Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Fulfilled weather, unfulfilled longings

October 1st arrived on September 30th. It feels like heaven.

You see, I LOVE October. I think I could write a book about it. So, when I stepped outside at 6:10 A.M. and felt the brisk air, I smiled. It's a good day when I can wear a sweater or my fleece vest. Even yesterday evening I felt a change in the air: something intangible, indescribable . . . but different that spoke, Fall is almost here.

But with that thought's gladness also brought with it a bit of disappointment. I realized that the really "good stuff" of October only lasts a few weeks before all the leaves are fallen into a rotting, brown mess and the icy rains of November chill a dying landscape. No more pumpkins. No more cross country. No more cider.

Isn't it so with much of life's joys? Some of them run past us too quickly to fully grasp and hold on to--like those moments of joy in which we feel the joy, but before we can identify it as such or determine exactly why we're happy they flee away. That's why we keep photo albums, to try to enter into those ephemeral moments and memories. And if that's not the case, there's never time enough to do all the other things we wish to do. Instead, they remain on a list titled "To Do Before I Die," products of a pause's daydreams. So little time and so much to do!

Every time I feel this way, it confirms to me the reality of an eternal life wherein all our joys and longings are finally met in such a way that they never pass; they will ever be fresh. The fact that we as humans have all of these unfulfilled desires that will go with us to our grave leads me to no other conclusion than that this life isn't all there is; this isn't our home. Where will we see our dreams? Wherein will "our youth come to us like the dew" (Psalm 110:3 RSV)? It can only be in the never-ending, forever-unfolding kingdom of God.

"We are strangers before thee, and sojourners, as were all our fathers: our days on the earth are as a shadow, and there is none abiding" (1 Chronicles 29:15 KJV). Such is our plight right now. But one day the shadows we grasp for will shed their ephemerality, and the joys of our heart will trade their dim tracings for the substance of Reality.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

"It's financial socialism"

I'm not someone who is very politically active, but the call to follow Jesus is certainly a call to politics of a sort. "There's a new Caesar in town," they say. The Treasury's proposed $700B bailout of investment firms is quite the conundrum, and I'd appreciate others' voices on this as well, especially thoughts marked by Scripture and Jesus' teachings.

Most of the companies getting bailed out are mortgage companies which rise and fall upon property values and people's desire and ability to buy and build homes. Others are investment firms tying up billions of dollars of Americans' retirement money. If these companies disappear, so might your 401(k) or 403(b). With failed mortgage lenders, fewer people can buy or sell homes, further crippling our economy. With dead investment brokers, more money is withdrawn from circulation as people scrimp and save for the rainy days ahead. With these problems in view, it sounds like $700 billion well spent.

But something feels a little too "Big Brother" about all this. In a recent CNN.com article, senator Jim Bunning of Kentucky (who also happens to be a former Detroit Tigers pitcher) said that "This massive bailout is not a solution. It's financial socialism and it's un-American." About as un-American as eminent domain, I say! The U.S. Treasury now owns 80% of AIG, which means that it basically controls its operations. If they do this enough times, how far apart from Communism will we really be?

To add to that, why should I shoulder a massive tax increase to pay off someone else's mortgage? Worse yet, why should my tax dollars help rescue firms whose executives have made millions and tanked their own company through irresponsible greed? After all, that's what the subprime/adjustable-rate mortgages were all about, as I see it. Homebuyers weren't disciplined enough to save money; they wanted homes now and bit off more than they could chew. Lenders wanted high-interest revenue from myopic lendees who failed to see how stupid and irresponsible it is to take on a high-interest loan with no fixed rates. Both were greedy, and now both are hurting. Will the Fed's deus ex machina end up sanctioning such behavior? It's not unlike having an abortion: Neither party thought about the future; they wanted only the moment's pleasure. But instead of learning accountability for one's actions by keeping the child, let's just let them have a quick-fix abortion instead. Sure, that's sad, but at least it gets out of the way and life can get back to normal.

Of course, you see that my Libertarian tendencies are peeking through a bit. I realize that this is a huge deal for many common people's livelihood. No, our present economic crisis is probably not what the media would like to have you fear, but it's still nonetheless a call for sobriety. We (read: I) need to have grace and compassion on those who erred, even sinned (gulp!), in this ordeal: I too will likely be a homeowner someday. Perhaps the government's rescue is a necessary evil.

What's a good government to do? And, dare I ask, What would Jesus do?

Ron Paul (remember him?) also has some helpful insight on this economic SNAFU which is now FUBAR.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Jesus the leper

Last week during my church's junior high youth group meeting, the focus was on "Jesus the healer." We read Mark 1:40-45 (NIV):

A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, "If you are willing, you can make me clean."

Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. "I am willing," he said. "Be clean!" Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cured.

Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning: "See that you don't tell this to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them." Instead he went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news. As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places. Yet the people still came to him from everywhere.

Something struck me as I thought through this story. I had always heard and thought that Jesus "could no longer enter a town openly" because he became so wildly popular due to his healing ministry. But then I thought this: He just touched a leprous man, who according to the Law was ceremonially unclean and had to live a solitary existence outside the city walls (see Leviticus 13:45-46). Anyone who touched such a diseased person also became unclean. Additionally, because many such leprous diseases are caused by bacteria, those who dared to contact lepers were feared to be disease-bearers themselves.

Could it be that because the now-healed leper spread the news that Jesus had touched him, Jesus couldn't enter public places because he was shunned as also unclean? The NIV's rendering is perhaps a little more nuanced or embellished than other translations, but it hints in this direction. Like the lepers, Jesus too had to stay out in "lonely places," cut off from the rest of society. And "yet"--in spite of his disgrace--other sick people still continued to stream to him.

Jesus' ministry was a radically shameful one in the world's eyes. As he worked his miraculous healings, the evangelist Matthew says that this fulfills what was spoken by God through his prophet Isaiah: "He took up our infirmities and carried our diseases" (Matthew 8:17). In bearing all our sin-sick ailments that defile our souls and cripple our bodies, like the lepers of old, he too had to go "outside the camp," bearing man's shame (Leviticus 13:45-46; Hebrews 13:11-13).

Many ask the age-old question, If God is both loving and sovereign, why do people suffer? But I believe that this portrait of Jesus, among many others, shows to us the wonder of his redeeming ministry: God does not stay aloof on his holy throne (read: Allah), but enters into and takes up within himself the worst of man's pains and curses, suffering alongside us and, ultimately, in our place upon his Cross.

"Jesus is my hero. He took all the bad things of the world into himself." - my Turkish friend Deniz

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Logic of Faith, Part IV: The Objective Word of Christ

As I attempted to prove in the part III, faith is nothing; it is simply looking away from your own experiences, conscience, decisions, and resources to God and his word. Like Abraham, we believe that what God tells us is true (Romans 4:17-18). Or, as the Westminster Confession of Faith says, "By this faith, a Christian believeth to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God himself speaking therein" (14:2).

The problem with assurance, as I've said, is that it can be tempting to look into ourselves to find within our own faith confirmation that we belong to Christ. After all, only those who confess and believe that Jesus is Lord will be saved and find their eternal home in the kingdom of God. But the problem with trying to derive assurance by introspectively reflecting upon ourselves is far from the biblical picture of faith and certainty exemplified in Romans 4. From the first time I read these words in Dietrich Bonhoeffer's book Life Together, the nature of Christian faith and assurance stood out in the sweetest and brightest of light:

The Christian is the man who no longer seeks his salvation, his deliverance, his justification in himself, but in Jesus Christ alone. He knows that God's Word in Jesus Christ pronounces him guilty, even when he does not feel his own guilt, and God's Word in Jesus Christ pronounces him not guilty and righteous, even when he does not feel that he is righteous at all. The Christian no longer lives of himself, by his own claims and his own justification. He lives wholly by God's Word pronounced upon him, whether that Word declares him guilty or innocent.

The death and the life of the Christian is not determined by his own resources; rather he finds both only in the Word that comes to him from the outside, in God's Word to him. The Reformers expressed it in this way: Our righteousness is an "alien righteousness," a righteousness that comes from outside of us (extra nos). They were saying that the Christian is dependent on the Word of God spoken to him. He is pointed outward, to the Word that comes to him. The Christian lives wholly by the truth of God's Word in Jesus Christ. If somebody asks him, Where is your salvation, your righteousness? he can never point to himself. He points to the Word of God in Jesus Christ, which assures him salvation and righteousness. (pp. 21-22)

In other words, "The experience of faith," says Phillip Cary, "is the practice of refusing to put faith in experience." We see in Romans 4 that Abraham lived and died by God's promises, his revelation, his declared word; he walked by faith and not by sight. In the same way, Bonhoeffer is saying that it's not our own judgments, conscience, or experiences of faith or righteousness that matter. What matters is God's Word: the law that declares us sinners, and the gospel that declares us righteous in Christ, who is the perfect Savior of sinners and their Mediator before God. We see this too in Romans 4:22-25:

That is why his [Abraham's] faith was "counted to him as righteousness." But the words "it was counted to him" were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.

God's Word says that Jesus was handed over to death "for our trespasses." It also says that "Jesus died for our sins" (1 Corinthians 15:3), that no one is righteous, and that the law shuts up everyone's mouth and holds the whole world accountable to God (Romans 3:9-20). If faith is believing what God says, then faith says: "I am a sinner under judgment (because God says so)."

God's Word also says that Jesus has fulfilled all of the law's demands and is the One in whom all of God's promised new covenant blessings are "Yes!" and "Amen!" (Romans 10:4; 2 Corinthians 1:20; Hebrews 8). He is the perfect Savior for sinners and the victorious Lord who has accomplished justification for men and has defeated the guilt and power of sin and death (Romans 3 - 8). In him we are cleansed, forgiven, reconciled to God, raised to new life, seated with God in the heavenlies, adopted as sons, sealed with the indwelling Holy Spirit, and promised an eternal inheritance in heaven (Ephesians 1:3-14; 2:4-10). So faith says, "Christ is the perfect Savior for sinners (because God declares him to be so)."

Therefore we have a new "logic of faith":

Major premise: Jesus Christ is the Savior of sinners.
Minor premise: I am a sinner.
Conclusion: Jesus is my Savior (thus, I am saved).

Both premises of this syllogism involve faith: we only know ourselves to be sinners and Jesus our Savior because God has revealed it in Scripture. If we can say and confess both these premises, that is faith and belief, because we are agreeing with and trusting in God and his word. In neither place do we need a subjective awareness of our own faith; but faith in the objective Word is certainly present and real. And where there is this faith--acknowledged or not--there is justification, adoption, sanctification, and all the benefits of union with Christ. We are assured of our salvation because God says so.

The Logic of Faith, Part III: The Object of Faith

The Logic of Faith, Intro, Part I, Part II

The Bible tells us that the righteous (justified, saved) live by faith (Romans 1:17; 2 Corinthians 5:7). Yet I hope you can now see with me that we cannot look to our faith itself for assurance of salvation. As for me, my faith is too shaky of a thing, too uncertain. I sin--a lot. But if the logic of the gospel is "Whoever believes in Jesus Christ is saved," then I cannot know that I'm saved unless I know I have met the condition of belief. But that means looking into my own life, looking for fruits born from faith (James 2:14-26). The gospel of "faith alone" becomes directed toward the experiences that faith brings into my inner life.

But what is faith? Or, rather, what are we to have faith in, that is, what is the object of our trust? Let's look at Romans chapter 4, where Paul explains the nature of faith: "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness" (v. 3). God told the great patriarch that he would bless him with a child, and that a great nation would spring from his offspring to bring blessing to the whole world (Genesis 12:1-3; 15:1-6). God sealed his promise with an oath to destroy himself if he should ever renege or come up impotent (15:7-21).* Abraham knew that as ludicrous as it was to think that the Almighty could die or destroy himself, so too was it impossible for God to fail in what he promised. His word was sure. Therefore we see in Genesis and also in Romans that Abraham's assurance of blessing did not lie anywhere within himself, but solely in the truthfulness of God and his revealed word:

Abraham . . . is the father of us all, as it is written, "I have made you the father of many nations"—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, "So shall your offspring be." He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was "counted to him as righteousness." But the words "it was counted to him" were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. (Romans 4:16-25)

Abraham knew that in himself and in his aging, barren wife Sarah there was no hope to see God's blessing realized. Instead, he looked to the heavens and saw not only how numerous God said his offspring would be, but also the God of infinite power and freedom who called those very stars into being. His body was dead, but he trusted that God gave life to the dead (see also Hebrews 11:17-19). And just as sure as he was in God's nature, so too was he certain that what the Lord said was true: "as he had been told . . . ."

So what is faith? To start, it is seeing yourself empty and insignificant, and instead looking away from yourself to the power, truthfulness, and fidelity of God. It is trusting not in your own works or resources, emotions or experiences, judgments or decisions, but clinging solely to the reliable, rock-solid Word of God, which never fails. Faith is nothing and has no substance. It is simply looking away from yourself and entirely to God and his revelation.

*In the ancient Near East, many oaths were ratified by a rite in which one or both parties killed or cut apart an animal and then walked between the pieces or placed their hands on the animal's head. In effect they were pledging, "If I ever go back on my vows, may it be to me like this animal" (cf. Jeremiah 34:18-22). Interestingly, in Genesis 15, it is only God (manifested as a smoking fire pot and torch) who passes between the carcasses. He is taking full responsibility for the oath upon himself.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Large Hadron Collider

As you may now be aware of, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the CERN lab in Switzerland has begun testing equipment that will hopefully provide a glimpse into conditions just moments after the Big Bang. (Actually, they're trying to produce antimatter or "dark matter.") There has been a lot of controversy over this, especially with suspicion by many creationists over any sort of Big Bang idea itself. As a science teacher, people frequently ask my opinions about the Big Bang, evolution, stem cells, and the like. So, I thought I might as well get it over with and say a few things concerning the LHC.

First, the CERN lab's research is not necessarily some sort of misguided quest wasting billions of dollars to prove God doesn't exist. Consider what a recent TIME Magazine article has to say about their research:

The driving principle behind the CERN experiment — and indeed physics itself — is that despite its vast and complex appearance, the universe is actually ordered, rational and elegant. Every major breakthrough in physics has shown the cosmos to conform to mathematical equations so symmetrical and satisfying they can only be described as beautiful. (Physics have christened two of the particles they will study at CERN as "truth" and "beauty," after a Keats poem that suggests the two are interchangeable.)

What drives modern physicists forward is a quest for purer beauty. The Standard Model, the theoretical framework that incorporates all current knowledge about the interaction of subatomic particles, is the closest physicists currently have to a theory of everything. But it is becoming increasingly awkward and messy, and it has holes in it. For example, despite all the gravitational forces that should be reining the universe in and slowing it down, it is expanding at a quickening rate. No one knows why. And something seems to cocoon the universe's spiral galaxies, keeping them from spinning out of control. No one knows what.

The fabric and order of the universe, physicists say, can only be described as "beautiful." I seem to recall a passage of Holy Scripture saying that "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands" (Psalm 19:1). In Genesis 1, we see God ridding the universe of all chaos and establishing his divine order.* If we pray for the outpouring of God's Spirit, may not many people discover the wonder of a cosmos so orderly and inspiring that we are led to believe a rational, intelligent, beautiful Creator is himself behind it all?

"Something seems to cocoon the universe's spiral galaxies [including our own Milky Way], keeping them from spinning out of control. No one knows what." Perhaps the yet-undiscovered reason is itself that all things are being sustained and upheld by the Lord to preserve life and propel forward his redemptive plan for history (Colossians 1:17; Hebrews 1:3). The Genesis account shows God giving the universe not only order, but order for the sake of inhabitability and life.

While I once thought NASA was a totally impractical waste of money, I think astronomy and physics may be a worthwhile pursuit, because they lead us to a deeper awe of our Sovereign.

The alleged Higgs boson, dubbed the "God particle," is supposed to account
for all mass. The CERN lab hopes to discover this elusive subatomic entity.

- - -

Second, the Big Bang theory itself presupposes belief in an immaterial, pre-existing causal agent, i.e., God. (Think along the lines of Aristotle's "Prime Mover.") What? You've never heard that before? Consider this: Any physicist or chemist knows that a reaction cannot occur unless there is disequilibrium in forces within the system. In other words, if the Bang were to have happened, it demanded unbalanced forces within the material sphere of pre-Bang matter. But prior to the Bang there could not have been any disequilibrium within the sphere, or else the Bang would have happened immediately. If there is no disequilibrium in forces, then all is at perfect equilibrium, and the Bang would never happen. So, that means that even if the material sphere existed, the Bang had to have been caused by a causal agent outside of the sphere of matter--an Uncaused Cause who created the disequilibrium. Big Bang cosmology therefore demands a pre-existent immaterial Being. Christians know him to be God the Lord, or El Olam in Hebrew, "the Everlasting God." He is YHWH, the great I AM who is outside of time.

Additionally, though I don't think this is exactly what the Old Testament's writers meant in their poetic language, there sure are a lot of references to God creating by "stretching out the heavens." (The Big Bang theory tries to account for why the universe is actually expanding.)

God made the earth by his power;
he founded the world by his wisdom
and stretched out the heavens by his understanding.
(Jeremiah 10:12)

It's a stretch, for sure, but it's interesting to think that the end of the world is portrayed as the reversal of creation; the firmament will "recede like a scroll" (Revelation 6:14) in the Day of the Lord.

- - -

This brings us to people's fears that these experiments may create a black hole that will swallow our Solar System. However, I'm reasonably confident that the LHC experiments will not create a black hole that will engulf the world and end human history. Though Jesus made it evident that even he didn't know when the Last Day would come, his Word makes it pretty obvious that people will be aware that the End is coming. He says it will be as obvious as lightning (Matthew 24:27). He also says that everyone will see him and mourn, and there will be a great trumpet sound (Matthew 24:30-31). Jesus' revelation to John says that when even the mightiest of people become aware that the Lamb of God is coming for judgment, they will fear him in such a way that they would rather have their skulls crushed (Revelation 6:15-17).

- - -

Finally, why not just lighten up a bit and have some fun with it, as my fellow Michigan State University Spartan Kate McAlpine does in her CERN lab rap video? (It's even complete with a Stephen Hawking-esque voiceover.)

* A dissenter in the Big Bang recently wrote in a blog comment, "Perhaps the most absurd thing ever believed by intelligent people is 'the big bang theory'. One would think smart people would be smart enough not to believe such a dumb thing: The idea that order can come out of chaos." But the biblical account shows exactly that: the world was "formless and void" (Genesis 1:2), but God made separations and distinctions to give it order, and he made substances and life to make it full where it was once empty. Chaos itself did not lead the universe into its established order, but that order was indeed formed from a real mess.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Blogward ho!

Ted has tagged me here to respond to this prompt: Write about 5 specific ways blogging has affected you, either positively or negatively.

1. I met Susan, through whom I met Olivia! (For those of you who don't know, Olivia has now been my girlfriend for nine months.) Several years ago (um, early 2005?) she found my blog through "Mookie" James, as I recall, and followed along with this electronic version of my life throughout my internship (student teaching) year and on through my time in the Near East. After finding out she has a "pretty darn attractive" daughter, I sort of blurted out something in a comment on her blog, and . . . history was made.

2. I have discovered that I like to think and write. Without any sort of avenue for this, I don't think I would have become aware that I really like to think through theological matters and be able to communicate to others what I'm learning. I used to write a lot in this genre in my own journal, but that has now become more of a prayer journal and a daily chronicle instead.

3. I have probably become somewhat more prideful and less discerning in what I believe. Well, maybe, maybe not. What I mean is this: Because it's easy for me to write about something and post it in the public arena (if you call my four readers the "public arena"), I know that at times I have felt like I'm somehow special because I'm writing on this pseudo-instructional platform. I've got something to tell people, darn it, and that makes me cool!

4. Blogging is both a blessing and a curse, in that I think through things a little more deeply as I actually write and receive some feedback from others; yet at the same time I am sometimes so desiring of writing something, anything, that I don't thoroughly consider the validity or worth of what I write. Let's face it, anybody with a computer can start a blog and contribute his two cents' worth. But not everyone deserves to do so. Not long ago, that required a college degree, a publisher's approval, and the work of judicious editors.

5. My desire to write--which I really do enjoy--does sometimes distract me from spending more time reading, studying, praying, and thinking. I'm sure that blogging has some value in teaching God's truth to others, but are there instead better uses of my time and mental energy?

Friday, September 5, 2008

The Logic of Faith, Part II: The Law and Anfechtung

In the last post, I attempted to briefly outline the Protestant “logic of faith,” which goes something like this:

Major premise: Everyone who believes in Christ will be saved.

Minor premise: I believe in Christ.

Conclusion: I am saved.

The problem with this is that to have assurance of salvation, I must not only have faith in Christ, but I must also know that I have faith. I must somehow reflect upon myself and determine that I am, in fact, a believer.

Muddling the waters even more is the American revivalist tradition, with its altar calls and “giving your heart to Christ.” Conversion becomes not simply trust in Christ, baptism, repentance, and catechesis, but rather some sort of subjective “conversion experience.”

But not long into one’s Christian life—or not long into mine, at least—the hammer of God’s law starts banging, showing us our own sin. Many will teach that the law’s requirements were done away with in Christ. That’s a lie. Jesus said he didn’t come to abolish the law; rather, he came to fulfill its requirements (Matthew 5:17). God’s requirements for humans’ loving obedience to him as Lord have not ended, not in the least! As the Holy Spirit does his work in us, teaching us the real weight of the law, we realize that we still live every single day as rebellious lawbreakers. “For I tell you,” Jesus says, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). Everywhere we turn, the law points out our ongoing sin and shuts our mouths (Romans 3:19-20). It reminds us that “Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them” (Galatians 3:10). This is why for so many Christians, St. Paul’s own struggle with the law in Romans 7:7-24 could be taken up as from their own lips: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

Martin Luther called this experience Anfechtung, “temptation” or “assault.” As Phillip Cary defines it, Anfechtung is "the recurrent experience of being attacked by an awareness of how offensive I am to God, a consciousness of sin and death and the devil which also shows me the weakness of my faith.* But if, at these very moments of Satan’s attempts to turn us from faith and into despair, how am I supposed to find assurance, if part of my assurance is my own faith? It’s certainly difficult (but not impossible), I would say, to be confident that I am a true believer or that my faith is “strong enough” in times of sin and weakness. What good is talking about faith, if I find little faith within me and my own experience?

There has got to be a better way . . . right?


* Phillip Cary, “Why Luther is Not Quite Protestant.”