Foreigners: Acts 27 – 28

Paul on the Sea. A Storm Halts Their Plans. A Shipwreck at Malta. Arrival in Rome.

Once safely on shore, we found out that the island was called Malta. The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold.

Acts 28:1-2 (NIV)

The more I read the Bible, the less politically active I think Christians should be.

That is some major shade to throw in the first sentence of an entry, particularly after my uplifting experience with a highly political Christian in Jimmy Carter. So let me cycle this back and explain my point.

The finale of Acts sees a sharp change in the post-Christ landscape. The Jews in Israel do not seem to be taking this little Christianity movement very seriously and threaten to put Paul to death (by crucifixion or perhaps just boredom from a series of never-ending trials). When Paul admits that he is actually a Roman, they decide to leave well enough alone and just ship him back to his homeland and let Caesar deal with it.

And off they go on a ship, and as you probably could guess, it is not long before they run into some serious issues. The weather takes a rough turn, leaving the ship and its hundreds of travelers at risk. An angel promises Paul that not one life will be spared, and soon, they crash land in the city of Malta. Immediately, the indigenous men and women show favor to the soggy survivors, boarding them for days as Paul performs miracle after miracle. Upon his exit, it appears that the Christians have grown in followers, adding in these once secular inhabitants.

This is a theme in Paul’s travels. Some people open their arms to him, and some shun him, driving him out of town. This is a secondary occurrence of a theme previously discussed in the Bible – inhospitality. We all know that the grievous sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was inhospitality (and maybe some man-on-man action). It seems that God, from His time ruling the Jewish people and now with the added Gentiles, does not take too kindly to those who turn a sour face to foreigners.

Why then are conservative Christians overwhelmingly in favor of deporting illegal immigrants?

Donald Trump’s emergence as the Republican frontrunner has brought this conversation to the forefront of our discourse, showcasing a deep split in ideology on how to deal with illegal immigrants. Deport them all, build a wall, and then start to allow legal immigration. Without getting into any sort of discussion on logistics, I find it utterly shocking that so many Christians support this plan, often under the auspice that Mexico is not “sending us their best.”

But when God so clearly begs us to act kindly to our neighbors, to show them unending (yes, unending) hospitality and resource, then where is this disconnect between belief and behavior coming from?

I wish I had an answer, but really, all I can posit is the question. The more I read the Bible, the less I believe that Christians should be so politically active. Because frankly, the core tenets of Christianity are about hearts and minds, not behavior and action. And if you are to love your neighbor unconditionally, to love God unconditionally, and “not worry about tomorrow,” then where is the political zealousness coming from exactly?

Again, I don’t know.

Yeah, tomorrow is Romans 1 – 2. Strap in folks. Next stop, clobber passage – the final one in the Bible.

As far as I know.

A Set Up: Acts 22 – 26

An Impromptu Sermon. A Defense. Paul Moves. Another Defense. Paul Moves Again.

Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”
Paul replied, “Short time or long—I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.”
Acts 26:28-29 (NIV)

I read my requisite two chapters tonight, plugging along towards the end of Acts. In those passages, Paul was arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin, just as had been done to Jesus earlier, to see if his “crimes” justified a death penalty. He tells his story – the blinding light, the voice from God, his conversion from Saul to Paul. They move him from Jerusalem to Caesarea while a plot to kill him formed.

I read that and reread it, looking for something to pick at and pull apart. Nothing came to mind.

So I kept reading. Two more chapters.

In Caesarea, Paul meets with the Governor Felix. He provides the same defense – light, voice, Saul to Paul. For two years, the Governor leaves him in prison until his successor is appointed – Porcius Festus. Now Paul defends himself before him. But Festus seeks advice from a man named Agrippa. The same story comes again – blind, God, conversion – and now Paul moves to testify for himself in front of this Agrippa fellow.

Two more chapters – read and reread. And still nothing. I added one more.

I am just going to stop right here and tell you, the last chapter did nothing to jumpstart my brain.

I mean that without any judgment against the passage. It reads like a fairly standard courtroom drama – a martyr prepared to die espousing his beliefs – a plot to kill him – political posturing – but for some reason, it did not resonate in any meaningful way to me.

Because I am quite distracted. I went to church for the first time in long while today. I drove from Atlanta to Plains, GA to hear our former president Jimmy Carter teach Sunday School in a tiny Baptist church – three days after he told the world that he had advanced cancer. He is a Democrat and a devout Christian. A friend asked if I wanted to go. I felt like… well, I just had to. What an amazing opportunity.

And so, while reading the Bible today, nothing stuck. Because all I could think about was church.

This entry is a cop out, a set up for tomorrow’s entry, which is also a cop out since it will have nothing to do with this passage.

Tomorrow, I will talk about church with President Jimmy Carter.

Nothing to Lose: Acts 20 – 21

Backpedal. Parting Words. Entering the Lion’s Den. Paul Arrested.

However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.”
Acts 20:24 (NIV)

Forgive the title to this entry. “I have nothing to lose” is a line typically spoken by a protagonist midway through some action-thriller. It usually comes after the line “They have taken my wife/child/domestic partner/prized possession so –.“ It is certainly a cliché, reserved for the most heroic, the most altruistic, and the most desperate amongst us. In order to have nothing to lose, you must believe that life no longer has anything to offer you, or perhaps that you have hit absolute rock bottom and the only direction to go is up. This can lead a soldier into a battlefield to save a friend or a severely depressed person to make an irreversible decision. A person with nothing to lose is either extraordinarily contented or nihilistic.

Both are a little scary to me.

My experience with nihilism is tied to my fear of eternity. As I tend to do, I over intellectualized the concept at a young age, and that initial conceptualization really dug into my fiber. My thought process went like this:

We believe in God and go to Heaven.
We live forever in Heaven, eternally in bliss and one with God.
If that is the case, then the minute details of day-to-day life here do not really matter.
They don’t matter, because as long as we believe, the rest washes out.
With eternity to spare, then nothing really matters in Heaven either.
The first thousand years in Heaven will not affect my life a million years from then.
And THEN that million years – !

[Cue panic attack]
And so on…

You can see how someone without any ability to rationalize could get caught in that train of thought. I realize now that very few people like thinking about eternity. When I brought this fear up at church, hands shot up around the room: “I get that sometimes.” “I just don’t think about it.” “I just tell whoever I am with to distract me.”

What is so terrifying about it? Is it just the idea of going on and on and on? That we can’t properly picture it? That it seems so esoteric and vague? That it threatens the devaluation of Earthly life?

Paul has a moment of duty – his disciples tell him to avoid Jerusalem, the zealots want to arrest him. He says he does not care – life means nothing to him.

There is no fear or wavering for him. What quality is under that mindset? Is it faith? Contentment? Ignorance?

I just don’t have that, and I don’t know how to get at it.

The One Way: Acts 18 – 19

Corinth. A Schism. Further Travels. A New Baptism. Demons Retaliate.

“But some of them became obstinate; they refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way. So Paul left them.”
Acts 19:9a (NIV)

Paul hits a rough patch in his ministry that perfectly symbolizes the state of the modern church. In Ephesus, he encounters some disciples of John the Baptist’s, asking if they have received the Holy Spirit. They haven’t, not even aware of who this being is – then Paul realizes the fault. They were baptized by John the Baptist, not in the name of Jesus Christ. Paul dunks them, and they accept the Holy Spirit.

This comes directly after a schism between him and his fellow disciples. We learn that Silas and Timothy antagonize Paul, leading him to abandon them to preach alone in Corinth for a year and a half.

There is but One Way – salvation thru Jesus Christ. Disagreements in theology mean schism.

We have seen a ton of churches split over the years (and a great amount of this blog has been dedicated to the little disagreements that have resulted in separate sects). Some disagree about what exactly “The Way” is; others argue about rules and regulations, the most relevant to this site being LGBT-acceptance. In many ways, this epitomizes the conflict between liberalism and conservatism. The former believes in “Many Ways” – that the less judgment on the journeys people take, the better. The latter wants something closer to “One Way,” a moralistic pathway for everyone to follow.

I empathize and understand both. Life can be a simple joy if everyone agrees on the same moral ground, but with increasing connectivity, a person’s individual idiosyncrasies are broadcast. Difference was not tolerated in an age long ago, because people could not understand what a “homosexual” or a “feminist” looked like from afar. It was not until a person in their house, or in their neighborhood, or state, on a friend on Facebook announced it. Then, empathy kicked in.

Is there One Way? Yes and no and maybe. Jesus is a key factor. He may be the only factor. But the Way to him? Is there only One Way?

Yes and no and maybe.

Paul runs into some more issues on the road. A group of citizens begin panicking over a public conflict, involving one of the most sincerely revered deities in the area:

The assembly was in confusion: Some were shouting one thing, some another. Most of the people did not even know why they were there. (19:32)

So a riot breaks out within the walls of a theater over the divinity of the goddess Artemis. People are shouting and throwing things, causing violence, and most of the people did not even know why they were there?

This is my concern: that many jump in without any knowledge. They go the way of Christianity, because it was told to them. When I first started writing this blog, my mother took heart in the fact that I had already given my heart to Jesus, and salvation was a one-way street. I prayed the prayer at 6-years-old. A decade later, I was baptized in a warm lake amongst others my age.

But it always felt like a riot, and I had jumped in with everyone else.

And it’s well worth the effort to see what exactly I stand for – especially after another decade to ruminate.

Travels, Pt 2 : Act 16 – 17

Derbe. Lystra. Macedonia. Philippi. Thessalonica. Berea. Athens.

They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.”
Acts 16:31 (NIV)

Paul heads off on quite the journey of his own, touching on at least seven different cities in a relatively short amount of time (are Bible chapters an appropriate way to measure distance and time?). He is joined, at least part of the time, with Timothy and Silas, although I will be honest, I am not entirely sure who either are and how to distinguish them from another. I know that Paul’s recent travel buddy Barnabas left the group after a falling out. They disagreed about where to go next – bound to make any road trip couple fall to pieces. We have not heard from him since.

First, Paul gets a vision of a man in Macedonia who begs him to come and preach the word of God. He does, meeting a woman at the city gates of Philippi – who humbly accepts the good news. Then, a fortune-telling woman with an evil spirit begins shouting to everyone: “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” (16:17) So, they exorcise her and move on, but the crowd grabs Paul and Silas and throws them in prison. That does not last though, as a giant Earthquake rocks the foundation and crushes the locks on all the cells. The doors fly open, freeing everyone. They leave, moving on to Thessalonica. Jewish officials, jealous at the persuasive nature of these men, drive them out of town. They move on, this time to Berea, who receives the good news with excitement. But the crafty Jews from Thessalonica chase after them and stir up trouble, sending Paul for the door (leaving behind his compatriots). Now, Athens. Upon entering, he distresses over the abundance of false idols and mounts a pulpit to ward them away from such practices. Some believe, some don’t. He moves on.

Visions. Earthquakes. Exorcisms. Evil spirits. Mobs. Idols.

Quite the road trip. Paul may have me beat in terms of downright excitement.

Prior to reading the New Testament this time around, I remembered a great deal about Jesus and his ministry – not surprising considering the sheer volume of sermons about Jesus versus anything else. Most of the stories felt familiar and personal, and I think part of it might be his personality. Jesus struggled in a palpable away, even for being the Son of God – which you think would make him completely inaccessible. Paul, on the other hand… I remembered nothing. I knew he did a ministry; I knew he was once named Saul. And that’s it.

I think myths inspire some, while people inspire others. Paul’s little road trip is truly mythological in scope, complete with spiritual warfare and miraculous events. He stands on pulpits and preaches, to either the dismay or encouragement of the locals. And then something supernatural happens. And then he moves on.

Paul is a myth of a man, almost infallible – like David or Noah or Moses. Some find these archetypes helpful in guiding their paths.

But I don’t. I want my heroes dirty, digging through life like I do.

Paul had a mission. I want a wanderer.

Travels, Pt 1 : Act 16 – 17

Derbe. Lystra. Macedonia. Philippi. Thessalonica. Berea. Athens.

They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.”
Acts 16:31 (NIV)

I tend to wander between jobs. I do the math to figure out what makes sense: 300 miles a day (average drive distance) times how many days I have off (trip length) divided by two (way there, way back). That’s how I decide my location. I bought my car four years ago with 60,000 miles, and I have put 25,000 a year on it since. That feels good to me, but not enough. During those years, I have managed to hit 49 out of 50 states – Hawaii excluded. Sometimes I bring a companion – sometimes I go it alone.

What do I do when alone on the road?

I talk to everyone. I listen to all the little stories.

I have settled on a few generalizations about this country, both positive and negative. This country is beautiful and vast, and it blows me away how much of America is unpopulated. Alaska is the most mesmerizing state but God help anyone living there when the sun is up all day and night. I slept an hour in four days while there in the summer. Nebraska is like a giant cracker, and driving across it will test the limits of your boredom. Utah is an enigma, as it has the most diverse and staggering landscape (desert, mountains, hills, pasture, cities) and yet the most uniform population (old school conservative). In almost every rural area I visit, someone knows someone who knows someone who has gotten into meth. Gossip is everywhere – I spent a week in a small town of about 1,000, and everyone had an opinion about every other person. Have you ever thought about moving to getting away from the “drama?” I guarantee that is a foolhardy idea.

I have also learned some things about myself. Deserts give me anxiety. Mountains in the distance remind me of C. S. Lewis for some reason. I talk to myself – out loud – way more than I would like to admit, and at some point in every trip, I point to it as proof I am going insane. I don’t do well driving at night on highways, because I always end up leaning forward to see the stars, and always almost crash. Life needs balance, I have realized. I should never straight up wander, and I also shouldn’t make too much of a plan. Find a place for that night, and maybe the next, and then don’t think about the rest. That keeps me at an appropriate amount of knowing and unknowing.

I stop and take a picture of every wind turbine field I see. They fascinate me in their utilitarian nature. They remind me of 1984 and Brave New World.

I cry every time “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” comes on the radio. I also cry whenever something makes me nostalgic; for this latter reason, I avoid road trips in the autumn. I think I would spend the whole time crying.

People are generally good, and I know that. In most towns, someone will invite me to dinner or to spend the night, and I have accepted those offers enough times to make my mother anxious every time I go off wandering. People will tell you anything if you listen intently. A middle-aged woman invited me over for dinner after chatting with me in a grocery store, and when I arrived at her house, I discovered that she was caring for her ailing father on his deathbed. She made pork chops, but he wouldn’t eat it. She blended it with some mashed potatoes, and he kept it down. I slept on her sunken couch, listening to his heart monitor beep at disturbing long intervals.

I wrote her a letter a couple days later, to say thank you. He had died a day after I left.

I always take note of abandoned churches. I see a ton of foreclosed buildings, with punched out windows and drizzling grime, but for some reason, the only ones I remember are the churches. I think this proves that I obsess over religion, and it may not be healthy. I find local Christian radio stations and mock them, and then immediately afterwards, I feel guilty. This also points to my obsession.

Paul goes on some travels. Let’s look at that tomorrow.

What Can Change? : Acts 15

Dogmatic Disagreements.

On the list of hot-button political issues, circumcision might be on the last page, down near the bottom with “peanut allergies.” Sure, some might have strong feelings about it, but it takes up very little space in the hive mind of our culture.

Am I surprised that the men of the New Testament felt so strongly about it? Not so much. The culture has changed after all, and while the broad strokes of issues might still resonate, the specific applications have changed. All of us consider love, kindness, and goodness on a daily basis, but when was the last time you debated the morality of comingled crops or eating shellfish? God does change, after all.

The topic at hand here is circumcision. Concisely put, the traveling apostles think men can come to God without being circumcised. The religious zealots disagree, believing God wants pure men.

The debate actually sounded oddly familiar. Paul and Barnabas stand on the liberal side. Change is good. They say: 

“Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear?” (15:10)

Hell yes apostles! On top of being shockingly progressive, this also feels like it has a pretty clear modern adaptation… (Could you possibly see where I am going with this?) The yolk of circumcision has been “too much to bear” – I sort of understand this. It is a surgical procedure, after all, and one that really has little bearing on the heart and life of the follower. To me, though, it just seems arbitrary. What does foreskin have to do with following God? They continue:

“…[T]he rest of mankind may seek the Lord,
    even all the Gentiles who bear my name,
says the Lord, who does these things.” (15:17) 

Now, THAT is what I am talking about! This quote comes from a bit of prophecy, meant to show that God always intended to bend His strictures in order to allow followers of all types to join the movement. No proper heritage required. What else could they possibly to excite me? They go on:

“You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.” (15:29)

Ah, I got my hopes up there for a second. It seems that Paul and Barnabas have narrowed the Old Testament law into a few lasting values. No consuming sacrificed food. No drinking blood. No eating meat of strangled animals. No acting on sexual immorality. Four traditions.

Now, the passage does not go on to describe what exactly “sexual immorality” means. For that matter, if we are following the letter of the New Law, then no one ought to eat rare meat (filled with blood) or chicken nuggets (chickens tend to be strangled and pulverized). But those are not hot button topics, so they obviously are immediately discarded.

One could argue this both ways. If Jesus is the restoration, then no more laws should “change” once all is said and now. There is not a “Newer Testament,” after all. However, an opposite view would contend that God’s understanding is far more vast than we understand. Maybe he does look at the heart and ignore the rest?

Who knows?

Only Human: Acts 14

The Acts of Gods. The Acts of Man.

[Paul and Barnabas said,] “Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them.”
Acts 14:15 (NIV)

There is a clear delineation between man and God that is made clear from the very beginning. God has knowledge and wisdom, exists outside of time, and is not bound by death. Man was meant to live without awareness, existing forever in bliss, but then man attempted to become God by gaining understanding and fell.

Paul and Barnabas continue their ministry in the Middle East and Africa. In “Lystra” and “Derbe” (those words mean nothing to me), they heal a lame man to the universal acclaim of the surrounding community. At the helm of a zealous priest, the group begins to make offerings in the apostles’ names, believing all the while that they are Hermes and Zeus reincarnate. Paul and Barnabas immediately refuse the honor, telling the crowds that they are merely men, just like everyone else.

Yes. Men who heal the sick, raise the dead, make food appear from nowhere, and exorcise demons.

Man is not God, and that fact seems to be the cornerstone of much of our earthly anxieties. We have little control over our lives and constantly experience the ebb and flow of the universal tide. Emotions dominate our actions, and we rarely – if ever – see the whole picture. Balance is everything – too much caution and we miss – too much recklessness and it ends. God does not need to worry about such things, because His id is His superego, stretching from one end of His being to the other. And ultimately, we die, leaving behind legacies bound to the laws of entropy, slowly fading over time. The most we can hope for is to become a myth of a human, a person stripped of identity until only works and ideals are left behind. The edges get smoothed. We become all good or all bad.

And then people forget us altogether.

There is a balance the Bible asks us to strike. We must have the goodness of God, and yet know our place. Our emotions must be left at the door, at least whenever it impedes our ability to discern. But yet, we must wield our emotions in appropriate situations – anger for the inflammatory – compassionate for the struggling. We must show God through our actions and yet remain humble. We elevate our souls, but lower our bodies.

The struggle is palpable.

You can call it a piece of the human condition. It would certainly make sense. But it seems deeper to me. It is like… the human weakness.

It will never be a strength.

The High Bar: Acts 13

A Sermon from Paul.

Barnabas and Paul go on a journey to Cyprus in order to continue spreading the word of Jesus. In case you don’t remember, Barnabas is the disciple chosen by lots to replace Judas, and Paul is the new name of Saul, who changed it when the Holy Spirit entered him. They are the apostle all stars, heading off to minister those who never had a chance to see the Christ firsthand. And they are met with an enthusiastic response. On one Sabbath, they have the ears of the entire synagogue. On the next, the entire city shows up. I would call that a successful ministry.

There is a ton I could unpack here, from the early tactics of the church to the Paul’s sweeping historical account of the Old Testament.

“The God of the people of Israel chose our ancestors; he made the people prosper during their stay in Egypt; with mighty power he led them out of that country; for about forty years he endured their conduct in the wilderness; and he overthrew seven nations in Canaan, giving their land to his people as their inheritance.” (13:17-19)

Is this a fair retelling? Sure. But the “conduct in the wilderness” part struck me as odd, even if it certainly matches God’s perspective at that time. Let’s recall the sins of the Israelite wanderers. They made false gods. They complained about food and didn’t trust in God. They struck rods against rocks for water. They stoned a man for making a fire on the Sabbath.

Were these sins against God, clearly laid out to them in advance? Sure. Without context, yes, God had to “endure their conduct.” But in context… these were slaves… for centuries. Wandering for 40 years is a steep punishment. We give sometimes murderers 25 years in this country – or even less. I’ve said this twenty times before, but a man was stoned to death for making a fire on the Sabbath. Our modern culture cannot fathom the action-reaction dynamic of the Old Testament, which is why it seems utterly absurd to so many people. This reflects on the fact that most people do not understand why a lack of faith earns a person eternal torture in Hell – eternal as in forever and ever and ever forever. That’s a scary thing. That’s why scare tactics tend to work.

The bar is set pretty high, because the stakes are eternal. God says yes, making a false idol means 40 years of wandering – ignoring Sabbath rules means death – not believing means eternal punishment. The path to Jesus sounds easy – just believe in him. I suppose it is rather easy – but after that, the bar is set high for behavior, or else you risk falling away.

Refusing homosexuality isn’t a big deal – not when compared with the relevant punishment.

This passage helped me articulate a feeling I have had for a while now. The reason this blog exists is because my life experience as recalibrated my internal scales of morality. I have seen good and hardworking people, which helped me empathize and become far less judgmental.

And so it just seems off to me. That’s just it. It feels… off.

Changes: Acts 11 – 12

A Revision of the Law. The Scattered Pieces Get to Work. Peter Led from Prison. King Herod Dies.

“…When Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, ‘You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.’” 
Acts 11:2b-3 (NIV)

I keep coming back to the Mormons, and I apologize if it seems unfair. A few entries ago, I wrote about an old Mormon friend of mine Dana who believed whole-heartedly in her religion. She wore modest outfits and never cursed. Calling her “moral” would understate the nature of her actions – she was downright pious. On top of these strictures, she also abstained from caffeine, as the Mormon church believes it to be a mind-altering drug (they might have a point). The church also advises its members to avoid R-rated movies, as well as some improperly reviewed PG-13 ones, all in an attempt to keep their minds free of filth. She planned to hold of on sex until marriage and would never dream of being alone with a boy until her wedding night, for fear of people “misunderstanding.”

I am not being hard on the Mormon church, I promise; my concerns are pedagogical, not judgmental. As a relatively new religion, I think I am fascinated by the dogmatic revisions it brings to traditional Christianity. I am fascinated, in part, because it so clearly parallels the first decades of the Christian revision to Judaic dogma.

Peter addresses an angry crowd about his association with uncircumcised men. He combats this by recalling a vision he had of God. A large sheet appeared to come down from the heavens that covered the Earth, and within it, he saw all types of beasts. The Lord said, “Eat up, Peter, I’m sure you’re hungry.” Peter retorted that he must not eat anything that is unclean, but God replied by saying, “Hey! If I made it, it’s good to go, Peter” (those quotes might be paraphrased).

And there you have it. Now we can eat pork and shellfish. Bye-bye Jewish custom. Hello lobster (eaten around a table with uncircumcised men and women on their periods, no doubt).

I looked at Dana, ordering Sprite at a restaurant, and thought, Jeez, that’s crazy that she believes that. And I think it might be what the Jews of the time felt.

Also, God does change His mind. He really hated shellfish. Now, he thinks its cool.

But I’m not changing the blog name. I’m stubborn that way.