“Why Do You Believe? The Challenge For Faith Today”

Thoughts for April 12, 2015, the 2nd Sunday of Easter (A)

I realized during the services on Sunday, April 12th, that I was subconsciously channeling the Gospel reading from John (where Thomas questions the Resurrection but only because he had not seen the evidence) in this piece. Funny how things work out.

This isn’t about what you believe, it is about why you believe. Even atheists must have some sort of belief system for even saying that you do not believe creates a belief system. (Always remember that no page is ever completely blank and the subset of no numbers contains something.) So why do you believe?

I believe in God because I see His presence in the many faiths and cultures which attribute creation to a Supreme Being. God may have many names but only one identity. I believe in God because, as Dr. Francis Collins noted in a recent interview, I see His existence in the beauty of the world around us and in the vastness and intricacies of the universe in which we reside.

And there are those questions which come from what we know. We know that, based on the evidence we have today, the creation of the universe occurred some 13 billion years ago.

This means two things; first, how did we arrive at that particular length of time? This answer, along with other answers are derived from the physical evidence left behind. This means that our lives require an understanding of science.

But even in knowing that the universe began 13 billion years ago, we still don’t know why there was a creation or what caused it . And no matter whether the creation was an accident, a fortuitous event, a coincidence, or even if the universe has always been hear, we have to ask how it all happened. And, for me, that implies the Hand of God.

Now, it should be noted that own thoughts on this matter have developed over the years and are a by-product of both my secular and sectarian education. But it should also be noted that this self-study seems to run counter to current societal beliefs that say we should let others decide for us what it is that we are to believe and that we don’t need to seek further answers to such questions.

And there are those, on both sides of the spectrum, who will tell you what to believe. And they will tell you that there are no alternatives.

Such approach, of a fixed and inflexible answer, does not allow for creativity and while it may provide the answers for questions that may have already been asked, they do little to find answers to questions that haven’t been asked. And there are gaps in the knowledge such fixed answers provide.

The answers to such questions, the ones to fill the gaps or solve new problems, can only come from each individual. One can offer suggestions as to what the answers might be but it is still each person’s responsibility to seek the answers.

Personally, I think that leaves in you in the greatest position possible because now you have the opportunity to explore and determine the outcome for your life. But where do you go to find your answers, what questions do you ask, and ultimately how do you seek the truth?

The good news is that we can do this but we have to step back for a moment and think about how we learn. Right now, our learning process is more memorization than anything else. There is a place for memorization in the education process but simply memorizing things doesn’t lead to creativity and analysis; it only provides the basis for doing that.

As I have studied the Book of Revelation and considered what it might mean, I often envisioned what it might have been like were John the Seer, the author, to live in today’s society and offer the vision the same vision he provided in his Book of Revelation. I think that we would most likely label him crazy and/or weird and possibly wonder what type of drugs he might have been taking.

But if we had studied or understood what was taking place at the time he was writing this interesting closing volume of the Bible, we would arrive at a different conclusion from that of those late 19th and early 20th century fundamentalist who see it as the prophecy of doom for today’s society.

When Jesus gave what some call the Great Commission, he gave those who heard His words the task of making those they would encounter disciples. But disciples are not simply followers of the Teacher, they are students as well. And students are taught what to believe, not told what to believe.

Each book of the New Testament, from the four Gospels through the letters of Paul to the Seer’s Revelation, was written for the people of their time, to tell them what took place those three years in the Galilee. But it wasn’t written as a history but a telling of the story, so that others would also come to know what happened.

The authors of the Gospels wrote the Gospels in such a way to make sure that we understood that things changed when Jesus walked the roads of the Galilee and a group of people followed and listened and then carried on that same mission.

So I believe in part because I was taught and because I was given the freedom to seek more information about Christ. When we accept Christ as our personal savior, when we begin to believe as so many before of us have done, then we accept the challenge, to teach others what Christ taught us.

I believe, not because I have seen the wounds in Jesus’ hands, feet, and side but because I have been allowed to seek Christ and I have found Him.

“The Meaning Of This Day”

Today is April 4th. It is that day between Good Friday and Easter. Some call it “Black Saturday”, others don’t call it anything at all. I have never understood why, from at least a liturgical standpoint, we don’t do anything on this day. I wrote a piece entitled “The Missing Day” a few years ago that tried to put into words what I thought took place that day (I have since tried to turn it into a play and if you are interested, let me know).

But the significance of this day is not just in its place on the liturgical calendar. Next year, because of the uniqueness of the Easter calendar, this missing day will March 26. It will still be the day between Good Friday and Easter but it will not have the same significance as today, April 4th, might have to some, myself included.

On this day in 1969 I would have been either on my way from Kirksville, Missouri, to Memphis, Tennessee, or already in Memphis for Easter/spring break. I would have in my possession two books, Letters of a C. O. from Prison (Timothy W. L. Zimmer, The Judson Press, Valley Forge, 1969) and Faith In A Secular Age (Colin Williams, First Harper ChapelBook, Harper & Row, 1966).

These books were given to me by Reverend Marvin Fortel, my pastor at the 1st United Methodist Church of Kirksville, after our meeting and communion the day before I left for Memphis. I have read and used the Faith book so much that is has fallen apart and is held together by a strong paper clip. Reverend Fortel gave these books to me to help me understand some questions I had about the role of faith in society and what path I might take. ((I first published my account of this conversation and what happened on that spring break trip home in That First Baptism”; the details of the conversation itself were first published in Our Father’s House”.)

But the meaning of this day goes back one more year, to April 4, 1968, when I was a senior at Bartlett High School in Memphis, Tennessee. It was on this day that Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot, shot for speaking out for the sanitation workers on strike in Memphis and for speaking out for equality, both racial and economic. As I have written elsewhere, I have no doubt that Dr. King would have also spoken out for gender equality as well. (My thoughts on this day are posted on “Where Were You On April 4, 1968?” and “On This Day”).

The meaning of this day in 2015 is perhaps an understanding that we haven’t moved towards the goals that were so clearly envisioned that spring in 1968, both in what took place in Memphis, and on the political trails with Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy. Sadly, the political vision that Robert Kennedy offered this country that spring will also be cut down by an assassin’s bullet some two months after Dr. King was assassinated.

We live in a society where the rich demand favors and politicians are so quick to give. We live in a society where many people think that the rich will share the wealth with them so that they too can be rich. We have accepted as economic truth that the wealth of the view will somehow trickle down to the masses but we fail to see the flow of money only goes one way and that is to the rich and not the poor.

We live in a society where you are not allowed to be who you are and often times assumed to be less than others because of the color of your skin or the nature of your relationships with others. We are quickly finding out that bigotry, racism, and inequality are the norms of society and not the outliers.

We live in a society where many people see religion and faith as either superstitious or antiquated thinking and others do everything in their power to ensure that view remains. I am not sure where we are going when faith and what one believes does more to harm than it does for good.

In 1968, we were just beginning to understand the role humans played in the care and upkeep of the environment. In 1969, the Cuyahoga River would once again catch fire and while as damaging as an earlier fire in 1952 (it turns out that the Cuyahoga River has had a history of catching on fire, dating back to 1868), would help us to understand, what it was that we were doing to the environment.

And yet today, there are those who would refute the evidence that shows what mankind is doing to its home planet, for to accept the evidence would mean a change in how we live.

As 1968 ended and 1969 began, we were on the verge of walking on the moon. There were those who envisioned the possibilities of moving beyond the moon and to the planets and perhaps the stars. But we stopped going to the moon and the vision of traveling to the stars is often only seen on television and in the movies.

We seem unwilling to create schools that produce thinkers and visionaries because such processes open the eyes of the youth to the truths of society. Education was once the means by which we could move forward; I am not sure what it has become today.

How long can we continue to live in a world where ignorance and greed dominate our thinking and, in the end, destroy not only mankind but the world on which we live?

What is the meaning of this day in 2015? For some, this day is the beginning of Passover and marks the beginning of the path to freedom. For some, myself included, this day is the day before Christ’s Resurrection and the triumph over sin and death. It too is the beginning of the path to freedom.

I hope that you will pause this day and begin to think about how it is that you can work for freedom and justice. This is not a day to keep the past as the present but to work so that the future can be reached.

“So You Want To Be President?”

Ann and I watched a documentary on Robert Kennedy the other night on YouTube (link). It was first presented on the American Experience series on PBS and it was, in view of the fact that the 2016 Presidential campaign has now officially started, worth watching.

Some of the points expressed in this documentary are worth noting. First, it showed Robert Kennedy growing as a politician and moving from the hard and fixed views of the 1950s to a more nuanced understanding of the problems of the 60s. And yet, he never lost his moral compass; in fact, it was that compass that drove him to understand the needs of the poor, the disenfranchised, and the forgotten people of this country and the world. It was that moral compass that lead him to question our policies in Viet Nam, knowing full well that there were going to be those who would point out he was one of the architects of that very policy. But, in the end, he could justify the morality of war.

It was noted that he didn’t really like the welfare system in place at that time but it was also noted he worked to get companies involved creating jobs and investing in the people who needed the jobs the most.

He challenged the privileged classes of this country to literally get out of their country club environments and move to where the people were (look up the speech he gave to medical students Ball State University the morning Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated; see “To Build a New Community” for a link to references of that speech). He challenged governments to change their policies of oppression (his trip to South Africa when apartheid still ruled – “Suppose God Is Black”).

On the night when Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, the Indianapolis police didn’t want him to go to a scheduled rally in one of the black sections of town. The police felt that they could not protect him but he went anyway. And it was Robert Kennedy who told the people assembled there that Dr. King had been murdered. The people gathered left in peace and returned home. And because of what he said that night, a night when violence erupted in over 100 cities across this country, there was peace in Indianapolis.

Being President is more than responding the demands of a select few; it is responding to the needs of all the people of this country. Please consider what Robert Kennedy did and tried to do in 1968 to bring this country, divided by economy, war, and race together, and do the same.

My Grandfather’s Diary – The Last Entry

I should have posted this a couple of weeks ago. This is the final entry in my grandfather’s (Colonel Walter L. Mitchell, Sr., USA) diary.

It was dated April 29, 1933 (Saturday) and was a summary of the family’s activities over the previous year. Most telling are his comments concerning the state of the nation.

On March 4 (1932), as is already know we had our new President, F. D. Roosevelt, assume office. I wonder just what he is going to accomplish. He most surely has many hard nuts to crack and problems to solve. I am afraid we are headed from some very serious internal as well as external trouble. Would not dare to hazard a guess as to what is going to happen. Many people out of work. No business. Little money. Stocks failing. International squabbles. Disarmament. Arming of some nations. The aggression of Japan into China’s provinces, all tend to bewilder and no logical line of reasoning can be had.

We (of the Army) are faced (so says rumor) with a probability of having some 2000 officers “furloughed”. This is a new wrinkle and comes at a very inopportune time. The plan, according to rumor, is that the 2000 would be furloughed at ½ pay. The government does not to retire them on ¾, it wants to save ltn (not sure what he meant here) ¼ in their pay and yet have them available when needed. Not much of a reward for 20 years in the Army, if I should be one of them.

We have already had our pay cut to where I am getting $82.00 less a month than I should (at this point, my grandfather had been in the army 15 years and was a Captain in the Infantry).

I have always found what my grandfather wrote concerning the state of the nation on the occasion of Roosevelt’s inauguration very interesting. Our studies of history tell us about the international troubles but we tend to gloss over the problems within our own country.

To Learn Or Not To Learn

On a number of past occasions, I have made the comment, or at least implied, that we are slowly, inexorably becoming dumb. We may know a lot of facts but we can’t seem to connect the dots. And instead of pushing for improving the situation, we seem bound and determine to keep getting dumber and dumber.

I noted awhile back that there is a great deal of opposition to the idea of the Common Core. There seems to be a belief, without substantiation, that this was a project of the Federal Government forced upon the various states. At least one Republican Senator has called for the abolition of the law mandating the adoption of the Common Core as a set of standards. In one sense, that is a great rallying cry for those in opposition to the Common Core but there is a problem. There is no such law at the Federal level!

And to call for the abolition of a law that doesn’t exist is only matched by the level of ignorance we have concerning other countries and cultures. Consider, as one example, another Republican Senator who does not know the name of the capital of a country he fears is going to have nuclear weapons unless he leads a charge to prevent it, in the process violating the United States Constitution.

Were it not for our own general ignorance of other countries and cultures, that may seem a little ludicrous. But it is just symptomatic of the general educational level in this country.

Our knowledge of science and technology is such that we do not understand the basic facts of science and are quite willing to allow others with no scientific background whatsoever to dictate what will be taught in the classroom, and excuse me for adding this, from the pulpit as well.

I am trying very hard to complete a project dealing with the science behind the creation, not in some manner to justify the words of Genesis nor in any sort of manner to deny the words of Genesis, but rather offer an understanding of what has taken place over the past 14 million years or so.

I am not bothered by the statistics that tell me most people accept the Genesis version of creation. What that tells me is that if anything about evolution and creation were taught in high school, it has long been forgotten. Which supports, I believe, my contention that we are getting dumber. Second, from a sectarian viewpoint, there seems to be a dichotomy between those who accept the Biblical story and church attendance, but that is a point to be raised at another time.

More to the point, there is a serious lack of knowledge, both about what is creation and then evolution, and how long the argument has been going on. I would think that most people probably feel that this argument has been taking place from perhaps the very beginning of time (excuse the pun).

For the most part, the present day debate between evolution and creation has its roots in the rise of Christian fundamentalism in the late 19th and early 20th century. That is not too say that there haven’t been arguments about the nature of the words in Genesis.

I have discovered that even 1900 years ago, there were church leaders, philosophers, and theologians telling the people that words of Genesis 1 – 2 were more allegorical than literal. And that over the years, other church leaders, philosophers, and theologians have repeated the same thoughts. Even John Wesley held the idea that there was more to the words of Genesis than what was written in those first two chapters.

He wrote,

The inspired penman in this history [Genesis] … [wrote] for the Jews first and, calculating his narratives for the infant state of the church, describes things by their outward sensible appearances, and leaves us, by further discoveries of the divine light, to be led into the understanding of the mysteries couched under them (John Wesley, Wesley’s Notes on the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Francis Asbury Press, 1987), 22, quoted in Falk, Coming to Peace, 35. Also available online at John Wesley, “John Wesley’s Notes on the Bible,” Wesley Center Online (accessed Oct 21, 2011).

Wesley also argued that the scriptures “were written not to gratify our curiosity [of the details] but to lead us to God.” (John Wesley, A Survey of the Wisdom of God in the Creation: or, A Compendium of Natural Philosophy, 3rd ed. (London: J. Fry, 1777), 2:463, quoted in Falk, Coming to Peace, 35; cited in http://biologos.org/questions/early-interpretations-of-genesis)

There will come a time when we will find that our ignorance will be our downfall. If we are not willing to explore the unknown, we will be unable to solve the problems that will face this world in the coming days. And if we are not willing to seek a better understanding of who God is and our relationship with Him, then our own lives may not have much promise.