Winter, Christmas, and What to Do While We Wait

Luke 19:11–23

The following is the text of a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 17 November, 2019 at Grace Presbyterian Church in Montclair, New Jersey. It was accompanied by a week of devotionals that are posted here. The devotionals are posted in reverse order. If you read them, read from the bottom up.

Introduction

It is a privilege to look into the Word of God with you this morning, one for which I am grateful. I’m grateful for all of your prayers, and for the support and encouragement I’ve received in preparing for this day. Would you pray with me?

Almighty God, we thank you for your presence here with us in the person of your Holy Spirit. May each of us, myself especially. hear what the Spirit would say to us today. In Jesus’ name, amen.

Winter

Next Sunday is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday in the current liturgical year. December 1st marks the beginning of Advent and a new year. The end of the liturgical year looks forward to the end of the current age, to the time when Christ will come to restore and reign over His creation. I’d like to spend a few minutes talking about that restoration, but first we need to look at what needs to be restored. Then, at the end, we’ll look at what to do in the meantime.

This summer I decided to read through C.S. Lewis’s series, The Chronicles of Narnia. I have finished only four books. In the beginning of C.S. Lewis’s book The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, who is the first person who travels through the wardrobe? Whom does Lucy first meet in Narnia? What kind of creature is Mr. Tumnus? Mr. Tumnus is a faun. Not a cousin of Bambi, but a creature that is half goat and half human. Mr. Tumnus tells Lucy that the place where she finds herself is Narnia, and Narnia is under the control of the White Witch, who has corrupted the climate so that it is, in Mr. Tumnus’s words, “always winter but never Christmas.”

Some of you may feel that it’s always winter but never Christmas now, either because of personal circumstances or because of the state of the world we live in. This is nothing new. We read these words from Isaiah 59: 9–11:

9 Therefore justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us; we wait for light, and lo! there is darkness; and for brightness, but we walk in gloom.

10 We grope like the blind along a wall, groping like those who have no eyes; we stumble at noon as in the twilight, among the vigorous as though we were dead.

11 We all growl like bears; like doves we moan mournfully. We wait for justice, but there is none; for salvation, but it is far from us.

We don’t need the eyes of a prophet, though, to see that we live in a time of corruption and loss. Some of the trouble may come from ourselves, from poor choices that we make or from idols that we set up that turn us away from God. Some of the trouble we experience comes from evils in the society in which we live. Look at how racism and xenophobia have increased in the last few years in many places in the world, including the supposed melting pot that is the United States.

Some corruption has affected the physical environment, which in turn has effects on other things. Think about the recent wildfires in California. Extreme environmental conditions, probably worsened by climate change, combined with alleged human failures, have disrupted many lives through fire damage, power outages, and evacuations. Closer to home, each one of us probably knows someone, or knows someone who knows someone who has contracted a disease linked to environmental corruption. My own brother had a form of leukemia linked to industrial chemicals that he was exposed to as a carpenter.

The corruption that is evident in the world affects more than just the people in the world. Genesis 3:17–18 tell us that thorns and thistles will infest the ground as a result of the fall. In our time we are seeing wildlife population losses and even extinctions from human causes. A study published in October in the journal Science reported that the bird population of the United States declined by about twenty-five percent between 1970 and 2018. Even the state bird of New Jersey, the American Goldfinch, might have to move its nests out of state because it will be too warm in New Jersey in the not-too-distant future. These might seem like trivial things, but birds and bugs and bigger beasts are all part of the creation that God called “good” in Genesis 1:25. Matthew 10:20 tells us that not one sparrow falls to the ground without God being aware of it.

One of the saddest manifestations of the corruption of our age is in the Christian Church. Pastor Margo decried this state in her sermon last week. Maybe you are convinced that the religious right has sold its soul to the devil. Maybe you’re convinced that the progressive church is sliding down the slippery slope to apostasy. Presbyterians call themselves “people of the middle way,” so maybe you’re somewhere in the middle, wondering if the Church in America will ever be able to stand up and bear witness to the mercy and grace of God again. False teachers and false gospels seem to dominate the spiritual landscape. How it must break the heart of God to see the church in such a compromised, confused state.

Christmas

Soon it will be Christmas. Soon. Not yet.

In spite of the corruption that we see around us, restorations are possible here and now. We pray for someone who is injured or ill, and often that person gets well. The human body has a remarkable capacity to recover from illness and injury. My mother-in-law fell down a flight of stairs a little over a year ago. She was almost ninety-five at the time and we all thought she would quickly decline and become unable to care for herself. But you prayed, and we prayed, and about six weeks later she walked back into her own home. We give thanks for the medical science that supports such healing while we acknowledge that all knowledge, including medical science, comes down from above, from the Father of lights.

Restoration here and now is possible in the world of animals, birds, and other creatures. The local NPR station reported recently that a skunk had been spotted in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Indiscriminate pesticide use in the early twentieth century had all but eliminated skunks from Long Island. Now they’re making a comeback. I think skunks are cool. I don’t befriend them, though, and I wish they would replace their divots! Bald eagles are fairly common now in the Meadowlands. Peregrine falcons are making a comeback in unlikely places, including the New York metro area and Chicago. Of course, deer, bear, and even turkey, once scarce in parts of New Jersey, have come back in force and are now considered nuisances in many towns.

I wish I could be sanguine about recovery in civil society and the church. We seem to become more polarized by the day, if not the hour. Social media and some news outlets magnify the divisions among us. James 4:1 warns us not to speak evil of one another, but that warning is falling on ears covered by noise-canceling headphones. In contrast, one of the reasons I look forward to coming to Grace is that we seem to be able to put our private passions aside, at least long enough to worship and serve the Lord together. I’m pretty sure we don’t all agree on all of the issues that we face in this country, but that doesn’t show when we’re together here.

Although we may see some short-term restorations, we know that they are just that. Lazarus left his tomb, but eventually he had to return. Nick reminded us a few weeks ago that graves were opened when Jesus died on the cross; it may have been the outcome of Jesus descending to proclaim the good news to the souls in Sheol. But anyone who emerged from the grave on that day eventually returned to it.

There is coming a day when Christ will come to restore His creation fully and reign over it. Ralph Acerno took us to the New Heaven and Earth two weeks ago, using Revelation 21 and 22 as his text. I’m sorry to say, though, that his sermon did not get recorded. It was a good one. Isaiah also tells us about New Heavens and a New Earth in Isaiah 65, which we read together a few minutes ago. It bears repeating.

Isaiah 65:17–25

17 For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.

18 But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.

19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.

20 No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.

21 They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.

22 They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.

23 They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord—and their descendants as well.

24 Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.

25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.

No more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. We’ll have work to do, and we will enjoy the fruits of that labor. I like that the New Heavens and the New Earth feature agriculture. Wildlife is also prominent, as we also saw from the passage in Isaiah 11 that Mia read from earlier:

6 The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.

7 The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

9 They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

Isn’t that wonderful? Aren’t you ready for that now?

Now we know from the first coming of Jesus that He didn’t fulfill the expectations that many Israelites had for their Messiah. He had His own agenda, and some Old Testament prophecies about His coming and His earthly ministry were fulfilled in interesting ways. As Ralph Acerno said two weeks ago, the same is likely to be true in the New Heavens and New Earth, so it will be interesting to see how some of these prophecies of the second coming become physical reality.

What to Do While We Wait

Jesus is coming back. “No one but the Father knows” when that will be. Meanwhile, we are not to sit on our hands and stare at the cosmic clock, crying “How Long, O Lord,” and waiting for it to strike thirteen.

In the passage that Dylan read so clearly in Luke 19:11–23, Jesus told a parable about a nobleman who went on a journey to receive a royal appointment. He gave ten of his servants one mina, or pound each (about the equivalent of a day’s wage) and told them to use the money to do business on his behalf while he was away. There are some unsettling details of this parable, and we might wonder why Jesus included them, but the central message is that the servants were given resources and an assignment and then were given rewards based on how well they carried out that assignment.

We have to be careful not to read too much into parables, but it’s apparent from the outcome that this was intended as a test. We can easily imagine, without stretching the text, that the nobleman was going to be appointed governor of the province. As governor he would need to delegate authority. So, this was his way of finding out which of his servants could handle the additional responsibility.

One took the assignment very seriously and increased the sum entrusted to him by one thousand percent. Another increased it by five hundred percent. The nobleman praised and rewarded those two servants for their diligence and efforts. A third servant took the money and hid it, citing his fear and disdain for the nobleman. That’s not a good strategy for getting a promotion and raise, and the foolish servant paid the price for it.

Jesus is away on a journey. He has ascended into heaven. Before He departed, He gave His disciples and, by extension, us, assignments to work on while He is away. He also gave us resources to invest. We’ll look at some of them in our remaining time together.

In Matthew’s Mark’s, and Luke’s gospels and in the first chapter of Acts, Jesus tells his followers that they are to go into the world and make disciples, and for that we have the Word of God and the Spirit of God as our resources. Some of you host Bible studies. You teach in Sunday School or youth or children’s ministries. You support missions through Grace’s mission program or through private donations to missions agencies. Some of you might even be courageous enough to tell people that Jesus Christ died for the sins of the world. I’m not always that brave.

Jesus told His disciples in John’s Gospel that the world will know them for who they are if they love one another. I think Grace Church understands this commandment well and takes it seriously. You pray for one another. You take care of one another in tangible ways, such as through the Prayer Ministry, the Mercy Ministry, and the Meals Ministry. You have gifts of compassion and hospitality, given to you by that same Holy Spirit, that enable these ministries.

In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus talked about giving cups of cold water to those in need, feeding hungry people, clothing the naked, welcoming strangers, tending to the sick, and even visiting those in prison. Such needs are evident all around us. God may have given you financial resources, time, and energy for these ministries. God also gives gifts of compassion, generosity, and hospitality to enable us to meet these needs. Over the years, because of the passion and abilities of Grace Church members, our church has entered into ministries that carry out these assignments. Think of MESH. Think of IHN. Think of the Montclair Sanctuary Alliance.

Pastor Leggett’s absence has also opened a window of opportunity for us to look ahead and think about what kind of church we want to be in the future. Joel’s prophesy tells us that those of us who are get senior discounts dream dreams. Our brains make sense of what they see by evaluating it in terms of past experience. Those who are younger see visions. They imagine things that don’t yet exist. Who are the dreamers and visionaries of Grace who will imagine and implement new ways of advancing the kingdom of God from this corner of Montclair? As I look around this congregation, I see young adults, families with young children, GenXers, a lot of Baby Boomers, and a good number of octogenarians and nonagenarians. You are Deacons and Elders. You take care of our IHN and MESH guests. You put together special events for the Grace family. I don’t see the Sunday School teachers because they’re elsewhere in the building.

You take care of church property, church finances, meals ministries, visitation ministries, communion preparation. You serve on ministry teams, serve communion, or sing in the choir. Maybe you do several of those things. You show up week in and week out to worship in this place when your bodies might be telling you to stay home and watch some megachurch pastor. Like the diligent servants in Jesus’ parable, you take the resources that are entrusted to you, you invest them wisely, and you steward them carefully. God bless you for that.

Perhaps you are passionate about concerns that aren’t currently represented at Grace, such as literacy, hospice care, or creation care. Maybe you volunteer at Mountainside Hospital, coach a sports team, or sponsor a child through Compassion International. During the growing season I spend a couple of hours a week planting, weeding, and harvesting at City Green’s farm in Clifton. There are so many needs and so many opportunities to work toward meeting them.

In your stewardship of time, energy, and finances, though, I hope you give Grace Church a position of prominence. The church is not going to survive, let alone thrive, on casual commitments.

Christmas is coming. Jesus may be preparing to return at this very moment. May God bless you as you invest the resources that He’s given to you while you wait for His return.

Most gracious Heavenly Father, we are humbled that you have entrusted so much of your business to us, the imperfect creatures that we are. May we be good stewards of all the resources that you have entrusted to us, our time, energy, passions, skills, and even our finances, as we carry out that business. Thank you above all for our Lord Jesus, who died for the sins of the world, and whose return we await. In His name we pray. Amen.

Thank you very much for stopping by and for reading this far.

Pat

Floating Advent wreath on Lake Woerth, Austria
Floating Advent wreath on Lake Woerth’s water surface of the bay, country market town Velden on Lake Woerth, district Villach Land, Carinthia / Austria / EU Photo by Johann Jaritz [CC BY-SA 3.0 at (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/at/deed.en)%5D

Book Read: SEARCHING FOR SUNDAY

Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the ChurchSearching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church by Rachel Held Evans

When I tweeted that I had started reading Rachel Held Evans’ Searching for Sunday, my son asked if a review would be forthcoming. A friend of his, another scientist, liked that tweet. I said that I would try, but that I was not sure I could do it justice. I don’t have any credentials to write a legitimate review. If I enjoy reading a book, or if I find it helpful or instructive, I will write a brief piece describing what I found enjoyable or helpful about the book and post it to Goodreads and to my blog. To borrow a metaphor that is sometimes used to describe evangelism, it’s more like one beggar telling another where to find bread. With that said, here are some observations about Searching for Sunday.

Rachel Held Evans is a gifted writer. Searching for Sunday is written in such a way that it could be read aloud and understood by many, if not most English speakers. She is smart. She is honest about her fallibility and vulnerability. A reader who is looking to engage with her and not pick apart her arguments—and there are many who delight in picking apart her arguments—will appreciate her telling of her story. Unlike other progressive Christian writers, Rachel Held Evans does not infuse her writing with profanity. She may cuss up a storm in her private communication. In her writing for publication she refrains. May her tribe increase in that respect.

The structure of Searching for Sunday is “part-memoir, part-meditation on the seven sacraments of the Catholic and Orthodox traditions.” (https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/…) Those sacraments are baptism, confession, holy orders, communion, confirmation, anointing of the sick, and marriage. Rachel Held Evans uses the sacraments as a framework for the story of her early devotion to Evangelical Christianity, her disillusionment with it, her search for a new home for her faith, and her finding or building several homes in online communities and a physical congregation. As she says in a chapter entitled “Epic Fail,” church “is a moment in time when the kingdom of God draws near, when a meal, a story, a song, an apology, and even a failure is made holy by the presence of Jesus among us and within us.” (p. 113)

Readers with limited time (although a serious reader could finish Searching for Sunday in one sitting) would do well to spend that time in the section on communion. That is where we see the author’s passion for the Church, the body of Christ, most clearly.

Anyone who reads the news or listens to NPR knows that American Christianity, maybe all of Western Christianity, is struggling with questions of identity. Searching for Sunday gives a view into that struggle through the eyes of one who is living it every day. Someone reading this might think the struggle has been lost, that Western Christianity is the dying relic of ancient superstitions. Someone reading this might also be struggling with their own faith or might be curious about how people of faith can still cling to theirs. One of the important messages of Searching for Sunday is that God cares for us and meets us in our struggles, in our brokenness, and in our need. We can’t and won’t know the answers to all of the questions and objections that we and others might raise, but we can know that God won’t turn us away for having raised them, and we can know that we do well to raise them in community.

Thanks for stopping by.

Pat

Book Review: Accidental Saints

Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong PeopleAccidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People by Nadia Bolz-Weber

Nadia Bolz-Weber was interviewed by Krista Tippett for an episode of On Being that aired on 23 October, 2014 and it was this interview that introduced me to this Lutheran pastor of House for all Sinners and Saints (HFASS) in Denver. Accidental Saints is a series of stories about some of the folks at HFASS, their pastor, and most importantly the God by whose grace and mercy they are called saints. Other individuals not directly associated with HFASS but whose lives have had an impact on Bolz-Weber are also featured in some chapters.

One of the striking characteristics of Nadia Bolz-Weber and her ministry—and there are many striking characteristics—is her liberal use of profanity. I want to get this out of the way quickly because it features prominently in my desire to read this book. It is shocking, and I still wonder why it must be included. However, I understand that frank and shocking language is the currency of ministry among those who would not find themselves in most American churches. So unlike Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl, which I cannot recommend enthusiastically to an audience that includes my preteen granddaughter because of the inclusion of profanity, I can unreservedly recommend Accidental Saints to an audience that includes thoughtful, intelligent, Godly, conservative Christians. We may be shocked by the language but we need to get past it to see that there are significant ministry needs and opportunities among those who would not find themselves in most American churches.

The core of the book is the truth that Jesus came to a world that is, and always has been, seriously messed up. All of us are weak, broken, damaged, lame, and inclined to lie, cheat, betray, and steal our way out of the difficulties we face, or to avoid admitting that we are weak, broken, damaged, and lame. Nadia Bolz-Weber owns her own brokenness. It is as inescapable and unerasable as the tattoos on her arms. She is as much in need of redemption and God’s forgiveness as the most unlovable addict or misfit in her congregation.

Accidental Saints is a thoroughly memorable book, but one passage jumped out at me. In Chapter 11, entitled “Parlors,” Bolz-Weber discusses death, funerals, and birth. She points out that even well into the 20th century, when someone died, it was common for the preparation of the body and the viewing or wake to take place in the home. In a commentary on how modern Westerners have turned over activities such as dealing with death to professionals, she includes playing a musical instrument in those activities.

Accidental Saints is a humbling, challenging book that is uplifting and encouraging at the same time. It is especially valuable for those of us in American Christianity who have convinced ourselves that the world needs to conform to our standards of holiness and purity before it can be welcomed into our faith communities. As Bolz-Weber would say, that’s bulls___.

Thanks as always for stopping by!

Pat

Darkness Isn’t All Bad . . .

Except When It Is

The first time I saw the Milky Way, some time in the late 1960s, I was on a ballfield at a Boy Scout camp in Morris County, NJ. It was awe inspiring, even to a largely clueless junior high kid. It’s no longer possible to see the Milky Way in many, if any parts of New Jersey. Maybe deep in the Pine Barrens or in the northwestern hills, but probably not within fifty miles of New York City.

Center_of_the_Milky_Way_Galaxy_from_the_mountains_of_West_Virginia_-_4th_of_July_2010
Center of the Milky Way Galaxy from the mountains of West Virginia. Photo by Forest Wander from Cross Lanes, USA (Center Milky Way Galaxy Mountains) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.
The ability to view such sights is so important that some people are working to create dark sky reserves in such places as central Idaho. The absence of light is essential for those who want to observe celestial phenomena. Light pollution from cities and suburbs interferes with astronomical work that makes use of optical telescopes.

Darkness is beneficial to astronomers and to those of us who relish the sight of the stars and planets on a clear night and who hope to see a meteorite now and then. Darkness, though, has a [clears throat] dark side.

We are now in the liturgical season of Advent, the beginning of the Christian liturgical year. Advent occurs as the daylight hours are shortest in the Northern Hemisphere. This alignment of the seasons seems particularly appropriate now. Darkness fills more of the twenty-four hour day. Darkness also seems to want to fill our lives as the social, cultural, and political atmospheres in the United States are dominated by dense clouds of hatred, bigotry, and contempt for those with opposing views.

Darkness characterized the first Advent. The years between Ezra and Nehemiah, the last narratives of the Old Testament, and the Nativity stories of Luke and Matthew were dark years for Israel. Under the Persians, who were in power when Nehemiah rebuilt the wall of Jerusalem, Israel was essentially a vassal state. The Persian overlords were replaced by the Seleucids, including Antiochus IV Epiphanes, and ultimately the Romans.

Through this time Israel carried with them the promise spoken through Isaiah in 49:6 that God would send one who would be “a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (ESV) Thinking of Israel during this period calls to mind the candle that remains lit after a Good Friday Tenebrae service. Did Israel remember that promise? When we see Anna and Simeon greeting Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus at the temple we know that some remembered (Luke 2:22–38).

The One who was to be the light for the nations did come. He told us that we were to let our lives shine before others that they would glorify God (Matthew 5:14–16). Yet He who is the light of the world was hidden momentarily in the darkness of the grave. In glory He arose and ascended to heaven, sending the Holy Spirit as a flame, bringing light and passion to our work (Acts 2:1–4). We also have His Word, a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path (Psalm 119:105).

A further remark by Saint Paul seems particularly timely as well: “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible.” (Ephesians 5:11–13 ESV) So too this remark by Justice Louis Brandeis: “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”

As we approach Advent and the short days of winter, and as we await the Second Advent, we can remember that we have sources of light that can help us see through any darkness. Let us live in that light, speaking what we know to be true, kind, and edifying, and shining light on the darkness that is all around us.

Thanks as always for stopping by!

Pat

Book Review: Consilience

Consilience: The Unity of KnowledgeConsilience: The Unity of Knowledge by Edward O. Wilson

In May 2001 Wendell Berry published Life is a Miracle. He wrote it as a response to Consilience, by Edward O. Wilson. Having an affinity for Wendell Berry’s writing, I read Life is a Miracle several years ago. Then this fall I read Alister McGrath’s The Big Question: Why We Can’t Stop Talking About Science, Faith and God. McGrath also takes issue with Consilience because of Wilson’s conclusion that ethics and morality can be explained by evolution.

In our current cultural environment many of us carry out our intellectual transactions in the safety of communities of like-minded people. I am as guilty of this as the next person, but since two writers whom I respect took issue with the same book by the same author, I thought I should investigate for myself.

Wilson writes for an educated audience. His writing is, nonetheless, approachable and clear.

The theses with which Berry and McGrath take issue are not hard to find in Consilience. According to Wilson, science is capable of telling us everything we need to know. There is no need for intervention by supernatural forces. All supernatural thinking is “ignorance-based metaphysics” which will retreat “like a vampire before the lifted cross” when presented with “objective truth.” (p. 62)

Of particular interest to theists, specifically Christians who espouse young-earth creation, is Wilson’s take on this doctrine. It must be said that he speaks of the Christian’s God with respect. “Perhaps God did create all organisms,including human beings, in finished form, in one stroke, and maybe it all happened several thousand years ago. But if that is true, He also salted the earth with false evidence in such endless and exquisite detail, and so thoroughly from pole to pole, as to make us conclude first that life evolved, and second that the process took billions of years. Surely Scripture tells us He would not do that. The Prime Mover of the Old and New Testaments is variously loving, magisterial, denying, thunderously angry, and mysterious, but never tricky.” (p, 129–130)

Going farther on the subject of God and God’s involvement in human affairs, Wilson observes “God may exist, He may be delighted in what we are up to on this minor planet, but His fine hand is not needed to explain the biosphere.” (p. 198) It’s interesting that this quote is in a chapter on the social sciences, and in a section on economics.

Wilson uses “empiricism” to refer to a world view that understands the world solely in terms of what is observable. “Transcendentalism” allows the intervention of forces outside of what can be observed with senses extended by technology. “The choice between transcendentalism and empiricism will be the coming century’s version of the struggle for men’s souls. Moral reasoning will either remain centered in idioms of theology and philosophy, where it is now, or it will shift toward science-based material analysis. Where it settles will depend on which world view is proved correct, or at least which is more widely perceived to be correct.” (p. 240).

The final chapter, “To What End,” includes what seems to be a summary statement: “What are we? Where do we come from, How show we decide where to go? Why the toil, yearning, honesty, aesthetics, exaltations, love, hate, deceit, brilliance, hubris, humility, shame, and stupidity that collectively define our species? Theology, which long claimed the subject for itself, has done badly. Still encumbered by precepts based on Iron-Age folk knowledge, it is unable to assimilate the great sweep of the real world now open for examination.” (p. 269) Ouch.

Finally, this: “The legacy of the Enlightenment is the believe that entirely on our own we can know, and in knowing, understand, and in understanding, choose wisely. That self-confidence has risen with the exponential growth of scientific knowledge, which is being woven into an increasingly full explanatory web of cause and effect.” (p. 297). That speaks of a hubris that has gotten humanity into trouble since its appearance in the biosphere.

I am thankful for E.O. Wilson and for his challenges to the hardened dogmas of fundamentalism. They need to be challenged. I am also grateful for the work of writers such as Wendell Berry and Alister McGrath, who have provided alternative narratives that include the work of a just and loving God.

Thanks as always for stopping by!

Pat

Under Orion’s Gaze

When I left Mooney’s Garage the other day, Orion stood high in the clear southern sky. Venus was low in the east, having risen thirty minutes before. The sun would not rise for more than an hour, followed by an invisible crescent moon, so I had a clear view of Orion for most of the twenty-five minute walk home.

The constellation Orion
A photograph of Orion through a ground-based telescope.
Photo by Akira Fujii

Orion not a real person, of course. Orion is the name that has been given to a group of stars that form the image of a person, a hero from ancient mythology. Even in brightly lit Northern New Jersey, Orion is clearly visible through much of the year.

Although Orion appears as a two-dimensional image, we know that it consists of stars that are separated by great distances in three dimensions. The five stars that make up Orion’s outline are Rigel (773 light years distant), Saiph (720 light years distant), Betelgeuse (643 light years distant), Bellatrix (240 light years distant), Meissa (1,100 light years distant). The three stars in Orion’s Belt are Alnitak (700 light years distant), Alnilam (1,300 light years distant), and Mintaka (900 light years distant). These eight stars are an average of almost 800 light years away. If we were to travel 800 light years, just over halfway toward Alnilam in the center of Orion’s belt, turn in any direction, and travel 800 light years in that direction, we would not see Orion from the back, side, or top, but an entirely different two-dimensional image. Maybe dogs playing pool. Maybe nothing recognizable.

We know what we see when we look in Orion’s direction. We can even build a three-dimensional model, either physical or computer-generated, that would enable us to see what kind of image those stars would form when viewed from another part of space. But imagine Orion being able to see Earth. Think of what has he seen, especially of humanity’s sojourn here.

Orion has seen the earliest hominids stalking their prey in the savannas of eastern Africa and the Neanderthal clans coping with the rigors of alpine life. On the far northern rim of the earth he might have seen modern humans cross from Siberia into North America, then expand their territory southward as far as he could see. He has seen dynasties and empires rise and collapse. He has seen humanity adapt and cope with flood and drought, famine and plague, unbearable cold and unrelenting heat. He’s seen our worst ignorance and inhumanity and our greatest wisdom and compassion.

Orion, as we thus imagine him, has seen much and yet has stood passively at a distance. God sees all, not in our imaginations but in reality, and has done much. God spoke, and the universe came into existence. God gave that universe, and the Earth in particular, the ability to bring forth life. God placed in that Earth a form of life that could respond to God of its own free will. When that response was contrary to God’s ideal, God responded not by stepping back and watching us destroy ourselves, but by stepping in and giving us a Way in which the consequences of our contrary actions could be undone.

Astronomers tell us that Orion could gaze down on Earth for millions of years into the future. We have hope in a bright future if we can turn away from our ignorance and inhumanity and turn to the One who has walked among us in space-time and who sees us with eyes of compassion and mercy.

Thank you as always for stopping by!

Pat

Book Review: Quantum Physics and Theology

Don’t let the title frighten you. You don’t need to understand quantum physics and you don’t need to have studied theology to enjoy and appreciate Quantum Physics and Theology by John Polkinghorne. Having training or interest in the sciences or theology will enhance your appreciation, but it’s not essential.

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I read this book as a part of a group reading and discussion project hosted by Andy Walsh on the Emerging Scholars Network during September and October 2017. He discussed one chapter in each of five weekly articles. There were on-line video chats as well but they were not recorded. His comments will much more valuable to potential readers than any I could add here, so I would suggest that you read his posts.

Thanks as always for stopping by!

Pat

Eating the Seder, Singing Gospel

Two opinion pieces appeared this Lenten season in the on-line version of Christianity Today. The first, written by two Rabbis, argues that Christians should not eat a Seder meal as a commemoration of the Last Supper. The second, written by two Evangelical Christians, gives counterarguments to the first.

Both sets of arguments have merit. I’m not qualified to contradict either, but I am more inclined to agree with the two Rabbis.

I’m a Gentile. Specifically a Christian, born and raised in the Roman Catholic church, who later embraced Protestant traditions. My mother’s parents were born in Hungary. My father’s family came from Ireland. Maybe if I took a test to have my DNA analyzed for ancestral traits I might learn that I have Tatars, Kalanguya, or Ethiopian Jews among my forebears, but for now I self-identify as a White Gentile of European descent.

That argues against the adopting of Jewish traditions such as the Seder meal as a part of my Christian practice. The Seder, a remembrance of the deliverance of the Jews from slavery, draws on a heritage that I can’t claim. It’s possible instead that someone in my family’s past was active in persecuting Jews. The links to that past are weak or nonexistent, so I’ll likely never know.

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Sheet music for the Gospel Service

I struggle with similar misgivings when it comes to singing Gospel music. On Sunday 23 April the Gospel Choir of the Grace Presbyterian Church of Montclair will present its eleventh annual Gospel Celebration. Gospel music is powerful in its message and in its composition. And it is great fun to sing. Our rendition of “John the Revelator” alone is worth the price of admission. But Gospel music draws on the experiences of the African-American community, which has endured slavery, oppression, disenfranchisement, and denial of opportunity that I cannot comprehend.

What right do I have to sing such words of suffering, pain, and loss?

The controversy over the inclusion in the Whitney Biennial exhibit of a painting of Emmett Till comes to mind in this context. What right does a White artist have to adopt for her own practice a tragedy of such magnitude, one that played out in a community not her own? Strong arguments in support of and against the artist and curators continue to be made.

My reactions to the two activities, eating the Passover Seder and singing Gospel music, may also arise out of some unrecognized prejudices. After all, Motown was part of the soundtrack of my youth, and lately I’ve been listening to WBGO more frequently. But would I want to be a musician of color? Maybe not.

Nonetheless, if we are to bridge the gaps with people who are different from us, most importantly so that we can work together to address the ills that affect our world, we need to know and understand what brought those people to the place where they are now. Participating in a Seder meal as a Seder meal and not as a Christian practice might help. And I will overlook my misgivings and participate joyfully in Grace’s Gospel Celebration in the hopes that it will let me me understand the heritage of  my African-American friends in the choir a bit better.

What has brought people with whom I differ in other ways to the place where they are now? What opportunities exist for me to learn about them without pretending to be something that I am not or asking them to pretend to be something that they are not?

I hope you have and take opportunities to sit with those who are different from you and offer each other glimpses into your heritages and passions. What can you accomplish together once you get to know one another better?

I want to thank Krista Tippett of On Being for airing a conversation that provided some inspiration for this post.

Thanks as always for stopping by.

Winter Silence

Just before sunrise, at approximately 7:15 a.m. on New Year’s Day, our neighborhood in the Allwood section of Clifton was very quiet. No surprise, really, given the day and time. The sounds that could be heard were mostly bird calls, including jays, crows, English sparrows, and a nuthatch. A grey silhouette, shaped like a mockingbird, sat in a nearby bush but made no sound.

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Sunrise over Allwood, May 2015

The birds that remain in the area during the cold months are active and vocal. They call to alert one another to the presence of predators or to the location of food sources. In a few weeks they will begin calling to attract mates and any quiet early mornings will be filled with those hopeful sounds. By coincidence our pastor at Grace Presbyterian Church, Paul Leggett, preached on New Year’s Day about the sometimes unrecognized presence of Christ in our midst. In discussing John 1:26b Paul said that anything that brings us joy, such as hearing bird calls, is a token of the presence of Christ.

By another coincidence Krista Tippett’s On Being broadcast on New Year’s Day 2017 featured her interview with Gordon Hempton, originally aired in May 2012. Hempton refers to quiet not as the absence of sound but as the absence of noise. Big difference. He also says that humans have evolved to be most sensitive to sounds in the frequency range of bird song. This suggests to him that one of the key indicators of a habitat or ecosystem that will support human life is the presence of bird song.

Silence can allow us to hear important things that we ought to hear or that will enlighten or gladden us. Silence can also make us uncomfortable or unsure of what’s coming next. I once attended a meeting with other members of an organization. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss strategies for publicizing the organization and its events. I said little and mostly listened. When I was next in the presence of another member who was also at this meeting she said she was tempted to hold a mirror under my nose to see if I was still breathing. 🙂

As Ecclesiastes 3:7 tells us, there is a time to keep silent and a time to speak. Many of us think now is the time to speak, if social media activity is any measure of those inclinations. Yet few of us are truly the prophets whose voices need to be heard. (Yes, I do grasp the irony and hypocrisy of that statement.) Bill McKibben is a prophet. Wendell Berry is a prophet. Tim Keller is a prophet. [insert name of your choice here] is a prophet. I am not. I need mostly to listen, evaluate and think critically, and, because being silent does not mean being passive, act in ways that will benefit humanity, the planet, and the church.

For my part I hope 2017 will be more a time for keeping silent and for being  thoughtful, intentional, and charitable when speaking is necessary. I wish for you a year filled with beneficial silences, profitable interactions with those around you, and actions that bear good fruit. May contentment and health also be yours in abundance. Thank you as always for stopping by.

Caterpillars, Compost, and Natural Cycles

Recently our parsley patch hosted some black swallowtail caterpillars. At least two were observed over several days. A family member suggested that we remove them and display them in Jody’s first grade classroom. The expectation was that they would soon enter the chrysalis stage, and would subsequently emerge as adult butterflies.

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