I was the invited speaker at our annual Academic Awards Ceremony on Friday, April 10, 2015. I gave myself a simple goal: give a five-minute presentation composed entirely of questions that cause students, family members, and my coworkers to think more deeply about something. Here is a rough transcript of what I shared:
[Introduction by our Vice President for Academic Affairs detailing academic credentials, awards, etc., research work, and the like.]
Thank you for that kind introduction.
After that, I bet you are terrified about what I might be talking about this afternoon.
Actually, I won’t be telling you anything. I have a series of questions I would like to ask you to consider. Please listen carefully – there may or may not be a test at the end.
Are you proud of the accomplishments that have gathered us all here together today?
Do they represent the best of what you can do?
Is there something more?
What is next for you?
Did anyone else help you reach this achievement?
Do you think that you can use your success to help others?
How would you describe this picture?
When we look at other people, why do we see our differences before we see our similarities?
Does a person’s ethnic background, gender, religion, socioeconomic status, or sexual identity in any way alter their inherent value as a human being?
Have you even read the English translation of the Koran, or the English translation of the Hebrew Torah, or the English translation of the Bible, or any of the other sacred texts that people hold so dear?
Might it be possible for us to look past our differences to create a better future for all?
Is your future career supposed to be the thing that defines you as a person?
What other aspects of life should you consider as you plan your future?
Have others gone before you who might be able to give you helpful advice?
- What kind of impact will you make when you leave this place?
- Do the words networking and connections mean anything to you?
- What is your plan for securing a job after graduation?
- Where is God in your plan?
- What can you do to give back (to community, to your program at Ferrum, to family…)?
- Have you considered going straight on to graduate school?
- How will you handle being told you are overqualified for certain jobs and underqualified for others?
- Would you be okay with doing a job that is completely unrelated to your field of study as long as it makes you happy?
- Do you realize everything doesn’t have to be perfect?
- How do you plan to rise above the glass ceiling?
- What kind of impact do you want to make moving forward?
What is the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything?
How does your life fit into the bigger picture?
What truly is the best good that you can accomplish in your life?
What is the source of that good?
What unique combination of knowledge, skills, and abilities are you taking with you on your journey through life?
How are you preparing yourself to seek after your greatest dreams in life?
Do you want to cure cancer? Achieve world peace? Stabilize the global economy? End hunger?
Even if you don’t know all the specifics now, do you know that your future is a bright one?
Would your priorities change if someone you love got a challenging diagnosis that changed their life?
What would change if you found out that after all your hard work you only have a few months to live?
If something would be important to you if you knew that time was somehow shortened, why isn’t it important to you now?
What remains for you to learn about the world in which we live?
What is left for you to learn about yourself?
What can you still learn about other people?
How can you live a unique and reflective life of purpose and significance?
That’s all I had time to share… You can be the judge of whether or not I “hit the high points.”
A few weeks ago, my wife’s Bible study was talking about how scientists think (apparently because we don’t think like normal people do). This caused her to reflect on the similarities and differences between her own faith journey and mine, and she asked me to explain how my understanding of the world (as informed by my study of science) helped to shape my response to the Gospel. Last week, I tried to give her (and our eldest daughter) the short answer while we were driving somewhere. Because I had such difficulty organizing my thoughts to be able to do so, I thought it would be a good idea to write a more detailed explanation down. This is the result.
My educational experience wasn’t that different from most American children; I attended U.S. public schools for all of my primary and secondary education except for a four-year stint while my family lived overseas and I attended a private school there modeled after the British style of education. I did well in all of my classes except for one particular class in world history, and I excelled in mathematics and science. I like to think that I am a fairly logical person, and a coherent argument based on sound evidence is the most effective way of getting me to understand just about anything. That is probably why science was so attractive to me as a way of understanding the world.
We returned to the U.S. with just enough time for me to re-acclimate to the American educational system, take the appropriate standardized tests, and gain acceptance and enrollment at an upper-tier undergraduate institution. Everything looked good from the outside – I had scholarships to a good school, a good plan for my education, a great family, an exciting and stimulating summer job, and a handful of good friends that knew me and liked me in spite of (and sometimes because of) what they knew. At my core, though, I was unhappy. From my understanding of how the world was put together, I did not see how my life could have any purpose. If I was the product of natural laws and random chance, then there was no real reason why I should want to excel at anything. No matter what choices I made in life, the outcome would be the same: death, decomposition, and oblivion. There was no life after death, no spiritual aspect of existence… only our physical reality. It was a dark and depressing way to look at the world, and it made me angry. It made me despair. It made me wonder about the point of my existence.
I can be impulsive at times. But, I have the predisposition that, once I start something, I tend to finish it. I decided that, while my main purpose in going to college was to earn a degree that would help me make a good living in the future, I was going to take every possible opportunity to find some kind of meaning to life. It might strike you as strange that a 17-year-old would make that kind of decision, but I was desperate; if I couldn’t find some kind of meaning to my life, I didn’t know what I was going to do.
I read every kind of religious text I could put my hands on. I took a course in philosophy (which ruined my goal of 4.0 in my first semester of college). I talked to people. I asked questions. I learned that of all the people of faith, Christians understood the least about how the world worked. I found that, once I learned their lingo, I could debate with Christians and dismantle their arguments. At times, I could even make them doubt their fundamental beliefs. It was fun. It made me want to learn more about Christianity so that I could more easily attack their way of thinking. Most simply got angry at my arguments and started name-calling rather than debating the issues. That made things even easier. I could reject Christianity because professing followers of Jesus were hypocrites – they didn’t even follow their own doctrines as explained in Biblical commentaries. They didn’t even know what the Bible said, and when I pointed it out to them they got confused and angry.
(Now, there were a few who debated patiently and kindly, and they ultimately led me to good resources that helped me understand what Jesus actually taught. They asked questions and tried to understand me rather than trying to defend themselves and attack my way of thinking. To them, I am eternally grateful.)
The thrill of the hunt did not displace my deep-seated need for something greater. As I read the Gospels, then Job, then Ecclesiastes, then Acts and the Epistles, and so on, I began to understand something about Jesus. I began to see something of His character and what He offered His followers all those many years ago. It resonated with me in a way that nothing had ever before or has since. One night, I said something that changed everything: “Jesus, if you’re real, I’ll follow you.”
There was no flash of light. I didn’t hear a voice. No angels singing. No warm, fuzzy feeling. What there was, was peace. That was enough for me to keep digging. I turned away from the other things I had been pursuing and spent my free time in Bible study. The more I studied it, the more it made sense. That trend has continued through today. What I have learned has changed my life, sometimes quickly, and sometimes slowly over a prolonged period of time.
It seems to me that in most testimonies given by evangelical Christians, the Gospel message moved from their head into their heart. They understood the message of Jesus and made a conscious decision to accept it before that message transformed their life. As far as I can tell, my transformation took the opposite path. My desperate need for meaning and significance within my heart was satisfied by God through the message of Jesus. Because I could not ignore that change at my core, I felt compelled to re-adjust my basic understanding of the world. I made the intellectual concession that there could be an all-knowing, all-powerful God who created me (and each of us) for a purpose and that He could operate outside the confines of naturalistic laws just as easily as He could operate within them. I recognized that the only self-consistent and rational explanation of mankind’s relationship to God is found in the Judeo-Christian Bible (and not all the other texts that I read as part of my search). Because of the change within me, I made the conscious decision to trust everything that the Bible contains… even that seemingly irrational explanation of the creation of the world. Because in faith I put my trust in what I then learned to call God’s Word, my life has never been the same. Each year is better than the last – and sometimes I grow quickly enough to measure in days or weeks rather than in years.
Fast-forward to the present time, and I am now what most would label as an exceedingly conservative-minded person. Even with a Ph.D. in chemistry, I am a (gasp!) “Young-Earth Creationist.” I have also found enough self-contradictions within the universalist-type approach to faith that I have been forced to discard it. Perhaps now you can understand something of how those things might come to be. That is, if you cared to understand in the first place. In any case, thank you for reading.
It can sometimes be a good idea to break from an activity to decide whether it is truly something in which it is worth participating. I think two-and-a-half years is a good amount of time to break from blogging… now the question becomes whether or not to take up the keyboard again.
I do need the practice and prompt to write, as long as I stay on task for those things that I need to accomplish.
We’ll see how it goes… later.
We are in the final stages of selling our house and buying another one.
To provide a little perspective, my wife and I moved into this house over nine years ago, back before we had any children. (Ah, the quiet life…) Growing up, my family moved every four or five years, so this is officially the house that has been my home for the longest period of time. It’s been a good place to live.
So now we’re getting ready to move. The funny thing is that I am fixing things now that we’ve lived with for most of the time we’ve been here. The timer knobs on the oven broke off during our first year here, and just the other day I found replacements for them. No, I hadn’t been looking for them for eight years – we just grabbed the metal rod and set the timer that way. It was livable.
All summer, our “way-back yard” has been overgrown, and I even gave up on the garden mid-way through. Now, everything is clean and beautiful. Even our little fire pit is newly refurbished with kindling ready to strike an evening campfire during the cool fall evenings. We’re not likely to get to use it, but I finally got around to it. (Well, actually I was procrastinating the daunting task of packing up the disarray in my shed, so I have a good excuse…)
I also fixed the basement doorbell, a minor leak in the roof, a stuck shower valve, a broken spring in our dishwasher, and a number of other things that were on my “honey-do” list. All minor projects; all pending for some significant amount of time.
This got me to thinking. Why is it that I was willing to live with things not-quite-right for so long when it was so easy to fix them? Why was it more important for me to fix them for this other family that will soon be making this their home instead of ours?
How am I settling for the not-quite-right in other areas of my life? Is it something that is easy to “fix”? Just a thought…
Oh, and let me tell you. Our “new” house won’t have any pending projects once we get all moved in and settled. I won’t let them accumulate on me like they did at this “old” house… (please note intended sarcasm here)
Just a quick reflection that was prompted by my recent reading in prayer…
Everything that is or ever has been was created by Jesus and for His glory. All the potential I can ever possess originated with Him, and any worth that I have came because it was given to me. He gave up his life so that I could be reconciled to God. That reconciliation comes as a free gift, and not because of anything I could ever do. All I do is accept the gift.
Because of His extraordinary sacrifice and the quality of His character, I want to spend time with Him. I learn more about Him and bask in the light of His glory. Just as the “big ball of dirt” that we call the moon reflects the light of our local star, even I can reflect the glory of God by spending time with Jesus.
The more time I spend with Jesus, the more I find myself becoming like Him. I respond to others with more patience, grace, and mercy. I am inclined to be charitable rather than critical. I learn to love unconditionally. I am filled.
As I am being filled to bursting, the natural outpouring of Jesus’ unconditional love is for me to minister to others in His name. I do these things not to receive favor or acceptance, because I am already favored and accepted as an adopted son. I do things for Christ because I want to bring Him glory. Jesus did for me what I couldn’t do for myself. Now I have a chance to do for others in His name.
If I keep this perspective, I think I’ll have a pretty good day.
A couple of weeks ago, I received an update letter from a friend who serves as a missionary. In that letter, I learned that he intends to transition to a different area of the same overall ministry, and that this was something that he is confident that God is leading him to do. I am wrestling with several different decisions at the moment – some related to career, others to lifestyle, others to ministry, others to childrearing – and his confidence intrigued me. So, I fired off an email requesting an extended telephone conversation, and we scheduled an appointment. (It’s sad when I feel that I have to schedule an appointment for a phone conversation with a friend, but that’s part of why I needed to have that conversation.)
We talked briefly of our families, and then got straight to the meat of what I wanted to talk about. Actually, it was more what I wanted to listen about. He had tapped into something that was largely foreign to me, and I wanted to know more about it.
He described his experiences and why he was confident that God was leading him in his new direction. Then, he asked me about my decision-making strategies. Eventually he told me about a resource that he has used to help confirm God’s leading in things. It involves prayer (obviously), but is a systematic and deliberate way of prayerfully approaching a decision. It turns out that it is described in a book: “Developing Intimacy with God: An Eight-Week Prayer Guide Based on Ignatius’ ‘Spiritual Exercises'”, by Alex B. Aronis. Based on his recommendation, I have decided to devote one hour per morning for eight weeks to work through this guide. Today was day two.
No, I’m not going to bore you by regurgitating each day of this process… I know that works for many bloggers, but it just isn’t my style. Plus, I’m never sure how regularly I will be posting here and I don’t want to disappoint the random person who wants to be able to follow the process. If that’s you, get the book. It’s an easy read, and VERY practical.
The first challenge I am facing in deepening my intimacy with God is being able to see myself as God sees me. I’m finding that I have first needed to examine myself and be honest about how I see myself. When was the last time you did that?
Ask yourself two questions:
- What is your primary purpose in life? (Really, what is it? Don’t just give the Sunday school answer here…)
- What motivates you to pursue your primary purpose in life?
As I’ve asked myself those questions in the prescribed morning prayer time, I have found that my approach to situations during the day has been quite different than it might otherwise have been. A simple recognition of those two facts has already begun to shape the way I interact with the circumstances of my life.
If God can change me that much in two days, what might He accomplish in eight weeks?
What about if I give Him that much time over the course of a lifetime?
Things have been a little bit out of hand in my professional life lately, so I haven’t had a chance to post anything new in some time. Apologies to those few of you who look forward to whatever small contributions I am able to make to the collective wisdom of the World Wide Web. (Yes, I’m aware of the irony of the last portion of that last statement.)
I’ve recently received a barrage of comments from my old pen pal David, whom I had previously tagged as a spammer on new posts and who said goodbye once more “for the last time.” My friend Jim posted a reply to David and received a scathing response in return. Jim responded with his characteristic kindheartedness and was again rebutted by David. All this (and an early exit from a Friday afternoon faculty meeting) got me thinking about tolerance (and intolerance) for other peoples’ points of view.
I’ve made no secret that I consider myself to be a follower of Jesus. (Before David points out some historical discrepancy in that statement, let me say that this is Yeshua bar Joseph of Nazareth, the man who was crucified by the Romans at the request of the religious establishment of Jerusalem for what they considered to be blasphemous actions and words. He is sometimes called Jesus Christ, and he stated on several occasions that he was the son of God and the “Son of Man”. You know, the guy that the entire New Testament was written about.) My pen pal David and my friend Jim both talk about how they follow and/or esteem that same Jesus in different ways. Is it really possible for two individuals to “correctly” follow the ideals of one person in such different ways? Religious relativists would say yes, while absolutists would say no. In my estimation, David seems to be an abolutist. Jim seems to be also. I would classify myself as one as well. No relativistic thinking here (unless we’re talking about physics). I’ll let David and Jim say what they want about their own thinking on this matter.
So how should an absolutist thinker like myself deal with someone who holds beliefs so radically different from my own? Echoes from the past of “burn the witch!” and “kill the heathen!” and various other battle cries haunt my conscience. Jesus never condemned anyone. Oh, wait. He did condemn a few… See, for example, Matthew 23:13-36 (NASB).
Jesus taught the requirements of salvation, and the greatest commandments, and lived a life of servant leadership and forgiveness. The only condemnation he offered was condemnation to the religious elite who tried to tell everyone else the business of how they should relate to God whether or not they themselves did as they said.
As I see it, my obligation and joy as a Christ-follower is to do my utmost to live a life worthy of Him (whatever that means) and to share the “good news”/”Gospel” with everyone who will listen (whatever that means). It’s the two greatest commandments all over again: love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.
Would I condemn myself for having thoughts or ideas that are disagreeable? (Okay, so I may have just blown a gasket there. You get the general idea, though…)
A deeper question: what is the difference between tolerance and acceptance? Between listening and following? This is more important than simply allowing others to be heard.
Just my $0.02 at the end of a long and trying week. Comments (especially those that are constructive) are welcome. Rants are not. Thanks for reading.