28 December 2020

The Truth About God and Santa

For over a century now, the Christmas tradition has included, at least in the United States, parents taking their children to the mall to sit on Santa's lap, tell him whether they were naughty or nice and what they want for Christmas. As soon as they are old enough to read and write, they start writing letters to Santa Claus to tell him the same thing.

I remember when I was six years old and my mom took me shopping with her, not to the mall, but to another shopping center. Being December, Santa was there of course, but this Santa didn't look like the Santa at the mall, this Santa was Black. I asked my mom if that was really Santa; she told me that really is Santa and that he looks different in different places so that children know he does not prefer any children over any others. At six years old, that was good enough for me, because Santa is magical just like Christmas.

As an adult, I find myself thinking about just how many lessons were packed into that one narrative about Santa and reindeer and elves making toys at the north pole above a frozen sea far beyond anywhere humans can go. It is just a narrative, a fiction; there is nothing at the north pole but ice and snow, and yet, the narrative is still true.

Children understand the truth, that their hopes and dreams can become reality if they do the right thing and apply themselves all year, that there is more to the world than what can be seen, that meaning is not found in dry facts but in what we believe, that Santa Claus is real not because they can sit on his lap, but because he delivers on what he says he will do. To children, the truth is not only what is real, but what can be, what will be, and what should be real.

Jesus told his disciples that to "enter the Kingdom of Heaven," they would have to "become like little children" (Matt 18:1-4). When he taught his disciples to pray, he taught them to ask for what they need and to be shown the same kindness that they show to others (Matt 6:9-13).

People get hung up on whether the Bible is historically factual, whether the world was created in six days or whether Jesus was white or brown. If you get stuck at that level, you can never get to the truth, the meaning of scripture. There may be no reindeer at the north pole, but every year countless children receive presents from Santa Claus. The world may not have been created in six literal days, but it exists for a purpose, God's purpose. Jesus was Jewish, male, and brown, but the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, is every gender and color of humanity because our hearts are its home.

As you look forward to next year, take time to believe, to hope, to pray for your dreams to come true, and then pursue your purpose. God will provide, and that is the truth.

Peace be with you.

23 December 2020

Happy Holidays

For many Christians, the year is marked by a procession of holidays and "seasons." There's Christmas and Easter of course, but also Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, and Pentecost. Many Christians will only recognize the first two holidays on this list. Some will say I've left a few (or quite a few) out. But for some Christians, there are no holidays.

For those who maintain that there should be no holidays, it is often cited that holidays distract from the holiness of God by marking only certain days as special, while others are ordinary. This is a typical argument which stands in stark contrast to the observance of the liturgical year and use of a lectionary, marking seasons and holidays, as well as nearly half of the year as "ordinary time." For these Christians, non-observance of holidays serves as a reminder that every day is holy and a gift from God.

The Apostle Paul esteems both points (Colossians 2). A holiday is a day to celebrate, and there is nothing harmful about celebration (2:16). He contends that the spiritual value of a holiday is that is points to Christ (2:17). The temptation is in thinking of the trappings of the holiday as spiritual or as marking God's favor of one person over another (2:18). In Romans, Paul makes the same point more plainly (Romans 14:5-6). The important thing is whether celebrating or abstaining from celebration, it is done in service to God.

Do not look down on those who celebrate holidays. God established the first holiday on the seventh day of creation (Genesis 2:2-3). The Sabbath is a day of rest, celebrated on the seventh day of every week. Even so, do not look down on those who abstain from holidays, because even Jesus skipped a holiday every now and then (Mark 2:23-28).

Personally, this writer does not celebrate many holidays. I observe the Sabbath by resting on Saturday and worship on Sunday. I find special meaning in Diwali, St. Paddy's Day, and Halloween, and I am probably unique in that regard. These days have religious significance, but they are also days spent with family and friends. For me, the Sabbath is holy because it is spent in service to God, but holidays are special because they are time spent with family.

To all your special days,
Happy Holidays.

18 December 2020

I Know What I Know

When I am confronted with the dichotomy of "science vs. religion," I think of how odd it is that both now and historically how many scientists there are who are also religious, Christian or otherwise.

In scripture, there is a long tradition of curiosity and questioning. These are not faults to be weeded out, but virtues to be encouraged. When Thomas is told of the resurrection, he refuses to believe that Jesus is risen and he demands to see and touch his wounds. When Jesus comes to Thomas, he readily shows him the wounds and Thomas believes (John 20:24-29 ). Jesus did not discourage Thomas, he readily gave Thomas the sign he needed to believe. Similarly, believers at the Berean church searched the scriptures "every day" to verify what Paul had told them (Acts 17:10-12).

Nowhere in scripture is faith required, or even encouraged, to be blind. Jesus encourages his followers to seek the truth (Luke 11:9-10, Matt 7:7-8). The Gospel of John and the First Epistle of John both refer to the Holy Spirit as the "Spirit of Truth" (John 14:15-20, 1 John 5:6). To seek God is to seek the truth and the Holy Spirit reveals truth. In fact, Jesus calls hardening oneself to the truth an unforgivable sin (Matthew 12:31).

The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth, and blasphemy against the Spirit is "hardened and continual opposition to truth" (Slobodskoy). To say, "I know what I know," close one's mind to reality, and cling to a narrative we identify as "faith" is to deny the truth.

We believers must never neglect to "ask, seek, and knock" (Luke 11:9-10, Matt 7:7-8), to remain open-minded to both the scripture and the world around us. John writes to the church in Laodicea that God wants of them to be "either cold or hot" (Revelation 3:14-16) but because they are neither, God will reject them. God would rather we be wrong than that our faith be blind.

God's mercy is infinite. He seeks the sheep that goes astray. The sheep is saved not because it finds the right way, but because the shepherd has found it (Matt 18:12-14). There is nothing unforgivable, but the sheep that runs from the shepherd cannot be found so long as it keeps running. Open your mind to the truth and prepare to be wrong, and don't worry, it isn't a sin to be wrong. It's only a sin to stop asking questions.

Peace be with you.

11 December 2020

Good and Evil, part 2

In the beginning, there were two gardeners, "the man" and "the woman." They lived in harmony with nature and walked together with God. They were naked and unashamed. They were given a choice, they could live like this forever and eat of the Tree of Life, or they could take control of their own lives and learn the lessons of Good and Evil the hard way (Genesis 2-3). They made their choice, lost their innocence, and became Adam ("Humanity") and Eve ("Life").

Adam and Eve had three sons, Cain, Abel, and Seth. Cain was the first farmer. He worked the fields and grew an orchard. Orchards do not yield good fruit their first year, and some take many years before they start growing good fruit. This is why Cain brought his offering "in the course of time" (4:3). Abel was a shepherd. He tended livestock and gave his offering of fats from the firstborn of his flock to God. God favored Abel's offering, but not Cain's (4:4).

Genesis does not tell us why God did not favor Cain's offering. Some might speculate that it is because it was fruit and not lamb, but God accepts offerings of what a person can make. God does not distinguish between offerings of grain, lamb, or money. Even the poor, who have nothing, may give an offering of pigeons (which they can catch right outside the Temple); in their case, God himself provides the offering.

Abel gave an offering of the firstborn of his flock. That is an act of trust that there will be more. Cain gave "some fruit," not necessarily the first fruits. Fruit does not ripen on a tree all at once. The first fruit to ripen is what you know you will get from the tree. Afterwards, the rest may be taken by insects, birds, frost, or drought, or it may even simply rot on the branch for seemingly no reason at all. Giving of the first you receive is an act of trust that God will provide.

What were Cain and Abel's motives for choosing their professions? Cain grew crops, perhaps trying to recreate the garden his parents had lost. But a farm is not a garden. Cain held on to what was lost to time, what God had declared should be lost. Abel chose to do something new, he became the first shepherd. His parents had been led to destruction by the will of an animal and so Abel became a leader of the animals. Abel took God's words to heart while Cain sought to undo them.

God levels with Cain, something generations of mankind wish that God would do, he did for Cain. God tells him to do what is right and he will prosper, but if he does the evil that he is thinking, it will consume him (4:6-7).

Cain did choose evil and murdered his brother, then lied about it to God. God tells Cain that his brother's blood cries out from the ground, but God chooses correction over vengeance. God tells Cain that the ground will no longer yield crops for him. He will live the life of a nomad, a restless wanderer. Where Cain once refused to trust God, now he must, for his crime will be known. God marks Cain for his protection, so that none will harm him (4:10-16). So the fist farmer becomes the first nomad.

To carry the metaphor forward, this is why we do not harm or hinder nomadic people, but offer them hospitality (ie. the story of Abraham), because they are under God's protection. This is also why we do not take the life of the wicked, because they are God's to deal with.

When we are wronged, or when we see injustice from far away, it is easy to cry our for vengeance, it is much more difficult to say, "May God deal with you, I forgive. I will let go of my anger. I will not seek vengeance." It is harder still to give hospitality, even in the smallest degree, to those who have done evil. Everyone knows Cain deserves death, his life for the one he took; it would be justice. God expects more.

The fate of the person who takes vengeance is noted in this same story. Lamech, descendant of Cain, does exactly that, and declares that if Cain is avenged seven times, that his lot should be seventy-seven times (4:23-24). Lamech may be calling for greater protection from God, but so too is he admitting that his guilt for taking vengeance is much greater that the guilt he punished. If Cain is cursed, then Lamech so much more so. That is the price of vengeance.

After all of this, Adam and Eve have a third son, Seth. Seth then has a son named Enosh, and because of this blessing, people begin to proclaim the name of God (4:25-26). People do not come to God because of evil or out of hatred, these things drive a wedge between them and God and lead them to destruction. Just like God warned Cain, giving in to evil desires cause them to possess you. But God also provides hope and preserves life so that it may be fulfilled. God did not lead Cain to destruction; God protected him and his family. God provided for Cain and guided him the rest of his days. But the one that did good, Cain's brother Seth, God rewarded his goodness and he brought many people back to the ways of God, perhaps even Cain.

When faced with a choice, choose life, choose kindness. You may just lead someone back to God.

Peace be with you.

04 December 2020

Good and Evil, part 1

To the surprise of no one, I listen to a lot of old gospel hymns. One of the constant themes of those hymns is why God would allow evil people to prosper. It seems obvious that a good God would want to punish evil, and that if God is omnipotent and truly rules this world then evil should never prosper. It seems perfectly reasonable, but it begs the question, is that really what God wants?

God does indeed bless the good and punish the evil. We see examples of this throughout scripture. In Genesis, God wipes away the whole earth, but spares Noah and his family. In Exodus, he punishes Pharaoh and delivers Israel. In Judges he leads Israel's champions against the Philistines and other invaders of the land. In Revelation, God gives his final judgment, providing an eternal home for the redeemed while evil is simply wiped from the face of the Earth.

Still, there is another theme, a counter-current to this thought that God only acts through good people. Through the scripture, God uses evil people to bring good people, or at least his chosen people (some of them, and us, can be quite awful sometimes), back to the fold. God hardens Pharaoh's heart so that Moses will not have an easy win, so that no one can say that it was Moses who delivered Israel and not God. God allows Moab, Philistine, and Babylon to conquer Israel when they become too full of themselves and turn to the worship of other Gods. Even Jesus is tested by Satan. That he passed this testing is what makes him the "worthy" Lamb of God.

When we think of Evil with a capital "E," we think of Revelation, of Satan the dragon and the false prophet and the "powers" of Hell. But this is thinking that comes from the medieval era, from Paradise Lost and Dante's Inferno. It has little biblical precedent. When we look at Revelation we see that Good is rewarded in the resurrection, but that evil is not punished so much as it is unrewarded. There is no resurrection of the wicked. Similarly, supernatural Evil is punished in the supernatural lake of fire. But notice that this is the punishment for supernatural evil, not evil humans.

God's idea of human evil is very much unlike our own. It is God's will to reconcile all of humanity, not in some supernatural future, but every day in this life. Next week, we'll look at scripture's first family and see how God preserves the good and reconciles the evil.

Until then,
Peace be with you.