Is That All There Is?


On a trip to San Francisco, my wife and I were driving down the highway next to the Pacific Ocean. The view was incredible. We stopped to take it all in. As we turned to walk back to the car, I noticed the locals driving by in utter indifference to the beauty around them.  They were going to work, the store or their kid’s games and the glory of the Pacific Ocean might well as not been there.

The locals in the bay area who see the ocean every day are no longer impressed by it. The question, “Is that all there is?” captures their view. No matter how beautiful or incredible something is, we can easily be bored by it.

Anything we experience repeatedly can become boring through repetition. Many of us have reached this point when we hear about Christianity. No matter how incredible the claims, we just know we’ve heard it all before so, what is there to get excited about?

Recently, I watched a science program about the orbits of the galaxies and the “black holes” in them. On my nice HD screen, I could see endless stars swirling as two galaxies danced around each other. Some people say they can see God in a tree or a sunset. Christianity says that God “created all things, visible and invisible.” That means the swirling galaxies and the dark matter in the Universe were created by God. Science tells us that our universe began with a “big bang”. The Bible says God said “Let there be light!” All the matter and energy in the universe came from that beginning.

When thinking about the size of the universe, some people feel themselves such a small speck they find it hard to believe God could care about them.

So then Christianity comes in with an even bolder claim. It says the God who created the Universe became a small baby on a small planet near the tip of a galaxy. The God who created it all humbled himself.

He didn’t do it as an intellectual exercise to see how it felt to be small. Instead He did it because – are you ready? – He loves us so much he came to end the grip of death and sin on us!

Who can believe that? The God who can twirl galaxies became a human baby “wrapped in swaddling clothes” because we needed something only He could do for us.  Only the death of a sinless human being could end death’s grip on us. God “trampled down death by death!”  Through His suffering and death, Jesus, a part of the trinity, shattered the grip of death and hell, not for Himself, but for us!

Then comes another incredible claim. He rose from the dead! How many times do we have to hear this before it gets boring! The resurrection of Christ is an essential claim of the Christian faith. If it didn’t happen, Christianity is pointless. We celebrate the resurrection on Easter (Pascha) but we have heard the claim so often that we give more thought to hiding eggs for the kids.

Then He ascended into heaven in front of the apostles and other witnesses.  Before He went, He said He was going to prepare a place for us. We are going to join Him in the next life! Yeah, but, don’t bother me, I’ve heard that before and I have to get the kids to a swim meet.

This whole Christian thing is so incredible we almost have to make it boring as a means of self-defense. Unfortunately, there are many members of the clergy who are willing to do that for us. They make Christianity about rules and punishment. God hates sinners and will punish them forever. They say God’s love is an abstract principle showing us how to live. Something, anything other than facing the overwhelming fact that the God who made all things made us to be loved my Him and to love Him.

The question for us is whether we can allow ourselves to live in the wonder of the message of Christianity. It is easy to get caught up in the daily minutia of life. Some people say we should stop and smell the roses. How about something even bigger than that?

The God who made the roses, the mountains, the Grand Canyon, the Solar system, the galaxy and the universe is trying to get our attention. With all the other things He made, He made us to love us and so we could love him.

We are asked to stop and consider that. Or, we can ride right past a beautiful ocean and just choose to find it all boring.

Religion Isn’t Ice Cream


For many people, religious preference is treated almost like an ice cream flavor. You don’t have to eat ice cream and, if you do, it doesn’t matter all that much what flavor you choose. No matter the flavor, it’s all ice cream.

There are reasons for this attitude.  Throughout history, the group, be it a clan or a kingdom, followed the same beliefs about how the world and people came to be and a moral code about how to treat one another. A classic case came when the ruler of Russia sent some advisors to help him choose between Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity or Islam as the religion for his domain. He chose Orthodox Christianity.

In the sixteenth century, the Protestant Reformation brought a series of clashes over religion. These had political overtones as local rulers were able to establish their freedom from Rome’s influence in their actions by choosing one of the Protestant faiths.

The desire for freedom of religious belief and practice was a major driver in the colonization of English-speaking America. The First Amendment to the US Constitution prevented the federal government’s establishment of religion. The major reason for this was that several states had their own state religion and didn’t want their choice overridden at the federal level.

With the development of religious freedom, there is a need to be courteous toward those whose beliefs differ from ours. In many ways, the “ice cream” model is reasonable. After all, we are taught that it is simply not a good idea to discuss religion or politics. They are a matter of personal belief.

But, it is important to understand the need for religious freedom. Religion isn’t too trivial for the government to decide, it is too important. We don’t let the government, or other people, control our religious quest, or lack of one, because it is a very important matter.  It is too important to be left to others.

If, in the interest of courtesy, we say that all religions are the same, we cheat both ourselves and the other person. I think the current lack of religious participation is a result of this confusion. It is pointless, to me, to treat all religions the same. If that is true, I’ll just sleep late on the “Sabbath” of all religions and get some rest.

Many “mainline” denominations are working to accept all views and are, as a consequence, seeing their numbers decline. Others just mutter something like “be nice to people.” They are also in decline.

Religions grow when they have something to say and something to offer. When we appreciate the value and importance of our own quest and extend to others the courtesy of their quest, or lack of one, we are fully practicing and granting freedom of religion.

You can reasonably ask, and I will willingly grant, that your religious quest is as valid as mine. That is the essence of religious tolerance. The limit is reached when you ask me to treat all religions as equal or, more specifically, ask me to say the religion I follow is of no unique value.

To be specific, Christianity is not a religion of ambivalence or indifference. A person’s understanding of Christianity is the answer to the question asked by Jesus in Matthew 16:15 (RSV), “But who do you say that I am?”

C. S. Lewis has written that Jesus is a liar, a fool, or the Son of God. Jesus was crucified largely because he made himself the equal of God.  If He believed himself to be the son of God and He wasn’t, He was a fool and His execution as a blasphemer was justified. If He didn’t believe it but said it anyhow, He lied Himself into an early death.

The most challenging possibility, for us, is that He really was the Son of God. If we are to believe that, we have to believe something even more incredible. Was He really resurrected from the dead?  The apostle Paul, in the fifteenth chapter of his first letter (epistle) to the Corinthians discusses this in some detail. Paul makes it clear: if Christ is not risen from the dead, our “faith is futile” (v. 17-RSV). Likewise, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied.” (v. 19 – RSV).

In the older, liturgical, churches, there is a Creed, or statement of belief, repeated in every liturgy. The “Apostles” Creed, the Nicene Creed or something very similar is used. We get the word “creed” from the first Latin word of the creeds, “Credo” means “I believe” and, in saying the creed we are supposedly saying what we believe about God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. If, after saying the creed in church I, out of courtesy, say to you that all religions are equal, I have made myself a hypocrite.

Your quest is yours. Your answer is yours. You are absolutely free to live your life and make your quest, or not. Even more, you are free to ignore my opinion. But, if you ask my opinion of various religions, do not expect me to utter some bland “religion is like ice cream” response.

I have come to a definite conclusion about religion. If you ask what I think, I will say, in the words of the liturgy of my church, that Jesus of Nazareth is “truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, Who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first.”

Who Made This Up?


Those who disparage religion like to say that humanity creates God in their own image and then worship their own creation. With the Gods we find in many places of worship, it is easy to believe. We have monotheism and polytheism. We have vengeful gods who will kill or punish everyone who doesn’t believe in a single version of a creed. We have gods whose love is nonjudgmental and all accepting.

Then, of course, there are various versions of the afterlife. In some religions, people seem to delight in the idea that all the “evil-doers” will be punished. In other versions, the afterlife will be an undemanding time of “Peace in the Valley.” In all these cases, it is easy to see what kind of person could create the scenario and why they would find it comforting or satisfying.

In the fourth century, Christianity, by a declaration of the Emperor Constantine, moved overnight from a persecuted religion to the state religion of the Roman Empire. Constantine called for a council of the church leaders to define the religion in a way that could be commonly understood.

It is hard for those in the twenty-first century to understand the kind of people who participated in this council. We are used to seeing church leaders surrounded by pomp or evangelical preachers flying from one preaching assignment to another in private jets.

Many of the bishops who met at Constantine’s orders became a bishop when their predecessor was martyred for his faith. Others who came were missing arms, legs, eyes or tongues because of their refusal to deny their faith. To put it bluntly, these people were not about to politely compromise to come to agreement on a doctrinal statement. Their God was real to them and they had proven their willingness to sacrifice.

The God they described is “one God in three persons (Father, Son and Holy Spirit).” This was the god they experienced and the one they proclaimed.  More than that, the nature of the relationship between the three persons was critical to their understanding of the nature of God and, surprisingly, the nature of man.  As my parish priest explains it, “the Church’s experience of God is one God in three persons who are united together (dwell within each other) in an unceasing movement of mutual love.”

Given this understanding of God’s nature, why was humanity created and how are we supposed to interact with God? Here comes the part I find it hard to believe humans just made up.

The Trinity, or three-in-one God, sharing perfect and continuing love among them, wanted to share that love with others. In order to have more persons to participate in this love, He/they said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…”

We are not here to be servants to a ruling monarch. We are made not only to love God but, believe it or not, to be loved by God. We are made to be the beloved children of God, not just servants. But there is more to it than that.

We are called to “Theosis” which literally means we are to become like God. Since we are always the created and God is always the Uncreated, we will never be God. Exactly what is being asked of us? We are being asked to love like God so we can enter into the Trinity’s “unceasing movement of mutual love.”

God’s love is shown in the parable of the woman caught in adultery.  It is not a soft, “That’s OK, dear” kind of love.  The command “Go and sin no more” shows that the sin is real and since it is real, the forgiveness is also real.

Science fiction novelist Orson Scott Card quoted San Angelo’s Letters to an Incipient Heretic. This balance of sin awareness and forgiveness “is noteworthy because is so startlingly rare in our experience…. [Jesus] dared to expect of us such a perfect balance that we could preserve the law and still forgive the deviation. So, of course, we killed him.”

This is the love and forgiveness we are called to in theosis.  It is not a glib acceptance. We will know that what we have done was harmful to ourselves and others and we will know that we are forgiven. Also, since we ask to be forgiven “as we forgive those who trespass against us,” we will be asked, or rather expected, to understand the reality of sins committed against us and grant forgiveness and love to other people.

So this is the kind of God these people “made up” so they could worship a god in their own image. It is a three-in-one God who created us to love us and wants us to join in an eternal circle of love.  That love is the pure love that truly recognizes real faults and yet loves and forgives. 

There is only one aspect of this “made up” God and afterlife that makes perfect sense to me. We have all of eternity to learn to love as God loves. That sounds real to me. Eternity might just be enough time for people like me to learn to love like that.

An Active God


Dr. Ben Carson is a world-renowned pediatric neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. He is known for his surgeries separating twins joined at the head.

His autobiography, Gifted Hands, is an exciting story. The surprising thing, for many readers, will be his openness in describing the role God has played in his life.  Carson is a Seventh-Day Adventist.  His story about God’s intervention in Carson’s dealing with anger is fascinating.

For those interested in science, God’s role in helping Carson pass a Chemistry course at Yale is even more incredible. Finding himself overwhelmed by the concepts and formulas in the course, Carson had let himself fall behind. Realizing he would lose his life dream of being a doctor, he started to cram the night before the exam.

When he fell into an exhausted sleep, he had a dream. In the dream, a man walked to a blackboard and started explaining various aspects of Chemistry.  On waking, Carson rapidly wrote what he remembered and did some quick research on items the man in the dream had discussed. When he started the exam that morning, he found that each question on the exam had been covered in his dream. He got a 97 on the exam and passed the course with a good grade.

My experience with God’s intervention is not that dramatic. I had reached a crisis in my life and, being somewhat overdramatic, starting quoting Hamlet’s famous “To Be or Not To Be” soliloquy. The phrase “to die, perchance to dream” refers to the Christian belief that suicide is a rejection of God’s love and the suicide will spend eternity in Hell. In my frustration, I yelled to God, “You’re probably just a myth to keep us from committing suicide, but, if you’re there, do something!” Through an interesting series of events, I came to a belief in God in about six weeks.

Most of the time, we find it easy to stay in a casual religious environment. We think that regular church attendance or helping our neighbors is all we have to do. God wants to be a bigger part of our lives and wants to show us His love and interest. Do we let Him?

Sometimes, I let myself think that God intervened when I needed it but surely He doesn’t want me to keep bothering Him. Doesn’t He expect me to grow up and be able to move on by myself? But, then, I see a woman continuing to mother her children regardless of their age. I also know, as a father, that my concern for daughter doesn’t end.

Just as many mothers are saying tonight, “Call, already!” God is ready and waiting for us to walk with Him and talk with Him.  If you have never done it before, I can only say “Try it, you’ll like it!” For those of us who have experienced it, God is waiting for us to call again, and again, and …

Perfexion


It is humbling to write a blog about letting God’s love fill your life.  The obvious question is “Who do you think you are to write on a subject like this?” It’s simple – I have to think, pray and write about it because I don’t know how to do it.

I am clearly the older brother in the Prodigal parable and the busy sister Martha trying to make everything right in hosting Jesus.  I try to do it right. My career choice shows that. I spend my life writing computer programs which don’t work if I put a period in the wrong. place

The problem for the perfectionist is that no matter what I do it is never enough. I know my faults and even imagine some. It took me years to understand that in order to love others as I love myself, I have to love myself.  After all, God loves me.  If He can love me, why can’t I?

The idea is to learn to relax in God’s love and enjoy the incredible truth that He loves me even when I don’t get it rite!

Necessary Evil


The oldest dilemma in theology is the question, “If God is all good and all-powerful, how can there be evil in the world?” The formal term for this is theodicy. I certainly don’t plan to offer a definitive answer, but a couple of things happened in the last few days to give me a different take on the question.

A friend offered one possible answer.  He thought that since God is love and wants to show us his love, there have to be problems, or evil, so there is something to help us through.  In a way, this makes sense. We help our children grow the most when we are teaching them or helping them to learn.

Then, while flipping channels, I came across a Discovery Channel documentary called “Two Weeks in Hell.” It shows a testing and training environment for candidates for the U.S. Army’s Special Forces (Green Berets). It was incredible to watch these men being pushed to their physical, mental and emotional limits.

The striking thing was their attitude about the experience and understanding of the need for it. They wanted to be a part of a special organization and understood people had to be tested and pushed to see if they were worthy. Although they were not enjoying it, they were not asking that it be made easier. They knew the trainers/testers had a serious purpose in mind. The tests they endured were necessary and there was nothing pointless or casual about it.

Years ago I was in a church which taught that “the fall” was a necessary step in humanity’s growth. If that was the case, we need to experience the difficulties of this life in order to learn about certain realities.

Apparently, the question is whether we face our challenges as constant complainers or like the Special Forces candidates, recognizing them as a needed process offered by a loving Father as part of our becoming the person He knows we can be.

The Pianist and the Child


A young mother took her child to a concert by a famous pianist. Near the end of the intermission, the child walked on stage, went to the piano bench and started “playing.” The embarrassed mother started toward the child, but the pianist gently waved her back.

Sitting beside the child on the bench he let the child keep playing and played in such a way as to incorporate the child’s efforts into a beautiful piece of music.

Ever have one of those days when you think you’re just plunking?

The Nature of His Love


I appreciate the comments. The issue of “Free Will” has been raised. Why did God give us Free Will?

What would happen if I could build an android that would always love me? I wouldn’t have to do anything for it. I could ignore it for months and it would still love me when I called. It would make an eager puppy look standoffish.

I would be bored with it in no time and I would know that it has no choice. If such a creature could not satisfy my desire to share love, how could it give anything like love to God?

Real love includes being able to understand when the other is distracted or even inconsiderate. It makes us even happier when a truly loving time occurs, either a peaceful one or an exciting one.

To be a people who can give love to God, (Yes – as arrogant as that sounds, I believe that is what He wants from us) we have to be people who can decline to give Him love.  Of course, when we do, we lose more than He does.

It seems this is part of the nature of His love.  It is so big and rich that it cannot be satisfied by rote phrases from a programmed being. He gave us free will so that our yes is really ours!

How Long Can You Resist God?


I am not trying to resolve great theological debates, I hope to have people think about how they see God and what that does, or might, mean in their lives. With that in mind, let me make some proposals about the nature of God and pose some questions. I am not binding myself to any statements I make about the nature of God and there are no provable answers to the questions but I hope you will find this something interesting to consider.

Does God ever stop loving us and is there ever a time, even in eternity, when He gives up on us and will let us permanently “stew in our own stuff” in Hell?

In his novel, The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis proposes that Hell is a spot between two blades of grass in Heaven. It is inhabited by small-minded, self-centered people focused on their ideas about how life has been and how they have been mistreated. The residents of Hell can choose to take a trip to heaven and are welcome to stay if they are willing to let God, and joy, be more important to them than the “baggage” they carry around in their lives. His book is a classic in showing how people in this life refuse pleasures of every sort in order to continue to be “right” about how things work.

My understanding of the Orthodox Christian view of the after-life is this – Since there is no place where God is not, Heaven and Hell are defined by our reaction to God’s Love. We will all be in His presence and be engulfed by His love. If we are willing to accept that love, eternity will be a great joy (heaven). If we continue to refuse His love, that love will be a torment to us and we will be in Hell.

When I mentioned the Orthodox view to a friend, he asked who I thought I was to think I could resist God?  I decided to post that question here for all of us. I look forward to hearing your comments.

Let me close by saying that this is not just a question about the next life. How many times today have I resisted God? Will there ever be a time in my life on Earth when I grow tired of resisting?

Life’s Mystery – It’s Awesome


The Rush of Everyday Thoughts

It is a typical Sunday night and the most routine of tasks. I move around the condo gathering all the trash for the morning pickup. I’ve done this uncounted times before. My mind is off in a whirl of thoughts.

My wife has been away helping care for her ailing mother. She is about to start the thousand-mile journey home. I am a little worried about the journey. I’m worried about her. I’m worried about her mother.

My daughter has been here for her summer visit. I took her back yesterday. I wonder about her coming school year. How will she do? She fell from a horse last year and broke her collarbone. Even with that, her love of horses is so great she is dropping other activities to have more time to ride. I’m reminded of a famous actor who was recently paralyzed in a fall from a horse. I wonder about my daighter’s safety and know she won’t stop riding.

Tomorrow starts another work week. My mind starts to race through the details and schedules of the coming days. Which meetings are the most important? How do I balance the requirements of various co-workers and activities? What surprises are waiting?

Creating a New Life Story

In counseling, I’ve found that I often fall into a very negative story about my life. It is a story of suffering and hurt and pain. There is doubt about God’s love and kindness. My counselor has suggested I create a new story about why I am on this earth. Why did I come here and what do I want to accomplish?

I remember the words of the gospel hymn that tells how Jesus shows his love by leaving the “splendor of Heaven” to save the world on a cross. It is a moving and powerful hymn.

In my down moment, I wonder: Did I leave heaven to empty trash on a Sunday night in a lonely condo? Did I give up all that glory, even temporarily, to live in uncertainty and confusion and all the unknowns of human existence?

Like a bolt of lightning, the answer hits me. Yes. It’s exactly the routine moments and a life of unknowing that I came for. It’s a chance to spend a life time in the sheer wonder of what the next moment holds.

Science Fiction is full of super races who know everything there is to know. But my boredom is temporary. Those beings can’t possibly be surprised. They know all the answers. Nothing is unknown for them to wonder about.

Have you ever watched your favorite team play on videotape? Even if you don’t know who won, it isn’t the same thing as watching it live. You know you can get the score if you wanted it, and you know that mystery has vanished.

But life constantly surprises me. I can plan and figure and analyze to my heart’s content. It makes little difference. Life will happen the way it does. The only thing I know for sure is that it will surprise me. Sometimes I’ll like the surprise. Sometimes I won’t.

The Blessings of Wonder and Trust

Yet I can do something the super races and divine beings of the universe can’t. I can wonder what the next moment holds without knowing the answer. I can wonder what the future holds for my loved ones. I can go to a game and cheer for my team and I’ll be completely surprised by the result.

There’s more. I am sure to be surprised by the answer to the most fascinating question of all. “How did my life turn out?” The answer: “I don’t know yet.”

I have the chance to learn the meaning of trust. Trust is irrelevant when you know how things turn out. How can I learn trust if there’s no possibility of disappointment? Yet what a great gift. Only by not knowing the future can I learn to trust.

Routine Becomes Awesome

Then another feeling flooded over me. It was awe. This surprised me. In the Catholic church, I learned awe in the observance of expertly and exquisitely executed ritual. I felt the splendor of God in those moments. I was filled with awe.

But I never expected to feel awe in collecting trash. Then, I understood. I was in awe of me! Somewhere, sometime, I agreed to this. It may have been before my birth. It may not have been before this moment. Still, it has happened.

I have agreed to completely put my trust in God. I’m willing to give up the right to know what the next minute holds, or even if I will have another minute.

Peter was willing to step out onto the water at Jesus’ word. In the same way, I am out on the ocean of life. I cry a lot. I holler and complain a lot, and still, there are those moments when my trust is complete.

In those moments I am in awe of everyone. That any of us have the courage to leave the “splendor of heaven” and to live in a sea of the unknown is amazing. That we all do is awesome.

Gathering the trash will never be quite the same. In the routine of day-to-day life, I encountered a moment of awe.

This article originally appeared in the April, 1996 edition of Unity Magazine