God and Judgment in the #Me Too Era

Oprah Winfrey once explained that a sermon was the immediate cause of her departure from the orthodox Christian faith. In his Sunday message,her pastor Jeremiah Wright read and then exposited an Old Testament text in which God portrays himself as being jealous. Oprah decided then and there that she wanted nothing to do with a jealous God.

Ms. Winfrey is an extraordinarily talented and intelligent person, but she got Pastor Wright’s message all wrong. A jealous God is good news for us. A God who doesn’t care what his people do or what people do to them would be unbearably bad news, like a man who didn’t mind if his unfaithful wife chased other men or didn’t care if other men harassed his faithful wife.

People’s jealousy is sourced in insecurity but God’s is sourced in love. People’s jealousy is limiting but God’s is liberating. A jealous husband prevents his wife from reaching her potential by restricting her freedom. A jealous God enables a person to reach her potential by overcoming obstacles to it. God is not only jealous for who we are but for who we can become and is opposed to anything that blocks our fulfillment.

Those who deceive,oppress, misuse, and otherwise harm God’s much-loved people will, sooner or later, face the jealous God. Many Christians have shied away from talking about this for fear it would push people away from God, as Wright’s sermon pushed Oprah Winfrey away. But in the era of #Me Too, it might be time to rethink that. Understanding that God will punish those who hurt his loved ones might actually attract people.

The Bible teaches that people do not get away with the evil they do, neither the subordinate nor the celebrity, the small-time operator nor the powerful official. The biblical writers repeatedly warn the man who thinks he has gotten away with evil that he is mistaken. What he did is known. A reckoning is coming, one that not even the rich and powerful can evade.

St. Paul wrote that “The sins of some men are obvious, reaching the place of judgment ahead of them; the sins of others trail behind them.” Obvious or not, ahead or behind, there is no escape. It may take years for the truth to come out, it may take ages, but the truth will be revealed. The person who misuses one of God’s people, which includes everyone, since he is the Creator of all, will have to answer to God for his or her actions.

The biblical doctrine of judgment has been largely overlooked for a generation or more. Because Christians have struggled with reconciling the God of love revealed in the life of Jesus Christ with the God of judgment presented in the Bible, they have remained silent. However, reconciling the God of love with a God who allows evil to go unpunished is just as problematic. A God who says, “Oh, well,” to the oppression of the poor or the sexual misuse of the defenseless, who shrugs his shoulders over genocide and says helplessly, “What’s a God to do?” is not an improvement.

Fortunately, such a God is not the one revealed in the Bible. From its first book to its last, the Bible teaches that God will judge human beings. No biblical doctrine is more easily demonstrated. What’s more, God’s judgment is not bad news, as has often been implied, but very good news.

The Biblical writers understood this and celebrated it. To them, the doctrine of judgment meant that God will make things right. Evil will not win and evil-doers will not escape. Wrongs will be redressed. Love and justice will be rewarded.

Believing God’s judgment to be good news, the Biblical writers extolled it: “Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad; let the sea resound, and all that is in it; let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them. Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy; they will sing before the LORD, for he comes, he comes to judge the earth.” Judgement is good news in the # Me Too era and every era. It offers hope that what has gone so wrong will one day be set right.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 12/8/2018

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Tolerance: Rediscovering the Lost Virtue

“In many ways tolerance is a lost virtue, and often, where it does exist, it exists from the wrong cause.” Those are the words of the Scottish scholar William Barclay, first published in 1953. Though there has been a great deal of talk about tolerance since then, it’s not clear that the lost virtue has ever been found.

Over the decades, talk about tolerance has risen like the waves of the sea, only to subside, then rise again. The concept of tolerance has been a wedge that activists hammer to create an opening for the acceptance of a previously unpopular opinion or practice. Once acceptance has been gained, interest in tolerance invariably falls until the next cause blows in.

There was a swell of tolerance talk in the 1990s and early 2000s, but if that was the decade of tolerance, the second decade of the century has been the decade of intolerance. Tolerance has become an anti-virtue. We are not going to tolerate – you can fill in the blank: racism, sexism, illegal immigration, hate speech, east coast elitism, Trumpism, even intolerance – any longer.

Both the demand for tolerance and the counter-demand for intolerance can be wrong-headed. Frequently, those demanding tolerance want us to accept their opinions and practices, while those demanding intolerance want us to reject the people who hold opinions or take part in practices with which they disagree. But this is to get things backwards. It is unnecessary, and sometimes reprehensible, to tolerate opinions, but it is necessary to tolerate people, even when they hold opinions we emphatically reject.

Our generation could learn about tolerance from John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Wesley, who lived in an age when upper-class men often wore powdered wigs, once wrote: “I have no more right to object to a man for holding a different opinion than mine than I have to differ with a man because he wears a wig and I wear my own hair; but if he takes his wig off and shakes the powder in my face, I shall consider it my duty to get quit of him as soon as possible.”

When the Methodist movement began, Wesley was determined it would be characterized by tolerance. “I resolved to use every possible method of preventing … a narrowness of spirit, a party zeal … that miserable bigotry which makes many so unready to believe that there is any work of God but among themselves.”

The maxim among the early Methodists was, “We think and let think.” Intolerance does just the opposite. It doesn’t think and it doesn’t want anyone else to think either.

What Wesley taught the Methodists, he also practiced. According to William Barclay, John’s brother Charles had a son who left the Church of England, of which his father and uncle were ordained clergymen, and became a Roman Catholic. This came at a time of strong anti-Catholic sentiment in England, yet John wrote his nephew, “Whether in this Church or that I care not. You maybe saved in either or damned in either; but I fear you are not born again.”

When tolerance is directed to the wrong object – to opinions and practices, rather than to people – society suffers. Opinions and practices that don’t merit acceptance are received while people for whom tolerance could provide a path for change are rejected. Ideas should stand or fall on their merit but people can only stand on grace.

A misplaced object is not the only, nor the most critical, place tolerance can go wrong. A misplaced motive is even more detrimental. Barclay writes: “Our tolerance must not be based on indifference but on love. We ought to be tolerant not because we could care less but because we look at the other person with eyes of love.”

Barclay has uncovered the one foundation that can support authentic tolerance: love. Jesus taught his followers to love people, including those whose opinions and practices were morally deficient or socially harmful. He even commanded them to love their enemies. Only in this way is it possible to resolutely reject a person’s views and at the same time genuinely accept the person.

And that’s something that can change the world.

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Thankfulness Is a Predictor of Spiritual Vitality

The holidays are the season for giving, for getting together with family, and for watching movie sequels and prequels. This will be the first Christmas since 2011 that there has not been a hobbit or a stormtrooper in the movie theaters, but Mary Poppins will be back.

 It can be hard to understand what’s going on in a story if you don’t know the backstory. This is not only true in the movies; it’s true in everyday life. The dynamics of the workplace will confound you unless you know that the woman in HR who is married to the boss used to be married to your department supervisor. Knowing the backstory is also important when it comes to understanding the Bible.

One of the fascinating backstories in the Scripture has todo with the relationship between Jews and Samaritans – as in the “Good Samaritan.” The northern Jewish kingdom of Samaria was conquered in the Assyrian War, its inhabitants deported, and the land resettled by people from other conquered nations. The new residents, known as Samaritans, and their southern Jewish kingdom neighbors did not get along.

 When the Samaritans offered their help in rebuilding the devastated Jewish temple, the Jews refused and told them they were unworthy.Later, according to the biblical scholar William Barclay, a “renegade” Jew married the daughter of a well-known Samaritan leader and preceded to build a rival temple to the one in Jerusalem. A famous Jewish general led a raid into Samaria and destroyed the temple. The Samaritans responded by vandalizing and contaminating the Jewish Temple.

This is the backstory to the Bible’s chronicle of Jewish-Samaritan relations. It helps the reader understand why Jesus’s disciples wanted to call fire down from heaven on a Samaritan village. It also explains why Jesus’s disciples were shocked to find him speaking to a Samaritan woman – something no other Jewish rabbi would have even thought of doing.

One of the Bible’s more famous “Samaritan stories” comes from the Gospel of Luke. Jesus was traveling along the border of Samaria and Galilee, on his way to Jerusalem, when he encountered a band of lepers. In the Bible, the term “lepers” signifies people with a variety of contagious skin diseases. Such people were completely cut off from society.

This particular band was comprised of nine Jews and one Samaritan. They pled, from a distance, for Jesus to heal them and he did. He sent them to the priest, the person authorized to readmit former “lepers” into society, and they all rushed off to resume their old lives. All except one: the Samaritan.

He came running back to Jesus, shouting praise to God, and threw himself at Jesus’s feet, overwhelmed with gratitude. Jesus looked around to see if any of the Jewish members of the band had returned, but they had not.Disappointed, he said: “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine?”

There are fascinating aspects to this story. For one thing,we see how isolation can make strange bedfellows. Before contracting leprosy,the Jews and the Samaritan would have had nothing to do with each other but being rejected by society brought former adversaries together. One can see how something similar might happen among Christian traditions that have historically snubbed each other. If society ever anathematizes Christians, which is conceivable,liberals and fundamentalists, Catholics and Protestants, Calvinists and Arminians might finally learn to get along with each other.

It is also interesting to see that the Samaritan, whose theology was all wrong – Jesus says as much in John’s Gospel – was the only one to get it right. Apparently, being wrong-headed is not as harmful as being wrong-hearted. Perhaps this is a truth political rivals should consider before demonizing their opponents. It is certainly one people of faith should consider before demonizing anyone.

One would expect that the Samaritan, like his Jewish companions, had a life waiting for him, perhaps a family and a job. Yet he paused to give thanks, suggesting that he did not merely see God as a means to an end but as the end for which life was a means. This, in turn, suggests that ethnicity and religious training are not good predictors of spiritual vitality, but thankfulness is.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 11/24/2018

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The Danger of Idolizing Technology

Every era has its gods – the powerful entities that people routinely turn to for protection, provision, and personal fulfillment. In our era that god is technology.

Technology has achieved ascendancy in this generation, at least in the West, but it began its rise to power in the Renaissance. The advance of crank and connecting rod technology, the inventions of the flywheel and the navigational compass, and preeminently the invention of the printing press transformed the cultural landscape.

Technology has been a rising star in the pantheon of powers ever since. Transportation technologies from the steam engine to the airplane to self-driving cars have made the world more accessible. Communication technologies have made the nearly instant transfer of information possible. Health technologies have changed the diagnosis and treatment of disease to the point that some futurists are talking about lifespans without a terminus.

This has been largely good for humankind, and remarkably good in some cases. But somewhere along the way technology went from being a tool that humans used to a power that humans trusted. This was certainly the case in post-war America. Baby-boomers grew up in what was proudly called “the atomic age.” Progress was everywhere. Nothing seemed impossible for us. With technology to lead us, even the sun, moon, and stars were within our reach.

The post-war generation has witnessed the apotheosis of technology. It’s family, like Zeus’s family in ancient Greece, has been exalted above the rest of the pantheon. The trouble with technology, like most of the gods in world history, is that it doesn’t love people. This isn’t to say that the gods of a given age don’t help people; they do, but only when it serves their purposes.

We can see that dynamic at work today. Big Data is one of technology’s youngest and strongest children. Big Data is virtually omniscient. It knows what you buy and how much you are willing to pay for it. It knows how long an item sits in your shopping cart, and how many sites you visit before making a purchase. It knows your name and the names of your family, your annual income, your habits, your hotel preference, your playlist, and how much money you are likely to spend over the holidays.

Its purpose in knowing these things is not to promote your well-being. Aware of that, various agencies – the EU, the U.S. Congress, and others – have tried to limit Big Data’s reach. Their success has been limited because most people are willing to trust their lives and personal information to Big Data in return for the much-sought-after blessing of convenience.

That may change when predictive purchase behavior modeling makes it possible for companies to charge the optimum price for goods and services any given individual is willing to pay. Airlines may someday charge one person $350 for a ticket to Dallas, $50 more than it charges someone else, simply because it knows that person will pay it. A pharmacy may charge one patient 50 percent more than it charges another for exactly the same drug.

Economic costs are not the greatest danger this god presents. Humans take on the characteristics of their gods. The biblical writer captured this dynamic in a poem about those who make and worship idols: “Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.”

If a people become like the god – the power – it reveres, what does that mean for a society that idolizes technology? Technology has no compassion. It cares nothing for those it watches over. It enriches those who feed it but does so by appropriating the goods of those who don’t. Technology has no moral code; it is heartlessly utilitarian. It has no loyalty – older versions are tossed on the junk pile; it updates as it sees fit.

Does that sound like our culture? A shortage of compassion. A crumbling moral code. A lack of loyalty. Updating friends and even spouses regularly. Is that what we want – to be like the technology idol we adore?

There is only one God we can safely worship, knowing that webecome like the God we trust. It is the one who is “compassionate and gracious,slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.”

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 11/17/2018

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The Story We’re In Isn’t About Ease and Security

When my family was living in northeastern Ohio, I received a letter inviting pastors to a meet-and-greet with a candidate for Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court. Wanting to be a responsible and informed voter, I replied that I would attend.

There were hundreds of pastors in the area who probably received the same letter; I think I was the only one who attended. There were business people there, and lawyers, and newspaper reporters, but only one pastor.

I went, expecting to learn the candidate’s views on the lawand the function of the court, but the candidate wasn’t there to share hisviews. When his campaign staff learned that a pastor – the one and only pastor– had arrived, they introduced me to him. As I shook his hand, someone said:“Look over here!”, a bulb flashed, and the next day the newspaper had a picture of Pastor Shayne Looper shaking hands with the candidate for chief justice.

I thought I was at that meeting for one reason, it turned out I was there for another. I thought the plot of the story was: “Interested voters gather to hear candidate’s views, but I wasn’t on the same page with everyone else. I wasn’t even in the same book. I didn’t really know why I was there. I thought I did, but I was mistaken.

I’ve noticed that many worshipers are more interested in the “how” of the Christian life than they are the “why,” but “why” takes precedence. It is not possible to establish the “how” before knowing the “why.” Worshipers want something practical, which is to say something that will make their lives easier and more secure. But what if the story they’re in isn’t about ease and security? What if that’s not why they are here?

We think we want practical help to live the Christian life fruitfully when what we usually want is divine help to live our own life successfully. That is a problem because God is not interested in helping us live a successful life by society’s standards. We want a life rich enough in material goods that we don’t need to depend on anyone. God wants us to have a life rich enough in faith that we can depend on him for everything.

People frequently don’t know what kind of life God is willing to help them live, and some would lose interest if they did. It is hard for people to accept the idea that success, as defined by culture, is not success as defined by God. Until we face that, we will think that God’s way is impractical and otherworldly and we will not follow it. If we insist on the storyline our culture loves, we will fail in the Christian life and we won’t even know why.

Christians, according to the Bible and the Church, are not here to be like everyone else. They are not here to desire what everyone else desires or have what everyone else has. They are a little like National Guard troops ordered to the scene of a riot, where everyone is breaking windows and looting stores and preying on the helpless. They weren’t sent to do what everyone else is doing.

God did not place Christians here in this cosmic riot – where people prey on each other, amass possessions, and (to misquote the Lord’s Prayer) “have their will done on earth as it is in their own minds” – to do what everyone else is doing. Christians are here to serve God’s purpose.

The answer to “why,” stated negatively, is: Christians are not here to be like everyone else, to look like everyone else, or to have what everyone else has. Stated positively, a Christian is here to stand out, to be different, not for the sake of being different, but for the sake of loving God and neighbor. The Christian is here, as Jesus summarized, to let his or her “light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

Until Christians understand why they’re here, they will not understand what they should be doing. They will waste time, energy, and emotion on issues that are not mission-critical, and the church, with its enormous power for good, will be sluggish and ineffective.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 11/10/2018

Posted in Christianity, Uncategorized, Worldview and Culture | 1 Comment

Snake-Handling: The Christian’s Relationship to Money

If we’re going to have to handle snakes, we’d better get good at it.

Christians think differently about money – or at least they should. You can listen to the recent message titled Snake-Handling (on Christians and money) here: http://lockwoodchurch.org/media/131783-505499-1579583/snake-handling-luke-16-9-14

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A God Veiled in Time and Space

Read my recent article, which first appeared on 10/23/2018 on Christianity Today. Here’s the link, if you’d prefer to go to the C.T. site: https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2018/october-web-only/atheism-where-is-god-physics-revealed-in-christ.html

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 20-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 many of 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 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

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. Saint 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.”

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 20-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 many of 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 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

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. Saint 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.”

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Why Church Is Indispensable

When people came to our church building this past Sunday, I sent them away. In fact, I sent them to other churches. I told them, “Go and bless another church with your presence.”

We didn’t meet for worship this week because a Saturday storm had taken down a tree which, in turn, took down a trunk line, and the power company was not able to finish repairs until Monday afternoon. Because our fire suppression system was off-line, local building codes prevented us from meeting.

Most people got the word, but there were some who didn’t. So, I greeted them in the parking lot, told them services were cancelled, and sent them to join with other Christ-followers. As the sun rose, I paced back and forth in the parking lot, singing hymns of praise to God. It was a lovely worship time.

Still, I really missed my church family. I don’t “go to church” because it is required or even because the church employs me. I go because I want to be with people who share my commitment to God and to each other. Over the years, God has used the church to help me know him better and become more like the person he intends me to be.

I feel sorry for people who go to church grudgingly, wishing they could stay home and catch up on work or sleep. The story is told of a wife who woke her husband up for church, but he only groaned and rolled over in bed. She coaxed him, urged him, and finally ordered him to get out of bed and go to church. But he said, “I don’t want to.”

She asked why and he answered, “Because it’s boring. And because they don’t need me there. And because they don’t want me there – nobody likes me.”

That’s when she got forceful: “That’s not true: One, they do need you; two, it is not boring and, three, people do like you. And besides that, you have to go: you’re the pastor.”

Some people of faith choose not to go to church because they have been hurt by fellow-believers. Others do not go because they do not understand the important role the church plays in their life and spiritual health. The church is critically important to individual Christians.

When the church gathers, we hear God’s word and learn his ways. One of the most difficult things for twenty-first century Western Christians to understand is that entering into an ongoing relationship with God will change a person. Christians are not like everyone else. They believe things other people don’t believe and acts in ways other people find odd.

Christians live in relationship with a God who has his own ways of doing things. The word “ways,” referring to God’s ways, appears in the Bible about five dozen times. God’s ways are not naturally our ways, so we must learn them. The church helps us with this important task. Each time we gather, it is with the kind of prayer Moses prayed: “Teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you.”

The church also provides us with the opportunity to do the two most important things any human can do: love God and love neighbor. The church is made up of neighbors, each of whom has come to express love to God.

When Christians gather, they are often aware of the need for assistance to live lovingly. Indeed, they require assistance from both God and neighbor. One of the principal reasons they gather is to corporately ask for and receive such assistance, from God in heaven and from the neighbor on down the pew.

We also gather for encouragement. We keep each other going. As Charles Spurgeon pointed out, “It’s hard to build a fire with just one log.” When we gather, we do what the author of Hebrews instructed: we “stir one another up to love and good deeds.” It’s like stirring up a fire.

When one person follows God’s ways (the way of love), people say: “She’s a great person.” But when a group – the church – follows the way of love, people say: “God must be real.” Partnership with the church is an indispensable component of being Christian.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter,

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What Is the Secret of Contentment?

Frank Sinatra planned to retire when he was at the top of his game. He used to say, “You gotta get out before you hit the mat.” And yet he kept performing until he was almost eighty and his performances became increasingly unsatisfactory. At one show he forgot the lyrics to one of his signature songs, and the audience had to finish it for him. Once, at a concert in Las Vegas, he was so sick that he collapsed into a chair and was administered oxygen. His handlers began keeping oxygen tanks on hand.

His performances were becoming an embarrassment. People were talking. The whole thing was painful. His daughter Tina finally said to him, ‘Pop, you can stop now; you don’t have to stay on the road.’”

Frank looked at her as if she had slapped him. He said firmly, “No, I’ve got to earn more money. I have to make sure everyone is taken care of.” When he died, the fortune he worked so hard to build tore his family to pieces. They fought legal battles over the inheritance for years.

“The Chairman of the Board” could have learned something from St. Paul, who said he had “learned the secret of being content.” Sinatra didn’t. Neither do most of us. According to USA Today, when 1,733 executives were asked, “If you could start your career over in a completely different field, would you?” more than two to one said that they would. A quarter of the rest answered maybe.

Isn’t it odd that people in contemporary America have more stuff than their parents and grandparents – perhaps more than any people group in the history of the world – and yet as a nation are deeply discontented?

Some of it is our own fault. A U.S. News & World Report study found that more than one out of four children under the age of two have a TV in their room. Advertisers spend $15 billion a year on the children and youth market alone. The average American child sees tens of thousands of commercial messages a year.

Parents frequently make the situation worse. The average American kid gets 70 new toys a year. In 1984, children between the ages of four and twelve spent $4.2 billion of their own pocket money. That seems astonishing, and yet, twenty years later, children in that age range were expected to spend four times that amount.

Clearly some of it is our own fault, but discontentment is also bred in our bones. It is part of human nature. That is why the apostle Paul wrote that he “learned the secret of being content.” It didn’t come naturally. It had to be learned.

Imagine contentment could be purchased. For $100, a person could be content with spouse, with job, with health, income, and possessions – no strings attached.  Would people purchase it?  My guess is that most wouldn’t, even if they believed it would work. Discontentment is part of their lives, and they cannot imagine themselves without it.

But if asked why they work two jobs, sacrifice time with their families, suffer enormous stress, and eat unhealthy meals on the run, they would say something like: “I don’t do it because I want to. I do it because I have to.” If pressed, “But why do you have to?” They would answer something like, “So my family and I can be happy.” In other words, because they want to be content.

It is a kind of mental illness that has affected the whole world, but America is ground zero for the epidemic. “Ol’ Blue Eyes” had it bad, but so do some of us. We honestly believe that if we just have enough money, we will be content. We’ve been duped. Jesus referred to it as “the deceitfulness of riches.”

It is sometimes said the secret of contentment is not acquiring more but wanting less. This is a fallacy. The secret of contentment is not wanting less but wanting what is available in limitless supply. St. Paul found that in God. The more he came to know God by experience, the more he wanted to know God, which led to even richer experiences, and so on. This happy cycle was, and is, the secret of contentment.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 10/20/2018

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The Heart’s Creed Is What Really Matters

The two best-known creeds of the Western Church are the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed. The Nicene Creed dates from 325 and represents the Church’s unified response to an ongoing controversy about the divine nature of Christ.  The Apostles’ Creed is harder to date. The earliest extant text dates from the late 700s, but at that time the Church claimed it had been in use for centuries. Phrases from the creed had already appeared in the writings of certain Church Fathers centuries earlier.

The creeds were an attempt to clarify what the church believed about God, in a way that helped ordinary believers understand and articulate their faith. Recitation of the creeds allowed uneducated men and women a chance to participate in the church’s worship. It gave a voice to ordinary believers.

The word “creed” comes from the Latin, “credo,” which means, “I believe.” The Nicene Creed begins with the words, “We believe,” and the Apostles’ Creed with, “I believe.”  Whether the people who recited the creeds actually believed them is unclear. Some probably did. For others, the creeds were likely only a string of words put into their mouths by theologian priests.

The creeds are still repeated weekly in churches around the world. Some people understand and firmly believe the truths they recite, but for others the creeds remain enigmatic strings of words put into their mouths by priests and pastors.

The value of the creeds lies in their capacity to educate ordinary believers about the nature of the ongoing story in which they have a part. The creeds also remind believers that they share a faith with people from around the world and across the expanse of time. Additionally, the recitation of creeds provides people with an opportunity to participate in worship rather than merely spectate.

There is, however, a possible downside to the recitation of a creed: people might confess a faith they don’t really share and have never seriously considered. Such solemn confession of what one neither believes nor fully understands happens all the time – for some political appointees, it’s practically a part of the job description. That it also happens in the church is not surprising.

According to the ancient prophets and biblical writers, God knows what is going on inside a person. He is the “heart monitor,” constantly hearing people’s hearts, not just their words. It would be disconcerting – and perhaps frightening – to hear what God hears when the gathered church sings her favorite songs and recites her historic creeds.

The first lines of the Apostles’ Creed run: “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord…” If, as people recite those lines, God hears their hearts rather than their voices, what exactly might he hear?

The variations would be endless. Some hearts would surely communicate genuine wonder and praise. The true expression of other hearts might, however, sound like this: “I believe in myself, and in the Dollar almighty, creator of pleasure and satisfaction. And I believe in Convenience, my Lord.”

As the recitation of the creed continued, the assembled worshipers would say: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.”

As these words were coming from their mouths, God might hear other beliefs coming from their hearts: “I believe in Technology, the American Dream, the Republican (or Democratic) Party, the toleration of sins, retirement with ample income, and a future without hassles. Amen.”

Long ago, A. W. Tozer wrote: “Compared with our actual thoughts about [God], our credal statements are of little consequence.” This is undoubtedly true. Our actual beliefs determine the trajectory of our lives in a way that formal confessions never do. When what we actually believe diverges from what we say we believe, we will follow our actual beliefs every time.

Can the beliefs of the heart be ascertained? Broadly speaking, yes. According to Jesus, “where your treasure is, there will you heart be also.” That means we will find our heart and its beliefs where our treasure – our money, energy and thought – is invested.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 10/13/2018

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