It’s funny how quickly things change. A few weeks ago, the Middle Eastern peoples flooding into Europe were refugees. They were unfortunates, driven from their homes and families by the horrors of war and persecution. A few weeks ago they were Christians, Yazidis, and Shia Muslims. They were scared and cold and exhausted. They were babies and children. And their plight was heartbreaking.

But the ISIS attacks in Paris changed our nomenclature, and that changed our thinking. The immigrants were no longer refugees. They were potential terrorists. Their circumstances no longer broke our hearts. They threatened our way of life. And we stopped seeing them as persecuted Christians, Yazidis, and Muslims and started seeing them as death-dealing radicals.

Since Paris, the national debate over how to respond to the refugee crisis has become a debate about how to protect ourselves. There is a danger that we will allow our fear to drive us to act and speak in ways that are un-American. Are we, as a nation, really going to say, “Don’t give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”?

Worse yet, from my perspective, fear may drive us to act and speak in ways that are un-Christian. Making choices based on fear is simply not a Christian thing to do. St. Peter writes, “But even if you suffer for doing what is right, God will reward you for it. So don’t worry or be afraid of their threats. Instead, you must worship Christ as Lord of your life.” Christians are called to act as representatives of Christ, even at the cost of personal safety and comfort.

Christians have a long history of risking their own safety to care for those in need. In the third century, at the height of Christian persecution, a terrifying plague swept across the Roman Empire. It has been estimated that 5,000 people a day were dying in Rome, including Christians. But Christians alone had the courage to care for the plague victims, including their persecutors.

This scenario has been reenacted many times. Only Christians were courageous enough to bury the dead during the Black Plague. At the height of the AIDS crisis, it was Christians who led the way in providing care. The same is true of the recent Ebola crisis. Now, in the current refugee crisis, Christians should be leading the way rather than backing away in fear. It is in situations like these that Christians repeatedly demonstrate the truth of the gospel they proclaim.

One young Middle Eastern family fled when they got word that the authorities were sending sword-wielding militants to their village. They took what possessions they could carry, left the rest, and abandoned their home in the middle of the night. Their terrifying escape soon became an exhausting journey. Their child was too young to keep up, so his parents had to take turns carrying him. They were hungry, weary and frightened.

They crossed rugged mountains and treacherous terrain. Warm days were followed by dangerously cold nights. The country to which they traveled did not welcome foreigners gladly. In fact, they looked down on them as inferiors and spoke about them in derogatory terms. The young family would have preferred to stay in their own country, had they been able. But they knew that staying would mean certain death.

The story of this young family is well-documented. You already know it. Their escape was not from war-torn Iraq or Syria, nor were they heading for Europe, nor were they were being terrorized by ISIS. Their journey began in Bethlehem, they were heading for Egypt, and they were being terrorized by an illegitimate ruler known as Herod the Great.

Jesus and his family were frightened refugees, who fled for their lives, just as many Syrian Christians and Muslims are doing today. If we turn our backs on these refugees now because they pose a threat to our security, how are we any different from the people who refused to receive Jesus and his family then?

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 11/21/2015.

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How to debug the programming

Back in the days of DOS, my first personal computer was giving me problems. It would sometimes fail to boot up from its “massive” 40 megabyte hard drive. I’d push the power button repeatedly until it finally started. When I shut it down, I never knew if it would start again.

So when my computer genius brother-in-law was at our home, I asked him to look at it. He got into the root directory and changed the autoexec.bat file while I watched. The computer performed better … for a while.

When I began having trouble again, I got into the root directory and altered the autoexec.bat file myself. I kept doing this each time there were problems, until a real computer guy pointed his finger at me and said ruthlessly, “Don’t ever do that again!” Nowadays, critical subroutines are placed in “Hidden Files,” where dolts like me can’t get to them.

A computer behaves the way it does because of a myriad of commands buried in tens of thousands of files hidden in its operating system. In just one key folder of the computer that I’m using right now there are almost 4,000 files, containing countless data. There are 20 other sub-folders in the Windows folder, with approximately twenty thousand additional files. And these folders do not even include the program files the computer needs to do work.

It is often asked whether computers have the potential to develop human-like intelligence. Science fiction writers usually say yes, scientists and philosophers usually say no. According to Ryan Whitwam of ExtremeTech, researchers have recently managed to simulate one second of human brain activity in a computer. Whitwam writes, “It took 40 minutes with the combined muscle of 82,944 processors … to get just 1 second of biological brain processing time.” Of course biological processing time is a million miles away from human consciousness.

There are all kinds of differences between a human being and a computer, but there is an important similarity: each operates from stored and often hidden information. Humans, like computers, are programmed. Some of that programming is from nature and some is from nurture, just as some of a computer’s programming is contained in the operating system (nature) and some in the program files (nurture). Of course human programming is unimaginably more extensive and complicated than that of a computer.

When later programming causes conflicts with original programming, things go wrong. A computer might crash. So might a person. A computer might produce nonsense. So might a person. A computer’s performance, like a person’s, might slowly deteriorate.

Christians (among many others) think that humans were made and programmed by a Creator. They do not believe that humanity came into existence through blind processes, not even over the space of millions of years. They believe in a Programmer. And further, they think that the original programming has been written over, causing humanity much suffering.

This explains why the world is full of injustice, hatred and violence. Our programming has been altered. Even seemingly innocuous changes can have catastrophic results, as I learned when I rewrote the autoexec.bat file on my old computer.

Can the damage to earth and humanity be undone? Christians believe it can, one human at a time. A person meets God through Jesus Christ, asks and receives forgiveness for the mess she’s made of things, and allows God to make corrections. In biblical parlance, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

Often people have no idea why things have gone so wrong. They just know that life is running poorly and sometimes crashes. They live in conflict with their own programming and with just about everything else. The good news is that they can bring the whole mess to the original Programmer, and ask him to debug the programming and do whatever else is needed.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 11/14/2015

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Playing pinball with a new Lincoln

It is often said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. It seems to me that is not so much a definition of insanity as it is a description of humanity.

As a local church pastor, I’ve seen it more times than I can count, and done it more times than I care to admit. I’ve seen married couples have the same argument over and over, make the same points (only louder), and expect it to turn out differently than it did last time.

Seeing addicts go through a repeating cycle of choices and consequences feels like “déjà vu all over again.” They end up slogging through the same relational and occupational morass they’ve been caught in countless times before. The people that love them then go through the steps of a ritual dance they know by heart. It’s a dance of rescue, then anger, then alienation. But nothing ever changes.

Young couples who were sacrificed on the altar of the American Dream by parents they’ve never forgiven start worshiping at the same altar in their twenties and sacrificing their own children by their thirties. Their children don’t forgive them either, but just give them twenty years and they’ll be bowing at that same altar, their children bound for sacrifice.

The Apostle Paul, one of history’s most influential people, saw this kind of repetitive failure in others and in himself. He wrote, “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.”

I was once in a fishing camp in northwestern Ontario, lying on my bed reading, late at night, when I heard a loud thud. I paused for a moment, then went on reading. Perhaps thirty seconds later I heard another loud thud. I got up and peered out the window.

In the darkness I could make out a black Lincoln. Its driver had hit one tree with his front bumper, then backed into a stump. I watched as he pulled forward and hit the same tree he’d hit before, then backed again into the same stump. It looked like he was playing pinball with a new Lincoln.

I threw some clothes on and went out to help. He was standing next to his car, surveying the territory, wondering (in his very inebriated state) why the trees were attacking him. I asked where his cabin was (it was nowhere near) and offered to drive him to it. When he saw me the next day at the lodge, he looked at me doubtfully and said, “Are you the guy…?”

Sometimes when I see people now, doing the same thing over and over and yet expecting a different result, I feel like I’m watching my hapless friend in the Lincoln. He was doing the best he could in his impaired condition, but his best was never going to get him where he wanted to go. He needed help from the outside.

Christian teaching says the same about all of us. We are impaired by sin and, try as we may, we cannot reach our destination, which is a life of mutual love with God and people. We’ll never get there, doing what we’re doing, but we keep doing it anyway. We get back in our Lincoln and drive smack-dab into the same old tree. We need help from the outside.

The biblical writers operate from the assumption that humanity is stuck and cannot get free. “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil.” We’ve fallen and can’t get up. We’re stuck and can’t get out.

This discouraging analysis is thoroughly, but not comprehensively, biblical. There is, thankfully, more to the story. The good news is that God does not expect us to pick ourselves up by our bootstraps, nor is he content to watch us run endlessly into the same obstacles. The Bible tells us that help from the outside has arrived in the person of Jesus. It is, however, still up to us whether we’ll let him in, give him the keys, and allow him to lead us where we need to go.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 11/7/2015

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Without this, Christianity ceases to be Christian

Some religions are impossible to imagine apart from their founders. Can anyone picture Islam without Muhammed, or the Latter Day Saints without Joseph Smith, or Scientology without L. Ron Hubbard?

In other religions the human founder is historically important but not indispensable. Taoism, Confucianism and even Judaism fit this description. In still other religions, there is no founder, or the founder is unknown. Hinduism, with its million gods, comes readily to mind.

Christianity clearly falls into the first category and is, in this sense, like Islam. One cannot conceive of a Christianity without a Christ. But Christianity is also different in this: a Muslim believes that the world and the principles by which it operates would have remained generally the same whether Muhammed ever taught about them or not. But a Christian believes that Jesus changed the world and the very principles by which it operates.

Like every spiritual leader, Jesus taught about God, about how the world operates and about how people can thrive in it. In that regard, he was like other great teachers, like the Buddha or the gurus of Sikhism. Jesus taught these things and taught them brilliantly.

But unlike Buddhism or Sikhism – or for that matter, Judaism or Taoism or many other religious constructs – Christianity stands or falls with its founder. If historians could prove that Gautama never existed, Buddhism’s “Four Noble Truths” and “Eightfold Path” would continue on. But if historians could prove that Jesus never existed, Christianity would immediately collapse. Buddhists believe that the Gautama Buddha saw and taught about the eternal reality behind the visible world. Christians believe that Jesus transformed that reality.

To argue that Christian denominations and churches would continue on doing good works and holding religious services even without a real Jesus, is to make the accusation that denominations and churches are not really Christian. Christianity is not a state of mind (though it influences one’s state of mind). It is not a belief system (though it requires belief). Christianity is a relationship to the Christ: a relationship of the led to the leader, of the saved to the savior. Apart from this shared relationship, Christianity ceases to be Christian.

So what makes Jesus so different? Where does one start? His first hearers repeatedly noted the difference between Jesus and other religious teachers. They said that he taught like someone with inside information; like someone with authority.

As is true with many charismatic religious leaders, miracles were attributed to Jesus. But Jesus’s miracles were revelatory. They were “signs,” as the Apostle John insists on calling them. They pointed to God and related important information about him.

Jesus didn’t merely point people to God; he took them to God. This is how he put it: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” This claim has been tried and attested by Jesus’s followers since the beginning. St. Peter writes that Christ died to “bring you to God” and St. Paul says that people have access to God through him.

Christianity is more than a way to live; it is a life. The biblical writers, the Church Fathers, and leaders and saints through the ages have claimed that through Jesus, God gives people a kind of life they could not otherwise experience. This life – referred to as “the life” and “eternal life” – is made available through the extraordinary gift of “the Spirit of life.”

People have found Jesus to be both down to earth (common folks have always loved him) and out of this world (he himself said, “I have come down from heaven”). His followers have labored to explain this in long and complicated, sometimes helpful and sometimes unhelpful, theological expositions, but no one can satisfactorily explain Jesus. They can, however, encounter him. And that, perhaps more than anything, is what sets him apart.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 10/31/2015

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How does a church measure success?

The other day my wife accused me of harboring a secret desire to be a race car driver. We were on vacation in Tennessee, hiking state parks and national recreation areas. Getting to those places sometimes meant driving serpentine roads, skirting drop-offs and climbing mountains, and she thought (her estimation, not mine) I drove too fast.

On our way to Tennessee, we went through Kentucky and stopped at the farm where my mother was born. It was so far back in the hills that it had no road frontage, but I found the entrance to the property. Later we drove to the little church where my grandfather and grandmother, aunts and uncles, and a great many more distant relatives, are buried.

After walking among the headstones, I stepped onto the porch of the old church where my grandmother’s funeral had been held. I looked in through a window and read the figures on the attendance board. There had been about 30 people present on the previous Sunday, and it occurred to me that there were many more bodies laid in the ground than seated in the pews.

I wondered what it must be like to pastor that church or one like it (and there were ones like it around every curve in those deep hills). What might success look like in such an out-of-the-way place? An influx of new members seems unlikely. People will be born, will marry and die there, and the church will love them and tell them about the God who loves them and sent his only begotten Son for them. Is that success? Is that enough?

A suburban church might evaluate success quite differently, with a gauge that measures attendance and budget. It’s no secret that denominational officials research a target community’s growth potential before starting a new church. They examine the demographics. They create a plan, similar to any business plan, and prepare a launch. They take advantage of social and print media and promote the new church through multiple outlets.

Then they work the numbers: Was Launch Sunday a success? How many people attended? What was the median age of attendees? Was the music mix right for that age group? How many giving units make up the new church? How has growth proceeded in the weeks and months since the launch? Such questions become the benchmarks that measure success.

And failure. Church attendance in the U.S. is, on the whole, plateaued or declining. Churches are having to reduce the size of their staffs, delay raises for their pastors, and consolidate services. What constitutes success in a church that is in decline? When the pastor of a struggling church looks at the megachurch pastor, whose picture is plastered on the cover of magazines and whose book in on his nightstand, must he conclude that he is a failure?

Success, especially in an ecclesiastical context, is notoriously difficult to gauge, but one thing is sure: the ABCs of church success – attendance, buildings and cash – are not the measurements that heaven reviews.

Success has been defined as the degree to which a person (or, in this case, a church) realizes its potential. That’s a good definition, but a more biblical one might be, “The degree to which a person (or church) remains faithful to his or her calling.” So St. Paul writes, “Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.”

Staying true, proving faithful, that’s what the Bible calls success. Use any other gauge and even the great heroes of the faith fall short. The Bible celebrates those who “went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated” not because they were successful by contemporary standards, but because they were faithful to their heavenly calling.

Attendance, buildings and cash are easy to quantify. Faithfulness is not. But attendance, buildings and cash will never fulfill anyone, still less will they win the heavenly affirmation: “Well done, good and faithful servant!” That is reserved for those who prove faithful.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 10/24/2015

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Tear down this wall!

One of the chief difficulties people (skeptics, seekers, and believers) have with Christianity is the idea that it doesn’t belong to this world, that religion and reality don’t intersect. It’s assumed that religion is a kind of fantasy world that some people choose to frequent, and a few get lost in it, like Trekkies at Comic-Con. Most, though, get into it on Sundays but get back to real life on Monday morning. Sensible people avoid it altogether.

For many people, the word “spiritual” is a synonym for “unreal.” To speak of “spiritual realities” is to be guilty of using an oxymoron.

It would be a great help (to skeptics, seekers, and believers alike) to see that the Christian story is part of the real world – a part of their world. It is not something you turn to when real life is too hard to bear. Christianity and reality intersect. Not only do they intersect, they run together.

The mystery writer and Dante scholar (what a combination!) Dorothy Sayers kept history and religion in “watertight compartments” until she realized that the Persian King Cyrus, whose famous exploits she’d read about in the Greek historian Herodotus, was the same King who makes an appearance in the biblical book of Daniel. The realization that the Bible was about real people was nothing short of a revelation.

The fact is, the Bible intersects with history all over the place. Biblical Archeology Today lists fifty people mentioned in the Bible whose existence (and sometimes histories) are authenticated by sources outside the Bible. The Bible, unlike the sacred writings of many other major religions, is grounded in history. The birth of Jesus, for example, is dated by St. Luke during the reign of King Herod (who figures into the story of Julius Caesar, Marc Antony and Cleopatra) and the tenure of the Roman tetrarch Publius Sulpicius Quirinius.

The dividing wall between religion and reality, between the sacred and the secular – indeed, between faith and fact – is not natural but artificial. If one is to make progress in understanding (and especially in living) the Christian faith, that wall must come down.

That will require detailed historical work. The more we know about history the better we can understand the biblical story. How does St. Paul fit into the philosophical world of his day? What were the competing religious views of Jews in the first century? How did they interact with people of other religions? How did political tensions impact spiritual longings?

But if we must pay attention to detail, we must also pay attention to the big picture. What do the biblical writers tells us about God’s big plan for creation? How does history fit into it? How does science? Psychology? The humanities?

For example, the Bible makes a big deal of the coming of the Spirit, which the Church celebrates at the Feast of Pentecost. Too often this is viewed in exclusively individualistic terms: the Spirit of God lives in me (with an emphasis on “me”). While that is true, and something to be celebrated, this extreme individualism reinforces the wall between religion and reality. The coming of the Spirit, like all great biblical truths, is about more than me.

In the big picture, God is creating (or re-creating) a new humanity. To make its emergence possible, something of God’s own life has to be incorporated into people. Previously, this had been accomplished only in temporary cases, but was introduced on a permanent basis at Pentecost. No wonder the Bible speaks about people of faith the way it does: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”

Whether big picture (humanity changing – some might say evolving – into something it has never been before) or small picture (the fine details of history), faith is about real life in a real world. No one will understand Christianity who doesn’t understand that.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 10/17/2015

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What you need to know to avoid God

Avoiding God is no easy task. Many people who try it fail. It takes effort. It calls for constant vigilance. As C. S. Lewis, reminiscing about his days as an atheist, put it, “Really, a young Atheist cannot guard his faith too carefully. Dangers lie in wait for him on every side.”

Lewis, who spent many years trying to avoid God, gave this tongue-in-cheek advice: “Avoid silence, avoid solitude, avoid any train of thought that leads off the beaten track. Concentrate on money, sex, status, health and (above all) on your own grievances. Keep the radio on. Live in a crowd. Use plenty of sedation. If you must read books, select them very carefully.”

Here are some “tips” for people who would prefer to keep God at a distance. (I am indebted to my son Kevin Looper’s teaching series, “Finding God Everywhere,” and especially the final session, “How to Avoid God Everywhere,” for much of what follows.)

The critical first step is to avoid thinking deeply about anything. Contemplation is a dangerous path. It leads people to God before they knows what’s happening. Don’t let your mind stray down the corridors of history or literature. Don’t search for meaning or truth.

Along with that, don’t read books … just don’t do it. Assume that all books are boring and that you already know and have heard everything worth knowing and hearing. Even fiction can be dangerous, because it so often portrays courageous, loyal, and admirable people. That kind of thing could lead to self-examination, which is deadly.

If you must use fiction for entertainment, better stick to the movies, especially the ones that glorify romance or extol combat skills. Or better yet, choose ones (they’re easy to find) that spend two hours on perverted humor, especially the kind that constantly humiliates others.

Make use of any and all distractions. Always have the TV or radio on. Check your Facebook page every few minutes. Text incessantly. Keep your phone with you at all times. Whatever your do, avoid silence. If you are quiet for even a moment, something might get through. You might hear God speaking.

Chatter is helpful, but avoid real conversations with people. Keep it light and surface-level. Don’t talk about anything that requires thought. Stick to the weather, sports, and clothes.

Enjoy yourself, but be sure to focus on your subjective experience of enjoyment, and not on the things you enjoy. To do otherwise might elicit thankfulness—and you know where that leads.

If possible, sleep in on Sundays. But if you must go to church, do your best to distract yourself from what’s being said. Focus on the absurdities and hypocrisies of the people in your pew. Think of all the things you could be doing if you weren’t in church. If things get dicey and you find yourself actually listening to the sermon, try counting the pastor’s grammatical errors.

Do your best to stay away from real Christians. Don’t talk to them and don’t spend time with them. Spending time with irreligious people is good, but hanging out with people who say they are Christians but are not is even better. You are far less likely to stumble onto God while talking to a religious phony than you are talking to a convinced atheist. Don’t take chances.

If doubts or questions arise, run. Whatever you do, don’t face them. Honest doubts cause people to think about what they believe and, as has already been established, thinking is dangerous. Never ask questions about God or religion, not even insincere ones. If you don’t ask questions, you won’t have to listen to answers – some of which are surprisingly compelling.

Above all, avoid the Bible. God is known to haunt that book. He shows up at the turn of every new page. If you can’t avoid exposure to the Bible, at least don’t spend any time reflecting on what it says, even for the purpose of refuting it. It is the most dangerous of books, a net that has caught many an unsuspecting skeptic.


First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 10/10/2015

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