What Others Say

"Bill Tinsley's Reflections column has been a welcome addition to the Times Record News Religion pages, offering thought-provoking and timely insights on religious topics that span denominational lines."

Bridget Knight, Religion Editor, Times Record News, Wichita Falls, Texas

Monday, September 15, 2014

When God Comes Close

Celtic Christianity has a term to refer to those moments when the separation between this world and heaven becomes so minimal that we sense the presence of God. They call these the “thin places.” They are the places where love and compassion reign. Where forgiveness overcomes resentment. Where selfishness is swallowed up in sacrifice. Where prejudice surrenders to acceptance. Where the violent flame is quenched and people live in peace. They are the times when our soul is overwhelmed with awe and we worship God.

The news usually focuses on “thick places” where our world is farthest from God. For some strange reason people gravitate to the sick stories of murder, corruption, abuse, crime and war. But God gives us moments when He comes near, moments when we sense the fragrance of His presence and we hear the whisper of His voice.

Sometimes the “thin places” make their way into the media. We witnessed a thin place when the Amish community in Lancaster, Pennsylvania provided food and comfort to the family of the killer who murdered their daughters in the Amish school a few years ago.

Sometimes we sense the thin place when we stand before God’s creation and marvel at its majesty, beauty, complexity and balance. My wife and I felt we were observing one of those “thin places” when we watched the full moon slowly rise over the ocean last week at Galveston. 

Sometimes we feel it in cathedrals and churches or informal and intimate gatherings with other believers. Sometimes the thin places appear in everyday life. Often, when they do, they are unexpected..

When Jesus came, the reign of God broke through upon the earth so that we were able to see, in a brilliant flash, what God’s Kingdom really looks like. This is what John meant when he said, “That was the true light, which, coming into the world enlightens every man … we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten of the Father.” Wherever Jesus went he created a thin place. This is why Jesus said, “the Kingdom of God is at hand.”

When He sent his followers out, Jesus taught them to live and speak in such a way that people would know that they had come into a “thin place.” “Whatever city you enter and they receive you, eat what is set before you; and heal those in it who are sick, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.'” (Luke 10:8).

As followers of Jesus our task is to help create the thin places. We do so by living in such a way that the reign of God rules in our hearts, controlling our speech, our actions and our decisions. We are to create “thin places” wherever we work or study, among our co-workers, fellow students, family, friends and even our enemies.

Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy Kingdom come Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.” He was teaching us to pray that we might become instruments for the thin places. This is why Jesus said, “You are the light of the world … let your light so shine that men may see your good works and glorify your father who is in Heaven.” God desires that His reign and rule should be displayed and celebrated.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Ebola Crisis

Ebola continues in the news.  Last week another doctor returned to the United States who was infected with the disease while treating patients in Liberia.  Dr. Rick Sacra, a family physician from Massachusetts is the latest US victim diagnosed with the disease.  He arrived at the Nebraska Medical Center on Friday, September 5, where he was declared “sick but stable” by medical staff.

That same evening  Matt Lauer’s interview with Dr. Kent Brantly was aired on NBC.  Dr. Brantly and his colleague, Nancy Writebol, were the first US medical personnel diagnosed with the disease.  Their diagnosis and return to the United States for treatment ignited global fears of a worldwide epidemic.  Writebol and Brantly were treated in Atlanta.  

In Liberia where Brantly, Writebol and Sacra served as medical missionaries, the ebola virus has killed more than 1,000 people since its arrival six months ago.  There is no known cure for the disease.  Up to 90% of ebola victims die suffering from acute diarrhea, vomiting, uncontrolled shaking and, in many cases both internal and external bleeding.

Both Writebol and Brantly recovered and were declared free of the ebola virus last week.  Their story raises several questions.  The first question many ask is:  What saved them?  Did we find a cure? 

The medical community is guarded in their response.  Perhaps they found some clues that will help discover a cure.  But others have received similar treatment given to Brantly and Writebol and died, including two doctors, one from Spain and another from Liberia. 

When asked about his treatment and recovery, Dr. Brantly was clearly convinced that the real secret to his recovery was prayer.  Brantly said, “The people in the room taking care of me, they began praying over me. What I didn’t know at the time is that there were also people outside my house praying for me.” He thoughtfully added, “There were thousands of people, including my teammates there in Liberia who were begging the Lord to save my life.” 

A second question is: Why were these saved and not others?

Nancy Writebol responded, “We don’t understand the way the Lord works. Why did God allow us to receive treatment? Why were we saved and not others? I don’t know that we can ever answer that question.”

But there is a third question.  Why did these individuals leave their successful medical practice and the safety of their homes to put their lives at risk treating impoverished patients in Liberia? 

Dr. Kent Brantly released this statement in response to that question: My wife Amber and I, along with our two children, did not move to Liberia for the specific purpose of fighting Ebola. We went to Liberia because we believe God called us to serve Him at ELWA Hospital.
“One thing I have learned is that following God often leads us to unexpected places. When Ebola spread into Liberia, my usual hospital work turned more and more toward treating the increasing number of Ebola patients. … I witnessed the horror firsthand, and I can still remember every face and name.

“When I started feeling ill on that Wednesday morning, I immediately isolated myself until the test confirmed my diagnosis three days later. When the result was positive, I remember a deep sense of peace that was beyond all understanding. God was reminding me of what He had taught me years ago, that He will give me everything I need to be faithful to Him.”
The ebola crisis is expected to escalate in the next few weeks.  Hopefully Dr. Brantly’s illness, along with Mrs. Writebol and Dr. Sacra will signal a global call for prayer, courage and sacrifice to stamp out the disease and rescue the victims in west Africa.   

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Stephen Hawking, ALS, The Ice Challenge and Faith

I like Stephen Hawking.  I admire his brilliance. Even more, I admire the courage he has shown in his fight with ALS.  Last week he took the ice challenge for ALS awareness.  Actually, since he suffered with pneumonia this past year and his health is frail, his children took the ice dunk for him.

Hawking was diagnosed with ALS in 1963 when he was 21. The doctors gave him two years to live. That was 51 years ago.  Since then he has won numerous awards and made major contributions to physics.  His best known work is “A Brief History of Time,” with more than three million copies sold.

I was saddened a few years ago when he said, “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”

It is difficult for me to comprehend how such a brilliant mind can reach the conclusion that all we observe in the universe is an accident, that there is no intelligent force or design behind our existence.  It seems as illogical to me as finding a state-of-the-art functioning PC in the desert and concluding it just accidentally originated from nowhere. 

Science and empirical evidence can only take us so far.  The question Hawking is dealing with is bigger than any religion or denominational expression. It is also bigger than science.  It is a question we all must face and answer.  How we answer it makes a great deal of difference in how we live and how meaningful our lives are. 

Hawking concluded that since there is no God, humans should seek to live the most valuable lives they can while on Earth.  This too, makes no sense to me. If there is no God, where is the motive to live responsible and valuable lives?  We are sucked into a black hole of non-existence and non-meaning.  What does it matter?

If we argue that love matters then, it seems to me, we are thrown back into the very lap of God.  Love is the greatest and most mysterious reality in our existence, eclipsing all other discoveries.  Who wants to live in a world of technological perfection and scientific achievement without love?  A loveless world would leave us shallow, fragmented, lonely, isolated, fearful, and miserable.

Here lies the greatest truth:  “God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.”  (1 John 4:16). 

Ultimately, I suppose, faith or non-faith is a choice.  We can choose to believe that our world is the result of a creative God who desired and designed our existence from the tiniest molecule to the most distant star or we can choose not to believe.

The idea that human beings are no more than computers that will one day crash and be discarded as junk leads nowhere.  For my part, I will choose to believe.  It is the only conclusion that seems to make any sense.

Monday, August 25, 2014

As Luck Will Have It

I knew a church that often enjoyed pot luck dinners.  All sorts of dishes would show up from kitchens in the community: fried chicken, ham, lasagna, chicken and rice casserole, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, cucumber salad, macaroni and cheese, pinto beans, asparagus, chocolate cakes, apple pies, puddings and much more, … too many to list. Those who made their way down both sides of the table emerged with plates running over.  The biggest problem was finding enough space on the plate to sample everything that showed up. 

The church called a new pastor who was not familiar with the culinary traditions of the church.  He was staunchly set against all forms of gambling and soon railed against the very idea of a pot “luck” dinner.  The deacons and the women of the church got together and changed the name of their frequent fellowship to a “pot providence” dinner, which seemed to calm the theological storm so that everyone could once again enjoy the cooking.
I know it sounds a little odd. But strange things happen in churches and it does raise a question.  How much of life is providence and how much is just plain good and back luck?  For some, of course, there is no such thing as chance.  Everything, down to the smallest detail of every day is providential.  And for others, there is no such thing as providence.  Life is just the luck of the draw. But is it?

Forest Gump, in the classic movie of the same name, contemplated the question that faces us all. Is life the result of random chance, like a feather balanced on the breeze, or does destiny direct our path?
Mathematics contains an entire field of probability and chance. Any single flip of a coin cannot be predicted. But if that coin is flipped enough times, it will eventually sustain the laws of probability. All things being equal, it will turn up tails just as often as it lands on heads.  This is called the “law of large numbers.”

The entire insurance industry is built on the actuarial tables of probability.  The probabilities are so predictable that billions of dollars are invested every day based on no more than the predictability of probable outcomes.
At the same time, some of the greatest men in American history have recognized the power of a providential presence. Benjamin Franklin opened his famous autobiography by saying, “I desire with all humility to acknowledge that I owe the mentioned happiness of my past life to His kind providence.”  George Washington repeatedly referred to “providence” as a guiding force throughout his life.

In 1862, during the Civil War, Lincoln stated, “If after endeavoring to do my best in the light which He affords me, I find my efforts fail, I must believe that for some purpose unknown to me, He wills it otherwise. … and though with our limited understandings we may not be able to comprehend it, yet we cannot but believe, that He who made the world still governs it.”
Reflecting on his life, King David wrote, “Your eyes have seen my unformed substance; and in Your book were all written the days that were ordained for me  when as yet there was not one of them.” Psalm 139:16).

Isaiah declares, “And the Lord will continually guide you, and satisfy your desire in scorched places, and give strength to your bones; and you will be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water whose waters do not fail.”  (Isaiah 58:11)
While God has established laws of probability in the universe as real as the physical law of gravity, He has also established His providential presence by which we can discover His plan and purpose for our life.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Back To School Starts At Home

Children and youth are headed back to school.  Summer vacations are almost over. Silent buildings and empty playgrounds will soon echo with classroom lectures and children’s laughter. It is a time to put away the lazy days of sleeping late, TV, video games, and camp. To  wake before sunrise and wait for the bus.  The smells of erasers, crayons, markers and freshly painted classrooms along with the rumble of yellow buses mark an annual rite of passage.  It forms the rhythm of our lives, as surely as the first crisp scent of fall and the turning of green leaves to gold.  We wake up to the echo of school bands, coaches’ whistles and the smack of shoulder pads practicing for the big games soon to come.  

It is a time filled with conflicting currents of freedom and fear, opportunity and obstacles.  Younger children are finally old enough to follow older brothers and sisters off to school with their own backpack of books.  College freshmen are finally off on their own, away from home, their heads spinning with dreams and doubt.  

Babies become children, let go by weeping parents.  Houses that vibrated with teen-age noise surrender to the silence of an empty nest.  And college freshmen are shocked with the stabs of homesickness.  It is, of course, the stuff of life: joy and sorrow, celebration and challenge, learning and growing.

I am a fan of public schools.  I like the fact that, in our imperfect system, every child has a chance to learn. I love movies about public school teachers and the difference they make in students’ lives, like Freedom Writers or Mr. Holland’s Opus.  My wife is a career public school teacher.  Across the years she has taught high school, third grade and kindergarten.  Her last assignment was to teach pregnant and parenting teens. Her students had a ninety percent graduation rate.

Even though schools take summer breaks, school is never out.  Children and youth are always learning, and sometimes the most important lessons they learn are the moments when parents and adults are least aware.  They learn honesty, generosity, courtesy and faith by watching us in check-out lines, by observing how we react in rush hour traffic and by listening to our conversations at home.  They are always watching and always learning, even when we think they are tuned out.

Churches and schools, public or private, cannot replace the important role parents play in teaching their children. That is why the Bible says, “But tell to the generation to come the praises of the Lord, and His strength and His wondrous works that He has done.  For He established a testimony in Jacob and appointed a law in Israel, which He commanded our fathers that they should teach them to their children, that the generation to come might know, even the children yet to be born, that they may arise and tell them to their children, That they should put their confidence in God. (Psalm 78:4-6).  

To the children, the Bible says, “My son, observe the commandment of your father
And do not forsake the teaching of your mother; bind them continually on your heart;
tie them around your neck. When you walk about, they will guide you; when you sleep, they will watch over you; and when you awake, they will talk to you.” (Proverbs 6:20-22)

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Robin Williams

The world woke up today stunned by the news of Robin Williams’ apparent suicide.  According to reports of those close to him, Williams had been struggling with depression.  The sad and tragic end to his life seemed incongruous for one who brought so much laughter to those of us who watched him perform on stage and screen.

Like his life that loomed large on the screen, Williams’ death loomed large on the world stage. Millions joined his family in mourning his loss.  Celebrities from across the spectrum struggled for words to express their grief at the shocking news.

Perhaps it is a reminder that there are deadly undertows in life that suck any person beneath the surface and drown their desire to live.  Like the rip tides that drag swimmers into the deep, the undercurrents of anger, guilt and despair can drag anyone into the depths of depression from which they cannot survive.   Almost every family is touched by this tragedy that is often buried in memories too sensitive to touch.

A little more than a year ago I wrote a column about suicide.  One of my readers sent it to his friends whose son had taken his own life. They wrote in response:

“Thank you.  No one other than our closest relatives, and there are very few left; has mentioned our son’s suicide in conversation or written word since it happened.  That alone, being the elephant in the room that no one dare acknowledge, is sometimes the most painful emotion. We are used to it and we understand…..it is just very strange.  It pleases me so for someone to actually mention what happened. Death is a part of life just as other things.

“Trust that my wife and I are stronger now than we were then.  We have been married 42 years and we have become the “union” that the Bible speaks of.  We have full faith of our reunion with our son.  Suicide can be a complex issue to a theologian.  It is a simple fact of love and faith for those close to it.  Feel free to share our story to those who know us, or even to those who do not.  It is through the grace of God that we survived.  It is through the grace of God that we love life and have a genuine peace that passes all understanding.”

 Their response reminds me of Paul’s response to a Roman guard who was about to commit suicide. After Paul admonished the soldier to “do yourself no harm.”  The man asked, “What must I do to be saved?”  Paul responded, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.  You and your whole household.”  The man dropped his sword, took them to his house and washed their wounds.  (Acts 16:25-34).

David, wrote, “I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage.  Yes, wait for the Lord.” (Psalm 27:13-14).

Monday, August 4, 2014


I typically don’t think much about sleep. But when you fly through seven or more time zones in a single day, you think about it.  When everyone else is getting up, your body is begging to go to bed. When everyone else is settling down for a good night’s sleep, your body is wide awake and looking for something to do. It takes a few days, at least, to “reset the body clock.”

Sleep is an amazing thing.  We all require it, including the animals.  Even my dog sleeps.  I know, I have spent the night camping in a tent with him.  He snores. Sleep appears to be a requirement for all animal life, though it may vary in intensity and method.

Something mysterious and magical happens when we sleep.

Kenneth Cooper, the world-famous physician who set us on the path for aerobic health more than forty years ago, maintains that adequate sleep, like adequate exercise and diet, are essential to balanced health.  He states, “Most studies indicate that the average person needs somewhere between the traditional 7 and 8 hours a night. If you get much more sleep than that … you feel sluggish and fuzzy-headed during the day.  … if you get too little sleep .. you tend to feel like death warmed over.”

Sleep deprivation has been used as a means of interrogation and even torture.  In some cases, the inability to sleep has had catastrophic consequences.  Many think the popular actor, Heath Ledger’s  tragic death from a prescription drug overdose may have been caused by his ongoing battle with chronic insomnia.

Scientists have a pretty good idea of what goes on during sleep, but no one seems to know exactly how it happens. According to the Sleep Foundation, the body and the brain are repaired and nourished during the phases of non-rapid eye movement (NREM)  and rapid-eye-movement (REM). Somehow the body repairs its muscles, consolidates memory and releases hormones that regulate growth and appetite.

Even Jesus slept.  His twelve disciples found it incredible that he could sleep in the bow of the boat during a raging storm. Frantic with fear, they woke him.   Awakened from his sleep, Jesus asked, “Why are you afraid, you men of little faith?”  He then rebuked the winds and the waves, and the place where they were became perfectly calm. His disciples were astonished and looking at one another asked, “What manner of man is this, that even the wind and the waves obey him?” (Matthew 8:23-27).

The need to sleep recognizes our mortality.  For seven to eight hours of every day, between a fourth and a third of every twenty-four hours, the world continues without us.  During that time, we are totally and completely dependent upon others and upon God for our existence and our well-being.  We are not the masters of our fate.

The Scripture states, “In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat — for he grants sleep to those he loves.” (Psalm 127:2)