On Digging Holes and Defeating Darkness

My mother used to love to tell the stories about how I behaved when I was little.  She would laugh when she related that I never played like other children.  She even used to tell people that I was “born old.”  She told about how one place we lived in Greensburg, KY, there was a huge pile of dirt in the backyard, but I wouldn’t use the collection of Tonka trucks to play in it.  Rather, I would run into the house frequently and ask if I was dirty, apparently preferring not to soil my clothes with that red clay dirt. 

But I just made a connection that may provide a clue as to why I was such a juvenile clean-freak.  I remember one time actually digging in the dirt in that very backyard, and I uncovered a rock with a sharp point on it.  I was convinced that I had dug my way to hell, and that was the horn of old Lucifer himself, as depicted in so many images, mostly cartoons, but which still were quite suggestive and influential to a very young boy.  That’s probably why I didn’t like the dirt so much.

I knew little of religion and Heaven and hell at the time, but since my dad was a preacher, I had heard plenty about such things, usually while sitting on unpadded church pews, and sometimes during marathon sermons brought by some visiting preacher at what I’m sure I felt were all too frequent “gospel meetings,” as they are called in the churches of Christ, or known in other denominations as “revivals.”  The longest sermon I can remember was by a legendary preacher (although I forget his name) in a little country church on a hot summer night in a building where there was no air conditioning.  The benches were narrow boards for a seat with a narrow board for a back rest, with a huge space in between.  That sermon felt like it went on for three hours or more, although I’m quite sure it probably wasn’t a minute over two and a half.

Nearly half a century later, I understand that hell is not under my feet, and not every pointy rock is a devil’s horn.  But I have come to realize that we can do things that degrade what God said was a “very good” creation.  I have come to believe that each of our thoughtless or premeditated, selfishly motivated actions (theologically referred to as “sins”) can allow a little bit of the darkness of hell to break through into this once-bright realm, making the world a little less welcoming, a little less comfortable, a little less safe, a little less “very good.”

So many of the ills of the modern world are tied not to a single proximate source, but to a complex nest of interwoven malevolent threads, all spun from the same selfish source, twisted into a cord that binds us.  One thread is money.  Another is power.  Another is indifference to suffering.  Every one of those coarse or silky fibers is twisted into a rope that owes its existence to that single, seemingly innocuous quality of self-determination masquerading as self-preservation: selfishness.  If we are not careful, however, that twisted cable may bind us hand and foot, preventing us from breaking free to return to the care-free freedom of grace.

Consider the three avenues of temptation as catalogued in I John 2.16: “For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world.”  All of these forms of temptation point directly back to selfishness.  When we desire power over another, it is for selfish gain.  When money becomes our sole motivation, its purpose is usually to elevate and enrich the self.  When we drink too much or eat too much or focus too much on sex, it is most likely for selfish gratification, although these may be forms of self-medication to make some kind of hurt—often brought on by conflict with another exercising some attitude and action of selfishness—go away.

We can see such things being painted in broad strokes on a daily basis.  Politicians, motivated more often by a lust for power than a desire to serve, sell themselves to the highest corporate bidders, supporting initiatives that degrade the environment to make another banner quarterly earnings statement.  We see those same politicians refuse to consider raising the minimum wage to a level that might allow a person the dignity of rising above the poverty level because it would cut down on corporate profits.  We see politicians in one moment seek to limit or ban abortions, but then actively campaign to reduce funding for programs to feed and care for children that have already been born. 

At the heart of all of these issues is some manifestation of selfishness:  whether money or power or some warped concept of self-sufficiency or self-determination, I assert that the malevolent root is the same.

When I awoke to this realization, I saw that much of the political ideology that I had supported for years was degenerating into a miasma that elevates selfish ambition and actively discourages any corporate expression of the focal Christian directive to “love thy neighbor.”  This has largely been influenced by the economic philosophies of people such as the Ayn Rand, whose “objectivism” has shaped the thinking of numerous members of an elite cadre of the super-wealthy.  Politicians have extolled the virtues of Rand’s philosophy, but when it is examined closely, it is the very antithesis of Christianity.       

Consider just two quotes from Ayn Rand’s massive novel, Atlas Shrugged:

“If I were asked to serve the interests of society apart from, above and against my own—I would refuse, I would reject it as the most contemptible evil.” 

 “I swear by my life, and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”

According to James 2, Christians have responsibilities to help others as we can.  I have frequently been reminded of what James says about words without action.  In James 2.15-16, he pointedly addresses the idea of essentially wishing the needy well, but doing nothing to see to it.  “15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?”

Someone will undoubtedly say that James 2 deals with individual responsibility, and some would go so far as to say that not even churches should be involved in such activity corporately, but that every person has the responsibility to do his or her part.  I agree that it is an individual responsibility.  But the need is so great across a massive country that individual efforts barely make a dent in the problem.  By supporting government initiatives that effectively pool our resources, we can be far more effective. 

The first of Rand’s quotes above is a complete rejection of loving one’s neighbor and seeing to his or her physical needs.  Government, in a time of tremendous economic upheaval (The Great Depression of the 1930’s), stepped in to help support the elderly and the poor.  Many see these as good things, others condemn them as contemptible because of abuses and excesses perpetrated by dishonest people seeking gain at the public expense.  Of course there are abuses of the system.  We’re dealing with humans, who at their natural cores tend toward selfishness, and money.  Does the system need review and revision?  Constantly.

One argument from many who would dismantle government aid programs is that such should be locally driven, if not turned over to the private sector.  This idea is flawed, however, because it suggests that poorer regions with a higher proportion of the population in poverty can provide for their own poor.  The truth is that wealth is not uniformly distributed across the geographic map.  A starving child in Mississippi is as much my responsibility as a starving child in Tennessee or Illinois or New York or Oregon.  Furthermore, this fails to account for a very notable human failing: for most people, if we are not pushed to put money into such programs, we are likely not to do it—it’s that tendency toward selfishness. Oh, it may be that such inactivity is not malicious, but the effect is the same: hungry children will go unfed, the elderly, poor, and disabled will lack medical care, the poor will be exposed to pollution and poor working conditions—if working at all.  The fact of the matter is that government is the only organization large enough and with enough infrastructure and resources to deal with the problems of a nation of more than 320 million people.

But back to the point of the clash of philosophies and to draw another conclusion: You cannot accept the selfishness of Randian Individualist/Objectivist position and still hold to the teachings of Jesus Christ.  Remember the story of Satan’s temptation of Eve?  He simply said, “You will NOT surely die.”  A simple negation to plant doubt.  Rand does the same thing: “Money is the root of all good.”  Rand says, “You have no duty to anyone but yourself.” But in Ecclesiastes  12.13, “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.”  So, anyone espousing a Christian faith has duty to God, who commands that we love and care for each other. 

Someone may say that we are talking about politics and economics, not religion, so these arguments have no merit.  Well, I cannot separate my faith from my life, which includes my political ideologies and economic doctrines and beliefs.  My faith informs me.  If I now embrace the objectivist teaching in whole or in part, I have achieved nothing but dissonance with the principles of my faith.  As Jesus said, no one can serve two masters.

Many people will try to cast this variant of rugged individualism as the ultimate expression of American patriotism.  They will say that we are taking back our country if we follow the Rand-inspired Pathway to Prosperity.  They will praise those who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps (even though it is hard to do that when you don’t have a boot to begin with).  They will turn every bit of vice in the Randian “scriptures” into virtues.  But in the Old Testament, Isaiah (5.20-21) raised an alarm that is as true today as when it was penned:   

20 Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! 21 Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight!        

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”  It is time that we realize that money is not indeed power: it is only a tool.  It is time we turn our attention away from just getting and keeping more and more wealth, but focus on how we can alleviate suffering and reverse the situations of lives trapped by a rigged game on an un-level playing field toward greater opportunity. Like Dr. King, so many other people have observed that love is power, but not the kind of power that corrupts.  The power of love that drives me to see to the needs of my neighbor here in Tennessee should also drive me to care for my neighbor 2,000 miles away in California, or half a world away in Nepal.  The closing of the heart, whether by conscious measures to actively harm or to passively withhold aid by the exercise of indifference are elements of the power that corrupts.

Someone may say that paying taxes is not an expression of loving our neighbors.  Doing so cheerfully and without complaint is, especially when we know that those funds will be used for good.  Supporting initiatives that bring opportunity, that promote human dignity and celebrate the value of each human life is loving our neighbors.  Trying to keep people in economic servitude is not.

Whatever we can do to make the world better, improve the environment, and help people who are hurting and vulnerable will push back the darkness of corruption that has plagued humankind since we were tempted to follow our selfish tendencies.   We must suppress greed and the lust for power, and close down the cries of those who remain driven by them.  It will never be easy, but the benefits will be greater than gold.


Seeking Deeper Faith Despite Scriptural Discrepancies

One Sunday morning, not long ago, I sat listening to the sermon, and a statement caught my attention. It was from Matthew’s Gospel, dealing with the death of Jesus. What caught my attention was the description of what happened at the moment of Jesus’ death. There had been darkness from the sixth to the ninth hours, then there was an earthquake, accompanied by the tearing of the temple curtain. Mark and Luke both mention the torn curtain, and the darkness, but not the earthquake. John is silent on all of these details.

What caught my attention that Sunday morning, though, was what Matthew’s account mentions next, not found in any of the other Gospels: Matthew says that the tombs were opened as a result of the earthquake, apparently, and that many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, but did not emerge from the tombs until after Jesus had been resurrected. Here is a comparison of the passages from the ESV dealing specifically with Jesus’ death from the four Gospel accounts.

Matthew 27.45-54

5 Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. 46 And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 47 And some of the bystanders, hearing it, said, “This man is calling Elijah.” 48 And one of them at once ran and took a sponge, filled it with sour wine, and put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink. 49 But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” 50 And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.

51 And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52 The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, 53 and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. 54 When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!”

Mark 15.33-39

33 And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. 34 And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 35 And some of the bystanders hearing it said, “Behold, he is calling Elijah.” 36 And someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” 37 And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. 38 And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 39 And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”

Luke 23.44-49

44 It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, 45 while the sun’s light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46 Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last. 47 Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, saying, “Certainly this man was innocent!” 48 And all the crowds that had assembled for this spectacle, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts. 49 And all his acquaintances and the women who had followed him from Galilee stood at a distance watching these things.

John 19.28-30

After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.” 29 A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth. 30 When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

Now, I had read that passage from Matthew many times, and heard it expounded on, often in the context of the wondrous nature of the event. But I have been troubled by it now, for days, because in it, I fear, are elements that many of my faith heritage are not willing to acknowledge, let alone entertain in terms of significance.

I have heard many times that scriptures do not contradict each other. Well, other than the fact that all four passages deal with the death of Jesus, and all say he died, the details are not much in agreement.

Consider for a moment the fact that only Matthew mentions such a miraculous occurrence as many of the dead not only coming to life, but only emerging from the tombs after Jesus was resurrected. Why wouldn’t Mark (the text of which has been given the earliest date of any Gospel account) be in closer agreement with Matthew, the texts of which appear virtually identical in many passages? Luke the physician should have been extremely interested in and would have likely remarked on such an occurrence that was so contrary to what he would have known to be the natural order of things. John is silent on all of it, except the central truth of Jesus’ death.

According to those in my faith tradition, the church came into being on the Day of Pentecost, 50 days after the Passover, which was being observed about the time of the crucifixion. According to that traditional, accepted view, before that pivotal moment in church history, there could have technically been no Christians (even thought that term was not used until the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch), if the only Christians are people who are members of the church. If there were no Christians, there were no saints, as the typical teaching is that “saint” = “Christian.” Therefore, how could “sleeping saints” have been raised as Matthew alone records?

Perhaps this points out that our traditional doctrines may not be correct. According to this reasoning, if “saints” had “fallen asleep” before Jesus’ death, there must have been those considered as “Christians” before the formal institution of the church on Pentecost. Or, one alternative is that “saint” and “Christian” are not necessarily interchangeable terms. Of course, one way to justify this is in the acknowledgement in Acts that Christians are in fact disciples, and the living pre-crucifixion Jesus had many followers who were considered disciples.

I mention this not just to point out apparent inconsistency in the records, but also a decided inconsistency in how we have approached so many questions. I believe that much of how we think on many issues is dictated by the thoughts and opinions of whichever preacher was most charismatic, influential, or just plain loud somewhere in our past.

Other scriptural inconsistencies include the fate of Judas, which only Matthew says involved a change of heart of Judas’ part, leading him to return the 30 pieces of silver. When the chief priest and elders refused to accept it into the temple treasury because it was blood money, they went out and bought the potter’s field to be used for burying strangers. Judas himself, went out and hanged himself. But Luke records in Acts that Judas took the money, bought the field, and fell headlong, resulting in his internal organs bursting forth.

Now, I have heard preachers try to massage this discrepancy by saying that Judas did hang himself, and when he had reached an appreciable level of decomposition, he fell from the tree and burst open. That, however, is not what either record indicates. In fact, it attempts to rectify by reading into the story, or call it what it is, adding to the record. And that, according to what I was taught, is not allowed.

When you really look at it, Mark and John have little in common in the records of the resurrection. In Mark, three women arrive at the tomb on the First Day of the Week after the crucifixion and see one man clothed in white. John says Mary Magdalene went to the tomb, with no mention of the other two, and is met by two angels in white robes. Why is there such a noticeable difference?

I am not the first to notice such discrepancies. They are there for anyone to see who pays any attention to detail. But what do they mean? If the Gospels were indeed inspired, why aren’t the details identical? Is it that the sources were in conflict, or has the text evolved over time to demonstrate the extant variance?

Perhaps the greater question is, “Does it matter?” All four Gospels attest to the life of a remarkable teacher. All four show his teaching to be quite contrary to the normative human behavioral patterns of “looking out for number one.” All four attest to the historicity of Jesus, either by claims of eyewitness experience (John 21, I John 1) or by careful examination of evidence (cf. Luke 1, Acts 1).

I have more questions than answers. I know that some would proffer pat answers to such questions, but many of those answers are frankly full of holes.

Someone may say that by asking such questions, I’m looking for a way to deny the faith. On the contrary, I am looking for a way to strengthen it. If there are discrepancies, then there must be a reason for them.   I reject the argument of the atheist, that they demonstrate the manufacture of Christianity by imperfect humans. By the same token, I cannot easily accept the glib and unfounded declaration of no internal discrepancies when I can see them with my own eyes.

For now, I rest on the premise that the core truth—the truth of Jesus’ life, death, and restored life—is foundational.   His life’s work of teaching people how to live to attain citizenship in the kingdom that was during his time still at hand is valid for all time. This must form the unshakeable bedrock for faith. Jesus’ message of defying spiritual entropy, of rising above base animal nature, elevates humanity. And while splintered elements of Christianity have degenerated across countless generations, have fallen from grace by appealing to that baser nature by seeking not to serve others, but rather to gain advantage, even power, over their brothers and sisters, we can not only aspire to a glimpse of that heavenly kingdom, but we can become a part of its becoming, allowing heaven to pierce the dark veil of physical reality by God’s goodness and by Jesus’ grace shining through us. By staying close to Jesus’ teachings we can provide a preview of the glory that can be now and will be forever. As the reality of a forest is more than the sum of the few and disparate twigs we can see from a single, confined vantage point, the apparent discrepancies among Gospel details is of less importance than the encompassing truth of Jesus.  

If I Were a Rich Man

If I were a rich man….

No, I’m not going to break into a musical number, but it’s an interesting hypothetical.  Of course, by most of the world’s standard, I am rich (along with a lot of other Americans).  By our standards, I’m middle class.  I have nothing to complain about.


If I were a rich man, I’d love to have more money to help more people with more problems in more places.  There is so little that I personally could want money for.  I have a home.  A good family.  A job I (usually) enjoy.

But the one thing that always nags at me is the desire to be able to help more people.  I realize that throwing money at a problem is really no solution.  But providing resources for others with skills and opportunities to fix the problems is essential to progress and success against many of life’s formidable challenges.  Like providing clean water and sanitation to desperately poor people so they can experience better health, work less to get the necessities, and have more opportunities for education, training, which will lead to building a better economic future.

When did I develop this desire?  I suppose there has always been something there telling me that this is the right thing to do.  But as I have grown older, and perhaps a little wiser, I have become more sensitive to suffering.  I want to be able to alleviate that in some way.

The Bible is loaded with instructions to help others.  There are specific statements like the one in Romans 12.6-8:

“6  Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; 7  if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching;  8  the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.”

That passage specifically demonstrates that there are gifts associated with actions.  With respect to “contributing,” the question may be posed as to whether the gift is in the wealth itself or in the generosity.  I would answer that two pronged question with “Yes.”  If one is so gifted as to have a significant store of wealth that is a gift.  If one is so concerned with seeing to the needs of others, that is a gift of discernment and selflessness.

Money is of no value if it is not used.  Stored away in a bank, it gathers precious little interest.  Given in service to others, it reaps tremendous gains.

Hope and Act for an End to Racism

I suppose some people think college professors have it very easy.  And in some ways, maybe we do.  We teach about things we love to study, we get to explore things to learn even more about things that interest us.  We get to touch the future by inspiring our students to go farther and learn more than we have.  In a sense, the academic life is all about advancement in knowledge and understanding.

But there is another side to being a college professor.  Whether we like it or not, we can become drawn into our students lives through our roles as advisers, whether formally in terms of helping to craft a plan of study or career exploration or perhaps more informally as mentors and role models.  And yes, whether we like it or not, that modeling may even extend to appearance:  I saw a young woman who, in her pre-professional interview, had adopted the hairstyle and mannerisms of her undergraduate research mentor.  It was like looking at twins.

Part of my job is to serve on the Students of Concern Team, a group of faculty and staff tasked with keeping tabs on students at risk for hurting themselves or others.  I hear heart-breaking stories of young people who are struggling with terrible burdens, some so great they attempt to take their own lives.  Last year, one even succeeded.  I want so desperately to be able to help them all, but sometimes, we can’t.

Over all, I love my job. But sometimes, it gets to me. For example, I have been trying to encourage a very nice young African American student, trying to build his confidence so that he can really demonstrate what he is capable of–and I can see real potential there. One thing that has held him back is that he works a lot of hours in a week, which cuts into rest and study time. My most recent efforts came too late, as seen by a less than helpful performance on the final.

He came to see me Friday, and asked if I really meant what I had said to him about what I see in his potential. I assured him I meant every word. He opened up to me then and said that with all of the things happening in the world today–Ferguson and Baltimore in particular–he sometimes wonders how long he is going to live.

I was crushed by that comment. How do you respond to it? Here’s a good kid who really shouldn’t have anything to worry about from the police, but because of the color of his skin, he wonders how long he will live. What can you say?

It made me angry at the national situation, and very sad for the anxiety he lives with every day.

I don’t understand racial violence. But I know without a doubt I hate every expression of it. And while it hasn’t physically touched Martin, the tension is there.

How do we move beyond it? How do we see beyond the color of skin to understand, appreciate and celebrate our common humanity? Who can wear the mantle of Dr. King and bring the races together with passion and reason?

It was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that led the greatest non-violent movement in American history.  His writings and speeches are so full of wisdom that it is hard to select favorite passages.  However, Dr. King gave us one of the greatest speeches ever made when he stood at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on that August day over 50 years ago and delivered the work now known simply as “I Have a Dream.”  In that speech, he says that the beleaguered black population, who were by and large the descendants of slaves, was looking forward to the day when America lives up to its celebrated creed of equality.

In that speech, he says,

 “But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

 “The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.”

 Many of us claim to be people of a Christian faith, but we deny that faith when we express any hint of racism.  How many times is the idea expressed that there is “…neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”? (Galatians 3.28; cf. Colossians 3.11)  Christian people too often—sometimes under their breath—make derogatory comments about people of other races.  It is not in the spirit of Jesus, who taught a Samaritan woman and who cast a Samaritan as the hero in one of his greatest parables, both of which were of a mixed race and loathed by pure-bred Jews of that day.  It is not in the spirit and image of God who declared his creation to be “very good.”

It doesn’t matter that this is the 21st century.  Racism today is as wrong as racism in any other time.  Until we lay aside our prejudices and recognize the spectrum of racial variance as nothing more than the external expression of our fundamental humanity, we can never have true freedom from suspicion, intolerance and the host of other hindrances preventing us from true fellowship.

I echo the sentiment of Dr. King’s most poignant expression of that dream when he said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”  We aren’t there yet, but the only thing stopping us is us, not only those who wish to maintain the status quo of suspicion and mistrust, but those unwilling to move forward to end racism once and for all.  Dr. King saw the same things.

 “We cannot walk alone.

 “And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.

 “We cannot turn back.”


If you have never read the text of the “I Have a Dream” speech or listened to it delivered in Dr. King’s inimitable style, I encourage you take the time and really consider it.  Few writings of the 20th century are as important as that short speech.  Every time I read it, my eyes well up with tears.  Here is a link where you can find it: http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm