Monday, February 19, 2018

Alexa vs. My Adopted Son

Alexa came home with us at Christmas. My mother bought her it for or my oldest daughter, gaining cool points, for sure, but also inching us closer to the Brave New World. When we first set up Alexa in my parents' guest bedroom, the girls spent hours with her it, asking for weather updates, song recordings, riddles, directions, and jokes.
For those unfamiliar with Alexa, she it is the personality attached to Amazon's Echo and Dot devices. She It interacts with voice commands, browses the Internet, sets reminders, plays games, tracks shipments, and communicates with other Amazon devices. My daughters send messages back and forth with their cousins via Alexa, causing a pulsing, yellow glow as new notices arrive.

The initial concern my wife and I felt about Alexa invading our home has subsided. Her It's morning weather reports have practical value. Her It's endless replay of "Shut Up and Dace" have inspired regular romps in the living room. Her It's five-minute timers have proven their worth for baking, making coffee, or quick cleaning sessions. Alexa has become a seamless member of the family.

There's only one problem. Alexa is not human. And we have to regularly remind ourselves not to use the female pronoun; Alexa is neither male nor female. Alexa is an it.

But Alexa is the beginning of Artificial Intelligence (AI) woven into everyday life (not counting Siri, push notifications, predictive search, Nest, etc.). And truth be told, Alexa is not too intelligent. More often than not, Alexa admits her it's ignorance. (Any Actually Intelligent Human (AIH) knows better than to say, "I'm sorry. I don't know that." AIHs make an answer up!)

As we accelerate toward the world of AI, it is important to firm up a definition of humanity. Otherwise we may continue to personify our devices and bestow on them greater dignity than they deserve. Worse yet, some persons whose social utility, motor skills, intelligence, and autonomy are called into question may be stripped of dignity and pushed into obsolescence (e.g., the rate of aborted babies detected with Down syndrome is near 100% in some European countries!) 

I'm sensitive to the issue not only because Alexa inhabits my home, but, more so, because Sensi does. My adopted son has several cognitive dysfunctions. He is language-impaired and learning-disabled. He is physically, socially, and emotionally delayed. His developmental specialist wants him tested for "institutional autism." Sensi does not function like most AIHs, but I have no doubt my son is human.
In spite of his limitations, Sensi displays all the core characteristics of an image-bearing human.
I subscribe to Dallas Willard's taxonomy of personhood. In Renovation of the Heart he details six characteristics: will, thoughts, feelings, body, social relationships, and soul. The soul comprises the whole person (material, immaterial, and social) working together. The "heart" and "spirit" are biblical images for our will. The "mind" governs thoughts and feelings.
God expects us to direct our whole self (inner person, fingertips, and friendships) to love him and others (Deut. 6:5 cf. Matt. 22:37). The very capacity to love is innately human, inherit to image-bearers. Dogs and dandelions cannot love, but certainly show loyalty and will to live.

In a battle of wits, Alexa will defeat Sensi every time. In a contest of emotion, it's a toss up. Their wills are equally matched; both Sensi and Alexa rarely take initiative and each excels at compliance. They daily repeat the catchphrase: "I don't know." Alexa's body requires a plug; Sensi's brain requires meds.

But Sensi functions as an autonomous, image-bearer, capable of giving and receiving love. His will, thoughts, feelings, body, and social relationships--held together in his soul--make him more human than any battery-operated, Internet-intelligent device will ever be. Long after Alexa outlasts her welcome or grows obsolete, Sensi will continue to brim with life in our home.
God created humankind in his own image,in the image of God he created them,male and female he created them.God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply! Fill the earth and subdue it! Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and every creature that moves on the ground.” (Gen. 1:27-28, NET)
Next week: I'll continue to reflect on God's view of humanity by comparing it to rival views. 

Monday, February 12, 2018

A Good Creation vs. A New Gnosticism

God created flesh and blood, bone and marrow, male and female. He created plants and animals, land and water, morning and evening. His creation reflected a complimentary style - filled with part and matching counterpart - and he paid his handiwork a great compliment as each day ended: "It is good." He repeats the assessment day after day (see Genesis 1:1-2:3).

Laying aside arguments about the age of the earth (a compelling suggestion made by John Walton in The Lost World of Genesis One), even the most cursory reading of the creation story exposes the resounding goodness of God's work. "Good. Good. Good. Good. Good. Very Good," sings the chorus.

And the goodness does not vanish after Adam and Eve's rebellion in the Garden (Gen. 3). Tarnished, it may be, but good it remains. The overwhelming testimony of Scripture says as much (Ps. 19; 104; 1 Tim. 4:4). And the bodily resurrection (of the embodied) Jesus foreshadows creation renewed, where the stain of sin will be eternally wiped clean. "Good. Very Good. Eternally Good."

While the secular world may agree with God's "good" evaluation as it relates to polar bears, ice caps, and rain forests, I've sensed a growing discontentment with God's crowning achievement: humanity. God's flesh-and-blood image-bearers are not so good. The evidence? Our tolerance for torture and war, our advocacy for gender reassignment and cryogenics, our policies for abortion and euthanasia, and our algorithmic depersonalization of every smart-phone-wielding, Internet-browsing, social-media-posting data source.

Humans must make way for the next wave of evolution. We are mere "meat machines" growing obsolete as we wait for an upgrade -- which includes anything from loading our mind into a computer, living vicariously through an avatar, implanting machinery beneath our skin, or freezing our heads in cryonic containers until technology advances beyond our weaknesses.

Ironically, this desire to escape our flesh is nothing new. Gnosticism, one of the earliest heresies the church battled, held a similar aim. Gnostics thought secret knowledge might take them to a higher plane of existence. They generally deemed their flesh-and-blood reality a bad one. The modern longing to shake off gender, slip out of our skin, and transcend death is merely a new variation of an old theme. Gnosticism has resurfaced.

One of the spokespeople for cryonics, Natasha Vita-More, reflects well the feelings of a contemporary Gnostic: “If this body fails, we have to have another one. You could die at any moment, and that’s unnecessary and unacceptable. As a transhumanist, I have no regard for death. I’m impatient with it, annoyed. We’re a neurotic species—because of our mortality, because death is always breathing down our necks.” (O'Connell, To Be a Machine, 40)

But I've stumbled across other Gnostic voices. And what frightens me is how their message is both suggestive and seductive, using stories directed at adolescents.

Take for example the inner dialogue of the lead character, Wade Watts (aka, Parzival), from Ernest Cline's bestselling book and soon-to-be movie, Ready Player One. SPOILER: Upon discovering his disembodied, best friend, Aech, is not a White male, as his avatar portrayed, but a Black lesbian, Wade quickly overcomes his shock. Cline writes:
As we continued to talk, going through the motions of getting to know each other, I realized that we already did know each other, as well as any two people could. We'd known each other for years, in the most intimate way possible. We'd connected on a purely mental level. I understood her, trusted her, and loved her as a dear friend. None of that had changed, or could be changed by anything as inconsequential as her gender, or skin color, or sexual orientation." (pg. 321, emphasis added)
Cline's dualism is both endearing and damning. The hint of truth makes his message that much more compelling. But even Cline cannot sustain his gnosticism as he closes the book (SPOILER) with two characters holding hands and sharing a kiss. Perhaps, our bodies increase intimacy after all.

More chilling was the effect of the following trailer (made worse by the fact that I came to the movie theater to mindlessly enjoy The Last Jedi, not have my anthropology challenged):

The trailer's magical elements, youthful actors, and musical feel masks its Gnostic doctrine: "We are not our bodies, but merely held captive by them. Love transcends physical appearances."

Another hint of truth. Another seductive lie.

It agree our bodies are fallen and fragile. I agree we should look beyond mere appearances. I cannot agree that our physical frames have no bearing on our personalities. They inform each other. They frustrate each other. Together they are good, but far from perfect.

The whole person needs redemption. And next week I'll tackle the question: What makes a person? 

Monday, December 18, 2017

Christmas as a Dual Citizen: On Being a Christian and a Consumer

I feel my dual citizenship most acutely during the Christmas season. Am I a Christ-follower or consumer? The answer is yes.

As a Christ-follower, the wonders of the original Christmas story captivate me year after year. God's motley cast of characters stand out in the genealogies and birth narratives: Rahab the prostitute; Ruth the Moabite; barren Elizabeth; virgin Mary; old Anna; mute Zecharias; devout Simeon; righteous Joseph, Herod the Grinch; the angel Gabriel; a caravan of wise men; and, of course, the shepherds watching their flocks by  night. My picture of these figures often aligns more with ceramic nativity sets and dusty hymn books than the writings of Saint Matthew and and Doctor Luke. But it does not stop my heart from swelling as I join carolers singing God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen or Joy to the World.

On the other hand, I cannot deny the thrills of  decorating the house, hanging lights, using Kohls Cash, buying popcorn tins, watching Elf, opening presents, drinking Egg Nog, eating cookies, and hosting friends and family for seasonal celebrations. Our family drinks deeply from the well of Consumer Christmas. And we like it.
Well, perhaps, I don't like all of it. Daily trips to Wal-mart throughout December get a little exhausting. Coordinating schedules with family and its extensions becomes tiresome. The steep slide of my checking account causes some anxiety. And the lingering guilt of not giving enough reflection to baby Jesus but giving too much attention to buying presents pricks the conscience.

Can't I have both? I am, in fact, a dual citizen. Can't I enjoy gifts and love God? Can't I practice the "liturgy of the mall" (Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 93-103) and rituals of Advent? Can't I have my fruitcake and eat it, too? (Strike that: I don't want fruitcake.)
Boldly, I say, "Yes." But I hedge my confidence with a caveat: We can only have both Consumer Christmas and Original Christmas if we put them in the proper order. Original Christmas must take priority. Incarnation precedes consumption.

And here's the simple trick to keeping a proper arrangement: We shouldn't wait until Christmas to reflect on the wonders of Jesus's first coming. If we don't actively recall this world-shaping event until retailers set out their stock of holiday wares, we've already yielded to Consumer Christmas.

Regularly reading the Gospels, regularly attending corporate worship, regularly taking communion, regularly serving the "least of these," and regularly putting giving ahead of receiving creates a "liturgy of Incarnation." Day by day, week by week, the work of Jesus shapes our imaginations. And when Christmas season rolls around, our reflections on the arrival of Jesus are but a louder variation of a carol we've hummed all year.

If we get the order right, then we can delight in trappings of Consumer Christmas guilt-free. As C.S. Lewis wrote, "Aim and Heaven and you get Earth 'thrown in': aim at Earth and you get neither." Put Advent first, then place your orders on Amazon.

Monday, December 11, 2017

The Writer's Life - A Professional Update

Editing has been my theme word for 2017. It came to fruition in ways I did not expect. To the best of my imagination, editing meant trimming the fat from my ever-expanding list of duties. I am happy to report I quit one ministry team in 2017 and officiated the funeral of one outreach event at our church. Otherwise, I fattened my schedule with new responsibilities.

To my surprise, these additions primarily revolved around writing projects. I caressed the keyboard and wielded my red pen more in 2017 than any previous year. Highlights include the following:

But of all-things-editing in 2017, I've found the greatest joy in contributing to a forthcoming commentary on the book of Philippians. Kregel Academic plans to publish The KERUX Commentary Series geared to help pastors combine careful study of the text (i.e., exegesis) with creative preaching elements (i.e., homiletics). KERUX transliterates the Greek word for preaching.

This design may change, but was released at recent ETS Annual meeting.
I fuel most of my writing efforts with the limited energy of artificial deadlines. On Mondays I blog because I thought I should. At the beginning of the month I edit Pastor's Perspective articles because I said I would. In the winter and fall I has out curriculum because the timing seemed good. These self-imposed dates keep me from procrastinating. But if I don't blog (no offense to you), no one is clamoring for it (not even my dear old mother!)

Writing for a legitimate publisher feels different. Deadlines are given to me. I may have some room to push back, but I'm not the driver. So I make steady gains, day after day, to avoid the sloppy push to the submission date. I wake up extra early to write. I sneak away on the weekends to write. I find an open hour and warm cup of tea every few afternoons to write.

Writing and editing does not come easily. It is a slug fest. It is a staring contest. It is a hold-your-breath-underwater sort of task. But when you see your name on the cover of the book or your readership reach new heights, you're ready to bound your knuckles, fix your eyes, and take another dive.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Sensilton Timothy Sprankle the First: An Adoption Update

Sensi has lost his celebrity status. Eighteen months after his settlement on the Sprankle homestead, he has, well, settled. He is a bump on our couch. He is a seat in the classroom. He is a face in the crowd.
A year ago, students jockeyed to hold his hand and usher him through hallways. Today, he walks alone. A year ago, adults greeted him eagerly in doorways. Today, they offer him a polite "Hello," and let him shuffle past.

The novelty of the adopted, Ethiopian child has worn off. The reality of the child who pays little heed to anyone has taken shape. I grieve this reality, but I choose not to blame my son. He was dealt a defective Thyroid and unfortunate family situation (sick mother, under-employed father). He spent five years in two orphanages stocked with children but short on resources. I envision five-year old Sensi nestled in a corner flipping through the same ragged book; sitting alone on a bench, silently assembling the same simple puzzle; his verbal, social, and cognitive development a glacial drift.
Since coming to our home, Sensi's progress has exploded. He speaks, reads, draws, plays, runs, makes associations, and identifies shapes. Great teachers, therapists, and special instructors have accelerated his learning. More importantly, they have loved him. We have loved him. I cannot understate the improvements from day one, where my son turned his back on the entire family at mealtimes.

But I remain shocked at the infancy of his thinking and information gaps (chasms, really) carved in his neural circuitry. Examples abound:

  • Sensi's stock answer to every question: "I don't know." What did you do at school today? "I don't know." Who did you play with at recess? "I don't know." (He doesn't seem to know anyone's name.) What do you want for a snack? "Snack?" Yes, snack; what do you want? "I don't know." What do you know? "I don't know."
  • What Sensi does know is the day of the week. It's always Sunday. Is this because he's a pastor's kid? Probably not. He just knows it's a day, so the answer will pass.
  • This morning Sensi came downstairs with his USA shirt on backwards. I don't think this was an unpatriotic statement. But I am certain he didn't know his shirt was on the wrong way. (He often wears them inside-out, too).
  • "Chew with your mouth closed," has become a refrain at the table. "Take smaller bites," is the chorus. Sometimes I gently place my hands over his lips to press them together. Nonetheless, every meal is a chomp-fest.
  • The preschool toy aisle has a magnetic pull on Sensi. If the object lights up, makes sounds, or spins, my son must touch it. The Charlie Brown snow globe in our home has a similar effect. For the sanity of the family, we may ban Charlie Brown for the remainder of the season.
  • And then sometimes, often, Sensi simply fails to acknowledge others exist.

None of this steals our love for our son, it just stretches our capacity to consider it pure joy. We continue to teach and train him, read to and play with him, hug and kiss him, enfolding him into our family rhythms, even if  he's content to burrow in a corner of the couch.

And if the going gets really tough, we've started to wrestle and mess with him. Recently, we've begun to call him Sensilton Timothy Sprankle the First. 

"I'm not Sensilton. I'm Sensi," he retorts, grinning.

"Okay, Sensilton," I say, and he growls. 

Then I pin him to the ground until he fights back. And he's beginning to assert himself. This is a good sign for Sensilton Timothy Sprankle the First, because fighting makes your brain fire. 

May God set his mind ablaze.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Persevering in the Face of Pain

I look around the room on Sunday morning. These people, this body, perseveres in the face of pain. They do not conceal it; they wear it in graying hairs, deepening creases, dark circles, and pursed lips. Life beats on them, abuses them, kicks them when they are down. But they get back up, take a breath, and press on. Perseverance is the mark of mature faith.
The list of painful circumstances is not unique to this people, this body, but can be found in any and every church. It comprises...

  • the death of a sibling whose eternal hope was never located in Jesus
  • a diagnosis of cancer to an already fragile body
  • years of restless sleep and exhausting days: feeding, cleaning, and attending to tireless infants
  • the final days of pregnancy, where time crawls, nothing fits, and hormones run haywire
  • extended family gatherings fraught with tension: every topic a landmine, every nerve on edge
  • deep, deep loneliness as the aftermath of a death, a divorce, or the era of digital friendships
  • an uncertain career path leading to financial insecurity and instability at home
  • a sputtering marriage: out of sync and low on joy, mostly just going through the motions
  • children who have strayed from their moral bearings or simply left home, leaving gaping holes in the long-awaited empty nest
  • a family member's disability that forces the rest of the clan to ever-changing plans
  • struggles with pornography that ebb and flow, but have recently hit high tide
  • an internal voice of self-loathing, provoked at every advertisement, social media post, self-assessment, or attempt to seek God in prayer
If I simply scratch the surface of my congregation, their challenges bubble to the top. These people, this body, bleeds. We all do. And yet, they are resilient. Beaten and bruised, crushed and kicked, they rise. For we are resurrection people. People of the empty tomb persevere. 

These people, this body, takes its cues from Jesus and the apostles. Paul captures this beautifully in 2 Corinthians 4:7-11 (NASB):
But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves; we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. 12 So death works in us, but life in you.
Perseverance in the face of pain, he argues, is the first step toward Christian hope. 
And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. (Romans 5:3-5, NASB)
Even his prayers reiterate the need for perseverance. He makes the virtue a regular part of his petitions.
For this reason also, since the day we heard of itwe have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, 10 so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all steadfastness and patiencejoyously giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in Light. (Colossians 1:9-12, NASB)
Perhaps there is no greater encouragement than to encourage perseverance. Perhaps there is no greater prayer than to pray for perseverance. Perhaps perseverance is at the heart of pastoral ministry. I know it is what these people, this body, needs. They wear their pain on their faces like I wear mine.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Pastors in Cars Going to Conferences

Years ago Jerry Seinfeld produced a series of conversations between comedians while cruising in his fancy cars and dining in chic cafes. Appropriately, he entitled the show Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Seinfeld was a gracious host, laughing earnestly at his colleague's ramblings. His show reminded me of the value of car time with companions who share a similar vocation. I dreamed of my day with Pastors in Cars Going to Conferences.
Image result for comedians in cars getting coffee netflix Image result for comedians in cars getting coffee netflix
Last Tuesday morning, the dream became reality as I slipped through a thick fog into the front seat of Lee's Toyota. We stopped a half hour later in Turtle Town, Indiana, to pick up our friend Aaron. Our trio was complete: three solo pastors of small churches in insignificant, Indiana towns. Our destination was set: Providence, Rhode Island, where we would join the Evangelical Theological Society's (ETS) 69th Annual Meeting. Our conversation was worth the admission and mileage.
But what do three Pastors in Cars Going to Conferences talk about?

The short answer is Everything.

We catch up on family life and church happenings. We commiserate about ministry challenges and personal shortcomings. We summarize recent sermons or visualize improvements in our context of service. We assess films and lament our fantasy football teams. We wax nostalgic from college days or conferences of yore. We roast each other, celebrity pastors, or ETS papers that drew yawns or flimsy conclusions.
These are not my pastor friends; we are a different sort of Justice League.
In other words, pastors, like comedians (truck drivers, stay-at-home mothers) are people, too. We are a critical, geeky, busy, self-evaluating, culturally-inclined, and family-oriented bunch. If you give us thirty hours on the road and ten hours in food courts during a week, we will be full of conversation and bloated with gas.

So, again, what do three Pastors in Cars Going to Conferences talk about?
The better answer reduces down to 4 observations:

We love our churches: Aaron, Lee, and I could not express enough gratitude for the people in our congregations. As solo pastors of small churches we know people on a first name basis. We know details of their lives: struggles, ambitions, victories, and vocation. Collectively, we may grow tired of infighting, politics, hobby horses, and slow movement. But, individually, the people in our churches are beloved brothers and sisters in Christ.

We want to grow: Professional development drives us to these conferences (that, and Lee's car). We want to mature in our pastoral leadership and acumen for preaching. We want to expand our base of knowledge, our resources for ministry, and our network of other leaders. And, truth be told, none of us would complain if a few more individuals, couples, or families joined our church body. Admittedly, we each pine for the green pasture of a second pastor to compensate for our limitations.

We talk more about our ministries than our Messiah: Every conference I attend, this reality confronts me: We speak more about what we do for God than how we're doing with God. Ask a pastor what he's preaching on, and he'll give you a ten minute brief. Ask him what he's learning from God, and he'll just be brief. The latter question requires meditation; the former, regurgitation. I am guilty as charged. (In fact, it's why I blog and journal, to force myself to slow down and live reflectively.)

We need each other: I prioritize time with my fellow pastors and friends. Their empathy, encouragement, and shared experiences take me farther than they could possibly imagine. The solo pastor stands ever on the edge of discouragement or despair. But climbing in cars and going to conferences reinforces that he is not alone.