Thursday, March 26, 2015

How Psalm 139 Answers Our Deepest Fear

I was at a conference this week for some continuing education and the devotion one morning was based on Psalm 139. Psalm 139 is a well known and beloved poem that speaks of the depth of God's knowledge of us (You have searched me and know me. You knit me together in my mother's womb.) and the impossibility of escaping God (Where can I flee from your presence?).

The presenter asked us a reflection question about what these verses mean to us, but I couldn't help thinking about a different question: Why do people love this Psalm so much? Why do I? There seems to be something universally appealing about this passage and after a minute or so of not paying attention to what was actually going on, I thought, "It's about being known."

I think being understood by another person is one of our deepest held needs and conversely, not being known is one of our deepest fears. We are social creatures at heart and thrive on having at least one person who knows our dreams, gets our humor, loves our quirks, and can even see us at our worst and wants to stay with us until we're better. To be known is to be loved.

And yet many of us can feel lonely or isolated when we feel like we're misunderstood or insignificant compared to others or the vast flood of information in our daily lives. Why should anyone care about me?

Psalm 139 puts into the light one of our deepest fears and offers an answer because it speaks of an intimate relationship with God. It says that God knows us better than any person every could because we cannot escape or hide from God's sight. And yet, this God still wants to be close to us.  We are not unknown, unseen, or forgotten because God created us and knows us completely.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

A Few Thoughts on Science and Religion

"Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean."

I recently stumbled upon this quote in a book I was reading. The quote is originally by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and was used by Anglican bishop N. T. Wright in his book "Surprised by Scripture." It was the kind of quote that struck me as deeply profound. (It also struck me as the kind of quote that's best not being over analyzed, but I'm going to share some of my thoughts anyway.)

I don't know how Rabbi Sacks originally meant the quote, but Bishop Wright used it in the context of debunking the so-called science vs. religion debate. In his argument, Wright sees scientific inquiry and religious inquiry as complementary and not competing ideas. He notes that our brains are known to have a logical/objective right side and a left side that processes art, emotions, and creativity. He places religious thought in the left hemisphere, but, he says, we've so overvalued logic and rationality in the past 300 years that we assume religion needs to function like science.

For those who may not feel comfortable with treating religion differently, consider this. Could you scientifically measure my love for my family? Could you objectively prove that Van Gogh's "Starry Night" is beautiful or Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is emotionally moving? Why would you even want to? They are experiences and understanding that operate differently than logical objectivity.

Religious knowledge isn't meant to be reduced to simple "facts" or mathematical proofs. (Even though a lot of religious education operates as if it can, but that's a topic for another time.) Instead, religious meaning often comes from paradoxes and juxtapositions of ideas and events that seem contradictory:

  • We can point to a cross, an instrument of execution, and call it a source of life. (Paul noted in 1 Corinthians that is is "foolishness" and "a stumbling block" to those outside the faith.) 
  • We can read Luther's paradoxical words, "A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all." and see it as making perfect sense. 
  • We can describe God as being both just and merciful and Jesus as fully human and fully divine and not feel it's ironic.  
  • We place promise next to suffering, proclaim hope at a funeral, and say that the Kingdom of God is both here and on its way.

Religion looks at answering questions that cannot be easily solved by scientific analysis (Why am I here? Where does beauty or suffering come from? What is love?) but are still absolutely central to our world and lives. Science and religion, understanding and meaning aren't opposites on a pole; they are complementary ways of seeking truth and should, in fact, reinforce each other. As a personal example, learning the complexities of the atom or my body make me feel an awe that is identical to my sense of worship (a religious experience) and studying the questions of meaning lead me to wonder how we can more efficiently feed and heal people (questions for science).

I would hope that in the near future that we can see that learning "how things work" and "what they mean" are more valuable and beautiful when they are integrated than when they are treated as opposites.

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

P.S. Here's a link to a related blog post on faith and science by David Lose, who I count as one of my digital spiritual guides. There's a brief video by a Lutheran astronomer that captures my hope for integration well.

“It’s not the world that I am changing; I do this so the world will know that it cannot change me.” –Garth Brooks, "The Change"

Thursday, March 5, 2015

When Broken Isn't Really Broken

One of the classrooms at my son's school likes to post a "Quote of the Week" on its bulletin board. Earlier this year, the quote was "Broken crayons still color."

As I passed it daily, it seemed to me like a description of resurrection, of Easter, of the kind of eternal life Jesus says we have now.

God used a lot of broken crayons to mark the shape of God's reality, shade the world with love, and draw a picture of hope for today.

If you feel broken, keep adding your color to the world. It's part of the picture.

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“We just want the fire in our bones.” -Emperors, “Be Ready When I Say Go”

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Lent, Easter, and Pentecost: Going Up, In, and Out

(This post first appeared in my church's newsletter in Spring 2015.)

A few years ago, I was at a conference where the speaker summarized the practices of a church congregation in three simple words: Up, In, and Out. Everything a congregation does, wants to do, and believes about itself fall into these basic categories, he said. Most churches will specialize in one or two, but all three are important to be a healthy church.

Up refers to individuals’ relationship with God and includes things like devotionals, Bible study, and prayer groups.
In refers to individuals’ relationships to each other and includes fellowship activities and community growth.
Out refers to a congregation’s relationship to the community and world and includes service projects, evangelism, and other outreach.

Ever since, I’ve found this to be a helpful tool to evaluate a variety of things: Do our upcoming programs include enough “up” opportunities? Have my sermons recently been focused more heavily in one area than the others? Is my own faith life leaning away from service or prayer or relationships? 

Up, In, and Out is a short and easy way to think about a lot of things related to being the church. As I sat down to write my newsletter article for the spring, it occurred to me they are also a good overlay for the coming seasons of the church year: Lent, Easter, and Pentecost. 

Lent, with its focus on spiritual discipline and “returning to God,” is a time of Up. In Easter, we read the stories of the early church and how they came together, learned how to be a new religious community, and grew; that’s In. Pentecost tells us the story of the Holy Spirit kicking open the doors and driving the church Out into the world to serve, greet, and love those who were not yet part of the church. 

Just as Up, In, and Out are all needed for a healthy church, all three are needed for a healthy personal faith, too. With that in mind, you may want to consider using these coming seasons as a chance to focus on these three areas in your own life. During Lent, if you don’t already, pick up a discipline, find a good devotional, carve out time to pray, or read a book in the Bible. In Easter, you could seek out a Cross+Generational event, attend a Bible study, or pledge to come to worship more often than you normally would. In Pentecost, volunteer at Tosa Cares or Serenity Inns, bring an item weekly for one of our collections, or just spend time walking your neighborhood and getting to know your own neighbors. 

Whatever you may choose to do, remember that Jesus has “gone ahead of you” so “you will see him” (Mark 16:7). Up, in, or out, God is present in every direction. As always, please share what you learn and experience with me or another sister or brother.

In God’s Amazing Grace,

Pastor Ari

“The whole universe is witness to only a part of what you’ve done.” -Downhere, “Let Me Rediscover You”