, the veil can be thin indeed. In the divine liturgy, the Orthodox would say it has been pierced. One day the veil will be dropped entirely and the glory of the fire of God’s consuming love will be fully revealed as all in all.

As such, “heaven” is emphatically not our final destination. Yes, God sustains us in the interim between our deaths and the final resurrection. Yes, as John 14 says, Jesus has prepared rooms for us. But those are not our permanent homes. The Greek word used is the one for a temporary dwelling place, like a room in an inn. It’s a way station in our journey.

The language of Christian Scripture for death is the language of sleep. Our bodies repose until God awakens us again in resurrection. In the interim, God somehow provides himself to sustain us in lieu of our bodies. But that’s a temporary measure and one that Scripture says very little about. And in the context of the eschaton, the language of Scripture is also as clear as I find any of the Jewish apocalyptic writings. The city of God, the New Jerusalem, is seen coming from heaven to earth. And we have work to do healing and caring for creation. (The leaves of the trees are for the healing of the nations.)

Our permanent home is here, on this earth. And our bodies on this earth will, however transformed, be continuous with our current bodies. Once again, it is this body which is resurrected in this reality. That is the truly and uniquely Christian hope of resurrection. That is what was (and is) foolishness to the Greeks. If that is not true then, as Paul says, my faith has been in vain. I remain Christian because of its promise of resurrection. If there is no true resurrection, then I’ve been wasting my time.

I want Resurrection proclaimed at my funeral. I want everyone to hear about the life after life after death. But I’m not sure there will be anyone available who can or will do it.


Four Hundred Texts on Love 13

Posted: April 29th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

46.  He who has been granted divine knowledge and has through love acquired its illumination will never be swept hither and thither by the demon of self-esteem. But he who has not yet been granted such knowledge will readily succumb to this demon. However, if in all that he does he keeps his gaze fixed on God, doing everything for His sake, he will with God’s help soon escape.

I mentioned earlier that the Fathers don’t tend to have our modern perspective on the issue of self-esteem. This text, where self-esteem is viewed as a demon, is a good illustration of that perspective. Reality is not such that a high self-esteem is good and a low self-esteem is bad as we often consider it today. Rather both high and low self-esteem, to the extent that we are focused on and esteeming ourselves, will ensnare us.

We need to respect ourselves as the good creation and image-bearer of God. But if we follow Christ, we will not esteem ourselves, but rather empty ourselves in and through love. Love is always the key that unlocks the Christian perspective of reality.


A Fractured Mind

Posted: April 28th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Personal | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments »

A Fractured MindI have a difficult time knowing where to begin with my thoughts and reactions to A Fractured Mind by Robert B. Oxnam. That task is further complicated by a need to carefully edit what I should and should not say in a public forum. But I found this a powerful book and I want to encourage others to read it, so I’ll do my best to walk that particular razor’s edge.

Robert B. Oxnam is, by most measures we tend to use, a highly successful and accomplished man. Ivy League education. Scholar and academic in Asian studies from a time when that was less common than it is today. Head of the prestigious Asia Society for nearly a decade. Appearances on the Today Show and other media outlets. His curriculum vitae is quite impressive.

Robert B. Oxnam also discovered late in life, as everything crumbled around him, that he suffers from dissociative identity disorder or DID. That’s the clinical DSM-IV name for the disorder formerly (and still popularly) known as multiple personality disorder or MPD. This autobiographical book captures the story of that journey in an unique manner. Robert records the experience of his discovery of the disorder and his journey through treatment from the various perspectives of each personality. It’s a glimpse into the inner world of those who have a disorder which is difficult to understand from the outside.

The book also includes an excellent epilogue by Robert’s therapist, Dr. Jeffery Smith. If you read the book, don’t skip the epilogue. Dr. Smith provides an excellent overview of DID as well as a description of what he was trying to accomplish in the various stages of therapy and how he approached Robert’s disorder and his various personalities.

Dissociative identity disorder is not as bizarre or strange as people often consider it. Rather, all of the elements which together create it are normal pieces of the way our brains function and protect themselves. It’s just that in DID, each of those pieces is pushed somewhere close to its maximum extent. I want to take a moment to examine the primary two components.

First there is our capacity to, in effect, function as different people in different situations and settings. We all do this to one degree or another. Personally, when I’m focused on solving technical computer design or programming problems I tend to enter into a place where my mind is working at a level of abstraction that renders me less verbal. If you try to communicate with me while I am in that place, you are likely to get a blank stare initially if you get any response at all. It’s not that my ears didn’t hear the sounds you made, it’s that my brain is not engaged and operating in a way that allows me to immediately interpret those sounds as language. Now, I can fairly readily switch gears from that state into one that’s better able to communicate, but those around me can observe the shift. When I’m in the office, I find my coworkers understand that shift (most of them experience something like it themselves) and when they need to talk to me will wait for a moment to be sure I’m engaged with them. When I’m working from home, my family is less familiar with that process and they have a tendency to start telling me something before I’m ready to absorb it. I find I often have to tell them to stop and backup a bit when they need to talk to me while I’m working. They don’t experience that when I’m in the office because they have to call me and the process of hearing and responding to a ringing phone provides me all the time I need to shift gears.

However, while that’s the first example that comes to my mind, it’s hardly the only one. We all tend to present different aspects of ourselves in professional settings, in casual social settings, with more intimate friends, and with those who are closest to us. It’s so easy and natural that we hardly even think about it unless the “face” we are compelled to portray in a particular context feels so alien to us that it becomes a “mask”. Even then, we don’t have any particular problem pulling off the required masquerade. It just feels unnatural. But for every “mask” we notice, we likely have a hundred “faces” that we don’t. So even though we all feel like a single, unified person, the reality is that we are constantly and largely unconsciously rearranging the elements of our personality to meet the demands of particular settings and circumstances.

Dissociative identity disorder is a disorder because this natural function of the mind becomes cast in iron as distinct and divided personalities rather than more fluid “faces”. Those walls between the personalities are built through dissociation. But dissociation itself is a very common defense mechanism. It’s one of the ways our minds protect themselves from trauma.

One of the dissociative disorders that people are pretty familiar with today is post-traumatic stress disorder. While dissociation is hardly the only feature of PTSD, it is a significant piece of it. The dissociation can take the form of a total amnesiac block of the traumatic memory. You will still suffer to some degree from the trauma, even without the specific memory, but it seems to lessen the overall impact and allows the person to continue to function, even if in a diminished capacity. In other cases the dissociation can take the form of some sort of detachment, where you can recall the traumatic event, but it’s almost as though it’s from a third-person perspective.

My father is a Vietnam veteran and by the confluence of a number of events, he served in a particularly dangerous role. I remember a time when the sound of a breaking glass suddenly placed him back in a memory from the war from which he had dissociated until that moment. Dissociation helps us keep functioning in the face of trauma, but it’s not necessarily permanent. The traumatic memory isn’t actually gone. We just don’t have full access to it. (In fact, traumatic memories, by their nature, are the memories least likely to fade. They are seared into our psyche.)

If you’ve been fortunate enough to have never yet experienced trauma of this sort, consider yourself blessed. Try to remember that many of the people with whom you interact each day have not been as fortunate.

While I’m not inclined to share details, I will say that my earliest memories are like the shattered shards of a mirror. I see bits and pieces of scenes, but they are in confusing disorder and slide from one to another without connection or transition. There are also other periods across my childhood where I can see evidence in my mind of dissociation. I will give one example to illustrate my point.

I remember a number of nights at a young age (no older than 7, though I can’t place my exact age or place) when I would lie in bed and imagine that my life was a very realistic dream. I would pick a point in the past where a younger me was asleep and dreaming and I would try to convince myself that everything since that point in time was just a dream and soon the younger me would awake and the dream (or perhaps nightmare) would fade. As an adult, I can recognize that that is not exactly a typical train of thought for a young child. But I can’t remember why I wanted some significant portion of my life at that time to be a dream. Nothing. That part of my memory is simply gone.

And if I’m speaking truthfully, given the nature of much that I do remember, I’m not certain I really want those memories. That’s the sword of Damocles hanging ominously within dissociation. If the memories were not traumatic, there would be no need to dissociate. As a result, at least speaking for myself, there is a reluctance to try to pierce the veil and something of a fear that the veil might one day drop on its own.

So the various elements of dissociative identity disorder are either part of our normal, everyday mental capacity or  pretty common defense mechanisms. But in this disorder, they are ratcheted up to the Nth degree. Typically it’s the result of severe abuse at a very young age with no hope of escape. And it’s often the result of such abuse over an extended period of time. The traumatic memories are divided up between personalities to hold them. Some element of the ethos of the abusers tends to be encapsulated in other personalities. And finally, personalities that do not have any of those memories are created to function in the outside world. It’s a survival response in the face of an otherwise unbearable onslaught. Dissociation forms the walls between the personalities or identities. In order to survive, the whole person shatters.

Usually, the dominant personality or personalities are not aware of each other or of the inner selves who protect the secret. And since the entire construct of personalities were created in the face of severe trauma and typically exist to protect secrets, they are masters at hiding. As such, it’s a notoriously difficult disorder to diagnose.

And that’s the case in this book for Robert B. Oxnam. As “Bob” he functioned in the real world for decades without any awareness of the world within him. He achieved high degrees of success, even if he also suffered a host of chronic problems. It was only as “Bob” burned out and began to collapse that he reached a point where another personality revealed himself in the context of a therapy session. The book records his journey of discovery and healing from that point onward.

This book does an excellent job of taking us into the inner world of a disorder we have a hard time understanding and which, unfortunately, is the subject of much skepticism and humor. Take the time to read it. You won’t regret the experience.


Four Hundred Texts on Love 12

Posted: April 27th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

43.  If a man desires something, he makes every effort to attain it. But of all things which are good and desirable the divine is incomparably the best and the most desirable. How assiduous, then, we should be in order to attain what is of its very nature good and desirable.

As something of a competitive overachiever, I like this text. It reveals a simple, yet often overlooked truth.We can reliably gauge how much we want something by how much effort we are willing to expend to gain it. This, of course, is one of the threads behind Jesus’ statement that a man cannot serve two masters.

By this measure, I can ask myself if I want God. And far too often, it seems that my answer is no, or at least not very much. I want to want God. The Christian story has captured my heart and imagination. But I expend tremendous effort in many other areas of life and often have comparatively little left for God.

However, I do have faith that as I keep doing the little things that I can do somewhat consistently, God will take those and build upon them. God gives me grace, which is to say that God gives me himself, so that I might want him more. If I did not believe that, then I suppose I would see this whole Christian thing as fundamentally hopeless.


Samsung Moment (Android)

Posted: April 26th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Personal | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Samsung Moment (Android)

Samsung MomentYes, with my latest phone upgrade, I’ve joined the world of smartphone users. As a programmer and a long-time participant in the world of open source software, there wasn’t really any doubt which of the competing smartphone operating systems I would get. I had decided long ago that when I did buy a smartphone, it would be an Android-based phone.

I also had no particular desire to change carriers. While Sprint is hardly perfect, I’ve typically had good reception and connectivity the places I need it. And I’m hardly enthused by any of its main competitors. I have friends and family on AT&T, T-mobile, and Verizon, so I have a decent idea how they work. No thanks. (Besides, I still remember how happy I was when I managed to shed my last Southwestern Bell service years ago. Just because they’re calling themselves AT&T these days doesn’t mean I’m eager to voluntarily become their customer again.)

Given those parameters, my choices boiled down to the current 3G HTC Hero and Samsung Moment or waiting a couple of months and getting the new 4G HTC Evo. The idea of owning a new 4G Android phone was tempting, but I’m something of a cheapskate when it comes to gadgets. The 3G phones were both available as upgrades for $99 (after rebate) and could be used on a plan roughly equivalent in price to the one I already had. While the 4G phone pricing hasn’t been revealed, the odds are it will be more that $99. More importantly, I’m sure that 4G will be some additional monthly fee or a more expensive plan.

Given that, it was a pretty simple choice. The Moment’s hardware specs generally seemed equal or superior to the Hero’s, but the deciding factor was the sliding keyboard. I’ve gotten used to the slider on my old Rumor phone and I like physical keyboards. I don’t generally like the onscreen ones, though I can use them when I have to. The Engadget article seemed to imply that the fact that it “runs plain-vanilla Android” was a negative, but it sounded more like a plus to me. I was concerned that it still shipped with android 1.5, especially since a friend on Verizon complains that they don’t tend to update the firmware on their android phones from the shipping version. But Sprint is apparently more responsive and an upgrade to android 2.1 should be coming in a couple of weeks or so for both the Moment and the Hero.

I did have some glitches getting our family plan switched to the comparable smartphone compatible plan so I could activate the Moment. However, Sprint’s customer care representatives were able to straighten everything out with a minimum of hassle. I’ve typically had good experiences working with them and this time was no exception.

Once activated, I began figuring out how to access the features and configure the phone. I’m still working on that. I have it synced with my Google account, which has been underutilized so far. I set up my other email accounts and am getting used to its default interface. I’m not thrilled with the email client, so I may see if there’s a better one out there, though I’ll probably wait until after the android upgrade to do that. I picked Seesmic for my twitter client and I’m reasonably happy with it on the Moment. I took a look at their desktop version, but I’ll stick with Tweetdeck on my computer. I have my home wireless network and my Moment configured to play nice together. And I have the WordPress app installed and configured for my blog.

If any other android users read this, I wouldn’t mind hearing what apps you find fun or useful and why. Please leave a comment and let me know.

So far, I’m extremely happy with my new phone. The interface is snappy as are transitions from one app to another. I’m still learning how to tweak it to both behave the way I want and conserve battery power, but I am getting closer to an acceptable middle ground. My contacts are still a mess. The phone syncs contacts with Gmail and since I’ve never managed them there in the past, I have a lot of work to do to get them set up. The good news is that I can do it on Gmail from my computer. I don’t have to try to enter everything on the phone itself. I definitely recommend this phone.


No Oats For You!

Posted: April 25th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on No Oats For You!

Yes, my body has turned into a form of the Soup Nazi this past week and emphatically denied me oats. Apparently I’m one of the small percentage of celiacs who also can’t tolerate oats.

I set up the test pretty well. I got tested and certified gluten free steel cut oats by Bob’s Red Mill. I prepared and ate them in the middle of last week. For the past week I’ve otherwise eaten even more conservatively than I usually do. We’ve not been out to eat at all and I haven’t eaten anything that wasn’t either made by my wife or me or a normal part of my diet. I loved eating the bowl of oatmeal. That was always one of my favorites.

But I’ve been paying for it ever since. Bloating, painful cramping, and a variety of symptoms I won’t describe in detail. I’m only now really beginning to feel better.

So I guess I got unmistakable results from my test, just not the results I wanted. Oh well. At least I don’t suffer from a dairy, corn, or soy intolerance like some celiacs do. I’ve managed without oats for a year with no real struggle. It would be a lot more difficult to remove any of the other three from my diet on top of gluten. So, all things considered, I guess I can’t really complain.

Still, I was really hoping for a more positive result.


Four Hundred Texts on Love 11

Posted: April 23rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love 11

39.  Do not say that you are the temple of the Lord, writes Jeremiah (cf. Jer. 7:4); nor should you say that faith alone in our Lord Jesus Christ can save you, for this is impossible unless you also acquire love for Him through your works. As for faith by itself, ‘the devils also believe, and tremble’(Jas. 2:19).

The other day I referred to the faith of demons in James, so I wanted to include this text. Here in the United States, at least, many of those who are not Christian do have some familiarity with Jesus. And very often, the accusations they raise against us boil down to the accusation that we are not like Jesus. As long as our accusers speak the truth, we have no defense. When we are unlike Jesus, whom we name Lord, and when we do not obey his commands, which are to love, then we have earned their condemnation.

I’m not sure we have anything to say to those around us until we are able to hear what they are saying to us.


Four Hundred Texts on Love 10

Posted: April 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love 10

38.  If love is long-suffering and kind (cf. 1 Cor. 13:4), a man who is contentious and malicious clearly alienates himself from love. And he who is alienated from love is alienated from God, for God is love.

There are so many things we do by which we alienate ourselves from love. I doubt that most of us, when we do them, deliberately intend to alienate ourselves from God. And yet that is the inevitable result. If we thought before we acted that we would alienate ourselves from God, would we still do it?

This, I think, lies somewhere near the Christian practice of prayer. We believe that prayer is a direct mystical experience of God, whether we feel anything or not. In prayer, we train ourselves to be aware of God. And that is key, for only when we are aware can we choose to turn toward rather than away from God. And thus St. Paul urges us to pray without ceasing, that we not allow a moment to pass unaware of the presence of God.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.


Four Hundred Texts on Love 9

Posted: April 21st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love 9

31.  Just as the thought of fire does not warm the body, so faith without love does not actualize the light of spiritual knowledge in the soul.

Although this text is really just an expanded thought from the Epistle of James, I’m struck by the physicality of the text. Faith alone, which James calls the faith of demons, is like the thought of fire. It has no tangible, physical reality. The physical reality of our faith is love, which James calls ‘works’. It seems clear to me that James was not referring to the works of Torah, but rather the works of love, which is to say the works of Christ.

Our God, who is love, is also described as a consuming fire. It is fitting, then, that the metaphor of fire is used when we think of love. And the love of God, the love by which we are commanded to live, is tangible not ethereal. The thought of love is not love and will not fire our faith.