Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Alternative to Violence

When I was in the hospital I learned to appreciate things that we usually take for granted. Like feeding yourself. Like being able to walk. Like breathing. At about 3:30 am February 5th I lost the ability to breathe in my left lung. I was grateful that the aide and nurses and on-duty docs came running when I hit the call button but less pleased that they were arguing about whether I was having a heart attack or had thrown a pulmonary embolus. They were asking about chest pain and I was gasping out, “I—can't—breathe!” Finally someone decided it must be a PE and rushed me to ICU. But my point is that we are rarely aware of breathing and the air around us because they are always there. And the prevalence of other things makes them invisible, too.

Race, for instance. If you are white, it is rarely an issue, personally. You are not constantly being reminded that you are white. But if you are a person of color, you are made aware of that every day by the way people treat you and talk to you. If you are black, you notice that salespeople follow your throughout a store, probably thinking you may shoplift. If you are a black man, you notice that people will often be wary around you, fearful of you. If you are a black woman, you notice the facial expression of the checkout people who sometimes look askance at the items you buy, judging you if you buy liquor, or looking skeptically at expensive purchases. If you are driving, especially in a nice neighborhood, you are rarely surprised to be pulled over by the police and quizzed about why you are in that area. They are often doubtful if you claim to live in that same nice neighborhood. These are not things I made up. They are things told me by fellow Episcopalians at the anti-racism training we are mandated to take. When we broke into small groups and shared our experiences, I was astonished at how pervasive racism was for brothers and sisters in Christ who happened to be brown. But to me as a white male it was just not a factor in my life. And that's why some people think racism is not a problem anymore. They just don't see it.

There is another thing that we don't see because for many of us it doesn't rear its ugly head in our lives very often but it pervades the world and that is violence. Today's reading from Habakkuk (1:1-4, 2:1-4) is concerned with the problem of violence and injustice. Habakkuk apparently lived around the time that the Assyrian Empire, which had taken the northern kingdom of Israel into exile, was about to fall and the Babylonian Empire was rising. Babylon would sack Nineveh, the Assyrian capitol, and conquer the southern kingdom of Judah and take it into exile. So it was a time of violence on a major scale. But Habakkuk is initially more concerned with injustice among God's people. And having them punished by Babylon is harsh in his eyes. The cure seems worse than the disease. He is told that Babylon is also destined to fall but that's hardly satisfying. Habakkuk, like Job, questions God's justice and, like Job, he is not considered sinful for doing so.

Violence can achieve a sort of rough justice, which is why we arm our police and use our military to try to straighten out problems overseas. But violence is never surgical; it is always a blunt instrument. And violence is contagious. If I hit you, you might back down. But you are just as likely to hit me back. And sure enough, we have found that not all situations can be handled by inflicting violence. Terrorism, which is asymmetrical warfare, is not stopped by violence. In fact, the harder we hit the terrorists, the easier it is for them to recruit our own citizens to hit us back by means of random, limited in scope but horrifying violence. Because they don't usually present an actual front line or represent a nation, we have no practical way to hit back. And when we try to lash out against, say, refugees who are trying to flee ISIS, the more terrorists we create at home by seeming to confirm ISIS propaganda that this is a war against not terrorism but Muslims.

In his book The Locust Effect, Gary Haugen argues that poverty can't be ended until the violence that keeps people in that state ends. The reason that many poor girls don't go to school in third world countries is the real fear of sexual violence befalling them when away from their parents. The poor are oppressed by violence by neighbors, by family members, by employers and by police. In many countries, the poor are not automatically provided with legal representation, law enforcement officers are not well paid and thus corruptable, and the wealthy can get away with murder at times. Violence is a regular feature in poverty-stricken areas in America, because of gangs and drugs. And throughout all strata of society, rich, middle class and poor, domestic violence and sexual violence can be found. And much of that falls upon females. Between 2001 and 2012, 11,766 American women were murdered by their male partners, current or ex. That's nearly double the number of our troops who died during the same period. 4,774,000 women each year are the victims of violence by their intimate partners. 1 in 4 women will suffer severe domestic violence during their lifetime; 1 in 7 men will. 85% of women who are physically abused are also sexually abused by their partner.

Because violent people seldom pick on someone their own size, children also suffer. At our recent clergy conference an expert told us that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before the age of 18. That's 10% of all school children. Contrary to popular belief only 10% of abusers are strangers; 30% are family and 60% are known to the child. I was shocked to find out that 50% of child abuse is perpetrated by their peers, usually older kids.

You would think in view of the negative effect of violence we would have a negative view of it. Not if our entertainment reflects our tastes. In movies, TV and books good guys defeat bad guys through violence. There is very little difference in the means good guys and bad guys use to achieve their ends. In fact, those heroes who have scruples get criticized. Batman, motivated by the murder of his parents, refrains from using guns and from killing bad guys. And some people have argued that by not killing the Joker, Batman is responsible for all the people the Joker has subsequently killed, including one of the Robins. Because, in many people's minds, the end justifies the means.

There are religious people who believe that as well. Torturing a bad guy is justified. Killing bad guys is justified. And as bad as it is to see Buddhists in Myamar leading mobs against Muslim-owned businesses, it is distressing to realize that some people can call themselves Christians and still inflict violence on other people. Jesus commanded us to turn the other cheek and yet some folks think it is all right not only to hit back but to start fights. And this in the name of Christ who told his disciples to put up the sword when they tried to defend him from being arrested and crucified! If Christians can't use violence to defend Jesus when he was physically on earth, how can we justify using violence in his name now that he has passed the baton to us? We are the Body of Christ today. So we have to ask ourselves, “Whom would Jesus harm?”

Generally people lash out in violence when they are angry and frustrated. But we don't all do that. Why do some folks turn to violence?

Jesus points to one big reason: retaliation. (Matt  5:38) People tend to hurt others if they feel that people have hurt them. And the folks they hurt don't necessarily have to be the same ones who originally hurt them. People who grow up with violence become violent in turn. They learn from their environment that violence is an acceptable response to things that anger you. Or irritate you. Or frighten you. Or just disturb you. Small wonder people who were abused as children so often turn into abusers.

Most people are taught as children not to hit other people. Abused children might be taught that as well—by being beaten when they hit their siblings. Which means they are getting a mixed message. Hitting is okay if you are big. Or in authority. When I was working as production director and copywriter at US-1 Radio, I was asked to do some ads to recruit for the Sheriff's Office. So I wrote some creative commercials along the lines of “Wouldn't you like to be a crime fighter like Batman? Or Sherlock Holmes?” When I read them to Sheriff's Public Information Officer Deputy Becky Herrin over the phone, she told me, “No! We don't want to attract that kind of person as a Sheriff's Deputy!” They don't want crusaders. They don't want zealots. They want law-abiding, reasonable people who can de-escalate situations when necessary. We have all seen what happens when law enforcement officers act unprofessionally and basically go Dirty Harry on someone who clearly hasn't done anything to merit such extreme measures. I was glad to learn that our Sheriff's Office was trying to filter out such people from the start.

Violence has been a problem from the beginning of humanity. According to the Bible, the first murder occurred between the first siblings. (Genesis 5:8) Violence is given as the reason God decides to reboot the earth with Noah. (Gen 6:11-13) And God tells Noah that murder is wrong because human beings are created in God's image. Homicide is symbolic deicide. (Gen 9:5-6) That means each person has intrinsic worth. No one is expendable.

Later God reinforces this through the enacted parable of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham believed that God might very well ask him to sacrifice his son because other gods did. It was a common practice in the land of Canaan. Archeologists have excavated cemeteries full of children sacrificed to Moloch. But then God stops Abraham. He reveals himself not to be a God who asks us to sacrifice our children to him.

And in Jesus, God reveals himself to be self-sacrificial love incarnate. If anyone is to be the scapegoat for our wrongs, it is God. If anyone is suffering to redeem us, it is God. If anyone is to be the target of religious violence, it is God. In Jesus, the script of violence is flipped.

At this point it is tempting to get sidetracked by certain Old Testament episodes where, say, God tells his people to cleanse the land of the Canaanites. I wish I could take the time to wrestle with this here but entire books have been written on this problem. (A good one is Show Them No Mercy: 4 Views on God and the Canaanite Genocide, in which 4 Biblical scholars look at this from different perspectives.) But that was about the events leading to the establishment of the kingdom of Israel which, like all earthly kingdoms, involves violent conquest. We Christians do not live under the Old Covenant nor in Iron Age theocratic Israel. We live under the New Covenant inaugurated by Jesus, the Prince of Peace. His kingdom does not come from this world and he never intended it to be spread by violence (John 18:36) but by love and the proclamation of the gospel, the good news of what God has done and is doing through Jesus Christ.

Jesus commanded his disciples to be non-violent, even though he knew they would face violent persecution. Paul heeded that and though he used the military metaphor of the armor of God, (Ephesians 6:10-18) he pictures it as chiefly protective. The only weapon he includes is “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” He also includes sandals which stand for “the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.” Paul gives no quarter to those who would commit violence for God, saying instead, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: 'It is mine to avenge; I will repay,' says the Lord. On the contrary: 'If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:17-21)

It is not our place to pass sentence on anyone. (Matt 7:1) God will handle that. We are to love our enemies and do good to them. (Matt 5:44) Hopefully, our responding to their bad behavior with good behavior will cause them to burn with shame and change their minds. “Change your mind” is the literal translation of the Greek word for repent.

Changing people's hearts and minds is how Jesus intends to make the kingdoms of this world into the kingdom of God. (Revelation 11:15) He will not do it by force. He will do it through us. He will do it through our loving words and actions towards others. We must proclaim the good news of God's love with our lives as well as with our lips.

The world believes that the only way to handle violence is to meet it with opposing violence. But that only increases violence and enriches arms dealers the world over. After all, humanity has been tried to end violence by resorting to violence since prehistory. And all that we've done is come up with more horrific ways to harm and kill more people. When you keep doing the same thing over and over and over again expecting different results, that's just stupid!

The Bible suggests another way. Proverbs 15:1 says, “A gentle answer turns away rage.” Really? Really. When Michael Brandon Hill slipped into an elementary school in Georgia carrying an AK-47, Antoinette Tuff, who worked in the front office, talked him down. She told him her struggles, told him she loved him and offered to walk him outside to surrender so the police wouldn't shoot him. When Brian Nichols, who shot his way out of a courtroom, killing 3 and wounding 1, took waitress Ashley Smith hostage in her apartment, she read to him from the Bible and from The Purpose Driven Life and made him pancakes. Speaking of her daughter, whose father had died, Smith managed to convince him to let her go. When a man walked into the small North Carolina church of Pastor Larry Wright with a rifle and ammo, the retired Army sergeant thought of tackling the gunman. But instead Wright talked to and prayed with the man, taking his rifle and handing it to a deacon. Church members hugged the man, and told him they loved him. The man let Wright finish his sermon, which, ironically, was on gun violence, and afterwards, the gunman answered the altar call and gave his life to Christ. Police took the man to the local medical center at his request for voluntary commitment.

There are other ways to deal with violence other than violently. But you have to be coolheaded and vulnerable and not play into the script that violent people and society think you must follow. You have to reach out in love and with a real desire to understand the other human being. You have to pray and let the Spirit guide you. It's not easy. And it won't always work. (For instance, in  the typical cycle of domestic violence where it is of primary importance to protect children and oneself as the non-abusive parent.) The violent person may be totally irrational. But if you never try, we know from the news how these things usually work out.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Peace, shalom in Hebrew, means total well-being. If we want peace, we need to work for the total well-being of everyone. Nobody should have a legitimate reason to feel they have been harmed. Everyone should feel it is everyone's job to help those who need it.

In today's gospel (Luke 19:1-10) Jesus befriended a man who was a great sinner and turned him into a new person. That's how Jesus gets rid of bad guys: by turning them into good guys. Let us go and do likewise.  

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

What We Don't Know

I once saw the late Douglas Adams, author of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, tell this story to David Letterman. He said he was waiting for a train in his native Great Britain and he went to shop to get tea and biscuits and a newspaper. (Biscuits is what the British call cookies.) So Adams selects a table, sets down his cookies and his newspaper and goes to get hot water for his tea. When he comes back to his table, he finds another man sitting at the table with his own newspaper. Adams sits down, opens his paper, pulls out the section he wants to read and sips his tea. He hears a tearing sound and when he looks over his paper the other chap has opened the cylindrical sleeve of cookies, taken one and is eating it. Adams is astounded that the other chap had the temerity to eat one of his cookies but he's British so he doesn't want to make a scene. Instead, to assert his ownership, Adams reaches over and take the next cookie in the sleeve. He returns to his paper but then hears the crinkle of the sleeve and glances up to see the chap take another cookie. Adams cannot believe this chap has done it again. But wanting to seem the bigger man, Adams simply reaches over and takes the next. And so it goes until the last cookie is gone. The chap's train is announced; he gets up, takes his paper, and without saying anything to Adams, like “Thank you for sharing your biscuits,” the man leaves. Adams stews about this until his train arrives. He then picks up his tea and his paper and when he does so he sees the sleeve of cookies he bought were in fact under one section of his paper. Instead the chap eating cookies that weren't his, Adams was. And he realizes that somewhere in the United Kingdom there is this chap who is telling the same story about this guy boldly eating the chap's cookies. But, Adams tells Letterman, he doesn't know the punchline to the story!

I have since heard that story attributed to other people so I don't know who it actually happened to or if it happened at all. But the point is that when we judge others we don't usually have the whole story and without it, our judgment can be way off. And that's something to keep in mind while we read today's gospel, Luke 18:9-14.

Jesus tells us of two men, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector, who go to the temple to pray. The Pharisee thanks God but not for anything God has given him. He thanks God that he is better than other people. And he classifies others as thieves, adulterers, rogues (or unrighteous) and even takes a swipe at the tax collector. Now to be fair, tax collectors were Jews working for the Romans. And not only were they collecting taxes for the army occupying their country but the tax collectors could set whatever fee they wanted and so they were getting rich off of their own oppressed countrymen. They were seen as traitors. As for the other people the Pharisee mentions, I don't think we can say much in favor of thieves or those who betray the person they are married to. And let's grant the Pharisee some common sense. He would be stupid to lie to God. God would know what this man does and does not do. And if he did in fact fast twice a week and give 10% of his income to the temple that's more than most religious people do today.

I don't think Jesus' problem is with the man's morals, so much as his attitude. This guy supposedly came to pray but he is really bragging. In fact, by thanking God for his superior moral character he is humble-bragging. He is pretending to be grateful to God but he is really just reveling in his self-righteousness. And while he may be doing all he says, we know that he, like the rest of humanity, is flawed. He has some sins in his life but he is not bringing them up. How is his temper? How is his compassion? From what he says about the rest of humanity, I'm guessing he feels that people who aren't doing as well as he is deserve their misfortune. After all, the introduction to this parable says Jesus was targeting arrogant people who treat others with contempt.

Arrogance is the chief of the so-called seven deadly sins. People who are arrogant really believe they are better than other people. They look down on others and usually feel they don't actually need them. They rarely if ever acknowledge what they owe to others, thinking they are largely self-made. They don't take advice from other people because they don't see the need for any other viewpoint than their own. Unfortunately, their arrogance is often mistaken for self-confidence and folks think that confidence equals competence, despite all evidence to the contrary. We've all worked with or for people like that and seen the damage they can do because they won't ask for help. But when things go wrong, they blame everyone but themselves because it can't possibly be their fault.

The Pharisee sees only his own strengths and everyone else's weaknesses. Thus he won't ask God for forgiveness and grace and so he won't receive any either.

The tax collector is anything but arrogant. He stands off by himself, probably feeling the eyes of everyone on him, judging him for his profession. He won't even look up. He just beats his chest and says, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” There is no self-congratulation. There is no boasting or gloating or comparing himself to others. He doesn't try to bargain with God. He knows he is flawed and he knows he needs forgiveness. So he asks for it. And Jesus tells us he gets it.

The news constantly bombards us with the worst things people have done. And it's easy to feel superior to, say, the horribly neglectful parent, or the abusive spouse, or the person who succumbs to addiction, or the politician who says supremely stupid things, or the crooked CEO, or the viciously cruel terrorist, or the spoiled rich kid who harmed somebody, or the single mother who made some bad decisions in life. Underneath that feeling is the assumption that we would behave differently in the same circumstances. We think we could resist the culture and the genetics and the upbringing that they had and would triumph over everything they didn't. And we are like Douglas Adams and the other chap, making judgments without knowing the full story.

An inmate I visited regularly when I was chaplain at the jail was a good looking man in his 40s with some real skills at rapping. It's not my preferred musical genre but he got the meter right and his rhymes were really clever and his subject matter was riveting. Instead of bragging about his sexual prowess or wealth or smarts, his raps were usually about his life, which was dire. His father was a pimp who was murdered. His mother was a crack addict who died from AIDS. The inmate has some mental health issues and has been in trouble with the law on and off since he was 14. He can be violent with others but more often he tries to harm himself. So he spent much of his time in jail in solitary confinement, sometimes on suicide watch. And though he was in his cell for 23 of every 24 hours, being let out only to shower, go to the rec yard, make phone calls and select another book (if he was allowed books; when he's on suicide watch he only has a hospital gown and a bare mattress), the guards would let him spent more than an hour with me, usually unshackled. I brought him a dictionary with a built-in thesaurus and he would ask me how to pronounce words so that he could rhyme them correctly. I told him that when he got out he should get a YouTube channel or a blog and share his raps. I know I kept him from harming himself on various occasions by giving him hope.

But ask yourself this: what if you were the one growing up with a pimp father who was murdered and an addict mother who died? What if you were wracked with depression and heard voices and at times just wanted to end it all? And what if you were poor and found out through your mother that there were drugs that quieted the voices in your head, that gave you the energy that depression had stolen from you, or that made you just not care about how bad your life was? Do you think you would still turn out to be the person you are?

We argue about what is more important, nature or nurture, but when you are born, you have no choice in either of those. Some people do find ways to transcend them but they always have help. And they usually have not a modest but an outsized talent that makes people notice them and see some worth in them. They find someone who believes in them and does what their deeply flawed parents didn't or couldn't do: get them an education or introduce them to someone influential in the field in which they show talent. But again that only happens to prodigies. If your talents are fairly ordinary, it is rare for anyone to lift you out of a situation where nature and nurture have conspired to make your life hell.

Even Jean Valjean in Les Miserables gets help. Imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread, he reverts to stealing when he gets out, until the bishop he robs pretends to have intentionally given him his silver and throws in some candlesticks when the police detain Jean. Bishop Myriel tells Jean he has been spared for God and the bishop's mercy changes Jean's life. In his introduction to the book Victor Hugo points to three problems: “the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night.” And indeed science has shown us that poverty alone negatively affects the brains of children. Add to that neglect and abuse and it is insurmountable for a child to beat the odds, without lots and lots of help.

That's why Jesus tells us not to judge others. We may see a successful business man, unaware of how he was born to wealth, helped out by his family, bailed out by friends, and lucky in his investments. We may see a poor woman, unaware that she was born into poverty, only able to get minimum wage jobs, or ones where they pay her under the table and don't pay much, burdened with hospital bills because she has a severely ill spouse or mother or child, and unlucky in not being a gifted athlete or musician or scientific genius who is worth rescuing by someone with money. We may see a homeless man, unaware that he is a veteran suffering from chronic pain or mental health issues, who has consequently lost jobs and is unable to make enough to put down first month, last month, and security deposit on a place, and since he is without an address, he has problems applying for jobs or getting his checks sent to him and is lucky not to be dead from the heroin he does because his prescription meds just don't help enough with the mental and physical pain he suffers. But because of what we don't know about them we condemn them. And because of that we don't help them. And then we wonder why their lives are hell.

Speaking of which, I saw a Twilight Zone in which a former concentration camp guard was condemned to relive the suffering of each person for whose death he was responsible. I can't think of a better version of hell than that. Weirdly, though, in Jesus' parables of hell, like the one about the sheep and the goats and the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus zeroes in not on sins of commission but sins of omission. "If you didn't do it to one of these, the least of my siblings, you didn't do it to me." That's what he tells the goats who go off to punishment. If in addition to judging us for those we harmed, one were to throw in those we could have helped in this life but didn't, there is not one of us in such an afterlife who wouldn't know first hand the consequences of the evil we have done and the evil we have not done anything to alleviate.

But God is merciful. He forgives. All he asks is that we repent and trust him. And “repent” in Greek means literally to change one's mind and consequently one's behavior. But like the child born into poverty and neglect and abuse, we cannot do this unaided. Which is why when we put ourselves in God's hands, he puts his Spirit within us. It is only with God's Spirit working in us that the image of God in which we were created can resurface. If you go to the Mel Fisher museum, you will see people working on those weird greenish lumps recovered from the wreck of the Atocha, painstakingly removing the accumulation of the years to reveal a ruby cross or a golden chalice previously unseen. So too the Holy Spirit slowly works on all the muck under which we have buried our true selves to reveal the person God meant us to be.

When we judge ourselves, we tend to look at our intentions. When we judge others we tend to look at the results of what they accomplished, regardless of their intentions. We cut ourselves a lot of slack; we seldom do that for others unless they are loved ones. And maybe that's the problem: we don't love our neighbors as we do ourselves. We certainly don't love our enemies as Jesus said we should. So our judgment of others is harsh whereas we let ourselves off easy, as well as those we love.

What if we really did love others as we do ourselves? What if we treated them the way we would like to be treated? We would give others the benefit of the doubt. We would listen to others with empathy. We would believe them when they said they wanted to do better and we would help them do so. We would forgive them as we want to be forgiven.

Unlike the Pharisee, we shouldn't be comparing ourselves to others. Arrogant people compare themselves to the less successful and give themselves a pat on the back. People who are acutely aware of their flaws tend to compare themselves to more successful and beat themselves up about it. We are all broken and we need to acknowledge it and then trust in God's mercy and forgiveness and go forward in the power of his Spirit towards our goal: to become ever more like Jesus.

It is hard. It was hard for me to walk after the doctors put me back together. But I kept working at it with the help of therapists and after 4½ months of therapy I am walking without a walker or crutches or a cane. I have a brace, which I will probably have for the rest of my life. I have pain and I get exhausted at times. But I am walking again. And I will get better at it.

Walking in Jesus' footsteps is hard. We need the help of the Holy Spirit and we will need him all our lives. But if we don't give up on God or ourselves, we will get better. Day by day. Step by step. Because God is merciful and his love is relentless.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

How to Survive

I love survival books. Not the ones about living in a bunker and fighting off the hordes of looters that will come when the government either collapses or reveals itself to be SPECTRE only worse. I mean the ones that give you tips on what to do if you are ever in a flood or in a fire or trapped in rubble after an earthquake or lost in the wilderness, stuff that, however infrequent, could actually happen to you. I do have one of the Worst Case Scenario books that does deal with improbable events like avoiding a stampede such as the running of the bulls or how to escape from a plummeting helicopter, but that's just for fun. I've also got the Disaster Preparedness Handbook, a very practical tome that gives common sense advice on dealing with disasters you are likely to encounter, such as hurricanes for those of us living in southern Florida.

I also like reading true stories of people surviving extreme events, such as Lost on a Mountain in Maine, in which Donn Fendler tells how, when 12 years old, he got separated from his scout troop and spent nearly 2 weeks surviving the cold, hunger, encounters with bears and hallucinations. He credits his scout training and faith in God with helping him make it. I devoured Unbroken, the story of how Olympic runner Louis Zamperini, who was part of a bomber crew in World War 2, survived a crash in the Pacific ocean, spent 3 months in a life raft and finally endured being captured and tormented by a Japanese officer while a POW. Again faith ultimately saves him.

What I get from these books is (1) practical advice on, say, what to do if a dog attacks, which did happen to me, (2) vicarious thrills from the adventures, of course, and (3) encouragement. I figure if someone can survive being mauled by a bear, or being trapped in a mine, or being in a concentration camp, I can surely deal with the less-than-dire problems I am currently facing.

The Bible is not exactly a survival book. It is actually a library of books but they do comprise a treasure trove of spiritual as well as practical wisdom that for thousands of years has helped people survive anything life throws at them. And that's because it has elements that you also find in survival books.

In U.S. Military Survival Manual FM 21-76, the word “survival” is used as a mnemonic device for those in a crisis situation. So “S” stands for “Size up the situation.” In other words, take note of your surroundings, what your physical condition is and what equipment you have. I would add that you also ought to take into account what your emotional or psychological condition is and, because we are talking about the Bible, your spiritual state. The psalms often tell us a lot about the condition of the individuals who wrote each. Some were composed in times of turmoil and stress. The person may be physically ill, socially isolated, psychologically stressed and at a spiritual low point.

The frankness of the psalms is why I think folks prize them so much. Psalm 42:9-11 says, “I say to God, my Rock, 'Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy? My bones suffer mortal agony as foes taunt me, saying to me all day long, 'Where is your God?'” When things are going badly for us, especially when we are suffering, we do get tormented by doubts. Is God punishing us? Ignoring us? Is he even there? The Bible lets us know that it is not a sin to feel that way. And indeed people have done spiritual damage to themselves because they felt that as a Christian, they had to always be upbeat and pretend that everything was well with them. Expressing doubts are especially forbidden. And the cognitive dissonance of denying reality defeats them.

But the Bible values honesty, even when we reveal unpleasant or even ugly things about ourselves. Psalm 37, written during the Jews' Babylonian exile, concludes with “O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us—he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” It's understandable for a oppressed people to feel this way but it is one of the grislier passages in the Bible. Mind you, the psalmist doesn't say God should do this. It is a descriptive passage, revealing his mood, not a prescriptive passage for us to follow.

The equipment check is obviously important for the person likely to encounter physical danger. Someone about to hike into the wilderness should see if his equipment is working properly. When you are in a spiritual crisis, what you need to do is tally up your assets. That would include your talents and strengths but also your weaknesses. Again the hiker should check that, say, his canteen doesn't leak. Other major assets to consider are your family, your friends, your church, your pastor and God. Believe me, I needed them all to get through my medical ordeal psychologically and spiritually intact.

U' stands for “Use all your senses, Undue haste makes waste.” The first line of the paragraph that follows reads, “You may make a wrong move when you react quickly without thinking or planning.” Contrary to what its critics say, the Bible is big on thinking things through. Jesus told us to “count the cost” before following him. He began many of his parables by saying, “What do you think?” And indeed Jesus often asked disconcertingly difficult-to-answer questions which left the crowds with lots to think about.

It helps to be thinking about the right things. Paul says, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8) Since my accident, I have had to change my viewing habits. I like dark documentaries and dramas. But for my mental and spiritual health I have to restrict my consumption of them, especially at night before bed, because otherwise negative thoughts and images dominate my dreams. I need time focusing on more uplifting and encouraging matters. We all need to look up from the grind of daily life at regular intervals and take in the vista and the bigger picture. And we need to use both our senses and our good sense to lay out what we should do next.

R” is for “Remember where you are.” The manual suggests using a map and a compass to figure out where you are, especially in relation to enemy units and enemy controlled areas, friendly units and areas they control, local water sources and places to conceal yourself. Spiritually, if you are in a crisis, you need to get your bearings. Consider whether you are in a place, either physically or psychologically, that is hostile to you and your continued spiritual health and growth. If you have a problem with, say, alcohol, bars and liquor stores are not where you should be. If you have problems with self-esteem or anger management or depression, you may need to stay away from places and people that are consistent sources of drama or trauma. A battered spouse, for instance, may need to find another place to live, somewhere that is friendly and controlled by those with her welfare in mind.

And look for places of refreshment and places where you can lie low for a while. Again, these can be mental spaces where you can relax and recuperate, aided by a book or music or an activity that revives you. Use centering prayer. Let God's Spirit guide you to the place where you need to be. Psalm 43 says, “Send forth your light and your truth, let them guide me; let them bring me to your holy mountain, to the place where you dwell.”

V” is for “Vanquish fear and panic.” The manual says that if fear and panic are uncontrolled, “they can destroy your ability to make an intelligent decision. They may cause you to react to your feelings and imagination rather than to your situation. These emotions can drain your energy...” Remember what we just read a few weeks ago in 2 Timothy 1:7, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear but of power and of love and of self-control.” Hold onto the fact that God is powerful, that he loves us and that he will help us keep control of ourselves. When you sense feelings of fear and anxiety come, say, “Not now.” Psalm 55:22 says, “Cast your cares on the Lord and he will sustain you.” I have asked God to take my anxiety upon himself so I can think clearly and act decisively. I cannot serve him or anyone else if I am plagued by worries that fog up my thinking and leave me too exhausted to do anything. In Philippians 4:6-7, Paul says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” The antidote to fear is faith—trust in God and in his promises.

I” is for “Improvise.” Stephen Colbert explains the secret to doing improv comedy is to say, “Yes! And....” In other words you must say “Yes” to whatever the premise or your improv partner says. If you are doing a Harlequin romance scene and your partner says, “Godzilla just rose from the sea," you can't reject that. You say, “Yes! And he's dancing the cha-cha!”

We need to accept whatever reality God has presented to us and then go with it, willing to improvise in the same spirit he has given us. And Jesus liked to flip the script. “When someone strikes you on the right cheek...” the expected response is to hit him back. But Jesus says, “...turn to him the other also.” (Matt 5:39) Jesus wants us to zig where others zag. For instance, there are way too many animals in shelters that do not get adopted. One Uber driver puts puppies in his back seat. His customers often fall in love with them during their ride and end up adopting them. That is a creative solution to a persistent problem. Then there is the woman who has designed coats that become sleeping bags for homeless people. And she hires homeless people to make them. Some companies are making edible packaging for food so that we don't make more waste when we eat. I really wish that Christians were more creative in doing good and show people that we don't have to follow the world's script. We can improvise good things rather than just fall into the rut of doing the same old thing over and over and not making the world better.

V” is for “Value life.” Odd how the most important things get forgotten in our busy and cluttered lives. We get distracted and while away the most basic gift from God, looking at screens and playing games and being spectators rather than actors in our lives. Jesus said, “I have come that they might have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) We may not be in danger of losing our physical life, as the manual clearly means, but we are in danger of losing a meaningful life. It is not just acute crises that threaten us spiritually. The slow and steady deadening of our response to life is a subtler threat to our spiritual vitality.

That's one reason that volunteering is so important. People who regularly volunteer, who dedicate their time and talents to something outside themselves, tend to experience less loneliness, have lower blood pressure, stay mentally sharp and live longer. But it only works if they are truly altruistic, doing it for others and not for themselves. Jesus was right again; it is more blessed to give than to receive. (Acts 20:35)

A” is for “Act like the natives.” The manual means if you are in an unfamiliar land, watch what people eat and drink and even the animals. (Although animals, especially birds, sometimes eat things that are toxic to humans.) If the natives are friendly, show interest in them and respect them and you will learn how to live in that environment.

How does this apply to us spiritually? Well, you can read and study the field notes and meditations and lives of those in the Bible, of course. But you can't directly ask questions of them. So befriend and observe those who seem the most at home in the kingdom of God. When you encounter someone who really seems in sync with Jesus and his Spirit, get to know them and how they deal with life's problems. Adopt what they do and adapt it to your own circumstances.

Jesus drew his parables and teachings from the people and plants and animals and occupations around him. I have learned important spiritual lessons from the elderly, from the sick, from children and even from jail inmates. I learn from their different experiences and diverse perspectives, just as I have a different view of healthcare from being a patient for several months rather than a nurse. I see helpful parallels between spiritual and physical health, which I am addressing in my book.

L” is for “Live by your wits, but for now, Learn basic skills.” The ability to improvise is important but before you do that you need to learn the basics. Even improv actors learn the basics of acting. They don't go on stage unprepared. The basics provide the foundation which your contributions build on.

One real danger is called the Dunning-Kruger effect, named for two psychologists. Basically, it describes how people who don't know much about something overestimate how much they know. In other words, people are ignorant of exactly how ignorant they are. “How hard can it be?” says the overconfident but incompetent person. And that can be fatal in a survival situation. You need to learn the basics of survival at least.

In the same way Christians who don't know the basics are spiritually dangerous to themselves and to others. They mindlessly mouth platitudes to sufferers when they should be quiet and listen. They assure newly born-again Christians of things that aren't actually in the Bible, like “God won't give you more than you can handle.” And if they believe that themselves, when a major disaster totally upends their life, they will be bewildered as to why they are suffering so much.

Doctors, nurses, clergy and most professions require continuing education. So should Christians. We need to learn more about the Bible, about theology, about church history and about current events. And we must always be learning more about Jesus, not just by reading but by following him as well. We need to learn to trust him. We need to learn to love one another as he loves us. We need to learn how to be the body of Christ on earth.

In our New Testament reading, Paul says, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim 3:16, 17) Usually I would preach on this verse but today I wanted to look at what many people have testified to for millennia: that at times when they were at their wits' end, they found the Bible and in it, found how not only to survive but also to thrive. That's the reason why this 3000 year old Middle Eastern anthology has itself survived this long when many other ancient tomes have not, or are only of interest to scholars. That's the reason why as of 2016, the Bible has been translated into 554 languages and portions of it into 2,932 languages. That is the reason we are talking about it today. This book changes lives. Because the written word of God introduces us to the living Word of God, Jesus, who is the way, the truth and the life and who gives life in all its abundance.   

Sunday, October 9, 2016


One of the things we are trying to teach our granddaughter is that actions have consequences. Some of those consequences are merely physical laws, like gravity, which she likes to defy by climbing on bookcases and standing on chairs. Some relate to biology, so her parents love that she likes fruit but she needs to learn that her body needs proteins as well. And the toughest subject seems to be social relations, like learning that if you hit another kid or yank toys away from them they will not take kindly to those things. I have even told her that such aggressive behavior, when she becomes a bit older, has legal consequences. Sadly there are adults who have not learned these things. We hear of adults who die from activities, like base jumping, that are inherently risky and a lot less forgiving than other sports. We know adults would won't eat anything green or unprocessed, which has health consequences. We know adults who look out only for themselves, who are nor merely selfish but greedy, ruthless and insulting and then wonder why people have a problem with them.

There are spiritual consequences to certain actions and a lot of people don't realize that. They do things that are unethical but not technically illegal and they don't seem to understand that these things harm who they are. And that's what spiritual consequences are all about. They are about things that shape you and your character, for good or for ill. Some people think religion is about being good so God won't put you on the naughty list and punish you. But God is more like a lifeguard than a cop. He is not so much interested in keeping track of your bad actions as trying to keep everyone from harming themselves or others through careless or deliberately harmful actions. He will rescue you, too, even when it was your own fault that you got in over your head and nearly drowned. Actions have consequences and if everyone behaves, everyone will have a good time.

In today's passage from 2 Timothy (2: 8-15) Paul gets rhapsodic about spiritual consequences. In fact most commentators think Paul is quoting an early Christian hymn in verses 11-13. It seems a little out of place at first but Paul is following through on what he said in verse 10: “ that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory.” Paul is thinking about long term consequences and that reminds him of this hymn.

If we have died with him, we will also live with him.” Now some may see this as Paul talking about martyrdom but he uses the past tense: “...we have died...” This is something that his readers have undergone: baptism.

A Facebook friend, Gwen Powell, who has graduated from a Lutheran Seminary recently, had a baby. And she put on her blog ( the first of a series of letters to her daughter on the day she was baptized. And part of it says that it is appropriate when babies cry at their baptism because it is after all the day of their death. “This baptism that we have so casually signed you up for is your death, the big one, the one in which we, your mom and dad and grandparents and godparents, say on your behalf that we promise you will die, have died, and are dying to the old world, the old way of things. Not just your old self, but to all the old things. The old world that you were born into, full of old sorrow and old despair and old hopelessness and helplessness and decay and chaos.”

Now this may sound heavy, especially at the baptism of a baby, but Gwen is calling upon the language of Paul himself. In Romans 6 Paul says, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Rom 6:3-5) And in verse 8, Paul writes what is almost the first line of this hymn: “Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.”

The cross and the empty tomb are at the center of Christianity. If Jesus hadn't died and risen again, he would be just one more Jewish sage and Messiah wannabe. Jesus died for our sins and rose to give us new life. And the way we appropriate that is to declare our allegiance to and trust in Christ and be baptized in his name. And while the symbolism of being buried into his death and resurrected might be hard to see in the way we baptize people, in the first century Christians were immersed in a river. You would go under the water and come back up, sputtering and catching your breath. Your sins were crucified with Christ and the old you was buried with him. You were now a new creation in Christ.

So Paul is saying if you want to live with Christ, you first must let the old you die and identify with Christ by being baptized. The consequences of giving up the old destructive ways is a new life. Eternal life is not just living longer; it is living infinitely better.

If we endure, we will also reign with him.” In Jesus' parable of the sower and the seeds, he speaks of the seed that falls on rocky ground. The soil is not very deep so it springs up fast but then it withers in the sun. Jesus says, “The seed sown on rocky ground is the person who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy. But he has no root in himself and does not endure; when trouble or persecution comes because of the word, immediately he falls away.” (Matt 13:20-21) Endurance is a virtue we seldom hear about in church anymore. But you hear it in sports because the way you get better at something is to persist in doing it. To master any skill requires about 10,000 hours of practice and a refusal to give up.

Perseverance in spiritual matters also pays off. Jesus makes it a requirement of being his disciple. “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Daily! Nor was that hyperbole. Jesus knew that his followers would be persecuted. “But the person who endures to the end will be saved,” he says in Matthew 24:13.

Why is persistence important? For one thing it is a sign of commitment. I took violin lessons when I was a child but after two years, I decided the catgut sounded better back in the cat and quit. I was not as committed as, say, Wayne or Holly, who have become accomplished musicians. Persistence is important because it reveals the importance you put on a task or achievement. People make a lot of resolutions in life. The ones they stick to reveal their true priorities.

And perseverance is important to making things actually happen. Jesus stresses persistence in prayer. But if God loves us, why should we have to ask him for something over and over? A good parent knows why. Kids ask for a lot of things. Their bedrooms are littered with the relics of enthusiasms that evaporated. A wise parent holds out to see if the child still wants the item a month or two later. For expensive items you might want to hold out for the better part of a year. (Because, for instance, I'm not sure what the resale value is on a pony!)

In the same way, God wants to be sure we are serious about what we ask for. St. Augustine, a bit of a womanizer, famously asked God for chastity...but not right now! Obviously, Augustine was not really ready to commit to conforming his life to Christ. And what this line in this early Christian hymn is saying is that if we are serious about following Jesus, the result of our endurance will be that we will reign with Christ.

We were created to reign over the earth as God's co-regents. We blew that. But just as God intends to restore earth to its status as paradise once more and us to being clearly created in the image of God, so he intends to restore our royal status. Exactly what we will be doing in that role is not spelled out but it could be analogous to what we try to do now—govern people, protect the environment, prevent the extinction of animals, innovate and create—but accomplished without rancor and partisanship and greed and the pursuit of power for personal reasons. If we reign with Christ, it makes sense that we will reign as Christ does—with love and mercy and understanding.

If we deny him, he will also deny us.” This is the first line that shows the negative consequences of negative actions. And like the rest it is based on what Jesus said. In Matthew 10:32-33, he says, “Whoever, then, acknowledges me before people, I will acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever denies me before people, I will deny him also before my Father in heaven.” Jesus is not talking about the many ways we let him down by sinning; the Greek word translated “deny” means “disavow” and “reject.” Jesus is talking about those who renounce him as their Lord and Savior. If they want nothing to do with him, then he will have nothing to do with them. In the early days of the church, the temptation was to deny Christ to save yourself from torture and death. Today we are so soft that people deny their Christianity simply because of ridicule, because some clique or class of people they want to be part of has no use for Christianity or even religion in general.

Rarely does someone leave the faith for purely intellectual reasons. They do it because because it is cool, or it is smart, or it is popular, or because they can do certain things without guilt. Or because of anger at God or the church. I remember watching outspoken atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair on a local talk show. She said she had read the entire Bible when she was 11 and had dismissed it as illogical and contradictory. The TV host then took questions from the audience. A priest in his clerical collar stood up and the host held the microphone to him. The priest barely got out a word before Madalyn unleashed a stream of vitriolic abuse upon him and organized religion. She went on so long the priest told the host he would sit down so someone else would get a chance to ask a question. And I thought, “Yeah, Madalyn, that really sounds like your beef with Christianity is purely rational!” Later when I read the memoir of her surviving son, a Christian, I learned that Madalyn was an unwanted child who grew up to be a bitter and angry person, who had trouble holding jobs because of her abrasive personality. I wonder if her life would have turned out better if someone had actually shown her Christlike love.

Jesus does not say his denial of a person cannot be changed if the person takes back his own denial of Christ. Peter denied knowing Jesus 3 times while his Lord was on trial. After his resurrection, John's gospel records how Jesus asks Peter 3 times if he loves him. Peter answers each time that he does. And Jesus tells him 3 times to feed his sheep. Peter goes on to be one of the most prominent of the apostles, who suffered martyrdom. So even denying Christ can be forgiven if we repent.

If we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself.” Out and out denial of Jesus leads to Jesus denying that person but being faithless doesn't. Why is that? Being faithful is about keeping promises. We may not keep our promises to God—like when we say, “let me get through this and I promise I will go to church every Sunday and give up porn and liquor”—but God still keeps his promises to us. And that is amazing! And comforting.

Our salvation, for instance, does not depend on how good we are at living the Christian life. We don't get into heaven by scoring so many Brownie points with God. We are saved by God's grace through trust in him and his promises. We can't earn it. It is a free gift God promises to all who simply receive it. Which is why you may be shocked to find in heaven such people as David Berkowitz, the infamous Son of Sam shooter, and Jeffrey Dahmer, the cannibalistic serial killer. Both of them came to Christ in prison. If they were sincere, God in his grace has saved them, just as he saved the thief crucified next to Jesus. We are no more deserving than they.

Our faith rests on the fact that God remains trustworthy even when we prove not to be.

While Paul remembered this hymn, he was a prisoner of Rome. He speaks of “being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained.” And that had to give him hope. Not that he would avoid martyrdom but that the gospel, the good news of what God has done and is doing through Jesus Christ, was free and spreading through the same empire that would take his life. The world thinks that by killing the messenger, you can kill the message. Because of Jesus, Paul knew that wasn't true.

So it would be ironic if the gospel in America gets smothered not by lethal opposition but by apathy. By ennui. By complacency. By a hesitancy to speak up because we fear the social consequences of declaring ourselves to be followers of Jesus. Christianity spread because the early Christians not only believed the gospel but let that belief express itself in their actions. For instance, when plague hit the cities of the empire and the rich fled, Christians stayed and took care of the sick, even at grave risk to their lives. Though they were a persecuted minority, the pagans sat up and took notice. Christians didn't just preach the gospel; they lived it.

Today the second largest faith group in the US is those who claim no religious affiliation at 23% of the population. Evangelicals come in at number 1 with 25.4% of Americans. Third is Roman Catholics at 21%. 14.7% of Americans are mainline Protestants. Now, adding in Black Protestants (6.7%) it turns out more than 67% of those in the country say they are Christian. And yet we know that many citizens do not seem to know what real Christian values are. We see, instead of love for our neighbor and for the alien, hatred. We see, instead of compassion for refugees fleeing ISIS, suspicion. We see, instead of empathy for the underdog, contempt. And young people who grew up in church, see these attitudes and know they are not Christlike and they leave. If that's Christianity, they don't need it in their lives. And polls say they are not coming back!

What we think, do and say has consequences. If we have died with Christ, we will live with him. If we endure pain and wrong as he did, we will reign with him. If we renounce him, he will renounce us. And yet if we are faithless, he remains faithful. But that doesn't mean we can cruise along, living as we like. (Romans 6:1) Paul says works don't save us but God made us to do good works. And those works we build our life on will be tested by fire. If they are not approved by God they will be burned down. We may survive the fire but everything we have built up in our life will not and will have been for naught. (1 Corinthians 3:13) We will have nothing to show for all that God has entrusted to us.

The spiritual consequences of what we do and do not do show up in us, in who are and who we become. If we want to be like Jesus, we need to build on his words and deeds. Because that is what our goal is: to be like him. What Jesus wants us to deny is our right to live as we want. When we give our life to Christ, we don't get it back. We get something better: his life; a life that is eternal, a life that is pure, a life that is love.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Who Do You Trust?

TV and movies both influence our culture as well as mirror it. Apparently mafiosi did not dress or act like the characters in The Godfather before the release of that film. The same can be said for investment bankers, who did not slick back their hair or wear ostentatiously expensive suits before the release of Oliver Stone's Wall Street. But sometimes films merely show us what we are already concerned with. The original The Day the Earth Stood Still is a pretty transparent parable about our fears in the 1950s that we would destroy ourselves with nuclear war, just as the remake is clearly about us destroying the environment. So whether they are reflecting public attitudes or influencing them, it is disturbing that some of the most pernicious ideas about faith can be found in films and TV.

One such idea is that faith is simply some kind of optimism. “Just have faith,” characters say in a tense situation, as if reality has the same bias towards happy endings that Hollywood does. They ignore the fact that you need something or someone to put your faith in. The logical question is how trustworthy is the thing or person in which you have faith. The often filmed story of the Titanic is a cautionary tale about putting all your faith in any over-hyped product of human ingenuity, as well as believing any company that would declare a ship “unsinkable,” as the Vice President of the White Star Line said on the very day the Titanic sank.

Another destructive idea about faith, and especially religious faith, is that it is simply believing in certain ideas which are absurd and/or untrue. It confounds faith with superstition or a belief in magic, so that it therefore becomes the opposite of logic or reason. In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Who Watches the Watchers? a group of Federation observers are seen by a primitive species, who take the advanced humans to be gods. Picard is upset and doesn't want to send this race which had previously abandoned belief in the supernatural back to “the dark ages of superstition and ignorance and fear.” Similarly the crew of Stargate SG-1 spends a lot of time convincing primitive people that their gods are fake. Usually they are merely very advanced aliens. But the point is that faith is for the unsophisicated and for children.

Another insidious idea is that somehow fantastic beings need faith in order to continue to exist. We see it in the play Peter Pan, where the children in the audience are asked to clap if they believe in fairies and somehow that show of belief cures Tinkerbell of poisoning. We see it in Elf where Santa's sleigh is powered by children's belief in him. Today he uses a modern engine to help because belief in him has been decreasing. We see it in the original Star Trek episode Who Mourns for Adonais, where a cosmic being claiming to be the Greek God Apollo says all the other gods have faded away because people have stopped worshiping them. When he fails to get the Enterprise crew to worship him, he concludes that humanity has outgrown him and he chooses to fade away. This idea may go back to Plutarch, the Greek philosopher, who told of how the god Pan died when people just thought he was a made up story.

Certainly the influence of religions fade as people cease to believe in them. That was a good thing when, say, people ceased worshiping Moloch to whom they sacrificed infants! The prophets warned the people about precisely that. Abandoning Yahweh, the God of justice and mercy, of faithfulness and steadfast love, would lead to the self-destructive moral decline of the nations of Israel and Judah. Not worshiping God did not hurt him but hurt those who left him to worship gods who demanded human sacrifice and fertility gods who encouraged sexual license that undermines stable relationships. People tend to end up resembling what they worship. You see it today where people essentially worship money or politics or sex or science or other human constructs. These things are not bad but they are powerful and can be misused or abused, especially if they are elevated to a position that puts them above everything else, like God.

In the Bible faith is not so much believing in the existence of God as trusting him. As James writes (2:19) “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” As James emphasizes that kind of faith—merely that God exists—is as good as dead if not acted on. A medical analogy would be how people know that vaccines exist but when they do not trust them, they don't take advantage of them and so this nation has had an increase in certain childhood diseases that were previously not doing much damage to kids.

In the same way, Mark (6:1-6) tells us that Jesus could not do any miracles in his hometown, because he grew up there and they just couldn't believe that anyone they knew as a snot-nosed kid could be the Messiah. Jesus was able to heal a few sick people because they trusted him. But any doctor will tell you they can't do much for patients who do not trust them and will not comply with their treatment.

Trust underlies all relationships, from family and friends to our business dealings. You can't do much with people you don't trust. And faith is a 2-way street. If I need my car fixed, not only do I have to trust that the mechanic will do it but he has to trust that I will pay him the agreed price. If he doesn't actually fix it I will not go do business with him again. If I don't pay him, he won't work on this car or any other car I bring him in the future. If either of us betrays the trust of the other, the relationship will suffer, if not be completely severed.

Marriage requires a lot of trust between the parties involved, and so it is often used in the Bible as a metaphor for the relationship between God and his people. In fact, the Bible can be seen as the story of a loving God who is betrayed by the people he created but who nevertheless works to win them back. He gives them a land, frees them when they become slaves, and brings them out of exile when they are conquered and deported. He gives them a law that guides them to a life that is simultaneously good in the moral sense and good in the sense of being satisfying. But again and again they are unfaithful to the God who in his love shows his steadfast faithfulness to them. They turn against him and they turn against each other. So finally he sends us his son.

In Jesus God becomes one of us. Being the embodiment of divine love, Jesus shows us what God is really like. Being human, he also shows us what we can be, if we simply let God's Spirit work in us. It is through Jesus that we can become the persons God created us to be.

We can trust God because of Jesus. When I was in the nursing home recovering from my accident, I was fortunate to have a lot of good nurses. But one of my favorites was Emily, not just because she was conscientious and sweet but because she knew what I was going through in a way no one else did. When Emily was 16, she was also in a car accident. But in her case, a drunk driver hit her car and her friend, a passenger with her, was killed. Emily had to be revived several times on the way to the hospital and in the ER. She awoke in ICU, terrified. Luckily one of the nurses there sat down and explained what had happened, why she had so many tubes and IVs and machines plugged into her and why her hands were restrained (so she wouldn't pull any of those life-sustaining tubes out). And eventually Emily would have to learn to walk again and deal with the pain and exhaustion that goes with it. Emily knew what I was going through, because she had gone through it herself. And because of Jesus, God knows firsthand how difficult and painful human life can be. Just as I could discuss my aches and pains and concerns with Emily and know that she knew what it was like, it is comforting to know that we can go to Jesus with our problems and know that he has been there and dealt with that.

Jesus dealt with family problems: his brothers mocked him and thought he was crazy. Jesus dealt with the problem of being misunderstood by both enemies and even his followers. Jesus dealt with the problem of being opposed for doing the right thing. Jesus dealt with being exhausted by the demands people put on him. Jesus dealt with missing meals because he was so busy. Jesus dealt with being thirsty. Jesus dealt with being betrayed by a friend—friends if you include Peter denying him. Jesus dealt with being abandoned by others when he needed them the most. Jesus dealt with the feeling that God had abandoned him. Jesus dealt with unbearable pain. Jesus dealt with dying. Because of all the things that he underwent, we can trust him—especially when you consider the fact that he did them out of love for us.

We can trust Jesus because he said he will never leave us or forsake us. It's bad enough to go through pain and suffering; it is terrible to go through them alone. I like to think Jesus made this promise because at the worst time in his life, he did have to face it alone and he doesn't want that for us. So Jesus is with us whatever happens. And this again shows God's nature. When God tells Moses his name is “I am,” the Hebrew could also be translated “I will be” and even “I will be there.” God is there for us when we need him. And because of that we can trust him.

But it is not enough to trust God passively, merely for what he has done for us. We need to trust him actively. We need to trust him enough to do what he says.

As a nurse I have had many patients who trusted a surgeon enough to let themselves be knocked out, rendered helpless and then cut open. They will trust a doctor to remove cancerous or diseased tissue and even to replace broken hips and knees with one's made of metal and other materials. But I was surprised that they would not then obey the doctor's orders. They would not change their lifestyle so as to avoid the same health problems or do their physical therapy so they could walk again.

We meet Christians like that. They love to hear about God's grace and forgiveness. They love to hear what Jesus did for them on the cross. And they believe those things. But they don't trust God enough to take the next logical step: do what he says. They don't trust him enough to follow doctor's orders. They don't trust God enough to turn the other cheek, to love their neighbor, let alone attempt to love their enemy. Just like the people with new hips and knees who nevertheless preferred the comfort of their wheelchairs over the pain of trying to stand and walk, even when supported by therapists, a lot of Christians don't want to leave the comfort zone of the church and actually go out into the world and try loving others and sharing the good news with them, despite the fact that God will be with them and his Spirit will support them. I used to wonder why those patients bothered to have their hips or knees replaced if they weren't going to use them. And I wonder why people let God into their life if they aren't going to live the life he makes possible for them.

I know what it's like to fear the pain of standing on broken legs and trying to walk. But I don't want to be bed-bound or wheelchair bound. (Or cane-bound; I stop using one today.) And I know what it's like to fear the ridicule of people who think I am naive to still believe in God in this day and age. I mean, I'm a nurse. I know science. I've never seen city walls just fall down or water change into wine or somebody walk on water. But I have seen the walls people build around themselves to protect themselves and keep others out crumble and fall to let God in. I have seen people change into new creatures in Christ with a new purpose in life and a new love for others. I have seen people somehow manage to stay on top of a situation that should have swallowed them whole because they trusted in God and stepped out in that faith. I have never seen a lame man suddenly leap up and dance but I have felt the power of God heal me and help me get back on my feet a lot faster than even doctors and therapists believed it would happen.

It doesn't all happen at once. And that's why, when his disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith, he tells them that you can start with just a tiny bit of faith, the size of a mustard seed, and do more than you thought it could. Elsewhere (Matt. 13:31-32) Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed. It's tiny, roughly the size of one of those poppy seeds you get on a bagel, and yet it can grow into a plant ten feet tall, four feet taller than me. The point is that a little can do a lot. Faith may start small but if you let it, it can in time grow to be a lot bigger and more powerful than you thought possible.

I started out with some defective portrayals of faith in pop culture and I want to end with one that is just about perfect. And its source is Stephen King. A lot of people don't know that he calls himself a Christian, has taught Sunday School and frequently puts Christian symbolism into his stories. And one of his short stories is called The Last Rung of the Ladder. In it a man recalls the time he and his sister were kids, playing in the family's barn. They took turns climbing this very tall ladder to a beam running the length of the barn, walking the beam and jumping into this enormous haystack. But the old ladder breaks and his sister is left hanging from the top rung. Her brother desperately starts grabbing armfuls of hay and starts piling them directly under her. And just when she can't hold on any longer, he tells her to let go. The pile of hay does break her fall and saves her life. And he is surprised when she tells him she hadn't looked down before letting go. She didn't know about the pile of hay. She just trusted her loving brother to save her.

God loves us. Because of Jesus, we know what he is really like. Because of what he has done for us in Jesus, we know we can trust him. We just need to do so. We need to let go of our fear, of our embarrassment, of the things we worship in place of God, and trust him. We need to take the steps we are afraid to take—to feed the hungry, clothe the threadbare, care for the sick, visit those in prison, welcome the alien, go the second mile, turn the other cheek, love the unlovable and forgive the unforgivable. The reason the church hasn't changed the world more is that we play it safe. We don't do anymore than we have to. We cling to tradition and the way we have always done things in the past. We need to let go and trust that beneath us are the everlasting arms, the arms of our loving heavenly Father. He is there for us and he's not going away. Do not be afraid; have faith in the God who is love.