Monday, September 21, 2009

The Jesus Question...Why Jesus?

"WHY (believe in) JESUS?"

Why Jesus?
Isn't claiming that Jesus is unique intolerant
What about other religions, other "ways to God?"
How can someone claim that one way is better than others?

All religions make some unique, distinct truth claims that could be labeled intolerant.  Judaism, Islam, Christianity, and other religions have doctrines (truth claims) that distinguish them from one another. And, in reality, persons who are secular/non-religious, agnostic or athiest also make distinctive truth claims which can't be reconciled with what others believe, and are therefore, by the same definition, intolerant.

Everyone has some sort of belief system which does two things:

(1) their belief system makes truth claims which cannot be reconciled with other faith's truth claims, and

(2) at the foundation, every belief system is based on faith, because all of its truth claims cannot be proven by scientific observation, reason or logic.  This is as true of the athiest's beliefs as it is of the Christian's beliefs...both accept some tenets of their belief system by faith, not scientific evidence.

So why be Christian instead of agnostic, or Muslim, or Wiccan? Is it fair to say Christianity is superior to any of these other faiths/belief systems/worldviews?

I believe the answer to that question is a resounding "yes!" - or I would not and could not be a Christian minister (or even a Christian, period). I could not and would not ask others to be part of the Christian faith if I didn't believe it accurately spoke about life, God, truth, and salvation.

Last Sunday (September 20), I asked the question, "Why believe in Jesus?"  Jesus has been a polarizing figure in history for 2,000 years.  He has received the devotion and worship of millions (likely over a billion people on earth today are Christians), but he is only seen as a great teacher or religious leader by many others, and even as a myth by many, who doubt he ever lived.

There is plenty of evidence that Jesus was a real, historical person.  A number of first century A.D. and later texts - both Christian and non-Christian historical texts - speak of Jesus as a 1st century Jew who lived in Palestine. Josephus is one such historian from the 1st century who mentions Jesus several times, acknowledging him as a religious leader who had many followers.

The Christian movement from the first century on is evidence for Jesus as well; without the historical figure of Jesus (whom his followers believed not only suffered and died on a Roman cross, but was also raised from the dead with a recognizable body), why would these people suffer for their beliefs, and in many cases even suffer death because they would not recant their faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah?

The answer is: their belief in Jesus resurrection - and consequently their own resurrection after death - was so strong a conviction that they were willing to remain faithful to his teachings, and even to suffer loss of reputation, health and life itself. 

Another reason I believe Jesus is, in his own words, "the way, the truth, and the life," is because he himself made these claims about himself, and he never backed away from them. No other teacher or leader of another religion has claimed to be a savior. Many have claimed to be - and have been lauded as - great teachers, but Jesus claimed to be more. He claimed to be sent from God and he claimed to be the Savior of the world. 

Other religious leaders have pointed to the divine.
Jesus alone has claimed to BE divine.

He could not make that kind of a claim without stirring up some questions and some doubts from people.  Jesus definitely stirred people up - and he still does today!  The Pharisees and other Jewish religious leaders of his own day understood exactly what Jesus was claiming for himself, and they plotted to destroy him for his claims. They were convinced that Jesus' claims about himself were blasphemy against their Jewish faith, Torah and traditions.

But many others believed Jesus, including a few of the religious leaders, like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. Why? Because Jesus' teachings resonated in their hearts and minds as truth, but also because he did miraculous things ("signs") which were evidence that he was no mere man; he exhibited power over nature, sickness and even death (Lazarus' death, and later his own death) which created belief in many persons. 

One of the great minds of the 20th century, C.S. Lewis, wrote extensively about the evidence for Jesus as the Son of God and the savior of the world in a number of books, but particularly in Mere Christianity.  Even though baptized as an infant, Lewis became an agnostic in his youth, then became a brilliant professor of medieval literature at Oxford University in England. 

As Lewis wrestled more and more with the claims of Christianity, he finally concluded that the evidence was overwhelming: he became a Christian (around the age of 30), joined the Church of England, and spent the rest of his life defending the faith and writing marvelous books to help others deepen their faith in Christ (including the Chronicles of Narnia series, The Screwtape Letters, and The Space Trilogy).

One often quoted passage from Mere Christianity succinctly makes the argument for Jesus as savior of the world:

       I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say.

       A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher.

       He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. ... Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.

Lewis's words resonate with my mind and with my soul; perhaps they do with yours as well. Many others have written powerful arguments for the Christian faith (these arguments are called 'apologies,' and arguing for the faith is called 'apologetics'). One recent author who comes to mind is Lee Strobel, an agnostic journalist who examined the claims of Christ, eventually became a believer, and wrote the excellent The Case for Christ: A Journalist's Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus. This book has helped many persons examine the claims of Christianity and the struggles and questions that are often raised about faith in Jesus Christ.

I look forward to hearing from you if you have unanswered questions about why we should accept Jesus as the savior of the world.  And remember, no question is too silly or insignificant to ask if you are honestly struggling with it! So please ask, and let's keep the conversation going, and

Stay connected...

Pastor Mike

Friday, September 18, 2009


That stand for "gear acquisition syndrome," or, more specifically (in my case), "guitar acquisition syndrome."

Occasionally someone will ask me, "How many guitars do you have?" I think this is because I play for worship, and people see a revolving door of instruments from week to week. And I don't mind that question, really.

Unless Kathy Jo is standing there.

Then she always repeats the question, only with more urgency, "Yes, how many guitars DO YOU have?" It's no longer a casual question, it's an interrogation!

Now, to be fair, she has to live with my, uh, G.A.S. illness, so I don't blame her for asking...with that tone. many guitars do I have? A few. Um okay, a few more than that. More than I need. Probably even a few more than that. Let me explain (here comes my twisted rationale!):

I got into building guitars because I play left-handed. Playing guitar left-handed (or "backwards") can be a curse when you're looking for a good instrument, or an instrument with particular options, beccause most guitar manufacturers don't offer much for us lefties: a few beginner instruments, and a couple generic ones from their better lines - IF we're lucky.

So, in around 1995, I decided I wanted something specific in an electric guitar, and of course, it just didn't exist in left-handed configuration. So I decided to try building my own. Not from scratch (I didn't have the tools necessary, and also didn't have the skills from some of the intricate work, like fretting a neck), but from premanufactured parts.

So more than a few of my guitars are "guitar projects." They're guitars that I've built out of parts: necks bodies, pickups, tuners, etc. Over the past 15 years or so, this has become as much of a hobby and interest to me as playing guitar has been for over twice that long (started playing when I was 13, I'm 51 now...).

And the guitars I build are always changing, morphing, getting modded ... changing pickups, or swapping necks on a couple guitars, just to try something different. It's almost as much fun to have a screwdriver in my grip as a guitar pick! Change a neck, and presto! A NEW guitar! (So sometimes what you see on Sunday morning is not something new, but version III or IV of an instrument...)

And there's always another idea for a new build on the every once in a while another 'project' is born!

Most of the parts I use come from a company in Puyallup, Washington; Warmoth Guitar Parts. They make excellent necks and bodies, and most everything is available for lefties like me. In the photo at the begining of this post are my current Warmoth guitars.

Another company that offers parts and kits as well as their own line of guitars is Carvin Corporation, in San Diego, California. They also get my business because they are very lefty-friendly, and the owners of the company are Christians. In every catalog, they have this quote:

"Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth;
make a loud noise and rejoice and sing praise!
Sing to the Lord with the harp and the voice of the psalm."
--Psalm 98:4-5

Another interesting thing about Carvin's founder, Lowell Kiesel (d. 12-29-2009), is that he grew up on a farm near Gothenburg, Nebraska! Small world!

As I said, Carvin offers both kits and completed instruments, and I have some of each (I'll let you try to figure out which is which!):

Guitar acquisition syndrome.

Not so much a disease as a passion. Because every guitar is an experiment...part of the quest for
"that" sound or look, or ease of playing.

And it's the opportunity to "make music" - being a part of that creative process that is one of God's gifts to us - from the very beginning, starting with some wood, wire and a few tools.

Stay connected...

Pastor Mike

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

What I Learned in Japan

In July I traveled to Japan with my youngest daughter, Jill, to see her sister, my oldest daughter, Annie. (Here we are in Hiroshima, at the Peace Memorial Park; me, Annie & Jill.)I haven't traveled overseas since I was a 'military brat' and lived outside Madrid, Spain for four years (1970-74).

So it was interesting to visit another culture again, and it was much more interesting, even fruitful, to travel around with our daughter, Annie, who has lived there for a year (she is teaching English in three elementary schools). We definitely got a much better 'taste' of the culture because Annie was our tour guide!
(Thank you, Annie, for being such a wonderful host! You've learned so much and you've already made a lot of progress with the Japanese language!)

Visiting another culture always has some 'shock value' if our eyes are open, and I'm going to share a few rambling observations about differences between Japan's culture and ours.

First of all, Japan is both very 'eastern / traditional' and very 'western / modern.' They have managed to synthesize their culture and values with modern technology fairly successfully...for the most part; I'll say a little more about that later.

Second, because Japan is a very densely populated nation - 130 million people sharing a thin land mass about the length of our east coast - they don't waste real estate the way we do - trying to grow nice green yards of grass that only create unnecessary labor and expense, but nothing of any real value (okay, except for some unquantifiable amount of 'property value').

No, the Japanese people use the land around their homes to plant gardens...rice (if they have enough flat land for it), grapes, vegetables, fruits (grapes and peaches are abundant where Annie lives); anyone who lives outside of the large cities and has a little patch of yard is a farmer of sorts.

Also, because Japan is densely populated, and people are literally almost on top of each other, they have to get along with each other. People everywhere were polite, and they are careful not to make waves or do things that would disturb those around them...for this reason alone, I'm convinced the Japanese invented headphones! People everywhere have their Ipods - with headphones - on; I didn't see any boom boxes or hear loud, obnoxious music in public.

On the bus from Tokyo to Hiroshima (which we rode all night!) after our first stop, around 10:30 p.m., it was lights out: curtains closed, no talking, and everyone slept. Again, a few had on their Ipod/headset, but no one seemed to be trying to read with a book light on or anything; that would not be polite.

Fourth, looking around at the size of the typical Japanese person, I realized - I am big. Not just tall; I saw some Japanese men taller than, I mean BIG. Heavy. Gravitationally challenged. A chub. Mister Blimp. Godzilla without the teeth, scales and tail. I finally got used to this and stopped thinking about it - until I arrived at the airport in Tokyo (Narita) for my flight home, when I started seeing other Americans again. Big Americans, heavy get the idea. It was embarrassing...

The Japanese diet is very different from ours, as is their lifestyle. They do a LOT of walking and bike riding, even though there are an abundance of cars in Japan (nice cars, too). They climb lots of stairs (and escalators - many Japanese don't 'ride' escalators, they walk up and down escalators; you stay to the left so they can pass you on the right) on their way to the trains and subways. They climb stairs even to get to McDonalds...everything in Japan is built 'up' so even a McDonalds has three floors; you order on one floor and go upstairs to level two or three to sit down and eat.

So, yes of course, they've been invaded by McDonald's and other western fare (we also ate at Subway and even Shakey's Pizza while we were there!), but their traditional diet consists of lots of rice - also fruits, vegetables, fish, pork, soy products (tofu and sweet bean spreads) and some breads and pastries (the Japanese have their own way of doing pizza - even at Shakey's!).

And our diet? Our American diet consists of way too much soybean and soybean/products and corn/corn products, including high fructose corn syrup and lots of foods fried in corn oil (not to mention all our corn-fed beef, chicken and pork!). And way too few fruits and vegetables. I'll blog about this more later, but I'll just mention one informative and eye-opening book about our diet, by Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto (Pengiun Press, 2008). Ironically, I happened to take this book with me to Japan, and was convicted of the need for a drastic overhaul of my eating habits, which I'm working on. But I'm still big...way too big...

Fifth (I think we're on fifth!), I discovered how jaded I am in my view of other human beings, particularly other races and nationalities. When we first started walking the streets and riding the subways of Tokyo, all the Japanese people looked alike to me...just a massive blur of people with a darker complexion than mine, brown eyes and black hair.

But after about two days, I noticed something. Like Paul the apostle after his road to Damascus experience of blindness - it was as though scales fell off my eyes, and I saw the amazing richness and variety of the Japanese people! Everyone different, every one an individual, every person exhibiting their own mannerisms and habits and personality - extroverts, introverts, some smiling, some serious, everything, everyone.

I don't know how to say anything more about this without sounding like a shallow American tourist, but that's what I was. God helped me to see the uniqueness and God-image (imago dei) in every Japanese person, and they are truly a beautiful people.

After 10 days in Japan, I understand the love my daughter Annie has for these people and their nation and culture, and the deep desire and calling she feels to serve Christ there and reach out to them with the gospel.
I need to add that it was a humbling experience, being reminded that we Americans (we Yanks) can learn so much from others, and the Japanese people have certainly been good stewards of their natural resources and their people resources in growing an amazing economy that has given the world many wonderful new technologies, while reminding us that some 'old ways' are worth keeping and sustaining.


Yes, they are an amazing people who have assimilated much of our western technology and values while maintaining their rich, traditional culture...for the most part. But there is also darkness among these beautiful people: they do not have the hope of Christ. Many of them struggle in a very competitive society; competitive schools, universities, and professions. Japan has a very high suicide rate; and it has gone even higher in the past few years with their bad economy (about a decade ahead of our recent downturn).

For whatever reason, the Japanese people have been very resistant to the gospel. The most recent statistic I've read is that about 9% of the Japanese people are Christians - and this is actually much higher than I thought ( I remember it being 2-4% Christian), so the gospel is gaining ground!

Join me in praying for them to be able to hear and receive the gospel message. Pray for persons like Annie, and those in her church (and other churches) that are reaching out to the Japanese people with the love of Christ. They are hungry for this love in a culture that does not outwardly demonstrate love and acceptance, even though they are certainly polite and gracious. May God's grace make them truly gracious, and change the hearts of these amazing people!

Stay connected...

Pastor Mike

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

What is God's Name?

After last Sunday's sermon, "WHY (the idea of) GOD?" someone texted me the following excellent question:
"Does it matter what we call God? If we believe in a power greater than ourselves that defines good and evil must we call him God?"

Great question! I simply could not do this question justice in a minute or two at the end of my sermon.

Does it matter what we call God? Does "God" have a proper name? First, I would make this observation: If there is a God, then God must have certain attributes, certain qualities or we would say God has an identity and personality, extending from "personhood" (in a divine or otherworldly sense, if you will, but beyond human personhood).

What we can know about God must be deduced from looking at the world he has made (please excuse my use of the male gender for God in these posts, it's simply easier than switching back and forth or constantly avoiding the use of pronouns - it becomes awkward to always write "God" rather than he, him, his, etc. I am not making the assumption that God is male versus female; that's a theological discussion for a different post!).

God has made an intelligent, orderly, beautiful, useful world in which we live, and yet we could also say that God has made some things we don't fully appreciate, like wasps, sharks, flys, germs, tornadoes, etc. But even though we may not appreciate them, through observatioin we learn that many of them have a place in the world, contributing somehow to the balance and rhythm of nature.

From looking at this evidence, we would deduce that God is intelligent, rational, caring (he has provided food and many other resources for our use), and orderly. None of this tells us God's name, but it tells us a great deal about God.

But does this God have a proper name? If God does have a proper name, then he would have to reveal it to us somehow...because all of this evidence around us still does not tell us a proper name for God. It's not written in the heavens, it's not carved into a tree...God will have to reveal his name to us if we are to know what to call him.
Most of the world's religions claim to reveal who God is, and many have particular names for God. As Christians we don't have a particular name for God, although in the Old Testament, which is part of our scriptures, God revealed himself to Moses as, "I Am that I Am." One of the Hebrew names for God, the holy, unspoken name of God, consists of the consonants, "YHWH," which scholars pronounce, "Yahweh."

Which leads into the topic for next Sunday's message, "WHY (believe in) JESUS?" Because of the teachings of Jesus, I believe God can be known to us. Speaking about God, Jesus called God "Father." And about God the Father, Jesus said, "If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him" (John 14:7).

Jesus then responds to a question by one of his disciples, Philip, by explaining that he (Jesus) is a reflection of who God is: "Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me..." (Jn. 14: 11). Often in his teachings, Jesus made the claim that he was from God, and that his purpose was to reveal God to us.

So we have to make a decision based on the information in the Bible; the teachings of Jesus, the other teachings in the Bible:

Does Jesus actually and accurately reveal God to us? Can God be known through Jesus? What evidence do we have to make this claim, or to believe this?

And that is what I will be talking about this Sunday, September 20!

Stay connected...

Pastor Mike

WHY (the idea of) GOD

Last Sunday I began a new sermon series, "Answering the 'Why' Questions."

They're probably not the FIRST 'why' questions you and I would ask, but they ARE the 'why' questions that are ultimately behind most of our other questions about what's happening in our every day lives.

In other words, if you keep asking 'why' after every answer to your initial questions (like a child does - always when you seem to have the least mental energy to explain!), you eventually end up here, at these "first order" questions.

So...question #1 is: "WHY (the idea of) GOD?" Why even "believe in" God? As I said Sunday, there are a number of compelling CLUES that God is there, I'll briefly summarize a few here:

1. More and more scientists subscribe to "The Big Bang" theory of the creation of the universe, and most of them acknowledge that there had to be a Creator - a Thoughtful Initiator of the actual beginning, the "big bang". Among many contemporary scientists who agree that there must be a creator are theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking and geneticist Francis Collins, who has mapped out our human DNA with the Human Genome Project.

2. We live in a world that is welcoming to life as we know it. For human, animal and plant life as we know it to exist, the fundamental regularities and constants of physics—the speed of light, the gravitational constant, and many other physical, chemical and biological factors—all must have values that together fall into an extremely and almost impossibly narrow range.

The probability of this perfect set of factors happening by chance is so tiny as to be statistically negligible. Add to this our growing understanding of the complexity of our world - everything from the earth's balanced eco-system to our own human bodies, and the evidence of intelligent design keeps mounting.

3. Along with complexity clue mentioned above, is the consistency clue: when I boil eggs this morning, they will boil at the same temperature they did matter what day of the week it is, if I put my hand on the stove right after I boil the eggs, I will get burned. Scientific forces operate in a consistent, measurable, knowable way. Therefore life can be lived by an understood pattern. This is a clue that some intelligent force is at work in the universe; all is not chaos.

4. There are many other clues that have been given, but I'll end with this one: we have inner longings, unfulfilled desires, that nothing in this world seems to be able to fulfill - we long for knowledge of who we are and where we came from and why we are here. We have other longings, and those longings can be fulfilled: we get hungry, there is food to take care of that, we get tired, so we sleep. We desire other things, like sex, intimacy with others, friendship - all of these desires can be fulfilled.

And yet, even when these desires are ALL met, we are left wanting something more - why? Why would we have a desire for something more if that "something" where not real, did not exist, or could not be attained? This is another important clue that there is a God, a Creator with whom we desire connection, and from whom we seek purpose and fulfillment.

We have come to label this part of life or existence "spiritual." It is difficult to describe, but we know it is "there," we sense it, we wonder about it, yes, we even desire it.

I believe God created us with that desire...something that could not be fulfilled by sex, food or other earthly that our lives here would be restless, and so that we might discover the Grand Design for which we were created.

Only then can we be "fulfilled" in the deepest sense of what that means.

I'll try to answer a few questions I've received in my next blog here, probably tomorrow. For now, I want to remind you that our topic for next Sunday, September 20, is "WHY (believe in) JESUS?." I look forward to seeing you then!

I mentioned several books last Sunday that you might find helpful related to the topic of "WHY (the idea of) GOD?" Here is the information for these, and I'll try to add some relevant books to each week's topic.

The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism by Timothy Keller (2008, Riverhead Books/The Penguin Group)

The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief by Dr. Francis S. Collins (2006, Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster)

Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis (1952, current edition, 2001, Harper/San Francisco)

Love God With All Your Mind: The Role of Reason in the Life of the Soul by J.P. Moreland (1997, NavPress, The Navigators)

Stay connected...

Pastor Mike