A God Veiled in Time and Space but Revealed in Christ

If God wants us to believe in him, why doesn’t he come out of hiding?

When I read that songwriter Michael Gungor told his wife Lisa, “I don’t believe in God anymore,” I experienced a familiar feeling in the pit of my stomach. It was the same one I’d had a couple of years before when Nick, a twenty-something leader in our church, called in a panic. He was having doubts and wanted to talk. I spent hours with him, listening as he poured out his questions and fears. Over the months that followed, I prayed God would reveal himself to Nick, but his doubts hardened into unbelief. He began telling people he was an atheist.

Nick and Gungor seem to be following a well-beaten path to atheism: cognitive dissonance over the church’s stand on sexual orientation and gender; outrage over pain and injustice; doubts regarding the authority of Scripture; and an embarrassing feeling that science has rendered belief in the Bible’s claims ridiculous. If there are reasonable explanations for these conflicts, why doesn’t God just show us? Why doesn’t he come out of hiding? Why doesn’t he come out of hiding and reveal himself to my child, to my friend? Or, if he has, to where can I point them? The various doubts that tripped my friend before he fell into atheism were all situated on the bedrock of the hiddenness of God. His thinking went like this: Christians say that God requires people to believe in him or they will be eternally condemned; God, if he is good, would assist people in forming that belief by revealing himself; God does not reveal himself; therefore, God is either not good, or he does not exist.

Michael Gungor and my friend Nick are hardly alone on this path to atheism. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, Protestantism is no longer a majority religion in the US, and 18 percent of adults raised in a religious tradition now consider themselves either atheists, agnostics, or unaffiliated—a shift driven largely by Millennials. As far as these young adults are concerned, the burden of proof is on God. If he exists, he’s going to have to prove it.

The hiddenness of God, which was once a problem for philosophers and theologians, is now a reason for Millennials and their older counterparts to reject the gospel. Christian parents and leaders can help them work through this, but they must be able to offer reasonable answers to two questions. First, why would a God who insists that we believe in him not give us more evidence—why would he hide? And second, where would he hide? One would think that the God described in the Bible would be hard to miss.

So Where Does God Hide?

Take the second question first: Where does God hide? That he does hide is clear. Jesus repeatedly referred to God as “the one in secret.” Poets and prophets agonized over this, and Isaiah exclaimed, “Truly you are a God who hides himself.” But where on earth (or elsewhere) is there a place roomy enough for God operate and yet secret enough for him to remain hidden?

Such hiding places abound. God built them into the universe when he designed it. Creation is like a palace, built by an ancient king, filled with secret rooms and moving walls. The King can stay in the palace and yet remain out of sight.

In Quantum Uncertainty

Quantum uncertainty is one of those secret rooms built into creation, and the scientists who have tried to learn all the secrets of the King’s palace have been confounded by it. David Snoke, a University of Pittsburgh physicist, says that “given our present theories of quantum mechanics, some things are absolutely unpredictable to us …. hidden behind a veil we can’t look behind.”

Snoke is thinking about a theory called observer effect. On a quantum level, the very act of measuring a system changes the system. We cannot push Snoke’s veil aside, no matter how quick or careful we are, without changing what is going on.

Even apart from observer effect, uncertainty is inherent in all quantum objects, which is to say, in all physical reality. Yuji Hasegawa, a physicist at Technische Universität Wien (TU Wien) in Austria, reminds us that “the uncertainty does not always come from the disturbing influence of the measurement, but from the quantum nature of the particle itself.” Advances in technology may someday minimize observer effect but cannot remove indeterminacy on the quantum level.

Similar hiding places exist in the macro-world. Even systems that are fully deterministic— weather systems, for example—remain unpredictable because we can never have a complete knowledge of initial conditions. Snoke points out that this kind of unpredictability holds for quantum systems as well.

In the Unknowability of the State of Matter Due to Scope

We cannot see into the smallest places dues to quantum uncertainty and observer effect, but neither can we see into the largest places. Even apart from quantum uncertainty, the universe is simply too large for us to understand. Both the initial state of any system in the universe and its current state are beyond our grasp.

According to Randy Isaac, former executive director of the American Scientific Affiliation and VP of Science and Technology at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center, the universe is so large and there are so many variables, we can only know it on a statistical basis. Isaac points out that one mole (a standard measurement equal to the number of chemical units found in 12 grams of Carbon-12) of a substance – that is, 6 x 1023 – “is so inconceivably vast that there is no hope of knowing the attributes of each molecule in even a minute but macroscopic amount of substance.”

If there is no hope in knowing the attributes of each molecule in a minute amount of substance, what can be said about every molecule in the known universe, which is currently estimated to be about 46 billion light years across? There are hiding places everywhere.

In Time

Perhaps time is the most mysterious hiding place of all. St. Augustine mused: “What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.” Time is a mystery that is as close as our beating hearts. We live in it (at least we think we do) but we cannot say what it is. Time – our subjective experience of it, at any rate – potentially provides massive cover for God.

Paul Davies, Regents’ Professor at Arizona State University and Director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science, says that before Einstein, “space and time were simply regarded as ‘there’ – an immutable eternal arena in which the great drama of nature is acted out. Einstein showed that spacetime is in fact part of the cast. Like matter, it is dynamical – it can change and move and obeys laws of motion.”

Davies goes on to say that “intervals of time can be stretched by motion or gravitation.” This is the orthodox view of time held by physicists. It tells us something about what time can do but nothing about what time is. For that we must turn to the philosophers, who have struggled to understand the nature of time since pre-Socratic days.

Bertrand Russell argued that time does not flow, it simply is. The flow of time, or our movement through it, is an illusion. His colleague at Cambridge, J.M.E. McTaggart disagreed. It is not the flow of time or our movement through it that is an illusion, it is time itself.  It does not exist. The contemporary philosopher, William Lane Craig believes Russell and McTaggart are both wrong. Craig believes there is a time that transcends time, a God-time by which all other time is measured.

The Australian philosopher J.J.C. Smart argues that such a view of time leads unavoidably to an infinite regress. If we measure our time by a transcendent time, then we need yet another measuring rod against which to measure that time, and another by which to measure that time, ad infinitum. Rejecting this, Smart believes that the universal human sense that time is passing is an illusion “arising out of metaphysical confusion.”

Time, and our place in it, is a deep mystery. Philosophers cannot see into it and we can’t see through it. This makes time the perfect hiding place for God, providing him with limitless room to act while remaining perpetually out of sight.

The legendary British astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle believed that God secretly acts at the indeterminate quantum level to direct the world to the future state he desires. In other words, God uses the hiding places of both time and quantum uncertainty to interact with the world.

But Why Would God Want to Hide?

But why would God want to hide? Is he just waiting to jump from his hiding place in quantum uncertainty and shout, “Surprise!”? Does he want to astonish us by the revelation that he has been here all along, working in our lives and our world, turning evil to good, and making all things serve his incomprehensible purpose?

Perhaps. God, as the Episcopal priest Robert Farrar Capon once pointed out, loves throwing parties: “Creation is not ultimately about religion, or spirituality, or morality, or reconciliation, or any other solemn subject; it’s about God having a good time and just itching to share it.”

Yet there is more to this than God’s love of a good party. Earlier, we saw how it is impossible for humans to see what’s really going on in the world, particularly the quantum world, because of observer effect. Perhaps something like observer effect might explain why God keeps his presence a secret from us so much of the time. He cannot enter our reality without changing it. Once he pulls aside the curtain and steps into our space, we will inescapably be changed, overwhelmed, and deprived of autonomy.

C. S. Lewis addressed this dynamic in Mere Christianity: “God will invade. But I wonder whether people who ask God to interfere openly and directly in our world quite realise what it will be like when He does. When that happens, it is the end of the world. When the author walks on to the stage the play is over. … For this time it will God without disguise; something so overwhelming that it will strike either irresistible love or irresistible horror into every creature. It will be too late then to choose your side. There is no use saying you choose to lie down when it has become impossible to stand up. That will not be the time for choosing; it will be the time when we discover which side we really have chosen, whether we realised it before or not.”

The God of the Gaps

Quantum uncertainty, the vastness of creation, and the inscrutable nature of time present unbridgeable gaps in human knowledge. They are not gaps for which God supplies a ready explanation, but gaps in which God remains an endless mystery.

Trying to find God in the gaps is problematic. If he is hiding there, we will never find him. If he is not hiding there, science will eventually close the gap, God will cease to be a credible explanation, and the faith of struggling believers will be needlessly shaken.

If humans are going to find God, it will not be where he has chosen to hide but where he has chosen to reveal himself. It is not in quantum uncertainty or statistical analysis that God is discovered. We will not find him in a gap but on a cross. It is here in the most unexpected of places that we discern, as Stanley Hauerwas has put it, “the grain on the universe.”

(First appeared in the October 19, 2018 issue on Christianity Today website.)

Posted in Theology, Worldview and Culture | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

What Should Christians Do About President Biden?

“What Should Christians Do About President Biden?” I hear that question, though perhaps in a less respectful form, regularly. It is more like, “What about Biden?” or “Did you hear what Biden’s done now?”

Most of my friends are Christians who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020. In conversations about politics I, who did not vote for either of the major candidates, generally find myself on the outside. I sometimes try to reframe, or perhaps enlarge the frame, of such conversations to include God’s plans for the church and the world and Christian responsibility within those plans.

What is that responsibility? What should Christians do about Biden? The biblical answer is that they should pray for him. St. Paul urged “that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority…” As the Bible scholar Christopher Wright put it, “Paul commands all kinds of prayers for all kinds of rulers.”

How should we pray for rulers like President Biden? We should make requests for him – his health and his relationships, for example. We should pray for him to have wisdom and discernment, protection him from error, and from deceitful people. We should ask God to give him success in every undertaking that promotes justice and the common good.

My friends might say, “But his policies are destroying democracy.” I would counter: He is in authority and Christians are directed to pray for him. Christians were under that same directive when Donald Trump was in office. And Barak Obama. We pray for our leaders, whether we voted for them or not; it is the Christian thing to do. It is worth noting that Paul issued this directive when Nero, the persecutor of Christians, was in power.

In praying for our leaders, we can ask God to give them a “discerning heart to govern … and to distinguish between right and wrong,” as King Solomon prayed for himself. We can pray for God’s good purpose to be advanced through them, which according to the Apostle Paul, is why God “established” them in positions of authority the first place.

We can pray for leaders to have “discernment in administering justice” so that we may live “peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” This is God’s revealed desire for rulers and the people they govern and is thus an important prayer for our country’s leaders.

There is, however, another side to all this, one which my friend’s might enter into more eagerly. We should not only pray for those in authority over us; we should pray against them when that becomes necessary. There is plenty of support for this notion in the Bible.

Christopher Wright describes Psalm 10 and other psalms like it, with their lament and protest, as “prayers in the political realm that God has actually given us in Scripture…” He adds, “I see no contradiction in both praying for our rulers and yet also praying against them.”

Consider what a prayer against our rulers might sound like if we incorporated the language of Isaiah 10: “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.” Biblical praying for and against rulers is clearly more nuanced that an anemic and oversimplified prayer for blessing.

But is it really possible to pray for and against our leaders? The Bible gives us an example to follow. The prophet Daniel was exiled to Babylon, where he eventually became a high-ranking government official, seeking “the peace and prosperity” of the land to which he had been deported.

It is obvious from Daniel’s writings that he understood the evil nature of the kingdom he served, and yet his personal communications with the king show that he wished him well and wanted him to prosper. I think there can be no question that Daniel, who was well-known as a man of prayer, both prayed for the king’s good and against his wrongdoing and injustices.

That is an example we should follow.

(Here is a resource about which I have just become aware: The Presidential Prayer Team. It looks pretty good and may be a help for those of us who obey Paul’s command to pray for those in authority. Hope you will check it out.)

(First published by Gannett.)

Posted in Bible, In the News, Prayer, Worldview and Culture | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

When it Comes to Love: Know the Operating Specs

(An excerpt from the sermon, What Goes Up, based on 1 Cor. 13:4-8a)

We often assume that 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a is telling us what we are ordered to do – or at least what we should do. But read it for yourself: There are no commands here—not a single imperative (or even subjunctive) mood verb in this entire section. Paul is not ordering us to love; he is describing love to us. The 15 active voice verbs in this section provide us with love’s operating specs, which we can then use in our own lives. This is intensely practical stuff.

Look at the first spec: love is patient. That lets us know that if we are living in love, we will be seeing patience. But what if we see impatience instead? That is also helpful. It means an adjustment is necessary – not that we need to try harder but that we need to come to God in trust and possibly repentance, so that love can start flowing again.

The same thing works for each of these actions listed. Love acts kindly. That is an operating spec. If I am living in love as I was designed to do, I can expect kindness to be part of my life. On the other hand, if I am easily angered or am keeping a record of the wrongs, that is an indication that I have moved out of love and adjustments need to be made.

Can you see how helpful this could be? When I see patience in my life, I can rejoice in the love of God, which has brought me to this place, and I’ll trust him even more. But when I see envy in my life or realize I have been maneuvering for respect, I know that I need to come back in line with God and his Spirit.

Perhaps, as in verse 6, I am happy that something bad has happened to a person I don’t like. That is an indication that I am not operating according to spec. It’s like seeing the check engine light on your dash. It means something is wrong. Time to go to God and get that straightened out so that love can flow again.

If I discover a lack of kindness in my life, the answer is not to try and be more kind. That divides me and leads into hypocrisy. The answer is to turn to God and enter his love, which makes me whole. “Lord, I know you love this person more than life itself, because you gave your life for him on the cross. I want to enter your love for him and have your love for him enter me. Love him through me—my thoughts, my actions, my attitudes.”

Sometimes people say they tried that but it didn’t work. What they usually mean is that they didn’t feel any different after they prayed. But love does not begin with feelings and Paul doesn’t describe it that way. Instead, he describes it with action verbs, tells us what love does, not how it feels. If we are always searching for the feeling of love, we will wander from love itself because feelings are a consequence, not a cause, of love.

Watch the sermon, What Goes Up… (1 Corinthians 13)
Posted in Bible, Church Life, relationships, Sermons | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Love: It’s not a Matter of Trying Harder

(An excerpt from the sermon, What Goes Up, from 1 Corinthians 13. Click below to watch the entire sermon.)

What Goes Up (! Cor. 13)

People often read the love chapter [1 Corinthians 13] as if the apostle is telling them they must try harder to love. “You were impatient with that person. You should try harder to be patient. You were not kind. You should try harder to be kind. You really should do better.”

That way follows a well-worn path to hypocrisy and apathy. 1 Corinthians 13 is not about what we should be doing. There is no “should” about it.

Grammarians describe “should,” “would,” and “could” words as subjunctive mood verbs. In verses one through three, where Paul describes the lengths to which someone might go to be an honorable person, there are ten subjunctive mood verbs. This is the try harder section. But where that leads – to the conviction (verse 2) that “I am nothing” and, (verse 3) that “I gain nothing” is not where we want to go.

In the next section, which runs from verse 4 through verse 8 and contains a description of love, there is not a single subjunctive mood verb. What does that mean? It means that here Paul is not telling us what we should do but what love does do. When we read this as if Paul is telling us to dig deep and be more patient, be more kind, less envious, less angry, we only succeed in frustrating ourselves—and frustrated people do not love well.

When, later in this letter, Paul tells the Corinthians to “Do everything in love” (1 Cor. 16:14), he is not saying, “Be more loving!” He is telling them to enter into love and do what they do from there. When he tells the Galatians to “serve one another in love” (Gal. 5:13), it’s the same kind of thing. It is not, “Try harder to be loving,” as if we can manufacture love, but “Keep yourselves in the love of God” (Jude 1:21). Since “love comes from God” (I John 4:7) and not from us, “digging deep” usually only leaves us in a hole. We need to go to the source of love. We need to go to God.

That is why, in the very beginning of the next chapter, Paul tells us to “follow the way of” – or, literally, pursue – “love,” which is quite different from pursuing self-improvement. The harder we try to do loving things, the harder we’ll find loving things are to do. But the more we enter into love (and it enters into us), the more we will find that loving things happen through our lives.

Let me put a question to you: Is it hard to love people? For example, when Jesus loved the men who nailed him to the cross by forgiving them, was that hard for him? I don’t think so because he was in love. Not “in love” in the way that phrase is commonly used; no, he lived in love, moved in it, and had his being in it. It wasn’t hard for Jesus to forgive those men but it would have been hard for him to call down curses on them because he was in love and love was in him.[1]

We must keep this in mind. Paul is not telling us to do these things; he is telling us that love does these things. What we have here is neither a lovely sentiment (as some people take it) nor a grinding demand (as others take it) but a helpful description. The 15 action verbs Paul lists – 7 positive and 8 negative – reveal how love acts and does not act. That is valuable information for anyone serious about living the Christian life; that is, about entering the life of love, for it’s the same thing.

The upshot (14:1) is that we need to pursue love. And since “love comes from God,” guess where we will find it? With him. When we enter love, when it enters us, when we “keep ourselves in the love of God,” as Jude says, love ceases to be hard. In fact, our love become downright indiscriminate. We love the cashier. We love our neighbor. We love our neighbor’s petulant kid. We love our enemy. We love the person nailing us to a cross. We don’t need to try harder. We need to draw closer to the God who is love.

[1] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, p. 183.

Posted in Bible, Church Life, Sermons, Spiritual life | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Uncommon Politic

(This is an excerpt from an article I wrote for The Common Politic. The entire article is available here.)

According to the political scientist Eiten Hersh, of Tufts University, “politics is for power.” In his book by the same name, Hersh, who self-identifies as a political liberal, complains that Americans have lost sight of this obvious truth. This is especially true of the left who, in recent years, has engaged in what he describes as “political hobbyism … emoting and arguing and debating, almost all of this from behind screens.”

Whether Hersh is right or not depends, it seems to me, on two things: (1) whether power is a means or a goal and (2) what type of power is being considered.

If in politics the use of power is seen as a means to an end and that end is the common good of a people, then the acquisition of power is not only a legitimate pursuit, but also a necessary one. However, power is dangerous even when it is legitimate. And it is dangerous, in part, because it is addictive.

The American Church, particularly its more conservative wing, has suffered from this addiction. In the 1970s and 1980s, under the leadership of the Reverend Jerry Falwell, Sr., conservative Christians began seeking power in both politics and the media. The Moral Majority flexed its muscle to oust liberals from Congress and “The Teletubbies” from the airwaves.

The power conservative Christians wielded grew. Politicians began courting them. For a decade or two, a presidential candidate needed to identify as a born again Christian if he were to have any hope of winning an election. I can recall George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot all answering the question, “Are you a born again Christian?” in the affirmative. From the content of their responses, I doubted whether any of them understood the question.

Conservative Christians’ power faded during the Clinton administration, then declined rapidly over the Obama years, and it frightened them. Like an addict suffering from withdrawal symptoms, they began looking for another fix. They found a supplier in Donald Trump, who promised them another round of power in exchange for their votes.

Mr. Trump followed through on his promise. Conservative Christians, especially evangelicals, were consulted. They were given influence over the selection of Supreme Court Justices and the setting of abortion limits. They were granted protections from government overreach into religious practices.

It felt good to have power again. And that’s the problem. The acquisition of power had become an end in itself for many conservative Christians, who needed power in order to feel secure. When that power was threatened, they responded with anger and even violence, which is what addicts do when their stash is pilfered.

When the acquisition and preservation of power becomes an end in itself, the results will be predictable—and ugly. But even when power is sought and preserved for the purpose of accomplishing just goals, the type of power that is in play is important. Social scientists have identified various kinds of power.

There is legitimate power. This is power that is conferred and exercised through proper and even legal means. Elected officials have such power. So do employers.

There is expert power. This is the kind of power an airplane pilot exercises. He flies the plane because he knows how and others do not. His knowledge enables him to choose where his passengers go—to exercise power over them.

There is the power of recompence. This kind of power exercises control through the promise of reward or the threat of punishment. The categories of reward and punishment include monetary (think pay raises and cuts), position (think promotions and demotions) and recognition (think prestige and shame).

There is referent power. Referent power is given to a leader by followers who respect her character and wisdom. The leader’s power comes from the admiration that followers have for her. Because they trust her, they follow her.

Each of these types of power can be appropriate, even the power of recompence. The teacher who gives a fifth grader an A or an F possesses this kind of power and the student can benefit from its wise use. The boss who fires (or promotes) an employee is exercising this kind of power and can do so for the good of both the employee and the company.

However, when the power of recompence becomes the chief form of power used in a system – whether a school, home, or government – something is seriously wrong. People cannot thrive under these circumstances. It seems to me that Mr. Trump, who achieved stardom with the words, “You’re Fired!” relied too much on this type of power. His administration – think of the extraordinary turnover it experienced – suffered from its overuse.

This brings us back to Eitan Hersh. He believes that politics is for power. I tentatively agree with him, as long as the various types of power are appropriately balanced and the purpose they serve is the common good. But even when this is so, the use of such power is addictive and potentially corrupting. And further, even when power is well used, it is destined to change hands sooner or later. The pendulum swings, gains are reversed, and a status quo is maintained.

The politic of power is the common politic, politics as generally understood. It is time for an uncommon politic, one that does not rely on the acquisition and preservation of power, one practiced by Christians in their relations with each other and those outside the church.

The uncommon politic does not seek to control others but to release them. It does not endlessly rearrange the political pieces on the board but plays a different game altogether. The uncommon politic is the politic of forgiveness.

It is uncommon. Today I read both that Democratic leaders are strategizing their revenge on Donald Trump and that Donald Trump is plotting revenge on both Democrats and those within his own party who failed to support him. This is where the unbalanced power of politics leads. And it doesn’t stop there.

Our nation is more deeply divided than it has been since the time of the Civil War generation. Hostility exists between racial, political, and religious groups. There is animosity between the sexes. Urban and rural dwellers mistrust and despise each other. The college educated have disdain for those without degrees and vice versa.

In many cases, these angry divisions are in reaction to real and egregious offences—sins. Witness the stomach-turning evils exposed by the Me Too movement or consider the unjust killings of black men. The politic of power has not been able to mend the divisions or heal the wounds. It has, in fact, widened the divisions and aggravated the wounds.

Into this setting, Christians can bring the uncommon politic of forgiveness. This involves both: (1) Confession and seeking forgiveness; and (2) releasing and offering forgiveness. Each is controversial. This is not the place to go into the issues involved, but consider the controversy each has generated. The call for reparations, for example, has evoked howls of protests from whites, who label it unjust and wrongheaded. The declaration of forgiveness toward white supremacist Dylan Roof by the members of Mother Emmanuel Church evoked similar protests from blacks who were outraged by the act.

I believe an underlying reason that people are loath to seek and grant forgiveness is that both actions are thought to bring about a loss of power. People see relationships (both personal and communal) in terms of a balance of power. Nothing unbalances the scales of power like forgiveness. People cling to unforgiveness in part because it gives them a feeling of power. People avoid seeking forgiveness because it threatens a loss of power. The cognitive substructure of these ideas is the belief that power must be retained or security will be lost.

Christians are well placed to challenge these ideas and the belief that underlies them because we know that we do not secure ourselves by our own power – whatever form it might take. Because it is God who makes us secure – the biblical support for this belief is overwhelming – we can dare to forgive and seek forgiveness.

The disciples of Jesus practice the politic of forgiveness. They are to forgive each other (Matthew 18:21-22), seek forgiveness from each other (Matthew 5:23-24), and forgive everyone else (Matthew 6:12-15). Forgiveness is one of the most recognizable marks of Jesus’s people.

(Read the entire article at The Common Politic.)

Posted in Christianity, Worldview and Culture | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

What it Takes for Love to Last

Hundreds of years before people began celebrating Valentine’s Day, the holiday du jour for February 14 was Lupercalia. The philosopher Plutarch refers to Lupercalia as a time when “young men of noble families run through the city naked and …strike those they meet with shaggy thongs.” They were history’s first streakers.

Though respectable people no longer took part in it, the festival was still being celebrated in the middle of the third century when a priest named Valentinus – we know him as St. Valentine –lived in Rome. Fast-forward to 496 AD. Lupercalia is a distant memory. February 14 is now the day to celebrate the Feast of St. Valentine.

Valentine’s Day is now associated with romantic love, but it didn’t start that way. St. Valentine – or Valentinus – was a third century Roman priest. He got in trouble for helping Christians (which was illegal at that time) and for flouting the emperor’s prohibition against marrying Christians. He was imprisoned, but the emperor took a liking to him – that is, until he tried to convert the emperor to Christianity. Claudius Gothicus was so angry at Valentine that he had him beaten with sticks and then beheaded on one of the major thoroughfares outside Rome.

I’ve never seen “I lost my head over you” on a Valentine’s Day card but if I ever do, I’m going to buy it.

During the Middle Ages, people somehow began thinking of the feast day of St. Valentine as a time to celebrate romantic love. The 14th century poet Chaucer wrote, “This was on St. Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.”

Romantic love is something to celebrate, and to have a special day for it is a good thing. Christians think that romantic love is wonderful – an entire book of the Bible is about it – but they don’t believe that it is enough to fulfill us. The people who wrote the Bible had terms to signify four different kinds of love and they understood that all four are important.

One had to do with romantic love. Another had to do with friendship. A third denoted family loyalty. And the fourth referred to God’s own, never-give-up, unconditional, and self-giving love.

Romantic love is like the first stage of a Saturn rocket – the kind that went to the moon (still the most powerful thing humans have ever made). The first stage is spectacular. It’s bright and fiery and exciting. But people who only know this first stage will never attain a stable orbit in their relationship. Romantic love will get people off the ground – gloriously so – but it won’t keep them there. Unless the other kinds of love are also present, the relationship is destined to crash and burn.

Stage Two is friendship love. This is the stage that gets a relationship into a sustainable orbit. In this kind of love people don’t so much look at each other as they look together in the same direction. They play together, talk together, and work together. They pursue goals together. This kind of love keeps relationships going.

Stage Three is family love – that mother bear, protective, blood-is-thicker-than-water kind of love. Stage Three can, and often does, get pretty rocky, but it does something the previous loves cannot do. It enables people to escape the gravity of self-centeredness and attain new heights.

But the Command Module – the thing that holds it all together – is that never-give-up, self-giving God-like love. This is the love that takes people further than they knew they could go. It sees them through a lifetime and carries them on till death. It is an especially beautiful thing when a man and woman and the family they have made still love each other after spending a lifetime together. This kind of love lasts even beyond that.

According to the Bible, this love comes from God. It does not originate in an experience, whether sexual or filial. It does not even originate in a bloodline. Family members can become detached; lovers can grow to hate each other. But the “love” that “comes from God,” remains.

(First published by Gannett.)

Posted in Bible, Marriage and Family, relationships | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Telling the Good News: Answering Tough Questions

A common criticism non-Christian have goes like this: “Religious people think they are better than everyone else. They are so judgmental. I don’t even want to be around them.”

How do you answer? You go back to Jesus. “I don’t know if you know this, but Jesus felt that way too. The people he liked to hang out with most were the ones religious folks looked down on. When they put them down, Jesus stood up for them.”

Jesus had a lot to say about that too. Check out: Matthew 7:1-6; Mark 2:13-17; Luke 10:3-37 (the story of the Good Samaritan); all of Luke 15; Luke 18:9-14.

Some people say, “You know, I’m just not the religious type.” Whenever someone says that to me, I always respond, “I’m not either.” They can hardly believe it. But then you can go on and say: “And you know what? Jesus wasn’t either.” Then you can tell them about Mark 7:1-13, where Jesus distinguished between religion and knowing and loving God. Religion wasn’t his thing, but he was all about God. You might go on to say that the Bible hardly ever mentions religion – that’s not what it’s all about.

Then you can ask: “What? Did you think Jesus was really religious or something?” You will get their curiosity up. Who knows? That may open the door for further conversations – either with you or with some other person God will send along.

Sometimes people say, “Look, I know I’m perfect or anything – but I try to be a good person.” Your answer might be: “I think that’s great but Jesus said that God wants something a little different than just trying to be a good person. He said that what God really wants is for people to love him and to love their neighbors – the people who come in and out of their lives.”

Then you can follow up with a question: “Or is that what you meant by being a good person?”

If you are living an optimistic, connected, and principled life as a follower of Jesus, sooner or later someone is going to say to you: “If God exists, why does he allow suffering?” That is a big and intractable question. Some people will ask it as a smokescreen. Others will really want to know the answer. It helps to know which kind of person you are talking to. So, you can ask: “Is that something that really bothers you?” Or even, “Would you become a Christian if that question didn’t bother you so much?”

When I am asked that question, my conditioned (and unhelpful) response is to launch into an explanation – a kind of philosophical argument. I want to regurgitate C. S. Lewis’s entire book, The Problem of Pain. I talk about human free will and the glorious kind of world God wanted and still wants. I wax eloquent for twenty minutes – or an hour, if I’m given that long – and, when I’m all done, the person is no closer to Jesus than they were when I started.

Don’t get me wrong. I think those arguments are important and helpful. It’s just that people aren’t argued into the kingdom of God; they’re drawn into it. That’s why they need good news more than they need logical arguments. So, consider telling them the good news that God is not indifferent to our suffering. He actually lived – and lives – a human life in Jesus. (Always bring people back to Jesus.) He experienced pain and suffering, just like we do. Even more than we do. He suffered betrayal by a friend, gross injustice, and a ghastly death.

For whatever reason God set things up the way he did, he at least plays by his own rules. He hasn’t put us through anything he has not experienced himself. He is able to sympathize and to help us when we suffer. He knows – better than we do – how bad suffering can be, yet he has promised that our present suffering won’t compare to the great things that are waiting for his loved ones.

Then you can add something like: “What I’ve found is that answers to why people suffer don’t satisfy me. But the Answerer does. Is that the way it is for you too?” Keep bringing people back to Jesus.

Posted in Bible, Christianity, Mission, Theology | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Telling the Good News: Right Words, Wrong Life?

It is natural, when we are telling people the good news, to want to make sure we have all the right words – it makes us feel safer. But having the right words won’t help if we’re living the wrong life! A life with God that is authentic and satisfying is what provide opportunities.

I’ll mention three characteristics of that kind of life. (There are of course more.) First, it is genuinely optimistic. For the first twenty years of my marriage, my wife told me I was a pessimist. I always countered that I was a realist. Now, I can say that I am an optimist.

This optimism is not a Pollyanna, turn a blind eye, kind of thing. It is a life of hope built on the certainty that God will make things right. God is so much a part of the hopeful life that it is inexplicable apart from him. If your life can be explained without recourse to God, you’re too much like everyone else.

The authentic God-filled life is also a connected life. Connectedness is largely missing in our society. Over the past few decades, social scientists have consistently found “slippages in self-confidence, growing regrets about the past, and declines in virtually every measure of self-reported physical and mental health … regardless of gender, age, marital status, and educational attainment.”[1] This in one of the world’s wealthiest nations.

Studies have found that this unhappiness is rooted in a failure to connect. Here’s how one sociologist summarized it: “Americans over the past several decades became increasingly detached from family and friends …. There is indeed a large body of evidence indicating that social connectedness … has a powerful influence on self-reported health and happiness.”[2]

It was God who said, “It is not good for man to be alone.” We understand that, but we don’t know what to do about it. Jesus does. He offers a connected life. If we are living that life, connected by dozens and dozens of threads to our church family, we will have opportunities to tell others the good news.

The optimistic life and the connected life bring opportunities and so does the principled life. Whenever we see someone living by principle, we have questions. Why do you do that? What do you get out of it? Don’t you miss it? Are there other people like you?

This is not just true of Christian principles; any principled person will raise questions. “You’re vegan? Don’t you miss a good steak?” “You only buy fair trade coffee?” “You use cloth diapers – what’s that about?” But when the principles that make you different come from Christ and his apostles, the door to sharing the good news opens smoothly.

“You mean you are celibate? Really?” “You go to church every week? I mean I know people do that, but you’re like the first one I’ve ever actually met.” (By the way, inviting people to church is still one of the most common routes by which people come to Christ. Think about who you can invite.) “I don’t understand how you can forgive her?” “Why do you give so much money to charity?” “Aren’t you going to respond to the things he posted about you?”

If you are living a life that is optimistic, connected, and principled, you will get those kinds of questions. You need to be ready with answers. And the best place to go for answers is to the life and words of Jesus because they naturally open a door for sharing the good news. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t read theologians and philosophers – some of us, at least, should. What I am saying is that we need to be so familiar with Jesus that we can answer people’s questions in his words and with examples from his life.

Here is what I mean. Someone says to you: “You’re inviting me to your baptism? I thought people got baptized when they were babies.” And you say, “Well, I’m kind of a big baby,” and you both laugh. But he says, “Why now? I mean, it’s not like you have to get baptized to go to heaven, right?”

That is an opportunity to seize! But handle it wisely. Instead of going into a long theological explanation that will go right over your friend’s head, explain that you take seriously what Jesus what said about making disciples and “baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” That will almost certainly raise further questions in your friend’s mind, which is good. But if it doesn’t, you should ask a question: “So, haven’t you ever thought about getting baptized?” Questions open doors.

One of the things I’ve heard many times over the years is: “If I walked into a church, the walls would fall down.” That person is telling me that he’s done a lot of things he shouldn’t have done and he can’t imagine that God would want him anymore. That one throws the door wide open to talk about Jesus. He spoke about this kind of thing over and over. One of many places you could go is Luke 7:36-50.

You could say: “So Jesus was having lunch with a seriously religious guy, when a woman came in and did something really embarrassing. Only Jesus was not embarrassed. The religious guy thought: ‘Jesus obviously doesn’t know what kind of woman she is – what a trashy life she’s lived?’ But Jesus did know. He told the woman her sins were forgiven and put the religious guy in his place.”

And then you could ask: “You ever read one of the biographies of Jesus?” If your friend says no, you can suggest a good biography: Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. If they seem interested, you can ask them if they want to read it at the same time and get together over coffee to talk about it.

[1] See Herbst, C. M., “‘Paradoxical’ Decline? Another Look at the Relative Reduction in Female Happiness.” Journal of Economic Psychology (2011).

[2] https://psmag.com/social-justice/new-research-suggests-everybodys-less-satisfied-33769

Posted in Bible, Church, Mission, Theology | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

What Superbowl Advertisers Teach Us

(This previously – and somewhat dated – article is still relevant on this Superbowl Sunday.)

Sixty-nine commercial spots ran during this year’s Superbowl. Each thirty-second commercial cost two million dollars, which means, if I did the math right, that advertisers spent 138 million dollars to convince us to buy their product during just one television program. One suspects that Pepsi, Anheuser-Bush, Cadillac and others don’t buy into the lingering myth that television content has no lasting effect on viewers.

John Paul II once noted that “Vast sectors of society are confused about what is right and what is wrong and are at the mercy of those with the power to ‘create’ opinion and impose it on others.”  I am not sure who the Pope had in mind when he referred to “those with the power to ‘create’ opinion and impose it” but I suspect he was thinking of those in the entertainment industry.

Television and the movies have a bully pulpit in almost every home in America.  So what do they teach?  For one thing, they teach that religious people are always suspect, usually odd and sometimes dangerous (unless, of course, they are clergy, which almost guarantees them to be dangerous).  A recent study conducted by the Parents Television Council found that 25% of  the time religious people are portrayed on television, it is in a negative light (22% of such portrayals are positive).  But on NBC, the network of West Wing, ER and “Must See TV”, over nine out of ten portrayals of religious people were negative.  Apparently someone at NBC is on a mission to warn America that religious people are greedy, mean and, very possibly, sexual predators.

Ah, yes, sex: another favorite topic for television.  According to an Associated Press article by Lynn Elber, television sends teenagers (and all the rest of us) mixed messages about sex.  A study by researchers at Stanford University and Lewis and Clark college found that teens receive a “highly inconsistent picture of what sexual relation are and can be.”

Elber goes on to quote from the study, which notes that TV lessons on sex are both “explicit and implicit” and “ranged from ‘Virginity is a sign that a boy is a loser’ to ‘Teens don’t need to be sexually active to be cool.”  I wonder which message plays best in the mind of a teenager.

John Ashton, Britain’s Health Protection Agency North West director, has no doubt.  He wrote that “…on film and television people jump into bed together…and there are no consequences.  It’s nonsense.”

And they are jumping into bed together more frequently than ever before.  Marcus Yoars, associate editor at “Plugged In”, writes that ABC, desperate to reverse flagging ratings, found their solution in “Desperate Housewives.”  It is a show built on “lingerie-clad seductresses, affair-driven story lines and suggestive dialogue.”  ABC added to their repertoire of sexually suggestive programs the high school drama, “Life as We Know It,” and the lewd, “Boston Legal.” I have to admit that I haven’t seen any of these shows, but I have seen the commercials, and that was enough for me.

Television further teaches us that women and girls need to be physically attractive.  Guys can be overweight and balding as long as they are funny, but girls have to be beautiful. If they are not? Then their best hope is to be the lovable but geeky friend of a beautiful girl. Not the role most women aspire to.

Of course, its only television.  It doesn’t really have an effect on us – or does it? Maybe we should ask what the marketing gurus at Anheuser-Bush think.  They just spent $66,666 per second to air six commercials during the Superbowl. I’m guessing they have an opinion

Posted in Spiritual life, Worldview and Culture | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

A Different Take on Immigration

This is a true – and sad – story. I do not know the details, but I have become acquainted with the outline. It seems personal to me.

Violence, war, and famine were not happening over there. They were happening here, all around the family and the village. Dangerous men were strongarming them for protection money – money they could not afford to give, money that was needed to buy food.

There was nothing they could do. They scraped what little money they had together and paid them off. By the time the army arrived, it was too late; their tormentors were already gone. Besides that, the soldiers were as bad as the men they were fighting.

After two dreadful growing seasons – most of the people in the village were farmers – poverty was pervasive throughout the region. The farmers had no crops to sell. The village artisans had no one to buy their merchandise. Life in the village had always been difficult, always only one step ahead of indigence; but during the last three years starvation had been nipping their heels.

But word had been spreading through the village and around the region that America was the land of promise, the land of plenty. In America, there is law and order. Its people live in peace. Hard work brings prosperity there, unlike here, where it invites extortion.

People all over the village, all over the region, were talking about America. They even knew the names of the particular places where they wanted to live. Carolina sounded like heaven. Pennsylvania – lots of immigrants go there. There was work in New York. They passed around books about these places, printed in their own language, and shared them with friends and relatives.

Somehow, within a matter of months, a caravan had formed. Thousands of people, people who have lost hope of a decent life in their own country, banded together in the hope of reaching America. The countries they passed through treated them like outlaws and, no doubt, a few of them were. But most were just people, families, looking for a way to survive.

The journey to America was fraught with dangers. Too many of the emigres did not survive it. The family about which I know began the journey to America with seven members: two parents and five children, the oldest being twelve. When they arrived, there were three. The father and three of the children had died. The mother, the twelve-year-old son, and his eleven-year-old sister survived.

They crossed into America and were immediately detained. The mother was separated from her children and sent to a detention camp. Unless she had the means to provide for herself and her children – which, of course, she did not – she would be sent back. She waited in the camp for months, not knowing what had become of her children.

They had been trafficked. Separated from each other and from their mother, their lives were filled with dread. What would become of them? Would they ever be freed, as they had been promised? And, if they were, what would happen then? And, worst of all, where was their mother? Was she even alive?

We have all heard the stories of Central American caravans, of detention camps, and the separation of parents from their children. These stories saddened me, but they seemed far away and utterly intractable. This past year, when I learned my ancestors had experienced the same kinds of hardships, the contemporary stories became more real and more unacceptable.

The story I tell in this article is my 6th-great-grandfather’s story. Johann Leper immigrated from southwest Germany in 1709. His father and three of his siblings died on the journey. His mother was placed in a detention camp and eventually was sent back. He and his sister were indentured for years. It is a shame I needed an ancestor to put a face to the contemporary stories of fear and pain. I offer no solutions to the current immigration mess, only a suggestion: we must try to see that these are real people, in real trouble, with real hopes and fears. People a lot like my 6th-great-grandfather. People a lot like me.

(First Published by Gannett.)

Posted in Worldview and Culture | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments