Sunday, April 5, 2015

First Contact – Part 30 – Conclusion

Well, it’s time to bring this First Contact series to a close. As you have read, I have had a lot of First Contacts. Everyone does, I suppose. I could have written more, but I wanted to concentrate on just my first contacts with various religious and philosophical groups. There are plenty of other first contacts I could have written about like jobs, girls, sports, etc. But I didn’t want to go too crazy with this project. Actually there are a few other religious groups I have had contact with that didn’t warrant a full post. I thought I would mention them here in this concluding post.

In Part 21 I talked about the Baptists. But in reality there are a number of different types of Baptists. One kind is the American Baptists. Back in the 1980’s Kathy and I took a long vacation out west. On our way home we stopped to visit some friends that attended an American Baptist Church. The Sunday morning service we attended was memorable for one reason; the preacher complaining about having to wear a tie. During his sermon, the preacher was talking about things we do for the benefit of others. He lifted up his tie and said something like, “For instance, I wear this tie each week. I hate wearing ties, but I wear it because you expect me to.” My thoughts were, “Amen, brother. Preach it!!”

Just an hour north of my hometown is an Amish community. My first contact took place when I was an older teenager. My cousin needed a small wagon for a parade he was going to participate in. He and his dad along with me and my dad traveled up to the Amish community to check out one particular Amish man my uncle had heard could build wagons. While parked alongside the road, I noticed an Amish man exiting his driveway (perhaps better called a trotway) on a horse drawn wagon. I lifted my camera to take a photo. The horse started rearing up and going nuts. The Amish man told me to put my camera away, which I did. Who knew that horses could be that camera shy? My family passes by the Amish community quite often on our way to Nashville, TN, and points north. Occasionally we will stop at a store on the main highway and buy some sweets. They’re good, but nothing special in my opinion. One time we actually drove out into the community and found a roadside stand in front of one of the homes. The food was at the stand, and payment was made using the honor system. While we were browsing the goods, a long-bearded barefoot man exited the house and greeted us. We picked out a few items and paid him. He began asking my son his age and whether he was married or not. When he discovered Andrew was in his 20’s and not married, he began insisting that it was time for him to wed. I guess they encourage marrying young in the Amish community.

There have been two US presidents that were Quakers: Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon. This is interesting to me since I think of colonial America, oats, and motor oil when I hear the word Quaker. But the Quakers still exist today. You may know them as The Religious Society of Friends. I have never been to a Quaker church, but my wife’s niece works at the private Friends Select School in downtown Philadelphia. When we were visiting there a few years ago, she gave us a tour of the school. It was quite impressive. The school is in a multi-floored building with an indoor swimming pool and an athletic field on the roof. As you might expect, the cost of attending this school is quite high, but probably well worth it if you have the money.

Perhaps you have heard of the Shakers, also known as the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing. If not, you may have heard of the Shaker style of furniture, which consists of simple cuts for panels and other things. According to Wikipedia, the Shakers were founded in the 18th century in England, some of whom came to colonial America. The Shakers were a spinoff of the Quakers, their name being a shortened version of Shaking Quakers, which came about as a result of their shaking behavior during worship services. I remember visiting the Shaker Village in Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, many years ago with my wife and her parents. We were told that members were separated into men’s dorms and women’s dorms. They were not allowed to come together except for worship. Members were to remain celibate, which meant that the only way to replenish the sect was to bring in converts. As you might expect, they didn’t last. I guess there just weren’t enough people who wanted to go their entire lives without sex. What a surprise!

After my father’s death about two years ago I began receiving a lot of his mail. Somehow certain organizations thought my dad was still alive and living in my house. And even more surprising, I began receiving mail addressed to my mom who died over 12 years ago. One magazine I began to receive of hers was “The Way of Truth”. It is a publication of the Church of God (Universal). The masthead states it has no published subscription price and exists based solely on freewill donations. So, I don’t know whether or not my mom gave them money or not. I am still receiving this magazine, having just received the April 2015 issue. Apparently the main church is located in Hagerstown, Maryland. Some people online were claiming they were a cult, trapping family members in it. Others countered by saying they were probably just dealing with a few overzealous members. I have read some articles in their magazine and I just listened to parts of a recent sermon online. It all sounds like typical church teaching and preaching to me, so who knows.

One thing that I find fascinating is how many different denominations there are in the Christian religion. The differences started immediately after the Christian Church started. You can see these differences emerging in the New Testament itself. One of the first divisions was over who could be a Christian. For quite some time after Jesus’ death, only Jews were converting to Christianity. Some leaders, such as James, the head of the Jerusalem church, initially had a problem with Gentiles coming into the faith without first becoming a Jew via circumcision. Paul, who claimed to have received his gospel directly from God rather than from the apostles who walked with Jesus, believed differently. Eventually James relented and decided that only four things were required of the Gentiles converting to The Way, which you can read about in Acts 15. We also know from the New Testament that Christians were dividing themselves up by who had baptized them or who they admired. Paul talked about this in 1 Corinthians 1:10-17.

Another well known division was over the relative importance of faith and works. Paul emphasized faith, basically believing that a person of faith will do good works. James, the writer of the epistle carrying his name, believed that works was how one shows their faith. A subtle difference to be sure, but apparently there were some that believed that faith alone was what saved people. Hence the need for James to address this issue in his epistle.

Over time the church split over issues such as what the essence of Christ consisted of. Also, the Gnostic movement came about teaching that secret knowledge was needed to be a Christian. The Gospel of John gives you a taste of what this type of Christianity was like, but there are other non-canonical Gnostic gospels also. Keep in mind that during the time of the early church much of the New Testament had not been written and as Paul wrote his letters not every church had every letter. Also, over time many “Christian” documents were written, not all of which were accepted by every Christian. Charges of heresy were being slung back and forth between different groups all claiming to be true Christians. It is easy to see how such confusion occurred during those times.

The infighting subsided to a great extent when Emperor Constantine became a Christian and called for some order in the church. Eventually many of the contentious issues were settled, not to everyone’s liking of course, but settled nonetheless. This brought at least a semblance of unity in the church. For hundreds of years the church was one in the form of the Catholic Church. This ended in the early 15th century when rival popes eventually caused the church to split into the Roman or Catholic Church (aka the Western Churches) and the Orthodox Churches (aka the Eastern Churches). The next great split came after the time of Martin Luther. His efforts to reform the Catholic Church eventually led to the Protestant movement.

The thing that brought back many divisions in the church was the printing press. With this invention, copies of the Bible could be printed at a low enough cost to make it available to the common man. Before this, every copy of the Bible had to be handwritten, which was an expensive and time consuming endeavor. Common men not being able to read the Bible allowed the clergy to maintain control of the Bible’s interpretation. In addition to Bibles becoming affordable to more people, a number of scholars began translating the Bible into the languages of common men. This really threatened the clergy. I’m sure they knew that once that happened, they would lose their control over the Bible’s meaning. Every man would be able to determine its meaning on his own. Thus, the church outlawed this practice. But the Bible was like a modern day drug. If people want something bad enough, no law can hold them back. Thus, over time huge numbers of denominations sprang up as many different interpretations of the Bible became commonplace.

So, divisions came full circle. The divisions of the early church due to a lack of canonical books morphed into divisions due to differing interpretations of canonical books. Oh, well.

I hope you have enjoyed this series of blog posts. I certainly enjoyed writing them. I am toying with some ideas for a new series, so stayed tuned.

Friday, April 3, 2015

First Contact – Part 29 – Supernatural

I grew up believing in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. As all children do at some age, I eventually began to question these characters’ existence. So, you can imagine how much of a relief it was for me, at the tender age of 16, to finally prove that they were all indeed real. That is, if the figments of people’s imaginations can be considered real. But seriously, I can still remember riding in the backseat of our car when I was maybe five or six years old. I saw two or three Santas along the way on street corners. I wondered how all those Santas could be the real Santa. Mom had explained that most of them were just Santa’s helpers, but that’s not what they claimed to be. I also began questioning how Santa could slide down a chimney or squeeze through a keyhole. In other words, the rational part of my brain was beginning to kick in and question the fanciful tales I had been told. Interestingly, my son Andrew began questioning Santa’s existence when he was four. Kathy and I had determined that we would not intentionally lie to him about Santa, so if he ever asked directly, we would tell him the truth. I can still remember tucking him into bed one evening near Christmas and the conversation going like this.

Andrew: “Does Santa Claus really exist?”
Me: “What do you think?”
Andrew: “I don’t think he’s real.”
Me: “Do you want to know the truth?”
Andrew: “Yes.”
Me: “You’re right. He is not real.”
Andrew (after thinking a bit): “I think I’m going to believe in him anyway.”
Me: “That’s fine. Just don’t tell your friends. Their parents may not want them to know.”
Andrew: “I won’t.”

Andrew proceeded to pretend Santa was real. He’d go sit on his lap at the mall and leave cookies and milk out on Christmas Eve. The next morning, he’d ask Kathy and me who had eaten them. One or both of us would fess up. Kathy and I never perceived that Andrew enjoyed Christmas any less with his truthful knowledge than his friends with false knowledge.

Another part of my supernatural upbringing was that my mom was apparently a psychic. She told me that it began when she was a young girl. She was in the kitchen at home working on a meal when a voice in her head said, “The barn is on fire.” She didn’t think too much of it, but a few minutes later one of her brothers came running into the house yelling, “The barn is on fire.” From that point forward, The Voice would talk to her on occasion. The one I remember best is when she first met my new friend’s mother. The Voice told her that she and her husband were going to get a divorce. Well, it was several years later, but indeed the divorce did come to pass. When I was older, that same friend was going to the car races with his dad, and they invited me. I asked Mom if I could go. She was very hesitant about it. She finally told me that The Voice had told her something bad was going to happen. I didn’t care about The Voice, so kept pleading with her. She finally relented. My friend and I loaded into the back of his dad’s truck and left for the races. We had a great time and arrived home safely. Hey, even Jeane Dixon got it wrong occasionally.

My mom also used to tell me about spooky things she saw as a child. They were kind of like ghost stories, but supposedly true. She used to see lights bouncing around in the sky. Since this was before the days of UFO stories, she didn’t think too much about it. She would just marvel at them. One evening as she and her family were walking home from church they all saw a ball of fire approaching them from the east. As it passed overhead, her dad threw his hat at it. It continued on over the woods to the west and disappeared. She never knew what it was. But the most bizarre story she told me was about the time she had to get up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom. At that time, potty time was not an easy time. There was no toilet in the house. They didn’t even have an outhouse. She had to go out to the field and squat. ‘Nough said. Anyway, when she went out the front door she noticed a three-story building with all the windows lit up directly across the road. That would be fine if there had been an actual building there, but there wasn’t. It was just woods. And they didn’t even have electricity in the area at that time. She said she sat on the front porch for a while watching it. She finally did her business and went back to bed. I still don’t know what to think about all those stories Mom told me, especially since I have never experienced anything similar. Well, mostly. I have experienced a couple of bizarre incidents.

Incident #1: Many years ago I went with a female coworker to a new restaurant in town for lunch. It was fixed up with a lot of decorations, TVs on the walls, and a side room with arcade games. While waiting for our food, I began watching an old B&W movie that had just started. The title of the movie was a woman’s name that I cannot remember, so let’s just say it was Amelia. Well, at the point that Amelia makes her first appearance in the movie, she is asked who she is. She responds, “Amelia.” Well, just at the time she said her name, an employee of the restaurant came over the intercom to call out the name of the customer whose order was ready to pick up. You guessed it, the name was Amelia. Kind of bizarre, don’t you think? Anyway, after my friend and I finished eating, we were just sitting there relaxing when I heard a deep male voice behind me say, “Better get back to work.” I quickly turned and looked all around, but there was no one anywhere near me. Just when I thought I might be hearing things, my coworker said, “Yeah, you’re right.” I asked her who she was talking to. She said, “Didn’t you just say we needed to get back to work?” I responded that I had not, but I had heard someone else saying it. To this day I still don’t know whose voice that was or where it came from. Upon telling my mother, she of course believed it was a supernatural warning that we really needed to get back to work or something bad was going to happen.

Incident #2: On March 30, 1981, as I was driving home from work, I heard a report on the radio that President Ronald Reagan, Press Secretary James Brady, and others had been attacked and shot by a crazed gunman. The report went on to say that James Brady, as a result of a gunshot wound to his head, was dead. I began praying that Brady would somehow not be dead. I knew this was a rather brazen prayer given that I was in fact praying for nothing less than a resurrection. Later I heard reports that Brady was in fact not dead. The earlier reports had been incorrect. Even so, the report of Brady still being alive gave me pause.

Other family members have reported seemingly supernatural events, also. Back in the late 1970’s, soon after my grandmother died, several of my relatives were at my grandfather’s house. An uncle was sitting in a chair directly opposite a wall where a whatnot hung. On a shelf of the whatnot was a small porcelain cup that had belonged to my grandmother. Suddenly my uncle saw the cup slide off the shelf and begin floating in the air toward him. Flabbergasted, all he could do was stare. When the cup got within a few feet of him, it quit moving towards him and the handle turned upward as if someone was holding it. Slowly it descended straight to the floor whereupon the cup appeared to have been released and then rolled over until the handle contacted the floor. He later described it to me as something straight from the TV show “Bewitched.” A second uncle, who was standing nearby but facing the opposite direction, caught a glimpse of the cup as it hit the floor. Thinking a young niece was responsible, he called out for her to stop throwing things. She was not even in the room at the time. A cousin was in the dining room at the time and reported that he also caught a glimpse, through a doorway, of the cup as it was moving though the air. When the second uncle asked the first uncle how the cup got on the floor, he was speechless. After asking a few more times, he was finally able to answer that it had just floated over there. Several of the family members got together and tried to determine what had caused the cup to come off the shelf, cross the room, and settle on the floor. During the course of their investigation, they set the cup back on the shelf and pushed it off my hand. The cup sailed quickly through the air and hit the floor with such force as to break it into many pieces. A third uncle, when later told about this incident, said that he would give a hundred dollars to have seen that cup floating through the air. The uncle that saw the whole event responded that he would give a hundred dollars to not have seen it. Interestingly, the uncle who saw the cup floating through the air had been a skeptic of all the supernatural stories he had heard from other people. However, after this event, he told me he would never doubt other people’s stories ever again.

In addition to the paranormal stories, I will mention my religious upbringing. My dad never went to church as I was growing up. My mom attended some, but was dependent on having her cousin pick her up since she didn’t drive. I attended the Baptist church they went to when I was younger. Despite the lack of regular church attendance of parents, I was reared believing the Bible was the Word of God and worthy of being read and adhered to. Even so, as an older teenager, the rational part of my brain related to religion began to develop, so I rejected the Bible. I basically told people that I believed in God, just not the God of the Bible. There just didn’t seem to be enough evidence to support the veracity of the Bible’s supernatural stories. Yet, when I was 25 years old, I accepted Christ as my savior and was baptized into the church. By the age of 28, however, I was once again questioning the truthfulness of the Bible and eventually deconverted from Christianity. It wasn’t that I wanted to deconvert. I just couldn’t bring myself to believe something that I deep down knew did not have sufficient evidence to back it up. I eventually documented all my thoughts on this matter in a book entitled God Is: Exploring the Nature of the Biblical God.

To this day I am still skeptical of all supernatural or paranormal stories just as was my uncle before he saw the cup floating through the air. But I readily admit that should I ever see something totally unexplainable, I may change my mind. But it seems that usually when supernatural claims are put to the test scientifically, natural explanations are always forthcoming. One person who has been diligent about exposing people with supposed psychic, paranormal, or supernatural abilities is magician James Randi (aka The Amazing Randi). For many years now he has had a challenge in which if a person can demonstrate his supernatural powers under controlled conditions he will receive a substantial cash prize. Everyone who has taken this challenge has failed. Randi documents many exposés in Flim-Flam!: Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, and Other Delusions as well as other books.

Please keep in mind that if you have had what you consider to be a supernatural experience, I am not telling you it was not real. What I am saying is that our brain can sometimes trick us into believing something that wasn’t real. Also, sometimes what we consider to be supernatural is really a rare natural phenomenon. But then again it could be a for real supernatural experience. Still, most people can only judge the truthfulness of a claim based on their own personal experience. If someone tells me they just bought a new computer, I have no immediate basis for disbelieving him as this is an easily observed activity. However, if a friend tells me he just bought a dog that can speak German, French, and English, I do have an immediate basis for disbelieving him since no such thing has ever been reported in the history of man. As Carl Sagan said in his book Cosmos, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

If you have any stories of your personal encounters with the supernatural, I would love to hear them. Just leave them in the comment section.