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Monday, 24 April 2017

Miracles and Science

Can miracles take place?

A common western objection to Christianity is that it is founded on a miracle - the supernatural Resurrection of Jesus from the dead. This miracle is crucial to the Christian faith, so much so that if Christ had not been raised then Christianity would be a pure deception.

So, how do we tie up the resurrection of Jesus - trillions of dead cells coming back to life in an instant - with science?

Closed system assumption
Science relies for its normal operation on the assumption that any one part of the universe is a closed system. Take the solar system. Our ability to predict the orbits of the planets from the laws of motion depends on assuming that an angel isn't randomly nudging them this way or that! This is what we mean by a closed system and it's a good - and indeed essential - assumption to make.

When I was a PhD student with an experimental "rig", for example, I assumed that there were no angels or demons inside the rig and that I could therefore model the physical processes taking place within it using mathematical equations.

All the predictions scientists make day by day are based on this assumption. 

The assumption can't be proved
The problem however is twofold. Due to the vastness of the universe, there is no way that science could ever know whether the universe was closed. And secondly there are no theoretical reasons why the assumption needs to be true. So while science assumes the universe is closed it cannot either demonstrate that the universe is closed or provide any theoretical reasons as to why it has to be.

So we are left with an open system in which miracles can happen anywhere and science is OK with that - not that we are looking for cart-before-horse science approval of the miraculous!

Closed system?
Of course underneath the foregoing argument is a very subtle materialism. It assumes that there is no God upholding the regular laws of the universe. The truth of the matter is that what we call regular laws are nothing other than the underpinning mighty power of the Son of God who "sustains all things by his powerful word" (Hebrews 1:3) and who "holds all things together" (Colossians 1:17).

In other words there is no such thing as a closed system! How ridiculous the notion of a creation where the Creator is abolished from his universe a priori! How arrogant! How blasphemous!

The universe, which while it is not God (we are not pantheists), is permeated by God's mighty power and sustained by that power.  Normally God choses to work in a regular way (normal science) but sometimes he choses to work in a supranatural way (miracles).

Miracles are just God tweaking the way he normally works in one region of his universe and making things work in a different way. Miracles are not God "intervening" - he always intervenes, for he is God! Miracles are simply God working in mode B rather than in mode A.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Is there a time to STOP Praying?

Image result for jesus wrestling in the garden 
"Jesus prayed three times"

In Matthew's Gospel we read that Jesus prayed in the Garden three times, on  each occasion wrestling with God's will for him, "My Father, if it is possible, may this cup (of suffering) be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will." (Matthew 26:39)

Jesus did not pray this prayer three times, but rather prayed three sessions of prayer, the first about an hour long. Jesus may have prayed the same prayer dozens of times during those three sessions.

What does the fact that he stopped praying after three sessions teach us?  Is there a time to pray and a time to stop praying?

How often should we pray?

Pray without ceasing
The apostle Paul teaches us to "pray without ceasing"(I Thess 5:16-18). We are always to pray! As we wake, as we walk, before we eat, when we rest - all day long, in constant communion with our Father in heaven. 

Pray without giving up
Jesus told a parable about a persistent widow to teach us to pray and not give up (Luke 18:1). There are loved ones and situations which demand persistent never-ending prayer.

There is a time to stop
But there is a time to give up praying! When we know what God's will is on a matter,  to keep on praying is tantamount either to mistrust ("I don't trust the response you have given me") or rebellion, ("I trust the response but don't plan to obey it").

Example: Paul Stopped Praying
Image result for paul prays three times thorn in fleshThe Apostle Paul was given a very painful "thorn in the flesh". We have no idea what it was, but it was a sore "something",  "a messenger of Satan to torment" him.

It is not surprising  that Paul began praying that the Lord would remove it. But God told him somehow - and not necessarily after the third prayer - that his grace would help him get through the trial, "My grace is sufficient for you", and the Lord told him that "his power was made perfect in weakness." Paul now understood that God had reasons and good purposes for allowing him the painful condition and not removing it. First, he would experience the amazing power of God working in spite of the thorn, and Second, that God himself desires to work through weak vessels, "my power is made perfect in weakness" - because then people would say "You mean God did great things through Paul? Don't believe it! He's such a weakling!" and they would turn their attention to Paul's God, and away from Paul. So deeply did Paul understand this revolutionary way of viewing his "thorn in the flesh" that from then onwards he delighted in insults and troubles!

God may have told him Paul all of this this before he began praying - I suspect he did - but Paul still began "wrestling with God's will", and counting how many times he wrestled with God's will. After three times he decided to stop praying. He knew what God's will was, and - here's the point of wrestling with God's will - he was fully resolved to accept it and "move on".

There is nothing wrong - or sinful - about "wrestling with God's will" - it is mark of our frail humanness to recoil from suffering. There is nothing wrong with moving from "is this God's will?" to "yes this is God's will but I really fear it and don't want  the suffering" to "this is God's will and I will accept it."

For Paul and for us, to keep on praying about an issue which God has made plain to us already, to not come to terms with God's will, to refuse to accept it, is mistrust at the least and rebellion at the most.

So, yes, it is even possible for prayer to be sinful: if after knowing God's will we try to change his mind by prayer, that prayer is rebellious and therefore sinful!

When God makes his will plain either by providence or by Scripture, it's time to stop praying and start accepting and obeying.

Sometimes what we need is not prayer but obedience!

Jesus prayed three times
Which brings us to Jesus' three sessions of prayer about God's will for him. Jesus was being asked to suffer the anguish of the cross. Jesus reveals his true humanity by wrestling with God in prayer. As a true man he needs to "come to terms" with the suffering that lies ahead of him. Not once is he unwilling to suffer, but as a human being there is a natural process and time-lag in coming to terms with such great suffering.

But eventually the time comes for moving on to obedience, "Rise, let us go!"

I wonder if Paul, reflecting on Jesus' own wrestling with God's will, used the same pattern in his own life: three sessions of wrestling followed by complete resolve and then obedience.

There is a time to stop praying and to start obeying.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

The Power of Roots - a film review of "Lion"

Image result for lion film"Lion" or "La la Land?" 
The choice was between "La La Land" or "Lion". A film based on a real life story always wins the day for me, unromantic as that may be!

The title "Lion" gives no insight into the film - and indeed could put some people off - if they thought the film was about some feline species. The title is taken from the name of the main character, Saroo, who one day learns that his name means "lion."

This is a wonderful story and a great film.....

Miles from Home
As a little boy in India, Saroo ends up lost, separated from his irresponsible brother Guddu, on a train and then more than a thousand miles from home. At the other end of the journey he gets picked up by a government adoption agency (none of the film is complimentary towards the way children are treated in India, I'm afraid; Saroo only narrowly misses being trapped in the sex trade), and ends up being adopted in Australia. He grows up as a fully blown Aussie, surf board and all. His new parents are devoted to him and under their love he flourishes as a young man eniding up in the world of business.

As he grows into his teens, and it seems especially when he falls in love, memories of his first family  rise to the surface and grow, until his one passion in life, is to find  his original family and return to them. He imagines them looking for him every day and can't bear that thought: he must tell them he is alive. 

One day, using his childhood memories, Saroo discovers the aerial image of his village and house on Google Earth (did they fund this film?) He sets out alone to return. Of course things are different. Guddu, the brother who had negligently left him at a railway station for a while, has been killed by a train, but he finds his mother and sister and is emotionally reunited with them.

The film finds its resolution here: home is where childhood unfolds.

The power of roots
Childhood memories shape us  because what we experience when we enter the world is imprinted upon our minds. Early memories and experiences are seared into our brains.

How vital it is, then, that parents care for their children well in these early years. Along with Saroo, the loving Australian couple adopted another lad who had been abused as a child - and that experience scarred him for the whole of his life. Abuse in the first years of life scars deeply, and perhaps irreversibly. 

In the spiritual realm it is much the same. When someone is just converted they need the highest levels of care and love in order to grow into a strong healthy follower of Christ. I know Christians whose whole future Christian life was messed up because they had poor examples of "mature  Christians" in their first tender, impressionable years of walking with God. Perhaps this side of heaven, they will never fully recover.

Jesus sets the example
Jesus sets the example - he spent many many long hours with just 12 men loving, teaching, protecting them from false teachers and setting an exemplary life before them.   This can't be done "once on a Sunday" or "in a crowd" but requires intense -  even daily - attention and care.

Marred by fornication
Tragically, this film, like so many others of our day is marred by the sin of fornication. Saroo has a girlfriend and the viewer needs to know he is sleeping with her without being married to her. No Christian should fail to notice these common movie sins, no Christians should "get used to sin". All sex outside of marriage is sinful.

The Ultimate Home
Saroo does not really find peace. In fact going back to his roots has made the situation worse: now he has two families, two roots, one in Australia and one in India: which one should he spend his days with? The idea that ultimate security can be found in our birth family - or in family of any kind - will always leave us empty, for families come and families go and mankind was never designed to find ultimate rest in earthly families.

God placed Adam and Eve in a garden to be with himself.  God was always meant to be our home, God is the end of the journey, heaven  our ultimate home. To look for ultimate happiness in any earthly community will always - must always considering how we have been made - lead to futility and emptiness.

Jesus said "Come to me... and you will find rest for your souls..."

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

The Infinite Gap - a book review

Reading for Genesis
Preachers need to read around a subject and strive to understand the thinking of the world their flock are exposed to. Hence as part of my preparation for sermons in Genesis, I read a book which is in tune with the spirit of the age which is - "there ain't much difference between animals and humans". (Of course, to be truly in the spirit of the age I would have said "there ain't much difference between the human animal and other species").

Frans De Waal is a primatologist  - he studies primates - an order in the animal kingdom. He clearly loves animals and has spent thousands of hours observing and "testing" them. This is both an advantage and a problem. The advantage is that you know the animals well, the disadvantage that you may be blinded by familiarity.

De Waal is not saying that animals and human are on the same plane, but he thinks that the gap is fast closing. As more and more experiments and observations are completed the wonderful abilities of animals are pouring in. So far, so good.

A labelling problem
The problem is however first a labelling problem. When De Waal talks about apes or crows using tools he is talking about an ape using a stick to access insects - at most using different kinds of simple instruments to access bee honey. When we talk about using tools, we are talking about a totally different world. For example, the hammer, a very simple tool, requires an incredibly complex series of steps to fabricate it. First we must mine ores from the ground (metallurgy, mining, smelting, fire-making) then we take the raw metal and forge it into a useful shape by sophisticated methods which require other pre-made tools - castings, forging anvils, etc. Then we decide that a wooden handle would be better than a metal one (because of the "give" "elastic" "shock absorbing" properties - quite a profound thought process) and then we work out a way to fix the handle to the head, so that it does not fly off and injure anyone (again forethought). This complicated process is what "tool making" means when used in the human context - and all we are talking about is a simple hammer, not a lathe or a milling machine. This fatal labelling error runs right through books like this. Phrases like "self-awareness", "memory", "emotions" when applied to the animal world mean always incredibly simple things, but when applied to the human world, mean unbelievably complex things.

A language problem
Ultimately it is language - complex and creative and vast - that so obviously separates us from the animal world. Some animals can communicate a predator warning cry that distinguishes between a leopard, eagle or snake, but no animals can communicate their thoughts about the past or hopes for the future, or one million other things. 

And so, in the strangest of twists, De Waal's book manages to demonstrate the very opposite of what he sets out to prove.  The abilities of animals he piles up are so profoundly simple, one simple act upon another, that collectively they demonstrate the chasm between man and beast. We never hear of apes putting together an orchestra. No dolphin quiz programmes. We never hear about crows arranging a film festival. No animals read books, discuss philosophy, make plans to terraform mars or climb mount Everest. In every experiment and in every observation the actions of his wonderful animals are so so simple.

The reason for the blindness
The reason why good men like De Waal and others are so blind to the chasm between us and the animals is because they labour under a world-view that demands there to be no chasm. Evolution hates chasms but loves gently ascending slopes. It is inconceivable to the evolutionist that a creature exists with absolutely no counterpart in any other part of the animal world. And so facts are bent upwards (if they pertain to animals) or bent downwards (when pertaining to man). 

Raymond Tallis
Before I read a book by a primatoligist, I first go to the index and bibliography. If Raymond Tallis's "The Aping of Mankind" is not there, I am immediately suspicious. Tallis - an atheistic evolutionary scientist, not a Christian - exposes the attempts to exalt animal or dethrone man (the pincer movement aimed at "aping mankind"). His book has never been refuted or bettered: make it your next read.

We thank De Waal for his commitment to the animal world. We love the stories, we believe them. But every single one of them prove the exact opposite of what he hoped they would show: all of them demonstrate how simple animals are compared to the majestic creature that God made us to be.

Why not ditch the paradigm?
The most sensible thing to do would be to ditch the paradigm of evolution if it is not able to explain the gap. Just say - "the gap is so wide that gradual evolution cannot be true." The real reason men and women will not do this is because if they acknowledge a God behind the chasm, if they acknowledge that we are made by God in his glorious image, and this is why we are so much greater than the animals, then we also have to admit that we are all accountable to him, that he is our King - and that we will not have!

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

A Wonderful Day in Cambridge

The Reason for the Wonderful Day
I spent a wonderful Saturday in Cambridge recently, at Hughes Hall (one of the colleges of university).  Wonderful, because I was attending a conference called "Beyond Materialism"organised by the Centre for Intelligent Design. It was a gathering of some of the most important western experts in the new science (yes, science) of intelligent design. It was a joy and a privilege to listen to these humble giants. I include among the giants men like Stephen Meyer, Gunter Bechley, Douglas Axe, and women like Ann Gauger.

In a word, ID says that science must always run from evidence to the best explanations. If there are two possible explanations for some phenomenon, then the one that best explains the phenomena is the one we must adopt. This is common sense, and it is true science.

Materialism and ID
Tragically, a strangle-hold theory has become the reigning paradigm in explaining "origins" of all kinds. This reigning paradigm, starting with Darwin, does not arise out of the evidence but arises out of philosophy. Materialism starts with the premise that there is no prior mind or intelligence in the universe. It says that all there is is matter, "In the beginning matter". Materialism - without a jot of evidence or supporting arguments - posits the non-existence of intelligence as a founding principle of exploration and examination. Not surprisingly, if you don't put cinnamon in the cake at the beginning, you don't get cinnamon cake out of the oven.  Materialist scientists don't find evidence for God anywhere because he's not even a possibility in their work, at the start.

On the other hand, ID experts suggests that if we find evidence of intelligence in the universe we should not be afraid to admit it and acknowledge it. Only a bigoted mind would exclude such a common sense approach.

Evidence for Intelligence
Here are four evidences for intelligence in the universe:

(i) The origin of the first cell. More like, "The origin of the first protein." Materialists live in the hope that somehow we will be able to come up with a "just so" pathway from inorganic matter to living cells. Darwin could be excused for such nonsense because he was ignorant of the vast complexity of a single living cell. We who know better, know too that there is no way a cell can come about by chance and law. Now that the time-frame of the earth has been limited to a few billions of years we can do the maths: there is not enough time to come up with one simple useful protein (one of the molecular machines in a cell), let alone a cell with hundreds of interconnected proteins working in harmony with each other.

This is not one of those "one day when we know more" gaps, it is a fundamental, statistical, fact: proteins cannot arise by chance (let alone unbelievably more complex cells). It takes intelligence.....

(ii) The rapid origin of all living things. Gunter Bechley demonstrated from the fossil record that whenever new organisms appear they do so "instantaneously" (in geological terms). The most common example of this is the Cambrian Explosion where some 40 body types appear all of a sudden in the fossil record with no previous ancestors. But Gunter showed us that the Cambrian Explosion is just one of many such explosions, all of which follow the same pattern in the fossil record. How come they appear abruptly? Perhaps........?

(iii) The fine tuning of the universe.  The laws and matter in the universe possess many numbers, constants, numerical values which are finely tuned for life. If you tweak any one of these numbers, by even in some case a tiny amount, the universe cannot support life. Examples of this abound not only in the physical laws of the universe but in the kind of galaxy, kind of solar system and kind of world we live on. It is best to explain the rare phenomenon of the right conditions for life as the mark of a designer who set all the dials to the right value!

(iv) The discontinuity between us and animals. We are not animals (read the pagan writer Raymond Talis, "The Aping of Mankind" if you doubt that). Human beings tower above the animal world in every single activity, bar none. And supremely we have minds. Animals act on immediate sensory inputs plus hard-wired instincts and live existentially in the moment. We are able to imagine a world completely different from the sensory inputs flowing into our brains at any moment. For this reason we can have hope for the future, empathise with others and do all the very different things that mark out human beings.

How come the human mind? There is for sure not one single evolutionary reason for it! Plenty of organisms survive very well without it, and the possession of a mind could easily be a hindrance to survival: doing art on the Savannah while a lion is stalking you.... or maths while your family are hungry.... do not give survival advantages.

The only explanation for the human mind is Another Prior Mind who made our minds in his image.

So ID is seeking to go beyond the iron prison walls of materialism to seek the real explanations for the wonders of the universe.

ID will NEVER win the day
But ID, like all truth will never ever ever win the day. It will never be accepted by "mainline" science. Google ID and you will get this: 

"Intelligent design (ID) is the pseudoscientific view that "certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection."

The reason ID will ALWAYS be despised (like all truth), is because admitting a Supreme Intelligence, admitting the existence of God acknowledges that we may be accountable to him, perhaps our lives are displeasing to him? Perhaps we need to change our lives? Perhaps we need to submit to him? No way! And so in our rebellion against God we suppress the truth! (Read all about it in Romans chapter 1).

So although ID will for sure overtake all materialistic explanations for origins - it already has - it will, I predict, never, ever be acceptable to pagan science. Indeed what I expect as the modern evolutionary synthesis is undermined is increasingly foolish explanations of where we came from. Why? Because, if you deny what is so obvious, you mess up your forensic logic software and cease to be able to think straight.

Example? In "Aping Mankind" the pagan neuroscientist, a great man, Raymond Talis, after debunking all attempts to put humans and animals on the same footing makes a suggestion to how the unbelievable human mind came into existence......

Wait for it...., I can't believe that?

That's what he suggests!?

Want to know where the human mind came from?

The opposable thumb! There are simply not enough smiley emojis in thw world to describe how crazy this idea is. Once the opposable thumb was invented by evolution it led to brain developments which resulted in the human minds we now have!

"Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools" is how Paul would decribe such madness.

In the midst of a world of scientific origin-madness and lies, Hughes Hall was an oasis of honesty, sanity and reasonableness. And worship. A wonderful day in Cambridge.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Film Review - The Light Between Oceans

Our messy lives
For my lovely wife's birthday, we went to see the 2016 film, "The Light Between Oceans." Rotten Tomatoes gives it an unfair 59% (compared, for  example with 82% for another 2016 film, The Revenant.)

The film is about Tom, who, trying to forget the experiences of four bitter years spent in the first world war, ends up manning a remote light house loctaed "between two oceans".

Don't read on if you plan to see the film!

The Light between Oceans is a beautiful and moving film about the mess humans can so easily get themselves into. Many of the greatest themes of life in a fallen world are to be found here.....

Beautiful nature is not enough
So Tom ends up on the lonely island of Janus Rock.  Although he is surrounded by spectacular natural beauty he is desperately lonely because inanimate creation is not enough to satisfy or heal his broken soul. He falls in love and marries Isabel (from the mainland) who joins him on the island. 

The beast and the beauty
But all of the joys of this passing life are marred by the fall, and two miscarriages later, Isabel is depressed and down-hearted. One day a small boat is blown onto the lighthouse rocks. On board is a baby and the child's dead young father. Tom knows that the rules of the lighthouse demand he records this event and calls in help, but desperate to make his bereaved wife happy he buries the dead father and colludes with his wife to pretend the baby belongs to them.... 

The union of husband and wife in crime
Truth may not always to be found in a married couple, for love often blinds them and then binds them. Tom's conscience says one thing, his love for his wife says another, and instead of standing up for the truth, he agrees with the deception and thus begins a life founded on a big fat lie....

You can't live a lie for long 
....but conscience won't long abide a lie. When happy grandparents congratulate the couple, it's hard to hide the moral short-circuiting going on in their heads. When the baby is christened, it's hard to hear words that imply the child is their own. Faces contort as consciences are pricked. What is worse, Tom hears about the true story of the child and its father: one day, after a period of bullying, the father took his baby daughter and set off on the open ocean leaving behind his wife. All assumed father and child had died at sea, but Tom upon hearing of the intense grieving of the widow writes her an anonymous note to say that the father was "in the hands of God" and the child was safe. This begins a police search for the baby which will lead to the arrest of Tom and his wife....

Be sure your sins will find you out
Tom and Isabel's sins are found out because of the note Tom wrote. One sin leads to another: Tom in his desire to protect his wife from punishment lies to say he was wholly responsible for the cover-up. And then, when the heat is on, Isabel, out of her love for Tom admits her part in the cover-up; it looks like they'll both be locked away.

Forgiveness "heals"
The true mother forgives the couple and their sentence is reduced and here, at last, is where some measure of redemption takes place in the story.  It seems as though she brings up the baby without bitteness or rancour because many years later as an adult, Grace visits Tom, Isabel having passed away. The death of one father leaves one wife bereaved, but the deceit of a couple, in their desperation to have children, bring misery to four people. Sin spreads, sin has consequences, and what tragic webs of sorrow sin weaves in our lives.

Unwinding the tangled web
Suppose we could go back in time, suppose, for a moment, a wife grieving over two miscarriages is comforted and strengthened by her husband against a temptation to take a baby not her own (for to do what is right is always better than to do what feels best). Suppose the husband lovingly stood up to his wife and reported the missing baby. A grieving mother would have been reunited with her baby, four years of seared conscience avoided and many long years of sorrow in the lives of four people prevented.

It sounds like I think The Light Between Oceans is a real-life story! These themes are so close to the tangled webs we weave that it could very easily be a real life story, from which only the saving grace of God can heal and restore. 

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

The (spiritual) gift of leadership - do you have it?

A vital gift
According to Paul's letter to the Romans (chapter 12) leadership is a gift of God. Paul is not thinking here of the ordinary practise of human leadership, but the spiritual gift of leadership - which is very different from human leadership, or what we might call "worldly leadership".

Worldly leadership
The practise of worldly leadership is very different from spiritual leadership. A worldly leader may have acquired his position by smooth rhetoric - some people can talk and charm their way to the top. Perhaps she got there by wealth - in the ancient Roman world you bought positions of authority (as you do in many countries today). Perhaps it was sheer force of personality or even bullying or education, that led to the top. There are unusual worldly leaders who did not get to the top by these means, to be sure, but they are rare.

Christian leadership
Christian leadership and secular leadership may, like two circles, overlap in the middle. For example, all leaders are communicators (they answer emails, texts, etc.) and all leaders give attention to detail, but here are five unique qualities of Christian leadership, taken from Christ our supreme example:

(1) Christian leaders are humble. This is the first requirement, and it is evidenced by teachability and a submissive spirit. Someone who does not know how to "back down", who has never been known to submit to another may make a fine leader in the world ("he's a strong leader" they may even say, "she's never made a U-turn"), but this person does not have the gift of Christian leadership.

(2) Christian leaders are courageous. A Christian leader must put the will of God before the will of anyone else - including the will of his wife, family, whoever. When Jesus' family came to him on one occasion, assuming he would automatically and immediately jump to their needs, ("of course, they are flesh and blood"), Jesus continued teaching - for his Father had given him that task.

(3) Christian leaders have a servant spirit. "The Son of man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many." Leaders don't hang around waiting to be crowned, but without any promptings get on with the work as humble as it may be. This inded is a major way their gift is discerned: they are servant hearted.

(4) Christian leaders lead by example. Christian leaders do not say "Do this" but go and do something else. The force of all their exhortations comes only from the example of their lives. "Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ."

(5) Christian leaders are hard working. Finally, true Christian leaders are hard working. Jesus accomplished so much in his life that the apostle John once wondered if all the books in the world would be enough to record his works.

Are you a spiritual leader?!

In my own personal experience, spiritual leadership is rare, but since Christ is the head of the church, we expect to find him raising up all the leaders any local church needs. Our task is to constantly look out for the next generation of spiritual leaders. We can't make them, but we can recognise them.