What Our New Perspective on Pluto Can Teach Us About Faith

Pluto photographed by the LORRI and Ralph instruments aboard the New Horizons spacecraft.

Deep down, I’m a bit of a science nerd. I loved chemistry in junior high and high school and I stayed later for some classes to balance chemical equations. But, my love of science probably goes back to my elementary school days when I began to be fascinated with space, black holes, supernovas and our solar system. I still love looking at images of space and regularly visit the Astronomy Photo of the Day website. When Pluto was demoted to “dwarf planet” status, I along with many others, were a little bummed. However, our interest in Pluto has increased recently as the New Horizons spacecraft has begun sending back images of this dwarf planet at the outer edges of our solar system. These images have revealed a more beautiful, active and interesting neighbor than many scientists ever imagined. This surprise and wonder created by the new images of Pluto was captured in this photo taken as the first images began to come in.

New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern (center) excited about a new image of Pluto.

There’s no photo trickery here, his eyes really are bugging out that much in excitement. Writer Corey Powell also explained the excitement at what these images are revealing in his easy to read and not-overly-sciencey article, The Eye-Popping Astonishment of Pluto. I would encourage you to read the article, even if you’re not that into this whole thing, just to get a taste of the excitement and joy that can come from scientific revelations like this.

Towards the end of the article, I was challenged by these words:

“The mysteries of Pluto are already leading science in new directions…It may sound hyperbolic, but it is fair to say that our hard-won knowledge about how planets behave has been rendered instantly obsolete–or at least revealed as woefully incomplete.”

These are often not the words we associate with science. “New directions”, “obsolete” and “incomplete” are tough words to admit. But, at the core of scientific process is a willingness to question, challenge and prove concepts. Even things believed to be laws are always up for proving and disproving. These new images of Pluto have given scientists a new understanding on a planet they thought they already had some reliable ideas about. But, not only with Pluto, these images are changing how scientists understand how planets work in general. Now that they have gotten closer to Pluto than ever before, and have better photos and information than they ever had scientists are changing and updating how they see Pluto.

Once they got closer and had a new perspective, they understood Pluto differently, they were willing to make changes.

It seems we are less willing to make these kind of changes with our faith. It’s healthy for new ideas to be met with some level of suspicion until they are proven (scientific discoveries work the same way). However, “new” ideas about the Christian faith and the Bible are often met with dismissal, anger and possibly violence.

Just ask Galileo.

Or the Anabaptists.

Or John Wycliffe or Jan Huss.

Or Rev. James Reeb, Rev. Clark Olsen, Rev. Orloff Miller and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Or the Metropolitan Community Church of Our Redeemer in Augusta, Georgia.

I get some of the suspicion and fear. Changing ideas about faith means changing our understanding of God, the Bible, salvation and our eternal destinations. Questioning, challenging or changing those ideas may feel like questioning the very heart of who we are and the foundation our communities are built upon. It’s tough, those questions are hard and change can feel painful.

But, as with the scientists who sent the New Horizons probe hurtling through 4.67 billion miles of space, the closer we get to Jesus and the more we learn about our faith, our perspective will change. With that, our understanding of God, Jesus, the Bible, our neighbors, salvation and our eternal destinations may need some updating. We can see this worked out over the 2000 year history of the Bible. One of the quickest ways to illustrate this is to look at some of Jesus’ statements in the Sermon on the Mount.

“You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, Don’t commit murder, and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment.”
Matthew 5:21-22 (CEB)

That whole “don’t commit murder” thing was from the Ten Commandments (see Exodus 20:13), the foundational rules for the Israelite nation. Changing those would seem to go against the foundations of what it meant to follow God. Yet, here Jesus expands the instruction of the sixth commandment and makes it a heart/intention issue more than just an action issue. Jesus gives his hearers a new perspective on what it means to be God’s people, to live by God’s rules and what it looks like to follow him.

God came so close to us that he was revealed in human form through Jesus. We should expect that our perspectives about God would change.

The more we read the Bible, the more we study it, the more we learn about the history and cultures that it was written in, the closer we get to it’s words, our perspectives will change.

The more we learn about our neighbors, the more we hear their stories, the closer we get to them (as God got closer to us), the more our perspectives will change.

The author of the Hebrews talks about developing in faith like a baby moving on from different forms of food:

Everyone who lives on milk is not used to the word of righteousness, because they are babies. But solid food is for the mature, whose senses are trained by practice to distinguish between good and evil
Hebrews 5:13-14 (CEB)

I don’t know any adults who still claim to regularly drink breast milk as a part of their diet. The same is true of our faith. As we grow and mature in our faith, there are things that we may have leave behind to continue to grow and develop. That does not mean those things, ideas and beliefs weren’t important. Nobody would say the scientists hated Earth because they sent a probe 4.67 billion miles away from Earth to get a closer look and a deeper understanding of Pluto. Just as the scientists needed to launch away from Earth to get a new perspective on Pluto, we need those first ideas about our faith to launch us towards the new perspectives. There are better, greater, deeper, sharper and more beautiful understandings to be had about the Christian faith than the “milk” we enjoyed when we first believed. It is healthy to be suspicious and test out ideas to see how true and sound they are (see 1 John 4:1 or Acts 17:11). But, there is no reason to fear and even less reason to lash out in anger, hatred or violence.

You might be surprised and what you discover.

Jesus is not Evel Knievel

Jesus definitely stared death in the face, but he didn’t do it from the seat of a motorcycle.

My family has been attending a new church recently which has been a really great experience so far. Last Sunday the pastor started his sermon by talking about Evel Knievel’s failed attempt to jump the Snake River canyon. The sermon then progressed into a fairly standard discussion about the “canyon” of separation between man and God caused by our own sin and selfishness. While we will often try to jump over the canyon (ala Evel Knievel) we will ultimately fail. The point of the sermon was that Jesus, standing in the gap (so to speak) as the High Priest, acted as bridge builder who helped span the canyon between humanity and God. Our calling, as a kingdom of priests is to follow Jesus, stand in the gap, and help people cross to the other side and stand in the gap as well (see Revelation 1:6). If I’m honest, I’m a little tired of the canyon image. I guess it feels too trite to me, kind of like the classic “Four Spiritual Laws” tracts. But, this message (which I generally thought was great) got me thinking about another popular way to understand Jesus.

Sometimes I think we see Jesus like Evel Knievel. A daredevil of sorts who impressed us with his tricks and did things that none of us could ever do. It’s almost like some read the Gospels as if there is a, “Do not try this at home” disclaimer at the bottom of the page. We may feel that Jesus “jumped the canyon” because no one else could and we worship him simply because he did what no one else could do. Most of the things he said and did are not possible for the rest of us simply because of who Jesus is.

If you haven’t already guessed from the title of this post, I think that is a horrible way to see Jesus. While I’m tired of the canyon image, I was a fan of understanding Jesus as someone who stands in the gap and invites his followers to stand in the gap as well. Jesus did not see himself as setting an unattainable goal. Instead, Jesus was very clear that his followers would be empowered as he was and were encouraged to make disciples like he did.

“I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.”
Matthew 28:17-20 (CEB)

Beyond that, Jesus told Peter to get out of the boat. He did not say, “Don’t bother Peter, this is Son of God stuff. You wouldn’t understand.” Jesus invited Peter out on the water and Peter accepted the invitation because he knew that following Jesus meant more than assenting to his teachings. Following Jesus meant doing whatever Jesus did.

Walking on water.

Healing the sick.

Feeding the multitudes.

Forgiving sins.

Dying.

Rising from the dead.

This is eventually what turned the disciples from simple fishermen, tax collectors, rebels and bickering brothers into men and women who stared power and death in the face for the sake of the Gospel.

“Leaders of the people and elders, are we being examined today because something good was done for a sick person, a good deed that healed him? If so, then you and all the people of Israel need to know that this man stands healthy before you because of the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene—whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is the stone you builders rejected; he has become the cornerstone! Salvation can be found in no one else. Throughout the whole world, no other name has been given among humans through which we must be saved.”
Acts 4:8-12 (CEB)

Peter did not tell the man, “Sorry, Jesus is gone…everything will get better when he comes back.” No, Peter healed the man because that’s what Jesus did. God fulfilled his promise to Israel (and the world) through Jesus and now Peter and the rest of the disciples were faithfully embodying that fulfillment.

Jesus is not Evel Knievel, jumping over canyons we would never be able to jump.

Jesus bridges the gap between God and man so that everyone can cross. Jesus stands in the gap so that we, standing on his shoulders, might stand in the gap to bring others across as well. What Jesus has done, he invites the Church to do as well.

How does this work again?

At the encouragement of my wise and loving counselor, I’m strongly encouraging my brain and fingers to get back to blogging. For those of you who have paid attention, my blog has sat idle since about this post back in April. There are a few factors that have gone into that. First of all, we moved to a new house. With that, of course, came the necessary boxing, moving, unboxing and finding new homes for things. I have a wonderful new office/man cave space but let’s just say it’s not the most peaceful of place to go and write at the moment. Because of the move, we have also been visiting new churches since our move took us further away from the church we were already driving 20 minutes to attend. Another big change was my new job as the Admissions Counselor for Fuller Seminary here in Sacramento. So far the new job and my new coworkers have been great and it’s been an answer to prayer, but learning the ropes has not given me much free time to blog. The icing on top of this transition cake is that my wife found out she was pregnant and has dealt with horrible morning sickness (as seems to be her way). This has also slowed our unboxing and moving in to the new house along with essentially turning me into a single father for the last 3 weeks or so.

To put that all in perspective, most of that transition happened within the span of a week. If God is moving me from the wilderness of the past year, it’s all felt a bit sudden. Probably similar to what Jonah felt like when the whale emesis’ed him on the shores somewhere outside of Ninevah. Needless to say, I have not had the mental capacity or the luxury of time to sit down and actually write something out.

“Have you heard of tiny Melinda Mae, Who ate a monstrous whale?”

Aside from the things taking up my time, the airwaves have been overflowing with an overwhelming amount material I would love to comment on. But, I feel a bit like the poem by Shel Silverstein where a girl tries to eat a whale and it takes her 89 years to finish. There is so much out there to talk about, I wouldn’t know where to begin. Even if I did, between what’s happening in my life and on the news, it would take me at least 89 years to get through it all.

For example, I’m writing this on a day when the supreme court decided in favor of same-sex marriage, President Obama gave a speech (and sang Amazing Grace) at the funeral for the pastor killed along with eight other parishioners at the Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal church and there were 60 people killed in separate terrorist attacks in Tunisia, France and Kuwait.

So, I’ll spare you that novel it would take to appropriately address EVERYTHING that has gone on and (naïvely I’m sure) try to swallow this whale in one gulp.

I’ve always found these words from the Sermon on the Mount to echo through my heart and mind when life piles up and the news is overflowing.

Therefore, don’t worry and say, “What are we going to eat?” or “What are we going to drink?” or “What are we going to wear?” Gentiles long for all these things. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them. Instead, desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore, stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own
Matthew 6:31-34 (CEB)

The challenge Jesus gives us is not to eat the whole “whale”, so to say. The challenge is to seek God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness. By attempting to swallow the whale, one might be tempted to conclude (as the Teacher in Ecclesiastes), “When I observed all that happens under the sun, I realized that everything is pointless, a chasing after wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:14 CEB). I can be just as cynical as the next guy and am often tempted to throw up my arms when I feel overwhelmed and conclude that nothing matters. Nothing will change, injustice and pain will prevail. By challenging us to seek God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, Jesus is challenging us to see that everything matters.

Nine lives tragically cut short while in a Bible study matters in God’s kingdom.

The one life that chose to end the nine matters in God’s kingdom.

60 people killed in (from my perspective) far off lands matters in God’s kingdom.

The misguided souls who carried the guns to kill 60 people matters in God’s kingdom.

Same sex couples given the civil right to marriage matters in God’s kingdom.

People concerned how this decision will affect their church, business and family matters in God’s kingdom.

The joy felt at the hope of a new life.

The anxiety and fear at the potential of feeling loss again.

Because God shows us through Jesus that this world matters. This life matters. An adulterous women at a well matters. Lepers matter. Foreigners matter. Thieves on a cross matter. A traveler from Cyrene at the wrong place at the wrong time matters. Five loaves and two fish matter. Water maters, wine matters. A meal shared with friends matters.

Life matters

Death matters.

In all these things our challenge is to seek and find God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness. It can be hard to see. It often involves some digging, some dying and a new life. When we pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven” we are stating our partnership with God in seeking and revealing God’s kingdom in this world. It’s the Church’s job to pull back the curtain on trite answers and politics of the world in order that God’s kingdom and God’s righteous might be revealed.

So, all this to remind myself to not be overwhelmed. Don’t worry about today or tomorrow. Don’t try to eat the whale. Seek God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness. Know that when I want to say that nothing matters…everything matters to God.

Prayer for Sixth Sunday of Easter

Miners Singing by Josef Herman, 1951.

Faithful God, make our hearts bold with love for one another. Pour out your Spirit upon all people, that we may live your justice and sing in praise the new song of your marvelous victory. Amen.

Prayer is from the Revised Common Lectionary provided by the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.

Prayer for Fifth Sunday of Easter

Kiwi vine stretching upward toward the sky.

Mighty God, in whom we know the power of redemption, you stand among us in the shadows of our time. As we move through every sorrow and trial of this life, uphold us with knowledge of the final morning when, in the glorious presence of your risen Son, we will share in his resurrection, redeemed and restored to the fullness of life and forever freed to be your people. Amen.

Prayer is from the Revised Common Lectionary provided by the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.

A New Table is Set (Reflection on Psalm 23)

The Dinner Table by Henri Matisse, 1897.

 

The Lord is my shepherd. I lack nothing.
He lets me rest in grassy meadows; he leads me to restful waters; he keeps me alive.
He guides me in proper paths for the sake of his good name.
Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no danger because you are with me.
Your rod and your staff—they protect me.
You set a table for me right in front of my enemies.
You bathe my head in oil; my cup is so full it spills over!
Yes, goodness and faithful love will pursue me all the days of my life,
and I will live in the Lord’s house as long as I live.
Psalm 23 (CEB)

Psalm 23 could be one of the most recognized verses in the whole of Scripture. Definitely up there with the ranks of John 3:16. The issue with these familiar verses is that they can become overly sentimentalized and domesticated. Or, in other words, they stop shaking us up. While I’m okay with the Bible being used to help and give comfort in times of need, I am much more of a fan when it forces us to see the world in a new way. I find myself to be much more inspired by its words when it challenges my perceptions and pushes me to try and see the world from God’s perspective not my own, limited and admittedly selfish perspective. With that said, one line in this Psalm today shined through in a way that I had not considered before.

You set a table for me right in front of my enemies.

Whenever I heard this verse talked or preached about, I felt like it was always taught with a twinge of gloating. Like, “Look at this beautiful table God sets in spite of being surrounded by enemies.” Or, even as a triumphal table set in front of defeated enemies. Those images just did not jive for me as I read it this time through. I started to think about various tables elsewhere in the Bible to see if I could let the Bible lead me to an image. What tables set with food are important in the Bible? Especially those that happened to be set near some enemies. It did not take long before my mind began imaging the Passover tables of the Israelites set in Egypt. On the eve of their deliverance from Egypt, the Israelites eat a humble meal of roast lamb, unleavened bread and bitter herbs. The blood of the lamb was painted on their doorposts to mark houses that the Lord would “pass over”.

I’ll pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I’ll strike down every oldest child in the land of Egypt, both humans and animals. I’ll impose judgments on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord. The blood will be your sign on the houses where you live. Whenever I see the blood, I’ll pass over you. No plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.
Exodus 12:12-13 (CEB)

The Passover table was one set in the midst of enemies. It was not a table of gloating or victory, but it was probably set with a bit of fear and humility. It was a table set to signify the freedom from slavery God was about to lead his chosen people into. Even today, Passover celebrations are typically marked by solemn reflection on the memory of the first Passover. There are no fireworks like July 4th. There are no rousing nationalistic hymns or songs. Just the foundational phrase…

We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord, our God, took us out from there with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm.

From thinking about the Passover meal, I also began thinking about Jesus with his disciples at the Lord’s Supper. This was the last meal he was to eat with them and by all accounts, it was most likely the Passover meal. Here, there is definitely a table set in the presence of enemies. The Jewish authorities in Jerusalem were outside conspiring how they might kill Jesus. The Roman authorities were warily watching all the Passover celebrations, expecting an uprising. And, right there in the room with Jesus, is his betrayer. This is a table truly set in the presence of enemies. However, this is not a triumphal table for boasting. Instead, it’s the table where Jesus proclaims.

“This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me…This cup is the new covenant by my blood, which is poured out for you.”
Luke 22:19-20 (CEB)

It’s at this table where Jesus points to the sacrifice he is about to make. It is at this table where the salvation of the cosmos is brought into focus and opened up to all. The bread and wine are offered to all around the table.

Betrayers, deniers, boasters, sinners and deserters one and all.

The Passover table Jesus sets in the presence of his enemies is one of sacrifice, not glory. The table is one of community not division. The table is set for all regardless of who they are, what they have done, where they are from and where they are going. At the first Passover, one did not necessarily have to be Jewish to be “passed over.” They just had to be around a table, in a house signified by the blood of the lamb.

In this Psalm today, “You set a table for me right in front of my enemies,” does not have to mean God sets us a table to gloat over our enemies. Maybe it means that God has set us a table so that we might invite our enemies to sit with us. Maybe the table is set not for exclusion but for inclusion? At God’s table, there is always an open chair which we might invite someone to join. Jesus demonstrates that the table is set and offered to enemies just as much as to friends.

The broken bread and common cup are shared with all who are willing to take a seat.

This podcast/sermon by Jonathan Martin definitely helped inspire my blog post today. I recommend you take some time to listen to it.
Everyone is Welcome at the Table

Walking with Zoey, Living with Grace

Mementos

This upcoming Thursday, April 23rd was the official due date of our daughter Zoey Grace. As many of you may have read in previous blog posts, Zoey Grace’s little heart stopped beating at around the 20 week point in her incomprehensibly short, yet extremely well-loved, life. This has been a life-altering and soul-shattering event in our life and every day. This Thursday will be one of many milestones that we have and have yet to cross. Milestones for us can simply be dates passing, watching a family member open presents at a baby shower, or watching a friend’s newborn get baptized. These milestones give us opportunities to discover something about ourselves and how deeply Zoey Grace has touched our lives.

One milestone moment that wrecked us both recently happened as we were cleaning and packing up our house in preparation to move. I stumbled across a small rock stashed in a desk. While storing a rock in a desk seems odd, I recalled that this rock was given to us at the end of a marriage retreat we attended at Hume Lake in September 2013. The marriage retreat was a great time for my wife and I to get away during the first year of our first daughter’s life. At the end of the retreat, they handed out these rocks as a physical reminder of the time spent as a couple and the things we learned together. I do not remember the exact reason, or if it was prompted by the retreat leaders, but my wife and I chose to write on the rock something that we wanted more of in our marriage. A word that would encompass things we had learned from the retreat about each other, about our marriage and how we wanted to move forward in our relationship towards each other. That word was…

Grace.

When I looked at the word we had written on the rock, my heart swelled in the way you might feel when finding an heirloom that has been lost for a long time. Something that has deep, personal and spiritual meaning that you thought was lost but you suddenly found again. Written on this rock was a word that we wanted to define our marriage and little did we know how much grace would invade our life together in a few short years after we wrote those words. I showed it to my wife a few days later (who had forgotten about the rock entirely) but when she saw it and remembered the moment we wrote it, she crumbled under the cosmic weight of the small letters on that tiny rock. This stone was a milestone we had set as a reminder to ourselves, but it came to mean something completely different when Zoey Grace came into our lives.

In the Bible, stones and milestones are very important to telling the story of Israel and helping people remember. In the opening pages of the book of Joshua there is a story where the Israelites cross the Jordan river as they entered into the Promised Land. In response to crossing the river, Joshua instructs the Israelites to go back and set stones in the river as a reminder of their crossing.

This will be a symbol among you. In the future your children may ask, ‘What do these stones mean to you?’ Then you will tell them that the water of the Jordan was cut off before the Lord’s covenant chest. When it crossed over the Jordan, the water of the Jordan was cut off. These stones will be an enduring memorial for the Israelites.
Joshua 4:6-7 (CEB)

In honor of Zoey Grace, and as a sort of milestone moment as we pass the official due date of her birth, on Saturday, my wife and I will be walking in the March for Babies in Sacramento. In a way, this is a sort of “crossing the Jordan” moment for us as we step further into this new life and cross another milestone in our journey. We’re setting another stone down as we walk with Zoey in our life. Each new milestone, real or symbolic, is another way we can remember Zoey Grace and tell her story when people ask “What do these stones mean to you?” We have also started a team with the goal to raise $1000 for March of Dimes as we walk on Saturday. If you want to join our team and support the cause of bringing life to healthy babies you can join our team and donate at our page in honor of Zoey Grace. By joining our team you can help us tell Zoey’s story and be a part of our milestones along our journey.