Astigmatism and Progressive Sanctification

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When you invite God to work on your character, he obliges. Perhaps you prefer the metaphor of a refining fire or horticultural pruning (sometimes it feels more like an ice sculpture being carved with a chainsaw). Either way, God will faithfully carry out his purposes of progressive sanctification if you allow him. And maybe even if you don’t.

Near the beginning of the year, God gently called me out for my pride and stubbornness. I knew about the pride, but I was unaware of the stubbornness. After the initial transformative burst at the time of my salvation at age 19, God has generally changed my character very gradually, allowing me to be prompted by my own conscience as I grew. My tastes in entertainment, political involvement, and even several core theological beliefs have evolved over the years. This past year God has really challenged me in an accelerated fashion on ecumenicalism, racial attitudes, transparent communication with my wife, and trusting him with my money. However, this past month has ramped up to a whole new level of character formation. God has been teaching me some powerful lessons. Namely, that I need to recognize that I am totally dependent on him. Happy with my good health and strong immune system? Boom! Incapacitated by a bout of pneumonia. Have a plan to get debt free and take control of my finances? Boom! $400 chest x-ray and $530 state tax bill. Truly, apart from him I can do nothing (John 15:5) and in him I live and move and have my being (Acts 17:28).

The latest plot twist is that after 32 years of “perfect” eyesight, I am now wearing glasses. Just last month my older brother and I were talking about how neither one of us has ever experienced any vision problems. A week ago I was fine; I went to bed one night with zero concerns and woke up the next day needing glasses. I call it sudden onset astigmatism. There does not seem to be much medical precedent for this, and the optometrist I saw for my first ever eye exam thought it quite strange as well. My sincere belief is that God did it to further humble me. Yesterday I had some clarity on this – needing glasses means I am normal. I am ordinary. If I am honest with myself, ordinary is something I’ve never wanted to be. It is a four letter word.

My favorite movie of all time, Lawrence of Arabia, contains a scene where T.E. Lawrence is meeting with General Allenby after experiencing a major setback. Lawrence is doubting himself and wanting to return home to lead an ordinary life, “Because that’s what I am.” Allenby pressures him, and eventually the façade cracks. “All right! I’m extraordinary! What of it?” Lawrence knows he is special and destined for greatness. That is a scene that resonates with me. For a variety of reasons, I have always been an outsider. I have stood apart, never really fit in with the crowd. A self-protective strategy becomes, ‘I don’t fit in because I am different… special… smarter… better than.’ So this concept of being ordinary is something that I need to come to terms with, because thinking of myself as extraordinary sets me apart from the people I am called to love and serve. It is bad old-fashioned pride. Every human being on this planet are like my siblings in the eyes of God. I don’t get special preference. Even as I write these words that is hard for me to grasp. We all are the main characters in our own stories, the centers of our own little universes.

Some of the great men of faith that I admire most – C.G. Bevington, Rees Howells, Brother Yun – were men that had to become completely dependent on God. Reading their memoirs is exhilarating, but terrifying. I’ve never found myself voluntarily or involuntarily placed in a position of true or total dependence on God, but I’m starting to feel it now. He is twisting his divine screws and tinkering at my soul. Thank you, Jesus.

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On Becoming a Published Author

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The one enduring dream of my life has been to become an author. The earliest memory I can recall on the subject is from perhaps the age of four, sitting outside and looking at the pictures of Pack Rat Pete by Robert Quackenbush. As a preschooler I didn’t know how to read, but as my mother read that library book to me, I thought – this is what I want to do! Before I could spell, I would dictate stories for my mom to write as I doodled illustrations in crayon, and I fondly remember sitting on the front step with my dad as a child and improvising interactive tales about Henry & Bill: Dinosaur Detectives.

Sure, I flirted with other career paths in my youth (Zookeeper! Private Investigator!), but until my interest in psychology solidified in the summer after 6th grade (inspired by reading Michael Crichton’s Sphere), being an author was my single overriding professional goal. I dreamed of the day that I could walk into a bookstore and purchase a copy of my own book; that’s when I would know that I had truly arrived. I also knew that if I reached the end of my life without becoming a published author, I would consider myself a failure. Hey, I might even need to pull a Van Gogh and cut my ear off in some sort of melancholic artistic protest against the world’s indifference.

Sometimes aspiring authors receive disheartening messages on their journey: “Why is it so important to be published?” or “Have you thought about self-publishing?” Okay. These people just don’t get it. And every aspiring author knows the sting of the ubiquitous rejection letter. Writing a book is the easy part – then comes editing, and finding an agent, and finding a publisher. The amount of rejection one can face while vulnerably revealing one’s labor-of-love, soul-bearing art can crush you if you let it.

But, as of a week and a half ago, my literal (and literary) lifelong dream came true. I am now a published author. Pinch me. My faith-based historical fiction (or “Biblical fiction”) novel, Kings of the Promised Land has been released to the world. It’s registered with the Library of Congress and has an ISBN and everything!

So, what is it like to accomplish what one has sought after their entire life? Well, I definitely did not have a Julie & Julia moment, dancing on the front porch with my spouse in joy as I opened an envelope to find a surprise publishing offer with a juicy book advance, nor did I come home one day to find a mysterious package, only to discover… my book in printed form! Indeed, many of my readers received copies of my book long before I did! And, although I felt a true adrenaline rush while signing my publishing agreement, the immediate nights after my book was published were sleepless, full of anxious tossing and turning as the weight of my new task sank in. I wrote a book. My book got published. But now I actually need to get people to READ the book!

I am very, very grateful to God for the inspiration, direction, and publication of my first book. May all the glory belong to him. I am no longer somebody who likes to write, nor an aspiring author, but truly an author. That fact has barely sunk in. I have crossed a threshold which cannot be uncrossed. But, I also realize that as one journey has ended, a brand new journey has just begun. I may have achieved my lifelong dream, but I, God willing, have a lot of life left to live.

 

 

Flatland, Fez, and M-theory

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Written by Edwin A. Abbott in 1884, ‘Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions’ is an excellent, laugh-out-loud satirical novel that provokes deep thought about dimensions beyond our daily experience. You think ‘The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe’ is good allegory? Fuhgeddaboudit! I think Flatland should be required reading for all Christians.

Now, if Flatland existed in video game form, ‘Fez’ would be it. Fez stars a pale protagonist who has the amazing powers to walk, jump, climb, go through doorways, swim, and pick up small objects! A lot like us, actually. One day, this simple-living character has his perspective radically expanded. Something dimensionally beyond himself impinges upon his 2D universe. He can now perceive a much more complex reality, and one that is in peril.

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I have written before in brief about Kierkegaard’s concept of ‘dimensional beyondness.’ God, as an infinite being, is qualitatively different than anything within the created cosmos. But where does the cosmos end and the supernatural realm begin – the realm of spirit which is invisible to our unaided senses? In Brian Greene’s popular book on theoretical physics, ‘The Fabric of the Cosmos,’ Greene references a version of superstring theory called ‘M-theory,’ which hypothesizes ten space dimensions and one time dimension (we commonly experience three space dimensions and one, forward-moving time dimension). If this is true, at what level of “physical” reality do we find Christ holding “all things together?” (Colossians 1:17).

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Back to Fez – I do not believe that video game creator Phil Fish is a Christian – at least not based on what I saw in ‘Indie Game: The Movie.’ Fez certainly does not get into deep theological territory, but is pleasantly stimulating aesthetically, philosophically, and is fun to play. It is also rife with mind-bending puzzles that you may never, ever unravel – much like the universe itself! I recommend playing it right after you read Flatland.

So says a Fez NPC, “My favorite shape is a square. Not a cube – those don’t exist!”

The Source of All Truth

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“What is truth?” – Pontius Pilate

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” – Jesus Christ

In a discussion over coffee about the compatibility or non-compatibility of Freudian theories of psychoanalysis with Christian belief, a pastor once told me that “All truth is God’s truth.” I have since heard that sentiment expressed by many others. While that statement can indeed only be true, something about it kept nagging me. How exactly are you defining or determining truth? It seemed to me that such a statement could be used to conveniently sidestep the need to do the work – to investigate and actively establish truth on a clear basis.

How do we define truth? What priority do we give to various sources that claim to describe reality accurately? Here are my current thoughts on the subject:

TRUTH

God himself is the source of all truth. The eternal, self-existent God is the ultimate reality. There is no higher being or principle in existence. Everything that is has originated from him (John 1:3). As the First Principle, the Unmoved Mover, the Uncaused Cause, the Prime Reality, the great I AM… Yahweh is the very embodiment of truth.

PRIMARY SOURCES OF TRUTH

The Bible, at the very least in its “original autographs” (e.g., the actual scrolls that Moses wrote on, etc.), is a primary source of truth because it accurately testifies about God and records his words. It is direct and purposeful revelation from the all-knowing and truth-telling God. Because God has infinite understanding (Psalm 147:5) and is unable to lie (Titus 1:2), we can fully trust everything that he says. We can trust that what he says is accurately recorded in scripture because all scripture is “inspired by God” (2 Timothy 3:16) and prophecy was made by men “moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). Further, we are told that “scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). Jesus himself quoted and affirmed scripture on many occasions.

The Bible itself is not the ultimate reality, nor does it describe everything that exists in reality. Truth existed for a presumably infinite period of time before the Bible was written. However, as Christians we can and must trust in the whole counsel of scripture (Acts 20:27).

The Holy Spirit is described as the Spirit of Truth which can lead us into all truth (John 16:13). A word from the Holy Spirit to an individual can thus also be a primary source of truth, albeit subjective. Well, let me clarify. A word from the Holy Spirit is open to subjective interpretation – it is personal, and not normative for all believers. The Bible tells us that there are other spirits that speak (1 John 4:1; 1 Timothy 4:1). We must always compare what we believe the Spirit to be revealing to us with the witness of scripture, which is a much more standardized and objective primary source of truth.

SECONDARY AND TERTIARY SOURCES OF TRUTH

Apart from the Bible, which is ‘special revelation,’ general revelation can be found in three main sources: “nature, history, and the constitution of the human being” (Erickson 1998, 179). However, this form of truth requires the application of human reason and investigation. As humans are finite and flawed, such deductions and conclusions cannot be held with the same regard as primary truth. Generalizations from revealed biblical truth, if theologically rigorous, may be a form of secondary truth. Deductions and conclusions from the three sources of general revelation that do not coincide with a Christian worldview may be no better than tertiary sources of truth, or may be completely false and unreliable.

On Revelation – Apocalypse Now

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The word ‘revelation’ found in New Testament passages such as Luke 2:32, Romans 2:5, Galatians 1:12, Ephesians 3:3, and Revelation 1:1 (to cite a few examples) is the Greek word apokálypsis. You do not have to be a Greek scholar to recognize the English word ‘apocalypse.’ However, in English we have come to associate apocalypse with the cataclysmic end of the world. In reality, apocalypse means uncovering or unveiling.

Read Paul’s words in Galatians 1:11-12 with a simple translation change, “For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through an apocalypse of Jesus Christ.”

When theologians talk about revelation they are primarily concerned with the following question: how can we know anything about God at all? If God is transcendent, or infinite, or outside of the created cosmos, how can finite, mortal creatures approach him or discover something of his nature?

John the Apostle was fond of pointing out that “No one has seen God at any time” (John 1:18a; also 1 John 4:12a) and “Not that anyone has seen the Father, except the One who is from God; he has seen the Father” (John 6:46). So how can we discern a God that is “invisible” (1 Timothy 1:17) to us? The answer is that God has to pull back the veil, let us peek behind the curtain, and reveal a part of himself.

Humanity cannot reach a knowledge of God completely on their own. But what about general revelation and the associated natural theology, in which individuals discern attributes of God from what has been created? We must admit that God has given human beings the ability to sense and perceive as well as minds capable of understanding and reaching conclusions. Therefore, even our most “independent” observations and conclusions are only possible because God first allowed their possibility by the decisions he made when designing and creating us.

Why Christianity?

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In a previous post I discussed how I had arrived at subjective certainty about the existence of God. But in the grand cosmological buffet, there are many “higher powers” that one can choose from: Allah, Vishnu, Zeus, and even the Flying Spaghetti Monster embraced by oppositional-ironic “pastafarians.” How did I personally become convinced that the Christian God, attested to in the Old and New Testaments, is the “One True God” – the interpretation of the Divine that corresponds to reality?

1. To start, there is no denying that my upbringing plays a crucial role. I was raised in a Christian home. But what does that mean? Many who were raised in a “Christian” home and/or grew up “in the Church” have turned away from the Christian religion. And others that have had no exposure to Christianity as children come to believe in the Christian interpretation of God. I must say that I viewed the early Christian influences in my life as trustworthy sources, people who non-hypocritically lived out their faith on a daily basis. Their personal lives and behavior did not contradict what they taught or believed – quite the opposite. I had every reason to believe what they were saying when they testified about supernatural experiences.

2. God most profoundly revealed himself to me during a Christian church service, through a scripture found in the Christian Bible, presented by a Christian pastor. Despite the historical, contextually-bound logos of that passage of scripture, I was directly and personally spoken to as through a rhema. My life dramatically began a process of transformation from that moment. I often have described this experience as an “epiphany,” and it may be compared to the concept of enlightenment or a spiritual awakening. Christians would commonly use vocabulary to describe such an experience as “being born again” or “salvation” or “regeneration.”

3. The inward witness of the Holy Spirit continues to affirm the central truths of Christianity and thus further bolsters my faith. “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:16) and, “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, that is the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, he will testify about me” (John 15:26).

4. The Christian worldview, as expressed (non-systematically) in the Bible, presents a framework for consistently, accurately, and without-contradiction interpreting all of reality, including the existence of and belief in other so-called gods. Christianity accounts for and explains the existence of other religions and even for non-religious persons. In the words of Francis Schaeffer, “Christianity is not a series of truths in the plural, but rather truth spelled with a capital “T.” Truth about total reality, not just about religious things. Biblical Christianity is Truth concerning total reality — and the intellectual holding of that total Truth and then living in the light of that Truth.”

5. Various forms of revelation: ongoing personal experiences, the testimony of trustworthy individuals, and historical evidence all lend additional support to Christianity. The common, shared experiences of Christians around the planet and throughout history attested to in diaries, letters, biographies, sermons, verbal exchanges, and more, provide further grounding. I will seek to address the nature of revelation more in depth in future posts.

The Psychological Need for Aesthetic Beauty

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Sometimes it is hard to reconcile the natural beauty of creation with the spiritual call to not love the world or the things of the world, and to instead long for a heavenly country. Now, not to say anything about natural disasters, corrupt civilizations, or human depravity and suffering, there is within most of us a deep reaction to the remaining beauty of the created world: a breath-taking sunset, autumn colors at their peak, the vista from a mountaintop, etc.

In the creation story found in Genesis, what God created at the beginning of human history was good. More than that, it was “very good” (Genesis 1:31). As part of God’s original design, he “planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed” (Genesis 2:8). Sometimes we assume that this was a wild, sprawling rain forest – we picture Adam being fully in touch with primordial nature like Tarzan. However, cultural studies of the Ancient Near East indicate that such concepts of Paradise have more in common with walled-in private (even botanical) gardens. Indeed, being left out alone in the wild of our planet as we know it today is not usually a pleasant experience – it is a struggle for survival against the elements.

Rather than untamed jungle in the Garden of Eden, we see the intersection of Nature and Design. “And out of the ground Yahweh Elohim made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Genesis 2:9). The Creator not only provided physical nourishment for the first humans, but also aesthetic pleasure – perhaps we could consider this psychological nourishment. Research does indicate that colors can affect our mood. The concept behind ‘seasonal affective disorder’ is that seasonal changes such as cold, gray, short winter days can impact our emotions and behaviors. Whatever the case may be, scripture notes that God specifically chose flora “pleasant to the sight” to be in the Paradise of his design. There is a human need to experience beauty.