The Astonishingly Complex Process

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why the Universe Has Wiggle Room

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The trouble with living a fantasy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I Resent That: The Art of Taking Offence

Once when I was preaching, two men stood up in the crowded auditorium and marched out. They did it in a way that was meant to draw attention to themselves. They wanted everyone to know they were offended.

A week or two after that, I had an interesting and respectful conversation with the men, who were openly opposed to the Christian faith. I asked them why they marched out while I was speaking. They explained that they took exception to something I said and were compelled by their beliefs to make public their sense of indignation.

It’s funny: in private, they did not seem the least indignant but in public they felt it was necessary to register their offence for all to see. Taking offence was for them a tool they used to make a point and manipulate public opinion.

I see the same kind of thing happening on a much bigger stage. Taking offence has become an art form in our culture and in the world generally. It has become an effective tool for changing public sentiment, revising moral codes, and evoking passion among the electorate. Even corporations have learned to use the prickly tool of moral offence to protect themselves and promote their agenda.

When the BBC investigated working conditions in Third World factories that produce Apple Corporation products, a senior Apple executive not only denied the accusations made against his company, he went on to say that he was “deeply offended” by them.

Politicians do the same thing. They release a press statement in which they display their outrage and claim to be deeply offended. The treasury secretary was “deeply offended” by criticism made against him by The Wall Street Journal. A former senator and presidential hopeful was “deeply offended” by the president’s handling of Afghan political corruption. Congressmen, governors, state and county officials are all “deeply offended” on a regular basis.

And it’s not just corporations and politicians. White males are “deeply offended” by the DNC. Females are “deeply offended” by Donald Trump. Blacks are offended. Whites are offended. Asians are offended. We’re all offended—and if we’re not, our lack of offense will surely offend someone.

This mindset of offence seems to serve a purpose. It is forward-looking. It gives the offended a platform from which to demand that other people (parties, races, organizations) change their behavior. One could be excused for thinking that some people can’t wait for the chance to be offended.

As a long-time, serious follower of Jesus, I know that this strategy of taking offence does not harmonize with his teaching. Manipulating the behavior of others by the use of emotionally-charged language contradicts Jesus’s instructions: “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.”

It’s not that it’s somehow unchristian to get offended – “offences will come” – but what we do when we have been offended makes all the difference. Someone was recently offended by something I said, though I was unaware of it. But after a little time passed, she came to me, in keeping with the teaching of Jesus, explained what she was feeling, and we were able to deal with the problem. She did not march out of the room or issue a press release. She came to me.

What if we all – friends, co-workers, politicians and activists – did the same? What if, instead of using an offence for personal advantage, we spoke directly and truthfully to the person who offended us? We would restore relationships rather than ruin them.

This is the way Jesus taught us to handle offences. “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.” Winning them over was more important to Jesus that winning over them. If only it was more important to the rest of us.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 8/6/2016

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The Surprising Problem of Prayer

In Christian devotional writings it is common to come across the phrase, “the problem of prayer.” The fact that prayer has problems is widely acknowledged, and the one that gets the most attention is the problem of unanswered prayers.

For example, last Sunday morning, more than twenty-five local churches converged at our county fairgrounds for a combined service of prayer. It was quite an undertaking. The logistics were complicated, but there was a genuine sense of anticipation. People had been praying for months in advance of the service, and one of the prayer requests was for good weather.

Gratefully, the heavy storms that passed through the area missed us, but we were praying for more than that – we had asked for comfortable temperatures and a light breeze. Instead, it rained cats and dogs.

Why did God not answer our prayers in the way we asked? For that matter, why does God not answer all our well-intentioned prayers in the way we ask? “Heal Mary of the cancer, Lord.” “Help my daughter’s husband come to his senses and halt the divorce.” “Don’t let my child get mixed up with the wrong friends.” We pray, but sometimes things go from bad to worse.

Devotional writers have offered helpful insights into this most obvious of problems. It is not insoluble, nor is it, at least from my perspective, the most serious problem related to prayer. The way God answers is less a problem than the way we ask. We must learn that prayer is more than the words we say or think in God’s direction. Our entire life is a prayer, and sometimes its requests are very different from (and even contradictory to) the prayers we speak.

We may say, “Hallowed be thy name,” while our life’s prayer is, “My name be respected.” We can say, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” even as our life shouts, “My authority be established, my desires be gratified.” We might recite, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” while our life demands, “I want those who wronged me to pay.” We can pray, “Lead us not into temptation” at the very moment our life is saying, “Lead me into temptation as quickly as possible.”

A person’s life is a prayer, a request – and maybe even a curse. A life repeats its particular message over and over, parrot-like, to the heavens, though most of us are unaware of what our life is really communicating. But God understands the language of our lives. He hears our real voice.

What does God hear people say in their real voice? Some say, “Just leave me alone. Leave me alone.” Others repeat idiotically, over and over, “It’s not fair. It’s not fair. It’s not fair.” Still others say, again and again, like a broken record, “My will be done,” to all eternity. On the Day of Judgment the real message of our lives will be drawn out of us, and we will hear, beyond any shadow of a doubt, our true voice. We will know then the prayer our lives have been repeating, and whether or not it matched our words.

St. James describes the person whose lips say, “Thy will be done,” but whose life cries, “My will be done” as “double-minded” or (more literally) “double-souled.”  He says that person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. And that makes sense. Which request should God listen to – the one that rises from a person’s lips or the one that rises from a person’s life?

We’d like to think we would be happy and good if God would just answer our prayers, but I suspect we would be neither. God’s answers will not contribute to our goodness and happiness as long as our words and lives are requesting contradictory things. Bringing our words and lives into alignment might just be the most important thing prayer can accomplish.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, July 30, 2016

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Don’t Ignore the Past, Believe in the Future

There are two kinds of people at a party. There are those whose words and actions announce, “Here I am!” and those whose words and actions say, “There you are!” The “Here I am” person might be the life of the party but it’s the “There you are” person that makes you glad you came.

I met someone the other day – we were alone in a business setting – who hardly acknowledged my presence. That was alright with me. He’s probably not much of a talker and he seemed like a decent guy; I liked him. But it got me thinking that there is a better and a worse way to encounter people, whether one is meeting them for the first time or the thousandth.

I’m not thinking of a technique but of an attitude. One can open doors by using techniques from a book like “How to Work a Room,” but those doors will not remain open unless there is an authentic presence behind the technique. It occurs to me that one of the best things we can do is learn how to encounter people in ways that build and strengthen relationships.

The always-brilliant Apostle Paul urged the local church in Rome to “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.” Paul was not talking about a technique but a lifestyle, one that he himself lived. When you reads his letters, focusing on the relationships that existed between Paul and his correspondents, it is pretty clear that he was a “There you are!” kind of guy.

Paul urged his readers “to accept one another,” though the sense of resignation in the English word “accept” could be misleading. In the original language, the word is more dynamic. It has the sense of taking someone in or drawing them to yourself. It is a warm word.

There is a beautiful example of this in the Bible. Priscilla and her husband Aquila were great friends of the Apostle Paul and wise and influential members of the early church. When they heard a young evangelist named Apollos preaching (and making some mistakes), they “took him in” – the same word Paul used in his Romans letter. They did not reproach Apollos for his mistakes but encouraged and gently corrected him. How different the history of early Christianity might have been had they not known how to accept another person as Christ had accepted them.

To accept someone as Christ accepted you means welcoming that person into your life warmly, like the father of the prodigal welcomed his son. He did not present his son with a catalogue of grievances but with a party. He made sure his son knew that he was wanted.

If we’re going to accept people as Christ accepted us, we must not throw their failures in their face. Never once in the New Testament do we find Jesus going over a list of a potential follower’s offenses. This doesn’t mean that we ignore a person’s past but that we believe in a person’s future.

When we accept someone the way Christ accepted us, we can’t treat that person as a project to be completed but as a person to be esteemed. We recognize that person’s history and respect his or her autonomy. This means we don’t offer acceptance on the condition that the person meets our expectations. We don’t accept people on condition but on principle.

That being said, it is important to realize that accepting a person as Christ does may require sacrifice, but it will not be the sacrifice of either our principles or our autonomy. Christ did not compromise his beliefs in order to accept me. The idea that accepting a person requires me to endorse his beliefs and behaviors is born of a modern-day moral confusion and not of love.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 7/23/2016

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New Series

I’ve been preaching a new series on prayer at Lockwood Community Church in Coldwater, Michigan. It began on June 26, and you can hear that first message (titled, “Who Do You Think You’re Talking To?”) at http://lockwoodchurch.org/media

Others in the series include, Who’s Asking? (Parts 1 and 2) and Prayer as a Way of Life and Life as a Way of Prayer.

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