Category Archives: faith and theology

Of Kings and Kingdoms

So. Kings. Oh my holy freakin …

Silas is King in Shiloh, and his nation is at war. A young farm boy, the youngest of Jesse’s 7 sons, travels to the front, boldly confronts the enemy, and wins the heart and attention of the nation. He becomes pawn and party to the political maneuverings of the royal court, as the king becomes keenly aware that his young hero might be a legitimate threat to his own tottering throne.

Sound familiar? Yup. Kings is a modern day retelling of the story of Saul and David, with all of the sinewy mass and epic personalities of the original. Silas (Saul) is poised and articulate one moment, a snarling dog the next. For fans of Deadwood, Ian McShane brings a similar kind of larger-than-life swagger to this role that made him so perfect as Al Swearengen. David is the hero, the poet, the champion of the common man, but some of the dark tragedy of his broken soul is already poking through. Samuel … oh man, you just have to see it. Samuel is perfect.

It’s not exactly the story of Saul and David. There are changes, some big, some small, enough that it’s not just a retelling. It’s a … I’m not sure. A re-narrating maybe? A re-wrighting? If you know the story well, there’s an added dimension of anticipation to watching the show. You find yourself constantly fitting together the new pieces of the the puzzle with the old familiar story. Who is this character? Oh, that’s Michael, Saul’s daughter. Who will be Saul’s Abner? … ah, there he is.

As I was watching, I thought about the first audience to Homer’s great epic poems. Homer wove together well-known stories, characters that everyone had grown up with, events that everyone could recite from memory: no listener would be caught by surprise when Achilles falls. Yet the telling of it, the recasting, the re-wrighting brought a new vivaciousness to the themes. Because the unfolding events were familiar, at least in broad strokes, the listener is freed up to listen more deeply to the story, to watch the characters (who do not know their own story) march through their fated steps alternately succumbing to and rising above their own fatal flaws.

I think this is a bold thing that NBC is doing, embracing a show like this. It’s a little risky, not because it’s biblical (it barely is, though probably enough to scrape a few good sermon clips). It’s a risk because by retelling an old story, they raise the stakes on the storytelling. They give up the right to hold an audience by serial suspense, the way Lost does, and they push in their chips on a bet that they can capture and keep an audience by the force of sheer storytelling, in the grand Homeric tradition of the word.

I hope the show sticks around. If for no other reason, I can’t wait to see how they handle this scene.

kings-nbc

Faith = Doubt

Without doubt, there can be no faith.

Webster’s defines the word “Faith,” as follows:

1a: allegiance to duty or a person : loyalty b (1): fidelity to one’s promises (2): sincerity of intentions 2a (1): belief and trust in and loyalty to God (2): belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion b(1): firm belief in something for which there is no proof (2): complete trust 3: something that is believed especially with strong conviction ; especially : a system of religious beliefs

I hadn’t looked up this definition when I started crafting this post in my head. I was hoping against hope that there would be something like the, “Firm belief in something for which there is no proof,” statement. I was immensely gratified to read it, as it props up my little thesis.

Without doubt, there can be no faith.

Near the very end of the last Gospel, in John chapter 20, we find the story of Doubting Thomas. Thomas was the Apostle who wasn’t buying the news that Jesus had been resurrected. He was rational, cool, and frankly, pretty well reasoned in his statements.

“Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”

Downright reasonable, if you ask me.

A week later, Jesus shows up, and has Thomas go ahead and get a nice, long feel on those scars. Thomas falls to his knees and exclaims, ”My Lord and my God!” Jesus, being Jesus, has this awesome little zinger for him.

“Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

I haven’t seen Jesus. I haven’t put my hands on his scars. I didn’t see Him forming the foundation of the earth. I don’t know how it will all shake out in an end times scenario. I am not certain that every Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Atheist, and Democrat will all burn in eternal damnation. I have a sneaking suspicion that God is greater and kinder than our little, offensive value judgements. I have also, in my darkest moments, been terrified that this whole Jesus thing is just a big sham, a human construct to give some meaning to our random, miniscule existence.

But still … I believe.

At the end of the day, I cannot shake the feeling loose that the words and teachings of this Jewish carpenter are not from this world. At the end of the day, I calculate my doubts, and I calculate the evidence, and realize that this equation will simply not balance out, and I take a deep breath, and make a choice to hold some things in a state of unresolved tension, and I simply… believe.

Jesus of Nazareth, The Lion of Judah, the Alpha and Omega, said that I will be blessed in the presence of my fully reasonable doubts, for I am a man of faith.

Clergy love.

Disclaimer: My thoughts on the following topic are not my most articulate.  Please do not throw tomoatoes.

On New Year’s Day, a white BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) police officer fatally shot a black man after a fight had broken out.  On Wednesday night, riots in Oakland destroyed the businesses of, ironically, black people.

The officer who shot the bullet resigned his position just before he was otherwise required to issue a statement.  One of many theories is that he thought he was reaching for his gun-shaped tazer.

My heart breaks for everyone.  The victims and the shooter.  When I read that dozens of clergy were willing to meet with the officer, I thought, That is a step in the right direction.  That guy needs some love.

Then I read that the clergy were outraged with him, “demanding answers”.  At that point, they were no longer “clergy” to me.  I could not distinguish them from “everybody else”.

One of my earthly heroes is Sister Helen Prejean.  She came to speak at St. Mary’s College when I was a student there, and she revolutionized the way I think about our justice system.  One idea she has shared is:  “The only way I know what I really believe is by keeping watch over what I do.”  She is beautifully and artfully able to entwine herself in complicated and tragic situations, loving the victims and the accused.  In my heart, she has earned the title “clergy”.  Clergy love.

APU School of Music, 1999 vs 2009

Today was a mid-year faculty retreat for the APU School of Music. A major part of the retreat was developing concrete goals for the next 5 years, how we wanted to see our program grow and change as we move forward. To prepare us for that, we looked at a similar list of goals that was set by the faculty in Spring of 2000, and how those goals had been met. The goals for 2000 were based on data from the 1999 school year, which gave us a great perspective on how the School of Music has changed in these last 10 years.

Here are some of the highlights:

  1. In 1999, we had 142 undergraduates, and 7 graduate students. In 2009, we have 250 undergraduates, 70 graduates, and 15 artist certificate students.
  2. In 1999, we had 43 total faculty, 16 full-time, 19 adjunct, and 8 private professionals (those are professional musicians who run on-campus teaching studios). In 2009, we have 96 total faculty, 27 full-time, 39 adjunct, and 20 private professionals.
  3. In 1999, four full-time faculty had terminal degrees (PhD or similar). In 2009, 14 full-time faculty have terminal degrees, and 5 are in process.
  4. In 1999, the MIDI lab was crammed into an unused storeroom under the back staircase. In 2009, we have a 12-seat teaching lab, with fully integrated media (projection, speakers, screen sharing, Logic, Sibelius, Finale, Pro Tools, etc.)
  5. In 1999, we had 4 choirs: UCO, Bel Canto, Male Choral, and Oratorio. In 2009, we’ve added to that a Gospel Choir, Chamber Singers, and Vocal Jazz ensembles.
  6. In 1999, we did not have a Symphony Orchestra (we had a chamber orchestra that hired outside professionals to cover vacant instruments). In 2009, we have a thriving Symphony Orchestra that recently gave the North American debut of a symphony by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Yup, we did it before the LA Phil did it.
  7. In 1999, we had one jazz band that was not fully instrumented. In 2009, we have 2 jazz bands with full instrumentation, and multiple jazz lab ensembles teaching improvisation.
  8. In 1999, we had no ongoing service activity for our local community. In 2009, the Azusa Conservatory offers free and subsidized lessons to 60 local children, taught by APU students. I think this is one of the most outstanding things we do. A few years ago, I heard a 9-year-old boy whose single-mother speaks only Spanish, who goes to an elementary school that is failing on every level, and he played excerpts from a Bach violin concerto. This boy’s life had been fundamentally altered by the conservatory program. It brought tears to my eyes.
  9. In 1999, we only offered a Bachelor of Arts degree. In 2009, we offer a Bachelor of Music degree in Performance, and in the next year we’ll be adding them in Church Music and Commercial Music (the BA is a liberal arts degree, the BMus is a professional degree with a higher concentration of courses in music, and more credibility in the professional world).
  10. In 1999, we offered nothing for commercial music. In 2009, we have 75 students studying in the Commercial Music degree program, making it the fastest growing degree in our school.
  11. In 1999, we were not sending ensembles internationally to perform and record. The last time a large ensemble had toured outside of North America was 1992. In 2009, we’ve sent every ensemble on an international tour in the past 7 years, including tours to Armenia, Romania, Germany, Thailand, Australia, Korea, and Italy.
  12. In 1999, we offered no senior thesis course. In 2009, we have a dedicated Senior Seminar in Music Ethics.
  13. In 1999, we offered no artist certificate program. In 2009, we have 15 students in that program, where they study technique and literature in their instrument intensively and exclusively for a year. Students studying piano and strings in this program place and win at international competitions regularly.
  14. In 1999, we offered no graduate scholarships. In 2009, we award almost a quarter of a million dollars a year in graduate scholarships.
  15. In 1999, we didn’t offered a graduate degree in composition. In 2009, we have our first class of students working toward a Master of Music in Composition.
  16. In 1999, our program was accredited only as part of our university, not independently. In 2009, we have full accreditation through the National Association of Schools of Music. In a very rare move for the NASM, they bypassed the normal provisional membership stage, and inducted us as full members at our first application.
  17. In 1999, we offered no international study for music students. In 2009, we just welcomed back our first group of students from Heidelberg, Germany, where they studied for a semester. We are one of the only Schools of Music in North America to offer this kind of opportunity, where students go internationally for a semester in a program designed specifically for music, study with local instructors, perform in local ensembles, and learn about the history and culture of the place from resident scholars. We heard the report back from those students this morning, and they uniformly agreed that it was a life-changing experience.

I hope that I never take for granted the blessing I’ve been given, to teach at a place like this. It’s wonderful to look at this list, and to think, “I was part of this, I got to help build this into what it has become.” I can look at this list and see specific things that I had a hand in. It’s humbling to think that I have a part in this, and more than a little overwhelming to realize the awesome responsibility that comes from shaping the future of the program.

God is at work in our little corner of the world. Today was a great reminder of that.

What Africa Needs Now

An atheist ex-pat from Malawi writes about how important Evangelical missionaries are to the future of Africa. Not just the work they do, but what they believe. I read it from a position of ignorance, but I hope that he is right. Looking forward to discussing this with my brother-in-law Scott, a missionary in Tanzania.

Now a confirmed atheist, I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.

used to avoid this truth by applauding – as you can – the practical work of mission churches in Africa. It’s a pity, I would say, that salvation is part of the package, but Christians black and white, working in Africa, do heal the sick, do teach people to read and write; and only the severest kind of secularist could see a mission hospital or school and say the world would be better without it. I would allow that if faith was needed to motivate missionaries to help, then, fine: but what counted was the help, not the faith.

But this doesn’t fit the facts. Faith does more than support the missionary; it is also transferred to his flock. This is the effect that matters so immensely, and which I cannot help observing.

Read the rest of the article here.

I know some the folks who hang out here have some unique insight into this issue, and I’d love to hear it.

10 Days of Christmas: The Meaning of It All

Posts in the 10 Days of Christmas series

  1. 10 Days of Christmas: Rulers from their Thrones
  2. 10 Days of Christmas: Matthew 1
  3. 10 Days of Christmas: Mary and her Donkey
  4. 10 Days of Christmas: Of The Father’s Love Begotten
  5. 10 Days of Christmas: The Kenosis
  6. 10 Days of Christmas: Mary Ponders
  7. 10 Days of Christmas: The Meaning of It All

[flashvideo filename=http://addisonrd.com/WordPress/wp-content/video/charlie-brown-christmast-linus.swf /]

Previous in series: 10 Days of Christmas: Mary Ponders

10 Days of Christmas: Mary Ponders

Posts in the 10 Days of Christmas series

  1. 10 Days of Christmas: Rulers from their Thrones
  2. 10 Days of Christmas: Matthew 1
  3. 10 Days of Christmas: Mary and her Donkey
  4. 10 Days of Christmas: Of The Father’s Love Begotten
  5. 10 Days of Christmas: The Kenosis
  6. 10 Days of Christmas: Mary Ponders
  7. 10 Days of Christmas: The Meaning of It All

How much did Mary know about the things that were happening in her, and through her? How much of Isaiah and Micah had percolated into her understanding from brother or father, some man who had received some formal training, who had been taught to read the texts? When she breathed the word “Messiah”, what collection of ideas did that word stand in for?

Mary treasured up these things, and pondered them.

I would love to know the pathways that her mind ran down as she marveled. The months between the angel and the birth must have seemed an eternity – certainly long enough for doubt to creep in. Did he really say … does this really mean … will he really be …

When the shepherds arrived, with stories and songs, it must have been a flood of emotions, confirming everything that Mary had been told.

Unto you is born this day a child, and He is Christ the Lord.

Previous in series: 10 Days of Christmas: The Kenosis

Next in series: 10 Days of Christmas: The Meaning of It All

10 Days of Christmas: The Kenosis

Posts in the 10 Days of Christmas series

  1. 10 Days of Christmas: Rulers from their Thrones
  2. 10 Days of Christmas: Matthew 1
  3. 10 Days of Christmas: Mary and her Donkey
  4. 10 Days of Christmas: Of The Father’s Love Begotten
  5. 10 Days of Christmas: The Kenosis
  6. 10 Days of Christmas: Mary Ponders
  7. 10 Days of Christmas: The Meaning of It All

What an absurd celebration we have embraced to remember the incarnation.

We celebrate by filling up. Calendars, full. CD players, full. Gift lists, full. Credit cards, full. Belly, full. Every moment of this season is dedicated, months in advance, to being filled up. Not all of the filling up things are bad things – time with friends and family are good things, gifts given out of selflessness and friendship are always a good thing.

But taken all-together, the result is a season that is every moment filled up, without a second to breathe, and no time to think or reflect.

What an absurd way to celebrate the incarnation. I wish we could push all of that to Easter, the great celebration. Let’s move our Lenten fast to Christmas, and celebrate the incarnation by imitation.

Who, being in very substance God, did not consider his divine prerogatives as things to be gripped tightly, but emptied himself. Made himself nothing. Humbled himself.

This is the Christmas story that has captured me. The folding down of the divine person into the frail and corruptible human story, the setting aside of every perfect glory to take up this mundane flesh. All the redeeming that is to come begins in that moment.

Christmas is the great emptying out.

Previous in series: 10 Days of Christmas: Of The Father’s Love Begotten

Next in series: 10 Days of Christmas: Mary Ponders

10 Days of Christmas: Of The Father’s Love Begotten

Posts in the 10 Days of Christmas series

  1. 10 Days of Christmas: Rulers from their Thrones
  2. 10 Days of Christmas: Matthew 1
  3. 10 Days of Christmas: Mary and her Donkey
  4. 10 Days of Christmas: Of The Father’s Love Begotten
  5. 10 Days of Christmas: The Kenosis
  6. 10 Days of Christmas: Mary Ponders
  7. 10 Days of Christmas: The Meaning of It All

As sung by the APU Men’s Choir. Sorry this link will only work if you have a facebook account, but it is so amazing, it might be worth signing up just to hear it. We saw this concert live twice, and got a little weepy both times.

UPDATED: Here’s the same thing, now hosted on YouTube for all to hear.

Of The Father’s Love Begotten
Of the Father’s love begotten, ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega, He the source, the ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see, evermore and evermore!

At His Word the worlds were framèd; He commanded; it was done:
Heaven and earth and depths of ocean in their threefold order one;
All that grows beneath the shining
Of the moon and burning sun, evermore and evermore!

He is found in human fashion, death and sorrow here to know,
That the race of Adam’s children doomed by law to endless woe,
May not henceforth die and perish
In the dreadful gulf below, evermore and evermore!

O that birth forever blessèd, when the virgin, full of grace,
By the Holy Ghost conceiving, bare the Savior of our race;
And the Babe, the world’s Redeemer,
First revealed His sacred face, evermore and evermore!

This is He Whom seers in old time chanted of with one accord;
Whom the voices of the prophets promised in their faithful word;
Now He shines, the long expected,
Let creation praise its Lord, evermore and evermore!

O ye heights of heaven adore Him; angel hosts, His praises sing;
Powers, dominions, bow before Him, and extol our God and King!
Let no tongue on earth be silent,
Every voice in concert sing, evermore and evermore!

Righteous judge of souls departed, righteous King of them that live,
On the Father’s throne exalted none in might with Thee may strive;
Who at last in vengeance coming
Sinners from Thy face shalt drive, evermore and evermore!

Thee let old men, thee let young men, thee let boys in chorus sing;
Matrons, virgins, little maidens, with glad voices answering:
Let their guileless songs re-echo,
And the heart its music bring, evermore and evermore!

Christ, to Thee with God the Father, and, O Holy Ghost, to Thee,
Hymn and chant with high thanksgiving, and unwearied praises be:
Honor, glory, and dominion,
And eternal victory, evermore and evermore!

Previous in series: 10 Days of Christmas: Mary and her Donkey

Next in series: 10 Days of Christmas: The Kenosis

10 Days of Christmas: Mary and her Donkey

Posts in the 10 Days of Christmas series

  1. 10 Days of Christmas: Rulers from their Thrones
  2. 10 Days of Christmas: Matthew 1
  3. 10 Days of Christmas: Mary and her Donkey
  4. 10 Days of Christmas: Of The Father’s Love Begotten
  5. 10 Days of Christmas: The Kenosis
  6. 10 Days of Christmas: Mary Ponders
  7. 10 Days of Christmas: The Meaning of It All

We don’t know if Mary rode a donkey to Bethlehem. We like to think she did, because what kind of a jerk would make his pregnant wife walk from Nazareth to Bethlehem?

But that raises a different question, one I haven’t heard much about. Why did Mary make the trip at all? The census (maybe, probably) required only the male head of household to register, so Joseph could have legally made the trip alone.

I don’t know much about 1st Century Judean birthing practices, but somehow I don’t picture the husband hunched over the birthing bed, coaching his wife through her Lamaze breathing. I’m going to rely on the evidence of pre-1980′s world-wide cultural norms here, and say that most of the time the husband waited in the front room smoking the hookah with the fellas while the women of the family (and maybe a trained midwife) coached the mother through her labor. The husbandly role, throughout history, has been to fret nervously in a different room, then boisterously take credit once the child is born. Mary didn’t need Joseph around during the delivery, she needed her family, her female relatives, the local support network. Why go to Bethlehem?

The trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem is about 100 miles, through some rough terrain, and the hill country along the way was constantly populated with bandits (the parable of the Good Samaritan starts with a man being mugged along some of these same roads).  I got nervous when my wife walked a few miles through Rome on a hot summer day while pregnant. I can’t imagine Joseph’s stress over Mary making the trip with him through that rough country. Again, why make the trip? Why not leave Mary in the care of her family while Joseph went to fulfill his legal obligation.

Luke tells us why Joseph went to Bethlehem. Why did Mary go?

There are a few possibilities, I guess. Maybe Joseph was a thoroughly modern and sensitive husband, and just couldn’t stand the thought of his wife giving birth without his support. Maybe Mary was a rock-hard badass, and the thought of grunting out our Lord and Savior un-aided in the barren rocks above Jericho just made her shout, “Bring it on!” Maybe Luke invented the census and the trip to Bethlehem in order to make the birth narrative fit Micah’s prophesy, in which case of course Mary had to go along.

There is another possibility. Maybe Mary had no reason to stay. Maybe the embarrassment of the pregnancy left her estranged from her friends and relatives, with no support and no family. Maybe nobody had added up the dates yet, and everyone was assuming it was Joseph’s child. Perhaps Mary was eager for a chance to get out of town, and give birth away from the chattering gossips and back-biting spinsters, away from the prying questions that an actual birth date would inevitably give rise to.

I don’t know. Maybe you have some better ideas.
laboroflove.mp3

labor of love
photo by introspectre

Previous in series: 10 Days of Christmas: Matthew 1

Next in series: 10 Days of Christmas: Of The Father’s Love Begotten

A Grateful Heart

I’m giving the message tomorrow night at our Thanksgiving service. I thought about giving a 12-part dissertation on the dispensational reading of Romans, with annotated commentary from the Darby Bible. Doug thought it might be better to focus on gratitude.

First, a little music to set the mood.
be-grateful-hawkins.mp3
Be Grateful by The Hawkins Family (not OUR Hawkins, different Hawkins)

I think gratitude is a powerful antidote for some of the diseases of the heart. Not actual heart disease – the cure for that is to quit smoking and lay off the television. But for the pervasive ills of the soul, gratitude is a strong prescriptive. If we choose to practice gratitude, there are some things that come along with it, some benefits that accrue to the grateful heart.

A Grateful Heart is Humble

It is impossible to be grateful and self-satisfied at the same time. It is impossible to be grateful and also arrogant. Gratitude takes humility as a prerequisite, because gratitude admits that we have been the recipients of generosity, have been given something we had no claim over. It acknowledges that we have relied on others to extend to us the benefit of their free will, used on our behalf. It recognizes the freedom and dignity of someone other than us, and places us in their debt.

When Paul builds his case against natural righteousness in Romans 1, he says that the cardinal failure of those outside of the covenant is not that they were ignorant of God; how could they be, with such manifest evidence poured out around them? He says that the cardinal failure is the failure to give thanks to the God that they know must exist. Failure to admit humility before him. Failure to praise. And, out of that failure, Paul gives a litany of crimes against humanity that pour out of the ungrateful heart:

And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things with are not proper, being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil, full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, unloving, unmerciful …” Romans 1:28-31

Those of us spending time with family and in-laws this Thanksgiving might take pause for a moment to see that “disobedience to parents” was included in such august company with the other mortal sins.

I’m going to hell.

A Grateful Heart is Content

This was one of the 16 points in my epic 96-minute sermon from earlier in the year. The short version, which was definitely NOT the version I used during that sermon, is that gratitude shakes us free from focusing on what we lack, and refocuses us on what we have been given. “Things We Lack” is an infinite category, and like all good infinite sets, no matter how many things we take out of the set and add to the category “Things We Have”, the infinite set is still infinitely vast. (In my previous message, I skipped the whole 20-minute side lecture on number theory and the irrationality of actual infinites. Looking back on it now, that’s probably why so many people complained. Note to self: next time I preach on contentment, include more math-based proofs.)

Gratitude is incompatible with the twin symptoms of discontentment: greed and envy (both make an appearance in Paul’s notorious list in Romans 1). Greed feeds on our fixation with the future, and envy makes us competitors to those around us. Gratitude wrenches us away from the future and places us in the present. Gratitude restores our unity with those around us. Both are the hallmarks of contentment.

A Grateful Heart is Joyful

Gratitude often travels hand-in-hand with joy. The Psalmist knew it. Check out Psalm 100:

1 Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth.

2 Worship the LORD with gladness;
come before him with joyful songs.

3 Know that the LORD is God.
It is he who made us, and we are his ;
we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.

4 Enter his gates with thanksgiving
and his courts with praise;
give thanks to him and praise his name.

5 For the LORD is good and his love endures forever;
his faithfulness continues through all generations.

A Grateful Heart is Generous

I grew up in a strand of Protestantism that valued states of mind. Faith was a certain way of thinking about things, salvation was a certain state of belief about God, redemption was the renewing of the mind. The purpose of the church was to impart, defend, and celebrate certain states of mind. It was never articulated in quite that way, and if you stopped to talk to the teaching leadership in the church, they would likely protest. But the force of expectation and participation was all intently focused on that one aspect of being: the ideas and perspectives that we held in mind.

In coming to possess my own faith, I see the poverty of that perspective. Ideas, at least the kind of cherished by people of faith, are not static, and cannot be contained by the mind alone. They are ideas that compel, they are states of mind that pour out into actions. Gratitude that begins and ends with a state of mind is not worth celebrating.

Real gratitude expresses itself. It responds. If someone is generous to me, my gratitude provokes me to be generous with others. As God has been supremely generous to me, and if by faith I am filled with unspeakable gratitude toward Him, I will respond. My posture toward those around me will be generosity.

It will be a generosity propelled by humility, contentment, and joy.

Prayer, Suffering, and the Nature of God

So how’s your week? Oh yeah? Cool.

Mine included the two devastating, soul-crushing defeats of the Most Excellent Angels at the hands of the Boston Evil Sox of Boston. Which, of course, led me to contemplate the purpose of suffering, and prayer, and the nature of God. No, I don’t think I’m overreacting, why?

(WARNING: This post contains philosophy. Do not read while driving, or while operating heavy machinery. Some content may not be suitable for children or undergrads. The views of the author are not necessarily those of a rational person. Proceed with caution.)

Suffering poses a philosophical problem for those who believe God exists. If God is both omnipotent and loving, then why does suffering exist? Is he capable of alleviating suffering, but chooses not to, in which case how is he loving? Is he willing to alleviate suffering, but incapable, in which case how can we consider him omnipotent?

There is a classic solution to this problem. It argues that in God’s economy, it is the greatest good that counts, and therefore only as much suffering exists as is necessary to produce God’s best possible outcome, the most loving outcome for the most people. We’ll call those two concepts “necessary suffering” and “greatest good”. Like a doctor who causes pain in order to perform a life-saving surgery, some suffering is necessary in order to produce the greater good. A child may suffer with an abusive alcoholic father in order to produce a certain kind of character in that child, which will lead to great benefit for those influenced by the child when he grows up.

The greatest good requires the existence of free-will creatures, since so many of the great virtues (love, courage, integrity, justice, charity) are impossible apart from free-will. If we had been created as automatons, we would be incapable of any of those virtues.

There can be no world in which free-will exists, in which suffering does not also exist. God chose to decree a world with free-will, and allows only as much suffering as is absolutely required to produce the best possible outcome (either in overall human happiness, or flourishing, or if my undyed Evangelical roots are showing, numerical count of souls saved). So, God is constrained by these limitations, imposed by his own nature: the existence of free-willed creatures, the entailed existence of suffering, and the need to limit that suffering as much as is possible while producing the most loving outcome for the most people.

Each individual act of suffering can only be justified if it is necessary to produce the greatest good. If we hold that God is both loving and omnipotent, then we must hold that every actual instance of suffering is therefore “necessary suffering”.

We might rebut that some acts of suffering don’t seem connected to any redemptive good outcome, but we should acknowledge how limited our perspective on the matter is. We see a few things, for a few brief years, with limited understanding. God sees all things, and their eternal outcomes, with full understanding. On the basis of his character alone, we might yield him the benefit of the doubt and allow that all acts of suffering are necessary to produce some good that outweighs the bad.

Let’s lay out the classic resolution in nice tidy philosophy math!

  1. An omnipotent God can control all circumstances and outcomes for all given situations.
  2. A loving God would act to cause outcomes which produce the greatest possible good, and the least possible suffering.
  3. In a world where a loving and omnipotent God exists, every individual instance of suffering occurs only because it is necessary for producing, in the final balance, the greatest possible good.

If we accept this solution, the dilemma seems to resolve. I don’t think it does, though. I think it just shifts to the problem of prayer.

Does prayer influence God’s actions?

The knee-jerk response is “Yes, of course!” We are commanded to pray, and examples are held up to us of how to pray, those examples include petitions for actions general and specific, we are told that God moves in response to prayers, Jesus even gives us a handy parable that shows how important persistence is in having our prayers answered.

Let’s take a specific case of human suffering, a child with a painful and terminal cancer. Suppose that child is surrounded by loving people of faith, who pray fervently and earnestly for the child to be healed. I realize that in a reading audience of this size, there are undoubtedly people who have faced just such a case as this, and please, I mean no disrespect or insensitivity. I apologize for treating a freighted emotional circumstance as a math problem. Allow me though, if you will, to pose this case in a detached way in order to explore this dilemma.

There are 3 possible outcomes in this situation.

  1. God did not intend to heal the child, does not alter his intent based on the prayers, and the child dies.
  2. God did intend to heal the child, and intended so prior to any prayer, and actually does heal the child.
  3. God did not intend to heal the child, the prayers altered his intent, and so he heals the child.

The first two cases fit neatly into our previous perspective on necessary suffering. If the child does die, their suffering was necessary to bring about some greater ultimate good, even though we cannot possibly understand how or why. If the child is healed, then God was able to bring about the greater good without that particular instance of suffering.

It’s the third case that causes me to have mental hiccups. There are two states to God’s intent in the third case. Let’s call them (A) intends not to heal, which is the state prior to prayer, and (B) intends to heal, which is the state after prayer. In the classical resolution of the problem of suffering, only one of those two outcomes leads to the greatest possible good. If (A) leads to the greatest good, then (B) cannot. If, on the other hand, (B) leads to the greatest good, then (A) cannot.

This leaves us in a very difficult situation. If we allow that (B) does, in fact, lead to the greatest possible good, on the basis that it is the course God actually chooses to take, then we must also say that, prior to (B), in the case of (A), God intended to follow a course of action that included unnecessary suffering. We must choose between two equally distasteful horns:

The Unloving God

  1. A perfectly loving and omnipotent God only allows suffering that is necessary to produce the greatest good.
  2. If prayer alters God’s intentions, then there are some cases in which God’s intention prior to prayer includes greater immediate suffering, and intention after prayer includes less immediate suffering.
  3. Either God’s final intention leads to the greatest good, in which case God’s original intention does not, and includes unnecessary immediate suffering, or
  4. God’s original intention leads to the greatest good, in which case God’s final intention does not, and therefore produces less than best final outcomes, and unnecessary final suffering.
  5. A God who intends unnecessary suffering cannot be perfectly loving.

The Unhearing God

The alternative to the unloving God is to accept an unhearing God; we may strike point 2 from the argument above, and say that prayer does not alter God’s intent. Whatever he does, he always intended to do, and the earnest and persistent pleas of people of faith do not, in any way, alter God’s intentions.

I know there are some very smart, and very philosophically oriented people who hang out here, so if anyone can help me pick this lock, I would very much appreciate it. I don’t have a solution here, just the question. It seem like, in the end, we have three impossible choices: a God who is unloving, a God who is unhearing, or a God who is unable.

the gospel according to Pixar

From The Pixar Touch, by David A. Price:

Andrew Stanton, Co-Director of Finding Nemo, “…also spoke of a spiritual aspect to the relationship of Marlin and Dory. Dory was, literally, an angel fish. ‘The protagonist’s battle was to overcome fear by discovering faith, and certainly Dory represented the angel, or the helper who showed him how to let go and not be consumed by his worries,’ he told an interviewer for a Christian-oriented film web site.
He observed that subtlety is critical in giving films such as Pixar’s a spiritual or religious dimension. ‘My personal view is that if you go into things on a pulpit or with an agenda in the creative world, it can easily get in the way of your creativity and quality… Be Christ-like in everything you do, not worrying about whether you’re furthering the cause.’”

Non-crappy Bible Study

This message was sent to me on a BBS forum I frequent. I asked the other person if I could post it here, to get your input on her question:

Hey Michael, I’m hoping you might be able to help me with something. The background is, there’s this woman in the neighborhood who I have recently become friends with, and she suggested that the two of us do a Bible study together as part of hanging out with our collection of babies during the days. For a variety of social reasons, there’s no way I can politely get out of doing it.

The problem is, I have spent my adulthood avoiding Bible study groups like the plague because, at the risk of sounding hopelessly arrogant, most of them are SO PAINFULLY INSIPID. It is not enjoyable or interesting in any way to listen to someone say, “I think what he’s saying here is [insert some synonyms for exactly what's on the page],” and then everyone nods sagely. I find large portions of the text to be really, really self-explanatory, and somehow these always seem to be the ones that get focused on in Bible studies. The last time I was in one, in fact, I got in a lot of trouble because I actually said in frustration, “Come on, it’s not like it’s Shakespeare.” Yeah.

So on the occasions where I am obligated to participate in such things, I’ve generally learned to just keep my mouth glued shut and practice my sage nodding. But that’s not going to work when I’m one of only two people in the room. So my question is, are you able to perhaps recommend a set of materials that are meatier and more interesting than your typical “See, here’s how we know God loves us!” kind of thing? She wants me to pick the subject, which is good because I have a chance to make sure it doesn’t suck, but is bad because… well, I’ve kind of been operating on the assumption that they all suck. I know there must be some smarter ones out there, but I don’t know where to find them.

So, any suggestions?

An Oasis

It’s been a long time since I’ve been a worshiper while leading worship. It’s been a desert. This morning was an oasis, though. It was alive, responsive, passionate, and the words I was leading were true for me too. Songs that had been clunky and awkward in previous weeks just soared.

What a blessing.