Category Archives: Women’s Ministry

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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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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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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Approval

Yes, I’ve been off the blog for a while.  In my defense, I’ve been writing a dissertation, which finally looks to be going somewhere.

I came across an interesting quote last night as I was doing some research.  Months ago, while writing about Edmund Spenser, I found an allusion to Mary Magdalene in The Faerie Queene that nobody seems to have written about before, and I’ve been trying to figure out what Mary Magdalene is doing in this particular place in the narrative. So, I did what one usually should do when a Protestant from this historical period does something unusual with Scripture.  I checked the Geneva Bible.

The Geneva Bible (1560) was the most popular English translation of its day.  Even after the KJV was published (1611), people continued to use the Geneva Bible, partly for the marginal notes that explained the text and added cross-references.  In a sense, the Geneva Bible was a study Bible, and it was used for personal and family devotions.

John 20 is the only place in the gospels where we read about Mary’s encounter with Jesus at the tomb – the one where she laments that someone has taken her Lord, and she doesn’t know where to find him. When she realizes that she is speaking to a risen and living Jesus, she immediately grabs hold of Him, only to have Jesus tell her that she must not hold onto Him, as He has not yet ascended to His Father.  The Geneva Bible adds this note:  “Because she was too much addicted to the corporal presence, Christ teacheth her to lift up her mind by faith into heaven, where only after His ascension he remaineth, & where we sit with Him at the right hand of the Father.”

I have to say, this set off some fireworks in my brain.  We often think about our salvation in terms of Christ dying for us, and rightly so, since there is no forgiveness of sins without the atoning sacrifice (Heb. 9:22).  But my research into Reformation teaching has shown me a different emphasis.  Luther and Calvin frequently spoke of the sufficiency or righteousness of Christ.  His sacrifice is important as the way that this righteousness is transferred to us.  When I stand before God, I will be saved, not just because Jesus died, but because His death has given me a righteousness without which God cannot find me acceptable.

For this reason, just as I remember the cross and empty tomb, it is equally important that I think of heaven when I think of Christ.  He occupies the place of ultimate approval — at the right hand of God.  Those who are “in Christ,” those who share the rewards of His suffering, also occupy this place of approval as Christ represents us and intercedes for us to His Father.  For this reason, Jesus says to Mary, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (Jn. 20:17, ESV).  To call Him our God and Father is a privilege that Christ gives us through His own good standing, the approval that God gives Christ is extended over you and me as a holy covering.

For this reason, Paul states, “Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised— who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us” (Romans 8:34, ESV).  I think believers cannot hear this enough.  We constantly reproach ourselves (usually with good reason), and our adversary, Satan, is always the accuser of the brethren.  But Christ does not accuse us.  He is as gracious to us as He was to the adulterous women when He sent her accusers packing and refused to lift so much as a pebble Himself.  He stands between us and judgment, then His Spirit gives us the power to go and sin no more.

I wonder, when we confess our sins to God (as indeed we must), how would it change our prayers if we were not trying to earn approval or acceptance?  Christ has won approval for us.  Rather, we must seek God’s grace to mend the broken places in us, and the power and the filling of the Spirit to transform our deepest longings and ambitions.  It is for freedom that Christ set us free (Gal. 5:1).

 

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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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Pause to Admire

For those of you who didn’t travel this holiday weekend – good for you!

I took my mother and brother to meet with family in Blowing Rock on Saturday, and the traffic was something else altogether.   It took us thirty minutes to drive through Elk Park because we found ourselves behind the town parade.  For those of you who have never been to Elk Park, I will indicate the size to you by noting that we might have passed all of twenty people lined up to watch the said parade.  Apparently, everyone else in town was in the parade, and that’s why it took them thirty minutes to do it.  Then we tried to take our usual route over Grandfather Mountain, but had to turn back because there were about fifty cars (and I’m not kidding) lined up outside the entrance gates to the park.

Needless to say, I was a bit chuffed by the time we and the traffic (finally) moseyed into downtown Blowing Rock and set about to find a parking space.  For those of you who think I should have just stayed home, I agree with you.  However, when one is meeting family, one does not always have the luxury of choosing the appointed day.  One should, however, try to avoid showing up in a bad mood.  I have to say that I was finding that hard to do.

That was when I saw something that delighted me.  Keep in mind that I am easily amused.

Isn’t he beautiful?  I think he decided to drop in for a photo shoot.  I got several pictures before he flew away.

I wish I could think of something more profound to say than, “Look at that symmetry!”  On the other hand, perhaps we are never more profound than when we simply pause to admire.

The day offered me another gift in the form of the rhododendron which are in full bloom in the mountains.  I do not know what dreary and unpoetic soul named them “rhododendron” (one of the ugliest words in the botanical lexicon), but they don’t deserve it.  Rhododendron grow in shady places, out of the sunlight.  They are hardy shrubs that thrive in the cooler weather of the mountains, and when they are not in bloom, they appear to be nothing more than tough, scrubby bushes.  Then summer comes, and they produce a blossom that is truly a lady among flowers.

It is hard to imagine how a shrub can grow such tough leaves and such delicate blooms at the same time, but here is another angle.

We all know that God grows some of his finest people in out of the way places and unpromising circumstances.  My mother is one of those people.  You cannot imagine more barren soil than what her childhood seemed to offer.  But Jesus himself was a “tender root out of a dry ground” (Isaiah 53).  Like rhododendron in the winter, His appearance had no particular beauty, no distinguishing loveliness to set Him apart from the other people He mingled with on a daily basis.  Yet those who measured His quality by the roughness of His exterior missed the incomparable glory of His godhead that those closest to Him were privileged to see.  His disciples saw the dead raised and the lame dance and the deaf hear and the blind see, and three of them saw Christ in his heavenly glory, shining like the sun.

All this we know from Scripture, but we forget over and over again to apply it to the reality of our lives.  We are angry at the traffic, frustrated with our loved ones, tired of the humid weather, weary at work, and a hundred other things.  Yet, God continually shines through His creation with an unspeakable beauty, and He reminds us that it was not beneath Him to come and share the ordinariness of our lives.  Indeed, He breathes upon that ordinariness, and it blossoms into “joy unspeakable and full of glory.”

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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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An Exercise in Irony

I have been plugging away at teaching composition courses this summer, and I am now on the second week of a course in research and argumentation.   For the class I am currently teaching, the topic is technology, and how it is transforming the world around us.  We kicked off the course last week by viewing the PBS special, Digital_Nation.

What we know for certain is that technology is not just changing what we think about (everything from instant news to an explosion of pornography), it is also changing how we think.  We are becoming more visual and more vocal now that anyone with a computer has a tool of mass communication.   We have also rapidly adapted to getting information in bits and bytes.  With more information to think about, we have ever less time to think deeply.

What we don’t know for certain is how exactly this is going to change us as a society.  The Jasmine Revolution suggests that the internet has the power to transform political realities in the same way that Gutenberg’s printing press facilitated the Protestant Reformation.  Among the potentially positive effects is that political apathy will decline as young people recognize the empowerment technology offers when it is used wisely.

Digital_Nation also exposes what the producers might consider the darker side of technology — video game addiction, for example, or sexting.  Yet I can’t help thinking that these are not so much the darker side of technology, as they are new expressions of the darker side of human nature.   There is the tendency to construct fantasies for ourselves and to cling to them desperately,  and the pride that wants to define and enlarge ourselves as individuals at the expense  of community.  Above all else, there is the repeated denial of dependence – the insistence that we are completely in control even when we are not.

The most striking example of this in Digital_Nation was the discussion of multitasking that came at the beginning of the program.  The interviewers asked students at MIT how good they were at multitasking.  Everyone insisted that they were effective multitaskers, and most students expressed indignation at the refusal of professors to recognize that they were perfectly capable of performing tasks online while taking in lectures.  Yet, the brain scans performed by scientists offered undeniable proof that multitasking doesn’t work.  The brain is  not designed to do more than one thing at a time.  We have plenty of devices designed to boost our productivity, but the more we use them, the less productive we become.

The problem with discussing how technology changes us is that we are so immersed in it on a daily basis that we find it hard to step back and think about how our relationships have changed since they became digital, or how our work changed when we began to work with word processors instead of pens and notebooks. Even this discussion, an online post rather than a conversation around a dinner table, is an exercise in irony.  Still, I think that there are two things I can take away from Digital_Nation.

The first is to never take for granted my mastery over the tools I use.  The repeated insistence of tech users that they were in complete control even when they were obviously not begs a reference to Psalm 19:12, “How can I know all the sins lurking in my heart? Cleanse me from these hidden faults” (NLT).  Perhaps, we will be wiser in our use of technology if we pay attention to the feedback of others around us.  (Such as when my mother sarcastically refers to my laptop as “Anne’s beloved.”)  Or, perhaps, we might look to lesson two.

Lesson two is to recognize that our one-task-at-a-time brains are the invention of an all-wise God.  Rather than seeing our inability to multitask as a limitation, we should be grateful that God has given it to us as a safety net.  We are told by Jesus that our words and actions have deep roots in the thought life (Mt. 12:34).  We are also commanded in Scripture to meditate on God’s Word (see Psalms 1, 19, and 119).  God has designed us to make Him the single focus of our lives.  If we meditate on Scripture and interact with Him more persistently than we IM the people on our buddy list (I Thess. 5:17), we are going to have victory over the things that distract us spiritually and destroy our fruitfulness.  Why?  Because we can’t multitask spiritually.  A mind that is turned toward God can’t be turned toward sin and addiction at the same time.  God has made it physically impossible.  He has wired us for success if we only embrace the spiritual discipline of God-centeredness.

This is why Paul characterizes victory over sin as “taking captive every thought to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5) and the “renewing of the mind” (Rom. 12:2).  Technology has no power to overthrow the God-centered mind.  Rather, those who obey the first commandment to love God with all their minds are in a position to take technology captive to the eternal purposes of God’s kingdom, and that’s something worth plugging into.

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Going Hence

The evening before last, a precious saint of our church went home to be with the Lord.  She was what I like to call (from the song of Deborah) “a Mother in Israel” – one of those women who lead in every congregation by their wisdom and tireless example.  It doesn’t matter if your denomination ordains women or not, every congregation that’s worth anything has its Mothers in Israel.  They are the beating heart of the church family.  Agnes was just such a one.  A promoter of missions, an esteemed Sunday School teacher, and a bundle of life and energy even into her 92nd year.

I have watched with increasing sorrow, the departure of one after another of the older members of our church.  I have been reminded with each and every obituary of the words of John Donne, “Every man’s death diminishes me.”  When members of our community pass away, they take their experiences, memories and skills with them.  It is right that strangers should pause for funeral processions.  The whole community loses something with every departure.  Every grave of someone I know (including that of my own father) has become to me so much buried treasure hidden away from the world.  It would not be true at all to say that we no longer feel the benefits of those lives.  Their impact is all around us.  Rather, we feel the absence of what they could be doing among us now.

A certain fatalism tells us that, since it happens in nature, death must be natural.  Everyone dies, an inevitability so undeniable that Shakespeare makes it an imperative:  “Man must endure his going hence.”  But there is nothing that nature abhors more than death.  Nature is continuously regenerating, continuously bringing forth life, continuously struggling against the predator that stalks us.  You can say all you want to about the survival of the fittest, but even the weakest straggler in the herd runs from a lion.  There is something in all of us that longs for continued existence.  Solomon would say that it was “eternity in our hearts.”

If we feel hostility toward death, that agent of separation, and call it our enemy, we can know that we are in good company.   The Apostle Paul said, “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.”  When he tells us in I Thessalonians that we do not sorrow as those without hope, this is what he means.  When we see a life end in death, we are tempted to think that death is the last thing.  In reality, it is only the last thing to be destroyed.  Death shall die (to borrow more words from Donne), and then there will be no more death for anyone.  Revelation 21 tells us that God will cast both death and hell into the Lake of Fire.  He will throw them away, and seal the door of their prison forever.

My heart literally leaps up with joy as I write these words.  Christ did not just lie down on a cross and die.  He was raised up on it, and He caught Death in such a grip as a champion wrestler might use to hold his opponent.  He commended His soul to the Father and dragged Death down into hell with him.  And when He emerged from the grave again, He held authority both over the prison-house of the dead and over that old Jailer, Death, who had once had such power over the children of men.

He speaks to us today in the same words He used long ago to comfort a lonely, old man exiled on Patmos:  “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one.  I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.”
And we answer our Champion in words that Paul taught us to say, “O death, where is thy sting?  O grave, where is thy victory?  The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law.  But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

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