Thursday, September 29, 2016

Beautiful Conundrum (Cal-Arminianism)

Our daughter and son were born in the same room St. Elizabeth’s. As my wife was in the throes of childbirth, both times I clutched the side of the bed and felt faint and out of control.

In Rocky IV (pictured), Russian Ivan Drago beats up American Rocky Balboa mercilessly. You want to stop Drago, but you can’t. Like Rocky’s wife, Adrian, you want the suspense and anguish to subside, but it keeps going. That is what it's like for a husband when their wife is in labor.

The day after Gibson was born I wrote this: “Gibson’s delivery- that was God somehow doing all of that. Yet, it was humans doing all of that. There is a tension between God’s sovereignty and human action. They co-exist. They should remain unresolved and mysterious in our minds since we cannot conclude where one ends and the other begins.”

I told my friend, “Labor and delivery makes a Calvinist out of me.” Why? Because if God was not in complete control that means my son’s and wife’s lives were up to cruel, mindless and careless chance, in the hands of the flawed doctors and nurses. What if the nurse hooked up the wrong IV? What if the doctor failed to rotate Gibson’s head at the last minute?

(Calvinists prize God’s control over every detail, which they call sovereignty. Arminians say God values giving some free will to humans, albeit limited, over maintaining complete control. That’s an oversimplification of Calvinism and Armininism and the two titles pertain to much more than what I am talking about. Surely, I've distorted one or both theological view to make a point.)

Since I could do nothing but watch, the Calvinist in me hoped God was sovereignly controlling every tiny factor in the seemingly chaotic, random, chance birth of our son. I was trusting in God, the puppeteer. I didn't want my wife's life, son's life and my life to be left up to cruel and mindless chance.

But, I could go the other opposite way and say, “Labor and delivery makes a pure Arminian out of me.” Why? Because as I looked around at the doctors and nurses I could have thought, “Surely these humans are not puppets on God’s string. They are free agents exercising their vast collective knowledge and skill and decades of hands-on experience (which God gave them.) Since God is not standing there it must be up to them."

I don’t think either extreme is right. I think neither are true and both are true. I think it's a mix.

It seems to me to be a full-fledged Calvinist or Arminian is to compromise either the free will God has willed humans to have, or neglect God’s involvement in our personal lives and greater history. There is a problem with staunch Arminians and staunch Calvinists: The scriptures read more Calvinist than Arminians admit and other times more Arminian than Calvinists admit.

In the children’s book, “My Precious Little Bear,” by Claire Freedman and Gavin Scott a bear cub said, “I love to watch the shiny fish that dart and splash and play. But when I touch one with my paw, it always slips away!”

Calvinism and Arminianism seem like that shiny fish. When we touch them, when we think we are holding them, they slip away. When we settle on one side we come across a scripture (no, several of them) and observe something in real life that messes up our nice, neat theology. It’s like when Jimmy Fallon messed up Donald Trump’s hair. The carefully positioned pieces are disrupted by a giant hand.

You might say, “I don’t know what it means to be a Calvinist or Arminian so I am neither.” But, everyone is on the spectrum about what they believe about human responsibility and God’s intervention. There is no escaping the fact you are a theologian. God made you too high.

Perhaps, our default mode is to put more emphasis on human actions and celebrate human acts in history over God’s acts in history. Some Calvinism seems to be an overreaction to our default mode which emphasizes human good and ingenuity without acknowledging God’s sovereignty.

It seems to me the best way to make sense of the delivery room is as a “Cal-Arminian,” to borrow a phrase from Denver Seminary Professor Craig Blomberg. As a Cal-Arminian I can acknowledge and celebrate both human ingenuity and God’s sovereignty in the delivery room.

As a Cal-Arminian I don’t have to freak out, or get defensive, when I read something in the Bible that contradicts Calvinism or Armininism. I don't have the shiny fish. I have an empty hand. I am able to hold onto God’s unmatchable work on our behalf and acknowledge that God gives us real daily choices which shape human history. I can believe the world and its weather are not running free from God’s control and that God, because God chose to, shares control with us and probably the weather.

I can believe that God has willed that the wills of other’s matter and that God works in all things. I can believe God sometimes overrides a human’s will to accomplish His purposes and that we have bona fide, non-coerced choices according to the limited freedom God has allotted. (I think this is the only way God knows if actually we love Him and others.) I can hold onto and relish both facts and mystery. I can hold a tension and not pretend I know exactly what is at play in every situation.

Since we can't know for sure where God’s sovereignty and human freedom begin or end it seems wise to embrace both without too much expense to the other.

(*Note- Even our free will is limited. For instance, we can’t choose where, when or to whom we were born. We can’t be two places at one time or become a different person. We can’t fly. We can’t walk on Saturn, etc.)


Tuesday, September 27, 2016

You are not free if you do not love

Someone once said to me, “I like to live a low-maintenance life. No plants, no pets, no people.”

C.S. Lewis wrote, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

I got up before my wife and kids Sunday morning. As I read at the kitchen table I knew time was ticking on my solitude. At any moment everyone could wake up and I would be responsible for ten things and my freedom and quiet would be gone.

Imagine God before He created us. He knew time was ticking on His solitude. At any moment He would create us and He would be responsible for a billion things and His freedom and quiet would be gone. (Excuse the comparison.)

But, God chose to create us and be responsible for us rather than have no responsibility. God deliberately chose to consign and bind Himself to us. God chose to have His heart broken over locking it in a motionless safe. God chose to have dependents rather than live a low-maintenance life with no plants, no pets and no people. Why? God is the only free and autonomous one in existence. Why would the autonomous one consign and bind Himself to others?

Because apparently God values giving Himself over containing Himself. Apparently God values love, which meant becoming vulnerable and broken, over wrapping Himself in little luxuries. God chose love over selfishness.

I can see why we prefer low-maintenance lives. It’s more work to have people rely on you and require you than not.

As I sat at the kitchen table I was frustrated that my house would wake up and that would mean the end of my solitude. That’s because I’m hardwired to believe freedom and responsibility are at odds. But, that’s not true because you are not free if you do not love.


Monday, September 26, 2016

An Alternate Life (poem)

Since I can I will ponder an alternate life where my son played baseball and walked where I did.

He would play in the woods I did and eat at a pitch in at Shepherd of the Hills.

He would wait for the creek in our backyard to thaw and he'd crack the ice.

He would be immersed in the oranges, yellows and reds of Brown County during the World Series.

We would listen to John Mellencamp on the curvy roads on our way into Nashville.

My friend Brett will teach his son Emmaus the tribal rituals, culture and treasures of an Alabamian.

But, how will Gibson learn the tribal rituals, culture and treasures of an Indianan in Nebraska?

Since I can I will ponder an alternate life where Gibson played basketball where I did and walked where I did.

God willing, one day Gibson and I will travel to Brown County. We will step in the woods and tears will moisten my middle age beard while I dream of an alternate life- one where my son played catch with his dad where I did with mine.

(*Note- The idea for this poem was borrowed from a poem by Brett. It seems like parents want their children to have the same positive experiences they did. For instance, someone who grew up in Taiwan, but had a child in the US might mourn the fact their child will not experience the culture, time or place they did. Of course, if a parent had a terrible and forgettable upbringing the opposite may be true- they never want their child near the places they had bad experiences. The birth of Gibson and Brett moving back to where he grew up, which means his son will grow up where he did, has me pondering an alternate life.)

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Our Enemies (prayer)

David said, “Let not my enemies triumph over me.”
We say it too.
We sing because we have enemies.
We sing because you are not willing to watch them defeat us.
We sing because you defeat them even when we let them defeat us.  

I put you high because you lifted me out of the depths.
We put you high because you lifted us out of the depths.

Your goodness, faithfulness and heroics are seen in our personal histories and ancient history.

I know you from your dealings with me.
We know you from your dealings with us.

Everyone is divided within themselves.
But, when we give up we can worship you and we are not divided because our enemies have been silenced.

Our enemies have no regard for us.
They are happy to give us all we want as long as they can have us.
But, you are calling us back to worship, to unity, to wholeness.
You are calling us to share in your victory.

If you didn’t hate it when our enemies triumph over us you wouldn’t step in.
Because you won’t let our enemies defeat us, we enjoy the feast you cook for us in front of them.
We sit at your table and smell and taste your preparations.
Soon enough we are eating. Amen.

(*Note- By enemies I do not only mean terrorists and people who want to harm us. Some Republicans might think Democrats are the enemy and vice versa. I don't mean that. I mean our greatest and timeless enemies, which Christianity has identified as death, sin (the flesh) and the devil. "Flesh" refers to that which is in us that opposes and resists God, which is enticed and inflamed in many ways. So, in a way we are our own enemy- an enemy lies in us- which God will save us from. Our timeless enemies, which God will not let defeat us, can kill the soul as well as the body. Luke 12:4)



Friday, September 16, 2016

And our relationship deepens (poem)

We don’t know what is going on in each other
And our relationship deepens.

We argue and don’t resolve it
And our relationship deepens.
We stumble and fall
And our relationship deepens.

We grow more unalike, becoming more ourselves
And our relationship deepens.

We sit quiet together watching the rain
And our relationship deepens.

We have nothing substantive to say
And our relationship deepens.

We have more reasons now more than before to leave each other
And our relationship deepens.

We cause each other to run into junk in ourselves
And our relationship deepens.

(*These paradoxes seem to pertain to all relationships especially ones involving love and commitment between husband and wife, parents and children, friendships and our relationship with God.)

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Endearing Defiance

Mark wrote, “He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” But, they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.” It’s funny to me they did understood what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it. In other words, the disciples were dense and scared. These were people God hand-picked. (This is good news for you and me.)

The very next thing Mark reported was Jesus asking his disciples, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.” They kept quiet like a child would if their parent asked “Who broke the lamp?” Why? Because they were arguing about something 10 year old boys argue about. We call these guys fancy religious titles and revere them, but we should remember they were also immature boys.

I wonder if Jesus is like me in the fact I sometimes find my children’s lack of proficiency and childishness endearing. (I realize Paul said to leave our childish ways.)

The other day Makara took a healthy swing with her imaginary bat. She swung so hard she lost her balance and fell over and landed on her face. It was adorable. I cherished that swing more than I would have a perfect and proficient swing.

Not only do I find her goofs endearing, her defiance often makes me smile. Even though a toddler’s tantrums can be maddening, I sometimes bite the insides of my cheeks to keep from smiling. When she jumps on her bed and pulls on the curtain with a huge grin saying, “No, cur-tin" there is something enchanting about it. Her defiance is (sometimes) endearing.

Some religious people (like me) think God abhors our lack of proficiency (or sins) and think that influences His ultimate opinion about us.

Maybe we think God looks over us like we are an assembly line worker waiting for us to screw up. But, even an earthly parent who has fickle love is rarely than evil. If even an earthly parent loves their child simply because of who they are in relation to them, how much more does God?

Because of our wrong thinking I think we sometimes get ashamed and hide. Makara sometimes turns her head and won’t look at us, or runs to her bed when she feels ashamed by our correction of her blatant disobedience. We don’t want her to feel ashamed. It is not something we instigate or reinforce, it’s is just human nature. We want to destroy that shame with our love. We don’t want her to run away, we want her to come to us. I think God feels the same way. Therefore, I wonder if God sometimes finds our defiance endearing because it draws out His mercy which He delights to lavish.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

I don't know about those white people

I know a racist husband and wife.

In his book Blink, Malcom Gladwell provides convincing evidence that people are more biased and prejudice than they think. In our subconscious or unconscious thoughts lurk prejudices we do not intellectually affirm. We may hold a prejudice we say we disagree with, but we learn we hold it because of our knee-jerk reactions. (Whether or not we “hold” a prejudice we intellectually disagree with is another question.)

It’s probably important we own the fact that we are more prejudice than we think. To say we have no prejudices is like saying we are perfect and have not been influenced by media, culture, parents, family and teachers, all of which shaped our thinking.

But, the couple I know goes beyond knee-jerk reactions. They generalize black people. I’ve heard them call black people, “fat, slow and dumb, lazy leaches, violent lunatics.” I know there are people groups I generalize too, but I find their racism repulsive and infuriating.

Truth is, with all the police shootings of unarmed black men (and some white people’s callous and indifferent reactions to them) I see racism in me. Against whites. Why? Because this couple drives me to it. They side with white police when they shoot an innocent black man in the back. They would flip out if it was the other way around. I don’t know what it would take for them to call an atrocity against a black person unjust. They cannot muster sympathy because the hate is so intoxicating.

I have judged the couple harshly. I’ve spent more than couple hours of what you would call “hating” them in my head.

The hater and judge me was struck when I heard a quote by Timothy Keller in a recent sermon. He said, “If you are intolerant of intolerant people you are intolerant. If you are judgmental of judgmental people you are judgmental.”

You have to love Keller’s logic and you have to hate the implications. He means if you are intolerant of racists you are committing the precise fault you despise in them.

Jesus challenges me with the racist couple. Jesus calls me to love the couple’s undeveloped, wandering souls like He does mine. When we do this we are scooped up into marvelous light and halt hate rather than propagate it. We partake in the perfect and gracious love of God, which overlooks the treacherous faults of a person and looks at their malnourished, deprived core and has compassion on them.

Jesus says to us, “If you are intolerant of the intolerant you are intolerant. The merciful will be show mercy. Don’t throw the stone. Put it down.”

*Image take from

Friday, September 9, 2016

Meat (poem/prayer)

So many solitary thoughts housed in our solitary brains.
The matter, which looks like the intestines of roadkill, is where we live hidden.
Moral beings who rule, make laws and enforce them are like the meat we eat.
Our control center is a steak.
We have laws against the instincts and impulses of our wormy orbs.

Who hears our mind machines, the songs we sing?
The incessant clicks,
The bursts of good and evil,
The assembly line of brilliance and hypocrisy,
The industrial strength darkness and elegant light,
The taking from the world,
Thoughts that hate us yet we still think.

Who can refrain from the chorus that kills them?
Who can operate on their own brain?

Who can withstand what runs through our minds?
Who is beautiful enough to look upon our dark thoughts and call us beautiful?
Who can guard and rescue us from our solitary meat?
The troubles in our brains have multiplied.

So, according to your love remember us.
Look upon our affliction and release our minds.
For the sake of your name, forgive, guide and instruct us. You are good.

Even now redemption reaches the taste buds on our brains and it is sweet.
By your grace, they are more than meat.



Monday, September 5, 2016

I’ve witnessed your justice (poem)

I’ve witnessed your justice.
The elite stood around.
You had much to gain from their approval- a high place in their high society.
You stood to gain little from including me.
Rave reviews awaited you.
Enthusiastic appraisals would have abounded.
Bourgeoning success was yours.

But, you looked at me and called me in your circle and it took me off guard.

Kings stood around you and you called me in your circle.

Kings stood around you and you paid attention to me.

Like my Mother and Father, you made sure I had a home.

We have witnessed your justice. We are amazed you called us in. We are dependent on your justice. We are eager for it. We hoped for it, but are surprised by it.

God, for your justice you are elevated. Because you include the low you are worthy of praise.

You are Lord of all not because you are high (for that alone does not inspire wonder and worship) but because you look the common person in the eye. Your justice and goodness makes you Lord of all, not merely your might.


Thursday, September 1, 2016

Catching the Wind

At 35 I can feel myself giving up on the illusion that experiences, products, people and places can make me happy. Why? Because I’ve had Venice, Rome, Yosemite, NYC, many adventures, a nice house, a beautiful wife and family. In a way, I feel like I've caught the wind I was chasing. As Lecrae Moore put it, “7 wonders- I done seen ‘em.” Those great gifts from God, in and of themselves, have not brought me ultimate satisfaction or complete joy. Partly because I take my restless self wherever I go.

Maybe our mid-life crises’ have something to do with realizing that life is not as fulfilling as we think it can or should be. Solomon said, “I had the world and I wasn’t satisfied. Seeking ultimate satisfaction in things is like chasing after the wind." I think he meant, life can’t meet our standards for it.

You may think saying, “Life is disappointing” is pessimistic. But, let’s be honest. Life is disappointing. And disappointment does not discriminate. It pervades the trivial: “That coffee cake was not as good as I expected.” And pivotal: “Marriage is not what I thought.”

Ironically, unless we realize people, products and experiences are not the end all we can’t realize the emptiness or fullness in them. Marriage can be great, but only if we realize it’s not perfect or meant to totally satisfy us. It seems like the person who embraces imperfection is better off than the person who strives for it. It seems like disappointment is a blessing because it leads us to the one who won’t let us down.

We can be sure achieving the thing we think will bring us complete happiness will not, because the minute we think it will we have set it up to let us down.

When we know things and people can’t bring us ultimate satisfaction we are free from illusions and false pretenses. In Paul’s view, Jesus is the end of illusions because He is the reality. He is the big joy all little joys point to and are fulfilled in.

How terrible and wonderful to have no illusions. Life is better in ways we didn’t think it could be and not as good in ways we thought it should be. How terrible and how wonderful to realize we can get as much joy trimming our toenails in our bathroom as we can getting a pedicure on the beach at St. Croix.

Life has a way of dispelling illusions and revealing reality and the true nature of things. This realization hurts and it is only thing that can make us well.