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Sunday, November 29, 2020

Losing My Religion

The title of this post was borrowed from the famous R.E.M. tune of the same name. I chose it because I felt that it would be descriptive of my own experiences and a discussion that I wanted to inaugurate about an article that was referenced several days ago over at Banned by HWAPeople of the Book? The article originally appeared over at Christianity Without the Religion (Plain Truth Ministries), and it presents a very interesting quotation from a book by Barbara Brown Taylor (Leaving Church: a memoir of faith).

The quote that really caught my eye and spoke to my own experience was this one: "I know that the Bible is a special kind of book, but I find it as seductive as any other. If I am not careful, I can begin to mistake the words on the page for the realities they describe. I can begin to love the dried ink marks on the page more than I love the encounters that gave rise to them. If I am not careful, I can decide that I am really much happier reading my Bible than I am entering into what God is doing in my own time and place, since shutting the book to go outside will involve the very great risk of taking part in stories that are still taking shape. Neither I nor anyone else knows how these stories will turn out, since at this point they involve more blood than ink. The whole purpose of the Bible, it seems to me, is to convince people to set the written word down in order to become living words in the world for God’s sake. For me, this willing conversion of ink back to blood is the full substance of faith."

As long time readers of this blog know, I have written numerous posts about Christianity and its attitudes toward the Bible. I believe many Christians have been seduced by THE BOOK. Unfortunately, instead of using Scripture as a guide to God, Jesus Christ and salvation through him, the Bible is seen as the Source - the Final Authority - something to be revered and worshipped. Indeed, God and Jesus Christ are unwittingly relegated to a secondary or unimportant role in establishing truth, doctrine and theology in general. Experience and what we can observe about the world around us are dismissed as legitimate sources for revealing God and "His" will to us (or they are only valued in so far as they can confirm/reinforce what's revealed in THE BOOK). The Scriptures are selectively mined for proof of the tenets/doctrines or prophetic interpretations of the Church. In other words, like the Pharisees of old, the form becomes much more important than the substance. And, sadly, many Christians never quite get around to living what the Bible teaches.

Some of my readers will recall a post that I did regarding the Christianity practiced by Jane Fonda. As someone who was previously seduced by THE BOOK, I can attest to the real value of this alternative view of Christianity - a Christianity rooted in action and experience. The article referenced above describes a faith that "is far more relational than doctrinal." This type of religion believes "that God is found in right relationships, not in right ideas." OR As the Apostle James expressed it, "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world." (see James 1:27)

Is this a permission slip to turn one's back on traditional Christianity and its churches? Not at all. The author of the book of Hebrews said that there was real value in Christians coming together in community learning and worship. Paul said that Christians should be helping each other and lifting each other up when we fall (and we all fall down sometimes). I can attend the local Lutheran Church on Sunday and enjoy the message and the fellowship without absorbing the corporate mindset - the corporate religion. In other words, true Christianity is a state of mind - something that you can carry with you wherever you go or wherever you're at (whether sitting on a rock overlooking the Grand Canyon or standing in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome)!

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Happy Thanksgiving!

“When you arise in the morning give thanks for the food and for the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies only in yourself.” —Tecumseh

“Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough.” —Oprah Winfrey

"Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus." ---Paul to the saints at Thessalonica


Friday, November 20, 2020

Evangelicals Got Nothing on Armstrongites!



For several months now, I’ve been drawing attention to the blatant partisanship exhibited by many of the church organizations that have emerged from the wreckage of Herbert Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God. Although the ACOG culture has always leaned right, like most of the rest of Americans who are so inclined, many within that culture are in the bag for Donald Trump. Perhaps this development should not have elicited such surprise and consternation on my part - as it would be completely disingenuous to suggest that we shouldn’t have expected it. After all, those who have willing given themselves to the personality cult surrounding Herbert Armstrong and his teachings were bound to have a predisposition for joining the cult of personality surrounding Trump!

Predictably, Gerald Flurry’s Philadelphia Church of God is completely in the bag for Trump. In a recent offering at the Trumpet.com, Brad MacDonald wrote: “Mr. Biden has a long, easily proven track record of political corruption. The Hunter Biden scandal shone the light of truth on this reality just days before the election. Joe Biden supports both Antifa and Black Lives Matter. He also has a record of rejecting the rule of law and the Constitution (for example, he is a key member of the Obama-led cabal behind the Mueller report and impeachment trial, both of which were unconstitutional). Meanwhile, Kamala Harris, the candidate for vice president, is even more far left than Joe Biden.” – Thanks to Democracy, America is Over, Virtually

MacDonald continued: “To choose Joe Biden and his radical agenda, one must suffer from at least one of two basic flaws in thinking. First, he would have to be totally ignorant of the facts illuminating Mr. Biden’s condemning record, his radical policies and his sadistic ambitions for America. Second, a person must not sufficiently value America’s continuation as a capitalist Republic, its political and social stability, and the general idea of traditional America. He mustn’t value America’s Constitution, the rule of law, and its Judeo-Christian heritage and morality. As president, Mr. Biden would assault all of these.” – same article reference above

Mr. MacDonald concluded his diatribe with a discourse on the failure of democracy in America. His reasoning – Since a majority of Americans were stupid enough to vote for Joe Biden (instead of the obvious choice, Donald Trump), democracy has failed. The underlying thesis, of course, is that America’s only hope is Trump staging a successful coup, overthrowing the results of the election and continuing in office!

It should be noted that MacDonald’s effort was intended as a companion piece to the main offering in this regard provided by none other than the notorious pastor general of the PCOG, Gerald Flurry. In an article entitled Donald Trump Is Going to Win This Election (penned November 9), Mr. Flurry wrote: “Regardless of how things look right now, I am confident that Donald Trump will remain president.” See Flurry Article at Trumpet.com He continued: “The radical left in America have done everything in their power for the last four years to discredit and destroy Donald Trump. They have spied. They have lied. They have cheated. They have broken laws too numerous to count. They have committed treason, trying to depose the duly elected government! And somehow, President Trump has weathered all those storms.” He went on to declare that “a Biden presidency is contrary to Bible prophecy.” Really, that will come as quite a shock to millions of Christian Americans!

Flurry went on to say: “The mainstream media insist there is “no evidence” the Democrats tried to steal this election. This is patently false: There is plenty of evidence. But it is also absurd, when you think about what the left has been doing for the past several years! You would have to be naive not to think they are committing great frauds with this election.” He continued: “I also marvel that so many people voted for the radical platform the Democratic Party has embraced. They want to encourage illegal immigration, even giving them free health care and welfare and education. They want to ravage the economy to combat “climate change.” They accept radical racist ideals and far-out sexual practices. They applaud lawlessness and a spirit of insurrection. It doesn’t take much to understand that in a democracy, when that many people are so ignorant, it is over. This nation is lost, virtually.”

“Oh well, that’s crazy Gerry and his minions!” some will innocently declare. “You can’t paint the entire culture with that paintbrush.”

Nevertheless, I have pointed out some of the very partisan articles and sermons delivered by “moderate” Church of God International pastors, Bill Watson and Adrian Davis. And those gentlemen apparently aren’t the only “reasonable” ACOG folks who have fallen into this partisan trap!

Dave Havir’s Church of God Big Sandy has published some very interesting articles in the latest edition of their Eye on the World. In an article entitled No Time for Phony Healing by Michelle Malkin, we read: “We, the 71 million Americans who voted to reelect Donald J. Trump, do not forgive. We, the 71 million Americans who voted to reelect Donald J. Trump, do not forget. We, the 71 million Americans who voted to reelect Donald J. Trump, do not surrender. We, the 71 million Americans who voted to reelect Donald J. Trump, resoundingly reject the phony olive branches of former Vice President Joe Biden. After liberal media operatives prematurely declared Biden the winner of election 2020 this weekend, Biden’s handlers carefully trotted him out in front of the cameras to read a script that proclaimed: “It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric, to lower the temperature, to see each other again, to listen to each other again.”

The author’s response to Biden’s overture: “This is the time for hell-raising, not healing. Every legal vote must be counted, every illegal vote thrown out, every lawsuit heard. Anything less amounts to exactly the kind of “coup” undermining the “peaceful transition of power” that anti-Trump forces falsely accused our president of perpetrating. We, the 71 million Americans who voted to reelect Donald J. Trump, resist the media-Silicon Valley coronation of Biden-Harris. We, the 71 million Americans who voted to reelect Donald J. Trump, do not relent. We, the 71 million Americans who voted to reelect Donald J. Trump, do not yield. We, the 71 million Americans who voted to reelect Donald J. Trump, do not concede.”

How can anyone claim with a straight face that the rejection of forgiveness, the offer of an olive branch, reconciliation and humility be characterized as "Christian"? Do Christians advocate for "hell-raising, not healing"? Indeed, I can't imagine anything being more antithetical to the tenets of the Christian religion!

Now, it is true that Pastor Havir prefaced these offerings with a disclaimer: “This compilation of material for “Eye on the World” is presented as a service to the Churches of God. The views stated in the material are those of the writers or sources quoted by the writers, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the Church of God Big Sandy. The following articles were posted at churchofgodbigsandy.com for the weekend of Nov. 14, 2020.” Nevertheless, I fail to see how the inclusion of this material could be considered to be rendering "a service to the Churches of God."Moreover, another article in the same offering dealing with the political cult of personality surrounding Trump was prefaced with this qualifier: “Following is a letter from an individual who claims that “[President] Trump has succeeded in creating a cult.” This letter probably reflects the opinion of 90 percent of the corporate media and many of the population that voted against President Trump. (For the record—Although the current vote tally has half of the voting population as voting against President Trump, not all of them would go so far as to claim that his supporters are members of a Trump cult.)"

Now, while I’m confident that most of the folks in the ACOG culture will be perplexed that anyone could find fault with these offerings, I am also confident that objective Christians will find these remarks to be very objectionable. Once again, YOU DO NOT HAVE TO BE A REPUBLICAN OR A TRUMP SUPPORTER TO BE A CHRISTIAN! Unlike Herbert Armstrong, I do not have any problems with Christians voting or expressing opinions about the moral implications of policy, but I do object to ministers announcing the correct political view from the pulpit! And we should all be able to recognize the fact that such offerings severely curtail the appeal of any religious message offered by these groups. After all, almost 80 million Americans voted for Joe Biden and telling them that they are ignorant and Satanic for doing so is NOT likely to make them very receptive to any appeal offered by these folks.

Monday, November 16, 2020

The Parable of the Sower

The Armstrong Churches of God have used Christ's "Parable of the Sower" to club those who would dare to leave them and as a prop for explaining their behavior to the folks who stay. However, if one is willing to take an objective look at the parable, any use of it as a cudgel or excuse is rendered preposterous.

The parable occurs in three of the four gospel accounts (Matthew 13:1-23, Mark 4:1-20 and Luke 8:4-15). It has been summarized thus: "Jesus tells the story of a sower who scattered seeds on four different types of soil. The first type of ground was hard and the seed could not sprout or grow at all and became snatched up instantly. The second type of ground was stony. The seed was able to plant and begin to grow, however, it could not grow deep roots and withered in the sun. The third type of ground was thorny and although the seed could plant and grow, it could not compete with the number of thorns that overtook it. The fourth ground was good soil that allowed the seed to plant deep, grow strong, and produce fruit." see The Parable of the Sower

Fortunately for us, Christ himself explained the symbolism in the story. He said: "Now listen to the explanation of the parable about the farmer planting seeds: The seed that fell on the footpath represents those who hear the message about the Kingdom and don’t understand it. Then the evil one comes and snatches away the seed that was planted in their hearts. The seed on the rocky soil represents those who hear the message and immediately receive it with joy. But since they don’t have deep roots, they don’t last long. They fall away as soon as they have problems or are persecuted for believing God’s word. The seed that fell among the thorns represents those who hear God’s word, but all too quickly the message is crowded out by the worries of this life and the lure of wealth, so no fruit is produced. The seed that fell on good soil represents those who truly hear and understand God’s word and produce a harvest of thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times as much as had been planted!" - Matthew 13:18-23, NLT

Notice that the folks in the first three categories either never accepted or abandoned altogether Christ's message about the kingdom. In other words, the message is not retained by them. Hence, while we could make a compelling argument that those who have turned their backs on God, Christ and His message could be associated with this parable, it does NOT necessarily follow that someone who has abandoned some or all of the teachings of Herbert Armstrong has done any of that. In other words, the discovery of error in the teachings of some follower/minister of Christ is NOT the equivalent of rejecting God, Christ or His message! Those who accept Christ and His message (irrespective of the degree to which they may or may not fully comprehend it, because we <Christians> all currently have an imperfect understanding of both) can continue to grow in grace and knowledge. All of Christ's followers have the potential to produce the fruits of the Holy Spirit.

Hence, in the language of the parable, those who continue to follow Christ and His message are among "the seed that fell on good soil." Now, we do know from Christ's "Parable of the Tares" that the enemy can sew bad seed among the good. However, even in this instance, Christ told his followers not to attempt to remove the tares because they might uproot the good plants in the process! - Matthew 13:24-43 So, we see that ANY attempt to portray those who leave an ACOG as failures, or anything other than a brother or sister in Christ, is NOTHING but a flagrant misuse of Scripture!

What does it mean to be persecuted?

The leadership in many of the Armstrong Churches of God frequently claim that they are being persecuted because of the message they preach. They are in good company among U.S. Evangelicals in this regard. In short, they don't like the fact that some folks have characterized their messages as racist, homophobic or contrary to the spirit of Christ; and they call this persecution. In other words, any effort to denigrate or limit the appeal of their message is regarded by them as persecution. But is it really fair to characterize that as persecution?

Jesus Christ is reported to have said: "Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you." - Matthew 5:10-12, NIV Notice that Christ differentiated between those who were to be persecuted "for righteousness' sake" and suffer as a consequence of false accusations, and those who would suffer for the sake of genuine wrongdoing. Moreover, this differentiation is reaffirmed in the First Epistle of Peter where the apostle is discussing the treatment of slaves. We read there: "For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God." - I Peter 2:19-20, NIV

Now my ACOG and Evangelical friends would say that they are standing up for righteousness when they advocate for the harsh treatment, imprisonment or death of homosexuals, abortionists and protestors; and they claim God's sanction for their persecution of these people. And, they have the audacity to claim persecution when someone dares to criticize them for doing it!

From a scriptural perspective, the kind of persecution that Christ and his followers experienced is not even comparable to what these ACOG and Evangelical leaders are claiming. Jesus wasn't simply criticized and insulted because of his message - HE WAS BEATEN AND PUT TO DEATH! Stephen was stoned to death! Paul was imprisoned for years and eventually executed! Indeed, when past persecutions of God's saints were discussed by the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, we read: "Some were jeered at, and their backs were cut open with whips. Others were chained in prisons. Some died by stoning, some were sawed in half, and others were killed with the sword. Some went about wearing skins of sheep and goats, destitute and oppressed and mistreated. They were too good for this world, wandering over deserts and mountains, hiding in caves and holes in the ground." - Hebrews 11:36-38 How many of these ACOG and Evangelical leaders have experienced these things?

Indeed, the way that the Greek word translated into English as "persecuted" is used in the writings known to us as the New Testament suggests people pursuing someone to the death! In other words, real persecution is indicative of an existential threat to the one being persecuted. And, as far as I can tell, none of these ACOG or Evangelical leaders have been imprisoned or put to death yet (at least, not for the sake of the messages they are preaching). On the other hand, the Yazidi people or Chinese Christians would certainly be justified in claiming persecution. However, a little criticism for what many folks would consider the persecution of others, does not even approach the level of real persecution. Even if we consider the targets of these folks to be "evil," we are hard-pressed to find any scriptural justification for persecuting them. In fact, isn't the proper role of a minister of Jesus Christ to seek that which was lost and to bind up the brokenhearted?

Hence, as long as these folks continue to peddle their hate-filled messages about "sinners", they should expect to be challenged by others. My advice to them: Stop whining about persecution and put on your big boy pants and get ready for some tough talk!

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

God looks at the heart!

When it comes to the topics of politics and religion, not only do we frequently disagree with each other, we very often attribute the worst possible motives to the folks who disagree with us. The folks on the other side cannot be simply wrong - they must be evil or stupid (or some combination of the two). I believe that this tendency to demonize the other side is at the root of the extreme polarization which currently exists in the United States. And, just for the record, I'm not pointing a finger at others (we've all been guilty of this at times).

Jesus Christ instructed his followers not to judge each other and cautioned that God would judge each of them by how generous they were in judging each other. Scripture informs us that God looks at the heart - not the superfluous and obvious stuff which most of us are preoccupied with. Is the person motivated by a spirit of love or hate, mercy or revenge, humility or arrogance, greed or generosity, helping or hindering, obedience or rebellion, etc. ? In other words, the motive behind our thinking and activities is very important to God. And Christ understood that motivations are not as readily apparent to humans (who tend to focus on the obvious feedback which they receive via their 5 senses).

Christ also informed his disciples that it was dangerous to characterize their brothers and sisters as being a fool. He knew that the impulse to conclude that those who disagree with us must be stupid beats strong in the human heart, and he knew that that impulse tends to symbolically "murder" the other person by assassinating their intelligence.

Unfortunately, most of us are very impulsive - we tend to rush into those places where angels fear to tread. Anyone who disagrees with us must be in the bonds of Satan. Those who support/oppose this or that can't be a Christian. People who believe/don't believe this or that must be stupid! Anyone who supports socialism/capitalism must be EVIL - the thing that motivates that support becomes irrelevant. The principle is the same for almost any religious or political issue that comes to mind.

And, just in case anyone out there is getting ready to pounce, I'm not advocating for a kind of moral relativism. Right and wrong do exist, and some folks are motivated by hate, revenge, arrogance, greed and a spirit of rebellion - some folks are stupid! Nevertheless, we should all be more willing to heed the words of Christ and be cautious about jumping to negative conclusions about the other guy's motivations. Shouldn't we be leaning into the direction of giving each other the benefit of the doubt? Shouldn't we as Christians be focused on believing the best, building each other up and not tearing each other down?

And, once again, I'm thinking about my own behavior in this regard. I feel compelled to try to do better. What about you?

Monday, November 9, 2020

Does God Appoint Our Leaders?

The question inevitably arises around U.S. Presidential elections: Does God choose the person who becomes our president? Unfortunately, from  the perspective of many Christians, the answer to that question is an emphatic YES. They point to Paul's letter to the saints at Rome as the "proof" that this is so.

However, if we are really interested in answering this question from a Scriptural perspective, then we must be willing to look at the totality of the evidence available to us. In short, is Paul's statement in that epistle the last word on this subject? Did Paul actually say that God appoints mankind's rulers? And, if he did, what does that imply for our notions about free will, and mankind proving that he cannot govern himself?

The King James Version renders the first two verses of the thirteenth chapter of Romans thus: "Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation." Now, I'll admit that this Elizabethan English may be a little obscure to the eyes of the average 20th Century American, but it appears to me that Paul is talking about political/governmental authority - not specific individual rulers. The New International Version makes this even clearer: "Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves." In other words, it's not the individual whom God has appointed - it's the position of authority.

Moreover, if we insist on the more traditional Calvinist interpretation of this scripture - that God has appointed the person occupying the position of authority (as the NLT reads: "those in positions of authority have been placed there by God"), then we are forced to explain another passage from the book of Hosea. In the eighth chapter of that book, the prophet is expressing God's displeasure with the decisions which the Israelites have made for themselves. In verse 4, God says: "They set up kings without my consent; they choose princes without my approval." OR As the NLT renders it, "The people have appointed kings without my consent, and princes without my approval." Hence, this scripture clearly indicates that God believed that "He" had not appointed these rulers of Israel! And, if God didn't appoint these rulers, doesn't that kinda torpedo the notion that he appoints all rulers?

"What about what God said to Nebuchadnezzar?" my skeptical friends will demand. Let's take a look at that one too! The King of Babylon had been arrogant about his position, authority and accomplishments (see Daniel 4:30). Prior to this incident, Nebuchadnezzar had a dream. In the dream, it was announced: "The decision is announced by messengers, the holy ones declare the verdict, so that the living may know that the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes and sets over them the lowliest of people." (Daniel 4:17) We are also informed that Daniel told the king that this dream applied to him, and he suggested that Nebuchadnezzar immediately humble himself before the Lord and repent of his pride (see Daniel 4:19-27). Again, do these verses establish God's supremacy? OR do they suggest that God appoints all world leaders? Did God appoint Hitler and Stalin? Did God intend for their people to submit to their every whim? Were they fulfilling God's will when they murdered millions of their fellow humans?

Finally, we should consider some of the things that Christ is reported to have said during his ministry on this earth. For instance, we know that Christ was not pleased with the way that humans exercised the authority which they possessed. In the Gospel of Luke, we read: "Then they began to argue among themselves about who would be the greatest among them. Jesus told them, “In this world the kings and great men lord it over their people, yet they are called ‘friends of the people.’ But among you it will be different. Those who are the greatest among you should take the lowest rank, and the leader should be like a servant. Who is more important, the one who sits at the table or the one who serves? The one who sits at the table, of course. But not here! For I am among you as one who serves." (see Luke 22:24-27) We also know that Christ established the principle that humans were subject to time and chance (see Luke 13:1-5 and compare with Ecclesiastes 9:11). In other words, not everything that happened on this earth was ordained by God! Christ also established the principle that humans had specific responsibilities relative to God and human government (see Mark 12:17). Finally, when Christ stood before Pilate, we are informed by the author of the Gospel of John that the Roman Governor grew frustrated with Christ's refusal to defend himself and asked him, "Are You not speaking to me? Do You not know that I have power to crucify You, and power to release You?” (see John 19:10) What was Christ's response? "Jesus answered, “You could have no power at all against Me unless it had been given you from above." (see verse 11) Again, the clear implication being that God grants the authority, but doesn't necessarily dictate which person will exercise the authority or how they will exercise it!

If we are truly learning that we cannot govern ourselves, then logic and common sense dictate that we be allowed to govern ourselves! If we must choose between right and wrong, good and evil, God's way or Satan's way, then we must be allowed to make that decision for ourselves. In other words, God pulling the strings does not work if God is really attempting to teach us that "His" way is superior to all other ways - the only way that leads to true happiness and salvation. Otherwise, we're all just a bunch of robots which have been programmed to go through the motions and perform the tasks assigned to us! And what's the point of that?

Sunday, November 1, 2020

The Inscrutable God

Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out! - Romans 11:33