Friday, August 12, 2011

Architect and Engineer

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and without Him not one thing came into being. (John 1.1-3)

Dead Horse

“Curiosity,” Stephen Hawking's new TV series, would appear ready-made for believers who regard faith and science as two halves of a greater whole. The same can be said of devout atheists, whose faith is science. Odds favor both groups comprising the bulk of the audience for its first episode, “Did God Create the Universe?”—with the remnant split between casually interested, non-religious viewers and Biblical literalists tuning in to be outraged by Hawking's stridently anti-Creationist stance. (Why Big Bang and Darwinian opponents flock where their beliefs are ridiculed is a mystery worthy of its own series.) In his latest book, The Grand Design—which Creationists pummeled soundly—Hawking makes no bones about dismissing belief in God as a medieval superstition. Citing immutable natural laws like gravity and inertia, he concludes there’s no need for a Creator. Ergo, the universe is a cosmic machine naturally endowed with self-perpetuating forces that explain its origins and existence.

Hawking, who naïvely supposes the faith-science relationship hasn’t advanced since Galileo’s discovery of Earth’s orbit brought down the Vatican’s wrath, flogs a dead horse. Parlaying the universe’s origins into a pretense for presuming God isn’t real, he ignores a premise enlightened believers of all creeds intuitively grasp: God and Nature, science’s Big Bang and Scripture’s Dawn of Time, Genesis and Darwin are “yes/and,” not “either/or,” propositions. An enlightened mind can’t dispute Hawking's opinion it’s medieval to reject scientific evidence that the corrects Creation narratives’ factual inaccuracies. Yet putting all one’s eggs in the science basket to disprove faith (which, by definition, can’t be empirically proved), is no less literal and, hence, every bit as medieval.

It’s scientifically reckless of Hawking to negate God’s existence as a self-evident corollary of natural law without first investigating the possibility invisible faith and apparent fact can, and do, coexist. While he needles his moribund is-God-real question, the postmodern world—believers and non-believers alike—wrestles with a much bigger, far more relevant mystery: What is God’s role in our world and lives? For regardless if one perceives God is real, the global population’s overwhelming faith in divine power indubitably plays a supremely significant role in daily life. Simply contemplating God as a phenomenon of faith—an unquantifiable Force of Nature unto Itself—puts just-the-facts-ma’am types like Hawking out of their depth. Yet what is curiosity if not jumping in over one’s head to see what’s there? The most curious aspect of “Curiosity” is Hawking's obvious discomfort with it.

Not One Thing

In a recent Walking in the Shadows post (“Is That Hubris or What?”), Sherry Peyton compares Bible literalists and atheists and finds, “Both agree, that both evolution and God cannot be [compatibly] true. Both, in utter arrogance, choose one side or the other because they, in their superior believing minds, believe that their constructs of God are unquestionably right.” Her frank appraisal leads to a sage reminder that balancing both sides requires humility to confess we can’t possibly nail down answers to all the questions. Conclusive proof of the universe and humanity’s origins ultimately would dispense with any need for faith or science. Believers who mistake Scriptural truth for empirical fact make trusting God’s Word pointless. If it’s all there in black-and-white, why is faith such a big deal? One doesn’t need faith to read newspapers and textbooks; they record objectively verifiable facts. But the Bible purposefully provokes questions and triggers doubts to engender faith; it’s packed with truth we can’t understand without accepting its invitation to believe.

In a similar way, science subscribes to data and observation as a means of constructing theories that provide logical insights into what we can’t comprehend. To borrow from “Curiosity”, while science can define an eclipse’s mechanics, it can’t explain why one occurs because no one knows why or how orbital gravity and inertia exist. That’s my gripe with Hawking's hubris to propose our capacity to quantify and observe Nature’s mechanics obviates the need for a Creator. Knowing with a reliable degree of certainty that immutable natural forces generated our vast universe, planet, and its astonishing diversity of life forms begs the same question the Creation narratives address. All Hawking does is transpose the question from “Where did we come from?” to “Where did the forces of Nature that got us here come from?” He implies they preexist the cosmos and because they’re immutable, they will outlast it.

Hawking and those who agree with him believe this, which fundamentally places them alongside we who believe God preexists and will outlast Creation. Either way, trying to unravel the mystery of existence mandates faith in a Creative Source, which John 1.1-3 majestically declares: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Word was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through the Word, and without the Word not one thing came into being.” Not one thing came into being without God—not a star, an organism, not one force of Nature. A Creator isn’t needed for the universe to exist? Such logic falls apart by not dismantling God’s role in creating the forces it credits with constructing the cosmos. Why don’t Hawking and his confrères do that? It can’t be done.

Before the Facts

Entitling his refutation of God’s existence and creative role in the universe The Grand Design is Hawking's backhanded slap at proponents of “intelligent design,” the crafty, PC moniker adopted by science-hostile Creationists. It’s a petty gesture befitting both sides of this spat. Creationists and atheists alike expose their folly by reducing God to a day laborer, arguing for and against Genesis’ framing the Creation as a six-day task. Given all we’ve learned since its writing, we know Genesis doesn’t jibe with the facts. But even the ancients realized before the facts that Genesis uses the workweek as an organizing metaphor to depict the sequence in which the universe and life on Earth came to be. Throughout Scripture, Creation’s timeframe isn’t a sticking point; indeed, as we see in John, it’s seldom mentioned, because it’s unimportant.

What matters is exactly what John stresses: God is present at the beginning because God precedes the beginning. The laws of Nature Hawking vests with so much importance are visibly apparent in Genesis. God speaks the Word and they go to work. At God’s command, heavenly bodies reel through space and settle in fixed orbit. The Earth heaves and pitches and solid ground rises from the sea. Life begins in the water, takes to the air, and infests dry land. And, finally, we take shape in God’s own time by God’s own hand, in which the Laws of Nature reside.

Talk about hubris! It takes a lot of gall to confine the immortal God to a mortal timeline. Whether six days or millions of years, they’re a blink of an eye to God. Getting wrapped up in how long Creation took—let alone suggesting that proves or disproves God’s existence—is ridiculous. We don’t measure the Creator’s role by the hour, as if God were a cosmic worker punching a timecard. Because God preexists everything that is, including the forces that caused everything to be, God remains the universe’s Architect and Engineer. What’s more, God is still on the job, because Creation is an ongoing process. God is still speaking and forces are still coming into play and marvelously inexplicable new wonders are still appearing in the skies, on the earth, and in us. Surely we can all agree about that.

Most holy Creator, entice us to discover the gifts of faith and science. Help us to get over our craving to know it all, so we can truly believe You are our Source. Amen.

It makes a whole lot of sense to presume the universe exploded into existence. But it still doesn’t explain whence the forces of Nature that caused the explosion.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

God Always Finds a Way

God will not take away a life; He will devise plans so as not to keep an outcast banished forever from His presence. (2 Samuel 14.14)

Objective Clarity

How many times do we hear of family situations that pit one member against another or result in black sheep syndrome and respond with, “I could never do that!”? How often does learning a believer’s been shunned by a faith community prompt us to exclaim, “That’s positively unchristian!”? When we care for one party in a broken relationship, how quickly do we accuse the other of “not trying” and “not understanding”? Objective clarity is a beautiful thing. It views issues through eyes unclouded by emotional uncertainty. It plainly indicates what’s right in principle, ignoring information and circumstances that tend to impede practicing the principle. When dilemmas that appear so clear-cut in theory rear up in real life, they’re never clear. As they say, life gets in the way, and the devil gets in the details. Factors specific to us destroy objectivity, assuring us we’re exceptions to the rule. Principle goes out the window and we muddle along as best we can. We muddle along. More often than not, we muck things up and spend a lot time explaining and apologizing for our behavior.

Principles are God’s guideposts to clarity. Rediscovering them, however, requires imposing objectivity on our situations—never easy and often seemingly impossible. Yet if we don’t divorce ourselves from our problems just long enough to identify principles we must activate, we’re apt to create new problems out of older ones and complicate complications. We need to listen when our hearts and friends urge us to step back and examine our difficulties without prejudice or self-pity. This is what a wise woman enables David to do when a family tragedy puts him at risk of mucking everything up.


David is living a father’s worst nightmare largely of his own making. The gutsy lad with the slingshot has grown into a superstar king intoxicated by his virility. His life is strung with impulsive affairs and marriages that produce dozens of children who never congeal into a single family. While he’s off ruling Israel, going to war, composing odes, and keeping an eye out for his next romantic conquest, the family takes care of itself. The price of his neglect doesn’t come due until his children are grown. Then all Hell breaks loose.

David’s oldest son and heir, Amnon, becomes infatuated with his half-sister, Tamar, and rapes her. The atrocity infuriates David, but he does nothing to avenge her. Scripture doesn’t explain why. As Israel’s king he’s obligated to sentence Amnon to death, the legal penalty for rape. More than a loving father’s reluctance to execute his own son may play into David’s decision, though. The nation is still reeling from his sex scandal—sleeping with Bathsheba and having her husband killed so he can marry her. By law, he too should have paid with his life. Yet God spared David by taking his and Bathsheba’s love child instead. So David’s not in the best position to convict Amnon; what looks like indifference to Tamar’s violation may be a merciful gesture. Then again, his apathy may be plain old denial. Tamar has divulged the rape by shedding her virginal gowns, smearing ashes on her head, wailing inconsolably, and shutting everyone out. One hears whispers from palace courts to farthest provinces: “Like father, like son.” Not dealing with Amnon saves David from revisiting his shame and admitting profound moral issues plague his house.

Whatever causes David not to seek justice for Tamar, loss of perspective prevents him from realizing it’s a most imprudent response—and his nightmare escalates into a full-blown horror. Absalom, Tamar’s full-brother, will not let Amnon go unpunished. His hatred seethes for two years. He takes Amnon to a sheep paddock where he kills the villain. Amnon’s murder devastates David. He’s immobilized for several days, during which Absalom vanishes. Once his grief abates, 2 Samuel 13.39 tells us, “King David longed to go to Absalom.” Yet, as with Tamar’s rape, he does nothing.

Paralysis (as opposed to patience) is a sure sign we’ve lost clarity to discern principles. In David’s case, what should be done is clear to all but him. Absalom needs to be reconciled. Yes, he took the law into his own hands. Had his father dealt with Tamar’s rape as Mosaic Law demands, however, Amnon would have been dead long ago. David can’t extricate himself from the problem to discern that as king, religious prelate, and father, he has higher principles to uphold. He loses two sons and irrevocably wounds a daughter by trying to muddle through.

Changing the Question

Observing David through his subjects’ eyes elucidates why Absalom’s self-imposed banishment raises grave concerns about the king’s fitness to govern. The legendary ruler, conqueror, poet, and (might as well say it) sex symbol bears no resemblance to the indecisive father who longs to reclaim his lost son yet hasn’t the will to act. Joab, David’s nephew and commander of his troops, realizes the king must regain objectivity to rediscover his principles. In a stroke of genius, he sends an incredibly wise provincial woman to beg David’s intervention in a theoretical crisis that’s almost identical to his. She says she’s a widowed mother of two sons, one of whom killed the other. Now the townspeople want to execute the killer, leaving her with no one to perpetuate the family name.

Since David doesn’t know her, he has no reason to doubt her story. He promises to issue an amnesty order to save her son’s life, opening the door for the wise woman to counsel him. “In giving this decision the king convicts himself, inasmuch as the king does not bring his banished one home again… But God will not take away a life; He will devise plans so as not to keep an outcast banished forever from His presence,” she says. (2 Samuel 14.13-14) Her boldness is startling. More than that, her wisdom is stunning. She shakes David from his lethargy by asking, “Why can’t you do for Absalom what you’re doing for my son?” Had she left it at that, she easily could have angered or confused David. Before David can protest her logic, insisting her situation is no comparison to his, she gives him an example he can’t refute. “God finds a way,” she insists—a veiled reminder that God dealt justly with David without destroying him. “How can you not do for your own what God did for you?” she wonders. Changing the question changes David’s perspective. His clarity is restored.

Banish Banishment

The wise woman gives us an invaluable principle to contemplate. How many times have our failures merited banishment? Yet God always finds a way to bring us back. If it takes bending the law, God will do it. If it takes devising a new plan, God will do it. If it means baffling everyone who believes we deserve rejection, God will do it. God’s amazing grace teaches us that impossible as it may seem, there’s always a way to reject rejection and banish banishment. “God will not take away a life; He will devise plans so as not to keep an outcast banished forever from His presence,” the wise woman insists. When we lose clarity, the question isn’t “What should I do?” It’s “What has God done for me?” That gets us to the real question. If God can find a way to reclaim me despite my failures, how can I justify doing less for those who’ve failed me?

Dear Lord, how many times do we find ourselves on the wrong side of right? And yet every time You find a way to bring us back to You. We pray Your help in keeping these moments of reconciliation vivid in memory so that we may find clarity that inspires and instructs when we lose our way. Amen.

If God always finds a way to reclaim us after we’ve failed, how can we justify doing less for those who fail us?

Sunday, August 7, 2011

One Voice

Live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ welcomed you. (Romans 15.5-7)

He must increase, but I must decrease. (John 3.30)

A reflection on Romans 15.1-13 and John 3.22-36.

Reputation for Brawling

Many years ago a church near my house released a sensational choir recording that whetted my interest in hearing the music live. I called a buddy, assuming he’d heard the album and probably wanted to visit the church too. I was half-right. Although he liked the record, he declined. I prodded for an explanation. “I’ve been and don’t care to go back,” he said. What did that mean? “They sing like angels, but they’re a mess.” What did that mean? “They’re the kind of folks who think they’re going to Heaven and everybody else is damned to Hell. And get this: the preacher spends all his time accusing his own people of not being holy enough. I walked out.”

If we were in first-century Rome and I suggested we visit a Christian service, his response very well might be the same—because the Roman church is a real mess. Its people not only confront anyone who doesn't accept their beliefs, they also fight among themselves. The church is a collective of cliques, each with its own exclusive pipeline to the truth. They can't be relied on to support one another and work overtime to discourage believers they disagree with. It's worse than a real mess. It's an ungodly mess. Indeed, the congregation’s behavior gets so out of hand its reputation for brawling spills into the streets. Heated arguments between Christian and traditional Jews regularly erupt into riots—to the point Claudius banishes all Jews from Rome.

Cease and Desist

With the ban lifted (under Nero), Jewish Christians return. In their absence, the Roman church—which functions less as a single parish than a syndicate of small groups that worship in homes—has undergone major changes under Gentile leadership. Contentious taboos rooted in Christianity’s Judaic origins (e.g., circumcision and dietary restrictions) have been eliminated by default. Rather than adjust to these changes, old-school Jewish believers revert to the very behaviors that got them deported. Paul’s letter is essentially a cease-and-desist order that cautions the congregation about the dangers of religious infighting. Ever the brilliant lawyer, Paul equates acceptance with strength and persistently reminds his readers their primary duty is to reflect the will of God and nature of Christ.

Having meticulously laid out the doctrine of faith as freedom from the Law, he opens his letter’s final segment saying, “We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor. For Christ did not please Himself.” (Romans 15.1-3) Then he seals his counsel with a prayer, after which he reiterates his instruction: “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ welcomed you, for the glory of God.” (Romans 15.5-7) Key phrases jump off the page: “God of steadfastness and encouragement,” “live in harmony,” “with one voice glorify the God and Father,” “welcome one another,” “for the glory of God.”

Something Bigger

While Romans portrays a faith community whose constant squabbles jeopardize its stability and survival, today’s Gospel presages friction between communities that endangers Christian unity. Jesus’s ministry begins somewhat unexpectedly. He originally goes to be baptized as one of his cousin John’s disciples. But a divine declaration that He’s God’s Son changes His course. He assembles His own band of disciples and begins baptizing new followers. John’s people hear what Jesus is doing and instantly sense a competitive threat. They hurry to inform the Baptist, whose response no doubt mystifies them. “This is how it’s supposed to go,” John says, and he gives us a statement that epitomizes the attitude Paul urges the Romans to adopt: “He [Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3.30)

John’s feelings about being overshadowed by Jesus are irrelevant, as are his views of Jesus’s teaching—which is starkly unlike his repent-or-be-damned message—or any compulsions to revert to the reactionary machismo that accounts for his famous charisma. Something bigger than him—too big for him—is underway. It makes no sense to oppose it because he doesn’t like it, may not agree with it, or has to change his behavior to accept it. Does John realize he’s looking at the end of an era? Absolutely. Is he aware his dominance of the roving-rabbi landscape is over? Sure. Yet John demonstrates the extraordinary strength of his faith by setting personal feelings aside to endorse a fledgling Newcomer, Whose mission and message surpass his own. John will not speak against Jesus or His ministry, because a dissonant voice will distract from Christ’s work and discourage believers from trusting Christ’s word. “He Whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for He gives the Spirit without measure,” John explains to his followers. (v34) He adds his voice to Jesus’s voice to increase public confidence that Jesus is God’s Son.

Differences Aren’t Deal-breakers

Differing beliefs within and between faith communities are inevitable. Some of us welcome progress that responds to social change and shifting environments. Some of us perceive change as a threat to traditions and doctrines we believe are sacrosanct. The beauty of our faith is anchored in its intensely personal nature. It speaks to each of us where we are, as we are. Yet each of us—from the most radically unorthodox to the most relentlessly doctrinaire—risks discrediting the faith of all when we foment discord and controversy. When we permit disputes to divide us, we burden Christ’s message with inconsistency. We discourage believers within our ranks, as well as potential believers who yearn to follow Christ but watch our childish squabbling and say, “No thanks. They’re a mess.” We have to learn differences aren’t deal-breakers.

This thing is bigger than us—too big for us. Imposing personal beliefs and opinions on it creates discord and chaos. Self-appointed soloists who insist on singing their own tunes destroy harmony and reflect poorly on the Conductor. No glory comes of it. The weak aren’t built up. The Gospel is left in tatters. We must decrease, setting aside anything that prevents Christ from increasing. This must be a personal commitment, whether or not other believers evidence strength and maturity to live by it. We must be steadfast, welcoming all who profess Christ, regardless how unsavory their personal beliefs may be. We must encourage one another to grow in the faith, realizing that maturity builds strength to disavow opinions and prejudices that conflict with Christ's Gospel of equality and acceptance. We must practice living in harmony as a global community committed to Christ even though we're engulfed with discord and divisiveness. We must glorify God in one voice.

God of steadfastness and encouragement, we long to glorify You in one voice. Impress on us the imperative of protecting Christian unity, pleasing others and not ourselves. May we reflect Your will and Christ’s nature in all we do. Amen.

Discordant notes and self-appointed soloists reflect poorly on the Conductor. Only by living in harmony and uniting in one voice do we glorify God.

Postscript: Oops!

Apparently my online Lectionary sent me the wrong readings for today. (Imagine my surprise when I got to service this morning and the texts were Joseph and his brothers, and Jesus walking on the water!) I apologize, and trust something here was beneficial for you--if not as timely and in synch as I hoped.