The Faith of Mary and the Doubt of Zechariah

This is going to be a short post, but I thought it was worth sharing.  Today I started re-reading the “Gospel of Luke” and something stood out to me in the first few pages.

The account begins with two big announcements. The angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah first and tells him that he will have a son to be named John. After Zechariah manages to calm his nerves from the shock of seeing an Angel in the temple he says the following:

“How can I be sure of this? I am and old man and my wife is well along in years?” – Luke 1:18

The answer he got is kind of humorous:

“I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news.” – Luke 1:19

zechariah

“I’m a freakin’ Angel Zechariah, what more proof do you need?”

Because Zechariah doubted he was not allowed to speak words until the time the baby was born.

The next big event is almost exactly the same situation, but with totally different results. Gabriel appears again, this time to a young virgin named Mary, and tells her she too will have a son. Gabriel reveals many wondrous things that will be said and done by this child and he instructs Mary that his name is to be Jesus.

Mary responds in a way that at first glance seems a lot like Zachariah’s reaction. After overcoming the fright that angels seem to cause in people she responds by saying:

“How will this be, since I am a virgin?” – Luke 1:34

Mary’s question, however isn’t met with any punishment or penance. She just get’s a pretty straight to the point answer.

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” – Luke 1:35

So what is the big deal? Why does Zechariah get the punished and Mary just has her question answered? Well I think there is a subtle, but important difference to note in the two questions.  Zechariah wanted to know how he could be sure God would act. Mary knew God would keep his word, she only wished to know how he would keep his promises.

Zechariah, though he was a high priest, saw an impossible obstacle and wondered if God could move it. Mary, though she was young, saw an impossible obstacle and wondered how god would move it.

We should all strive to be more like Mary in our faith.

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“40 Questions To Ask A Christian” – My Response

So I came across and article entitled “40 Questions To Ask A Christian” which was meant to be a thought exercise on behalf of the Atheists to be taken up by Christians. As the author wrote:

“Asking a difficult question can achieve better results because it taps into the Christian’s desire to share the wisdom they perceive themselves to have. Any reflex for angry disagreement is quashed and replaced by an obligation to think their answer through. Ultimately, thought is what an atheist should be trying to elicit. By asking the right questions, one can determine the direction that such thought takes.”

So I have copied the article’s 40 questions below and I will attempt to answer them to the best of my ability. I have not prepared or done any research before or after reading these questions. I wanted to be as genuine in my answers as possible, and try to respond as I would if I were asked these questions by a random stranger on the street.

40 Questions for Christians

  • (Global Religion)

If a hundred different religions have to be wrong for yours to be right, does this show that people from all over the world like to invent gods that don’t exist?

Not necessarily. Let’s look at it this way, if a hundred different accounts of a historical event have to be wrong for yours to be right, does that show that people all over the world like to invent historical events that don’t exist?  The answer would be no. Most all cultures have some grasp of God or gods no matter how isolated they may be. The problem is usually not “Does God exist” as much as it is “What is God like.”   Having said that I don’t think anyone has to be wrong for something else to be right. I believe Christianity to be true, and by saying that I am also saying that what contradicts Christianity is not true. If a Muslim or a Hindu were to come and say something about God that contradicts Christianity then I would assume they are false. If they says something that is not contradicted, or even perhaps supported by Christianity then I would say they are true. I think that other religions may have false beliefs and an incomplete view of God, but I don’t think thousands of different cultures all over the world just made up God on their own.

If your parents had belonged to a different religion, do you think you would belong to that religion too?

Maybe. It’s really impossible to say since I did not grow up in a home of another faith. I would certainly hope that someone would present the Gospel to me and that I would accept it no matter what religion I was born in. I can say that I believe I would probably always seek after God regardless of what culture I was born into. I would certainly hope that God would not allow me to return from my quest empty-handed.

If people from the five major religions are each told conflicting information by their respective gods, should any of them be believed?

Yes. Just because there are conflicting views on something does not negate that one of them could be true. If I say grass is green and four other people disagree with me we shouldn’t just assume that none of us can be trusted.

  • (Communication with God)

How can you tell the voice of God from a voice in your head?

Does this voice ask you to do anything that would conflict with the teachings of Christ and the Apostles? Does this voice move like a holy fire through your very soul? Does this voice point you towards more loving service or spreading of the Gospel, or is it more self-serving or pointing to sin?

How can you tell the voice of God from the voice of the Devil?

My answer is the same as the above.

Would you find it easier to kill someone if you believed God supported you in the act?

No. I don’t think I could ever kill easily even if there was a divine command behind it. Killing should never come easy.  Also I don’t believe I would ever be commanded to kill another human being by God. In the Old Testament Israel and God’s people were used as a human representation of God’s judgement and so God did use them to kill. The thing is that God’s wrath and judgement on sin was completely poured out on Christ at the cross. We are in a new age of mercy where the old is fading and the new is coming.

If God told you to kill an atheist, would you?

I already pretty much answered this in the previous question.

  • (Morality)

When an atheist is kind and charitable out of the kindness of his heart, is his behavior more or less commendable than a religious man who does it because God instructed him to?

Yes and No. An atheist who does a kindness in order to get a warm and fuzzy feeling or to feel good about themselves is really no different in motive than a religious person who does good simply to please his God. Christians however don’t believe in doing good to appease God, but rather we do good because we are so filled with love for what God has already done that we cannot help but let that love overflow onto others.

If you are against the Crusades and the Inquisition, would you have been burned alive as a heretic during those events?

Maybe. It depends on how vocal I was.

If your interpretation of a holy book causes you to condemn your ancestors for having a different interpretation, will your descendants condemn you in the same way?

I’m pretty loose in what I consider a Christian. If they believe Christ was fully divine and fully man, the messiah, and that he died and rose again for the sake of sinners so that they would be forgiven then I consider them a Christian. Any other interpretations are secondary and are not “deal breakers.” I don’t know the beliefs of my ancestors. I also don’t know whether they would condemn me.

Rape wasn’t always a crime in the Middle East two thousand years ago. Is that why `do not rape’ is not part of the Ten Commandments?

Well it was. Also if you notice a lot of things weren’t mentioned in the Ten commandments. I would say that the 7th commandment “Though Shall Not Commit Adultery”, the 8th Commandment “Thou Shall Not Steal” and the 10th “Thou shall not covet” could all be applied to condemn rape.

Do lions need `god-given’ morality to understand how to care for their young, co-operate within a pack, or feel anguish at the loss of a companion? Why do we?

No. Morality can exist in a secular sense. My problem with secular morality is not that it doesn’t exist, but rather that it is entirely dependent on the individual and the ever-changing opinion of the mass. Secular morality is dangerously close to mob morality. This doesn’t mean it cannot be right or true, but I simply don’t find it sturdy enough for me.

If organized religion requires a civilization in which to spread, how could this civilization exist without first having a moral code to make us civil?

I’m not sure I understand this question. I think religion is one of the first steps any primitive people experience before forming a civilization. Historically civilizations tend to come from and form around temples and religious structures.

  • (The Characteristics of God)

An all-knowing God can read your mind, so why does he require you to demonstrate your faith by worshiping him?

He doesn’t. Worship is a means for us to show gratitude. He knows our heart, but we enjoy celebrating what God has done. Worship is a mutually beneficial act.

If God is all-knowing, why do holy books describe him as surprised or angered by the actions of humans? He should have known what was going to happen.

When we tell stories we are limited by our language. There re truly no words that I believe can accurately encapsulate God. For the narrative structure to work God must be humanized to an extent so that we can fathom what is happening. We anthropomorphize God to better relate to him.

An all-knowing God knows who will ultimately reject him. Why does God create people who he knows will end up in hell?

Hell is the result of man’s free will. God desires that all men would be saved, but he forces no one to follow him. Apart from God there can be no good and complete rejection of God is the absence of good, or Hell. God wants you in heaven one day, but he doesn’t force anyone to come home. God created us to love us and be loved by us, love however requires a choice, and a choice means that it must be possible to reject love.

If God is all-knowing, then why did he make humans in the knowledge that he’d eventually have to send Jesus to his death?

All things for the glory of God. Jesus was not plan B. Jesus was plan A so that God could tangibly demonstrate his love for us and show us grace and mercy while remaining true and just.

Why did a supposedly omnipotent god take six days to create the universe, and why did he require rest on the seventh day?

It’s a narrative story. It’s meant to show the passing of time. In English the word “rest” usually is the result of becoming tired or exhausted. This is a translation problem. The original Hebrew text used a word which simply meant that on the seventh day God stopped creating. It is not that God was tired after six days of work, but rather that his creation was complete.

Is omnipotence necessary to create our universe when a larger, denser universe would have required more power?

As I stated in the previous answer, when the creation was complete God stopped working. I don’t see how a larger or more dense universe would be any more or less necessary than the one we live in. I’m still a little confused by what this question was supposed to be saying?

  • (The Bible)

Why are Churches filled with riches when Jesus asked his followers to give their wealth away?

You should come visit my church. But on a serious note all things are for the Glory of God. Wealth used to honor and glorify God is a way to put God above money. We are to give to all who are in need, and most churches do. Also I’ll point out that those elaborately decorated cathedrals this question was probably pointed to are usually built by donations from the poor that the church supports. If churches never ran shelters, food and clothing drives, hospitals, or orphanages then I could see the problem, but that is not the case.

While in the desert, Jesus rejected the temptations of the Devil. He didn’t censor or kill the Devil, so why are Christians so in favor of censoring many Earthly temptations?

Christ did not openly embrace or allow the devil to prosper either. He tolerated evil only so far before he shut him down. What good could possibly come from allowing evil to go unchecked.

Given that the story of Noah’s Ark was copied almost word for word from the much older Sumerian Epic of Atrahasis, does this mean that our true ruler is the supreme sky god, Anu?

No, but perhaps Anu the supreme sky god and Yahweh are the same God seen through different cultural lenses. Remember my point about how different religions can still all testify to the existence of God? It’s a similar thing going on here. The story of Noah is particularly interesting because it occurs so often in so many different cultures and legends from around the world. It’s a really fascinating tale that seems to have roots all over the world, leaving me to believe that there is truth to it.

  • (Religious Conversion)

If your desire is to convert atheists so that they become more like you; do you think that you’re currently better than them?

My desire to convert atheists is so that they can be with me in heaven one day and come to know the joy and peace that comes from knowing Christ and having a relationship with the father. I do not think I am better than atheists, in fact I don’t know how a Christian could. Any holiness seen in Christians comes not from their own work or merit, but from the holy spirit and the gifts and blessings from God the father. To God be the glory.

If religious people don’t respect their children’s right to pick their own religion at a time when they’re able to make that decision, how can society expect religious people to respect anyone’s right to freedom of religion?

Well that’s a loaded question. A Christian parent should not respect their child’s rejection of Christ because that is the most hateful thing a parent could possibly do. That is literally tolerating someone right into the gates of Hell (God forbid).  Any Christian who actually believes Christ meant what he said cannot easily allow any loved one to reject the truth without putting in a great deal of prayer effort to convince them otherwise. If I love my child I must hate what is harmful for them, and nothing should be hated more than the complete and total rejection of all things good. Notice this is not me saying the child should be hated, but the parent should do whatever is in their power to dissuade their child from what they know is a path away from what is good.

If missionaries from your religion should be sent to convert people in other countries, should missionaries from other religions be sent to your country?

That’s up to them to decide. I’d love to talk to them.

If children are likely to believe in Santa Claus and fairies, does this explain why religion has been taught in schools for thousands of years?

Not really. Religion was taught because it was believed to be true. Although there have always been atheists, the cultural movement has only really been around since the 18th century. For most of history there was not secular education. Churches were the centers of learning and the Priests were the educated people of the day. The shift of separating religion and education and religion and politics is a pretty recent occurrence in the grand scheme of history.

When preachers and prophets claim to be special messengers of God, they often receive special benefits from their followers. Does this ever cause you to doubt their intentions?

I’m not sure what you mean. I know of no rich prophets.

  • (Miracles)

When you declare a miracle, does this mean you understand everything that is possible in nature?

No. When I say something is a miracle it means I cannot see how God was not involved in this. Even if I know how something happens it can still be a miracle.

If a woman was cured of cancer by means unknown to us, and everyone declared it a miracle, would the chance of scientifically replicating this cure be more or less likely?

This is a strange question. If we didn’t know how it happened then I don’t know how science could hope to replicate it.

If humans declared fire to be a miracle thousands of years ago, would we still be huddling together in caves while we wait for God to fire another lightning bolt into the forest?

Fire is pretty miraculous when it is really though about, but I say no. The scientific method was invented by a catholic priest. Isaac Newton, Gregor Mendel, and Galileo were all deeply religious people who believed in miracles. These men were spurred on to discover because they believed that God created an ordered and understandable universe. Miracles doesn’t mean science stops. Miracles means that God still works, whether we understand how or not.

If God gave a man cancer, and the Devil cured him to subvert God’s plan, how would you know it wasn’t a divine miracle? What if he was an unkind, atheist, homosexual?

God has worked through the Devil (see the book of Job) and he has worked through non believers countless times in the Old Testament. If God gave a man cancer and then chose to remove it then it doesn’t really matter to me how it was removed.

  • (Hell)

Should an instruction to convert to your religion upon the threat of eternal torture in hell be met with anything other than hostility?

We aren’t threatening you with hell anymore than the person who sees an eighteen wheeler bearing down on you is threatening you with the eighteen wheeler. We simply see the danger and wish to save you from it. To do anything else would be extremely cruel.

Can a mass murderer go to heaven for accepting your religion, while a kind doctor goes to hell for not?

Yes. No man deserves eternal paradise and communion with God, yet God saw it good to give us admittance into his family free of charge. If a kind doctor rejects this offer and chooses hell then his decision will be honored. If a mass murder chooses repentance and grace then God is good to forgive.

Did the mass murdering Crusaders and Inquisitors make it into the Christian heaven?

I certainly hope so. I also hope their victims have found a home in paradise along side them.

How can we know what is right when we don’t know for sure who makes it into heaven and hell?

This question is written as if good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell. There are no good or bad people. There are only redeemed and unrepentant people.

If aliens exist on several worlds that have never heard of your god, will they all be going to hell when they die?

That’s not my call to make, but I would assume no. The reason a man goes to heaven or hell is because of his eternal soul. Unless and alien was given an eternal soul by God I’d assume their fate is the same as a dog or a whale.

  • (The Promises of Religion)

If someone promised you eternal life, the protection of a loving super being, a feeling of moral righteousness, a purpose for living, answers to all the big questions, and a rule book for achieving the pinnacle of human potential… and all in exchange for having faith in something that wasn’t proven, would you be suspicious?

Yes. I was very skeptical before I became a Christian. I was a very difficult person to convince.

If someone promised to give you a billion dollars after ten years, but only if you worshiped them until that time, would you believe them? If someone promised to give you eternal life upon death, but only if you spent your life worshiping a god, would you believe them?

Worshiping a man for money is not a worthy endeavor. Maybe, obviously I said yes to Christianity though I still think you misunderstand the point of worship though. I also think these questions focus way too much on the next life and not enough on the life we have now. Christianity is not just a religion of the future, it is a life to be lived out now.

Why does religion appeal more to poor, weak, vulnerable, young, ill, depressed, and ostracized people? Could religious promises be more of a temptation to these people?

It appeals to these people because they understand what it means to need grace, mercy, healing and a savior. A person who is extremely blessed in this world has many things he can make his God, whether it is money, power, influence, pride, approval, or what have you. The poor and needy are closer to God because they know what it means to cling to him for their needs.

Let’s Talk About Evil

good-vs-evil-1

The idea of evil has been a part of humanity as far back as the notion of good has existed. But what is “evil” and does the problem of evil negate a good God? Since the time of the ancient Greeks, and possibly further, it has been thought that the idea of evil existing eliminates the idea of a good and all-powerful God. It seems to make senses that if God can stop evil but chooses not to, then he is not Good. It also seems to make sense that if God cannot stop evil he is not nearly as powerful as we make him out to be. In this post I hope to make it clear why neither of these are necessarily true statements. God can be good and evil can exist at the same time.

First let’s start with the famous Epicurus “Problem of Evil” which goes as follows:

  1. If an all-powerful and perfectly good god exists, then evil does not.

  2. There is evil in the world.

  3. Therefore, an all-powerful and perfectly good god does not exist.

Now for this to be a logically sound argument all the aspects of it have to be true. This is problematic because of several factors. First, Epicurus doesn’t define “good” or “evil.” To show why this is a problem one only needs to look at how different cultures regard good and evil. Epicurus himself had a very different understanding of good and evil than most modern people do. According to Epicurus’ philosophy good is what we find pleasurable and evil is what we find painful. He argued that sometimes a person will go through pain to achieve an even greater pleasure (example: exercising to have a better body) but ultimately all good is simply pursuing the greatest possible pleasure.

I don’t want to deny Epicurus his due respect, but I don’t think I could ever advocate the Epicurus moral system. What bothers me the most is morality in this case lacks any universality. Good and evil are completely subjective to the person. Joseph Stalin had a dream that one day the world would be a communist paradise free from class struggle, racism, poverty, and inequality. In his efforts though somewhere around twenty million people died. Ultimately Stalin is regarded by most as one of History’s greatest villains because after all that pain his dream never came to be. Out of fairness let’s talk about U.S. President Harry S. Trueman’s decision to drop nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Hiroshima’s destruction killed between 90,000–166,000 and Nagasaki’s destruction killed somewhere between 60,000–80,000 people. These were men, women, and children who had committed no war crimes. These were people who’s only fault was living in the wrong city in the wrong country. In the end though, this pain ultimately probably saved more lives than it lost by preventing a full U.S. military invasion of mainland Japan.

Was President Trueman’s decision morally good? If Stalin had succeeded would he be seen as a great hero? That’s up for you to decide, but my point is that Epicurus leaves a lot open for interpretation. He assumes that evil exists, that God wants to rid the world of evil, and that if something apart from God’s will or desires exist then he ultimately cannot exist. There’s also a bit of narcissism in this argument since Epicurus defines good as what is pleasurable and he thinks that for God to exist he must ultimately provide nothing but pleasure or else he cannot exist.

Epicurus’ problem of evil is really just the first level of the problem though. The idea has been built upon, improved, and elaborated on many times. From what I can find the most current example goes as follows:

  1. God exists.

  2. God is omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good.

  3. A perfectly good being would want to prevent all evils.

  4. An omniscient being knows every way in which evils can come into existence.

  5. An omnipotent being, who knows every way in which an evil can come into existence, has the power to prevent that evil from coming into existence.

  6. A being who knows every way in which an evil can come into existence, who is able to prevent that evil from coming into existence, and who wants to do so, would prevent the existence of that evil.

  7. If there exists an omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good being, then no evil exists.

  8. Evil exists (logical contradiction).

Ok, let’s break this one down. It starts with the premise being tested, that “God exists.” It then goes on to define God by saying that “God is omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good.” So far this argument is set up well. It has established what it wishes to test and it defines God so that there should be no questions as to what is being tested.

Point three is where the argument begins to fall apart. “A perfectly good being would want to prevent all evils.” This is once again problematic because “evil” is not defined. If we assume that God is all good and evil is the antithesis of good then this point can stand. We assume here that “evil” serves no purpose and that this perfectly good being wants to rid the world of evil at this very moment, but for some reason cannot or is not. Can a perfectly good being allow evil to exist for a time if it ultimately serves a purpose for greater good? By Epicurus’ own logic this is possible and perfectly logical. As you can see, argument is becoming a little shaky, but it hasn’t crumbled completely just yet.

Point four and five are pretty sold, but point six doesn’t work for the same reason point three fails. A being who knows every way in which an evil can come into existence, who is able to prevent that evil from coming into existence, and who wants to do so, would prevent the existence of that evil. Once again the assumption is that evil has no purpose and that God is just helpless to prevent it. Point seven and eight follow on point six.

So by this point you are probably wondering what my answer to the problem of evil is. Well, I say that evil exist because God loves us. How’s that for a contradiction! But seriously, I think evil has to exist for love to exist. I’ll explain why soon, but first let’s establish what evil is not.

thEvil is not this counter force that is equal and opposite to good. There is no yin-yang thing going on (which by the way doesn’t really have anything to do with good and evil) where there is some balance that exists where the good and evil sides are always in some constant war for the souls of man.

I know that this is a popular theme in what I like to call “pop culture Christianity” where the devil and angel on our shoulders are always tempting us to make good or bad decisions. We love the idea of God and Satan are bitter rivals in some cosmic war for the world, but ultimately that’s not really the case.

For starters evil is not a force to go to war with good. In one way of looking at it, evil is not even a real thing. Now I say evil exists, but only in the same way that cold exists in the absence of heat. Evil (in my understanding) is an emptiness that is left by abandoning good that can be filled up again.

Let’s look at the popular antagonist in the character of Satan. From the few things we know of him through scripture (he’s not as big of a figure as people paint him to be) he is an angel who was created good and beautiful but chose to rebel against God. Satan’s evilness isn’t something that was innately apart of his being, it is an emptiness left by his choice to rebel against what was good.

Choice is the key factor here. Christian theology believes that God created the universe good and perfect. Sin only entered the world when Adam and Eve chose to move away from the good will of God. Evil is nothing more than the absence or perversion of good. Greed is the choice not to participate in generosity, violence and hatred come from a choice not to participate in brotherly love and empathy, it goes on and on…. every sin comes from a choice not to participate in what God created for good.

So why would God give us the ability to choose? Simply put God is love and love requires a choice. If I had no choice at all whether or not I loved someone then it isn’t really love. Love requires that a person could leave or abandon the other. If a wife could never cheat on her husband, leave her husband, or even contemplate loving another then she isn’t his lover…. she’s his slave. The same goes for all types of love. A choice has to exist and God created us to love us and to be loved by us. God is relational and seeks relationships, and yet he will not force love.

Christianity believes that God literally did all the work required for us to join him and be forgiven of our transgressions, we simply have to choose to love him. He couldn’t have made it easier and every moment that he let’s evil run rampant is a mercy shown to us by giving us even more time to come to our senses and return to love. Evil exists because we are allowed to choose between good and not-good, and God allows it because he wants to give each of us opportunity to find and return to him.

Paul, when dealing with people who demanded God be quicker in punishing evil, had this to say:

So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?

– Romans 2:3-4

So to wrap this up my answer to the problem of evil is simply this: Evil exists so that true love can exist, and because God is patient, kind, and willing to give each of us chance after chance to repent. A day will come when no more evil will exist, where God will fill in all the gaps of his creation with his glory and goodness, but until that day let us not ignore the grace and mercy of God. Let us not grow weary in doing good. And let us not forget that the good news we believe and hold true to is for all people, and it is our job to spread the love by pointing and leading others back to God.

How Kierkegaard, Jesus, and a Transgender Person are Making Me Rethink Labels

Philosophy has always been something that I enjoyed learning about, and with out a doubt my favorite philosopher is Soren Kierkegaard. I don’t want to spend too much time on him because he is not the focus of this article. The only reason I bring up Kierkegaard at all is because he is the author of a famous quote that I am just now beginning to understand:

“If you label me you negate me.”

– Soren Kierkegaard

I love Kierkegaard, but I always thought that this was a terrible quote. Labels are important after all. If we never labeled anything how could we organize ourselves. Compartmentalizing the vastness of stuff out there is important if we ever plan to get anything accomplished. The problem I am just now realizing though is that this is not always true with people.

As a culture we love labels. We love labeling each other and labeling ourselves. If you don’t believe me just look at how many Christian denominations there are out there. While I like to think that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, we still  have hundreds of different factions all over the place. Even Baptists (the faction I call home) have dozens of mini-branches under the umbrella term of Baptist. I’m not even getting into political beliefs, class, race, nationality, gender identity, sexual orientation, or societal/cultural concepts.

I could easily list twenty or so terms that “define me” as a person, but if I’m honest none of them are really all that encompassing of me. In a lot of cases I’m only partially synonymous with my label. In other cases I fit my label as it is defined, but not as it is perceived by others or as society as a whole. Labels can be too big, too small, incomplete, inadequate, and often changing with time. It’s almost impossible to define you by just spouting off labels. Even if I did give you the perfect terms to describe my heritage, religion, politics, class, gender, orientation, and philosophy would you actually know me?

My brain goes to that beautiful scene in “Good Will Hunting” where Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) really gets to put Will Hunting (Matt Damon) in his place for the first time:

“You’re an orphan right? You think I know the first thing about how hard your life has been, how you feel, who you are, because I read Oliver Twist? Does that encapsulate you? Personally, I don’t give a **** about all that, because you know what, I can’t learn anything from you that I can’t read in some ***** book. Unless you want to talk about you, who you are. Then I’m fascinated. I’m in. But you don’t want to do that do you sport? You’re terrified of what you might say.”

– Sean Maguire from “Good Will Hunting”

So we get the point by now, labels are incomplete at best and hurtful at the worst, but why am I bringing any of this up? Well the other day I was faced with something I really never expected to be faced with. I was given the opportunity to minister to a person who felt like a man trapped in a woman’s body. This was the first time in my life I’ve ever had to interact with a person dealing with a non-hetero normative gender identity.

I am a licensed minister working at a Southern Baptist church and this young person (I’m still trying to figure out whether “He” or “She” is the more appropriate term) was suddenly placed under my spiritual guidance. I’m now forced to make a judgement call on how to approach something I know almost nothing about.

I mean I knew that people like this existed. I know about sex changing operations and I had read about clinical psychological studies on gender identity, but I had never actually had to deal with this on a personal level. Similar to Will Hunting, I had read the books but that didn’t mean I knew anything at all about this person. This is where it the idea of a transgender person became real to me for the first time. Suddenly transgender people weren’t a work of fiction, or some strange tribe living in strange places like New York or California. This was a real person with feelings, needs, hopes, dreams, and desires that I was encountering.

Luckily all the stress from this unexpected situation faded away quickly when I realized just how silly I was being about this whole thing. This person I was dealing with was not an embodiment of the entire transgender culture, any more than I am an embodiment of white heterosexual manhood. This was just another human being, and this person wants the same thing all of my other youth want; love, acceptance, compassion, friendship, spiritual guidance, and support for when times get rough. Yeah, I might eventually have to have to talk about this gender identity thing, but we can do that when and if that person decides the time is right. My job is the love this person and point them to Jesus, end of story.

Reflecting back on this realization it really dawned on me just how dehumanizing labels can be (even if they are accurate). It is so easy to make all sorts of assumptions and stereotypes based around whatever label we assign people, and every time we do that it robs them of their humanness and individuality. A person is not defined exclusively based on any one factor and yet we put so much work into labeling people as if that was the key to understanding them.

Jesus dealt with crowds and groups, but he also always saved times for individuals. Do you think the Samaritan woman was only that, a Samaritan and a woman, in Christ’s eyes.  Do you think he saw Zacchaeus as simply a tax collector like the rest of his community did? Were lepers just lepers in the Lord’s eyes? Was Nicodemus just a Pharisee? Peter just a poor fisherman?

The answer over and over is no. Jesus saw people for people. He knew their heart and he didn’t concern himself with trying to fit people into neat little categories. Over and over we see Jesus dealing with people from all sorts of classes and categories as individuals. He didn’t ignore who they were, but he also wasn’t so caught up labels that he missed the person underneath.

I’ll tell you right now that I would have never even considered asking a cross dressing transgender person to come to church. I’m deeply ashamed to admit that, but if I knew a person who had those labels attached to them I think I’d pass over offering them an invite. I’d just assume that they would hate it and that they probably already have a negative view of the church, but honestly who am I to make that call. Luckily for me, while I was trying to make a cool youth group for “church kids” one of my youth had the Christ like love to give that confused and scared person an invite to come and hangout with Jesus this week. I think that that alone makes that brave fourteen year old girl a much evangelist and representative of Christ than me. Thank God for people like her.

So I guess I’ll wrap this post up with a commitment and a challenge. I am going to commit to avoiding playing the label game as much as possible. I’m going to commit to looking at individuals and loving people regardless or whatever titles and baggage they have. I challenge you to do the same.

“… I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” 

– 1 Corinthians 9:22-23

Jesus Never Promised To Be Fair

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The other day I was listening to a discussion about homosexuality. One side was pro-gay marriage in the Christian Church. The other side had a more traditional understanding of marriage. Now I’m not writing this post to be about homosexuality, but the context is important because it was from this discussion that a big realization came to me. The pro-gay marriage side said something along the lines of “God is fair, so why would he create some people to get married and others not to?”  That is when it hit me…. God doesn’t make us equal, and Jesus never claimed to be fair.

Now maybe I’m going to upset a some people by saying that, but I think there is a lot of truth to it. Think about it, was it fair that Jesus picked twelve blue-collar guys to be his disciples instead of all the educated Jewish young men who had trained their whole lives to be a disciple of a rabbi?  Was if fair that Jesus healed some people but not others? Was it fair that Jesus raised some people from the dead, but not others?  Was it fair that Jesus told Peter, Andrew, and John to simply come and follow him, but the rich young ruler had to sell all his things first?  What about the mercy shown to the woman caught in adultery? What about the loyal older brother in the prodigal’s son parable?  Is it fair that Gentiles were simply welcomed into the faith without having to go through all the rituals, observances, and careful study that the Jewish believers had lived through? Is there really anything in the Bible that leads you to believe Jesus was fair?

The truth of the matter is that we are not all created equal and we don’t all get equal treatment, at least not in the sense a lot of people take that to mean. I was born a white male in a middle class American family. Is it fair that someone else was being born to a dirt poor Indonesian family that same day?  I certainly didn’t do anything to earn these blessings, no more than those born to poor families are any more deserving of their status.  I know people who were born with same-sex attractions that straight people will never have to wrestle with… is that fair?  One of my good friends is a quadriplegic who can only really control her head while I could get up and go for a walk or sit here and type this blog whenever I wanted.

So what am I getting at, that God and Jesus loved some people more than others?  Not at all!  God made Paul to be a Pharisee and a Roman Citizen for His purposes, just as he made Peter to be a fisherman and a loud mouthed apostle for his own. God made the Moses knowing he wouldn’t be a great speaker. He made Jacob knowing he would be a traitor. He made Noah knowing he would be a drunk. He made every disadvantaged broken person with the same tender love and mercy that he made every person of privilege.

Here’s the kicker though, it is a great thing that God and Jesus are not fair.  You see, a God who was obsessed with fairness would never have sent his Son to earth to die for sinners. If there is anything to be said about God’s sense of fairness it is that he has loved each of us far more than we deserve.

Yes, God has very different plans for all of us. Some of us were built to be Bankers and others to be Martyrs. Some of us were blessed with health, wealth, and prosperity so that we could be generous with our gifts and support all those who are need. Some of us were born with need so that we could be blessed spiritually and reach people who the upper middle class suburbanite never could.  Jesus himself was a poor traveler who often had no home or place to lay his head. Think about that, God wasn’t even fair to his own Son…

It is not fair that any of us should be given grace, mercy, love, or forgiveness from our Heavenly Father.  It is not fair that God continually gave Israel chance after chance to repent and return to Him. It is certainly not fair that God would send his son to earth as a poor carpenter to suffer and die on our behalf. The Gospel message isn’t fair, and that’s a good thing!

Some of us are not destined to be married, or have a nice house, or have a steady income, or have perfect health, or live to an old age, or to have all the perks and privileges that we feel entitled to. That is ok though!  God made you the way you are for a reason and regardless of your place in life, you have been blessed far more than you could ever deserve because the Son of God loved you enough to take your sins and shame upon himself on your behalf.

Let’s try to remember that next time we get upset about life not being fair.

Jesus: A Surprising Success Story

thWhen looking at Jesus Christ one has to wonder why this poor carpenter’s gospel spread became the worlds largest religion. If you examine Jesus from a purely historical and secular mindset it really doesn’t make a lot of sense. Andy Stanley (author of “Deep & Wide”) put it this way:

“At the center of this grassroots movement, originally referred to as The Way, was a Jewish carpenter whose message centered on a “kingdom” that wasn’t directly connected to this world. He spoke mostly in parables that few could understand. He insisted that those who followed him love the Romans and pay those onerous taxes. He alienated the influential and the powerful. He offended practically everybody. His family thought he had lost his mind. After only three years of public ministry, he was arrested, publicly humiliated and then executed. Sounds like a strange way to start a movement…”

– Andy Stanley

I have to agree with Andy on this one. Jesus was not only hard to get behind, he also openly criticized and challenged a religious system that had existed for thousands of years. His claims to be the “Son of God” and “Lord” were not only offensive to his Jewish audience, but also to the Romans who claimed Caesar to be a “Son of God” and a “Lord of Lords.” The way this Jesus guy carried himself it’s surprising he wasn’t caught and killed sooner. If Jesus was not who he claims he was then he definitely had one of the most arrogant and self destructive religious careers in history.

So what was it about Jesus that made him a success?  Why didn’t his movement die off right after his death?  The answer I point towards is that his followers were absolutely convinced that he was not dead.

We all know the resurrection story, and how Christ appeared periodically to his followers for 40 days following his death before finally ascending into heaven. Some struggle with these accounts, but I have to believe them. These cowardly disciples who were in hiding all suddenly abandoned all fear and became missionaries to the ends of the earth. Peter, who denied Christ three times during his death, chose to be crucified upside down instead of denying the risen Lord. These men were convinced that they were not carrying on some dead guys legacy. These men had seen the risen son of God, and in doing so they had lost all fear of death.

The reason Christianity thrived and survived was because it’s first preachers, teachers, and missionaries were not promoting a philosophy or a theology… they were attesting to a Gospel that they had witnessed first hand. Despite the brutal oppression the church of the first century would endure at the hands of various famous persecutors, the movement would not die. Death had no sting for those who had seen the resurrected Christ!

I hate to think what the first century church would think of the twenty first century one. While we have grown huge in our scope and numbers, we have also grown more dormant and complacent. A lot of established churches have change from a movement into a weekly meeting. We pass on opportunities to share the Gospel because the timing isn’t right or because we don’t want to be awkward. I’m guilty of this myself to my great shame, and I hope to avoid repeating my past mistakes.

If the early church was willing to be stoned, burned, tortured, mauled, and slashed to death for the sake of the Gospel I feel like I can maybe risk an awkward conversation for the sake of my neighbor’s soul. Christ has risen, death is dead, spread the good news.

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” 

– Matthew 28:19-20

Miracles Are Everywhere

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So let’s talk about miracles. By definition a miracle is an act of God, or an event that appears to be contrary to the laws of nature. To simplify it even further, a miracle is anything that we think could not have happened unless God acted. I have recently come to the understanding that this might not be the best way to look at miracles. For starters this limits the miraculous to only events that seem to mystify and inspire a sense of awe in all of us. God becomes this great magician in the sky who on seemingly random occasions will do a trick that blows our minds. It also paints this picture that something cannot be miraculous if we can comprehend it.

There are certainly many aspects of God and his miraculous works that cannot be comprehended or understood yet. That’s fine with me, I’d much rather worship a God too big for me to ever fully comprehend than a God who is so small that my 3.5 pound brain could understand all aspects of him. But I still don’t think that we should be so hasty to just assign God to the gaps in our understanding.

When we limit God in this way we create an ever shrinking God. If we hold to the idea that God only reveals himself occasionally in mystical and incomprehensible miracles, then every scientific break through gives God less and less room to work in. No, I propose that miracles are all around us and that God works miracles all the time, even if we understand how he does it.

People have grown less and less taken with the idea of miracles the more we advance as a species. The more we learn about the universe around us the less we seem to see the careful hand of God at work. We have the strange idea that if we understand it God is not in it. It seems to me that the opposite should be true.

We live in a universe that is held together by natural laws, and these laws allow order to exist. If protons and neutrons were a little bigger or smaller, or if gravity didn’t work the way it does, or if certain elements didn’t exist, or any number of factors that hold our universe together were just a little off then we’d have a universe that was completely different from our own. The fact that our universe is not sterile is a miracle in and of itself. That we live in a universe that is life compatible is miraculous when one considers how many different universes could have existed. Just the fact that something exists instead of nothing is still boggling the minds of great scientists and philosophers today.

Our universe manages to be both chaotic and ordered in ways that we are just beginning to understand. The fact that we can even do science and observe repeated and testable results in our universe shows just how well oiled of a machine our universe is. A person doesn’t look at a car and assume it has no maker simply because they understand how the combustion engine could propel the vehicle forward when weight is applied to the gas pedal. The universe is much larger, more complex, and vastly more fine tuned than any automobile. In this way I say everything is a miracle because everything has Gods fingerprints on it. Let us not deny the creator his credit simply because we learn new things about how his creation operates.