Faith for the Taking

Are we a people of faith?

God offers us so much, doesn’t he? Forgiveness. Healing. Spiritual liberation. He is indeed a God of infinite mercy and grace and compassion. None of these things can be taken from us because they are the gifts—the riches—offered to us by a Creator whose love for us is limitless. Who could possibly ask for more? So I ask again, are we a people of faith?

I wonder sometimes.

Negativity is seemingly everywhere and more often than not, we seem to cling to the things we have rather than giving freely as Paul suggests in today’s reading from 2nd Corinthians. You might say that Paul is calling for a redistribution of wealth when he says that we ought to give according to what we have, for the sake of equality. He isn’t calling for a shift in the power structure where the ruling class becomes impoverished and the poor become rich; where the oppressor becomes the oppressed and vice versa. He is simply saying that we should be seeking an equitable balance in our society where the basic needs of all are taken care of. You might be wondering, how might such a thing be accomplished? I’m glad you asked; the answer is simple: by giving freely.

Giving should hurt a little bit, shouldn’t it? It is easy to give a little; harder to give a lot. We tend to calculate everything and yes, good stewardship of finances is important. Can we know for certain that what Paul tells us today is going to hold true in our lives? Paul tells the Corinthians “at this present time your abundance is a supply for their need, so that someday their abundance may become a supply for your need, that there may be equality.”

What guarantee is there that if we give when we have an abundance, we will receive when times are tough for us? There is no way to prove that; no economist or accountant would ever recommend hedging our bets on such a notion. But are we people of the bottom line? Or are we people faith?

How many of us know someone or maybe are someone who has had the experience that the more freely they’ve given when they’ve had more than they needed, the more it seemed that they received without even asking for it during times when life was not so good? That the more they’ve opened their wallets to help out friends and strangers alike, the more likely it seemed that when they were down on their luck, someone would come along to ease their burden?

This could be a coincidence. Maybe they’re just lucky. Some people do seem to have the good fortune of having things go their way more often than not. Or maybe the key has just been their willingness to make themselves available in the lives of others. We are a Christian family. We help those who are in need—at least I hope we do. All of us have had our moments of surplus and our moments of need.

But have any of us ever been hungry? I don’t mean “hangry” as my wife would call it, where we’ve gone a few hours without food and we’ve just seen a commercial for Chili’s or Burger King and we’re really getting a little moody because we’re dying to satiate that craving for something delicious. My wife and I just returned from a mission trip to Peru and I’m not sure what I was expecting prior to arriving in the mountains above Lima but it was nothing like what we actually encountered. There are simply no words to describe the poverty we witnessed; no way to convey the hunger that was all around us. We each spent a day with Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity in Lima’s Pueblos Jóvenes—this being one of the poorest neighborhoods…on earth!—and the hunger and desperation can only be described as a crime against Creation itself. I don’t know that any of us here have ever experienced this kind of desperation and hopelessness; feeling that we had no choice but to resort to desperate measures; to…take…something that wasn’t ours.

It hurts. It really hurts when you have to endure that kind of plight while simultaneously being aware of the fact that there are so many people in our country and in our world that have more than they could ever spend in two lifetimes.

It hurts. Because it should not happen. Children should not go to bed hungry anywhere. Parents should not have to choose between whether they can afford to keep their children or be forced to abandon them on the doorstep of an orphanage. When you push people to their limits and force them into desperation, it is only natural for the human survival instinct to kick in—even if it appears to go against all that we might comfortably view as being moral or decent.

So why, then, does it surprise us or maybe even instill outrage in some of us when we hear about or read about people who—much like the bleeding woman in today’s Gospel reading—take matters into their own hands and simply take that which they so desperately need?

In discussing today’s Gospel reading, I don’t mean to diminish the importance of the miracle of Jesus’ healing of Jairus’ daughter but that’s just Jesus doing what Jesus does. Jairus had faith and his faith saved his daughter’s life. A beautiful and true story. But it’s just Jesus doing his thing. For me, the more amazing part of today’s Gospel is found in the faith of the unnamed bleeding woman.

She wasn’t an important man like Jairus; she was a poor woman; insignificant to the point that Mark didn’t even name her. She did not have a male sponsor (something that would have been important back then) and she was viewed as impure because of her bleeding Mark doesn’t say where or why she was bleeding and we don’t need to make speculations because regardless, Jewish law would have viewed her as perpetually unclean. She was a cast-out. An undesirable; a woman who, for all intents and purposes, would have had no chance to make it in this world; a woman…without…hope.

And yet…with Jesus…there is always hope.

With all that we know about Jesus—thousands of years of history and scholarship and research—we still have such little faith because we’re so caught up with our own nonsensical obsessions and insecurities and paranoias. We’re so quick to abandon hope and delude ourselves into believing that we are in control so we foolishly try to create heaven-on-earth-scenarios in this world. We cast aside members of our own society through draconian policies of law enforcement and implementation; for-profit-prisons and mass incarcerations of specific demographics aka “slavery by another name;” a blatant disregard for the under-employed, the unemployed and the homeless; so-called “quality-of-life” laws that criminalize panhandling and merely sleeping on city sidewalks; quality of life for WHOM?

You’ve heard it said that desperate times call for desperate measures; there is no time more desperate in a person’s life than when they literally have nothing left to lose. It is interesting however that for many, desperation leads people not to bad behavior but instead to seek a source of hope. Like the children Jessica and I spent the last 8 days with, this poor, outcast, bleeding woman who most certainly had nothing left to lose recognized the embodiment of Truth when he stood before her. She knew that because of her status, she probably would not have been granted a meeting with Jesus had she attempted to arrange one with the burly fishermen who surrounded him. In other words, because of society’s prejudices and norms, she could not even get a foot in the door because the deck was perpetually stacked against her. So she resorted to desperate measures; she improvised. She “took” what she knew she needed.

The children we worked with in Peru recognize that Jesus is their hope and they process together every Sunday through the streets of their little town to church because they know where to find the only thing that matters in this world. When communion time comes, there is something resembling organized chaos as the entire church seems to get up in unison and rush the altar. They recognize their source of hope.

Perhaps for the bleeding woman, her action was a form of “theft.” After all, civic laws throughout history have either been based on or have been very much in line with the Ten Commandments and stealing made God’s top ten list of no-no’s. This woman quite literally took Jesus’ power from him. It says so right there in Mark’s Gospel: “At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, ‘Who touched my clothes?”’ But Jesus—a master—THE MASTER—of forgiveness and compassion–decides to turn this into a teaching moment; not for her—he already knows her heart—but for the rest of us. Jesus’ response to feeling the healing power drain from him is: “Who touched my clothes?”

This is a fascinating question. Did he really not know? Some scholars believe that he didn’t. I’m not entirely certain but I don’t think it matters because by asking that question, he offers her a moment for true redemption. And…she accepts it. She is honest; she falls to her knees at his feet and as Mark says, “tells him the whole truth;” she essentially says, it was I, Lord; I know you can heal me because I believe in you. This woman who for so long had been cast aside, unwanted and unloved by those around her had now found a reason to be hopeful; she had found…the source…of all hope…the source…of…faith.

Jesus doesn’t embarrass her or scold her or do anything that we might be tempted to do if we were in his shoes. He doesn’t look to “punish” or “rehabilitate” her for the crime of theft. No. Because he is not driven by pride or ego. Jesus embodies the spirit of forgiveness; the spirit of true charity and giving. His power is his to give freely; but even when it is taken from him, his only response is: “Daughter, your faith has healed you.” Forgiveness. Compassion. Healing. This is what our faith is about; this is what God offers us, freely and unconditionally; this is what we as Christians should want to offer others.

We spend our lives seeking things that amount to nothing and yet this woman recognized the one and only thing that any of us should desire because it is the one and only thing that cannot be taken from us: our status as children of God. More than a few times during my time in Peru, I heard some of the high schoolers we chaperoned say things like “this experience should make us appreciate the things we have at home.” They’re young so I don’t fault them for thinking that way but I disagree. I feel that Christ is calling us not to appreciate “things” but to divorce ourselves from “things” because “things” get in our way; they distract us from recognizing that the source of our hope and faith—the ONLY thing that can fulfill us is Christ. When we have nothing, we are liberated; we are free to see Christ as he is; free to rush the altar to encounter him; free to give freely of ourselves in order to help those who have less than we do. These children who are now forever in my heart are poorer than most of us could fathom and yet they are richer than all of us combined because Christ is their everything. Though Christ was rich, he became poor for our sake; through choosing poverty with Christ, we are made rich in ways that no earthly riches could ever rival!

THANKS BE TO GOD. AMEN

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Make Christianity Christian Again

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In our best moments, we’d all like to think of ourselves as honest and upstanding individuals; we’re Americans; we’re taught to tell the truth like George Washington; we’re taught to be decent and humble and quick to do the right thing like John Wayne. We all love a good cowboy story. I do. I do! It strikes a chord within us and it makes us feel good; we put on our rose colored glasses and the world becomes easily compartmentalized into neat little “good” and “bad” categories. White hats versus black hats; heroes and villains. The idealized American persona.

But is it real?

We all have a hard time facing certain realities, particularly when those realities shine a light on things about ourselves that maybe we’re not so proud of. We don’t like acknowledging that sometimes we aren’t willing to change things about ourselves that we know are holding us back from spiritual growth. We carefully curate images that we wish to project to the outside world so as to appear upstanding and noble. And when things go awry, it is our natural inclination to try and find someone else to blame.

Pointing fingers is so easy, isn’t it?

We all do it. I’m not excluding myself from this. We all do it. It is natural. It is in our…nature.

We. Are. Sinners. Period. And that’s okay. I mean, it’s not okay, but it is who we are. God knows this. God created us. And God forgives; that’s kinda what God does.

In today’s Gospel, we see a lot of finger pointing. Both the Pharisees and members of Jesus’ family are lobbing accusations at Jesus because of their own fears and insecurities. We encounter one of the very few moments in the New Testament where Jesus becomes exceptionally unsettled and angry when the Pharisees—who Jesus just likened to Satan—refer to Jesus as being possessed by demons; they don’t like that his words and actions present a different way of living from theirs so in an attempt to discredit Jesus, they dig in their heels and go right for the jugular; they say his spirit is IMPURE. Jesus’ spirit? You mean, the…Holy Spirit? Did they just call the Holy Spirit impure?

Jesus responds, “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.”
These are strong words of condemnation and let’s face it: the Pharisees deserve this harsh rebuke. They’re so desperate to preserve their own malfeasances—which they mask under the guise of insisting that everyone else follow the letter of the law—that they would rather point the finger at an innocent man than admit the errors in their ways. We all do it. Don’t we all get so wrapped up in our hallowed “principles” sometimes that we fail to see how those principles themselves can become obstacles to recognizing God in our lives through other people? Turning concepts and traditions into idols that we cling to, even at the expense of neglecting God in our neighbors? Isn’t this the inevitable dangerous conclusion of stubbornness and pride?

Jesus is having a rough day. This attack from the Pharisees comes right after Jesus had just been the target of a pretty nasty rejection by his own family members. Not wanting to be too closely associated with someone who was preaching radical ideas, they told the large crowd gathered around Jesus that he was “out of his mind.” Why would members of Jesus’ own family be telling people that their own relative was a lunatic? Why were the Pharisees so threatened by Jesus’ message and ministry? The answers to both questions are one and the same.

Both groups were fearful of the loss of status and power. Jesus preached a message that was not in accordance with the standards of this world. He preached that we should forgive—always!—and that we should renounce power and wealth and materialism. He taught that the path to God was through love and simplicity and poverty. If this message found its way into the hearts of those who heard it, the Pharisees stood to lose money; they would no longer have a monopolizing grip on power and authority. Jesus’ family members knew that the more he provoked the Pharisees, the more of a target he—and they—would become. So what did they do?

They pointed the finger. “He’s nuts! He’s not one of us!” Code for “we’re comfortable; we don’t want to lose our nice things; our houses and our jobs and our earthly goods.”

You might be noticing a trend in my sermons; being a Christian is hard!!

Paul reminds us today that as Christians, we ought to “look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.”
By saying Amen to this Christian thing, we are willingly accepting a lifetime of complications and ridicule and scorn and being at odds with the powers that be…RIGHT? RIGHT?? I hope so. Is it wrong for us to love our country? Of course not. No more wrong than loving our own families. But…Jesus also makes it plain that we should be very careful not to allow nation or family or any kind of “ism” or earthly thing to take precedence over our loyalty and faithfulness to God. How can we overcome Satan if we employ the means and methods of this world and embrace the things that belong to Satan’s realm?

Samuel warns the people of Israel about this in today’s Old Testament reading when they remain insistent in their appeal for a king. Human beings have a knack for embracing and idolizing powerful figures; we’re quick to get behind so-called leaders who spout off blustery rhetoric. Samuel is keenly aware of the fact that a figurehead who is powerful enough to give you all the security and nationalistic self-esteem that you crave is also powerful enough to take the things that are most precious to you.

Jesus alludes to his being able to tie up the strong man and plunder the things the man has taken as his own. The strong man is Satan; Satan’s ways are bullying and taking and hoarding, much like earthly kings; they withhold necessities and turn them into profitable commodities for the sake of exploiting the most vulnerable members of their societies. Jesus will hear nothing of this. Jesus is flexing a little bit when he speaks of tying up the strong man. In other words, it doesn’t matter who you are or even if your motives are well-intentioned: your earthly treasures, no matter how safely guarded, will eventually be taken from you. With Jesus, all are on equal ground regardless of social status or wealth or power. Jesus’ entire ministry is a story about how earthly reigns will be displaced by God’s reign and that earthly reigns—no matter how seemingly benevolent and “freedom loving” will not relinquish their power without a fight, yet they are still no match for the power of God. So when someone says, “you’re either with us or against us,” effectively drawing a line between “us—and them,” I can only shake my head. Only Jesus has the right to make that statement.

We are dualistic thinkers and as Americans, we’re prone to believing that grey area is a cop out; that you must take sides when complications lead to conflict. However, as Christians, it is not for us to take sides because it has been said that every time you draw a line between yourself and others, Jesus is on the other side of that line. It is unwise for us to do this because it will never—never!—turn out well for us. Think of all the ways in which we do this: building walls to keep “those people” out—a line drawn. Banning people who are fleeing their war-torn countries from coming to the relative safety of ours because “they might be dangerous”—line drawn. I am not above or exempt from this behavior: saying our brand of Christianity is better or purer or more faithful than another because x, y and z—line drawn. Each and every one of us draws lines between ourselves and others.

On the flipside, what about those of us who through no fault of our own have found ourselves on the other side of a line drawn by someone else? The immigrant? The LGBTQ person? The so-called “black sheep” of the family? The person who maybe didn’t live up to their professional or academic potential? When someone else draws a line between themselves and us, is Jesus on our side? YES! Jesus always sides with the person who is being rejected because Jesus is Our Redeemer!

Jesus’ side is the only side that Christians should desire to be on. But a word of caution: preaching the Gospel and advocating for the dignity of ALL people, no matter who they are might very well make you more enemies than friends in this world.

Human life matters to me because human life matters to Jesus! All human life with no exceptions! Even our oppressors! Even the oppressors of those we love! That does not mean we should be silent or openly condone the actions or words of those who are up to no good but we still have an obligation—and Lord knows, I hate this obligation—to unconditionally love those who do evil because despite their behavior, they are still children of God; they are still our brothers and sisters.

Did I mention that being a Christian is hard?

It becomes much harder when members of our own families are the ones who, for myriad reasons, reject us because of our steadfast adherence to the Way of Jesus. I have received a great amount of love and support in my ministry from friends and strangers alike, but that has not been the case among some members of my own family. They know that I am outspoken and this makes them uncomfortable because in their minds, my outspokenness might bring shame or embarrassment upon them in the eyes of others. I’d be lying if I said this didn’t affect me, but I nevertheless must resist the temptation to draw lines between myself and them.

I think it would benefit all of us who are followers of Christ to frequently ask ourselves the question that Jesus asked in today’s Gospel: “who are my mother and my brothers?”
There are always going to be divisions between us and others—including members of our own families and keep in mind, conflict is not necessarily a bad thing provided that we are seeking productive resolution and Truth in the midst of that conflict. There are inherent challenges in living according to the way of Christ, but in assessing the conflicts—both large and small—in our world, I am certain that we can all find comfort in reminding ourselves that all people—all of us here, people outside the doors of the church, people all over this world—who do God’s will are Christ’s—and therefore, our—brothers and sisters. We might not be related by blood but we ARE related in Spirit and clearly, as Jesus indicates, that is far more important.

Those Who Sleep In Death Will Also Be Raised

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My friends, I want all of you to really think about what I’m about to tell you. Think beyond the words themselves and consider the reality beyond the words of this statement.

Are you ready?

DEATH. IS NOT. THE END.

Are you with me?

Hear me out on this. Yes, I understand that it is natural for us to fear the unknown. We have no idea what the transition from this life to the next will be like and naturally that instills a great deal of anxiety and fear in us; but here’s something I bet you didn’t know: the phrase “fear not” appears 365 times in the Bible! Can you believe that? That’s what I read on the internet, so it must be true.

Okay, so it actually doesn’t. It appears more like 40-ish times in many different contexts but let me ask you this: should it matter how many times God says something?

Shouldn’t God saying it once be enough for us to trust in God?

Our Psalm today is one of the most famous texts in the entire Bible; we see it in books, popular songs and movies; I am not a King James Version kinda guy but the King James Version of this verse is powerful! “YEA, THOUGH I WALK THROUGH THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW OF DEATH, I WILL FEAR NO EVIL.” Can you feel the power of those words?

Consider today’s reading from the Book of Acts; if we back up just prior to where the reading began today, we see that Peter and John have been arrested; they are being questioned—interrogated really—by Caiaphas and we know from the Passion story of a few weeks ago what kind of power Caiaphas wields.
And yet, Peter and John show no signs of fear; if anything, they sound emboldened—maybe even a little reckless? They are standing before this priest who spearheaded the movement to crucify the Son of God and they are boldly speaking truth to power! They almost seem to be mocking Caiaphas; they refer to Jesus as “the stone YOU builders rejected.” They risk being charged with blasphemy by saying “SALVATION IS FOUND IN NO ONE ELSE!” These men clearly have no fear of death. Why? Because they witnessed firsthand that DEATH. IS NOT. THE END.

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” Jesus is not only our shepherd, but he is also the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. His life cannot be taken because he willingly lays it down for his sheep. Not just for some sheep; ALL sheep. Even the ones outside of “this” sheep pen. It doesn’t matter which sheep pen we’re referring to. Those sheep from other pens are still this shepherd’s sheep. Even as we walk through the darkest of valleys, we are told to fear no evil for our shepherd is there.

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. knew this. Dr. King wasn’t afraid of dark valleys; why? Because he had been to the mountaintop. Dr. King’s Mountaintop Speech was eerily prophetic. Moses went to the mountaintop in Deuteronomy 34 and God showed Moses the Promised Land. But Moses was not allowed to enter the Promised Land. He died shortly after being given that glimpse. Likewise, Dr. King had his life stolen from him less than 24 hours after giving this historic sermon; murdered by an assassin’s bullet, and friends, yes, he was indeed murdered. But let me ask you this: was his life stolen?

Or…did he—LIKE JESUS—willingly lay it down for his sheep?

I want to ask you all to take a moment and close your eyes and listen to these words.

“I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

Do you know what Dr. King understood?
That DEATH. IS NOT. THE END.

Salvation is found in Jesus Christ, our Good Shepherd and ONLY in this shepherd’s name and because of this, because we know that we have this freely given gift of salvation, we cannot—WE MUST NOT—fear death because DEATH. IS NOT. THE END;

…it is the beginning!

There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for his or her friends and John tells us that Jesus laying down his life for us is the epitome of love; hallelujah!! Thank you Jesus!

But wait! John’s on a roll now and he says there’s more! I can’t wait to hear what else he’s got in store for us!
John says, “And we—[WE…MEANING, ALL OF US]—ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.”

Hold up!

Time out!

John just explained how Jesus giving up his life for us was what true love is and it’s this insurmountable gift! Can’t I just sit back and savor that? Can’t I just accept this amazing gift and relish in it for 80 or 90 years and be comfortable and content? Now he’s telling me that I have to be willing to emulate Jesus and lay down my life as he did?

Am I capable of that? Are any of us?
My friends, this is quite possibly the hardest thing to accept in Christianity. We’re mere mortals; tiny specks of dust in the infinite cosmos; our own personal death is the most difficult thing any of us can ponder or contemplate and yet, I have to let you in on a little secret—well, it’s not really a secret anymore, but I want you to know that I firmly and fully believe this: DEATH. IS NOT. THE END!

Some of you might be casually thinking, “yeah, that’s true,” BUT NO! This is serious business! I WANT YOU TO REALLY BELIEVE IT BECAUSE IT IS THE TRUTH! Yes, it is a really hard reality that Christ calls us to embrace. It doesn’t mean sitting back and accepting OTHER people dying as a Christian reality; it means accepting that YOU have to be willing to always be ready to fight evil with love, even if it means YOU will have to lay down your life in doing so. Are you prepared for that?

Isn’t that what Dr. King did?

Isn’t that what Peter and John and the Apostles did?

Isn’t that what Jesus did?

John says that hired hands see the wolves coming and they abandon their sheep.
In our lives, these wolves come in many forms. For those of us who are leaders or future leaders in the church, we often have our own fears that we run from; the fear of confronting racism, or sexism, or patriarchy. Another possible fear is the fear that some among us might actually be wolves in sheep’s clothing, chasing away anyone who might look different, or act different or think differently than we do.

So what are we?
Are we hired hands or are we full time, fully dedicated, “ALL-IN” followers of Jesus Christ?

Do we take the time to understand and acknowledge that being a Christian is REALLY, REALLY hard?
It means giving up our pride; giving up our propensity toward vengeance and judgment; it even means giving up our inclination to believe that our life is our own. Friends, it is not. We belong to God. We have no right to play God because God alone is God…and we are not.

Are we prepared to lay down our lives for our sheep? Do we really understand the consequences of accepting this Cross that we must carry? Friends, this is not a threat. This is what I’m trying to convey to you: the consequences, in this case, are positive. It might be difficult to comprehend, but these consequences are a gift! The willingness to lay down our lives for our sheep must not be seen as something to fear; instead it should instill hope within us. Hope and solace in the promise of heaven; God is not a liar. God has promised us salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. Can there be any greater gift than this? Can anything that we might do to foolishly attempt to preserve our lives in this world top the Eternal Life that is ours through God’s freely given grace?

I do not feel called to be a mere hired hand. I feel God’s call to tend to ALL of God’s sheep in ALL pens. Yes, this life is but ashes and dust in the grand scheme, but we are not nihilists! There is great meaning in all that we do in God’s name and believe me when I tell you that in my heart, I know that in this life, I will not get to the Promised Land.

But I’ve seen it.

I’ve seen it in the goodness of those around me.

I’ve seen it in the eyes of children and in the humility of immigrants and refugees and the poor.

I’ve seen it in the strength of those who have long been oppressed yet remain steadfast and resilient in standing up and speaking truth to power.

I, too, have been to the mountaintop; and as I gazed upon the Promised Land, I heard God whispering something in my ear. Do you know what God was saying to me?

DEATH. IS NOT. THE END.

Thoughts on the Bible

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This was an email response I had to a gentleman who asked a series of questions about my interpretation of the Bible and my thoughts on who God really is. Forgive me if it reads like an email; it is an email.

So first, to address your question of how we can tell what in the Bible is historical truth and what isn’t; the answer is found in the question itself. In order for something to be historical, it needs to be capable of verification from more than one source. If something cannot be historically proven, that neither means that it didn’t happen nor that it doesn’t maintain spiritual or moral truth but it cannot be considered historical i.e. a factual, verifiable event. With the New Testament, verification is somewhat easier being that numerous sources reported on the same events in the various Gospels, Epistles and Letters and we also have the benefit of sources like the Roman-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus which gives greater credibility to the stories themselves. God created a world that has undergone 4.5 billion years of evolution and all of the various natural processes that we’ve come to understand through science are part and parcel of God’s creation. Certainly there are still an infinite number of things we cannot explain through either science or religion and I realize this statement is very open-ended and lends itself to subjective thought, but I’m not prone to believing that God tries to trick us or use magical or supernatural means to “intervene” in ways that could just as easily be conducted through natural means—natural means which we nonetheless might not be able to explain due to our human limitations. An example of what I’m trying to get at is the story of Jonah. Did it actually happen as it was written in the Bible? I’m fairly certain that it did not. That isn’t to say that God “can’t” enable a person to survive three days in the belly of a fish but rather, there is no reason to believe that God would need to suspend the laws of nature and physics for the sake of this story and the reason is that the fish is not the point of the story (sidenote: the Resurrection is entirely different, as that event is essential to our whole understanding of faith, whereas the Jonah story and stories like it are not). We get hung up on this point and it is not the point of the story. The point is that Jonah was stubborn, he was human, and because he was afraid of the Assyrians at Nineveh—and hated them–he chose to do the opposite of what God asked him to do (which was to preach God’s mercy to the Assyrians). The Assyrians were the mortal enemies of the Israelites. The idea of preaching love to them was unthinkable to Jonah. And yet, he goes and preaches to them and rather than kill him, they convert their hearts; they are receptive to God’s word. And Jonah is upset because his enemies have accepted God and God has accepted them. Jonah is a flawed person—like all of us—because he’d rather believe that God is on HIS side than accept that God is on EVERYONE’S side. Did it actually happen? There’s no way to prove it either way but the moral truth of the story is powerful; God is on no one’s side…and everyone’s side.

As for the second question of how we can tell which verses are God-inspired, the answer is, all of them. The entire Bible is inspired by God but that does not mean the words themselves came directly from God. The writers were not in a trance-like state; they were human beings with human biases and perspectives. The four Gospel writers each wrote about the same stories and yet their details were all quite different. The men who put the Canon together also had human perspectives—and political motives as well; there were books they felt belonged in the Canon and others they felt didn’t; some saw those outcast books as unimportant, others felt they were forgeries. Regardless, the words themselves were written by men; as for the Old Testament stories, they were handed down through oral tradition for centuries before anyone thought to write them down. In a grand game of telephone, the stories likely changed over the years but their inherent spirit of truth remained. Another example; Noah and the flood. Was the story God-inspired? Sure! Was it factual? Highly unlikely. Every ancient religion has a flood story. Floods were the single greatest fear of people in that time (there were no threats of nuclear war or airstrikes and people had no idea how large the world was) so floods terrified people; a flood seemed like the end of the world. The purpose of this story was not to show God as a tyrant who punishes people; it was to show that God promised Noah that this would be the last flood; this was a God—unlike gods in other religious traditions—who promised to ultimately protect, rather than destroy and punish; it was a radical concept. Again, did it actually happen? I don’t think so because not only would it not make any scientific sense, but it didn’t need to happen to prove the real point of the story.

Finally, would a story depicting an actual violent event perpetrated by God be more likely to evoke a cringe-worthy response than a metaphor? This all depends on two things: your notion of what God’s true nature is and your understanding of how human beings function. I’ll start with the latter then come back to the former. Human beings are not innately prone to deterrence. Despite what our legal system has tried to convince us to believe for centuries, human beings en masse are not deterred by the threat of violence. If anything, they grow bolder and more violent in response to those threats. The threat of “swift law and order” only makes criminals craftier and more violent. We are not naturally obedient; we are naturally resistant. So does the fear of God’s wrath motivate people to believe in God? Absolutely not. It certainly never motivated me. More likely than not, it drives people away from belief; that is, unless the individual is vulnerable to psychological damage in which case they will become terrified of hell to a point where their “faith” is not actually faith, but instead a damaging form of psychological conditioning rooted in intense fear. That is not a spiritual relationship; it is a form of spiritual Stockholm Syndrome. God’s mercy outweighs God’s justice; always. God inspired men to sit down and attempt to explain the human condition as it relates to the Divine; the ancient stories were just that: stories; they in turn inspired the historical figures and events that took place in more modern (relative term) history during the time of Christ.

A “short” on Climate Change Deniers

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I am amused by the fact that climate change deniers–who almost always imagine themselves as being Christians–are so jaw-droppingly ignorant of the fact that the world God set into motion through evolution was created with an inherent predisposition to balance itself through any means necessary. Because of this, the damage that we as humans are doing to our planet is not actually destroying the planet as much as it is serving to strengthen other living organisms such as viruses and microbes thereby destroying not the planet–but ourselves. The planet is going to get on just fine without us. This is not a case of “Jesus coming back triumphantly on the clouds of Heaven” as much as it is a case of his most imbecilic followers taking all of us on a suicide mission.

The Parable of the Charlatan Preacher

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There once lived a preacher who by virtue of his father’s name, possessed much wealth. He was exceptionally charming in public. He wore expensive suits, drove fancy cars and had garnered a following the world over as a result of his celebrity appeal. This man frequently spoke out in favor of public policies that benefited rich men like himself and opposed policies that might help the poor, the oppressed and the downtrodden. He even went so far as to badmouth politicians who sought to help those in need while being quick to support and even forgive the public transgressions of those who favored the rich through their policymaking. This man called himself a pastor but frequently avoided contact with anyone other than people who he could gain something from.

When this man died, he found himself in a town that was very unfamiliar to him. The people there were very modest; some might even say poor. The air was potent; not foul but unmistakably urban. The people wore simple clothing, lived in small brick huts and had very little by way of material possessions. They seemed to ignore him, tending to one another’s needs instead. The man not only felt out of place but was repulsed by the town, the people and their “lowly” ways. He started to walk, then began to run, feeling as if he was in a “bad” place. Finally, he was sprinting and before long, he found himself in a new place; a place where everything was shiny, pristine and new. There was gold and marble and the air smelled like a freshly mowed golf course; in fact he was overlooking the largest golf course he had ever seen. He stepped inside one of the many mansions built around this golf course and saw huge tables of exotic food and drink. There were stacks of money everywhere he looked and everything felt perfect. Just then, a woman appeared before him dressed in a beautiful white dress, smiling widely. She took the man’s hand and told him that all of this was to be his. He was elated and she told him to enjoy it all.

A few months passed and the woman in white returned to find the man in a state of deep agony. “What is wrong,” she asked.

“I feel like I’m losing my mind,” he said. “I have everything I could possibly want and yet it’s all so easy–too easy! I have nobody here to share anything of this with; it’s just me and an endless supply of material goods. What kind of heaven is this?”

“Oh, you poor thing,” she replied. “You think this is heaven? You were in heaven when you first arrived but you were so repulsed by it that you ran from it; you ran all the way here. This is hell.” Then the woman vanished.

I Pledge Allegiance to the Cross

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It is a rather peculiar thing in my view that so many Americans have taken on an almost Roman/Pagan mindset when it comes to pledging allegiance to a flag or venerating and honoring standards or anthems. Peculiar because those same Americans are often the ones who simultaneously boast about their Christian faith which is something of a conflict of interests, considering the fact that Jesus Christ was rather outspoken about the fact that nationalism and faith stand in stark opposition to one another. You don’t believe me? I’ll allow my Lord to do the talking and then I’ll let you take it up with Him.

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’  But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King.”  Matthew 5:33-35

An oath is a pledge and a pledge is an oath; take it up with Merriam Webster’s if you don’t like the definition.

The act of service to a person or an entity is a form of allegiance or loyalty. As a follower of Christ, your only loyalty should be toward God; your only service should be toward your fellow man; “Whatsoever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, so too you did it to me.” Matthew 25:40. But once again, if these words don’t jive with you, allow me to hand the mic to my man J.C. and he’ll further preach some truth to power.

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” Matthew 6:24

I don’t have enough time in my day to serve two masters and even if I did, I’m not really in the habit of blatantly ignoring or defying my God when his words are clear as day. God is my master; not government, not state, not flag, not anthem. God alone.

A cross is a heavy thing to carry. Each of us has our own crosses that we carry daily. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that with 7.44 billion people on this planet, there are 7.44 billion unique crosses being carried at all times. For many African Americans, their crosses are particularly heavy; we’ve sort of placed our thumbs on the proverbial scales. It might be tempting for a white person to say that a professional black athlete’s cross is somehow lighter because he or she has money and I hear that line of faulty reasoning quite often; my response to that is simply this: if money wipes away stress and struggle and somehow nullifies a person’s right to address things that they view as being wrong, then white people who complain about kneeling must show us what is in their bank accounts; if it is above average, that money should wipe away the “pain” that it allegedly causes them when they see black men kneeling during the national anthem and since we don’t play by two sets of rules–AND WE DON’T–I think they’ve forfeited their right to complain.

My only allegiance is to the cross; my only pledge is that I will serve my heavenly Master; and when I see a man or woman on their knees, instead of casting stones at them which will only cause them to fall further, I will offer my hand in a spirit of Christian charity and compassion and help them get up. I would strongly advise you to do the same.