Monday, January 9, 2017

System Restore

Jack Parr was the host of the Tonight Show from 1957 to 1962. He was so popular that they actually renamed it The Jack Parr Show. He was, in the words of Wikipedia, “often unpredictable, emotional and principled.” When censors literally cut a joke he told out of the pre-taped program, without telling him, he walked off the program in protest. He returned 3 weeks later when the network apologized and let him tell the joke. He began his first broadcast back with “As I was saying...”

I got interrupted last year by something a lot less forgiving than a TV censor. Tomorrow is the 1 year anniversary of my accident. It was a Saturday afternoon, and besides sidelining me for the better part of 8 months, I was prevented from delivering a sermon I had written for the next day, the first Sunday after Epiphany. 

So as I was saying...

This person I know had his computer crash and he got a new one. And he set it up and ignored a very important warning that was right there on the instruction sheet: Write down the password for logging into the computer itself. He didn't because of, well, arrogance. He thought of a password which fulfilled all the criteria about caps and numbers and symbols but which was easy to remember. And the very next time he signed in, he couldn't get it right and tried every variation of the “easy to remember” password but, you know, computers don't give credit for close and so he could not use the computer for anything but a doorstop. Friends tried to help but nothing worked and so that he could get into his new computer he had to take it to the electronics store and pay to have them restore it to factory settings. Everything he had done in setting it up, all programs he had downloaded, all work he had done on the computer were gone. Lesson learned.

And this got the person thinking about metaphors because that is the strange way this guy's head works. Today we commemorate the Baptism of Our Lord and we contemplate the nature of baptism. And what is baptism but a sort of returning a person's software to its factory settings after they are so screwed up that nothing else can be done? If our bodies are our hardware then the ways we operate them are the software. The basics are already on the hard drive: the capacity for language, the ability for learning our way around the environment, for understanding that some things are able to manipulate the environment and create order, and some things can't. This, by the way, is why children, without any indoctrination, tend to believe in God. According to research cited by Dr. Justin Barrett in his book Born Believers, children very early in life learn to distinguish agents, live things with intent and the ability to make purposeful changes in the environment, from mere objects. They are preset to spot the evidence of unseen agents and to detect the purpose of the things around them. It is natural for them to see order and purpose in nature the way they do in man-made elements. That's their basic programming. Until the age of 12, it is very hard to convince the average child that the world is not made but is the result of countless undirected and random accidents. Even if we are taught otherwise, subconsciously we think in terms of the world and everything in it having a purpose. Indeed having a sense of purpose is vital to happiness.

Along the way, we develop some bad habits when it comes to using our hardware and we download some bad software because everybody else does and because we believe the hype about certain programs. We ignore the terms of service and the changes that the software is going to make in us and what it will demand of us and just accept it. Eventually our operating system can get glitchy. It can cause system-wide problems because of the malware we take on. And it can be bad enough to require a system restore.

Baptism is kinda like a system restore. When everything is so infected and buggy that it's difficult to function normally, we need to be restored to what we were intended to be. That's one of the purposes of baptism. It is not a magic ritual, nor merely an initiation rite. It is a new start in life. Everything old is gone; you are a new creation in Christ.

One of the things you have to do after a system restore is reinstall everything you need. I had to reinstall my preferred word processing program. Or rather this guy did. The new start meant beginning again even with the basics, just as a patient with a new hip or knee needs to learn to walk again. It's a time to unlearn bad habits and institute new and good ones. Diabetics have to rethink the way they eat and exercise. New Christians not only have new teachings and practices to take onboard but also need to start seeing things in new ways, just as I—or this guy—had to install his preferred browser. Your life is no longer seen as your own to live in any way your whimsy dictates. People are no longer divided into those we care for and those we wouldn't spit on if they were on fire. All are seen through the eyes of Jesus. All are created in the image of God. All are either brothers or sisters in Christ or potential brothers or sisters in Christ. We must love all, even if it is not reciprocated. We must pray for all, even those who mistreat us.

This world and its creatures are no longer seen as raw materials for our comfort and amusement but are seen as belonging to God. We are but stewards of them, expected to treat them wisely and to give an accounting of how we took care of them. It's like renting a furnished home. You need to consult the landlord before you just start knocking out walls; some may be load-bearing. And you can't shrug off damages because its not your stuff.

Another thing you do if you had to do a system restore because of malware or a virus is you pay attention to your security. You don't click on ads or strange emails that might harbor a malicious bit of code. The recovering alcoholic will stay away from bars. The newly baptized should likewise avoid areas in which he is most tempted and come up with strategies to deal with those that are unavoidable. If rage is your problem, take anger management classes. If overindulgence is, find an accountability partner. If you are too materialistic, work out a stewardship plan. If you have trouble loving someone, pray for them.

On the positive side, just as there are things you do to keep your computer healthy so there are things you do to remain spiritually healthy. That means updating your computer, especially its security. In the same way, you need to keep in communication with God so that your concerns and his concerns are in sync. In other words you need to pray regularly. And not just in a rote way. Whether you use a prewritten prayer, speak spontaneously, or just listen meditatively, you need to open your heart and mind to God's Spirit. This is vital for spiritual growth and health.

When you first start working with your computer you learn the basics of how it works and also what you need to do to make sure it works correctly. You might even read the owner's manual! In the same way, you ought to read the Bible regularly. It will tell you what God is doing in this world and how he is going about that. It will give you examples of both what you should do and what you should not do. It shows us how God can work even through imperfect people, which is all of us. It also shows you what to do when you screw up. That's one way in which I prefer God's system to computer systems. When I—or the guy—couldn't come up with the password, there was no other way to get into the computer. In fact, if you had not prepared a Password Reset Disk, or had another administrator on the computer, you had no alternative but a system restore. God is more forgiving than computer programmers. We only have to be baptized once. We can seek forgiveness as often as necessary and know that he will not, say, lock us out after 3 attempts. Jesus says we are to forgive our sibling 70 times 7. How much more forgiving is our Lord!

To fix a problem with your computer, it's important to diagnose it properly. If you don't know what's wrong, it is impossible to correct. That's why it's good to have software that scans your computer on a regular schedule to detect and clean out spyware and malware. In health care, we encourage people to do self-examinations for breast and testicular cancers. In the same way, we need to do a spiritual self-examination regularly and confess any sinful attitudes and actions we find. It just makes sense to periodically look for problems or potential problems and get them taken care of before they make things worse.

People rarely use computers offline these day. They use some form of social media to keep in touch with other people. Not only do they spread jokes and cat videos but they also share personal joys and concerns. They encourage one another and even raise money using kickstarters to help get projects off the ground or pay for medical bills. Recently engineers have helped children who are missing hands by designing and using 3D printing to construct prosthetic hands that are much cheaper than those made by medical companies. There are other ways in which people are using computers to help one another.

It is absolutely vital that spirituality not become merely a private, inwardly focused discipline, lest it become isolating and even toxic. The Dead Sea is called that because of its extreme salinity. Located at the Earth's lowest point on land, all other bodies of water in the area, including the Jordan, drain into it but it has no outlet. It is so salty, you can't drink it, you don't want to get it in your eyes, and the immediate area around it is desert. Just so, if you do not go outside yourself and your own concerns, if you do not meaningfully connect with others, if you do not reach out and help others motivated by and using what you have learned from your intimacy with Christ, your spiritual health will be seriously compromised and can even become toxic. Christianity is about love, about being Christ to others and seeing Christ in others and helping everyone better reflect Christ in their lives. Otherwise we set about creating a God in our image and try to make everyone conform to that magnified and distorted picture of ourselves. When you hear someone claiming to speak for Christ but saying things Jesus never said nor would say, they are just trying to make God channel them rather than the other way around.

Finally computers have in some ways made people more honest. Typing something rather than hearing yourself say it out loud can make you less diplomatic. The anonymity that certain forums offer allow people to express their darker thoughts and attitudes, like racism, misogyny, and a general disdain for anybody who doesn't think like them. Reading the comments section of most articles or blog posts can shatter your faith in humanity. But like a malware scan it can reveal the problems that are out there that need to be attended to. It can make our follies and sins all the more obvious by capturing them in black and white. And once they are on the internet, it is almost impossible to cover them up or deny them. Some will just double down and become more arrogant and adamant in their opinions. Approached rightly, however, they can make us more humble. They can make us admit that—yeah, I am that guy and I screwed up and I am sorry and I ask your forgiveness and your support in changing and not being that guy anymore.

We will not become totally glitch-free in this life. But we believe in the resurrection of the dead. Just as your avatar in a computer game can die but be brought back to play again, God can save our software, who we are, and debug it for good and will one day, as priest and physicist John Polkinghorne put it, download it into new hardware. It's the ultimate upgrade. Death and disease and the degradation of who we were created to be will be no more. God plans to do a system restore on all creation. And he wants our participation and our input. And we need not worry about him doing in the same oblivious and alien way that programmers sometimes do. He has become one of us. He has lived and died as one of us. And we can trust him to get it right.

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