Friday, July 27, 2012

Fear and Wonder

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.”  After an introduction, this is how the writer of Proverbs begins.  With fear.  Of God.  What a place to begin.  We like to think of God as a kindly father, a dear friend, a benevolent giver of gifts.  We’ve pretty much moved past the old images of a long-bearded, thunderbolt-throwing dude with a serious anger issue.  And then the writer of Proverbs comes along and tells us that the smartest thing to do is to fear God.
I’ve never been convinced by those who argue that “fear God” doesn’t mean that we should be afraid of God.  That when the Bible says “fear God” it means that we should revere him, respect him, and recognize his transcendence.  When the Bible wants to say that we should revere God, it pretty much says it like that.  And when it wants to say that we should respect him, it makes it clear that’s what it’s saying.  It doesn’t use codes words that mean, in normal usage, one thing but in actuality really mean something different.  So I’m pretty sure that when the Bible says, “Fear God,” it means, “Fear God.”  Be afraid.  Quake in your boots, hide behind a tree, and cover your face.
You know those times in the Bible when people are told, “Fear not”?  Like when the angel appears to the shepherds outside Bethlehem after Jesus’ birth?  I’m pretty sure that if the shepherds had not actually been afraid, if they had said, “Hey, wow, check it out!  Bright lights and a guy floating in the air!  What’s up, Floating Dude in a Robe?”, Gabriel’s response would have been different.  I think Gabriel would have given them something to be afraid of.  You don’t speak casually to an angel of the Lord, like he’s one of your bro’s showing up at a barbeque.
But there is the kind of fear that sets you running for your life, and there’s the kind of fear that draws you in, that incites the need to come closer and find out what in the world is going on in spite of your mother’s screams to “get away from that thing!”  It’s the kind of fear that causes people to stand and watch as a tornado bears down on them when they should be running for cover.  In spite of their fear, maybe even because of it, they have to watch.  They are drawn to the sheer enormity of the twister, the pure and utter destructive power, the beauty of its relentless and indomitable journey.
We call that “awe,” and awe is a basic and nearly universal human emotion.  And awe, says James Cox in The Future of Faith, is the beginning of faith.  Faith begins with that mixture of wonder and fear all human beings feel toward the mystery that envelops us.
Only fools think that we have figured everything out, or someday will figure everything out.  Only fools, says the writer of Proverbs, go through this world without awe, thinking they can walk up and exchange high fives with a Whirlwind.
It’s foolish not to be afraid when there is danger about.  It’s foolish to think you can become friends with a grizzly bear.  Even if the grizzly is friendly, you should always be afraid.
Fear the Lord.  Be in awe.  Draw close to him.  And when he says, “Fear not,” well, then you can relax.  A little.  But never so much that you lose your awe.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Punishing Innocent People?

I've not said anything here--or anywhere for that matter--about the Penn State situation, but I'm kinda ticked off.  Yesterday the NCAA handed down its sanctions on Penn State for the Jerry Sandusky situation.  $60 million fine, loss of scholarships, no bowl games for four years, and share in the conference's bowl games revenues, and wiping from the record all football results from 1998--when officials first learned of Sandusky's serial raping of children--to 2011, when the s*** hit the fan.  The football program is crippled; it will probably take ten years to return to being a competitive program.

And now there are not a few people out there saying the NCAA went too far, that the punishments hurt players, students, and alumni who had nothing to with Sandusky.  That the NCAA is punishing innocent people.

Let's get something straight: we are talking about child rape, and football.  The only victims are the children who were raped and their families.  In the face of what happened to them, it's ridiculous to talk about losing football stats, scholarships, and games as a punishment to anyone.  I don't care how big football is, it's a game.  A child can perhaps be punished by making them miss playing a game, but no adult should consider that a punishment.  It's a disappointment, it's an inconvenience, but it's not a punishment.

We're talking about football. We are talking about a game. So what if current players won't get to play for a national championship? That makes them no different than a player at a non-BCS conference like Boise State. Deal with it. Children were raped. Shut up about how unfair it is that for current players and students. Either stay and get a degree from what is still an academically great university, or transfer somewhere else. 
Some people are cheering the NCAA for their toughness, but I think Mike Wise in an excellent article in today's Washington Post got it right--the NCAA is actually sending the wrong message. SMU gets their football program suspended for two years for grade-fixing and payments to players, and Penn State doesn't for turning it's back on children and then covering up child rape? What message does that send? That trying to gain a recruiting edge in football is more heinous than raping a child and covering up the crime? That's exactly the message, as well as that you will be treated differently if you are a major university with a long history of football greatness and multiple championships than if you are an upstart like SMU--or Boise St., or TCU or anyone else without such a pedigree. 
We are talking about the rape of children. That's all we should be talking about. Football is nothing compared to that, and if we've lost that perspective, then perhaps we all need to take a break from following college and professional sports.

And unless anyone is inclined to say that I would feel any different if it were my school, let me make this clear: I have enjoyed the unprecedented (for them) success that Baylor has had in NCAA basketball (both men's and women's) and football the last couple of years, and I am excited that Baylor's RG3 is a Redskin.  Last week I received the Baylor alumni magazine that touted Baylor's athletic success, and was disturbed to read that Baylor just received a gift from an alumnus that would be the largest the university has ever received, and two others that would place in the top five ever received--all to build a new football stadium on campus.  Really?  Baylor has a top law school, a top medical school, a top seminary, and many other academic programs that could probably use more money to educate students who will make a real impact on the world, and the top gifts ever received were given for a football stadium?

I hope Baylor's athletic success doesn't create the type of culture that led to the monstrous situation at Penn State.  But once you start feeding the monster...

Saturday, July 21, 2012

God Particle

On July 4th, news outlets around the world buzzed with excitement about a remarkable scientific discovery. CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, announced the discovery of the long-sought subatomic particle called the Higgs boson (sometimes referred to as the "God particle.") Now I don’t claim to understand all this stuff; in fact, I’ve tried reading up on it, and I know I don’t understand all this stuff!  Apparently  discovering the Higgs boson is important because it would prove the existence of the Higgs field, which has something to do with how particles attain mass.  And I guess that’s a big deal.  I know how I attain mass, and that’s all that matters to me.  It’s losing mass that’s the mystery to me.  Anyway, I read someplace that the Higgs field hypothesis is the simplest of several proposed explanations for that phenomenon, which makes me feel pretty stupid since I literally can’t understand even the simplest of explanations.

The Higgs boson particle is the final missing ingredient in what's called the Standard Model of particle physics. This Standard Model supposedly explains how every visible thing in the universe was made. (Note that it doesn't explain Who made everything.) It also explains the forces acting between visible things.

Last December, the scientist and theologian Alister McGrath wrote a fine introduction to the Higgs boson particle. McGrath claims that physicists believed in the particle for years even though they couldn't see it. He wrote, “Some tell us that science is about what can be proved.  The wise tell us it is really about offering the best explanations of what we see, realising that these explanations often cannot be proved, and may sometimes lie beyond proof.  Science often proposes the existence of invisible (and often undetectable) entities – such as dark matter – to explain what can be seen.  The reason why the Higgs boson is taken so seriously in science is not because its existence has been proved, but because it makes so much sense of observations that its existence seems assured.  In other words, its power to explain is seen as an indicator of its truth.”

He then moves from scientist to theologian when he writes, “There’s an obvious and important parallel with the way religious believers think about God.  While some demand proof that God exists, most see this as unrealistic.  Believers argue that the existence of God gives the best framework for making sense of the world.  God is like a lens, which brings things into clearer focus.  As the Harvard psychologist William James pointed out years ago, religious faith is about inferring ‘the existence of an unseen order’ in which the ‘riddles of the natural order’ can be explained.”

One MIT physicist had this to say: "A more exotic version of the Higgs particle could be a bridge to understanding the 96 percent of the universe that remains obscure."  Check it out: for all of our advances in science, most of the universe remains a mystery to the human mind.  There are some who claim that science is a threat to faith; some who claim that science has rendered belief in God irrelevant and outdated, no longer necessary to understand the universe.  But, even given that 96% is just an estimate, it still leaves plenty of room for God. 

You don’t have to reject God to believe in science, and you certainly don’t have to reject science to believe in God.  You just have to reject the statements of those who, in their hubris, claim that understanding 4% of anything puts you in position to make claims about our ability to comprehend the other 96%, or the existence of a Who behind the what.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Keeping Mystery in Church

When Albert Einstein was asked if he believed in God, here was his response: "I'm not an atheist. I don't think I can call myself a pantheist [someone who believes that the divine is synonymous with the universe]. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books, but doesn't know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws, but only dimly understand these laws."
Einstein tried to express these feelings clearly, both for himself and all of those who wanted a simple answer from him about his faith. So in the summer of 1930, amid his sailing and ruminations in Caputh [Germany], he composed a credo, "What I Believe," that he recorded for a human-rights group and later published. It concluded with an explanation of what he meant when he called himself religious: "The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I am a devoutly religious man."
I’ve not done the research, but my sense is that atheism in the form we know it is a rather recent phenomenon in human history.  People in various cultures around the world and throughout history of tended to believe in something.  Mystery—that which could not be explained and would never be explained—was all around.  It was undeniable, and it made no sense to deny the existence of the divine.  I’m guessing that it’s only recently, in the age of Enlightenment rationalism, that atheism could find any soil in which to take root.  There arose the overly-optimistic belief that whatever we couldn’t explain now, eventually we would be able to, and we wouldn’t need a god to do it.  But there sits Einstein, the poster child for Enlightenment rationalism, declaring that there is something we cannot and will never understand because it are beyond our ability to understand or even experience,  and that thing is God.  And now more than eighty years later there is a growing consensus among many scientists that there is a limit to even the most intelligent person’s ability to understand the workings of the universe.  Mystery exists, and it is impenetrable. 
The shame for many like Einstein is the assumption that since we cannot penetrate this Mystery, the Mystery cannot reach us.  The wall of impenetrability works two ways, in this way of thinking.  That is because to them, this Mystery in impersonal: it does not have a will, it cannot express intention and then make that intention real.  But in Jesus we believe that that is exactly what happened.  That the Mysterious Three-in-One Creator God has a will for his creation and he entered that creation to see his will accomplished.  Jesus is the reflection of the Father, and we must understand that in seeing Jesus, we are seeing enough of the Father to understand his will for his creation.
But we must not make the mistake of thinking that in seeing Jesus we understand everything about the Father.  We must not remove the sense of the mysterious that has always been a part of the Christian faith, and I fear that we often do that when we essentially reduce God to our Sugar-Daddy in the sky.  If more and more people are realizing that Mystery exists, surely when they come to our churches they should be able to find that it still exists in our churches as well.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Spectacularly Normal

Do you know what the most popular flavor in the world is?  No, it’s not chocolate.  It’s vanilla.  The most popular flavor in the world is vanilla.  Now, if I were to say that a person’s personality is vanilla, what would that mean to you?  That they have the most popular personality in the world?  No, it would mean that their personality is rather bland and ordinary, boring even.  Since when did popular mean bland or boring?
    But that’s what we do; we think that to be effective you have to somehow be special, somehow stand out from the crowd, be more gifted than the average person.  And we bring that thinking into the church.  I’m all for talking about the spiritual gifts in the church—Paul certainly teaches about them.  He teaches that every Christian is gifted.  The problem is that in our society “gifted” means special, well above average.  Schools have gifted programs for the really, really smart kids.  Only elite athletes like Lebron James or Peyton Manning are called “gifted.”  In our society, if everyone is gifted, no one is, not really.  To say that everyone is gifted just seems like a language trick to boost people’s self-esteem, kind of like a children’s competition where every child gets a ribbon, not just the winners, so that no child views themself as a “loser.”
     But in the church, everyone is “gifted”?  Most of us aren’t buying that.  Most people don’t feel that special, because, by definition, most people are average.  Most of us are in the big hump in a bell curve, not the extremes.  But the truth is that 99% of God’s work is going to be done—well, OK, God is going to do 99% of the work, but of the 1% that humans have to do, regular, average people are going to do 99% of it, and if they don’t, it won’t get done by the extraordinarily gifted people.
    The problem is, the books are written by the gifted people.  No, it’s true.  I mean, who wants to read a book on prayer by a person who doesn’t pray much, who struggles with finding time to pray, who finds that when they do pray, most of their time is spent thinking about other things and wondering if prayer really works.  What publisher is going to publish a book on prayer in which the person tells the story of how Aunt Martha got a rare disease and was on her death bed and so they prayed and prayed and prayed, and as they were praying the phone ring and when they answered it, they got the news that Aunt Martha…had died.  Yet most of our prayers lives are lacking the kind of dramatic stories that sell books or get published in Guideposts.
    The same is true with evangelism.  The books on evangelism are written by people who are really, really good at evangelism.  They just naturally seem to fall into conversation with others about Jesus, and end up praying with them.  All their neighbors were once pagans who have now given their hearts to Christ, and every person they sit next to on an airplane ends up praying to accept Christ. 
I’ve sat next to plenty of people on airplanes.  I’ve even tried to talk to a few.  Most are friendly enough, but most don’t really want to talk.  They’ve got their iPods, or they are deeply entrenched in work or a book, or whatever.  I’ve engaged a few in conversation, but invariably they get around to asking what I do for a living.  I’m a pastor.  Oh, really?  That’s great.  What denomination?  Baptist.  Oh, well, that’s nice.  Yeah, that’s a real conversation stopper as they sit there and stir their Bloody Mary.  I’ve not yet had a significant spiritual conversation on an airplane, much less lead someone to the Lord on a flight.  As soon as I do, you know what I’m going to do?  Write a book on evangelism.
    Regular people read these books on evangelism, and they feel guilty for not doing more, and they vow to do more, but it never lasts, does it?  So they take the approach Homer Simpson once advocated to his daughter, Lisa.  She was down after trying something significant and failing, and Homer said, “Now, Lisa, if at first you don’t succeed, stop trying.”
    Well, don’t stop trying to pray, and don’t stop trying to understand the Bible, and don’t stop trying to tell others about your relationship with Christ.  Maybe what we ought to do is stop reading books written by the natural-born evangelists.
    The work of the church is always done by regular people.  You may not feel extraordinarily gifted, and that’s not what Paul was talking about.  He was saying that when ordinary people get involved in the work of the Kingdom, the Holy Spirit will supply them with everything they need to be effective.  What you do may not be spectacular enough to warrant a book deal, but that’s all right.  There’s only one Book we really need anyway.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Master Sculptor

There’s a story that is told about a sculptor—sometimes it is claimed that it was Michelangelo, but it probably wasn’t.  Oftentimes in the course of telling and retelling general stories are attributed to famous people to bring them to life.  But in the story there was a famous sculptor who worked hard with hammer and chisel on a large block of marble.    A little boy who was watching him saw nothing more than large and small pieces of stone falling away left and right.  He had never seen a sculptor at work, and he had no idea what was happening.  But when the boy returned to the studio a few weeks later he saw, to his great surprise, a large and powerful lion sitting in the place where the marble had stood.  With great excitement the boy ran to the sculptor and said, “Sir, tell me, how did you know there was a lion in the marble?”  The sculptor said, “I knew there was a lion in the marble because before I saw the lion in the marble, I saw him in my heart.  The secret is that it was the lion in my heart that recognized the lion in the marble.”
I don’t know a thing about sculpting or how most sculptors work.  I know something about writing.  Usually when I sit down to write I have an idea of where I’m going and it’s just a matter of getting there.  But sometimes I have no idea where I’m going.  I’ll start heading in a direction but I end up someplace else, somewhere unexpected, and I’ll wonder, where did that come from?  It didn’t start out as a voyage of discovery, but it became one.  Every once in a while I’ll do an exercise where I take a pen, a blank sheet of paper, and set a timer for fifteen minutes, and just write without pausing for fifteen minutes, not self-editing, not worrying about spelling or grammar or even legibility.  The goal is to get out in the open what’s inside—it is truly an exercise of discovery.
The Master Sculptor already knows what’s in the marble, because he has seen it in His heart.  The art of sculpture is the art of seeing, and only then is it the art of chipping away everything that is not a lion.  But here’s where the metaphor breaks down.  Whereas a chunk of marble is inanimate and has no choice but to submit to the hammer and chisel of the sculptor, that is not true for us.  We have a choice.  You and I have to choose to submit to the Master sculptor and His vision for our lives.  In order to do that, we have to give up our vision of our lives.  And in order to do that, we have to see what God sees. 
In Romans 8:15-17, Paul warns us not to fall back into a spirit of slavery, but to pay attention to the Spirit of God who tells us that God is our Father and we are his children.  And that is what God sees when he looks at us, and if we see anything else, we are seeing an image that leads to slavery.  The work of the spiritual life is the work of coming to terms with the fact of our adoption into God’s family so that we no longer feel the need to strive with God (and, often, against others) to gain his forgiveness and acceptance, things that are already given. 
He sees what we really are; we have to learn to see it as well.