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

This Shiny New Rectangle Will Finally Make Me Happy This Time!

So I guess the new iPad 3 is out now, right? Did you buy one? Did you want to buy one but have a spouse with a better sense of reality than you? That’s where I am right now. I hadn’t thought about Apple’s next super-gadget until I went to Apple’s website and saw their brand new shiny rectangle. Immediately, I needed it, and I could not fathom how I had survived thus far without it in my possession. The same was true for my Macbook, my Kindle, and just about any shiny piece of technology in my apartment that I didn’t build myself. Actually, I’ve even obsessed about the things that I’ve made. I have had old computer parts sitting around my living room for months, but once I got the idea of building a file server, it’s all that I could think of. I have spent countless hours reading reviews and rumors about the next big piece of consumer tech. Go ahead and ask me about my thoughts on the Kindle Fire and I can give you a long speech about its upsides and downsides, its usability, and its potential without ever having actually owned one. Am I crazy? I’m pretty sure that I’m not. You’re probably just as crazy as I am although you are probably obsessed with some other consumer good. Cars? Clothes? Shoes? Bags? Bikes? Food?

What are the things that you “can’t live without” once you see them?

Let’s do a little experiment. What was the last thing that you absolutely NEEDED to buy (although technically you didn’t need it to survive)? Maybe you bought it yourself or maybe it was a gift. For me, it would probably be my Kindle. Ok. Have you thought of it? Do you remember how you felt when you first held it in your hands? Do you remember how it smelled as you pulled it carefully from the packaging? How did it feel in your hands the first time as you realized that this thing was now actually yours? Close your eyes and imagine that moment again…

Now how did you feel the last time that you used it? I’m not in your head, but I’m guessing that you don’t have that same sense of exhilaration every single time that you use it. Dopamine is a fickle master. At one moment, you couldn’t imagine life without it, and now you are used to it and no longer get the same rush of chemicals to the brain that you used to. The reason for this is surprisingly simple and elegantly beautiful.

It is a wonder that we humans are still alive. We have no fur, no claws, weak teeth, poor senses, moderate speed, and moderate strength. The only reason that we have survived on this unforgiving planet is our big brains. We are incredibly good at adapting to new situations. All you have to do is open up a copy of National Geographic and look at pictures of people from around the world. Without fail, the people groups who have lived in a location for more than a few generations have developed unique and creative ways to thrive within that particular climate. We are the best at adapting! Woohoo! Go humans! Number 1!

That being said, our ability adapt is why your new iPad 3 will stop being exciting within a few weeks. After a while, the Dopamine stops flowing and you will adapt to the iPad 3 as if it had always been a part of your life. On a side note, I don’t like to get political, but I think that this is why many social welfare programs are well intended but inherently flawed. Humans are just way too good at adapting to the “new normal” and expecting certain things. Louis CK said it perfectly on Conan O’Brian’s show a while back.

For those of you who didn’t watch the video because you hate things that are wonderful, he tells a story about being on an airplane. The flight attendant announced that they had high-speed wifi on the plane, but after a little while it stopped working and the guy next to him was actually indignant as if wifi was one of his rights as a human.

We can easily go the way of Louis CK and throw out some “kids these days”, but that’s how we’re wired! Humans encounter a new situation, adapt to it, accept it as the new normal, and move on. That helped us outlive saber-tooth tigers just like it makes buying a new iPad less than exciting after a while.

How then should we be happy, Zack?!

In Luke 18:22, an upstanding and well-to-do fella came up to Jesus and asked him what he had to do to be saved. After a little back and forth, Jesus said, “Sell all that you have, give it to the poor, and follow me”. Now I would never advocate that for every person. Jesus was talking to one guy, and we can’t extrapolate that out to all people. However, there is a truth in there that I want to bring out.

In addition to adapting really quickly to new situations, our brains are also have a tendency to smooth out the rough edges and de-emphasize the pain of our past. We never quite feel the sting the same way again after the initial experience. Perhaps it is a self-defense mechanism, but we remember the past way better than it really was.

::Begins playing Glory Days by Bruce Springsteen::

Think back to your best memories. First kiss, wedding day, playing catch with your dad, or Christmas Day. How does that make you feel? Does it generally make you feel better or worse than thinking about your new iPad? I’m going to wager that you feel better about those memories, and that’s exactly the point. When you make good memories, your brain makes them better! You remember the past better than it really was, and there is the key to happiness. Jesus called the rich young ruler to get rid of all of his stuff and come along for an adventure. He called him to stop spending his time “getting” and start “doing”. I guarantee you that the young man would have been able to look back at the past with more satisfaction had he gone along for the ride with Jesus than continued to pad his stock portfolio.

So instead of saving up for the next shiny rectangle that Apple makes, spend that money on weekend vacation with someone that you care about. Not only will you have a good time, but those good memories will continue to build upon each other as you construct a mental tower of joy that will continue to guard your sanity against the onslaught of the free-market. Truth, beauty, joy, and fulfillment are to be found by experiencing life along the journey and cannot be paid for by MasterCard.

Sacred Skepticism

For some reason, most churches that I’ve been a part of assume that just because a person is 19 or 20 and interested in ministry, they would be great at working with the middle school/high school kids. Fun fact: plenty of us are terrible at it. I wish that I could track down every kid who used to be in my youth group and apologize for the horrendous job that I did. It is definitely a gift that I do not have. That being said, one of the best parts of spending that much time talking about God with 13 year olds is the fact that they are not yet afraid to ask the really big questions that we older Christians are too embarrassed to ask.

“If God flooded the whole Earth, how did the animals from America get to Noah?”
“Why did God send Jesus to die when he could have just forgiven us?”
“How did Cain go to a city full of people?”
“Why did God let the serpent into the garden in the first place?”
“It’s been 2000 years. Is Jesus really coming back?”

Most older Christians have either soothed themselves with easy answers to these questions or stopped asking them for fear of being seen as a weak and faithless Christian. Honestly, I have spent much of my life doubting what I believe, but I have rarely had the confidence to admit it to anyone. The main reason why I have felt unable to share my doubts is because of the typical response that I get…

“You just have to pray for faith.”
“I used to have doubts too, but now I just trust Jesus.”
“I’m sure you’ll come around soon enough.”
“I believe it because the Bible says so, and that’s good enough for me.”
“Oh, I don’t think about those kinds of things. They are just a waste of time.”
“Don’t be such a doubting Thomas.”

Poor Thomas. Just a week before his infamous line, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe”, he said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him”. He was the only disciple that actually understood what was going to happen to Jesus and still said, “Let’s do this!”. Then the poor guy watches Jesus helplessly manhandled by the Romans and killed without even putting up a fight. I would be pretty shaken up too. Also, keep in mind that the other 10 disciples didn’t believe that Jesus had come back until they saw him either. Let’s all agree to never use the phrase “Doubting Thomas” again. The only people in the whole story who actually had faith were Jesus’ female followers, and they didn’t even believe that Jesus had been resurrected until they saw him. None of Jesus’ closest friends believed until they saw proof. “Doubting Disciples” would be a better moniker than “Doubting Thomas”.

The disciples saw Jesus walk on water, feed thousands of people, heal countless people, cast out demons, raise the dead, and even have a conversation with Moses and Elijah. He spent all day with them for three years, and they still doubted him when, as Kurt Vonnegut used to say, the excrement hit the air-conditioner. Jesus was often annoyed by their lack of faith, but he was always patient, allowing them the space to figure it out for themselves. He didn’t tell Peter that he was the Son of God, he asked him, “Who do you say that I am?”. When Thomas refused to believe this miraculous truth until he could see it for himself, Jesus showed up and met him where he was.

This is the same Jesus that I sit here wondering about today with a sort of sacred skepticism.

I like that phrase, and I think that I’m going to keep it.

It might sound odd, but I believe that Christians need to be the best, most careful skeptics of them all. For too long have we let the nonreligious people ask all of the good questions as we blindly accept whatever we are taught. As we read in 1 John 4, “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God”, and in 1 Thessalonians 5, “Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil”. We believe that there is more truth, more reality, and more knowledge in a splinter of God’s throne than in the entire collective knowledge of human history. We are a people who believe crazy things like, “Love your enemies” and “Whoever seeks their life will lose it but whoever loses their life for my sake will find it”. Whenever Jesus came face to face with an established authority who had all of the answers, he pushed back. He pushed them to the limits of their knowledge and invited them to jump off into the unknown with him. Very few of them took the plunge, but Jesus succeeded in convincing billions of people throughout history to stop accepting easy answers and start pushing into the mysteries of the Kingdom of God.

Are you questioning your faith? Do you feel like you can’t believe the things that you used to believe? Good. You might finally be ready to become a sacred skeptic. I imagine my faith like one of those beach houses that are lofted up on columns to avoid storm damage. At some point, I built it with wooden columns for support. They worked well for a time, but I don’t really know how to build a house, so they were bound to fall apart soon. The problem is, when they started decaying I was so terrified of losing my house that I nailed some boards, beams, and sticks to them to keep them standing. After a few years of trying in vain to support these weak and rotten supports, my house is in serious trouble, and something needs to happen. Instead of continuously rebuilding these old and poorly constructed supports, the time must come to rip them down and put something better in their place. Maybe, the house needs to just fall down and lie in ruins for a little while before something new can come up, or maybe the new supports will come painlessly. Either way, something needs to change.

We humans are tiny and weak. We need to have the freedom to not have all the answers. When we force ourselves to believe that we know everything and have no more need for questions, we wither and die. Humans are seekers. We need to know more. We need to know who, what, where, when, why, and how about everything. God has proven year after year that he wants to share his truth with us. The Holy Spirit is the best example of this. She is working within all of us, subtly teaching us the ways of Heaven despite our obtuseness. This God who has spent all of human history building a personal relationship with humanity invites questions. Question doctrine, question interpretations, question practices, question everything. It is only through first acknowledging the fact that we don’t know it all that we able to actually build any sort of faith that is more than empty platitudes that help us to sleep at night.

Press into the mystery. I think you’ll find that God is more often in the questions than in the answers.

But I’m Too Busy to Sleep!

Today’s blog post is brought to you by the letter H. Do you know what starts with the letter H? If you guessed “hypocrite” than you are probably a cynical person, but you would also be right on this occasion. No, I’m not going to be talking about hypocrites or decrying religious people for their hypocrisy. That would be like waiting in a long line of candy stealers so that I can steal a single piece of candy corn from a baby. Today, I want to talk about rest and Sabbath, and I hope that you will begin to see why I am a glaring hypocrite today and most other days.

My first semester of seminary, I took a spiritual formation class, and among my most difficult assignments was a required (and documented) weekly Sabbath. One would think that seminary students in all of their vast righteousness would have no problem following the Ten Commandments, but even the best of us usually fail miserably at the fourth commandment, “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy”. I don’t know what Moses was thinking when he wrote that one down. I don’t have time to take an entire day off every week! I am a full-time graduate student, part-time intern, thrift store manager, and worship leader. Not to mention the fact that I have to learn French and German, study for the GRE, and maintain a 4.0 if I’m going to get into any PhD programs next year. Dear Moses and God, I really appreciate the sentiment, and I would love to take a day off every week, but it is not practical. Don’t worry. I will be fine. Unlike in 1500BC, we have coffee, Red Bull, and 5-Hour Energy. All I have to do is sacrifice my body to the gods of caffeine, taurine, guarana, and B12, and I can do whatever I want to do!

Did you hear that? It sounded like my (several) cardiologists suddenly screamed out in terror and were suddenly silenced.

Ok well maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. Since that first semester, I have carved out every Thursday as my Sabbath day in which I would rest and do the things that I wish I had time for. Sometimes that means building something, playing video games, reading for fun, taking a walk, or writing this blog! In theory, I have been the model Sabbath-taker, but I wouldn’t be a hypocrite if I wasn’t also a failure. For example, after I finish this post, I am going to work on a project for class and the music for worship this Sunday. After that, I will be driving an hour to a sleep center to get fitted for a CPAP machine that will hopefully cure my fat-neck-induced sleep apnea. On this day which I have set aside to lecture you all on the importance of rest, I will be resting for a total of about three hours. It’s a good thing that I love blogging so much, or else this would be the worst 70 degree March Sabbath day ever.

Are you in the Northeast United States? Have you been outside today? Oh man. This is baseball weather…

Anyway, this is neither the time nor the place to get excited about baseball even though Cole Hamels is about to make his second spring training start in about 15 minutes…


My problem is not that I take on incredibly massive projects. I’m not trying to save the world before Easter. I have, however, taken on about a dozen seemingly manageable commitments with no regard given to how those commitments add up. I have found that it is not a simple matter of addition when it comes to commitments.

15 hours of classes + 15 hours of homework + 20 hours of work + 10 hours of internship ≠ 60 hours of actual work

This equation does not account for travel time, prep-time, overtime, complications, special assignments/projects, and intangibles like a crippling fear of failure and the perceived disappointment of others.

Suddenly, I find myself doing 12-13 hour days of almost constant stress, and Thursday slowly starts getting filled with responsibilities. Even if I manage to keep Thursday free of responsibilities, I can’t turn my stress level off for just one day. It is as if Thursday is my safe island in the middle of a pool of lava. I might not be on fire while standing on it, but it is still really hot!

We Americans love our stress. We can’t get enough of it. It’s like a drug for us. Actually, it is a drug, or rather it is several drugs: Adrenaline, Cortisol, Norepinephrine, Serotonin, and Neuropeptide Y. We are biologically programmed to react to stress by being more focused and alert, with a stronger memory, and strangely enough, an increase in urine production. Biologically, this makes sense. When our ancestors were being attacked by lions on the African plain, those of them who had such a super-human response to stress would survive to pass on their abilities to their descendants. Thank God for stress!

Unfortunately, like any drug, moderation is key. While cortisol helps to create brief, vidid memories and helps us to quickly draw upon long-term memories in a panic, over a long period of time, it actually inhibits the hippocampus and dramatically decreases the brain’s ability to make new memories. Those late-night, stress-filled cramming sessions that we students do are actually making it harder for the brain to learn. Oh, the hormone-induced irony!

Likewise, over an extended period of stress, those hormones lower the immune system, metabolism, mood, focus, decision-making abilities, sleep patterns, and cardiac function.

Are you starting to understand why this entry is brought to you by the letter H for “hypocrite”?

On a related note, the word “hypocrite” comes from the Greek word for “actor” and attained the modern connotation from those comparing an actor’s performance with a politician’s double-talk. I can live with that.

Ants and bees will work themselves to death. They will literally work until they are dead. Humans do that too except instead of dying in the grass with pollen on our legs, we die in a hospital bed after a quadruple bypass when our organs finally say, “I can’t work under these conditions anymore!” Constant environmental noise can also cause the same rush of chemicals to your brain. So, for all of fellow city-dwellers who never have a quiet moment, you might want to get out of the city every once and a while to give your body a chance to simmer down. The most relaxing day in a loud setting is worse than a busy day in a quiet hillside.

So why do we do it? Why do I do it? I suppose that is something that I will have to figure out for myself in therapy, but I don’t need to pay an expert to know that play is extremely important for humans, and God knew that when he told Moses to make everyone chill out once a week. All work and no play makes Jack Nicholson run around a haunted hotel with an axe trying to kill his family. You don’t want that to happen to you, do you? I think not.

Here is my resolution to myself, and I recommend that you figure something out for yourself too. I will not let my cortisol levels ruin my hippocampus. When I feel my “fight of flight” response start to kick in, I will boldly say, “Neither. I need to rest my adrenal glands for a day or two before I will be biologically able to make sound judgements”. When a new and exciting opportunity comes up, I will either decline or remove something else from my life first. I will not work myself to death like an ant. I will not spend so long trying to achieve some abstract concept of success that I miss out on all of the effortless beauty that surrounds me.

He made the world a grassy road
before our bare, wandering feet.
Then crushed the stones into the softest sand
between our toes,
But we’re wondering where to sleep
“Seven Sisters” by mewithoutYou

We Come in Shalom

Q: What do space aliens, Jesus, black holes, The Garden of Eden and Rick Santorum all have in common?
A: This post.

Interested? Keep reading. This is going to be a fun one!

By this point, I hope that you’ve seen some references in the news to the Kepler Space Telescope. It’s a relatively cheap, but incredibly awesome observatory that is orbiting the Sun with its eyes constantly open for signs of planets in other solar systems. It watches distant stars within the Milky Way for the tell-tale shadow of a planet crossing in front of it. Scientists can then determine the planet’s size and relative distance from the star. Kepler’s main mission is to find planets that exist within the “Goldilocks” zone where it’s not too hot nor too cold for liquid water to exist. Since all life on Earth needs water to live, we are considering that the baseline for life as we know it, and searching for other planets that might have the same building blocks for life that we do. Sure, life might exist without water. We might find life so exotic that we don’t even realize that it is life. That’s possible, but we’re going with our best guess here.


Remember that name because it will undoubtedly be in some trivia game in 15 years. That was the first planet that we have ever found outside of our solar system that has the conditions for liquid water. Of course, that doesn’t mean that they have a Taco Bell there, but space tacos are not completely impossible! Mars is within the habitable zone, but there is no liquid water there now, let alone any remains of fast food tacos. At one point, it had huge oceans, but Mars’ atmosphere no longer retains the heat that it needs to melt the ice-caps and refill the empty basins. Maybe Kepler-22-b is a wasteland like Mars, maybe it is a lush oasis like Earth, or maybe it’s something completely different. God only knows what Kepler-22-b looks like, but it brings up some really interesting ideas.

In my last post, I talked about the staggering size of our universe. 300,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars with any number of planets. The odds that we are the only species that have developed intelligence is so infinitesimally small, that I can say pretty confidently that there are other beings out there asking some very similar questions right now. That being said, chances are good that none of us will ever have a conversation with one of them. All matters of linguistic issues aside, if you did meet up with a being from Kepler-22-b, what would you talk about? For me, that’s a no-brainer. I want to ask him if he believes in God.

Can you imagine what it would be like to be a space-missionary? Where do you even begin? Jesus became a human and died for us. Does Jesus’ sacrifice even matter for an alien? Would they need their own space-Jesus? How far does Christ’s sacrifice reach? Does it only affect humans or has Jesus redeemed the entire Earth? Do butterflies need redeeming? How about the Moon? Has the Sun been transformed?

Environmentally minded Christians often talk about Jesus redeeming all of creation in a sort of “return to Eden” type of scenario, but I’m not sure that was the point at all. Genesis teaches us that humanity’s primary purpose is to hang out with God. If it makes you feel more comfortable to use lofty, holy language like “to praise and glorify the almighty”, then go for it, but I’m sticking with my interpretation. Before people screwed it up, their main job was to hang out with God. God likes us, and God really wants to just hang out and become better friends. God gave Adam and Eve one simple rule, and because they could not see how that rule benefited them, they broke it. They didn’t break some lofty, foundational law of the universe that threw everything off-balance. They did what we do every day. They betrayed their relationship with God. The story of Eden is not a story that happened on a particular day, month, and year in history. It’s a story that happens every single day.

What hubris it is to assume that eating a piece of fruit could condemn the entire created order! As if the moment that Eve took her first bite, black holes started swallowing planets, lions started eating antelopes, and Adam’s back started hurting. Humans are pretty important to God, but don’t kid yourself; we are not THAT important. A massive asteroid crashed into Earth and killed millions of animals before humans even came onto the scene. In fact, about 99% of all species that ever lived on this planet are extinct right now. The Earth was either “fallen” by the time that humans came onto the scene or the Earth is not the one with the problem.

I would argue that God’s relationship with the Earth is hunky dory. Jesus told the religious leaders in Luke 19:40 that if the people stopped shouting his praises that the rocks themselves would cry out. In Mark 4, Jesus calmed a stormy sea with two very grumpy words. The Earth seems like it still responds when God speaks. Meanwhile, God came to us as one of us, and we killed him. Humans are the ones with the problem, not creation. I keep reading quotes from Rick Santorum talking about how it’s our God-given duty to subdue the Earth as if it is some kind of wild stallion that lacks order. Sorry Rick but I think it is we who have lost the way. Jesus’ death and resurrection was to reconcile his relationship with humanity, and not with the entire cosmos. God wanted to hang out with us so much that God actually became 1/3 human, taking on all of our hangups and flaws into the swirling mass of love that is the Trinity and now invites us to join the party regardless of our baggage. That’s wonderful news! That’s also a paraphrase of John 3:16 that you are not likely to see in a Bible anytime soon.

So how about my friend the alien from Kepler-22-b? What if he tells me that he has never heard of Jesus? What if they walk around Kepler-22-b and commune with the planet through some Avatar-esque connectivity? What if his people never broke their communion with God and have no concept of war and oppression? For him, Jesus’ sacrifice would be a great story, but somewhat meaningless. Perhaps his people did stray away from God, and God managed to redeem them as well. Maybe God became incarnate as one of them in order to bring them back into the fold, or perhaps God chose an entirely different but no less meaningful way to bring them back. God’s strategies are not limited by anything or anyone. God only knows the amazing and awe-inspiring array of ways that countless fallen beings could have possibly been reconciled.

That being said, if we ever have the opportunity to visit other planets full of intelligent beings, let’s leave our evangelists at home. Just because we screwed up our relationship with God doesn’t mean that everyone else did too.

If you are interested in a wonderfully creative and insightful look into interactions with un-fallen creatures and the implications of our sin and redemption, please read Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra by C.S. Lewis. They are some of my favorite books and have changed the way I see the world in many ways.

Oh The Tiny Bigness!

Hey everyone. Did you catch my random post a few days ago about that wonderful website that lets you explore the universe on every scale? If you didn’t, you owe it to yourself to check it out. Trust me…

After playing with this for a while, I have conflicting feelings. As I zoom in past the level of ants and sand to the things that I can’t see, I feel enormous. There are 10 times as many living bacteria cells in my body than my own human cells. I suppose that might make some people feel like they are more bacteria than human, but it makes me feel like I am the KING OF BACTERIA! 100 trillion bacteria will live their entire lives within my digestive tract eating pizza and cheeseburgers without ever knowing it. They do all of the hard work of digesting my food while I sit back and enjoy the good life. Keep eating, my tiny minions! Feel free to explore the length and breadth of my intestines. Swim until your little flagella are tired, but you will never understand where you are and what you are truly doing.

Let’s keep moving. Past the strangely robotic bacteriophage and the wonderfully elegant double-helix of DNA to the buzzing and whirring atoms that make up everything around us. Protons and Neutrons bundled together in their atomic huddle while their ADHD electron friends fly around them in incomprehensibly complicated patterns. Somehow, different combinations of these three particles comprise everything that we see. If only that were all! Those particles themselves are made up of even smaller particles. Particles so small that they can never be seen because they are smaller than the wavelengths of light and even photons themselves. Quarks go about their little business day in and day out with no possible idea that they are a tiny part of an electron which is a tiny part of an atom which is a tiny part of a molecule and so on. Neutrinos are so small that they zip right through ordinary matter. They can’t be concerned with us. They have more important things to do!

With this kind of scope, I can’t help but look at something as simple as a pencil and be amazed at the worlds held within it. They keep following their paths that are dictated to them by the laws of the universe and will never know the part that they play in the grand scheme of things.

Ok, we’ve been small. Let’s get huge!

Our little blue marble has been spinning around the Sun for a couple billion years. The elements that comprise it were created in ancient stars on a scale that is impossible to comprehend. Our Sun is over 100 times bigger than the Earth and 330,000 times denser as it continues to create billions of acts of nuclear fusion, producing the energy that gives us life. The closest star to us is Proxima Centauri, and it is 4.2 light years away. That means that light itself which travels at 186,000 miles per second would take 4.2 years to get here. That’s our closest neighbor! We both live in this gorgeous spiral galaxy called the Milky Way. If you’ve ever been outside on a clear night with no light pollution, you know why it’s called that. The ancient Greeks said that it was like a highway of milk across the night sky. Our word “galaxy” comes from the Greek word for milk. Fun fact! Drink up!

This beautiful galaxy that we inhabit is 120,000 light-years across. If we were somehow able to bend the laws of physics and travel at the speed of light, it would take 24 times the entire span of recorded history to get from end to end. There would be plenty of rest-stops along the way however because there are somewhere between 200-400 BILLION stars in our galaxy and we are finding potentially Earth-like planets everyday. A mere 2.6 million light-years away from us is a slightly bigger galaxy called Andromeda that is on a direct collision course with us and will hit us in a few billion years. Both of those galaxies are also a part of a local group of galaxies that is 10 million light-years across and includes about 53 galaxies. That’s only one group! Conservative estimates put us at about 100 billion galaxies in the universe with about 300 sextillion stars! That’s 300,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars with unknown numbers of planets.

The bigness! The bigness! It’s all so big!

Are you wearing a hat? Is there a hat nearby? I would like you to find a hat and hold it please. I have some more news that is all kinds of crazy.

All that. All those stars, planets, galaxies, and clusters make up less than 5% of the universe. The other 95% is dark matter and dark energy. We call it dark because we can’t see it. We know it exists because of the gravitational forces that it exerts on the observable universe, but we don’t know much more than that. With all of the mysteries we have unlocked in every scale of the universe, we are completely blind to over 95% of the universe. For all we know, there could be entire dark matter civilizations that exist right here in our midst. The entire known universe for all of its bigness is incredibly tiny and insignificant.

Meanwhile, here I sit at my computer, a little over 6 feet tall assuming that my reality IS reality. I look up at the stars and feel small. I look into a microscope and I feel powerful. When I look at all of it together, I feel something entirely different. The microscopic world within me is what makes me who I am. Every buzzing electron is me. When that electron buzzes away and joins the atoms in a dandelion, it is still me because it belonged somewhere else before it was a part of me. When I see the stars, I see the nuclear furnaces that made my molecules. They are me. I am them. My personality, my character traits, and everything that makes me who I am was passed down to me through my parents’ DNA and their influence on my life. I am them, and they are me. If you are able to see yourself in a star, a dandelion, and a plastic bottle, then hatred and prejudice make no sense. We’re made of the same atoms. We are the same being.

Jesus’ disciples once asked him, “Who is my neighbor?” in an attempt to escape Jesus’ radical message of forgiveness. Well, friends, I would venture to say that the Good Samaritan from the parable is more than the man’s neighbor. During the whole ordeal, the men undoubtedly swapped some subatomic particles. At that point, they are more than neighbors. They are brothers. They are made of the same substance. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” has a much different meaning in this context. Look out for each other. Love ridiculously. After you die, your atoms will go into some other living creature. You might as well use them to love while you have the chance. Just as the electrons in an atom follow a course that is dictated by the laws of physics, so we should go about our lives, loving and forgiving as we have been commanded. God told stars to produce heavy elements, gravity to bend space-time, and people to love each other. I am choosing to love today because that is why I am here.

God Does Not Have a Penis

So I guess John Piper said some things that made some people mad the other day. Honestly, I’m not surprised. This isn’t the first time that he has said something divisive and controversial. Folks like Piper operate from a dangerously faulty logic that assumes a direct relationship between the amount of people offended and the inherent truth of the statement. They will often quote Matthew 10:22 which says, “All nations will hate you because of me”, and assume that if they make thousands of people angry, they must be onto something. That logic is impossible to beat because the more you fight it, the more righteous they assume themselves to be. It’s brilliant.

For those of you who did not click on the link I posted in the first paragraph, here is the gist of what Mr. Piper said. At an annual pastors conference, he said that Christianity has a “masculine feel”. He cited the fact that God is called “Father” and Jesus was a man. He also said that the priests, kings, disciples, and early church overseers were also men. He was quick to state that the does not believe women are of a lesser kind then men. He believes that through a decisively masculine church and family, women are able to meet their full potential. While men are off saving the world and doing the heavy lifting, women must play a strong supporting role or else the entire structure falls apart.

As a man, this sounds wonderful. Half of the world’s population exists to support me and my adventures? Where do I sign up? That being said, it is pretty obvious that men came up with this system, and I am convinced that it is not of God.

Let’s deconstruct!

First and foremost, we need to talk about God and language. Can we all agree that even if we call God, “father”, God is not a man? The sovereign, all-powerful, creator of the universe does not have a penis. To assume otherwise is ridiculous. That being said, Jesus is definitely a man, and he is definitely still human albeit a glorified and transformed human. In a sense, that makes God 1/3 male, but we have no idea what that means in a resurrected, glorified, perfected way. Genesis 1:27 clearly states that God created both man and woman in God’s own image. From the outset, we are both equal image-bearers which means that there is just as much male as there is female in God.

“But Zack”, the nay-sayers begin saying, “the Bible calls God ‘He’, and there is nothing wrong with doing the same thing”.

I’m glad you brought that up. I don’t know why God is called “He” in the Bible. Sure, it was a patriarchal society, but they had no problem worshiping the Canaanite goddess, Asherah too. That was a big problem in the early days. Regardless of why, the truth is that it is harmful to refer to God in just one way. I am guilty of this. So far in this blog, I have only referred to God as “He”, and I would like to change that. We do not often understand the true importance of language. For example, there was a fascinating study done at Stanford in which German-Americans and Spanish-Americans were asked to list adjectives that describe bridges. The Spanish-Americans used words like “big”, “strong”, and “dangerous” while German-Americans used words like “beautiful”, “slender”, and “fragile”. How can we account for such divergent adjectives? Both Spanish and German have gendered nouns, and can you guess what the gender of “bridge” is in either language? Crazy, huh? For those who use masculine pronouns to describe bridges, they ascribed masculine traits while feminine pronouns gave the objects a much more feminine vibe.

Therein lies the danger of referring to God in entirely masculine terms. When God is Father but not Mother, we are limiting God, and we are hindering half of the world from experiencing the intensely personal truth that we are created in God’s image too. Do we seriously believe that God must be male in order to be God? Do we seriously believe that leaders must be male in order to be truly called and empowered by God?

Moses’ sister Miriam is considered one of the first Jewish prophets. The only judge in the Bible who is portrayed positively is Deborah. Jesus first reveals his divinity to the woman at the well. Jesus’ most faithful and devoted followers were women, and they were the first to see him after the resurrection. The book of Romans was delivered and originally preached/taught to the church in Rome by Phoebe. Also, let’s not forget that while Jesus may be a man, he came into this world through a woman.

The ancient world was an oppressive place to live as a woman. Women were the only ones who could give birth and nurse children, so they were naturally more suited for household work while men and their testosterone are more suited for hard labor. Men were educated while women were usually not. Men wrote the laws and the religious texts while women raised the children and tended to the household. With the advent of modern technology, many of those natural roles have been supplanted by machines, grocery stores, and desk-jobs. In 2012, women are free to earn a living while men can stay home and raise a family. My father did the cooking, cleaning, laundry, and drove us all over the place while my mom worked all day, and look how well I turned out! My dad also worked most nights as well, so he wasn’t exactly a “stay at home dad”, but the principle is the same.

Meanwhile, my wife is about to finish her seminary degree and her example alone is enough to convince me that woman can be gifted and called to ministry. Her gifts and passions are absolutely undeniable, and any of us would be lucky to have her as a pastor. She is an amazing leader and pastoral caregiver, and she does so in a distinctly feminine way. She does not need to lead in a masculine way in order to be a leader in the Church. The Church is dying for need of feminine leadership to compliment all of the masculine leadership that we already have. To deny her of the leadership role that she has so obviously been called to and gifted in is to spit in the face of God. Women are finally being unshackled after thousands of years of repression. Their voice and unique leadership styles can finally be heard and experienced. For the sake of us all, welcome them and support them in the roles that God has called them to.

And afterward,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
your young men will see visions.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days.

Joel 2:28-29

Life is Like a Birthday Cake

Dear reader, I have a question for you. Have you ever looked at Atheism and thought, “Oh man… That seems so much easier…” There have been times in my life where I have looked at a confident atheist with a deep jealousy and longing for that kind of certainty. Religion is tiresome because you are constantly putting your faith in what often seems like a great story and some vague spiritual feelings. There is a particularly poignant scene in Carl Sagan’s book “Contact” in which the main character Ellie is talking with an evangelical preacher. At this point in the book, they have picked up an alien transmission, and are working on decoding it. The aliens had encoded it using binary and including helpful keys for translating so that anyone with an understanding of Mathematics could interpret the message accurately. Ellie argues that the aliens used something universal and unmistakable because they wanted to communicate with us. If the aliens, who are obviously not God are able to communicate truth so clearly, why would God choose to use the written word and religious systems to pass on His truth. If God REALLY wanted to communicate, then He could have sent us a message in the digits of pi or in the cosmological constants. Ellie, who would love to believe in God if she could, gives up and decides that God either doesn’t exist or He doesn’t really want to communicate with us after all.

I really resonated with that conversation. If God were to leave His signature on something as unchangeable as pi, then it would be easier to believe. I do not say that because God needs to prove Himself before I will believe, but because I want to believe that God truly wants to commune with us. How beautiful would that be? It would be like finding a note from your mom in your lunch box. If your mom also created the lunch box. Also the universe.

One time when I was working through some really deep depression, I decided to walk around a baseball diamond at night and pray like I was walking a labyrinth. I told God how low and destitute I was, and how distant I felt. All I wanted was some affirmation that He was paying attention, so I told him that I would walk around the diamond five more times, and if He did not show up before then, I would assume that I was alone. Each time my foot touched home plate, I felt a strange combination of hopefulness and dread. I couldn’t figure out if it would be worse for Him to appear or to remain absent. If God showed up in the middle of my belligerency, then I imagined that I would be in a great deal of trouble. As if the divine, disembodied hand that wrote on Belshazzar’s wall would descend to that baseball field and wag its heavenly finger at me for my lack of faith. On the other hand, if I crossed that plate and remained in that lonesome darkness, then God either doesn’t exist or didn’t care to show up when I needed Him.

I don’t know what I wanted to happen. All I know is that I wanted something.

What I got was nothing. My foot crossed the plate and I said in my heart, “I’m alone”.

I would like to say that I had this mountain-top experience that made my faith utterly unflappable, but I can’t lie. This is the internet! What I have is four years of subtle changes, slow learnings, and an entirely uninteresting story that brings us to today. That being said, I think that I made a fundamental flaw on that baseball diamond that atheists all around the world make all the time. Here’s what I mean…

As I walked around the baseball diamond, I decided that I no longer needed God to exist in order to explain my life and the world around me. I was already creating new systems to support my existence in the likelihood that He and His disciples didn’t drive up in their heavenly Honda (they were all in one “Accord”… no? ok nevermind…). Here is how the argument goes: I cannot prove that God exists, therefore God does not exist. Therein lies the flaw in the logic. Science deals with what can be seen and measured. God is, by nature, unable to be seen or measured. Therefore, God can neither be proved nor disproved by science and reason.

Evangelical Atheists like Richard Dawkins would have you believe otherwise. He has decided that science answers enough of the questions about existence that God is unnecessary and therefore irrelevant. He has written entire books about the terrible evils that religion has inflicted upon the world, and how Reason is what will save us all.

I don’t buy it.

Science is impartial. It is cold, calculating, and precise. Science is ill-equipped to delve into meaning. I love this example. It comes from Alister McGrath’s book “Surprised by Meaning”. He says that you can parse out the chemical makeup of a cake down to its very molecular structure, run tests to determine the temperature at which it was made, and what kitchen it came from, but none of that can tell you that it was a birthday cake. The meaning, the intention, the purpose behind it is completely lost to science, and that is the way that it should be! Knowing about physics helps me to understand why cars sound lower when they are moving away from me, but it is my faith that gives it meaning and creates a cosmic symphony out of a noisy city. God has shone light on the value of human life, and I wish to preserve it because He told me to, and not just because it is good for the species.

The big mistake that Dawkins and others make is drawing reason and purpose out of science. Dawkins will say that the purpose of human beings is to pass along genetic information, but that is not a leap that science can make. Science can say that genes are passed along by humans, but to say that this is the purpose of humanity is treading on dangerous territory. Atheists claim to not have “beliefs” and instead rely entirely on truth. Meanwhile, the very basic statement that there is no God is a statement which is inherently unable to be proven and is based on faith. I think that Stephen Hawking said it well in his new book “The Grand Design”. According to him, modern discoveries have made God unnecessary for explaining the Big Bang and the development of life. That’s great! Not needing God to explain a natural phenomenon and declaring that He does not exist because of that discovery are completely different. If you want to be an atheist, by all means, go ahead. However, if you think that science and reason prove your atheism, then you are sadly mistaken.

Earnest Hemingway famously said that “all thinking men are atheists”. I would strongly disagree. Atheists, like their fundamentalist counterparts have stopped thinking. The true sign of a person who has stopped thinking is a person who knows for a fact that something unprovable is true without a doubt. Beware the atheist who claims Reason as their God, and beware the religious person who rejects every religion that does not look like their particular brand. Both have stopped thinking about the most important, meaning-giving, life-defining aspect of human existence.


Heavenly Bread Crumbs

So the other day I was having a conversation with a person about mysticism. Some of my favorite dead Christians throughout the centuries were mystics. Thomas a Kempis, Julian of Norwich, and Bernard of Clairvaux are all definitely worth having on your bookshelf and/or in your head. The mystics have this uncanny ability to stare out into the dark abyss of unknowing and feel completely at home. They don’t have to “know” and they don’t have to “understand”. There is a deep sense of contentment in their divine ignorance because they experience a deep soul-knowing of sorts. The kind of knowing that cannot possibly be contained in any combination of verbs and nouns. They can take a single word and use it to delve into the mysteries of the unknowable.

The other week, I was walking down Broad Street mulling over about 12,000 thoughts, asking questions of my questions of my questions of my questions, and having one of those little mini-crises in my soul. That’s when I starting thinking about the mystics. I wanted their peace and their ability to accept mystery without question. I wanted nothing more than to just turn the questions off, and accept everything as a wonderful mystery no matter what. My faith was exponentially easier when I relegated my reason to the world around me and let my creativity have reign over my faith. It was a delightfully compartmentalized existence much like a well-kept zoo, but now the lions are eating the antelope, I can’t find the snakes, and I have no idea if the birds are ever coming back. Without my walls and systems, I’m learning how to walk all over again, and I’m falling all over the place.

Maybe you have had similar experiences, and you don’t know what to do with your zoo either. Hopefully, you are better at this whole life thing than I am, and you can help me out.

I have absolutely no problem letting my soul run wild in the world around me. The other day, I realized that for the first time since I was 16, my age is a perfect square. There is no good reason why that should excite me as much as it does, but that’s just the kind of person I am, I guess. Have you looked at Saturn today? You really should. The first time that I saw Saturn’s rings with my own eyes, I almost fell backwards. I was standing on the roof of Armerding Hall at Wheaton College my senior year using the school’s telescope for an astronomy class. The moment I looked into that plastic tube, I was there. I was no longer standing on the roof looking into a tube. I was 750 million miles away, gazing at the most beautiful object I had ever seen. When I think about the fact that I have looked at Saturn’s rings with my own eyes, it sends shivers down my spine. That was no picture. That was it. It was just hanging there motionless in the black sky like an island of pure beauty adrift in a sea of nothingness. Who else was looking at it during that exact moment? Was it just me? Was it being beautiful for my sake alone? No. The rings of Saturn were gleaming in the dim sunlight for millions of years before humans realized that putting glass circles into little tubes let them gaze into the cosmos. It couldn’t help but be beautiful. It was the kind of paradigm-shifting religious experience that people report when they take a pilgrimage to Mecca or walk to path that Jesus walked to the cross.

That is easy for me! I do this kind of stuff in my head all day.

The problem begins when I try to use my reason to interpret my faith. I’m going to be completely honest here because it’s very safe to speak honestly on this side of the screen. I’m not always good at it. I would venture to say that most days I’m legitimately bad at it. God is infinitely “other”. Even our analogies fall pitifully short. Sure, God is love, but what does that even mean? If God is a sphere, we are a circle. If there were creatures who only lived in two dimensions, how would you explain a sphere to them? How would you explain color to a person who was born blind? Even those analogies are bound within our minimal experience, and do not encapsulate the length and breadth of the divine chasm that separates the creation from the creator. In light of this divide, it seems useless to even try. It would be like using the quadratic equation to solve the equations of String Theory. No, it’s worse than that. It would be like using a VCR to create the universe.

Abandon all hope! This blog is over. I’m dropping out of school and becoming a crime-fighting vigilante instead. Truth is easy in the comics.

But seriously, knowing God on our own is patently ridiculous. It would be like trying to see the rings of Saturn without a telescope. None of us can ever peer into Heaven or get to know God as God is. That is the beauty of the Christmas season. God met us half-way. Actually, God met us about 99% of the way. If God did not wish to be known, then He would not have spent so much time and effort trying to be known. God is not truly Father, Son, and Spirit. Those are words and titles used for our sake because we understand those things and have no true analogue to divinity. Have you ever tried to convince a bird to come closer to you by putting a little bit of food out and then throwing another piece slightly closer to you until they are practically in your hand? The picture at the top of this post is of my hand as I try to do that very thing with a bunch of sparrows in Logan Square. I love those little guys. I just wish they trusted me.

In the same way, God throws little pieces of food out there for us to grab and scurry just a little bit closer to Him even if we don’t trust Him enough to jump in His hand and eat the whole loaf of bread. Remember the last post about the Magi coming to Jesus through their astrological beliefs? The star of Bethlehem was a little piece of bread to bring the Magi closer to God’s hand.

In my case, the bread that God is using is science and reason. I take what I know about the universe and what He has revealed of Himself through scripture, tradition, and relationship, and venture into the unknown. I take those things that I know and use them to attempt to understand what I don’t know with the full understanding that what I know might not apply to Truth. In the same way that conventional physics is meaningless inside a black hole, I will allow for the very real possibility that reason might well fall short in the black hole of divinity. That’s all well and good abstractly, but let me give you a quick example that I will expound upon further in another blog post in the future.

God is the only source of eternity. Everything else was created. There was a time when I did not exist and I am never promised that I am intrinsically eternal on my own without being connected to God. My existence is completely dependent on God. That same God has demonstrated through Jesus that He loves us ridiculously and wants nothing more than to be with us crazy people for some reason. This same Jesus cried out from the cross “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do”. If I truly believe all of these facts, then it is illogical to believe in an eternal Hell that is populated by billions of people that Jesus, who came to “seek and save the lost” didn’t get around to seeking or saving. That being said, I also echo Paul in Romans 9 where he basically says that if God does send people to Hell, then that is His prerogative, and I need to be alright with that. Just like physics in a black hole, sometimes my logic falls apart, and I trust that God’s logic is greater than mine. After all, I may be perfectly content with my piece of bread, but He has the entire loaf.

What’s So Amazing That Keeps Up Stargazing?

Another Christmas has come and gone. How was it for you this year? Mine was lovely. I spent the week with my in-laws in Ohio and then went to my college roommate’s wedding. I noticed about a thousand things this week that I wanted to write about, but one topic stuck with me more steadfastly than the others. If you’ve been around Christmas before, then you’ve seen something like the picture above. There is the unassuming little house where Jesus is sleeping with an ENORMOUS star hovering just overhead like the glowing jewels over the characters in the Sims. The Magi followed that ridiculously large star from some mystical land in the “Orient” until it hovered over the place where Jesus was born.

Where to start… Where to start…

This picture always bothered me a little. If the star was that obvious, why did no one else notice it? It is not as if they were living in 2011 where we can see only a handful of stars at night. They could see the entire expanse of stars and they knew them well. If the star were really that obvious, then hundreds of people would have come to offer Jesus gifts and Herod would have had no trouble at all finding and killing the baby Jesus. The Gospels would be significantly shorter and the Christmas season would be a lot less festive. Also, stars don’t hover over houses. Stars move in predictable, circular paths. The planets are a little more unpredictable and that’s actually what their name means. It is Greek for “wanderers” because they follow their own set of rules as to how they look from night to night from Earth. No matter what it was, the only star that does not move in the Northern Sky is Polaris, but the only time it would be directly overhead would be at the North Pole. Unless Jesus was actually Santa Claus, that doesn’t work either (although it would definitely consolidate the holiday). The way we talk about the star it sounds more like some kind of glowing flying saucer than a star, and because extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, let’s set that interpretation aside for now.

The story takes place in Matthew 2, and hopefully this retelling will help to shed some light on what was happening and illuminate the true and wonderful miracle that took place…

Around the time of Abraham, there was a man named Zoroaster in what is now Iran. He received a number of revelations that eventually became a religion called Zoroastrianism. While the Israelites were still figuring out who they were as a people, the Zoroastrians had a complex angelology and demonology. They had end-time prophecies, a fiery lake for damned souls, scriptures, and the promise of a virgin-born savior that would save humanity. Many of their beliefs mixed with Jewish thought during the exile and the Jews who returned to Judah had a noticeably Zoroastrian tint.

I’ll get into all of that in a later post because it is worthy of some real attention.

The influence went two ways though. In Daniel 2:48, it states that after Daniel interpreted Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, he placed him in charge of all of the Magi. The Magi were a clan of Zoroastrian priests/astrologers who were world-renown for their ability to read the future in the stars and interpret dreams. This was also about the time that Isaiah and Jeremiah were writing about the savior of Israel that would one day come and Messiah fever was beginning to rise in the Jewish people. Perhaps Daniel, who was also skilled at interpreting dreams, injected some messianic predictions into the collective consciousness of the Magi 500 years before Jesus was born.

The text in Matthew says that the Magi saw the star when it rose. We know that there were a number of interesting alignments with Jupiter, Venus, Mars, and Uranus within a few years of when Jesus was probably born. Halley’s comet was visible in 12 BC, but comets were seen as an omen, so that’s probably not what happened. What most likely happened was that there was an alignment of planets within the constellation that represented Judah. Ancient astrologers often read signs like this, and a rare alignment of the planets within such a constellation would no doubt raise excitement in the minds of people who have been waiting for a mighty king to arise from Judah for 500 years. I’ll bet that they were hoping he would take care of the Romans too. Those Romans were jerks.

So they got together expensive gifts and headed to the palace because that’s where kings are born. Imagine their surprise when they ended up finding him in a peasant’s house with poor teenagers for parents. Afterwards, they were warned in a dream to go home a different way so that Herod would not kill the baby.

That’s the story.

Here’s what I love about it…

God used the stars to talk to a group of pagan astrologers and tell them about His son. He then used dreams to warn them of danger. How crazy is that?! How many times have you heard a pastor talk about how God used astrology to spread the Gospel? If Jesus were born today, you would expect to see a group of fortune tellers and witches as the first ones at the door. That’s right. Even before he told the priests and faithful God-fearing Jews, he used outlawed, occultic practices to announce the birth of His son to a bunch of foreigners. I believe that most astrology is bogus and harmful because people base important decisions on faulty information and do not trust in the good sense that God gave them. That being said, God spoke into it and gave it meaning. He plugged it into the real power source and showed them the Truth. I wonder what they did when they got home. I can’t imagine that they all converted to Judaism. Why did God do that? What purpose did it serve? Was it just for them, was it for Mary and Joseph, was it for us, or was it just because He wanted to do it? Whatever the reason for doing it, I cannot help but be filled with the conviction that this is bigger than any of us. The airwaves are filled with this ridiculous “War on Christmas” with people trying to decide who is doing Christmas correctly and who is a godless pagan. Meanwhile, the God whom the holiday is about used astrology and dreams to bring those very outsiders into the inner circle. When I think about this story, I cannot help but feel like God is less concerned about which religious group has the right answers than we are. It is just a hunch, but I think that God is bigger than this.