Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Faith and Science

Every great once in a while, my father, the late great Champ Ruffin, would decide it was time to get a new used car. He had one main criterion for any vehicle he purchased: it had to have four doors. The reason was that we transported “the ladies” (as he called them) to church every Sunday. There were three of them and three of us. I’d sit in the front seat between Daddy and Mama, the ladies would sit in the back, and off to Midway Baptist Church we’d go.

One fine Sunday morning in the late 1960s, one of them, inspired by what she’d been seeing on television, said, “Mike, do you believe those men went to the moon?” “Sure I do,” I said. (I was an eleven-year-old expert on such things.) She said, “I don’t.” “Why not?” I asked. “Because they show the ship flying through space. They couldn’t do that.” “But,” I replied, “it says ‘simulation’ right there on the bottom of the screen.” “Uh-huh,” she said.

That afternoon, my father said he wanted to talk with me about that conversation. “First of all,” he said, “she doesn’t know any better. There’s no point trying to talk her out of her opinion.” “Okay,” I said, “but shouldn’t she at least see that the image is a simulation, like it says right there on the TV screen?”

“Mike,” Daddy replied, “she can’t read.”

I was surprised to hear that. She took her Bible to church every Sunday. But I understood what my father told me. Some people’s limited experience lessens their ability to acknowledge what science accomplishes and teaches.

It’s not like I understand quantum physics.

Were you to ask me today if I “believe in” space travel, I’d say no. I’d also say no were you to ask me if I believe in evolution, in human contributions to climate change, or in the wisdom of being vaccinated against diseases. I don’t “believe in” any of those things.

But I don’t have to believe in them. I don’t have to take them on faith. Science verifies all of them, and that’s good enough for me. So while I don’t “believe in” any of them, I accept all of them because scientists tell me that the evidence supports them.

I am very concerned about the seemingly increasing rejection of science among some of our leaders. I hope such rejection doesn’t spread. I hope we elect science-affirming leaders who appoint and nominate other science-affirming leaders. We need more science, not less. We need to approach our difficult situations through rational problem solving, not through irrational posturing.

But science doesn’t tell us everything we need to know and it doesn’t help us become everything we need to be. There are ultimate matters that go beyond what science can tell us. I believe in the God who created what we study through science. I believe in the Savior who shows us how far God will go to be with us and to love us.

I accept science, but I trust in the Lord. Some people say you can’t do both. My experience, and the experience of many other people, says you can.

I started out talking about the lady who told me she didn’t believe those men went to the moon. She was wrong about that. I’m told that some years later, they found her kneeling beside her bed, where she had died while praying.

If I had to choose, I’d take such trust in God over acceptance of science.

But I’m glad I don’t have to make that choice.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Mortal Love

I offer the following observations in light of this year’s confluence of Ash Wednesday, which reminds us of our mortality, and Valentine’s Day, which celebrates human love. Let me define my terms. In the statements below, “mortal” means “human” and “love” means having attitudes and carrying out actions that are other-affirming, other-focused, self-emptying, and self-giving.

To be mortal is to be temporary, which makes love valuable. We are on the earth for just a little while, so we get to love each other in these fantastic earthly ways for just a little while. When we know the time will come when we won’t have something, it becomes much more valuable to us. Life is that way. Love is that way. So we should treat our beloved ones with the honor befitting their value.

To be mortal is to be frail, which makes love graceful. To be mortal is to be breakable. We get hurt, sometimes in our bodies, sometimes in our minds, sometimes in our hearts, and sometimes in our spirits. Sometimes we hurt those we love by not taking our commitments seriously or by not embracing our relationships enthusiastically. At such times (at all times really, but especially at such times), love saves us by its grace. By “graceful” love I mean love that is full of grace, which is the ability and willingness to accept each other in our frailty and to lift each other up when we fall.

To be mortal is to be dying, which makes love lively. Each passing moment brings us a moment closer to death, so we want to live lives that are as full of purpose and meaning as possible. Love contributes to such fullness. By “lively” love I mean love that is life-giving and life-enhancing. If love becomes stronger as our bodies become weaker, we become more alive even as we move toward death.

On this Ash Wednesday, we remember that we are mortal. On this Valentine’s Day, we remember that we love and are loved. Mortality and love make a wonderfully risky combination. If we embrace it fully, we’ll be alive for as long as live.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

The Middle

Ever since I voted in my first election in November 1976, I’ve considered myself a political moderate. Now, I acknowledge that I usually vote for one party’s candidates because that party’s perspectives and policies for the most part align better with mine than those of the other party. But I’ve always wanted the elected representatives of both parties to put the good of the nation (or the state, county, or city) ahead of a particular political agenda. I’d like them to negotiate and to meet in the middle in order to do all they can do to help us be all we can be.
I don’t think bipartisanship and compromise are cuss words—I’ll say them right out loud, even at church.
One thing I regret about the current state of our politics is that the middle has pretty much disappeared. And as that has happened, those of us who have long sought the middle ground have been forced toward the extremes.
Picture a ring in which a boxing match is about to begin. After giving instructions, the referee says to the combatants, “Go to your corners and come out fighting.” We have our corners. We have our political, philosophical, religious, and social corners. It can be tough to come out of them and engage in the struggle, but that’s what we need to do. That’s what our political leaders need to do. Instead, we go to our corners and stay there. We shout at each other across the ring, but we don’t engage. That’s easier, but it’s not productive.
I realize the flaws in my analogy. One flaw arises from the fact that the point in a boxing match is for somebody to win and somebody to lose. But every once in a while a match ends in a draw, even though one of the fighters is in worse shape than the other. I think the goal for our representatives should be to get in there and slug it out to a draw. One side gets more of what they want than the other, but at least progress will have been made. 
Another flaw in my analogy is that we don’t have two clear-cut sides (Republican vs. Democrat; liberal vs. conservative); there are many sub-groups. A better analogy for our situation might be a wrestling ring in which a thirty-person battle royal is about to take place. Still, no matter how many people, positions, and perspectives there are, if all we do is stand in our respective corners and shout at each other, we end up—well, pretty much where we are. And we really need to move past there.
The poet Robert Frost once said, “A liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel.” I admit to having been guilty of that at times. I also admit to being willing to listen to almost anybody. I try to take people’s positions seriously and I want them to take mine the same way. But I do have my convictions. And I’ll admit that there are some folks whose positions are as far from being worthy of consideration as Hog Mountain is from the Matterhorn. So far as I’m concerned, racists, sexists, and xenophobes have nothing constructive to contribute to any civil discussion; they lack the basic humanity that is, to my way of thinking, the starting point for any helpful approach to the issues at hand.
Still, I think that our goal should be to make as much progress as we can. I understand that some folks will say that the issues are too important to compromise on. I’d like to be a purist too. But reality won’t allow for it. We live in a diverse nation that is going to become much more diverse. Our representatives need to put people ahead of positions and do all they can to help us move forward. Sometimes that means making compromises. It means searching for the middle. It means taking small steps.
The last presidential election pushed us farther into our corners than we’ve been at any time in my lifetime. During that election, some of my acquaintances (and even a couple of my friends) thought I went too far in resisting the eventual winner’s campaign. I felt that I had no choice. And now I’m not sure that some dangerous policies can be resisted from any position but the extreme opposite one.
Long term, though, we’d better find a way to resurrect the middle. I’m going to hold onto hope that we can.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Overview Effect*

We’ve lost three astronauts in recent months.

Paul Weitz died on October 22, 2017. He piloted Skylab II, which was the first manned mission to America’s first space station, in 1973. He was also the pilot for the first flight of the space shuttle Challenger in 1983.

Richard Gordon died on November 6, 2017. He walked in space twice while orbiting Earth on Gemini 11. As Apollo 12’s command module pilot, he circled the moon while the other two astronauts landed on and traversed its surface.

John Young died on January 5, 2018. He was the first astronaut to go into space six times, twice each on Gemini, Apollo, and space shuttle missions. He walked on the moon in 1972 as commander of Apollo 16.

I admire astronauts. I also envy them. They’ve experienced something that few people have: they’ve left Earth and gone into space. They’ve also been granted a rare perspective: they’ve looked at Earth from space rather than looking at space from Earth. I think the thing I envy most is their experience of seeing Earth whole rather than in parts. I wish we all could develop that perspective. I especially wish we could learn to see beyond our little part and realize that it’s connected to all the other parts.

The term “overview effect” names this unique experience of astronauts. Seeing Earth from space, they are struck by the beauty, the wholeness, and the fragility of this blue marble as it hangs in the blackness. We may never go into space (I still harbor some hopes of doing so), but our world would benefit if more of us could develop something like an overview effect. It would be helpful if we could see our planet more as one world rather than as separate entities. Maybe that way we’d understand that we’re all in this together.

Frank Borman is still with us. He was the commander of Apollo 8, which was the first spacecraft to orbit the moon (I remember the crew reading Genesis 1 on Christmas Eve). Two quotes from him get at what I’m trying to say. Borman said,

When you're finally up at the moon looking back on earth, all those differences and nationalistic traits are pretty well going to blend, and you're going to get a concept that maybe this really is one world and why … can't we learn to live together like decent people. (Newsweek magazine, 23 December 1968)

“Why can’t we learn to live together like decent people” is a good question. I suppose one answer is that we’re not decent people. But I refuse to accept that. Borman also said,

The view of the Earth from the Moon fascinated me — a small disk, 240,000 miles away. It was hard to think that that little thing held so many problems, so many frustrations. Raging nationalistic interests, famines, wars, pestilence don't show from that distance. (Life magazine, 17 January 1969)

We sure can see them from down here, can’t we?

I believe that one solution to all of our problems is for more of us to come to experience the overview effect. Let’s try to see the world and its people as one. To paraphrase another astronaut, that might be the most important giant leap humankind could ever make. And once we make it, we can start taking the small steps toward making things better.

*The term was coined by Frank White. See his book The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Like a Rose

Early in the morning of June 17, 1972, police arrested a group of men who had broken into the offices of the Democratic National Committee in Washington, D.C. Thus began the scandal that became known by the name of the building that housed those offices: the Watergate.

I was just shy of fourteen years old when the break-in occurred. In 1973, I got to participate in a week-long government studies program in Washington. A leader of the program suggested that we subscribe to some national news magazines. I did.  Before long, I was obsessed with Watergate. I read everything I could about it. I even bought a record called The Watergate Comedy Hour (featuring Jack Burns, Avery Schreiber, and Fannie Flagg, among others), some of which was funny.

Every time the subject of Watergate came up around our house (always because I brought it up) my father would say, “The president is going to come out of this smelling like a rose.” Being a teenager, I wasn’t terribly interested in what he had to say, so I didn’t ask him what he meant. I wish I had. By the time it occurred to me that I’d like to know the answer to that and many other questions, my father had been smelling heaven’s flowers for a long time.

I can think of several things he might have meant. One possibility is that he thought Nixon was innocent of any wrongdoing. Another is that he figured Nixon was smart and slick enough to find a way to wriggle out of any jam he might find himself in. Neither of those possibilities proved to be the case. And Nixon came out smelling not very rose-like.

There is a third possibility: maybe my father believed that the institution of the presidency would survive so, insofar as Nixon embodied the institution, he’d come out smelling like a rose.

Watergate was a great test of our institutions. The presidency was deeply wounded by the crimes of Watergate and the deeper corruption that the investigation exposed. One reason we made it through as well as we did is that the legislative and judicial branches of government stood up and did the right and necessary things. Impeachment proceedings were underway in the House of Representatives when Nixon resigned, which he did after the urging of senators from his party. The Supreme Court made it clear that the President was not above the law. And the press, while not one of the three branches of government, did its part in investigating and reporting what the citizens of our country needed to know.

It seems to me that these days we are undergoing an even deeper institutional crisis than we experienced during the Watergate era. I say that because so many Americans hold our institutions in such low regard. I say it also because of the ways that our current Chief Executive publicly lambasts our institutions.

Now let me be clear: we should not naïvely trust in those institutions. The people who work in them are fallible, so we should keep a close eye on them and hold them accountable. If we are realistic, we won’t expect them to smell like roses. But we can demand they not smell like stinkweed either.

We must carefully walk the line between trusting and critiquing our institutions. But one of the great dangers in our current situation is the ongoing attempt by some in power and their spokespeople to delegitimize those institutions.

We’re still going to have a nation after the current administration ends. Then as now, we need those who serve our nation through its institutions to do so with courage born of integrity. Let’s encourage them to do so.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Sermon Preached at Barnesville (GA) First United Methodist Church on November 26, 2017

God Works in Mysterious (and Gracious, Surprising,
and Challenging) Ways

Matthew 1:1-17

            I have two reasons for being a little nervous today.

            First, during my growing up years here in Barnesville, my family attended a blue collar Baptist church out in the country. As a student at Gordon Grammar School during the 1960s, I’d stare in awe at the massive white sanctuary across the street, wondering what marvelous experiences the people who worshiped there must have. Some of my teachers even worshiped there. Now here I am, preaching in that impressive place. Outwardly, I’m a confident fifty-nine year-old, but inwardly my ten year-old self is trembling.

            Second, when your good pastor invited me to preach here today, she told me that I could preach on whatever topic I wanted. But she also told me of the series she planned to preach on the Sundays leading up to Christmas, which has to do with the supporting characters of the Christmas story. She furthermore told me that if I felt so led, I could preach on the women in Jesus’ genealogy as Matthew presents it, which is what she’d be preaching on if she were here. I said I thought that sounded interesting so I’d just do that.

            But doing so requires that I say some things about the dealings of men with women, and that makes me nervous because of the recent flood of revelations about the ways some men have harassed and abused women.

            So I ask you to join me in taking a breath and saying a prayer. Here we go.

            Matthew’s Gospel opens with a genealogy that is interesting in its arrangement and in its content. Its arrangement is interesting because Matthew structures it so that there are fourteen generations from Abraham to King David, fourteen from David to the Babylonian exile, and fourteen from the exile to the birth of Jesus. That’s Matthew’s way of saying that Jesus is the Messiah who fulfills God’s promises to Israel that began with Abraham and that Jesus belongs to the line of David as people expected the Messiah would.

            The content of the genealogy is interesting because it includes women, which was unusual in ancient genealogies. But what’s really interesting is the particular women it includes.

            Be advised that this part of the sermon is rated PG-13; parents are strongly cautioned.

            The first woman in the genealogy is Tamar, with whom Jacob’s son Judah fathered twins named Zerah and Perez. But there’s much more to it than that. Tamar married Judah’s son Er, who died without fathering any children. Under the terms of a practice known as levirate marriage, Er’s brother Onan married her so that they could have children who would be considered the deceased Er’s children and heirs. When Onan also died without fathering any children, Judah told Tamar to wait until his youngest child Shelah got older. When Tamar realized that Judah had no intention of letting Shelah marry her, she dressed and veiled herself as a prostitute and had sexual relations with her father-in-law Judah. He was not aware of her identity. When she became pregnant, Judah ordered that she be executed, but when she presented evidence that Judah was the father, the verdict was withdrawn and she bore the twins, one of whom (Perez) would be an ancestor of David.

            Next is Rahab. Rahab worked as a prostitute in Jericho. When Joshua sent two spies into the city ahead of the Hebrews’ attack, they found shelter in Rahab’s establishment. Before helping them escape, she secured a promise from them that she and her family would be spared when Joshua’s army conquered the city. They are indeed spared, and she goes on to marry and give birth to a son named Boaz.

            That brings us to Ruth. Ruth was Naomi’s daughter-in-law. She had married one of Naomi’s two sons when the family moved from Bethlehem to Moab during a famine. After Naomi’s husband and both of her sons died, she decided to go back to Bethlehem and Ruth went with her. Once they got settled, Ruth went out to glean in the fields, a practice that was part of ancient Israel’s social contract to help provide for the poor (the kind of contract any decent society must have). As providence would have it, she gleaned in the field of Boaz (Rahab’s son). Following her mother-in-law’s guidance, Ruth makes some moves to reach out to Boaz. He responds positively and after a bit of legal maneuvering they marry. She gives birth to a son named Obed, who becomes King David’s grandfather.

            Last but not least is Bathsheba. She was married to a soldier named Uriah who was off fighting King David’s battles. While taking a leisurely stroll on the palace roof, David saw her bathing.  He sent someone to find out who she was. When he was told that she was Uriah’s wife, he sent for her and had sexual intercourse with her. This may have been rape in the literal sense; it was certainly rape in the sense of a powerful man misusing his power to coerce a woman to submit to him. When Bathsheba became pregnant as a result of David’s act, he tried to cover it up and finally resorted to having Uriah killed. He married Bathsheba, but their child died. They later have another son whom they name Solomon; he will succeed David as king.

            So those are the women in Jesus’ family tree that Matthew chooses to name. Why does he name them? They have a few things in common.

            First, they all have interesting, and in some cases, scandalous sexual histories that lead to their bearing sons from whom Jesus is descended. It doesn’t take much imagination to realize what kind of talk was going on about Mary and about the fact that she became pregnant before she and Joseph consummated their marriage. Joseph at first thought that Mary had behaved improperly and he planned to divorce her quietly. It took the Lord’s direct intervention to help him understand what was happening. And even if Joseph and Mary tried to explain the situation, do you think anybody believed that story? Would you? So maybe Matthew included these particular women in the genealogy to say, “Look, Jesus is hardly the only one in David’s line to be born under unusual (and even scandalous) circumstances.” We should also remember that the grown man Jesus will spend a lot of his time with people whose reputations caused the good religious folks to keep their distance.

            Second, all four women in Matthew’s genealogy may be Gentiles. The text doesn’t identify Tamar as such, but the context points us in that direction. Rahab is Canaanite. Bathsheba’s husband is Hittite, so she may be too. And Ruth is Moabite. So by their inclusion in the genealogy, Matthew may be saying that while Jesus came as King of the Jews, he also came as the Messiah of the Gentiles. After all, look at all the Gentile women in his family tree! In a similar vein, only Matthew tells us about the Persian or Arabian wise men that came to visit young Jesus and his family. And it is in Matthew’s Gospel that the resurrected Jesus tells his disciples, “Go and make disciples of all nations” (28:19).

            We should notice a third thing about these women. All of them were used by men (even Ruth is treated like a piece of property that two men decide what to do with), and most of them were misused and abused. Still, given the social conventions and strictures of their time, all of them stood up for themselves and took steps to preserve their legacy. (A later story tells us that Bathsheba participated with the prophet Nathan in a plot to make sure that her son Solomon would succeed David.) One reason they are included in Jesus’ genealogy is that they took control of their own situation. We’re seeing women do a similar thing these days, and we hope they help lead us to a social context in which such using, misusing, and abusing no longer occur. Christians should be in the forefront of such a movement.

            Hear the good news. Sometimes we religious folks look at people and think that because of who they are and what they’ve done, there’s no way God will use them in God’s purposes. And sometimes God says, “You think so? Watch this!”

            No doubt Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary all got talked about in their day. People talked about their scandalous treatment, their scandalous behavior, or their scandalous circumstances. We’re still talking about them in our day. But when we talk about them, we talk about the ways that God worked through them to bring Jesus into the world to be the Savior of everybody—no matter who they are—who trusts in him.

            We should be very careful about making statements about who God can’t or won’t work through. God works in mysterious, surprising, challenging, and above all, gracious ways.

            Thanks be to God!

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Thoughts and Prayers

When a mass shooting occurs in the United States—and it happens all too often, doesn’t it?—lots of politicians will say, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families,” or something like that.

This practice has become controversial in some quarters, which raises the question, “What’s wrong with thinking about and praying for victims, communities, and families in the wake of a massacre?” 

And the answer is, “Nothing.” Anybody with half a heart is going to think about the people affected by such a tragedy. Anybody with a smidgen of faith is going to pray for them.

I’d go so far as to say that if you don’t give the victims any thought, you need to go on a quest for some compassion.

So can offering up thoughts and prayers be problematic?

For some guidance, let’s turn to the book of James in the New Testament. The author is famous for his insistence that “faith without works is dead.” What he means is that if you have faith it’ll change the way you live. Trusting in Jesus leads you to do something about it. As he develops this thought he says, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm and eat your fill,’ and you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” (James 2:15-16).

It’s good to think kind thoughts and to say good words. But the thoughts and words mean little to nothing if you don’t do what you can do to help, James says.

Now, some folks who criticize or mock politicians for offering up thoughts and prayers after the latest rampage really don’t think that prayer does any good. You probably know better than that. I know better than that. The good Lord can and will offer strength and hope to people who are going through unimaginable pain and loss. So I say, “Pray on!”

But—and this is an important ‘but’—you should do what you can do.

This is where some of our political leaders deserve critique.

Let me address them by paraphrasing James: “If your brothers, sisters, and little children keep getting slaughtered, and you say, ‘My thoughts and prayers are with you,’ but you do not use the power and authority you have to do something to try to help keep such tragedies from happening again, what is the good of that?”

You’ve probably heard the story that preachers have been telling for decades. A flood had struck a community. The water was beginning to fill the streets. A fellow was on his front porch when someone came by on an ATV and offered him a ride. “No,” he said, “I’ve prayed and the Lord has promised to rescue me.” The waters continued to rise. The man went to the second floor of his house and stood at a window. Some folks came by in a boat and offered him a ride. “No,” he said, “I’ve prayed and the Lord has promised to rescue me.” A few hours later the man was on his roof as the waters continued to rise. A helicopter hovered overhead and dropped a ladder down to him. “No,” he shouted, “I’ve prayed and the Lord has promised to rescue me.” The water continued to rise. The man drowned.

When he got to heaven he said to the Lord, “Lord, I don’t understand. You promised to rescue me. Why didn’t you?”

And the Lord answered, “Give me a break. I sent an ATV, a boat, and a helicopter.”

Maybe when our leaders pray about these mass shootings, the Lord gives them some ideas. Maybe God expects them to be part of the answer to their prayers.