The Power of We: Acts 5:12 – 6:7

Peter’s Shadow. Jail Breakout. A Flogging. Spread It Out.

Peter and the other apostles replied: ‘We must obey God rather than human beings!’”
Acts 5:29 (NIV)

Dana was a Mormon, and everyone knew it. She projected it to the world proudly, sure, but it was something in her demeanor. High school was the time when everyone – Christian to atheist – started dropping curse words, but her language was always squeaky clean with “goshes,” “darns,” and “freak its.” Dana was nice to everyone, even the kids with no friends. She led sign language club and convinced me to join – she seemed particularly passionate about communicating with a deaf student who took some classes with us. She never wore sleeveless dresses – she even convinced our drama instructor to allow her a “modest” outfit while singing “Hey, Big Spender” in our spring musical (a song sung exclusively by prostitutes). All of these attributes were synonymous with the word “Mormon.” Mormons never cursed, were always polite, and acted charitably.

We also dated for a little bit – not relevant to the story, but whatever.

I asked my mother if she would go to Heaven. This is a recurring theme in my life – seeing someone morally upstanding who isn’t technically a Christian, and then asking my mother to make a value judgment. She balked at the question. What exactly do Mormons believe again?

The differences between mainstream Christianity and Mormonism are vast. They believe Jesus took a second ministry in the Americas immediately following his ascent into Heaven from Israel. Joseph Smith testifies to this when he finds buried Golden Plates that recorded “Round Two.” They believed in polygamy but don’t anymore (and haven’t for over 100 years). They also think that when Mormons die, they get to run their own planet – or something like that. All that aside, the most crucial difference is dogma. Mormons do not believe that Jesus is God. In fact, Joseph Smith edited the New Testament into the “Joseph Smith Translation” which strikes all of those references. On that basis alone, Dana cannot go to Heaven. Followers must believe in the “Jesus is God” idea.

When I learned all of that, I worried for Dana. Sure she was nice, and sure acted in a traditional Christian manner. But how could she believe such nonsense of Jesus?

In the Book of Acts, the apostles often speak in one voice. “Peter and the other apostles replied, ‘We…’” yada yada. I wondered about that, about how they managed to continue to grow in numbers in the face of such adversity.

Spiritual reasons aside, it must have been the community. Religion is often vilified in liberal culture, but I think it provides immense value. If a person is generally kind to his or her neighbor and reaches out to those in need, then I am willing to forget homophobic ideals. Sometimes, I need to remember the big picture. Communities like these can certainly cause damage, but then sometimes, they also provide incredible meaning and purpose. This is a tough gray area that I often have trouble reconciling.

Two weeks ago, my friend Cate and I rode our bikes past the Mormon Temple in Washington DC. The building was slate gray with four pointed spires that dissolved into a sharp point at the top, maybe 15 stories up. We both shuddered at the utilitarian feel, lent especially by the lack of windows. Except one. On the bottom floor near the entrance, one canopy window sat with its blinds drawn. Men dressed in white robes stood in a circle, eyes closed, probably in prayer. Cate told me she needed to pee. I told her they didn’t let people inside, so we’d have to find a place in the woods. She looked around for somewhere to do it nearby. I suggested we do it off the grounds of the church, but she really needed to go. We rode off.

And within five seconds, my bike chain snapped. Maybe they do have the Holy Spirit on their side.

Religious Cult(ure): Genesis 16 – 18:15

Barren. Jealous Sarai. Hagar Flees. The Promise of Ishmael. The First Commandment. Abram to Abraham (Sarai to Sarah). The Promise of Isaac. Further Disbelief. Three Visitors.

Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come.”

Genesis 17:9 (NIV)

Abram's Counsel to Sarai by James Tissot

Abram’s Counsel to Sarai by
James Tissot

I was attracted to Mr. Frank, but there was nothing sexual about it. For instance, I liked it when he dropped “Mr.” from his title, a sure way to gain the respect of a middle school student. Also, he said that Jesus was a “pal” of his, and when he prayed, he talked like one of us. Forget upward held palms and messianic imagery. Frank sat cross-legged and gestured while he prayed. Also, his height: I was tall for my age, and he was average, which put us on the same level. I just liked looking my mentors eye-to-eye. My parents hated his behavior – leaders pretending to be one of the guys – and they immediately grew suspicious. Adults were adults after all, and those that acted like kids must have had a screw loose or some questionable ulterior motives. Frank was already the most sought after leader at my church, but it wasn’t for any of these details. It was his culture.

Stories of Frank’s small group activities were infamous around the church, and for good reason. While most leaders provided the requisite fellowship with Bible studies and brownies, Frank went completely above and beyond. He didn’t check out when the cars pulled out the parking lot; instead, he integrated his “guys” into his day-to-day life. They e-mailed prayer requests next to funny videos. He would text them just to check in, as if they were adult friends of his. He even made house calls for Goldeneye and Perfect Dark. His shenanigans reached max during overnight trips: camps, retreats, leadership seminars. On an eleventh grade mission’s trip to Russia, for instance, he and his guys snuck into a community center after hours and went skinny dipping. That was absolutely crazy, and it made all the outside guys jealous. What camaraderie, and it even came with meaningful Christian fellowship. He made his guys be the example at youth church services: sitting in the front, brewing ice tea, folding up chairs at the end. And if he needed to talk to you about something serious – a pornography addiction or too many curse words – he did it over coffee, and he didn’t tell your parents. The culture of Frank was both accepting and demanding, and I wanted in.

And after years of waiting, I finally got the call. It was Frank. My leader’s law firm was relocating states away and so the church was shuffling up the groups and the leaders. Would I want to be a part of his group? Heck yes! Great, he would pick me up Saturday. We were going to go see Meet the Parents.

I was in.

It took 17 chapters of Genesis and thousands of years in order for God to lay down his first explicit rule (on paper, at least), and at first, it seems alarmingly inconsequential. In order for men to show God their dedication, they must be circumcised, preferably by their eighth day. The terms of this covenant are both clear and serious. “Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh,” God warns, “will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” What was so wrong with the way that God designed the human body that now it must be altered? The short (and only) answer is absolutely nothing. This is a symbolical action, even arguably arbitrary, one that is meant to show dedication to God through sacrifice. Perhaps even more significantly, it shows intent and a willingness to do anything that the Lord requires.

But it is not all threatening, as God also promises spoils to those that follow: a piece of the bloodline that will end up populating the entire Gaza Strip; kingships, lands, and peoples; fruitful legacies and power. These are pretty alluring rewards for a simple act of obedience, but in reality, God gives a much more lasting and encompassing gift. He provides Abraham and his descendants culture. Suddenly, they are distinguished both physically and spiritually. They are the chosen ones. And they know it.

Sacrifice must be paired with tangible benefits, or else it risks becoming fear-based and in my view, inherently abusive. A benignly founded fellowship can quickly devolve into a cult of personality when fear mongering takes control – when the threat of retribution inspires the sacrifice rather than a personal enhancement. This seems obvious from the outside – an impartial observer can easily spot the nefarious facets of a group when removed from the emotional atmosphere that surrounds those inside. However, to those within the confines of the group’s reach, reward and punishment get confused and feeling takes over. Ultimately, it feels good to be a part of a culture, and history tells us that humans will endure massive misconduct to remain a part of one. I remember the vast majority of the fellowships at my church having an obvious focus on genuine worship, study, and friendship. But something always felt off about Frank’s group – like rather than each individual adding to a cohesive unit, it seemed like everyone just conformed to being like Frank. But it looked like a blast, so I wanted to be a part of it. Everyone wants to be part of the club. It is just our nature. I imagine Abraham as a happy follower of God – he was chosen after all.

And so was I.

My mother called me last summer while I was traveling cross-country with an old friend Cate. We had just reached the giant cracker that is Nebraska when the call came through. She asked our whereabouts and where we were headed next – the cracker state and who knows. I asked about her and Dad, but she changed the subject immediately.

Do you remember Mr. Frank from church? She asked.
Sure, of course, I said.
What do you remember about him?
I listed some memories: the retreats, the dares, the camaraderie, the culture.
Why? I asked.
Nothing, we can talk when your trip is over.

The curt nature of the conversation disturbed me. My mother’s language was typically a fountain of adjectives and hyperboles; there was nothing concise about her. She excused herself and hung up. Cate asked what that was about. I said my mother was asking questions about an old leader of mine, Frank. She remembered him from the ski retreat back in eighth grade. Fun guy, young, charismatic, right? I said that’s the guy. Why was she asking about him?

I had absolutely no idea.

Lawless: Genesis 4 – 9

First Family. Jealousy. Cain Kills Abel. Wickedness in the World. Enter Noah. The Flood. Good Son and Bad Son. A Covenant. A Curse. 

The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.

Genesis 6:5-6 (NIV)

Noah's Sacrifice (1847-53) by  Daniel Maclise

Noah’s Sacrifice (1847-53) by Daniel Maclise

In its relatively short history, God’s human experiment had produced a wide array of personalities: a deceptive original couple, a jealous and murderous brother, violent civilizations, and angels breeding with beautiful women to create a race of warriors called the Nephilim. At the time that Noah entered the scene, God had grown weary of mankind, even going as far as regretting their creation in the first place. God had found the world truly wicked, and so He decided to wipe away His creation and start anew with Noah taking up Adam’s burden of populating the planet. In this short time, God had proved His punishments swift and severe. His creation must maintain His moral standards or face sure destruction. Why would anyone go against God and break His rules?

But wait, what exactly are those rules?

Prior to the Flood, God had not explicitly stated a single commandment. For a religion notoriously known for its strict standards of behavior, its early followers seemed to be left completely in the dark about what exactly their God dictated. I went back to double-check, and reread the section on Adam and Eve’s curses. God condemned Adam to work and Eve to bear children with pain and serve Adam, and in the early passages of the Bible, these were the closest things to commandments that we had. So without a yardstick to hold them against, how did God determine that these humans of His were wicked?

This implies an intangible set of standards that are endowed rather than stated. Let’s look at the Cain and Abel story. Cain killed Abel, and as retribution, God banished Cain to wander the Earth aimlessly. Who among us can say this is an unjust punishment? Don’t kill anyone; does it really need to be said? But a modern lawyer might argue plausible deniability and ignorance. But the defendant knew not what he had done, your Honor.  Can any one of us say that God had handed down an unjust sentence to Cain? God appears to be judging His followers based on their propensity towards the general notion of “Evil” – a wickedness that is felt rather than measured. It is a read of someone’s heart, not his or her actions.

However, God makes one thing clear: There is no such thing as plausible deniability in His book. His standards, explicit or not, must be followed, or consequences will rain.

This reminds me of my friend Cate. We met under the most Christian of circumstances – a mutual friend brought her on a church ski retreat into the Appalachians for the weekend. Our pastor had recently made a push for us to invite our secular friends out to events – We were in eighth grade after all, and it was time we started taking our call to ministry seriously. Cate was a perfect specimen: listened to punk rock, cursed without wincing, a twice-a-year Catholic. When we bowed our heads to pray, Cate kept her eyes open. I had never seen that before. During one small group session, a seventh grader admitted to a pornography addiction, and Cate audibly chuckled. What’s wrong with that? She asked to our immediate abjection. She just reeked of secularity.

I watched her glide amongst the Christian teens without even a hint of doubt. Her confidence penetrated me, and I noticed that it wounded my peers. Her point of view was dangerous as it represented something completely foreign to us: Disobedience without a hint of regret. To me, her actions felt wholly rebellious – a spit in the face of God, a rejection with deep intention. But in reality, Cate merely acted within her moral compass. She did not believe in God, so why would she bow her head to pray to Him? My feelings towards Cate felt like sexual attraction in the moment, but in retrospect, I now know it to be admiration. How could she act without fear? How was that possible?

After the retreat, we struck up an intense friendship, which proved to be my first of the secular kind. My parents always kept a strict household complete with punishments and rewards as direct results of behavior. But in Cate’s home, none of that existed. She offered me wine with her family dinner. We sat dangerously close under a blanket. She said the word “shit” often and without fear. I imagine sitting on Cate’s couch akin to living in pre-Noah times. There, I felt outside the law, because it did not exist within those constraints. Cate’s parents were lax watchers, and few sins would trigger even a half-hearted response.

But I still acted within what felt right to me, what I knew to be true. I always left her house having exercised complete restraint. I never drank the wine, never had the pseudo-sexual experience, and never grew the balls to say the word “shit.” I had maintained my wholly blameless nature for I had not sinned within God’s standards.

But I always wanted to go back. And it seems that would turn out to be enough.