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Why Political Speech Is Inappropriate from the Pulpit!

For years now, I have been criticizing the preaching of politics from the pulpit. Why? What's so wrong with talking about issues and can...

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Is This God's World?

If a resident of Boston owns land in Montana that he/she has seen two times in the last twenty years, does that fact negate his/her title to the property? If other people have hunted, hiked and camped on the land in his/her absence, does that make the property theirs? What if he/she has rented the property to someone, and that person has farmed and/or lived on the land during that time? No, I think we can all agree that none of these circumstances change the fact that the person in Boston owns the land - that it is his/hers.

Even so, God's apparent absence from the world scene (the existence of all of the suffering, perverseness and evil extant in the world) leads many of us to conclude that this can't be God's world. Sure, many of us believe (or say we believe) that God created the world, and that technically everything in it belongs to Him; but we really don't believe that this is His world. For many of us, the presence of all of that suffering, death and wickedness indicates that God simply can't be in control - that someone else must be calling the shots (like Satan). For others, it is proof that there is no God!

For many Christians, Satan has usurped God's position and taken possession of this earth. Is that, however, an accurate representation of what has happened? Is Satan in charge here? Has he established his kingdom on this earth? More importantly, has God relinquished His title to the ownership of the earth, even temporarily? OR Has God allowed Satan to roam His earth and do the terrible things which he has done? Has God permitted mankind the space and freedom to choose to follow Satan's lead? OR Did God sign the title to earth over to humankind, and Satan has usurped ownership from us?

When Paul wrote that Satan is "the god of this world," did he mean that Satan has replaced God? Was Paul implying that Satan is the real deity of this present world? OR Was the apostle suggesting that Satan is the one whom the vast majority of humanity follows and worships?

Were the idols of the past real gods? Did the fact that people worshiped those idols and professed their devotion to them make them real? Was God still God when they were doing all of that?

Does the fact that Satan has deceived the whole world make it his world? If I were somehow able to convince most of the folks around me that I owned the Brooklyn Bridge, would that make it mine?

"When we say 'world,' we're really talking about this present age!" my friends will indignantly proclaim. I guess this puts Satan in the position of a squatter who will eventually be evicted by the true owner - GOD!

In the book of Exodus, we are told that God declared that "all the earth is mine." (Exodus 19:5) Speaking about all of the sacrifices which the Israelites had failed to offer, the psalmist wrote: "I will take no bullock out of thy house, nor he goats out of thy folds. For every beast of the forest is mine, and the cattle upon a thousand hills. I know all the fowls of the mountains: and the wild beasts of the field are mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell thee: for the world is mine, and the fulness thereof." (Psalm 50:9-12) Notice that in both of these instances ownership is in the present tense.

And what about all of the "good" things that exist in this present world? What of the beautiful landscapes (mountains, valleys, beaches, etc.), the beautiful buildings, the beautiful art, literature and music? What about the love, mercy, goodness and efforts to help others? Is all of that derived from the "god of this world?"

Is God or Satan in control? Does God set up kings and kingdoms? OR Has Satan placed his minions in positions of authority? Was Satan within his rights to offer Jesus Christ all of the kingdoms of the earth? Is it possible that God has retained control over this earth, and that everyone and everything in it are functioning according to His plan? What do you think?

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

God, the Bible, Forrest Gump, Dubya's Memoir and the Multiverse

There is a poignant scene in the movie Forrest Gump, where Forrest is standing before Jenny's grave and talking to her as if she were still alive. In the course of his soliloquy, Forrest muses about one of the greatest questions to confront humankind: Is everything that happens to us just random chance or is there a direction and purpose behind it all? For his momma, life was like a box of chocolates - you never know what you're going to get. For Lieutenant Dan, life was supposed to follow a predictable course - his surviving the loss of his legs wasn't supposed to happen.

Forrest concludes: "Jenny, I don't know if Momma was right or if, if it's Lieutenant Dan. I don't know if we each have a destiny, or if we're all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze, but I, I think maybe it's both. Maybe both is happening at the same time."

I recently posted a piece about Divine intervention that goes to the heart of this question. In that post, I recounted how my niece had survived a tornado only to die in an ATV accident a few years later. The post, of course, elicited a number of comments that zeroed in on the chance or destiny dilemma and underscored the fact that we tend to see things as either/or propositions - a choice between two options or extremes.

In religious circles, the question is often framed as one of predestination vs free will. Indeed, this question has occupied religious thinkers throughout human history and has engendered distinct camps within the Christian community. And, as with many other questions, both sides in the debate appeal to the Bible to support their position.

This debate, however, has not been confined to religious circles. Psychology Today frames the debate in these terms: "Do humans have the ability to make their own choices and determine their own fates—a concept more commonly known as free will? Or our people's futures determined solely by powers outside of their control, like the physics and biology of the brain? The question of free will has long challenged philosophers and religious thinkers, and scientists have examined the problem from psychological, biological, and genetic perspectives."

In another article on their website, Dr. William Klemm discusses The Practical Meaning of Free Will. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/memory-medic/201902/the-practical-meaning-free-will He relates that the general consensus seems to be that there is no such thing as free will. He cautions, however, that "Those who have already decided against free will frame the issue so that no other conclusion can be drawn." He offers the following as proof of this assertion: "For example, people will say that every action or event has a cause. Therefore, the event was determined and did not occur 'freely.'” Klemm continues: "Another argument is that every action or event has a certain probability of occurrence, ranging from zero to 100% chance that it will occur. Thus, the argument is that anything that can occur will occur, eventually. If it has a low probability, happening may just take a long time. It does not require being willed into existence."

Klemm goes on to imagine a debate between a generic "determinist" and "free-will believer." He redefines the terms so that the debate between the two sides can continue on a more even footing, and the free-will believers actually have a chance of winning it. He writes: "As for 'free' will, or 'free' won’t, the premise is that one has two or more available choices and that nothing compels selection of one over the other."

It seems to be almost self-evident that many of us think in these terms - that our lives consist of a number of choices between available options. Indeed, even former President George W. Bush framed his tenure in the Oval Office in terms of Decision Points. But the questions remain: Are these choices an illusion? Do we really have free will?

What happens to the debate, however, if we introduce a concept that has been promoted by more and more cosmologists in recent years - the multiverse? Long time readers of this blog know that I have been fascinated by this theory since reading Our Mathematical Universe by Max Tegmark a few years back.

It is not my purpose in this post to discuss the merits of the Multiverse Theory. For our purposes, it is sufficient to note that this is a legitimate thesis within the scientific community. The notion that our universe is just one of an infinite number of universes is not easily refuted or dismissed by those who study such questions, and a significant number of them have concluded that it offers the most reasonable explanation of the true reality of the space which we inhabit.

In Our Mathematical Universe, Tegmark summarizes the implications of his hypothesis thus: "In an infinite space created by inflation, everything that can happen according to the laws of physics does happen. And it happens an infinite number of times. This means that there are parallel universes where you never get a parking ticket, where you have a different name, where you've won a million-dollar lottery, where Germany won World War II, where dinosaurs still roam Earth, and where Earth never formed in the first place." p. 123, Our Mathematical Universe, by Max Tegmark, published in New York by Alfred A. Knopf in 2014

In this model, there is another you out there with the same name and life story up to this moment in time. One (or more) of you decide to finish reading this post while another one (or more) of you decide not to finish it. Each one of your decisions branches off into an infinite number of potentialities, and this phenomenon is further complicated by the fact that everyone around you is experiencing the same thing!

Think about that for a moment. Doesn't that have some very interesting implications for the debate between those who believe in free will and those who hold a determinist view? I find it extremely interesting that both the Bible and modern scientific thought point in the same direction - that Forrest Gump had it right. I think maybe it's both. What do you think?


Saturday, February 16, 2019

It's Funny How One Insect Can Damage So Much Grain!

The title of this post was borrowed from the lyrics of Elton John's Empty Garden (a reference to the senseless assassination of John Lennon). This line, nevertheless, seemed to me to precisely convey the very negative impact that one Herbert W Armstrong had on me and my family.

I hope that what follows will serve as a cautionary tale for anyone who might be interested in joining one of the many splinter groups that formed as a consequence of the disintegration of Armstrong's Worldwide Church of God (or any other group which claims to have THE TRUTH). It is also my hope that what follows will serve those who are currently involved in one of those splinter groups and be a comfort to others who have left the movement.

I was introduced to the Worldwide Church as a small child in the mid 1960's by my father. He listened to HWA and his son, Garner Ted, on a small transistor radio that rested on the headboard of his bed. My younger brother and I would lie across the bed beside him and listen along to the "World Tomorrow" broadcast. Nevertheless, as my father was a divorced man with two small children and still living with his parents, he felt that he was unworthy and/or unable to make the necessary commitment to God and "His Church."

My father, however, never lost his conviction that HWA had rediscovered "TRUE" Christianity, and that he and his son were the only folks preaching the "TRUE" Gospel message. Among the more important elements of their message were their teachings that Christians should observe the Jewish Sabbath, eschew the observance of "pagan" holidays (e.g. Christmas, Easter, etc.), follow the dietary rules of the Old Testament, interpret the Bible literally and reject anything that wasn't specifically stated in Scripture, understand that God was "reproducing" Himself, and that the English speaking peoples of the earth represented the modern descendants of Israel. And, despite his reluctance to formally join the group, my father believed and taught these "TRUTHS" to me and my brother.

As a teen, I began to study my father's belief system independently of him and in greater detail. I studied Armstrong's booklets and "Bible Correspondence Course" and eventually became convinced that my father had been right about Armstrong and his "TRUTHS." I began attending the Worldwide Church on Saturdays and refused to eat any "unclean" meats (pork, shellfish, etc.). I also stopped celebrating Christmas (which had been a very important family celebration prior to that). Thus, within a relatively short span of time, I had convinced Armstrong's ministry that I had swallowed their teachings hook, line and sinker and was consequently baptized at the tender age of seventeen.

Looking back on those events, I am amazed at how selfish, self-centered and bigoted I was. My poor grandparents adjusted to my new religion without protest. My grandmother stopped cooking with pork. My grandfather left the Christmas decorations in the attic and pretended not to mind the sudden disappearance of his favorite holiday. They also quickly accepted and adjusted to the fact that I would no longer do my chores on God's Sabbath (we were commanded to rest on that day) - though my grandfather was still working full-time and my grandmother had severe rheumatoid arthritis and numerous other health problems). My younger brother ceased to get Christmas gifts.

All of this was further complicated by the fact that I was a closeted homosexual desperately trying to deny the reality of who I was and to whom I was attracted. In Armstrongism, homosexuality was a wicked perversion - a willful choice to live a sinful life. Homosexuals were referred to from the pulpit as queers and sissies. Indeed, my own father had parroted this kind of language!

Needless to say, I certainly didn't want to disappoint God, break His commands or shame my father and grandparents with such behavior! Add to all of this the fact that HWA expected his followers to date within the church, and I was pretty much destined to be a very frustrated, unhappy and lonely young man.

Fate, however, intervened. After actively considering attending the church's private college (Ambassador College at their Pasadena, California headquarters), I made the decision to attend two public colleges. And, while attending one of them, I met a beautiful and intelligent young lady who was actually willing to talk to me and appeared to be interested in me! We began dating, and I began to imagine that I might be able to overcome the wickedness inside of me and have a "normal" life.

It wasn't long, however, until my conscience got the better of me. I was being a hypocrite. I was attending church and dating someone who wasn't a member! I confessed my sin to the ministry and was promptly disfellowshipped (a kind of excommunication).

I was terrified. The gates of hell yawned before me! I was on the outside of God's "ONE TRUE CHURCH." How could I survive being cut off from God and His people? I broke up with the young lady. She was bewildered, and I was a hot mess!

In the meantime, however, my father had remarried and joined the Church of God International (founded by Garner Ted after he was himself kicked out of his father's church). He wrote me and assured me that God had not abandoned me and told me that I should not lose hope. To make a long story short, I eventually reconciled with the girl and began attending my father's church.

Even so, my suppressed homosexuality did not magically disappear over the years that followed. Though I prayed about it constantly, averted my eyes and remained physically faithful to the splendid lady that I had married, my sexual orientation did not change. Hence, although we had two beautiful daughters together, the marriage eventually collapsed under the weight of my self-denial and awful secret.

To make matters worse, when I finally came out of the closet, my father revealed to me that he had always suspected that I was gay. Moreover, although I had been writing for church publications and speaking to their congregations for years, I was suddenly persona non grata, My father, who had by this time been a licensed minister of CGI for many years, not only supported the anti-gay sermons of his associates and friends, he also gave sermons along the same lines.

Thus, although my dad has assured me that he still loves me, he remains firmly convinced that the major components of Armstrong's teachings (including those against homosexuality) are THE TRUTH. As a consequence, my relationship with my father (once very close) has suffered tremendously.

And, even though I left the Worldwide Church in 1985, and Herbert Armstrong died less than a year later, the damage which he inflicted on me and my family is still being felt in February of 2019. Yes, it's funny how one insect can damage so much grain

Saturday, February 2, 2019

When God Intervenes

We had been living in a trailer on three acres in northern Alabama since my discharge from the United States Army less than two years before. My brother and his three children were visiting with us at the time. As a consequence, there were three adults and five children sleeping peacefully that dark February night - completely unaware of the storm that was rapidly approaching them from the west.

Then, just before sunrise, we were wakened by a loud roaring sound. I knew in the same instant that I opened my eyes that a tornado was bearing down upon us. There was no time to flee, and there wasn't any basement or storm cellar to shelter in if there had been. The adults hovered over the children in the hallway, and I quickly asked God to protect them. The prayer had taken seconds - that's all the time we had before it hit.

A window shattered at the other end of the trailer, and the floor beneath us moved. The sounds around us were deafening. It was a horrible combination of freight train, roaring, groaning, creaking, snapping and shredding. And then, there was silence and complete blackness. What had seemed like an eternity to us had only taken seconds in real time, but we had somehow been spared.

Nevertheless, as the sun began to dawn over the horizon, the destruction around us came into sharp focus. The trailer just to the north of us had been obliterated. The house directly across the street had lost its roof. Many of the loblolly pine trees directly behind my trailer, some of them two feet in diameter, had been snapped in half like twigs; and the house on the other side of them had also lost its roof. The power lines and the poles which supported them were down, and a stack of fifteen sheets of 3/4 inch plywood that had been lying in my yard were gone without a trace. It was as if a great hand had reached down out of the sky and held my trailer in place.

The first sound that greeted us when we opened the door to the world outside was someone crying for help. My brother and I eventually traced the cries to the wreckage of my neighbor's trailer and discovered her pinned beneath her car. We helped some of our other neighbors load her onto what had been one of the interior doors of her own trailer a few minutes before and carried her to the back of a pickup truck for the trip to the hospital. A few houses up the street from me, folks were pulling another one of my neighbors out of a mangled tree in what had been his yard.

We learned later that three people had died in the storm and one hundred more had been injured. After evaluating all of the evidence, the experts reported that we had lived through an F3 tornado with winds ranging from 158 to 206 miles per hour.

Some folks said that we were lucky, but I knew that we had experienced a miraculous answer to prayer. Still, I wondered why God had answered my prayers for protection and had apparently not heeded the prayers of others. I knew that I wasn't the most righteous man who had been in the way of that tornado, and that other innocent children had been hurt by it. Why had God chosen to protect us but not them?

And, less than nine years later, one of the children whom God had protected that day in my trailer was killed in an ATV accident. I will never forget that anguished phone call from my brother. His daughter, my beloved niece, was fighting for her life.

I was stunned. How could the same God who had intervened to protect her from that tornado not have intervened in this instance? I had prayed that God would protect those children from hurt and harm a thousand times, but this had happened anyway!

Lauren and her friend had been riding an ATV together that January day when she had topped a gentle rise in the road and crashed head-on into a tree. She was just a few days shy of her fifteenth birthday. She had her whole life before her.

My father and his best friend (a pastor) prayed earnestly together for his granddaughter's recovery. Then, as they finished praying, they remembered the other little girl who had been hurt in the accident. Ashamed that they had forgotten about her, they both sent up a quick petition on her behalf - asking God to also heal her. Even so, that little girl recovered, but Lauren did not.

Why had God heard the prayer that could justly be described as an afterthought for a stranger and had not listened to their earnest pleas for my father's beloved granddaughter? Why had God protected her from that tornado only to let her die a few years later in this horrible accident? Had her survival of the tornado only been a random coincidence after all and not the Divine miracle which I had supposed it to be?

Even more mysteriously, Lauren had had some kind of premonition that she would die young and had expressed her desire that her organs be donated to help others in that event. Hence, at her death, her organs were harvested and helped at least four other individuals to live longer, healthier lives.

Is there some lesson in all of this? Was everything that happened to our family random chance or was their some purpose and design behind it all? Did God intervene in both instances or was it all just the outcome of a random roll of the dice? I don't have all of the answers to these questions, but I still believe that God is out there listening. What do you think?

**The Joppa, Alabama Tornado occurred on Thursday February 16, 1995; and Lauren died on Sunday January 4, 2004.