When Truth Isn’t Factual and Facts Don’t Matter

This post originally appeared in Orbiter Magazine under a different title


 

Thousands of years ago, an Israelite known for his wisdom penned the words, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the Sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

For the most part, he was right. Kingdoms rise and fall, seasons repeat, and every show eventually gets rebooted on Netflix. All that is has been before, and all that will be has already been. There’s comfort in the cycles of history, and many religious people find peace in knowing that God has been above and within it all, keeping the world a (generally) safe place for people to live.

That comfort, however, often breeds complacency, and that complacency has led many to dismiss the grave dangers of climate change. I’ve heard intelligent, thoughtful people say that climate change “is no different from any other problem humanity has faced. War, disease, natural disasters—there is always something threatening us, and God always brings us through.” Yes, history repeats itself, but that includes geologic history as well! We are hurtling toward carbon dioxide concentrations equal to the time of the dinosaurs—five times the C02 we have today—and will likely approach levels in 2019 that haven’t been seen in human history.

Despite the data, the experts’ analysis, and the potential for cataclysmic devastation, there are still millions of Americans who aren’t worried at all—or, worse yet, think the whole affair is a hoax. Since 1970, trust in science has decreased significantly among conservatives and regular churchgoers while remaining fairly consistent among other groups, and as a pastor and former evangelical, I have a vested interest in understanding why. We will not overcome this global crisis unless we are united, and until we understand one another, that is impossible.

The evangelical movement is not like other movements within Christianity…

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read the rest of the post at…

https://orbitermag.com/evangelical-and-climate-change/

Boys Will Be Good Humans

My entire life, I imagined having two daughters, so naturally I have two sons.

Biology is such a prankster!

I’ll never forget that 20 week ultrasound. My wife and I were flanked by both of our mothers while the technician waved her magic wand across my wife’s belly, flooding her insides with ultrasonic waves and producing images with the echos like some kind of scifi dolphin. When she said, “You’re having a boy”, I instinctively sighed and said, “Are you sure?”. Immediately, it felt like all four women descended on me.

“What do you mean?! You should be happy! You’re having a little boy! Boys are so much fun! You get to teach him how to play baseball and do all the boy stuff! Stop complaining!”

There is this strange parenting myth out there that raising boys is easy, fun, and carefree while raising girls is nothing but drama, rebellion, and fear. Sons are meant to fulfill their destinies while daughters are meant to be protected from other people’s sons until they are old enough to marry someone else’s son. What a strange way to raise children. What a strange way to live.

In recent months, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to raise boys, and I am convinced that it is one of the most important jobs in the world right now. On the whole, men have failed our God-given calling, and while it may be impossible to teach an old dog new morals, we parents can at least give the next generation a fighting chance.

Check the news. Cosby just got sentenced to prison for 3-10 years for one of the many times that he drugged and raped a woman. Another woman came out against Brett Kavanaugh for his sexually abusive behavior as a teenager. A grand jury released the names and details about 300 Pennsylvanian priests accused of all kinds of horrible abuse. Everywhere you look, someone is being accused of sexual abuse, and I think that’s fantastic. Let’s drag all these sins out into the light and expose them for what they are. They are sins. They are not normal.

Once more for the kids in the back of the class.

THIS IS NOT NORMAL!

If I hear one more person defend these monsters with some nonsense like, “We all make bad decisions when we’re young” or “Well they were drunk. What did they expect?”, I might just say some words that pastors aren’t supposed to say in public. When I was a teenager and a young adult, I also did some dumb stuff, I also drank too much sometimes, but I never sexually assaulted anyone or acted in a way that could be interpreted as sexually threatening. No matter how my overclocked hormones were flowing, I never forced myself on anyone, and I don’t deserve any praise for that. I also don’t deserve any extra credit for having lived 32 years without throwing someone out of a window.

Resisting your more destructive impulses is not some kind of pious ideal, it’s just baseline humanity. I don’t understand why this is controversial. We can reach for higher virtues later, but we need to make sure we’re all on the same page about what is the absolute minimum that is required to be a decent human being. Respecting a person’s bodily autonomy seems like a good place to start, right? You would think so, but yet here we are.

There are plenty of men like myself who have nobly achieved the bare minimum of humanity, proclaiming from our keyboards our favorite patriarchal chorus, “Not all men! Not all men! Most of us are fine! It’s just a few bad guys! I’m on your side! Not all men! Not all men!”. It’s a nice song, but it lacks conviction. You don’t get a gold star for not being a rapist, and if you really want to be an advocate, change the narrative. When Brock Turner was caught trying to rape an unconscious woman, we learned all about his excellent swimming skills and were made to feel sorry for him that he lost his scholarship and now has to register as a sex offender all because of one bad decision. That’s the narrative that keeps enabling these men that you so proudly distance yourself from.

King David raped Bathsheba, killed her husband, and married her to cover it up, but what is the moral of the story? David wasn’t where he should have been and he let his urges take control. He made a mistake, apologized, and everyone lived happily ever after. Except they didn’t. No one thought to write down how Bathsheba felt about the whole thing, because the writer didn’t care. It was more important that David’s future not be harmed by one little mistake. Plus, it’s totally understandable, right? Boys will be boys!

I hate that phrase so much. Boys will be boys… What that really means is, “boys will be monsters” and I don’t buy that for a second. Boys will be how you teach them to be. Teach boys to respect human autonomy. Teach boys to be better than society expects them to be. Teach boys that hormones are crazy, emotions are confusing, and peer pressure is real, but there are healthy ways to express their urges and feelings. It is insulting to our humanity to treat boys like helplessly horny honey-badgers. Boys are capable of wisdom and restraint, but only if we stop protecting this toxic-conquistador-masculinity that pervades our society.

That means believing the victim, punishing the perpetrator, and calling a sin a sin especially if its someone in your political party or religious organization. They don’t get a pass because you like their policies. Men who get away with abusing women will abuse their power in other places until they are stopped, and boys who watch them get away with it will think that’s the way to get ahead.

So,

Parents, raise your boys to break the narrative.

Boys, you are stronger and wiser than society says you are.

Men, use your power to protect victims, not violators.

Women, it must be so hard to be constantly vulnerable before anyone will listen. I see you.

Girls, I pray that our sons won’t force you to carry the full weight of this fight like we have.

Humans, we can do this. Together.

Strangers and Pilgrims

Woe to those who make unjust laws,
to those who issue oppressive decrees,
to deprive the poor of their rights
and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
making widows their prey
and robbing the fatherless.
What will you do on the day of reckoning,
when disaster comes from afar?
To whom will you run for help?
Where will you leave your riches?
Nothing will remain but to cringe among the captives
or fall among the slain.

Isaiah 10:1-4

I want to be open and vulnerable with you for a moment here at the beginning of this post.

This is really hard for me.

On one hand, I don’t think it’s a pastor’s job to preach politics from the pulpit. I’ve been in situations where pastoral authority has been abused, and I know how dangerous it is. But on the other hand, just spend 10 minutes with the Hebrew prophets, and you’ll be Googling where the nearest protest is.

So here I am. The Spirit compels me to prophesy against unjust powers, but my sensibilities urge me to be careful with what authority I use to prophesy. So that is the purpose of this post. It is my explanation why I feel it is necessary to speak out and act up. These words are my own. My actions are my own. The demonstrations and protests that I choose to support are my own. They are not taken on behalf of my church or my congregation, and I have no doubt that many within my congregation appreciate not being associated with me in this. No, this is on behalf of myself and with the authority vested in me by my calling and ordination as a minister of Jesus Christ.

This crisis matters. 

I use the phrase “this crisis” very deliberately because before the “zero tolerance” policy on our southern border went into effect in May, we did not have a crisis. We had a problem, but it was no crisis. In fact, it wasn’t even a severe problem. Border crossings have been decreasing every year since the early 2000’s, and despite what you’ve been told, undocumented immigrants commit crimes at a much lower rate than citizens do. That makes sense, right? If you’re already here illegally, wouldn’t you want to keep a low profile and stay out of trouble? Every undocumented person that I have known has shared that sentiment with me too. They just want to work and keep their heads down so their kids can have a better life. From his very first speech until today, our president has tirelessly ignored this reality and has, instead, focused solely on instances of crime. He even made an entire department (VOICE) devoted to crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. He has said it so many times, that we have subconsciously started believing that our problem is a crisis, and crises demand bold action.

I could give you statistics about how nonviolent refugees are or how immigrants and refugees actually help the economy, but I won’t. I will save my charts and graphs and scientific data. I will spare you the history lessons and the fact checking, because none of that seems to matter. We have moved so far beyond facts at this point, that I’m not sure how to communicate anymore. One of the major talking points from this administration for the past month was, “Obama, Bush, and Clinton all separated families too. Why weren’t you angry then?” The truth is that they did separate families occasionally. Maybe once every few months when there was concern for the safety of the child, but to compare once every few months to 2,000 in less than a month is absurd. It’s insulting to our collective intelligence, but the terrifying thing is that it worked. It was a good line that appealed to our desire to see our opponents as hypocrites, and it didn’t matter if it was misleading. No amount of facts can oppose a good story that we want to be true.

I will also spare you the fascinating and disconcerting science of cognitive bias and logical fallacies, and I will resist the delicious temptation to ramble on about psychology and sociology because this isn’t about that. This isn’t about competing truths. This is about competing narratives.

Hannah Arendt, a German refugee and philosopher wrote,

Factual truths are never compellingly true. The historian knows how vulnerable is the whole texture of facts in which we spend our daily life; it is always in danger of being perforated by single lies or torn to shreds by the organized lying of groups, nations, or classes, or denied and distorted, often carefully covered up by reams of falsehoods or simply allowed to fall into oblivion. Facts need testimony to be remembered and trustworthy witnesses to be established in order to find a secure dwelling place in the domain of human affairs. From this, it follows that no factual statement can ever be beyond doubt – as secure and shielded against attack as, for instance, the statement that two and two make four.

It is this fragility that makes deception so very easy up to a point, and so tempting. It never comes into a conflict with reason, because things could indeed have been as the liar maintains they were. Lies are often much more plausible, more appealing to reason, than reality, since the liar has the great advantage of knowing beforehand what the audience wishes or expects to hear. He has prepared his story for public consumption with a careful eye to making it credible, whereas reality has the disconcerting habit of confronting us with the unexpected, for which we were not prepared.

Here’s what I want to present, a new narrative, driven by a moral imperative found within the pages of scripture and the history of the Church.

About 30 years after Jesus died and the Church was founded, there was a great fire in Rome that burned for six long days and nights. Thousands of people died and countless homes and businesses were utterly destroyed. In the aftermath, people wanted answers and whispers started floating around that Nero had started the fire to clear space for his own construction projects. The Roman Senator/Historian, Tacitus recalls it like this,

Consequently, to get rid of the report [that Nero started the fire], Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind.

I love reading about the Church from non-Christian sources in the first couple of centuries. Before we weaseled our way into power, people did NOT like us! Pliny the Younger, in a letter to the Emperor said,

Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition… For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms. But it seems possible to check and cure it.

Christians were/are a stubborn lot. We refused to blend in and lead respectable Roman lives. We wouldn’t join the Roman army or Roman government, and we wouldn’t honor the emperor like good citizens. We followed Paul’s advice in Romans 13 to not be overly rebellious against the government so that we could survive to evangelize another day, but when the rubber hit the road, we resisted the empire like no one else. Our allegiance has always been to the Kingdom of God first and to secular authority second. And worst of all, we were Jewish which Tacitus called, “the most degraded out of other races”.

So a bunch of foreigners from a sh**hole country who refuse to integrate and who celebrate their differences come into the heart of the Roman Empire and start spreading. Surely, Nero was worried that if they weren’t stopped, they would someday have enough power to take over the way that Pharaoh feared the Hebrews in Moses’ time. So Nero blamed them for the fire and used that as a justification to label them as dangerous deviants who needed to be exterminated as brutally as possible.

But you can’t stop the Church by persecuting her. She emerged from the ashes stronger and more determined than ever to spread the good news of freedom in Jesus Christ. Our Christian faith was forged in the fires of Roman persecution, and since then, the Church has always been a haven for the outcast and the outsider. We’ve been on the wrong side of history plenty of times, but for the past 2,000 years, we have also been on the side of the sick, the displaced, the homeless, and the forgotten.

It’s not just what we’re supposed to do.

IT’S WHO WE ARE! 

WE are the displaced. WE are the homeless. WE are the nationless.

1 Peter 2:9-12 Common English Bible (CEB)
9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people who are God’s own possession. You have become this people so that you may speak of the wonderful acts of the one who called you out of darkness into his amazing light. 10 Once you weren’t a people, but now you are God’s people. Once you hadn’t received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

11 Dear friends, since you are immigrants and strangers in the world, I urge that you avoid worldly desires that wage war against your lives. 12 Live honorably among the unbelievers. Today, they defame you, as if you were doing evil. But in the day when God visits to judge they will glorify him, because they have observed your honorable deeds.

If we insist on pledging that we are “One nation, under God“, then we need to take a serious look at how we treat the outsiders. Jesus was crystal clear on this point. How you treat the “least of these”, the ones who can offer you nothing, the ones who are difficult to care for, however you treat them is how you treat Jesus. Ezekiel 16:49 puts it this way,

“Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen”.

Christians care for the outsider because it’s who we are. It shows up thousands of times in the Bible. The first official church office was “deacon” as we read about in Acts 6. The Church installed deacons because they were taking care of not only their own widows and orphans, but Greeks also, and they needed full time staff to oversee so much generosity. We preach repentance and practice compassion. It’s kind of our thing.

So forgive me if I’m not impressed by the religiosity of a government that boasts about saying “Merry CHRISTMAS” and “In GOD we trust” but treats homeless refugees like squirrels in the attic.

Isaiah 1:13-20 Common English Bible (CEB)
13 Stop bringing worthless offerings.
Your incense repulses me.
New moon, sabbath, and the calling of an assembly—
I can’t stand wickedness with celebration!
14 I hate your new moons and your festivals.
They’ve become a burden that I’m tired of bearing.
15 When you extend your hands,
I’ll hide my eyes from you.
Even when you pray for a long time,
I won’t listen.
Your hands are stained with blood.
16 Wash! Be clean!
Remove your ugly deeds from my sight.
Put an end to such evil;
17 learn to do good.
      Seek justice:
      help the oppressed;
      defend the orphan;
      plead for the widow.

18 Come now, and let’s settle this,
says the Lord.
Though your sins are like scarlet,
they will be white as snow.
If they are red as crimson,
they will become like wool.
19 If you agree and obey,
you will eat the best food of the land.
20 But if you refuse and rebel,
you will be devoured by the sword.
The Lord has said this.

There are better, more cost efficient, more effective solutions to our immigration problem than imprisonment. There was a pilot program in the waning years of the Obama era that had a 98% success rate of people showing up to their trials and cost $36 per family per day. If we wanted to solve this, we could, but politicians know that it is better to appear “tough on immigration” than to find humane and mundane solutions. That’s something that every president since Reagan is guilty of. I’ve protested outside the Berks Family Detention Center during the Obama era as they were holding families seeking asylum for years in terrible conditions despite not having a permit to hold children. This is not a problem that Trump invented. He did not light this fire, but he has made it much worse. ICE is talking about increasing the number of undocumented immigrants in detention centers from about 3,000 to 30,000 by August. The stories that come out of the Berks Detention Center are horrific and the thought of that practice increasing 10 fold makes me want to vomit.

So it is for those and many more reasons that I am attending a protest in Harrisburg on June 30th to do whatever I can to speak truth to power. Now, you would think that with the oldest family detention center in the country in my own back yard, I wouldn’t have to travel that far to attend a demonstration. However, an alarming amount of people in my area support the detention of these people, and there wasn’t enough groundswell to organize anything. Reading is such a complicated place. This city and its surrounding boroughs were established by German refugees made homeless by various wars and persecutions. Until recently, many churches in the area still had German worship services. We’re proud of our German heritage! However, as the businesses and industry left the city and those with money fled to the suburbs, Reading became more and more Hispanic. As of the 2010 census, Reading is now 58% Hispanic and increasing quickly.

The amount of people who have told me that “those Spanish people” are ruining Reading is astounding. It happens constantly. I hear about “those Spanish kids” who come from the city to play on our basketball courts and probably sell drugs. I hear off-color jokes, outright bigotry, and scapegoating all the time, and it breaks my heart. Somehow, we have forgotten that humans are not cockroaches. We are all children of God! I can’t help but wonder at the irony of all the UCC churches we are closing that are being reopened as Spanish-speaking Pentecostal churches that are bursting at the seams. Are we citizens of the Kingdom of God first? Or have we let our National identity supersede what really matters?

So on June 30th, I am marching on our state’s capital to protest this administration’s “zero tolerance” policy. I am protesting previous administrations’ dehumanizing of the outsiders. I am protesting the continued imprisonment of asylum seekers in my own backyard. I am protesting the flood of lies and disinformation that muddy the waters. I am protesting every deliberate attempt to make me believe that my brothers and sisters are my enemies. I am protesting because the Holy Spirit within me compels me to speak and will not rest until I do. So please join me in conversation. Do not let yourself become numb to the fact that these are human beings, created in the image of God. Any policy that doesn’t start there needs to start over.

Proverbs 31:8-9 Common English Bible (CEB)
8 Speak out on behalf of the voiceless,
and for the rights of all who are vulnerable.
9 Speak out in order to judge with righteousness
and to defend the needy and the poor.

The War for the World

So… Nuclear war… Is that a thing that I should be worried about? What kind of threat does a rogue nation like North Korea really pose to the future of our planet? What are these weapons capable of? What do they do? How much of a shove would it take to get us into World War 3?

I’m hearing a lot of bluster and misinformation these days, so I felt the need to sit down and put together a succinct and understandable primer to the situation we find ourselves in.

So what is a nuke?

Well, there are two major kinds of nuclear weapons, fission and fusion.

Fission bombs were the original monstrosities that the US developed during World War 2 and subsequently dropped on Japan. Most, if not all, fission bombs work by using conventional expl1280px-Implosion_Nuclear_weapon.svgosives to instantly compress the nuclear fuel so that it reaches critical mass, the point when atoms start breaking. Certain isotopes of plutonium and uranium will predictably begin splitting into smaller atoms when they are bombarded by neutrons like this. When they break in half, they also release an enormous amount of energy and send more neutrons out which split their neighboring atoms and start a chain reaction, and then in the blink of an eye, center city disappears in a shockwave of fire and radioactive material.

To show you how ridiculously powerful this reaction is, here is a picture of Harold Agnew holding the entire payload of plutonium that leveled Nagasaki and killed 70,000 people.

Harold_Agnew_plutonium_core_1

Look at how happy he is, carrying that 14 pound box of death. 14 pounds! Of those 14 pounds, only 2 pounds actually underwent nuclear fission before the whole thing blew apart. Of those 2 pounds of plutonium, only 1/30 of an ounce of that provided the explosive power equal to 21,000 tons of TNT.

The woman who discovered this incredible power, an Austrian Jew named Lise Meitner refused to join the Manhattan Project despite what was happening to her people because she couldn’t imagine that a world where people could unleash the fires of Hell could stand for very long. That’s why her research partner Otto Hahn won the Nobel Prize for chemistry and not her. Because she recoiled at the horrors of nuclear war and her partner helped to make it a reality.

For a brief time, the US was the only country with this kind of technology, and the world wondered what this new world would be like.

It only took the Russians 4 years to develop their own fission bombs.

And at this moment, humanity became mortal.

The power to level cities with a bowling ball should have been enough, but it’s never been enough for humans. We need more. More power. More control. More death.

So we got to work developing a bomb so powerful that it would make these nightmare weapons look like cap guns.

Welcome to the other type of nuclear weapon.

The fusion bomb. The hydrogen bomb. The thermonuclear bomb.

Teller-Ulam_device_3D.svgWhatever you want to call it, this bomb is so ridiculously powerful that it actually uses a fission bomb as a STARTER! The bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki are basically just a fuse for this bomb. What it does is that it uses a conventional fission bomb to compress hydrogen atoms into helium in a process called nuclear fusion. The energy from the fusion event also sends even MORE neutrons back out and causes more of the original fission material to split. So there’s three stages. Split some plutonium/uranium, bond some hydrogen, and then split more plutonium/uranium. Now if that second stage seems familiar, that’s because that is literally what the Sun is. Nuclear fusion is what powers every star. So this bomb effectively rips apart an atom, uses that energy to create a star, and then uses the star to split more atoms.

 

During World War 1, pilots in airplanes were literally throwing sticks of TNT from their planes. By 1945, we had dropped a bomb that was the equivalent of 22,000 tons of TNT. By 1961, Russia had tested an H-bomb nicknamed “the Tsar Bomb” that was the equivalent of 50,000,000 tons of TNT and it had the capacity to double that, but the Russians worried about international uproar.

To give a comparison, the Nagasaki bomb would take out half of Manhattan, instantly killing half a million, leaving another half a million gravely wounded, and send radiation drifting out to the surrounding boroughs. That’s a nightmare scenario. The Tsar bomb, however, would completely level the entire city of New York as well as Newark and the surrounding suburbs. It would send thermal radiation strong enough to melt your skin as far as Princeton and send deadly nuclear fallout as far north as Massachusetts. And it was only detonated at half its strength!

(see for yourself what impact nuclear weapons would have on your own home city here http://nuclearsecrecy.com/nukemap/)

So who has these doomsday devices?

Well that’s a little tricky, as no one really wants to show their hand, and there are potentially dozens of unknown nuclear devices that went missing in the chaos of the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1990, the USSR had 40,000 nuclear weapons, so it would be pretty easy to lose a few!

According to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, the current numbers look like this. (note: every country on this list has thermonuclear weapons except Pakistan and potentially India)

COUNTRY NUCLEAR PROGRAMME SIZE OF ARSENAL
United States The first country to develop nuclear weapons and the only country to have used them in war. It spends more on its nuclear arsenal than all other countries combined.  6,800 warheads
Russia The second country to develop nuclear weapons. It has the largest arsenal of any country and is investing heavily in the modernization of its warheads and delivery systems.  7,000 warheads
United Kingdom It maintains a fleet of four nuclear-armed submarines in Scotland, each carrying 16 Trident missiles. Its parliament voted in 2016 to overhaul its nuclear forces.  215 warheads
France Most of its nuclear warheads are deployed on submarines equipped with M45 and M51 missiles. One boat is on patrol at all times. Some warheads are also deliverable by aircraft.  300 warheads
China It has a much smaller arsenal than the US and Russia. Its warheads are deliverable by air, land and sea. It appears to be increasing the size of its arsenal at a slow pace.  270 warheads
India It developed nuclear weapons in breach of non-proliferation commitments. It is increasing the size of its nuclear arsenal and enhancing its delivery capabilities.  110–120 warheads
Pakistan It is making substantial improvements to its nuclear arsenal and associated infrastructure. It has increased the size of its nuclear arsenal in recent years.  120-130 warheads
Israel It has a policy of ambiguity in relation to its nuclear arsenal, neither confirming nor denying its existence. As a result, there is little public information or debate about it.  80 warheads
North Korea It has a fledgling nuclear weapons programme. Its arsenal probably comprises fewer than 10 warheads. It is not clear whether it has the capability to deliver them. <10 warheads
Total 14,900 warheads
Source: Federation of American Scientists 2017
 

What, specifically should I be worried about?

In his memoir, An American Life, Ronald Reagan wrote this, “As president, I carried to wallet, no money, no driver’s license, no keys in my pockets – only secret codes that were capable of bringing about the annihilation of much of the world as we knew it”. He continued, saying, “The decision to launch the weapons was mine alone to make. We had many contingency plans for responding to a nuclear attack. But everything would happen so fast that I wondered how much planning or reason could be applied in such a crisis. The Russians sometimes kept submarines off our East Coast with nuclear missiles that could turn the White House into a pile of radioactive rubble within six or eight minutes. Six minutes to decide how to respond to a blip on a radar scope and decide whether to release Armageddon! How could anyone apply reason at a time like that?”

Because the response to a nuclear attack has to happen within minutes, there is no chain of command when it comes to launching our arsenal. The president and the president alone has the authority to use nuclear force. It was believed early on that if the bomb was given to the military, then they would use it. That’s what militaries do. They use their weapons. A civilian, however, would be more cautious and diplomatic, only using them under extreme circumstances.

However, if the US has reason to believe that a nuclear attack is underway, its policies are that it must respond immediately or it may potentially lose the ability to respond after the nukes explode. That means the president must decide if a nuke is coming, where it came from, and where to aim the counter-strike within the time it takes to microwave a cup of mac and cheese. The potential mistakes in this system are horrifying. We’re not just talking about cities and countries anymore. We’re talking about all of humanity.

Remember that there are 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world today, and a direct attack from one of these nations against another would likely cause instant, overwhelming retaliation by the country that was attacked and all of its allies. So if North Korea bombed South Korea, expect the US to retaliate, and in the midst of that, China and/or Russia would probably retaliate against the US, leading European nations to retaliate against Russia and China. This is not a multi-month attack. We’re talking about minutes here, and while there would be millions of people dead within an hour, the real danger would come later as cities burn.

Most estimates agree that if 100 cities were on fire due to nuclear attack, enough soot and debris would be sent up to the stratosphere that we would block the sun and completely change our climate. The resulting “nuclear winter” would end life on Earth as we know it. Sure, the bugs and penguins would probably survive, but we wouldn’t. No matter how enlightened we think we are, a half a dozen paranoid men could end humanity.

So what?

So when I hear people talking about “nuking North Korea” like it’s an easy solution, I want to scream. Anyone who sees these weapons as a solution to anything does not understand them, and anyone who uses the threat of nuclear war as a bargaining chip is playing a game of russian roulette with your head in front of the barrel. My head. My son’s head. The collective heads of everyone I’ve ever know. No one wins in an all out nuclear war. The old ways of war and diplomacy don’t work anymore. We need a new paradigm. Meanwhile, the person who now carries the nuclear codes, the person who literally holds the fate of all humanity in his hands, publically talks like this…

 

We’re not playing war games with guns and bombs anymore. The winner of World War 3 will not be whoever had the best technology or the smartest generals. The winner of World War 3 will be the cockroaches. That’s not fear-mongering or hyperbole. If humanity as a species even survives a nuclear war, that will be a best-case-scenario. More likely than not, these weapons will be our undoing.

Albert Einstein once said, “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe”.

This is not a game. This is not a geopolitical game of chess anymore. It’s a hostage crisis in which nine people hold 7.6 billion people at gunpoint. Donald Trump, Kim Jong Un, Emmanuel Macron, Theresa May, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Ram Nath Kovind, Mamnoon Hussain, and Benjamin Netanyahu get to collectively decide if you are alive tomorrow. That sort of power is too great for any human hands. We cannot hold the Sun and wield its power without destroying ourselves.

The UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons currently has 53 countries signed on, but since none of them have nuclear weapons, it doesn’t matter. All nine countries that do have them don’t want to let go for fear that their enemies will keep theirs and wipe them out.

So here we are. Enough firepower to destroy the world a thousand times with a leader who, according to recent reports, wants to increase our arsenal ten-fold, and in the same breath telling North Korea and Iran that they are not allowed to have them. Using our weapons to stop them will surely be global suicide, but getting rid of our stockpile would encourage new countries to develop them.

We stand on a precipice with no easy answers and that’s the point. There is no easy answer here. The narrative that we are being fed is that we must act from a position of strength and power to make an example of North Korea. We are told that the only answer is simple. Nuke em! Bomb em! Wipe em off the map! Resist the lie. Learn your history. Know what is at stake.

In 1981, Harvard law professor Roger Fisher, director of the Harvard Negotiation Project, published this thought experiment in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists:

There is a young man, probably a Navy officer, who accompanies the President. This young man has a black attaché case which contains the codes that are needed to fire nuclear weapons. I could see the President at a staff meeting considering nuclear war as an abstract question. He might conclude: “On SIOP Plan One, the decision is affirmative, Communicate the Alpha line XYZ.” Such jargon holds what is involved at a distance.

My suggestion was quite simple: Put that needed code number in a little capsule, and then implant that capsule right next to the heart of a volunteer. The volunteer would carry with him a big, heavy butcher knife as he accompanied the President. If ever the President wanted to fire nuclear weapons, the only way he could do so would be for him first, with his own hands, to kill one human being. The President says, “George, I’m sorry but tens of millions must die.” He has to look at someone and realize what death is—what an innocent death is. Blood on the White House carpet. It’s reality brought home.

When I suggested this to friends in the Pentagon they said, “My God, that’s terrible. Having to kill someone would distort the President’s judgment. He might never push the button.”

And that’s the point. Until we see their lives as equal to our lives, our species cannot survive. This is our great moral test. Hundreds of thousands of years of spiritual and moral development and this is our final exam. Will we graduate? God, I hope so.

 


 

If you want to learn more about the history of the nuclear age, I suggest that you listen to Dan Carlin’s 6-hour podcast that takes you down every imaginable avenue in riveting detail.

http://www.dancarlin.com/hardcore-history-59-the-destroyer-of-worlds/

Are We Hardwired to Hate?

Are we hardwired to hate?

Short answer: yes
Long answer: not really

I’ve been thinking about hate a lot recently, and unless you just woke up from a coma a few minutes ago, so have you. Our oldest enemy, the destroyer of civilizations, hatred is as strong as ever. But why? Why is it so easy to hate? To fear? To judge? The simple Pastor Zack answer is “we’re sinners in need of salvation”, and while that’s true, it’s not the whole truth, and it’s too simplistic to be useful anyway.

We’re pretty proud of modern humanity, but we’re still animals. Fancy animals, but animals nonetheless, and like every other species, we are the result of billions of years of animals who survived in a world that was trying to eat them. So if we are going to talk about hate in 2017, I think we need to take a trip to Tanzania around 200,000 BC. You’ll have to use your imagination since I lost my time machine and I don’t know when it is.

So imagine, if you will, the sun rises on another beautiful African morning as an early tribe of Homo Sapiens begrudgingly gets out of bed. A particularly pesky pack of preteen paleolithic people pester their poor parents to promptly procure proper provisions.

Mondays, am I right?

Our modern stone-age family is no different from our modern information-age families. They just don’t have the benefit of our collective learning. Anatomically, they are identical to us, they have their own language, use stone tools, and are in the process of creating culture. What a time to be alive!

Back to our story. It’s mid-morning and the grownups are taking care of finding food for the day. One group searches for nuts and berries while another group gets their spears and goes for a hunt. Our hunters are Clay, an inquisitive and trusting boy who loves everyone; Ruby, a deep thinker who never makes rash decisions; and Rocky, an emotionally reactive hot head who is always getting into fights.

As they are walking through the dense forests, they hear an unusual sound coming from the bushes in front of them. Clay, ever trusting, walks towards the sound to see what new wonders await him. Ruby stands frozen in her tracks as she tries to remember that one time that she heard a similar sound. Rocky, assuming the worst, is already gone, hiding behind a rock, ready to strike. Rocky and Ruby let out a collective sigh when they see Clay comings out of the bushes holding an adorable baby chimpanzee. Such a cutie.

In our scenario, the three hunters encountered something new and reacted in very different ways. Clay assumed it was good and went to it, Ruby wasn’t sure and analyzed the situation, and Rocky assumed it was malicious and got ready to attack. All three of our paleolithic friends survived the day and none were worse off for their choices. Clay got a new pet, and everyone went home.

Now let’s imagine that it wasn’t a baby chimp in the bushes. Instead, it was a mama gorilla, breast feeding her babies. In this scenario, Clay is dead instantly. Ruby might make it out alive if she is far enough away but her critical thinking is slow and when seconds count, she will probably also get pummeled. Rocky, who has already safely hid behind a rock, is the only one who makes it home that day. He is the only one left to pass on his genes to the next generation. The trusting and thoughtful hunters took their wonder and trust to the grave with them, and their genes did not get passed on.

In both situations, Rocky survives, and so there is an incredibly strong evolutionary pressure to favor humans that distrust anything and everyone that they don’t know. Rocky thinks in binary terms; good and bad, safe and dangerous, friend or foe. He doesn’t see complexity and usually errs on the side of caution. That’s great when you’re living in an isolated tribe of a couple dozen people, but what happens when a hunting party is out in the forest and discovers another village? Rocky’s descendants have been selectively bred by nature to immediately treat this other tribe as hostile and do what they need to do to survive. So, you know, probably not gift baskets?

Civilization as we know it is only about 10,000 years old. 95% of humanity’s existence was extremely isolated with strong evolutionary pressure to not play nice with our neighbors. Then with the rise of cities and nations, we had a unique problem. We had become hardwired to hate people that were not a part of our tribe, but as we got to know them through trade and exploration, we realized that they aren’t so bad after all. Religions had to threaten us with divine punishment because we wanted to hate our neighbor, but knew deep down inside that we probably shouldn’t.

Fighting our circuitry is hard. Your conscious mind only has .0001% of the processing power as your subconscious mind. You are the descendents of Rocky, but you don’t have to follow in his footsteps. The old pressure to hate the unknown doesn’t work anymore. It’s a broken paradigm from an ancient world, and it will be our undoing unless you do the hard work of identifying it and eliminating it in yourself first. In Rocky’s day, the worst outcome of any conflict might be a couple dozen dead people. It’s bad, but humanity will survive. Today, the President can make a 5 minute phone call and instantly vaporize tens of millions of people without even needing to get a second opinion.

Talk about evolutionary pressure…

But we are not slaves to our programming. In Romans 12:2, Paul writes, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect”. Do not settle for the easy neural networks that lead to fear and hatred. Instead, allow yourself to be transformed by the mysterious power of the Holy Spirit who is able to give you a new set of eyes that sees the world as it truly is and lets you see people as God does.

Easy, inspirational, warm, and fuzzy words with incredibly difficult real world applications. Do you know what seeing my neighbor like God sees them really means? It doesn’t mean being color blind and telling people to get along. It means seeing past the riots and memes to the structures that have perpetuated hate and violence in this country since day one. As Paul wrote in Ephesians 6:12, ” For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places”.

Our battle is against disproportionate convictions for people of color that keep entire communities in poverty. Our battle is against a culture that is taught to fear young black men in hoodies but to respect young white men with torches and assault rifles. Our battle is against a collective white ethos that has had privilege for so long that anything approaching equality feels like persecution. Our battle is against deeply ingrained biological pressure to fear anyone who is not part of our tribe and to see them as a threat to be eliminated instead of a child of God to be cherished.

We are descendents of Rocky, but we are also children of God. We are hardwired to hate, but we have a Holy Spirit like a computer virus that can reprogram our hard drives and hard hearts if we will give her a chance. So speak boldly against systems of oppression, marginalization, and any group of people who would seek to diminish the image of God in other person. Our nation was built on ruthlessness and hate. We can’t change the past, but if we can’t learn from it, then we are doomed. Let’s not be doomed, OK? My sons deserve a better world than this one.

Why I Am Marching For Science

On Saturday April 22nd, millions of people around the world will be taking to the streets and marching in the name of science. The main march will be in Washington DC, but there are 514 marches planned around the world to stand in solidarity.  I will be marching in Lancaster PA, and I will also be giving a short speech about how people need not check their brains at the door of the church or check their faith at the door of the classroom. If you have enjoyed my blogs in the past (hey look, the archives are back up!), then I would implore you to consider finding a march near you and make your voice heard. I don’t want to sound too dramatic, but science is under siege in this country. Sometime after the invention of walls, military generals realized that full on frontal attacks were too dangerous and it’s much easier to just surround the city, cut off its supply lines, isolate it from the rest of the world, and wait until they were hungry and desperate enough to meet you on the battlefield. The Trojan War took a decade of slow emaciation before it came to the exciting bits with gods and heroes and whatnot. Likewise, the attack against science has been a slow but steady one. Despite a nearly universal recognition by climate scientists that we are causing global, catastrophic, and possibly apocalyptic climate change, it’s somehow still up for debate by policy makers. Our public education system is a mess because its policies (testing over learning) are created by administrators who ignore very clear data to the contrary. With the massive proposed cuts to several agencies (NIH, EPA, NOAA, etc), we who believe that truth is important are becoming increasingly terrified about our future. To that end, the following is my love letter to science and the reason why I am marching…

When I was a kid, I was scared of spiders because of course I was. My wife always says that you can’t trust anything with more than four legs and my wife is always right. I was also a scientist when I was a kid, and I knew that the best way to get over a fear was to understand it, and the best way to understand something was through science. Can you tell that I watched a lot of Bill Nye the Science Guy?

OK, so step 1: make observations. Done. That one is easy. Spiders are the worst. I mean, why do they even need all those eyes? What are they planning…

Step 2: Ask questions. For a kid, this one is also easy. How many different kinds of spiders live in my house/yard, which ones are the scariest, how dangerous are they, how fast are they, and can they open doors?

Step 3: Create a hypothesis to answer the questions. This one was also easy for me because the more I observed them, the more I realized that they were horrifying, soulless murder machines from the pits of Hell.

Great job sciencing, Zack!

Now, step 4: Test your hypothesis. To this end, I created a spider Colosseum which was really just a glass apple juice jar, but imagining it as a gladiatorial arena is much more dramatic. I caught every kind of spider I could find and put them into this jar. Little ones, big ones, jumpy ones, lazy ones, and even a Daddy Long Legger even though it’s not technically a spider. If they are truly the architects of Armageddon, then surely they will show their true colors when confronted by other Hellspawn.

Step 5: Analyze the data. OK, so there wasn’t a whole lot of actual violence in my glass arena. I tapped the glass. Nothing. I shook them up to get them angry. Nothing. Some of them lazily climbed around. Others just sat there like surly teenagers. The Daddy Long Legger just walked on everyone’s heads but no one seemed to care. With my hypothesis in doubt, I returned to step 4 and changed my experiment.

Step 4 (part 2): Maybe they were just being nice to each other now but wait until there is food to fight over. Then the venom will come out! So I turned over a rock and grabbed a pill bug, a beetle, and a worm to throw in the jar. Here comes the fight…

gladiator

Nothing. No pouncing, no murdering, no scary external digestion. Nothing. Just boring bugs walking around bumping into each other like zombies in a hall of mirrors.

Well, at this point, it was looking like my hypothesis was shot, so I went back to the drawing board. Maybe spiders aren’t inherently evil. Maybe they are just weird looking creatures that only hunt when they are hungry and only attack when they are scared.

New experiment! I found one of those webs in the bush with the funnel in it and threw a firefly into the web. The spider stayed in his little funnel, watching the glowing bug struggle and then give into its fate. Nothing. No attack. So I left and came back every hour or so until I noticed that the firefly was wrapped in a silk cocoon, probably marinating in whatever blend of herbs and spices that spiders are into.

So that was it. Spiders are creepy looking, but despite what John Goodman in Arachnophobia would have you believe, they hold no malice towards me. Armed with this new knowledge, I caught the biggest, baddest spider in my yard (a massive yellow garden spider) and kept it in a small terrarium as a pet. In time, I began to notice how incredibly skilled it was in architecture and how patient it was, sitting still for hours on end. It was essentially a many-legged monk. A monk who could also fight when it needed to. It was basically the Iron Fist without all of the subtle racism. I was so enamored with spiders after this that I wrote an essay for a Discovery Channel contest about spiders when I was 11 years old and came in second place. First prize was having a new species of spider named after you and an all-expense paid trip to the Amazon to meet the scientists who discovered it. Runner up won a t-shirt.

So at least I got that.

The moral of this spider-story is that the scientific method helped me to overcome my fears and prejudices and grow as a person. Science is not just a collection of facts and figures to memorize, it is a mindset, a way of life. Science gets in your veins. Science is a set of tools that helps you to make sense of the universe. The basic, underlying assumption of science is that the reality that we can measure is ultimately knowable. So we come up with educated guesses, test those guesses, and when our guesses can accurately predict the future, we call that a theory. A theory is only as good as its effectiveness, and is designed to be changed. The scientific method is humble and assumes that new information can change old models. I remember reading how disappointed Stephen Wolfram was when the physicists at CERN confirmed the existence of the Higgs Boson back in 2012. He was happy that the final puzzle piece of the Standard Model had fit their predictions so well, but without a loose thread to pull, there was nothing left to do, no question to follow, no far-off light to chase. Scientists want to be proven wrong so that they can eventually get it right.

That’s what we in the religious community need to internalize, because we have the opposite mindset. Many of us believe that we have the full revelation of God, and any challenge to our beliefs is an attack on truth itself. So we dig our heels in and fight back instead of examining this new data and reevaluating our belief system.

If you are not willing to be wrong, then you will never be right.

We in the United Church of Christ like to say that “God is still speaking” and a still-speaking God has a lot to say about our doctrinal arrogance. I think that God has a lot to say to policy makers too. We’re so swept up in our nationalistic narrative, that we are blind to facts. The data says that the US is not the #1 country in the world. Well, unless you’re talking about the number of prisoners per capita, military spending, or olympic gold medals for swimming. We are not the greatest nation on the Earth in terms of overall happiness (Norway), income (Switzerland), health (Qatar), or education (Singapore), and we will never be the best if we deny the data. So instead of creating a comfortable lie that everything is the best, we need to adopt the mindset of a scientist, allow the data to inform our opinions, and then work to solve them in ways that make sense.

So as I march for science in a few weeks, I am not just marching for a single discipline. I am not marching so that the facts can be more widely known or that our planet can be saved from global warming. I’m marching to help spread a worldview that is grounded in humility and is always striving for truth. After the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Albert Einstein said, “The release of atomic power has changed everything except our way of thinking … the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind. If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker”. We need a new model of thinking that does not rely on the dogmatic certainty of our tribal ancestors. We can’t afford to continue our petty fights when we hold the power to destroy all human life in so many creative ways. So would you stand with me and plead to our representatives to respect truth, acknowledge the power of science, and above all else, adopt a spirit of humility?

 

Here is a link to the event if you would like to join me in Lancaster…

https://www.facebook.com/events/1071234489652137/

We Are Our Own Worst Asteroid

This blog post was originally shared on the United Church of Christ’s Environmental Justice blog… http://www.ucc.org/we_re_our_own_worst_asteroid

 

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with dinosaurs, and I simply cannot understand anyone who wasn’t/isn’t. Fantasy and mythology are fine and all, but dinosaurs are real and you can visit their bones! I’m far more excited about my son’s dinosaur toys than he is, but he is only 2 years old, so he’ll get there eventually. My favorite topic of study and discussion when I was young was the mystery of where they went. How could monsters that powerful simply up and disappear? Dinosaur war? Overpopulation? Aliens? Were they late for the Ark and Noah got impatient? Then in the 90’s, an enormous impact crater was discovered off the coast of Mexico, and the problem was solved! We discovered that a massive chunk of space rock collided with the Yucatan Peninsula 65 million years ago, spewing so much debris into the atmosphere that it dramatically cooled the Earth and 75% of all plants and animals went extinct. Just like that. The planet got colder, the plants were scarcer, the large animals starved, the small animals thrived, mammals took over, and now we have four Jurassic Park movies. Obladi-oblada life goes on.

The Earth had a sore back for a few days, but she kept spinning. Likewise, the tardigrades and dragonflies took a few days to adjust and then kept on like they had before. Life on Earth is sticky like that. No matter how much you abuse it, someone is going to crawl out the other side. We’re a planet of survivors, but not all of us survive. The dinosaurs sure didn’t (at least the non-avian dinosaurs). They ruled this planet for 165 million years, but once the climate changed, no amount of tenure could save them from extinction.

I think that that distinction is important for us today, and is something that I rarely hear preached. We are in the midst of another great extinction event, and we are simultaneously the dinosaurs and the asteroid. We are the agents of our own doom as we continue to burn fossil fuel, releasing that ancient energy back into the atmosphere, recreating the climate that sustained the dinosaurs and suppressed the mammals. If you are here on this blog, then I don’t need to convince you of this fact. However, I would like to challenge you to change the narrative in your own circles. I keep hearing my fellow activists saying that we need to “Save the Earth” or “Care for the planet”, but the Earth is not in danger. No matter how hot or radioactive she gets, she will spin along unaware, and life will adapt to whatever is left, but that life will not be human and that’s the point. Environmental protection is a profoundly human endeavor. It is a matter of self-preservation, and we need to get that point across if we want to make a difference to the doubters. We must spend less time talking about ice sheets and polar bears and more time talking about the Pacific Islanders whose homeland is disappearing under the rising tides. We speak at length about the political turmoil that led to the savage Syrian civil war, but very few people tell the story about the widespread drought that displaced 1.5 million citizens and further destabilized the region in the late 2000’s.

This is a matter of profound justice toward our fellow human. Our contributions to the warming of this planet are not just hurting the plants and animals, but also us humans who have evolved to live in a very particular sort of climate. The wealthy and well connected will be the last to be affected, but the poor and vulnerable are already feeling the effects. If you find that you are hitting an impasse in your dialogue about environmental justice, reframe the story. Give it a face. Give it a name. Our species depends on it.

A Little Story About a Bird

The other day I was sitting in a rocking chair on our porch, soaking in the gorgeous Spring day when a tiny sparrow flew up to my bird feeder. It flitted about the way that sparrows do, hopping around the perch and quickly pecking at the food like a kid stealing cookies. The little guy spend about 30 seconds picking at the food and then flew into the yard to find more. I couldn’t believe his lack of forethought! There was literally more food than he could ever eat in that feeder and I had an enormous bag in the apartment with even more food if he should somehow finish it. I had literally bought this bird feeder for this express purpose. The only reason that it exists is to feed him, and yet after taking a few bites, he flew away to find another source of food.

So that got me thinking. What would I do if I were a bird? I played this scenario out in my mind. I would probably be a bigger bird like a Cardinal or a Blue Jay, but I’m still mad about Joe Carter in 1993, so let’s go with a Cardinal…

I spend my little cardinal days flying around looking for food and avoiding hawks when one day I find this magical food source. It contains a special combination of nuts and grains designed specifically for my diet. Oh it’s delicious! And best of all, it looks limitless. So that’s it. I’ve found my source of food. My search is over! I build a nest in the rhododendron under the bird feeder so that I never have to go far to get my food. Since I’m no longer spending my time looking for food, I now have a ridiculous amount of leisure time that I plan to fill with noble endeavors like cardinal-art, cardinal-architecture, and cardinal-philosophy. Maybe I will finally write the next great cardinal-novel. Instead, I spend most of my time watching cardinal-Netflix and cardinal-YouTube videos of cats getting outsmarted by birds.

One day, I notice that there are some stupid sparrows eating my food, and I start to get worried. Previously, I had imagined that there would be enough for me forever, but what if I was wrong? What if there isn’t that much after all? What would happen if something were to break and I lost my food supply? Everything that I worked so hard for would be ruined!

So Cardinal-Zack builds a tiny wall around the feeding area with sharpened twigs and writes menacing warning messages on the outside with crushed up berries. That seems to work for the most part, but now I spend most of my days in my cardinal-mansion trying to calculate how much bird food is left and how long it will last me. I start to wonder if there are other bird feeders out there, but decide that leaving this one would be too risky. The best thing to do is to just keep an eye out for problems and protect this food source for as long as I possibly can. After all, better to be safe than sorry!

Then, I start to think that maybe I should start saving some of the bird food in my rhododendron just in case there is a problem with the main supply. It’s always good to have a backup!

A few months earlier, I was spending my days flying around looking for food, and now my days are spent sitting inside of a bush, growing fat on sunflower seeds, and worrying about running out. What kind of a life is that? What kind of freedom is that? Where is my joy?

I laughed at myself thinking about how stupid cardinal-Zack was and suddenly I realized the wisdom in that silly little sparrow. He does not see the world like I do. I see scarcity. I see a bank account that is too small for the amount of things that I feel like I need. I often feel like there is just enough to get by and not much to spare. That sparrow found my limitless supply of food, ate some, and moved on because he sees the world as a limitless supply of food. To a sparrow, my backyard is all he will ever need, so he does not feel the need to worry about storing up food for the future.

In Matthew 6, Jesus famously said, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”

Jesus was speaking directly to cardinal-Zack. He was speaking to the tendency to anxiously hoard our blessings for fear that they will be our last. We often live like survivors of some kind of cataclysm, rationing out our last can of beans for fear of the marauding bands of renegades and/or zombies.

But that is not reality! You have enough. There are enough hours in the day for life, love, and all of the goodness that comes with that. You have enough energy inside of you that you can go out and volunteer and meet some people. You have enough money that you can share at least some of it with someone who is in need. I have found that the people who have the least are often the most generous.

God has filled the world with goodness. Joy, contentment, and wonder are all over the place, but we will never see them from inside our fortified rhododendron. You will never see the bounty in the world around you when you are so focused on your bird feeder.

So, practically, what does that mean? Take some risks! God loves taking risks. Everything that Israel did was risky. Saving the world through a peasant baby was pretty risky too! Step out! Turn off the TV, leave Facebook for tomorrow, pick up a hobby, meet some people, serve someone, or learn a new language. Write a poem, volunteer at an animal shelter, read a book to a child, or finally start learning Yoga. Stop waiting until you have enough energy or time to do that thing that you have been really wanting to do. Do it now! Your energy will come. Trust that God has given you an abundance of everything that you need. Trust that the world is filled with bird food and scarcity is an illusion. Trust in God and look for abundance!

I Need More Raccoons In My Life

In 2009, I moved into an intentional Christian community in West Philly with three other guys. We shared our food, prayed together, ate together, and worked together. We were trying to live simple, spiritual lives in the midst of the excess of the city so that we might better share our time and resources with those in need around us. More often than not, we did alright with that though the guys will tell you that I never woke up for morning prayer. Actually, I still struggle with that to this day.

Oh mornings. Why are you so early?

We lived in a lovely brick rowhouse with a small backyard that contained a single raised bed that mostly housed peas. The house next to us was rented out as an apartment and the backyard was filled with trash, busted up cement, and overgrown weeds. Inspired by the reclamation work that was being done by Circle of Hope’s Urban Farming Team, we got permission from the owner to clean it out and transform it into a 12’ x 12’ garden since the tenants didn’t use it anyway. We worked for a solid month cleaning the yard, building raised beds out of reclaimed wood, transporting the soil from the recycling center at Fairmount Park, and planting our garden. We had great plans of becoming urban farmers who had enough food to share with the people who were in need in our neighborhood. One of our housemates had rigged up a growing station in his room where he had started all of the seeds weeks earlier. We were ready and prepared to see the fruits (and vegetables) of our labor. This was all new to me, but I had seen the harvest that other urban farmers had gathered, and it seemed pretty simple to me.

Step 1. Plant the seeds
Step 2. Water the garden
Step 3. Pull some weeds
Step 4. Notice how fast your garden is growing
Step 5. Show your garden off on Instagram
Step 6. Harvest your vegetables
Step 7. Eat a lot of salads
Step 8. Revel in your dominion over the Earth
Step 9. Preserve the rest in vintage mason jars
Step 10. Repeat next April

I was pretty confident in our gardening abilities. However, after only a few days, we awoke to find that a raccoon had made an absolute mess of our garden and all of our hard work! So we went back to work, building a tall fence with a secure gate and cemented rocks around the exterior that would save our poor garden from the evil raccoon invaders. That masked bandit wouldn’t outsmart us. We were strong, resourceful, and had much bigger brains.

Weeks later, as our garden continued to grow, I looked out my window at our garden-fortress and saw a tiny bird peacefully perched among our cherry tomatoes, and I just had to laugh at the silliness of it all. I had a caged box of nature in my backyard, and was trying as hard as I could to keep the rest of nature away from my nature. As I sat in that climate-controlled room, in that sheltered house, in the middle of an electrified concrete jungle, I was suddenly aware of my desire to dominate the world around me. I wanted to take the disorder and unpredictability of life and stick it in a cage where I can control it. I wanted 73 degrees, brightly lit, quiet, safe, and scheduled all the time when nature had other ideas. Nature decided that winter would never end this year, nature chirped me awake at 5am this morning, nature postponed the Phillies home opener, and nature is making everyone sick at the same time.

The unpredictability of nature reminds us that life is messy sometimes, and it does not take too kindly to our attempts to control it. Babies will cry when you are trying to have a nice dinner, a leaky roof will drain your vacation fund, a loved one will get sick when you are already too busy, and suddenly there are raccoons in your garden. In Luke 12, Jesus warns us not to get too focused on controlling our future that we forget to rely on God for our needs and miss the bounty of life. Sometimes the unpredictability of life is painful, sometimes it is beautiful, and sometimes it manages to be both, but in all things God is sovereign and is the only one who can make our gardens grow.

When we let go of our need to control everything, we open ourselves up to the thrilling surprises of life. Next time you see a bug in your house, don’t kill it. Catch it and look at how complex it is. Take a minute to notice how the insect breathes through holes in its chest instead of its mouth. Imagine what that would be like! Try to notice its tiny legs and allow yourself to be amazed at its impossibly small knees. They are not intruders in your carefully decorated and thoroughly Pinterested living space. This world belongs to them too, and despite all of our best attempts to control nature, it always finds a way to get in and remind us that control is an illusion.

Life finds a way.

So as the flowers start blooming and life returns to the world, I pray that you are overwhelmed, surprised, and jostled out of your comfortably controlled life. May the raccoons, insects, thunderstorms, and pollen remind you that life is messy, inconsiderate, and unpredictable at times while also somehow being beautiful, exciting, and awe-inspiring. I pray that God surprises you in this season of life and brings growth, peace, and unexpected joy to your lives.

Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Neil deGrasse Tyson?

Have you been watching Cosmos? If not, then you should be. For those of you who are not as excited about educational television as I am, here is the scoop. The original Cosmos was a 13-part television series written and presented by Carl Sagan. It was an engaging, inspirational, and educational journey through contemporary science that was intended to educate us regular people on cosmology, astronomy, physics, evolution, and the history of the scientific method. Those 13 episodes completely transformed the way that science is communicated with the world, and if you haven’t watched them, I would recommend doing so this weekend.

In the same spirit of education and enthusiasm, Neil deGrasse Tyson and his team have picked up where Carl Sagan left off and the result is the most engaging television program in recent memory. I can’t express how much I love this show. Both Tyson and Sagan share a common virtue that sets them apart from other science educators.

Wonder.

They look up to the stars and get excited like little kids. They talk about the versatility of carbon-bonds and you can hear their voices trembling with excitement. I can get behind that. We live in an incredible universe! There’s more to see than can ever be seen. More to do than can ever be done… Oh wait. That’s the Lion King…

The point still stands!

While I have been glued to my screen, there have been plenty in the church who have not been so excited. To be fair to them, each of the first three episodes have brought up something negative that religious folks have done to suppress the advancement of scientific understanding and/or portray religious people as superstitious and uninformed. The Church definitely did stand in the way of some scientific progress (and we still do it today), but it’s not as clear cut as it is often portrayed. That being said, we screwed a lot of stuff up. The Church is a bumbling bunch of failures trying to be faithful to God and usually getting a lot of it wrong. That’s fine! God’s faithfulness in the midst of our failures is one of our most important witnesses to the world.

However, while I affirm God’s grace for us, I think we can do better. First and foremost, we can stop treating God as the “God of the Gaps” that fills in the places that we don’t understand yet. A good example of this is Isaac Newton. He was one of the most brilliant men to have ever lived. He basically created Calculus in a weekend on a dare. He was able to explain the orbits of the planets with simple equations that changed the world. However, he could not figure out how those orbits remained stable despite disturbances from other planets that orbited nearby. He concluded that they must remain in orbit because God intervenes to preserve their orbit. So what happens to God when we discovered that this wasn’t true? God got a little smaller that day, and with every new scientific discovery, God shrinks to fit what few gaps remain. When we treat God like this, we inevitably set up a system that eliminates the need for God. It’s no wonder that so many people learn about evolution and forget about God. When God is only used to explain the things you don’t understand yet, then God will one day disappear.

The Roman Catholic Church in the 1600’s believed that the sun and planets revolved around the Earth and they had Bible verses to prove it (1 Chronicles 16:30, Psalm 93:1, Psalm 96:10, Psalm 104:5, Ecclesiastes 1:5). They had taken their understanding of the way the universe works and propped it up with scripture. They had created a system doomed to fail because if their cosmology was proved to be wrong, then it would pull down their theology and their Bible as well. It’s no wonder that they felt so threatened by Galileo! It’s also no wonder that it took them until 1992 to apologize to the poor guy!

A similar battle has been raging for the past 100 years or so. Many Christians have used the Bible to explain how the universe (and life) came into being. That worked fine for thousands of years, but the past 100 years have seen a major paradigm shift in the scientific understanding of the beginning of all things. There is overwhelming evidence that suggests that the theory of evolution (while not yet complete) is correct in its explanation for the diversity of species on this planet. Astronomers have found evidence for the Big Bang and as astrophysics develops, it becomes more and more clear that the universe was not created in six days. So it is no wonder that many Christian groups are up in arms! This is not the first time that we have used scripture to buttress our cosmogony, and it has never ended well. If we have chained our understanding of God and Scripture to our understanding of human origins, what happens when our understanding is proved to be false? We end up pulling our faith down with us. Is it any wonder that we live in a world that is increasingly unimpressed with organized religion? “Spiritual but not religious” has become the new axiom that our world lives by because after our crumbling cosmologies and cosmogonies buried our theology in a pile of rubble, the world was left with this sense of eternity that God has “set in our hearts” (Ecclesiastes 3:11) but very few guides to help them along the way.

So what can we do? How can we hold onto our faith in God when scientists seem so keen on filling in all the gaps where God has so comfortably lived for millennia? More than anything, we need to be secure enough in our relationship with God to hold loosely to everything we think we know. One of the most important lessons that religion can learn from science is that we do not have all of the answers and once we think that we do, we have stopped being able to grow. Scientists willingly admit when they don’t know something. Science is done out on the edges of knowledge. When scientists at the Large Hadron Collider first identified the elusive Higgs Boson particle, they were somewhat disappointed because it behaved as they expected it would. Chasing ignorance is how we discover truth.

For us in the Church, that means more humility. When we encounter someone who believes something different, we must be humble enough to seek to understand them. When a new scientific discovery or a dramatic social change challenges the established position of any church, we must operate out of the assumption that we might be wrong. Maybe we aren’t! Maybe our original position was correct and the world around us needs to change. It will depend on the situation, but we will never know unless we are willing to hold our own beliefs loosely. We must be able to differentiate between the things that we believe about God and our relationship with God. The first sort of “knowing” is kind of like how I know that my wife is 5’3″ with brown hair. The second kind of knowing comes from spending time with her and sharing our hearts. The second kind of knowing is deeper and more essential. I know God in this way through prayer and by living with the Spirit. The first kind of knowing I get from books and classes. That kind of knowing might be wrong, but the second kind will not be shaken no matter what.

So what is God to you? Is God a living, sentient being with which you have an active relationship or is God a sort of padding that you stick in the gaps to make life easier to cope with? If God is simply the place where you draw your sense of meaning and purpose, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. Seek out the living God that actively desires to be in relationship with you, and if you have that relationship, then your understanding of God can adapt and change while your faith remains solid. Then one day, you might watch an episode of Cosmos and learn something about God in the process!