The End of My Sambatical From Organized Religion – Part Deux

If you have not done so, please read Part 1 of this trilogy. Otherwise the rest of it won’t make a lick of sense.

 

Eventually the time came that I was able to get back out & about. I have never lead the most adventurous existence, and the church had been a huge part of my social life for years, so it was with some trepidation that I returned. I did my best to put the acrimony behind me, but if I am being honest I am not sure I ever did. Armed with that subliminal resentment I began to notice the superficial pretense. I had finally taken off my rose colored glasses and saw the church for what it was…a very human creation that I was pretty sure no longer resembled God’s original intent. Little snubs & slights began to gnaw at me. I actually did get angry and skipped a couple of Sundays here & there, always pondering the possibility of finding a new church. But I always came back. I refer to it as Battered Parishioner Syndrome.

 

Then, three years after my triumphant return, the events of last spring unfolded. Again, the details are unimportant, but suffice to say that things didn’t happen overnight. The straw that broke the camel’s back was actually quite silly & petty on my end, but it came at the conclusion of a string of events that built up like a slow filling helium balloon. Even then when I quietly stormed out that last Sunday I knew I’d probably get over it and go back in a week or two. But things began to happen. I got very sick and was unable to attend for a couple of Sundays. When no one called to see if I was okay that old resentment began to rear its ugly head. A meeting that I had every intention of attending went on without me because I was unexpectedly asked to work a Saturday morning shift.  I expressed my displeasure to a few fellow congregants in regards to the aforementioned camel breaking straw, and I was told “You’ll be back. You always come back.” And that was when my pride kicked in and I decided that I was going to prove them wrong and not go back. And I didn’t.

 

At first I seriously pondered finding a new church. That probably would have been the wise decision. Like my friend The Owl I could have visited churches and atleast given them a chance until they gave me a reason to discard them. But I didn’t. I began to realize that the cause of my inner turmoil was bigger than the particular things that had happened in my church. I slowly came to understand that I had lost my zeal for the whole of organized religion. Its hollowness. Its hypocrisy. Its focus on money. Its resistance to try anything new. Its reliance on habit passed off as tradition. Its lack of meaningful influence. Its determination to fit into the world’s paradigms when The Bible clearly says that we are to be “in the world but not of the world” (or something to that effect) and “a peculiar people”. I decided…as I have to a large extent in relation to life in general…to withdraw. When something frustrates, upsets, aggravates, and saddens you the prudent course of action is…sometimes…to just shun it altogether.

 

And then a few weeks ago…on a lazy Saturday when The Bachelor Palace was a complete mess, I was not dressed for company (let your imagination run wild), and I was having a day where I was keenly aware of my own emptiness, isolation, and ennui…there was a knock at my door.

 

Proudly Closeminded and Intolerant

Facebook is a mixed blessing, a double edged sword. On one hand it provides the type of beneficially mindless entertainment that even those who rail against such frivolity need in appropriately moderate doses and serves as an avenue to stay in touch or reconnect with friends and family. Conversely, it can, as much as one allows, lay bare attitudes and behaviors that may be otherwise unknown by the masses. I am one who probably puts a little too much out there, providing access to my beliefs and views on everything from religion & politics to sports & pop culture. I also observe what others opine and post. I know for a fact that some are outraged and flabbergasted by my sentiments, and I am oftentimes saddened and flummoxed by theirs. This can create regrettable tension. Theoretically these are your friends and you are their friend, but in reality the relationship is often tenuous. The person you went to high school with but haven’t seen for 20 years probably isn’t a true friend, especially if you weren’t even friends in school. The co-worker from that job you had for 6 months ten years ago probably isn’t really your friend either. So when you combine the flimsiness of the relationship with polarizingly passionate perspectives on issues that some may take more seriously than others it is a combustible cocktail. Fortunately the inevitably disastrous fracturing of the fragile association is fairly painless. You can choose to just not have the stuff your friend posts appear in your news feed, you can delete them, or you can ban them completely so that you won’t even see their interactions with mutual friends. I have done all three, and it is likely all three have been done to me by others.


It is never my intention to anger or offend, and I am not easily offended myself. But one of the things I have observed over the course of the past few years is a growing sense of moral relativism. Society has a progressively increasing “if it feels good do it” attitude. Anything and everything is rubber stamped as long as there is no heinous crime being committed or no one is being physically hurt. Those who espouse opinions that go against the grain of this laissez faire attitude are on the receiving end of a rather vitriolic backlash wherein they are labeled intolerant and close-minded. I have been called those things a few times myself over the years, and I used to get upset and angry, loudly proclaiming that I am indeed tolerant and open minded despite what those who disagree with my principles may think. However, I have begun to reassess this standard defense of my values. Maybe I am a little intolerant and somewhat close-minded. And I think that is just fine with me.


Tolerance is a tricky term. Being tolerant used to mean the ability or inclination to put up with things one did not agree with or like. For example, a non-smoker tolerating a friend lighting up in their presence, or a Pittsburgh Steelers fan (like myself) tolerating a Dallas Cowboys fan (such as my sister). It is an absolute necessity that makes our world more interesting. Afterall, how prosaic would life be if everyone agreed about everything?? The key is something my Dad taught me…disagreeing without being disagreeable. But over the course of the last few decades tolerance has found new life as a politically correct code word meaning “anything goes” and not only blurs the line between right & wrong but obliterates it completely. The only wrong in this politically correct universe are those that attempt to insert any type of ethical standards into the situation, especially if they invoke Christian values and the name of God in the process. Likewise, being open minded theoretically means the ability to be receptive to new or different ideas. This too has unfortunately evolved into terminology that means acceptance of all manner of obscenity and abject ideology. The PC crowd has been enormously successful in weaving these thought processes into society while demonizing God and morality.


What I have been trying to work out in my own heart and mind is this: Where is the line between being judgmental and simply standing up for one’s beliefs ??


The Word tells us in Matthew “judge not lest ye be judged”, but I think maybe that is a passage that has been twisted into a self-serving bit of hyperbole by the tolerance police. It is a sad fact in 21st century America that a growing segment of the population openly mock God, but there is another growing portion of society who, while they profess a belief in God, want to water Him down into an easygoing, relaxed, permissive entity who doesn’t care how far off the path we veer. They treat God like a substitute teacher or a benevolent grandparent who will let us goof off, break all the rules, and still give us milk & cookies before reading a bedtime story and tucking us into bed. Even loyal churchgoers who theoretically study their Bible regularly say things like “love the sinner, hate the sin” which, to my knowledge, cannot be found anywhere in God’s Word. It is true that God is love, that He commanded us to love our enemies and our neighbors as we do ourselves, and that He is so desirous of a personal relationship that He sent Jesus to die on the cross so that His blood can wash away our sin, but we shouldn’t mistake kindness for weakness. Jesus did not hesitate to call people out on their BS, so to speak. He was no pushover and ticked a lot of people off. I mean let’s face it…He was crucified!! That doesn’t happen to a lackadaisical milquetoast. We are to emulate Christ and I believe sometimes that means being a bit more of a radical revolutionary than a pushover. Should we go around picking fights?? No. But I think it means we don’t walk away from them either. It’s all in the approach.


And that is the point at which I currently find myself. I have come to realize that my approach may need some…tweaking. Maybe I do come across as judgmental and a bit harsh on occasion. I have had to diminish my exposure to various political media because, whether I strongly agree or completely disagree with the biased angle being presented I tend to get a little too fired up either way. This is when Facebook gets me in hot water because it offers an immediate forum where I can vent my frustrations before taking the proper time to ponder and cool the engines. At the same time, I do not want to sit on my hands and not express my views, especially when it comes to faith. We are to be “fishers of men” and “make disciples of all the nations…teaching to observe all things that Jesus commanded”. Jesus said “they persecuted Me they will persecute you also” and “you will be hated by all for My name’s sake”. He taught that “blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you, and revile you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of Man’s sake. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy”. This is a uncomfortable thing for most to grasp because we don’t enjoy rejection. We want to be liked and accepted. We want to fit in, to belong. Especially for Christians it can be difficult to embrace that we are to be a peculiar people. Who really wants to be thought of as peculiar, aka unusual, strange, or weird?? But at the end of the day I think there are times when we must stand our ground and refuse to back down. There are situations in which we need to be close-minded and intolerant.


I suppose it all goes back to what Dad taught me about disagreeing without being disagreeable. We can stand up for our principles without being hateful, even if “hate” is another word too easily thrown around by touchy feely humanists to condemn anyone who disagrees with their warped outlook on all sorts of subject matter. George Herbert, a 17th century poet and clergyman, said that “living well is the best revenge”. Similarly, maybe the best way to convey Godly principles is not to argue but to live a Godly life with Jesus Christ as our role model. Values like salvation, forgiveness, wisdom, grace, mercy, love, peace, faith, kindness, etc. shouldn’t be treated like a product others have to be convinced to buy under duress or like abstract concepts from an tedious book that are taught in a dry, uninspired lecture. They are to be practiced daily. My Mom always said that you can get more flies with honey than with vinegar. Conforming that notion to the present discourse it seems that a better strategy in proving God’s way is the right way…the only way…is to become the best example possible. Stay positive and show the power of God in one’s own life rather than being critical of others’ choices. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used civil disobedience or non-violent protest to make his case, and at the end of the day let’s face it…he made a heck of a case and changed the world. I cannot honestly say my protestations are always as civil as they should be and that is something The Lord and I are ironing out, but I plan on continuing to stand up for what I believe to be right, and on the occasions that I am perceived as being captious or abrasive I will need to decide if that is truly the case and what exactly must be done…or not done.

Blessed Are The Poor In Spirit

The first edict Jesus gives in The Sermon on the Mount is be poor in spirit. Now this is a little confusing. Why would anyone want to have a poor spirit as opposed to a wonderful, great, fantastic spirit?? How is having a poor spirit supposed to make us happy??

 

Well okay…a poor spirit, by that definition, does not make us happy. But let’s look at it from a different angle. Think about it monetarily. We all probably know psfolks on nearly every level of the economic scale…extremely poor, lower middle class, well-to-do, rich, and super wealthy (those are not officially sanctioned terms, just my spin on things…I’m confident you get the idea). At any rate, those on the upper end of the scale are doing just fine. They don’t need any help from anyone. It doesn’t really matter where their wealth comes from…the point is that they have it. They also tend to have more stuff…bigger houses, fancier cars, more toys. That’s not a criticism just an observation. On the flip side, the lower down on the scale you go the less stuff people tend to have and the more help they need. Our world tends to put wealth on a pedestal and look at the poor with a mix of pity, disgust, and disregard, so that frame of reference also makes this particular directive somewhat difficult to accept. None of us desires to be poor.

 

Jesus’ point though doesn’t really have as much to do with money directly as it does our tendency to put money (among other things) higher on the priority list than a relationship with Him. He is trying to tell us that no matter what we do for a living, how strong we are mentally and physically, or how much stuff we have, we are nothing without God and we are to always, always, always rely on Him. Those who never lose sight of the fact that God is to be the foundation of our lives will ultimately be happy…if not in this life then most certainly in the next one. Jesus said “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God”. This statement follows the Parable of the Rich Young Ruler, a story in which a man was willing to do whatever it took to have eternal life…except give away his earthly possessions, status, and influence. Jesus goes on to teach that “No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon (i.e wealth, riches, worldly gain).”  1 Timothy states “Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows. But you, O man of God, flee these things and pursue righteousness, Godliness, faith, love, patience, gentleness. Command those who are rich in this present age not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy. Let them do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to give, willing to share, storing up for themselves a good foundation for the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life.”

 

When it comes to our relationship with God we need to always be as humble as the underprivileged masses who can’t allow themselves to be too proud to ask for help. They need help to survive, so they must swallow their pride and accept assistance. In the same way we must put aside vanity and ego and enter into a relationship with Christ with humility and submission to His will.

 

 

The Fruits of The Spirit – Love

An old Saturday Night Live sketch (the one with the annoying head bobbing guys in rayon suits) used the (equally annoying) song “What is Love?” as its theme. The answer to that question must be answered if we are to understand the importance of love within the framework of The Word of God and why it is a Fruit of the Spirit, and the answer is complex. I cannot possibly say everything that should be said on the subject here, but I will say what I feel is important and hope that it is sufficiently fascinating to spur independent study.


For guidance we will use the Greeks as a jumping off point, one that seems valid since the Greek language was one of the three languages used to write the earliest translations of The Bible. The Old Testament had first been written in Hebrew and Aramic, while The New Testament was done in Greek.


Greek distinguishes several different senses in which the word love is used:

Agape is the verb “I love” and generally refers to a pure, ideal type of love, the love of the soul, of intelligence, of reason and comprehension coupled with corresponding purpose. It represents the divine love of God toward His Son, believers, and human beings in general and is vastly superior to any other form of love. It is used to depict the outwardly focused love God expects believers to have for one another. Agape is charitable, selfless, altruistic, and unconditional. We can agape others only if God has first filled us with His agape. All the other forms of love need a reaction, something in return, but agape comes from God and those that are full of it do not need a confirmation from others, being fully satisfied in the agape of the Lord.

Eros refers to sexual, erotic love or desire.

Philia means “to have ardent affection and feeling” and includes loyalty to friends, family, and community. Philia is a human response to something that is found to be delightful. It is the root of philadelphos, meaning brotherly love…..hence the nickname “City of Brotherly Love” for Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It is a feeling that finds attraction in another person and expects a return.

Storge is the natural affection felt by parents for offspring, which is why babies are said to be delivered by the stork.

Xenia means hospitality and was an extremely important practice in Ancient Greece. It was an almost ritualized friendship formed between a host and his guest, who could previously have been strangers. The host fed and provided quarters for the guest, who was expected to repay only with gratitude. The importance of this can be seen throughout Greek mythology, the best examples being Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.


Eros, xenia, and storge aren’t really utilized in The Bible, so we can put them on the shelf and concentrate on the other two: agape and philia. That simplifies things to the point that when we study The Word of God we just have to ask ourselves which one is being referred to in a particular passage. This is made even easier when we realize that agape is used 90% of the time and philia is used the remaining 10%. Logic would then dictate that agape is the type of love that we need to truly have a firm grasp on, although it can’t hurt to have an understanding of philia as well.


The word “God” appears in The Bible over 4000 times, the word “man” over 3000, and the word “sin” over 1000. By comparison, love or some form of the word is mentioned just over 600 times. But I don’t think the numbers paint an accurate picture. For one thing, the perfect example of God’s love is His Son Jesus Christ, who didn’t come along until the New Testament. Secondly, without explicitly saying so, many of the other expectations God has of His creation (such as the other Fruits of The Spirit that we will eventually discuss) have love as a foundation. It is difficult to forgive or honor, have faith, and be good, kind, patient, and gentle without love. Without the love of God there is no true peace and joy. So if one looks at all the other verses in The Bible in which various virtues are talked about, it should be inherently understood that love is being discussed as well.


Christ put such an emphasis on love that he told His apostles this: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you lovealso love one another.  By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” Two things must be highlighted from this verse. First, “to love one another” as Jesus loved us is a commandment, meaning it is on par with The Ten Commandments. In other words, as obvious as it is that we should not kill, steal, or commit adultery, it should be just as clear that we need to love. Most average folks in their right mind don’t go around shooting people or pilfering others’ stuff, and if one does do those things there is a legal and societal consequence. Why then is it so easy for us to feel malice in our hearts toward so many of our fellow human beings, to act on a daily basis with such selfishness, malevolence, and general disregard?? Secondly, Christians need to show our love because it is how we are recognized as believers, how we are set apart from “the world”, how we glorify God, how we “prove our metal”. Anyone can call themselves anything, but the proof is in the pudding. As I mentioned in the introduction to this series, one thing about fruit is that it is tangible evidence that differentiates one type of tree from another. If we don’t bear fruit…..in this case, if we don’t shine the light of God’s love…..then we’re just another tree that will eventually be chopped down and burned up.


Studies have proven that pets (who provide unconditional love and companionship) can help lower blood pressure, ease loneliness, and help children overcome allergies. Heart attack patients with dogs are eight times more likely to be alive a year later than people without dogs. So if a dog or cat or bird can have such a positive effect on people, how much greater does a mutually loving relationship with God affect a person?? That’s not to say that Christians have it made in the shade, not by a long stretch. But “with God all things are possible”. I’ve never heard as good a review about what’s possible without God.


Two aspects of love that most of us really struggle with (I know I do), are the directives to “love thy enemies” and “love your neighbor as yourself”. Let’s face it…..we tend not to love anyone quite as much as we love ourselves, no matter how noble we seem. And we really resist the whole enemy thing…..the concept of forgiveness may be one of the most difficult to master. Ghandi once said that “it is easy enough to be friendly to one’s friends, but to befriend the one who regards himself as your enemy is the quintessence of true religion. The other is mere business.” I couldn’t possibly state it any better. The question becomes “how do we truly forgive and love others as much as we love ourselves?”. I won’t lie…I’m still figuring that out myself on a daily basis and cannot honestly say that I am anywhere close to where I need to be. But I know a few things. I know that the aforementioned relationship with God is a necessary starting point. One doesn’t just get a PhD right out of the gate…..grade school, high school, a bachelor’s degree, and then a master’s are building blocks. We live in a drive thru society that desires an instant fix, but the truth is there are steps. We must develop a relationship with God, understand on some basic level His love for us, and show our love for Him before we can begin to love our enemies and “forgive those who trespass against us”. These are essential steps. The book of Matthew plainly states that “If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.”


God speaks to us through parables and miracles and various other means, but sometimes He just lays it on the line. One such case is the well known 13th chapter of Corinthians, commonly referred to as The Love Chapter. In that chapter Paul clearly articulates an easily understood definition of love:

Love is patient

Love is kind

Love does not envy

Love does not boast

Love is not proud

Love is not rude

Love is not self-seeking

Love is not easily angered

Love keeps no record of wrongs

Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth

Love always protects

Love always trusts

Love always hopes

Love always perseveres

Love never fails

Just reading that list pierces my heart. I know I am not always kind and patient. I can be too prideful. As polite and mannered as I was raised to be I can still be rude. I am most certainly easily angered. I too often keep a record of wrongs. In other words, I’ve got some work to do…..how about you??


Paul prefaces that list by saying this: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.” That is a very powerful statement. “Love” may not be mentioned as often as some other terms, but the passages in which it is mentioned pack a powerful punch.


Which brings me to my concluding point (and the crowd goes wild!!). Of all the verses and chapters and books in The Bible, there is one that packs such a punch that it is well known by people far and wide, whether they are Christians or not. John 3:16 says “for God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life”. That is the essence of love ladies and gentlemen. We were made by God, in God’s likeness, for the express purpose of glorifying God and having relationship with Him. Adam and Eve messed up in The Garden as bad as anyone has ever messed up. Did God hold a grudge?? Did God give us the cold shoulder?? Did God seek revenge?? Did God destroy us forever?? No. God did what only someone who truly loves can do…he forgave us and gave us a second chance. And not only that, but he sacrificed His Son in offering us that reprieve. If you are reading this and have children, look at them right now. If you don’t have children think of your most prized possession. If someone asked you to throw that child…or car, house, heirloom, or whatever else you may value most in your life…into a fiery pit in order to save the lives of not only loved ones, but strangers, and even those who have hurt you deeply, would you do it??


I’m a Trekkie, and Spock always espoused the maxim “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one”. But that’s a television show, pure fiction. Enjoyable and interesting, but fictional nonetheless. We humans tend to invert Spock’s maxim, focusing on the needs of the one fruit-aisle~s600x600(ourselves), then the few (close family and possibly a few friends), and maybe, on the rare occasion when we are feeling magnanimous and the sacrifice isn’t too harsh, there’s a chance we may care about the many. However, God’s word tells us that we shouldn’t differentiate, that we should love freely and without expectation. God’s instructions about love illustrate that Spock’s words of wisdom aren’t fiction at all.


We began with a song so we will end with one. The 80’s band The Cars had a song that said “I wanna know what love is…I want you to show me”. God has told us and shown us exactly what love is…..all we have to do is pay attention and follow his example.