Randomness

I’ve been thinking about this article from The New York Times on the origins of cancer:

It may sound flippant to say that many cases of cancer are caused by bad luck, but that is what two scientists suggested in an article published last week in the journal Science. The bad luck comes in the form of random genetic mistakes, or mutations, that happen when healthy cells divide.

Random mutations may account for two-thirds of the risk of getting many types of cancer, leaving the usual suspects — heredity and environmental factors — to account for only one-third, say the authors, Cristian Tomasetti and Dr. Bert Vogelstein, of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

When people suffer from cancer, or any disease, they look for a reason hidden in it. They want to find a glimmer of rationality. But science says it isn’t rational — it’s random. It’s a mistake, mutation, accident, or chance occurrence. So people turn to religion or philosophy to help them find reason and meaning in their suffering. But it’s hard to reconcile reason and randomness.

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Inches

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Last year at this time snow measured in feet. This year it’s only in inches. I am fine with this.

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Seeking Wisdom

When looking for practical wisdom in how to live, there are a few small books I turn to each day. They’re always ready on my Kindle to read during a pause in things. If you are seeking wisdom for living, these are good places to look.

First, two books from the East. The Dhammapada is a collection of sayings from the Buddha. (Dhammapada means ‘the path of truth.’) Buddha teaches detachment, mindfulness, and compassion. A second book is the Tao Te Ching, a work by legendary Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. This book delights in the paradoxes and mysteries of life, and it warns us that we often accomplish much by doing less and not meddling in things.

The Handbook of Epictetus is a classic in the West. He was a Stoic philosopher in ancient Rome. Epictetus taught his students to divide things into two categories: what is in your control and what is not in your control. Focus your energies on things in your control, he said, and do not worry about things you don’t control. For example, it’s easier to change your attitude than change your circumstances. Another Stoic was the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, whose book Meditations is easy to read bit by bit through the day.

All four books I’ve mentioned so far are small enough to carry in pocket or purse.

As Christians we look to Holy Scripture for wisdom. There we find ‘a lamp to our feet and a light to our path.’ An old Episcopal prayer calls us to ‘read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest’ words of the Bible. I find helpful the practice of memorizing verses from scripture that are meaningful to me. There is an app on my phone called Don’t Forget that helps me do this. Jesus practiced memorizing scripture, as did John Wesley. The Bible isn’t a small book, but you can commit to memory small portions of it in this way. When you hide God’s word in your heart, it’s ready and waiting when you need wisdom.

In the new year, may you grow in the knowledge of God and increase in wisdom for daily life.

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Forget Everything Else

Forget everything else. Keep hold of this alone and remember it: Each of us lives only now, this brief instant. The rest has been lived already, or is impossible to see. The span we live is small— small as the corner of the earth in which we live it.

Marcus Aurelius

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Silent Quaker

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On Sunday I went to the Ann Arbor Friends Meeting. I had the day off at my church. They practice a silent, unprogrammed style of worship. I loved it, confirming that I am at heart a silent Quaker.

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Sermon on the Feeding of the 5000

Broken and Blessed (Matthew 14:13-21)

Martin Luther founded the Lutheran church. He was born in 1483. When he was a boy, Luther and a friend were hungry one day. They went from house to house in their village in Germany, singing for their food. They came to one house, and a large bearded man bounded out of the front door, waving a giant roll of sausage at them. He said, “I have a gift for you!” Later in life, Luther said he thought the man really was trying to give them a gift, but in the moment it startled them so much that the two boys ran away in fear. They didn’t get the gift.

Sometimes life gives us a gift, but we do not have the eyes to see the gift, and we miss out. Hold this thought while I talk about our scripture today, the Feeding of the Multitude in the Wilderness.

It says, “When Jesus heard this, he withdrew to a deserted place by himself.” What he heard was the death of his friend John, that is, John the Baptist, who was murdered by King Herod. Jesus was sad when he heard the news, and he tried to withdraw from things the way we do. He went to a deserted place, it says. The word is eremos, and it means a desolate or abandoned place. There are places in Detroit now that are eremos, desolate and abandoned. But for Jesus, the eremos was the desert, where there were no trees, no water, and little life.

There are crowds, though, he see where he goes, and they follow him there. They come with all their needs — illness, chronic financial insecurity — looking for him to help them. Even with his sorrow over losing his friend John, Jesus draws from his well of compassion and helps them. He heals some of them, and he offers teaching and encouragement to their hearts.

It gets to be late in the day. No one has stopped to eat. The disciples come to Jesus with the reasonable suggestion for him to send the people away to the towns and villages, or to their own homes, so they can find something to eat. The disciples know what we all know, that food doesn’t magically appear on the table when the multitude is hungry. They are worried about how folks will be fed.

You can understand this. On Thursday there will be a meal in your home, and a multitude of people needing to be fed. Maybe you are responsible for that meal. Like the disciples, you know that food doesn’t usually just appear out of nothing. You have to buy it, prepare it, and set it out. It takes a lot of work.

My wife and I have a friend who was taking care of children for a few days. The friend is not a parent herself, and children are not typically in her home. But she took care of them and returned them to their families. Later, she said to Linda, “The thing about children is that you have to feed them. Then you have to feed them again!” Not only children, but also adults. You have to feed them. Food won’t mysteriously appear on the table. The disciples know this too, and thus they make their reasonable suggestion to Jesus.

Jesus responds in an unreasonable, unrealistic way. He says, “You give them something to eat.” But they have only a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. They can hardly feed themselves, much less a crowd. What shall they do? What Jesus is suggesting is absurd.

What happens next is a matter of debate. There are three options: 1) There was an actual miraculous feeding. The little they had multiplied and became enough, mysteriously, in spite of the laws of physics and common sense. 2) Everyone simply shared. Jesus shared the little he had, which prompted others to share what they had, which prompted others to share what they had. Everyone shared with everyone, and all had enough. No miracle, just sharing. 3) Nothing happened next because the event never actually happened. It is a symbolic story to illustrate God’s care for us in our need.

I am with Option 1. I don’t take every miracle in the Bible in a literal factual way. For example, I don’t believe Jonah the prophet was actually swallowed by a whale. But when it comes to Jesus, there was a power or an energy connected to his person. When you were in proximity to Jesus, unusual happened. The sick were cured, and the hungry were fed. I can’t explain it, but I can’t account for the large crowds that followed him apart from this unusual power he had to meet people’s needs in this way.

Also, for me, Option 2 is too tame, too realistic, too human. Kierkegaard taught me that faith always deals with things that, humanly speaking, are absurd. If it’s not absurd, it’s not a matter of faith. For example, in our Memorial Garden, there are the names of 41 people whose ashes are buried there. We believe that these people are still alive in some sense, in some realm beyond what we perceive. On the face of it, humanly speaking, that belief is absurd, ridiculous. Yet we believe it because we know the impossible is possible with God, even what seems absurd. Absurdity and faith go together. I shy away from Option 2 because it removes the absurd element. It is too humanly possible.

I also like Option 3, a symbolic story. You can make a hybrid of more than one. I love the symbolism in this story, symbolism that operates on multiple levels.

Here is one piece of symbolism that caught me. Jesus takes a loaf of bread – he breaks it and he blesses it. This tells me that it is possible to be broken and blessed at the same time. Jesus himself is broken, heartbroken, by the death of his friend John, but he is also blessed by his awareness of God’s abundant mercy and love for him. He is broken and blessed. Many in the crowd are broken and blessed – broken by whatever afflicts them and blessed by the presence of Jesus in their midst. We can be broken and blessed, this story tells me. We can be in our eremos, our desolate place, and discover God’s absurdly abundant love multiply in our midst.

I heard a story about a group of desert nomads who lived many years ago in the desolate sands of North Africa. They were brought (I don’t recall how) to Paris for a visit. They had lived in a bleak desert their whole lives, but now they were seeing the Eiffel Tower and large ships and automobiles, but none of these things impressed them. In fact, nothing impressed them until they took a trip up into the mountains, the French Alps, and they saw a large waterfall. They were mesmerized. They’d never seen that much water. They kept standing there, waiting for something. When asked what they waited for, they told their guide they were waiting for the water to stop. They were astonished to hear that it never stopped. The water kept flowing always. Their life in the desolate desert gave them eyes to see an abundance that locals could not appreciate.

So also with us. In our brokenness, we can develop eyes that see a gift of blessing God is giving us. In our desolate place, the eyes of faith can see an abundance, and absurd abundance, of God’s grace and mercy for us.

This is the final sermon in a series on stewardship, that is, on our giving. This particular sermon turned out not to be directly a stewardship sermon, but I can link it in this way. Our giving is a reflection of God’s giving to us. God is the giver who gives us life and breath and all things. It can be difficult, though, at times to see God’s gifts to us. But when we learn to see God’s gift of abundant love come to us even in our times of brokenness and desolation, then we will become givers ourselves in an entirely new way. Amen.

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What the Desert Teaches

What distinguishes the Christian exercise of silence in prayer is the “naked intent” of the person who, while empty of thoughts, nonetheless reaches blindly for the God who cannot be seen or even named. What keeps contemplative prayer from being privatized, disembodied, and free-floating is its anchorage in the repetition of the psalms, lectio divina, the sacramentality of the Mass, and the stabilizing influence of community.

What the desert teaches is a radical letting-go of the thinking-experiencing-managing self, so as to be content with God alone, a God without adjectives, without comforting signs of presence, so that at last one learns truly to delight in nothing. This nothing may be disclosed by the Christian habitus as “Something,” as the Holy Trinity hidden in light inaccessible from every effort to grasp its mystery. But the naming of the mystery is no longer an anxious concern to those who’ve been to the desert. Naming implies a control the wilderness no longer allows.

From Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes. This is the only work of theology that has made any sense to me in the last year or so. He spoke to my condition.

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