reason4thehope

Thinking about life, faith and the world.

Warming Up to Reality

pan“Cursed is the ground because of you.” – Genesis 3:17

The Great Melt of ’14 is under way in our corner of New Jersey. Mild weather and sunshine are doing the job just fine, but we can’t resist helping it along. Saturdays ring with a catharsis of chipping and chopping at winter’s icy residue.

If you think global warming is all hype, this winter must have you feeling all smug, though not snug. If you believe global warming is real, your season is coming. Every record-breaking July day will offer grim vindication.  In the polar vortex of American politics, the left likes it hot, while on the right, cold comfort” takes on new meaning.

It’s ridiculous. I’m generally conservative, but guess what, folks? The climate is changing. You can debate all you like what’s causing it – human activity, natural cycles, alien sabotage. It’s happening. The effects aren’t uniform; it may get colder in some places for a time, but on average, across the globe, things are getting hotter. The end of it all won’t be pleasant if we can’t at least avoid making it worse.

Say what you will about Al Gore, the title of his famous book was apt. Climate change is an inconvenient truth. Inconvenient for whom? Business, for one. I like free markets and private enterprise as much as the next conservative. It’s the best fit with this thing we call the Protestant work ethic, which is biblically sound when properly understood. Still, what’s good for business doesn’t bend the laws of physics. A rainy day is bad for sidewalk cafes, but you can’t stop the rain or blame it on liberals.

So, if I join the party-line denial of climate change, what does that say about me as a Christian? It could say that I sincerely disagree with the science that points to a changing, overall warming climate. It might say something else.

I like my fossil-fueled lifestyle, and the fossil-fueled, free-market economy that makes it possible. But if that leads me to deny the plain, documented truth, maybe my priorities are out of order. Maybe I’m making idols of my lifestyle and our economic system. Perhaps I’m forgetting that God left humans as stewards of the earth – and when He commanded humanity to “subdue” the earth and “rule” over it (Genesis 1:28), He meant to tame it and protect it, not leave it bloodied and oppressed.

He knew, of course, that we would make a mess of it, and we have. This physical world has been in decline since Adam fell. So why would Christians shut their eyes and plug their ears against the idea that the whole planet’s ecosystem is breaking down? Especially now, as world events point to the end of days, we need to see reality clearly.

No one knows God’s timing, and we’re still under orders from heaven to be stewards of earth, so we shouldn’t give up on it. We don’t make an idol of Mother Earth, but if human activity is damaging this planet and we feel called to speak and act in its defense, that not un-Christian. Not even if some would call it un-conservative and – horrors – bad for business.

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The Regression Progression

carriageCheck your brains at the door. I’ve heard that phrase used to mock religious belief. It implies that to believe in God, you must suspend rational thought. If you’re a defensive kind of Christian, you may rise up in protest against this and invoke the great thinkers of the faith, from St. Augustine to C.S. Lewis to Ravi Zacharias.

But wait.

If you’ve come to faith in Jesus Christ, in a sense you’ve done exactly what the atheist accuses you of doing, and exactly what the Bible tells you to do. Hear Jesus’ words in Mark 10:15: “Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all.”

As I read that recently, my mind turned to all the imagery of birth, childhood and renewal in the New Testament. Jesus emptied himself to enter the world as a baby; from the first moments of life, wherever we find ourselves, He has been. The grown Jesus told Nicodemus he must be born again – an image not just of renewal, but of going back to the start, to the clean slate of infancy. Jesus held up children – those little people who are capable of believing in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy – as examples of the right attitude toward God. Later, the apostle Paul called for the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2), and John often called his disciples his little children.

I’m also reminded of when I came to faith as a teenager. It made rational sense, but there was something childlike about it as well. I didn’t understand everything about my decision, but if everyone waited for that full understanding, no one would ever come to faith.

So what does this mean? Do we forget right from left, up from down, and how to tie our shoes? Of course not. But it does mean we take everything the world calls wisdom, everything that has shaped our thinking, and check those earthly “brains” at the door of faith. What you get back will be infinitely improved – cleaned up, emptied of lint and clearer than it’s ever been. By regressing in worldly terms, you progress in heavenly terms. You don’t give up thinking; you become a better thinker.

It took about 30 years to fully realize this in my life. I got the first part – renouncing worldly wisdom. But I didn’t understand that there’s a next step. For a very long time, I stuffed down a lot of questions in deference to the anti-intellectual strain that too often infects the church. Turning those questions loose and turning them over in my renewed mind – which had been there all along – made my faith stronger, and had a large part in the birth of this blog.

I still don’t have all the answers or a proof to satisfy every doubter. But it’s not our job to understand everything or to win arguments – just to be teachable and available. God will take care of the rest. It starts with emptying yourself, and letting Him fill you.

Receive the Child

Whoever receives one child like this in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me does not receive Me, but Him who sent Me. — Mark 9:37

Jesus commands us to receive the little children. They are the powerless, the helpless — the very kind of people Jesus always stood up for against the powerful and self-sufficient. But the little children are also what He became.

If you ever feel that Christmas is just a wallow in consumerism wrapped as gooey sentiment, maybe it would help to remember this: Christmas is where we mark the divine becoming flesh, the indispensable beginning of God’s earthly journey to change the eternal destiny of all who would believe. If we don’t believe that He came in this way and rejoice in it, nothing else about Christianity is believable or makes very much sense. Without a flesh and blood Jesus, the Gospels become uplifting mythology. There is no cross and no resurrection.

There are many ways to receive the children. Sponsor one living in poverty on the other side of the world. Mentor one in your own community. If you’re really daring, adopt one who otherwise would have no family. But for any of it to have permanent significance, we first have to receive the Child of Bethlehem. He became the Lamb of God, offered in our place on the cross for our sins, and then He became the only dead man ever to raise Himself from the grave.

The gift has been given, but it’s not ours until we receive it. Receive the Christmas Child, and all that He became.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Farewell to a Friend

DSCN0006He was a procession of one as he crossed the cat room at the shelter. His coat was dusty white with black and brown tabby splotches, his face ruggedly chiseled like some feline comic book detective. He was ready for a home, and he knew what to do. He marched over to my wife, put his front paws up on her legs, then sat down and purred. The only question left was, “Where do we sign?”

He must have had a home before, because he also knew what to do when he reached ours. Within the hour, Chester was in charge.

*     *     *

I formed my own bond with Chester a few days later when we finally surrendered to his pleas to go out. On a late autumn evening with a light coating of snow on the ground, I escorted him onto his new turf. My job: make sure he didn’t get lost, and did get back inside. It was only supposed to be a few minutes, but Chester had other plans. Each time I approached, he growled and moved a little farther from the house. He went under the deck next door. Noticing a shadowy figure with a flashlight on his lawn, my neighbor came outside with a fireplace poker to make sure everything was OK.

The odyssey went on, around the house, down the driveway and across the street. Finally Chester found a cap from the back of a pickup truck and hopped onto it. This gave me a better angle. I seized the moment and seized the cat. Hugging him tight, I turned and ran for the house, now a football field away. I promptly face planted in the snow, felled by a log hiding in all the whiteness.

Panting, I got up and found Chester sniffing the tires of another neighbor’s truck. I scooped him up and set off again, more carefully now, and got home without incident. In the kitchen, Chester gave me the shelter treatment, front paws on my legs, as if to say, “No hard feelings?”

*     *     *

My wife always said Chester was a cat’s cat, and he was. He could fix you with an indignant stare that would send you running for your scarf and mittens. Or he could love you to pieces.

The best times were on the sofa, where he would bypass your lap. In his prime, 13 pounds of resonating purr would settle on your chest, and then inch upward. With his hot, fishy breath in your face, he would extend a paw to each shoulder. And if you stroked him just right and his bliss was perfect, he would gently nip your chin.

Chester wasn’t frivolous, except at the change of seasons. The first mild evening of spring or the first crisp night of autumn, he would dart randomly across the yard and scale tall trees for no reason. Otherwise, a brisk walking pace to the dinner plate, and a swat for the foolish cats who would leap over him to get through the door.

*     *     *

Near the end, I was outside with Chester again on a late autumn evening, making sure he didn’t get lost and did get inside. It wasn’t hard this time. Weakened by the cancer in his right cheek, he had no fight left as I picked him up and carried him to the house.

Not that he hadn’t fought. From the day he was diagnosed in early September, Chester took his shots from the vet, ate like a king, was doted upon, gained half a pound and beat his life expectancy by two months. He made a dignified exit nine days before Thanksgiving at the wonderful Dr. Andy’s office.

*     *     *

I’ll wade in over my head on all kinds of questions. Human suffering, the origin of the universe? I’ll give you a theory. Just don’t ask me about pets and the afterlife. For one thing, I don’t type well when my eyes are wet. All I know is that Chester was a gift I would happily receive again, and I’m thankful to God for the 11 years we had with him. RIP, big guy.

Signs and Wondering

Sign“An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign; and a sign will not be given it…” – Matthew 16:4 (NASB)

Why doesn’t God erase all doubt?

If God exists, it should be easy for Him to prove it. One spectacular, globally visible, supernatural display, and He’s got the world at his feet. It would be easy, but it would be thievery, and God is no thief. He’s not going to steal back something fundamental that He placed in each of us: our will.

There would be something coercive in the kind of sign that unbelievers seek. We would no longer freely give God our belief and devotion. He would drag them out of us – unshakable, cold and loveless.

I’ve been over this ground before, here and here. But I think it’s worth revisiting, because the more I think about it, the more compelling it gets.

The will is a kind of spiritual junction. With it we yield to the Holy Spirit and connect to God, or resist and disconnect from Him. The last act of the believer’s will may be surrendering it. But when unbelievers choose to resist instead, they stroll right past the supernatural thing that is under all of our noses: the will to make that choice.

The Day of the Storm

Hurricane

Photo: Chalky Lives

 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” – Matthew 7:24-27 (NIV)

A year ago, I sat with my wife and another couple watching the Scarlet Knights of Rutgers play their homecoming game, while overhead, the first wispy clouds of Sandy began to filter the sunlight streaming into the stadium. Everyone knew the storm was out there. I wonder how many really understood what was about to befall them. The Knights lost that game, but surely some of the spectators were just days away from a far more bitter homecoming – to the ruins of houses that literally had been built on sand.

The parable of the wise and foolish builders has at least a couple of layers of meaning, one of which is: Put your faith in the right Person, build your life on the Rock, and you will weather the storms of life better than someone who trusts in the wrong people or things, or only in the self. But God has pointed me lately to transitions in the Bible that start with “therefore” or “so,” and this is another of those passages. Here’s what came before it:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:21-23 NIV)

Jesus was talking about “that day,” which usually is taken to mean the Day of the Lord or Judgment Day. So the storm that beats on the two builders’ houses is much more than illness or loss or adversity. It makes Sandy look like a summer squall. You won’t ride this one out with your generator, beans and toilet paper. It’s the coming storm of God’s judgment on the Earth, and it will blow away everything in our lives that isn’t built on God.

For those who have built on wealth, power, privilege, earthly relationships, even good deeds and clean living apart from God, truly everything will be lost. But those whose bedrock is Jesus – His dying for their sins and His rising from the dead – there will be a joyous homecoming to a room in the Father’s house, where the warranty is good for eternity (John 14:2). It won’t matter to them what they lost on Earth, because even their earthly gains will look like losses next to what the Father and Son have prepared (Philippians 3:8). I hope that you have that homecoming in your future.

How to Be Golden

"The Golden Rule" mosaic

Photo credit: Wikipedia

If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! – Matthew 7:11 (NIV)

If you read the words of Jesus too fast, they seem to be full of non sequiturs. That word “so,” sometimes translated as “therefore,” keeps popping up in the oddest places. Look at the Golden Rule, Matthew 7:12:

“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (NIV)

“So”? Context is everything.  Immediately before this, Jesus was speaking of how, just as parents give good things to their children who ask, God will do the same to His followers who ask. So, the Golden Rule is about imitating a human parent’s acts of love toward a child, or God’s acts of love toward His adopted children.

Read the Golden Rule out of context, and it can come off as an implied quid pro quo. You want other people to be nice to you, be nice to them. But in a parent-child relationship, chances are the child brings nothing tangible that the parent needs. And yet, the parent gives with no guarantee of anything in return, only the hope of the child’s continued love and obedience.

So it is with us and God. We bring nothing that He needs, yet he gives, and He desires our love and obedience.

So do to others what you would have them do to you – not as a fair trade by the world’s reckoning, but even if they or you have nothing to give in return. Treat each need you meet as the need of a helpless child who may never repay you. Then you’ll be golden.

So. What?

c. 1500-1510

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So weep not for me my friend when my time below does end,
For my life belongs to Him Who will raise the dead again – “All My Tears,” Julie Miller

So. Two letters, such a little word, but where you put it can make a world of difference. In the account of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, it threatens to break down the logic of the story.

It begins with Lazarus at death’s door. His sisters, Mary and Martha, know the one person who can shut that door. They have seen Jesus’ power, and they send for him. Here the story takes a curious turn. “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when He heard that he (Lazarus) was sick, He then stayed two days longer in the place where He was.” (John 11:5-6 NASB)

“So?”

Jesus loves this family, so He waits for Lazarus to die before He shows up? You can read it that way and be bewildered, but only if you stop reading there.

Mary and Martha don’t know it, but Jesus has something much greater to show them than what they’ve already seen. Though the path to the revelation hurts them beyond measure, he loves them too much to hold back the fullness of His power.

When God takes us through suffering, we may struggle with the knowledge that He could set things right in an instant, but He seems to be doing nothing. We should rejoice, because He is leading us to something greater. And He’s not just waiting on the other side; He is sharing in our sufferings, as Jesus did when he gazed on the mourners around Lazarus’ tomb:  “Jesus wept.” (John 11:35).

To witness Jesus’ power over life and death was a privilege reserved for very few people during His time on earth. The good news for everyone who has received redemption through Jesus is this: their turn is coming. The passage of death ends for them just as it did for Lazarus. It’s only the wait that is longer.

The Peril of a Soft Heart

Vintage Chenille Red Heart Pillow

(Photo: Nesha’s Vintage Niche)

The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? – Jeremiah 17:9

Let me be clear up front: a Christian should have a soft heart. Soft with compassion, soft with forgiveness, soft with refusal to judge or condemn people God longs to redeem. That would be everyone.

So where’s the peril of a soft heart? It arises when our gracious choice not to judge people becomes a foolish choice not to judge sin. Or when we call morally neutral, or even celebrate, what God calls sin. With this kind of soft heart we can deceive ourselves and raise our own risk of falling. Or we can deceive others that a saving relationship with God doesn’t have to change their lives.

This struggle is most visible right now surrounding homosexuality and gay marriage. I have said before, and I will say again, that it’s time for Christians to drop the culture warrior mentality on this issue. It’s not our job to chase after a culture that’s running from God; these fights can only raise barriers between us and individuals outside the faith. So I applaud the Christians who are reaching out, even apologizing to the gay community for hateful behavior, both past and unfortunately present.

But some Christians are walking right up to a very fine line and crossing it. Suddenly, God accepts not only homosexuals but their behavior, and the advance of gay marriage is a victory.

It all feels like earthly values of tolerance and enlightenment bundled into a happy package with heavenly virtues of kindness and compassion. It also doesn’t square with what the Bible says. It’s just another case of trying to live with one foot in the world and the other in God’s kingdom.

This kind of thinking extends to other behaviors, mostly in relationships. Premarital sex, living together before marriage, hasty divorce with no effort to reconcile – even abortion in some Christian circles – are things to tiptoe around. God’s teaching is too hard, or our fear of rejection is too strong, for our kind hearts to lay the truth on the table. Again, we shouldn’t be slamming doors on people who have engaged in immorality, or beating them over the head with their behavior. Jesus certainly didn’t, and every believer lives under the same grace. But that’s not the same as saying these behaviors are okay.

If we deceive ourselves on moral matters, we become unreliable witnesses to others, and we passively deny God’s power to change hearts. We also become vulnerable. Are you married? It could end; tomorrow you could be widowed. How would you behave in a future relationship? Would you think yourself entitled to whatever makes you happy, because that’s what your soft heart would want for others? Or would you remember and follow the Bible’s teachings?

And if someone asked you point blank what your faith teaches about relationships, would you be able and willing to answer with the truth? Or would you give tacit approval to lifestyles that are incompatible with committed Christianity? If it would be the latter, chances are your soft heart has become shapeless as to God’s truth, choosing to spare feelings even at the cost of endorsing sin.

Unbelief’s Creed

Image from the Book of Kells, a 1200 year old ...

Wikipedia

“…while I ache for faith to hold me, I need to feel the scars and see the proof.” – “Two Hands,” Jars of Clay

If you want to shut down a conversation with an atheist, it doesn’t take much time or thought. Just wait for the challenge to prove that God exists, and bring the clever retort: “Prove that He doesn’t.” That’ll show ’em! But before walking away, the atheist will rightly point out that you’re demanding proof of a negative, which is notoriously hard to do.

If you have authentic faith in Jesus Christ, I hope that as a rule you’re not trying to drive atheists away. You can play fair in the intellectual sandbox and still give them something to chew on. Atheism carries some implied claims that I wouldn’t want to try defending. Here are three examples:

Humans are infinitely knowledgeable.  From our flyspeck in this vast, mysterious, complex universe, we know enough to be certain that what’s physical and scientifically observable is all there is. This is similar to any categorical claim that excludes all competing claims; it implies that we know all that’s necessary to answer the question at hand. Sometimes that claim is defensible. But when you claim categorically there is no God, the question goes to the nature and origin of the entire universe. Science has an undeniable track record of explaining the unexplainable, and no one will make fun of you for believing only what can be proved by observation. But putting all of your trust in science means:

Past performance guarantees future results. If you were considering an investment, and the sales pitch included that statement, I hope you would run the other way. And yet atheism invites you to invest for eternity in the premise that because science has answered past questions, it will always answer future ones, no God required. But for all its past success, science does not answer the same questions over and over; therefore it can’t guarantee future success. And an exclusive trust in science also leads to this:

We have no free will. After all, how could we, in a purely physical universe governed by law-bound cause and effect? In such a universe, the very thought process guiding my fingers at this moment is just particles inside my skull, the ongoing ricochets of the Big Bang. I won’t belabor the point, which I’ve covered before, but I will add that one very bright atheist and I – independent of each other – traveled the same logical road to the same choice. Either abandon the notion of free will, or accept that something beyond the physical is at work. He and I made opposite choices. I dare say his requires more faith.

Certainly by human reckoning, Christianity has its share of logical fallacies. The Bible is true because it says so? God is three yet one? Sometimes we buy into the illogical because our experience convinces us that it’s true. The external experience of science gives tangible cause to trust its explanatory power, even though it’s illogical to take that experience as a guarantee for tomorrow’s mysteries. The internal experience of the Holy Spirit, which illuminates the truth of the Bible, can’t be laid on the table in the same way that science can, and so logically it holds no greater promise of answers. That’s where we come to faith, “the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1).

Christians trip themselves up when they try to force faith to become sight. They might justify the quest for worldly proof as responding to those will accept no less. But if they’re honest, maybe these “believers” are revealing their own doubts. From such vain struggles come junk science, trumped-up testimonies, and children who die for want of a doctor because misguided parents tried to blackmail God into putting on a show. If we try to meet a standard of proof the world demands, we forget the definition of faith, and we will fail.

But for some who don’t believe, there are logical hurdles to clear before the real conversation can even start, and there’s no harm in trying to address them. The argument may not be strictly Biblical, and I don’t expect my words here to bring atheists to their knees. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit, opening up the Word of God and convicting hearts of sin. But to the unbeliever the Bible is irrelevant, because it isn’t the Word of God, because there is no God. On the other hand, if I were an atheist faced with defending the claims above, I might be walking back my atheist declaration toward something more agnostic. And maybe then the door to belief would open a crack.

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