A SUBLIME GRACE

Mis 1Some years are better than other years. Some years look like the 1962 season of the New York Mets when they lost 120 games out of 162, or the 1976 season of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who went 0-14. I have had one of those latter years. In the spring, a family crisis put an extraordinary strain on all of us. This October I painfully ended my tenure at my church as senior pastor. In November, my brother-in-law died of a heart attack. He was one year my junior. In the past year, there have been few days when the tentacles of stress were not wrapped around my heart.

But my year does not compare to the the years depicted in the lives of Victor Hugo’s characters in Les Miserables, touted as “one of the half-dozen greatest novels of the world” by author Upton Sinclair. The book was adapted into a Broadway musical in 1980 and has inspired numerous film versions, the most recent one released in theaters in December 2012.

Jean Valjean serving duty in prison

Jean Valjean serving duty in prison

Hugo set his story in the social and political chaos that followed the French Revolution. The principle character, Jean Valjean, was condemned to 5 years in prison in 1796 for theft – he stole a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving daughter. Repeated attempts to escape compounded his sentence to 19 years.

The scene opens with Valjean’s parole and futile attempts to find work or assistance. Turned away from every inn in town, he locates a secluded spot on a street and settles down for the night. An elderly woman discovers him and directs him to the bishop’s house. Bishop Myriel was endowed with a heart full of grace and mercy and readily welcomed the ex-convict, feeding him a hearty meal and providing a warm bed.

Having lost all hope for a future and encumbered by the desperation of his habit of life, Valjean steals the good bishop’s silver utensils and flees in the early morning. He is quickly apprehended by the police, but he claims the bishop gave him the silver. The police return him to the bishop, who corroborates Valjean’s story and indicates that he had forgotten the most valuable pieces, two candlesticks.

The bishop extends grace to Valjean

The bishop extends grace to Valjean

Valjean had experienced only the harsh and dispassionate force of the law, but he was now the victim of a sublime grace at the hands of a merciful and compassionate bishop. The bishop urged him to use the money from the silver to make himself an honest man. Then the bishop anoints him with these words,

“Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to what is evil but to what is good. I have bought your soul to save it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.”

This single act introduced Valjean to spiritual transformation. Six years later, he resurfaces in the story as a wealthy factory owner and mayor of a small French town. Having adopted the name Madeleine, he abandoned his identity and former life and destroyed his official papers. Known for his generosity and compassion, he uses his position for the benefit of others, providing employment for the economically afflicted.

One of his employees, Fantine, had fallen victim to a summer romance and was left with a child and no means of support. She gave the child, Cosette, to an unscrupulous couple for care and nurture, sending as much as money as she can, at great personal sacrifice, for Cosette’s support. Unjustly dismissed by the factory foreman, Fantine sells her hair, two teeth, and eventually the only the thing left to sustain her existence, her moral dignity.

Mis 4Valjean encounters Fantine in the street after an altercation with a man. The police inspector, Javert, was arresting her when Valjean intervenes and orders her release. Fantine tells him her story, bringing upon Valjean the guilt of his neglect for the attentive care for his employees. Noticing the desperate health of Fantine, Valjean takes her to a hospital and promises to bring her daughter to see her.

Breaking parole makes Valjean the object of Javert’s attention, the rigid and relentless servant of the law. Suspecting that Monsieur Madeleine may be the fugitive Valjean, he inquires about him, but learns that a man in another town was currently standing trial and had been identified as Jean Valjean. The inspector confesses his mistake to Valjean.

Javert explains his mistaken suspicion to the mayor (Valjean)

Javert explains his mistaken suspicion to the mayor (Valjean)

When Valjean learns of the false identification, he is faced with a moral dilemma. To remain silent would send an innocent man to a severe prison sentence. To speak up would mean his own arrest, the loss of his factory and the financial distress for his employees. He realizes that the injustice would haunt him the rest of his life and reveals his identity to the court on the neighboring town.

Javert hears about Valjean’s revelation and tracks him down at the hospital. Void of any mercy, Javert arrests Valjean, denying him the benevolent deed of bringing Cosette to see her dying mother. Overcome by despair, Fantine dies.

Fantine weeps in despair of her dissolute life.

Fantine weeps in despair of her dissolute life.

The story continues like this with Valjean escaping, finding Cosette and raising her, eluding Javert repeatedly, sparing Javert’s life when he was captured by student revolutionaries, saving the life of one of those revolutionaries with whom Cosette fell in love, and Javert’s perilous decision in the end. By the end of the movie (or stage play or book), you will be in tears over the unending anguish of all the characters.

But standing out like Mt. Everest in the Sahara Desert is the story of redemption. Valjean is irreversibly changed by the bishop’s powerful act of love and grace and he doggedly extends the same love and grace throughout the remainder of his life. The darkness of persistent misery is drowned out by the beautiful light of invincible grace.

Hugo’s story mirrors the Bible’s story of the redemption that rescues miserable sinners from the cesspool of sin. The supreme act of grace came at the cross, where Jesus purchased our souls from perdition and gave them to God. And those who experience that redemption repeat that act of grace hundreds of times to touch other lives for the kingdom of God.

No matter how hard it gets, no matter how dark it becomes, no matter how desperate your condition, the power of God’s redeeming grace can lift you out of the darkness and into his healing and  rejuvenating light.

I would highly recommend seeing the movie or stage play this year. It may completely change the way you respond to the adversity that awaits you in 2013.

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Posted in Grace, Movies, Redemption, Suffering, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

SEEKING SENSE IN THE “SENSELESS”

(DON EMMERT/AFP/GETTY)

(DON EMMERT/AFP/GETTY)

It is difficult to know what to say about the horrifying event at Sandy Hook Elementary School last Friday, especially when so much has been said about it already. Unless we have endured the pain of losing a young child, we cannot imagine the deep sorrow inflicted on the families of the 20 children who were gunned down that day. Their sorrow is compounded by the grief of the families of the 6 teachers and staff whom the gunman shot.

In the midst of national grieving, talking heads pontificate on the causes of and solutions for gun violence. The word so often associated with these kinds of tragedies is “senseless,” which suggests that they transcend logic or explanation. Being human, however, we dig and scratch and claw for reasons so that we can prevent another “senseless” act of violence.

We should feel no less sorrow for the perpetrator of the crime, Adam Lanza, and his mother, who had spent most of the past 20 years trying to help her son deal with the disorders that plagued him from birth. No one ever suspected that this young man was a danger to himself or anyone else. Yet, he initiated his “senseless” crime by taking the life of the mother who protected him.

(DON EMMERT/AFP/GETTY)

(DON EMMERT/AFP/GETTY)

Now a father and brother must clear the debris from the devastating explosion in their family. Yes, the parents divorced several years ago. Yes, the brother had very little contact with Adam in recent years. But blood and the family name glue people together in ways that make complete separation nearly impossible. We must grieve for them as well.

I heard probably the best piece of advice from a pastor who addressed this subject Sunday morning. He said that Christians often feel responsible to explain these events somehow, and their explanations often tend toward shallow trivialities and spurious theology. He advised his congregation to stop trying to give answers where there are no answers.

That may seem incongruous with this blog site, dedicated to understand all of life through a Christian theology. Thinking deeply, asking difficult questions and recognizing the complexities about life have disappeared from a culture content with the latest technology or newest video game. Christians, claiming to know the God who created and sustains the universe with distinct purpose and order, should lead the charge into the shadows of life, believing that they will discover the light of God’s presence and purpose there.

But we must also recognize and admit the limitations of our humanity. By definition, God is mysterious. Because he is not finite flesh and blood, he surpasses human understanding and transcends human knowledge.

We will frequently find ourselves sliding down the curve of a question mark in perilous fear, struggling to understand and pleading to know. God may remain silent, but he will not let us fall into the abyss of despair.

shooting 3

Julio Cortez/Associated Press

One clear sign of our hubris is the hasty willingness to point the finger of blame at God. Really? How do you blame God for the deliberate, intentional, volitional act of a human? God will not be blamed. It is ludicrous for the creature to hold the Creator in contempt, for the flawed to accuse the Flawless of fault. Like Psalm 2 says of God’s response to the nations as they rage against God, “He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision.”

Perhaps the only thing we can say with certainty in response to events like this one is that just as surely as humans are entirely dependent upon oxygen to exist, they are also deeply contaminated by evil. That evil manifests itself in various ways and to varying degrees, but it unavoidably shows up.

We can construct systems to restrain it, build structures to contain it, concoct formulas to medicate it, and invent therapies to manipulate it, but we just can’t seem to extract it from human society.

How do we live with the absence of answers in the face of evil? Some would say get guns off the street. Others would say remove violent video games from the shelves. Still others would argue for prompt identification and treatment of mental illness. And the list goes on. Every human invention may have limited effectiveness in retarding the advance of evil, but they will not remove it.

shooting 4

(Photo by Andrew Gombert)

For this reason, we desperately need the God we want to blame. Evil is bigger than we are, much bigger. If there is no God who is bigger still, then we are in deep trouble, for our efforts to conquer evil will be like trying to restrain the Hulk with shoelaces. We had better hope for a God who is neither infected nor affected by evil. And we had better hope he is on our side. If there is such a God, then he is able to turn ashes into beauty, to use pain to bring strength, and to redeem man from his own evil.

The Christmas season reminds us again that such a God does exist and he has put such a plan of redemption into motion. For thousands of years his mercy covered man’s evil acts.

Then, in the fullness of time, God entered the arena where evil has mastered humanity, taking upon himself human flesh, to do battle directly with evil. Three decades later, he endured the full force of evil unleashed against him through his broken creatures. And he won.

ACD/INFphoto.com

ACD/INFphoto.com

He conquered evil. He conquered death. He redeemed man. He defined hope. He offered rescue. We must accept it on his terms – not with all the answers, not without uncertainties, not exempt from the grief of living in the ripples and waves of evil, but in simple trust. We must learn to trust him, especially when we cannot explain the “senseless” events of life. He promises to one day make sense of all of them. Jesus came to validate that promise.

Posted in Evil, Faith, Nature of Man, The Gospel, Violence | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

SCIENCE STUMBLES OVER DEATH

science 1“Heaven Is Real” according to the cover story of the October 15 issue of Newsweek. The story chronicles Eben Alexander’s descent into a seven-day coma and journey into a wholly different level of conscious reality during that time. Dr. Alexander’s 25 years as a neurosurgeon and former professor at Harvard Medical School qualifies him to speak as a scientist, although his conclusions have provoked numerous critiques from fellow scientists.

In the fall of 2008, Alexander was rushed to the emergency room of Lynchburg General Hospital, where his colleagues determined that he had contracted a rare bacterial meningitis. E. coli had attacked his brain, shutting down his cortex, the part of the brain that controls thoughts and emotions. The synapses between the neurons no longer functioned, halting all electromagnetic activity that produces brain function. His doctors had verified by repeated tests that no brain function was possible during that seven-day period – no vision, hearing, emotion memory or logical reasoning.

The overwhelming majority in the scientific community argues that the brain alone produces all conscious activity. Significant advances in technology have fortified these materialists’ belief that consciousness can be defined as a physical phenomenon solely.

Although technology can trace every thought and emotion to neural activity, scientists have not been able to explain how the brain produces this consciousness. And, of course, it is fair to toss the hypothesis into the lab that perhaps the brain is only a physical conduit of this conscious activity, but not the source.

Dr. Eben Alexander explains brain function

Dr. Eben Alexander explains brain function

Alexander’s coma has profoundly convinced him that this hypothesis is indeed fact. He is able to describe in elaborate detail a vivid conscious reality during those seven days. He saw clouds in a bright blue sky and transparent beings floating across it. He heard a loud joyful chant coming from the sky. A young woman accompanied him during this time and he could feel both her penetrating look and her vibrating words, even though she did not speak. In fact, he writes that “hearing and seeing were not separate in this place.” What he saw he also experienced as sound.

Alexander’s conclusion that he journeyed to heaven cannot be verified. But he argues that his conscious experience detached from brain function cannot be refuted. In a subsequent article for Newsweek (Nov. 26), Alexander writes, “My seven-day odyssey beyond my physical body and brain convinced me that when the filter of the brain is removed, we see the universe clearly for the first time. And the multidimensional universe revealed by this trans-physical vision is not a cold, dead one, but alive with the force that, as the poet Dante wrote some 600 years ago, ‘moves the sun and other stars.’”

Just months before Alexander explored the edges of life, Gary Habermas delivered a lecture at California Polytechnic State University on the evidence of life after death. Habermas has a Ph.D. in History and Philosophy of Religion and is Distinguished Professor of Apologetics and Philosophy at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, where he serves as chairman of the department of philosophy and theology. Habermas has devoted nearly 30 years to the study of near-death experiences (NDE).

Habermas asserts that an NDE cannot prove the existence of heaven (or hell) since they cannot be validated empirically. His interest lies in what he calls evidential cases where consciousness existed after a patient arrived at a flat-heart and flat-brain wave. He describes several of these cases in his lecture.

science 3Maria suffered a heart attack and was taken to the emergency room. During efforts to resuscitate her, she describes a conscious view of the hospital room from a perspective different from the gurney. These reports are vulnerable to dispute by skeptics. Maria went on to describe something that escapes dispute.

After she was revived she described floating through the floors of the hospital until she was at the roof. She told the doctors and nurses that she saw on the roof a very large men’s blue canvass shoe with a small hole in the little toe area. Kim, one of the nurses, decided to follow up on Maria’s story, which even specified the section of the roof. She found several vantage points that enabled her to see portions of the roof, but did not spot the shoe. Finally, in one of the last places she could look, she found the shoe, exactly as Maria described.

In another case, a nine-year-old girl drowned in a pool and no heartbeat was detected for 19 minutes. Doctors now claim that brain activity goes flat 11 seconds after after the loss of a heartbeat. The girl, Katy, was declared brain dead when she arrived at the hospital. Dr. Melvin Morris attended the case and placed her on life-support, giving her 1 in 1,000 chances to survive, and 1 in 10,000 chances to survive with brain function.

Three days later Katy spontaneously woke up. When she saw Dr. Morris she said, “Oh, you are the doctor with the beard who saved me. Where is the tall doctor without a beard?” Dr. Melvin retrieved him and they asked Katy about her condition. She said that she was fine and that she had been with her angel, Elizabeth. Katy said that Elizabeth allowed her to view her family’s house the night she drowned and she told with detail where each member of her family was located in the house, what they were doing, what song was on the radio and what her mother was cooking for dinner.

science 4Angels cannot be verified, but reports of contact with this world during a flat-brain state can. Dr. Morris took notes and later interviewed Katy’s family before she could tell them what she experienced. Katy’s report was accurate in every detail. Dr. Morris went on to do extensive research in NDEs. Originally an agnostic, his research has moved him to a theistic position.

As Habermas says, “Heaven can’t be tested. Angels can’t be tested.” But mounting reports of conscious experiences during conditions that are as near to death as we have the ability to define would indicate that the scientific position that nothing exists apart from the physical universe seems seriously flawed. Science may never answer all the questions generated by these reports, but they should at least tell us that the hard sciences alone are incapable of defining human existence. Science must give theology and philosophy places at the table.

Dr. Alexander’s book, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey Into the Afterlife, was released in October.

Posted in Death, Science and Faith, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

WHEN CULTURES CONFLICT

A Japanese elementary classroom

A Japanese elementary classroom

Jim Stigler was sitting in the back of a 4th grade math class in Japan in 1979. He was studying teaching methods as a graduate student at the University of Michigan. That one classroom experience profoundly shaped his perspective on teaching.

The lesson was on drawing a three-dimensional cube. The teacher perused the students’ efforts before singling out one boy to draw the cube on the board. Unlike an American school where the student with the most ability would be selected, the Japanese teacher sent the boy who struggled the most with the task.

The boy made his drawing and the teacher asked the class if got it right. “No” the class agreed. The teacher told him to try again. He struggled with another attempt and the teacher asked the class for their assessment. It was still not right. Stigler admits that he found himself beginning to perspire as he felt the embarrassment that his experiences in American classrooms had taught him.

The boy neither cowered nor burst into tears, but kept erasing his failure and attempting a new cube. By the end of the class his cube looked right. This time when the teacher asked the class for their opinion, they said, “He did it!” and broke out into applause. The boy returned to his seat with a smile and pride in his success.

Now a professor in psychology at UCLA studying teaching and learning internationally, Stigler identifies a distinction in the way the East and the West view intellectual struggle. “I think that from very early ages we [in America] see struggle as an indicator that you’re just not very smart. Whereas in Asian cultures they tend to see struggle more as an opportunity.”

Eastern culture treats struggle as part of the learning process, not an omen of the lack of inherent ability. Struggle allows a child to learn tenacity and persistence in solving a problem and achieving a goal, according to Stigler. The West tends to stigmatize struggle as a negative experience, often conditioning children to avoid the hard tasks or to concede too early, “I can’t do it.”

Jin Li, a professor at Brown University who has also devoted many years to this subject, has recorded conversations of American mothers with their children and Taiwanese mothers with their children. Li believes these interactions reveal basic assumptions about human nature and academic success that shapes the way the children approach struggle.

Japan 2When an American child reads her first passage in a book, the mother will likely praise her daughter, “I am so proud of you. You are so smart.” A Taiwanese mother is more likely to respond, “You worked so hard to sound out your words. You didn’t give up even though it was difficult. I am very proud of you.” These contrasting approaches train the child to think about intelligence, struggle and success in very different ways.

Stigler conducted a study on first-graders, giving them a math problem impossible to solve.  On average, the American children worked on the problem less than 30 seconds before telling the adults, “We haven’t learned this yet.” The Japanese children wrestled with the problem the entire hour. The researchers had to stop them and explain that the problem was impossible to solve. The children looked at them with disbelief.

Clearly there are exceptions to these habits. One can think of the athlete who is extolled for his exceptional hard work that compensated for his lack of natural ability and gave him success. Most people remember Michael Jordan for his work ethic as much as for his seven NBA titles. Struggle on the field of competition, however, does not always translate to the classroom, where intelligence usually overshadows effort.

Alix Spiegel reported this story on NPR and it now appears on NPR’s blog site under health news. One of the comments offered a corrective to the article. Josh Wilson writes, “As a resident of Japan and lecturer at a Japanese university, I’d like to refute the Japanophile perspective in this article. The US education system is far from perfect, but decent (not great) public schools produce far better learners and thinkers than in Japan.

“First, all of the examples above are from elementary school. None of the positive influence survives through 6 years of secondary education focused entirely on cramming for ever-more ridiculous entrance exams in classes of 40 students. Classes are teacher-fronted, slow, boring, lack engagement and discussion, and students don’t learn to become autonomous learners. Students are so used to being to told what to do that they never learn to think for themselves.

“I teach university sophomores. My students are bright and motivated, and while they may ‘work at a problem’ for a long time (look up ‘gaman’ for more about the cultural trait), their problem-solving skills, critical thinking, creativity, and communicative skills are uniformly bad -by far the worst of any group of students in Asia or beyond.

“I, like most of the foreign parents here, would not send my children through the Japanese school system.”

A trend in American education is toward collaborative learning - students sitting together and contributing together

A trend in American education is toward collaborative learning – students sitting together and contributing together

It would be important to note that Josh is very likely a Westerner and probably an American. His conclusions may be slanted in favor or his own culture. But even Li commented in the report that Asian educators share the same concern. “Our children are not creative. Our children do not have individuality. They’re just robots.”

People parent and teach according to their basic assumptions about human nature. These two cultures offer distinct views on humans. The East emphasizes the collective, the family or the community. The good of the group always take precedence over the good of the individual. The West elevates the individual to priority, frequently ignoring the good of the group for self-actualization or some other self- activity.

Now here’s the thing. Both of these beliefs have Christian roots. God has created each person uniquely and a healthy sense of personhood requires individuality. But God also created humans for loving relationships, to sacrifice the self for the benefit of others. Love does not forfeit individuality in its acts of sacrifice. And the community never loses when the individual responds to God’s individualized direction for his life. Both of these values can act in harmony.

We should always examine cultural values, especially our own, to determine their validity. Rarely is it a case of a simply black and white, wrong or right. We need to test our assumptions to see how they align with the real world. For this reason, it is good when we are challenged by other cultures.

The Creator of the universe and Author of life in every nation has ordered life around himself, where harmony and peace exist in its fullest sense.

Posted in Culture, Human Nature, Individualism | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A SCIENTIFIC CRIME

On October 22, an Italian court convicted seven scientists of manslaughter, holding them responsible for the deaths of 309 people at L’Aquila in an earthquake April 6, 2009. The conviction sent massive waves throughout the scientific community and raised serious questions about the role of scientific analysis in the prediction of natural disasters.

In January of 2009, a series of tremors in the region of Apennine Mountains of central Italy elevated the concerns of local residents. A scientific technician, whose methods the seismology community had shunned, first predicted the earthquake on March 29. He measured the emission of radon gas at four locations around the city, and the rising levels of gas indicated the probability of an earthquake around a 4 on the Richter scale. Based on his prediction, groups circulated through the city using megaphones to warn of an impending earthquake.

L'Aquila, Italy after a 6.3 earthquake hit in 2010  (REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi)

L’Aquila, Italy after a 6.3 earthquake hit in 2010 (REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi)

Two days later, the Civil Protection Agency sought the opinion of the Major Risks Committee, a group of experts who assess the risks of natural disasters. The scientists concluded after a short meeting, “There is no reason to believe that a swarm of minor events is a sure predictor of a major shock,” according to volcanologist, Franco Barberi. Enzo Boschi, president of the National Institute for Geophysics and Volcanology, advised, “A major earthquake in the area is unlikely but cannot be ruled out.” Professor of earth physics, Claudio Eva added, “because L’Aquila is in a high-risk zone, it is impossible to say with certainty that there will be no large earthquake.”

Following the meeting, the head of the Civil Protection Agency, Bernardo de Bernardinis announced to the press, “The scientific community tells me there is no danger because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favorable.” Six days later the 6.3 earthquake devastated the town of 73,000.

Bernardo de Bernardinis at the trial  AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Bernardo de Bernardinis at the trial AFP/GETTY IMAGES

A year later on June 3, all six members of the Committee and Bernardinis were indicted. Contrary to popular media headlines, they were not accused of failing to predict the earthquake, but were blamed for failing to properly assess the danger and communicate it adequately, leading residents to believe they were safe without a scientific basis. The scientists point the finger at Bernardinis for making the “no danger” statement, while the prosecutor argued that the scientists made no effort to publicly correct him.

In a more recent incident of scientific prediction, the National Hurricane Center calculated that hurricane Sandy would strike the northeast U.S. coast five days prior to the event. Using predictive models, computers crunched massive amounts of data from Sandy and 23 different simulations mapped a left turn into the New Jersey coast, contrary to historical patterns that veer away from land towards the ocean. The death toll has reached 113 and counting, but most officials believe it would have soared much higher without the early prognosis.

23 computer models predicted Sandy would turn left towards the East coast.

23 computer models predicted Sandy would turn left towards the East coast.

Scientists explain that predicting hurricane paths rely on more sophisticated and advanced tools than seismology technology has available. In the end, everyone would admit that predicting natural disasters will never achieve the same accuracy as determining the sunrise 100 years from today. Science has its limitations.

The success of the National Hurricane Center may blur those limitations. Science has already reached godlike status for many people. Expert scientific testimony sways the verdicts of juries and shapes the decisions of medical patients. And any superficial contradiction between science and religion usually weighs in favor of science, regardless of the distance between the theoretical and factual in the scientific process. Consequently, when scientists fail to perform with divine perfection, they might expect prosecution or litigation.

Humanity will always search for a savior, someone who can protect them from disasters, deliver them from enemies or cure them of illnesses. Like dressing dogs in human clothing, fragile beings have costumed science with divine garbs. Those who point out the fictional character of the emperor’s garments are denounced as obtuse or unenlightened.

A bridge in Mantoloking, NJ was destroyed by Sandy (Andrew Mills/The Star-Ledger)

A bridge in Mantoloking, NJ was destroyed by Sandy (Andrew Mills/The Star-Ledger)

A balanced perspective is needed. This balance will not depreciate the valuable contribution science makes to human life in a fallen world. It certainly has rescued us from many of the forces that seek to destroy life. In spite of its heroic role, science has yet to make the tiniest dent in human mortality. Although its advances continue to prolong life, it has yet to discover how to deliver from death.

Many years after God rescued the Israelites from Egypt through a display of God’s powerful control over nature, their perspective grew imbalanced. They began to cry out for a king, someone who would rescue them from the enemies who surrounded them. The prophet Samuel confronted them with their myopia, “But today you have rejected your God, who saves you from all your calamities and distresses, and you have said to him, ‘Set a king over us.’” (1 Samuel 10:19) God granted theme their request, but history proved that no human could meet their demands.

God declares of himself, “They have no knowledge who carry about their wooden idols, and keep on praying to a god that cannot save. Declare and present your case; let them take counsel together! Who told this long ago? Who declared it of old? Was it not I, the Lord? And there is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none besides me.” (Isaiah 45:20-21)

God alone can predict with perfect accuracy. And God alone can save man. The benefits of science notwithstanding, attempts to deify it turn it into a wooden idol. This may qualify as the biggest crime of all.

Posted in God and Nature, Natural Disasters, Science and Faith, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

A GIFT DISCOVERED

On Sunday, I completed my ministry at Lakeside Church of Chicago. Today I wrote my final article for the Lamplighter, the church’s weekly newsletter. Although it does not conform to the mission statement of my blog site, I thought it would be fitting to publish it anyway. (I suppose you can always do what you want with your own blog site.) The article follows.

This article makes number 587 (as best as I can calculate) that I have written for the Lamplighter in the 13 years and 9 months that I have served as pastor at Lakeside. Wow, how they have accumulated!

When I was first told about the newsletter and the lead article, I realized it provided a wonderful opportunity to communicate with the congregation. Then I learned that it had a much broader audience than just those who attended Lakeside every week. This increased my sense of responsibility and I have written every article with a call to privileged obligation.

I had no experience with writing when I began. Well, not really. I had an exceptional teacher in a high school English class. For one assignment, we were to write a paper about civic responsibility – or some such topic. She selected several papers and submitted them to a competition. I won $50 in that competition, although I did not make it beyond the next level.

I did enjoy writing letters in high school and college, although I gave more attention to my penmanship than to my ability to use descriptive language. Nonetheless, self-expression does have a way of honing certain composition skills.

The greatest demand for writing came in seminary. I wrote numerous papers and a thesis for my Master degree. I do not think that I was graded all that seriously for writing skills, but communicating one’s ideas clearly is embedded in any writing assignment.

During my ministries in Pontiac, Illinois and Joplin, Missouri, I was occasionally emboldened to write a letter to the editor. It seemed a great way to expose the community to God’s truth. My collection of letters could be read in 30 minutes. I even attended a one-week workshop on writing at Moody Bible Institute.

Fast forward to 1999 and suddenly I am required to write a weekly article. “Required” is probably an overstatement, since I was told I could solicit other people to write on subjects germane to our ministry. With the exception of one or two people, that was like finding volunteers to preach a sermon.

I began to receive positive feedback about my articles. At first, I thought people were just being nice. But the affirmation continued from a wide group, some who were on the out-of-town mailing list. One particular friend told me each time I saw her, “You really should start publishing your writing.” Much easier said than done!

Her persistent provocation spurred me to begin my blog site two years ago. I put my articles from the Lamplighter into the public domain via the internet. Of course, who will visit a blog site of an unknown aspiring author? I started getting twenty or thirty visitors a day to my site until one day a few months ago when the hits to my site unexplainably spiked to 191. Most of the views on that day were of an article I posted August 5, 2011, “Winsome Persuasion,” the story of a former lesbian who was lovingly and graciously contacted by a pastor and eventually surrendered her life to Jesus.

A few weeks later, I received a voice message from that woman, Rosaria Butterfield. She was googling her name and ran across my blog post. She read it and said, “I thought it was a very sensitive and accurate and appropriate handling of that situation and I was just calling to thank you.”

Her comment encouraged me beyond words. This was the greatest affirmation of my writing yet. (Did I mention that Rosaria was a tenured English professor at Syracuse University before her conversion?) We exchanged emails and she strongly encouraged me to keep writing, saying, “I do like your blog site very much. I think it’s timely and important.”

The two words that shrink and confine our lives more than any other words are “I can’t.” I could have easily opted out of writing those weekly articles, since I had not really written much before then. I was not trained to write. I had dabbled in it, but it would have been presumptuous to assume that I had any writing ability. I could have said, “I can’t” and changed the format of the newsletter to eliminate the article.

Don’t get me wrong. I do believe that God gives specific gifts and abilities to each of us, and we are most productive when we operate within those skills. But what if the investiture of these gifts was not final? What if God continues to distribute gifts to us as we need them to serve him effectively? Or what if we discover our gifts when we serve? This would mean many people narrow the possibilities of their lives simply because they never try.

Of course, many times “I can’t” really means “I don’t want to.” How sad to observe so many people content to watch God’s powerful work from the sidelines. This attitude deserves another article on another day.

We all need to pay more attention to the Holy Spirit and how he might direct us towards opportunities to serve in God’s kingdom, opportunities that might allow us to participate in the exciting power of God as he enables us to serve. Who knows? We might discover a new gift he has given us along the way.

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JUDGING THE GOSPEL

When a celebrity’s reputation tanks, what happens to his charity? “Nine times out of 10, the charity suffers when something bad happens to the famous person it’s associated with,” according to Ken Berger, head of Charity Navigator. “But Livestrong has been the exception to the rule.”

You may have seen someone wearing a yellow Livestrong bracelet. Livestrong originated as the Lance Armstrong Foundation in 1997. Armstrong, the cyclist who won the Tour de France seven times, began the charity after he was diagnosed with cancer. To date, it has served more than 2.5 million people and raised over $470 million for cancer research and cancer patient support services.

In 2004, David Walsh and Pierre Ballester stated in a book that Armstrong had used performance-enhancing drugs. A year later, a French newspaper claimed that tests done on six of Armstrong’s urine samples, frozen in 1999, tested positive. Armstrong denied the allegations. A board found that the re-testing of those samples fell below scientific standards and acquitted him of the charges in 2006.

Accusations continued to surface. Both 60 Minutes and Sports Illustrated did stories with former cycling teammates who said Armstrong was “an instigator” in the use of EPO, a banned substance, among teammates. Others said they had witnessed Armstrong using banned drugs or had supplied him with these drugs.

Finally, in June of this year, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency filed formal charges against the cycling champion for using and promoting banned substances since 1998. Armstrong filed a suit against the USADA, but a judge threw it out. On August 24, Armstrong announced that he would not enter the arbitration process and the USADA immediately disqualified him and his team from every race since August 1, 1998, stripping him of his seven Tour de France titles.

Armstrong continues to deny the charges, claiming he has never tested positive. A 1,000-page USADA report includes 26 witnesses, 11 of whom are Armstrong’s former teammates. It claims to have “scientific data” that shows Armstrong manipulated his blood samples with techniques such as blood transfusions to avoid detection. Without a legal challenge to the allegations, the evidence appears compelling, and most people are concluding that Armstrong’s withdrawal from the battle indicates guilt.

Lance Armstrong announcing that he is stepping down as chairman of Livestrong

Last week, Nike, Trek Bicycle and Anheuser-Busch cancelled their contracts with the fallen athlete. But Nike indicated it would continue to support the foundation. In fact, the charity has seen a 2 percent increase in donations this year. Armstrong did resign as chairman of the foundation in an effort to preserve its image.

Identification has powerful implications, as Ken Berger indicates. When people think about the charity, they think about the celebrity. If the celebrity has acquired a negative reputation, those negative thoughts are transferred to the charity. The charity may have an impeccable reputation, but transferred feelings often have no rational basis.

Freud coined the term transference to describe “an unconscious redirection of feelings from one person to another.” This happens especially when some connection exists between the two persons, such as a similar relational role or some physical similarities.

George Clooney selling watches

Marketing uses transference frequently when contracting celebrities to advertise products. The consumer often transfers strong favorable feelings for a celebrity to the product. A professional athlete or pop singer does not need to have any expertise in a product line to persuade people to buy the product. He or she just needs to create positive feelings that will be associated with the product.

Transference differs from another form of identification: representation. A representative should exemplify the characteristics of someone or something else. A representative for a company speaks on behalf of the company, expressing its values and goals. What is true about the representative should be true about the company.

Jesus assigned representation to his followers. Praying the night before he went to the cross, he asked the Father, “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:21) The relationship his followers have with one another represents him, and the world is justified in making judgments based on observing these relationships.

We may not like the pressure of this responsibility. We may prefer to rely on our apologetics, on our ability to convince someone of truth, or simply on the words of the gospel. But Jesus said that the world will often determine the validity of our claim that the Son of God has visited earth, not on our arguments, but on the way we treat one another.

Forgive the person who hurt you and you show that God sent his Son into the world. Go to the person to resolve a conflict and you show that God sent his Son into the world. Sacrifice your time or money to help someone reeling from adversity and you show that God sent his Son into the world. Reach out to the person who keeps pushing people away and you show that God has sent his Son into the world.

Judging a charity by the character of a celebrity may be unreasonable, but judging the claims of the gospel by the relational conduct of its adherents is acceptable and expected.

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