The Noisiest Headlines Are Not The Most Important

KAVANAUGH IS CONFIRMED TO UNITED STATES SUPREME COURT, AFTER CONTENTIOUS CONFIRMATION…

What’s the most important news in that headline? Certainly, a spot on the US Supreme Court is influential in the extreme – far beyond what it was intended to be by America’s founders. Kavanaugh will have out-sized influence over American life for decades to come. And yet, I submit to you that Kavanaugh himself is not the most important part of the news cycle these last few weeks.

We are.

The only thing everyone on both sides seems to agree on is this: the entire process was broken. From that common acknowledgment, we go on to explain whose fault it is, and how corrupt the other side is. Which is fair enough. A free country ought to encourage free exchange and debate. The problem is that we don’t actually debate anymore.

In order to have a fruitful debate, two things are necessary:

1) A shared goal

2) A shared respect

Can’t we debate about our goals? Yes, but until we come to some sort of consensus on our purpose, we will never be able to debate productively about anything else. As long as we disagree on where we are going, we’ll never be able to agree on how to get there. The only way we’ll move at all is by leveraging raw power. This is the state of current “debate” in America: it is primarily rhetoric for the purpose of solidifying bases from which power plays can be made at opportune moments. The Kavanaugh “debate” stank of this. We have come to the point when even accusations of sexual abuse are political weapons to be timed and deployed and shot down with cynical regularity, each side taking turns at each role as the specific situations change. The exact same phrases, moral condemnations and righteous defences are taken up in turn by opposite sides, only to be conveniently forgotten as soon as the tables turn. The game is dirty. Everyone knows it. We justify anything from our side and believe anything against the other with one ultimate purpose: victory at all costs. But what if the cost turns out to be the very foundation of our society? What if, in fighting the monsters against us, we find that we have become monsters ourselves?

The second requirement for productive debate is a recognition that other people are actually people. Even if their perspective is different, their value remains. This is less common than it sounds. In fact, very few societies in history have intentionally valued dissent or dissenters. America has been an exception to this rule, but the revolutionary idea of honouring those we strongly disagree with seems to be falling on hard times. In our zeal to see our vision for the future established, we have begun to allow ourselves the comfortable view that our cultural and political enemies are sub-human animals worthy only of insult and abuse. We call this new reality “Twitter”.

Is there a solution? I believe there is. I believe it is possible to disagree productively. But it won’t happen as long as we define our ultimate problem as the people against us. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who experienced the horrors of the Gulag, saw with clarity that the problem is bigger than the other side:

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Who indeed. While the headlines re-direct us to the corrupt political manoeuvring and power plays in the halls of government, they allow us to conveniently ignore the ways our own hearts are manoeuvring and playing for self-justification and control over others and even over God himself, if that were possible. This is why, no matter how good the headlines are, our favourite politicians can’t save us from the problems around us. Those problems have put their roots into our own chests. The corruption is in our own hearts. This is why righteous causes throughout history have all eventually fallen apart under their own weight, why the saviours of one generation have always somehow become the oppressors of the next, why every revolution leads only to the need for another. No, a better headline won’t save us. We need a better saviour. We need Jesus.

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” – 2 Corinthians 5:17-21

Mind The Gaps

The world is full of words, more than ever. Never have there been more news headlines clambering for clicks, advertisements designed to arrest our attention, or friends filling us in on everything they had for dinner. Somehow, we have to muddle around this mess with our infobese heads filled to popping with more messages than they can process, too worn out to care much about what is really true and what is deceptively false.

Yet into this deluge I submit words of my own. I take a deep breath and yell into the roaring waterfall: “There are not enough words!”

Because there aren’t.

In all the daily torrent of verbiage, there are still far too many gaps. Most of the communication we hear is like a 1,000 piece puzzle from a charity shop that didn’t come with all the pieces. The pictures presented to us are incomplete, and the gaps can be hard to spot. And yet, quite often, the gaps are the most important part.

This is obvious enough in advertisements. We know that companies will tell us only the virtues of their products, shaping and bending the truth into the most desirable package they can produce. Yet even as we complain about this, we practice it ourselves on social media, where we work hard to cultivate an idealised image of ourselves, leaving out most of the actual reality of our lives. We fully expect the same from our political leaders. Fake news may be a new catch phrase, but it’s an ancient reality: the art of spin is a time-tested tradition that spans all cultures, continents, forms of government, and types of organisations. We may have more choice now over who we listen to, but often this choice comes down to which set of incomplete puzzle pieces we happen to prefer. Do we like the right side of the puzzle or the left? Are we drawn to the bits with a confusion of colours or to the parts that blend together in understandable sameness? Whatever our choice is, we can find news sources, friends, and tweets to support us.

The trouble is, with all our choosing and shaping and shouting others down, no one seems to be able to agree on what this puzzle is supposed to look like in the end. Have we lost the box top? Is there no unifying vision powerful enough to pull these pieces together?

There is a box top. I’ve had a glimpse of it. I can tell you that its picture has shapes and dynamics that are diverse enough for every person on the planet to have a place, and yet the lines and colours are so unexpected that they will leave absolutely everyone with something to be offended at. No surprise there: Did I really expect the picture of the universe to be a portrait of me? It turns out that the Artist behind this puzzling reality had a much bigger and more complicated design in mind than any of us could fathom, but he generously gave us the broad outlines of his plan in the Bible. It’s a complicated book (like the world); mixing shadows and light, greys and colours, sameness and confusion into one overarching drama expansive enough to catch up all our little pieces and finally make sense of them in the masterpiece of history.

As long as we insist on communicating without any reference to the box top, we’ll never be able to fit the pieces of our world into anything meaningful and whole. We’ll spin on in a vortex of half-truths and incomplete ideas, swinging our pendulums from one extreme to another in a never-ending series of attempts to find the purpose we long for. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If we listen to the Artist, we can begin to close the gaps and find our places together in his Magnum Opus.

This Blog Post Is EPIC

Slow motion. A woman with her hair blowing in a light breeze walks confidently between library shelves packed with books. Where did the breeze come from? Nobody knows, but it doesn’t matter because the the camera has transported us to a laboratory, where a young man smiles to himself as he mixes chemicals. Is he remembering a joke from last night, or does he really enjoy chemistry that much? We can’t ask, because now we’re on the beach, and a well-dressed lady is picking up seaweed with some sort of oversized tweezers. She’s very happy about the seaweed. The music swells! Now we’re watching dirty men in jerseys fighting for victory. And then the happy people are gone, but not without leaving us with the distinct impression that going to a certain university will make every moment of every day nothing short of epic.

I went to university. I remember the library. There was no breeze there. There was no music. And no one mistook me for a model on a catwalk when I walked between the shelves. As I recall, my time there was mostly spent sitting at tables with a headache and a looming deadline.

Cinematography has come a long way. These days, the simple act of walking down the street or jogging in the park can be recorded in vivid high definition from a hovering drone with orchestral accompaniment and dramatic colour filters that make our eyes pop and convince our minds that what we are seeing is the very definition of epic.

Really? I walk down the street every day with #nofilter and no soundtrack. I see the same cracks in the footpath and peeling paint and one time a bird pooped on my hat. Even with a drone, it would be hard to convince anyone that particular moment was epic.

And yet it was.

I was breathing. Do you have any idea how many intricate miracles have to align perfectly to make that possible? I was walking. Without even thinking about it, my muscles obeyed my subconscious commands and transported me home. Is that not epic?

Yes, the weeds were growing through the cracks in the footpath. Insignificant seeds defying our engineered layer of stone and pushing life towards the blazing sun. Is that not epic?

A creature who can soar through the sky and sing his part in the dawn chorus eats the berries growing in profusion beside the road, gains strength from them, and deposits the seeds somewhere else where they can push up new life bursting with new berries for new generations of birds. Yes, some of them were deposited on my hat. Is that not epic?

We don’t need professional HD video editors to make the world seem like a wonder. It already is. We don’t need soundtracks to transform everyday moments into epic events. They already are. Every moment of every day is already overflowing with more miracles than our minds can comprehend.

All we need to do is open our eyes.

On The Origin Of Humanity’s Superpower

“You’d think that people would have had enough of silly love songs
But I look around me and I see it isn’t so
Some people wanna fill the world with silly love songs
And what’s wrong with that?”

So sang Sir Paul McCartney, and all it takes is a few minutes listening to the radio to prove him right. Same goes for silly rom-coms and royal weddings. For some reason, we humans get a bit silly over love. No matter how scientific our philosophy or cold and calculated our theory of existence, there’s nearly always someone in our lives who holds a mysterious power to break through our rigid shell into the gooey centre of our humanity where love is the unrivalled (and often unruly) ruler.

We love. It’s what humans do. The only real difference between us is where we each choose to direct our love: Some turn it in on themselves, while others turn it outward and upward. Still, the common thread of all humanity is this incredible ability to passionately, forcefully love with every fibre of our being.

It’s our superpower.

Our history, literature, and films have documented its use in detail, even in fantastic hypotheticals. And yet – where is the origin story? What explanation can we give for this fire burning in our blood? If it wasn’t a spider bite or an experiment gone wrong, how did it become so intensely strong that it can drive the most rational creatures on the planet to break our bodies and give our lives for the sake of a beautiful face or the colours on a flag?

If we listen to certain scientists, they calmly explain that what we call “love” is actually the inevitable result of meaningless mutations, chemical reactions, and survival instinct. This would make sense if all we ever loved was ourselves, but it makes utter nonsense of our monuments to strong heroes who sacrificed their lives protecting the weak. Survival of the fittest? This origin story doesn’t make sense of us. Our superpower is not a cold-hearted advantage over others. We have a word for people who use power that way: villain. Heroes are always born of love: For nations, for cities, for friends, for family, for strangers – for others.

In all the world, there is only one origin story that does justice to the strength and centrality of our love: It is the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. The doctrine has certainly been the cause of head-scratching through the centuries as we try to understand how God can be one God in substance and nature, and yet exist in never-ending relationship between the three distinct persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But this mystery of the Trinity solves the mystery of us: It shows us that love is central to humanity because love is central to the nature of God. God created us as relational beings because God is a relational being. Why does our passion burn so hot? Because it was kindled in the furnace of God himself. No other concept of God or theory of human beginnings can tell us why it is that we long so desperately to know and be known, to love and be loved. But if the God who made us in his image is himself relational by nature, then he could even be a God whose love is strong enough to cause him to give his life for the sake of humans who rebelled against him. If you want to know why the symbol of the cross is the most common monument on the planet, look no further than this: it is the place where the origin of love became love’s ultimate expression.

Heaven Isn’t A Place On Earth

This week our family boarded a plane to head home to Ireland after some weeks in America. The airports along the way were full of holiday-makers going this way or that, some just setting out, others returning sporting deeper tans and new sunglasses. Eventually, whenever they all get to wherever it is they call home, they’ll be met by a welcome party of work, school, and responsibilities that have been patiently awaiting them. As the tan lines fade and sunglasses collect dust, the desktop background picture of big smiles in the sand may seem increasingly like a taunt. Or maybe like an impossible invitation: “If only I could live there all the time, I would always be that happy!” The invitation seems to be proven more and more with every holiday. But the invitation is a lie. The holiday-makers going both directions on our airplane are proof: if one side of the ocean was the perfection of bliss, why would they feel the need to take their holidays on the other? If we actually did follow the invitation and move ourselves permanently to the dreamiest beach on google images, what would we find there? More sunshine, more sand, and more people who are not so very different to the people we left behind. We would also find more bills and to-do lists, grocery shopping, schools, and government tax offices – all remarkably similar to the places we know, once you get behind the regional architecture. Now, I’m not saying that every place is exactly the same. There are significant differences between life in North Korea and life in Kansas. But good citizens of Kansas, with all their Wal-marts and BBQs, still feel the need to take holidays in the Caribbean. And people in the Caribbean still take their children to Disney World in Florida. And I know a former Disney Princess who took a holiday in China.

God himself was the first to take a holiday when he rested on the seventh day after creating the cosmos. In doing this, he set the pattern that those made in his image are not invented to be constantly running work machines. In the Bible, Hebrews 4 tells us that God also uses these days of rest to point us beyond this broken world to the ultimate rest won for God’s adopted children through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Until then, the kind of rest we’re longing for can only be found in tantalizing tasters. Belinda Carlisle may sing about how “heaven is a place on earth”, but good luck trying to find it. There is no secret corner of this world where life is always good, people are always kind, bugs never bite, and governments are always benevolent. We get just enough to dream of it, but never enough to be satisfied. The whole planet is broken. All the holidays in the calendar can’t change that. And yet, for those who put their trust in Christ, holidays can point our eyes forward to his promises: This life may be a work week full of frustration and pain, but Sunday is coming!

Why Nothing Matters If There’s Nothing But Matter

The longest selfie stick in the history of humanity was 4 billion miles away from home when it took a picture of us. The photo is now famously known as “the pale blue dot”, because it happened to catch our planet as a point of brightness floating in a ray of sunlight. Astronomer Carl Sagan had suggested that NASA take the picture with their Voyager I probe, and he eloquently described the result:

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilisation, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

Certainly, the sight of our entire world as nothing more than a point of light gives us pause. Being confronted with our own size is somehow sobering, and Sagan is quick to interpret this feeling for us by telling us what our tiny-ness means for us as humans:

“Our posturing, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves….The significance of our lives and our fragile planet is then determined only by our own wisdom and courage. We are the custodians of life’s meaning….If we crave some cosmic purpose, then let us find ourselves a worthy goal.”

Sagan assures us that we are insignificant specks whose only hope of finding meaning is if we can create it for ourselves. He was not the first to say such things (Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest”, had popularised the same idea a hundred years earlier), but he lent the idea his powerful voice. Sagan speaks so well, in fact, that even when he slaps humanity down to size he is able to do it in a way that makes finding our own meaning and significance sound noble and wise and courageous. Or so it seems – until you stop to think for a moment about his claims: if we really are what Sagan tells us we are, than what possible significance and worthy goals can be achieved by the inhabitants of a speck of dust in a soul-less empty accident of a universe? The very idea that there is such a thing as actual “significance” or anything that qualifies as truly “worthy” for the inhabitants of dust motes floating in cold, uncaring nothingness is nonsense. He could have been honest about this, at least. He could have told us plainly that nothing we do actually matters, and never will. After shooting our significance in the heart, he might have at least acknowledged the death with a decent burial instead of trying to do CPR and tell us there’s still hope. In doing so, he gives himself away: he can’t actually live with the results of his own thinking.

And neither can we. If Sagan is right, than there is ultimately no such thing as inherent value for humanity. He has decreed for us that the only value a human can have is the value we assign to ourselves. Of course, he highlights the positives; speaking of the glories of tiny humans banding together to find some purpose for themselves beyond inevitable dust-mote despair. But he might have been considerate enough to at least mention that his idea also has a darker side: If we can assign value to ourselves, we can also un-assign value to ourselves. We can pick and choose, determining that some humans are valuable, while others are disposable. And we can do so using any criteria we like. We can even do it democratically – if enough of us collectively agree that some humans are disposable, who can stop us? This is Sagan’s gift of convenience to pragmatic politicians: Are elderly humans costing the health system too much money? Encourage them to dispose of themselves through euthanasia. Are humans with genetic differences complicating the education and social welfare systems? Encourage parents to test and dispose of these “imperfect” people before they are born, through abortion.

The implications could go much further (and probably will), but it’s interesting to note that this system only works one way. As long as we are using it to justify the de-valuing of lives, it runs smoothly and rolls easily over any obstruction. The trouble only begins when we turn the machine around and try to use it to assign positive value to life. Suddenly, we find that the engine has fallen out and we are left to push the monstrosity alone. The obstinate sticking point for this political dream machine is that it insists on going only one way, and then insists on going all the way. It can only remove value, and the moment we start it up for use against the inconvenient humans around us, we find it hungry to gobble up our own value as well. The problem is that a simple look at ourselves in the universe through Sagan’s eyes makes it hard to justify how any portion of the population of a speck of dust can ever make claims of significance and value for itself. When we zoom out to Voyager 1’s perspective, there’s really not much difference between a grown up speck of dust or an unborn speck of dust, or between a fantastically famous speck and the speck that inhabits a forgotten room in a mental institution.

Thankfully, we are not entirely at the mercy of Sagan’s meaning-munching machine. It turns out that in creating it, he has stepped beyond his authority. He has told us that the universe is big, and we believed him, because compared to it we are small. But he has not stopped there: he has also told us that the bigness of the universe teaches us that our small lives are inherently meaningless. But does this follow? Does smallness really preclude meaning? We might as well say that because we are not as long as a river, we cannot claim to run. The fact that we are small compared to the cosmos is just that: a fact. The further proposal that we are meaningless is not a part of this fact. Significance and meaning can rest quite well on tiny things in the right conditions. Which is exactly what Christianity teaches.

Unlike Sagan, the Christian does not look at the vastness of the galaxies as proof that we are alone, but rather as proof that we are in the company of Someone very large indeed. King David saw the sky and knew that he was small, which drove him to ask:

“What is mankind that you are mindful of them? What are human beings that you care for them?”

What are we? We are small. But for David, our significance is not in our size or our ability to manufacture worthy goals (as if that were possible for dust motes). No, our significance is found in the fact that our massive Creator has been mindful of us, God Himself has cared for us. He has shown that He considers us significant.

And so we are.