Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Pain of God and the Pain of the World

     I have often felt like Christians are afraid to look real life in the face.  Hard times fall upon us, and we look away, not wanting to acknowledge that God might let us wade through the waters instead of pulling us from every flood that comes our way.  Avoidance is an understandable but futile desire.  Pain will find us.   Hope will at time seem fleeting.  Before there can be resurrection, there must be a day of crucifixion and a day of despair.
    I appreciate N.T. Wright's wisdom in Socrates in the City
"The closer you get to Jesus, the closer you get to the Cross; and you may well find that the pain of the world, as well as the joys of the world, will stretch you and pull you until you feel as though you were being pulled apart.  Saint Paul says that's precisely  the point: that's what we should expect to happen when the Holy Spirit is at work in someone's heart so that they are being 'conformed to the image of God's Son.'  That is the meaning of fully Christian prayer.  Part of the Christian calling is to be a person and a community where the pain of the world and the pain of God can come together."
These pains cannot meet unless they are both embraced.  May we, the people of a suffering and resurrected God, be ready to share in the fellowship of his suffering, and not just the power of his resurrection.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Death Glorious and Triumphant

     We can't escape the fact that we live in a world full of both beauty and pain.  For whatever reasons, the God who made it seems content to let us experience the spectrum.  I have spent years wondering why; I'm sure I will spend many more seeking to understand this mysterious plan.  On the one hand, pain and loss have undone me; on the other hand, I have experienced transcendent moments of beauty and peace, signposts of a world to come.
    In the midst of both devastation and joy, we are called to be content with whatever situation we have been given while simultaneously striving for the restoration offered by  God's Kingdom in the midst of a broken world.
     Peter Kreeft captures the tension well:

"On the one hand, suffering is blessed. Count it as joy when you go through manifold tribulations.  On the other hand, we are supposed to relieve it - like poverty.  Blessed are the poor - and yet the relief of poverty is one of the commandments of Christianity.  Death, which is the fishnet that catches all the fish of poverty and every other suffering in itself, is the worst thing.  It is the last enemy.  Jesus comes to conquer it through resurrection.

On the other hand, death is glorious.  There is an old oratorio that has this hauntingly beautiful line: "Thou has made death glorious and triumphant, for through its portals we enter into the presence of the living God."  Somehow or other, in this strange drama, the worst things are used as the best things.  Even morally, the worst sin ever committed, the most horrible atrocity ever perpetrated in the history of the world, was the murder of God's Son, and Christians celebrate this as Good Friday and the cause of the their salvation.  It is very strange - like life."

- from Socrates in the City

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


     "We live in a world that is remarkably fruitful and beautiful, remarkably chilling and frightening and destructive.  It is a very ambiguous sort of picture, and somehow or other, the bad things are the necessary cost of the good things.  That is not an argument you can utter without a quiver in your voice. The world is too complex and strange for that.... A Christian understanding of suffering is not that God is simply a compassionate spectator looking down on the strange and bitter world that God holds in being.  As a Christian, I believe that God is participating in the suffering of the world, that God is truly a fellow sufferer.  The Christian God is the crucified God.  That is a very deep and mysterious, though, I believe, true, insight. That is the deepest level at which the problem of suffering has to be met..."
- Sir John Polinghorne, in Socrates in the City

Saturday, February 18, 2012

If My Father Had Been Here

At a wintery party tonight, I saw my father.

I was sitting at a dining room table, recovering from ice fishing and snowmobiling.  He was sitting on a sofa in the adjacent living room, silhouetted by the crackling fire in the stone fireplace.

It was not my father, of course. My father is dead.  But I suddenly realized I had been staring for about 5 seconds at the profile of a man who, sitting at just that angle, in just that light, took me back 10 years, before life's final winter took my father.

I looked away, but my eyes kept drifting back. That initial moment brought out a child in me, a boy who would have gone and sat down on the empty sofa seat reserved for me.  I knew that in five minutes the moment would pass, so I lingered, creating and absorbing a moment beautifully false and achingly close.

If that man had been my father, I would have got up from the table at that moment and sat next to him. I would have winced as he told corny jokes, listened as he maneuvered through conversations of any topic, spoke boldly when he asked my opinion, watched the background basketball game with him, refilled his coffee when I got more for myself, teased him about not trying the polar bear plunge, and just been really proud of his presence among my friends.

That's what I would have done if my father had been there. 

Five minutes later, the moment had passed, dissolved into the dwindling stream of sweet memories.

Thirty minutes later, I was home, winter party and wintery memories left snugly next to the embers in a friend's hearth. I carried sleeping Vincent into the house, read the prologue to a story Braden had written, and sat down with AJ to watch Ohio State and Michigan play some hoops.

That is what my father would have done, if he had been here. 

Thursday, February 16, 2012

A Healthy Sense of Doom

There is a great scene in The Fellowship of the Ring where Pippin knocks some old armor into a deep well while in the Mines of Moria ("Fool of a Took!").  While they all wait in breathless suspense, a drum booms.  Then another.  Then another.  The sounds marks impending doom for all of them. Goblins, orcs, and things much fouler and deeper are coming.

First they barricade themselves, then they fight, then they flee towards freedom.  They cannot make it on their own, of course, but Gandalf is in the midst of them, ready to give his life to save those running from the darkness.

   We live in a culture that loves happy, shiny, feel-good moments.  Sure, we love the swine flu and 2012 doomsday scenarios, but only because they are deliciously false.  Any real sense of doom is quickly numbed by a myriad of distractions. Unfortunately, the church has bought into this mindset.

 Paul said about the church in Thessalonica: "They marvel at how expectantly you wait for the arrival of God's Son, whom He raised from the dead - Jesus, who rescued us from certain doom."

Those most aware of certain doom are most inclined to long for the freedom Christ brings.  Those who know they are dead most appreciate the one who can give them life.

When's the last time we heard the drums that pound out a message of doom into the background noise of our own lives?  We're pretty good at drowning them out with music, movies, video games, texting, drugs, porn, work, play - anything, really.  The goblins and orcs that we have summoned are drawing closer and we have no idea.  We throw our lives casually down the wells of sin and indulgence, but are never sobered and quiet enough to listen to what the consequences will be.

I see so many Christians who live without a healthy sense of doom.  How do I know?  Because if they knew what awaited them, they would barricade themselves, fight, flee, and pray that God delivers them as they sprint toward the light.

Instead, they slouch deeper into the mines of greed, jealousy, pettiness, gossip, pornography, judgement, anger, pride and self-pity.  The spiritual and relational armor they toss casually down the well of compromise makes a massive amount of noise which everyone around them hears with great clarity, but to which they are oblivious.  They have no idea that doom approaches.

So marriages collapse, businesses fail, friends leave, influence and authority wanes, effective ministry dies, and they have no idea why.  They are deaf to the drumbeats God has graciously provided as a wake-up call. When the fellowship leaves,  heading towards the light, they stay behind.

I wish I were exempt from this, but I'm not.  I can point to too many times in my life where I deliberately smothered the very warning that would have pointed me toward the light of Christ.

Here's what I have learned: If we want to be effective witnesses for Christ, we must regain a healthy sense of doom.  Our sins will kill us; have we forgotten? We must hear the drums.  We, of all people, ought to appreciate the punishment from which we have been saved.  If we don't how can we winsomely and articulately share "the hope that lies within us"?  If the things from which we have been saved intrigue us, will the hope of salvation really be that big of a deal?

We all want to to draw others to Christ.  While we study so that we can know what to say and how to say it, perhaps we should listen for the drums.   I suppose Aragorn could have stayed in the mines, but then that's the end of the story.  Those of us who love the light must hate the dark, and be honest enough to confront it in our own lives.  God will give us warning - He made the drums after all - and He can transform the fear of doom into the hope of salvation. 


Thursday, February 9, 2012


This dog is making me rethink beauty.

When I first looked at him I tilted my head a bit, thinking he was tilting his head too.  He wasn’t.  His face is crooked.  You would think this should count against him, but it doesn’t.  He’s not perfect, but somehow that actually adds to my opinion of him.  (How many of you thought, “Ahhhhh!”)

I am wondering why imperfections sometimes make things more beautiful.

This seems wrong somehow.  Beauty is perfection, right?  Don’t studies show that the more a person's is symmetrical, the more we consider him or her beautiful?  If we are so drawn to perfection, it would seem to follow that the more physically perfect something is, the more beautiful it is.

However, as Christians, we embrace a tension about this. We talk about the perfection and beauty of Christ, and yet the Bible says of Jesus, “There is no beauty we would desire of Him” (Isaiah 53:2).   

I believe we confuse “beautiful” and “aesthetically pleasing.”  While beauty and aesthetic appeal are not at odds with each other by any means, they are far from synonymous.  There are many things some consider beautiful (such as the glorious scarlet and grey of the Buckeyes) that others (namely, everyone else in the state of Michigan) do not.  This is actually not a clash over beauty; it is a clash over aesthetic appeal.

Many have tried to define beauty. Plato said beauty was ultimately an ideal form that manifested in things we see as beautiful; Aristotle didn't like Plato's ideal state that much, so he offered an oddly circular explanation that beauty exists in beautiful things. I don't find this helpful. To say beautiful things are beautiful because they participate in beauty stops somewhere short of profound.  

In the interest of continuing the traditional search to describe beauty, I propose this definition: Beauty is “the state in which a person, object or idea most fully fulfills its nature and purpose.”  This is not the same as saying, "I like it a lot!"  This definition says there is an objective standard with which to judge the truly beautiful things in the world, a standard that is independent of perspective. True lovers of beauty are those who seek to recognize, appreciate, and fulfill the nature and purpose in everything, including themselves.

As Christians, we look to the Bible to understand both these things.  The more the world aligns with the intent of God's creation, the more the world fills us with awe at its magnificence.  The more sin distorts the nature and purpose of the world, the more we grieve the loss of true beauty.  

If I am correct, this explains why worldviews without God have such a hard time defining beauty.  Yes, symmetry, precision, and gut level responses are really cool, but they are hardly foundational.  Many explanations affirm Aristotle - beauty is clearly present in beautiful things - but what have we learned?  Without God, both the nature and the purpose of everything is uncertain, so the identification of beauty remains uncertain.  Even if one decides on the “nature’ of something, it is a result of time and chance and could change; furthermore, it’s hard to extrapolate purpose from a purposeless universe.

But if my definition is correct, that’s also why imperfect dogs can still be beautiful.  They are by nature dogs – “a domesticated carnivore belonging to the same family as the wolf.”  The shape of their noses or their ability to jump through tires are irrelevant.  Their aesthetic appeal is distinct from their beauty. As to their purpose (to use the vernacular) they are man’s best friend; they are a combination of playmate, watchdog, and companion. Mission accomplished.
 I am grateful the Designer of the universe has given all things both a nature and purpose, filling our lives with so much beauty.  We currently experience everything in a fallen state, but we are drawn to the beauty that remains. One day, everything will be as God intended in the Land of the Beautiful. 
Meanwhile, we love a truly beautiful Christ who loved us in spite of the damage that sin has done to our nature and purpose.  If we could all be so generous in our love of the people and things around us that are crooked but nonetheless retain glimpse of a beauty that will one day be complete. 

Friday, February 3, 2012

Explaining Beauty Away

I have spent a lot of time in the past 10 years writing about the hardships in life.  My scars are hardly unique, but I have sought to embrace the experiences and the implications of  life’s broken beauty with as much honesty as I can muster.

But there is more to “broken beauty” than the broken.  There is also beauty. As C.S Lewis pointed out, one cannot understand crooked without understanding straight.  In the same way, one cannot think with clarity about the ugliness of life without an understanding of its beauty.

In the presence of sometimes staggering pain and ugliness, one must either explain it or explain it away.  Worldviews have dismissed it as illusory (some Eastern religions), refused to even define it (Atheism), or sought to understand the reason and the solution (Christianity).
The presence of grandeur and goodness provides no less of a challenge.  One must either explain things like beauty, awe and wonder, or explain them away.
The New Atheist movement believes that Christianity fails in its attempt to explain our existence: “Something of the wonder of this world is lost when we explain away phenomena with supernatural, untestable, unfalsifiable, conjecture.”  
The Christian theologian wonders, in turn, how atheists find wonder or appreciate beauty in a world without God -  a world that atheists believe is without meaning, purpose, or design.

    A good worldview needs to explain the world, not explain the world away.

If a picture is truly worth a thousand words, I will let the following pictures and quotes make the bulk of my argument - Christianity explains beauty; atheism explains it away.  

“Peacocks are carrying around this beautiful…useless [tail][ but they are still strong enough for really important stuff…evolution is just producing these weird things… have to admit that important parts of life are not efficient or engineered to work out. If you wound back evolution, you wouldn’t end up with the same things we have now. This isn’t the world we had to get—it is just some weird possibilities that happened to catch on.”  – David Rothenberg

“I am deeply impressed the the existence of value in the world....our physical world is shot through with value, with beauty...the wonderful order of the world and the fruitfulness of cosmic history are reflections of the mind and purpose of the Creator." John Polkinghorne

I believe the book of nature .. suggests a God of purpose and a God of design. And I think my belief makes me no less a scientist.”  Owen Gingerich

“Wilson suggested that natural selection might have instilled in us a “biophilia,” or reverence for nature, that benefits both us and those creatures with which we enjoy mutually beneficial relationships. But why do we respond to so many things—butterflies, starfish, rainbows, sunsets—from which we extract no tangible, utilitarian benefit?” - John Horgan

"[A]n acquaintance with natural laws means no less than an acquaintance with the mind of God therein expressed." Physicist James P. Joule


“It was when I was happiest that I longed most. The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing to find the place where all the beauty came from.” C.S. Lewis

"Take your choice: blind chance that requires multitudes of universes or design that requires only one..."  Cosmologist Edward R. Harrison

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Small, Inglorious Things

Christians often think, "It is wonderful to be a Christian, but I am such a small person, so limited in talents-or energy or psychological strength or knowledge-that what I do is not really important." The Bible, however, has quite a different emphasis: With God there are no little people… and there are no little places….
Nowhere more than in America are Christians caught in the twentieth-century syndrome of size. Size will show success. If I am consecrated, there will necessarily be large quantities of people, dollars, etc. This is not so. Not only does God not say that size and spiritual power go together, but he even reverses this (especially in the teaching of Jesus). We all tend to emphasize big works and big places, but to think in such terms is simply to hearken back to the old, unconverted, egoist, self-centered Me.

When we’re asked to do a thing, especially in the Lord’s work, it really doesn’t matter whether the thing is “important” or not.  Our real attitude toward service is probably not measured by our performance in the big, glorious situations but rather by our steadfastness in the small, inglorious ones. So Paul said, “Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 15:58).

Only one thing is important: to be consecrated persons in God's place for us, at each moment. Those who think of themselves as little people in little places, if committed to Christ and living under his Lordship in the whole of life, may, by God's grace, change the flow of our generation.

- Francis Schaeffer