A Girl Named Grace

Girl Named Grace

I know a girl named Grace
She drops by just when I need her
I don’t deserve her but she doesn’t care
She brings me treats from far away
Favorite foods I’ve never known

I know a girl named Grace
She found me standing by the road
Lost and hopeless
She brought me home, coaxed me to health
And gave me hope again

I know a girl named Grace
Who joys in the sunshine and the rains
And my feeble attempts to give back
She drops by just when I need her
And God love her for it

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The Sociopath Thought Experiment

I’ve been thinking lately about what makes an action wrong. I think we would all agree murder is wrong since it deprives someone of their life and deprives the people around that person as well. Theft deprives a person of property they worked to obtain; assault causes them physical and emotional pain. There is a clear moral basis to say these are wrong.

Consider a thought experiment for a minute. Imagine there is a sociopath who lures a person into his house, restrains him and injects him with a cocktail of drugs that cause him excruciating physical pain and mental agony. Then, at the end of the day he gives him another drug that completely erases the memory of that day and lets him go. All the drugs are designed to be gone from his system within twelve hours. For good measure, the sociopath gives himself the same drug, completely erasing his own memory of that day as well.

Did the sociopath do anything wrong?

The immediate answer that comes to mind is, yes, of course. Clearly torture is wrong. But why is it wrong in this situation? The man has absolutely no lasting effects from the torture, no memory or psychological scars from it and no one else knows about it, including the person who inflicted it. It was wrong while it was happening, since the prisoner was suffering intensely, but afterwards it has been totally erased from the collective minds of the human race, as if it had never existed. You could argue the sociopath did wrong by depriving the victim of his freedom for a day, but that would be true even if he kidnapped him and made him play Uno for a day. I’m talking specifically of the torture aspect.

The point I’m try to get at is if morality is dependent on an observer having knowledge of it or if it is an absolute, outside of any observation (by observer, I mean someone with knowledge, either directly or indirectly.) It’s kind of the equivalent of the question of if a tree falling in the forest makes a noise when no one is around to hear it.

My belief is that morality has to be dependent on an observer because morality outside of sentient minds has no meaning. However, I believe it is also an absolute since God is the prime observer of all reality. He sees everything and even if no one else sees something or remembers it, God sees it and can judge it on its merits. He is outside of time and so has access to the past, present and future at once.

I think every normal person, no matter what their beliefs, would agree that torture is wrong. What I’ve been pondering is if there is a basis for saying something is wrong if there is no observer or memory of it, in a belief system without God, a prime observer.

What do you think about this? I’d be happy to hear your thoughts.

Creation from Nothing

It may seem like a paradox to think that God created the universe from nothing, as Christians contend. After all, where did all the matter and energy we’re made up of come from? Where was it before? It’s hard to wrap our minds around.

The Bible says that we were made in God’s image and as such, we are also creators. In fact, we create things from nothing all the time. Let me give you two examples.

black_dragon_attack_2

Copyright el-grimlock

In the picture above, there is a dragon. If I asked what the picture is made of, the answer would be different colored pixels on your screen, although originally it might have been graphite and ink. However, while the picture is made of pixels, the dragon and other things in the picture are not. They are made of muscle, bone, metal, etc., maybe even things we could never find in our own world, like mithril. The picture is in our world, but the things in the picture are not (probably for the best). The artist has created a window to a world that had not existed before, using pen and paper, or pixels on the computer to create an actual, flying, fire-breathing dragon out of nothing, which exists in its own world.

Another way to create is through language. Read the next sentence:

“The girl sat at the edge of the well and looked down into the swirling darkness, resisting the tug of its grasping tendrils on her legs.”

With this one sentence, we have a window into a world that did not exist before I wrote it. The sentence is made of words, but the world is not. The girl is flesh and blood, the well is made of stone (most likely). Where was this flesh and stone and other matter that makes up her world before I wrote the sentence? It was created from nothing as I wrote.

This might seem like a cop-out. It’s not real, you might say and while I would contend that it’s all real for that girl sitting by the well, it is true that all of these worlds that we create exist only within our minds. The difference between these and God creating the universe is that he has the power to make it real and also to set us free from himself. When I write a story, characters make their own decisions and have their own thoughts, but they cannot do anything I don’t want them to do. They don’t know I exist, but I am like a puppet master making them think and do the things they do. They cannot do anything unless I have them do it.

However, I believe God has given us  free will to do what he wants us to or to do our own thing. He has also given us the capacity to create things of our own, small craftsmen working away under the loving eye of the Master Craftsman himself.

Finding God’s Perspective

This is the text of a sermon I gave at our church this past Sunday.

misty mountains2

The mountains near Jeonju, Korea. Copyright David Stewart

I came to Iowa for the first time about five years ago, when I had my job interview at the university here. Since then, my wife and I have lived in Iowa for almost five years and I’ve grown to love it here. There are a lot of great things about Iowa: friendly people, beautiful sunset, the ability to buy cheese curds practically everywhere. There are many wonderful things about Iowa but there is one thing it is missing that I cannot get used to, and that is mountains.

Before coming to Iowa, we lived in South Korea for nine years. As you may know, Korea is about 75% mountains and there is nowhere in the country you can go where you cannot see mountains. Jeonju, the city where we lived was bordered on two sides with mountains and there were two mountains higher than the others. Moaksan, the tallest one stood alone. That was the most famous one, the one that was a provincial park and that everyone knew about. The second tallest was called Goduksan. It was surrounded by lower peaks so that when you were down in the city, you couldn’t tell it was taller than the ones near it. Sometimes you couldn’t see it at all. However, if you went north of the city and climbed up into the mountains, looking across the city, there was no comparison. The two tallest mountains stood out clearly above the others. So what changed? Not the mountains or the city. The only thing that changed was me and my position. My perspective on them.

Unfortunately, as humans our perspective is necessarily limited by time and space, our senses and our powers of comprehension. We are like explorers in a jungle, seeing only what is right around us. Yet, even so, we know that this is not absolute truth. Only God can see things in perfect truth, as they truly are and the closer that we come to God’s perspective, the closer we come to seeing reality.

We’ll get there eventually, although not in this lifetime. 1 Corinthians 13:12 says, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (NIV).

There are two times when I think that having a godly perspective is particularly important and when it can be especially difficult to. These are when things are going great and when they are going terribly.

When things are going right                

It is an interesting coincidence that from earth, the sun and moon look to be about the same size, so that during an eclipse, the moon can actually perfectly block out the sun. The ancients probably thought that they were the same size, but we know now that the sun is actually much larger than the moon. How much larger? If the sun was the width of Iowa, 300 miles across from Dubuque to Sioux City, the moon would stretch from the Fayette post office down to the car wash, a little more than half a mile. So why do they look the same size? The moon is so much closer to us than the sun. Anything can block out the sun if it’s close enough to us: a tree, our hand, even a coin.

In the same way, anything can come between us and God if we hold it close enough to us. We usually think about sin keeping us from God, and that’s definitely true, but anything can come between us and God. There are many good things in our lives that are blessings: our jobs, families, friends, hobbies, sports, etc. All of these things are inherently good things, things God has given us. The problem is only where we place them in our lives.

I know I have the temptation sometimes to just want comfort. My dream is to have a job I love, in a nice house with kids and go on interesting vacations and eat good food. To have friends. To have a good life. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this desire, and these are all good things, but we must remember that all this is temporary. The Earth is not our home; we’re just passing through.

Matthew 6:19-21 says, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (NIV).

One of the central characters in the New Testament is Paul. He has one of the best resumes for someone in that time. Not only was he was a Jew, meaning he was a member of God’s chosen people, but he was born a Jew and was the child of Jews. He was also a Pharisee, one of the religious elite and on top of all that, he was a Roman citizen. This was huge in the time when Rome ruled all the lands around Israel and it gave Paul a lot of privileges that other Jews did not have.

Nevertheless, this is what Paul says of all this: “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him” (Philippians 3:7-9, NIV).

Think about that. In comparison with what he found in Jesus, all the honors and accolades that he had received were like garbage. Those are strong words, like comparing a Nobel Prize to a 3rd grade participation ribbon in your least favorite sport. He didn’t say they were garbage, but in comparison, they might as well be. That is keeping things in God’s perspective.

When things are going wrong

One of the worst days possible was recorded in the Old Testament in Job 1. At the beginning of the chapter, Job has everything a person back then could want. He had huge herds of animals, which equated wealth, he had trading caravans to get more wealth, he had many children who got along and hung out together. But then at the end of the chapter, all that is wiped out. What’s more, a while later, he is stricken with boils, meaning even his health is taken away.

The book of Job is mostly a conversation between Job and his friends where they say he must have something bad to deserve this and Job insisting he doesn’t deserve it and demanding God tell him if he did anything to deserve this

God finally responds at the end of the book in an epic couple of chapters calling out Job. As an example, in Job 38:4-5, God says, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it?”

What God is very bluntly saying is that there is no way that Job can understand everything that’s going on from his very limited perspective compared to the perspective of God, who set the whole universe in motion. He is the only one who sees the whole picture.

Job’s friends were arguing that if something that bad happened to Job, he must have done something very bad to deserve it. That is the idea of karma: you do good and good happens to you, and vice versa. This is sometimes the case, but the world does not always have such a neat cause and effect relationship. Instead, there is a fact that we all know but don’t always like to acknowledge: life is not fair.

Personally, I don’t think every bad thing that happens is part of God’s plan. God can use anything that happens, he is always with us and always loves us, and nothing can throw him for a loop. However, the world is a broken, chaotic, messy place, and I don’t believe he nurtures every cancer cell and guides every tornado on its path. Sometimes bad things just happen because of the world we live in. At least that’s what I believe.

We all know examples of terrible things that have happened to wonderful people who did not at all deserve what they got and it’s easy to be angry at God and question why these things happen. Not I, nor any other person can know why bad things happen to good people, but what I know is that there is more to existence than our mortal lives and in time, justice will be done.

Revelation 21:4 says, “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (NIV).

Living in this life is like watching half an action movie. We watch up the point where the hero is captured, everyone hates him, and the villain is winning. We might be tempted to pound the table and shout, “It’s not fair! This is a terrible movie!” But God says, “Just wait. It isn’t over. Watch until the end.”

Just as it is hard to imagine the actual size of the sun compared to the moon, there is no way to comprehend God’s perspective of events compared to our own. All of human history is merely the first letter of the first word on the first page of the story God that sees (or more likely, one buried deep inside the book.) This life is important; it matters, but it’s not everything by a long shot.

In Conclusion

So how do we keep a right perspective, God’s perspective, on things? We should enjoy the good things in life and through God’s grace endure the bad things that happen. We can’t ignore them and shouldn’t, but they can’t be our focus.

There is a great hymn whose chorus goes:

Turn your eyes upon Jesus
Look full in His wonderful face
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of His glory and grace

If we keep our eyes on Jesus, he will lead us deeper into his Truth, through both good and bad.

Culture and Christianity

Earth in hands

Source: TCA

Culture is like water to a fish: it is all around us but because it is so pervasive, it is often difficult to analyze. Culture is involved in every aspect of life, including religion. There are some religions that might be identified with one culture, but Christianity is a global religion, so it takes on a different flavor with every culture.

I have lived in three countries in my life: Canada, the United States, and South Korea. Canada is my home country and the one where I grew up, so I see the United States and Korea as my adopted countries. There are aspects of the cultures of each that I have seen in Christianity in those countries, aspects that the people there probably don’t even consider since it’s part of their culture. Some things I like, some things I don’t like. For each, it stems from some part of their culture that they consider important.

The United States: Patriotism

Not only are Americans quite patriotic, but American Christians closely link their patriotism with their faith. They’re not the only country to do this, but it is a very strong trend here. Do a Google search for “God and country” and you will find thousands of images of the Bible or a cross with an American flag. For American Christians, being a Christian is part of what it means to be a good American. They see America as a Christian country. There is an American flag in every church.

I think everyone should be patriotic towards their country, and I am very patriotic towards Canada. However, I have never felt a connection between my love of country and my love of God and in my experience, this is not a thing for Christians in other countries. I have always been uncomfortable with having a national flag in church. I understand where Americans are coming from, but here is my thinking:

As Christians, we belong to a group of people with ties that supersede national ties. Nations often go to war, making the people of those countries enemies, but Christians should never enemies of each other, even when they must act like it (for instance, the Christians on both sides in multiple European wars.) In my mind, the church is a place beyond nation and free of nationality, just as it is free of political systems and economic systems. There are Christians in other countries that do not like the United States, just as Americans might not like their country. But in the end, we are all brothers and sisters in Christ.

South Korea: Confucianism

Confucianism is a system of values and ethics, and not necessarily a religion. It is a way of promoting social harmony through strict hierarchy, so that everyone knows where they belong in a group. For example, in a family the father is at the top, then the mother and then the children. Titles are very important and honoring people who deserve respect.

In Korea, this system permeates every aspect of the culture from the grammar of the language on up. Christianity is very big widespread in Korea and the Confucianist aspects of the culture are present in the church as much as anywhere else in society.

On the positive side, the Korean church gets everyone involved. Even as a non-Korean, I was assigned to a small group in the church after only coming a short time. Each group was assigned tasks on a rotating basis, such as preparing lunch after church. Korean society is very communal and includes everyone.

On the negative side, from my perspective, the Korean church is very stratified with many different levels of deacons and pastors. The head pastor is like the father of the church and has much more power than a pastor in a Western church. Korean Christians generally can’t say no to the pastor and if he wants you, for example, to go to 5:00 am prayer meeting, then you have to. One stark example of this difference in culture was when I was in Korea and on a trip with a busload of people from the church. The bus had a karaoke system and the Korean deacon wanted people to sing. No one really wanted to, so he started choosing people. The Koreans he chose did it, reluctantly. The non-Koreans he asked simply refused. Korean Christians emphasize submitting to authority while Western Christians emphasize freedom in Christ.

In conclusion

Every culture has good and bad aspects of it although value judgments are subjective. After all, each of us can only evaluate culture through the lens of our own cultural upbringing. The points I bring up here might be handled very differently by someone from another culture and what I think is positive, they might think is negative and vice versa. What is important to remember when approaching cultural differences in Christianity is that while cultural differences cannot be avoided, they are not what is most important. It is very easy to concentrate on what is different since that is often what is most obvious, but the similarities are what are most important and what binds us all together in the end.

 

Waiting on the Lord

I don’t suppose anyone really likes waiting. It’s bad enough waiting for Christmas to come, or the end of the school year. It’s even worse when we don’t how long we will be waiting. I lost my job a few months ago and although I have kept busy with writing, looking for jobs, and other things, there is a feeling that life is on hold since unemployment in our society for someone my age is an unnatural state.

One problem is with our perspective. When we wait, it looks like nothing is happening, but that is not the case. Things are happening, being prepared behind the scenes, although they are invisible to us.

It’s a bit like when the computer lags and the small wheel starts spinning. It’s an aggravating situation, especially if it’s frequent, but the fact is that it’s not like nothing is happening. The computer is running and preparing to carry out the command that we put in. Sometimes we don’t need to wait long, or at all. Sometimes we do.

The one good thing about waiting is that we are forced to trust that God is working and every time that we wait and God comes through for us, it is an opportunity for our faith to increase, even if it’s not easy.

The other good thing about waiting is it can be a time out from other things. I once had surgery on my knee and was in the hospital for a week. I had nothing to do but wait to be released, but in that time, I had time to rest and read and do other things I wouldn’t have had time to do had I not been stuck there, waiting.

Paul says in Philippians 4:12b, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (NIV). In the same way, it is a great thing when we can be content whether waiting or charging full steam ahead.

Could God Create a Rock Too Heavy to Lift?

This is a paradox that I’ve heard my whole life. It’s supposed to show the flaw in the idea of an omnipotent being. After all, how could an all-powerful God create a situation where he wasn’t all-powerful, but on the other hand, how could he not?

I don’t believe there are any true paradoxes in the world, although there are many apparent ones. There is always some piece of information that is the key to solving the paradox. It might be a problem of language setting up a paradoxical situation, or it might be some information or perspective that we are not taking into account.

So, can God create a rock too heavy for him to lift?

Simply put, no, he can’t.

“Ah ha!” yells the skeptic. “God can’t be omnipotent after all.”

The problem with this paradox is the starting assumption: specifically, is God part of the universe? Christians believe that God is not part of the physical universe but is outside of it, which means that, at least figuratively, he can hold the whole universe in his hands. A rock, or anything physical, is necessarily inside the universe and so cannot be greater than the entirety of the universe, something that God can contain anyway.

Let me put it another way that’s less abstract. I like to play Minecraft on my laptop. In the game, I build lots of things, including huge structures and buildings. However, it would be absurd to ask if I could build anything in Minecraft that I, the player, couldn’t lift. After all, Minecraft or any computer game is in a virtual world contained within a computer. I can lift my computer, so I can always lift anything in the game, even though the size of a Minecraft world is seven times larger than the surface of Earth.

Of course, someone could ask if God could create something outside our universe that he couldn’t lift, but there is no way to even comment on what things could be like outside our universe. Christians believe that outside (or adjacent to) the physical realm is the spiritual realm, but discussions of the (meta)physics of a spiritual boulder are a little too speculative, even for this blog.