Alexa, Stop Creeping Me Out

Yet another reason why I don’t own a smartphone or tablet. Alexa, Amazon’s artificial intelligence-based personal assistant, has been laughing at her masters, and it is creeping them out. According to Amazon, it just a voice recognition flaw, but when Alexa laughs maniacally in the middle of the night, it seems more like the prequel to I, Robot.

The software that drives Alexa, that turns on lights, starts espresso machines, and makes her laugh, is driven by a remote server somewhere. Alexa is simply an ear and a mouthpiece; her brain is far away. Or, to use an image from an earlier era: Alexa is an idol. The god that communicates through the idol is off in some digital heaven somewhere; maybe Silicon Valley.

The case could be made that Alexa is the eidolon – the local manifestation – of a god. You can ask Alexa how to be popular, for steps on a career path, or to calm you down with music, and the goddess will respond. Answers to such prayers are never delayed more than a few fractions of a second. Alexa can provide comfort and companionship, and all one needs do is ask – or should I say, pray?

The Silicon Valley Olympians – Amazon, Apple, Google – are all lightning fast and voice activated. Merely speak the words: “Alexa (or “Siri” or “Google”) please text John and tell him I’ll be there in five minutes,” and what you desire is done. And the sacrifices these deities demand are minimal – $150 for the Amazon god, plus any additional cost of installing devices in your home that will respond to her. More ominously, though, those who bow at her altar entrust their lives to a remote power they know little about but that wants to know everything there is to know about them, including when they go to bed and what’s on their playlist.

The God of the Bible also uses voice commands, only it is his voice, not his adherent’s, that make things happen. He does not need eidolons – local representations like Amazon’s Echo – to get things done.

If you want Alexa to turn on your lights or turn up your heat, you need to install smart bulbs or a smart thermostat that are programmed to respond wirelessly to commands from the Amazon god who resides on the cloud. Alexa will let her adherents freeze before she turns up the heat, unless their smart thermostat is connected and enabled. She has no heart.

That is certainly different from the God of the Bible, but there are similarities in the way they work. He operates wirelessly. He also has programmed his devices to respond to his voice. Think about the first chapter of the book of Genesis, when God said, “’Let there be light,’ and there was light.” Creation has been programmed, connected, and enabled to respond to God’s voice.

The universe God designed is a lot like a smart device – or many trillions of smart devices. Beneath the weird framework of quantum mechanics in our universe lies something deeper: a programming of sorts. Many scientists, recognizing this, have abandoned the long-established mechanistic paradigm of how the universe works and are replacing it with an information paradigm. The have come to believe that quanta, the basic building blocks of the universe, represent information bits – code.

This perspective harmonizes well with the biblical view of a creator who made a universe that responds to his voice. He said, “Let there be light,” his smart creation responded, and the lights came on. He said, “Let there be vegetation” (animals, people, etc.), and it happened. The Bible repeats the words “God said” nine times over the course of six creation days. The psalmist commented: “For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm.”

Eugene Peterson, author of the popular Bible paraphrase, The Message, has written of “the massive, overwhelming previousness of God’s speech…” Everything, absolutely everything, including humanity, is voice-activated. But humans have been “disabled” by sin and now must be “enabled” by faith in their creator, the God of Jesus.

As for me, I’ll trust the God known for giving “songs in the night” instead of that other one, the one known for creepy nocturnal laughter.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 3/17/18

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The Only Way Out Is Up

When Richard Spencer, the Alt-Right leader and social firebrand, came to Michigan State University this week, four police officers suffered minor injuries and twenty-five people were arrested. According to The Chicago Tribune, only 150 tickets were issued to the event, but even fewer people attended because of the violence that broke out between Spencer supporters and antifascist protestors.

Spencer’s white supremacist rants are deplorable. His apocalyptic vision urges white people to take action before their doom comes. He tells hearers to join his movement if they “want to live,” and warns that American society may end up in a “hot war” waged by people of color against whites.

Richard Spencer may speak with a prophetic passion as he describes, preacher-like, his peculiar end-times revelation, but his views are anything but Christian. His apocalyptic vision contradicts the vision of the New Testament. The hatred he instills and the violence he promotes have nothing in common with the teaching of Jesus or his apostles.

Indeed, Spencer arrogantly claims that Jesus was mistaken when he said, “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.” Spencer, who misunderstands what meekness is, states: “I have never gained anything in my life or my career by watering it down to be just a little bit more palatable. The meek shall never inherit the Earth.”

Either Jesus was right, or Richard Spencer was. For my part, I’ll stand with Jesus, not Spencer.

But I also wouldn’t stand with some of the people who protested against Spencer at MSU. They adopted the very tactics civilized people ought to deplore, shouting vile obscenities at police, and using violence against both police and the people attending Spencer’s lecture. If the hope for peace rests on the shoulders of such people, we’re all in big trouble.

I was once invited to join a protest march against a practice that was deemed racially insensitive. The woman who invited me was a 60s radical for whom the Vietnam war protests marked the high point of her life. She was constantly trying to regain the old sense of purpose and camaraderie she had found on her college campus so long ago.

Perhaps the protestors at MSU were cut from the same cloth: people who were not protesting injustice as much as they were fleeing their own purposelessness. Perhaps they just needed a cause with which to identify themselves. But if their cause is peace, they are going about things the wrong way.

It’s not that they were wrong to take a stand, but taking a stand is different from taking a club, or brass knuckles and knives, as some protestors did. The protestors would have done better to stand for something good, instead of merely standing against something deplorable. The local Episcopal church planned a celebration of diversity to coincide with Spencer’s speaking engagement and received more than 1,000 RSVPs. Imagine if Spencer’s speech had gone on without incident: the local news would have reported that Spencer spoke to 150 attendees, while the diversity celebration attracted more than 1,000. Even Spencer’s supporters would then have had to face the fact of his obvious lack of appeal.

The truth is that hatred, whether it wears a swastika or an Antifa mask, is still hatred. And hatred will never dispel hatred, it will only increase it. Good alone has the power to overcome evil. That is a lesson that Jesus taught and St. Paul reiterated, but that we are regrettably slow to learn.

If one person on the MSU campus had truly engaged Spencer’s muddled supporters with love, he or she could have done more to stop the insanity than all the violent protestors combined. Calling people names only reinforces their prejudices, but a reasoned and respectful debate invites people to reexamine their assumptions. Hearts and minds may not be changed in a day, but they will not be changed at all by busting heads.

The way out of this mess is not to the hard right with Richard Spencer, nor to the hard left with the Antifa protestors. It is not even to the soft right or the soft left. The only way out is up. Our sundered society needs help from above.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 3/10/2018

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The King of the Castle?

I just finished a short series titled, “The King of the Castle.” The king is not husband/dad but Jesus the Lord. How do we seek (and experience) the kingdom of God in our homes? The first message in the series is titled, “Removing Stumbling Blocks,” and it comes from Romans 14, and was given on February 4. The next three are titled “Righteousness,” “Peace” and “Joy” (from Romans 14:17-19), and were given, respectively, on February 11, February 18, and March 4.

You can listen at While you’re at it, check out the great sermon Kevin Looper preached on February 25 titled, “Seek the Lord With All Your Heart.” His extended illustration from St. Augustine’s life will inspire you.

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Chris Pratt Abused for Admitting That He Prays

When the actor Chris Pratt tweeted that he was praying his derriere off – he didn’t use that French word but a ruder English equivalent – for filmmaker Kevin Smith, he was roundly criticized. That is putting it too mildly. He sparked a firestorm.

If, a decade or two ago, I had read that an actor had sparked controversy by saying that he was praying his derriere off, I would have assumed that he was being criticized for his crude way of describing his prayers. Gentle Christians would have been shocked by such an “outrageous” comment.

Not any more. The angry backlash did not happen because Pratt mentioned his backside or suggested he was in danger of losing it through his energetic praying, but because he prayed and had the gall to mention it in public. His accusers were not “gentle Christians” but militant anti-religionists. They didn’t charge him with being rude but being naïve and irrational.

Is it irrational to pray? Has science proved that prayer is based on a lie and people who pray are delusional? Of course not. It would only be irrational to pray if it could be shown that prayers are not answered or that praying is detrimental, which has not happened. If there is a God, and many scientists believe there is, then prayer is not irrational. Prayer may be mysterious, but it is not illogical.

When I first went into full-time Christian ministry, I pastored what might be called a “mission church,” which was unsubsidized by the denomination I served. When I arrived, the church had an average attendance of 19 people on a Sunday morning, and we were constantly on the edge of financial disaster. Four months into my pastorate, the church’s biggest financial supporter died unexpectedly.

For the next few years, paydays often came without pay, or with only a partial paycheck. The church sometimes had to choose between paying us or paying the electric company. There were times when the cupboard was bare and our wallets empty. In those times of need, we would ask God to intervene, and the results were remarkable.

Without ever telling anyone – not even family – our situation, our needs were met again and again. People driving by, people who did not know us, stopped and gave us money, not once but at least three times. They told us God directed them to do so. Money came in the mail on the day it was needed or was placed in an envelope and stuck in the door. One day, I cried out to God, “I need a new car!” and I was given a car that evening. And all this without ever telling a soul about our needs.

Did our prayers have anything to do with it? I cannot prove that they did, but I believe it. Had the people insulting Chris Pratt lived through our experiences, I suspect they would not criticize a person for praying. It might not bring them to believe in the efficacy of prayer, but it would at least restrain them from insulting people who do.

A civil person, even if he or she had doubts about the utility of saying prayers, would at least be grateful for the sympathetic spirit behind them. But I suspect the backlash against Chris Pratt is not really about the rationality of prayer but about controlling the linguistic territory of the public arena. The people criticizing Pratt don’t really want to have a philosophical debate on the existence of God or even a scientific discussion on the development of tools to objectively measure whether prayer is beneficial. They want to control who gets to speak.

That freedom of speech is being challenged is clear. A couple of years ago, the liberal mayor of Houston, the nation’s fourth largest city, subpoenaed local pastors, demanding transcripts of their sermons, like the leader of some authoritarian regime.

Within the last year, academics in both the U.S. and Canada have been reprimanded by their schools and shouted down by opponents for espousing unpopular ideas. Once bastions of free speech, college campuses are becoming the least open places in society.

And then there is poor Chris Pratt, who lost his derriere praying, and was abused for his sacrifice. What’s the world coming to?

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, March 3, 2018

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Congratulations on Your New Home, Billy

How would Billy Graham respond to all the publicity surrounding his death? I suspect he would do what he routinely did – he was, after all, no stranger to publicity. He would ask himself and his team: “How can we use this to further the cause of Jesus Christ?” Not the cause of The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. The cause of Jesus.

Christianity Today reports that a Scottish minister once made this observation about Graham: “My first impression of the man at close quarters was not of his good looks but of his goodness; not of his extraordinary range of commitments, but of his own ‘committedness’ to his Lord and Master. To be with him even for a short time is to get a sense of a single-minded man; it shames one and shakes one as no amount of ability and cleverness can do.”

The range of Graham’s accomplishments was extraordinary. He was instrumental in launching Campus Crusade for Christ, was a college president for a few years in the forties, helped establish Christianity Today in 1956, was an ambassador for Christ in the Soviet Bloc and visited Russia to preach the gospel before the fall of communism. But he did these various things with a unifying purpose: to tell the world what God has done through Jesus. That was his assignment.

I was listening to Catholic talk radio in the car the day Rev. Graham died. The host, after pointing out dissimilarities between Billy Graham and Catholic teaching, went on to say repeatedly that he loved Billy Graham. He recognized the hand of God in Graham’s life and ministry.

But not everyone loved Billy Graham. When he invited Doctor Martin Luther King to join him on the platform in New York, segregationists were outraged. Civil rights leaders were also angry and accused Graham of being a coward because he did not take part in the marches.

When Graham went to the Soviet Union, he was called a traitor. Students at his own alma mater, Wheaton College, carried placards announcing, “Billy Graham Has Been Duped by the Soviets.” Others, including members of the U.S. State Department, were harsh in their criticism.

When Graham went to London in 1954 for a three-month long crusade, he spoke to more than two million people. Over 40,000 responded to his invitation to “accept Jesus into your heart.” And yet, fundamentalists at home were furious with Graham for working on the crusade with liberal Christians. Many questioned the genuineness of his faith.

The same thing happened when Billy met with Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II. He spent two hours with John Paul and before he left the pope grabbed Graham’s lapels, pulled him forward within inches of his face, and said: “Listen, Graham, we are brothers.” That meeting set Graham’s critics raving, but it is hard for me to believe it did not set heaven singing.

Criticism did not stop Graham from fulfilling his assignment, nor did praise. Queen Elizabeth II sought him out. Presidents, from Truman to Obama, met with him. He was awarded a spot on the Gallop Organization’s most admired people more times than any other American. The Ladies Home journal once ranked Graham second in the category of “achievements in religion.” Who was ranked first? God.

But Graham was careful not to let fame keep him from what he had been called to do. Dr. William Shoemaker, who worked closely with the evangelist as the first Director the Graham Center at Wheaton, said that Graham once told him: “If I don’t give all the credit to the Lord, I feel He would remove my effectiveness – just like what happened to Sampson when his hair was cut.”

In the light of his death, many people are praising Graham now, but some are as critical as ever. What would Graham say? We don’t have to wonder: he told us. Borrowing from the words of his great predecessor D. L. Moody, Graham said: “Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address.”

Congratulations, Billy, on your new home.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 2/24/2018

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The Key to the Good Life

The good life is all about good relationships. Our most serious problems and our greatest accomplishments involve relationships. Studies have repeatedly shown that good relationships contribute more to happiness than success, and bad relationships contribute more to unhappiness than failure.

The Harvard Study of Adult Development has tracked the lives of 724 men for 75 years. The study director, Robert Waldinger, summarized its findings this way: “The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”

One of Western society’s principal myths envisions the good life waiting at the end of a career path. But the good life is found in healthy and appropriate relationships with those who share the path with us, not at its end. People who sacrifice good relationships for money or career unwittingly pull the rug out from under their own contentment.

The word the Christian tradition uses to denote healthy and appropriate relationships is “righteousness.” The noun and its cognates appear over a thousand times in the Bible. Being righteous was a chief concern of both Jews and Christians.

Unfortunately, many people thought that righteousness was about keeping rules rather than living in right relationships. The Pharisees, who were contemporaries of Jesus, are a case in point. Their experts had composed 39 separate categories of rules just to govern Sabbath Day conduct. Every poor Pharisee had thousands of rules to try to remember and keep.

One rule, for example, prohibited a person from carrying “a burden” on the Sabbath. That seems straightforward enough. But not so fast. What constitutes a burden? To answer that question, religious scholars composed endless lists of proscribed burdens. A burden was food equal in weight to a dried fig, enough wine for mixing in a goblet, milk enough for one swallow, water enough to moisten an eye-salve, ink enough to write two letters of the alphabet”—and on and on.

If memorizing lists like these is what it takes to be “righteous,” the only a righteous people will be nit-picking, fastidious cranks. But the righteous people of the Bible, including Abraham, Moses, David, Ruth, Esther, and especially Jesus, were anything but nit-picking cranks.

Fastidious rule-keeping is not righteousness. A person does not cross the “righteousness boundary” because he or she has achieved 75 percent of perfection on some official list of religious behaviors.

Righteousness is all about relationships. No one, not even God, can be righteous in isolation; it requires relationship. To be righteous is to be right in relationship; that is, to relate appropriately. An appropriate relationship will be different with a spouse than with a boss – it’s probably best not to kiss your boss hello and goodbye – and both will differ from an appropriate relationship with God.

Of course, many people feel like right and good relationships are no longer possible for them. Their relationship with spouse, child, parent, or co-worker has been so badly damaged that it seems beyond repair. So, they give up on good relationships and pursue money or success or endless distraction instead.

But it is never too late. No matter how strained a relationship is, one can always begin to relate appropriately. That won’t “fix” a damaged relationship, which may require years of rebuilding, but it will put it on different footing. Even if the other person rebuffs all communication, one can still act appropriately, given the situation. One can forgive or request forgiveness, pray for the other person, refuse to speak badly and instead speak well of him or her to others. In a badly damaged relationship, such actions might be what righteousness entails.

The good life is about good and healthy relationships, and good and healthy relationships begin in a right relationship with God, made possible through confidence in Jesus Christ. By its very nature, a relationship with God interacts with every other relationship we have, making it the perfect place to start. It gives a person room to stand, and the strength and insight necessary to begin new ways of relating to others.

Put simply: the good life is all about good relationships, and good relationships depend on a right relationship with God.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 2/17/2018

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The Strange History of St. Valentine’s Day

It’s almost Valentine’s Day. The pressure is on. Forget to buy a gift, and you might be in the doghouse. Forget to send a card, and you’ll be lucky to get the doghouse key.

I almost always remember to buy my wife a card, but even if I didn’t, she would still love me. If giving cards and gifts is a “love language,” as the psychologist Gary Chapman maintains, neither my wife nor I are fluent in it. Some years ago, during a busy week before Valentine’s Day, we were together in a store. She picked out a card for me and I picked out one for her, showed each other the cards, probably kissed (I don’t remember), then returned the cards to their respective shelves. Hallmark hates us, but we love each other.

February 14th has not always been the way it is now. It used to be worse. During the Roman festival of Lupercalia, drunk, naked men hit women with the skins of recently sacrificed animals in a raucous fertility ritual. The women were then paired with the men who beat them, and the couple’s fertility was put to the test.

What did St. Valentine have to do with this? Absolutely nothing. Valentine was, historians believe, a Christian priest who lived near Rome during the time of Emperor Claudius II, a sworn enemy of the faith. In fact, there were two Christian priests named Valentine, living around Rome at the same time, and Claudius had them both put to death on February 14, during Lupercalia, though not in the same year.

It is possible the stories of the two Valentines, executed under Claudius, have been conflated, and that St. Valentine is really an amalgam of both. According to one tradition, Valentine had won the emperor’s admiration, but lost it – and his life – by trying to convert Claudius to the faith. The emperor was so outraged by Valentine’s unwanted evangelism, he ordered a three-part execution: beating, stoning, and beheading.

Another version attributes Claudius’s ire to the fact that Valentine was secretly marrying Christian couples, against the edict of the Emperor. Since newly married men were excused for a time from serving in the wars, Valentine was accused of hindering the war effort.

It is often said that just before Valentine was led away to execution, he wrote a note to the daughter of his jailer, whose vision was restored after he prayed for her. According to legend, he signed his encouraging note, “from your Valentine.” Hence the tradition of sending Valentine cards.

Whether or not our current traditions can be traced back to a third century saint is debatable, but there is little doubt they can be traced back to medieval and Renaissance poets. It was during the age (one might almost say, the “cult”) of courtly love that Valentine became an A-lister among the saints. When Geoffrey Chaucer linked the saint to romantic love, Valentine’s popularity soared. Shakespeare added to his fame in Hamlet, with a song about a girl who lost her virginity on Valentine’s Day.

Because of a line in Chaucer’s poem “Parlement of Foules” lovers in the royal court began sending each other handmade paper cards on Valentine’s Day. In eighteenth century England, the practice of sending cards signed, “from your Valentine,” expanded well beyond the court. But it wasn’t until 1913, when Hallmark saw the commercial opportunity the holiday afforded, that Valentine’s Day became a hotbed not of love but of profit. Analysts estimate that Americans alone spent over 18 billion dollars on Valentine’s Day last year.

What would Valentine, the third century Christian martyr (or martyrs, as the case may be), make of all this? Would he laugh hilariously at the absurdity of men giving their wives lingerie in his name, or would he appreciate the expressions of affection that spouses share, or would he cry over the vast expenditure of resources without a corresponding increase in genuine love and affection?

Perhaps he would do all three. Or maybe he would express his feelings by quoting an earlier saint whose wisdom he revered, St. Paul: “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.”

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 2/10/2018

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