30 November 2009

On Doubt

In the Alpha Course and weekend retreat, there was quite a bit of discussion on the role of doubt in Christianity (namely, there should be NONE, and any doubt is Satan trying to mess you up). I've tried many times to get Christians (including my wife) to understand the positive power of doubt. I've mainly failed, but it's worth a try.

Along those line, here is an excellent post by Akusai of Action Skeptics explaining exactly how important doubt is to a healthy human mind.

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21 November 2009

Lost in Pittsburgh with no place to stay

I just got back from a family trip to Pittsburgh with my wife, dad, and brother. We go on these trips fairly regularly to indulge in nerdly things (while my wife comes along to humour me). Points of interest this time we were specifically targeting were a Penguins game (because unfortunately it's just not possible to watch NHL hockey in Ontario anymore), the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, the Andy Warhol Museum, and a place that sells rare replacement parts for Jaguars (the cars, not the animal, though that would be interesting if they sold prosthetic limbs and hip joint replacements for jaguars - really, my dad has three old Jags that are always breaking down so he needs the parts).

Because I'm lazy, I'll summarize interesting tidbits about the trip in no particular order:

- The Carnegie Museum of Natural History is much better than the ROM in most ways. Exhibits are more educational and interactive. For the most part, the dinosaur fossils are better (except for ceratopsians - the ROM has an excellent collection of triceratopses and the like). However, the Carnegie does not appear to have any aardvarks in its exhibit, while the ROM does. For shame.
- There is something inspirational about looking at a towering statue of rock and understanding that 66 million years ago this thing was a mighty living beast munching on some unfortunate and tasty critter.
- Photography is allowed in the museum but posting of photos in a public place is not, so while there was a mastodon butt, I sadly cannot post a picture of it here.
- The Warhol Museum did not just have Andy Warhol stuff. There was also a large number of works from some guy with an unhealthy obsession with Andre the Giant. We unanimously agreed that this was awesome.
- Tried hard to get tickets for Saturday's Pens game vs. Boston, but failed. Ended up with tickets for the game vs. Anaheim on Monday. The Anaheim game was ok. It was a sellout and the Penguins won so the place had a great atmosphere, but it wasn't a terribly exciting game since they put the game away early. Unlike the Saturday game which the Pens tied 5-5 with 0.4 seconds left on the clock to send the game to overtime, then won on a breathtaking goalie giveaway early in OT. Watching it on the tv in our hotel room, the play-by-play guy called it the most entertaining game he'd seen all year. Dammit.
- Speaking of the hotel, we didn't bother booking a hotel in advance because who the hell would go to Pittsburgh in November? Answer: when the Steelers play, the local university team plays, and the Pens play twice, all on the same weekend, just about half the state shows up. We had to stay in a hotel in Steubenville, Ohio.
- The road system in Pittsbrugh is even worse than in Quebec. In Quebec, the ramps from the highway appear without warning on either side of the road. In Pennsylvania they do the same, except there's very little highway and lots and lots of ramps. Arguably, once you're inside any town in the general Pittsburgh area, it's basically ALL RAMPS. And you cannot get yourself to where you want to go by pointing yourself in that direction and just driving there. Inevitably you will take a ramp that will spin you around in the opposite direction. Our GPS was frequently confounded by all the multi-level ramps and roads. It was a complete nightmare of driving frustration. We're really spoiled in Ontario.


- I have to give kudos to the gift shop at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Fully half of the books in the store were entirely about evolution and not a Behe in sight. Unfortunately, that was about it for science books in the city. There were an awful lot of books about guns though.
- My brother lamented that we were far enough south that, other than hockey, the only Canadian culture we'd be likely to see would be Nickelback. To his surprise and delight, a guy in the Jaguar place was spotted with a Tim Hortons coffee. Apparently, there was one right down the street in Steubenville. Unfortunately, that was the last Canadian thing for the trip except for the inevitable Nickelback. Bleh.

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16 November 2009

Alpha Retreat Sermon 4: How Can I Make the Most of the Rest of My Life?

This was the last sermon of the Alpha Retreat and it's also the last sermon recap I'll post for my Alpha Course series. Short and sweet.

So, Mr. Gumbel, what should we do with the rest of our lives? Gumbel starts by saying that we should break with the past and make a new start. We do this by no longer conforming to the pattern of the world.

Specifically he says the first thing is to be nice to people and be positive. Strangely, though, the second most important thing he mentions (and the one he spends the greater amount of time on) is to follow biblical sexual morality. Gumbel said that he's never heard of anyone saying "I wish I hadn't waited for my wedding night."

Obviously, he's been talking to the wrong people.

So how do we make the change to being anti real world? According to Gumbel, it's an act of will that requires sacrifice. We need to turn our whole bodies (our eyes, ears, mouths, hands - not to mention our noses, throats, and pancreases) over to God. We have to give him our sexuality ('natch), our time, our ambitions, and our money ('natch).

We do this because God has planned for our future and he loves us and has done a tremendous amount of sacrificing for us and is merciful. Gumbel reiterates that God loves us even more than any parent loves their children. Which is of course why he wants our money. Damn freeloading uberparents.

And that's it. All purpose and meaning in life boils down to believing in God; following a combination of vague, anal, and nitpicky rules given to you by your clergy because you think that means loving God; and letting the Holy Spirit guide your actions and thoughts.

Of course, by this point you know my opinion of all this, as it's getting more and more obvious the more immersed I'm getting into the culture. This is the mental equivalent of putting on a blindfold and running at top speed into a forest full of trees.

The session ended with the church elder (yes, the one I had the fight with) leading a very emotionally draining and heartfelt prayer along the lines of what Gumbel mentioned about giving over control of everything in your life to God. He talked about how he lost much in his life (career, money, etc.) and his trust in God pulled him through. He lead the group in pledging that they would turn over everything to God, going into excruciating detail into the body parts being listing (I can't remember if he turned over his fingernails to God, but it wouldn't have surprised me - it was a detailed list). He also pledged his family, his work, his house, his hopes, etc. There were a lot of tightly closed eyes and lots and lots of tears from the congregation. I just sat and observed.

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09 November 2009

Alpha Course Day 11: What About the Church?

You know, one of the problems with being crazy busy at work is that you don't get a chance to finish up what you've been writing about on your blog. This leads to over half a year passing since the last post in the Alpha series. This leads to the unfortunate fact that I can't recall all the details anymore, and by this point when I was taking the classes my enthusiasm had dropped-off tremendously so I was taking less detailed notes. Apologies. I'll do my best.

This sermon was the last official session that we held. The last sermon in the course manual is "How Can I Make the Most of the Rest of My Life," which we did at the end of the Alpha Retreat. The final day of this fall's Alpha Course was the Christmas dinner, which had the same generic Christmas sermon that I've mentioned before.

Dinner: You know, I can't remember. Usually, I wrote down what dinner was. This day I neglected to do so.

Part 1: Sermon

I think this sermon wasn't so much a discussion or an argument for a particular point of view. Alpha is in large part a tune-up for Christians and a bootcamp for new Christians, so in that way, this sermon can be viewed as a briefing for leaving the course and joining the active Christian community, which, as Gumbel emphasizes at the beginning of this sermon, is what 'church' in the broader context means. Of course, he just can't come out and say that, he has to drone on for about 20 minutes to do so. (Actually, I might be being harsh on him for this. I went to a Catholic highschool and the point that 'church' was the whole community of people - not the building or the services or the clergy - was drilled into me incessantly, so this is old hat for me but might be new for some people.)

At least Gumbel started off with a good joke. A quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln: "If all the people who well asleep in church were laid-out end to end, they'd be a lot more comfortable."

Gumbel talked a bit about baptism, how it was "a visible mark of being a member of the church," though how a temporary activity can be a 'visible mark' is beyond me. He also said that baptism signifies "cleansing from sin," "incorporation into Christ's death," and "sealing of the Spirit," among other collections of words that don't really make any sense when strung together in sentence form.

He said that there were about 1.9 billion Christians in the world today (I don't know if he includes Mormons, Catholics, etc., and it's hard to tell what to do with people who pay lip-service to being Christian, but as far as I know the number is in the generally accepted ballpark). He mentioned how the church is growing in the developing world while in the civilized west it's shrinking. Told of 3 Ugandan missionaries who came to Gumbel's university (Cambridge) to convert the English heathens. Disappointingly, he did not address why large numbers of people in the civilized world were letting go of God. He just wanted us to be more like the Ugandans.

The middle of sermon just talked of trivial things like how the church provides local communities with small tight groups that provide support of people, or is the center of celebration services, or that the church is a mechanism for bonding the community into a 'family.'

Gumbel does mention in passing that there are a lot of denominations and sects. He calls this disunity 'absurd' as there is only "one spirit." "The church has split for every conceivable reason, and every inconceivable reason, too." Again, when a problem is encountered, he brings it up but just says something to the effect of "we really should be better," says something humourous and proceeds on his way, never caring about it again. Understandable given his goals, but disappointing from my perspective.

By this point, Gumbel was talking about how the church was "a Holy Temple, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Jesus as the cornerstone and indwelt by God's Spirit." Which is another way for me to say that at this point I nodded-off for a while.

Then he said something creepy about the church being "the Bride of Christ" and I woke up. Seriously, what's with all these churchmen wanting to marry Jesus?

Part 2: Small Groups

Discussion time was cut short by a short talk from a "special guest," who had been much hyped before dinner. He turned out to be the church's small groups pastor. Which surprised absolutely no one. Especially since we had noticed him lurking outside in the hallway. He mainly talked about opportunities in the church, what services they provide, etc.

The real discussion just focused on the feelings of each person in our small group regarding what they learned/realized/found important in the course re: Christianity/the church/themselves. Surprisingly shallow actually, again all regarding feelings, or blanket statements about how important it was to love God and let him control your life. When pressed, I said I learned that Christians cry a lot. Seriously, that was the best thing I could say; everything else I learned was more negative than that.

I'm very glad the course is almost done.

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07 November 2009

Pessimism is a Winning Proposition

I won a 50/50 draw at the office this week! We had a guy running the New York marathon to fund raise for a charity in Africa. He organized a bunch of fundraising activities, such as mini putt, paper airplane competitions, and pizza days, and this draw was one of these activities. The objective was to guess his time, each guess was $1 with the winner getting half and the charity getting the other half.

Apparently he runs marathons frequently and he planned on doing a 4 hours 15 minutes. Me, being the pessimistic type, figured he would get a cramp or something. So I guessed 4 hours, 42 minutes, and 36 seconds. I was actually 26 seconds too optimistic, with our man running it in 4 hours, 43 minutes, 2 seconds.

Hooray for the powers of pessimism!

(ok, the prize wasn't all that it was cracked up to be - only $19 - but I generally don't win anything, so this is a huge deal for me.)

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