Sunday science.

Ahh, I like church.  I do!  Some people think it is boring, or pointless, but I go to church and I feel like… well, I feel like I’m closest to being home.  I always come away from church feeling a little bit of a high.  That feeling fades throughout the week, but then on Sunday, boom, there is God, waiting, always faithful. I know that’s silly. I know that God is there throughout the week, and the challenge is for me to meet him. And I try to, and some days I am able to.  But there is still something about church that feels good to me.

I remember a segment on some infotainment news-type show in which there were scientists who did brain scans of people who were in worship services (of various different religions) and they found that there was a particular area of the brain that was especially active during the moment that worshippers felt this “high”.  I don’t quite remember, but I think they were trying to prove that spiritual experiences were simply a rush of neurotransmitters in the brain, nothing truly spiritual at all.  They thought they had pulled a fast one on believers, but really, most believers would credit God with the design of the human brain and all of the chemicals therein which make it tick.  So what did they really prove?  I think it’s silly when people base all of their arguments on the idea that God and Science are mutually exclusive.   They aren’t!  Duh!

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Strength.

I highly doubt I’ll be going to see the film Religulous – for the same reason I’ll probably never read The God Delusion – I do a good enough job coming up with doubt on my own and don’t need the help of any overly prideful intellectuals (and certainly not any stand up comics – have I mentioned my total distaste for stand up comics?)  Anyway, I get the point.  Religion is the opiate of the masses.  Sure.  Sure it is.  That’s why I just spent the whole day amongst some of the most service-hearted people I’ve ever encountered, and they didn’t seem stoned at all on dogma or blind-obedience – except maybe obedience to Christ’s call to love the world.  So if you’re going to attack the church, that’s fine, just don’t do so on the premise that nothing good has ever come out of organized religion.  If that’s your argument, prepare to be made a fool.  

Anyway, in this horrible place where I go each week to be brainwashed into loving my neighbor, they’ve begun a sermon series on Deuteronomy which the pastor insists will not be boring.  Furthermore, for people who strive to be like Christ, Deuteronomy is a necessary study since Jesus loved Deuteronomy and quoted it more than any other Old Testament text.  So there is this passage which I suspect we’ll return to with frequency which reads, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” (Deuteronomy 6:5)  I tend to focus on the more abstract elements of that passage – my heart and my soul.  But what does it mean to love God with all my strength?  That is a physical, measurable thing, and I never really think about what it means.  But today I got a taste.  Because last night I didn’t sleep well, and today I have a cold, and I had committed my entire day to manning a table at a volunteer fair at Black Hawk Church.  This meant an early morning, a long drive, and almost non-stop physical and social engagement on a very shallow reserve of energy.  Today I loved God with my strength, a lot of it, if not all of it, which was an easier proportion to reach considering that I didn’t have much strength to begin with.  

So what if I gave God every ounce of my strength on a healthy, well-rested day when I had so much more strength to give?  What if I went to bed at night exhausted, as I no doubt will tonight, because I had depleted the oxygen in ever fiber of my muscles, every neuron of my brain, every cell in my body, from the exertion of loving God and my neighbor so completely?  And what if I didn’t stop there?  What if I trained my body to have more strength, adopted a healthier diet, pruned away anything toxic in my life, so as to cultivate MORE strength which I could turn around and use for love?  I would actually be a healthier person for it.

I know it’s all theoretical at this point, but when I imagine the upward trajectory of this kind of living, when I imagine the entire church moving and growing in this direction of strength (to say nothing of the dimensions of heart and soul) I have a really hard time seeing the church as the dangerous downward pull that Bill Maher claims it is.  I’m not talking about the mistakes we have made and still make which lead division, I’m talking about what is possible, if we really live like Christ, who gave every ounce of his strength.  Literally.  Every last drop. 

 

***

My friend Alex wrote a few pretty amazing words on the whole absurdity of defending our faith, which might be interesting to read as a parallel to this.  You can point out all of the ways that I don’t quite live up to Jesus’ standard of living our faith instead of defending it, even right here in this post!  :)

Outside the box, away from the line.

Prepare yourself for some run-on sentences and maybe some mini-brain explosions.  That said…

Earlier this week as I was driving to my parents’ house I was thinking about God, and how he is clearly a being that exists outside the realm of human understanding, or at least beyond it, with maybe a small portion, the tip of the iceberg, dwelling in terms that we can wrap our heads around.  We often use this characteristic of God, that he is not fully knowable by our limited minds, as consolation when things in this life do not make sense.  How could God allow such and such to happen?  Because God and his intentions are bigger than we can fathom.  We use this fact in response to arguments of logic: How could God be everywhere at the same time?  How could he have always existed?  How could a virgin conceive and how could a man rise from the dead?  How could any of the ridiculous claims in the Bible be true?  In response to secular thinkers and simply the skeptical, God is bigger than human understanding.  Even the smartest and wisest of us could not begin to explain the mysteries of God, and for some reason that takes some of the pressure on those of us who aren’t the smartest or wisest.

So here is what I was thinking about, specifically.  I was thinking about Kilgore Trout (of Kurt Vonnegut’s imagination) and his theory that time is not a linear experience, that our limited human minds may interpret our experience in a linear way, but really all moments in time occur simultaneously, or maybe eternally, or something along those lines, and a person who is aware of this can pick and choose which order they wish to experience life events, can jump around at their leisure.  (I’m basing this weak summary on Slaughterhouse Five which I last read a few years ago, so I’m sure that I’m butchering the theory.  But there is some incentive to go pick up the book and read it yourselves.)

Of course, this is the stuff of science fiction.  In reality, time is linear.  It has a beginning, and it has an end.  Human lives have a very distinct beginning and an often equally distinct end, and a series of events that take place between those two milestones.  Time is linear.  Right?  Or is it just that our tip-of-the-iceberg sized understanding of time is linear?  After all, God is eternal.  He exists infinitely in all directions of time and space; he always was, always is, and always will be.  How does one express such an existence with a time line?  There is no beginning and no end, and while experiential evidence suggests that there is a sequence to events, it’s quite possible that it is simply a perception that comes about when we try to explain something much more complex (if I knew what that something was I would probably say it outright here, instead of dusting around with all of these question marks).

I don’t know that it is necessarily important to fully understand the physical shape that time takes.  Except for this, which is what I was thinking about on the drive: if all time is actually occurring simultaneously, wouldn’t it make sense to adjust prayer accordingly?  Currently we pray God’s forgiveness for the past, we pray thanks for the present, and we pray supplication for the future.  I’m generalizing of course (there are some who pray forgiveness for sins not yet committed, or some who can’t stop thanking God for something that happened years ago) but this seems to be the standard association between prayer and time.  But if time is not actually occurring on a line, wouldn’t it make sense to pray for things that happened in the “past”?  If we prayed in 2008 for events of 2007, would it make any difference?  If we prayed today for things that happened in history, the genocides and wars and natural disasters, would we see any effect?  Not that the headlines of our newspapers would mystically change before our eyes (a  la Back to the Future) but perhaps that the current “result” (in quotes because without a chain of events there can’t actually be any causality) of those events would be altered.  That we would be changed in light of these things.

If all time is occurring simultaneously and I begin to pray for my “past” self and do so faithfully, then I could exist today knowing that my “future” self was praying for me on this very day.  Surely my “future” self would know better how to pray for me, having already experienced parts of my linearly-perceived life that my present-day self has not yet.

Mostly this was just a bunch of wild thoughts that were more interesting at that time than the farms and fields that I was driving past.  Probably it’s safe to say that praying for the past would not be the wisest way to spend valuable time, particularly valuable time with God.  Even if time is not happening quite the way we understand it, there is a reason that God wired our brains to interpret it this way.  Maybe it’s for our safety.  Or maybe we are supposed to think about it, and outside of the niche of science fiction.  Could we do it without laughing at ourselves?  I told my mom about the subject of this post and she laughed and said, “So it’s Christian Sci-Fi.”  Maybe that’s all it is.  Maybe I’ll pitch it to George Lucas.  And my future self can pray that he buys it!

Speaking lately in Last Nights.

(Note from B: The frinternet is down again, which means I haven’t been able to post this, let alone perfect it. I’ve got all kinds of blog ideas that are just piling up without any outlet. This could damage me, if left untreated. Sorry for the infrequent posts. This one I wrote on Sunday.)

Last night The Art Table played at a wedding. Well, more accurately, Holly and the Non-Italians played at a wedding and I sat in for a few of the requested classics. Holly and I also kicked off the set by singing that Moldy Peaches song Anyone Else But You that they sing at the end of Juno (which the bride and groom had danced to five years before Juno ever came out, so it was their song first!) We also sang Mable, which was really the reason why I drove up to Green Bay this weekend, and once we realized there was only one vocal mic I ended up signing with Holly on hers while someone else played my drum part… so we all got to hear what Mable would sound like with a real drummer! (For those of you who missed it–it sounds pretty awesome.)

The wedding was held at the National Railroad Museum, which looks really neat inside with all of the party lighting and the train cars and such, and while Holly and the Non-Italians were setting up I sat on the front steps of an engine car and took the scene in. There was so much energy in that canyon of a room, with the wedding party dancing and Holly testing the distortion from her pedals and some little boy wearing a Mardi Gras mask beating away on the drums like he was the happiest kid alive. I glanced up and saw the Wisconsin flag hanging from the rafters, and the train cars lined up in a row, serving industriously as the backdrop of all of this. Life was pulsating. The noise of joyful conversation and laughter mingled with white lights and then kind of swallowed me up and I was for some reason overjoyed. I remember thinking, or maybe praying, “God, can you beat this?”

I don’t know what prompted me to say something like that. Even as soon as I thought it I realized it was ridiculous, because A) of course God could beat it, but more importantly B) God was there anyway, whether people were aware of it or not. Sometimes I forget that when I’m in a secular place. I feel like I’ve checked God at the door and any fun that I have is fun without him. Sometimes I feel like if I’m having fun while I’m not in church, if I’m having fun while drinking a beer, if I’m having fun while rock and roll pounds against my eardrums, then it must be wrong. But that’s a lie, and an unfortunate one. That’s the kind of lie that can lead to guilt, and what about this weekend should actually cause guilt? Nothing, really. Fortunately, guilt never came. This weekend was just fun. I had a great time with my friends and family, with the fireworks and art supply shopping sprees and too-big burritos, with the rock and roll wedding party and, hey, with church too. It’s really a great relief when you realize that there is nothing wrong with having fun, at least not inherently. And it’s a different kind of relief to be reminded that God is still there in the midst of it, no matter what.

American Idol Worshiper (or Focus, part two).

If something does not draw me closer to God, it brings me further away from him. There is no standing still. Everything is an action. If I have felt a distance from God in the weeks since Easter it is because I took an action to turn my eyes away from him. I don’t want to be so simplistic to say that giving certain things up for Lent was my way of drawing near to God, but, while it did afford me plenty of time to instead meditate on God, what have I done with my free time since then?

I have spent hours poring over my music and looking for new artists, I have spent hours watching movies and reading books that are unhealthy for me, I have spent hours worrying about my health and human relationships, I have spent hours watching stupid videos online and hovering around pointless websites, I have spent hours sleeping while dishes lay dirty in the sink and laundry collects in a heap on my floor. These are all active choices, and why don’t I call them what they are: they are idols (at least for me in my context). And I am an idol worshiper.

This is no revelation. I’ve always suspected music was an idol of mine, which is why it felt good to give it up on the times that I have. I probably should have suspected all of those other things were idols too, and while there are plenty of things in the human experience which I don’t idolize (fashion, television, celebrity, intellectualism, material accumulation – generally) a single, tiny idol is one giant idol too many. This morning I was reading in First Samuel the story that takes place right before the Israelites demand a king for themselves, where they are being afflicted by the Philistines and Samuel offers a sacrifice to the Lord to bring deliverance. Right before he makes the sacrifice, Samuel says to the Israelites: “If you are returning to the Lord with all your hearts, then rid yourselves of foreign gods and the Ashtoreths and commit yourselves to the Lord and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.” It couldn’t be clearer. I need to get rid of these idols. Everything eternal depends on it.

Yes, yes, just when I was starting to sound fun again I go and ruin it by writing a post like this one. But let me clarify something (I feel like I clarify this a lot). I don’t think there is anything wrong with music or movies or comics or romance or naps, and I don’t think God is expecting me to cut those things out of my life completely. But they need to be rightly ordered. I’ve gone through extreme phases where I thought entertainment in any form was inherently evil, but I’m certain now that it’s not. We are meant to have some fun in this life. Music and film and all of those things can bring glory to God, and often does! But it can also suck me of my devotion. It comes back to the matter of focus, I think, and it comes back to the line I opened with: If something does not draw me closer to God, it brings me further away from him. It’s about time I reordered a few things.

Focus.

I didn’t mean to complain about being sick. I mean, it’s a drag, but it’s a really small thing in comparison to pretty much anything else happening anywhere, to anyone. I should have kept writing this past week. I should have kept painting, I should have kept reading, I should have kept on, but mostly I just coughed and thought wistfully back on the nights of deep, restful sleep. Apparently this one lasts two weeks, so I’m over halfway through. And that’s the last I’ll write about it, I promise.

It’s difficult to write about much else, though, because in my past week and a half as a zombie I haven’t really experienced anything, or haven’t been alert enough to notice it. I checked out a couple videotapes from the library (if you recall that ancient technology) and I put the finishing touches up at Mother Fool’s (title cards and a wordy artist statement). I found my Dear Nora pin while giving my car a spring cleaning.

I feel like life took a little bit of a dip after Easter. The Church calendar can be a useful thing or not, depending on who you talk to, but I think that this past Lent was maybe a little too useful. That is, I think I was able to work myself into such a concentrated state of reflection on the events leading up to and surrounding Christ’s death that when the time came for us to celebrate his life and move forward I haven’t known quite what to do. I had put a lot of emphasis on Lent, this year.

This past Sunday at church we were reminded that, if we are fans of the Church calendar, we actually celebrate Easter for 50 days, right up until the day of Pentecost. When I heard this I was a little bit excited, thinking, “Oh good, another season I can throw myself into!” As if I needed something to replace Lent, something new to focus on. But I think that is where people who are skeptical of the Church calendar would say, “Faith cannot be a focus on events and rituals. It must be a constant focus on God.” Which, of course, is true. But for some people those events and rituals can help us to focus on God. I don’t know. For some reason I haven’t been able to look as clearly upon God in the weeks following Easter. Is it a kind of postpartum phenomenon? Is it simply because I’ve been sick? Faith is an intricate thing, and very complicated. Anyway, I hope to be writing more again, about it, or about anything.

On the edge of the waste bin, precariously – Part Two.

I didn’t mean to let a week go by before I continued with this post. Maybe you thought I forgot about it. Maybe you even hoped I did! But alas, here I am on another Sunday evening and I fully intend to finish my thought. To refresh our memories (read Part One here), I am the kind of painter who will abandon a project once it has moved out of my control. I will begin to create something, and if it is too slow to get in line with my vision I will scrap it with little remorse. I do not lose sleep over this, generally, that is to say that I am quite at peace with the power I wield as a creator to cease and dismantle any creation that displeases me. Writing that makes me sound like a quitter, but even if that were true about me (I could argue that I’m not, perhaps another day, another post) I would think that even the most steadfast and persevering artist would, at some point when his creation has reached a dark and unforgiving dead-end, give up. Cut our losses, cut and run. It’s expected.

The question I posed in Part One was would God, the Creator, when faced with the same frustrating rebellions of his creation, similarly give up? Setting aside the story of The Great Flood for now (which, like the battlefields of Joshua, is a difficult one to understand) it’s a pretty simple answer. But sometimes simple answers take us by surprise. Such was the case as I was first considering this, some time towards the end of February, after my canvas had disappointed me and I had thrown it away and I thought, “Is this how God operates?”

And a verse crept up on me, kind of toeing shyly at the edge of my consciousness at first, but doing so persistently, and then I had to search around a bit to locate it. In Philippians 1:6 Paul writes, “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” Anyway, there is the answer. But I didn’t start writing this to give you a single verse and a pat on the back. I want to make you imagine that, to consider what that means. God. In his studio. Creating.

He’s started this one painting but the framework is a little bit warped. He takes the time to correct it. He is stapling the canvas down but notices it buckles in some places. He carefully removes the staples, pulls the buckled cloth taut, and restaples them. He begins to apply gesso with his wide bristled brush but notices there is dirt and hair collecting on its surface, mixing with the white acrylic and causing the surface an unsightly texture. He waits patiently for it to dry, then sands away the imperfections and applies another coat. He begins to paint, lines of delicately varying weight, arching and dipping gracefully across the canvas, and the subject begins to emerge. It is me. He is continuing to form me with shapes and colors when I make my first ugly mistake. With hardly a blink he corrects it and continues painting. I jerk again, almost involuntarily (but of course it is always voluntarily) and something is smeared. He sighs this time and dutifully he corrects his painting once again, but almost before his brush meets the surface of the canvas his subject has begun her outright rebellion. Every color is garish and unsightly, every line revolts against its intended path and black and gray tangle with muddied pinks and oranges and browns and yellows and the Creator, realizing that the subject has every intention of running its own life, steps back and lets it do so for a time. It becomes increasingly vile, increasingly hideous, and it is painful. It is a crime against the art world, against creation. The Creator, after a time, steps back to his painting and begins to wrestle with it, fighting color with color, texture with texture, and after much effort he has reworked the piece into something lovely, something much closer to what he had intended. The artwork revolts yet again. It threatens to become something putrid, something truly abhorrent, but the Creator had made up his mind before he even began: this was his painting, he would see it through to completion.

And so it goes in God’s studio. We who are creations of a diligent and faithful Creator can be assured that we will not be discarded at the first sign of failure, not even after the tenth or twentieth or ten thousandth mistake. The reason why, I think, is also aided by an art metaphor, that the final work, the masterpiece, is priceless. It will hang in a museum for all to see and it will be a light shining, reflecting the Creator’s glory. There is nothing more valuable to a creator than his masterpiece; it is, without a doubt, worth every drop of sweat, every hour spent toiling. God has given us this promise, that he will sweat over us and toil over us and will not give up on us, no, not ever. I will throw away a canvas because I have failed it, but God will never fail us, and never throw us away. God is faithful. He who began a good work in us will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

So there, your sermon for today. If you’re reading from Wisconsin, go make yourself a mango smoothie and enjoy the last few days of winter. The great melt is coming!

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    Breena Wiederhoeft
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