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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Thoughts and Prayers

It is folly for a man to pray to the gods for that which he has the power to obtain by himself.” – Epicurus

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Thoughts and prayers.

After every mass shooting, terrorists attack, tragedy, or natural disaster, the words “Our thoughts and prayers go out to [Insert situation]” are posted all over social media, from everyday people to world leaders. While the intentions of these people may truly be noble and sincere, has the expression “thoughts and prayers” become another cliched and knee-jerk platitude? Do we say this because we are overwhelmed by the circumstances or is this a way for us to simply feel like we did something?

I’m not discounting the need for prayer as prayer is an essential part of all of the world’s major religions. However, I believe a comforting presence or a donation of time, food, money, or even donating blood in the event of a medical emergency can do more than simply praying for a few minutes. Action must accompany belief. A former spiritual mentor of mine once said, “Nobody cares about what you know until they know you care.”

I’ll admit that I find it difficult to pray these days, because it literally feels like I’m talking to a wall. From a standpoint of reason, I find prayer to be a paradox. As Christians, we pray to an all-knowing, all-powerful God, who knows how every event in human history is going to turn out before it happens, yet allows tragedies and suffering to happen. So we are praying for God to comfort victims of a tragedy that He allowed in the first place? I’m sorry, but that does not compute.

To paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson, if I know your sect, I know your argument. Sin entered the world with Adam and Eve, God’s ways are not our ways, God has a plan for each of us, The Lord works in mysterious ways, God will use this tragedy for His own purposes/good. Were there any that I left out?

I’m just being honest and realistic, I’m not being facetious or mocking anyone’s beliefs, but our thoughts and prayers aren’t going to wish away our problems. The time has come for action, we must get to the real root of our problems and provide real solutions for them. We have to stop falling back on empty and hollow rhetoric and being swayed by every slick talking politician in a suit. We must stop holding on to old beliefs simply because our parents, grandparents,or great-grandparents believed it. We must examine what we believe spiritually and socially, in order to see whether or not we are truly helping the situation or making it worse.

The marginalized, the maligned, the shunned, and the forgotten must be brought into the fold. We cannot allow old prejudices, fear mongering, and ignorance to rule our lives, we must allow our world’s wounds to heal one person at a time. That is why with what platform I have with this blog and any other medium to advocate for those who cannot help themselves. Jesus and the apostles, the Buddha, Gandhi,  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and countless others have went to where the people were suffering and lent a hand, not just  their thoughts and prayers. I am challenging myself and you as well. Let us not treat this world with disdain in the hopes of a life beyond, but let us seek to make this world a better place.

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.

 

 

Be a Force for Love

By Michael W. Raley

Evil exists in the world.

However, that is not an excuse

For it to dwell in you.

Don’t allow yourself to be manipulated

Into following the aimless herd.

You have been gifted with logic and reason.

Therefore, open up the gifts and put them to use.

Don’t join the angry mob,

But be a force for love.

Bitterness and hate are the caustic acids

Which will eat away at even the most docile soul,

Only to leave you in the pit of despair and regret.

Your time is limited and may run out any day,

So why choose to live in constant anger and seething rage?

Be a force for love.

We are all God’s children

And we must embrace every brother and every sister

Who comes our way each and every day.

The earth will remain,

But we will soon be gone.

Keep this thought in mind

In all you say, do, and think.

Go and live in peace.

Be a force for love.

 

 

The Virtue of Fortitude

Ever heard the expression “It builds character?” The “it” is what you are going through at the present moment. Though “It builds character” is often used flippantly and sarcastically, there is a golden nugget of truth we can mine from this statement.

Character is who you are- your mentality, values, beliefs, judgments, perceptions, which shape your responses to life and circumstances. Your character is fully within your control. Much like gold and silver, character will go through a refinement process.

“Take away the dross from the silver, and there comes out a vessel for the smith.” (Proverbs 25:4, NASB).

We are the silver. The dross is our impurities or imperfections. The vessel is what we will be and the smith is God. It is the smith who helps shape the silver into what it is supposed to be.

Our character can also evolve over time, much like how a writer may go through multiple rewrites before the novel, script, or comic book is complete. (For instance, in the original draft of Star Wars, Han Solo had green skin and gills).

The Stoics also believed in the importance of character. The Stoics believed that we can improve ourselves and that we should strive every day to be better people. In his discourse, “On Providence,” Epictetus discusses the proper perspective we should have in life.

“It is easy to praise providence for everything that happens in the world provided you have both the ability to see individual events in the context of the whole and a sense of gratitude. Without these, either you will not see the usefulness of what happens or, even supposing that you do see it, you will not be grateful for it.”1

Epictetus also links our character with fulfilling our purpose:

“And so for the beasts it is enough to eat, drink, sleep, breed and do whatever else it is that satisfies members of their kind. But for us who have been given the faculty of understanding, this is not enough. Unless we act appropriately, methodically, and in line with our nature and constitution, we will fall short of our proper purpose.”2

Since we are created by God for a purpose, we are called to acknowledge God:

“Man was brought into the world, however, to look upon God and his works- and not just look, but appreciate…Come to look upon and appreciate God’s works at least once before you die.”3

Take a moment to watch a sunrise or sunset. Look at the stars. Travel to the mountains. Look at the oceans. Take a breath and enjoy the moment.

One of the things that attracted me to read about Stoicism was the pragmatic and realistic nature of the philosophy. For the Stoics, it’s about the process. It’s acknowledging that bad things will happen and being prepared for them when they happen. Because you have lived through previous trials, you have built up a reserve of character, or what Epictetus referred to as “the virtue of fortitude.”

“Furthermore, you have inner strengths that enable you to bear up with difficulties of every kind. You have been given fortitude, courage, and patience. Why should I worry about what happens if I am armed with the virtue of fortitude? Nothing can trouble or upset me, or even seem annoying. Instead of meeting misfortune with groans and tears, I will call upon the faculty especially provided to deal with it.”4

Epictetus goes on to mention about how we do not realize that we have the resources to conquer whatever we are facing. When circumstances do not go our way, we become bitter, complain and resent God, but God has provided a way out. You have the tools, you have to work with them. You might get greasy or hit your thumb, but keep working. What good is a toolbox of the best tools if they are never put to use?

God bless you all.

1Epictetus, Discourses and Selected Writings. Translated and Edited by Robert Dobbin. London: Penguin Books (2008): 16.

2Ibid, 17.

3Ibid, 18.

4Ibid, 18-19.

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.

 

Book Review- The Art of Living

In a continuing series, I am reviewing and sharing some of the influential books that have helped me on my life’s journey.

Epictetus’ book, The Art of Living, is an incredible philosophical book that gives the reader practical insight on how to live a virtuous life of inner peace, no matter the circumstances we face in life.

Epictetus (55AD-135AD) was a slave who took an interest in philosophy. Epictetus later gained his freedom and became a teacher of Stoicism. Epictetus today is regarded as one of the pillars of Roman Stoicism, along with Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Seneca. The essence of Stoicism is that it is not what happens to you, but how you respond that counts. The Stoics, especially Epictetus, write that we should focus solely on what is in our control and not worry about what is not in our control. You do not have to be a philosophy major to understand Epictetus, as he presents his philosophy in a practical and straightforward manner.

“Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: Some things are within our control, and some things are not. It is only after you have faced up to this fundamental rule and learned to distinguish between what you can and can’t control that inner tranquility and outer effectiveness become possible.”[1]

Epictetus then distinguishes what is and is not in our control:

“Within our control are our own opinions, aspirations, desires, and the things that repel us. These areas are quite rightly our concern, because they are direct subject to our influence. We always have a choice about the contents and character of our inner lives.”[2]

“Outside our control, however, are such things as what kind of body we have, whether we’re born into wealth or strike it rich, how we are regarded by others, and our status in society. We must remember that those things are externals and are therefore not our concern. Trying to control or to change what we can’t only results in torment.”[3]

Epictetus also stresses the importance of not getting caught up in other peoples’ business and stick with what is our concern because we will not be forced to do anything we do not want to do. Another aspect Epictetus emphasizes is the importance of managing our perceptions, or how we see and interpret events. It is important to gauge these perceptions by what is within our control and what is not in our control.

“From now own, practice saying to everything that appears unpleasant: ‘You are just an appearance and by no means what you appear to be.’ And then thoroughly consider the matter according to the principles just discussed, primarily: Does this appearance concern the things that are within my own control or those that are not? If it concerns anything outside your control, train yourself not to worry about it.”[4]

Other Brilliant Quotes from Epictetus

“Circumstances do not rise to meet our expectations. Events happen as they do. People behave as they are. Embrace what you actually get.”[5]

“It is not so much what you are doing as how you are doing it. When we properly understand and live by this principle, while difficulties will arise- for they are part of the divine order too- inner peace will still be possible.”[6]

“Never depend on the admiration of others. There is no strength in it. Personal merit cannot be derived from an external source.”[7]

“Nothing truly stops you. Nothing truly holds you back. For your own will is always within your control.”[8]

“Every difficulty in life presents us with an opportunity to turn inward and to invoke our own submerged inner resources. The trials we endure can and should introduce us to our strengths.”[9]

“Although we can’t control which roles are assigned to us, it must be our business to act our given role as best as we possibly can and to refrain from complaining about it. Wherever you find yourself and in whatever circumstances, give an impeccable performance.”[10]

The Art of Living has been a very influential book for me as I have journeyed through the last eighteen months of my life. I have learned and applied many aspects of Epictetus’ wisdom to my own life, which has enhanced my faith and navigated me through difficult choices. I have also found parallels in Scripture, which makes this book compatible for Christians as well.

If you truly want to live a happy life, it all starts with you. Be content in all circumstances and realize that everything happens for a reason. We may not know the reason, but we have been assigned this season of our lives. Make the most of it. Focus internally and do not worry about the externals. God bless you.

[1] Epictetus, The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness. A New Intrepretation by Sharon Lebell. San Francisco: Harper Collins (1995): 3.

[2] Ibid, 3.

[3] Ibid, 3.

[4] Ibid, 5.

[5] Ibid, 7.

[6] Ibid, 9.

[7] Ibid, 12.

[8] Ibid, 16.

[9] Ibid, 17.

[10] Ibid, 24.