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Drew's grandfather--a former minister--passed away this weekend. To honor him, here's something he wrote that some folks may find interesting
Posted by Drew at 2010-08-17 9:41:40 AM, edited 2010-08-17 11:47:19 AM (204 comments) | Permalink
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13884 clicks; posted to Main » on 17 Aug 2010 at 12:32 PM (10 years ago) | | share:
On Sunday, my grandfather Samuel Blake Ellis passed away due to complications from Parkisons and Alzheimers at the age of 88.
He wrote the following thoughts on God about 10 years ago. I wanted to pass it on because I thought it was interesting to see the thought process of someone took issue with certain details regarding his religion yet still found a way to stick to the most important points. He was a retired Methodist minister.
Please do not take offense at what I am going to say. In no way do I mean to belittle your beliefs. And please don't don't worry about my "salvation," whatever that may mean to you. My beliefs really serve me well.
I am grateful that over the years I have never been looked down on for asking questions.
"When I was a child I thought like a child...". Children are apt to interpret things literally. No where is this more true than in the realm of religion. All of my playmates were from Roman Catholic families, and we were all aware that there was a difference between Catholics and Protestants.
As a child I felt I knew all about God, but as the years have gone by I find that I agree less and less with the things I've been told about God. Even as a very young person I got away from that kind of thinking, for it didn't fit with some other ideas of God that meant more to me. For example, I was taught, and I still believe, that God is Love, and that God is inextricably related to the welfare of all people. Believing that, I cannot believe that God purposely allows disasters of fire, flood, and earthquake, to say nothing of individual personal pain in the form of physical impairment, bereavement, divorce, assault, automobile accident, etc.
Another idea that I have discarded is that God is all-powerful. If God is a god of love and also all-powerful, God certainly would not cause the difficulties I've just mentioned. If God were all-powerful he would not allow them to happen. So, they must happen in spite of any power that God may have. So, for me, God cannot be both all-powerful and loving.
Take the illustration of a disaster such as an airplane crash that results in some persons dying and others surviving. When I read of parents of a survivor thanking their god for saving their beloved family member I feel like asking them, "What kind of god is this who is willing to save some people, but is unable (or unwilling) to save others?
One thing I am very sure about is that God is neither male nor female, even though I've been using the masculine pronoun for want of one that is adequate. Particularly in the last ten or fifteen years or so of my ministry I became sensitized to the alienation and hurt we males have inflicted upon women and girls by the language we use. And clergy males are no less to blame than lay men.
Once, at the beginning of a meeting of clergy, we were asked to introduce ourselves by name, and then tell what were the best or the worst things that had been part of our lives in our recent past. With a gesture that included all the people in the group, a man spoke of the love and concern he had felt recently from "all my brothers in the ministry" during his recent illness. A young female minister two seats away from him who had sent him a note of encouragement, introduced herself in turn and noted that the worst thing that had happened to her was learning just now that she was a brother of the male minister. It was said gently, and with a touch of humor, but it made very clear how thoughtless we men sometimes are.
At this point I can't resist telling you the story about a rocket that had been sent into space. It fell to earth one Sunday morning just outside a church where a service was in progress. The landing made such a noise that the congregation and minister rushed out to find the rocket stuck firmly in the ground, and there, wonder of wonders, was an angel sitting on the nose cone. When the hubbub had died down, the minister, as spokesperson, posed a question directly to the angel.
Minister: Blessed Angel, we welcome you to Earth. We are honored by your presence. We pray that you would be so kind as to answer a question that you, as a citizen of Heaven, are eminently qualified to clarify.
Angel: I am happy to be with you, and I shall try to answer your question.
Minister: We would like to know, What is God like?
Angel: (after several moments in deep thought) Well, first of all, she's black...!
And that reminds me of what a parishioner said to me when he learned that I was about to retire. Said he in a derogatory manner, "I suppose the bishop will appoint a woman to be our pastor." And, trying to answer in a light manner, I responded, "Yes, and she will probably be black." What made it interesting was that the bishop did indeed appoint a woman, and she was indeed very black.
At my final service of worship before her arrival I did something to symbolize my desire that she be welcomed warmly. I hoped also that what I did would indicate clearly that I would no longer be pastor to this congregation. At the close of the service, using appropriate words, I took off my black clerical robe and placed it upon the altar as an indication that the person who was coming would take up the robe, and with it, the ministering of the congregation that had been my responsibility until then.
PHYSICS AND THE BIBLE
The Dancing Wu Li Masters by Gary Zukav (1979, Morrill Quill Paperbacks) is a physics book dealing with subatomic physics written for the lay person, which has opened an exciting new view of creation for me and has forced me to rethink my place as one human being in the universe as well as my old ideas about god.
Writings by Carl Sagan
One of the most important ideas that has changed my religious outlook is my discovery that pure chance appears to be what decides things in the sub-atomic physical world. Of course this runs counter to the idea that God purposely directs every single thing that happens.
For me, however, it provides a satisfactory answer to the old problem of evil. That subject has puzzled and bedeviled people for centuries, and perhaps even farther back in prehistory before there were any formal theologians. There has always been a feeling on the part of humans that if they were good, however that was defined, they would be rewarded, and that if they were bad they would be punished.
In our own lives we know that this is not the way it works. Oh, we can try to rationalize by saying that in some mysterious manner it must be for the best that the mother of three little children was killed in an automobile accident. God must have had a good reason for willing, or at least allowing, that sort of thing to happen.
I don't buy that. Rabbi Kushner, in his book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, does an excellent job of expressing how impossible it would be to respect that kind of god. Also, my own personal experience tells me quite convincingly that good people do not always receive a blessing, and bad people do not always get their just desserts.
I suppose that the ideas of heaven and hell came into being in order to explain that it would only be fair that each person get what he or she deserves If that doesn't happen while the person is alive it seems only right that it should happen in some other life beyond death. That would mean that the good people in this life would go to heaven and bad people would go to hell. That helps many people to feel better when humans don't get what they deserve-either eternal peace or eternal damnation-before they die.
I believe that fairness (justice) is not life's major operating principle. After all, what did I ever do to deserve being born into a loving family where I always had the necessities of life? What terrible thing did a child starving in Ethiopia do to deserve suffering and starvation? How is it that one child is born to an alcoholic mother who doesn't want it, and another child is born to parents who will love and nurture it to responsible adulthood?
Heaven and hell solve the problem for many people, but it doesn't for me. The best explanation I have is that such eventualities come about by chance. Which simply means that all babies are born without being consulted or having any choice in the matter.
The question, "Why me?", asked when cancer strikes, is not taken seriously by those who answer in a supercilious manner with the question, "Why not you?". I love that Old Testament character, Job, who was not patient at all (although crossword puzzles sometimes define him as the epitome of patience) with his friends who kept trying to convince him that he must have done something terribly sinful to have deserved the sorrow and pain that they thought God visited upon him. Job maintained before them and before his God that he was not guilty of anything that merited his suffering.
Many a human being has felt as Job did, and the argument that God, by inflicting pain and suffering, is merely meting out just punishment for unknown sin, is certainly not worthy of a good god. The god Job's friends believed in is not my god.
In the realm of nature, think of the fact that only one of millions of sperm cells succeeds in fertilizing an ovum, and all the rest fail. Why that particular one? Or, what about the fact that an average of only two out of some 700,000 eggs laid by a Pacific salmon ever reach maturity? Why those particular two and not some other two? Given the relevant facts, we can determine what the probabilities are for survival, but we can not say just which specific eggs will produce the survivors. We can predict that a certain number of lives will be lost in automobile accidents for every ten million miles driven, but we cannot be specific and tell by name who the victims will be.
Both fortuitous and hurtful happenings seem to be distributed by chance, and that would be very discouraging if it were not for some other important factors. In other words, if chance were the only operating power we might as well forget about justice, righteousness, and love. We could live any old way we wanted to, because nothing we could do would make a difference in the outcome. The fact is, however, that how we deal with good fortune and bad fortune does make a big difference.
I firmly believe that there is a manner of living which is exceedingly valuable, and I call that way of life Christianity. I hasten to say that I don't believe in everything that has been called Christianity. But, I do wholeheartedly believe in the kind of Christianity that is depicted in the gospels of the New Testament as they reveal the spirit of Jesus. And it is the spirit that is important to me. There are also Old Testament instances that give evidence of that spirit. I firmly believe that the spirit of goodness is not restricted to persons who call themselves Christians. Neither does it belong to any time period in history.
I know it's hard to talk about God as spirit, for spirit is something ethereal, out of reach of the five senses, and yet it's something that we human beings give life to. The idea of God as a superhuman being who is somewhat like us is very pervasive, but I don't believe that there is such a "being" beyond the lives of humans.
My God is goodness itself, a quality of spirit. The spirit I think of as my God, the essence of Goodness, lives where-and at those moments when-a human being gives life to the spirit of love. Love is only an idea until it is expressed in action by a human being; then it becomes a reality!
I don't believe in a literal heaven up in the sky or in a hell that is somewhere in the fiery bowels of the earth. I don't believe in a literal, physical, resurrection of Jesus or in a virgin birth. Some of the parishioners whom I served over the years would be distressed by those statements. I hope that they don't disturb you, but if they do, remember that you don't have to believe as I do. Every person has a right-and a duty-to hold fast his or her own beliefs. You have a right to yours whatever they may be. However, please remember that it's a sign of growth to be willing to give up even long-held beliefs in favor of new ones that you find to be more meaningful.
Religious beliefs are not simply to be mouthed; they should guide and direct personal day-to-day living. Saying we believe something, simply because we have been told by some authority that we ought to believe it, is not good enough. In our childhood we naturally take on beliefs that our parents hold. We hang on to them until our own experience gives us good reason to change them. But, to hold onto beliefs that were passed down to us when we were children if they no longer make sense is to be less than honest with ourselves.
I've heard a story, which may or may not be true, about a young wife who always cut a slice off a roast before she put it in the roasting pan. One day her husband asked why she did that. Her answer was that her mother always did it, and so it must be the right way to prepare a roast, but she agreed to ask her mother about it. When she did, her mother answered that she always cut a slice off the roast because she didn't have a roasting pan big enough for the whole thing.
There's nothing wrong with questioning custom, and there's nothing wrong with questioning our religious beliefs either. It's easy enough to question the beliefs of others, but I'm talking about our own beliefs. Those that can't stand up under our own questioning ought to be discarded, don't you think? I think that a reason some people don't have anything to do with organized religion is that they have questioned certain religious practices and beliefs and have found them wanting. The sad part is that these folks don't investigate anything else.
I'll never forget a visit I made to a man who, I was warned by well-meaning parishioners, was an atheist. In the course of our conversation he enumerated a number of things that he didn't believe. He was somewhat taken aback when I told him that I didn't believe those things either.
There's a lot of superstition in religion, but there is also much that can enrich the lives of human beings. As a result of learning about the attitude and teachings of Jesus through reading about them, and through seeing them work in the lives of others, and experiencing how they have worked in my own life when I have had the courage to practice them, I have come to embrace the following credo.
My understanding of the message of Jesus is that his God wants people to enjoy this life that they have been launched into without their consent. Jesus demonstrated how best to find that joy. Jesus likened his God to a father who loves his children. (He might have chosen a mother image, but in his day it was the father who was the person who was responsible for the family.) To have a father who loved his children in spite of their waywardness was a powerful picture illustrating the spirit he considered to be the greatest Good.
I don't see the God of Jesus as being especially interested in having people bow down before him, or having people do certain acts of kindness and mercy for his benefit. The emphasis of Jesus was not on duty to God, but rather on trying to help people discover how to live happy, valuable, satisfying, good (godly) lives-lives lived in a spirit of goodwill. Apparently Jesus felt that his God would be happy if people lived in such a way that they would be happy. That makes sense to me. After all, isn't it good when we and those we love are happy persons? Don't good parents want their children to be happy persons?.
I believe that I ought to respect all people and treat them with the kind of non-judgmental understanding that I would want to receive from them.
I believe that being good is its own reward. It is futile to "do good" for the purpose of getting a reward. Doing good, and dwelling on that goodness, is the kind of pride that breeds dissatisfaction and resentment when we don't get the recognition and praise from others that we think our moral superiority deserves. And, if I should get praise for being (or doing) good, I would probably begin to believe that I am superior to others. But, doing good and trying to be a good person simply because it is a satisfying way for me to live eliminates any need for the praise of others and allows me to move on to the next adventure with a light and happy heart.
I believe that the only person I can change is myself. If others make changes, good or bad, in their lives because they have known me, it is because they choose to do so. I have no power to coerce them into changing. Nor do I want such power, because that would make them my slaves and take away from them any joy they might find in directing their own lives.
Instead of trying to list all of the rest of the beliefs that have been meaningful to me and have helped me to have a wonderful, satisfying life, let me simply commend to you the teachings of Jesus.
For me, Jesus was not God, nor even a god (small g) but simply a man, a human being, who understood quite clearly the most satisfying way to live his human life. And, don't tell me that makes Jesus "just an ordinary human being." Just the opposite; it means that he was an extraordinary human being. His life was lived in a spirit that defines what goodness (Godliness, if you'd rather say it that way) really is.
I also want to say something about the Church. The Church is certainly imperfect. I find that there are many things in church dogma that I cannot abide. Superstition and belief in magic are still rampant. There are some people who are hard to get along with. There are, however, many church people who are the salt of the earth. And, the Church is the only institution I know which encourages and recommends to all that we search for and practice the highest qualities of human life that we can find. I owe a great deal to the Church. It has given me a wonderful opportunity to practice, in a safe setting, the kind of Christianity I have tried to live outside the Church where there's little safety.
So, to sum up, I don't know much about what or who your God is, but I have enjoyed life as a part of the Church, and have found a great deal of satisfaction in trying to live life in a spirit of goodwill. I like to think I'm getting a little better at it as time goes on.
Oh, but "What about the creation of the universe?", you ask. "Who did that?" I knew you'd be asking that, because I've asked it of myself many times. My answer at the present time is that I don't know, and it doesn't worry me one bit.
For all I know, there may not have been any beginning at all. Maybe the universe is eternal with no beginning and no ending. Our minds, as amazing and wonderful as they are, seem incapable of imagining anything that has no beginning and no ending, but that may say more about our limitations than about the reality of the universe.
So far, nobody has discovered any boundaries to the universe. New telescopes help scientists to discover galaxies and "black holes" at greater and greater distances from us. Of course, they may not even be in existence now, because of the length of time it has taken their light to reach us.
I know about the Big Bang theory, but for me that doesn't explain how the universe was created. There must have been something that BANGED! I have to admit that my mind can't fathom nothing, Anyway, what difference does it make in the way we live with other people and with our environment here on earth today?
Astronomy and astrophysics are fascinating subjects. I'd like to know more about them. And I think it's great that there are people who probe the mysteries of space and time. I respect them. But when I read about astrophysics and, at the other end of the spectrum, the world of subatomic particles, I find myself coming back to the idea that there might be no beginning or ending to what we call the universe.
But, you say, "The Bible says that 'In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,' doesn't it?" Sure it does, and if you have to have a beginning, that may be the best way of saying it. It simply means that the person who first expressed that idea of God couldn't understand how creation could have come about. The humans he knew couldn't have created it, so he (perhaps she?) decided that a superhuman, supernatural power must have done it somehow for some unknown reason. Maybe the creator was lonely so he made people; maybe he liked color and therefore made sunsets and flowers; maybe he liked to travel so he stretched out the universe so that there would be more room. Maybe! But I see that kind of reasoning as strengthening my belief that we humans create our gods according to our own definitions of goodness.
That leads me to say a few things about the Bible. I encourage you to read the Bible as if you had never before heard of it. Read it, and pay attention to what is written there. Try to remember you're reading it as if you had never heard anything about this book. That's hard, because you have heard about it; you have heard some people say that it must be believed as the literal Word of God, and when you read that the sun stood still you ought to believe that the sun actually stopped at some point between its rising and its setting. And when you read of an axe floating in water you should believe it because it's in the Bible. But, try to read it as if you never heard that you ought to believe such things.
Notice that there are a couple of biblical stories about the beginnings of things, and that the stories don't agree. You'll find these stories in the first two chapters of the first book in the Bible. Many times in history we humans have simply attributed to a superhuman being those things that we couldn't explain.
You will find that in one place the Bible record says "They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks", and in another place it says precisely the opposite. There will be a lot of other things that you'll read in the Bible that don't agree with each other or with scientific knowledge discovered since the writing of the Bible by humans of a bygone age. So, what are you going to do with this book of books? I suggest that you use the same methods of criticism that you'd use with any other book.
Human beings wrote what is in the Bible, and other human beings, men in council meetings, (we assume all of them were males) chose to include certain writings instead of numerous other writings that were also available. And human beings were just as fallible in making choices then as we are today.
It would be laughable, were it not so sad, that there are people who try to make Bible texts fit their pre-conceived idea that everything in the Bible is historically factual. Picture all the animal life on earth going two-by two into a big boat (the ark) to be saved from a world-wide flood that destroyed everything else. Of course no boat could be big enough to hold all that life for more than forty days and forty nights along with all the food necessary to keep them alive.
Probably most of the people who say we should believe the story as literal history don't even know that in the sixth and seventh chapters of Genesis Noah is told to take two of every kind of animal at one point while at another point there are to be seven pairs of "clean" animals and birds in the ark along with only one pair of each animal that was not considered "clean".
Please understand that I am not saying that the Bible is worthless; I am simply saying that we ought to use our intelligence and understanding of the various forms of literature we find in the Bible.
One of the reasons that I went into the ministry was because I felt that there had to be an approach to the Bible that was different from what my minster believed. He said in a sermon in my hearing that God had given us television so that we could watch the battle of Armageddon, which he interpreted as marking the end of the world. I mentioned earlier how this same minister warned teen-agers that they should never consider the idea of evolution; if they did they would not be welcome in his church.
The better business bureau tells us that if a deal looks too good to be true, it probably is; beware of it. I would say that if something you read in the Bible is too fantastic to be believed literally, it is probably not literal fact. You may read some of the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament that seem to be too good to be true, or too fantastic to be literally so or impossible to live in this life. You may want to test them. I'm talking about such teachings as the Golden Rule and the teachings in what has been called "The Sermon on the Mount." Go ahead; check them out; put them into action; test them. It will be well worth your while.
I don't want to give the impression that I agree with him 100%. However I like the overall message. Hope you find it useful.
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