Grace and Alexa

Jim Miller

There were two twin girls, identical in every respect, Grace and Alexa. They grew up together, played together, wore the same clothes and put their hair in the same ponytails. They made up their own language that they shared between them.

One day a terrible thing happened. There was a tumultuous storm at night and the roof of their house caved in. Remarkably, both girls were saved, but both were changed. Grace saw her salvation entirely as the work of a gracious God who protected her. Alexa, who managed to throw herself under a table when it happened, believed she had saved herself. Neither was ever the same, nor were they alike anymore.

They looked the same, they dressed the same, they wore their hair the same. Grace lived with trust and confidence that she was watched over by God. Alexa did a lot of reading about architecture and how the house was supposed to be designed or retrofitted.

They were both accepted to the local university and excelled, graduated with honors, both of them. Grace majored in literature. Alexa majored in, well, architecture, actually. Both applied for jobs at the university and were hired. They taught together, a cute novelty of the school, the twin genius professor sisters.

They looked the same, they dressed the same, they wore their hair the same way. But they were not the same, and the students knew it.

Grace loved her students, laughed with them, encouraged them, and was known for being an easy grader, and for staying up late tutoring study groups who had fallen behind. Alexa was stern. Her gaze was piercing. Her classes were hard. Few students got A’s from her. They learned a lot, but at a high cost. Only the strong survived, and the weak were weeded out through the natural selection of her red pen.

The funny thing was, when one of them turned a corner, the students weren’t sure which one they were about to encounter. They bristled and sat up straight, for fear that it was the architecture professor, but they looked with hope that they were going to get to see their beloved literature professor.

They looked the same, they dressed the same, they wore their hair the same. But when they got close to you, you could tell who you was who. Because the architecture professor never looked at you with anything more than a cold, evaluative glare. The literature professor always looked at you with a gleam in her eye, and you knew, for some underserved reason, you were loved.

Of Mountains and Microbes

Jesus said, “If you only have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can tell this mountain to go throw itself in the sea and it will.”

Mountains are bigger than microbes.

If Jesus intended us to have no fear of the mountains we have to climb, he certainly intends us to have no fear of the microbes we have to kill. In this season of exhausting inactivity, the kind of boredom that William Blake called “rage spread thin,” Jesus is working out a kind of exercise of faith in we who believe. Just like floor exercises in which the muscles are strained by maintaining a position and standing still, there is a kind of intense workout that Jesus is doing in our hearts right now. Stretch and hold it until your core quivers, and when you’re done, you will have muscles that weren’t there before.

In the patience of this moment, God is building:

Hearts that fear him alone

Minds that don’t worry

Lives lived on mission rather than in self-satisfaction, and

Prayers that are powerful

We are not victims in this moment any more than an athlete is a victim of the gym. Have faith. Don’t be afraid.

 

If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can tell that microbe, _Go jump in the ocean,_ and it will..png

The Viral Blessings Challenge

We’re going to change the world this week with a little challenge.

chris-de-tempe-6Tl5Kl7JEQg-unsplash.jpgUp and Down.

When I ride roller coasters with my kids, I grab hold of the handle bars, make a face like someone who is having dental surgery, and hold my breath until it’s over. My kids throw their hands up in the air, laugh, and scream about how they think my seatbelt is coming loose. We don’t ride the same way.

As our society does somersaults this season, there are two different ways to handle it.

Some are holding on tight. They’ve raided Costco and stocked up unnecessary tissue. They have dozens of water bottles, though their sinks work fine. They’ve dumped stocks and they’ve stopped spending, clinging to every dollar.

Personally, this week, if I have to go to a grocery store for essentials, I’ll try a new spiritual discipline. I won’t shop for myself. I’m going to buy the gift cards that they often sell near the registers, and fill them with small amounts of money. Then, after the employees at the registers hand them to me, I’m going to give them back to the employees as a gift and thank them for what they do. I’m going to tell them that Jesus is watching over them. These are people who are serving as modern day caregivers tending to the people who are afraid of the roller coasters. You can do the same.

It’s the “Viral Blessings Challenge.” Pay attention to public health announcements and don’t go out into public spaces when you don’t have to. It’s best to wait this thing out, but when we do encounter one another, let’s fill those encounters with grace. If you have a blessing-filled encounter with someone, send me the story at jim @ reallife.la

An Open-Handed Life

Jesus changes everything about the way you approach the season of sickness and anxiety.

With Jesus, I approach life with open hands. He will provide me whatever I need, and I don’t have to cling to anything. I can throw my hands up as we roll over these hills. It may not be filled with the same fun-filled laughter you’d hear at an amusement park, but it’s filled with freedom. I don’t have to worry about life, or what I will eat, or what I will wear, because my Father in heaven knows what I need. I’m not hoarding anything.

With Jesus, I approach death with open hands. I assure you, I’m going to die some day – there’s nothing to wonder about there. But whereas some people have to approach that reality like it’s a cliff they are jumping off blind, I approach it knowing that there is a huge party waiting for me on the other side of that door. I don’t have to cling to life, because what’s in store for me will be even better.

A Prayer

If your recent days have been filled with anxiety, here’s a simple little prayer you can pray. Say it by yourself or with your family. Say it out loud if you want.

Jesus, I’ve done life on my terms instead of yours. I’ve clung to things out of fear, and I’ve lived for myself.

I don’t want to be filled with anxiety anymore. Protect me from temptation and keep me away from evil.

I give my life to you with open hands, and I trust you to take care of me. Forgive me and start me on a new path.

Now teach me how you want me to live.

If you’d like me to pray with you and for you, or if you want to talk about Jesus, send me an email at jim @ reallife.la.

The coming days may still be a roller coaster. That’s not something you can control. But you do have complete control over how you ride.

Food

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Some of us, as of this week, now face a moral dilemma.

 

Temptation and Fall

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

The temptation that caused the fall of humanity in the Jewish narrative came in the form of unnecessary food. They already had all they needed. But this food promised to allow them to sort out right and wrong for themselves, to create their own system of weights and measures, so they no longer had to depend on God to provide for them.

Daily Bread

As the Israelites marched through the desert, away from Egyptian slave-drivers and towards a homeland, the tension between God and his people was again food.

“If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you.”

God proved again that he could provide for them exactly what they needed, supernaturally. Bread fell from the sky. They called in “Manna,” which meant, “What is this stuff?” They were told to collect each morning only enough for the day. If the Israelites took more than what they needed for a day, it would rot. They didn’t have to store up. In this way, God called them back into dependence and rewarded them with providence.

The Bread of Life

Jesus draws on the lessons of his heritage. He says things like:

Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink.

Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.

He teaches his disciples to pray:

Give us this day our daily bread.

And he says of himself:

I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never go hungry.

It is perhaps more than coincidence that his birthplace, Bethlehem, is a Hebrew word that means “House of Bread.”

The most natural, healthy relationship between God and humanity is when we are dependent every day for our basic needs, and we live without fear that a good Father will provide for us when we ask him.

Hoarding and Sharing

Instead, in crisis, we stockpile food that we don’t need, escalating anxiety and tension in our communities. That leads us to the moral dilemma.

If you have taken more resources than you need this last week, in fear not only of a virus which is not particularly remarkable, but also in anticipation of the fear of your neighbors, you now have a moral imperative. This is from the Lord, not me.

If you over-bought this week, take food to your neighbors. Give it to them and say, “I’m trying an experiment here. I’m giving this to you to see if Jesus will take care of me.” What will happen is that you will experience the relief of knowing that a good and powerful God watches over you. You will be set free from a spirit of fear. You’ll experience the joy of providing for others. You’ll make new friends. You’ll live a story that will be worth telling.

The other choice is to continue running with the herd, and exposing sins of which we will have to repent in the next generation.

The choices here are between faith and fear, panic and peace.

Try Jesus. He’ll give you what you need.

The Panic of the Faithful

You know what will really convince the world that Jesus is the good and loving Lord of all creation? It would be if all of his children absolutely go insane whenever there is a public crisis and then lead the way in running, hiding, blaming others, and over-reacting.

About Coronavirus

Here are three things Christians ought to be thinking about as the world reacts to aspreading sickness.

1. Don’t go crazy.

Every year in the US alone, the flu kills on average 30,000 people. In the 2018-19

Virus.jpg

flu season, it killed 61,000. The coronavirus has killed 3,000 in the world, out of 7.7 billion. It is admittedly stronger than the flu, but it is not the medical version of a nuclear bomb. The stock market is spiraling, organizations are cancelling conferences and gatherings, and Japan and Italy have temporarily closed their schools. Whereas the mass of humanity is led by animal instincts, Christians are bearers of the Spirit of God and ought to swim against the current, not get swept up in it. We have not been given a Spirit of timidity, but of power, of love, and of self-discipline. The Christian response is not, “Where can I hide?”, it’s “God is bigger than this.”

2. Ask the right questions.

The first questions I hear as a pastor is whether or not churches are safe places to gather and whether we should all stay home. At least we should receive the eucharist through a doubly-secured air-lock, and the Pastor can stand behind that thick plexiglass like the bank teller. The first question that the Spirit would have Christians ask would be, “If it gets bad, how will we help?” Danger is the opportunity for the Christian to demonstrate faith, not fear. Crisis is the opportunity for the Christian to demonstrate compassion, not cowardice. First questions first – no matter what the state of the world, followers of Jesus don’t run and hide.

3. Be wise.

Coronavirus-response is not going to be the modern, bio-chemical equivalent of snake-handling. Everyone should practice good hygiene – wash your hands, sneeze on your elbow, and don’t go to school if you’re sick, even if there’s a math test. These rules should apply during the ordinary flu season, and not just because it kills 30,000 Americans a year, but because it’s gross when you sneeze on your hand and then hold it out saying, “Nice sermon today, Pastor.” Thank you for that.

Science and Faith

monkeyThe Galileo Affair

There’s a little event that happened in 1633 which is an important conversation piece in Christianity today.  There was a guy named Galileo who studied the stars and who wanted the world to look through his new telescope.  Apparently, he said, we’ve got it wrong.  The earth goes around the sun and not vice versa.

The Catholic Church of his day was doing a little investigation called the Spanish Inquisition, in which they were forcing people to accept Christian doctrine or face torture.  They read the passage in the Bible, Joshua 10:13 that says that the sun stopped in the sky.  Well, the sun can’t very well stop if the sun isn’t the one that’s moving.  So they told Galileo to take back his doctrine, which he did.

To this day, that story is told to high school students to emphasize the fact that religious legends can be destructive tools that oppose the pursuit of truth.

One of the most destructive things a Christian can do is make decisions out of fear.  Fear doesn’t help you determine scientific facts.  And fear-based decisions will make your worldview look ridiculous to thoughtful people.

Darwin and the Church

Fast forward 220 years. In 1859, Charles Darwin published “The Origin of the Species,” in which he proposed that the history of the world doesn’t orbit around humanity.  In fact, the history is much longer, and humans are a late arrival.  Furthermore, we arrived by a long and strange route, through adaptation and survival.

This immediately sent shockwaves through Europe and America, first among the universities.  At Princeton Seminary, my alma mater, there was a division in the ranks.  One professor, Charles Hodge, wrote “What is Darwinism,” and in it said that evolution is atheistic.  He rejected it and spent his life arguing against it.  However, his colleague BB Warfield, a staunch defender of biblical inerrancy, wrote that one did not have to give up the Christian faith to believe in Darwinism.  He wrote, “I do not think that there is any general statement in the Bible or any part of the account of creation, either as given in Genesis 1 and 2 or elsewhere alluded to, that need be opposed to evolution.”

Atheists however quickly took up Darwinism as their rival creation story.  Thomas Huxley went around promoting Darwin before the scientific community had even weighed in.  He took to calling himself, “Darwin’s bulldog.”  Since then, atheists have continued to promote Darwinism for philosophical rather than scientific reasons.

I’m sort of the Forest Gump of Darwinism.  You remember how Forest Gump keeps showing up in the middle of huge, significant political events without realizing what was going on?

When I was in college, a friend of mine was an intern at the church.  He was staying at the house of a family in the congregation.  I used to go over to the house, and we would watch VHS tapes listening to Christian philosophers debate about important things.  The house was owned by a Berkeley professor.  That professor was upstairs writing a book about Darwinism, and I went to his initial book launch and signing.  The professor’s name was Philip Johnson, and he wrote the book Darwin on Trial, which launched a lot of the modern debate on Darwinism.  The intern was named Tom Crisp, and he’s now the chair of the philosophy department at Biola University.

Then I went to Princeton Seminary.  While I was there, I took part in a series of seminars on Christian apologetics, exploring a defense of the Christian faith in the modern world.  One of the other students setting those up was a guy who already had two PhD’s, a guy who was particularly interested in Darwinism.  His name is William Dembski, and he has written or edited many of the great books debating Darwinism in the last 20 years.

Creation Science

Some time ago, my friend Kyle invited me to give a lecture to high school students at Mariners Church, a megachurch down in Irvine. I talked about science and the story of faith.  There was, that evening, a kid sitting in the back row next to the door.  I always pay attention to the people in the back row looking like they want to get away, because they are usually the ones to whom God wants to speak most clearly.  Eventually the kid raised his hand and he asked, “I don’t get it.  Hasn’t Darwinism just disproven Christianity?”

“That’s an interesting impression,” I said. “But actually, I think that the Bible is full of science.” I was just stalling, because I didn’t know what I what to say.  But then I realized, I think the Bible really is full of science.

I said, “Look at Genesis 1 and the story of Creation.”

On Day 1 God created light.

On Day 2 God separated the sky from the land.

On Day 3 God created the plants.

On Day 4 God created the moon and the stars.

On Day 5 God created the animals.

On Day 6 God created humanity.

I asked him, “Do you see the science?”

On the first day, God created physics, brought the mysterious particles and waves that are the grounding of all things tangible into being.

It was good.

On the second day, God brought hydrogen and oxygen molecules into the bonded union that would give texture to the tangible.   On the second day, God created chemistry.

And it was good.

On the third day, God created geology and botany.

He created clay and rock and sand.  He grew palms and pineapples, cocoa and coffee beans.

So you know that day was good.

On the fourth day, God created astronomy.  He dressed Orion in a belt and admired Saturn and said, “If I like it then I better put a ring on it.”

And it was good.

On the fifth day God created zoology.  He made the majestic eagle, the prickly porcupine, and the misconstrued platypus (which is kind of like making lunch out of the whatever leftovers you find in the refrigerator.)

But it was still good.

On the 6th day, God created anthropology. He created little minds to contemplate the great mind, hearts to feel, fingers to reach out in need and in fear and in love.

And it was so good.

And on the 7th day he created philosophy, the mother of all sciences, a day on which to contemplate it all.

A thinking God created thinking beings to bear a thinking faith.  People of God, the world gains nothing from Christian cowards who turn off their brains when they hear ideas that scare them.

Evolution and God

If God wanted to bring about humanity through millions of years of evolution, who is the clay to tell the potter how to do his work? God can bring about his creation in any way he should do.  And Bible verses about the beginning of humanity shouldn’t silence scientists any more than Bible verses about the sun stopping in the sky.

If what the church offers to society is fear and ignorance, the church deserves to be ignored.

If evolution is wrong, that should be a scientific decision, and scientists should be open to all questions.  Scientists like Michael Behe and Stephen Meyer are making a case for why they think Darwinism is insufficient to explain the fossil record and the intricacies of biology.  Even atheist scholars like Thomas Nagel believe Darwinism is insufficient to explain life.  But let that be a debate for the learned, and if you want to be a part of the debate, study the issue before you speak, unlike so many Christians whose approach is “Panic first, ask questions later.” But the Bible doesn’t require a rejection of evolution, and fearful arguments to the contrary do not honor Jesus.

Hospitals and Schools

Look at how much good Christians have done when they have embraced empirical science as a tool to honor God.

The great universities of Europe and America, the Oxfords and the Harvards, were founded by Christians who believed that God’s fingerprints were all over the world, and the work of God was worth studying.  They believed that by advancing knowledge they were honoring the work of God and doing what God wanted.

The great hospitals and modern medicine were founded by Christians who wanted to heal broken bodies, believing that alongside prayer, and not instead of it, God had given us tools to understand and repair the physical world.

Furthermore, great scientists have embraced faith.

Isaac Newton, who postulated the gravitational constant, wrote more about Christianity than science.

Gregor Mendel, father of modern genetics, preached sermons at his church.

Louis Pasteur, who made milk drinkable, said that he prayed while he worked.

Lord Kelvin, who formulated the laws of thermodynamics, gave lectures defending the Christian faith.

Francis Collins, modern leader of the human genome mapping project, calls Jesus his Lord and Savior.

Faith has never flourished by hiding its head in the sand. People of faith ought to embrace the honest explorations of the scientific community, and the scientific community ought to be open towards honest exploration of the story of Jesus.

I remember going to a church camp when I was in high school, a fiery Baptist camp held in deep in the woods in the Texas hills, so that you could not get away.  And I remember asking a guest preacher a string of questions about faith and science.  Midway through my questions he got tired, and just scolded me, “Sometimes you just need to stop asking questions and believe.”

That’s a bunch of trash.  Pursuit of truth leads to Jesus, and if you stop asking questions, you won’t end up at Jesus, you’ll end up with an idol.

Believing Thomas

Look at how Jesus treated questions when they came from one of his own disciples.

JOHN 20

24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But he said to them, “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.”

26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 

27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Thomas is not an enemy of the faith.  Thomas is merely a scientist.

Jesus’ message to Thomas isn’t scolding, it’s giving Thomas the empirical evidence that he’s asked for.   Stop doubting and believe – because I’ve now given you sufficient evidence to stop doubting.

Don’t be afraid of where the pursuit of truth will lead you if you believe in the guy who said, “I am the truth.” To pursue truth is to pursue Jesus.

If you want something to be afraid of, I’ll give you something to be afraid of.  If you raise your kids with a kind of fundamentalism that requires them to hide their heads in the sand, one day your kids will get out in the world, and they will listen to the news, they will talk to their peers, they may go to college, and they will realize that brilliant minds have come to believe in things that are different than what they’ve heard from you.  If you tell them that the Christian faith hangs on their rejection of the findings of science, you will put them in the position of holding onto ideas so rigidly that their ideas will one day break them.  Kids aren’t leaving the faith because of Darwinism.  They’re leaving the faith because parents, churches, and pastors are telling them that Christianity and science are opposed to one another, and they have to choose either science or Christianity.  They’re going to choose the one that is most serious about the pursuit of truth.

Shouldn’t that be the Church? Shouldn’t we be the ones who love truth more than our secular friends?

Let me remind you of a teaching of Jesus that he said was more important than all the rest – Love God with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all your soul, and love your neighbor as yourself. Do that and you will be faithful.

Melting Point

metal.gifMetals melt at different temperatures.  Gold, for instance, melts at a temperature of just under 2000˙.  If you wanted to reduce that gold cross around your neck to a liquid and recast it into a ring for your finger, you’d need an oven stronger than you have in your house. (Most people need to recast their wedding rings with the cross of Jesus, by the way.)

Human hearts are a lot like metals.  They come to church made of the right stuff but molded in the wrong shape. The purpose of preaching is to bring people to their melting point.  The gospel burns people down to their most basic parts – makes them focus on the purpose of life and consider shedding meaningless excesses.  Then, once we’re reduced to materials God can work with, he recasts us into the shape he means for us to be.

The purpose of preaching is to bring people to their melting point.

Worship, after the gospel, plays a cooling role.  We are reshaped by the gospel, and then we cool into our redefined shapes, a new and holy form that requires disciplined maintenance.  When we sing our response to God, it is an act into cooling into the form of a people of worship.  If you leave church a self-righteous, judgmental, gossip-filled religious person, you haven’t reached your melting point, and you’re definitely not cool(ed).  If you leave worship with a sense of humility, realizing you are only made right by the God who loves you, if you realize the only message you have for broken people is a message of love, you’ve been reshaped as you were meant to be.

See you on Sunday for worship.  God, melt us and mold us.

Letting Go to Lighten Up

Satan has scattered a few toys across the face of the earth, and people keep picking them up and playing with them.  Bitterness is one of Satan’s toys.  Revenge, pettiness, P.jpggossip, slander.  All the building blocks of revenge.  When life is over, Satan gets to come back and take all his toys home with them.  If you’re holding onto one of them, just realize you can get dragged down with it.  You don’t want to be holding onto the toys when the creepy clown comes looking for them.  So if you’re holding onto bitterness towards someone, you might want to drop it.  It’s not that fun to play with now, and in the end, it will take you places you don’t want to go.

Grace is not just a nice thing to do or a duty to obey.  It’s the lightening up of our souls by shedding the dead weight.

SA.gifI knew a family in South Africa who took in and raised as their son the boy who had murdered their daughter.  In the racially charged atmosphere after Apartheid, this destructive young man with evil in his heart tore apart this family.  It was grace that allowed them to steal that victory from the side of evil.  If that kind of grace can exist, can’t we practice its most simple forms?

Life Without God

AdamBefore we commit to something, if we’re wise, we weigh the consequences.  Before we take a job, we consider the pay, the hours, the benefits, the commute, the effects on our families, and the relative enjoyment and fulfillment we will find in it.  Sometimes we take one because we’re desperate, and anyone who has done so knows about how well that works.  When we date and marry, if our friends are wise, they ask us if our romantic interest is good for us, if they’re fun, if they fulfill us, if we can see ourselves with them over the long haul.  We’re often too enamored to ask these questions ourselves, but this is what the voice of wisdom would say.

It concerns me that there is another decision which the bulk of the population makes wholesale without wise consideration of the consequences, and that’s the decision to live life without God.  Whether by tacit negligence of explicit rejection, we choose to do life on our own terms without God.  I wonder how that decision might go if we weighed the consequences as we do with a profession or a partner.

No Origin

Without God, we come from nowhere.  We are not designed.  We have no purpose.  When we talk about living a meaningful life, we really can’t mean “meaningful” in any traditional sense, because without an origin, we aren’t made for a purpose.  We are, in stark terms, an accident, blindly wrought by inanimate forces of nature, a marionette of physics.  If we were sensible about this, we would never have reason to get out of the bed in the morning, because there is nothing for which we are made.

No Destination

Similarly, we’re not going anywhere.  From the dust we come and to the dust we return.  As a result, there’s obviously no goal.  Again, meaning must be crucified as a twisted prank of evolutionary forces.  The most basic of purposes – making the world better – is a stupid waste of time.  The world is going to perish in the eventual heat death of the universe, long after human life is gone, with no one left to remember it or appreciate it.  Self-awareness will have been a cruel mistake.  Raising our children is an arbitrary pastime.  Accomplishments are trophies thrown in the fire.  With nowhere to go, we have absolutely no reason to live.

No rules

Realize the tectonic implications for politics and ethics.  Any rules we have to govern human life are arbitrary constructs.  Might does make right, by sheer virtue of the fact that no one else can.  Values like civility or fairness or justice are tools of power for the manipulative to use to force a gullible (and religious) lower class into behaving and working to produce luxuries for the rulers.  Voltaire was right – if there is no God, he must be invented to keep the peasants in line.  Nietzsche was right – if there is no God, values are the whims of the strong.  If there is no God, the only real morality is anarchy, and complex political systems to reign that anarchy in are just stalling techniques to help the rich die in peace.

Without God, the obvious consequence is that we have no past, no future, and a horrible present.  This in no way proves that there is a God, it simply, and wisely, lays out the consequences of casually ignoring the possibility that He exists.