The Protestant Heresy

The theological tenets of Protestantism as a movement within Christianity are, for the most part, fairly orthodox. And while there is much room for debate, that is not my aim in writing this article. Nonetheless, there is something much more dangerous going on in this ‘Protestant’ movement. It is the danger of a forced division within an institution meant to be unified in love. The Church, from the very first centuries, was called ‘catholic’ for a reason. Ignatius of Antioch, in 107 A.D., first used the word in a letter he wrote to Christians in Smyrna on the way to his martyrdom. Catholicity: it is a sign of love for Christ and a sign of purpose in adversity. It is a unification which produces strength in contrast to the division that produces weakness.

We’ve replaced the word today, in the Protestant movement, with universal; it is a replacement brought forth by a reaction stemming from a 500 year old disagreement between Martin Luther and the Church.

But catholic means much more than universal. It means to be unified. While there is truth to the universality of the Church, it does not adequately do justice to what the Church is meant to be. It ignores the unification of Christians all over the world into one body with Christ as our leader. It subtly says that division is okay.

Division is not okay. Disagreements are okay. Conversation is okay. An argument is even okay every now and then. A willingness to listen to various theological ideas and respectfully, intelligently, and lovingly discuss them is okay. This would have been ideal for Martin Luther and the Reformers; they had legitimate concerns over the practices of their beloved Church. Nonetheless it is not what happened; division resulted. And division has been perpetuated. As a result, people are influenced to react against the word catholic in an association against Roman Catholicism.

They were called protesters. And the protesters embraced it. It was not what they were for that defined them; rather, in claiming the identity of Protestant, it was what they were against that defined them. It was a motivation of division.

Love, specifically the love of Christ, conquers division. Isn’t it time that we allowed our love to overcome an argument from half a millennium ago? Perhaps, on our path to seeking holiness, we can embrace our fellow Christians from around the world, and even those brothers and sisters who might think just a little bit differently theologically, in a true unified fashion. Maybe we can quit our ‘protesting’; by hanging on to this word – protestant – that is, in essence, what we are doing. We are clinging to a separation, a label with motivations that come out of objections, complaints, dissent, strife, disapproval, and even hate. We are embracing the negative over the positive. We are clutching onto a fear of perceived threats instead of welcoming a healing love.

This is not a Christ-like, holy love that encompasses healthy disagreements, fellowship within the body, and grace and forgiveness. It is a reaction. It is a word that states most clearly exactly what it is – a backlash and a division in the holy body of Christ.

Thankfully, the tradition of Christianity that I belong to, the Church of the Nazarene, recognizes that we are a part of the worldwide body of believers. I am grateful for that. We do not need to deny our Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Coptic, Syriac, Anglican, Lutheran, or, yes, even Calvinist, family in Christ. We do not need to push away Pope Francis or Patriarch Bartholomew or Archbishop Welby; they too are our Christian leaders.

Yet we still bind ourselves, slavishly, to that word, as if we are still in some sort of protest! Perhaps it is better to define ourselves first as Christian, then as Reformed, or Calvinist, or Wesleyan, or Arminian, or Baptist; that would be a step forward. Maybe we can finally embrace love for one another, and as a sign of that love, remove our protesting root as an identifier, this word that promotes the dangers of division and adds, as one of my seminary professors put it, “scar tissue” to the body of Christ. Division is not orthodox; it is not a characteristic of the kingdom of love that we are supposed to proclaim.

In true medieval fashion, and indicative of practices from the period of the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago, I may be burned at the stake for this article by some of my fellow protesters whom I still love. I will most likely be put on some sort of list as someone to be careful of. But these are chances I am willing to take. The healing of scar tissue is too important. The message of God’s love in a unified, worldwide, universal, catholic body of Christ is just too critical to be rendered ineffective by a heresy of division and protest.

Unlocking ‘Inception’ (and a reference to 1999)

“You need the simplest version of the idea in order for it to grow naturally in the subject’s mind.”

Eames states these words in a conversation with Cobb as the two discuss the idea of inception – successfully planting an idea in a subject’s mind.   The characters, played by Tom Hardy and Leonardo DiCaprio, respectively, unlock the key to Christopher Nolan’s 2010 movie, Inception, with this sentence.   The movie, unfortunately to some puzzling and not worth the time to figure out, is both complicated with its plot layers, yet at the same time more simple than we first realize.   Therein lies the beauty of the story.

In a way, it reminds me of the story of God and his creation: complicated layers of depth and meaning in its plot, yet very simple to understand in the theme that unlocks it.   But, just as in Inception, the simplicity needs the complexity and the complexity needs the simplicity in order to tell the story in the best way possible.   It is the only way to grasp the full and nuanced detail yet focused truth.

Granted, I finally saw the movie almost three years after it first came out; therefore this post might be a little late.   Oh well!   However, Inception is perhaps one of the best and most original stories out there.   The greatness of Inception is that the film does just that – inception – to the viewer’s mind, especially in light of the final scene.

There are two possibilities to explain the movie.   The first is that there was indeed a level of reality evidenced by Arthur, Ariadne, Eames, Saito, Yusuf, etc.   From this level of reality, the crew progressed into dreams in order to work in Fischer’s subconscious.   This understanding is more clear cut and easier to handle.   However, the problem with this idea is that, considered against the second possibility, this explanation renders the movie flat and without an extremely rich layer of storytelling, depth, and meaning.   If you are one who is happy and content with this idea, read no further.

The other possibility is that the only layer of reality was the relationship between Cobb and his wife, Mal.   Therefore, what we viewed throughout the entire movie was Cobb’s dream – a dream that ended up being at least five layers deep.   But here are the inevitable questions: why? and so what was the point of the movie then?   I point you to Eames’ words: “You need the simplest version of the idea in order for it to grow naturally in the subject’s mind.”   In a single word – inception.   The point of the movie: planting an idea in Cobbs’ mind. But even more masterful and genius in Nolan’s storytelling: planting an idea in the viewer’s mind.

In addition to other negative emotions from his wife’s death, Cobb was overcome by guilt, shame, anger, and depression.   Forgiveness – again, think of Eames’ statement – was being planted into Cobb’s mind so that healing could finally occur in his life.   The movie was not about Fischer and his father at all, but solely about Cobb’s healing.   This “simplest version of the idea” is present in the movie’s themes: forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing.

In the story of God and his creation, of which humanity is a critical part, there is a word that encompasses forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing.   It is the theme present throughout of all scripture.   It is both the “simplest version of the idea” and the key to unlocking scripture’s complexities and nuanced detail in order to find its focused truth.   This word is love.   More specifically, it is God’s love.   It is holy love.

The themes in Inception are demonstrated clearly with the forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing between Fischer and his father; however, this storyline is meant to illustrate and label these ideas so that we can apply them to what the story is actually about, Cobb’s overcoming of his own pain, anguish, and guilt.   Forgiveness and reconciliation are shown to Cobb – ‘incepted’ to Cobb if you will – so that he can finally see and apply these ideas as his own, and therefore be able to finally heal from his own trauma.

With this idea, the rest of the characters are projections of his own subconscious; his children, too, would be projections meant to symbolize the hope of healing in the story and the act of healing itself when he finally sees their faces.   It is a possibility that some of the characters, such as his father, could be the ones performing inception, though it is not critical to know who.    Moreover, the viewers see just how far his guilt is buried in his own being; he must go five layers deep in order to finally come face to face with his guilt and forgive himself. We also see the elaborate systems of protection that his subconscious has created in order to bury his source of pain, rather than confront it.

And while this understanding is a much richer understanding of both the complexity and simplicity of the story, the final scene is the pinnacle of Inception; the final scene is inception.   I asked myself – why would Nolan leave the end open in such a way that we do not know if the final scene was reality or a dream, with the top spinning in such a way where it could be either one?   The answer to this question shapes whether my first or second explanation is more plausible.

The answer is that it does not matter.   It is not supposed to matter.   Remember Eames’ words: “You need the simplest version of the idea in order for it to grow naturally in the subject’s mind.”   The simplest version of the idea is forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing.   Although in my second explanation they are revealed in a much deeper and more profound way, these are themes that are present in both understandings!   So whether the movie ends in a dream or reality, Nolan’s point hinges on neither – “the simplest version of the idea” remains the same.

Herein lies the brilliance of Inception, a movie, where similar to our dreams, we thought we were going to escape for a few hours: Nolan is able to perform inception on those who viewed the movie.   The viewers ask the question of whether it was a dream or reality, eventually coming to a conclusion on what really happened, while the “simplest idea” of forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing is planted within the viewers mind.

He quite literally spells out the answer to the last scene as soon as the movie is over.   Was it a dream or reality?   It does not matter; it is Inception.   It is incredible and genius storytelling.

However, the idea of inception existed long before Christopher Nolan was even born; it is an idea evident in God and his relationship to humanity, although not necessarily so subversive.   God gives us a choice in the matter.   Humanity was originally created to be together with God, operating in a perfect union with him and bound together in holy love to experience true life.   “The simplest version of the idea” was, and still is, love.   It was what gives people life, goodness, and an opportunity to participate in the kingdom and work of God.   In sinfulness and selfishness, though, humanity separated itself from a true understanding of life and love; as a result, we have death and all of its consequences.   We unfortunately see the effects of death all too often in our world.

But God is still there, calling to us everyday, attempting to plant a seed within us that there is something more to life than what appears on the surface; he is working to bring us back toward him.   For some, that seed takes hold and grows naturally; others might deny that seed.   But no matter who we are and whether or not we have denied the idea before, God is still calling to us with this “simplest version of the idea”: love.   It is up to us to accept it; in accepting it, we realize the forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing that Cobb experienced, but on a much deeper and cosmic level.   It does not matter how deep our guilt, shame, or depression is buried, or what walls we’ve built around it, God can and will break through if we allow him so that we may experience true life and love in God.   In communion with God, we return to the way we were created to be.

There was another movie released in 1999 which suggested ideas of a dreamworld and a harsh reality.   In The Matrix (yes – it’s already been 14 years!), when a person was unplugged, one realized the truth of what was happening; but the truth of reality was not as easy as living in the Matrix.   This may serve as a good warning to us: in choosing life in God, there will be times of difficulty when our faith will be stretched.   Christ warns us of this multiple times; nonetheless, there is truth, hope, and love in God.   We are no longer under the bondage and delusions that sin offers.   The truth is ultimately better than living in the Matrix.

God is calling us, each and every human being living on the planet, back to him.   His Spirit is planting seeds even in the most unknowing mind that might one day grow and mature.   God has extended grace to all the creation, evidenced by the work of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection; it is a reality offered to each one of us with life in God through the Spirit and Christ.   It is an opportunity for true life and love and an opportunity to begin to break free from the constraints of sin and death.

It was not only the first inception, but it is the continuing inception at work in all people.   I pray that this “simplest version of the idea” might begin to take hold in each of us today!

To give or not to give – how do we consider that question?

by Kelly Zwink

Money is not only a taboo subject among friends and family, but also in the church. When it is discussed, it is usually behind one’s back. Why? Could it be pride? Embarrassment? Privacy? Shame? There could be many reasons as to why money might be an uncomfortable subject; however I don’t believe it should be that way.

I worked as a missionary of sorts in college ministry for two different organizations. Both times I was responsible for fundraising my entire budget! I learned a lot during these times. I thought about my responsibility with money in a whole new way. Before my college ministry days, I never realized that so many missionaries had to raise their own support. They typically have to raise their entire budget, comprised of their salary as well as insurance and and various work and travel expenses. Also, the idea of regularly giving over and above church offerings was foreign to me.

I have come to believe that we as Christians should be intentional givers. If we truly desire to share Christ’s love and serve others, intentionally investing our money is one way we must do so. I like to use the word invest because, when we give, that is truly what we are doing. We are not only investing in things such as education, health, food, and shelter, depending on where you choose to give, but by giving out of love we are investing in the Kingdom of God.

Many times the problem is that we see the dollar amount first, but the need and opportunity to love and serve second. For example, in my area last week there was a vote for school budgets. My local school district’s budget, for the first time in a while and to the devastation of many students, did not pass. It wasn’t even close. It was mainly because the budget included a 10% tax increase.

That day the local news shared interviews of voters; I was quite shocked by the interviews of some who voted against the budget. I understand that this would have been quite a tax hike, and admit that I personally do not know all the ins and outs of how everything works within the budget. What shocked me was not that people voted no because of the tax hike. Rather, one woman said that she voted no because her kids were all in college now and no longer in the school district. Do the children currently in the district not deserve the same opportunity that her children had? Is community education education no longer her problem? What if her college aged children wanted to major in education and come back in the area to teach? Having several friends who went to school for education, I know that it is already close to impossible to find a teaching job in the area.

Another woman said she felt there were other ways to cut costs (which there could be, though I heard many of the budget issues were at a state, not local, level) and also stated “…maybe the district didn’t need as many administrators.” It shocked me that this woman so easily dismissed the value of others’ jobs. If these two women had said that they cared about the children and the school programs but felt the budget wasn’t fiscally responsible, I would have respected their decision to vote no. However, there was not a sense in either of these interviews that there was a desire for the children’s  best interests. It was all about the money. To me, this is an example where the dollar amount was seen first and the need second – if at all.

As Christians I believe we must look at the need and opportunity to serve and love first, and the dollar amount second. Does this mean we should give recklessly? Certainly not! While giving requires sacrifice, I do not mean to imply that we do not have other financial responsibilities, such as caring for our own families. Becoming an intentional and generous giver requires us to think carefully about how we spend our money. The best way to do this is by keeping a budget. I once heard one of my former supervisors say, “I feel more free in my spending because I have a budget.” After setting up my own budget about a year and a half ago, I completely agree.

Having a budget allows me to keep track of how much I have coming in and going out, whether for savings or regular expenses. I then know exactly how much I have left to spend. In my budget, I’ve incorporated regular giving to church and other organizations as well; I don’t have to worry about giving money I don’t have. Finally, after accounting for all of these things, I have an allotted spending amount for both needs and spontaneous giving. Keeping a budget can eliminate much of the stress and worry that giving and normal living expenses can bring if your financial situation is a bit ambiguous.

Setting up this budget was easy; I am the type of person who organizes for fun. I keep track of my budget in an excel spreadsheet with formulas. I fully understand that for many others that is not really an enjoyable task and even the idea of setting up a budget may be daunting. However, if we are truly to be good stewards and give generously, I believe it is necessary. If you feel that setting up a budget might be a struggle, then I would advise asking a friend or someone in your church for help.

As Americans we often carry a stigma against asking for help and think we should be able to figure out and do everything on our own. These things, plus money being a traditionally taboo topic, can hold us back from getting organized so that we are able to give when God calls us to do so. Besides, utter independence is just simply not how God created us. He created us to be in community with him and with others, with different strengths and talents to complement each other. Therefore, there should be no shame in asking others to help in this matter.

If you are not a currently an intentional giver, I challenge you to become one. God asks us to give all of ourselves for his work and his purposes, including our finances. I encourage you to begin by choosing a couple areas you are passionate about to invest in while being open to new opportunities to give that come your way. This may mean being more conscious of where our money goes, setting up a budget, and cutting back in some areas. If we truly desire to serve and love others and invest in the Kingdom of God, the time, effort, and money required in becoming an intentional giver is a worthwhile sacrifice.

*Kelly Zwink graduated from Dickinson College with a Bachelor of Arts, where she double majored in Italian Studies and Political Science, spending her junior year studying in Bologna, Italy. After working in college ministry for two years, abroad and in the US, she moved back home to Buffalo to begin a career in business and is currently pursuing her MBA. Kelly is a loyal Buffalo Bills and Sabres fan, and enjoys spending time with family and friends, food, singing, reading, exercising, cycling, and other outdoor activities.

A Lesson in Holiness: Father Emilio ‘Meelo’ Sandoz, S.J., Ph.D.

The story of Emilio Sandoz, the fictional Jesuit priest of Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, has a lesson to teach us about holiness.   Now, I have yet to read Children of God, the sequel to The Sparrow; regardless, I believe the lesson still stands.   And if you have not yet read The Sparrow, and whether you like science-fiction or not, it is an excellent book which will both challenge you and move you. I highly recommend this book!

In a previous post, At the Edge of Science and Theology: ‘Cosmic Speculative Theology‘, I wrote about the possibility of intelligent life on other planets and what that might mean for Christianity; Mary Doria Russell does a great job of exploring this concept in The Sparrow. Father Sandoz, along with a few friends, find life on the planet Rakhat in the Alpha Centauri system of our galaxy; he and a group of Jesuit missionaries are able to go to Rakhat. The reader experiences the positive of what holiness truly is – love for God and love for neighbor. And while these are not human beings, the Runa and Jana’ata are another species of God’s intelligent creatures; the Jesuits show them the great love that they deserve.

But in the negative of what holiness is – a lack of sin – we are forced to face perhaps our most difficult challenge in practicing the positive of what holiness is – love. I don’t mean ‘negative’ in a way that has a bad connotation; I mean ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ simply in terms of what holiness is and is not. It is just the plus side of thinking – love – and the minus side of thinking – not sinning.

Nonetheless, events happen on Rakhat which haunt Emilio to the point where he can barely speak of them. These events are so horrendous that they cause Emilio to struggle with overwhelming and crippling amounts of both shame and guilt.

When he returns to Earth, he becomes an outcast because of the public’s perception of what happened on Rakhat.

I belong to a denomination called The Church of the Nazarene, part of the Wesleyan-Arminian branch of protestant Christianity; we have a strong focus on holiness.   We discuss theological doctrines like ‘Christian Perfection’ and ‘Entire Sanctification’; these are the ideas that, through God’s power in the Son and the Spirit, we are filled with God’s love so much that it is as if there is no more for sin!   It is a sound doctrine, but there is a very strong focus on avoiding sin or even any perception of sin.

The great temptation and danger is to only think of holiness in terms of what it is not – not sinning – rather than what it is – fully living in God’s love! And when we only think in terms of what it is not, then we miss what it is!   Inevitably, we must ask: what will we do when we are confronted with sin, whether it is in ourselves or in another’s life?

If we see sin, or even the perception of sin, in another’s life, then distance and separate ourselves from the person and offer nothing but sharp words, we miss the opportunity to show and live the positive of what holiness is – love. If we run from our own sin within us and don’t deal with it in the right way, criticizing ourselves and becoming our own worst enemy, it can weigh us down to the point that we are crippled with overwhelming guilt and shame.

Either way, we forget three of God’s most basic qualities in holiness: grace, forgiveness, and compassion.   We lose sight of Matthew 6:12: “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

With news of the events on Rakhat, there was the idea among Earth’s people, and even many of Emilio’s colleagues in the Society of Jesus, that Emilio must have done something horrible and sinful. In the pursuit of holiness to the point of self-righteousness, there was little grace shown to Emilio. There was a strong initial tendency to focus on the negative of holiness – not sinning – rather than a demonstration of the positive of holiness – love.

We should always be willing to understand circumstances and do the right thing in the midst of a bad situation; this is being faithful to God. But it should not be to the point where we miss the opportunity to demonstrate love with grace, forgiveness, and compassion. To love, no matter what (and it really, really, REALLY means no matter what!), is our most basic obligation as Christians; it is what separates a true Christian from the rest of the world. In the pursuit of holiness, Christian perfection, and entire sanctification, a disposition towards love, to include grace, forgiveness, and compassion, is where we must lean to first.

Christ, our example in holiness, came to offer grace, forgiveness, and compassion to the demon-possessed man running wild, the woman at the well who had been already been with so many men, the woman accused of adultery and about to be stoned, the man who struggled to believe, and the tax collector who stole and cheated so many people out of money. Christ came to this world to offer grace, forgiveness, and compassion to even the criminals and the depraved hanging on the crosses next to him on Calvary.

Christ came to offer his love to the people that the fictional Emilio Sandoz represents – the misunderstood, the broken, and the ones struggling with crippling guilt and shame. And Christ came even to offer love to the people who would jump to conclusions and judgment about Emilio.

Christ came for you and for me. Christ came for the sinners.

Christ was beaten, suffered, and died.   He slowly and painfully suffocated to death while hanging on a cross in one of the world’s most barbaric forms of execution. He came so that through this atoning sacrifice, we, the sinners, might finally be reconciled to God.

Christ came so that you and I, absolutely broken people, yet still God’s loved and created beings, might have hope in true life and love of God through the risen, living Christ. Christ came so that you and I can learn and live the positive of what holiness really is – love.

Christ came so that you and I, in being a positive example of Christ’s holiness, can show God’s love to the depraved, the criminals, the adulterers, the demon-possessed, the thieves, the frauds, the unbelieving, and the liars.

Christ died for the ones who sinned against him, the ones who beat him, clamored for his crucifixion, sentenced him to death, nailed him to a cross, spit on him and mocked him as they watched him die so that – yes – even they could receive God’s love and be a part of Christ’s family.

As I mentioned before, perhaps our most difficult challenge in holiness is not necessarily practicing the negative – not sinning  – but practicing the positive – love.   Christ died for all; are we willing to show the type of love that Christ showed to all?

Father Emilio ‘Meelo’ Sandoz, S.J., Ph.D. offers us a challenging reminder to focus on what holiness is. And the lesson? With Christ as our example, and by the power of the Spirit of God working within us, the positive of what holiness is – love, to include grace, forgiveness, and compassion – is something that we must live out towards one another every day, no matter what, and no matter whom.

“He’s living on the inside, roaring like a lion.”

The relatively recent Newsboys single, “God’s Not Dead (Like a Lion)” has new meaning for me tonight.   The simple words of the chorus, “God’s not dead; he’s surely alive. He’s living on the inside, roaring like a lion,” have a deeply profound meaning for every single human being on this planet.

Tonight I had an amazing experience; I could even qualify it as a religious experience.   I want to give you fair warning though – once you learn the details of this experience, you may not think of it as amazing or religious at all, but fairly gruesome and morbid.   That is okay!   To each their own, right?   But I encourage you to continue reading anyway.

I have been finishing the Chaplain Basic Officer Leadership Course with the U.S. Army over the past several weeks (CH-BOLC Class 13-001 Hooah!); as part of our training we visited a local medical school and had the chance to look at, touch, and examine cadavers; these are people who have donated their deceased bodies to the school to be used for science.   We talked with medical professors and students, learning about all of the incredible systems of the human body.   But here is what you may think is morbid – I held a human brain in my hands.   I held a human heart.   I held a lung.   I held many other various parts of the body, like a leg and a stomach and a head.

I know – it may make some people queasy.   It may make you reading this right now queasy.   I was nervous that I might get queasy before I walked in to the room with the cadavers.

But I didn’t get queasy.   In fact, the entire time I was there, I could not help but think to myself that the human body is absolutely amazing.   It has extremely complex systems that all work together cohesively.   Muscles are interconnected all over the body.   The lungs, the heart, the airway, the esophagus, and who knows what other parts (I am by no means a medical doctor), were all packed tightly together inside the ribcage like pieces of well integrated and almost woven puzzle, protected by bones and muscle.   The stomach and other organs were right underneath it.

There is the spine protecting a sensitive power cord leading down the back, pulling and sending information from all over the body back and forth to the brain, all within fractions of fractions of fractions of milliseconds.   Then there is the brain, which doctors are constantly learning about more and more, which is basically a living computer more powerful and more complex than any other information system in the world.   Even inside the skull, it is protected by a “tough mother” (quite literally dura mater) which is perhaps some of the strongest material on the planet.

All of this, together, forms who we are as self-aware, living, breathing, moving, intelligent, creative, emotional, spiritual, and every other adjective that you could insert, human beings.

And as I listened to the doctors, professors, and medical students, I realized just how much of an absolute miracle the human body is.   Whether perfected by God over millions of years or created in a single day, there can be no argument that its creation was guided by the hand of a powerful, intelligent, and loving God.

But that is just a description of a lifeless human body being examined by students!   Somehow life itself once pulsed throughout that body.   Somehow that heart got its very own self-sustaining electrical current that makes it pump blood through the body every day.   Somehow that brain received a consciousness making the person aware of who they are and what they are doing in life.   Self-awareness and everything that comes with it – this characteristic is only true of the human being.   That simple fact makes us realize that there is something more to us; there is something to the idea that the human is possibly the culmination of the creation and that we have great responsibilities as that pinnacle being.

But what brought consciousness to us?   What made us aware of who we are?   What changed the human from a lifeless body in the dust to a living, breathing, moving, intelligent, emotional, spiritual, and every other adjective that you could insert, human being?   And what separated us from every other magnificent animal which is out there roaming the earth?

Genesis 2:7 gives us an answer: “…then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.”

God has breathed life into every single one of us.   Every human that has ever walked the ground, they have been alive and known who they were because of the breath of God, sustaining them in life.   God’s Spirit gives us life.   God’s Spirit, breathed into every single one of us, and whether we want to recognize it or deny it, is the only reason we are living, breathing, moving, intelligent, creative, emotional, spiritual, and every other adjective that you could insert, human beings.   God’s Spirit is the reason we are self-aware and the reason God has given us this great responsibility as the culmination of creation.   God’s Spirit is the reason why our hearts beat every day, pumping blood through our bodies so that we can walk, run, laugh, breathe, talk, write, play music, and just share life with one another.

God created us in his image.   It’s an image of God himself: love.   We are sustained in life and in love only by his Spirit.   Apart from his Spirit we are dying creatures.   In his Spirit, we learn to truly live as we were created to be.   This gives us a clue that to love one another is a critical element of life itself, an essential piece of understanding the meaning of life.

Unfortunately, each one of us will die.   It’s simply the result of the overwhelming amount of separation there is from God, our sustainer, in the world; there’s nothing we can do to stop ourselves from dying.   It’s just the way it is.

But I want to share some hope with you as you finish reading this short article: one day, at the end of this age, God will once again breathe life into our bodies.   We will be raised from the dead, and upon God examining the condition of our hearts, God will permit us to live in an eternal paradise of a new creation, free from any kind of death, and with Christ as our King.   God will draw our physical bodies together once again from whatever state of decay they may be in, whether they are buried in the ground, cremated into ashes, or even if they are cadavers donated to a medical school so students can learn and advance in scientific knowledge, and then God will breathe life into us once again.   We will awaken into true life with God.

Today, you are alive (duh, right?)!   God’s breath is in you right now!   God’s Spirit is in you, whether you accept it or whether you vehemently deny it; God is within you, causing your heart to beat, your brain to think, and your thoughts to consider these very words that I have written.   It is something to rejoice in!   It is something to truly be in awe of!   It is a reason to love others and love God with everything that you are!

So as I conclude my thoughts, I leave you once more with the words to the chorus of the recent Newsboys song:

“God’s not dead; he’s surely alive.
He’s living on the inside, roaring like a lion.”

Humid Forest Paths

I had the opportunity to share this message with the West Chester Church of the Nazarene this morning. I hope that as you read it, you will be challenged to be a “doer of the word.”
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“It was not too long ago that in the hot, humid countryside of Central America, there were two small children walking along a forest path. The path was half in the shade, half in the sun. By now, the little girl was almost beginning to wish that it would rain again, just to give them some relief from the hot temperatures and the humidity. As they walked, a snake warming itself on the sunny part of the path was disturbed by the two humans’ presence and it slithered back into the forest, not wanting to be bothered by the two small, thin human-shaped creatures.

“The two children had nothing. Well, they almost had nothing except for the clothes on their backs and the pants that they were wearing, but even those were pretty tattered by now. And it was not too long before that that those two children had just a couple pieces of fruit to eat and a piece of bread between them; but those little kids devoured those two sweet, delicious pieces of fruit, along with the semi-stale bread, almost the second they had received them from the poor man in the village they had been walking through.

“Somewhere, either in the village the two small children had already passed through or the village that they were coming up upon, the little girl thought for a moment that she could smell the aroma of coffee, similar to the aroma of coffee that her mother and father used to make before… well… before…. The little girl did not want to think about it. She looked at her brother and grabbed his hand. The two were alone now. Their mother was gone. And they had not seen their father in years. Their mother never talked about it, but the little boy, who was just a few years older than his sister, and who was just old enough to start realizing what was happening in the world around him, had figured out that it was not too long ago that there had been some sort of violence in the area where his village was. People from the outside, modern world, might call it a civil war, or maybe a drug war, or something similar and along those lines, but the little boy did not know about all of those things quite yet. He just knew that it was some kind of act of violence that taken his father away. But his mother, she was crying as she sent the two children away from their home. He did not know why or how, but deep down he knew that it would just be him and his sister, and somehow they had to make it in this world.

“That man in the previous village had been so nice; even the boy could tell that the man was poor and did not have much, but as the two little children passed by on the path through the small town in the hot humid weather, even the old man who wore such ragged clothes took pity on the boy and the girl, and just before taking a bite out of the delicious fruit himself, and out of the corner of his eye, he had seen the two kids walking, barely smiling and thin, as if they themselves had not had much food to eat either; and he knew within his heart that he could not eat his small meager lunch while these two kids had nothing. The boy took the fruit and the bread from the man who so graciously offered it, and he and his sister scarfed them up almost immediately. It had satisfied their hunger for now, but it would not be long before the two of them would be hungry again as they continued to walk on the hot, humid, forest path, half covered by shade and half engulfed by the blazing tropical sun.

“Again, the girl noticed the aroma of coffee in the air, reminding her of her mother who had been so long gone. She tried to think just how long it had been, but could not tell exactly. Had it been weeks? Had it been months already? She squeezed her brother’s hand even harder. By now the boy had noticed the smell of the coffee in the air as well, and it too brought back memories that had not totally slipped away through the dreary days on the mountain paths. He did not know exactly what would happen, but at least for the sake of his sister, this little boy would pretend that he knew that everything would be fine.

“By now, they saw the village where the smell of the coffee was coming from. A slight smile crept across both the faces of the boy and the girl, brought to them unconsciously by the memories that were almost unknowingly being brought to the very backs of their minds, though hunger was still on the fronts of their minds. A small house came into view behind the trees. It had already been many hours since they last ate that small meager meal of a couple pieces of fruit and a piece of semi-stale bread, and both of their stomachs were beginning to tighten in their yearning to satisfy their hungry diets. The boy looked at his sister and squeezed her hand, now smiling. The boy started to walk faster towards the direction of the house, his sister almost directly on his heels. “Surely,” he thought, “surely they will give us something to eat.” The two got closer and closer to the house, the smell of coffee permeating the air, and the smell of bread and fruit and roasting meat growing stronger. Through a window he saw a woman, and as he looked toward her, the woman looked up, and caught the eyes of the two small children that were coming in her direction.

“Immediately she began to frown and yell something at them. The boy had heard it so many times before. The door opened and the woman and another man came out, both of them still yelling something, motioning with their hands and pointing away from the house as they yelled at the two small kids. The smile disappeared from the boys face, he looked to the ground and began to turn around. Another similar feeling, a sinking feeling, was beginning to rise within his stomach, but that feeling of heartache, it combined with hunger just long enough to make him forget about his and his sister’s hunger as the sadness welled within him, forcing a tear to form in the boy’s eye. He looked at his sister; she knew what was happening, for there were already tears in her eyes. There would be no food tonight. They had already eaten their meal for the day and that would be it. The next priority for the boy would simply be to find a somewhat safe place for the two to sleep, just like they had done for so many other countless nights as they wandered from forest village to forest village in the humid countryside.”

At this point please open your Bibles to James 1:19-27.

James 1:19-27 (NRSV)

19 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger;
20 for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.
21 Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.
23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror;
24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.
25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act – they will be blessed in their doing.
26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.
27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unsustained by the world.

“It was at that point, that as the heat of the afternoon began to fade and the sun was just starting to make its descent in the hot, barren sky, and when the two children had walked a little bit further, that the boy saw another building; it was a somewhat vaguely familiar building, but it had been such a long time since the two kids had been in one like this, that they simply did not know what to expect if they were to knock on its door. The building was small and not fancy by any means, but to the outside wall it had a cross affixed to it. The boy and the girl did not know what to expect, but the boy realized that it may be their last hope for the evening. The two children thought to themselves that it would be so nice to not have to sleep outside anymore, but for just one night, be able to sleep under the shelter of a roof.

“And the two kids walked to the door of the small building with a cross affixed to the outside wall, the small boy holding the hand of his little sister, the two small children with rags for clothes who had barely eaten anything for days except for what the poor man gave them that morning. And the boy did not know if anyone would be inside or not, but he raised his hand, and knocked on the door of the church.”

Too often in the complicated and diverse branch of Christianity which we call Protestantism, a branch that we are a part of, we learn only half the picture. It is drilled into us (I’m speaking generally of Protestants now) that it is by faith alone which we are saved. That is certainly true; it is by a faith that responds to God’s abundant grace through which we enter into salvation, but that is just the beginning of the picture of this religion which we call Christianity. Salvation is entering into the kingdom of God; and now that we are part of the kingdom of God, salvation transforms into a vastly beautiful picture of love within the world. However it is a kingdom of love which we have entered into that demands action from its participants.

Sola fide; faith alone – the cause that Martin Luther championed almost exactly 500 years ago in response to the then corruption and abuses within the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. Again, there is no doubt in my mind that is truly by God’s grace and love alone that God would invite us to be part of his kingdom. Our response to that grace and love is to have faith in God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. We become one of God’s own through the work of Christ on the cross; we become, on both an individual and community basis as the Church, representatives of God’s kingdom of love to a world that is filled with desperate, hurting, hungry, and searching people. The Church is designed to be the earthly kingdom of God, comprised of you and me, and should be a bright light of active, holy, missional love on a hill, and a light visible for all the world to see, giving hope to all who need it as the world struggles in darkness.

That is a much richer concept of the full picture; it is a picture that compels those who are a part of this kingdom of holy love to act and do. It is a picture where salvation is the beginning of true life, and not necessarily the ends which we so often treat it as. It is a picture that is not simply content with merely hearing the word, but is only content with demonstrating this word of love to all people and all creation.

James challenges us, his fellow Christian brothers and sisters, we who claim to be a part of this kingdom which is based upon a foundation of an absolute, holy love that can only be found in both the Son of God and the Son of Humanity: Jesus Christ. James challenges us to not merely be hearers of the word, but be doers of the word. In fact, James says some challenging words in verses 22 through 24 which cannot be taken lightly: “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in the mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.” One who is only a hearer of the word forgets what the kingdom of God is like almost immediately; one can conclude that for someone who is only a hearer of the word and not a doer, their actions and their lives may not demonstrate who they claim to be.

There is power in this word – in what we call scripture. It is a power that brings us to life and gives the words on scripture’s pages application for our everyday lives; but it is a power given to it by God’s Holy Spirit, active and breathing this scripture to life every single day, both in the past and the present, and from now into eternity. And moreover, there is power in the Word, the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the incarnation of love and the incarnation of the ultimate message of this scripture: holy love. And by that power of holy love found in God and in scripture, there is power for our own lives to be changed. It is a change that is wrought in us so that we are no longer simply hearers of the word, but we become active doers of the word, living participants in the beautiful, loving kingdom of God. It is a change where we can become free from the bondage and death of sin, and become alive to the holy love that is so abundant within God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit.

James says in verses 19 through 21, “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” By the power of God’s Holy Spirit working within our lives, we can turn from evil and from sin; we can rid our lives of unrighteous anger. We can rid ourselves of the sordidness and rank growth of wickedness that is caused by sin. And we can be restored into the image of God – the image of holy love. By welcoming with meekness the implanted word, we can become “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.” We can become doers of the word and not merely hearers of the word.

There is a hurting world out there; it is a world that is in pain and oftentimes filled with people who simply do not know where they can turn to. Some of us may encounter that world today, for others of us it may be later this week, but we will encounter it; in fact, the Church is called by God to go out and encounter it. Even today some of us may be a part of that hurting world, and some of us may be desperately seeking that hope and love which is found in the kingdom of God and which should be so abundant in the Church.

Those two little children, that boy and that girl who were hungry, tired, weary, wearing ragged clothing, and who did not have a place to sleep, they do not have to be found walking on a humid mountain path in Central America. Those children can be found in the beautiful cities of Europe, in the deserts of Africa, in the rural farms of Asia, in the islands of the Caribbean, in the mountains of South America, and in the outback of Australia. Those two little children can be found wandering the streets of our own North American cities, even as the United States is one of the wealthiest nations in the history of our planet. Those two kids can be found in the rural towns of the midwest, suffering through poverty. Those two little children can be found in the homeless and hungry beggar who we encounter at the train station, and even in the man or woman that we pass by as we walk down the streets of West Chester, Pennsylvania. No matter where we go, there is hunger, there are people who barely have enough clothes, and there is poverty. Whether it is the widow or the orphan, there are people who are in need of a helping hand. There are people seeking both hope and love.

I ask of us – of this congregation, of our denomination, the Church of the Nazarene, and of the global, universal, catholic Church which we are a part of – do not let our religion be worthless as James warns us. I pray that each one of us may not only be hearers of the word, but doers of the word and active participants in God’s kingdom of love, who live by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit to not only effect changes within ourselves, but who go out and do the loving work of Jesus Christ which still needs to be done in our broken and hurting world.

As we leave here today and encounter those two small children in the world, what will be our response? Will we merely be hearers of the word with no change in our lives, deceiving ourselves, and rendering our religion worthless? Or will we be doers of the word, caring for orphans and widows in their distress, and keeping ourselves sustained not by the selfishness of the world, but by the loving kingdom of God, and inviting others into the presence of holy love? When we encounter the poor and hungry man or woman, and when we encounter the heart that is crying out in pain and simply asking for love, will we be doers of the word, helping those who are in need? Or will we merely be hearers of the word? When we see those who are being treated with injustice in the world, will we be doers of the word, standing up and demanding justice for those who cannot ask for it themselves? Or will we merely be hearers of the word? When we see those who are not being shown mercy, no matter who it is, will we be doers of the word, representatives of the kingdom of God, and ask for mercy on their behalf? Or will we merely be hearers of the word?

Will we be doers of the word and be a light for the kingdom of God? Or will we merely be hearers of the word, deceiving ourselves, and forgetting just exactly what the word is the moment we walk away?

When I think of our congregation at the West Chester Church of the Nazarene, I am encouraged. When I walk through our doors, I am confident that I will find a loving group of people. I see in this congregation a group of people who love God with everything that they are and who love each other with that same holy love. I see a group of people who are demonstrating this love to those two small children, those people who are in need. It is demonstrated with our goal to raise $1,000 for an Alabaster offering this month (a goal we can reach!), our continuing drive to bring goods in for the West Chester Food Cupboard, our food backpack drive last month for local school children, and our help with Safe Harbor in the recent months.

Let this passage be a reminder to us to not ever give up on being doers of the word; allow these words to remind us to not ever give up on being a people who act on the faith and the grace by which we enter salvation. Let us not forget the whole, beautiful picture that is the kingdom of God and the fulfilling gospel of Jesus Christ. Allow James’ words to be an encouragement to never be content with merely hearing the word. Let this passage remind us of the power of the Holy Spirit to work in our lives, ridding ourselves of any sordidness or rank growth of wickedness, and continuing to transform us in holiness and love for others.

“When those two hungry and tired children knocked upon the door of that small church building, seeking help in their hour of need after walking all day on a hot and humid forest path, the door opened. We, the people of the Church, answered, giving food and shelter and demonstrating the love of God to both the little boy and his sister.”

Do not ever be content in being merely a hearer of the word, but live welcoming with meekness the power of the word and the power of God to change our lives, continually caring for the orphans and the widows, and all others who are in need.

Not even Batman wanted to kill people….

Do not worry! There are no spoilers for The Dark Knight Rises in this post. And while the most recent Christopher Nolan Batman movies are just that – movies (still with plenty of violence, although thankfully not as gratuitous as other movies) – perhaps Bruce Wayne and his alter-ego Batman are a better example of a Christian attitude toward violence than we may first realize. I am not claiming he is the best example, but he may be a more suited (ha…get it?) example than we might initially give him credit for. In the United States, we live in a culture and society that is seeking more entertainment through violence (perhaps that violence has flowed over into our attitudes, where it seems that most cannot even hold a respectful conversation anymore). Wondering if this is true? Look at how well the first movie of The Hunger Games did in theaters. The ironic thing is that I am not so sure most people understood one of the points of that story was that having an actual “Hunger Games” is not a good thing.

Concerning physical violence in our entertainment, it is a dangerous and slippery road. Do we have long before people within the United States try to sanction games similar to that of the “Hunger Games” or of Rome and the Coliseum, where gladiators fought to the death, and people were slaughtered for the entertainment of the citizens? These were not fictional people that died; actual human beings died, killed without mercy. Life disappeared from the earth and was destroyed for the amusement of the masses. One may say, “We recognize the sanctity of life, no matter who it is, so surely it wouldn’t happen.” But then the lines get blurred all too quickly when someday a producer, in the pursuit of making money after people have been desensitized to the fictional violence that is portrayed in the movies, comes up with the idea to have a “Survivor”-like game where convicted criminals must fight to their death. Will you then still say, “We recognize the sanctity of life, no matter who it is?” With the speed society is moving today, I am afraid that the day we return to the gladiatorial death games of the Roman Coliseum may be sooner than we think. I hope I am wrong in that assumption; I hope that day never returns.

In Batman Begins, when the criminal is presented to face his death at the hands of Bruce Wayne in the training center of the “League of Shadows,” which was perhaps, in the perspective of the world’s eye-for-an-eye lex talionis version of justice, rightly deserved, Bruce Wayne refused to kill the man. His words were, “I’m no executioner.” In The Dark Knight, not even Batman let the Joker fall to his death. In The Dark Knight Rises, not even Batman…. (That’s right, I said no spoilers.)

As representatives of the Church, we must learn to be sincere in saying, “We do not need to tolerate a culture of violence anymore, no matter where it is or what it looks like or whom the violence is directed towards. Instead we, as the Church, will take seriously Christ’s commandment to show love to all.”

The true test of love is whether we can have an attitude of love toward those we disagree with, do not like, or even those who are considered enemies. Yes, I just wrote the word enemies. In American culture, it is incredibly difficult to show Godly, life-giving and life-upholding love towards enemies; having an attitude of Christian love does not mean the destruction of their lives. Enough blood has been shed in this world through people’s selfish manipulations of truth. Life anywhere in the world is a gift of God, and one would think that a Christian would learn to respect that. Stanley Hauerwas, the Christian ethicist, said a statement along the lines of “There is nothing worth killing for, but there are things worth dying for.”

Christians are not called to represent the world’s justice of lex talionis, but we are called to represent the kingdom of God through the revelation of Jesus Christ. Primarily we are called to love our neighbors and enemies; that love includes demonstrating peace. However, that peace and love for an enemy may come at a price, and that price may be our own lives. It is a difficult call Christ has given us; this is perhaps the most singularly difficult and challenging aspect of the gospel – to be ready to give one’s life, even for an enemy, in the pursuit of demonstrating God’s love. We are called to show love, and even when death may be the imminent cost of that love, we are nevertheless still called to be faithful to God’s message. Selflessness, not selfishness, regarding our own lives, is something we must be prepared for. There is no room for unrepentant selfishness in the kingdom of God; let that be a gut-check for us all.

The good news is that even death is not the end nor in vain when it happens in love, but that there is a resurrection that will come in a newly restored creation; ultimately love will conquer evil, even though we may not see it today.

Many times it may appear that evil does conquer love; remember, God calls us to be faithful to the message of love for all, no matter what the circumstances are. I urge you – do not give up hope. However, I do want to share one instance where we have seen the results of love conquering evil, although that love came at the cost of death. Many of you may already be familiar with this true story; I highly recommend reading Through Gates of Splendor by Elisabeth Elliot and End of the Spear by Steve Saint.

In 1955, five missionaries sought to bring the word of God to a notoriously violent indigenous tribe in the Amazon. In fact, according to the accounts of many of the indigenous people themselves, this group was on the verge of killing themselves into extinction. Nate Saint, Roger Youderian, Ed McCully, Pete Fleming, and Jim Elliot finally made contact with this group; in January 1956, all five of these men were killed by the people they sought to demonstrate love to. But even with a rifle in the missionaries’ airplane to use for food, it was never used for self-defense. These men had one goal – to demonstrate Christ’s love. They had no desire to kill anyone; the cost was their lives. Their act was selfless; they were faithful to God’s message of love to the very end.

Yet despite the evil that took place, love overcame. Because of their family’s strong love, a love which was faithful to Christ’s call to love even an enemy, their families were able to forgive the people who had killed these five men. They ended up fulfilling Nate’s, Roger’s, Ed’s, Pete’s, and Jim’s call to minister to this group, living with the Auca tribe, and changing their attitudes from hate, violence, and vengeance, to Godly love. Lives were changed and evil was overcome by holy love. There was no eye-for-an-eye lex talionis justice here, only mercy, forgiveness, and love. Love prevailed; and in the face of evil and violence, the only thing that will ever overcome these horrors and change lives is love.

Christ died for those who sinned against God; Christ even died for his enemies, the people sinning against him. To love someone, even an enemy, to the point of death – is that not the same love that Christ asks of us in John 15:12: This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you? Forget Bruce Wayne and Batman for a moment, let us look to Christ as our model! So I ask us, as Christians in the United States, what has happened to that most basic call to love one another, to love our enemies and the people we disagree with? Please prove me wrong that it has not entirely disappeared.

Perhaps it is not physical violence, but maybe it is an attitude of violence and a language of hate that is present in our lives. In response to the recent comments made by the head of Chick-Fil-A, there has been ugly hate speech spewed out by both sides, whether one agrees or disagrees with what the man said regarding marriage. Where is, at a minimum, the attitude of loving conversation in our society? Whether we agree or disagree with someone, does not the least person simply deserve to be treated with love, whether in your eyes that person happens to be the head of Chick-Fil-A or the openly gay man or woman down the street?

Attitudes of anger, hate, and violence are horribly rampant in Congress and politics today; where is the attitude of loving conversation? Have we forgotten how to show a simple love and respect to someone, whether we agree with someone’s politics or not?

Violence, whether it is in our actions, our words, or our attitudes, is not the way of Christ; love is the way of Christ. Destruction of life and violent attitudes are not things we should simply accept; if our on-screen, fictional hero of Batman did not even want to kill people, why are we so quick to condone the destruction of life, whether in entertainment or in reality, and even if that violence may simply be the hate and anger that seems to be running so unbridled through society today?

Instead, be the Church of love that God has called us to be.