A View from the Pew

Preaching is not easy.

Having grown up in a preacher’s family, I observed the profession up close and personal for most of my formative years.  The preparation for preaching requires focus and attention to the message, and sometimes, at the expense of dealing with your family.  I guess there were times I felt left out, and I saw in other preachers’ families that there were problems.

I’ve even done a little preaching myself, if that is what you can call it.  I’m a teacher by trade, so I feel more like what I do is teach.  Whether you call it preaching or teaching, it takes a lot to get the job done.  While reciting facts and learning how to work problems in a classroom can be important, there is something that seems of even greater moment in teaching in the spiritual arena.  If you are a believer, the things that you present need to be singularly accurate so that you don’t lead someone off the right path.  The consequences may be eternal.

James told his readers that not many should seek to be teachers.  That’s a good thing.  But it doesn’t take the responsibility off those in the pews.  In fact, there is practically as much responsibility in being a learner as in being a teacher.  Why?  Because while the onus if authenticity and truth is on the teacher, the onus of judgment and application is on the learner.  He or she must carefully weigh all that is presented and determine if indeed what is presented is accurate and true and not so much opinion or mutated doctrine.  Learners must be willing to meditate on the information presented and try to apply it as best they can.

But if a person chooses to preach, he needs to have a tough hide.  Not everyone will like his message, especially if it is constantly negative with virtually nothing to build up the faithful who populate the pews week after week.  Slamming all of the “denominational” error does nothing to help people deal with the real problems of life.  And we do have to live in the real world facing real problems, not just tilt at the minutiae of doctrinal variance.  Make no mistake, doctrine is important.  But you can’t have a nit-picky doctrinal debate while you’re facing a crumbling relationship, dealing with a serious illness—your own or a loved one’s, or need help in facing some frequent and serious temptation.

For many people, defining your beliefs by what you are against is unfulfilling.  Tell us what we are for, help us meet our personal issues and shortcomings, and give us a real arsenal in our ongoing battle to defeat temptations.

I recently heard a preacher complain about the trials of trying to evangelize a community.  People are rude, they slam doors in your face, they yell at you….That’s where the tough hide comes in handy.  But they would be well-served to use that tough hide to wrap a genuinely tender heart, not the kind that wallows in self-pity, but the kind that tries to put itself in the place of the person who just treated them abusively.

If you can’t handle being yelled at, why do you take to the pulpit three times on Sunday and proceed to yell at your audience for all you are worth?  When Jesus sat down on the mountain and opened his mouth to teach, there is no record of him yelling at his listeners.  Even after he had fed a multitude and tried to teach them about the bread of life, and many turned away, not wanting to consider his hard teaching, he seemed more hurt than angry, asking his disciples, “Will you also go away?”

I firmly believe that the message is more important than a loud delivery.  Shouting proves nothing.  Reason and calm serve more.  Shouting makes you appear angry.  Speaking displays confidence.  Yelling turns people off.  “A soft answer turns away wrath.”  Look it up.

Another thing I have often heard preachers declare before an audience is that if they are wrong, show them where they are wrong and they will change.  On more than one occasion, I have pointed out an error in some interpretation, and was met with less than jovial acceptance.  Relying on the narrow focus of the brotherhood’s own commentators is dangerous, and reinforces the sectarian bias that plagues so many groups.  Look at issues from all sides, and see how others in other faith traditions view the issue.  As my dear friend always used to say, we should always study the Bible with the idea that we may be wrong.  Remaining open to different conclusions allows us to judge the views of our own heritage more objectively.

Being willing to change is probably the harder part of that concept.  But if we are to be true disciples and not just half-hearted adherents to Jesus’ teachings, we must be willing to change when we are confronted with our own misunderstandings and incorrect views.  Like Apollos.  Like Peter.

I know how hard preaching can be.  But if one is to be truly effective, it takes more than shouting and canned outlines.  It takes a keen eye for what people really need.  And for many people, that’s going to be a hand up and a shoulder to lean on, not a shove from behind and a kick in the pants.

Exploring a Multidimensional Reality from the Human Nexus

“Thou shalt not bear false witness….”

Now there’s a thought.  Most people would heartily agree with it. 

But is it ever OK to bear “half-witness”?  Apparently so, if you are doing it in defense of your doctrines. 

I’ve been thinking more about this as I have reflected on a presentation I recently viewed that had as its focus a refutation of Darwinian evolution.  There were many facts that were presented regarding discredited paleontological flubs and hoaxes.  Granted, there have been a lot of bad things that have been perpetrated with a mantle of “Darwinism” wrapped about it as a cloak of invincibility—the inevitable justifying the unthinkable in service to the inscrutable.  But there were also plenty of comments that were either untrue or misrepresentations of facts or only partially presented information that, if taken on face value by the uninformed, made it look like scientists are all a bunch of duplicitous scalawags.     

But to some, evolution is an elegant poem that unites the processes of life—birth, living, reproduction, even death—into an epic saga of struggle and survival over-arching a plot line that that heralds gain or loss or sometimes neither.  To some, the process is a revelation of God’s very own creative power that did not end with a final command spoken on the sixth day of creation, but became its own language, growing, developing, reaching, succeeding or sometimes failing, but always changing as the world around it changes.       

Why is evolution so hard to grasp for many people?  According to its most ardent detractors, evolution must of necessity strip God of his power while elevating humanity to god-like omniscience and omnipotence.  Anyone who questions the dubiously calculated age of the earth is a heretic and an infidel.  Anyone who suggests that the first chapters of Genesis provide core truth but are not a combination biology, history, physics and astronomy text is a false teacher with a ticket on the express train to hell.  Anyone who praises a Creator whose vision reached beyond the moment to the far distant reaches of the four dimensions that define and confine us, even beyond the seemingly infinite to the truth of eternity itself is no more than a black-hearted demon, spouting blasphemy against the Almighty.

While some would tie God’s hands and relegate him to the status of a birthday party magician pulling all life ex nihilo from his considerable hat, others might see him as the ultimate engineer, who with mathematical precision forged a process for his creation that would impute near infinite possibilities, and provide for its continued existence, not merely mark time until the cold fact of extinction snuffs it out.  Why would an all-powerful being create a dynamic environment for his static invention?  Change allows life to continue in the face of the irresistible forces of nature.  Static existence would only allow a population or species to resolutely await the inescapable with nothing in the wings to replace it—from that view, after all, there has been no additional creation since the end of business on Day 6.

I often reflect on the passage that says that God cannot lie.  If that is true—and I accept it as true—how could he create a world so great so recently and yet so full of red herrings that point to something far different by extrapolation and adherence to the known laws of physics?  Forget dinosaurs and fossils: more fundamentally than that would be light striking earth from stars more than 6,000 light years away, and radioactive decay profiles that reach back farther than Bishop Ussher’s calculated date of creation.  The renowned 20th century evolutionary biologist and Russian Orthodox believer, Theodosius Dobzhansky reflected that, “Only if symbols are construed to mean what they are not intended to mean can there arise imaginary, insoluble conflicts….the blunder leads to blasphemy: the Creator is accused of systematic deceitfulness.”   Why would he need to create a world cast in the middle of its existence with false memories of a distant past? 

If all life was created in static form, why should all life as we know it possess in its very instruction set the allowance for variation from its own pattern?  I’m talking about DNA and its transcribed messaging system, RNA, which provide the blueprint for the structure, function, and control of everything from single-celled organisms (and below, like viruses) through the most complex multicellular organisms including humans.  The central dogma of molecular biology tells us that DNA codes for RNA and RNA codes for protein, especially functional proteins or enzymes.  (Yes, there are exceptions to the rule, but the central truth remains.)  All things require instruction.  All things universally considered to be alive use DNA as that instruction set. 

The genetic code is an elegant language unto itself.  Using only four basic pen strokes, 64 combinations are arranged by groups of three to allow the evocation of an alphabet of 20 amino acid “letters” that can be sequenced into an endless vocabulary that speaks “life.”  But the language is not a dead one, like Latin.  It is alive, and capable of fidelity or change, either at random or in response to some intervention by a dumb physical force or the meddling of a mind bent on seeing what happens when the next mutagenic chemical is tossed into the mix.  It has its own accents and dialects, but they can communicate and we can understand them—there was no genetic Babel.  The fundamental language is common to all.

One of the most striking things about the genetic code is its capacity for variation.  After a DNA strand has been read by the appropriate enzyme cohort, a messenger RNA message is produced that is then exported from the nucleus of a cell and read by specially assembled structures called ribosomes to convert the digital information stream into a chain of amino acids, which may then be processed by the appropriate cellular machinery into a functional protein—an enzyme—or some other product like a structural protein.

The genetic code is read in groups of three nitrogen-containing bases (which are part of the structure of nucleotides).  Chains of nucleotides make up the nucleic acids, DNA and RNA, which are the library and instruction sets for the cell.  There are four bases found in DNA nucleotides: Adenine, Guanine, Thymine and Cytosine.  When RNA is made reflecting the DNA pattern, three bases are similar, but Thymine is replaced by another one called Uracil.

Molecular biology long ago deciphered the genetic code, which can be easily visualized in the accompanying table.  A group of three bases in an mRNA message is called a codon.  As previously mentioned, there are 64 possible combinations of bases (four Nitrogen bases in groups of three, or 43), yielding 61 codons that call for specific amino acids, which, when assembled are the most basic structure of a protein.  One codon has a dual purpose: the codon, AUG, is called the start codon, and its first appearance in any mRNA message signals the beginning of the actual gene message to be translated into protein as well as calling for the presence of the amino acid, Methionine.  Subsequent appearances of that codon simply call for the inclusion of Methionine in the sequence.  Three codons are called terminators, or stop codons, and signal the end of the message.  The 60 remaining codons code for the other naturally occurring amino acids that make up the primary sequence of a protein.

The mRNA version of the genetic code is read by reading the first nucleotide base from the left side of the chart, followed by the second across the top, and finally the third from the right side.  Thus, the codon, AUG, codes for the amino acid, Methionine, and also serves as the start codon.  UAA, UAG, or UGA are stop codons that signal the end of a message.  Browsing the code is an interesting exercise: only two amino acids have a single codon: Methionine (AUG) and Tryptophan (UGG).  At the other end of the scale, there are six ways to call for Leucine: UUA, UUG, CUU, CUC, CUA, and CUG.  There are also six ways to call for Arginine, which involve differences in both the first and third base positions: CGU, CGC, CGA, CGG, plus AGA and AGG.  All of the others have either two, three, or four codons. 

Consider the codons calling for the amino acid, Proline: CCU, CCC, CCA, and CCG.  Now consider the codons for Alanine:  GCU, GCC, GCA, and GCG.  And what about Glycine: GGU, GGC, GGA, and GGG.  From these examples, a pattern should begin to emerge: for these three amino acids, the bases occupying the first two positions in the codon are essential.  The third base position could be occupied by a nucleotide containing any of the four RNA bases and still provide for the same amino acid in the final product.  The third base position allows for what molecular biologists often refer to as a wobble effect, or a redundancy in the code.  Changes may occur in the message, but if the change is in the third base position—which can happen back in the nucleus when the DNA is replicated as a cell divides or in the transcription process as an mRNA message is made or even by some random mutation event—it will not change the expression of a protein.   Any mutation that changes the third base in these redundant codons involves a silent, synonymous substitution.

genetic code

But if that substitution occurs in a location or at a time when the change will be passed on to another generation, and this change increases in frequency in subsequent generations, then the population of organisms that carry that altered sequence will have evolved.  Plain and simple.

Evolution, in its essence, is a change in the frequencies of specific forms of genes in a population over time.  Microevolution occurring within a population is easily observable.  As small mutations accumulate, differences between one population and another may become so great that the two no longer recognize each other for the purpose of reproduction, or can no longer produce offspring that can, themselves, reproduce.  When two populations diverge that far, they can be considered separate species.  Biologists call this speciation.

Speciation happens.  To deny it is like denying that the sky is blue or the grass is green.  This is especially evident in plants, where speciation may take as little as one generation to occur.  Consider a plant in which a chromosome doubling event leads to the production of an egg or sperm with twice the genetic information of the sex cell of its parental type.  It can no longer reproduce with a plant like its parents and still be able to produce fertile offspring that can reproduce.  The product of a cross between an egg that has 1 copy of each of its chromosomes and a sperm that has 2 copies (the result of the doubling event) would be an offspring that has 3 copies of every chromosome, and an individual with this odd number of chromosomes cannot produce functional sex cells to reproduce itself.  It is sterile.  These plants that have experienced such doubling will be able to reproduce with others like themselves, and their offspring will be fertile and functional.  While this process may sound far-fetched, it has happened in the past 100 years, and the potential remains in any plant population.

But can the environment really influence a change in a population?  Well, you decide:  think of a time when you went to your doctor with a genuine bacterial infection—strep throat, for example.  Your doctor gave you a prescription for an antibiotic drug, a medicine specifically designed to attack bacteria, which from the bacteria’s perspective represents a change, even a threat, in its environment.  In that population of bacteria causing your illness there is likely to have already arisen by spontaneous mutation a cell or cells that can resist the antibiotic.  It has happened, and it continues to happen today.  That mutation was a random event and did not occur as a response to the presence of the antibiotic.  It simply happened.  The mutation itself was not in and of itself an evolutionary event, but it provided the basis for the population to evolve.  Remember that evolution involves a change in the frequencies of gene forms in a population. 

Let’s say that you have a 10-day course of antibiotics.  If you take the full course of antibiotics, you kill the cells susceptible to the drug, you may weaken the resistant cells, and by both means, you may reduce the overall number of disease causing bacteria to such a point that your body can easily and naturally take care of them via your natural immune response.  But what if you start feeling better after four days?  You stop taking the medicine.  You killed off the susceptible bacteria in short order, but the resistant ones are still there, and now, with nothing to fight against them, they reproduce, producing a new population of resistant cells that cause you to experience a relapse.  The frequency of the resistant gene form has increased in the population, i.e., the population evolved.  The antibiotic failed because you didn’t follow through.  Enough of the more resistant cells survived to bounce back with a vengeance: this time, the doctor must prescribe a stronger antibiotic, which may, if not taken as directed, lead to selecting for an even stronger line of bacteria.  As the bacterial population becomes more resistant with each antibiotic that has been improperly used (or even if used properly), the bacterial population evolves.  It is observable, measurable, and undeniable.

Someone may say, “OK, that may happen in bacteria.  And that may happen in plants.  But surely not in animals.”  Well, based on the evidence, it does happen.  The renowned (and often reviled) naturalist, Charles Darwin, pointed to an age old practice to support his concept of evolution by natural selection.  One of his strongest arguments dealt with the process of artificial selection as commonly encountered in farming and animal husbandry.  Consider all of the breeds of cattle, horses, pigs, chickens, dogs, even goldfish.  If a breeder sees a novel characteristic or trait in one individual that he would like to see in his flock or herd, he will breed that individual to another one that has a similar trait, and hope for the development of a pure-breeding line.  Artificial selection takes advantage of the breeder’s ability to identify specific characteristics that may be beneficial to his business.  If he wants a cow that produces milk higher in milk fat, he breeds a cow with that trait to a bull whose mother was a good milk fat producer.  If a monk in the ancient temples of Asia saw a goldfish with a different color or sporting a novel color combination, he selected similar fish to spawn, looking for similar variants in the resulting brood of offspring. 

Artificial selection as practiced in selective breeding programs almost always selects for some freakish quality, some characteristics that might take away from an organism’s ability to function well in the wild but serves a purpose for the farmer or breeder.  A milk cow, with her significantly enlarged udder would not survive well in a natural setting where she could be easily injured.  An orange goldfish flashes bright against a dull background, putting it at a survival disadvantage. 

But through a similar process called natural selection, nature selects for those traits that boost survival or provide for a reproductive advantage.  The gene combinations that give that advantage are more likely to be passed on to the next generation, so beneficial traits increase in frequency.  Those traits that confer some disadvantage are not likely to be passed on.  If a bright orange fish in murky waters calls attention to itself and is eaten by a predator, it may die before it has an opportunity to reproduce and pass on its genes.  But the ancestral type for goldfish was not gold or orange at all.  Instead, wild type goldfish are a bronzy tan color, easily blending in with muddy, murky standing waters in ponds.

Natural selection is elegant in its simplicity, yet provides a framework for understanding how and why such diversity exists throughout all of the kingdoms of life.  The environment provides a laboratory where nature itself conducts experiments.  The variation in genetic expression is the toolbox.  Changes in weather, the presence or absence of predators, the availability of foods, the abundance or lack of mates—all of these types of things and countless others provide for independent variables, selection pressures, that select for or against specific genetic combinations and the attendant physical expressions of new or different combinations.

Einstein is credited with defining insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  By this definition, nature and its ultimate author are far from insane.  If there were no variation, no potential for change in the face of a changing environment, then the only possible result would be generation after generation of genetically identical organisms.  If the environment changes so dramatically that survival of that immutable type were impossible, the only possible result would be inevitable extinction.  The potential for evolution is present in every population through the variation in the genetic information carried by its members.  Life has the tools to continue.

Some people think that the elegant diversity of life arose spontaneously as a result of chance.  The probability that such things might occur, even over billions of years, would be infinitesimally small.  Others consider everything in the universe to have been created in its present form never to be able to change or adapt to changing conditions.  The evidence against such a static creation is staggering. 

But there is another possibility.  It is not popular with those of either camp as previously laid out, but it is considered and embraced by a significant segment of people who open their minds to both physical and spiritual truth.  It has been called many things, but perhaps most commonly “theistic evolution.”  This position gives God the credit for creating a self-perpetuating system of and for life.  It provides for adaptation, but also allows for the possibility of extinction.  And if it is allowed that God is not some distant cosmic tinkerer, but rather actively interested in the development of his creation, then he began to reveal his mind to us in ways that we could understand when our ancestors became fully self-aware, yet lacked the sophistication to understand the subtle nuances of science.

It was then that we could begin to understand the multifaceted nature we possess, like a photon possesses both energy and matter aspects.  We began to explore the world, the universe and were able to understand more of its physical laws.  But like Francis Collins pointed out, there are aspects of human nature that defy physical law.  People have tried to explain altruism, the selfless sacrifice of one’s own best interest, which translates in evolutionary terms to fitness, but with less than convincing results.  More fundamentally, there are facets of the concept of love that defy physical explanation.  The romantic love, or eros, the familial love, or storge, may have distinct chemical signatures associated with hormonal function.  These are essential in forming parental and pair bonds to ensure that young are first produced and then reared to provide for continued success of gene lines, populations, and the species.

The supreme apex of C.S. Lewis’ tetrad of The Four Loves is that selfless expression, agape, that defies a chemical explanation and occurs in seeming opposition to the concept of Hamiltonian inclusive fitness.  There is no great benefit in seeing to the needs of another while expecting nothing in return.  Kin selection’s sacrifice in service to shared genes is one thing.  But agape is manifested to anyone, not only to close relatives.  Such demonstrations of what (from a purely naturalistic perspective) can only be illogical suggest that there is indeed “more in heaven and earth” than we can see and measure and experience through the purely physical.

Those at either end of the continuum of belief are blind to the immensity and complexity visible from the middle ground.  The interplay of physical law with spiritual truth opens a new world of appreciating God for his infinite creativity and consummate wisdom.  To deny either is to make God in our image, limiting him only to tricks outside of his own physical laws, or with greater conceit, to deny him altogether.

Every discovery from gravity waves at the edge of the known universe to the Higgs boson, thought to be approaching the most elemental interface of matter and energy itself, to the fractal geometry of nature or the laws of genetics and the intricacies of cell structure and function—all of these things can strengthen faith, if one accepts a God who tells the truth in both his revelation of nature and in his direct revelation and interaction with his creation. Whether he speaks through nature or through the revered writings accepted by faith as revealing his will for the spiritual welfare of his creation–his revelation of the spiritual facts of life, I believe him.

The truth of God is bigger than the half-truths and poorly supported arguments that well-meaning people use to defend him or deny him.  The truth is that God doesn’t need defending.  He wants us to understand him, and by understanding, to come to a greater appreciation of all that we are and all that we can become.  We don’t have to choose one or the other.  It was his mind that brought the physical and the spiritual together into this human nexus.  By opening our eyes to the possibilities in both realms we begin to see the big picture, the view from God’s eyes.  And to those who see this multi-dimensional reality as he does, the view is breath-taking.    


What’s In a Word? Thoughts on Translations, Interpretations, and the Weight of History

What’s in a word?  In a very real sense, it’s the meaning we give it.  Unfortunately, if that meaning is different from the author’s intent, we have done violence to his work.  Nowhere is this more evident that in the realm of religion.  Translations and interpretations may be faithful to the original, or they may carry the thought farther from its initial purpose, with every subsequent interpretation taking on a new layer of implied meanings.

When I was growing up, I heard it said so many times that a “church” is not a building, it is people.  Now, in a religious sense, that is true.  I was so assailed with that concept that I thought it was a practically unforgivable sin to use the word in such a way.  However, it is not a sin to call an ornate edifice a church, if that is indeed a culture’s common term for such a house of worship.   After all these years, I can see that as long as we know the intent of the speaker, it really isn’t so criminal after all.

The greater damage in my humble opinion is the willful misapplication of the term “church” to force it to mean an institution, with special attention to its institutional structure and governance.  When Jesus made the declaration that on the foundation of faith in him, he would build his church (Matthew 16.18), it was obvious he wasn’t referring to an architectural project.  The traditional view has been that of founding the institution of the “church.”

Add to this the mistranslation in Acts 2.47, where the Lord added daily to their number –not the “church” as the KJV translators proposed, going against the earliest of the ancient texts—those that were being saved, and the institutional concept was well under way, collecting the mass of tradition as it gained speed rolling down the steep slope of history.

But is that what Jesus really meant?  Anyone who has studied the scriptures at all knows that the Greek word, ekklesia–literally a group of people called out to assemble in a public place–is usually translated as “church,” a word with obvious institutional overtones, built from centuries of misuse and misunderstanding.

If we revisit Matthew 16.18 and try some different and equivalent translations, we may understand Jesus’ intention better. 

“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”  (ESV, traditional wording, emphasis mine)

“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my assembly, and the gates of Hades (=death) shall not prevail against it.”      

“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my congregation, and the gates of Hades (=death) shall not prevail against it.”

The alternate versions capture what Jesus was going to build: a chosen people, a community, a new Israel.  What we have focused on far too many times is the word “church” and all that it has accreted over two millennia. 

This misconception has many and far-reaching effects: one that I have heard on many occasions is that in order to go to heaven, you have to be a member of the “right” church.  This is institutional church-ism at its finest. But if the church is people, then the church can only be “right” if it is made up of people who have by the grace of God been made right, justified by his free gift through the sacrifice Jesus made for us (Romans 3.24).  To tout that membership in the “right” church as being the central requirement and most essential component of salvation is getting the cart tragically before the newborn foal.    

If we consider Acts 2.47 in its actual sense, not its traditionally mistranslated sense, this issue is easily cleared up.  God added new Christians to the number of those that made up the congregation, the assembly, the community of believers.  If we focus on getting ourselves right with God, he does the adding.  His view is far more comprehensive than ours.  He knows whom he has accepted.  And his membership roster is more important than any we might devise.    

Eliminating the word “church” with its institutional baggage may help focus on what it really means to be a part of that group.  Using an alternate word could reinforce the idea of family, which is perfectly biblical, and it could also provide the image of an army, which is also scriptural.  Focusing on “church,” however, with all its added nuances relating to polity, governance, and perceived and disputed function takes away from the reality of what I was taught all those years ago. 

The church is people.  Redeemed people.  People made whole by the saving grace of God.

The immigrant story seems particularly pertinent here: when an immigrant wishes to become a citizen, he petitions the government, takes a test, takes an oath, and is declared legally a part of his adopted country, with all of its rights, privileges, and obligations as allowed, afforded or required by law.  He becomes a part of the community of citizens.

Isn’t it like that when becoming a Christian? We petition God for his mercy and respond to his grace through acts that symbolize our penitent conversion and submission.  Then we are added to the community of believers, with all its rights, privileges, and obligations.  What we have called the “church.”

But it’s really just people.