Marines.Together We Served

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Foundational Faith

Picking up from last week’s article, “Curiouser and Curiouser,” I would like to continue to develop this approach of belief that we refer to as faith.

After Alice fell headlong down the rabbit hole into what was Wonderland, she experienced a vast assortment of strange and peculiar encounters causing her no end of confusion and consternation. Trying to make sense of it all, she was reported to have exclaimed that all of this nonsense was, “curiouser and curiouser.”

The question from last week that I would like to address is, “Is there a God?” Some will want what is referred to as empirical proof – that is, proof that is provable, reproducible, and therefore irrefutable. This may work well enough in science labs with beakers, Petri dishes, microscopes, and Bunsen burners, but such items are of little use in “proving” the existence of God. If God were so easily proven, it would have been done long ago. And, I would suggest, such “proof” would more likely fail to prove his existence, for God is not reduced to such simplicity.

Consider this: The Bible (the holy scriptures of both those of the Jewish and Christian faiths – in whole or in part) was written so as to record God’s interaction with mankind. The Bible makes no attempt to prove God’s existence. Instead, his existence is assumed from the very first verse in the Bible, Genesis 1:1 – “In the beginning, God . . .”

One particularly poignant argument for you and me to consider about God’s existence is found in Romans chapter one. Some of you at this point may be sensing that I am appearing to contradict myself by suggesting the Bible is offering proof of God’s existence. This is where an understanding of the book of Romans is essential. Paul, the author of Romans, was writing to the newly-established church in Rome. The congregation was predominantly Gentile, that is, Romans who had been converted to Christianity. The mindset of the Roman people of that time was quite different than the Jewish manner of thinking. Romans were more like Sergeant Joe Friday from the old 1950’s TV show, Dragnet. When questioning a person about a crime he would cut to the chase by saying, “Just the facts, ma’am.” In fact, Romans was written almost like a transcription from a court case. The prosecutor would present his argument with rebuttal coming back from the defense attorney.

So it makes sense then, that the main problem that exists between God and man is sin. It presents itself in a lot of ways, but most frequently in the act of rebellion. We don’t want God to tell us what we can and can’t do. Even when we know we’re making serious mistakes, we pursue this path of error with a willfulness that is chilling. That’s where the argument for the existence of God is found in chapter one of Romans. “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be made known about God is plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”

We are without excuse because God has made everything in such a way as to cause us to be in awe – wondering at the incredible creative abilities of God. In the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, we are told that, “God has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”

Because God is who he says he is as reported in the Bible, he is under no obligation to present himself in the way man may expect or demand. But because God wants man to know him personally, faith becomes the determiner. “Blessed are they who seek him with all their heart.” And “Those who seek me find me.”

The best way to prove the existence of God is to seek him. The wise men sure did on that long-ago Christmas two thousand years ago. And, wonder of wonders, they found him! So can you.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Curiouser and Curiouser!

Many of you will remember this famous line from “Alice in Wonderland,” written by Lewis Carroll in 1865. Poor Alice! She couldn’t figure out what was happening to her as she traveled down the rabbit hole. Everything she looked at was distorted and nearly unrecognizable.

Perhaps it’s just me, but in a similar vein, I see many of the events surrounding Christmas, the birth of Jesus Christ, as “curiouser and curiouser.” Faith, by its very nature, deals with what can only be described as strange and unbelievable. Looking at the various elements of faith, we must conclude that only that which is extraordinary could be associated with faith. Faith requires that we believe in those things which are outside of our normal experience. Otherwise, if what is ordinary is also central to faith, can we really call it faith?

Now, faith is not simply the choice to believe in something that is outside of that which is normal just for the sake of believing something that is classified as unbelievable. Faith requires solid reasoning in any belief in the extraordinary. For example, someone may say they believe the moon is made of cheese. Two factors are at play here: 1) What do we know? Well, we know what the consistency of cheese is, and that it is a dairy product, therefore subject to fairly rapid spoilage. We can safely assume that this ball that circles the earth in the vacuum of space is not made of cheese. We deduce this because of our understanding of what we know to be true. 2) Who makes the claim? More importantly we recognize that there is no credible evidence to support the belief that the moon is made of cheese. For example, who says it’s made of cheese? Are they believable? Based upon what? What is their character? What proof do they present?

You may be saying to yourself, “Come on, Roots! Nobody in their right mind believes the moon is made of cheese!” Okay, maybe not. So let’s go back to a time when man believed that the world was flat. (Contrary to contemporary thought, only a small number of people actually ever believed the world was flat.) Those who held to a flat earth idea had no proof to support their ill-conceived belief. On the other hand, belief that the world was round came rather easily because those who studied the “heavens,” soon witnessed natural events which allowed them to draw accurate conclusions. Case in point: eclipses, both solar and lunar. In both cases, we see a shadow gradually move across the surface of another object. The shadow reveals that the shadowing object has an arc, thus leading the observer to recognize the object to be orbital in shape.

Following this line of logic, let’s suppose there is a God. What do we know of this God? In what manner has he revealed himself? Is he believable? If so, what proof is there that makes him believable? Is this apparent proof credible? Do the claims he makes about himself and the rest of creation convincing?

Because I have limited space to address this very complex subject, I will address this further next week. So allow me to come to the point. There is indeed a God. This God has revealed himself to the world in a number of ways that are both natural and supernatural. He has also expressed a desire to have a personal relationship with you and me.

Focusing in on the miraculous of Christmas, we must first recognize that this singular, unique, historical event is fraught with that which is unbelievable, extraordinary, odd, strange, astonishing, amazing, and any other adjective associated with wonder that you care to use. First, the birth of the Christ didn’t just happen. It was foretold by the prophets of old. Second, they knew specifics about the birth of Christ. Particularly, they knew the child would be a male (Jesus) born to a virgin (Mary). They also knew what town he would be born in (Bethlehem). That there would be an attempt on his life while still a toddler (King Herod). That he and his family would be forced to leave their home and reside in Egypt for a couple of years before returning. And they knew where he would grow up (Nazareth).

These prophecies of the Christ are both ordinary and extraordinary. The ordinary is that he was born in the normal way of man. That is, he didn’t just appear as a full grown man ready to take on evil men and corrupt governments. Other ordinary aspects of his birth have to do with where he was born and spent his youth. On the other hand, the extraordinary in his birth is primarily centered on the way in which he was conceived. His mother, Mary, engaged to be married to Joseph, was a virgin. Why this is difficult for some to accept is hard for me to understand. Let me ask this question: How would you expect God to come? As a baby conceived in the normal manner? Why would that cause anyone to take notice? What would separate him from the rest of us? This is where the extraordinary enters in. If God is pure and holy, he could not be tainted by sin – a condition you and I are afflicted with through conception due to being from Adam’s line.

Such matters of faith are indeed, curiouser and curiouser! But that’s what makes them special during this time of the year when we celebrate and acknowledge the miraculous birth of Jesus Christ, the Savior.

Have a Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

My Most Memorable Christmas

The past several weeks I have been working on sermons relating to the Advent Season. Christmas – that magical, mystical time each year that conjures up exciting moments when as children we marveled at the Christmas tree all lighted with colored bulbs and festooned with a wide assortment of decorations. Alongside the expensive ornament made of crystal purchased at a boutique hangs your handmade color paper-chain. Both hold a special place in your heart.

When our girls were young, and I was pastoring my first church, we couldn’t afford many frills. We needed a new star for the top of the tree, so I grabbed an old Frisbee I found tucked away in a corner of the garage and cut it into the shape of a five-pointed star. Then my daughter, Laura, and I wrapped it in tinfoil. Even years later when we enjoyed a more lucrative income, we continued to use this tinfoil star for many years. Somewhere along the line, no doubt during one of our many moves, the star disappeared. The girls and I still lament its passing.

There is something unique and extraordinary about Christmas. It is ready-made for countless memories. I often will ask people during Christmas what their most memorable Christmas was. I have any number that I could recount, but there is one which is indelibly imprinted on my mind. The year was 1972. I was a sergeant in the Marine Corps and had just returned from Vietnam the week before Christmas. Even though my parents had moved to a new location, home was still where they were. I was single, unattached, and enjoying my first few months as a Christian. I was now looking at Christmas in an entirely new way. Because of my decision to trust Christ as my Savior, I now was looking at Christmas for what it actually is – the birth of Jesus the Christ, the Savior of the world, and the Son of God.

I was on leave throughout Christmas that year of ’72, anticipating checking in with my new (and final) command, VMA-133 (a.k.a., the “Dragons”), at Naval Air Station Alameda. Relaxing in my parents’ home was a luxury. I enjoyed the festive environment in our home with friends and family coming and going. But it was in the evenings after things settled down that I would sit alone in the living room just looking at the Christmas tree with the growing pile of presents under its boughs. This scene had a settling affect on me, leading to a touch of melancholy. There I was – safe, comfortable, and with the people I love. With this contented sensation, the realization that many of my fellow servicemen would never be coming home again. They would never experience the loving embrace of a mother or the firm handshake of a father as I had when I walked down the portable steps of the “Freedom Plane” at Travis Air Force Base. These patriots who sacrificed their lives for us would never again enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of the Christmas Season at home. While sipping a chilled glass of eggnog, my thoughts would focus on what that first Christmas was like. God loved me so much that he was willing to sacrifice his Son so that I might have eternal life. Jesus says in John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”

Just as our American warriors are willing to lay down their lives for love of their family and country, Jesus loves you and me so much that he was willing to lay down his life for us. The birth of Jesus has significance only because of his eventual death and resurrection. It is this hope we experience at Christmas that causes rejoicing each December.

It was with this thought in my heart that long-ago Christmas of ’72 that I took a blanket and pillow and curled up by the Christmas tree, falling into a sound sleep. Not only was I safe in my home, I was safe in the arms of God. That is cause for a Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

National Security?

I have been waiting to hear from our media regarding some very troubling comments made by President-elect Obama back on July 2. In a stump speech he said, “We cannot continue to rely on our military in order to achieve the national security objectives we’ve set. We’ve got to have a civilian national security force that’s just as powerful, just as strong, just as well-funded.”

When I first heard this uttered, I was stupefied. Surely the then presidential hopeful was not suggesting that we need a national police force! He couldn’t be thinking that our military is not up to the task of providing for our national security, could he? I know candidates will say a lot of things for effect while on the campaign trail in order to garner votes, but they frequently don’t mean it. In another speech Obama said we have to stop “air-raiding villages, killing civilians.” He knows we don’t do this. As a United States Senator he is briefed routinely on our national defense and what our military is doing. But such calculated comments, implying our military simply enters into wanton killing with guns blazing, are dangerously libelous and seriously naive. Our military operates according to what is called “Rules of Engagement,” an official document that spells out the when, where, and how force will be used in any situation. This is why we can always be proud of our military. They are trained to conduct themselves appropriately, as you would expect.

But what about this apparent need for a civilian national security force (CNSF)? This first raised in my mind the specter of brown-shirted, jack-booted thugs patrolling our towns and neighborhoods, reminiscent of Nazi Germany seventy years ago. That is a frightening image! As I have researched this topic, I’m of the opinion that what Mr. Obama suggests is that the United States be reinvigorated through volunteer agencies such as doubling the size of the Peace Corps by 2011; expanding AmeriCorps, USA Freedom Corps, VISTA, YouthBuild Program, and Senior Corps. Plus, he proposes to form a Classroom Corps, Health Corps, Clean Energy Corps, Veterans Corps, Homeland Security Corps, Global Energy Corps, and a Green Jobs Corps. This may be best explained in the following comment from Obama: “Because the future of our nation depends on the soldier at Fort Carson, it also depends on the teacher in East L.A., the nurse in Appalachia, the after-school worker in New Orleans…”

There is a significant difference between the use of the military and the use of a civilian national security force (CNSF). The role and responsibility of CNSF is to help strengthen and maintain the infrastructure of the country. On the other hand, our military is trained to take up arms in defense of the nation against aggressors. These men and women willingly place their lives in jeopardy so you and I can continue to enjoy our rights and freedoms – all of which have been purchased with the blood of patriots.

In the days ahead we may see some of the plans suggested by the Obama Team. Their intent is to reduce the military budget by nine billion a month. The budget for the Department of Defense (DoD) for 2008 is $482 billion. Once the DoD has been pared down, Mr. Obama intends to spend an equal amount of money on the CNSF. Let’s say the DoD ends up with a budget of $350 billion, a huge cut by any standard. Now, the new CNSF receives an equal amount. That’s $700 billion. Where does this money come from? Right! Mr. and Mrs. Taxpayer.

I haven’t been able to sort this out just yet, because very little has been said. Nothing more is coming from the Obama Team about a CNSF, and the press has been unwilling to ask the appropriate questions that would provide you and me with answers. But I’ll be keeping an eye out for anything further on this.

As I said in a recent article, I want Mr. Obama to be a successful president. I will support him when I believe he is making the right decisions. Likewise, I will speak out when I believe his decisions are detrimental to our nation and its security.

In the meantime, our nation is well served by our all-volunteer military. We are also a strong nation because of the strength of the American people.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Enjoying Your Job

The other day I was speaking to a friend who asked me how I was enjoying my retirement from the Navy. I told him I was loving it, especially since I don’t have to make flight arrangements anymore, or spend countless hours in airports and planes. Don’t get me wrong! While traveling I always have some work to do, or a book I’m trying to finish. And, of course, naps are always in order. It’s never wasted time. Gratefully it’s behind me now.

So my friend asked me what I was doing with myself. I reminded him that I am still the pastor of the Ripon Free Methodist Church. “It’s my job,” I said. “Actually, it’s more of a joy than it is a job.” I’d never expressed my pastoral ministry in those terms before. When I said it, something clicked. It was like the cartoon character that has the brilliant idea where the speech balloon pops up over his head with a lighted bulb indicating he’s just made a sparkling and insightful discovery.

This got me to thinking about my job as a pastor. It really is a joy! I remember my step father telling me to find something I like to do and then figure a way to get paid for it. I can’t say that I followed his advice because I was the furthest thing from a minister, a “man of God,” in those days. After surrendering my life to Jesus in 1972, I began to see the direction the Lord was leading me in. I became increasingly more aware of the way in which he wanted to use me.

I could go on for some time about the joys of pastoral ministry, but here are a few examples. Preaching each Sunday morning in two services is a lot of fun. You develop a relationship with the congregation so that there’s a lot of good-natured give and take between me and the folks in the pews. I remember preaching about communicating with God. At a certain point I looked up toward the ceiling as though speaking to God. The moment was broken by the ringing of a cell phone. I stopped my sermon, and just looked at the lady, smiling. She’s a real character, so you never know what to expect. With everyone looking at her to see what she will do, she ducks behind the pew, out of sight, only moments later to pop right back up with the phone to her ear and say, “God? Is that you?” The congregation dissolved into laughter, including me. It was priceless! I managed to finish the sermon but no one was listening. I’m quite certain the Lord and all the angels of heaven were still laughing too!

There was another time when I was doing my Sunday morning children’s sermon. I had about a dozen or so of our kids up front where I was really into the message. I told them how when you know Jesus as your Savior, he has promised that we will be joining him some day in heaven. But that’s not all! I told them how we’ll all sit down to enjoy a feast which the Bible calls the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. The boy standing on my left was from a very poor family. He tugged on my sleeve to ask a question. I looked down at him and said, “What’s your question, son?” He said, “Pastor, will there be an all-you-can-eat-buffet in heaven?” I said, “Man, you know it! There’ll be so much food you won’t know what to do with yourself.”

Each week I have the pleasure of studying the Bible; teaching an adult Sunday school class; talking to folks about their relationship with Christ; praying for people; leading a men’s Bible study; discipling those who are new Christians; helping counsel folks, especially restoring marriages, and so on.

You see, I believe that God created us to enjoy life. This means we are to enjoy all aspects of life, which obviously would include our vocation. If you’re not enjoying your job, then be honest with yourself and ask the question: What’s my problem? Lack of education? Paid too well (including benefits) at your current job to leave? Afraid to venture out into another field? Family to provide for? Your boss is driving you nuts?

Yes, I’m recently retired from the Navy Chaplain Corps, but I’m hardly sitting around! The church is alive and well, and I’m enjoying myself thoroughly.

Do you enjoy what you’re doing?