July 24

Jesus and the Sword

In the Gospels, Jesus continually promotes nonviolence, loving our enemies, making peace, and turning the other cheek.  But does He allow for self-defense?

Let me back up a moment and consider Matthew 10:34:

 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

A handful of Evangelical Christians have tried to convince me that this verse means Christians will need to take up arms to defend the faith.  I haven’t found that borne out in any of Christ’s other teachings, nor do the various Biblical commentaries support that view.  Matthew Henry’s Commentary says,

Our Lord warned his disciples to prepare for persecution. They were to avoid all things which gave advantage to their enemies, all meddling with worldly or political concerns, all appearance of evil or selfishness, and all underhand measures. Christ foretold troubles, not only that the troubles might not be a surprise, but that they might confirm their faith. He tells them what they should suffer, and from whom. Thus Christ has dealt fairly and faithfully with us, in telling us the worst we can meet with in his service; and he would have us deal so with ourselves, in sitting down and counting the cost.

But even this view is outnumbered.  The majority of commentators suggest that “the sword” refers to the influence of evil over men, who will then argue about the true message of Jesus’s teachings in the short term, while peace will indeed be the eventual result of Jesus’s reign.

In any case, the seems little support for the idea that this verse prepares us to take up arms.  Rather, it seems to be warning that, despite Jesus’s teaching, people will take up arms.

On the subject of self defense, we have Luke 22:36:

He said to them, “But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one…”

This Jesus says at the Last Supper, as He prepared to send the Apostles out into the world without Him.  On the surface, He does seem to be warning them that they will need a weapon suitable for self-defense.

However, this truck me as inconsistent with Jesus’s words as he is arrested.  One of the Disciples strikes the chief priest with a sword and cuts off his ear.  (Luke 22:50 doesn’t say which one, but John 18:10 says it was Simon Peter.)  Jesus rebukes the disciple and heals the priest’s ear.  The he rebukes the priests for coming armed, clearly implying that Jesus would have gone with them without being forced and that weapons were unnecessary.

Earlier, Jesus told the Disciples,

Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

The inconsistency between this instruction and the arrest on the one hand, with the instruction at the Last Supper on the other, bothered me.  There doesn’t seem to be much room for an argument in favor of self-defense.

Then it occured to me: “The one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag,” and if he has no sword he must sell his cloak and buy one.  But Jesus explicitly instructed his Disciples.

[T]o take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts… (and Luke adds, “no extra shirt.”  Mark 6:8, Luke 9:3)

So a man with a purse would need all those things, but the Disciples had no purses and therefore did not need these things.

It’s also clear that Jesus had no intention of using violence to avoid arrest or violence or even death.  And He called his followers to do as He did.  “Follow Me” is the second most common instruction in the Gospels, after “Love.”  Or, as Paul puts it, “Imitate Him.”

Many commentators argue that the word “sword” in the passage is symbolic, and means the same as its use in Matthew 10:34, meaning that dangerous times are coming and the Disciples should spiritually prepare themselves.  That’s possible.  But to me, it seems that Jesus is reminding His disciples that if they had possessions, they would need luggage and protection, but they are specifically instructed not to have possessions.

As John would later write,

Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world;  for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world.  And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever.

With that as a mission, who needs self defense?

July 19

I Met Rosa Parks on the Bus

I spent a lot of time in Sri Lanka between 1993 and 2007.  It was a nation at war, which pitted the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) against the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL).  The LTTE claimed it wanted a separate homeland for the Tamil people.  In reality, it just wanted to control the Tamils.  The GOSL claimed it wanted to make peace with the Tamil people.  In reality, they mostly just wished the Tamils would go away.

Tamils, especially those in the east which had many cultural differences from the LTTE strongholds in the north, were caught in the middle with no one to turn to.

Fighting was fierce in the East for many years.  In 1998, the government announced it had taken control of Batticaloa District, and I decided to make a trip to this city that had never been safe before.

As it turns out, it wasn’t safe in 1998, either.  The government lied about the extent of its control.  In fact, it controlled three quarters of the city, and it controlled the major roads during daylight hours.  The countryside was still firmly in the grip of LTTE control.  But I didn’t know that until I got there.

My first challenge was to figure out how to get there.  No one knew.  Few in the Sinhalese parts of the country had any interest in going.

I took a bus from the Pettah market in Colombo to Mahiyangana, about two-thirds of the distance.  The Mahiyangana bus was late, and I missed the connection to Ampara and had to spend the night.  Mahiyangana looked like a cowboy town, South Asian style.  The streets were dusty, and the buildings were made of wood and not very sturdy.  Police, troops, and others not in uniform roamed the streets with guns.  And, despite the strong Muslim and Tamil (Hindu) presence, a Buddhist temple at the center of town blasted Buddhist chants through a loudspeaker at an ear-splitting volume.

I caught the morning bus, which left two hours late.  But I had no idea the journey I was in for.  As we approached the Eastern Province, we started passing through checkpoints.  At each checkpoint, everyone on the bus had to get off, pass through security, answer questions, and reboard the bus.  Meanwhile, soldiers with AK-47 machine guns searched the bus for anything suspicious.  We passed through a total of ten checkpoints.  There were no stops between most of the checkpoints, so no one had gotten off or on since the last one.  The same people got interviewed and the same luggage got searched ten times!  Lucky for me, because I was a foreigner, after the third stop they told me I didn’t have to get off the bus at the checkpoints anymore.

Most Tamils do not speak Sinhalese, and most Sinhalese, including the soldiers, do not speak Tamil.  All communication occurred through the bus conductor, a Tamil who also spoke Sinhalese.  I never learned Tamil, but I could follow his Sinhalese explanations.

Two seats in front of me sat a young Tamil woman, probably in her late twenties.  The soldiers payed her extra attention, perhaps because she was good looking.  I had learned from their questioning that the woman was a nurse at the government hospital in Batticaloa who had been to Colombo for training and was now returning home.

At the sixth checkpoint, something happened.  I stayed behind as the passengers got off the bus.  So did the nurse.

The soldiers with their AK-47s boarded the bus to search the luggage for the sixth time.  They looked at me and nodded.  Then they looked at the nurse.

“Why is she not getting down off the bus?” one asked the conductor.

The conductor translated the question for the nurse, and then translated her answer for the soldiers.

“She says she’s tired,” he said, “and she’s done getting down off  the bus.”

I held my breath.  Here was a Tamil woman defying two armed soldiers at a security checkpoint in a country where people, especially Tamils, disappear regularly.

The one soldier looked at the other.  They paused.  Then they shrugged and began searching the luggage.

I could not believe what I had just witnessed.  The nurse had defied authority and won.

She didn’t get off the bus at any of the remaining checkpoints.

I continued on to Batticaloa.  The city is located on an island, and in those days only one bridge was open for access.  We passed under a concrete emplacement bristling with weapons as we crossed it.  I found my hosts and spent the next three days meeting people.  I met a Sinhalese woman who had left her family and learned Tamil so she could counsel families of the missing and disappeared.  I sat with her as a Tamil woman brought in a medical report on her husband, who had been severely tortured while in custody.  I met a man who had been kidnapped by the LTTE and held for ransom.  I met an American priest who had spent decades in the area, and who served the people fearlessly ignoring both combatant parties.  And I met kids who had lost legs, arms, and eyes from grenades, landmines, and booby traps.  One, a fourteen-year-old boy, had two primitive rubber hands.  When I asked him what his plans for the future were, he smiled a huge smile and told me, “I’m training to become a tailor!”

My trip to Batticaloa left indelible images in my mind.  But one of the most poignant is of a young woman who refused to get off the bus because she was tired.

July 17

Hospitality: The Cure for Violence

Our guest pastor today made a bold statement.  She called the recent attacks of violence in our country and around the world striking examples of the failure to provide hospitality.

I wrinkled my brow when I heard it.  She’d been discussing Lydia (Acts 16) and her offer to have Paul and his companions stay at her house.  How, I wondered, does that prevent violence?

Then I realized: Too often, violence here at home is committed by lone gunmen who are social outcasts.  Too often, violence against us from overseas comes from miserably poor people whose countries we have manipulated away from democracy.  We have not been a hospitable people to those who most need it.

Last night, I was talking to friend who served in the Army.  I asked him, “Do we have any enemies today that we didn’t create ourselves?”

He thought for a long moment.

“I can’t think of any,” he said.

Is that too harsh?  I don’t think so.  Let’s take Iran, for example.  In 1951, Mohammed Mossadegh became prime minister, promising many pro-poor reforms in a nation in which nearly all wealth had previously gone to the royal family.  In 1953, when Mossadegh tried to renegotiate oil prices with BP, the CIA overthrew the government and installed the Shah.  Thirty years of oppression followed.  And many Iranians judged the U.S. to be hypocritical for claiming to support self-determination, but denying it to Iran.

We still claim to support self-determination.  Yet we also wonder why Iran hates us so much.

Then there’s Iraq.  Ohio State University describes U.S. relations with that country 1965-1979 in dismal terms:

U.S. leaders showed little support for democracy in Iraq or the advancement of its people, eschewing any such liberal political goals on behalf of the primary objective of keeping Iraq free of communism.

Following the brutal seizure of power by Saddam Hussein in 1979, the U.S. began (in 1982) to support Saddam because he opposed Iran.  Arms and aid flowed freely.  George H.W. Bush blatantly ignored Saddam’s gross human rights violations as he courted Iraq’s loyalty prior to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.  A U.S. call to Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslims to rebel against Saddam received no support, and the rebellion was put down brutally, strengthening Saddam’s position.

Following George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2001, the official policy of the U.S. government was that nation-building was not part of the strategy.  As a result, post-Saddam Iraq fell into chaos and violence.  It wasn’t until 2008 that Bush changed his opinion and admitted that a policy of spontaneous democracy wasn’t working.

Here we have a nation whose people we had ignored or betrayed, whose dictator we supported, and in which we allowed chaos to rule for seven years.  Is it coincidence that it was during this period of chaos, in this nation whose people we so badly failed, that ISIS emerged with virulent anti-American views?

Here is something I learned in Sri Lanka.  People who are desperate, who cannot support their own families, and who see no hope, will do anything to ensure that their children survive.  The vast majority of soldiers in Sri Lanka came from the extremely poor areas of the deep south where development was lacking, and which had largely been ignored by the government.  And the vast majority of LTTE cadres and suicide bombers were from extremely poor villages of the northern jungles which had likewise been ignored by the government.  Hopelessness leads to desperation, and those who promote violence prey on desperation.  Note well that Velupillai Prabhakaran, head of the LTTE, never blew himself up.  He found desperate people to do it for him.  The same is true for Osama bin Laden and Al Queda, and Abu Akr al-Baghdadi of ISIS.

There are studies showing that poverty does not cause terrorism.  But many experts agree that poverty is an undeniable factor, even if statistics don’t agree.  Probably this is because there are so many desperately poor people, nearly half the world’s population, who are not terrorists.  It takes a particular combination of desperation, anger, and motivation to cause someone to become a terrorist, and that combination is (thankfully) not universal.

Not all desperately poor people are terrorists, but most terrorists are desperately poor people.

Similarly, not all loners commit mass shootings, but most mass shooters are loners.

Do you see the connection yet?

If we want to stop terrorism, we need to give people hope to replace desperation.

If we want to stop mass killings, we need to reach out to the loners so they are no longer alone.

There’s not much we can do individually to change our government’s foreign policy from supporting dictators, no matter how friendly, to spending that money to help the people who need it.  I wish I could suggest voting for a certain candidate, but both of the two major candidates are likely to continue the current policy.  Just last week, Trump praised Saddam Hussein and said we should have kept him in power.  Truth really is stranger than fiction.  Meanwhile, Clinton’s hawkish nature stems, according to one aide, from “a textbook view of American exceptionalism” that the New York Times describes as far to the right of most Democrats. Both candidates will likely pursue policies that are ultimately detrimental to our national security.  They will create even more enemies.

But there’s a great deal we can do individually here at home.  We can become a hospitable people.  We can invite the newcomers and the loners into our home for a meal and a chat.  We can do it more than once.  We can look for common ground, and empathize with their struggles.  And when they say things that we disagree with, and they will, we can treat them with understanding and compassion.

That’s a tall order.  But how far would you go to stop the violence?

July 14

Excerpt: Benji’s Portal

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Benji’s Portal tells the story of an ten-year-old boy who discovers a portal that allows him to travel anywhere in the universe.  Benji Haight and his family recently moved from the city to a small town, and Benji isn’t fitting in well at his school.  The kids tease him on the bus, and his only friend is another social outcast who lives nearby.

Benji’s life changes when he discovers an old homestead behind their house.  The homestead includes a well, and when Benji looks into it, a mass of swirling stars rises from it.

“So tell me about your day!” Dad suggested,

“Yes, tell him about the kids on the bus,” his mother prompted.

“Okay,” Benji said, reluctantly.  “These kids were teasing me about my name.  They were chanting, ‘We hate Haight.’  But it was only about a dozen of the older kids, so I just ignored them.  Then at school, I kicked a double at kickball, and Tommy said I was really good at kickball!”

“That’s wonderful,” his dad said.  “What else did you do today?”

“I went tiger hunting,” Benji began.  “Then I found a pond, and I was hunting alligators.  I found an old fireplace, where people used to cook alligators.  Then I found an old bottle, and I was going to bring it back to show you, but I forgot because of the stars.”

“The stars?” his mom asked.

“Yeah!” Benji continued, excitedly.  “There was a well near the pond, and it was full of water.  And I looked into the water and all these stars came up from the bottom.  They looked like the Milky Way, and they were just swirling right there in front of me!  It was really cool.”

“Hmm,” his dad said.  “And this happened while you were hunting alligators?”

“Well, yes,” Benji said.  “I mean, I was pretending to hunt alligators.  Everyone knows there aren’t any alligators around here.  Or tigers either.”

“But there were stars in this well?” his dad asked.

“Yes, Dad,” Benji confirmed.  “I can show you if you want.  I’d like to take you there.”

Benji’s mom gave his dad a knowing look, and then turned to Benji.

“You know, Benji,” she said, “wells can be dangerous.  If you were to fall in, you would drown.  I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to go back there without one of us with you.”

“Mom,” Benji protested, “I’m not going to fall in.  Besides, even if I did, which I won’t, I can swim, remember?”

“But no one would know where you were,” she said.  “We wouldn’t be able to come help you.”

“Your mom is right,” his dad said.  “It’s best that you stay away from that well.  Maybe one day you can take me there and show me what it looks like.  But until then, play somewhere else, okay?”

“Okay,” Benji said, sadly.  “I’ll stay away from the well.”

Of course, Benji doesn’t stay away.  He soon discovers that the well is a portal, and that he’s the only one he knows who can operate it.  Thus begins as series of adventures on alien worlds.  But the old homestead also has ties to their family that none of them yet realizes.  Benji’s ancestors were driven out of town because the residents feared they were witches.  And they’re pretty sure that Benji and his family are witches, too.

Benji’s Portal is available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle editions.

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July 14

The Value of Eye Contact

In our electronic, virtual world we tend to respond to text and images, not body language. In doing so, we’ve lost an important part of communication, and I would argue that’s one reason we’re so divided. As an illustration, I offer an excerpt from my book, This Thing of Darkness.  It’s a fictionalized account, but this exchange really happened.

In 1999, I was a member of a team that went to the “border region” of Sri Lanka, the no-man’s-land between the Government and the LTTE.  The LTTE had begun a major push south, and refugees were coming down from villages as the LTTE reached them.  We went to look these villagers in the eye, hear their stories, and thereby better understand what this meant for them and the country.

These villages are incredibly poor.  Buildings consist of two- or three-room mud huts with thatched roofs.  The villagers had left their homes, and were housed in schools that had been shut down to accommodate them.  Because the book is a fictionalized account, I have modified the first excerpt to better fit what actually happened.

The [man] tells us [through a translator] of the LTTE’s effort to expel the Sinhalese in this area from their ancestral lands.

“We have been here for generations,” he says. “They drove us out once, but we came back. We will never again leave.”

“If they drive us from here, we have nowhere else to live,” [adds another], in animated Sinhala which [our guide] duly translates. “Where can we go?  Into the sea?”

Several other villagers tell stories similar to what we have already heard: they were forced from their ancestral home some years ago as refugees, they returned, and they will never leave again.

Then something happened that would change our entire view of the situation.

I hear a low voice call to me.


Not Sinhala, “Mahataya,” but English: “Sir.”

I look to my right and see an old woman, perhaps seventy years of age. She is dressed in white, the color of a widow. I nod to her.

Amma,” I acknowledge, just as softly. The word means “mother,” and is a respectful way to address an older woman.

“May I speak with you?” she asks, politely, gesturing for me to follow her off the street.

“Of course,” I reply…  “How do you know English?” I ask her.

She grins, ruefully.

“I learned in school,” she explains. “Before they stopped teaching it.”

“I hear,” the woman says in a soft voice, “they tell you stories about ancestral lands. I want you to know the truth.

“These people, my village, we lived in Kandy District in the central mountains. But the government came and told us we had to move. They built a dam, a very large dam, and soon our village and many others would be under the water. They sent us here, and they told us we would keep these lands forever.

“Most of these people were children then. They remember the old village, they remember the journey, but they grew up here. They remember, too, that their parents told them what the government said: that these would be our lands forever.”

“Why are you telling me this?” I ask.

“’One who breaks the eternal law of truth, there is no evil that one cannot do,’” she quotes. “This is the teaching of the Buddha.”

I consider her words.

“Tell me about your life here,” I ask.

“We came here because they told us to,” she says. “We tried to live as we lived in the old village. But the rains here are not the same. We had much to learn. Some groups helped us, some charity organizations. I was ashamed to accept help, but I had children to feed.”

I notice that a man of perhaps forty has stopped [to listen]. He’s trying to be inconspicuous, but he’s obviously eavesdropping.

“Then the LTTE came,” the woman continues. “They told us we could stay, if we followed their rules. Each family gave one child to them. We paid our taxes. We followed their rules and accepted their judgments. They were fair with us, even though we were not Tamil.”

“Sinhalese children got drafted into the LTTE?” I repeat, incredulous.

“They need soldiers,” she says. “They do not care what language they speak. And many of us have learned some Tamil living here. Some have married Tamils.”

“The government came and told us we could not cooperate anymore with the LTTE,” she explains. “The man said, if we cooperate, we are terrorists and we will die. So we stopped paying taxes, and we stopped giving children for soldiers.

“Then the LTTE sent us a message: Leave, or we will hit you.”

“A message?  How?” I ask.

“A piece of paper,” she says. “They wrote on it: Leave, or we will hit you.”

“They signed it?” I ask.

“No, but we knew,” she says. “They did the same to other villages. Some left. Some didn’t. The villages that didn’t leave are gone now.”

The man at the corner suddenly takes two steps closer

Boru kiyanne epa!” he shouts at the old woman.

It is a phrase I know well: “Don’t tell stories.”

The old woman responds with a deluge of Sinhala. All I can make out is the word boru, which means either stories or lies, which she says often and gestures at him.

The younger man makes a dismissive gesture and walks off.

“I must go,” the old woman says. “They do not want you to know the truth.”

“Thank you,” I say, and bow slightly.

If we had not gone to this place and spoken directly to these people, if we had for example read these accounts on FaceBook, it would have been easy to dismiss one or the other of the differing accounts as fictional and therefore irrelevant.  But we looked into these people’s eyes as they told us their stories.

I believe the old woman’s account to be true, and this changed our understanding of the war and the LTTE.

Does that make the villagers’ accounts false?  Yes, and no.  Clearly, if the old woman is correct, the accounts of the other villagers is factually incorrect.

But when you look into their eyes and see their desperation, when you realize that they’ve been kicked off their land twice already, when you see that they literally have nothing but the clothes on their back and they are terrified, then it becomes clear why they’ve adopted their narrative.  They want to feel that they have a right to something in a world where they have nothing.  They long for stability, and their narrative gives them the illusion that they once had it.  Above all, they seek some level of power in a conflict in which they are absolutely powerless.

Does that make their narrative more true?  Obviously not factually.  But it does promote a level of understanding that one could never get from reading a book or following a website.  And this understanding is not just about these people themselves, but about those they have interacted with, both government and rebel, and about the nature of the conflict itself.

If you want to understand someone, look into their eyes.  You can’t do that on FaceBook, or by text, or even on the phone.  Our virtual world has brought many advantages.  But it has also caused division between us, because we have lost an essential element of communication.

Without eye contact, we cannot really understand.

When we read something on FaceBook that makes your blood boil, we can lash out, or even unfriend them.  Or we can sit down with that person and talk about it.  We may not ever agree with them, but we may realize that the reason for their belief is NOT because they are “stupid.”  People with strong beliefs generally have a powerful reason for them, and understanding that reason can mean the difference between conflict and compromise.


This Thing of Darkness is available in paperback and Kindle editions here.

July 13

Praise for Steve’s Grace

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Steve’s Grace has received its first two reviews on Amazon.  Both are 5-star.

One reader writes:

This is the story of a flawed character in a flawed world, trying to come to terms with the depth of his own failures. It is the story of one man’s search for redemption. Does he find it? We’ll leave that for you to decide…

This is a good read. It’s engaging, well-paced, and incredibly thought-provoking. Some books entertain and then fade away; some books stick with you long afterwards and make you think. This is one of the latter. Are there parts that made me uncomfortable? Yes. Were there situations and decisions that made me cringe? Absolutely!

Could I put it down? Nope.

Another says:

I couldn’t put this down. A very inspiring story. It really made me do some soul searching. I highly recommend reading this book!

Thank you both for your praise, and for taking the time to post a review!

Steve’s Grace is free on Kindle through Friday

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July 12

Two Masters

As I continue to seek my path to serve God, I am faced with this question: How do I balance the needs of the world with service to God?  Can I serve two masters?

So far as I can tell by my reading of the Gospels, Jesus had no worldly occupation.  Tradition suggests that he’d been trained as a carpenter by Joseph, his step-father.  But the Gospels don’t say he traveled across the Holy Land building houses.  It appears that he relied for sustenance on his followers and on friendly strangers.

I suspect that was easier in those days and in that culture.  There was no health insurance, no car payment, and no mortgage.  You had what you owned.  There was little debt.  Winters were mild.  People were more likely to feed a traveling stranger on the road.  (I remember my first mother-in-law, who was Jewish, frequently citing the maxim, “Feed a cold, feed a fever.”  The Jews were and are all about feeding people.)

I met an old woman in Sri Lanka who earned about $15 each month, and gave half of it away to those in need.  But her housing was free, her food was supplied, and free health insurance was provided to all residents by the government.  (Yes, even some third world nations have national health care.  Yet we’re told it’s not practical in the U.S.)

My culture taught me to believe that you grow up to get a good job, buy a house on credit, get some credit cards, and live the “good life” while working extra hours to try to pay down debts that rise more quickly than they can be paid. You pay for home insurance and car insurance to protect against any accidents or “acts of God.”  You pay for health insurance to cover any medical bills.  Although these days, you’re more likely to pay for health insurance that doesn’t cover most of your medical bills.

There’s a reason for this cultural teaching, just as there was a reason for the cultural teaching in the time of Jesus.  In those days, cultural survival depended on feeding each other.  Our cultural survival depends on an economy that requires us to spend more than we make.  Non-participation is not just discouraged, it’s been made nearly impossible.

It’s an insidious economic doctrine.  It makes the rich richer while keeping the poor at a minimum level and slowly draining the middle class.  It works to get us to think in terms of money and success, not betterment of society.  And for many people, it crowds out all other concerns.  We become empty, depressed, and angry.  Violence increases, yet we think only about controlling the weapons of violence and not its causes– if we think about it at all.  Drug addiction and suicide increase, and we think about controlling the means, if we think about it at all.  The people of our nation are suffering.  But we don’t think about it, because we’re suffering, too.  Our reason for existing is to pay the bills of an unfulfilling life, and that’s not much of a reason.

With so much suffering, if ever there was a time to serve God, it is now.  But how does a person serve God and not the economy?  To follow Jesus, must one give up everything and live on the streets, as He did?

There are people situated such that they can work a 30 or 40 hour week, earn enough money to pay their bills, and have time left over for both family and service to others.  But in today’s economy, these are a tiny minority.  More often, both one- and two-parent families have at least two jobs just to squeak by.

Of course, there are levels of “squeaking by.”  Do we really need a new(ish) car, cable TV, internet, a health club membership, new clothes, a microwave oven, and all the other trappings of American life we’re told we should have?  How many toys does my two-year-old need?  In my own case, I have jettisoned TV and the health club.  I drive a beat-up, 11-year-old Hyundai with over 170,000 miles on it.  I generally do not buy new clothes until I’m forced to.  And my internet costs $15 per month.  My recent move cut fuel expenses for my car from $500 a month to $80.  But rent is expensive, and at the moment I can’t afford health insurance.  I have a stack of medical bills totaling well over $20,000.

What is a God-seeking person to do?

If you were expecting an answer, I don’t have one.  But I do have the question, and it’s worth pondering.  In an environment of economic and cultural despair, how does one serve God?  Is it possible to serve two masters?

As I said, I don’t have the answer.  But I haven’t given up trying to find one.

July 10

Steve’s Grace: Excerpt

BookCoverPreview (1) front

Steve’s Grace tells the story of a distinctly nonreligious man and his path back to faith.  He doesn’t plan to become religious.  But then, he doesn’t plan to lose four days in a blackout in Las Vegas, either.  Stranded and broke, burdened with shame and guilt, and certain he’s about to lose everything important to him, he winders whether he’s been too quick to dismiss God.

I’m already a day late getting home, and I’m sicker than I can ever remember being. My chest feels like there’s an elephant sitting on it.

I don’t know when I showered last. I probably reek of sex. I know I stink of sweat. And, with no money, I don’t see how I can clean up before I get home and face Susan.

I wonder how much longer I will have a family.

I cough again, a hacking death rattle that lasts for more than a minute.

I wonder if I am dying. Have I killed myself with this latest debauch?

I wonder if Vanessa is out running up my credit card, and how I will explain that to Susan. I should call Susan and have her cancel it.

But I can’t. In my compromised state of mind, I don’t dare even hint at the truth of what’s happened for fear that Susan will read whole story from my voice.

I unzip my bag and stare at the Bible sitting there. I can’t believe I have it. I’ve never owned a Bible, and have never read the Bible. I have never possessed one any longer than necessary to remove it from a hotel room and deposit it in a trash can.

Yet there it sits, like a hot coal in my bag that I’m afraid to touch. Will it burn me for all the disrespect I’ve shown it over the years?

I pick it up, and it does not burn me. I feel the gold inlay of the cover, as if reading it in Braille. I flip it open at random, and find myself reading Psalm 119:

My soul melteth for heaviness: strengthen thou me according unto thy word. Remove from me the way of lying: and grant me thy law graciously. I have chosen the way of truth: thy judgments have I laid before me.

The way of lying, I think to myself. Is there any way out of that for me? After what I’ve done these past few days, how can I possibly be honest?

I can’t even call my wife and ask her to cancel my credit card!

But here’s the real kicker. I’ve been berating myself because, one way or another, my wife is going to find out. I’ve been berating myself not for what I did, but for not lying well enough.

“Oh, shit,” I murmur, as I begin to realize how selfish my thinking has been.

I flip to another page, and find myself reading Isaiah:

Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.

I slam the book shut, close my eyes, and lean my head back, holding the book in my hands on the table. Is it possible that God forgives even the worst sinner? Is it possible that there is a way out for someone like me?

“I can give you a ride,” says a gravelly female voice.

In my present state, she sounds to me like an angel, and my eyes flick open.

She doesn’t look much like an angel. Fiftyish and overweight, her mousey-gray hair is pulled back in a pony tail. She smiles, revealing bad teeth that have seen too many years of smoking.

Still, I smile.

“Seriously?” I ask.

“Yep,” she says. “I’m headed for Long Beach.”

“That’s closer than here,” I observe.

She gazes at me appraisingly.

“You don’t have any money, do you,” she says.

I hang my head.

“No,” I admit. “It was a bad, bad weekend.”

She reaches in her pocket and pulls out a wad of bills. She peels off a few and hands them to me.

“Go take a shower,” she says. “Pay at the cashier, and they’ll give you a ticket. I’ll be right here in the food court when you’re done.”

I stare at her for a moment before taking the money.

“Thank you,” I say, gratefully.

“Oh, I’m not doing his for you,” she says, and chuckles. “We’re going to have five hours together in the truck cab. I’m doing this for me.”

Of course, the path to faith is rarely quite that simple. Steve’s doubt runs deep, and so does his denial. He’s quick to rationalize the events in Vegas as “not that bad.”

But as his memories begin to return, he realizes they were indeed that bad, and worse. He’s committed an unforgivable sin, something he never thought himself capable of. Unable to deny the horror of his actions, his brain shuts down, and Steve enters into a period of psychosis.

As he gradually heals, he explores what it means to follow God. But sometimes, the line between faith and insanity is not quite clear.

Steve’s Grace is available from Amazon in paperback or Kindle.

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July 9

We Are Babylon

And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo anymore, cargo of gold, silver, jewels and pearls, fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet, all kinds of scented wood, all articles of ivory, all articles of costly wood, bronze, iron, and marble, cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, olive oil, choice flour and wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, slaves—and human lives. (Revelation 18:11-13)

Babylon.  The most luxurious nation on earth.  Every one of us benefits from the free market juggernaut, the control of oil fields by friendly dictators, and the expansion of American franchises into nearly every corner of the globe, sending a steady stream of money to our economy here at home.

Do I want to live in a less privileged nation?  I do not.  No matter my protests, no matter my awareness, I am of Babylon and I shall suffer its eventual fate.

No one expects that fate to come too quickly.  Yes, the financial system almost crashed a few years ago.  Yes, the value of the dollar has plummeted thanks to inflation caused by deficit spending.  Yes, droughts, fires, and floods have ravaged farms and communities across the country.  Yes, climate change has dried out lakes and even eliminated winter for some people, making me wonder if the prophecies of Joel aren’t already upon us.

But we’re still okay for a while, right? (Ordinary World)

I wrote these words four years ago.  After Ordinary World was published, I wondered whether I’d been too dramatic, comparing the U.S. with Revelation’s land of idolatry, corruption, and conspicuous wealth.  I no longer have these doubts.  Our nation is run by the wealthiest people in the world, the heads of mega-corporations who purchase influence in our supposed republic.  Christian values of helping the poor, welcoming the refugee, and loving our neighbor have been replaced with self-centeredness, xenophobia, and the worship of wealth.  Trye community has been replaced with FaceBook and false dialog that does little if anything to promote understanding.  When confronted with mass violence, we no longer ask, “What could make people do this and what can we do about it?”  Instead, we dismiss their suffering and talk about controlling their access to weapons.

Perhaps it’s a coincidence that we’ve had five neo-liberal presidents, beginning with Ronald Reagan, which seem to correspond with the five fallen kings of Revelation 17:10.  And that the presumptive favorite, Hillary Clinton, is yet another neo-liberal, and one who supports military action all over the world.  Revelation predicts one more “king” after this one, and then the Beast.  And it predicts that Babylon will burn.

But it’s not speculation to observe that we have sold our well-being for the short-term gain of a few.  Our spending on prisons has grown three times faster than our spending on schools.  The wealthiest Americans now have a greater share of this nation’s wealth than at any time since the Great Depression.  “Soft money” campaign contributions to presidential candidates ballooned from $105 million in 1992 to $2 billion in 2012.  That’s a 20-fold increase!  Meanwhile, our national debt now stands at more than six times our national income from taxes.  That’s like earning $50,000 a year and having to make payments on $300,000 in credit card debt.

We have ransomed our future.  And we’ve done it at the expense of the middle class and the poor.

Does this warrant a religious judgement?  Consider the words of Isaiah:

Ah, you who join house to house,
    who add field to field,
until there is room for no one but you,
    and you are left to live alone
    in the midst of the land!
The Lord of hosts has sworn in my hearing:
Surely many houses shall be desolate,
    large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant. (Isaiah 5:8-9)

Or Deuteronomy 23:15-16:

You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. He shall live with you in your midst, in the place which he shall choose in one of your towns where it pleases him; you shall not mistreat him.

Or Matthew 25:35:

For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in…

Or, more frighteningly, Matthew 25:45-46:

Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’  And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

As a nation, we have turned our back on our values.  We are destroying ourselves.  And we are making plenty of enemies in the process, both within and without.

For those who see this, is there an alternative?  Can we be more than a voice in the wilderness?

Because, let’s face it: most of us are not leaving.  We are of Babylon, and we will suffer its fate.