Christianity and Miracles

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Sanctification is not my idea of what I want God to do for me –
 sanctification is God’s idea of what He wants to do for me.

Oswald Chambers (James Riemann, Ed.)


Why are so many people resistant to the idea of miracles?

At a recent dinner conversation, one lady expressed her delight at a sermon she had heard about the biblical account of Jesus feeding the multitudes. She was relieved to hear that it wasn’t really a miracle. The priest said that it was true the disciples had only a few “loaves and fishes” but that didn’t mean others hadn’t brought food.

It made more sense to her, and was apparently reassuring to her, to think of it as a giant ‘pot luck’ instead of a miracle.

Why would miracles scare us or put us off?

We take delight in “miraculous” medical cures, miracles of technology and even the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey “Miracle on Ice“. But we seem hesitant to consider the idea of a real miracle, something we can’t explain.

F. A. Hayek, in The Road to Serfdom talks of a shift in the western approach to many issues which occurred in the nineteenth century. Before that, philosophy ruled in government and society. It was understood that some things are beyond us and therefore must be accepted.

With the rise of technology, the engineering viewpoint took over. Everything had to be analyzed and reduced to its parts. There are no unsolvable problems, just solutions we didn’t yet understand.

But we all understand that there are things beyond our comprehension. Some would argue that we will eventually explain everything that happens at all levels of the universe. They argue our science is immature.

But many of us doubt that. We have a hunch that “There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your books.”

But what advantage could there be in refusing to accept miracles. Could a world without miracles be safer, easier for us to control?

A long dead teacher can ask nothing of us. Socrates, Aquinas and Confucius are left in the past. We can admire their ideas and try to follow them, but they can ask nothing of us. We can also feel free to reinterpret their teachings to fit our “times”, or rather, our whims.

But what if the person whose teachings we claim to follow still lives? What then?

This is the dilemma posed by Jesus of Nazareth. Many people are comfortable with him as a non-miraculous but wise teacher. We can follow his teachings, or not, and there is no reason to think he can affect us any more than Socrates.

But what if he is, indeed, the risen Son of God? What if he is not a figure from the remote past but alive and aware of our every thought, word and deed? Then He is not so easy to ignore.

A living Jesus has opinions about how we live. He may or may not tell us, and we may or may not listen, but He has his opinions of us and our actions.

He is in charge of our lives. We aren’t.  We can’t assume we know all there is to know about what happens in our lives. Maybe those “coincidences” we encounter from time to time really aren’t accidents. Maybe He is arranging events and people in our lives for His purposes.

To put it simply, maybe we aren’t in control. Maybe we don’t know as much as we think we do.

The thought that He is alive adds uncertainty and obligation to our lives. If, indeed, we were created by the Holy Trinity to know and love Him/them, they are waiting for us. We can’t just study Jesus as a long dead teacher. His “bible” is a guide book not just of how to live, but, more importantly, how to learn to walk and talk with Him.

Do we really want to hide in the safety of long-dead Jesus who can ask nothing of us and never “interfere” in our lives? Apparently many people do.

But for those willing to accept the idea that “He Is Risen!” it is, perhaps, time to understand what that means and seek him out. He lives and wants us to share everything with him.

Are we ready for that?

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What Child is This?

More than 2000 years ago, a child was born in a manger in Bethlehem. What that means for us is something we’ve discussed ever since.

For Christians, the explanation starts as a birthday. We can explain it to children and join them in singing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus. People of all faiths, or none, can say it marks the birth of the founder of an important world religion.

But all of those explanations fall short when you examine Christian claims about the meaning of the day. In the third century, Christianity changed, almost overnight, from a highly persecuted religion to the official state religion of the Roman Empire. Christian leaders were called together to explain the beliefs of the faith.

The first question was: Who is Jesus? They had been willing to die for their faith and many had been maimed. They were trying to put into words the faith which was so important to them. In answering the first question, they found themselves using words they could not fully explain or understand.

Mathematicians use the terms “Infinity” and “Imaginary numbers.” They mean something but are hard to explain. The church leaders were trying to explain something more amazing than Mathematics: God. They also used words which made sense but are hard to explain.

They said the baby, Jesus, was “fully God and fully man.”  That means the birth we celebrate at Christmas is the appearance of God into our existence as a human being. If we believe this, it changes the way we view God, the universe and humanity.

The Christian leaders, being versed in Jewish Scriptures, believed that God created the universe. It was not just a collection of material that somehow led to the creation of life.

But even then, how do we understand God if God comes into our universe as one of us? He came not as a triumphant ruler, but as a helpless baby. What kind of God would do this?

First it rules out a childish God who made a toy he could play with and discard. Such a God might look for reasons to stomp on his creatures.  We would have to try to follow all the rules and hope he didn’t see us.

It also rules out a more adult but detached God.  Some see God as a watch-maker who created the universe and lets it proceed on its own. He might come back some day and decide whether to keep it or wipe it out and start over. But this God is somewhat disinterested. Human beings are only amusing as an experiment.

Even our greatest minds find this somewhat satisfying. Albert Einstein said, “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.”

This is a reasonable understanding of God, but, amazingly, God is unreasonable, or beyond our reason. The appearance of God in our universe is beyond our comprehension. We have seen artists who paint themselves as one of the crowd, but that doesn’t come close.

A member of the Divine Trinity came to Earth as one of us. He did not do it as an experiment or to “lord it” over us. He came because we needed it. But what did we need?

Many emphasize the idea that God became human to “pay a debt He did not owe and a debt we could not pay.” This is the view of Jesus as a sacrifice for us. I am not trying to refute this, but it is still incomplete. If it were simply this, he could have come as an adult, gone to the cross and been resurrected.

Others emphasize His time as a teacher and deemphasize the cross. In the early church there were debates about whether God could actually suffer. Again, the church leaders refuted this and affirmed that, as “fully God and fully man,” he did experience the full burden of crucifixion.

In the life of Jesus of Nazareth, Christians believe we are seeing a life as God would have us live it. In the Gospel stories, we see someone who spreads healing and love, who is patient and understanding and is constantly seeking the “lost sheep”.

The self-important see no need for Him and He does not force Himself on them. He always offers and never imposes. He honors our freedom.

I believe He had to build a lifetime of examples of how to treat people so we could begin to understand what He was trying to tell us.

The message of the baby on Christmas morning is easy to say as it is hard to believe: The God who created the universe and everything and everyone in it came to Earth because we needed it. This is a God whose love for humanity is so deep that He will do whatever will fully meet our needs and provide what is, in the long run, best for us.

More importantly, this is the same God who continues to watch over us and care for us every moment of our lives.

We, in turn, are offered the chance to understand the magnitude of the gift and the depth of that love and try, out of gratitude – not duty – to show others some of that love.

May the Blessings of the Child of Bethlehem and the God who created and loves us all be on all of you!

Have a Blessed Christmas!

Chaos and Anger

Sometimes we want to think that churches and other religious centers should always be places of peace and calm. That will never be. Churches, and all organizations, face a common, insurmountable problem. By definition, they are made up of people.

In a society were interdependence is de-emphasized, many people choose to keep their contact with all organizations to a minimum. In a way that makes sense. The fewer people we interact with, the fewer people we can have conflict with.

When Christians contemplate the life of Jesus, they are faced with a different view. We are taught that one person of the Divine trinity chose to leave an environment of perfect love and peace to spend more than 30 years with human beings and all their passions, mistreatment and, in his case, to suffer crucifixion at their hands. He knew what was going to happen and he came anyway.

It has long been the teaching of the church that the interaction of members of the church helps us learn how to love one another. The ancient Christian teacher and writer Tertullian once said “Solus Christianus, nullus Christianus” – A Christian alone is no Christian.

I have heard this put many ways over the years. One preacher told us we were all rocks on the bottom of the river and the way we push against each other is what polishes us to get ready for heaven. However we put it, it is easy to say and follow when everything is going smoothly. It is quite a different thing to remember it and live it when a given church (or parish) is in the middle of chaos.

This question has become totally not theoretical for me and the fellow members of my local church in the last few weeks. A month ago we had two full time priests and, as far as most of us knew, everything was going well. Now both of those priests are gone, maybe permanently, and we have fill-in priests and are dealing with our bishop to get help to keep the parish going.

In addition to all the chaos and confusion, we are seeing people leave while others stay and people are taking sides. Instead of a spirit of love and cooperation, we are in danger of creating an environment of anger and self-righteousness. The question is now whether love or anger will prevail.

I am reminded of an episode called “The Day of the Dove” from the original Star Trek television series. In that episode, the Enterprise crew find themselves trapped on the ship with an equal number of Klingons in an endless series of battles. They realize that when they are killed in a battle, they return to fight again. The solution comes when they realize there is a creature on board who has created the conflict and feeds itself from the hatred it is generating.

Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, was telling this story in a science fiction format in a setting “where no man has gone before.”  But there is nothing new in this concept.

The Christian teaching is very clear that there is one who wants to destroy our souls and poison everything good in us that God put there. Whether you call our adversary the devil, Lucifer or the destroyer of souls or any other name, he exists. He seeks to put us at each other so that we forget we are here to show God’s love.

In times of chaos and anger, we have to decide what we want for our souls and those of our neighbors. There is obviously hurt and anger and shock. We may feel the need to lash out. At a minimum we need to express our hurt and anger. Hopefully our friends involved in the situation will be able to provide ears or shoulders as needed.

But we need to keep in mind that at each moment we are feeding ourselves either the “good food” of love and understanding and peace or the “bad food” of hatred, anger and self-righteousness. No matter how much we feel wronged by others, if we dwell in that hurt or anger we harm ourselves, not them.

The “winners” in this will be those who turn to God the soonest. The more it hurts, the angrier we feel, the more important it becomes to turn quickly. He is waiting to help us. He will help as much as we let Him. He is calling to each of us, no matter what “side” we are on, to turn to Him now. He won’t make us turn. If we insist on being miserable in ourselves and to others, He will honor our choice.

In some ways we want to cry, “Why us?” but in a sense it is a tribute to our spiritual readiness. We are being offered a test at the next school grade level in our spiritual journeys. How soon will we be able to “pass the test” or “win the game” by turning completely to God?

It is my fervent hope that we all choose God sooner rather than later. May our parish become a place where all who come, or return, are welcome and see only the love of God.

Is That All There Is?

On a trip to San Francisco, my wife and I were driving down the highway next to the Pacific Ocean. The view was incredible. We stopped to take it all in. As we turned to walk back to the car, I noticed the locals driving by in utter indifference to the beauty around them.  They were going to work, the store or their kid’s games and the glory of the Pacific Ocean might well as not been there.

The locals in the bay area who see the ocean every day are no longer impressed by it. The question, “Is that all there is?” captures their view. No matter how beautiful or incredible something is, we can easily be bored by it.

Anything we experience repeatedly can become boring through repetition. Many of us have reached this point when we hear about Christianity. No matter how incredible the claims, we just know we’ve heard it all before so, what is there to get excited about?

Recently, I watched a science program about the orbits of the galaxies and the “black holes” in them. On my nice HD screen, I could see endless stars swirling as two galaxies danced around each other. Some people say they can see God in a tree or a sunset. Christianity says that God “created all things, visible and invisible.” That means the swirling galaxies and the dark matter in the Universe were created by God. Science tells us that our universe began with a “big bang”. The Bible says God said “Let there be light!” All the matter and energy in the universe came from that beginning.

When thinking about the size of the universe, some people feel themselves such a small speck they find it hard to believe God could care about them.

So then Christianity comes in with an even bolder claim. It says the God who created the Universe became a small baby on a small planet near the tip of a galaxy. The God who created it all humbled himself.

He didn’t do it as an intellectual exercise to see how it felt to be small. Instead He did it because – are you ready? – He loves us so much he came to end the grip of death and sin on us!

Who can believe that? The God who can twirl galaxies became a human baby “wrapped in swaddling clothes” because we needed something only He could do for us.  Only the death of a sinless human being could end death’s grip on us. God “trampled down death by death!”  Through His suffering and death, Jesus, a part of the trinity, shattered the grip of death and hell, not for Himself, but for us!

Then comes another incredible claim. He rose from the dead! How many times do we have to hear this before it gets boring! The resurrection of Christ is an essential claim of the Christian faith. If it didn’t happen, Christianity is pointless. We celebrate the resurrection on Easter (Pascha) but we have heard the claim so often that we give more thought to hiding eggs for the kids.

Then He ascended into heaven in front of the apostles and other witnesses.  Before He went, He said He was going to prepare a place for us. We are going to join Him in the next life! Yeah, but, don’t bother me, I’ve heard that before and I have to get the kids to a swim meet.

This whole Christian thing is so incredible we almost have to make it boring as a means of self-defense. Unfortunately, there are many members of the clergy who are willing to do that for us. They make Christianity about rules and punishment. God hates sinners and will punish them forever. They say God’s love is an abstract principle showing us how to live. Something, anything other than facing the overwhelming fact that the God who made all things made us to be loved my Him and to love Him.

The question for us is whether we can allow ourselves to live in the wonder of the message of Christianity. It is easy to get caught up in the daily minutia of life. Some people say we should stop and smell the roses. How about something even bigger than that?

The God who made the roses, the mountains, the Grand Canyon, the Solar system, the galaxy and the universe is trying to get our attention. With all the other things He made, He made us to love us and so we could love him.

We are asked to stop and consider that. Or, we can ride right past a beautiful ocean and just choose to find it all boring.