Archive for December, 2010

Gervais #1

December 31, 2010

I mentioned that I’d be writing about this essay in an earlier post, and I’ve finally gotten around to reading it.  

First off, read this essay by British comedian Ricky Gervais about why he is an atheist.  Go on, read it.  I’m not afraid it’s going to destroy your faith, and you shouldn’t be either.  Read it twice, in fact, and make sure that you’ve got the basic gist of what he’s saying.  When anyone takes the time to explain what they believe and hold deeply true, it bears listening carefully to.  First, it’s a matter of respect for the other person.  Secondly, we need to be able to know if a response is necessary, and if it’s necessary, how to best approach it.
I see two major points that back Gervais’ atheism (and his not-so-backhanded assertion that everyone else should be one too).  First, there’s the issue of lack of empirical, scientific proof of God.  Secondly, there’s the issue of how religion can make people behave badly, which he is firmly against.  
Before we come back to those two basic arguments, let’s scan through for some salient comments on the essay.
His first paragraph assertions that “People who believe in God don’t need proof of his existence” sticks in my craw, but I fear it’s probably a lot more true than I’d like to think it is.  I believe that we do need proof of God’s existence, but the issue becomes what constitutes proof?  Gervais has one standard – empirical scientific observation.  I have a different one that has to do with the integrity of the Bibilical witness to what I experience in myself and in the world around me.  Mine involves the issue of a historical person who is alleged to have been resurrected from the dead and seen by more than 500 witnesses after his death.  This is a historical allegation that while often scoffed at, has never been adequately explained or written off.  Despite a lot of people with a lot of reason to want to discredit this claim, nobody in 2000 years has effectively done so.  Combine this with the rest of the Biblical narrative about our world and how it accurately describes not just the world around me but me as I experience me, and I’m more than convinced of adequate proof of God’s existence.  Not in a subjective, arbitrary sort of way, but in the way He’s revealed Himself.  
Every Christian ought to demand proof of what they believe in.  The key is what you deem to be proof.  Demanding that you don’t require proof is not only foolish, it leaves you open to be taken advantage of by any televangelist or other huckster with a smooth line and a compelling smile.  Gervais’ clearly thinks that theists are fools, and that adjective has never been one I’ve been very happy being saddled with.  You shouldn’t be comfortable with it, either.
His second paragraph extols the virtue of science as an impartial, unbiased, balanced march towards truth.  this is hardly the case.  The recent hub-bub raised when it was discovered that there was an effort in one part of the scientific community to systematically discredit scientists who raised objections to the official Gospel of global warming is adequate proof that scientists are every bit as prone to pride and arrogance and fear as the rest of us.  They’re human, after all.  Or there’s the matter of a British scientist who was formally censured by the academic and scientific community for his studies that asserted a link between vaccinations and negative health side effects such as autism.  I’ve looked and looked for the articles on this story (within the last couple of years), because the scientific community has recently reversed their decision and decided to reinstate the researcher.  Again, what seemed to me to be a curious case of less-than-objective actions on behalf of scientists that Gervais seems to credit with almost divine selflessness and singlemindedness of purpose. 
I believe that as human beings, scientists are prone to the same temptations the rest of us are.  The only people who need to see science as some sort of pristine effort, void of human temptations and weaknesses, are those who rely on scientists to save us from a Biblical God to whom we might be accountable.
Next he switches to pushing the burden of proof to theists.  Fine.  I find plenty of proof in the amazing diversity and complexity of creation.  In the intricate details of cellular functioning – details that from their current arrangement and our understanding of them, seem impossible to have evolved separately or without one another or to have developed without one another in lockstep.  Only those who have not investigated the truly awe-inspiring complexity of our world could possibly feel comfortable with the scientific alternative to intentional creation – that it was all just a big accident that happened right over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.  
My proof explains why I’m a jerk and I know I’m a jerk and yet I know I ought to be better than I am, and why pretty much everybody on earth experiences this same duality between who they are and who they feel they ought to be.  My proof explains a beautiful earth that is also tragically destructive.  My proof explains why the overwhelming majority of all of the earth’s inhabitants believe in some sort of higher power, even if they attempt to describe it differently.  My proof rests on a sacred text that also happens to be without equal the most accurate historical and geographical document of the ancient world, and that has been  demonstrated to have been passed on with mind-numbing accuracy and consistency for at least 2500 years or more.    
I have proof for why I find Christianity to be true.  But it’s not the same type of empirical,scientifically observable proof that Gervais is suggesting.  It is not that we will catch God sneaking around with our satellites and telescopes and particle accelerators.  That would imply that God is somehow detached from creation, that creation is somehow separate as an entity from God.  God is not the same as creation, but God infuses and sustains all of creation.  If God were a wholly separate entity, I seriously doubt creation could be sustained.  Creation and God are so intricately woven together, that once we’re all able to see clearly on the other side of eternity, I suspect we’re going to smack our collective foreheads and our communal cry of “D’OH!” will be heard across eternity.  
Gervais’ critique of Christians as being only slightly more atheistic than he is is humorous but also accurate.  We are not pantheists, and we ought not to be universalists.  We ought not buy into the thoroughly moronic assertions that all religions are equally valid and true.  Two things that contradict each other cannot be said to be equally true.  A is not non-A, as any intelligent person should be able to tell you.  Unless of course, you don’t really believe that either of them is true – in which case both share in the underlying truth that both
are false.  Christians believe in one single God as revealed in Biblical Scripture, and who clearly is not the same God as Allah or the Buddhist conceptions of a non-personal entity that manifests all of reality.  To assert that they are the same requires completely tossing out the writings and beliefs and assertions that both sides hold dearly to.   Believing that only one of these 3700 descriptions of the divine is not relative atheism, it’s merely being intellectually consistent.
The rest of the essay is anecdotal.  It’s insightful, poignant even.  It’s not proof, it’s simply something he experienced and that has led him in a profound direction.  It’s a tragedy that his mother apparently wasn’t able to give a better reason for her faith, or point him to a priest who could address his desires for proof.  Truly tragic.  
As for the last bit about forgiveness, forgiveness is not a virtue, nor is it expressed more clearly or more forcefully outside of Christianity.  Forgiveness is totally contrary to human nature.  Nobody wants or believes in forgiveness.  They want justice.  They want compensation.  They want things to be made right.  This is not the same as forgiveness.  I’d argue that Gervais doesn’t really understand the depth of the Biblical demand for forgiveness.  
So, back to the two main points – no proof for God, and religion makes people do bad things.  We’ve really already addressed the first issue.  Gervais isn’t interested in any proof, but only a very specific and incredibly narrow form of truth.  He wants to be able to measure God in some sort of scientific way.  He certainly can’t be asking to just see God, to have Jesus appear to him and show him the nail marks, since I’m sure Gervais wouldn’t trust his own eyes.  He wants some other form of objective, measurable proof of God.  And the earth and his body and his love for his mother and his insistence that there is such a thing as objective good are all dismissed as the wrong kind of proof.  Unacceptable.  He wants a bit of God in a jar, or on a microscope slide, or in a centrifuge.  
Which is to say he doesn’t want a God to worship and adore and be thankful to and to love with all his heart, mind, and soul.  He wants something that can be analyzed, because if we can analyze it, there’s hope that we can manipulate it and control it.
As for religion making people do bad things, this is somewhat true.  He makes the pithy comment about how few prisoners are atheists.  I’m not sure that has to do with much of anything.  People are bad.  I’ll happily maintain this assertion about myself as well as pretty much everyone I know.  People I love and respect and think highly of are still bad.  Fundamentally flawed.  Fatally flawed.  Unable to really be the people they ought to be.  They may act properly, but their thoughts and emotions betray their badness, as mine do.  
As such, religion is just one of many ways that people act badly in.  Some of the worst atrocities and genocidal policies of all human history were perpetrated by governments that asserted there is no God, and acted accordingly.  Religion does not make a person bad, people are bad.  True religion however is the only thing that holds the hope of making them any better.  Psychology and psychiatry hasn’t accomplished this – they’ve only vastly expanded the number of classifications of badness and brokenness that people deal with.  
Gervais rejects God in part because he finds the judgmental aspect of God to be puzzling.  Yet I’m sure that Gervais wouldn’t hesitate to swat a dog that he had trained when it misbehaved.  If he had children, he would discipline them when they acted inappropriately.  I’m sure he feels that murderers and rapists need to be punished.  He’s not questioning whether a God would be morally consistent in punishing evil, he simply fails to see the depth and pervasiveness of evil in himself and those he loves.  He’s nearsighted – fatally.  
I expected a bit more from this essay.   It’s a shame that such a flimsy assertion can be deemed worthy of publication in the Wall Street Journal.  And it’s a shame that undoubtedly many people have been affected by reading this.  

Better Late than Never?

December 31, 2010

I ran across this last week, which was of course a blur of activity.  But it’s a great article, and very informative.  It’s nice to have an intelligent response to people who wish to assert that the Christian celebration of Christmas is somehow a rip off of other older religions, at least in terms of the timing of some of our holidays.

This article argues that Christmas was not simply slapped on top of December 25 to cover over and usurp other pagan holidays, but rather ended up on that day by a much more circuitous, and dare I say miraculous, sets of timings and events.  
Almost as if it had been planned long, long, long ago…from the beginning of time…hmmmm…..

Flowcharts Are Fun!

December 30, 2010

First, peruse this flowchart, created by an atheist group on how to debate with a Christian.  

It seems kinda funny at first (or incredibly offensive, depending on your sensibilities), but also seems to make sense.  I think that Christians and atheists could benefit equally by a flow chart of this type, but it also has some major problems with it that won’t help conversation or debate any.
1.  Can you envision anything that will change your mind on this topic?  This is the first make or break juncture in the flow chart.  If the Christian indicates no, then the debate is over since there is no room for true discussion.  I would imagine, however, that most people would answer No to this question.  If they thought there was something that could make them change their mind, then they would have already investigated that further and determined if indeed they did need to change their mind, and would change their mind if necessary.  Right.  That’s pretty idealistic, but hey, it’s Thursday.  
As a theist, I can’t imagine anything that would make me change my mind.  I might, however, be shown that certain types of information alter the nature or expression of my belief.  I would think that a non-theist would think the same thing.  They’re convinced that their view is correct.  The only real difference is that I truly believe that some sort of miraculous event could force a non-theist to accept the reality of God, however I can’t imagine that science will ever be able to disprove the existence of God.  Does that make me irrational and incapable of holding an intelligent conversation with someone?  I don’t think so – but this flowchart assumes it does.  
2.  If one of your arguments is shown to be faulty, will you stop using the argument (with everyone)?  Sure, I think this is fine, but it depends a great deal on how you define the term faulty.  I’m pretty sure the underlying assumption of this flowchart is that the only admissible evidence or proof is going to be empirically verifiable evidence, an incredibly narrow subsection of proof.  So if my argument relies on a non-empirical, non-scientific method, this does not automatically make my argument faulty.  It simply means that it is not predicated on the underlying assumptions or definitions about what an acceptable argument or proof is.  It is not necessary to cede to someone in a debate the definitional grounds on which the debate will be predicated.  In fact, agreeing on the definitions and terms and parameters of the debate is undoubtedly the single-most important aspect of the entire debate, particularly on this issue.  Proceed with caution.
That being said, if I can be shown that my argument is faulty, I will certainly adjust my argument as necessary to compensate or avoid the error.  However, that does not mean that I will agree to the theory of evolution because so-and-so claims that the evidence is absolute.  The evidence is not absolute, and those who insist that it is are demonstrating the very strength of faith which they often mock theists for.  
3.  Are you prepared to abide by basic principles of reason in this conversation?  Better define these carefully.  I certainly wish to abide by ground rules of logic, but the examples they cite are hardly demonstrative of this.  They may sound reasonable, but they are not necessarily principles of logic.  I would be happy to abide by principles of non-contradiction, and by rejecting logical fallacies of the formal and informal kind.  
But the examples given have to do with proof, and once again, the way the term proof is used here probably demonstrates a definition that means scientifically provable.  Something that can be demonstrated or proved through physical, empirical methods.  As I’ve said before, while this is certainly one form of proof, it is not reasonable to insist that it is the final arbiter of proof or truth.
The little disclaimer piece on the left-hand side applies equally to both sides in the conversation.  Very few people willingly seek out or agree to discussions in which they expect to be proven wrong, so it has to be acknowledged that both sides are equally reasonable in feeling that they are right and not expecting that they will change their opinion, while still being open to the possibility of hearing something in the discussion that would in fact lead them to change their opinion – if not instantly, then over time.
I can understand the frustrations that both theists and non-theists have when attempting to converse with one another.  Invariably, these stem from confusions and disagreements over the terms and definitions that the conversation will spring from.  By not clarifying terms and reaching some sort of awareness if not agreement about what constitutes proof or reason, the conversation is probably doomed from the outset, regardless of the intentions of the participants.  Both sides will think the other is being unreasonable or unfair, when in fact they’re simply being consistent with how they define terms.  
We shouldn’t be frightened of engaging in conversation with non-theists, but we do need to recognize that we need to lay the proper groundwork for a fair conversation.   That ought to be a proposition that they will agree to as well.  

Let’s Get Political, Political…I Wanna Get Political…

December 30, 2010

Well, I don’t really.  But I find this a fascinating topic all the same.

Should we provide financial incentives to doctors that specifically talk with their patients about end-of-life planning and decision-making?  What if the recommendations were made with an eye towards reducing the health care costs of treatments & responses under certain circumstances (such as the cost benefit of having patients commit to a do-not-resuscitate order).    President Obama thinks we should, despite a pretty heated flare-up on the issue.  

For a journalistic analysis of the coverage on this in the last week, I always recommend  
Several things strike me as interesting.
The NYT article quotes the Obama administration as saying that “Advance care planning improves end-of-life care and patient and family satisfaction and reduces stress, anxiety, and depression in surviving relatives.”  I’m willing to go along with that.  My question, however, is whether or not it’s the doctor that should be having these discussions with the patient.  My gut instinct is to say no.  This is a discussion for the family to have, not for the doctor to have with the patient.  The doctor ought to be a resource, providing information to the family to assist with the decision-making processes and letting them know what options are available to them.  
Know who else ought to be a resource?  Your pastor.  Because just because you have the ability to make a certain decision or choose a certain option doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s in keeping with what you claim to believe in theological terms.  
The family is being pushed out of the responsible role here in favor of a government compensated representative (the doctor).  I don’t know about you, but any time I’ve tried to see a doctor in the past 20 years, I”ve seen one for all of about 7 minutes a shot.  They don’t know me from Adam, and yet these are the people that are going to sit down and have a heart to heart talk with me about my end of life options?  
No thanks.  Unless it’s a family doctor that someone has known and dealt with for an extended period of time, where there’s a relationship that extends beyond whatever is in the medical file, no thanks.  It’s not at all appropriate.  Families need to step up and take responsibility together.  Sure that’s an awkward thing.  But if you don’t do it, someone else is apparently going to be paid to do it.  And you may not like the results of that consultation.  
Another fascinating quote is on the second page of the NYT article.  “Dr. Donald M. Berwick, Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid services” asserts that “Using unwanted procedures in terminal illness is a form of assault.”  Huh?  Attempting to provide medical care to someone who just happens to be suffering from a terminal illness is now tantamount to assault?  Does that mean that family members who lobby for care for an incapacitated relative could be somehow held responsible if the relative regains capacity and is angry that they were treated?  What in the world is this sort of statement intended to convey?  How does this jive with the Hippocratic Oath?  (and, on an unrelated note, check out how frighteningly the Oath has changed – probably in the last 50 years – in order to remain politically correct and in lock-step with the assaults on the dignity and value of human life!!!)
But that’s not weird enough.  Dr. Berwick continues.  “In economic terms, it is waste.”  Well, maybe.  What do you mean by that?  And at what point does treatment for an illness for which there is no cure become waste, and who decides that?  Arguing against a kidney transplant for someone who is going to be dead in 6 weeks from cancer might indeed seem wasteful.  But what if the transplant is for someone who has cancer in remission?   At what point is a treatment wasteful, since that person’s going to die?  And how do we reconcile this with the basic truth that we’re all going to die at some point?!  
Once again, these are important questions that aren’t simply health-care related.  They are theologically loaded guns.  How you answer these questions personally or as policy says a lot about what you believe, and trust me, people in your family are watching you as you make these decisions.  These decisions can be watershed moments for sharing your faith and what you believe about life and death and the relationship between the two.  Relegating these discussions out of the family circle and into sterility of an examination room with someone who may not even know you very well is dangerous and insulting.  
All these things need to be talked about.  Families benefit and grow stronger when they are faced together.  Why not compensate families to have these conversations, rather than paying doctors?  Surely that’s an idea that would benefit a whole lot more people!

An Oldie But a Goodie

December 27, 2010

Something a bit lighter, after yesterday’s Christmas downer entry ;-p

Courtesy of The Onion, of course.
But being unable to insert some sort of meaningful theological insight here…
Part of the cool thing about Lutheran theology is that it embraces the freedom we have in Jesus Christ.  Grace and peace, as the Apostle Paul seemed to think was particularly fitting to send to his readers.  Grace to fulfill the Great Commission in an almost an astoundingly wide variety of ways, and peace so that we needn’t spend time being afraid of whether or not we’re doing it right or not.
Tragically, our human propensity for Law as opposed to Gospel often wins out.  Churches that ought to be great big ol’ sparklin’ ornaments of grace and peace in action too easily become places where grace is replaced by tradition or fond memories of the past that evolve into shackles on the present and future, and where peace is lacking as people fret over why what was so meaningful in the past to them doesn’t seem to have the same appeal or allure to people today.
The truth has set us free.  We should be free, rather than requiring Jesus himself to endorse our every little decision in this life!

The Rest of the Story

December 26, 2010
I was chatting with a friend briefly last night online, and they asked me what I was going to be preaching on this morning.  When I told them the Massacre of the Innocents recorded in Matthew 2, they were a bit surprised.  Why would you preach on that!? they asked.

Because it’s part of the story, I responded.  Because it’s part of our story.

In three sparse verses Matthew notes a sidelight of the Nativity that isn’t often covered in kitschy Christmas baubles or Hallmark cards.  King Herod, the ruling power in Judea courtesy of the Romans had been visited by the three wise men en route to see the baby Jesus.  They naturally assumed that since the prophecies that led them to Judea were from the Judean people, their king would be aware of the situation.  

He wasn’t, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t prepared to deal with threats to his throne.  He was quite adept at it by this time, having already executed a wife and several of his own sons.  He sends the magi on their way and asks them to stop back after they have had a chance to worship the new king, and let him know exactly where the child is.  Herod then would go himself to pay homage.  

At least that was the cover story.

But the magi were warned that Herod’s piety was less than genuine, and they exited stage left without bothering to stop back and provide him with Google map directions to the baby.  It took Herod a while to be certain that this was what had happened, but when he was certain, he didn’t delay action.  Unwilling to allow any potential rival to his throne to gain a foothold, he decrees that every male child two years old and younger in the area around Bethlehem is to be killed.  Modern historians estimate that given population density models of the time period and region, this means that probably around 20 children were killed.  The numbers estimated in the past have been much higher.  

I don’t know what your Christmas was like, but ours was great.  We are blessed to be settled in a beautiful place, part of a loving congregation, and our family is happy and healthy.  We couldn’t ask for anything more.  We don’t ask for anything more.  Yesterday would have been worthy of a Norman Rockwell caricature as my wife and I doted on our kids throughout the day as they opened presents and played with the various gifts they had been so generously showered with by our family.  It was like a dream.

Literally.  Because those days are not the norm in the world we live in.  I flipped through the headlines last night on the Internet.  Up to 30,000 people are expected to become refugees because the nation of the Ivory Coast in West Africa is in the middle of an election dispute that is likely to turn bloody.  Or more accurate, bloodier.  170 people have already been killed in issues related to the dispute.  In the Philippines 10 people were wounded when a Catholic chapel was bombed during a worship service.  In Ecuador, an overcrowded bus lost control and toppled into a ravine killing 45 people and seriously injuring another 30.  In Nigeria over 30 people were killed and scores of others wounded in a bombing suspected to be related to Islamic militants.  In Afghanistan 45 people were killed by a female suicide bomber as they stood in line to get food vouchers from an international relief organization.  In the South Pacific a large earthquake rattled the region on the sixth anniversary of the massive tsunami that claimed over a quarter million lives.  Here in the US a man was shot and killed outside of a Mormon temple in Utah.  Three were injured and one was killed in a shooting incident near Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.  

This is the world we live in.  And it looks a lot like the world the Son of God was born into.  Each year we spend literally billions of dollars in America on Christmas.  Over a quarter trillion dollars every year.  The illusion of peace on earth and good will to men doesn’t come cheap.  Advertisers paint pictures of a glorious festive season (which can start earlier and last longer since they aren’t required to be very specific about the holiday they want you to buy for!).  Starbucks designs special cups that tout the beauty of the season and about how it’s a time for wishes to come true and other sentimental horse shit.  

We spend ourselves into a season cocoon of parties and festive food and friends and family and gifts and decorations that are beautiful, without a doubt..  But the entire effort seems so monumentally misplaced.  We celebrate the birth of Jesus – who was born with the farm animals rather than in a bed surrounded by extended family – by lavishly decorating our houses and purchasing tons of gifts.  In so doing, we create a false Christmas that eclipses the reason for our celebration.  We put ourselves at the center of the stage, and note how we lovingly gaze at the nativity set up on the far right of the stage, partially obscured by the curtain.  If Christmas is about what we spend our time and our money and our thoughts on, then Christma
s for most people is about themselves.

Which is precisely why the Incarnation of our Lord is so incredibly important.  So utterly and completely necessary.  If life was the way we make it seem for a few hours or a few days each year, what need would we have for a savior?  If we could spend our way to lasting peace, lasting joy, lasting goodwill, lasting happiness, then the Incarnation was extraneous.  Superfluous.  Like, totally unnecessary.

But we can’t do these things.  We can create a short-lived illusion of doing these things, but the fact is we have so little control over the world around us that we can’t even allow ourselves to look and see that fact or else we’d never get out of bed in the morning.  For 2/3 of the world, Christmas is just another time to scramble for enough food to feed their family, enough clothes to stay warm.  For thousands and thousands of people, the flight of the holy family into Egypt in fear of the anger of Herod is something they can relate to far easier than to our magical money-induced seasonal excess.  For vast portions of the world, the necessity of a savior is as obvious as the barrel of a gun or the laugh of a rapist or the greed of leaders who gorge themselves on the humanitarian aid intended for their dying people.

South Korea erected a massive Christmas tree on the border with North Korea.  It’s a practice they stopped seven years ago in an attempt to be more sensitive to North Korea, and that has pretty much failed.  So they’ve started doing it again.  On the top of a mountain they erect a giant steel Christmas tree covered in twinkling lights and topped with a cross.  While soldiers stand guard choirs sing Christmas carols.  The whole thing is within artillery range of North Korea, so who knows what they might do some day.  But it’s also in sight of people living in North Korea.  People who are forced to live in darkness because there isn’t enough electricity generated in the country.  

This is the world we live in.  A world where an arbitrarily negotiated demarcation line allows people on one side to live in comfort while people on the other side are forced to live in misery and squalor.  A world where children comb through city dumps looking for food to eat and clothes to wear.  A world where sickness and disease appear more common than health.  A world where the petty whims and dictates of petulant rulers determine who lives and who dies, and there’s nothing to be done to stop them.  There is no comfort for the survivors.  Grief itself is viewed as subversion.  

A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning,  Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.  

If we want to ask how this account could be part of the Christmas story, we ought better to ask ourselves how we could ever leave it out.

This is the proof text, the case study for why the birth of our savior was ever necessary.  This is the true wonder of it all – that God would condescend to unite Himself through His Son to a creation so terribly wracked and twisted by sin that toddlers could be cut down so that an old man could keep his throne.  An old man who died shortly afterwards, incidentally.  The wonder of Christmas is not the beauty of God Incarnate in the truly innocent Christ child, but the incredible ugliness of the world He entered into.  

That the eternal Son of God would be willing to humiliate Himself, to limit Himself to become one of us, one with us, so that He might rescue us from our own evil, our own cruelty, our own selfishness, our own delusions.  We need Christmas not in the increasingly popular sense of a time to celebrate family and material blessings but because without Christmas we are dead.  We have no hope.  We have no reason for joy.  We would remain mired in our sins and eternally separated from God.  Without the Incarnation, and the life of obedience that followed that culminated in a spotless life offered in exchange for our inner evilness, without the savage death by crucifixion that followed betrayal by His own people, without the resurrection and the empty tomb, we have nothing.  We bow trembling at the cradle and and prostrate ourselves at the empty tomb because without these bookends in the life of the True God made Man, we would have nothing other than the savagery of Herod. 

I pray that your Christmas is not judged by the number of gifts under the tree or the number of people filling your house.  Not by the number of invitations you received to dinners and parties.  Not by the neighborhood you live in or the car you drive.  Not by whether you are alone or surrounded with generations of friends and family.  I pray that your Christmas is judged simply by the fact that the Son of God entered into our world to save us from ourselves.  He did this not in power and glory and awe, but as the most vulnerable of us – as a newborn infant.  By this criteria, every Christmas is merry and bright.  

Not because we can afford to make it so, but because God chose to afford to make it so.  No wonder the angels sang in awe and wonder!  

God in a Jar

December 24, 2010

So I’m trying to put together about 16 worship services and 35 sermons for this weekend.  Which means of course that anything and everything else in the world is on my mind and itching to get done.  

I ran across this response response from comedian Ricky Gervaise regarding an essay essay that he wrote about why he is an atheist.  I haven’t had the time to read the essay yet, but I did briefly peruse his responses to questions.  I’ll be going through these a little more thoroughly next week.  Or next year.  But there was one initial response I wanted to jot down so that I can really sweat getting the other stuff done that HAS TO GET DONE IN THE NEXT SIX HOURS OR I’M GOING TO LOSE MY JOB.
I think Gervais summarizes his position very nicely in his response to reader (at least allegedly reader) questions:  
All it (science) knows is there is no scientific proof of anything supernatural so far. When someone presents a jar of God it will test it. If it finds some evidence of “godness” it will follow the evidence till it knows everything it can.
Several interesting thoughts from this.  First off I think it’s interesting to notice what Gervais says will happen even if we could produce a “jar of God”.  Not worship.  Not adoration.  Not marvel.  Simply study.  Because of course, by definition, who would find something they could capture in a jar and examine under a microscope worthy of worship?  How silly!  We might be impressed for a while, but only until we had reduced whatever beauty or mystery or otherness to it’s definable pieces and parts.  Gervais is willing to categorize, but not to worship.  He understands all too clearly that the demand of empirical proof of God is not the route to convincing the atheist that God exists.  It is only the route to demonstrating to atheist and theist alike that such a God surely could not merit our worship or adoration.
In another vein, it very clearly summarizes the hyper-limited range of things which qualify as existent or proof.  If you can get it into a jar so that a microscope can look at it, then it exists.  Otherwise it doesn’t.  This sounds rather odd at first, until you realize that this helps explain the insistence of some scientists that everything must be genetically or chemically explainable.  All those universal things that people regularly rate as the highest and best and most important things in the world – spirituality and love and kindness and goodness and bravery – all those things must have a physical definition that can be examined and defined under a microscope.  Otherwise they don’t exist, and any fool can tell you that yes, these things exist.
Not being fools, by and large, many scientists and casual observers such as Gervais postulate that all of these things, since they very clearly do exist (as he demonstrates quite compellingly later in his responses in relation to a movie experience he shared with his mother and his feelings about her now that she’s gone), all these things must have physical explanations.  Explanations that can be viewed under a microscope or a spectrometer and explained.
Love?  No, love is a figment of our imaginations.  Love is really a firing of neurons and a series of chemical responses in the brain.  These are programmed by our genetic sequencing which makes us predisposed to certain traits and features in other people (regardless of sex, of course).  No mystery here – just our genes making sure we get busy and reproduce (or live in same-sex relationships which are, of course, despite their obvious genetic failure to pass on genetic material, every bit as moral and viable as heterosexual relationships).  
Spirituality and experience or faith in the divine?  That’s just a very particular area of the brain firing off in a certain fashion.  We’ve scoped it out and mapped it all out.  No mystery there.  In fact, the very fact that we can map biophysical responses to what people assert are spiritual experiences must prove that the spiritual experiences are not real.  The brain is creating the sensation of a real experience.  It’s impossible that the brain would be physically affected by a spiritual experience.  Because we have no way of measuring if that were the case.  End of discussion.  
Gervais is a clever and funny man.  I like his very British drollness and deadpan delivery.  I appreciate that he’s given thought to some very important issues.  I just marvel that a man who is obviously so bright can so adamantly and condescendingly demand that all of existence be boiled down only to physical things that we can measure under a microscope.  Only to things that we can explain, and in explaining, someday manipulate.  This despite the universal fact that quite literally every single race and culture and society known to man and history has been woven through at fundamental levels with some notion of there being more to the physical world than what we can see and touch and quantify.  
By insisting on such a narrow definition of reality, Gervais and others who think like him believe they are eliminating the problem of a God they can’t control or define or even understand at an appreciable level, and yet who still demands certain things of them and has the right to make those demands.  However, they create equally disturbing alternatives to this one that they can’t stomach.  That we are nothing but biological automatons, impelled through life simply by our genetic programming.  Unable to do or act or speak in any appreciable measure of freedom.  Fooled by our genes into thinking we are free, thinking we are responsible, thinking that we are exercising choice when in fact we are doing nothing of the sort.  
Yet at the same time, insisting that we are capable of bypassing this genetic programming.  That we – with our months of experience in genetics et al are fully capable of circumventing genetic programming that allegedly has been ongoing for millions of years.  We’re that smart and capable.  We have to be.  Because the only other alternative is that we find ourselves back with the same dilemma we sought to avoid – having to obey something beyond our control or our understanding.
Gervais and others seem to prefer the theory that we are helpless automatons that might someday manage to outwit our very being to take control.  It reminds me of another situation a long time ago where people sought an alternative to simple obedience.  Except in their situation, they had a very real choice, they had a very real power to obey or not to obey.  They were never automatons.  They were children.  Creations.  And their efforts to slip out from those roles and become masters and creators has wreaked destruction through all of creation ever since.
I wish that Gervais and others could see that, but I doubt that they will.  By their definitions none of that could have happened.  Even if they have no way of proving it with a jar full of evolution.  

It’s a Wrongful Life?

December 22, 2010

Kudos & props to Justine for sending these little Yuletide tidbits my way courtesy of Facebook.

First off, a story about a Belgian court that decided that a doctor should be held financially liable for failing to properly diagnose an unborn baby’s severe disabilities, thus depriving the parents of the obvious choice to abort the child without any feelings of guilt.  The judgment effectively argues that death is preferable to life in certain cases, and if doctors don’t adequately inform parents of facts that will help lead them to make the decision to end the child’s life prematurely, the doctor can be held liable.  
As cited by this article, the court stated that the legalization of abortion “must have intended to help avoid giving birth to children with serious abnormalities, having regard not only for the interests of the mother but also for those of the unborn child.”  In other words, in allowing this child to be born with disabilities, the doctor effectively violated the child’s right to be killed before she could be born.  Death is legally preferable to life and defensible as such in a court of law.  
If it strikes you as odd that an unborn child has the right to death, but does not have a corresponding right to life, you’re right, that’s odd.  The judgment seems to specifically reference the unborn baby’s right to die without asserting a greater right to life.  If someone has a right to choose death, it would seem incumbent upon the courts to protect that person’s rights until their choice on the matter has been made clear.  Certainly anyone who has the right to choose death already has the inherent right to life, right?  
Then again, that’s pretty inconvenient to everyone concerned, since that could take a while, and in some cases, the person might never be able to convincingly or effectively communicate that their earnest desire is to die.  Much better to assume that they want to die and then kill them off without even asking them.  
I don’t know about you, but that assumption makes me rather nervous, given our American penchant for aping our European cousins.
On a related note, if you’re looking for last minute Christmas gifts, why not consider the amazingly tacky and thoughtless Planned Parenthood seasonal theme of “Choice on Earth“?  That’s right – for the person who has everything, you can give them the gift of a possible abortion by purchasing a gift card from Planned Parenthood.  As this editorial rightly notes, Planned Parenthood’s campaign thus borrows a Scriptural reference (“Peace on Earth”), a reference associated with a birth (it was the angel’s announcement to the shepherds as part of telling them about the birth of Jesus – Luke 2:14) in order to sell potential abortions to people.  
I can only imagine the outrage of Planned Parenthood took a phrase from the Q’uran or the Tanakh and subverted it’s meaning completely so that it proclaimed the actual opposite of the original text.  Can you imagine the indignation and outrage?  Can you imagine the celebrities and pundits lined up to demand Planned Parenthood undo this offensive and intolerant abuse of a sacred text?
I certainly can imagine it.  Which makes it doubly painful and sobering that there doesn’t appear to be any such outcry over this trampling of a Biblical text.  
Who loves ya, baby ?

Caveat Emptor

December 21, 2010

You’ve probably seen them on the Internet.  Videos have been popping up showing unexpected outbursts of Handel’s Messiah   in public places.   Mall food courts.  Shopping centers.  

It seems festive.  People in the videos caught in the midst of the event seem to find it at the very least entertaining, if not outright inspirational and emotionally (spiritually?) uplifting.  The link above to the one at Macy’s is the first one I viewed, and it’s beautiful in scope and quality.  
But at least one mall one mall (and I would assume this is not the only one) has said no to this sort of public performance.  The argument is that as a public locale, they cannot show favoritism by allowing the performance of an explicitly Christian work.  Presumably, the same rationale would be used to reject requests by Muslims or Buddhists or others to demonstrate some aspect of their faith in art.
The article above is clearly unhappy with this decision and takes it as an affront to or attack on Christians and Christianity.  There is merit to that argument but it’s also decidedly partisan.  I’m sure that Christians would be equally upset if the mall had decided to allow a Muslim group to perform something that proclaims Allah as God and Mohammed as his prophet, or argues against the divinity of Christ.  
But we don’t need to go down this route to be surprised and frustrated by the mall’s decision.  After all, the mall isn’t rejecting the performance of some contemporary Christian pop-star.  They aren’t rejecting a request to hand out tracts or other religious materials (though no small number of their tenant shop keepers are probably selling the equivalent of these things in their Christmas merchandise).  They aren’t declining the request of a televangelist to come and preach a crusade.
They are rejecting the performance of a piece of Western culture.  Handel’s Messiah isn’t simply a piece of Christian music, it’s widely acknowledged by people of all theological stripes to be a stunning and masterful piece of art.  In rejecting the Messiah (pun somewhat intended), the mall is not simply saying no to Christianity, it is also saying no to Western cultural history.    Does political correctness and tolerance dictate that anything with Christian origins or overtures be expunged from the public space?  Should we begin removing works of art from the Louvre and other museums that depict Christian figures or Biblical stories?  Must art be stripped of any real content in order for it to be deemed acceptable to the public?
Christianity is part and parcel of Western culture and society, and you can’t dig very far in any particular direction before this becomes unarguably apparent.  Political correctness has deemed this fact to be offensive though (or more accurately, potentially offensive), but in so doing leaves itself no choice but to denude itself of any Christian cultural baggage.   The final result of a Western culture sanitized of any philosophical or theological content (except of course, for the philosophical insistence on eliminating any contrary philosophies and theologies) is exactly what the mall in question is left with – derivative and meaningless items mass produced in foreign countries for Western consumers without any ability to recognize that they have been shortchanged a rich, vibrant, and amazing cultural history for Hello Kitty baubles and Precious Moments statues.  These things are fine and well in good in their proper place, but if we think they are on the same level as the Messiah (pun intended), or any of the great works of Western art that also happen to be Christian in theme or content, we are sadly mistaken.  
I will agree that a public institution need not be in the business of proselytizing a particular religion.  However, the Messiah is not simply Christian.  It belongs to all of Western culture & society and not simply in a church or cathedral.  Much like Christmas itself at this point, which the mall is only too happy to welcome for the influx of shopping dollars while at the same time avoiding mention of by name.  
And for that very few number of people for whom hearing this piece of music would be considered an outrage or an affront simply because of it’s lyrical content and in spite of it’s historic musical value, they still have one very real option to exercise while allowing the vast majority of others to enjoy the performance:
The can simply walk out of the area and continue their shopping until the performance is over.

57 Channels and *Something’s* On

December 20, 2010

I don’t watch television, but it’s interesting to keep up on it through other media channels.  Perhaps some of you can contribute your thoughts as to how accurate this report  is.

The basic upshot is that teenage girls are presented in sexualized situations on television more frequently than adult women, that the rating/warning systems that are supposed to indicate when this content is present are not provided a majority of the time, and that most of the situations referred to or shown are considered ‘unhealthy’ even by secular psychological standards.
More information on the report author, the Parents Television Council, here  (for those who like to dig a little deeper).  They claim they are a “non-partisan education organization”.  That’s encouraging.  However Tim Conway, Billy Ray Cyrus, Naomi Judd, Dean Jones and about 20 other people are on their board of advisors.  That’s….eclectic!