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Topic: Faith Matters

From Peace on Earth to an Election Based on Violence
12/23/2016 7:41:17 PM

During this Christmas season it is worth thinking about the message of peace and goodwill at the center of our celebrations. It is rather strange to honor the birth of a man who spoke in very different ways than the other leaders at the time and who eventually ended up being killed by a government worried about what he was saying about love of others.

And he himself would not use violence against others to protect himself. The church which continues to follow this non-violent man has been around now for over two thousand years, whereas countless governments based on violence have come and gone. Think about it.

And then look at today's politics. A candidate for president has just been elected based on his systemic use of lies, abusive talk, and violent rhetoric against others.

Because Donald Trump did this, and the press repeated his violent talk over and over again in headlines on TV and newspapers, I believe he did not win fair and square and so cannot be a legitimate president. He went way too far beyond normal, civil political discourse. I have written something about this in a new article on this website.
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Peace Lutheran in Burns, Oregon, Requests Prayers
1/20/2016 4:40:45 PM

Matt Littau is pastor at Peace Lutheran / St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Burns, Oregon, near the site of the armed “militia” takeover of a wildlife refuge. He is asking for prayers for his congregation and the people living in the area.
"We have a rather tense situation in Burns with a bunch of militia from out of state and some who are local. They have taken over a building on the local wildlife reserve and are clearly seeking a confrontation with the federal government.

They are calling for another American revolution. Our schools are shut down and life has been disrupted for everyone. We are watching strangers who are coming to church, which normally we do not do. One militiaman came to Church of the Living Waters and got up and left when I said that guns are for hunting with and should never be used on human beings.

Please pray for us and light a candle for peace."
Please remember our brothers and sisters in Christ as they deal with these anxious times.

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Blowing Up Jonah: The Political Use of Religious Symbols
8/12/2014 3:27:38 PM

Rabbi Benjamin Blech, a Talmud professor at Yeshiva University in New York, has reason to talk about Jonah in an article in the Wall Street Journal the other day:
The ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh, once the most powerful capital of the ancient world, has special importance for anyone familiar with the Bible. It was the setting for the book of Jonah, a place to which God sent the prophet to warn its inhabitants of impending destruction unless they repented of their evil ways.
Nineveh is now associated with the city of Mosul in Iraq which the group now known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has taken over. Isis decided to blow up a site dedicated to Jonah. Here is a video of the event.

I think it is extremely important for us in this country to realize that it was George W. Bush who decided (he liked to call himself the decider) to wage war in Iraq. He and those who supported him believed it was somehow possible to fight a war overseas on other people's land, and then walk away as if democratic institutions grow up and flower all by themselves. Talk about utopian, unrealistic thinking!! But these were the beliefs of the so-called neoconservatives promoting the war to Bush so strongly he finally did what they wanted. Bush himself didn't even really know the difference between Sunni and Shia, he didn't know about this deep divide in the Muslim world which especially affected Iraq. He didn't know there would be powerful forces let loose in Iraq without the iron hand of Saddam Hussein.

Now, conservatives in this country, religious conservatives, have used and will use religion to try to justify much greater military involvement in the region, just as they used religion as an excuse to fight those terrible Communist atheists in the Cold War with the Soviet Union. But the real issues in that part of the world are not finally religious, they are political and economic, and they are related to colonial practices by Europe and the United States over many long decades now. But religion is often used by leaders to justify military engagement and that is a temptation that must be avoided.

Watch for this kind of holy war language in the public media. Pastors can help keep a little more peace by being sensitive to this and talk about it in their preaching.
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The Trouble With Brain Science
7/12/2014 2:34:27 PM

The summer after graduating from college and before starting my first year of seminary I worked at the Hennepin County Morgue filling in for when regular staff went on vacation. Hennepin County includes the city of Minneapolis in Minnesota so we are talking about a major metropolitan area. I drove what the police called the "meat wagon" to pick up bodies after traumatic death, suicides, or people who died alone. It was quite a job for a person planning to be a pastor.

Included in the work was sewing up bodies after autopsies, which meant that I had to handle brain tissue in my hands. I do not suppose many people actually have had that experience. I found myself wondering what part of the brain physically contained the identity of the person, their name. What part of the brain gave people the ability to think about themselves, their life and hopes and dreams. Where was "faith" and the "soul" in the brain?

Maybe because of this experience I have always had a particular interest in brain research. How much can science tell us about the brain? And I have been particularly sensitive to the question of when science, or any particular scientist, makes more claims about the ability of science to know the brain than is warranted by science itself. For people who will only accept "scientific facts" as the basis of any knowledge their understanding of the brain (and the mind) is very limited. Other disciplines, such as philosophy, psychology, theology, are rejected by such people. This includes most of the media which reports most recent brain research but rarely says anything at all about recent scholarly work in these other disciplines.

But an article I just saw in the New York Times is helpful in that it points to the limitations of what we can know about the brain. The article by Gary Marcus reports on the unhappiness of neuroscientists about research being done by a European Commission. This past Monday
hundreds of neuroscientists from all over the world issued an indignant open letter to the European Commission, which is funding the Human Brain Project, an approximately $1.6 billion effort that aims to build a complete computer simulation of the human brain. The letter charges that the project is “overly narrow” in approach and not “well conceived.”
Marcus goes on to say that there is no "bridge concept" that has been formulated linking the work of psychologists and neuroscientists so there is little agreement about what questions even should be asked to begin gaining knowledge about the brain. In other words, if any "scientist" you know claims to tell you about how much is known about the brain you ought to raise your eyebrows. And if you think science can tell you much about the "soul", well, think again.

I am all for what science can tell us but I am also aware of its real limitations. People who think science can disprove faith are entirely mistaken.

So I was happy to see the article by Gary Marcus in the public media. Marcus is a professor of psychology at New York University, is an editor of the forthcoming book “The Future of the Brain: Essays by the World’s Leading Neuroscientists.”
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A Teacher is Raised
4/8/2013 3:45:36 AM

Participating in worship Easter Sunday it came to my mind how important it is to realize that it was, in fact, a particular person who rose up that first Easter. It was not just anybody, it was not a government official, not the Roman emperor, not a wealthy landowner, not a Temple administrator. It was that particular one known by the name Jesus, a carpenter's son from an out of the way place, Galilee. The best description of his position is "teacher," that's what his disciples called him at least.

It was not even the physical resurrection that was most important. There were lots of stories at the time of other people being raised, though we don't remember or celebrate these. The one we remember is this unique one called Jesus.

That's why I especially appreciate the so-called "doubting Thomas." He wanted to make sure it was really Jesus who was raised, the real, physical Jesus with whom he had an actual relationship, not some fake or spook.

The best evidence for the resurrection is the fact that we are still sitting in church on Easter Sunday. We are there because a teacher was raised and what he taught makes a difference. It's quite a mystery, really. But it should at least help us realize governments and corporations, power and wealth, are not the source of ultimate trust and commitment. For that we are able to learn from Jesus.

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