Friday, January 20, 2017

The Speed of Light

Light travels at 186 thousand miles per second. That means it travels about six trillion miles in a year, so that’s the distance in a light year.

The sun is “only” about 0.000016 of a light year (93 million miles) from Earth; its light reaches us in about eight minutes twenty seconds. After the sun, the next nearest star to Earth is Proxima Centauri, which is about four light years away, so its light takes about four years to reach us.

Light from Polaris (the North Star) travels 680 years before reaching Earth.

That’s about how many years passed between the times in which Isaiah and Jesus preached. Isaiah lived in a time when the darkness of empire—the Assyrian empire, in the case of eighth-century Judah—was creeping into the land. He looked forward to a time when the Lord’s light would drive the darkness away.

Isaiah said,

In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined (9:1b-2).

Matthew says about Jesus,

He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: "Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned." From that time Jesus began to proclaim, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near" (4:14-17).

Isaiah’s hopes for the coming light were fulfilled in other ways through the years—the people returning from Babylonian exile in the late sixth century no doubt saw that event as a fulfillment of Isaiah’s words, for example—but for Matthew and the early church, Jesus’ ministry was their most complete fulfillment. In Jesus, the light for which Isaiah looked had come.

Some stars that are visible to the naked eye are as far as two thousand light years away, so it’s taken two thousand years for their light to get to us. Here we are, living two thousand years after Jesus. Do you ever wonder how much of Jesus’ light has made it to us? How can we let our lives be more open to the light of Jesus’ love and grace so it will drive away the darkness of pride and power that sows dissension and disunity?

It didn’t take two thousand years for such issues to develop. Jesus’ original disciples dealt with the darkness that accompanies the quest for power with its accompanying pride and jealousy. And it was only about twenty years after Jesus lived that Paul was imploring the church at Corinth to overcome its divisions (1 Cor 1:10-18). So it’s not surprising that we still have trouble letting the light drive away our darkness.

But light is stubborn. It keeps going. It keeps coming.

Today’s powerful telescopes can detect the light from objects as far as 10-15 billion light years away. When scientists see the light from those objects, they see light that has been traveling for ten to fifteen billion years.

If humans still exist somewhere ten to fifteen billion years from now (it’ll have to be somewhere other than Earth, since our sun will die in around five billion years), God’s light of love and grace, which is most fully revealed in Jesus, will still be trying to reach us ...

This post first appeared in a slightly different form on Coracle, the blog of NextSunday Resources.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

A Tale of Two Banquets

The Gospels of Mark and Matthew tell the story about Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand right after telling the story of King Herod’s birthday bash. You can read it all in Mark 6:17-44 and Matthew 14:1-21.

It’s hard to imagine two more contrasting culinary events.

Herod throws himself a birthday party (which makes you wonder if anybody else would have thrown it for him). His yes-men and hangers-on are there, as are the rich and powerful folks. It’s not hard to imagine the opulence and decadence of the celebration. No doubt the food was excellent and the wine abundant.

The party has a backstory. 

Herod had married his brother Philip’s wife, whose name was Herodias. John the Baptist had criticized their behavior, and had for his trouble been thrown into prison, which can happen when someone speaks truth to power. During the festivities, Herodias’s daughter dances for Herod and his guests. Herod is so pleased with her performance that he tells her he’ll give her anything she asks for. Prompted by her mother, who was evidently quite unhappy with John’s observations about her and Herod’s ethical practices, she requests that the preacher’s head be served up on a platter (which, thankfully, usually only happens to us figuratively these days).

Herod doesn’t want to do it, but he has promised right out loud to give the girl anything she wants. He has his reputation to consider and his power to maintain. So he gives the order, and the deed is done.

Hearing about John’s death, Jesus wants to go away for a while. So he gets into a boat and sails across the Sea of Galilee to what he expects will be a deserted place. But when he disembarks, a large crowd is waiting for him. Jesus has compassion for them and heals the sick among them.

As evening approaches, the disciples point out that the people will need food. They suggest that Jesus send them away so they can buy some in the nearby towns. When Jesus tells the disciples to feed the people themselves, they point out that they have only five loaves of bread and two fish, which isn’t nearly enough to feed the crowd. Jesus takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to his disciples to distribute.

After everyone has eaten, twelve baskets full of leftovers are gathered. The Jesus-blessed and disciple-distributed bread has fed five thousand men, plus the women and children who are there.

These two stories offer two different portraits of leadership.

On the one hand is the leadership of Herod, whose desire for power inspires him to share out of his abundance with people who already have more than they need, and whose need for validation leads him to harm someone whose only crime is standing up for what he believes is right.

On the other hand is the leadership of Jesus, whose compassion inspires him to use his power to heal the sick and to feed the hungry.

I reckon each of us has to decide which kind of leadership we think is best. 

I further reckon that we’ll reveal which kind we prefer in the ways we think, choose, talk, and act.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Utopian Christians in a Dystopian World

The Amazon original series The Man in the High Castle is loosely based on a novel of the same name by Philip K. Dick. My Good Wife and I have recently finished watching the second season. It’s a fascinating and troubling show. 

I’m glad there will be a Season 3. I evidently enjoy being fascinated and troubled.

The premise of the series, which is set in 1962, is that the Axis powers won World War II. The Nazis control the Atlantic side of the United States, while the Japanese occupy the Pacific side. A neutral zone in the Rocky Mountains region separates the rival empires. 

The freedoms Americans take for granted no longer exist. Their overlords treat them as second-rate humans. Some Americans collaborate with the occupying forces and some actively resist them, but most just try to survive.

The Man in the High Castle imagines a dystopian future, that is, a future in which things are about as bad as they can be. It’s hardly the first such narrative. Classic dystopian works include George Orwell’s 1984, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. More recent examples of the genre include The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins and The Passage trilogy by Justin Cronin.

When you read or watch dystopian stories, you hope things will get better. You hope that people will become able to pursue life through the exercise of risky freedom, which is the only way to really live.
You also have such hopes when you ponder the possibility of a real, rather than literary or cinematic, dystopian future.

Dystopian works of fiction usually feature people who resist the dehumanization that characterizes their world. They imagine something better and work toward bringing it about. Their efforts always prove costly. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they don’t. There’s a lot of nuance to the characters in The Man in the High Castle, but when you get down to it, the resisters are the heroes; the future of the nation, and maybe of the world, lies in their hands.

The opposite of dystopia is utopia. A utopian future is one in which everything is as it should be. The Christian view of the future is utopian. Christians believe that God is working God’s purposes out in creation and history so that, when all is said and done, everything will be renewed through Jesus Christ. The last part of the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation, presents a utopian view of the future.

But Revelation recognizes that things aren’t yet what they will be. In fact, it was written to and for Christians who were being persecuted for their faith. The main goal of the book was to encourage them to be faithful in their Christian witness, no matter how bad things were or became. They were to resist the dystopian present by living in light of their utopian future. They were to resist by being faithful to Jesus.

That’s still how Christians resist.

Christians resist dehumanization, division, and despair by practicing grace, faith, hope, mercy, and love. We resist selfish power by thinking of others first and of self last. We resist pride and arrogance by giving ourselves away.

We do all of that because we follow Jesus Christ, whose way is the way of the cross.

Christians believe in the utopian future that God will bring about. We do what we can to make things better now. And as necessary, we subvert dystopian trends and developments through the amazing grace and self-emptying love that are ours in Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Sing We Now of Christmas

Today is the fourth day of Christmas. Did you receive four calling birds? If not, you might want to consider just how true your “true love” is.

If you’re like me (admit it: you just said, “Not likely!), you were a grown human being before you learned that there really are twelve days of Christmas. For the first two decades of my life, I thought it was just one of the worst Christmas songs ever written.

It’s not the worst one, though, not by a long shot.

The worst Christmas song of all time is (with all due respect to the recently deceased and greatly lamented George Michael) “Last Christmas” by Wham!. Every time I hear it, I want to wham, bam, and slam the radio. The lyrics don’t make sense. “Last Christmas, I gave you my heart. The very next day, you gave it away.” Please. Everybody knows that you don’t give away a gift on the day after Christmas day. You go stand in a long customer service line to exchange it.

By the way, just in case you’re wondering, the second worst Christmas song of all time is “Step into Christmas” by Elton John. It makes me want to step away from Christmas, and from whatever device is inflicting that silly song on me. 

The third worst Christmas song—and it really pains me to say this, because I respect him so much—is “Wonderful Christmas Time” by Paul McCartney. Luckily, “horrible” has the same number of syllables as “wonderful,” so I can sing it in a way that fits the mood it puts me in.

(I should note that I recently read two articles that explained why “Last Christmas” and “Wonderful Christmas Time” are great Christmas songs. The authors know much more about such things than I do. They’re also wrong.)

I like all of the church’s Christmas songs. I do think one of them is misleading, though. I mean, think about it. “The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes; but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” Come on, tell the truth. We should sing, “The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes; and little Lord Jesus screams his little head off until he gets changed and fed, because he was a real baby, and that’s what real babies do.”

Besides, he’s in a stable. With smelly animals. I’m telling you, he made some crying.

But enough with the negativity. Let me tell you about my favorite Christmas song: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the words during the War Between the States. They speak to my spirit every year.

It begins,

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Till ringing, singing on its way
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

This Christmas, I confess to spending considerable time giving in to the mood of the next-to-last stanza:

And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

But I also affirm that I believe in the affirmation of the final verse:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

Let it be, dear Lord. Let it be …

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Back to Egypt

After a few centuries of slavery in Egypt, the Israelites were free.

They were in the wilderness, but they were free.

They were hungry and thirsty, but they were free.

They weren’t sure what the future held, but they were free.

They had many obstacles to overcome, but they were free.

They had a lot to work out and a lot to work on, but they were free.

It was worth it all, because they were free.

It was worth it all, that is, until it wasn’t.

So one day they said to Moses, “We want to go back to Egypt.” They said it because they had decided, after a very brief experiment in freedom, that slavery was easier.

They had decided that going backward was easier than going forward.

They had decided that the security of despotism was easier than the risk of liberty.

But they didn’t get to go back. That wasn’t possible. And they didn’t get to go forward, either.

They had to stay stuck where they were, until their fearful hearts gave out and their regressive minds shut down.

The only ones who got to go forward were those who believed in the possibilities of the future so much that they didn't allow the obstacles of the present to cause them to remember the past with a fondness it didn't deserve. 

Oh, and the children—the children of those who wanted to go back got to go forward, too. They got to experience the good future that their parents wanted to run away from. Their parents could have led them in, but they had too little hope, too little trust, and too little imagination.

Oh well. It’s just an old Bible story …

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

A Very Merry (and Mature) Christmas

When I was a boy, Christmas morning was fantastic.

It was also fantastically confusing. 

It was fantastic because I’d get just about everything on my list. I think the only reason I didn’t get everything is that it was an embarrassingly long list. Santa Claus was better to me than he should have been. But hey, it wasn’t my fault that I was an only child.

So I’d get a lot of stuff. It was fantastic.

My parents enjoyed watching me enjoying my haul. They’d also give each other a present. They’d give each other one present. And they’d seem so happy.

That was what I found fantastically confusing. Mama and Daddy would get so little, and yet they’d be so happy. It befuddled me.

I eventually asked Daddy why they didn’t get more for Christmas. “Oh,” he said, “you get to a place in life where it means more to you to give than it does to get.” Then he added, “You’ll understand one day.”

My parents were always saying things like that. I confess that I doubted them when they did. How could I expect to understand something that made no sense? How could a person ever get more pleasure out of giving than out of getting?

I’m not sure when it happened—my guess would be it was when my Good Wife and I had children— but at some point, I stopped caring much about what I was going to get for Christmas. At some later point, I stopped caring about getting anything for Christmas.

Now, don’t hear that wrong. I am very grateful for the gifts my loved ones bestow on me, mainly because I know they give them to me because they love me. Still, if for some reason I didn’t get anything for Christmas, it wouldn’t matter.

But if I couldn’t give my wife and children and children-in-law anything, that would break my heart. 

I reckon it has something to do with maturity. I guess you finally grow up enough that you’d rather give than receive.

I reckon that also explains why people who have been Christians for decades and who have been growing in the grace and love of the Lord for just about all their lives are always the least selfish and most selfless people you ever encounter. I suppose that’s why they always think about others first and about themselves last. I guess that’s why they’d rather stand up for others than defend themselves.

It all comes with maturity.

I reckon …

Thursday, December 1, 2016

When a Miracle Needs a Hand

When I was a boy, I considered CBS’s broadcast of Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer to be the official kickoff of the Christmas season. I loved watching it, emotional roller coaster though it was. 

Tears filled my eyes when Rudolph’s fake nose, which his father, Donner—who was a disgrace to fatherhood—forced him to wear, came off and the other reindeer kids laughed at his shiny sniffer. Righteous indignation stirred my spirit when Comet—who was a disgrace to the coaching profession— announced that Rudolph, just because he was different, wouldn’t be allowed to join in any reindeer games. Hope washed over bucktoothed, near-sighted, scrawny me when Clarice said she thought Rudolph had a handsome nose. 

And don’t get me started on the resurrection of Yukon Cornelius or on Santa having to ask Rudolph to save Christmas—speaking of which, Rudy is a much-needed model of how to be a gracious winner. 

But I don’t want to talk about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

I want to talk about ’Twas the Night before Christmas—not the poem, but the 1974 Rankin-Bass cartoon. 

That Christmas classic, set in the town of Junctionville, New York, tells the tale of a brilliant young mouse named Albert who, by writing an anonymous letter to the local paper saying that everyone knows there’s no Santa Claus, causes the jolly old elf to mark the town off his Christmas Eve itinerary. The townspeople are naturally desperate to get Santa to change his mind. The town’s clockmaker, Joshua Trundle, to whom Albert’s father (Father Mouse, naturally) serves as a mouse assistant—because of course he does—comes up with a plan to build a clock that will play a special song for Santa so that, when he flies by and hears it, he’ll know the town has repented and will bring the gifts.

But Albert—remember Albert?—curious to see how the clock works, ends up breaking it. All seems lost. Albert sets himself to repairing the clock. At this point, Albert sings a song to his father. It goes like this:

Miracles happen most ev'ry day
To people like you and me,
But don't expect a miracle
Unless you help make it to be, so...

You hope and I'll hurry,
You pray and I'll plan
We'll do what's necessary 'cause
Even a miracle needs a hand

You love and I'll labor,
You sit and I'll stand
Get help from our next-door neighbor 'cause
Even a miracle needs a hand

We'll help our Maker to make our dreams come true,
But I can't do it alone, so here's what we're gonna do

You hope and I'll hurry,
You pray and I'll plan
We'll do what's necessary 'cause
Even a miracle needs a hand

We'll help our Maker to make our dreams come true,
But we can't do it alone, so what are we gonna do?

You wish and I'll whittle
You drip while I dry
Let's all try to help a little 'cause
Even a miracle needs a hand.

Even a miracle needs a hand.

I thought about those words during the recent presidential election, during which I felt compelled to speak out against one of the candidates. Some of my Christian friends, concerned for me because of the amount of concern I was exhibiting about the election, reminded me that, no matter what happened, God would still be on God’s throne. 

I certainly affirm that. Remembering it provides proper perspective. We have to have faith.

But on the other hand, as the Bible says, God helps those who help themselves (Hezekiah 3:2). 

Okay, that’s not in the Bible, but there’s still some truth to it. Biblically speaking, there’s more truth to the statement, “God helps those who can’t help themselves.” Often, when there’s nothing else we can do, we find God doing something. It’s called grace.

Still, God does choose to work through people. God brought the Hebrews out of Egypt, but God used Moses to do it. The Son of God came into the world, but he came through Mary. God saved me, but God worked through the good people of the Midway Baptist Church to move me in that direction.

Is it saying too much to say that God needs us? Maybe. I’m not sure. But I am sure that God chooses to work with and through us to accomplish God’s will and to fulfill God’s purposes.

Sometimes, even a miracle needs a hand.

Sometimes, our cooperation and participation amount to a miracle.

I was pastor of a small rural church in Kentucky during my seminary years. One Sunday, after I preached on John’s version of the story about Jesus feeding the multitude (John 6:1-14)—that’s the version that has the boy share his five loaves and two fish—a church member said, “Do you know what one of our former pastors said about that story?” Now, that church had used seminary students as pastors for decades, so they had been subjected to all sorts of experiments. “What did he say?” I asked. “He said he believed that what happened was that when that boy shared his lunch, it inspired lots of other people in the crowd to share theirs, and that’s how Jesus fed everybody in the crowd.”

Now, that’s not what the story says. But I kind of wish it was.

I mean, getting people to share freely with those who are in need? That’d be a bigger miracle than the one Jesus pulled off.

So, when we ask God to help the poor, the hungry, the outcast, the marginalized, and the vulnerable—and we do, don’t we?—we need to listen for what God wants us to do.

After all, sometimes, even a miracle needs a hand. Or maybe even many hands …