Muppets, Tight Pants, and How Your Children Will Save Us All

Every week at the 10:15 service at Community UCC, I invite the kids to come forward, and I share a lesson with them for a few minutes before they run off to children’s choir. One Sunday, I asked the kids how they were doing and one girl responded, “My pants are too tight!”. I looked at her honest face and couldn’t help but smile. I replied, “My pants are also getting too tight, but that’s because I’ve been eating too many desserts”. The adults in the room laughed, but she didn’t get the joke because to her, tight pants aren’t a joke. She was legitimately telling me how she was doing, and I was making a joke out of it. At some point, I learned that people will laugh if I make fun of myself, but her mind is still pure and unencumbered with the complexity of irony, sarcasm, and self-defence mechanisms. I don’t know if I could be that unguarded if I tried. I make jokes to hide the fact that I am self-conscious about my body, but she has not yet learned to be ashamed of who she is.

This week, before I could say anything to the kids, a different girl looked at me with a completely serious face and asked, “Pastor Zack, do you ever watch The Muppet Babies?”. I told her that I used to watch the Muppet Babies all the time when I was her age and I still love the Muppets to this day. She breathed out a sigh of relief, and said matter-of-factly, “OK good. My Mom has it on her iPhone and we like watching it a lot too”. I can imagine her sitting next to her Mom during the beginning of the service thinking about the Muppets and wondering to herself, “I wonder if Pastor Zack likes the Muppets too. I should ask him”. That is just fantastic, and I’m so glad that their parents brought them that Sunday.

These kids who are so concerned with the tightness of their pants and the lives of tiny Muppets are absolutely vital to the Church, and we would be lost without them.

Kids remind us to be unabashedly excited about things. They remind us that wonder and beauty are all around us. A kid can take a cardboard box and have fun all day. I always wanted to be a scientist, so I found opportunities to make believe that I was a scientist all the time.

I keep a box of crayons and a pad of drawing paper in my office so that kids will have something to do while their parents and I talk. I have never once seen a kid refuse a box of crayons. As Picasso put it, “Every child is an artist”, but as we grow older, we start worrying about what other people think and we learn to feel bad about ourselves. We learn to be ashamed of what we love and hide it away in our journals. We learn to hide our lack of self-esteem by making fun of other kids who are really into things like poetry, science, math, reading, music, and theater while always being worried that someone is looking down on us. Growing up can be hard, and any teenager can attest to that, but our kids remind us of the ideal that many of us lost sight of long ago.

As adults, we are often weighed down by the responsibilities of jobs, relationships, old pains, insecurities, doubts, and constant worry, but our kids remind us that we are all children in God’s eyes, and maybe we need to start realizing that we are not nearly as grown up as we think we are. Jesus once said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”. Our children are a constant reminder to remember the wonder and awe that surrounds us. Their wide-eyed, whole-hearted faith is an example to all of us. Can we maintain that level of trust in God’s love while also digging deeper into the complexities of God? I sure hope so!

So, to all of the parents of young children who continue to bring them to church, THANK YOU! I see you trying as hard as you can to keep your kids entertained and quiet during the service. I see the look in your eyes in the morning as you walk in ten minutes late because your kids refused to get ready on time. I see the embarrassment on your face when people look at you because your baby won’t stop making happy little baby noises.

I see you.

I see you every Sunday, and I thank God for you every day. Thank you for bringing your kids up in our big church family. I pray that the church is a safe and happy place for them to grow up and discover who God has created them to be. I pray that we adults are listening to their little voices, because in the midst of all of the seemingly unimportant talk of pants and Muppets are some of the most important words that we need to hear. We like to think that we have grown up and left all that childish nonsense behind us, but what else did we leave behind in the process? I wonder…

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

Then he called a little child over to sit among the disciples, and said, “I assure you that if you don’t turn your lives around and become like this little child, you will definitely not enter the kingdom of heaven. Those who humble themselves like this little child will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. As for whoever causes these little ones who believe in me to trip and fall into sin, it would be better for them to have a huge stone hung around their necks and be drowned in the bottom of the lake. Be careful that you don’t look down on one of these little ones. I say to you that their angels in heaven are always looking into the face of my Father who is in heaven.

~Matthew 18:1-6 & 10

John 3:16… I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

Quick! Quote a Bible verse! Any verse. What comes to mind? What is the first verse that you remembered? There are 31,273 verses in the Bible. Which one came to mind first?

Was it Ecclesiastes 10:19?
“A feast is made for laughter,
wine makes life merry,
and money is the answer for everything.”

Judges 3:21?
“And Ehud reached with his left hand, took the sword from his right thigh, and thrust it into his belly. And the hilt also went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, for he did not pull the sword out of his belly; and the dung came out.”

Luke 14:26?
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.”

Probably not! If you are like most people, the first verse that came to your mind was John 3:16…
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

That verse has been plastered on more banners, shirts, bookmarks, and Facebook statuses than any other, and with good reason. John succinctly sums up the Gospel in a single sentence. Well done, John! He seems like he was a gentle, soft spoken kind of guy who thought before he spoke. I like John. However, this verse is perhaps too famous for its own good. It’s actually a pretty bad English translation, but it has become so firmly entrenched in our collective theology, that most translators won’t touch it. What does it sound like to you? “For God so loved the world…” What does that mean for you?

The Message translates it as “This is how much God loved the world…”. The Living Bible translates it as “For God loved the world so much…” and the Contemporary English Version says, “God loved the people of this world so much…”

We have generally taken the “so” in this verse to mean that God loves us so much. Now, don’t get me wrong, that’s true! God is your biggest fan, but that’s not what this verse is saying. To get at the heart of it, we need to look at the verses before…

“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

The “so” in “for God so loved the world” is the Greek word οὕτως (houtos) which means “likewise” or “in this way”. John is saying that God loved the world in the same way that God loved the Israelites when they had their snake problems.

If you’re thinking, “Wait, what snake problems? We didn’t learn this in Sunday School. What madness is this?” You’re in luck! Let’s dive in.

In Numbers 21, we read a story about the Israelites wandering the wilderness as they were known to do in those days. Also, as usual, they weren’t happy about it. They were complaining about having boring wilderness food and generally being unhappy about their situation. Then… suddenly…

SNAKES! SNAKES EVERYWHERE!

It was bad. People were getting bitten by poisonous snakes all over the place. The people were in a panic, so they asked Moses for help. God told Moses to make a bronze snake and attach it to a pole. Anyone who was bitten by a snake could simply look at the bronze snake and be healed of the poison. God didn’t take away the snakes. God didn’t automatically cure the people. God didn’t give them anti-snake spray or send them kevlar pants. No, he had Moses make a bronze snake and everyone who looked at it would be cured of the poison. I’m sure there were plenty of people who would have prefered God to simply get rid of the snakes, but God had other plans.

Just like the Israelites and their snakes, I would have prefered if Jesus came and got rid of all the evil and suffering in the world in one fell swoop. I would love to live in a world without snakes (metaphorically and literally), but that is not how God chose to reconcile the world. God chose to leave evil and suffering where it is for now, but to give us a way out if we choose a reconciled relationship with our creator. If we choose to look to Jesus, then the poison is cleaned out of our veins and though we still live in a world of snakes, we know that they can never destroy us. In this way, we know that God prioritizes relationships over simple problem-solving. Relationships are messy and they require multiple independent parties to work. It’s always easier to just focus on policies, rules, and utilitarian solutions, but that is not how God loved the world. God loved the world in THIS way, that if anyone wants to be saved from the poison in their veins, they can look up at Jesus and accept the freedom that comes from a relationship with the risen Christ. He offers no easy answers, no quick fixes, and no paved highways to easy living. God didn’t love the world in that way. Not yet, at least. God loved the world in a complicated, messy, and relational way.

So when you feel the poison of loneliness, isolation, and fear coursing through your veins, do not panic. You are not alone. Because God loved the world in THIS way that whoever takes their eyes off of themselves and looks to Him will not be overcome, but will have life and have it abundantly!

Who is My Neighbor?

Wow. I know it’s cliche to start off a conversation with the weather, but if you live in the greater Philadelphia region, the past week has been absolutely extraordinary. Mid 70’s and sunny all week. This is the kind of weather that makes you want to eat/drink something with pumpkin in it. Not only has the weather been perfect, but the Phillies have found a way to make the wild-card race interesting. Meanwhile all the little kids are off to school, we old kids are back to our fancy overly expensive schools, and wedding season is coming to a close.

What a spectacular time of the year.

Unless you watch the news and/or listen to talk radio.

In that case, everything is the worst and we are all about to die.

Election season is in full swing, buckos and with that comes as much hatred, acrimony, and finger-pointing as you can handle. It’s like an all you can eat buffet of madness. This election feels a little like a perfect storm to me. I was listening to the first season of This American Life from 1995 and they were talking about this new GOP strategy that Newt Gingrich was championing. Basically, the point was the make your opponent seem SO terrible so as to polarize as many voters as possible. He thought that this would help create a strong base and bring in the undecided independent folks.

What a difference a few decades makes. Here we are in 2012 seeing the logical conclusion of that kind of intentionally divisive strategy. I cringe whenever politics gets brought up around friends or family because I really don’t want to get into it with people. I won’t get into to it here either because I think that neither major candidate speaks for me, but I do want to talk a little about unity.

As I’m sure that most of you have heard, four Americans were killed in Libya this week after a group of radical Muslims stormed the embassy over a poorly made movie that depicted Mohammed as a murderous, manipulative, pedophile of a false prophet. The film was in no way representative of the views of the consulate or even of the majority of Americans, but the lines that divide us often seem bolder and straighter than they really are, and tragedies like this continue happening. Meanwhile in bizzaro campaigning land, both candidates have tried to use this tragedy to strengthen their position and weaken their opponents. I’m sorry, but that level of divisiveness makes me sick to my stomach. The subliminal racism of the Tea Party, the degrading elitism of the liberal media, the covert colonialism of the middle east, and the dehumanization of a war fought with drones. Meanwhile, there are still kids being bullied for being gay, women being sold into slavery like cattle, and people being abused for simply looking different than someone else.

I need to take a breath. This is all too heavy and I feel myself drawing very definite “us vs them” camps. Even in my inclusivity, I can already feel myself lumping all those who are not open-minded into a single group as if they all had a single mind shared between them. No. We need a new perspective.

In 1971, Edgar Mitchell stood on the face of the moon, looked back on that blue marble from whence he came, and had a change of heart. He later wrote about it, saying, “You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.”

If you watch videos from the International Space Station, you will notice that there are no dotted lines across the Earth. There are no tiny stars where capitals are. The name of the country is not emblazoned across its soil, and the only evidence that we even exist are the massive amount of lights we created and a few oil slicks that still litter the seas. Have you seen pictures of the Earth from the Voyager spacecrafts that are now almost out of the solar system? Earth is nothing but a pale, blue dot suspended in a sea of nothingness. Look up at night and look at the sea of stars above you. From their perspective, our sun is nothing but a tiny dot in an endless expanse of twinkling lights. How much smaller is our tiny blue rock?! How much smaller is my country? My state? My city? My block? My house? My room? Me? I am nothing in the scale of creation. Our differences are basically meaningless.

If you were to take DNA samples from me, a Muslim woman from Egypt, a Hindu child from India, an Atheist at Harvard, my dog, a panda, and a killer whale, the differences would be minimal! In fact, if you were given the DNA without knowing where they came from, someone from another planet might think they were just variants of the same species. I talk about carbon a lot in this blog, but seriously folks, if you understand that we are all made of carbon that came from exploding stars and has been a part of trillions of living creatures and you STILL can’t get along with your neighbor, then you aren’t paying attention! Every cell in your body will have died, fallen off, and been made a part of a different living creature every seven years. That means that you are a completely different person than you were seven years ago. Your cells once belonged to cows, grass, birds, bugs, and other people. What a profound slap in the face to all the racial supremacists out there. Their own bodies are comprised of cells that were almost certainly a part of another human of the race that they hate.

And if our bodies are completely regenerated every seven years, who are we? I have had a similar face for my entire life, but it is not the same face. It is made of completely different pieces. Am I my collected memories, feelings, and personality? Those are the result of squishy grey matter in my skull. Thoughts, feelings, emotions, and personalities are just electrical impulses and chemical reactions.

How splendid!

We are not as unique and amazing as we like to think. God’s love makes us special, but we are not gods within ourselves. Our cities and monuments do not make us immortal. Truth be told, the life we see around us is just interestingly arranged star dust that we had no part in doing. If you were to take the entire history of the universe and cram it into a single calendar year, humans only come onto the scene with eight seconds left until midnight, and recorded history (3600 BC) begins with 13 nanoseconds left until midnight.

The world looks different when you are scientifically literate. Differences between humans seems less important and there is less reason to fight. The same is true for those who have experienced God’s love. If you truly believe that God loved us while we were bumbling idiots, it’s easier to love our fellow-idiots. If you have experienced God’s love AND you understand how insignificant we are in the cosmic scale, then you have no excuse but to love your neighbor and enjoy life in the face of the political absurdities around us.

Happy election season, friends. Go pet a puppy and enjoy yourselves.

God The Archer & The Arrow of Time

Hey friends! I hope this blog post finds you well. I’m going to do something a little different today. A few months ago, I wrote a paper about how crazy time is and how God interacts with us throughout history. Is God within history? Outside of history? Beyond history? Does God move along with time? Is that even possible? Does time move?

 

The answers were somewhat shocking to me, honestly. According to Einstein, time is kind of amazing and mind-bending. This paper took a long time to write, and I’ve been meaning to turn it into a blog post for some time. However, having just read over the paper, I don’t really want to simplify it into a short blog post. I don’t think it makes any sense unless it is explained fully. So this is a longer post than I normally do, but if you have the time, I think that it will completely change the way you see everything. Seriously. If you make it through the whole thing, you will not regret it. The full 20 page paper is up on Google Docs if you want to read it…

 

https://docs.google.com/open?id=0B4q8VBq3FgnHWGhVZFAxSjBscjA

 

However, for the purpose of this blog, I have cut out a few lengthy sections that are not completely essential for the point that I want to make today. Check it out and let me know what you think!

 

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Many forests have given their lives over the years to provide theologians with the paper needed to pontificate over the nature of time and God’s relationship to us. Time is such an interesting concept because it is something that all humans know intrinsically but cannot easily define without using time itself as a reference. Saint Augustine summed up the problem fairly well when he wrote, “What then is time? If no one asks me, I know; but if I wish to explain it to one who asks, I know not”. We all sense the movement of time in some way or another. Caribbean societies are famous for their disregard of the passage of time while we in the industrialized world are ruled by the movements of tiny hands around circles on our wrists. It does often seem that the river of time is sweeping us all away with it. Many theologians have attempted to find God within this temporal tide and have come to different conclusions. There is no universal agreement as to whether God is bound by time as we are or if God is timeless. Questions of God’s omniscience and providence are based primarily on how one understands the nature of time and our relationship to it. In this paper, I will explore how Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and recent insights in Quantum Mechanics can help us to reconstruct our view of the universe and God’s relationship to us.

 

Our measurement and definition of time must be seen relative to something outside of ourselves. If one is asked when Jesus was born, they would likely answer, “About 2,000 years ago”. We can measure a year as the amount of time that it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun and then imagine 2,000 of those. That is a valid measure of time for the purpose of conversation, but it presupposes an understanding of time and the ability to measure it. It can be said that we perceive time and we claim to be able to measure its passage, but unless we can define what it is and with relation to what standard its movements are measured, we cannot say anything true about time itself. This presents some very striking problems for how we relate to God, pray for specific outcomes, and read biblical prophecies about future events.

 

Isaac Newton was one of the most brilliant scientists to ever live and is widely considered to be the father of classical physics. His laws of motion are the foundations of our knowledge of physics and their elegant simplicity is still useful today. In his magnum opus, Principia Mathematica, he was presented with a problem that would resurface in the 20th century. He was able to accurately describe the motion of planets and apples, but he realized that without something to compare them against, these measurements had no grounding and his entire system would collapse. His system did not collapse though. It worked so perfectly that he posited the concept of absolute time and space. For Newton, space and time are like the stage on which the action occurs. The actors will move, sets will be put up, and the play will happen, but the stage remains constant and unmoving.

 

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Deleted section about how we normally perceive time, how Newton explained it, and how we normally talk about how God interacts with us. Read the full article here.

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Einstein’s major discovery was that there is no absolute space or time. All measurements of distance and time are relative to the observer. If a police officer, brandishing a radar gun, is stationary on the side of the road, he or she will be able to measure your speed relative to his or her vantage point, and will hypothetically clock you going 70 mph. If that same police officer is driving on the same highway going 69.5 mph, your car will barely be moving according to the measurements from the same radar gun. In some sense, the police officer on the side of the road can be said to be standing still. If nothing else, he or she is standing still in relation to your car as it zooms past. However, that police officer is on the Earth which is spinning along its axis and orbiting the Sun which is itself orbiting the center of the Milky Way that is orbiting the center of gravity in the local system of galaxies which is also moving relative to other clusters. Without a central reference frame, there is no privileged position from which to measure time or distance, and this is where Einstein helps us with our understanding of time.

 

One of the stranger aspects of relativity was discovered by Einstein in 1915 and became what we know today as the Theory of General Relativity. Einstein discovered that time and space were not simply the unchanging stages on which reality played out its days. It turns out that not only are space and time ontologically linked, but they are malleable and easily bent by gravity. The equations of General Relativity predict that time should move slower when measured within a heavy gravitational field like that of the Earth because space-time is being bent by gravity. This was tested in 1962 using a pair of extremely sensitive atomic clocks, placing one on the ground and the other on top of a water tower. The clock on the ground feels the tug of the Earth slightly more than the clock on the water tower. While the differences in time were imperceptible to us, the clocks kept different times in the exact amount that Einstein’s theory predicts. This effect was more pronounced when the first GPS satellites were launched and became misaligned within a few days because their internal clocks were moving faster than ours on Earth.

 

This might seem like splitting hairs at this level. What does it matter if a satellite is one millionth of a second faster than my watch? The implications for God’s relationship to the universe do not seem significant on this level, but it will become clear once we expand the equations to areas of greater distance and gravitational influence. One such place of great gravitational influence is a black hole. A black hole is a star that has become so massive that it has collapsed into itself under its own gravity. Its pull is so strong that not even light can escape it, and that is why it is dark. If you were to pilot a spacecraft close to the event horizon but not close enough to get sucked in, the intense gravitational impact would slow time down for you considerably. You could orbit the black hole for a few hours and return home to find that tens of thousands of years had passed without your knowledge! If you and a friend were both orbiting the black hole, and your friend strayed too close to it and got sucked in, the two of you would experience very different realities. From your point of view, your friend would be stuck, moving imperceptibly slowly into the blackness of the black hole. However, from your friends perspective, she would barely have time to realize her mistake before she was spaghettified and ripped apart by gravity. In that situation, which person can be said to be in the “present”? In a situation this extreme, words like “present” lose their meaning.

 

While most people do not understand what it means, E=MC² might be the most readily identifiable equation in popular culture. This is yet another one of Einstein’s insights that make our relationship to time difficult. In this equation, E is energy, M is mass, and C is the constant speed of light. What this equation means is that an object’s mass and energy are connected to each other. As an object increases in energy it also increases in mass which bends space-time and changes one’s conception of the “present”. One way to increase an object’s energy is to move it. At near-light-speeds, an object would experience the same time-bending effect as our friends around the black hole, but it is more interesting to note how this modification of time affects one’s perception over large distances.

 

Imagine space-time as a loaf of bread. Events can be said to be simultaneous when they are on the same slice of bread. If I walk towards you, my motion in relation to you imperceptibly speeds up my conception of time as compared to yours due to the increase in my energy. Therefore, if space-time is a loaf of bread, my slice will be ever-so-slightly skewed to one direction. Due to our proximity, that skewing will be of no consequence, but millions of light-years away, that slice has moved significantly askew and what I define as “present” is now hundreds of years in the future for some alien in another galaxy. In that moment, if I were to turn around and walk in the other direction, away from this distant alien, I would suddenly be hundreds of years in the past as far as they are concerned. Of course, it would take millions of years for light to reach them, so there would be no way to communicate with them and tell them what the winning lottery numbers would be in a week.

 

Without a privileged position from which to claim the “present”, time takes on a whole new meaning. The old picture of the flowing river of time might look more like a frozen river with ice skating children darting every which way. The present moment for me will be different than the present moment for you, the Pope, and an asteroid in the Andromeda Galaxy. If the equations of Einstein are truly an accurate description of the universe as they seem to be, then any present is no more or less real than any other present. The implications of this are enormous! In a very real way, Lincoln is still alive, World War 3 is already over, and dinosaurs are eating each other. If an asteroid is moving away from Earth at great speeds, then that asteroid’s “present” might include George Washington or Napoleon. This is incredibly hard to grasp because it is counter-intuitive to how we all experience reality. It makes no sense that the truth of our world should be so different from our experience, but Relativity has been proven again and again for decades. Regardless of our experience, we need to start rethinking how we think about the world.

 

God’s interaction with the world is easy to explain if you begin with certain logical presuppositions. Process theologians are very serious about God limiting God’s self when God created the universe. All creation is within God and God is within all creation as we all create this world together. This image of God as part flower bed and part gardener is very beautiful and has been useful for those who are suffering. When someone cuts down a forest or hurts a child, God feels it in God’s very nature. They teach that God is creating history along with humanity and truly does not know the future. While this is beautiful, it cannot be true. For God to exist as one of us trapped within time, God would need to have God’s own “present” which, depending on God’s location, velocity, and proximity to a gravitational well would differ vastly from other “presents”. Post-Einstein, it is simply not enough to talk about the present as if it were a thing or a universally accepted reality. It is not. If God were here with us in this hypothetical present moment, then God would not be with our great-grandchildren right now or with Moses on the mountainside.

 

God cannot be bound by time as much as God cannot be bound by space because space and time are two sides of the same coin. It would be foolish to go down the same route as Newton by attempting to create a distinction between “God’s time” and “created time”. Time is a physical construct. It is as much a product of the Big Bang as the particles around us. That being said, God has shown the ability and the desire to not only communicate with creation but to dwell with us in very real ways. When Jesus appeared to Thomas and told him to touch his hands and his side, that was not merely a play on words or a fancy metaphor. That was truly God having conquered sin and death, standing before them in that room in a body made out of carbon.  If we truly take the Incarnation seriously, we can no longer ask whether God can enter into time and space. We must now ask how God enters time and space.

 

As was stated earlier, I have no expectation that I will be able to solve the mysteries of the Incarnation with a set of equations, and the reader will most likely be left wondering at the end of this paper. That is precisely the point. Just as Rembrandt used his knowledge of the human face and his skill as a painter to create images of Jesus that were actually human, so we create sloppy theological finger-paintings for God’s refrigerator with the tools that we have. In this case, those tools are General Relativity and the biblical teachings about the Incarnation.

 

Christians might not agree about much, but one thing that we generally can come to terms with is that God became human in the person of Jesus. Something mysterious and miraculous happened to Mary nine months before Christmas, and we are still feeling the effects of it today. In the instant that Jesus was conceived, God broke into time. Knowing the precise instant that it happened is not very important because as we have stated before, that moment that Jesus was conceived could be in the “present” for some alien or space-rock right now. In a very real way, Jesus is born in Bethlehem. Jesus’ humble entrance into time and space is exactly as real as this moment which you are reading this page. In a very real sense, From the moment of the Big Bang, Jesus was born. It brings a whole new meaning to the name of God, “I am”.

 

That might sound counter-intuitive, but much of Relativity does not flow with our current worldview. When the writer of Revelation, writing in colorful language, calls Jesus, “the lamb that was slain from the foundation of the Earth”, he was unintentionally speaking an incredibly profound truth. Before the heavy elements that make up the Earth had gathered together to form this planet, Jesus had already been born, died, and rose again. Following this logic, the final eschaton is very real and present as well. From the very instant that this universe was created, all moments exist. The Fall, the Incarnation, the Resurrection, and the Second Coming are real and present realities. Ted Peters and other recent theologians have argued that God necessarily creates from the future. “The destiny of all things determines what they are”. According to he and his colleagues, the eschaton changes reality now. We are, in effect, living in the shadow of our final reconciliation and therefore feel its effects today. There is truth in this, but it does not go far enough. It is not the shadow of the eschaton that renews creation today, but the ever-reaching ripples of redemption caused by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Before we dive into the rationale and implications of this, it will be helpful to identify an example in nature that will help to illuminate the point.

 

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Deleted section about Quantum Physics and experiments that seem to show effects happening before their causes. Check out the full version if you’re curious.

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When presented with the question of how God who is outside of time and space can interact with humanity, the answer lies in that humble manger in Bethlehem. God was able to walk in the Garden of Eden, talk to Moses, and dwell in the Temple because Jesus became human. The moment of the Incarnation is like the umbilical cord between God and the universe. The eternal God became a carbon-based life form and in so doing, married the eternal and the temporal. Our great hope comes from the consummation of that relationship after the great resurrection when we will be truly united to Christ, but today we live in the shadow of that great and eventual reality. Jesus’ birth did more than introduce the beginning stages of our redemption. It retroactively changed the very nature of the universe and God’s relationship to it. From the moment of the Big Bang, Jesus had already entered the world, redeemed it, and had come back to consummate that union.

 

It seems odd that if God truly wants to save the entire world that he would choose to elect a small people group for salvation and then only the people who believed in His son who came from that people group. It’s a very weird strategy unless we believe that God had already redeemed the world from the outset. This is the same God who died for us, “while we were still sinners” and cried out from the cross, “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing”. This is the God who redeems people before they even know that they need redemption. God did not make up an ad hoc solution to an unforeseen problem. God is not experimenting with redemption. God has had a handle on this universe since it began in a very real and tangible way.

 

If God has truly “drawn all peoples to [him]self” and if it is true that “every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord”, then in some manner, this has already happened. Jesus has already saved us, and we are being lead to that reality. Those who have not knowingly acknowledged Him will surely see the risen Lord and feel a familiar tug. The ripples of redemption that started at the cross have worked their way throughout the entire universe. There is no corner of the cosmos, no darkened heart, and no rebellious spirit that is safe from redemption. Time is an artifact of the created universe in the same way that space is, and in the end of this universe, it will be made perfect as our bodies are made perfect in Christ. It is a mystery what perfected time will be like, but we can feel its ripples even now. Just as the sunrise begins in London before Philadelphia, so the sunrise of Christ’s final redemption draws nearer to us. In a very real way, it has already dawned and we are already being redeemed. Let us live in that reality that we have been redeemed and brought into a real relationship with Christ. Let us learn to see the ripples of redemption and ride them to Christ while inviting others to do the same with the knowledge that Christ has redeemed them from the very first nanosecond of the universe. Let us be people who treat the past, present, and future as tangible realities as we remember Jesus’ life and look forward to his coming, and in all things, let us love those who have not yet deserved it.

Concerning Atheists

Note: Discerning readers will recognize that the title of this post is an homage to the prologue of The Fellowship of the Rings. I do not mean to imply that Atheists are all secretly Hobbits or that all Hobbits are secretly Atheists, but if any Atheists want to take me to see the Hobbit in a few months, I will not object. Likewise, if any Hobbits want to hang out, that’s cool too. I have much to learn about your ways.

Getting along, then!

I waste a lot of time these days on Reddit.com looking at stupid pictures, reading clever essays, and being generally unproductive. If you have spent more than a few minutes on Reddit’s front page, then you are familiar with the r/Atheism subreddit, and the ::ahem:: enthusiastic folks who congregate there. I have posted a few of my own blog posts to Reddit only to have them torn apart by people who have no use for religion and would prefer to live in a world in which no one else did either. I suppose that the internet is not always the best place for real dialogue with the veil of anonymity and the lack of relational consequence turning normal people into sociopaths. That being said,

Hello internet! Let’s talk about things!

Those who follow this blog and/or know me in non-internet-world should know that I grew up in the Christian Church. My Dad’s side of the family has enough pastors to start the holiest baseball team in New Jersey. On a side note, we would probably be a boring team too. They aren’t a very rowdy bunch. All of my friends were either part of my church or my Christian school. When you are so thoroughly steeped in religion of a certain fundamentalist flavor, a few things tend to happen to a person once they are on their own. Many of my friends stayed with it and generally have the same set of beliefs that they did when they were 15. They seem happy, and I’m happy for them.

Still others graduated high school, went away to college, and were blown away by a seemingly endless amount of new ideas and options. They had always doubted the message they were taught as kids, and now they had a new framework from which to construct a worldview that was no longer in conflict with their innermost convictions. Many of them have now become “evangelical atheists”, constantly trying to convince their friends of the new truth that they had found.

Then there are the friends who found the freedom to let go of the faith of their parents and to just stop thinking about it. If you bring up the topic of religion, they have opinions, but it does not keep them up at night. For them, non-belief seems like a strange thing to rally around when there are so many pressing issues in this world.

The largest group of my peers would probably self-identify as Agnostic or “Soft Atheists” (I love that term, Abra). In my opinion, this is the group of people who are going to eventually purify the Church of its idolatry, and they deserve a place at the table.

More on that in a few paragraphs!

These people have usually been through the religious system with all of its virtue and vice and have decided that they cannot plant their tent in the camp. They are generally a group of people who refuse to accept easy answers purely on the basis of tradition or assumed authority. Phrases like “because that’s what the Bible says” and “just have faith” mean little to nothing to them without any real proof. I am constantly blessed by the thoughtful reflection on important matters that I have gotten from my non-religious friends. Some of the most faithful readers of this blog don’t believe in God!

That still blows my mind.

Jesus’ original followers were pretty un-religious too. The religious leaders of Judea were disgusted by their wanton disregard for their laws and unorthodox interpretation of the scriptures. Jesus’ company was a safe place for people who had questions (Nicodemus, Peter, Mary, etc) but an extremely dangerous place for those who were certain of the truth (Pharisees, Sadducees, Scribes, the rich young ruler, etc). This is where I think our non-believing brothers and sisters can help the Church out tremendously.

The world around us is amazing. If you are reading this, then you are unbelievably lucky for being born when you were. We are living in an age in which scientists are driving an SUV around Mars, we have identified planets that could contain life, every crumb of knowledge that humans have accumulated over the past 6,000 years is available within seconds, and doctors are using lasers, robots, and particle accelerators to fix our bodies. A byproduct of our newly found interconnectedness is a widespread dispersion of truths and information that makes the Renaissance look like summer camp. Students no longer have to take their teachers’ word for it when they can pull out their phones and fact-check on the spot.

The world is becoming more skeptical, informed, and independent. No longer are clergy respected because of their position. Anyone who would claim authority must first earn it. Meanwhile, the majority of the American Church has not gotten the memo. Society is in 2012, but Sunday mornings still take place in 1945. Hearing Christians deny evolution is getting embarrassing, and something needs to change.

So, here is my challenge to all of my religious readers. Love like an Atheist.

Christians are good at loving people because Jesus told us to or because we want to spread the love of Christ, but when an Atheist loves someone, they are not doing so out of obligation or to gain a reward. We should also be known for loving people for no good reason. Our entire faith is based on a God who loved us for no reason!
Secondly, ask questions like an agnostic. For many years, I had a faith that was based on a faulty foundation. It was like a house on stilts at the shore. The wooden supports had become rotten and weak, but I continually nailed supports to them for fear of losing them. My belief system had become my God. It was only after I let myself give it all away that I found what I was looking for. If you do not have the freedom to say, “I don’t believe in God at all”, then you will never find God. My beliefs are not my foundation anymore. My God is my only foundation, and no shifting doctrines or archaeological discoveries can shake that. Agnostics are not afraid to ask questions of previously held beliefs. Nothing is too sacred and untouchable to be questioned and reevaluated. Newton thought that he understood gravity pretty well, but the more we dig into the universe, the more we realize that we don’t know!
Dear Atheist/Agnostic friends and family, thank you from the bottom of my heart for your relentless pursuit of truth, beauty, and goodness. You have no idea how important you have been in my life and my soul. If the Church had this kind of freedom of belief and inquiry, we would be a better planet for it. Honestly, I think that the Church is coming out of a long period of idolatry in which we worshiped our doctrines, theologies, liturgies, scriptures, and traditions while ignoring the movement of the Spirit. We need to remember what it was like in the Early Church when we had no idea what we were doing or where the Spirit was leading. The future seems exciting, and I plan on enjoying it.

Life is Like a Field Trip

Every summer I make a habit of reading for fun. I read enough theology and whatnot throughout the school year. When it comes to summertime, I want to read nothing but fun, imaginative fiction. Last summer, I read a lot of Kurt Vonnegut which I would highly recommend. God Bless You Mr Rosewater and Cat’s Cradle are two of the best books I have ever read and are perfect for a jaded and ironic generation. This summer, I decided to read something different. Instead of catering to my cynicism, I decided to read the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I’m pretty ashamed to say that even though I have seen each movie about a dozen times, I have never actually read the books. I am a little more than half-way through the first book, and I have been constantly surprised/overjoyed by how sincere it is.

In 2012, we are obsessed with irony, sarcasm, whit, and creative twists. I don’t watch much television, but I have seen all of the Office, Arrested Development, Scrubs, and LOST several times. The first three shows are comedies that hinge on ridiculous characters that we can make fun of while feeling self-impressed at our own normalcy. LOST was entirely predicated on new and mind-bending twists every episode. The Lord of the Rings was not a success because of the great twist that Frodo was really Sauron the whole time. Gandalf is not a crotchety old man who makes fun of everyone. We don’t laugh at Gollum’s misfortune. When we first meet Aragorn, we are given his life story and the reader is pretty confident that he will redeem himself and save the day. The characters fit within archetypes that we all know and love. Maybe it is just a retelling of a story as old as creativity itself, but there is a reason that archetypes survive.

I used to watch the Daily Show and the Colbert Report every day until one day a friend pointed out that I had nothing good to say anymore. All of my opinions of public figures were negative, snarky, and sarcastic. I focused entirely on the negative, making straw-men out of real people, and stood contentedly with a smug sense of self-righteousness in the midst of a world full of “idiots”. If only people could see the world as clearly as I can, we would all be better off. Sometimes I still fall into that trap, so please forgive me for my accidental smugness from time to time. I’m working on it.

In our day and age, the worst thing that a person can be is genuine. It is better to be well-groomed and narcissistic. By that, I don’t mean that we all love ourselves. The opposite is true. The good member of our society spends all of their time thinking about how they appear to others. I’ve been watching a lot of the Olympics lately, and I am stunned by how many commercials there are that advertise beauty products, weight-loss, and status symbols like cars and clothing. The message that we are given is that if you are not attractive, rich, or glamorous enough, then you had better fake it.

I dealt with this a lot when I was growing up. I was a pudgy, pimple-faced boy with a love of science and video games. I tried so hard to fit in with the punk kids who “didn’t care” what society thought of them, but I had just replaced one social master for another. My parents bought me expensive JNCO jeans which I tore on my BMX bike. I listened exclusively to punk music and looked down on people who liked the music on the radio. “You actually like the Spice Girls? Oh geeze”. The only place that I felt comfortable to be myself was among my fellow-nerd friends. In my experience, they are the most accepting and faithful people on the planet. That is, honestly, the only social circle in which I feel completely safe from judgement. They are good people and some of my closest friends.

Sometimes, I will sing along to Dashboard Confessional or Bright Eyes with an over-the-top voice to mask the fact that I actually enjoy singing along. When I’m by myself, I listen to Coldplay and the Killers. I have a Legend of Zelda tattoo on my back and I love it. I don’t understand a single Wes Anderson movie, and I can’t tell the difference between fancy coffee, Starbucks, and McDonalds.

Phew. That felt good.

What are the parts of you that you are afraid to admit because of how they make you look within your particular social-world?

Here is where I have landed as of recent months. I am exactly who I am. I love looking at the stars, staring at pictures of Mars, talking about God, rescuing Zelda, playing baseball, watching baseball, talking about baseball, cooking, building, dreaming, reading, imagining, playing video games, writing, and being an introvert with friends. When I am confident in that, I am less likely to see the faults in others. When I am constantly self-conscious and afraid that I will be discovered as a fraud, I am critical, judgmental, arrogant, and sarcastic. The journey towards loving others begins by being ok with yourself. I would like to spend a good portion of my life studying, writing, and teaching theology and science. That’s a passion of mine, and when I confidently and excitedly explain it to people, I find that they are usually more likely to respond with their own dreams. When we were kids, we all had dreams, but somewhere along the line, we became too afraid to admit to them.

I don’t care if your dreams and aspirations are too unrealistic. Achieving your goals isn’t the point of life. We are all on a journey. Life is like a field trip to the zoo, and if you spend the whole time following the cool kids to the reptile house that you miss the giraffes, then what was the point? The giraffes are the best.

Seriously.

So awesome.

At the risk of this post sounding like a self-help seminar, you are exactly who you are, and the sooner you realize that, the sooner you can find out what that actually means. If we spent as much time chasing after what we love as we do making fun of what we don’t understand, we would actually have the rocket cars that we were all promised as kids.

In all seriousness though, I want my rocket car.

Dear society, what the heck? Where is my rocket car?

My God is Not a Book

I was talking to a friend this Sunday (you know who you are…), and he was telling me that he reads my blog (hi friend!), but that I often come across as defensive and scared as if there are an army of fundamentalists waiting on the other end of the internet to kill me for my beliefs. I’m sorry if it comes off that way. I don’t intend to live my life focused on my detractors. Life is too short to be afraid of those who would persecute you for your beliefs. Of course, I use “persecute” knowing full well that social ostracism and verbal abuse is hardly persecution in any real way. It’s funny because both my dad (hey dad!) and one of my professors recently said that I don’t seem worried in the least about what people think about me. They appreciate my wanton disregard for the opinions of my detractors and those who would write me off as a heretic (or worse). I’m glad that I come across that way, but I’m not there yet in my mind. Most days I don’t care, but there are times when I’m truly terrified that my friends and family will write me off. Can you relate to that? I hope so.

I find that many of these conversations come down to how one views the Bible. I was raised Baptist and we LOVE the Bible. If something cannot be convincingly supported by scripture, then it should be thrown away. Similarly, the Bible is to be understood literally. It is literally the Word of God, inerrant and infallible in all that it teaches and affirms. My pastor once said that the only reason that one would doubt a literal 6-day creation was if they didn’t believe that God was capable of it.

Yikes.

Among the heresies which I have been accused, the most common is that I ignore, twist, misuse, or abuse scripture. this would be funny if it weren’t so annoying. I hate when people proudly wave their education around as if it gives their opinions instant validity, but I think it’s appropriate here. I spent four years at Wheaton College studying biblical languages and then three years at Palmer Theological Seminary which is a Bible-centered Baptist seminary. The Bible is not a book that I just picked up at the checkout aisle of the grocery store to read at the shore this summer. This is a book that I have poured over, struggled with, and spent years studying in prayer. I don’t think that people realize how insulting it is to accuse someone of that. For example, a friend of a friend read my last post and then accused me of picking and choosing which parts of scripture that I wanted to follow while ignoring others. While she didn’t intend to mean this, she was basically discrediting all the countless hours I have spent studying the Bible not to mention all of the time I spend in prayer. Basically, she is willing to say that I have no relationship with God because our interpretations of a 2,000 – 3,000 year old collection of documents do not match.

Friends! Let us not use the Bible to tear us apart! I will try to be less defensive in later posts, but I feel the need to spend some time here.

First of all, can we please stop pretending like anyone actually follows the Bible literally? It makes me so mad when I am accused of picking and choosing scripture to support my beliefs.

Do you ever wear a cotton/polyester blend? (Leviticus 19:19)
Are you a man with long hair? (1 Corinthians 11:14)
Are you a woman who wears jewelry to church? (1 Timothy 2:9)
Do you believe that abolitionists were sinning and slaves should have just learned to behave? (Ephesians 6:5; Colossians 3:22; 1 Peter 2:18)
If a man raped your daughter, would you force him to marry her? (Deuteronomy 22:28-29)
If your child was disrespectful, would you kill him/her? (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)
Does your garden have different types of vegetables in it? (Leviticus 19:19)
Have you ever eaten fruit from a tree that was less than 5 years old? (Leviticus 19:23)
Have you ever eaten a juicy steak or cheeseburger? (Leviticus 19:26)

If we were being honest, NO ONE follows the Bible 100%. No one even tries to follow every letter of scripture. We all pick and choose what we want to believe and what we can explain away. Do you realize that Abraham married his half-sister and Jacob married a pair of sisters? All of these relationships are specifically outlawed in the Law! If we could just start admitting that we all ignore parts of scripture, we could start having real conversations about it. If not, I fully expect you to marry your brother’s widow, do no work on Saturdays, never eat bacon, and remember your head covering if you are a woman while never shaving the sides of your beard if you are a man.

“Ok, Zack. We know that you don’t take the Bible to be the inerrant Word of God. That’s lovely. What do you believe?”

I’m so glad that you asked!

The Bible is not the Word of God. The Word of God is the truth of God fully expressed in Jesus Christ. Check out John 1. The Word of God is eternal, unflinching truth. The Bible contains the Word, but it is not the Word. The Bible also contains some things that are culturally specific, situational, and inaccurate. I cannot believe that the Earth is only a few thousand years old when there are countless proofs to the contrary. I cannot believe that the Earth literally stood still for Joshua, or that there was a global flood. I cannot force myself to believe that Noah had an ark big enough for every species of living creature including polar bears, Galapagos Tortoises, and Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches. It’s insulting to my intelligence and to God’s to assume that this literally happened. The Bible may have been inspired and God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16), but that does not make it perfect. We were also God-breathed (Genesis 2:6), and look at us! Having studied language for 10 minutes, you learn how imperfect it is as a tool for communication (why are there no languages that have a “to be” verb with normal conjugation?!)

Here’s a completely fictitious example to illustrate the limits of language…

My wife is sitting on the couch looking lovely as usual. She is typing diligently on her computer, presumably writing an email to important people about important things. I get her attention and say, “It’s 6:30”. She looks at me with disdain, rolls her eyes, sighs heavily, and walks out of the room.

The phrase “It’s 6:30” is entirely innocuous by itself. I’m just stating the current time. Now what if I said it in a really frustrated, sarcastic tone? What if I was really trying to convey “It’s 6:30, and you are on your computer? We’re going to be late!”? Ok. I can see why she would be upset at that. What if she was mad at me because she had asked me to tell her when it was 6:00 and I forgot? These things happen.

It would be impossible to convey accurately exactly what was happening in that moment using only the written language. However, Christians do that same sort of thing constantly. How can we expect the Bible to clearly and perfectly communicate truth through language when language is so nuanced and imperfect? Billions of women have been subjugated and repressed in churches because some men read Paul’s mail and assumed that they knew exactly what the words meant for their lives. Perhaps Paul was writing to his friend Timothy in first century Ephesus and maybe some of his church leadership advice isn’t applicable to 21st century American churches. I don’t think that makes me unfaithful to the text. I just think that we have different expectations. I do not expect that every sentence was written directly for me in my situation. I do not think that God wants me to march into Jericho in 2012 to slaughter every man, woman, and child.

The Bible is a splendid collection of documents. It is full of stories, poems, songs, visions, and advice. It even has an entire book about sex! When I read poetry in the Bible, I read it as poetry. When I read visions, I do not take them literally. When I read stories, I take their historicity with a grain of salt. Why should we force every ancient literary genre into our textbook-mentality? Genesis 1 and 2 tell creation stories that are completely different. The order is wrong and the creation of humans is different because they are not trying to give a reasoned account for the creation of the universe. They are trying to give it meaning. The ancient Hebrew people did not have our same obsession with stone cold facts. That’s why the Gospels are different. Jesus says different things, does different miracles, and does them out of order because they are all trying to explain different truths about Jesus’ life. It’s hard to jump into that mindset right away. We have been steeped in a certain understanding of history, myth, and story that will not easily pass away.

I encourage you to sit with the text, struggle with it, and do your very best to learn from it. God will speak through scripture. God does it constantly. It almost feels too easy that we have such a great collection of books at our disposal. If you are interested, I have some great books that will help you to get started learning about the different genres that are in the Bible and basic methods of interpretation so that you can start letting it speak to you in new and genuine ways. I am so glad that I chose the ancient language path. I originally chose it because I wanted to “decode” the Bible and figure out what it really said. What I got instead was a deep respect, love, and admiration of a collection of books that have been meticulously copied, studied, and prayed over by billions of people over thousands of years.

My Bible is not a textbook that was written by God. It is the collected history of idiots like myself who have been striving towards a God who actually strives back. It is a testament to God’s faithfulness and a constant source of wisdom and strength. It is a challenge to those who would claim to fully know God, and an encouragement to those who would like to try anyway. It is a place where God speaks to me, but by no means the only place. I respect the Bible, but I am careful not to treat it like an idol like I used to. I worship the living God that cannot be contained in 66 ancient books. The Holy Spirit cannot be fully articulated by any combination of verbs and nouns. Friends, do not abandon scriptures, but do not make them your god either! Biblical interpretation is an exercise that is done best in community, so I’m ending this entry now and inviting you to do it. I would love to have coffee with you sometime and talk about Jesus, Joshua, Paul, Miriam, Rebecca and the whole crazy crew!

Today is in My Way

10 blog-points if you knew that this entry was named after an MxPx song. 10 extra points if you go listen to that song right now. 20 points!

 

Yesterday, my parents, my wife, and I went to the Franklin Institute to see the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit. I’m a sucker for museums especially when they have exhibits in ancient languages that I can read. It’s one thing to see something that was created thousands of years ago, but it is something entirely different to read the exact words that someone composed before Jesus was born. It’s like spying on someone through a wormhole. The exhibit had some very interesting pieces and it got me thinking.

 

The Dead Sea Scrolls were most likely written by a group of people called the Essenes. They were a radical sect who lived in Judea between the 2nd century BC and the 1st century AD. According to them, Israel had sold its soul to the devil and would soon reap the punishment for their idolatry. The leaders of Israel had gotten too cozy with the Romans and the priests were corrupt. They believed that no one was following God anymore and the only way to actually be a good follower of Yahweh was to leave society behind, move to the desert, and live a communal monastic life in anticipation of the apocalypse. They forsook all wealth, privilege, and pleasures so that they could be more spiritual. They ate simple meals, were celibate, and spent much of their time in prayer.

 

Meanwhile, the Zealots had a similar idea with a radically different strategy. Not too long after the birth of Jesus, a man named Judas of Galilee incited a riot and started a movement to overthrow the Roman overlords. The land was rightfully theirs and God would help them to reclaim it. They drew upon the great images in the prophets of final galactic battle and colorful images to inspire people to fight back. God had promised them salvation, and they were going to take it by force. At least one of Jesus’ apostles was a Zealot, and there are some who believe that Judas Iscariot was also a zealot who was frustrated with Jesus’ inaction and wanted to force his hand to bring on the final battle. It was primarily their fault that the war between Israel and Rome began in the late 60’s, and they were eventually finished off anticlimactically at Masada in 73.

 

The most famous group in Israel to people who follow the life of Jesus is the Pharisees and they also believed themselves to be at the end of time but had still yet a different strategy for achieving it. They thought that our future hinges on our morality. The bloody conquests at the hands of the Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans were actually divine punishment for Israel’s disobedience. They were stubborn and sinful, so God punished them. They believed that the Messiah would come if all of Israel would just keep one perfect Sabbath. They were so obsessed with “getting it right” that they made up hundreds of laws that were just a little stricter than the biblical laws just to make sure that they never actually broke any of God’s commands. It’s like telling someone who is chronically late that the meeting starts at 4:45 instead of 5:00 to make sure that they are on time. If Israel was ever to be spared from God’s judgement, they would have to take their morality more seriously. They wanted to see the Messiah come so badly, that they missed him when he was standing right in front of them. When Jesus came, he wasn’t as morally upstanding as they would have wanted. He broke the Sabbath, did not keep the purity laws, and cavorted with the worst kind of people. They missed God incarnate because they were unable to see past how they thought God should be.

 

The eschatological fever was building.

The people were uneasy.

Rome was rolling up its sleeves.

Everyone had an idea of how God should/would respond.

 

Who was right?

 

The Essenes thought that the world was 100% evil and the best solution was to remove themselves from the world, spend time with God, and wait for salvation.

 

The Zealots thought that “God helps those who help themselves”. The pagans have desecrated the name of God and the end will come when we make it happen in His holy name.

 

The Pharisees thought that the suffering in the world was our own fault for being so immoral and if they can get into positions of power and enact good, moral laws then peace will finally reign over the land.

 

Which group do you fit into?

 

The world is overflowing with pain and misery. People are dying, innocents are being punished, and injustice coats the Earth like pollen on the hood of a car. What do you do about it? How do you think about it?

 

Do you move as far away from the suffering as possible? Do you drown out the cries of the oppressed with your well-rehearsed praise songs and (very) short term mission trips? Do you shrug your shoulders and think, “Only God can fix this world”, so you live your life without trying?

 

Maybe you are like the zealots and you assume that the weight of the world’s future is on your shoulders. Maybe you are overcommitted at the dozen places that you volunteer. Maybe you stay up at night fretting over the problems in your neighborhood and your inability to solve them all. Maybe you have even gone off the deep end and committed acts of terrorism to force the hand of “the enemy”.

 

Perhaps you remember “back in the day” when things weren’t like this (see Ecclesiastes 7:10). Remember when we had prayer in schools, children behaved, people were decent, and society had some sense? If only we could get back to that place before there was sex, violence, and obscenity all over the place and people still believed in the Christian morals. Maybe you campaign for Christian politicians who will vote in laws that legislate the kind of morality you think this country has lost.

 

Maybe you are none of these. Actually, I hope that you are none of these. While all three groups had some good points, they all miss the mark. Despite the value that we have gained from the solitary life of the monastics, leaving society to wait for the end is not the answer. Jesus calls us salt and light for this dark and dying world. We are put here to work the garden, till the soil, and pull out the weeds of society. We are completely ineffective and useless when we wash our hands of this world and wait for Jesus to clean up the mess.

 

Likewise, we do more harm than good when we pick up our guns and start fighting in the name of God. While God wants to use us to help the world, God does not need us to take over as generals in God’s army. There has not been a single “Holy War” that has left the world a better place. Each and every time, people are hurt, the message is lost, and we are worse off than before. The same is true on the local level. We cannot assume that we have the ability to fix everything. When you walk into a situation with that kind of attitude, you end up sounding like these folks. We are God’ instruments, God’s vessels, God’s tools. We are the hammer not the contractor, and when we get our roles confused, we end up patronizing and destructive. We are called to walk in humility, meet people where they are, and be what we want to see in the world.

 

It is no use pining over the “olden days” when things were better because I guarantee that things were not actually better. If the world seemed better when you were growing up, it’s probably because you were a kid and didn’t have to worry about the ills of society yet. Perhaps the past was actually better for you, but it was probably worse for someone else. If I lived in the 18th century, I would have had it MADE, but that’s only because I would have lived in a society that was made easy for a few people by the suffering of countless slaves. We were not more moral “back then” when we burned crosses, oppressed women, killed the Jews, enslaved Africans, and lynched homosexuals. This is also not the worst that we have ever been as a society either. Movies might be violent, but we all know that it is fake. We are not cramming 50,000 spectators into stadiums to watch people kill each other and be eaten by wild animals. We sucked then and we suck now. We have always sucked. Ever since humans first started thinking, we have sucked at being decent human beings, and no amount of religion will ever save us. If we become a Christian nation on Christian principles who follow Christian morals perfectly, we will still not save the world. Religion cannot save us. Morality will not bring the Second Coming of Jesus.

 

What are we supposed to do?!

 

It’s simple. In fact, it might be too simple and that’s why we keep complicating things.

 

We were put here on the Earth to love. That’s our purpose. If the Sun exists to fuse hydrogen atoms, we exist to love. We are called to love our mother, our spouse, our boss, the president, terrorists, and every stranger we meet exactly the same. Of course we will screw it up, and God does not expect perfection, but God does expect that we will love each other as best as we can. Loving someone means that you look out for them, care for them in their need, and obviously do not blow them up. That’s it. Jesus will come back to the Earth when he is good and ready, and that is none of our business. We will not precipitate his arrival and we will not be able to “tidy the place up” before he gets here. We were idiots when He hung out with Adam and Eve, we were idiots when He walked around Israel, and we are idiots now. I’ll never understand why God still loves us, but the least that we can do is to pass it on and stop worrying so much. If my eschatology has taught me anything it is to stop worrying so much. God has already redeemed the universe, and while it may not seem like it right now, the end will come and it will all make sense.

 

So stop starting wars in the same of morality, religion, and ideology. Don’t waste your time. Use your creativity to find new and exciting ways to love people instead. We are not as important and powerful as we tend to think that we are, and the sooner we realize how tiny we are, the easier it will be to let go of the lie that we need to fix the world right now and bring about the end of all things.

I Don’t See Color, and Other Lies We Tell Ourselves

Sometime after the death of Jesus, a man named Philip was walking down the road. He was a follower of Jesus and an all-around good fella. As he was walking, he came up next to a caravan carrying an Ethiopian man who was reading the book of Isaiah. Philip asked the man, “Do you understand what you are reading?” That’s a fair question when you’re reading the prophets. I don’t understand half of what they say. The Ethiopian man took Philip up on his offer and Philip hopped up onto the chariot. He explained everything that he was reading and how Isaiah had actually predicted the life, death, and reign of Christ. The Ethiopian man was absolutely blown away, and in an absurdly bold act of faith asked Philip, “There’s some water over there. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?”

That’s a great question. Of course, Philip was on the same page as the Ethiopian man and baptized him right there on the spot for the world to see. It was that simple. Philip shared the Gospel, the Ethiopian man believed, he was moved by the Spirit, and was baptized. Neither man had any hang-ups about class, race, ethnicity, or sexuality (the man was a eunuch). The Spirit moved and they were both wise enough to move along with her.

Fast forward about 1400 years and the Ethiopian’s question would be answered very differently. What can stand in the way of your being baptized? The white man will stand in your way. My people would have stood in his way.

——-

It’s difficult for me to write about this for a few reasons. Firstly, I am a white, heterosexual, middle-class, American male. In almost every respect, my people are the dominant oppressors. The true monsters of history wear my skin. They look like me. In another life, I could have been one of them. Even if I don’t actively join in the oppression, I reap the benefits of it. My life is easier and I have more opportunities because my people have taken them from someone else as the spoils of war.

In light of my situation, I do not claim any authority to speak for the oppressed and the mistreated. I will not assume to understand their lives nor will I offer my hand to pull them out of the societal pit they might be in. If my people have kept you down, then it is not within my power to lift you back up. That is just another form of control. I will not claim the titles of feminist or liberation theologian because those are titles that have power behind them that I cannot merely seize as so many of my kin have done. If there is to be a white-liberation theology, it would need to be one that explores how we can empty ourselves of the power that our ancestors ripped away from other people. My people can never be truly liberated until we are stripped of our institutionalized advantages.

All that to say, what I am about to write would be much better coming from someone who is not me, but hopefully I can add something to the conversation.

——-

The leader of the most powerful nation in the world is a black man, slavery is universally condemned by every country in the world, schools are integrated, and everyone is allowed to vote. It would seem that racism should be over by now, but here we are scratching our heads as images of Trayvon Martin continue to fill the news media, self-righteous pundits give their unwanted opinions, and anchors give half-sincere consolations to the family. If you listen to people talk about this case, there is a definite racial undertone that sneaks in without notice. Sure, it’s easy to blame the hoodie. In Philly, there are a dozen suspects on the evening news who have no description other than “African-American male in a black hoodie”. I’ll admit that sometimes when I’m walking home at night and I see an African-American male in a hoodie with the hood over his head, I get scared. I start planning out how I will respond if I’m mugged, and then the INSTANT that he walks past harmlessly, I realize how prejudiced I am and I want to beg him for forgiveness. Truth be told, I see hundreds of African-Americans in hoodies every single day and not one has ever tried to harm me.

Why then the fear? How can I be so intentional about anti-racism, but so predictable in situations like that?

It’s hard for me to admit that I’m not perfect in this regard. We white folk pride ourselves on how un-racist we are.

“Oh I don’t see color”
“My best friends are all black!”
“I love everyone the same like Jesus did”

When Hurricane Katrina hit and New Orleans was flooded, President Bush was famously slow to respond. His administration was NOT prepared for the work that needed to be done, and as a result, thousands of people were left with nothing. Kanye West’s response was, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people!” After his presidency, Bush said that this was the lowest point in the eight years that he was in office. The attacks of 9/11, two wars, environmental crises, an economy in shambles, but it was the accusation of racism that was the lowest point in his presidency. White people want to pretend that we are past that silly racism thing and we are far more enlightened than our forefathers, but we as a people are not past it. We have just given it a facelift. How many black people are a part of the Tea Party movement? How many white people have a deep unexplainable fear of a black man in the Oval Office and couch their fear in terms of his economic policy instead? How many of us are secretly terrified to live up to the terrible things that our people have done?

Racism is alive and well, folks.

I could give you dozens of wonderful Bible verses about how we are all one in Christ without distinction, but you don’t need the Bible to tell you that. I could also write about countless studies of different races and ethnicities that found an overwhelming sameness to humankind regardless of skin tone or physical appearance, but I won’t bore you. I don’t want to make a polemic against racism. I hope that I don’t need to convince you that racism is ridiculous. What I want to do is to take this opportunity to provide a space for people to be honest for once.

I know full well that African-Americans are not dangerous people. That’s crazy-talk. I also know that there were still slaves in the 1800s. These people were not educated and were not accepted into society. After they were freed, they were still treated like garbage and had to claw their way up to even make it to the lowest rungs of the societal ladder. Without the same opportunities, many of them lived in poverty and their children were subsequently denied opportunities and continued that cycle. Once easy access to guns and drugs were introduced (by the white-man), then the cycle became a cyclone. This is not what Africa looked like before the white-man came through and ripped its people to shreds.

And now here we are in 2012, unable to enslave people physically because that’s not popular so we enslave then economically. Our country is systematically enslaving the Majority World by overwhelming them with debt, collecting tons of interest, and raping their landscapes for natural resources. It’s the same old song with a different name.

A part of me wonders if the deep-seated fear of minorities that so many white-folk have is actually the realization that our turn is coming. We’ve screwed over the entire world, and the world is going to eventually come for us. It’s only a matter of time before its our turn to suffer and we have DEFINITELY earned it.

So what can be done?

At this point, I have nothing more to say. I can see the problems, I can feel the problems, and I can discuss them from the outside, but I can only approach racism as a scientist would. This is not an issue to be dealt with in a laboratory or a board room because it is not an issue at all. We are talking about people not abstractions. I defer to you who live this as a reality. I will take my African-American friends seriously when they tell me their stories and I will listen without getting defensive. We have come a long way towards truly living together like Philip and the Ethiopian, but we are nowhere near the promised land yet. Friends, how do we get there and how can we who have been the oppressors help enable you to overcome the sins of my forefathers? How do we take the ruins of our society and build the Kingdom of God?

Screw It. I Feel Like Being an Optimist Today.

A few years ago, I was having a conversation with a friend who was very unhappy with her life. She wasn’t satisfied with her job, friends, boyfriend, church, and living situation. She also wasn’t happy with her lunch, the temperature, and my tone of voice. The poor girl was trapped in a terrible, pessimistic cycle that was turning all the color in the world to a cold shade of grey. That conversation inspired me to start a blog/experiment in which I would take time out of every day to notice something amazing around me that I normally would overlook. I figured that if she could make everything terrible with her mind, I could do the opposite. I stopped updating the blog regularly when my computer broke and my father-in-law had a massive heart attack, but I’ve tried to keep the practice alive in my everyday life even if I don’t write about it. I challenge you to try it for yourself. Take one month and write down something amazing every day. It’s not as hard as you think. The world is bursting at the seams with goodness.

I’m going to say something now that may not be very popular, but please stay with me.

I think that the amount of good in the world right now FAR outweighs the amount of evil.

That’s not a very popular opinion, but I think that I can back it up!

My friends and I are are the kind of 20-30 year old city-dwellers who listen to NPR, protest corrupt gun shops, and work at non-profits. It’s easy for us to talk about the things that are wrong in the world. I know all about wars, oppression, famine, poverty, and corrupt world leaders. If you were to turn on the news right now, I guarantee that you will see or hear some bad news. I’m not blind to this. I live in Philadelphia. We have the highest murder rate of any city in the country, and it wasn’t a close finish either. I see the headlines. I will not deny the evil in the world or even think for one second about delegitimizing the suffering of the oppressed. All I want to say is that it is a matter of perception.

We are simply more sensitive to evil than we are to good.

Allow me to explain using this horrible illustration. Imagine for a moment that today is your wedding day. You have been with your partner for years, and you have been eagerly anticipating this day since you first met. Everything is going according to plan. You have never been happier in your life. That’s when you get word that your best friend has died. How do you feel for the rest of the evening? Are you able to have a good time?

What if you were at your father’s funeral and you got word that you had gotten the promotion that you had been trying so hard for? Would you be able to enjoy it?

Of course not! If you put a terrible situation and an amazing situation together, the terrible one will win out every time. We feel pain far more keenly than we do goodness. When I walk to work, I am regularly filled with sadness and depression at the state of the neighborhood and the ridiculous amount of garbage everywhere. It is much rarer for me to walk down the street and be utterly amazed at the engineering marvels around me or the fact that birds can fly.

So it’s easier for me to be miserable than to be happy? Thanks a LOT scumbag brain.

That being said, there is a perfectly good reason why we are like this. At some point millions of years ago, one of our distant ancestors developed the ability to feel pain, and did not like it at all. Its friends couldn’t feel pain yet, so they were more likely to die for stupid reasons. Meanwhile, our ancestor the “painasaurus” avoided things like forest fires, predators, and sharp sticks. More of them survived because of this unique skill, and they passed down their genetic sensitivity to pain all the way down to us. Sensitivity to pain, fear, paranoia, and pessimism are all fantastic tools for survival when there are sabertooth tigers that are trying to eat you in your sleep. What good would it have been to our ancestors to see the glass half-full? We really like pleasure, but its usefulness for survival is secondary to the more negative senses.

I wrote a few weeks ago (here) about how our brains quickly adapt to good things and quickly lose interest which is why Apple can sell out of new iPads every year. A person who is being tortured can eventually become numb to the pain, but it is FAR more difficult than for a person to stop feeling great about a new toy or a novel experience.

If our perception is unfairly titled towards the negative, how can I be so sure that there is more good in the world than evil?

It all depends on how you define good and evil. I think that generally speaking, when we talk about evil, we are talking about pain and death which are not inherently evil. When an earthquake kills thousands of people, it’s not evil. It is plate tectonics. When a mountain lion gets into someone’s house and kills them, it’s not evil. It is nature. Pain and death are just part of what it means to be alive. Evil is something different. Sure, it may use pain and death as tools, but evil implies human agency and free will. An earthquake that kills thousands of people is not evil, but an atomic bomb that does the same is definitely evil. When a mountain lion eats a family, it’s not evil, but when a person kills and eats a family, it is certainly evil. When a person understands the ramifications of their actions and still decides to act without regard for love, that is evil. Wealthy people who profit on the suffering of others are doing evil. Murderers and drug dealers are doing evil. Adulterous spouses are doing evil.

There is a lot of evil being done in the world!

However, while evil requires human agency to be evil, good does not. The world is full of things that work well and are amazing.

Electricity? Awesome.

Photosynthesis? Magical!

Cell Phones? Basically science fiction.

Running Water? How often do you think about how amazing it is?

Carbon? the Legos of the universe!

The Sun? Billions of nuclear reactions sending untold amounts of radiation into the cosmos so that you can be nice and warm.

How often do you stop and think about your lungs? Prick your finger and watch the blood itself clot the wound but flow freely through your veins. You’re reading this now, so I imagine that you have eyes and a brain that are pulling meaning from tiny shapes. You are infinitely amazing without ever doing a single thing. As I was writing this, “Folding Chair” by Regina Spektor came on in which she sings “I have a perfect body, but sometimes I forget. I have a perfect body because my eyelashes catch my sweat”.

We live in a beautiful world.

Maybe you’re thinking that I stacked the deck, and you would argue that human evil is more prevalent than human good, but I think you’re wrong again. How often do we overlook a friendly smile, a kind word, or an act of compassion while we remember the one bad driver that cut us off for the rest of the day? How many people are actively being loved right now? How many people are being taken care of when they are sick, hungry, or scared? There is no way to get hard data here, but my guess is that human goodness wins again. Of course, the difference is that of perception. One bad driver will ruin our commute while a thousand good drivers will go completely unnoticed.
So I urge you this Easter weekend to notice what is good and wonderful. After all, God thought so much of this world as to send Jesus to redeem it. He didn’t come to destroy the world and start over. No, Jesus became flesh and ushered in his kingdom right here on our lovely planet. What an honor! Let us continue to fight for the oppressed, but