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Femto Photography and Seeing Around Corners: Why Following Jesus Is about Risk

By Derek Penwell

In July, 2012 a scientist from MIT, Ramesh Raskar, gave a Ted Talk on an amazing new innovation in photography. Femto photography films at one trillion frames per second. What this allows scientists to do, for example, is make a time lapse video of the movement of light (which is pretty dang cool on its own merits!). You can watch a burst of light projected from a laser as it shoots through a Coke bottle!

[Note: I realize that’s two exclamation points in two consecutive sentences—a grammatical practice upon which I generally frown, except to say things like “Happy birthday!” or “Congratulations on your Bassett Hound’s successful completion of agility training!”—but this stuff is pretty phenomenal! Oops. Sorry.]

The practical applications of this new technology are even more astounding. For one thing, when a burst of light is shot from a laser, it diffuses when the photons strike an object. Various photons are then reflected back to the source. Using heavy computational power, the scientists are able to stitch together the individual photon speeds to produce a 3-D model of the thing that the light hits.

The ability to produce 3-D models of things struck by a burst of light gets really interesting, however, when you realize that the reflection of light doesn’t have to come from an object in a straight line with the laser. Meaning … you can project the light around obstacles, and the computer will take into account the extra angles of reflection, and still construct an accurate 3-D image.

In other words, it allows you literally to see around the corner—to construct a 3-D image of something you can’t even see! [Again, sorry.] It’s almost like seeing into the future—getting an accurate vision of something before you ever get there.

I like the sound of that idea. It’s not flying or retractable adamantium claws, but it’s still kind of like a super power.

I understand the attraction of seeing around the corner; it’s a great metaphor for predicting the future, of telling you whether a thing will be worth doing.

But here’s the thing: In real life the only way you’ll know if a thing is worth doing is after you’ve already done it, when you look back on it—which is to say, after the toothpaste is already out of the tube.

“Should we let our daughter go on that trip to Europe?”

“Should I pay the electric bill so we don’t freeze, or should I fill my blood pressure medication so I don’t have a stroke?”

“Should I take the new job with exciting potential, or stay in the job where I’m most comfortable?”

“Should I tell my parents and friends I’m gay—risking their love and support, or should I keep it to my myself—risking my sanity?”

How do you know until after you do it?

That’s life. We have to make all sorts of calculations about what to do without enough information about what it will look like when it’s finished, or whether having done it will prove advantageous or harmful.

How do you know until after you do it.

That’s also what life following Jesus looks like. Seeing around the corner would certainly make church planning more effective, for instance. It’d be nice to know whether something is going to work before you had to take a chance on it. Face-saving is what it is.

If you don’t know what you’re getting into when you plan something, you risk failing. And failing is unacceptable to many churches.

Congregations in decline almost always understand church planning to be a matter not of achieving success, but of avoiding failure. Consequently, they tend to stand before decisions trying to do the advanced calculations necessary to see what lies around the corner, refusing to act boldly for fear that something might not work.

“Should we do this?”

“I don’t know.”

“Because if we do, it might not work. We’d be out all that money, plus things like this tend to make Janice mad.”

Flourishing congregations, on the other hand, weigh a decision against past experience, then make a decision. They’ve gotten comfortable with the fact that they will never have everything nailed down before taking the leap. They’ve made peace with the knowledge that everything they try has a pretty good chance of washing out. But they’ve learned to accept the prospect of failure as the cost of doing business.

Flourishing congregations realize that there’s no way to ensure something will work on the front end. They understand that they’ll never know if an idea was a good one until they look back on it, assessing it in the rearview mirror. But the inability to look around the corner to see what’s coming doesn’t prevent them from turning corners they think faithfulness calls them to take. They understand that a life spent following Jesus is an adventure, not a tour.

Before we get there, we’d like to know that where we’re going is where we want to be.

Maybe one day there will be an ecclesiastical version of Femto photography that will make discipleship a surer thing. On the other hand, if discipleship is an adventure, whatever such an innovation might produce, it won’t have much to do with following Jesus.

Honesty Isn't Our Policy

Honesty, as the saying goes, is always the best policy.  If we believe that, the question is: Do we practice it?  Do we live our lives truthfully?  Now, someone might object that telling the truth and living the truth are two different animals.  That is to say, the question of telling the truth without living that truth begs the question about whether it is possible to be Charles Manson (i.e., a complete schmuck) and still speak something approximating the truth, inasmuch as it is argued that the truth is not contingent on anything outside itself to be true.  In other words, one account of the truth maintains that there is something that exists independently, objectively “out there” that is called the “Truth.”  What one needs to do when there exists competing truth claims, goes the thinking, is to appeal to the “objective standard” of “Truth.”

This formula works serviceably well when the question has to do with whether or not 2 + 2 = 4 or whether the population of Louisville is larger than that of Lexington.  If, however, the question raised is whether or not University of Louisville fans are less dedicated fans than University of Kentucky fans or whether or not Christianity is true, to what uncontestable “objective standard” does one appeal?

Absolutism, or the belief, not merely that there is an “absolute truth” but that that “absolute truth” can be apprehended by human beings—if they only “try hard enough”—is a difficult argument to sustain, just to the extent that it is possible to have two reasonably intelligent, reasonably passionate, reasonably sincere individuals disagree on where to go to find the absolute truth that will settle their argument.  Should they look in the Bible?  The Koran?  The Bhagavad-Gita?  The DaVinci Code?  Dr. Phil?  The periodic table of elements? Who gets to decide what’s true?  Or where do we expect to find the true account of truth to which everyone will defer?  Absolutism runs the risk in the end of only being able to communicate by monologue.

“Does that mean,” as many will quickly ask, “that everything is relative?  That there are no standards of truth to which we may appeal?  Do we throw our hands up in the air because there is finally no way to adjudicate between competing truth claims?”  No.  Relativism, as a set of truth claims, collapses under its own weight.  As James McClendon has pointed out: “As a general theory [relativism] seems to ask us to believe (a) that it is (in general) true, and (b) that nothing is (in general) true—and both can’t be the case” (Ethics: Systematic Theology, Abingdon, 1986, 350). Relativism as a theory of knowledge is logically absurd—or should we say, it’s only relatively true—whatever that means.

Therefore, to assert that honesty is the best policy is only to have begun the discussion, not to have settled it.  If absolutism is problematic and relativism is logically indefensible, how are we supposed to talk about truth?  Or as Pilate put the question to Jesus, “What is truth?” (John 18:38)

When asked “What is truth?” how did Jesus respond?  We are left to assume that Jesus said nothing, because Pilate immediately left Jesus and went outside to address the Jews.  Why didn’t Jesus say, “The truth is x, y, and z, and you would know that if you only studied your _______?”  Or why didn’t Jesus say, “Truth is such a slippery subject, I’m not sure we ought to waste time trying to nail it down to a single definition.  After all, all definitions are ultimately equal?”  In fact Jesus let the silence hang in the air, as if to say, “If you want to know what truth is, look at me.  I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

In a world in which we seem incapable of sustaining a conversation about truth between faith systems, perhaps the only way we have of judging their truthfulness is by observing the kinds of people they produce.  It seems to me that the only way we have of judging the truthfulness of a particular set of truth claims is by examining whether, and to what extent, there exists a people capable of embodying those claims.  That is to say, are the people named by a particular truth claim living the truth to which they appeal, or more to the point, are they living truthfully?  Do people who claim to follow Jesus, for example, live in ways that honor Jesus’ commitments?  Or, as Samuel Wells remarks: “Pragmatic tests of Christianity focus on Christian tradition and the ‘richness of moral character’ it produces in much the same way that science judges its theories by the fruitfulness of the activities they generate, and significant works of art become so in the light of the interpretation and criticism that surround them” (Transforming Fate into Destiny, Cascade Books, 1998, 86).

If I am right that the only real way to decide between two truth-claims from competing systems of belief is to look to the sorts of communities of character they produce, and if the only way to judge communities of character is by whether they produce people capable of living the claims they espouse, then living truthfully is the only way to establish the truth of those claims.  Put another way, brick-layers lay brick, cooks cook, and Christians live like Jesus.  Clearly, not everyone who wears the name has mastered all the practices necessary to be named a master craftsman in these crafts, but the shape of one’s life is determined by one’s commitment to living faithfully with the name—brick-layer, cook, Christian.  It is, after all, possible to take any of those names in vain by failing to practice, or practicing poorly, the disciplines of each craft.

However, when practiced well the very product of the craft (i.e., the wall, the cake, the life) stands as legitimating evidence of the value and veracity of the craft.  Consequently, for Christians, living truthfully isn’t only a matter of practicing the craft of Christianity well; it is the very means by which the truthfulness of Christianity is judged in a world where truth claims abound and compete.  In other words, speaking the truth is the product of a truthful life.

The Hands of a Living God

“It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31).

“We die and we die and we die, not only physically—within seven years every cell in our body is renewed—but emotionally and spiritually as change seizes us by the scruff of the neck and drags us forward into another life. We are not here simply to exist. We are here in order to become” (Susan Howatch, Absolute Truths).

The writer of Hebrews writes a letter to a community that was apparently on the verge of reconsidering its commitment to Christ. The author uses an extended argument to demonstrate to the reader that living as a Christian, as painful as it might be because of institutionalized persecution, is superior to their former lives. Commitment to Jesus surpasses all other attempts at worshiping God. Apparently, however, the readers of the letter to the Hebrews were having second thoughts, and were beginning to abandon their faith in Christ in favor of their former attachments.

The Hebrews’ writer writes: “How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved by those who have spurned the Son of God, profaned the blood of the covenant by which they were sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of Grace?” (Heb. 10:29). In effect, the Hebrews writer says, “You can’t go back.”

Let’s be honest: there are times when each of us wishes our faith didn’t ask as much from us. We wind up organizing church events for people who don’t come. We have to get out of bed on our only day off. We can’t do all the things that television causes to look so appetizing. Then we start to think that our faith is certainly cumbersome, not allowing us to do all the things we’d like. And we wonder what life would be like if we didn’t have God telling us what to do all the time, which we guiltily admit to ourselves sounds pretty good.

Prayer starts to come harder. We begin to think of places where we can get a better return on our hard-earned money. Lies come easier. We find an unlimited number of excuses for being away from the Lord’s Table.

God, this whole faith thing is costing an awful lot more than I expected. Can’t we just tone it down some? No sense being fanatical about it, is there? I thought faith was supposed to help me feel better about myself.

All of a sudden, we hear the echoes of the Hebrew writer saying, “You can’t turn back. You can’t return to the security of your former life, because you died and your life is hidden now in Christ. You must stay the course. You must grow.”
“But it asks so much of me.”

“We are not here simply to exist. We are here in order to become.”

“I don’t know if I’ll survive the changes God requires of me.”

“One thing’s for sure: you won’t survive not changing—because not changing is, by definition, death.”

“But, I’m afraid.”

“It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of a living God.”

Integrity Can Be Lonely

“All of them deserted him and fled” (Mark 14:51).

I was reading an article not long ago about a famous preacher. One of his admirers made the comment that one could tell this preacher’s ministry had “integrity” by virtue of the number of people in his church (50 bazillion people, or some other astronomical number). I often hear something closely approximating that same sentiment from well-meaning church folk. I was talking to a colleague on the phone awhile back, when the topic of one of this state’s “premiere” evangelists arose (I’m not sure how “premiere” qualifies as a theological descriptor). He said: “Well, look how many people he draws. He must be doing something right.” To which I replied, “Obviously, he’s doing something right — but it may or may not have anything to do with God, or faithfulness, or discipleship.”

I was taken aback by the assumptions underlying such a statement, that is, that God is most intensely present in the large, the successful, the well-attended. I am amazed that people who read the Bible are still naïve enough to make comments to the effect that the bigger the church, the more “integrity” is in evidence. If mere size is the only criterion for judging faithfulness, then Jim Jones had more integrity, was blessed in richer fashion than 99% of the ministers in the world. If size is what God uses to show us who is doing a better job at proclaiming the Gospel, then the bozos on televisions who preside over vast broadcasting empires are, by definition, closer to the kingdom of heaven than the rest of us laboring in tiny, “unblessed” congregations lacking “integrity.”

On the other hand, that leaves us in pretty good company—I mean, what with Jesus dying abandoned and alone—presumably stripped of his blessedness and integrity. (His ministry fell on hard times. I imagine it was hard to make budget after Good Friday.) Where did we get the idea that if it is getting bigger, God must be in the middle of it? Is God to be found in the market analysis? If popularity is the standard by which faithfulness in ministry is judged, then Jesus is not the person we ought to hold up as the standard-bearer for our vocation. Because Jesus nailed all that hooey about popularity and big crowds and succeeding according to this world’s standards on a cross one Friday afternoon. Tell Jesus how blessed he was as you stare into his face on the cross. (Just try not to get any blood on yourself. It can get messy being a Christian.)

That is not to say that the Gospel doesn’t have appeal; it does. But any appeal that Jesus has has to do with losing our lives, with turning the other cheek, with the first being last, with forgiving our enemies and those who persecute us, with selling all that we have and giving it to the poor, with dropping our nets and all the things the world says we need to be successful, in order to pick up our crosses and follow him. (Try selling that stuff with your anointed prayer cloths. “User-friendly God,” indeed.) The appeal of Jesus is to the last, the least, the lost, and the dead—presumably because they are the only ones who know that they aren’t successful enough to sail in under their own steam. At least in the gospels, it is precisely the big religious muckity-mucks that Jesus avoids like the plague. Jesus isn’t impressed with toothy smiles, blow-dried hair, and healthy Neilsen ratings. He spends his time with those that this world has declared losers.

Jesus doesn’t call us to succeed; he calls us to die. Success is his alone; and alone is how he died. Sometimes, integrity can be lonely.

Sermon Podcast: "The Trouble with Forgiveness" (Matthew 18:21–35)

On the tenth anniversary of 9/11/01, Rev. Penwell preaches a gospel of forgiveness.

There are no easy answers.

Maybe that's the good news.

Click the link below for the sermon audio or just subscribe to our podcast in iTunes and you won't miss a single sermon…

"The Trouble with Forgiveness" by Rev. Derek Penwell

Tying It All Together

 When God created us, God gave us a special gift unique to human beings.  It has to do with our ability to think.  Of course, other animals can think—they have a sort of rationality we recognize.  What sets humans apart is our ability to think about thinking.  Put differently, we have an awareness that ties our past, present, and future together in, what we experience as, a long and consistent chain of consciousness.  Not only do we have memories, for instance, we can recall those memories, enjoy them, study them, and in some ways re-live them as often as we need to.  It is our memories that give us the wisdom we need to flourish in the present, and the confidence that our lives will continue to have meaning in the future.

The church, from its earliest days, has recognized the need to be intentional about attending to memory.  Every Sunday we eat a meal that recalls for us the saving love of God that has formed us into the people we are—which calls attention to a larger, but often unremarked truth: communities have memories.  And community memory must be just as assiduously attended as our personal memories.  In fact, we say that the table set by Lord is a table of remembrance.  Every time we gather around that table we set about the practice of remembering.  But a big part of what communion accomplishes goes beyond rehearsing the story of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection—as important as that is.  As the body of Christ, every time we come to the table we not only remember, but we re-member everyone who gathers around the table with us, past, present, and future.  In other words, the body of Christ consists of all those members who not only spread across the globe, but who spread across time.  We are who we are because of those who’ve gone before, and those whose way we are presently preparing.

Douglass Boulevard Christian Church has a memory that stretches over parts of three centuries.  At present we‘re experiencing feelings of great anticipation about what the future holds.  We’ve had many new faces in our midst who lead us to think about the possibilities ahead of us, and that alert us to God’s movement in our community.  It’s an exciting time to be at DBCC.

But as aware of the future as we are, we cannot leave the past behind.  As William Faulkner said, “The past isn’t dead.  It isn’t even past.”  That is no less true in the church, where, surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, we’re aware that who we are is inexorably linked to who we’ve been.  As we chart new courses, discerning God’s future, it’s important to remind ourselves that we’re not departing from or abandoning our past, we’re extending it.  That is to say, we’re carrying it with us everywhere we go, with everything we do (whether we want to or not).  The new kinds of ministries we’re engaged in at DBCC aren’t a departure from, but a continuation of the kinds of ministries we’ve always been engaged in—social justice, spirituality, compassion, and education.  We are busy carrying on the tradition that was lovingly stewarded, then handed down to us by those who came before.

On the surface, what we do may look different from what we’ve done in the past, but at its heart, our first responsibility—which is to to equip disciples for the reign of God—remains the same; and it ties together our past, our present, and our future.

Sermon Podcast: "Treat 'em Like Gentiles"

Here's this weeks's sermon podcast, "Treat 'em Like Gentiles" delivered by Rev. Derek Penwell:

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Treat ‘em Like Gentiles (Matt. 18:15–20)

We live in a society that’s grown increasingly permissive. That’s not news to you, right? Scandals in politics, in the church. Corruption. Violence. Treachery. You stay out of my business, and I’ll stay out of yours.

We’ve come a long way down some very undesirable roads, both as a nation and as a church. With the media and liberal preachers forever expounding on the virtues of “tolerance and diversity,” we bought into the lie that it doesn’t matter what I do, as long as nobody gets hurt. And the logical conclusion of such an argument is that nobody (and I mean nobody) better tell me how I’m supposed to live. How I choose to live my life is my decision, it’s between God and me. Butt out!

Of course, it hasn’t always been that way. There was a time when the needs of the community superseded the demands of the individual. But to say that today is to be labeled a socialist. There was a time, however, when the church had authority, and that authority meant something. And with all the permissiveness in our culture, it doesn’t seem too outrageous to think that the church might move to regain some of that authority. It has to do something. The church can’t stand idly by while everything deteriorates. There has to be accountability somewhere.

Sermon Podcast: "The Gates of Hell"

Rev. Derek Penwell preaches on Matthew 16 13–21, in which Simon Peter first articulates the disciples' belief that Jesus is "the Messiah, Son of the Living God."

In this passage, it's clear that Jesus sees a church playing offense--marching on the gates of Hell. After establishing that he's uncomfortable with martial metaphors for the reign of God, Rev. Penwell asks what weapons are we to use? The answer is in the passage following today's gospel, Matthew 16:21: "From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised."

Suffering, sacrifice, and death are the weapons of Christians. That is, as Christians we must be prepared to stand beside the oppressed and marginalized and receive the same blows they do.

It's all we've got. It's enough.

Click the link below for the sermon audio or just subscribe to our podcast in iTunes and you won't miss a single sermon…  

"The Gates of Hell" by Rev. Penwell

I'm a Minister

I’m a minister.  Which is to say, I work as a minister in a church.  Historically, I’ve found myself reluctant to offer that bit of information in casual conversation, not because ministry occupies a position inherently more shameful than a host of other vocational options, but because when people find out that I’m a minister they either want me to answer their questions about I watch TBN, or they want to impart some theological nugget they’ve mined from The Prayer of Jabez or The Left Behind series.  Please don’t misunderstand—I like questions.  In fact I entered the ministry because of some of the questions I had about life and its ultimate meaning.  My problem lies not in questions in themselves, but in questions about whether or not I believe that the World Council of Churches, Democratic politicians, and certain cartoon characters on prime time television form a shady cabal intent on ushering in the anti-Christ and a one-world government—complete with standard issue UPC codes emblazoned on everyone’s forehead, or whether I’ve finally come to my senses and realized that mega-churches are the goal of God’s reign here on earth.

The fact is I like being a minister, in large part, because of the conversations that attach to a life spent following such a strange, quixotic, compelling character as Jesus.  The conversations, however, that seem to me to be important to have center on questions of justice, non-violence, grace, faithfulness, friendship, and devotion, rather than the sort of mass-produced fare provided by a popular religious culture that asks nothing more of Christians than that they act nice, refrain from swearing in public, and support any military action proposed by the American government as, ipso facto, God’s will.

To put a finer point on it, I like being a minister at Douglass Boulevard Christian Church.  I’m blessed to belong to a community of faith that takes seriously our call to live out the example of Jesus in the best way we know how.  DBCC is a community unafraid to take a chance on following Jesus down a dark alley.  I like that.  I like the sense of adventure I find at DBCC, as well as the adventurous thoughts I have when I think about what we can do together.

I guess this is all a long way of saying that my thoughts about ministry have evolved since coming to Douglass.  Many of the things I do don’t even feel particularly like work.  In fact, now when I’m asked what I do, I tell people I’m a minister at this really great church that seeks justice for the marginalized, that provides embrace for those who’ve been excluded, that looks into the eyes of the forgotten and says, “You’re welcome here.”  Though we’re not perfect, we are constantly looking for ways to grow and be better.

I’m a minister.  I just thought you should know.

"The Mercy of Bread" (Matthew 15:21–28)

Back from vacay, Derek preaches on the Canaanite woman with a demon-afflicted daughter who has the audacity to approach Jesus. In other words, he preaches about marginalization.

Our culture is so good at teaching us who we can safely ignore, but coming to the table each week reminds us that no one can ever be expendable again.


Click the link below for the sermon audio or just subscribe to our podcast in iTunes and you won't miss a single sermon…

"The Mercy of Bread" by Rev. Derek Penwell

Mary Ann Lewis: "What If..."

Both Derek and Ryan are on vacation, so DBCC has a chance to hear from Rev. Mary Ann Lewis, one of the (many) ministers in our pews each Sunday.

Preaching on Matthew 14:22–33, Rev. Lewis reminds us that God doesn’t expect us to walk on water; but, God does expect us to get out of the boat and serve as God’s partner in the continuing unfolding of creation.

Despite our fears (of failure, of loss of agency), the right question isn’t “What happens if we do?” The right question is, “What happens if I don’t?”

We must make room in our hearts for the claim of God on our own lives.

Derek and Ryan should leave town more often! This is a great sermon.

Click the link below for the sermon audio or just subscribe to our podcast in iTunes and you won't miss a single sermon…

"What If..." by Rev. Mary Ann Lewis

Who's Steering This Thing?

"Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth.  Serve the LORD with fear, with trembling kiss his feet, or he will be angry, and you will perish in the way; for his wrath is quickly kindled.  Happy are all who take refuge in him" (Psalm 2:10-12).

In the uncertainty leading up to an agreement on raising the debt ceiling, the financial markets have taken a hit.  As I write this the Wall Street Journal is reporting that the Dow Jones is posting its "first seven session slide since July 2010."  Republicans and Democrats are fighting it out to to see who will be able to claim to represent "what the American people" want.  What bothers me, though, is that while both are laying claim to exceptional financial vision, they will try to situate themselves as having been right all along, while both will say that the other side of the aisle has been hopelessly tone-deaf to the needs of "the American people," and is therefore incapable of managing the ship of state.  Inherent in such a political argument is that somebody, or some party of somebodies is ultimately in control—that all that stands between us and happiness and prosperity is the right political representation and the silencing of the opponent.  Precious time is wasted while the parties speak about their ability to exert dominion over the economy.  I hope the irony doesn’t escape us.

I love to feel in control.  I imagine, therefore, that other people feel this way.  Further, I imagine that people who have power are prone to feeling this way (which is probably why they got into the power business in the first place).  The illusion that we can ultimately order our world in such a way as to preclude inconveniences like poverty, crime, racism, discrimination, and danger is presumptuous at best, and idolatrous at worst.  We live and move and have our being in ways that suggest we have conjured up life, movement, and existence by our own initiative — by having such things as a sound domestic policy and a strong military.  We have repeatedly failed to see that life itself is a gift.  We have no more real control over our world than we have over God.

And maybe that is the point: We think perhaps that by our tireless organizing and speculating and legislating that we can finally impose order on God — and in the process become (of sorts) gods ourselves.  The problem with that, of course, is that God is even more stubborn about maintaining control than we are.

Thank goodness for that.

Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth.

"You Give Them Something to Eat"

Returning from the church's mission trip to Casa Hogar children's home in San Luis Potosi, Rev. Derek Penwell delivers "You Give Them Something to Eat," a sermon based on Matthew 14:13-21.

Loaves, fishes, transactional equity, and Al Sharpton. Hang on tight!

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"You Give Them Something to Eat" by Rev. Derek Penwell