Monday, January 30, 2012

January 29, 2012 - Answering the Skeptics - Why I Believe

Matthew 16:13-20

This morning I am skipping ahead in our series of Answering the Skeptics. I am skipping ahead to what was to be the final message, and next week we’ll return to the planned order. The reason I am skipping ahead is because this type of series can easily come across like a collection of lectures or essays, and that is certainly not my desire. I have unloaded a lot of information on you in recent weeks, speaking more to your head, so today I want to give your minds a bit of a break and speak to your heart.

Faith is something that comes to us primarily through our hearts, and not our heads. While I believe that a good, logical argument can help to open the way to belief, most people do not come to faith through an appeal to their intellect, but by either an appeal to their heart or because of some kind of personal experience. Jesus spoke to the hearts of people far more than he spoke to their intellects. His parables were masterful stories that could tug at one’s heart rather than make them nod their head in intellectual agreement. He called his disciples to walk with him through life, inviting them into a personal experience. There is nothing like personal experience to serve as an open door to faith. If you have traveled to be a part of a mission or ministry team you probably found that experience to be one of the most powerful in your life. Camp is a powerful experience for our youth because it is a very moving personal experience.

People walking into our church want to experience something. They want to know that the music, the message, the prayers, the fellowship, that all of these will facilitate the moving of the spirit in this place and in each of us to bring us to an encounter with God.

For me, a personal experience of faith began at home. Faith is more often caught than taught someone has said, and that is certainly true in my case. My faith was caught from my parents.

My mom and dad didn’t come from families that were church-going families. As I told you back on Mother’s Day, my mom’s mother, because she married a Protestant, was denied communion and rarely attended church the remainder of her life. My mom would go with one of her brothers to a Methodist church in their neighborhood. My uncle didn’t really go to church – he would hang out with friends and tell my mom not to tell on him. My dad’s family were Episcopalians, but didn’t attend church. My dad and his brother, as kids, would sometimes walk to a Methodist church in their neighborhood. My mom and dad were married in an Episcopal church in Steubenville, Ohio, where my mom by then was attending. My dad didn’t want to attend an Episcopalian church, because when he was nine years old his father died, and his father’s family tried to take him and his brother and sister away from their mom. He disassociated himself from them, including their church affiliation. Fortunately, the Disciples minister in my hometown went by to visit my parents and they began attending there, and that is how I grew up as a member of a Disciples church.

I saw faith as something very real to my mom and dad, and it made a huge impression on me. It wasn’t just that they took us to church – although they did – it was seeing the role that it played in their lives and how real it was to them that made a difference to me. They didn’t really talk about it that much, which may be what made it more powerful, because I saw that it was more about actions than just words.

I have two brothers who are also ministers, and we are often asked if our father was a minister. He wasn’t. My dad was a steelworker, and my younger brother is also a steelworker and has just recently begun his life as a minister. He’s about the least likely candidate for ministry that I can imagine, and he would agree with that description. After many, many years of a rejection of spiritual things, personal experience of faith entered his life and changed it dramatically. It is proof, I believe, that after all the arguments for and against belief in God, it really, I think, comes down to some kind of personal experience with God. Something happens to us. We can’t force that kind of experience on someone else, certainly, but we can help to facilitate the opportunity for the experience to happen.

That’s why I’m such a strong believer in the local church. I believe in being connected to something – there is greater power in the many rather than the one, and the connectiveness that we have one with the other can help to bring about that experience with God. I know that church is not always a positive experience for some people. I’m a minister, so I can say it’s not always been a positive experience for me. I have been through my share of difficult experiences, but I couldn’t imagine ever letting go of this beautiful experience called church, or maybe more correctly say I can’t imagine this beautiful experience called church ever letting go of me.

Our New Testament reading this morning is a great passage, because it brings the question of Jesus to every person – Who do you say that I am? He begins by asking who do people say that I am? It’s a way of reminding them the question isn’t just the concern of others, but one for each of us.

But once we answer this question we cannot stop, because faith and belief must grow and deepen or it will remain so shallow that it will have no real impact upon our lives. This reality is powerfully demonstrated when, just a few verses after Peter’s great confession of faith, Jesus tells him Get behind me Satan; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s. Peter’s confession of faith was a great moment, but his lack of judgment that immediately followed demonstrated the need for faith to grow beyond just an acknowledgement of belief. The book of James tells us that even the demons believe (James 2:19), which tells us that belief in itself is never enough. Belief is the seed in the ground that must be nourished and grow into a mature and ever-growing faith. If the seed remains in the ground and never grows, of what use is it?

The older I get the more I realize the implications that belief has for my life. I worry more about the future and I long for more and more security but belief, in so many ways, will challenge me to accept and embrace uncertainty. I an attracted to what we would call a normal life – whatever that is – but belief makes it more and more obvious that what is considered normal is little more than a collection of illusions about life. So belief leads to a faith that is willing to walk, as Abraham did, to a place that is unknown, but carries the promises God leads every step of the way.

What would my life be like if I did not believe, I sometimes wonder. To be honest, there have been times when I thought in some ways it would be so much easier to not believe. My time, my money, my life is all mine, but that seems a very impoverished way to live. Without belief, my life would be so much poorer. Belief has affected every part of my life. It was belief that helped me during adolescence, surrounded by the drug use and abuse of so many of my friends, to avoid going down that road. It was belief that led me to Milligan College, where I met Tanya. Without belief I would have been in another school and family life would be very different. I am forever grateful that belief has brought me the family I have. It was belief that led me to the different churches I have attended and served throughout my life, as it was belief that led me to this church. I can’t imagine how much poorer my life would be without each of you and the countless others who have entered my life. Without belief I would not be in ministry, and I would never have the opportunity to be invited into so many lives, where I have been given the gift of walking through the joys and sufferings of others.

Without belief I would not know the gratitude I have for the people who have invested in my life and whose love for me and confidence in me gives me the strength to continue in my belief every day. Many of those saints are gone now and you would not know most of those names. My heart will forever be inscribed with their names and their influence. Thankfully, there are many people still involved in my life – among them every one of you in this church – and not a day passes without my giving thanks to God for the people he has brought into my life.

May we give thanks to God for the gift of belief.

Monday, January 23, 2012

January 22, 2012 - Answering the Skeptics - When Evil Is Done in the Name of God

I John 4:7-21

Look closely at the following picture. I debated whether or not to use this picture, because I really don’t like it. I find it offensive and unfair and I believe it draws incorrect conclusions about faith in general, not to mention that it is disrespectful to people who were victims of 9/11. The reason I chose to use the picture is because it sums up the way some people look at religion.

Would the Twin Towers still stand if there were no religion? That is certainly the implication of this picture. This morning, as we continue our series Answering the Skeptics, we come to the topic When Evil Is Done in the Name of God. This is a challenge that skeptics consider to be one of the strongest arguments in their arsenal when attacking faith – that religious faith is the source of all the ills of the world and is responsible for almost all the wars and human history and has been responsible for more deaths than any other factor throughout human history.

Well, let’s start with the obvious –

1. Is religious faith the cause of the world’s problems?

No, it isn’t. Plain and simple.

Having said that, it would be both naïve and wrong to say there have not been terrible things done in the name of religion. In the case of Christianity, we must contend with the Crusades, the Inquisition, the support of slavery, the subjugation of women – all terrible acts in which some used religious faith to justify their actions. But even when people use religious faith to justify their evil actions, is religious faith itself the cause of the evil? I would say that it is not.

The fact that many people commit evil in the name of God does not mean that belief in God is the cause of that evil. What causes people to commit horrific acts is a very complicated question, but it is certainly far too simplistic to say that religious belief is to blame.

When we look at all the atrocities and the hatred and the cruelty of history what is the common denominator – humanity. It is humanity that perpetuates the evil inflicted upon others and some of the greatest evils – such as the Holocaust – are evidence not so much of the problem of religion but the depths to which humanity will go in some acts of madness.

When I hear someone say that religion is the cause of most or all of the wars in human history I have one basic question – where are your statistics? Can you back up that claim?

Matthew White is the author of The Great Big Book of Horrible Things, a book released last year and which documents the 100 worst atrocities in the history of humanity. The book demonstrates the false claim that religion is the cause of more deaths than any other reason in history. The Encyclopedia of Wars (Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod) will make the same point. The authors document 1,763 wars throughout human history, 123 of which involve religious conflict. Even one, of course, is too many, but some of them can be debated. Northern Ireland, for instance, though it pits Protestant against Catholic may be more about independence from, or continued allegiance with, Britain than being about religion. We could also ask, did religion cause World War I? No. Did it cause World War II? No. The claim that religion has been the cause of most or all of the wars in human history is such an oft-made claim that many people never question it.

I watched a debate between Alister McGrath and Richard Dawkins, and the first question Dawkins asked McGrath was this – doesn’t it bother you to be in the same camp as some of the religious extremists? What he was doing was making McGrath, and by implication all of us, guilty by association. McGrath was very polite in his answer and let Dawkins off the hook rather gently, in my opinion. He said he doesn’t like the religious extremism he sees and distanced himself from such people. I agree. I don’t like religious extremism that manifests itself in violence either, but I would have gone further.

I would have asked Dawkins are you comfortable with some of the people in your camp? If I have to answer for every crazy religious extremist how do you feel about being in the same camp as Stalin? Do you have to answer for him? Do you have to answer for Pol Pot, who murdered millions of his countrymen in Cambodia? Do you want to answer for the atrocities committed during the French Revolution, which was very much an attack on faith by people who had rejected belief and embraced atheism?

I would also point out that if you follow the logic of rejecting something because of past history we would find it necessary to reject almost everything. A citizen of any country, including our own, would have to reject belief in the principles of their own country because of what was done in the name of that country. What would Richard Dawkins have to say about being a British citizen and the beneficiary of the British Empire, which committed their share of atrocities throughout history? I imagine he would condemn Britain’s role in the slave trade, but is he going to reject his own country?

2. The very false assumption that an absence of faith will make the world a better place.

As portrayed in the earlier picture, and in John Lennon’s song Imagine (which I very much like, by the way) the world would be a much better place without religion. Remove religion and you would have an almost utopian atmosphere. Gone would be war, prejudice, and hatred. In its place would be a human species ruled by reason and blessed by the advances of science. What a wonderful world it would be, if it weren’t for religion.

But what if all the religions of the world were suddenly gone? Let’s take Richard Dawkins’ supposition and run with it for a moment. Would a peaceful world exist? Would evil suddenly cease to exist? No. Evil would continue unabated, and to believe that the evil of the world would end if religion were nonexistent is a very naïve view of the world and of history. Besides, it has been tried, and it didn’t work out very well. It didn’t work out very well in the Soviet Union, the killing fields of Cambodia, or during the French Revolution.

One of the assumptions of this position is that only religious people are capable of committing acts of evil or violence. But listen to what Sam Harris writes in The End of Faith. Harris is vehement in his opposition to any kind of religious faith, and often points to religion as being the source of the world’s ills. It is astounding then, that he writes the following – The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them (The End of Faith, pp. 52-53).

3. Evil done in the name of God is not authentic faith.

My friend Martin Cothran says it this way, as he responded to a skeptic –

Please explain to me which tenets of Christianity contribute to making someone worse than they were before. Is it Christianity's stress on humility? Justice? Honesty? Or maybe its advocacy of charity?

In fact, all you can do is to cite examples of bad Christian behavior…But, again, that is completely irrelevant. The question is not whether some Christians act badly; the question is whether there is something in Christianity itself that is to blame for them acting badly.

How can you say that the bad behavior of some Christians is attributable to Christianity when that behavior violates the very principles of Christianity?

Is it Christianity that makes them act badly, or their lack of adherence to it? Is it the practice of Christianity that is the problem? Or their lack of practice of it?...The abuse of something does not nullify its proper use.

(Source – Martin Cothran’s weblog, Vere Loqui).

Several years ago I heard Bill Maher – who is by no means a fan of Christianity or religious faith in general – comment that even when the church was at its worst, there has always been the person of Jesus to stands as a corrective, and no other religion has any such thing or any such person. That’s a pretty good observation.

In his book The Case for Faith, Lee Strobel quotes John D. Woodbridge, who says Nobody was more outspoken against hypocrisy or cruelty than Jesus. Consequently, if critics believe that aspects of the Crusades should be denounced as hypocritical and violent – well, they’d have an ally in Christ. They’d be agreeing with him.

(The Case for Faith, by Lee Strobel, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000, p. 207).

Just because something is done in the name of God doesn’t mean that it is of God. Any expression of evil is not an expression of authentic faith, and evil done in the name of God is not of God. Even in the darkest days of the church there were always voices calling out for repentance. In the darkest days of the Inquisition there were voices – Christian voices – crying out for it to end; in the days of slavery there were voices – Christian voices – crying out for it to end. Christians have stood in opposition to tyrants and despots from the beginning. Those voices are the voices of authentic faith; they are the voices reflecting the voice and the truth of Jesus, who is always the corrective of our wrongdoing.

Authentic Christianity does not abuse people; it does not seek power for the sake of power; it does not inflict violence upon people and it does not seek to force people into faith. Authentic faith stands up for the freedom and competency of individual souls; authentic faith is the defender of the powerless; authentic faith is that which would choose to perish by the sword rather than to wield the sword in compelling force.

4. Power is better left in the hands of God, not the church.

To me, the most influential event in the history of Christianity, after the resurrection of Jesus and the conversion of Paul, was the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine, who turned Christianity from a faith victimized by the sword to one that wielded the sword of the Empire. Constantine did Christians a favor by ending the terrible persecutions, but in the process he may have robbed the church of one of its greatest strengths – that of being dispossessed of any political power but possessing tremendous spiritual power. Constantine’s conversion made us the inheritors of a church rich in political and economic power, which in turn allowed for some terrible abuses to take place. Without Constantine’s conversion and his patronage of the church, there could not have been an Inquisition, the tragic consequences of Geneva under John Calvin, and some of the other dark moments in church history.

In America, we still deal with some of the implications of this combination of faith and power, but I think one of the great geniuses of America has been the attempt to keep government neutral toward religion; as Americans we are free to practice the religion of our choosing or none at all. It’s a free-market approach to faith – it stands or falls on its own. If you can get enough market support for your beliefs they will thrive; if not, they will fail. I believe this is why there is such vibrancy of faith in the Untied States, which is virtually alone in the Western world in terms of religious vibrancy. This is not so in Europe, where the legacy of state religion and church-sanctioned oppressive rulers have resulted in a large-scale rejection of not only Christianity but also any kind of belief in God.

The tragic condition of faith across Europe leads me to say that it is long past time for the institutional church to relinquish any temporal or political power it may possess or any goal it may have to attain such power. I am not saying we should give up our political voice, but it is clear from historical examples that political power in the hands of the church has too often led to disaster. The French Revolution cast aside the church because it was so closely aligned with an uncaring and oppressive monarchy and France has remained largely indifferent or hostile to faith since. Cathedrals throughout the rest of Europe sit largely empty, in my opinion, because of the emptiness of state-sponsored religion and the corresponding legacy of a church that was too often interested in capturing power rather than gaining influence that comes from humble and loving service.

It is important to note that power and influence are not the same. Influence is the ability to gain a hearing because people are impressed with how you live; power is the ability to force someone against their will to do what you want them to do. It is this kind of power that Jesus so often condemned, even as his disciples sought to attain it.

When James and John came to Jesus on the road to Jerusalem they said We want you to do whatever we ask of you (Mark 10:35). Pretty brazen, wasn’t it? They asked Jesus, Grant that we may sit in your glory, one on your right, and one on your left (Mark 10:37). They were seeking power, when they should have been seeking influence.

The danger of power is that it so often leads to force and violence, and it is never acceptable to inflict harm upon another person in the name of Jesus; better to endure harm or violence than to use it as a tool in the name of God.

Power has become the currency of the day. Many, in the name of faith, are pursuing power because they see this as the path to extending the kingdom of God. While tempting, this is but an illusion. The way to expand the kingdom of God is by following the example of Jesus, not the examples of kings, empires, and governments. The way of Jesus is influence born of loving service, which brings honor to the name of God. The way of power too often leads to harm and to dishonoring the name of God, and like the earliest Christians, we must be willing to lay aside all in being like Jesus.

May we pray.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

January 15, 2012 - Answering the Skeptics - Is Faith Reasonable?

I Corinthians 1:18-30

When I was in seminary one of my professors came into class one morning with something obviously on his mind. Over the weekend he had visited the church of one of his students. He was not impressed with the student’s sermon. He told us I felt like he was trying to tell me everything he knows. He was speaking to my head, when I really wanted him to speak to my heart.

It is easy, in a series about belief and unbelief, to give lectures rather than sermons. When talking about today’s subject – Is Faith Reasonable – it is especially easy to do so. It’s easy because it is necessary to employ a certain amount of logic and reason as we speak about the shortcomings of logic and reason. As I have worked through this topic I found it easy to get lost in the amount of information I had collected and struggled to fashion together into a message.

Though I will be speaking about logic and reason today, I really want to speak to you heart. We live in a very scientific and logical age, but we all want something that touches our hearts. Science cannot do so, but faith can.

I want to begin by asking you to look at the following image. Take a close look.

How many of you see a square in that picture? What if I told you there is no square in that picture? Your mind may be telling you there is a square in that picture, but there is no square.

Can we trust what we see? Do we always see what we think we are seeing?

This morning we continue our series of messages titled Answering the Skeptics, and today’s message asks the question Is Faith Reasonable? Is it reasonable – is it logical – to believe in God?

Skeptics are fond of pointing out that it is illogical to have faith. Listen to this quote from Sam Harris, author of the book The End of Faithreligious faith is the belief in historical and metaphysical propositions without sufficient evidence (page 232). In one sentence there is the basic charge of unbelief against belief – it is not logical to belief in something for which there is no evidence. And they claim further, that the use of logic and reason inevitably leads one down the road to unbelief.

Biblical Archeology Review published an article several years ago entitled Losing the Faith, and in that article took up this question of whether or not faith is reasonable. In the article four well-known scholars were asked the question What effect does scholarship have on faith? Did reason, did logic, have a negative impact on faith? Of the four, two had abandoned their faith. Both of them pointed directly to scholarship and to logic as the reason why they abandoned their faith. In the opinion of these two scholars, faith and reason are absolutely incompatible. They came to the conclusion that no thinking person could hold to belief in God. Interestingly, both also said they wish they were believers, but logic prevents belief.

But is it possible to trust logic? My brain tells me there is a square in this picture, but my brain is wrong. What my brain is telling me is there is irrefutable, visual evidence of a square in that picture, but there is not.

While skeptics say that faith cannot withstand the test of reason and the test of logic, I would ask can you trust logic and reason? When skeptics talk about objective evidence, I would ask what is evidence, and how objective is it, really? What seems perfectly logical today may be tomorrow’s equivalent of believing the earth is flat.

As much as skeptics love to talk about logic, it is important to understand that in other areas of life we know it is necessary to suspend logic. Love, for example, has a different kind of logic and uses a different kind of language.

One of my favorite poems is i carry your heart with me, by ee cummings –

i carry your heart with me

i carry your heart with me (i carry it in

my heart) i am never without it (anywhere

i go you go, my dear; and whatever is done

by only me is your doing, my darling)

i fear

no fate (for you are my fate, my sweet) i want

no world (for beautiful you are my world, my true)

and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant

and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows

(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud

and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows

higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)

and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)

That’s a beautiful line – i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart). In the interest of logical thinking I have rewritten that poem –

I do not carry your heart in my heart, because we both know the heart is a physiological/biological pump that cannot exist outside of the body.

I do not carry your heart because that would actually be kind of gross, to carry one of your body’s organs, not to mention that it would be deadly to you for me to do so.

But I will share my logical assessment that biology has brought us to the point of recognizing that we have mutually compatible neuroses and our lives match on a subatomic level.

So, from this moment, let use our minds – not our hearts – and form a legal and social partnership for as long as our physiological systems continue to work and keep us living and breathing.

Wouldn’t you like to get that message on a Valentine’s Day card?

Love teaches us that there are times when we are better served by setting aside logic and reason. You might tell someone you love, I would give you the moon and the stars. Well, that’s a nice sentiment, but logic would say and just where would I put them?

But there is still a type of logic to making such a statement, because it tells another person I would do anything within my power to demonstrate my love to you.

Do you think he applies logic and reason to his marriage? Probably not. In fact, isn’t it true that logic gets us in trouble in our relationships? Guys, on your anniversary or wife’s birthday, try this logic – I was going to get you a present and take you out to a nice dinner, but logic dictates that I take that money and invest it in a good mutual fund. And I’m going to do that from now on. There will no longer be any birthday, anniversary, or Christmas presents; it’s simply illogical to spend money for such frivolous things. Go ahead; try it, and tell me what kind of response you receive.

And continuing to use pure logic, couldn’t you say that love is nothing more than a complicated combination of mutually compatible socialized emotional needs and chemical reactions in our brain that trigger responses that evolution has imprinted into our psyches. I guarantee you I am not whispering that into Tanya’s ear. And while it might be logical for me to hide her Banana Republic card I’m not doing that either. But a purely logical, purely scientific view of love could come to those kinds of conclusions.

We live in a world that recognizes the limitations of logic. How often do we say you know, you’ve just got to follow your head? What do we say? Follow your heart. Remember Mr. Spock, from Star Trek? Live long and prosper was as close to emotion as he could get. Who wants to hang out with that guy? Captain Kirk is the guy I’d want to hang out with. Captain Kirk, who never followed logical, but acted according to the heart, attempting to do what logic would dictate as impossible.

Let me add that we do need a certain amount of logic in life. We can’t make very decision based upon the instincts of our heart, but where is the beauty in life when there is only logic? We instinctively recognize that some things – such as love, and faith – have a different type of logic and language.

But we must also recognize there are limits to what logic can prove, because our logic is often constructed in a way to bring us to a conclusion that agrees with what we already believe. Victor Stenger is obviously a very accomplished physicist and astronomer who has a great intellect. Again and again he makes a variation of the following statement earth and life look just as they can be expected to look if there is no designer God (p. 71). He supports this claim by the use of a particular argument from logic –

1. Probably, if God were to exist, then there would be good objective evidence for his existence.

2. But there is no good objective evidence for his existence.

3. Therefore, probably God does not exist.

(p. 22).

Stenger sums all this up by saying that absence of evidence is evidence of absence (p. 18).

The failure of his logic is that he is fashioning an argument that guarantees the outcome he wants. What is objective evidence? What leads one to say objective proof is lacking? What is an open mind, and is anyone really open minded? How do we prove objective evidence has been found? What would be considered beyond a reasonable doubt?

Here is the trap of logic, and it is one that traps those who challenge faith – you can construct your logic to confirm what you already believe. It is a universal tenant of unbelief that faith is unreasonable because it is not open to rational evidence. But opponents of faith almost universally fail to realize they are shaping their logic to fit what they already believe, thus they are not open to rational evidence either. If you claim to be open-minded it’s not logical to then construct an argument in a way that will lead you to what you already believe.

It is also necessary to understand that faith cannot be measured in the same way as science and technology.

Sam Harris writes imagine that we could revive a well-educated Christian of the fourteenth century. The man would prove to be a total ignoramus, except on matter of faith. His beliefs about geography, astronomy, and medicine would embarrass even a child, but he would know more or less everything there is to know about God…if religion addresses a genuine sphere of understanding and human necessity, then it should be susceptible to progress; its doctrines should become more useful, rather than less (The End of Faith, p. 22).

Certainly no one would go to a doctor whose medical knowledge is based on five hundred years ago or accept as a scientist one whose knowledge is unaware of any of the discoveries of the last thousand years. Does it follow, then, that we are wrong to cling to centuries old beliefs and should they then be discarded as ancient superstitions? Harris goes on to say the Bible, it seems certain, was the work of sand-strewn men and women who thought the earth was flat and for whom a wheelbarrow would have been a breathtaking example of emerging technology (p. 45). Well, let’s think about that statement for a moment. I believe the pyramids, whose construction techniques we still can’t figure out, were built by “sand-strewn men and women.” I would like to know about these “sand-strewn men and women,” would they also include the ancient Greeks? The ancient Greek civilization had an advanced understanding about astronomy several thousand years ago. And what about the literature and art that dates back thousands of years that has yet to be equaled? And even before the time of Christ there is evidence that certain surgical procedures were used. Ancient technology may not always rival that of today, but to say that people were unsophisticated is simply wrong.

Ancient does not equal out of date. It is possible to pass on medical, technological, and scientific knowledge, so that each succeeding generation is able to build upon the knowledge of previous generations. But this is not true with either faith or morality. Medical science has known for centuries that “bleeding” people is not helpful, but harmful. Learning morality, though, begins anew with each generation. Timeless truths such as love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:31), caring for the orphans and widows (James 1:27), and caring for the least of these (Matthew 25:40) are truths that are passed on, but each generation – each person – must decide whether or not they will accept them and live by them. One generation cannot choose the next generation’s faith and morality. These truths are also valid and necessary in every age; they are not truths or superstitions that we outgrow.

To believe that we have progressed in every other field of human endeavor and should thus dispose ourselves of religious belief is, then, a false comparison, because while there is accumulated knowledge there is no such thing as accumulated morality. We have certainly progressed in leaving behind a lot of bad theology – the kind of theology that supported slavery or led to the Inquisition – but we are not talking about false theology that is created to support our prejudices and hatreds; we are talking about the timeless truths of genuine theology, born in the heart of God and by design must be either accepted or rejected by every individual born into history.

Some truths simply do not change. To love one’s neighbor is and admonition that cannot be treated as though it were an ancient simply because it is two thousand years old.

Faith has a logic that often seems unreasonable and illogical because it is so in opposition to human logic and because it is human logic that is actually illogical. Jesus often spoke in opposites – whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it (Matthew 16:25); the last shall be first, the first last (Matthew 20:16); if any one wants to be first, he shall be last of all, and servant of all (Mark 9:35). And in the Beatitudes in Matthew chapter five we find this list of things that seem opposite of human logic – blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are those who mourn; the meek shall inherit the earth; blessed are those who have been persecuted. And Paul writes in Romans 11:33-34a – Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and unfathomable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord . . . And our New Testament reading from I Corinthians this morning makes this point as well. I think it is accurate to say that the mind of God is beyond our grasp and at times we struggle to understand his ways. It is not the logic of God that is illogical, but human logic.

I have taken to heart two important ideas from a recent theologian and one from centuries ago. Tertullian, many centuries ago said credo, quia impossibileI believe because it is impossible.

(Dismissing God, p. 11).

And Karl Barth, executed by the Nazis at the end of World War II, argued that one cannot understand what God reveals to us without already, in a sense, believing it.


This is a short point, because of our time constraints, and I close with a story about Alister McGrath, author of the book Dawkin’s God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life. As a professor at Oxford University he is a colleague of Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion. McGrath came to Oxford first as a student, and a self-described atheist, and expected that his studies would confirm his unbelief. What he found totally surprised him and seemed to contradict all logic and reason; McGrath found belief and he embraced the Christian faith.

Is faith reasonable? I would claim that to believe is the most reasonable thing we can do.

Monday, January 09, 2012

January 8, 2012 - Answering the Skeptics - Do Beliefs Matter?

Mark 9:14-24

Our Scripture reading for this morning ends with an odd statement – I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief! How do you affirm your belief in one moment while in the next proclaiming your need to overcome your unbelief? That’s quite a paradox, isn’t it?

We live in a world that doesn’t much understand the paradox. We live in an either/or world, especially when it comes to belief, and in particular, religious belief. You either believe or you don’t, right? But this father both believed and struggled to believe.

The inability to accept and live with a paradox is what drives some people, I think, to disbelief.

I received an email the other day that contained an article titled Why I Stopped Believing In God. Listen to a few excerpts –

After my sister was born, my mom was told she couldn’t have any more kids. Six years later, I was her miracle. She always told me I wouldn’t be here if God hadn’t intervened. So I guess it’s kind of ironic that I no longer believe in God.

More and more I began to see that pastors and leaders in all faiths are simply people hungry for power. They like to preach that if you love God, you will get rich. But if bad things do happen, never question God, and never question the pastor because his words come from God.

It seems lazy to never question religion, or explore all the evidence against it. But it has more to do with fear.

Religion is only made real by the minds that believe it is real. And religion will exist as long as there is fear - fear of ourselves, fear of death, fear of each other. Religion thrives on fear. And powerful people take advantage of this. They have always done their best to silence anyone who questions.

The claim of all religions is that you will be freed from pain and suffering if you believe. But I have not found this to be true. …my experience with Christians was always just the opposite. Repression equals depression. And as Christians look down on other people, it makes them feel just a little bit better.

Life after religion is a gift of happiness…made even more amazing without the existence of a man-made God and dictator. I am at peace with the unknown.


The author of that piece recognizes some of the paradoxes that we find in life. Sometimes, good people do bad things. Sometimes, churches hurt rather than help people. Does that mean all people are bad or that some people are all bad? I don’t think so. Does it mean all churches are bad because some churches hurt some people? I don’t think so.

The author of that piece also makes, I believe, several very questionable assumptions. Not every pastor or leader is hungry for power. Most aren’t, in my opinion. Most also don’t preach that you will get rich if you love God. Personally, I believe that if you love God you may have less money, as you find yourself giving it away. And plenty of people question God, and I think you shouldn’t be afraid of asking questions; I certainly don’t believe it is threatening to God. I would also question the statement that religion is based on fear. There is, I understand, fear involved for some people and some leaders do prey upon that fear, but that is not the majority. And neither is it true that religion is only made real by those who believe it to be real. God is either real or is not real, regardless of what we believe. And no religion of which I am aware claims that belief will keep you free from pain and suffering. A few people may make that claim, but it is certainly not a claim that can be verified in light of Scripture.

This morning we begin a new series of messages titled Answering the Skeptics.

Why do some people believe in God, while others do not? The reasons, I’m sure, are complicated and numerous. Some researches have even put forth the theory that belief – or unbelief – is part of our genetic disposition.

One statistic I find troubling is the number of young people who drift away from faith when they leave home to begin their adult lives. Part of the reason, I think is the failure to develop a faith that can stand the rigors and challenges of a college classroom or the work place. Some people are given a set of beliefs – or perhaps more correctly, interpretations – and are told that if you doubt a single one of them then the entire system of belief must all be discarded. So they hear something that is in conflict with what they have been told to believe and decide to do just what they have been told – they set belief aside, believing it to be incompatible with the world around them. What a tragedy!

How would you answer someone who asks why you believe in God? How would you answer someone who says they do not believe in God and they want to know why you believe? How do you deal with the relationship of science and faith? How do you respond when someone asks you to prove that God exists? How do you respond when someone says they cannot believe in God because of the evil and suffering in the world?

Does it matter if we believe in God? Some people would say that it does not matter what we believe. Nothing could be further from the truth. It matters a great deal what we believe. Life is driven by beliefs. Some people believe that strapping on a belt of explosives and detonating it in a public place to kill as many people as possible will guarantee they and their family will be given a place in paradise. It matters what suicide bombers believe. It mattered what Stalin believed. It matters if someone tells you that you are worthless and you believe it and the belief of worthlessness leads to self-destructive behavior. And it matters what a person believes about God. People who believe God is angry and vindictive hold up signs with terrible slogans at military funerals, such as the Westboro Baptist Church.

Here are some of the topics we will study during this series.

Faith and Reason – is it reasonable to belief in God? Does it make sense? Why do some believe that faith and intellectualism are incompatible?

Faith and Science – are faith and science incompatible, as some claim? Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, wrote an OpEd claiming that Francis Collins was not qualified to head the National Institute of Health because he is a person of deep religious faith. Dr. Collins headed the Human Genome Project and has a world class scientific mind, and yet Harris would disqualify him from service because of religious faith.

Why is there so much suffering and evil in the world? Why doesn’t God do more about this suffering and evil?

What about the wrong that has been done in the name of God?

Can the existence of God be proved, or disproved?

I will be making some assumptions as we move through this series.

*People are increasingly identifying themselves as spiritual rather than religious because they do not want to be associated with institutional expressions of religion. Just because people don’t belong to a church or attend church doesn’t mean they don’t believe in God. Many people, turned off by things such as the abuse scandal in the Catholic Church or televangelist scandals don’t want to be associated with institutional religion. People are also tired of the culture wars, and they most people aren’t interested in the politicizing of religion.

*People want their beliefs and their worldview affirmed. Some people are very threatened by the trend of less religious belief in our society. They fear their way of life, their worldview – all the things they hold dear and cherish – will be minimized or threatened. We see this dynamic in politics. People turn to some candidates because they affirm the same values and are fearful of other candidates because they threaten their values.

*People are very influenced by faith – especially the Christian faith – in ways they may not understand or recognize. Anyone who lives in Western society has been deeply influenced by the Christian faith; it frames our entire way of life. The emphasis on having a life of meaning and purpose and the charitable spirit of our society are just a few of the ways the Christian faith has so deeply influenced who we are as a people. It has also shaped our music, art, education, medicine, and politics.

*Religious faith is not diminishing in our world. It is shifting, but not diminishing. Research released at the end of the year gave the interesting results that the percentages of religious people worldwide have not changed since a century ago. Where those religious people are located, though, has changed. A hundred years ago, Western Europe was the center of the Christian faith. Western Europe is certainly not the center of the Christian faith today, although countries such as England are seeing an increase in church attendance and religious activity. Faith is exploding in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. China, officially atheist in their governance, is seeing a huge growth in faith.

*You don’t have to check your brain at the door when you come into a church, at least not all churches. I would be greatly disappointed if you checked your brain at the door when you walked into this church.

*We are spiritual beings – all people, regardless of belief or unbelief. Jesus said man does not live by bread alone (Matthew 4:4), which is a statement underscoring the truth that we are spiritual beings. We are more than just flesh and blood, more than our genes and DNA. Put on some great music, observe a beautiful sunset, look at a baby, or sit on a beach and try and deny that those experiences speak to something much deeper and greater in us.

*There are fundamentalists on both sides of the belief/unbelief argument. Richard Dawkins is just as much a fundamentalist as was Jerry Falwell. The fundamentalists on both sides of the divide do not add anything constructive to the debate, in my opinion. Both sides set up nothing but caricatures of the other side and distort the positions of the other. They make sweeping generalizations of the opposite side, and are basically speaking to those who already agree with them.

*We argue over how we got here, but we are here, and the critical question, I think, is where do we go from hear and how do we get there?

*Our focus should be on love, not in toeing a particular line of theology. Too many churches focus on right thinking to the exclusion of love. There are a lot of people who would take great issue with that statement, but Jesus never gave his followers a belief test. His test had one element – love.

When I was in seminary I took a class in Systematic Theology (it was actually more interesting than it sounds) and Dr. Frank Tupper was the professor. Dr. Tupper could be very provocative in attempting to get us to think, and sometimes members of the class were upset by his comments. One day, a student became so upset by one of Dr. Tupper’s comments that he jumped up, and with tears in his eyes shouted Dr. Tupper, why are you trying to destroy my faith? Dr. Tupper’s response was so memorable I can replay it in my mind as clearly as if it happened yesterday. Dr. Tupper walked over to the student and placed his hand on his shoulder and had him sit back down. Then he sat on the edge of the student’s desk and said Son, I’m not trying to destroy your faith. I want to make sure your faith is strong. If it cannot survive this classroom, it will never survive outside of this classroom.

I believe Dr. Tupper was exactly right. We must develop a healthy and vibrant faith, understanding the challenges to faith and how we will answer them. While in this sanctuary we are in a bubble, a bubble where faith is encouraged and nurtured. Things change when we leave this place, and we must develop a faith that does not fade in face of the challenges that come our way.

May we pray.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

A Vision to Live By - January 1, 2012

Luke 9:1-6

Next week I will begin a new series of messages titled Answering the Skeptics. We live in a time where it appears that skepticism and challenges to faith are growing, and I believe it is important to have answers to the questions that come to faith and to us as people of faith. Is it possible to prove the existence of God? Is it logical to believe in God? How do science and faith relate? Are they incompatible, as some say? Is suffering the Achilles heel of faith? What are the evidences of faith, and what qualifies as evidence? What about the evil that is done in the name of God? Is it true that most wars have been fought because of religion? There are a many important questions to consider.

Today, we will take a few minutes and talk about vision. Our Scripture reading for this morning is one of the many examples of how Jesus kept a sense of vision in front of his disciples. And it demonstrates how Jesus taught his disciples that vision is not just an idea but a way of life. Vision is a set of guiding principles that provide the foundation for who we are as a church, as people who are followers of Jesus.

Finding a Student Minister. The difficulty in finding candidates for Student Minister is reflective of the growing scarcity of candidates for all ministerial positions. As a congregation, it is important that we begin to identify those young people who demonstrate the gifts that may be guiding them to ministry. My home church was aware, probably before I was myself, of a calling upon my life.

Children – what a blessing it has been to watch the work of the Children’s Education Committee.

Four Core Values – Children, Worship, Youth, and Welcoming.

Outreach and ministry – we are doing a lot of good things – Arriba Ninos, Christmas baskets and Angel Tree, God’s Kitchen, men’s shelter, and many others. Look for ways we can increase the outreach and the ministry of our church. Partner with other congregations and ministries when possible. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel.

To continue to emphasize the SHAPE test. The SHAPE test helps individuals to discover their spiritual gifts(s) and after discovering their gifts(s), to put them into practice. A number of you have already taken the test, and had an opportunity to discuss it earlier in the fall at our Dessert With the Elders.

To continue being open to people. Not all churches are open to people. Some churches, while professing their desire to grow, are a closed circle. When people ask me questions, they often begin their question in an interesting way – I want to ask you a question, and I want you to tell me the truth (as though I don’t normally tell the truth!). One of the most common questions I get is, when you are on vacation, do you skip church and sleep in? I am happy to report that when I am on vacation I always attend church somewhere. I attend because I enjoy it, but also because it is an important reminder to me of how difficult it can be to enter a church for the very first time, and we need to be aware of that difficulty. While visiting my mother-in-law several years ago I visited a church where not one person greeted me or spoke to me. From the time I got out of my car to the time I got back in my car to leave, no one said a word to me. I even walked around in the lobby trying to make it obvious I was a visitor. There were a couple of greeters at the door of the sanctuary but they were talking to each other and I had to find a worship program from a table because the greeters were so preoccupied with their own conversation.

Become a Green Chalice congregation. It puzzles me that environmental issues have become so politically controversial. I am not naïve to the reasons why, but it still puzzles me when we consider the stakes involved in the continued degradation of our environment. I grew up in a part of the country where it was very obvious. Strip mines that were never reclaimed and steel mills that filled the air and water with pollutants made our local environment particularly bad. We must remember that we are stewards of God’s creation, and as stewards we must care for what has been entrusted to us.

Build an ecumenical spirit in Shelby County. There is not much of an ecumenical spirit in our country. Ecumenism is one of the foundational principles of the Disciples. When Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, and Walter Scott observed the religious landscape of frontier America, they were troubled at the division within the body of Christ. We should be more involved with other congregations and organizations in our community. When it comes to ministry, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. We can partner with other congregations and with agencies and organizations.

Continue what we are doing. I can’t really think of a way to describe what we are doing, to be honest. I believe there is a spirit of welcome, of acceptance, and of love that is building on the past and growing our community of faith. The most important part of that, I believe, is to not get in its way. Many churches say they want to grow, but they really don’t want to grow; they don’t want to grow in ministry, in community, in outreach, or numerically. They create a closed circle that new people cannot break into, and they are unable to see that they are a closed circle of people.

I am not interested in “running” this church. My goal is to equip you to use the gifts God has given you in order to offer those gifts back to the kingdom of God. A “permission-giving church”. To empower you to be a spiritual entrepreneur.

To bring the Good News to people who are hurting. There are many people hurting, and not just economically. You only have to scratch the surface of the lives of others to find there are deep hurts.

I want to offer you a personal vision for the New Year, as it is a time of new beginnings and many of you are making resolutions.

Do not let the past define you. Some people don’t believe it’s possible to change, and they want your past – your failures and shortcomings – to define you for the rest of your life. Don’t let them!

You may need a fresh start today. This is the time of year when people think of new beginnings, but God provides a new beginning every day. Maybe you desire to come and ask for prayer. I recognize that not everyone is comfortable doing so, and that’s fine, but it might be helpful to someone. If so, come.