Archive for December, 2010

Prayer for the new year

December 31, 2010

British Methodists, following John Wesley’s example, have a strong tradition of holding covenant renewal or “Watchnight” services on New Year’s Eve. It’s in our American worship book, but American Methodists mostly don’t pay attention to it. Regardless, Wesley’s covenant prayer continues to be prayed. It’s an especially appropriate prayer as we look toward 2011.

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.
Amen.

“Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and the Incarnation

December 31, 2010

In the following post, forgive me for being a geek and living up to some of the stereotypes of us Georgia Tech graduates.

One of my favorite gifts that I received this Christmas was the boxed set of the original-series Star Trek movies, Parts I-VI. (Thank you, Lisa-Unit.) I was eager to re-watch the first movie, the much maligned Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which is often called the “Slow-Motion Picture” because of its pacing. Can it really be all that bad? Even as a nine-year-old kid I liked it, at least before all of my Star Wars-loving friends told me how boring it was. (I can’t imagine that I understood much of what was going on, but I liked it.)

The Enterprise crew discover the truth about "V'Ger."

After re-watching it by itself and then with the commentary track, I’m here to say that, no, it is not that bad. In fact, it’s pretty good.

In case you don’t know or remember, the story in a nutshell is this (SPOILER ALERT): The Enterprise is called upon to investigate and repel some kind of massive, unidentified alien space ship called V’Ger, which will easily destroy Earth unless Kirk and his crew figure out how to stop it.

It turns out that the “brain” of this giant space craft, mistakenly calling itself V’Ger because the letters “O-Y-A” were smudged, is the Voyager VI, a (fictitious) unmanned space probe launched by NASA in the ’90s to collect as much information about the universe as possible and send it back to NASA. To that end, the Voyager was more successful than its creators could have imagined.

Over the course of 300 years Voyager VI went to the other end of the universe and encountered a mechanical planet run by machines, which took the Voyager’s program (to collect information and send it back home) very literally. These machines outfitted V’Ger with a giant space craft and all the tools it needed to fulfill its mission. The problem is that at some time during the course of its journey V’Ger acquires self-consciousness—i.e., transitions from being merely a machine to becoming a living thing—a living thing that longs for its source, “The Creator.”

V’Ger doesn’t know that its creator in this case was a group of human beings who lived and died hundreds of years earlier. It assumes that its creator is, like itself, a machine, and that the carbon-based units are an infection preventing V’Ger from communicating with its creator. Thus, the humans must be destroyed.

V’Ger is unfulfilled apart from its creator. Spock, who attempts to mind-meld with it, says, “It knows that it needs, but like so many of us, it doesn’t know what.” Through Spock, V’Ger asks, “Is this all there is?” I couldn’t help but think of St. Augustine’s famous prayer, “You have created us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”

What’s the solution? V’Ger’s “Creator”—as represented by a human being, Captain Decker—agrees to unite with the machine (O.K., I have no idea how this is done, but the special effects are very pretty) thus making V’Ger whole, averting the crisis, and creating new life out of a formerly sterile one.

I don’t know whether this message was intentional or not, but it’s nothing less than Christ’s Incarnation in science fiction form: our Creator’s gift of himself, becoming one with humanity, saving us, and giving us new life.

If I were a preacher in 1979, I’m pretty sure it would have been a sermon illustration.

I was a writer and editor for Georgia Tech’s student newspaper The Technique. A signed photo of James Doohan, chief engineer Scotty on Star Trek, hung on a wall of the Technique‘s office. He signed it, “To my fellow engineers.” 🙂

One more thought on Gervais and the F-word

December 31, 2010

I agreed, in my previous post, with Ricky Gervais’s statement, “There is absolutely no scientific evidence for God’s existence.” Let me be clear: There are plenty of other kinds of evidence for believing in God—and for believing specifically in the God of Christianity—that are not scientific. Only people who imagine that science—of all things—can answer our deepest questions and solve our deepest problems, say that only scientific evidence “counts” as evidence.

Ricky Gervais and the F-word

December 30, 2010

Ricky Gervais, co-creator and writer of the funny, pessimistic BBC series The Office, on which the funnier, more optimistic American version was based, wants you to know why he’s an atheist. There’s nothing enlightening about his argument: He’s an atheist because “there is absolutely no scientific evidence for [God’s] existence and from what I’ve heard the very definition is a logical impossibility in this known universe.”

Let’s take the first part of that sentence: “There is absolutely no scientific evidence for his existence.” The proper Christian response is, “Of course there isn’t! What’s your point?” The second part of his sentence points to the reason why: God is not a part of “this known universe.” If God were a part of it, God would be one thing among other things. And God is not a thing at all. If God were a thing, God would be less than God.

And because God is not one thing among other things in this universe (i.e., God is transcendent), God is not something that science can ever “see” or pass judgment upon. There is no scientific evidence for God, by all means! But there is also no scientific evidence against God. Science, which by definition limits itself to physical phenomena in this universe, is agnostic on the question of God. (See this blog post for further discussion. I love that quote, attributed to Merold Westphal: “Anything my net doesn’t catch isn’t a fish.” Science isn’t the kind of “net” equipped to apprehend a transcendent God, but that hardly means that God isn’t real.)

Atheists—at least the ones like Gervais who get media attention—usually fail to appreciate this limitation of science. In his book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins makes this mistake. He first defines God, in part, as “supernatural,” but then spends the rest of his book talking about God as a being limited to nature’s laws—as if God were just a more powerful, more complex, and more highly evolved version of ourselves. Christianity has never proclaimed such a God. Whatever we are, God is something else entirely.

Regardless, Gervais concedes that having faith is well and good for some people: “As an atheist, I see nothing ‘wrong’ in believing in a god. I don’t think there is a god, but belief in him does no harm. If it helps you in any way, then that’s fine with me. It’s when belief starts infringing on other people’s rights when it worries me.”

Come again, Rick? Aren’t you a man of science who lives by the cold, hard facts and says, “Show me the evidence”? What are these “rights” of which you speak? How do you determine what they are? Why is it wrong—there’s a loaded word!—to “infringe” on the rights of others? Prove, scientifically, that such things are real or have any meaning. You started it. Remember what you said? “You can have your own opinions. But you can’t have your own facts.” What are the facts?

Further contradictions abound:

“‘Do unto others…’ is a good rule of thumb.” What is good? Prove that acting in this way corresponds to it.

“Forgiveness is probably the greatest virtue there is.” Does science teach this? After all, it’s not even clear that forgiveness-as-virtue represents a consensus among the world’s religions—much less some kind of scientific truth. It was hardly self-evident to most people of the Greco-Roman world of the early Christian era.

“You won’t burn in hell. But be nice anyway.” Why? Prove scientifically that we ought to be kind.

I could go on—in addition to love, compassion, and justice, Gervais seems to be a big believer in honesty, integrity, freedom, and courage—but you get the point. This essay proves that Gervais, like those of us who believe in God, is a man of great faith.

Unlike us, however, by his own principles he has no reason to be.

The meaning of the Bible in one sentence or less

December 29, 2010

In his book After You Believe, N.T. Wright recommends Bible-reading as the primary means by which we are formed in the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love. As if to challenge William Faulkner himself, Wright composes this doozy of sentence, of which I am very fond. If you could summarize within a sentence what the Bible is, it might sound something like this:

No matter how many smaller stories there may be within scripture, and how many million edifying stories there may be outside it, the overall drama of scripture, as it stands, forms a single plot whose many twists and turns nonetheless converge remarkably on a main theme, which is the reconciliation of heaven and earth as God the creator deals with all that frustrates his purpose for his world and, through his Son and his Spirit, creates a new people through whom his purpose—filling the world with his glory—is at last to be realized.

He continues:

To be formed by this capital-S Story is to be formed as a Christian. To take the thousand, and ten thousand, decisions to open the Bible today and read more of this story, even if we can’t yet join it all up in our own heads, is to take the next small step toward being the sort of person who, by second nature, will think, pray, act and even feel in the way appropriate for someone charged with taking that narrative forward.

N.T. Wright, After You Believe (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 261-2.

 

This year’s Christmas message

December 27, 2010

Sermon Text: Luke 2:1-20

[Please note: The video may take several seconds to load after you press the play button.]

The following is my original manuscript.

What are some of your most cherished Christmas memories? One of my favorite memories is something that Dad and I did for a few years on Christmas Eve. The two of us would leave my mom and two sisters at home, walk a couple of miles to a nearby movie theater, and return home in late afternoon—just in time for family Christmas dinner and exchanging gifts. (In my family, we exchanged gifts on Christmas Eve and then Santa came, obviously, on Christmas morning.) When I think back on it, it was a win-win for Mom and for Dad and me, because she got at least two members of the family out of the house—and out of trouble—while she cooked, wrapped presents, and made other preparations for Christmas. Because we walked to the theater, it was an hour there, two hours for the movie, and an hour walking home. We were gone for four hours—the whole afternoon—which was good, because you know it can be stressful getting ready for Christmas. I know Mom was glad to be rid of us for a while. And Dad and I enjoyed the walking and talking. Read the rest of this entry »

The true meaning of Christmas in a rock song

December 24, 2010

The following video comes from an Alex Chilton tribute concert. Chilton, who died earlier this year, was the leader of the ’70s band Big Star. R.E.M.’s bassist, Mike Mills, sings one of his songs—a straightforward, religious Christmas song loosely based on “Angels From the Realms of Glory.” (If you’re playing this song in a band, you can easily add the other verses from that hymn.) Enjoy!

From whom did you “receive” this inspiration?

December 24, 2010

Here’s a heartwarming holiday story about an ambitious type-A lawyer named John Kralik whose personal and professional life was falling apart. “I was working so hard at times I felt like I was envying people with heart attacks because they got a few days off.” Despite all his hard work, his business was failing, his second marriage had recently ended, and his relationship with his children was on the rocks.

He decided to take a hike in the mountains on New Year’s Day, at which point things turned around in a dramatic way: “The inspiration that I received on that walk was that until I learned to be grateful for the good things that I had, I would not receive the things that I wanted.” He resolved to be more grateful by writing a “thank you” note to a different person for each day of that new year: 365 thank you’s, the title of a book he wrote about his experience.

I wholeheartedly endorse Kralik’s message: life is incredibly good, and we all have much to be thankful for. The interviewer even called his story “a great holiday message.”

Why, then, did I want to throw a brick at the TV?

Because the interviewer failed to ask Kralik about the 800-lb. gorilla in the room: From whom did Kralik “receive” this “inspiration”? Did Kralik believe God told him to be more grateful? What was Kralik’s religious background? How did his faith, assuming he had one, play into his decision to write these thank-you notes? Assuming the inspiration came from God (which seems reasonable), did Kralik feel as if he owed God anything? Had he talked to any religious professional (priest, pastor, rabbi) about this voice that he heard? Or, since he describes hearing a voice in his head, was he possibly insane?

These are all fair questions. The story had all the trappings of a religious conversion with none of the content. Why? For all I know, this mountain-top experience might have been a deeply religious and spiritual awakening for Kralik, but the interview doesn’t give us access to that.

This sort of thing happens in our popular culture all the time: the media create a narrative that, perhaps in a well-intentioned effort to avoid offending anyone, excludes talk of God or religion. This news segment is supposed to represent “reality,” but it’s not realistic. Even if people don’t regularly go to church, synagogue, temple, or mosque, they often have deep religious thoughts, questions, and feelings. They think about God—even when they doubt God exists—and they wonder how they should conduct their lives in relation to God.

It seems incredibly likely that Kralik has given more than a passing thought to the question, “From what or whom did I receive this inspiration? To whom should I be grateful for this experience of learning about the importance of gratitude?” We’ll never know.

Funeral for a friend

December 23, 2010

My Uncle Nick and I, circa 1981

I just came back from a 36-hour car trip to Florida. My Uncle Nick died this week—complications from Alzheimer’s. His funeral was yesterday morning. I had been expecting the call from Mom for a while, steeling myself for it emotionally. I grieved Uncle Nick’s loss four or five years ago, after his disease took the first of many turns for the worse. And when the call finally came on Sunday afternoon, my first thought was, “I can’t go! It’s Christmas week! I’m a pastor! I’m even presiding over a wedding on Wednesday! Is there a worse time for a funeral?”

Never mind, of course, that my dad died 15 years ago this same inconvenient week, and Uncle Nick and Aunt Bert were there—at my parents’ house, by his bedside when he died. Much more than that: as I’ve reflected on Uncle Nick’s influence on my life, he was nothing less than the second most important male figure in my life next to my father. So of course I had to go.

He wasn’t technically my uncle—only a close family friend. Not “only.” In my experience, aunts and uncles you choose are the best kind. But he was much more than an uncle. A friend of mine said, “He sounds like a grandfather.” Maybe that’s right. Both my grandfathers were dead by the time I came along. Uncle Nick wasn’t old enough to be my grandfather, but he retired at an incredibly young 55 after a long career with one company (something that never happens now). I was probably 10 years old.

So for most of my life he was the man who had nothing he had to do each day except read the paper and work the crossword. And talk. He was a great talker—a true raconteur. There was no subject you could raise about which he didn’t have some interesting anecdote or story to share. People like that would often make great preachers. I’m sure I learned a thing or two from him about weaving together stories, which has helped me in my vocation. I could listen to him all day—and often I did.

When it came to me, however, he didn’t just talk; he listened. And he did so in a non-judgmental way. This quality was especially important as I struggled in my adolescence and teenage years with self-acceptance—especially related to insecurities concerning girls, a lack of athletic prowess, and other perceived deficiencies. I walked around with a sense that I disappointed people, that I constantly failed to measure up to their expectations. I’m not saying I should have felt this way, but I did.

The point is that Uncle Nick always made me feel better about myself. He would do so by sharing a story contrasting his two sons’ personalities—one was like this, the other like that. Neither was better than the other. Both are happy and successful people—that sort of thing.

God gave that gift to me through him. I’m incredibly grateful.

When someone dies, words about their being “in a better place” often ring hollow to me. Poems about God’s “taking the very best,” or whatever, make me want to gag. In Uncle Nick’s case, however, his death, when it finally came, was an unqualified blessing.

But I’m not budging on the fact of death. I’m with St. Paul, who calls death the great enemy of life in 1 Corinthians 15. The prospect of Uncle Nick’s life being lost forever is an unqualified wrong, as far as I’m concerned. Fortunately, this is where Christian hope comes in, and it doesn’t ring hollow. The promise of resurrection is that God wants to save this beautiful life, too—along with his unique personality, his laugh, his smile.

And God will do that. Amen.

Advent Blog Tour, Day 21: “Do you see what I see?”

December 21, 2010

Giotto di Bondone (1267–1337), "Adoration of the Magi"

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the reign of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.” When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him. He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born. They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:

You, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah,
because from you will come one who governs,
who will shepherd my people Israel.” Matthew 2:1-6 (CEB)

A couple of years ago, I visited a parishioner who was convalescing at home after a debilitating illness. He was a former NASA scientist—with a Ph.D. from Harvard—who was also an amateur astronomer. (“Amateur” in the truest sense of the word—he didn’t need compensation to pursue his love for the stars.) To pass the time and keep his sanity during his long recovery, he engaged in some astronomical research.

“I’ve made a discovery,” he told me with excitement as he greeted me at the door. “I know the date on which Jesus was born!” Read the rest of this entry »