Thursday, September 30, 2010

Like Grass

“All men are like grass,
and all their glory is like the flowers of the field.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
because the breath of the Lord blows on them.
Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of our God endures forever.” (Isaiah 40:6-8)

Maybe you've heard of the Mindset List. It's the creation of Beloit College Professor Tom McBride and former Beloit administrator Ron Nief. The Mindset List was originally created to keep faculty members aware of how quickly “contemporary” references in lectures can become dated. Each year, a new list for the entering freshman class is created, and the lists have become something of a yardstick for the passage of time and the changing world we live in. Mostly, it'll just make you feel old. To wit, some excerpts from the Mindset List for the class of 2014....

Most students entering college for the first time this fall were born in 1992. Few in the class know how to write in cursive (Really?), but one quarter of the class have one immigrant parent.

For students in the class of 2014, Buffy has always been slaying vampires. “Caramel macchiato” and “venti half-caf vanilla latte” have always been street corner lingo. John McEnroe has never played professional tennis, and Clint Eastwood is better known as a sensitive director than as Dirty Harry. Fergie is a pop star, not a princess, and Reggie Jackson has always been in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Ruth Bader Ginsburg has always been on the Supreme Court, and the Post Office has always been going broke. And as far as they're concerned, there has always been free trade between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.

Entering freshmen have never twisted the coiled handset wire around their wrists while chatting on the phone, and they've never owned a computer that didn't have a CD-ROM drive. They've never seen a carousel of slides, and Korean cars have always been common on American roads. As long as they've been listening to radio – if they listen to radio – Nirvana has been on the Oldies station. They may not intuitively recognize pointing to one's wrist as a request for the time, and the name Beethoven has always made them think of a big dog. They have never worried about a Soviet missile strike on the United States. They consider e-mail too slow. And they rarely, if ever, actually mail a letter.

You get the point. A decade or two can make a world of difference in your frame of reference. When I was a college freshman, no one imagined Berlin without a wall. It's been a while, but not that long. The fact is that the world changes around us. We're young, and then one day we're not so young anymore. One day we're welcoming a child into the world, and it seems only the next that we're sitting across a table with someone who's getting frighteningly close to adulthood. One day we're talking with friends about who we're dating or what career path we're on, and the next the topics of conversation have changed to mortgage rates and our parents' declining health.

It seems that we instinctively freak out about change and the passage of time. (“Freak out” - I don't think anyone says that anymore, do they?) We don't like it when things change around us. Hang around an office one day when they upgrade the computers and you'll see it. Or a church when they change – well, pretty much anything. As a rule, change makes us uncomfortable. We develop certain little shortcuts in life, certain little routines that revolve around things staying generally the same. It can be downright unsettling when things change and those little shortcuts don't work anymore.

And, of course, the most unsettling changes of all are the changes that we see in the mirror. A few more lines in the face. A few more gray hairs. A little more width around the middle. The inability to hold what you're reading far enough away from your face to get it into focus. All evidence of the one change in the world that affects all of us most deeply: that one day we won't be here anymore.

Our world screams hysterically that we have to resist the passage of time. It sells us creams and dyes and exercise equipment and clothing and surgeries that will make us look – more or less - like the passage of time isn't affecting us. But that's an illusion, of course, as evidenced by the fact that it gets harder and harder to pull off as the years go by. However loudly our culture screams that we must look untouched by age, you can still hear the rush of the river of time.

“People are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field,” the prophet reminds us. It's a good thing he does, otherwise we might forget what really matters. We're not built to resist the passage of time, any more than the grass and flowers in a meadow are. We navigate a changing world in dying bodies, and all the hair coloring and pilates in the world won't change that. Oh, in some cases we can improve a little on Job's “three score and ten,” but not by much. “The grass withers and the flowers fall,” the prophet says. “Surely the people are grass.”

Our world calls that depressing, but it isn't. Depressing is people going about their lives like they're going to be anything but a hazy memory a mere century from now. Depressing is not being able to read the writing on the wall. Depressing is living for wealth and influence and control. Depressing is forgetting that we are mortal. And forgetting what does last.

“The word of our God stands forever.” Yesterday, today, and tomorrow, what God says is true. What he speaks, exists. Isaiah's point in reminding us of our mortality is to remind us of God's glory. “The glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it,” he says. “For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:5)

And this God never forgets his people. That's our hope – not in holding on to our youth, because “even youths grow tired and weary.” (Isaiah 40:30) “But those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength.” So while our world changes around us, we trust in the God who never does. When our strength fails, we trust in the God who renews our strength. And when our bodies fade and die like a flower dropping its petals, we trust even then in the God who lives. And who gives life.

So bring on your Mindset List, Beloit College. You don't scare me.

I still know how to use a rotary phone, after all.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Putting Away Our Swords

Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him. With that, one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear.
“Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword." (Matthew 26:51-52)

Last Sunday, two teenagers in Chicago went to the Muslim Community Center on Elston Avenue – in my neighborhood – for a prayer service. On their way in, they stumbled across a pile of charred paper on the sidewalk. A burned book. A burned Quran.

Let me reiterate: this wasn't in Florida. It was here in Chicago, in my neighborhood, in front of one of the city's oldest mosques. I've been to that mosque. I've been welcomed at their prayer services. I know people there. People who worship there come to the food pantry at Northwest for assistance. I've stood on the sidewalk – maybe on the spot where those kids found that charred Quran, and talked with Muslims about Jesus and Allah. The conversation has always been civil, and I've learned a lot. God has shown me a lot. And that burned Quran makes me angrier than anything that has happened in our neighborhood in a long time.

I can't help but wonder about the reasons for the anti-Islamic sentiment that seems to suddenly dominate public discourse in our country. Is it the anniversary of 9/11? Maybe, but why is it so evident on this anniversary, as opposed to others? Is it the on-again, off-again publicity stunt of some fringe pastor in Florida? Surely he just tapped into the mood, and didn't cause it. Is it the proposal to build a Muslim center near Ground Zero in Manhattan? Maybe, but that's a local issue for those folks to figure out.

More likely, the sentiment comes from frustration with the condition of the American economy – which seems to be the one thing Americans can be counted on to care deeply about. Someone has to be at fault, and since it certainly can't be blamed on the spending habits of Americans, it must be the immigrants' fault. Particularly the Muslims. Add to that a few political so-called leaders who want to milk distrust of Muslims for all its political value, and it's no wonder that a few already-marginal cases might decide to make a “statement” like the one that was made at the Muslim Community Center last Sunday morning.

I wonder, did the people who decided to burn that Quran go to church last Sunday? Did they sit secure in their pews, feeling that they had done God's will in opposing the false religion of Islam? I hope not. I hope that whoever it was is not so deluded as to think that an intentional insult to Muslims is the will of God, or the way of Christ.

And I hope that the offended Muslims don't judge all Christians by the work of a few who may claim to be. Any more than I judge all Muslims by the actions of a few radicals.

I hoped that the church had hashed all this out several hundred years ago, after the last of the Crusades. But maybe not. After the past few weeks, after Pastor What's-His-Name's abortive “Burn a Quran Day,” after someone in my city apparently took his idea seriously, I wonder. When so many Americans, some who call themselves Christians, behave so un-Christianly toward Muslims in so many places, I have to wonder.

So if you want to send me emails about supposed "true" events regarding Muslims in America – well, just don't. (The ones commonly forwarded today aren't factual, by the way.) If you want to vent your rage about Muslim women wearing hijabs or burqas, take it somewhere else. (Is it better for women to put themselves on display? Look around Chicago on a summer day, and you'd think so.) It is not Christian to be hateful toward Muslims – or any other religion. It just isn't. It's Christian to discuss your faith with someone who differs. It's Christian to “speak the truth in love.” It's even Christian to believe and testify that “there is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved” or “no one comes to the Father except through” Jesus. But it's never Christian to draw your sword and bare your teeth – metaphorically or otherwise.

To judge all Muslims by the actions of groups like al-Qaeda is comparable to judging all Christians by the actions of the Ku Klux Klan. Jesus warned that when we draw our swords – even to defend him – we've already lost. We've already failed to follow him in the way of the cross – the way of redemptive love that overcomes sin and evil and death, not by resisting or fighting, but by sacrificing self.

I believe Muslims need Jesus. I don't believe they will ever come to know him by his followers setting fire to the pages of the Quran, or defacing community centers, or railing in paranoid campaign speeches about their intentions and motives. It will succeed only in hardening them to the gospel. What might make a difference is if Christians approach Muslims with respect and the love of Christ. If we stand with them in the positive things that they do in our neighborhoods, and share their burdens as our own.

If we put away our swords, treat Muslims as neighbors, and do what Jesus said we should do. Love them as we love ourselves.

Last week, the Massachusetts Bible Society made an interesting announcement that seemed to kind of stay under the media radar. Too bad, because it was actually encouraging. They announced that for every Quran that was burned, they intended to donate two to mosques and community centers around the country.

I don't guess I'd feel exactly comfortable donating Qurans to our neighborhood mosque. Still, given the choice, I'd rather Muslims see Christians donating Qurans than burning them.

But we don't have to do either. We can show love our Muslim neighbors without compromising our faith, and we can witness to the power of the gospel without forgetting that its power is love and sacrifice. So maybe we start with befriending Muslims in our neighborhoods and offices. (I was going to include schools, but have you ever noticed how kids seem to not have much trouble with that?) Maybe we start with small gestures: an invitation to coffee, a conversation at the water cooler, condolences in the loss of a loved one. Maybe we can help Muslim families who are new to our communities find schools, jobs, and so forth. Small things can go a long way.

A burned Quran can speak volumes. But so can a small act of kindness.

It's past time that we put away our swords so our Muslim neighbors can see the cross.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Wedding Ceremony

Each of you must turn from your sins and turn to God, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. (Acts 2:38)

Not too long ago, I had a conversation with a neighbor about baptism. I know, it's not usually the kind of thing you talk about with a neighbor while you walk your dogs. It had clearly been on his mind for a long time, though.

He mainly wanted to know if he was truly a Christian, since he hadn't been baptized. Honestly, I kind of felt that the part about whether he was truly a Christian or not was outside of my expertise. (I tend to assume that anyone who is trying to follow Jesus is truly a Christian, and I think I'm in pretty good company there. See the conversation in Mark 9:38-41)

I did think, though, that I might be able to help him understand baptism a little better. And, in case someone else has some of the same question he had, here's a fair approximation of what I said.

Most people who would read this probably know that baptism is a Christian rite (some call it a sacrament) in which either a person is immersed in water, or in which water is sprinkled or poured on him or her. The word is a loan word from Greek: baptizo in Classical Greek meant to immerse or sink. Descriptions of baptism in the Bible as a "burial" (see Romans 6:4, Colossians 2:12), coupled with the word's meaning, indicate that baptism as practiced in the Bible was a submersion in water. It is generally done either to mark entry into the Christian community or to signify the forgiveness of sins. (Or perhaps both.)

Well-meaning believers have debated the meaning, practice, and significance of baptism for centuries. One of the particular debates has to do with the relationship of baptism to salvation: When is a person forgiven of sins and saved? Does he only have to declare his faith in Jesus? Pray a prayer? Or is she saved only after she's baptized?

Well, a little over 19 years ago I stood in front of a group of people in a church, wearing a rented tuxedo, and made promises to a woman dressed in a pretty white gown and veil. I promised to do certain things, be certain things (I honestly don't remember what...) until "death do us part" (or something like that). She made the same promises. We exchanged rings, and then a minister said, “I now pronounce you husband and wife.” (That part I remember, because right after that he said, “You may kiss the bride....”)

Now then. At what point did I go from being single to being married? When the minister pronounced us husband and wife? When we kissed? When we exchanged rings? Legally, we were married the moment everyone had signed the marriage license. So when did my marriage actually happen?

The fact is, you can debate it. You can argue it different ways. But let me tell you a couple of things I know. I know, first of all, that what we did in that church did not of itself mean that we were married. Actors pretend to get married all the time, but no one thinks that TV or movie marriages are actually valid. And, on the other hand, people get married all the time without all the bells and whistles. Gowns, flowers, and rings - even the pronouncement of a minister - don't necessarily mean that a wedding has happened. I know that I did not go from “single” to “married” simply because I showed up at a church and went through the right motions.

The other thing I know is this: I was beyond-a-doubt, for-sure married on June 29th, 1991, at Cardinal Drive Church of Christ in Rolling Meadows, Illinois. That's not because I have faith in the ceremony itself. I know it because I have faith in the promises and intentions that were ratified in that ceremony.

You can see the point, I think. Are we saved at our baptism? Well, in one sense, yes. Acts 2:38 is rather clear that "Each of you must turn from your sins and turn to God, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” It's hard to argue with that. Baptism, according to the Bible, is linked to the forgiveness of sins.

On the other hand, Peter writes that baptism, "now saves you by the power of Jesus Christ's is an appeal to God from a clean conscience." (1 Peter 3:21) Yes, he says that baptism saves us. But it saves us "by the power of Jesus Christ's resurrection". It isn't the engine of our salvation. It's the drive shaft that makes the power of salvation real in our lives. It's an appeal to God, who is the one who actually does the saving. It's the moment that an honest, penitent human being can know with absolute certainty that God has washed her soul clean of every sin, past or future.

I make that distinction because we tend to want to make two mistakes with baptism. We want to either ignore it entirely, or elevate it inappropriately. To some, it's a rather outdated ritual only for those without enough faith in the grace of God to trust that they're saved if they'll only “ask Jesus into their heart.” Paul wrote that “all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Galatians 3:27, NIV) If he saw baptism as the moment at which we unite with Christ, clothe ourselves with Christ, I want to be very wary of dismissing it.

On the other hand, neither do I want to try to make it more than it is. “God saved you by his special favor when you believed. And you can't take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.” (Ephesians 2:8-9) Baptism is important only because it testifies to and puts us in touch with the work and power of God's grace and Jesus' resurrection in our lives. It is God who saves, not the ritual of baptism or even the good intentions of the one being baptized. The forgiveness of sins and the promise of salvation is a gift. In baptism, we accept that gift. Not because we have faith in the ritual itself, but because we have faith in the promises and intentions that were ratified in the ritual.

I have to assume that most people who are reading this consider themselves Christians, or at least seekers. Wherever you fall there, if you haven't been baptized I hope you'll ask yourself why. What would keep you from sealing your faith in Jesus and your commitment to him with a simple ritual? Wouldn't you like to be able to know that you were “beyond-a-doubt, for-sure” saved as you came out of the water?

And if you have been baptized, I hope you haven't focused on what you did at that moment so much that you've forgotten to appreciate what God did at that same moment. His work was by far the harder and by far the more important.

And for those of you who still think that big tank in the front of the church is a hot-tub and are wondering how to make a reservation...well, I'll have to talk to you later. Save me a dry towel.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Creation Without God

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of human beings who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal human beings and birds and animals and reptiles. (Romans 1:18-23)

God is unnecessary.

At least for Creation, according to Dr. Stephen Hawking. In his newest book, The Grand Design, the world's best-known physicist explains that “it is not necessary to invoke God to...set the universe going.” He claims that the natural laws of physics that govern the universe, like gravity, are sufficient to explain how planets, stars, solar systems, asteroids, and galaxies could just create themselves from nothing.

“Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist,” Dr. Hawking tells us.

Hawking claims in his book that the 1992 discovery of another planet orbiting another star deconstructed Isaac Newton's view that the Universe could not have spontaneously arisen out of chaos. He says that the discovery of that planet “makes the coincidences of our planetary conditions – the single Sun, the lucky combination of Earth-Sun distance and solar mass, far less remarkable, and far less compelling evidence that the Earth was carefully designed just to please us human beings.”

So there. God is unnecessary.

Well, I'm not going to argue physics with Stephen Hawking. But he's not arguing physics when he says that God is unnecessary to the creation of the universe – he's arguing theology. And, frankly, he's kind of in over his head.

Paul wrote about folks who looked at the world around them and, instead of seeing the Creator, made gods of his creation. Their mistake was evident in the images of their gods that they created – the best they could do was imagine that their gods looked like the people and other creatures that they were able to see around them. “Their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened,” Paul says. “Although they claimed to be wise...”

With respect to Dr. Hawking's intellect, all he's doing is making idols of Gravity and Thermodynamics and such. Just as people throughout human history have been prone to worshipping creation instead of the Creator.

It's easier, maybe. Gravity doesn't expect much out of you, after all. (Then again, it doesn't give you a whole lot of comfort when someone you love dies.) It probably goes beyond that, though: It's always easier to believe in things that you can observe and replicate and explain. The thing about God is that he doesn't usually submit to lab experiments. You can't quantify him or build an equation to explain him. Most of the time, he seems to prefer to remain outside the realm of human observation. (With notable exceptions.) And so there will always be people who look at what he made and make gods of it.

If it's that planet and star that are bothering Dr. Hawking, then here's a thought that would have occurred to any third-grader in Sunday School: Is there any reason God couldn't have created that star and planet as well? God didn't create the Universe because Earth isn't completely unique? Not only is that abysmal theology, it's abysmal science.

Even Dr. Hawking's central theory, that natural laws like gravity could have spontaneously created the universe from nothing, is flawed. The whole idea that matter can be created out of nothing through natural processes is observable only through mathematical predictions and models. And the tiny particles that may come to exist destroy themselves almost immediately. No one's ever seen a rock – or even an atom of an element – appear out of nothing. Much less a planet. Or a solar system. Or a galaxy. In short, there's about as much observable, repeatable evidence that gravity created the universe as there is that, well, God did.

Speaking of that, to get a universe you still need a catalyst. A Big Bang, if you will. So you have a big void, nothingness – and then a Bang. A catalyst. “Let there be light,” spoken by a God who was in a creative mood, might do, mightn't it? Something – energy, matter – out of nothing.

I'm not going to argue that Dr. Hawking's theory couldn't have happened – I'm certainly no physicist. I just don't think it best explains the available data. I've never heard of anyone dying for gravity. (Because of gravity, yes – but never for.) I've never heard of someone calling gravity his Father, or claiming that he was raised from death by the power of gravity. I've never seen a life transformed by gravity, either. Never even heard of anyone writing a hymn in praise of gravity. And none of that empirically proves anything either, of course. But, as an alternate theory, I think it better fits the data.

Dr. Hawking may be right. Scientifically speaking, it may not be strictly necessary to invoke God as Creator. Of course, there have always been alternate theories of creation. The pagans imagined that rival gods made the various parts of the world they could observe. Physicists like Dr. Hawking say that natural laws made the universe, or multiverse. Call the rival gods what you like, but that's still what they are: rival gods that cause hearts to darken.

And that's inevitably what happens when God is dismissed as unnecessary. Creatures become lost when they divorce themselves from their Creator. Hearts darken. Thinking becomes futile. And people, again in the words of Paul, “become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God–haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy.” (Romans 1:29-31, TNIV)

So maybe you can have a world without God, scientifically speaking.

You just won't want to live in it.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.