Friday, April 27, 2012

Approaching the True Majesty of God

SOURCE:  "Remarks at Morning Prayers" by Michael Zuckerman.
KEYWORDS: friendship, support, community, communion
SCRIPTURE:  Ecclesiastes 4:9–10

The story is my own story, and it begins with a 13-year-old kid who's pretty angry at the world, who's lost his father just a year before and who has started spending his time outside of school in less than productive ways. Actually, you'd have to call them criminal ways.

And eventually, without getting into any of the details here in a place of worship, it leads to this 13-year-old kid having to do community service after school. And this kid is still pretty angry at the world, he's not so optimistic about the future, he feels knocked down and he feels knocked out.

But this kid has a friend—actually he has a few friends. Thanks to one of the friends—and the friend's mom—he gets set up with this terrific community service partnership between two local organizations, a program that's going to have him doing art projects and mentoring every week with homeless children who live in the strip motels on Route 1 outside Trenton, NJ.

And another friend—who didn't get in trouble and didn't have to do the community service in the first place—tells him, completely unprompted, that he's going to start volunteering alongside him, that he's going to accompany him every week, to spend hours with these younger kids on these art projects, just so he doesn't have to go it alone.

And that's what the friend does, and every week they meet up and walk into town together, where they're doing the art projects with the homeless children, and before long it's the highlight of the week and something they find themselves looking forward to.

And actually those friends are in the pews this morning—Eddie, whose mom helped found the community service program, and Dimitri who volunteered alongside every week—and that experience ends up being such a transformational one for everyone involved—including the 13-year-old kid, who I can now start referring to as myself, because this is the point in the story where I start to fully recognize him again—that it lifted all of us up. It lifted me up, lifted my friend up, hopefully lifted the kids living in the motels up, and lifted us all up, I think, to be helping lift each other up.

And what this story has to do with faith is simply this:

That one of the great mysteries of faith—one of the great joys of faith for many of us here who love the life of the mind—is the effort to try to conceive of the inconceivable, to try to comprehend the incomprehensible, to try to summon up the unsummonable, which is the majesty of God Almighty.

And although we know that we, in this City of Man, are still restricted to seeing only through a glass darkly, for my money, when we think of what God is, of what it is we can do to be most like God, it's not to try to seize the commanding heights of societal power and influence, or to try to decipher the formulas of the cosmos, or to try to engineer the scientific mechanisms of life and death.

In all those things, we are pretty poor imitators of the God who made this universe with its crashing waves and roaring winds and animals that graze the fields and man himself, whom God is so mindful of (Psalm 8:4) for reasons that pass understanding.

For my money, it is these simple acts of friendship, this walking alongside one another that we hear of in Ecclesiastes, in which we most approach the true majesty of God, in which we come closest to being vessels of His grace...

Monday, April 23, 2012

Chimps and Religion

SOURCE:  "Interview:  Why Jane Goodall Thinks Chimps Have Souls" by Steven Greydanus.  Christianity Today; 4/20/2012.

What are other aspects of human uniqueness, besides than our intelligence?

Tied in with intelligence, we've developed and been able to elaborate on cultural acquisition of behavior. Chimps definitely have their own kind of primitive culture, but we live by our culture, we talk about it, children are taught how to model behavior. Our whole lives are bound by our culture, really. So even though we're reaching out to understand other cultures, nevertheless it's our language that's enabling us to do that.

What makes us special? People say maybe we have a soul and chimpanzees don't. I feel that it's quite possible that if we have souls, chimpanzees have souls as well.  Other people say, "What about religious behavior? Do chimps show any signs of that? In Gombe [Tanzania's Gombe Stream National Park, where Goodall did much of her research], there are fantastic waterfalls where the water drops eighty feet through a natural gorge. There's a wind caused by the displacement of air with the dropping water, and ferns waving and vines hanging down. And this spectacle causes what we call an incredible "waterfall dance." The chimpanzees will sway rhythmically from foot to foot, and sometimes sit and look at the waterfall.
That makes me feel that if the chimpanzees could speak, if they could share the behavior that makes them perform these displays, which I think must be related to awe and wonder, that could lead to one of those early animistic religions where people worship water and sun and elements they can't understand.

Do you think that in doing so, chimpanzees—and humans in their religious behavior—apprehend something real?

Well, that's what different people think different things about, isn't it? From my perspective, I absolutely believe in a greater spiritual power, far greater than I am, from which I have derived strength in moments of sadness or fear. That's what I believe, and it was very, very strong in the forest. What it means for chimpanzees, I simply wouldn't say. Since they haven't had the language to discuss it, it's trapped within each one of them.

(emphasis mine)