Christians, Creation and Environmental Concerns

Christians have often been disparaged for their lack of involvement in and concern for environmental issues, and that criticism has sometimes been valid. In an article at Bible.org, Ray Bohlin, who holds a Ph.D. in molecular and cell biology, suggests reasons for this inattention to creation: there are other urgent matters that occupy Christians’ attention; environmental concerns have often been promoted as a “liberal issue”; environmentalism has sometimes been conflated with New Age philosophies, achieving an almost religious status.

Bohlin, however, goes on to say that Christians “have a sacred responsibility to the earth and the creatures within it,” and he’s right. According to the Book of Genesis, humans were given dominion over the earth. That does not mean God gave humans the right to exploit the earth but the responsibility to superintend it. As the psalmist reminded people, “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” Humans are creation’s caretakers, not its owners.

Humanity’s wellbeing has been linked by God to the wellbeing of creation. St. Paul makes this particularly clear in his famous letter to the Romans. In an unparalleled vision of the future he writes: “Creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.”

Right now, says the apostle, creation groans. She is caught in an endless cycle of futility, subjugated under the iron rule of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Creation’s ultimate hope does not lie in recycling and the reduction of greenhouse gasses (though as her caretakers we should be diligent about such things). Her destiny is contingent upon the freedom of the children of God.

The astonishing biblical hope is that creation will be set free from the tyranny of entropy. No more decay. No more corruption. When I come across a non-Christian who loves creation, is awed by her splendor, at home in her vastness and devoted to her care, I can’t help but think that person ought to convert, since the Christian vision of creation is without equal.

There is an obvious love for creation in Scripture, but the biblical writers insist we haven’t seen anything yet. When creation is freed from her chains, cleaned up and presented in her beauty, it will be all joy and glory. But she doesn’t achieve that status apart from us. She achieves it with us – through us, even. She is freed into the freedom of God’s children.

According to St. Paul, the freedom of creation depends on humanity, but humanity’s freedom depends on creation’s Lord. Take Jesus out of the story and it falls to the ground. Apart from him, our future glory – and with it our hope – is gone and creation remains in her chains. St. Paul would say that our hope – and not only ours, but the hope of the world, the hope of all creation – depends on Jesus Christ.

Like creation, people need to be set free – from meaninglessness, from hopelessness, from addictions, from fears and sins. God intends his children to be free indeed. Free to be themselves – to be the people they were always meant to be.

Creation groans, and humanity groans right along with her: “we … groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” The goal has always been our adoption as God’s children, with all that it entails, including the redemption of our bodies and the liberation of creation from its “bondage to decay.” It is this that finalizes us; that confirms and ratifies our full humanity. Until then, we remain incomplete and tentative, which is why we groan.

When the sound guys at our church finish recording a sermon, the CD recorder displays one word, with a question mark: Finalize? Unless they say yes, the CD won’t play in most CD players. The final step for humanity is the redemption of our bodies. Only humans who experience it will “play” in the new heaven and new earth. But for the process of finalization to begin we must say “Yes” to God in Christ.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 9/24/2016

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Someday the Timing Chain Will Break

I own a 2007 Chevy Malibu. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s got me where I’ve needed to go. And it’s been remarkably reliable. Besides oil changes and a few minor repairs, I’ve not had to put much money into it – and it has over 150,000 miles on it. I’ve felt fortunate.

Until recently. A while back I noticed that the engine was laboring and the rpms were shooting up whenever I climbed a hill, even a small one. Fuel economy dropped precipitously. So I took my car to a mechanic friend to have it tuned up.

Later I had the ignition coils replaced, the fuel injectors cleaned and the oil changed. It was expensive, but I thought my reliable old car was worth it. A few weeks later, though, I turned the key, heard a whirring noise, but there was no ignition. I assumed the starter had failed and had the car towed to the shop.

I stopped in later to see what was going on. My friend met me with the words, “Oh, Shayne,” and the kind of look a doctor gives you when your mother has had a heart attack and isn’t expected to recover. “It’s the timing chain,” he explained. The upshot: the upper half of the engine needed to be rebuilt. It took 2,400 dollars, but I got it on the road again.

Sometime later I was on the road in Chicago, merging onto I-294 from I-90. A wall of traffic was approaching, so I pushed the pedal to the floor to get out in front of a speeding semi. It was barreling down on us when the Malibu suddenly lost power. I could almost hear the truck driver swearing as he slammed on his brakes. I limped off onto the shoulder and onto the I-55 entrance ramp. Four hours and 630 dollars later, I had a new catalytic converter and manifold.

It occurs to me that the Malibu is not the only vehicle I have with a fair number of miles on it.  Metaphorically speaking, my body has also passed the 150,000 mile mark. It’s been a reliable body – not anything fancy – but it’s got me where I’ve needed to go. Besides food and a few minor repairs, I’ve not had to spend much on maintenance. I feel fortunate.

I’ve attempted (for a while now, anyways) to take care of my body. I eat well, try to get enough sleep, and exercise regularly. But I know that my body, like my car, will encounter more problems as it racks up the miles. Maintenance costs are bound to go up, and time in “the shop” is sure to increase. Someday the timing chain will break.

I’m not one of those guys who trades in his car every few years. I get everything out of a car that I can, and I intend to do the same with my body. But imagine what the world would be like if medical science were to reach a place where it could provide body trade-ins. The rich would always be operating the latest model. Only the poor would try to make their bodies last.

Were this fantasy ever to become reality, the importance of the body to human spirituality might be forgotten. The body plays an enormously important role in an individual’s spiritual formation. It is with the body that spiritual disciplines are performed. It is in the body that habits are engrained, choices are made and character is shaped – for good or ill. The body, both when it is at peak performance and when it is ready for the junkyard (or graveyard) plays a vital role in a person’s spiritual development.

The biblical writers celebrate the gift of the body and take it seriously. Body hatred, often found in religion, it is antithetical to the Scriptures. The Bible sees the body as a good and powerful gift. Admittedly, it can be misused and even be poised to do evil, but it can also be used to love God and others. St. Paul summarized the biblical view of the body this way: “The body is … for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.”

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 9/17/2016

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You’ve Got to Believe It to See It

There is in Christianity an emphasis on faith that is, to my knowledge, unequalled in any major religion. In most religions, faith is presupposed. In Christianity it is demanded. In general, religions can be summed up with a set of propositions its followers believe, but Christianity is summed up in a person in whom his followers trust. As such, a Christian cannot be characterized solely by fixed beliefs about God, but by a dynamic belief in God.

The need for faith does not end when a person decides to become a Christian; that is, when he or she decides to trust and follow Jesus. Faith is not a passport that gets you into the heavenly country, and then is no longer required. It is more like the currency that is used in that country. Everything a person does in the kingdom of God requires faith.

The Christ-follower moves through life by faith. Four times in Scripture we are explicitly told that the righteous (those people accepted by God) live by faith. No one, no matter how long a Christian or how advanced in spiritual formation, outgrows the need for faith. The Christian life, as St. Paul put it, “is from faith to faith” (Romans 1:17, literal translation).

There is a fascinating example of the importance of faith in the Gospel of John. Before raising Lazarus, Jesus had to tell his disciples the sad news that their friend had died. Many of us have borne that difficult duty, but I doubt any of us ever did it the way Jesus did. He said, “Lazarus is dead and I am glad…” Imagine the shock waves that rolled over the disciples as they heard that their friend was dead and that their master was glad. But Jesus continued: “Lazarus is dead, and I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, so that you may believe.”

How important belief must be if Jesus was glad that Lazarus’s death afforded his disciples an additional opportunity to believe! And consider who those disciples were: not novices, but apostles. They had been with Jesus night and day, were among the first to believe in him and to declare him Messiah. They had seen him calm a storm, feed thousands with a boy’s lunch, and give a congenitally blind man back his sight. And yet Jesus rejoices that these men, who had been with him and believed in him longer than anyone else, were going to have yet another opportunity to believe.

After all the remarkable things the apostles had seen, why would Jesus be excited about a new opportunity for them to believe? He wouldn’t be, if faith were nothing more than an arbitrary requirement for entrance into heaven. These men had already believed and had a place reserved for them in heaven. Yet Jesus rejoiced over the prospect of them believing again. What is it about belief that makes it so valuable?

Clearly belief, whatever else it is, is not an arbitrary requirement placed on humans by a self-obsessed God. Faith supplies something that nothing else – reciting a creed or praying five times a day or hopping on one foot – can provide. The very act of believing God does something in a person that nothing else can do.

The reason for that lies in the nature of belief. Trusting God cannot be an unaided act performed to meet a religious obligation, because trust always involves at least two people. It is a collaborative act. In the act of belief, trust meets trustworthiness, faith meets faithfulness. Trust opens the door of one’s life to another and, when that other is God himself, transforms those who have it.

Religious rituals alone, no matter how commendable, are incapable of that. Each time a person trusts God, he or she is transformed a little more into the person he or she was meant to be. That’s why, when people asked what was required to do God’s work, “Jesus told them, ‘This is the only work God wants from you: Believe in the one he has sent.’” It is the foundation of everything else.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 9/10/2016

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Peacemakers Can Change the Calculus of Violence

This article is not meant to be controversial, though it does address a controversial topic: guns, mass shootings, the gun lobby and the anti-gun lobby. I offer no solution to the current debates over gun legislation and am not even sure there is one.

Both sides of the debate are entrenched in their positions and unwilling to change, which is what happens whenever fear frames a debate. After every shooting spree, the anti-gun lobby exclaims, “We have to do something!” and the gun lobby replies, “What you’re suggesting won’t help. In fact, it will only make things worse.” And both sides make legitimate points.

A political compromise seems remote, and even if one is found it will not solve the problem of violence. So rather than adding one more voice to the din, I want to address religious people generally and Christians in particular, on whichever side of the gun debate they find themselves. My concern is not legislative but moral, not political but spiritual.

After last year’s horrific attack in San Bernardino, Dr. Jerry Falwell, the president of Liberty University, called on students to take a concealed weapons permit course offered at the college. He went on to imply that if some of the people killed in San Bernardino had a conceal-carry permit – “…if they had had what I’ve got in my back pocket right now” – they would not have died.

That comment was guaranteed to stir the political pot, and perhaps that is what Dr. Falwell intended. What he went on to say, though, was ill-advised and unwise. He said, “I’ve always thought, if more good people had conceal carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in killing…. Let’s teach them a lesson if they ever show up here.”

When a furor erupted over this comment, Falwell tweeted that his critics knew very well that he didn’t mean Muslims in general, but Muslim extremists. Still, the idea of the president of a Christian college talking about ending Muslims and exhorting Christians to “teach them a lesson” is profoundly disturbing, especially in the light of the anti-Muslim rhetoric sweeping the country.

Even if we take Dr. Falwell’s comments as he says he meant them (and I think we should), they undermine the biblical instruction to be people of peace. Whether one carries a gun or not, fights for second amendment rights or demands restrictions on gun ownership, if one is a  Christian, he or she should be known as a person of peace.

The biblical teaching is impressive. Christ’s followers are to “make every effort to do what leads to peace.” Further, St. Paul tells Christians, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” With everyone, not just Christians and not just Americans, but with everyone. God has called the people of Jesus “to live in peace.”

The Christian message is called “the gospel of peace” and Christians are to be ruled by the peace of Christ. The deity Christians worship and obey is known as “the God of peace.” The Bible teaches that this God has made peace, and has done so – it is worth noting – through sacrifice rather than through force.

Christians have been called to follow God’s example and be peacemakers. Jesus blessed those who make peace and promised that they would be called the children of God. Why? Because they bear the family resemblance. Christians are not only called to live at peace with others, but to facilitate peace between those who are opposed to each other.

For Christians, peace begins with reconciliation with God. Once a peaceful relationship has been established with him through faith in his Son, a state of inward peace becomes possible. And those at peace with God and with themselves have the ability to bring peace to others.

If guns – whether controlling them or carrying them – are the solution to violence in America, then there is reason to despair. But such a view is a gross oversimplification. What will change the calculus of violence is not gun ownership or gun control, but people – people who know, seek and make peace. And the people of Jesus are uniquely positioned to lead the way.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, September 3, 2016

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The Astonishingly Complex Process

I came back from school one day in early September and went to my grandparent’s house. I didn’t go to our house because my parents were shuttling between home and University Hospital, where my older brother was being treated. The leukemia had been in remission for months, and he had been doing better. But when it came back, it was overwhelming.

My grandmother called, “Your mom and dad are here,” so I came out to the “sitting room” to meet them. One look at their haggard faces and weary eyes told me that something had happened. My dad explained that my older brother – my protector, example and closest friend – had died. I still remember the chair I was sitting in, and how I couldn’t stop crying.

Fast-forward thirty years. Our family had visited my mother in my home town, and before we returned to southern Michigan we stopped at a used video game and music store so my sons could buy a used Nintendo system. While they were shopping, I was browsing the used recordings and saw a James Taylor’s Greatest Hits CD. I hadn’t listened to J. T. in two decades, so I bought the CD and played it on the way home.

I sang along with the first three tracks, but when Fire and Rain played, I was surprised by the emotion that welled up at the words, “…but I always thought I’d see you again.” I was back in that chair in my grandparents’ sitting room, unable to stop the tears.

I had not thought of that day for many years, yet it was a part of me. All my experiences, good and bad, the ones I remember, the ones I do not, and the ones I’ve tried to forget are a part of me. Humans do not outgrow what they’ve been, any more than a tree outgrows its trunk. We grow from what we’ve been and, in many ways, still are.

In his insightful book, “What Does God Do from 9 to 5?” Ronald R. Johnson makes the point that “…we are who we are because of the entire story of all that we’ve experienced so far, even though we cannot retrieve most of it from memory.” Johnson’s “all that we’ve experienced” includes big things like the death of a brother, but also small things like the look someone gave us on the bus, and the word we once looked up in a dictionary, and the hazy thought we had twelve years ago as we drifted off to sleep. These experiences, the vast majority of which are unremembered, are still a part of us.

There is more to a human being, every human being, than we know or have ever imagined. But God knows, and he does not forget. God was there when we looked up that word and when that hazy thought lodged in our brain, and knows how it has shaped us. What Johnson calls “the immensity of it” is staggering.

Think of it. God has been and will be present and aware of every experience I have ever had or will have, from the awful presentation I made in speech class to the first kiss I gave my wife, to the last breath I shall haltingly take. He has been present at every beat of my heart, as each neuron in my brain has fired, and every time a nerve ending has pulsed.

If this is true, God has been present for all of my experiences (the vast percentage of which I know nothing about), and has been with billions of other people in their billions of experiences. Does this then mean that God has formed us in a certain way, for good or bad, and we bear no responsibility for who we’ve become?

Not at all. Within this astonishingly complex human development process, God has provided a remarkably powerful instrument by which humans can exercise some control over their own formation. He has given them the power of choice. Each adult has made untold numbers – perhaps millions – of choices, and these are what make a person uniquely his or her self. And God is present and available in the choices too, not to compel but to aid, to encourage and to help.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 8/27/2016

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Why the Universe Has Wiggle Room

The renowned physicist John Archibald Wheeler summed up his long and illustrious career under three headings – three thematic periods that characterized his work. He called the first period, “Everything is Particles.” This covered the time when he worked alongside the legendary Niels Bohrs to understand nuclear fission and was drawn into the famous Manhattan Project.

Wheeler called his second period, “Everything is Fields,” referring to the effect that the strong and weak nuclear forces, electro-magnetism and gravity have on all matter and space-time.

He titled the final stage of his career, “Everything is Information.” During this period, Wheeler was gripped by the question, “How come existence?” The bio-friendliness (to use Paul Davies’ term) of the universe, the astoundingly unlikely “coincidences” that make possible life and mind in our universe, fascinated the older Wheeler.

He never came to believe in the biblical creator (and in fact rejected such a belief), but he was dissatisfied with the way most of his colleagues answered (or simply ignored) the question, “How come existence?” He insisted that there is “an immaterial source and explanation” for the physical world.

In a paper he titled, “Information, Physics, Quantum: The Search for Links” he wrote “that what we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes-no questions and the registering of equipment-evoked responses; in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and this is a participatory universe.”

In other words, physical reality (particles, fields, stars, galaxies, people – everything) arises from information. Wheeler termed this “It from Bit,” where “It” denotes physical things and “Bit” refers to discreet bits (as in a computer’s digital code) of information. Everything in the universe (or multiverse, or whatever our cosmic neighborhood is called) is an expression of information.

According to Wheeler, it is the act of processing (observing, measuring) that information is transformed into reality. Reality, he concluded, does not exist apart from an observer. For Wheeler, that observer might be an evolved (perhaps a billion years into the future) superintelligence with the knowledge to transcend time and space and reform reality.

Some of this could be harmonized (though Wheeler would disparage the attempt) with Judeo-Christian teaching. Long before John Archibald Wheeler, Jews and Christians believed in “an immaterial source and explanation” of physical reality. Biblical writers were certain that a superintelligence created the world through “word” or “reason” (“logos” in Greek), which sounds more than a little like Wheeler’s “It” from “Bit.” According to biblical theology, the universe exists – it holds together as a reality – only because there is an Observer, the one who “saw all that he had made, and it was very good.”

Wheeler, at least in his “Everything is Information” period, came to believe that the rules of physics do not constitute immutable laws. “The laws [of physics] could not have always been a hundred percent accurate,” he asserted. From his perspective, the universe has wiggle room, enough room for an observer – indeed, for all observers – to participate in the ongoing creation of reality.

This too is like the Judeo-Christian teaching that God, as the principal observer, interacts with the universe through his word, both by creating it and sustaining it. And we, as secondary observers, also interact with reality in ways that make a genuine difference. Through the very act of creation (“Bit” to “It”), God made room for his creatures and conferred upon them the dignity of having their own place and the authority to shape it.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 8/20/2016

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The trouble with living a fantasy

When I was in college I had a brainstorm that caused a temporary power outage in my common sense.

A bunch of us were hanging out and talking about what we could do for fun. Two of my best friends were part of the group, one of whom was born in India and raised in Bangladesh. He had taught me a little Hindi and Bengali (insults, for the most part) and sometimes we would banter back and forth. That’s what led to the brainstorm.

I suggested that the group of us go to the mall, pretending to be a security detachment for a foreign dignitary (my friend). We would all wear suits and stand in formation around our exotic visitor, while I translated for him. Our plan was to go to jewelry stores and ask to see their most expensive brooches and necklaces. It would be a hoot.

My brainstorm apparently blacked out everyone’s common sense, and we went. At our first store, my friend and I approached the counter while the security team surrounded us. Each time the salesperson showed us something, my friend would rattle off something in Hindi or Bengali, and I would ask the clerk if there wasn’t a more valuable piece he could show us.

We were all having fun, acting out our charade. That’s when we looked across the store and saw the dean of students (who terrified all of us) browsing twenty feet away! Most of the “security team” melted away into the surrounding stores, but my friend went right up and greeted him. I think the dean was pleased that his students dressed up in their good clothes to go out on the town. He probably thought one of us was buying an engagement ring for a future bride.

Our little charade was not the last time I’ve pretended to be someone I’m not. I’ve pretended to be nonchalant when I’ve been trembling with anxiety, pretended to be loving when I’ve been filled with bitterness, pretended to be holy when my heart and my actions proved that I was not. The charade has been more sophisticated, but not more honorable.

The trouble with living a fantasy is that God does not love illusions. He loves people. He can mend the sick, but he cannot mend a sham. God can save a person, no matter how damaged, but the only thing he can do with a lie is expose and denounce it.

The biblical writer warned that a person “who pours out lies will perish” – not, I think, because he has lied (there is forgiveness for that); but because he has become a lie. The progression seems to go like this: a person tells lies, then walks in lies (as the prophet Jeremiah phrased it), then believes lies, including his or her own (as the Apostle Paul wrote), then becomes a lie (Psalm 62:9).

That is the downward spiral, but there is also an upward spiral. The biblical writers call people to speak truth, walk in truth, and, in St. John’s memorable turn of phrase, to “do truth.” They never refer to people as being true, a designation reserved for God alone, but the task of becoming true is set before us.

It is a monumental task, and one that is quite beyond us because we are often unaware of, and incapable of seeing, the falseness in our own lives. We can’t become true without God’s help, and the help of the people around us.

The goal of this monumental task is to become people of truth. This is more than speaking truthfully, though that is included. It involves removing pretense, every time we become aware of it, and intentionally pursuing transparency. This will be an uncomfortable process, but the reward – the joy and freedom that comes from being who we really are – is worth whatever price we must pay.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 8/14/2016

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