1311) Trying to Understand Atheists

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Dennis Prager  (1948- )

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“Two Questions for Atheists,” by Dennis Prager athttp://www.jewishjournal.com

Dennis Prager is a Jewish author and nationally syndicated radio talk show host.  His latest project is the Internet-based Prager University (prageru.com).

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     I have had the privilege of debating five of the top seven “25 Most Influential Living Atheists” as listed at SuperScholar.org:

#2: Sam Harris (“The End of Faith”)

#3: The late Christopher Hitchens (“God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything”)

#4: Daniel Dennett (“Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon”)

#6: Steven Pinker (“How the Mind Works”)

#7: Michael Shermer, founding publisher of the Skeptic Magazine

     Recently, however, I realized that I never asked any of them two questions that I would now ask before any other:

  1. Do you hope you are right or wrong?
  2. Do you ever doubt your atheism?

     The answers to those questions would tell me what I would most like to know about the person:  how intellectually honest he is, and what motivates him.

     To be sure, the answers to those two questions neither validate nor invalidate any atheist arguments.  Atheist and theist arguments rise and fall on their merits, not on the motivations or personal characteristics of the atheist or the believer.  But on a purely human level, their answers would enable me to understand the atheist as a person and as a thinker.

     Take the first question: Do you hope you are right or wrong?

     I respect atheists who answer that they hope they are wrong.  It tells me that they understand the terrible consequences of atheism:  that all existence is random; that there is no ultimate meaning to life; that there is no objective morality — right and wrong are subjective personal or societal constructs; that when we die, there is nothing but eternal oblivion, meaning, among other things, that one is never reconnected with any loved ones; and there is no ultimate justice in the universe — murderers, torturers and their victims have identical fates: nothing.

     Anyone who would want all those things has either not considered the consequences of atheism or has what seems like an emotionally detached outlook on life.  A person who doesn’t want there to be ultimate meaning to existence, or good and evil to have an objective reality, or to be reunited with loved ones, or the bad punished and the good rewarded has a rather cold soul.

     That’s why I suspect atheists who think that way have not fully thought through their atheism.  This is especially so for those who allege that their atheism is primarily because of their conclusion that there is too much unjust human suffering for there to be a God.  If that is what has led you to your atheism, how could you possibly not hope there is a God?  Precisely because you are so disturbed by the amount of suffering in the world, wouldn’t you want a just God to exist?

     Now to the second question:  Do you ever doubt your atheism?

     A few years ago, the largest atheist organization in the United States, American Atheists, to its credit, invited me to Minneapolis to debate the head of the organization at its annual meeting.

     At one point, I looked at the audience and asked people to raise their hands if they ever doubted their atheism.  Not one hand went up.

     I found this interesting, if not disturbing, and said so.  Nonreligious individuals often accuse religious believers of not challenging themselves.  And, depending on the religion and on the individual, that is often the case.  Yet it would seem that believers challenge themselves more than atheists do.

     As I explained at the debate, I never met a believer who hadn’t at some point had doubts about God.  When experiencing, seeing or reading about terrible human suffering, all of us who believe in God have on occasion doubted our faith.  So, I asked the atheists, how is it that when you see a baby born or a spectacular sunset, or hear a Mozart symphony, or read about the infinite complexity of the human brain — none of these has ever prompted you to wonder whether there really might be a God?

     I remember sensing that I had a struck a nerve.

     So, then, while I still debate God’s existence with atheists, I do so in order that the audience will hear sound arguments for God’s existence.

     But what really interests me — and I think should interest any believer or atheist — are the answers to these two questions.

     Because only if the atheist responds, “I hope I am wrong” and “Yes, there have been occasions when I have wondered whether there really might be a God” — do I believe that I have encountered an individual who has really thought through his or her atheism.  I also believe that I have probably met a truly decent person.

     But a sad one.  For to know how awful the consequences of atheism are and still be convinced that there is no God is an unhappy fate indeed.

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“To sustain the belief that there is no God, atheism has to demonstrate infinite knowledge, which is tantamount to saying, ‘I have infinite knowledge that there is no being in existence with infinite knowledge.’”  –Ravi Zacharias

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“Atheism turns out to be too simple.  If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning.”  –C.S. Lewis

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Psalm 19:1  —  The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Romans 1:20  —  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 people are without excuse.

John 14:9  —  Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip?  Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.  How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?”

Psalm 74:22  —  Arise, O God, defend your cause; remember how the foolish scoff at you all the day!

Jeremiah 29:12-13  —  (Thus says the Lord), “Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you.  You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.”

Jude 1:22  —  Have mercy on those who doubt.

Romans 15:13  —  May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.

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A prayer for unbelieving loved ones, based on Romans 15:13:

God of hope, I pray that you fill ____  and ____ and ____ with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit, they may abound in hope.

1300) Keeping the Faith

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     Faith in Jesus is not the same as feelings for Jesus.  Faith is stronger than feelings.  It is stronger than knowledge.  Faith often becomes a sheer act of will.  A person may say, “I don’t feel like believing, but I want to believe.”  And it may very well be that if a person were to say, “I don’t know whether this Christianity is true or not, but with all my heart I want it to be true,” then in God’s sight, he has faith.  A man cried to Jesus, “I believe, help thou my unbelief.”  God himself is the giver of faith.  By myself I cannot believe in Jesus or come to him, but the Holy Spirit works through Word and Sacrament to give me faith.

     He makes it possible for me to be a believer.  To be sure, feelings are important.  In fact, Jesus will give us deep and lasting feelings.  He will help us to feel joy, to feel repentance, to feel hope, to feel love, to feel faith.  But when the dark days come, and these feelings seem to slip away, be sure of this:  Jesus has not abandoned us.  He does not make feelings a condition for his being with us.  He is with us, even in those gloomy and depressed days when we hardly dare to think that he cares at all.

     A man came once to me and said, “I feel that God has left me.”  I replied, “Perhaps that does not make any difference to God.”  After all, God is our Father, Jesus is our great Brother and Savior…  He has promised never to leave us or abandon us.  He has given us his Word.  We rest there.     

–Alvin Rogness, The Jesus Life, pages 26-27.

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     “What people don’t realize is how much religion costs.  They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course, it is the cross.  It is much harder to believe than not to believe, so you must at least do this:  keep an open mind.  Keep it open toward faith, keep wanting it, keep asking for it, and leave the rest to God.”    

–Flannery O’Connor, Habit of Being, page 354.

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      “I need not exert myself and try to force myself to believe or try to chase doubt out of my heart.  Both are equally useless.  I have let Jesus into my heart, and he will fulfill my heart’s desire.  I need only to tell Jesus how weak my faith is.  ”  

                                                                                    –O. Hallesby

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Mark 9:24  —  …The boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”

Proverbs 3:5-6  —  Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.

Romans 10:17  —  Consequently, faith comes  from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ. 

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O Most High, Glorious God, enlighten the darkness of my heart and give me a right faith, a certain hope, and a perfect love, understanding, and knowledge; O Lord, that I may carry out your holy and true command.  Amen.  –St. Francis of Assisi

1233) An Atheist’s Testimony

“Coveting Luke’s Faith” by Dana Tierney, in The New York Times Magazine, January 11, 2004.

     When I was a child in Sunday school, I would ask searching questions like ”Angels can fly up in heaven, but how do clouds hold up pianos?” and get the same puzzling response about how that was not important, what was important was that Jesus died for our sins and if we accepted him as our savior, when we died, we would go to heaven, where we’d get everything we wanted.  Some children in my class wondered why anyone would hang on a cross with nails stuck through his hands to help anyone else.  I wondered how Santa Claus knew what I wanted for Christmas, even though I never wrote him a letter.  Maybe he had a tape recorder hidden in every chimney in the world.

     This literal-mindedness has stuck with me; one result of it is that I am unable to believe in God.  Most of the other atheists I know seem to feel freed or proud of their unbelief, as if they’ve cleverly refused to be sold snake oil.  But over the years, I’ve come to feel I’m missing out.  My friends and relatives who rely on God — the real believers, not just the churchgoers — have an expansiveness of spirit.  When they walk along a stream, they don’t just see water falling over rocks; the sight fills them with ecstasy.  They see a realm of hope beyond this world.  I just see a babbling brook.  I don’t get the message.  My husband, who was reared in a devout Catholic family and served as an altar boy, is also firmly grounded on this earth.  He doesn’t even have the desire to believe.  So other than baptizing our son to reassure our families, we’ve skated over the issue of faith.

     I assumed we had stranded our 4-year-old son Luke in the same spiritually arid place we’d found ourselves in.  When my husband went to Iraq for several months, I thought Luke and I were in it together, a suddenly single mom and a nervous boy whose daddy was in a war zone.  I was numb with anxiety when I talked to my husband on his satellite phone; yet Luke was chatty and calm.  He missed his daddy, but he wasn’t scared.  He wanted to see pictures of Dad holding an AK-47.  I thought he was just too young to understand.

     Then one night Luke and I were watching television, and a story flashed on about a soldier home on leave for his wedding.  I tried to switch the channel, but Luke wanted to see, so I let him, thinking, ‘It’s a wedding; it’s fine.’  But the soldier started talking about how afraid he was of going back, how dangerous it was in Iraq.  Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Luke steeple his fingers and bow his head for a split second.  Surprised, I said, ”Sweetheart, what are you doing?”  He wouldn’t tell me, but a few minutes later, he did it again.  I said, ”You don’t have to tell me, but if you want to, I’m listening.”  Finally he confessed, ”I was saying a little prayer for Daddy.”

     ”That’s wonderful, Luke,” I murmured, abashed that we, or our modern world, somehow made him embarrassed to pray for his father in his own home.  It was as if that mustard seed of faith had found its way into our son and now he was revealing that he could move mountains.  Not in a church or as we gazed at the stars, but while we channel-surfed.  I was envious of him.  Luke wasn’t rattled, because he believed that God would bring his father home safely.  I was the only one stranded.

     Some people believe faith is a gift; for others, it’s a choice, a matter of spiritual discipline.  I have a friend who was reared to believe, and he does.  But his faith has wavered.  He has struggled to hang onto it and to pass it along to his children.  Another friend of mine never goes to church because she’s a single mother who doesn’t have the gas money.  But she once told me about a day when she was washing oranges as the sun streamed onto them.  As she peeled one, the smell rose to her face, and she felt she received the Holy Spirit.  ”He sank into my bones,” she recounted.  ”I lifted my palms upward, feeling filled with love.”

     After I saw Luke praying for his father in Iraq, I asked him when he first began to believe in God.  ”I don’t know,” he said.  ”I’ve always known he is there.”  My husband did return from Iraq safely, but if something had happened to his father, Luke would have known Dad was in heaven, waiting for us.  He doesn’t suffer from a void like the anguished father in Mark 9:23-24: ”Jesus said unto him, ‘If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth.’  And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, ‘Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.”’  For Luke, all things are possible.  At the end of his life, he will be reunited in heaven with his heroes and loved ones, Mom and Dad and George Washington, his grandparents and Buzz Lightyear.  Luke’s prayers can stretch to infinity and beyond, but I am limited to one:  Help thou mine unbelief.

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Mark 9:22b-24  —  (The boy’s father said), “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”  Jesus asked, “‘If you can’?  Everything is possible for one who believes.”  Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”

Mark 12:34b  —  …(Jesus said), “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

Isaiah 11:6d  —  …And a little child will lead them.

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A PRAYER FOR UNBELIEVERS by John Henry Newman, Catholic cardinal and theologian  (1801-1890):

O Lord Jesus Christ, upon the Cross You did say: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  And this surely, O my God, is the condition of vast multitudes among us now.  They deny that there is a God, but they know not what they are doing.  They renounce all faith in You, the Savior of man.  They mislead the wandering, they frighten the weak, they corrupt the young.  Others of them have a wish to be religious, but mistake error for truth.  They go after fancies of their own, and they seduce others and keep them from You.  They know not what they are doing, but You can make them know.  Teach them now, open their eyes here, before the future comes; give them faith in what they must see hereafter, if they will not believe in it here.  Amen.

1161) My God, My Dog, and I

     

We read in the book of Proverbs, “Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise!”  If God’s Word can advise us to learn something about work from the hard-working ants, we should also be able to learn something about faith from that most faithful of all God’s creatures, the dog.
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CLUNY by William Croswell Doane in The Boston Evening Transcript:

I am quite sure he thinks that I am God–
Since He is God on whom each one depends
For life, and all things that His bounty sends–
My dear old dog, most constant of all friends;
Not quick to mind, but quicker far than I
To Him whom God I know and own; his eye
Deep brown and liquid, watches for my nod;
He is more patient underneath the rod
Than I, when God His wise corrections sends.
He looks love at me, deep as words e’er spake;
And from me never crumb or sup will take
But he wags thanks with his most vocal tail;
And when some crashing noise wakes all his fear
He is content and quiet if I’m near,
Secure that my protection will prevail;
So, faithful, mindful, thankful, trustful, he
Tells me what I unto my God should be.
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My goal is to be as good a person as my dog already thinks I am.  –unknown
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If you can start the day without caffeine… if you can always be cheerful, ignoring aches and pains… if you can resist complaining, and boring people with your troubles… if you can eat the same food every day and be grateful for it… if you can understand when your loved ones are to busy to give you any time… if you can overlook it when those you love take it out on you, when, through no fault of your own something goes wrong… if you can take criticism and blame without resentment… if you can ignore a friend’s limited education, and never correct them… if you can resist treating a rich friend better than a poor friend… if you can face the world without lies and deceit… if you can conquer tension without medical help, relax without liquor, and sleep without the aid of drugs… if you can honestly say that deep in your heart you have no prejudice against any creed, color, religion, or politics…  then, you are probably the family dog.

–Author unknown

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Take two minutes to watch this wonderful little video, “GoD and DoG:”  

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Proverbs 6:6-8  —  Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise!  It has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest.

Zechariah 8:8  —  “I will bring them back to live in Jerusalem; they will be my people, and I will be faithful and righteous to them as their God.”

I Corinthians 4:2  —  Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.

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     Lord, since Thou hast taken from me all that I had of Thee, yet of Thy grace leave me, I pray, the gift which every dog has by nature; that of being true to Thee in my distress, when I am deprived of all consolation.  Amen.
                             –Mechthild of Magdeburg, Cistercian nun and mystic (1210?-1285?)

1112) More ‘News’

Another ‘news’ item from the satirical Christian news website The Babylon Bee.  (For more on that website, see previous meditation #1111)

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After 12 Years Of Quarterly Church Attendance, Parents Shocked By Daughter’s Lack Of Faith

Fullerton, CA—Local father Trevor Michelson, 48, and his wife Kerri, 45, are reeling after discovering that after 12 years of steadily taking their daughter Janie to church every Sunday they didn’t have a more pressing sporting commitment— which was at least once every three months— she no longer demonstrates the strong quarterly commitment to the faith they raised her with, now that she is college-aged.

Trevor Michelson was simply stunned at the revelation.  “I just don’t understand it.  Almost every single time there was a rained-out game, or a break between school and club team seasons, we had Janie in church.  It was at least four times a year.  And aside from the one tournament in 2011, we never missed an Easter.  It was obviously a priority in our family— I just don’t get where her spiritual apathy is coming from.”

“I can’t tell you how often we prayed the prayer of Jabez on the way to a game,” added Janie’s mother.

“You know, the more I think about it, the more this illustrates how the church just keeps failing this generation,” lamented Trevor, citing a recently googled study by Barna or someone.

The Michelsons further noted plans to have a chat with the pastor of their church after their younger son Robert’s soccer season calms down a bit.

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Exodus 20:8  —  Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.

Deuteronomy 6:6-7  —   These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be in your heart.  You shall teach them diligently to your children and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up.

Psalm 34:11  — Come, you children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord.

Ephesians 6:4  —  Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.

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The prayer of Jabez (referred to above) is a good Biblical prayer, but raising children in the faith may require more than just praying it every once in a while on the way to a game.

1053) Take Time for Your Soul

By Alvin Rogness, The Word for Every Day, page 15, Augsburg Publishing House, 1981.

     I hadn’t seen him in two years.  During the years I had lived in this Midwestern city I had often eaten in his cafe.  We became close friends.  Coming as a young immigrant from Greece, he had worked long and hard until his eating place was the finest in town.  Now, at 70, he was beginning to turn things over to his son.  Seated with me at the table, he reflected on how well things had gone for him.  He paused, tears formed in his eyes, and he said, “But, Al, I haven’t taken time for my soul.”

     He was a successful man.  He was reasonably rich.  The community esteemed him.  What else did he need?    .

     Jesus once put it bluntly, “What does it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

     It is as if each of us has a bag to fill.  We use our years to fill it with good things– family, friends, money and property, honor, perhaps power.  Then comes death, and we must leave the bags behind.  If we have accumulated our cargo at the expense of our souls, then what?

     The soul itself has needs, quite apart from food, shelter— even honor.   The soul has a life with God.  It feeds on the Word and the sacraments.  It grows through prayer and praise.  It becomes strong as it reaches out to help others.

     It is good for each of us to take stock.  What if we were to die today?  What would we leave behind?  Memories that are cherished by our families and friends, we hope.  Maybe some property or trust funds for our children.  Perhaps the fruits of our labors, whether in business, in the home, in our professions.  But we do leave it all behind!

     Stripped of it all, we go on to live forever with our Lord– or without Him.  And it is his hope that we may have used the swift years on earth to prepare for life on the other side.  If we have let that which is eternal about us wither and die from oversight, neglect, or even repudiation, the loss is enormous.

      This is what my friend meant in his sad remark, “But I haven’t taken time for my soul.”

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Mark 8:36-37  —  (Jesus said), “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?  Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?”

Luke 12:16-21  —  (Jesus) told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest.  He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do?  I have no place to store my crops.’  Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do.  I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain.  And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years.  Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.’  But God said to him, ‘You fool!  This very night your life will be demanded from you.  Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’  This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”

II Timothy 1:6a  —  I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you…

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Eternal God, I pray that you do not allow me to so undervalue myself as to give away my dear and precious soul for nothing; and all the world is nothing, if the soul must be given for it.  Preserve therefore, my soul, O Lord, because it belongs to Thee, and preserve my body because it belongs to my soul.  Thou alone dost steer my boat through all its voyage, especially when it comes to a narrow current, or to a dangerous fall of waters.  Thou cares for the preservation of my body in all the ways of my life.  In the straits of death, I pray that you enlarge Thy Providence towards me, so that no illness or agony may shake or benumb my soul.  Be with me in all sickness so that, being used by Thy hand, I may be content with any bed of Thy making.  Amen.

–John Donne  (1572-1631)  (adapted)

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The Rich Fool, Eugene Burnand  (1850-1921)

1028) “I’m Not on This Earth to Play Basketball…”

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By A. Branch in World magazine, February 6, 2016 issue, page 58.  (www.wng.org )

     Andrew and Samantha Smith were always an unusual couple.  The shy but goofy Butler Bulldog basketball player was 6 feet 11 inches.  She was 5 feet 1 inch.

     But Andrew died on Jan. 12 at age 25 after a two-year battle with cancer that began soon after their marriage.  “Andrew peacefully passed away in his sleep and in my arms as I told him I loved him this morning,” wrote his 24-year-old widow.  The way the couple faced unusual circumstances with an unusual faith gained thousands of followers in the sports world and beyond.

     Andrew Smith is one of only three basketball players in Butler University history with more than 100 wins and 1,000 points.  He came into his own as a freshman off the bench in a 2010 Final Four run.  The next year, “Moose” helped lead the Bulldogs to a second straight title game.

     The cancer diagnosis came in January 2014, mere months after graduating and settling into Lithuania for European basketball.  The newly married high-school sweethearts began blogging at Kicking Cancer with the Smiths.  

https://kickingcancerwiththesmiths.wordpress.com/

     Then came the ups and downs.  Tense treatments had some success.  In July 2014, Andrew collapsed at work and his heart stopped beating for 22 minutes, yet he suffered no brain damage.  In the coming months, the couple rejoiced in healing, home-buying, and a little basketball coaching.  But the cancer returned in the spring of 2015.  A November bone marrow transplant failed with the news his lymphoma was now aggressive leukemia.  He had little time.

     “It has rattled our faith,” Samantha wrote.  “It has made us question the purpose in the past two years.  It has left us feeling completely helpless.  We have screamed and cried.  I can’t eat or sleep.”  With a blog readership now in the thousands, they admitted, “We struggle to believe that God has pulled us through the last two hellish years to only have it end here.”

     But Andrew and Samantha said they knew that God had a purpose for Andrew.  “I’m not on this earth to play basketball games.  I’m on this earth to share a story people can hear,” Andrew told CBS Sports in March.

     Before his death, Samantha wrote of continued love for the gospel in their pain:  “Truly, Andrew exudes and shines the Light of Christ.”  His former coach, Brad Stevens, took leave from the Boston Celtics to say goodbye and visibly fought back tears after Andrew’s death.  “You get a lot more out of coaching than they do from you. … He set a great example.”

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From Samantha Smith’s blog:

May 16, 2014  —  (Not long after the initial diagnosis) Andrew has been praying for years to gain a testimony that can speak to the hearts of many and lead those to the Lord.  Did he EVER think it would come in the form of cancer?  I think it’s safe to say no.  And yet, the Lord has provided exactly what Andrew has spent the entirety of his blessed life praying for.

January 10, 2016 (Two days before Andrew’s death):  Andrew exudes and shines the Light of Christ.  Andrew is the perfect example of what God has called us to do here on earth; to love one another at every opportunity, to glorify Him in all that we say and do, and to preach the Gospel to the masses.  But Andrew doesn’t even need words to do that preaching.  The way Andrew lives every single day preaches the Word of God.  One quote that Andrew and I have prayed over and try to instill in our lives together is “Be careful how you live; you will be the only Bible some people ever read.”  Andrew and I strive to make our lives preach loudly instead of our lips and he has done that ever so beautifully.  I’m so proud of him and there aren’t words to describe the honor I take in being his wife.

January 15, 2016  (Third day as a widow):  Many ask “how are you doing?” and the honest answer to that is that I am awful.  I’ve lost the love of my life.  Every day gets harder because it’s a day more since the last time I’ve seen him or felt his arms around me.  But I am holding onto hope in our Lord and Savior for I know that He is good, no matter what.  I don’t believe that God orchestrated this devastation in my life, but I know that He will use it for the Kingdom.  I miss my love every single day and I cannot wait for the day that he greets me at the gates of Heaven, ready to give me one of his giant, crushing hugs.  As CS Lewis said, “I believe in the sun, even when it’s not shining.  I believe in love, even when I’m alone.  I believe in God, even when He is silent.”

From an early blog:  “The things you take for granted, someone else is praying for.”

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Matthew 5:16  —  (Jesus said), “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

Philippians 1:19-20  (Samantha wrote:  “Andrew has this verse underlined in his Bible and I know this is his heart and prayer every day.”) —    Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or death.

Romans 14:8-9  —  If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord.  So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.  For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.

II Timothy 4:7-8  —  I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

I Thessalonians 4:13-14  —  Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.  For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.

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Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

–Henry Lyte, written in 1847, three weeks before he died of tuberculosis

922) Assumptions and Faith (part two of two)

Healing of the Blind Man by Brian Jekel

     (…continued)  The story in the ninth chapter of John is filled with assumptions, and most of them end up being challenged by new information.  Already in second verse people are assuming the worst.  Jesus and the disciples walk past a man who had been blind from birth.  “Rabbi,” said the disciples, “Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?”  This question contains the huge assumption that if there is any suffering anywhere, it is the direct result of a sin, with God in heaven doling out the pain in equal measure to the sin.  The more you sin, the more trouble you’ll get; it’s as simple as that.  But that was a wrong assumption.  Who sinned?  “Neither one,” Jesus said.  Rather, he said, “This man was born blind so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”  And when Jesus did heal the man a few moments later, the work of God was displayed, and to this day the story proclaims the power and goodness of God.

     Then comes another assumption.  The man’s neighbors see that he is no longer blind (verse 8) and say, “Isn’t this the same man who used to sit and beg?” “Yes, it is,” said some, acknowledging the obvious fact.  “No, he isn’t” said others, refusing to question their assumption that blind men cannot have their sight restored.

     I can sympathize with that skepticism.  I am skeptical of many of the claims I hear from Christian healers, and am glad when those claims are investigated.   If the healing is real, praise God, I believe that can happen.  But if it is a fraudulent healing, and I know that also happens, then I am glad to see the con artist exposed.   Their deception only hurts the cause of Christ.  So I might also have been skeptical of Jesus, at least at first.  But Jesus did not do just this one miracle.  He gave many evidences of his miraculous power, and in this story, it soon became clear that this indeed was the man they knew had been blind from birth.  Still, there remained those who were blinded by their assumptions.

     In verse sixteen there is another false assumption.  This is the most outrageous.  Some of the Pharisees say, “This man cannot be from God for he does not keep the Sabbath.”  Talk about missing the point!  Jesus miraculously restored sight to a man born blind, and he was criticized for doing it the wrong day of the week!  But others said, “Nonsense, for how can a man who is not from God do such miracles?”  This reveals another, more solid, assumption.  

     The false assumptions continue as the debate goes on, and Jesus turns this physical restoration of sight to a man born blind into an illustration of the continuing spiritual blindness of those who will not change their assumptions, even when confronted by a miracle.  The blind man, though poor and uneducated, becomes the voice of wisdom and logic and truth, simply by stubbornly stating the facts.   After being hounded by the Pharisees, he finally says (v. 25), “I don’t know if Jesus is a sinner or not, all I know is that I was blind, and now I see.”  And then when he saw Jesus, the healed man said (v. 38), “Lord, I believe.”  Until that day, he was assuming that he would never be able to see.  But when he regained his sight, his beliefs underwent a huge adjustment.

     That is what faith does as it grows.  Faith adjusts.  Faith adjusts to blessings and to afflictions.  The blind man, when he was blind, could have assumed that there was no God, deciding that he would put no trust in a God who allowed people to be born blind and endure that affliction throughout their life.  But while the text says nothing about the man’s religious beliefs before his healing, it is clear that he remained at least open to faith.  Jesus made some mud and put it on his eyes, and told him to go wash in the Pool of Siloam.  That does not sound like an effective prescription, but the man had to act on it if he was to be healed.  And he did so immediately; perhaps out of desperation, but also on faith.  Jesus always showed himself willing to bless even the smallest moves toward faith.

     Faith does not shut God out when things do not go well.  Faith understands that there might be other explanations.  Jesus was asked who sinned that this man was born blind.  No one, said Jesus, and then went on to demonstrated that God had a far higher purpose in that affliction than merely punishing sins.  He wanted everyone, then and now, to see God’s work displayed in this man.

     We ask why bad things happen to good people, how can God allow cancer in a child, why God permits the cruel tyrants of the world to stay in power; and why doesn’t God end disease, bring world peace, and let everyone have enough food?  Is it because God does not care?  Or, as this text teaches us, are there perhaps other explanations that we cannot, in our limited knowledge, begin to see or imagine?

     After many years as an atheist C. S. Lewis, like the blind man in verse 38, said “Lord, I believe.”  He did not reach that conclusion because he finally understood everything.  Rather, Lewis came to believe in Jesus as the way and the truth and the life.   Then, from that foundation of faith in God, he was able to say (paraphrasing), “Now that I have chosen to believe in God, what I do know and do understand about God leads me to TRUST GOD even in those things that I do not understand about the Bible and life in this world.”

     When we believe in Jesus, all our assumptions about God and life and other people will be affected.  Like C. S. Lewis, we will assume not the worst, but the best about God, as we would do in any good relationship.

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John 9:25b  —  (The blind man replied), “One thing I do know.  I was blind but now I see!”

II Corinthians 5:7  —  We live by faith, not by sight.

II Corinthians 4:4  —  The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

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Open the eyes of my heart Lord.  I want to see you.  Amen.

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To hear Open the Eyes of My Heart by Michael W. Smith:

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vnqb7Vn4AEE

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For the fun of it, listen to I Can See Clearly Now, by Johnny Nash, #1 hit in 1972; performed by Jimmy Cliff in 1993:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xzGV9Bl6CGg

921) Assumptions and Faith (part one of two)

       I like ice cream.  In fact, I like ice cream so much that I never buy it.  If I know there is a pail of ice cream in the house, I will be into it two or three times a day until it is gone.  Therefore, we hardly ever have ice cream in our freezer.

     The problem is the calories.  If I were to eat three bowls of ice cream every day I would put on several pounds each month, and I don’t want to do that.  I worry about the long term consequences of eating too much of it.

     What I don’t worry about with ice cream is the short term consequences, because there have never been any for me.  It just tastes great, and that is all that’s to it.  However, I know someone who no longer likes ice cream because of the short term consequences she had one time.  After a single bowl of ice cream, she became violently ill and was sick for three weeks.  Perhaps you remember several years ago when a Minnesota ice cream company had a problem with some E.coli in a batch of its ice cream, and many people became sick from it.  She was one of them.  The problem was traced to another company that supplied one of the ingredients in the ice cream.  Someone at that other plant had failed to clean the equipment properly one day, and the product became tainted.

     Think about that.  Think of all the steps that are in the process of making ice cream, beginning with getting the milk from the cow, the sugar from the field, the chemicals for the flavoring, and the fruit or nuts to add; along with the machines and the manufacturing, the packaging, and everything else involved.  Think of all the people who have to do their job properly for that ice cream to be safe to eat, and how sick several people got when just one person did it wrong.  But when I sit down ahead of the TV with a big bowl of ice cream, I don’t worry about any of that.  I just assume that the ice cream is going to taste good and not make me sick.  And usually, that is a safe assumption.

     We cannot live without assumptions.  We don’t have the time or the equipment to do a safety check on every bite of food we take.  Stories of E.coli outbreaks because of tainted food are unpleasant to hear about, but we keep buying food at the store and keep assuming it is all right.  We have to.  And most of the time, the food is fine.  There are no 100% guarantees in anything, but we have to go by our assumptions on a lot of things.

     Assumptions are also a necessary part of our relationships.  When my wife tells me something, I can safely assume that she is telling me the truth and I don’t have to check it out.  After many years of always hearing the truth from her, I now assume that I can believe what she says to me; and it is good to be able to make that assumption.

     But the wrong kind of assumptions can be very damaging in a relationship.  In troubled relationships– be it husband and wife, parent and child, owner and employee, or neighbor against neighbor– assumptions often become a huge part of the problem as hostility increases.  Once a relationship begins to deteriorate, the two disputing people always begin to assume the worst of each other, (though even these assumptions can become necessary).  But then, even if someone is trying to be nice, the other person is distrustful, assuming there must be some evil purpose behind the seemingly nice gesture.  In a good relationship, even minor bad behavior will be overlooked and excused.  The overflowing bank of good will between two people in a good relationship provides ready forgiveness and an eagerness to give the other person the benefit of the doubt.  But bad relationships often get on an unstoppable slide toward total breakdown, as everything that is done by one is seen in the worst possible light by the other.  These negative assumptions can kill a relationship. It can be dangerous to assume too much.

     And sometimes even seemingly solid assumptions have to be adjusted because of new information.  For example, when I arrange to meet someone at a certain time and place, I usually assume they will be there.  I don’t hire a detective and have them followed to make sure they arrive on time.  I just assume they will be there.  That is a good and necessary assumption.  If they are not there, I might begin to make some other assumptions about them.

     The other night, someone called to meet me.  I suggested meeting in an hour, and we agreed to call the other if anything changed.  In an hour, I was at the meeting place, but he wasn’t.  I waited and waited.  I then called his cell phone and left a message.  He did not call back.  Finally, I gave up, assuming he was rude and irresponsible, and made up my mind not to do any business with him.

     Four days later he called me back.  “Remember me?,” he said.  “Yes,” I said, “I do remember you.  I was looking for you the other night.”  He apologized, and then told me he had a car accident on the way, totaled his car, and ended up in the hospital.  “Well,” I said, “That’s a good excuse.  I hope you are all right.”  Even such a seemingly solid assumption had to be changed because of new information.

     The story in the ninth chapter of John is filled with assumptions, and most of them end up being challenged by new information…  (continued…)

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JOHN 9 (selected verses):

     As (Jesus) went along, he saw a man blind from birth.  His disciples asked him, “Rabbi,who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

     “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him…  

     After saying this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes.  “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam.”  …So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.

     His neighbors and those who had formerly seen him begging asked, “Isn’t this the same man who used to sit and beg?”  Some claimed that he was.

     Others said, “No, he only looks like him.”

     But he himself insisted, “I am the man.”

     “How then were your eyes opened?” they asked.

     He replied, “The man they call Jesus made some mud and put it on my eyes.  He told me to go to Siloam and wash.  So I went and washed, and then I could see.”

     “Where is this man?” they asked him.

     “I don’t know,” he said.

     They brought to the Pharisees the man who had been blind.  Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man’s eyes was a Sabbath.  Therefore the Pharisees also asked him how he had received his sight.  “He put mud on my eyes,” the man replied, “and I washed, and now I see.”

     Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.”

     But others asked, “How can a sinner perform such signs?” So they were divided.

     Then they turned again to the blind man, “What have you to say about him?  It was your eyes he opened.”

     The man replied, “He is a prophet.”

     …A second time they summoned the man who had been blind. “Give glory to God by telling the truth,” they said. “We know this man is a sinner.”

     He replied, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!”

     Then they asked him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”

     He answered, “I have told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples too?”

     …To this they replied, “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!”  And they threw him out.

     Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”

     “Who is he, sir?” the man asked.  “Tell me so that I may believe in him.”

     Jesus said, “You have now seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you.”

     Then the man said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him…

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Terrific video of this story from the 1977 TV mini-series Jesus of Nazareth:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tOjN5FVGHcM

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Open the eyes of my heart, Lord
Open the eyes of my heart
I want to see You…

–From the song by Michael W. Smith

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 Healing the Man Born Blind, El Greco, 1570

768) It is Not For You to Know

     This is the time of year for graduations.  In the church, this is the time of year that Ascension Day is observed (40 days after Easter).  Ascension Day commemorates the bodily ascension of Jesus into heaven.  The story of the ascension is told only by Luke– at the end of his Gospel, and, at the beginning of the book of Acts, also written by Luke.  It is interesting that Ascension Day always comes at graduation time, because what is described in Acts chapter one was a sort of graduation day for the disciples.  Verse nine says, “After Jesus said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.”  Jesus was no longer physically present with the disciples, so that meant the disciples were left alone with the work Jesus had given them to do.

     For the previous three years, Jesus had been with them day and night, preparing them, or we might say, educating them, for the task he was giving them to do.  Now, in verses four and eight, Jesus gave them these instructions: “Wait here in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit; and after his power comes upon you, then, go out into the world and be my witnesses, telling everyone about me to the very ends of the earth.”

     Are the disciples ready for duty?  Have they been adequately prepared?  Do they deserve to graduate?  Well, if verse six is any indication, they failed their final exam and were not ready for anything.  Their question in verse six indicates that they missed the whole point of Jesus even being here.  They ask, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”  Restore the kingdom?  Where did they get that idea?  Jesus never said anything about restoring the earthly kingdom to Israel.  That was what many people had hoped the Messiah would do, but Jesus made it clear from the start that he was not here for anything so trivial as that.  Jesus was Creator and king of the whole universe.  He did not come to earth to be a mere king over a tiny nation for a few years.  Weren’t the disciples listening when he said, “My kingdom IS NOT of this world”?  These men were with Jesus for three years, and then, just before Jesus goes away, leaving them in charge, they ask a question that shows they missed the whole point.  They were not at all ready for graduation.  It is a good thing Jesus had added that part about sending the Holy Spirit to guide them in all things and give them power, or nothing would have happened.

     Jesus replies by saying, “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by His own authority.”  That was the full answer of Jesus to that particular question on that day, but it is the first seven words of that answer that applies to many of our own questions.  Jesus said simply, “It is not for you to know.”

     Is there anything in the Bible you do not completely understand?  Have you ever come up against a brick wall with any of your questions about God or Jesus or the Bible or life in general?  This is a good verse for those times: “It is not for you to know.”

     Sometimes, when discussions of religious matters get too deep, someone will say, “We are not supposed to ask such questions.”  I would not put it that way.  Faith will always ask questions, and the Bible itself asks many questions and even encourages such searching and asking.  And, of course, the Bible gives many answers.  But sometimes the answer is, “It is not for you to know.”  And as we see in this story, we are not the only ones with unanswered questions.  It is interesting that in this very last conversation between Jesus and his disciples, the focus is on what the disciples don’t know and can’t know.  

     However, even with incomplete knowledge, and even with many yet unanswered questions, the disciples and those that followed them did go to the ends of the earth with the knowledge that they did have.  They went out and proclaimed to all the world that in Jesus Christ, God had visited this earth in person, and had shown us all the way to forgiveness and eternal life.  That message was enough for them, and they did take it from there, living and dying to proclaim it, fulfilling the work Jesus had given them to do.  They had heard Jesus teach and preach, they saw him heal the sick and give sight to the blind, they saw Jesus feed the 5,000 with a few loaves and fishes, they saw him calm the power of a storm at sea, and most of all, they saw him dead, and then alive again.  

     The disciples had seen and heard more than enough.  Now they could believe and proclaim that message, even without all the answers.  We are, after all, talking about God here, and God is a whole lot bigger than we are.  We don’t even understand each other.  How can we expect to be able to have a full and complete understanding of God and his ways?

     In the Christian faith, questions are encouraged, but answers are not guaranteed.  What the Bible does tell us, however, gives us plenty to work on in this life, and all we need to know to follow Jesus and inherit the life to come that he has promised.  Even the most brilliant theologians are only scratching the surface of God’s truth, but the faith that will save us is simple enough for a child to comprehend.

     So, if there is something you do not yet understand, maybe “it is not for you to know.”

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Acts 1:6-9  —  Then they gathered around Jesus and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”  He said to them:  “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.  But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

John 18:36  —  Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world.”

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O Lord, you know what is best for me.  Let this or that be done, as you wish.  Give what you will, how much you will, and when you will.

–Thomas a Kempis