Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Thankful for Two Reasons

As I enter this post, I'm thankful for two things--that we are created to know God and that a book, Connecting Faith and Science, which includes a chapter I wrote on the subject, was just published!

In the seventeenth century—right at the flowering of modern science—the mathematician Blaise Pascal offered another proof for God. He began, in a similar vein to Augustine with our existential search for rest: “By nature, we all seek happiness.” But where do we seek it? “Some seek the good in authority, some in intellectual inquiry and knowledge, some in pleasure.” Pascal continued by observing that all these various potential sources for happiness, for a beautiful life, leave us craving for more. He pondered what that meant:
"What else does this craving, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him… since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself." Blaise Pascal
C. S. Lewis echoed this conclusion about three hundred years after Pascal with a simple, logically compelling, phrase in his apologetics: 
If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” C.S. Lewis
Lewis believed that this argument from desire constitute one of the strongest proofs for God’s existence.
It may surprise some in the Reformed tradition—at least those who have read Karl Barth’s cavils against “natural theology”—that the seminal voice of Reformed theology, John Calvin, wrote similarly of the “awareness of divinity.” Calvin was not out to prove God, but to state that inherent in human existence is a basic, vague, and powerful natural knowledge of God. Indeed, in Calvin’s vastly influential 1559 Institutes of the Christian Religion, he wrote, 
“There is within the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness of divinity.” John Calvin
This awareness of divinity or sensus divinitatis is “beyond dispute” according to Calvin. It is the foundation of the natural knowledge of God.

Which indeed is cause for thanksgiving.

Friday, November 10, 2017

The Yes of Teamwork: Our Service, Your Advantage

 It's been about two years since both my parents, Tom and Ruth Cootsona, died. I'm posting this as one more installment from my book The Time for Yes, but it's also a fitting tribute to their lives.
"None of us is as smart as all of us."
Ken Blanchard
Two prized possessions are my vacation time and my discretionary income. I figure I work
really hard, and time away from work offers me the opportunity to refresh and renew. I can’t imagine giving that up. Secondly, I like having a little extra cash for that occasional bottle of Champagne or maybe a nice weekend away with my wife.
That’s why it was all the more surprising when I finally grasped what my parents did for me when I competed as a kid in junior tennis. Over several years, they spent boatloads of dollars on lessons and a corresponding amount of free time—including my dad’s vacation days—to drive me (and my brother) all around Northern California to compete.
Paradoxically, I learned from one of the most individual sports imaginable, tennis, about the yes of teamwork. In this case, it was their service, my advantage. But teamwork can also be our service, our advantage.
From my reading in business literature, I’ve discerned a trend in the last ten to twenty years: there’s a focus, not on individual achievement, but on success by a team of individuals. I figured I’d check out my hunch, and so I asked Tim, a Ph.D. in industrial-organizational psychology who now consults businesses, about the trend toward teams. “What’s it about?” Tim replied, “A lot of people talk about being a team, but most don’t really understand it.”
I realized Tim’s right, and the problem is right here: in order to be a good team, we need to put aside what personally benefits us. But, in our culture, the dominant slogan seems to be: “It’s all about me.” (I know it’s true—I saw it on a t-shirt.) And that “I” wants the credit.
The key to a good team is when you’re ok with someone else getting the credit. And this makes sense. Not only because I believe what goes around, comes around—so if you help others, they are more likely to help you when you need it—but also because you and your organization will do better when teams work best.
The Bible is fairly repetitive about the importance of teamwork. Psalm 133 shouts it out loud: “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” The New Testament repeatedly emphasizes unity of purpose and heart—almost to the point of “Ya, I get it already.” (But I suppose we don’t. And the early Christians didn’t either. That’s why it’s there in the Scripture so often.)
Consider what the early Christian leader, Paul, wrote to the first Christian church in Europe,
If you've gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care— then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don't push your way to the front; don't sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don't be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand. (Philippians 2:1-3, The Message).
Unity has to do with laying down what we think is most important—my getting ahead—and seeing others succeed. Even taking joy in it.
That’s what Tom and Ruth Cootsona demonstrated for me. Although tennis is an individual sport, I needed a support team. After school, my mom would toss me tennis balls, hundreds of them to perfect my stroke. (This was before ball machines.) My dad would take those precious vacation days, and they would drive me and my brother in our Ford Monterey to various spots in California, like Monterey, Clovis, and Carmichael. They both invested family funds to pay for lessons, dollars I know they could have spent on themselves. (And maybe even bought a little more Champagne.)
A business writer who makes incredible sense to me, Stephen M.R. Covey, has recently focused on the importance of trust for any organization and that particularly holds true for one of the smallest organizational units, the team. He talks about the “speed of trust.” In fact, that’s the name of the book. His subtitle is somewhat bombastic: “The One Thing That Changes Everything" (See The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything.)
Simply put, embedded in any good team is trust. We trust in two ways: we trust others’ competence—they can get the work done well. We trust their character—they will follow through with their promises. Covey has taught me that the more we trust one another, the lower the friction and the greater the achievement. We can move fast when we trust each other in a team.
In my case, the trust level in my junior tennis days was so deep that I didn’t even think about it. I just knew that my parents were there to support me. Their sacrifice was absolutely invisible. But as I reflect now, I realize that the team support I took for granted was necessary and as a result I’ve had to bring that concept to the surface in the teams I direct.
I’m thankful I learned the lesson early in life: sometimes you’ve got to take one for the team. Because when later in life, I started leading teams, it made my work a whole lot more enjoyable and effective. And there’s an added benefit: When the team succeeds, so do all the individuals.
That’s a whole bunch of yeses.

Monday, November 06, 2017

The Crooked Path of Nature

This is a bit of an advanced look at my new book, Mere Science and Christian Faith: Bridging the Divide with Emerging Adults, through a brief excerpt.

In the process of advocating for our listening to scientists because they describe creation and that helps us better grasp our Creator, I write this...

Through that listening we find praise and wonder and mystery. Scientists have also taught me honesty and a somewhat recalcitrant commitment to avoid easy answers by pondering intricacies we would have never guessed. (This may be why, in fact, some believers resist science—because scientists resist easy answers.) 
“Consider what God has done,” Ecclesiastes 7:13 says. “Who can straighten what he has made crooked?” 
Sometimes the works of God in the ways of nature are not as straightforward as we would like, even though science has figured out numerous things ancient thinkers and New Testament writers didn’t know. Nevertheless, through all this beauty, awesome display, and puzzling natural reality, we still somehow discover the “eternal power and divine nature” of our Creator (Romans 1:20). It strikes me that affirming the “eternal power and divine nature” offers both a wide place for scientific discovery and a respectful silence and patience for future answers. I believe that scientists ultimately lead us to admit our limits and declare the majesty of God, echoing what Paul exclaimed ten chapters later: 
“Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!” (Romans 11:33).

Monday, October 30, 2017

The Yes of Service

(One more installment from my book, The Time for Yes.)
Woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Ecclesiastes 4:10
It seems natural for us to seek what we want. That’s happiness. But I think we often get the seeking all wrong. 

I remember hearing the well-known evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson offer this question at a conference (and I paraphrase), “You put two groups on a desert island. One is completely self-centered. The other has learned to work as a team, to cooperate, sometimes taking so that others will survive. Which of the two groups is going to survive the longest—the self-seeking or the altruistic?”
Obviously, it’s those who cooperate. They will have bonded together against various foes. So, if we are altruistic in the sense that David Sloan Wilson describes, it’s good commonsense: we are more likely to survive.
It even seems natural for us to seek the betterment of our own—to care for our family, those close to us. Evolutionary psychology tells us that we are designed to act altruistically toward those who share our genes. We’d like to see those genes carried on beyond our life. So altruism is selfish in that view.
“But, wait,” writes one of the most influential scientists of our day, the head of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins. “What about those people who give themselves to a cause beyond their own genes? What about Oskar Schindler? Why did this Nazi-party German save Jews at his own peril?” (I’m paraphrasing, but you can find this in Collins’s book The Language of God.)
Evidently, we can go beyond mere evolutionary survival. We have been implanted with the power to care for those beyond our kin.
Apparently, Jesus thought so too. He described his own life—as very God in flesh—this way in the record of his life: 
“The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many’” (Mark 10:45). 
Actually, he even declared that we should do the same. Hearing his own followers’ clamoring to the head of the line, he responded with this: 
“Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” (Mark 10:43-44).
Jesus even described this in terms of seeking our best—“to gain our life” is the phrase he employs: 
“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35 TNIV).
Here’s what that means for me: I grew up in the secular happiness haven of Menlo Park, California. Most people know that location today as the headquarters of Facebook, nestled in the heart of the Silicon Valley, a place of joyously unrelenting spring, oodles of wealth and beautifully tanned and exercised people. Or something like that… at least, it’s a place to be happy on your own terms. And to seek life for yourself.
But Jesus taught me that we find our happiness not in self-seeking, but in serving others… even those beyond our kin group: 
“Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me,” (Matthew 25:40).
So I have to have others around me—and here’s the importance of relationships, the “love” theme in this book. Who will help me serve? They will even serve with me. It’s fun. So I’ve discovered I need to surround myself with those who look out for others, who know the yes of service.
I’ve learned to team with my wife Laura to donate to nonprofits (and she’s taught me a lot about what that means). I’ve pounded nails with teams of college students in Baja, California, to build basic two-room houses for those who make $10/day. I’ve partnered with friends to serve meals at our local homeless shelter, the Jesus Center. And maybe even thrown in a little of the Boy Scout promise of doing something kind for someone else each day.
Otherwise, I’ll just sit around and do things to “keep my life”… which in the end, simply helps me lose it.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Yes Friends

I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother, Paul to his friend Philemon (Philemon 7)

(This is an excerpt from A Time for Yes.) I’ve just blogged that our hearts follow our dollars. Or to quote Jesus, “where our treasure is, there will our heart be also.” But here there’s another key element, “where our friends are, there will our heart be also.” That’s my paraphrase of Jesus… I mean, he liked his friends a lot… but I have to admit, it’s not exactly what the Bible says.
What does Scripture lead us to understand as the basis of good friendship? The Good Book, I've discovered, finds friendship an important topic.
A few key elements of “Yes friends” do find their way into the biblical book of Proverbs. 

First of all, we need friends to give us support and advice: 
“Where there is no guidance, a nation falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.” Proverbs 11:14
If it’s true for a nation, I'm pretty confident it works for individuals. In fact, a somewhat recent survey (from 2006) found that 1 in 4 Americans don't have anyone to confide in. That to me is the definition of a lonely life. And that's why we need “yes friends.”
These “yes friends” give us encouragement in their counsel: They affirm what we may not see in ourselves. They celebrate our victories. And they stand by and encourage even when we’re not perfect. They grant us freedom to fail. 
“One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24; I went NIV on this one).
On the other hand, “yes friends” doesn’t mean sycophants—those who will just tell us everything’s ok. That’s called a flatterer and they don’t fare too well in Proverbs. Who wants to be told “all is well” right before the tornedo arrives? Who wants compliments when a personality course correction is what’s needed? 
“Whoever rebukes a person will afterward find more favor than one who flatters with the tongue.” (Proverbs 28:23)
Though not a Christian—for one thing, he lived before the New Testament or Jesus existed—the philosopher Aristotle had some pretty good things to say about friendship. He philosophized that friendship isn’t just about people we like or have things to offer us, but that friends seek the Good together. Paul wrote rather rhapsodically, about four hundred years later, and yet in agreement with Aristotle, 
Love “does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6). 
Still one more reason that flatterers make us feel giddy for a while, but also prove to be pathetic companions.
Finally and most importantly, our friendship—or intimate community—begins to define us, 
“Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools suffers harm” (Proverbs 13:20). 
We become who we hang out with.

When we get in the company of those who support your deep, true yeses, we come to our truest selves, and we realize our dreams, the important dreams—the one God puts in your heart, the ones where passion meets mission. That’s why I want yes friends.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Faith, Science, and the Role of the Translator

An adapted excerpt from my upcoming book, Mere Science and Christian Faith.

In a 1945 letter, an admirer expressed admiration for the immense gifts of the noted twentieth century Christian apologist C. S. Lewis, especially at the way Lewis made 
Christianity comprehensible to an increasingly unbelieving public. Lewis responded,
People praise me as a “translator,” but what I want to be is the founder of a school of “translation." I am nearly forty-seven. Where are my successors?
Translators and translation--I often think of these themes when I ponder how to bring together faith and science and how to communicate their interaction and integration. I also know that translation into the vernacular is God's way of doing things. It's even the essence of Christianity: Jesus, God's very Word, spoke in the simple language of stories (or parables). He translated the message of the kingdom of heaven into earthly language.

And God did the same thing at Pentecost: The Spirit used the church to speak in languages that all the listeners could understand, the languages they dreamed in. This is the essence of translation. Whenever I’ve had the opportunity to preach on Pentecost, the birth of the church profoundly moves me. Ponder God’s strategy: one of most surprising element of Acts 2 is that everyone who heard the message that day knew Greek, and so God could have let Peter preach in that language. But to most it felt like alien--indeed it was a foreign tongue, which had forced on them by the oppressive Roman imperial government (and before that by the Hellenizing efforts of Alexander the Great). So instead of the common language of Greek, the Holy Spirit brought the message in their own native tongues. 

What is our native tongue? It's the languages of our dreams; it's the tongue we use to cry with despair and pain (and to swear, frankly), as well as to shout with joy. 
“Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language?” (Acts 2:8). 
As we take in the power of Pentecost, we realize that need to bring the Gospel in the vernacular, in native languages. And this leads to a question: What if we worked harder preaching the Gospel in the language that people work and dream in? For so many today, that’s the language of science and technology. We live in a science- and technology-saturated world. That’s the water we swim in. That's the air we breath. That's the language many of us dream in. 

And that's why the church needs translators.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Investment in our Yeses

Jesus presented a compelling connection:
“Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:21)      
When I’ve heard this passage taught, preached, and commented on, usually—almost always—people declare, “Jesus is telling us that our internal world is the most important thing. When we have a heart for what matters, then we will give our money. Let’s be sure we change from the inside.”
This thought may be comforting, or even challenging, in many ways. But it’s not what Jesus said. Notice the order: It’s not “where your heart is, there will your treasure be also.” Instead: where our treasure is (first), there our heart will be also (second). Our heart follows our dollars. Not the other way around.
Our call in life is to say yes to what’s truly important. And what's one way to do that? The answer sounds slightly odd at first: By investing our money in it. (And I would be willing to add our time and our talents, but I’ll keep it focused for now.)
It’s actually commonsense. If I bought a sweet mountain bike (which I did), I’m going to take care of my Trek—I’ll make sure it’s clean, that the derailleur is adjusted precisely, the tires are pumped to the perfect psi, and that it’s appropriately locked at night and insured. That’s at least what I’m doing. Especially the latter… Because a bike of mine was stolen out of my garage a few years ago while I peacefully slept. And so again, I digress….
Whatever we invest our money in will be the place where our heart goes. Dollars lead the heart. And “heart” is the center of our lives—not just our emotions, but more so the will, the attitude, the way our lives are directed.
In order to deepen our yeses, we have to invest money in what’s important. As I’ve written before, we find our yeses where our passions meet God’s mission. That means that we put dollars into God’s mission, which Jesus defined as the poor, the marginal, the ones that society leaves aside because they are interesting and alluring. That requires giving to our local homeless mission, to overseas water projects, and to agencies that fight AIDS and waterborne diseases worldwide.
As we’ve learned to define our yeses, we know even more where that money should go. If we’ve completed and know the three words that define our personal branding—or at least that’s one way to do it—we learn to invest in these things. Want to be a great percussionist? Buy a good drum set. Invest in lessons. Download music that you’ll practice with. It’s not a guarantee that you’ll get better. But when you pay those bills, when you see that drum kit, you’ll be reminded. When you start playing that beautiful new Yamaha recording custom set, you’ll sound better. (And you’ll look cooler.) And that will make you want to play more.

And one hopes—at least I do for my life—that these yeses (even ones as innocuous as enjoying drums) may serve God’s mission (perhaps by leading worship, maybe by creating beautiful music or playing in the studio with a friend). Or because I enjoy it, these may simply make me more of who God calls me to be. As the great, ancient Christian writer, Irenaeus, phrased it so well, 
“The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” Irenaeus
 When we invest our treasure so that our hearts follow—if we’ve done this in the right way—we become fully alive. And in that yes, God is glorified.