Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Life Report: How Would Yours Read?

I posted my first web log article in Oikonomia, on August 1, 2008, entitled “God: The Greatest “Subject?” My purpose in starting a blog at that time was to focus attention on our Creator God, “The Greatest Subject.” And upon humans and God’s creation as “The Great Objects” of His love, adoration, and ultimately, redemption.  The title, Oikonomia, represents what I believe is “The Great Responsibility” of humans—stewardship, or managing what belongs to God in such a way as to show our reverent love and awe of Him.

Can you think of any other concept from Scripture that is more all-encompassing of human responsibility than stewardship?   Biblical stewardship invites us to adopt the mindset of a servant (not an owner) who uses all of God’s gifts (time, talents, treasures) to honor and glorify Him for the sake of His Son Jesus Christ and His kingdom.   The biblical command in Colossians 3: 17 supports the notion that stewardship encompasses everything we do:

And whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by Him.

Did you make a New Year’s resolution in January?  Resolutions are a way of helping us to set goals to better our lives, or the lives of others.  But, how often do we look back and give ourselves a frank evaluation—or, biblically speaking, evaluate our stewardship.  Again, the Bible gives us a good motivation for evaluating our stewardship.  The Apostle Paul, in Romans 14:12 writes, So then each one of us will give an account of himself to God.

In his October 27, 2011 New York Times op-ed column, David Brooks gave some of his readers an “assignment.”  Here it is.

If you are over 70, I’d like to ask for a gift. I’d like you to write a brief report on your life so far, an evaluation of what you did well, of what you did not so well and what you learned along the way. You can write this as a brief essay or divide your life into categories — career, family, faith, community, and self-knowledge — and give yourself a grade in each area.

Several of Brooks’ readers responded by submitting their “Life Reports.”  One was especially meaningful to me as an example of one who is giving serious account of his stewardship.  Brooks published this essay, written in the form of a letter from a father to his two sons, on December 16, 2011.  Here is “The Life Report:  Frank H. Wheeler,” followed by my closing thoughts:

The Life Report: Frank H. Wheeler
December 16, 2011 6:52 pm

Dear Todd and Brian,
As my three score and ten years come to a close, it seems a good time to muse a bit about my life. Deep in the mire of active alcoholism in my late 30’s, not many people would have bet I would have passed 40, much less 70. But miracles happen in the strangest of ways and I have been given a life far beyond any I could have dreamed: I am married to the girl of my dreams, coming up on 50 years now. You two, your wives and kids put yourself in my presence, seemingly with pleasure. I have a relationship with, and a healthy dependence upon, a loving God. Both your mom and I have sufficient health, financial resources, mental acuity and interests to embrace and enjoy a robust, diverse life. I had a varied, remunerative, fascinating career in three industries. We seem to have balanced our own interests with responsibilities to our broader societies reasonably well. We, individually and as a couple, have a set of reliable, caring, fun friends different enough to provide spice and perspective, congruent enough to relate. At last count we have visited some 60 countries and seem to be at home in the middle of London or the backwoods of West Virginia. Were we perfect? Nope! Did we make mistakes along the way? Yup! Was it on balance pretty darn good? Absolutely!

Not much of this was predictable to anyone seeing a boy born in modest circumstances in West Virginia in 1940. Higher education was not a norm, a world war was starting, a depression was fresh in everyone’s mind, the average life span for a male in that state was around fifty, people stayed put and guys went to work in the mines, chemical companies or the state road. But my parents, both from humble backgrounds, were different. They had a vision for education, although they had little. They knew how to work hard, live within their means, save for the future, and delay gratification. They knew how to be a neighbor, in the pioneer style, and how to respect family. They had core values and lived by them. They knew God and tried to act as He would want them to act, as best they knew. They educated two boys. They mortgaged their house to found a church. They saved mom’s family farm from foreclosure. Were they perfect? Nope! Did they make mistakes along the way? Yup! Did they provide the foundation for me to build upon? Absolutely!

Now, did I use that foundation? Not for decades. At some point I concluded money and power were the source of happiness. I ran away from the God of my youth. I developed sharp elbows and the ability to “conveniently reinvent facts.” My values, to the extent I had any, were flexible and tailored to any current situations. I ignored obvious and compelling evidence of a genetic predisposition to alcoholism and embraced the magic of Jim Beam. But I did some things right. I worked hard to obtain a useful undergraduate and graduate degree. I had the amazing good sense to marry your mom and she had the poor judgment to stick around. We both shared a sense of adventure that led us enthusiastically to embrace work and other opportunities. I sensed ways to build an asset base by working for fast-growing, small companies and trading short term income for equity. I seemed to be able to do the best job I could at any given time and let the future unfold. We consistently, and to this day, lived below our means. We were able to take prudent risks.

Most fortunate of all, during my alcohol-induced wilderness years, and your early ones, your mom was the steel bands, wrapped in velvet, which held our lives together. As my life spiraled out of control, somehow we survived. I came face to face with the reality of my life, first in jail in Selma, Alabama, and then a moment of clarity in a Nashville coffee shop, Easter Sunday, 1980. Shortly thereafter I prayed, “God, if you are there and you care, I need your help.” God was there, God cared and I got help.

Over time, I did build on the foundation my parents had put in place. I was able to partner more effectively with your mom, expressing my deep and growing love, and joining to mitigate our individual weaknesses and to make the most of our respective strengths. All aspects of life improved and I began to participate in family, community and work in new, enjoyable and largely effective ways. Somehow out of disaster came a confluence of factors that have led to a life I could not have dreamed. I learned not to fear mistakes too much; they were the greatest source of effective learning. I learned to focus my physical, emotional and spiritual energy on things I could change and accept those I could not. I finally discovered that doing the “right” things, in the “right” way and for the “right” motives lead to a general level of contentment even in the face of sadness, uncertainty and legitimate fear. Perfect? Nope! Still much progress to be made? Yup! Largely good and acceptable at 71? Absolutely! Entering the twilight years reasonably at peace? Most of the time!

So, to wrap this up, are there some things I would change? You bet and here are some of them:

  1. I would never have used alcohol or other mind-altering substances.
  2. I would have become much more open to spirituality much earlier. Nowhere else has “contempt prior to investigation” served me more poorly. I looked at God, institutional churches and believers of all ilks with contempt, anger or amusement. I sought and found, only evidence that supported that view, ignoring evidence to the contrary. And my late blooming spirituality deprived you two of a fuller sense of God in your early years. That I regret deeply.
  3. I would have been much more conscious of my footprint on earth. It is amazing how blind I was, and to a large extent still am, to the most sensible of environmental concerns in all aspects of my life. I have not been a good steward of the earth you and your children have inherited.
  4. I would have been much more deliberate and thoughtful about how I spent my physical, emotional and spiritual energy, especially in regards my vocations, thinking more precisely about how my decisions affected those around me.
  5. I would have been much more open, much sooner, to different people, their perspectives, their beliefs and their life styles. I love the diversity of many of my friends…their variety adds richness, openness, texture and interest to my life. Buddies range from 8th grade education to GEDs to Ph. D’s to MD’s, from dedicated socialist to a guy to the right of Attila the Hun, from atheist to Hindu to Muslim to Hassidic Jew to Christians of all stripes, from a murderer to a semi-saint, from multi-millionaire to a guy whose net worth is a dog, from about age 25 to me and the list goes on. I treasure the diversity and work very hard to ignore areas of core disagreements, focusing on what I can learn and share. Dialogue not debate.
  6. I would have become engaged with the political process, especially at the local level. At least be an informed, engaged voter.
So, how to end this? I look forward to musing about four score years!
Love, Dad
                         *   *    *

My thanks to David Brooks for the idea of writing a “Life Report,”  And, to Frank H. Wheeler for providing a good example that has inspired me to begin writing.  Who knows, perhaps if you and I have opportunity, maybe we can share our “Life Reports.”  I’d be honored to read yours.   And while writing, may God give us the attitude of a humble steward--humility that helps us reflect and write so that our focus may be on what God “The Greatest Subject” has done for us, or in spite of us, “His Greatest Objects.”

Friday, February 6, 2015

A Test for the West: Our Moral Response to Evil

Today, I am deeply concerned about the present direction of the world.  Although situations are complex, I'm noticing a troubling pattern.  First, the United States is withdrawing from the position of respected leadership and moral clarity which it had occupied for at least a century.  This American retreat, characterized by an ambiguous and often apologetic stance in foreign policy, seems to reflect ignorance or  misunderstanding of the role of the United States in world history.  Consequently, world axes of evil once restrained by a healthy respect for American moral and military might, are now raising their evil heads on the world scene.  For example, Islamic extremist groups are using the spotlight afforded by international news media to showcase their evil actions that seem like eruptions from the very pit of hell.

Abdullah (right) identified with a vengeful Eastwood character.
But perhaps the most disturbing of all to me are the growing reactions of many of us in the Western World.  Some react to beheadings, burnings, and crucifixions with cheers as if they have been mesmerized by this demonic contagion of evil.  Others are so enraged at the perpetrators of barbarism that they, like King Abdullah of Jordan, respond to the terrorists by promising swift acts of reprisal.  According to a New York Post article, an angry King Abdullah responded to ISIS’s barbarous act of burning a Jordanian citizen alive by quoting Clint Eastwood’s enraged, vengeful character, William Munny, in the movie, Unforgiven.  

It is here, the nexus of evil barbarism and morally restrained civilization, where my greatest concern lies, for it is here that civilized peoples must decide how they will react in the face of evil.  The choice is between reacting to execute justice against evil governed by a sense of moral indignation; or, reacting “in kind” with a zealous anger fueled by hatred and vengeance.  The Western World has plenty of its own unrighteousness to go around; and, the need for repentance ought to be obvious to us.  However, it seems to me that it is precisely the awareness of our own individual and collective depravity as a nation in the face of God’s standards of righteousness that ought to remind us that perfect judgment and vengeance is not ours, but the L
ORD’s (Romans 12:19).

If Western Civilization reacts out of a spirit of hatred and vengeance it will be pulled downward toward the very pit of hatred and despair that gives rise to this march of evil.  Therefore, the only hope for America and the West is rejection of moral relativism in favor of moral clarity based on the Judeo-Christian Scriptures.  The Scriptures clearly and repeatedly remind us that humans are fallen creatures with no hope apart from humble submission to the saving grace of God that brings redemption and reconciliation (Romans 3: 10, 23; 6: 23).  Those who confess their depravity and complete dependence justification by faith in God’s righteousness are equipped to love God, love their neighbor, and steward their time, talents, and treasures for God’s glory.   God’s redeemed stewards value all of human life and support safeguards against violation of the basic rights to free speech, freedom of worship, and access to protection afforded by just rule of law.  These objective standards for life and liberty based on Scripture are what today’s leaders have in mind when they call for America to respond to evil with moral clarity and righteous indignation. 

Having stated the basis for justifiable moral indignation, my question is, “Can America now exercise moral courage and unified leadership in the face of the lawless hoards on the world scene?”  I’m afraid because of the current moral climate in America, the answer may be, “No.”  How can America speak with one voice against evil when we are so deeply divided on moral issues such as the importance of religious faith in American culture?  How can America stand for the dignity of human life when her courts continue to violate the sanctity of human life, trivialize sexuality and the sanctity of marriage, castigate those of a different ethnic background, and disrespect America’s historic role in relieving human suffering and fostering world peace?

Today, I am remembering the birthday of President Ronald Reagan whose leadership rallied our nation so effectively because of his deep faith in God and respect for others regardless of their politics.  Reagan believed that America would not long survive if she didn’t hold to the moral standards and moral clarity that had made her “good” as well as “great.”  Reagan’s words to the nation in his presidential farewell, in 1989, demonstrated the qualities of his leadership that had revived America’s faith, restored America’s spirit, and made the world safer against the threat of Communism:

Reagan and Gorbachev: Leadership with firm moral resolve.
… we're about to enter the '90s, and some things have changed. Younger parents aren't sure that an unambivalent appreciation of America is the right thing to teach modern children.  And as for those who create the popular culture, well-grounded patriotism is no longer the style. Our spirit is back, but we haven't reinstitutionalized it. We've got to do a better job of getting across that America is freedom--freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise.  And freedom is special and rare. It's fragile; it needs protection.  So, we've got to teach history based not on what's in fashion but what's important:  Why the Pilgrims came here….

The past few days when I've been at that window upstairs, I've thought a bit of the "shining city upon a hill." The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the America he imagined. What he imagined was important because he was an early Pilgrim, an early freedom man. He journeyed here on what today we'd call a little wooden boat; and like the other Pilgrims, he was looking for a home that would be free.

I've spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That's how I saw it and see it still.

As I reflect on President Reagan’s leadership, I ask again, “Can America now exercise moral courage and unified leadership in the face of lawless hoards on the world scene?”  The lack of moral clarity and resolve in our current leadership make me doubtful.   The longer America and its allies continue with a policy of token resistance, the greater will be the spread of this evil infection; and, the less likely America will respond out of moral indignation and not out of anger and vengeance –if America responds at all.  

Allow me to conclude with a current contrast in leadership that I believe justifies my concern. On the one hand are the leaders of two of America’s Middle East allies:  Abdullah II, King of Jordan, and Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel.  Both men have clearly expressed their frustration and concern about the growing threat posed by terror groups and hostile nations such as Iran.  Netanyahu in particular has demonstrated much patience, a voice of reason, and a willingness to negotiate peace with neighbors who despise his nation.  On the other hand, President Obama seems unable or unwilling to stand in the tradition of previous American presidents as a voice for moral clarity.   Instead, he appears apologetic for the nation he leads perhaps because he sees America as an unjust intruder on the world scene; a nation that has attained her leadership dishonestly at the expense of other nations.  This line of reason, typical of many secular progressives, suggests that America must leave the stage as leader of the free world and blend into the landscape with other nations she has oppressed. 

We must admit that America’s history has many blemishes because Americans are, in God’s view, depraved people.  However, because of his unwillingness or inability to exercise decisive leadership, President Obama is creating frustration among Americans, confusion within our armed services, and doubt among our allies. 

King Abdullah’s angry reaction to the violent death of a Jordanian citizen this week illustrates what I have stated as perhaps the greatest challenge or test for Western civilization.  The test has one multiple-choice question:  “How will the West react to the current onslaught of evil that emerges from ISIS, Iran, Russia, and numerous terror groups on different continents?   Will the West react with (a) a resolve to confront evil with just retribution based on moral indignation ; or will the West react (b) “in kind” by committing more atrocities out of anger and vengeance? 

As I stated at the beginning, I am concerned about the direction of the world.  I am concerned for America, and for our children and grandchildren.  There is not much we can do as individuals.  But we can pray for our own leadership responsibilities and for our leaders.   I pray that President Obama will communicate in words and in actions the spirit conveyed by Ronald Reagan as he bid farewell to America as her president, in 1989: 

But I never thought it was my style or the words I used that made a difference: It was the content. I wasn't a great communicator, but I communicated great things, and they didn't spring full bloom from my brow, they came from the heart of a great nation--from our experience, our wisdom, and our belief in principles that have guided us for two centuries.

Both Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan are known as “great communicators.”   I pray that President Obama will take up the mantel of moral leadership and offer a clear message of hope and encouragement to the America he serves.  May he also send a clear message to the enemies of law and order that America is back and ready to lead its allies in defense of life, liberty, and justice.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Charles Townes: Steward of Science & Faith

Men and women of science who profess Christ are often seen as hopelessly handicapped by their outmoded ideas.  Consequently, they are often sent to the corner with “Flat-Earth crowd.”   However, those who have this view of Christians in science would be shocked at how much of our knowledge and how many of the conveniences we now enjoy actually originated from scientists and engineers who were devout Christians.  Consider a case in point.

Blu-ray laser; Charles Townes, discoverer of laser technology
According to NPR News, Charles Townes, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, died Tuesday at the age of 99.  Townes is best known for “thinking up the basic principles of the laser while sitting on a park bench. Later in life he advised the U.S. government and helped uncover the secrets of our Milky Way galaxy.”  Perhaps few would expect a man of such intelligence and creativity to be “hung up with religion,” but let’s look closer at Townes’ biography.

Reinhard Genzel, director of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany, was a partner with Charles Townes in studying the Milky Way galaxy for many years.  In 1985, these men discovered the black hole in the center of the Milky Way.   Genzel says of his beloved partner in astronomy,

He was such a wonderful person, always optimistic, and always curious…He really was one of these rare people who could be a deeply thinking research scientist and yet, at the same time, be a deeply devout Christian.

According to NPR, “Through all these scientific adventures, Townes maintained a deep faith in the existence of God. He saw his faith as intertwined with his science.”  In 2005, he told NPR (emphasis mine):
Charles Townes (1915-2015) in his laboratory.
Consider what religion is. Religion is an attempt to understand the purpose and meaning of our universe. What is science?  It's an attempt to understand how our universe works. Well, if there's a purpose and meaning, that must have something to do with how it works, so those two must be related."

Think about it!  Scientists strive to know how the universe (creation) works.  Is it possible that “good science” is advanced by scientists like Charles Townes who understand that there is a connection between the how (process) and the why (purpose) of the universe?  The Spirit-inspired writer of Hebrews 11: 1-3 states:

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for,
the evidence of things not seen.
For by it the elders obtained a good report.
Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed
by the word of God, so that things which are seen
were not made of things which do appear.

Max Planck, one of the world’s greatest physicists, and for whom the institute noted above was named, expressed his belief in the importance of religious faith in science when he said,

There can never be any real opposition between religion and science; for the one is the complement of the other. Every serious and reflective person realizes, I think, that the religious element in his nature must be recognized and cultivated if all the powers of the human soul are to act together in perfect balance and harmony. And indeed it was not by accident that the greatest thinkers of all ages were deeply religious souls. – Planck (1932), Where Is Science Going?

Charles Townes now belongs in the honor role along with Max Planck and earlier men of faith who studied physics and astronomy, men such as Galileo, Newton, and Kepler. These men had modeled for Townes that science and faith are not at odds; rather, the scientific mind is enlightened by the Truth of the Scriptures which reveal the existence of a purposeful Creator God.  And these scientific heroes could testify of their own “park bench meditations” made possible by “the God Who is there” and Who conceals the mysteries of His creation while also honoring with extraordinary insights those who seek Him (Proverbs 25:2). 

The Scriptures reveal this God of purpose in action when He created Adam and gave him purpose for living.  According to Genesis 2: 15, He took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and to keep it.  But, in order to accomplish the cultivation and conserving of the Garden, Adam had some learning to do.   Genesis 2: 19-20 teaches us that God formed the various kinds of animals and then invited Adam to “label” them; and, also to give names that speak of their “significance” or “role” in relation to the rest of creation including himself—the beginning of the sciences of taxonomy and ecology.  Of course, we, like our father Adam, learn from his first science exercise that none of these “kinds” were suitable for him.  Hence, Adam was prepared for God’s wonderful, special creation of Eve, especially created from the flesh of Adam.  What a blessed purpose for Adam—and for our scientific endeavors down through the centuries!

Charles Townes and wife (Frances) of 73 years at his memorial.
As I finish this writing, I am enjoying in the sound of the piano music of Paul Cardall wafting from our compact disk player, I am thankful for the laser technology discovered by Charles Townes.  So, I offer this “Oikonomia tribute” to him as an example of one who exercised stewardship of the gifts and the faith which God had given him—yet with the grace and humility of Christ.  According to Elsa Garmire, a physicist at Dartmouth, “He was a Southern gentleman. He was just a very nice person.

May the tribe of Charles Townes increase.  And may the world recognize that, as a man of great faith and of science, his tribe is already large—and worthy of respect for its contributions to “good science.”

Related Articles:
“Good Stewardship is About God, Not Us”  Oct. 31, 2011 
“Character Qualities of a Steward-Leader”  May 31, 2012
“Climate Change Debate Demands ‘Good Science’” Nov. 30, 2009
“Max Planck on God” Nov. 28, 2010, Prayson Daniel, “With All I Am” Blog