Friday, December 22, 2006

Rob a bank

I met a guy who robbed a bank. Uhm, before he robbed the bank. Uhm, i guess i should say attempted to rob a bank. He had a partner.

On the surface, the plan sucked. There was no real getaway plan. That is, the bank was in downtown Philadelphia, where driving is difficult. It was rush hour at that. This particular bank was nowhere near public transit. They didn't have bicycles. They weren't in good running condition. They didn't have a pre-written note, and scribbled one as they walked in. They stood in line to see a teller. When they handed the teller the note, the teller couldn't read it, and they had to explain what it said out loud - attracting attention of other tellers. A couple minutes into this exchange, a foot policeman walked in. This is even before the silent alarm was tripped. So, they were caught. At least they didn't have any real weapons.

Now, as i said, i'd met this man before. He'd done some dumb things, like get hooked on alcohol, and likely drugs. And, in fact, about this time, both he and his partner in crime had just been evicted from their respective apartments. Probably for non-payment. But, this guy did not seem totally stupid. He could perform logic, and such, and was less delusional than most of my historic managers.

And, it was not that he didn't understand the consequences. He'd been in jail before. His partner too. So, it would be easy to classify them as repeat offenders.

But it was winter in Philadelphia. And these guys had been in homeless shelters before too. Jail was just better. Warmer. Better food. Health care. Less access to drugs and alcohol.


Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 11, 2006

The Road to Salvation

More on having just read the Christian Bible.

So, what's my goal? Oddly enough, it isn't salvation. For me, chasing after personal salvation is too self centered. It's all, "I WANT", or mindless personal comfort, and seems to miss the point entirely. (Many of my close personal Jewish friends seem to understand this. And it's a good thing to get a glimpse at that understanding.) If i achieve salvation, it will be as a side effect of the life i lead. That's assuming salvation is achievable. And this is by no means certain.

So, what's next in my road to spiritual growth? Well, i may go back and read the other bits using the WEB version. Or, i may start again, but use biblical commentaries, compiled by biblical scholars. It's very likely that these people have historical context information to add that i don't. Why not leverage their hard work?

For example, i once heard an interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan, found in Luke. In the story, a priest walks by the hurt person, who was presumed dead. Without context, it sounds like this person is a hypocrite. But under Levitican law, such a priest is not allowed to touch the body of a dead person except that of a very close relative. So, this person acted properly in context. My reading of Leviticus didn't make this obvious to me. But someone who really studied it would know. Does this dramatically change the story? Maybe not. But it does make the story believable to the original audience. But another thing the Biblical scholars would tell me is who, exactly, are the Samaritans? Well, these people were Jews who set up a new city on another hill. Now, cities need serious support. So, these people called their city a holy city. But, to the Jews, Jerusalem was The Holy City. So, those who supported Jerusalem considered the Jews who supported this other city as the lowest kind of creature on Earth. They despised them even more than any non-Jew. This changes the story entirely. It means that the person who clearly acted selflessly and honorably was a member of the worst scum of the Earth. And, this clearly reflected poorly on those who considered themselves the most righteous. So, the story was carefully crafted to make people take ownership of these issues, in no uncertain terms. Yet, due to the ravages of time, there is much that is uncertain or missleading.

Perhaps it is time for modern parables. For example, on an airplane, the steward(ess) says, "In the event of an emergency, oxygen masks will drop down from the ceiling. Place your own mask on your face before assisting others.". This little statement is the same as "before you remove the speck in your brother's eye, remove the log that is in your own eye." Perhaps the modern version will resonate with people in modern culture better.

I'm not quite sure when i started this Bible reading project. And there was a year or two where i paused because my Palm Pilot was nearly unusable. I fixed it, and continued. Probably three years total time. But, i've read more than a hundred other books in the mean time. I've also watched movies, and was otherwise properly entertained. The years go by quickly. So, my advise, start reading. In this, the end goal of finishing is not the important part. Don't worry about it. It's what you get out of the process of going through it that matters.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Why Read the Bible

More reflection after having just read the entire Christian Bible.

For most of my life i've gone to church on Sunday. So i've heard the entire lectionary series several times. I've also read certain whole Bible books before, like Luke, and the first five books - Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. So, much of the reading was review. Certainly, i'd had exposure to most of the good bits. By "good", i mean meaningful and relevant. But reading the Bible from end to end provides context. This context was often startling. Even whole chapters used in the Lectionary seemed to have new direction in context. Certainly, just about any quoted verse you may have heard has new meaning in context. More than half of the time, when someone quotes a Bible verse at you, it doesn't mean anything like what it sounds. It's almost as if someone who took the time to read the whole Bible purposely found verses that, when taken out of context, seemed to mean whatever they wanted to say. That then gives an authority to whatever they wanted to say that simply isn't justified. It is dishonest. And, that's despite repeated admonitions in the Bible against hypocrisy.

Take, for example, John 3:16. This is the canonical Christian statement of faith. It is generally taken to mean what it says. But the book of John does not read anything like the other synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke. And it is worth knowing what John's view is. Without that context, any interpretation of basic Christian faith may be wrong.

I doubt that more than a percent or two of Christians have read the Bible from end to end. Without this background, one is essentially biblically illiterate. And, while John 3:16 says that faith is all you need, consider that "faith without works is dead" (which also requires context to understand), and "the road to salvation is narrow, like the razor's edge", and "many are called, but few are chosen". These references lead one to the idea that salvation, if that's your goal, requires more work than going to church once a week. In particular, going to church once a week does not make you Christian. It isn't enough.

And how could it be? In a typical Christian sermon, the pastor must assume a fairly introductory level of knowledge. There might be new people in the church. Hopefully there are. After all, the primary goal of the church is outreach. But that means that real depth is essentially impossible. On top of that, the typical sermon has just three points. That's 150 points a year, and less if you look for duplicates. Even education programs outside of the Church service have to start somewhere. I've not seen a church anywhere that supports a ten year study, for example.

Now, i'm not going to say that you are Damned to Hell if you don't follow my lead here. Only God judges. I'm not even allowed to judge myself. Perhaps i'm being to hard on myself. Or not hard enough. Yet i don't worry, in fear that i don't measure up. I'm just attempting to do the best i can. No one can ask for more. And as near as i can tell, not even God asks more.

Oddly, if you're not Christian, but just want to understand Christians, reading the Bible won't do it for you. That's because most Christians haven't read it, or at least don't act as if they've read it.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Reading the Entire Bible

I recently finished reading the Christian Bible. I'm not saying this to brag. Finishing it is very much not the point. I'll expand on this idea in a later post. I'd have read it sooner, but it is a rather large book, and it's inconvenient to carry around. Historically, one got the choice of a large physical book, or really small print. Really small print was an option when i was younger, i suppose. And also, Post-It notes hadn't been invented. (These make excellent book marks, showing not just the page, but the exact spot where one left off).

Another practical problem is that the language of the Bible is not modern American English. Even if the translation is modern, terms and idioms are used that either aren't common in every day use, or mean different things. Maybe it's something simple as "Adam knew Eve". The biblical writers also often meant more than one thing when they wrote anything. So, let's say the bible explained the "Adam knew Eve" bit by saying "Of course he did. They hung around together all the time!". That would be ambiguous too. And the Bible writer would probably mean both obvious things.

All this adds up to slow reading. It's easy to get information overflow, so you have to take your time. Read a little at a time, on a regular basis, like daily. One needs to go slow enough to give it time to sink in, but fast enough so one still remembers the context. That's why Christan educators always suggest study on a regular basis. And even so, the book of Revelation is just impossible.

I solved many of these practical problems by reading the Bible on my Palm Pilot. The entire Bible can be stored on one. In fact, the King James Bible will fit (compressed) on a single 3.5" floppy disk - less than 1.44 MB. If you get the right reader, the Palm can display text in a fairly large font with high contrast. The Palm itself is fairly small, and can do other things than allow you to read this one book. For example, it can keep your phone numbers, addresses, appointments, grocery lists, notes, and for me, a chart of the night sky and observation log. When you are done reading for a session, the Palm automatically remembers exactly where you were.

Reading the Bible on the Palm raises a new problem, however. Copyright. The King James Bible is in the public domain. I can do anything i want with it. It isn't modern American English. I started reading the King James version because it was the only version that i knew was public at the time. Part way through the Old Testament, i switched to the Douay-Rheims version, which had been posted to Project Gutenberg. This version uses slightly more modern English, and has some "extra" Catholic books. More recently, the WEB - the World English Bible was posted on Project Gutenberg. This is a much more modern English version, and has some minor commentary on some specific translation issues. It is my current favorite public domain version.

In my opinion, all versions of the Bible should be public. Sure, making a Bible translation is time consuming and expensive. Christian organizations should eat the cost. I mean, the Christian imperative is the Great Commission - teach all nations. The Great Commission does not say you must keep tight control over the Bible. Nor does it say you must make great steaming gobs of money with this best-seller. They can still make paper editions available, and charge for it. But getting the Bible out in electronic form can allow a wide audience to customize the experience. This can be a make-or-break difference, as it was for me. So, there's no excuse.

While i have a license to an electronic copy of the New Revised Standard Version, a very modern and readable translation, the license does not allow me to do whatever i want with it. So despite having paid more for it than all the paper Bibles i own combined, i was not able to put it on my Palm Pilot and just read it. It's stuck on the computer i bought it for, and that's that. That makes it good for certain reference uses, and only when i'm at home, and the computer (now 19 years old) is working. I also have a paper copy of this version. It's in very good condition, which just shows that i've hardly used it.

Reading the Bible on a computer may not be for you. Maybe paper is for you. I'm just relating what worked for me. Now that i've read it, i may put a new copy on my Palm, optimized for looking up references. Or maybe not. The main thing that seems to be good for is refuting Bible thumpers who hit you over the head with a verse out of context. While it may be fun to argue, these people are seldom convinced of anything, and more heat than light is generated.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Christmas Coping

Many people get aggravated at Christmas time. Here are some things i do to cope.

My Christmas tree doesn't go up until the weekend before Christmas. I leave the season of Advent for Advent. The tree stays up for two weeks. It stays up for the 12 Days of Christmas (though where this particular tradition comes from is beyond me). Two weeks lets me take it down on a weekend. I have no outside ornaments. It's a fake tree, and so it's the same one every year. The lights are only on from about sunset to about 9 pm. I'm not contributing to significant light pollution. I'm not consuming mass quantities of electricity.

Last year, i wasn't home much over this Christmas period. We spent the time at my mother-in-law's. So, no tree at home at all.

The hustle and bustle of buying presents has been diminished dramatically in my greater family. By mutual consent, we only give gifts to children. So, i'm not wondering what to get adults who already have everything they want, since, if they wanted something, they could certainly just buy it. And, they'd get the exact thing they wanted, rather than just more or less the thing they wanted.

All of this has taken the pressure off of the season, and has made it much more pleasant. My favorite Christmas music is now 'Jingle Bells' - which is about winter. This shouldn't be offensive to anyone. Unless, you've heard it way too much. My solution is to avoid listening to the radio, and do minimal shopping at stores. The Internet lets me shop in a quicker, more fuel efficient manner, and the stuff appears at my doorstep. My iPod only knows how to play things i want to hear. This year, i've learned to play Jingle Bells on the violin. There's a minimal sense of accomplishment, which is better than nothing.

When traffic is slow because of a little snow, i put a little more space between myself and others, and limit my speed against the conditions (can i stop in time?). If it takes a little longer, that just means i get to hear another podcast. This lets me enjoy the snow.

Your life is in your hands. You can do it with a hostile attitude, but there's no value-add.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Zeno's Diet

I run the bagel club at work. It wasn't my idea. No money changes hands. A sign up sheet gets people to enter the rotation to bring them in. Donuts and bagels once a week.

This club is entirely optional. With my sales skills, it is amazing that there are any members. I mean, i can't even give away great stuff.

So, some of the members are weight conscious. So, they come up and cut a donut in half, and eat just that. Then, a bit later, they come back and cut the half in half, taking a quarter. Then, sometimes, even the quarter is cut in half, leaving an eighth.

This is Zeno's Diet. The idea is that before you can eat the whole donut, you must first eat half of it. And before you can eat the remaining half of it, you must eat half of that half, which is a quarter of it. And so on. Since there are an infinite number of steps, it is impossible to finish eating a whole donut. That's because it is impossible to do an infinite number of things in finite time.