credit where credit is due

Two days ago, I wrote an article that was sort of a rant against Facebook for removing activist and writer Faith McDonnell’s page because she posted a picture that they determined violated their community standards. There was quite a bit of push-back against Facebook for that decision, such that the company reached out to Ms. McDonnell and reinstated her account.

So, thank you Facebook, for rectifying your lapse in judgment. You get a “Like” for this one.

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arbiter of a generation

You gotta love Facebook.

This company has revolutionized the way humans interact with each other around the planet, and despite the fact that many of us are grateful for the opportunity to use the platform for personal connection and widespread dissemination of information, Facebook is also a contributor to some extremely negative effects on human behavior, and may even be re-wiring an entire generation.

You wonder why civil discourse is virtually non-existent? (And nope, you can’t place the blame solely on the current inhabitant of the Oval Office.) Does it actually surprise you that truly intelligent, rational thinking is sinking into the mire of self-entrenched fundamentalism? (Under this label, I include those who believe in the supernatural and those who don’t.) Facebook is not the “first cause” for such societal breakdown, but it does have the tendency to pander to our worst instincts of “look at me” promotion and self-centered expediency. People get their information “rush” in hyperbolic bits from the blue-bannered dispenser of all things “social,” so that they can quickly know what to think, and how to connect with the latest gee-whiz cultural event, without putting in all the nasty effort required to actually seek wisdom–which requires time and effort and thoughtful self-examination and wise counsel.

I hate to be the meanie who points this out, but Facebook doesn’t care about you, or me, or meaningful social interaction, despite their warm fuzzy protestations to the contrary. Facebook is a business, and anything that makes it more money is fair game.

The company really wants you to believe, however, that it is watching out for your safety. Why, just check out how the company has banished Faith McDonnell, a woman who dares to share a post about Christian martyrs. She, along with so many others, attempts to give perspective to the world in which we live: a world of individuals who perform the most ghastly atrocities, as well as the genuine, unsung heroes who daily give themselves to sacrificial love and service to the “least of” humanity. But it is important, apparently, that you and I are kept safe from unpleasant realities.

Free speech can be a genuinely difficult concept, because rights that are truly important almost always have a myriad of nuanced, interconnected results. What limits does a platform such as Facebook set on the sharing of ideas? Is it OK to allow pedophiles, or neo-Nazis, or drug dealers to display whatever filth they wish to promote? No reasonable person would believe that would be acceptable. The real issue is that, at least in the case of Faith McDonnell, Facebook’s response was not responsible caution but an impersonal decision generated most likely by an algorithm and enforced through an impersonal form letter. It was a knee-jerk, CYA reaction–no discussion, no appeal. And that should concern us.

I am probably committing the logical fallacy of reductio ad absurdum (“reduction to absurdity”), but I wonder how long it will be before we are routinely shielded from unpleasant issues such as, say, human trafficking and dire poverty and the holocaust of abortion and our desperate need for a Savior.

But hey, at least you can find cute pictures of puppies and kittens, and a gazillion clickbait ads and facile intelligence tests…..

mo(u)rning will come

Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and woshiped. And he said… ‘The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and at the last he will stand upon the earth.’
Job 1:20-21 & 19:25 .

When a couple struggles with infertility, each month is a roller coaster of emotion. Hope, dread, excitement, despair; the monthly cycle of fertility is something that they become intimately—almost fanatically—aware of. A woman’s perception of the changes in her body is fine-tuned to an astonishing degree.

It was that way for my wife Kathi after many years of us trying to have a baby.

We had adopted a daughter, and then Kathi became pregnant with our first-born son, but we wanted more children, and felt that God had promised us more children. But still we struggled to see her become pregnant, so when the joyous event happened again, we were aware of it within just a couple of weeks of conception.

And we were ecstatic.

But we all know that life doesn’t always allow us to remain that way; in fact, many would say that life rarely allows it. One morning, almost five months into the pregnancy, Kathi awoke and realized she was hemorrhaging, and began to have cramps. She felt panicked, I felt panicked, and we put in a frantic call to our doctor, who told us to wait a little while before coming in, in case the bleeding stopped.

While I waited, impotent and sick with worry, our two small children sat with me at our kitchen table in the early morning stillness, and we prayed that God would “please, protect the baby in Mommy’s tummy.”

The bleeding got worse, so with hearts in our throats we dropped our children off with friends and drove to our doctor’s office, and she couldn’t find our baby’s heartbeat, so clinging to a frayed thread of hope-against-hope we went to the hospital to get an ultrasound. Something was obviously wrong, but we thought maybe there was still a sliver of a chance that it would be okay. Maybe things were not as they seemed.

And as Kathi lay on a cold, sterile table, the technician performed the test, and then a kind doctor informed us our baby had died. She was a little girl, and she was dead, and she needed to be removed.

We all go through a sense of emptiness with the death of those we care about. We instinctively recoil from death. Even though some people will declaim that death is “just part of life,” deep within we all know that is simply not true. Everything inside us screams against it. Our reaction is not simply from fear or self-preservation or an inbuilt protection of our species: it is an angry, agonized howl against an unnatural enemy; it is the violent rejection of a vicious and cruel thief and liar. Death is not natural, death is not a gift of rest; death is a horror. Death is unspeakable, and when a child dies it is nearly unendurable.

Miscarriage is death, but it is a strange kind of death, and a nightmare for the parents. When death happens inside the womb, there is a feeling of something dreadfully incomplete, a cruel mocking of even the opportunity for parents to grieve deeply in a socially acceptable way. We found it was difficult to explain to people who had not experienced it. We felt searing anguish, and of course, people wanted to help. Well-meaning friends and sympathetic strangers told us “It’s probably better that you never saw her” or “That’s so sad, but you can have another one.” But it wasn’t better that we didn’t see and know and hold our child, even if it could have been just for a few minutes. We were devastated by the cruelty of it; we were robbed of the chance to at least give her one last kiss, and lovingly place her in a little casket, and say goodbye surrounded by family. She was just gone—scooped out of Kathi’s uterus and disposed of; so much useless tissue.

So yes; we hoped another baby would come. But this baby was special; this baby was unique and desired; this baby had, in just a few months, captured our hearts with dreams and hopes. We had never seen her, but we had fallen head-over-heels in love with her, and couldn’t wait to welcome her.

But she was gone.

We walked out of the hospital in grey, cold winter, to an empty car, with empty arms, an empty womb, and empty hearts. We sat for a while in silence. There was nothing to say.

I wanted words of comfort for my grieving wife. I wanted wisdom that would make it, if not better, at least bearable. My heart was shredded, and I realized Kathi had to be working through a shrieking agony of soul that no words could touch. So, without words, we wept.  

But we came to realize that, just as Job said, our redeemer lives, and because of that there can be hope and restoration in any tragedy. We began to be comforted by the realization that our little Alexandra was not really gone; she was in the presence of Life and Love himself. She gazed with open eyes and innocent awareness at her perfect Father. She would never be subject to the pain and bittersweet anguish we all go through journeying this life. She was aware, far better than us, of how short a time it truly would be until we met her in fullness, met her in a place and with understanding that transcends any earthly connection.

The LORD gives, and takes away–and gives. Two years after our baby’s death, Kathi became pregnant again, and gave birth to our little daughter Amy, who has grown into a beautiful married woman. Her husband Luke is a fine and godly young man, and to us is more a son than a son-in-law.

And—in the incredible paradox of coincidence that can only come from God, the day after we lost our baby, across the country in Ohio, a little baby girl named Brittany was born. This girl grew up and went to college in Tennessee, and met our son Corey who had traveled there from California, and they married have given us three precious grandsons who fill our hearts with laughter and love and joy.

The ways of God are mysterious and incredible, inscrutable, frustrating—and even sometimes tormenting. But Kathi and I have learned to not regret the parts of our story that contain excruciating pain. The darkness of grief contrasts with the light of joy. Colors of rejoicing are made richer and fuller with the depth that comes from shadow; our laughter is more vivid and complete by the dark contrast of weeping; a chiaroscuro that gives life dimension and hope solidity. Every life is a painting, but if it is made up of only bright and shiny hues, then it really is just a pale sketch. If we rightly respond to pain, and let Jesus speak to us and comfort us and teach us in our darkness, we always receive reward. Today’s emptiness leads us into greater appreciation of tomorrow’s fullness.  

This is not wishful thinking or misty-eyed fantasy. When we look to our God and trust him with our lives and the lives of our loved ones, we gain greater perspective of his great goodness, and we find ourselves continually enriched, strengthened, and restored in the rainbow of eternal possibilities shining through the dark clouds of our present sorrows.

it don’t come easy

I don’t ask for much, I only want your trust
And you know it don’t come easy
And this love of mine keeps growing all the time
And you know it don’t come easy
—Ringo Starr, “It Don’t Come Easy”

Valentine’s Day we think about love: we dream about it, we throw money at it with flowers and cards and candy and romantic dinners. Love has become a consumer holiday. And yes, it is a lot of fun.

Love, as our culture defines it, is giddy feelings, starry-eyed gazing and soft music, walking arm-in-arm, experiencing exciting physical intimacy, laughing and enjoying life, building memories and building a life together. These are all aspects of love, and they are all beautiful.

But true love is even more. Love that lasts “don’t come easy.” Love that lasts is not just dreamy walks and candlelight dinners with beautiful people. It is also arguments and dirty diapers and financial stress and sinning against your beloved (sometimes dreadfully) and being forgiven and getting wrinkles and a pot-belly and, sometimes, losing touch with the “feelings” that started the whole relationship in the first place.

I quote an old chestnut that is still singular and unconquerable truth: real love is commitment. Despite the dreadful pressures of life in a broken world, choosing faithfulness and humility causes love to flourish and widen into something deeper, purer, more confident, and more exquisite than quick and easy “butterflies,” pleasant though they may be.

Real love is action (John 3:16). Real love is messy; it steps into the filth and the bitterness of life (John 1:9-12, Isaiah 52:13-53:12, Romans 5:20). It embraces darkness, and by doing so dispels it (Isaiah 59, Ezekiel 16, 2 Corinthians 4:6). Love is shamelessly romantic (Isaiah 62:5, Song of Songs 1:2-4, Hosea 2:19, John 3:29). Love is not concerned with its own reputation (Jeremiah 31, Micah 6:3, Philippians 2:7-9). Love gives reward when all that is owed is the harshest punishment (Hosea 11:7-11, Jeremiah 31:32). Love pursues even when the pursuit is unwanted (Isaiah 65:1-2, Ezekiel 18:31-32). Love shines its light into every dark corner, reaches without hesitation into the most wretched sewer, freely offers mercy to the hardest heart, responds with tender love to the cruelest hatred. Love does not tire or fail in its relentless quest to restore the beauty originally intended for all humanity and all creation.

We do not understand love like this, because we are finite and because we are fickle. We fear that if we “love too much” we will not have enough for who and what is truly important. But love is not an object of limited quantity that must be divided up and parceled out piecemeal; it doesn’t grow thinner the more it is spread around. The more we love, the larger becomes our capacity to love.

So, Jesus has shown us what love truly is by the way he came, the way he lived, the way he died, and the way he rose again. Love is incredible and eternal, but it “don’t come easy.” Just ask the Son of God.

When all we know of this world has ceased; when history has wrapped up and “all things new” has begun (Revelation 21:5), love will exist unhindered and unchallenged. Anything that fights against love or raises its twisted head against goodness will be stripped of influence and power. For endless reaches of time (and, I think, space), love will reign unchallenged.

When all else fails, love prevails. Both now, and for eternity.

the new elite

Behold, a new paradigm of devotion has come, and the faithful have made themselves ready!

Occasionally, I engage in “discussions”—through social media and other formats—with people who talk about the efficacy of “pulling out” of regular interaction with other Christians. You know who I mean: “those people” who don’t think or believe the way I do; the ones who really are halfhearted or who abuse authority or really only care about themselves or who are in it for the money or who don’t believe God is really love or who are selfish, egotistical monsters out to fleece the sheep.

In such interactions, I have been told that God has brought these individuals into a new revelation of transcendence, that Holy Spirit has made available his authority and glory and power to be experienced in the lives and hearts of the “few” who are truly seeking the face of Jesus and who want to experience all the fullness of God. They have come to understand that regular “church”—the institution and the cultural expression—is corrupted, and individual members (leaders, mainly) are corrupt. Therefore, it is up to a remnant to do what is right and worship in spirit and in truth, the way God originally intended. If most Christians want to stay in their fellowships, that is fine; but the truly enlightened are the vanguard of a new breed, and are not required to be part of the chaotic mess that constitutes most regular gatherings of believers.

On the surface this could possibly bear semblance of good and noble intent.

Except.

Except that throughout history, throughout the long and winding road that has been the spread of Christianity around the world, among every tribe and tongue and region and nation, there has always been a people of God, there have always been those whose hearts beat true with love and passion for Jesus. There has always been a people ADONAI has reserved for himself that have not, who will not “bow the knee to Baal.” Maybe some self-appointed Elijahs could take a bit more  time to hear God’s voice and gain clearer insight into his perspective.

Have leaders misused power? Yes. Does systemic wickedness seem to thrive in hierarchy? Yes. We have all experienced unconscionable ugliness and anger masquerading as righteous indignation; seen selfish and shameless self-promotion camouflaging itself as full-throttled faith in God’s call; watched hucksters fleecing the trusting flock of God to weave their own coat of many colors; shuddered to discover cold-hearted cynics who live lives of preening hypocrisy to gain approval of others (and maybe get their money or have sex with them).  

But what about the innumerable company of humble leaders who pour their lives out to nurture those whom God has placed before them to love and serve? What about the millions of faithful, trusting believers who look daily up to their Father in gratitude and trust—and sometimes with gratitude tinged with despair—who hope against hope and who try to believe that all things work together for good? What about the lonely ones who press in to trust, the faithful ones who pray and fast, the kind ones who do good to everyone around them as much as they are able, the gentle ones who touch and love outcasts, the humble ones who serve not looking for perks or commendation?

And how about this: Jesus loves his bride; he is creating a people who intertwine their lives in breathtaking beauty and staggering love for their bridegroom and for each other. He is forming a people who become a bride conforming so completely to his image that she understands his very heartbeat, his every thought, his intense desire for the flourishing of creation.

God created because he loves. God created because he is creative, and because his love is so immense, so incalculably beautiful, he wants to share and to expand that love to encompass everything that exists.

Why does Jesus want an eternal companion to share in his glory for eternity? This is a mystery that none of us completely comprehends. But we bow in worship and adoration that such a breathtaking destiny and purpose exists. We humble ourselves before his mighty hand and his awesome and glorious wisdom.

To take a posture that claims we don’t have to be part of the process, that hides from the messy and humbling experience of allowing others into our lives and refuses to take part in corporate manifestation of the kingdom, is to dishonor and disobey the very One we have sworn to worship and serve.

Harshly condemning the people of God is anti-Christ. To speak against his bride is to speak against Jesus.

Lord, have mercy on us.

faith and aliens

We had a fascinating and mysterious guest in October 2017.

When I say “we,” I am referring to all of us on planet earth. Space object 1I / 2017 U1 (proper name: Oumuamua, meaning “a messenger from afar”) was discovered by Robert Weryk at Haleakala Observatory on October 19. At the time, it had already made its closest approach to the Sun and was heading away from it at a relative velocity of about 54 kilometers per second.  

It was the first such visitor scientists have ever observed, and excitement and speculation about its composition and origins was widespread. It was weird and interesting and fit no categories we had devised so far to explain objects running through our cosmic neighborhood. Oumuamua is still shrouded in mystery, although recently, an interesting and plausible hypothesis has been proposed by an astronomer at NASA’s JPL regarding this interstellar fly-by.

But a Harvard astronomy professor named Avi Loeb begs to differ. He thinks it could be an artifact from an alien civilization.

Now, if that is even a remote possibility, it is not some sort of probe, because it isn’t functioning—at least not in any way astronomers can determine (yes, they looked). But perhaps there are other things it could be: a light sail, interstellar flotsam, a huge cigar; we still really don’t know, because it is small and it is mysterious and it is gone (at least, beyond where we can see it; as I write it is somewhere near Saturn).

Apparently, though, it is not mysterious enough to warrant any hypothesis. Dr.  Loeb’s ideas have been met with hoots of derision and disgusted refutation. I recently read this comment from a scientist and found it interesting and informative. Astrophysicist Paul M. Sutter from Ohio State University tweeted, “Oumuamua is not an alien spaceship, and the authors of the paper insult honest scientific inquiry to even suggest it.”

You got that, Avi? Are we clear? “We don’t know what this thing is, but we damn sure know it isn’t of alien construction, and you insult us by even asking about it!”

Okay, first of all, I think Dr. Loeb’s theory is whack-a-doodle, too. (See what I did there?) There has been no evidence gathered to this point that could begin to point to such an idea. It’s outlandish, but also kinda fun. When this visiting whatever-it-is first showed up, the scenario reminded me of Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama—a fascinating novel about a visit from an uninhabited alien spacecraft. I read several articles that referred to that story as well.

But despite my personal opinion, I have an issue with Dr. Sutter’s remark. He is far more educated than I, so maybe I’m missing something, but I wonder: Why are Avi Loeb’s ideas so much detritus; an “insult” to scientific inquiry? Don’t we make amazing discoveries when we are willing to ask questions? As I understand it, here are the basic steps in any scientific inquiry:

  1. Identify the problem. A scientific observation must be objective and verifiable by others through experimentation and continued observation.
  2. Ask a question, and research the question. Determine what information and resources are available and evaluate them to help “fine tune” the question.
  3. Create a hypothesis and make a prediction. Determine, through deductive reasoning, what result(s) are expected if the hypothesis is true.
  4. Conduct experiments; collect and analyze data. Data is reviewed and analyzed to see if the results prove or disprove the hypothesis, and if the date is statistically significant, and if it can be attributed to a specific cause rather than random chance.
  5. Draw conclusions.
  6. Share results.

I am not a scientist, but it seems pretty clear to me that Dr. Loeb is identifying a problem and asking a question. His ideas are weird–really weird–but so are black holes and dark matter. At our current state of understanding and ability to monitor Oumuaua, it does not appear likely that any kind of experiment can be conducted to prove or disprove Loeb’s ideas.

That isn’t really my point, though. I am trying to understand how another scientist can mock him and reject his potential hypothesis out of hand. Sounds like rigid fundamentalism to me–a worship of scientism, not respect for science. We don’t actually know that this is not an alien artifact; at least, not by purely empirical evidence. Oumuamu is certainly “alien” in origin, in that it came from outside our solar system. However, has anyone put forward evidence that Oumuamua could not possibly be manufactured by some other race of beings?

Before dismissing his thoughts as an “insult,” perhaps rational minds could put forth clear, compelling evidence as to why they are wrong.

I constantly see the same dismissive attitude regarding the existence of God. If you are a believer in any sort of higher power, you must be uneducated or gullible–or worse. However, in the question of God’s existence, despite a prevailing western view of materialism, there are well-thought-out and clear expositions of the rationality of Christian faith. The honest inquirer will at least listen and consider, rather than assume the matter is closed.

Humans do not, and cannot know with certainty that God doesn’t exist. Of course, the skeptic will answer “You can’t know that he does exist either.” And of course the skeptic would be correct. But consider this: Men, women, and children from every tribe, tongue, and nation, in diverse and sometimes uncharted regions, for uncounted millennia, have experienced God’s love and presence in a myriad of mysterious and majestic manifestations.Throughout the world today, millions of people will proclaim that their life has been radically changed because of an encounter with a Jewish rabbi named Yeshua, who these people claim is the living Son of God. In many cases, these same people are beaten, tortured, and even killed because they refuse to renounce their trust in him.

I, too, have had this encounter, and have experienced God’s loving goodness and care in my life, and have known his guidance, and have grown to realize the authority and power of the Scriptures, and have “heard” the voice of the Holy Spirit leading me, and have felt his comfort. Not only that, over decades I have met and known people whose lives have been thoroughly, miraculously changed by submitting themselves to God.

Maybe some people reading this would discount everything I’m writing as fantasy. I would counter that of course, you can choose not to believe, but there is a lot of evidence that is pretty darned overwhelming, if you will honestly consider it. Unless you decide you know better, and your attitude is the same as the previously mentioned astrophysicist: To even consider such an idea is an insult. I know there is no God, no supernatural world.

I’m reminded of a scene from the movie “Men in Black.” A New York City police officer, played by Will Smith, has just discovered that alien beings are alive on the earth, and that their existence is a secret unknown to most of humanity, a secret closely guarded by an unofficial government organization. One of the agents for this organization is played by Tommy Lee Jones, and he sits down to talk to Smith about what Smith has just discovered. At one point in their conversation, Jones says:

Fifteen hundred years ago, everybody ‘knew’ the earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago everybody ‘knew’ the earth was flat; and fifteen minutes ago, you ‘knew’ that people were alone on this planet. [Sigh.] Imagine what you’ll ‘know’ tomorrow.

When we rely on our own understanding, we truncate our imagination and shrink our world. There is so much still to be explored and understood. There is so much mystery in the cosmos. And I have found that surrounding it all, and transcending it all, is a Mystery beyond mysteries, a being of perfect love and perfect justice and unimaginable mercy. Millions of my brothers and sisters have discovered him as well.

We have come this far by faith, and we have come to know our Father’s goodness. Imagine how much more we will know tomorrow.

land of the free, home of the brave

Except in the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota.

Today I read the story about Ramin Parsa, a former Muslim who fled his native Iran after he became a Christian. Parsa now lives and works as a pastor in Los Angeles. Last August, while visiting in Minnesota, his hosts took him to see “the biggest mall in North America.” While there, the pastor randomly encountered a couple of Somalis and as their conversation progressed, Parsa was asked if he was Muslim. At that point he shared his Christian convictions with them, but was promptly ordered by mall security guards to cease talking about that, and shortly thereafter he was arrested and treated abusively. 

You see, the Mall of America is a private, not public space, and it has rules against “solicitation.” So, along with not being able to pester people for money, or offer your services as a prostitute, at the Mall of America you also cannot have a private, polite conversation about anyone’s spiritual welfare. 

Surprise, surprise: Mr. Parsa’s story has been conveniently overlooked by many media outlets, including even some in Minnesota. 

Now, I am not a legal expert or a Constitutional scholar, but in my understanding–and I’m sure in the understanding of most rational-thinking Americans–First Amendment free speech INCLUDES the right to freely explain one’s religious or political beliefs or opinions. 

Except, apparently, in the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota.

Through my life, both professionally and privately, I have known and worked with thousands of different types of persons and personalities. They all had their own beliefs and opinions and likes and dislikes and food cravings and sexual desires. Some people have been utterly fascinating; others I found mind-numbingly boring. With some individuals I have been able to establish immediate rapport and even friendship, while other people so thoroughly “rubbed me the wrong way” that  I found myself wishing for the power of invisibility so I could disappear  whenever I caught sight of them.

But always, as a Christian, I have attempted to respect each person as an image-bearer of God. And always, as an American, I have attempted to respect each person as someone with a right to their opinion (no matter how repellant or stupid). Because in the United States of America, we celebrate the right to freedom of religion and freedom of speech.

Except, apparently, in the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota.

I like malls and I like shopping, although I get burned out rather quickly (unless, of course I discover a bookstore–or a cool hardware store). I have always enjoyed the bustle and interaction of people and the general hum of activity and fun, especially this holiday time of year, despite the excess of rampant materialism. In general, malls have historically been places for people to hang out and enjoy themselves and possibly even sometimes find out something new.

Except, apparently, in the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota.

That place needs to have “America” stripped from its name. Maybe change it to “Mall of Totalitarianism.”