Much Ado About…

               So the civilized world is on ‘lockdown’ now, due to the panic over the ‘novel Coronavirus’…

               Except that the latest Coronavirus isn’t novel; this is COVD-19, the nineteenth version of a flu bug that’s been around forever. This also isn’t the first mass contagion in recent memory. SARS (Sudden Arrested Respiratory Syndrome) broke out in 2009 and 2012, and a wicked swine flu epidemic busted loose in 2010.

               The difference is, the ‘mainstream’ media voluntarily ‘blacked out’ those events to protect the American President Barack Obama. They’re blowing up the latest outbreak to crash the American economy in the hopes of taking out President Trump… ‘cuz let’s face it, nothing makes for great campaign rhetoric like ‘This president made everybody poor! Vote for ME instead!’ (Except maybe in the case of Senile Joe Biden, whose campaign slogan will be something like ‘The wheels on the bus go ‘round and ‘round…’)

               This didn’t have to happen. Yes, it’s a nasty flu bug but it’s still just a flu bug. The media-induced panic, however, will probably cause a repeat of 2008: The year in which the American middle class lost a whopping forty percent of its net wealth. Wealthy elites have recovered from the crash of 2008, but the middle class never has.

               I’m trying to keep my chin up, but it’s hard because I remember the terror of 2008. The media may be full of ‘fake news’ but the panic they induce is very, very real. It also has very real consequences.

               Stuff happens. People suffer. And Christians suffer right along with everyone else, because we are still part of a cursed world. But we have this comfort: Sometimes God calms the storm, and something He calms His child… but He will always do one or the other!

               That, I think, was why the Apostle Paul called our earthly troubles ‘light and momentary’.

               That having been said… screw the American press!!!

The Hero With a Thousand Faces…

The following message was delivered to the local Church of Christ in the spring of 2019…

I’m beginning this sermon with one of my customary disclaimers…

Ninety percent of what I’m about to say has no inarguable Biblical backing. I am not giving an expository sermon designed to tell you what you’re supposed to believe. Rather, I am simply sharing some thoughts today because I want to PROVOKE thought. I don’t think Biblical study was ever meant to be a hard-and-fast science. I think that understanding the mind of God requires creative thought, because God is the original Creative Being. And as Moses wrote in Genesis 1:26, we are similar to God in the way we think. Flawed, yes… but still created in His image.

That having been said, turn with me to Luke Chapter 18, starting in Verse 15. Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them. And when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them.But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”

This little vignette about Jesus and the children is chronicled in a couple of different places throughout the Gospels. What interests me, though, is how sketchy the narrative really is. What on earth did Jesus mean when he said that ‘to children belong the Kingdom of Heaven?’ Some teach that this means that one must be baptized as an infant. Unfortunately, that’s a mistake. Peter, in Acts 2, made it quite clear that baptism is reserved for those who have sinned; an infant can’t sin, because sin requires an awareness of right and wrong.

So what was Jesus talking about when he said that ‘we must receive the kingdom of God like a child?’ That always seemed to me to be a somewhat mysterious statement.

Here’s something interesting about Scripture. When it is absolutely necessary for you to understand something in a very specific manner, the teaching will be given in a very specific manner. I mentioned Acts 2 a minute ago; read that again sometime. A very specific question is asked of an apostle, and the apostle gives a specific and inarguable answer. But that’s not always the case. If every single jot and tittle of scripture was written like pages out of an instruction manual, then Christianity would simply be a behavioral system, rather than what it is: A relationship with God. Relationships are complicated sometimes. I’m married. I know.

Similarly, I think that parts of Scripture are a little mysterious because we grow as Christians by trying to figure them out. And I think that Jesus’ teaching on children is one of those mysterious passages.  

I come back to this scripture a lot when I think about God himself. How does a child view God? Actually, let’s step away from religion for just a minute. How does a child view – or mimic – anyone that he or she admires?

When I was little, maybe four or so, I had a stack of comic books that I kept in shoebox under my bed. My mother bought them for me, mostly at yard sales. They were torn and raggedy, but I found them absolutely mesmerizing … and that’s quite a trick when you can’t read yet. I used to look at them for hours, and I’d try to make up stories to go with the pictures.

My absolute favorite character in those comic books… was Superman! To me, Superman was about the coolest person ever. He ran around all day in red underwear, and still managed to look manly.  Now, I lived in a very small apartment when I was little, about a hundred feet from the Atlantic Ocean in Eastern Virginia. And in addition to my comic book collection, we also kept in our apartment a red bath towel. And my mother could never find that bath towel. You know why? Because it was usually tied around my neck. It wasn’t a just bath a towel to me; it was a cape, and I stole it every chance I got so I could run around the yard being just like Superman. I’d spend hours saving imaginary people from imaginary monsters, until my mother dragged me back inside and took her towel back.

I know now that Superman was created in 1938 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. I am familiar with the eight decades of mythology that followed, and I posses several hundred Superman comics now … but I was just a newbie then. I only had a few comic books, and I didn’t even know how to read those. I just took what I did know and ran with it. Superman was cool, and I wanted to be just like him.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, my future wife lived in the next city over… running around in a princess dress waiting to rescued. I was pretending to be a superhero; she was pretending to be the fair maiden waiting to fall for the superhero.  That’s just what kids do.

I didn’t just look at comics. My upbringing was fairly religious, so my mother read me Bible stories a lot. David and Goliath was a favorite of mine. Samson was, too, although my mother edited out a few parts when she read me that one. (I didn’t get to read the R-rated version until I was old enough to read it on my own.) I remember Noah’s Ark, and Jonah and the Whale. Those stories were inspiring to me as a little boy, and they made me want to imitate the great men of the Bible.

And that was the big epiphany for me. That’s how I understand Jesus’ statement that we should receive the kingdom of heaven as children. Children love stories. Can’t get enough of ‘em. They eat, breathe, and sleep their favorite characters, and then they imitate them.  In the end, I came to the conclusion that the story of scripture is more important than its theology could ever be, because paradoxically…when you come to love the story the theology comes naturally. It’s the story that matters to a child. My comic books didn’t have to say ‘thou shalt wear a red cape when thou playest Superman’. I knew to take the red towel instead of the blue one because that’s the one Superman would have taken.  Easy.

And scripture is a story, unarguably so. Just because it’s a true story doesn’t mean it’s not still a story. Just because we’re meant to live by it doesn’t invalidate it as literature. Scripture begins with ‘in the beginning…’ If they wanted to translate that phrase ‘a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away’… it’d still fit. It follows with ‘God created the heavens and the earth.’  Suddenly, our story has a setting and a timeline. It’s not too long before read ‘and the serpent was more cunning than any other beast the Lord God had made’ … and then your villain appears. You can’t have a tense, exciting story without a villain.

But then God tells the serpent that someday a great hero is going to come along and crush his head. That all the evil the serpent inflicts on mankind is going to be undone. And after a great many plot twists and turns, that hero does come in the person of Jesus Christ.  And in one epic showdown, in a place called Golgotha…  Christ does defeat the serpent, and saves his people from slavery. That’s how every heroic tales goes: it begins with the villain, who imposes some form of slavery… and then the prophesied hero comes along to save them. It’s an oft-repeated outline that was artfully dissected in Joseph Campbell’s book ‘The Hero With a Thousand Faces’.  Our Bible resonates so deeply in the human consciousness, that it sets the pattern for thousands of great stories.

The story ends in Revelation, where John writes that ‘night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.’ That’s just a really fancy way of saying ‘and they lived happily ever after’.

Great stories provide inspiration, and inspiration inspires imitation. John writes, in 1 John 2:6 that ‘whoever claims to live in Him must walk as Jesus did’. Paul wrote that he ‘bore the marks of Christ’ on his body. The Apostles saw scripture for the drama that it is; I don’t think it was just some moldy old theology book to them … nor should it be to us. We should always approach Scripture with the same sense of awe, wonder, and simplicity that a child brings to his favorite story.   

I think the biggest problem we have when we forget the story of scripture and over-focus on its doctrines is that we lose context. One of my favorite books when I was little was Roald Dahl’s ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’. It usually took my mother about a week to read to it me. If she’d started in Chapter Three on Tuesday, and then skipped to the last chapter on Wednesday, I’d have been one mad little fella.  I wouldn’t have been able to follow the narrative. Characters’ actions would have made no sense, and I would have misunderstood most of the dialogue. Now, let me ask you this … if bouncing all over the place doesn’t work for ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’, then why on earth would it work for the Bible? My method of scriptural study, my ‘hermeneutic’, if you will, was best described by Lewis Carrol, the iconic author of ‘Alice in Wonderland’: You start at the beginning, and when you get to the end, you stop!

When you start reading the Bible in Genesis and end in Revelation, it will make sense all by itself. You don’t have to stop along the way to tear apart the Hebrew of a passage. The interesting thing about scripture is that it is preserved for us by scholars, but it wasn’t written for scholars. Kind of like cars are maintained for us by mechanics, but they aren’t made for mechanics. They’re made for ordinary people to roll around in, whether they understand how the car works or not.  The simplest possible approach is nearly always the best one, I think … the ‘Superman approach’ if you will.

You can tell that God meant for us to have a child-like love for Him by how he describes us. What does the Bible call us, particularly in the New Testament? Sheep. Anyone here know anything about sheep? Sheep … are about the dumbest quadruped wandering God’s green earth. They’re complete idiots.

Where there are sheep there is always a sheep dog, and if that sheep dog gets an ornery streak and runs the sheep over a cliff, they’ll go right over without too much trouble. Sheep just aren’t very bright. And God calls us sheep. A lot. Do we really think that God would call us ‘sheep’, and then turn around and write a book that takes a rocket scientist to figure out? Of course he wouldn’t, because that’d be cruel, and God is kind.


Sheep are simple critters. So apparently are we, since God calls us sheep, and therefore so must scripture be, since it was written for us. When we read scripture and we have questions about it, I’m betting the simple answer is usually the right one. Jesus himself kind of spoke derisively about complicating scripture. Remember what he told the Pharisees in Matthew 23? “You blind guides! You strained out a gnat and you swallowed a camel!’ In other words, the Pharisees were so obsessed with the details of God’s law that they missed the big picture. A child would never have done such a thing. A child wouldn’t have noticed a gnat, but he’d have been excited about the camel. ‘Look, Mommy, a camel!’ A sheep would have noticed the camel, too.

Another problem that arises when we fail to approach scripture with a child-like attitude is that we start to add rules that complicate it. We the Churches of Christ are famous for that! When Alexander Campbell called us back to Biblical Christianity in the 1820’s and 30’s, God was using him to do an incredible thing. After nearly sixteen hundred years of misunderstandings – and I do believe the mistakes of medieval religion were just that, misunderstandings – Biblical salvation was being restored on a massive scale. But in their zeal, the Churches of Christ snuck in a few extra-biblical creeds that have haunted us ever since. They damaged our movement; in some cases, they have very nearly destroyed it.

One creed that snuck into our movement was the ‘commandment/example/inference ‘ idea. Anyone familiar with that one? Campbell and his contemporaries taught that when we study scripture, we should look first for a commandment, then for an example, and then if we still can’t figure out ‘proper doctrine’, we should rely lastly upon  inference. Now that’s not a bad method of study, and it often works… but the cold hard truth is that there’s no commandment saying we HAVE to study scripture that way. I think a bit differently on the topic. Because when you look at Scripture as a child does – as a story – it’s example that you should first be looking for, not commandment. The commandments are there just in case you’re too stubborn to follow the obvious example. Israel was given the Law of Moses because they were a ‘stubborn and stiff-necked people’. If they’d have been obedient enough to follow the examples of righteousness get by Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, they might not have needed those laws. Example came first, not commandment.

God is all about setting the example. Remember Romans 5:8? God demonstrates his own love for us in this; while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. As we looked at earlier, John says we were to walk as Jesus walked. We dwell on Peter’s commandment to repent and be immersed, but that commandment really didn’t do anything except cement Jesus’ example. Before Peter ever commanded us to be immersed into Christ’s body, Jesus showed us that we need to be. To reiterate His command that we should serve others, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet to show us how.  Commandments exist only to quantify and explain an example. And example is alive, and memorable. A commandment is hollow, and boring. An example inspires you to follow it. A commandment tempts you to look for a loophole in it. A child understands this; a theologian might not.

An author named Clive Barker wrote something years ago that always stuck with me. I read it in passing years ago, and I’ve never forgotten it. He wrote that ‘so often we cut up something that’s alive and beautiful to find out why it’s alive and beautiful, and before we know it it’s neither of those things’. I think of that whenever I read 2 Timothy 3:16: ‘All scripture is God-breathed, and useful for teaching, rebuke, correction, and training in righteousness.’  Anything that has breath is something that’s alive. It’s the breath of God that gives scripture its supernatural power to teach, to correct, to rebuke, and ultimately to train us to be more like Jesus. Scripture’s ability to change us is directly linked to the life that God breathed into it.

But here’s the scary thing. Something that is alive is something that can also be killed. Any doctor knows that there is a difference between an examination and an autopsy. You can examine someone to find out how their system works, but if you’re not careful, you can cut too deeply with your scalpel and bleed the life out of them. I think scripture works the same way. If you don’t approach it with the same reverence and innocence that a child would, it ceases to be a great story and instead it just becomes an intellectual curiosity. When that happens, it’s dead. You’re not studying God’s word anymore, you’re giving it an autopsy. It can’t change you because you’re not interacting with it; you’re just bagging and toe-tagging its body parts.

 A good example of this is Dr. Virginia Mollenkott. Does that name ring a bell to anyone? It should. She was the Linguistic Styling Editor of the New International Version of the Bible. Dr. Mollenkott knows scripture perhaps better than any other living person today. Every single word of the NIV Bible went through her hands at least once, to ensure consistency in the English wording.  Know what? Dr. Mollenkott is a militant homosexual activist. I can’t say for sure because I don’t know her, but I’m wondering if scripture didn’t lose its luster for her because she had more of an interest in dissecting it than she did in simply reading it.

Clive Barker wrote something else, too. He wrote that ‘every single person is a book of blood; wherever we are opened, we’re red’. (And yes, the play on words was deliberate.) Scripture is a book of blood. You can honor it, and you can follow it … or you can – in a cold-blooded, deliberate manner – cut the life out of it. Scripture cuts us, as the author of Hebrews wrote in chapter 4, verse 12. But I think we overlook the fact that we can cut it back. By making scripture boring, by making it just another intellectual pursuit, we destroy it.

You know something?

Children don’t destroy scripture. They don’t mangle it. I remember bringing my mom my books and children’s bible and pestering her to read to me. Tell me about Samson. Tell me about David. Tell me about Noah. Tell me about Jesus. It was only when I was much older that I learned how to butcher the things I read in the Bible. It was only as an adult that that the word of Almighty God became insufferably boring to me. It was only as an adult that I forgot how to receive the Kingdom of God as a child would. God forbid we ever do such a thing.

Let me add a couple of caveats here. I’m not saying we don’t need scholars, and I’m not saying we don’t need theologians, because we do. In 1 Corinthians 12:28, Paul writes that ‘God has appointed teachers for the churches’. I’m just saying that teachers must be very, very careful, lest they – with their superior knowledge of scripture – over-complicate it, butcher it, and kill it. Anyone been to the movies lately? It’s amazing what Hollywood can do with special effects, isn’t it? But I’m betting it’s not so amazing to the director, and that’s what it’s like to be a teacher.  We need teachers, but teachers have to be careful not to lose their simple appreciation for God’s word.

And while I am saying we need to be child-like, understand that that’s not the same thing as being child-ish. Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 3 that ‘we are to grow in wisdom by studying the scriptures’. But maturing is not the same as becoming jaded. We’re meant to outgrow childish foolishness, as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:11. But we are not meant to outgrow child-like enthusiasm, and child-like simplicity in regards to the things of God. We see that in the words of Jesus Himself, in John 8:29: He who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to Him. How simple is that? That’s not a very complicated idea at all.         

Just think about it for a second… what do you love best? A bunch of dusty old books, spouting a bunch of hard to understand philosophies… or a good story? Stories are alive. They inspire us, and capture our imaginations; they have a way of settling into our collective consciousness, and influencing entire cultures. What do we remember most about ancient Greece? The wars they fought, the kingdoms they conquered… or their myths? The Odyssey and the Iliad, Jason and the Argonauts, Achilles and his cursed heel, the Trojan horse and the golden fleece… Stories survive even the cultures that created them.

I think we’d win a lot more converts if we remembered what Jesus said about children. So many people look at Christianity, and they see an insane amount of negative drama.  They see creeds and doctrines and denominations and clerical hierarchies and hypocrisy, and in the end most of ‘em don’t want anything to do with it. Maybe we’d do better to teach people simply to climb onto Jesus’ lap and listen to the wonderfully exciting stories that he has to tell, and then live like He did, not because someone told you to, but because you admire Him… and you love Him.

What in the HELL?! (Literally…)

The following sermon was delivered to the local Church of Christ over the winter of 2012

I was listening to Isaiah on my audio bible a while back…

I wound up listening to it all the way through. Isaiah is a fascinating book. It has a great many of the prophecies that foretell the coming of Jesus. But that’s not what I wanted to talk about today. Today, I wanted to talk about some of Isaiah’s commentary about the various cultures of his day.

I know that Isaiah lived and wrote under the Mosaic covenant. But while the context of some of his teachings may have been different, the people about whom he wrote were exactly like you and I today… and I think there’s a lesson to be learned there.  After all, Ecclesiastes says that ‘that which is done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which it may be said, ‘see, this is new’? It has already been in ancient times before us.

Frankly, when I listen to Isaiah I forget that he’s talking about Judah. Moab, Egypt, and a bunch of other folks whose names I can’t pronounce. When I read him, I can’t help but impose the name of my own people in the places of theirs.

 This is chapter three, in its entirety.                  

For behold, the Lord GOD of hosts

is taking away from Jerusalem and from Judah

support and supply,

all support of bread,

and all support of water;

the mighty man and the soldier,

the judge and the prophet,

the diviner and the elder,

the captain of fifty

and the man of rank,

the counselor and the skillful magician

and the expert in charms.

And I will make boys their princes,

and infants shall rule over them.

And the people will oppress one another,

every one his fellow

and every one his neighbor;

the youth will be insolent to the elder,

and the despised to the honorable.

For a man will take hold of his brother

in the house of his father, saying:

“You have a cloak;

you shall be our leader,

and this heap of ruins

shall be under your rule”;

in that day he will speak out, saying:

“I will not be a healer;

in my house there is neither bread nor cloak;

you shall not make me

leader of the people.”

For Jerusalem has stumbled,

and Judah has fallen,

because their speech and their deeds are against the LORD,

defying his glorious presence.

For the look on their faces bears witness against them;

they proclaim their sin like Sodom;

they do not hide it.

Woe to them!

For they have brought evil on themselves.

Tell the righteous that it shall be well with them,

for they shall eat the fruit of their deeds.

Woe to the wicked! It shall be ill with him,

for what his hands have dealt out shall be done to him.

My people—infants are their oppressors,

and women rule over them.

O my people, your guides mislead you

and they have swallowed up the course of your paths.

The LORD has taken his place to contend;

he stands to judge peoples.

The LORD will enter into judgment

with the elders and princes of his people:

“It is you who have devoured the vineyard,

the spoil of the poor is in your houses.

What do you mean by crushing my people,

by grinding the face of the poor?”declares the Lord GOD of hosts.

The LORD said:

Because the daughters of Zion are haughty

and walk with outstretched necks,

glancing wantonly with their eyes,

mincing along as they go,

tinkling with their feet,

therefore the Lord will strike with a scab

the heads of the daughters of Zion,

and the LORD will lay bare their secret parts.

In that day the Lord will take away the finery of the anklets, the headbands, and the crescents;the pendants, the bracelets, and the scarves;  the headdresses, the armlets, the sashes, the perfume boxes, and the amulets;  the signet rings and nose rings;  the festal robes, the mantles, the cloaks, and the handbags;  the mirrors, the linen garments, the turbans, and the veils.

Instead of perfume there will be rottenness;

and instead of a belt, a rope;

and instead of well-set hair, baldness;

and instead of a rich robe, a skirt of sackcloth;

and branding instead of beauty.

Your men shall fall by the sword

and your mighty men in battle.

And her gates shall lament and mourn;

empty, she shall sit on the ground.

When I go through these poetic verses line by line, it really does terrify me. I’ve always believed that avoiding evil means knowing what evil is. When I read this chapter, I understand that Isaiah was writing to Jews but I always forget that by the time the chapter’s finished. Some of the lines almost seem to jump out of the headlines… which is exactly, I suspect, Jesus meant when He said that His words would never fade away.

And I will make boys their princes, and children will rule over them’. Sound familiar? Does the phrase ‘youth-centered culture’ ring any bells? A recent president was awarded Time magazine’s ‘man of the year’ award for rallying record numbers of 18-to-20-year-olds to vote, indirectly giving them the power to make decisions for the mature and elderly in our society.

 Leviticus 19:32 says ‘You shall rise before the gray headed and honor the presence of an old man, and fear your God: I am the LORD.’ Proverbs 20:29 says that the ‘The glory of young men is their strength, and the splendor of old men is their gray head.’ Notice that it says the glory of young men is their strength, NOT their wisdom!!! There is no such thing as a ‘youth-centered culture’. If it’s ‘youth-centered’, it ain’t culture. It’s anarchy. Wanna know what a ‘youth-centered culture’ looks like? Read ahead to ‘the youth will be insolent to the elder, and the despised to the honorable.’

Scary stuff. Moving on.

 ‘And the people will oppress one another, every one his fellow’. Wow… Baltimore and Chicago have murder rates that rival the Third World. An American woman is sexually assaulted every forty-five seconds. The people voting themselves the resources of the working man now officially rival the working men in numbers. Price gouging is driving inflation through the roof, predatory banking has tanked the dollar to record lows, and the media is lying about all of it. An old preacher named Scott Wesley Brown once pointed out that every nation that has fallen has fallen from within, and when you look at history he was absolutely right. Isaiah would certainly have agreed with him.

Open sin. Brazen oppression. Violent men and immodest women. Theft from the weaker members of society. Treating the elderly like a nuisance, women and children ruling over men, fooling around with cults and foreign religions … WHAT A MESS!!!  For all this, God says that he will take from Judah ‘support and supply, all support of bread and all support of water’. He says that her men will be killed and her women humiliated.

Is this a specific curse levied by God against Judah? Did God cook this up as a special punishment just for them, or is God simply pointing out the natural consequences of behaving badly? Let me answer that question for you. I hold this truth to be self-evident; there is nothing in God’s way of thinking that can’t be explained using simple common sense, because God is the God of common sense.  

Greed inevitably leads to a nation issuing currency that has no wealth behind it. It’s phony riches, simply put. No nation has lasted last more than fifty years after debasing its currency. We debased ours in 1973. No empire has survived the degradation of the marriage covenant, especially when they go so far as to accept open deviancy. No socialist nation has ever survived without a) returning once again to some free market principles, or b) being repeatedly bailed out by the free world. We’ve debased our currency, destroyed the idea of marriage, warmed up to same-gender liaisons, and embraced socialism – a form of government that rewards laziness.

We’re toast.  

What took down the Babylonian, Roman, Greek, and Byzantine empires is going to consume us as well. When empires collapse, one of two things inevitably happens: They are either overrun by a larger, more brutal empire, or they fall into a period of feudalism and anarchy.

God doesn’t lie. What Isaiah prophesied for Judah happened. History doesn’t lie, either. It can be misinterpreted and twisted, but only for a short time. As Rome and Greece were, so is the United States of America. Our fall is not an ‘if’, it’s a ‘when’… because that’s another fact: No empire has ever righted itself once it started down the road to ruin.

When most preachers point out the causes of America’s impending doom, they do so as a call to political action. ‘We have to take back America for Jesus’, they cry. I think this is a foolish and short-sighted point, and one that is at odds with God’s ultimate goal of saving souls. I have a different reason for pointing out our impending collapse today, and I’ll get to that in a few minutes.          

I am not one of those preachers who thinks that America is ‘God’s country’. God’s one and only theocracy in recorded history was Israel, and they ceased to exist as a God-sanctioned theocracy once the Day of Pentecost rolled around; Hebrews and Galatians make this very, very clear. America’s Founding Fathers may have paid lip service to Christianity, but a great many of them were Freemasons who belonged to an occultic fraternal order; it’s likely that Freemasonry was a bigger influence on our Constitution than the Bible. (We only added the phrase ‘under God’ to our vaunted ‘Pledge of Allegiance’ because we were looking to differentiate ourselves from the Russian Communists of the 1950’s. Francis Bellamy, the author of the Pledge, wrote it to further the cause of unquestioned socialist rule.)

I’m not up here trying to ‘reclaim America for Christ’, as my fellow Virginian Pat Robertson would put it. Rather, I want to examine where we went wrong, because I think there’s a personal application there for us Christians. There’s an application that matters in our personal lives, regardless of what does or doesn’t happen to the world around us.

One of my all-time favorite movies ever is Disney’s ‘The Lion King’. Anyone seen that one? It’s the story of a lion cub who’s chased away from his pride, and he ends up being raised by a meerkat and a warthog, ‘way off in the African Jungle.

But when he comes of age, the ghost of his father comes to him in a dream and he tells him, ‘you have forgotten who you are, and so have forgotten me.’ And then he proposes a solution to the problem, a very, very, simple one: ‘REMEMBER who you are!’

That’s where America went wrong, on both and individual and collective level. We forgot who we are. Not as Americans, but as people. As Americans, we were only ever skeptics and conquerors, and that’s probably not worth remembering. We have made a national pastime of paying lip service to God while disobeying His commandments. There’s nothing worth remembering there. No, I’m saying we Americans have forgotten who we were meant to be in God’s eyes. We forgot our place in creation.

Soooooo…. Who are we?

The question of ‘who are we?’ is a very basic question… a question so fundamental that God answers it for us at the very beginning of his story. Therefore, we need to look in Genesis, in those early chapters where God explains to us who He is, who we are, and what the relationship should be between the two.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…’ That tells us everything we need to know about God, right there. He is God. He made everything. Therefore, he gets to define right, wrong, good, evil, and that without question. Everything else that scripture says about God is just an expansion on the idea laid out in Genesis 1:1. And that begins to tell us who we are. Whoever we were meant to be, we were meant to be only within the context of God’s plan. There’s nothing outside of that.

Then Man enters God’s plan: Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’  So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth’.

And God said, ‘See, I have given you every herb that yields seed which is on the face of all the earth, and every tree whose fruit yields seed; to you it shall be for food.  Also, to every beast of the earth, to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, in which there is life, I have given every green herb for food’; and it was so.  Then God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good. So the evening and the morning were the sixth day.

Interestingly, it seems that only Adam was made on the sixth day, or step. ‘male and female he created them’ and ‘be fruitful and multiply’ were added to this account simply to reiterate that God created all humanity. When you read the expanded account of the woman’s creation in Genesis 2, it’s a reasonably safe bet that Eve was created well after the seventh day.  Also notice that it was only Adam who was made in the image of God. The Greek word for Image is eikon, and its meaning goes well beyond looks. It means a ‘reflection’, or a ‘representation’.  Adam was the image of God, and Eve was the image of Adam. Paul reiterated this in 1 Corinthians 11:7, when he says that ‘man is the glory of God and that woman is the glory of man’.  The word eikon is used there as well to differentiate the nature of man and woman.

 So what are the roles associated with this description of creation? Adam and Eve are both told in Genesis that ‘they are to fill the earth, and to subdue it.’ In this they are given the same orders from God; their gender roles only become different when they are told HOW they are to subdue it. When God creates Eve, the account goes as follows: And the LORD God said, “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him.”  Out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them. And whatever Adam called each living creature, that was its name.  So Adam gave names to all cattle, to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper comparable to him.

And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall on Adam, and he slept; and He took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh in its place.Then the rib which the LORD God had taken from man He made into a woman, and He brought her to the man.

And Adam said:

“This is now bone of my bones

And flesh of my flesh;

She shall be called Woman,

Because she was taken out of Man.”

Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.  

Adam is told, along with Eve, to subdue the earth, but Eve is designated as his helper.  Whatever Adam does, Eve is to be right there beside him. There is absolute equality between them in importance, in personhood, and they share an equal place in God’s plan. Just because Adam is the head of the relationship in no way diminishes Eve’s dignity or importance. And in obeying that God-ordained idea of marriage and social structure, you get stability, and strong families. Proper application of gender roles is how God meant to fill the earth, and subdue it.

To me, this is the beginning and the end of why America will be the next historic failure. We forgot Genesis 1 and 2. We began by forgetting the very beginning: God created the heavens and earth. Charles Darwin’s ‘origin of the species’ has been America’s accepted creation story for nearly a century now. (Darwin himself, by the way, realized the folly of the Theory of Evolution and recanted it shortly before his death. Social Darwinism leaves us nothing in the way of affirming personhood.) If men forget that they were made as eikons of God, and women as the glory of men, then we become faceless, nameless. If life came from nowhere, accidentally, then there is no dignity or importance attached to it. We have no hope, and ultimately nothing we do matters. In honoring God as the creator, we ourselves can rightly retain a shred of that honor as the pinnacle of his creation.  Particularly women, because Eve was the very last being God created. She was the icing on the cake, the cherry on top of the sundae, and the signature at the bottom of the painting. Women in particular should take great pride in being fashioned by God, because they are the artistic epitome of creation.

Once we lose sight of ourselves as God’s greatest creation, the roles assigned to us become muddied as well. I see this as something that became an epidemic in the 1960’s. God intended for men to be defined by their strength, and women by their purity. It’s an inarguable point that American men lack the propensity they once had for being leaders, and warriors. We are abdicating, en masse, our orders to subdue the earth. Simply put, we’re becoming lazy.

When men become lazy, we incite the woman’s sinful nature to usurp our positions as leaders. By the 1980’s in the US, it was thought very hip and cosmopolitan for a man to a hyper-sensitive pacifist, and for a woman to be a hard-driving feminists… the polar opposite of what they were created to be. By the 1990’s, not only were gender roles considered obsolete but gender itself was beginning to be considered passé. Phrases like ‘transgender’ were beginning to appear in newspaper articles and television clips.

By the 2000’s, surgically modified people began fighting for equal ‘rights’ and legal protection. Men are no longer men and women are no longer women. No one knows who they’re supposed to be anymore. This, and only this, I believe, is what has de-stabilized the American family. We’re raising fractured, dis-enfranchised children who make hobbies of things like shooting up their schools. We forgot who the men were supposed to be and who the women were supposed to be, and nothing good comes from that because that’s the basis of proper human interaction.  Every other social ill is just a symptom of that deeper problem.

It is my firm (although admittedly debatable) opinion that America is a lost cause; she is too crippled to survive much longer. Empires rise and empires fall, and we will not be the exception to the rule. We were once an immoral people. Immorality is knowing right from wrong, but choosing wrong. When that’s your state, you can recover. At least the immoral man knows right from wrong. But now we have become Amoral. Not only are we choosing wrong, we don’t even know what right is anymore.

There’s no surviving that.

But we Christians can and will survive. First of all, we have to always honor Genesis 1:1: God created the heavens and the earth. The Ecclesiast gave us a simple way to live for this very basic idea: Ecclesiastes 12 says this:  Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter:

Fear God and keep His commandments,

For this is man’s all.

For God will bring every work into judgment,

Including every secret thing,

Whether good or evil.

To the men, the sons of Adam, Paul gives us this very basic commandment: Ephesians 5 says ‘Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself’. Love is not a fuzzy feeling, as post-modern thought would have us believe. It’s act of will, the ability to place another’s needs above your own. Brothers, if you never fail to honor your wife’s need above your own, she will never be tempted to usurp your place as head of your household. She won’t want to, because she’ll trust you to care for her needs. The feminist movement is the direct result of men’s failure to lead well. We can’t stop the feminist movement in the world beyond our doors, but we can nip it in the bud in our own homes.

Regarding women, Paul says this in 1 Timothy 2: ‘And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression. Nevertheless she will be saved in childbearing if they continue in faith, love, and holiness, with self-control.’ The wording of that verse is very, very archaic; I don’t have time to go into the Greek of it this morning, but I will paraphrase it in plain English because its point is very simple: Eve may have lost her honor by being deceived, but her daughters can restore it by faith, love, holiness, and self-control’. Not by protests, demonstrations, political activism, and discrimination lawsuits, but simply by being what God created them to be: Adam’s helper.

Social stability begins and ends with the home. If we as Christians can maintain that marital triad of God, man, and woman, we will have stable homes even though ‘they’ do not.  Our children will not shoot up the schools. Our households will be financially solvent, and our lives will make sense. America may crash and burn, but we will not. If we want to survive in a post-modern imperial collapse, we have to remember what we were created to be.

I realize this is probably a pretty depressing sermon. Remember, I’m Southern… we’re kinda hardwired to peach ‘hell n’ damnation’ . That’s why God promotes the idea of multiple teachers; we balance one another out.

But seriously, times they are a-changing’ and almost everyone agrees it ain’t for the better. We have to maintain a strong sense of ourselves, or we won’t survive …

In this world, or the next.

Regarding… Well, Nothing. A Very DANGEROUS Nothing!

This sermon was delivered to the local Church of Christ over the summer of 2013

Good morning!

I’ve been in construction all my life, and a few years ago I spent most of my summer working in Bismarck. Which means that I spent three nights a week in a hotel room. When you’re pulling twelve-hour days out in the heat, when you get in you don’t have the strength to do anything except ‘veg out’.

As I would flip through the TV stations, I noticed how many televangelists are still on the air. Most, if not all, of the time I disagreed with the salvation teachings that these ministers were espousing, but once in a while I’d watch one anyway.

Sin is still a popular topic among televangelists, apparently, as it ought to be for any preacher. But if you watch these guys, most of their sermons go something like this: America is doing this, or the Liberals are doing that … And I remember thinking to myself, well buddy, what are you doing? I’m beginning to think that maybe we preachers ought to preach about sin first within the context of what we’re doing wrong, instead of what everybody else is doing wrong. From there you can go on and lovingly point out the sin you see in others, but I’m thinking that we ought to start with ourselves. If other now-infamous preachers had taken that approach, people might not have treated them so harshly when they messed up.

So this morning I want to talk about sin, about what it is and what it isn’t, and to ponder some of the effects that it has on our lives. But before we dive into the topic, let’s have a word of prayer, shall we?

(prayer)

‘Sin’ is a word that the religious world has bandied about since the beginning. At least Western religion has bandied it about, because Western religion has always believed in absolute right and wrong. Eastern religions rely more on moral relativism rather than moral absolutes, and they lean more toward and ‘enlightenment and ignorance’ viewpoint rather than a ‘righteousness and sin’ viewpoint. Moral relativism may or may not work in the eastern world depending on what checks and balances it has, but it has been a spectacular failure in the western world. We should have seen that coming; Jesus did say, in Matthew 12:33, that a tree is known by its fruit.

So what is a sin? The Catholic Church has attempted over the years to quantify and label sin so the idea is easier to understand. While I applaud their need to understand and avoid evil, I think it’s difficult to define something that is very often fluid in nature.

My assertion, as many have heard me say before, that sin is a nothing. It’s a non-entity, a ‘no-see-um’. The epistle of 1 John uses the analogy of darkness and light to define good and evil, and I think that’s probably the best way to define it. Darkness isn’t anything. It can’t be measured and it has no characteristics of its own. Darkness just exists by default wherever there doesn’t happen to be any light. Light, on the other hand, does exist in its own right. It has a wavelength that can be measured, it moves at discernible speeds, and it can be broken into a prism. Every time it rains and you see a rainbow, you see proof positive of personality and character of light.

Light IS. Darkness is NOT. Darkness is just the absence of light; we give darkness a name because we need a way to describe it, but our need to describe it doesn’t change the fact that there’s nothing there to describe.

I think that way about sin. Sin is just the absence of righteousness. Sin exists wherever righteousness is not. You don’t have to work at being sinful; you just will be whenever you’re not working at being righteous.

I think this is really the only way to look at it. We have to think of sin as a void, as a non-entity. Because if we think of it as an entity in its own right, then we forsake our own religion and we become Eastern philosophers. Eastern philosophy believes that good and evil are two halves of the same coin, and that the universe maintains a balance between them. Problem with that is, we’ve all to some degree had to live out the consequences of compromising with evil. It stinks. It ain’t fun.

If you don’t think of sin as a state of nothingness, then you have to ask yourself a pesky question: Did God create sin? Scripture says God created everything, in Colossians 1:16. Satan may have been the first sinner, but did God create the IDEA of sin? Wouldn’t that make God more than a little malignant?

I think the simple answer to that is that nobody made sin any more than anyone made darkness. You don’t have to create a nothing. God made light and righteousness, and darkness and sin live live wherever light and righteousness are not.

Righteousness has identifiable characteristics. Turn with me to Galatians 5, starting in verse 22: But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law.And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

Righteousness loves. Righteousness is joyful. Righteousness promotes peace and is endlessly patient. It’s kind, good, loyal, gentle, and is capable of controlling its own responses.

Sin has no qualities of its own. CS Lewis once referred to Satan as ‘the ape of God’. His point was that Satan cannot create anything new; he can only mimic and blaspheme that which God has created. I agree with Lewis on that point. If you know anything about Anton LaVey’s orthodox church of Satan, NONE of their rituals or ceremonies are original. They’re just blasphemies and perversions of Christian ceremonies.

While evil has no personality of its own, it does take on anti-characteristics that twist and distort the manifestations of righteousness. Turn again to Galatians 5, but we’ll be starting a bit earlier this time, in verse 19: Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness,idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies,envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, and lewdness are just the absence of self-control. Idolatry, sorcery, dissension, contentions, and heresy are the absence of faithfulness. Hatred, jealousy, angry outbursts, selfishness, envy and murder are the absence of kindness.

What we’ve discussed thus far is the philosophy behind sin. Philosophy’s easy. When I was growing up, my friends and I loved nothing better than to crack open a bottle of whisky and debate philosophy for hours. Philosophy is a pastime for eggheads; it has its place, but it’s no good if you can’t move beyond philosophy to practicality.

I think we ought to all look at sin in our lives, but not because we like to dwell on sin. Rather, our sins tell us what righteous attributes we haven’t perfected in our lives.  Admittedly, this is a hard thing to do. When I look in the mirror and examine my faults, I always end up feeling like I’m going straight to hell. I just have to remind myself that this is what Christ came for: Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 12:9 that God’s grace is sufficient to cover our weakness.

The flip side of that, though, is that if we don’t work at moving past our faults then God’s grace becomes dead to us. James flat-out says this in James 2:17. The irony of Christianity is that God readily covers all of our sins, but we are nevertheless commanded to put them to death.

So how do we identify sin in our lives?

Admittedly, a lot of what I’m about to say is subject to debate. Someone’s probably gonna disagree with me. That’s fine. When I’m being dogmatic about scripture, I’ll say so. The rest of the time, I’m just trying to spur thought. I don’t often see scriptural wisdom as a carved-in-stone, black-and-white thing. Rather, I see it as an evolution … and that evolution begins with debate, not by being handed trite altruisms.

That disclaimer having been given, I think the most glaringly obvious trait of sinful behavior is the refusal to take responsibility for its actions. Turn with me, if you would, to Genesis 3, beginning in verse 1: Now the serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said to the woman, “Has God indeed said, ‘You shall not eat of every tree of the garden’?”

2        And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden;but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.’ “

4        Then the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die.For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

6        So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave to her husband with her, and he ate.Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves coverings.

8        And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden.

9        Then the LORD God called to Adam and said to him, “Where are you?”

10     So he said, “I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself.”

11     And He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you that you should not eat?”

12     Then the man said, “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I ate.”

13     And the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”

            The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

And there you have it. The WOMAN made me do it. The SERPENT made me do it. God’s question was ‘did YOU eat from the tree?” and yet both Adam and Eve began by talking about what someone else made them do. I think this is fairly instinctive for human beings. When you shirk the blame, you avoid taking responsibility for your destructive behavior. Problem is, those consequences are yours whether you accept them or not.

I remember years ago, when I was living in upstate New York, not far from Lake Placid. I was project manager for a fairly high-end construction firm. In retrospect, that was a horrible job for me. I like to work with my hands; I like building buildings, not planning them. Paperwork drives me completely insane, and most of all I’m a terrible politician; I have no brain-mouth disconnect at all, and when you’re the guy jockeying hundreds of thousands of dollars around every single day … that’s bad.

But I forced myself to fit into that mold anyway, and doing so made me miserable beyond miserable. And in my youthful stupidity, all I really did about it was drink. By 2007 I was going through nearly a bottle of whisky every night. Didn’t even bother with a glass or ice; just set the bottle on the desk and sucked on it like my life depended on it.

Over the years, I spent tens of thousands of dollars partying my time away. I ruined a number of friendships and family relationships, and I spent countless days being either incoherent or sick. You hear me now? I DID THAT. That’s Christ in me talking. THEN it was, hey man, I got a rough job. You gotta do something to stay sane, dontcha?

During that lost decade or so, I never stood in the mirror and went ‘what on earth are you doing?’ I should have looked at myself and said ‘hey man, that’s YOU clutching that fifth of Wild Turkey like it’s a baby bottle. You, you alone, and no one else. Not your job, not your boss … you.

Funny thing is, when someone does take responsibility for their actions, sin usually ends up taking a backseat. One morning in 2007 I woke up after whisky and cocaine bender, and sat up in bed and said hey, I am sicker than I‘ve ever been. I have to cut this mess out. The simple use of that word ‘I’ instead of ‘they’ made all the difference in the world.

I wasn’t even a Christian then. Sin is sin, whether one is in Christ or not. Benjamin Franklin wrote that ‘sin is not hurtful because it’s forbidden, it’s forbidden because it’s hurtful.’ Everything that God condemns as sin, He condemns because it’s bad for us. God is loving, as it says in 1 John 4:7, and He only wants the best for us.

Another characteristic of sin is that it keeps doing the same dumb thing over and over again, hoping that something different will happen this time. I remember when I was younger, I had this very post-modern, secular humanist view of romantic relationships. Immorality wasn’t something that particularly bothered me. And over the years, I wondered why every attachment I formed would fall to shreds in very short order.

I know now why I couldn’t find a stable relationship; immorality breeds heartache, and nothing more. (You young people, you teenagers… you’re hearing me now, right? I’ve made all the mistakes you’re tempted to make now, and lemme tell ya… you DON’T wanna do it!) Relationships only succeed if they are selfless. Your point of view should be ‘I am going to serve this person’s emotional needs as their boyfriend, girlfriend, fiancée, or spouse.’ It should be about what you give, not what you take. And when you introduce sex before you say ‘I do’… you’re taking something that doesn’t belong to you. You’re eating your dessert before your dinner, and guess what? It’s gonna spoil your dinner.

When you introduce immorality into a non-marital relationship, you poison the relationship. Immorality is not selfless, it’s selfish; it’s not about what you’re willing to give, it’s about what you think you can take. There’s an old saying: As the twig is bent, so the tree is inclined. A relationship, even a marriage, that began in sin is going to be crippled. There’s no way around it. Can God heal those marital wounds that were caused by sin? Sure He can. But God only promises to HEAL THE WOUND. The SCAR you carry is your own burden. God cannot and will not violate our free will, and with free will comes the curse of living out the result of our choices. I am haunted every single day by the choices I made. I live with the guilt, and a lot of my negative behavior is born of emotional issues that I caused by my choices. Fortunately, the cycle’s been broken; I met and married my wife now in accordance with God’s standards, and it’s been amazing. Sinful foundations leads to bad marriages, but righteous ones lead to healthy marriages.

I just wish I hadn’t learned the hard way.

The last identifying mark of sin that I wanted to mention is this: Sin lives in perpetual self-denial. People whose lives are defined by sin cannot help but trivialize their behavior.  Someone once said that an evil man doesn’t think he is ‘that bad’, but a good man knows that he is evil. There’s a lot of truth to that, I think. I remember when I was baptized back in 2007. I had a friend who kind of turned on me, to the point that I really stopped thinking of him as a friend. He eventually came around and apologized, and we were able to patch things up. I know now why it went like that; evil hates the presence of goodness, because where goodness is, evil looks even worse by comparison. John 3:19 says ‘And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.’

What I’ve never forgotten was an email that this friend sent me shortly after I became a Christian. “Why the major change?” he wrote. “The person you were before wasn’t that bad.” I was so tempted to respond ‘Are you completely INSANE?! You were with me when we got thrown out of bars and busted by the cops. You were there when we chugged gallons of booze and snorted piles of coke. You were there when we got into fights for hitting on other men’s wives and girlfriends. You were there when we passed out, threw up, drove drunk, and did God knows what else. What part of ANY of this is ‘not that bad?’

But his question to me betrayed our difference in paradigm. He was using the sliding scale by which the world judges wrongdoing. I had been led toward the absolute standard of God’s Word.

The terrifying thing is that I still look in the mirror and accuse myself. My batting average for being able to rein my sins of attitude is about seventy-five percent. About one in four slanderous, coarse, or complaining thoughts that I think I’m going to spit out. James 3:10 says that ‘Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so.’ Ephesians 5:4 says that ‘neither coarse talk, foolish jesting, or filthiness ought never to be named among Christians’. The letter to the Philippians is all about being content, not fretful and fussy.

Over the years I’ve occasionally gone and drank a bit more than I should. My days of hard partying are long over, thank God, but if I don’t carefully monitor myself I can wander into debauchery without even realizing it.

Sins aren’t just actions or words, they’re also attitudes. I have struggled since the beginning of my walk with God to adopt a purely Christian perspective on people. My ability to look at others through God’s eyes wars constantly with my temptation to view everything through a cultural lens. What does God say about that? Romans 3:9 says ‘What then? Are we better than they? Not at all. For we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin.’ God does promote or honor any culture except his own; I have a devil of a time looking at the concept His way.

I am not what I should be. I never will be. The question we should ask ourselves, though, is this: It’s not ‘am I what I should be?” It’s am I better than I was?’ Moving past sin isn’t a light switch, it’s a journey.

Back to this idea of sin being an empty void: The only way to fix a void is to put something in it. Turn with me to Matthew 12, starting in verse 43: “When an unclean spirit goes out of a man, he goes through dry places, seeking rest, and finds none.Then he says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when he comes, he finds it empty, swept, and put in order.Then he goes and takes with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man is worse than the first. So shall it also be with this wicked generation.”Jesus knew that you can’t just push away evil and then remain in a state of neutrality. You have to take that emptiness and fill it with righteousness. You have to take the evil that is you and replace it with Godliness. What did Peter say in Acts 2:38? He said ‘Reform and be immersed, each and every one of you, under the authority of Jesus the Savior to accomplish the removal of your sinful state, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’ I realize that’s probably not the wording you’re used to, but that’s exactly what the original Greek says. The wording we generally use is based on the King James Tradition.

Peter, like Jesus, understood that sin can’t be beaten just by resolving not to sin. It has to pushed away with active righteousness. When God washes away our sins in baptism, he puts in Himself. One of my pet peeves is our habit of referring to the Holy Spirit as an ‘it’. The Holy Spirit is not an ‘it’, He is a ‘He’. The Spirit, like The Father and Christ, is God and can be prayed to, worshipped, approached, and interacted with just the rest of the Godhead. The Holy Spirit is not a vague cosmic influence like ‘The Force’ from Star Wars; He is God Inside Us. And He is what pushes away our sinful emptiness. I very often explicitly address prayers to the Spirit, because He is the closet facet of God to me. The Father is in Heaven, Jesus is at His right hand… but the Spirit is IN me!

If you don’t want to be lewd and impure, focus on practicing self-control. If you don’t want to deal in hatred and outbursts of wrath, instead focus on being kind. If you don’t want to fall for heresies, be faithful to God by diligently study His Word. In the end, if you don’t want your soul destroyed by hellfire then quit focusing on hell and think about actively getting to heaven. Don’t focus on an evil Nothing; work on creating a good Something. If you’re not going forward the only other direction go is backwards; there’s no sideways, and there’s no state of stasis.

I think a good way to accomplish this is by being more honest with one another. The Churches of Christ in particular – and I mean the church at large, not necessarily this congregation – is exasperatingly tight-lipped about sin. We’ll preach about it, but we won’t admit to it. What did James say? ‘Confess your sins one to another, and pray for one another so you can be healed’. That’s James 5:16. 1 John 1:9 says that if we confess our sins we will be healed. It’s not ‘hey let’s debate scripture so I don’t have to talk about who I really am.’ It’s about applying scripture by saying ‘hey man, I need to talk about what I’m struggling with.’ This is why I really appreciate the men’s morning class, and I’m betting the ladies’ prayer group is just as cathartic. They’re good places to heal from sin, because they consist of open, uncensored discussion. We say in men’s class, ‘what’s said in men’s class STAYS in men’s class’… and thus my lips are sealed. Scripture never said you had to tell EVERYBODY, it just says to tell SOMEBODY. I’m not sharing any details, but lemme tell ya… the details I’ve heard are pretty raw, and that’s how it’s meant to be.

Confession is good for the soul. Both the Christian and the Secular man know this.

So let’s think about that as we leave today. We all have sin in our lives. Can’t help that. Even the best of us sins in every other thought, every other word, and every other action. But we also have God, and God has given us one another option. Don’t focus on what’s wrong; fix what’s wrong by focusing on what’s right.

It’s that simple.

Regarding Cults, Their Leaders, and the People Who Join Them…

March 26th, 1997…

I was nineteen years old, and I remember hearing the news report for the first time. Thirty-nine members of California’s ‘Heaven’s Gate’ commune were found lying in bunk-beds, dressed in matching black clothes and Nike sneakers. Each had a bag tied over his or her head, and all had perished from self-administered doses of vodka and Phenobarbital.

Their googly-eyed leader, Marshall Herff Applewhite, claimed that the passing comet Hale-Bopp hid a mystical spaceship. Only by ‘shedding their human containers’ could the Faithful be ‘beamed’ aboard the spaceship, after which they would enjoy an epic eternity in the Great Beyond. (Applewhite himself was found among the dead.)

Applewhite was obviously a nut case, and his followers also had a few loose screws. There were a number of disturbing events that led up to the mass suicide, one of which was this: Many male cult members (including Applewhite himself) submitted to castration in order to shed all ‘human desires’. (On a similar note, the Branch Davidian leader David Koresh insisted that all wives and daughters be turned over to him, because only he was ‘pure’ enough to breed.)

Cults are weird, man!

In one sense, I don’t get it. I mean, I’d be damned if I’m gonna have my ‘nads cut off, or drink poison, or hand my wife over to some tin-pot dictator like a party favor. On the other hand, I was once a member of the cult founded by the self-anointed ‘prophet’ Kip McKean. While McKean’s cult doesn’t (insofar as I know) demand the surrender of one’s virility (or wife), the group nevertheless remains notorious for its coercive and abusive control mechanisms.

I think the reason that some people join cults – or at least, the reason I did – is that they’re hoping to have all the accurate, reliable, and complete answers about Life handed to them on a silver platter. Blindly accepting the teachings of some self-described ‘Messiah’ is much, much easier than sorting out those answers for oneself! Some people mistrust themselves so much that they’ll follow any lunatic who’s more assertive than they are. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh talked just enough trash to get his followers to hand over their life savings… which he used to acquire nearly a hundred Rolls-Royces, which he then proceeded to drive like a maniac. Dwight ‘Malachi’ York ran his mystical ‘Nuwaubian Nation’ cult with the apparent end of gaining sexual access to young girls, and so did Tony Alamo of Alamo Christian Ministries.

I can identify two different kinds of cult leaders: Those who are/were actually crazy enough to believe their own baloney, and snake-oil salesmen who just teach whatever happens to be enriching and empowering to them.

Marshall Applewhite and David Koresh were crazy. How do we know this? They died alongside their flocks, swallowing their own delusions hook, line, and sinker. On the other hand, Charlie Manson tried to get outta Dodge before he was arrested, and Japanese cult leader Shoko Asahara harbored no intentions whatsoever of facing the consequences of his actions.

Going ‘way back, I think that Joseph Smith (the Mormons) and Charles Taze Russell (Jehovah’s Witnesses) were of the ‘crazy’ breed of cult leaders as well: Both predicted dates upon which the world would end within their own lifetimes! There’s no reason to do that except lunacy…

A sane man would realize that the world’s failure to end by its ‘due date’ just might damage his reputation!

But L. Ron Hubbard (Scientology) wasn’t crazy, any more than Charlie Manson or Shoko Asahara. I just finished reading his book Dianetics, and lemme tell ya… Scientology was crafted from day one to become (as the producers of TV’s South Park put it) ‘a global scam’. I don’t think Hubbard was a nut at all; I think he was just pure evil.

Another question that interests me is this: Why do the wealthy – and celebrities – so love to join cults?

The Beatles were involved with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and George Harrison went on to join the Hari Krishnas. The brother of Star Trek’s Nichelle Nichols was found dead along with the other Heaven’s Gate cultists. Members of the Beach Boys were involved with the Manson Family. John Travolta, Tom Cruise, Kirstie Alley and many other actors have been involved with Scientology over the years. And most recently, Allison Mack (of TV’s Smallville) and India Oxenburg (daughter of Dynasty’s Catherine Oxenburg) found themselves entangled in Keith Raniere’s cult, Nxivm. (Two heiresses from the Seagram’s whisky family were ensnared by Nxivm as well.)

So why do the wealthy and famous so love to join cults? I think there’s a two-fold answer to that question: Number one, cults attract the wealthy because cult leaders court the wealthy. Duh!

But why do the rich and famous fall for their shenanigans…?

The answer, I think, is pretty simple. The wealthy and the powerful are the same as everyone else, in the sense that they seek a sense of spirituality. As wiser men than I have pointed out, humans are inherently ‘theotropic beings’. We were created in the image of our Creator, and we cannot long abide the lack of a spiritual dimension in our lives.

God, however, has certain expectations of us, rules that He sets into place for our well-being. As Benjamin Franklin put it: ‘Sin is not hurtful because it is forbidden, but forbidden because it is hurtful’. For your average shmoe, God’s expectations aren’t that troubling. I don’t have to worry over-much about falling into adultery, because I’m a not a rock star with beautiful women throwing themselves at me after every concert. I don’t hafta sweat drug addiction all that much, either, because I can’t afford drugs. I firmly believe that people are only as good as they have to be, which is why Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that Christianity was the secret of American greatness…

That’s also why America sits upon a precipice now, teetering on the brink of anarchy and collapse: Without accountability to our Creator, people begin to behave like animals. And that, I believe, is why celebrities are easy prey for cults: They’re seeking a convenient sense of spirituality without the inconvenience of moral expectations. I mean, celebrities can afford lots of women and drugs, so they don’t want some religion cramping their style!

The Rajneeshis, the Manson Family, and the Nuwaubians were all about as depraved as they come. I think Anton LaVey (of the Orthodox Church of Satan) summed up the attraction of cults fairly well, in writing about his own: Satanism condones any type of sexual activity which properly satisfies your individual desires — be it heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, or even asexual, if you choose.

But not all cults are debaucherous in nature; many lean more towards monasticism. What’s the appeal of these groups?

Much like a battered wife feels that she ‘deserves’ her husband’s abusive and controlling behavior, I think there’s an element of emotional dependency there. When I was in McKean’s cult, the painful manipulation I experienced mimicked elements of my own unhappy childhood. Because I’d been so conditioned to being controlled and suffering verbal abuse, the outrageous actions of the ‘ministry’ just struck me as… well, part of a normal ‘family’ relationship.

Cults are never ‘normal’!

An understanding of God is a good thing. It draws us into a deeper knowledge of ourselves by virtue of a deeper relationship with the Deity who created us. Enlightened Faith draws upon the nobler side of human nature, and brings out our best qualities.

Cults, on the other hand, are nothing if not a perversion of faith! They pull us deep into the blackest abyss of our own soul, by appealing to needs born of lust, or abuse. Cults draw upon the dark side of human nature, and bring out our very worst qualities.

On the other hand…

Maybe Marshall Applewhite is riding happily around on a comet somewhere…

Nah!!!

Fire and Blood: A Fable in Seven Parts

Author’s note: Fables are not my strong suit. Nor is writing in the present tense. But sometimes breaking one’s mold is satisfying, and more than a little cathartic…

Part I

In all the world, there is none so graceful, so beautiful, or so powerful as the Phoenix.

The awe-inspiring bird of ancient myth soars high above his world, transcending even Time itself. He soars in, out, and through all the ages of men, carried aloft by wings be-feathered with incandescent flame. He turns his piercing eye toward the doings of mankind with open scorn, his plumed head un-bowed. Un-bowed… before man, beast, and even the Almighty Himself.

For who is greater than the Phoenix? He is the dragon-bird of the Heavens, the Watchman of the Ages.

Perhaps he had a beginning, or perhaps he never did. Perhaps someone plucked him from the pyre of his birth. Or perhaps he is simply timeless, without beginning and certainly incapable of ever coming to an end.

In his travels the Phoenix gazes often upon the mountain of the Almighty. He finds it in odd places sometimes, the mountain, and always unexpectedly. Sometimes it rises from the desert, overlooking the heathen hordes of the Middle East. Sometimes it appears on lush isles, surrounded by the resort cities of America, the modern Roman Empire. But always it seems to follow the glorious Phoenix, the mountain, and always the great dragon-bird turns and sails disdainfully away from it, flicking his crimson tail feathers in irritation.

For the Almighty is really just a crutch for the weak, is He not? His worshippers grovel at the feet of their deity, their praise mixed always with barely concealed terror. They are addicts to religion, those weak-minded mortals who must need cling to the idea of a Greater Being. But not so the Phoenix… The Phoenix has sailed through all the ages alone, dependant on none, and will continue to do so.

The immortal Phoenix has no need of either the Almighty or His mortal servants. Do they love their master, really… or do they simply desire release from the fear of death?

Either way, the Phoenix is his own being, an entity apart.

As the sun rises over Eden, hits its zenith over the half-built Sphinx, and sets behind the crumbling Mount Rushmore, the Phoenix flies effortlessly across the fluid eonic winds – ageless, changeless, and proud beyond all measure.

For who, in the end, can be greater than the Phoenix?

Part II

The mammoth trumpets loudly, calling out in anguish as golden claws tear into its hide.

Crimson wings beat about its head, forcing it to the earth in unwilling surrender. It thrashes like a fish, a massive hulk of struggling sinew, fur and tusk. Its piteous cries tear into the frigid Siberian air, mingling with the vicious snarling of the hungry Phoenix.

At last the great mammoth dies, as everything must in the end. It settles into the snow, spreading a scarlet stain upon the pristine white blanket.

The Phoenix throws his head up in triumph, his chilling victory scream piercing the still, frozen night as blood drips from his razor-sharp beak.

While the Phoenix hunts here often, he disdains to actually eat here… For what union can a creature of fire and flame have with the never-ending ice? Grasping his kill in his curved talons, the Phoenix takes wing toward another age, another place.

The Phoenix drops his prey atop a high, lonely mountain, one whose peak pierces the cloud barrier. Here mankind will hinder him not; here, he may continue to remain the stuff of mystery, of myth.

Of course, every boon has it price…

For where mankind is not, the celestial becomes more tangible. Here there be the guardians and warriors, the protectors and killers of mankind; they flock about the Phoenix curiously, cherubim, seraphim, and nephilim all. The winged, ethereal creatures – male and female both – flit about the Phoenix as he feeds, the ghost-like tendrils of their clothing just brushing the great dragon-bird, their touch as light as a whisper.  

It is not long before their presence becomes odious; the Phoenix rises from his gorging, his tearing of flesh and cracking of bones, and snaps angrily at the celestial minions who come too close. This is his prey, his kill, and he is determined that they should hinder him not.

They eye him but coolly, completely unbothered by the rage of the mythical Phoenix. He is merely legend, their indifference seems to say… But they are the sort that pre-dates even legend. As such, they are beyond even the Phoenix’s reproach and retribution. They are as numb to his attempts at rebuttal as Death was to the mammoth’s frantic trumpeting.

The Phoenix will later tell himself that he’d eaten enough, that he was about to leave anyway. He takes wing furiously, leaving his gory, dismembered meal to sully the mountain’s craggy peak, and leaves this hell of angelic torment.

He’d eaten enough… really, and truly, and the celestials mattered no. They had nothing whatsoever to do with his leaving.

Really.

Part III

The Almighty is an elusive thing, easy to see, easy to identify but hard to follow, and impossible to pin down.

The Phoenix resents Him mightily for this.

Sometimes the Almighty is obvious but distant, a shining form that tops of the mountains from which he views the entirety of His creation. It is then that the Phoenix resents Him the most, for He is untouchable then, unfathomable and omnipotent; His very presence seems to scorn the mighty Phoenix.

The Almighty, in His untouchable, all-powerful form. How the Phoenix hates Him!

Often the Almighty becomes Spirit, the sentient, changeless phantom. This form, also, the Phoenix dislikes. But he is not so afraid of Him then; he cannot see the Spirit of the Almighty, after all. But he can sense Him, and he finds him frightening nonetheless. The Spirit is separate from the God upon the mountains – but yet He is the same singular, sovereign entity that is the Almighty.

Some days, though, for brief, passing moments, the Almighty becomes simply… mortal. A perishable vessel of flesh. A man, much like any other.

The Phoenix cannot say why he even recognizes this incarnation of the Almighty, this Son of Man. Perhaps he can sense the Spirit within Him, or perhaps the tangible Almighty simply shines even more brightly upon Him.

The Son of Man, too – like the mountaintop Almighty, or the Spirit – is also the Almighty Himself, yet the Phoenix grasps this not. One thing, however, is certain; the Phoenix does not fear the Son of Man. He follows Him daily, floating effortlessly on astral winds, watching as the human Almighty does very human things with His time.

Some days the Son of Man works at mundane tasks, wielding hammer and saw as lustily as any carpenter. He sweats, bleeds, laughs and grunts like any other man intent on building the buildings that house his world.

Yet sometimes the Son of Man pulls away, to pray, to connect with the Almighty upon His mountaintop – this Almighty who is also the Son of Man. Sometimes He wanders the known world with those He has chosen, His select followers. The Phoenix, if he would follow, is forced to fly far and wide, watching from a distance as the Son of Man spreads whatever news He carries to the far corners of His humble nation.

Sometimes the Phoenix lingers within the age of the Son of Man for a time, and sometimes he travels to another, leaving the Almighty-made-flesh to His own devices.

Today, however, the Phoenix is earthbound, watching lazily, preening his crimson feathers disdainfully as the Son of Man stands at the foot of a tall mountain, speaking quietly to his closest friends. The Phoenix cannot hear His words, nor does he care to. He is simply here to observe, to find some new reason to cast scorn upon God and Man both.

The Phoenix raises his plumed head, suddenly intrigued.

The Son of Man has risen above his followers, hands outspread, moving aloft as though pulled by unseen strings.

Now, thinks the Phoenix with macabre humor, Man has learned to fly?! Smiling with his hooked, cruel beak, the Phoenix lunges from beneath his shade tree.

Far, far above the awestruck assemblage, the Almighty shines from His mountain. The Son of Man sails toward Him, as though somehow drawn by the majesty of the Frightfully Eternal.

Determined suddenly not to be denied a privilege handed to a mortal – even a wholly Divine, Immortal Mortal – the Phoenix flies upward, determined to follow the Son of Man into whatever heaven might await Him atop the mountain.

And who truly knows what really waits at the top of the mountain of the Almighty? Only the Almighty Himself, and His Spirit… and the Son of Man.

But soon, the Phoenix vows silently to himself, he too will know.

Part IV

Straining more with each flap of his thunderous wings, the Phoenix rises higher and higher, following the Son of Man as He ascends toward the mountaintop.

Flames lick at the tips of his wings the beat at the chilly air, but the Phoenix worries not. These are not the flames that consume, but the flames that illuminate, that the world may see the Phoenix and stand in awe.

The Phoenix breaks through the clouds and then through the atmosphere, breaking into the Eternal Night as he struggles to overtake the Son of Man. The Son looks serenely down at the Phoenix, shaking his head a little. Silly bird, He seems to be saying. You cannot seize my world for yourself, any more than you can seize the wind

The Phoenix pays Him little heed. He merely redoubles his efforts, determined not to be outdone by anyone, divine or otherwise.

Still the Son of Man rises, moving past star and planet, through the Endless Nothing toward the mountaintop heaven.

The Phoenix begins to tremble more and more with each passing stroke of his wings. Tarnished feathers fall from his aching wings every now and again, drifting slowly toward the atmosphere, where they disappear in flashes of flame and puffs of smoke.

The Phoenix is slowly overtaken by a dawning realization, the sinking feeling that he might actually be able to die.

Still the Son of Man rises serenely, paying the Phoenix little mind.

The ageless beast continues his ascent, but with increasing sluggishness. He hangs his head low, his plume all but gone now, diminished feather by missing feather until it is no more.

One… last… flap, one last desperate plunge toward the Son of Man – who is all but out of sight.

The bedraggled tail feathers that once pointed toward the earth point suddenly skyward, and the Phoenix begins to fall.

He resists, of course, managing a feeble movement of his twitching wings every now and then. But to no avail; he has reached the end of his strength, and he is utterly spent. There is no help for him now… For who would bother to aid him who has scorned all?

The Phoenix hits the atmosphere with a rush of searing pain, and a sudden stab of fear. Like the returning space capsules of the modern age, the force of re-entering the firmament causes massive heat.

As his body begins to simmer and scorch, the Phoenix realizes that this is not the sort of flame that illuminates…

This is the sort of flame that consumes.

The Phoenix stares downward with bulging eyes. Gone is the stunned crowd who watched the Son of Man ascend into heaven; gone is the lush valley of earlier, the tree beneath which the Phoenix preened his once-lovely feathers.

The earth opens up slowly, a hungry maw of flaming fissures, cracks that scar the face of the earth like veins on a dying man.

The Phoenix plunges down, down, exhausted beyond recovery. He looks upward painfully; the Son of Man is far beyond his gaze.

Gone is the crowd, the followers of the Son.

There is no one to listen, no one to hear as the Phoenix crashes into a fissure and begins to burn.

Part V

The Phoenix lifts his head wearily; exhausted, he lets it fall. The flames in which it lands are unbearably painful, yet he lacks the strength to fly away.

His wings crack ominously as he rolls over; his crimson feathers burn one by one, curling away from his blistering flesh in withering clumps of smoldering ash.

So this, then, is Death. To burn yet not be consumed, to suffer and yet not die.

Squawking weakly, the Phoenix struggles to his knees. His golden claws melt and drip away, and his toes dig into the softened earth. Looking skyward with smoke-blurred eyes, the Phoenix looks skyward at the stars, toward the sky that was once his playground.

The Son of Man is up there somewhere, while he – the great Phoenix, the timeless demon-bird – wallows here, in the flames of his own making. All that he ever knew, all that he ever wanted although he’d taken it for granted, is up there… nearly within the grasp of his twisted talons.

So close… and so far that it may as well be on another planet. Life, liberty and all that is good are just out reach but within easy eyeshot, tormenting, mocking.

The Phoenix flops painfully toward a shadow at the edge of the fissure, dragging his broken wings painfully behind them. Maybe it is cooler here; maybe, he thinks, the fire is not quite so hot.

He curls up in the crack, covering his de-plumed head with his spindly, tattered wings. Gone is the glorious creature of ages both past and future; gone is the Watchman of the Ages. Only this tormented beast remains, worse off than any creature who ever perished beneath his grasp.

The Phoenix lays his head down. Groaning, his breath coming in short, ragged gasps.

He feels something beneath his head, something that shouldn’t be here, something that should not have survived the flames.

Ever curious even in his agony, the Phoenix blinks the smoke from his eyes and peers through the darkness.

A scroll. He’d lain his head upon a scroll, something perishable, a creation forged of parchment and ink. Something easily destroyed by flame and heat… yet here it is.

Bits of his burnt and melted feathers cling to the scroll as he unfurls it, his need for distraction overcoming even his pain.

He reads the first few words aloud, mouthing the words with a smoke-blackened beak. In the beginning

‘In the beginning’, here at the end of all that is worthwhile, the end of all joy…

But he can sit out there, wallowing in the flames… or he can hide here in this crack that barely hides him, where even the flames lick inward every once in a moment, and read.

In the beginning…

Part VI

The Son of Man stands at the edge of the fissure, looking down upon the Phoenix.

The Phoenix looks up, knowing what he must do. He knows why the Son is here, and what he came to do. He knows for what purpose he has been given the scroll…

But such a loss of pride! Such a humiliation, to do what the Son expects of him!

The Phoenix groans as he looks around. He had once lived for his pride, valued it above all else. But now he knew better.

For as long as he clings to his pride… he will burn. It was not the Son of Man who threw him into this furnace, but he himself, and by virtue of his own pride, his own sin. And there was no help for him, by his own effort; he could only, by his own effort, do nothing but sit here and burn.

Giving in at last, the Phoenix raises his voice and cries out to the Son of Man, begging for mercy, for redemption. Screeching, he recants his pride and his rebellion; he wails out a raucous song of repentance and supplication.

As though He had been waiting for just such a cry, the Son of Man readily raises His arm.

His sleeve falls down His arm, revealing a gaping hole in his wrist. Blood pours from the wound, as though the wound is yet fresh, and deliberately un-bandaged. The Phoenix stares in disbelief, wondering what on earth this has to do with his cries for mercy.  

The blood gushes into the fissure like a flood, slowly beginning to fill it. The Phoenix thrashes about in alarm, frightened. He is burnt nearly beyond recognition, still in terrible agony… but what good is this blood going to do him?!

The blood pours in, filling the fissure, rising like a flood…

The Phoenix raises his beak above the rising tide, squawking in terror… But his cries are cut short by an abrupt gurgle. The blood covers even his head now, and there is utter silence.

There is only the Son of Man…

And the fissure full of blood, the sanguine pit that once held an eternally dying Phoenix.

Part VII

The Phoenix stands up, flexing his golden claws… claws that, moments ago, had been melted beyond recognition.

He raises his head slowly, the head once crushed in defeat, the head whose plume had been burned to ash. He clicks his once-scorched beak and surveys the dusky-gray sky above with piercing eyes, eyes undimmed by neither smoke nor tears.

He looks to his left, to his right as he spreads his wings. His crimson feathers gleam wonderfully even beneath the slate-colored dawn, and his shoulders and breath ripple with fluid strength and renewed resilience.

The Phoenix looks over his shoulders and eyes his tail, a glorious thing meant to flow behind him like a trail from a comet.

Awed by his new being, the Phoenix looks around. The blood soaks the fissure yet, the Pit that had once been his Hell. The Pit in which he burned and died a death of sorts, the Pit in which he lay feeble and wounded and tormented by Death that refused to become something final, and clean.

The blood boils yet, but only a little as the heat dies; already it is cooler here. The Phoenix cocks his head, listening to the dead leaves scattering in the breeze above. They make a rasping sound, pleasantly reminiscent of trees limbs, scratching gently on a windowpane on a cold, windy night.

Smiling, the Phoenix crouches a little, holding his wings behind him…

Shrieking like a resurrected banshee, the triumphant Watchman of the Ages lunges from the Pit, soaring toward the clouds in a geyser of color and flame… The sort of flame that glorifies, that illuminates; the flame that consumes is dead now, extinguished once and for all by the outpouring of blood.

Ah, the Blood…

Confused – suddenly unsure of himself – the Phoenix looks downward, gliding for a moment upon a convenient breeze.

The Son of Man stands by the edge of the fissure yet, watching the Phoenix circle the sky, His wrists bleeding yet. Yet the Son of Man seems unconcerned about this, as though He doesn’t mind bleeding. As though He was so eager to watch the flames die that the blood bothers Him not; He seems in no rush to seek a bandage, or healing.

The Phoenix looks up, peering beyond the veil of time…

He looks out across the courtyard, toward the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The great works of man, from Colossus to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon…

He stares across the golden bridge into the New Sodom, imagining it falling into the bay when the Father’s vengeance comes to the city at last…

He watches with growing hunger the migrating mammoth herds of Siberia, and the hustle and bustle of the glory that was once Rome…

And he suddenly realizes that none of it matters. Vanity, meaningless…

Empty.  

The Phoenix circles a little, and looks down upon the one thing in his life of arrogance, death, and re-birth that ever did matter.

Making his decision, the great dragon-bird abandons the skies that he once so loved, and plunges toward the earth.

The Son of Man raises his arms, smiling His gentle smile, as though He’d been waiting. His wrists bleed yet, but perhaps they must; perhaps there are other flames that need snuffed, other victims that need re-birth.

The Phoenix skids to the earth at the feet of the Son, bowing his head in a gesture never before known to him… And there he remains. He spreads his wings, lowering them humbly to the ground, waiting.

Come with me, the Phoenix seems to stay. Let me be your beast of burden; let me be that which bears through all time, to do the work which you came to do. Let me be that which carries you across the sky, in all your glory.

The Son of Man lays a gentle hand on the feathered head before Him, spilling a few more drops of blood as He does.

Let me do this for you, the Phoenix seems to say. Please, not because you need my help…

But because it would be my honor, for I love you.

FINIS

Regarding Joy… and also Ren n’ Stimpy: A Sermon

The following is a transcript of a sermon delivered to the local Church of Christ over the summer of 2014.

When I was pondering the topic of Today’s sermon, I texted Lee and asked him what he thought I should do. His response was, ‘why don’t you preach about ‘the joy of salvation?’

Now this presents a bit of a problem for me. Generally, preaching about joy and God’s love someone else’s job, not mine.

The reason I’ve never been that adept at preaching about love and joy and sunshine is because I am a product of my environment.  See, in the South, talking about joy isn’t the preacher’s job; it’s the choir’s job. We southern folk kinda do this ‘good cop’, ‘bad cop’ thing that’s designed to keep you spiritually off-kilter. The service opens with rousing songs about ‘glory land’ and ‘the blessed shores of Canaan’ and the ‘chariot that’s coming for to carry me home’. And just when you feel all hyped up about heaven … the choir sits down. And when they do, up comes this black-clad ghoul of man and he drones on and on about hell, and damnation. And just when you’re so scared that you’re about ready to wet the pew, up comes the choir again. I got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in …

You dig?

And I’m assured that this how it’s supposed to work, since this is the ‘authorized New Testament pattern of worship’ that the Lord’s Restoration Church rediscovered in the 1950’s.

But that’s why I’ve never been good at preaching about joy; because I was always the preacher, and never a part of the choir. But be that as it may, Lee presented me with a bit of challenge, so here we go: ‘The Joy of Salvation’. But before we dive into the topic, let’s have a word of prayer…

What does it mean to have the ‘joy of salvation’?

For starters, that statement is so archaic that it’s pretty well lost any meaning. A dear friend of mine who leads a church in North Carolina says that language is like a pair of underwear. When it’s new, it’s stretchy and it’s comfortable and it fits well. But when it gets old, it sags and it’s uncomfortable and it just doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. The English language is like that, particularly in a religious context.

For instance, how many of us use the following words outside of a religious context: ‘Faith’, ‘repent’, ‘baptize’, or ‘communion’? We don’t, and consequently a lot of us are kind of fuzzy as to what those words actually mean. If we were to replace those words with ‘trust’, ‘reform’, ‘immerse’, and ‘memorial’, things would probably make a lot more sense to a lot more people.

The phrase ‘the joy of salvation’ has been bandied about so much that few of us stop to think about what it means. So let’s break this down: What is salvation?

The Greek word for ‘salvation’ is soteria, a word that means ‘rescue’ or ‘safety’. It’s related to the word soter, which means a deliverer or ‘savior’. I bring that up because ‘savior’ is another one of those pesky ‘underwear’ words that no one really understands anymore.

To receive salvation is to be rescued. But rescued from what? In order to understand that, we actually to leave this awkward ‘joy’ topic for a moment and revisit a topic with which I’m much more familiar: Hell.

I’ve done lengthier sermons on this before, but I’m gonna put it in a nutshell today: Turn with me, if you would, to Mark chapter 9, starting in verse 42:

“But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea.43 If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands, to go to hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched —44 where

         ‘ Their worm does not die

         And the fire is not quenched.’

45     And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame, rather than having two feet, to be cast into hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched —46 where

         ‘ Their worm does not die

         And the fire is not quenched.’

47     And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire —48 where

         ‘ Their worm does not die

         And the fire is not quenched.’

“For everyone will be seasoned with fire, and every sacrifice will be seasoned with salt.

Notice that Jesus uses the phrase about worms and fire three times. What he’s referring to is the ancient-world habit of throwing all of their garbage outside of the city walls and burning it. This cosmic landfill that Jesus calls Hell is so awful that the fire never goes out because it’s never finished burning up all the garbage. And the worms don’t die because they have an endless food supply of sin and awfulness.

Damnation is the opposite of salvation. We have all sinned, and we know this instinctively. We cannot stand before Almighty God stained with that sin; we know this instinctively as well. And we can’t offer ourselves as atonement for our sins because we’d be a flawed sacrifice because we’ve sinned. Without a third-party soter, or deliverer, we’re only fit for the great cosmic landfill.

With said deliverer, we receive soteria, or ‘rescue’. Let’s look at it another way: Turn with me to Colossians 2, starting in verse 8:

See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,10 and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.11 In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ,12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses,14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.

That phrase ‘record of debt’ is interesting. In Greek it’s cheriographon to dogma, literally the ‘writing of law’. Some translations say ‘written charge’, or ‘handwriting of ordinances’. After a fairly exhaustive study, the best translation I can think of for ‘record of debt’ is ‘arrest warrant’. In the Greco-Roman world, if somebody brought you a cheriographon to dogma, you’re in trouble and somebody wants to talk to you … more’n likely a magistrate.

What Paul meant by saying that Jesus cancels the ‘written charge’ is this:  in Christian Baptism you get a free pass, spiritually speaking. No one’s coming after you anymore.

Lemme tell you a story. When I was around eighteen or nineteen, I got into a lot of trouble. Nothing terrible, mind you, certainly nothing worthy of any weird registry or anything like that … just the usual string of silly mistakes that a lot of young men fall into.

Eventually, my buddies and I attracted the notice of the Camden County Sheriff’s Department in North Carolina. The only thing that saved my bacon was that I lived in Virginia; it’s very difficult to investigate someone when they live in the next state over … but several of my Carolinian friends did end up getting busted.

For years, every time I went to North Carolina I was looking over my shoulder. Is today the day I find out that they actually do have a warrant out for me? Is today the day that they get me? That’s not a good feeling!

But in America, virtually all offenses except for murder and certain types of abuse have a statute of limitations on them. In other words, if oh-so-many years go by after a crime and the police have yet to find sufficient evidence to file a charge, they have to drop it. They can’t make you look over your shoulder forever.

By the time I hit my mid-twenties, the statute of limitations had expired on everything I’d been involved in. Let me tell you, I have never felt freer in my life! I felt like this huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I’d messed up, for sure, and I deserved at least some sort of consequences, but it wasn’t gonna happen. I was off the hook: the legal system had given me soteria: Salvation.

So that’s what salvation means, in the Biblical sense. We earned ourselves a place in the great cosmic dumpster fire, and we had an outstanding arrest warrant. But Christ canceled the warrant with His death, and receiving his salvation by faith in baptism keeps any more arrest warrants from being filed. 

But I said that today’s topic was ‘the joy of salvation’, yes? The ‘salvation’ part of that phrase is fairly elementary, but for a ‘doom n’ gloom’ guy like me the ‘joy’ part is harder to figure out.

Let’s look at some passages of scripture where the word ‘joy’ is actually used. I always place a great deal on context, so I will tell you up front: These passages of scripture are completely unconnected. We’re just looking for uses of the word ‘joy’.

1 Chronicles 15:16: David also commanded the chiefs of the Levites to appoint their brothers as the singers who should play loudly on musical instruments, on harps and lyres and cymbals, to raise sounds of joy.

That passage is from the Old Testament, originally rendered in Hebrew.  I can’t make heads or tails of Hebrew and I’m too dumb to try. So what I did is I went to the Greek version of the Old Testament, the version that was actually quoted by Christ and His Apostles. The Greek rendering of the word ‘joy’ there is euphrosune. The word has a distinctly emotional connotation, and it actually is the root of the English word ‘euphoria’.

Let me see if I can give you an illustration of what euphrosune actually means. Y’all remember a cartoon from the nineties called Ren and Stimpy? If you’re my age you watched it when you were little. If you’re an old crisper like Lee, your kids watched it. Anyway, Ren was a Chihuahua, and Stimpy was cat. And whenever something would excite Stimpy, he’d dance this goofy little jig and he’d sing ‘happy happy/ joy joy/ happy happy/ joy joy …’ That’s euphrosune: A euphoric mental state that leads to outbursts of goofiness.

That’s one definition for the word ‘joy’. Joy can be a hyper-excited state of mind, a state of mind that is not so much logical as it is instinctual. Think of King David stripping down to his skivvies and dancing like a loon in 2 Samuel 6. That’s euphrosune joy.      

Now let’s look at 1 Chronicles 16: 27: Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and joy are in his place. The word joy there is the Greek kaukhema.  That word can be either positive or negative, depending on the context.  It can mean to ‘boast’, or it can mean to ‘glory’. Let’s look at another use of the same word to get a better idea of what it means. Let’s go to Romans 2:17: But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God…

The word for ‘boast’ there is kauchaomai, the same word used in 1 Chronicles 16;27, albeit in a slightly different tense.

Basically, to take ‘joy’ in something could mean to give credit to that something. Whether you are boasting or glorying, you are giving the credit to someone else.        

So to have joy could mean to be euphoric, or it could mean to simply pass along the credit for something. Now let’s look at Romans 12:12: Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.

The word ‘rejoice’ there is chairo, which means to be cheerfully happy. Not euphoric, mind you. You’re not dancing around going happy happy/ joy joy. You’re just … content.

These passages I’ve chosen were chosen at random, but there is one letter in the New Testament that is known as the ‘joy epistle’. It’s Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, and it’s a letter that was so powerful that it was plagiarized almost in its entirety by Polycarp decades later, and re-circulated from there.

The context of Philippians is … well, Paul was in the slammer, chained to a wall. This context is given to us in Philippians 1:3-13: I thank my God in all my remembrance of you,4 always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy,5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.6 And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.7 It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.8 For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.9 And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment,10 so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ,11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.

12               I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel,13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ.14 And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.

Now you notice in some of the examples I’ve given you regarding the word ‘joy’, I just gave you the definition of the Greek word. But here’s the thing about scripture. God will never leave you hanging an entire point of doctrine based on a single word. For instance, the word ‘baptize’ means ‘immerse’. Inarguable point. But for those who question this, scripture tells us that Phillip took the Ethiopian into the water. That John baptized in the Jordan because there was much water there. Sometimes if you wanna know what a word means in scripture, you don’t just look up the word in the concordance. You read a story, and it’s less likely that you’re gonna make a doctrinal mistake that way.

So let’s take a good, hard look at Paul’s story, shall we? We’ll be starting in Philippians 1:18: Yes, and I will rejoice,19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance,20 as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell.23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith,26 so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.

27               Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel,28 and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God.29 For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake,30 engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I had and now hear that I still have.

            So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy,2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.3 Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,7 but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name,10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

12               Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

14               Do all things without grumbling or questioning,15 that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world,16 holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.17 Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all.18 Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.

Let me give you a reality check here. Paul was IN JAIL!!! The only letters we have of Paul’s are the ones that the Holy Spirit allowed to transcend time and decay, the ones that were divinely capable of changing lives. But who are we kidding?! Paul was really good friends with Priscilla and Aquila. And I’ll bet you my next paycheck that at least once they got a letter like this: ‘Dear Priscilla and Aquila. Yep, they caught me again. I was preaching at the temple, and the centurion beat me half to death with the butt of his sword. Yeah, it kinda hurt. Anyway, I only lost two teeth this time. They got me chained up now. I was asleep when they threw my bread under the door, so the rats ate it all. My cellmate’s crazy. I thought he had a demon so I tried to cast it out, but it looks like he’s just crazy after all. Anyway, miss you guys. Best Regards, Paul.’

Philippians was written not from the point of euphrosune joy. Paul was not dancing around his cell. Honestly, I doubt that it was even written from a perspective of chairo joy; I’m not sure how cheerful you can be when you’re fighting with the rats for your dinner. Paul was not euphoric, and I seriously doubt that he was cheerful.

And Philippians gives us a whole new spin on the words ‘joy’ and ‘rejoice’.  One of my favorite books ever, one that I’ve read a dozen times over, is Lewis Carroll’s Alice through the Looking Glass. The book just has this madcap genius to it that never gets old. I remember this one passage in which Alice is having a conversation with a gnat, of all things, and the gnat asks her this: ‘what sort of insects do you rejoice in?’ To which Alice replies, ‘I don’t rejoice in insects at all, because I’m rather afraid of them …’

And in this exchange Lewis Carroll gives us a similar definition for ‘rejoicing’ that Paul does. To rejoice in something is to move toward it, and to cling to it no matter what. Alice didn’t rejoice in insects because she ran away from them, but Paul rejoiced in his salvation because he ran toward it. Paul actually admits to having suicidal thoughts in Philippians, but Christ is the one thing he held onto, no matter what.

And I think that’s the last and most important definition of ‘joy’: What you find joy in is the thing that you turn to when everything else has failed you. You don’t have to be euphoric. You don’t have to be cheerful. Jeremiah was ‘the weeping prophet’. Jesus was ‘the man of sorrows’. Your eternal salvation is not determined by your mood, and thank God for that!

If anyone would know that, it’s me. I’ve been suicidal. I’ve had alcohol issues. I’ve cheated death on several occasions. I’ve been divorced, and psychologically unstable at a number of times in my life. I’m not euphoric. I ain’t always cheerful, either. But at the end of the day, God has still graced me with the ability to look toward Him for comfort. I look at my past and I see ruin. I look at America’s future and I see martial law, economic collapse, and death. (I’m not trying to spark a political debate here, mind you. I’m just saying that’s how I see it.) It takes all of my will to look past the bleak future I see in this life, so that I can embrace the afterlife beyond … but I can nevertheless do it. And that ability is one of the very definitions of ‘joy’.

Some things in Christianity are inarguable, and changeless. You wanna be a Christian? You have to believe that Jesus Christ is the manifestation of God in the Flesh. You have to be willing to move past the sins of your past. You have to be immersed in water to wash away your sinful state, and you have to do your best to live as a Christian. Those rules are changeless, ageless, and not subject to debate. You either accept them or you live outside of Christ. It’s that simple.

But not everything’s that way. Some things in our faith are subject to interpretation, to individual understanding and practice. When we use the phrase ‘the joy of salvation’, the word ‘salvation’ is an inarguable point. We were sentenced to hell, and Christ saved us from it. Pretty simple.

The word ‘joy’ is not so concrete. Some of us will be euphoric. Some of us will be content. Some of us will keep our pointing finger straight up, making sure that Jesus gets the credit for everything that we do.

And some of us will be like me, hanging onto hope by our fingernails, trusting in Heaven when our entire future on this world looks like a living hell. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how you define the word joy, because scripture itself defines it fifty ways from Sunday.

Define the ‘joy’ however you will, and then live for it! Take joy in your salvation, however you understand the phrase.

That’ll be it from me, unless anyone has an accusation of heresy. (Someone? Anyone?  Gonna get me one of those someday …)