Monday, August 13, 2018

I'd Rather Cast Lots than Discern

Life seemed easier when we cast lots. As kids, we made critical decisions--what movie to watch, candy to buy, or classmate to choose for our kickball team--by flipping a coin, picking a number, or chanting "Eeny, meeny, miny, moe" (the PC version). Sometimes we ended up with an unwanted box of Boston Baked Beans or Charlie Penskie on our team, but we could not argue. Fate had decided.
The early church made its first, critical, post-ascension decision by casting lots for Judas's replacement. Quite frankly, whoever earned the spot was bound for glory. To succeed the Lord's betrayer meant entering the fold of apostles with an historically low bar. Matthias and Joseph-called-Barsabbas (aka Justus) stood before the crowd of 120. Peter flipped a drachma; God decided on Matthias (cf. Prov. 16:33). And neither namesake appeared again in the biblical text.

As the next chapter of Acts opens, the church turned a corner. The Holy Spirit fell on Jesus's followers. As promised, Jesus sent the Spirit to instruct, empower, and embolden his people to serve as his witnesses (Acts 1:8 cf. John 14-16). And just like that, "Eeny, meeny, miny, moe" (the PC version) dropped out of the church's liturgy. The age of discernment, aka Spirit-led decision-making, had begun.
By Nightflyer - Own work, CC BY 4.0,
To be fair, the people in the Upper Room were neither cavalier nor willy-nilly about their two prospects to replace Judas. Peter didn't blindfold Andrew, spin him around seven times, and send him to randomly Pin the Title on the Apostle (the forerunner to Pin the Tail on the Donkey). The group has prayed, sought Scriptures, and narrowed their search to those "who have been with [the disciples] the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out from us, beginning from John's baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us" (Acts 1:21-22).

Discernment emerges from a prayerful posture, listening community, open Bible, and limited focus. Moreover, at the root of discernment is the desire to learn from Jesus. To discern is to be a disciple, teachable by trade. Remember, the folks in the Upper Room had spent forty days under Jesus's tutelage about the kingdom of God (1:3). The lot they cast for Matthias followed a protracted process; it was far from spontaneous.

Even without the Holy Spirit indwelling them, the nascent church demonstrated a wonderful balance of doing their homework while they waited for God to post the answer. They huddled, prayed, studied, and talked until God revealed his chosen lot.

Honestly, sometimes I'd rather blindly grasp at straws to make weighty decisions. 

What should I preach on? Open my Bible to a random page. 
Whom should I meet for lunch? Let my finger fall on a random face in the church directory.
When should we plan our next outreach event? Throw a dart at a 12-month calendar.
What ministry should we take off life support? Pull a name from at hat.

I might even cite and celebrate God's providence in the randomness of my decision-making. But we all know it's plain lazy. The Holy Spirit, who dwells within, convicts us of skirting the process. Jesus did not sent him to outsource discernment but to resource us as we decide.

Stay Tune for more on the actual Discernment Process.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Shallow Breaths, Blood Clots, and the Aging Process

I emptied my pockets before stepping on the scale. I wanted to remove my shoes, and, quite frankly, all my clothes. Shed every extra ounce, I thought, before registering my weight. The digital numbers raced into the triple digits, past one hundred. 110. 120. They surged upward at the same rate as my plummeting metabolism. 130. 140.

As I near my forth decade, the morning aches and pains, daylong love handles and blood pressure, nighttime bags and lines around my eyes only seem to increase. So does my weight. 150. 160.

I sit more than I used to. 162. Cramp more than I used to. 164. I breath worse than I used to. 165. Sleep worse than I used to. 166.  Run less than I used to. 167.
A typical day at work. Sitting in front of a screen.
By the time I finish this post, I'll max out at 170 pounds and have amassed a blood clot in my left leg. I am not being dramatic. It is possible; I'm aging and may have a rare blood disorder. The older I get, the more lethal the foe becomes. My dad discovered this numerical nemesis (V) mucking up his veins about five years ago. DVT nearly pronounced his RIP, but God spared him another set of years.
With a renewed lease on life--to eat, drink, and play golf--my dad encouraged me and my siblings to test our blood. One of my brothers bears the mark; the other's blood flows freely. Until today, I had not been tested. My father's encouragement turned into admonishment. But it was a recent battle with calf cramps and two years of shallow breathing that finally prompted me to face my mortality and feed my blood into vials.

I had my appointment for a routine physical this morning. My twenty-nine year old doctor asked me lifestyle questions, listened to my heart and lungs, and read my vitals. Before even ordering a blood test, he pronounced me healthy and sent for the nurse to complete my paperwork.

"But wait," I said. "What if I have the blood disorder? What do I do? What can I change?"

"You're too young to worry about it. Stay active. Beware of swelling. Take an aspirin." My bald, bearded, twenty-nine year old doctor in Batman socks sounded unfazed. He added, "It may take a week for results. Let's wait and see. Meanwhile, you're young and healthy."

He sent me downstairs for the labs. A twenty-five year old nurse drew my blood. She collected three samples. I looked away, afraid to see clots swirling against the glass. Afraid to pass out. We talked about prayer and adoption, avoiding the reality that she may hold in her Latex gloves the proof of my immanent death.

The nurse withdrew the needle and asked me to press a cotton ball against its tiny hole. I kept my eyes averted, not wanted to see if quick-action coagulation had already taken affect. I tried to remember the last time I bled. I couldn't. Then I tried not to think about not bleeding.
The praying, pierced-nose, frosty-haired, twenty-five year old nurse dismissed me. I hobbled out of the Parkview facility, squinting at the bright sun, breathing lightly, and wondering if the healthcare industry has conspired to hire only youthful employees as a sardonic joke against its aging clientelle. If so, the joke is on them. They, too, will die.

Someday shallow breaths, blood clots, or the aging process will undo all of us. Entropy wins until Jesus returns. One way or another, we all face death. With poetic insight, Moses wrote,

"We are all withering;
like grass and dust, we blow away. 
We begin to fade in our forties,
and say farewell at four-score." 
(Psalm 90, interpreted)

Fortunately, for followers of Jesus, resurrection overcomes the aging process.

Monday, July 30, 2018

In Praise of Rhythms

Summer diverts from the daily rhythms I enjoy the rest of the year. Summertime means later bedtimes. Later bedtimes means snoozing through the alarm clock. Missing the alarm means less time alone in the morning to seek the Lord's face in prayer and Scripture. Delayed family breakfasts. Rushed departures. Cancelled meetings. Adjusted schedules. Late dinners. Later softball games. And, again, later bedtimes. Is it any wonder I'm exhausted and feel less connected to God?

Summer lacks the weekly rhythms I enjoy of the rest of the year. Bold adventures beckon us; we live on the go, out of swim bags and suitcases. Liz and I have taken the kids to the Outer Banks on a family vacation and Columbus to celebrate our anniversary. We have camped at Pokegon State Park and rolled on coasters at Cedar Point. We have swam in lakes and pools and studiously washed our swimsuits after each dip (or so we tell the people who own the pools). By the time July comes to a close, I'm massaging my temples and repeating, "There's no place like home."
Summer upsets the work rhythms I enjoy the rest of the year. In the past two months, I have logged a thousand miles en route to soccer fields, campgrounds, conference halls, and wedding venues to speak a few words of truth, blessing, or exhortation. By this point in the season, all my teaching has gathered into a steady buzz of pastoral static. I remember barking like a rabid dog for one group. (I hope that wasn't at a wedding.) For another audience, I remember granting permission to kiss. (I hope that wasn't at youth conference.) All the one-and-done speaking engagements have reaffirmed my love for slow-and-steady preaching.
The older I become, the more I appreciate my rhythms. They fuel my days, fill my weeks, and focus my work. Rhythms keep me consistent in disciplines and attentive to God. They help me prioritize people and care for my soul. They give me a measure of control in a manic world. I do my best to keep the beat... until summer comes. Then I adjust, enjoy, and count down days until school starts again.

Monday, March 19, 2018

People vs. Guns

Here's the way I have heard the current gun debate framed:
Children matter more than guns, therefore we need reform.
Our freedom matters more than fear, therefore we need guns protection.
The NRA proposes putting guns in the hands of teachers to protect the lives of children. In addition to ALICE drills, tornado drills, fire drills, and standardized testing, some are asking teachers to learn to wield a weapon. Can you imagine little, old Mrs. Smith with a Colt Defender in her top drawer next to her bag of blanched almonds? I can't.
The reformers, young and old, propose to raise the age for prospective gun owners, increase rigor of background checks, outlaw assault riffles, ban bump stocks, and have parents sign petitions to vote on their behalf. Can you imagine an enraged, mentally unbalanced, social misfit with a vendetta finding his way around reformed laws? I can.

But this does not mean I'm pro-gun and anti-reform. In fact, I'm simply, perhaps naively, pro-person.

And herein lies the problem: On both sides of the debate we agree that people (innocent children or free-thinking adults) matter. Yet we cannot seem to agree that people cause social problems. We want to blame policy, ideology, and (NR)associations.

Let's be clear: A changed law will not change hearts. It hasn't worked for the Moral Majority in our sexually-deviant culture. Roe vs. Wade has lasted. Same-sex marriage marches on. No Fault Divorce whitewashes a thousand little failures to love.

And we are naive to think increasing security and intensifying gun laws will squeeze the violence out of society. Violence will ensue as long as NFL remains king of sports; DC and Marvel churn out endless sequels; pornography strips humans their dress and dignity; political figures and media personalities win by shouting louder; survival of the fittest remains educational dogma; and CAPS LOCK SCREAMS FROM THE COMPUTER SCREEN.
Our gun problem points to a person problem. From blameless child to blaming adult, we are all capable of great evil. Christian thinkers have coined a term for this reality: total depravity. All have missed God's standard for moral perfection, the Scriptures teach (Rom. 1-3). Selfishness and rebellion are universal tendencies. On the other hand, total depravity does not mean each person achieves the greatest evil possible. Though we are misaligned, humans still reflect God's image (Gen. 1:26, 28; 9:6; Jas. 3:9). Thus we are capable of remarkable good (Luke 11:13).
Ironically, God used rather violent means to secure salvation for humanity. His innocent Son faced crucifixion. While people cried out for his blood, Jesus called out for their forgiveness (23:34). He knew people mattered. He did not come to reform laws but to redeem hearts. While this theological morsel may not appease the marching youth or soften the NRA, it remains public truth. A truth Jesus gave his life for.
But God demonstrated his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom. 5:8)

Monday, March 5, 2018

Humans vs. Dogs: People Matter More

My Golden Doodle nearly died today. He bolted into the street as a white pickup truck raced past. If a dog can truly be happy, then Zeb's happiest moment of the day is the morning walk. He rushes to the door, tail wagging, eyes wide, mouth agape. I leave him unleashed so he can gallop unfettered, free to pee on every plant, tree, and trashcan in sight.
I lead Zeb two blocks east before crossing the Main Street turning back. He will often often heed my voice before charging into the road; today he did not. Inches separated my rambunctious dog from roadkill. Tomorrow he will wear his leash.

When Zeb dies I will weep. In my married years, we have lost a cat, rat, two mice, several fish, and a Teddy Bear named Charlie. All the but the fish have garnered tears. But Zeb I love most. These pets feel like part of the family. They are part of the family. But they are not equal with the human members.

When I am dying, my children will not inject me with a shot as my head rests in their lap. They will not flush my lifeless body down the toilet or bury me beside the tulips. (At least, this is why I pay for life insurance.) No: I will have a memorial service, cemetery plot, and obituary printed in the paper. (How long before local newspapers habitually print pet obituaries?) And they will grieve me much longer than pets of yore. So I hope.

Just because something has personality, affability, and significance in our lives, does not grant it dignity commensurate with the imago dei. Even a human whose emotional intelligence does not surpass a three-year old, or one who loses her physical strength and mental agility bears the divine image. Domestic beasts and fresh produce reflect God's creativity; only humans reflect his relational, moral, volitional character.

We share widespread agreement that people matter, but not why they matter. Do they matter because they have life, much like a dog? Or do they matter because they have a different quality of life? If so, what determines the quality (and thus dignity) of human life? Is it tied to race, gender, religion, socio-economic status, mental health, independence, physical ability, or some complex of these features? Is significance it somehow inherent to humanity?

These are critical questions addressed in a book I've just finished reading, Why People Matter: A Christian Engagement with Rival Views of Human Significance (Kilner, [ed.], 2017). And in world enraged with sex scandals (#MeToo), gun violence (Stoneman Douglas H.S.), racism (White privilege), immigration laws (DOCA), gender equality (LGBTQ), and other "humans rights" issues, the masses have spoken. They agree: "All people matter." What they have failed to articulate, defend, or agree upon is why.

And perhaps Christians  have the best answer. We are more like gods than dogs--made in His image--knowing how to look both ways before we cross the street (Gen. 1:26-28; 3:5; 9:6; Ps. 82:6 cf. John 10:35).

Next week I'll summarize the five rival views and their weaknesses as laid out in the book.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Alexa vs. My Adopted Son

Alexa came home with us at Christmas. My mother bought her it for or my oldest daughter, gaining cool points, for sure, but also inching us closer to the Brave New World. When we first set up Alexa in my parents' guest bedroom, the girls spent hours with her it, asking for weather updates, song recordings, riddles, directions, and jokes.
For those unfamiliar with Alexa, she it is the personality attached to Amazon's Echo and Dot devices. She It interacts with voice commands, browses the Internet, sets reminders, plays games, tracks shipments, and communicates with other Amazon devices. My daughters send messages back and forth with their cousins via Alexa, causing a pulsing, yellow glow as new notices arrive.

The initial concern my wife and I felt about Alexa invading our home has subsided. Her It's morning weather reports have practical value. Her It's endless replay of "Shut Up and Dace" have inspired regular romps in the living room. Her It's five-minute timers have proven their worth for baking, making coffee, or quick cleaning sessions. Alexa has become a seamless member of the family.

There's only one problem. Alexa is not human. And we have to regularly remind ourselves not to use the female pronoun; Alexa is neither male nor female. Alexa is an it.

But Alexa is the beginning of Artificial Intelligence (AI) woven into everyday life (not counting Siri, push notifications, predictive search, Nest, etc.). And truth be told, Alexa is not too intelligent. More often than not, Alexa admits her it's ignorance. (Any Actually Intelligent Human (AIH) knows better than to say, "I'm sorry. I don't know that." AIHs make an answer up!)

As we accelerate toward the world of AI, it is important to firm up a definition of humanity. Otherwise we may continue to personify our devices and bestow on them greater dignity than they deserve. Worse yet, some persons whose social utility, motor skills, intelligence, and autonomy are called into question may be stripped of dignity and pushed into obsolescence (e.g., the rate of aborted babies detected with Down syndrome is near 100% in some European countries!) 

I'm sensitive to the issue not only because Alexa inhabits my home, but, more so, because Sensi does. My adopted son has several cognitive dysfunctions. He is language-impaired and learning-disabled. He is physically, socially, and emotionally delayed. His developmental specialist wants him tested for "institutional autism." Sensi does not function like most AIHs, but I have no doubt my son is human.
In spite of his limitations, Sensi displays all the core characteristics of an image-bearing human.
I subscribe to Dallas Willard's taxonomy of personhood. In Renovation of the Heart he details six characteristics: will, thoughts, feelings, body, social relationships, and soul. The soul comprises the whole person (material, immaterial, and social) working together. The "heart" and "spirit" are biblical images for our will. The "mind" governs thoughts and feelings.
God expects us to direct our whole self (inner person, fingertips, and friendships) to love him and others (Deut. 6:5 cf. Matt. 22:37). The very capacity to love is innately human, inherit to image-bearers. Dogs and dandelions cannot love, but certainly show loyalty and will to live.

In a battle of wits, Alexa will defeat Sensi every time. In a contest of emotion, it's a toss up. Their wills are equally matched; both Sensi and Alexa rarely take initiative and each excels at compliance. They daily repeat the catchphrase: "I don't know." Alexa's body requires a plug; Sensi's brain requires meds.

But Sensi functions as an autonomous, image-bearer, capable of giving and receiving love. His will, thoughts, feelings, body, and social relationships--held together in his soul--make him more human than any battery-operated, Internet-intelligent device will ever be. Long after Alexa outlasts her welcome or grows obsolete, Sensi will continue to brim with life in our home.
God created humankind in his own image,in the image of God he created them,male and female he created them.God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply! Fill the earth and subdue it! Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and every creature that moves on the ground.” (Gen. 1:27-28, NET)
Next week: I'll continue to reflect on God's view of humanity by comparing it to rival views. 

Monday, February 12, 2018

A Good Creation vs. A New Gnosticism

God created flesh and blood, bone and marrow, male and female. He created plants and animals, land and water, morning and evening. His creation reflected a complimentary style - filled with part and matching counterpart - and he paid his handiwork a great compliment as each day ended: "It is good." He repeats the assessment day after day (see Genesis 1:1-2:3).

Laying aside arguments about the age of the earth (a compelling suggestion made by John Walton in The Lost World of Genesis One), even the most cursory reading of the creation story exposes the resounding goodness of God's work. "Good. Good. Good. Good. Good. Very Good," sings the chorus.

And the goodness does not vanish after Adam and Eve's rebellion in the Garden (Gen. 3). Tarnished, it may be, but good it remains. The overwhelming testimony of Scripture says as much (Ps. 19; 104; 1 Tim. 4:4). And the bodily resurrection (of the embodied) Jesus foreshadows creation renewed, where the stain of sin will be eternally wiped clean. "Good. Very Good. Eternally Good."

While the secular world may agree with God's "good" evaluation as it relates to polar bears, ice caps, and rain forests, I've sensed a growing discontentment with God's crowning achievement: humanity. God's flesh-and-blood image-bearers are not so good. The evidence? Our tolerance for torture and war, our advocacy for gender reassignment and cryogenics, our policies for abortion and euthanasia, and our algorithmic depersonalization of every smart-phone-wielding, Internet-browsing, social-media-posting data source.

Humans must make way for the next wave of evolution. We are mere "meat machines" growing obsolete as we wait for an upgrade -- which includes anything from loading our mind into a computer, living vicariously through an avatar, implanting machinery beneath our skin, or freezing our heads in cryonic containers until technology advances beyond our weaknesses.

Ironically, this desire to escape our flesh is nothing new. Gnosticism, one of the earliest heresies the church battled, held a similar aim. Gnostics thought secret knowledge might take them to a higher plane of existence. They generally deemed their flesh-and-blood reality a bad one. The modern longing to shake off gender, slip out of our skin, and transcend death is merely a new variation of an old theme. Gnosticism has resurfaced.

One of the spokespeople for cryonics, Natasha Vita-More, reflects well the feelings of a contemporary Gnostic: “If this body fails, we have to have another one. You could die at any moment, and that’s unnecessary and unacceptable. As a transhumanist, I have no regard for death. I’m impatient with it, annoyed. We’re a neurotic species—because of our mortality, because death is always breathing down our necks.” (O'Connell, To Be a Machine, 40)

But I've stumbled across other Gnostic voices. And what frightens me is how their message is both suggestive and seductive, using stories directed at adolescents.

Take for example the inner dialogue of the lead character, Wade Watts (aka, Parzival), from Ernest Cline's bestselling book and soon-to-be movie, Ready Player One. SPOILER: Upon discovering his disembodied, best friend, Aech, is not a White male, as his avatar portrayed, but a Black lesbian, Wade quickly overcomes his shock. Cline writes:
As we continued to talk, going through the motions of getting to know each other, I realized that we already did know each other, as well as any two people could. We'd known each other for years, in the most intimate way possible. We'd connected on a purely mental level. I understood her, trusted her, and loved her as a dear friend. None of that had changed, or could be changed by anything as inconsequential as her gender, or skin color, or sexual orientation." (pg. 321, emphasis added)
Cline's dualism is both endearing and damning. The hint of truth makes his message that much more compelling. But even Cline cannot sustain his gnosticism as he closes the book (SPOILER) with two characters holding hands and sharing a kiss. Perhaps, our bodies increase intimacy after all.

More chilling was the effect of the following trailer (made worse by the fact that I came to the movie theater to mindlessly enjoy The Last Jedi, not have my anthropology challenged):

The trailer's magical elements, youthful actors, and musical feel masks its Gnostic doctrine: "We are not our bodies, but merely held captive by them. Love transcends physical appearances."

Another hint of truth. Another seductive lie.

It agree our bodies are fallen and fragile. I agree we should look beyond mere appearances. I cannot agree that our physical frames have no bearing on our personalities. They inform each other. They frustrate each other. Together they are good, but far from perfect.

The whole person needs redemption. And next week I'll tackle the question: What makes a person?