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October 10, 2016, 3:35 PM

Nones and Dones

  The “Nones” and the “Dones” are growing faster than Christians in America.

    “Nones” are people who profess no allegiance to any religious group.  Some are atheists or agnositics, others claim to be “spiritual” in some vague sense.  Many “Nones” still go to church because they fear being condemned or rejected by family and friends.  But, many eventually join the “Dones.”   The “Dones” are people who may have lost their faith, or whose faith has been so bruised by churches, that they cannot bring themselves to participate any more.

    The Nones and the Dones make up approximately 25% of the American public as a whole (75 million people) and about a third of those under the age of thirty.  Their numbers are growing faster than any religious group.

     The church is failing to reach these people, and failing badly.

     Simply telling them to “read the Bible” does not help. I know atheists who are more biblically literate than many Christians.  Richard Dawkins, one of the most outspoken critics of religion today, advocates for the Bible being taught in schools because he says no other book has led more people to atheism!  They find a book filled with contradictions (and yes, they ARE there).  They find stories of God commanding genocide, condoning slavery, and oppressing women.  They see stories that are disproven by science. 

     I’ve been reading a powerful book entitled, God in the Waves by Mike McHargue, who grew up as a fundamentalist Southern Baptist who was steeped in a literal interpretation of Scripture. He was a deacon in his church and taught Sunday School.  But, after reading through the Bible several times, he actually lost his faith.  His rigorous training in science and logic crashed into his church’s view of biblical interpretation.  The Bible didn’t survive the impact, and God “died” in the wreckage.  At least, that’s how it felt to him.

     He lived for years as a convinced atheist.  But, then an utterly surprising and overwhelming spiritual experience left him feeling that there was a deeper truth at work in the universe for which the word “God” seemed the only adequate term.  But it was not the God of his earlier life, and this God, though more mysterious, he actually found in science as well as Scripture.

    These days, he gets attacked by both atheists and Christians for not being sufficiently orthodox.  But, others find hope in his story.  I think it is an astounding book and I highly recommend it.  (By the way…he is now a United Methodist.)

    Ironically, both fundamentalist Christians and outspoken atheists insist that the Bible only be taken literally.  They insist that if you read it that way, you surely become a believer…or a non-believer. 

     The church is going to have to find a better way to make its case.  Certainly not by disposing of the Bible, but by presenting it in a way which honestly admits and confronts its vexing issues and problems.  There ARE ways to do this, but it involves shucking off a lot of old thinking. We also need to understand the perspective of people who don’t believe, have never believed, don’t see a reason to believe, or whose belief was so abused that they are too afraid to believe.  That perspective can be painful to hear, but it’s the first step in reaching them.

     For churches filled with people who have marinated in belief all their lives, and often can’t remember a time when they didn’t believe in God, Jesus, and the Scriptures, this is very hard.  Many church people want to hear the old, old story told in a with which they are familiar and comfortable. It’s an understandable desire. But, if the church only caters to the believers already in it, it will never win any non-believers outside of it.  Right now, the church is clearly failing in this regard.  Yet this is the primary mission of the church! 

     The purpose of evangelism is to share the Good News of Jesus Christ so that everyone might have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10).  Our task is to proclaim freedom for prisoners, sight for the blind, and freedom to the oppressed (Luke 4:18).  Our task is to share and live out a message which is life and world transforming.  Our task is to share a message which liberates us from the selfishness and self-destruction of sin and gives us a new life.

     Too often, the church comes across as a dispensary for guilt and fear and not really that different from the rest of the world.

     Maybe these societal assumptions about the church are wrong and unfair.  But they are out there, and we will have to challenge them to get our message across.  The only way we can do this is to confront hard truths.  For as Jesus said, “the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32)

     I am working on ways to reach out to the Nones and Dones.  This will involve preaching and teaching in ways that are different, at times.  Because the old ones just aren’t doing the job. I ask for your prayers, and hope for your support and ideas.  

August 24, 2016, 2:03 PM

Acts of God and Bottled Water from Nacagdoches

  We call them “acts of God.”

  Last night, an earthquake devastated part of Italy.  Two weeks ago, torrential rains flooded vast portions of Louisiana.  For weeks, large parts of California have been consumed in flames, and much of the state suffers from a disastrous drought which has lasted for years.

   For many, these “acts of God” seem to be proof that there is no God and we are vulnerable to the randomly destructive acts of blind nature.

   Some folks try to ascribe divine motives to these catastrophes.  Usually in the form of a divine judgment against some group whom they believe has especially offended God or the gods.  Tony Perkins, the head of the Family Research Council, who had previously opined that hurricanes were God’s punishment meted out against gay people, recently had his Baton Rouge home wrecked by the floods.

   It would seem that God’s aim is not very precise. 

   Most people, including most Christians, are not inclined to attribute every natural disaster and the suffering they crate, to a vengeful God.  Jesus himself said that God causes the rain to fall upon the just and the unjust, alike.  Sometimes those rains are a blessing, sometimes they are a burden.

   But, even if you don’t ascribe to theories of weather and geology being driven by divine wrath, you are faced with the question of why a good God would allow such catastrophes?

  Perhaps the mechanics of an earthquake, and a bit of astrophysics, can be instructive.

  Earthquakes are the result of large tectonic plates shifting and grinding against each other, as they  float on a vast ocean of molten rock.  This rock (magma) is constantly flowing in vast tides.    The tides themselves are driven by a constantly spinning core of molten iron at the center of the planet.

   If that molten core were to stop spinning, the friction keeping the deeper parts of the Earth molten would cease, and the interior of the Earth would cool off.  The magma would turn solid and earth quakes would cease!  That would seem a blessing.  However, as they say in late-night infomercials, “But wait!  There’s more!”

   That spinning iron core acts as a colossal electromagnet which generates a kind of force field around our planet.  That force field, deflects enormous amounts of charged particles constantly spewing from the Sun toward Earth.  It’s known as the Solar Wind.

    Without our force field, the Solar Wind would eventually “sand blast” our atmosphere away,  as it did on Mars, which has no molten core.  The Solar Wind would also basically sterilize the surface of our planet, as it appears to have done on Mars.

   So, the very engine that drives earthquakes also makes life on this planet possible!  All things being equal, I’ll take the earthquakes over planetary extinction.

   Life on Earth is sustained by an astonishing balancing act, involving forces both cosmically immense and sub-atomically delicate.  Sometimes, our desires and designs in conformity with those balances, and other times, not.  That the universe is balanced in such a way is cause for awe and wonder.  If the events we experience as disasters are “acts of God” then so is that overwhelming harmony which makes life possible in the first place.  As Einstein put it, “There are only two ways to look at your life.  One is as though there are no miracles.  The other is as thought everything is a miracle.”

   There simply is no blessing that is not accompanied by a burden.  The weather systems which sustain life, also deal out death.  Not out of any malice, but because we run afoul of the titanic power of those systems.

   However, there is good reason to believe we are now impacting the global weather system by spewing billions of tons of carbon dioxide and other contaminants into it.  We definitely thinned the protective ozone layer with chemical we used for air-conditioning and stuff like hair spray.  We sickened vast areas of forestland with acid rain for decades.  These problems have been greatly eased by regulations that caused these pollutants to be significantly reduced.  The ozone and the forests are slowly coming back.

   But, the issue of global climate change still hangs over us.  And there are other ways in which we are damaging our life-sustaining ecosystem.  In a few decades, the amount of waste plastic dumped into our oceans will exceed the weight of all the fish in those oceans!  That is a dangerous and appalling trend.

   If there are mass extinctions of aquatic life as a result of our dreadful abuse of the oceans, if there are devastating storms and droughts because we have contaminated the atmosphere…are those “acts of God?”

   Whether a disaster has a human caused component or not (and they all probably do), there is one more “act of God” that such moments can generate.

   In each of the ongoing disaster making news right now, you can see the presence of brave, compassionate, selfless people who have rushed into the ravaged area, sometimes at great person risk, to come to the aid of the afflicted.  The same God who sets into motion and into balance, forces both wondrous and terrible, is the One who propels people into the places where others have been overrun by the forces which can be so deadly, even as they make life possible.  Their love is part of what holds creation together, and it is a reflection of the mysterious power which brings us into existence.  In fact, it is woven into the very fabric of our existence.

   I would submit that the acts of mercy and generosity which we see evidenced in times of catastrophe are “acts of God.”

   As I watched the floods in Louisiana, I recalled the Great Flood of ’93.  I was serving a church in Moline, IL, at the time, which was one of the first cities affected by the overflowing of the Mississippi.  The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) opened a warehouse for the distribution of relief supplies, within a few days.  I was there for the opening and worked at it several times.  On that first days, shortly after the doors opened, a big semi-trailer truck from Nacagdoches, TX arrived, filled with thousands of bottles of drinking water.

   One of the ironies of big floods is that people run out of drinking water, because contaminated river water overwhelms water purification systems.  So, the bottled water was a godsend.  The driver  said his company had given him permission to bring the water, and that it was a gift from the United Methodist churches of Nacagdoches.

   There was further irony.  That part of Texas was in the grip of a terrible drought.  These people knew full-well what it was like to be without water.  But, they made a point of sharing what they could, so that people they did not know, would not go thristy.  It’s the kind of love which holds the world together.

   And if nature is oblivious and impartial in the way it metes out blessing and disaster.  It is acts of God like a truck full of water from dry Nacagdoches which allow us to endure and triumph.

July 19, 2016, 12:00 AM

Lying at the Speed of Light

There is an adage attributed to Mark Twain that goes, ‘A lie travels around the globe while the truth is putting on its shoes.”

But, Mark Twain never said it.  We’re not  sure who first did, although the satirist Jonathon Swift who wrote “Gulliver’s Travels” did write, “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.”

The adage is true enough.  But, the fact that it is usually incorrectly attributed to Twain, is an example of how truth, error, and outright falsehood can be so easily intertwined and rapidly spread.

We live in an era in which falsehoods, errors, and innuendos can literally spread at the speed of light.  And, way too often, we Christians are complicit in this.

The events of the past week, in which there were two controversial instances of police using deadly force, and then a maniacal mass shooting targeting police, all sorts of claims and counter-claims have been made concerning the facts of these cases.

In the initial confusion and panic in Dallas, a picture of a man carrying an assault rifle was spread across the internet.  He was a “person of interest” whom many people instantly assumed was the shooter.  He turned out not to be the guilty party, or involved in any way in the attack.  In fact, when the shooting began, he turned over his weapon to a police officer and fled the scene…precisely because he didn’t want to be confused with the sniper.   It was the smart move to make.  Even though he has been completely exonerated, he has received hundreds of death threats.

Lies have a curious way of persisting, when they trigger our fears.  For decades, Christians sent thousands  of petitions  to the Federal Communication Commission, because they were told the FCC was about to ban all religious broadcasting, due to a petition from the atheist Madelyn Murray O’Hair.  But, O’Hair had never launched such a drive.  Religious broadcasting had never been under any serious threat.  But, the outrage cost the taxpayers untold thousands of dollars because the FCC had to respond to all the angry Christians who never stopped to check the truth of the story.

Ms. O’Hair thought it was hilarious and said that it just proved how gullible Christians are.  The petitions persisted long after she was murdered by a follower.

I wrote an article for our Conference newspaper,  nearly twenty years after first seeing one of these petitions, in which I explained that the whole things was an urban myth. I also said that Christians would do well to worry about real problems, rather than mythical ones.  For my trouble, I got an angry letter from a woman who was just furious at me for sharing the truth about this myth!  I guess she had been distributing petitions to stop the non-existence threat and she really resented me pointing out that it was bogus!  It was a story that fed her particular fears/angers/biases and she resented losing it.

We are in a highly partisan time in which half-truths and outright lies are spread, literally at the speed of light, by people who simply assume they are true, because they agree with their opinions..

I have a dear friend  who lives in another part of the state, who frequently posts stuff on Facebook on a variety of political and religious issues that is factually wrong.  But, they seem to back this person’s  personal opinions, so my friend posts them without checking their veracity.   As the late Sen. Daniel Moynihan said (and yes, he really said it, I checked), “You are entitled to your own opinions, but not to your own facts.”

I will post something showing that the information my friend is sharing is demonstrably wrong.  My friend will then say something to the effect of, “LOL You got me again.  I really should check this stuff, first.”  But, within a few days or weeks…there will be another post filled with bad information that can be easily disproven with a quick check.

I will readily confess that I have posted stuff on occasion that proved to be either just plain false, or not entirely accurate.  But, I try to correct my errors when I do.

I have also adopted a rule of thumb, which I will recommend to you…

First…If you’re tempted to share something, because it  fits your worst opinions of someone or something,  for God’s sake, take the time to check it out, first.  I mean it when I say, “for God’s sake.”  As Christians, we are commanded not to bear false witness or engage in malicious gossip.  Spreading  false rumors  is doing just that. It is quite literally, “bearing false witness.”  (Check out that Ninth Commandment)

We too often spread misinformation and outright lies, simply because we feel they justify our opinions.  And usually those are negative opinions about someone with whom we disagree.  Our acts of false witness usually involve trash talking people we don’t like.

PLEASE…Before posting something trashing a politician or public figure, take a few moments to verify the story you’re spreading.  A few excellent sites for doing so are, Politifact, and Hoax Slayer.

Second…Seeing is NOT believing.  We live in the era of Photoshop and I frequently see doctored pictures of public figures.  Just because there is a picture,  doesn’t  mean it’s true.  A helpful way to check is to use a site called TinEye, which tracks down the first time the picture appeared on the internet.  I first used it to check a photo that claimed to show the American ambassador who was killed in Benghazi being tortured by Libyans.  A quick check with TinEye revealed that the photo first appeared on the internet two years before the attack.  It was apparently from a movie.

In a few months, we will be making decisions about who will occupy this nation’s highest offices.  Such decisions should be based on truthful, accurate information.  Not rumors, innuendo, and outright lies spread on the internet.

In the Letter of James, the writer denounces gossip and writes, The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.”  He probably would have said something similar about the keyboard, today.

We would do well to remember that Jesus was crucified, based on false and distorted testimony.  We do the same, when we share dark untruths  at the speed of light.

July 1, 2016, 10:04 AM

Having Fun with Big Questions

Having Fun with Big Questions

   I’m having fun with the Re:form Class, our new intergenerational class which is open to people who are age twelve through infinity.  We meet at 10:30 in the Fellowship Class Room.  The class has been growing, but there’s certainly room for more folks, and I would especially be glad to see more young people, younger adults, and families.  It is important for parents and children to work on forming their faith together.

   The class begins with a video which is clever…even a bit goofy.  But then, you realize it’s making seriously profound point.  Here’s an example.  A video dealing with the question of how Jesus could be God…

   We are about to complete a few weeks of reflection on the Bible…how it came to be, why it contradicts itself at times,  how we are to view its authority, etc.  You know, easy stuff!  Beginning in July, we will look at doctrinal questions… What we believe and why.  The first question is a biggie…

Can we prove God exists?

   It may surprise you to learn that the  Bible never actually  tries to prove God’s existence, but treats it simply as a given.    However, there are many people who doubt or deny the existence of God, which pretty much gets in the way of accepting the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  So, how do we respond to those doubts?   (And let’s be honest, we have ALL had them at some point.)

   There are some useful things to keep in mind when wrestling with this issue, and we will discuss them in the Re:form Class.  If you haven’t been part of a Sunday School class, or if you have wrestled with your faith, you are welcome!


May 3, 2016, 8:55 PM

Of Grace and a Bum Pancreas

   For the last few months, I have been dealing with a medical condition that can range in effect from occasional discomfort, to chronic pain, to  a disorder so serious that it can lead to hospitalization, and in extreme cases…death.

   No, I’m not terminally ill (at least no more than anyone else).  But, to be honest, I did worry that I might have cancer.  I was experiencing pain in my abdominal area, and back, which caused me growing concern as it steadily worsened.  As this mysterious condition intensified,  it struck me that the pain began after I started using an injectable diabetes drug (Victoza).  One weekend, the pain became so bad that I decided to discontinue the shots and go back to my old medicine.  The pain did not disappear, but it did seem to abate a little bit, and I called my doctor who had me tested for pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas, the organ which naturally produces insulin.

   As a Type-2 diabetic, my pancreas still functions, but not adequately.  Type-1 diabetes (the most serious form) occurs when the pancreas fails completely.  If that happens, I will have to go on insulin for the rest of my life.

   The tests confirmed I have pancreatitis.  In reading about the disorder, I noted that there doesn’t seem to be a cure.  While my condition has improved since changing medicines, I don’t know if it will ever get entirely better.   I still feel discomfort, and sometimes  outright pain, and it seems to be impossible to know when those moments will strike.  I am feeling discomfort, even as I write this, but earlier today, I felt fine.

   It seems possible that I will have to contend with this condition to some degree for a long time.  Maybe for the rest of my life.

   That makes two chronic, currently uncurable, and even potentially life-threatening conditions, with which I must deal.  It was treating the first, that caused the second.

   I know many of you have had similar experiences.

   The human body is an astonishingly complex organism that functions through a series of incredibly delicate balances.  If one thing goes out of whack, it can easily knock others off-track.  Even the act of trying to fix a problem can lead to more problems.  Sometimes, worse problems.

   When confronted with situations like this, one can choose to rail against the unfairness of it all.  And, I don’t mind telling you I am a bit ticked-off to have to deal with all this.  But then, I remember how many other astounding processes continue to go smoothly…even in my ageing body.  Actually, the amazing thing isn’t that some of them have gone somewhat painfully and dangerously awry, but that so many continue to work with such reliability and resilience.

   Years ago, a colleague of mine attended a symposium on medicine and religion.  During a panel discussion, an immunologist was asked, “Why do we get sick?” 

   The doctor laughed and said, “Sick?!?  We don’t know why we are ever well!  There’s stuff floating in every one of our systems right now, that ought to kill us, and yet our bodies silently and efficiently hold them at bay without us even noticing!”

   I’ve always thought that was a pretty good example of grace.  And, it provides needed perspective.

   The day may come when my injured and faltering pancreas fails completely.  I will not be happy about that.  But, it need not be a death sentence, as it was in this country, not so long ago, and as it is in so many others, even today.

   It frustrates me that I can’t eat any more  S’Mores.  In fact,  I am currently struggling with a low-carb diet that is dreadfully dull, and which can cause my blood sugar to plummet so that I go weak in the knees.  (That happened just an hour before I wrote this.)

   I’m peeved that a medicine we hoped would make me better has actually made me worse.  But, I also understand that no medicine is without risks, and I’m not planning on suing anybody because I got the short-end of the stick on this one.

   All in all, I would rather be lying in a hammock in Tahiti eating Krispy Kremes.  But that’s not gonna happen. If I choose to just resent my status and gripe about it, I will not get either physically or spiritually better.  I can guarantee I will only worsen.

   But, if I use this experience to better understand the difficulties of others and to better appreciate what DOES work in my life and my body, then I can draw something positive from this.  The process of redemption is the application of grace to suffering in such a way that it eases the pain of the world.

   God’s grace was able to transform the cross…an instrument of oppression, terror, cruelty, and suffering, and turn it to a symbol of hope for forgiveness, mercy, and new life.  Jesus did not enjoy every aspect of this process, and I’m not so narcissistic as to believe God owes me a comfortable ride just because I’m a Christian.

   After Job has his life basically blown to smithereens, his exasperated and grieving wife tells him he should just curse God and die.  Job responds, "You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?"

   Some people like to believe that God only sends us happiness and comfort.  But, often what is good for us, tastes like Castor Oil, and what God needs us to do for the larger world is seriously inconvenient and downright painful.  What we do with that pain is what can give hope to the world and purpose to our existence.

   I don’t believe God gave me diabetes or pancreatitis to make some point.  But, I think my situation can be used for good, if I am open to the possibility that grace can work in difficult and painful circumstances.  With that faith, I can bring something good out of my situation, and that is redemptive.

   That is my hope.


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