Archive for category Spirituality

How Jesus came to preach on Hell (a parable)


At that time Jesus and his disciples entered a prosperous land.  Hearing of his arrival, many of the people came to hear him speak.  Thousands gathered around him.

” I bring you good news.  God loves you, all of you.  You have no need to fear or worry. Eternal life is yours.  Peace and happiness are at hand. ”

The crowd began to murmur. They didn’t understand what he was saying.

“How is this possible? How do we get this eternal life you speak of ?” they asked.

Smiling, Jesus spread his arms wide. “Just follow me. I am living this life right now.  I have come to share with you  the Way of eternal life  and how to be in tune with God. You may hear all kinds of people on television pitching their self-help programs,  but there is good reason there are so many of them. They don’t work. Not for long. But follow me and I can assure you of eternal life.

” OK, so what’s the catch? How much does this cost? What kind of sacrifices do I have to make?” a man asked.

“There is no catch” said Jesus. “This life is free. No fees. No purchase necessary. No sacrifice.”

“Alright”,  another shouted.  “Tell us. What is this secret?”

“Simple” said Jesus. “Love each other as much as you love yourself and love God with all your heart.  The only way to love God is to love others.”

“How do we do that?” someone asked

“Always put the needs of others before your own” Jesus said. ” Visit the sick and  imprisoned. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked.  Take in the homeless.  And -very importantly – forgive everyone, especially your enemies.”

“That’s crazy!” someone shouted.  “We don’t live in some sort of dream world. We have families to take care of – we can’t just bring bums and vagrants into our homes!”

“I have to worry about my kid’s college tuition!” another shouted “I can’t buy clothes for a bunch of slackers. Let ’em get jobs and buy their own.”

A woman stood up, shaking her fist. “What kind of fuzzy-wuzzy crap is this? Love your enemies?! I guess you expect us to love all those elitist god-haters that want to destroy this great nation?  You just want us to open our arms to foreign heathens as they pour into our country, taking our jobs, speaking their own languages, praying to the wrong gods and plotting violent revolution?  You’re just a sissy wing-nut that hates his own country!”

The angry crowd turned their backs and began to leave, grumbling and shaking their heads.  Nervously, Jesus glanced  around. Looking up,  he smiled and suddenly  jumped on a nearby boulder, waving his arms frantically.

“Wait! Wait!” he cried. “There is another way! A better way! Come back. Give me another chance.”

Most ignored him but some turned back.  “This better be good”, they said. They sat down on the grass and waited.

Jesus  sat down in the middle of them. ” OK, the other stuff was good, but that was only half the story. This is the real deal. You see, there are these two places called Heaven and Hell….

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No Hell = No Jesus


As long as I can remember  my mother has said, “As a Christian you have to believe in Hell but you don’t have to believe anyone is  there.”  This is her gracious understanding of an essential Christian doctrine.  Though she didn’t know it,  this understanding is a Christian “heresy” called Universalism, a heresy  that says all of us,  even non-Christians, will go to Heaven. And it was expressly against Catholic, and most Christian doctrine. But wasn’t she right about one thing:  Don’t you have to believe in Hell to be a Christian? This must be the case, if Universalism is a heresy.

Not long ago Rob Bell was  in the hot seat with many Evangelicals (and some Catholics)  because his recent book, “Love Wins”,  suggested that no one goes to Hell.  He set the conservative Christian bogs on fire and most of them essentially condemned Bell to hell for not believing in Hell.

The ensuing progressive  Christian defense of Bell was great.  Many Emerging Church and progressive Christian bloggers  busted the chops of people like the Three Johns ( Piper, MacArthur and Hagee) for accusing Bell of  Universalism . They rightly criticized the conservative Christian tendency to make Hell such a big part of their theology, to the point where this doctrine  obscures a lot of the Gospel message.  But, unfortunately, few of them go far enough.

Because in their defense of Bell they made it quite clear that they also believed in the doctrine of Hell, they just adapted it to make it more palatable.  Most seemed to accept the conventional orthodoxy  of a Final Judgment and the potential prospect of Hell (even with little or no scriptural support for it) coupled with the salvic solution of Jesus dying for our sins on the cross, as God’s blood sacrifice, to free us from eternal damnation.  Which, to me, flies in the face of what Jesus spends a lot of time telling us about God.  As I heard a pastor once say, God is either merciful or God is just, but God cannot be both.

I think one reason why so many Christians are unyielding about Hell, and why the progressives still can’t shake the doctrine off, is that, in reality,  Hell is the cornerstone of the Church, not Jesus.  Because without Hell, what is there for Jesus to do? What does he save us from?

No Hell = no Jesus. Or at least the Jesus that many Christians claim to believe in, have faith in.  Without Hell he loses his job description. He loses his purpose along with the primary meaning he may have for millions of Christians. So the idea that there is no Hell is just too damn frightening to consider.

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. 1 John 4:18

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When prayer becomes an obstacle to faith


I have my fair share of physical troubles, almost all the result of entering middle age after a lifetime of unhealthy living. Not that my living was particularly hedonistic or any worse than most Americans, but when you are dealt a certain genetic hand you need to be a bit more careful than I’ve been.

Anyway, it’s not that I am ill or remotely disabled.  Just the poster boy for metabolic syndrome. I’m never in any real pain and suffer no problems with mobility, but for some time now my doctors have called me a “high risk” for….some bad stuff, I guess.  Just like over half of the Americans out there who are over 50.   So I  keep popping my pills, watch what I eat (kind of ) and tend not to worry. Too much.

But last week was somewhat trying.  Persistent head aches, fatigue, shortness of breath, dizziness. And my BP was going crazy, higher than it ever had been before.  Being the alarmist hypochondriac that I am, I prepared myself for inevitable admission to the O.R. for major chest surgery…or worse.  As it turned out, my doctor only had to play her voodoo shell-game with my prescriptions and things are looking a lot better.  For now.

My point here is not to whine about my health or my ailments.  I just wanted to set the stage for my thoughts of last week, particularly some of those about God.  Because I really, really had to work hard to keep myself from praying.

I was disturbingly aware of a desire to ask God to protect me from whatever might be coming my way physically.  I really wanted to revisit my old penchant for asking God to extricate me from whatever predicament I found myself in and I desperately wanted to recapture the opportunity of asking God to cure me.

But I hadn’t believed in those types of prayer for some time now and I knew that it would be wrong to allow myself a little relapse into what I now believe is religious superstition.  Why would God deign to reach down inside of me and fix the relatively minor physical problems that I am troubled with? When there are so many millions who are really suffering, from hungry children to the mentally institutionalized to severe burn victims to the paraplegics whose prayers for healing have apparently not been heard?  I don’t think God would fix my problems.  I am not sure that God even could.

I did pray, though not in that way.  Instead I prayed prayers of thanks, that I  made it this far, with the wonderful people I have known and loved.  My wife, my children, my friends, family and students.  I was still  tempted to ask for another 50 years (or 30 or 20 or 10 or even 5).  But  I didn’t.  Instead  I prayed for peace and for courage, for acceptance of whatever might come.  Surprisingly, my prayers were answered, almost immediately.

If I had prayed for physical healing or a change in my material circumstances,  I would still be waiting for the that big shoe to drop.  Playing the long odds against the house, yet holding out hope for something ‘miraculous’ to take place. Anticipation. Unneeded anxiety.  And if the cards looked good this time, if it seemed as if God had answered my prayers, this too would pass. Until I met the next low hanging branch on the path.  A relentless cycle of beseeching, worry, thanksgiving and then more worry.  This was my old pattern.

Over the years I’ve seen some friends die.  A few were young, tragically young. Most were pretty “old” I guess.  A lot of them were in their eighties.  My Dad is in his eighties and he’s been struggling a bit.  The thing is, if we are lucky, we will get old and die.  Sometimes it looks easy, more often it can be painful. But I’ve seen that  it can also be peaceful.  Should we be wasting what time we do have by asking to live longer? “ Please, just a little bit more of this good stuff “ (even if it looks as if there isn’t enough “good stuff” to go around for everybody). Where’s the peace in that?

I like it better this way.  I’m not asking too much from God and God’s not asking too much from me. I just have to resist asking for the deck to be loaded in my favor. Instead, maybe God could provide me a with just a little help playing the hand I’ve already been dealt.

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The Bible is not The Good Book or a bad book. It is just a….book.


The Bible is a collection of diverse ancient Hebrew writings by many authors who never intended their works to be collected between the bindings of a book.  It is full of spiritual stories, poems, myths, biographies and various historical accounts. It may or may not include recorded attempts at predicting the future. Wisdom and beauty abound within its pages and the reading of this book has helped millions of people, in many spiritual ways,  to encounter God.  By this definition alone, it is a sacred book.  But as St. Paul  once said, the scriptures are useful for instructing a person in the ways of God, implying that they are only some of the tools at our disposal and not the sole repository of spiritual wisdom.

The common thread that runs through this assortment of writings is how a particular group of people interacted with their God over a very long time, in ways that were both moral and immoral.  Inspired by a sense of wonder, the authors attempted to understand God’s nature, God’s will and how, why and if God works in their lives, often depicting God as speaking and acting within the natural world.

The second, smaller part of the Bible concerns Jesus of Nazareth, his life, crucifixion and resurrection. It also includes his teachings and the teachings of some of his disciples.  These teachings have undoubtedly inspired generations of people to live lives of peace, mercy and love while at the same time championing justice.  At the same time,  different interpretations have helped others to rationalize behavior not so commendable.

The Bible had no release date, there was no publishing date. At some point, around 1700-1800 years ago, powerful religious men decided what Jewish scriptures would be included in what we call the Canon and the Apocrypha.  Everything else  (probably more than what was included) was discarded or destroyed, though some of these manuscripts survive today. Throughout its history the Bible has been translated in different ways and there have been a few cases where it has been altered to serve a religious agenda, but these were rare occurrences.  There has always been a very active, and often heated,  debate over what many portions of the Bible actually mean.

The Bible may, or may not, be relevant to us today.  The stories and poems and letters within have been used as a guide for morality, compassion and self sacrifice.  They have also been  used to justify genocide, torture, slavery, misogyny, bigotry and war.  If God has spoken through the Bible then some have certainly heard the voice of Satan as well.

Although a great work of historical literature and sacred to millions,  it has no magical qualities or powers. It needs to be interpreted contextually, framed within the time and circumstances of the people who populate it, lest whatever lessons it might contain remain hidden.   It is undeniably a very, very important book.  It is certainly a great book, one of the world’s greatest.  But it is not the GOOD book any more than it is a bad book.  In the end, with all that it has to offer, it is still…just…a…book.

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But if you’re a Christian, then what am I?


Over on the Wall Street Journal blog, one of the members has (hopefully) started a thread by asking this question:

How do Christians define Christians? What makes you or not a Christian?

I often come across the argument that “said person is not a real Christian”, many tend to use this argument to exclude particulars who happen to shame the religion calling themselves part of it, or act in the name of it.

I think it would be interesting to see, how does every one define it, is it simply believing in a higher authority?. Is it taking every literal word of the bible?. Is it following the “reasonable” aspects of the bible?

Now, so far, only one person has given an answer, and it is one that I suspect the majority of American Christians would agree with:

A Christian is somebody who believes that Christ died on the Cross and shed his blood as the ultimate atonement(replacement for the blood sacrifice of the Old Testament law) for the sins of mankind. They believe that Christ is who He said He is. ie, The Son of God, and therefore God Himself. The concept of the Trinity applies here. God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Christ was the product of the immaculate conception. Christ was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophesy. Isaiah 53:3-7 is an example, among others of the prophesy.

The first chapter of John in the New testament, gives a good representation of what Christians believe about Christ.

To be saved (ie a Christian), is nothing more then the realization that man is born into sin, and the acceptance and acknowledgment of the free gift of eternal life(made possible because of Christ sacrifice on the Cross), that is offered to mankind, should they(exhibit their “free will”) except it. It is nothing more then Gods grace being demonstrated through mans faith.

If all of the above needs to be believed in order to be a Christian, then I guess I am not one.  Of course, for many reasons I think the above definition, although perhaps “orthodox”,  is incorrect.

Over on Ric Booth’s blog there is an interesting conversation taking place about a new organization that John Shore is spear-heading called ThruWAy Christians, particularly their controversial acceptance of gays and lesbians.   The stated goal of ThruWAy Christians is to provide moderate Christians with a new forum.  As it says on their website:  “If you find conservative Christianity too oppressive and exclusionary, and progressive Christianity too theologically tenuous, you’re probably a ThruWay Christian.”   Which means that, though I agree with much of the content of their founding document, my theology is much too “tenuous”  (something which I am sure the Conservative Christians could accuse the ThruWay people).

Surprisingly,  I don’t believe my theology is any weaker than theirs or any one else.  It’s different to be sure.  Maybe not as orthodox as they would like.  And like Christianity, it is evolving. But that doesn’t mean that it is “flimsy, insubstantial or lacking in strength”.  This is a charge that the orthodox have always levied at those who had the audacity to question theological authority.

The good folks over at ThruWAy Christian are not really challenging conservative Christian theological authority, though. They are only challenging the  conservative interpretations of certain scriptures that they believe lead to intolerant and mean spirited attitudes and behavior.  But I would suggest that the overarching theology that both the moderates and the conservatives still hold in common ( much of which has been condensed by the commenter from the WSJ blog and jives with the  first line of ThruWay’s creed )  is actually what drives this intolerance.  And has for centuries.

I ‘ve found that it is nearly impossible for Christian moderates to  engage Fundamentalists in any meaningful dialog that might result in a change of perception on the part of either, so  I’ve given up on it myself.  If this is the goal of the folks at ThruWAy, well then, have at it.  But  if they would be open-minded enough to engage some Christians whose convictions are not quite as solid, substantial or strong as theirs then perhaps they might find that ‘progressive’ is not such a bad word after all.

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Why the Right was against repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell”


Because that’s how they handle the issue of sexuality themselves.  Keep it in the closet. (The other closet, not that ‘prayer closet’ – which doesn’t get used much by today’s crop of budding theocrats.)

It’s ironic. Although conservative evangelicals (who are now the power base of the Republican party) claim to be the champions of morality, they have such a hard time living up to their own standards.  Sure, liberals have their share of fallen angels, but rarely does the left claim to be the standard bearer of morality. Yet it is common for the most strident of the ‘moral majority’ to find themselves in the public spotlight with their pants down,  sometimes quite literally.

Why do so many conservative, evangelical, Republicans expose themselves doing precisely the opposite of what they say others should be doing? Henry Hyde, Helen Chenowith, Mark Foley, Ted Haggard, Larry Craig, Bob Allen, David Vitters, Glenn Murphy Jr. – the list goes on. How many of these scandals have resulted in the outing of aggressive homophobes?  After years of rumors that he might be gay,  it looks as if  Lindsey Grahamw will soon find himself in the same predicament. What ‘s the deal?

A 1996  psychology experiment conducted at the University of Georgia found strong evidence that (at least among males) “homophobia is apparently associated with homosexual arousal that the homophobic individual is either unaware of or denies.” If this is true, and since most politically conservative evangelicals are  vigorously opposed to the ‘gay agenda’,  then it makes sense that a significant portion of these people might very well be closet homosexuals.  Of course, this is just speculation, yet it does hold up fairly well under the historical evidence.  But why would people who are confused (or in denial) about their sexuality gravitate towards the evangelical right-wing of the Republican party?

Is it because, having been forgiven for all their sins, both past and future, these closet homosexuals no longer feel the need to confront and conquer their inner “demons”?  That Jesus has already taken care of that for them? Yet eventually many of them will find out that their religion is not sufficient to facilitate lasting personal change (if this type of change is possible or even desirable).

A huge part of Christianity is the idea that we are all broken people who can be healed through the redemptive power of God, as revealed to us by Jesus. But that does not mean that we are somehow magically, perfectly, made ‘whole’ (i.e conforming to someone else’s orthodox world view) – that we are completely changed by God’s grace or the Holy Spirit or the love of Christ.  It doesn’t mean that we can let our guard down and expect prayer alone to obliterate years of habitual behavior.  Or obviate our personal natures.  Nor, apparently, will the threat of punishment, divine or otherwise, accomplish this.

I think a better guess might be found in the attraction they may have to the hard-line theology of neo-evangelism.  It’s as if,  though perhaps in denial, they suspect that they are ‘bad’ boys in the eyes of God and feel a need to be part of an ideology that embraces the clear-cut rules of stern father figures, from Yahweh to James Dobson.

‘We’ve decided the Bible is the word of God. We don’t have to have a General Assembly about what we believe. It’s written in the Bible. Alright, so we don’t have to debate what we think about homosexual activity. It’s written in the Bible.” -Ted Haggard

‘Some strong-willed children absolutely demand to be spanked, and their wishes should be granted. . . Two or three stinging strokes on the legs or buttocks with a switch are usually sufficient to emphasize the point, ‘You must obey me.’ ” – James Dobson

“Part of my life is so repugnant and dark, I’ve been warring against it all my life…the dirt I thought was gone would resurface … the darkness increased and dominated” -Ted Haggard

Christian fundamentalist parents, James Dobson included,  should know by now that children cannot be spanked into submission, not unless the goal is to create sadly warped versions of themselves.   Who has ever really benefited from this? What type of person is attracted to an intolerant,  domineering and violent task master? For many of these people violence comes to be associated with love.

“In Revelation, Jesus is a prize-fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed. That is the guy I can worship. I cannot worship the hippie, diaper, halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up” – Mark Driscoll

The threat of punishment, even the ultimate punishment of Hell,  apparently cannot compel people to change their natures beyond a superficial level.  It can, however, compel them to mimic the doctrinaire natures of their overlords, even to the point of absurd and shameful  hypocrisy.  Or develop an appetite for hate filled language, perhaps even violence.  History has provided us with an undeniable pattern.

“People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” – Nelson Mandela

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Judaism is to Christianity is to Islam as Blues is to Jazz is to Rock


In an article on the Veterans Today website, Dr. Ashraf Ezzat said some things that struck me as rather profound:

It is hard to imagine that after thousands of years of man’s pursuit of divinity we still worship not one GOD.  Human knowledge and experience have critically evolved throughout history. We don’t eat or read or think or even listen to music like in ancient times. Music has dramatically evolved from folk – prehistoric- music to large scale symphonies. But we still practice religion like in ancient times worshiping multiple deities with different names.

Music is the universal language of mankind, why can’t religion play the same role?

Let’s detach religion from the hate rhetoric and dirty politics. Let’s strip away the false appearances. Let’s liberate religion from the bounds of ignorance and extremism. Let’s delve into an era of enlightenment and coexistence amongst believers of different faiths and beliefs. Let’s agree that we could practice different religious rituals but that we glorify the same GOD.

Let’s not hate and kill each other over religion. Nobody’s GOD will like that. Nobody’s GOD could have decreed that.

Religion should be like music acting as a subtle form of communication which, at its best, transcends the limitations of language and ethnicity in unifying the people.

Which got me to thinking about other ways in which religions, particularly the Abrahamic faith traditions, are like music:

Though some dispute it, most believe that blues music predates jazz – that the blues initially spawned and influenced jazz but then they developed concurrently. Later rock and roll emerged, relying heavily on the blues and (less so) jazz.

Which seems analogous to how Christianity has its roots in Judaism while Islam incorporates elements of both pre-existing religions (though it leans more heavily upon the Hebrew scriptures than the New Testament).

When a musical form becomes the springboard for a new genre, it is in no way outdated, invalid or incomplete.  And just because it existed before the newer genres does not make it in any way superior. Though some people listen to only one kind of music, most people can appreciate many different styles. Even the die-hard head-banger can appreciate the elements of jazz, blues (and even classical music) that make up the DNA of rock’n’roll. (Just as the religions of the West and the East share the DNA of Zoroastrianism.)

Huston Smith, in his autobiography “Tales of Wonder”, tells us how he has for years ‘religiously’ practiced the spiritual traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam, yet ultimately identifies himself as a Christian:

“Of most things that happened to me, if they had not happened, I would still be the same person. Erase Christianity from my life, though, and you will have erased Huston Smith.”

I had a little trouble understanding this until Dr. Ezzat’s analogy stimulated my imagination and reminded me of a Neil McCoy concert I once was cajoled into attending ( consequently missing Buddy Guy’s performance at the Annapolis Blues Fest). I’m no great country music fan but I do like some of the older classic songs. Neil McCoy was good, but his music didn’t really turn me on, except for the “Hillbilly Rap” in which he spoofs Jed and Granny’s theme song in the style of an early rapper.

Just before that song he introduced the members of his band, each one showing off a little of their prowess with other musical styles: blues, jazz, heavy metal – they were all excellent. I have to assume that these fellows (like me) enjoy various types of music and that they (like Smith with religions) are virtuosos when it comes to their musical applications. Yet it is country western music that defines them,  just as Christianity defines Smith.

I think it is perfectly reasonable to understand, accept and celebrate other faith traditions while realizing that it is through only one of them that you most easily meet God. Sure, some elements of all the great religions are simply awful,  just as some music is played poorly ( and a lot of religion is practiced poorly) while a lot of music (and a lot of religion) is merely commercialized crap.   There must be a common muse that inspires all good music, just as there is a common spirit that inspires all good religion.  Obviously not all musical performers can find that muse, just as many religious people can’t seem to find that spirit.  A good part of it, though, is pretty good, even if not to everyone’s liking.

But what goes into making a religion good, anyway?  As with music, you’ll know it when you find it.

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