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April 5, 2017, 8:16 PM

Dark Energy and the Risen Lord

I recently watched a television documentary which focused on the events leading up to the death of Jesus.  It offered some interesting theories and a radically altered timeline, which posited the idea that he was actually in Jerusalem for up to six months between his entry into the city, which we celebrate on Palm Sunday, and his arrest, trial, and crucifixion.

It’s an interesting theory, though I don’t think it affects the story that much.

The documentary ends with Jesus’ death and states that his followers continued to share his message “in his memory.”  They don’t even mention the fantastic claim his disciples made about Jesus being raised from death at the end of their narrative.

They offer no explanation as to why the disciples would make such an outlandish proclamation.

Yet, saying Jesus had been raised was a mortally dangerous enterprise.  To claim that God had raised a man whom Rome had put to death for political subversion, and whom the religious establishment of Israel had condemned as a blasphemer, was profoundly hazardous.  Whereas, if they had simply said, “Jesus’  teachings and example are so powerful that it is like he is still alive” they would saved themselves  enormous  danger, difficulty…and some pretty gruesome deaths.

Still, they persisted in making this wild and dangerous claim about a man whom the religious and political establishments and popular opinion had utterly and bloodily rejected.  There is quite literally no other person in history whose career ended so disastrously and who has ended up being worshipped by billions.  How do you explain that?

It’s worth noting that there really was no expectation that the Messiah would be put to death in an ignominious way, or that he would be resurrected.  In fact, a significant segment of the Jewish population, the Sadduccees,  denied that resurrection would happen for anybody.  So it wasn’t like Jesus’ followers simply latched on to some already existing popular notion of how the Messiah was supposed to work and grafted Jesus into.  He was waaaaay outside of the box.  He simply wasn’t what anybody was expecting.  So his followers really had to swim against the tide to convince people that Jesus was the Risen Christ.

But, still they persisted and insisted that was what had happened, in spite of widespread skepticism and lethal hostility.

No other person who claimed to be the Messiah, or whose followers made such a claim, ever got any traction.  In this, Jesus is utterly unique in the history of the human race.

Despite what seemed to be total rejection and catastrophic defeat, he alone is still proclaimed as God’s Anointed…the Living Son of the Living God.

The documentary I saw had a lot of excellent historical detail and background in it, and worked hard to explain the events leading up to Jesus’ death. While I am not sure I buy all their premises,  I think they are worthy of consideration.  But, in the end, the producers found themselves confronting a mystery for which they had no easy explanation…so they basically ignored it.

Why do we remember this guy?

At least some of the people who produced the documentary  were clearly not Christians.  Yet, they put a lot of labor and thought into this production, and not just to  debunk the story.  But why bother with it at all, unless even nonbelievers, skeptics, and agnostics must acknowledge that this mysterious character has an effect on all of us, even twenty centuries later?

Something happened that pivoted history, and Jesus was at the center of it.

Try as we might to explain him away, and tame him to conform to our social, cultural, and ideological biases, the man just won’t be contained or easily defined.  He defies us all.

Those who claim to be his friends and those who declare themselves his foes have done their damnedest  to discredit and dismiss this Galilean hillbilly carpenter who was raised in a jerkwater little burg in an obscure part of an empire that didn’t even break a sweat when it crushed him.

But he simply would not stay crushed.  And, people dangerously proclaimed that he was…and is….much more than a sainted memory.

I am a space geek and fascinated by astrophysics and cosmology (the study of the nature and origin of the universe).  A couple decades ago, many scientists thought they had a pretty good bead on a thorough understanding of the workings of the universe.  Just a few questions remained and confidence was high that we would soon answer them.

 But then, that confidence was shattered with the discovery of “dark matter” and “dark energy.”  We call them “dark” because we honest-to-God don’t know what they are made of.  We don’t so much see this matter and energy as we see their effects.  We know (at least we think we know) they are out there, but we don’t know what they are.  It’s  like seeing the effects of wind, without being able to see the air.  In fact, it now seems likely that over 95% of the universe is made this dark stuff!

Astrophysics and cosmology have had to go back to the drawing board in a significant way.  The very fabric of reality has become enmeshed in deep mystery, just as we thought we had it all figured out.

Scholars, skeptics, and believers all have unanswered questions about Jesus.  And like the universe which seems to refuse being figured out, Jesus is bigger than our ideas about him…elusive, powerful, compelling…alive.

If you ask me what I believe happened that Sunday morning after the crucifixion and gory death of Jesus, I will readily confess that I cannot know for certain.  But, as perplexing and implausible as his walking out of that tomb may seem, the other “explanations” for his lasting power and presence don’t really work any better.

I believe he rose.  What I know is that the grave could not and does not contain him.  He still challenges and comforts us in astonishing ways.  That makes him alive enough for me to say, “Christ IS Risen!”

January 26, 2017, 11:45 AM

Worship That Respects People With Autism

Jesus was all about including the excluded.

That is also supposed to be the work of the church. 

We are called to love and care for people who are often considered “high maintenance” by most of society.  People who are too often excluded because they are different and sometimes difficult.

In the last church I served, there was a wonderful young family that faced the challenges of raising two boys with autism.  One was pretty high functioning, the other was less so.

Their mother would bring the son who was more comfortable among people to a small service we held on Saturdays which was much more intimate and informal.  I put him to work operating the computer for our video presentations, and he loved feeling useful.

But, the other son, would still have had difficulty in either that service or the more conventional one we had on Sunday morning.  So, his father stayed home with him.

It always frustrated me that the family had to split up for worship, and that we didn’t have a good way to get through to that boy, who still needed to know that he was loved and valuable.  We weren’t intentionally excluding him.  There was certainly no one who wished to reject him.  But, neither we nor his parents, knew of a good way to include him.

Recently, a friend told me about a program called “Rhythms of Grace” which was developed in the Episcopal Church.  There are not a lot of churches that use this curriculum, and none are listed in Illinois.  But, I am in touch with a church in Houston that has been using the material for over a year, nd they are happy to help us with advice born of practical experience.

Now, the question is…Are there people in our area who would avail themselves of a monthly worship service specifically designed for people with autism?

Because of confidentiality rules, and church and state standards, we cannot go to the schools and ask for lists of children with autism and their families, nor can we advertise in them.

Fortunately, The Autism Program (TAP) at SIU serves many families with autistic members and they have agreed to post some information letting clients know that our church may create a special worship for people with autism, if they will contact us and let us know they are interested.

While there would be few people in the immediate Tri-C area who would need such services, there may be several within a few minutes’ drive of Carterville who would appreciate a chance to nourish themselves spiritually and be part of a fellowship which cares about them and their children.

We will see.

If you know anyone who might desire this service, please have them contact the church.  They can e-mail us at

Jesus welcomes and embraced people whom most folks in his time ignored or outright rejected.  He refused to write anyone off as too imperfect, too damaged, too faulty to be loved.  As people who seek to follow him, we need to make a point of not simply passively “welcoming” such people, but actively seeking them out, to let them know they are among the beloved.

To do so is not just good for their souls.  It’s good for ours!

December 19, 2016, 12:00 AM

Un-Holy God

The Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus was born in a stable in the town of Bethlehem, which is about six miles from Jerusalem, where the great Temple stood

In the innermost precinct of the Temple was a sanctuary called the Holy of Holies, which was considered the throne room of God on Earth. 

The word “holy” essentially means “set apart.”  The holiness of God meant that God was utterly above, absolutely beyond, and entirely more pure than we sinful mortals.  In fact, in the Jesus’s  time God’s holiness was stressed to such a point that the name of God which was considered most holy (Yahweh) was not spoken by the common people.  It was considered profoundly disrespectful for an ordinary person to bandy about the Holy Name.  Instead, the normally used the name “Adonai” which translates as ‘Lord.”

The only time the Holy Name was uttered was in the Holy of Holies, by the Chief Priest of Israel, during the most sacred ceremonies.  Otherwise, God was too unapproachable and too pure to be addressed by name.

But, instead of maintaining a safe heavenly distance from our messy, sinful world…instead of remaining inside the gold and marble confines of the Holy of Holies…we proclaim that the God whose name people were too afraid to even speak aloud, chose to enter the world in a dank cave that served as a stable.  We proclaim that God stepped into the frail flesh of a peasant baby whose first crib was an animal feeding trough.  We proclaim that instead of appearing to priests in the Holy of Holies, he was introduced to grubby sheep herders.

This is a God who plunges into the muck, mire, and mess of the world to let us know how passionately we are loved and that we are not alone in our struggles.  This is a God who identifies with the human, the broken, the downtrodden, the left-out, and the stepped-upon.  This is a God who knows what it is to be us, and does not simply coldly observe us from a safe distance while passing down laws and judgments upon us.

This is a decidedly un-holy God! 

And, I thank God for that!

This is a God who is not just with us, but for us, and who proved it by loving us, even when we responded with skepticism, cynicism, and outright hatred.  This is a God of relentless grace.

This un-holy God is our hope!

You are invited to share in our celebrations of that hope on Christmas Eve at 9:00 PM, and on Christmas Day at 10:30.  You don’t have to dress-up.  You don’t have to pretend to be anyone other than who you are.  Come with your faith and hope, come with your doubts and fears.  Come into the presence of an un-holy God…who loves you dangerously, passionately, and profoundly!

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.

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