Category Archives: Faith

Mighty To Save

G. K. Chesterton says in Orthodoxy that Original Sin is the only tenet of the Christian faith that can actually be proven – one only needs to read the newspapers.

We know the world is broken, sick, in need of deliverance.  We know it and we feel it.  I have had the opportunity in the last few weeks to discover what the Bible means by “bowels of compassion.”  I have been so anxious for two members of my family that at times I have been nearly sick with it.  I have laid this at the Father’s feet almost daily, committing myself to trust Him, but that does not make the experience less painful.

When Jesus was on His knees before the Father at Gethsemane, He knew how the story would play out.  He had told His disciples that He would die and rise again after three days.  He faced His suffering with the full knowledge that His death was temporary, that the grave could not restrain Him, that He would be as full of joy on Sunday as He was full of sorrow on Thursday night.

In spite of this, Jesus sweat blood and begged to be released from His “cup”.  It was painful to even anticipate the suffering of the cross.  He knew the beautiful redemptive plan unfolding, yet His humanity bound Him to that moment that I knew so well a few weeks ago – the moment when you see something dreadful immediately before you, but no way to avoid it.  It’s like being tied to the railroad tracks as the train approaches.

And the cup did not pass from Him.  Nor did He shrink from it.  With sublime courage, He faced false accusations with truth,  mockery with the dignity of silence, and the whole prolonged ordeal with dogged perseverance.   The reward of His Passion is described by Paul in Philippians 2:9-11: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (ESV).

Jesus’ death and resurrection buys our redemption.  It is accepted as atonement on our behalf, and we are, in the words Ephesians, “accepted in beloved.”  We are received in Christ with Whom the Father is well pleased.  But Philippians promises us something more than this.  The same Jesus who bore our sins upon the Cross has earned the right to judge sin.  Having offered the perfect sacrifice for sin, He has authority to judge those who refuse to receive it, and to judge the very brokenness of the world that He came to heal.  In Revelation 5, it is the Lamb-who-was-slain Who is worthy to break open the scroll of God’s judgment.

We are far less comfortable with the judging Jesus than we are with the gentle Jesus, but let us think on this:  IT IS THE SAME SAVIOR.  Christ restores the Eden that Adam lost when sin first entered the world.  According to I Corinthians 15, Christ makes alive again that which is dead through Adam’s Fall.  He will restore that which has been lost and heal that which has been broken.

Whatever is wrong with the world, we know this: Christ will redeem it or He will judge it, but either way, He will perfect it.

In this way, the Cross provides us with justice.  It offers peace with God and peace with each other for those willing to walk in grace and forgiveness.  For those who have been wronged, the Cross provides us with a qualified judge Who knows what it is to be wronged, and who will surely have compassion on those who find no vindication in this life.  If Christ was willing to go to Calvary to satisfy the righteous demands of God’s justice, we should never doubt that He cares about what is fair and just in our own lives.  The call to Christians to forgive is not a call to deny justice; it is a call to receive Christ’s death on the Cross as the payment for sin just as God receives it.  By doing so, I place all that is owed me in the hands of Christ, and I ask Him to repair the damage done by those who hurt me.  It is His to bear the cost of sin, and His to redeem the consequences.

As Easter approaches, I am praying for a resurrection of sorts for those I love – to see the death of a relationship swallowed up in the victory of life and love.  God is faithful, and no one can pluck us out of the Father’s hand.  As the sun comes up on the first day of the week, let us think about the earthquake that woke up Jerusalem two thousand years ago, and let us hear in the turmoil the hammer of God striking away the seal on an empty tomb.

 

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Radiance

I’ve been working solo on Beth Moore’s video study, David:  A Heart Like His.  The lesson I watched last night examined the characteristics of praise.

My first lesson on praise came when I was in the sixth grade.  Of course, I didn’t realize it was a praise lesson then, but I learned from it all the same.  That was my first year of middle school, and it didn’t go well.  I was quickly singled out as the “weird” student, and it went downhill from there.  Now that I am an educator, I can look back and see classic signs of distress:  my grades plummeted, my appearance became slovenly at times, I had no friends, and I frequently begged to stay home from school.  I have a very laid back and toned-down personality, so depression is not easy to spot, if that’s what it was.  I’m not even sure I could diagnose it now.  I do know that there were mornings when I didn’t want to get out bed.  My homework was often left undone because I didn’t want think about school when I was at home.  Don’t think I failed at everything, but my good memories of that year are few and far between.

The way that I found to cope was through the cassette player in our family car.  It was 1986, and we had Sandi Patty’s Let There Be Praise.  I can distinctly remember mornings when I couldn’t bear the idea of going to school, but I could bear the thought of getting up and going to the car.  So, I would make a deliberate decision to get dressed and walk out to the car, so that I could listen to Sandi Patty.  We had a half hour drive to my high school, so I had thirty minutes to listen to songs like “Let There Be Praise” and “Shepherd of My Heart.”  I’m sure my Dad was sick of that tape, but he never complained.

Reading over what I’ve written, I’m a little skeptical.  Surely, it wasn’t as bad as what I’ve remembered.  I do remember some good things from that year, but there truly were mornings that were every bit as difficult as what I’ve described.  And I learned something from them.  The only way to face hard things is with singing.  It’s why so many martyrs, whose suffering is beyond comparison with ours, went to their deaths singing hymns.  Was it joyous singing?  I don’t know, but it was triumphant.  It was victorious for the simple reason that God inhabits the praise of his people.  His presence comes down to us and dwells with us in the songs that we sing in worship.

When David first moved the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, the Lord told him that he could not build the temple.  Instead, David prepared for the work of building that his son would accomplish, and one of his preparations was the organization of temple worship.  Since the task of helping in worship belonged to the Levites, David chose the clan of the Kohathites to lead temple praise.  Their original job had been to carry the furniture of the tabernacle as the Israelites wandered through the wilderness and into the Promised Land.  In Numbers 4:4, God says to Moses, “This is the service of the sons of Kohath in the tent of meeting: the most holy things.”  When the ark was moved to Jerusalem, this service was at an end.  There was no more need to carry things, but David made them “bearers of the presence” in another sense.  God inhabits the praise of His people, and so, as the Kohathites led temple singing, they were once again lifting up God’s presence before the nation.  When Jehoshaphat went to battle with his choir, it was the Kohathites he placed at the front of his army, praising God all the way to battle, only to find that God had slain their enemies before they arrived (see 2 Chronicles 20).

I learned last night that one of the Hebrew words for praise is hallel.  It means “bright” or “shining”, and it conveys a sense of radiance.  It is also the root of the word hallelujah.  When we offer our hallelujahs to God, we declare that He is radiant, glorious.  We declare that his glory shines over the misery of our circumstances.  We invite him to come and be present in our circumstances, knowing that no darkness can withstand the blazing light of His goodness.

““Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns.  Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory  . . .” Rev 19:6-7 (ESV).

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Faith in America

CNN is featuring an article by Ralph Reed on the evangelical vote in Iowa, entitled “‘Evangelical Vote’ A Myth.”  Reed argues that the evangelical voting block is a myth created by the media, since not all evangelicals vote the same way, and they don’t choose their candidates for the same reason.

I would be thrilled that someone actually said this in a national forum were I not so discouraged by the stereotypes and negativity that are all over the comments section.  One gets used to atheists spewing vitriol on any and every “faith-based” story in the news, but I’ve never seen so many people upset that their preconceived notions were being challenged.  Do these people even know any evangelicals?  I want to ask, but I’m afraid that some of them have had bad experiences in one church, and they’re judging the rest of us based on that.  To make the situation worse, CNN topped the story with a short slide show featuring comments from Christian voters whose comments sound exactly like what the atheists seem to fear most.  Alas, one of my brethren goes so far as to reject the separation of church and state.

The separation of church and state is not our problem.  This is the principle that guarantees us all freedom of worship whether or not those in power like our theology.  What is the problem is the conviction that some of our fellow-Americans seem to have that faith is antithetical to reason and, therefore, should not be tolerated in public discourse.  Having defined faith as blind obedience to arcane and outdated rules, they fail to see the vital role that it plays in civic life.

There is nothing blind about authentic, biblical faith.  There is nothing genuine in a faith that never asks questions, and which never wrestles with its own motivations.  I would argue that at least some of the people posting negative comments on CNN’s message board are guilty of blind faith themselves.  They were told by a teacher or a professor or an author that there was no “scientific” or “historical” evidence for the faith of their parents or grandparents, so they happily chucked it away and never bothered to do their own investigating.  They concluded that no one with any education or “sophistication” (yes, that word came up) believes in the God of the evangelicals.  When I was studying for my M.A., a fellow grad student from another department had a weekly editorial in the school paper and was continually writing statements that began with, “As an educated person . . .”  It was a university; we were all educated people, and plenty of us didn’t agree with him.  His generalization were, therefore, ridiculous.

Let me say, as a college professor, that not every thing college professors say should be taken without question.  I’m sure your professors gave you facts, but they also gave you interpretations.  Interpretations are conclusions drawn from the facts.  Interpretations are always subject to argument, and there are journals in every profession dedicated to carrying on those debates within fields.  There is plenty of archeological evidence that supports biblical accounts, and plenty more that may or may not.  The experts are still debating it.  Likewise, scientific theories are continually subject to argument and debate.  To make generalizations about what all educated people ought to believe is absurd, since not all educated people believe the same things even within their own disciplines.

I know there are atheists who really have thought through their worldview and reached it as reasonable conclusion, just as many Christians have reasoned their way to faith.  What offends me most is the idea that is continually promoted in popular discourse that people of faith are ignorant or bigoted.  It is worse during election season when people on a certain end of the political spectrum stir up antagonism against conservative candidates with the cry, “The Christians are coming, the Christians are coming.”  Even if we were “coming,” GOOD FOR YOU.  We have guided Western Civilization for most of the last two thousand years.  We have built schools and hospitals, created art, made scientific discoveries, promoted democracy and abolished slavery, at least where we could get at it.  We have reformed prisons, fed the homeless, voted in elections, argued for the dignity of women, and yes, campaigned for the separation of church and state.  If you don’t know these things, then your history class lied to you, and you need to do some real research instead of trusting the chewed up and spit out pablum that is dished out in most high school history books.

So, I would challenge the mockers on the CNN post to consider what authorities they have put their confidence in because there surely are some.  If they are trusting the opinions of experts or scholars, then I can offer experts and scholars to contradict them because that’s what scholars do.  If they are trusting their own reason, then they are trusting something that every philosopher since Socrates has doubted.  And if they are assuming that all evangelicals are exactly the same, then they are guilty of faulty generalization and no argument built on that has validity.  Likewise, if they are regarding faith and reason as incompatible, they are guilty of a false dichotomy -pretending that two things are opposed to each other when they do not need to be.

One more thing, if you must attack religion in a public forum, try to avoid name-calling.  It’s a sure indication that your argument has no substance.

 

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Promises, Not Resolutions

I have to admit that we are coming upon one of my favorite times of the year.  I know that some people get the after-Christmas blues, but that has never been my experience.  The stress of the holidays is over, and we start a brand new year.

January always feels like a very fresh month.  I have fresh calendars full of weeks I haven’t used yet.  The days are oh-so-slowly beginning to lengthen, and now that Daylight Savings Time starts in early March, that really does mean something.  The stores have loaded up their sales tables with merchandise from 2011 to make room for new things in 2012.  Even the bareness of the outdoors, stripped of leaves, flowers and Christmas decorations, has a kind of freshness about it.  Gardeners and farmers have already been preparing for planting in the spring, and the trees are hibernating to prepare for fresh coats of leaves in late March and early April.

Seasons of rest are always seasons of anticipations.  As much as we grieve for things we left behind in 2011 — jobs that we lost or left, family members that passed away, all the changes that mark the progress of our lives — January 1 is the moment that we turn around and face forward to the possibilities of the New Year.  I know what I want out of the next twelve months.  Right now, I have a dissertation sitting on my own 2011 “clearance table.”  I’ve got one more chapter to submit to the committee and a conclusion, and I will be done.  My year of possibilities hopefully includes graduation, and the prospect of moving forward in my career.  And with the dissertation no longer hanging over my head, I begin to dream more emphatically of other projects and interests.

There is something about a New Year that encourages optimism.  After all, whatever disappointments we experienced last year belong to last year.  I am convinced that, while God’s mercies are new every morning, He is an observer of times and seasons.  Landmarks are important, and that includes special days that are landmarks on the calendar.  We can make resolutions every morning and pray for mercy to fulfill them, but New Year’s Day is an invitation to revisit the promises that God has made to us, the Scriptures that the Holy Spirit has invited us to claim as our very own.  “I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord,” and He declared it to people who had every reason to believe they had fouled up those plans beyond repair (Jer. 29:11).  But they hadn’t, because they were God’s plans, and God always gets what He wants in the end.

We can approach 2012 joyously and fearlessly, not because we have resolved to be better people, but because God has resolved that we shall be better people.  “He who began a good work in you,” writes the apostle, “will bring it to perfection at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil.1:6).  Until then, my best hope is co-operation and obedience.  So, as the clock strikes midnight, I will be meditating on God’s promises and not my own intentions, and I will certainly be trusting to His faithfulness and not to my own consistency.

Happy New Year!

 

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The Day of Small Things

Almost all of us, unless we are narcissists, occasionally suffer from feelings of insignificance.   I remember how devastated I was at the age of 18 or so, when I first saw a tennis prodigy on television winning her first championship at the age of 16.  There was something disconcerting about seeing someone shoot to the pinnacle of her profession, when I hadn’t even succeeded in picking one yet.  This is funny to me now, but it wasn’t then.  Most of us, at some point in our lives, have wanted to do something that would get our names in the record books. Something that would make us great or legendary.  Instead, we find ourselves, the vast majority of us, in the middle of the daily grind.  We do our apparently small deeds that are just like the countless small deeds that everybody else is doing, and sometimes we wonder if we are even capable of that much.  The loss of a job or a failed relationship makes us wonder if even the ordinary is beyond us. 

For those of us who have struggled to achieve the status quo, we have our kindred spirit in the Old Testament character, Zerubbabel.   We are preparing to start a book study of Zechariah in my small group, and the preface to the book in my ESV study Bible pointed to Zechariah 4:10a as one of the key verses of the book:  “For whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice, and shall see the plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel.”

“Who is Zerubbabel?” you ask.  And secretly you wonder, What is a plumb line?

Zerubbabel was a descendent of King David, a grandson of one of the last kings of that dynasty, and in a position to claim the throne himself, except that there was no throne to claim.  The kingdom had been lost in the exile to Babylon.  Now Judah was a tiny part of the great Persian Empire, and Zerubbabel was only a governor under the authority of an imperial government far away.  Twenty years before, the Jewish people had returned to their homeland to find nothing but poverty and ruined cities.  Nehemiah had rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem so that the people could have a measure of security, but it fell to Zerubbabel to build a new temple — one that would be only a shadow of the beautiful edifice built by his ancestor, Solomon.  There was a shortage of money and, of course, there were political obstacles.  The prophet Haggai was delivering sermons to the Jewish people to stir up their enthusiasm to this work of rebuilding God’s house.

But the enthusiasm wasn’t there.  They were a beaten people.  The glory of Jerusalem had been stripped away.  Even if they rebuilt the temple, it wouldn’t compare with the one that Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed.  Besides, they were in a daily battle for survival.  They were trying to rebuild a nation out of the ashes of their grandparents’ sin and failure.  It seemed like all the great works of God had been done in the past.  God had parted the Red Sea and demolished the walls of Jericho in the long ago, but now His people were grubbing weeds and stacking bricks.  The still-chosen people of God were suffering from a profound case of nobody-ness.  It seemed like a day of small things.

Then God began to speak to Zechariah through some of the most striking visions found anywhere in Scripture.  God had not forgotten His people; His historic plan for them had not been abandoned.  He would bless them again, and He would send them a King to restore their ruined kingdom.  Did they feel insignificant?  God was sending a King who would  exalt the insignificant: 

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”  (Zech 9:9 [ESV])

To Zerubbabel and his contemporaries, it must have seemed that their part in this unfolding plan of God was very small indeed.  Yet God repeatedly assured Zerubbabel of his calling and his significance.  “Who are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain.  And he shall bring forward the top stone amid shouts of ‘Grace, grace to it!” (Zech 4:7 [ESV]).  Zerubbabel was destined to succeed because the favor of God rested upon his work, and no obstacle would prevent him from finishing what he had started.  The finished product might not be impressive to human eyes in the way that Solomon’s temple was impressive, but God would be pleased that Zerubbabel had done the necessary work to glorify God in his own generation.  Zerubbabel was a blessed man.

Even more, God was going to change the perspective of those who saw and judged Zerubbabel’s labors.  Those who despised the era in which they lived as a “day of small things” were going to get an attitude adjustment.  They were going to see the favor of God, the grace of God, in the success of Zerubbabel, and God would have glory in the triumph of His people.  What was required of Zerubbabel?  There was one key ingredient to the promise.  The people would rejoice to see him holding a plumb line.  This was a tool used in the ancient world to make sure that a wall was straight.  If the angle of a wall was off-center, the whole building was in jeopardy.  As the leader of the people, it was Zerubbabel’s job to see the work was being done properly — to come behind the workers and verify that each part of the building was firm and straight.  His diligence in the small things, and God’s blessing on the whole project, were the guarantees of success.

Should we feel insignificant then because God has called us to a task that seems small or unimpressive?  The truth is that not one of us is in a good place to judge the value of our own work.  After all, your high school history book was full of people of who were mighty and famous in their day, and yet not one piece of what they built has survived.  Matthew Henry notes that Zerubbabel is a picture of Christ in that God promised that he would both start the temple and finish it.  In the same way, Christ is the beginner and the finisher of our faith.  He is both the cornerstone and the capstone of all that we seek to accomplish for God.  Let us to look to Him and boast in the finished work of Christ.  All that we do for Him will have significance.  We will each look back on our own day of small things and cry, “Grace, grace.”

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A Recent Passing

I was listening to BBC World News last night, when I first heard the news of Christopher Hitchens’ passing.  As with any such loss, sympathy must go to his family and colleagues.

I never got around to reading any of Hitchens’ books.  They aren’t the sort of thing I would pick up for casual reading, as a rule.  My response is to comments that Hitchens made that were replayed on the BBC last night.  Hitchens was famously resistant to the idea that he might have a death-bed conversion.  In the event that rumors of one got out, he implored the public to consider his actions the result of the illness and medications.  In the replayed interview, Hitchens responded to a question by stating that IF God does exist, and Hitchens did indeed find himself being judged by such a person, his only plea would have to be that he did not insult God with insincere and self-serving last-minute prayers.  Otherwise, he did not know what defense he could make, but that he certainly wouldn’t be “servile” about it.

That Hitchens wouldn’t say a prayer to hedge his bets was probably the closest he came to good doctrine.  Jesus had a term for prayers that were said without faith or sincerity – vain repetitions – and warned that God wouldn’t answer prayers that were noise and no substance.  What stunned me about Hitchens answer was the notion that one could address God with servility.  Clearly, Hitchens understanding of God-ness left something to be desired.

Atheists operate under that assumption that Christianity is one of many mythologies and, having lumped the Christian God in the same category as pagan gods, they assume that the Christian God must be just as limited in personality and power.  If one were addressing the womanizing Zeus, or the mummified Osiris, or the harlot Ishtar, a certain independence of thought might be rightly considered a virtue.  These gods did not create the cosmos; they were born out of it.  And they certainly unfit to be the moral judges of humanity.

The Christian conception of God, however, is that there is a Being of limitless power who willed and created everything that exists.  Science, therefore, cannot contradict our knowledge of Him, but it can refine and expand that knowledge, because God is the author of science.  He wrote the rules and designed the systems that scientists discover.  Because He created space and time, He exists outside space and time.

Does anyone have any idea what such a Person must be like?  How about this:  Go to pbs.org and watch the four of episodes of The Fabric of the Cosmos.  Do we really think it would be servility to pay homage to a God who could invent such a universe or even multiple universes?  If there really is a God, and I believe there is, then He deserves the worship of those He has made, whether we understand His judgments or not.

And would we dare to disagree with Him to His face?  God told Job to stand up and answer Him like a man (Job 40:7), and Job’s answer was to repent “in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6).  God told Ezekiel to stand up and answer Him like a man, but Ezekiel had already fallen flat on his face, and he was unable to get up until the Holy Spirit lifted him up (Ez. 1:28, 2:1).  A person may resent the fact that there is Someone with the right to judge us, but that does not make it any less true.  The fact that we must say it with fear and trembling does not make it any less true.

Believe me when I say that, if Hitchens was guilty of arrogance in how he spoke of God, I have been guilty of the same arrogance.  How often have I complained about the circumstances that God has put me in?  How often have I questioned the goodness of God, or been angry or bitter about the injustices of the world I live in?  And, yet, I too must stand before this God and give an answer.

I went to bed last night thinking about my own defense before God.  It is what it has always been.  God has pardoned me for the sake of Christ, and my defense is in Christ.  He is able to save to the uttermost all who come to God through Him (Heb. 7:25).  I hope, therefore, to see God with awe, but also with joy.  But let me also remember, when I am most inclined to complain about life, that it is God who will someday judge me, not the other way around.

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Goodness

Goodness

Let my words be sweet sounds

And my thoughts pure.

I would be content,

For You, Oh Lord, are in me

And there is no place in my soul

That You do not long to possess.

You restore to me

Desire for Light

And the hope of Beauty.

I see horrors of great darkness

And I long to be like You,

Seeing death as life fulfilled,

The attainment of the eternal.

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Weird Things

I remember the first time I realized that God has a masculine sense of humor.  I was reading about sea cucumbers, nondescript little blobs of animals that are at the bottom of the ocean food chain.  They are mostly sedentary, but if threatened can defend themselves by ejecting part of their internal organs.  This is called eviscerating.  While a predator is munching the jetsam, the sea cucumber can swim to safety and regrow its organs.  Another weapon in its arsenal is a toxic substance that it can eject, which poisons creatures nearby.  According to Wikipedia, the toxin is similar to soap.  Apparently, some creatures that live underwater cannot tolerate soap.  Go figure.

So, as I was saying, they are sea blobs that shoot out part of their insides and, when they’re really mad, they spit soap.  You know that’s a guy joke.

My new favorite animal is equally bizarre.  This is the cuttlefish, which I knew nothing about until I watched the Nova special (“Kings of Camouflage”) online.  Apparently, cuttlefish not only change colors, they are shape-shifters as well.  They’re invertebrates, and their outrageously flexible skin can stretch into different shapes and change colors at will.  According to Wikipedia, they have layers of skin pigmentation with 200 specialized pigment cells per square inch, which is about 350 dpi.  In other words, their skin has about the same resolution quality as an inkjet printer, and they can mimic patterns in their environment as well as basic colors.

What could be better than that?  How about three hearts, green-blue blood, and eight arms coming out of their heads.  As I watched Nova, I got the distinct impression that God was amusing Himself when He invented cuttlefish.  They put on a show that Hollywood couldn’t top with CGI and special effects.

We so seldom think of God as being entertained by His creation.  Perhaps that would sound more pious if I said that He is delighted with His creation.  Fallen and imperfect as the world most definitely is, there must still be endless moments when God takes pleasure in gazing at what He has made.

May I suggest that we might be better people if we learned to do the same.  Friday was a heavy day for me, full of anxiety and concern.  Today, I find myself back in the hospital with a loved one.  And yet I was thrilled and delighted yesterday by a program about cuttlefish, as if God were letting me take a time-out from life while He delighted me with something playful and amusing that only He could invent.  We get so bowed down and aged by life that we forget that we are, after all, only children of our Father.  Do we imagine that God has no time for playing in the nursery?  Once I would have thought so, but the older I get the younger I act.

 

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The Wisdom of God

Our ladies group finished our study of Ecclesiastes last night, and I have to admit that I’m relieved.  We’ve had fun with the study, but this is surely one intimidating book to teach.  It’s  full of hard questions and tough topics, and it requires a lot of cross-referencing to other books of the Bible.  There’s not a single aspect of the human experience that Solomon (a.k.a. Mr. Sunshine) can’t sum up with the line, “This too is meaningless!”

One comes to the end of Ecclesiastes wondering if, after all, there really is any use in human reason or logic.  The answer is yes, of course.  We can do our work wisely and well.  We can use our tongues and our good sense to get along with other people and help the communities that we live in.  We can use our time on earth to do our duty:  honor God and live according to His commandments.  Even in this, however, we are limited.  Solomon raises huge questions about oppression, injustice, pain and death.  Sometimes, these come from human  folly.  Sometimes, the most heinous suffering comes from nothing other than the human failure to act wisely.

A breakthrough (for me) came when I saw the definition of wisdom in Easton’s Bible Dictionary.  Specifically, Easton’s defines wisdom as a matter of morality rather than intellect.   Anyone who has endured a college philosophy class knows that there is no harder word for an academic to define than the word “wisdom” (unless it’s the word “truth”).  Perhaps, the reason for this is that we have been trying to define wisdom as an intellectual property when we should have been speaking of it as a virtue.  The validity of this may be easily tested:  is a foolish act and a wicked act the same thing?  I wouldn’t bet on the answer always being “yes”, but I’m guessing that it would be most of the time.

What really rocked my thinking on the subject was one of the references Easton’s recommended on wisdom, I Cor. 1:24:  “But to those called by God to salvation, both Jews and Gentiles, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God” (NLT).  According to this verse, if we want to truly define wisdom, we cannot describe what it is.  We must describe who it is.  Christ, as God in human flesh, is wisdom.  Further, Galatians 3:27 states that when we became believers we “put on Christ.”  Putting on Christ is New Testament speak for holiness.

So here is what unfolded:  Wisdom is a virtue that Christ personifies.  To put on Christ-likeness is to put on wisdom, as one would put on a garment.  Therefore, to pursue holiness and to pursue wisdom is the same thing.  Both holiness and wisdom are terms that describe a life lived rightly and lived well.

I think this reading will stand in the light of 2 Peter 1:3:  “By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life. We have received all of this by coming to know him, the one who called us to himself by means of his marvelous glory and excellence” (NLT).  It is knowledge of God that equips us to live godly (holy) lives, and the application of that knowledge may be properly called wisdom.

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A Marvelous Machine

The July issue of Scientific American is out, and I couldn’t resist grabbing a copy.  For one thing, it’s hard not to notice a cover with a large picture of a human brain on it.  For another, the caption was an attention grabber.  The headline is “The Physics of Intelligence,” but they followed this up with a question:   “Evolution has packed 100 billion neurons into our three-pound brain.  Can we get any smarter?”

Setting aside the question of whether or not evolution is the means by which our brains came into existence, there remains the fact that evolution can only be a means.  It is a process not a cause.  Atheists in the scientific community are often guilty of academic provincialism, assuming that because science can demonstrate a how, that it can also explain the why and the what next without any recourse to philosophy or religion.  Atheists assume that science has already rendered religion obsolete when, in fact, science can answer very few of the questions that religion and philosophy pose.  Even if evolution is how the brain developed, it does not prove that there wasn’t a who developing it.

This matters to a discussion of the article in Scientific American because of the question that article raises:  Can we get any smarter?  This is neither gloating nor arrogance on the part of the editors.  Rather, it is a question that challenges one of the core assumptions of evolution, and that is that change over time continuously results in an increasingly better product.  Survival of the fittest is the process by which the best and strongest survive to pass on their genes, and the weakest are wiped out of the gene pool by their failure to adapt.

Ever since Nietzsche and George Bernard Shaw, atheists have counted on evolution to improve on the human race.  The whole idea of a superman is predicated on the idea that humans, as a species, will continue to get stronger and smarter as natural selection weeds out weaknesses and abnormalities.  If an atheist has hope for the future, it surely lies in the expectation that human beings will get better at solving problems that currently seem insurmountable.  Even our ability to survive the possible death of our planet depends on our finding new ways of transporting a lot of people over great distances in space – a prospect that is currently impossible by any technology we can now conceive of.  I don’t just mean that we can’t build the technology; I mean that we haven’t even imagined a solution that would really be feasible.  In order to fulfill the kind of destiny that Darwinism offers us, we need to get a whole lot smarter.

The article in Scientific American (“The Limits of Intelligence” by Douglas Fox) would seem to throw a monkey-wrench into this vision of our future.  The size of our brains could increase, but then they would get slower because information would have longer distances to travel across our neural network.  If we grew more neural connections, they would take up more space, plus they would consume more energy and our brains already use up about 80% of the energy we burn on a daily basis.  (Can I turn that into a diet plan?  Think more, eat less?)  On top of this, more neural connections would mean more information traffic and more “background noise”.  The conclusion would seem to be that the human brain is as good as it’s going to get.

For those who do not believe in a higher power (i.e. we’re out here on our own), that has to be a depressing thought.  The article does not, however, leave them without a ray of hope.  Perhaps, we might find a solution in connectivity.  Perhaps, the development of technology that allows us to “pool our intelligence with others” (43) will prove to be the next great step in our evolution.  As a matter of fact, I think we should continue to develop that connectivity, as long as we are aware that information technology has the potential to make us all dumber together instead of making us all smarter together depending upon how we use it.  (See the previous post on PBS’ special Digital_Nation.)  I applaud the new definition of polity that seems to be developing in countries like Egypt and Syria where the governments have too long been Hobbesian Leviathans devouring their own people.  Instead, the internet, through tools like Facebook and Twitter, has become the new Leviathan, the new embodiment of the will of the people.  I think there is great hope that this will ultimately (perhaps, not instantly) produce more democratic societies, and history has shown that democratic societies tend to be more just and innovative.

But I don’t think this revolution is attributable to evolution.  We have always been wired to live in communities, to pool our resources and abilities, and to depend on those around us to help us get things done.  We have certainly invented new ways of doing this, but it is not a fundamental change in us as a species.  It is simply a new and more efficient way of doing what we have always done.   Those of us who espouse a worldview that includes a Creator have always assumed that any being who could design and wire the human brain must be unimaginably brilliant.  If he has given us the best possible brain within the natural laws he established, why should we find that surprising?  We always knew that we were fearfully and wonderfully made. Moreover, our minds were created by a God who designed us to live in relationship with himself and with other people.  God alone possesses the absolute power of self-definition.  The rest of us have always learned who and what we were through our interactions with those around us.  If we are getting better at creating and facilitating those interactions, it does not create a new destiny for us.  It simply makes us better at fulfilling the destiny our Creator gave us from the very beginning of Time.

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