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“Why are we surprised by honesty?”

Charlie (not his real name) was shopping at a Giant Eagle, one of the chain grocery stores dominating the food market in the Pittsburgh area.

He has the practice – when using a cart – of loading as many items as he can on the “seat” area (where one of those squirmy toddlers could sit when the parent doesn’t trust the little dear to be mobile with lots of things within reach).

He just piles up items in the “seat” area of the cart, and only for heavy purchases does he place things in the deep belly of the cart.  For example, a 20-pound bag of dog food (he has four dogs).

All right – it isn’t some guy hiding behind “Charlie” – it’s me.  Mention of the four dogs would have been a sure giveaway.  But I figured I may as well “out” myself rather than worrying about others thinking I’m bucking for holiness.  I did something honest.

Holiness isn’t what is being considered here – public sentiment about honesty is.

Back in the Giant Eagle, when I would arrives at the check-out counter, I would simply point to the heavy items in the bottom of the cart.  They’re rung up without my having to lift them (another sure giveaway).

A few days ago, I had finished checking out, walked to the parking lot, located his car, popped open the trunk, began placing items into the trunk – when I went to reach for the heavy purchases at the bottom of the cart (a big bag of dog food and a 12-pack of ginger ale), and realized, “I forgot to tell the cashier!”

I read over the receipt – read it again – yep, these items weren’t tabulated.   I had walked out of the store without paying for these things.  No beeping alarms went off; no Giant Eagle employee stopped me in the parking lot.  I thought, “Is this was freedom feels like?”  But it was not virtuous freedom; rather, it was sneaky freedom.  I had gotten away with something.

Years previously, I was a store worker in a food co-op in Pittsburgh’s university neighborhood, Oakland.  The Semple Street Food Co-op was small and crowded but with a folksy, mom & pop store in atmosphere.  One day, I was working as a cashier when a young woman with a toddler bought a few items.  She left – but then returned in a few minutes.

“I found out that forgot to pay for a few things,” she said.  The young mom continued, “If this were Giant Eagle, I wouldn’t bother.  But I didn’t want to cheat the co-op.”

That reason – and other justifications – were rifling through my mind years later out in the parking lot of the Giant Eagle.  “It wasn’t my fault.  I would have paid for it.  The cashier never rang up the items” in addition to the populist reasoning – “It’s Giant Eagle.  They’re not going to miss my twenty dollars.”

I checked the grocery receipt one more time – just to make sure.  Yep – these items weren’t checked out.  I locked the Chevy and walked back to the store, pushing the grocery cart with the two large items in the carriage.

I located the check-out aisle where I had just been rung up.  I got back into line.  As my turn approached, I looked at the name tag for the cashier.  “Herman.”  When I got there, I said, “Herman – we forgot to check out these items.”

He looked at me – stunned!

He remained looking stunned as he tabulated the items, and when we were finished, he said, “Thank you for your honesty!”

He never asked me, “Why did you do it?”  I never volunteered, “I’m a minister.”  I preferred that an act of honesty just occur as something that could be regarded as normal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“Trump protests are wrong”

The more I see of these interruptions at rallies as well as physical confrontations by Trump protesters, the more I think of them as kids who have no clue.

For one thing, they have no clue that they are going against much progress that has been made over the years about “responsibility.”  It used to be – and still is – that women were blamed for being attacked, because they wore “provocative” clothing or had suggestive, permissive behavior.  A long time has been needed to disavow this point of view.  Now, a presidential candidate makes provocative statements, and is prevented from speaking at his rallies.  Interruptions are continual, attacks against him are sometimes personal – that is, physical – were it nor for the Secret Service.

I hope my anti-Donald Trump credentials don’t have to be shown.  This isn’t about who the candidate is.  It’s just that I can’t think of anything more damaging to the give & take of democracy than preventing a person from speaking or not letting him say his full piece.

During the State of the Union Address a few years ago, President Obama was talking about the Affordable Care Act when a Republican member of Congress shouted, “You lie!”

Everybody gasped.  It was boldly rude.  But this self-justification for being rude is catching on.  Where have people found this idea acceptable:  “I don’t like what you’re saying – I’m going to stop you from speaking.”

Brilliant.

These protesters may think they are being heroic, saving America from a tyrant.  They would be surprised to hear themselves described as tyrants.  But that IS the kind of bullying they are exhibiting.

They have no clue as to how to win over people.  It’s not done through force – it’s done through sharing:  sharing their story.

All that they’re doing now is riotous.  They are merely stoking up ill feelings towards they themselves (and ironically, firming up support for Trump).   They do it this way because they want a solution to Trump that is immediate.  Change, however, rarely occurs instantly.  Changing people’s minds takes an effort – it must be thoughtful and peaceful.

As for the other candidates’ blaming Trump for all of the trouble, it’s what candidates do – dump on an opponent for any possible reason.  Even the liberals were “blaming the victim.”

What happens if other candidates are stopped from speaking?Bernie Sanders walked away from a rally because of a protest by some people from Black Lives Matter, who took over the microphone.  Such a protest could never happen at a Hillary Clinton rally because I suspect she has more Secret Service protection than all of the other candidates combined.

The actions by protesters have been amateurish – and ugly.  They may be awarding medals to each other.  But their self-satisfaction is short-sighted.  “I don’t like what you say – so I’m going to stop you from speaking.”

“A Republican Miss Universe contest”

The way strategists are talking about the Republican National Convention to be held in Cleveland this summer, it’s sounding more & more like another Miss Universe contest.

ANNOUNCER:  “The ballots are in – the winner is – Donald Trump.”

(Cheering.)

ANNOUNCER (looking very glum):  “Ladies and gentlemen, I must apologize.  I got the winner wrong.  The winner is…”

They’re talking about ways to pull this off.

Chris Matthew of MSNBC is right on this matter.  It would be a disaster – for the Republican Party, for one thing.  The party, trying to secure a better candidate, would be seen as disqualifying the actual vote.  Not by a few dangling chads, mind you; but by millions of voters being ignored – regarded as children who didn’t know better.

But it’s being called a necessity – to save the party, to save the nation.  Quick and easy comparisons are made to the Nazis being voted into power in 1933 Germany.  There are the alarming news stories about violence at Trump rallies, where protesters are taken out roughly and rudely.

But anybody who knows history, knows that this comparison fails.  The Nazis didn’t wait for dissidents to appear at their rallies.  They went out in groups at night on the streets and mugged candidates and their supporters.  Opposition flagged.  The Nazis won.

Let’s get real – Trump has some real oafs among his supporters (like one of the armed occupants of the National Parks building in Nevada who was just arrested).  But he isn’t employing strong-arm tactics other than a show of toughness against protesters at his rallies (“Get them out!  Get them out of here!”)

The protesters all seem the same – young.  Furthermore, they seem like amateurs.  One wonders whether they’re getting advice from older, experienced voices.  Their interruptions at Trump rallies only rile up Trump supporters all the more firmly.

The protesters doubtlessly feel good – they feel heroic – but that’s not the purpose of a protest.  The purpose of participating in an action is  not self-aggrandizement but to change people’s minds.

Screaming isn’t doing it.   Bernie Sanders has most often made this point – for example, on gun-control.  Screaming at each other isn’t getting anything done.

To this belief, Bernie Sanders went to Liberty University – a non-religious socialist talking to fundamentalists – knowing full well that he was not in friendly territory, but he thought it important still to have a civil exchange of ideas.

That’s why the Trump protesters are merely contributing to making everything all the messier.  Democracy can be very untidy – rude, ignorant, demagogic…Trump and his followers have become the model for how bad it can get, not to mention the televised debates with candidates yelling over each other.

How many of us wish there could be candidates the quality of articulate, brilliant Adlai Stevenson?  Maybe some day.

But it seems to me that the messiness of the whole election season begins at the beginning – with over a dozen candidates declaring.  Really now!  How many had an inkling of winning the party’s nomination, let alone a general election?  The candidates like Marco Rubio – who hasn’t even finished his first term in the Senate but thinks he can be President – keep making comparisons with john F. Kennedy.  Kennedy was a first-term Senator when he ran for the presidency.  But need we be reminded again and again from one election to another – “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

If the Republican Party elders wanted to do something for the party, they would have begun before the campaigns even began – with party elders trying to talk sense to long shots like Rubio, Hutchinson, Santorum, Cruz…all too inexperienced or too far to the right to be realistic options for a national election.  Candidates like these merely crowd the field and divide the vote and turn debates into evidence of their desperation.

Compare the Democratic televised debates – with only two candidates – as against the Republican debates with a dozen or more candidates like newly hatched birds craning for the worm.

Trump was simply the best at it.  And by now he’s feasting.  But eventually, it will come down to calmness and the composure of ideas – when at last each party is down to its nominee – and the debating goes one-on-one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The Pope – yet another blunder into American politics”

Those of us who have been wondering how much further Donald Trump could go in being

the grossest (calling Ted Cruz a pussy),

the most ignorant (clueless about what immigrants and refugees are going through),

the meanest (as eager to get into the Oval Office to order the round-up of immigrants and refugees as he is to fight ISIS)

the most reckless (“President Obama hasn’t done anything for the country” competes with Marco Rubio’s remarks that “The President is destroying the country…He knows exactly what he’s doing” for playing to the fanatical, pro-militia element of the population that believes Obama is not a legitimate President.  The idea is to portray the President as something like a foreign agent undermining the country.)

…we’ve been waiting for somebody other than just Trump opponents to speak out and rein in this fellow.  And now – of all people – it’s done by the Pope.  But as big as the moment could have been, Francis instead once again blunders when it comes to American politics.

After visiting a wall on the American-Mexican border, when he was back in his airplane, the Pope was asked by a reporter about Donald Trump wanting to build an even bigger wall.  The Pope responded:  “A person who thinks only about building walls…and not building bridges, is not a Christian.”

Anti-Trump forces felt vindicated.  The only trouble is – the anti-Trump forces include others who are equally anti-immigrant!  Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio (not to mention candidates who have dropped out of the Republican race for President) could trade speeches  with Trump any day!

They seem to be trying to out-do each other for orneriness towards immigrants and refugees.

The reporter on the airplane brought up just Trump, though – and the Pope took the bait.  That was his first blunder.  If he’s going to inject an opinion into the presidential campaign, the fact that he knew nothing but what the reporter told him – he didn’t know about Cruz being equally as mean as Trump.  In fact, the Pope wasn’t sure about what the reporter himself told him concerning Trump.  The Pope replied in part, “If he said this…”

If he said this…

With al of your advisors at hand, you don’t bother checking out whether somebody even said something, but you go ahead and already comment on it to the point of calling him a non-believer?

How much more reckless with somebody else’s reputation could this model Christian get to be?

This clumsiness reminds me of the papal visit to Washington, D.C. last year when we learned that the Pope met privately with the county clerk from Kentucky who had refused to give marriage licenses to gay couples, citing her freedom of belief in opposition to same-sex marriage.  This woman was brought to the pope’s attention by a bishop in Kentucky.  The county clerk was lauded by the Pope for her courageous stand on faith.

How about her courageous stand for prejudice?

The Pope seemed to know only half of the story – only the half that somebody else told him.

These incidents remind me of the remark by Luciano Pavarotti as to why the famous tenor did not get involved in political issues.  He stated, “You have to be very well-informed.”

The Pope’s punch was been weakened by commenting on just one candidate without knowing about the other candidates.  It was a very naive thing for a man of such world stature to do.  He seems overconfident that all he has to do is make a pronouncement and – as with E.F. Hutton – the world leans in to be instructed.

It appears that nobody informed the Pope that no matter what is said about Donald Trump, he does not lose his base of supporters.  In fact, they respond all the more rabidly supportive.  The Pope further was poorly advised to speak up about just one candidate.  If he’s going to take upon himself the judgment of Trump’s soul based on the sole issue of immigration, why stop there?  The Pope could judge the whole list of Republican candidates (including some who have quit campaigning) as being sheep vs. goats.

What people may initially cheer (because they’re anti-Trump), the supreme pontiff’s leap into American politics will prove to be amateurish, woefully so for a person who seemingly has enough advisors to know more about a situation than just what a reporter tells him.

 

“Carrying on with the Big C”

May I share a happy day?  On this date, January 30, in 1994, I was ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA).  Today begins my 22nd year as a clergyman.

The occasion of this anniversary, however, comes at a time when most of my days as a minister are past, and my future as a pastor is shaky.

I have been contending with cancer off & on for 10 years.  Colon cancer was dealt with through surgery and chemotherapy over several years.  I had the cancer in each of the three congregations where I have served.  I could function – I did the work.  Metastasizing occurred, however, and major surgery in 2013 put me on the sidelines for six months.   The recovery took that long.  So, I haven’t had a church for three years now.

The oncologist was amazed, however, that only half a year after major surgery, I was refereeing soccer and umpiring baseball.

I know what I can do.  So, I’m still looking.  I send out my resume – I get responses from Pastor Nominating Committees.  An interview is set up on Sype.  But imagine the awkwardness when things seem to be going swell – the search committee and I are hitting it off – and then I feel obligated to tell them that I’m being treated for cancer.

Some people have advised me NOT to tell.  It’s your own personal issue, they say, just as if you had diabetes or high blood pressure.  But I feel obligated to let the pastor search committee know my situation, because being treated for cancer is not like being treated for any other illness.  You have to take time off during the week to get chemotherapy.  You have to admit fatigue and make way for it.

So, I tell.  It becomes a matter of timing – when in the interview do I drop this bomb on them?

Actually, I try to make it sound NOT like a bomb.  I tell them – I can do the work – I’ve lived with the illness for ten years now – I can function – in fact, I am physically strong enough to officiate four sports in the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association.  I’m a PIAA umpire in baseball and softball, and a referee in soccer and field hockey.

Still, I wonder how the members of the search committee have been set back by the news of my illness.  I have had interviews go superbly – and received lots of expressions of interest from a search committee – only to be told after a couple of weeks of waiting to hear from them that “they’ve decided to go in a different direction.”

I’ve grown to hate that expression!  “We’ve decided to go in a different direction.”

I know – and they know – it’s the cancer that has overwhelmed their consideration of me as their pastor.

Because I’ve got bills to pay – rent, car payments, utilities – I had to take early retirement in order to start collecting part of my pension from the Presbyterian Church (USA).

But I am doing all that I can to remain active in ministry.  While searching for a full-time call as a pastor, I’m doing a lot of pinch-hitting in the pulpits of churches that either don’t have a pastor or whose pastor has to be gone for a week or so.

Preaching is the central duty of any Protestant minister, and so I at least get to keep up with that aspect of being a pastor, and I am encouraged by the results.  Churches ask me to return.  This summer, I covered July and August for a church near Pittsburgh.  On the last Sunday, they held a reception for me.  An elderly, retired man came up to me and said, “I’ve never been to church so many times in the summer.  Every week I wanted to hear what you had to say.”

A compliment or two like that reaffirms that I still have something to offer.  Treatment and the awful side effects of the drugs become something you willingly endure.  And day by day I search the on-line listings of churches looking for a pastor.

It seems to me that illness like cancer is a prejudice that people have to live with – as much as prejudice because of age.

The question arises every time there’s a presidential campaign with candidates pushing 70.  Donald Trump is 69.  Bernie Sanders is 74.  Ronald Reagan took office at 70.

Their age seems a problem – but only for others.  Others – like in the news media – seem to be bothered by it.  But the individuals themselves who are in their 60s and 70s – they know how they feel and what they can do.  It always surprises me, no matter how many times I read it, that Winston Churchill, when he became prime minister during World War II, was 66 years old.  And a decade after the war, he became prime minister again – at the age of 77!

There are things about individuals that may frighten off others – but the individuals themselves show the readiness and fortitude to get going.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The biggest hurdle for belief in Darwin”

Forget about Super Bowl L.  The anniversary of greater importance in early February is the CCVII of Charles Darwin.

207 years ago, Darwin was born. February 12, 1809 was – in the words of Dr. Kenneth Miller of Brown University – “An above-average day for the world,” because it was also the birth date of Abraham Lincoln.

Every year on the occasion of Darwin’s birth, opponents rise up with the same, old objections – and America winds up looking like an oaf among  modern nations.  The United States ranks dead last among the industrialized nations in surveys asking people if they believe in evolution.

At most only 50-60% of Americans subscribe to evolution.  Why the sizable holdout?

Many believe in evolution – but only for others.  They say evolution is understandable when talking about creatures like dogs descending from wolves or birds descending from reptiles.  It’s okay for others – but not for us.  Not for Homo sapiens.

For human beings, evolution breaks upon the granite belief that we are specially made – made in the image of God.  This biblical portrayal of human origin remains the biggest hurdle for people who can’t accept evolution:  How could we be descended from apes but still be made in the image of God?

There is the additional objection to evolution that, going by the Bible, humans were created instantly – by voice command from God – rather than appearing only gradually over a million years of evolution by hominids.

These are the two main obstacles to belief in evolution:  Being made in the image of God is inconsistent with descending from apes; and being created, as the Bible says, in an instant by command of God is inconsistent with Homo sapiens arriving only after a half-million years of hominid evolution.

Both obstacles are raised not only by the literal, word-for-word reading of the Scriptures.  As well, there is the peculiar way that the Scriptures portray life.  Life in the Bible is pictured as happening instantly.  Creation occurs in distinct, immediate moments:  Let there be light – there’s light.  Let there be land – there’s land.  Let there be fish and fowl – they appear.

It’s the same thing with human behavior.  Three men rebel against Moses in the desert.  Immediately, the earth shakes, the ground opens up and the three tents that are home to the dissidents (and their wives and children) are swallowed up.  In Acts, a church members goes up to Peter and tells a lie (about how much money he’s donating to the church). Immediately, the church member drops dead.  He is carried off.  A moment later, the man’s wife shows up, and tells Peter the same lie.   Immediately, she drops dead.

None of this is reality.  None of these stories are realistic.  Fossils show that creatures don’t show up instantly but descend from a long line of ancestors.  But in the Bible, there is no concern for such reality.  The story isn’t about how things came to be.  The story is about the direct connection between God as creator and the things and creatures that God creates.  In other words, the immediacy of the way things happen in the Bible — God speaks, things appear — is a way to emphasize a truth:  God is calling the shots.  There is no doubt as to where things come from.  God speaks – boom – things appear.  It’s immediate, it’s instant, it can’t be any clearer.

Same thing with sin & punishment.  Somebody lies – drops dead.  His wife lies – drops dead.  The story is telling us:  There is a direct connection between behavior and consequences.  But in real life, the consequences don’t normally follow wrong conduct immediately.   Whenever you read a news story about a court case being decided, it’s about something that occurred 2-3 years previously.  That’s a long time between conduct and consequences.  The Bible doesn’t get into the process.  Rather, the Scriptures emphasize the immediacy of something – wrong conduct is followed instantly by punishment.  In this way, the connection is all the clearer.

All it takes is to understand that this is the style of writing in the Scriptures to get over the hurdle about evolution of creatures.  The style of the Scriptures is to get across a truth.  It needn’t be factual.  Creation by voice command isn’t about how things appeared; it’s about a world view:  monotheism.  God is creator; God is not nature.  God is not the Sun.  God is the creator of the Sun.  The clearer the point is made – Let there be light – there’s light – the clearer the truth.

The same way of processing comparisons with the Bible and real life can help a person get over the obstacle of how people can be made in the image of God and yet be descended from apes.

First of all, to be clear, we are not descended from apes, as though apes became humans.  This is a common misunderstanding because of the typical drawing of the descent of hominids – Australopithecus afarensis to Australopithecus africanus to Australopithecus robustus to Homo habilis to Homo erectus to Homo Neanderthal and finally to Homo sapiens.  It seems as if one species evolves into another.  The predecessor disappears, and the new species exists.  Then the new species evolves into a more modern version.  The old species disappears – the newcomer holds serve.

Evolution does not mean that one species replaces another.  There is not replacement but branching off.  When Homo sapiens appeared around half a million years ago, there also existed for a while Homo neanderthal.  Neanderthal man eventually went extinct for various reasons.  Homo sapiens has continued to find ways to survive.  As recently as 12,000 years ago, another hominid species existed at the same time as Homo sapiens.  This other species has been called “The Hobbit” for its short stature.  Its fossils have been found in a jungle in Indonesia.  Homo florensis lived at the same time as our own species but did not survive to our day.  Again, Homo sapiens has a glorious history, finding ways to survive any climate, any terrain.

Clearing up this concept that evolution isn’t about replacement but about branching off is important for our discussion because hopefully what gets cleared up is this notion that we would be only brutish with no chance of possessing the image of God if we were descended from apes.

It’s not a direct descent:  as if one appears, and then evolves into another, thus disappearing.  The comparison has been made:  People exist in Australia who are descended from English and Welsh and Scots and Irish.  Well, why, then, are there still English and Welsh and Scots and Irish?

Perhaps the distaste that we are “descended from apes” can be lessened if people understand the process of evolution accurately.

Homo sapiens did indeed descend from primates, but while ancestors have died off, we have our own proud story of finding ways of making a home out of every hill and valley and desert and tundra and island all over the planet.

We can learn much also from the descent of hominids in their physical appearance.   The first hominid is said to be Australopithecus afarensis – otherwise known as “Lucy.”  She lived 3.7 million years ago.  Lucy stood 3 1/2 feet tall and weighed 60 pounds – about the size of a modern-day 9-year-old.  As important to know, the size of Lucy’s skull was small (compared to a modern human).

Follow the process.

The size of a hominid like Lucy goes from 3 1/2 feet tall to today’s average of two feet taller.

That growth took 3 million years.

At the same time, hominids grew not only in size but in capacity for thinking

Lucy’s skull was small.  Millions of years later, by the time of Homo habilis, the volume of the cranium was around 600 cubic centimeters.  By the time of Homo neanderthal, the cranium had a volume of 1,600 cubic centimeters.  By our time, the size of the cranium has plateaued and actually declined slightly.  The average human skull has a volume of 1240 to 1440 cm3.  The point is:  We have evolved not only in size, but in the ability to think higher thoughts.

The Bible portrays things as happening instantly.  Humans are created instantly – they are created in the image of God instantly.  But why can’t we see that this is a scriptural shorthand for getting to a truth quickly:  God is our creator (however it happens), and we are made in the image of our creator.

In real life, however, things don’t happen with this kind of immediacy.  Rather, there is a long process – whether growth occurs physically like from the 3 1/2 foot Lucy to our height over three million years later – or whether growth occurs mentally.  Intellectual growth can be measured by measuring the growing size of the brain.  The volume of the skull from Homo habilis has doubled by the time of Homo sapiens.

The size of the brain increases – thoughts fly higher.

Can’t we also see that a concept like being created in the image of God is something that takes time, evolving over generations?

There was a time when people thought they were the children of their god – but only the king and queen.  This concept can be found in the ancient kingdoms of Egypt and Babylonia.

Those were days of polytheism.  With the Hebrew people, however, arose the concept of monotheism.  With monotheism, it was a logical conclusion to say that if there is one God for all, there is also a “universalizing” of the concept of people being the children of their god – not just the king and queen but all people.  All are made in the image of God.

The image of God is traditionally explained as conscience or the ability to reason  – in short, “awareness.”  Awareness of self – that is, of existential ideas like, “Why am I alive?” “What happens when I die ?”

This discovery that we have “awareness” about ourselves that other creatures don’t have needn’t have occurred in an instant.  The idea evolved.  Like Homo sapiens themselves, ideas grew along with physical size.  Only over time did awareness arise.  Thus, believing in both evolution and humans possessing the image of God is no problem.  It’s a matter of accepting that in real life, most things do not happen instantly.  Real life requires time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Giving up the center of the universe”

I have been sharing with friends an amazing story concerning my cancer.  On the  Tuesday before Christmas, I had a PET scan.  A few hours later, I met the oncologist.  He looked glum.  He told me – the news is bad.  The cancer was active, it was spreading, the treatment wasn’t working.

He said, I had one more treatment option – a chemo pill (whose side effects would likely make me very ill).

Realistically, he continued, I should think about “getting my affairs in order.”  I should think about “closure.”  I’d been getting chemo now for three years – but the tumors keep returning.

The worst part of all this was knowing that I had to go over the entire thing with my mother.  I called her when I returned from the clinic.  Tuesday was a somber day.

The next day, the day before Christmas Eve, the oncologist called.  He informed me that there had been information from a previous PET scan in October that hadn’t been sent to him.  The missing information showed that my situation wasn’t dire – in fact, it was an improvement from October to December!  The treatment WAS working.  So – we’re continuing with chemo in the New Year.

Right away, I called my mother – who was in my older brother’s car on their way to celebrate Christmas at his home in Delaware.

I have shared this happy story with enough people that I get responses that bother me.  “It’s a miracle!” being the worst.

I have a problem with miracles.  I understand why people do believe in them.  When they read the Scriptures, they see God intervening from one end of the book to the other, spinning off miracles right and left.  Nothing like getting inundated – and If you’re swallowing everything – disdaining reading the Bible with a critical eye and the use of reason – miracles abound.

But here’s the problem with miracles.  To believe that God intervenes and changes the course of events, one must believe that God has made a CHOICE.  God has chosen to do this.  Which means – in all other cases, God has NOT chosen to intervene.  Toddlers with brain tumors, kids who are burn victims, abusive adults beating up kids…Plenty of worthy cases!  But all we have to do is check out the news every day.  Nobody is jumping in to save.

Jesus is for me the clearest profile of God.  And what stands out in the life of Jesus is – compassion.  To think that God deliberately chooses NOT to intervene in so many heart-breaking situations – visiting the floor of a Children’s Hospital would be sufficient – but does intervene with miracles in other situations – is unworthy of Jesus.  I can’t imagine Jesus WATCHING a child suffer, and deliberately choosing NOT to intervene in a way that people claim God CAN.

That’s one reason I have a problem with people saying my case was a miracle.  The other reason is:  I still have cancer!

What kind of God tinkers with a situation to buy me some more time – but leaves the cancer?  It sounds like a cat toying with a mouse that will eventually be killed.

What all of this shows is:  We remain very self-centered in our religious beliefs.  We believe that God is watching out for every detail of our lives like a hovering parent.   It is known as belief in a “personal God.”  The Almighty watches us in every detail of life, and jumps in to help.

This remains of the ancient, barbaric beliefs of God as being a human figure.  The famed preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick said we think of God as being just like a human – only a “magnified human in heaven.”  We imagine God thinks like us, acts like us…

There is much more emphasis on this anthropomorphic idea of God than in the idea of God as being not a human in character, but spirit.  In this sense, God as Spirit clarifies the role of God in our lives.  God’s “job” is not controlling weather patterns (lest anybody think these Christmas tornadoes were some kind of test); God’s “job” is not diverting bullets or jet liners; God’s job is not acting like Superman.  That’s too human.  Rather, Jesus tells us, God is spirit.  That is, God moves in the world as spirit.  In other words God’s influence in spiritual – in short, relationships.

I believe it’s through relationships that God acts.  People are moved by Jesus (in my belief) but not only by belief in Jesus.  The doctors and nurses who have been caring for me made a decision early in their lives that treating people with cancer is what they wanted to do.  To me, that’s the influence of the Spirit.  They may not recognize it as such.  But something moved them to get into this line of work.  And how these are the doctors and nurses who are working for me as hard as any humans can work.

God’s “job” is building relationships.  God intervenes through relationships.

But it’s difficult for those of us who grew up thinking of God as the “magnified man in heaven” to give up this belief.  It simply does not match reality.  If anybody claims a person was saved by a miracle, I can simply unfurl a newspaper and show countless people whom nobody is saving.

It’s difficult to give up our “central position.” as the focus of attention of this “magnified man in heaven.”

The recent controversy over the Miss Universe contest made me think of how calling the contest “Miss Universe” is likewise a refusal to give up the old biblical notion that we’re the center of the universe.  “Miss Universe”?  They would be mistaken even to call it the “Miss Galaxy” contest.  We’re not even in the center of our galaxy.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer – experiencing the rise of Naziism – realizing people can’t expect God to swoop in and save them – said, believers need to grow up!  We need to live in the real world.  He called it “a world come of age.”  He meant, a world that gives up the factuality of these stories about God intervening with miracles.  The stories are misleading.     The strength of our faith is not reliance upon an outside agent swooping in and fixing things.  The strength of our faith is to know that the presence of God is within us – and within others – and that’s a great resource for stepping onto the stage of life