The Mystery of Faith

One of my favorite parts of the liturgy — which I don’t recite very often, since we go to a Baptist Church — is the Mystery of Faith:

Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.

On Easter Sunday especially, the Mystery of Faith resonates with me. I think it’s aptly named, i.e., that the basis of our faith is ultimately mysterious and beyond human comprehension. To the worldly wise it is a foolish thing that confounds them; to those of us who are not so wise it can be a confusing thing, difficult to understand and harder to put into practice.

I don’t understand it — neither the mechanisms of the miracles nor the depths of such sacrificial love — and because I don’t understand it, of all the disciples I relate most to Peter the denier and Thomas the doubter.

To me it is, and probably always will be, a mystery.

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Our Geeky Church, and a Little Space History

Before we get into today’s space history, a “quote of the day” from last night’s small group Bible study. As we were gathering, Maria grabbed one of our STAR TREK coffee mugs for Elliott, so I mentioned that ReConStruction, the North American Science Fiction Convention (NASFic) is coming to Raleigh in August. True to the nature of our science fiction church, Elliott said, “If that’s not a church trip, I don’t know what is!”

Yes, we’re geeks. But you already knew that, didn’t you?

Back to the topic at hand, an interesting launch 40 years ago in space history. On January 23, 1970, a Delta rocket out of Vandenberg AFB carried two satellites, ITOS-1 and Oscar-5.

ITOS-1 was the first prototype of the “Improved TIROS Operational System” — that is, a new and improved version of the remote sensing satellite featured in yesterday’s space history item. ITOS-1 was built “to provide improved operational infrared and visual observations of earth cloud cover for use in weather analysis and forecasting.”

Oscar-5, on the other hand, was an amateur spacecraft built by students at the University of Melbourne, Australia. It has the distinction of being the first remotely-controlled amateur micro-satellite.

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Economic Recovery Blues

Introducing my second foray into songwriting: “The Economic Recovery Blues,” the 2009 Industrial Extension Service (IES) Song, now available on YouTube.

And now, the story behind the song …

Friends from the Titan System Program Office at Vandenberg AFB may remember that I penned quite a few Titan-related lyrics to Beatles tunes, but “The Economic Recovery Blues” was only the second time I’ve tried to write lyrics and something of an original tune. Back in late 2008, my first attempt was “The I-E-S Song” — I wrote the lyrics and had the basic tune in mind, and Mark Minervino (my Pastor at North Cary Baptist Church) fleshed out the music. He also did all the instruments and the background vocals — his versatility is boundless — and I just sang the main lyrics. Then I put together a video montage and showed it off at our annual Christmas luncheon.

The original “I-E-S Song” was a big hit with the folks at work. Several of us wanted it to go on YouTube, but the humor was a little too sharp — mostly self-deprecating, but it got in digs at some other North Carolina institutions of higher learning. Maybe the powers-that-be will change their minds one of these days.

I had so much fun doing the first “I-E-S Song” that I figured, why not do another one? So in December 2009 the process repeated. I had the lyrics and the beginning of a tune, and Mark figured out (and performed!) the rest. Because I didn’t get started as early as the first one, we didn’t get this song done in time for the IES Christmas luncheon, so at that I sang another song — this one a work-related lyric sung to “Oh, How I Love Jesus” — and then finished up “The Economic Recovery Blues” over the holiday break. The video montage is rougher than the first one,* but the office folks decided to post it “as is.” So this is the first song I’ve done to be posted online. Hope you enjoy it, if you go in for that sort of office-related-silliness thing.

Meanwhile, if you know of anyone who needs some business consulting in lean manufacturing, “Six Sigma” statistical process control, ISO quality management standards, safety and health, or growth services, point them at the Industrial Extension Service — and at “The Economic Recovery Blues.”

Ah-one, and ah-two ….

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*A note on the video montage. For the first one, we purchased some nifty graphics off the web; for the new song, I used Creative Commons images and put attributions in the credits at the end of the song.

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When Religions Grow Up

If part of growing up is realizing that you can’t realistically expect to get everything you want, what happens to religions when they grow up?

Is it a mark of maturity for a religion that it accepts that not everyone will (or will want to) adhere to it?

I think about Jesus and the rich man — sometimes described as a “rich young ruler” — who asked him what he needed to do to gain eternal life (Matthew 19:16-22). The man walked away from the opportunity, and what did Jesus do? Did Jesus chase the man down, berate him for his stubbornness, or threaten to take his life if he didn’t repent and convert? Not at all. Jesus let him go, and used the event as a teachable moment for his disciples.

When Christianity was in its infancy, still an underground movement, it brought in Jews and Gentiles by way of powerful testimonies and the awesome revelation that God had made a way for people to be saved and changed. Coercion never seemed to come into play, for two reasons. One, because the faith (and the nascent Church) was relatively powerless to coerce anyone to join. Second, and to my thinking more interesting, is because the faith was based on traditional Jewish belief and Judaism, being already a venerable religion, was a mature faith and one that valued being set apart, a small island of monotheistic faith in the ocean of pagan humanity.

As the capital-C Church grew into what I consider its adolescent years, and especially as it obtained official status in the Roman Empire under Constantine, it became much more belligerent. Coercion became more acceptable to church leaders, both as a means to convince people to join and as a means to enforce adherence to doctrine. (We may remember that Judaism’s early days — its adolescence, if you will — also had its coercive phase, when the Jews established themselves as a nation through military victory.)

This leads to the question of Islam, which appears to be a religion still in its adolescence. It went through an adolescent phase before, spreading through coercion and conquest and gaining worldly power that it wanted to protect and expand. Faced with mounting opposition, it retreated into relative isolation; in its recent rise to prominence (or notoriety), however, it seems again to be going through adolescent tantrums, only this time with suicide bombers and AK-47s instead of dervishes and scimitars. The question in my mind is whether Islam as a religion will grow up, will grow out of this petulant and demanding phase, and how long it may take. It seems that it will take the Muslim equivalent of Martin Luther, someone who can initiate an Islamic Reformation, in order for Islam as a religion to mature beyond the need to spread itself by intimidation. That would be a wonder to behold; remember what Luther went through, and think what a Muslim reformer would face.

It also raises the question, to me, of whether the Christian Church is growing old gracefully. It’s one thing for us as Christians to eschew violence (Jesus, you may recall from Matthew 5:38-42, didn’t go in for “eye for an eye”) and to accept that some people will hear the Gospel and remain unmoved. But it would be a shame if we became so “mature,” so insular, so content in the old-folks’-homes of our churches, that we stopped caring about and for the world around us. May it never be.

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What about an Islamic Reformation?

Typing out loud on twitter* this morning before I got into the day’s work — which, I’m doing this before getting into the day’s work, too — I wondered: what is the possibility that Islam might experience a re-thinking of its doctrines equivalent to the Protestant Reformation?

What cleric might have the courage to be the Muslim version of Martin Luther?

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*Follow me at http://twitter.com/GrayRinehart

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What Does Minas Tirith Have to Do With Church?

If you’re not up on your Tolkein, you may not know Minas Tirith from Minas Morgul — trust me, there’s a difference, but time is short and I won’t bore you with the details. Suffice it to say that Minas Tirith was the capital of Gondor in The Lord of the Rings; you can read more about it on this Wikipedia page.

With that little bit of background, you might think Minas Tirith would have little to do with church. Ah, my friend, that’s because you haven’t had the pleasure of attending the festival of geekdom that is North Cary Baptist Church, in which our beloved Pastor Mark frequently pulls in all manner of science fiction and fantasy references for our edification.

In his sermon yesterday (referencing Paul’s speech to King Agrippa as recorded in Acts 26), Pastor Mark alluded to Minas Tirith when he said there comes a time to turn the fortress where we might feel safe and secure into a lighthouse, to shine the truth outward. It wasn’t a perfect metaphor, since the beacon at Minas Tirith was lit to announce a danger to the city and call for aid from afar — but that might work, too, because sometimes it’s when we feel most under attack that we shine the brightest.

So, yes: Minas Tirith and the church. Works for me.

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My Science Fiction Church: ST Klingon References

I attend North Cary Baptist Church, and I’m frequently pleased by the large proportion of genre fans in our church. (I even blogged about that in this post.)

Yesterday Pastor Mark started his sermon by explaining that the title of the book of Acts is the Greek word, “praxis,” at which our pianist remarked that Praxis is also the Klingon moon. This prompted the pastor to point out that the Bible is being (or maybe has been) translated into Klingon — is that right, Dr. Schoen? — and to give and receive from many of us the Vulcan salute. And at least one of us (that would have been me) exclaimed “success!” in Klingon.

We have a great church, and you’re welcome to visit any time.

[BREAK, BREAK]

In other news, I passed the 85,000-word mark yesterday in MARE NUBIUM, my novel about an early lunar colony. Still hoping to make 100K, if not finish outright, by the end of the month.

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Not the El Condor Pasa Snail

Yesterday Pastor Mark made the comment that, “It was only by perseverance that the snails reached the ark.” I turned to my lovely bride and said, “That’s why it took 120 years for Noah to build the thing.” 😉

Okay, so it’s not that funny, but it seems as if some of those animals had to come from a long way away….

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They Also Serve Who Sit and Take Notes

At least that’s what I tell myself, because that’s mostly what I do as our Church Clerk. Some meetings I take lots of notes, because there’s a lot of business being conducted, but I like meetings like the one we had tonight: a Special Called Business Meeting to consider the question of extending a call to a Youth Minister candidate.

One question, one main motion to consider. It was downright relaxing.

And nicely concluded: by secret ballot, the vote in favor was unanimous. One member said it was the first time he’d ever seen that happen in the 18 years he’s been a member.

Now, if I could just figure out all the nuances to Robert’s Rules of Order. Maybe I should watch C-SPAN more often.

Then again, maybe not.

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Me, Being Ornery

I usually try not to get dragged into Web-based theological discussions, because they don’t seem to accomplish much and take time away from more enjoyable (and more productive) pursuits, but this week I slipped. I found myself embroiled in a thread on The Ornery American which linked to a video of Richard Dawkins on Bill Maher’s television show. I don’t have QuickTime on my computer, so I haven’t watched the video, but someone posted an excerpt from Dawkins’ book that I found interesting.

In his book, Dawkins printed a letter sent to Albert Einstein by the president of a New Jersey-based historical society. Dawkins wrote that the letter “damningly exposes the weakness of the religious mind,” and that, “Every sentence drips with intellectual and moral cowardice.” (Note that you can find all this on the thread on The Ornery American site. But keep in mind that while this post itself is longer than usual, since I quote so much of the thread, the entire thread spans 3 web pages now.)

I quoted that intellectual cowardice bit and wrote, “I reckon I’m not intellectual enough to understand this…”, and the fun began. A couple of people tried to explain it, but frankly I didn’t find their explanations illuminating. So I wrote back,

I think for many of the faithful it’s easier to understand our own struggles with the truth as we know it — through which we continue to believe despite the doubts that may nag us — than to understand the choice to utterly reject it.

We … would do well to remember that “many are called, but few are chosen.” Flannery O’Connor* summed up why: in many cases, “it’s harder to believe than not to.”

I’m only familiar with the Flannery O’Connor quote because it became a Steve Taylor song, but oh, did I get a response:

“Many are called but few are chosen”? If that don’t sound elitist I don’t know what does. I didn’t even get a call much less chosen.

And not just “harder” to believe, but “impossible” to believe. I’ve tried, and how anybody with a brain can “believe” is beyond me. And I know a lot of people that I consider to be very intelligent that claim to believe.

(And in a subsequent post, the same person wrote,)

It’s crazy but people think better of you for having blind unquestioning belief in a being that nobody has ever seen and for which there is not one shred of evidence exists!

Here’s my reply (“KE” and “OR” are shorthand for the handles of two Ornery members):

KE wrote, “for which there is not one shred of evidence.” I disagree. But just as two eyewitnesses can see the same event and report it differently, I do not expect KE or anyone else to draw the same conclusions I have. As for “many are called, but few are chosen” being elitist, I suppose it can be seen that way … though in practice it usually works out as “many are called, but few answer the call,” which seems to be shown in KE’s own experience: he may not feel as if he was called, but from my perspective if he wasn’t called he wouldn’t have tried to believe in anything, at anytime.

OR is right that the excellent observation that “The real test of atheism is ‘do you alter the way you live your life because you think a god exists'” applies equally as a test of whether those of us who profess to be Christians are indeed living the life. For some people, this lies at the root of why they choose not to believe: because believing would require altering the way they live their lives.

This raised the ire of yet another forum member, TomD, who wrote (emphasis in original), “You think so? Can you provide me an example of such a person — someone who would believe, but who doesn’t want to change his lifestyle and thus chooses not to?”

I wrote back,

… I think one example might be the rich young ruler with whom Jesus talked (q.v. Gospel of Mark, chapter 10). He asked Jesus what he had to do, Jesus told him, and he went away sad. Jesus asked him to make a drastic change to his lifestyle, and he wasn’t prepared to do so. (This may not be the best example since he ostensibly believed, but was not willing to put his belief into action.)

Jesus said it was hard to enter the kingdom of God. In many ways I think we make it harder than it has to be.

TomD then wrote, “I should have clarified: can you provide me examples of non-allegorical people?” So I replied,

… I disagree that the rich young ruler is allegorical.

That being said, I’ll offer a more contemporary example: me. When I was young, I rejected everything about the church. I agreed completely with an older friend who, in his first year of college, was asked, “Are you saved?” and responded, “No, I’ve got better things to do with my time.” Accepting what the church taught would have required me to moderate my behavior, and that wasn’t something I was willing to do. (For reference, I took my first drink at 13 and was well into weekend binges by 16.) For me, claiming to be an atheist (which I did, to my mom) was not an intellectual exercise — I don’t have that much intellect to exercise — but outright rebellion.

I am a different person now than I was then. Not perfect, but I think quite a bit better.

TomD wrote in again (emphasis in original), “I’m curious what your response to that question would have been.” So I answered,

My answer to, “Are you saved?” was, “No.” If pressed, I usually followed up with some variant of “And I don’t want to be” or “Leave me alone.”

If you are asking whether I would have said at the time that I was rejecting salvation because I refused to moderate my behavior, I probably wouldn’t have admitted it. I don’t recall ever being asked that question. But if pressed on the point, I imagine I would’ve tried to present any number of arguments to avoid admitting any personal moral shortcomings. Like a criminal faced with the consequences of his crimes, I would have pleaded not guilty even though I was.

Later, I pleaded guilty and threw myself on the mercy of the court. And as I said: I am a different person now than I was then.

That’s where I last left things. I suppose the conversation will continue, but we’ll see.

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* Spelling corrected in this quote.

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