Tag Archives: ALS

Facts, Truth, and How to Understand God and the Universe (an imperfect commentary)

flat earth
© Elena Schweitzer/Shutterstock

I don’t write here much anymore. Back in the day, I was practically fanatical in my rapid pace of authoring some sort of missive, sharing my perspectives on faith, Messiah, Judaism, and the people of the nations of the world.

What happened?

Well, it got to the point where I felt I said everything I had to say. After all, I’m not a professional theologian. I haven’t been to school for this sort of thing, and have no special training beyond what any layperson in a faith community would have access to. I’m just a guy with an opinion, and believe me, there are far too many of us in the blogosphere, religious or otherwise, as it is.

However, yesterday, I had an interesting conversation with my friend Tom. I see Tom on Sunday afternoons every other week unless one or the other of us has another commitment. Tom suffers from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or ALS, sometimes called “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.” He is a man of great faith who, at least when I’m present, faces his ailment with remarkable courage.

We visit in the back bedroom of his home which has been converted to a small den or office. Topics of conversation run from science fiction, comic books, movies, the possibilities and problems with colonization of the Moon, Mars, and even Venus, and just about anything else. We also talk about our faith and what is called “Messianic Judaism” and “Hebrew Roots.”

Many years ago, I ceased attending my local Messianic community (which subsequently disbanded) because I was in a position of leadership and teaching, and as my understanding of my faith and its Biblical foundations evolved, I came to realize that what I had been teaching was pretty much dead wrong. I also realized I had no business teaching anyone anything because I was totally unqualified.

The people I worshiped with didn’t seem to mind one bit and said they enjoyed what I was teaching, but as a matter of conscience, I couldn’t continue.

For a lot of reasons I won’t mention here, I eventually started attending a small, local Baptist church. Just about everyone was nice, and the head Pastor took a liking to me, even to the point of having one-to-one meetings with me almost every Wednesday evening. But in the end, he was trying to convince me to become a good Baptist, and I was trying to convince him of the centrality of corporate Israel in God’s plan of redemption, that the Jewish people remain under the Sinai Covenant, and that the New Covenant, which for the past twenty centuries, has just been peeking through the door at the faithful, so to speak, is merely the writing of Torah on the hearts of Israel, rather than throwing the Five Books of Moses and the writings of the Prophets out the window.

We parted company, and in the years since, I haven’t heard anything from him or anyone else at church.

I’m pretty much a lone wolf these days, reading, studying, and worshiping privately.

So when my friend Tom, who does keep in touch with local, long-term members of the Messianic community, told me there were currently a total of seven “Hebraic” faith groups in our area, I was intrigued. Not enough to sample them, which would complicate matters, including my home life, but I was interested in hearing more.

kjv
© James Pyles – The KJV Bible my Grandma gave me when I was eleven years old

He mentioned a couple who I’d met years ago, and how they had formed their own group. He also mentioned a schism in that group, which happens with some regularity in many of these collectives, but this one was interesting. I guess the problem started with a woman, who is a very intelligent and well-educated mathematician, and who also became a very strict Bible-literalist, as well as a King James Bible only proponent, believing all other translations of the Bible from the original languages into English are bogus.

The most startling revelation was that she also is a Flat Earther. I was stunned.

Supposedly, she dismisses all of the evidence that we live on a globe as conspiracy theories, fake news, faked photographs, and such. This is quite surprising coming from a mathematician, but there are generally two areas of human understanding where dogma and belief seem to outweigh facts in most cases: politics and religion. When you enter those realms, faith and devotion to a set of beliefs, and in many cases, a charismatic leader figure (political or religious) trumps the facts (no pun intended).

The head Pastor at the church I once attended was something of a Bible literalist but not to such an outrageous degree. We live in an observable universe which, to the best of our techniques and our technology, we can objectively examine and re-examine using the scientific method.

Unlike some people I experience in the secular world, I believe science is NOT an object of absolute devotion, and it certainly doesn’t yield accurate results one hundred percent of the time, which is why science is never “settled.” It is a logical, fact-based process of asking questions about some observation, doing research, constructing a hypothesis, testing it, and so on. It is not merely a set of definitive pronouncements by people in lab coats who some treat as their “High Priests.”

All that said, as a person of faith and a rational, (hopefully) intelligent, and educated human being, I believe that the objective universe and the Bible cannot conflict, because in the former case, the universe was created by God, and in the latter case, our Holy writings were inspired by the same God (inspired, but not authored…it’s complicated).

I know atheists who would jump all over me at this point, citing multiple inconsistencies between Biblical text (which they read in English and with little or no background in solid hermeneutics) and what we know about the universe around us.

As far as how we understand scientific knowledge about some phenomenon, let’s consider black holes which are the end products of stars over a certain mass (our sun doesn’t quality and will eventually become a white dwarf star). Albert Einstein first predicted the existence of black holes in 1915, and when I was taking astronomy classes in the mid-1970s, I was taught a certain set of (then-known) “facts” about black holes. The late Stephen Hawking revolutionized our current understanding of black holes, and even more recent studies indicate that perhaps he didn’t get it quite right.

black hole
Credit: Shutterstock

No, science is never “settled.”

However, if studies and experiments are unbiased (and remember, federal government grants fund an awful lot of scientific studies), the results, given the limitations of our tools and our understanding, should be taken as fairly reliable, which is why I believe the Earth is a sphere and not a flat dinner plate.

My understanding of the history of God’s interactions with human beings tells me that He encounters them/us in all manner of circumstances including worship contexts, which means that the Catholic Church, Seventh Day Adventists, or any other body of worshipers is NOT the one and only “true church” rendering every other congregations of believers invalid. Just look at how much the early worshipers of Christ during the lifetime of the apostles gathered, their praxis, and their prayers differ from most if not all church communities today.

But as I said before, politics and religion are areas where people seem to feel free to leave their brains at the door and rigidly adopt perspectives that are sometimes wildly outside of reality (to the best of our ability to understand said-reality).

The Earth is not flat, the KJV Bible is merely the first biblical text that was translated from ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek into (now archaic) English and widely disseminated, and science does not disprove God.

Surprised at that last one? How can I say that? There are entire volumes published on trying to answer that question, but let’s briefly consider the nature of God. God creating all of timespace, everything we can observe about the universe and everything we can’t, is like me writing this blog post or drawing a sketch. The creator, by definition, cannot be dependent upon the creation.

Sure, I can write a story about myself, or make a self-portrait, but objectively, I still exist outside of those products. If I delete the blog post or burn the drawing in my fireplace, I don’t cease to exist. I’m still outside of those “universes.”

So is God.

Of course, God can choose to interact with human beings, and His “interaction” with Mount Sinai in Exodus 19 attests that He can physically affect geography, in this case burning the top of the mountain to ashes.

How He does this no one knows, which is why we call it a miracle.

We can observe, again to the best of technology and methodology, everything inside of the universe, but God is not in the universe, which is why whenever people attempt to experience God outside the context of prayer, they turn to arcane mysticism, which is a topic all its own.

In a nutshell, this is why I believe the Earth is a globe, we’ve put men on the Moon, we have populated Mars with human-made robots, and that God is real.

Understanding God, the Bible, and coming to faith isn’t something that happens in an instant and then the religion is “settled.” Yes, people can come to faith in a single moment, but for most of us, it’s a sometimes long process of exploration. It’s one that I haven’t finished yet, and I probably won’t until the day I die. Just like scientific study, the study of the Bible, and evolving in a life of faith is ongoing, and just like science, it is a never ending process. In both circumstances, we largely accept many things about reality because we have to live and interact in the world without constantly confusing ourselves. We have “faith” in the conclusions by which we operate in a day-by-day life, both scientific conclusions and Biblical conclusions.

But none of that means we know it all. The minute we stop asking questions is the minute we become ignorant, uninformed, dogmatic, rigid, and out of touch with the realities of the universe and the Bible.

In the case of the “Flat Earth” lady, she believes in a certain, rigid understanding of the Bible that contradicts observable reality. In some other person’s case, they believe in a certain, sometimes rigid understanding of science, and that all of its conclusions are absolute and final, without considering realities that exist beyond the timespace continuum, and that can only be realized metaphysically.

No human being can know the mind of God, so, as the Apostle Paul quipped in 1 Corinthians 13:12:

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. (emph mine)

The best we can do in understanding both an infinite God and a finite universe is by looking “in a mirror dimly,” a highly distorted and limited set of lenses, because we ourselves and all of our tools and understanding are limited by design.

mirror
Photo credit unknown after search

But it’s not always going to be that way. A day is coming when we will see clearly and everything that we puzzle over now or even downright deny will suddenly make sense. It will be like the day a resurrected Jesus (Yeshua) encountered two men on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35), and his explanation of key portions of scripture opened their eyes to the truth of the Messiah (and I wish what he said had been recorded by Luke, because I’d like to hear it, too). Someday it will be like that for all of us, but until then, we need to keep asking questions. Don’t take anything for granted, because if you do, if you stop asking questions, stop seeking a better understanding, whether you are religious or secular, you will become the moral equivalent of a “flat earther.”

I’m very grateful for my relationship with Tom and our regular conversations. He has a brilliant mind and a compassionate heart. He is a good friend and an excellent role model for a man of faith. As David wrote in Psalm 23:3, I think God uses him to restore my soul.

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Blessings at Night and Morning

A song of ascents. Praiseworthy is each person who fears HASHEM, who walks in His paths. When you eat the labor of your hands, you are praiseworthy, and it is well with you. Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine in the inner chambers of your home; your children shall be like olive shoots surrounding your table. Behold! For so is blessed the man who fears HASHEM. May HASHEM bless you from Zion, and may you gaze upon the goodness of Jerusalem, all the days of your life. And may you see children born to children, peace upon Israel.

Tremble and sin not. Reflect in your hearts while on your beds, and be utterly silent. Selah.

Master of the universe. Who reigned before any form was created,
At the time when His will brought all into being —
then as “King” was His Name proclaimed.
After all has ceased to be, He, the Awesome One, will reign alone.
It is He Who was, He Who is, and He Who shall remain, in splendor.
He is One — there is no second to compare to Him, to declare as His equal.
Without beginning, without conclusion — His is the power and dominion.
He is my God, my living Redeemer, Rock of my pain in time of distress.
He is my banner, a refuge for me, the portion in my cup on the day I call.
Into His hand I shall entrust my spirit when I go to sleep — and I shall awaken!
With my spirit shall my body remain. HASHEM is with me, I shall not fear.

-Portion of the Bedtime Shema

My father said that the reciting of sh’ma before retiring at night (p. 118-124) is, in miniature form, like the Confession before death. But then one leaves the marketplace permanently, and the commerce of “Today to perform them” is finished. With the Bedside Sh’ma every night, however, one is still in the middle of the “market” and can still accomplish and achieve.

“Today’s Day”
Friday, Kislev 6, 5704
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan
Chabad.org

It is said in Jewish wisdom that one should repent one day before his death. But how can you know when the day of your death will come? You can’t. Therefore repent every day as if it is your last day of life.

I sometimes have bouts of insomnia for a variety of reasons. As I write this though, I slept very well last night. In fact, I recall that I was engaged in a rather compelling dream when the alarm went off, jarring me into consciousness.

But the night before, just prior to retiring, I recited the portion of the Bedtime Shema I quoted above. I can’t necessarily credit the Bedtime Shema with my restful sleep, but I suppose it didn’t hurt. On the other hand, you’d think, given recent events, that I’d have a lot on my mind.

And so I do, but that apparently didn’t disturb my sleep.

I also recite the Modeh Ani when I wake up in the morning. Even if I do not offer God any other prayers during the day, considering Him, even for a few moments as I end my day and again as I start the next one acts like “bookends,” with God on either side of my waking experience and me existing in the middle.

But what about the middle? That’s where we spend our lives or at least the conscious portion of them. It’s where we “feel” we’re alive, it’s where we are aware of being alive. What do we do with that time?

Lots of things. Many of us have jobs where we do our work and earn our pay. Sometimes our thoughts turn to God, but most of the time we are too distracted with our work to consciously consider Him. While a tzaddik, a righteous person, is constantly aware of God, most of us aren’t. Most of us struggle to remind ourselves of God, except at certain times such as when we need God or during a scheduled time of prayer or worship.

Fortunately, God doesn’t need anything to remind Him of us. One of the blessings He gave the Jewish people, and I wish Christianity would adopt such a practice, are set times for prayer. Muslims also have set times to turn away from their common activities and to turn toward God. We in the church tend to just “wing it,” which isn’t necessarily bad, because we should all be free to pray at any moment, but it isn’t necessarily good because we typically ignore God until something comes along to remind us of Him.

Imagine if we handled our human relationships that way. Imagine that we ignored our spouse, our children, our parents, until some external factor came along to remind us of their existence and that we needed something from them. I guess some of us do handle our human relationships that way. More’s the pity. But then, what is the state of those relationships? If you ignore someone long enough, they will eventually ignore you, too.

Pain, loneliness, fear, anxiety, the spectre of death all remind us of God and how much we need Him. While we shouldn’t wait for those reminders, being human, we often do. The troubles in our lives act as God’s messengers, coming to us and telling us we shouldn’t wait too much longer. Why wait for pain or fear to tell you that God is waiting for you?

And may Heaven help us all if even then, we still ignore God.

And if not now, then when? (Ethics of the Fathers 1:14).

Hillel’s famous statement is a bit enigmatic. The simple answer is, “Later.” Why can’t we take care of whatever it is some other time? Granted that procrastination is not a virtue, why does Hillel imply that if not now, then it will never be?

The Rabbi of Gur explained that if I do something later, it may indeed get done, but I will have missed the current “now.” The present “now” has but a momentary existence, and whether used or not, it will never return. Later will be a different “now.”

King Solomon dedicates seven famous verses of Ecclesiastes to his principle that everything has its specific time. His point comes across clearly: I can put off doing a good deed for someone until tomorrow, but will that deed, done exactly as I would have done it today, carry the same impact?

The wisdom that I learn at this moment belongs to this moment. The good deed that I do at this moment belongs to this moment. Of course I can do them later, but they will belong to the later moments. What I can do that belongs to this moment is only that which I do now.

Today I shall…

try to value each moment. I must realize that my mission is not only to get something done, but to get things done in their proper time, and the proper time may be now.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Kislev 14”
Aish.com

When I go to sleep — and I shall awaken! With my spirit shall my body remain. HASHEM is with me, I shall not fear.

God allows us to awaken at the proper time, feeds us when we are hungry, gives us rest when we are tired. He is waiting for us now to do something. Tomorrow is too late.

Past and Future Holy

There is a graphic example of this at the beginning of the book of Job. In a series of blows, Job loses everything: his flocks, his herds, his children. Yet his faith remains intact. Satan then proposes subjecting Job to an even greater trial, covering his body with sores (Job 1-2). The logic of this seems absurd. How can a skin disease be a greater trial of faith than losing your children? It isn’t. But what the book is saying is that when your body is afflicted, it can be hard, even impossible, to focus on spirituality. This has nothing to do with ultimate truth and everything to do with the human mind. As Maimonides said, you cannot give your mind to meditating on truth when you are hungry or thirsty, homeless or sick (Guide for the Perplexed 3:27).

-Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks
“Eternity and Mortality”
Commentary on Torah Portion Emor (Leviticus 21-24)
Aish.com

Once I would have believed that but now I’m not so sure. I think that when you are sick, you can and in fact, you must consider, ponder, and meditate upon the Spirit and the ultimate truth, because in the process of dying, you are preparing to meet that truth.

Let me explain.

Last night, as you read this, I renewed my relationship with an old friend. I don’t have his permission to discuss the details here, so I must be deliberately vague. But he’s sick. He’s quite ill. We haven’t spoken in several years, even though he lives very close to me. When I heard that he was ill, I asked a mutual friend if he would like to visit this person with me. Our mutual friend lives in another state but was in town visiting relatives.

So for several hours on Sunday afternoon and going into Sunday night, our mutual friend, me, my friend who is ill and his wife sat in their living room and visited. We talked about many things including what we have been doing with our lives, where we’re living and working, and what else we’ve been doing, and movies we’ve seen, and trivia and science and families.

And we talked about doctors and illness and exams and families and trying to make plans when you know the future won’t be traveling as far ahead of you as you once thought it might.

Have you ever wondered about how God works? I don’t know either, but occasionally, God lets you see how He plays “connect the dots.”

My daughter “coincidentally” ran into the ill gentleman’s wife and one of his daughters in the same store in two separate events on the same day. That’s when my daughter found out that my friend was ill. Then my daughter told my wife. Then my wife and daughter told me. Then my wife said that maybe some other old friends and I should visit this friend. So I contacted a couple of old friends. Only one replied and he lives in another state. But the other state friend was coming into town to spend Thanksgiving with is family who lives locally, so I asked him to let me know when we could get together.

And so he called me on Sunday in the early afternoon and we made plans.

And we got together and drove over to our friend’s place.

And that’s when we got to talking about all kinds of things, especially the stuff no one likes to talk about but that will happen to each and every one of us.

I wonder if that’s why we don’t talk about getting sick and about dying?

Because it will happen to every one of us.

Whether we want it to or not.

Whether we’re rich or poor or black or white or any other color or where we live or anything else about us.

And whether or not we believe in God, we’re all still going to die.

And then we’ll know.

I can’t say this from personal experience (yet), but when you know you’re going to die, not in some distant, hypothetical future, but in a more or less predictable time frame, and you have a relationship with God, assuming the relationship with God survives the terminal news, you start thinking about Him a lot.

I wonder if He starts thinking about you more, too?

That’s probably a stupid question since God is infinite and so are His thoughts, but as I was sitting there talking and listening, I was thinking about God and I was wondering if He was thinking a lot more about my friend, too.

I hope so.

PrayerI know that I want and probably need a lot of attention from God. Just read my blog for a few days and you’ll figure out why. But I’m not so self-absorbed that I don’t realize there are a lot of other people who need God’s attention much more than I do. I know God’s resources are limitless, but if they weren’t and if each of us only got so much from God, then I’d ask God to take some of mine and give it to my friend. He needs more attention right now. So does his wife. So does the rest of his family.

I don’t have a lot to give that’s really valuable in a practical sense. I’m not a good handyman. I’m a lousy plumber and a worse carpenter. I barely know a car’s battery from its distributor cap, and electrical wiring is a complete mystery.

But I do have time. And I do have attention. And I can listen. I can talk, too. I can even read out loud.

And I can pray. I can visit. I can have a discussion with another person. So I have a few things to give.

I’ve been pondering about church and church attendance and community and having conversations with like-minded Christians.

Have you ever wondered about how God works? I don’t know either, but maybe He works just like He worked on Sunday afternoon, re-creating an old friendship and building a new one.

Good morning God. I gratefully thank you, living and existing King, for returning my soul to me with compassion. Abundant is your faithfulness. Thank you for making all things holy, including this past Sunday afternoon and past and future friendships.

The holy is the point at which heaven and earth meet, where, by intense focus and a complete absence of earthly concerns, we open up space and time to the sensed presence of God who is beyond space and time. It is an intimation of eternity in the midst of life, allowing us at our holiest moments to feel part of something that does not die. The holy is the space within which we redeem our existence from mere contingency and know that we are held within the “everlasting arms” (Deut. 33: 27) of God.