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The Sleep Deprived Pastor

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About this blog

Highly caffeinated sermons, meditations, reflections and essays on Christian faith and living, contemplative spirituality, theology, comparative religion, and interreligious dialogue from a full-time United Methodist pastor, and  the proud, but sleep deprived father of a baby girl. I'm a long-time member of the UM Forums and Blogging Community and it's good to be back!!

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Marcus Aurelius

Why Was Jesus Born to a Poor Family?

Matthew 25:31-45 “Why is it that God Chose for Jesus to be Born into a Poor Family?”

    Grace and peace to all of my readers here on Unexplained Mysteries. This week I’ll be starting a new blog series which I previewed last week (with a blog on doubt), called “Hello God? We’ve Got Questions” that will be running for my next few posts. This past year, our United Methodist Communications started a very successful ad campaign that featured conversations with children. They were asked to share their thoughts about God and about the mission statement of our denomination…to open hearts, minds and doors. 

     The advertisements featured elementary-aged youngsters answering questions such as, "What does it mean to have an open heart?" The children's inspiring answers reveal what seems to be a special connection with God. I watched some of these videos myself…they’re powerful and inspiring. If you haven’t seen them yet, you can see them on rethinkchurch.org. I definitely recommend looking at them. But the people from United Methodist Communications made sure it was a two-way conversation. 

     These elementary school aged children….were also asked to share their deepest questions about God. 

     The result…the depth and the heartfelt sincerity of their questioning…was just astonishing. 

    It reminds me of St. Anselm’s motto of “Fides Quaerens Intellectum” or “faith seeking understanding.” What that means is we begin in faith and trust, but we think in questions…we search for a deeper understanding. See, the Christian faith isn’t and never should be about having all the answers…it’s about asking the right questions. No matter where you’re at in life, we should all be cultivating this faith that seeks understanding. 

     So in that spirit, over the next 5 weeks…inspired by some really hard questions…we’re going to let these children lead us on a journey of asking questions in the name of our faith. And as we travel together, let’s take some time to reflect on who we are, where we’ve been, and where God is calling us to go…both as people of faith.

     You know, the traditional lectionary reading for Epiphany every winter is from Matthew 2 and it shows a sharp contrast between the King Herod the Great and Jesus. Jesus was born in a stable but Herod lived in a palace. Jesus was a helpless infant but Herod possessed great power. Jesus would prove to be a man of great love and compassion, but Herod was cruel and violent. 

     So it’s no wonder that while the 3 Wise Men, strangers from another Kingdom want to go lay offerings at the feet of the Heavenly King….the worldly King was desperately trying to hold on to his power and eliminate any rivals. The shadow of these threats from worldly powers seem to hang over Jesus’ entire earthly ministry…so why did God choose for Jesus to be born into a poor family?

    And the question is just as relevant for us today. We know that income inequality and poverty in this country have reached frightening levels. 

     As part of an introduction to this particular sermon, the United Methodist Communications linked a series of episodes from the radio show On the Media called “Busted: America’s Poverty Myths.” Now I managed to get through it, but let me tell you…it wasn’t easy. It took me into a challenging world of presuppositions that we make about the poor…that many of us, myself included, sometimes take to be the truth. 

     For example, it confronts the issue of assigning blame for people’s poverty: they’re poor because they lack will-power…they’re poor because they have no work ethic….they’re poor because they have failed to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. It also asks the question whether there really is equal opportunity for everyone in America. The show does an amazing job of breaking down a lot of our stereotypes about people living in poverty. 

     And it shows some of the real reasons why so many people can’t seem to climb out of poverty no matter how hard they try.

    So I’m sharing this with you today not only because I think it’s worth listening to, but also because it helps to point right at some of the issues that keep us from being able to act like Christ and to help our neighbors in need. 

     The language and labels we use to talk about people…whether its class, gender, race, education or income levels…they not only limit our compassion, but also our willingness to confront and respond to these questions as communities of faith. 

    But to be able to respond to these things as the sheep God calls us to be, we have to back up a little bit. 

Our young person wanted to know why Jesus was born to a poor family, and see, when we look back at the Scriptures and throughout history we begin to realize…this is how God has always dealt with His people. 

    From the beginning, God was reluctant to give the Jewish people a king. We go back to First Samuel and the idea was that God would essentially rule over the people directly with the Prophet Samuel as His mouthpiece. But he was getting old and so they wanted to have a king just like all the other nations. 

     But God had a reason for not giving Israel a king up to that point. 

     It was because He didn’t want them to put all their trust in worldly rulers instead of God Himself. Samuel prays to God about what to do, and God tells him those words you never want to hear in a relationship…it’s not you, it’s me. 

     God said when they’re asking you for a king, they’re not rejecting you, they’re rejecting me. This is what my people have done all along…they bow down to worldly powers and they chase after other gods. 

     Having a king and trusting in worldly powers will only make them worse, but if that’s what they want, we’ll give it to them and I’ll teach them from it. 

    So most of you probably know what happens. Saul was just like so many who hold power, both in ancient times and in the present day. He starts off good, but ends up so corrupt that God asks Samuel to appoint a replacement. 

     Samuel already had his mind set on someone…but God tells him “Do not look at his appearance or at his physical stature, because I have refused him. For the LORD does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” God didn’t choose a king because of his looks, because of his wealth, or because of his power and influence. 

     God only cared about one thing….the heart. The scrawny and disheveled shepherd gets called in from the fields…and God chooses David to become the true king. God said that this lowly, nobody shepherd was “a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do.'”

     Of all the people God could choose….of all the people God could identify Himself with…He identifies with the humble and lowly shepherd…the exact opposite of Saul…and every other King in those ancient days. In fact, some of the rulers of nearby countries probably thought it was a joke when they heard that a shepherd had become the King of Israel. But that’s how God works, see? David was a type of Christ. 

     In Isaiah chapter 66 God says He favors those who have a humble heart and contrite spirit. God has always identified Himself with the poor and the lowly. 

    In other words, then, what we have here in our Gospel lesson for the day…is quite literally a visual representation of that fact. But what that tells us…shouldn’t be a cause for fear…it should be a cause for rejoicing. 

     Our text today reminds us in the starkest terms possible one of the key messages that Jesus brought to the world: Those whom this world considers insignificant are very significant to God. 

    But let’s be real. That message is challenging for many of us. It cuts against the grain of everything our culture lifts up as being a successful life. It challenges the American Dream. It puts the brakes on our love with capitalism and what really equates to survival of the fittest. And to us as Christians…it asks another disturbing question….where do we find Jesus?

    A lot of us, we wear crosses or crucifixes as a symbol of our faith and of Christ’s presence. 

     Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists and others…we tell you that Jesus is present in the sacrament of Holy Communion….even though we may differ somewhat as to how. Some will say Jesus is found in these leather bound books that we read from every Sunday. And of course, most of us will say that He is present with us as we worship and that He’s always in our hearts. But is that all?

    Yes, Jesus is found in the Eucharist…I believe it’s my duty as a minister of the Christian gospel to magnify the sacraments. Yes, Jesus is found in our Holy Bibles…that’s where we go when we seek understanding. 

    Yes, He’s present in our worship…when two or more gather in His name. He’s in our hearts and the power of His witness is in the symbols that we wear. But is that all?

    The child asked “why was Jesus born to a poor family?” It’s because God doesn’t see the world in the same terms as we do. Jesus came to reverse the order of the world. 

     He came to teach us that those whom the world considers insignificant are very significant to God. When the Israelites demanded a King he chose a scraggly, uneducated shepherd to be his king. 

    And then the unthinkable happens. God humbles Himself….God condescends…God stoops and comes down…to our level. In Christ, God became flesh….but He enters the world…not in a palace…but in a manger. Once again, Jesus reverses the order of the world. 

    So where is He?

    Saint Matthew tells us “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.” Jesus is living out on the streets. Jesus is in the soup kitchen lines. 

     Jesus is waiting at the Salvation Army to get a coat and some fresh clothes. Jesus is in the hospital. Jesus is in prison. Jesus is with the drug addicts. Jesus is in the refugee camp. As another Pastor once put it, wherever people are in need, wherever people suffer, wherever people do without their basic needs…Jesus is there. And He isn’t there just to comfort them, He’s suffering right there alongside them. That’s where we find Jesus.

    The wise men went out searching for Jesus and they found Him in the lowest, most unlikely of places. And this is true because Jesus embodied the very core of His message…that in God’s Kingdom…everyone is significant. Every. Single. Person. In God’s Kingdom, all are welcome at the table. In God’s Kingdom, Jesus is just as likely to be born to a poor, pregnant, unmarried teenage girl as he is to a wealthy business owner. In God’s Kingdom, there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, woman or man….instead….all are one in Jesus. The lesson of the Epiphany is that God in Christ has turned the world upside down. 

     He judges…separating the sheep and the goats…not with the eyes of a King drunk with power…but with the eyes of a shepherd, clothed in rags and living among the least and the forgotten.

    And so, when Jesus judges, it’s not just going to be about our behavior…it’s going to be about our very….our orientation. Let me explain what I mean by that. 

     As I was preparing for this blog, I took the time to study some of the artwork depicting the Last Judgment. I looked at Michelangelo’s famous work from the renaissance and several paintings from the middle ages. A lot of those paintings were loosely based on this passage. But you know what? 

     I don’t think any of them really captured the true essence of Jesus’ words here. See, when I think of the sheep and the goats…the reality is a shepherd in those days would separate the sheep from the goats every night…and if you came out there and saw the animals….you wouldn’t be able to tell which was which. You wouldn’t know the sheep from the goats. They each walked their own path, but in the dark they looked alike. 

    Now, I think that’s the point, see? The sheep and the goats…they’re essentially already separated…they're already walking their own paths….and Jesus is…essentially the after-school crossing guard. That’s why they were initially surprised about their judgment because they were already living one way or the other. The sheep and the goats….it’s all about orientation. We can either live for self and die to others or we can live for others and die to self. What Jesus is looking for is how we answer that one question of alignment.

    One of the great spiritual leaders of the 20th century, Mahatma Gandhi once said “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Amen and amen.  A lot of Western new age spiritual practice today is very much a bi-product of our materialistic culture…and it’s focused on you the consumer. I’m going to pick and choose what I believe. I’m going to find God (only) out in nature, in the sunsets. 

     It’s all about us, and what we get from our spirituality. If we don’t like it we try something new or we go somewhere else. 

     But speaking as a Christian and as a scholar of comparative religion who works in the field of interfaith dialogue….Gandhi was right…and what I can tell you is this: you can distinguish authentic spiritual practice from pop culture, consumer driven spirituality by one thing….authentic spirituality and religious experience turns you inward to turn you outward. In other words, we come to church to nourish and refresh our souls…so we can then get out there and do the work. 

     Our inward practice should equip us for the outward work of God’s Kingdom. Authentic spirituality is a both/and, not either/or.

    And this thinking leads me to one of our great Saints in the Christian tradition, Francis. I think everybody knows his name…and that he loved animals…but not everybody knows his story. He was actually a spoiled rich kid. He loved music, poetry, drinking and women. In other words….he was a medieval frat boy. But then one day when he was riding out of town to go to a party, he saw a leper by the side of the road. 

     Now lepers were feared and despised in his day too….but something compelled him to get off his horse and he goes over to the leper. He gives him all his money and then…to the astonishment of all the onlookers…he hugged the man and kissed him on the cheek. He would later say the moment of embracing that diseased man….was the first time he’d ever known peace. Francis got back on his horse and when he turned to look back at the leper…he was gone. Francis knew he had ministered to Jesus Himself…and from that day forward He was a changed man. He died to self to live for others. As you have done it for the least of these, you have done it for me.

    I really like the Christian writer Ann Lamott…she’s hysterically funny and at times she’s profound. In one of her books, she talks about her Presbyterian Church outside San Francisco.  This is the place where she became a Christian.  She says that “Ken” started coming to her church right after his partner died of AIDS.  Ken had the disease as well and Anne Lamott describes him as an emaciated scarecrow of a man, with a lopsided face that lit up when he smiled.  Ken told the congregation that when his long-time partner died, Jesus entered into the place in his heart that was broken, and Jesus had never left.  Over the year that Ken attended the church, he had won almost everyone over.  But there was a woman in the choir, Rinola – a lady who had always been taught that Ken’s way of life and that Ken himself was an abomination.  To her, Ken was someone to be avoided. Well, one day, during the hymns, the congregation got to its feet all except for Ken, who had become so sickly and frail he could no longer stand on his own. All of them started singing, His Eye Is On The Sparrow” and when they began to sing, “Why do I feel discouraged, why do the shadows fall,” Rinola began to cry.  She left the choir and walked over to Ken. Rinola lifted him out of the pew and held him like a little ragdoll.  The two of them sang together, cried together, … WERE children of God together.  Anne Lamott said she wasn’t sure if that was a full-fledged miracle or not, but as we look at our text this morning to answer that child’s question….I think we know the answer. She died to self to live for others. As you did it for the least of these, you have done it for me.

     As I bring this entry to a close, the fact that Jesus was born to a poor family teaches us one final lesson. Not only are we to view all of the people of the world as God’s beloved children….we also need to remember that we are beloved children of God. This passage isn’t scary. It’s good news. God cares about each man, woman and child, no matter who they are or where they come from. My sisters and brothers…take these things with you always….on days of joy and in times of trouble….you are significant to God. You matter to this world. Your failures and your shortcomings are forgiven by God. You are loved by God. Each one of you…you are important. You are important to this world, and your presence in this world matters. Your witness and your testimony matter. Your life matters. Like those wise men who travelled so far to bring gifts to the Savior of the world…so let us go on to change the world for the sake of the One who gave us the gift of His life for the world. In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. 

 

 

    

    

Marcus Aurelius

John 20:19-31 “Is it wrong to have doubts and to question God?”

When you think of news stories that top the headlines, you don’t normally think of religious stories. If there’s any at all…in the newspapers they tend to be towards the back. If you’re looking online, they’re generally towards the bottom. But every now and then a particular religious story will really make waves and get a lot of attention.

Well, there was one such story just a few years ago that made international headlines.

 It was in all the newspapers, it was all over the internet, and it was on just about every news show…the networks and cable. Not to mention…a few late night talk shows. Now in each of these stories, the tag line was almost always the same….”Archbishop Doubts the Existence of God.” Naturally, It was a big deal.

So here’s the gist of it. One morning, the Most Rev. Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury was out for a run with his dog and he suddenly began to wonder why God had failed to intervene and prevent the deadly terrorist attacks in Paris, France. 

Instead of keeping those questions to himself…he spoke very candidly about them in a later interview. 

This is what he said. I’m quoting it verbatim. "The other day I was praying as I was running and I ended up saying to God: 'Look, this is all very well but isn't it about time you did something – if you're there'. "Where are you in all this?'” He goes on: “There are moments, sure, where you think 'Is there a God? Where is God?” Later on he says maybe these are things the Archbishop of Canterbury shouldn’t be saying.

It’s no surprise that everybody was in an uproar after that. I remember it clearly. 

The International Business Times called it “the doubt of the century.”  One popular atheist writer took to social media and proclaimed: “VICTORY!” The “Daily Show” account joked, “Archbishop of Canterbury admits doubts about existence of God. Adds: ‘But atheism doesn’t pay them bills, sooo ...”

Now this didn’t make the headlines, but I’m sure that Christian leaders from all over the globe were probably saying that he’d committed a grievous sin. Some probably were calling for him to step down. 

What do you guys think, I wonder? Is that something he should or shouldn’t have said?

This week we’re concluding our sermon series “Hello God? We’ve Got Questions” and this week’s question is a fitting end to all of it. I guess you could say it ties everything together. Today a young man has presented us with the question “Is it wrong to have doubts and to question God?” So in this sermon we’re going to be taking a look at the place of doubt in religious belief. 

Hopefully along the way we’ll see not only how to dispel some of our doubts, but also how we can learn to embrace our doubts rather than letting them immobilize us and paralyze our faith.

    To begin, I must say it doesn’t surprise me that this boy, who’s probably no more than 10, has such doubts. We forget sometimes that our children can be miniature philosophers. Just as we’ve seen over the past month in this sermon series, they ask questions about meaning, about life and death, identity. They ask about so many things that we probably haven’t thought much about since we were kids. 

One of my favorite theologians, the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann suggested the primary challenge facing the Church in the United States in the 21st is the fact that for a lot of us…God’s no longer a primary actor in the story of our lives. It’s not meant to be a slam; it’s just the reality. We’re too busy. Our lives are too fast paced and hectic to slow down for God and to really think about these Ultimate Concerns.

So what do we do when one of our young philosophers ask us questions like these?  

Or what happens when we end up in a situation like the Archbishop? What happens when something springs up in our path that causes us to ask questions about our faith or to have doubts about it? It could be a personal tragedy or some horrific world event. It could be something from your past that you’ve never worked through. It could be something intellectual. Maybe someone or something challenged your beliefs and its pushed you so far outside your comfort zone you’re not sure what to think anymore. You just kind of go through the motions. 

Any number of things can cause us to question God and to have doubts about our faith. And if you’re sitting there thinking, ‘I’ve never had any doubts. I have a strong faith’ you’ll probably end up in this spot sooner or later too. That’s just the way it is. 

And when that time of doubt comes, we don’t make it easy on ourselves, do we? Chances are your first reaction to it…is to beat yourself up over it. You become your own worst critic. You think to yourself, what’s wrong with me? Why am I thinking like this? You might start comparing yourself to other people around you. Man, why can’t I have faith like so and so? 

 And you might think God’s angry at you. You might think He’s going to zap you with a lightning bolt if you don’t suck it up. Then that leads to guilt. You feel guilty sitting here on Sundays. You feel guilty taking Holy Communion…or you may skip it all together because now you feel unworthy of it. This is what happens when the hamster wheels of doubt start spinning uncontrollably. I’m sure a number of you have been there before. 

Now do you know why that happens? Well, one of the major reasons is because we don’t think about our thoughts. We don’t think about our thoughts. 

We have our thoughts of doubt and then we add thoughts of self-judgment, guilt, and condemnation on top of that. The hamster wheels just keep spinning and spinning like that. 

But the reality is doubt is a part of our knowledge. It’s inherent in the constitution of the human mind. Put simply, it’s who we are. Doubt is in our DNA. Our faculties are finite. The more we think about, the more we’ll doubt. The more we know…the more we’ll see that we don’t know. Trying to run from our doubt would be like trying to run from our shadows. 

Doubt is a permanent element in our lives and our doubts grow as we grow. Doubt is literally at the root of our intellectual growth. 

And in most cases our doubts don’t interfere with our daily lives. Essentially all our knowledge is infected with some kind of doubt but we don’t let that stop us. We can’t be certain about much of anything…but we act. We form relationships and let new people into our lives even when we don’t really know them. We start businesses when we’re not sure if they’ll succeed or not. We’ll embark on things like new jobs and school in spite of all the risks. 

So if we waited until we were certain about something before we acted….well, chances are…we’d never get anything done. 

When you really think about it, we need doubts to, don’t we? I mean it’s hard for us to believe…but for centuries people thought the earth was flat. If you sailed to the edges of the maps of the known world you’d fall off the map and end up in outer space or something. Christopher Columbus doubted that and he sailed to the New World. Thank God for doubters, that’s all I can say. Doubt is the great destroyer of error.

The point is, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s nothing to beat ourselves up over. 

But here’s the thing. Doubt looks different when we take it into the realms of morality and religion. If we start to have doubts about our convictions…it means we’re slipping. It means we’re deficient. At least that’s what we tell ourselves. And so we feel guilty for having doubts. We make it an 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt not have doubts.”  And a lot of times we respond the doubts of other people unfairly and unsympathetically too. 

We hit ‘em over the head with dogma and platitudes as if we have answers to every single question. “You need to pray more.” “Your faith isn’t big enough.” 

It reminds me of this call center I used to work at. It was a sales job and we had a script that we used. You stick to the script or else. And that script had about a dozen responses for every objection the customer would come up with. Now is it any wonder that most of the employees didn’t work there for longer than a month or two? You know, to be successful in sales, the first thing you learn is to put the customer’s needs above everything else. 

Every person has unique and individual needs, so you listen to them, you get to know them. 

The key to being a good salesperson isn’t being a good talker; it’s being a good listener. So when somebody comes up to us, knowing we’re Christians…and they say…”where was God when my brother got sick?” and we look down at our cheat sheet…and we say “well, we live in a fallen world…” chances are it’s not going to work. Insensitive, stock answers just don’t cut it. And Jesus knew that.

The text that I picked for this question is read every year in the Lectionary on the Sunday following Easter. Now here’s the reason for that.

It allows us to see the reality that every one of Jesus’ followers were filled with doubt. Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb early on Easter morning. The sun was just beginning to rise and the shadows were long. A ‘messenger’ suddenly appears and tells her that Jesus isn’t there. She doesn’t believe it. And when Jesus approaches her she thinks it’s someone else. She’s filled with doubt. But Jesus doesn’t hit her with some kind of dogma or platitudes. He says her name. 

And somehow…His saying her name overcomes her doubt…and she knows it’s Him.

So what happens next? She runs off to tell the other disciples what happened. And they think she’s crazy. Mary’s just being too emotional. Mary’s hallucinating. 

Then, later that night….they’re all huddled together in the Upper Room and suddenly, Jesus miraculously appears to them. The doors were shut., the windows were closed. But there He is…and it scared the heck out of them. They weren’t high-fiving each other. They weren’t saying….”See, Jesus is back…you owe me 5 bucks.” 

Nope. They suddenly thought they were in The Haunting of the Upper Room. They’re filled with doubt. 

But Jesus shows them His wounds and then He eats with Him. He’s real. And so they overcame their doubts. 

There’s no such thing as a stock answer to our doubts. We have to look to Jesus to meet our needs. We pray and we point. And doubt isn’t something to be afraid of or ashamed of either because here we see that doubt is at the very heart of the Easter message. And that brings us to the Biblical King of doubters, Thomas. 

Now Thomas is an interesting figure, both in the Gospels and in the historical traditions that emerged about the rest of his life. 

And even though we tend treat him like a bad Sunday school lesson: “for heaven’s sake, don’t be a doubter like Thomas!!” he’s always been a compelling figure to most believers. Why? Because he’s a kindred spirit; we can relate to him. Thomas is the guy who doesn’t have a blind faith. Thomas questions, he doubts, he thinks, and he ponders. Our little guy from the video would have liked him. See, whenever we meet him in the scriptures…he’s asking questions. He’s a realist. 

For example, when Jesus is saying all this nice poetic stuff about mansions and preparing a place for them….he scratches his head and says: “Jesus, we don’t know where you’re going and we don’t know the way.” 

In our cartoon version of him, we think Thomas is the guy without much faith. But that’s actually not true. Remember Fides Quarens Intellectum…faith seeking understanding? That’s exactly what he’s doing. He wants to take it to a deeper level. 

Now we don’t know why he wasn’t there that first night. Maybe he was out getting McDonalds for everybody. 

Maybe he was like some of us when we’re really depressed. He just wanted to be alone. Maybe he just needed some time to think. But whatever the case, just like all these other resurrection encounters…when he’s told what happened he doesn’t buy it. He’s full of doubt. Maybe these guys were all so grief stricken they’d lost their minds. 

But then Jesus meets Thomas’ unique need too. He needed empirical proof…to see and to touch. And notice how Jesus responds…He just gives it to Him. He doesn’t yell at him. He doesn’t judge him. He doesn’t berate him for having doubts. 

He gives him what he needs and it enables Thomas to make the most profound declaration of faith in the entire New Testament…”My Lord and my God!” 

So now here we are, 2,000 years later. Maybe you or someone you know is plagued with some kind of nagging doubt and it’s really hard to make that kind of confession of faith. If you profess your faith at all there’s no enthusiasm. No life. Just doubt and going through the motions. The question is…how can this story get us to Thomas’ enthusiasm? 

Jesus says ‘blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ How is that possible? 

Well, John tells us. Right here. “These things are written so that you might believe.” The story has its own clues and I’ll tell you….there’s four major ways to get past our doubts in this text.

First, offer it up to God. Like I said, the Easter story is filled with doubt and yet Jesus meets each one of their unique needs. With thanksgiving make your requests known to God and just say….Lord, I believe…help me in my unbelief. He knows that each and every one of us has doubts. He doesn’t judge you for it. He doesn’t condemn you for it. He loves you just as you are. So don’t be afraid to go to him and just offer up your doubts to God. 

Secondly, when you have doubts…be in community. That was Thomas’ only mistake here. He left and went off on his own. We need our friends in the faith. We need one another. You know, when my mother died I could have fallen into a storm of doubts…of why’s and what if’s…and sometimes those are there. I can’t help it. But your love and support really kept me going…and it deepened my faith. Share your doubts with other believers. Remember, we are the Body of Christ. 

Sometimes all we need is some words of encouragement or a comforting touch or hug. 

When we come together as the Body of Christ, it’s through each other that we experience His healing love and presence. 

Finally, you ask these questions. You bring them to light. And you do one of two things with them. So I’d like you to do something for me to help with this. I want each one of you to take a moment and write down in your sermon notes one question you have about God and your faith. Maybe it’s something that’s been nagging at you for years. 

Maybe it’s something trivial like…”why did God create spiders?” I’d like to know that one too. Or why is my loved one is so much pain? 

I want you to name it today and create the space for an authentic encounter with God. You have two choices after you write it down.

First, you can seek. Fides Quarens Intellectum. Seek understanding. Wrestle with your questions and see if you can find a way to answer them. Sign up and bring it to Coffee with the Pastor…but no guarantees there! Talk to other Christians about your doubts. Research. Read your Bibles. Read some books. In other words, be hungry. 

As important as being in church or Bible study is…it’s not enough. We have to cultivate an eagerness for spiritual knowledge, for the things of the God. 

If we don’t seek on our own, in our personal lives, our faith becomes stagnant. Your study of the Word, your study of the things of God…it leads to spiritual growth. The more you study, the more you’ll be mature and firm in your faith. 

And then there’s one last thing you can do. You can learn to live with your doubts. When you go home, tear that bulletin up with your question and throw it in the trash. 

Let that be a symbolic gesture…saying I won’t let my doubts control me or define me. 

In the Book of Job, he went on doubting, complaining and questioning God for 38 chapters. Finally, God got tired of hearing all of Job’s doubts and He basically says to him “Be quiet and calm down Job. I’m tired of all your wailing and doubting. I’m here for you, I love you…but you’re never going to have all the answers to your questions in this life. Just keep calm and learn to trust me in spite of all your doubts.” That’s how faith works. 

Its belief and hope and trust in an unseen reality in spite of all our doubts. Anything else, it wouldn’t be faith.

Over the past month we’ve learned to ask questions about our faith. 

We’ve learned that asking questions is vital to our beliefs. And today we’ve learned that our doubts are what actually lead us to growth. But if we aren’t careful, we can let our doubts paralyze us. Our doubts and questions can become a waste of time, a waste of life, and a waste of our intellectual and spiritual energy. So sometimes we have to learn to accept our doubts and forgive ourselves for having them. Then we crumple them up, throw them in the trash, and move on. 

The church historian Eusebius wrote that the disciple Thomas went all the way to India and founded several churches and a large Christian community there and was ultimately martyred for his faith. He got past his doubt. 

And if all the naysayers had just taken the time to listen to the whole interview, they would have seen that the Archbishop of Canterbury got past his doubts too. Like Job, God didn’t give him the answers he was seeking. Instead, Archbishop Welby shifted his focus. This is what he said:

 “We know Jesus, we can’t explain all the questions in the world, we can’t explain about suffering, we can’t explain about loads of things, but we know about Jesus. We can talk about Jesus…I always do that because most of the other questions, I just can’t answer. So when my life gets challenging, I keep going and call to Jesus to help me, and he picks me up.” Amen to that. 

Thank God for Archbishop Justin Welby. Thank God for his honesty and thank God for his openness to share his doubts. Let’s follow in his footsteps. Let’s share our doubts and our questions with one another.

 But in the midst of it, let’s just keep talking about Jesus…because sometimes…that’s all we can do.

Marcus Aurelius

A Sermon For Pentecost Sunday

Sermon 5/20/18 Acts 2: 1-21 Pentecost Year B “Proclaim Jubilee!”

     If you’re from Ohio, I think it’s pretty much a given that you’re going to complain about the weather. Now a good part of the time, I think that’s pretty warranted, isn’t it? Most recently….it was the winter that….refused….to…..just end.You know, it’s funny…back in February my In-Laws were talking about how they couldn’t wait for Spring….and I told them….half-jokingly….half-seriously….I don’t call it spring until May. They’d talk about it warming up in April and I’d say….don’t count on it….we might have a blizzard. 

     And we would laugh. But then April comes….and it turns out….maybe I do have the gift of prophecy. Snow. Cold. Freezing rain. It was all there.

     I think we’re always complaining about the weather because it really does seem like you can experience all four seasons inone week in Ohio. There’s some pretty good memes out there that make fun of this. My favorite one has the Most Interesting Man in the World from the Dos Equis commercials and it says “I don’t always have my air conditioner and heat running in the same week....but when I do….it’s because I live in Ohio.” Spot on, right?

     Still, I can’t help but wonder if we’re a bit too hard on our weather here sometimes. Maybe we ought to give our Ohio weather some more love. I’ve lived in Ohio pretty much my whole life, and yeah, while the weather is terrible sometimes….other than your occasional Polar Vortexes, blizzards, and flooding….the weather isn’t extreme. I mean we don’t have all the crazy stuff you’d see on the Weather Channel if you watched it 24 hours a day…so in some ways, you could say we’re blessed.

     In fact, I don’t think I’d ever experienced any kind of extreme weather until we went to Hong Kong in 2013 with the family. Hurricanes or typhoons as they call them in Asia are sadly frequent there. And one was quite literally bearing down on Hong Kong the first couple of days we were there.

     So I’ll never forget that first night in Hong Kong because that was my first real experience of extreme and frightening weather. 

     They have a warning level system for typhoons…and that particular one was a Signal 8 typhoon….which means that “gale force or stronger winds are imminent.” Everything closes: schools, offices, tours, public transport, taxis, shops, restaurants, ferries, trains, flights.

     Now in the past, my Mom….was my weather channel App. I’m not kidding. She was always watching the News and the Weather Channel. So she would always call me with weather updates. If I didn’t answer for whatever reason, she’d leave a message. 

     You should bring an umbrella to class, it’s going to rain today. Drive carefully, it’s going to snow and they’re saying the roads are going to be slick for the morning commute. I never had to watch the weather or look at an app because I could pretty much count on my Mom to call me with any important updates. Looking back….it’s amazing how you really miss those trivial and even funny things like that when they’re gone…you know….what I wouldn’t give for an update on tomorrow’s forecast from Mom.

     But so there we are in Hong Kong and I had a Facebook message from my Cousin…asking about the typhoon and asking if we were all right. 

     Please call your Mom and Dad. Of course my Mom knew about the weather clear on the other side of the world….and of course she was worried, because, well, that’s where we were…..so we called her. 

     Now I kept trying to reassure her that everything was okay. It’s not that bad. It’s not even raining here right now. But as I’m saying all this….I’m not so sure myself. I’ve never experienced anything like this. I’m from Ohio. We don’t do typhoons. I’m out of my depth. And even though we’re in this massively tall high rise hotel….the wind is just….pounding the hotel. I can hear it howling and howling through that ultra-thick glass. 

     You can feel it reverberating against the building. So I’m telling my mom….yeah….everything’s okay….and I’m looking at them like….is everything okay? The hotel isn’t going to blow over is it?

     And then the next day….well, it was just bizarre. We went out so we could get to my brother-in-law’s apartment and the Signal 8 warning was still in effect. Now even though it wasn’t really doing much of anything….the streets of Hong Kong were absolutely deserted. Not soul. It was suddenly like we were on the Walking Dead or something.They take that warning level seriously. 

     That alone was pretty scary for this Ohio boy….are we waiting for something bad to happen? Is this the calm before the storm? This whole trip that we’d planned down to every last detail….was now suddenly all up in the air and totally unpredictable. 

     Unpredictable weather…you know….that’s a lot like what the early church experienced on the Day of Pentecost. 

     There was a vague promise from Jesus….that He was going to send the Paraclete….the Comforter, the Advocate….the Holy Spirit…and that things were about to change. 

     Now I can’t help but wonder…if we sanitize this a bit in the church. I’m not sure if we really know what to do with Pentecost…so we turn it in to this big celebration. I’ve seen a few things over the years. Children processing while waving these big red streamers. Or maybe everybody in the church wears red that day. And well…here I am…wearing red today. And make no mistake…it is a celebration. 

     But maybe it’s not this cookie-cutter thing….because maybe…just maybe the coming of the Pentecost….is more like a Signal 8 Typhoon Warning. 

     Out of this seeming chaos and disorder….out of the gale force winds and rain and thunder and lightning…something new emerges….a new beginning….a new order….a new way of being and a new way of doing. Its unpredictable like Ohio weather and so we’re confused. So let me put forth a theory to you guys….you can tell me what you think later…maybe we don’t know what to do with Pentecost….because we don’t know what to do with the Holy Spirit. For us mainline Protestants….the Holy Spirit’s like the guy…that you know is at the party….but you don’t actually see Him there. 

     You find His name on the guest list, you go looking for Him, but you miss him. And then maybe you hear about himafterwards….oh, He was the life of the party. But you missed it. We missed it. I swear, that’s where we are with the Holy Spirit. 

     And so here we are in 2018….and maybe we’re clueless about Pentecost…and maybe we’re clueless about the Holy Spirit. And I say all these things….when I know we need His power and His presence the most. 

     I’m so happy to be celebrating my first Pentecost and Heritage Sunday as a head pastor…and yet…and yet….a part of me feels like I’m back at that weird and bizarre day on the streets of Hong Kong. These thick and gray storm clouds seem to be rolling in everywhere we look. The typhoon sirens are ringing out in the distance. 

     The streets are deserted….everyone seems to be hunkering down. Everyone seems to be giving us an ominous forecast. If you're United Methodist, you know we’re in danger of a split and schism starting at our special General Conference in 2019. And the catholic church, meaning the church universal is losing members and influence….the sky is falling and what are we going to do? Well, maybe we need to take a deep breath for starters…because that’s where everything begins….with breath.

     We consider creation. Genesis tells us that God made human beings from dust…from the mud and dirt of the earth. God shapes us out of this clay like a kid building a sand castle on the beach. But then God breathes into this earthen mannequin God’s own breath and the human being is suddenly alive….a creature of both matter and spirit. So it’s God’s own breath that animates us, that makes us live. And our Psalter reading for the day interprets this breath of God….as none other than the very Spirit of God. We see there that the Spirit of God breathes life in to all of creation…and the Spirit of God sustains the lives of all things in creations. In short, it’s the breath of the Spirit that gives us the breath of life.

     But most of us, we know the story. We break our first covenant with God and death enters in to the picture…our breath becomes a fragile, temporary, and fleeting thing that passes away. Time itself begins….and thus….each of us….we breathe a first breath and we breathe a last breath. And so God does something miraculous to restore our breath. He comes down in Christ and becomes the very mud and dirt of creation that we are. 

     He experiences his first breath as a human being and He experiences His last breath on the Cross at Golgotha. And yet, this isn’t the end of the story. That same breath of God, that same Spirit of God that creates and sustains all life….it comes on Christ and raises Him from the dead as the first fruits of a new creation. 

     And so this is where we find the Disciples as our narrative begins. They’ve experienced the risen Christ. They’ve met Him. They’ve broken bread with Him and touched the wound in His side. Then they saw Him ascend into Heaven….leaving them only with that vague promise that the Paraclete….the breath of God, the Spirit of God….the author and sustainer of all life and the One who raised Christ from the dead….would soon come upon them….and through them fill and renew the whole creation. 

     But before all that….there was the waiting period. And this wasn’t the kind of anticipation when, God forbid, your Amazon package is a day late. No, this was like when you’re at urgent care because you’re feeling awful but the place is packed. It’s that agonizing waiting…that take a number and have a seat waiting.

     One of my favorite living Christian thinkers, Father Richard Rohr, explains this waiting period in a profound way. He calls it the “First Novena” or a time of Holy Waiting and prayer for nine days. Like fasting. Like Lent. He says that we can’t truly appreciate presence unless we first appreciate absence. In other words, he says we have to experience emptiness and voids to create the space to be filled. And so that’s exactly what happens. 

     The disciples were like me in that hotel room in Hong Kong….pacing up and down the floor, looking out the window….wondering what’s going to happen next. Are we going to be okay?

     And so all their heads were bowed in prayer when a breeze suddenly began to move among them, just enough to make their hair stand up on end. Then it was more than a breeze. Literally, “an echoing sound as of a mighty wind borne violently” just roared through the whole house like the whir of a tornado. Their robes were flapping wildly and things were crashing and hitting the ground. The Spirit of God had come upon them! This fiery presence suddenly appeared in their midst and then it divided into separate flame-like tongues that danced over every single head. John the Baptist had promised a baptism of fire…and now it was here! The Holy Spirit blows in through the windows and doors. The Holy Spirit blows in to each one of them this breath of new life….and then….and then….the Holy Spirit blows them out the door. 

     They were filled with the Holy Spirit and as they spoke, each person in the crowd could hear them in their own language. This wasn’t Google Translator….this was the breath and the power of God! That my friends….is what happened at Pentecost.

     We fast forward to today….and we’re like…okay…so what? I’ll wear my party hat for the service. I’ll have my cake….and then I’ll go home for a nap. Sure there may have been a time for all that enthusiasm, wind and fire, but we civilized Christians know better now and we have to be careful…not to get carried away, right? I mean…that door is closed, isn’t it? We don’t experience stuff like that now do we?  I think that’s the case in a lot of churches today. 

     We want just enough religion and spirituality to feel good about ourselves….but not so much that it shakes up our routines and changes our way of living. We don’t really know if He really is present inside each one of us and we really don’t want to get blown out the door. Speaking of Father Richard Rohr again, he calls this a “cosmetic piety”…one that’s intended to look good on the surface, but lacks any real depth or complexity. And the truth is, most of us probably fall in to that category at one time or another. 

     But once again, my brothers and sisters, all we have to do…is take a deep breath. 

     The Book of Ezekiel says “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord…I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.” God’s Spirit….breath and wind….can put flesh on a skeleton and call it life….whether it’s a nation or a church…or whether it’s you and me. 

     Some of us, we’re coming in to this sanctuary today and we may have never even heard of Pentecost before. Some of us, we’re coming in to this sanctuary today and we’ve never felt the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives before. We’re not even sure if it’s real. Some of us, we’re coming in to this sanctuary today and we’re just feeling spiritually dead. Maybe you’ve felt the Spirit before, but right now you’re just running on fumes. If any of these things describe how you feel today….I want you to say these words out loud “Breathe on me, breath of God.” “Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me.” On this Pentecost Sunday, let these words be a prayer for revival and new life in each and every one of us.

     There’s this great story and parable from the tradition of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. This one monk asks an elder monk how he can really live into his faith with his whole being and in answer the elder monk stands up all dramatically. He raises his hands to the heavens…there’s a woosh….and all ten of his fingers become lamps of flame. And he says…..”if you will it, all your life can become as of fire.” If you will it, all your life can become as of fire. As I said earlier…to be empty…is to create the space to be filled. 

     If you came in to this sanctuary feeling empty and ambivalent….running on spiritual fumes…this is right where God wants you. Pentecost isn’t this single and static moment in time…it’s right here, right now. Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me.

     But just know that if you open those windows, if you open those doors…it’s going to be a Signal 8 typhoon roaring in to your life and it’s going to blow you right out the door.

     It’s going to send all our prejudices, biases, and misconceptions toppling down in a violent rush of wind.

     I say this because Pentecost shows us that people who didn’t share the same language, people who were violently at odds with one another….began hearing from one another the Good News of Jesus Christ and they were united in a way that transcended geography and politics. 

    Indeed, on Pentecost Sunday…the reversal of the Tower of Babel had begun….and it continues on to this day. When we recite the Apostle's Creed in worship here every week, we say we “believe in the holy catholic church.” Every time we say those words we are united with the whole church both visible and invisible. We move from beyond our local parish and we’re connected with every congregation, every denomination and every cultural tradition. This is what it means to live in to the reality of the Pentecost. Indeed, every Sunday can and should be...a little Pentecost.

     Like I was saying earlier, these are difficult times in the life of our denomination and in our culture. 

     The winds of change are shaking us and rattling us. We’re afraid we’re losing our relevance. 

     We’re afraid we’re going to end up broken and divided, just like our fragmented world around us. But we have to take heart. The Wind of the Spirit is always blowing in the direction of the reality of the empty tomb and Easter Sunday as the exact remedy that our ailing world needs. 

     The wind of the Spirit is always blowing us in the direction of community building…..of overcoming divisions and removing the barriers that separate people…to bring them together in new life. To be empty is to be filled….every challenge…is a new opportunity. 

     On United Methodist Heritage Sunday, we are especially reminded of all this…from within the history of our own tradition. John Wesley was a failed missionary and a failed Anglican priest…a depressed and bitter man who’d strived for holiness…but ended up with barely any faith at all. But then one day he joined in prayer with some Moravians and a signal 8 typhoon suddenly came roaring in to his life. As he put it, “my heart was strangely warmed.” If you will it, all your life can become as of fire. His faith and imagination for the Gospel were ignited for the beginning of a new ministry….a ministry of teaching and preaching….of proclaiming the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit and it swept through the English countryside…to rich and poor alike and it brought about a great spiritual awakening in England and in the American Colonies. 

     And this same fire that was there for the Disciples and there for John Wesley and the people called Methodists…it’s alive and active in you and me….guiding, inspiring, directing, renewing, advocating, and remaking us in to the very likeness of God. So let’s put aside our earthly cares and fears. Let’s all take a deep breath….and say it out loud, let your words be a prayer….“Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me.” In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen. 

 

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Marcus Aurelius

A Farewell of Sorts

A few years ago, I was sitting in the living room of my apartment watching television when I got to thinking about my future. It had been a whirlwind; I’d walked away from my career in sales to pursue a long ignored call into the ministry and I started Bible College with the intention of getting into seminary.

Anxiety washed over me. Could I really do this? Could I really achieve my goals and make it to seminary? Four years ago, it seemed like a distant, almost impossible dream. I often questioned myself, wondering if I’d made the right decisions. Sometimes I still do. I’m still not sure I’m worthy of any of this, indeed, I doubt I ever will be.

But that particular night, I needed some type of reassurance, some way of making the intangible more tangible. So I put on my long wool coat and fedora hat and walked out into the biting December wind and just decided to drive to the seminary I wanted to attend one day.

I made this long trek in the middle of the night, a light snow was falling. I arrived at the seminary campus and found that it was mostly deserted as most of the students had left the dorms and apartments to go home for the holidays. I parked the car and just walked up and down the campus. I tried to imagine myself being a student there, being a seminarian. It was difficult. I didn’t even know if I’d be able to make it through college, let alone seminary.

So I did the one thing I always do when I feel weak and am in doubt. I prayed. As I walked up and down the grounds of the seminary, I prayed “Lord please help me get here. Please make this real. Please make this happen.”

Now here it is four years later, and that distant dream has been realized with God’s help. I graduated with my Leadership and Ministry degree Summa Cum Laude. Not only did I get accepted to the seminary, I also got a partial scholarship. I’m already well into my first semester and while I am enjoying my classes and the work, it is very overwhelming. It is a whole new world and a greater challenge than any I have yet faced.

It is no wonder that I find myself wresting with the same kind of nerves and anxiety. Am I really cut out for this? Can I do it? But I remind myself of Paul and his Missionary Journeys. I’m sure he had his doubts too…but he pressed on. I must learn to do the same. Perseverance has become my motto, my creed.

I’ve overcome a lot of adversity, challenges and pain to get here. I know there will be more of that on this new journey, but I must once again persevere. This is why my favorite passage in the entire Bible is Romans 5: 3-4 “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance, character; and character; hope.” I must live my these words.

And as a new journey begins, one must sadly come to a close. I joined this forum several years ago as a place to learn to write about, articulate and defend my beliefs as well as learn from people who hold different beliefs than I. I never imagined that I would come to care about it so much. I got so busy with my school work that I completely dropped off the forums. When I came back here last December, I saw that my last post had been over three years ago.

But I never forgot about this place. I looked forward to a time when I could come back and resume my discussions and debates with everyone. When I finished college in December, I finally had that opportunity. I started writing like mad again; catching up with old forum friends and making new ones. I started this blog, having never really blogged before in my life. But with words of encouragement from friends like MarkDohle I kept writing and I watched in amazement as my readership began to soar. I had no idea the impact this would have.

I have been a writer since I was a little kid, and this blog has provided me a wonderful outlet to use this God-given ability and to glorify Him in the process. It has made for a wonderful several months of writing. I couldn’t be happier.

But because I know the demands of seminary are so great, I must regretfully draw my time here to a close; both on the blog and the forums. This is a farewell, of sorts.

First and foremost, I want to thank all of my readers. You have honored me with your presence here and that you took the time to read my posts and comment on them. I also want to thank some of my friends on the forum: MarkDohle, Paranoid Android, LibstaK, Jor-el, and then, Liquid Gardens, Shadowhive, XenoFish…and so many others…you’re all amazing and I’m blessed to know you, even on an internet forum. Please feel free to contact me on here; I will regularly check my messages even if I don’t have time to post on the forums. I’d even be willing to give out my personal email or social media contact info if any of you wish to get in contact with me like that. Just send me a message on here and let me know. You guys will ever remain in my thoughts and prayers. Please pray for me as well, that the Lord will help me to walk this seminary journey the whole way and complete it, however difficult the roads may be.

I also want to send a special shout out to the guy who basically became my forum “arch-nemesis,” Davros of Skaro. We had some really memorable exchanges over the past several months, and I enjoyed them immensely. I won’t forget our debates. Thank you Davros for challenging me and pushing me so many times, and I hope you won’t be too offended when I say that I will also remember you in my prayers!!

Thank you, everyone, for an amazing journey. I am going to miss this place; it saddens me to even write this post. But I have to emphasize that this goodbye hopefully will not be permanent. This is temporary. I will still read the forums on here and post occasionally when and if I have the time. I will also leave the lights on and the door unlocked….when I’m on break from seminary from time to time, you will most certainly see me popping up on the forums and on this blog. I have to go on this new journey for now, but the wonderful forums of UM and the Urban Contemplative blog will remain as my vacation home.

Until next time, goodbye and God bless……

Marcus Aurelius

Music for the Soul

Those who know me know that I am a lover of Sacred Music: Gregorian, Byzantine and Orthodox Chants and High Masses and Liturgies. There are certain songs that stir my soul and this is one of those songs. It transports me to another place. I thought I would share it with my readers; the link is below. May you be blessed and edified by it:

These haunting words are translated in English below...

Latin

Spem in alium nunquam habui

Praeter in te, Deus Israel

Qui irasceris et propitius eris

et omnia peccata hominum

in tribulatione dimittis

Domine Deus

Creator caeli et terrae

respice humilitatem nostram

English

I have never put my hope in any other

but in You, O God of Israel

who can show both anger and graciousness,

and who absolves all the sins

of suffering man

Lord God,

Creator of Heaven and Earth

be mindful of our lowliness

Marcus Aurelius

Is Jesus Christ the Only Way to "Heaven?"

This is a blog entry that I suppose is long overdue; one, because I have been very busy and haven't had time to write anything lately and two, because it is a subject that I am frequently asked about and called out on, both on internet forums like this one and in real life. As many of you know, I am about to become a seminarian and I'm studying to become an ordained minister. The call of Jesus Christ on my life is the central part of my life; to me there is nothing more important than this.

But then again, as many of you also know, I am very actively involved in interfaith work. I've been studying comparative religion for over a decade; I've read the sacred literature of the five major world religions; I've read their greatest writers, their mystics and their saints as well. I've had the opportunity to travel around the world visiting numerous holy sites believed to be sacred to these great faiths. I've prayed with Muslims, Jews and Hindus. I've meditated with Buddhist monks.

My Master of Divinity will be specialized in Interreligious Contexts, and my ultimate goal is to eventually pursue a doctorate in comparative religion and to teach and write books on the subject. I consider people like Thomas Merton and Huston Smith as my heroes.

As such, the readers of the Unexplained Mysteries Forum have seen me defending the various religions in debates on countless threads. I argue for religious tolerance, freedom of religion; and for others to learn to understand our neighbors who practice different faiths. I've also argued for these things in real life. At my former Bible College for example (a very conservative and evangelical school) I did a presentation in my Missions class on the Chinese persecution of Tibetan Buddhists, and I openly criticized the Christian missionary efforts over there, as the vast majority of the aid they offer is contingent upon Christian conversion, as in "we will give you food if you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior." My audience was naturally shocked. There was a stunned silence in the room when it came time for questions.

But then someone raised their hand and asked me the same question I have heard so many times: "You say you are a Christian. Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven?"

Then just a few days ago, on a UM thread where I was defending Islam, a conservative Christian said this to me:

Marcus you seem to love Muslims so much that you should convert to their faith. After all you are in an interfaith movement so you must be compromising your beliefs, why not embrace the lot? By claiming to be a Christian and at the same time belong to an interfaith movements, shows me, without doubt you are not a Christian and your statement is an oxymoron.

He also said this:

Your "Master in Divinity" makes a joke out of true knowledge of God, it is full of psychology and rubbish that just push you further and further away from the truth.

This is not the first time someone has called into question my Christianity and my faith in Jesus over my seemingly "liberal" stance on other religions. It

has happened to me a number of times on this forum, and even more so in real life. Thus, it is high time I respond to these charges in some detail. But from the onset, I want to make it abundantly clear that I am just sharing my own opinion. I am not "infallible" and nor am I condemning my more conservative Christian brothers and sisters who believe differently than me. Their opinions are valid and they should not be looked at with disdain.

Indeed, one could argue that there are actually more Christians who believe differently than I do. There are three different theological categories that one can fall into when it comes to other religions. I will describe each view, then I will fairly critique the other views and finally explain to you why I have the position that I do. I am paraphrasing these definitions from my favorite living theologian, Allister McGrath.

So to start off, let's look at that most common of beliefs; what theologians call exclusivism or particularism. 'A particularist is someone who believes that only those who hear and respond to the Christian gospel can be saved. As noted, this may very well remain the majority view.' A particularist takes claims like John 14:6 as being completely literal: "Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." It should be noted that not only Christians are particularists, indeed, a kind of particularism can be found in just about every world religion.

Christian theologians such as Karl Barth hold the particularist view. Barth taught that there is no knowledge of God apart from Jesus Christ. Many prominent atheist writers have attacked this view in particular, perhaps fairly arguing that this is the form of religion that leads to bigotry and even extremism. It's "my way or the highway." But Karl Barth's theology was unique in this regard. While he argued that salvation was only available in Christ, he also argued for the eventual eschatological victory of Grace over unbelief. Thus, when time itself comes to an end, all will come to faith in Jesus Christ without exception.

The second theological stance on other religions is known as Pluralism. This is the position that many of my critics and detractors think that I hold. It is not.Pluralism 'is the view which holds that all the religious traditions of humanity are equally valid manifestations of, and paths to, the same core of religious reality.' Philosophers like John Hick advance this position. No one religion holds any special access to God; whatever path you follow gets you to the same destination.

The third theological stance on other religions is known as Inclusivism. This is the position that I actually hold. 'Inclusivism is the idea that although Christianity represents the normative revelation of God, salvation is nonetheless possible for those who belong to other religious traditions.' "This class of approach includes parallelism, a form of inclusivism which recognizes the obvious differences between the religions, and argues that each religion is to be seen as valid, in that it achieves its own specific goals.

I have many problems against the theological particularism of so many fundamentalists and evangelicals, but one is chief above all of them. If Jesus Christ is the only way into heaven; then what about all the people who never heard the gospel message? What about a Chinese person who simply never came into contact with Christianity? What about a person who lives with a remote tribe in Papa New Guinea? These persons necessarily must be punching a one way ticket to hell through no fault of their own, if this is indeed the case. But that begs even deeper questions. How can we say that God is loving when He knowingly sends people to hell simply because they can't pass their entrance exam...which is only one question "Who is the Way the Truth and the Life?" How is He loving if you just don't know the answer?? Furthermore, the particularist view contradicts otherpassages that we see in scripture. 2 Peter 3:9 says: "The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance." How does the Lord will that none should perish, and yet, He allows countless numbers of people to perish? If He doesn't want anyone to perish, then why doesn't He do a better job sending out His missionaries?

Barth's idea, while appealing, and undoubtedly the best of the particularists, doesn't sit well with me either. First of all, the concept, strictly speaking, is unbiblical. While I would certainly like this to be true, I simply can't find any scriptural evidence to support it. It was yet another one of Barth's existential leaps that lack a rational basis. He made his argument from silence. Second, he unapologetically states that everyone will be saved. What does this do to morality? Religion, at its core provides an objective grounds for ethical behavior; yet such a concept while appealing at a glance, actually calls into question objective morality and slides dangerously towards subjectivism. Stalin and Mother Teresa will find equal footing in heaven? At a very basic and fundamental level, nearly every religion teaches that we reap what we sew. If we do bad things, bad things will happen to us, both in this world and the next. Yet Barth sidesteps this whole issue with his positivism.

My second major problem with particularism is its unflappable sense of imperialism. When taken to extremes, it can become a kind of megalomania that leads to much of the religious strife and conflicts we see all around the world today. Particularism led to the Crusades, the inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials to 9/11 and to ISIS. Indeed, it was immediately after 9/11 that the first books of the New Atheist movement began to appear and subsequently fly off the shelves. Religion, they rightly argued, often leads to all manner of violence and oppression, thus their conclusion was that in the wake of 9/11, the world would simply be "better off" without religion. This is a relevant, powerful, and devastating critique that theists of all stripes should take heed of.

I would argue that it is not religion that needs to disappear, but rather that particularism needs to disappear, at least eventually. The simple fact of the matter is that we live in a global economy and our demographics have radically changed over the past few decades. Just in my little apartment complex alone I have both Hindus, Muslims and Jews living all around me. Jesus Christ commanded us to love our neighbors, but the particularists would have us either ignore them at best, or shun them at worst. My first blog entry this year was about a Muslim billboard that had fundamentalists in my city outraged. Do we really need more of that in our own backyard, much less around the world? As one who has prayed alongside people of other faiths, it saddens me profoundly to see followers of these great traditions constantly fighting against one another.

But I am not a pluralist. Let me tell you why. While I believe we must be pluralistic in social terms (i.e. recognizing and respecting the religious differences of our neighbors) I do not believe we should adopt pluralism philosophically or theologically. One of the main reasons for this is that philosophical pluralism does not respect the differences between religions. Simply put, every religion has its truth claims; every religion teaches that it is the correct path to follow to reach God, heaven or enlightenment. But philosophical pluralism would eschew all of this and instead posit that it is all part of the same "divine reality." I personally feel that this is a vast reductionism of religious practice in general; it reduces religion down to a subjective and emotional experience of a purely personal "transcendence." Thus, we can all come to this great spiritual buffet table and pick out what we like and discard the rest. You like "karma" so you put that on your plate, but you don't like "hell" so you keep that off your plate like stale bread. Thus, the self, the individual becomes the final arbiter of what is true and what is not. Yet, if everything is subjective in philosophical pluralism, how do we know that any of it is true? How do we know that our mystical experiences are nothing more than the human experience; that is to say grasping for a divine reality that may or may not be there? You see, this is what happens when you throw out special revelation; the theological idea that God has spoken to us in specific times and places, guiding our systems of belief. No genuine practitioner of any faith would advocate such a view; it doesn't matter whether you're a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu or even a Buddhist....at some point special revelation was handed down to us either by God Himself or an enlightened religious teacher, and it is these revelations that lead to the truth claims of that religion, (i.e. particularism). Philosophical pluralism would do away with particularism...by doing away with objective truth. And the idea that everything could be part of "one divine reality" is quite simply theologically incoherent. No kind of revelation is possible beyond the general. This is why I could never be a true pluralist, and neither could any Jew, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist. It just doesn't make any sense!!

But there is a third option, or a middle way. One could be an inclusivist; I myself am one. Of this view, the little known Catholic theologian Jean Danielou once wrote: "The domain of Christ and of the Church extends beyond the limits of the explicit revelation of Christ and of the visible expression of the Church. In every age and every land there have been men who believed in Christ without knowing Him and who have belonged invisibly to the visible Church." Another great Catholic theologian named Karl Rahner argued this in a fourfold point which I shall describe below:

1. "Christianity is the absolute religion, founded on the unique event of the self-revelation of God in Christ. But this revelation took place at a specific point in history. Those who lived before this point, or those who have yet to hear about this point, would thus seem to be excluded from salvation-which is contrary to the saving will of God."

2. "For this reason, despite their errors and shortcomings, non-Christian religious traditions are valid and capable of mediating the saving grace of God."

3. "The faithful adherent of a non-Christian religious tradition is thus to be regarded as an anonymous Christian."

4. "Other religious traditions will not be displaced by Christianity. Religious pluralism will continue to be a feature of human existence."

I am a Christian, through and through. I believe that all of revelation culminated in the Incarnation, the earthly ministry, and the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I believe that all the other religions point to the truth while Jesus Christ is the truth. Indeed, "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life." I agree with C.S. Lewis when he said "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen; not only do I see it, but by it I see everything else."

But as noted, I believe that one can come to that Way indirectly; they can enter into heaven through the back door rather than through the front door. C.S. Lewis argued this very same point: "There are people in other religions who are being led by God's secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their religion which are in agreement with Christianity, and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it. For example, a Buddhist of good will may be led to concentrate more and more on the Buddhist teaching about mercy and to leave in the background (though he might still say he believed) the Buddhist teaching on certain other points. Many of the good pagans long before Christ's birth may have been in this position."

In God in the Dock, he wrote: "Of course it should be pointed out that though all salvation is through Jesus, we need not conclude that He cannot save those who have not explicitly accepted Him in this life. And it should be made totally clear that we are not pronouncing all other religions to be totally false, but rather saying that in Christ whatever is true in all religions is consummated and perfected."

Most importantly, the inclusivist view regarding other religions is a Biblical one."For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law." (Romans 2:14) he idea behind this is quite simple, really. If all truth comes from God, then necessarily, whatever is true in other religions is from God. These religions, then, contain in them enough general and special revelation to be 'a law to themselves.' Thus, the person who lives with a tribe in Papa New Guinea, who looks to the stars and all the creation around him and concludes "someone made this", then knows God despite only possessing general revelation. By the same token, a Hindu who has a highly evolved theology and system of ethics, though he does not know Christ, he knows God from the special revelation contained in his religion. His moral way of life points him to God.

This view was upheld in the Second Vatican Council, which states: "the Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. She has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines which, although differing in many ways from her own teaching, nevertheless often reflect a ray of truth which enlightens all men."

So far I have been arguing Inclusivism from my own Christian position. But wait a minute, you ask! What if you are wrong and Allah is God? What if you are wrong and Krishna is God? Being a lifelong student of comparative religion, I would still argue for the Inclusivist position!! One can make just a solid case for Inclusivism even if you follow one of these other paths! Let me just highlight some for you:

The Holy Quran says: "To every people [we have sent] a messenger." (10:48) and "We appointed a law and a way. And if Allah had pleased He would have made you a single people, but that He might try you in what He gave you. So vie one with another in virtuous deeds. To Allah you will all return, so he will inform you of that wherein you differed." (5:48)

From Islam, we learn God could have made us all the same; but He didn't. We will all return to Him and He will judge us 'wherein we differed.'

In the Bhagavad Gita, the great religious text of Hinduism, Krishna, who is an Incarnation of God, says this: "Wherever dharma declines and the purpose of life is forgotten, I manifest myself on earth. I am born in every age to protect the good, to destroy evil, and to reestablish dharma." and this: "When a person is devoted to something with complete faith, I unify his faith in that. Then, when his faith is completely unified, he gains the object of his devotion. In this way, every desire is fulfilled by me." Indeed, within the Hindu system, we find the concept of radical inclusion. God will take whatever subjective faith we have and make it objective.

I could go on with more examples, but you probably get the idea. One can argue for religious Inclusivism regardless of which faith you practice because it celebrates what we have in common and it accepts, acknowledges and respects the fact that we also have differences. It is my opinion that if the religious leaders of the future push for both social pluralism and theological inclusivism, we will eliminate much of the religious division division and strife all around the world and here at home. We will learn to work together, stemming from an Ethic that is Objectively True. Indeed, we will learn to

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Marcus Aurelius

"I told you that I have made a bridge of the Word, my only-begotten Son, and such is the truth. I want you to realize, my children, that by Adam's sinful disobedience the road was so broken up that no one could reach everlasting life. Since they had no share in the good for which I had created them, they did not give me the return of glory they owed me, and so my truth was not fulfilled. What is this truth? That I had created them in my image and likeness so that they might have eternal life, sharing in my being and enjoying my supreme eternal tenderness and goodness. But because of their sin they never reach this goal and never fulfilled my truth, for sin closed heaven and the door of my mercy."

"This sin sprouted thorns and troublesome vexations. My creatures found rebellion within themselves, for as soon as they rebelled against me, they became rebels against themselves. Their innocence lost, the flesh rebelled against the spirit and they became as beasts."

"With sin there came at once the flood of a stormy river that beat against them constantly with its waves, bringing weariness and troubles from themselves as well as from the devil and the world. You were all drowning, because not one of you, for all your righteousness could reach eternal life.'

"But I wanted to undo these great troubles of yours. So I gave you a bridge, my Son, so that you could cross over the river, the stormy sea of this darksome life, without being drowned."

"So the height stooped to the earth of your humanity, bridging the chasm between us and rebuilding the road. And why should He have made of Himself a roadway? So that you might in truth come to the same joy as the angels. But my Son's having made of himself a bridge for you could not bring you to life unless you make your way along that bridge."

-Saint Catherine of Sienna, The Dialogue

Marcus Aurelius

Mary: Ever-Virgin

Growing up in a Protestant home and having spent many years in an Evangelical Church, I was always baffled by the veneration of Mary. I would see the Icons, statues and medallions of Mary, and like many Protestants, I mistakenly thought Catholic and Orthodox Christians somehow worshiped Mary. This was all the more perplexing because in all the years I spent in my Evangelical Church, the only time I could recall Mary ever even being mentioned was during the Christmas season. So what was the deal with Mary? It wasn’t until I researched Marian theology myself that I came to the conclusion that my presuppositions concerning her were all wrong and that she was and is indeed the Most Holy Queen. My aim with these blogs is to clear up some of the misunderstandings about her, and to show how one Protestant came to love and praise the Mother of God.

One of the fundamental misunderstandings Protestants have towards Mary is this idea of her perpetual virginity. How can this be, they say, when the Scriptures clearly indicate that Jesus had siblings? There are about ten instances in the New Testament where "brothers" and "sisters" of the Lord are mentioned (Matt. 12:46; Matt. 13:55; Mark 3:31–34; Mark 6:3; Luke 8:19–20; John 2:12, 7:3, 5, 10; Acts 1:14; 1 Cor. 9:5). The Protestant view, that Mary was only a Virgin until she gave birth to Jesus seems to be the correct one here, in light of all these Scriptures. It should be an open and shut case, right?

I would have to say not so fast; we can’t close the book so quickly. For just as these above verses point to “brothers” and “sisters” of the Lord, there is not one verse in the entire New Testament that says Mary bore other children besides Jesus. And if the scriptures are silent about the issue, how can we reach a conclusion either way?

The answer is simple. We have to go to Tradition and the writings of the Early Church. What did they say? What did they believe? The answer will be shocking to many Protestants: they overwhelmingly believed in the Perpetual Virginity of the Mother of God.

I want to turn your attention to an important historical doctrine regarding the Perpetual Virginity of Mary called the Protoevangelium of James, which was written probably less than sixty years after the conclusion of Mary’s earthly life (traditionally around A.D. 120), when memories of her life were still vivid in the minds of the early church.

Now I know that many of my Protestant friends might cry ‘foul’ the moment I try to submit an Apocryphal Gospel as ‘evidence’, so let me take a moment to address those concerns. First, it must be stated clearly that this is not a Gnostic Gospel. There is none of the ‘matter is evil’ philosophy of the Gnostics in the book, nor is there anything in it that contradicts the Canonical 4 Gospels of our New Testament. It should also be noted that even though James was not the author of the book, many of the great Church Fathers regarded its content as being factual and authoritative. It is referenced frequently by the likes of Epiphanius, Hilary, John Chrysostom, Cyril, Ambrose and others.

According to the world-renowned patristics scholar, Johannes Quasten: "The principal aim of the whole writing [Protoevangelium of James] is to prove the perpetual and inviolate virginity of Mary before, in, and after the birth of Christ" (Patrology, 1:120–1).’

In it, we learn that Mary’s birth was prophesied and when Mary was old enough, her life was dedicated to the service of the Temple. Hers was to be a life of continual and devoted service to the Lord and she would not live the life of an ordinary Jewish girl, getting married and having children. She had vowed to remain a lifelong virgin. In short, Mary was to be like the ancient version of a Nun. At the temple, the priests recognized her holiness: “And the priest received her, and kissed her, and blessed her, saying: The Lord has magnified your name in all generations. In you, on the last of the days, the Lord will manifest His redemption to the sons of Israel. And he set her down upon the third step of the altar, and the Lord God sent grace upon her; and she danced with her feet, and all the house of Israel loved her.”

But when she reached maturity, ritual purity became an issue. “And when she was twelve years old there was held a council of the priests, saying: Behold, Mary has reached the age of twelve years in the temple of the Lord. What then shall we do with her, lest perchance she defile the sanctuary of the Lord? And they said to the high priest: You stand by the altar of the Lord; go in, and pray concerning her; and whatever the Lord shall manifest unto you, that also will we do. And the high priest went in, taking the robe with the twelve bells into the holy of holies; and he prayed concerning her.” The High Priest was given an answer; she was to have a guardian or protector. “And behold an angel of the Lord stood by him, saying unto him: Zacharias, Zacharias, go out and assemble the widowers of the people, and let them bring each his rod; and to whomsoever the Lord shall show a sign, his wife shall she be. And the heralds went out through all the circuit of Judæa, and the trumpet of the Lord sounded, and all ran.”

Joseph, an elderly widower who already had children, was chosen to be her spouse. “You have been chosen by lot to take into your keeping the virgin of the Lord. But Joseph refused, saying: I have children, and I am an old man, and she is a young girl. I am afraid lest I become a laughing-stock to the sons of Israel. And the priest said to Joseph: Fear the Lord your God, and remember what the Lord did to Dathan, and Abiram, and Korah; Numbers 16:31-33 how the earth opened, and they were swallowed up on account of their contradiction. And now fear, O Joseph, lest the same things happen in your house. And Joseph was afraid, and took her into his keeping.” These prove that the “brethren of the Lord” were Jesus’ stepbrothers, Joseph’s children from a previous marriage. Of this, Origen wrote: "The Book [the Protoevangelium] of James [records] that the brethren of Jesus were sons of Joseph by a former wife, whom he married before Mary. Now those who say so wish to preserve the honor of Mary in virginity to the end, so that body of hers which was appointed to minister to the Word . . . might not know intercourse with a man after the Holy Spirit came into her and the power from on high overshadowed her. And I think it in harmony with reason that Jesus was the firstfruit among men of the purity which consists in [perpetual] chastity, and Mary was among women. For it were not pious to ascribe to any other than to her the firstfruit of virginity."

Joseph was charged with guarding her virginity; and then the narrative unfolds much the same way as the 4 Gospels; however in ch9 v7 it is worthy to note that when the Angel of the Lord first speaks to Mary, he uses the same greeting as found in the Gospel of Luke “Hail thou who art full of grace, the Lord is with thee; thou art blessed among women.” Many Protestants have objected to that translation and have even changed it to take emphasis away from Mary; but this proves that according to tradition, this was the view held by the majority of the Early Church. And who are we to refute those who were the closest to her?

Finally, when it comes to the birth of Jesus, the Protoevangelium provides us with a powerful, yet graphic description of her virginity. A midwife named Salome refused to believe that a Virgin could give birth. Like Doubting Thomas, she demanded to see for herself…and to touch her. “Then said Salome: As the Lord my God lives, unless I thrust in my finger, and search the parts, I will not believe that a virgin has brought forth. And the midwife went in, and said to Mary: Show yourself; for no small controversy has arisen about you. And Salome put in her finger, and cried out, and said: Woe is me for mine iniquity and mine unbelief, because I have tempted the living God; and, behold, my hand is dropping off as if burned with fire.” Salome repents of her unbelief and her hand was healed. This fact led Saint Cyril of Alexandria to conclude that: “"[T]he Word himself, coming into the Blessed Virgin herself, assumed for himself his own temple from the substance of the Virgin and came forth from her a man in all that could be externally discerned, while interiorly he was true God. Therefore he kept his Mother a virgin even after her childbearing"

Hail Holy Queen

Hail, holy Queen, Mother of Mercy, Our life, our sweetness and our hope.

To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve, To thee do we send up our sighs, Mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.

Turn then, most gracious Advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us, And after this our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus.

O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary! Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God, That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Amen.

Marcus Aurelius

"Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self. This is the man I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about him. And to be unknown of God is altogether too much privacy.

My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God's will and God's love-outside of reality and outside of life. And such a self cannot help but be an illusion.

We are not very good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish about ourselves-the ones we are born with and which feed the roots of sin. For most of the people in the world, there is no greater subjective reality than this false self of theirs, which cannot exist. A life devoted to the cult of this shadow is what is called a life of sin.

All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered. Thus I use up my life in the desire for pleasures and the thirst for experiences, for power, honor, knowledge and love, to clothe this false self and construct nothingness into something objectively real. And I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface.

But there is no substance under the things with which I am clothed. I am hollow, and my structure of pleasures and ambitions has no foundation. I am objectified by them. But they are all destined by their very contingency to be destroyed. And when they are gone there will be nothing left of me but my own nakedness and emptiness and hollowness, to tell me that I am my own mistake.

The secret of my identity is hidden in the love and mercy of God. But whatever is in God is really identical with Him, for His infinite simplicity admits no division and no distinction. Therefore I cannot hope to find myself anywhere except in Him.

Ultimately the only way that I can be myself is to become identified with Him in Whom is hidden the reason and fulfillment of my existence.

Therefore there is only one problem on which all my existence, my peace and my happiness depend: to discover myself in discovering God. If I find Him will find myself and if I find my true self I will find Him."

-Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

1961

Marcus Aurelius

Help Me in My Unbelief: The Struggle with Doubt

Over the years, I’ve had a number of Christians tell me that they’ve struggled with doubt, often for long periods of time. This doubt could have come for any number of reasons; a prayer of theirs seemingly went unanswered; they felt God had abandoned them during a time of trial; or perhaps someone leveled an intellectual objection at them that they could not answer and it caused them to question their faith. But while the circumstances for the doubt may vary, the end result is usually the same: they feel as though they are a weaker Christian for having doubts. Thus, our initial cause for doubt usually creates a vicious cycle of doubt in which we pile doubt on top of doubt to the point where we wonder if we have any faith left at all. But while we often let our doubts paralyze us, what does God think of our doubts?

To get an answer to this question, the first place we should look is in the Gospel of Mark. In the ninth chapter, we meet a man whose son was possessed by a demon that had been tormenting him all his life. The boy’s condition was awful; “Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid.” Like any loving father, he almost certainly consulted numerous doctors and physicians; but to no avail. No one could help the boy. Then, probably as a last resort he hears of the miracle worker Jesus and His disciples and thinks maybe they can succeed where everyone else has failed; after all, what did he have to lose at that point?

So he brings the boy to the disciples; and this too is met with catastrophic failure. They were unable to help the boy’s condition. Imagine how the father must have felt when one after the other, the disciples tried to heal him and could not. He probably shook his head in disgust thinking these supposed miracle workers were no miracle workers at all. He probably thought they were just a bunch of frauds and that the claims he’d been hearing were bogus. So then he goes to Jesus and says “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; 18 and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.”

The response of Jesus is shocking and direct. He says “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” Now notice how He doesn’t condemn the father for his faithlessness and doubt; instead He speaks of the whole generation, and indeed, what He said could also apply to our generation.

Perhaps the root of our unbelief begins with our own predispositions. All too often we claim to believe in God, we claim to have faith, and yet we default to the position of philosophical naturalism. We believe in a God who is there, but yet we would handcuff that God behind the natural order of things. This passage of scripture shows that things were no different in ancient times; the father doesn’t believe his son can be healed because he probably doesn’t believe in miracles at all. Even when we claim to believe in God and to have faith; it’s so hard not to think that we live in a closed system in which God cannot or does not act and miracles are simply impossible.

But as Christians, we have to reframe that mentality. As an avid gamer, I’d like to challenge you for a moment to think of our reality as a Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) game. MMO’s are known for attracting thousands of players from around the world and putting them into a virtual world that seemingly runs on its own. MMO’s have their own cities and inhabitants, their own governments and economies, wildlife and monsters. They are meant to be a totally immersive experience, and they usually are. I’ve certainly been addicted to playing a couple of them!

And yet we know that these games run on servers, and that the developers are frequently changing things in the game world. They put in innumerable updates and patches to improve the experience.

Now we know that God created our world, we know that He created the natural order; so if He is the developer, can He not act within His own system? Can He not interject “updates” and “patches” into the system as He sees fit? This is how we should look at the very Incarnation of Jesus Christ; it was not merely a patch; it was an overhaul. It was an invasion. With the Incarnation, God changed the natural order. The Kingdom; this unseen (greater) reality was made known in the person of Jesus Christ, and the power of that Kingdom that He implemented continues on to this day. The same force that would later heal this boy possessed by demons is still with us. So while we cannot always know the will of God; we must never assume that God cannot or will not act in decisive and powerful ways in our own lives today.

With that said, perhaps the root of our unbelief goes much deeper than our predispositions. Perhaps our predispositions are actually the ‘symptoms’ of a greater ‘illness.’ I would argue that unbelief is part of our fallen human nature and that because of our fall in the garden we are “children in whom there is no faithfulness” (Deut 32:20). We have layered doubt upon doubt from the very beginning when we tried to hide our faces from the Lord while He searched for us in the cool of the afternoon. In short, we doubt because we cannot help ourselves. By nature, we would sooner lean on anyone or anything rather than the Lord. By nature we would forsake the Fountain and grasp for “cisterns which have no water.”

So rather than hate on yourself because you have doubts, you should instead realize that it is only natural to have doubts and that our doubts will never fully go away until the Kingdom is finally realized in full. Having doubt does not make you a weaker Christian; it just means that you are human. And you would do well to remember that you are in pretty good company!

For example, in Hebrews 11 it talks about the Heroes of Faith. Every one of those heroes experienced periods of great doubt. Abraham didn’t trust God that he would have children, so he lay with his servant. Moses thought he was too old and not a good enough speaker to liberate the people of Israel. David slew Goliath and yet he was terrified that Saul would kill him. Elijah brought low a whole horde of false prophets and yet he hid from Jezebel in a cave. Doubt is simply a part of who we are, and we must learn to accept that fact. While doubt can be a painful process, it is an important part of our spiritual maturation.

As one writer put it, “many Christians fall into the trap of assuming that faith and doubt are mutually exclusive. They imagine that a real believer would never question the grounds for his faith and if one experiences doubt, his faith isn’t true. When confronted with arguments against Christianity they are thrown into a sea of doubt, believing that every plausible objection must be answered before they can rest in their faith.” But the story of the desperate father in Mark chapter 9 shows us this is not the case.

The father says to Jesus: “if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” He says if; if you can do something. This shows us that even a weak prayer, a prayer full of doubt is better than no prayer at all. So rather than falling into the abject defeatism of our doubts, we should be bringing them to God in prayer. He can hear us whether we are full of faith or full of doubt.

Jesus tells this poor father that anything is possible if he would just have the faith, and that is when he cries out with those famous words: “I believe; help my unbelief!” In this powerful statement we see that he has the foundation of belief; he has a kind of faith. His faith is like the poster that hung on Special Agent Fox Mulder’s wall from the X-Files; his faith said “I Want to Believe.” He just needed a little help to get there, and so do we. Don’t stop praying because of your doubts; pray through them, pray about them. Say as this father said: “help me in my unbelief.”

It is in times of doubt that we need to draw near to the Holy Spirit. John 14:26 says “But the Comforter, even the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said unto you.” The Holy Spirit is our comforter; it is in Him that we can find rest from our troubles. And moreover; He is our teacher. He testifies to our hearts the Truth of the Gospel, a truth that the world cannot understand, a truth that the world designates as “foolishness” (1 Cor 1:27-28). It is the Holy Spirit who will help us to overcome the obstacles of belief.

You see, I think there are times when we misunderstand what the Holy Spirit is or does; we may think of Him as a force or as a presence, but He is a Person. We can pray to Him, speak to Him directly and be assured that He will help us in our doubts, for “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Romans 8:26-27).

And in your time of doubt, you would do well to know that the Holy Spirit is probably already present within you. Have you ever thought “God exists”, “I am reconciled to God” or “Jesus Christ loves me”? If you have believed such things, now or in the past, it is the Holy Spirit that has revealed it to you; He is the Source of all Truth He has already planted the seed of wisdom within you, or else you would have never believed Christianity to be true in the first place. I have argued on these blogs that the Christian God exists and that there is evidence for that belief; but ultimately, as others have pointed out; our faith is not dependent on such argumentation and evidence. Our faith is dependent upon the inner witness of the Holy Spirit.

So when you go through times of doubt as you naturally will, it is to the Holy Spirit that you should pray, so that He can ease your mind, answer your doubts and convict you of His eternal love for you. Holy Spirit we believe, help us in our unbelief.

PRAYER TO THE HOLY SPIRIT

Come, Holy Spirit,

fill my heart with Your holy gifts.

Let my weakness be penetrated with Your strength this very day

that I may fulfill all the duties of my state conscientiously, that I may do what is right and just.

Let my charity be such as to offend no one, and hurt no one's

feelings; so generous as to pardon sincerely any wrong done to me.

Assist me, O Holy Spirit,

in all my trials of life, enlighten me in my ignorance, advise me in my doubts, strengthen me in my weakness, help me in all my needs, protect me in

temptations and console me in afflictions.

Graciously hear me, O Holy Spirit, and pour Your light into my

heart, my soul, and my mind.

Assist me to live a holy life and to grow in goodness and grace.

Amen.

Marcus Aurelius

The Meditations I: The Bhaddekaratta Sutta

I don't always have time to write a new blog post. My goal is to get one up on a weekly basis, but sometimes life gets in the way. So in an effort to bless my dear readers, I am going to be launching a new (occasional) series of blogs when I don't have time for an original composition. I shall call this series the Meditations and it will be a collection of writings from various religious traditions; the scriptures, the great mystics and saints that have impacted my life and my own spiritual journey. May these Meditations bless you as they have blessed me. So without further ado, here is a powerful Buddhist scripture from the Pali Canon...

The Bhaddekaratta Sutta: A Single Excellent Night

I. Thus have I heard. On one occasion the Blessed One was living at Savatthi in Jeta's Grove, Anathapindinka's Park. There he addressed the bhikkhus thus: "Bhikkhus"-"Venerable sir," they replied. The Blessed One said this:

II. "Bhikkhus, I shall teach you the summary and exposition of One Who Has Had a Single Excellent Night. Listen and attend closely to what I shall say." -"Yes, venerable sir," the bhikkhus replied. The Blessed One said this:

III. "Let not a person revive the past

Or on the future build his hopes;

For the past has been left behind

And the future has not been reached.

Instead with insight let him see

Each presently arisen state;

Let him know that and be sure of it,

Invincibly, unshakeably.

Today the effort must be made;

Tomorrow Death may come, who knows?

No bargain with Mortality

Can keep him and his hordes away,

But one who dwells thus ardently,

Relentlessly, by day, by night-

It is he, the Peaceful Sage has said,

Who has had a single excellent night.

IV. "How, bhikkhus, does one revive the past? One nurtures delight there thinking, 'I had such material form in the past.' One nurtures delight there thinking 'I had such feeling in the past...'I had such perception in the past,'...'I had such formations in the past,'....'I had such consciousness in the past.' That is how one relives the past."

V. "And how bhikkhus, does one not revive the past? One oes not nurture delight there thinking, 'I had such material form in the past.' One does not nurture delight there thinking 'I had such feeling in the past'...'I had such perception in the past,'...'I had such formations in the past,'...'I had such consciousness in the past.' That is how one does not revive the past."

VI. "And how, bhikkhus does one build hope upon the future? One nurtures delight there thinking, 'May I have such material form in the future!' One nurtures delight there thinking, 'May I have such feeling in the future!'....'May I have such perception in the future!'....'May I have such formations in the future!'...'May I have such consciousness in the future!' That is how one builds up hope upon the future."

VII. "And how bhikkhus, does one not build up hopes upon the future? One does not nurture delight there thinking, 'May I have such material form in the future!' One does not nurture delight there thinking, 'May I have such feeling in the future!'...'May I have such perception in the future!'...'May I have such formations in the future!'...'May I have such consciousness in the future!' That is how one does not build up hope upon the future.

VIII. "And how, bhikkhus, is one vanquished in regard to presently arisen states? Here, bhikkhus, an untaught ordinary person, who has no regard for noble ones and is unskilled and undisciplined in their Dhamma, who has no regard for true men and is unskilled and undisciplined in their Dhamma, regards material form as self, or self as possessed of material form, or material form as in self, or self as in material form. He regards feeling as self...perception as self...formations as self..consciousness as self, or self as possessed of consciousness, or consciousness as in self, or self as in consciousness. That is how one is vanquished in regard to presently arisen states.

IX. "And how, bhikkhus, is one invincible in regard to presently arisen states? Here, bhikkhus, a well-taught noble disciple, who has regard for noble ones and is skilled and disciplined in their Dhamma, who has regard for noble ones and is skilled and disciplined in their Dhamma, who has regard for true men and is skilled and disciplined in their Dhamma, does not regard material form as self, or self as possessed of material form, or material form as in self, or self as in material form. He does not regard feeling as self...perception as self...formations as self...consciousness as self, or self as possessed of consciousness, or consciousness as in self, or self as in consciousness. That is how one is invincible in regard to presently arisen states."

X. "Let not a person revive the past....

He who has had a single excellent night.

XI."So it was with reference to this that it was said: 'Bhikkhus, I shall teach you the summary and exposition of "One Who Has Had a Single Excellent Night."

That is what the Blessed One said. The bhikkhus were satisfied and delighted in the Blessed One's words.

Marcus Aurelius

The Seeking God

If God exists, then why is He so shy? Why doesn’t He reveal Himself in more ‘obvious’ ways? Those questions form the basis of an argument against the existence of God that has been gaining a lot of attention in recent years, the argument from “divine hiddenness”. As a former atheist, I can relate to the argument; it’s a tough question. I remember many years ago riding in a car with a friend and we came across a billboard that depicted a blue sky and some pretty white clouds and it read: “Looking for God?” At the bottom, it advertised going to a local church to ‘get answers.’ I laughed and I said to my friend “yeah, I looked for God, but I sure as hell didn’t find Him!” I joked that the blue sky and clouds represented what God really was; nothing but empty space. Seeking God was like seeking a passing cloud; pointless.

The crux of the argument from “divine hiddenness” is this: What kind of God would let well-meaning, intelligent people who seek good evidence of the divine in the midst of this suffering world fail to find it? Why does the seeker come up empty? Why are their efforts frustrated? Not only have I dealt with this objection myself, I’ve also come across many people who have had the same problem. They seek after God and they find nothing. They ask for a sign and no sign comes. They ask for something in prayer and the prayer goes unanswered. It really makes you think no one is there, that no one is listening, right?

But what if I told you that the problem lies not with our intention, but with our orientation? The great Sufi mystic Bayazid Bistami once said “for thirty years I sought God. But when I looked carefully I found that in reality God was the seeker and I the sought.” Put simply, our God is the Seeking God. To be able to truly seek God, we must first realize that He is seeking us.

We learn that God was seeking us right from the beginning, all the way back in Genesis. You probably know the story. They ate the forbidden fruit, they became aware of their nakedness and they hastily sewed clothes together from fig leaves to hide their shame from one another. And then they try to hide from God Himself. And yet, God is not content to let them hide. He comes down and He seeks them out. Despite the fact that He knows full well where they are, He asks “where are you?” The Seeking God forces them to acknowledge their hiddenness. It is not God who hides from us; it is we who hide from God. That moment in the Garden is the pattern for all of human history. Thus, it is our orientation from the very beginning to seek to hide ourselves from the presence of God. Isaiah 59:2 echoes this in saying: “Rather, your iniquities have been barriers between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you.”

The theme of the Seeking God continues throughout the entire Old Testament. We see how God communicates with His people, even when they aren’t trying to seek Him. He reaches out to people caught up in the midst of their daily routines or in the dead of night. He interrupts them. He comes to Abram in the middle of the night and tells him to pack all His things, take His family and go to a land “that I will show you.” After his stint in Egypt, Moses was seemingly content living out his retirement as a shepherd when God suddenly appears to him in the Burning Bush and calls him to be the liberator of the Hebrew people. In the story of Jonah, God calls him to be a prophet to the people of Nineveh, but he runs away. God then pursues Jonah relentlessly until he finally comes to terms with God’s plan. These stories serve to remind us that it is God who takes the initiative.

This pattern of the Seeking God culminates in Jesus Christ; when through the Incarnation God Himself comes down to visit His people. The theologian George Eldon Ladd wrote “In Jesus, God has taken the initiative to seek out the sinner, to bring the lost into the blessing of His reign.” We may try to hide from God, we may try to run from God, but He comes to us, and He comes to us out of love. In the words of Jesus Himself, “For the Son of man came to seek and to save that which was lost.” (Luke 19:10)

I would encourage any of my readers who are curious about this concept and would like to explore it in more detail to please read the Gospel of Luke Chapter 15. Jesus was facing harsh criticism from the religious leaders of His day for ministering to sinners and even being in their presence. The great truth of the Seeking God is laid out in three Parables that Jesus taught. He said that it was His divine purpose to search out the sheep that had strayed; to seek the coin that had been lost, and to welcome the prodigal back into the family even though he was unworthy of forgiveness. It is God’s initiative every time. The shepherd searches for the lost sheep; the woman sweeps the house looking for the lost coin; the father longs for his son’s return. Thus, the sinner does not turn to God; God turns to the sinner.

So why is it that our efforts to seek God are frustrated? Why is it when we look for God we come up with “divine hiddenness” instead of divine presence? It goes back to that problem of orientation. We do not seek God in the power of our own strength, but by trusting in the power of His might. We look for Him as though He were somewhere else, when He has been with us all along. The poet Rumi put it like this: “If in thirst you drink water from a cup, you see God in it. Those who are not in love with god will only see their own faces in it.” We are to seek God in love and in trust, knowing that He is already there, seeking us.

“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.” (Rev 3:20)

The Almighty is standing at the door of your heart, knocking. Will you bid Him to enter?

r7-jesusatdoorknock.jpg

Marcus Aurelius

Praying Without Ceasing

I call myself a Christian and yet, more often than not, I find that I have little time for God. It’s always something! Most mornings, I wake up with the best of intentions; it’s 7am, cold and quiet, and the sun isn’t even up yet. I get out of bed; pull my Bible off the bookshelf, thinking it’s time for some early morning devotions and prayer. This is meant to be my alone time with God.

But almost every morning; something will distract me from that. My phone starts ringing or I pass by the kitchen and realize I forgot to do the dishes the night before. What about that email I still need to reply to? On any given day I can find a thousand distractions to keep me from even a few minutes with God.

Does any of this sound familiar to you? Do you ever feel like the daily grind has you too busy to spend any time alone with God? If your answer is yes, I’d like to show you how you can have that alone time with God no matter where you are or what you are doing, whether it’s sitting in a cubicle, being stuck in a traffic jam or mowing your lawn.

While this may seem it’s just a problem of our technological age, you aren’t alone in wondering how to find the time to pray. An anonymous 19th century Russian believer was wrestling with the same issue and it gave way to one of the greatest spiritual works in the long history of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

“On the twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost I came to church to attend the Liturgy and entered just as the Epistle was being read. The reading was from Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians, which says in part ‘pray without ceasing.’ These words made a deep impression on me and I started thinking of how it could be possible for a man to pray without ceasing when the practical necessities of life demand so much attention.”

And so begins the quest of a spiritual seeker, and a book which I would recommend to all of you called the Way of a Pilgrim. The writer travels across Russia talking to priests, monks and devout laypeople; hoping to find out how to pray without ceasing. On each leg of the journey he is met with disappointment, hardship and spiritual struggle.

Finally, he meets an Abbot who teaches him the Prayer of the Heart, better known as the Jesus Prayer. The Abbot tells him “Sit down in silence. Lower your head, shut your eyes, breathe out gently, and imagine yourself looking into your own heart. Carry your mind, that is, your thoughts, from your head to your heart. As you breathe out, say, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me." Say it moving your lips gently, or simply say it in your mind. Try to put all other thoughts aside. Be calm, be patient, and repeat the process very frequently.”

The Jesus prayer is quite simply “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.”

The key to cultivating the prayer is to say it with awareness and focus on the heart. You say it from your heart, from the very depths of your being. This allows the wandering mind to descend into the heart, pushing all other thoughts aside. Have faith that the Lord is hearing you, listening to you and drawing near to you as you recite the words. This will ground you in prayer no matter where you are or what you’re doing. Of this, Saint John of Kronstadt once said: “When you pray, keep to the rule that it is better to say five words from the depth of your heart than ten thousand words with your tongue only.”

If you are willing to practice it several times a day, eventually it will become totally engrained in your mind and you will find yourself doing it all the time. “For a whole week I stayed alone in my hut and recited the Jesus Prayer six thousand times every day, neither worrying about anything nor paying attention to the distracting thoughts...I became so accustomed to the Prayer that if for a short while I stopped reciting it I felt as if I were missing something.”

The Jesus Prayer has helped me to silence the anxious ramblings of my mind and to ground myself in the presence of God. With it, my heart is turned to prayer at all hours of the day and night, no matter where I am or what I am doing. Indeed, it has become a part of me.

And it is perhaps the most Biblical prayer we could ever make; for as a Greek Orthodox monk once told me, “In the Orthodox tradition we call the Jesus prayer the Prayer of the Heart, not just because we say it from the heart, but because in that one sentence is contained the very heart of the Gospel message.

Marcus Aurelius

The Resurrection of Hope: My Story

Have you ever felt like your own walk with God has been a long and winding one? Have you ever been plagued with difficulties and doubts, highs and lows? Mine is such a story. Recently in my blogs I've been talking about the philosophical and theological implications surrounding the word "hope". Today I am going to do something different; I'm simply going to tell you my story and how I came to live a life resurrected by hope.

I had a good childhood, with two amazing parents. My mother used to read to me from the Bible, and from an early age I was a believer in Jesus Christ. I always wanted to hear and learn more about Him. We used to talk about God for hours, and as soon as I could read, I was reading in the Bible. I know now the Holy Spirit was at work in those days, planting a seed deep within me.

But as a teenager, things turned horribly sour. I experienced a lot of abuse at school. I was bullied heavily. I was always getting in fights and I was in trouble constantly. I was lonely, withdrawn and depressed. I began to think ‘if God is so loving, then why would He let me suffer like this?’ I felt my prayers were unanswered and unheard. It wasn’t long before I became a very vocal atheist.

I started partying all the time, drinking, doing all kinds of drugs, and getting involved in one meaningless relationship after another. For a time, I was happy in this state. My existence was about the pleasure of the moment. But by the time I reached my early twenties I was burnt out and horribly depressed. Life had no meaning for me anymore, no purpose. I was having suicidal thoughts all the time; I just wanted to die and be done with it.

Yet when I sought to end my life, it was the Lord who saved it. One night when I was really down, I challenged God to speak to me. I said ‘if you exist, you better speak to me now.’ I pulled an old Bible off the shelf and opened it right to the Book of Ecclesiastes whose words open with “Meaningless, meaningless, all is meaningless. A chasing after the wind.” Reading it was like reading my own thoughts. There on the page, in the Word of God was the story of my life up to that point. I’d been chasing after the wind, living a life without God and without hope. So I accepted Jesus into my heart that night. I ceased my crazy lifestyle at once; joined a church and was baptized. There were even people who felt the Lord had placed a calling on my life into ministry, so I joined my churches leadership training program.

Now it sounds like my story should end here, doesn’t it? But this isn’t it. Like I said, my walk with God has been a long and winding one. By this point, God had led me out of my spiritual Egypt, but I hadn’t reached the promised land just yet. I still had to spend my time wandering in the wilderness.

I say this because even though I had accepted Christ in my heart, even though I was trying to heed His call on my life; the fact is I’d never really surrendered to Him. I had what I like to describe as my “Jonah Moment,” I suddenly decided I didn’t want anything to do with the ministry and I ran from the call.

So I had accepted Christ in my heart, but I was content to live with only a fraction of Him. I was content to put Him in the background rather than in the foreground. I spent those ‘wilderness’ years chasing after the wind again. I was focused on a relationship that would last for 7 years, a relationship that everyone I knew had advised me against. I was focused on my sales career, just to try to make increasing amounts of money and enjoy this lavish lifestyle I'd set up for myself and become accustomed to. I had very little time for God because I’d built up this whole new identity for myself. I was happy. I thought I was living this perfect little life.

But like Jonah, I had to have my ‘whale’ moment. And when that whale came in 2009, it swallowed me utterly. My relationship had been deteriorating for a few months. Well one night I walked in and caught her in the act; she’d been cheating on me. I was devastated and broken hearted. I never saw it coming. I had to move back in with my parents because I didn’t even have any place to go. And just when I thought things couldn’t possibly get any worse, a week after all this had gone down I went out for drinks with a well-meaning friend who was just trying to console me. Next thing you know I was pulled over for speeding and because I’d been drinking that night it wasn’t long before I was sitting in the back of a squad car and in handcuffs.

It was the absolute lowest point in my life. In just the span of a week everything had fallen apart. My life as I knew it...was over.

But in all of this, there was one big difference. In the past when I suffered, I ran from God. This time when I suffered, I ran to God!! As all of this was happening, I kept thinking of the words of Job “though you slay me, yet will I trust in you.” I claimed it as a promise. For days, weeks, I just kept saying those words over and over again. As I would lie in bed awake at night, unable to sleep: “though you slay me, yet will I trust in you.”

One night I finally reached a breaking point; I was overwhelmed by all the things that happened to me, I was on the floor crying I was in so much pain and I just asked God why? Why did You let all these things happen to me?

Finally, I just wanted to calm myself, so I picked up my Bible to do some devotions. I’d been reading the Book of Galatians, and I’d left off at chapter 2. Almost immediately I came to the words of Galatians 2:20 where it says “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who lives, but it is Christ who lives in me.”

There was my answer. It all became very clear to me. I’d never truly surrendered. I’d never truly died to myself. So this was it, I’d suffered my Cross. He’d stripped me of this life I’d been building for myself so He could finally live in me.

And like Job, He restored me. Here I’d been living all these years like a dead man walking, but He resurrected me from this scrap heap of life. When I’d lost my way and didn’t know what to do with the rest of my life and I prayed “Lord I will do whatever work you want me to do” He reaffirmed that long forgotten call into the ministry over my life and blessed me with an unprecedented opportunity at Ohio Christian University, where I just finished up my degree in Leadership and Ministry and graduated with honors just this past Saturday. I start seminary in the fall and have been blessed with a scholarship. When I lost the woman who I thought would be my wife, and I prayed “Lord if it is your will for me to be alone and never marry, so be it” He blessed me with meeting the woman who became my wife in May of 2012.. She is the love of my life and is the exact opposite of all the women from my past. She supports everything I do, she prays with me and for me, and when I’m in doubt she is the one who pushes me and makes me a better man.

And when I prayed for a new church to call home, He led me to the United Methodist Church. The mission statement of my home church, “responding to the reality of God” drew me in; and now I’m responding to the reality in ways I never would have thought possible! As part of my schooling I had the privilege of interning with my pastor for one year and to learn what it’s like to be in ministry and to even participate in things like worship leadership, preaching and teaching. With God's help, I am now pursuing ordination in the United Methodist Church. I was also blessed to become a Stephen Minister there, to help those who are hurting like I was.

It is amazing when I stop and reflect on just how much God has transformed my life. Just a few years ago, I thought my life was over, I thought my life was ruined. All my hope was gone. But now He has given me a new beginning, a new hope, and a new purpose and is helping me to achieve things I never would have thought possible. I don't think I will ever know or understand why He has shown me all of this favor, but I know He is there, guiding my path. During my graduation ceremony on Saturday, when they called my name and I walked across the stage to receive my degree, I thought of the words of Jesus from John 15:5 "I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing."

So as I write these words today, I can honestly say that the surrendered life to God that is so hard for us to do because we all want that control over our lives; is far better than anything we could ever do on our own. In surrendering, I became free. And when we allow ourselves to be crucified with Christ, we can be reborn in the glory and hope of His resurrection. I’m living proof of that.

Marcus Aurelius

I have always been a big fan of the science fiction genre; whether its literature, film or even video games. I can trace this interest all the way back to childhood when I first saw the 1960 classic the Time Machine. Every time the main character would wind up that chair to travel through time, my eyes would just go wide with amazement. The idea of time travel is just fascinating. I think that’s always been part of the draw of science fiction; it makes us think of limitless possibilities and fills us with a sense of wonder and hope for the future.

One rainy afternoon a few years ago I sat down and read H.G. Wells’ Time Machine. A sense of anticipation came over me, and as I turned page after page, there was this distinct feeling of reconnecting with my childhood memories of the movie. It was one of those rare moments where you feel like a kid again. By the time I got to the end of the book, my eyes did go wide with amazement; amazement of an altogether different sort. I was shocked to find that the story was completely different than the movie. The traveler goes forward into the distant future to discover the destiny of man; but he doesn’t find alien races or technological marvels. He finds nothing. All that is left is a dead earth, save for a few lichens and moss, orbiting a gigantic red sun. The only sounds are the rush of the wind and the gentle ripple of the sea. “Beyond these lifeless sounds,” writes Wells, “the world was silent. Silent? It would be hard to convey the stillness of it. All the sounds of man, the bleating of sheep, the cries of birds, the hum of insects, the stir that makes the background of our lives—all that was over.” I put down the book in a stunned…silence. This was not at all what I had expected. The ending of the Time Machine reminds me a bit of the existential crisis of postmodern man. What do we have to look forward to at the end of our journey; with all our toiling, our passions, our struggles and our ambition? If the naturalist worldview is correct, not very much.

Last week I talked about the hope of humanism, demonstrating how the ‘New Atheists’ have substituted the pessimism of old with a more attractive, humanist Utopian idealism. But several atheist writers have emerged to attack and critique this ‘hope’ of the New Atheism. They accuse people like Dawkins of “going soft.” As one prominent atheist blogger put it, “We are Atheists. We believe that the Universe is a great uncaused, random accident. All life in the Universe past and future are the results of random chance acting on itself. While we acknowledge concepts like morality, politeness, civility seem to exist, we know they do not. Our highly evolved brains imagine that these things have a cause or a use, and they have in the past, they’ve allowed life to continue on this planet for a short blip of time. But make no mistake: all our dreams, loves, opinions, and desires are figments of our primordial imagination. They are fleeting electrical signals that fire across our synapses for a moment in time.” When put under the microscope; atheism cannot offer us hope. If we are simply the products of random time and chance in a blind and impersonal cosmos, then life ultimately has no objective, purpose or meaning. Just like the ending of the Time Machine, it is a deep silence and a profound nothingness that awaits us.

You see, under the naturalist worldview, we simply cannot get around the fact that everything ends in death. The great Emperor Marcus Aurelius once said “Alexander the Great and his stable boy were leveled in death.” How can there be any real hope in humanism if this is the case? All I can do is to try to escape from this inevitable reality. All I can do is to try to “authenticate myself” in any way possible.

But everything changes if God exists. The Christian view of God is important because it suggests that God is personal; He has revealed Himself to us in space and time; He has invaded human history with the Incarnation. The faceless now has a face; the unknowable has been made known. Thus God is not some blind watchmaker who sets the world in motion for no real purpose; rather He has created us to be in relationship with Himself. It is in this way that life suddenly has an objective meaning and purpose. You are not the product of random time and chance; rather you are the product of a loving God. You are not a momentary blip of being; rather you are a being of eternal significance. Your actions are not simply methods of escape or ways to “authenticate yourself”; rather what you do today matters eternally. Why must we debase ourselves with such naturalism? Why must we descend into despair and worthlessness when the Christian God says we are of infinite worth? My point here is that God has endowed us with reason above all other creation not so that we might despair of our condition; but so that our condition might cause us to seek Him. “Pain,” C.S. Lewis wrote, “is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

I cannot escape the reality of suffering. The Buddha taught that life itself is suffering and the Christian would agree with that wisdom. We live in a broken and fallen world that is not operating as it was intended. I have likened it to a computer virus infecting the operating system. The computer still powers up; you can still run most of your programs; but it is erratic. It runs more slowly than it should. It shuts down unexpectedly. Every time you turn it on, you wonder how much longer it is going to last. But while the naturalist, the atheist or the humanist must somehow insert meaning into life when there is none; the Christian says there actually is meaning. We see the world for how it actually is, not as we wish it to be.

To the naturalist, no amount of “authenticating ourselves” can eclipse the fact that if we are merely the product of random causes, our suffering also has no meaning. Suffering is just another random event of which we are nothing more than helpless prisoners. Some might call it ‘fate,’ for rather than subjecting themselves to a benevolent God, naturalists have instead subjected themselves to a blind determinism. The grave is ever looming, and that is all there is.

By contrast, the Christian worldview says there is meaning even in the midst of our suffering. Even though there is a virus infecting our operating system, God uses it to bring about good. I can think of no better example of this than the story of Jacob. After all that happened to him, he was still able to confidently utter those famous words “You meant it for harm, but God meant it for good.” And as Christians we can claim that as a promise. Our trials can be used to bring about good.

You see, most people understand hope as a kind of wishful thinking. We want something to happen, so we hope for a certain outcome that may or may not work out. I hope the weather will be nice enough so I can take a walk today. I hope I get that promotion at work because I really need the money. But the Christian does not view hope in this way. The biblical definition of hope is “confident expectation.” Christian hope is the confidence that something will come to pass because God has promised us that it will.

But this hope is not Utopian. It does not say I will be healed of my every illness, it does not say God will make me healthy and wealthy, it does not say that all wars will be ended or that we will reach distant galaxies. Rather, it says “And lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” It says that I am not alone; that the God who Himself became man and suffered as a man is with me, suffering with me as I suffer. This is what the Psalmist means when he says “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” When I suffer, I am not cast adrift at sea without any sense of purpose or hope; rather, God is my refuge and in that refuge I am given the strength to get through the trial; not to try to “authenticate myself” around it.

According to the naturalistic worldview, suffering, sickness and death can have no meaning. But to the Christian, we believe that behind this broken world there is a sovereign God who will one day do a system restore to this faulty operating system and set it back to the original factory default. I can believe this because God has promised it and because He has demonstrated it in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He is the pattern.

At the end of my previous blog on the resurrection, I asked the question “what if it were true?” If Jesus was indeed raised from the dead, then the great reversal has begun. Death itself has been defeated. To the atheist; death claims everything. But to the Christian; death is but a passing through a doorway from one method of being into another. You are not a random collection of atoms to be dissolved; you are ceaseless, eternal. As Christ was raised, we shall be raised, for He said: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” He gives us the promise, all we have to do is believe it, even if it is a struggle; then we too can live in the hope of confident expectation where death does not have the final word.

My hope is built on nothing less

Than Jesus Christ, my righteousness;

I dare not trust the sweetest frame,

But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.

On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;

All other ground is sinking sand,

All other ground is sinking sand.

When darkness veils His lovely face,

I rest on His unchanging grace;

In every high and stormy gale,

My anchor holds within the veil.

His oath, His covenant, His blood,

Support me in the whelming flood;

When all around my soul gives way,

He then is all my hope and stay.

(My Hope is Built, 1834)

Marcus Aurelius

The Resurrection of Hope Part I: Hope and Humanism

I was doing some spring cleaning the other day, and while rummaging through a bunch of dust covered boxes I found an old Obama “Hope” sticker from his 2008 election campaign. I’m sure you remember those. It has a picture of his face in red and blue colors with the words “hope” in all capital letters. For just a moment, I was reminded of the fervor of that election year, a fervor that I myself bought into. I went to see him speak during a Democratic rally held at a local area high school football field. He talked about how he was going to turn the economy around, how he was going to create new jobs and help the suffering middle class. He said he was going to end our foreign wars and favor diplomacy over aggression. He was saying all the things I so desperately wanted to hear and I found myself completely hooked. The “hope” sticker went up on my refrigerator that very night.

Clearly, I was not alone. He won the election in a landslide, and just about everyone I knew did indeed place their hopes in him. People seemed to think he would change the world and right all wrongs. But what happened as a result of our hopes? Our economy is in shambles, the middle class is being eviscerated, unemployment is rampant, and we always seem to be teetering on the brink of some new conflict. A survey says only 30% of the population feels our country is headed in the right direction. In short, our hopes were dashed. My “hope” sticker went from its prominent place on the refrigerator to a forgotten about box stuffed in a closet. To me, this is just another indictment of the false hopes of humanism; that world leaders and governments always have our best interests in mind and will fundamentally change the world and change lives for the better.

I cannot help but contrast the hope of humanism with the hope of my Christian faith. This past Sunday was Easter, and this year my church did things a little differently. Several people from our congregation went up front, one after the other, and talked about how Jesus Christ had transformed their lives and given them hope. In the United Methodist Church, we call this “faith sharing.” This was not the first time I’ve heard such testimonies. I’ve heard countless people talk about how they were freed from addictions, depression, abusive parents or relationships and all manner of bondage. I’ve even heard people talk about how they were healed of various physical afflictions and ailments. Skeptics of Christianity and religion often say that our faith is pie in the sky; but they ignore the transformative power of faith in our daily lives. Our lives have been transformed by hope.

I have asked these same skeptics a question; “what does the atheist hope in?” As of yet, I do not believe I have found a satisfactory answer. This matter is an easy one for me to probe, because I was once an atheist myself. Long before people jumped on the God Delusion bandwagon, I was reading the great atheist philosophers of old. The works of Nietzsche, Hume, Sartre, Camus and Schopenhauer once lined my bookshelves. Many of their views were not near as rosy as the likes of Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and others.

Russell once wrote “that man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins-all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”

Sartre, whose “Being and Nothingness” was one of my favorite books when I was an atheist, echoed this when in his final interview he said: “With this third world war, which is going to break out one day, with this miserable ensemble that our planet is, despair returns to tempt me again. The idea that we will not ever finish it, that there is not any goal, that there are only individual goals for which people struggle. People start small revolutions, but there is not a goal for humanity, there is nothing that interests mankind, there are only disruptions”.

For Sartre and Camus, atheist “hope” boiled down to one thing; “authenticity.” Sartre argued that we live in an “absurd universe”, the total of which is “ridiculous.” All we can do, then, is to authenticate ourselves by an act of will. It doesn’t matter which direction you go; if you find a wallet on the ground you can either return it or steal it, because either way, you will have “authenticated yourself.” Such was the “hope” of the ‘old guard’ of the atheist philosophers that I was once so heavily influenced by; a kind of blind existentialism.

But now there has been a distinct paradigm shift in atheistic philosophy. With the explosion of the New Atheists onto the philosophical scene, we have moved from a naturalist despair or a subjective existentialism to a more broad sense of utopian idealism. These harsh critics of religion have put new clothes on the old guard to make it appear more attractive for pop culture consumption. Indeed, the New Atheists have become evangelists in their own right. We have gone from the bleak writings of a Sartre to “Atheism offers the idea that this world is all we have and it therefore offers the hope that we have the power to touch that world, and shape it, and shove it a little bit in the direction that we’d like to see it move. And that’s a pretty big hope.” Substitute pessimism for a repackaged utopian ideal and you have the New Atheism. Open the windows; the sun is shining and the flowers are blooming; spring has come to atheism at last, after a long, long winter!!

It is ironic that those who would accuse followers of religion as being irrational; are themselves guilty of irrationality. It is ironic that those who would accuse followers of religion as having a blind faith; are themselves guilty of having a blind faith. They say that we can “end all wars” and have “world peace” (especially if we get rid of religion!). They say we can “end poverty” and “end world hunger”. They say we can bring about better economic conditions for all of mankind. They say we will go out to the infinite stars. They say that secular morality will replace the need for a god. And while these things (with the exception of that last one) are certainly what we should always be striving for; they are at the same time unrealistic expectations in their totality. It is nothing more than a repackaged utopian philosophy brought into the 21st century. The writer of Ecclesiastes said “there is nothing new under the sun”, and indeed there isn’t. I wish I could say that we have the power to end all wars, for example, but there have always been wars and there will always be wars. Because the desire for selfish gain has always been and will always be rooted deeply in the human heart; the utopian world that these New Atheists tout in their books and in their lectures is simply impossible. They advocate reason over faith; but this is not reason, this is faith of an altogether different kind, and is thus a flight from reason. Perhaps the ‘old guard’ would have seen this as well. They are guilty of the same non-rational leap that they accuse theists of taking.

And like the utopian philosophers of old and the “hope” stickers of the present day, these ‘hopes’ will ultimately be dashed by reality. When we take off the rose tinted glasses of the New Atheism, we see the hope of humanism for what it really is. As Bertrand Russell put it, “Brief and powerless is Man’s life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on in its relentless way; for Man, condemned today to lose his dearest tomorrow, himself to pass through the gate of darkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day.”

So what does the Christian hope in? I will be examining that in the second and final part of this series. Regardless of where you stand on these issues, thank you for coming with me on this journey and please stay tuned……

Marcus Aurelius

When I was very young, my mother used to read to me from the Bible and tell me stories about Jesus; and as a kid I loved hearing those stories. My eyes used to go wide with amazement when she would tell me how He calmed storms, walked on water, gave sight to the blind, made the lame walk and how He rose from the dead. I believed those stories without question; I loved this Jesus very much and I prayed to Him every night before going to bed. I felt that He was really there, really listening, and I felt that He was always with me.

But as I grew older I became convinced that they were just stories. After all, my parents had also told me that Santa Claus was real and I’d believed that too, until late one Christmas Eve I went downstairs to get a glass of water and I caught my mom wrapping my Christmas presents. That was a very good Christmas. It was the year I got Grimlock the Dinobot; but it was also the year my belief in Old Saint Nick was shattered forever. I didn’t care at all, mind you. I still got Grimlock; it didn’t matter where he came from. But it did make me wonder; why tell the story at all if it isn’t true? What’s the point?

By the time I was a teenager I had become a philosophical atheist, and in my early twenties the great mythologist Joseph Campbell provided a sound, if only partial explanation to that question. Myths, he argued, are the essence of what makes us human. They reflect a profound inner reality rather than an outward or divine reality. Myths are true, not in a literal sense, but because they are part and parcel of the human psyche; for what is man if he cannot dream? I saw the Christian story, therefore, as just another version of the ancient Roman, Greek, Persian, Egyptian, and Babylonian myths; stories that tell us not about God, but the human condition. The countless stories of dying and resurrected gods that have dominated our mythological landscape were to be seen only as our own reflection in the mirror. They represented our longing to transcend this material reality and to conquer and defeat death.

I never questioned the fact that a man named Jesus had actually existed. I just couldn’t accept any of the supernatural nonsense. To quote a famous line from the movie the Crow, I thought “there ain’t no coming back!!” Jesus had lived, He had been a great moral teacher, but He was put to death and that was the end of it. His followers crafted a myth around Him and it was that myth that became known as Christianity.

Then in the year 2,000 I had my own personal encounter with God and amidst a lot of grumbling and torrents of doubt, I became a reluctant believer. You see, even after I’d had what I believed to be my own supernatural experience; accepting the supernatural as a reality was very difficult for me. It seemed to fly in the face of all logic. I doubted everything, questioned everything. The first Christians and pastors I came into contact with must have thought I was crazy because here I was confessing to be a Christian, and yet I was challenging them and debating them on just about every point. I was especially skeptical about the resurrection. In the back of my mind, I kept hearing that guy from the Crow saying “there ain’t no coming back”. And then someone told me to read C.S. Lewis.

“The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens — at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.”

I had simply come to the wrong philosophical conclusion about the power of myth; I had assumed that it was only a symbol. But what if that symbol could become reality? C.S. Lewis argued that all of mankind’s previous myths were expressions of our deepest yearning; that the transcendent and unknowable God would come into intimate contact with mankind and thus be made known. Christianity, Lewis said, was not merely one myth alongside countless others; rather it was the fulfillment of all previous mythological religions. What we once longed for in our myths became true in Jesus Christ, when God Himself entered into space and time.

And when it came to the resurrection story, I had ignored all the internal evidence for its reality. As I investigated the claims, the idea of the whole thing being a fabrication or a fiction just seemed more and more unlikely to me. There are a number of things I could talk about here, but instead I want to focus on just a few things that really stood out to me. First, we have the matter of the empty tomb. When something is purely invented, especially in ancient literature, the general idea was to show a thing in the best light possible. The Gospels tell us how women were the first witnesses to the empty tomb, and this just isn’t the best way to start a myth. Women were little more than second class citizens in ancient times, and this alone would have discredited the whole story for most people right out of the gates! If they were trying to start a myth, why in the world would they use women who couldn’t even testify in court? Then we have the problem of the body itself. Where is it? If the women had simply gone to the wrong tomb, or the Roman authorities had moved the body, why didn’t anyone produce it? They could have stamped out the whole hoax in a minute just by producing the body! The silence here is deafening, and it was but one smoking gun that led this former atheist to think that maybe, just maybe this myth had indeed become fact.

Then we have to look at the reaction of Christ’s followers. The Gospels didn’t gloss over the bumbling of, and at times, even the stupidity of the Apostles. When it came to the resurrection, not one of them readily accepted that it was true. They were all filled with doubt and fear, and I happen to find this fact encouraging. The way I see it, if I had been there, I would have reacted in exactly the same way as Thomas and the others did. If someone told me that a man was raised from the dead I would have thought they had gone mad! Thus, the skepticism on the part of the Apostles as depicted in the Gospels is to me evidence of its plausibility. They didn't just accept that He had risen from the dead. They demanded proof. The Gospels depict a very rational and human reaction to the supposed resurrection event. It is how most of us would have responded. They believed as you or I would; that “there ain’t no coming back.”

But then a change happens in them, literally overnight. They go from cowards and skeptics hiding in the shadows to boldly proclaiming the Good News that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead. They did this under constant persecution and the threat of death. How is this possible if it were all just a myth; unless that myth had become fact?!

You see, this change occurred because when myth became fact in the literal resurrection of Jesus Christ, they now had hope. Death itself had been

defeated on that first Easter Sunday. What all of humanity had been yearning for since the dawn of time became reality in the moment that Jesus first stood and the stone was rolled away. Saint Paul wrote of this, saying: “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.” (1 Thes 4:13-18)

So as we move through this Holy Week up to Easter, I want you to remember that we have hope. As an atheist, this was one thing I lacked; hope. I would think of all those I have loved and lost, I would think of my own mortality and I would be filled with an overwhelming sense of despair and futility. And if you have ever felt this way yourself, I would challenge you to ask a simple question; “what if it were true?” What if myth had indeed become fact on that first Easter Sunday?

Marcus Aurelius

Belief in the Unseen

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I was asked yesterday in a friendly discussion how I "could believe in a God that is unseen", and indeed; why would I need such a belief at all to be a "good human being?" These were very good questions; questions that I once wrestled with myself as an atheist.

The basic idea is this: something needs to be seen to be believed in; a thing cannot be true unless we are able to verify it empirically. Religion, then, was something that 'primitive' man used to cope with the forces around them. A flash of lightning streaks across the night sky and the people tremble. The rains fall, the crops bear fruit, and the people give thanks. Because 'primitive' man did not understand the world around them, they had to attribute these forces to something supernatural, to something unseen. This is why in primitive mythologies 'the gods' were most often seen as elemental forces. The priests and shamans were seen as holy men and women that could interact with those forces and serve as intermediaries between the people and the gods.

Fast forwarding a bit; as the middle ages gave birth to the Enlightenment, man's thinking began to shift from the supernatural to the sciences and from the unseen to the seen. The view of a personal and knowable God that once dominated the thought of theologians and philosophers gradually gave way to a deist version of God; a God who is a divine watchmaker that set the universe in motion, but is altogether unknowable.

But it was the Modern era that forever shifted our thinking towards the unseen. Man had progressed to new heights. Our achievements in industrialization, technology, the arts and the sciences (among other things), left us with a world that no longer needed the supernatural to explain the nature of things. Nietzsche, who was seen as a precursor to Modernism famously proclaimed that 'god is dead, and we have killed him'. It was his view and that of many other philosophers of the time that religion and God was the invention of man. Man had needed a God to explain the world. Man had needed a God to derive a system of ethics from which to guide the masses. Science had taken us beyond that point and man could now create their own morality.

In this way, belief in the supernatural was seen as irrational. If it cannot be seen; it is not there. But is this view as sensible as it sounds? I would argue that it presents us with a logical fallacy. If I make the statement "a thing cannot be true unless it is empirically verifiable", then by reason of my own argument what I just said cannot be true! I am unable to empirically verify that statement; I have no way of measuring whether it's true or it isn't.

Huston Smith likens science to a searchlight beam probing the night sky. "For a plane to register, two things are required: it must exist, and it must be where the beam is." Science can illumine our understanding certainly; but it can only do that at fixed points. It is a powerful beam, but it does not light up the entire night sky. Science can't answer questions like "why am I here?" and "does life have meaning?"

And ultimately; neither can I if I believe that there is no objective reality or universal truths. I am left only with the sum total of my subjective experiences. The Christian philosopher Francis Schaeffer put it this way: "Without the infinite-personal God, all a person can do as Nietzsche points out, is to make “systems.” In today’s speech we would call them “game plans.” A person can erect some sort of structure, some type of limited frame, in which he lives, shutting himself up in that frame and not looking beyond it. This game plan can be one of a number of things. It can sound high and noble, such as talking in an idealistic way about the greatest good for the greatest number. Or it can be a scientist concentrating on some small point of science so that he does not have to think of any of the big questions, such as why things exist at all”.

In a materialistic culture we would define that 'game plan' as achieving personal wealth and satisfaction. One could argue that this is the 'greatest good' of our postmodern society. Just as we can only believe in what is seen, we can only measure self-worth by what we possess. We are constantly bombarded with advertisements for the latest, greatest things. We stand in line for hours for the latest gadget. We seek romantic love as perhaps the highest ideal, because we think that it will somehow validate us. But as Pastor Timothy Keller suggests; all we have done is attach ultimate meaning to conditional 'things.' We have made our own false gods.

Religion warns us against such views. In the 4 Noble Truths of Buddhism; we are taught that our suffering comes from our attachments. Buddhists see the things of this life as transitory; as "passing phenomena." There is nothing wrong with seeking a happy life. All of us want that. But at the same time; we cannot attach ultimate meaning to conditional states of being, because as the Buddha says, "there are no permanent states of being." The Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible echoes this truth; likening man's relentless pursuits for material pleasure and wealth as "chasing after the wind". But if we cannot hold onto external things or even our own states of being; is there anything we can hold onto?

I would argue yes; that we can hold onto the very thing that the Modernists were so quick to deny; the unseen. This is why the Lord said to "lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal." Just because the searchlight beam of scientism cannot find this unseen reality in the night sky doesn't mean it isn't there. Religion teaches us that reality is much bigger and much greater than what we can comprehend spatially.

Still, this is not something that is easy for us to do. In postmodern thought, religious belief is seen as taking "a leap of faith"; as though we are somehow moving from the rational to the irrational. This was an error of some of our own theologians in the 20th century; divorcing belief from the rational. It is more a product of Existentialism than it is traditional religious belief. Our greatest saints from ages past would have never held such a view. For them, belief in the unseen was not only rational; but super-rational. The things of God; the eternal, the infinite, transcends our perception altogether. This is why the Mystics have always said that we must put on a "Cloud of Unknowing" to truly seek God. We must empty ourselves of our own sense of perception so that He might fill us.

But again; this is difficult for us to do. The question, as in my discussion yesterday ultimately becomes "if God is real, then why doesn't He reveal Himself?" We say "If God revealed Himself, then I would believe." This is a sound objection. I wrestled with that same issue for many years. Now as a Christian, I certainly believe that God has revealed Himself in revelation; both in His Word and in creation. The fact that I exist at all is a 'sign' to me. But what if we had an even more direct revelation? What if the voice of God suddenly bellowed from the Heavens, "I am here", would it really help?

All one has to do is study the Sacred history of the three great Abrahamic faiths to see that this is not the case. God parts the Red Sea and leads the Israelites out of Egypt and feeds them with Manna on their journey. Yet when Moses goes up on the mountain, the people begin to build idols for themselves. In Islam, the Polytheist tribes made war on the early Muslims; and yet the Muslims won battle after battle even when they were hopelessly outnumbered. But so many still refused to believe that the One God was on their side. The Holy Koran says "And they swear their strongest oaths by Allah that if a sign come to them they would certainly believe in it. Say: signs are with Allah. And what should make you know that when they come, they believe not?"

I can think of no greater example than when hearing of the appearances of the risen Lord; Thomas still refused to believe. It wasn't until he placed his hands on the wounds of Jesus that he was finally able to believe. Thomas, I think, represents our human condition. We are hardwired to believe in God and the unseen on the one hand because it is the Image of God reflected in us; but at the same time our fallen and broken nature rebels against that and refuses to believe without 'signs.' In that sense, our very nature is in a perpetual state of conflict. Even when the miraculous is in our midst, we still struggle to believe.

That is why the Lord says to Thomas after he touched Him: "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."

This is the essence of our faith. It is not a belief that is irrational; rather it is a belief that transcends our own limited understanding. If God were to shout from the heavens demanding us to worship Him; it wouldn't be faith and mankind wouldn't be free. The unseen reality is there; but God gives us the choice to believe in it or not.

God does not speak to us in a booming voice from the heavens, He speaks to us in a whisper. He speaks not as a roaring lion, but as a gentle wind rustling in the trees. Let us strive to hear that small voice; for we are blessed because we have not seen and yet we believe...

Marcus Aurelius

How To Walk On Water

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All one has to do is look first at the book of Job to see why we suffer. It is to teach us faith. What is faith, unless it is something that can be challenged, unless it has obstacles? Remove these challenges, remove these obstacles, we are left with acceptance, not faith. Job though he was a pious and righteous man, blessed with material prosperity did not yet know true faith, he had acceptance, belief. It wasnt until Satan took, one by one, the things that he loved and cherished in this world that his beliefs became faith. Faith in God was born in his heart and soul the moment he cried out in agony €œthough you slay me yet will I trust in you." This, this is the meaning of real faith. Faith is not mere belief. Faith stares down challenges, faith overcomes obstacles, faith weathers any storm. And it seeks the divine over the material. In cultivating true faith we must remember everything that we seek to gain in life, every attainable happiness, be it marriage, family, wealth, all of it can be taken in a second, for it is perishable, impermanent. The philosopher Seneca once said any form of happiness that can be TAKEN is not true happiness...it is a harsh, but accurate statement if we make idols of the things that make us happy. We suffer because of our attachments, putting infinite worth on finite things. We cannot serve two masters.

How do you react when you are going through a trial? My first inclination is to throw up my hands and demand answers from God. Job did this too. I think we all do it. But notice how when God finally answers Job He does not say "This is why I allowed you to suffer"... He instead questions Job about His acts in creation. What He is saying to Job is, in effect is that you, in this impermanent body cannot fully understand My plan or will for your own life, much less the life of all creation. Our view of things is limited to our own small perceptions, consciousness and senses. And because we feel our emotions so acutely, we often do not realize that everything we feel is subject to change. One moment the waters are calm. One moment the waters are turbulent. To everything there is a season, and we must learn to praise God in all seasons to be alike in joy and suffering. One must learn to welcome suffering as he welcomes pleasure. THY WILL BE DONE.

Yet, even in the most turbulent of waters, God may not always show us the reasons why we have been cast down, but He will show us how to get through it. The first thing we must do is wait. We must not act of our own accord, though that is our natural inclination. When night fell upon the Sea of Galilee, and the disciples sat huddled together as the storm clouds broke overhead, they waited. They did not raise the anchor, they did not sail into the storm, they waited on the Lord. Can you imagine how agonizing it must have been for them to wait, as they heard the roaring of thunder overhead, the raindrops pelting like tiny little daggers against their faces; the howl of the wind as it whipped at them and stole the breath from their lungs when we find it difficult to even wait in line for over a minute for a latte? To cultivate faith we must first possess the patience of the disciples in that moment, for when God does come to us out of the whirlwind it is in His time, not our own.

The second thing we must do to cultivate true faith is to fix our gaze solely upon Jesus, no matter what assails us, no matter what is going on inside or outside of us, as chaotic as all our lives can be. In conclusion it isworthy to note that Peter was actually walking on the water until He took his eyes off of Jesus; it was only then that He began to sink. And so it must be with the myriad storms in our own lives, we must never take our eyes off of Christ Jesus. Our vision must be singular. This is how one walks on water.

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