Monday, September 30, 2013

Conflicts in the Body

Churches fight. It is unfortunate, but true. If you have been involved with a church more than a few years, you have probably experienced conflict between members; conflict that sometimes spreads across the whole body. And it inevitably hurts, even if you are not directly involved.  If any parts of the body are in conflict, then the whole body is really in conflict and suffering.  In the passage below, James has a lot to say about conflict in the church, its causes, and how to avoid it.
What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.
You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us? But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.”
Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.

James 4:1-10 NIV
Our desires may be natural, and not inherently wrong, but if not kept under control they can cause great harm.  Earlier James identified our desires as the root that brings us into temptation, sin and death.  Here he turns from the personal result of desires to what they do within the body, identifying our desires as the root cause for conflict with others. When I choose to pursue my own desires, and encounter someone who is doing the same thing, then conflict is inevitable.  How far that conflict will progress will depend on how badly I want my desires to be fulfilled.  While at times the conflict might result in physical death, it will more commonly result in attempts to kill reputations, character assassination, as well as quarrels and fights within the body.  Putting my own perceived 'good' above the good of the body is actually pretty common, but never good.

Having desires is not bad.  And asking God to satisfy my desires is not necessarily a bad thing.  What is a problem is when I am selfishly pursuing my desires for my own pleasure.  If I am a part of a body, then my desires, and the fulfillment of those desires, should be directed toward the good of the body as a whole, rather than toward myself as a member.  Imagine what would happen should my feet choose to pursue that is best for them, at least in the short term.  I would end up laid up in the Lazy-boy all the time with my feet elevated and non load bearing.  And the body would suffer, not to mention that the feet would also suffer in the long run through atrophy.

My bride is the love of my life, and I would not consciously do anything to hurt her.  And that includes sharing my affections with another woman.  In the Old Testament Israel is sometimes pictured as God's wife, while in the New Testament the church is identified as the bride of Christ.  In the Old Testament, a couple of the prophets accused Israel of adultery when they would chase after idols, Hosea's wife Gomer being the best example. And now James accuses me of adultery when I am enjoying friendship with the world, getting caught up in worldly pleasures and pursuits.  In a sense, I am committing adultery whenever my passion for God is turned to other things, regardless how good I see them to be.  The same desires that bring me into conflict with others in the body also bring me into conflict with God.

So what do I do with my desires?  Do I want to know God's desires?  Do I want to be a productive and edifying member of the body?  James says I need to submit myself to God.  Resist Satan.  Wash and purify.  Grieve, mourn and wail.  Humble myself before God.  That sounds harsh and uninviting.  But I do not believe James is telling us that we need to live a life of doom and gloom; joy is mentioned in connection with the Christian life too many times to think that we should be gloomy.  Instead, I believe James is talking about our attitudes to our own desires and the harm they cause to us and to the church.  I need to repent of my sin, and turn away from the desires that cause so much harm, and submit myself to God.  James assures us that if we do that, God will lift us up, and joy will result.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

And the Gates of Hell Shall Not Prevail

Recently, the church where I serve received an unsolicited letter from an organization that warned us about the potential for lawsuits from members, ex-members, and outsiders because of stands that we might take as a church.  Included in this letter were a set of recommendations for changes to the churches by-laws that would make us more immune to those types of lawsuits, although they also admitted that we were not really at much risk anyway.

But we choose to look into it and a committee was appointed to make recommendations concerning changes to our by-laws that would further protect us from legal action.  That committee has met and prepared their recommendations.  I obtained a copy of them yesterday, and my initial reaction was disappointment, although I had a hard time putting my finger on just why.  It is not that they were proposing changes that I really disagreed with in principal.  But something about the whole thing just didn't seem right.

And last night, as I was going to bed, it finally dawned on me what it was.  In Matthew 16:13-20, Jesus first asks his disciples who others say he is, and then who they believe him to be.  Peter is commended for his response: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God".  Jesus responds with, "On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it."

The first thing to note about this is Jesus is talking about His church, not my church, or our church.  We often use those terms innocently to refer to the local body that we are members of, or at least regularly attend.  But oftentimes it really does mean that the local body referred to does not belong to Christ, but belongs to the members; although I doubt that many would actually say it in that way.  But if the pastor, elders, or members provide the direction for the church; does it belong to Christ?  If we have become more of an internally focused social club than a body that is reaching the lost and worshiping the creator; do we really belong to Christ?  If we can see no further than our limited financial income and human resources, and live in fear of the outside world; do we really belong to Christ, or are we a human institution?

Jesus here says something very important about His church: "the gates of hell will not have victory over it".  That is a pretty bold declaration.  His church will win!  All we need to do is be his church: reaching the lost; disciplining the believers; and worshiping the creator.  We do not need to put special language in our by-laws to protect us from the "gates of hell".  We for sure do not need to withdraw into a defensive posture, climbing into our bunkers.  Just be about the business of Christ's church, and leave the rest of it up to him.

And I guess that is the problem I have with this proposal.  It looks to me like we are reinforcing our bunker, keeping us safe within our walls, rather than going out into the battle that rages around us.  Might we suffer in the battle?  You bet.  But we will emerge victorious.  That is his promise in this passage.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Power of Words

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me!  How many times did you hear, or say this, growing up.  If, like me, you were the object of a certain amount of taunting, you may have had a lot of practice with this little nursery rhyme.  But unfortunately, it's just not true.  Words do hurt, sometimes long after the wound from a stick or stone would have healed and been forgotten.

There is not usually much I can do about other peoples words, but I do have a responsibility for my own.  Am I careful about what I say?  Do I use my words for building others up, or for tearing them down?  Do I control my words, or do they just flow out of my mouth unbidden?

James has a lot to say about our speech in James 3:1-12
1 Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. 2 We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.
3 When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. 4 Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. 5 Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. 6 The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
7 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
9 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.
While our tongues are just a small chunk of meat that flaps around in our mouth, it is the most visible part of our speech center, and gets the blame for much of what we say.  Learning to "control our tongues", is a life long exercise for many people.  While some seem to have done well with it, others seem to have given up any attempt at control.

James has a number of interesting things to say about our tongues, calling them "a fire", "a world of evil", "corrupter of the body", "set on fire by hell", "untameable", "a restless evil", "full of deadly poison".  From James description, it would seem to be best if we were to cut it out and throw it away.

But of course we know that the tongue only does says what the brain tells it to say.  And if the tongue were missing we would use our fingers (sign language) or pens(or computers) to convey the same message.  Rather than our tongues, the problem is of the heart.  My tongue only reflects what is on the inside.  As Jesus says in Matthew 12:34, "You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of."

We would do well to pay heed to James warning.  Our speech can cause more harm to us, as well as to others, than just about anything else we can do.  Words come so easily, and oftentimes so thoughtlessly.  And once they have been spoken in another person's hearing, they are impossible to retract.  How many times has a thoughtless word destroyed a relationship, ruined a reputation, or changed the direction of a person's life.  Like the bit in a horses mouth, or a ships rudder, that small tongue can have a pretty significant impact on the course of my life.

James challenge to us is to learn to control our tongues, our speech; to use them to build rather than destroy.  Paul tells us much the same thing in Ephesians 4:29, "Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen."  If what I am saying is not helpful to other people, then I need to learn to keep my mouth shut.

engage brain before mouth

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

I Believe In a Creator

I believe that the universe we live in was created: that there is a creator.  While I cannot prove that to anyone, it does make more sense to me than any alternative I have heard of, and I suspect that I have heard of most of them, especially those put forward from the scientific community.

As far as I know that is little opposition any more to the idea that the universe we live in began at some point in the past.  All of the evidence points to a time where our universe did not exist.  Although that is not entirely accurate, since time, as we know it, is bound to the universe.  So if there is no universe, there is no time, meaning there was not a time before the universe.  None-the-less, I will use that expression because it is difficult to talk about possible causes of the universe without talking about time before the universe.

While there are certainly some exceptions, most people do accept that the universe is real, and that it, as well as ourselves, are not just illusions.  If the universe is real, and it had a starting point, then it seems reasonable to believe that it was caused; that it did not just come into existence all on its own, although there are some who do hold to that.  In addition, that part of the universe that we can observe gives every appearance of being one that Goldilocks would like, "just right for life".

Most of the discussion I see concerning the creation, the beginning of the universe, concerns the question 'how'.  What caused it and how did it unfold.  And while I find the discussion interesting and thought provoking, the one I am more curious about is the more philosophical one of 'why'.  Just why did a Goldilocks universe come into existence.

An Intelligent Creator

Probably the most popular explanation for creation of a universe seemly designed for life, is that there was an intelligent creator who somehow brought the universe into existence.  Within this umbrella you will find a wide variety of folks, from those who accept the Big Bang and following cosmic evolution as well as Darwinian evolution, to those who believe that the creator made things just like they are now, or at least pretty close.

There are two primary arguments raised concerning an intelligent creator.  The first is where that creator came from.  If everything that exists requires a cause, then what is the cause of the creator.  Advocates of a creator can respond with "He just is", but that is not really very satisfying.

The other objection is that there is no scientific evidence that points to an intelligent creator.  And while that is true, it is also an objection to every other explanation for creation.  It is likely that, regardless the trigger for creation, it is outside the ability of science to observe.  And while it is true that a universe seemingly designed for life can point towards an intelligent purposeful creator, there are other explanations offered for this oddity.

For me at least, the biggest advantage of an intelligent creator for the universe is that it can offer a more satisfying explanation for the 'why' question.  Although it may be hard to provide a definitive answer for the why of creation, based on the creation itself; that there is a creator tells me that there was likely a purpose in creation.  And that in turn tells me that there is likely a purpose for my own life, beyond what I chose to assign to it.

A Multiverse

An alternative to having a creator is what is commonly called a multiverse.  There are any number of variations to this idea, but basically it advocates that the universe we are in is actually only a small part of a larger physical reality.  And contained within the multiverse, are a multitude of island universes, ours being one of them.  And generally the thought is that each of this multitude of universes end up with different operating parameters.  Some are too hard, some too soft, and some just right for life.  In this scenario, our universe was not designed for life, but rather just won the lottery.  And there are a potential infinite number of other universes that exist, but are barren.

While this alternative does provide an answer for why our universe is just right for life, the two objections raised for a creator apply just as much to all of the variety of solutions under this umbrella.  There is no answer to where the multiverse came from.  And there is no scientific evidence to support a multiverse.

In addition, this alternative offers no attempt at an answer to 'why'.  The existence of the universe has no purpose, nor do I have any purpose beyond what I, or some other person, assign to myself.  For me, this is the greatest weakness of any explanation for creation apart from a creator; we have no real reason for being.

Self Created

I have just finished reading Cosmic Jackpot by Paul Davies and have encountered what is to me a new and novel approach to creation.  I just barely followed this scenario, mostly because it requires a better understanding of quantum mechanics than I have, but it really comes down to a quirk of the quantum world that seems to indicate our looking at something in the quantum world has an impact on its prior activity; so watching it changes its past.  And from that is built the theory that intelligent life today, in observing the universe, is actually responsible for its creation.

Now I must admit that this whole thing seems crazy to me, but I do respect the one who was suggesting it as a possibility.  And it is dealing with an area that I am mostly ignorant of, although know that it does have some particular characteristics, so I am trying to keep an open mind about it, not dismissing it just because I don't understand it.  But given that, I am pretty skeptical about it.

The positive thing about this proposal is that it allows the universe to be self created, after a fashion, and thus dealing with the need for something outside the universe to create it, along with the question of where that creator came from.  And it also has the benefit of explaining why the universe is just right for life, since it was life that created it.

What it fails to do however is provide an answer to the 'why' question.  Someone smarter than me may have an answer to that, but the whole circular nature of this proposal is too confusing to me to be able to provide a satisfactory answer to that.

Occam's Razor

In logic and in science, Occam's Razor is often used to judge between competing hypothesis.  It simply states that given two hypothesis that provide equal explanation, the one that makes the fewest assumptions is generally the preferred hypothesis, although that is no guarantee that it is the correct one.

Above are three competing hypothesis for how the universe came to be.  The third, a self created universe, is too complex for me to be able to evaluate its assumptions and so I am going to ignore it.  But the other two are pretty common and easy to understand.

One of these assumes an intelligent creator.  The other assumes a multiverse.  Additionally, it assumes that that multiverse has spawned an infinite number of universes.  And it assumes that each of these infinite universes have a unique set of operating parameters, with one of them, ours, being just right for life.  While I have no doubt that advocates of the multiverse will spin this differently, from my perspective at least, Occam's Razor would seem to favor a creator over a multiverse scenario.

Conclusion

As expressed at the beginning, I do believe that the universe had an intelligent creator, one who created the universe for a specific purpose.  While I cannot answer all the questions that are asked about the origin of that creator, it does explain to me why the universe is habitable for life.  And, more importantly, it allows me to believe that my life has a bigger purpose than just what I chose to give to myself.  And since believing in a creator or a multiverse are both an act of faith, I choose to believe in the one that gives purpose to my life.  And, more significantly for me, some of my life's experiences are easier to explain given a creator who has an interest in me.

From my perspective, the real allure in an eternal, universe spawning, multiverse is that it provides an alternative to a creator, an alternative that allows us to assign whatever purpose to our lives that we want.  And with no externally provided purpose, there is no accountability to the purpose giver.

Before concluding this, let me acknowledge that this discussion has only been dealing with the existence of an intelligent creator for the universe, and not with the deity(s) proclaimed by any specific religion.  This is really only a first step that does nothing beyond expressing why I believe there is a creator rather than the alternative.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Enjoying Cedar Lake

The weather forecast was amazing.  A three day string in the middle of September of hot and sunny with no significant calendar obligations.  How could I not go up into the mountains for a last fling.  I thought about doing a long loop and covering some new ground in the Olympics, but ultimately decided I had done enough long walking for the year and opted instead to find a place where I could just sit and enjoy the solitude.

Five years ago, in the midst of hiking the Grand Loop with a friend, we stopped over in Cedar Lake for the night.  It was a pretty lake sitting in a bowl near the Graywolf Pass. We made a trip back there a year or two later when it was still mostly under snow and very cold.  And the more I thought about it, the more I felt like that would be a good spot to go and just sit for a complete day, free from distractions, and hopefully from people.

I had to stop by the office briefly on Tuesday and so did not get to the Deer Park trailhead until about 11:30.  Cedar Lake is actually about 400 foot lower than Deer Park, but with a serious dip in between.  The first 4 miles or so is a 3400 foot drop down into Three Forks, followed by a 9 mile, 3000 foot, ascent up the Graywolf and then the Cedar Lake way trail. Overall the trail was in pretty good condition, although wet and a bit brushy in spots.  The Cedar Lake way trail was particularly wet and brush covered in places, although it was obvious that someone had been in there with a chainsaw recently.  That trail has some sections that are seriously up, but fortunately not for extended stretches.

The most exciting part of the trip was getting across the Cedar Creek.  I could have taken the easy way out and just splashed across, but I opted to try and keep my feet dry and found a log jam just upstream from the ford and worked my way across it, slipping in a hole once and scraping up a shin.

I hit the lake about 6 PM, setup camp, ate dinner and cleaned up a bit before turning in early.  Sometime during the night the wind kicked up and I spent the last half of the night playing rock-a-bye-baby in the hammock.  Fortunately it was fairly warm and so the wind was not an issue.  There was no moon out and the stars were brilliant.

I spent Wednesday exploring a bit, including a walk around the lake.  There was still some snow melting above the far end of the lake, leaving the water still a bit chilly.  But with the warm air temps that was no obstacle in taking a couple of quick swims.  But most of the day was spent in quiet reflection and contemplation, time alone with God; something I am not very good at doing at home because there always seems to be something else to do.

The day in paradise passed quickly and before I knew it dark started to settle in and I hurriedly prepared for bed.  No sign of people all day other than a passing plane.  Nothing to disturb the quiet and solitude.  Even the bugs were for the most part content to leave me alone.

The night passed, warm and still, and with morning came time to break camp and head back for home.  I was nearly packed when a guy wandered over from the other camp, just across the outlet stream.  He had apparently come in from the Graywolf Pass traverse late the previous evening.  He was looking for information on a traverse over to the Cameroon Pass area, but I had little to offer him other than speculation as to where the trail crossed out of the bowl we were in.

Heading back down the the Graywolf, I found a better way across the Cedar Creek.  There was a largeish log that crossed downstream from the trail; a log with no bark and slightly damp.  As graceful as I am, I opted to sit down, straddling the log, and then scooted across on my bottom.  Slow and undignified, but safe and dry.

I met a few more people on the way out, including what appeared to be a 5 year old boy slowing trudging up from Three Forks to Deer Park with his dad. I was pretty impressed.  He was already 2/3's of the way up and dad said he had walked most of it.

One thing that really stood out to me on the Graywolf and Cedar trails, after 435 mile of the PCT through northern California was the amount of moss, mushrooms and water on the trail (yeah, I know that is three things, but all related).  It seemed like there was more of each of those three things than the entire 435 miles of northern California; so very lush.

All in all this was a wonderful trip; although with a 2 hour drive at either end and a trail with a single significant up and down each way.  Of course that helps keep the crowd down at the lake as well :).

Looking down from near Deer Park into the Three Forks area.

The Three Forks shelter down at the bottom of the Deer Park trail.

I know little about mushrooms, other than red ones with white spots are to be avoided.  But I was really impressed with the number and variety of mushrooms throughout the length of the trail.

Self protrait

The lake is nestled close up to the rocky bowl on one side.  I really liked the reflection of the rocks in the lake.

Home on the lake.  There are two primary spots at the lake, each of which has multiple tent spots, and even a couple of spots to hang at.  The outlet creek is just behind and below my hammock.

Up on a bluff at the far end of the lake.  The outlet creek and camp spots are in the trees by the lake and directly below the highest peak..

Still a bit of snow in the bowl.  The traverse from the Graywolf Pass comes in at the low point in the ridge, just to the left of the green patch above the snow.

Lots of fish in the lake if you are into fishing.

Other than a nail or two in trees, and lots of trails, this was the only sign of humanity I saw on my full day at the lake.

While eating dinner on a rock by the lake, I noticed this butterfly going for a swim.  I watched to see if a fish would snag him, but eventually fished him out with a stick.

A waterfall mid-way down the Cedar Creek.

Another interesting looking mushroom.

This tree, loaded with burls, was near the bottom of the Cedar Lake way trail.

A mossy rock with a contrasting pair of mushrooms.

A star in a tree.  

This stretch of the Graywolf trail is covered with a thick carpet of moss.  One of my favorite spots on the trail.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Temptation



Temptation: being attracted or enticed to pursue some course of action or thought. Generally we use it in a negative way; being enticed to do something that we should not do.  Temptation takes many guises and forms; but one constant is that we all experience it.  We even see Jesus tempted in the wilderness after his baptism, and the author of Hebrews tells us that Jesus was tempted in all the ways that we are.

James has something to say about temptation that I believe is worth paying attention to.
When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. - James 1:13-15 NIV
James takes it for granted that we will be tempted.  And he makes it clear where that temptation is coming from.  We should not blame God for our temptations, nor should we follow Flip Wilson's example and blame the devil.  And ultimately it is not the fault of the chocolate, the girl in the skimpy clothing, or the TV commercials that are the source of my temptations.  Instead, James tells me that I am the source; or at least my own desires.

I have no desire for tobacco products; whether cigarettes, cigars, a pipe or chewing.  There is just no appeal there for me, regardless how they are portrayed in commercials,or how many other people seem to enjoy them.  And because I have no desire for that product, there is no temptation to smoke or chew.  Alcohol and drugs also have no interest for me, there is no desire for these things, and thus they are not a temptation.

But I do have a desire to look at women who are either scantily clad or wearing revealing attire.  It is something I have had since at least junior high, and I suspect that I share with many other men.  And that desire makes it tempting to click on frequent links like "Hot Tennis Wives" at the bottom of many sports pages on the web.

Desires are a part of who I am.  And temptations come from those desires; and there's not a lot I seem to be able to do about desires and the temptations they bring; apart from avoiding situations where unwanted desires will be fed and lead to enticement.  But I do have some say in how I respond to temptations.

Do I give in to the enticement of temptation, or do I resist it?  Sometimes giving in to the temptation is harmless.  The little snickers bar that calls my name will generally do me no harm, so long as I keep them to a minimum and am physically active enough.  But the "Hot Tennis Wives" can be a problem.  Clicking that link will fill my mind and imagination with images that may take a while to displace.  And worse, it makes it easier to click on the next link, and the next link, and the next link; ultimately taking me somewhere I have no business being.

And this is the progression that James is talking about: desire gives birth to temptation; temptation succumbed to leads to sin; and ultimately sin can lead to separation from God.  Not all desire is going to tempt us to do wrong.  Temptation does not automatically lead to sin.  And giving in to temptation does not immediately separate me from God.  But it is something I need to guard against.

So how do I avoid falling into this trap?  I can offer a couple of suggestions that are helpful to me.  The first is to avoid places or circumstances where the temptations are the strongest.  Playing with fire is not a smart game to play.  And the second is to get good at running; away from temptation.  It is nearly impossible to not encounter "Hot Babe" links on the internet.  But I can run from them, not allowing them time to take root and grow.  I don't have to click on the link; nor do I really need to even consider it; just scroll on by.

When I was still a young man, someone told me, "You can't stop a bird from flying over your head.  But you can stop them from building a nest in your hair".  You can't always avoid temptation, but you can determine that you are not going to allow it to build a nest.