“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.

“How Will I Know?”


Laws have been passed that say that I don’t have to serve someone in my place of business if in doing so it goes against my religious beliefs.

But how will I know if that person or persons is doing something that goes against my religious beliefs? Will I now have to ask everyone who comes to my place of business if their activities in the past or present or even in the future will somehow go against what I believe?

I know that Jesus often told those He met during the course of His ministry to go and sin no more but I don’t recall Him ever asking anyone what it was that caused them to be a sinner. I don’t recall Him questioning the individual who hung next to Him on Golgotha as to the reason why he and the other individual were hanging there with Him. All He did was forgive him and allow him to enter into Heaven.

In fact, the only ones who seemed upset when Jesus even so much as talked to the sinners of the community were the religious and political leaders.

So how will I know who to serve and who not to serve? Wouldn’t it just be better if I did as my Lord and Savior did and treat everyone the same, with equal love and concern for the well-being, even if they do not return the love?

How Come Easter Isn’t the Same Date Every Year?


DrTony:

Here is a very interesting discussion on why Easter is never the same date two years in a row (and a challenge to remember your math skills before there was a calculator).

Originally posted on A Grace-Filled Life:

Since we have the date of Jesus’ birth (December 25) as a set date on the calendar, why isn’t Easter handled the same way? I am sure that for almost everyone it is a real challenge to figure out the month and day for our Easter celebration. Maybe the following will help clear it up. This comes from the web site of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod:

Q:  During our Bible study this past Sunday, someone asked how Easter can be on a different Sunday every year. Pastor said it had to do with the aligning of the moon, but didn’t know the exact reason why. Can you please explain how Easter Sunday is selected every year and the theological reasoning behind it?

A:  When it comes to figuring out the date for Easter, there is really no simpler way than just looking at the calendar for the upcoming year. But…

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Transfiguration Sunday or Evolution Weekend?


Transfiguration Sunday or Evolution Weekend?

This was supposed to have been posted on Sunday February 15th, but things sort of got in the way.

On the church liturgical calendar, this Sunday is Transfiguration Sunday. On the secular calendar, this is Evolution Weekend. Before I get into my thoughts about the nature and significance of this day, let me first identify three organizations that focus on the interaction of faith and science (I have put a link to each group on the side of my blog)

  • WesleyNexus
  • BioLogos
  • Clergy Letter project

While the title of this piece suggests that one has to make a choice about what to write about (or perhaps preach), for me, it really isn’t that way. As I hope to lay out before you, both are equally important for me.

Transfiguration Sunday focus on the change that Peter, James, and John saw in Jesus that speaks to the true nature of Jesus as the Messiah and the Christ.

Evolution Weekend focuses on the fact that February 12 is Charles Darwin’s birthday; it is an event that has taken place for the past ten years or so and looks at the relationship between science and faith (or at least it does for me).

From that viewpoint, these are mutually exclusive events. But I see a common thread in the two events.

In the Scripture readings for this Sunday, Jesus is seen by Peter, James, and John to have been transfigured or transformed, covered with a bright line and seen by the three disciples to be accompanied by Moses and Elijah. Perhaps the meaning of this is to let Peter, James, and John know that Jesus is really the Messiah and things are going to be changing in the next few days.

This moment, first experienced some two thousand years ago by three men, is a moment that we all have in some form or another when we accept Christ as our personal Savior. It is a moment when we truly understand what Jesus did for us two thousand years ago and what He does for us even today.

But I fear that too many people don’t truly understand what this moment means. They fail to take advantage of this opportunity. They lived their lives totally unchanged, continue to believe and live as they did before Christ came into their lives. They may acknowledge that Christ is the Savior but they do not offer the proof. They still see things as they were and not has they might or will be (thinking of the G. B. Shaw quote that Robert Kennedy so often used).

Look at Peter’s initial response to build three monuments; this represented the traditional thinking of the time. Every encounter with God up until that moment is fixed in time and place by some sort of stone monument. This is not what Jesus wants His disciples to do; rather, I think that He wanted them to see their lives in a new way.

Our encounter with Christ and its life changing quality need not be like Saul’s encounter on the road to Damascus (though there are many who would say that is the only type of valid encounter). But, however we encounter and acknowledge Christ, we have to understand that our lives change, as Saul’s did when he became Paul. If our lives do not change, the encounter with Christ may prove to be limited in its effect.

Early on in my teaching career, I discovered the work of Jean Piaget and its application to the learning of chemistry. Later I would discover research describing the “AHA Moment”. This moment is that singular moment in one’s life where a seemingly difficult item becomes easily understood. In Piagetian terms, it is that transition from one learning level to the next highest one (in chemistry, often times it is the transition from concrete, fixed thinking to a more abstract thinking process). You go from merely solving problems by rote memorization and application of previous solutions to actually creating new solutions.

For some, this never occurs. They are quite successful in their education experiences but they are lacking when it comes to creating new ideas. I wouldn’t say that this is necessarily a bad thing in itself but when it becomes the norm (as I fear that it is becoming in society today), then problems will arise. You simply cannot advance the nature of society if all you know are the same old solutions; they will not work with new problems.

For me, science is critical to one’s life simply because it pushes you to understand the world around you. Too many people of faith fear science for that very reason; it pushes people to seek better answers to their questions of faith. And yet, one’s faith cannot grow if it is not challenged.

Similarly, one’s secular life also cannot grow if you are not willing to look beyond the limits of your normal vision, if you are not pushed to (and excuse the cliché) think outside the envelope.

We live in dangerous times and our responses cannot be the traditional responses. There are too many challenges taking place that call on us to push our faith and our thinking skills together beyond the limits others have established.

Jesus began to push the boundaries of ministry outside the Temple walls and He encouraged His disciples and other followers to do the same. Charles Darwin pushed the boundaries of science beyond the traditional thinking mode and challenged people to see the world a little differently.

If we are to be transformed by Christ, our world has to change. And that means that we must see the world differently, through the eyes of Christ and with a better knowledge of what we do see. So that is why I see Transfiguration Sunday and Evolution Weekend as together and not apart.

“Christmas Eve, 1968″


For one brief moment on Christmas Eve, 1968, we on the earth began to understand our relationship in and with this universe. I have even used a copy of the recording of the reading from Genesis that Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders read as the orbited the moon that evening to illustrate that relationship. Earthrise - 1968 And yet, in that moment of enlightenment and understanding, there were those who felt it was highly inappropriate and possibly illegal for three astronauts to read the words of Genesis while watching the lifeless void of the moon and the darkness of space. The documentaries of that time tell us that it had not been a very good year and it probably wasn’t. After all, Martin Luther King, Jr., had been assassinated in Memphis in April and then, Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles in June. The Democratic National Convention was a disaster in more ways than one and the sum total of violence throughout that year pretty well made sure that Richard Nixon would be elected on a law and order platform buttressed by the “silent majority”. It seems to me that, with the singular exception of the Apollo program, all 1968 did was set things in motion for where we are today. And with the landing of Apollo 11 the following summer, even our exploration of the universe began to shut down. In the years that have come and gone since we first saw the surface of the moon up close, we have moved backward from the ideals that lead us to seek knowledge beyond the stars. And the violence that threatened to tear this nation apart then has not left and, perhaps, is even more present today. So on this Christmas Eve, I hope that we will pause for a few brief moments to ponder the birth of a child born far away from His home in a time of oppression, then think about the possibilities that we saw when three men from Earth saw the surface of the moon and reminded us from where we came. Let us take the time today to make sure that the Christmas story is told and that we will work for peace and understanding in the coming days.

“The Meaning Of The Christmas Story – 2014″


Here are my thoughts for Christmas this year.

If we are to give meaning to the story of Christmas that we tell this year, we ought to start with what we know.

For some, the idea that Jesus Christ was ever born is a fantasy or superstition. But something happened some two thousand years ago that caused some people to write down some stories and tell them to others and risk their lives in doing so. And while it may not always be possible to factually verify everything, that we are still telling the story today should tell us that there is a certain degree of truth in the story.

But let us start with the knowledge that we know Jesus probably wasn’t born on December 25th or in December for that matter. With the statement in Luke’s Gospel that the shepherds were in their fields that night, we can surmise that Jesus was most likely born in either March or early April.

But if we were to celebrate Jesus’ birthday at that time, there would inevitably be a conflict with Easter and that would probably not be a good idea.

We also know that those involved in the early church coopted a pagan holiday that occurred during the winter solstice as the date for Christmas. One supposes this was done to change the focus but, as we will see in a few moments, there was at least one other compelling reason.

But let me just say at this moment, if you profess to be an atheist, why are you disturbed by all of this? By your own declaration, you do not believe in any sort of god or gods, so the actions of one group to “steal” another groups holiday should have no effect on you.

And as an atheist or even as a pagan believer, if you participate in any sort of gift exchange because it is Christmas, then you are in it for yourself and that is not nor has it ever been the story or meaning of Christmas.

I would also add that those many self-righteous individuals who call themselves Christian but lead a life that does not contain Christ are also in it for themselves. Just because you put a sticker on the right side of your bumper that proclaims “keeping Christ in Christmas” doesn’t make you a Christian if you haven’t kept Christ in your heart as well.

You see the story of Christmas begins with an invitation, not to the rich and the powerful or members of the political and religious establishment, but to the outcasts of society. The announcement of the birth of Jesus was given to the shepherds, who by the very nature of their work, were considered ritually unclean and no self-respecting citizen in Jesus’ time would have anything to do with them.

Despite the profession as their King and his beginnings as a shepherd, the shepherd profession was not very well appreciated. I can only imagine what parents back then might have thought if one of their children were to come home and say that they wanted to become a shepherd or that they were going to marry one.

I don’t think much has changed in the past two thousand years. The people and professions change but we still exude an aura of exclusion when it comes to the people we bring to Christ or to whom we take Christ.

Yes, we have a food closet at our church; we hold food and coat drives; yes, we give food baskets at Thanksgiving and Christmas and we do all of that in the name of Christ but what happens the other days of the year. If we truly felt that no one should go hungry or naked, homeless or sick, why are we not doing something about that? Is that not what Christ said He came to this world to do and is that not part of the Christmas story?

Now, the one thing that I don’t want to do is mix up the Christmas stories in the Gospels but then again we have done a pretty good job of that on our own anyway. It may be that most people don’t know the reason for celebrating Christmas in December but they also don’t know that the story that is told is a combination of stories and that there really is no Christmas story in Mark or John.

And that makes the inclusion of the Magi all the more important. We also speak of the three wise men but we really don’t know if there were only three or if more may have been on the trip. We make the argument for three because three gifts were given. In fact, we don’t even know if they were all men (I think that we make certain assumptions about the nature of the position that are necessarily true). And we have to go to sources outside the Bible to get their names.

The Magi are in the story because they have seen signs of Jesus’ birth, signs that were available to the scientific advisers of the Israelite political and religious authorities as well. How is it that they missed them? Could it have been they were more interested in preserving their own positions than advancing knowledge? Why was it that the signs of Jesus’ birth were given to individuals outside the religious and political establishment? Could it have been that the knowledge of Christ’s birth was meant for all and not just a select few?

Even today, there are those who seek to limit our knowledge, telling us that there is a limit to our knowledge. But if their counterparts two thousand years ago couldn’t get it right, how can we trust them today?

We know that Jesus will grow in wisdom and stature so learning had to be important to Mary and Joseph. So should it be today. And just as the Magi looked beyond the horizon, so should our learning process push the envelope as well. Say what you will about the science of the Magi, it was the foundation for the science of today. They sought answers to questions and that is what we need to be teaching today. The answer to the question will always be in what we do, not what is in some book.

It was never made clear to me when I was growing up what sort of society Jesus was raised in or what the nature of that time might have been. But I have come to know, because I have sought to find out, that though the time may have been called the “Pax Romana”, it was a peace enforced by brutal force and oppression.

Are these times any different? We still seek to establish peace through force and oppression but we are finding that it does not work. To paraphrase Patrick Henry, there can be no peace as long as war is used to accomplish it.

We are also reminded that even one of Jesus’ disciples questioned the validity of Jesus’ message because He was from Nazareth. Our own ability to understand people is often clouded by our own preconceived notions of time and place. We struggle each day to judge a person by the content of their character and not their outward appearance.

We live in a dark time, in part because the relationship between the earth and its journey around the sun. But the darkness that envelopes our lives is brought on as much by our indifference to the conditions of others and our own self-interests.

I would hope that when the early church authorities decided to co-opt pagan winter solstice ceremonies, they did so because they understood that there was more to the darkness in the people’s lives than just the position of the earth around the sun.

Christ’s birth was meant to be the light that could overcome the darkness and allow people to know that, no matter who they may be or where they come from, there was hope in this world. He came to this world to bring light to a darkened world and that is the Christmas story.

It was never meant to be a one-day event. It was meant to be the beginning of a story that lasts a lifetime and one we live each day. It was and need to be a story told by all and told to all. So, as you tell the story, remember how it began and how lives were changed.

That is the meaning of the story this year and in the years to come.