Thursday, February 27, 2014

Religious Freedom: Feeding the Aardvark

", joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law." – Galatians 5: 22-23

Let’s pretend you have a friend with a really weird sense of humor.
How weird?
For your birthday, he doesn’t give you a pair of gloves, tickets to see Justin Bieber, or even an NCIS sweatshirt. No, instead of something useful, he gives you an aardvark.
An aardvark! 
A living, breathing, slobbering aardvark.
Plopping a modified traveling kennel with a big red bow on top into your hands, your friend smiles and says, “Here. This is Alfie. Take care of him. You’ll love him. He already loves you. I can tell.”
Peeking inside the cage, you see a sub-Saharan burrowing animal with a snout and tongue the length of a garden hose. He's kind of cute, but not really.
You glance from the aardvark to your friend and ask, “What am I supposed to do with this?”
Your friend hands you a three-page pamphlet entitled, “Fun with Aardvarks,” and says, “Whatever you want. By the way, he’s hungry.” 
He slaps you on the back, grins and leaves. He leaves you. On your own!
What do you do?
Realize however you act is a matter of religious freedom. Yours and the aardvark’s.
"Religious freedom?!? Are you nuts?" you ask.
The answer is yes, but bear with me. I just ate a salad and am feeling analogous today.
So it's you and the aardvark left in an apartment in downtown McKeesport, PA. He's kind of a cute animal, certainly not out to cause you any problems. 
You shrug and smile, thankful that your friend thought enough of you to grace you with a unique companion. Philosophically, you decide to get along with the animal, but there are obviously major hurdles to establishing a relationship. First of all, food.
On page two of the pamphlet, you find an article “Feeding the Aardvark,” where you find that the entire diet of your new roommate is ants, termites, and a form of cucumber found only in southern Africa. 
Your diet consists of Hamburger Helper, mac & cheese, and a inordinate amount of multi-frosted sugar cookies decorated by a three-year-old.
What to do?
You could feed the aardvark what you eat, but he wouldn’t like it. In fact, it would probably make him sick. You think you have problems with a healthy aardvark? Try living with one experiencing gastrointestinal disorder.
You could let yourself be so disgusted with the idea of eating ants that you silently reject your friend's gift, drive it to New Mexico, and abandon it on the highway outside Carlsbad, leaving it to its own devices.
Or you could let aardvarks be aardvarks, let him consume what he does, and learn to live with him.
Your choice. Your freedom.
Here's the moral of the story: Feeding the aardvark is a dilemma we humans face every day.
A friend (God) has left us in a world of humans of every shape, size, and habit imaginable. Like it or not, some of us are "dogs," some are "cats," and some are "aardvarks." (I'm not calling people dogs, cats, and aardvarks. It's a metaphor!)
We differ by looks, lifestyles, religions, and tastes, but we are all humans. So we have to make a choice in how to live with our fellow creatures. 
We could compel them to conform to our habits and beliefs with the distinct possibility that our efforts will prove counter-productive and harmful not just to the aardvark, but to ourselves as well.
We could refuse to have anything do with the aardvark, pretending he does not exist. We could simply ignore him and hope he goes away.
Or we could let aardvarks be aardvarks. After all we share the same planet. Rather than fighting about who's best or who's most deserving, we could accept our differences and learn to love the aardvark for who he is.
We could claim the first two alternatives as our religious right, but accepting either of these choices is to ignore the aardvark's rights.
This is not only unfair to the aardvark, but detrimental to us as well.
It is important to remember that to get along, even enjoy each other, we do not have to like ants and termites like the aardvark. The aardvark does not have to like Hamburger Helper or mac& cheese like we do. But maybe…just maybe…if the two of us can accept our differences,  we can learn to eat African cucumbers and the aardvark can learn to eat sprinkle-encrusted sugar cookies. 
This third alternative allows us to still be ourselves. It also allows the aardvark to be an aardvark. Everybody lives in harmony.
We’re happy. The aardvark is happy. Our friend is happy.

Religious freedom is a good thing when everybody is allowed to have it.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Prayer for NOW

On our recent trip to Phoenix, my wife and I encountered one of the most unique Christian ministries we have ever seen, that of Paisley Yankolovich. 

On a porch in downtown Glendale one January night, Paisley played an acoustic concert and took Christian music places we never imagined it could even exist. 

From the initial sound check, it was obvious this was not Michael W. Smith. This was not Chris Tomlin. This was...Paisley Yankolovich. A man in wig and lipstick sharing pain and anguish in words and music that redefined the word fringe.

Our initial response was nervous laughter, followed by gaping mouths and confused grimaces.

Then we listened. We listened and we heard. We heard what was really behind this man's method. We heard the message.

Wails and scrams that moments before cried "Radical," bitter words that stunned and unnerved, now spoke truth and love. 

And we knew. 

This was not some extremist hungry for attention. Yes, the clothes and the voice were still the same, but now amidst the shocking and frightening performance was the reality of the hope and beauty of the Cross. No longer a wild-eyed fanatic spewing venom, this man preached and taught the grace of God.

Meeting with Paisley after his concert, we learned the depth of his commitment to ministry. We learned that through one of the most painful times any person could endure, he remained steadfast in his faith. The show was more than show to him. He believed. And he lived what he believed.

In quiet conversation later in the week, we learned that the three of us shared the same priorities, if not the same methodologies. Paisley's dedication to sharing Christ with EVERYBODY, regardless of their past or present, their pain or position, reminded us what life's journey is truly all about: Loving others as Christ loved and commanded us to do.

Doing so may not be comfortable, it may not be easy, but it can be done.

Paisley showed us that.

This prayer resulted from our meeting:

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Passionate Destination

When life feels pointless, some people believe, as the George Harrison song says, "If you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there." As we flounder through life, our destination is unfocused, the road unclear. Still, we look for clues, for hope in the nothingness. At these times, it's important to realize that the destination we seek is actually seeking us. When we grasp that, when we realize the seeker and the sought have the same goal, getting passionate about the journey is pretty easy. And pretty wonderful.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Final Task

According to Jean-Paul Sartre, we only have one small job to take on: 

What do you think?

The Nature of God: Love vs. Vengeance

Some questions never go away, even when you think you have them all figured out.

After three days of relative certainty about the meaning of life, our place in the universe, and the importance of separating M&Ms by color in order to fully enjoy their subtleties, I found a friend's challenging status on Facebook this morning:

To my Christian friends: How can you say that God does not bring pain or suffering against people when there are tons and tons of examples in the Bible of God bringing pain and suffering against people? Throughout the Bible He judges people and brings against them all kinds of hardships. Also, you cannot say that is Old Testament so it doesn't matter. God is the same yesterday and today, right? Yes, Jesus was sacrificed for our sins, but how could God, being just, judge, destroy, and bring judgement upon those who lived before and yet we get off scot-free? If God knew that he was going to sacrifice His son either way (which being omniscient, He did) He would have done it before allowing generation after generation to be judged so harshly. It is not just to judge all the people who lived during the Old Testament one way and then judge us another.

All I can say is, "GAH!!!" This post raises many of the same questions I have struggled with forever and had successfully ignored or suppressed from my memory. Thanks a lot. 

So let's go back to the beginning. Last week, I asserted my belief that there is a God. Today, I'll take one step farther and say that I believe in the Christian God...although not in the same way many Christians do. Here is my take on the issues raised above. How accurate my perceptions are is open for debate and I fully invite comments and/or correction.

First, I want to look at the statement "God is the same yesterday and today." Most assuredly, God is the same as He ever was, but Man is not. The more I read the Bible, the more I realize that God is desperately trying to reach us and return us to the loving relationship He had with us before the Fall. Unfortunately, the Old Testament is rife with examples of Man's misinterpretation of what God is trying to do.

Remember, God did NOT design the universe simply to antagonize His own creation. The whole of existence could be summed up in one word: Good. Pre-Fall there was no Law. There was no conflict. There was no evil. Only love. 

Love. That is God's true nature. The only word to describe Him. In short, "God is love!" 

Pre-Fall there was no talk of reward and punishment (heaven and hell), only peace with God. Pre-fall, Adam and Eve did not live in want or fear, only in a loving relationship with the Creator.

The Fall, Man choosing to play God by eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, demolished all that. What didn't happen afterward is telling of God's nature and displays His overarching love. He could have eliminated Man. He could have obliterated the serpent. He could have eradicated all of his creation and begun again. But He didn't. 

By Man's fallen, or Post-Fall, reasoning, He should have. But He didn't.

Because of his new-found, fallen point of view, Man portrayed God as smacking His lips just waiting for the proper time to inflict His wrath and vengeance. Self-serving Man blamed every military and natural disaster and justified every bloodthirsty and barbaric deed on "God's Will." And for thousands of years, we all bought into this portrait.

But today...? I'm not buying it.

Why not? Because that representation of God does not comport with the reality of God who became human, endured the suffering and shame of the Cross, and died for us. An embracing God who would do that when He could have simply blotted out our entire existence is not a God of anger and retribution. A gracious God who would do that is not a God waiting to throw us into the fiery pit of hell. No, a God who would do that is a God who wants to rescue us from ourselves. That is a selfless and all-loving God.

In an effort to get closer to this loving God, I took up a Bible-reading program. Recently, however, the prescribed readings, particularly in First and Second Kings, have driven me nuts. Chapter after chapter, I screamed, "These people were crazy! How...? Wha...? HELP ME!!!"

I guess all you have to do is bellow with multiple exclamation marks.

In church Sunday, the pastor told us to read everything in the Bible realizing that everything in it points to Christ and Christ crucified. The suggestion opened my eyes to a new reality: All those Old Testament stories that confused me are not pointing to the nature of God, but to the nature of Man. They are not tales of the way God wants things to be; rather, they are pictures of the way fallen Man is. What those stories reveal is not a savage and vindictive God; rather, they show a flawed and fallen humanity trying to justify its own actions.

In fact, everything bad that happens, then and now, results not from God's vengeance and judgement, but from Man's rebellion against a loving relationship with God. In other words, from Man's Mutiny, not God's Gotcha. 

Like the questioner above, I too once thought of the New Testament as a major shift in God's character. I was wrong.

 Christ's grace is not a sign of God changing, but is the culmination of the love that He has always had for us. It was like Him saying, "Okay, you've had enough trying things your own way, right? Here. Try mine."

Unfortunately, we don't understand simplicity. We still try convoluted methods of living our own way, trying to be good enough, condemning other who are not like us, striving for some reward that has always been ours if we would only take it. 

In regard to the questioner above, the point is not that WE get off scot-free while somebody else doesn't. The point of the Cross is that everything is free! The struggle is over. Done with. No mas. ALL sin is defeated. Not just ours. Then. Now. Forever.

Does that mean there's no evil? No suffering? 

Judging from the nightly news and the irrational behavior of Justin Bieber, Mylie Cyrus, and New Jersey traffic studies, no. But what evil persists does NOT come from God. 

Jesus's sacrifice and commandments -- love God, love your neighbor, love yourself, love your enemies -- trump all Old Testament regulations. He loves us without condition. Not if we do something. Not when we do something. Just because. 

That's all. He simply does. 

We should love the same way without asking what do we get out of it or what happens to us if we don't. Simply love.

How do we learn to do this in the midst of all the confusion caused by our fallen personalities? The key, as stated earlier, is to view everything in the Bible guided by the lesson/example of the Cross. 

God is love. That's it. Always has been. Always will be. 

Anything else is Man perverting that fundamental truth. A truth that extends across time and celestial geography.

And it's free. Good deal.

That said, let me add one further comment: Tough questions like these are not to be feared but are to be embraced. They refine our faith, bringing us into closer relationship with the Almighty. Discussion reveals our needs, our errors, and eventually the truth. I repeat what I said at the beginning: Feel free to join in.