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Jeffrey Long Posts

Ockham’s Razor and the Case for God

 

I wrote this paper for my Systematic Theology course at Northwest University. I became interested in Ockham’s Razor after reading an article in the summer 1986 issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine recommending it as a tool for refuting pseudoscientific claims. As a young, intellectual, evangelistic Christian I was always looking for ways to make the gospel accessible to people outside the faith. I recognized the possibilities of using Ockham’s Razor as an apologetic argument. But with a twist. Instead of being a proof, as apologetics usually is, it was a methodology.

Looking back, it was quite the undertaking. While probably not an original idea, I had to formulate my arguments independently because I didn’t have access to an extensive religious library. And this was before the internet, so selecting resources was challenging.  However, I made use of a very early network technology, Bulletin Board Systems (BBS.) These were computers hosted in someone’s house, with a modem attached. To connect, you dialed their number and connected with a text based terminal. You could then upload files, and leave messages for others to read when they logged in (there could only be one person connected at a time.) Specifically, I connected to the anarchist Black Flag BBS, where a few atheist members were kind enough to let me bounce ideas off them and provide push back. This was a great experience and helped refine my thoughts.

I’m posting this reasonably unedited as an expression of my thinking and writing in 1989. I’m not sure if the idea holds up. I don’t like my grammar in places. I would switch humankind for man. And my representation of atheism and agnosticism are too simplistic, with a tone of disdain. In some cases I just couldn’t bear to let things stand, so I struck-out the offending text. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed revisiting it. Click here if you’d prefer to read in its original Commodore Amiga font glory


Believing in God can be difficult. We can’t see Him with our eyes, hear Him with our ears, touch Him with our hands, or smell Him with our nose. Modern scientists have put His creation on the back shelf while they revel in man’s early history as an ape. It seems that belief in God is only for those who need something to believe in, not for the intelligent, thinking, reasonable person.

But, is faith in God truly so unreasonable? No it is not. On the contrary, it can be shown that Christianity is the most reasonable of all worldview. This is not to say that it doesn’t still require faith; all world systems require faith. But because it provides the simplest answer to the questions of the universe, Christianity is the best worldview, and most worthy of having faith placed in.

William of Ockham was a fourteenth century philosopher, logician and theologian. As with other philosophers of his time, Ockham spent much of his time in political struggles. His chief involvement pertained to the relationship between the secular world and papal power. His views eventually led the pope of the time, John XXII to excommunicate him, prompting him to move to Bavaria, where he lived out the rest of his life.

When not busy fighting the pope, Ockham devoted his energy to philosophical study, particularly in the area of metaphysics. As with his relationship to the pope, Ockham soon developed an adversarial relationship with the teachings and followers of Plato. Plato had the idea that in the metaphysical realm there existed universal forms: perfect forms of all the things that we experience here on Earth. Later philosophers and theologians refined these ideas, and eventually determined that these eternal forms were existent in the divine mind of God. Ockham resisted this idea passionately. In dealing with this issue, Ockham wielded his historic razor, the principle “entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem,” which roughly translated means that things must not be multiplied beyond necessity. This principle may be rephrased in many different ways, but the central meaning is always the same: the simplest explanation for any given problem is most likely to be the best.

In dealing with the teachings of Plato and his followers, Ockham stated that the theory of Forms wasn’t necessary to our understanding of the universe. We can explain the existence of our universe, and its creation by God, without Plato’s cumbersome Forms. While Ockham was not the originator of this principle of parsimony, his prominent use of the principle gained him the notoriety of having it associated with his name.

What makes an argument necessarily simple? Edward Cornell gives three rules for recognizing simplicity.

  1. Coherence. Since an explanatory hypothesis is a possible patterning of facts which purports to explain them by arranging them in a more indelible sort of order, we should expect it to be self-consistent, or free from internal contradictions.
  2. A hypothesis is simpler than another if it resorts to fewer ultimate principles to explain things. One hypothesis is said to be simpler than another if the number of independent types of elements in the first is smaller than in the second.
  3. An hypothesis is simpler if it uses fewer ad hoc assumptions than another. [2]

The last point states that the system with the least special assumptions that cannot be related to any of the other fundamentals in the system, is the simples one. This means that while a system may appear complex, if it is able to deal with the most number of problems with the least assumptions, it is the simplest and best system.

Today, we still find Ockham’s Razor in use, primarily in the school of naturalism. Naturalism asserts that anything that is real can be explained by scientifically verifiable concepts. Therefore the idea of a creator outside of the scientific realm is impossible. Ockham’s Razor is applied by the naturalists to show that everything in the universe can be explained through natural law, and scientific procedure, and thus there is no need to bring a god from outside to explain the existence of our universe.

And so, the question before us is this: what is the most reasonable explanation for the initial creation and continued existence of our universe, and the nature of mankind in it? In determining this, two ideas are drawn together. The first is Theissen’s congruity argument: “…the postulate which best explains the related facts is true.” [3] The second idea is Ockham’s Razor: The simplest explanation is the best. Therefore, it follows that the postulate which best explains the related facts is the postulate which is absolutely necessary. We must then show that Theism is the simplest explanation for the related facts of the universe.

Theists claim that God is the ultimate explanation for the universe. The standard cosmological argument for the existence of God states that because the universe acts in a cause/effect manner, there must have been an initial first cause. However, this argument is only capable of determining that there must have been a source outside of our universe that caused the universe. This leaves us open to the possibility of a first cause that then died, disappeared, or otherwise ceased to exist. So, the cosmological argument cannot get us any farther than a finite first cause.

Instead, an appropriately infinite Theistic argument would come from the position that both the creation and continuing existence of the world make necessary an outside force. Ronald Nash puts this idea in more understandable terms:

Imagine a series of dominoes individually set on end next to one another so that toppling one causes a chain reaction, one at a time toppling each domino in the series. In order for this to be accomplished, the dominoes must be set on some surface. This surface functions as a necessary condition for the series of falling dominoes every bit as much as the finger (or whatever) that pushes the first domino. If that finger is the first temporal cause, the floor or table can be viewed as the First Cause in the logical sense. It is the underlying ground of support without which the series could not exist as a series. [4]

Theism, then, not only explains the initial first cause of the universe, but it also explains the continuing existence of the universe.

Christianity takes Theism a step farther and explains man’s nature within the universe. The Christian sees man as having been made in the image of God, and thus, able to make decisions apart from outside stimuli. But the Christian also sees man as being a fallen creature, and so it is not capable of consistently responding adequately to the world around him.

Atheism, asserting a naturalistic worldview, believes that nature is the only thing that exists. We come to know this universe through the scientific method. As Bertrand Russell puts it, “Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attained by scientific methods; and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know.” [5]

It is also a highly mechanistic worldview. Everything in existence is seen as having a necessary and sufficient cause. In dealing with the issue of first cause, they believe that nature is its own eternal, necessary and sufficient cause. Infinite regression is not a problem. Nature causes nature. Using the previous domino explanation we could say that the first domino was never pushed, but that the dominoes have always fallen, and will always fall. Also, nature is the surface upon which the dominos rest.

Mankind is seen by the atheist as reacting to the world by pure determinism. Man’s actions are completely predetermined. He can neither do anything to change his actions, nor does it matter whether he change his actions. “The human race must struggle alone, with what of courage it command, against the whole weight of a universe that cares nothing for its hopes and fears.” [6] Choice and free will have no meaning in this worldview.

The last school of thought to be discussed here is agnosticism. Agnosticism differs from the other worldviews in that it does not attempt to make ultimate assumptions about the world. An agnostic sticks his head in the sand, and says “I don’t know.” In response to the questions of first cause, the sustaining of our universe, and man’s relation to the world, the agnostic gives the same answer: “I don’t know.” This philosophy is carried a little farther by the belief that “not only do I not know, but you can’t know either. In fact, no one can know the answers to these questions.”

Application of Ockham’s Razor to these three worldviews involves determining which one answers the questions of the universe with the least assumptions.

To begin, atheism attempts to draw the universe under the unifying force of nature. This is a very simple explanation, but it falls down under the weight of scrutiny. The atheist believes that everything in the universe is continent on nature. All that is needed to dispute the atheists’s claims then, is to show one thing that cannot be explained in a naturalistic way, and that one thing is human reasoning. [7] C.S. Lewis explains:

All possible knowledge… depends on the validity of reasoning. If the feeling of certainty which we express by words like must be and therefore and since is a real perception of how things outside out own minds really “must” be, well and good. But if this certainty is merely a feeing in our minds and not a genuine insight into realities beyond them – if it merely represents the way our minds happen to work – then we can have no knowledge. Unless human reasoning is valid, no science can be true. [8]

Reason, however, must have at its foundation something outside of nature. “The knowledge of a thing is not one of the thing’s parts.” [9] When we have knowledge of a particular thing, we step out of the cause/effect relationship between us and that thing, and know it separately. In this way, reason exists separate of nature, and demonstrates that the atheist’s claim that nothing transcends nature is shown to be false. Therefore, in order to logically defend his position, the atheist must make two contradictory assumptions: nothing exists outside of nature, and that reason exists apart from nature.

The agnostic places his faith in human reason, but claims that by its very nature, a universal existence cannot be comprehended by human reason. Thus we cannot make decisions based on the existence of a theistic being. This idea can be refuted in much the same way was atheism. If it can be shown that some universal ideas are knowable, then we cannot eliminate the possibility of knowing any universal. As has been previously shown, reason is a universal idea that is comprehended by all.

This becomes a contradiction and violates the rule of simplicity stated previously: that in order for a hypothesis to be simple, it must be self-consistent or free from internal contradictions. Because of its contradiction, agnosticism is not a simple system.

Finally, we come to theism. Applying Ockham’s Razor to theirs, we find that in answer to all three principles of simplicity, theism remains simple.

First, the theistic hypothesis is free from self-contradiction. By standing on one hypothesis rather two or more, the theist avoids the possibility of contradiction. All is related to God.

Secondly, the theistic hypothesis resorts to the least ultimate principles to explain his world. Theism has one ultimate principle: God. This rules out the possibility of atheism which must rely on two principles: nature is everything, and reasons exists apart from nature.

Thirdly, the theistic hypothesis uses the least ad hoc or unrelated assumptions to explain the world. “Under one assumption, the [theist] succeeds in unfolding the implications of his theory of immortality, rational universe, and truth.” [10]

We can now show that theism is the simplest and best explanation for the related facts of the universe that we live in.

So what do we do with this understanding? The logical next step is to ascertain which theistic religion best explains the universe. Though it is not the nature of this paper to defend this position, I believe it can be shown clearly that Christianity is the religion that best explains man and the universe and would highly recommend investigating the ideas taught by Jesus Christ.

William of Ockham knew that his razor was very sharp. So sharp, that it actually cuts away the ability to know universals through reason or experience. Instead, we must rely on a third form of knowing: faith. This is not an unpleasant position as it has already been seen that the other worldviews also rely on faith. It is our very nature to seek answers to the world around us, and because of our limited understanding, we must take a step of faith to reach an understanding. But this faith does not rest on unreasonable thoughts or ideas. It is not a leap of faith into a foggy chasm. It is a leap of faith to a God that we can see across the river, holding out his arms, ready to catch us. When we realize that this God who holds in His arms the fabric of the universe, is the simplest and the best explanation for the world around us, we can rest assured that He will catch us as we leap across the chasm.

[1] Elie A. Shneour, “Ockham’s Razor,” The Skeptical Inquirer Vol. X, No. 4 (Summer 1986): 310.
[2] Edward John Carnell, An Introduction to Christian Apologetics (Michigan: Wm. B. Eedman’s Publishing Co., 1948), pp. 99-100
[3] Henry C. Thiessen, Lectures in Systematic Theology (Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 1949), p. 31.
[4] Ronald H. Nash, Faith and Reason (Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1988), p. 125
[5] Bertrand Russel, Religion and Science, p. 243, quoted in Holes Rolstom, 111, Science and Religion (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987), p. 248
[6] Bertrand Russel, Mysticism and Logic, p. 52, quoted in Holes Rolstom, 111, Science and Religion (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987), p. 249
[7] Ronald H. Nash, Faith and Reason (Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1988), p. 256
[8] C.S. Lewis, Miracles, p. 14, quoted Faith and Reason (Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1988), p. 256
[9] C.S. Lewis, Miracles, p. 25, quoted Faith and Reason (Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1988), p. 258
[10] Edward John Carnell, An Introduction to Christian Apologetics (Michigan: Wm. B. Eedman’s Publishing Co., 1948), p. 100

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Fires and false prophets

When natural disasters occur, you can count on self-proclaimed prophets to rise up and declare they are caused by their angry god. When the last great wildfire ravaged Eastern Washington, a local man used it as an opportunity to accuse America for its sins. But wildfires are not unique to eastern Washington in the 21st century. They happen all around the world. When is it appropriate to listen to someone claiming a natural disaster is a symptom of god’s wrath?

In the 9th century BC, Israel found itself in a drought that lasted for three years. The drought was pronounced by the prophet Elijah and came as a result of King Ahab and his wife Jezebel doing “evil in the sight of God.” At the end of the three years, Ahab called out Elijah as “the troublemaker of Israel.” Elijah responded by reminding him that the drought was a result of him and Jezebel leading Israel into worship of the false god Baal.

To make the point that Baal was in fact a false god, Elijah proposed a test.

He instructed them to build two altars, one to Baal and the other to Yahweh (Israel’s god,) and to place the slaughtered pieces of two ox on the altars.

The test? All the prophets had to do was call upon Baal’s power to send down fire and light the altar.

So the prophets of Baal prayed, and prayed and prayed, and nothing happened. Elijah mocked them, so they tried harder, this time cutting themselves and adding their own blood to the sacrifice. Still nothing happened.

When Elijah’s turn came, he ordered four large jars of water to be poured onto the altar three times. And then he prayed. And Yahweh sent fire down from the sky, sizzling the water on the altar, and burning down the sacrifice and altar itself. He then ordered the false prophets killed, prayed to Yahweh that the drought would end, and rain came down, ending the 3 year drought.

Here’s the point. God’s seal of prophetic approval on Elijah the prophet came from his predicting the drought would come -before- it did. Likewise, the authority of the false prophets was tested when they were asked to perform a simple task that would prove they were true prophets.

Anyone can take upon himself the mantle of prophet, and claim that an event that has occurred was caused by god’s disapproval. Those types of prophets are a dime-a-dozen, and have been declaring doom ever since… well, ever since there were droughts and wildfires (that’s a long time.) It’s easy. All you need to do is stamp your message on a natural disaster and voila! You’re a prophet.

A true prophet, on the other hand, announces something specific -before- it happens. Deuteronomy 18:22 says “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him.”

It is common-place in America for self-proclaimed prophets to pronounce doom on this nation for its departure from what they deem godly. But when you hear them speak, pay attention to whether or not they proclaim something specific that will take place or come true. If not, their message is not from Christianity’s god. They have spoken presumptuously. Don’t be afraid of them.

It has been said that God made man in his image, and we returned the favor. When you listen to what self-proclaimed prophets say, you can see that they have made God in their own image. Their god is vengeful, angry, hateful, spiteful, bigoted, unmerciful, unloving, heartless. That’s the spirit of their words-from-god.

On the other hand, the fruit of the Christian god’s spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (From Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia.)

In short. False prophets not only speak falsely about god. They are prophets of a false god. A god made in their own image, not the other way around. When these prophets speak in the name of god, just insert their personal name and don’t let him discredit the Christian god.

And while you are at it, ask them to make a specific prophecy of something that is -going- to happen, in the name of their god. When it doesn’t happen, you can plainly see that they are prophets of their own false god. Hopefully god will be more sparing of them than they are of others.

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Reclaiming the local church – The testimony of Jennifer Knapp

An increasingly large number of national organizations and spiritual leaders in America today believe that when they speak, they are the voice of Christianity in America. They exert their influence through radio and TV programs and in print. Increasingly they serve as talking heads in national news programs. And many of them endorse political candidates who they say will represent the true faith in their public office.

This trend was illustrated in 2010 when Jennifer Knapp, a popular Christian singer/songwriter re-entered the music business and came out as a lesbian. In the middle of a very successful career, Knapp disappeared from the public in 2004. She resurfaced in 2010 with her new album “Letting Go,” and the announcement that she was in a relationship with a woman. This caused a huge stir in the evangelical world. She was kind enough to give Christianity Today this interview to tell her story. But most significant for me was her interview with Larry King. Following her one-on-one interview with King, Bob Botsford, the self-proclaimed spokesperson for those who believed her relationship was sinful came on camera to discuss the issue. In this video segment, Jennifer fended off Botsford’s claim that as a minister, he was in a position to publicly “pastor” her on this issue.

“I have spiritual leadership in my life… pastoral counsel of those who are dear to me, who understand the scripture as sacred text. You are not that man in my life. You do not know me, and you do not have the right to speak to me in the manner that you have publicly. [You’ve said that you have the role to stand up for the truth, but that is] in your congregation and community. I ask you not to do that with me.. not to say that you are doing that on my behalf.”

I think she is totally right about this. Faith is lived in a specific geography; among communities and neighbors. We live alongside spiritual family and spiritual leaders. The voice of local pastors and spiritual friends is often drowned out by the shouting of people ministering in Nashville, Denver, or Washington DC. If we plug our ears to them and stop and listen, the Spirit may be leading us in directions completely divergent from those who think they speak for us. Focus on the Family can’t clothe and feed the poor down the street. Christianity Today won’t be there when tragedy strikes. And TBN won’t be at the wedding to celebrate the union of a couple in love, or the baptism of our children.

We need to follow Jennifer’s lead and focus our attention on our own spiritual communities. Only secondarily, if at all, as national or international.

Faith is local.

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Don’t let the sun go down on your anger

While visiting a Bible study, a couple shared how they dealt with conflict in their marriage. “We don’t let the sun go down on our anger.”

When I heard this, my first thought was, “Is that in the bible?” There are many sayings attributed to the Bible that aren’t actually there. For example: “God helps those who help themselves,” isn’t in the Bible. It’s from Ben Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanack.”

A quick search of my Bible revealed that it is actually there. In the apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus he instructed them:

“Be angry, and do not sin”:
do not let the sun go down on your anger. – Ephesians 4:26

Many a couple has spent a sleepless night trying to work through a fight with each other based on this passage. They’ve been taught that Paul was telling them that they can’t sleep until the problem is reconciled.

But that is not what Paul was saying. The command was for each person to take responsibility for their own anger; not to make sure that there is no anger between them.

This is an excellent example of how the Bible gets distorted, even with good intentions, to mean things it doesn’t say; sometimes causing great harm. And it is an opportunity for us to untrain our eyes in an effort to see more clearly what it is actually saying.

Paul’s audience was not married couples. He was speaking to all relationships. It is so important to learn that we have no control over other people’s actions. If they are angry, there is nothing we can do to control that. We aren’t responsible for their anger. And they aren’t responsible for ours. All we can do is take responsibility for ourselves.

When people insist that a fight be resolved immediately, they are trying to control each other, saying “You need to meet my need to resolve this issue. We can’t leave this conversation until you do.” That is focusing on yourself. Because you have no control over whether or not another person will resolve an issue, you may never sleep.

The better way is to ask yourself “how can I do my best to resolve this?” Your focus is off of yourself and on to the other person. The conflict still might not be resolved, but now you know, it’s not up to you to resolve it. Simply do your best. If you aren’t able to find some resolution, the next step is to follow Paul’s advice to make sure that you are not carrying anger away from the conversation. But remember, you are not in charge of the other person’s anger. If they continue to be angry and push the issue, then politely decline. The sun may go down on their anger, but it doesn’t have to go down on yours.

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Seek Beauty

In one day, enough information is consumed by internet traffic to fill 168 million DVD’s.

But that doesn’t mean we know anything…

Frank Zappa said:

“Information is not knowledge. Knowledge is not wisdom. Wisdom is not truth. Truth is not beauty. Beauty is not love. Love is not music. Music is the best.”

A friend might recommend the perfect sunflower for my garden. If I share the link on Facebook, everyone will see the picture. But no one will see the flower. Hands need to turn soil, and seeds need to be planted, watered and tended for the beauty of a living flower to be experienced.

Sharing is only information. A flower is beauty.

Seek beauty.

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Becoming Like a Child

I frequently teach in elementary music classrooms. This experience differs from being in a regular classroom because I get 30 minutes alone with many grades instead of spending an entire day with 5th graders or High School math students.

One of my favorite songs to teach Kindergarteners is “Eight Clay pigeons.” The kids line up single file on one side of the room and we sing together:

Eight Clay pigeons
Eight Clay pigeons
Eight Clay pigeons, sittin’ on a wall.

When we sing the last line, I announce with a surprised voice: “There goes another one, flying away!” and the first child flaps her arms and flies to the other side of the room. Then each takes their turn, “Seven clay pigeons… ” “Six clay pigeons…” etc. until everyone has had a chance to soar from one side of the room to the other.

I love watching their innocent play. They swoop, and swirl from one side to the other, devoid of self-consciousness. They proclaim with pride that there are only seven clay pigeons left when one of the original eight flies away.

I’d love to hold on to the child-ness of children. When I look at pictures of my young sons and daughters, I miss those little toddlers. But when I sit across the living room with them today as adults, I get to talk with them as equals, and revel in the young men and women they’ve become. If they stayed forever five, I wouldn’t get that experience.

One stage children go through as they grow is comparing themselves to each other. They begin placing each other in a pecking order of popularity and abilities. Some children are chosen first for the playground teams, while others are left to watch from the sidelines.

Jesus’ followers had the same problem. They believed Jesus was going to overthrow their Roman occupiers and take the throne of a new Israelite kingdom. As members of his inner circle, they assumed he would appoint them to high ranking positions in the court of his new kingdom. So they quarreled amongst themselves over who would get the highest positions in his new kingdom.

One day, after a long journey, Jesus and his disciples arrived at a house in Capernaum. As they were traveling Jesus overheard them talking about these things. Once they settled in he asked: “What were you talking about on the road?” They kept quiet, because they didn’t want to admit they had been arguing about which of them was the greatest.

Jesus called over a child from the home and stood him in the middle of the room and said to them:

“…unless you change and become like little children, you won’t even get into the kingdom of heaven. People who humble themselves like this child are the greatest in my kingdom.”

This sounded just as absurd to the disciples as it does to us. A government doesn’t just run itself. There is work to be done if you are going to rule people. It would be a place of honor, and responsibility to be on Jesus’ left or right making important decisions. They had their resumes prepared. Letters of recommendation. They had the qualifications.

Jesus took the wind out of their sails when he told them their posturing was useless. Childlikeness was the qualification he was looking for. The real action, he told them, was with Kindergartners flapping their arms across the room.

This makes no sense. Worldly affairs are not the place for children. They are kept safely on the sidelines. They can handle play money, but they don’t get to run our banks. They get toy guns to shoot pretend bears, but civilized people don’t give them assault rifles to kill their enemies. Children aren’t in-the-game. It’s the grown-ups’ job to strategize, scheme and fight.

Rest assured, Jesus isn’t handing the reins of this world over to the elementary school. He knew that children aren’t a perpetual class of human beings. The stork doesn’t bring a population of 5 year olds to this earth who stay eternally 5 year olds. Children grow, and mature until they become adults. They become you and me.

We are grown-up versions of the children we once were. My father-in-law has a sign in his living room that reads “Inside of every old person is a young person wondering what the hell happened.” Jesus’ message to his disciples was “When you grow up, you need to be like the child you once were. You have to remember that child inside you.”

Notice that Jesus did not give his followers instructions about how to be child-like. Children don’t have a job description. You don’t teach a child how to be a child. Imagine Jesus giving them this list.

  • Eat graham crackers at 11am.
  • Share your toys
  • Don’t take other kids’ toys.
  • Color inside the lines.

Being like a child simply means paying attention to children and then imitating them.

One way we to be child-like is to play. The last time my grandchildren visited I took them to McDonald’s to play on the plastic playground. As I watched them careen down the slides, I imagined adults would have fun on a grown-up version. McDonalds once constructed an adult play-land in Syndey Australia. But they only used it for a commercial, and only the extras were allowed to play in it. How unfortunate that grown-ups were never allowed to play on something constructed as a symbol of their child-likeness.

Being told to be more like a child is unsettling. Some childhood memories are unpleasant. Imitating children means opening ourselves up to the same vulnerabilities we had as children. Sometimes those vulnerabilities come from religious people. Parents would bring their children to Jesus so he could bless them. Jesus’ disciples once rebuked them for doing this. When he found out, he got angry and told them, “Don’t push these children away. Don’t ever get between them and me. These children are at the very center of life in the kingdom. Mark this: Unless you accept God’s kingdom in the simplicity of a child, you’ll never get in.” Then, gathering the children up in his arms, he laid his hands on them and blessed them.

Jesus is on the side of children. And if he is on the side of children, he is also on the side of child-like people. What can you do today to be more like a child? What risks might you be taking? How can knowing Jesus is on your side give you the courage to take those risks? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

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Priesthood of the Baristas

I once had a discussion with a pastor regarding the question “How are you?” This informal greeting is friendly, but no one expects an honest answer. So we respond.. “Fine, thanks. How are you?” No one is asking for a rehearsal of our woes..

There are, however, places where I will actually share an honest answer. One is Starbucks. I have enough camaraderie with the baristas there that in those brief moments while making my drink, we will strike up a conversation and share little bits about our day. I won’t go into my financial problems, but I might say “I feel bleh.. it’s been a long day.”

The pastor I was talking with said that two types of people we feel safe making confession to about our lives are bartenders and hair stylists. These people work in what sociologists call a “Third place,” distinct from our work and homes. Who can forget the hearty “Norm!” in the TV show “Cheers” that epitomized the bar as a third place where “everybody knows your name.” When you walk in, all the stresses of life are put aside and replaced by friendships.

But then my pastor friend added an insight that is beyond the sociologists’ theories.

A “third place” can become a place for the giving and receiving of absolution.

Absolution is a word we don’t hear much, if at all. The definition is: “a formal release from guilt, obligation, or punishment.”

We are more familiar with the act that comes before it: Confession. We have commonly witnessed the confessional, either in a church, or on a TV show. There, the penitent sinner sits and confesses his sins to a priest. But what we don’t usually see is the absolution given at the end. Having confessed their sins to the priest, on behalf of God, they are proclaimed forgiven of their sins.

The pastor with whom I was having this conversation proclaims this absolution, or forgiveness of sins, over the members of their church every Sunday.

Almighty God in His infinite mercy, has given His Son to die for us and, for his sake forgives all our sins. As a servant of his Church, a fellow member of the priesthood we share by baptism into Christ, and by his authority, I therefore declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sons, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN

It moves me every time. Sometimes my eyes get moist. Because even though I was raised in the church, and know that God has forgiven my sins, I forget. And as my sins pile up I begin to feel that I have gone beyond the point of grace. I’m not alone. Paul, a leader in the early church, wrote a letter to the church in Rome, confessing his own sins.

“For I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh. For I want to do the good, but I cannot do it. a For I do not do the good I want, but I do the very evil I do not want!” (7:18)

But we are not left there. A disciple of Jesus named John wrote in a letter:

“But if we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous, forgiving us our sins and cleansing us from all unrighteousness.” (1John 1:9)

When a pastor proclaims absolution for our sins, he is not making it up. When we confess our sins, God will forgive us. So hearing it is a reminder of what John has already taught us. But I forget. And I need to be reminded. Every week. And I am in awe that looking at my life, a god would forgive me, and eternally grateful that God has.

There is one last thing to notice about this prayer: the pastor is proclaiming absolution as “a fellow member of the priesthood we share by baptism in Christ.” In some churches, you can only receive absolution from the priest. But, Peter another disciple of Jesus proclaimed that Christians are “being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood.” We are priests. And so, when we are talking to a barista, a bartender or a barber, it may be that they are also Christians. This becomes not simply an opportunity for confession. It can be a time of absolution as well. We need to be in the habit of reminding each other that our sins have been forgiven. Because we forget. We think our sins are too great for God’s grace. But they aren’t. We just need to be reminded.

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Memories are like tree rings

A few weeks ago my wife and I drove our sons to my parents so they could stay a few days while we attended a foster parent training. On the way, I decided to swing through my hometown and show the kids where we used to live, work, and play. We drove through the backroads where “The slow guy” would drive 15 mph, in his little Toyota pickup, often without a shirt, accompanied by his big black dog riding shotgun. We pointed out landmarks of our lives during their childhood, like Pheasant’s Orchard, and the field where we fed llamas.
No one knew it, but this was a big step for me. I was dipping my toes in healing waters. More than a few events took place there that haunt me today. I try to put them behind me, but my mind won’t let me. Each event is stored as a memory that can be recalled at the slightest trigger.

We had a wood stove in our basement meant to be used for heat. We never figured out how to use it without smoking the house out. But one year, in preparation for winter, we drove to our church camp to retrieve firewood. The campground had cut many trees to thin the forest and reduce the risk of fire.

One thing you notice when you look at the stump of a tree is rings that spread from the center to the edge. “How did they get there?” children ask when they first see them.
Tree rings are a record of events that take place in a year. One year might have excessive rain-fall while the next has a drought. Fire might ravage a forest this year and a plague of insects the next. Each event leaves a mark on the tree; a darker circle one year, and a lighter one the next. As long as the tree still lives, it will keeps growing, forming new rings recording the events of the new year.

Memories are a lot like tree rings. They mark in our mind events that happen from one season to the next. Some years are full of love and growth. Others include stagnation, trials, pain or heartbreak.

When I become fixated on troubling memories, I am learning to tell myself that they are only rings on a tree. Those events are part of me, just as rings are part of a tree. But if I fixate on them I am staring at a stump. That is not where life occurs. Like that tree, I am still growing, meeting new challenges. Life is to be lived now.

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“Fast” Food

FiletOFish-ad-600On your drive to work this morning, look closely and you might spot an Easter Egg hidden in plain sight. It won’t be a hard-boiled egg splashed with food coloring. Or a candy-filled plastic egg. These easter eggs are deep-fried breaded fish between two hamburger buns slathered with tartar sauce.

Every year towards the end of February, I point out to my family that Lent must be near because the fast food chains began displaying fish sandwiches on their reader boards.

Most people don’t know about Lent. It originates from the 2nd century practice of baptizing new members on Easter Sunday. In preparation, novices spent 40 days receiving instruction in the Bible, and a week of praying, fasting, and study culminating at Easter. Over time this practice extended to family, friends and the entire church community. It became traditional to fast during this time. It usually wasn’t a complete fast, often involving only meat.

Lent is a season the church pretty much has to itself. Christmas is shared with Santa Claus. Easter is paired with a bunny. But on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, Christians have black crosses on their foreheads. Comedian Mike Birbigula posted on Facebook: “Either it’s Ash Wednesday or a lot of people have been experimenting with calligraphy.” During the Lenten season, many Christians imitate the early church and fast. Some cut out meat. Others give up coffee, or TV.

Here’s where the fish sandwich comes in. In 1962, Lou Groen, a McDonald’s franchisee realized he was losing a lot of business during Lent. So he invented the Filet-O-Fish, knowing that his largely Catholic customer base was allowed to eat fish during Lent. It was a hit, and is now on menus all year. Ever since, the fish sandwich heralds the coming of Easter just as the pumpkin spice latte is the culinary signal that autumn has begun. It is the “Shamrock Shake” of Lent. Fast food became “fast” food.

It would have been unimaginable to the first Christians that people would profit from this season of spiritual devotion. They were imitating Jesus’ fast in the wilderness. When the devil tempted Jesus to break his fast with bread, he didn’t ask if it came with a side of fries and a cola. He declared to his tempter that life is more than food.

“We rely on words spoken by God Himself,” he said. “God humbled the Israelites, allowing them to go hungry, so He could feed them with a food they had never seen before.”

Jesus’ point was that our lives have meaning beyond food. Our lives have meaning when we come to Him in poverty and humility, relying on hearing God’s voice, in whatever form that takes.

When Jesus came out of the desert, he taught his disciples to fast like he did. Some people intentionally looked gloomy, and disfigured their faces when they fasted, so that everyone around them would know they were fasting.

“These hypocrites have their reward,” Jesus said. “But that’s not what you want. When you fast, shampoo your hair and wash your face so that the people around you don’t know you are fasting. Your Father will. And he’ll give you a reward far greater than those hypocrites’.”

McDonalds won’t instruct it’s employees to wear sackcloth and ashes for Lent. But they will certainly have their reward when they sell an estimated 25 million fish sandwiches. That’s not what we want. God’s reward for people who don’t draw attention to themselves when they fast will be far greater than a sesame seed bun. We will hear God’s word and be all the more alive. And be given riches that money can’t buy.

The stories of Jesus’ temptation in the desert and instructions for fasting are taken from the 4th and 6th chapters of Matthew’s account of his life.

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Are you playing the notes, or are you playing the song?

As a public school teacher, I spend time with young children who are learning their alphabet, vowels and consonants, and how to pronounce words. Of course, they don’t need to know this to talk. We don’t learn to talk by studying consonants. We learn to talk by being around talking people. But to write and read, children need to learn the grammar of the English language.

But teaching English does not end in the 1st grade. This year, my son Elijah brought home a mural that showed that he had moved to the next step after grammar. He had combined those consonants and vowels into a story. Complete with pictures, it showed that he could do more then string words together into sentences. He could use those letters to create something that had never existed before. A story about himself and me.

At some point, music students must cross this same divide where their piano playing moves from a recitation of notes to the performance of a song.

Music, like English is made up of its own grammar. It is called music notation. In place of consonants, vowels and verbs, notation includes the notes, and rests, sharps and flats to communicate how a song should be played or sung.

The system we have and us for writing music developed over many centuries. But it is the means to an end, and not an end in itself. When a melody gets written down, only the surface elements are transmitted: pitch, and very bald rhythm. And if it is all that is used to communicate music, as a musician you are simply parroting the notation, like a 1st grader reading a sentence.

In her book “Creative Hymn Singing,” Alice Parker uses singing to describe playing the song, rather then reciting the notes. She says

“For millenia, music was transmitted only aurally; that is, from parent to child, from one village to another. A melody transmitted aurally keeps its tempo, pulse, pitches and phrases with all their subtlest inflections, to be modified as desired by the next singer.” – Alice Parker, Creative Hymn Singing, p. 6

In other words, the song is not a stoic representation of notes and rests. It lives and breathes. As players or singers, we must wrestle with the song, tapping into our own creativity to own the song for ourselves.

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