Tag Archives: Christianity

Message of Peace

Yesterday, the Pope handed President Trump signed copies of two of his messages, one on climate change and one entitled “Nonviolence – A Style of Politics for Peace.” The President responded, “We’ll be reading them.”

Let’s hope.  The latter is the most Christ-like assessment of the violence in our world I’ve read. And I am convinced, the only true solution. Read it, and imagine what would happen if President Trump took it to heart. Imagine if the man who many times said, “I would bomb the hell out of ISIS,” and , “we gotta knock the shit out of these people,” and “when you get these terrorist, you have to take out their families,” had a sudden and complete conversion to Christ’s way of peace. It would be almost too much for the world to handle.

If the President made nonviolence his politics, who would support him? There is no shortage of people looking for ways to remove Trump from office. Unfortunately, I think nothing would do it faster than if he became President Peace, and asked us to “love our enemies.” Some of his biggest critics would be American Christians. If you ask around, many church goers think that Jesus’s command to turn the other cheek is misunderstood, unrealistic, or dangerous. I’ve heard many religious folks try to explain that Jesus didn’t really mean that. What they are really saying is that reactive violence is stronger than the love of God.

But what if it’s the other way around? What if reactive violence is the lie, and only leads to more violence?

Olive Branch

Photo by Julie Gibbons CC

 

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Billy and Patty

By Jared St. Martin Brown

Back when I lived in Arizona, I used to go on a lot of solitary hikes and camping trips. It was my way of taking full advantage of my time in the desert. It fit right in to the narrative I had already created for myself years ago. As a young man, I was going to wander in the wilderness, sit in dry river beds and meditate, observe the way of the mule deer, climb mountains, and sing to God while freezing in my own sweat. I did all of that and more. I ran my hands over the petroglyphs on canyon walls, ate prickly pear, and followed every lizard and bark scorpion back to its home. When coyotes yelped at night, I was in the moment, and I wrote haikus about it. It was who I wanted to be then.  My spirit animal was Jack Kerouac.

Just about any weekend that wasn’t booked with work, college, or church was spent in the wilderness. I didn’t need a girlfriend then. I was dating Mother Earth. And if career and family never happened for me, I was going to be a beady-eyed prophet somewhere between John the Baptist and Japhy Ryder from The Dharma Bums. This is why I had no problem making myself scarce for a few days, when my housemates needed to be alone.

Josh and Joyce were husband and wife. Once upon a time, we were all single Air Force people. They met in base chapel Bible study, and were married soon after. At some point, they bought a house and I rented a room from them. This particular week, Josh was on his way home from Saudi Arabia, and he and Joyce were basically still newlyweds. I think in their first year of marriage, the USAF had let them spend a mere three months together, and not all in a row. So although they hadn’t asked me directly, I figured it was only right to give them some time to catch up, free from me, their crazy tenant.

“Tell Josh I said hi,” I told Joyce as I packed up my rusty old sports car full of camp gear and extra water. “I will be back in a couple three days. I don’t have class until Wednesday night.” Then I took off alone, straight into the hills from the backside of Surprise, AZ, speeding all the way. The destination was the forest of Oak Creek Canyon, about 160 miles away. I slowed down briefly for Wickenburg, and then it was back to full speed through Congress and Peeples Valley.

The car was my first ever. I had paid cash for it. It was a 1985 Nissan 300ZX, a fine car in its day, but now it was the year 2000 and I, being penniless, was behind on maintenance. I was doing around 90 miles per hour in the desert heat of June, and guess what happened. That’s right. A radiator hose exploded. There was a devilish cloud of steam and the window was painted with translucent green anti-freeze. A few seconds later, the engine stopped all by itself. That’s not a good feeling. I managed to roll the car up on to the shoulder, after a check under the hood, it was confirmed that I’d be walking.

Screenshot 2016-05-25 08.34.38

Photo: Google Maps, Street View: Click Here

I took a long look up and down the road, and thought, WWJD? What Would Jack Do? I pulled my camping gear out of the hatch back, threw it on and headed north. My plan was to hitchhike or walk to Wilhoit, which was still a ways off. One thing people from the east coast do not understand is just how wide open the spaces really still are in the west. Even here in West Virginia, if you break down, and you don’t have cell phone reception, the nearest town is only about 5 miles away in either direction. Some village is going to have a gas station with a phone you can use. Out west, though, you can still be truly far from civilization, and on some roads, you can go long time without seeing another car.

Several minutes later, one car passed by. It was a woman in a mini-van and she didn’t stop. I don’t blame her. It seemed like a full five minutes before the noise of her vehicle was out of range. It’s a lonely, anxious sound. As hers faded, another became audible. This one had muffler problems.

They stopped. Even Jack Kerouac didn’t have this luck. Picked up by the second car!

A white-bearded man stuck his head out of the passer window. “Holy shit! What happened, man?”

“Car broke down. The radiator hose blew up.”

“I’m a pretty decent mechanic. I’ll meet you back down at your car and we’ll get this taken care of.”

“Thanks, man!” I said, just as another car zipped between us, missing me by a foot or so.

The man leaned farther out the window. “Fuckin’ asshole! He almost hit you!” The woman in the driver’s seat added, “Some of these people are fuckin’ assholes.”

The two settled back into their car. It was a four door yellow Subaru of some kind with rust patches on the outside, and duct tape repairs on the inside. “My name’s Billy, and this is my wife Patty. See you down at your car.”

The two got out and helped me push my car a little further onto the shoulder, planting two wheels in a shallow ditch. “Billy can fix anything,” Patty said. And soon as Billy opened the hood, I could tell he knew exactly what he was doing.

“This hose right here is pretty common. We can probably get that at a gas station up the road. I need a Philips and a flathead.” Patty handed him all of that, and can of beer. “You want one?”

“No. In the hopes that I will be driving later, I don’t think I should drink.”

Billy laughed. “I understand.”
We got the hose off, and jump into the Subaru. I squeezed in next to giant white dog who was stretched across the back seat. “Get out of the way, Savannah!” Patty shouted, “Let him sit down!” The dog didn’t respond. “Just push her out of the way. She’s nice.”

“What kind of dog is she?”

“Siberian husky. She just had puppies, too. They’re in the trunk.”

I could feel them squirming around through the seat cushion behind my back. A couple of them yelped when reclined, so I leaned forward instead.

Billy had noticed a stack of books in the passenger seat of my car. “What are studying?” I told him I wanted to be an English teacher. “English! That’s MY major, too!” In the course of that discussion, I mentioned the G.I. Bill, which was met with a resounding cry of joy, “And you’re a vet too, huh!” We had hit it off, but I got the feeling that Billy could hit it off with anyone. He was amazingly friendly; abnormal in his readiness to accept others. Patty was the same way.

We pulled in to the gravel lot of a convenience store in Wihoit. There was an old man sitting outside at a picnic table under what may have been the only real tree for miles. He was thin, gnarled old man with a beard even longer than Billy’s. He sat looking beat, staring at the ground. Patty said, “You go in with Jared. I’ll sit and talk to this old dude.”

The store had no hoses, but I picked up a jug of antifreeze just in case. Billy said to the cashier, “Hey Mike, this young veteran broke down out here. Where can we get a hose?”

“Gibbon’s down in Peeples Valley would have it.”

“Would he be open?”

“Yes.”

Back outside we stood around and talked with Patty and the old man for a while. “My name’s Ted,” he said smiling. His mouth had about three teeth, all black. I wondered what a man like that could eat.

Normally, I would have been impatient to have a conversation under a tree with Ted, while my car was stuck in the desert. But today I didn’t care. From the time Billy had picked me up, I had this deep feeling that this was all organized by God. Or maybe, I was in Billy and Patty’s world now. And in their world, people like Ted matter. They had that in common with God.

Billy opened the trunk to put away the antifreeze, and insider were seven puppies, some brown, some white. Some were asleep on a piece of carpet. A couple were snuggled up in the mesh that held the back of the seat together. One was awake and walking around. “That’s Lobo.”

There was a box of pink Franzia wine in there. “How is that?” I asked.

“Great. Hold on.” Billy ran back into the store and came out with a large Styrofoam cup. He opened a cooler, which was also in the trunk, scooped out some crushed ice, then he filled it to the brim with wine. “Here. It’s just wine,” he said, meaning that I shouldn’t worry about driving, like I did before with the beer.

I laugh at myself over this now. The young me had a moral dilemma at that moment. Would it hurt my witness as a Christian to drink this wine now? All of the old folks in my old church growing up would have said “yes.” I came from a community where alcohol was always a sin, even though Jesus has been called “the best wine maker in Galilee.” Should I take the wine? Will it destroy my witness? The question was absurd, because I wasn’t ministering to Billy. He was ministering to me. He was the Good Samaritan. Not me. And he wanted to give me a cup of wine.

With gratitude, I took it and nothing had ever tasted so good. The Arizona sun has a way of making cold liquid especially delicious. Sometimes it’s so hot that cool water tastes sweeter than a chocolate milkshake. It was just what I needed. Finally, I loosened up and began to converse freely. They had treated me like an old friend from the very beginning, but it was only now that I meeting them with same warmth. I was moving past my fear of strangers, my pride, and my long list of social hang ups. Certainly, the wine helped, but I was just caught up in noticing how open and accepting these people were. I got a little choked up even then to think that Jesus was this friendly and helpful.

I wouldn’t have figured Billy for a Christian- he cursed, he dipped Skoal, he smoked, and he was drinking beer non-stop- but he was more of a Christian than most Christians. I would imagine Christ having more in common with Billy than with me at the time. If I’d seen Billy and Patty broken down somewhere, would I have stopped?

We headed to Peeples Valley, about 15 miles south, talking about dogs and military life. I told him about my housemates’ basset hounds who’d just had nine puppies, and they were the same age as Savannah’s. Billy said, he was going to keep all the puppies and turn them into a dog sled team up in Alaska. That was the first time I had ever heard the word “Iditarod.”

Billy also said he was an airborne infantryman during Vietnam, but he never saw combat because he came in right at the end of the war. I explained that I had a National Service medal from the Persian Gulf War for the same reason. I was still in basic when the war ended. He said I should join the American Legion, and that it was a very helpful organization to him, mostly because they’ll give you $20 cash, no questions asked, if you’re in a jam.

Patty, Billy, and the dogs were from Washington State, but they travel around now from place to place. They sort of lived in their car or at campsites. They were staying at one right now on a road Indian Run. “Is it hard to live like that?”

“Sometimes,” said Billy, “But not harder than living in Phoenix and commuting to the office everyday.” If it had been anyone else, I would have guessed that he was telling me what I wanted to hear. But not this guy. He wasn’t the type.

We came to Peeples Valley, but we didn’t see Gibbon’s Gas Station. There was only the MountainAire Mini-Mart where I had bought many a bottle of root beer in the past. No hoses. “Well, let’s go to the next place,” Billy said.

We drove 5 more miles to Yarnell to find that everything had already closed. We knocked on the door of a house next to a mechanic’s garage hoping he was home, but he wasn’t. We were about to just head back to my car empty handed when Patty saw a sign for the American Legion Post 79. She yelled, “Score!”

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Photo: Google Maps, Street View: Click Here

I had no idea why that was good, but I soon found out. There were cars parked all around the place, so it was full. Something was going on. Billy and Patty marched right in. The inside was like a bar, and there were a couple dozen people in their fifties and sixties playing cars, and smoking. Billy boldly circulated through the room telling everyone that, “This young veteran needs a radiator hose.”

One woman went out to her truck and came back with two radiator hoses. One was just like mine but a couple inches longer. “God bless you! That’ll work,” said Billy. I thanked the woman and her husband, and offered to pay, but they wouldn’t have it. They told me come to an American Legion dinner one day.

My friends were just as excited as I was. We piled in the car and headed back. As we passed the MountainAire, I asked Billy if I could fill up his tank. Shyly, he said he’d rather have the money.

Back at my car, Billy got another beer and went to work. At some point, a State Trooper or a County Sherriff’s Deputy (I don’t remember which) pulled up next to us, rolled down the widow and said, “What’s going on here? Is everything okay?” I could see that Billy was nervous, so I answered, “Yeh, we got it, sir. These guys are helping me fix my car.” The officer, no kidding, scowled, forced a half-grin and slowly drove on.

After a half hour of struggling in the evening heat, we got the new hose on and filled the radiator. “If this don’t work,” he said, ”we’ll try something else. That’s how you have to do things.”

The car started. Patty and Billy followed me to the general store in Wilhoit, just to make sure it was all okay. They parked under that shade tree, and I parked by the store. There was an outdoor faucet, and as we washed the grease and dirt off our hands, I noticed the scrapes and abrasions on Billy’s. Some were fresh from working on my car. Others were older scabs. I gave him some Neosporin and my last $20 bill. I would have given him all my money, but I only had $20 cash. I had a bank card, though. “Do you need anything?”

“I’m out of beer,” he said.

“Well come on.” In the store, Billy tried to pick out the cheapest six-pack of crap beer, but I talked him into the twelve-pack of what he liked most. So he got Budwiezer. He cracked one open, and leaned against his car in the shade outside. He was so appreciative of the little things I’d just given him, but I kept reminding him that I’d be stuck in the middle of the desert if it wasn’t for him and Patty. A tow truck on a Sunday evening would have been crazy expensive, and I don’t know if there is a hotel in Wilhoit. Billy gave all the credit to his wife for finding the American Legion and the woman who had given me the hose. It was as if he didn’t expect anything back for helping me. He considered the beer a bonus.

“Well if we didn’t get your car fixed, we were just going to invite you to stay at our camp site,” said Patty.

“We have fun. I like to howl at the moon once in a while,” said Billy.

“You can still camp with us anyway,” added Patty.

“I think he wants to be alone. He wants to read and camp alone. That’s why he left the city.” I was amazed that Billy understood that with no explanation from me.

We stood talking a while longer. They said I reminded them of their son David- same age, same build, same beard, same disposition. He liked the orange shirt I was wearing, and said he would trade me a piece of petrified wood for it. I was happy to make the trade, even though it was one of my Burrito Brothers Flying Youth Camp shirts, which have sentimental value. I would have given him anything at that point.

An old Mexican man, a cowboy from Wilhoit, came over and offered to buy a puppy. Billy declined even though he could easily get $100 or $200 for a dog. “They’re a team. My dogsled team for Alaska.” They spoke in Spanish for while, with Billy explaining all of the places he’d been to in Mexico. “Shit!” said the old man, switching to English. “But you no want to sell dog?”

“You can’t sell a dog,” Billy replied politely.

I don’t remember how much longer I stayed around. Enough to notice that Billy and Patty looked angelic in that Kerouacian way. Gray, wrinkled and weathered, they were earthy in appearance but ethereal in manner.

We parted on the best of terms. Billy said, “Me and Patty say that something good always happens on our last beer. And when I was helping you fix your car, that was my last beer. Something good did happen.”

Ted was still there in the parking lot, and when I was about to drive away, he asked me for a ride. “Just to the top of the hill,” he said, “The cops are always giving me trouble.” As we were leaving, the policeman from before pulled in to the General Store, and looked over to see me shirtless, in my beat up 300ZX, with Ted in the passenger seat. I wondered what he thought.

Well, I made it to Oak Creek Canyon that evening. I’d gone up there to pray, to meditate, to listen to God. After all of this happened my ears were wide open. When I looked at a Bible, the words seem to glow, as if the Spirit was reading them to my heart. I learned a lot those couple nights in the woods. Some things you might expect: God’s sovereignty, Christ’s favor toward the poor… But I learned something unexpected too: I am meant to be with people. I need Billy. I need Patty. I need Ted. I need my housemates, Josh and Joyce. I need my Bible study leader, Zetty. I need my sisters. I need my friend, Jim. I am not meant to be Jack Kerouac or John the Baptist. I am not meant to be a monk or a Desert Father. My place is with people.

And when I’m with them, may the Spirit of the Lord work in me and bless them, the way it did to me through old Billy.

When I got home days later, I told this story to my housemates. Josh asked, “Do you think Billy and Patty were angels?”

I said, “Well, if they were, they were the cussing, snuff rubbing, drinking and driving kind.” But now that I think about it, though, the answer is “Yes.”

Scan 15

Oak Creek Canyon, AZ- Photo JSMB

 

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Grace- The One Thing About Christianity Christians Are Afraid to Believe

Seneca

an autumn journey to the rock

If you ask a Christian what he believes, he’ll say, “I believe in Jesus.”  Usually, that answer is an abbreviated version of “I believe that I am saved from condemnation by Jesus’s death and resurrection, and it’s through him that I have fellowship with my Creator, the LORD, who is commonly referred to as the Judeo-Christian God.”  Sure, there is a bit more to it, but that’s basically what the average Christian believes.  Do you want a little more?  The idea is that Jesus, the Son of God, rescued all humankind who were separated from God because of our sin.  God is Holy, and sinful creatures cannot abide with holiness, so they cannot abide with God.  And since God is life, then sinful creatures must die, instead.  (You’ve heard preachers say “The wages of sin is death”?  That’s what that means.) Yes, death is the only choice for the sinful being… UNLESS something else dies and takes the sin down with it.  That’s what sacrifice was all about.  And if a perfect person volunteers to take on that death, it’d be good enough for all the sins of all the people of all of the world.   Who is perfect?  Jesus the Son of God.  He was the atonement.  The triumphant part of that story is that Jesus didn’t stay dead.  After he paid for all sins, he was resurrected.  So the sins went down with death, but the person, Jesus, came back sin free.  Death and sin were conquered all at once, and hope for eternal life was restored.  And IF we accept all of this (the term is “believe and receive”) we are considered to be “dead to sin”, and “born again” like Jesus.  Jesus is alive and his grace applies to all who accept it, past, present, and future.

Yes, that is what the average Christian believes.  You can see how heavily it relies upon the work of Jesus the Christ.  Hence the term “Christian,” meaning “Christ-like.”  And just about any Christian, when pressed with the standard questions like “How do you know, you’re going to heaven?”, they are going to say something resembling the classic Sunday School response, “Because, I believe in Jesus.”

And really, it’s not a bad answer. Saying, “Because Jesus!” may seem vague and oversimplified, but it does get to the point of what Christianity is all about: a reliance upon Jesus.

I’d say it’s all pretty simple EXCEPT for one thing… If you look closely, many Christians do not live as if any of this is true.  Don’t get me wrong.  Christians believe it… basically.  They just have some serious trouble internalizing the deepest part of the story.

I’m not talking about the supernatural elements of the story.  The average Christian is more than willing to accept and admit belief in what the non-religious person might consider the “crazy” stuff:  The existence of God, the amazing attributes of God, the fact that God by his holiness sets the standard of what good is, the fact that God created two people who sinned against him, the fact that all people are the offspring of those first sinners and therefore inherit sin and the sinful nature, the fact that Jesus is the Son of God, and the fact that people can have eternal life. Hardly any Christian has any trouble with any of that.  From the virgin birth, to walking on water, to raising the dead, to the resurrection… most Christians do believe it.

What they really have trouble accepting, is that ALL we have to do is believe in Jesus.  Yeh! Many Christians have trouble accepting their own Sunday School answer.  “All I have to do is accept the grace of Jesus, and that’s it?  That just seems too easy…  WAY TOO EASY.”  It does seem that way, and it scares people.

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Spring

The Truth of Spring

It is the truth of the mist of thawing mud

Heavy grass clumped and crawling

Waking

Writhing in its saturated bed

Exhaling winter

And every cell in my legs is reborn

Each singing operatic into my joints,

“Run!

Atrophy will not win this year,

You are resurrected,

You and your woods,”

And I remember old infatuations-

Enamored with the trees-

I go and scream unmitigated life

To those blood covered roods

And my spirit elated

Leaps from me to sail mythic

Into those red splattered branches

And feel them right upon my naked heart-

And my lover born again

In the flowering fields

Trillium, violets, and laurels of eternal wisdom

And my children in the water bathing new skin

Not for filth, but for the sake of sensation

For the cold,

For joy

It is the truth of the emerging canopy

Which will soon be heavy with its own fruit

And will bend low to touch the rising grass

Clover and wild onion

And clasp hands in the shadowy cathedrals of spring

 

-JSMB 3/1/09

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Civil Rights For The Mind

 

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Washington D.C., Dec. 2016

I enjoy the observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day because I enjoy the freedom that he and others with him have brought to my mind.  Many of us forget to appreciate the courageous acts of those who struggled for equality, because we often assume that, had we lived then, we would have been on the “right side” too.  I, on the other hand, recognize that I believe what I believe much because I was born when I was.  Would I have marched along with King in the name of civil rights, or would I, like many southern whites at the time, have favored the status quo of segregation?  Or going back a century prior, would I have been an Abolitionist, or one of those who would have rather just let slavery continue?  Would I have considered it my problem?  In both cases, I’d like think the former, but I really don’t know do I?  I would have been a different person, raised by different people, and influenced by society to believe different things.  Because of Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, and several others, I don’t have to know.  I have the benefit of growing up in a world, reshaped by their ideas.  Their work not only helped to improve things for American Blacks and others, but it helped many American Whites to be freed from bigotry and racism before we were even born.  Because of them, I have a better chance at knowing equality and unhindered love for my fellow man.

King said in his famous speech at the March on Washington, “…for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.”  I am starting to get that.  Because if I live in a country where I have rights, and others do not, then I don’t really live in a land of freedom.  I am just one who benefits from a system of inequality.  (And if people want to the same rights as I have, and all I can do is think of excuses as to why they shouldn’t have it or should wait for it, then that is a system of oppression.)  If everyone is not free then freedom isn’t real.  This must be why King says the opposite of the “quicksand of racial injustice” is “the solid rock of brotherhood.”  (This all seems to echo the idea that Frederick Douglass expressed a century earlier that slavery oppressed both the slave and the slaveholder.  Do you get it?)

“Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.” -Martin Luther King Jr.

Updated 1/16/17

 

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Miracle

 

An Infrared Image of a Miracle

 

The Miracle of Birth

Pastors have to talk about miracles, and this is tougher than it sounds because the word “miracle” has been brutally sentimentalized by greeting cards and refrigerator magnets for a long time town.  Flip through one of those “Precious Moments” wall calendars and you’ll see what I’m talking about.  A word that once stood for the parting of the Red Sea, or walking on water, is now used to describe anything that looks good embroidered on a lacey, pastel pink keepsake. In an attempt to restore some of the word’s power, pastor Erwin McManus found himself explaining to his congregation why referring to birth as a “miracle” is a bit of a misuse.  To paraphrase McManus, birth is not necessarily a miracle because it happens countless times a day all over the world, and, in fact, has already happened billions and billions of times in history.  If a miracle is a highly improbable or unexplainable event that seems to have come as a result of supernatural intervention, then a pregnant woman delivering a baby after 40 weeks of gestation is no miracle.

I quite like Erwin McManus’s sermons but I have to disagree with him on this point about the “miracle” of birth.  It’s a reasonable point, and it’s one I would have made myself a few years ago.  If we look at the planet in isolation where babies are born half a million times each day, then it’s true, birth is no miracle; however, if we look at the universe as a whole, then every birth, even if it happens trillions more times, is certainly a miracle.  As far as we know the universe is anywhere from 150 billion light-years to infinity in diameter.  So far astronomers have observed the existence of thousands of galaxies and suspect that there may be hundreds of billions out there.  In some recent super-computer generated models of the universe, the whole of existing things appears to be spread out in strands, collectively resembling the fibers of a sponge, and the light from each strand is emitted by clusters of galaxies, each of which contains billions of galaxies of varying sizes (some much larger than our own which itself contain 200-400 billion stars).  Now, although scientists and laymen alike suppose that, with numbers like that, it’s possible that life exists somewhere else, we haven’t yet discovered any trace of it.  In fact, Earth-like planets and life-supporting environments are proving to be extremely rare indeed.  Maybe our planet is only a one-in-a-hundred-trillion kind of a planet, and maybe in all of those we are the only one that contains anything like human beings at this point in the history of the universe.  If that’s the case, then each of the billions of human births on earth IS a miracle.  It’s a miracle it happened the first time (because even now, no scientist is completely sure why or how), and it’s a miracle that it continued to happen against all odds to give us the population we have today.  And even if you want to take a theistic approach and say, “Well all of this had to be, because God made it that way,” then the miracle is that a self-sufficient, omnipotent God is good, and that he saw fit to create anything at all.  Let’s not forget that if God had never created anything ever, he would still go on being God, no less powerful or awesome than he would have been had he created an infinite number of universes.

I suppose by this rationale we have to consider the Earth itself, and everything that happens on it, a bit of a miracle.  If that’s the case, then I’m sorry to say that the word “miracle” has achieved the paradox of being endlessly useful when describing the happy events of life, and hopelessly useless at the same time.  Either way, the next time an old woman looks down at a non-descript collection of newborns in the nursery of the hospital maternity ward and says, “Aren’t they all just precious!  Each one is a miracle!” all you can do is grin and say, “Yes they are.”

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Death

Rich Mullins 1955-1997

Dear Rich Mullins,

You wanted to go out like Elijah

With the whirlwind to fuel your chariot of fire

 

Well, I hope that when you were flying through the window

Of that car, as it rolled over on the highway in Illinois,

Your spirit never hit the ground

 

And when your body rolled beneath the tractor-trailer,

I bet your feet found themselves planted upon incendiary gold

As if a solar wave from Heaven, sent the day of your rebirth,

Met you in that Holy second to carry you to your resurrection

 

I hope the prairie dropped out from beneath you

Like a trap door on a rickety stage

And, in an eternal second, the Earth became

Just one in a scattering of a trillion specs

In the strands of the universe,

And for just about length of time it took God

To breathe life into Adam’s nostrils,

I hope your chariot was the brightest thing in creation

 

-JSMB 11/20/11

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Smart-Aleck

Can God make a rock so big he can’t lift it?  Can God make a hole so small that he can’t go through it?  Can God microwave a burrito so hot he can’t eat it?  When I was a smart-alecky kid in Sunday school, I loved to ask these questions.  I, of course, did not invent them.  They were handed down to me from the previous generation of smart-alecks who had inherited them out of the endless cycle of youngsters who think themselves the authors of sarcasm and mockery.  This article, loaded with logical fallacy, is dedicated to those smart-aleck kids.  After all, today’s punk is tomorrow’s poet, painter, or theologian.

 
The questions listed above do have answers, but they are not the kind that anyone who asks them really wants to hear.  Typically, the kid who blurts out “Can God make another God even more powerful than himself?” already knows the answer.  He just wants to see his old teacher fret and blush and reluctantly admit, “No he can’t.”  This sets him up to throw out the second swing of his one-two punch, “But I thought you said that God can do anything.”  Now he’s got that old Sunday school teacher cornered!  There is no way she can respond to that, and the class has been thoroughly disrupted which is what he’d really wanted all along.  If she is daring, she might admit that there are, in fact, things that God can’t do.  If she is a coward, she might tell that smart-aleck to keep his mouth shut and stay in his seat.  If she is a former smart-aleck herself, she might say, “Sure there are things God can’t do… but that doesn’t mean he won’t.”

 
“What do you mean?” the smart-aleck wonders.  Now the old Sunday school teacher has the smart-aleck right where she wants him.  These questions, like many we ask about God are from human perspective, which is temporal and limited.  Human beings typically rule out the paradoxes that a supreme, infinite being can create.  Light, God’s first creation in the book of Genesis, is a perfect example.  Like light, which acts as both a wave and a particle, travels away from its source at the same amazing speed no matter how fast the source is traveling, and whose components possess the mysterious ability to exist at more than one place in the universe simultaneously, God can do many seemingly irreconcilable things at once.  Consider how God addressed these other, more important, questions:  “Can God die?”  “Can God physically weep for the poverty and death in the world?”  “Can God allow human beings to look at his face?”  “Can God be tempted?”  “Can God be hungry?” “Can God suffer for sin?” “Can God ever not know something?”  Perhaps when one focuses on God the supreme being, who no man can see and live, the answer is “no.”  And yet, we all know that through the incarnation of Jesus, the answer is “yes.”

 
With Christ, God revealed some paradoxes that had always existed, but only the prophet and daydreamer could have understood prior to.  Like light, which seemed so common, simple, and easy to control before Planck and Einstein, God proved to be something more than provincial logic could contain.  Much of what seemed impossible before was now, paradoxically, impossible and possible at the same time.  “Can God die?” No.  But Jesus could, so yes.  “Could God allow human beings to look at his face?” No. But Jesus could, so yes.  “Could God be tempted?” No.  But Jesus could, so yes.

 
So… Could God write a book so long that he can’t read it? No, but yes.  Could God make a taco salad so gigantic he couldn’t eat it?  No, but yes.  Could God make a video game so difficult he couldn’t beat it?  No, but yes.  It’s just that those things never came up in the life of Christ.  He spent his thirty-some years reconciling mankind to its creator and satisfying the most profound of human needs, instead of responding to our wry questions.  If you look at all of the moments in the gospel stories in which people tried to trick or trap Jesus in a question, the wise young man always answered the question in a way that confounded the inquisitor (Matt 22:17-21, Luke 4:1-8).  Then with the inquisitor thoroughly stupefied, Jesus went on to give his time to those who had real needs and genuine questions.

 
I expect, by now, the reader may feel that something is amiss.  Although, these answers seem adequate on a smart-aleck’s terms, they can’t be all there is to this discussion.  That is true, for even our most brilliant questions (sincere or otherwise) about God and other unfathomable topics, are an attempt to capture the uncontainable, to comprehend the incomprehensible.  The question is made of human reason and it expects a certain kind of answer.  Since the source of the question is limited, the question itself has limitations that render it inadequate to receive the infinitude of the response.  It’s like walking up to Niagara Falls with a paper cup and saying, “Can you get in this for me?”  It is only by the grace of God that any human receives an answer to anything.  With this in mind, the answers provided by the life of Jesus seem to be the apex of grace.

 

So, I hope in some small way this article has satisfied the smart-aleck.  I know that, as a kid, I would have appreciated such a straight-forward discussion, although it wouldn’t have stopped me from looking for ways to annoy my teachers.  That said, I wonder if God could make a Sunday school class so interesting that even he wouldn’t get bored?  I really don’t know.

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Baptism

Most people think of baptism as a ritual.  Those with a little more background on the sacrament see it as a symbol.  It is a symbol.  That’s true.  But it’s also an experience.  It’s a metaphor that you can feel; on your skin, in your clothes, through your hair.  It is less like the wedding ring and more like the honeymoon.

 
Baptism has a certain wildness that makes it unique from other rituals.  It conjures images not of the Sunday pastor with his tie tack and parted hair, but of the prophetic John in his camelhair shirt, his beady eyes glaring from behind a mess of knotted hair and whiskers.  As the Sunday pastor announces the upcoming baptism, one can’t help but contrast the images.  Here we sit amidst drywall and ceiling fans, breathing air conditioned oxygen that stinks of a mixture of hygiene products- as far from our natural world as can be.  Later we will be perched on a grassy bank by a muddy river, geese flying overhead, sun blaring down, and farmer’s dogs barking in the distance.  The Sunday pastor himself will be knee deep in that water, orating sans microphone like the teachers of old, welcoming to the river all who have made a confession of Christ.  The whole thing is as if a bit of nature, a bit of heaven, and a bit of madness has intruded upon our manmade world.  It is as if someone has left the front door open, and autumn leaves and insects are blowing into the living room.  As the congregation gathers on the bank, it becomes evident, once again, that the church is not the building, not the sprawling mini-mall shaped cathedral in suburbia, but the people and the Spirit within them.

 
What ensues thereafter is no less wild.  As each individual wades into the river, stumbling across the rocky bottom, the cold enveloping ankle, knee, hip, and waist, the senses awaken and a new realm is entered.  It’s the same realm to which any out-of-the-routine physical sensation can take us.  Climbing a mountain, for instance, is mood altering.  So is the smell of a campfire.  Or the sight of your own shadow in moonlight.  Each of these connects new experience to old memory, where the mind stands between the past and the future (in a place not accurately called “the present”), and then suddenly the act of spiritual examination is possible.  And in that moment of frankness and vulnerability, the individual confesses his own deepest sense of identity.  Then backward he goes, at the hands of the pastor, into the water, which represents the grave, to experience something all people suspect to be true- that spirit and body can be separated, especially at death.  Then, into the light beyond the surface, he is lifted to experience what all people hope to be true- that the spirit can be housed again in the resurrected form of the other.  And whom does the pastor represent in all of this?  Perhaps Paul’s declaration provides on answer: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live.  The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.”  Perhaps, the pastor represents Christ carrying the believer through the burial and resurrection.

 
In this way, Baptism is a reenactment, not of an earthly historical event, but of an eternal event.   It is also a preenactment of what will be; the baptism of fire and of the Holy Spirit.  And the ritual itself, a symbol, is an experience.  It’s not unlike the other lessons God uses to teach his disciples.  Jesus, especially was (and is) an experiential teacher.  When he says “follow me” that is his whole syllabus.  When someone proudly declares, “I’ve never been baptized, and I don’t need to be.  It’s only a symbol,” I have to wonder.  I am curious as to whether he would have rejected the other experiences Jesus offered to his disciples, like walking on the water or climbing the mountain to witness the transfiguration.  Would this person have even responded to the exigency of “follow me,” or would they have said, “No I can worship God from home.”  To deny the symbol, the experience, and the command  of baptism is, perhaps, to reject the teaching style of Christ.

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Race and Racism

Unbeknownst to many people, the definition of “race” has been revised several times in the past century.  The lack of knowledge could account for why, in the 21st century, so many demonstrate a misunderstanding of the word “racism.”  For many people, racism is simply the act of showing hatred or discrimination to the members of “a different race.”  This type of thinking, however, is rooted in an archaic understanding of the meaning of “race” itself.  The misunderstanding also permits a number of people to operate under a racist mindset and conduct racist behavior and not feel as if they are racist.  What’s worse, perhaps, is that there are still several things in our culture that seem to give credibility to false beliefs about race and racism.  The U.S. Census, for instance, asks questions about “race” without any disclaimer.  Racist terms like “interracial marriage” and “mixed race children” are still widely used in radio, television, and public discussions.  Stand-up comedians still capitalize on racial stereotypes to draw a reaction from the audience.  I even saw a blog article the other day called “Name The Race” in which the writer presented a (supposed) real-world scenario and invited the reader to guess the “race” of the people in question.  Such public displays are clearly rooted in an outdated understanding of race, and lead to the perpetuation of racist ideology into a century where it has no place.

 
Is the dictionary definition of “race” outdated, then?  Not at all.  In fact, any quality dictionary has carefully worded its denotation of the word “race” to take into account the scientific and social advances affecting the term.  Race, as it was once thought to exist throughout the history of the United States until the mid 20th century, is no more.  The racial caste system, and the associated illusions of racial superiority and inferiority are understood to have been based on bogus assumptions.  Perhaps, more importantly, the supposed differences in biology between those of apparently different racial groups is also known to have been a misconception.  For a long time in this country, people perceived the members of the various races as being as different from one another as the members of separate species.  The idea that some groups were subhuman, further strengthened the man-made partition between the groups.  Even though in 1950, “the United Nations issue[d] an official statement declaring that race has no scientific basis and call[ed] for an end to racial thinking in scientific and political thought,” (Race: The power of an Illusion) and even though in 2000, Bill Clinton, in a world-wide announcement of the completion of the first survey of the human genome, said that “in genetic terms, all human beings, regardless of race are more than 99.9% the same,” some of the old ideas about race continue to play out publicly and privately.

 
It isn’t enough to think of racism as simply not liking someone of “a different race.”  Racism is the belief that the person actually comes from “a different race.”  Biologically, there is no other race.  In response to discussions on whether Joe Louis was a credit to his race, Jimmy Cannon, famously said, “Yes, he is a credit to his race- the human race.”  Whether or not he meant to do so, Cannon’s quote provides a fine example for a proper attitude toward race.  Similar language was used by Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, in 2000, when he said “I’m happy that today, the only race we are talking about is the human race.”  We need to abandon the misconception that racism is just a belief in racial supremacy, or the use of unfair racial discrimination, and start viewing as racism any comment or behavior that makes it seem as if race exists outside of a cultural mindset.  Since “many cultural anthropologists now consider race to be more a social or mental construct than an objective biological fact” (American Heritage Dictionary), we should acknowledge that race is all in our heads.

 

When I say “in our heads,” I mean the American mind.  Although one could argue that slavery, genocide, and various forms of segregation have existed since the beginning of humankind, I maintain, supported by a number of sources, that the American brand of racism is unique.  In his 2007 book, Race, Marc Aronson tracks the development of this powerful construct.  “The history of the United States is the history of the problem of race,” Aronson states, as he describes how the modern theory of racism began through pseudoscience in 1775, and then, like a serpent in Eden, wove itself into the nation’s verdant beginnings.  “It was here in North America, that slavery and race were most firmly joined” (Aronson).  From there, it’s easy to see how race, racism, and American culture have lived together ever since.  The amazing thing is that so many Americans insist on continuing the traditions of racist thinking, despite new information.  In general, Americans like to think of themselves as a group that does not blindly follow oppressive authority.  This is why we connect with stories like The Matrix, The Village, and The Da Vinci Code, in which the protagonists fight against powers that suppress knowledge or truth and keep the people in ignorance.  In the case of 21st century America, there is no power suppressing the truth.  Our minds have the potential to be freer than they have ever been, and yet, as a culture, we volunteer to remain ignorant.  In the case of race and racism, we are our own oppressors, and we do not have to be.

 
BASTIONS OF RACISM
The following are a number of things in American culture that seem to help perpetuate misconceptions about race, and permit the continuation of racist thinking.

 
The U.S. Census
Some of the questions on the 2010 the U.S. Census asked about “race.”  Without a doubt, this information is used to accomplish some good things.  It helps provide information and resources to civil rights organizations, and it helps to observe the progress of groups that have been oppressed by racial discrimination in the past (and the present).  The problem with asking people to check one or two boxes on “race” is that it helps to perpetuate the idea that “race” exists.  The word “race” is too tied up with other connotations and misconceptions.  As Henry Louis Gates, Jr. said in “Writing ‘Race’ And The Difference It Makes,” “The sense of difference defined in popular usages of the term “race” has both described and inscribed differences of language, belief system, artistic tradition, and gene pool, as well as all sorts of supposedly natural attributes such as rhythm, athletic ability, cerebration, usury, fidelity, and so forth. The relation between “racial character” and these sorts of characteristics has been inscribed through tropes of race, lending the sanction of God, biology, or the natural order to even presumably unbiased descriptions of cultural tendencies and differences.”  There are still many Americans who connect skin color, nationality, or ethnicity to such characteristics, and when they see the census use the term “race” they can’t help but feel confirmed in their beliefs.  The U.S. Census makers, then, should not ask about “race” but, perhaps, ethnicity, or nationality of family heritage.  The same information could be gathered without leading people to see the country as a collection of separate “races.”

 
So where does the U.S. Census draw its ideas about racial categories?  In the 21st century, racial categories are not determined by science or pseudoscience, but by governments. And racial classifications of people are determined by the individuals themselves.  In other words, the U.S. Census decides the categories, and you get to answer by checking the box next to whatever you think you are, or whatever you want to be.  If your genealogy contains members of multiple ethnicities, nationalities, or skin colors you can check one box, two boxes, or “other.”  If, for some reason, your genealogy is dubious, you can check the box next to whatever people have told you you are (which was probably based on how you look).  Do we need any more proof that race in America is made up?

 
Words Like “Caucasian”
The word “Caucasian” is still used interchangeably with “white.” Yet, the term is rooted in the work of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach who assumed that the beautiful people of the Caucasus Mountains were “the original human beings” and that other races developed later “as people moved and fell away from their original and pure form” (Aronson).  How has this term, as a label for whites, remained in use for so long?  It has even seems to have met the criteria of 1980’s and 1990’s political correctness.  How?  I even hear the term used casually, next to “African American” and “Asian,” and, yet, hardly anyone would think to note the intrinsically racist properties of the word “Caucasian.”

 
Eventually, all words used to label a “race” will be found insufficient.  It’s amusing in some ways, and sad in others to hear well-meaning people trip up over such terms, in everyday conversation.  I clearly remember the following conversation between two friends who were watching a BBC science-fiction series:  “Who killed the alien?”  “The African American guy.”  “He’s not African American, he’s British.”  “He’s British?”  “Yes.  Listen to his accent.”  “Well, am I supposed to say he’s African British?”  “No, I think you just say ‘British.’”  Somewhere hidden in their conversation is just more evidence that race is a construct.

 
Assumptions Of Racial Characteristics
One of the most stubborn misconceptions in American culture is that certain abilities are connected to one’s supposed race.  This type of thinking is rooted in the very definition of racism and yet many find it acceptable to insist that one color has rhythm, another color is smart, and another color can’t jump.  Unfortunately, race continues to be the default explanation for why a group is good or bad at something.  The problem here is that many are unaware (or do not acknowledge) that whatever genetic properties might help someone be good at something are not at all tied to the genes that determine skin, hair, and eye color.  If a large population is better at one thing than another population it is probably something in the culture itself that has created the difference.  One might claim, for instance, that an unbelievable number of Canadians are good at hockey.  This is not because they are white, and it’s not because they were born members of a special race of Canadians.  It may, however, be because Canadians live where there is ice and ice skating, and where the culture itself is very enthusiastic about hockey as a form of entertainment, with parents taking young children to hockey games and practices.  Similar explanations may be found wherever a group is noted have some unique ability.  The important thing is to ask, “What are the cultural factors that contribute to this group’s success?” and not to assume that there must be some sort of racial factor.

 
Stand-Up Comedy Marketing
One might think of America as the land of a thousand subcultures.  In fact, “thousand” may be an understatement.  We all know that values, beliefs, heritage, history, tastes in food, and tastes in music can differ from region to region.  Another thing that differs is humor.  Stand-up comedy might not translate well from one group to another.  Jeff Foxworthy’s, “You might be a redneck if…” routine just won’t work as well with some audiences as with others.  So often, humor is not universal but cultural.  Several years ago there was a somewhat successful attempt to recreate a version of Seinfeld in Pakistan. The show “Zara Dekh Kar” wasn’t affiliated with the original Seinfeld, but the similarities were undeniable.  The Pakistani Kramer, though similarly tall and lanky, had to use an entirely different style of physical comedy than Michael Richards’ Kramer.  I remember watching the actor demonstrate his technique in a television interview.  Certainly, his head nods and facial expressions would have made no sense to American audiences, but in Pakistan they were hilarious.  Eventually, the Pakistani Seinfeld, though popular with the public, was cancelled because the Elaine character wore pants.  The story, though, just goes to show how humor is cultural.

 

With this in mind, sometimes stand-up comedy is mass marketed with American subcultures in mind.  The unfortunate result is that, to the untrained eye, stand-up DVDs, TV series, and tours seem racially segregated.  This might not be so bad except for the fact that when young adults and teenagers watch some comedians’ routines, they come away with a whole slew of racial stereotypes and racist jokes they may not have otherwise encountered.  Because these jokes are “funny,” a whole new generation of students is encouraged to adopt the philosophy behind them.  Nothing is more heartbreaking or frustrating than hearing a student express a racial stereotype that he learned from a show on Comedy Central.  Sometimes satirizing racism can cause racism.

 
Misconceptions About the Bible’s Definition of Race
Perhaps, even worse than using science or pseudoscience to support racial prejudice is using the Bible to do so.  Hardly anyone can deny the influence of the Bible on American culture.  Most are familiar with how the so-called “Curse of Ham” and the Bible’s descriptions of slavery have been used to justify a number of atrocities.  It is important to note, though, that the Bible itself condones neither racism nor slavery.  In fact, if one is careful to examine the principles of Christianity as a whole, the ideas in the Bible present a powerful antithesis to racism.  Furthermore, the Bible’s few uses of the word “race” is quite consistent with the most recent definition of the word.  I would argue, too, that most racist interpretations of the Bible and its stories were inferred upon it by people seeking to support already fully formed racial prejudices or caste systems.  What a pity, to allow an age old text, a great source of wisdom and spiritual direction, to be distorted through the filter of American racism.

 
One thing the Bible is sometimes used to support is a predisposition against “interracial marriage.”  It’s true that the Israelites were commanded not to intermarry with people of neighboring nations.  The intelligent pastor is quick to point out that the purpose of the command was to keep the Israelites, who were the designated keepers of God’s law and literature, from adapting to other religious belief systems.  There were, however, a few instances in which Israelites did marry foreigners (such as in the story of Boaz and Ruth) and the union was condoned because the both parties were well conformed to Mosaic law.  So the issue was never that of “race” but of faith.  Even today, Christians are asked not to be “unequally yoked” in marriage, which means that Christians should not marry someone of a different religion or of a radically different level of “spiritual maturity” with in the faith itself.

 
I hate to hear someone disguise racism by saying something like “I’m not prejudice.  I just don’t think people of different cultures should marry.”  Yet, who can say what is in the hearts and minds of two people, and who has the power to determine marital compatibility based on cultural background alone?  To attempt to do so is nothing but prejudice itself.  If a couple is compatible in values, and they want to undertake the adventure of exploring their differences in cultural background, language, perspective, etc. over a lifetime of marriage, then who should stop them?  The challenges are not likely to be much different from those in any other marriage.

 
Bibliography
Aronson, Marc. Race. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2007. Print.

 

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. “Writing ‘Race’ And The Difference It Makes.” The Critical Tradition. ed. David Richter. Bedford/St. Martin’s. 2007. Print.

 
Gould, Stephen Jay.  The Mismeasure of Man.  New York: Norton, 1981. Print.

 
Race: The Power of an Illusion. PBS.org. Web. 24 Jul 2011.

 

Other sources:
The entire speech containing President Clinton’s and Dr. Collins’s comments on the completion of the survey of the human genome can be found at  http://clinton4.nara.gov/WH/EOP/OSTP/html/00628_2.html

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