Perhaps it may turn out a sang,
Perhaps turn out a sermon.

-- R. Burns Epistle to a Young Friend

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Cause and Effect

Now faith is the reality of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen. — Hebrews 11:1

Now without faith it is impossible to please God, the one who draws near to Him must believe that He exists and rewards those who seek Him. — Hebrews 11:6

Do you know the difference between correlation and causation? If you do, you are ahead of most folks, and you're also ahead of many so-called experts.

I made a single mistake in the design of my house. In my office, I have a half-bath, which is fine. If I had made it a three-quarter, with even the simplest shower, I could have avoided exposure to all kinds of evil. For example, the other night I needed a shower, and I had to cross the master bedroom as my wife was watching the day's Oprah re-run. Oprah had some experts on telling people how to increase their wealth (for most Oprah-watchers, getting a job would be a good start). The final suggestion was to buy a house, since, the "expert" claimed, people who own their homes are something like 34 times wealthier than renters. I could not help myself. "That dumbass is no expert if he/she doesn't know the difference between a cause and a correlation!" I exclaimed.

The problem is that what the idiot said is probably actually the case. People who own homes no doubt have more wealth/net-worth than renters. The expert implied — and likely believes — that owning a home causes a person to be wealthier. The truth is that owning a home — for most people — correlates with having more wealth. Right now, there are millions of people who believed in the causation theory living in mortgaged houses that have actually decreased their wealth because they owe more on the mortgage than the house is worth or will be worth in the foreseeable future. There are also a large number of people for whom home ownership is sucking out most of their resources. They were led to believe that owning a home equaled increasing their net-worth, so owning a bigger, more expensive home meant they had more wealth. They are saddled with monthly payments that eat up over half their disposable income, and they are living, not just from paycheck to paycheck, but off their credit cards. Every day they are, as TEF most famously said, "Another day older and deeper in debt."

The confusion is also seen quite often in medical science and probably other branches of science. The false prophets of anthropogenic global warming see the correlation between increased atmospheric carbon dioxide and increasing temperatures and claim that "carbon emissions" cause planetary warming. In fact, increases in CO2 lag increases in temperature, so it could hardly be the cause. Carbon dioxide causes global warming in the same way that the hole in the window caused you to pull the trigger on your BB gun.

Obesity, cholesterol levels, arterial plaque, and heart attacks correlate. I am not convinced that there is a direct cause-effect relationship. I am personally convinced that, for most people, dietary cholesterol does not cause heart attacks or strokes. Rather, it seems plausible to me that obesity itself is an effect instead. Note: I am not offering medical advice to anyone. I'm just saying what I think. I am as completely ignorant and unqualified with regard to medical science and human physiology as I am most other subjects, including finance and politics. I do, however, believe that a reasonable amount of physical activity along with having a vocation or avocation that gives you real joy will cause you to have a healthier and higher quality life, if not a longer life. And what do you really want?

Faith can correlate rather than cause as well. In my work, I often have to come up with solutions to problems. Sometimes, I just know I'm right about a fix or a solution. Other times, I have a little twinge of doubt that tells me all is not as it should be. If I were a name-it-and-claim-it type of faith person, I would try to quell the doubt and strengthen my faith. As it is, I have learned to re-examine my code. The other approach — thinking will make it so — is rooted in a childish mindset of magical thinking. Too often faith is equated with or devolves into such idolatry.

When the Bible talks about the faith of Abraham, it speaks of him "believing God". Isaiah asks, "Who has believed my report?" In Romans 10, Paul explains that the path to salvation is to "believe in your heart". What does the heart believe? The truth. The truth that Christ was raised from the dead. Faith does not cause the truth to be true. Doubt does not mean that Jesus has not been raised. My refusal to believe causes me to miss salvation, but it doesn't make anything untrue. Faith causes me to experience the benefits of the truth. But faith correlates, you might say, with the truth. It would be far more appropriate to say that the truth causes faith on my part. Faith is the result not the cause.

For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves. It is God's gift ... (Ephesians 2:8).

So faith comes from what is heard ... (Romans 10:17)

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The 23rd Cup

Caffeine is my shepherd; I shall not doze.
It maketh me to wake in green pastures;
It leadeth me beyond the sleeping masses.
It restoreth my buzz.
It leadeth me in the paths of consciousness for its name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of addiction,
I'll fear no Equal for thou art with me;
Thy cream and thy flavorings they comfort me.
Thou preparest a carafe before me in the presence of Juan Valdez.
Thou anointest my days with vigor; my mug runneth over.
Surely flavor and aroma shall follow me all the days of my life
and I will dwell in the House of Maxwell forever.

I got this in an email a while back.

I want to be cremated -- preferably after I'm dead. My wife and I were talking about funeral planning and services and urns. I told her to pack me in beans, slow roast me, put the ashes in an old Folgers can and have them say "grounds to grounds".

Friday, July 23, 2010

Heart of Gold

And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart -- Jeremiah 29:13

Last weekend, Bob discussed songs we hear that transport us, not necessarily because they are exceptional pieces of music but because they are markers, flags, and anchor points that are forever tied to times, emotions, states of mind, or illuminating, and occasionally transformative events in our lives. Though I was unable to comment at the time, I can say unequivocally that the first song that comes to mind is Neil Young's "Heart Of Gold". There are others, and it might be interesting to think about those some time, but I'll stick with just this one today.

I can hear this song after forty years, and, instantly, I am driving down a dark, two-lane highway that twists through the hills like a snake that's been hit with cattle prod. The air is Spring cool and easy and the windows are down. There is still a hint of new-car smell in the cabin. "Heart of Gold" turned me into a Neil Young fan, for better or worse. The arrangement, even on the top 40 studio version that I first heard, is appropriately sparse and open, just the heartbeat rhythm, Neil's strained, plaintive vocals, his guitar, and the breaking in of that almost chilling harmonica that is perhaps the most memorable part of the song.

Doc Watson and David Grisman did a CD called "Doc and Dawg" that consists mostly of well-known pieces like "Sweet Georgia Brown", "Summertime", "Kentucky Waltz", "Soldier's Joy", etc. It's a studio recording with Doc flat-picking, Grisman on mandolin, and, on some songs, another acoustic guitar player or a fiddle. They left in some of the back and forth conversation between the musicians. At the end of one song, Doc asks if David he is going to take their recordings and "play with them". Grisman replies that he is going to overdub them with the London Symphony orchestra. My memory gets a little tricky, but it seems to me that Young may actually have done a live recording with an orchestral backup. If that didn't destroy "Heart of Gold", it would certainly alter it at its core.

I'm not embarrassed by "Heart of Gold" as I would be by some of the other songs on my list (Melanie's "Brand New Key" being the most egregious example. I almost had to turn in my mancard over that one).

Consider Young's lyrics:

I want to live,
I want to give
I've been a miner
for a heart of gold.
It's these expressions
I never give
That keep me searching
for a heart of gold
And I'm getting old.
Keeps me searching
for a heart of gold
And I'm getting old.

I've been to Hollywood
I've been to Redwood
I crossed the ocean
for a heart of gold
I've been in my mind,
it's such a fine line
That keeps me searching
for a heart of gold
And I'm getting old.
Keeps me searching
for a heart of gold
And I'm getting old.

Keep me searching
for a heart of gold
You keep me searching
for a heart of gold
And I'm growing old.
I've been a miner
for a heart of gold.

It's pretty simple. Something is missing from life. At seventeen, I thought what was missing was a girl that had a heart of gold. It didn't take too long for me to figure out that might be part of the answer but it was insufficient.

I've been to Hollywood \ I've been to Redwood

Hollywood is the symbol of all that is artificial and inauthentic, as opposed to "Redwood" which connotes the natural and nature itelf. Significantly, the heart of gold is not found in either of these extremes. Nor is it to be found by "crossing the ocean". No matter where we go, this thing eludes us. But something keeps me searching, and, if I look inside, I find that there is an indefinable, unutterable something that tells me the search must continue. The question is this: Will I find this unknown heart of gold before it is too late, before my life is gone beyond redemption? And I'm getting old.

At thirty, I thought it was God that I needed in my life, that He was this Heart of Gold. And He is, but that's not the end. Listen to what Jesus says, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life ...". You keep me searching for a heart of gold. I knew that I could not give up because the Lord said my search was not in vain. Jesus reveals to us that there can be "men with chests", that there is such a thing as true life — a pure, golden life.

Now, thirty is long gone long. And I'm growing old — growing old, still growing. I may not have found it, but at least I know where to look:

I've been a miner for a heart of gold ...

Monday, July 19, 2010

Musical Interlude

She was the queen of Southern Gospel music. If you said her first name, no one asked to whom you were referring. I once heard her tell a story about her voice. Her dream had been to sing in the Metropolitan Opera. She had trained as a soprano, but her voice did not carry well without amplification. One night the group was to sing in a venue where the sound system was not functioning or non-existent. She was concerned as she had solos which she doubted the crowd would be able to hear. Still, she trusted the Lord, stepped out on stage, and out came this:

I had trouble deciding on versions. I finally settled on this one despite the bootleg sound quality because this is Vestal as I remember her. It got extra points for the suborbital hairdo.

Here's another version from a television program. She was probably heading for the deer stand right after the performance.

And then the Gaither version -- not long before her passing in 2003.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Following Jesus for Fun and Profit

When you eat and are full, and build beautiful houses to live in, and your herds and flocks grow large, and your silver and gold multiply, and everything else you have increases, be careful that your heart doesn't become proud and you forget the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the place of slavery. -- Deuteronomy 8:12-14

When I was a kid, we sang hymns in church and little choruses in Sunday School and Vacation Bible School. Even hour or so on KWTO, someone would sing a "sacred song" in between the ordinary run of hillbilly music. When KWTO was still broadcasting live music radio shows, the performers would often close with a gospel song. On television, the "Ozark Jubilee" always included the performance of a gospel number, usually by Red Foley. Tennessee Ernie Ford typically sang a sacred song on his show. Porter Wagoner always did one.

As far as preaching and teaching in mass media, there was, of course, the broadcast of Billy Graham crusades. Many local pastors had brief spots on the secular radio station. Philip Wannemaker, the long-time pastor of Central Assembly — the "mother church" of the Assemblies of God, did a five-minute devotional every weekday morning during a local break in the "Today Show". I had the privilege of talking to Brother Wannemaker on the phone once when I lived in Texas about an entirely different matter, and I mentioned that I well-remembered those carefully crafted sermon miniatures. They were just enough to nudge one into thinking a little about God to start the day.

Now things are very different. There are Christian television and radio networks that blanket many regions of the country, especially in the Bible Belt. On the FM band of my Sangean ATS 818, I can pick up, I think, eight all-Christian stations between 88 and 92. I can pick up two or three daytime AM stations, probably some more at night. I don't prowl shortwave as much as I did before the internet, but there used to several Christian/patriot broadcasts out there as well. Now that I'm off satellite, I can only pick up the Daystar network on television, but that still gives me access to Christian programming 24 hours a day. Satellite and cable customers can be swamped by the Gospel.

With so much teaching, preaching, and singing being pumped through the airwaves, not to mention the webs, why aren't Christians stronger and more resistant to corruption by the culture? The divorce rate among Christians is as higher or higher than among non-Christians. Pastors and Christian leaders continue to fall to scandals. We lack power, and we lack peace.

I would suggest that perhaps it is the very glut of teaching that causes part of our problem. See, Christian broadcasting, like everything else, has to be funded. Most Christian radio stations run programs from various ministries. Those ministries pay for the stations' airtime. The ministries are, in turn, funded by donations, love-offerings, or the sale of ministry products such as books and CD's. Now these ministries are not like me. I try not to pay attention to the number of hits I get for a particular topic. I generate the same revenue for 1 hit as for 20 or 30. When I check things it is just for curiosity's sake. My post ranting against all things Janis Ian, and a post on a Hayek quote called "Why the Worst Get on Top" probably generate the most new traffic. I could, possibly, get more attention on the internet if I did more talking about popular culture figures I don't like and posted more quotes from The Road to Serfdom. But I can afford not to do that. Ministries that depend on donations cannot be so cavalier. They have to pay attention to topics that generate offerings and orders. They may not hit those topics all the time, but they will certainly keep them in the rotation. And there is nothing wrong with that, except — except that all too often those are not the kinds of things that really move the listeners closer to God.

My guess is that practical topics — how to raise better kids, have a better marriage, have more money, more peace, more answered prayers, etc. — are more popular than deep theological discussions. That's a fairly educated guess because we usually have a Christian radio program on while we're eating, and we often watch whatever is on Daystar in the evenings before going to sleep. Even when the teacher is dealing with weighter topics like atonement or Christ's indwelling, we are usually told how this makes our lives better. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

At least, not at first. After a while, though, if all we hear is how God is interested in making our lives better and better, we might start thinking that Christianity is really all about us. So we look for a church that has lots to offer us and the kids. We complain if we don't get anything out of the "praise and worship".

Somehow, somewhere, we have missed the point that the worship service isn't for us. This is less, much less, of a problem in Catholic and Orthodox churches, I'm sure, although I have heard some of my Catholic friends express sentiments that sound as if they might not get it all the time either. Still, evangelical Christians are the worst offenders in this regard. We give, often very generously, because we are told that we will be repaid. We are much more rarely told that giving is not to enrich us or even to build a shiny new multipurpose family activity ministry center, but primarily to acknowledge our dependent relationship with our Father.

Paradoxically, I think evangelicals probably start out better than any other tradition. The reason for that is that we preach salvation by grace, and, mostly, the helpless sinfulness of man apart from Christ and the Cross. Because we cannot save ourselves, our deliverance depends entirely upon a relationship with Christ. It is this relational understanding of salvation that underpins the initial joy many experience in forgiveness and reconciliation with God. Unfortunately, shortly after that, all this "teaching" kicks in, and we start looking to God, not in a relational way, but in a manipulative way. We begin to hear how thanksgiving pleases God, so we give thanks. We hear how God inhabits the praises of His people, so we praise. What begins as seeking after God too frequently leads us to seek for something through God, and it is our popular, practical teaching that contributes to this.

I can't tell you the number of "Seven Steps to Answered Prayer"-type formulas I've heard — more than seven, for sure. New Christians, in particular, eat this stuff up, but it's like trying to live on Oreos. Sure, people like it, and it will draw a crowd, and everyone will be excited afterward. But when a couple of hours have passed, and you have to push the truck out of the ditch, the sugar buzz has left you flat. Cornbread and beans may not be as exciting part of the time, but you're still going at the end of the row.

Of course, there are individuals in all traditions, including evangelicals who grasp that Christianity is supposed to be relational. Prayer is meant to be a vehicle whereby we get God, not get from God. God welcomes our petitions and intercession, but only when we have our relationship with Him at the core of our lives.

Perhaps our Father intends for us to work through things this way. It's not altogether unlike the normal pattern between a child and parent. At first, we are thrilled just to have Daddy around. He romps and plays and makes us smile. We are filled with joy when he walks in the door and rush into his arms to tell him all about whatever has happened. As we grow older, sometimes we lose a little of that joy in just being around him. He becomes the one who disciplines us. He is the one we go to for ice cream money or new shoes or car keys. Now we may still appreciate him, but we appreciate him for what he does for us.

But still later many of us come back, and we are happy to just be in the same room with him. We are content to hear his voice, to listen as he talks — not because he tells us something new and exciting, but because it's his voice. And so it is with some of us whom God has blessed.

We've been out there enjoying life and doing whatever it is that we should or shouldn't be doing. We're getting by OK, but there's a nagging feeling that something might be missing. We find a quiet spot and just start talking. Then we pause and listen. Just because it's His voice.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Witness to Love

So those who suffer according to God's will should, in doing good, entrust themselves to a faithful Creator — 1 Peter 4:19

I'm intrigued by Peter's use of the word 'Creator' rather than 'Father'. God is 'Creator' in regard to all entities and all of existence. He is 'Father' with regard to those who trust in and accept the offer of adoption in Christ.

"Love hurts", and it's not just the passionate love of teenagers with all the drama and breakups. The love between parent and child, husband and wife, and between friends can be painful at times. If we act out of love for others, we tend to think that they will understand and appreciate what we are doing. All too often that isn't the case. We suffer because we feel rejected or under-appreciated. The classic hardworking husband who has been putting in extra hours to provide for his family, though motivated by love, is not immune to being tossed aside for a "more caring" male. A woman who gives her all for her spouse and family may be shocked to learn that her husband has found a "soul mate" at work. It is a wonder that we risk loving at all.

Do not owe anyone anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law (Romans 13:8). God says to everyone, I don't owe you. I love you. Entitlement is a deadly and demonic state of mind. If you want to understand what the Bible means by "the fear of God" being the beginning of wisdom, a good place to start is simply to think about what is opposite to the attitude of entitlement.

One of the first things a Christian should learn is that he has no "right" to anything. I have no right to heaven. To think that I have a right to grace is a risible contradiction. I have no right to blessings. I am even a little uneasy at the pro-life phrase "right to life". I am alive because God loves me, not because He owes me a life. It's correct and proper to speak of a right to life in a political sense, just as it is true that we are "endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights" once we arrive on the planet. A Bill of Rights would be a redundancy if everyone loved me as God does. Since all don't and can't or won't, I'll be keeping my God-given political rights — including the one to defend my loved ones, my property, and myself against the thugs and bullies.

We receive grace because we are loved. We will enter heaven because we are loved. God blesses us because He loves us. Forget rights and forget formulas. The proper response to love is to first recognize it, with gratitude, and second to requite it — to love the Other in return. And how do we love God? We follow the admonition of John in his First Epistle. To love the God we cannot see, we love the visible ones around us who are also loved by God.

This is getting sticky for me because I am self-consciously thinking I sound like Thaddeus Golas talking to Captain Stubing. It is true, nonetheless. Romance, while nice, is insufficient. Unless romance and the accompanying eros develop into agape — or better yet are motivated by agape in the first place, we're going to run into problems. Our love boat is likely to run aground or be swamped in the first storm. The engines can't get enough power out of the thin stuff to climb those big waves.

Love has to be vulnerable. We have to risk the pain in order to do God's will. A person doesn't have to be stoned by Islamic fundamentalists to be a martyr. We can find plenty of opportunities to suffer for Christ's sake just by loving the people around us with a self-sacrificing and enduring love, with the same love our Father has for each of us.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Honey and Chicken

A person who is full tramples on a honeycomb, but to a hungry person, any bitter thing is sweet — Proverbs 27:7

Jesus told us if we will hunger and thirst after righteousness, we will be filled. The requisite to being filled is to be empty. It is the essence of any Zen practice. As long as we think we have the answers, the answer will remain elusive to us. We may nibble around the corners, like the Hobbits toward the end of Bilbo's birthday feast, but we'll be picky and selective about what we are nibbling.

On an outdoor forum I used to frequent, one poster had for his signature line, "Hunger is the best sauce." I have a particular aversion to chicken. I have no real idea why that is. All I know is that the smell of chicken frying or baking, though appealing to most people, is almost nauseating to me. I think I could eat chicken if I couldn't smell it. Early one summer I hired on with a crew to haul hay at two cents a bale. I made $48.00 that day between about 8:00am and 11:00pm. Mom's breakfast kept me going until the shadows were long in the hollows. At last we paused for supper. It was fried chicken. I almost wept. Fortunately they had a few beans as well, but it was a mighty small serving. Knowing it would be hours yet before I got anything else to eat, I managed to not breathe and choke down most of a drumstick. I was hungry.

All of us have bitter, negative experiences from time to time. If our hearts are longing for truth, we will find the presence of God, even in the midst of unpleasantness. To the hungry heart, there is as much nourishment in the bitter as in the sweet. The Shepherd's Psalm talks about the Lord preparing a table for me in the presence of my enemies. It is the communion with Him that satisfies us. It is the Lord Himself Who satisfies my longing and renews my strength when I am under pressure and in the midst of trials. Bitter, sweet, rich, or plain, it doesn't matter if we "recognize the body [of Christ]" in that which comes to us.

The person who is full of self and self-satisfied will show disdain for all the gifts of God. They may ignore God, reject God, or demand that He conform to their requirements. They may call themselves Christians and run from church to church, event to event, claiming to seek the very truth they trample underfoot. For those obsessed with critiquing the music, the order of service, and the preaching, the problem is likely that they are not really hungry enough. When I am too full of flesh, I will not appreciate manna.

Like the Prodigal, I may need to recognize that I could have something better than husks and hog-slop. It may look like a long, empty road home. I may dread the humiliation of admitting that I am not all I thought I was. At the end, though, I will find my Father watching, waiting, and ready with all that is Good to fill the empty heart.