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July 31, 2009

Planet Earth is widely regarded as the greatest nature or wildlife series ever produced. Says David Attenborough in the opening moments, “A hundred years ago, there were one and a half billion people on Earth. Now, over six billion crowd our fragile planet. But even so, there are still places barely touched by humanity. This series will take you to the last wildernesses and show you the planet and its wildlife as you have never seen them before.” And it proceeds to do just that, finding and filming some of the most exquisitely beautiful locations on the planet. The scenery, the panoramas, the creatures are absolutely breathtaking.

While the producers of the series are not Christians (or do not claim to be Christians) and while the films were not meant to draw attention to God, as I watched them I was continually drawn to marvel in the greatness of the Lord. As the films provided a tour of so many beautiful locations and as they gave close-up shots of such incredible creatures, I saw the hand of a Creator. I saw it everywhere.

I’ve since often reflected on what I saw in the series and eventually wrote down a list of some of the things I learned about God through Planet Earth. And today I’ll share that list with you.

I learned that our God is…

…A God of Variety

jungle.jpgAs a web designer I know a thing or two about design. I know about the demands placed upon those who seek to design. I know that it is not nearly as easy as it may appear. Sometimes creating even just two or three variations on a similar theme taxes my creative abilities to the max. A few hours of design work on a theme can leave me tired and burned out. Design inspiration can go missing for long periods and may show up only in isolated bursts.

But God is not so limited. In Planet Earth we see stunning variety in plants, animals, and landscapes. There are animals we’ve grown accustomed to—the ones we see around us every day—and there are animals the likes of which we can barely even imagine. There are plants of every kind, every color, every size. From beginning to end, this series showcases diversity. It shows God as a lover of variety. God could easily have created just a few animals or a even just a few types of animals. But He went far beyond, creating far more creatures and plants than anyone has ever been able to count. The diversity is almost unimaginable.

God’s emphasis on variety in what He has created teaches me that He also loves variety in other areas. God has not created humans to resemble one another in gifts and talents any more than He has created all of us to look the same. God is pleased with who He has made us to be.

…A God of Beauty

God did not make a world that is drab and uninteresting. Instead He made a world that is dazzling in its beauty. Plants, animals, and landscapes can cause us to gasp in wonder. Who but God could have created such beauty? He created a world of untold beauty and created us so we could enjoy it with Him. He created this world and declared that it was very good. Planet Earth shows us the world’s beauty in ways that were previously impossible and unimaginable.

Humans are drawn to beauty, and little wonder as we are created in the image of the one who designed beauty. Beauty is something that flows from the character of God and in pursuing and enjoying beauty, we imitate the One who made us.

…A God of Detail

God overlooked no detail in creating this world. While humans like to declare that certain parts of our bodies are unnecessary or left over from some far-off evolutionary process, nature offers us no such hints. In Planet Earth we cannot help but see the beauty of God in the details—in the tiniest microbes and the largest mammals. God created this world to function perfectly, down to its tiniest and seemingly least significant parts.

whale.jpgIf God has seen fit to be involved in the tiniest details of the tiniest creatures He has made, how much more can we trust Him in the details of our lives. The same God who sees the sparrow fall is the God who is present with us as we seek to live our lives in accordance with His will. The God who has woven together this world is the same God who weaves together providence for our good and for His glory.

…A God of the Big Picture

While God has overlooked no detail, he has not done so at the expense of the big picture. The way the world works is so clearly seen as the tiniest creatures in the ocean become food for the larger creatures, who in turn become food for larger creatures still. Life begins in the oceans and filters out throughout the earth. Even with the advent of sin into the world, everything functions so well in the big picture. Planet Earth shows us the big picture in action.

As God watches over the sparrow and even the smallest details of our lives, so He weaves together the big picture. The big picture of creation and of history shows us a God who created us and, despite our sin, has redeemed a people for Himself. The big picture shows that everything in the world is unfolding exactly as God planned for it to. In the big picture as much as the small God will be glorified.

…A God of Pleasure

God takes pleasure in His creation; He takes pleasure in beauty. There are some places in the world and some plants and creatures that seem to exist primarily to display their beauty. Planet Earth takes the viewer to the deepest recesses of the world and there shows beauty almost unmatched in the world above. What purpose does such beauty serve except to allow God to reflect His glory through what He has made. The beauty is unmatched.

God is not a cruel taskmaster who wants only to push His people to do things they do not want to do. On the contrary, God takes pleasure in what He has made and He wants us to take pleasure in it as well. As we look at the world He has made, we can stop and look and ponder and delight in what He has done. We find pleasure in creation and ultimately in the One who made it all.

…A God of Laughter

Bird of ParadiseGod takes pleasure in His creation, to be sure. But He must also sometimes enjoy what He has made for the humor it displays. Who can but laugh as he watches Planet Earth and sees the bizarre and hilarious mating displays of the ridiculous birds of paradise? Surely God must have a sense of humor to create something so entertaining and something so funny.

God does not wish for His people to go through life solemn and sour. Laughter is a gift from God and when we laugh at the sublime and the ridiculous we honor the God who made us to be people who laugh. And He made certain aspects of His creation funny so that we could join Him in laughter and delight.

…A God of His Word

The Bible tells us that God reveals Himself in what He has made. He reveals His existence, His power, His authority. He also reveals His wrath. In nature we see glimpses of what God created this world to be and glimpses of what it has since become. And we learn that God is a God of His Word. As Tennyson wrote so long ago, nature is red in tooth and claw. In Planet Earth we see the results of the fall into sin. We see animals destroying one another; we see humans destroying the creation. We see that God is not One to be trifled with. What He says is true. What He says will come to pass. God warned man of the consequences of sin, and man ignored the Creator. The world has been suffering ever since.

seal-shark.jpgCreation testifies to the truth of what God tells us about sin and its consequences. If this is the case, we can also trust God when He tells us how we can avoid the eternal consequences of sin. The same God who saw man plunge this world into sin is the God who has provided salvation to those who would believe in Him. He is a good and a kind and a trustworthy God. He is worthy of our trust.

…A God of Redemption

Nature cries out for redemption—for release from its bondage. We cannot even begin to fathom the amount of death and destruction upon this planet—this planet where death was once entirely foreign and unnatural. Every day countless millions of animals are torn apart, suffering in agony as they fall prey to one creature or another. No creature is immune. Some may live for centuries, but sooner or later they go the way of all the earth; they die and decay and pass away. In every glimpse of a baby animal being torn to pieces and in every scene of terror and bloodshed our hearts cry out that this is wrong, this is unnatural. Somehow we know that death is a foreign state. And we ask, “when will the last drop of blood be shed?” We long for the final redemption of this world and its return to a state of perfection. Nature attests to the fact that death is wrong; and it testifies to the end of all that is unnatural.

cave.jpgPlanet Earth vividly shows that the world groans as it awaits redemption. And as we watch we, too, cry out for someone who can stop all of the suffering and destruction. Our hearts long for a redeemer!

…A God of Adventure

This world will be fully and finally redeemed. And when that time comes, we will have the inestimable privilege of enjoying an eternity exploring the wonders of the world He has made for us. The wonders will only increase as the sin is removed from us and as we enjoy access to every part of this planet. We will enjoy eternal adventures exploring the deepest depths and the highest heights of this amazing planet.

While we may love to explore even today, we know that even the most committed explorers can catch only a glimpse of the world’s wonders. But the time is coming when we will have unending opportunities to see the hand of a loving creator in every part of this world. But even now we can praise Him for what He has made and what He has done.


Some time ago I reviewed Planet Earth and its predecessor Blue Planet. Click here if you want to read that.

July 30, 2009

My morning reading today took me to the fourth chapter of Ephesians. This is a chapter that deals primarily with the topic of unity within the body of Christ. Through the first three chapters of the book Paul has been laying the theological framework for the life of good works he describes in the final three chapters. The first topic he discusses in this regard is unity. He encourages believers to live together in humility and patience, bearing with one another and maintaining the unity of the Spirit. The word “one” appears seven times in only three verses, emphasizing the oneness the Lord expects of his family. Having discussed the importance of unity, Paul goes on to show how this unity will be formed and maintained.

Unity is a common theme in the New Testament, isn’t it?. Paul spoke of it in 1 Corinthians 1:10 where we read, “I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.” Among Jesus’ final words to His apostles was a beautiful, powerful prayer for unity which is recorded for us in John 17. “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (John 17: 20-23). Peter and other biblical writers discuss the subject as well. Unity is clearly an important component to the Christian life.

Perhaps the most clear example of this type of unity is shown to us in the book of Acts. We read in Acts 5, “Now many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem. And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women…” (Acts 5:12-14). This unity was based on unity of doctrine, and that asserted itself in practice. In the previous chapter Luke writes, “Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” (Acts 4:32-35).

Of course there are two types of unity. There is the unity from one Christian to another and there is unity from one group of professing Christians to another. While it seems clear that the biblical writers were speaking primarily of interpersonal relationships their words are surely valid as well to larger relationships between groups. Baptist and Presbyterian denominations can learn as much from Paul’s words in their relationships to each other as can two individual members of a local church who are experiencing conflict in their relationship.

Sadly in our day it seems that unity, and especially unity from one group of professed Christians to another, often comes at the cost of theology. In his masterpiece Evangelicalism Divided Iain Murray says “The ecumenical call [in the mid-20th century] was not for truth and salt; it was supremely for oneness: the greater the unity of ‘the Church’, it was confidently asserted, the stronger would be the impression made upon the world; and to attain that end churches should be inclusive and tolerant. But it has never been by putting unity first that the church has changed the world. At no point in church history has the mere unity of numbers ever made a transforming spiritual impression upon others. On the contrary, it was the very period known as ‘the dark ages’ that the Papacy could claim her greatest unity in western Europe.”

The ecumenical movement of our day continues to downplay theology. Of course none of the major players in the movement would admit this, but if we are to have unity with the Roman Catholic Church we must be willing to let go of those pesky little solas that so often get in the way. If we are to have unity with Mormons we must be willing to allow some leeway on the divinity of Jesus. And so on. But the unity that Christ prays for us to attain and that Paul exhorts us to model is not a unity based on forsaking doctrinal differences so that we can meet at the lowest common denominator. It is not a unity based on mixing “churches” with one another. The unity Christ pleaded for on our behalf is a unity of people who know and trust Christ. It is a unity in the truths of the Scripture, truths despised by the world, but loved and treasured by believers. It is a unity which, as Murray says, “binds his [Christ’s] members together in love” (Evangelicalism Divided, page 291). This truth became particularly clear to me this morning as I read Ephesians 4. In verses eleven to sixteen Paul describes the means of attaining unity. “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.”

And this morning I realize that the teaching ministry, carried on today by the pastors of local churches, is a ministry of unity. As if the pastoral ministry was not already difficult enough! Pastors are to teach their people sound doctrine which in turn will inspire unity among true believers. The solid foundation of sound doctrine will prevent people from being tossed to and fro and being carried about by every wind of doctrine. It is a lack of doctrine that promotes false unity and a strong, biblical theology that promotes true unity. Our pastors are called to help us “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” It is from Christ that the body is joined, knit together in true unity.

So if we would have unity, we must have theology. We are to share, profess and enjoy unity with other believers, even those who do not share certain “lesser” doctrines. This is not to imply that any doctrine is unimportant, yet some are more important than others. J.C. Ryle wisely observed that believers should “keep the walls of separation as low as possible, and shake hands over them as often as you can.” But there are times when we must reject unity because of the higher importance of truth and sound doctrine. To repeat Murray’s words, “it has never been by putting unity first that the church has changed the world.” Nor will it ever be.

July 29, 2009

“The moment a person forms a theory his imagination sees in every object only the traits which favor that theory.” (Thomas Jefferson)

Last night a reader of this site took the time to send me a link to an article I had somehow missed reading. It was written by Dr. Albert Mohler and discussed the subject of “confirmation bias.” Dr. Mohler traces an article written by Michael Shermer of Scientific American as he discusses a study based on this topic. Schermer discusses “A recent brain-imaging study [that] shows that our political predilections are a product of unconscious confirmation bias.”

As a fiscal conservative and social liberal, I have found at least something to like about each Republican or Democrat I have met. I have close friends in both camps, in which I have observed the following: no matter the issue under discussion, both sides are equally convinced that the evidence overwhelmingly supports their position.

This surety is called the confirmation bias, whereby we seek and find confirmatory evidence in support of already existing beliefs and ignore or reinterpret disconfirmatory evidence. Now a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study shows where in the brain the confirmation bias arises and how it is unconscious and driven by emotions. Psychologist Drew Westen led the study, conducted at Emory University, and the team presented the results at the 2006 annual conference of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.

During the run-up to the 2004 presidential election, while undergoing an fMRI bran scan, 30 men—half self-described as “strong” Republicans and half as “strong” Democrats—were tasked with assessing statements by both George W. Bush and John Kerry in which the candidates clearly contradicted themselves. Not surprisingly, in their assessments Republican subjects were as critical of Kerry as Democratic subjects were of Bush, yet both let their own candidate off the hook.

This is no great surprise, as experience shows all of us that we are much more willing to grant clemency to people whom we like and support than those with whom we disagree. What is particularly interesting about this study, though, is the source of the brain activity that formed these judgments. “The neuroimaging results, however, revealed that the part of the brain most associated with reasoning—the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex—was quiescent. Most active were the orbital frontal cortex, which is involved in the processing of emotions; the anterior cingulate, which is associated with conflict resolution; the posterior cingulate, which is concerned with making judgments about moral accountability; and—once subjects had arrived at a conclusion that made them emotionally comfortable—the ventral striatum, which is related to reward and pleasure.” What the researchers saw “was a network of emotion circuits lighting up, including circuits hypothesized to be involved in regulating emotion, and circuits known to be involved in resolving conflicts.” In other words, when people assessed the statements made by President Bush and John Kerry, they reacted with emotion rather than reason.

Like Dr. Mohler, I am “suspicious of all efforts to reduce human consciousness and cognitive activity to measurable or observable studies of the brain. There is a connection there, no doubt, but biological reductionism (and its close cousin, biological determinism) is a woefully inadequate explanation for human thinking and behavior.” To reduce human cognitive function, thinking, feeling and believing to mere imaging results is clearly inadequate in explaining the intricacies of the brain, the will and the heart. I don’t believe that we can ever neatly map out human reason or that we can ever solve how and why humans love, feel and believe. And yet there is likely some truth in the results of this study, for we are no doubt prone to make judgments based more on emotion than reason. Michael Shermer says, “The implications of the findings reach far beyond politics. A jury assessing evidence against a defendant, a CEO evaluating information about a company or a scientist weighing data in favor of a theory will undergo the same cognitive process.” In other words, confirmation bias can show itself in any number of situations.

Dr. Mohler writes, “We are unquestionably inclined to seek evidence that confirms our bias and to discard or discount evidence to the contrary. There may be biological evidence of this fact (indeed I assume there must be such evidence), but the main factor behind this problem, from a human perspective, is the Fall. The corruption of the race involves the corruption of our cognitive abilities. Confirmation bias is just one more evidence of the Fall; one more reminder that we are fallen creatures whose minds are not only finite, but corrupted. The human mind is truly amazing, but we all have to deal with conflicted thinking, limited knowledge, fragile memory, and emotional influences.”

When we affirm the doctrine of the fallenness of man, we affirm that through the Fall we have been corrupted in every way. The depravity of man extends to every area of his being so that nothing remains untouched. We are unable to use our minds without allowing emotion to interfere with reason. Clearly this poses a threat to intellectual integrity. “The reality of confirmation bias and its threat to intellectual integrity is one reason that Christian thinkers must read widely and think carefully.” Christians bear the responsibility of knowing their sin and thus knowing their proclivity for all manner of sin—even the sin of confirmation bias. For if we are able to admit that confirmation bias is a result of the Fall, we must also admit that it likely comes naturally to fallen men and women and that we are all likely to slip into it from time to time. I did not have to think long or hard before seeing areas where I am prone to make snap judgments and to allow emotion to override more measured reason. And, as the subject of discernment has been much on my mind in recent days, I also see how people to seek to be discerning may be particularly prone to this bias.

Here is an application Dr. Mohler drew from his reflections on the subject: In order to avoid confirmation bias “We must not limit ourselves to reading material from those who agree with us, fellow Christians who share a common worldview and perspective. Instead, we have to ‘read the opposition’ as well — and read opposing viewpoints with fairness and care.” If we are to avoid this bias, we must deliberately stretch ourselves. As I read this I thought back to the review I posted just a couple of weeks ago about the book While Europe Slept which was written by a homosexual. When I posted that review, several people questioned the validity of reading and reviewing such a book. These questions arise often when I read and review books that are written by unbelievers or by those who write from a liberal Christian perspective. Yet I think these books are important, for it is all too easy to delude ourselves, sometimes deliberately and sometimes inadvertently, into thinking that we are fair and unbiased when the reality may be far different. I believe, like Dr. Mohler, that it is important that we read the opposition. I believe that there is nothing to fear in doing so, provided that a person is well-grounded in the truths of Scripture.

John Calvin, in his Institutes wrote “If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God.” We can look outside the Christian bookstores for truth. We would not look outside a Christian worldview to find eternal truths, but we may still find truths outside the church and perhaps even truths to which Christians are oblivious. To ignore or to reject these truths, especially on the basis of confirmation bias, would be to dishonor God, the very source, the fountain, of truth.

July 22, 2009

A couple of summers ago my parents paid us a rare summer visit. Usually they come to visit in fall or winter, but this year they came in summer. Because my dad is only truly resting when he is hard at work, I asked him to help me with several projects around the house. These were either projects that I had not had time to attend to, or projects for which I would have to rely upon his expertise. As always, dad was glad to pitch in and to do what needed to be done. So while my mother spent as much time as she could with Aileen and the kids, dad and I got to work. On Saturday we installed a new air conditioner, something that turned out to be far easier said than done and that quickly consumed much of the day. The end result, though, was just what we had hoped for and was just in time to carry us through a couple of days of uncomfortable heat and humidity. Having taken care of this, we decided to attack the lawns and gardens. We laid sod in the backyard and planted perennials in the flower beds. We transformed the outside of our home.

Dad is a career landscaper and has a great love for rocks, trees, plants and flowers. I have spent countless hours with my father, and used to work with him quite often when I was younger. He must have given up on me eventually because I would do a half-baked job of nearly everything he asked of me. When plants needed a soaking, I’d give them only a quick shower before finding something more interesting to do. When plants needed to be buried deep in the ground, I would leave their roots exposed to the elements. I am sure it was on a scalding hot Ontario summer day, when I was covered in dirt and dust and manure, that I resolved that I would work a desk job when I was older.

Though I had worked with dad so often, it was only recently that I realized something fundamental to his choice of vocation. We were driving along Highway 5, a highway that represents the northern border of the town of Oakville. On the south side of the highway is a bustling suburban environment. Houses reach almost to the side of the road and there are newly-built gas stations on almost every corner. There are enough restaurants, Wal-Marts and big box stores to support a thriving community. In true Canadian style, the neighborhoods are predominantly flat and boring. The trees have been torn down, the valleys have been filled in, and the houses are often so close that a person could easily leap from roof-to-roof. Sometimes a single majestic, lonely tree stands at the entrance to a neighborhood with a sign underneath reading “Oak Trails.”

That is the south side of Highway 5. The opposite side, the north side, is everything that the south is not. Fields of corn and wheat border the highway. Many fields that have long laid fallow, stretch as far as the eye can see, passing into the distance. There are rolling hills and small forests. The occasional valley, with a stream running through it, cuts across the landscape. Cows graze and horses run.

On one side of Highway 5 is progress. A city thrives there, a city filled with men and women who commute into Toronto, the nerve center of Canada. These people choose to live in Oakville, the wealthiest city in Canada. They run the banks and own the businesses that drive our economy. Their demand for more houses, bigger houses, push the borders of Oakville ever further north. They push the borders toward the other side of Highway 5, the side that is nothing. Or that is what most of us see. Where we see nothing, dad sees beauty.

As we were driving along the highway, making our way to an eclectic, disorganized but well-stocked garden center that you would not notice unless you where it was, I heard dad cry, “Oh, look at that beautiful chestnut! Wow! Look at it!” I turned my head and saw a tree, standing tall and proud, rising above a field of grass. I’d like to describe it in more detail, but that is all I saw. A tree. But where I saw only a tree, I knew that dad saw something so much more. A few minutes later he pointed towards the urban sprawl and said, “Right down that road there used to be the biggest poplar in all of Ontario. It was six feet across at its base. I bet it’s long gone by now.”

For dad this is a tragedy. For many of us, a huge poplar tree is an annoyance. Its roots lift our sidewalks, disturb our gardens and tear into our foundations. Its massive trunk and swaying branches block our review or shade too much of our backyard. And so we cut it down and tear it apart. After all, it’s only a tree. But to dad it is more. It is an object of tremendous beauty.

I wish that I could see beauty the way dad does. I wish that I could delight in the simple, natural beauty of a chestnut tree. But all I see, even when I look closely, is a tree. I can describe it using adjectives—big, thick, leafy, round—but not in any adjectives that really capture the essence of its beauty. And that’s because I see only a tree.

I think that when dad sees a tree, he must see the tree’s Creator. He must see something more than the color and the shape. Maybe he sees God’s providence in a tree that has stood for fifty years. A hundred years. A tree that has offered shelter to generation after generation. Or maybe that tree is simply a beautiful work of art. Maybe that tree is a manifestation of the Artist who sculpted it in such a way to tell us something about Himself. That tree stands as a reminder of the great Creator. I don’t really know what dad sees in those trees. I never thought to ask him. But I wish I could see whatever he sees.

Highway 5 seems almost a parable to me. On one side is progress and on the other is nature. On one side is ugliness and on the other is beauty. I tend towards what is ugly but progressive. I tend to see urban sprawl as a sign of Canada’s progress as our population grows and our economy strengthens. But dad prefers natural beauty, even at the expense of progress. He sees the tragedy of a great tree falling and the tragedy of beauty being torn away only to be replaced by ugliness.

There is a reason that many of the fields north of Highway 5 lie fallow. Many of those fields, perhaps even all of them, have been purchased by developers. Oakville will soon have reached the limits of its growth. With Lake Ontario removing the possibility of southward growth, and with other cities to the east and the west, there is only one way for the city to move. Already the city is beginning to leap across the highway and this “progress” will continue for the foreseeable future. Trees will be cut down and trucked away to nearby mills. Hills will be flattened and the soil will be poured into the valleys. Sewers will cut into the fields and roads will be laid. Houses, schools and stores will spring up.

That chestnut tree is going to be a casualty of progress. Perhaps it will be left standing at the entrance to a neighborhood of million dollar houses where it will languish in the hard clay. Eventually it will die. I won’t even notice. Dad will lament the loss of such beauty. I’ll wish that I could too.


I’m on vacation so you’re getting a repeat today. I first posted this back in ‘06, I believe.

July 20, 2009

I am on vacation this week—at home but taking a break from the web design that keeps me busy day after day. Sometimes I relax by writing; other times I relax by not writing. I don’t know yet whether this vacation will see more of the former or the latter. My plans for today involve taking my son to swimming lessons, heading to Ikea to look at some living room furniture to replace the now-tattered couches we’ve had since we got married (useless fact—we live exactly equidistant from two Ikeas, both of which are 22.4 kilometers away), taking the car for an oil change and spending a bit of time reading. It sounds like the makings of an okay day.

Today I wanted to share just a short reflection on something I read in the Bible—a little reflection on Jeremiah 25:9. Here are verses 8 and 9:

Therefore thus says the Lord of hosts: Because you have not obeyed my words, behold, I will send for all the tribes of the north, declares the Lord, and for Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, my servant, and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants, and against all these surrounding nations. I will devote them to destruction, and make them a horror, a hissing, and an everlasting desolation.

What always stands out to me in these verses are the words “my servant Nebuchadnezzar.” If you’ve read the account of King Nebuchadnezzar as it is found in the book of Daniel, you’ll know that he was not a man who submitted his life to God. While at a point he was forced to acknowledge that Daniel’s God was the true God, he never submitted to his authority and acknowledged him as the only God. The Bible gives us little reason to hope that Nebuchadnezzar ever turned from his sin and cast himself upon the Lord.

Despite Nebuchadnezzar’s sinfulness and his rejection of God, we see that God calls him a servant—his servant. Now we are accustomed to thinking of God’s servants in the way Paul speaks of himself—a bond servant dedicated to the ministry of Jesus Christ. Yet here we find an unrepentant man, unregenerate man also being called a servant. I guess this should come as no surprise. Jesus Himself spoke of “wicked servants” in his parables, showing that there are two types of servants, the willing and the unwilling. In either case, this person is subject to God and must bow before his authority, whether he wishes to or not.

So the question for you and for me is this: will we be God’s willing servant? Will we be the kind of servants who bow before God as master and seek to lovingly and obediently carry out his will? Or will we be among those wicked and evil servants who are subject to God, but who refuse to acknowledge his superiority? Will we be submissive as servants should be or will we seek to usurp the role of the Master?

God help us to be faithful, submissive, willing servants.

July 13, 2009

I’ve been thinking a fair bit lately about endorsements (or blurbs, if you prefer)—the little lines and paragraphs you see on the back of a book giving you good reasons why you really ought to read it. I have done this as I’ve gone through a process of defining my ministry, what I will give time to and what I will not give time to. Endorsements, when done right, take a lot of time and often for very limited results. So I have wanted to figure out the circumstances in which it makes sense for me to go through the effort of providing them. I thought I’d share just a bit of what I’ve come up with.

Practically, here is how endorsements usually work. Several months before a book actually shows up on store shelves (often as much as six months before) an author or publisher (or sometimes an agent or other representative) will contact people whose name and endorsement have the potential to help readers decide to purchase a book. If these people agree they will receive a copy of the manuscript, either in electronic format or, more commonly, printed on 8.5 x 11. They will have a certain period to read the book and provide their endorsement of it. Sometimes these endorsements must be provided on official forms while other times they can be informally emailed through. Of those asked, only a few will accept the manuscript and of those usually only a few will actually provide an endorsement; so sometimes, when you see a long list of endorsements for a book, it may be that the author was hedging his bets, so to speak, and had the good luck of having everybody actually come through. Endorsements are provided based on a draft copy of the manuscript so it is possible that the text may change between the writing of an endorsement and the publication of the book.

As you would expect, endorsements are volunteer efforts (except, I’m sure, in exceptional and unethical circumstances). However, there can be some “tit-for-tat” in endorsements where one person feels obliged, for one reason or another, to provide an endorsement. Perhaps there is some kind of reciprocation for endorsing a book or speaking at a conference. Also, if you read closely, you will sometimes see that a single endorsement, written in general terms more about the author than his book, may be used on multiple titles. It may even be just a line or two taken from an article that is completely unrelated to this book or any other.

A good bit of thought goes into the arrangement of the endorsements on the back cover and in the first few pages of the book. The biggest names will go first and will appear on the back cover; the lesser-known names or the ones least likely to be meaningful to the target audience will appear at the bottom of the back cover or perhaps only inside the book.

Here are a few things I’ve learned about endorsements:

Endorsements matter. I would gladly forgo endorsements for my books, but I don’t think my publisher would be pleased with me if I did so. Potential readers do look at the back cover of a book to see who has endorsed it, though I am quite convinced that they look more for the name than the actual words. I have a certain number of names I look for and, if one of them happens to have endorsed that book, it immediately interests me in a way it might otherwise not. So endorsements do sell books and, therefore, they do have value. I consider them a necessary evil.

We endorse books and authors. Because endorsements matter, authors have to be very careful with who and what they endorse. Ultimately we endorse authors as much as their books (and perhaps more than their books). In just a few lines it is difficult to draw the kind of distinction that might say, “I disagree with this person’s core beliefs but do think this book is worth reading.” Instead, we see the name of the author, the name of the endorser, and draw a line from one to the other. Hence, if I am going to endorse a book, I have to agree with the vast majority of the book and 100% of the core theology. But I also have to appreciate the author and his ministry. As much as I might like to, I cannot neatly separate the two because those who see the endorsement will not neatly separate the two.

Quality is important. So many Christian books really have very little to say that is not derived from other books and so many others are poorly written. I want to encourage quality by providing endorsements for books that are genuinely well-written and objectively good. There are a couple of books I endorsed early on for which I would no longer provide an endorsement because the quality was just not there. One particular book has done more to shape my philosophy (and theology) of endorsements more than any other. I read the book again, after it had been printed, and was really embarrassed at what I had put my name to. I want my name on a book to have value and will no longer endorse books that do not display good quality.

It is no great honor. Being asked to endorse a book is not necessarily any great honor. The very nature of endorsements tend to mean that the requests are of the “what you can do for me” variety. That sounds terrible, but there is some truth to it. I am not asked to endorse books because people like me; I am asked because my name may help a few people decide to purchase it. I remain grateful for requests to endorse books, humbled even, but I also know that it is no occasion for pride.

It is okay to say no. I politely refuse the majority of the endorsement requests I receive. I feel no obligation to anyone to endorse his book (and neither do I expect him to feel obliged to endorse anything I write) and this gives me the freedom to say no. Nor do I feel that it’s part of my “core ministry.” Therefore I don’t want it to dominate my time (which it could). I do write a fair number, but this is just a small part of what I could write. I suspect the same is true of most people. When I do write endorsements, I prefer to focus on books that have fewer rather than more endorsements (or potential endorsements). When a person sends me a manuscript, I often ask how many endorsements they already have or expect to get. If that number is more than four or five, I typically explain that I will instead focus on books that have received little attention.

Not all endorsements are equal. As I read more and more books, I quickly learn the people whose endorsements mean more to me than others. For example, when I see Mark Dever’s name on a book, it tells me a lot about that book—it is a valuable endorsement. I know that Mark puts a lot of thought into his endorsements and that he is very careful with what he puts his name to. I have learned to trust him. There are other names I see that tell me little and would do little to convince me to buy that book. There are a few who will convince me not to buy that book. This is true for most serious readers, I am sure, no matter the genre they prefer to read.

And that’s about all I’ve got to say about that.

But let me ask you: how important are endorsements to you when you consider purchasing a book? Are you often persuaded to buy a book based on the blurbs on the back cover? Or do you just ignore them and try to judge the book on its own merits?

July 08, 2009

A little while ago my friend Ian loaned me the PBS DVD series The Story of India This six-part series, which runs about six hours, simply tells the story of India from ancient times until roughly the time of Indian Independence. It is a good documentary, even if the host’s excessive exuberance toward all things Indian is a little bit hard to take after a while. “Oh, isn’t that wonderful! Fantastic! Remarkable! Unbelievable! Stupendous!”

As one would have to expect for a series focusing on the history and culture of India, this film devoted a good bit of attention to Indian religion. And, as you know, India is a hotbed of religious fervor where Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and nearly every other religion you can imagine coexist, at times peacefully and at times through great bloodshed. As much as the history of India is the history of faiths existing together in peace, it is equally a story of the battle for dominance of one faith or another. The documentary devoted a good bit of attention to the various means of religious expression, from Muslims venerating the tomb of a sufi to Jains pouring out their offerings to a statue of Gomateshwara to Hindus bowing low before their ancient deities. The idolatry, portrayed so vividly in full-color and wide screen is quite shocking. India represents a fascinating collision of the first world with the third world, of the ancient with the modern. Somehow it seems that this form of idolatry should have been left in the past; have we not evolved or developed or matured beyond bowing before gods of wood and bronze? Yet here are countless millions of men and women who are every bit as devoted to their gods as were the enemies of the Israelites of old.

As I watched these people venerate their gods I felt pity for them and I felt gratitude to God for his grace in saving me from such idolatry, such sinful adulation of Satan. I suppose that may sound arrogant; I do not mean it that way. Here were men and women bowing low before gods who were so clearly made in their own image—gods who were not good and righteous and perfect and omnipotent, but gods who are so often petty and perplexed and perverted—gods who are so very human. There is no transcendence here; there is little to distinguish these gods from those who worship them. These people are, in a very real sense, worshiping themselves. They create gods who are very much like themselves and then prostrate themselves before such pathetic deities. Rarely have I seen such a vivid picture of the idolatry that dwells within the human heart.

Yesterday the world memorialized Michael Jackson. The numbers are still being tabulated but there is little doubt that millions, probably hundreds of millions, watched at least a portion of the memorial service. How many did so, as did I, merely out a morbid sense of curiosity, probably cannot be calculated.

Jackson’s service was an representation of just the kind of pluralism that has marked India. Everybody involved wanted to invoke God’s name, as you’re supposed to do when remembering a loved one, but it was clear that most of them invoked a god made in their own image. Even those who spoke of Jesus or who prayed to Jesus did so without any clear reference to the Jesus of the Bible. They spoke of a Jesus who accepts all and even (or perhaps especially) those who had rejected him. Never did Michael Jackson give any evidence of putting his faith in Jesus Christ, yet those who watched were assured, time and again, that he was now safe in the presence of the Lord, waiting there for the rest of us to arrive. Words and phrases invoked God and used the Christian lexicon but without any reference to the gospel, the true gospel, the gospel that saves. Lost men declared to other lost men untruths about the god they wish for, not the God who is.

During the singing of the old song We Are the World, those who watched saw religious symbols from all faiths spinning across a video screen, blurring, blending their lies to the already blind.

Together as One

All faiths are the same, don’t you know? Why dwell on such petty distinctions? God is whoever you want him (or her or it) to be. We are the world. We are god.

What surprised me more than anything was the genuine grief, the genuine mourning, of those who attended the memorial service. Of course his brothers and sister and daughter were distraught, but so too were many of the fans who so loved him. On the radio I heard an interview with a woman from Toronto who attended a screening of the service. She told how when she heard of Jackson’s death she collapsed and was inconsolable, at least until she could go to a tattoo parlor and have “Gone too soon” tattooed onto her body; that was the beginning of the healing process. She had brought her young son to the memorial service so he could see his mother’s love for this man she so venerated. All across North America, all across the world, there are similar stories of worship. Can we call it anything other than worship? I don’t think this is too strong a word. For many people, Jackson was a god; for many people celebrity is idolatry.

Yesterday we saw idolatry of a whole different order yet idolatry that is so similar to what I saw in The Story of India. There are some who, in their idolatry, bow low before gods of wood and stone and burnished bronze. There are others who, in their idolatry, live vicariously through celebrities and who bow low before the spirit of the age. Michael Jackson’s funeral, where God’s name was invoked and where Jesus’ name was supposedly held high, was as vivid an expression of idolatry as was the footage of hordes of Indian Hindus dancing with joy and veneration before their statues. One is a base idolatry, the other is sophisticated and proper. Both are the same ancient sin, the same ancient rebellion against the one true God.

July 01, 2009

It is Canada Day today and I’m taking the day off. My kids have been begging go to a ball game so a bit later on I’ll be taking them to see the Jays play the Rays. It seemed that on Canada Day it would make sense to write a little bit about Canada’s national anthem.

Canada may be unique as a nation that has two official national anthems. I was too lazy to do the legwork to find if there are any other nations with two, but I suspect there are not. To add to the strangeness, both of Canada’s anthems are entitled “O Canada.” Many people erroneously spell “O” as “Oh.” In reality the “O” is used as a vocative to apostrophize Canada and rather than as an exclamation. But most people prefer it as an exclamation.

O Canada was proclaimed to be Canada’s official anthem on July 1, 1980 (July 1 being Canada Day). Yet it was first sung almost exactly 100 years earlier. The music was composed by Calixa Lavallée who at that time was a well-known composer. But, as we know, popularity is fleeting and I’d guess you do not have any of his albums in your collection. The lyrics were written in French. Though it was well received on the occasion it was first performed, it had little immediate impact beyond that evening. Here is the song as it was first composed. For those who do not speak French, I’ve included a rough English translation:

Ô Canada  Terre de nos aïeux,
Ton front est ceint de fleurons glorieux 
Car ton bras sait porter l’épée,
Il sait porter la croix;
Ton histoire est une épopée
Des plus brillants exploits.
Et ta valeur de foi trempée
Protégera nos foyers et nos droits;
Protégera nos foyers et nos droits.

O Canada! Home of our ancestors,
Your brow is wreathed with glorious garlands!
Just as your arm knows how to wield the sword,
It also knows how to bear the cross;
Your history is an epic
Of the most brilliant feats.
And your valour steeped in faith
Will protect our homes and our rights;
Will protect our homes and our rights.

In 1908, Dr. Thomas Bedford Richardson, a Toronto doctor, completed a translation into English. A quick look at the lyrics will show why we no longer use this particular version.

O Canada! Our fathers’ land of old
Thy brow is crown’d with leaves of red and gold.
Beneath the shade of the Holy Cross
Thy children own their birth
No stains thy glorious annals gloss
Since valour shield thy hearth.
Almighty God! On thee we call
Defend our rights, forfend this nation’s thrall,
Defend our rights, forfend this nation’s thrall.

“Forfend this nation’s thrall?” I’m sure God is eager and willing to do that, but I can’t recall the last time I used either “forfend” or “thrall”, which incidentally mean “ward off” and “slavery” or “bondage.”

That same year Robert Stanley Weir, a lawyer living in Montreal, penned another adaptation that eventually formed the basis for the song as we know it today.

O Canada! Our home and native land!
True patriot love thou dost in us command.
We see thee rising fair, dear land,
The True North, strong and free;
And stand on guard, O Canada,
We stand on guard for thee.
O Canada! O Canada!
O Canada! We stand on guard for thee.
O Canada! We stand on guard for thee.

The version that was official adopted in 1980 is quite similar.

O Canada!
Our home and native land!
True patriot love in all thy sons command.
With glowing hearts we see thee rise,
The True North strong and free!
From far and wide,
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
God keep our land glorious and free!
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

Thus we have two official national anthems, one written in French and one in English. It must be noted that the lyrics of these songs, even when translated to the same language, bear little resemblance to each other. Beyond the first two words there is little correlation in language or underlying themes. It is also interesting to note that while the songs are written in different languages, they were also written by men of different theological backgrounds. The English version is Protestant and emphasizes hard work and duty. The French version, written by a Roman Catholic, emphasizes history and national glory.

Today it is common for performances of the anthem to mix the French and English versions of the song. This leads to a rather interesting mixture of thoughts that actually makes the song seem quite militaristic.

O Canada! Our home and native land!
True patriot love in all thy sons command.
Just as your arm knows how to wield the sword,
It also knows how to bear the cross;
Your history is an epic
Of the most brilliant feats.
God keep our land glorious and free!
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

In recent years the song has come under attack from various parties who claim that the anthem is either sexist or too religious. Some have suggested removing the words “in all thy sons command” to “in all of us command.” Others have suggested ways of removing the references to God. So far these suggestions have met with resistance, but it is likely only a matter of time before the changes are made. After all, this is the nation that has legalized homosexual marriage and has decriminalized marijuana. We’re on the forefront of political correctness.

In How To Be A Canadian, Will and Ian Ferguson suggest that a defining characteristic of Canadians is that they do not know their own anthem. Certainly they do not loudly sing it with pride as do our American neighbours (as I noted last night when I was at the ball game—barely a person there bothered to sing along). “First lesson as a newcomer to Canada: Whatever you do, do not learn the words to ‘O Canada’! Nothing will mark you as an outsider more quickly. Canadians don’t know the words to their national anthem, and neither should you.”