Thursday, December 31, 2009

Ring out 2009

As 2009 comes to a close, I pause and write here realizing this marks exactly one year of weekly posting. I am a bit sad that my last post has ended up being so tardy (I was away for Christmas), but perhaps it is most fitting that I write today.

As I write I feel inadequate to the task of writing something on this day which is given significance only by a small change in the numbers by which we mark our days. I look over the posts and back over the year that has passed. In some ways these posts seem distant from the 'facts' of my life - a year full of change and uncertainty, of trials and joys. The interludes of rest seemed nearly as intense as the times of business. Yet I like to think that there is not so great a disparity between my life and my musings here as first might appear. For my thoughts cannot be separated from the life I am living. I note also that except when shear exhaustion prevented me from thinking clearly, the times of greatest stress often force the deepest or most relevant thoughts.

I have learned much, but I have also forgotten much, and am glad for the record of thought that this blog leaves. I hope you have found some encouragement or food for thought here.

I will close with a poem by Tennyson which is probably familiar to you, but which I only discovered relatively recently. I am struck today as I read it how futile, now naive even, the hopeful tone of the poem seems - until the last line. I give thanks for this year. I give thanks for our hope.
Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow;
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife,
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweet manners, purer laws.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Winter Sun

Hoorah! I have just finished my first semester of grad school! Here is a poem I wrote this week, which I'm afraid is very much in the rough. I didn't have time to improve it. Perhaps I will someday soon.


Winter Sun

A pale white gleaming circle
glowing through a crisscross of branches
the presence of that burning orb
made known to this world of cold grays.

Watery light penetrates
cold dry air
a last dead leaf trembles on a branch
which ever leans upwards to that light

Snow is in the air
the white disc fades to a glow
and then vanishes
yet still through the gray sky that unseen light filters down

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Third Week of Advent, Second Week of Exams

"What material do I have to work with this week?", I ask myself as I consider what to write here. As usual, I have ordinary life. This week, life was dominated by exams.

Exams. A student's life is not so bad until evaluation comes. Exam, term paper, whatever it is, it looms larger than life. It is then that we students taste fear: fear of failure, fear of a blow to our pride, fear even of feelings of inadequacy, fear of the unknown.

Is there even fear of death? Perhaps not directly, but subtly so. Perhaps, I realized today, we feel its shadow. Why else would we cling so tightly to such a finite thing as academic success? In our short lives, one little test can take on significant proportions. Does it really matter? If we are really just dust to dust, ashes to ashes, trying to make a difference in a suffering world, then maybe we do have reason to stress out about such things. Or maybe that is reason to give up in despair.

The season of advent, concurrent with this time of intense pressure in the lives of a student, helps us in this respect. In the story of the incarnation, we hear of hope, of a light glimmering in darkness, of God intervening in the ordinary and often dark lives of human beings.

That is part of the wonder we hear in Mary's voice as she breaks into the song we call the Magnificat:
"My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant." (Luke 1:46-48)
And in the incredible prophecy of Isaiah, fulfilled in the coming of Christ:
The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, [b] Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Of the increase of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David's throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the LORD Almighty
will accomplish this.
(9:2,6-7)
May we have eyes to see that light which dawns on us.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

"comprehended by what it cannot comprehend."

So it has happened. I forgot to post on Sunday evening. The thought crossed my mind once, but it then kept going and didn't come back until Monday night, well after my electricity and magnetism exam was over.

This week I have come to this conclusion about advent: it is celebrated in community, and not isolation. The people of Israel waited together for hundreds of years. We, the church local and global, wait together.

I started reading Wendell Berry this week (thanks to my writer-sister for lending me the book!) , and thought I'd share one of his Sabbath Poems. The second to last stanza really struck me.

Another Sunday morning comes
And I resume the standing Sabbath
Of the woods, where the finest blooms
Of time return, and where no path

Is worn but wears its makers out
At last, and disappears in leaves
Of fallen seasons. The tracked rut
Fills and levels; here nothing grieves

In the risen season. Past life
Lives in the living. Resurrection
Is in the way each maple leaf
Commemorates its kind, by connection

Outreaching understanding. What rises
Rises into comprehension
And beyond. Even falling raises
In praise of light. What is begun

Is unfinished. And so the mind
That comes to rest among the bluebells
Comes to rest in motion, refined
By alteration. The bud swells,

Opens, makes seed, falls, is well,
Being becoming what it is:
Miracle and parable
Exceeding thought, because it is

Immeasurable; the understander
Encloses understanding, thus
Darkens the light. We can stand under
No ray that is not dimmed y us.

The mind that comes to rest is tended
In ways that it cannot intend:
Is borne, preserved, and comprehended
By what it cannot comprehend.

Your Sabbath, Lord, thus keeps us by
Your will, not ours. And it is fit
Our only choice should be to die
Into that rest, or out of it.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Thankful for the Incarnation

Thanksgiving has only just ended and that wonderful season of Advent is upon us. It thus occurred to me that one of my recent thoughts was particularly appropriate to this weekend.

Sometimes when I pray I find myself thinking about how I am thinking about God. Too often God can seem abstract. He is glorious, powerful, creator of the universe, more beautiful than anything we can imagine, loving, just, magnificent, holy... and I could go on forever like this. He created the very time and space that we, in our finitude, inhabit. He does not have a brain (that thing we rely on to make sense of the world) yet he is infinite in wisdom and understanding. All of this is too much for me to comprehend when I pray "Our Father..."

Yet - God did not intend for us to worship him in abstraction. He revealed himself to us in a way that we could comprehend:
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
(John 1:14)
I am so thankful for the incarnation.

Caravaggio, Adoration of the Shepherds
1609. Oil on canvas.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Worlds Apart

Driving by myself for several hours last year I listened all the way through my Jars of Clay CD, and found that this song, the last one resonated with me. I listened to it multiple times. How incomprehensible and wonderful and humbling is his mercy and grace in the face of our brokenness and pride!

If you want to listen to this song, hit play on the YouTube video and scroll down to see the lyrics.






"Worlds Apart"


I am the only one to blame for this
Somehow it all ends up the same

Soaring on the wings of selfish pride
I flew too high and like Icarus I collide
With a world I try so hard to leave behind
To rid myself of all but love
to give and die

To turn away and not become
Another nail to pierce the skin of one who loves
more deeply than the oceans,
more abundant than the tears
Of a world embracing every heartache

Can I be the one to sacrifice
Or grip the spear and watch the blood and water flow

Take my world apart
I am on my knees
Take my world apart
Broken on my knees

All said and done I stand alone
Amongst remains of a life I should not own
It takes all I am to believe
In the mercy that covers me

Did you really have to die for me?
All I am for all you are
Because what I need and what I believe are worlds apart

So I pray
Take my world apart
I am on my knees
Take my world apart
Broken on my knees
on my knees

I look beyond the empty cross
forgetting what my life has cost
and wipe away the crimson stains
and dull the nails that still remain
More and more I need you now,
I owe you more each passing hour
the battle between grace and pride
I gave up not so long ago
So steal my heart and take the pain
and wash my feet and cleanse my pride
take the selfish, take the weak,
and all the things I cannot hide
take my beauty, take my tears
the sin-soaked heart and make it yours
take my world all apart
take it now, take it now

and serve the ones that I despise
speak the words I can't deny
watch the world I used to love
fall to dust and thrown away
I look beyond the empty cross
forgetting what my life has cost
and wipe away the crimson stains
and dull the nails that still remain
take my beauty, take my tears
the sin-soaked heart and make me yours
and all the things I cannot hide
take the beauty, take my tears
take my world apart, take my world apart
I pray, I pray, I pray
take my world apart

It's world's apart...

...

Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah...

...

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Satisfied II

Perhaps this is a primarily feminine tendency, but I find something so satisfying in the little orderings and rituals of life: climbing into a newly made bed with tea, enjoying the openness of a freshly tidied and vacuumed room after some exertion to get it to that point, eating warm baked goods with a friend, going for a walk in cool weather, pushing in my chair or clearing my desk when I leave my office for the day, knowing that the next day will be another start...

...the list could go on and on. Ultimately I only find true satisfaction in God. This does not mean that the physical world around me cannot bring me satisfaction; our spirituality is not a platonic separation of soul and body. In fact, our satisfaction with God even leads to satisfaction with the life we are living. As I was just reading today,
We must accept the circumstances we constantly find ourselves in as the place of God's kingdom and blessing. God has yet to bless anyone except where they actually are, and if we faithlessly discard situation after situation, moment after moment, as not being "right", we will simply have no place to receive his kingdom into our life. For those situations and moments are our life. (Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, 348)

I know my week ahead will have its challenges. Some of them loom on the horizon of the day about to begin. Yet as if I am truly satisfied in Christ I can still wake up and joyfully enter the day. May we all be granted grace to internalize this fact a little more each day.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Faith, Science, and Some things I've been Reading.

Once again I will be quoting today from some things in my recent readings which have me thinking.

First: This summer I read The Soul of the American University by Marsden (a book I highly recommend to my friends in graduate school. I'm actually surprised to realize I haven't written a post specifically about this book yet. Anyway...) In chronicling the academic scene in the late 1800's, Marsden tells of how American thinkers saw no conflict between religion and science:
Strict biblicists committed to the Common Sense philosophy took for granted that one reasonable and unifying outlook must triumph in public life as much as did those who hailed scientific progress and a higher evolving religion. The stakes they thus set were remarkably high; in fact they were all or nothing. (215)

Much has, of course, changed since then, and I noticed today that Willard has a good description of the current situation:
To understand why the negative prejudice [that science rules God out conclusively] is so strong now, just reflect on how the entire system of human expertise, as represented by our many-tiered structure of certification and accreditation, has a tremendous vested interest in ruling God out of consideration. For, if it cannot do that, it is simply wrong about what it presents as knowledge and reality -- of which God is no part. (331)

Thus while I would still agree with the 'old' way of thinking that there is no conflict between my faith science (in fact the two complement each other!) I would not assume that one universal and God-centered worldview will come to dominate. In fact, as Willard suggests, it makes sense to assume that the opposite would happen. Understanding this distinction and addressing it is, I think, important for every person who professes faith in God.


On a different but definitely related topic:
I really appreciated some of Polkinghorne's statements in his book One World (I'm putting my favourite part in bold - it is so true!). He concludes his discussion of the post-enlightenment world:
At the same time the human psyche has revealed its shadowing and elusive depths, the physical world has denied determinate objectivity at its constituent roots. [...] [Heisenber's] uncertainty principle proclaims the unpicturability of the quantum world [...] the fitfulness inherent in quantum theory breaks the bonds of stric t determinism...

That in itselve is no great cause for religious rejoicing [...] Our century has seen a recurrent cult of the Absurd which is destructive of true understanding. To acknowledge the limits of rationality, objectivity and determinism is not to relinquish a belief in reason, a respect for reality or a search for order.

It may however lead to a greater openness to the variety of the world and our experience of it, an acceptance that beside the insights of science, expressible in the quantitative language of mathematics, there are the equally necessary insights of religion, expressible in the qualitative language of symbol. (5)

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Excellence


Yesterday I read an article about Brian Doerksen's new musical, "Prodigal God". One statement he made struck me in particular:
We're so afraid to take risks... I don't know why Christians settle for mediocrity... the best art involves taking time and getting it right.

The process of making this musical has taken him 7 years. I do think that really good art does involve a serious intent towards excellence, and that this should take time.

I bring this up not only because of my interest in the arts, especially in relation to the church (see other posts on this topic). I have also been thinking about our faith and how it influences our view on excellence in what we do. How do we do our work with excellence in such a way that it is God (not ourselves) who is glorified? Of course, ultimately God will glorify his name, but I think that understanding our part in this will help with our intents and motivation as we do our work.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Swirling golden leaves, wet earth, blue sky.


Bicycling one evening after deep dusk
yellow light from a window spreads itself on the ground
silhouetting a young deer
caught in a fine moment of grace –
and my wheels carry me on.

In the morning I tread on fragile icy grass-sheaths,
in the evening I kick through the leaves
between the bus stop and my door,
wondering at the other moments missed in the relentless pace of day–
and my feet carry me forward

I only noticed on the first snow that summer had come and gone,
tripping along from cherry blossoms to fallen leaves,
and I was strangely sad for canoe paddles that never reached cool lake water
and paints and paper smelling of city and not pine –
and time carries me onward.

I grasp at ideas while thoughts run circles in my head
hopelessly curious of the most insignificant insight
until I take a moment to really stop
and then the thinking is terrifying –
unless it carries me away from self.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

some days

Today I will post two completely unrelated (but hopefully interesting) things I happened to come across.

This too shall pass (something wikipedia taught me today when I curiously looked up the origin of the phrase):

"This too shall pass" (Hebrew: גם זה יעבור‎, gam zeh yaavor) is a phrase occurring in a Jewish wisdom folktale involving King Solomon. The phrase is commonly engraved on silver rings.

Many versions of the folktale have been recorded by the Israel Folklore Archive at the University of Haifa. Heda Jason recorded this version told by David Franko from Turkey:

One day Solomon decided to humble Benaiah Ben Yehoyada, his most trusted minister. He said to him, "Benaiah, there is a certain ring that I want you to bring to me. I wish to wear it for Sukkot which gives you six months to find it." "If it exists anywhere on earth, your majesty," replied Benaiah, "I will find it and bring it to you, but what makes the ring so special?" "It has magic powers," answered the king. "If a happy man looks at it, he becomes sad, and if a sad man looks at it, he becomes happy." Solomon knew that no such ring existed in the world, but he wished to give his minister a little taste of humility. Spring passed and then summer, and still Benaiah had no idea where he could find the ring. On the night before Sukkot, he decided to take a walk in one of the poorest quarters of Jerusalem. He passed by a merchant who had begun to set out the day's wares on a shabby carpet. "Have you by any chance heard of a magic ring that makes the happy wearer forget his joy and the broken-hearted wearer forget his sorrows?" asked Benaiah. He watched the grandfather take a plain gold ring from his carpet and engrave something on it. When Benaiah read the words on the ring, his face broke out in a wide smile. That night the entire city welcomed in the holiday of Sukkot with great festivity. "Well, my friend," said Solomon, "have you found what I sent you after?" All the ministers laughed and Solomon himself smiled. To everyone's surprise, Benaiah held up a small gold ring and declared, "Here it is, your majesty!" As soon as Solomon read the inscription, the smile vanished from his face. The jeweler had written three Hebrew letters on the gold band: gimel, zayin, yud, which began the words "Gam zeh ya'avor" -- "This too shall pass." At that moment Solomon realized that all his wisdom and fabulous wealth and tremendous power were but fleeting things, for one day he would be nothing but dust.

The phrase "This too shall pass" and the associated ring story were made popular by Abraham Lincoln in his 'Address Before the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society, Milwaukee, Wisconsin' on September 30, 1859:


What Goes on Inside My Head
(subconsciously, most of the time)
I saw this comic online and just had to post it :)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Discipleship

Tonight I will simply quote a few excerpts from The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard, which I am still reading (and enjoying!). These are from chapter 8, On Being a Student, or Disciple, of Jesus.

It is with this entire context [all of our life in apprenticeship to Jesus] that we most richly and accurately speak of "learning from him how to lead my life as he would lead my life if he were I." (p285)

Once you stop to think about it, you can see that not to find your job to be a primary place of discipleship is to automatically exclude a major part, if not most, of your waking hours from life with him. (p285)
And to repeat the crucial point, if we restrict our discipleship to special religious times, the majority of our waking hours will be isolated from the manifest presence of the kingdom in our lives. (287)

Eternity is not something waiting to happen, something that will commence later. It is now here. Time runs its course within eternity. (288)

Practically speaking...
... practical, experimental steps seem to be lacking... [discipleship] remains only a distant, if beautiful, ideal. (291)
... what exactly would one do who didn't intend to go into "full-time Christian service" but still wanted to be a disciple...?

"Clarity about the bargain" - to paraphrase: we "count the cost" and realize that we have found an incredible bargain in this kingdom! (293)

"What we should do":
"Ask "
The rule of the kingdom is to ask (295)
"Dwell, reside, in His Words"
He always sees clearly what is at issue. We rarely do (297)
"Now Decide: The power of Decision and Intention"
Here Willard quotes William Law:
"It was this general intention that made the primitive Christians such eminent instances of piety... And if you will here stop and ask yourself why you are not as pious as the primitive Christians were, your own heart will tell you that it is neither through ignorance nor inability, but purely because you never thoroughly intended it."

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Morning in an Abbey

Today I attended mass at the Abbey of the Genesee. The life of the Cistercian, or Trappist, monks intrigues me and causes me to reflect on the nature of the church and individual callings.

I spent some time on their website, trying to understand a bit about them. They are a "a monastic institute wholly ordered to contemplation". To this end they devote themselves to silence, solitude, prayer, etc. Entry into the community is note something to be taken lightly, and the process takes years. Near the end of a description of this process, the site notes that
The primary responsibility of the newly professed monk is to love with all his heart. The vows presuppose this love and express it exteriorly by incorporating him into a state of life which has no other reason for existence than the love of Christ and all that implies.
This is in many ways an attractive way of life to those who strive daily to turn all the loves of our heart toward Christ, amidst the noisy and busy world of ordinary life.

Yet... I am still left with some questions, which I will note here before ending this brief post:
  • What is the role of these communities within the church?
  • All followers of Christ are his disciples in different ways. However, do those who choose such a specific vocation find themselves limited in the ways they can obey and imitate Christ? For example, how do they share the good news when they are so hidden from the world?
  • Are there certain times in the cultural and historical climate for which this way of following Christ is more or less appropriate?

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Satisfied

Food is good. When enjoyed in good measure, our eating of food can be a way of enjoying God's goodness to us, of pausing and delighting. That is why this week I am going to share with you a recipe that I discovered and enjoyed last week. It is simple, relatively inexpensive, and tasty. I think I will make it again tomorrow.

Chick-Pea, Sweet Pepper and Fresh Basil Salad
1 sweet red pepper (the recipe recommends roasting it first)
1 can (19 0z/450mL) chick-peas, drained
1 diced cucumber
1/4 cup minced red onion (but regular white also works)
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1/4 cup packed chopped fresh basil (if you can't find any, dried works fine too, as long as you have plenty of fresh parsley)
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 tbsp olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
salt and pepper

  1. In a bowl, combine red pepper, chick-peas, cucumber, onion, parsley and basil.
  2. In a small dish, whisk together lemon juice, olive oil,garlic and salt and pepper to taste; pour over salad and toss lightly. Cover and refrigerate for at least 15 minutes or up to a day (but I did two days and it was fine).

Eating is a powerfully repetitive and necessary part of our lives. No wonder, then, that it is used as an analogy throughout the bible. In what I find to be one of the strongest, almost disturbing, passages in the gospels, Jesus calls himself our food. I encourage you to read John 6:48-58 and reflect upon the source of nourishment to our souls.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Rest

Take a deep breath.
Now relax your muscles.

Do you feel at rest now? Probably not (unless you were before you started reading). Resting is something that takes more time than that. Yet however much time it takes, most people will agree (or perhaps just admit) that we need it.

I looked up a couple of dictionary definitions of the word "rest". Here are a few:

rest
Date: before 12th century
intransitive verb 1 a : to get rest by lying down; especially : sleep b : to lie dead
2 : to cease from action or motion : refrain from labor or exertion
3 : to be free from anxiety or disturbance
4 : to sit or lie fixed or supported (a column rests on its pedestal)
5 a : to remain confident : trust (cannot rest on that assumption) b : to be based or founded (the verdict rested on several sound precedents)
6 : to remain for action or accomplishment (the answer rests with you)
7 of farmland : to remain idle or uncropped
(Merriam-Webster)

rest
— ORIGIN Old English, from a root meaning "league" or "mile" (referring to a distance after which one rests).
verb 1 cease work or movement in order to relax or recover strength. 2 allow to be inactive in order to regain or save strength or energy. 3 place or be placed so as to stay in a specified position: his feet rested on the table. 4 (rest on) depend or be based on. 5 (rest in/on) place (trust, hope, or confidence) in or on.
(Oxford English Dictionary)

A few things strike me:
  1. Resting implies intent or necessity. The cessation of labour is done for a reason: "in order to relax or recover strength". Land is given rest so that it can better bear fruit the next year.
  2. I am no linguist but 900 years seems like a pretty good long time for a word to be in use. Of course the concept has been around much longer, but the longstanding use of this word in our culture seems to point to its significance. Also note that its derivation (see above) refers once again to the need for rest: after going a certain distance, it is time to rest.
  3. There is an element of confidence or trust. Resting requires trusting. I can't sleep well without trusting that I am safe. I can't stop working unless I trust that the necessary task will be finished. I usually like to think of the image of leaning on something for support: we trust in something because it is strong enough to allow us to rest.
I challenge you to take some time this week to rest; don't just assume you will have the strength you need without intentionally resting. As you rest, consider how trusting is specifically linked to your resting.

Isn't it interesting that God specifically commanded his people to rest?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Hymn of Thanksgiving

I give thanks to you O God,
for when we are inadequate you are more than enough
when we are too tired to think we can feast on your infinite wisdom
when we are weak you reveal your strength
when we have no words you fill the silence

You are a God who is endlessly joyful yet shares in our sorrows

I give thanks to you O God,
for when we feel alone you teach us true fellowship
when we are proud your greatness makes us humble
when we don't know how we are to live you lead by example
when we fall short in praising you, you glorify your name

You are a god who is infinite yet chose to take on the finite form of man.

You bring us to others who delight in you
you made the sky and leaves and shadows and all colors
you gave us minds which can think and glimpse your glory and delight
You are a God who gives us ridiculously good gifts.

I give thanks to you O God.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Life-giving Water

Recently, perhaps because of what I've been reading and perhaps because I'm trying to find a church to become a part of, I have been a little more thoughtful than usual as I listen to different sermons. One thing has struck me on multiple occasions.

Different speakers have enthusiastically and thankfully stated how great it is that God has brought us salvation through the death of Jesus Christ. It is the wonder expressed in the following passage:
"But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved" (Ephesians 2:4-5)

But that is not the end, nor even the beginning of what God has done! This is not a simple payment that meets the requirements of a just God. If that was true, why did Jesus have to live at all? Couldn't he have been born and then immediately sacrificed? And what about the resurrection? It seems to me that Jesus' ongoing life is not just something we notice at Easter, but something that overshadows and impacts every part of our faith and life!

Even the passage above includes this fact, especially put in context:
"But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. " (Ephesians 2:4-7)

We have gone from death to life - life in the present and future! Jesus did not come only to die, nor does God expect us to live our lives only in some distant future hope. There is so much more I could get excited about here - about how Jesus can "sympathize with our weaknesses" (Heb 4:15) and about how he has conquered death. Instead I will simply close with a few statements that Jesus said, as recorded in the gospel of John.

"The water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life" (4:14)

"I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty." (6:35)

"The words I have spoken to you - they are full of the Spirit and life." (6:63)

On the last and greatest day of the Festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them" (7:37-38)


A man in traditional garb (mostly for the tourists now!) sells water to the passerby in Marrakesh, Morocco. He rings a bell to alert everyone to his presence.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Hope: Willard refutes the disconnect between life and faith

I've been reading The Divine Conspiracy, by Dallas Willard, and thought I'd share a few enlightening things I've read so far. These are things that I tend to think, "of course that's part of our faith and church!", but find that even in my own thinking I am not always where I expect to be. That may sound confusing, but perhaps as you read on you'll see what I mean.


What exactly is the central message of the gospel?
Many Christians would begin with John 3:16, and by saying that God, in his infinite love and mercy saved us from the punishment our sins deserve through the death of Jesus Christ, defeating death allowing us to have eternal life. This is true, yet Willard suggests that our focus on eternal life after death really misunderstands Jesus' main message and leads to a kind of hopelessness about how we are to live now.
"When we examine the broad spectrum of Christian proclamation and practice, we see that the only thing made essential on the right wing of theology is forgiveness of the individual's sins. On the left is removal of social or structural evils. ... Transformation of life and character is no part of the redemptive message. Moment-to-moment human reality in its depths is not the arena of faith and eternal living" (41)
Willard translates John 3:16 as follows:
God's care for humanity was so great that he sent his unique Son among us, so that those who count on him might not lead a futile and failing existence, but have the undying life of God himself (1)
Eternal, or "the undying life of God himself", life begins now. Christ healing and touching us, working in our everyday lives.

The Kingdom of Heaven
Sometimes when I'm reading I get really excited. I sense that I am finally going to have an important question I've been wondering about answered. This was the case when I read this:
The phrase kingdom of the heavens occurs thirty-two times in Matthew's Gospel and never again in the New Testament. By contrast, the phrase kingdom of God occurs only five times in that Gospel but is the usual term used in the remainder of the New Testament. What is the significance this variation in terminology? (73)
Willard devotes many pages to this, but the gist of what he is saying is this: the world translated "heavens" meant, in the context of both the old and new testaments, the space where God is. Importantly, this was considered to be the "air or atmosphere which surrounds your body" (67). "The heavens" are not far away, neither in time nor space. They are here and now. (This is really hard for me to explain in a few words; you should either read the book or talk more with me later!) When Jesus said "the kingdom of heaven is at hand", he did not mean that it was arriving soon or in the future. God is in this very real world he has created, and offers to us the possibility of living in this heavenly reality.

To more clearly answer the above quotation:
Matthew, the quintessentially Judaic Gospel, as a matter of course utilizes the phrase he kingdom of the heavens to describe God's rule, or "kingdom". It captures that rich heritage of the Jewish experience of the nearness of God that is so largely lost to the contemporary mind. (73)

The Brilliance of Jesus
I will close by leaving you to meditate on the brilliance of Jesus. Willard cautions that "The world has succeeded in opposing intelligence to goodness" (135) This discourages our faith, and doesn't really make sense. As Willard writes,
Can we seriously imagine that Jesus could be Lord if he were not smart? If he were divine, would he be dumb? Or uninformed? Once you stop to think about it, how could he be what we take him to be in all other respects and not be the best-informed and most intelligent person of all, the smartest person who ever lived? (94)

I've been reflecting on this, because as Willard also says, "It is not possible to trust Jesus, or anyone else, in matters where we do not believe him to be competent" (94)

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Let the Painting Begin!

Visual art. Some of the best art has been historically found in churches, and yet now it is conspicuously absent from much of protestant church life. Many of you who know me will know that this is a subject of great interest and concern for me. Thus, while I know that there is an increasing amount of writing and thinking being done on the subject, I will let this post be an opinion piece, drawn out of my thoughts and experiences.

It has been said that a church is not just a building, but a church building does reflect a lot about a church(see also a previous post). I have been inside so many churches with bare white or brick walls, conservative architecture, and direct lines to the pulpit at the front. The focus is on the spoken word (as taught during the sermon) and, only slightly indirectly, on the written word.

This makes a lot of sense with the birth of the Protestant tradition. The epistemic focus shifted from church authority to individual understanding of the Bible. The beginning of the modern era, so linked to the Reformation, revealed a confidence in the human ability to reason and understand God's word. These things, combined with the break from the traditions of the Catholic church, meant a significant change in the church's attitude toward images.

I am arguing here that the church needs to more consciously and carefully think through its use of images, especially visual art. Intentional change may be needed. First of all, we in the church worship an incredibly creative God! Not only that, but we have been made in his image, and I think creativity is a big part of that. Doesn't it make sense that we should express our exuberant joy in God through the arts? Much of this has been done with music. But why neglect the visual arts?

Many of the most artistically impressive cathedrals were build during a time when your average person could not pick up and read a bible. The art served an important role in helping people understand God and his workings in our world. It is much different now, of course. Or is it?

We live in an image-saturated world. Everywhere we look there is a billboard or a colorful label or a screen. The advertising world has certainly picked up on the power of an image. Children grow up with high visual stimulus through TV and computer screens. Many people, myself included, absorb information much more easily visually than aurally. And sometimes words are quite simply inadequate. Perhaps the church is in need of the arts more than one would think.

I want to close by noting a few of what I would call "successes" or "inspirations" pertaining to art and the church.
  • St. Andrew's Ottawa: I was struck during a visit that they had on display the work of an artist who had done these beautiful textile works which included passages of scripture. I just visited their website and noted that they have installed a sculpture outside.
  • HTB, London: the prodigal son sculpture, by artist Charlie Mackesy, is a powerful work and features prominently in the church space.
  • Orthodox and Catholic churches: I think we need to be willing to learn from them
  • Nathan Turner: a Canadian artist I was first introduced to through his show in a local gallery. His work is not always explicitly Christian, but it certainly speaks of his faith.
Thanks for taking the time to read this far. I challenge you to get involved in some way in bringing the visual arts into our protestant churches.

Nathan Turner. "Through The Veil". Charcoal, conte, graphite, gesso on plywood.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Wisdom from Wildflowers

I am back from my little vacation from posting. One of my mini projects this summer has been learning about the wildflowers I see. This has given me a new love and appreciation for them.

I think that knowing the name of something - or someone - is important. I don't feel that I can really begin to know someone until I can call them by name. It's difficult to speak affectionately of a particular place without knowing its name. (On a side note, that is why I wish more people in this country named their houses, as is traditional in the UK.) Speaking God's name is powerful. Naming is vital to knowing and loving.

I'm going to let you experience the delight of being able to name flowers by sharing with you the names of some of the common flower names. The photos were all taken within a few minutes walking distance of my house.


Lady's Thumb
Polygonum persicaria







Bird's-foot Trefoil
Lotus corniculatus







Crown Vetch
coronilla varia







Daisy Fleabane
Erigeron annuus







Spotted Touch-me-not
Impatiens capensis








Chicory
Chicorium intybus







Red Clover
Trifolium pratense







Wild Carrot
Daucus carota
known in Canada, at least, as Queen Ann's Lace






Carolina Larkspur
Delphinium


Sunday, August 2, 2009

Holiday

It looks like I'm taking a holiday from posting. I'm away from home, spending time with a good friend before her wedding, so I doubt if I'll get much time to write something today or next week (I will be traveling next Sunday).

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Observations

This week I've been thinking and doing a bit of research on a couple of topics. Those posts, however, are not yet ready, so this week I will share a few observations I have made recently (you can take this preamble as a warning for the slight chaos of this post).

I
noticed in May that the red maple tree outside my window was performing an autumn-in-reverse trick: the deep red leaves were turning summer-green.

As I played the piano this evening, I found myself once again reflecting on the relationship between time and music. Music, more than almost anything else, makes a person loose track of time. Yet music is distinctly bound to the limits and structure of time: it is art and expression that only exists in time. Thus it both frees from time and is bound by time. There is a little clock that sits on my piano. Within a year after I got it, it stopped ticking. It seemed somehow appropriate and I have left it that way ever since.

While walking through the woods and along the roads last week, I saw these beautiful wildflowers with large clusters of purple-pink flowers on tall stalks which give off a fragrance reminiscent of lilacs. I learned that these flowers were the milkweeds I was familiar with from my fall walks. It was almost strange to think that those green meadows and roadsides would be full of rattling pods and silky seed-parachutes by September. Funny how I never knew that before, and how it has changed my perception of that fascinating plant. I know there is some parallel to people in this.

Perhaps it's just the way that some people are different from others, but I have a strong suspicion that those who do art see things differently. I am convinced it is because they look at the world differently.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

A Christian and a Scientist?

A question has increasingly been taking on personal significance to me: what motivates a follower of Christ to work in the field of science? Is there some disconnect, or does one flow naturally with the other?

An answer most easily offered is that science benefits people. Those who pray, "thy kingdom come" are motivated to be a part of changing our world for the better. Most advances in medicine and other areas which aid people have been inextricably linked to scientific progress. Yet this statement cannot go the other way. All advances in science did not lead to the aid of humanity. Nuclear medicine developed alongside nuclear weapons. Even excepting that rather negative view, I find this answer rather far-fetched. Belief in the abstract ability of science to benefit people in the future does not seem like motivation enough to go back to the lab each day.

Another possible motivation is simply the sheer delight in the natural world as the invention of an incredibly creative and intelligent God. There is a fine line here. The Christian scientist does not merely love the created world, for that would be idolatry. He or she loves the exploration of the natural world because it enables them to see just a bit more clearly how beautiful and awesome is the God who made it. Piper has pointed out that God is glorified when his people delight in him. I agree, and find this answer much more plausible than the first.

Yet I am still troubled by this: the God revealed in the bible is not only a creative and majestic and awesome God; he is also the God who brings good news to the poor and justice to the oppressed. It seems to me that any follower of Christ, including the scientist, must also care about this. So what does this mean for the Christian scientist, or for anyone whose vocation does not directly help the poor or oppressed? I can suggest three possible answers to this question:
  1. We have to remember that we are not the only member of the church, and trust God that he uses many different people to work in myriads of ways. Surely our creative God does not need to limit all of his people to the same type of vocation. This may be true, but is it a satisfying answer?
  2. Science is only done with part of our lives; the rest of the time is also valuable time in which God can use us in other ways. Unless my second "answer" above is true, this point makes almost no sense. Even so, it stands on shaky ground. If the scientist can best glorify God by doing science, then why worry about doing anything else? On the other hand, if it is the evenings and weekends that really make a difference in God's kingdom, why bother doing working in the lab in the first place?
  3. There is a way of living that glorifies God and brings his kingdom on earth that is not limited by a career in science. Perhaps in one small but important sense, it doesn't really matter what career we choose. I am not saying our actions are meaningless. On the contrary, it is what we do all the time - the things we say, the way we interact with people, our priorities, the way that we praise God through our work - these are the things that matter. Surely God could provide opportunities to bring freedom and comfort and justice to those who need it, right in the midst of a scientific vocation.
I am still far from being comfortable with any of these answers. In the meantime, I am going to continue to delight in God, and to trust him in his incredible creativity and wisdom.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Encouragement

This post is like a line drawing done while listening to music and without lifting the pen. (You are bright enough to figure out that analogy...)


Encouragement

When you meet friends again after it’s been too long and discover
that though you’ve both been changing
the friendship grows stronger still.

A day or even two go well after a string of downwards-gray days.
It is a gift gratefully received
nearly untouched by the quantity of sunshine.

People different from you are found to be not so different after all
For they delight in the same insignificant thing that matters,
share the same hope.

Someone shares
a story, a meal, a passion, and with trusting openness
lets you see the remarkable person they are

But these things also hold a mirror to my self,
and they breathe hope –
a reminder that plants do grow straight even as the sun circles round
and that slowly they grow upwards.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

for the road

Since I won't have access to the internet this Sunday, I thought I'd just leave you a few poems by Emily Dickinson.

We play at paste,
Till qualified for pearl,
Then drop the paste,
And deem ourself a fool.
The shapes, though, were similar,
And our new hands
Learned gem-tactics
Practicing sands.



Heaven is what I cannot reach!
The apple on the tree,
Provided it do hopeless hang,
That "heaven" is, to me.

The color on the cruising cloud,
The interdicted ground
Behind the hill, the house behind, -
There Paradise is found!


And finally, in honor of my forth-coming journey:
The Railway Train

I like to see it lap the miles,
And lick the valleys up,
And stop to feed itself at tanks;
And then, prodigious, step

Around a pile of mountains,
And, supercilious, peer
In shanties by the sides of roads;
And then a quarry pare

To fit its sides, and crawl between,
Complaining all the while
In horrid, hooting stanza;
Then chase itself down hill

And neigh like Boanerges;
Then, punctual as a star,
Stop--docile and omnipotent--
At its own stable door.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

In Guns We Trust

Scanning the BBC headlines today, I saw this article: US pastor opens church to guns. You will probably want to take a minute or two to read it before reading this post (click here)

For my part, I find it very difficult to justify the legal ownership of handguns by the public. There is a lot of evidence that suggests that handguns are more often used for harm than for good. A police commander in DC says "Most of the motives for homicides are arguments or robbery related and the quick pull of the trigger means somebody's life." (bbc article) The BBC also reports that there are an estimated 90 guns for every 100 US citizens, and that "firearms, including handguns, are used in two-thirds of murders and about 42% of robberies committed in the US, according to statistics from the FBI"

To be fair, there are also a lot of good arguments for the ownership of handguns, many of them having to do with either self-defense or the Second Amendment. For those who identify themselves in the church, some of these arguments seem to stand on shaky ground. Which has become more sacred to Christians in the US: the Bible and church authority, or the Constitution?

The issue here is not only gun control laws in the US, it is about the role of the chu
rch. Churches have the opportunity to make a difference in their communities and even their nation by banding together. Most Christians would agree that this ability can and should be used to help and care for their community. This is part of living in the kingdom of God.

I think it's fair to say that people could believe in gun ownership as a means of helping others. What troubles me is the stance this particular church has taken. The pastor (at right) is reported to have told the congregation: "We are wanting to send a message that there are legal, civil, intelligent and law-abiding citizens who also own guns". It seems that this church is using its status as a sort of social club to make a political point.

I could probably write at least another post on the topic of the separation of church and state. Instead I will simply close, as I often do, with a question. As churches, what are we supporting, and why? Are there things we should be advocating which we are not?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Spaces in Which We Live

In a book I read recently, the author quoted an unnamed friend who said that, with respect to how groups of people interact, "Architecture always wins". This got me thinking; how much are we affected by the spaces we inhabit?

I could go on and on about important this is with regards to churches. I'll briefly give a few positive and negative examples:
  • Consider most large cathedrals and Orthodox churches, full of art. One is filled with awe, stimulated to worship by the beauty and care of the art. Who can feel proud in a cathedral?
  • Contrast this to a local baptist church I have visited: bare brick walls, angular architectural features. Focus is towards the stage, which is adorned only by a stark cross. How does this affect worship? Are we only worshiping God's truth and seeking to learn? Are we not also praising him for his beauty and awesome glory?
  • The local church I attend while in Houghton meets in an old building with stained-glass windows. My favourite part about the building is that the sanctuary is built so that all the pews are curved and the people sitting in them face one another. I think this contributes to the strong sense of community felt in that church.
  • My home church met in a retirement home. While I believe that the church should care for the aging, can a space that was originally designed for those who are quietly ending their lives also serve a church, which has such an urgent and active mission?
  • How much is the life and warmth of a house church due to the home in which it meets?
I think the excellence and craftsmanship of a space affects our behavior in it.

This week I came across an interesting phenomena: tiny houses. Watch this.

This is a relatively wealthy person choosing to live in a small space because he wants to. How does the chosen size of our dwelling affect our values? What do you think about his motives?

Sunday, June 14, 2009

"Everything Must Change" Part III (final!)

Upon finishing McLaren's book, I think it is appropriate to make a few comments.

A Missing Piece to the Puzzle
McLaren describes in detail how he thinks our world operates and then contrasts it to the completely different alternative "framing story" that Jesus lived and preached. One key thing that I think he fails to really take into account is the power of Islamic ideology, or the "framing story of Islam", as he would likely call it. I am not convinced, as McLaren seems to say, that terrorism is a response of the poor to the unjust and oppressive wealth of the rich. I am no expert, but I have been convinced that it is more than simply that. Yes, North America may be dominated by a capitalistic, progress-oriented outlook, but other worldviews must be reckoned with as well. I am sad that McLaren has missed this in his analysis, because I think the gospel looses none of its power in the context of the Muslim world.

The Kindom of God
One of the things that really bothered me when I was memorizing the gospel of Matthew for Bible Quizzing was this concept of the kingdom of God. John's message was "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." (Matt3:2) The first thing recorded about Jesus' ministry is that he "began to preach, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.'" (4:17) What exactly is this kingdom, I wondered, and if Jesus talked about it so much, what does it look like today?

McLaren does a good job of answering this question. He argues that this kingdom is here on earth, right now. Even though we are still living in the 'already but not yet', as followers of Christ we are too be concerned with kingdom business now, on this earth. Two interesting points:
  1. We are to work for justice. McLaren writes,
    In light of Hebrew grammatical construction, it is highly possible that when Jesus says, "Seek first God's kingdom and God's justice," he is not saying two things, but one: God's kingdom is God's justice--both of which are included in another of Jesus' appositives for the kingdom, which he had stated a few moments earlier: God's will being dome on earth as it is in heaven (6:10). When that happens, justice comes. (p.219)
    I find that this view really resonates with much of the Old Testament.
  2. The the good news (gospel) about the kingdom is not only for individuals. He says a "shrinking gospel" is losing its relevance:
    Sadly, in too many quarters we continue to reduce the scope of the gospel to the individual soul and the nuclear family [...] it's all about personal devotions, personal holiness, and a personal Savior. (p.244)
    His discussion has a lot to do with the concept of "collective sin", such as wars or unjust labor practices which indirectly support when we go shopping. Yes, Jesus saved each and every one of us individually, but McLaren calls us to broaden our horizons when it comes to the mission of the church. Something to really think about.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

"Everything Must Change" Part II

Since I know that I have too many thoughts on this book to squeeze into just two posts, I will write a bit more about what I am learning and pondering while reading McLaren's book.

One major section of the book is called "The Prosperity System", in which McLaren discusses what he calls the "Theocapitalist Religion (p.190) in which Capitalism is god. He discusses how it functions in our society, and also some scary tendencies. For example, the characteristics of large corporations match the six characteristics of a psychopath (p.197-198)!

In analyzing the situation, much of his discussion echoes major debates in economic theory: are the rich getting richer while the poor get poorer, and is this caused by capitalism? In critiquing some views, it seems that McLaren leans to the Marxist economic pie view, though he later denies this (p.214).

While we may or may not agree entirely with his analysis of the capitalist, free market economy, even arguing that he is out of his depth in this area, his analysis shifts to something that I think is more helpful.

The shift comes when he turns from questioning the ideologies of economics to considering its limits within the larger picture. He takes a clear stance on ecological issues and states plainly that our fast race towards progress is simply not sustainable. Even if capitalism does create increasing wealth for all, this may cause disaster to the world in which we live. Take, for example, China. The World Factbook estimates a real GDP growth rate of 9.8% for 2008 (compare this to 1.3% in the US). That is incredible growth. Can you imagine billions more people getting cars, refrigerators, etc? McLaren suggests that as followers of Jesus, we must consider the implications of our lifestyle for future generations.

He then explains a way of thinking about wealth and economics that is based in the gospels. McLaren states again something that has been a recurring theme in my life: thankfulness. He writes, "gratitude becomes an act of defiant contemplation" in which we become content with what we do have rather than just wanting more and more things (p.213). This is tied into an insightful reading of the miracle of the five loaves and two fish. McLaren also points out the importance of giving.

Rather than simply critiquing our world, let's strive to see things differently and live in increasing generosity and gratitude.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Radical Christian: a Redundancy?

Thoughts while reading "Everything Must Change" by Brian McLaren

Often when I return home I discover that a new interesting book has appeared in the house, usually as one of my dad's current reads. This time I decided to read Everything Must Change by Brian McLaren.

I have been rather disappointed by this book so far. One frustrating part is my question of who he thinks "conventional Christians", as he dubs them, really are. Linked to this is my question of audience. In chapter 10 he contrasts the "conventional" and "emerging" views by summarizing the gospel from the two perspectives. The words he puts into the mouths of the "conventional" Christians are often mocking. He essentially says they reduce the gospel into some sort of platonic but personal thing which "produces a happier life" and saves the sinner from hell. This is of course contrasted to the "emergent" view, which allows for a much fuller reading of the whole bible.

Merriam-Webster defines conventional as "formed by agreement or compact". I think most theologians and Christian thinkers would disagree with McLaren's summary of the conventional views. Doesn't this make them unconventional? Perhaps McLaren should have said "popular"?

Word choice aside, all this talk confuses me about his audience. I have three questions: 1) If McLaren is writing to "conventional" Christians (assuming such people do exist), why insult them? 2) Would such people care enough to read all 300 pages of his book in the first place? 3) If he is not writing to these people, but instead writing to those who really do want to understand the working of God and of the church in our hurting world now, in the present, what purpose does such a sloppy (in my view) comparison serve?

It seems that McLaren is trying to show how radically different this "emerging" view is. The trouble is, all my experience so far shows me that the bible itself is a radical book. Anyone who has read the gospels recently will tell you that. For centuries, people in the church have understood this. St. Francis stripped off all his clothes to reject worldly values and then he preached to the birds (among other things). Corrie Ten Boon and many others like her forgave. Many have given their lives in service to the poor. C.S. Lewis said Aslan is not a tame lion. God is not tame, and most of those who follow at some cost him have found this out.

Yes, the good news is about personal salvation through Christ's death on the cross. But anyone who has been reading their bible can tell you that it is about so much more! Jesus himself claimed part of God's mission "of good news to the poor", to bring "freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind and to set the oppressed free" (Luke 4:18) And that is just the beginning. I think McLaren is saying all this. I just don't think that what he is saying is as new and different as he is suggesting.

I realize have given a rather negative impression. I am convinced he does have some worthwhile things to say even if I don't always agree with his views or method, so I will continue reading and hopefully give a better report in the near future.

Friday, May 22, 2009

What is Good?

As I write this my mind leaps back to freshman year and I feel a bit like I am parroting Socrates in the Republic, asking about "the good". Okay, not quite. I know that God alone is truly good (Luke 18:19); he is The Good.

I'm not talking here about good on a scale from poor, average, good to excellent. I'm asking the question: "What makes up a good book, a good movie, a good piece of art, a good ____?" This good is referring to what is best, pleasing, wholesome, perfect. In the beginning, all of creation was good.

Surely we all long for what is good; we only settle for the mediocre when we have other motives, such as avoiding disappointment.

So what does make something good? In the case of a movie or a book, I usually look for several things (and I realize that even these criteria may be subjective!). The story must be well told, with some degree of creativity and artistry or excellence. In addition, it should be thought provoking. This does not necessarily mean that the movie or book has a specific intended message. Above all, it must have a good story. Many have probably written books on what makes a good story, but I remember something Donald Miller said when I heard him speak. He said that there has to be something at stake. The hero's choice to do the right thing can't be easy; the hero must risk something in order to be a hero. It's something that has stuck with me, because I think we all want our lives to be a good story. I do.

Can something be called good because it has stood the test of time? It does appear that many good stories and things like that have lasted a long time. An awful lot of bad things have done that, too, haven't they? On the other hand, some things seem to be made more perfect in their very transience. A butterfly only lives a short while.

Do those things which we call good strike a chord in us of recognition, or is that feeling one of longing for something that is outside of us?

As you can see, I have left you with more questions than answers. In this topic, however, I think that is how it should be. Shouldn't we always be asking what is good, and seeking to find that which is truly good? I am confident our search is not in vain.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Carboard Boxes Full of Treasures

"Give away all your stuff and follow me." That's essentially what Jesus tells the rich young ruler (Luke 18:22). It's a passage I've wrestled with for years, and came to my mind again as a I reflected upon this past week. After graduating from college last weekend, I packed up most of my belongings, crammed them into my family's van, and headed home. That was just the beginning. My family is hoping to put our house on the market next week, so the Realtor tells us our house (where we've lived for over ten years) needs to be organized and open. My closet needs to be half empty, some of the many bookshelves need to go, cabinets must be emptied and moved... you get the picture. This boils down to hours of packing and moving and organizing and packing and moving. Mom says our stuff has become a burden.

I've always thought it wouldn't be that hard to live with only the most necessary possessions. When I travel I happily get by on the few items that fit into my small suitcase. As long as I have enough food to sustain me, enough clothes to keep me warm, friends to be with, and most importantly, God as my portion, I am quite content. Or is there one more stipulation: that all my treasured belongings are safely at home or in my parent's attic?

You see, what I've realized this week is that it's one thing to think about living for God, unhindered by material possessions. It's another thing to actually give away that comfy sweater I wear on the weekends, or that set of dishes for special occasions, or that box of items from my childhood, each of which are tied to memories. And what about all those things which were gifts? Somehow it doesn't seem right to give them away again, especially if we use or enjoy them, or if they remind us of a dear friend. It seems that Jesus doesn't ask everyone to give away all they own, but he did ask that one man to do so, and I often wonder what exactly, if not that, he asks of me.

Jesus and his disciples discuss how it is nearly impossible for a rich man to enter God's kingdom. Then Jesus says something which encourages me: "What is impossible with men is possible with God." (Luke 18:27) We really can't do this on our own, but God, the all-powerful God, will graciously reach out to help us.

Despite this graciousness on the part of our Lord, shouldn't we also at least try? By just living in the way that I am most comfortable, trusting God to change me and free me from my attachment to things, I am pretty sure I am "cheapening" God's grace (to borrow a concept from Deitrick Bonhoeffer). I need to pray that God will change me, and to practice things like generosity. This isn't works righteousness. This is recognizing my tendencies to be selfish and hoard things unless I discipline myself otherwise, and pleading my need for grace.

I think these thoughts also apply to how we spend our time, but I talked about that on March 9th. Will you join me in this struggle? It is my prayer that, twenty years from now, through His grace I will find it easier, rather than harder, to give away anything and everything as I follow Christ.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Quantum Mechanics (Part II) Uncertainty and an Unfortunate (?) Cat

Today I will briefly comment on some of the most commonly referenced (and likely most misunderstood!) quantum ideas in popular culture.

You may have seen the play/film Copenhagen, about Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. The play mostly investigates the idea of psychological uncertainty; not only do memories claim different 'facts', but even the attitudes and memories of the persons involved change with each retelling. This is compared to the uncertainty principle of QM, in which the momentum (closely related to the speed something is moving) and the position of a particle cannot be exactly specified. While this is a good film, the definition of uncertainty leans more toward the English language use of it (not able to know something for certain) rather than the mathematical definition.

According to the theory of QM, electrons are best described by wave functions. For waves on a pond, the medium being "waved" is water. For sound, it is air. For electrons, it is probability density. Particles are described by waves "superimposed" on top of each other, with the peaks and valleys of some waves sometimes adding and sometimes canceling each other out. The direct result of this method of describing matter is the precise mathematical relationship:
∆x∆p≥ℏ/2
which reads: "the uncertainty in position, times the uncertainty in momemntum is greater than or equal to h-bar over two" While this is a strange and important result, it doesn't mean that we have reached a limit of understanding; rather, we have seen that the universe behaves in this predictable way which includes a fixed uncertainty.

You may have seen this talk by Rob Bell from "Everything is Spiritual", in which I believe this idea of uncertainty is taken a bit too far:

While it is interesting to compare our understanding of God to his creation, it is dangerous to say that there is something about the physical world that it so mysterious that "all [scientists] can come up with" is something they cannot "conquer or put in a box". You see, scientists are not trying to conquer anything. They are trying to describe and understand the wonders of the natural world. It is fun to draw parallels between God and the forces and energies of nature, but we must be cautious of saying we have found something only explicable by God. What will happen when this "gap" is filled in by some deeper theory? Let's not lose our sense of wonder, but let's not get overzealous with our theology.

Schrodinger, trying to understand and explain this idea of adding or "superimposing" wave functions and how this relates to the uncertainty principle, came up with his famous cat-in-a-box illustration:

Of course, this is just an illustration and wouldn't actually work in real life, but it does explain a little bit about how weird this understanding of matter really is. Isn't it wonderful that our world is so complex and surprising?

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Whatever is Quantum Mechanics? (Part I)

I frequently get blank looks when I mention Quantum Mechanics, so I thought I would take a moment this week to explain what it is, without actually going into the actual theory of it. The benefit of your reading this will be that, in addition to understanding my life a bit more, you will probably find that quantum will pop up in unexpected places and you will at least be intelligent about it, if not find that it helps you understand our world a bit better. Out of curiosity, and because it is often a good place to start when looking at things on the most general level, I checked what Wikipedia had to say about the topic. Here is what I found:
Quantum mechanics is a set of principles underlying the most fundamental known description of all physical systems at the submicroscopic scale.
Have you finished reading that three times? It's a bit of a mouthful, so I will try to make it more clear. Quantum mechanics explains how atoms behave. Atoms make up most of what we see every day, so QM (as I will refer to it from now on) explains why things (matter, mostly) are the way they are.

QM is surprising. For centuries, it was thought that Newtonian physics (what you learned in high school) explained the world we see. In fact, Newtonian physics is a pretty good approximation that explains our world. But if you get down small enough, things start to become weird. Imagine something moving down a hill, for example: me when I'm rushing to class in the morning. It's all one continuous motion of moving-down-hill-ness. As I go down the hill, I gain speed because the energy I had just by being at the top of the hill is being turned in to "kinetic" energy. Electrons are not like this. They are more like someone leaping down stairs. The energy still changes, but it is done in stages, with each stage having a fixed distance between it and the previous one.

This brings us to why it is called Quantum mechanics in the first place. Think of our English word "quantity". Matter and energy comes in discrete quantities, or quanta. If you think about this for a bit you will realize how surprising this really is.

*****

Next week, if you are interested, I will talk more about things of which you may have heard, such as "the uncertainty principle" and "Schrodinger's Cat".

Sunday, April 26, 2009

a definition of insanity

This week (feeling perhaps a bit dry for inspiration) I decided to share some insight garnered out of Orthodoxy, by G. K. Chesterton.*

His main point in chapter two focuses on the idea that the insane person is the one who is purely rational, and who "believes in himself". He argues against the popularly held belief that those who are confident in themselves and are able to think in a rational manner are the ones who will be successful. These are the people who will become madmen. He suggests instead that the healthy person is one who has an imagination, who is able to hold contradictions, and who can do things without them always having a direct purpose. For example, in contrasting the healthy person to the insane one, who must do everything with a cause, he says,
If any human acts may loosely be called causeless, they are the minor acts of a healthy man; whistling as he walks; slashing the grass with a stick; kicking his heals or rubbing his hands. It is the happy man who does the useless things; the sick man is not strong enough to be idle.
He also speaks of the limits of reasoning, reminding us that "A man cannot think himself out of mental evil". In addition to understanding the world through reason, there must be a certain element of mystery, he argues.

At another point, he suggests what a paranoid person needs to hear:
How much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller in it; if you could really look at other men with common curiosity and pleasure...
This week, with studies pressing in and with graduation, a celebration of academic achievement, ahead, it has been helpful for me to pause and consider these ideas. Perhaps it is not just the madman who must take care to expand his horizons beyond pure reasoning and beyond self.

*It will be clear that my material is drawn only from the beginning of the book, for that is as far as I have gotten this week. Any of you who have read this book probably wonder why it has taken me so long to get around to reading it ... I don't really have an excuse, but I would love to talk about the book when I get further along!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Waiting

I just finished waiting for my soup to heat up (and am eating it as I write this). While I stood there in front of the stove, I tried to think of what I could be doing with those few minutes (besides just standing there). Surely there was something more useful! I realized that I find it incredibly difficult to just wait. I get restless, and if my body is constrained, my mind darts around, trying to find something useful to think about! This semester, as I have waited to hear back from graduate schools, had been a bit draining. Why is it that I find waiting so difficult? Perhaps it is that waiting makes me feel useless. Perhaps I measure my worth too much by what I accomplish.

I don't think I am alone in feeling this way. Much of technological marketing seems to rely on the assumption that faster is better: the less time one has to spend waiting for a process to run on a computer, the better. If I can do my email on my iphone while waiting for the bus, my life will be enhanced. You can probably think of more examples. Or simply consider how annoyed or frustrated we tend to get when we have to wait in a long line for anything.

I do not want to suggest that we should all become lazy and spend our days waiting around for something to happen. I do want to suggest that we need to learn how to wait well. I know I do.

Consider how much of our spiritual life depends on waiting on the Lord. Isn't that what prayer is all about? The liturgical calendar also emphasizes this: over half of the year is "Ordinary Time", a time between the major celebrations. Other major seasons are also focused on preparation and waiting, such as Advent and Lent. Of course all these point to the ongoing waiting of the church. James speaks of the patience of the farmer as he waits for the land to yield its harvest (James 5:7). I'm sure there are things in my own life that I can seize as opportunities to learn how to wait, as a sort of training.

As Paul writes:
we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. (Romans 8:23-25)
Looking at the world around me, and at my own life, I know that there is a long ways to the true fulfillment of our hope. I pray that I might learn grace in my waiting, and that we all might live patiently and expectantly "while we wait for the blessed hope—the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ" (Titus 2:13)