Your Faith: Luke 17:11 – 18:14

The Kingdom Is Not Near, It’s Here. Widows. Pharisees. Tax Collectors.

Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”
Luke 17:10 (NIV)

I was surprised to learn one of the most effective strategies in calming a turbulent child was distraction. It makes sense – a crying baby will usually respond to soothing measures when an unknown agitator is present – I suppose I just thought there would be more to it than that. Therapists often employ the same methodology, although they use the slightly more clinical term of “redirection.”

My strategy for dealing with anxiety is similar. I put something stupid as close to my face as possible until my brain registers it as far more interesting than my nervousness. You would not believe how many panic attacks I have stopped in my tracks by simply turning to the person next to me and saying, “Talk to me about anything. Literally anything.”

It works but only ever so much. Like Tylenol, its efficacy wanes over time until it does not work at all. All the pretty colors in the world cannot distract you forever, because really, distraction is only a temporary solution and no one ever meant it to me more. You wave a Gameboy in front of the eyes of a toddler getting a shot, because the pain is a one-time deal. Batten down the hatches, because you only need to survive once. But make that shot a daily occurrence and the dread will return. Soon, the Gameboy, in its seemingly endless entertainment, will work until it doesn’t, and then you will have to find something else.

Netflix. Until you have watched everything.
Conversation. Until there is nothing to talk about.

You could avoid. No more shots. No more airplanes. No more public spaces. And with situation specific phobias – maybe that will solve your problem.

But it does not solve your problem, because yours is generalized in day-to-day experience.

So, take the opposite route – dig in. Deal with it in the moment with all the intellectuality you can muster. Process feelings. Come up with tangible solutions. Maybe even revisit some of those distractions from a different perspective. Eventually, the problem will not be a problem anymore.

Unless it is. Unless it clings to you like it has somehow woven itself into your skin, burrowed deep and never letting go. What then? What if the air scares you? You can’t stop breathing, can you?

And so it’s faith. Against all logic and distraction, in the face of all the thought and consideration, you make a conscious choice to ignore the good science and the knowledge. It’s not scary, you think, even though it is. I’m taken care of, you think, even if you don’t feel it. I won’t die, you think, even though you will.

And that might just do the trick.

A View into Hell: Luke 16 – 17:10

A Confusing Parable. Don’t Forget about Divorce. Lazarus (Not that One). Forgive and Rebuke.

He replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.”
Luke 17:6 (NIV)

I wanted to go to Hell.

Not in a Marylin Manson “I would be more comfortable in Hell” kind of way, but in a more philosophical “this is my escape” way. I can honestly say that I have never once dreamt of living forever with any sort of pleasure or calm. I’ve spoken about my fear of eternity before, and while I initially thought I was the only Christian with this existential dread, I have since discovered some folks with parallel thoughts about the concept. Those who have not completely understood my anxiety have dismissed it as a “lack of faith” – if I am to be fully Christian, I must believe that eternity will be bliss rather than torture. That never worked. Still to this day, it sucks to think about, even though the raging panic attacks of yesterday have subsided.

Jesus tells us of the nature of Hell with a parable (of sorts – it’s unclear if it’s real or a tale). A rich man lives in a lavish house with a beggar named Lazarus hanging out front. Eventually, they both die. The rich man travels down to Hades where he endures eternal torment by fire, while angels carry Lazarus up to Heaven, right by the side of Abraham. The latter pair decides to visit the rich man in Hades, where this is described:

But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
Luke 16:25-26

So not only do those with “good” lives go to Hades (according to Abraham’s justification), but there is also a large chasm that physically separates the good from the bad, all set in this pseudo-spiritual-metaphysical background.

The rich man begs Abraham to raise Lazarus from the dead and send him back to Earth (ironic, considering the famous fate of the other Lazarus), so that he can properly warn his family of the impending doom waiting for them in Hades. Abraham says no – they have eyes and ears and need to learn for themselves.

Frightening stuff, if implausible.

See, I thought Hell was dying, being thrown in a lake of fire, and then withering away into non-existence. Sounded just fabulous to me. But no, it’s still living forever, just a torturous forever.

So I might as well shoot for Heaven.

Against Nature: An Update on the Law of Jesus

Jesus finally gives it a rest on the generalized parables and gives us some more of his laws. A few of the highlights:

…Deal with church sin one-on-one, and then bring others if the perpetrator remains sinful (Matthew 18:15)

…Greed is just the worst (Luke 12:15)

…Always be prepared to serve others (Luke 12:35)

…Be observant and watch the present tide well (Luke 12:56)

…Repent, or die (Luke 13:3)

…Among about 15 others.

After reading the 77 laws that Jesus has dictated so far – which still overwhelming favor issues of behavior – it is clear that he wants us to act against any instinctual nature within us. That makes sense… Any philosophy must be concerned with altering behavior towards some higher ideal until it seems second nature.

But think about us as less human and more animal. We have an instinct to survive at all costs and without room for altruism. Greed is good – it maintains our place at the top of the food chain. Disputes are handled with deadly force – the strongest survives. Serve others? Not unless they are kindred.

Basically, it flies right in the face of what Jesus suggests. He wants us to fight urges and destroy all impulses. He wants us to be a product of proper nurture, without even a hint of our nature remaining.

Homosexuality is nature (I don’t care what Ben Carson says). So it makes sense that Christian pundits want us to fight it, because we really need to fight everything about our nature, not just sexual impulse. Parents work hard to nurture their children out of bad habits. You tell your kids to share, to be kind to others, and to love everyone. You also tell them to be attracted to a person of the opposite sex – you inform them of the risks, both physical and spiritual, attributed to that lifestyle. It is your duty, to make them fight that nature.

Are we feral or tamed?

We were created perfect, and then two people sinned. And now we are evil by nature.

It’s hard out there for a human.

The Lost Son: Luke 14 – 15

A Surly Dinner. Carry that Cross. The Lost Ones Trump the Good Ones.

Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living.
Luke 15:13 (NIV)

A reckless young son takes his half of his inheritance and runs off to be a 20-something punk. He squanders it quickly on prostitutes and other debauchery and eventually finds himself pushing slop on pigs in a field. Starving, he lowers his head to the pigpen to eat, which makes him come to his senses. Go home and beg for forgiveness. He even reconciles himself with the fact that his father will likely be less than thrilled to see him and prepares to act as his servant for the rest of his life. But no, his apprehensions prove to be warrantless, as his father welcomes him back to the household with celebration.

This is the story of the prodigal son. The moral – let him come home.

Because he doesn’t know any better. Because he’s confused. 

Because he will waste himself and will learn through experience.  

Because you did your work, and now it’s time for him to do his.

Is that what you expect of me?

I have dealt with the ideal of being prodigal myself – to live with the knowledge that those who raised me, who loved me, who were with me every step of my development believe that I am a wayward soul. And so they wait for me to come home. Let go, don’t let people affect you so much. Ignore it, make your own family. Strengthen up, it’s a weakness to let others disparage your self worth.

It hasn’t worked.

There is something I have been trying to ignore since I read it.

If your right eye causes you to stumble,” Matthew 5:29 reads, “Gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.”

And if your right hand causes you to stumble,” Matthew 5:30 reads, “Cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.”

That is it, isn’t it? This life simply does not matter – happiness is not important, love is meaningless. It’s about my soul.

The prodigal son returned to fortune and love. He was otherwise healthy – he did not lose anything. He did not need to cut off his hand or gouge out his eye. He was foolish, and all he had to do was return.

They want me handless. They want me blind. They want me maimed and going to Heaven, not happy and going to Hell.

And there is no coming home from that.

Intentional Division: Luke 12 – 13

Stay Steadfast. Ignore Riches. Stop Worrying. Watch God. Bring Division. Interpret the Present. Repent and then Repent. Remember the Kingdom. Go thru the Narrow Door. Come to God.

I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more.
Luke 12:4 (NIV)

There is a meme floating around (that for the life of me, I cannot currently find) that sought to say what Jesus “really” said in the Bible. It basically listed in vibrant fashion that God loves all sinners, including homosexuals, the poor, the “lame,” and so on, all in an attempt to correct misconceptions about what Jesus came to Earth to do. I noticed my particularly nonreligious friends sharing it around, maybe as a way to combat negativity from their Christian counterparts. In these general terms, Jesus seemed to be the most accepting guy in the room.

It’s true. If you take the biblical accounts of the disciples as canon, then God does rattle the cages of traditional religion by specifically reaching out to those on the fringes of society. Time and time again, he rebukes the Pharisees for their hypocrisy – for their refusal to even acknowledge the existence of these subcultures. But does that equal acceptance?

I found this passage (Luke 12:49-53) surprising and even troubling.

I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 

Okay, but that could mean anything, right?

But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. 

Division? Huh?

From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. 

Well… there are five people in my family… two are queer… three are not.

They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.

All serendipitous accounts aside, this is a startling passage, because it goes directly against the popular characterization (or perhaps… the modern re-characterization) of Jesus.

Now, to be fair, we don’t know exactly what Jesus refers to here, or at least there is no context to understand it. This appears in the middle of a long sermon on a various amount of topics, all a little vague in how to directly apply them. Jesus could be referring to the schism between him and the original Jewish religion. He could be talking about hypocrisy amongst family members, requiring a split.

But Jesus did not come to be the hippie-Savior, telling everyone to hold hands. He came to divide. And while that is a little hard for me to swallow, at least I know it from his own words.

To Listen: Luke 10

Go. Be Merciful. Listen.

…Few things are needed—or indeed only one…
Luke 10:42a (NIV)

Social media is great for witnessing brutally public arguments. I follow a few incendiary bloggers on Facebook as well as dozens of well-intentioned activist friends. With an account that has an even-split of Christian do-gooders and liberal soapboxers, things can get pretty interesting pretty fast.

I remember one argument in particular.

A white woman became the focus of a sore debate when she tattooed an image of Harriet Tubman on her bicep. A black friend of mine asserted that such an image was enormously disrespectful of the savage history of slavery – to take the personality of one of our greatest abolitionists and emblazon her likeness onto a shoulder. A white (and equally liberal) commentator argued that it was just a stupid act of hipster-ism and while certainly misguided, not really worth that effort to cause such a racially-charged kerfuffle. The basis of his argument was “why waste your energy fighting something so passively offensive? Why not focus on something more overt?”

This launched a war of words between the races. Within minutes, the thread had nearly 100 replies filled with ire. Things devolved quickly into name-calling, and I watched with fascination. At first glance, I agreed with the white man – I simply did not understand why such a fuss was being caused over someone who acted stupidly out of good intentions. Why not seek out the true racists, the ones who actively push discourse over the edge into the sinister? As the conversation fell down the pathway into senseless bigotry, however, I grew less interested in my own opinion and focused more on the emotions at play. To me, this image meant nothing, but to my friends of color, it obviously struck a deep nerve. And I wondered why.

So I asked. I sent my black friend a private message to figure out what was going on underneath. In the end, she admitted that this might seem minute in the grand scheme, but what really set her off was the entire discussion in the first place. She thought that her white friends should have just sat back and listened rather than commented – that more could be understood without engaging.

Then, I got it. At our most emotional, no one wants to be reasoned with – they want to be understood. This is the innate problem with social media… while on the positive end, it gives everyone a voice, it also has the uncanny ability to imbue everyone with a belief that his or her opinion should always be heard. I say all this with a slight irony, given that I’ve dedicated an entire blog to my own viewpoints. But anyway…

Jesus visits two women – Mary and Martha. The former sits on the floor in front of him, listening to his wise words, while the latter continues on with her daily chores. Before long, Martha becomes aggravated that Mary is not helping her, so she asks Jesus to tell her to lend a hand, but Jesus refuses. This is what a good person does – listens rather than acts.

Here’s to the listener.

Leading Others Astray: Matthew 18

The Importance of Children. Stumbling Blocks. Love the Children. Two of More Gathered. Forgive, Forgive, Forgive.

“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”
Matthew 18:6 (NIV)

There was a concern that I was “leading others astray” by being so vocal about coming out. Fundamentalists (of most religions actually) hold on to the belief that an enemy exists, someone who is active in leading those away from the Truth. For Christians, it is Satan – the devil – Beelzebub – whatever – and he engages in a spiritual warfare that not only drags down would-be-saved souls but also enlists them to do his bidding. And for those that engage with it, God reserves a special punishment, something that a person cannot come back from.

We read a few chapters ago that blaspheme is an unforgivable sin. Now, we get this:

“Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come!” (18:7)

But what causes others to stumble? Is public confusion and questioning something that forces others to wander away? Does anyone have such power?

There is an existential dread that comes with faith, especially in the absolutist religions – that everything seen with the eyes fades in lieu of something eternal. So does it matter if you are isolated? No for your reward is great. Does it matter if you alienate others in pursuit of their souls? No for you are doing your job. Does it matter if your questioning leads others to question as well?

Yes. That does matter – in the eyes of Jesus.

I realize now that I was never truly faithful. I was terrified of what it meant to be unfaithful that I put on my best armor to protect myself. I never owned it completely, because it burgeoned from a place of existential dread. I prayed every night before bed, not because the spirit moved me, but because it felt dangerous not to. Does God want those followers, the fearful ones who never question? Sometimes, I think that he does, because there are so many people who fear any strayed thought as a precursor to damnation.

Or does God want thinkers – those who wrestle and demand and struggle and have a history of blaspheme?

I hope it’s the latter, because I am not sure I could ever approach faith any other way.

Enemy of the Enemy: Matthew 17:14-27, Mark 9:14-50, Luke 9:37-62

The Demon-Possessed Boy. Jesus to Die… Again. Inhospitality. Temple Tax. Eradicate Your Sin.

[Jesus said,] “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us.”
Mark 9:39-40

I have always given wayward Christian leaders a tough time.

It started with my buddy Bob Lenz at the Creation Music Festival. I spoke my critiques about him a few entries again, remember? That guy who brought his disabled sister onstage to sell middle-schoolers on adopting foreign children? Yeah, I didn’t like him very much.

My sister’s mother-in-law and I had it out once over Pat Robertson – the mega-millionaire Christian pundit and anchor of the religious-based news program The 700 Club. I do not really like him very much, particularly for his incendiary “prophesizing” about coming events (oh yeah, did I mention that he claims to have a one-way channel to God?). In 1982 he predicted the end of the world. Time and time again he has predicted disaster upon America – a tsunami in 2006, a terrorist attack in 2007, a victory for Mitt Romney in 2012 – all of which have not come to pass.

Then there was Jerry Falwell, the now passed ex-President of Liberty University, who claimed that 9/11 occurred because of feminists.

And Ted Haggard, the evangelical anti-gay pastor who turned out to be both gay and a drug addict.

And then there are faith healers, doomsday sorcerers, bigoted pundits, etc.

I had a difficult time relating or empathizing with these people growing up while most Christians, despite disagreeing with the, gave them a free pass. I said, shouldn’t we hold out Christian leadership up to a different standard? Others replied that we should aim our arrows at the more overt enemies. I replied, But there are our most dangerous enemies, because they are breaking us from the inside out.

Jesus makes an interesting statement about this to his disciples. They see a man driving out demons in the name of God, and immediately order him to stop since he is not chosen. To this Jesus says “whoever is not against is for us” and permitted him to continue.

This is an inverse variation on “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” which is actually closer in this circumstance to “he who is not my enemy is my friend.”

And so since these men speak on behalf of God, however misguided we may think it is, it could be argued that Jesus would allow them to continue. For even in their sin, they attribute greatness to God.

And I don’t like that.

New Revelations: Matthew 17:1-13, Mark 9:1-13 Luke 9:28-36

The Transfiguration.

Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here…”

Mark 9:5 (NIV)

My mother has a rule not to discuss her life before she came to Christ. The generalized (and assumed-to-be watered-down) version of events is that she ran a tumultuous childhood until her father died. She dropped out of college, looking for a religion or ideology to call home – and she tried them all. Then, she met my father, and once they gave birth to my sister, the pressure to pass on a healthy legacy overtook both of them. They became involved in a church and wah-lah, here I am with my extraordinarily devout parents. My brother and I used to beg my mother to “give us the goods,” that is, to tell us all the dirt and sins and mistakes of her life, but she would and has also continued to balk at this. “You don’t need to know about my life before Christ,” she says. “It’s something I just do not like to think about anymore.”

My father’s childhood was similarly veiled while I was growing up, but one day, an odd mood struck him. We walked across the street to our neighborhood pizza joint and plopped down in one of the booths. And when I shoved the first bite of pizza in my mouth, he said, “You can ask me whatever you want.” There was always one area of intrigue about my Dad’s past: his first marriage before my mother. He agreed to tell the story.

See he met his first wife during high school, sweethearts throughout, and they immediately married post-graduation. And in lieu of any sort of college education, he joined the army, unaware that the Vietnam War was secretly revving up in the background. When news came down from his station sergeant, they all knew the inevitable – all these boys were going to be shipped off to Vietnam, the first boots on the ground for what would surely be a long and brutal fight.

He prepared to go. He made his peace.

And then, with just a few weeks until deployment, he sauntered into his home, opened the door to his bedroom, and found his sergeant in bed with his wife. They jumped up, mortified, but he just closed the door behind him. He slept on a friend’s couch. And then, when he reported for duty the next morning, this sergeant called him into his office to give him an update on his deployment. Vietnam was no longer on the table, and instead, they were sending him to Alaska. Now, that dark, cold assignment is usually saved for the worst men in the bunch, but my father had a thought that perhaps this was his way of making amends.

I slept with your wife. So no war for you.

Jesus reveals himself to Peter, John, and James during an event he dubs the “transfiguration.” They go up to the top of a mountain, where Jesus appears to be the brightest white imaginable. Then, Moses and Elijah step down and join them, and the disciples fall to the floor prostrate. Finally, a cloud envelops all of them, and the voice of God is heard… affirming Jesus’ stature as His son and encouraging them to believe.

This is a profound moment for the disciples, as they finally experience first hand the awesome power of Jesus and his divine connection to God. Suddenly, they get it.  They have a new perspective on this man that they have been following for years now, all because he revealed his true nature.

And I have to say, when my father told me about his past, I understood him – and it only added to my adoration of his stature.

Little Things: Matthew 16, Mark 8:14-38, Luke 9:18-27

A Lost Analogy. Declaration of the Messiah. Jesus to Die.

What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?
Mark 8:36 (NIV)

Two things:

JESUS GOES FOR THE NON-LITERAL

Jesus confuses the hell out of his disciples with a lost metaphor. When traveling with them, Jesus says “watch out for the year of the Pharisees and that of Herod” (Mark 8:14). As he walks away, they all look at one another, confused. “Maybe it’s because we have no bread,” they literally say. Then, Jesus literally asks, “Why are you talking about having no bread?”

See, they missed the point, because Jesus was talking metaphorically. Eventually they got it though: “Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matthew 16:12). Ahhhh, there it is, all cleared up.

But wait, because this opens up a whole can of worms. How can we be certain now when God lays down a pseudo-concrete commandment, one that is gloriously and frustratingly open-ended? How often are the rules of God actually just metaphors? Isn’t this going to lead to a lot of confusion down the line, Jesus?

Thanks man.


 

CROSSES TO BEAR

The future starts to come into focus.

Jesus tells all of his disciples that he will eventually suffer for the whole of mankind and die before being resurrected. Peter just does not believe this, rebuking Jesus for such a hasty prediction. Jesus (famously) replies, “Get behind me Satan!” Alright then… don’t contradict Jesus.

And then he gets philosophical – we as followers must be prepared to lose all earthly desires in order to get something much more. The term “lose your life” is mentioned. So is “forfeit your soul.”

This is tough, because once again, it is very difficult to decipher what is a “worldly” desire and what is natural, something God intended. It’s difficult to see what is what with all of this gray draped about.


These are little things – quibbles – small contradictions and questions. It’s funny, because so many people love the little things. They run off to the Koran and lob off a fun proverb and then rush over to the Upanishads and steal a psalm. Eventually, they have enough little things that speak enough truth to them that they end up with a pseudo-philosophy for life. The longevity of the micro-narrative, after all. I find this a little irritating. I could cut up pieces of Harry Potter and eventually write War and Peace, but that doesn’t make one equitable to the other. Anyone can pick and choose and leave what’s difficult.

But the little things get to me. I’m so much more interested in the big picture, and these little things are just ruining it for me. Maybe I am an all-or-nothing kind of guy, looking for a little bit of definition. Or maybe I am just unflinchingly rigid.

But I am sick to death of these little things.