Thursday, August 8, 2013

Terrifying Thought

If purgatory is real, what if it involves sitting in a boring room for the exact amount of time I wasted on social media?

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Thought for the Day

A common justification for behavior these days is, "it's only natural."

But why?

If the Christian perspective is correct, then human nature is corrupt. Just because a desire or behavior is natural doesn't necessarily make it acceptable or good.

On the other hand, if the atheistic naturalists are correct, then there is no such thing as the supernatural. If there's no such thing as the supernatural, then everything is natural. If everything is natural, then how can "it's only natural" be a justification? The justification is essentially, "it exists." Not much of a justification.

"It's only natural" is a ground for sympathy, but not for morality.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Rains Came Down and the Floods Came Up

Why do you call me, 'Lord, Lord,' and do not do what I say? I will show you what he is like who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice. He is like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built. But the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. The moment the torrent struck that house, it collapsed and its destruction was complete. - Luke 6:46-49

I remember when I was a kid we used to sing a song in children's church about the wise man who built his house on the rock and the foolish man who built his house on the sand. Ever since the days when I sang that song, I've thought of "the rock" as God's Word or Jesus and "the sand" as any worldly philosophy, self-centered lifestyle, or man-made religious system.

When I read this passage this morning, though, I was struck by the fact that "the rock" and "the sand" represent something more specific. The rock is not simply God's word, but God's word put into practice. Jesus tells this parable because he's surrounded by people who are paying him lip-service but aren't actually obeying him. His point seems to be that unless our faith is built upon a foundation of obedience, it will not withstand the challenges of life.

I have quite a few friends who's faith has not withstood those challenges. The floods of personal heartbreak, temptation, disappointment, and intellectual doubt have crashed over their homes with a vengeance and the destruction appears to be complete. They no longer call, "Lord, Lord."

I myself have felt the storms rage outside my house, and there have been times where I've wondered whether or not the structure will collapse. My primary tactic of fortification over the last seven years or so has been the acquisition of knowledge: that is, looking for rational, philosophical, and evidential reasons for belief in Christ. Reading. Learning. Thinking. Putting myself in situations where I have to interact with people who think differently than me.

I'm thankful for how I've grown over these last seven years. Acquisition of knowledge is good. But, Jesus' parable suggests that in the absence of obedience to Christ's teaching, neither my faith nor anyone else's can withstand the storm.

Who gets to "see" God? Is it the smartest people? The people who are exceptionally good at acquiring and analyzing information? The rigid empiricists?

Jesus said, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God." (Matthew 5:8)

If we are having trouble seeing God, I think the first thing we need to ask ourselves is: Are we pure of heart? Have we tried obedience? If we have not, then by Christ's own admission the house of our faith is built on sand. If the waves get high enough, we're going down.

Jesus said blessed are the merciful. Are we extending mercy? He said blessed are the peacemakers. Are we trying to create peace in our relationships and in the world at large? He said blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Are we longing to do what is right?

He also said, "anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment" and that we should "settle matters quickly with [our] adversaries..." Have we confessed and repented of the anger that exists in our hearts? Have we sought reconciliation with those we have wronged and openly forgiven those who have wronged us?

And then there's this one: "You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.' But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." Have we made an effort not to entertain lustful thoughts? Have we rejected pornography and any media that leads us to view people as objects for personal gratification?

Have we loved our enemies? Prayed for those who hate us? Given to the needy?

And, if we've tried obedience and failed, have we tried asking for God's help? Have we experienced the grace that is offered in the wake of that failure?

I cannot speak for my friends who have lost faith. I want to be careful here: I am not trying to say that every person I know who's lost his or her faith is a porn-watching, anger-filled, selfish war-monger. Perhaps my friends tried obedience and found it an insufficient means of "seeing" God. I don't know, and I can't know. Only they know. What I do know, though, is that I still have quite a bit of work to do when it comes to living out Christ's commands wholeheartedly. And if what Christ is saying is true, it seems that my obedience (or lack thereof) has a direct impact on my perception of reality. Any of us who are even entertaining the idea of taking Christ seriously need to recognize this.

Monday, July 1, 2013

C.S. Lewis on Total Depravity

"...if God's moral judgment differs from ours so that our 'black' may be His 'white', we can mean nothing by calling Him good; for to say 'God is good', while asserting that His goodness is wholly other than ours, is really only to say 'God is we know not what'. And an utterly unknown quality in God cannot give us moral grounds for loving or obeying Him. If He is not (in our sense) 'good' we shall obey, if at all, only through fear - and should be equally ready to obey an omnipotent Fiend. The doctrine of Total Depravity - when the consequence is drawn that, since we are totally depraved, our idea of good is worth simply nothing - may thus turn Christianity into a form of devil-worship."

- The Problem of Pain (Chapter 3 - Divine Goodness)

Friday, June 28, 2013


Social media is making me feel weird.

Somehow I feel too liberal, too conservative, too orthodox, too progressive, too grown-up, too immature, too intelligent, too stupid, too bold, and too passive all at the same time.

The word "too" looks funny when you write it a bunch of times.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Now I Know in Part...

Yesterday, several videos showed up in my Facebook mini-feed of people being able to hear for the first time (or at least being able to hear better) thanks to cochlear implants. I watched one. Then another. Then many more.

The reactions people have are very moving. Many start crying when they hear the first sounds. Often they are startled or even confused, because their brains aren't used to processing sound.

It got me thinking: how do you describe sound to someone who has never heard or sight to someone who has never seen? Each is - as far as I can tell - an irreducible category of experience. To see is to detect light, but what could the concept of "detecting light" possibly mean to someone who has only known darkness? Can the experience of light or sound really be adequately compared to any other aspect of human experience? I don't think so. At the same time, people who are blind or deaf probably have experiences of reality that I have no category for either.

This leads me to wonder: how much of the whole of reality are we unaware of because we lack the sense(s) to perceive it? Are there other aspects of reality that are like light to a blind man or sound to a deaf person but which all human beings are blind and deaf to? My guess is yes. I suppose this is an unprovable assumption, but it seems to me a very rational one. Even with the senses that we do have, we're able to conclude that there is much to reality which is not immediately detectable (e.g., ultraviolet light, radio waves, etc). All signs suggest that reality is more, not less, than the sum of our experiences.

I believe all of us will experience something analogous to the cochlear implant after death: a new sense (or perhaps several senses) which will grant us the ability to experience reality in its fullness. The Apostle Paul wrote, "Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known." (1st Cor 13:12).

I hope Paul is right. Knowing in part can be frustrating.

I suspect that this opening of our senses will be a little like these cochlear implant videos, only more so: Tears. Feeling overwhelmed. An ability to experience those we love in a way we never could before. A sense that something we've gone without for so long has finally been granted to us.

I think it will be beautiful, but probably a little scary, too. Maybe really scary. Especially if we want to hold on to an incomplete or deluded view of reality. The more we learn to love and long for the truth now, the more beautiful coming face to face with it will be.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Erasing Hate

Last night, I watched a really fascinating documentary on Netflix called Erasing Hate. The film is about Bryon Widner, a man who spent sixteen years living as a neo-nazi. During those years of hate, violence, and substance abuse, Widner literally wore his heart (or lack thereof) on his sleeve. He covered his face and body in "white power" tattoos, including swastikas, an SS symbol, and a bloody switchblade. In his early teens, he had H-A-T-E inked across his knuckles. He knew his tattoos would prevent him from ever integrating into mainstream society, but that didn't matter to him because he had no intention of doing so. As a neo-nazi, he planned on either dying young or dying in prison.

In the documentary, Bryon recounts some of the horrible things he's done: baseball bat beatdowns, switchblade slicings, and slamming a Mexican janitor's head repeatedly into a toilet bowl. Sometimes, he says, "I lie awake all f****** night thinking about what I've done." Because Bryon was drunk so much of the time, he's not even sure how much violence he's inflicted.

And yet, somehow, Bryon - a man who now admits he once had no regard for human life - changed his mind. He met a woman named Julie at a white power rally and they fell in love. Simultaneously, both began to have doubts about the world they were in. Eventually they married and Bryon became a father to Julie's children. For a time they remained in the white power associations because they didn't know how to function outside of them, but eventually they decided they had to break free. As they cut ties with their community, their former "friends" began to threaten their lives, forcing Bryon and his family to flee the state.

Since then, Bryon and Julie have tried to build a life for themselves. Erasing Hate focuses on a critical step in the process: removing Bryon's facial tattoos - an excruciatingly painful process that took a year and a half and over 20 procedures.

I don't want to give everything about the film away because I really think it's worth watching, but I will say I was deeply moved. Searching the comments on Netflix, I noticed that many gave the film a low rating because they didn't think Bryon deserved to have his life redeemed. Many also doubted that his change of heart was sincere.

Whether or not Bryon's life deserves to be redeemed isn't up for debate: it doesn't. I suspect that if I were to witness half the things Bryon did I would be physically ill. However, I believe that grace - the willingness to grant others blessing they do not deserve - is a good, beautiful, and transforming thing. It reflects the very nature of God. Bryon doesn't deserve redemption, but nothing that is redeemed deserves redemption. Redemption is what happens when that which deserves to be tossed in the garbage is miraculously salvaged. This is Bryon's story, and from the Christian perspective it is even more than that: it is the story of the entire Creation.

As to whether or not Bryon's change of heart is sincere, I see no reason to doubt. He has chosen to leave a sub-culture that kills its apostates and has renounced his former associations in a very public way, despite the risks involved. He has suffered the agony of tattoo removal (which, if you watch the documentary, you will see is no small thing), and he has gained the trust and friendship of those he once regarded as his enemies.

I can understand, though, why people doubt. Repentance - that is, the changing of one's mind - is perhaps the most miraculous event of all, and we in the West are particularly suspicious of miracles. People like Bryon, though, are proof that they can happen.

Watching Bryon suffer through the numerous tattoo procedures struck me as reflective of the Christian journey of sanctification. We all have the scars of sin on our lives, and many of those scars run very deep. We begin the process of repairing those scars by experiencing repentance - a remarkable change of mind - but the process of reparation is often a long and difficult road. In fact, it is a lifelong process, and it includes seasons of pain. God takes the laser beam of the Holy Spirit to the scars sin has inked on our hearts and blasts them away, and there are times when the process is so painful we want to throw in the towel. But perseverance yields profound reward, and one day we will be presented as pure and blameless before the God who loves us enough not to leave us covered in hate and evil.

I wish I could talk to Bryon. I would tell him that I've prayed for him - that I know how hard it is to stay on the narrow path when there are so many off-ramps on to the the broad highway of destruction. I would tell him I believe God has been doing a great work in Him, and that He'll be faithful to carry it to completion. I would tell him that most of the New Testament was written by a guy who was killing Christians before he was converting them, and to take comfort in that. I would tell him to take one day at a time, to love his wife and kids, and to not let those who disbelieve his repentance define him. May God continue to raise him from the dead.


Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Cynicism vs. Joy

"For me it is amazing to experience daily the radical difference between cynicism and joy. Cynics seek darkness wherever they go. They point always to approaching dangers, impure motives, and hidden schemes. They call trust naive, care romantic, and forgiveness sentimental. They sneer at enthusiasm, ridicule spiritual fervor, and despise charismatic behavior. They consider themselves realists who see reality for what it truly is and who are not deceived by "escapist emotions." But in belittling God's joy, their darkness only calls forth more darkness.

People who have come to know the joy of God do not deny the darkness, but they choose not to live in it. They claim that the light that shines in the darkness can be trusted more than the darkness itself and that a little bit of light can dispel a lot of darkness. They point each other to flashes of light here and there, and remind each other that they reveal the hidden but real presence of God. They discover that there are people who heal each other's wounds, forgive each other's offenses, share their possessions, foster the spirit of community, celebrate the gifts they have received, and live in constant anticipation of the full manifestation of God's glory."

- Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son

Thursday, March 14, 2013

So I Don't Forget This...

"Ways and means are going to occur to you, be suggested to you, be recommended to you by some of the other prophets in town, that are going to be convincing and tempting, ways and means that set aside The Holy for something much more understandable and accessible. The fact is that men and women have no love or taste for The Holy - they want a God who serves them on their terms, not a God they can serve on his terms. Don't be misled: the task of preaching the truth of salvation is not helped by clear communication - clear communication requires using the words and syntax that people are familiar with, that is part of their dailiness. But The Holy is not part of what they are used to. It is obscured by sin, it is a faded memory of the image in which they were created. The preaching of The Holy is not furthered by techniques or strategies. The Holy is not a problem to be solved. And if you compromise in the slightest you will betray me. You will also betray these people. No matter how much they might respond to you, no matter how much they might applaud your preaching, you will end up cheating them of a holy life, a life from Above, a life healed, restored, ransomed, forgiven - by The Holy."

- Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

What Art Is

"I had never paid attention to a sanctuary as a piece of art, doing what art does - using the sensory (material, sound, texture) to give access to mystery, to get "behind the scenes" of our ordinary lives - to see, hear, touch, taste, and smell the vast world of beauty that inhabits, underlies, and permeates space and time, place and each person. The Holy."

- Eugene Peterson, The Pastor.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Thoughts on Trees

I really like trees. Growing up in rural New England, nothing is more ordinary than trees, but I'm still not tired of them. It might sound sappy to say this, but trees just look more beautiful to me with each passing year. I look up at their twisted branches and feel a quiet joy. The sky and the ocean have the same effect.

Richard Dawkins said in The God Delusion, "Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?"

I don't believe in fairies myself, but I do believe in angels, demons, and a God who is unseen, and of course those are the beliefs Dawkins is really going at here. He's saying we shouldn't need to resort to belief in anything supernatural (or "extra-natural") in order to fully appreciate the world around is. To an extent, I think he's right. Clearly, people are capable of appreciating nature without considering it the product of a Divine mind. However, I would say those who do so are appreciating the signifier while missing out on what the signifier signifies. It's like opening a book and saying, "Can't we just appreciate the shape and arrangement of these squiggles without insisting that they mean anything?" We could, but we'd lose a lot.

Do trees signify something beyond what they are, or are they simply trees? Do they mean something, or are they just aesthetically-pleasing squiggles?

The naturalist analyzes the squiggles with discipline and thoroughness. He knows precisely what they are comprised of, how old they are, and how frequently certain patterns tend to occur. But he doesn't think the squiggles are actually words.

It is interesting to me that the Bible describes God as speaking the world into existence. If the universe is what the words of God look like, then perhaps naturalism is the philosophy of analyzing the squiggles while refusing to accept the possibility that they are actually words. Like missing the forest for the trees, it's missing the words for the letters. And when you miss the words, you lose the plot.

The skeptic retorts: Prove it! Show me that there are more than just the squiggles! Those of us who claim to see more than squiggles struggle a bit here. We point to the beauty and order of the arrangement as evidence that the squiggles are actually words, but the skeptic protests that we know so much about the composition and arrangement of the squiggles that the assumption that they are actually words is unfounded. Those of us who believe reply: we know the squiggles are words because we know the language! But how do we know it? Maybe its innate. Or maybe it was taught to us. For the naturalist, either possibility is proof that we are deceived (in the first case we're deceived by our genetics, in the second by misleading socialization). For the rest of us, though, we hear the words when we see the squiggles, and their arrangement persuades us that a story is being told. Most of the time, that is good enough.

Thought For the Day

Seminary: it makes you certain of which things you have to be uncertain about.

Monday, February 18, 2013

I'm Not a Process Theologian

"It is the great mythology and fiction of contemporary naturalism that atomic units can generate unity out of themselves."

-Royce Gruenler, The Inexhaustible God

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Because It's Valentine's Day

One of the few blogs I read on a regular basis is the Internet Monk. In a recent post, a letter written in 1941 by J.R.R. Tolkien was quoted. Tolkien was advising his son, telling him not to have an overly idealistic view of romantic love in his search for a wife. He wrote,
[Medieval chivalry] is not wholly true, and it is not perfectly 'theocentric.' It takes, or at any rate has in the past taken, the young man's eye off women as they are, as companions in shipwreck not guiding stars. (One result is for observation of the actual to make the young man turn cynical.) To forget their desires, needs and temptations. It inculcates exaggerated notions of 'true love', as a fire from without, a permanent exaltation, unrelated to age, childbearing, and plain life, and unrelated to will and purpose. (One result of that is to make young folk look for a 'love' that will keep them always nice and warm in a cold world, without any effort of theirs; and the incurably romantic go on looking even in the squalor of the divorce courts). (emphases mine) 
When it comes to searching for a spouse, I think it is very hard to strike a proper balance between romance and pragmatism. Over the centuries, we've swung from being entirely pragmatic (when marriages were arranged and based on practicality) to expecting that our marital unions be based entirely on romantic feelings - feelings that are pretty much unsustainable.

Does God prefer one over the other? I'm sure some would argue that arranged marriages have a lot going for them. For one, they eliminate the turmoils of the courtship/dating process, helping to reduce youthful indiscretions, painful breakups, and unwed pregnancies. They also put the husband and wife in a position where they must choose from the outset to love one another rather than simply assent to euphoric feelings. In other words, arranged marriages provide a unique opportunity to practice "agape" love.

However, I wouldn't advocate for turning back the clock. In defense of romance, is there not something undeniably beautiful about choosing someone? That is, falling for someone and forsaking all others for him/her? Isn't it clear that there is something about the way we are wired that arranged marriages simply can't satisfy? And isn't there a case to be made that this wiring is a part of God's design?

It is fascinating to me that the Bible has very little to say, in terms of prescriptive directions, when it comes to the process of finding a spouse. How odd that something so significant in the human experience is addressed so little. Of course, instructions are given for those who are married - instructions that demonstrate how significant and special the marriage union is supposed to be - and there are numerous commands to flee from sexual immorality (see my post from 1/16/13 for more on this), but there is almost nothing about the process of moving from singleness to marriage.

Perhaps this is because this is an area God wants the human race to have some freedom in. Maybe there are supposed to be multiple paths by which a man and a woman can become one, and we are supposed to trust Him in the process depending on whatever culture we are in. Maybe the reason the Bible stays silent about this is because there's supposed to be some mystery surrounding how it happens, and that is part of the magic of it.

The author of Proverbs includes "the way of a man with a maiden" among the top things he does not understand (30:18). Amen.

But, I've digressed. Getting back to Tolkien: I like his metaphor. Single people who want to be married should not be looking for a guiding star. We should be looking for a companion in shipwreck. I like the metaphor, because I think it strikes a healthy balance between the two extremes of pragmatism and romance. We should not be overly idealistic, because we will never find another human being who can be our 'guiding star.' If that is what we are looking for we will inevitably become bitter and cynical, and - if we ever do get married - divorced. However, if we adjust our aim to 'finding a companion in shipwreck,' we will be less likely to end up disappointed and we might actually find someone who fits the bill. We'll know what to look for: someone we can brave the after-effects of the Fall with. But, in the midst of this pragmatic attitude there's still a place for romance. I mean, you're being shipwrecked with someone. That's romantic, no?

Happy Valentine's Day to all you shipwrecked stars.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Peter Kreeft on Forgiving

"Why must we forgive all offenses? Because we have been forgiven all offenses by the One whom we offend in all offenses. ("Whatever you do to one of the least of theses, my family, you do to me.")

And because that One tells us that we cannot be forgiven unless we forgive.

Why? Not because God withholds it. He doesn't. But we cannot receive it, even though He gives it, when the hands of our souls are closed.

When we don't forgive others, we make them our masters. When we chew on others' faults, we make them the masters of our misery.

If we forgive only the forgivable and not the unforgivable, if we proportion our love to dessert, then we subject love to justice. And that is idolatry, for God is love. Justice is only love's backup. When love is gone, justice is needed to protect us from each other."

- Peter Kreeft, Before I Go. Lanham: Sheep & Ward, 2007.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

How I Spent My Winter Break

After a month-and-a-half long break, I just returned to seminary for my second-semester. Naturally, this means I've been seeing a lot of people who I haven't spoken to since mid-December and we are all asking each other the same obligatory question, "How was your break?" As I've answered this question multiple times, I've realized that what comes out of my mouth sounds terribly depressing. As I'm sitting here, I'm literally laughing at how bad it sounds. In the hope that you will do the same, here is a list of 9 memorable things from my break:

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

To Wait or Not to Wait?

This is a paper I wrote for my Ethics class at seminary last semester. We were supposed to pick and analyze an ethical dilemma the Church faces today. I chose pre-marital sex. This is an issue I feel pretty strongly about, but please know my intention is not to condemn those who disagree with me. 

True Love Waits: God's Design or Outdated Cultural Ethic?

For the last 2000 years, the general consensus of the Christian Church has been that sexual intimacy ought to be reserved for marriage. As one first-century Christian is said to have written, “[Christians] share their table with all, but not their bed with all.”1

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

He Comes Down Your Chimney To Steal Your Soul

During the holidays some of you may have seen the videos I shared on Facebook of the Christmas Pentecast. If you haven't watched them, you can find them below.

The host of the pentecast - the Rev. Brother Marshall - is a satirical character created by my friend Dan. Brother Marshall is an exceptionally clueless Pentecostal preacher who thinks very highly of himself. In these videos, he takes it upon himself to warn us of the dangers of Santa Claus, who is supposedly a direct agent of Satan ("the spellin' is almost the same!"). Brother Marshall's Scriptural exegesis is atrocious and he sees a demon behind every bush. He tries to sound knowledgeable by adding unnecessary technical suffixes to his words (i.e., -cation and -ism), and defends his beliefs through meaningless non-sequiturs, irrelevant Scripture verses, and appeals to personal revelation.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Thought for the Day

Sometimes, I think it'd be easier to move heaven and earth than change someone's mind about anything that actually matters.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Thoughts on the Cross

This was an essay written for one of my classes last semester. I'm trying to keep this blog alive, so I thought I'd post it here.

The Cross. In almost every Christian church, it occupies a central position in the worship space. It is one of the most common pieces of jewelry, adorning many devout followers, some casual believers, and even a few agnostic seekers and superstitious spiritualists. It is even cut into the doors of many of our homes, which is an easy thing to miss. It wasn't until High School that I realized the pattern on my bedroom door was more than just a configuration of four indented rectangles (two small on top, two long on the bottom), but also a symbol intended to bless the space.

The popularity of the Cross is an odd thing when we realize what it really is: an ancient Roman means of torture and execution. It's like an electric chair or a noose, although less humane than both. And yet this instrument of death has become for many a symbol of life, hope, and forgiveness. Why? When one considers all the death and suffering that has occurred throughout history, why is one man's death on a cross 2000 years ago such a big deal? And what relevance could that death possibly have for those of us alive today?

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Movies, Morals, and God

I have always loved stories: books, movies, television shows. I like experiencing them and I like sharing them, and I know I'm not alone. The ever-rising price of movie theater tickets – even in a bad economy – shows that we can't help but be drawn to stories. Good stories grip us. They stir our emotions. They make us laugh, cry, or cheer – and the best can make us do all three. 

I think the reason we tend to be moved by stories is because they appeal to our intuitive moral senses. We sense that things like self-absorption, dishonesty, excessive pride, willful ignorance, and cruelty are wrong and evil. Likewise, we sense that things like love, friendship, bravery, loyalty, perseverance, and mercy are right and good. The best stories engage our emotions by playing off these intuitive senses.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

My Top 10 Songs of 2012

Well, it's that time of year again. The rule is the same as last year: songs on the list have to have been released in 2012. It was harder for me to make the list this year because I didn't listen to very much new music in 2012. Not that I'm complaining about the quality of 2012 music - I just wasn't paying real close attention. Anyway, in no particular order, these are the songs released this year that had the most impact on me: