How do you know?

Posted on May 3, 2006
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thinking.jpg Augustine said, “I doubt therefore I am.” Descartes said, “I think therefore I am.” All I can say is, “I doubt that I think, therefore what am I?” At least Augustine and Descartes knew one thing for sure: they existed. For the rest of us the question remains: how do you know? Basically, there are two ways in which we come to know things.

The first way that we can know anything is from our personal observations and experiences. Every day of our lives we see and experience a variety of people, places, and events. We learn by seeing and doing. Those personal experiences are stored in our memories and we grow in knowledge as we experience the world around us.

The second way we can know something is if someone tells us about something that is outside of our experience. For example, if a friend returns from a vacation to Italy we can learn about that place from their experience. Or, if we want to learn about how Benjamin Franklin discovered electricity, we can read his autobiography and learn from someone who lived 200 years ago.

Have you ever heard someone say, or said yourself, “I will have to see it to believe it”? That may be a good test for some incredible claims, but it is a rotten way to live life every day. Like an infant who doesn’t know better, and thus cries when a parent moves outside of his or her line of sight are those who act like nothing exists outside of what they can see. Of the two ways that we come to know things, we learn much more by far from others about things that are outside of our own experiences. Everything that happened before we were born, everything that takes place out of our sight, and most of what will happen in the future we will not experience first hand. This fact is humbling and challenging: humbling because it means that none of us knows as much as we might hope, and challenging because it means we must be careful whom we listen to and carefully investigate claims to truth. We must rely on others as we come to know things, but we must make sure that we have good reasons to believe their accounts.

There is a principle that is critical to understand in this process. The more important the fact or belief, the more credible the person sharing the knowledge must be. It is fine to ask any stranger for directions to a nearby restaurant, but it is critical that someone who claims to be able to tell us about the meaning of life, God, and eternity be a very credible and tested authority. Since we all have to rely on others, it is worth our effort to make sure that those people are worth believing. Anyone can get a dog to follow him by feeding and petting it. I like to think that humanity is more reasonable than that. We ought to test claims that people make to determine if they are true.

Not only are there two ways of knowing, but there are also two types of knowledge. Augustine called the knowledge of temporal and changeless things “scientia.” He called the knowledge of changeless guidelines for living in the changing world “sapientia” or wisdom. Knowledge of changing and temporal things is important, but wisdom is the higher and ultimate goal. So, if wisdom is your goal, then think clearly about the source of your knowledge.

A person can go through life limited by only trusting his experiences or he can learn to find credible sources of knowledge that will lead to gaining wisdom. When it comes to questions about spiritual truth, we need to ask: who exhibited the greatest wisdom, teaching, understanding, insights, and life? That person deserves a hearing. These are not new thoughts: 1,600 years ago, Augustine wrestled with these same issues and found that God seems to be very concerned about how we know and what we know. Remember, Augustine went from, “Dubito ergo sum” (I doubt therefore I am) to, “… you [God] made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you.”

Going To Jail

Posted on March 22, 2006
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jail.bmp I went to jail today. Entering the booking area where you make your phone calls and await a decision about whether bond can be set is when reality begins to sink in if it didn’t while being searched in the garage holding area. Walking through sets of doors where the first needs to be closed before the second can be opened alerts your heightened senses that you are not in control. Once inside it hits you that unless you are wearing a blue uniform you can’t leave at your own choosing. Every movement is constantly monitored. Fear, panic, despair and shame circulate through your mind like the blood being pumped through an increasingly stressed heart. How can this be happening to me? What is going to happen now? When will I be able to get out of here?

Fortunately for me I was just visiting. In my role as chaplain for the Sheriff’s Office I was given a very complete tour through the entire facility. When we approached a locked set of doors, after a few moments, there was the comforting click of a lock being released. Someone high up in the command center acknowledged our presence and granted permission to continue in or out.

“Most of the people that come in here are pretty good people who are having a really bad day” was the observation of a seasoned deputy who had checked enough people in over nearly two decades to know. I would have thought that someone who has booked all kinds of people into the jail might have a more cynical view of humanity. Instead the thin line that separates those who reside there from those who can leave is often just a few bad choices. Someone who drank too much and thought they would be fine getting behind the wheel to go home. Someone else let their anger take control of them and took it out on their spouse. Another crossed over in desperation to feed a habit that was driving their life.

Driving away and looking at the jail from the outside I was struck by a couple of thoughts. First, it would be pretty easy to end up in jail; all of us are just one poor decision away. Second, how do the deputies that work in that environment deal with all of the questions that must arise in their own hearts and minds as a result of the situations they deal with every day? Most of us are confronted by the harsh realities of life occasionally; they deal with them every day.

On another level I wondered, does God see us in a similar light? Does he see men and women who are generally pretty good, but because of some bad choices find themselves imprisoned by their consequences? Is he interested in bringing about real change, rehabilitation, and setting people free? Does he treat us with dignity and respect no matter what we have done? Is God more concerned with setting people free or making sure they pay a penalty? My time in jail today showed me that it is run by compassionate people who have not lost sight of the fact that inmates are human beings and not just criminals. Maybe God is like that also. If Jesus Christ can be trusted it appears that God is more concerned with “setting the captives free”.

What if God wanted to talk to us?

Posted on February 7, 2006
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god-and-man.jpg If God had something to say, how do you think he would communicate his message? How would we know that it was God who was talking to us? If you heard a mystical voice, would you be skeptical? Some sort of trick or a mind game you might reason. The skeptic might dismiss it as a case of wishful thinking. As a result, if God did want to talk to us, he would have to say it in a very convincing manner. After all, if God has all power, he could communicate with us in a way that we could understand.

God could even choose to speak to humanity by taking the form of a person. Maybe an illustration would help explain what this might look like. Say that you noticed an ant colony sitting directly in the path of an oncoming steam roller. Because of your concern for the ants, you decide to warn them of the approaching danger. You could try to talk to the ants, shout at them, or even use hand signals but they would not understand you. To truly communicate with the ants you would have to become like an ant (if that were somehow possible) and communicate as ants do with one another. Surely an infinite God, if he chose to, could take on the form of a human being and speak our language.

What if God actually did that? How would we know that it was truly God speaking? That person would have to do something so unique, even supernatural, so that it would give distinction to his message. The messenger would have to be just as clear as the message. What would that kind of life look like? Flawless? Perfect? His teaching would have to show greater wisdom than the world has ever known. He would have to live a perfect life in keeping with his perfect character. He would also need to demonstrate supernatural powers. I imagine that we would all like to see a miracle or two before we would be ready to believe him. Maybe he could heal people from serious illnesses. He could certainly demonstrate his authority over nature by controlling natural events like say, calming a storm. Something else that might be convincing would be if he accurately predicted specific events that would take place in the future. The ultimate demonstration would be if he could bring a dead person back to life.

What if God not only did these things for other people, but he even applied them to himself in order to distinguish himself from all other people? He would have to live a perfect life, predict what would happen to him in the future, die and then return to life in some dramatic fashion.

If God did speak to humanity in a way we could understand and made it clear that it was God who was speaking, any sane person would be compelled to listen. The big question is, has God ever done anything like that? A good place to begin answering that question is to evaluate religious leaders who have claimed to represent God and see if they measure up. One person who became convinced that God had spoken to humanity in this manner through Jesus Christ wrote, “At the beginning God expressed himself. That personal expression, that word, was with God, and was God … So the word of God became a human being and lived among us. We saw his glory (the glory like that of a father’s only son), full of grace and truth.” I welcome your thoughts regarding this topic.

Who Is Rich?

Posted on January 25, 2006
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wealthy-monopoly-guy.jpg A very wealthy man, someone who had everything he wanted that money could buy, was supposedly asked how much money was enough? His reply was, “just a little bit more.” Why is it that whenever wealth is discussed it is typically someone else that is considered to be rich? At what level is a person considered to be rich? Have you ever considered whether you are the one who is rich? How much would you need to have to consider yourself rich?

Some time ago Millard Fuller, of Habitat for Humanity, was speaking to a group of pastors. He asked this group of spiritual leaders “Is it possible for a person to build a house so large that it’s sinful in the eyes of God?” Those in attendance agreed that it was possible. Then Fuller asked them what size the house would need to be to become so excessive. After a period of silence one voice said, “When it’s bigger than mine.” I am sure the response drew some laughter, but it also contains insight into how many people view what it means to be rich.

To answer the question, who is rich, requires a benchmark or baseline by which to compare. Those comparisons usually involve someone nearby (neighbors, office, celebrities) who has more. Maybe that is not the best baseline by which to evaluate? Consider that if you live in America, own a car (or two), own the place in which you live (or even if you rent), have machines like a dishwasher, washer and dryer, computers, DVD players, etc. then you are wealthier than 80% of the rest of the world. Are you rich? Most people would say that the top 20% should be considered rich.

I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong with being rich. I am suggesting that the way a person answers that question will help answer other questions that surface as a result. How much is enough and what should I do with the rest? Is there a better way to make decisions than simply asking, can I afford it? Am I in anyway accountable for how I use my riches? If so, to whom?
Again, as the story goes, a wealthy man died and at his funeral one of his friends whispered to another, “how much did he leave?” The reply was, “all of it.” Who do you think is rich?

Take It On Good Authority

Posted on January 17, 2006
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Today it is not hard to find a general distrust of people in positions of authority and not without some good reasons. Authority has been abused in business, government, and at home often times. Yet, authority is the foundation by which we know almost everything. C. S. Lewis writes, “Believing things on authority only means believing them because you have been told them by someone you think trustworthy. Ninety-nine per cent of the things you believe are believed on authority.” In other words, most of what you believe is based on authority and not experience or observation. I have never been to India, the North Pole, or Jupiter, but I hold numerous beliefs about all three places based on the observations of world travelers and astronomers. Lewis goes on to explain that, “Every historical statement in the world is believed on authority.” As an example, The Encyclopedia Britannica tells the story of the Normandy Invasion “through the spoken recollections of veterans who fought it, the newsreels that brought the news home, and the written words of historians who have dedicated years to studying the great campaign” Three significant areas for gathering evidence to establish an authoritative account of D-Day.

Spiritual truths and questions can be the most troublesome type to take on authority. After all, there have been so many different people throughout the centuries who have purported to have authority to speak for God. Ultimately the spiritual area is no different than any other. To decide what is true a person ought to test those who claim to be an authority and determine their level of trustworthiness. For example, Jesus Christ once told a man who was paralyzed, in the presence of his friends who had carried him to Jesus and a crowd of onlookers, that his offenses against God had been forgiven. Jesus knew that those present might not accept that statement without some outward proof so he then told the paralyzed man to, “Get up, pick up your bed and go home” which he proceeded to do (Matthew 9:6). The miracle they could see lent credibility to the statement Jesus made which they could not see.

So, when it comes to questions about spiritual truths, your faith in God or the Normandy invasion during World War II, don’t be afraid to “take it on good authority.”

What Role Does God Play?

Posted on January 12, 2006
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In my previous post, Resolving To Be Desperate, I ended with the following statement and question.

“Maybe it would help to consider the importance of this year from the perspective of the end. What change will you regret most if you don’t make it 12 months from now? … Would you be more motivated if you knew that you only had 12 months to live? What role would God play in it if that were the case?”

One of the comments I received asked me to answer the question about what role God would play for myself. Of course I realized immediately that it is easier to ask questions than it is to answer them, but let me try.

If I had a full 12 months to live however I chose and knew that on December 31, 2006, without any pain or disease, my time would be up, what role would God play in my life that year?

First of all I would ask God for his help and direction. I am convinced that he not only exists, but is involved in our lives so I would ask him how I should live and then listen and look for answers and direction. If the Bible is essentially his communication with us then I can have confidence when I read in it that he rewards those who seek him and that he will answer me when I ask.

Second, I would get my focus off of the day to day issues and concentrate on the big picture and eternity. If there is some kind of existence after this life then knowing I would be experiencing it soon would make me want learn more about what it will be like. I would also want to know how my days on earth do or don’t affect that aspect of life. Jesus Christ spoke a lot about eternity and heaven. That would seem to be a good place to start.

Third, I would engage in less small talk and cultivate more significant conversations. I get tired of “Hi, how are you doing?” The shortness of my time and sense of urgency would help me to let my guard down and listen more carefully. Maybe conversations would go something like this, “Hi, how are you?” “Great, I have 245 days to live, how about you?”

Fourth, I would be less hurried and more intentional. I would stop trying to accomplish as much as possible and spend my time on that which is most important (which takes me back to the first thing I mentioned).

What role would God play if I had only 12 months to live? It would be all about God. An ancient Hebrew writer, in a prayer to God summarized the situation pretty well when he wrote, “So teach us to number our days, That we may present to You a heart of wisdom.” I think I will give it a try, thanks for asking.

Resolving to be desperate

Posted on January 4, 2006
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The new year is upon us and in conjunction with that turn of the page on the calendar many people set some kind of formal or informal resolutions for the new year. While some are still determining those goals, others have already given up on achieving their short lived dreams of change for 2006.

Why is it that some resolutions are kept while others are discarded or simply forgotten even before the glitter of the New Year begins to dim? I suppose that one reason is that it can be more fashionable to make resolutions for change than it is to fulfill them. Certainly it is easier to make a resolution than it is to see it through.

But for those who are quite sincere in wanting to see those goals become a reality, what will make the difference? May I suggest that the resolutions that are kept are done so by those who are desperate? Desperation will drive a person to any measure of action. It is chic to resolve to lose 20 pounds and become a more slender you, but most health club memberships paid for in January are still awaiting activation in February. On the other hand, when a visit to the doctor reveals “off the chart” cholesterol readings along with arteries that are barely passable and the physician prescribes a radical change in diet and exercise, change usually occurs immediately. The difference is the level of desperation. Think about the last significant change you made in your life. What moved you to action? What finally got you off the dime? Why did you finally decide to “just do it”? Was it because your sense of desperation reached a critical level?

Some of the more important questions in life are just as fashionable for people to dabble in. Questions of meaning and purpose, death, eternity and God are interesting to consider when it is convenient and an answer would be nice as long as it doesn’t interfere with some “must see TV”. Then again, when the pink slip arrives or the diagnosis is “6 months or less” the questions take on a new urgency. Do circumstances have to reach that level before we get desperate? I don’t think so. So let me suggest that a great resolution for the New Year is to resolve to be desperate. I know it is hard to work up some desperation. Maybe it would help to consider the importance of this year from the perspective of the end. What change will you regret most if you don’t make it 12 months from now? Is it a relationship; an issue that needs to be dealt with; or a change in priorities that needs to be seen in your daily calendar? Would you be more motivated if you knew that you only had 12 months to live? What role would God play in it if that were the case?

Happy New Year and here is a toast to resolving to be desperate this year!

What If I Find One?

Posted on January 1, 2006
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Children often set off on make believe adventures and hunting expeditions; traveling to far away lands in search of exotic and elusive game. The pleasure is in the pursuit. But what if on one of those wild African lion hunts they were actually to find a lion? Thinking of that possibility with the innocence that only a child can muster, she might turn to a parent and say, “Daddy, what should I do if I find one?” What’s more what would they do if, to their astonishment, they learned that they were not only the hunters, but in turn being hunted by the prey they were seeking? Not realizing that sometimes the pursuer is actually the one being pursued.

C.S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia and renowned professor at Oxford and Cambridge, likens this type of scenario to the spiritual pursuits of many people in relation to God. Lewis writes, “There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion (‘Man’s search for God!’) suddenly draw back. Supposing we really found Him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing He had found us?”

Is your pursuit of God a sincere one full of anticipation of actually finding, as Francis Schaeffer put it, “the God who is there?” Or is it simply a noble goal with no hope or real desire to actually find One? The question of real significance becomes, what should I do if I find one? For that matter, how would it feel if you came to realize that you were not the pursuer but the one being pursued?

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