Jesus Crosses Social Barriers

“Now he had to go through Samaria,” John 4:4 (NIV).

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Have you ever tried to avoid driving on a certain stretch of road or try to bypass traffic in a particular city? What if going through said stretch of road or city was the shortest, most direct route to your destination? Would you still avoid it? Is there some long-standing bias or bad memory associated with the road or city?

During biblical times, the average person walked everywhere or they may have rode a donkey, camel, or perhaps a horse. When there are great distances involved, especially while traveling on foot, you would want to walk the shortest route possible. In one instance, Jesus took the shortest route and crossed a major social barrier.

Jesus and his disciples were traveling from Judea to Galilee and went through Samaria, which was the shortest route. “Now he had to go through Samaria,” seems like a pretty innocuous statement for a 21st Century reader, but in Jesus’ time, Samaria was controversial among the Jews of Israel. In fact, many Jews tried to go places by avoiding Samaria all together.

The controversy dates back to the Old Testament. Samaria was the capital of the northern Kingdom of Israel, while Jerusalem remained the capital of the southern Kingdom of Judea.  The Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom in 722 BC and deported many of the Jews. The Assyrians brought in Gentiles (non-Jews) to settle the land. These Gentiles intermarried with the remaining Jews, which created a “mixed race,” which the Jews of Judea did not recognize the Samaritan as “authentic Jews” for lack of a better term. The Samaritan Jews also believed Mount Gerizim was the holy site for sacrifice, not the Temple in Jerusalem, and recognized only the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) as Scripture.

Understanding the conflict between the Jews and the Samaritans gives a different context to Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, which probably would have angered many in his Jewish audience that a Samaritan would be hero of the story.

I will not go through the entire story of Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well (John 4:4-42), but I want to discuss some of the highlights. We live in such a divisive time, where people only read and listen to what confirms their confirmation bias, from which they do not budge. Let us take a look at the barriers Jesus crosses in this story:

-Jesus goes directly into what many consider “hostile territory.”

-Jesus, a Jew, speaks with people who are Samaritans.

-Jesus, a man, ministers to a woman.

-Jesus does not condemn the Samaritan woman for her past.

-Jesus does not debate doctrine, cast judgment, or threaten anyone with hell.

-Jesus brings a message of hope for all people, regardless of their background.

-Jesus breaks down the barriers of  institutional racism.

After Jesus ministers to the woman, she goes back and brings people of the town to see Jesus. Jesus and the disciples end up staying in Samaria for two days and many Samaritans come to faith in Christ.

I recognize that during my more fundamentalist days, I was a very divisive Christian. I have seen the error of my ways and I am now trying to break down these man made barriers. I believe the church and all of society can benefit from this example of Christ. Just because someone isn’t the same skin color as you, believes a different political philosophy, goes to a different church, or lives a lifestyle you don’t agree with, that doesn’t make them bad people. Everybody is just like you, in search of love and acceptance, which we need to provide. There is no need to condemn anyone for their past, because we all have a past. Let’s quit treating each other like dogs and rubbing our noses in each other’s mess. If we as Christians want to be more like Jesus, we need to be tearing down these superficial barriers instead of building  higher and higher walls.

 

 

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Monday Morning Rambles

Another week is here whether or not I’m ready for it. I’ve been very uninspired and angry while trying to get through this maze we call life. “Now what?” is the operative question floating around in my head. You ever reached a point of mental exhaustion where all the faith, philosophy, and self-help motivation isn’t going to help? I’m there.

I try to take care of myself concerning my celiac disease and my overall health, but I keep hitting walls and having setbacks. I’m emotionally spent, as my discouragement has sank me back into depression. It’s hard to find the bright side when it’s a dark and cloudy night. Everything I try is another dead end. I’m trapped like a rat on a sinking ship.

As I stated at the beginning, I’ve been angry about the way things have turned out. I know my reaction is under my control, but it doesn’t make it any less frustrating when you have to watch yourself and the ones you love struggle through undeserved trials. Deserve- I’ve been dwelling a lot on that word. Maybe life isn’t about what you deserve, it’s just dealing with what you get and you get through it the best you can. My faith teaches me that there is a plan for my life and everything will work out, but who knows what this plan is? None of us seems to know and we just go through life attributing events to “God’s will.” I just wonder why doesn’t the Almighty make it easier for us mere mortals to figure out this plan?

Maybe I’m jaded because I have suffered loss in the spirituality department or maybe I’m more discerning and deliberate in my forties, but I’ve reached a point where I’m not falling for the vague promises of someone on the campaign trail:

“It’s a great plan. I can’t get into specifics, but it’s going to be good.”

Wouldn’t God be better served, both literally and figuratively, if He was more forthright as to what we are supposed to do? Why do I have to die to find out how it all fits together? I have to live this life now. I cannot sacrifice enjoying the present for some vague promise of what’s to come. I know some Christians would question and abhor  my skepticism, but I need facts, I need data. I am a man of reason, this must be reasonable if I am to make an informed choice. I have neither the time nor the inclination to play the spiritual equivalent of  the game “Guess Who?”

I must be intellectually honest with myself or I’m going nowhere. My faith is a struggle and I have a hard time believing. To use a human analogy: If you were in a relationship with someone- a significant other, friend, or family member, and they repeatedly allowed you to be hurt or disappointed, how would you feel about trying to start over? If you’ve read this far, thank you for allowing me to get this off of my chest.

Live for the Present, not the End

I used to be fascinated by the end of the world, the apocalypse, the end of days, whatever name you want to call it. I’ve poured over Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 24 (which is also found in Luke 21 and Mark 13); the Book of Revelation, and scoured the prophets as well. I read the first twelve books of the left behind series, anticipated the four blood moons of 2014-2015, sneered at the date setting, and I was an avid watcher of end times teachers. For good measure, I tried to see how current events such as 9/11, the War on Terror, the rise of ISIS and certain world leaders fit into the prophetic timeline.

What I’ve learned: waiting for the end only hampers living in the present. As a Christian I know Jesus and other New Testament writers told us to watch for the signs, but I believe we should be more diligent in teaching and showing God’s grace to the world around us. Don’t let this present moment pass you by as you wait for a heaven that’s a lifetime away.

Apocalyptic teaching, of course is not unique to Christianity, as many religions, cults, sects, and cultures modern and ancient have anticipated some cosmic cataclysm to generate rebirth or to rewrite the wrongs and social ills of their respective societies. In an age of scientific understanding we know that eclipses, meteors, planetary alignments, earthquakes, tsunamis, and so on are all naturally occurring phenomena. In the past ages that had little or no scientific understanding, such events were attributed to the judgment of God or the gods upon society. Since many of our religions are based on these ancient texts and modes of thinking, we as a society still have these thoughts in a technologically advanced Twenty-First Century.

I believe we must take a more reasoned and logical approach in understanding the world around us. I’m not putting down anyone’s beliefs or discounting any sacred teaching, I’m just advocating that while we are “waiting for the end,” we make our current world the best it can be. A prime example is that we cannot trash our planet in the hopes of living on Mars or Jupiter, as those ideas may remain the dreams of science fiction.

As a church, we cannot find ourselves again on the wrong side of history when it comes to such things as civil rights, taking care of the less fortunate, the environment, and being the light of the world as Jesus said we should be. We have real issues that we must address. I have said in many blog posts before, I have no particular political affiliation-I’m not a Republican, Democrat, Libertarian or anything like that. However, within the last forty years or so, many American Evangelical Christians have aligned themselves with political parties  who are against many of Jesus’ teachings- taking care of the sick, giving to the poor, elevating the status of women, recognizing those who have a different perceived social status, and just simply showing compassion to your fellow man, woman, and child. Many oppose how their tax dollars are spent, especially when it comes to social programs such as welfare, Obamacare, and other programs, yet fail to realize that the government has simply stepped in to fill the leadership void because a large majority of the church has been waiting for the imminent end of the world.

Let’s put aside the religious and political hostility and examine what is in our own hearts, casting the judgment on ourselves and not on our neighbors. To paraphrase Jesus, we have to stop picking the sawdust out of everyone’s eyes while we walk around with a two-by-four stuck  in our eyes. Let us love those who are different than us and step outside of our comfort zone. Two thousand years or more have passed since the end time discourses. I know the counter arguments about how the world had to catch up to God’s vision or  God’s measurement of time is different than ours, but we can find reason to rejoice in the present. We still have time to show love to our neighbors and try to have a little heaven on earth.

The Bible and Slavery

“Only the educated are free.”- Epictetus

I am currently reading Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, the first of three autobiographies concerning the former American slave, who escaped to freedom and became an outspoken abolitionist concerning the anti-slavery movement leading up to the American Civil War.

Douglass in heart-wrenching detail describes not only his treatment as a slave, but the horrendous treatment of African-American slaves at the hands of the white, Southern slave owners. How one human being could treat another human in such a vile and despicable manner is beyond me. Moreover, what has drawn my attention was Douglass’ comments concerning how the so-called “Christian” slave owners were much harsher in their treatment of their slaves, using their so-called righteousness as a cloak for maliciousness.

Maybe it’s me getting older or the fact I am taking a more reasoned approach to my beliefs, but I find the hypocrisy of religion to be appalling. Just as these slaveowners used The Bible to justifying owing and degrading another person, this same book has been used to persecute religious minorities, oppress women, and is the basis for the right-wing church to justify their collective homophobia. My politics take no title such as Republican, Democrat, Fundamentalist, Socialist, or anything of the sort. It is difficult for me to write this post, as I know how some will perceive it, but I cannot control your opinions or perceptions. I am not out to “convert” anyone or change your mind, I am simply putting forth what The Bible says concerning slavery. For the sake of space and time, I will list ahandful of scrptures and cite other verses concerning this subject.

The Bible states the Israelites were slaves in Egypt for over 400 years and they cried out to God to deliver them. God sent Moses and the rest, as they say, is history. With all of the harsh treatment the Israelites received at the hands of the Egyptians, one would think they would not want to treat their fellow man as such. However, God, in the Law lays out the treatment of slaves, both Hebrew and Gentile.

“If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything. If he comes alone, he is to go free alone; but if he has a wife when he comes, she is to go with him. If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the woman and her children shall belong to her master, and only the man shall go free.

“But if the servant declares, ‘I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free,’then his master must take him before the judges. He shall take him to the door or the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life.

“If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as male servants do. If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself, he must let her be redeemed. He has no right to sell her to foreigners, because he has broken faith with her. If he selects her for his son, he must grant her the rights of a daughter. If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights. If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money.” (Exodus 21:2-11, NIV). Exodus also gives guidelines concerning the beating of slaves: “Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property.” (Exodus 21:20-21, NIV).

*See also: Exodus 21:26-27, Exodus 21:31-32, Exodus 23:12, Leviticus 19:20-22, Leviticus 25:44-46, Deuteronomy 23:15-16.

At this point, one may argue, “Well, that’s the Old Testament.”

It is an interesting fact to note that no New Testament writer, the Apostles, or even the Lord Jesus himself never in any way condemn the practice of slavery. Slaves are commanded to obey their masters as they would obey Christ:

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free. And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.” (Ephesians 6:5-9, NIV).

*See also: Colossians 3:22, Colossians 4:1, 1 Timothy 6:1-2, Titus 2:9-10, 1 Peter 2:18-19.

At this point there would be some doing what Iwould call “apologetic mental gymnastics” and down play the use of the terms slave and master and apply these Scriptures to the modern day employer/employee relationship, which is not analagous to one human owning another human. Elsewhere in the New Testament, slavery is spoken of in the metaphorical sense in that we are slaves to sin, from which Christ set us free.

The purpose of this post is not to rekindle hard feelings from events that happened centuries ago. Rather, I want to examine what I call “biblical difficulties” and how a non-Christian would respond to the Bible. The Bible’s support of slavery is one of the largest and most justified criticisms of Scripture. More importantly, I want to take deeper look at the book that so many people, including myself, hold dear and find out if it is truly relevant for our day and age. Why didn’t God or Jesus just come out and ban slavery? Why didn’t the early church fathers abolish it? Why did some American churches allow for such atrocities committed against our fellow people? I believe the soul searching question we must answer is “If your faith is not helping you become a better person to all, is it a faith worth having?” If your faith spews hatred and disrespect, should you go along with it? Can you continue to justify belief in any holy book that justifies discrimination or hatred against anyone?

Leaning In

quote-chalk-think-words.jpgWhen I first became a Christian, one of my favorite verses in the entire Bible was Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding ; In all your ways submit to Him, and He will make your paths straight.” (NIV). However, as I have aged and faced various trials, I find that the road is still crooked in places, along with being bumpy, forked, and hilly. Man’s religion has taught us not to question anything concerning God, His wisdom, or His Word “You’re overthinking it,” religion says.

Why such opposition to thinking on our own? We seek God individually, yet we try to find a community of other like-minded individuals to try and make sense of it all. One of the dangers of this “groupthink” is that logic, reason, and common sense can be shunned in favor of a misplaced faith or even superstition. If you were taking a trip and you knew the path was wrong or knew you were lost, wouldn’t you stop and try to figure out a new route? Recalculating the journey would not only be for our safety, but our sanity as well. During my life I have found myself at both of these extremes- the “faith-minded,” and the “logical seeker.”

I’ll admit in the last four to five years I have drifted in my faith, going from one church to another, to no church affiliation, seeking answers in familiar places, only to be left with even more bewildered thoughts. I have been a Christian since my early twenties (as of now, I’m in my forties), I have a seminary degree, and have done missions work. I say that not to boast, I just want to give you perspective on my struggle with faith. I believe part of my struggle was not doing my due diligence of what was taught. “The Bible says it and that settles it,” would be a typical retort when faced with opposition either from my mind or someone else.

How many of us, if we were to be honest with ourselves have struggled in faith? How many of us have come down from the Sunday morning emotional high only to be slapped in the face with the Monday morning reality? Why are we so scared to seek our own wisdom? Do we fear that we will be ostracized from our comfortable group? Are we scared of the accusation of “not having enough faith?” How many of us have sat by being passively-minded waiting for the miraculous to happen and watched things get worse? I’m not saying that miracles don’t happen, but we shouldn’t always expect the supernatural, sometimes we need access the resources and means at our disposal.

I’ll admit there is still at lot I don’t understand, even as I put more weight on my critical thinking and learning. For instance, as Christians we seek to “be in God’s will,” or speak of “God’s plan,” yet we seldom have a clear understanding of these terms. How can God straighten out a crooked road if we don’t know which road to take? It feels an awful lot like guess work. In these situations, I can relate to the quote from the baseball player Yogi Berra, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

I know the theological arguments and cliches for this next point, but why does God’s plan and will involve so much suffering, even for those who can’t defend themselves? Babies born addicted to drugs, born with birth defects, children who battle cancer, face poverty, children are verbally, physically, and sexually abused by parents and others, face starvation, and other horrendous struggles, which turns them into broken adults.  It breaks my heart to see such things and at the same time hear that “God has a great plan for your life.” I’ve reached a point where it is difficult to reconcile such things.

Please keep in mind that I am not attacking God, the church, or anyone else, I just have a lot of questions on my mind that need definitive answers in this life and not the next one.

Book Review- Meditations

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Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD) is considered to be both one of the last great emperors of Rome and along with Seneca and Epictetus, one of the pillars of Roman Stoicism. Aurelius’ book Meditations serves as a great insight into the mind of Aurelius and provides a framework of Stoic philosophy. However, Meditations is not a book written for the public, but was Marcus Aurelius’ personal journal, written on the war front and during his quiet time at the palace.

Book One of Meditations details the list of people who have influenced Aurelius on his life’s journey and what he received from each of them. For example: “From my grandfather Verus: decency and a mild temper. From what they say and I remember of my natural father: integrity and manliness. From my mother: piety, generosity, the avoidance of wrong doing and even the thought of it; also simplicity of living, well clear of the habits of the rich.”1

Aurelius’ note on Appolonius really embodies Stoic aspects: “…to be always the same man, unchanged in sudden pain, in the loss of a child, in lingering sickness…”2

Stoicism as a philosphy is about focusing on improving our inner character, controlling the things within our control (thoughts, emotions, feelings, actions) and not worrying about what’s not in our control (our reputation, whether or not we’ll be famous, the weather, to give a few examples). Aurelius is what we could call a reluctant politician, but he recognized that we cannot control how people act, we can only control our response to them. Book two starts off with this applicable nugget of wisdom:

“Say to yourself first thing in the morning: today I shall meet people who are meddling,ungrateful, aggressive, treacherous, malicious, unsocial. All this has afflicted them through their ignorance of true good and evil. But I have seen that the nature of good is what is right, and the nature of evil what is wrong; and I have reflected that the nature of the offender himself is akin to my own- not a kinship of blood or seed, but a sharing in the same mind, the same fragment of divinity. Therefore I cannot be harmed by any of them, as none will infect me with their wrong.”3

Other major themes throughout Meditations:

*Live each day as if it was your last, not with reckless abandonment, but careful thought given to your ways andwords, doing all with excellence.

*Look for the beauty in everything.

*Minding our own business,working on improving ourselves, not worrying about what others are doing or being judgmental.

*Being adaptable to whatever circumstances come our way.

*No matter how long we live, the same fate, death, awaits us all, as it did the generations before us and the generations after us.

*Manage our perceptions, thereby, we manage our judgments of events.

*What happens to you as an individual affects the whole of humanity.

The Stoics have often been characterized as being emotionless, which is far from the truth. The Stoics were people of great inner reflection and who were able to manage their emotions, thereby keeping their perspective of circumstances. As Aurelius wrote:

“Reflect often on the speed with which all things in being, or coming into being,are carried past and swept away. Existence is like a river in ceaseless flow, its actions a constant succession of change, its causes innumerable in their variety: scarcely anything stands still, even what is most immediate. Reflect too on the yawning gulf of past and future time, in which all things vanish. So in all this it must be folly for anyone to be puffed with ambition, racked in struggle, or indignant at his lot-as if this was anything lasting likely to trouble him for long.”4

Where do we fit into this scheme?

“Think of the whole of existence, of which you are the tiniest part; think of the whole of time, in which you have been assigned a brief and fleeting moment; think of destiny-what fraction of that are you?”5

Stoicism began to decline after Aurelius’ death, which coincided with the rise of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. Stoicism, however is making a comeback of sorts, as there are business leaders, athletes, and everyday people who are putting its principles to practice. I also find that Stoicism is compatible with my Christian faith, as some of Aurelius’ passage echo themes found in Solomon’s Ecclesiastes and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

You don’t need to have any extensive background in philosophy or religion to read Meditations, as Aurelius brings forth his points that are still relevant almost 2,000 years later. What if we were to focus our limited time on improving ourselves and not pointing the finger or bickering with each other? What if we could see that others are like us, they too are on their own journey, trying to find their place in the world? I will leave you with the perspective of Aurelius- we are all in this together, let’s make the best of it.

“All things are meshed together, and a sacred bond unites them.Hardly a single thing is alien to the rest: ordered together in their places they together make up the one order of the universe. There is one universe out of all things, one God pervading all things, one substance, one law, one common reason in all intelligent beings, and one truth- if indeed there is also one perfection of all cognate beings sharing in the same reason.”6

1Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, translation and notes by Martin Hammond. London: Penguin Books (2006): 3.

2Ibid, 4.

3Ibid, 10.

4Ibid, 42.

5Ibid, 42.

6Ibid, 59.

Pontius Pilate’s Question

After he claimed to be God, Jesus was taken from the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council unto Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of Judea. According to Jewish law, Jesus’ crime of blasphemy was punishable by death. However, under Roman law, only the Romans could carry out capital punishment. Thus, Jesus had to face a second trial by Rome.

At this time in history, Jerusalem and all of Judea were political powder kegs, which could explode at any time. There were groups such as the Zealots, who led insurrections against Rome and there were others who expected the Messiah to be a military/political figure, who was going to overthrow Rome and re-establish the Kingdom of Israel. Though in John’s gospel, Pilate perceives the issue between Jesus and the Sanhedrin to be nothing more than a religious dispute, he still had to tread lightly. Pilate’s main concern was whether or not Jesus and his followers were going to rebel against the Roman occupation.

Pilate asked Jesus if He as king of the Jews (John 18:33), to which Jesus replied, “My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence.” (John 18:36, KJV).

Pilate asked Jesus again, “Art thou a king then?”(John 18:37), to  which Jesus replied, “Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone that is of the truth heareth my voice.” (John 18:37, KJV, emphasis mine).

Before the story transitions to Jesus and Barabbas and Jesus’ ultimate crucifixion, Pilate asked Jesus a thought provoking question, for which unfortunately, John doesn’t record a response.

“Pilate saith unto him, ‘What is truth?‘” (John 18:38a, KJV, emphasis mine).

What is truth? Isn’t that the seemingly the most unanswerable question in the history of humanity? The search for truth is a riddle wrapped inside of a mystery, which is wrapped inside of an enigma. All of us, no matter who we are, our background, our nation of birth, gender, religion, and so forth, spend our lives searching for truth and meaning. Who am I? Why am I here? Does God exists? Is there life after death? Have I done enough good deeds? Have I wasted my life on the wrong pursuits? Questions like these can induce crises on many levels and can keep us up late at night.

What did Pilate mean by truth? The Greek word used throughout the New Testament and this passage is the word Aletheia (Strong’s #225), which when used objectively as a noun means “signifying the reality lying at the basis of an appearance; the manifested, veritable essence of a matter.” Thus, objective truth is something that can be verified. For example, we know our universe rotates around the sun. We know gravity is the invisible force holding our feet on the ground. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west.

There is also a subjective nature to truth, which according to Strong’s, “not merely verbal, but sincerity and integrity of character.” So, how sincere are we in our beliefs? Do we embody the character and essence of what we believe? When we view truth in a subjective manner, that is where the disagreements and trouble starts. History attests to all of the atrocities committed by groups of people upon others simply because they believed in a different God, political philosophy, or someone simply wanted their land, the list of reasons goes on and on.

Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.” The irony of the story of Jesus, the Sanhedrin, and Pilate is that Jesus was the Messiah these Jewish leaders and others were praying for for decades, if not centuries, however, because they had a different vision of the Messiah, they rejected Jesus. For those in leadership, Jesus represented a shakeup and perceived threat to the established order. The people were following after this carpenter from Nazareth, who taught people to love their enemies, pray for your opposition, turn the other cheek if they struck you, and pay your taxes to Rome, etc. Jesus also did this without the help of the religious elite, for his disciples were fishermen, tax collectors, zealots, and other everyday people, which certainly upset the establishment.

If you are reading this, you may be Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Agnostic, Atheist, or you are looking for something to believe. I believe that we should openly examine our beliefs and discover what is truth. No matter what you believe, are there fearful questions in the back of your mind? What if I’m wrong? How can I be sure? One thing I have learned recently is don’t fear the opposition. There is a world of information out there, seek it out. Examine what you believe and why you believe it. Read books and articles that run contrary to your beliefs, so you can be informed. Search your heart, search your soul, use logic and reason along with your faith. God bless you all.