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December 1, 2016, 1:28 PM

Marking Time

Jesus was literally a man ahead of his time.

When we declare this to be the year 2016 AD, we supposedly use the birth of Jesus as our benchmark.  It is a sign of his influence that we mark time in this way.  By the way…the initials AD, do not mean “After Death.”  The calendar was never reckoned by the date of his death, but by the date of his birth. The initials stand for the Latin word “Anno Domini” which means “Year of the Lord” in Latin.

But, the accuracy of the benchmark is pretty dubious.  No one knows for certain, exactly when Jesus was born.  The Scriptures provide no date, and the few clues they provide are rather vague.  But scholars are in agreement, that our current dating system missed the most likely period in which his birth may have taken place by four to six years.

In short, Jesus was probably born somewhere between 6-4 BC.  So, he was born “Before Christ” as our calendars reckon such things.  A man ahead of his time…

Of course, we don’t know on what day or in what month he was born.  The earliest Christians didn’t celebrate Jesus’ birthday.  We’re not sure when they started doing so.  The first historical mentions of it come in the fourth century, but they indicate that celebrations had been going on for some time.

The date for Christmas  (The Christ Mass) was established by the church, probably to compete with pagan festivals marking the passing of the Winter Solstice, after which each day began to have a minute more of sunlight.  The “return of the light” was a cause to celebrate in many cultures, and the Christian adopted the tradition, using it as a metaphor for the coming of the Light of the World.  But, the church has never claimed December 25 was Jesus’ actual birthday.

It’s interesting that the man whose life would provide the very turning point upon which we mark the times of our lives, was born in such utter obscurity that no one, even a few decades later, could say with any certainty when he was born.  But, at the time, the birth of one more Jewish peasant child was hardly regarded as a big deal by most of the world.  Wise Men, shepherds, and angels notwithstanding, his birth didn’t make much of an impression at the time.

But, unbeknownst to so much of the world, God was present and at work in a way that would surprise, startle, and stun.  The unknown child born to obscure parents would, in God’s good time, would have such an impact upon humanity that we mark time by his coming.

God has a way of surprising us.  That’s why Jesus constantly advised people to be watchful.  The divine can appear amidst the mundane and the unexpected.  Worship is one way we practice watchfulness and open ourselves to be surprised by the presence of the One who is nicknamed Emmanuel (God With Us).  I hope you will make a point of joining with us in worship.  Take time to be with the One by whom we mark time, and be prepared to discover God’s surprising presence, afresh.

October 27, 2016, 5:37 PM

How to Really Win This Ugly Eelection


We are slogging to the conclusion of the nastiest campaign season I have ever witnessed.  I’m not just talking about the Presidential campaign, I am talking about politics at almost every level.

Frankly, it feels like we're ALL losing this election.

We Southern Illinoisans are bombarded by political ads from Illinois, Missouri, and Kentucky.  Campaigns in all these states for virtually every office, have been long on insults, accusations, and questionable claims. 

Candidates have demonized each other to such a degree that we are left feeling  there are no good choices, and the best we can do is elect the lesser of two great evils.  As I watch them trash each other, I am reminded of a story Jesus told…

 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”  (Luke 18: 9-14)

Pharisees were religious leaders known for strictly keeping  Jewish religious customs and laws.  The word “Pharisee” meant “Separated.”  They sought to separate themselves from people they deemed sinful.  But in the process, the Pharisees often became self-righteous, like the guy in Jesus’ story, who yammered on about how holy he was, and how he kept all the religious rules of the time. 

His prayer bragging about how wonderful he was, closes with him tossing a sneer toward the tax collector and telling God he was glad that he wasn’t like him.

Tax collectors were hated, and not just because people don’t enjoy paying taxes.  They collected taxes to pay the salaries of the hated Roman army which occupied the country.  Roman swords backed them up. So, it was easy for the Pharisee to look on him with contempt.

Jesus’ listeners may have seen the Pharisee as full of himself, but they would have hated the tax collector more.  They would have been a hundred and eighty nine different kinds of shocked to hear Jesus say that God was more pleased with the tax collector than the rabbi. (By the way, you just read the winning ticket number.)

Jesus saw humility as an essential spiritual quality.  The Christian writer, C.S. Lewis, has stated, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself.  It’s thinking of yourself  less.”  The Christian mystic, Thomas Merton wrote, “Pride makes us artificial, humility makes us real.”

The need to tear down others is a product of pride.  And we see way too much of it in today’s politics.  Heck, we see too little of it in the rest of society, too.  We live in a time when narcissism is celebrated and all sorts of people feel entitled to attention, power, praise, and privilege.  We’re the selfie-culture.

Jesus warned that pride is having a log stuck in your own eye, that you can’t see, while pointing out and criticizing the speck in someone else’s eye.  It blinds you to your own need for improvement and correction.  Proud people think they have it all together, humble people know better.

Jesus laid out a principle for true leadership to his followers when he said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.”

Humility and service are hallmarks of true leadership.  Campaigns marked by trashing your opponents don’t speak of humility.

Maybe we should consider rewarding those few who at least do less trashing than the others.  Perhaps that’s how we begin to walk-back this dreadful and demoralizing trend.

In the meantime, we can make sure this toxic political trend does not infect us.  Please take time to find something positive to say.  In fact, let me be so bold as to suggest you find something good to say about someone with whom you disagree…maybe about politics.  Make a point of sharing that affirmation with them and others.

It’s a small things, I grant you.  But someone has to start healing the wounds we have been inflicting on our weary nation.

That would be a win for us all.

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.

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