Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Bigness of Smallness

We tend to be impressed with Big.  Not so much with Small or Little.  We like Big ideas, are challenged to have Big dreams,  are impressed with the Big Man.  At a fast food joint we’re asked if we want to Super Size our meal; no one has ever asked if we wanted to “Go Small.”  In my world, there are plenty of books, seminars, and conferences on how to grow a church larger.  I’ve never seen one on how to make your church smaller.  (I think we can all figure that one out.)  And we want a Big God, right?  Who wants a Small God?  No, all the problems in the world are Big problems, so we need a Big God.  I don’t think I could pray to a Small God. 
     But we know that our God must be a Big God, because the universe he created is a Big universe.  We all know that, but just to wrap our minds around it—or to blow our minds, whichever comes first—here’s an example.  Science writer David Blatner, in a new book, Spectrums: Our Mind-Boggling Universe from Infinitesimal to Infinity, says that there are approximately—because who has the time to actually count?—70 thousand million, million, million stars in the universe.   I have no idea how big that is.  It’s like a seventy-thousand million trillions.  70,000 quintillion.  7 x 1016.  So, about the size of our national debt, and we know how Big that is!
That’s a lot of stars.  That’s Big.  Big.  Impressive.
And yet….Blatner says that there are that many molecules in just ten drops of water.  Ten.  Drops of water.  Normal, regular-sized drops of water.  Ten drops of water doesn’t even constitute a spill.  If there’s ten drops of water on the floor, you have to debate whether it’s worth the cost of a paper towel to wipe them up.  They’ll evaporate in a few minutes anyway, so…
(For the record, in case my wife reads this—which is highly unlikely, unless someone rats me out, which is highly likely—I wipe up every spill, even if it’s only ten drops of water.  I never walk away to let them evaporate or have the beagle lick them up.  Because that would be wrong.  Someone could slip and put their eye out.)
Ten drops of water have 70,000 million, million, million molecules.  And every molecule is made up of smaller stuff like atoms, protons, and neutrons, which adds a few zeroes to the Bigness of the Smallness.  And protons are made up of quarks, which besides just being a fun word to say, adds even more Bigness to the Smallness.  And don’t even  get me started with the leptons and bosons.  Seriously, don’t get me started because I have no idea what I'm talking about.  I just know they are seriously Small.
And if you think about it, every one of those stars is composed of molecules, atoms, quarks and other really Small things.  Everything Big is really just a whole lotta Small all bunched together.
So as impressive as Big can be, Small is actually more impressive.  You can have Small without the Big, but you can’t have the Big without the Small.  There’s more Small than there is Big. 
Small is Bigger than Big.
Which makes the universe even more impressive, and God even more awesome.
From the beginning humans have looked up at the vastness of the sky and concluded that something this Big had to be created by something even Bigger.
And now we can look in a microscope (or in the mirror) and realize that God can be found, perhaps even more impressively, in Small things.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012


If you go to buy an acoustic guitar these days you can spend anywhere from $100 to $10,000.  Anything much below $100 is more toy than instrument, and anything more than $10,000 is a collectible, a piece of artwork that is hung on the wall or in a display case and rarely played—certainly never taken anywhere to be played.  With a guitar costing more than $3,000 you aren’t really paying for better sound or playability; you’re are paying for bling—pearl inlays, abalone trim, or even the name of a well-known custom builder.  There are some great sounding guitars out there that cost $1,000—and some really good sounding guitars that can be had for $500 or so.  The other night I actually had the opportunity to play with some professional musicians—the lead guitar players for Nashville recording artists James Wesley and Dustin Lynch—and neither one of them had a guitar that cost more than $600-700.
So what’s the difference between a  $200 guitar and a $500 guitar?  For the most part, they are going to look the same and maybe even play the same, but in order to keep a the price down manufacturers are going to use cheaper woods—plywood, mainly.  The back and sides and maybe even the soundboard are going to be laminated.  Thin pieces of a cheap, readily accessible wood like pine will be glued together to the proper thickness, and then on top of it all a thin veneer of a traditional guitar wood like rosewood will be glued on.  So to the naked eye it looks like the guitar is made of rosewood, but that is just an illusion.  The rosewood is just a veneer; the substance of the back and sides is cheap wood.  There is a sacrifice in tone, however.  Wood is resonate, glue isn’t.  Wood is musical, glue isn’t.  For every layer of wood there is a layer of glue, and while each layer of glue is very, very thin, it makes a difference in the sound.
Laminate guitars are not bad.  I have played one for over thirty years and it sounds really, really good.  It’s the first guitar I ever bought, back when I was in college, and it was all I could afford, but I play it almost every day.  But here’s the thing: it pretty much sounds the same as it did back in 1979.  The sound of a guitar made of all solid wood, however, will improve over time.  When I deliver a guitar that I’ve just made to a customer, I tell them to play the living daylights out of it.  The wood has to learn that it is no longer a tree, it is a musical instrument.  The more the guitar is played, the more the wood vibrates, and as it shakes, the wood fibers and natural resins that act as glue loosen up.  It takes a couple of years for the wood to approach its natural settling point, and it never really gets there.  Even decades later the wood is still settling, though subtly, into its role as a musical instrument.  And as it does so the guitar becomes more resonate, the sound becomes more complex and interesting, and its voice gets bigger.
It’s easy to communicate with lots of people today, more so than ever.  It’s easy to allow texts, emails, and blogs make up our communication with each other.  With a click you can “friend” someone, and with another you can “unfriend” them.   
Click.  Done.  
I guess there is some good in that, but there is also the temptation to give people a curated and manufactured Facebook profile of yourself.
In other words, a veneer.  Rich-looking rosewood on the outside, cheap pine plywood underneath.  We can do that with God as well.  And that’s OK when your just beginning a relationship, but if you stick with the veneer, you’ll never grow.  You’ll sound the same in 30 years as you do today.
The solid wood of relationships, including your relationship with God, is intimacy, face-to-face connection, honesty even when it’s ugly.  Such a relationship does more than just exist, it grows, and as it grows it resonates more and more.
A veneer is OK when you are just learning, but eventually you’ll want the depth of solid wood.
I mean, who wants to sound the same after all these years?

Monday, September 10, 2012

A Glorious Ruining

Of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5, the one most tell me the struggle with it patience.  I can’t recall that I’ve ever had someone come up to me and say, “I really had a hard time being kind” or “I need to work on gentleness.”  No, it’s pretty much always “I keep asking the Lord to help me be more patient.”  (Sometimes it’s “I need to stop asking the Lord to help me be more patient, because he keeps sending me situations that really test my patience!”  But same thing.)  Maybe it’s because impatience is a universal problem that everyone struggles with.  Or maybe because it’s easier to admit to being impatient than it is to not being good, faithful or even gentle.  But maybe there is something else going on.
We live in a drive-thru, instant, smartphone culture of fast  everything.  When we went from dial-up to high-speed DSL Internet access at my house, we all reveled in how much faster web surfing had become.  Now I have to endure the endless assaults from my adult children whenever they are home because our Internet is so slow, and I have to contemplate the increased cost of cable Internet.  Smartphones and tablets provide amusements anytime and any place, so no time is dead time.  When any news from anywhere can be known right now via real-time Twitter stream, when any question can be answered with a quick Google search on a mobile device, when any song or book can be purchased in an instant without going to a record store (a what?) or a bookstore, and when there seems to be an app for everything, waiting for anything that takes more than an instant seems prehistoric.
If the Middle Ages gave us The Seven Deadly Sins, the 21st Century has bequeathed The Two Must-Avoid Sins: slowness and boredom.  Kids often call things “boring” or “slow” that they either don’t understand or which would take too much time and energy to make even an attempt at understanding, and I fear that adults are falling into that adolescent trap as well.  When I was a kid I used to think that watching baseball on T.V. was the most boring thing in the world.  The game just moved so slow, and there was hardly any action.  But the more I played the game and watched the game—in other words, the more I understood the game—the more intriguing it became.  Every pitch was a game within the game, and depending on whether that pitch was called a ball or a strike changed everything.  It changed the pitcher’s approach, the hitter’s approach, whether a runner would attempt a steal or the manager would call for a hit and run.
When I was a child, I thought that worship was like baseball, slow and boring.  But now I know different.  Nonetheless, more and more people are demanding that worship services be fast-paced, entertaining, and immediately applicable to their lives.  I get that, and I do think it’s important to eliminate dead time between elements, to keep worshipers engaged, and for sermons to be helpful on Monday morning.
But I'm also reminded that some things take time—that, indeed, the most important things in life take time and cannot be rushed.  Developing the spiritual life is a slow process.  The soul is fed more from a crock pot than from a microwave.  That is because what seems on the surface—and is often presented as such by Christian marketers hacking their wares—as something simple: “Read the Bible and pray for a few minutes every day!” is really quite complicated, but in a glorious way.  Rushing through it, trying to over-simplify it, trying to reduce it to something that can be contained in an app on a mobile device not only cheapens it, but also guarantees that what results will be some lesser version of the real thing.
And maybe that is all right.  If all you’ve ever eaten is microwave lasagna, then you’ll be satisfied with it.  But once you’ve taken the time to bake real  lasagna, you’re ruined for the fast and cheap stuff.
And in the spiritual life, it’s a glorious ruining.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

He's Always Working

In William Shakespeare's Macbeth, Macduff says, "Every morn, new widows howl, new orphans cry and new sorrows strike heaven on the face." Can you feel the impact of that?
      One of the beautiful things about poetry is that it is compressed language, a verbal time bomb. With only a few words, with a few strokes of the pen, Shakespeare unleashes volumes of raw sentiment, emotion and philosophy. He's saying that with every loss, with every tear, with every illness, and with every injustice there is an assault on the face of God, on the character of God. Every evil, every heartache strikes heaven on the face and says with clenched fists, "God does not exist. God does not care. God is not good."
     This is probably the most pervasive perspective on evil and suffering and the existence of God today. This is what our culture believes.  The logic can be framed like this: If evil and suffering exist but God does not stop it, he may be all powerful but he is not good. If evil and suffering exist but God cannot stop it, he may be good but he's not all powerful. Either way, the good and all powerful God of the Bible cannot be. It's a powerful argument. What do we say?
       Here's the second perspective on questions of God's presence in the dark times of life. In C.S Lewis' The Great Divorce a character named George MacDonald says, "Ah, the Saved … what happens to them is best described as the opposite of a mirage. What seemed, when they entered it, to be the vale of misery turns out, when they look back, to have been a well; and where present experience saw only salt deserts memory truthfully records that the pools were full of water."
     Lewis is saying is that God has a funny way of working through suffering to bring about incredible blessing.
      One of the really great things about the story of Ruth is the absence of any miracles.  There are no big fish or burning bushes. There are no dreams, no voices, and no revelations. There are no explicit, overt interventions from God. There are no dramatic answers to prayer. There's just a group of people trying to live and survive. They see nothing but mundane times and hard times. They make decisions about where to live and what to eat—just like us. But when you read it, you see that God is still powerfully at work, under the surface and behind the scenes, maybe, but he is still at work.  It was God who broke the famine and opened the way home.  It was God who preserved a kinsman redeemer to continue Naomi's line.  It was God who convicts Ruth to stay with Naomi.  And it was God who led Ruth to Boaz. God was constantly at work. That's the irony of the text. Naomi doesn't see it. Ruth doesn't see it. Boaz doesn't see it. But we, the reader, from our outside perspective—we see it. God is in every scene, every act, and every movement of this play. He is right there in their sorrows and in their joys. There are invisible fingerprints and footsteps in the sand all over the story.
     We must learn to see the signs of hope that he's constantly working even when it seems like he's silent. One scholar put it like this: God is most powerfully present even when he seems most conspicuously absent. He's always working.   You must never lose hope no matter what's going on in your life because God is doing 10,000 things for his glory and your good even when he appears to be absent and not listening.
     It would be nice to have a miracle, but if you need a miracle in order to believe that God is real and is involved in our world, what kind of faith do you really have?  I mean, we know God is real, we believe God is involved, but a miracle—well, that would remove all doubt, now wouldn’t it?  Perhaps.  But it would also remove the need for faith.  Certainty is the opposite of faith, which means that uncertainty is essential for faith.  And the righteous live by faith (Habakkuk 2:4), and without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6).
     What we need is not more miracles, just more faith.