Earth Day, Science and Religion

I spent Earth Day morning participating in one of the hundreds of Marches for Science held around the world today. I am not a scientist, although there was a time when I thought I would be. I did well in science and math in high school, and inspired by the 1960’s space race and my hometown hero Neil Armstrong I began college in a pre-engineering program. All went fairly well until I hit calculus and suddenly an earlier call to ministry started feeling like a much better fit for me.

So I mingled at the Ohio Statehouse on a chilly Saturday morning (void of any global warming benefits) with a few thousand other people of all ages feeling a bit out of my element. The speakers at the rally were all from the scientific community, and except for a few mentions of God when we sang “America the Beautiful” there were no official theological overtones to the program. I was pleased to see a couple of people from my church and a theology professor from my alma mater there.

I should say that my awareness to the issue of theology and religion was heightened by the fact that I am currently reading “Why Religion Matters” by Huston Smith, a very weighty tome that explores the impact of what Smith calls the Traditional and Modern worldviews. The former for Smith represents a theological/mystical perspective and the latter a purely scientific one. I readily admit it has been too many years since I studied philosophy for me to do justice to Smith’s argument, but he makes one distinction which I found very helpful, and that is when he distinguishes between “science” and “scientism.” He describes the difference like this: “Scientism adds to science two corollaries: first, that the scientific method is, if not the only reliable method of getting truth, than at least the most reliable method; and second, that the things science deals with—material entities—are the most fundamental things that exist.” (p. 64)

Theology and religion on the other hand deal with the mysterious and more ambiguous questions of meaning and purpose that lie beyond or deeper than any knowledge scientific experiments can provide. So while my co-marchers today were chanting about “peer reviewed research” and “scientific data,” my motivation for being at the rally had more to do with the Psalmist’s assertion that “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; for God has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers.” (Psalm 24:1-2) I didn’t take time to make a sign for today’s march, but if I had mine might have had a footnote that said “marching for science (not scientism) AND faith.”

I hasten to add that scientific and theological worldviews are not mutually exclusive, even though they have often been characterized as foes. Speakers at the rally today celebrated a long list of illnesses that have been eliminated by medical science; they praised improved air and water quality made possible by environmental protection initiatives. And they legitimately, in my opinion, criticized short-sighted attempts by the Trump administration to cut back on important funding for the very programs that have given us a quality of life we take for granted.

I fully support the need for the NIH and the EPA. History should teach us that unregulated capitalism and free market motives quickly give into profit over prophetic concern for the general welfare and long-term preservation of God’s creation. So the political motives for today’s marches are grounded in the very theological issues of stewardship of what is not ours but God’s. It is good and necessary to celebrate all the advances in knowledge that scientific research has provided. But science without the safety net of theology always comes to the edge of human knowledge—the edge of mystery where we must take the proverbial leap of faith and trust in the source of being itself that some of us call God.

That partnership between science and faith was captured in my favorite sign among the hundreds held by marchers today. It contained this quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge, which is power; religion gives man wisdom, which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals.”

If we are going to save our planet from human foolishness we need to join hands and work together, scientists and people of faith, government and private industry, young and old, and people of every political persuasion. There is no time or energy to waste on false battles between different perspectives or worldviews. I heard an interview on NPR this week about someone dealing with working class populations that are too consumed with just staying alive to go marching for science or the environment. The reporter said, “They don’t care about polar bears, they care about jobs.” The one to whom the earth belongs and all that is in it says we need to care about both. A nation that can eliminate polio and smallpox can figure out how to put people to work. If we can send people and spacecraft into outer space we can establish social justice and turn back climate change.

It’s a matter of priority. Those urgent human problems will not be resolved by building ugly walls or more obscene methods of mass destruction. The scientific method itself is proof that our hypothesis that war will solve human differences is blatantly false. How many times do we need to run that experiment before we realize it is a false hypothesis? All of the world’s great religions are based on a better hypothesis that the way to world peace is to love our neighbors, and that includes caring for mother earth that is our common home.

On my way to the march today I heard a piece on NPR about a woman who has started a support group for people who are suffering from anxiety about climate change and what it means for our future and especially for that of our children and grandchildren. She did it because she realized that there were lots of other people like her who were feeling isolated and powerless in the face of the forces denying the very existence of climate change. I confess I suffer from some of those same feelings and if that support group wasn’t in Utah I might join up. My own personal struggle with powerlessness took the form this week of not deciding until the last minute if I was going to the march today. My skeptic voice kept saying it won’t make any difference, your arthritis won’t like the chilly temperatures, you have too much else to do around the house. But the stronger voice was the one that argued for responsible stewardship, discipleship and citizenship, a pretty powerful combination.

And I’m very glad I went. It felt wonderful to be part of a movement that stretched far beyond downtown Columbus, to feel connected with the earth and with kindred souls who share a common purpose. That sense of belonging was summed up nicely in one of the other songs we sang at the rally before the march, John Lennon’s “Imagine:”

“Imagine all the people sharing all the world,
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will be as one.”

The Dark Side of the Prosperity Gospel

“Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.” (Galatians 6:7).

It’s been a busy week since Monday night’s presidential debate. I don’t have time to say much but feel compelled to address something that struck me Monday night while it is still relatively fresh in our memories. There has been much debate about who “won” the debate and how you vote on that is pretty subjective. I think most of us heard what we expected to hear filtered through our own political lenses and that of the media analysis we choose to rely on for “expert” opinions.

What struck me most were two things. When Donald Trump said that not paying taxes makes him smart and that taking advantage of the foreclosures during the recession was “good business,” he showed again why he is the poster boy for the dark side of the prosperity Gospel and even of Capitalism itself. The prosperity Gospel is the misguided interpretation of Christian theology that emphasizes material blessings and rewards for those who proclaim their faith in Christ. It is responsible for the growth and success of many mega churches and television evangelists, but it is totally contrary to the teachings of Jesus.

There are too many examples to cite them all here but these quickly come to my mind. “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Matt. 6:24, Luke 16:13). The parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21), the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3), and numerous times where Jesus says, “leave what you have and follow me.”

Mr. Trump said earlier in the campaign that his favorite Scripture is “An eye for an eye.” When one’s only concern for how to measure one’s worth is material wealth and power, that’s a great motto to live by, but I pray that some of Mr. Trump’s Christian followers will prevail upon him to someday learn what Jesus said about that desire for revenge by reading the Gospels or even just the Sermon on the Mount.

The Gospel of Christ has been twisted into the prosperity Gospel because it sells. Promising people they will have to take up a cross to follow Jesus, or to share what they have with the least of those as judged by the world’s standards, or to love their enemies and turn the other cheek – those just are not good marketing techniques. Promising potential church members they need to sell all they have and give it to the poor doesn’t entice many recruits to sign up. Maybe that’s why Jesus only had 11 faithful ones?

The spread of the prosperity Gospel also explains the conundrum many political commentators have wrestled with this year, namely how to make sense of Trump’s popularity among some Christians. Galatians 6:7 says it so well, “we reap what we sow.” Creating a flock of materialistic, wealth-worshipping “Christians” over the last few decades has produced this strange phenomenon of those who call themselves evangelicals enthusiastically giving their support to a man who is the antithesis of the values and lifestyle Jesus Christ calls us to live.

It also explains how those who claim the name of the Prince of Peace can be devout supporters of the NRA and gun rights. Fear of losing one’s prosperity leads to taking very drastic and unChrist-like measures to protect and defend those “things that thieves can steal and rust and moth can consume.” The rest of that advice from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount says, don’t put your faith in those perishable things, “but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt. 6:19-21).

God is not mocked. We have planted seeds of greed and selfishness, and now we are reaping what we have sown.

Distracted Living

This week I feel like a walking proverb. I keep relearning lessons I should have learned by heart years ago, and almost always the hard way. Yesterday’s lesson was the old English proverb “Haste Makes Waste.” The teachable moment occurred as I was hurrying out to our shed to jump on the lawn tractor and mow some overgrown grass before an approaching rain storm arrived. On my 30 second walk to the shed I realized my new I-phone was still attached to my belt, and my gut instinct was to take it back into the house and not risk having it fall off my belt and get lost.

But to save the few seconds that would have taken I ignored that notion and hurriedly mowed for 30 minutes or so before the rain started. The grass was very heavy due to a lot of recent rain and at one point I knew I mowed over something that I had not seen in the long grass. Thinking it was a stick or a plastic plant container near the garden I hurried on, not realizing I had chopped my new phone into a million pieces until I finished mowing and realized the phone was no longer on my belt.

Bottom line, the minute I “saved” by not taking my phone back into the house cost me several hours to file an insurance claim, a $199 deductible, and another $60-80 to replace the case the phone was in. Later today I will spend more time activating and updating the new phone when it arrives. Very costly lessons learned.
Ironic that the ever-present cell phone that represents so much of the nano-second, 4G driven pace of life today should be the sacrificial lamb to remind me again to slow down and trust my instincts – you know, that nagging little voice that tells you what you should do that we/I so often override with the cultural norm of faster is better. I have learned that I can actually survive without my phone, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been reminded of how dependent/addicted to it I am as I reached for it or thought of something I could do if I had it.

A good friend helped put things in perspective when I sent him a picture of my phone’s remains. He said, “Well at least it wasn’t a body part.” Very true, but I must admit sometimes it feel like it is. We hear warnings all the time about distracted driving, and that is a major concern. But it is only a symptom of a much larger problem – distracted living. My minor mishap reminded me that there is much more at risk from distracted living than a shiny new I-phone.

When I am not fully present while driving or when talking with another person, I am risking far greater damage to myself and others than the loss of a marvelous handheld computer. When I am not fully present and appreciative of the beauty of God’s creation and my responsibility as a steward of that creation because I’m too busy or too preoccupied to savor and save it, I am disloyal to the one who has given me life. When I am in too much of a hurry to play with a child or notice a homeless brother or sister or to be sensitive to the needs of my neighbors, I need to be reminded to be still and breathe in the awareness of what really matters in life.

Poorer and wiser, I pray for the sense to remember those lessons long after the new phone restores my life to “normal.”

(Note: Part of that return to normalcy will be to continue my series on Pentecost very soon.)

“A Borrower and a Lender Be,” A Holy Week Sermon on Matthew 21:1-13

Suppose you went out to get in your car at the mall or after church next Sunday or even in your driveway and a couple of strangers were looking it over. When you ask them what they’re doing they say, “Please give us your keys.” I’m guessing the first question you would ask is, “Why?” And when they say, “Because the Lord has need of it,” would you just hand over the keys or would you more likely call the cops?

That’s what the Gospels tell us Jesus did to “borrow” a donkey in preparation for his Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem. We are so familiar with the Holy Week narratives that we often fail to grasp the radical nature of what this story tells us about Jesus and what got him crucified. John Robert McFarland grabbed my attention on this matter in an article in The Christian Century way back in 1990 entitled “Go Steal Me a Donkey.”

This is not Sweet Little Jesus holding lambs and children in his arms. Healing the sick and loving people don’t get you crucified, but challenging the political and economic foundations that society is built upon will get one in a lot of hot water immediately. These verses from Matthew 21 are bookended by donkey stealing and Jesus physically turning over tables in the temple and driving the money changers out because they have claimed what belongs to God for their own purposes. This Jesus is not a wimp. He is one with the courage to challenge anyone and anything that is contrary to God’s wills and to pay the price for his convictions.

Tax day in the US fell within Holy Week this year, and that makes looking at Jesus’ theology of economics even more real. In “Go Steal Me a Donkey” McFarland points out that both socialists and capitalists claim Jesus, but he isn’t either. The former believe in collective ownership of property and the latter in individual ownership. Jesus believes everything belongs to God. In the very next chapter of Matthew (22:15-22) the Pharisees challenge Jesus on the tax issue. They try to trap him with a question about whether it is legal to pay taxes to Caesar. Jesus gives a clever politically correct answer. He says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” That sounds like a safe answer, but Jesus’ actions tell us he knows the bottom line on his 1040 for the IRS would be a big fat zero.

Would he get audited? You bet, but he would do it anyway. Why would he do that knowing the trouble it would cause? Because he knows everything belongs to God, including donkeys and upper rooms in which to celebrate the Passover. Jesus borrows what he needs because it all belongs to God. There’s an old adage about borrowing that is so familiar we often think it should be in the Bible. But “neither a borrower nor a lender be” is not biblical. It actually comes from Polonius in “Hamlet,” not Jesus. In fact, what Jesus says about borrowing and lending is a direct contraction of Shakespeare. “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you” (Matt. 5:42). “If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again” (Luke 6:34).

Jesus borrows: a manger for a cradle, boats to teach in, houses to heal in, and a tomb to be buried in. He doesn’t ask for what he needs, he commands. When he borrows his disciples, he says, “Come, follow me, Now!” No time to bury the dead. Do they leave their families and their livelihood in exchange for some promise of great wealth and fame? No, he says, “Take up your cross and follow me.” When he borrows Peter and Andrew from their fishing nets, when James and John leave their father Zebedee in his boat, when Levi leaves the tax office, do you think Jesus plans on returning them? When you borrow a cup of sugar to bake a cake, do take the sugar out of the cake and return it? I hope we don’t return a used Kleenex after we “borrow” it! When Jesus claims us followers and disciples, there’s no turning back. It’s for keeps, because everything, including you and me, belongs to God–always has, always will.

That’s the bad news. What we think is ours isn’t. We are just stewards and caretakers of what belongs to God, and what’s worse is that selfishly trying to cling to what is “ours” will keep us out of the Kingdom of God. That’s why Jesus says it is harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. It’s why Pope Francis is cracking down on Bishops who build multi-million dollar mansions for themselves while millions starve.

But here’s the good news. We can borrow freely from God whatever we need in life. God gives us Jesus as an example of what that ultimate borrowing of things that really matter in life looks like; and Holy Week is the best example ever of how that works. We see it demonstrated throughout Jesus’ ministry, but it is concentrated in those final days of his life between Palm Sunday and Good Friday. We’ve seen it when Jesus is napping in the boat during a storm. His disciples are freaking out, but Jesus is sound asleep because he has borrowed the peace of God. When those same disciples try to talk him into homesteading on the mountain of Transfiguration where it’s safe and comfortable, Jesus borrows the courage from God to set his face toward Jerusalem and the cross; and he never looks back.

When he is confronted with physical violence and arrest in Jerusalem, he borrows the peace of God again not to resist violence with more violence. His prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane is not for his own safety and comfort, but he borrows integrity and obedience from God as he prays “Not my will but your will be done.” And then on that dark Friday afternoon, the supreme gift of grace is borrowed again when he says, “Father forgive them” to the men who have nailed him to that cruel cross. Jesus doesn’t say, “I forgive you,” and that’s significant. In mortal agony from those wounds, I believe it was humanly impossible for that amazing compassion to come from Jesus himself, just as it is often impossible for us to forgive those who hurt us badly. Jesus couldn’t forgive them, but he knew someone who could–and that he was free to borrow that strength and grace from his God.

We know that source of grace as well, and we are invited to borrow from that eternal God whenever and wherever we want with no interest and no expectation to repay the debt. The borrowing Messiah of Holy Week teaches us that when we are free of possessions that possess us, when we are free of fears and insecurities from the cares of trying to control our own lives, then we are free to live and free to die. Because we know everything belongs to God, including us, now and forever. Holy Week and Easter invite us again to borrow the gift of grace, the gift of new life.

Adapted from a sermon preached at New Life United Methodist Church, Columbus, OH, Palm Sunday 2014.

“Radical Generosity”

A preacher stood up to preach one of those dreaded sermons on stewardship, i.e. Money. Her church was experiencing some challenging times financially. She told them that they all knew the church was getting stale and stagnant. She reminded them they had just sung that old Avery and Marsh hymn, “We are the Church,” which says, “the church is not a resting place, the church is a people.”

“A people on the move,” she said, raising her voice. “This church has been resting too long and there is too much need in the world. We’re gonna make this church get up and start moving if we have to crawl at first.” Someone in the choir cheered the preacher on by saying, “Make it crawl, preacher, make it crawl!”

“We will,” she said, surprised at this enthusiasm. “And after we get it crawling, we’re gonna make this church get up and walk.” “Make it walk, preacher, make it walk!” came a voice from the other side of the sanctuary. Really excited now, the preacher upped the volume and said, “And after we learn to walk, we’re gonna make this church run, my friends, we’re gonna make it run!” “Make it run, preacher, make it run!!!” shouted a whole section of the congregation in unison. “Yes, we will. With God’s help we will,” she said, “And to make it run, we need more money!” In the back row, one old timer stood up and said, “Let it crawl, preacher, let it crawl!!!”

A theology of generosity is based on the belief that we do not ask for money to fund a church budget. Budgets and numbers don’t inspire generosity. Giving out of duty or obligation or a sense of guilt may pay the bills, but it won’t build a healthy Christian community on fire for doing God’s work. Instead we ask people to be more generous for their own spiritual growth because to be more generous is to be more like God.

I was privileged recently to work with Summit United Methodist Church in Columbus, Ohio. That church has a generosity team that has created an excellent statement entitled “Toward a Theology of Generosity.” If I may paraphrase a bit, that statement says that we are generous because it is part of our natural identity as children of God. We are created in the image of a gracious and generous God, but we know that image gets a little tarnished and corrupted by worldly things. So we need regular attitude adjustments to let our God-given generosity shine through. Summit’s statement says, “Extravagant generosity transforms who we are and what we are about. Because the choice to live in this way goes against a culture of consumerism and individualism, when we actively decide to live this way, it is both an intentional and subversive choice.”

I can’t tell you how much fun it is to hear a church talk about being subversive as a positive attribute of Christian discipleship. That’s the kind of thing that makes Summit such an exciting congregation. Summit gets it – that the church is not just about comforting the afflicted, but it is also about afflicting the comfortable, challenging the status quo and offering a Godly vision of what real community looks like.

There are a couple of key words in those sentences from Summit’s statement:”transform,” “choice” and “decide.” Generosity is an intentional choice that we decide to make, and like any worthwhile skill it takes practice and cultivation and inspiration, or we fall back onto the wide path of popular culture that leads to destruction. The word “decide” is an interesting word. Life coach Kary Oberbrunner, recently pointed out to a group of us that the suffix to that word, the “cide” part, is the same suffix that is in words like pesticide, genocide, homicide, suicide. Get the common theme? Those are all words that describe killing in one form or another, and to de-cide is also to kill. It is to kill other options by choosing the one that we will intentionally follow.

That’s why decision making is so difficult – because we know we are cutting off other options and we mourn for those we have to let go. For example – when you decide to follow a career path, or pick a college or course of study, you close off or kill other alternatives that you could choose to follow. When you decide to get married, you’d better kill off your desires to be with other partners, or that marriage is doomed. Be forewarned that when we let God influence our decision making, the outcomes often look different that we expected. When I graduated from Ohio State University many years ago my big plan was to buy a Corvette and go to California. Know what I did? I bought a VW and went to seminary!

Pope Francis is such an exciting breath of fresh air in the Roman Catholic Church because of his generous attitude toward the poor and oppressed. He said recently, “If money and material things become the center of our lives, they seize us and make us slaves.” The gospel frees us from slavery to selfishness and transforms us into the generous people we were created to be by our gracious and generous God.

We are transformed so we can go out and transform the world into a place of justice and generosity. How in God’s name can we do that? Exactly – we can only do it if we do it in God’s name and with God’s power. And here’s the good news – that power is ready and available for anyone who is willing to accept it and surrender to it.
Where does the spirit of generosity come from? Where does the power come from that can transform selfish, fearful souls into daring witnesses and martyrs who transform the world? [For a more detailed discussion of how that is possible, please see my post on 10/31/13 of my sermon on John 20:19-22 where the risen Christ empowers the disciples for the ministry set before them.]

That power frees the giver within us. I recently learned that the word “give” appears in the Bible 2172 times, but if you add up all the times the words “believe,” “pray,” and “love” appear, they total only 1421. That surprised me at first, but then I realized that giving is really belief, prayer, and love in action, in concrete tangible forms. A news story in a small town weekly newspaper brought that point home to me last week. A young mentally handicapped woman was seen taking money out of a fountain in the town square in Bellefontaine, Ohio, and someone called the police. She had taken a grand total of $2.47 because she was hungry and had no food for herself or her pets. A reporter for the weekly paper followed up on the police report, but he then decided to do more than just report Deidre’s story. He set up a website and used social media to make an appeal for donations to help Deidre. Generosity spread from that initial act of kindness and a total of $13000 and counting has been raised from sources all over the world to help Deidre. Sharing is contagious, and so is selfishness. We can choose which to follow.

To decide to follow the path of radical generosity is to say no to the false teachings of the prosperity gospel or the limiting beliefs of a scarcity mentality. If we allow God’s spirit of abundant generosity to help us make the right choices, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to crawl, walk and run outside our comfort zones into the world God calls us to serve.

We all need God’s power to live generously, and church leaders, clergy and lay, especially need that power to be transformed so we can inspire and model radical generosity for the others in the church and community. Summit UMC’s theology of generosity statement ends with these words: “We want to build a grassroots movement. Where there is a wider group of people who are filled with the Spirit of generosity and ready to respond, people get excited about the ripple effects as ambassadors.”

In other words, generosity is contagious, and our job is to start an epidemic!!!

[Originally written for Summit UMC’s leadership dinner, November 3, 2013]