Craig Vick's Scattered Thoughts

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Mom’s Faith

A little less than four years ago Mom died of pancreatic cancer. In this post I’d like to both honor and remember her by revisiting the thoughts I shared at her memorial. I have many other memories of Mom. She was an amazing woman. However, as I did then, so now, I want to focus on her faith.

Let’s start with a story. A young newlywed joined his buddies for a hunting trip deep into the forest. For the first time since his marriage he was separated from his wife. He began to miss her. As he longed for her he began to dream about their reunion. He thought about the meal he would share with her when he returned home. He began to describe this feast to his buddies. “We’ll have lobster tails dipped in butter, exquisite vegetables cooked to crisp perfection, creams and sauces rich in flavor and for dessert, baked Alaska.” He described this meal again and again and with each telling new delicacies were added. He spoke of roasted duck, beef wellington, caviar and more with such passion that all became hungry. His buddies also began to worry. They knew he was very poor. They knew neither he nor his wife knew much about cooking. They feared that his extravagant dreams would end in disappointment. Our newlywed returned home and shared a bowl of potatoes with his wife. Their poverty allowed nothing more.

The next day his buddies were afraid to approach him. They didn’t know what to say. Finally one of them asked, “So what did you eat last night? How was your wonderful meal?”

“We had potatoes. I’ve never had a greater feast.”

“How can that be? What about all of the rich delicacies for which you longed?”

“It was the most wonderful meal I’ve ever had because it was prepared by my loving bride and I had the joy of eating it with her.”

That old story is a picture of faith. It’s not a picture that tells us everything about faith. Perhaps it’s not even the way we normally think of faith. We don’t see great miracles, great events or great, history changing, accomplishments. It’s more the other side of faith, a faith that knows God in the very ordinary events in life. It’s a faith that finds God even in sadness, a faith that seeks and finds God where most of us see only disappointment and discouragement. That’s a faith that my mother knew.

When I was born I brought a little pain into the world with me. Normally the arrival of a new born is an occasion of joy. That joy is elusive when the new born is an amputee, missing both arms below the elbow and the left leg at the knee. Normally a young mother takes pride in showing her baby to relatives and friends. When friends and relatives saw me for the first time they responded with discomfort and even shock. Imagine Mom taking me for a walk in my stroller. A stranger passes by delighted to see a baby. The stranger smiles and looks into the stroller. The smile leaves or perhaps it remains as a covering of embarrassment and fear. The stranger doesn’t know what to say or what to do. Sometimes Mom would boldly take me out in public. Other times she’d stay home in tears. Of course, no one had anyway of knowing how incredibly good looking I’d turn out to be.

My birth was only the beginning of the difficulties my Mom faced. She had never been around someone with a disability before. She had unsettling questions. How would she raise me? What kind of life would her son be able to live? Would it be a normal life? What skills and hardships would she need to master in order to love this child with so many needs? She had no idea how to find help. She knew no experts.

At a time when Mom was very depressed, a few months after my birth, she was giving me a sponge bath in the sink, her tears mixing with the soap bubbles. She cried and she prayed. A strange warmth filled her heart. She felt the presence of the Lord. She knew she wasn’t alone; God was with her. His presence gave her a calm confidence. She knew that things were going to be alright. Notice that, looked at one way, nothing really changed. My disability didn’t go away. Mom didn’t all of a sudden know what to do. Her questions remained unanswered. Yet God had begun to fill that whole situation. God visited Mom at that moment in her life. After that moment she never looked back. She raised me. She loved me. She fought for me. She taught herself many things and found the resources she needed. I can honestly say that I have never in my entire life felt that I am somehow less because of my disability. That’s a gift from both of my parents, but especially from my mom. It’s a gift she gave in love because of her faith.

Mom had her fears. I remember what a crisis it seemed to be whenever my dad was away on a business trip. Mom would watch the news. She feared that Dad’s plane would crash. I remember one time in particular when there was a crash. I don’t remember the details. I suspect the crash was fairly remote from Dad’s actual flight. Mom, however, seemed certain that Dad was in that crash. She was in a panic. As I grew up, those fears began to subside. Mom got to a point where she was calm when Dad was away. She told me at a later time in life what had happened. When she got married, Dad was everything to her. He was her whole security, her whole meaning in life. When he was gone, even on something like a business trip, it felt like her whole world could be taken away. As she grew in the Lord she realized that no human person should be put in that position. Her confidence moved from being in Dad to being in the Lord. She realized she was under His provision, His protection, His might and His strength. She didn’t love Dad less, she loved him more, but she knew God in a more intimate way than she had early in her marriage.

Mom was a joyful person. She had an enthusiasm for life and for everything that she did. Growing up, it was one adventure after another and they were all exciting. Singing, cooking, sewing, caring for her dogs, exercising, collecting dolls, thinking about politics – Mom never half lived any of these things. Her joy was infectious. She was fun to be around. Joy is complex. I wouldn’t say that all of her joy was because of her faith, but I do think that a large part of it was. She loved life. She loved her family. She knew her Lord. She knew that all of these things were gifts from Him and tokens of His love for her. She knew that deeply.

When Mom got the news that she had pancreatic cancer she quickly realized that she was going to die. That was very difficult for me. I kept thinking we had plenty of time. I saw her in August, sick but still herself, still full of life. In September she lost consciousness and soon died. Mom knew. She also knew that her God was faithful, that He was going to see her through sickness and even through death. She wanted her family and those whom she loved to know that she was going to be OK, that she was going to be safe. It’s a testimony to her faith that in our tears and sadness in saying goodbye, we have never doubted that she is in very good hands – in the hands of our Lord. That’s a gift she gave to us as she went from this world into His hands and embrace.

What makes a faith like that possible? It’s not just a matter of positive thinking. Positive thinking has to hide almost as much as it reveals. Faith isn’t really compatible with that kind of cover up. It’s not just a matter of imagination. Imagination by itself can’t bring us to reality. It can’t bring us to truth. In the face of a bowl of potatoes we can imagine a glorious feast, but apart from faith we can’t eat that feast. In fact, the Scriptures tell us that our imaginations, apart from God, are corrupt and prone to go in wrong directions. What makes Mom’s faith possible? It’s simply this: God has spoken to us in His Son. God’s speech created the universe and He has spoken to us in His Son. In the life of Jesus we see God’s character. We see God’s wisdom. We see God’s power. We see God’s love, compassion and mercy. In the death and resurrection of our Lord we see God’s great victory – victory over everything that would keep us from Him. Victory over our own sin as our Lord Jesus Christ bore that sin and we now bear by His grace His righteousness. Victory over all of the evil in the world. Victory over death. That’s why Paul can say that in the Lord Jesus Christ all the promises of God, however many there are, all of the promises of God are yes. We yearn for that yes every time we look at our world and we say it shouldn’t be this way. We want our lives to be better. We want our lives to be right. We want justice in the world. We want goodness. We want beauty. Paul says all of those things are yes in Christ Jesus. Jesus fills our world and fills those promises, desires, hopes and yearnings. Mom knew this. That’s the kind of faith that she had. I don’t know if she would have put it exactly that way. I suppose she would have had to have gone to seminary in order to make something very simple complicated. Mom was very good at keeping things simple. She would have put it in terms of songs, in terms of joy, in terms of a life lived for her family and in terms of love. As I remember Mom’s faith it calls me to God through His Son.


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A Christmas Truce

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For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Eph 6:12 ESV)

This verse often comes to mind when we sense forces against us that we cannot see. My sister has been a Wycliff Bible translator for many years and currently serves as a translation consultant in Senegal. She has noticed that whenever a New Testament is near completion, all kinds of things begin to spiral out of control. Computers break down, power goes out, roads are washed away, team members face personal crises – from economic hardship to deaths in their families – the list goes on and on. Of course, other observers may look at these events as coincidences, but for us it’s easy to see reminders of the unseen battle.
I’d like to focus, however, on another part of this passage. Paul writes that we do not wrestle against flesh and blood. In other words, people are not our enemies. In our country today many have noted how difficult it has become to have civil debates. We Evangelicals in particular are seen as strident, judgmental, self righteous and defined by what (or should I say whom) we oppose. We can blame some of this on distorted perception or even intentional misrepresentation, but do we really believe that’s the whole story? How do we see the people around us, especially those with whom we have serious disagreements? Do we listen? I find we easily slip into being so convinced of our rightness that we are quick to speak and slow to hear. We even use war terminology to describe our differences. We speak of cultural wars. We describe disagreements as persecution.
Paul says people are not our enemies. That’s why he can bless when he’s reviled, pray for those who curse him and endure persecution. Jesus commands us to love our enemies as our neighbors. Even if they hate us, we’re not against them. We see them as neighbors.
World War I was a dark time in human history. Men waiting for death in trenches, exposed to gas, grenades, mines and machine gun fire – these are emblems of that terrible war. Soldiers on both sides of the conflict endured death and brutality at a level difficult for us to even imagine. The war left deep scars and deep hatred. It contained all the seeds for the atrocities of the next world war. In the midst of these horrors, a small victory for humanity appeared, a Christmas truce. As Christmas approached battlefields saw unofficial cease fires. Enemy troops exchanged gifts, sang Christmas carols together, played soccer with one another and even wept together over the dead. At one level they were still enemies. At a deeper level their humanity transcended the war. I imagine joy in these truces.
When Paul tells us that people are not our enemies I like to think he’s encouraging us to always be on the lookout for a Christmas truce. The dark forces that pit us against one another can be eclipsed by our common humanity. We can learn from, weep with and love our enemies as our neighbors. I’m not so naive as to think that this will drive away all conflict. It won’t. It’s hard work. It goes against our instincts. This I know, however. We are to be known for our love.


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A Plea for Art

One day, after coming home from school, I anxiously turned on the television to watch what was at that time one of my favorite shows: Alfred Hitchcock Presents. My sister, who was a far better student than I, was visibly annoyed when I turned on the television. I asked what was wrong with watching Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and she suggested that it would be better if I spent my time reading the Bible. Given the choice between watching Alfred Hitchcock Presents and reading the Bible, what Christian could reasonably argue for the television show? Even a Christian show would have a hard time competing with reading the Bible, so a show that centers on themes bizarre and macabre doesn’t stand a chance. There will never be a time at which I want to watch Alfred Hitchcock Presents where I couldn’t read the Bible instead. From this it seems to follow that I should never watch Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

This finding seems to be confirmed by what I hear at church. I’m told that my relationship with God is the most important thing in life. Everything else is secondary. What can I do so that I will grow in that relationship? Two things, I’m told, read my Bible and pray. So as I sit before my television and have to choose between working on that which is the most important thing in life or watching Alfred Hitchcock Presents, it’s pretty clear which I should choose.

On the wall of my Sunday school class there’s a poster which reads “God first, others second, me third”. I face my television and ask myself which activity is favored by this poster, watching Alfred Hitchcock Presents or reading the Bible? It seems clear that reading Scripture falls in the “God first” category whereas watching a television show is in “me third”. Is there any doubt, then, what I should do?

I go to another Sunday school room, hoping for a little more insight, and this time I read “Do what Jesus would do”. This seems a bit more promising since Jesus is fully human, but it is far from clear that Jesus would ever take the time to watch Alfred Hitchcock Presents. I’m not sure I know what Jesus would do, but it’s easier to imagine him walking past the television set so as to pick up a Bible and find a quite place where he can be with his Father in heaven.

Of course, as I hear about how I should love my neighbor, there’s some hope for television. Perhaps I can describe watching television in such a way that I’m doing it in order to love my neighbor. To my shame, I must confess that I used this approach once. A parishioner was alarmed that I, a minister, spent a good portion of my time watching movies. I responded by pointing out that movies reveal the thinking of contemporary culture and that I watched movies so that I would better know how to communicate the Gospel to the world around me. The parishioner was more satisfied with this response than was my conscience. Nevertheless, this approach seems promising. Perhaps I can watch Alfred Hitchcock Presents in order to better understand and love all the other people who watch it. The only problem with this is that I end up watching Alfred Hitchcock Presents for entirely different reasons than most people. Jim, the atheist, can sit down and watch Alfred Hitchcock Presents in order to be entertained. He might enjoy the strange stories and the intellectual stimulation. When I watch the same show, however, I’m doing so in order to find evidence of what’s wrong with Jim’s world view.

If Alfred Hitchcock Presents were the only casualty of this kind of teaching, it could be readily sacrificed. A little thought, however, will show that not too many activities can stand in the face of such questioning. I’m, at present, trying to learn how to play the harmonica. I want to discover all of the rich ways that I can express myself with this instrument. To do this well takes time. Learning to play the harmonica seems to be a better use of my time than watching television. At least, when I play the harmonica I’m actively creating rather than passively watching. Is my playing the harmonica, however, more important than my relationship with God? Of course not. How then can I justify spending time learning how to play the harmonica when I could be using that same time reading the Bible? I might try arguing that playing the harmonica is a way of loving my neighbor; I’m seeking to bring music to my neighbor. Unfortunately, however, it appears that by bringing music to my neighbor I’m tempting him or her to listen to music when it would be better to read the Bible. My only justification, or so it seems, limits me to use my harmonica in order to communicate the truths of the Scriptures (Christian songs?).

I’m not suggesting that most Christians live this way, but I do believe that many think this way. When this kind of thinking is combined with the lives that we actually live the primary result is guilt. Rather than enjoying rich lives filled with the goodness of our Lord we find ourselves in an unending state of guilt believing that our activities have entailed not choosing God as the center of our lives. This can and often does lead to hostility towards the arts. The arts are seen as temptations, moving us to choose God second rather than first. In Whitfield’s day, the main objection to the theater was that it was a poor use of time, a form of idleness. Compared to the great value of reading the Bible, it would seem difficult to find any artistic endeavor that wasn’t a waste of time. From this vantage point, it’s a small step to seeing the arts as temptations to evil, and hence, to be feared. Though I can’t prove it with my meager knowledge of history, I suspect that the following pattern has occurred many times within the past two thousand years. Christians view one of the arts as a form of idleness and discourage participation in that art. The result is that Christians withdraw so that most of the creative work is done by non Christians. Non Christians, as they are prone to do, express their non Christian views using that art. This, then, leads to the conclusion by Christians that the art is worse than idleness; it’s evil.

Though it’s easy to see that something has gone wrong with our teaching of what it means to put God first, it’s not so easy to see what. After all, no one would deny that our relationship with God is more important than anything else in life. I suggest three considerations which should at least point us in the direction of where this kind of thinking goes wrong. I’ll leave it to the reader to determine whether or not these considerations are strong enough to justify a half hour with Alfred Hitchcock.

First of all, when we affirm that God should be at the center of our lives we need to take into account the richness of life itself. We are created in God’s image. We are meant to live in community. Community includes activities like building, creating, telling stories, writing, drawing, talking, working and playing. Putting God first is not so much a turning away from such activities as it is making sure that whatever we do, we do in His presence and love. We are not called to live life less, but to live life more. We learn from the Scriptures not so much what needs to be simply known (in fact, this tends to puff us up) but what needs to be lived. Notice the many ways that God communicates with us in the Bible. If we evangelicals were to write a Bible (and it’s a good thing we haven’t) we would probably start with a list of truths that need to be believed followed by a list of commands that need to be obeyed. We would then make reciting those beliefs and commands one of the highest of life’s activities. Though the Bible contains truths and commands it is radically different in structure than what we would produce. It has long sections of history which are conveyed in the form of stories with drama so compelling that it is imitated even in the works of those who have rejected it. It has poetry and songs. It has prophecy with vivid illustrations in the life of the prophet. It has dreams and visions. It has preaching. It has letters written by people to communities and to individuals. Our Lord himself used stories, parables, object lessons, miracles and his own life to reveal his Father to us. Some would argue, and I think convincingly, that his teachings, especially the parables, are in poetic form. All of these very human forms speak powerfully to us that the great truths of the Bible are intended to be lived not in some abstract way but in the midst of human community.

Secondly if we focus just on the command to put God first, we find a bit of a surprise. Jesus tells us that the first commandment is to love the Lord your God with all of your heart, mind and soul. This is as we expect; we are to put God first. Then Jesus indicates that the second commandment, love your neighbor as yourself, is like the first. How, we might wonder, is loving my neighbor related to loving God? Simply put, a large part of loving God is loving my neighbor. The idea that I can love God and not love my neighbor is flatly contradicted by the Scriptures. God calls those who are faithful to Him to live out their lives in churches. We sometimes act as if we can simply focus on our relationship with God and somehow that will magically translate into a love for each other. Life doesn’t work that way. In the context of loving my neighbor (not in some romantic way but in living in community with real people and all the real problems and conflicts that flow from that) I truly love God.

Thirdly, God reveals himself to us both inside and outside of Scripture. In theological terms, we speak of special revelation and general revelation. Special revelation is God revealing himself through Christ and, by extension, God revealing himself through the Scriptures which testify to Christ. General revelation is God revealing himself through his creation. It is true that general revelation has limits. We cannot by general revelation alone find salvation. This is because of the effects of sin on the world and more importantly, the effects of sin on our own minds and hearts. It does not follow from these limitations, however, that general revelation should be ignored in favor of special revelation. General revelation is still revelation. In fact, special revelation speaks within the context of general revelation (God sent his Son into the world and his Son teaches us how to live in that world).

One might object at this point that I have conveniently left out a central teaching of the New Testament in my analysis. The New Testament teaches that this world is passing away. Doesn’t it follow from this that I should deny myself the pleasures of this world (like watching Alfred Hitchcock Presents) in order to prepare myself for the next. Let goods and kindred go.

There are two things we should keep in mind as we think about what the passing of this world and life means with respect to how we should live. First of all, notice that this world is to be replaced with a new world. We are not created to live in an ethereal world-less state. In the new world we will live in a new community. How much our activities in the new world will resemble the ways we live in the present world is difficult to say. We can say, though, that there will be activities which clearly manifest God’s goodness and love.

Secondly, though we live for the next world, we live in this one. If the lives we live now have any meaning at all (and I think they have much meaning), then living for the next world requires us to work out the truths of God’s revelation in this world. Running from the richness of life in this world doesn’t prepare us for anything. We may be called to sacrifice our lives for the cause of the Gospel, but that doesn’t mean that we are to intentionally end our lives. We may be called to sacrifice some of the great things in this world, but these sacrifices are not good in themselves. They have meaning only in so far as we give up what is good in order to carry out faithfulness to Christ in the lives he has called us to live.

Participation in the arts is one part of the vast and good world in which our Lord has called us to live. It is part of the complex of life which God has given to us and of which he is to be the center. Far from being a distraction to knowing him, it is one of the arenas of that knowledge.


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Hippasus of Metapontum

Hippasus of Metapontum is believed to be the first mathematician to prove the existence of irrational numbers. Last year, much to the delight and amazement of the archeologists involved, clay tablets were discovered which contained an account of Hippasus’ trial. Using my best seminary Greek skills, I offer the following translation:

The small group of mathematical priests rowed out into the calm sea. When their boat came to rest Pythagoras asked Hippasus if he would present the proof. Hippasus was only too happy to oblige. With great zeal he walked his brothers through the reasoning that showed that the square root of two could not be represented as a ratio of two numbers. With every step of the proof his enthusiasm grew. When he finished he was out of breath. Looking around at his brothers he expected to see in their faces a joy of discovery. He’d seen this joy many times in the past.

He saw no joy, only blank stares and a couple of frowns. Pythagoras broke the silence. “Hippasus of Metapontum, how could you have done this disgraceful thing? For many years our order has taught the harmony of the cosmos. More than a few of our brothers have died for that truth. You yourself swore to uphold it. How can you now turn your face against everything we believe with this wretched proof?”

“I believe with all my heart in the harmony we proclaim.” Hippasus protested. “I have only shown that the square root of two cannot be represented as a ratio. The harmony of the cosmos is more complex than we ever dreamed.”

“All numbers can be represented as ratios.” a brother proclaimed. “The unity of all numbers is in the one.”

“You must renounce this so called proof. You’ve sworn to uphold the deep teachings of the brotherhood.”

Hippasus protested. “Our brotherhood upholds the right of conscience. How can I, in good conscience, renounce a proof? Am I to feign rejection of what I see to be true?”

The brothers took a vote. Hippasus was condemned to die. He was thrown off the boat. The brothers watched as he thrashed about the water, gasped for air and sunk beneath the gentle waves.

“We’ve done a great thing here today.”, one of the brothers announced. “This proof is dead, and will never be heard from again. The world will always know that all numbers can be represented as ratios.”