Good thing Jesus isn’t afraid of dirt

In 2013, a record 2 million people visited Bethlehem. It was estimated that there were 75,000 tourists in the Holy Land for the Christmas holiday, and most of them were expected to celebrate Jesus’s birthday in the city where he was born.

Yet a survey taken several years ago listed Bethlehem as the world’s third most disappointing tourist destination, just beating out the Polo Lounge in Hollywood and the Monte Carlo casino in Monaco. Why is it that people find Bethlehem disappointing?

It might be that tourists come with unrealistic expectations. They come, expecting to see something holy or even magical. They find themselves looking for a strange light in the sky and expecting a thrill down the spine, as they reminisce about the silent night that changed the world. That’s what they come looking for, but that’s probably not what they find.

What they find is a noisy town, crowded with pilgrims and secured by armed soldiers. Before they can enter they must pass through a checkpoint, show their passports, and walk through a metal detector. They flock to Bethlehem’s most important site: the Church of the Nativity. But it’s smaller than they expected and divided into Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox sections. Apparently these followers of the Prince of Peace can’t get along with each other.

If tourists find Bethlehem disappointing now, one wonders what ancient travelers must have thought – because the place doesn’t seem to have been all that great when Mary and Joseph were there either. The biblical text suggests it was overcrowded, inhospitable, and (remember the stable) dirty. If Joseph and Mary had submitted a review to TripAdvisor, Bethlehem would have been lucky to get two green dots, and that would only have been because they were generous.

So people are disappointed in spite of Bethlehem’s close connection to Christmas. Or are they disappointed because of it? Christmas is, after all, the most disappointing of the holidays. We expect gifts, we get debt. We want excitement, we get stress. We pray for peace on earth but we get crowds at Walmart. We hope this year’s Christmas gatherings will be characterized by “good will among men,” but once again we get ill will among co-workers and family members.

Could it be that Christmas lets us down because we are looking for the wrong things? I once spent eight days in a remote spot in the Ontario wilderness, a hundred miles north of where the road ends. I went outside almost every night, hoping to see the northern lights as I had seen them once before, full of fire and color. They weren’t there and I was disappointed, even though the sky was magnificent, filled with stars that burned white hot and lit up the night. Because I was expecting one thing, I almost missed another.

Something similar happens at Christmas. We expect Hollywood and miss holiness. We expect presents and ignore God’s presence. We look for gifts but overlook the Gift that came wrapped in human flesh.

Matt Kooi, the Director of Spectrum Ministries in Tijuana, Mexico, once pointed out to me that even if Bethlehem is a disappointment to some tourists, it was the perfect place for Jesus to be born. True, the place was no great shakes when he arrived there, but then, neither were our lives. If dirty, crowded and inhospitable Bethlehem could provide a place for the King of kings to be born, cannot our lives, covered with dirt and crowded with cares and distractions, provide a place for the King of Kings to live?

It’s a good thing Jesus isn’t afraid of dirt.

So why do people keep going back to Bethlehem? What makes that little town a place that people the world over dream of visiting? It’s not its splendor or beauty, nor its great hotels or attractions. For two thousand years its one great attraction has been a person. He gives Bethlehem its meaning, its special beauty. He does the same for our lives.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 12/13/2015

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Are you infected with “solution aversion”?

Duke University psychologists Troy Campbell and Aaron Kay recently published a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that suggests that a person’s deeply held beliefs may alter the way he or she interprets reality.

When Campbell and Kay suggested relatively easy fixes to problems caused by climate change to conservative Republicans, they were likely to agree that global temperatures are rising. But when the proposed solutions involved governmental regulations or threatened the health of the economy, the conservatives were much more likely to deny global warming entirely.

Likewise, when liberal Democrats were presented evidence suggesting that gun ownership reduced the likelihood of violent home invasions, they became much more likely to deny that violent home invasions pose a significant problem. Campbell summarized the study’s findings this way: “If you don’t want the solution to happen, then you deny the problem exists.” Campbell and Kay refer to this phenomenon as “solution aversion.”

In The Week, William Falk references the Duke study and bemoans our inability to reason “coolly and rationally, on the basis of evidence.” Instead, he says, “…virtually all of us … reason backward to the conclusion that feels right because it buttresses what we already believe.”

The Duke study’s results are not surprising (most of us could have anticipated them), but they are a helpful. They remind us of the extraordinary importance of responding “coolly and rationally, and on the basis of evidence.” They also remind us to be honest with ourselves, to question our reasoning, and to be alert to the covert prejudices that live inside us.

I was a spectator recently to a lively discussion on an issue of biblical interpretation. The parties involved held opposing views. One of the disputants offered biblical support for a conclusion the other rejected. When he asked her why she rejected it, her answer was: “Because that’s not what the Bible says.”

It was clear that both debaters had skin in the game. They each felt that the other’s views threatened some important theological principal. As a spectator (rather than a debater) it was obvious to me that at least one of the disputants was reasoning backward from the conclusion that felt right.

The Duke study, coupled with anecdotal evidence like this, sheds light on recent research from the Canadian Bible Society that indicates the mere reading of Scripture does not contribute to spiritual health and growth. The reason, in light of the Duke study, seems clear: unless we are careful, what we see in the Bible will only reinforce conclusions we’ve already drawn.

The biblical writers themselves were aware of how this process works. The Apostle John quotes Jesus who, in the midst of a tense debate with religious leaders, tells them: “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! Yet you refuse to come to me…” The religious leaders’ study of the Bible only reinforced a conclusion they already held and left them blind to the possibility of any other.

Fortunately, the Canadian Bible Society study went on to state that people who spend ten minutes a day (at least three days a week) reflecting on what they’ve read in the Bible benefit significantly. Those who talk with other people about what they’ve read benefit even more. Careful reflection and open discussion seem to minimize the impact of solution aversion and enable the reader to thoughtfully apply biblical truths to life.

Lest the reader concludes that solution aversion only affects (infects) religious people, let him or her remember that the Duke study was carried out with Democrats and Republicans, not Catholics and Protestants. The irreligious person has deeply-held beliefs too, a lifestyle to protect, and a solution offered – a life of faith and obedience – that he or she might wish to avert.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 12/6/2014

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What is it I’m not getting about Ferguson?

After months of deliberations and thousands of pages of evidence, the St. Louis County grand jury decided not to bring charges against Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown. Officer Wilson is white. Mr. Brown was black.

The jury, comprised of nine whites and three blacks, sifted through the evidence – 60 witnesses, 70 hours of testimony and a mountain of documents – and found much of it to be contradictory. Some witnesses clearly manufactured their stories, presumably to force a trial or to prevent one. Others presented radically different interpretations of established facts.

Reading about the incident, it seems clear to me that the grand jury could not have come to any other decision. But when most African-Americans (62 percent) read about the shooting of Michael Brown, they believe the case should have gone to trial. So what do they see that I do not see? What is it I’m not getting about Ferguson?

Just about everything, or at least that is what I suspect a Ferguson protestor might say. Can a middle-aged white guy, living in a largely white, rural community, think about the Michael Brown shooting in the same way a black American thinks about it? Probably not.

For one thing, many white Americans think of this case as an isolated incident that occurred one August afternoon on a Ferguson, Missouri street. But black Americans do not see it as an isolated incident. They see it as part of a disturbing pattern.

The Michael Brown shooting is like one of those Magic Eye pictures: stare at it long enough and an underlying image will emerge – to some people’s eyes, but not to all. Many whites, I suspect, have trouble seeing that image. But when many black people stare at Ferguson, the hidden picture takes shape, and it’s not pretty.

These are some of the images that materialize in the background of Ferguson: the shooting by police of a young man in a Walmart store, when he picked up an air rifle that was for sale. The death of a 12-year-old boy with an airsoft gun, shot by Cleveland police. The tragic death of a 93-year-old Texas woman, killed by police as she waved a real gun in the air. These incidents, and others like them, have occurred in just the past few months. It’s the picture behind the picture, the one middle-aged white guys like me have trouble seeing.

That picture is framed by facts like these: White Americans are more than twice as likely to use marijuana as blacks, yet eight times as many blacks are arrested for possession. Blacks are sentenced to as much time behind bars for a drug offense as whites are for a violent crime. One in three black Americans will spend time in prison, compared to one in seventeen whites. It’s helpful to realize that the anger that erupted in Ferguson was not just about Ferguson.

When I was in college in the seventies, I thought that racial prejudice, and with it racial distancing, was diminishing. When President Obama was elected, not once but twice, it seemed that white America and black America were at last converging into one America. That seems less likely now. I fear the distance between Americans of different races and ethnicities is growing.

There are social, political and economic reasons for this – some of which originate within the black community itself. There are many reasons, but not many solutions. If a solution is to be found, I suspect, it will be found in the Christian, and particularly the evangelical, Church.

Why? Because black and white evangelicals are numerous (a whopping 62 percent of blacks describe themselves as “born again”), and share deeply held and powerfully unifying beliefs. Those beliefs once brought unity to Jews and Gentiles, who were even more divided than America’s blacks and whites. Christ was then able to break “down the wall of hostility” and create “in himself one new people from the two groups.”

If he did it once, he can do it again. But he will not do it for us. He will only do it with us.

 

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 11/28/2014

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He’s not the person I thought he was

“He’s not the person I thought he was when we got married.”

Most pastors and counselors have heard that line from people in marital crisis. They usually mean the person they married is not as good, as kind or as much fun as they thought he’d be. They say things like, “We used to talk for hours. Now I can hardly get a word out of him.” Or, “When we first got married, he would do things for me before I asked. Now when I talk he doesn’t even listen. If I ask him to do something, he acts like he’s been sentenced to hard labor.”

There’s a lot that people don’t know about each other on their wedding day. Marriage is an act of faith. That faith is based on true insight into the other person, but insight is hardly the same thing as understanding. There will be many surprises for couples as their life together continues. Hence the line, “He’s not the person I thought he was when we got married.”

Just once, I would like someone to come into my office and say, “He’s not the person I thought he was when we got married—he’s way better! He’s smarter, funnier and wiser than I realized. I had no idea how much I would enjoy being with him.”

No one has yet come to my office to tell me that. But then it’s rare for us to hear of anyone outperforming expectations, except in the sports arena: “He went undrafted and joined as a walk-on, but he has brought more to this team than anyone expected.”

Still, as a pastor, I’d love to hear someone say that about a spouse. Yet I’d be even more pleased to hear it said about God: “He’s not who I thought he was when I first believed—he’s way better than that!”

When people give their lives to God, as when they give their lives to each other, they are acting in faith. Though they may have real insight into the benefits of faith, they still have a lot to learn about the character of God. They come to God thinking it will do them good. It’s only later they discover that God is good.

That was certainly the case for me, and for others I have known. When I first came to faith – or when faith (barely the size of a mustard seed) first came to me – I knew almost nothing about God. I got that he made everything, including me, and was therefore the one in charge. I understood that he was a judge – and maybe a policeman too. But I had no idea what he was like.

It’s been a long journey since then, and I’ve learned a lot about God. For one thing, I discovered that God is happy – the most joyful being in all the universe. Creation itself is an expression of his joy. God is never frightened, lonely or bored. “Great tidal waves of joy must constantly wash through his being,” as one writer put it. And he doesn’t keep his joy to himself. He invites humans to join him: “Enter into the joy of your master!”

I also discovered that God loves us. Really loves us. I knew that in my head, but it took years (I was already in pastoral ministry) to learn it in my heart. God loves us as a father loves a child – not half-heartedly or disinterestedly – but passionately. He carries our picture in his wallet, as Tony Campolo likes to say. We don’t have to earn his love, any more than a newborn baby has to earn his mother’s love. He loves us not because we deserve it, but because he is love.

God values relationships – so much so that he lives in an eternal, three-personed relationship – and he desires a relationship with us. I used to think of that as if it were a business relationship: God is the boss, we’re the employees and the chief thing is to get work done. But God, I’ve learned, is far more interested in what we become than he is in what we accomplish.

With this business model in mind, it was only natural to think that success in the Christian life could be measured by keeping rules. But God gave us rules to serve the relationship, not replace it. He doesn’t measures success by the rules we keep but by the people – himself included – that we love.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 11/22/2014

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Breathe the fresh air of eternity

People are creatures of habit. I, for example, drink three-and-a-half cups of regular coffee a day. I drink one cup when I get up, one around ten o’clock, one after lunch, and a half-caf around mid-afternoon.

I wake up at the same time, according to the day of the week. After I pour a cup of coffee, I go into my study and close the door. I read Scripture and meditate and pray. I then walk two miles with my wife (except on Tuesdays), and then eat oatmeal for breakfast – blueberries every other day, apple, raisins and cranberries on the day in between.

On Friday mornings I leave my house within a minute or two of 6:17. I usually see no other cars on our country road. When I reach the main north-south road, I turn left and almost always reach the speed limit in front of the same house. I usually have not encountered any cars by then, though looking a half-mile down the road I see a school bus approaching.

On a recent morning I left the house at least a minute later than usual. As I drove down our country road I saw a car approaching with its bright lights on. When I came to the main north-south road, I had to wait for four cars to pass before I could slip in, the fifth of a six-car train.

I wondered where all the people had come from. There were more cars on the roads than I see in a month of Fridays. The bus that I usually meet just south of the business loop was missing, apparently having already passed. Did a minute or two really make such a difference?

If I were to leave a minute or two later every Friday morning, would I meet many of the same cars in the same places and have to wait at the same stop sign? I suspect I would. People are creatures of habit. But a slight change of perspective – in this case a temporal change of perspective – can bring a different world into view.

As I drove on it occurred to me that humans are fettered by time. We are as confined as any prison inmate, only our confinement is temporal rather than spatial. We are in temporal lockdown, incarcerated in the present. To us the past is fixed – we cannot reenter it or change it – and the future is inaccessible. So we live out our days imprisoned in the moment.

God’s experience of time is like ours in some ways, but differs dramatically in others. Like us, he does not live in the past or in the future, but in the present. But unlike us, his present includes all of time – past and future – simultaneously. What we call past and future are part of his present experience. He can walk through time the way I walk through the rooms of my house.

When theologians say that God is eternal, they have something more than his perpetual existence in mind. They mean that every moment of time, past and future, is always immediately present to God. He is the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end, who “announces the end from the beginning” and is present “with the first of them and with the last.”

Because life comes to us in a succession of moments, we are often surprised by things that happen. God never is. Though Scripture states that he can be grieved, he can never be surprised. His expectations are never undermined. Whereas we see life in snapshots, he sees it in panorama. He knows what’s coming.

The upshot for the Christian (or the person contemplating Christianity) is this: We are in lockdown, imprisoned in the narrow confines of the present, but we have a wise and trusted friend on the outside. He sees what’s going on and, in the light of what he sees, can tell us what to do. We cannot see what he sees, but we can choose to trust him and do what he says.

But that’s not all. The rumor is going around through the pages of Scripture and in the talk of his people that someday we will be let out of our temporal prison to breathe the fresh air of eternity. It is a reality beyond our comprehension, but not our hope.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 11/15/2014

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A shadow in the shade

People often say, ‘I never forget a face.” I think there is something wrong with me. I never remember one. Well, “never” is an exaggeration. But I’m pretty sure my “facial recognition software” is faulty.

I can recognize a picture of a person forever, but if someone gets a haircut or puts on five pounds or starts wearing glasses, I might walk right by that person without realizing I know him or her. My brain fails to extrapolate from known features to current identity. But if I hear the person speak, I’ll probably recognize him or her; my “voice recognition software” is excellent.

This is an embarrassing condition for anyone, but especially for someone who does what I do. People expect their pastor to know them, even if they rarely make it to church, but I can walk by someone with whom I have been acquainted for years and fail to recognize him.

People also expect God to know them, even if they fail to make it to church or talk to him very often. But the Bible presents the frightening prospect that God may not recognize some people. C. S. Lewis reminds us that “we are warned that it may happen to anyone of us to appear at last before the face of God and hear only the appalling words, ‘I never knew you. Depart from Me.’”

When St. Paul writes that “Whoever loves God is known by God” he raises the alarming possibility that people who do not love God may not be known by him. A similar thought interrupts the same apostle as he writes to the Galatian Church: “But now that you know God—or rather are known by God …”

It’s as if the apostle is afraid of overstating the knowledge that humans, who at best “see through a glass darkly,” have of God. Safer to speak of God knowing us. He “knows a word before it is on my tongue,” said the psalmist. The prophet added, “You know me, O LORD; you see me and test my thoughts.” God, according to Professor William J. Mander, “knows me better than I know myself … God knows the true me; the person I really am.”

That God knows us—really knows us—is a claim made repeatedly by biblical writers. He “searches the heart and examines the mind.” He probes “the heart and the mind.” He sees beyond appearances and false fronts to the reality that lies beneath. On page after page, the Bible affirms that God knows us like no one else, even ourselves.

A person is like a deep mine. His friends know only the surface terrain and the entrance. He himself knows only the main shafts. God alone knows the treasures—or horrors—that lie in the depths. We may find his knowledge of us a comfort or a terror. Either way, he knows us.

So what are we to make of the idea, introduced by Jesus himself, that a person might be unknown to God? How is it that, in Lewis’s words, “we can be both banished from the Presence of Him who is present everywhere and erased from the knowledge of Him who knows all”? Could God’s “facial recognition software” be faulty?

The biblical writers would answer that question with a resounding no. Nothing can exist apart from God’s knowledge. To be unknown by God is to lack any kind of existence worthy of the name. It is to be a negation, a nullification, an impossibility. It is to be a shadow in the shade—or to use biblical language, an outcast in the outer darkness.

To be unknown by God is to be a potentiality never realized, an idea never thought, a song never sung. To be unknown by the one who knows everything is to be nothing. To be banished from the presence of the omnipresent one is “everlasting destruction…shut out from the presence of the Lord.” It is an unthinkable thought, an impossible possibility; it is hell.

But to be known by God is to be a potentiality fully realized, an idea thought and shared and brought to fruition; it is to be a child of God. To know God—limited though our knowledge be—and be known by him is nothing less than eternal life.

 

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 11/8/14

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No-oh-oh, it’s not magic

A Kansas City Royals fan puts his lucky hat on the couch, five minutes before the first pitch – and it must be facing south. Another drinks only one kind of beer on game days. Still another watches a different sport – say, soccer – rather than the game, to avoid jinxing his team.

Magical thinking can be seen across cultures, in remote tribal groups as well as in highly developed western societies. We’d like to think that we Americans haven’t fallen under the spell, but the World Series proves otherwise.

But magical thinking does not end when the last pitch is thrown, nor is it limited to the ball park. Much of what passes as religious observation exhibits a connection to magical thinking. Of course that charge has been made before and made often by critics of religious faith, but I am making it as a practicing Christian.

Critics see religion as the evolutionary heir of magical thinking. The ancients tried to control their destiny by participating in sacrifices and magical rites and by paying careful attention to omens. A shooting star was a sign that it was time to move. Twelve white swans foretold the safe conclusion of a journey. Such practices, they say, were precursors to fingering beads and lighting candles.

I do not know enough about other religions to speak authoritatively about them (and do not presume to speak authoritatively on behalf of other Christians, either) but it seems to me that, when it comes to Christianity, the critics are mistaken. It would be easier to make the case that magic’s heir is not religion (at least not Judaism or Christianity) but science.

Science? Yes. One of the objectives of the modern scientific enterprise is to exercise control over our circumstances. Magicians used potions and spells to this end, while science attempts to do the same thing with molecular engineering and equations. Science is of course much better at achieving its objectives (for which we are truly grateful), but the goal of manipulating reality through the application of a set of currently held principles is very similar.

Magic and (to some degree) science are about control. Christianity is about submission. The Christian, following Jesus, says, “Not my will, but yours be done.” But the scientist, following the magician, says, “No, I think I’d rather my will be done.”

This is not to say that Christians are free of magical thinking. Frankly, they engage in it every time they treat prayer like an incantation – say the right words in the right order and in the right tone, and you’ll get what you ask for. But the point is, when Christians do so, they are not acting like Christians. They’re acting like pagans.

Some Christians treat the Bible as if it were a magic book, looking for secret codes or hidden meanings. Even their approach to the Bible betrays a magical mindset: “I will close my eyes, open the book randomly, put my finger on a verse, and whatever it says will be God’s will for me.” Can God use this silliness? Sure. He’s God. But it is still magical thinking.

The magical approach to religion betrays a serious misunderstanding of the way things work, the way God works, and the meaning of Christian faith. The Bible teaches that the power that is at work in a Christian’s life is personal power. It does not reside in the words spoken or the ritual performed, but in a personal God. This God wants to communicate with his creatures. He’s not playing trick or treat. He does not hide his message in esoteric symbols or secret codes. It is not magic.

It is with good reason that the Jewish and Christian scriptures strongly prohibit the practice of magic. It is totally inconsistent with the submission to God and love for others that constitutes the good life. The people who lived this kind of life – Moses, Jesus, Peter, Paul, and a host of others who followed them – had nothing to do with superstition or magic. They operated out of faith in a personal God on the basis of his word to them.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 11/1/14

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