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Monday, May 30, 2011

Post Apocalypse

We are now living in a post apocalyptic world. That is, if you gave any credence to Harold Camping’s predictions last week. I expect that even Camping was surprised with the media attention his doomsday forecast generated. Main line news programs reported it. It was on the front pages of the newspapers. According to his meticulous interpretations of Biblical prophecy, the world was scheduled to end at 6 PM on Saturday, May 21. It didn’t. And now Camping has come out with another prediction. Apparently the apocalypse has been postponed to October 21. Kind of like a make-up date for a rain out.

The whole thing might say a lot more about how we read and understand the Bible than anything about the end of the world. Most Christians immediately recognized Jesus’ very clear statement about predicting the date for the end of the age. While the Bible is clear that the earth will wear out, that Jesus will return, that God will judge the “quick and the dead” and that God will create a new heaven and a new earth, it is also clear that no one knows when this will happen. Jesus said, “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.” No one can predict the date.

The fact that so many recognized the contradiction between Campy’s fancy mathematical footwork to pinpoint the date for the end times and Jesus’ simple statement illustrates one of the essential principles in understanding the Bible. Always interpret obscure passages in light of clear ones.

It also says something about who we choose to follow. There are a lot of religious voices out there. We recently dropped our cable subscription and went back to TV programs on the local airwaves. I was surprised to discover we could receive more than 30 stations with an antenna. Then I realized that many of them were “religious” stations, with some of the wildest preacher-performers I have ever seen. Flipping the channels was, to be quite honest, scary.

I thought Jim and Tammy Bakker had faded. Tammy, of course, has passed on. I felt sympathy for her in her last days. After serving his prison sentence, Jim has gone back on the air and online with his own apocalyptic predictions. His web site offers all you need for survival when the tribulation hits. Jim used to believe he would be raptured prior to the tribulation, but he changed his mind and decided he could sell survival items including everything from four-man tents, a solution to protect yourself from epidemics and “Time of Trouble” food buckets that will get you through seven years of famine (for the bargain price of $3,000.) Of course you can also buy jewelry and a set of his DVDs to watch in your idle time.

We have so many religious caricatures on the airwaves and in print that we have difficulty sorting through them to discover the authentic voices. Jesus knew this would be the case. That is why he gave us a simple rule to follow. Check out their fruit. Jesus said, “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits.” (Mt 7:15-16).

Monday, May 23, 2011

Does God Exist?

In an interview last week, Stephen Hawking, the world’s foremost physicist, stated his belief that there is no God. He said, “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”

I was one of the nine million who read Hawking’s popular book, “A Brief History of Time.” I took heart when he referred to God as the force that could fully explain the creation of the universe. Either I misunderstood what he meant, which is highly possible, or Hawking changed his mind.

Either way, Hawking’s latest confession of non-faith saddens me. It is difficult for me to comprehend how such a brilliant mind can reach the conclusion that all we observe in the universe is an accident, that there is no intelligent force or design behind our existence. It seems as illogical to me as finding a Swiss watch in the desert and concluding its intricate pieces just accidentally fell together from nowhere.

I went back and watched the movie, “Contact,” a science fiction story that wrestles with science, empirical evidence and faith. As the story points out, a lot of religion is messed up. At the same time, science and empirical evidence can only take us so far. The question Hawking is dealing with is bigger than any religion or denominational expression. It is also bigger than science. It is a question we all must face and answer. How we answer it makes a great deal of difference in how we live and how meaningful our lives are.

Hawking concluded that since there is no God, humans should seek to live the most valuable lives they can while on Earth. This too, makes no sense to me. If there is no God, where is the motive to live responsible and valuable lives? We are sucked into a black hole of non-existence and non-meaning. What does it matter?

If we argue that love matters then, it seems to me, we are thrown back into the very lap of God. Love is the greatest and most mysterious reality in our existence, eclipsing all other discoveries. Who wants to live in a world of technological perfection and scientific achievement without love? A loveless world would leave us shallow, fragmented, lonely, isolated, fearful, and miserable.
Here lies the greatest truth: “God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.” (1 John 4:16).

Ultimately, I suppose, faith or non-faith is a choice. We can choose to believe that our world is the result of a creative God who desired and designed our existence from the tiniest molecule to the most distant star or we can choose not to believe.

I am not as brilliant as Stephen Hawking. He is a genius by anyone’s standard. But the idea that human beings are no more than computers that will one day crash and be discarded as junk leads nowhere. For my part, I will choose to believe. It is the only conclusion that seems to make any sense.

Monday, May 16, 2011

What We Don't Know

The total of human knowledge is increasing at an astonishing rate. It is estimated that it took 300 years for knowledge to double after 1450, but only 150 years for it to double again. From 1900 to 1950 it doubled once more. It is now believed to double every 900 days and, after 2020 is expected to double every 72.

Only 200 years ago physicians thought that illness was caused by bad blood. George Washington was virtually bled to death in 1799 as the favored treatment for an obvious infection. One hundred years ago Henry Ford introduced the assembly line and the Model T. Fifty years ago computers were unknown. Twenty years ago the Internet was unknown to the public. Our access to knowledge and the world has dramatically changed. What is there that we do not know today that will be common knowledge tomorrow? What is it that we think we know that will be proved wrong?

Each of us is able to comprehend only a small segment of the vast ocean of human knowledge. And, when all our knowledge is compiled and computed it only scratches the surface of the limitless universe. We are still confined to this tiny spec of a planet. We have not been able to travel any further than the moon. The vastness of the universe remains far beyond our reach. The closest star, Proxima Centauri, is 4.33 light years away. Traveling at the fastest speed imaginable with current technology, scientists estimate it would take 19,000 years to reach it. At our very best we can only observe the vast reaches of the universe through our telescopes as though looking through a glass darkly.

Regarding God, we debate our axioms and truths as if we have complete and comprehensive knowledge about God. We must always be reminded by the words of the prophet when God says, “My ways are not your ways. My thoughts are not your thoughts. As the heavens are above the earth, so are my thoughts above your thoughts.”

This is one of the reasons God sent his Son, simply because God is incomprehensible. Knowledge of his universe is too vast. Knowledge of his nature and character is too far beyond our mortal minds. As with his creation, we can only observe and stand in awe.

We are like newborn babes first opening their eyes to a new world they have never seen. We are like children giggling over new found discoveries on the play ground: a stick, a flower, a worm, a caterpillar. I think God takes joy in this. He takes pleasure in our discoveries of his intricate, complex and mysterious creation. At the same time, he is grieved by our blindness. The violence, cruelty, abuse and conflict that exists in the earth bears witness that for all our advance in scientific and technological knowledge, we are still unable to focus on the truths that matter most. Jesus, as God in human flesh, was the only one who has ever known and seen all things clearly. For all of our advances we have yet to learn the Sermon on the Mount and put it into practice.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Justice and Grace

It has been more than a week since Osama bin Laden’s death. When I first heard the news I felt no joy. I was not sad that he was dead. I am glad he is no longer a threat to innocent people. I believe the world is a better place without him. But I wondered why I did not feel like dancing in the streets and waving flags. Why did I feel no jubilation at this news?

Perhaps my sadness stemmed from the conflicting worldviews represented in bin Laden’s death. One worldview operates on the basis of terror, violence, bloodshed, retaliation and revenge. The other world view operates on the basis of love, forgiveness, kindness, gentleness, goodness and grace. The killing of bin Laden seemed to demonstrate the triumph of the first worldview, leaving the questions: Can the second worldview exist with out the first, or does it exist at all? How do those of us who opt for compassion, forgiveness and grace live in a world that seems dominated by violence, retaliation and revenge?

When I was a youth I shocked my mother by saying, “God is not just.” I think she wanted to wash my mouth out with soap. I simply could not reconcile God’s justice with God’s grace. If God is just, it seemed to me, he could not be loving and forgiving. On the other hand, if he were loving and forgiving, he could not be just. So, I opted for a loving and forgiving God. Of course I was wrong. God is both loving and just. He revealed himself to Moses as “the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in loving kindness and truth; who keeps loving kindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished.” (Exodus 34:6-7).

God’s justice and grace intersected on Golgotha. Jesus endured the cross because he knew a penalty must be paid for our sin and that violence, hatred and cruelty must be overcome by God’s grace and goodness. Isaiah had predicted this moment: “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isa. 53:5-6).

Our fallen world is filled with violence and hatred, goodness and grace, all at the same time. Somehow we must seek both justice and grace. I have no doubt that Osama bin Laden deserved death. But his death in no way compensates for the thousands of innocent lives lost on 9/11 or the multiplied thousands more brave and innocent men and women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the thousands of young Muslims led astray by his radical views. Personally, I am ready to celebrate goodness and grace everywhere it is found. And I am prepared to affirm justice wherever it is necessary and can be achieved.

Monday, May 2, 2011

After The Wedding

Last week: “the wedding.” This week: marriage. Few couples will ever experience a wedding like Prince William and Kate Middleton. A few very wealthy celebrities might approach or exceed the expense. But they will not achieve the global attention created by the tradition and ceremony surrounding a prince marrying his princess. This week, regardless of the ceremony and publicity, William and Kate, like everyone else, must turn their attention to the more difficult challenge of building a marriage.

Prince William and Kate’s fairytale wedding struggled to escape the shadow of his father’s marriage to Princess Diana. We all hope the young couple will succeed where his parents failed. We all want marriage to work. We all wish every marriage would live up to the thrill of the weddings in which they were formed.

Weddings are events. They can be planned, staged and bought. Marriages, on the other hand, are lifelong relationships that take time, effort, struggle, sacrifice, love and forgiveness, things that money cannot buy. No one really knows what goes on in a marriage except the husband and wife who share the marriage bond. Some marriages appear strong and stable to the public eye, but are inwardly crumbling. We were stunned when Al and Tipper Gore called it quits.

Last year my wife and I celebrated our forty-second anniversary. I remember how she appeared beneath her wedding veil at the altar, the tear that formed in her eye when we exchanged our vows. She was nineteen. Some images in the brain never fade. Even though the years have aged us both, her nineteen-year-old beauty remains whenever I look at her.

We were naïve. We had far more to learn than either of us knew. I think it took the first ten years to begin to understand who she really is, and I am still learning. Along the way, she helped me discover who I am.

Our marriage has had its celebrations and its sorrows. We have celebrated the birth of three children and four grandchildren and we have wept at the graves of our parents. We have known exhilaration and depression, achievement and disappointment. We have traveled the world together and built a home. She nursed me to health after my motorcycle wreck. This week she will undergo cancer surgery, and I will be by her side.

Throughout the years we have discovered building blocks that make marriage work. The first is faith. It was our faith in God and His son Jesus that brought us together and kept us together. But faith that merely professes to believe in Jesus would not have been enough. Marriage, more than any other relationship, taught us the importance of living out the things Jesus taught: honesty, trust, respect, humility, confession and forgiveness. Without these elements faith is empty, especially in marriage.

We are still learning the meaning of love and our love is still growing, as I hope William and Kate will learn and grow. We are still striving to live out the Bible’s definition: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (1 Cor. 13).