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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The Roller Coaster of Anxiety

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It was the summer of 2006 and my wife’s employer at the time charted a bus for employees and their families to go to Holiday World, an amusement park in Santa Claus, Indiana (that is the name of the town). My wife, being the carefree daredevil she is, wanted to start off with the biggest roller coaster in the park (oh boy). As I looked at that wooden roller coaster, I felt a twinge of anxiety.

At this point of my life, I had not been on a roller coaster since I was twelve, as I developed a fear of them. We waited through the long line and sat down in one of the ride’s cars. The foam padded steel lap bars came down to secure us while the ride is in motion.

Click.

My thoughts and my heart began to race.

“I gotta get out of here. I gotta get out of here. I gotta get out of here,” I kept repeating out loud.

I tried pushing up that foam padded steel lap bar, which would have been a job better suited for Superman or The Incredible Hulk. My wife reassured me that it was going to be fine.

Click.

The roller coaster started to move. Too late now. Time to man up.

Clickity clack up to the top of the track.

As our part of the coaster reached the summit of the first hill,the pressure built up in my head and I screamed to release it. The ride couldn’t have been three or four minutes, but it felt like an eternity.

Finally, it was over. I was back on Terra Firma. I was shaken, but I had conquered my fear. That day I went on to ride all of the roller coasters at Holiday world. A few years ago, I rode bigger roller coasters at King’s Island.

The story I just told was a sample of an anxiety-filled life. For anyone who has ever dealt with anxiety, it doesn’t have to be a large, fast, wooden roller coaster to trigger a response, it can be something as mundane as leaving the house for work, a test, or any other seemingly harmless situation.

I’m not a mental health expert, but I know how crippling anxiety can be. I know the frustration when it seems you have tried everything you know to get rid of anxiety, but it’s still there, taunting you like a bully.  Of course, some feelings of anxiety are good for survival, as we perceive threats to the safety of ourselves and loved ones. However, when anxiety clouds your judgment, freezes you, and becomes the norm of your life, it’s time to do something.

My life has been a battle with anxiety, as it my arch nemesis, like a Joker to by Batman or Darth Vader to Luke Skywalker. Very few people know of my struggle, but I am determined to take my life back. I am sharing my story on this blog (possibly with the world), to let you know it’s okay. You don’t have to be ashamed. You must be honest with yourself and admit that there’s a problem. Reach out and seek help any way you can.  Today is the start of a new journey for me. I’m taking back my life. God bless.

 

 

 

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.

Upon Further Review…

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” -Socrates

In recent years, I have done a lot of what I would call “mid-life reflection,” where I have pondered the direction of my life. I have also taken a hard look at what I believe and why I believe it. Does what I believe stand up to critical examination, logic, reason, and common sense? Am I willing to let go of certain beliefs if they no longer stand up to scrutiny? Can I be intellectually honest enough with myself to admit to such a finding?

To paraphrase the great Jedi masters, I have not fallen to “the dark side,” but I do allow myself to play “devil’s advocate.” Let’s take my Christian faith for example. I was born in the United States, more specifically Indiana, where Christianity is the dominant religion. Indiana coincidentally, tends to more fundamental in its faith, which by default leads people to being more politically and socially conservative. However, what if I was born in Thailand? More than likely I would have become a Buddhist, because Buddhism is the dominant religion and culture in Thailand. Same goes for India, where people practice Hinduism, or what if I was born in Saudi Arabia, where people follow the teachings of Islam?

The question becomes is our faith simply a by-product of what we are born into and therefore accept without question because it’s the norm? Also, if we believe to hold onto the one true faith, why do we react so harshly to criticism? Why has religion been the source of so much bloodshed throughout the history of the planet? Much worse than an unexamined life are the consequences of unexamined ideas and the people who follow along. We must temper what we believe with reason and not give blind allegiance to people of any religious, social, or political group, because we can find ourselves disillusioned when we place faith in man.

Examining your values and beliefs doesn’t have to wait until all hell breaks loose, but it can be a daily exercise to cleanse our minds and spirits. I intend this year to go deeper into my reflection without fear of asking the hard questions. I also intend to examine the common responses, or in most cases, cliches that all of us say because we feel compelled to say something. I want to explore deeper subjects and go beyond the surface. If faith is an ocean, I intend to explore the Mariana Trench. I am going to take a reasoned, philosophical, and verifiable approach to faith. I hope you come along for the journey. God bless.

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.

 

Examining Our Foundations

For anything, whether it be a house, building, relationship, belief system, or a civilization, a solid and structurally sound foundation must be in place. If a foundation is broken or weak at any point, further stress and strain will create more damage in the future if the foundation is not fixed. If the foundation goes, then the entire building, relationship, belief system, or society is in danger of collapse.

Throughout the course of human history, our response to faulty foundations has been to simply build something new on top of the previous structure. One civilization falls, simply build another one.  The house falling apart? One option compared to costly repairs is to simply move. Instead of constantly rebuilding or moving, what if we were to exercise due diligence and from time to time examine the foundation before it becomes a problem?

I believe in the importance of having a firm set of beliefs. I believe it is important for everyone to have guiding principles and truths in their life, as these truths and principles will serve as a foundation in everything we do, say, and think.  However, life is about continuous growth, which can come via circumstances or exploring new information. Once we are presented with information, we have the choice to accept it or reject it. We must also understand the importance of self-examination concerning our beliefs. It is perfectly fine for a seven-year-old child to spend Christmas Eve eagerly awaiting the arrival of Santa Claus. However, if that same child grows up to the age of fifty-seven expecting Santa Claus, then that would be an issue.

If we could travel back in time and listen to ourselves five, ten, twenty, maybe thirty years ago, we would probably ask our past selves, “What were you thinking? That’s not how any of this works.” From time to time, we must do a foundational audit of what we believe because what we believed as children or in our youth may not make much sense as an adult.

There is one great obstacle that holds us back from challenging our beliefs and rebuilding the foundations: fear. We fear change. We fear being wrong. We don’t like it when others challenge our core beliefs. When faced with an opposing viewpoint, we often retreat into our mental bunkers or we demonize the opposition as a threat to our way of life. This type of discourse is evident in politics and religion.  Why not simply listen to what someone else says?  Maybe we will learn something new, maybe it will affirm or enhance what we believe. Why not agree to disagree? If we are basing our lives on certain beliefs, don’t you want to be sure you have the right foundation? Think for yourself. Challenge yourself. Stretch yourself beyond the comfort zone. Don’t simply go along with the crowd, but have the courage to ask, Where are we going and Why? 

 

 

Confidence Outside the Comfort Zone

“You have to get out of your comfort zone” is an expression we’ve heard from motivational speakers, pastors, business leaders, celebrities, and probably the people in our lives. In order to live the life we’re supposed to live, conventional wisdom says, we must break free of the monotony and hum-drum of simply existing and push ourselves beyond what we know. Easier said than done. The moment we dare stick a toe outside of the comfort zone, we can be greeted by fear, anxiety, depression, others telling us to turn back, failure, frustration, among other issues. It appears that our trip outside of the comfort zone has turned into an episode of The Twilight Zone.

I don’t tell these stories to be boastful or proud, I just want to help others in a similar situation. Three years ago I created this blog, which was a step outside of the comfort zone. I’ve always wanted to write but I was too shy to share my writing outside of my inner circle. I thought, “Do I have anything to say?” “What would I say?” “Would anyone read it?”

One Saturday morning in October 2014, I on a lark, did a search for free blogs and came across WordPress. I followed the setup process and published my first blog, which was on “The Sacrifice of Praise.” Three years and as of this post, 156 articles later, I am still humbled by every view, every follower, everyone who has commented, thank you all so much for helping me find my voice as a writer.

Nine-and-a-half months ago I took another journey, this one farther out of the comfort zone than I’ve ever been. I found myself laid off at the end of 2015 and was unemployed for three months. I took a job which paid a lot less money, but I was back to work. I later left that job for another one, which eventually paid more money.  I was thankful for the work, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do.

I found myself nearing forty in a mid-career and a seemingly in the start of a mid-life crisis. I was also dealing with the compounded stress of my health, my wife’s health, a family tragedy, and crisis of faith. Perfect time to step out of the comfort zone, right? So after months of going back and forth, I decided to go back to school- this time for Information Technology, something for which I had no previous background.

I wish I could say it had a Hollywood ending, but it didn’t. Going to school and working six days a week presented a monumental struggle. There were times that I wanted to quit both school and the job. Living as a hermit in the woods appealed to me. I stuck with it and was able to earn several certifications and I have the opportunity to go back and retest for the ones I missed.

As of posting this, I graduated yesterday, and breathed a sigh of relief. As I received my certificate, I shook hands with school administrators and instructors. I don’t think that I will forget the words of my instructor, who said, “Way to keep working.”  I am now an Information Technology Systems Administrator. By God’s grace and the support of family and friends, I completed my journey out of the comfort zone, which involved a lot of  hard work and sacrifice, but I am thankful for the journey. I believe the most important thing I have gained during these last nine-and-a-half months is self-confidence. Self-confidence should not be confused with arrogance or pride, for we must have confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we can sail into the contrary winds. There’s always the possibility of failure, but we can’t let that stop us. We must persist. God has gifted everyone with a toolbox of talents, but we must use the tools. I proved to myself that I am able to take on new challenges and not allow age or circumstances affect my goal.

If we are going to step out of the comfort zone, we must do the work and put in the time, because we can’t be passive-minded and hope for things to work out. There will be resistance, but you must keep going forward. There will be bumps and bruises, there may even be a scar or two, but the journey will be worth it. No one can take it away from you. No one will be able to say that you couldn’t do it. God bless you all.