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

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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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Is There a Christian Way to Think About Kavanaugh?

The country is like a volcano that is ready to erupt. Smoke is billowing. If the eruption comes, it won’t matter if one is a man or a woman, a Democrat or a Republican, a Conservative or a Progressive, everyone will suffer.

The Senate confirmation hearings on President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh have exposed deep fault lines that run through our nation. In the past decade, the uneven ground between races has caused Americans to stumble. With the Me Too movement, the tectonic plates of gender have collided, and everyone has been shaken.

It is clear that Democrats have one take on the confirmation hearings and Republicans have another. Is it possible for Christians to think about Judge Kavanaugh, his accuser Dr. Ford, and the broader issues of justice and peace in today’s society in a way that transcends political party affiliation and even gender? And, if it is possible, what would characterize such thinking?

Such thinking would place a higher priority on truth than on potential outcomes. Right now, the people who want a conservative justice on the Supreme Court believe that Brett Kavanaugh did not assault Dr. Ford or they believe that it doesn’t matter – that if he did it he was young and inebriated and has, in all likelihood, matured. The people who do not want a conservative justice on the court believe Kavanaugh is guilty of assault and is unfit for service.

It is more that suspicious that opinions should coincide so exactly with potential desired outcomes. It indicates that the mind is serving an agenda rather than the truth. Christians must never elevate desired outcomes above truth. We are not responsible for outcomes, we are responsible to be true. I would very much like to see a conservative jurist on the Supreme Court, but what I want does not change what happened.

The FBI investigation is a good thing, as long as it is not biased. If the facts can be uncovered, they should be. Christians should never be afraid of truth.

But we must remember that truth involves people’s lives. Judge Kavanaugh and Dr. Ford are real people, with families, friends, and careers. Demeaning either of them is strictly unacceptable for Christians, who are instructed “to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility toward all men.”

Christians must not stir up hatred. They must not say things like the university professor who hatefully stated that white Republican senators “deserve miserable deaths.” Such a comment can only issue from a well of hatred, which is the opposite of the love and justice God desires from people.

Not that it is hard to understand how that well of hatred overflowed. Thousands of years of the sexual mistreatment of women has raised the level of hostility and mistrust to flood level. Women have been treated as sexual objects for ages and never more so than now, in the Hollywood era.

I have officiated at many weddings over the years, and it is my preference to use the traditional ceremony of the church, with its strong and beautiful vows. But before the vows comes “The Declaration of Consent.” In medieval Europe, the soldiers of one city-state would raid the villages of another. They would carry off young women as plunder, take them to a priest, and force them to marry them. The church, recognizing the illegitimacy of the practice, instituted the “Declaration of Consent” for the protection of women.

After thousands of years of the sexual mistreatment of women, it is not odd that the professor would say what she did. It is not odd, but it is not right either. “Othering” people, whether white GOP senators or female college professors, treating them as a class and not as persons, dehumanizes them. It is not the way Christ taught us to think about others.

How should Christians approach the Senate confirmation hearings? They should be both truth-seekers and peacemakers. Anything less is less than Christian. They scrupulously should avoid adding to the hatred. Only so, can they be a light in our world, and only if their primary allegiance is to God, not to political power.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 10/6/2018

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How to Face Suffering

How should we think about suffering? How can we endure it when we’re the ones suffering? Click the link below to hear a 27-minute sermon titled, “Trial by Fire,” informed by 1 Peter 4:12-19.

How to Face Suffering

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How to Talk with a Child about Death

Every time a celebrity dies unexpectedly, the news and entertainment industry nearly overwhelms us with coverage. If the celebrity dies by his or her own hand, the news-storm stalls out and rains reports and rumors on us for weeks. Among the people caught in the flood are children.

How do we talk to children about death? It is bad enough when the deceased are celebrities or victims of some nationally publicized tragedy, but it is even harder when the deceased is a member of the family. Even talking about the death of a family pet presents significant challenges.

As a dad, I have talked to my own children about death and, as a pastor, I’ve talked to other people’s children. Some children withdraw and isolate themselves, others get angry and act out, still others seek reassurance and the security of being near a loving adult.

Before I ever talked to a child about death, I was the child being talked to. I was in sixth grade. My older brother had been ill for a long time and my parents had been staying with him at the hospital while I stayed with my grandparents. I still remember my dad and mom as they stepped through my grandparents’ doorway. I knew immediately something was wrong: for one thing, they had returned in the middle of the afternoon; for another, they looked different – not like themselves.

It was my dad who told me. I do not think my mother could. I listened, tried not to cry (as I had been taught), but couldn’t help myself. I fell into a chair and sobbed. My poor dad, tough Marine that he’d been, had no idea how to comfort me.

My grandmother said something to me about heaven and, while that was comforting, it was cold comfort. Over the next days – probably over the next months and years – I did all the things I needed to do, but retreated further and further into myself. Looking back, I wish my parents had been better equipped to talk with me about my brother’s death, but they, living through their own nightmare, had no idea how to do so.

Sometimes grieving children will laugh and play and parents will say, “Children are remarkably resilient,” and assume they are “doing okay.” That may be the case, but it does not mean the child isn’t grieving. Children grieve in all kinds of ways. Play can be a child’s way of escaping reality and the pain that goes along with it.

Parents can use this to advantage by allowing a child to express himself through play. Small children can take part in needed conversations using favorite stuffed animals. They may be able to express feelings through Teddy Bear that they cannot state directly.

Avoid using code words with children. As hard as it is, they need to hear their loved one “died” rather than “passed on” or “crossed over.” We often use euphemisms to soften the blow – for ourselves as well as for them – but in the long run, it is unhelpful to be vague.

Therapists recommend telling children about the physical nature of death before talking about its underlying spiritual realities. Young children need to know their loved one will not speak or eat or talk. When that has been understood, it is time to talk about the spiritual side of death.

When it comes to talking to children about death, the biggest difficulty some parents face is not knowing what they think about it themselves. I’m sure this was the case with my parents. They had, quite understandably, avoided thinking about death as long as they could. As a result, they were completely unprepared to talk about it.

We cannot explain to children what we don’t understand. When it comes to understanding death, there is no richer resource than the Bible. Christian thinkers also offer real help. The metaphysical poet John Donne’s last sermon, Death’s Duel, is beautiful and inspiring. The philosopher Peter Kreeft’s book, Love Is Stronger than Death, is brilliant and helpful. Jerry Sittser’s, A Grace Disguised, is full of hope. For children, What Happens When We Die? by Carolyn Nystrom, articulates in simple language questions children ponder but will probably not ask.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 9/29/2018

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Are You a Person of Peace?

What criteria are used in selecting people for leadership positions in our workplaces, government offices, and churches?

Leaders must be smart people who operate from a wide-ranging knowledge base and who reason well. They must also be tough people who will fight for what is right – for what we think is right, that is. Michigan’s current governor won office by promoting himself as both smart and tough. His campaign’s tagline was, “One tough nerd.”

We also want leaders who share our ideology. For decades, this has been the most significant criteria for the appointment of Supreme Court justices. The same is increasingly true in politics. I can remember a time when voters complained that the two-party system offered no meaningful alternatives: it made no difference who won. Now the parties themselves are fragmented by ideological divides.

It is not wrong to want leaders who are tough, smart, and aligned ideologically with us – it is right. But there is another important criterion that receives too little attention: our leaders should be people of peace. We need people of peace leading our police force, teaching our children, and setting legal precedent. We need people of peace speaking out on issues of justice and race and gender. Unfortunately, it is not their voices that are most often heard.

One needn’t be a pacifist to be a person of peace, but one cannot be a person of peace without faith and fortitude. People of peace know where they stand and will not back down. But neither will they attack.

Just because someone talks about peace does not mean he or she is a person of peace. The sixties proved that. In the name of peace, people burned down buildings, damaged property, and despised those with whom they disagreed. People of peace are not like that. They are not looking for a fight.

People of peace do not make a practice of using inflammatory language. They don’t call their adversaries names. They don’t try to shock people by their rhetoric. People of peace are not prone to using profanity, which betrays a lack of inner peace. People who are not at peace with themselves will not be at peace with others.

Since this is true, it might seem like the way to become a person of peace is to work on developing inner peace. Inner peace is important, and knowing how to nurture it is necessary, but it is not the first step. Meditation and mindfulness may help. Working with a therapist to understand the causes of anxiety and to take practical steps to deal with it can be very enriching. But inner peace will remain elusive until we have spiritual peace.

Because we as a nation do not understand this, we spend billions of dollars looking for inner peace without finding it. We install security systems at home, vacation on idyllic beaches abroad, take pills, drink too much, start relationships, and end relationships, all in an attempt to gain peace. Yet we will not gain it in a lasting way until we realize that peace with God precedes peace with oneself which, in turn, precedes peace with others.

This is so because of the way we are made and for whom we are made. Our primal relationship is not with mother, as important as that is, but with maker; with our heavenly parent, not our earthly ones. Historic Christianity claims this most important relationship has been broken. Because we are not at one with God, we are at odds with ourselves and with each other.

Christians believe that a state of peace is prior to, and necessary for, feelings of peace. We enter a state of peace with God through a faith-commitment to Jesus Christ. He not only made peace, he “is our peace,” as St. Paul put it. The person who is at peace with God is able to make peace with self and with others.

More than ever, we need to place people of peace in positions of leadership. Yet it is not enough to look for people of peace; we must become them. Peacemakers are not waiting, like diamonds in a mine, to be found. They are made – made by the Peacemaking God.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 9/22/2018

 

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