In Defense of Denomination

There is one Body, and there is one Church.

There is really no way to get around it—it’s right there in Scripture, coming from the mouth of Saint Paul himself.

But unity doesn’t equate to homogeny.

This is an issue that the Church universal has struggled with before Christ was even crucified. When the disciples ran to Jesus whining, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name; and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow along with us,” Jesus did not respond and say “Well, then make him a convert and be sure that his theology is aligned with yours.”

Instead, he said, “Do not hinder him; for he who is not against you is for you.”[1]

It’s funny to think that the Son of God didn’t care what clique the man belonged to; he didn’t care if he worshipped with hymns or a full band; he didn’t care whether or not the man believed in a God who might have formed the earth through evolution. Jesus didn’t even care that the man wasn’t in his immediate group of followers.

The only thing that mattered was that he obviously believed in the power of the name Jesus Christ. And instead of saying, “Bend him to your own personal beliefs,” Christ replied, “Let him be. He is not hurting you and he believes in the power of my name.”

While the matter seems cut-and-dry in this instance (as with much of what is obvious in Scripture) this is a tragically contentious point. In the midst of major and minor denominations that cater to any whim, fancy, or preference, many in the Church have been quick to forget that there is one Christ, and there is one God. And perhaps one of the most dangerous things we can do as a Christian is to assume that we have figured God out—that our human minds have truly encompassed the magnitude of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The minute we preach our denomination over our Christ, we have committed blasphemy, for we have shaped God in our own image, and are telling people to worship him. At the moment we force theology over the unimaginable love of that Jewish Rabbi, we are idolaters, erecting a golden calf and dancing around it like a bunch of loons.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a definite line that we can call heresy, but only that we need to be careful where we draw it. There are many voices within the Church that can be heard calling for a single, unified Body, when what they mean is a single, homogenized congregation—a church stripped of the intricacies of a Body and reduced to a hand, or a foot. It would be akin to saying that America should be reduced to a single state.

Instead, let the Church stand in defense of denomination, and not as something to be looked down upon. Many of the differences of the Church only serve to shore it up against attack and illness. When the limp-wristed theology of Joel Osteen or Rob Bell is preached, the commanding figure of a Pope—a Pastor of pastors—is incredibly useful in correcting what is clearly a misuse of the incredibly useful message of Christ. When Church leadership becomes corrupted or misleading, the Protestant teaching of sola scriptura can help right a listing ship that may steer towards human teaching instead of Divine wisdom. When people become flippant or lazy in their worship, the solemnness and intentionality of Orthodoxy can step in to fill the gap.

And this doesn’t even begin to cover personal preference. When the Samarian woman asked Jesus where one should worship God (being that the Jews worshipped in Jerusalem and the Samaritans elsewhere) Jesus does not even address the question, for to do so would only further enhance a cultural and religious chasm. Instead, he replies with all the depth and simplicity only the simple Carpenter could manage, “An hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers.”[2] The emphasis here isn’t on the differences between Jews and Samarians (although it is addressed), but it instead points to dominance of the Father over all said differences. It doesn’t matter what the House is made of, as long as it can withstand the storm outside.

And practically speaking, the call for a homogenous church is simply foolish; when the Lord returns, there will perhaps be a consistency in the way worship is conducted—it is entirely His prerogative. But until then, how can I—a young man raised in the Alaskan cold—expect an African, or a Filipino, or even another young man from Georgia, to have the same church experience I do? Just because a person doesn’t like grape juice Communion doesn’t make them wrong; just because someone abstains from alcohol entirely doesn’t make them right. It just makes them different. Our God is the God of nations, and we must be careful that when we say “our” God, we are not implying ownership.

And our differences—miraculously—are what have allowed the Church to stand and grow. The diversity that our variations provide help guide and balance the Christian community. There is a reason that purebred dogs succumb to disease and illness and die younger than their fellow mutts. And if the Church is anything, it is a beautiful collection of mutts, from the 12 Disciples to the modern Church.

For there are many parts to the Body, but there is one Head, and no man should be disdained for being a foot, and no foot should criticize the hand for having fingers. If we believe—truly believe—in Jesus Christ, we are freed from our endless arguing and spatting. We don’t have to worry about being infallible; we only have to trust that Christ stands with his family—with the wise and slow, weak and strong, Old Earth and Young Earth folk. And we all stand beneath him: one Body, under God, indivisible and wonderfully different—a collage of grace and love.

[1] Luke 49-50

[2] John 4:23

Heretics and Heresy: On the Intellectual Pursuit of a Christian

Historically, one of the greatest sins in the Christian church has been that of heresy. The theologian Origen was excommunicated when his teachings on the nature of man and God were condemned by the Church. The entire Protestant movement was based in the fact that Martin Luther viewed the Roman Catholic church as heretical, and vice versa. The subsequent divisions within the Church have also been a reflection of this—although some are obviously more apparent and necessary than others.

I once heard a pastor tell how he had been dismissed from his previous church because he was no longer convinced of a pre-tribulation Rapture. To make that clear, this pastor was told he could no longer help shepherd the flock of a body of Christians because he disagreed on a very debatable point in what is the most cryptic and incomprehensible book in all of Scripture.

And so, heresy is one of the greatest sins a believer can commit, but it is also one of the gravest impediments to the Christian journey, both in terms of a personal and intellectual relationship with Christ, as well as in evangelization. So often, we are so concerned about proper theology that we forget that we have tiny little minds. Our relationship with the Son of God is replaced with cute dogmas that we repeat over and over—sometimes from birth, if the situation allows—and we never question them. We attach our ideas to God like a label on a bottle of cheap wine: “Grown in the fertile valley of Old Earth Creationism, this God has already mapped out your days, and will indisputably return to carry his Church to Heaven while he leaves the heretic and the sinner to burn in the fires of tribulation and damnation. Enjoy without questioning.”

And while there is certainly room for dissension and disagreement within the Church, to say that our label of God is impeccably correct is to say that our wine is the only wine. And this is where the cry of “Heretic!” can often become heresy.

As Galileo said, the same God that endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect did not intend that we forgo their use. Jesus Christ did not die on the Cross so that we can go to the grave believing—knowing—that Adam and Eve were literal people, and yet folks like Ken Ham and Kent Hovind make a living attacking Christians who would believe otherwise. We line up across the field from each other, load our muskets, and commence to tear and rip at each other like jackals—all in the name of Love.

Can we see the dichotomy here?

To believe in Jesus Christ is to believe in Jesus Christ: I AM the Way, the Truth, and the Life. It is not to set up impediments for others; we can be firm in our convictions while allowing the difference of belief. Just because one prefers the solemnity and depth of old hymns doesn’t give them allowance to judge another for engaging in contemporary worship. Just because a board of elders believes that Christ will return to rapture his people into Heaven before the Tribulation happens doesn’t mean they have to banish one who may feel otherwise.

The danger of this is that it turns the Church—which should be a community of vibrant, thinking individuals—into what effectively amounts to a cult. Even God the Father, the most severe member of the Trinity, allows Job and his friends to spend 30-some chapters questioning His nature. And when He finally shows up on the scene? The only thing He says is “You can’t understand Me. Ask your questions, but stop expecting answers.” The issue isn’t that Job is trying to understand God, it’s that he assumes himself capable of understanding God.

From the beginning, God has rewarded those who seek. If God cannot guide our intellectual pursuit, wherever that may take us, he would not have given us such a vast scope of reason and imagination. And if that seeking starts carrying one toward the mire of true heresy, it is the duty of the Church to help correct the mistake, bearing in mind that the Church is not your local pastor, priest, or two-bit theologian. It is not the Pope, a Patriarch, or yourself. The Church is the cumulation of human history, subject to God the Father and manifested in a traveling rabbi named Jesus Christ, who, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, founded a demographically and intellectually diverse community he calls his Church. This is the standard to judge by; not the opinion of a man who has nothing more than a seminary degree, a couple years behind the pulpit, and the notion that he has come to grasp Yahweh in all His magnitude and mystery. The intellectual pursuit of a Christian should not be defined by a fear of the Church, but by a love of Christ.

Not that there’s anything fatal about being mistaken; even Peter was an unintentional heretic. But the measure you use to judge will be measured to you, and if you’re prepared to anathematize a fellow follower of Christ over petty doctrine, you had better hope that you have a perfect bead on the infinite God of the Ages. Because if you don’t, you are setting up some unnecessary roadblocks to Heaven. If we judge others based on our personal theology, it’s a safe bet to assume that God will judge us on ours.

Saint Nietzsche: The Last True Atheist

There have been few men as great as the late Friedrich Nietzsche, and the longer he is gone, the more that I miss him. He was great in the same way a hurricane is great, or the Cambodian Genocide was great; he is great in that he lashed out viciously and consistently. No man, method, or morality was spared his worldview.

For that, Christianity owes this pillar of Atheism a great debt—perhaps one that cannot truly be repaid. For in a world of lukewarm ideals and smarmy podcasts built around cute little quips, Friedrich Nietzsche glows like a white-hot iron—and should that iron be heated by the very fires of Hell, at least it glows. When placed before God, there will be no question where Nietzsche stood, and that is more than can be said for many folks. Nietzsche may have descended into the very gut of the Inferno, but he never descended as low as modern intellectualism. At the Judgment Seat, there will be at least one man that God need not worry about being lukewarm.

Many have died dull deaths with dull ideas—whether because they are easy, or fashionable, or simple. Nietzsche was not one of them.

Nietzsche brings to the philosophical table a rare consistent idea (and it is wonderful that this atheist/academic is willing to approach the table at all). His argument is as smooth as glass and as round as a perfect sphere. This is notable for two reasons: (1) he is willing to talk about Truth as something that actually exists and (2) he is unswerving in applying his ideas to the cosmos around him. You can take Nietzsche worldview and philosophical ideas and spin them, flip them on their head, twist and kick and roll them, and they will always be the same, with the same logical application. It would do every Christian a favor (and every person who holds even the slightest concept of a Higher Power) to familiarize themselves with some of Nietzsche more well-known works. It will either destroy your faith or make it unshakeable, but either way, it will allow you to hear an honest man speaking honestly.

When Nietzsche said that religion is a means of the weak enslaving the strong to stop their own torment, he really meant it. Therefore, if you were strong, you should not allow the weak to enslave you with their petty morality. When Nietzsche said that there is no God watching over our lives, and that the best thing that humanity could do for itself was to have every creature be as strong and vibrant and powerful as it could be (which is the basis for Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged), he really meant that man should be overpowering other men; after all, it would make humanity better. There was no room for limp-wristed justifications of “love your neighbor as yourself” after God was dead. Why should there be? It would make as much sense for an anarchist to say that all government is evil, but that we should keep an active military and police force; either the anarchist isn’t really an anarchist, or he is a coward, afraid of what his ideals will bring. If God is dead, there is no reason to keep the world dressed in His clothes.

Furthermore, Nietzsche ideas have been more or less applied in certain circumstances throughout history. When a rabid, National Socialist Germany held up the banner of the Übermensch[1] in the days preceding World War II, they were adopting Nietzsche’s idea’s, although they were grossly misapplied; after all, every man can be a Superman—he only need to be stronger than his neighbor. And why not? There is no God, there is no Judgment. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we disappear.

Of course, man does not do this. Even Nietzsche himself expressed repeated frustration with his inability to shed the shackles of his socially and religiously imposed conscience. But where Nietzsche was unique is that he did not stop trying. Modern atheism condemns religion for being a vehicle for men to do evil to other men (a claim that is not without credibility), but they allow evil, which means there is some good, which means there is some ideal that humanity is subject to, and has always been subject to, which means something established that ideal—at the very least, it exists outside of men and culture. It is always amusing to hear Christianity condemned for being so unlike Christ—as this is the silver bullet that will slay the concept of a divine Being. Look at all these people who believe in God—they don’t act like there’s a God, there must not be a God. Anger with God is understandable, but trying to keep the Second Commandment (“love your neighbor”) while discarding the First (“love your God”) is trying to hold up the roof without the walls.

Nietzsche understood this—if anything, he praised those who would abuse religion for being scheming and cunning. Where the chic intellectualism of our day would damn the Church for their abuse of power, Nietzsche would praise it, if only because it was clever enough to impose itself on the rest of the weak little lambs seeking shelter from the hawks. Nietzsche viewed religious authority as one hawk would view another—with the respect that comes from competition. After all, if he was anything, he was consistent. Honest, vicious, possibly insane, almost certainly evil (if not extremely misguided), and consistent. Why does it matter if people are “evil”? It doesn’t. If there is no Truth, than any social or religious institution that would restrict a man from being a Superman should be ignored.

The only problem with Nietzsche is that he is wrong. When he made his worldview, he shaped it into his image, with his knowledge, and while it is consistent, as with any created thing that is perfectly consistent, it is small-minded. Nietzsche was a man so focused on his crystal ball he couldn’t see the crystal sky above him or the crystal sea around him. He committed intellectual blasphemy, and should be regarded as such.

But the next time you get wrapped up in a debate where you are challenged that your faith in Christ is a vehicle for weakness and evil, think back upon Saint Nietzsche—the last true Atheist—and realize that there may have been bad Christians, but there is little more terrifying than a good Atheist.

[1] Over-man, or Superman

The Giving of Alms

I recently had a conversation over a cup of coffee with a friend of mine. The topic of giving alms to the homeless came up, and immediately progressed into a lively discussion about the ethics of such an act. He was firmly opposed to the giving of alms. Mind you, this was a young man who owned two cars and had attended a private university in Southern California. There was no lack of resources, so I was puzzled at his adamant refusal of what I thought was forgone conclusion amongst the Christian community.
The fact is I would be hard pressed to try to convince a person that giving alms to beggars was the right thing to do, providing they held no religion or ethic which suggested otherwise. How could you have a conversation with someone who held no concrete ethical convictions? I had no such intention. However, the person in question was a self-professed Christian. This placed him under a stricter standard of ethics than your average run-of-the-mill citizen. The Christian standard is what I applied for the framework of our dialogue.

As for a foundation on which to make claims besides Scripture, the following are statistics, provided by the Los Angeles Almanac, to help to portray the situation of the homeless population in Los Angeles County. My friend and I both reside in the area, so it is fitting to use it as a case study. The numbers are as follows:

There are an estimated 254,000 people homeless at any given time in LA Count

  • 20-43% are in families
  • 41% of adults were employed within the last year
  • 16-20% are currently employed
  •  25% are mentally ill
  •   20% are physically disabled
  • 48% graduated high school, 32% hold a bachelor’s degree or higher
  • 33-66% of single individuals have substance abuse problems

Two of the dominant themes that my friend brought up were thus: those who are begging are being lazy and therefore should not be enabled, and/or they were addicted to certain substances and giving money only fueled that addiction. The statistics above were intentionally chosen with these assertions in mind.

One of the consistent witnesses my friend brought forward in defense of not giving alms to beggars was that the Bible clearly states that those who work shall not eat.  I was familiar with that particular text, having heard it quoted from my mother numerous times in my youth. And while it is a valid argument, there are a much greater number of texts that speak of giving to the poor in the time of need. My mind immediately goes to the numerous verses that speak of giving alms as though you were lending to the Lord, and other passage along these lines. In a brief overview of both the Old and New Testament I found no less than 46 verses that directly mentioned giving to the “poor” or “needy”, in the context that it is the Christian’s duty to help nourish and support this demographic. There are surely more— it was merely a perfunctory search.

In contrast I found only three verses that mentioned that those who don’t work shouldn’t eat. Two of these were Proverbs, specifically worded to individuals, and those individuals indulging in the vice of sloth. Only one was framed in such a way as to potentially target a frame of thinking for a member of the Christian community. While there are more passages that would deal with laziness, nowhere can I find that the supposed laziness of a stranger should concern the giving of alms by one who would put their faith in the tenants of the Bible. The message of those Scriptures referencing that distasteful sin of sloth is directed at the individuals engaged in it, not at those who would give. It would make as much sense to say that we should not evangelize people, for they will simply not accept the call of Christ.

Now continuing to the other argument that was made in the course of our discussion: “If I give beggars money, they’re just going to use it to buy alcohol or drugs.” It is a statement I often hear from very respectable people. This seems like a valid argument until you begin to examine the facts of the matter.  The Bible is vague on this, leaving us without a reference per se. But there are other means of examining the dilemma. Making an estimate of the figures above, roughly 50% of those who are homeless and single have a substance abuse problem. Couple that with the figures from how many are in families and the number could be assumed to be slightly lower.

Mind you, this takes into account mild alcoholics as well as heroin users. There are those who suffer addiction stemming from mental deficiency, free will, or are constrained by genetic predisposition that they lack the strength or support to successfully combat. But while this is certainly a tragic figure–from a conservative estimate–it is not even a majority.

But this is beside the point. With the endless rationalization and relativism of the world, I am not suggesting one more theory along that style of reasoning. I am merely suggesting that one who is bound by the law of Christ is bound to give alms to those in need. I am not calling into account the character of those who refrain from giving alms. However do not let ourselves remark that we do not give because the poor are lazy, or addicted, or degenerate. The fact is they are needy and if we have abundance–and subscribe to a Christian ethic–we are to be their salve as best we can. And this could be a number of things: time, money, relationships, etc. Every person has a different ideal method for helping the needy, but I would agree with almost all of them to a certain level.

Christians should give. For anyone who believes that they are giving as unto the Lord, it is ironic to hear justification of why withholding alms is really helping a person. The God of the Christians does not ask for our advice on what to do with our tithes and offerings. He merely asks for them. This should not be interpreted as advocating the reckless distribution of money. All the same, I would be happy to see more folks reexamine their perspective on this particular Christian duty.

The Mercy Seat: Our Neighbors are Our Life

Ever let mercy outweigh all else in you. Let our compassion be a mirror where we may see in ourselves that likeness and that true image which belong to the Divine nature and Divine essence. A heart hard and unmerciful will never be pure.

–       St. Isaac of Syria

There are but two commandments that may never be broken—regardless of the circumstance. Love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself. Against such things, there is no law.  There are no extenuating circumstances; while there may be excuse for failure, there is no justification. The whole of man’s responsibility is summed up in these truths—more constant than gravity and stronger even than death.

Love the Lord your God is fairly straight-forward. How much should we love?—that’s defined when Jesus restated the command to the Pharisee about said law—with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. How do we love God? To start, we can love our neighbor, because God loves them and God loves us—that wonderful injustice—God loves us, without qualm, reservation, hesitation or condition.

But how can we ever love our neighbor well enough to reflect the love of God? After all, while these commands are given based on importance, there is an implied proximity in their relation to us. The greatest distance in the world is not the space between our Earth and our Sun, but rather, the distance between man and God. The second greatest span is that between man and his neighbor. Perhaps this is why folks like St. Francis lived and died on the doorstep of Heaven—for he was reconciled to his Maker and he made all men his brothers and all women his sisters.

How can we love our neighbor? We must love him like God loves him. We must cover his sin with grace. We must restrain his liberty if it be for his own good. We must take it upon ourselves to make him our brother—not even our brother, but our very selves. The Good Samaritan did not treat the wounded victim on the side of the road as he would treat an acquaintance, or even a friend, but how he would want—but not expect—his very self to be treated.

And so it is preached, and so we general allow. The scandal of grace is a wonderful thing to hear. No reasonable Christian will say that God does not love all men, and that we are not to go and do likewise.

And this an easy command when we are detached from the subject of our love. Any man can say “Peace be with you” to a person he has never interacted with. Where Christians (read “human beings”) are prone to slip and stumble is when we venture out into the world—and get cut off in traffic. Or we arise early in the morning to pray and be quiet with the Lord, and walk to our car with the fire of love in our hearts—and find that our ride to work has been stolen.

Or, even worse, we sit in church and hear the Gospel of Jesus preached, and we go out into the world and deal with sinners (as if all men aren’t sinners) as the personification of their vices. When this happens, we are not only damning the object of our judgment, but we are damning ourselves, since our neighbors are our life. We are, effectively, making people worse than they are. When our hearts are hardened, the woman who has been tragically twisted into a life of sexual promiscuity, slowly compromising until her heart is a maze of hairline cracks, is no longer God’s daughter, but a slut. The man struggling with same-sex attraction is no longer a broken human being (as we all are), but a project—a problem to be fixed; if not fixed, then protested against. We must remember that even the Pharisees brought sinners before Jesus—the woman caught in adultery was publicly hurled before Christ’s feet right before they planned to stone her to death.

Mother Teresa once said that “we ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.” The problem with treating our neighbors as the embodiment of vices, the infinite sin of not extending grace to our fallen brothers and sister, is that we are missing the drops for the ocean. When Jesus said “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” he did not mean “Love humanity as you love yourself.” Love of humanity is an abstract easily attained by the righteous and unrighteous alike. When Jesus said love your neighbor, he meant love your neighbor—your dirty, sinful, annoying neighbor. And if we would only but give it two seconds of thought, we would see ourselves in every one of our neighbors. If we would give it a second more, we would see God in them.

We are indeed saved through grace; the love of God comes first, and overshadows all, even our own weakness. But if we are not a reflection of the love of God, we should tread carefully as we approach the Mercy Seat of Heaven. For love covers a multitude of sins, but belief without love is the religion of demons and devils. That blessed throne from which Christ steps down from to embrace his children is the same seat from which he will cast fallen angels eternally away from his presence. The only difference is the love and mercy borne of a relationship with Christ.

Our brothers and sisters who have yet to be reconciled to their Maker do not need to be proven wrong. They do not need to be argued with. They do not need to condemned (usually). They do not need to be beaten into Heaven. What man—every man—needs is the love of Christ. And with Christ living in our hearts, if we do not show that Divine love—who will?

The Great Joke

It’s a familiar parable—the Pharisee and the Tax Collector—but in its familiarity, many of us have missed a twist that Jesus intended. The story reads almost like a joke: a Pharisee and a tax collector walk into a temple. The Pharisee stands before the altar and prays, with palms up to Heaven and raised eyes,

“God, thank you that I’m so righteous. You have blessed me and made me holy in your eyes.” Here he pauses to shoot a glance over at his money-grubbing friend, “Thank you that I am not like those wicked men who would steal the coin of others.” And then he sweeps up his robe and leaves, with a self-assured smirk of contempt.

Meanwhile, the tax collector hasn’t moved, but has stood off to the side, with shaking hands and downcast eyes. Finally, he gathers his courage, strikes his chest, and breaks his silence with a trembling voice, “God, have mercy on me, for I am an unclean sinner.” He has no other words, for no other words will cover his guilt and shame.

As Jesus wraps up his story, he offers those wonderful words, “I tell you that (the tax collector), rather than (the Pharisee), went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Everybody listening looks around knowingly, as if they had heard the punch line to some great and insightful joke at the expense of another.

All those listening to Jesus tell this story for the first time surely shot glances over at the religious elite and thought to themselves, “What a self-righteous group of men.” After all, Jesus was targeting them; those who were confident of their own righteousness were those who inspired the story. Even today, we hear sermons preached on the topic, and go out thinking, “What a wicked Pharisee; God, thank you that I’m not a Pharisee.”

Therein lays the grand joke. By judging the Pharisee, we have made ourselves into the very thing we are disdaining. We condemn the Pharisee for pride, and exalt ourselves over him for our humility. No doubt the Story-Teller knew this, although many of his followers surely did not. Even today, many are left laughing at the joke, but they have missed the punch line.

Nowadays, acceptance is the catch-phrase. We no longer live in a culture that intentionally separates clean and unclean—although we certainly do in more subtle ways. Indeed, everywhere we turn in our enlightened Western culture, we hear preached a doctrine of “love” and acceptance.

However, this message only extends as far as those who will show acceptance to others. We are called to love, but only if the people we are loving have some modicum of acceptability; we love people who love people. Judge no man—of course—unless the happen to be Westborough Baptists, Klan members, or jihadists. We offer a culture of acceptance, and any man who does not accept it, do not accept them. We have become utterly intolerant of the intolerant.

The dichotomy here is clear; the moment we condemn the Pharisee, we condemn ourselves with as much certainty as the Pharisee did when he offered judgment to his tax-collecting fellow. Loving those who are humble is easy; loving those who want no love (or feel they don’t need any) is divinely difficult—it is the great joke of the holy Gospel. We are called to love the unlovable, even (especially) those who express no need or desire for it.

Reverend Richard Wurmbrand, was the founder of the organization Voice of the Martyrs. In 1966, he spoke in front of Congress about the horrors of Communism, as well as showing his scars he had acquired during his years in imprisonment for his faith; the stories he told detail some of the most horrific and terrible crimes against humanity ever committed.  He was perhaps one of the most outspoken religious opponents of the Communist movement, specifically the Soviet regime, for the atrocities they carried out against Christians and against mankind. And yet, despite his opposition, he still had the strength to tell his congregation, “When Communism falls, it is the duty of every Christian to shelter and defend the Communists fleeing from the mobs and unjust persecution.”

This is from a man who witnessed things that would make men think they were no longer living, but were already amongst the torments of Hell. This is the love of Jesus, hanging on the Cross and gasping out, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.” We are to love our enemies, even in how we judge.

The tax-collector is a fallen man—as is the Pharisee. Men can see the tax collector’s spiritual poverty, but only the eyes of Christ can see the Pharisee’s. When Jesus preached, “If your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out,”  he did not intend for us to go about blind, but to receive his eyes in exchange—those eyes that see clearly and love even the hateful.

Defending and Redeeming Human Nature

Man has always shown a distaste for human nature. Pastors condemn it from the pulpit while Buddhist monks sit in temples and do their best to rid themselves of it. Frustrated with this constant degradation of the very thing which defines humanity, the great atheist Friedrich Nietzsche makes an unexpectedly righteous and legitimate request. He asks, with what appears to be an unintended case of rationality, for the mere “glimpse of a man who justifies mankind, a complementary and redeeming instance, for whose sake we can hold fast our faith in man.”

It is a legitimate entreaty. So much time is spent accusing and degrading human nature that we almost ought to be ashamed to even be considered a part of the human species. Many things contribute to this sentiment: murder, genocide, rape, misogyny, racism, ignorance, Boston Marathon bombings—the list alone could easily fill an encyclopedia or three. “That’s just human nature” is a catch-all for any number of misdeeds, whether it be petty selfishness or full-fledged violence.

Yet, it would seem that a justification and validation of mankind is in order. Human nature been belittled and condemned for so long, we no longer appreciate our flesh—the very thing which defines us as human. Our flesh—our human nature—was originally crafted and shaped by a perfect God. There is the vague notion running amok amongst the Christian church that when we get to Heaven, we will finally be freed of our evil bodies and all our impure desires and urges, and we will be made into perfect, spiritual beings; in effect, we will float around like angels and be liberated from the fleshy tombs that have shackled us to Earth—dirty, fallen, impure Earth.

Here is where Catholicism differs immensely from Protestantism. The whole concept of Purgatory (right or wrong) is that human nature isn’t inherently bad, but needs to be aligned with the will of God. Dante describes this in very real and physical ways; such as carrying large boulders up a mountain, or darting back and forth amongst purifying flames. This reveals an underlying understanding that when we achieve Heaven—that glorious and blessed day—our physical selves will finally be brought into resonance with the Holy Spirit. It implies that human nature is broken, but it can still be salvaged. Christ came preaching a Gospel of redemption, not re-creation.

This is where I make my stand on human nature—that it was once good. Indeed, this is the only hill upon which to make a defense. Man was made in the image of God; to neglect the flesh is to call God a poor Creator. There was a perfect plan established in the Beginning. Humanity was to be a reflection of God. This mirror may have been shattered through the bite of some illicit fruit, but it was nonetheless perfect once. A broken mirror will still reflect, although it is more difficult to bring all the pieces into proper alignment so that it is reflecting that which ought to be seen.

Man—even unredeemed man—is capable of tremendous good. The love and grace of the Father can shine through even in a man whose mirror has been shattered and the pieces cast to the four corners of the Earth. Try as we might, humanity cannot escape the fact that they were once a direct and holy manifestation of God’s creativity and love. The crimes of mankind are not human nature—they are sin nature. They are a result of mankind ceasing to bring their hearts into alignment with God—a difficult task that will either be irrevocably completed or forever abandoned upon entering into eternity. Hell is not a place where ghosts go; it is a place for those who refuse their human nature in exchange for something incomparably less.

Jesus came as the Son of Man; a perfect union of flesh and Spirit. We are called to conform ourselves to that initial imprint of God upon his Creation, “for those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.”[1] The Son is not the Spirit. He was (and still is) a man. Christ suffered physical pain and temptation. He walked, talked, and ate fish lunches with his friends. He might have even had a puppy growing up. Fundamentally, Jesus Christ is God, incarnate as a man who died out of love of humanity. To become more like Christ is—in many ways—to become more like Adam, not Michael or Gabriel.

So stands human nature—below God, yet higher than the angels. There is something great about this bone and skin and tissue that surrounds the soul, for it bears the impression of divine fingerprints. I have faith in humanity, not because human individuals are good, but because God is good. At the dawn of time, the Devil hated human nature. The unholy revulsion of a free mind tuned to the heart of God opened the door for the temptation that led to the Fall. Once fallen, man was turned out of Eden and human nature was rent and distorted.

But it was still human nature. Cast out into the darkness, confused and broken, man was still wonderfully and mercifully man. In God’s punishment, he allowed us to keep the one thing that would eventually be redeemed on the Cross—our human nature; God’s unique signature on the canvas of our lives.

[1] Romans 8:29

Let’s Club ‘Em Into Heaven: Fighting with Grace

Rich Mullins tells a story about an argument he got into with a friend who happened to be an atheist. He explains how he attacked and attacked, constantly on the offensive, swatting away rejections and counterpoints, until he at last had his adversary logically cornered. He thought to himself, “Surely now he will see the validity of the Christian faith.” Instead, backed into that corner and with no remaining defense, his friend spat back at him, “I don’t want your God.”

And so it goes. Humankind is wont to argue, as certainly as sparks fly upward, and even more so amongst topics that are fundamental to a person’s self-conception. If people will come to blows over a sports team or a political party, imagine how abrasive an argument can get amongst those issues with which we define ourselves. We kick and fight and scratch over petty trifles and disagreements—we go to war over the big things. And why not? After all, we are logical human beings, ingratiated with that peculiar power of reason. All one has to do is talk clear enough, loud enough, and long enough, and the opposing party will come to realize their ignorance, and immediately repent of their foolish ways.

Unfortunately, men will often wield this power like a club, when it should be used like a scalpel. Instead of thinking about other’s viewpoints as a cancer—or if nothing else, unhealthy and unbecoming—we often do the exact opposite: we view the other person as an embodiment of their views. We do not think of them as sick people, but as sickness itself. Instead of prodding in with a razor’s edge out of a love of the individual, we go swinging in with our blunt cudgel and try to wail the other person into submission.

The best teachers in history went back even a step farther; instead of straightaway cutting in with a razor, they performed assessments to discern what was causing the symptoms. They were thoughtful, and deliberate and asked questions—as opposed to those foolish and dangerous debaters that ranted and raved in the town square. Plato, Aristotle, and Jesus would prod and nudge and question until the individual came to realize the truth for itself; they were agents of truth, sent to direct man’s gaze upward. Meanwhile, modern man seeks to bludgeon his neighbor into near unconsciousness, and when he is dazed and subdued, grab his head and force him to look into the sun.

Friedrich Nietzsche was this sort of man, as are a good number of Creationists, atheists, politicians, and others who are in the business of argumentation and debate; it is a fallen human trait that runs through all of us and manifests itself amongst the more significant controversies. This isn’t a judgment on any individual, for all man falls prey to this at least once in a while. Even the most deliberate thinker can lose his temper and reach for the dull club of argumentative reason. However, when resorting to this tactic, one is missing the heart of the whole issue. They use a Louisville Slugger when the illness calls for a CAT scan and the kind steel of a surgeon’s tools.

There is no clearer manifestation of this than in issues of faith. There are certain men who have taken upon themselves a crusade to disband and tear at organized religion. It transcends mere disagreement and dialogue; instead, it borders on jihadism, targeting even vague conceptions of God. In response to this, the modern religious community—for this example, the Christian church—has raised up a small army of warriors and given them the title of “apologist.” They instructed them in the ancient art of healing and persuasion, in the manner of Socrates and Yeshua, and they set them forth to exhort and strengthen the Body of Christ. In some manner, this call is extended to every member of the church. We are called by Peter to have a defense for our faith; so we turn to our sergeants-in-arms—Lewis, Descartes, Augustine—and we march out to meet the endless hordes assembled outside the walls of the church.

Most fulfill their obligations well. They reach in with their tools and prod and poke and “demolish every argument and pretension that sets itself against the knowledge of God.”[1] They deal with their brothers and sisters with gentleness and respect, fighting with grace. As a result, they never make the news, never become famous, and through all things, seek to love their neighbor, because Christ first loved them. They are the kind souls that lay down their arms and their pride in lieu of peace and compassion.

However, like any human being, many others fall prey to the sin of wielding the club too readily. Instead of viewing their opponents as patients, or even misguided foes, they personify them as their intellectual views, and in doing so, beat men to death under the guise of trying to save their lives. They attempt to drag their opposition, gnashing and wailing, through the Pearly Gates. Failing that, they resort to throwing mud and trash; if they can’t win, neither can their opponents.

This should not be; never should a Christian enter an argument for the sole purpose of winning— what good will this do? How will Christ be glorified if we attack our enemies with the same viciousness and neglect that they attack us? Was any man ever reasoned or argued into Heaven? Was the Cross lifted up over Jerusalem so that men could come and debate with the blood-stained Christ?

We argue where we should love. We fight where we should extend an olive branch. This doesn’t give a license for weakness, for it requires a special kind of strength to restrain oneself when besieged on all sides; passive aggressive statement such as, “I’m not going to respond to that” have no place in the Christian’s dialogue with those outside the faith. But always remember the foundation of our faith—Jesus Christ. I was not saved because I was logically dragged into the temple courts and thrown before the Messiah; I was saved because the Messiah loved me. This love is the only thing that can save anyone.

[1] 2 Corinthians 10:5

An Unexpected Hero: Can Any Good Thing Come From Sitka?

Tragedy and disaster have the peculiar ability to produce a backdrop upon which common people can become unexpected heroes. 300 soldiers at Thermopylae hold off wave after wave of Persians; they’re slaughtered in their duty and become immortal. Fire fighters run into flaming skyscrapers, knowing they may never come out, but trying to pull one—just one—more person from the choking flames. And when two lunatics detonate a pair of bombs at the Boston Marathon, ordinary folk perform deeds that make the stuff of statues and paintings.

There was Carlos Arredondo, who was photographed in a cowboy hat, pinching the exposed artery shut on a man who had both his legs torn off by the first blast. By his side were those who ran towards the explosions instead of away from them, fighting their survival instinct for the sake of those injured. Under the spotlight of this insanity, some people showed they were made of nothing less than refined steel and pure gold.

Amidst all the chaos of the event, there was one such story that slipped largely beneath the public’s notice. It wasn’t especially brave or remarkably heroic—it was just simple compassion. I myself would not have heard of it if the man involved had not been from my home state of Alaska.

To recap a long story, Brent Cunningham had previously tried to qualify for the Boston Marathon twice; on his third and final attempt, he barely squeaked out the necessary time. After finally making it to the Boston Marathon, he crossed the race finish line a half hour before the bombs went off. He received his finisher’s medal—an achievement few will ever accomplish, and one that he would almost certainly never replicate, and he was on his way back to his hotel when he heard the explosions.

Brent and his wife came across a young woman sitting on a curb sobbing. Laura Wellington had been a mere half mile from the finish line when the race officials stopped the race because of the blasts. Her family had been near the finish line, and she had just gotten word they weren’t injured, and she had collapsed onto the curb in overwhelmed tears. Brent and his wife approached her and offered her the only comfort they had: kind words and a blanket around her shoulders. As they got up to leave, he asked her if she had finished the race. She said no. Brent took his finishing medal off and slipped it over Laura’s head. Then he walked away, without even getting her name. If it wasn’t for the vast reach of social media and attempts by Laura to track him down, he would have never been heard from again.

Brent Cunningham is the Young Life director for Sitka, Alaska. Alaska is not the most ‘refined’ state, and Sitka is barely noteworthy, even for Alaskans; anybody who has actually been there will attest to it. It is a tiny, water-locked fishing town, home to little else than a couple fisheries and a refueling port for passing cruise ships. When I was told, “Did you hear about that guy from Sitka at the Boston Marathon?” my immediate reaction was, “How on earth did a guy from Sitka end up at the Boston Marathon?” Sitka is such a small, nondescript place—barely a smudge on the map. There’s a reason that the film The Proposal was set in Sitka, but filmed in Maryland.

It’s fitting that one of the least recognized stories of kindness and gentleness during the recent tragedy comes from a man in a desolate little town people barely know. Jesus himself had a similar background—to the point that John records two instances that highlight Jesus’ less than humble origins. The first instance is when the Apostle Nathaniel is told about Jesus by his brother Phillip, and sarcastically responds, “Can any good thing come from Nazareth?”[1] The Pharisees were even harsher with their judgment; Nazareth was a single city—they apply their contempt to the entire region when they remark, “Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee.”[2]

It wouldn’t be pressing the contextual bounds of Scripture to suppose that Jesus’ reputation as a Galilean plagued him throughout his ministry. Many folks probably considered it a great joke. After all, what of worth did come from Galilee—let alone Nazareth? It was barely a smudge on the map. Jesus was a hick carpenter; how could he be preaching to all those educated city folk in Jerusalem?

But this hick carpenter turned water into wine and preached a Gospel of love that the world had never heard before. He healed men and women of their blindness and affliction. And he gave away his Boston Marathon medal only moments after receiving it, for no reason other than  he thought it would bring some small measure of comfort to a scared, hurting young woman.

The love of Christ transcends the borders of regional stigma. It surpasses the horrendous tragedies that shake our faith. The love of Christ even overcomes our limits of self, so that it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us.[3] So it was that Jesus Christ manifested himself to the Ethiopian eunuch and revealed himself to the dying in Calcutta. When he saw one of his daughters sobbing on a curb in Boston, he appeared to her in the same manner.

Christ is made known through his human emissaries; he loves through his people. It could be that every simple act of kindness is a direct extension of the love of the Father, whether through the common grace and goodness of human nature, or through the relentless, explicit love of Christ. It could be that every time a Christian chooses love and mercy in the name of Christ, they are allowing themselves to be nailed to a cross beside their Savior.

It could be that every time a man from a no-name town in a no-name state offers up the only comfort he has, he is, for a brief moment, expressing the infinite love of God to his children.

[1] John 1:46

[2] John 7:52

[3] Galatians 2:20

Loving Your Neighbor: This Includes Loving Yourself

Love thy neighbor as thyself. All Christians know it as one of the pillars of a healthy relationship with God above. The second greatest commandment, only behind “love the Lord your God with every last speck of your being,” it implies a Christian life devoted to the servant leadership practiced by Jesus. This is no easy task—sacrifice, humility, and trust all play a role in crafting a love of others that is likened to picking up a cross and following a carpenter from Galilee down a hard and treacherous road.

Of course, before any of this can happen, we must love the Lord with all our heart, soul, and strength. If we do not do this, we cannot love our neighbor as ourselves, for if we do not have a proper relation to God, loving anybody as ourselves is doing them a disservice; the harm we do to ourselves is even worse. If we do not love the Lord our God, we will never be able to understand how much he loves us; if we do not understand how much he loves us, we cannot even begin to love others well.

We are to love our neighbors as ourselves—not love our neighbors and hate ourselves. And yet in many Christian circles, there is an attitude of self-hatred and guilt that is acceptable and almost even encouraged. We are called to love others; how can we be permitted to despise ourselves? If a man walks into a room of God-fearing brothers and sisters and says, “I hate such-and-such a man” the response is an almost immediate, passionate cry of, “Brother, we are to love them as Jesus did, especially when it is difficult!” But if the same man is sitting over coffee with a friend and says, “I feel such terrible guilt and shame over my sin” the response is often times a more restrained, “Well brother, you should pray for forgiveness and grace.”

Love is difficult; any man, woman, or child, if asked honestly, will attest to the truth that love is often a hard and difficult task—as difficult as carrying a fatal burden up a long road for the sake of another. But it is the second greatest commandment, against which there is no law.

Love the Lord your God with all you’ve got.

Love your neighbor as yourself.

Do we love our neighbors like we love ourselves? Do we condemn, shame, bully, belittle, and degrade our neighbors? Do we whisper insidious, toxic words at their every fault and failure? Do we tell them they aren’t good enough for love and grace and mercy?

Or do we cover their sins with love and grace? Do we extend them the blood of Christ, poured out for the remittance of failure, for guilt, and for every sort of misdeed? We surely must; there is no other way. How then can we go on despising our own selves? We are loved by God; we are loved completely and utterly, given no quarter or rest from the reckless, raging fury of God’s love. That is the love we are to extend to others. That is the love we are to allow ourselves. This is why it is so important that we first love the Lord our God; if we love him, we will trust him; if we trust him, we will trust that we are loved.

In a tragically cynical, yet brutally honest article entitled Love Your Neighbor as Yourself? No Thanks., Dan Pearce writes about “Loving others the way I loved myself destroyed my life.” He explains how he projected his own inner guilt, mistrust, and self-loathing onto others, and that it tore at every relationship he had, including two marriages that ended in divorce. He concludes by saying that we must love ourselves before we can love our neighbors.

This is an entirely valid point, but it neglects the very core truth that we simply aren’t very good at loving ourselves. Sure, there are those egoist and braggarts who seem to be having an affair with their own ego, but like any affair, this is rooted in lust, not love, and it is born of insecurity or misperception. The vast majority of humankind doesn’t treat themselves too well. This is why it’s essential that we love the Lord our God with absolutely everything we have. Only when we have despaired of our own strength, then we will trust on His. With this trust in the infinite love of the Father, we can acknowledge in the same breath our utter degradation and the fact that we are loved—even liked—by God the Father.

On this subject, Carl Jung observed: “What if I discover…the poorest of all beggars, the most imprudent of all the offenders, the very enemy himself—that these are within me…that I myself am the enemy who must be loved—what then? As a rule, the Christian attitude is then reversed; there is no longer any question of love or long-suffering; we say to brother within us ‘Raca’ and condemn and rage against ourselves.”

This should not be. Christ stretched out his bloody arms for all mankind—not everybody but yourself. To think otherwise is not only arrogant; it is insulting to God himself—it is saying that the blood of the Cross covers everyone’s sin but thy own. But even failing to fully accept the love of God is not to lose it—it is merely a tragedy. Love the Lord your God. Love your neighbor as yourself. Self-hatred serves nothing, but love covers a multitude of sins.

We should not love ourselves because we are lovable—we are not. But to love others well, we must love ourselves well. And to love ourselves well, we must first love God—at least enough to trust his love.

Love thyself for the sake of thy neighbor.

Love thyself because God loves thee.