Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Time: The Intricate Riddle

Sometimes it flies, sometimes it crawls, but it always passes inexorably. We mark it, save it, waste it, bide it, race against it. We measure it incessantly, with a passion for precision that borders on the obsessive. It is a familiar stranger, because it cannot be seen, touched, smelled, heard or tasted. Yet, it has as much reality as the ground you are standing upon.

Time is so vitally enmeshed with the fabric of our existence that it’s difficult to conceive of it concretely—and when we try, the result is less than enlightening. We intuitively know what it is because we experience its passing, but as natural as the notion of time may be have you ever tried to define it?

Ben Franklin tried his best when he said, “Time is the stuff life is made of.” Henry David Thoreau once mused, “Time is but the stream that I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is.” St. Augustine wrote in his Confessions, “If no one asks me, I know; but if any person should require me to tell him, I cannot. My mind is on fire to understand this intricate riddle.” Perhaps the most insightful and simple explanation that I’ve ever heard goes like this, “Time is what keeps everything from happening at once.”

Not only is the concept of time tough to pin down, but our experience of time in hardly uniform. The classic poem, “Time’s Paces,” by Henry Twells encapsulates this thought well:

When I was a babe and wept and slept—time crept;
When I was a boy and laughed and talked—time walked.
Then when the years saw me a man—time ran.
But as I older grew—time flew.
Soon, as I journey on, I'll find time gone.

A minute is a funny amount of time. It's long enough to notice, but it's too short to do much of anything with. There are only about five hundred thousand of them in a year. But when you add all of humanity together, a lot starts to happen in that lowly minute. Consider what happens before the second hand of a clock completes one rotation:

25 Americans will get a passport, according to the U.S. Department of State. 58 airplanes will take off around the world, according to the International Air Traffic Association. 116 people will get married, according to data from the United Nations. 144 people will move to a new home, according to Gallup. 11,319 packages will be delivered by UPS. 243,000 photos will be uploaded to Facebook. 5,441,400 pounds of garbage will be created, according to the World Bank. 7,150,000,000 human hearts will beat 500,500,000,000 times, as their bodies create 858,282,240,000,000,000 new red blood cells, according to the National Institutes of Health. Finally, 255 babies will be born and 107 people will die, says Google.[1]

Those amazing statistics should help us to never look at minute the same way again, especially considering that one day will be one of those 107 to step into eternity. While we may never fully grasp the nature of time, we are told in the Bible to use it wisely. Ephesians 5:15-16 has been called the Bible’s key to time management, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.”

The word “redeem” contains the idea of rescuing from loss. Paul admonishes us to treat time as something precious that must be rescued from being lost to fruitlessness. But “redeeming the time” goes far beyond being efficient. It’s a wonderful phrase that can also be translated “making the most of every opportunity.” It suggests an attitude toward living that sees every situation as the perfect occasion to do God’s will and influence others for Him.

I remember a short story a preacher once told at the end of his sermon. As a sculptor showed a visitor some marble figures displayed in his studio, an unusual sculpture caught the guest's attention. It had two peculiar features. Where the statue's face normally would have been, the sculptor had chiseled a covering of hair, and on both feet were wings.

“What is the name of this one?” asked the visitor. “Opportunity,” the artist answered. “Why is its face hidden?” the onlooker wondered. “Because,” said the craftsman, “we seldom know opportunity when he comes to us.” “And why does he have wings on his feet?” “Because he is soon gone, and once gone, he cannot be overtaken.”

Keep your eyes peeled for the opportunities to present themselves this year. They are brief moments of personal contact—a passing incident, the turn of a conversation, or the “chance” meeting of an old acquaintance. Such times present golden opportunities for caring, for witnessing, for eternal good. May the Lord give us wisdom to grasp today’s opportunities and make time for what’s important to Him.  -DM

[1] Robinson Meyer, "What Happens in One Minute Around the World?" The Atlantic, 14 March 2014 < http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/03/what-happens-in-one-minute-around-the-world/284368/> 

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Christmas Carols That Get It All Wrong

Did you hear about the little boy and girl who were singing their favorite Christmas carol in church the Sunday before Christmas? The boy concluded “Silent Night” with the words, “Sleep in heavenly beans.” “No," his sister corrected, “not beans, peas.” Then there were the kids I heard one time sing, “Joy to the World! The Lord has gum.”

Those funny stories got me thinking about how, even as adults, we often misinterpret many of the Christmas carols we sing. I don’t mean that we incorrectly hear the lyrics and misquote the words like those kids; I’m thinking instead of the inaccuracies that we mindlessly sing. These are errors that when you think about them, have no basis at all in the Biblical record. 

Consider a few examples. “Silent Night / Holy Night / All is calm / All is bright.” Do you really think that first Christmas was that tranquil? Well, if you’ve ever been in a delivery room then you know what it’s like—it’s messy, loud, and frantic. There are sights and sounds you’ll never forget. There are the agonizing cries of the mother bringing a life into the world and the high-pitched cries of the baby taking its first breaths.

I doubt the birth of Christ was any different. Mary, without the dulling effects of an epidural, screamed out as the contractions became unbearable. Jesus broke in his vocal chords with a shrill cry, as the audible voice of God finally came through a human larynx. Perhaps, Joseph celebrated the improvised delivery in his own way. A silent night, it most certainly was not.

How about this one, “I saw three ships come sailing in on Christmas Day in the morning/ O they sailed into Bethlehem on Christmas Day in the morning.” Last time I checked a map, Bethlehem is landlocked and the nearest body of water—the Dead Sea—is miles away. So it is physically impossible for this song to have any validity all. Talk about a mistaken mariner!  

“We Three Kings” is another perennial favorite. However, you’ll never find three kings coming to visit the Christ child in Matthew's account. In fact, the Bible doesn’t tell us how many wise men came to worship Jesus, only that they brought three gifts. And the Bible never calls them kings either—magi, to be technically correct. They were astrologers looking to connect the events of earth with the movements of the constellations. You can credit years of medieval traditions for these wild speculations.  

Then there is, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” which has been popularized by crooners like Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby. Even though this song has nothing to do with the birth of Christ and was probably written to comfort WWII soldiers serving in Europe and the Pacific, I think it’s ironic because that first Christmas no one was home!

Mary and Joseph were traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem in order to be counted for the Roman census. The Magi traversed across a sea of sand following a mysterious star to where the Christ child rested. Most of all, the Son of God was not at home. He left the celestial glory of heaven for the cramped quarters of a virgin’s womb. He laid aside His royal robes for swaddling clothes, and His Father’s house for a manger. He stepped out of eternity and into time.

As Paul stated so eloquently, “When the time came, He set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, He stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, He lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion” (Phil 2:5-8, MSG).      

I hope by now you understand my point. The Christmas traditions we celebrate are part fact and part fiction. Sometimes even adults don’t know the difference. The problem is due to a lack of spiritual discernment and because many Christians just simply haven’t done their homework in the Bible. If we are going to make this holiday more about the incarnation of Christ and less about the materialism and commercialization, then we need to have our theology and history in order. Let’s not feed our minds and spirits on the equivalent of fruit cake. Let’s know what we believe and why we believe it.  

God entered time and space—“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). That’s a message so life-transforming that it doesn’t need to be crowded out with man’s empty traditions and philosophies. “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (Col. 2:8).   -DM 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Immanuel: We Are Not Alone

Astronomers at NASA were giddy in the spring of 2014 when they announced that the Kepler Space Telescope discovered the first Earth-sized planet orbiting a star in the "habitable zone"—the optimum distance from a star where liquid water might pool on the surface of an orbiting planet. Kepler-186f, as the planet has been dubbed, resides about 500 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cygnus. The system is also home to four companion planets, which orbit a star half the size and mass of our sun. The star is classified as an M dwarf, or red dwarf, a class of stars that makes up 70 percent of the stars in the Milky Way galaxy.

Scientists also reported that Kepler-186f is slightly larger than earth—about 1.1 Earth radii—orbits its star once every 130-days, and receives one-third the energy from its star that Earth gets from the sun. Experts theorized that on the surface of Kepler-186f, the brightness of its star at high noon is only as bright as our sun appears to us about an hour before sunset.

So why all the excitement for a planet so far away? One astronomer put it this way, “Kepler-186f can be thought of as an Earth-cousin rather than an Earth-twin. It has many properties that resemble Earth. This discovery is a significant step toward finding worlds like our planet Earth and first signs of other life in the galaxy.”[1]

Evolutionists are interested in finding extraterrestrial life for several reasons. First, there are some who firmly believe in the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life because they are convinced that, if life evolved here, it not only could have evolved elsewhere, but must have done so.  Some scientists, like the late Carl Sagan, believe that life must exist elsewhere in the universe because on a cosmic scale what happened here on Earth wasn’t really all that special. Statically speaking, they reason, with all the billions of stars and planets in our universe there’s bound to be another like ours.

In an interview in January 17, 1980 issue of New Scientist magazine, Dr. Sagan made the following points: “There are something like 1022 stars in the universe, and as about one in a million of these stars is a yellow dwarf star like our Sun, this means there are about 1016 Sun-type stars in the universe. Now one in a million of these Sun-type stars probably has a planetary system similar to that of our Sun’s. Therefore there are about 1010 planetary systems in the universe. One in a million of these planetary systems must have a planet similar to that of Earth, and life must have evolved on those planets in the same manner in which it has evolved here on Earth. Therefore, there are at least 10,000 planets in the Universe that have life on them.”[2]   

As one character in Sagan’s popular book-turned-film, Contact, would say, “The universe is a pretty big place. If it's just us, seems like an awful waste of space.”

Second, there are those who are trying to find life elsewhere in the universe because they cannot explain how life came to be on Earth. In a sense, this is the reverse of the other situation. Whereas some say, “If you play the cosmic lottery, you’re bound to win more than once” others say, “The game has to be rigged, because we lose every time.” In the latter case, the problem of life is too complex because biologists are recognizing the impossibility of DNA arising from natural processes and random chance.

Therefore, one popular theory today is directed panspermia—the theory that life was seeded on Earth by an alien life form or brought here by meteor. Renowned British astrophysicist Stephen Hawking weighed in on the issue when he gave a lecture entitled, "Why We Should Go Into Space," for NASA's 50th Anniversary lecture series at George Washington University in 2008.

Hawking said, "But we don't know how life first appeared. The probability of something as complicated as the DNA molecule being formed by random collisions of atoms in the primeval ocean is incredibly small . . . However, there is a possibility, known as panspermia, that life could spread from planet to planet, or from stellar system to stellar system, carried on meteors. We know that Earth has been hit by meteors that came from Mars, and others may have come from further afield. We have no evidence that any meteors carried life, but it remains a possibility. An important feature of life spread by panspermia is that it would have the same basis, which would be DNA for life in the neighborhood of the Earth.”[3]

The fact that this theory is even on the table for many serious scientists highlights the problem that evolutionists have with explaining how life came about here on Earth. In order to have life without God, naturalism has to answer the riddle of abiogenesis somehow. Since the skeptic refuses to let a Divine foot in the door they are forced to come up with something besides an Intelligent Designer, no matter how baseless it might be. Moreover, even if panspermia were true or if they did find life on Mars or some planet like Kepler-186f, it doesn’t really solve anything, it merely pushes the question of origins back one step.

The Bible offers good reasons to doubt that intelligent life exists on other planets. Scripture points out the absolute centrality of the Earth and gives us no hint that life exists elsewhere. Just look at the creation account in opening verses of Genesis. God made the earth habitable on days 1-3 before He created the rest of the planets and stars on day 4. The rest of the universe exists as a support system for the main stage of Earth where God’s Divine drama takes place.

Admittedly, the Earth is but an astronomical atom among the whirling constellations, only a speck of dust among the ocean of galaxies, nebulae and stars. Nevertheless, when we ponder the meaning of Christmas and the incarnation of Jesus we understand that our tiny blue orb has been visited by the God who spoke it all into existence. As The Message so eloquently paraphrased the prologue to John’s Gospel: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14).

Amazingly, the Creator became a creature and for a short time our planet was privileged to host its Architect. On Earth, Jesus was an artist in a gallery of His own paintings. He was a composer listening as the orchestra interpreted His music. He was the main character written into the narrative by His own pen. He was a computer engineer walking around in His own holographic simulation.      

In a way, the advent of Christ answers the question of extra-terrestrial life. Indeed, there is life outside our galaxy, even universe, but it’s not the kind that is going to show up on Kepler or Hubble’s radar anytime soon. God exists outside time and space, yet mysteriously through the person of Christ He became spatial and temporal. The One who set Kepler-186f in its orbit and dipped His finger in the center of the Milky Way to get it spinning, humbled himself into the confines of a virgin’s womb. The Creator, who commanded starlight to shine, became a speechless child. No wonder we sing, “Joy to the World” this time of year. We are not alone in this vast universe. Two-thousand years ago an angel announced, “Immanuel: God with us” (Is. 7:14; Matt. 1:23). -DM      

[1] “NASA's Kepler Discovers First Earth-Size Planet In The 'Habitable Zone' of Another Star,” NASA, 17 April 2013, <http://www.nasa.gov/ames/kepler/nasas-kepler-discovers-first-earth-size-planet-in-the-habitable-zone-of-another-star/#.VIdflzHF9Ag>

[2] Carl Sagan, New Scientist, Vol. 85, No. 1190, 17 January 1980, p.152. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

What If . . .

This Christmas season you will probably find yourself parked in front of the television watching Frank Capra’s 1946 holiday classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. One reason this film has endured the generations is because of its timeless and universal message—one life, no matter how insignificant, matters.

As the film progresses we meet the desperate and discouraged George Baily (played by Jimmy Stewart) who is about to end his life. That’s when his guardian angel, Clarence, intervenes and gives George the opportunity to see what life would have been like had he never been born. Of course, George is horrified at what he sees.

Bedford Falls, his small town, was not the nice place he remembered. His children didn’t exist and his wife and mother didn’t know him. The people he had helped out in life with were despondent and down on their luck because he hadn’t been there to assist them. George’s little brother, who became a WWII Navy pilot and winner of the Medal of Honor for saving a troop transport was dead. The reason—George wasn’t there to save him from drowning when they were kids. As a result of his brother’s death the troops that would have been rescued perished as well.

The pivotal moment in the movie takes place on a snow covered iron bridge as George hangs off the edge peering into the dark, swirling waters below. When George realizes the impact of his life and the interconnectedness of his actions upon others he cries out, “I want to live again!” That stunning revelation that his life had transcendent meaning beyond himself makes George a new man.   

What Kapra brought to the screen, is actually a thought experiment that intellectuals have attempted for centuries. The hypothetical or  “What if…”  In 1964 a group of historians authored a landmark book called If—Or History Rewritten. Some of the “what ifs” those scholars considered were these: What if Robert E. Lee had not lost the Battle of Gettysburg? What if the Moors had won in Spain? What if the Dutch had kept New Amsterdam? What if Booth had missed when he shot at Abraham Lincoln? What if Napoleon had escaped to America?

The attempt to reconstruct the past on the basis of these “what ifs” (technically known as counterfactuals) is only an armchair historian’s game, but take a second and apply it to the central event in history—the advent of Jesus Christ. What if Jesus had never been born? Such a “what if” staggers the mind.

The birth of Christ forever altered the way we measure time—B.C. (before Christ) and A.D. (in the year of our Lord). The babe in the manger turned aside the river of the ages from its course and lifted the centuries off their hinges. In his book, What if Jesus Had Never Been Born?, D. James Kennedy argues that many of the institutions and discoveries we take for granted owe their existence to the entry of Christ into our timeline: hospitals, universities, capitalism, representative government, the abolition of slavery, modern science, the discovery of the New World by Columbus, the sanctity of human life, inspiration for the greatest works of art, the eternal salvation of countless souls, and much more.[1]

Kennedy’s point is well-supported. Even Time magazine agreed in 2013 when they placed Jesus at the top of the list of “The 100 Most Significant Figures in History.”[2] Jesus Christ was and still is the most influential person ever born and if you removed him from the picture then the fabric of Western Civilization would be torn asunder. As Dr. Ralph Sockman wrote, "The hinge of history is on the stable door of Bethlehem.”   

Finally, consider the eternal and spiritual ramifications if there had been no Christmas. If there were no Christmas then our Bible would be untrue, since many of the prophecies about the Messiah would have been left unfulfilled. Since Jesus was deity wrapped in humanity, then if there would have been no Christmas God would have remained distant and unknown. Most importantly, without a Christmas there would have been no cross and therefore our sins would remain unforgiven. In short, a world without Christ is a world without hope.

What if Jesus had never been born? Well, that’s a thought to painful to bear. Thankfully, we can rejoice because The Infinite became an infant. As Paul wrote, “But when the time arrived that was set by God the Father, God sent his Son, born among us of a woman, born under the conditions of the law so that he might redeem those of us who have been kidnapped by the law. Thus we have been set free to experience our rightful heritage” (Gal. 4:4-5, MSG).     –DM

[1] D. James Kennedy and Jerry Newcombe, What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001).
[2] Steven Skiena and Charles B. Ward, “Who’s Biggest? The 100 Most Significant Figures in History,” Time, 10 December 2013 <http://ideas.time.com/2013/12/10/whos-biggest-the-100-most-significant-figures-in-history/>

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Who Made God?

The following dialogue has taken place countless times in homes with inquisitive children: “Mommy, who made me?” “God made you, darling.” “Well, Mommy who made the sky and trees and mountains?” “God made the sky, the trees and the mountains. Genesis 1:1 says that God made everything.” “Oh . . . well, Mommy who made God?”

For all you parents or grandparents out there you recognize the teachable moment that lies before you. But what do you say? That’s when we all wish for an “easy button.” Of course, we expect a small child or your average layman to wonder how we explain the existence of God. However, one may not expect the same from world renowned scholars and scientists.

Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist from Oxford, is known for his vitriolic attacks against God. In his best-selling book, The God Delusion, he uses the age-old schoolboy teaser as sledgehammer blow against the foundation of faith, “If we say that God created the universe we shall have to ask who created God and so on, the only way out of an infinite regress is to deny God’s existence.”[1]     

Other skeptics have voiced the same criticism, Stephen Hawking, undoubtedly one of the finest minds in astronomy and physics, wrote in his recent work, The Grand Design, “It is reasonable to ask who or what created the universe, but if the answer is God, then question has merely been defected to that of who created God.”[2]

It would seem that believers are caught dead to rights by kindergartners and eggheads with an alphabetic parade after their name. While this argument is used by many atheists to wiggle out from under the existence of God, it is actually a pretty flimsy objection—a house of cards held together by wisps of smoke.

First, the question misunderstands the Law of Causality—which does not say that everything needs a cause; it says that everything that has a beginning has a cause. However, this does not apply to God because He does not require a cause. He is eternal (Ps. 90:2), self-sufficient (Is. 40:21-22), and self-existent (Ex. 3:14). He causes all things to be, but He is caused by no one or no thing. There was no time when God started to exist. He has always been and the universe is contingent upon Him (Acts 17:28). God cannot not exist; He simply IS! 

Second, the question commits a logical fallacy known as “category error.” This is a common hiccup in reasoning that happens when we incorrectly place something into a class that it doesn’t belong. For instance, consider the following questions, “What does the color blue taste like?” or “How many seconds are in a mile?” or “Which side of the circle is shortest?” All of these are absurd questions because they commit the category error. The same is true of asking, “Who made God?” Since God is uncaused and eternal it is logically silly to put Him to put in the group of created, finite, dependent things.    

Perhaps, the Apostle Paul said it best when he wrote to the Colossians about the cosmic Christ, “For by Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (Col. 1:16-17). God is not only the Unmoved Mover of creation, but the Uncaused Maintainer of creation.

Ultimately, we are left with only two options: either no one created something out of nothing or Someone created something out of nothing. Which view is more reasonable—an uncaused universe or an uncaused God? Even Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music knew the answer when she sang, “Nothing comes from nothing. Nothing ever could.” So, if you can’t believe that nothing caused something, then you don’t have enough faith to be an atheist![3]

[1] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2008), 136.
[2] Stephen Hawking and ‎Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (New York: Random House, 2010), 172.
[3] Norman Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 94.