Monday, July 18, 2016

July 15, 2016 Final Column From the Shelbyville, KY Sentinel-News Series On Belief and Unbelief

Note - I write a column for the Shelbyville, Kentucky newspaper, the Sentinel-News, every other Friday.  On June 3rd, the Sentinel began publication of a series of columns about belief and unbelief, written by myself and a member of our community, who is an atheist.  I thought it would be an interesting conversation and I appreciate the Sentinel-News and my co-author for participating.  For the privacy of the other person I am not including their name in the columns as I publish them each week on this site.  Even though the person has publicly agreed to have them published in the Sentinel-News, I am not assuming they want their columns or name published on this site.

As Ms. Allewalt and I bring our series of columns to a conclusion I want to express my appreciation for her willingness to take part in this effort. When I presented the idea to her it was with the assumption that she would speak her mind, and she certainly did. For some years now Ms. Allewalt and I have continued an ongoing conversation, and while we seldom, if ever, find agreement on the topic of religion, we have managed to find common ground on other subjects. I am grateful also for Sentinel-News editor Todd Martin’s kindness in agreeing to publish our columns. He was immediately receptive to the idea and graciously provided the space for our writing. And, certainly, I must also express appreciation to the readers who took the time to read our offerings and to share with us their comments.

In preparing to write my final thoughts about this series of columns, I gave a good deal of thought to not only what I would say, but also to how I would say it. The tone in which one writes and speaks is just as important as the words one uses, I believe. In our present historical and social context, we seem to have all but forgotten about the importance of maintaining a civil and thoughtful tone. I believe in respectful discussions, even when there are great discrepancies between the beliefs being discussed, and while it is obvious that Ms. Allewalt and I are very far apart in our beliefs about religion, I have endeavored to strike a proper balance between tone and honest critique. Any critiques that I have offered, I should note, are aimed solely at concepts and beliefs rather than at Ms. Allewalt herself, or any other atheist for that matter.

I must admit that, shortly after submitting my columns to the Sentinel-News, I began to wonder about what this series might accomplish. As I mentioned in my introductory column, the gulf between belief and unbelief is a very wide chasm, and my fear was that Ms. Allewalt and I might simply talk past one another, or lapse into characterizations that would be too broadly drawn. Religious believers and atheists alike too often sit in judgment of one another and use arguments based upon stereotypes that are neither effective nor worth making. From my perspective I take offense, for example, at the insinuation atheists often make that religious people border on the delusional because of their beliefs. Richard Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion, makes it very plain that this is the manner in which he views religious people. Dawkins is certainly not alone in his insult. The late Christopher Hitchens, who was often a quite brilliant writer and astute observer of human nature, proved to be neither in his swipe at religion and religious people, pompously titled God Is Not Great:  How Religion Poisons Everything. Everything? Only the most biased amongst us could make such a claim.

It is not only the insinuations made about people of faith that I find to be both erroneous and offensive; I also take exception to some of the most basic claims made by atheists. There is, for instance, the claim that the more people know the more likely they will be – or should be – to abandon their religious faith. Generally couched in demeaning language that assumes religious belief is equal to holding outdated, ridiculous notions that no right-thinking person could conceivably hold, it is a point of view that mistakenly compares anything ancient to nothing more than outdated and infantile ideas unworthy of consideration by modern people. Sam Harris, for instance, in his book The End of Faith, remarks that to the ancients a wheelbarrow would be a breathtaking example of technology. Mr. Harris evidently has never taken note of the architectural achievements of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and other civilizations. The ancients also gave us math, astronomy, and, among other wonderful and beautiful examples of brilliance, literature that continues to have a powerful influence on humanity. That we continue to read and study the Iliad and The Odyssey bear witness to the brilliance of ancient philosophers, and they have achieved a literary status that Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris will never see, reminding us that history has a way of separating the wheat from the chaff. Ancient does not automatically equal outdated and irrelevant, and to make such a claim is both silly and arrogant.

I would also fault atheism for not being as self-aware as it claims. Atheists often present themselves as having a level of objectivity that is not possible among religious believers, but I find that atheism is absolutely no more likely to foster objective thinking than any other belief system and is just as prone to fall victim to the same error that affects all of humanity, which is the inability to be adequately self-aware so as to see our own shortcomings. There are plenty of people on both sides of the belief versus unbelief debate that are blind to the fact that they simply see what they want to see. One person’s great insight is another’s foolish claim, and we make that judgment based upon what we already believe. Richard Dawkins is a great commentator on religion if you are already in agreement with him, while to others, like myself, he would be better served to save his commentary for his field of expertise, which is science.

Speaking of science, I am somewhat bemused at how atheists sometimes claim that a laboratory is solely their domain and a place where religious believers are not welcome. No one owns science. Science is a tool, a method of study and discovery that is populated by people of many points of view, none of which disqualify them from scientific pursuits. Science has benefitted from a long line of religious believers who have, and continue, to offer their God-given intellects to the interest of discovery and progress.

And while there is much left to say, I am now out of space, but again, I thank you for reading.

July 1, 2016 Column Five From the Shelbyville, KY Sentinel-News Series on Belief and Unbelief

Note - I write a column for the Shelbyville, Kentucky newspaper, the Sentinel-News, every other Friday.  On June 3rd, the Sentinel began publication of a series of columns about belief and unbelief, written by myself and a member of our community, who is an atheist.  I thought it would be an interesting conversation and I appreciate the Sentinel-News and my co-author for participating.  For the privacy of the other person I am not including their name in the columns as I publish them each week on this site.  Even though the person has publicly agreed to have them published in the Sentinel-News, I am not assuming they want their columns or name published on this site.

Tell me one last thing, said Harry. Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?
Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?
From Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Cogito, ergo sum, (I think, therefore I am)
René Descartes

Several years ago I read the book God, The Failed Hypothesis, by the late Victor Stenger. Stenger, who struck me as a second or third tier writer among the new atheists, was fond of offering the saying that absence of evidence is evidence of absence. I imagine he was very proud of that phrase and felt it was quite the demolishing argument against faith and anything in the realm of religious spirituality, but it made the mistake of assuming that science is the sole arbiter of reality as well as missing the point of what constitutes evidence. Claiming, for instance, that absence of evidence is evidence of absence, actually says more about the limitations of science and the scientific method than it does of faith. Applying science to faith is a bit like taking a Rembrandt painting into a lab to determine why it is a great piece of art. Some concepts are far too abstract for science, and a lab is not the place for dealing with abstractions.

The question of evidence is very much tied into an understanding of the nature of reality, and philosophers help us to understand that reality can be a tricky substance to nail down. While Descartes’ famous declaration might prove that we are sentient and therefore existent beings tied to reality, any confidence in our perception of reality, and therefore evidence, might well be mistaken. Our minds, which are the filters through which we perceive reality, can be quite the deceptive creatures. In fact, just because something is perceived by our minds as reality does not mean it can be trusted to be reality, so can we trust our minds to tell us what is true, even when supported by science?

In this column, as Ms. Allewalt and I deal with the relationship of faith and science, I would posit the claim that the two are not mutually exclusive, as is often asserted by those on the side of atheism. While they are not exclusive, however, they are different. Science, by its very nature, is materialistic in its approach; that is, it deals with the senses, the things that can be seen, touched, and measured in a concrete, material way (known as scientific, or materialistic, reductionism). Because science begins with a demand for empirical proof, it can be understood why some might believe it is incompatible with faith. Practicing the scientific method is often viewed as meaning one must think exclusively as an empiricist, thus rendering faith and science about as compatible as oil and water. Faith, however, while not rejecting empiricism, reminds us of the need for something deeper, because faith affirms that the universe and life are more than what we find in the material and it recognizes a deeper layer to all of existence, a layer that does not fit under the microscope of science.

Both faith and science ask many questions, but they are different questions, and they are questions that, taken together, provide a more complete picture of life and the universe. Science is a study in the how, while faith offers an explanation in the why. Science can answer the how, but not the why, at least not on a philosophical or spiritual level. Science seeks to understand the principles that guide the operation of our universe, while faith seeks to understand our place within that universe and the broader questions of meaning and purpose. Religion, for its part, does not function on blind faith, as it is often accused, but recognizes that there is more to life and our universe than a materialistic reductionism. This does not mean there is a problem with either religion or science; it simply means they operate in two very different realms, but taken together can give us a greater sense of the whole of all things.

The crude and offensive stereotype of religion as a relic of a pre-scientific age notwithstanding, faith and science have long gone hand in hand. I am obviously well aware of the Catholic Church and Galileo and the misguided proclamations of religious fundamentalists about science, but those are not representative at all of the ways in which faith and science have often worked hand in hand. For many believers, such as Francis Collins (Director of the National Institutes of Health and former Director of the Human Genome Project), scientific work becomes an expression of faith. For believers such as Collins, religion is not anti-science and science is not anti-religion. Science is a tool, and one that can function just as well when utilized by people of faith. It is only those out to advance their own ideologies either against faith or in support of a fundamentalist faith that would make such a claim to the contrary.

Even in the realm of scientific reductionism, however, we find that no one reduces life simply to the level of what can be tested in a laboratory. Everyone recognizes that life is much more than the sum of its physical parts; it also includes the metaphysical components, and the ultimate evidence of this is our recognition of the existence of love. To me, the ultimate evidence of transcendence, and thus faith, is that of love. In a universe built upon scientific reductionism love cannot exist, because love cannot be reduced to such a level. Love is a transcendent quality, something that takes place in the brain but possesses a quality that takes us into the realm beyond, into the spiritual. Otherwise, what we call love would amount to little more than a feeling of pleasure generated by some chemicals in the brain and neural activity or, perhaps, biological determinism. Love is a transcendent, spiritual quality, and it is one that points to something equally transcendent that is the underlying force of our universe, and I believe that is God.

July 17, 2016 Connecting the Past, Present, and Future

Joshua 1:1-9

Today marks 15 years since our church moved into its present facility. 

Last year, when we celebrated the retirement of the debt on our facility, we showed video clips of the congregation entering the building and celebrating the first worship service.  Some of you remember that day very well, and watching those video clips no doubt brought back many memories; memories of the work, excitement, and anxiety involved in the relocation of a church.  It was most likely a reminder as well of the changing nature of a congregation, as some of the people in those clips are no longer with us.  Those of us who are newer to the congregation watched with an entirely different perspective.  We are the inheritors of the work and sacrifice of the many people who made this building a reality, but we were not here at the time and we are unfamiliar with what it took to get the church to this point.

As I have been talking about connecting points in recent weeks, today I want to take the opportunity to speak about connecting the past, present, and future of our church. 

I am grateful to be part of this congregation.  As the most recent in a long line of ministers I often think about our present point in history and of our future.  What lies ahead for us?  What challenges must we overcome in order to move into a future of health, growth, and ministry opportunities?  What will our congregation and its ministry look like in another ten, twenty, thirty, and more years?

I think it is safe to say that when twenty people came together as the charter members of our church, back in 1830, they could scarcely imagine what that church would be like 186 years later.  At that time, Shelbyville was on the edge of the American frontier, a small town carved out of a countryside that required its residents to be tough and resourceful.  I wonder what they would think about the present incarnation of our community, and our church.  Certainly, to walk into such a modern, spacious building would be overwhelming to them.  The technology now used in our worship would, no doubt, be astounding to them.  What would they say?  What would they think about our worship?  What would they think about the sermon and the music?  It would, undoubtedly, be a far cry from their first gathering all those years ago.

But not all would be different.  While the world has undergone staggering changes in the past 186 years, much of church life remains the same.  While buildings and musical styles change over time, the church continues with the same charge given by Jesus that we now refer to as the Great Commission – go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you (Matthew 28:19-20).  We continue to minister to our community, and, through our connection with other Disciples churches, are able to minister to people all over the world.  And, even with all of our modern modes of communication, provide much-needed fellowship and connectivity with other people.

This is, undoubtedly, a very interesting point in history, full of both opportunity and challenge for churches.

Our Scripture text comes from the book of Joshua, the first nine verses, which is part of a larger event that brought together the past, present, and future of the people of God as they prepared to cross the Jordan River and enter the Promised Land.

Joshua 1:1-9 –

1 After the death of Moses the servant of the Lord, the Lord said to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ aide:
“Moses my servant is dead. Now then, you and all these people, get ready to cross the Jordan River into the land I am about to give to them—to the Israelites.
I will give you every place where you set your foot, as I promised Moses.
Your territory will extend from the desert to Lebanon, and from the great river, the Euphrates—all the Hittite country—to the Mediterranean Sea in the west.
No one will be able to stand against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you.
Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their ancestors to give them.
“Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go.
Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.
Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”

When speaking about the past, present, and future, it makes for a nice, three-point outline, and here is the first point –

1.  Visit the past, but don’t live there.
It is easy to either diminish the importance of the past or to be bound by the past.  Some people wipe the past away as being irrelevant to the present, while others are so bound to the past that they can neither appreciate the present nor think about the future with any meaning.  We must understand, however, that we are products of the past, and what happens in the past shapes who we are as individuals, and certainly as a people.  To write off the past as meaningless, therefore, is both unwise and impossible (try changing a family tradition at a holiday and you’ll see just how much we are tied to the past).

Personally, I like nostalgia.  A lot of the music I listen to reminds me of events in the past and of particular stages of life, so that music continues to hold great meaning for me.  Anyone of a certain age will have a longing for the past, as we often see it as a simpler, more carefree time, even if it wasn’t.

Scripture often hearkens back to the past to bring lessons to the present, and that was certainly true of this point in the history of God’s people.  The past was a reminder of what brought them to this very significant moment, standing on the banks of the Jordan River, ready to enter the Promised Land.  At that moment they could reflect upon the past, upon their captivity in Egypt, their wandering in the wilderness, the spiritual commitments they made as a people, of the hard work it took to pull together as a people and of how God took all those things and brought them together in a special and powerful way to fashion them into a people.

Similarly, we cannot forget the work, the faith, the vision, and the commitment of those who have brought us through 186 years as a congregation.

We can, and should, visit the past.  We should recall the work and the faith of our predecessors.  We should remember the spiritual commitments and lessons of the past.  We can, and should, remember these things, but we cannot remain in the past to the point that we do not move fully into the present or future.

2.  This was our future; now it is our present.
I imagine there was a tremendous sense of excitement that first day of worship in this building.  I wasn’t here, but I did follow the progress of the building.  I drove by very often and enjoyed watching the progress.  I was excited about it, and I had no idea I would one day be standing in this spot.  I was so interested in what was happening here that I stopped by one day with a few friends and walked through the building, several years after the church moved in.

Would you be interested in hearing an interesting story?  I often say that I’m not a Calvinist, but perhaps I should reconsider, after considering this story.  One day, as I was driving into Shelbyville to visit at the hospital, I was passing by the driveway of this church when my phone rang.  It was Eddie Kingsolver, calling as a representative of the search committee, asking if I would be interested in speaking to them about the possibility of becoming the minister at this church.  After our meetings with the Search Committee and our discussions, one day I was leaving Shelbyville after visiting at the hospital.  I was in the same spot, driving right past the driveway of the church, going in the opposite direction.  It was Mike Coleman, chair of the search committee, telling me the committee wanted to recommend me to the church as their next minister.  The manner in which I received those two phone calls has always fascinated me, and certainly helped to focus my sense of call to this congregation.

New brings a lot of excitement.  A new car.  A new home.  A new job.  But newness wears off, and the excitement wanes.  When Moses led the people out of captivity in Egypt there was tremendous excitement.  And then came the wilderness.  Forty years of wilderness wandering.  Not much excitement there.  In fact, I doubt there was any excitement at all; mostly grumbling and complaining.  At least we had food to eat in Egypt, they said.  They looked back with a sense of fondness to Egypt – where they were slaves!

The trick with the present is this – the past can be over romanticized and the future can be unrealistic.  We filter out all of the difficulties of the past, remembering only the good.  And we can make the future, in our minds, into anything we want.  But the present, it is not as good as the “good old day” and it’s not yet the glory days of the future we invent in our minds.

The present is always a time of decision, and there are many decisions, and chief among them is to make a decision to remain committed to the values that brought a people to a point in the present and will carry them into a blessed future.  The warning God gave to the people is that no amount of past success provides a promise of future success.  That only comes with commitment and hard work.  Three times God says in this passage to be strong and courageous.  Do you know how often I feel like giving up and quitting ministry?  Probably more times than would make you feel comfortable.  A few times I even went on job interviews and thought about changing vocations, and had opportunities to do so.  And I know that many of you think of giving up and quitting as well.  No good thing is easy, but we continue on, because it is the right thing to do.

3.  We can’t see the future, but we must have a vision of it.
I know that sounds contradictory, but it is our challenge.  This congregation exists because someone saw it as a possibility.  186 years ago twenty people gathered together to begin this congregation because someone had a vision for it.  This building is here because of a vision that moved the church forward to this place and to this present.  We cannot peer into the future and know what is going to happen, but we must look into the future with a sense of vision and what can be.

Last week I spoke about Through A Glass, Darkly.  We are not called to be able to visualize all the details, certainly, but to be able to formulate a vision for the future.  This building plays an important part in that vision, but it is not the entire vision.  This is our launching pad, not our finishing station.  Let me repeat that.  This is our launching pad, not our finishing station.  Our future is tied to this building, but it is far greater than a building, and I say that with great respect and affection for all the things that church buildings mean. 

Our future is tied to young families, middle age families, and senior families; our future is tied to kids going to camp and experiencing the power of the Spirit in that setting; our future is the kids and volunteers who come to be a part of VBS; our future is in the work we participate with in the Serenity Center, God’s Kitchen, the Open Door of Hope, Operation Care; our future is in the work we do with the women at the Diersen Center and the New Life in Christ Christian Church; our hope is in the work and ministry of the Week of Compassion; and I could go on and on, but I think you get the point.

You know what is really jarring in this passage?  In verse two God simply says Moses my servant is dead.  That’s kind of a harsh reality isn’t it?  That is the shortest eulogy in all of Scripture.  But one day I will be gone.  Every minister is eventually gone.  Every Sunday School teacher, every elder, every deacon, is eventually gone.  I don’t mean to be discouraging; what I mean is to offer a clarion call to the future of this congregation that what we do in the present and the decisions we make now will reverberate for years to come. 

In a small community where my mother-in-law used to live, I would often ride a bike around the neighborhoods when we visited.  There was one particular spot that had a thicket of trees, and I often rode past that location.  One day, I stopped for a few minutes to rest there in the shade of the trees, and when I did I spotted something I had never noticed before.  There, buried in that thicket of trees, was an old, abandoned church building.  I was very curious about that old church and of its history.  At some point in time, a person or persons had a vision to start that church.  A vision was presented for the building, and I imagine that when the congregation moved into that building there was a great sense of excitement.  I’ve often wondered what happened to that congregation, what led to its decline and eventual closing.  A vision for a congregation, years later, was now an abandoned building buried in a thicket of trees, almost unnoticeable from the streets surrounding it.

It is a blessing that our church has not only lasted, but continues to thrive after 186 years.  There are many ministries in which we are involved, and tomorrow we begin Vacation Bible School, one of our most important outreach events.  We are blessed by a beautiful, modern facility, we have volunteers who offer so much to enhance all that we do, and so much more.  But let us recommit this day to our mission and ministry, because as successful as was our past, it is not a guarantee of the future.
May God lead us faithfully into that future!

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

July 10, 2016 - Connecting

In recent weeks I have spoken about connecting points, those topics, or points of connection, that have led me from one message to the next.  As I was at church camp last week, that is an obvious connecting point for me.  Along with serving as co-director of the week I was also the keynote speaker (we call it keynote because the word sermon would probably scare the campers.  What?  We have to listen to a sermon?  Every day?).  One of my messages to the campers was about connecting, so obviously, that idea has lodged in my mind.

This morning, then, I want to speak about the topic of connecting, and in doing so I will sum up the three connecting points, the same three that I offered to the campers last week in one of my messages to them – connecting to God, connecting to the church, and connecting with one another.

Our Scripture text is John 15:5-17 –

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.
If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.
If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.
This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.
10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.
11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.
12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.
13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
14 You are my friends if you do what I command.
15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.
16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.
17 This is my command: Love each other.

1.  Connecting to God.
In verse 5 Jesus says, I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.  Jesus uses the analogy of a branch and a vine to make the point of how important it is that we connect with God.  There are, of course, many ways in which we can connect with God.  We connect through worship, through prayer, and Bible study.  We also connect through church camp, next week we will help kids connect through Vacation Bible School, and we are working to establish the Stephen Ministry, which also helps to connect people to God.  All of these we call spiritual practices.  We speak of the manner in which doctors practice medicine, and, in a similar way, we practice our faith.  When we practice our faith it connects us to God.

All of us, I believe, have a God impulse within us, and it is important that we nurture that impulse.  To nurture that impulse we need to explore as many different spiritual practices as possible, in order to strengthen our connection with God.

2.  Connecting to church.
One of the connecting points important in our lives is that of connecting to the church, the body of Christ.  We live in a time when many people speak of themselves as spiritual but not religious.  To some extent, I can understand this impulse.  Some people are hesitant to associate themselves with some of the more negative aspects of the institutional church.  Being honest, most of us have seen some of this, unfortunately.  It remains, however, an important point that a connection to the church is important.  I was not a very good athlete when I was younger and only played organized sports a few times.  Imagine if I had told the coach of any of those teams that I would only show up for games, while skipping practices (in the name of enjoying sports but not wanting to be a team player, or whatever would be the athletic equivalent of spiritual but not religious).  No coach, of course, would accept this, because they would recognize the importance of being connecting to a team as well as to a sport.

I have spoken of my home church on a number of occasions and spoken to you of some of the people there who had a profound impact upon my life, but there are others I will mention today.  Cliff Gunion was one of my Sunday School teachers in high school.  We had a small class and I’m sure he thought we didn’t listen to much of what he had to say, but we did.  I wish I would have told him so when I had the opportunity.  Harold Flohouse was always a friendly greeter when you walked up the steps to our sanctuary (because the church is only one block from the Ohio River the sanctuary is on the second floor of the building.  The same vinyl covering is still on the steps that was there when I was a child, and the steps still creak in the same places.  It was very difficult to sneak in late because of the loud creaking in the steps).  Phyllis Dalton, who still attends the church, is the mother of Steve, one of my best friends from childhood, and his wedding was the first one I ever officiated.  Steve was a drummer, and he and I would set up our instruments in their basement and make a terrible racket.  I can remember his mom suggesting, one summer day, that we should set up our equipment in their back yard.  We thought she wanted to share the music with the entire neighborhood.  Looking back, I understand now that she wanted it out of their basement and was happy to inflict it upon the neighborhood to give herself a break!  When I had the opportunity to visit my home church while on sabbatical last year it was nice to visit with Mrs. Dalton.  I was born into that church.  I was baptized there.  That church sent me to camp.  My dad’s funeral was in that church.  It is simply not possible for me to express how important that church has been to my life and how much it contributed to connecting me to God.

Businesses use many different technologies today to connect people to their services.  But Facebook, Linkedin, and other social media sites pale in comparison to the connections created by the church.  Two millennia have connected billions of people to God and to his church.

Jesus selected twelve to be his closest followers, and in doing so demonstrated that he considered of utmost important that we are to be connected to something beyond ourselves, and being connected to the church is one of the most foundational aspects of being a follower of Jesus.  I’m not saying it is impossible to worship or to be a follower of Jesus outside of the church.  In one sense, it is true that one does not have to attend church in order to be a follower of Jesus.  That being said, a strong and healthy connection to a church can be a tremendous boost to our faith.  For one reason, we are able to partake of the collective wisdom of the church’s two millennia of existence.  When Jesus spoke these words to the disciples I’m sure they understood them to some extent, but we have the wisdom and insight of two thousand years to help us understand them on a deeper level.  As I told the kids at camp last week, you know a lot, but you don’t know everything.  We need others to instruct us and to advise us because we don’t know everything.  Last year, on sabbatical, it was amazing to sit in some of the churches in Europe that are centuries old, and to think about all the wisdom they have to offer.

3.  Connecting to others.
The root of the word religion is religio, which means to bind together.  Unfortunately, some use religion to tear people apart, and we must work to reclaim the meaning of the word religion from those who seek to use it in such destructive ways.

In verse 12 Jesus says, my command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.  The irony of that statement is that you cannot command people to love one another, and I’m sure the disciples understood the irony of Jesus’ words.  What Jesus was communicating to them is this – love for others, even one’s enemies, will be a natural outgrowth of who we are as his followers.  Love does not have to be commanded because we will love others because that is what Jesus did.

While at camp it’s hard to keep up with what is happening in the world.  Cell coverage is very tenuous but we do have wifi, but very little time to read the news.  I did, however, receive the news report about yet another tragic shooting in our country.  My temptation was to say this morning that, as a country, I fear we are tearing ourselves apart at the seams.  Thinking a bit more, however, made me take a more positive point of view.  Yes, we have many struggles and, yes, the pervasive violence is very troubling.  But I refuse to believe that we have become so disconnected that cannot turn towards each other and move to a greater sense of humanity and unity. 

Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends, Jesus said.  We need more love and less hate.  We need greater, not lesser, connectivity to one another.  Stay connected.  Stay connected to God.  Stay connected to the church.  And stay connected to one another.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

July 3, 2016 Through A Glass, Darkly

As you have no doubt noticed, I am almost always preaching in a series.  Following a series helps me to look ahead for a number of weeks and to keep a particular theme on my mind.  When I am not in a series, I generally follow the lectionary.  In the coming weeks, however, I will continue to ask the Spirit to lead me from one connecting point to another.  While I believe the Spirit can certainly work within structure and planning, sometimes it can be helpful to step out of one’s usual structures.

That is what I will do in the coming weeks, as I am following what I call connecting points.  A connecting point is an idea that leads me to another idea, and then to another idea.  Speaking a few weeks ago about love, for instance, I read I Corinthians 13 as the Call to Worship.  Verse 12 of that chapter has embedded itself in my mind the past few weeks and I draw the title of this message from that verse.
Hear now the reading of that verse, and a passage from Mark’s gospel as our Scripture text for today.

12 For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

1The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, except for one loaf they had with them in the boat.
15 “Be careful,” Jesus warned them. “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.”
16 They discussed this with one another and said, “It is because we have no bread.”
17 Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened?
18 Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember?
19 When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”  “Twelve,” they replied.
20 “And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”
They answered, “Seven.”
21 He said to them, “Do you still not understand?”

I am always searching for analogies in life, because analogies help us to learn.  Jesus often used analogies in his teaching as well, and his example of this has led me to do the same.  Jesus used analogies in teaching about the kingdom of God, saying that it was like a mustard seed (Mark 4:30-31), a growing seed (Mark 4:26-29), a treasure hidden in a field (Matthew 13:44-46), and a net (Matthew 13:47-50).

An analogy I would like to offer this morning comes from an event a number of years ago.  In a previous home where we lived, the house has a bow window in the living room, and one summer day, as I looked out the window, I saw quite an unusual sight.  Walking across the sidewalk was a raccoon with a peanut butter jar stuck on its head.  I worried about what would happen to the raccoon if that jar remained on its head, as there was no way it could eat or drink.  Not only could it not eat and drink, the jar prevented it from seeing clearly, so it could easily wander onto the highway, which was highly dangerous.  

I decided I needed to help the raccoon, but I also knew they can be quite vicious creatures when they feel threatened so I wanted to take steps to protect myself.  Going to our garage, I began to look for items that could offer me protection.  A few months before this event, I went home to bring back some of my dad’s tools, as my mom was selling our home place.  Among the items I brought home were a pair of welding gloves that my dad used with his acetylene and electric welders.  The gloves came up to my elbows and were very thick.  I also had a pair of goggles that covered my eyes and a good deal of my face.  Seeking further protection from the claws of the raccoon, I grabbed a few old towels in which I could scoop up the raccoon.  Up to this point, it all seemed like a very good idea.

Going out into the yard, I began chasing the raccoon, trying to catch it so that I could remove the jar from its head.  Passing cars offered some very strange looks at the sight of me, covered in my safety gear, chasing a raccoon with a jar on its head.  Unable to catch the raccoon, I quickly grew frustrated, wondering why the poor animal couldn’t be more willing to allow me to help.  Eventually, I simply gave up.

The analogy I wish to draw from that story is this – just as that raccoon had to see through the distorted lens of a jar on its head, we have a lens through which we see life as well, and that lens often distorts reality and makes it difficult for us to comprehend.  Generally, we aren’t aware of the lens, so we fall into the category of which Paul speaks – we see through a glass darkly.  The passage from Mark’s gospel that we read this morning is a reminder of just how dark that glass can be, and how it either distorts our vision or prevents us from gaining understanding into what God seeks to teach us.  It’s important to remember that Jesus was not giving the disciples a hard time as much as he was offering what we often call a teachable moment.  Jesus was attempting to help them see through that glass, endeavoring to bring their understanding to a greater level of clarity.

As we speak of Through A Glass Darkly this morning, I want to offer three thoughts –

1.  Life Is Always Deeper Than What We Think.
Speaking to Nicodemus, Jesus said the wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.  These words of Jesus are a remind that there is always more to life than what we see on the surface.  As we believe that God is the creator of this unbelievable vast universe it then becomes necessary for us to remember that we have a tendency to make God too small. 

God is always working in the background, just as Jesus says about his spirit.  We cannot see the wind, but we can see its effects.  We can see the trees and the grass move even if we cannot see the wind itself.  Similarly, we do not see God, but we see the effects of him moving in the world, in our lives, and in the lives of others.

We certainly make God small when we believe in only what we see.  I love science, and the benefits it brings to our lives, but it does have its limitations.  One of those limitations is that it leads some people to believe that if one cannot see something, measure it, test it, and touch it, it cannot be real.  Nothing is farther from the truth!

Jesus confronted this as he spoke about the Pharisees, in verses 11-12 – the Pharisees came and began to question Jesus.  To test him, they asked him for a sign from heaven.  He sighed deeply and said, “Why does this generation ask for a miraculous sign?  I tell you the truth, no sign will be given to it.”  Here is what I would say to those who always desire to see evidence of God – how much evidence is needed, and what is evidence?  It seems to me there is plenty of evidence all around us.  Why is it that people who want evidence never seem to find it?  And why does faith need evidence?

2.  We Do Get Glimpses.
You see me put on my reading glasses at various times on Sunday mornings.  I don’t struggle as much if I have very good lighting.  Sometimes, when Tanya and I go out to eat at a nice restaurant, I kill the mood because of my inability to read the menu.  You know how those restaurants can be when it comes to reading a menu – the lighting is dim and there is a sheen on the menu, which makes it hard for me to read.  So I do what I have to do – I put on my glasses and then I find it necessary for more help, so I take out my phone, open the flashlight app, and shine it on the menu.  Getting down close to the menu I can then say I’ll have the big stack of onion rings!  It really makes a great impression on Tanya.

Some of you have benefitted greatly from Lasik or cataract surgery, so you know what it is like to awaken to better vision.  Even though we see through a glass darkly, we still get some glimpses of what God is doing, thankfully.  I hope to get some glimpses while at camp this week, and I certainly hope and pray that the students get some glimpses.  Jesus certainly gave some glimpses, some of them very big glimpses, such as the raising of Lazarus (John 11:38-44), the healing of the blind man at Bethsaida (Mark 8:22-26), and the healing of the paralytic, brought to Jesus by his friends (Mark 1:1-12).  Some of the glimpses were easier for some to miss, such as when Jesus went to the home of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10).  Jesus was demonstrating his love for all people, but many missed that glimpse into his character because of their dislike of Zacchaeus.

Thankfully, even though we see through a glass darkly, we still get glimpses of the other side.

3.  Those Glimpses Are Given to Help Us See God.
Jesus asked his disciples don’t you remember?  When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up? (18-19).  Jesus was attempting to get the disciples to focus their vision, to understand that they had been given a glimpse of what God is like and the manner in which he operates.

One of the reasons why God gives us glimpses is in order to remind us that we are made in his image.  Sometimes, we seek to make God into our image, and place upon him all of our characteristics.  We want him to love those whom we love, we want him to like what we like, and we want him to act in the same ways in which we act.  But God wants us to see him as he is, not as we wish him to be.  God wants us to love those whom he loves, to act in the ways he acts, and to seek to be like him. 

Yes, we do see through a glass darkly, but we are given enough understanding from God that we can wipe away the human-added smudges that make it difficult to see clearly.  I don’t always see what’s on the other side, but I have received enough glimpses to believe in it.  I see some of those glimpses in you, I see those glimpses in the work of this congregation in Vacation Bible School, at God’s Kitchen, at the Serenity Center, in hospitals, nursing homes, and even in funeral homes.  I hope to get some of those glimpses at camp this week.

By the way, that raccoon that I mentioned.  A few days after chasing him around the yard I found the jar.  Thankfully, he had been able to get it off of his head and go on his way, seeing much more clearly.  One day we will also see more clearly, as Paul says For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face.  For now, we get a glimpse, but one day, it all will be made clear!