Ritual Essays

Stories that conceal and stories that reveal: I wear too much makeup and if you look closely I come with an “as is” tag.

I don’t think I’ve ever been much of a makeup fan… I mean there’s something just so utterly beautiful about the genuineness of a face that has nothing to hide, although there’s a time for wearing makeup, and for some people that may be 24/7 –but now let’s pretend I never said that-. The point here is that as I was thinking about makeup, I realized that perhaps I too should adopt the “no makeup” policy more often.

In the words of John Ortberg, some times I find myself being “much more measured or calculating than I wish I were; situations where I work as hard and subtly as I can to try to manage what the other person is thinking of me; situations in which I emphasize opinions I think they might agree with, or tell stories that make me sound smarter or stronger or more successful than I really am.”

At times I may talk about the girl who liked to play relationship games, and how I respected myself too much to play along, but always neglect to mention how emotionally immature I was in my approach as well. Some other times I may talk about how I am in such a prestigious program: the M.D./Ph.D, the supposed pinnacle of education, but neglect to mention to people that it has been a struggle to get through half of the classes, or that I’ve had to repeat biostatistics, a relatively “easy” class.

I recently realized that perhaps I too use stories to conceal much about myself from my community. I realized that perhaps I wear too much makeup.

On the other hand, I can point to this story to the beginning of a narrative that is used to reveal something to my community: I’m rather flawed, pretty imperfect, and if I were for sale I’d have a big and bright “as is” tag. I recently had one of those “I have an “as is” tag” moments with my friend Justin. During a road trip he told me about his tag, and I told him about mine. I felt accepted. I’m not suggesting that we all run outside and start divulging our imperfections, but I do think that if we were more honest we might allow our community to get closer, and who knows perhaps we’ll find a couple other imperfect people to build a stronger community with.

Personal myths and parables: When I grow up I want to be a doctor

One of my greatest myths was conceived while on a mission trip to Mexico, shortly after arriving in the USA. For the first time in my life I was living for a greater purpose than myself, I was helping people with the little knowledge I had about health and translating health lectures into Spanish. It was an epiphany: “when I grow up I want to be a missionary doctor and help in the healing process of people”. Somehow neither the arduous and sometimes grueling path to medical school nor the financial burden it required registered in my brain. Somehow everything would be OK. However, I encountered many “parables” in such course, the biggest of which was revealed by my inability to pay for medical school once I got accepted. After months of trying to find a way to finance my education I found myself two days away from my registration deadline and $54,000 short. I talked to one of the associate deans of admissions and told her I would be deferring my acceptance to medical school for a year. It was one of the few times in my adult life I have cried out of sadness. I questioned God, wrestled with Him, and finally surrendered to His wisdom. Three and a half years later I’m still in Loma Linda, getting paid to study while taking the scenic route a PhD affords. I’m still encountering parables along the way, but at the same time I couldn’t be more elated to have a myth to behold while I’m on this journey.

Community secret keeping: Blissful ignorance?

I’ve never known much about my dad’s dad. He died when I was around three years old from pancreatic cancer, so there’s not much I remember, although every once in a while I’ll have brief flashbacks of how he moved really slowly and how gentle and quiet he was. My mom would always say that in his old age he was a sweet man, always lending a helpful hand whenever he came to visit us.

However, my view of my grandpa changed not too long ago when I asked my dad why it was that I knew very little about his dad. I was surprised to hear from my dad that it was probably because he didn’t really know him either. While my dad was growing up, his dad was a reckless alcoholic that would often have to be picked up from the streets by his older kids (my dad was one of the designated draggers). He was seldom home, and when he was actually home, all the kids wished he were not.

He had a conversion experience in his old age, but had already managed to wreck most of his relationships with his family. The road to redemption was cut short by cancer, and never really got to make amends with all of his kids. Maybe I’d prefer to have the memory of my grandpa intact, but I think most of the time I like knowing his story.

I think the story of my grandpa reveals much more than the fact that alcoholism might run in my genetic makeup, I think that his story shows the power of God to change a wrecked life, and his loving patience that leads us to repentance, even in our old age. And who knows, maybe a desire to accept forgiveness is part of my genome as well.

Absent rituals: There’s no cake, there’s no ice-cream. Happy going away party…

It is 2002 and the year is drawing to a close. It is December and I’m going to the American embassy thinking that maybe I’ll be able to continue my studies in the US after all. That same day I receive my visa, and come back home excited to announce that against all odds I’ve been granted a student visa. Time seems to fly by and before I know it I’m only two days away from leaving home. Things get really busy and the day I leave I quickly hug my 3 sisters, kiss my grandma on her forehead, and on my way to the bus station I quickly text a couple of friends to say bye. That’s it. No “proper” goodbyes, not even a cake or some ice-cream.

It’s been eight years now since that day, and we have managed to institute a ritual for saying good bye. No, it doesn’t include cake or ice-cream, but it does include the entire family getting closer together (quite literally) in a ritual we all call the “good-bye group hug”.

Forgiveness and reconciliation: Lessons from my childhood

I’ve been familiar with the notion that forgiveness requires more than simply forgetting for quite some time now. If that were truly the case, people with a bad memory (like me) would be some of the most forgiving people in the world (and believe me, I’m not!).  I think having siblings affords anyone a great opportunity to learn about forgiveness. I remember for example when my older sister hit me “accidentally” with a broomstick and made my hand look like a baseball glove. I haven’t forgotten about it, but I now laugh every time I remember it.

I also remember when we would try to bargain with each other when we were kids. It worked then, but doubt it would work now. I doubt that adults would go for, “hey, I’ll give you my allowance to buy ice-cream if you don’t tell mom…”.

However most of the time I would try to be biblical in my approach to forgiveness towards my siblings: “An eye for an eye”. I never really got mad then, I simply got even. My sister would pinch me, but I would make sure I left a nice print of my teeth on at least one of her arms… I don’t think that would fly today. An eye for an eye might just make the whole world blind.

One of my favorite personal stories of forgiveness and reconciliation occurred when I was 7 years old. It was Sunday morning in Villahermosa, Mexico, the most tropical part of the country. Back then I used to get up early and make myself “breakfast” to accompany me while watching Sunday morning cartoons. On one of those particularly hot Sundays I opened the refrigerator to grab my favorite topping for toast, edible happiness, otherwise known as condensed milk. The condensed milk was normally in a really cute and expensive little jar my mom had gotten as a wedding present, her favorite jar. I remember looking at that jar and thinking how beautiful it looked, just simply radiating yumminess. So as I was grabbing it, the glass handle reacted to the laws of physics and thermal dynamics, and collapsed in my hands. And then in slow motion, I saw the jar fall to the floor (while saying “Noooo” in extra slow motion), and shatter into a thousand pieces. My short life passed before me, and I knew that there were no laws in Mexico to protect me from what was coming. I started to cry. No, forget crying, I started to sob. As I was hyperventilating myself I went into my parents’ room, and asked my mom if I could tell her “something”, but that I couldn’t tell her until she promised to forgive me. She immediately woke up and asked me if I was OK, to which I responded “yes, but your little jar is not”, and I resumed my hyperventilation, feeling utterly devastated for having broken my mom’s favorite jar. My mom’s reaction was priceless and taught me a profound lesson. She hugged me and kissed me, and said it was OK, she was just happy that I wasn’t hurt.

That forgiveness, that grace, was so meaningful, that it made me want to avoid breaking anything my mom valued. Perhaps the best way to bring about forgiveness and reconciliation is first of all to embrace the fact that as humans we are bound to mess up, and secondly, to be willing to extend the grace that has been so prodigally extended to us.

That Sunday morning I learned a bunch of valuable lessons that would remain with me to this day: I learned about grace, forgiveness, God’s love towards us (as exemplified by my mom), but most of all I learned about thermodynamics.

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I Think I’m Part of a Cult!

A few weeks ago my curiosity was tickled as we discussed cults and sects in our Religion and Society class. That exercise reminded me of perhaps the most influential book on cults: The kingdom of the cults by Walter Martin. This book is a very extensive and rather unbiased look at all religious groups in America. In it Martin defines cults as “groups of people who meet around a specific person or person’s misinterpretation of the Bible”. However, that makes me wonder whose interpretation of the Bible is the right one as well as what gives someone’s interpretation primacy over all others.

As a Baptist minister Martin professes to believe in the immortality of the soul, which suggests he endorses anthropologic dualism: an interpretation widely held by the evangelical community, the largest Christian community in America. This view originally stems from Aristotle’s interpretation of humanity, which eventually found its way to some Christian theologian’s philosophy, and in turn was used to interpret the Scriptures. You may wonder, so what does this have to do with cults anyway? I’m bringing this up to point out that the interpretation of the majority is what is considered the “correct” view. In other words, the make up of our society determines what is correct and what is not. However, may I suggest that this view is mostly unbiblical? May I suggest that often times it is society that determines what a cult is as opposed to the Bible? Take the example of the early Christians, they were called a cult by the Jewish community (the majority) in Acts 24:14 because they were following the “biblical misinterpretation” of Jesus, but I submit to you that they were perhaps the best Christians in the history of Christianity. Using that illustration, I would suggest that evangelicals would be called a cult in a 1st century Jewish society.

In conclusion, labeling religious groups is a very subjective thing. Perhaps the best thing we could do might be simply to “major in the majors and minor in the minors”: The theme of the Bible is Jesus. Everything else is commentary.

P.S. I’d be happy to be part of a cult, as long as this makes sure that it follows Jesus’ misinterpretation of the Bible.

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Is Dating Biblical?

Today I’d like to explore once again one of the many links between religion and society, namely the family, traditionally referred to as the nucleus of society. A family normally comes after marriage, which in turn is preceded by dating. Thus, dating is firmly embedded in our society, now my question is how does religion affect this particular area of society?

In order to answer that question it might be well to note that there are several religions in the world, and among all religions there are four major ones that constitute nearly ¾ of the world population: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism.

Because of my unfamiliarity with most other religions, I will only be answering the questions from the perspective of Christianity, which is a monotheistic religion based on the teachings of Jesus. So if Christianity is based on the teachings of Jesus as related in the Bible, is there anything that Jesus has to say about dating?

And the answer is… *drum rolls* Not directly. What, so is there not such a thing as Christian dating? Does that mean that dating is not sanctioned by the Bible? Well, before we dismiss dating as an “irreligious” practice, it would be good to remember that the Bible doesn’t specifically address a wide variety of topics. The point here is that while the Bible may not particularly address the question of dating, its principles still apply to every area of our lives including dating. These principles include, but are not limited to, honesty, selflessness, and a genuine desire for the good of the other person (for “greater love has no man than this: to give up his life for his friends”).

Could it be that dating as a Christian provides for a better experience for people interested in dating? According to Randy Roberts, a wise mentor and an authority in the area of relationships, the happiest relationships are those in which both people think the other person is doing more for the relationship than they are. I think this is what we would call Biblical or Christian dating. Imagine if we applied these biblical dating principles in all of our relationships: selflessly and honestly loving the other person. I wonder what would happen to marriages then; what would happen to families; I wonder what would happen to society… I certainly cannot predict what would happen, but I’d like to believe that perhaps the religion of Jesus permeating our relationships might transform our dates, marriages, families, and maybe even our society into a little piece of Heaven on earth. It is worth a try…

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Religion and Society

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A matter of life and death

I recently celebrated my 27th birthday and as I rapidly approach my 30s, I began to think of my own mortality =), and how in spite of health or youth, we’re all subject to death sooner or later. Ernest Hemingway once said, “Every true story ends in death”. But I’m not the first one to wonder about mortality and death. People have done it for thousands of years, and they have all invariably concluded one of two things: either death ends everything or it doesn’t.

A wise man who goes by the name of Ed Dickerson broke it down in the following way:

1- Eastern religions believe that life follows death in a cycle of reincarnations. They viewed life as characterized by pain. They believe that if you do bad things in this life it brings bad karma resulting in more suffering in the next life you are reborn into. In their view, life’s a pain. You’re born. If you fail you’re reborn. Life’s a pain. If you fail you’re reborn. Life’s a pain, and so on until you get it right… Then you die.

2- Ancient Egyptians, Mayans, Baal worshipers, and the Chinese all believed that death was not the end but rather the transition to another type of life, and thus kings and wealthy citizens furnished their tombs so they would be prepared to enjoy the next life. In other words you’re born, life’s a pain, but there’s a much better (or much worse) life after you die.

3- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam they all teach that death need not be the end. In every case, these religions speak of an afterlife that’s much better for the righteous, or much worse for the unrighteous, which may be summarized in the same way we summarized the previous point.

4- Naturalism- The body decomposes after death, and all of those molecules that made up “you” will nourish some plant, which some animal will eat, and eventually, given enough cycles, you’ll become part of some  new human being, who will eventually die and start the cycle again. In summary, you’re born, life’s a pain, you’re fertilizer.

5- Darwinism is the last view I’ll explore today. Evolution declares that “successful” organisms, including human beings, live on through the genetic information they leave behind in their offspring. Furthermore, evolution says that you’re here in the first because of random accidents, and eventually the as everything evolves the dying sun will explode and vaporize this earth. So in summary, you’re born by accident. Life is a hiccup in the life of the universe. You die. Eventually everything dies.

So the question now is, which one is right? The problem is that not one of these options is testable, and thus we can’t truly know, so why even bother? We shouldn’t even depress ourselves trying to think about it! The only problem with that approach is that what we believe about death influences the way we go about living life. For example, if there is nothing after death, then it would make sense to try to get all the pleasure we possibly can today. On the other hand, if we need to pay for what we do while we’re alive some time after we die, well, then we might be more willing to live accordingly. Needless to say then that what we believe about death in turn affects the society in which we live.

If I may share my own convictions, I would say that when we follow biblical principles (love towards God, your neighbor, and yourself) on this earth we allow ourselves to live more abundantly. And while we may not know with certainty what happens after death, I can tell you that what happens here and now is worth pursuing. Now, if to a happy life now, you add the possibility of a happy afterlife, we may just have winning combo. In all seriousness though, I might be wrong, but there is still at least a 50% chance that I’m right. I choose to cast my lot on the side that says that I have nothing to lose by leading a “righteous” life, and everything to gain. Perhaps not every true story ends in death…

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On family, relationships, and religion

It’s been said that the nucleus of society is the family. And being Valentine’s day, I can’t help but think of relationships, which eventually, if you’re brave enough, may lead to a family. Tonight I’d like to focus on the first step in forming a family: romantic relationships. More exactly, I’d like to focus on how religion permeates them. One of the great things about the Bible is that its principles encompass every area of our lives, and for no additional charge a lesson or two on romance are included.

One of the greatest lessons I can think of was brought up recently by one of my mentors. He mentioned that in the book of the Song of Solomon we are advised to add an element of friendship to our romantic relationships (Chapter 5:16).  In fact the Bible would seem to suggest that there should be mad attraction between people who intend to be married, but it also suggests that those same people should be friends as well.

I don’t know about you, but when I think of friendship the definition that comes to mind is that of “someone who knows a lot about you, and still is willing to hang out with you”. Someone who accepts you in spite of your flaws. Someone who calls out the best in you… Someone who grants you the grace to try again when you have made a bad mistake.

I’m glad the Bible calls us to this type of commitment, and I pray that each and every one of us may allow the religion of Jesus to permeate our relationships, the same religion that compels us to a be a “friend” to those we happen to call family.

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Biblical Anthropology- My position on it

Once upon a time there was a group of brilliant theologians who helped shape the silhouette of mainstream evangelical theology. One of their main themes seemed to be the immortality of the soul, and its “intermediate state”, which occurred once the soul left the body to wander around while waiting for the resurrection day. It was during this time, that Joel Green came into the picture proposing that indeed the soul and the body are inseparable, thus calling attention to the “monoism vs dualism” debate.

As previously mentioned, in the debate between monoism and dualism, Green takes a monoist approach and suggests that we cannot separate the soul from the body, and I could not agree more with Green for a number of reasons related to my own understanding of the Bible.

First of all, dualism bears several implications that in my perception are in direct contradiction with the overall message of the Bible and thus are internally inconsistent. The first of these implications is the immortality of the soul, which according to my interpretation of seemingly unambiguous biblical passages, is rather untrue. In the Old Testament we read that the soul returns to God when a person dies, and that their thoughts perish when their spirit returns to God, furthermore, when such a person dies he or she knows nothing! (Gen. 3:19; Eccl. 12:7; Psalm 146:3,4; Eccl. 9:5). This theme of the actual mortality of the soul is continued throughout the New Testament and even explained by Jesus Himself, as found in John 11: 11-14 when He describes to His disciples that death is like sleep (in fact, the Bible contains approx. fifty references to this comparison). In addition, the Bible seems to be clear on immortality, indicating that God’s people will receive immortality when Jesus comes again and not before (1 Cor. 15:51-54; Rev. 22:12).

Another implication of dualism perhaps not immediately apparent is that we may go to Heaven or hell (or worse yet, purgatory) as soon as we die (i.e. in the “intermediate state” form). I do not agree with this based on both theological and philosophical bases. At the outset, this would require a dead person’s soul to keep on living, and as mentioned in the previous paragraph this is not consistent with the message of the Bible as a whole. Secondly, I would think that if people go to Heaven right after dying, they may not live in eternal bliss if they are able to see their family members suffer from the injustices and evil that exists in the world. On the other hand the notion of immortality of the soul also provides the basis for “purgatory” theology, which paints a picture of a vindictive god who delights in punishment, who is so caught up with “justice” that neglects mercy altogether. This is not the picture that we get from the Bible, which says in John 3:16 that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him, should not perish but have eternal life”, and it is thus that “mercy and truth have met together; and righteousness (justice) and peace have kissed each other” (Psalm 85:10).

While the monoism vs dualism debate is the theme of Joel Green’s book (hence the title), he does have a lot of insightful observations concerning other topics such as free will, religious conversion, and the resurrection. I was particularly enlightened by his explanation of free will, which proposes that free will is indeed a shaped by our life experiences. The notion of free will was further expanded in class to be defined as “the things we do based on choices, tendencies, and context”. I had not really given much thought to those aspects of free will before this class, but they do not seem to contradict my current biblical views, and consequently I’m leaning towards including them in my understanding of “free will” theology.

The book also touched on the topic of conversion, and while many theologians divide the camp into either a process or a single act, I lean towards both. For it is my experience that in one day I decided to give my life over to God to control, but I also know that there was a process that occurred before I got to that point, and continues until this day. Thus in my opinion, conversion is a daily act (to yield to His Spirit your “free will”) and an ongoing process by which I’m being “transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory” (2 Cor. 3:18), and this is not something I do, for I know that “He who began a good work in me will be faithful to complete it” (Phil. 1:6).

In the light of all of this, my view of the resurrection involves not only hope but also courage. For I know that I serve a merciful God who is able to raise people from the dead, who is willing to keep my soul until I wake from my sleep, who is able to give me a new body when He comes back to take us home. What’s more, this knowledge gives the courage to live this life with reckless abandon for self in the service of others who may or may not know about the God of the resurrection.

Lastly, I believe that my views on these topics should and likely will permeate the ways in which I relate to healing and healthcare. Knowing that the soul, body, and mind are so closely interconnected compels me to approach health and healing in a holistic manner, caring not just for the body but for the mind, and soul as well. In short, this knowledge makes me want to contribute as a future physician to make man whole.

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