Place in Time

When is the next election for U.S. President? When is the baby due?  When did the U.S. declare its independence?  The assumption behind these questions is that important events are marked by their place in time.

We humans are wired to understand things by their place in time. Demographers use a person’s birth year to explain common characteristics, hence the labels Baby Boomer, Generation X, and Millennial.  Disney recently began using this disclaimer to warn that some of its content is marked by its place in time: “This program is presented as originally created.  It may contain outdated cultural depictions.”  If you don’t know what a beehive hairdo is or if you can’t figure out your smart phone, then style or technology hints that you may be of a different time.

The fact is, we are creatures limited by time, at least in this life. That is surely why God chose to reveal Himself within the confines of time, even though He exists outside of time.  In this way we could truly know Him.  Otherwise, humanity’s thoughts about religion, philosophies of life and death, and attempts to make sense of the world are speculations at best.  But when God intervenes in history, well that has gravitas.

Christians are not the only ones who explain the world though encounters with an incarnate god. But there’s a big difference.  Dorothy Sayers mentions the Egyptian god Osiris and the Greek god Zeus, then writes, “But in most theologies, the god is supposed to have suffered and died in some remote and mythical period of pre-history.  The Christian story on the other hand, starts off briskly with a place and date: ‘When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the King’ (Mat. 2:1).  St. Luke, still more practically and prosaically, pins the thing down by a reference to a piece of government finance.  God, he says, was made man in the year when Caesar Augustus was taking a census in connexion with a scheme of taxation.  Similarly, we might date an event by saying that it took place in the year that Great Britain went off the gold standard.”

We celebrate Christmas because God chose that place in time to take on human flesh. He then spoke to us in a way we can comprehend.  “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world” (Heb. 1:1-2).  What He has spoken to you is, “He who believes in Me will live even if he dies” (John 11:25).  The gift of Christmas is that by faith, you are no longer limited to a place in time.

 

A Simple Thing

Someone invited Phillip Johnson’s daughter to attend Vacation Bible School at a local church. Though an agnostic at the time, he became interested in what she learned.

He was raised in a Christian home but had never considered the evidence for faith. He graduated at the top of his class at Harvard and clerked for U.S. Chief Justice Earl Warren. He was a professor at UC Berkeley law school when, prompted by his daughter, he investigated and found the gospel credible. He believed.

Some year later he became bored with his career. But he reacted with interest after seeing Richard Dawkins’ comments about evolution. Johnson said, “The rules of argument seemed to be structured to make it impossible to question whether what we are told about evolution is really true. The very persons who insist on keeping science and religion separate are eager to use their science as a basis of pronouncements about religion.” One of Dawkins’ pronouncements was, “It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet someone who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, insane, or wicked.” Johnson described that sentiment as the “zeal of Darwinists to evangelize the world by insisting that even non-scientists accept the truth of their theory as a matter of moral obligation.” Johnson perceived that the basic problem with the argument for Darwinism was that it relied on the assumption of blind and purposeless origins of the universe, rather than on scientific evidence.

So he set out to spotlight the problems with that logic in his seminal book, Darwin on Trial (1991). Critics harshly panned the book, but it helped launch the intelligent design movement in academics. Casey Luskin explains, “The idea of intelligent design became a magnet for scholars from a variety of fields: biology, chemistry, physics, philosophy, theology, law. All of whom saw Darwinism’s fatal reliance on naturalistic thinking.” Notable proponents of intelligent design include Luskin (geology, law), Michael Behe (biochemistry), William Dembski (mathematics), Ann Gauger (zoology), and Stephen Meyer (geophysics, philosophy).

John Lennox, mathematics professor at Oxford, summarizes their cause. “The more we get to know about our universe, the more the hypothesis that there is a Creator gains in credibility as the best explanation of why we are here.” Whatever we come to know about our universe, some humbling questions from the Creator will always remain. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Who has given understanding to the mind?” (Job 38:4, 36).

Phillip Johnson passed away in November 2019. His legacy is not just his own work, but that he helped spark a movement to answer questions about the origins of our complex universe. And to think, it happened because someone invited a little girl to VBS. What a simple thing.

Christmas Plot

The Hallmark Channel’s 10th Countdown to Christmas has begun. Actually, they began their series of Christmas movies before Halloween while you weren’t looking.

Maybe you still aren’t looking, because you’ve already seen that movie. Aren’t all those Hallmark movies really the same? The title is a pun, like “Write before Christmas.” A career woman in the big city is a workaholic, a distraction from her sad and unfulfilled life. She has to go home around the holidays. Her family’s land or business are in jeopardy. The picturesque little town is decorated like a greeting card, naturally. A cute animal appears. A handsome widower is raising his daughter as a single parent. The child introduces the two and they all have a snowy adventure. They argue. She bakes something. They kiss. Santa winks. She decides to stay and help the family. Bring down the lights, the show’s over.

What is so appealing about that formula? Conflicts are resolved. Relationships are mended. Sad people find joy. A child’s needs are met. People display honesty and love because relationships matter. Those are real desires, met not by watching a movie but by living life God’s way. The Bible uses the words “one another” over 50 times, exhorting us to forgive, accept, admonish, and serve. It says we bear burdens and bear with one another. Jesus wraps these into one, “love one another, just as I have loved you” (John 15:12), meaning selflessly and sacrificially. For today’s culture, it’s worth noting that real love is not easily offended (1 Cor. 13:5).

Those “one another” things are more noticeable around Christmas. Max Lucado writes, “The magical dust of Christmas glittered on the cheeks of humanity ever so briefly, reminding us of what is worth having and what we were intended to be. We forgot our compulsion with winning, wooing, and warring. We stepped off our race tracks and roller coasters and looked outward toward the star of Bethlehem. For a few precious hours our heavenly yearnings intermesh and we become a chorus, banking that Bethlehem’s mystery is a reality.” And we sing, “O come let us adore Him” to the One who inspires angels and humans to rejoice.

Life deals both regrets and longings, hurts and hopes, failures and dreams. You yearn for your story to include conflict resolved, wounds forgiven, and sadness displaced by childlike joy. That, actually, is not a fantasy. The Advent, the first coming of God the Son is a celebration of that very plot. Those yearnings all point to the same thing: peace on earth, peace with God, peace for eternity. The appearance, death, resurrection, and return of Jesus is the divine plot, “foreknown before the foundation of the world” (1 Pet.1:20) to bring such a peace. Those events that inspire faith, hope, and love in us are the original and real Christmas plot.

Hope and Truth

Kanye West just released his much-anticipated album, “Jesus is King.” His conversion to Christianity has been met with both enthusiasm and skepticism.  As a cultural influencer, is he a shrewd businessman or a transparent truth-seeker?  Time will tell, as for all of us who “run with endurance the race set before us” (Heb. 12:1).

In the midst of cultural confusion, West is on a mission to bring hope to his fans. On the track, “God Is,” he says, “Every man, every woman there is freedom from addiction.”  Lyrics in “On God” include, “His light shine the brightest in the dark.  Single mothers know they got my heart.  And all my brothers locked up on the yard you can still be anything you wanna be.”  Hope without truth is a false hope.  West is speaking to a pop culture that finds hope elusive because it no longer believes in truth.  I admire his determination to use his platform to change that.

Abdu Murray describes the cultural confusion this way: “We’ve so obsessed over the freedom to do what we want that we’ve neglected the freedom to do what we should. To wrap our minds around what it means to be human, we’ve focused narrowly on brain chemistry, thereby reducing ourselves to freedomless chemical machines.  This in turn leads us to contradictorily conclude that with regard to sexual and gender identity we’re ‘born that way’ but should be allowed to explore as many sexual or gender expressions as we want.   We give lip service to respecting all religions only to turn against a particular religion if it doesn’t line up with our irreligious autonomy.”  That is hopeless.

Atheist philosopher and former Italian Senator Marcello Pera opposes these cultural confusions of post-modernism and relativism. It’s counterintuitive that he as an atheist would conclude that the antidote is Christianity.  He writes, “If we live as Christians, we will be wiser and more aware of the dangers we face.  We will not separate morality from truth.  We will not confuse moral autonomy with any free choice.  We will not treat individuals, whether the unborn or the dying, as things. We will not allow all desires to be transformed into rights.  We will not confine reason within the boundaries of science.”

Who knew that an Italian atheist philosopher and an American rapper would agree that Christian truth is good for people today? It is the means to the much sought-after hope.  West’s “Selah” lyrics say, “They say the week start on Monday but the strong start on Sunday.  Won’t be in bondage to any man. John 8:33. We the descendants of Abraham. Ye should be made free. John 8:36. To whom the Son set free is free indeed. He saved a wretch like me.”  If you believe that, you have found hope and Truth.

 

Suffering Cynicism

A friend and I stopped at a small, mom and pop restaurant. While waiting for our order, the proprietor sauntered over to our table to amuse us with a math challenge.

As he explained it, three men went to an inn and procured a room for $30, which they split equally. Later the innkeeper gave the bellhop $5 to return to the men. The bellhop decided to return $1 to each man, meaning each man paid only $9. So, $9×3=$27, the bellhop kept $2, so that makes $29. The final dollar disappeared, he said.

It turns out that I had heard this framing trick before, and my friend is a math teacher. So we laughed politely, and quickly unraveled the problem for him. To our astonishment, he became agitated and insisted, “No, that’s not right! Numbers lie, and you can’t trust math!” We explained again, and he retorted that he’d told this story many times and we were the only ones that wouldn’t admit the dollar was indeed lost in the mysteries of math.

The proprietor derived a certain ironic pleasure from the trick, which to him was not a trick at all. For him to believe the truth we presented plainly to him on the back of a napkin meant that he would have to admit error and abandon his arrogant conclusion that you can’t trust math.

I heard it said once that a skeptic doesn’t believe what is true and a cynic doesn’t care what is true. Our restaurateur clearly didn’t care to consider the truth about the math because that would have damaged his sense of superiority over math and affected his ability to impress customers with cleverness. He was a suffering cynic.

Jesus made a blind man see. The man and his parents knew who did it. But under withering inquisition, the parents refused to admit the truth. To say anything good about Jesus would mean a fall in their standing in the community. Their son told everything he knew, but his questioners would not accept it. To do so would mean their standing would change as well. The cost of truth was too high for them.

Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, so that those who do not see may see” (John 9:39). Seeing and accepting the truth about Jesus has a cost, the loss of standing and respect in a culture increasingly hostile to people of faith. But to ignore Jesus’ claims for that reason is to suffer as a cynic, and a hostage to the fear of shame. The mistake cynics make about Jesus is not realizing that the benefits of faith far outweigh the cost.

We could have told the proprietor that we didn’t care if our check was right and refuse to pay. But we aren’t cynics.

Times Eternity

I attended my 40th high school reunion. I have a confession about that. We were a class of only 46 souls, but I could not shake this fear that I would not recognize someone or remember a name. It wasn’t that I wanted to impress anyone with a nimble mind to which I lay no claim, but because I wanted us to be as familiar as when we wished each other farewell 40 years ago.

Reunions like that are curious, given the memories and the more experienced vantage point. In my chats with classmates, we generally avoided discussing our metamorphosis from children to adults. In the beautiful home warmed by evening lights and old friends, we shared our stories of careers and families, success and failure. I suspect many wondered how different choices might have led to other outcomes. A review of history invites that. Forty years later we’ve learned some things, including the realization that we cannot change the past even though its lessons remain.

We humans struggle with the bounds of time. We look back with regret and satisfaction, considering the troughs and crests. We look forward with fear, anxiety, and hope, straining to see the weather ahead and accept its inevitabilities. Emily Dickenson penned the verse, “On the wondrous sea, sailing silently, knowest thou the shore Ho! Pilot, ho! Where no breakers roar, where the storm is o’er? In the silent west many sails at rest, their anchors fast; Thither I pilot thee – Land, ho! Eternity! Ashore at last.”

The Bible reveals a God who pre-exists time. He intends His creation to be immune to the ravages of time. But we rejected Him and demanded autonomy, so He subjected us to the limitations and effects of time, our curse (Gen. 3). But He had a plan of redemption in the waiting. For sure, what Jesus did on the cross addresses our need to be saved from the penalty of sin. But it also offers to save us from the bounds of time. The Bible calls it eternal life because God invites us to join Him beyond time in holy fellowship. We receive that privilege by faith in Jesus Christ our Savior. In Him, we will be finally removed from the presence of sin, and the anachronisms of fear and anxiety. He will replace our hopes with a new and wondrous reality.

So here’s a thought. When life brings to mind the trappings and limitations of time, when you pine for the days of yore, regret the paths of yesterday, or imagine the scenes of tomorrow, remember that time may expire but you don’t. If you can say, “My times are in Your hand” (Psa. 31:15), then you can trust God to work for your good now, and you can live confidently while awaiting eternity’s grand reunion.

Do You Pray?

In 1936 a sixth grade girl, Phyllis, wrote to Albert Einstein asking, “Do scientists pray?” He expressed his doubts about prayer influencing the course of events but admitted, “Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that some spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe, one that is vastly superior to that of man.” Another time he said, “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” Einstein was referring to the basis of science, that the universe is predictable and discoverable. His admission was that the universe could not have made itself so.

Science keeps offering new and convincing evidence that God exists. Einstein’s “comprehensible universe” and “manifest spirit” hint at the inevitable reason why. “Ever since the creation of the world His invisible nature, namely, His eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:20). Creation points to its Creator, which inspires you to pray to Him who made you. Jesus said we can address Him this way: “Our Father, who is in heaven, hallowed be your name.” Of all the ways to think of God, Jesus wants you to relate to Him as a holy, yet approachable Father.

Do you pray even when you feel less than holy? Must you become a little more saintly before praying? The startling truth is that we can “draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16). By faith you can receive the forgiveness that makes you worthy of approaching a holy God. Jesus said to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Be a forgiver even as you pray to the Forgiver.

Do you pray about the messed up world we live in? Dishonest politicians, gun violence, and terrorism are the drumbeat of bad news. Health, finances, and relationships are the stressors in your personal life. Jesus had something for these, too. When you pray, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” you invite God’s rule in the world and trust His plans for your life.

Do you pray when you realize you are not in control? To pray “give us this day our daily bread” and “deliver us from evil” is to acknowledge that God provides and protects in ways you cannot.

Jesus’ model prayer (Matt. 6) is an invitation. Meditate on it and let it animate your prayer life. My prayer for you is that “the name of our Lord Jesus will be glorified in you, and you in Him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ (2 Thes. 1:12).

Faithful Living

The politicians and pundits wait breathlessly for a document from the White House. It finally drops. Opposing camps see what they expected and implement their messaging strategy (Impeach! Witch hunt!). If you live by politics, news cycles, and social media, you swing from outrage to incredulity, from vindication to condescension. It is exhausting and frustrating.

How do we live in these times? The answer has always been the same. By faith. Os Guinness offers a sweeping view of living by faith. “Seizing the day, making the most of life, and understanding the meaning of life are inseparable. All three require that we come to know the Author of time and the meaning of time and come to know the part He calls us to play in his grand story, which makes the deepest overall sense of time and history. We are then invited to live lives that align our individual hopes and destinies with the very purpose and destiny of the universe itself.”

A Hebrew prophet wrote simply, “The righteous will live by faith” (Hab. 2:4). His point was, just because the nation has turned from God and will suffer for it, you can still live by faith. Early Christian writers quoted Habakkuk’s words in making various related points. In Rom. 1:17, any person can become righteous by faith in Christ, regardless of race or religious background. In Gal. 3:11, neither religious community nor rule-keeping make you righteous. Instead, faith makes you yearn to live rightly, and participate in community. In Heb. 10:38, faith is how the soul endures the distractions and disruptions of life.

God’s faithfulness to you inspires yours to Him. In 1923, Thomas Chisolm set this idea in verse. “Great is Thy faithfulness! Morning by morning new mercies I see. All I have needed Thy hand hath provided. Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord unto me! Summer and winter and springtime and harvest; sun, moon, and stars in the courses above join with all nature in manifold witness to Thy great faithfulness, mercy, and love.”

Living by faith means you are faithful to God and trust what He has revealed about you. He created the world and placed you in it. He has given you value and a purpose for existing. By grace through faith he has given you a righteous identity in Christ. Jesus went to prepare a place for you in eternity and will come again when the time is right. He demonstrated that suffering and strife do not have the last word.

Politicians and nations may come and go, but God’s truth withstands the tests of time. Whatever would distract and disrupt your life, faith clarifies your reality and summons your strength to endure. Politics, current events, or social media could never offer the abiding peace and hope that accompany living by faith.

Trusted Authorship

Mark Twain published a book in 2017.  With a little help from Professor John Bird and creative collaborators Philip and Erin Stead, Samuel Clemens (his real name) scored a bestseller 107 years after his passing!

Bird discovered Clemens’ handwritten notes while researching old files.  Clemens had written 16 pages of story fragments for a fairy tale intended for his daughters.  The Steads stepped in to complete and illustrate the story, published as The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine, a title completely worthy of Clemens’ wit.

So, Clemens wrote a few personal notes, and the Steads applied their literary and artistic acumen to produce an interesting story.  A skeptical view of the Bible is like that.  Maybe a notable person wrote a few words a long time ago, but many others added to it.  So, it’s an interesting, if not implausible story.  I’ve heard other skeptical thoughts: Since people wrote the Bible, their thoughts can’t be more true than ours, and, it’s been translated so many times who knows what the real story is?

Why does it matter?  Because if what the Bible says is true, it is life changing, with eternity in the balance.  When you begin to find it trustworthy, you can begin to hear what it says about God and you. So let me offer a small serving of food for thought.

The oldest manuscript of the ancient writings of Roman historian Tacitus date 700 years after the original.  The oldest copy of Homer’s Iliad dates to 400 years after the original.  James Madison wrote the U.S. Constitution 230 years ago.  Yet the authorship and content of these documents are hardly questioned.  The Bodmer Papyri contains writings about Jesus that date to within 130 years of the original.  Yet the authenticity of John’s Gospel is suspect?

So what if we have what the Bible writers produced, if it’s still fiction?  Paul anticipated that objection and pointed out that many eye witnesses were still alive to authenticate his writing.  “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now” (1 Cor. 15: 3-6).

The Bible writers were inspired, not by hope of personal gain or notoriety, but by altruism and eternal truth.  John wrote, “These have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:31).

The Bible is an anthology of forty writers spanning 1500 years, giving you a faithful account of history and God’s promises to you.  You can trust it.

Follow the Evidence

A dairy cow has a strong maternal instinct.  She objects to the standard practice of removing her days-old calf and challenges any barrier to it.  That natural instinct is the basis of a curious historical event.

The Philistines captured the Israelites’ holy symbol, the ark (think Indiana Jones, not Noah).  They began suffering plagues and suspected the ark’s presence.  To test this theory, they hitched milk cows to a cart and loaded the ark.  They took the calves away, and waited to see what would happen.  Overruling their natural instinct, “the cows took the straight way in the direction of (Israel). They went along the highway, lowing as they went” (1 Sam. 6:12).  The natural gave evidence to the supernatural.

For a modern example of the same, Watson and Crick discovered the 3D double helix structure of DNA in 1953.  DNA stores coded information which can be transmitted to make new cells. It also contains the instructions to make the de-coding machinery of RNA.  The DNA code is made up of four nucleotide bases, abbreviated as letters.  The human genetic code requires three billion letters.

How did that happen?  How did all that information become packed into tiny cells?  Such questions became disruptive to English philosopher Antony Flew.  For most of his life, he taught and wrote as an advocate of his atheist beliefs.  To his credit, he also believed in following the evidence.  At age 81, he did just that, and it was in part due to scientific discoveries about DNA.

He said, “DNA has shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce (life), that intelligence must have been involved in getting these extraordinarily diverse elements to work together. It’s the enormous complexity of the number of elements and the enormous subtlety of the ways they work together. The meeting of these two parts at the right time by chance is simply minute. It is all a matter of the enormous complexity by which the results were achieved, which looked to me like the work of intelligence.”

In 2007, Flew published a book, There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind, describing how the natural gives unmistakable evidence of the supernatural.  I wish I could say he followed the historical evidence of Jesus and His Resurrection.  But the prior point remains, if God designed the universe you will see evidence of that.  If you are intellectually honest, you follow the evidence to Him.

“For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (Col. 1:16-17).