Wonderfully Made…For a Purpose

Background Passage: Psalm 139

The brightest minds in Greek and Roman worlds for centuries before and after the time of Christ believed human wisdom, emotion, memory and thought centered in the heart, not the brain. Ancient ideas of physiology and psychology told them that God spoke through the heart; that within the heart lived the essence of man’s soul. They believed the brain was an internal radiator that simply cooled the blood as it circulated through the body.

Influenced by these cultures, the ancient Hebrews understood that the core of who and what they were was centered in the heart. In other words, like the ancient Greeks, they believed the heart was the focus of all rational thought and emotion. So unimportant was the brain in Hebrew thinking that the word is never recorded in scripture…not once.

Scientifically, we know the ancients were wrong. We continue to learn more about the brain as the depth of scientific research grows into the complex role it plays in our how we think, feel and learn. Though we know better, we still speak of “feeling” and “thinking” with our hearts, a metaphorical echo of scientific error relegated to the pages of history.

The human brain functions as one of God’s most marvelous creations, yet only in the past 150 years have scientists and physicians made serious efforts to understand how it works. In 1861, French physician Pierre Paul Broca discovered that small region of the left frontal lobe of the brain controls our ability to speak. In subsequent studies since that time, scientists have identified 83 specific areas of the brain that activate when we recognize a face, read a book, think about a specific memory or do certain types of physical work.

Neuroscientists at the University of Washington recently published a new map of the brain, revealing more than 97 previously unknown regions of the brain to add to the 83 areas already familiar to today’s scientists.

A Stanford University study recently used a new imaging technique called array tomography to look more closely at the brain’s neurons and synapses. The data collected produced a three-dimensional picture of these tiny cell connections. The images indicate that the number of synapses in the brain exceed the number of estimated stars in 1,500 Milky Way galaxies combined, making the brain far more complex that previously understood.

These new discoveries caused a few of my own synapses to make a few new connections. I thought of Psalms 139. The Psalmist, in his praise of God, wrote beautiful lyrics about his creative work.

“For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
Your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.”

We are God’s creation. Whether we developed through an evolutionary process or appeared in a molding of clay and bone is really immaterial to me. Neither view changes my understanding of God as Creator. To focus on that debate misses the point of my personal relationship to him. That he gave me this marvelous brain that thinks, acts, reasons, chooses, understands and loves is an amazing gift that governs my relationships to my God and to others. That he gave me the ability to grasp the concept of faith in him is grace in full measure.

That thought led to another. My son and his wife, Melissa, are expecting their second child in December. They have named her Amelia Diane. We saw another ultrasound of her yesterday. Even now as her body is developing inside the womb, God knows her and all she will become. The Psalmist explored that idea, also.

“Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.”

I think of these things not to get into a debate on abortion and the definition of when life starts. Rather, I stand amazed that God already knows my granddaughter. That a God-ordained, perfect plan already exists for her life. That the only things standing in the way of that life are the choices she makes and the positive influence brought to bear through the unconditional love of her Christian parents and all of those who enter her life.

Her intricate and incomparable brain will be imprinted with her God-given uniqueness etched throughout its gray matter. The life he plans for her will unfold as it is imparted by her parents, instructed by gifted teachers at church and at school, and inspired by the love of family and friends that desire only the best for her.

One final thought occurred to me as I read again this familiar scripture. Intellectually, I know our brains, not our hearts, make us who we are. Yet, we must continue to lean upon the understanding of the ancients, like the Psalmist, to express our desire to be all that God wants us to be.

He planted a seed in all of us that longs for a Father. As we allow that seed to grow, God guides our lives through every trial, test and temptation. The seed, that free-will choice of heart and head–creates purpose. We uncover our purpose in God when we honestly seek him and genuinely desire to walk the path he sets out for us. As the Psalmist sang,

“Search me, God and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me.
Lead me in the way everlasting.”

You Matter to God; You Matter to Me

Background Passages: Genesis 1:26-27; Galatians 3:8; Mark 12:26-27

The Broadway musical Waitress tells a story about a young woman whose life turns out vastly different than she imagined it would. When life leaves her struggling as a waitress in a small diner, eking out a day to day existence with little to show for her effort, she feels invisible and unworthy of love and respect. She encounters a man who takes notice of her, sees her for who she really is. He spends time trying to convince her that she, and her life, are important.

Sara Bareilles, a talented singer and songwriter, penned the lyrics to You Matter to Me. The song speaks poignantly to the need in all of us to matter to someone. She wrote,

“I could find the whole meaning of life in those sad eyes.
They’ve seen things that you never quite say, but I hear.
Come out of hiding I’m right here beside you.
And I’ll stay there as long as you let me.

“Because you matter to me.
Simple and plain, and not much to ask from somebody.
You matter to me.
I promise you do, you, you matter, too.
I promise you do, you see?
You matter to me.”

In explaining the lyrics to the song, Bareilles said, “It was something so simple that I think is at the heart of what we really look for when we want someone who really sees us. It’s just a feeling that what you do and who you are matters to someone.”

I’ve listened a great deal to that song in the past two weeks. Within the lyrics lies an answer, I think, to the many issues that tend to divide us today, including “Black Lives Matter.” “Police Lives Matter.” These are such sensitive issues and I’ll probably fumble through it. Please bear with me as I try to express my thoughts.

First, it matters to me that an African American man or woman is shot and killed by a police officer, whether that act was willful and deliberate, a terrible misunderstanding or an absolute accident. Black lives matter. Secondly, it matters that an individual, acting in unmitigated anger, willfully and deliberately targets and kills any police officer. Police lives matter.

The personal and national tragedies occurring across our country today sadden me. The division among us which these tragedies create saddens me. That the tragedies get exploited by individuals, media and groups with political agendas, saddens me. The social wedge it drives between us creates a deep, personal and public fracture that will take time and selfless understanding to heal.

I believe fundamentally that your life, regardless of who you are or what you do, matters. First and foremost, you matter to God. Genesis declares that people…all of us…are made in the “image of God.”

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Gen. 1:26-27.

Every human being, regardless of race, ethnicity, background or profession, in some way mirrors God…something of God can be seen and felt in each of us. As a result of our created connection to God, all people are important to God. All people matter to God.

There ought to be a God-inspired corollary to that truth, especially to those who call ourselves Christian. Because God matters to me–as His child, His creation–you also matter to me. Neither race, nor ethnicity, nor social status, nor profession, ought to change that belief.

Paul tells us in Galatians 3:8, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

The apostle need not spell out every category of human being for us to understand that in the eyes of our Father in heaven we stand the same. In every way that matters to Him and to us, we stand the same.

I was taught never to judge another unless I had walked in their shoes. My actions and the actions of others, are typically predicated on our personal experiences. How I respond to situations depends on what I have experienced, seen, heard and perceived…circumstances that impact my life. I cannot, therefore, fully understand the real and perceived discrimination African Americans feel. I have never walked in their shoes.

Nor can I fully understand the anxiety and trepidation a police officer must feel every time he or she answers a radio call for a domestic disturbance, a break-in, traffic stop or at any social protest. I have never walked in their shoes.

The plain and simple truth is we don’t need to walk in another’s shoes to sense their anguish over life circumstances. We just need to act on our faith principles and react in the love of Christ to each and every person we encounter.

Consider this. Jesus had been involved in one of those intense debates with the Jewish leadership who questioned so many of his teachings. Near the end, one of the teachers of the law came to Jesus and asked, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” Our Savior responded with a clear message about our relationship to God and to one another.

“The most important one is this: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.” Mark 12: 28-31

We have an abundance of issues that would divide us today…gay and transgender rights, immigration, terrorism, “Black Lives Matter,” “Police Lives Matter.” “All Lives Matter.” All I know is that my political and social perspectives…all aspects of my life…must match my faith perspective.

Those groups and individuals at the center of every one of these issues matter to God. Therefore, they and their feelings must matter to me. I matter to God. Therefore, I and my feelings, must matter to you. Until we start listening with intent to love as God loves, we will never find the common ground we need. We will never truly matter to each other.

You matter to God. You matter to me. As Bareilles says, “It’s not much to ask from somebody.”

The Gilded Cathedral

Background Passages: Matthew 23:25-28; James 2:14-18

My wife and spent the last two weeks celebrating our 40th anniversary on a Baltic Sea cruise. We started with a side trip to Spain before boarding a ship in London for Norway, Denmark, Estonia, Russia, Finland and Belgium. As with most of these European vacations, every stop featured palaces, castles and cathedrals.

I stood before each church and cathedral awestruck by the size and scope of the construction, thinking about how the architects of old created inspiring buildings worthy of God’s presence. Today, these massive facades still rise high above the surrounding neighborhoods, dominating city skylines with ornate spires and mammoth domes that reach toward heaven. Intricate carvings covering the face of each cathedral serve as silent and lasting testimony to the skill of the collection of artisans who spent centuries, in some cases, creating these magnificent houses of worship.

As I stepped inside and allowed my eyes to adjust to the dim lighting within, I marveled at the invaluable artwork that filled each sanctuary, drawing my attention always forward toward the marbled and gilded altars. I find it difficult to wrap my arms around the wealth represented in the gold-plated structures filling these halls.

A thought dawned on me as I stood in the back of the nave of St. Peter and Paul’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg, Russia, staring at the gilded altar rising to the ceiling. Inching my way through the milling throng of tourists snapping pictures, jabbering nosily, jockeying for position to catch a glimpse of whatever the tour guide highlighted, I felt a profound sense of loss. I stood in a magnificent house of worship, yet nothing about the chaotic atmosphere within resembled worship.

I sincerely appreciate the beauty and boldness of these magnificent churches, even though the opulent style challenges my simpler tastes. The beauty is wasted when you realize that few of the cathedrals offered more than the occasional worship service. Most served only a secular function, reflecting the history of time gone by. Museums to extravagance. Mausoleums for a faith dying of apathy.

Statistics tell us that the Christian faith in Europe has been on a steady decline for decades. Fewer than 10 percent of the populations in Norway, Denmark and Finland attend church regularly. Those who profess a faith in Christ stand in absolute minority among the citizens of Scandinavia and northern Europe. Did the extravagance of the buildings contribute in any way to the decline in faith, or was it something more personal?

As I sorted through my distress over the decline of faith and the emptiness of these sanctuaries of worship, I recalled an encounter Jesus had with the Pharisees late in his ministry. The conversation was one of Jesus’ most direct and confrontational messages to the religious leaders of his day.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence…You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” –Matthew 23:25-28

With those words Jesus reminds me that the decline of faith evident in Europe and in our own country has far less to do with the physical appearance of our buildings than it does the spiritual application of my heart. Jesus reminds me that I can play the part, speak the words, construct a beautiful façade as I proclaim myself a Christian, and still my heart beats as empty and devoid of worship as those amazing cathedrals. I can gild myself in gold, putting up a grand façade, but never demonstrate God’s love to a lost and dying world.

Cathedrals and churches echo with emptiness across the world because our deeds do not match our faith. James spoke to this.

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such a faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But some will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’ Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.” –James 2:14-18

Sadly, I’m sure there are times when those men and women searching for answers to faith’s questions see me as a gilded cathedral. An empty shell hiding behind a gilded face. Christ-like in outside appearance, but without the deeds to back it up. Such is the height of hypocrisy.

A cathedral without worship is a museum. Faith without works a mausoleum. How much better would it be for us to be plain an unattractive to the world, but open to God’s presence as we serve and minister to his people?

At the end of the day, these beautiful cathedrals sit idle because the people forgot what it meant to serve. Forgot what it meant to invest themselves in the lives of those they encountered. Our modern churches run the risk of becoming silent witnesses to our dying faith unless those of us who profess Christ act faithfully on his behalf in service and ministry to those we encounter today and tomorrow.

For the sake of our country and our faith, I pray we’re up to the task.