Rebuilding My Faith

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I went to church Sunday morning. I know a lot of people go to church on Sunday morning, but for me this marked the first time in over a year. With the events of the past several years, I had wandered from my faith. God was silent and I was finished with the  whole thing.

Until…

I began to feel a tug on my heart that I needed to get back to church. So I began the process of getting back into seeking God’s mercy. I walked into church and it felt like I never left. The worship was sweet and the pastor preached about the glory of God.

It was all so humbling that God still wanted something to do with me- after my wandering, my incorrect beliefs, and my not wanting anything to do with Him. God’s grace is greater than our sin and I understand that now.

“I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the Lord.” Psalm 122:1(KJV).

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The Problems of Evil, Suffering, and Belief

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The problems of evil and suffering have long been used critics of The Bible to argue against the existence of an Omnipotent, or all-powerful God. In recent years, I have become very skeptical of the mental gymnastics required to ignore this problem. If we were to be intellectually honest with ourselves, I believe we would have some major doubts about our religious worldviews.

I know many times I have accepted my suffering as “part of God’s plan,” because “God has something great” for me. If no one had an explanation, then the standard responses are, “God’s ways are above our ways,” or “We’ll have all of the answers when we get to heaven.” I’m sorry, but that is no longer good enough for me. The story of Adam and Eve’s fall in the Garden of Eden is not a sufficient explanation when examined logically.

Besides being Omnipotent, Christians believe God to be Omniscient,or all-knowing. If God, with one glance of his eyes can see across all history and time, then why do we have the Garden of Eden story?

*God creates the angel Lucifer knowing that he will lead a rebellion and will be cast out of heaven with one-third of the angels.

*God creates a paradise, but with the proviso of a forbidden tree, which will keep Adam and Eve in perpetual ignorance if they stay away from it.

*So if Lucifer wasn’t created and the forbidden tree wasn’t put in the garden, then the talking snake would not have convinced Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit, which caused the fall of humanity.

*The all-powerful God could have dealt with sin and Satan right then and there, restored everything, hence there would have been no need for a worldwide flood, the sacrifice of Christ, or the need for a Second Coming of Christ to finally vanquish Satan and his minions.

*The idea that my suffering, your suffering, and the suffering of untold billions is due solely to the fact a talking snake convinced two people to eat a piece of fruit does not hold up upon further review. If your great-grandfather robbed a bank in 1925, decades before you were born and the police show up at your door to arrest you for your great-grandfather’s crime and throw you in prison, that would be ludicrious.

Let’s take another biblical example of innocent people suffering because of one person’s actions. If you are a reader of The Bible, no doubt you are familiar with the Exodus story of Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. Moses, on behalf of God, goes before Pharaoh to “Let my people go.”

However, Pharaoh refuses and God sends plagues on Egypt, which included the Nile River turning to blood, flies, boils, darkness, etc, which culminated with the death of every first born child in the land of Egypt. On the surface of the story, Pharaoh seems to be a very stubborn person who will allow innocent people to suffer over the fate of slaves. However, The Bible states in Exodus 4:21, 7:3, 9:12,11:9, and 14:8, that it was God who hardened Pharaoh’s heart, which brought on the plagues, which brought on the suffering of Egyptians not involved with Moses or Pharaoh. Why didn’t God just deal directly with Pharaoh? In fact the Exodus story doesn’t mention any direct punishment Pharaoh received due to his actions against God’s people, but innocent people suffered because of the stubbornness God put on Pharaoh.

Isaiah 45:7 states, “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.” (KJV).

Isaiah 45:7 is a verse used by theologians and apologists to describe evil as “natural evil,” such as earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, volcanic eruptions, and the like. God can use this kind of “evil” for his purpose to bring healing to a community or country, for which the disaster can be used “for his glory.” I believe this begs the question, why does God have to use suffering in order for people to pay attention to him? Why did God allow Job to suffer so much, yet give him no explanation? It was God, after all, who put the limits on Job’s suffering. If God is all-powerful, then can’t he simply manifest himself in a definitive way?

I am not belittling anyone’s faith and I am not saying you should or shouldn’t believe in God. However, if we are to base our lives and possible eternities on beliefs laid out in ancient texts, can we still apply logic and reason to what we believe? Is it still viable in our modern world to question the advances of science and society in order to hold onto a book that insists the world was created in six days, slavery is allowed, women are to be treated as property, and genocide is encouraged? We must examine the heart of these issues and what we believe. We have been given the gifts of logic, reason, free thought, and common sense let us use them to the best of our abilities. I will leave you with a quote from the 4th/3rd Century BC Greek philosopher Epicurus:

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. If he is able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

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.

 

 

Enduring Hardships with Strength

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A common literary device rooted in human existence is the hero’s journey. The hero’s journey has been part of mythology, fairy tales, epic poems, plays, legends, even to our modern day equivalent of novels and movies. All of these stories follow an similar three act structure. Act 1-Introduce the hero. Act 2- Put the hero in the most adverse/perilous situation. Act 3- the hero overcomes the situation, gets the girl, fulfills his destiny and lives happily ever after.

If our lives were only that simple.

If you have lived for any length of time, you know that “happily ever after” is often reserved for stories and not our lives. Life is a constant struggle, an ebb and flow, the highest of highs and the lowest of the heart-breaking lows.

Just when we think we have slayed the dragon, turned Darth Vader back to the light side of the Force, found our purpose, peace, or forgiveness from God, we find ourselves facing a new or recurring difficulty. After years of struggle and sacrifice to get a hold on the family finances, a lay off, a forced retirement, or sickness occurs. You believe that you have overcome depression and anxiety, only for circumstances to throw you back down to the pit. After being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, you do the best you can to be compliant with your care plan, only to suffer a flare-up or relapse. It feels as if all progress is lost.

We say and think such things as It isn’t supposed to be this way. This isn’t fair. I’ve already been through this. Why is God allowing this?

One of the things we must change when we go through difficulties is our perceptions, or judgments. We work under the assumption that life is fair. Do good, get rewarded. Do bad, get punished. We expect instant blessing for ourselves because we all perceive ourselves as good, while we expect the perceived evildoers to receive instant punishment.  Unfortunately, the innocent suffer and the wicked are rewarded. We live in an imperfect world that doesn’t always make sense.

Neither Jesus nor anyone else said it was going to be easy. Jesus told us that we have to “take up our cross.” That cross at times will get heavy as we walk through this life.

Numerous times throughout his epistles, the Apostle Paul compares being a follower of Christ to the life of a soldier. In his second letter to Timothy, Paul encourages him to “endure hardship as a good soldier of Christ.” (2 Timothy 2:3). A casual reading of the New Testament and its emphasis on suffering and persecution certainly deals a resounding defeat to the claims of the so-called “prosperity gospel,” where God grants all of our desires like a genie freed from a lamp, and life will be free from difficulty. Faith doesn’t free you from difficult times, it helps you get through them by creating within you a resilience, a persistence, the strength to fight no matter the circumstances.

Difficulties serve as a mirror as to our true reflection, our true strength, and whether we get tough when the tough gets going.

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus parallels the Apostle Paul’s statement to Timothy, but uses the analogy of being a wrestler.

“The true man is revealed in difficult times. So when trouble comes, think of yourself as a wrestler whom God, like a trainer, has paired with a tough young buck. For what purpose? To turn you into Olympic-class material. But this is going to take some sweat to accomplish. From my perspective, no one’s difficulties ever gave him a better test than yours, if you are prepared to make use of them the way a wrestler makes use of an opponent in peak condition.”1

In another discouse, Epictetus discusses an how to develop an acceptance of what God brings our way, a way to develop a sort of indifference to circumstances, or “going with the flow.”

“Lift up your head, like a person finally released from slavery. Dare to face God and say, ‘From now on, use me as you like. I am of one mind with you, I am your peer.’ Whatever you decide, I will not shrink from it. You may put me where you like, in any role regardless: officer or citizen, rich man or pauper, here or overseas. They are all just so many opportunities to justify your ways to man,by showing just how little circumstances amount to.”

Though it does seem counter-intuitive, the Apostle Paul, Epictetus, and Bruce Lee all concur- don’t  pray for difficult circumstances to flee, but ask God for the strength to get through the hard times. You will be a stronger and better person for it. God bless you all.

 

1Epictetus, Discourses and Selected Writings, Translated and edited by Robert Dobbin. London: Penguin Books (2008):56.

2Ibid, 116.

 

Unplug from the Noise

The everyday noises of life are often a shrill cacophony of discord rather than the harmonious and beautiful sounds of a symphony. From the moment we wake up, we are seemingly bombarded by the alarm clock, relationship or health problems, arguing children, barking dogs, honking horns stuck in traffic, bombastic talking heads on the news, the boss coming down on you- all of which equally frustrating. Our minds are overstimulated, but our souls and spirits are malnourished. How can we push aside the external demands and feed what the Apostle Paul referred to as “the inner man”?

I love to travel and go on vacation. I also read to relax. However, if you manage to get away from it all, whether via trip or prose, you do eventually have to come back. Problems could arise on the trip or be the first one to welcome you back. What if we could be selfish with just a little bit of our time- ten, fifteen, or thirty minutes and unplug? No demands. No phone. No social media. Sounds great doesn’t it?

Even the Lord Jesus Christ had to get away from time to time. Christ is God in the flesh, but He was also man. As a man, His body was subject to fatigue from the demands on His life and time. Not only did Jesus carry the burden of having to surrender His life for the sins of humanity, He also dealt with a hostile religious establishment, Rome, the political implications of being the Messiah, leading a group of disciples who were infighting for the best seat in the kingdom, healing the sick, raising the dead, and casting out demons-even confronting Satan himself. Jesus would often escape the fighting disciples, the demanding crowds, the religious teachers, and pray on mountain.

“And when He had sent them [the disciples] away, He departed into a mountain to pray.” (Mark 6:46, KJV, brackets mine).

“And it came to pass in those days, that He went out into a mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God.” (Luke 6:12, KJV).

All four Gospels record instances of Jesus spending time alone on a mountain, which either proceeded or followed a big decision or miracle (choosing the disciples, walking on the water, feeding a multitude, etc).

It is not necessary to travel to a far away land to accomplish this. Start where you are and make it a practice. Pray, read a chapter of the Bible, enjoy beautiful worship music, or just sit in a dark and quiet room, drown out the crowd and reconnect with God.  So if the Lord Jesus took the time to renew His body, mind, and spirit, shouldn’t we do the same?

 

 

Romans 12: Love in Action

Perhaps the two most famous biblical passages on love are John 3:16 and 1 Corinthians 13. John 3:16 shows us the extent of God’s love for us, while 1 Corinthians 13 gives us the true and ideal path of love.

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a, NIV).

Love and relationships are hard work and take time. A relationship is two imperfect people trying to build the perfect life together coupled with stresses and storms of life. If you have fallen short of what the Apostle Paul put forth concerning love, don’t fret or despair. Every one of us has fallen short, but while we live, we can work to improve the depth of our love and relationships.

In Romans chapter 12, the Apostle Paul show’s us the application of love regarding our relationships to God, ourselves, and those around us. (I will simply cite the idea of the verse, as opposed to listing long passages of Scripture).

Our Relationship with God

*We are to be living sacrifices for God (Romans 12:1).

*We are called to renew our minds and discover God’s will for our lives (Romans 12:2).

*We are called to serve God with a spiritual fervor while being examples of service, faithfulness and hospitality. (Romans 12:11-14).

Our Relationship with ourselves

*We must exercise humility (Romans 12:3; 12:16b).

*If someone does us wrong, we must not be consumed with revenge, for God will deal with them (Romans 12:17-20).

Our Relationships with others

*Recognize that we are all children of God, but we are not gifted in the same ways (Romans 12:4-8).

*Our love must be of sincere devotion, despising evil and esteeming others above ourselves (Romans 12:9-10).

*We are called to serve others during good times and bad times, no matter their position in life (Romans 12:15-16a).

*We are to overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:21).

We can take away three keys to being a more loving and graceful person:

(1) Introspection. When we see how far we have fallen short, we can come to God’s grace and accept His everlasting love. Our response will become to share the love we have been given. 

(2) We must change our “programming pattern.” Our thoughts, judgments, and perceptions are well within our control, but we allow ourselves to be influenced by the world’s negativity. Think of your mind as a computer. When we don’t change our thinking, we are allowing someone else to write our programming and operating system. 

(3) We must become more empathetic to others. We must recognize that everyone, no matter how they live their life, their politics, their skin color, social status, or nationality, deserves to be loved. We must be willing, as the old saying goes, to put ourselves in their shoes and help them through this life.

We are called to love and serve others. The time has come for us to quit tearing each other down and begin the rebuilding process. God bless you all.

 

 

Being Mindful of Our Actions

Have you ever said or heard the expression,”Do as I say, not as I do?” This phrase could also be stated, “Listen to my words, but ignore my actions.” We’re all human, we’re all guilty of saying one thing and doing another. However, we must be mindful that others watch us more than they listen to us.

My parents taught me and my sister the value of having a strong work ethic. These were not mere words because my parents backed it up with going to work every day- no matter how they felt, no matter the weather, no matter whether or not they loved their jobs-you have responsibilities, you take care of them. It was that simple. I know me and my sister have done our best to live by those values.

William Shakespeare wrote, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” (As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 7) . Of course, we have no control over the part we are assigned to play in life- where we’re born, whether we are rich or poor, our skin color, healthy or sick, and so on and so forth. However, we do have a choice of how we play the role we’re given.

During Jesus’ time, there was a group of men called the Pharisees, who were the Jewish teachers of the Law of Moses. The Pharisees were always questioning Jesus’ authority and how He did things. Jesus upset the religious establishment and called out the Pharisees for their hypocrisy.

“The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy,cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders,  but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. Everything they do is done for people to see.” (Matthew 23:1-5a, NIV).

Six times in Matthew 23  Jesus refers to the Pharisees as hypocrites. Today we through the word hypocrite around in casual conversation, but these were very serious statements Jesus made concerning Israel’s religious leaders of they day. These teachers were using God’s Word to oppress others, yet they took exception to the miracle-performing carpenter from Nazareth.

What is interesting is that the Greek word for hypocrite, hupokrisis, (Strong’s #5272), is a theater term for playing a role. The Pharisees were only playing the part of pious men because they sought the adoration of the people over obedience to God.

As you go through life, remember to be the genuine item of what you claim to be. Don’t go through life like a politician pandering for vote, but make sure actions and words line up. I know I have a long way to go myself. This change is a daily process. It will take the rest of your life to get there. Lean on God’s grace and have patience with yourself. God bless you all.