It’s Time to Take Creation Seriously

The idea that God created the material universe is foundational to the Jewish and Christian scriptures. The first verse of the Bible, the one on which the rest of the Scriptures stand, states: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

According to Jews, Christians, Muslims and others, everything came into existence through the intentional act of an unimaginably powerful being. That is a big idea. Its importance is impossible to overstate. Creation implies intention, and intention implies purpose.

That big idea has been challenged. The University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne has said that “the universe and life are pointless … in the sense that there is no externally imposed purpose or point in the universe. As atheists, this is something that is manifestly true to us. We make our own meaning and purpose.”

Coyne agrees with his theistic opponents. Without God, “the universe and life are pointless.” Yet he immediately tries to salvage meaning and purpose by asserting that humans can create their own. Many atheists deny this possibility, but even if Coyne’s assertion is true, it must be acknowledged that humans are powerless to create purpose or meaning that endures. Human purpose ultimately devolves into purposelessness and meaning into meaninglessness.

Unfortunately, interest in creation, particularly among fundamentalists and evangelicals, has often been limited to the method of creation and the age of the earth. These things should be explored and logically debated, but the method of creation is just one door, and a side door at that, into a large house, with many rooms. Too often people stand outside the house and argue about how it was built rather than entering in, enjoying it, and caring for it.

A growing number of Christians have, in recent decades, rediscovered the importance of the doctrine of creation. The conservation and environmental movements of the last century, and green technologies and sustainability in this century, have forced Christians to think about the implications of the doctrine of creation. But Johnny-come-lately Christians would have been out in front of this had they taken their own doctrine of creation seriously.

Though the doctrine of creation has helped some Christians be comfortably fashionable in their commitment to keep and protect the earth—and being fashionable is a more powerful motive than most of us care to admit – it has left other Christians awkwardly unfashionable. For if the Bible is right and God created humankind male and female and blessed their union, it is hard to avoid the implication that creation displays God’s clear intentions regarding human gender and sexuality. Yet to say so in contemporary society is to invite reproach and ridicule.

Concern for the planet has led some people to enthusiastically embrace the biblical doctrine of creation, but they have ignored that doctrine’s implications for gender, sex, and marriage. They have hitched their faith to cultural trends and then looked to the Bible for support. That’s getting the proverbial cart before the horse.

Another, and often overlooked, implication of the doctrine of creation is that God created humans to live in community. In the creation narrative, God is quite blunt: “It is not good for the man to be alone.” Isolation is not good. It is ironic, but for individuals to be all they can be, they simply cannot be individualistic.

Yet modern culture is increasingly individualistic. The very idea of “the common good” is in danger of being lost. When I was a boy, we shared our phone with people in the neighborhood on a party line. Today, moms and dads and kids wouldn’t think of sharing a phone with each other, much less with the rest of the neighborhood.

The doctrine of creation calls us to community, but society is headed in the opposite direction. We sit alone, even in a restaurant full of people, and interact with digital images. More and more, our friends and family live on a 4-G network. How ironic that “privacy” has become one of contemporary society’s most pressing concerns.

The Bible asserts that “It is [God] who has made us, and not we ourselves.” The doctrine of Creation informs us that we were purposed and, contrary to Professor Coyne, we are not free to repurpose ourselves. Life works best when we operate according to the designer’s specs.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 5/19/2018

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Human Perception and the Nature of Reality

Human’s interact with the world through the five senses, which Aristotle listed as sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste. But our “reality interface” also includes senses that Aristotle knew nothing about in his day. To date, researchers have identified between 7 and 14 senses, depending upon how one defines a “sense.”

There is proprioception, the body’s awareness of where it is in space. Equilibrioception gives the body balance. It depends on the vestibular system, which also gives us an awareness of velocity. There is mechanosensation, which communicates neuronal sensations to the brain, and others.

Some animals have senses we do not possess or do not use. In their hunt for prey, sharks use electroception, the ability to sense electrical fields. Bats navigate by magnetoreception, the ability to detect magnetic fields.

Whether human or some other species, the experience of reality is mediated to all animals through the senses. Yet, the ability to effectively use these senses does not come ready-made. It develops gradually, especially in humans.

Research suggests that children under the age of 8 are unable to fully integrate information simultaneously received by the various senses. They can hear a bird’s call and see a cardinal perched on a telephone line, but their brains may not be able to combine the information from both senses into one experience.

A recent study comparing how children and adults process visual information, conducted by University College of London and Birkbeck University, found that adults can integrate multiple visual cues in a way that children under the age of 12 cannot. Vision is not a unified experience but is constructed from multiple cues that are consolidated by the brain. Children’s brains do not consolidate the information the way an adult’s brain does.

One example: depth perception is based on more than one visual cue. The brain uses stereopsis, the visual signals received by two eyes rather than just one, to perceive depth. It also uses texture, convergence (the narrowing of the perceived separation of objects as they grow more distant), and other cues as well. Children see these various cues, just as adults do, but their brains do not consolidate them as effectively as adults. They remain distinct.

If animals perceive reality differently than humans – think of sharks using electromagnetic fields to find their supper – and if adults perceive reality differently than children, what makes us think that adulthood brings with it an accurate and comprehensive perception of reality? Is this conceit warranted? We readily admit that a child’s or animal’s perception is limited. Why do we assume that ours is not?

If there are higher order beings in the universe – think of science fiction’s familiar super aliens – might they not receive sense data that we cannot experience and process such enhanced data in ways that surpass our abilities? But higher order beings are not just in science fiction; they are also in the Bible. Various species of beings are mentioned in Scripture, the most familiar of which we call angels. We know what they are called, but we hardly know what they are, or of what they are capable. Do angels perceive reality differently, and perhaps more fully, than we do?

Recent research into quantum anomalies has led some scientists to claim that there is no independent reality apart from observation and measurement. Physics World went so far as to claim, “Quantum physics says goodbye to reality.” But this idea assumes that human perception is what matters – an assumption which is dubious, at best.

Still, the physicists may be onto something when they say that reality is not independent of observation. Where they err is in thinking that it is human observation that gives reality its shape. Not even adult humans are developed enough to make full use of the data their senses receive—and what of the data they don’t receive?

It is not humans nor even angels who give reality objective existence. They are both creatures, whose existence is contingent on another. The one who observes all reality, and in so doing gives it an objective reality, is the creator: “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God. Everything is naked and exposed before his eyes.”

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 5/5/2018

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Relationships Are Key to a Flourishing Life

In, The Adventure of Silver Blaze, Arthur Conan Doyle puts Sherlock Holmes on the case of a missing thoroughbred, horse-napped on the eve of a big race. His trainer is also missing and presumed dead. Holmes usually solves cases by spotting evidence others have overlooked, and then fitting it into a logically consistent narrative. But this time, he doesn’t solve the case by what he finds but by what he doesn’t find. He doesn’t find anyone who heard the guard dog barking in the night.

When Holmes draws the Scotland Yard detective’s attention to “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time,” the detective replies, “The dog did nothing in the night-time.” Holmes replies, “That was the curious incident.” Holmes realized that the most important clue was not what he found at the scene, but what was missing.

Perhaps Holmes’s approach might help us make sense of a very different kind of mystery. Imagine a case in which people from diverse racial, educational, and socioeconomic backgrounds are experiencing increased incidences of cognitive dysfunction and breakdowns in health. Imagine further – it seems a red herring to most observers – an increase in political extremism among these people.

These “clues” are not out of a detective story, but out of the evening news. How do they fit together? Could the presence of some hitherto unnoticed influence explain these diverse consequences? Or might the real explanation lie with what ought to be there but is missing – “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time”?

There have been increases in cognitive dysfunction among older Americans, along with a rise in certain health problems across all ages: diabetes, obesity, increased stress, elevated levels of inflammation, and more. Researchers have looked for clues in what we eat and in our daily routines – the things that are present in our lives – but only recently have they looked for clues in what is missing from our lives.

What is missing? Close and meaningful friendships. Andrew Horn writes that the number of close friendships in America has dropped over the past few decades: “Between 1985 and 2004, the General Social Survey reported that the average number of confidants Americans felt they could talk to about important matters in their lives fell from 2.94 to 2.08.”

Things get worse. One out of four respondents to the survey say that they have no one with whom they can share important matters. No one. Zero.

Loneliness is shortening people’s lives. It is robbing them of their wellbeing. The absence of meaningful relationships is slowly killing people.

A review of research on the subject in Science suggests that social isolation places a person at the same risk for illness or premature death as does high blood pressure, obesity, lack of exercise or smoking. Another study linked loneliness to an increased risk for developing dementia.

God knew what he was talking about when he said, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” Humans need interaction. Meaningful relationships are a key to a healthy, happy, and flourishing life.

I can’t be myself by myself. I discover myself through interaction with others. As C. S. Lewis explained: “By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets.” I need relationships, first with my creator, then with others, if I am to understand and become myself.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the kind of relationships in which a person discovers and becomes himself or herself are not digital ones. So where, if not on Facebook, will twenty-first century people find them?

There are, of course, many places. Enriching relationships have begun in coffeeshops, service clubs, country clubs and even bars. But the church is the ideal place. The church, though far from perfect, is a place where people are supposed to care for and respect each other. The church is a place where people find themselves by finding God – or being found by him – and then find each other. God, the biblical poet writes, “sets the lonely in families,” and one of his go-to families in which to place people is the church.


First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter

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What Do Those Lyrics Mean, Anyway?

I was a teenager when Don McLean’s classic song, “American Pie,” came out. In study hall, my friends and I would debate the meaning of the lyrics, when we were supposed to be doing our homework. We would wonder out loud about the identity of the jester and the king – Dylan and Elvis, respectively? – about the angel born in hell, and the Father, Son and Holy Ghost and why they headed for the coast.

Like many other people of my generation, I think I understand most of the allusions in “American Pie,” but how can you know for sure? When people ask Don McLean what the song means, his usual response is, “It means I never have to work again.”

If you grew up listening to music, there are probably other song lyrics that have piqued your curiosity. Everyone wondered about the identity of Carly Simon’s vain paramour. And who was Bob Dylan talking about when he wrote, “I wish for just one time you could stand inside my shoes and just for that one moment I could be you…You’d know what a drag it is to see you”?

Neil Young was and still is a favorite of mine. I wonder who was he talking to when he said, “Now that you made yourself love me, do you think I can change it in a day? How can I place you above me? Am I lying to you when I say that I believe in you?” Is there a double entendre here?

Even if there is an allusion to faith in God in “I believe in you,” what about the Vietnam protest song in which Young sings, “Jesus, I saw you walkin’ on the river. I don’t believe you. You can’t deliver right away—I wonder why.”

As much as I would like to talk to Neil Young and Bob Dylan, there are other songwriters I would like to talk to more. Talking to McLean or these others, I might satisfy my curiosity, but I might satisfy my soul by talking to Horatio Spafford.

Spafford was a well-to-do lawyer in Chicago in the 1860s. He was invested heavily in real estate on Chicago’s north side when the Great Chicago Fire devastated his financial security. Scarlet fever then killed his four-year-old son. The devout Presbyterian must have felt as if he were under a curse.

In 1873, Spafford decided to take a family vacation to Europe, where he hoped to see his good friend, the evangelist D. L. Moody. Because he wanted to wrap up some business dealings before leaving, he sent his family ahead. The ship on which they traveled, the Ville du Havre, collided with an iron clipper and sank in the Atlantic, killing most of the passengers. Spafford’s wife Anna survived, but all four of their daughters died. When Anna reached England, she telegraphed her husband the message, “Saved alone.”

Spafford found a ship headed for England and set sail, passing over the place where his children drowned. On that voyage, still reeling from loss, he wrote the poem, “It Is Well with my Soul.” The poem, which became a beloved hymn, begins with the line: “When peace, like a river, attendeth my way, when sorrow like sea billows roll; whatever my lot. Thou hast taught me to say: ‘It is well, it is well with my soul.’”

What piques the curiosity here is not ambiguous lyrics like Don McLean’s or gossipy innuendo like Carly Simon’s. The question here is: where does such strength of character originate? What grace makes it possible to endure such loss? I’ve known people to lose faith under far less trying circumstances.

If I could ask Horatio Spafford the secret of his strength, I’m certain he would say it is no secret. He endured tragedy and loss because he believed in the God of Jesus Christ. He endured because he had hope.

There are verses of Spafford’s song that do not usually appear in hymnals. One, in particular, reveals the nature of his hope. He wrote: “But, Lord, ’tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait,
The sky, not the grave, is our goal.” Spafford believed that neither grave nor ocean’s floor holds our destiny: God does. And that gave him hope.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter

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Mistaking a Caricature for the Real Thing

Political cartoonists must love President Trump: he is so easy to caricature. It only takes a few swipes of the pencil, the outline of a hairstyle, and everyone knows they are looking at Donald Trump.

Of course, every president gets caricatured. President Obama was pictured with a prominent brow and gigantic ears, while George W. Bush was sketched with close-set eyes and jumbo ears. Bill Clinton’s nose was oversized, President Carter had big lips, President Reagan a goofy smile, and President Nixon a ski-jump nose. (Okay, President Nixon really had a ski-jump nose.) The point is that every president gets caricatured.

Now imagine someone who has never seen an actual photograph of President Trump. They only know the man from his caricatures – the pointed hair, sagging jowls and arched brows. How likely would it be for them to recognize the real President Trump if they sat next to him in a restaurant or followed his foursome on the eighteenth hole?

He almost certainly would not recognize the president, even though he had seen a thousand caricatures of him. By exaggerating a trait to the point of absurdity – Trump’s hair or Nixon’s nose – caricatures are readily identifiable in a way that real people, with their nuanced manners and fine distinctions, are not.

Of course, it is not just a president’s looks that get caricatured: so do his policies. A few swipes of a political columnist’s pen can caricature a president’s position on an issue as quickly as a cartoonist can caricature his face – and can be just as absurd.

Unfortunately, what happens in politics also happens in theology. Presidents are not the only ones who get caricatured: God does too. Only with God, people may not realize they are looking at a caricature. Thinking some ridiculous depiction of God to be realistic, they reject him, even though they would not recognize the real God if they sat next to him in a restaurant or followed his Threesome on the eighteenth hole.

When God did rub elbows with humans in the person of his Son, most people didn’t know who he was. The Bible says, “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.” The world expected him to look like his caricature.

In political cartoons, President Trump has pointed hair and President Obama big ears, but how is God caricatured? How do the theological equivalents of political cartoons depict God?

First, there is the angry God caricature. His eyes could bore holes right through a person. Are those clouds behind him or is that steam coming from his ears? The angry God is always mad at someone.

Then there is the killjoy God, who always wears a permanent scowl. His eyes “go to and fro throughout the whole earth,” to misquote the Bible, looking for someone having fun—so he can put a stop to it.

Next is the distant God. He is usually not pictured at all—he’s too far away. Instead, he is symbolized by a light shining though clouds in some distant heaven, reminding us that he is far away and uninvolved. We’re just fooling ourselves if we think the distant God is going to help us.

The accountant God is a common caricature. He wears a visor and spends his day bent over his desk, tallying the sins and virtues of his employees (his creatures) as they appear in the accounts receivable column. This God never whistles while he works. His lips are pursed.

Perhaps the most ubiquitous caricature is the Our-Grandfather-In-Heaven one. This is the old man God, who sits on a throne, presumably because he is too tired to stand up. The Our-Grandfather-In-Heaven God is neither angry nor dour; he just wants his little ones to be happy. He passes out blessings like grandpa passes out Life Savers.

The trouble with these theological caricatures is that otherwise intelligent people confuse them with the true God. When they discard the ridiculous parodies, as they should, they mistakenly think they are done with God. The truth is they haven’t even begun.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 4/14/2018

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What to Look for in a Mentor

One of the best things I’ve ever done was to enter a mentoring relationship with Kenneth West. I was a young man, still in my twenties, working as a lead pastor for the first time in my life, and woefully unprepared for the task. He was in his seventies when we met, a retired pastor, full of wisdom, and still passionate about life with God.

The first time I saw him, he was teaching a Sunday School class. He was a big man, as tall as me, with a sturdier frame. He had large hands that were calloused by hard work, a genuine smile, and an openness toward others I later came to attribute to humility.

We never referred to our connection as a mentoring relationship. We didn’t really refer to it at all; instead of talking about the nature of our relationship, we talked about the nature of life, of faith, and of work. I still remember some of the things he said, but what he said was not as important as the kind of life he modeled. I didn’t just want to learn from him; I wanted to be like him.

I was impressed by his humility from the beginning. He was a good storyteller. Whether his story was about himself or someone else made no difference; never once did I get the impression that he was telling the story to impress people with himself. He loved God, loved life, and loved people, and he wanted to share what he loved with others.

He taught me to eschew brash dogmatism. He did this by showing me that it is possible to firmly believe something without insisting everyone else believe it. I learned from him how to disagree with others without disparaging them. He helped me see that life, whatever else it is, is not an argument to be won or lost.

I learned from him that a well-ordered life is, by necessity, a prioritized life. Humans are not God. They cannot do everything. They must make choices. Once, when we were talking about something that demanded a higher priority in my life, I said, “Well, I guess I’ll have to make time for it.”

Ken West looked at me knowingly and said, “Brother Looper,” – he always called me that – “You can’t make time. You can only take it from something else.” It was an obvious truth with profound implications, but I’d never thought of it before. A good mentor helps you see yourself and others in a new light.

Mentoring has, in recent years, become a “thing,” especially in the business world. But it is not just business types who can benefit from finding a mentor. I know from experience that a good mentor can make a difference in a pastor’s life, but teachers, customer service people, husbands, wives, and students can all benefit from establishing a relationship with a good mentor.

There are things to do and things to avoid when finding a mentor. Don’t ask someone to be your mentor because you admire his or her success. Ask someone to be your mentor because you admire his or her life. The person who has succeeded in your field but failed in marriage may believe that sacrificing relationships is an acceptable price to pay to achieve success. Is that really the kind of mentoring you want?

Find someone who has already navigated the path you are on, is far enough ahead of you to know what the terrain looks like and has the communication skills to describe it to you. Remember that not everyone who has achieved proficiency in a skill is able to articulate the steps in getting there.

Look for someone who sees the relationship as a way to give, not a way to take. Some people love the idea of mentoring (especially the authority and admiration that comes with it) and love to give advice but are more interested in themselves than in the other person.

Finally, don’t quit the relationship when you don’t like what the mentor says. It’s the hard truths that help most. Find a mentor who will tell you what you need to hear, even if it is not what you want to hear.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 4/7/2018

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“Storied” People

The people of Jesus are “storied” people. They not only know the story, they live the story;  it is still going on.

You can hear the climactic episode of the ongoing story told in three parts at Part I (See, Your King Comes, March 25) tells the exciting story of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem. It is a story of hope, conflict, and misunderstanding, set in a politically volatile time. Part II (Holy Week Communion, March 29) tells the story of the night Jesus was betrayed. Part III (See, Your King Comes, April 1) looks at the first Easter morning from the perspective of Mary Magdalene.

Don’t stop celebrating Easter!

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