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Posts tagged as “This Guy Called Jesus”

[jesus and godel, interrupted]: observing good friday

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I didn't manage to keep up with Jesus and Godel this year - best not to take on a third project when you already have two daily projects running - but it did serve as a lot of food for thought, and helped keep me on track in Lent. Learning to give things up can become a powerful tool that we can use elsewhere in our lives. Case in point: today was Good Friday, when Catholics are traditionally supposed to fast.

For health reasons, fasting guidance has changed to one square meal with lighter meals for the rest of the day (you may fast fully if able). I normally eat only two main meals anyway, so I decided to go with a light brunch, one square, and skip the midnight snack - in this case, brunch of fresh strawberries and toast.

But a funny thing happened: by preparing simpler meals, I got more done in the day. After fasting on the first one, it was easier to skip the full dinner and just repeat fresh fruit and toast. Which also saved me more time - and helped me go through the fruit in the fridge before it went bad (don't want to go through that again).

Many traditional Christians seem to view religious observances as a stream of gotchas and a chance to be accusatory. But the Sabbath was made for Man, not Man for the Sabbath, and the Law is the same. Even when we go beyond the Law to adopt other religious practices, they, when done properly, can be good for us, giving us the resources to treat others and ourselves better.

At least, that's what I take away from how I observe Good Friday.

And if my hungry belly stings a little, I always remember ... this probably feels better than nails.

-the Centaur

[jesus and godel 2024 post three]: forgiveness is for the forgiver

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So, those are construction workers loading a bobcat onto a flatbed on our driveway.

Except, they're not our construction workers.

Our neighbors are building a big, nice house, but have not been respecting our land while they're doing it. And many people I know have been telling me to give them hell for doing so - in fact, this picture is an example of that, as I was feeding my cat in the morning and saw these guys loading up on our driveway, blocking our housekeeper from getting in (you can barely see her car in the distance) and, generally, making a mess on our property like the neighbors owned it - so I zoomed down there to take these pictures:

But, frankly speaking, I worked for 17 years at Google, and over 25 years in technology, and I quite frankly don't need any more stress trying to solve problems like this. I'm done with the bullshit - I've heard the sob stories too many times, whether it's "oh, we're doing it just using your driveway as a one-off" (no, it's a ten-off at this point) or "no, this obviously dumb thing is actually a good idea" (no, the obvious problem that I just pointed out in your plan will quickly come to pass, like it always does) - and don't need any more.

Yes, I could get mad. (And I did, a little bit). But what good would it do me - or them?

If all goes well, we'll be living next to these neighbors a long, long time. And they've been trying to work with us, quickly responding whenever one of their workers starts parking their cars there (because when one does it, the rest see it, and start doing it as well). Getting angry just escalates the situation, and creates opposition where it doesn't need to exist. Instead, by practicing radical forgiveness, we can de-escalate the situations, and find ways to work together - like alerting my neighbor to the erosive damage done by the torrential rains last month, so they can save the trees they planted as a visual barrier:

Forgiveness isn't just for the forgiven person. It's for the forgiver - it helps us not just set aside the harm done, but also the anger that arises from our perception of injustice. Anger is like an alarm - the first thing a smart person does with an alarm is turn it off, and investigate the situation that the alarm caused. If you don't forgive, slights from the past can live on forever - taking us further and further away from the harmony on Earth that presages the harmony that should become our forever home.

-the Centaur

Pictured: well, I more or less said it.

[jesus and godel 2024 post one]: Jesus and Godel, Revisited

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So once again I'm taking something good on for Lent - continuing my series on "Jesus and Godel". To get started, I want to talk a little about the approaches that Jesus and Paul take to conflict.

Jesus reassures us a lot - he frequently tells us not to be afraid or to worry. But he also says that he's here to divide people from each other. Paul, in contrast, is an authoritarian: most of the rules that make up modern Christianity come from Paul - yet he admonishes us not to separate into factions.

These messages are actually complementary. Jesus is the messenger of truth, which on the one hand is nothing to be afraid of - but can cause conflict when people do not agree on the truth. Paul, on the other hand, suggests that we should not separate into factions because of our disagreements.

Jesus taught with authority, but Paul admits that sometimes he's speaking for himself - and both suggest that we should be peacemakers. We are fallible, which means that we can be wrong, and the people we interact with can be wrong - which can lead to division, as we stand up for what's true; but that fallibility means we cannot rely on our own authority, but must instead turn together towards Jesus.

I think these ideas are worth unpacking further - but, in the spirit of "drawing every day" and "blogging every day", I did not want the quest for perfection to get in the way of starting on the path towards it.

-the Centaur

[twenty twenty-four day twenty-one]: it’s too cold to be stingy

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Look, I get it: giving money to pandhandlers is not necessarily the best way to help lift people out of homelessness, and can often be counterproductive. Out of all the money that I've given to people, I'd say one out of three of them I could tell benefited from it (for example, one guy immediately bought food), one third were scammers (for example, one "hungry" guy immediately bought alcohol), and one third, I dunno. That's one reason that signs like this go up in public squares all across the country:

But look at the kind of day that this sign was having. It didn't get above freezing until noon. It's too damn cold to be stingy to people who ask for things from you. Jesus said "Give to all those who beg of you" and while sometimes we can't follow that advice given the context, yesterday was not one of those days.

This is part of a whole trend of "hostile architecture" where we structure our societies to make things difficult for people who are homeless - closing the parks, making benches hard to sleep on, stealing the possessions of the homeless (either as a condition of going into a homeless shelter, or outright theft by the police) and eliminating low-cost housing that could provide a path out for the homeless.

I'm not sure what the right answer is, but when it's fifteen below freezing, the right answer is not "no".

-the Centaur

[fifty-nine] minus thirty-four: being where you need to be

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fish and shrimp tacos at bj's brewery

Now, I don't think we live in a simulation (except I have strong evidence that we do - ask me know I know) but I do believe in providence, that idea that God is trying to arrange things in the world in a way that works out for us. And I think we can see providence (or the simulation, or synchronicity, or simple pareidolia) most clearly when we are where we need to be, for then things somehow all just work out.

Like, how, day before yesterday I decided to drop by a nearby coffeehouse after brunch, and stayed there until I finished beta reading a book; that put me at the right place to give some spare cash to an apparently homeless man, who looked like he needed it and promised he'd go buy food. Then I decided to grab a soda on the way out of town, which put me in just the right place to see the same homeless man try to buy alcohol. I need that reminder - that most of the time helping the beggar isn't actually helping - but still, Jesus says to give to all those who beg from you, and another errand placed me right where I needed to be to help another person. I hope they did something good for themselves with it, whatever it was.

Later that night I worked through another problem, planning to eat a light midnight snack instead of dinner, until, frustrated, I threw up my hands and went to grab dinner at BJ's brewery. That cleared my head, gave me the opportunity to run a few more errands, and I even got some writing done.

Seeking the good can help you find more of it. So I try to pay attention to what I was doing when things just seem to work out, so I can hopefully make more of the same choices in the future. Which, coincidentally, is what I was reading about over brunch today: a book on the Thomistic philosophy of free will, which has nothing to do with woo-hoo non-causal "free choices" and everything to do about building up the right resources within ourselves to make the right decision when the time comes.

So pay attention to providence: it may be trying to tell you something about how aligned you are with what you should have been doing in the first place.

-the Centaur

Pictured: fish and shrimp tacos at BJ's, and another chapter read of a deep RL book.

[thirty-two] minus twenty-one: because it works on them

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You know, I posted this a few days ago, but didn't post what I thought of it. I do think that it's pretty crummy that some people think that aid should be needs-tested. The rationale, mostly on the right, is that giving out assistance after someone misbehaves creates a "moral hazard", that is, a chance people will exploit the help in an attempt to behave without consequence. And this, of course, is absolutely true - there are some people who do exploit help to allow themselves to avoid taking consequences. Any system that is created can be exploited, and some people live by, literally have as the method of their living, exploiting others.

But someone who's starving and cold on the street is starving and cold on the street, and it's also true that we have an obligation to our fellow human beings to help those who need help. When someone collapses in front of you, you don't know whether that person was on drugs or just had a heart attack: you need to help them. Our human society works because we are social animals who factor the needs of others into our decision-making. (This is as useful for robots as it is for humans, so I suspect this is more than just a human-bleeding-heart thing, and is instead a universal property of successful intelligent civilizations).

And, not surprisingly, I know many rich people who understand this. It isn't a big issue; many members of my family are well off and they didn't need to be told to contribute to the needy or to step up providing food and water when there was a disaster, they just did it.

SO, back to the quote:

What is it about rich people that makes them think they can starve poor people into good behavior?

David Wong

I know the answer to this.

Because that kind of thinking works on them.

I know a lot of people who are affluent. Some from inheritance, some from hard work, some from a combination of the above. Not all of them managed to keep it. The ones that did were frugal - perhaps not all the time, not on everything, but when it came down to it, they were always worried about running out of money, even if they had a lot of it.

They knew if they behaved the way that "the money" wanted them to, they'd have none of it left.

Many rich people behave responsibly only because they fear the consequences of their own misbehavior. And, I think, that's why they're so concerned about "moral hazard:" they know if they didn't have a backstop, they would behave terribly irresponsibly.

Well, fine. Good for them, if that keeps them being responsible.

But that's no excuse to project their experience out to the whole world.

If someone is sick, homeless, or otherwise in need, we should help them. That's what humans do. That's how our civilization has become such an amazing success: we live in a world where life events can sweep away our entire foundation, and when those things happen, we all help each other stand back up.

As it should be.

-the Centaur

Easter is Just the Beginning

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the empty tomb

And so comes an end to Lent, and my Lenten series, with Easter. To Christians, Easter not just the commemoration of the Resurrection of Jesus on the third day after his Crucifixion, but an event happening in a very real sense right now, reverberating through time and space.

If the Crucifixion is when Jesus atoned for our sins, the Resurrection is when He brings the promise of eternal life to us, and begins his work moving the spirits of the people of the world towards the path of following Him into the Kingdom of God.

Forthcoming, at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Trinity, will take over that work; but now, we are in another time, not liminal, like Black Saturday, but celebratory, in which we give thanks for Jesus's Resurrection and worship with joy in the remembrance of it.

This was perhaps the hardest Lenten season I have ever undertaken: writing roughly 1,000 non-fiction words a day every day on top of all my other responsibilities was quite the challenge. But Jesus can resurrect anything, and He certainly resurrected my connection to the faith this Lent.

And now, on this day of rest, I close this Lenten series. I've much more to write on the "Jesus and Godel" thread, but I am going to take a break, and be grateful for the glory of the Resurrection, the promise of eternal life, and most importantly, for the Christian values that guide me towards Jesus.

-the Centaur

Pictured: a quick graphic of the opened tomb.

Death is not the End

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capaldi eyebrows

Black Saturday commemorates the day that Jesus lay in the tomb. If the Crucifixion is the great sacrifice, and the Resurrection is its great reward, the Tomb is the liminal space between, the moment between before and after, the place in time and space where Death reigns as supreme as it ever will.

Death is a funny thing, and does funny things to people's brains. Some people fear it; others welcome it, perhaps grudgingly. Some seek it; some try to move heaven and earth to avoid it. Strangest of all is what death does to otherwise rational people's perceptions of reality - of what is "ontologically possible."

Nicholas Meyer, director of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, in which Spock - SPOILERS - dies, is said to have complained that Star Trek III: The Search for Spock wasn't realistic, because Spock - SPOILERS - comes back from the dead, along the lines: "It's a fantasy - people can't come back from the dead."

Yeah, well, people used to not fly in space either, Nick, but you still directed a movie about it, almost a decade and a half after humanity successfully landed on the moon. A friend of mine had a similar complaint about another movie because "coming back from the dead isn't possible."

Put bluntly, this isn't a rational analysis. This is treating death as Death with a capital 'D', elevating it into a permanent part of the City of Myth, like Neil Gaiman's Endless or Terry Pratchett's Four Horsemen. But Death isn't a perky, photogenic goth or a cloak-wrapped figure made wholly of bones.

We are three-dimensional patterns persisting through four-dimensional space-time, and, one day, those self-maintaining patterns may cease to maintain themselves and dissolve. Put simply, someday, everybody dies. But those patterns, one day, might be restored, by any number of methods.

Despite the cliche, neither death nor taxes are an unavoidable part of the structure of the universe, and that should be obvious if you engage in informed speculation about possible futures. Thinking of taxes alone, we might have a universal basic income in a robotically-powered post-scarcity utopia.

While the resurrection method in Star Trek III leaves a lot to be desired - it's beyond scientific speculation and fully in the realm of "treknobabble" - if you're already talking about starships traveling faster than light crewed by psychic space elves, please, don't start talking to me about the realism of Death.

Death doesn't deserve its capital letter. One day, we might scientifically conquer it - I wear a cryogenic suspension bracelet around my wrist for precisely this purpose - and, to Christians, Jesus has already conquered it, with His ministry providing the gateway of belief to His death and resurrection.

Black Saturday remembers this time. One day, death will reach us all - it is inevitable, even though it might be reversible - but the promise of Jesus's resurrection is the promise that one day we all may go beyond the dissolution of our physical patterns and into a new mode of existence that is eternal.

-the Centaur

Pictured: the eyebrows of Peter Capaldi, known for playing a man who knows something about coming back from the dead.

If Ever You Think Your Day Was Bad …

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chesterton sketch

The Crucifixion puts everything into perspective. No matter what we face in life, no matter how bad things get, it’s hard to top an innocent man being tortured to death for telling the truth in a political kangaroo court - which, essentially, is the story of Jesus’s death.

This is a strange comfort for me when I think I’ve had a bad day. No matter what minor mishap has triggered my internal narrative and constant catastrophizing, it really never is as bad as what Jesus had to go through to protect us from the consequences of our own sins.

I feel strange even writing this. It seems like this is something that should be treated with heavy reverence - the Crucifixion is the most important event in Christian theology, and in that view, is the most important thing to ever happen in all of Creation itself.

But the reverence of a prayer to our God - as regurgitated performatively to other true believers, which is what all audible or written prayers are, performances - leads to language which is the opposite of clear explanation and honest sharing with people who do not yet believe.

Think of the exaggerated “JAY-zuss” you hear from televangelists. Jesus actually tells us not to pray in public: “When you pray, you shall not be as the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men.”

Or think of the constant praises that Muslims offer to Allah in religious contexts: Allah, may He be glorified and exalted”, “Muhammad, upon him be prayers and peace.” In a sense, this is a performance, something which reads the best to other believers.

But in another sense, these praises and exaggerations are not a performance. While I’m leery of taking much from any other faith into Christianity, especially Islam, which C. S. Lewis described as “Christianity’s greatest heresy,” one thing that I agree with Islam about is submission to God.

Islam means submission to God, and as part of that submission, Muslims believe in gratitude, which leads to thanks and praise to God, and Muslims believe in scripture, citing verses from the Qur’an as a reason to bestow on Muhammad all those honorifics.

Similarly, to a televangelist, belief in Jesus is the most important element of anyone’s life. He’s their guide, their Savior, their close personal friend, even if He is invisible, and every time they say His name, they want to emphasize His importance to them.

In Christian theology, Jesus is God, existing before and outside Creation; but Jesus is also human, making Him the most important part of Creation - and the Crucifixion, Death and Resurrection the most important event.

That’s why the Crucifixion looms so large: in a sense, it is both everywhere and at the center of things. The authors G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis both had a genius for metaphor when talking about the Risen Lord, often using the imagery of the Sun when they did so.

That’s appropriate. The Earth turns, and sometimes, its weight and bulk seems like it blots out the Sun. But the Sun is always there, still burning, shining its light into every part of the darkness, and it will be waiting for us when it turns around again.

The light of the Sun predates the formation of the Earth, which took its current shape after the Mars-sized planet Theia slammed into the proto-Earth (which in my novels I call Hyperion), and it will shine after the Earth is gone, consumed in the swelling of the Sun into a red giant.

This is one reason I’m not so worried about the discrepancies between the Bible and modern cosmology: the world wasn’t made in six days and it won’t end in seven trumpets, but echoes of those spiritual truths can be found over and over again, fractally, throughout the universe.

And the largest of those looming truths is that of the Son. Like the Sun, He was here before us, His light shaped us and helped us grow, and He will be here long after we’re gone, collecting the dust of the old world and refashioning it into a new one.

So today, the echoes of the Crucifixion wash over us; tomorrow, that of his Death; the day after, that of his Resurrection. And the lesson, even for our worst suffering and our darkest hours, is that suffering, followed by death, is a mere echo of a process that ends in Resurrection.

-the Centaur

Pictured: G. K. Chesterton. Dude had some hair.

Every Supper Might be the Last Supper

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philip k dick drawing

[For those tuning in from yesterday, when I wasn’t sure if I would continue these essays: I’m “at work” waiting - wading, really - through recompiles and reinforcement learning policy evaluations, so I might as well write my essay while my virtual robot chugs along.]

There’s a great bit in the surprisingly dark Doctor Who holiday episode “The Last Christmas” where someone says they don’t like Christmas because every Christmas is the last Christmas for someone, and might be the last Christmas for you in particular.

That got me thinking about the Last Supper. Today is Maundy Thursday, the last day of Lent proper. Working backwards, Easter commemorates the Resurrection, Black Saturday the Tomb, Good Friday the Crucifixion, and Maundy Thursday the Last Supper.

At the Last Supper, the final meal Jesus shared with His followers prior to His death, Jesus ritually broke bread and instituted the Eucharist, predicted his betrayal by Judas, and may also have washed the feet of the Apostles in a show of servant leadership (the Gospels differ).

While the Crucifixion and the Resurrection are critically important in the salvation of humanity (and the resolution of the problem of evil), the Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist are critically important to the spiritual lives of Christians everywhere.

In it, Jesus broke bread and said, “This is my body, which is for you: this do in remembrance of me,” and after supper, he shared a cup, saying ”This cup is the new covenant in my blood: this do, as often as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.”

This is big league stuff. That text isn’t from the Gospels: it’s from First Corinthians, one of the most reliable books of the New Testament: Paul’s authorship isn’t really disputed, it’s found in the oldest copy of the Bible (the Codex Vaticanus), and it dates to like 50ish AD.

As we discussed earlier, First Corinthians documents events happening in the first few years after Jesus’s Crucifixion - but Paul says he got his info about the Last Supper from Jesus Himself, with the words: “For I received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you…”

My point is twofold. First, if you’re a skeptic not super interested in Christianity, sometimes you hear arguments that “Christianity” is a later invention and that maybe Jesus didn’t even exist. This is bunk: key elements of Christian worship were rolling only a year or two after He died.

You may not believe that has any meaning, of course. Christian theology itself says mysteries must be taken on faith. If you’re not willing to do that, that’s your prerogative. Just, please, don’t work backwards from your disbelief to pretend verifiable things aren’t true to give you cover.

My second point is this: the Eucharist is a key part of Christian worship. I know that many Protestants don’t place the same emphasis on the sharing of bread and wine that Catholics and Episcopaeans do, but according to Paul, Jesus thought it so important He told Paul personally.

[I want to say that Jesus knocked Paul off His horse to tell him, but I doubt that’s actually true.]

The celebration of the Eucharist, and the transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus - whether you think that’s literal transubstantiation, spiritual transformation, or simply holy metaphor - are the key conduits we have to receive spiritual grace in worship.

Jesus instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper directly with His Apostles, and re-emphasized it in-person after His death and Resurrection to the Apostle to the Gentile, Paul, and His Church is still celebrating this 2,000 year old institution today.

Philip K. Dick once came to believe that we’re all trapped in 70 A.D., waiting for the return of Jesus. I certainly don’t believe that, but there is something timeless about the elements of Christian worship, which makes the rituals spiritually appropriate for all times.

So, regardless of whether you’re an active Christian, a lapsed backslider, or an interested outsider, you should attend a Mass sometime. One day, your supper may be a Last Supper, and it will be good to have shared that last meal - metaphorically, spiritually, actually - with Jesus.

-the Centaur
Pictured: Philip K. Dick, who was quite the strange cat.

Do Not Swear by Heaven or Earth

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dedekind drawing

So we may be coming to an end of my Lenten series - not because Lent is over, though technically Lent ends on Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday, because I had been planning on writing through to Easter - but because I forgot that Lent rolled over April - and Camp Nanowrimo.

Nanowrimo, for those late to the party, is National Novel Writing Month, a challenge to write 50,000 words in the month of November. It has two sister challenges, "Camp Nanowrimo," in April and July, and a few years ago I committed to doing all three every year, so I could finish my books before I die.

I live by The Law of Prior Commitment: if you have two conflicting obligations, the one you agreed to first wins, nor do you break a prior commitment to take on a new one. In this case, I thoughtlessly committed myself to writing two essay's worth for five days, and I'm already overloaded. The Lent series must go.

Now, the Law of Prior Commitment is a great law. It simplifies and de-stresses many decisions in life, because it's easy to apply, easy to understand, and impartial. When combined with a key exception - when a conflict affects my wife, I Prioritize My Marriage - it becomes easier to be fair with people.

That exception is important. Sometimes the commitments I make are to myself - to take on a Lenten series, to commit to Nanowrimo, to attend the Write to the End writer's group every Tuesday. But once, back in the day, when I'd committed to a karate class, it conflicted with my new girlfriend's art opening.

My future wife's art opening - her very first art opening, in point of fact.

Following the Law of Prior Commitment got me in trouble - and I don't mean that she was upset, though she was; I mean that I missed out on a special experience because I was mindlessly applying a rule. As I've discussed earlier, no set of rules can be perfect for dealing with the complexities of the real world.

Literally NO rules, because it's mathematically impossible. As much as we may wish otherwise, for ANY problem you have to think about with, like, your brain, the mathematician Dedekind showed arithmetic is embedded in it somewhere, and Godel's Incompleteness Theorem is lurking behind that with a club.

Perhaps this is why Jesus tells us not to swear oaths: "You have heard that it was said to our ancestors, you must not break your oath, but you must keep your oaths to the Lord. But I tell you, don’t take an oath at all: either by heaven, because it is God’s throne; or by the earth, because it is His footstool."

Jesus was no doubt aware that commitments made as oaths - rules short enough to be packaged into a brief verbal spell - cannot encompass within their rules the whole of the path following Him, which involves constant course-correction towards Jesus with discernment (discretion guided by grace).

In popular culture the way to Heaven is "straight and narrow" but that's a misreading of Matthew 7:14, which the Interlinear reads as a narrow GATE and a constricted WAY - hard to get through, and easy to step off the path. A straight path is easy to follow. But straight lines exist in the human mind, not nature.

This is one reason I've always been a bit suspicious of religious orders - people who swear a vow - an oath - to God to live as part of a religious community. No matter how well intentioned those vows are, no matter how religiously inspired, they're replacing the simple following of Jesus with human rules.

When we decide to follow a rule, or swear an oath, or even when we take on a vow to God, we are placing something finite and human - a short verbal spell, followed by our own finite judgment - over the infinite and divine example of Jesus, the Son of God, and the Person of God Himself.

Following Jesus is strange and difficult, sometimes challenging, requiring discernment - again that odd word, which in plain language means just "good judgment", but to Christians, it stands for a process: "perception in the absence of judgment with a view to obtaining spiritual direction and understanding."

That lack of judgment is important. Jesus says, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?"

This means more than just not judging people for their imagined offenses. It applies to all situations. If we cannot approach a situation without judgment - without being open to everyone and everything that are actually there - then we will only find ourselves regurgitating our own prejudices.

Oaths short-circuit this process of discernment. An oath says, "I'm going to make a decision now, so I won't have to make a decision then." Oaths, while they are restrictive, are comforting, in a way: if one makes that promise to do a good thing now, then you can be sure not to be swayed later.

Except, sometimes, we should be swayed later. You can make all the promises to yourself that you want, but you do so in a particular set of circumstances, and if your circumstances change, they could require you to re-visit the assumptions that led you to make the oath in the first place.

Artificial intelligence researchers call this "defeasible reasoning." Logicians, skeptics and objectivists may want the firm certainty of deductive reasoning, which moves from true premises to true conclusions, but probability theorists, scientists and roboticists know that new information can invalidate the old.

There is no substitute for taking each scenario on its own merits. No substitute for discretion; no way to eliminate the need for discretion before judgment. You can swear all the oaths you want, make all the promises to yourself that you want, but one day, your rules will fail.

So, I promised to myself I'd take on a Lenten series, and that I'd do Camp Nanowrimo. But in practice, I'm going to roll into Maundy Thursday tomorrow, approach the situation without judgment, and, regardless of the rules I've set for myself, let myself decide what I ought to do to follow Jesus.

-the Centaur

Pictured: Dedekind, a mathematician who showed that our most basic thoughts - thinking about things, and putting them into groups, which might contain other groups - contain, deeply embedded in their implications, the full richness of the natural numbers, and beyond them, all of mathematics.

Palm Sunday and Ordinary Miracles

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Modern movies have trained us to expect showy spectacles of power. The Emperor throws lightning from his fingers with the power of the Force; Tony Stark blows up a mountain range with the power of his mind (via engineering); Superman flies around the planet to turn back time with the power of Earth's Sun.

This is true even in depictions of miracles from the Bible. Cecil B. DeMille filmed the waters of the Red Sea roaring back from the staff of Moses like he was Gandalf, but in Exodus 14:21, Moses just stretches his hand out over the sea, and God sends a strong east wind. Parting the Reed Sea takes all night.

In all fairness, the Bible does mention the walls of water, which later crash in on the Pharaoh's troops, and earlier God does ask Moses to take a shepherd's staff with him to work his wonders. But it isn't mentioned in the parting of the Red Sea itself. It isn't as photogenic as we want to remember.

This is true about many miracles in the Bible, especially the miracles of Jesus in the Gospels. Lazarus is brought back from the dead, but people do recover from seemingly fatal-looking illnesses. The feeding of the crowd can be chalked up to underestimating how much food people had with them. And so on.

Now, there are unambiguous miracles in the Gospels - my favorite is Jesus stilling the storm and walking on water - but many of the miracles are events which you not only have to take on faith, but you have to use faith to recognize that they are even indeed miracles, much less interpret them properly.

Such is the story of Jesus's triumphal entry in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. He sends His disciples ahead to retrieve a donkey, which is mysteriously tied up precisely where He says it would be, and whose owners yield it to the disciples without a fuss when told that the donkey was needed for the Lord.

Then, upon Jesus's entry, crowds gather and, even though they don't precisely know who He is, lay down for Him cloaks and palm branches - from where we get the name Palm Sunday. Supposedly, all the city was moved by this triumphal entry ... but only then learned that it was Jesus, the prophet from Galilee.

Wait, what? How did they know to gather? Remember, this is before Twitter, before cell phones, even before CNN and the 24-hour news cycle. And Jesus didn't exactly have the largest staff - He had twelve close confidants (we call them Apostles) and sent out seventy or so followers (we call them disciples).

But even so, the Bible narrates Jesus's advance team, which doesn't do more than procure some transport. The appearance of the crowds that gather for Jesus, much less the donkey that Jesus mysteriously knows about from miles and miles away, are a rational mystery.

Now, if you're a skeptic, you're likely aware of "information leakage" which can cause the appearance of paranormal phenomena when in truth the "counting horse" was just paying close attention to the body language of the trainer, or the "psychic" was learning to predict from subtle smudges on the cards.

A skeptic must admit that it's possible that in the six days prior to Palm Sunday, when Jesus was staying in nearby Bethany, that He sent messengers ahead to prepare the way. By my count above, plus other hangers-on in the Bible, He likely had a hundred followers, seventy embedded across Israel.

So, from a skeptical perspective, there's really not anything to explain. But if you take the story on faith - if you believe that the Bible, even if it isn't literally true and is primary source material, isn't just primary source material and is inspired by faith to tell us what's important - then you see God at work.

Again and again, Jesus works small miracles, things which a skeptic can easily explain away, things which don't require an extravagant budget, complex special effects, or thousands of extras. Sometimes, it's just seeing someone from afar, be it a donkey for the triumphal entry ... or the apostle Nathanael.

"When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, He said of him, 'Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is no deceit.' 'How do You know me?' Nathanael asked. Jesus replied, 'Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.' 'Rabbi,' Nathanael answered, 'You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!'"

It's a simple miracle. A skeptic would chalk it up to a cold read and go on about their business. But to a believer, it's a sign. Jesus knows who we are and what resources we have, even from a great distance, and He sees what role we can play in His Kingdom ... even if we sometimes seem very far away.

God acts in the world around us all the time. Earlier in this series, I pooh-poohed the experiences some people have with spiritual or magical experiences which require a prepared mind, but it is true that there are things which we cannot easily see unless we've trained ourselves to see them.

Once I was working on a logo for a startup on a very early CAD program at a friend's family printing plant, and just as I was getting satisfied with my work, one of the foremen came over, looked at my drawing, and said, "Yeah, doesn't look too good. Those little chevrons there don't line up."

And, dangit, they didn't. I had a lot to learn about how to "see" features of drawings. And even though it was a pain - the custom vector-graphics program was very hard to use - I had to take the advice and laboriously fix each little chevron, because what the foreman had pointed out was absolutely true.

Jesus once said that no sign would be given to this generation except the sign of Jonah - referring to Jonah's three-day stay inside a giant fish, and meaning Jesus's own Resurrection. And that is all we need, if we're paying attention, to the ordinary miracles God works around us every day.

If we learn to see.

-the Centaur

Pictured: He is Iron Man, thanks to a suit which, both in-and-out of universe, is a very expensive effect.

Focus on Holy Week

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good friday vigil drawing Our journey through Lent nears its conclusion: we have entered Holy Week, which commemorates the events of Jesus's last days, from His triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, through Maundy Thursday and the Last Supper, Good Friday and the Crucifixion, and Easter for the Resurrection. This means more in a liturgical traditions like the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Episcopal churches - among many others - where these events are commemorated in specific rites and masses, such as the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday or the Easter Vigil on Saturday night. Saint Stephens in-the-Field also did a Good Friday vigil, in which a rotation of people stayed up in the church all nights praying. I've done that a number of years, and always found it to be transformative. That's where I discovered The Formation of the Resurrection Narratives book, for example. If you're not Christian, all this rigmarole may seem a bit overdone. If you're not following something,  focus on it can seem a bit out of place. I recall an agnostic friend who went to see the Pope once, to see what all the fuss was, and was unimpressed to find that the Pope was just an old guy in a bubble car. Trying to understand what the Pope means to someone who isn't a believer in the Apostolic succession is like someone who's never seen Star Wars trying to understand what's awesome about a new Star Wars movie, or a signed photo of Mark Hamill: the context is lost. But if you believe that the Pope is who Catholics say he is - that the Pope is the inheritor of the Apostolic Succession, that he's the successor of Peter, who was given charge of the Church by Jesus Himself, who had the authority to do so because Jesus was God - then it doesn't matter what he looks like. If you believe, then Holy Week is a chance to relive the key story of the Christian faith - the Crucifixion and the Resurrection - from start to finish, which gives you the opportunity to reflect on and deepen your understanding of Jesus's sacrifice. According to orthodox Christian theology, this isn't something we can ever completely understand, but frankly, I've never found the mystery part of Christian theology to be particularly mysterious. Perhaps after quantum mechanics and general relativity breaks the part of your brain offended by strangeness. God created the world to fill it with creatures who could come to know, love and serve Him - freely, but that free choice means that His creatures can inevitably screw up by departing from His plan. This "sin" isn't merely a mistake, but a crime in that it departs from God's plan, and is deserving of punishment. But God's not evil, and hasn't set up a system which inherently allows creatures in it to fall into mistakes which would inexorably lead to punishment. He provided an out, by sending an example of how to behave in the person of His own Son, who sacrificed Himself to take on our punishment. This sacrifice was particularly potent because the trial was fixed - it's a perfect example of an unjust trial, and I've always felt that doing the opposite of what happened in His trial is a great inspiration for the American legal system - and because Jesus was not only a perfect innocent, but also God. Holy Week takes us through all the events that led up to this: the obvious signs that Jesus was acting in God's name, the compassion He had for his followers at the Last Supper, which instituted the Eucharist, the unjust trial, the difficult and torturous Crucifixion, the strange and wonderful Resurrection. Learning more about the events of Holy Week is a great opportunity to learn more about Jesus, and helps us understand why we should follow Him - even if following Him is difficult and sometimes torturous, there is something strange and wonderful at the end of that path. -the Centaur Pictured: Saint Stephen's in-the-Field, set up for Good Friday Vigil.

Six Days You Shall Labor

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six days you shall labor

So for today's "let's actually treat the Sabbath like a Sabbath" graphic illustration, I had the brainflash to illustrate this graphically - and since in English the Sabbath is a seven-letter word, it is easy to show six days of work and one day of rest using those letters themselves. Looked at this way, that one day of holy rest isn't such a big ask of our time. Strange it's so hard sometimes to make space for it.

-the Centaur

Don’t Respect Their Authority …

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tiberius drawing

... but do allow yourself to be influenced by their teaching.

The Bible is filled with authoritarian language. The so-called "divine right of kings," which authoritarian thugs used for over a thousand years to justify their aggression, may have gotten its start in the book of 1 Samuel, in which the people of Israel ask for a king, despite the prophet Samuel's warnings:

“This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights ... He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses ... he will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers... he will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves."

I left out a lot there, but it draws a pretty complete picture of a pretty ugly king. But Samuel promises no salvation for the people who have asked for this ruler: "When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

Similarly, Jesus doesn't offer relief from the Roman persecutors when asked by the Pharisees if it is legal to pay taxes to the emperor - Jesus pointed out that the coin to pay the tax had Caesar's image on it: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Kings used to let this get to their glitter-crowned heads. King James (yes, that King James) once said: "The state of monarchy is the supremest thing upon earth, for kings are not only God's lieutenants upon earth and sit upon God's throne, but even by God himself, they are called gods."

Whoa, James! That's basically calling yourself a god. Remember the Ten Commandments, specifically #1 "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." Pretty blasphemous for the guy who commissioned a translation of the Bible ... wait, the King James Bible ... and you even put your name on it?

Well now, it seems clearer why a king grabbing at power - for James was originally just king of Scotland, which did not recognize absolute monarchs - would commission a religious text in their new country's language justifying that rule, along with manuals for interpreting it which gave him absolute power.

Those manuals, the awesomely titled Baskilon Doron (meaning "royal gift") and The True Law of Free Monarchies both laid out the divine right of kings as an extension of the apostolic succession - relying on arguments from a Bible which James worked to make available to his whole kingdom.

Now, James was wrong about the divine right of kings being an absolute grant of authority ... but he wasn't wrong to see a role for authorities in our life. Let's go back to what Jesus said about Caesar:
“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Contra James's self-serving arguments, this isn't a call for kings to receive absolute obedience: right there on the tin, Jesus distinguishes between the respect leaders should receive and the worship God should receive. We can get a little more insight into this by looking at the context of the question.

In Jesus's time, Israel was occupied by the Romans, and the Jewish leaders were trying to trap Jesus between two bad choices: on the one hand, he could deny the poll tax, and be condemned as a traitor to Rome, and on the other, he could approve the poll tax, and be condemned as a traitor to Israel.

But you can't put Jesus in a box, hence his wonderful answer which not only splits the difference in a creative third alternative, but also provides new ways about thinking about the problem. But hidden in this answer is the rejection of the demands of the Zealot to throw off the poll tax and to overthrow Rome.

The Roman occupation of Israel was wrong, full stop. They conquered it, they taxed it, they drove it to the edge of rebellion through oppression, and after the rebellion boiled over thirty years after Jesus's death, they put down the rebellion by siege, slaughter and the destruction of the Second Temple.

But, as sad as all that was, to God, the Roman oppressors were people too. A Zealot rebellion led by Jesus would have been successful - some theologians think Jesus was the "commander of the armies of the Lord" from Joshua 5:14 - but would have led to the deaths of countless people on both sides.

Orchestrating wholesale slaughter is not what Jesus came to do. Treating every single human being with respect means that sometimes we must put aside the desire to fight injustice if that fight means bringing harm to people that can be avoided. Whenever possible, Jesus argues we should turn the other cheek.

Jesus goes beyond that. He criticizes the Jewish religious leaders throughout the Gospels, but He also acknowledges their authority: "The scribes and the Pharisees administer the authority of Moses, so do whatever they tell you and follow it, but stop doing what they do, because they don't do what they say."

Jesus is both saying we should follow legitimate authority AND saying blind exercise of authority is wrong. In Hebrews, Paul argues church leaders are on the hook for their flocks "Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account."

Jesus asks leaders to follow him to model servant leadership, saying that Gentile "high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all."

Rather than the divine right of kings, Jesus preaches that leaders should act as servants, looking out for the welfare of their flocks (and Paul argues, even their souls). These leaders may sin, but they have the responsibility to pass the law on to us, so we need to be open to their guidance.

Jesus asks us to follow Him, but He doesn't ask us to blindly follow authority: He asks us to reserve for God what belongs to God, which may mean parting ways with leaders who don't put God first. But He does ask us to follow leaders who are sincerely trying to pass on what God has given them.

It's a delicate dance. It's all too easy for rulers to fall in the trap of demanding absolute obedience, as many Catholic leaders believe about the authority of the Pope, and as many Protestant leaders believe about their own doctrines, even as they claim to be rejecting the authority of Catholic Dogma.

These are self-serving lies. Following Jesus does not mean regurgitating a catechism or swallowing a doctrine: it's a living act of belief in a real person who actually lived and actually came back from the dead, and a living choice to follow in His footsteps as we guide our lives.

The rulings of our church leaders are designed to help us; when done properly, it's done with care for our souls. Since we, too, are self-serving, it's really tricky to know whether your leadership has gotten off the path, or whether you've gotten yourself so lost that it just seems that they are.

Regardless, there's one thing we can always do to get back on track: repent and turn to follow Jesus.

-the Centaur

Pictured: Tiberius, who was likely on that coin.

Righteous Anger and Godly Love

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Mr. Rogers Headshot

"What do you do with the mad you feel?" That's the question Mister Rogers - perhaps the embodiment of the idea of not getting mad - famously asked in a song he read aloud at the congressional committee hearing in which he convinced a skeptical audience to continue funding public television.

Christianity seems to have two public faces: God as love ... and God as the angry judge. Sometimes people break this down into the "Angry, Vengeful Old Testament God" and the "Loving Jesus of the New Testament", but Jesus, as much as he taught us to love one another, was not shy about being angry.

The most notable incident is the Cleansing of the Temple, in which Jesus does a literal table flip - yes! - as part of trying to re-sanctify the Temple for worship, rather than commerce. "Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

Anger, according to many emotion theorists from antiquity to the modern day, is the unconditioned response to being restrained in animals - and the reaction against the violation of a norm in human beings. We get angry when we feel unfree, and more angry when we think that unfreedom is unjust.

Jesus's anger is generally what we might call righteous anger: outrage at violation of religious norms - the desecration of the Temple by selling animals for sacrifice is one example, part of Jesus's anger elsewhere at people who put up barriers, like complex rules, between others and God.

Other things that warrant a rebuke from Jesus include hypocrisy, mistreating children, or turning to the law to solve problems that could be solved by talking honestly. Jesus also rebukes demons, the wind, even a fig tree - though that last may have been a physical metaphor for the Temple.

But - BUT - this is Jesus, who taught with authority, because He was sent by God, as the Son of God, who is God. So He had the authority to pronounce judgment on God's law - and as much as I think we should emulate His style of thinking, our decisions, no matter how good, do not have Jesus's authority.

Fortunately, even though He asks us to follow him, and He gets angry, He also gives us an out by telling us: "Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven."

Forgiveness is what Jesus preaches, and the way He wants us to live. As we mentioned earlier, this even extends to evangelism: "If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town." Jesus does not force anyone to follow.

This ultimately comes back to the Golden Rule: "Do to others what you want them to do to you. This is the meaning of the law of Moses and the teaching of the prophets." This rule appears many, many times in the Old and New Testaments. It's almost like it's important.

Jesus sums this up various times, but one of the most striking is a summary He elicits from a young lawyer seeking the path to eternal life: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself."

Love is a complex emotion, a suitcase word with many meanings. Romantic love alone is broken up into at least attraction, infatuation, and long-term attachment, each with its own formal characteristics, brain areas, neurotransmitters, and time profiles.

But God's love is selfless love, the word agape in the Greek, perhaps embodied best in the famous "Christianity in One Sentence" verse, John 3:16: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life."

The reason that God shows both love and anger is more than just Jesus being both divine and human and experiencing the full range of human nature. It's because God Himself will not fit in a neat box: He is not limited to the emotions of love, or anger, or to the reactions we expect of love or anger.

God expresses the whole range of human emotions and goes beyond it. And He takes on Himself the need to judge, and furthermore, sent his Son to eliminate the need for punishment, for all who are willing to believe and to take up their crosses.

Righteous anger can feel good: there are important norms in the world, and when people violate them, it's easy to get angry. But we're not God, and we don't teach with the authority of Jesus, and even if we emulate His behavior and try to adopt His beliefs, we can't have the absolute certainty that Jesus had.

God created a world where all people can choose to turn to Him. That's why "... I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous."

So righteous anger, while it can seem justified, is something we really don't need. It's not to say we shouldn't make ethical or moral judgments, but when things really go awry, it's okay to turn the other cheek, to remember to love our enemies, and if all else fails, shake the dust off our feet and move on.

-the Centaur

Pictured: Fred Rogers.

Give to All Those Who Beg From You

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gandhi headshot

Jesus once said it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven - and while it's impossible for man, it's possible for God. Jesus wasn't telling us to become poor per se, but warning against attachment to things, and reminding us we need God's help.

The Kingdom of Heaven has at least two meanings in Christian thought: literal heaven, of course, but also, following the ways of Jesus here on Earth. Things aren't important to God: He can make as much stuff as He wants. But each person is unique. God cares, and Jesus asks us to care for each other.

Worrying about making sure we have enough stuff is practically important, and Jesus doesn't ask us to forget about it: in the Parable of the Talents, He suggests that we need to take care of the resources that we are given, and that those who invest their talents wisely will be rewarded many times over.

But for every verse which praises responsibility, three exhort us not to worry about possessions. When a young rich man asked what he should do to inherit eternal life, Jesus said: "You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."

Perhaps following was more literal during Jesus's ministry, but many verses in the Gospels take a similar tack: "Do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles strive after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them."

Jesus is doing more than just telling us not to worry. The Parable of the Rich Fool portrays a man who builds bigger storehouses to hold all his wealth, only for God to say to him: "You fool! You will die this very night. Then who will get everything you worked for?"

This story isn't about God being a jerk to a rich guy: it's about the very real possibility that we won't live to take advantage of what we've saved up for tomorrow - and questioning our priorities. The Rich Fool's wealth was grain, stored in warehouses - and rather than share it, the man built bigger storehouses.

I feel the man's pain - I've worked a number of years to try to provide for I and my wife's retirement, and we ended up buying a bigger house to better house my vast library and her equally bulky art studio. But is that the best use of our wealth? What would happen to all this if something were to happen to me?

There's a story about the house in which I'm writing this blogpost: supposedly, the man who owned it died just three years after renovating it - on the back porch added during the renovation, I might add. A good friend tells a similar story about his father, who fell ill before he could ever enjoy retirement.

Our wealth is transient - and provided by God. A friend told a story once about getting a surprise bonus - I don't recall the precise story, but let's say he found a twenty. He gave the twenty away in the collection plate, and ended up getting forty bucks from someone who remembered they owed him something.

He donated the forty, and got eighty or a hundred bucks in a gift card. He continued giving away this windfall over and over again, and the rough doubling continued, until finally at several hundred dollars, he said, "Alright, God, I get the point - I don't need any more."

Similarly, I can confidently say that I've "earned" far more money from following my Christian values and treating people the way that I wish I was treated than I've ever earned from just hard work. Putting your nose to the grindstone sometimes just throws sparks; treating people with respect wins you far more.

Jesus sent His disciples out with minimal provisions. Now, He could have provided them with mana from heaven - paraphrasing Dennis Leary, God has the budget - but He sent them out as mendicants, living off the largesse of the people they preached to - because the Kingdom of Heaven is also here on Earth.

For each story in which Jesus exhorts us not to worry about possessions, there's another about us taking care of each other - and not just the overt "give to all those who beg of you"; the feature implicit in the story of the Rich Fool is that he is not sharing his abundance - and yet, he should.

This goes back to Leviticus: "When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest." Many passages in the New and Old Testament teach us our society should not be structured to maximize exploitation, but to leave space at the margins.

Jesus spoke in parable, hyperbole and metaphor. When Jesus says to forgive someone not seven times, but seventy times seven times, He doesn't mean 490 times: He means to forgive endlessly. Similarly, when Jesus says "give to all those who beg from you," this is a general principle, not a strict rule.

Once, a Christian girl I dated - named Christian, interestingly - and I were waiting for a table for dinner when a thin, trembling woman in a knitted cap came up and asked us for money. Even before I could speak, Christian politely but firmly gave her directions to the nearest shelter, just a few blocks away.

The woman left, and just as she did, the server ran out to us. "Did you give her any money? No? Good. She's a recovering heroin addict with an assigned social worker. Please don't give her anything. What she really needs is not to get any money." Christian's take on this was, "Jesus is not an enabler."

In trying to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to life here on Earth, we are bound to make mistakes. Trying to use our talents wisely can distract us from the needs of others. Creating the standard where we give to everyone without discretion can lead to people taking advantage of the system to their own detriment.

But that doesn't mean we can't try. If you're down on your luck, of course, maybe you don't have anything to give - but that just means God appreciates what you do even more than someone who has it all. And if you have it all, it's worth asking ... do you really need all that, or can you pass some of that forward?

-the Centaur

Pictured: Gandhi.

Nothing Man Can Do Is Just Enough

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architect sketch

I disagree with traditional religion about a lot, and I try to be up front about it. Contra Catholicism, I teach that women should be ordained priests and homosexuality is not a sin; contra fundamentalism, I teach the Bible is not literally true, but that the transubstantiation of the Eucharist is spiritually true.

But since we're all inspired by the same one God, and since we're all trying to follow Jesus, then in some sense, no matter where we are on our faith journeys, we're all trying to look in the same direction. So if you extend Christian charity to your Christian opponents, you can usually find a nugget of truth.

While I disagree with the Catholic Church's teaching on women priests and gay relationships, that is their consistent teaching and has some Biblical basis, so it's right to say the Catholic Church can't simply toss those rules out to match current social mores without developing a more mature understanding.

This seems disappointing if you're a proponent of women priests or respecting individual sexuality, but unless decisions are made on principles that we can defend, then the Church can be swayed back and forth by any social movement, even a recidivist one that rolls the clock backward.

Similarly, while I disagree with fundamentalists who see the Bible as literally true - and in fact think that the way traditional "Bible-believing" Christians view the Bible approaches idolatry - nevertheless, I agree we must return to the Bible to understand Jesus because the Bible is our sole primary source.

On that note, I've got theological differences with Jehovah's Witnesses - for example, they reject the Trinity and Jesus's divinity in favor of their own decontextualized interpretation of the Bible that doesn't build on the traditions and theology passed on to us from Jesus through His Church.

My sister-in-law is a Witness, and we've had many vigorous discussions over points of theology and even whether to call it theology or philosophy. But when I attended the wedding of her son, they mentioned Jesus and pulled out their Bibles far more often than other churches.

The Holy Spirit was moving with them: Jehovah's Witnesses do not deny the Spirit's influence, even though they do deny the Spirit's divinity or its unity with God as one Person of the Trinity. Wherever two or three are together, Jesus is there with them; and He was there, helping them to follow Him.

It's good for Christians to talk to one another, even if they disagree on doctrine. Once Jesus said that He came not to unite but divide, as part of his mission to set the world on fire with His teaching. His speech references Micah, an Old Testament book decrying dishonesty, even within households.

Both the author of Micah and Jesus aren't asking us to fight with each other, but to be honest with each other and ourselves. Micah asks us for God's help to get back on the right path. Jesus turns to us and asks us, why we can't decide what is right amongst ourselves?

Explicitly, He was speaking about believers solving problems between each other without turning to a judge, but the broader message for the rest of us is that we should talk through our problems with each other, even if we disagree, trying to focus on what is right using honest reasoning with each other.

Christians should engage with each other, even if we disagree, and attempt to find out what's right. It was in one of those conversations with a friend in high school, a fundamentalist, that I first heard the phrase that's the title of this article: "Sometimes it seems that nothing man can do is just enough."

We were discussing the death penalty. While I was a Catholic at the time, and was representing the Church's teaching against capital punishment, even at the time in that conversation, I wasn't certain I agreed with it. My friend was in favor of capital punishment, but wasn't too happy with it either.

"You know, if you do nothing, then a criminal who killed someone gets away without punishment. Life in prison is like torturing them for the rest of their life. Killing them seems just for the victims, but it means that our society has taken a life. Sometimes it seems that nothing man can do is just enough."

My friend was arguing that humans don't need to be in the business of judging each other in this life. We can forgive each other and move on, confident that God will judge everyone at the Last Judgment, and that his decision will be the correct and just one.

This doesn't mean that our society shouldn't have a policy for dealing with people who hurt other people, but it does mean we'll fall short. While this idea is qualitative, it's like a theorem like the Halting Problem: no matter what we try to do, humankind isn't going to get the problem of justice perfectly right.

This strongly argues for forgiveness on a personal level. When my Uncle Sam was murdered by gunshot by (as I recall) an employee he'd caught embezzling, I had a lot of emotions: Sam had been one of my favorite relatives, a kindly old man who did a lot for Saint Mary's Church, who was now gone.

But it's important to forgive. Perhaps it was easier for me to forgive his killer given that I had already left for college and hadn't seen him in a while, but still, people have become enraged over far simpler things and held onto them for far longer. Better to let it go.

And when I do feel it difficult to forgive, when thoughts of vengeance consume me, I remember what my friend said: "Sometimes it seems that nothing that man can do is just enough." And if I remember that no human action will be enough, that can help me turn the other cheek, and get back to following Jesus.

-the Centaur

Pictured: My friend from high school, who moved north and apparently followed his father's footsteps, becoming an architect.

The Sabbath was Made for Man

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the sabbath was made for man

Welp, I forgot to treat the Sabbath like the Sabbath yesterday, even though I attended a church meeting with the bishop, and ended up doing a full essay and illustration instead. So, I'm going to call a mulligan on today's entry and take it as a retroactive Sabbath, to give myself that bit of extra rest - because the Sabbath was made for humanity, not the other way around.

-the Centaur

Pictured: As quick as an illustration in Illustrator + Photoshop as I could manage.

Episcopal Means Governed by Bishops

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bishop headshot

Jesus is the focus of the Episcopal Church, so why not call us just Christian? Well, with a lot of Christian churches, we need qualifiers, usually theological: the Catholic Church is catholic, for all; the Presbyterian Church is governed by elders, or presbyters; and the Episcopal Church follows the Anglican tradition.

Wait, what? Well, Anglican is just a funny word for English, taken from a Latin phrase in the Magna Carta meaning The Church of England. But after the American Revolution, we wanted a church that retained the theology we believed in, but was independent from England, leading to the Episcopal Church.

Anglicanism has three key features. The most important theologically is the "three-legged stool" principle: the idea that decisions about the faith must be discerned using the three sources of Scripture (the Bible), Tradition (history and decisions of the Church) and Reason (an honest inquiry into the actual facts).

The most important pastorally is the Book of Common Prayer. The Anglican Church united Protestants ("low church", light on ritual) and ex-Catholics ("high church", very sacramental) using worship from the same book. You don't have to agree on doctrine if you can agree to pray together out of the same book.

The most important spiritually is the Apostolic Succession. When lay people think of bishops, we typically think of big league church people with funny hats - like Vice Presidents in Charge of Worship in Religion Incorporated. But bishops have their origin in Jesus's time: they're the successors of the Apostles.

Jesus picked twelve Apostles to fulfill his mission, and handpicked Peter to lead the Church after He was gone. But almost immediately after Jesus's death, the Apostles lost one of their own to betrayal: Judas. Saint Matthias was the first new Apostle, picked to fill Judas's role in the leadership of the Church.

This process continued with Paul, who was selected to be the Apostle to the Gentiles by Jesus himself during his conversion experience on the road to Damascus, and Barnabas, Paul's apprentice. After Paul and Barnabas, the term apostle starts to get fuzzy, starting to evolve into the term overseer, or bishop.

Bishops, as I mentioned earlier in the series, were intended to be upstanding: "A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach; Not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous ..."

This was important because bishops guided the Church. Since the Church lived under the Roman Empire, the Bishop of Rome was centrally important. Three early Church leaders - Peter, Linus and Clement - are mentioned in the Bible, and early Church tradition names them as Bishops of Rome.

Which, of course, we now call the Pope. From a historical perspective - that is, what we can justify based on written documents - the evidence for the early Popes is a bit thin, but from a realistic, scientific perspective - that is, making a best guess based on the evidence - they very probably existed.

Peter may have written at least one letter which is genuine; Clement also wrote a letter which is very likely genuine. Linus left us nothing, but as early as the mid-100's, Saint Irenaeus's writings identified Linus as the first Bishop of Rome.

Irenaeus, who also helped us define the early books of the Bible, was a bishop himself, so it's likely he knew what he was talking about. Sometimes skeptical people get confused about this, so it's important to distinguish between what we can historically and scientifically prove and what is actually true.

There are oak trees on the grounds of Saint Stephens in-the-Field, the Episcopal Church I attend in San Jose. Some are clearly very old, but others are newer. To my knowledge, there is no written record of how those trees got planted on the property.

But if you attend the Saint Stephen's Vestry meetings or coffee hours, you may hear the story of how Dan, one of the founding members of the parish. He and his wife had a very prolific oak tree, and for years they sowed the property with acorns, eventually leading to the trees we have decades later.

I heard this story from Dan himself in a Zoom "coffee hour" celebrating the "visit" of our bishop, Lucinda. After a few more decades, Dan may likely be gone, but the people who attended that Zoom meeting can continue to tell that story, until the oral tradition that "Dan planted the trees" one day finally disintegrates.

If, fifty years from now, someone connects the dots and says that "Dan the Acorn Man" is likely "Dan Name Withheld for Privacy" among the Church founders and writes it down, that statement isn't wrong just because it wasn't documented in primary source materials contemporary to the event.

We have to be aware that oral traditions are tentative, but that doesn't mean oral traditions aren't real. Scientists not engaged in active religious skepticism are comfortable suggesting that a 37,000 year old volcanic eruption is preserved in oral tradition, so we can trust a very early bishop to get the story right.

What's the point here? There almost certainly weren't monarchial bishops in Rome on the mold of the current Popes, but what we can say is that there are a number of Apostles mentioned in the Bible - some in letters we believe to be authentic - who anointed bishops, who anointed other bishops, and so on.

This process continued, and by a very early stage, bishops anointing bishops became formalized. By the time the Episcopal Church rolled around, each bishop is consecrated by three other bishops. The rationale behind this is even if one bishop isn't valid, the action of the others is likely to be.

This unbroken chain - from the bishops of today, through the early church bishops, to the Apostles being called by Jesus Himself - is called the Apostolic Succession. Churches governed by bishops believe this "episcopate" spiritually inherits the authority Jesus invested in Peter and the Apostles.

Because the Christian Church isn't a self-help scheme that's good for you, or an ethical teaching which is good for other people. Christians believe our faith is a true deposit of revealed information about the world, prompted by the actions of Jesus and guided by the Holy Spirit.

And if the important part of that teaching is to learn about, to come to believe in, and to choose to follow Jesus, it's important to know that the people overseeing the organization which teaches us about Him aren't simply spiritually inspired by a 2,000 year old compilation of books and letters.

The contemporary Christian Church is literally the same organization that Jesus founded. Our leaders, the bishops, are the successors of His Apostles. Our religious texts, the Bible, was written and collated and curated by the group of people Jesus entrusted to lead His Church - them, and their successors.

If you want to follow Jesus, you can't do much better than read the Bible that His followers and their successors assembled, to attend worship at one of the churches He founded, and to inquire what the leaders of those churches think about what it means to follow Him.

-the Centaur

Pictured: Lucinda Ashby, Bishop of El Camino Real.