Tuesday, April 24, 2007

controlled burn

Recently I took a hike with my children on a path that had been freshly subject to a controlled burn.

Controlled burn.

Oh how my daughters peppered me with questions of how a controlled burn works. They are too young to know how burning works at all but they are old enough to know that the interesting (or certainly more practical) question isn’t why things burn but how one can stop something that is burning. Intuition points to fires burning until there’s nothing left to burn. That’s what fires do.

So, they asked, why didn’t the entire forest burn down?

Who puts the control in the controlled burn?

I did not know the answers to their questions.

take it anyway you can

oh, funny funny death

Obviously there’s nothing special about the picture. But I saw this tent at an outdoor Cancer Benefit that I recently attended. Though the event had several exceedingly poignant moments, including a survivors walk which brought tears to my eyes, the thought of a funeral home showing up to sponsor the event using their graveside tent as shading struck me as a mixed message at best.

It made me laugh.

And then I felt horrible for laughing. But I don’t know why. What kinds of subjects are themselves off limits to even inward feelings of humor? (I can think of a couple of rules: It’s better to poke fun at the powerful than the powerless, and one buys oneself a little license for humor if one is willing to be self-deprecating first and foremost.)

But all in all I confess there very few subjects I consider to be inherently out-of-bounds for me. Humor and irony are the most distinctly human things in the universe: neither God nor animals seem to indulge in them as much as do humans.

And I’m pretty pro-human.

The great big DNA strand from the sky

Science is a lot of things including, perhaps especially, a methodology. But it’s also a set of assumptions. In particular, one of the assumptions science holds is that effects have causes and that material effects have material causes.

So from this perspective, scientists attempt to explain weather patterns and comets and the gestation period for zebras and the rate at which helium escapes earth’s atmosphere all from other phenomena that can be measured and traced back to material forces.

But for some reason, many people, mostly Americans among the citizens of the West, are extraordinarily (and hilariously) embarrassed to trace human DNA to material causes. They believe in the products of scientific thought (such as satellites and microwave ovens) but would rather reject scientific thinking with respect to life. How did we get DNA? Oh, from God.

Well, sure. No way we can dispute that. Nor should we have to. But why we should stop our thinking there is a little beyond me.

Dead rose stems in water

Desiccated Rose

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Monday, April 09, 2007

Yet another flower


Mutilating oneself for love or duty is an old practice.

Van Gogh cut off his ear for his beloved.

Self-mutilation is even implied when loved ones of cancer victims shave their own head for the sake of solidarity.

But nothing commends self-mutilation like religion.

The most famous form of mutilation in the West is circumcision.

And in Mark 9:47, Jesus says, “And if your eye makes you sin, pluck it out.”

Eye-plucking has not gained traction like circumcision. I, for one, am glad.

Jesus and the Green Jacket

Zach Johnson beat Tiger Woods to win The Masters yesterday. Nowadays it takes a lot going for you to beat Tiger Woods. One might say that it takes a miracle.

Zach Johnson may have received a miracle yesterday.

From Jesus.

On Easter.

You see, according to an interview on television, Johnson strongly implied that his golfing triumph over Tiger, like Jesus’ triumph over the grave, reflected attributes of God’s sovereign will.

I don’t have a transcript of the conversation but the way I remember it is this. A television personality interviewed Zach about how he stayed so calm during the wrenchingly stressful final holes of the tournament. Johnson replied by saying that he wasn’t exactly calm but he did know that he had some pretty special people there besides him the whole time. He went on to say that his faith is important to him and that doing so well on Easter makes it all the more special. It was Jesus who was there with him that day. Without Jesus, he couldn’t have accomplished what he had. He felt Jesus there besides him every step of the way.

Just like those footsteps on the beach. Except at Augusta National golf course. And with golf cleats.

It would be unfair to say that Johnson flatly said that Jesus should also put on the Green Jacket. But it was practically implied. (Shroud of Augusta?) After all, Johnson made his triumphant claims at a time when Tiger was only two strokes back with three holes left to play. Tiger has proven himself capable of extraordinary golf heroics before, and for Johnson to express such confidence with Tiger still on the course possibly reveals he had been touched by the gift of prophecy.

And here’s the thing: he was right. Tiger did not surge but, like Milton’s protagonist in Paradise Lost, he stayed put right where he was—despite his devilish best efforts.

It makes a person wonder. It makes the faithful smile and the sinners quake.

According to the book of Romans, “there is nothing in death or life, in the realm of spirits or superhuman powers, in the world as it is or the world as it shall be, in the forces of the universe, in heights or depths—nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Unlike Superman’s X-ray vision, God’s love can penetrate even lead. It penetrates even Augusta National. Which is no mean feat. (If you don’t believe me, just ask the maverick women who have been trying to open up Augusta to females for decades. I suppose women can take comfort from the fact that if they ever could make it to the Masters clubhouse, Jesus will be there waiting for them.)

Has spiritual right been restored with Johnson’s triumph?

The PGA tour has a flourishing Christian ministry. There is a PGA Tour Bible Study Group (of which Zach Johnson is a regular), and then there is LINKS, an organization dedicated to promoting both God and golf. The PGA is not only extraordinarily white and preppy, it is also remarkably Christian. (PGA: Putting for Golf’s Atonement?)

And yet neither Phil Mickelson nor Tiger Woods, recent tour standouts, are noted for outspoken Christian beliefs.

How can this be?

My concern is not whether God cares about who wins the Masters. Of course He cares—or so my Calvinism would prompt me to believe. After all, the God who knows the number of hairs on our heads (an easier and easier task in my case) and who knows when a sparrow falls in the field and who knows the stars by name and who has written my days and even my thoughts in the book of life before the beginning of time—surely this God lets few details slip by Him, including The Masters.

No, the question that concerns me is why God allows pagans to triumph at all. Why did He make Tiger Woods the golfing machine that he is? Why do good golf victories happen to bad people? Or, at least, to the unfaithful?

The deeper issue is this: how does one know of the truth of one’s faith when faith is removed from evidence, or even when evidence seems to throw into question the justice of God?
What makes science an engine for progress is that it is falsifiable at least in principle. Scientific theories are proffered and evidence is marshaled for and against the theories. Sometimes it is difficult to know with confidence whether a given theory—say, heliocentrism, or quantum mechanics, or evolution or what have you—is reliable, but typically over time the bulk of evidence points to the rejection, modification, or embracing of the theory. Even when one cannot devise precise tests to falsify theories (such as with plate tectonics), one can examine which theory best fits the evidence.

But such is not the case in religion. Zach Johnson wins and his victory is proof of God’s faithfulness. But most of the time Zach Johnson does not win The Masters. So what do Johnson’s failures indicate about God’s love? Nothing. Or, more precisely, they indicate for the believer that God has a different will for Johnson than he has for himself. God is allowing adversity in Johnson’s life to purify and strengthen his faith.

Victory is proof for God. But failure is also proof for God. Having one’s prayers answered is proof of one’s faith. Having one’s prayers rejected is good for strengthening the faith. One is to thank God for our triumphs as well as our adversity; both speak to His glorious will.

This is curious. Imagine a person who adored her car. As proof she says that her car brought her to work today. Isn’t it wonderful? And as further proof she claimed that yesterday it failed to start. Isn’t that also wonderful? Would we not respond to this woman by saying that both pieces of contrary evidence cannot be used to draw the same conclusion?

I personally know several persons who have survived deadly plane crashes--three different crashes, in fact. In each case, the survivors returned home to be blanketed by believers who claimed that their survival is proof of God’s goodness, that God has clearly indicated that He has a special role for them in their lives.


But what about those persons who lost their lives? Did God give up on them? Or did He have special plans for their lives as well? Or was that crash God’s plan for them from the beginning of time? When they boarded the aircraft the day of their deaths, did they see their life as finding its purpose in the destruction of the airplane? Did their lives feel complete as they were freefalling toward the earth? Were they praying for survival, or were they praying in gratitude that they had been given this special plan?

Evolution and science more generally suggest that the world is frighteningly indifferent to moral goodness. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do good things happen to bad people? Why do good people with cancer get prayed over and yet die, while dreadful sinners with cancer curse at God and recover? Science would say it’s because the universe simply doesn’t care about moral victories. The universe has nothing to say about justice.

Now my Calvinist friends will respond that I’m looking at it all wrong. All of us are unworthy, all of us are sinners, all of us are naturally dead to our transgressions. All of us deserve Hell. Anything better than Hell is a gift from God to be cherished because it is an act of mercy.


But who really feels this way? Who really believes that on account of their being born—a feat they can take little credit for—they justly deserve eternal damnation? Imagine seeing a little baby in her crib. Now imagine that every few minutes a drop of water from a corroded pipe falls and splats her on the face, waking her up and causing her to cry.

A little drop of water. Not the end of the world. But who among us would be so heartless as to not help the baby?

But why should we act to help the baby? It’s not clear how justice enters the picture. Certainly I have not harmed the baby. It’s not my fault that the pipe is leaking. And certainly that baby has done nothing for me. I owe her nothing. So does justice require that I help the baby? Justice in this case dictates nothing. And moreover, the baby should be grateful to be splat on the face with water. After all, she deserves to go to Hell, and a little drip of water is better than that.

Perhaps we all deserve to go to Hell, but very few of us feels this way about ourselves, and very few of us—thank God—behave that way toward others. Most of us would help the baby, and if we didn’t wouldn’t we be jerks if not moral monsters?

Surely we are not kinder and more loving than God. So what does it mean that we feel obligated to help the baby when what drives us, grotesque sinners that we are, is not justice but compassion? And what does our own imperfect but very real power to love those who do not deserve it imply about the goodness (and ultimately the worthiness) of a God who, from a Calvinist perspective, can save Whomever He wants but chooses not to do so for the sake of justice?