Sunday, April 12, 2015

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"You create a world, [a reader wrote to Tolkien] in which some sort of faith seems to be everywhere without a visible source, like light from an invisible lamp."

                                                                          - The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien






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Parable of a Car Dealership?

Let me begin by saying that I am a very lucky man.  I have a great wife and three beautiful children.  Apparently however, being a father and a husband means I also have to be a grown up.  It is a wonderful thing actually, and it means that God has entrusted these three little people to my care.  In addition to this sentiment, it also means that any notion of driving the quintessential little red sports car must give way to a more family-friendly (and more sensible) vehicle.  Enter the reason my wife and I found ourselves at a car dealership in Des Moines recently.  As luck would have it, we found a car we liked very quickly.  It was a white Chevy crossover with three-row seating.  It was the right price, the right mileage, and the right timing.  If only the buying process itself could have resembled the happy little television commercials that show families smiling and high-fiving the sales person as they drive off the lot.  Instead, it was largely an exercise in sweaty palms, nervous anxiety, and a lot of discussion about monthly payments.  We arrived at 4:30 in the afternoon, and ended up driving away in a new vehicle around 7:00 p.m.  The very personable salesman even filled our gas tank for us on the way out of town.  He assured us that they don't do this for just anyone.  

What was interesting however, was what transpired during the actual paperwork process. As we were sitting down to fill out the purchase agreement, my daughter called our attention to something.  Moments earlier, she was knee-deep in trying to help corral her two younger (and very bored) brothers.  It turns out that there isn't much to do for little boys at a car lot!  At any rate, she looked at me and pointed out the window.  "Daddy, isn't that our car?" she said.  I looked up to see another family of five getting into our "sold" vehicle with a different salesman.  They were checking under the hood, looking at the three row seating, and trying out the heated seats - just like we did.  As we were nailing down what our interest rate would be, they were driving our car off the lot right in front of us.

Our own salesman looked as puzzled as we did.  Eventually it became evident that we were in a heated battle with two other families for the same vehicle.  Anxious looks from across the showroom floor at each other was the order of the day for about an hour.  Wondering who they were, and if they needed this car more than we did.  Maybe it wasn't meant to be?  The only reason we ultimately won the battle was due to the fact that technically speaking, we got there first.  And by "first", I'm talking about a matter of minutes.  

What a strange day.  In the process of leaving the dealership and cleaning up the half-eaten bags of Cheetos and spilled Sprite from my kids, I began to think about how we chase after certain things in life.  So interesting how very large purchases (like cars and houses) are often bartered in the blink of an eye.  Thousands of dollars spent in the span of a handshake and series of quick signatures.  

But what if the world chased after God in the same way we fight for a new car or a nice house?  I am reminded of two parables that Jesus tells us from the New Testament in the Bible.  The first occurs in Matthew chapter 13, and goes as follows: "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it."

And the parable immediately ahead of this is similar in content: "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field."

We are lucky to have these accounts of what the kingdom of heaven is like.  Surely God did not have to give us these descriptions.  He wanted to though, and Jesus permitted us to have an idea of what the pursuit of all things Holy can (and should) be like.  I envision a few analogies that make me giggle, such as us battling two other families for the front row at church instead of a cute little SUV crossover.  Or perhaps people fighting for study Bibles instead of regular Bibles, so that they can benefit from the scholarly notes in the margins.  But should I be giggling?  Are any of us lucky enough to know people who actually do seek after God as their "pearl of great price?"  I mean really, what would we think if we heard that John the Baptist was dressed in sackcloth and baptizing people by Lake Fisher, or open air preaching up on the town square?  I think most of us would make the appropriate call to the authorities, and then we would steer clear ourselves.

There is an excellent story about a man named Caleb in the Old Testament.  Caleb was someone whom Moses had given charge to go out and explore the Promised land.  He was to return and give Moses an account of what he had seen.  What he saw was intimidating at best: the land was full of large, strong warriors and well fortified cities.  On the face of it, prospects looked grim regarding a successful invasion of this area by God's people.  But God had promised this area to the Israelites ahead of time - formidable army or not.  Caleb was one of the few who did not let fear and intimidation sway him from claiming what God had promised.  He was ready to go, and I suspect he was counter-cultural and probably a bit politically incorrect, even for his day.  He chased after God with his whole heart.  

But how do we cultivate a Caleb heart?  Are we sure we really want to?  A good many churches are probably guilty of selling Jesus without counting the costs.  "Check out this new car" they might say.  Or "low miles and a shiny exterior!"  Never mind the fact that it takes premium gas only, or that sometimes you will need to make monthly payments, even when there isn't quite enough in your bank account.  The good news is that the choice to follow Christ is free in the temporal sense, but it will definitely come at some spiritual cost.  It will have something to do with repentance, and a good bit to do with forgiving others.  The sticker price is clearly labeled and there isn't any fine print; we just need to make sure we read the whole thing.  

And surely this is what God would want from us, or it wouldn't have been recorded in the Bible for us to be reading 2,000 years later.  He invites us to seek Him and to study His word.  But what about those times when reading and listening to church sermons aren't enough?  How do we work toward a fearless heart then?

I have a feeling that cultivating a heart for God begins with personal prayer.  It has less to do with volunteering for another church committee, and more to do with consciously pointing our thoughts toward Him.  If God is a personal being, then prayer is the language by which we connect to Him.  The longer we spend communicating this way, the more of God we receive.  Our hearts begin to change, to open up.  And if we are not careful, we may find that before long, our pearl of great price may just be Jesus.  Prayer slows things down, it forces us to contemplate things.  It is a way to spend time with the eternal Father, and it's a cornerstone teaching of the Christian church.  And the good news is that God actually cares what we think and whether or not we take the time to converse with Him.  Even about the small things ... even about buying a used car.  

As we left the dealership that night, my wife and I were very tired.  A two hour trip lay ahead of us, and we hadn't had dinner yet.  As we walked out of the building, I held the door open for a family who was just leaving also.  I think it was one of our opponents - a casualty of the vehicle finance war that occurred only hours earlier.  As they got into their truck and drove away, the driver leaned on the gas pedal and caused the engine to roar as they sped by.  The battle cry of an unhappy customer no doubt.  My wife and I looked at each other.  We had won today.

It was a peaceful drive home that evening when we finally hit the road.  The kids were tired but happy.  Did I mention the car has three-row seating?  I prayed a prayer of gratitude before bed after we arrived home. I thanked God for what He had given us.  I will also ask Him to make sure that I remember He comes first, no matter what.  To try to act more like Caleb and less like doubting Thomas.  This is a difficult thing to do.  More difficult I think than many of us realize.  I am also grateful that we have God's grace in our lives to help us while we struggle with these things.  We need not do it perfectly, and in fact I don't think it is in us to do so.  We can simply rely on this divine ability from God through prayer to help us change the things we chase after in life.  To slowly but surely shift our priorities from 'what about me' to 'what about Him?'

The new vehicle is working out just fine.  Other than a burned out blinker that needs fixed, I think we will be very comfortable driving it for some time to come.  At least we have a while to breathe easy - the first car payment isn't due until next month.  I will just need to make certain there is enough money in our bank account to cover the cost.  It's no little red sports car.  Even so, it is exactly what we needed.


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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Toy Trains, a Small Child, and God's Grace


On any given day in our home, you can hear the sound of a train whistle and a conductor's voice calling out to anyone who will listen, "All aboard the Polar Express!"  It does sound exactly like Tom Hank's voice from the movie of the same name.  In fact, to be honest, my middle son adores The Polar Express film.  Our family was held captive on the couch this holiday season as we watched this movie a week before Christmas, and then the day before Christmas, then the week after ... you get the idea.  He loves this story.  



As I walk into the living room to remind him that it's dinner time, and that little boys must live on more than just remote control train engines and toy figurines, I can't help but notice the glint in his eye.  He has been playing with his large-scale Polar Express train set every day since receiving it on Christmas Eve from my parents.  It has engaged his imagination - he is hooked.  He can adjust the tracks to create different layouts.  And he can stand anywhere in the room and control the engine via a handheld remote switch.  I am reminded of myself when I was eight-years-old.  Fawning over a Star Wars play set or the latest toy phaser gun that my aunt and uncle would buy me.  These things offered an escape from reality; a one-way ticket into another world.  Transforming me instantly from an ordinary kid in the suburbs, into a star ship captain or an army commander, taking that next enemy ridge with my friends.  All childhoods should be made of things such as this.

I think of all these things as I finish reading a book called 'Not God's Type' by Holly Ordway.  It was a birthday gift from my wife.  It was one of those gifts that reminds us how our spouses know us better than we know ourselves.  I think she knew the book would speak to me in a meaningful way.  Ordway is a Christian apologist at the Houston Baptist University, and also a Professor of English.  In her book she redefines the way that people can defend God by reminding us that not everything can (or should) be broken down into a philosophical or conceptual argument.  A good many things, she claims, can be verified as true simply by coming to the realization that God works through the human imagination just as much as He appeals to our intellect.  This was especially interesting to me, as I have recently published a book on the matter of understanding the Christian faith through logic and reason.  I hadn't spent much time on literary allusion, poetry, or art - at least not in so much as these areas might involve demonstrating proofs for God.  But they do of course.  Truth be told, some of the greatest works of writing come from a Christian understanding of the world.  How many people adored the Lord of the Rings trilogy I wonder, without knowing that it sprung from Christian roots.

How simple this idea is, and yet how difficult to grasp at the same time.  I think many of us lose this ability to engage our imagination as we grow up.  If we are being honest however, God is present in the movies that we love, the books that we read over and over, and the artwork that might be hanging on our wall at this very moment.  I am tempted to quantify this way of thinking into two facets: imagination and beauty in nature, and imagination and beauty in the human condition.  I'm sure there are more ways to trace God's gift of the aesthetic, but for now, let's just discuss these two. 

I am also fond of a book by Dr. Francis Collins called 'The Language of God.'  It is the story of how one scientist (and self acclaimed atheist) eventually found God through the very method of scientific discovery that he used to use in order to defend his unbelief.  He describes one moment very succinctly in the book, while out hiking one day in the wilderness.   He writes, "A full year had passed since I decided to believe in some sort of God, and now I was being called to account.  On a beautiful fall day, as I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains during my first trip west of the Mississippi, the majesty and beauty of God's creation overwhelmed my resistance.  As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over.  The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ."

It wasn't only Collins' understanding of biological complexity and intricate design that brought him to the Cross, but also an acknowledgment of God's infusion of beauty through nature.  This aspect captured his imagination and engaged his heart.  



I remember well one summer vacation with my family while driving across country.  As soon as we crossed the state line we were confronted with no less than three rainbows.  It was right after a light rain, and as the kids peered out of the car window, there they were.  We would drive past one rainbow, and another would take it's place farther down the interstate.  I will never forget the crisp, wonderful division of sharp colors seemingly stretching on forever.  You can break down how a rainbow is formed scientifically, but you cannot process it as it is meant to be taken in without thinking of beauty in a more eternal and lasting sense.  

The other avenue I mentioned was God's imagination and beauty as manifested through the human condition.  We are curious and unique beings, the most complex of Earth's creatures.  It only makes sense that from time to time, if we look close enough, we see signposts of God's goodness in each other.  Pointers to His divine imagination playing out in each one of us.  Not long ago, my wife and I were talking to our kids about the importance of both saving and giving money.  We mentioned how some people donate to charity, and still others give gifts to their friends and family in times of need.  My middle son (yes, the Polar Express kid) spoke up and told us that he intends to give the entire contents of his piggy bank to the church.  What can you do with a statement like that?  It is the essence of human dignity to give to others that are in need.  It is a truly beautiful thing to give to others in need without being asked to do so.  God has indeed created us in the likeness of His image.  At any point in time we can choose to reflect that light  through kindness, or demonstrate the vale of sin through cruelty and apathy.  The former are qualities that point toward a creator, which cannot be arrived at with logical arguments and carefully thought out theories.  They simply exist, and point to something greater than ourselves.

I'm sure it isn't an accident that God made us with an appreciation for the imaginative.  Think of how different and bland the world would be without music or art, without poetry or literature.  What if instead of reading 'Adventures of Huckleberry Finn' in school, I had been given a book on the history of the South in the 1880's?  Would I have been able to feel what it was like to float down the Mississippi on a raft?  

The train whistle sounds again, and I am forced to stop daydreaming.  My son is asking me to come and help him glue cotton balls to a cardboard box with an entrance cut out of it. It is of course, a snow covered tunnel that leads to the North Pole; I need not even ask.  Someday he will grow up of course, and he will have a job with deadlines and projects and phone calls and stress.  They cannot take away his beautiful mind however, as it isn't theirs to take.  It is by God's grace that he will be able to look at a toy train and be transformed back into a little boy again whenever he wants.  It is by God's grace that some of the things in this world are so beautiful.  Sunsets are majestic - they certainly didn't have to be.  There could simply have been light, and then the absence of light as the sun disappears behind the horizon.  Instead we have streamers of gold and orange, intertwined in such a way as to spark a memory of the eternal spirit.  Something inside us that we cannot quite comprehend when we see it.  We can only bask in it's beauty for those few breathtaking moments until it drops behind the tree line.  All the while,  experiencing what it is truly like to be human.  What it is to be an eight-year-old child again, playing with trains.  What it is to be exactly what God wants us to be.  



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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

When God Waves Back: A Child's Story

This week I attended my children's school Christmas music program.  As I write this, I have two children in grade school and one hovering dangerously close to young adult-hood.  They have all been a blessing to me, and I was looking forward to this event quite a bit.  As hundreds of us parents made our way into the crowded school gymnasium, I couldn't help but feel the joy and anticipation in the air.  We were lucky to find a place to sit on the high rise bleachers ... it was a full house.  


A hush fell over the audience as the students began to file through the hallway and into the gym.  Dozens of parents extended their hands high, holding cell phones equipped with state-of-the-art cameras.  I did the same.  We must have looked like a sea of news reporters at a CNN conference where the president was about to come on stage.  Once situated on the risers, almost every child began scanning the crowd for familiar faces.  Looking for your parents and grandparents is standard fare at these events, and every kid is programmed to do this I think.  My youngest spotted me before I even saw him.  When I finally locked eyes, he raised his arm and began the ceremonial "Hello Daddy" wave.  I waved back, thus sealing our unwritten contract.

I have a feeling that deep down, no matter how old we are or where we come from, we all scan the audience from time to time, looking for a familiar face.  Why do we do this?  It is possible we need some type of recognition at our job, or maybe we need to be noticed by our peers.  Sometimes we may simply be double-checking that we matter enough for people to come out and watch while we go through life.  From time to time I engage in public speaking of one sort or another, and I can't help but scan the audience myself.  Looking here and there for a friendly face.  Am I looking for someone to wave at? It depends I suppose.

At any rate, it is December as I write this, and our young family is buzzing with Christmas excitement at home.  We have the lights up on the house and the tree stands tall and proud in the family room; a testament to gifts and goodies yet to come.  There are Santa Claus ornaments on the branches and stockings over the fireplace.  It is a happy time of year.  But understand this also - my mother passed away seven years ago, right around the holidays.  It was January actually, and I can still remember how cold it was at the funeral.  Much of it is a blur now, but God has graced me with certain memories that will remain sharp no matter how many years pass.  I now cherish these  moments with her, of course.  Recently I visited her grave site in Des Moines, something I hadn't done in a while.  It was October and there were leaves on the ground already, but fortunately no snow yet.  I had to brush away the cut grass, and even a few weeds that had found there way over the tombstone.  It was a strange feeling to be back there.  Why do I let so much time pass in between visits I wonder?

As I was driving to the cemetery, it felt almost the same way it feels to go meet an old friend at a coffee shop or restaurant.  How great it will be to catch up.  How wonderful to see her again. As my car pulls around the curve and I drive by the mausoleum, reality sets in.  There will be no one waiting in person to greet me.  I find her lot and park the car.  What am I doing here?  How will I react when I see the grave site?  Instantly I am a child again, seeking after my parent.  I envision myself six-years-old at my elementary school, standing on the risers after being led out by the teacher.  Can I see my mom?  Where is my dad?  Later in life, when I would speak occasionally at my local church, my mother would attend the service.  I would sit in the audience and wait for the pastor to introduce me.  I would then scan the doorway and look for my mother to arrive.  Sometimes I would wave first ... sometimes she would.  Always nice to see a familiar face, but no face will greet me today at her grave site.

I spend just the right amount of time at the cemetery, then get back into my car to leave.    Why does it feel like we just had a conversation even though it was just me?  Why doesn't she answer back?  Can't she see me waving from the bleachers?  Darn it, I forgot to pick up flowers.  Will she notice?

I believe it a truism to say that most of us are seeking something or someone to wave at.  A familiar face in a crowded gymnasium.  The reason we scan the audience doesn't matter so much as the fact that we are born seeking after meaning in this life.  I am blessed also to have a cub scout den that knows this, and we are currently putting one of my boys through a 'God and Me' study unit.  Recently we discussed John 3:16, and the boys were supposed to write what this phrase means to them personally.  Many of us know this Scripture by heart: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."  It is a familiar verse, but it is an important one.  

I look over to see what my son has chosen to write.  This is what he said: "To help everyone who's being bullied.  And to make God feel happy."  This is an eight-year-old's stylistic interpretation of the famous verse in the Gospel of John.  I chuckled to myself when I read it.  If the concept of sin can be equated to being bullied, then he's nailed it!  But more than that, isn't John 3:16 an example of God acknowledging us?  It feels like He is waving back at us from the parent section.  "I am here," he might say ... "and I love you."

Are we waving back at Him?  I sincerely hope so.  I believe my mother did before she passed.  If the Bible is a novel about Salvation, then the Gospels are a love story.  They present us with a Father who attends all of our music programs and sits in the front row.  Who laughs when we laugh, and cries when we cry.  He waits patiently for us to find him in the parent section, and then waves when our eyes meet his.  He stays late after everyone has filed out of the gymnasium, and cares enough to pick up a copy of the playbill to post on the refrigerator door when he gets home.  It will remain there long after the concert is over.  

The children in our cub scout den are absorbing these Scriptural truths quickly.  They have wonderful, pure hearts.  We read things like John 3:16 out loud during the meetings.  They seem to understand it inherently.  My hope is that we do also, and that we never stop scanning the parent section, always ready to wave back as soon as we lock eyes.

It occurs to me that someday my kids will come to visit me at the cemetery.  They may forget to bring flowers - I don't care.  They may notice that it's been a while, and some weeds have begun to cover the tombstone.  Never mind.  What matters is that throughout their lives, whenever they saw me in the bleachers and waved, I waved back.  


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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

A Bucket Full of Sand, and the Lost Sheep

Not long ago, my family and I took a trip down to the Gulf Coast by Alabama for a week long vacation and family getaway.  The drive from our hometown to the southern most tip of Alabama was no less than 1,000 miles.  This equated to a one-way trip of close to 15 hours in the car (more like 18 hours if you factor in stopping for lunch and dinner).  Despite the odds of my wife and I ending up in a mental institution from attempting this trip with three young children, we decided to knock out the drive in one day.  We day tripped from dusk to dawn, and finally made it to our hotel by midnight.


There were some strange things that happened along the way.  We look back now and laugh, but at the time it really wasn't too amusing.  For instance, someone had called and cancelled our reservation in Alabama earlier that same morning (and it wasn't us!).  We had a flat tire needing repair about halfway through the trip as well.  We stayed in a hotel room that emanated second-hand smoke from the carpet to the ceiling - all the while with "no smoking" cards placed everywhere in the room.  These things make me smile as I am sitting here writing about them.  This is the price we pay for getting away to some place new.  Each vacation is its own mini adventure.  Chevy Chase would have been proud (you may remember the National Lampoon's Vacation movie he made famous).  

Overall we couldn't complain, of course.  In a country that has yet to fully recover from the housing market crash in 2008, our family of five took a comfortable vacation to a white sand beach with an amazing view of the ocean.  God's beauty is amazing at times: we were packing up to leave the beach for the hotel one evening and I snapped a picture of the sunset over the water.  A surreal mixture of peace and satisfaction came over me.  Life was good.  In fact, we are still shaking beach sand out of our family car to this day (a week and a half later).

Not every day was full of bliss however.  One day in particular comes to mind, while we were busy splashing in the waves and having a good time, my wife happened to look up and notice that our youngest son was nowhere to be found.  We had rented some blue beach chairs with an umbrella so we could be comfortable while relaxing in the hot sun, and a moment earlier he had been playing in the sand with a small toy shovel and a plastic bucket right next to them.  He was gone in the blink of an eye.  It was a holiday weekend and the 32 mile long beach was lined with thousands of people.  I am reminded of the scene from the remarkable Steven Spielberg film 'Minority Report', where Tom Cruise's character takes his young son to the public pool.  After practicing how long he could hold his breath under water, Cruise surfaces to find that his son is gone.  In the film, Cruise never finds his son again.  I can't help drawing parallels to this experience with that scene.  It was terrifying to watch on a movie screen, and it was terrifying to experience it firsthand.  It really was like a scene from a movie.  

Jesus tells three versions of a parable that are interrelated in the Gospel accounts of the Bible that I think we can use to help illustrate this feeling.  The one I will focus on here is the parable of the lost sheep that appears in Matthew chapter 18, verse 12: "What do you think? If any man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go and search for the one that is straying? 13“If it turns out that he finds it, truly I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine which have not gone astray. 14“So it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones perish."  

In terms of exegesis, there are different ways to unpack this Scripture.  But I think the main thrust of the parable is obvious in this context.  If God so loved the world that He sacrificed His one and only Son, then why wouldn't he take the extra trouble to go and retrieve someone who had wandered from the Faith and restore him or her?  Why wouldn't He take any amount of trouble necessary to save you and I from a Christ-less existence?  Why shouldn't we take trouble (as representatives of the Gospel message ourselves) to chase after the sheep?

Of course, while we were frantically looking for my son at the beach, I could muster none of this clarity of thought.  My main concern was fighting back the feeling of dread that was beginning to set in as three minutes went by ... then five minutes ... then ten minutes without seeing him anywhere.  My wife began to shed tears, and people around us were starting to take notice.  If you have ever witnessed a scene like this, even if it involved people whom you have never met, you may note that it is impossible to ignore.  Eventually, during my second or third trip back and forth around the beach, two strangers sitting behind us called out to me, "hey!"  I turned, and heading my way was my youngest son, plastic bucket in tow.  I thanked the couple who had said something to me in order to call my attention to him, and apologized for the verbal punishment that my son was about to receive.

What if those people hadn't taken the extra time to get involved?  After all, we were strangers 1,000 miles from home.  What if the Shepard in Jesus' parable hadn't taken the time to temporarily leave the 99 other sheep and go after the stray?  What if you and I never take the time to tell anyone about the saving grace of God?  Given the circumstances, shouldn't we feel the same level of urgency that I felt on the beach that day while frantically looking for my son?  After all, the spiritual stakes are just as high.  I think we need to go after the sheep.  

Truth be told, I don't think that God typically requires us to share the Gospel message with complete strangers.  More often than not, I have a feeling it need only occur after relationships have been established and life experiences shared.  Less open air preaching to the man on the street, and more asking our friends if they want to come to church on Sunday.  Because if Jesus is at the center of our lives, then talking about Him bubbles up from the overflow in our hearts.  But our hearts are often scared to overflow I think.  What will people think if we tell them about Christ?  What will they whisper about us when we leave?

The image of finding my son again, holding that plastic bucket will be with me forever.  When he is 30 years old I imagine I will still remember that day.  Tears coming down his face, bleached blond hair from swimming all day, holding that bucket full of sand.  I hope he will tell me that he was grateful my wife and I came looking for him, that we didn't give up ... that we couldn't give up.  I hope some day after I am gone, God may pull me aside and show me other lives that were touched because I was bold enough to share His message with others, because I didn't give up.  I hope the same for you.


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Monday, March 10, 2014

Some Lenten Humor ...



Atheism, the Universe, and Really Good Pizza

Last night our church kicked off a ten week series of classes called the Alpha Course.  This course is a chance for people from any background and religious view to check out what Christianity is, and to get a closer look at what the church does.  No question is off limits.  We had a full house last night; about 60 people showed up.  The first part of the class always consists of a dinner, and this time we decided to cater in pizza from one of the local restaurants here in town.  Imagine if you will, two conference room tables full of the most delightful pizza.  Pepperoni, sausage, cheese, Canadian bacon ... you get the idea.  I have often commented that this place makes the best pizza I have ever tasted.  In fact, you would have to argue diligently in order for me to change my mind.  Last night was as if someone sliced off a piece of heaven and brought it down to our church in the form of a multiple topping symphony.  


After the dinner, we listened to a talk that addressed three common objections to the Christian faith: supposedly some think it is boring, untrue, and irrelevant.  You may be able to think of other objections, but these three were taken from recent surveys conducted by various polling organizations who asked carefully phrased questions. When finished with the talk, we broke into several small groups.  There are 9 people in my group, including myself.  That means we have 9 separate insights, 9 different opinions, and 9 distinct ways of interpreting the world around us.  The discussion was lively, and I can expect only good things to come in the future.  

 The week prior to the Alpha course kick off I watched a debate between veteran Christian philosopher William Lane Craig and renowned physicist and atheist Sean Carroll.  The topic of the debate was 'God and Cosmology'.  The two men discussed whether or not current cosmological theory supports the concept of a monotheistic god.  No one here was attempting to assert that the Earth is only 6,000 years old, or trying to argue whether or not creationism should be taught in schools.  There was simply an examination of the evidence around us.

Carroll's main point seemed to be that we can get around the need for positing a belief in god by claiming that the Universe had no real beginning, and that since space and time have always been eternal - there is no reason to think that it was "brought into being" by anything or anyone.  He goes on to state that since the term theism itself is not very well defined (in other words you can ask anyone what it means and you will get a different answer), you cannot use it as an alternative explanation to an eternal Universe.  

This is an interesting claim, and we may in fact come to a place where the 9 of us address these ideas over some of that superb pizza.  But for now, let's speculate about these two positions right here on this blog.  Take the idea that the Universe has always been, and always will be.  Current evidence about the cosmos seems to point to a very different conclusion.  We can observe that matter in the universe is moving away from itself because this force leaves a particular signature that scientists can record and analyze.  This "expanding universe" seems to require an explosion from which everything began, and almost no one today refutes that there was some type of Big Bang or singularity that started everything.  That science cannot take us back far enough to know what exactly happened (or for that matter what may have existed) prior to this amazing event, I will not argue.  Some say it was simply another universe.  Others hold to a view that there must have been many universes, and ours is just one of them (this is called the world ensemble theory).  There is no evidence for either one of these theories by the way, and they work only in so far as to say we cannot scientifically disprove them either.  


Carroll also had a second point, namely that because theism (or the general belief in some type of god) was so ill-defined that you could not use it as any sort of alternative viewpoint.  This was somewhat shocking to me, since I think it is adequate to offer the totality of the Bible itself as a master document from which we may "define" theism.  Depending on the style or translation, most Bibles range anywhere between 900 - 2,000 pages.  It is a collection of 66 books by over 40 authors which spans some 1,500+ years.  The one thing you cannot say is that God (or in this case theism) is poorly defined.  You may say that you think it is untrue, inconsistent, incoherent, etc... but you cannot say there isn't enough information available!

So what are we to do with these two notions?  We have a universe that apparently did begin to exist at a certain point in time, and a God that has been written about and defined for us throughout the ages.  Can these two concepts go hand in hand?  I do think they are contiguous, but I will get to that in a minute.  What really struck me about Carroll's belief system was that it seemed he was ascribing certain eternal and mystical qualities to something that really isn't eternal.  In other words, the Universe and the study of the cosmos had become (I think) his God.  He wanted space to be everlasting, eternal, all encompassing, and larger than life.  These are all terms that have been used to describe God.  We may shift the attributes of the creator onto what has been created, but I don't think we can hide our desire to be awestruck by something that is larger than ourselves.  Carroll still has it, so do I.  That he and I place our awe in two different things is obvious, but I can't help wishing he could see the forest for the trees.  The Universe is enormous and it is often beautiful.  Why?  It certainly didn't have to be.  It also didn't have to be set up in such a way that allows human beings to be able to explore it and witness it's beauty.  Some have postulated that we are in an almost perfect location within the Milky Way galaxy from which to view the cosmos.  The apostle Paul says in the book of Romans that the evidence for God is apparent to all men by simply observing the created world around us.  It would appear this argument holds true for the heavens as well.  

I hope that people come to the Alpha course with these types of questions over the next couple weeks.  I hope that some who would never consider setting foot inside a church will also show up.  I believe it is very possible to reconcile the two solutions regarding Sean Carroll's claims (that we long for something eternal and meaningful, and that we have a God that is well defined).  His first point asks the question in a very basic and relevant way: why is anything here at all?  The second question infers this answer: because God put it there.  At most, I hope that people can walk away from church with more answers than they had when they arrived.  After all, if they don't show up, then what would we do with all of that leftover pizza?


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