Space to worship

April 28, 2006

Interesting piece from the Pakistan Daily Times about the dillemas of being a Muslim in space. From the article:

How do Muslim astronauts pray in space? Malaysia’s National Space Agency is holding a conference to consider such questions as the country prepares to send its first citizen into orbit. A nationwide competition in the majority-Muslim country has narrowed the field to four astronaut candidates, three of whom are Muslims. Two will eventually be trained and sent into space by Russia, and Malaysia’s space agency – Angkasa – said it had been scratching its head over how Muslim rituals could be carried out properly…

The astronaut will also visit the International Space Station, which circles the earth 16 times in 24 hours, so another thorny question will be: How to pray five times a day as required by Islam, she said. Working out the direction of Mecca while hovering above the earth will also prove challenging.

Muslims, per their faith, are required to face Mecca (Islam's holiest site, a city in Saudi Arabia) five times a day – hard to do when Mecca is moving constantly beneath your feet.

The dilemma faced by the the Malaysian Muslim reminds me about Jesus' conversation with the women at the well:

John 4:19 – 4:24 The woman said to Him, "Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet. "Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship." Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. "You worship what you do not know ; we worship what we know , for salvation is from the Jews. "But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. "God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth." 

While Jesus' words here may not have been intended to address the dilemmas of a space traveling believers, they are relevant nonetheless – our worship centers not on a particular place or methodology, but on a person, Jesus Christ, who is always present and available to us as His children.  

Even if we find ourselves hurtling through space at several thousand miles per hour.


In Praise of Prairie Dogs

April 27, 2006

Somewhere around second grade I became a confirmed environmentalist. It was near the heyday of environmentalist propaganda films, movies like, Say Goodbye (1971), Bless the Beasts and the Children (1971), and The Lorax (1972) movies I was to see repeatedly throughout my elementary school career; and they had a profound impact me.

Still emblazoned in my mind is the scene in Say Goodbye of the last of a remaining colony of black-tailed prairie dogs being systematically blown to smithereens by some ranchers. Here is a cute little prairie dog, sitting on it's haunches with his buddies, greeting them with a little prairie dog kiss – then BOOM! The little rodent was gone, vanished in a cloud of blood and flesh. Traumatic to say the least; little girls were crying, and my lip was quivering. Or the scene in Dr. Suess's The Lorax where the last remaining Truffula Tree is given to the child in hopes that someday the forests will return. Of course, I know now this was a really bad idea; to take the last remaining seed of a species and hand it to a child? What exactly would a child do with that seed; leave it in his box of legos? What kind of conservation effort is that? Not to mention it would be virtually impossible to grow an entire forest from a single seed, and that forest would be horribly prone to disease and genetic inbreeding. But I digress. At the time, I wanted to be that child.

After being a leftist and agnostic for some years I converted to Christianity in college. It wasn't one of those gradual 'started-going-to-church-and-eventually-saw-the-sense-of-it' sort of conversions, but rather a 'Saul-to-Paul-knocked-off-my-horse-and-and-forced-to-recant-all-I-had-been-up-to-that-point' sort of conversions. I spent some years after searching, discussing, debating, reading and praying about how my former ways of thinking meshed or didn't mesh, as it were, with Scripture and Christian thought. Come to think of it, I am still doing that. There have been many 'ah-ha' moments, and, I must say, a few disappointments. One of those disappointments was the general consensus of Christians at the time about environmentalism. For the most part it was poo-poohed as a secular idea meant to place the love for this this world over the value of the next. I also heard of course, as is common in evangelical circles, the invective that the earth is passing away, and trying to save it would not only be futile, but would also take time away from our real mission, which is to partake with Christ in the salvation of humans.

Quite obviously, both of these are true, though I was always faced with the niggling thought that I still keep my house clean, despite the fact that it too will someday 'pass away'. Ok, an honest confession here – previous roommates, and my wife will point out to me here that in reality, I am slob, and am not all that inclined to keep a house, or room, or desk 'clean', despite any desire I think I have for clean water or air; but I would counter that I have become better at that, thanks primarily to the cruel tutelage of my spouse.

Nonetheless, early on in my searching, I found some comfort in a book by Francis Scheaffer, called Pollution and The Death of Man. In it he strikes a well balanced view, reminding us that though we are unique creatures in terms of our relationship with our Creator, we are still part of creation, and need to value the rest of creation as a result.

Recently, I have been interested in (though I have yet to read) a book called Crunchy Cons by Rod Dreher. The subtitle, possibly as long as a reasonable essay, reads as follows:

How Birkenstocked Burkeans, gun-loving organic gardeners, evangelical free-range farmers, hip homeschooling mamas, right-wing nature lovers, and their diverse tribe of countercultural conservatives plan to save America.

I haven't read it yet, but the primary theme seems to be one I have thought about for sometime – that as we re-orient our lives around God's priorities; our relationship with Christ, with other believers, living sacrificially for our family, our churches, and our neighbors, our priorities change. We should come to care more about the lives of others than we do about material things; and that changes the way we effect the environment. We don't necessarily do it for that reason, but it is a by-product of those choices.

And this makes sense; because just as the early '70's not only brought us a raised environmental awareness, it also, unfortunately, brought into play forces that were destructive of relationships – between husbands and wives, parents and their children, between neighbors and communities. The reality is that in a fractured and broken society, where lives are disconnected and spiritually empty, few people personally make healthy choices for themselves or the world around them; but as lives are restored and transformed by Christ, their choices change, and greater goods are possible.

We can see this clearly in the book of Acts after the church is established – a new community was created out of the cloth of the then Jewish and Roman society:

Acts 2:41 – 47
So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls. They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved. 

Here we see a snapshot of how the Holy Spirit changed the 1st century community of Christians; their priorities changed, their interests changed, and eventually, the world changed.

To really change the way people treat the world they live in, even ultimately how they think about the environment, one must change priorities and the choices individuals make; and the only real way I have seen that done, is for people to be transformed by the power of God.

In short, if we want to save prairie dogs, we have to save people.

Esos monos tontos

April 27, 2006

I am not sure where to file this one, but I think it highlights the absurdity of modern scientific/evolutionary thinking:

Socialists: Give apes human rights

The Spanish Socialist Party will introduce a bill in the Congress of Deputies calling for "the immediate inclusion of (simians) in the category of persons, and that they be given the moral and legal protection that currently are only enjoyed by human beings." The PSOE's justification is that humans share 98.4% of our genes with chimpanzees, 97.7% with gorillas, and 96.4% with orangutans.

Personally, I am not sure what the Socialists in Spain hope to gain by this; I have seen King Kong, and he definitely doesn't vote Socialist.

Hopeful History

April 27, 2006

I think American Christians spend very little time considering history. Indeed, I think very few of us know much history; and this may be so for a few readily apparent reasons. One possibility is that history is seen as irrelevant to everyday living, and modern Christians are all about relevancy, relevancy here meaning "how will it help me get through the day". Or perhaps, in our entertainment culture it is considered to be fairly boring, unless of course there are lots of battles which can be easily filmed. On the whole, we talk and teach very little about the development of ideas, of cultures, of how we got where we are today as a church and a society.

I think there may be a less apparent reason though that drives our ignorance, namely fear. Even a casual review of recent history belies the declining history of the church in our culture; though we may hold off through the next election cycle the official acceptance of certain overt practices contrary to our beliefs, it is hard not to see the sinking of our society into barbarity as inevitable. Indeed, not only is our current influence diminished, but it seems that the modern teaching of past history is intent on removing whatever essential influence Christians might have had in the past; the preservation of culture after the fall of Rome, the resistance against Muslim dominance, the political, social and religious reforms of the Reformation, not to mention the American revolution and the abolition of slavery.

And yet God requires us to think of history without fear; to see His hand in it. As the prophet Daniel declared to king Nebuchadnezzar:

"Let the name of God be blessed forever and ever, For wisdom and power belong to Him. It is He who changes the times and the epochs; He removes kings and establishes kings; He gives wisdom to wise men and knowledge to men of understanding."  Daniel 2:20-21

Likewise, in his paper Professing God In History Class, Harry Van Dyke , a former professor of history at Redeemer college, argues that it is critical to understand and proclaim God's hand in our history. He makes six main points as to what should guide our understanding and teaching of history:

1. To profess God in history class should be a spontaneous activity of everyone who believes in God's sovereignty.

2. A believing reading of history reassures us that nothing happens by chance but everything is directed by the wise and loving hands of our heavenly Father.

3. Most often God's hand in history is hidden; but where it is manifest it should be noted.

4. To profess God in history class is to enrich one's insight into reality, to better prepare students for life, to give voice to faith within the pursuit of learning, and to praise God for his might and wisdom. To muzzle professors of history on this score is to impoverish their teaching, to serve students ill, to smother the voice of faith, and to deny God part of his glory.

5. It is in the constancy of God's order for creation that we find the strongest encouragement to profess God in history class.

6. The most breathtaking act of God in our human world is the Incarnation. Jesus is Immanuel, God with us. Born of a virgin, not of the will of man, Jesus is the greatest manifestation of God's active presence in history.

I think in times like these, as we face direct challenges to our faith within our culture as well as from out, that we be confident that God acts to shape our destinies, and no forces from without or within can ultimately thwart his purposes, which are ultimately good and loving. One more thought from Professor Van Dyke:

The fact that no ruler or empire has ever achieved world domination, preventing the oppressed from seeking refuge, has been a blessing of God throughout history. A world state that covers the globe is reserved for the end-time, when history will have to be cut short.

In short, no 'Towers of Babel' have succeeded against the power of God. Comforting thoughts when so much news we hear seems to be to the contrary.

Consumer Christians

April 25, 2006

I have been thinking lately, partly as I consider a teaching I intend to give sometime at church, about the issue of consumerism. While I am reluctant to articulate an essay that is primarily a reaction to an -ism, notions which are often notoriously clichéd and simplified descriptions of various thought processes, I think this particular belief system is sufficiently pervasive and pernicious that it bears addressing and examining. Of course, it may very well be that I have magnified it in my own mind because it is a thought process to which I often succumb, and my reaction to it may be from a desire to align my own mind to a proper understanding.

Recently I found a short description that I think rightly describes the mindset of consemerism; it is a mission statement really, the mission of one of our largest advocates of the consumer mentality, namely, Sam Walton, the founder of course of Wal-Mart:

"The secret of successful retailing is to give your customers what they want," Sam wrote in his autobiography. "And really, if you think about it from the point of view of the customer, you want everything: a wide assortment of good quality merchandise; the lowest possible prices; guaranteed satisfaction with what you buy; friendly, knowledgeable service; convenient hours; free parking; a pleasant shopping experience.

You love it when you visit a store that somehow exceeds your expectations, and you hate it when a store inconveniences you, or gives you a hard time, or pretends you're invisible."

I think this quote sufficiently highlights the three primary components of the consumer mindset; abundant choice, convenience, and low cost.

Personally, I don't have a qualm with these three components when it comes to your average outing to grab an extra gallon of milk or some ketchup; this task shouldn't require thoughtful consideration. What concerns me is how these three now dominate the thinking that goes into almost every aspect of our lives.

Consider finding a mate. This effort has historically been shaped and directed within one's family and community and church, the parameters of consideration being informed by common goals and values gained over the course of a lifetime, indeed over the course of several generations.

Not so now – the advent of modern communication, primarily the internet, has turned the process of finding a mate into an enterprise, and that enterprise is driven primarily by consumerist considerations – it provides a large pool of potential mates, it is exceedingly convenient to scan profiles and send e-mails for a quick meet-up, and there is relatively low cost, commitment or time-wise.

These are gains from the perspective of a consumer, but great losses from the perspective of the closeness and commitment for which marriage was intended. Indeed, the very aspects of marriage that we desire – common purpose shared over the course of a lifetime, are undermined by a process that does not even require those considerations.

And it is not only larger society that is affected by this; indeed, many online dating services are of course aimed directly at Christians. I saw this first hand recently on a recent short-term mission trip to Africa; some young women who had joined us there from the states wondered anxiously if they could find a place to get online so they could see if anyone was attempting to contact them through their online dating service. One wonders if their profiles allowed them to express a desire for someone who would, as Christ said, "put their hand to the plow and not look back".

And that may be the most problematic concern about consumerism. It is not a matter of a general opposition to modernism, but rather the fact that these three essential elements of consumer thought – abundance, convenience, and low cost, primarily contradict Scriptural principles for living a life pleasing to God; namely that we are satisfied with the much or little God provides, that we suffer long and thankfully through difficulty, and that we live sacrificially to serve others.

The narrow road, the pearl bought at great cost, and prodigal's father waiting daily at the end of the road all fly in the face of the Wal-mart-ization of our culture and church.

It's something we need to consider the next time we consider 'church-shopping'.