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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

To the Water Under the Waves: A New Year's Post

Today I'm going to talk about waves--waves in science, waves in history, and a Biblical application that can be drawn from all of those things.  You don't have to remember anything about science or the humanities to read this article, so please stick with me and you will be rewarded.

Waves in Science

I'd always thought of waves racing across the ocean, physically moving huge amounts of water from one place to the next.  I'd wondered how fish could ever rest or stay in one place without having to fight the rush of water all the time. (You can tell that I'm land-locked, can't you!)

Then one day in high-school science a diagram told me a different story, showing mathematically how very little water actually moves due to a wave.  In fact, waves only affect the topmost few feet of water in the ocean under normal conditions.  It was a strange revelation, really. (I borrowed a graphic off an oceanography website to illustrate this for those who are interested).

Here's the weirdest part.  A wave may seem like a material thing that moves through the water, but it's actually just a force acting upon water.  Individual water molecules are stirred in a circular motion, not a forward motion.  They don't actually move anywhere, but really just make a circuit and return to approximately their original places.  This is why floating objects bob up and down as the wave passes underneath them, but they don't travel much with the wave (due to friction and other forces, there is always a little bit of drift in the direction the wave is moving).  When the wave approaches a solid object under the water (like a continental shelf or a coral reef), the little concentric circles of water collide with this object and are thrown upward in order to complete the circle (this makes breakers).  What was just a small, peaceful movement on the open water becomes a powerful force that can dash ships to pieces on the rocks or scour a rocky coast into sand.

Do you see where I'm going with this?  No?  Well, stay tuned as I next apply this scientific concept to human beings.

Waves in History

In college, I took a Humanities class called "World Religion and Thought."  I remember that class vividly because it was a tremendous challenge to my faith, like an uphill battle the whole semester.  There was one detail my professor repeatedly pointed out, concerning  the difference between the Eastern and the Western concepts of time and history.  In the West (aka, Europe and European cultures like the U.S.), we see time as linear, always moving forward from point A to point B.  In the East (Asia specifically, but also in many tribal cultures around the world), time is a cyclical thing, where people are either moving forward or backward in the cycle of time and history.  No, not like time travel.  It's more of a description of patterns in human behavior.  Yes, this idea is rooted in beliefs in things like reincarnation, but really it seems to accurately describe human history.

Many have commented on how human beings are always taking a step forward, only to take a few steps back, throughout history.  Take Rome, for instance.  The Roman Empire made massive cultural advancements, but after it fell, all that the greatest Roman scholars had learned was forgotten.  People had to re-learn how to build massive stone structures or how to make classical art, and so forth.  It took centuries to rebuild, and it could just as easily crumble again, in the right conditions.

All that to say that I think the Easterners are somewhat right in thinking that history is cyclical, not linear.  Call me a cynic, but I really see little evidence that mankind is capable of keeping what they have gained.  We are a lot like the waves in the ocean.  The summit of human culture, the people and incidents on the forefront of history, seem to advance, only to lose ground again.  Most people don't even make a major contribution to the so-called advancement of mankind at all in their lifetimes (and that's okay, too, since it takes a lot of water to fill the ocean).

On the other hand, there is still a measurable forward movement of man's history.  Somehow the linear concept also holds true.  What exactly moves us forward, when we can't seem to get it together for long?  This force pushes through people like the invisible wave energy moves water molecules.  Without a doubt, we can see its effects, but we can't see it. 

The Force of the Wave

I am convinced that this "wave" that moves through human affairs is the work of God through many very messed-up human beings. We are not God, and He is not us, but He works through us.

The Bible tells us over and over about how the plans people make on their own will fail, but when God is involved, the plan is always accomplished (Psalm 127:1; Psalm 37: 37, 38).  It is also filled with stories of people who failed to learn from the past, and thus were forced to relive it.  I don't believe that it is possible for any future "forward movement" in human culture to take place unless God wills it and carries it out.  If people are really like the water in a wave, as history seems to communicate, they can never truly move anywhere, without God behind them, helping them on their way.

Human beings can never really see a future to move toward.  Many search for omens, seek out  fortune tellers, or read horoscopes,  trying to catch a glimpse of the distant shore we are all slowly drifting toward.  Why do we put faith in mankind, looking so hopefully toward human feats in the new year, when we know our history?  Why do we complain about feeling "adrift," as so many postmodernists do, when we could let God deal with our present and our future?

If there is any underlying theme throughout all of the Old Testament, it is God's promise that He has always had a plan for the world, which He was slowly revealing to and through Israel.  From the start, God was teaching an obstinate world about His nature and His plan through symbolic acts and commands--which had both immediate significance and a hidden meaning to be understood later (Isaiah 48: 5-11)--so that He could move people forward toward His goal for us all.  What is this goal?  To come to know Him, and to have an intimate, ongoing relationship with Him.
This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. (2 Timothy 1: 9b-10 NIV)

Do you have Jesus?  All of history--mine, yours, the world's--has moved you forward to this moment.  Will you start the new year right, letting God lead you into His good and perfect plan for your life, or will you insist on staying adrift, never really getting anywhere?  If you haven't met Jesus yet, the new year is the perfect time to start a relationship with Him.  God is gentle and kind, and infinitely patient, but like a wave, He always brings the journey to an end, somewhere.  Eventually He must pass judgment and bring each short life to an end.  Would you rather be gently cast onto the shore, or smashed on the rocks?  That will be your own choice, and perhaps this year is the last one to make it.

The whole New Testament points forward to an even more distant plan--the end of the world, when Christ returns to gather up His own, and the whole world is judged for what it has done.  This plan has yet to be accomplished, but recent events in history always point forward to that day, which all who believe in Christ should constantly long for (2 Timothy 4: 1-8).  We are being prepared for it.  Could it come this year?  Are we ready?

For those of you who already know Jesus, have you committed this year to obeying God's commands and trusting Him with your future?  So far, all of His plans, as recorded in the Bible and history, have turned out right.  Can you let Him lead you forward through this year, whether or not it seems like you're getting anywhere?  Will you trust God to lead you, even if you can't see where He's taking you?
The waters saw you, O God, the waters saw you and writhed; the very depths were convulsed.... Your path led through the sea,  your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen. (Psalm 77: 16, 19 NIV)
I'm challenging you to dedicate this year to God.  Above all other resolutions, this is the most important.

Have a Happy New Year!  I'll be back with another post in 2010.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


"Do not eat the food of a stingy man, do not crave his delicacies; for he is the kind of man who is always thinking about the cost. 'Eat and drink,' he says to you, but his heart is not with you. You will vomit up the little you have eaten and will have wasted your compliments." (Proverbs 23:6-8 NIV)

I was thinking the other day about how society obsesses over public figures, politics, sports, money, beauty (and the exploitation thereof), popularity, and so forth. Sometimes it seems as if everyone is endlessly running from one crowd to another, chasing after the illusive power and prestige associated with a person or thing, fawning over people shamelessly and gobbling up any attention they can get from them.

I just have to ask--why do we do it all? In the verse above, the stingy man "is always thinking about the cost." The way I read it, the stingy man is viewing his food--his delicacies whatever they may be--as a source of power over others. He is always calculating how much he can give away without losing a scrap of that power. And so his generosity never comes from love or compassion, but rather it stems from a greed for power, and a desire to solidify or consolidate that power. In that way, the stingy man is never satisfied with his power because it is always in jeopardy of being lost. Likewise, the followers who eat out of his hand will never be full (because then food has no power with them!), nor will the food ever leave anything but an empty, bitter taste in their mouth (because few things are more bitter than knowing that you are viewed with contempt).

The world grasps for every crumb that falls from the table of their "masters." In fact, the root meaning of the English expression, to fawn, contains the imagery of a dog licking from his master's hand, or the pecking of a bird. Now, for dogs and birds, this may be satisfying, but for humans I can't see it as anything less than a dehumanizing, disgraceful pattern of behavior. God has made a better way. We weren't made to grovel, or to be made to grovel.

The Little Boy's Snack

We've all heard the story of the time Jesus fed the 5,000 (John 6: 1-13), and I've often heard that passage used as an illustration of God's power to provide for all our needs. But there is another, simpler message in that passage: God's model of generosity.

I used to think about that little boy in the crowd with the five loaves and two fishes. I could just hear his mother saying, "Now don't lose this! I went to all this trouble to pack you a lunch, so don't come back complaining that you're hungry. I'm a good mom, you know!" In fact, she was, since she managed to be the only woman in the place who had thought of everything!

Somehow, totally unexpectedly, that little boy had something everyone else wanted. He had power and popularity, and all because of his little snack. He could have been stingy, dealing out a tiny bit to the growling stomachs all around him, but keeping the lion's-share for himself. Instead, he forked over the entire lunch to Jesus and kept nothing for himself. This is what Jesus meant when He commented that kids understand the kingdom of God better than adults!

Now, suddenly the power had shifted into Jesus' hands. I'm sure He was just as hungry as everyone else, and He could have just said, "Thanks, kid!" and eaten it all Himself. After all, as God of the universe, everything is His due, to do with as He pleases.

But Jesus didn't keep all that power to Himself, either. He gave thanks over the food and distributed it to everyone miraculously, so that everyone got "as much as they wanted" (John 6: 11 NIV). In fact, He gave so much that there was enough left over to feed another good-sized crowd.   Here we see that Jesus' model of generosity demands that we give without consideration of the cost--that is, without considering the loss or gain of power in the choice--and that we give beyond what was expected of us. God doesn't count out breadcrumbs like pennies. Rather, He gives us so much that there is plenty left for the next person, so that no one has any reason to fight over the crumbs.

Another Bread Story

I wonder if the disciples thought about that day with the crowd of 5,000 when Jesus stood up at the last Passover dinner, "And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, 'This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me'" (Luke 22: 19 NIV).

Again, Jesus was modeling generosity. The bread Christ passed out to the crowd had long since vanished, but it had foreshadowed the greater miracle of Christ's resurrection. Just as it seemed impossible that a tiny meal, given freely by the humblest father's son in the crowd, could feed 5,000 people, with leftovers, it seems impossible that God's humble son could give His one life to save us all, with plenty left over for those who didn't come. But Christ did it! What's more, just as the little boy gave his whole meal, not expecting to take it back, Jesus gave His all with no desire to hold it back from anyone who asked for it!

Now, as Christians run from store to store, there is a simpler, more obvious gift we should be thinking about this time of year. We may have many material gifts to give this season, but we have something far more valuable to offer this stingy world: God's son! When we pass the bread rolls, I'm asking that we think about passing the good news to a hopeless, hungry world. When we tell our own stories, we ought to make sure that we tell the good news as well. Is there someone in your life who hasn't heard about Jesus?  Well, Christmas is the best time of year to finally broach the subject.  Why should anyone be left out in the cold when the stable door is open?