Friday, July 27, 2012


In that day the deaf will hear the words of the scroll,
and out of gloom and darkness
the eyes of the blind will see.

-Isaiah 29:18 (NIV)
    Jesus said, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.”
-John 9:39 (NIV)

    When Bob Greenberg died earlier this month, his colleagues in Chicago broadcasting and journalism remembered a lot of things about him, even though he left Chicago sports broadcasting in 1990. They remembered him accidentally knocking over a table loaded with food at old Comiskey Park. They remembered him aggressively shoving a microphone toward an NBA player of whom he’d asked a question and accidentally striking him in, well, an intimate place. They remembered that he could be belligerent, loud, stubborn, and even obnoxious. They remembered how he’d interrupt other reporters’ questions, and shove them aside in his quest for the big interview. They also remembered how hard he worked. And they remembered how he did radio color commentary for high school basketball and football games on the old WBEZ.
    And the last, the color commentary, was probably the most memorable thing about him, because Bob Greenberg was blind.
    Greenberg had always wanted to be a sports broadcaster, and didn’t think that the fact that he lost his sight shortly after he was born should disqualify him. So, when he’d sit down to do color for a game, he’d sit down with player statistics on a stack of Braille cards. When the action demanded, his fingers would fly through the cards like a broken-field runner eluding tacklers. “You know, that was the fourth time that....” he’d say, or something like it, and listeners never knew that the color guy on the radio couldn’t actually see the game any better than they could.
    Of all his colleagues, only one, Scott Simon of NPR, remembers Greenberg ever admitting that his blindness could be a handicap. “He told me that he thought he had a pretty good image in his mind what a football play looked like and what a basketball game looked like,” Simon remembered. “But the one thing he couldn't imagine was a home run in baseball.”
    “He said the sound of the crowd during a home run is totally different than anything else in sports — the drama, the rising expectations — and that he really wished that just once he could see that.”
    Simon brought his family to Chicago for a Cubs game last weekend, partly in Greenberg’s honor. “I want them to hit one for Bob,” he said. “Maybe he can see them now.”
    Simon’s hope resonates, doesn’t it? It’s the hope all of us have that human weakness and frailty isn’t the last word, that blind eyes might one day see, that deaf ears might one day hear. We hold that hope close when people we love suffer, or when we go through our own bouts of sickness, and weakness, or when we stare down our own mortality. It’s a hope born of the conviction - whether we realize it or not - that the creation that God called “good” and the people who bear his image should not stumble around in darkness, or lay in beds gasping for air, or sit in wheelchairs all their lives. And so we hope, with the expectation that God will heal, renew, and restore.
    I’m reminded of a former professor of mine, a man with only one arm, who once attended a tent meeting held by a faith healer. Toward the end of the service, the evangelist invited everyone who wanted to healing to the front. My professor got in line with everyone else, and when he got to the front the faith healer asked, “What can I do for you?”
    As if it wasn’t obvious.
    “I want my arm back,” my professor said, and was promptly excused from the rest of the meeting.
    But what else would he want? What else would he ask for from a man claiming to be able to channel the power of the One who created arms?
    People who believe in the power of God from the beginning have had that same hope. Isaiah captured it memorably in his vision of a day when people who had never been able to hear God’s word read aloud would hear it for the first time, and when light would finally break through the gloom and darkness in which the blind had been living. “That day,” he called it. The day when God would come to deliver his people. God would come, and he would repair and renew his people in all the ways they were broken. He would forgive them, yes. He would help them spiritually. But he’d also heal their sickness, cure their blindness and deafness, make the crippled walk, and overthrow the oppressors on behalf of the oppressed. Isaiah never saw that day, but he looked forward to it and expected it.
    But the centuries went by, and you’d forgive people for getting a little pessimistic. Some of them gave up on that hope. Some of them figured God must need a little help, and so they concentrated on doing what they could to speed that day along, thinking that it all depended on them. Some assumed that any hope their faith offered was for the world in which they were living, and so they tried to fit their faith to that world.
    In that climate, Jesus came. And he said things like, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.” Only, he didn’t just say it. He actually healed the blind. With a little spit and dirt, or with a touch, or just with a word, blind people could see. And not just spiritually, either, although getting their sight back must have helped a lot spiritually.
    Of course, Jesus didn’t heal all the blind people in the world. His intention was more to make a statement: “That day that the prophets looked forward to? It’s here. The poor are hearing good news, prisoners are free, the blind can see, the oppressed are liberated. I’m announcing that the time of God’s favor is here.”
    So, while we still wait, we wait in a different way than did Isaiah. We’ve seen God’s deliverance. In Jesus, we’ve seen and know it. And though we wait for his return until the creation is redeemed, we know that through Jesus that redemption is here and has begun.
    Jesus said, paradoxically, that his coming will make some people blind, however. So let’s open our eyes, instead, and trust in his goodness, power, and faithfulness - that he will make good on his promise to put behind us all that hurts us. And let’s proclaim in the name of Jesus that “That Day” has dawned.
    There’ll be much to see. But, thanks be to God through Jesus Christ, we’ll have forever to see it.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Flesh and Blood

    In putting everything under them,  God left nothing that is not subject to them.  Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them. But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor  because he suffered death,  so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
    In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered. Both the one who makes people holy  and those who are made holy  are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.
Since the children have flesh and blood,  he too shared in their humanity  so that by his death he might break the power  of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil —  and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear  of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like them,    fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful  and faithful high priest  in service to God,  and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
-Hebrews 2:8-11, 14-18 (NIV)

All right, I have a confession to make.
    I’m a superhero geek.
    As a kid, I read the comic books. Spider-Man, the Avengers, Superman, the Fantastic Four, X-Men, Batman - especially Batman. For a while there, I hardly ever missed a Batman comic. Back then (as now, I believe), D.C. alternated Batman stories in Detective Comics and the Batman title: part one of a story in Detective would be followed by part two in Batman, and so on. Every month, those two were my priorities.  
     Obviously, then, this is a big weekend for me as The Dark Knight Rises, the last film in Christopher Nolan’s excellent Batman trilogy, hits theaters.
    I wouldn’t have been able to explain it as a kid, but what I like most about Batman is the - well, realism isn’t the right word, exactly - but Batman is a regular guy. Superman’s an invincible alien from another planet who can only be hurt by the rarest element in the universe. (Though a surprising amount shows up on Earth anyway.) Captain America’s a laboratory creation. The Hulk’s a mutant, Spider-Man was bitten by a radioactive spider, Iron Man wears a super-smart computer and arsenal. Batman, on the other hand, has no super-powers. He can’t fly, or run really fast, or talk to sea animals, or lift a truck. He’s just trained hard, and he uses his considerable resources to buy and make cool gadgets in order to right wrong and make a difference in his world.
    I could always relate to Batman. He’s not from another planet, and he’s not another class of human being. He’s a regular guy who had some bad things happen to him, and he’s chosen to fight against the kind of bad things that happened to him so that they won’t happen to others. It costs Batman to do the things he does. He gets injured. He gets frustrated and angry. Every time he takes on another bad guy he puts himself on the line. I might hope that if I had Superman’s power I’d use it to fight for truth and justice and all that stuff, but honestly I can’t relate to him. Batman sweats and bleeds and hurts. Bullets don’t bounce off him. His bones break, just like any other human being’s. And, whether it’s really likely in the comics or movies or not, every time Batman chooses to fight evil, he could die.
     Sometimes I think we tend to think of Jesus as being kind of like Superman. He has all these powers. He can do all these amazing things. He chooses to use that power selflessly, to help human beings, but he’s not really like us. He can pass as one of us, at least for a while. But he’s different. He’s more than human, which is to say not really human at all.
    It’s understandable that we’d think of Jesus in this way. After all, he can heal. He knows things he shouldn’t know. He can stop storms, change the form of water or stones, make a meal for thousands from a little bread and fish. He can even raise the dead. And, just when you think he’s dead, he comes back to life, where he can apparently dematerialize through walls and transport himself anywhere in an instant.
     The trouble is that thinking of Jesus in this way alienates us from him. How can you relate to someone like this? How can you imagine trying to be like him? And how can you hope that he understands what you’re struggling with, or cares about the things that are causing you pain?
    Let me suggest to you that the Jesus we need is more like Batman than Superman.
    I don’t mean that Jesus is only human. But I do mean that he’s completely human. That is to say, whatever more he is, he is fully, completely, and definitely human. The writer of the book of Hebrews says that Jesus was made perfect through what he suffered. In other words, there was something about the work Jesus came to do that would have been left incomplete if he hadn’t come as a human being. Jesus and the people he came to save are of the same family, he goes on to say - a relationship that Jesus isn’t ashamed to own.
    And the writer of Hebrews reminds us that Jesus owns the human condition all the way to its inevitable end; he dies, as human beings do. And, in so doing, he breaks the power of death for every person who believes in him. He becomes a “merciful high priest” by being “made...fully human in every way,” and making atonement for the sins of all people. Instead of fighting evil, Jesus takes it into his own human flesh and bone, absorbs its death blow, and then rises from the dead to offer life and forgiveness to everyone.
    Not only that, but this human Jesus lives to help us as we resist temptation. Being fully human, he understands what temptation is. He knows that sometimes sin looks good, that one of the reasons we human beings do wrong so often is that it works to ease our pain, satisfy our hungers, and calm our anxieties. He knows what temptation is, and he helps us in our own struggles against it.
    Jesus paid for the salvation he secures for us. He paid with pain and weariness and sorrow and betrayal and death, and he paid with those things because they are part and parcel of what it means to be human. So the next time you doubt anyone knows you, or cares about you, or understands what you’re suffering, know that Jesus does. Jesus does, and he’s bled and died to give you life and hope and forgiveness and peace.
    All without a cape and mask.

Friday, July 6, 2012

God Particle

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
    Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
    And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.
    God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness.
    God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning — the first day.
-Genesis 1:1-5 (NIV)

    Scientists working at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN announced this week that they think they’ve found evidence of the Higgs Bosun. So, if you know Mr. Higgs, please tell him that his bosun has turned up at CERN.
    Seriously, though, this is a pretty big announcement. The Higgs Bosun, a particle that scientists have theorized for half a century now must exist, is thought to give mass to matter. Actually, it’s the Higgs field that gives mass; the Bosun is really just the concrete evidence that it exists. According to quantum field theory, the Higgs field is thought to permeate the known universe. Like paper soaking up ink, when a particle interacts with this field it acquires potential energy and, because of E=mc2, also acquires mass. So the existence of the Higgs Field, if confirmed, would confirm a very important set of hypotheses about the creation and existence of the universe.
    That’s why the Higgs Bosun has sometimes been called the “God Particle”.
    In the beginning, the Higgs Bosun created the heavens and the earth.
    I don’t know, it just doesn’t grab me.
    Call it the God Particle if you will, but the confirmation of its existence (if that’s what this is) only adds to our understanding of the way the universe works. In that, it’s interesting. I’m sure there are even important applications of this knowledge. (At the moment, I’m wondering if it has implications for weight loss. I’m just saying.) But, again, it only adds to our picture of the nature of the universe and the mechanisms by which it functions. It doesn’t say anything at all about the Designer and Builder of those mechanisms. It doesn’t remove the need for a Creator.
    The Bible simply assumes God “in the beginning.” There is no explanation of where he came from, or how he got there, and that’s intentional. There is no prequel, no backstory, only  “In the beginning - God.”
    All the explanations of creation in the Ancient Near East assumed a god or gods, of course. According to those stories, powerful beings created parts of the universe, and created people to serve them. But these gods were full of all the evil that human beings are known for. They bickered amongst themselves, and created or used the universe or human beings for their own ends. They cheated and defrauded each other. They were cruel and capricious.
    Over against these creation stories, Genesis tells us of the one true God who chose to create, not part of the universe, but “the heavens and the earth.” He created from nothing, speaking the universe into existence piece by piece. If Genesis had been written in a more scientific age, it might have described God’s creation in terms of quantum theory, or molecular biology, or what have you. Maybe a day would be spent on each of the laws of thermodynamics. But, back of all that, the main story would remain: behind everything we see and know and experience as the universe, there is a God who created it all. Not a field, or a particle, or a theory, or a law. A God. A God who knew what he was doing and chose to bring a universe into existence.
    This God had hopes and expectations for his creation. He called it “good.” Said it was perfect, flawless, just as he intended it to be. And then, when it was all but done, he created human beings out of some of the stuff of that creation. And he told those human beings to rule over it and order it. He made those people to be like him, in his image, and to represent the Creator to the rest of creation.
    Of course, when you have a story like that, you have to explain how we got so far away.
    And so the story explains sin, explains why human beings don’t often look much like the Creator whose image we’re supposed to bear. It explains our dissatisfaction with the universe as God created it, our pathological need to “be like God.” It shows our rebellion, our fall, and the breaking of creation. Thorns grow, and brother kills brother, and the creation, with God’s chosen image-bearers rejecting their calling to try to usurp his place, spins into chaos.
    So the third act of the story begins. This Creator God has a plan to redeem his broken creation. It involves a new act of Creation, this time one in which the creative Word of God itself, Jesus, becomes flesh. He came to bring light into the darkness, just like before. He came to do what every human being was supposed to do as God’s image-bearer - to make it so that the rest of Creation could see his glory. Then Jesus, after his death and resurrection, pours out the Holy Spirit - the same one hovering over the empty, formless Earth at creation - into human beings to make them the image-bearers God created them to be.
    Particles don’t create with purpose and intent, and fields don’t redeem that Creation when it goes wrong. Fields and particles explain mechanisms, shed light on how and why the universe works like it does. Quantum physics can’t account for sin, or develop an equation for love, or explain resurrection. It has no theories that model the work of the Holy Spirit in the human heart, no metric to measure the enormity of the Fall or the depth of God’s love in Jesus Christ.
    Believers have no reason to be defensive about science, or resentful or suspicious of its discoveries. It’s good to marvel in the complex design of our universe as we come to understand more of the parts its Creator put into motion. It’s right that we should be amazed at the intricacies of his work, the natural laws that he put in place to keep it all in order. But don’t think for a moment that our rudimentary understanding of the universe makes us independent of him. That sounds too much like Adam and Eve, so sure that their knowledge of their world made God something of an obsolete notion. Without his intervention, I suppose their arrogance might have brought the whole thing crashing down.
    We need him more than ever. As long as creation groans for redemption, as long as we grown in the pain and sorrow of thorns and death and illness and sin, we need him. A particle won’t call me from my grave. A field won’t offer me forgiveness, or transform my heart and mind, or give me life. There’s no theory for reversing the decay of matter, or for overcoming the power of death. There’s only God, our Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer, and Savior.
    Just try to get a bosun to do all that.