The Door On Which We Have Been Knocking

When I attempted to describe our spiritual longings. . . .

Photo credit to Steve Mazur

“When I attempted . . . to describe our spiritual longings, I was omitting one of their most curious characteristics. We usually notice it just as the moment of vision dies away, as the music ends, or as the landscape loses the celestial light.”


Photo credit to Deb Zeyher

“For a few minutes we have had the illusion of belonging to that world. Now we wake to find that it is no such thing. We have been mere spectators. Beauty has smiled, but not to welcome us; her face was turned in our direction, but not to see us. We have not been accepted, welcomed, or taken into the dance. We may go when we please, we may stay if we can: ‘Nobody [notices] us.'”


Photo credit to Rudy Vierickl

“A scientist may reply that since most of the things we call beautiful are inanimate, it is not very surprising that they take no notice of us. That, of course, is true. It is not the physical objects that I am speaking of, but that indescribable something of which they become for a moment the messengers.

Photo credit Paul Smith

“And part of the bitterness which mixes with the sweetness of that message is due to the fact that it so seldom seems to be a message intended for us, but rather something we have overheard. By bitterness I mean pain, not resentment. We should hardly dare to ask that any notice be taken of ourselves. But we pine. The sense that in this universe we are treated as strangers, the longing to be acknowledged, to meet with some response, to bridge some chasm that yawns between us and reality, is part of our inconsolable secret.”


Photo credit to Kevin Drendel

And surely, from this point of view, the promise of glory, in the sense described, becomes highly relevant to our deep desire. For glory means good report with God, acceptance by God, response, acknowledgement, and welcome into the heart of things. The door on which we have been knocking all our lives will open at last.”

CS Lewis from the Weight of Glory

Photo Credit Dee Rexroat

Leaven: the World in the Church, and the Church in the World

As I read through the Bible, I often see comparisons that I had not previously considered. Recently, I noted a couple of different times and different ways that Jesus used the analogy of leaven. The two uses of the term, leaven, contrast with each other in interesting ways.

In Matthew 13, Jesus used the term in telling a short parable about the kingdom of God. Later, in Matthew 16, Jesus used the term in speaking about the influence of the Pharisees. They appear in the ESV as follows:

“He told them another parable, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.’” (Matthew 13:33)


“When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’ And they began discussing it among themselves, saying, ‘We brought no bread.’ But Jesus, aware of this, said, ‘O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? How is it that you fail to understand that I did not speak about bread? Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’ Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (Matthew 16:5-12)

So, the kingdom of God is like leaven, but there is a “leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” of which we should beware. The leaven that is the kingdom of God is good, but the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees is bad. What is Jesus talking about?

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Church: Caught in the Middle of the Immigration Crisis

The southern Mexican/American border at San Antonio, TX

Preston Sprinkle recently interviewed John Garland and Dr. Rebecca Poe Hays on the subject of immigration in episode #95 of Theology in the Raw. John Garland pastors a church in San Antonio Texas where he is immersed in ongoing immigration issues. Dr. Poe Hays is Assistant Professor of Christian Scriptures at Baylor University.

The San Antonio area is home to several immigration prisons. Being in San Antonio means the immigration crisis is a daily reality for Pastor Garland, and his church has embraced its position in the world. For that reason, the media often comes to him for stories they can publish on immigration.

When they interview him, he says, they usually are looking for a story that fits a particular narrative. Garland says that most people doing stories on immigration have already developed their narratives when they come to him for an interview. Thus, they are typically looking for a story that fits that narrative.

That characteristic of the media is true on both sides of the political fence. Because of the media focus on certain narratives, Garland estimates that only about 5% to 10% of what we read in the news on immigration describes an accurate picture of what is happening.

Most news stories on immigration are developed according to prefabricated narratives.

One story that the news media doesn’t tell is that it involves the Church. In Garland’s personal experience, the Church is on both sides of the immigration crisis, and the Church is caught in the middle.

When there is crisis, there is often confusion. Soldiers talk about the confusion in the “fog of war”. When we experience crisis in our personal lives, we often lack the clarity, need the clarity that comes from counseling from others who can provide us perspective.

That clarity often comes from people who “have been there” and have wrestled deeply with the struggles we experience. John Garland is someone who “has been there”.

We don’t see in most media reports that the majority of the people coming across the southern border are Christians. Garland speaks from personal experience when he says,

“[The immigrants] are our Christian brothers and sisters, and 85% of them over these last seven years are evangelical Christians…. They sing the same songs as we do.”

The people that Garland and his church serve at the border read Scripture with each other and pray together every night. They worship and serve God. They seek a better life for themselves and their families. They seek safety and freedom.

Garland says that the immigration crisis is very much a 21st century version of the exodus of freedom seekers to the New World.

“This is not a political story, really. That is happening on the news…. It’s a story of the pilgrim church and how we, as a church in America, are receiving the pilgrim church, a persecuted pilgrim church.”

Garland has experienced this reality on both sides of the border. He has spent time in Central America where he watched Christian leaders being driven out by violence and persecution.

In San Antonio, his church is receiving pastors, social workers and Christian community leaders escaping the dangerous and volatile environments they have left behind as a last resort. Garland says,

“This story doesn’t fit into any of the prescribed political narratives that you are generally going to get from the news.”

In the remainder of this blog piece, I will relate the narratives that Garland has categorized in his dealings with the media. He says they boil down to three categories that are reflected in the questions he is asked over and over again.

Continue reading “Church: Caught in the Middle of the Immigration Crisis”

The Kingdom of God is like an Autostereogram

Autostereograms and the inability to see the image within the image remind me of the teaching of Jesus on the kingdom of God

If Jesus was walking the earth today, as he did in the 1st Century, he might have said, “the kingdom of God is like an autostereogram.” Or maybe not. Who knows what an autostereogram is? He probably would have used more common words and, perhaps, pointed to an image demonstrating what he was saying.

The image above is an autostereogram. It appears like a repeating pattern of two-dimensional, abstract, interconnected design, but it “hides” a three-dimensional image. It isn’t really hidden, but we must “look beyond” the two dimensional image to see it. Can you see the three-dimensional image? (Look to the end for a clue.)

Our eyes don’t naturally pick up on the three-dimensional object “hidden” (in plain sight) in the abstract image. We have to “strain” to see it. In truth, I wouldn’t say that strain is the right word; it’s rather like we need to relax to see it.

I usually have to stare and stare at an autostereogram to see the three-dimensional object, and sometimes I give up impatiently. When I finally do se it, the image emerges, or even pops, out at me. Some people who have certain eye conditions can’t see the three-dimensional images because of a lack of eye function.

One web page on autostereograms provides the following instruction:

  1. Concentrate at a point in the middle of the 2D picture. Try not to get distracted by looking around the picture.
  2. Let your eyes relax and look through the picture rather than at it. You want to look at a point behind the picture. You will notice that the picture will go slightly out of focus. This is normal, and in fact, this is what you want to happen. For beginners, a useful way to start would be to look at pictures that have been framed. You can then learn to look beyond the picture by using your reflection as a guide.
  3. Once you notice the 3D image, it gets easier. Try to resist the temptation to refocus onto the 2D picture– you will lose the 3D picture if you do so.

People who have never been able to perceive 3D shapes hidden within an autostereogram find it hard to understand remarks such as, “the 3D image will just pop out of the background, after you stare at the picture long enough”, or “the 3D objects will just emerge from the background”. Unless or until you see it, you can’t imagine what it is like.

A skeptic who can’t see the 3D image might be tempted to write it off as an illusion or an active imagination. The reality of autostereograms with 3D images designed into a flat, two-dimensional image, however, is fact. You can even generate your own autostereograms on the Internet.

Autostereograms and the inability to see the image within the image remind me of the teaching of Jesus on the kingdom of God. People who have gone from atheist or agnostic to believer often describe the switch in similar terms. Sy Garte described a similar experience in his book “The work of His Hands: A Scientist’s Journey from Atheism to Faith”. He describes the period of time when he had moved from atheism to agnosticism as follows:

I found myself standing on the shores of a sea of mystery, certain that the waters hid treasures of beauty and goodness, but with no way to see them for myself.

(An excerpt from Sy Garte: Why I Believe in the Resurrection, commenting on his book in Peaceful Science, November 19, 2019) He recalled reading the Gospels when he still subscribed to materialism and atheism. He read them, he says,

only as an exercise to reinforce my atheistic scorn at the stupidity of Christianity. Back then I was focused on the magic, the contradictions, the naiveté of the ignorant who believed in scientifically impossible events like the resurrection.

Years later, no longer convinced that all truth was bounded by the parameters established by materialism and atheism, Sy Garte read the Gospels with an open mind. He “relaxed” his view, and this time, he saw the image within the image:

When I read the Gospels the second time, my mind was open, freed of the ideological certainty of atheism. I still saw the apparent contradictions, but now they appeared as evidence for truth, the kind of differences one would expect in true eyewitness accounts [citation omitted]. I still saw what looked like magic, but now it confirmed for me my new-found conviction that science is not the only pathway to truth. And now I saw the figure of Jesus Christ, and reading His words, I realized that God must have seen me standing on the shore, staring helplessly at the waves. Jesus Christ rose from those waters and held out His hand to me.

Sy Garte uses metaphoric language here. He didn’t actually see Jesus emerge or pop out of the pages, like the hidden image in an autostereogram. The metaphor is apt, though. The experience is the same.

At one point in his life, Sy Garte couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to believe in Jesus. Later, when he had relaxed his embrace of atheism and materialism, Jesus virtually leapt off the pages of the Gospels.

Sy Garte’s experience is far from unique. The lightbulb moment, the dramatic paradigm shift, is common to stories of conversion. The description Jesus gave it, being born again, is beautifully descriptive of the experience many people have had who went from no faith to faith, often very quickly, even suddenly.

I recall one friend who described that she suddenly realized she saw the world differently. As she gazed out over the landscape, it was alive in ways she never noticed before. In most recent article I wrote, I described the conversion of an Afghan Muslim. He said that he saw people differently after his conversion. He loved them.

These experiences are similar to suddenly being able to see the image in the image of an autostereogram, though the experience of “seeing” and understanding God, Jesus and the kingdom of God is much more dramatic, meaningful, and (of course) life changing. The autostereogram metaphor also makes some sense of the way Jesus described the kingdom of God.

Continue reading “The Kingdom of God is like an Autostereogram”

Tales of Afghan Christians: Amazing, but Heartbreaking,

I am listening to the Quick to Listen Podcast, Episode 277: ‘My Heart Is Broken’: An Afghan Pastor Grapples with the US Withdrawal (America’s departure and the Taliban’s ascent is forcing Christians out of the country) I haven’t finished it yet. I stopped in my tracks at about 18 minutes and 40 seconds into the discussion with an Afghan pastor, and have paused to sift through it.

At the beginning of the interview, the unidentified pastor described himself as a Muslim in 2001, where the discussion started with the US invading Afghanistan. Even then, he said he welcomed the US interference. The country was in upheaval and chaos, and Western troops brought some hope for stability.

I do not want to get into my thoughts on the initial invasion or the US presence since that date. They are not relevant to my purpose for writing. I don’t want to be distracted by political assessment or judgment, of which I am deeply ambivalent.

The recent video footage from Afghanistan of people so desperate to leave before the Taliban takes over that they are clinging to airplanes as they take off, is heartbreaking to watch. The desperation in the faces of the people crowding unto Afghan runways still today (while there is still a sliver of hope to escape) is something I have never known. I can only watch in stunning silence.

Thus, I listened to the interview of the anonymous Afghan pastor with interest as he described from his personal experience the reality of life in Afghanistan for a Christian today.

About 18 minutes into the discussion, one of the interviewers recalled that the gentleman described himself as a Muslim when the US first stepped on Afghan soil and asked, “How did you come to faith? How did Jesus find you?”

Without hesitation, in his broken English, he said, “I don’t want to come to faith. I … hate Christians. I don’t like to become Christian because I [come] from a very religious Muslim background. My father was Imam. They taught me to be good Muslim. Six time I have been to Mecca. I practiced my religion very well.”

This man was not looking for a Christian savior when the US troops arrived in 2001. He just wanted peace and stability in his life and in his country, something most people in the western world take for granted. The idea of becoming Christian was abhorrent to him.

His personal story needs to be heard. It is the story of many Afghans who seek asylum today. They look to the US, and other countries, not as a savior, but as a refuge against evil that is hard to imagine for most of us. These people are not battle-hardened jihadists, as some people seem to fear.

Many of them are even Christians, despite the great risk personal risk involved. This is just one such story of a real person who has experienced a life most of us can’t even imagine and have a hard time appreciating. I will give him a name, Abdul, for personal affect, though he remains anonymous for obvious reasons.

Continue reading “Tales of Afghan Christians: Amazing, but Heartbreaking,”