A SQUIRREL IN A TREE

I woke up this morning to a light snowfall. The ground is covered and the trees are wearing white veils. The old oak tree beside the house still has more than half its leaves (oaks are notoriously slow losing their leaves in the fall), which are now covered with snow. Most of the acorns have fallen off, littering the neighbour’s lawn and our driveway. Leaving or entering the driveway is always accompanied by the pop-pop-pop of the tires crushing the acorns.

Needless to say, looking out at the gently falling snow is much more inviting than stating at a blank laptop screen. One such glance provided a bonus. Sitting on a branch was a big squirrel having his breakfast. The oak tree obviously hasn’t shed all its acorns yet because he found some. I doubt is he collected the food from the ground and then ran up the tree—our collection of houses has no free-ranging dogs and the one cat that wanders the neighbourhood is so well fed that it presents no real danger to a squirrel. Mostly, they sit and eat where they find their food, although they sometimes stop to stare at me if I happen to move to the window for a closer look.

This squirrel is quite content. The remaining leaves provide some shelter from the falling snow. The thick tree trunk protects his from the gentle breeze. The tree provides an seemingly endless supply of food. There may even be a hidden hole or two in the tree that provides him and his family with shelter. What more could a squirrel want: high protein food, shelter, minimal threat from predators—it sounds like a made in heaven setting.

And actually, it is. I doubt if the squirrel realizes or cares but he is enjoying the grace of God but he is. The acorns, the oak tree, the gently falling snow, the whole neighbourhood depends on the eternal grace of God. He brought it into being, he sustains it and he is also redeeming it. If we would spend a lot more time just looking at the world around us, rather than trying to figure out how to use it to make more money for us, we would all be better off, I think.

To be honest, I am not really interested in the tedious creation/evolution debate that some inside and outside the faith think is so important. However it came to be, we have this world because of the grace of God. He caused it to be and set it up so that that oak trees can grow and produce acorns to feed squirrels (and people when properly prepared); so that humans can use the oak wood for sturdy and beautiful stuff; so that the snow which some hate can protect the dirt-based life during the cold and provide moisture for next year’s growth. Everything is connected and interlinked and comes from the hand of a loving and graceful God.

If we spent more time looking for the evidence of the grace of God in creation, we would all be better off. That squirrel peacefully eating his breakfast in the oak tree really doesn’t care if it took 14 billion years or 6000 years to produce the tree that provides his breakfast—he is just enjoying breakfast. The squirrel probably doesn’t do much theological reflection on the grace of God but in the end, his breakfast and his breakfast nook are still powerful signs of the grace of God.

We could probably learn a lot from the squirrel. Some things are pretty obvious, like enjoy breakfast on a snowy day. Other things are a bit deeper but probably even more important, things like remembering that we are not God and are as dependant on the grace of God as that squirrel. We might have a broader understanding of oak trees and natural history and theology than the squirrel but we are still not God. We can plant acorns, we can grow oak trees, we can produce acorn flour, we can make oak boards—but we didn’t bring the oak tree into being and we didn’t design its place in the overall scheme of things. And more importantly, we probably won’t understand the full picture until we are fully reunited with God in eternity.

Until then, enjoy the snow, have a good breakfast and hold firmly to the eternal grace of God.

May the peace of God be with you.

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A GOOD NIGHT’S SLEEP

I discovered a long time ago that I have the ability to fall asleep easily and quickly, at least during the day time. Naps are a regular part of my life. I almost always nap for a few minutes somewhere between 11:00 and 2:00. And then there are the unexpected naps, the ones that just happen because I am sitting and drop off to sleep. While those short naps can be refreshing, they are also embarrassing when they happen in a crowded staff room or meeting of some kind.

I find I need the naps because of the fact that I don’t sleep well at night. I am a light sleeper and it doesn’t take much to wake me up—and being woken gives my mind the message that I have finished a nap and therefore makes it hard to go back to sleep. Add to that the fact that I snore (I really don’t want to admit that but the evidence is pretty conclusive), which wakes me either because of the noise or because my wife pokes me and it makes for some long and frustrating nights, followed by fatigued and difficult days.

The rare nights when I have a good night’s sleep are blessings that I savour and enjoy. I know that eventually, I will get such a night. After several frustrating nights, the fatigue catches up with me and I collapse. But it would be nice to be able to do that every night.

So, I have been looking at different ways of dealing with the problem. I have adjusted my sleep patterns, allowing more time to sleep so that I am not as fatigued because I have discovered that if I get over tired, I don’t sleep as well. My doctor ordered a bunch of tests to make sure that there isn’t a medical reason for the fatigue.

And I am trying a techie solution to the problem—a CPAP machine. The problem might be caused by narrowing of air passages, which essentially leads to strangulation, something for which waking up is a very good solution. The machine provides extra air pressure to prevent the passage ways to collapse. The process has been interesting and instructive. The respiratory tech explained the machine and the process, fitted the required mask, gave me all the info I need and even provided a website.

So, I set the machine up, filled the water tank, fitted the face mask—that was a bit of an ordeal because I forgot exactly what the tech said during the briefing and had to figure it out myself. I got everything working, turned out the light and settled down for a good night’s sleep thanks to modern technology.

Well, that was the theory. In practise, the mask was incredibly uncomfortable—in order to provide a good seal, the various straps had to be tight. It also made my preferred sleeping position pretty much impossible, which led to serious tossing and turning as I tried to find a comfortable position for sleeping. Eventually, I fell asleep and made it through the night.

The second night was much worse. I did get the mask on with no trouble but the developing cold began to get in the way. The stuffy nose combined with the cough and the difficulty getting comfortable to make everything a nightmare—except I never got to sleep. After a couple of hours, I had enough. The mask came off, the machine got shut off, I opened a cough drop and finally managed to get to sleep, which was interrupted by a coughing fit about 5:00. After a another couple of hours of tossing and turning, I was up and ready for the day.

I will continue with the trial of the machine—ultimately, I will probably get used to the changes it requires. And, I know that eventually, I will sleep because the fatigue will take over and I will shut down for whatever time I need. But until then, I will toss and turn while I discover if technology is the answer to my sleep problems. My wife would appreciate it if it solves her sleep problem as well—if it stops my snoring, she sleeps better.

Anyway, it is almost nap time—and naps happen without the technology.

May the peace of God be with you.

TWO LOSSES

Earlier this year, I was saddened by two deaths that happened around the same time. Billy Graham died and his death was followed by that of Stephen Hawking. Given the fact that these two men had what appeared to be vastly different spheres of influence, very few reports that I saw made any connection between the two. But I admired both of them and both were influential in my life and the two death coming so close together had an effect on me.

I really don’t know if there was any real connection between the two—my speculation is that each at least knew of the other but probably didn’t spend a lot of time reading each other stuff or pondering each other’s teachings. In fact, given the misguided assumption on the part of many in the modern western world that science and religion don’t mix, there are more than a few who might suggest that Hawking and Graham would likely have been enemies, since they were widely recognized as leaders in their respective spheres.

But for me, well, I didn’t see a conflict. I am a science nerd and a theology nerd. And in truth, there have been lots of times when I have found myself working hard to wrap my head around both men’s ideas—and more than a few when their ideas have come together in that confusing mix in my mind and created a theological-scientific thought process that resulted in a headache and more confusion.

Unlike some, I don’t approach theology and science with the expectation of conflict and tension. When I struggle to read Hawking on time and the origin of all things or when I read Graham on faith and salvation, I don’t weigh one against the other to see who is right. Thinking about heaven and the afterlife seems to naturally lead into thinking about time and what it is—Graham leading to Hawking. Thinking about the Big Bang naturally leads to thinking about who and why—Hawking leading to Graham.

Both have had an effect on my thinking and my theology. Both have troubled and inspired me. Both have confused and irritated me. Both inspired agreement and disagreement . Both have helped me understand more about myself, my place in creation and my faith. And as a result, the deaths of both left me saddened and feeling like my world has shrunk a bit.

I didn’t spend a lot of time reading and studying the writings of either. I own and have read books by both and enjoyed them. Mostly, I was content to know that they were both there, both doing their thing and both accessible through their writings and so on should I ever decide to really follow up on their work. Honestly, I sometimes felt the Graham’s stuff was a bit too easy to understand and Hawking’s was a bit too hard to understand—but that didn’t stop me from buying and reading some of their work.

I am never going to be an evangelist like Graham nor a theoretical scientist like Hawking but I do appreciate their work—and have never felt a need to decide which body of material was more valuable to me or to the world. Each did their thing and each did it well and both taught me important stuff about God, creation and even myself.

I am not interested here is moralizing about their lives, choices or spiritual fates. That isn’t my job. God in his grace makes those kinds of decisions. Me—well, I admired both, I read both and I learned from both. Their lives and their work and their personality were and are important to me. I can and will continue to appreciate the contribution both have made to me personally and the world in general. And most of all, I will not fall into the trap of seeing these people as representations of sides in some mythical and mystical eternal battle.

These were two people who gave themselves completely to their callings and in the process of chasing their dreams and visions, showed the rest of glimpses of deeper and higher truths that we can all benefit from. So, to Stephen Hawking and Billy Graham, I say, “Thank you—I will miss you.”

May the peace of God be with you.

TIME

We have been studying the afterlife in one of the Bible Study groups, which has been a fascinating study. It has provided us with lots of great starting points for extended discussions and significant questions and even some confusion. The discussion also re-opened a train of thought that I come back to now and then. We touched on the idea in our study and it was great to know that other people have similar ideas and struggles with the topic as I have been having over the years.

When we look at the whole concept of the afterlife, we open a door to a bigger discussion of time—not time in the sense of the clock and calendar and not even time in the Biblical sense of the coming together of a bunch of factors but time itself. I have not seen too many theological discussions that deal with the theory of time. I own and have waded through Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time but I am still trying to wrap my head around the whole issue of time.

And while that may sound like I am some sort of science or science fiction nerd (which I am), thinking about time does have some significant theological implications. The difficulty with the process is that our human existence is bounded and determined by time. We measure it, we spend it, we waste it, we schedule our days and our lives by time. If it is 6:00am, it is time to get up. At 12:00, we can have lunch. At age 5, we go to school. At age 18 or so, we have to make serious decisions about our future. At age 65, we can retire.

So we live within time and therefore have difficulty seeing outside that temporal box. Yet there is very good theological evidence that God exists outside of time—time is likely one of the things God created. The temporal realm that we live in may only be a limited form of existence which God created for his reasons but which may eventually end and be replaced by something different. Eternity, for example, may not be measured by the clock, which will likely be a good thing—even the best of experiences begins to drag when we spend a certain amount of time at it.

If God exists outside of time, then a lot of theology is more understandable. For example, it is easier for me to see how God can know everything past, present and future. If he exists outside of time, all time is visible to him. God doesn’t have to wait for time to pass to see how things will work out. He sees all time from his vantage point and so can see the beginning, the middle and the ending of everything simultaneously. Thinking about stuff like that can get me started on a theological headache fairly easily.

I don’t actually expect to ever get a full understanding of things like time. I enjoy the process of thinking about it and playing with the implications and trying to fit pieces together. But my thinking about the theory of time also has another valuable aspect. It helps me to remember that in the end, I am not God—I am not even a god. There are limits to what I or any other human can know, do and understand. At some point, I always come back to the reality that there is something beyond me. And for me, that something is God.

The creator and sustainer of all, the all knowing, the ever present, the be all and end of everything knows and does stuff that I can never understand because he is God and I am not and never will be God. I can and should do and learn and figure out everything I can. I can and should struggle with the stuff I may never understand, like the theory of time. But in the end, I keep coming back to the reality that there is something beyond me and my abilities, a God who not only understands the theory of time but who actually created time.

And what makes this even more important is that the God of all creation and beyond loves me and all humanity and shows that love and grace in concrete and clear ways. I may never understand the theory of time, I may never understand why God would love me, but I believe it and believe him when he says he loves me.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE MYSTERY

 

I have always loved science. I can remember as a kid of perhaps 10-12 or so conducting an experiment. I put a bottle of water on the window ledge of my bedroom in the winter and recording each morning whether it was frozen or not—we lived in an uninsulated house with no central heating so the water actually froze some nights. An early Christmas gift was microscope, which I wore out looking at stuff.

I want to know about stuff and understand stuff and love the question “why”, along with its siblings and cousins like “How” and “what” and on and on. Discovering how something works makes my day—and it is even greater if I discover why something works wrong and can figure out how to make it work better. It seems that I have an essential curiosity that pushes me to understand and define and describe and explain.

I bring this drive with me to the church and my faith. As a pastor, I am always examining the church, seeking to understand it. All through my ministry, I have done experiments in the church to make it more effective and more church. Let me quickly assure you that always, the experiments have been done with the informed consent and enthusiastic participation of the church—we all know what we are doing and why. We just embarked on a series of experiments with our worship in one of the sets of churches I serve. We generally like our worship but we want to see if there are things that will make it even more worshipful.

In my personal faith, I have the same drive to understand and explain and even to experiment. I want to understand the fullness of my faith. I want to know what is true and what is fake and what is possible and what isn’t possible. I am sometimes in trouble with colleagues in ministry and people in the church because I can and do ask difficult questions that undercut or repudiate some of their cherished theories. I ask blunt questions about “miracles” people tell me about—the fact that someone’s cousin’s nephew’s girlfriend’s garbage man’s acquaintance knew someone who lived in the same city as someone who wrote about a miraculous healing he heard about isn’t sufficient validation for me to rejoice in the wonder of God’s works.

I approach everything with an analytical, critical, searching attitude. I want to know and understand and asking questions, analysing and studying are basic to me and my faith. But for all of that, I realized a long time ago that there are limits to what I can learn and understand. I can learn a lot about God and faith and the church. But there comes a point where I can’t learn anymore or understand any more. I realized early on in my faith life that I am human and God is God and there is a gap there that I cannot get beyond. I cannot squeeze the whole of God into my finite being.

I learn as much as I can. I study and meditate and experiment and develop theories—but at some point, I always come up against the reality that there is a point where my abilities fail. The fullness of God is beyond me. I can understand the love of God. I can observe and describe examples of the love of God. I can experiment with the love of God. (Does God still love me if I…). But I can’t figure out why God loves. Sure, I can get theological and say that God loves because that is his nature—but that is playing with words not real understanding.

God is God and even though I have devoted a good part of my life to understanding God, there is a reality there—as a finite human, I am not capable of understanding completely the infinite God. And I am okay with that reality. I want to know and understand and I will continue to study and observe and experiment. But I am also a person of faith. I may not be able to understand why God would choose to love all of humanity including me—but I can and do believe it. I don’t need to understand everything because I trust God.

May the peace of God be with you.

WOODWORKING

I like working with wood. I am not very good at it and I sometimes lack the patience that it requires but I do like taking a piece of wood and playing with it—measuring, cutting, sanding, joining and all the rest. There is something relaxing about the process and also very gratifying if I manage to produce more than sawdust and scrap wood. As far back as I can remember, working with wood has been something that I have enjoyed. As a kid, I remember using scrap pieces of ¼ inch plywood to make a toy airplane and even remember having a discussion with the guy at the hardware store about what nails were best for joining the pieces of plywood together.

Whenever we move, one of the basic steps in the settling in process is to develop a work area where my tools can be set out and organized. When we have gone to Kenya to work, I have always carried some tools with me and bought others there so that I could continue playing with wood. Generally, when we leave, some local craftsman benefits from an upgrade to his tool kit because I can’t bring back everything I bought there.

My tinkering with wood does have some benefits for my ministry. I have lots of stories of mistakes and poor execution to liven up an otherwise dull sermon. Now and then, I can talk tools and projects with someone who might not otherwise talk to a minister. Sometimes, my limited skills come in handy for a church work day.

But overall, my enjoyment of woodworking doesn’t have much connection with my ministry. I suppose I could force it and draw comparisons based on Jesus’ carpentry background but I don’t want to do that. And more importantly, I don’t need to do that. Woodworking is one part of who I am and doesn’t have to fit perfectly with everything else. We human beings are a collection of bits and pieces that taken together make us who we are.

But the bits and pieces don’t have to fit together seamlessly and perfectly. Some of them simply don’t fit together all that well, in fact. I might get the occasional sermon illustration from my poor woodworking skills and now and then be able to pound nails at the church building as part of a work day but mostly the connection between my ministry and my woodworking is that the woodworking needs to exist in the cracks and spaces left over from ministry.

Rather than we human beings existing as a unified and complete finished project, we are more like the pile of boards and tools that clutter my woodworking area in the basement. The stuff there is all valuable and important but a lot of it doesn’t really fit together. I am not going to go through the pile and get rid of stuff that doesn’t fit together, though, because all of it as a use, even if that use is more potential and theoretical that practical right now.

The short piece of scrap wood that I tossed on the pile months ago may not look like much but it just might have a use at some point—it may prop up an uneven piece of furniture; in might become a wedge for my gluing clamps; it might become kindling for a fire—but it will have a use, somewhere, somehow.

And without sounding too much like a preacher, all the bits and pieces of my life have a use somewhere, either in practise or in theory. The skills and knowledge and characteristics that make me me belong and have a place, even if it is hard to see how they fit. Truthfully, they may not actually all fit well together. My love and appreciation of science sometimes gets me in trouble with less scientifically inclined members of the faith. My love of woodworking doesn’t much help me in the pulpit—and can even be a distraction at times if I happen to look too closely at the fit and finish of the pulpit and lost track of where I am in the sermon because I am wondering how they did that particular joint or how I could improve the pulpit.

The various parts of me make up who I am—it is a package that is changing and developing but which God has declared loveable and important—and who am I to argue with God?

May the peace of God be with you.

A SCIENTIST?

I was watching a TV show recently where a couple of characters were having an argument.   One, a pastor, was telling the other, a budding scientist, that the scientists needed to believe in God.  The budding scientist said he didn’t need God because he had science.  That interchange pretty much summed up a dichotomy I see a lot of these days.  It seems that a lot of people believe that you can have faith or you can have science but you can’t have both.  Those who believe in faith and God built their fortress of faith and those who believe in science build their fortress of faith and they sit in their forts and take shots at each other.

I personally don’t really want to be in either fort.  I prefer being on the outside of both forts–not because I am against both faith and science.  No, I don’t want to be in either fort because I want to be free to make use of both or criticize both, depending on the realities of life that I deal with outside of the sacred walls of the competing fortresses.  In short, I want to be a person of deep faith and a scientist.

Well, maybe not a full-fledged scientist–that boat sailed without me mostly because of my somewhat less that spectacular math skills.  Maybe I should call myself a science wannabe or science groupie or closet nerd.  But I am also a person of faith–even more, a person whose calling and profession and desire is to help other people both discover and develop their faith.  I want it all.

I especially want both sides to stop the war. Just because I am a believer doesn’t mean  I refuse to accept global warming.  It doesn’t mean that I think the world is 6000 years old.  It doesn’t mean that I will accept any claim any faith charlatan  makes to try and part me from some of my money.  It doesn’t mean that I am vaguely afraid of technology because I see hints of Revelation style demonic conspiracy in chip technology.

Just because I am a believer, I don’t think that scientists are agents of satan.  I don’t see attempts to understand the wonder of creation at attempts to get rid of God.  I don’t see men and women in lab coats as my rivals for the hearts and minds of people. I don’t think scientists want to prove that my faith is dumb, pointless and the result of genetic anomalies in my brain.

We of faith and the scientific community have a lot we need to say to each other.  We probably need to apologize to each other for all the stupidity and pettiness and prejudice we have used against each other in the last few years.  We probably need to drink a lot more coffee and tea together to get to really know each other. (Sorry, science people–many conservative believers won’t be comfortable having a beer or glass of wine with you).  We probably need to spend a lot of time actually reading what the other is using to base their ideas on instead of basing our relationships on hearsay and innuendo and what someone thinks someone else said.

We need to accept that both people of faith and people of science are people first and actually need each other.  When I get sick, I want the best of science to treat my illness.  And when a scientist gets sick, I am pretty sure I have some faith stuff that will help that scientist deal with the realities of that illness.

As is always the case when we set up opposing sides and start fighting, we miss the point.  The war between science and faith exists in our minds, not in reality.  God is not diminished when a scientists discovers the earth is several billion years old and science is not diminished when a believer says that God created the earth.  We could both help each other a lot to sit down and really look at what we are saying and discover that we have a lot more in common that we sometimes want to admit.

I am a person of faith–but as much as my poor math skills allow, I am a person of science.  I not only like both, I need both to make my life complete.

May the peace of God be with you.