Jun 3 2015

Clean or Unclean?

_DSC9313We all know what they say about opinions.  Yes, everyone has one but does everyone’s opinion count the same?  I don’t think so.  Some people’s opinion counts for more because of the position they hold or due to their knowledge of the subject.  If I attended a symphony and was accompanied by a classically trained musician I can assure you that my opinion on the performance would not matter or count as much as that of the person who could fully understand and appreciate all that goes into a symphonic production.  Now if you asked me to comment on Nikon cameras and also asked someone who had never taken a picture with one, I’d like to think that my opinion would count for more; I’ve been using Nikon equipment for nearly 30 years.

_DSC3016In the Book of Acts Luke records a fascinating vision that the apostle Peter once had.  In the vision Peter saw something like a sheet lowered from the sky.  Within that sheet were “all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles of the earth and birds of the air.”  Once Peter caught a glimpse of this collection of animals he heard a voice say, “Get up, Peter.  Kill and eat.”  Because Peter had been taught his whole life that certain animals were unclean and eating them was forbidden, he refused to do what he had been instructed.  Because he refused Peter was reprimanded by his heavenly visitor and told “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” (Acts 10:15)  We are told that the command to kill and eat was given three times and that all three times Peter refused to do what he was told.

To make a long story short, the meaning of Peter’s vision finally sank in.  God was telling Peter that he should no longer think of certain animals as clean or unclean.  The kosher laws were being done away with.  This was important at this time because the gospel was starting to spread to those who were not Jews.  If the kosher laws remained there could be no table fellowship between the Jewish Christians and the Gentiles.

_CES2500Furthermore, God was telling Peter that he should no longer think of certain people as being clean or unclean.  In Jewish life there were many people or groups that were not considered clean and thus were to be avoided.  At the time of Peter’s vision he was about to be summoned to the home of a Gentile, the Roman centurion, Cornelius.  Ordinarily Peter would not enter a Gentile’s home but his recent vision made him rethink the whole matter.  When he got to Cornelius’ house he told those gathered there, “God has shown me that I should not call any person impure or unclean.” (Acts 10:28)  This new revelation opened the door for the gospel to move beyond the confines of Judaism.  Peter went on to say “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts people from all nations who fear him and do what is right.” (Acts 10:34-35)

As I reflect upon Peter’s experience I come to two important conclusions.  First, whether we like it or not, all the animals God made should be viewed as good or clean.  Just because we don’t like spiders or snakes (or whatever other creature you want to name) does not mean that they are not good or do not have value.  Here our opinion really doesn’t matter.  The only one whose opinion counts is the person who made those creatures and God has already declared them good.  We should join God in recognizing the goodness and value in all creatures.

_DSC7009Second, I find in Peter’s vision a much needed reminder that we have no right to declare that another person is unclean or not valuable (this seems to be the primary truth God was trying to get through to Peter).  Once again, our opinion about some other person’s race, sexual orientation, economic status or intelligence doesn’t matter.  The only one whose opinion matters is the one who created them and, here too, God has already made it clear that all humans are extremely valuable and even worth dying for.  Some of us need to hear the voice Peter heard long ago saying, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

Some biblical scholars are amazed at how much attention and space is given to the story of Peter and Cornelius in the Book of Acts.  My guess is Luke recognized the importance of the lessons to be learned here and wanted to make sure that we didn’t miss it.  Thanks, Luke!


(I took the squirrel picture at New Harmony, IN; the indigo bunting at Henderson Sloughs W.M.A.; the deer in the Florida Keys, and the alligator at Everglades National Park.)

Apr 8 2015

Where Might We Find Holy Ground?

_DSC8003In the seventh chapter of the Book of Acts you will find Stephen’s defense before the Sanhedrin or ruling court of Israel.  He was put on trial for “speaking against this holy place (the temple) and against the law.”  (Acts 6:13)  How Stephen responds to these charges is absolutely amazing.  He had several points he wanted to make in his defense and one of these is that God cannot be tied down to one place or land.  The Jewish leaders of that day had come to believe that God’s presence was pretty much limited to the Temple itself.  In a sense they had put God in a box.  Stephen believed that was not possible and that the very thought was idolatrous.

In Stephen’s defense before the Jewish council he pointed out how God had from the beginning worked and made himself known outside of what they considered the “holy land.”  Contrary to what they might believe, no single place could be identified as God’s house, no area or region could be called the “holy land.”

CA Julia Pffeifer SP waterfall (v)I think this is something we need to consider still today.   Each religion has places it considers as holy land.  Many years ago I spent a month studying in Israel and Jordan.  For a lot of people the “holy land” is Palestine—the land of the Jewish patriarchs and eventually Jesus.  I’m thankful I got to spend a number of weeks there and certainly learned a lot by doing so, but in the end I had to come to the same conclusion as Stephen did, that no land is holier than any other.  What makes any land “holy” is God’s presence and God’s presence is not limited by any geographical border.


Going back to Stephen’s defense, at one point he reminded those who stood as his judges that when God confronted Moses through the burning bush God told him to take off his sandals for the ground he was standing on was holy ground.  (Exodus 3:5)  Where God encountered Moses was not in Israel.  Stephen wanted the Sanhedrin to remember that God has revealed himself in numerous places. Later Stephen brought up how Solomon would eventually build a temple for Israel but that even he realized that no earthly building could contain God.  Stephen quoted Isaiah 66:1-2 to drive home his point:  “This is what the Lord says: ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool.  Where is the house you will build for me?  Where will my resting place be?  Has not my hand made all these things, and so they came into being?’”

WY Grand Teton NP Oxbow BendGod is Maker of heaven and earth.  God cannot and will not be limited to any one building, land or group of people.  God can be encountered anywhere we happen to be.  It may well be in a beautiful sanctuary or shrine, or even in a place of significant religious importance, but God can just as easily be found in a local park, your backyard garden or your own home or workplace.  Stephen did not quote Isaiah 6:3 in his defense but very well could have.  Here the prophet Isaiah hears the angels calling to one another saying, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

If Stephen is right and the angels knew what they were talking about then we must conclude that the whole world is sacred and should be thought of as such.  We must not put limits on where God can speak or act.  You just never know when it comes to God; the place where you are at this very moment may well be holy ground.


(I took the images above in Michigan, California and Wyoming.)

Sep 22 2010

The Testimony of the Seasons

CO-Rocky-Mountain-NP-tundra-003A little after 11:00 tonight autumn will officially begin.  I’d be more excited about that if they weren’t predicting a high of 94 degrees here tomorrow.  I’ve seen a number of recent news articles indicating that this summer has been the hottest one on record.  This fall may prove to be warmer than normal too.  Still, I have no doubt that the temperatures will soon be more comfortable (for me, anyway) and that the annual brilliant show of autumn colors will shortly begin to make an appearance.

The changing of the seasons is actually something God has promised.  In Genesis 8:22 it says, “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.”  This is the promise God gave to Noah following the Flood.  Much later the prophet Daniel would remind others that it is God who causes the seasons to change.  He said, “Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever; wisdom and power are his.  He changes time and seasons…”  (Daniel 2:20-21)

CO-Maroon-Bells-021Even further down the road the apostle Paul spoke of God being behind the changing seasons and how this bears witness to His goodness and faithfulness.  Speaking to a group in Lystra who thought he and Barnabas were Hermes and Zeus because they healed a crippled man, Paul said “turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them.  In the past, he let all nations go their own way.  Yet he has not left himself without testimony.  He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.”

As the seasons change once again today we are reminded that God has ordered this and that it is part of His good plan for Creation.  We are also reminded that the One who consistently brings this cyclic succession is faithful and can be counted on.  This truly is the testimony of the seasons!


(The top image I took at Rocky Mountain National Park in late September.  The bottom picture of Maroon Bells was also taken in Colorado about the same season of the year.)

Sep 5 2010

Science and Religion

AK-Denali-NP-Denali-and-Wonder-Lake-This past week there was a good bit of news coverage about Stephen Hawking’s new claim that Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”  Hawking has apparently moved to the point where he sees no need to posit a Creator.

I certainly respect Hawking’s intelligence and contributions to science but when he makes such a claim I realize this is simply his opinion.  He can no more prove that God was not behind Creation any more than I, or anyone else, can prove that God was.  In the end, both conclusions are faith statements.  They are what we have come to believe based on our observations and experience.

Ironically, on the same day that news of Hawking’s statement broke I received in the mail a new book by William P. Brown called The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder.   In this book Brown seeks to show how theology and science are not mutually exclusive and that both benefit from the other.  He recognizes that both disciplines “represent independent fields of inquiry” but that they also have “common points of interest.”  One common point of interest is wonder.

In the introduction to the book Brown writes: “Is science really hell-bent on eroding humanity’s nobility and eliminating all sense of mystery?  Not the science I know.  Is faith simply a lazy excuse to wallow in human pretension?  Not the faith I know.  What if invoking God was a way of acknowledging the remarkable intelligibility of creation?  What if science fostered a ‘radical openness to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be.’  The faith I know does not keep believers on a leash, preventing them from extending their knowledge of the world.  The science I know is not about eliminating mystery.  To the contrary, the experience of mystery ‘stands at the cradle of true art and true science,’ as Albert Einstein famously intoned.  ‘Whoever does not know it can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead.’”

I realize that many Christians today see science as the enemy but I concur with Brown that we need both theology and science.  I believe that he is on target when he says, “The God in whom ‘we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28) has all to do with the world in which we do indeed live and move and have our being.  The world subsists in God even as God remains present in the world.  It is, admittedly, a mystery.  But through science we become more literate in the mysteries of creation and, in turn, more trustworthy ‘stewards’ of those mysteries.”

Even though I disagree with the conclusion Stephen Hawking has come to, I’m glad that it has gotten people thinking once again about the relationship between science and religion.  In my humble opinion, when it comes to “seeing Creation” fully it will take both.


( I took the image of Mount McKinley and Wonder Lake shown above at Denali National Park in early September a number of years ago.)

Sep 27 2009

Down By The Riverside

Cumberland Falls fall river view vThis past Wednesday I led a Bible study on Acts 16.  In the story of Paul’s second missionary journey he and his partners pay a visit to Philippi.  When Paul entered a new city he would typically begin his work by speaking at the local synagogue.  Philippi did not have one so we read, “On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer.”  What Paul found was a group of women praying.  From this group would emerge the church of Philippi—the recipients of the Book of Philippians.

I find it interesting that Paul and his companions “expected” to find a place of prayer down by the riverside.  Why?  What was it that led him to believe this?  Apparently it was not uncommon in that day for people to gather by a river to worship.  In the case at Philippi it may have been that the river “outside the city gate” provided some protection from local authorities who might not understand this group’s beliefs.  Still, we know that others in different locations also gathered by rivers to worship.  Why?

Rivers play a prominent role in the Scriptures.  In numerous instances it is by a river that God makes Himself known to someone.  People such as Jacob, Joshua, Ezekiel, and Daniel could testify to this, as could Jesus.  It was by the River Jordan that Jesus heard God say, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”  

In that time, rivers came to represent the source of life for many.  This makes sense considering most of the biblical narrative unfolds in an arid region.  Rivers have also long been associated with cleansing.  Most of the world’s religions have rituals involving water and usually they imply cleansing.  Christianity is no different.  Later some came to see rivers as symbolic of God’s ever-flowing love and mercy.  For others, a place to lay down their burdens as suggested by the song, Down By the Riverside.

Perhaps people have gathered near rivers to worship simply for the beauty and peace they find there.  For the way that God seems nearby in His Creation.  I’m certainly glad we have beautiful sanctuaries to worship in today, but like those in the Scriptures, I often find myself drawn to a riverside, a forest or a mountain to worship my God and Savior.  I cannot help but believe that there is good reason to do so.


(The picture above is of the Cumberland River at Cumberland Falls State Park, Kentucky.)

Jun 1 2009

The Wind and the Spirit

Yesterday was a very important day for Christians.  It was Pentecost Sunday.  On this day we remember how the Holy Spirit came in a special way on the day of Pentecost.  You can read about this marvelous event in the second chapter of the Book of Acts.  I chose to preach from this passage yesterday, as I’m sure many other ministers did. 

As I’ve reflected today on the gift of the Holy Spirit is has occurred to me that when the biblical writers refer to the Spirit of God that images from nature are often used.  In Acts 2 the coming of the Spirit is accompanied by wind and fire.  At Jesus’ baptism the Spirit descends upon him in the form of a dove.  The earliest reference to the Spirit is in Genesis 1:2 where it says “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”

In both the Hebrew and Greek language the word for “wind” and “spirit” are the same.  Jesus himself brought attention to this connection in John 3 when he said, “The wind blows wherever it pleases.  You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.  So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

Often when I am out enjoying nature I remember this connection and sense the Spirit of God as the wind blows on my face or on the subjects I am photographing (like these poppies found near Gorman, California).   For those with eyes to see and ears to hear the Spirit of God is still hovering over the waters, and the forests, and the deserts, and all of Creation. O, for eyes to see and ears to hear!

–Chuck Summers