Wednesday, May 25, 2011

On Divisions in the Church

 To stave off tedium at work, I like to listen to a mix of CDs (a book of them is my iPod substitute), Pandora, and sermons from my church--they have the last four years archived on their website. With all the time I have, I've started going through the yearlong series they were doing two years ago on 1 Corinthians. With 44 sermons on the book, the pastoral team did a great job and went into a lot of detail; today I listened to one all about divisions in the church. (The #1 issue Paul addresses about the Corinthians)

Divisions in the church are still a relevant issue today, and increasingly so as more denominations and offshoot churches seem to pop up all the time. While many of these divisions simply reflect differences in praxis or doctrine, some are more significant (i.e. those who were really convinced the world would end last Saturday, investing significantly in preparing for the end). In the sermon, Paster Steve talked about some of the historically significant divisions in the church (i.e. in the 16th century). Before that, there was the "Great Schism" of 1054 where the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches split off, and before that there were early offshoots of the church like the Gnostics and Arians. What happened to Paul's imperative to the Corinthians church to agree with each other "that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought"? (1 Cor. 1:10)

Today it occurred to me that these divisions happen because of sin. I know that sounds like a simplistic Sunday-school answer, but look at the context of the Reformation. The Catholic Church had gone far astray, distorting the gospel by turning salvation into a financial transaction, using religion to gain political power, and adding all kinds of doctrines to the teachings of the Bible. Martin Luther never intended to create a whole new kind of Christianity, he just wanted to reform the Catholic Church to end these abuses. But of course, not everyone agreed with him and Lutheranism became a new denomination. Later reformers like Menno Simmons were more explicit in their desire to break away from the Catholic Church. The common theme here is that new denominations often form to amend or repair the perceived heresy of their predecessors. Other times (maybe it's just me or this seems more common today), the offshoot denomination is the heretical one--I won't name any names.

Somehow it seems like putting a bunch of Christians together amplifies our natural tendency to stray away from Christ--and makes it much harder to return. I can't think of a single story of two distinct denominations rejoining each other--the only way these divisions go away is if one dies off, like with the Gnostics. For all their confusingness, divisions in the church are sadly necessary to keep us from all marching like lemmings away from the outstretched arms of Christ.

If doctrinal shifts and corrections are what cause these divisions, the "open-handedness" of the issues being discussed determines how well the new denominations get along. "Closed-hand" beliefs are ones central to your worldview that you aren't willing to let go; "open-hand" beliefs are assumptions you've made that you could be persuaded to give up. In the sermon, Steve mentioned that fundamentalists see most of their beliefs as closed-hand, while liberal Christians are mostly open-handed. I thought that was an interesting way to think about it. Some beliefs (like salvation by grace alone) are worth fighting to keep; others (like which kind of bread to use in communion--one of the reasons for the Great Schism) just aren't. I challenge you (not just Christians, but everyone) to figure out which are what.

Friday, May 20, 2011

On Rapture, Apocalypse, the End of the World, and why you shouldn't cancel your mortgage

If you've been paying attention to the news/Facebook recently, you know the Rapture is happening tomorrow at 6 PM. In what time zone, you ask?--in every time zone; it will supposedly start with a global earthquake at the international date line that will then make its way west to hit every time zone at 6:00 PM. So here in Minnesota, we should actually hear the first reports of it at midnight tonight! The brain behind this deduction is Harold Camping, the leader of Family Radio Ministry. He and his followers have set up a website at He says the Bible "guarantees" the end of the world will happen on May 21, 2011. (He earlier predicted it would be September 6, 1994, but he got the math wrong. He's sure this time.) To warn people of the impending end, they've been renting advertisement space and wearing sandwich boards and such; one man even spent his life's savings to spread the word.

Don't think for a second that I'm writing to convince my readers that Camping is wrong. I know you're smarter than that. But for any of my non-Christian readers (who I hope exist), I just want to assure you that the Bible does not predict the second coming of Christ today, or any day; in fact, it specifically says that we can't know the time or date. (The audacity of Camping's followers naming their site '' is amazing) The Bible states this several times, but most explicitly in Matthew 24:36, where Jesus says: “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." Not even Jesus himself knows when he'll be coming back. Why should we expect to? And having read the entire Bible, I can assure you that there is no janky prediction or calculation of such a date anywhere in it. Maybe Camping is thinking of a different Bible? So when midnight strikes and nothing happens, don't say "The Bible was wrong", say, "Harold Camping was wrong" (again).

But with that out of the way, maybe it is a good thing that they've gotten people thinking about this important (yet unknown) date. It's certainly not something most people (including me) tend to dwell on. We can't know when it will happen, but I wanted to spend a bit of time on what we can know about the second coming. (The word "rapture", by the way, isn't in the Bible) Since there's an entire book (Revelation) written on it, you'd think we could know plenty. But I think Revelation is highly metaphorical--St. John wrote it based on a dream or vision--and I wouldn't treat it as a play-by-play of what will happen. Still, you can get some basic events out of it. What does the Bible actually say about the second coming of Christ?
  1. The Earth as we know it will pass away. They don't call it "the end of the world" or "apocalypse" for nothing. Chapters 6-16 pretty much depict God destroying the old earth in a manner not altogether unlike how He created it. There are wars, monstrous beasts (who have been interpreted as being quite a few historical leaders), just about every natural disaster imaginable, and the four horsemen (who, unlike the seven deadly sins and the date of the end of the world, are actually in the Bible). It doesn't sound like a very pleasant time. And yet...
  2. God will finally come down, and it will be glorious. One unmistakable theme in Revelation is God fully establishing His kingdom on earth. Don't think that His final plan for us is with Him in heaven--no, He's going to remake the earth the way He originally meant it to be and dwell there with us. 21:3 says, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." No verse in the Bible gives me more hope than this one. The present, fallen, screwed-up condition of the world with all its pain and sorrow is just a blip in eternity--God will make everything perfect the way He meant it to be.
  3. Christians will go up to meet Him. In 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, Paul gives the church in Thessalonica a surprise sneak peek at what's to come: "For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet them in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever." First those who died and went to heaven will be bodily resurrected and meet the Lord, then those who are still alive will be taken up for a big reunion in the clouds. As far as I know, this passage is the basis for the "rapture" depicted in the Left Behind books (Also, in Matthew 24:40-41, Jesus talks about how some will be "taken" and others will be left, supporting this concept.) Does this mean Christians will apparate away like in the books? I don't know. But I look forward to it nonetheless.
  4. Those who were martyred by decapitation will be raised and reign with Christ for a thousand years before that. (20:1-10) Wait, what? And then Satan will be released and be allowed one last stand before his final demise? This is where it gets strange. But that part is awfully specific... At the very least, Biblical scholars think this means there will be some kind of "interim period" in between the current, fallen Earth and the perfect, redeemed Earth. Why it's there, no one but God knows!
  5. Everyone will be judged. (20:11-15) It says everyone will be judged according to their deeds as recorded in the "book of life". Those who did evil were thrown into the lake of fire, along with "death and Hades". And the lake of fire itself is the "second death". This is also confusing, and I share C.S. lewis' view that it basically means total separation from God and the destruction that inevitably ensues. It sounds kind of like we have to earn our salvation by doing good deeds, but here's the tricky part: if we believe in Christ, our sins have already died with Him on the cross and we get His perfect righteousness instead! Our slate is wiped clean!
Christians would be lucky just to agree on these extreme basics of the end of the world, let alone the details. Even among wise, learned Christian theologians there are several accepted views on what will happen, mostly differing by the order of the events listed above. I have no idea which view (if any) is correct. But I don't think it really matters; regardless of the specifics, we should be ready to meet Jesus whenever He comes. 1 Thessalonians 5:4 says "you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. This is the verse that Camping and his followers seize on, thinking that it shouldn't surprise us because we can know when it will happen! But of course, Jesus Himself said otherwise. The verse means that we shouldn't be surprised not because we saw it coming, but because we were prepared. Just like that crazy guy whose bomb shelter you'd be knocking on in the event of a zombie apocalypse, we should make sure we're ready for the real apocalypse, whether it's coming in three hours or three centuries.

Alright, I've convicted myself enough by writing that last paragraph. Stay ready, my friends.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

What Are You Working For?

Have you ever put a lot of time and effort into something, only to see it fizzle or turn out to be worthless? I know firsthand how crushing and discouraging the disappointment can be. But I ask: what did that question make you think of? I would guess some kind of project, self-set goal, or other assignment--a task you hoped to accomplish and applied yourself to. I had something else in mind--something that we may not be conscious or proud of, but that we tirelessly invest ourselves in nonetheless. Buckle your crash helmet of conviction (which you hopefully have learned to keep ready on my blog)--I'm talking about sin.

It's a bit strange to think of sin as something we work towards. It can seem like something we sometimes do, that "just happens". But the longer I walk with God, the more I realize that I sin against Him not so much in what I do as in who I am. I shouldn't have to convince anyone that by nature, we are evil through and through. No, everyone else doesn't "have it all figured out"--deep down, we all share the same condition. The sinful nature, at a deep level, is the inevitable tendency to exchange God for His creation (Romans 1:25) as the satisfier of our desires and needs. Whatever we put on this pedestal of ultimate importance, we will naturally put a lot of effort into. This can be seen in an activist who seems to live for his or her chosen cause, a husband who really loves his wife and constantly thinks of ways to show it, or, tragically, an alcoholic or drug addict who looks for bliss in escape from reality. If you want to know what your "treasure" (Matthew 6:21) in life is, don't look at what you tell others--look at what dominates your thoughts and your time.

So it seems natural that if we have something we treasure in life above all else, we will be motivated to work hard for it to derive satisfaction from it. But I believe that no finite, created thing can ultimately satisfy. Only God can, and looking elsewhere is the essence of sin. If we spend ourselves working on the field of our idol, we will reap nothingness itself. Paul writes: "The wages of sin is death..." (Romans 6:23a) I don't know any way to convince you of this other than by assuring you that if you haven't already experienced this nothingness in your life, you will.

But God is different. The verse continues, "...but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." Eternal life--imperishable, incorruptible, permanently satisfying--wouldn't we like our treasure to give us that! We'd best stop chasing lesser things and work for God, right? Notice the third word: "but the gift of God is eternal life..." The life God offers isn't like the false life offered elsewhere. It's a gift. We don't have to earn it, only accept it. Maybe that should amaze you.

Until tomorrow (or maybe today), may you begin to break the deep-seated habit of trying to earn your way through life.

Monday, May 9, 2011


Today I was feeling rather aimless (I only have one final tomorrow) and at one point found myself consciously thinking, "What can I do for God today?" Normally I'd have been pleased with how I was thinking about God more and more frequently, but I realized that I was thinking about Him out of habit, not unlike the way a business owner would think of a partnership: in terms of what I could being to the table, and (perhaps subconsciously) what I could get in return. I realized that we should be so close in our relationship to God that we spontaneously do things for His glory out of love, not because we systematically set out to from the beginning. I've been re-reading Desiring God recently and I think the inspiration came from that. As Piper writes, "God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him." Our goal as Christians is to maximize God's glory by maximizing the joy and fulfillment we find in Him, not in anything He gives. In our other relationships, we aren't nice to the other person out of any sense of "ought"-ness; it's (hopefully) because we care about them and want what's best for them.

After further reflection, I realized that I've still largely been letting my own plans set the direction of my life; part of my plans is carrying out God's plans. This might have shaken me not long ago, but I'm getting used to finding hiccups in my relationship with God like this; it would be more cause for worry if I didn't have these realizations a few times a year! Bringing it out in the open shows how ridiculous it is; God says "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts." (Isaiah 55:9) We shouldn't simply incorporate God's plans into ours, or deny our plans for God's "higher calling"; we should be be so close to God that there is no difference between our plans and His! Jesus described how close He was to His Father: "I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees the Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does." (John 5:19) I picture a kid playing "follow the leader" behind his dad, imitating whatever he does. The fan just blew my Bible to Ephesians 5:1, where Paul tells us to be "imitators of God". When you say you're a "follower of Christ", just how literally did you mean it? Because the answer is apparently "not enough".

If I'm sounding preachy, know that 99% of my preaching is directed at myself, because I need it the most. I just hope it gets you thinking about what it means to be a Christian.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Fractal Flames, Part 2

Time for another quick feature on fractal flames. I knew I already did a post on them! I just wanted to share some of the more recent ones I've been working on.

Normally I don't do white backgrounds, or commission art. This one was for Christmas 2010.

I love how the thing lines on this one turned out, and how "contained" it is.

If turkeys were powerful psychics...

This is the current background of my primitive, custom homepage. It reminds me of the pictures of processors we looked at today in class.

This one is fresh off the presses! It's a composite of two flames with a bit editing done. Enjoy.

Snow Crash

In case you didn't catch my previous post, I'm out of new reading material for the moment and am looking to broaden my reading horizons. Unfortunately, I've either been busy or off my bike due to Seattle weather ever since, so I haven't been able to make a Half-Price books run. Until this weekend (hopefully), I'm contenting myself with some favorite books. Namely a classic by one of my favorite authors, Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash.

Snow Crash is the Neal Stephenson book I would recommend most highly to the uninitiated. It's one of his best works, but unlike Cryptonomicon or Anathem it won't take you months to get through. (I finished my latest read in about 3 days; it's hard to put down) It is to cyberpunk roughly what Dream Evil is to power metal: at once a parody and excellent example of the genre. It takes the savvy interweaving of technology in the story, dystopian setting, and action-packed story of cyberpunk and mixes them with Neal Stephenson's exhaustive research, convoluted plot,  multi-page infodumps, and insanity. The result is, as usual, something special indeed.

The setting is the early 21st century. After hyperinflation, the United States government (and, presumably, the rest of the world's governments) has collapsed and become nearly defunct. Large corporations have taken over its duties, selling people protection and a place to live in their franchises. Law enforcement is handled by private mercenaries, different companies run competing sets of highway networks, and all mail is delivered by "kouriers" who travel on smart skateboards by magnetically "'pooning" larger vehicles and serving behind them. The mafia, with its emphasis on honor, loyalty, and family values, is the closest thing to "good guys" the story has.

The star of the story is the aptly named Hiro Protagonist--hacker, swordfighter, and (until the beginning of the book) pizza deliverator for the mafia. He and other hackers have built a virtual reality world called the "Metaverse" that is striking in its similarity to Second Life (the book predates it by 11 years). People can log on with custom-built or off-the-shelf avatars and interact in virtual space. If it all sounds old now, it's because the book was largely responsible for spreading the idea of a shared virtual world, as well as the term "avatar". Hiro's avatar also has a globe in his virtual house that seems to predict Google Earth. Early in the story, he befriends Y.T. ('Yours Truly'), a 15-year-old kourier with enough street smarts and self-defense gadgets on her person to plow through a small army of hired goons. The main villain is a towering Aleut harpooner with a deadly weapon (which I won't spoil) that makes him effectively unkillable and a grudge against what's left of the United States

I won't spoil too much of the actual plot. Suffice it to say that it centers around Neal Stephenson's extensive research in linguistics, Sumerian history, and psychology. Several chapters consist of nothing but infodumps in the form of Hiro's interactions with a humanlike librarian daemon in the Metaverse (they're still fascinating to read). The conspiracy theory at its core reminds me somewhat of The Da Vinci Code; it's about as believable, but still fun to read about if you suspend your disbelief. I highly recommend this book to anyone smart and crazy enough to read my blog. I can lend you my copy if necessary.

Monday, May 2, 2011

In the News 1

Yesterday came some pretty big news. For those of you even more distant from mass media than I, notorious al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, the world's most wanted man for almost ten years, was finally caught and killed yesterday. Since then, I'm not sure what's bugged me more: the people cheering "USA! USA!", or those shushing the celebration and insisting that this is a tragic event. Ultimately, though, I find myself agreeing with the shushers. True, the world is probably a safer place now. But the world is still filled with evil. It's tragic that bin Laden killed so many people with his agenda of hatred and violence, and it's tragic that it had to end this way. Guns and explosives can't make the world a better place, in the sense of "better" I truly believe in. Only the Gospel can.
Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live? - Ezekial 18:23

Sunday, May 1, 2011

My Reading List

Today the unthinkable happened: I finished the last book on my reading list. There are a few other books I'm planning on reading, but they're all on hold for various reasons. So I'm opening my choice on what to read next up. Please suggest books for me. Bonus points if you offer a compelling argument on why I should read them or can lend them to me. To give an idea of what I've already read and what I enjoy, here is a sample of the books I've read:

Favorite authors:
Everything by Neal Stephenson
Everything by C.S. Lewis that you would suggest
Blue Like Jazz, Searching for God Knows What, Through Painted Deserts - Donald Miller

The Lord of the Rings; The Hobbit; The Silmarillion; The Children of Hurin - J.R.R. Tolkien
Dragonlance Chronicles; Legends - Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis
Lots of Star Wars novels

Chaos; Genius - James Gleick
Godel, Escher Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid - Douglas Hofstadter
The Fire in the Equations - Kitty Ferguson

The Mortification of Sin in Believers; The Nature and Power of Temptation; Indwelling Sin - John Owen
Desiring God; Future Grace; Don't Waste Your Life; When I Don't Desire God - John Piper
Knowledge of the Holy - Aiden Wilson Tozer
Crazy Love - Francis Chan
There Is A God - Antony Flew

Reasonable Faith - William Lane Craig
The Reason for God - Tim Keller

I have a bunch more at home that I can't recall now, but they tend to fall into these categories.