February 27, 2011

"Grasp", a special book review

Jim Trainor, Episcopal priest and professional physicist recently released an interesting book: Grasp, Making Sense of Science and Spirituality. Trainor has set out to “write not so much as to provide a comprehensive text book on either science or theology but to provide a perspective on both and how they relate to each other.” In the process he has made such complex ideas as quantum physics and ‘string theory’ understandable. Trainor also shows how belief in a sovereign creator God is not at odds with science, but rather science and theology compliment each other.

Trainor uses delightful, simple stories to explain the relationship between science and faith. He says we often think “if we can come up with a theory…say, about how the Big Bang unfolded over the past 14 billion years, we can now claim to understand the development of the universe without invoking the God of the Bible. This just doesn’t make sense.” He tells of his mother’s blueberry muffins to illustrate. “I didn’t know how my mother made the muffins…I always saw those muffins as…evidence of her love for me....One day…I cam across her blueberry muffin recipe…I had discovered the secret of my mom’s blueberry muffins…Did my discovery of my mother’s blueberry muffin recipe destroy my confidence in her love for me?...Of course not!” In the same way, learning more about the science of physics doesn’t leave God out of the process.

On the contrary, Trainor remarks that “when we react in fear to modern scientific findings, we are not demonstrating faith in God, but rather, I suspect, faith in our na├»ve reality.” He points to the Apostle Paul as another Christian who was faced with cosmopolitan and secular religious beliefs of the Corinthians. Paul states, “I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified…that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.” (I Cor. 2:1-4) In other words, faith approaches the questions of the universe from a different perspective than the scientist.

Trainor starts out by explaining the scientific process of discovering facts. This is done by observation, looking at the effect something has on other objects, and through witnesses. All of these are valid for religious seekers, too. Equally important is “trusting a relationship rather than (or in addition to) having facts.” The division between science and religion began back in the 1700’s with Galileo and Newton and continued with later discoveries such as Charles Darwin’s publication of Origin of the Species with “religion assuming a less important role in the minds of many scholars, and the Church [finding] itself on a slippery slope, poorly prepared to defend itself against the new findings of science.”

It is here that Trainor begins to explain where the true correlation between science and religion happens. He points out that the scientific concept of reality, size, distance, and time are really impossible to grasp. He says, “We should not expect to define, measure, prove, or disprove God by our meager grasp of reality.” We should remember, too, “the Bible was not intended to be a predictor of science and technology.” God’s emphasis is on “his relationship with human beings; it’s not to give a detailed explanation of how he created the universe.”
That very relationship is why we can all, whether we are learned physicists or ordinary folk, “know the mind of God, and it doesn’t involve understanding the origin of the universe…Having the mind of God is all about love.” It is not about facts or knowledge or about knowing what we do and do not understand.

In Grasp, Jim Trainor has given us a readable apologetic for both the Christian and scientific mind. His expertise from 30 years in the scientific world working with brilliant scientific minds and in some of the world’s premiere research institutions gives him a solid background to explain the science of physics in terms laypersons can understand. Trainor’s life-long search for a relationship with God that including “a period of rethinking and even rebelling” led to his ordination as a priest. It was then he realized the need to “better understand the relationship between the worlds of science and religious faith.” In fact, for Trainor and many scientists, science affirms the faith and vice versa.

Jim Trainor says that our view of life is like a house under construction. “Science builds upon the foundation of research…each brick is carefully evaluated and understood…we are like the entry level laborer working on the house…we have not been given the privilege of seeing the final plans.” However, “faith provides a different view of the house…we know its purpose is: to glorify God…we see the completed house, but only as through a fog…we believe the object of our faith is true, we cannot always explain it using scientific language.”

The study guide and reference section provide the option to delve deeper into the scientific and religious works cited in the book. Whether you are a scientist seeking to understand faith or a religious person trying to make sense of scientific concepts you will be informed by this book. Even non-believers may find that they come away with a deeper understanding of both sides of the coin.

February 20, 2011

God in Man made Manifest VI

This week we'll look at the end of Hymn 135 (Episcopal Hymnal 1980). The final verse in Christopher Wordsworth’s hymn is actually written by F. Bland Tucker. We, literally, reach the summit of “God in man made manifest.” We have journeyed from the infant worshipped by the ‘sages from afar’ in ‘Thy birth at Bethlehem,’ to the One who started his ministry by ‘changing water into wine’ and ‘making whole palsied limbs and fainting souls.’ The verses from the Lutheran hymn version reminded us of the time when ‘Stars shall fall, the heavens shall flee, Christ will then like lightning shine.’ Because of that we are to ‘see Thee, Lord, mirrored in Thy holy Word;’ and ‘we imitate Thee now.’ This last verse gives me chills because it sums up the season of Lent that we’ll be entering in just a couple of weeks.

Manifest on mountain height,
shining in resplendent light
where disciples filled with awe
Thy transfigured glory saw.
When from there thou leddest them
Steadfast to Jerusalem.
Cross and Easter Day attest
God in man made manifest.

With the Peter, James, and John we stand with Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration. The scene is recorded in 3 of the 4 Gospels, so it was obviously very important to the Church. (Matthew 17:1-9, Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28-36) In all three Gospels, this happens six days after Jesus asks his disciples “who do men say I am” and more importantly “who do you say I am?” Peter’s response, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” was an important turning point for the disciples because Jesus immediately starts to explain that “he will suffer many things from the elders and chief priests…and be killed, and on the third day rise.”

Despite Peter’s immediate, heated response, “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you” and Jesus’ rebuke, Peter is one of the three who accompany their Master onto the mountain. There they see him “transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light.” Not only that, “Moses and Elijah [were] talking with him.” The figures from the Old Testament that represent the Law and Prophets come to Jesus to “talk about his departure, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem.”

Peter’s impetuous response to seeing this wonder and glory is to suggest building “booths…one for you, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Instead of a building project, the trio is “overshadowed by a cloud, then a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased, listen to him.’” They fall to their faces and find themselves alone with Jesus who “commanded them, ‘Tell no one the vision, until the Son of man is raised from the dead.’”

Peter, James, and John had a special experience. You would think that would change them permanently and make them confident, holy, and brave. We know though, that when push came to shove, all the disciples ran away and Peter denied he knew the Lord. That should be heartening to us who struggle daily to be ‘good Christians,’ but fall short.

Jesus knew the road he must travel and led the disciples “steadfast to Jerusalem.” In the Holy City, Jesus knew he would confront the nation’s religious and secular rulers. He knew that they would reject his message and that he would die. However, the ultimate triumph would be the Resurrection. Jesus tells Peter, James, and John to “tell no one…until the Son of man is raised from the dead.” They were probably confused about that statement. In the Gospel of Mark, “they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what the rising from the dead meant.” (Mark 9:10) It was not until they saw the empty tomb that Peter and John began to understand that “God in man [was] made manifest.”

Sometimes we have ‘mountaintop experiences.’ A special service at church, a blessed time with family and friends, the return to health after a heart attack or other sickness, can all be times we feel we have encountered God very closely. Like Peter we want to stay in that special place, but we have to return to the day-to-day living. Even though for a while we are changed, we usually slip back into the old routines. How can we maintain the new sense of the closeness of God? It can help to establish a routine of prayer time to draw close, again, to the Holy One who calls us Beloved. Journaling, meditation, music are other ways to maintain a relationship with God. You probably have your own.

March 9 is the beginning of Lent. It’s not too early to start thinking about what your Lenten discipline will be. On this blog, I’ll be sharing thoughts from the Walk Through Lent Study I’m presenting at my church this year. There are also many online Lenten devotions, some of which will come daily to your inbox. One is Episcopal Relief and Development . A quick web search will help you connect with other resources, too.

Next week, I will have a special book review to share. I recently read Grasp, Making Sense of Science and Spirituality by Fr. Jim Trainor. He looks at how science and religion really are not at odds with one another from his unique perspective as a physicist and ordained priest. The study guide in Trainor’s book might just be another option for a Lenten study.

February 13, 2011

Thoughts about a bird and God

Happy Valentine’s Day-OK so it’s a day early. The focus of Valentine’s Day is on romantic love, of course. All love points to the greatest Love Story of all-that of God for us, his Beloved. The Song of Solomon, one of the shorter books of the Bible, has been called an allegory for the love of God for us. Chapter 2, verses 8-13 seem to capture the essence of how we eagerly we should wait for our Lord.

 “The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. My beloved speaks and says to me: Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtle-dove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”

We can meet God in prayer and in quiet and in the stories that nature itself tells. Last summer I watched a mother grackle encourage her baby to fly. I was entranced by the tableau being acted out in the neighbor’s tree. In the past, I've seen grackle youngsters try to fly too soon and end up at the foot of the tree. They are not strong enough to get back to the nest and unless the parents feed them they usually, sadly, die. The young bird I was watching on the branch was older and not as foolhardy as some of his kin. In fact, this one wasn’t inclined to try flying at all.

Watching the mother grackle encourage her baby, I was reminded vividly of the way God urges us gently to take one step at a time. First out of the nest onto the branch, then a short flight, then a longer one, and so on until we are willing and able to fly as we were made to. When I told friends about my observations, they insisted that the story had to be told. Lester’s First Flight was the result. It’s my first strictly children’s book and I’ll admit that the creation of it took longer than some of my full length novels! The little book is now available, though. If you have children in your life, Lester’s First Flight would make a lovely Easter gift! You can order a copy and download games from my website.

Over the past few years I've walked with a friend through her husband's major health issues. I'm reminded that God's timing is always perfect. They just received word that his is at the top of the list for a vital organ transplant that will not only improve his quality of life, but actually save his life. Walking with my friend through this real-life saga has shown me that like Lester's mother, God helps us take a step at a time until we are in just the right place at the right time. When all the pieces are in place, God acts. We may feel like we know better what the timing should be, but God knows when we are ready to fly. Like the Song of Solomon says, [at the right time] "The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtle-dove is heard in our land."

I hope you will hear God calling to you “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” Or maybe God is saying “take flight and soar with me.” God calls us each Beloved. Hear him in your heart!

Next week, we’ll return to Christopher Wordsworth’s hymn. See you then.

February 6, 2011

God in Man made Manifest V

Last Wednesday was Groundhog Day. It’s always rather fun to see Punxsutawney Phil predict whether there will be six more weeks of winter or not. Statistically he’s only right 39% of the time, but still, it’s fun.

There are various theories about the start of the tradition, which in the US evolved in the Pennsylvania German communities a couple hundred years ago. They probably brought it with them from Europe where badgers and bears were thought to foretell weather. Long before that, the Celtic festival of Imbolc occurred around the same time. Imbolc celebrated the fact that days were getting longer, fields were planted, domestic herds were getting ready to give birth, and wild animals were coming out of hibernation. A very old Celtic tradition says that Cailleach, the crone, gathers firewood for the rest of winter on Imbolc. If it’s sunny, she can gather more and the winter will be longer. Sounds rather familiar doesn’t it.

What does all this rambling about furry rodents and ancient feasts have to do with Epiphany and Christopher Wordsworth’s hymn? Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation of Christ, (Luke 2:22-38) is also celebrated on February 2. I don’t think that is an accident. There’s even an ancient Scottish rhyme that incorporates the two traditions, using Candlemas itself as the determiner of a long or short winter.

As the light grows longer
The cold grows stronger
If Candlemas be fair and bright
Winter will have another flight
If Candlemas be cloud and rain
Winter will be gone and not come again...

The earliest missionaries to the Celts and other ‘pagan’ peoples wisely used the existing feasts to preach Christ. They took the day of Imbolc and introduced the people to a Greater Light than the sun. Instead of scoffing at the ancient ways, they knew themselves to be “God’s servants, working together; [in] you are God’s field, God’s building. According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.” (I Cor. 3:9-11) They understood that “What can be known about God is plain…because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.” (Romans 1:19-20)

The Celts with their bonfires and crops and crones were seeking to bring back the light of the sun to a winter dreary world. All the saints who carried the Gospel into the distant, foreign lands brought a new Light. This week’s verse calls us to come to the true Light. We are to live as Christ’s own here and now, “that we like to Thee may be…God in man made manifest.”

Grant us grace to see Thee, Lord,
Mirrored in Thy holy Word;
May we imitate Thee now,
And be pure, as pure art Thou;
That we like to Thee may be
At Thy great Epiphany;
And may praise Thee, ever blest,
God in man made manifest.

Nothing is beyond the control of God, even ancient pagan festivals and funny, furry, fat mammals who may or may not correctly predict the weather. When we learn to see our Lord, not only “mirrored in Thy holy Word,” but in everyone and everything we encounter it broadens our faith. As Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (pictured left) said, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” All things can and do bring us closer to God.

Candlemas celebrates Mary and Joseph coming to the Temple with Jesus to offer "a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord [for a firstborn son]." Simeon and Anna in the Temple recognized Messiah in the infant Jesus. “It had been revealed to [Simeon] that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.” When he saw Jesus, he “took him up in his arms and blessed God…’mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel.’” (Luke 2:22-38)

The child remembered on the Feast of Candlemas is “God in man made manifest.” Like the early missionaries and apostles, we need to be open to how we can point the way to Christ by showing how God is present all around. All souls seek God and recognize God sometimes in holy Word, sometimes in nature, sometimes in ways that seem odd, because no one has shown the true way. We can pray, “May we imitate Thee now, and be pure, as pure art Thou,” so that our lives may also be a demonstration of God in the world.

Next week I’ll have a special announcement. See you then.