Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Can the Flap of a Butterfly's Wings in Brazil Cause a Tornado in Texas?

For the past few weeks I’ve been reading up on “chaos theory.” It drives my obsessive-compulsive nature crazy! The theory was articulated by MIT professor, Edward Lorenz. In 1961, Lorenz was using a numerical computer model to rerun a weather prediction, when, as a shortcut on a number in the sequence, he entered the decimal .506 instead of entering the full .506127. The result was a completely different weather scenario. When delivering his findings to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, his talk was titled, “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?”

Thus the phrase, “Butterfly Effect” describes the notion of sensitive dependence on initial conditions. Small variations of the initial condition of a nonlinear system may produce large variations in the long-term outcome of the system. For example, a ball placed at the top of a hill might roll anywhere depending on slight differences in initial position. This is why forecasting the weather beyond about a week is impossible.

This idea has been explored in a lot of movies, most notably, “The Butterfly Effect” starring Ashton Kutcher. This is a VERY dark movie. Remember “Back to the Future 2?” Just because Biff won a bet in 1955, an alternate 1985 was projected as a hellish world. One tiny event dramatically changed the future. Actually, the very act of being present in the past must change the future, resulting in an alternate future in which you never went back to the past to begin with. This is explored in the remake of “The Time Machine.” Remember how he kept going back in time to save his fiancĂ© and had to watch her die several times because the very existence of the time machine as a mechanism to save her life depended on her dying to begin with! The British movie “Sliding Doors” runs two parallel stories of the same woman, Helen. In one world, she manages to catch a London Underground train home on time, and in the other she just misses it. This small event influenced her life dramatically.

This is the ultimate “what if?” mind game. I was sitting in traffic on LBJ freeway a few weeks ago, and I got thinking, “How many lives are dramatically altered because one person wasn’t paying attention and braked too late?” How different would the world look in 10 years if that wreck never happened? What about all the “little” events in your life from day to day? What if you left the house 5 minutes later? What if you went to McDonalds rather than Wendy’s? On and on you could go until you drive yourself crazy! What if? What if?? What if??? Can the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil cause a tornado in Texas – and in your life?

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Never Forget Your Roots

A few days ago a friend in England sent me an email saying that she had located another friend we both knew while growing up in South Africa. She said I should join Facebook. I did, and within 2 days I have been networked all over 5 countries and have emailed or spoken to a bunch of people that I grew up with or went to school with in South Africa. Yesterday I heard from my best friend in High School – we did EVERYTHING together (including getting into a LOT of trouble). We lost track of each other 14 years ago! Back then, if I wanted to be in contact with someone “back home in the old country” I would have to write a letter and go down to the post office, have it weighed for international postage, and 7 days later they would receive the letter. Has the world really changed that much so quickly??

As I have established contact with a lot of people from my past, a lot of memories have flooded over me. I have come a VERY long way in 14 years, and often I come close to forgetting my roots. But trips to South Africa, and news from family and friends remind me of where I came from – and that’s good. I don’t ever want to forget those roots.

When I go through my closet I often look at my suits. I don’t wear them much anymore, but there is one in particular that caught my attention the other day. It's a sharp-looking charcoal Nieman Marcus suit. It's worn out now, but I'll bet it cost $500 new. Twelve years ago I got my first preaching assignment when I knew nothing and had nothing. When I showed up in Dallas at age 19 I had a visitor's visa that expired in 6 months and $230 in my pocket. As a foreign student I was not allowed to work. I had nothing - nada. I would go out to Mexican restaurants with my classmates and order water. While they ate enchiladas I ate the free chips and salsa! Where was I going to get a suit? A member of the Preston Road Church of Christ gave me his Nieman Marcus suit - gave, not loaned. I was so proud of that suit! I wish I could still fit in it. But I'll never give it away or throw it away. It will always be a reminder to me that I am either the luckiest man ever born, or God has smiled on me! Twelve years ago I was a kid from South Africa with no money and no way to earn money. Today I'm an American, I live in a big house, and I preach at a nice church. God has used so many kind people to bless me. I was reminded this week of the life I left and the new life I now lead. I thank God, I thank all those kind people, and I thank Mr. Nieman Marcus for making the best suit in the world!

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Best Car Commercial Ever?

This commercial caused me to buy my VR6 Jetta in 2001. The guy rushing to stop the woman he loves from marrying someone else struck a romantic cord in me. I especially love how she looks breathless in that last scene. Plus, I love the song - "One Million Miles Away." So, if anyone wants me to buy a car now, they're gonna have to do better than a slick-haired dude yelling in a redneck accent, "ZERO DOWN, $199 A MONTH, DRIVE OFF THE LOT NOW!!!"

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Too Close to the Edge?

I was looking through some pictures of my last trip to Zambia, and here I am just wandering around the edge of Victoria Falls with no one to yell, "You're too close to the edge!" Is that too close?

Friday, April 11, 2008

In Defense of Situational Ethics

Christians believe that God is the source of moral values and therefore what is moral and immoral transcends personal or societal opinion. Without God, each individual makes up his or her own moral standards. This is known as moral relativism. Moral relativism is scary and dangerous because it means that murder, for example, is not objectively wrong. It's a matter of personal feeling, or societal norm. Most secular people do not confront these consequences of moral relativism because it is hard for decent people to realize that “I think murder is wrong,” is as meaningless as “I think purple is ugly.”

However, there is one aspect of moral relativism that confuses many Christians who believe in moral absolutes. They assume that situational ethics is the same thing as moral relativism and therefore regard situational ethics as incompatible with Christian morality. I think it is a mistake to argue that just as individuals’ determining what is right and wrong negates moral absolutes, allowing situations to determine what is right and wrong also negates moral absolutes. This is a misunderstanding of the meaning of moral absolutes. A moral absolute means that if an act is good or bad, it is good or bad for everyone in the identical situation. This is also called universal morality.

But “everyone” is not the same as “every situation.” An act that is wrong is wrong for everyone in the SAME situation, but almost no act is wrong in EVERY situation. Sex in a loving relationship is good, but when violently coerced, it is rape. Truth telling is usually right, but if, during World War II, Nazis asked you where a Jewish family was hiding, telling them the truth would have been evil. Likewise, it is the situation that determines when killing is wrong. That is why the Ten Commandments say “Do not murder,” not “Do not kill.” Murder is immoral killing, and it is the situation that determines when killing is wrong. Pacifists say that it is wrong to take a life in every situation. This is based on the mistaken belief that absolute morality means “in every situation” rather than “for everyone in the same situation.”

The key element in Christian morality remains simply this: There is good and there is evil, independent of personal or societal opinion; and in order to determine what it is, one must ask, “How would God judge this action?” My point is simple – because universal morality says that an action is wrong for all PEOPLE, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong in all SITUATIONS.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The Olympic Torch

I could hardly believe what I was seeing on TV today as the Olympic Torch made its way through the streets of San Francisco. Mobs of protestors trying to put out the flame while the runners were protected by a literal army of riot ready police. I'm really torn about this. I think giving the 2008 Games to China was the worst idea in the history of bad ideas. I'm glad people are calling attention to their brutality and at the same time calling attention to our hypocritical foreign policy. But, I also know what it's like to be a young athlete poised for that level of world class competition, and have the experience ruined by politics. Today's events brought back a lot of memories for me - especially memories of when I carried the Olympic Torch through the streets of Austin (see the picture) as it made its way to the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. What an experience!

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Justice Delayed is Justice Denied

Very often people who agree on the need to change things disagree on how to do it or, more importantly, when to affect the changes. This is an age-old argument. For example, In New Testament times the Jewish church (who represented the establishment) wanted to slowly make changes to include the gentiles, and do so with great sensitivity. Paul, however, wanted to ram massive change down their throats with no pause to accommodate their sensitivities. For him the truth of the gospel was at stake. Read Galatians! During the Reformation, Erasmus wanted to work slowly within the Catholic Church to reform abuses, but Martin Luther wanted to force reformation swiftly and decisively through open rebellion. The fact that you don’t know who Erasmus is proves that Luther prevailed as a revolutionary.

Run this paradigm through any and every change in human history. What brought effective and lasting change – patiently working within the system, or forcing change swiftly and often with great conflict? I think of the massive societal upheaval I experienced in South Africa. In February 1990, Mandela was still serving a life sentence in prison, the country was decisively segregated, and the military enforced the system ruthlessly. In April 1994, Mandela was sworn in as the new president! Massive change happened overnight. In his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” Martin Luther King made this point. Some supporters wrote to him asking him to patiently work with the authorities of Alabama rather than resist them and force change. Here is part of his response: “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’”

There are some things in Churches of Christ that have to change – not matters of style or preference, but issues of fundamental justice. The truth of the gospel is at stake. We can throw away fear and anxiety and do what is right swiftly and decisively, or we can do what we’ve always done – meet, talk, study, listen to “concerns,” meet again, study some more, talk, talk, talk. What do you prefer? What would Jesus do? What would Paul do?

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Agony and Ecstasy

That picture was taken in late 1993 - my last season of competitive racing. I couldn't bring myself to post a picture of me in cycling clothes today. There is nothing more pathetic than a 34-year-old out of shape cyclist who is now 50 pounds over his ideal racing weight!

However - today I rode the 30 mile Tour of Dallas. I wasn't going to, but our friends Tommy and Amanda talked me into it, and Holly said, "I'm tired of you talking about riding - do it!" I have not been on a bike in over a year. There were cobwebs between my spokes when I loaded my bike this morning! BUT - once I got on that bike something changed. I felt good on my trusty Cannondale, like it was an extension of my body. So after about 20 miles of riding I wanted to see if I've still got it after all these years. With a flick of my wrist I downshifted my Shimano "Flightdeck" lever. Click, click, click - the rear derailler moved the chain into high gear. I clenched the down grips on the handlebars and put my head into a aerodynamic tuck. I wanted to ride as hard and as fast as I could for as long as I could. I FLEW down Turtle Creek Blvd - past a forest green Aston Martin Vanquish! After about 2 miles my heart was tearing out of my chest at 180 beats per minute, lactic acid was pouring into my muscles, every breath was a last gasp for life, every joint in my body screamed to stop, but my brain overruled every impulse to make the excruciating pain go away. I forced my legs, acting like giant pistons, to press on - 30 mph, 35 mph - I needed more speed!!! I emptied the last ounce of energy in me, trying to snap my carbon fiber crank from the herculean effort - 36 mph, 37 mph, 38 mph!!! There is no way to describe the exhilaration of knowing that by the sheer will of your mind and the power of your own body you can make 18 pounds of aluminum alloy and carbon fiber go that fast! How can so much pain and agony be so pleasurable and exciting???

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Does God Control Everything?

Watch this clip from the movie "Bruce Almighty," and then read my thoughts:

The most consistent and credible challenge to belief in God is the problem of evil and human suffering. The beliefs Christians hold about the nature of God seem incompatible with the evil that is so prevalent in the world. We believe that God is good, all knowing, and powerful. If God is all-powerful, is it not reasonable to expect Him to deliver people from suffering? But what can God accomplish by allowing suffering? Human survival is one answer. For example, pain exists as a biological warning system. If I place my hand into a fire, I will recoil, but imagine the horrific result if my hand felt no pain! Pain and suffering often lead to growth in knowledge and power. Athletes know that temporary pain will lead to a stronger body. The world needs a system of ordered regularities, what we call the “laws of nature.” Pain is the price of an ordered universe and human free will.

And so we finally arrive at my point. I believe in free will, but I get the impression that many members of Churches of Christ now do “low calorie Calvinism.” I constantly hear the language of God controlling what we do in every situation, and it bothers me – a lot! Here are some questions. Can God be in control of some things without constantly being in control of everything? Do humans have free will in a created order governed by God? What is the nature of divine sovereignty? Can we make deals with God? This question is not often asked as bluntly, but it is asked implicitly. The belief that good people should not suffer because of their own righteousness is rampant in both Jewish and Christian life. Many people of faith believe that they should be able to avoid the calamities that afflict the less pious. This, in essence, is attempting to make a “deal” with God – “I’ll do what you want so that you will do what I want.” Believers, as well as non-believers, seek to reconcile the existence of God with the fact that good people suffer. But an equally appropriate question is, “Why shouldn’t good people suffer?” Rabbi Harold Kushner once asked, in this regard, “Should a pious person be able to go out on a freezing night without a jacket and not get sick?” And yet many Jews and Christians believe that if one observes God’s laws it is therefore unjust for the righteous to suffer. This attitude may help to explain why unjust suffering can be so devastating to people’s faith. For many religious people, the problem of how a just, loving, and powerful Creator can allow terrible injustices is compounded by their belief that if they suffer while doing good, God has reneged on a “deal” with them. But the purpose of religion is to change the behavior of the believer, not God’s behavior. If God always rewards the righteous, then the opposite must also be true – suffering is punishment from God. This belief is as prevalent as it is wrongheaded and cruel. I have heard Christians tell people who are suffering that if they prayed more and got closer to God, their suffering would be alleviated! This belief renders the question, “Why do good people suffer?” self-contradictory. Those who believe that being righteous will protect them from suffering have already answered the question – if you suffer, you’re not a good person!

The answer is not to make deals or believe that God controls everything, but to understand God’s providence. Divine providence is rooted in the character of God, particularly His love. God’s desire to love and to be loved caused Him to create, and His continual desire to love causes Him to interact with that creation. Out of His love, God created humans as moral free agents because virtue cannot be coerced. Divine providence does not imply a tyrannical God who controls the universe at every level. In His great love, God has granted to humanity the power to choose its own destiny through choices. For me, a “puppet master” God negates the concept of love. Love is central to the nature and character of God, and love implies risk since refusal to control another being is a demonstration of love for that being. The outcome of God’s work in the world is not a foregone conclusion since God’s actions are predicated on human decisions. Even His plan for the redemption of humanity had the potential for failure because it depended on choice. In a Christian sense, providence means that God is more concerned with the eternal state of humanity than our temporal level of comfort.

This understanding of divine providence is inextricably intertwined with the theology of creation. If God refuses to act as a universal tyrant, determining through foreknowledge, the course of every event, then the world He created necessarily has the potential to evolve freely. In such a system, humans have the intrinsic capacity to commit evil. The dialectic of good and evil is built into creation from the beginning. In a sense, God’s great love makes Him subject to His own creation. He is grieved when evil is committed, He changes His mind when pressed, and He is moved to act when we approach Him in prayer. Determinism also tends to negate the love of God. In a word, I believe in free will because of love.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

A Salute To All My South African Readers

Watch this Castle Lager ad. If you are a South African living in the U.S. it will warm your heart. Enjoy.

I Am Addicted to Speed

Here's a quote from Lance Armstrong's book, "It's Not About the Bike" that I really relate to. This stirs my blood!
"I want to die at a hundred years old with an American flag on my back and the star of Texas on my helmet, after screaming down a descent on a bicycle at 75 miles per hour. I don't do anything slow, not even breathe. I do everything at a fast cadence: eat fast, sleep fast, drive fast, talk fast. It makes me crazy when my wife drives our car because she brakes at all the yellow lights while I squirm impatiently in the passenger seat."