Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Living in a World of Turmoil

How will we respond when the world is in turmoil; when Syrian refugees are flooding European countries and seeking shelter in North America; when oil is $42 a barrel and people are losing their jobs; when Paris and Belgium are locked down; when travelers in the United States are warned not to fly? Do we live as functional atheists or do we "take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ"[1]? I am now speaking to those of us who claim to be followers of the first century Rabbi, and Son of God, Jesus. If we truly believe in him, and follow what he taught, then we will recognize that "in him all things hold together."[2] We will not get caught up in the fear of the day. We will not be tossed about by every human argument about the way to solve these crises. We will have our pattern in Jesus. He will be our example and our teacher for dealing with daily life. Jesus tells us to "seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and he will give you everything you need."[3] Those of us who live as Christians in the world need to take seriously these words of the "author of our faith."[4] God still "reigns above the nations, sitting on his holy throne."[5] "Let us run with endurance the race God has set before us."[6]

[1] For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. (2 Corinthians 10:3-5 NIV)
[2] The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Col. 1:15-17 NIV)
[3] “Look at the lilies and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are. And if God cares so wonderfully for flowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you. Why do you have so little faith?
“And don’t be concerned about what to eat and what to drink. Don’t worry about such things. These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers all over the world, but your Father already knows your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and he will give you everything you need.
“So don’t be afraid, little flock. For it gives your Father great happiness to give you the Kingdom.
“Sell your possessions and give to those in need. This will store up treasure for you in heaven! And the purses of heaven never get old or develop holes. Your treasure will be safe; no thief can steal it and no moth can destroy it. Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be. (Luke 12:27-34 NLT)
[4] Hebrews 12:2 (NASB)
[5] For God is the King over all the earth. Praise him with a psalm. God reigns above the nations, sitting on his holy throne. The rulers of the world have gathered together with the people of the God of Abraham. For all the kings of the earth belong to God. He is highly honored everywhere. (Psalm 47:7-9 NLT)
[6] Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne. (Hebrews 12:1,2 NIV)

Monday, November 23, 2015

Rest in the Grace of the World

I have been sensing a tendency toward fear and depression both in my own soul and in the words of those around me. I am considering these words by Wendell Berry and what they might mean to all of us at this point in history.
“When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”
― Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community: Eight Essays

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Imagine True Religion

It has been a few days since the world witnessed the events of November 13 in Paris. The initial words used to describe the event were naturally filled with emotion: “Paris mourns,” “an act of war,” “World War III,” “Blood-bath,” and “massacre.” Now that a few days have passed, I am in a better place to look at the nature of what happened and I pray that you are as well. Of course, anytime someone or some group of people intentionally kill innocent persons, it is evil; but some who speak of these events then go on to attribute the blame to religion and say that if it were not for religion this would not be happening. Some, specifically blame Islam and label it a violent faith. This is wrong thinking.

I admire the man who towed his portable baby-grand piano to the heart of the zone of destruction and then began to play a song of peace, but unfortunately his choice of song does more than simply call for peace. John Lennon’s “Imagine” has a beautiful melody and the words are inspirational; but it also calls for an abandonment of all religion: “Imagine there's no heaven; It's easy if you try; No hell below us; Above us only sky; Imagine all the people living for today.” The song assumes that world peace would naturally arise when we abandon all religion and live for today. The reality is that people are never at their best when they only live for today because we all have a tendency to live for ourselves. Living for ourselves and living for today is a bad combination that leads to taking care of our own, looking out for number one, and continuing to live a consuming life that depletes the earth of her resources. Getting rid of religion without curing this fatal flaw in humanity could only make our world a more dangerous place.

Other voices have said that “there is no religion in terror.” This is a way to try to describe the fact that those who commit terrorist acts, by remorselessly killing innocents, are not religious and are not part of the true faith. I tend to agree with this but there is a better way to say it. That is, “there is no terrorism in religion.” The great books of the faith, the Old Testament of the Bible, the New Testament of the Bible and yes, the Quran contain admonishments to seek to do good toward others. The Old Testament of the Bible, regarded by Jews, Christians, and Muslims tells us that “the Lord has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) The New Testament of the Bible regarded by both Christians and Muslims says that “religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:27) The Quran admonishes Muslims to “compete with each other in doing good.” (Surah al-Baqarah 5:48)

You will notice that I have not referred to Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, or other religions in quoting these three passages of sacred writings. I will leave that to others to find the relevant passages in their sacred writings. But the fact is, a religion that encourages the slaughter of innocents, is no religion at all. True religion is caring for widows and orphans. It is not true religion if it creates widows and orphans by killing innocent husbands and fathers. Of this we can be sure.

So, what is it that we desire? I do not desire a world with no religion. I desire a world filled with good religion. I imagine a world where good religion succeeds, and truth and grace are held as the highest of all standards by those who are true followers of true religion. Can we imagine that?

Friday, November 13, 2015

An Open Letter to Oil Company CEOs

November 13, 2015

An open letter to oil company executives in Alberta,

In recent years, and in fact, in recent days, oil has become a dirty word. Our federal government is gearing up for presentations in Paris at the United Nations Climate Change Conference. Our provincial government will experience pressure to reconsider royalty rates and, if Saskatchewan is any indicator, pressure to create a new price for expelling carbon into the atmosphere. Those who capture carbon will be able to sell their rights and carbon will have a defined price.

In light of all of this, for the sake of our province, for the sake of our children and grand-children, for the sake of jobs, for the sake of my friends who are already looking for jobs and those who may be afraid they will soon be looking for jobs, can I please ask you to stop thinking like CEOs of Oil companies and ask you to start thinking like CEOs of Energy companies?

I have asked my friends in the oil and gas industry if their company is diversifying. They have responded, “Oh yes, we are diversifying. We used to be into nothing but conventional oil and now we have holdings in both heavy oil and conventional oil. With the latest downturn in oil prices we are diversifying back to conventional oil and even gas!” That’s not diversifying, CEOs! Or at least, it is not diversifying enough. What about diversifying into other forms of energy: building high capacity batteries, installing fields of solar panels, building wind turbines, or investing in fuel cell research? What about looking at other ways to provide energy and power?

For the sake of tomorrow, could I please ask you to do something different than wait for the roller-coaster ride of oil and gas to come back to the top? Please show us that you can truly diversify, for the sake of our unhealthy addiction to oil, for the sake of our province.

Keith Shields

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Artificial Intelligence

"What does it mean to be alive? To think, to feel, to love and to envy? André Alexis explores all of this and more in the extraordinary Fifteen Dogs, an insightful and philosophical meditation on the nature of consciousness. It's a novel filled with balancing acts: humour juxtaposed with savagery, solitude with the desperate need to be part of a pack, perceptive prose interspersed with playful poetry. A wonderful and original piece of writing that challenges the reader to examine their own existence and recall the age old question, what's the meaning of life?"[1]

This quote reminds us that authors and screenwriters have been writing about consciousness and the essence of life for a very long time. Fifteen Dogs, by Andre Alexis, which recently won the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize is a significant addition to the genre. If you add to this the concept of artificial intelligence (AI), as a related subject, the list of stories grows even longer. A few key questions continue to be asked. Would it ever be possible to create life? How would one know if life had been created? Would it ever be possible to create consciousness? How would one know if consciousness had been created? Would it be possible to create an artificial intelligence that was indistinguishable from a human? If one were able to do this, would it indeed be human? What does it mean to be human? Is there a need to protect humans from their own creations?

Ex Machina, a 2015 movie, focused on robots that were designed to be indistinguishable from humans. Even as the Giller Prize judges ruminate upon the words, “to think, to feel, to love, to envy,” so also do the writers of this screenplay. Another film, Her (2013), grappled with the concept of an intelligence that resided in the hardware of a computer and went on to develop feelings. Eventually the OS being was capable of learning beyond the capabilities of the ones who had created it and exhibited feelings for humans and other OS entities. Although a much older discussion, I, Robot, a 1950 collection of short-stories by famed Sci-Fi writer Isaac Asimov, asked questions about the safety of creating artificial intelligences and constructed the “Three Laws of Robotics.”
1.    A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2.    A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3.    A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.[2]
Nathan, the brilliant billionaire CEO of Bluebook, in the movie Ex Machina, would have saved himself a lot of trouble if he had read these principles of robotics and built them into his own version of the positronic brain.

Arthur C. Clarke, in his novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, wrote about a renegade computer that managed to outsmart a team of astronauts on a mission to one of the moons of Jupiter. The novel became a stunning movie in 1968 under the direction of Stanley Kubrick. The murderous computer, HAL 9000, considers himself a conscious entity and finds that he is afraid when he begins to lose his ability to think.[3]

In the Genesis creation account, we read that “God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them;” and for centuries, theologians and philosophers have been seeking to understand the nature of this imago dei (image of God). We have much yet to learn, but I am convinced that the beginning of wisdom is to take seriously this concept. The more we understand the nature of this image, the greater we will comprehend what it is that makes us truly human. God is a Creator and we are creators. God is in relationship and calls us to be in relationship with him and with others. God is a communicator and we are communicators. God is truth and calls us to truth. God is love and calls us to be love as well.

Whatever the final answers regarding the image of God, we need not fear the AI apocalypse that has been depicted in so many of the stories, movies and writings in our majority culture. God, who created us from the dust of the earth, and created the dust before that, is the ultimate creator and sustainer. He is in control of all life and has set humans to be stewards of His creation. Even as we struggle to achieve this assignment, and sometimes pursue short-cuts to cleaning up the messes we have made, the God of the universe watches us and engages us with gracious concern. May His will be done; for this is what it means to be alive.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Lest We Forget

A portion of "Recessional," a poem by Rudyard Kipling, composed in 1897.
God of our fathers, known of old—
Lord of our far-flung battle line—
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget! 
The tumult and the shouting dies—
The Captains and the Kings depart—
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget! 
Far-called our navies melt away—
On dune and headland sinks the fire—
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!
With "an humble and a contrite heart."

See also Recessional (poem), Wikipedia,

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Darling Lorraine

“Darling Lorraine” is a story-song by Paul Simon that tells of the emotional journey of Lorraine and Frank. By saying “emotional journey,” I mean that Simon is relating the ups and downs, the ecstasies and the miseries in the emotions of their relationship. He could have tracked the logic of the marriage or the history as seen from outside of the relationship; but instead, he follows the ebb and flow of their feelings for each other. It is a captivating window into one couple’s turbulent relationship. Interspersed throughout are insights into how feelings often overrule common sense. It is a cautionary tale of the power of emotions. Dallas Willard said, “Feelings are, with a few exceptions, good servants. But they are disastrous masters.”[1]

"Darling Lorraine"

The first time I saw her
I couldn't be sure
But the sin of impatience
Said "She's just what you're looking for"
So I walked right up to her
And with the part of me that talks
I introduced myself as Frank
From New York,
New York

She's so hot
She's so cool
I'm not
I'm just a fool in love with Darling Lorraine

All my life I've been a wanderer
Not really, I mostly lived near my parent’s home
Anyway Lorraine and I got married
And the usual marriage stuff
Then one day she says to me
From out of the blue
She says, "Frank, I've had enough
Romance is a heart-breaker
I'm not meant to be a homemaker
And I'm tired of being Darling Lorraine"

What!? you don't love me anymore?
What!? you're walking out the door?
What!? you don't like the way I chew?
Hey, let me tell you
You're not the woman that I wed
You say you're depressed but you're not
You just like to stay in bed
I don't need you darling Lorraine
Darling Lorraine
I long for your love

Financially speaking
I guess I'm a washout
Everybody's buy and sell
And sell and buy
That's what the whole thing's all about
If it had not been Lorraine
I'd have left here long ago
I should have been a musician
I love the piano

She's so light
She's so free
I'm tight, well, that's me
But I feel so good
With Darling Lorraine

On Christmas morning Frank awakes
To find Lorraine has made a stack of pancakes
They watch the television, husband and wife
All afternoon "It's a wonderful life"

What!? you don't love me anymore?
What!? you're walking out the door?
What!? you don't like the way I chew?
Hey let me tell you
You're not the woman that I wed
Gimme my robe I'm going back to bed
I'm sick to death of you Lorraine

Darling Lorraine
Her hands like wood
The doctor was smiling
But the news wasn't good

Darling Lorraine
Please don't leave me yet
I know you're in pain
Pain you can't forget
Your breathing is like an echo of our love
Maybe I'll go down to the corner store
And buy us something sweet
Here's an extra blanket honey
To wrap around your feet
All the trees were washed with April rain
And the moon in the meadow
Took Darling Lorraine

Words and music by Paul Simon
Copyright held by Universal Music Publishing Group

Works Cited:

Willard, Dallas. Renovation of the Heart. Carol Stream: NavPress, 2002.

[1] (Willard 2002)