19 December 2008

Bonus Christmas Rant: Toronto Sucks

I just had to drive back from North York during what I would call a mild snow storm. Listening to the Toronto media describe it, it was the worst winter storm in years. They issued an "essential driving only" warning. To hear them, it was a total whiteout, and, gasp, 10-15 cm of snow!

Visibility was, well, diminished, but you could still see to the horizon most of the time. There was snow on the ground, but who cares? This is Canada; there is always some snow on the roads. It took me almost two hours to get back to my office when the usual time is more like 35 minutes. Why? Surely not because the snow itself. Why, then?

Fucking moron Toronto drivers.

Toronto drivers drive 50 km/h on reasonably well-plowed, sanded roads. They get stuck on tiny little snow drifts. They lose control of their cars at the slightest slipperiness.

I've got a freakin' two-wheel drive car with summer tires on, yet I am having absolutely no problems with this fucking snow. Back where I'm from, a mere 200 km east of Toronto, we'd laugh at this weather, go joy riding in it, wear shorts, etc. Toronto drivers are useless. Here, though, I get stuck behind morons who drive at a walking speed, can't hold their lane, and make me hours late. I so want to kick all of them in the nuts.

When I finally got back to my office, I discovered that the crybabies had closed up shop and gone home hours earlier. Yet I had to remain and finish a fucking report until 5:45, which I could have easily finished before our normal closing time if Toronto residents could drive in the winter.

The Inuit have hundreds of words for snow. What's the Inuit word for snow that isn't slushy, isn't icey, isn't oily, and results in basically no impediment to driving? Furthermore, what's the Inuit word for fucking Toronto wusses?

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It's an Alpha Christmas

Merry Christmas, all! I'll be going away for a week (or more if I'm lazy), but before I go, I'd like to let you know that, while I'm a few weeks behind posting the rest of the Alpha Course, in real life Alpha just wrapped up. We finished with the Christmas celebration dinner. This isn't really part of the course, in actuality, it's a recruiting tool: Alpha participants are strongly encouraged to bring family, friends, colleagues, etc, and try to get them to join Alpha next term. There's a video by Nicky Gumbel that is essentially "highlights" (I use the term loosely) of the first 3 sermons but with an added Christmas twist.

I encourage you to read a post I wrote a year ago when I was first brought to this Alpha Christmas dinner by my wife. It was essentially the same thing this time, except the food was much, much better and my wife again brought the two friends she is trying to convert.

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17 December 2008

A new 6 random things meme

A few days after Carlo tagged me with the 5 things meme, Eamon Knight tagged me with the 6 random things meme. Wow, no memes for months then suddenly two at once. Sorry for the delay writing this, Eamon, but I’ve been mondo busy recently. Finally getting to it now. You know, I have participated in a couple of “random things” memes before: (1) and (2) for those of you who want to peruse the old answers.

Here are the groud rules, as stolen from Eamon Knight:

1. Link to the person who tagged you. [see above]
2. Post the rules on your blog. [well, you're reading this, aren't you?]
3. Write six random things about yourself. [below]
4. Tag six people at the end of your post and link to them. [below - not!]
5. Let each person know they’ve been tagged and leave a comment on their blog. [nope]
6. Let the tagger know when your entry is up. [more YYIGATI]

Here goes the random crap:

1) I love Greek food: lamb kleftico, moussaka, gyros, tarama salata, saganaki, spanikopita, baklava. The thing is, it’s really, really hard for me to pronounce many of the Greek words with the correct emphasis: MOU-suh-KAH instead of mou-SAH-kuh, BAH-kla-VAH instead of bahk-LAH-vuh, etc. It’s not that I can’t pronounce them correctly; it’s that my brain rebels when I try to pronounce words in a way that my normal Canadian English brain thinks is wacky.

2) When playing hockey I’m more of a shooter than a passer. This is partly because my passing sucks. Also partly because I’m not skilled enough to stickhandle and look around at the same time; since I’m rarely aware enough to spot the open man, I might as well just shoot somewhere in the vicinity of the net. I typically miss the net by at least 3 m during the early stages of the game before I get my bearings.

3) I have never seen a Staedler white eraser that, through normal use, has shrunk to less than 75% of its starting size.

4) As of this evening (December 16, 2008) I have done exactly ZERO Christmas shopping. My wife, for some insane reason, wants me to get her clothes for Christmas, despite the fact that every article of clothing I have ever bought her she has absolutely despised.

5) Of all the late night talk shows, I prefer Craig Ferguson’s. I can’t for the life of me fathom why anyone would inflict Letterman on themselves anymore; he just wastes time for an hour.

6) At one time, my wife and I had a mattress set up in our living room. We’d eat dinner, then flop down on the mattress and watch tv, not getting up until it was time to go to real bed. Man, did I get fat. It was awesome.

I sure as hell ain’t tagging anyone with this. If you want to do it, drop a link in the comments section and consider yourself tagged.

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15 December 2008

Alpha Retreat Sermon 2: What Does the Holy Spirit Do?

We had a very short break between Weekend Sermon 1 and Weekend Sermon 2 on Saturday morning. This was leading to a severe Gumbel overload. Too much too early on a Saturday morning with too little sleep. It was just as long as your typical sermon, yet, in the course manual, it only took up two pages as opposed to the four pages a typical sermon takes. That means that there was a lot of fluff. I barely wrote any notes.

The basic gist is that the Holy Spirit makes us born again, this time into the family of God. Why there needs to be a Holy Spirit to do this doesn't make any sense to me. Anyway, the six points Gumbel emphasised are as follows. The Holy Spirit:

I. Makes us Sons and Daughters of God.

This gives us a relationship that implies forgiveness, privilege, community, etc.

II. Develops our Relationship with God.

The Holy Spirit ("He") helps us to pray. He also enables us to understand God's word. This one was quite baffling; what Gumbel actually said was that we have to believe in order to understand. That seems irrationally backward. He actually used the "leap of faith" in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as a reference for this one.

III. Gives us a Family Likeness.

IV. Gives us Unity to the Family

These two seem exactly the same as I., but I found they emphasized the Us vs. Them mentality that can make religion really dangerous, though I'm sure it wasn't Gumbel's intention.

V. Gifts for All God's Children

ie. all the physical supernatural abilities God promises in 1 Corintians 12:4-11. This includes speaking in tongues and prophesy.

VI. Grows the Family of God

Meaning it (sorry, He) empowers us to witness for Christ, do the missionary thing, engage in service to the church, etc.

To conclude, Gumbel said that the most important thing, according to him, here is that the Holy Spirit automatically comes into every person the moment they accept Jesus as their lord and saviour. The problem is that most of the time, the Holy Spirit comes in only a small quantity. ie. you are unfilled. Gumbel used the analogy of a pilot light in a fireplace. The Holy Spirit is the pilot light. It's up to you to turn the gas on 'high' and get filled with fire.

I guess to some people in the course, this was a very important session. In the subsequent group discussion, many people were worried about Gumbel's last point, ie. do they have the Holy Spirit or not, are they filled or not. Personally, I just didn't care.

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10 December 2008

Alpha Retreat Sermon 1: Who is the Holy Spirit

This was the first real sermon, first thing in the morning on Saturday. I was extremely tired due to excessive heat in the rooms. I think everyone else had similar problems; there was a lot of yawning.

Though it was priefly mentioned in the Intro Sermon, Gumbel's first order of business was complaining about how "the person and work of the Holy Spirit has been ignored and misunderstood," taking a backseat to God the Father and God the Son, and been called the "Holy Ghost" by Catholics in particular, and "It" rather than "He" in general. Also, that Christians even tend to resist the Holy Spirit because they think it will take control over their lives.

It is true that most Christians neglect the Holy Spirit. Just about the only time a Christian concerns himself/herself with the Holy Spirit is when crossing himself/herself, and he/she gets to the cross's horizontal member. Gumbel is very unhappy with this, and, if I were a concerned Christian, I could see why he'd want to rectify this. However, I agree with the Alpha Course's critics that it's madness to focus so much on the Holy Spirit in a supposed introduction to Christianity class. As far as being bothered by "ghost" and "it", that strikes me as Gumbel having a rather large anal retention disorder.

Getting back to the sermon, Gumbel wanted to show that the Holy Spirit was there from the beginning, being involved in the Creation, "the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters" (Gen. 1:2). I dunno. Anyone with more knowledge of ancient hebrew and access to the oldest bible scraps want to tell us if this Spirit of God is actually intended to be the Holy Spirit as understood by Christians?

Gumbel also wanted to show the the Holy Spirit came upon certain people in the Old Testament when God needed them to perform particular tasks, giving examples of Bezalel, Gideon, Samson, and Isaiah.

But rather than focusing on these Old Testament examples, he told a few quick anecdotes about one of his introductory points: that people resist the Holy Spirit because they don't want to give up control. To do this, instead of giving examples of reluctant Christians who let the Holy Spirit direct them in their lives and have their lives improved, he bashes atheists. His typical story involves some atheistic person whose life is full of failures and addictions and is generally unfulfilled, with unhappy relationships to boot. Then they suddenly accept the Holy Spirit and have their lives go down crazy, but good and joyful, holy paths.

Gumbel then made a point that the Holy Spirit was promised to all people by God, not just important people like in the Old Testament.

Also said that John the Baptist linked the Holy Spirit with Jesus. Weirdly, he made mention of Jesus receiving power through the annointing of the Holy Spirit at his baptism. This is odd because it's a strongly adoptionist verse. I was surprised any modern Christian would emphasise this.

Finally, Gumbel said that Jesus predicted the Holy Spirit's presence and coming for all of his followers, culminating in the Holy Spirit coming upon the disciples at Pentecost.

During Acts, this receiving of the Holy Spirit was said to look like tongues of fire (Acts 2:3). WTF? Must be extra special Holy Spirit mentioned here, for I've never heard of a visible Holy Spirit coming at any other time. This is crazy stuff.

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08 December 2008

Alpha Course Day 9: How and Why Should We Tell Others?

Dinner: They finally unleashed the Indian guy, and we had curry. Again, not enough meat and kind of tame - they were really worried about burning the taste buds of the old boring white people in the group - but good flavour. Also shrimp chips, salad, green beans actually cooked properly. Dessert was mini cheesecakes with syrup, powdered sugar, and fruit slices, so also pretty good. Hooray.

Part 1: Sermon

A lot of sermon time was taken up with people from the group giving testimony about their experiences at the weekend retreat. One woman said she had a big experience. She had prayed to give her life to God on Monday, but felt ill at ease the whole week and through the weekend up until one discussion when she realized her problem was that she didn't like accepting gifts. Once she understood this, she felt emotional, became physically shaky, and felt flushed.

Another girl said she had prayed the same prayer. Two months ago, she lost her job, so she wanted to feel like God had chosen to take her job away and that there was a reason God wanted her to be unemployed. There was lots of crying.

I tuned-out some more emotional testimonies and crying and waited until the video started.

Gumbel explained that the reason why Christians should tell others was that people are looking for meaning, Christianity has the answers, and it would be irresponsible not to tell them. I understand this point of view, even if I don't think it does have the answers.

According to Gumbel, there are 5 P-words that detail how Christians are supposed to tell others: Presence, Persuasion, Proclamation, Power, and Prayer.

Presence means that you have to act well and be a good example for others while letting them know you are a Christian. He gave the example of William Wilberforce (19th century abolitionist leader) and Millard Fuller (started Habitat for Humanity).

Persuasion means reasoning and arguing with people, knowing the bible, knowing the answers to common skeptical questions - like the problem of evil, what about other religions, etc. Gumbel maintains that Christianity does not require a "blind leap of faith" but only a reasonable faith. Of course, I disagree with that too, and feel sorry for wannabe evangelists who encounter a knowledgeable skeptic. Based on the answers provided by Alpha, these guys would get torn up.

However, Gumbel doesn't seem to want to go up against real skeptics. He told a story of a seminar he was at where he and another pastor were challenged by a hardcore skeptic who went on for 20 minutes of questions attacking Christianity - history, biology, physics, ethics, theology. Gumbel was overwhelmed, but the other pastor just asked "if I could answer all your questions would you become a Christian?" "No," the skeptic replied. Looking around at everyone else in attendance, the pastor said, "Are there any other questions?"

Proclamation is about telling your story. Gumbel wants everyone in Alpha to write down and memorize their testimonies about their journeys into faith. As he said, there is no answer to that; "they can't say, 'no, that didn't happen to you.'"

Power means doing and telling and performing miracles. Not much advice was given to as to accomplishing the miracles part.

And Prayer, which is pretty self-explanatory. You pray for your potential converts to see the Truth. You pray to make yourself feel better.

Hmm. Pray for potential converts? That sounds strangely familiar. Like what my wife prays for every single night (in my presence, too). But not only that...

Part 2: Small Groups

...It turns out that a bunch of other people in my group are praying for my conversion, too. One even had a dream about me in that regard. It was really creepy.

Basically, most of the small groups time was about me. One guy started by asking if I'd changed my mind and started accepting Christianity at all. I said no and explained why not. Then everyone started piling on with how they were praying for me. The main tactic was them telling their testimonies and then trying to compare and contrast with what happens in my life.

I realized that they think I live, and have always lived, some sort of worry-free blessed life with youth, wealth, health, good looks, a beautiful wife, house, and a rewarding job. And the fact that I've never been down and desperate is why I don't feel the need for God. It's funny to me since I've never considered myself to have such a blessed life, though I do recognize that my life has been pretty good the last few years since I finished undergrad. But I still see myself as the nerdy socially outcast guy I was in my younger days, and to a certain extent still am now. And I'm not rich or privileged. "I drive a 2002 Nissan Altima," I exclaimed in exasperation. I still work 9-5* every day in a cubicle, ie. there is CERTAINLY more to life than this, to borrow Alpha's catch phrase.

The difference, I think, is that I'm comfortable with my place in the universe due to my knowledge of science and history, but more than that, I don't have the anger, depression, and forgiveness issues that the rest of my group seem to have. Sure, I have had my problems in the past and have been faced with crappy situations, and I've let them eat me up for months or even years before. But I've learned to not get down, not hold grudges, and ride-out rough patches without the need for a watchful father-god because, for the most part, bad situations don't stay bad forever. And if they don't improve, well, human beings are very adaptable and can either make the best of a bad situation or even do something to make the situation better.

Most of them, though, had become Christians in response to some form of extreme trouble in their lives. To me, though, entering a faith when under duress is like grocery shopping when starving. You buy crazy things that you have to live with even after you're no longer hungry, like ten Salisbury steaks that will reside in your freezer forever.

The session ended with the lawyer guy magnanimously assuring everyone that I'd become Christian sometime...

* It really should be 8-5, but I've been an hour late for work a lot recently due to exhaustion and poor sleep habits.

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07 December 2008

PZ Myers: the "chance and lack of purpose" problem

PZ Myers has a post up about the difficulties in marketing evolution. One of his main points is that it's really human evolution that really bothers people.
The second objection is to chance and the lack of purpose. People really, desperately want there to be a personal agency to causality — they become utterly irrational about it all if you try to imply that no, fate, destiny, and ultimate cosmic purpose guided them to their mate, for instance. It couldn't have been just chance. I suspect this is a consequence of the first contention: people want to believe that they are important agents in the universe, and one of the implications of evolution is that they aren't.

Holy crap that is accurate. One item of major importance to my wife is that God was answering her prayers/had a special plan when He brought the two of us together in a relationship, especially since she prayed for someone who had many traits that I have.

In fact, whenever we get into an argument about religion, she'll bring up how God answered her prayers miraculously in bringing me to her. Whenever I answer that (a) she has a higher chance of ending up with me because she's actively looking for someone with my traits, and (b) there's a lot of dumb luck involved and something has to happen so why not me? she get's very, very upset. Very.

I have no idea how to counter this argument and liberate people from this "personal agency" mindset. For now, I will steer any God vs. chance arguments away from our relationship and hope for the best.

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06 December 2008

Dalai Lama Sex

The Dalai Lama sounds like he's in need of a good lay.

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04 December 2008

Alpha Retreat: Intro Sermon

The first of Nicky Gumbel's video we watched was on Firday night and served as an introduction to the weekend series of videos about the Holy Spirit.

First, I'd just like to say that Gumbel's focus on the Holy Spirit is a little weird and intense. For instance, the Alpha Course has three sermons on the Holy Spirit and only two on Jesus. The self-proclaimed "highlight" of the course is the last day of the retreat when participants are encouraged to invite the Holy Spirit into their lives (sometimes resulting in manifestations such as speaking in tongues, seizures, etc). In fact, if you search for "Alpha Course and criticism" on Google, the bulk will actually be from other Christians criticizing Gumbel's Holy Spirit-oriented, aka "charismatic", views.

For reasons that escape me, because it didn't have anything to do with the Holy Spirit, Gumbel started off with an amusing story about a criminal in a church. A suspect on the run from police is seen entering a church during a service. The police discretely flag down the pastor and tell him that a criminal is sitting with his congregation, and that they're going to have to storm the place looking for him. The pastor doesn't like this idea, and gets the police to agree to another scheme. The pastor asks all members of the congregation and all their guests to come to the front to witness a baptism. This leaves just one guy sitting down, who the police pounce upon and take away. It is later discovered that he wasn't the criminal, instead, he was just a poor guy coming to church for the first time.

Finally getting into the meat of the sermon, Gumbel started to explain what the Holy Spirit was. He explained that the Holy Spirit, not "Holy Ghost", was a "he" not an "it" and he thinks, grieves, etc. From this perspective, the Holy Spirit is typically neglected.

The Holy Spirit was "sent by Jesus from the Father." Huh? That's one thing I really, really hate about Christianity the more I have to listen to it - how they have to get all three parts of the trinity involved in everything. It's meaningless. Hell, most of the time Gumbel uses "Jesus" and "Holy Spirit" seemingly interchangibly.

He said he thinks that everyone has a "cosmic loneliness, a homesickness for God." This has been hammered home many times, and I'm sick of this one too.

Finally, Gumbel got around to explain a little more about what the Holy Spirit is all about. It (sorry, not a He) is described by the Greek word paraklatos, which means "one who comes alongside." He told the story of a guy in a little airplane. The pilot suddenly died of a massive heartattack. The man was able to steady the plane and radio for help. Fortunately, a flying instructor was listening and scrambled up to help. Conversing on the radio with the troubled man, they established that he didn't have a clue how to land a plane. So the instructor flew alongside him and told him to just do what he (the instructor) did. This way, the instructor was able to guide the man down to a safe landing. "Thank God," said the man. "You're welcome," the instructor replied. Totally missing in this story was the irony that it really was a skilled, human good-guy who saved the man, not God at all. Don't expect your average Alpha attendee to notice.

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