Flight to Egypt

This is the fourth part of my meditation on the Nativity. It will also be the last on this topic. In the next installment we’ll take a quick detour through Jesus’ childhood before spending substantial time on his public ministry.

King Herod was livid. He had met a few days earlier with a group of astrologers from the East, so-called Magi. They reported seeing a star that, according to their charts, revealed the birth of a new King in Israel. Arriving in Jerusalem, they had been brought to Herod, the current King of Israel. He welcomed them and inquired about their journey.

“In the western sky, the heavens revealed a new thing!” one of them exclaimed. “A King has been born! A King who will rule over Israel!”

Another said, “We followed the star so that we may worship the child!”

While Herod was gracious to these strangers, he was not happy about their message. However, he wanted to keep them happy in order to get as much information from them as possible.

The travelers were treated to a special feast before being sent on their way to continue following the star.

“When you find this child, return to me with a full report. I, too, wish to see this new King and worship him,” Herod charged them.

Days later, reports came to Herod that the Magi had left Israel secretly. No one crossed Herod! He had killed one wife and several of his own children! The great Caesar Augustus had once remarked that it would be better to be one of Herod’s pigs than one of his sons. Who did these damned foreigners think that they were? All of Jerusalem was on edge because of the King’s rage. Herod considered himself God’s anointed King. After all, he had built up the Temple and made it the envy of the whole world. His building projects were unrivaled in the Roman empire. How could God allow something like this? In Herod’s world, there was only ONE King!

Someone would pay for this. He would send a clear message to ANY would-be usurpers. A message that would not be quickly forgotten.

Meanwhile, in Bethlehem, Joseph had a dream. In the dream an angel warned him that Herod was sending soldiers to kill Joseph’s new son.

“Flee! Go where Herod cannot find you! Go west to Egypt!”

Joseph woke soaked with sweat and his heart racing.

“Mary! Wake up! The Lord sent a warning! We must leave here! NOW!!!”

The young family packed quickly and found a group of merchants going to Egypt. When they finally arrived, they found a community of Jews where they were welcomed. Joseph was especially welcomed. A good carpenter was always needed. Mary, Joseph, and the young Jesus were comfortable and safe there. But, it was not ‘home.’

As they were on their way to Egypt, Herod’s forces arrived in Bethlehem. They went from door-to-door and put all boys who were two years old and younger to the sword. Herod made sure that he would have no rivals.

A few years later Joseph was again visited in a dream. The messenger told him that it was safe to return to Israel. Those who had plotted to kill the young Jesus were now dead.

Joseph packed up his family and traveled back to Israel. But, because of fears about Herod’s successor, Joseph took the family to Nazareth rather than back to Bethlehem.


As I reflected on this story I felt the fear and anxiety that Joseph, Mary, and Jesus experienced. We in this culture can’t truly understand what it’s like to pack up all of our belongings and run for our lives. They went from a comfortable home with family and friends to refugee status over night. I sensed, though, that both Mary and Jesus had a deep trust in Joseph’s leadership.

So many historiographers portray Jesus as somewhat immune to ordinary emotions such as fear and anxiety. He is shown as a person who is in  total control, rather than a normal child. For these writers Jesus would certainly not trust in a mere human! He had a hotline to God! Yet, the stories in the synoptic Gospels show a human side to Jesus. I can follow someone who understands life as a vulnerable person. He was a child who depended on his parents for his life and well-being. He was a real person whom I can relate to.

However, not everything about this meditation was easy. I had a very difficult time with this story. God had sent a messenger to Joseph to warn him of Herod’s plan. There is nothing here that would indicate that Joseph knew the lengths to which Herod would go. I don’t think that he would have run away without warning others if he knew that Herod was going to kill all of the young boys. And, if Joseph would have warned others, why didn’t God? They could have taken their children away until Herod’s anger cooled. But, that didn’t happen. How many children lost their lives in this massacre because God neglected to warn them. Did God not care? These are the kinds of hard questions that people ask. And, for many, or most, the answers are wholly inadequate. Who could swear allegiance to and follow a God who would allow such an atrocity?

I asked the Father, why? Why were the parents not warned? I sat quietly waiting for some kind of response. Eventually, I got a ‘reply.’ I did not hear any audible voice. I can’t say with certainty that ‘God said…’ This was all taking place in my mind. But, according to Albus Dumbledore, that doesn’t mean it’s not real.

What I heard was, “Do you really believe that I would do that?

Whoa! What? You’re saying that the story is not true? If not, why did the writer include it? Did he add this simply in order to use the Jewish Scriptures to add some kind of credibility to the life of Jesus? He wrote about Rachel’s wailing and how God called his son out of Egypt. Both plot points that this story makes possible.

In the light of what I’ve learned about God over the last several years and the response noted earlier, I must view this passage as a literary device. It appears that the writer, 1) Did want to tie the passages in the Jewish Scriptures to show that Jesus was, indeed, the Chosen One of Israel, and 2) To show the utter depravity of Herod. And, by extension, the entire Herodian culture.

We can dismiss the historicity of this passage. But, we cannot cut it out of the text. Regardless of what we may think, this story is part of the inspired canon. What we can do, however, is put it in its place under the feet of God.

I’m fairly sure that Ignatius wouldn’t approve of where I’ve gone with this. But, it is impossible for me to attribute the massacre of innocent children to the loving and merciful Father that I know. Nor, can I ascribe some abstract notion of sovereignty and authority to this.

The God that I worship would NOT be complicit in such an act…PERIOD!

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Jesus is Born!

This story is pretty much the same as one I posted a few years ago when I experienced the Spiritual Exercises for the first time. I edited some things to better suit what I experienced now and added some comments to the end of it.

Entering, we greeted those already gathered. “Shalom! Baruch hashem Adonai!” “Peace! Bless the name of the Lord!” Unpacking our donkeys, we noticed that there were a lot of people already present. It seems that the whole clan had answered Caesar’s demand that we return for this census. Joseph helped Mary up to the living quarters while I got fodder for the donkeys. As I turned to climb the stairs I saw Joseph gesturing angrily.

“No guest room?! My wife is going to give birth at any moment! You must make room for her and the child!”

“No, we cannot. There are too many people. We cannot have one room given to her alone.”

“Wait,” one of Joseph’s aunts said. “We can fix a place for her down below. There is plenty of fresh straw. And, we can put blankets down to help make her more comfortable.”

Mary, being young and new to the family looked at Joseph and nodded. She was already suspect, being pregnant already. She did not want to give the family any more reason to look down on her.

Evening came. Mary was having contractions every few minutes. One of Joseph’s aunts acted as midwife. They made Mary as comfortable as possible.

Joseph was upstairs with the rest of the family. He was pacing the floor. One cousin scolded him, “Sit down and relax! Everything will be fine. This is not the first child ever born!”

But, everyone knew that many first pregnancies did not end well. Especially, when the mother was as young as Mary. In addition, both Joseph and Mary were anxious about the child. That strange man that had appeared nine months ago had said some very strange things about this child. As the birth drew near, the young parents wondered what kind of creature this was that was about to enter their world.

It seemed as though Mary had been laboring for hours. A final push, and the child arrived! With a cry, the child took his first breath. The midwife lifted the child and tied off the umbilicus.

“It’s a boy!”

Joseph gave a sigh of relief. The others began to pour bowls of wine and a party celebrating the birth of a first-born son began. They sang and danced and drank. When Mary was cleaned up and the child wrapped in clean cloths, Joseph was summoned to come down. He looked compassionately at Mary. She was so strong and brave…no longer a child. Joseph reached into the feeding trough in which his newborn son had been laid. He picked him up and lifted him toward heaven.

“My son, Yeshua!”

A little later I looked up and saw a small group of people entering the house. By the staves that they were carrying I could tell that they were shepherds.

“Who let this rabble in?” I thought. Shepherds were not usually welcome among respectable people. They walked over to where the child lay sleeping.

“We were out in the field tending the sheep. Suddenly, there was a great light in the sky! We feared that something was going to take our sheep and harm us! Then, we heard a voice saying that a child had been born…here…in Bethlehem. The voice said that this child is the Messiah who we have been waiting for!”

Another shepherd spoke up saying, “Then there was a great host praising God! They gave God glory and said that peace was to reign between God and those whom God favors!”

We poured bowls of wine for the shepherds and continued to celebrate throughout the night.

However, Mary had a puzzled look on her face. She said nothing!


As I reflected on this story, I wondered what my takeaway from it would be. Ignatius had encouraged us to see what ‘spiritual benefit’ there was. Yeah, there was the miracle of birth. But, that had been done for millenia. There was the worry and waiting. Again, not new. Even the shepherds showing up wasn’t that all unusual. Just some run-of-the-mill guys showing up to pay respects to the new parents.
Then, I realized something. This WAS my takeaway. What makes this so special is that it’s not all that special!
Ok, ok…I hear y’all whispering out there. I can see the looks on your faces. “What do you mean, not special?! This was Jesus’ birth! That makes it not only special, but unique.”
Yeah, I get it. But, let’s take a moment to think about it.
Yahweh, the God of god’s desired to show love to the world. God wanted to break down barriers and establish ‘table fellowship’ with us. What better way to do that than to join with us so that we can join with God?
This story reveals that the Son of God is just like one of us. Shoot! He IS one of us! He didn’t come down from some lofty mountain like some hero of old. He didn’t appear out of a cloud or flame. He didn’t come walking up out of the sea.
He was born from a woman…just like us. He had a family that loved him…just like us. He grew up in a specific culture in a a specific place and time.

  • JUST LIKE US!

I thank God for this! We have a Savior who, in every respect, is just like us. This Jesus had the same experiences that we have. He had the same wants and needs. He knew what it was like to be loved and accepted. And, he knew what it was like to be hated and rejected.
And, it all began with a simple birth, just like ours.

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More Sunday Musings

This morning I was listening to Fr. Gene Sherman continue his messages on the Apostles’ Creed. The purpose of this series is to give people a basic foundation for belief held my followers of Jesus. While I don’t agree with some of what Gene shares, (there is no compulsion to do so), I do find it refreshing listening to someone who actually learned how to do exegesis. Unlike so many others that I’ve heard.

Today Gene spoke on the portion of the creed that states, “I believe…in the forgiveness of sins.” That idea is absolutely foundational to Christian belief. God is the one who is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.”

One example he used was the story of the Father and Two Sons in the Gospel according to Luke, Chpt. 15. Gene gave the usual take on how gracious the father was to both sons. After being so unjustly used by the youngest, the father received him home again with open arms.

What struck me today, though, was something I had read dozens of times, but failed to really recognize. That’s not unusual with a pericope like this that is so packed with good stuff.

The story goes that a young man left his father and brother and took his inheritance. He then lost it all living an extravagant lifestyle. Ultimately, he had to hire himself out to someone who put him to work feeding pigs. To a Jewish ear, no one could fall further than that. Finally, the young man “came to his senses” and thought that while he sat there with nothing to eat, his father’s servants had plenty to fill their bellies.

What caught my ear was that when he realized what he had done, the first thing he thought of was his stomach. Hunger had driven him to a place where he could decide to return to his father’s home. It overcame his pride and shame.

So, he left for his fathers home, all the while rehearsing the lines he would use to ingratiate himself with his father.

(Now, before anyone gets their boxers in a bunch about how I worded that last sentence, let me be clear about something. I truly believe that the young man in the story was repentant. Somewhere along the line he realized that he had treated his father shamefully. He had, in fact, wished him to be dead by asking for his inheritance. I’m not diminishing that at all. But, we all have many motives for the things that we say and do.)

When he finally returned home, his father ignored all social protocol and ran to meet his son. He welcomed him home with new clothes and reinstated him to the family with his own signet ring. What happened next is what struck me.

He held a banquet and slaughtered the ‘fattened calf.’

The young man came to his senses spurred on by his hunger. Here, his father lavishly welcomed him with a great feast.

Many who exegete this emphasize the father’s role with both sons. With the youngest is the way in which the father went ‘over the top’ in his welcome. Jesus used this story to show the Pharisees and teachers of the Law, (those who thought that they were the true keepers of the faith; the ‘gatekeepers’ to bring it into contemporary parlance), that they, in fact, did NOT know the Father. Their preconceptions of a righteous and just God mandated that their ‘god’ be bitter and retributive to those who acted, well, like the young son in the story. Yet, Jesus revealed a Father who was willing to stoop to unbelievable low levels in order to welcome the young man and lavish good things on him.

That is how God is. When we are hungry and starving, God is there to prepare a great feast for us when we return. God gives from God’s own abundance to the weary and wayward. BTW, God also gives “everything he has” to the older son who remained with him faithfully. But, for those of us who come to our senses, God has a special welcome for us.

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Greetings, Mary!

This is the first meditation on the Nativity that I wrote about. It’s a story that I envisioned as I followed the prompts of Ignatius. This one focuses on what the Church has called The Annunciation, the calling of Mary to be the mother of Jesus.

I heard a loud call from above. Looking up, I saw a great eagle flying in large loops. Leisurely, he floated on the currents of air, rising and falling like the terrain before me. As I watched, it seemed as though my mind was floating, like the eagle. Higher and higher it rose until I was looking out at the world through the eyes of my friend far above.

“Wow! Look at this! I can see forever!” I thought.

We began to fly faster. In and out of clouds, the landscape far below became a blur. I saw rivers and lowlands slowly morph into the checkerboard of cultivated fields of wheat and maze. A sudden updraft carried us into a range of mountains. Alpine forests gave way to snow capped peaks. Dark slices of granite cut its way out of the white world where nothing grows.

Soon we dove nearly straight down toward a small town at the base of the mountains. There were people and animals going about their daily business. Sellers and buyers, traders and farmers. Simple folk. Living life as their forefathers had taught them.

Without warning we were suddenly flying over a large city. What a diversity of people! So many colors and smells. Merchants in their stalls calling out to anyone who would listen, “Come here! We have the most exotic cloth from the far reaches of the world! Come see! Come buy!”

Others were herding animals through narrow streets to sell to those who sold hides and meat. So many people! Laughing, crying, loving, and dying. Humanity.

I also saw many…too many…who were on the margins. Those destitute multitudes whose lives were truly without hope. Poverty and disease stalked them like wolves stalk sheep. They were helpless victims of systems that ostracized them because they were somehow “different.” They looked different and they sure smelled different! Not everything is rosy in this world.

Suddenly, I was standing in a large room with thousands of other beings. It was brightly lit and there was singing throughout. In the center of all of this there was a round table at which three beings sat. One clearly had the shape of a person. But, this person seemed to be the very source of light in the room. Next sat someone whom I can’t describe clearly. He or she did seem to have a feminine quality. But, beyond that I could not tell. The third was simply there. This one seemed to be “Being” itself. No gender, no age, no anything that I could tell for certain other than “Presence.”

I saw scenes like I had just experienced with the eagle. People. Everywhere. But, these people seemed to be walking aimlessly. They simply wandered around as if lost.

“It’s time,” I heard the Third Being say.

“Yes,” the others agreed.

I heard what sounded like a trumpet and suddenly there was another being standing next to the table.

“Gabriel,” the First One said. “It’s time for you to go and prepare for my departure. Hurry!”

This other simply nodded and was gone.

“It has begun.”

I blinked, and found myself on a hill outside of a small village. On my left I saw a young man walking toward the village. I knew that this was the person that I had just seen leaving on some sort of mission. I followed him into the village. The street was lined with buildings built of mud bricks and wood. We walked toward one at the far end of the street. It appeared to be a shop of some sort. Above the shop were living quarters. He walked up stairs on the side of the building to the roof where he found other steps leading down into the main part of the upper floor.

He walked confidently down a narrow hallway. Wool curtains covered the entryways to various rooms. Pulling back one of the curtains, he entered room. Inside was a young girl, maybe 14 years old, sitting on a bed.

“Greetings, Mary!” the young man said.

The young girl, Mary, jumped. She was terrified to suddenly find herself in the presence of a young man!

“Who are YOU?!” she cried. “How did you get in here? Where is my father?”

“Peace to you. You have found favor with God, the Ruler of the Universe!” he said. “God has chosen you to share in God’s own mission. From above, the Spirit of God will come to you and fill you with God’s presence. Soon, you will bear a son who will bring about the redemption of his people.”

Mary sat dumbstruck. Who was this person? How does he know me? Doesn’t he know that I’m not married yet? I can’t have a child! I will be taken out of the village and stoned as a whore!

These thoughts and many others raced through her young mind.

But then, she stopped. What if the things this person said are true?

“Let it be as you have said,” she replied at last.

With that, the visitor turned and walked out of the room. Mary quickly got up and looked out into the hallway. There was no one there.

——————————————————————————————————————

I want to share a couple thoughts about this story. This is drawn from my journal as I was meditating with Ignatius’ prompts. Although Ignatius wanted people to see the sin and depravity in the world by looking at all of the people and cultures, I couldn’t do that. He saw all of these people as destined for an eternity in hell. I saw them as simply lost, like “sheep without a shepherd.”

In Gabriel’s encounter with Mary, (in my imagination angels don’t have wings and wear diapers. In fact, in this case I could almost envision Gabe wearing a brown UPS uniform), there was a reciprocity that most people miss. I wrote in my journal, “Thus began the history of humanity cooperating together with God.” In every other interaction between humans and the Divine, the human is usually “acted upon.” Abraham was told to go to a land that God would show him. He was also told to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice. Moses was told to go to Egypt and free his people. He protested, but God basically told him to shut it and Go! Now, I know that there are hairs here that can be split. But, I see Mary as being the first person who really had a choice. She could have said, “Uh, no thanks. I think I’ll pass.” Considering the culture, that would have probably been the expedient thing to do. Like I heard her say in the story, she very likely could have been put to death for a pregnancy out of wedlock. Looking at it like this, Mary literally “gave her life” in order to agree with God.

How can I do any less?

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How Can a Follower of Jesus Reconcile Violence in the Scripture?

*Note: This by no means a comprehensive treatment of the question of violence in the Scripture. These mental ramblings are simply meant to inspire thoughtful reflection.

I read and listen to a lot of different people with widely varying worldviews. There are evangelicals and progressive Christians. Over there are the atheists and the Nones. Muslims, Jews, Buddhists. I entertain the thoughts and ideas of many people. Every once in a while, even a fundamentalist Christian sneaks in.

The reasons that I do this are many and varied. I’m not afraid of ideas and questions. We are all passengers on this Pale, Blue Dot hurtling through space. We all have responsibilities to each other and to the planet itself. We neglect these responsibilities at our own peril.

I’ve interacted with folks outside of my own faith tradition, several who question the basic morality of Christians and even the Christian God.

They react to Christians who say “God is love,” or “You can’t be a moral person without God as your moral compass.” They site the number of people who say that they follow Christ, yet live like someone has placed a magnet too close to their ‘moral compass.’ It doesn’t seem to lead them toward true North, but toward some barren desert on the outskirts of BFE, (you can Google that yourself).

It isn’t a far stretch for them to observe that if someone claims to live according to the words of their god, then that god MUST be of similar moral and ethical fiber as they are themselves.

So, the questions arise, “What about how your God commanded His people to totally destroy their enemies”? “Their enemies’ women and children?” “What kind of god would command such a thing?”

And, they are justified to ask such hard questions. The sacred texts of all of the Abrahamic faiths have passages that talk about the so-called righteous destruction of god’s enemies. And, in some cases, people who are not enemies, but happen to be living in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Believers then feel compelled to defend God. (Like that’s even possible.) They respond with things like, “Well, God is God and can do whatever God wants to do.” Or, “God must have given those people a chance to repent, but they chose not to.” Still others simply say, “I don’t know, but if God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” Worse yet, many conservative believers use these texts to excuse violence against ‘others.’

Progressives don’t fare much better. They rationalize the text by alluding to the fact that these are ancient texts written by and for ancient people. So, it looks like God simply met them where they were culturally and ‘allowed’ certain behaviors that we enlightened folks in the 21st century find abhorrent. Or, they just ignore these texts. Of course, these are non-answers that simply seek to avoid the hard questions.

In fact, any and all responses like these do nothing more than perpetuate the idea that God is some sort of sadistic monster.

 

Then there’s the curve ball…Jesus.

 

The God that I see revealed through Jesus as recorded in the Gospels looks nothing like the God displayed in the Hebrew Bible.

What should one do with this apparent contradiction?

One person in the 2nd century C.E. came up with a unique way to look at this conundrum. His name was Marcion. Marcion came up with the idea that the God of the Hebrew Bible was not the same God as the Father of Jesus Christ. According to theologian Alister McGrath, Marcion believed that “The Old Testament relates to a different God from the New; the Old Testament God, who merely created the world, was obsessed with the idea of law. The New Testament God, however, redeemed the world and was concerned with love.”[1] Historian Justo L. Gonzalez adds, according to Marcion “Jehovah is an arbitrary god, who chooses a particular people above all the rest. And he is also vindictive, constantly keeping an account on those that disobey him, and punishing them. In short, Jehovah is a god of justice–and an arbitrary justice at that.”[2] Marcion went so far as to create his own canon that eliminated texts that did not conform to his special interpretation.

I suppose that’s one way to deal with the hard sayings of the Bible. Just cut them out and ignore them.

The thing is, we really don’t have that option. We’re stuck with what we’ve got.

So, how do we reconcile God with divine and human violence?

Simply put, we don’t; we can’t.

To explain away texts that the Church considers inspired in some simple, easy-to-wrap-my-brain-around-the-unwrappable isn’t something that we are entitled to do.

But, there may be another way to read these texts without ignoring or reading past them.

Recently, while spending time in contemplation, a thought occurred to me. Human history has been fraught with acts of violence and genocide. We don’t need to look any further than our own history in the U.S. Our very existence as a nation came about at the hands of European domination that was given strength by the Bishop of Rome, himself. In the late 15th century, Pope Alexander VI issued a papal Bull entitled, “Inter Caetera.” Basically, the Pope stated that any land that was not inhabited by Christians was available to be “discovered” and dominated by Christians. That’s how Columbus could get lost, yet “discover” land that was already occupied.

But, all of this is another post.

Some countries have recognized the abuses that have been heaped upon others. Notably, South Africa and Canada. Both of these countries have taken steps to reconcile their violent and oppressive pasts.

South Africa had a history of treating the indigenous Blacks living there with forced domination and violence. This system of “apartheid” was designed to keep the white minority in power over Blacks and other people of color at any cost. And, the costs were high. Many died and the freedom of all was taken away.

Finally, after much domestic and international pressure, South Africa ended apartheid in 1994. They set up a tribunal type commission whose mandate was to work toward reconciliation of ALL of South Africa’s citizens. The commission allowed people to have grievances and abuses recorded and, in some cases allowed for amnesty for those who came forward to report their own culpability. It was NOT a way for the oppressed minority to ‘get even.’ It was a way to get the wounds out in the open where they could be treated and healed.

The results have been breath-taking. South Africa has created a functioning democracy that they can be proud of.

Canada also began a process to help heal its own genocidal past. As European colonists invaded North America they ushered in an age of systematic elimination of the Indigenous People who had inhabited this continent for many thousands of years. The brutality and injustice of the colonists knew no bounds. From dislocation, to starvation, to the infamous Boarding Schools, Aboriginal people suffered.

“Reconciliation is about forging and maintaining respectful relationships. There are no shortcuts,” one person involved with the process wrote. It is, in a nutshell, the overarching framework for the Canadian effort. There are many who don’t feel that this goes far enough,. Canada still asks the Aboriginal people to accept the reconciliation effort on the terms of the colonists. This is a valid complaint. But, it is a start. The Canadian government is beginning to understand their own culpability in the genocide and are becoming more inclined to work toward a better relationship with the First Nations.

A common thread in these actions is acknowledging and repenting from earlier behavior that caused hurt to others.

What if we read the violence written in the Scriptures in a similar way?

We could truthfully acknowledge the violence. Yes. Whether the violence actually happened or not, the ancient writers recorded them. And, the people who gathered the early Church Councils canonized them. These facts we must accept because, Duh!, they’re written down.

However, we don’t need to accept the interpretations of these texts that have been passed down to us. God gave us rational minds with which to think and contemplate these words. We are, I believe, commissioned to read the Inspired texts and allow them to live and breathe in our contemporary world. Therefore, we can forcefully denounce the violence for what it was: an abhorrent violation of humanity. There really is no way around it. The actions depicted in Scripture are hateful and bigoted. There is NO redeeming value to them whatsoever.

Through confession and repentance we could claim LIFE for ourselves, our friends and enemies, and the whole of the Cosmos.

I believe that the God revealed in the Gospels would be pleased with this. In fact, maybe God has been patiently waiting for humanity to grasp this. Perhaps we can enter into a new aeon of peace and prosperity with all of our co-inhabitants on this Third Stone From the Sun.

[1] McGrath, Alister E., “Christian Theology: An Introduction”, 4th Ed., Blackwell Pub., 2007, p. 126.

[2] Gonzalez, Justo L., “The Story of Christianity:Vol. 1, The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation”, HarperSanFrancisco, 1984, p.61.

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Blessings!

Thoughts About Original Sin

Detail from Jan Breughel & Peter Paul Rubens: The Garden of Eden (1615)

According to some Western Christians, sometime between 7 and 10 thousand years ago, God created the Universe. This event is recorded, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth.” As the story unfolds, we read that every plant and animal came into being ex nihilo,(out of nothing), through Divine fiat. God spoke it; it came into being. At the end of this first part of the story, God created humans. And, it must be noted, God created the original humans in God’s own image.  For millions of people this is historical fact.

In the next part of this story, we learn a little bit more. The actual physical location where God created these humans isn’t known. The story only tells us that after forming the first Human, God put this person in a garden in order to serve and protect it. It was there, in that garden, that God formed the first Woman from a rib taken from the Man. These first Humans lived in that God-made paradise until they were duped by a talking reptile. This talking reptile,(from here known as, the serpent), talked the Woman into eating the fruit from a tree that God had expressly forbidden the humans to eat from. She ate and gave some to the Man, and he ate. This meal even has a name, “Original Sin.”

The whole concept of Original Sin has been discussed among Christians since very early in the Church’s history. However, it really took off in the late 4th century C.E. when a guy named Augustine of Hippo included it in his autobiography, “Confessions.” Taking the Biblical story as his starting point he was able to trace his own personal proclivity toward sin back to the Original couple. Now, we need to understand that there was a belief in the ancient world that character traits could be passed from one generation to the next through semen. Therefore, Augustine understood that the guilt of Adam was passed to every subsequent person ever born. And, this also allowed Jesus to be born without that taint. (Virgin birth and all.)

Later, John Calvin doubled down on this idea. He concluded that not only death and guilt were part and parcel of Original Sin. But, shame and total depravity came along for the ride. And this, my friends, is the heart of reformation theology. There is absolutely nothing good about humanity. In fact, it is impossible for anyone to think or do anything good. God’s wrath and hatred are hanging over us. Only by looking at Jesus can God’s Holy anger be placated. But, heaven help us if God should happen to get a glimpse of our worthless and hated selves.

But, what if that’s not how things happened? What if 7,000 years have not passed since the Earth was formed, but rather, over 4 billion years? What if all the stuff that science has discovered is the truth and there was no first couple? And, therefore, no Original Sin?

This can, (and should),  turn the Reformed way of thinking on its head. If there was no Original Sin, then why did Jesus come, live and die? I mean, many of us who were involved with the Fundagelical world of religion preach that Jesus HAD to die in order to break the bonds of Original Sin. He cleansed us from that and enabled us to start over with a clean slate. For lack of a better term, to be “born again”! If Original Sin is out of the mix that whole house of cards crashes.

What’s interesting is that sin isn’t even mentioned in the first chapters of Genesis. God never pointed a Divine finger and said, “Oh, you guys! You really sinned now.” No. God said that death would now become a part of their lives. In fact, sin doesn’t enter into the equation officially until Gen. 4 when God spoke to Adam’s son Cain. God said that sin was crouching at Cain’s door. Cain was encouraged to ‘master’ sin. If there was an Original Sin that was so dire that nothing could ease its effects, how was Cain supposed to be able to master it? No, I don’t think that Original Sin as the Western Church has understood it is a reality. I don’t believe that humans are born depraved as Calvin and Co. would have us believe. But, I do believe that there is an enemy to be overcome. A reason that God chose to come and “pitch a tent,” (John 1:14), among us. And, that enemy is death.

Let this thought percolate for a bit. What does it mean if there was no Original Sin? How does that affect the meaning of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension? Use the comments to express your own thoughts.

Admittedly, this asks more questions that it provides answers. But, it may also open locks on chains that bind many people…too many people.

God is Not Bound…

This was originally posted July 2, 2015. Yeah, I know it’s been a long time. But, I want to share some things that are in line with this post. Especially, after the horror that was the 2016 presidential election cycle. (I include ALL participants. Not just 45.) Hopefully, will be back soon.

This is my first post since I decided to change the focus of this blog. After much prayer and counsel from my Spiritual Director and my counselor, I feel that, at least for awhile, this is the direction that I must go.

I’ve reflected on my personal experiences and those of others. I’ve read a lot that has been written by people who have been hurt by abusive ‘teachers.’ Heavy chains have been wrought out of the iron of dogma. This has been done primarily by White men who drape these chains upon the shoulders of the meek; the hurting; the marginalized.

So, this is a beginning. My desire is to reveal what I believe are errant interpretations of the Christian Scriptures. Also, I desire to shine a light on the fallacies of historic precedent that so many leaders try to use to validate these interpretations.

I know that this may appear to be a lot to consider. And, it is. But, it is important that we take this journey together at this time. Many good and sincere people are trapped in abusive institutions. Many others are leaving the faith journey altogether. There has been a marked rise in the number of folks who simply can’t believe any longer. I have been one of those who has questioned that God even exists. But, I can’t go there. Something…that ‘still, small voice’… keeps me from walking away. I BELIEVE that there is more to the Universe…to our existence…than simply cosmic dust. I have only my experience to hang on to. My experience with the transcendental ‘Other’ compels me to continue on this path.

Perhaps, you also, are in a similar place in your life. If so, ‘Come!’ Let’s walk together for awhile. You, me…and God.

The masthead of my blog quotes from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). I have thought about this verse for many, many years. What does Paul mean? What did the folks in the Galatian church hear? How does this apply to me/us some 2,100 years later?

For starters, most Fundagelical leaders dismiss this whole concept by saying that the meaning of this verse is that we are all ‘free’ to not sin. WTF?!?! I’m free to not do something? But, what AM I FREE to do? What am I free to think and believe? Who am I free to be?

I have never really felt comfortable with that definition by negation. For one to be free implies that there is something to be freed from. Some kind of bondage or prison that is not good. So, they would say, “Well, you’re free from sin.” As I’ve grown and matured in my faith, I honestly don’t know what that means. No one can provide a definitive answer to what ‘sin’ actually is. (This is the subject for a future post.) Some say it’s simply ‘missing the mark.’ However, the most common term for ‘sin’ in the Greek New Testament is hamartia. This has to do with being evil, wrong doing and guilt. And, many of the people who hold to this holiness outlook are more than willing to pile on the guilt.

There are many kinds of slavery. Slavery to addictions, praise, food, etc. In this passage from Galatians, Paul was writing about slavery to the Jewish works of the Law. These were primarily the ‘identifiers’ of who was a Jew and who was not. Basically, it set the gates for who was in and who was out. Things like circumcision, dietary laws and Sabbath-keeping were what Paul had in mind. Today, many Christians bind themselves to laws that effectively perform the same function. They have developed ‘laws’ that must be adhered to in order to be members in good standing in their ‘tribe.’ What is one’s stance on abortion? LGBT people? Has one followed whatever ‘formula’ is currently in vogue for tribal initiation, (did I say some kind of “sinners’” prayer correctly)? Do I hold to the ‘correct’ doctrine, (whatever that means),?

What these do not do is free people. They heap on the unsuspecting a burden that they cannot bear. Jesus’ words in Matthew 23:4 are true of these people, “They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger.

This may sound like the rant of an angry person. Well, actually, it is. I am angered by the presumption of these people to say they speak for God. Every time one of them states, “God said this or that” the hair on the back of my neck stands up. When I hear hate speech being spewed from pulpits I cringe. I recently saw a video of a man claiming to ‘know’ God’s will screaming at a second grade girl who had the audacity to hold a rainbow flag. Somehow, I can’t picture Jesus, the One who welcomed the little children and blessed them, doing this.

I think that my favorite passage in all of the Bible is Luke 4:18-19. The story recounts Jesus’ coming out at a synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth.

He stood to read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He found the text he desired and read,

The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me. Because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives. And recovery of sight to the blind. To set free those who are oppressed, To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.

I could go on and on. And, I will. Eventually. I intend to broach issues that Evangelicals prefer to ignore. Or, worse, disparage. I am going to poke and poke to evoke a response in folks who think differently. This is a place for civil discussion.

So, let us begin. What do you think about slavery? If there is some bondage, how do we move toward freedom? Does God require that we wear some heavy yoke?

Use the comments. Please note that I moderate the comments. Refrain from inflammatory language.

God Is Not Bound to Our Ways

This is my first post since I decided to change the focus of this blog. After much prayer and counsel from my Spiritual Director and my counselor, I feel that, at least for awhile, this is the direction that I must go.

I’ve reflected on my personal experiences and those of others. I’ve read a lot that has been written by people who have been hurt by abusive ‘teachers.’ Heavy chains have been wrought out of the iron of dogma. This has been done primarily by White men who drape these chains upon the shoulders of the meek; the hurting; the marginalized.

So, this is a beginning. My desire is to reveal what I believe are errant interpretations of the Christian Scriptures. Also, I desire to shine a light on the fallacies of historic precedent that so many leaders try to use to validate these interpretations.

I know that this may appear to be a lot to consider. And, it is. But, it is important that we take this journey together at this time. Many good and sincere people are trapped in abusive institutions. Many others are leaving the faith journey altogether. There has been a marked rise in the number of folks who simply can’t believe any longer. I have been one of those who has questioned that God even exists. But, I can’t go there. Something…that ‘still, small voice’… keeps me from walking away. I BELIEVE that there is more to the Universe…to our existence…than simply cosmic dust. I have only my experience to hang on to. My experience with the transcendental ‘Other’ compels me to continue on this path.

Perhaps, you also, are in a similar place in your life. If so, ‘Come!’ Let’s walk together for awhile. You, me…and God.

The masthead of my blog quotes from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). I have thought about this verse for many, many years. What does Paul mean? What did the folks in the Galatian church hear? How does this apply to me/us some 2,100 years later?

For starters, most Fundagelical leaders dismiss this whole concept by saying that the meaning of this verse is that we are all ‘free’ to not sin. WTF?!?! I’m free to not do something? But, what AM I FREE to do? What am I free to think and believe? Who am I free to be?

I have never really felt comfortable with that definition by negation. For one to be free implies that there is something to be freed from. Some kind of bondage or prison that is not good. So, they would say, “Well, you’re free from sin.” As I’ve grown and matured in my faith, I honestly don’t know what that means. No one can provide a definitive answer to what ‘sin’ actually is. (This is the subject for a future post.) Some say it’s simply ‘missing the mark.’ However, the most common term for ‘sin’ in the Greek New Testament is hamartia. This has to do with being evil, wrong doing and guilt. And, many of the people who hold to this holiness outlook are more than willing to pile on the guilt.

There are many kinds of slavery. Slavery to addictions, praise, food, etc. In this passage from Galatians, Paul was writing about slavery to the Jewish works of the Law. These were primarily the ‘identifiers’ of who was a Jew and who was not. Basically, it set the gates for who was in and who was out. Things like circumcision, dietary laws and Sabbath-keeping were what Paul had in mind. Today, many Christians bind themselves to laws that effectively perform the same function. They have developed ‘laws’ that must be adhered to in order to be members in good standing in their ‘tribe.’ What is one’s stance on abortion? LGBT people? Has one followed whatever ‘formula’ is currently in vogue for tribal initiation, (did I say some kind of “sinners’” prayer correctly)? Do I hold to the ‘correct’ doctrine, (whatever that means),?

What these do not do is free people. They heap on the unsuspecting a burden that they cannot bear. Jesus’ words in Matthew 23:4 are true of these people, “They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger.

This may sound like the rant of an angry person. Well, actually, it is. I am angered by the presumption of these people to say they speak for God. Every time one of them states, “God said this or that” the hair on the back of my neck stands up. When I hear hate speech being spewed from pulpits I cringe. I recently saw a video of a man claiming to ‘know’ God’s will screaming at a second grade girl who had the audacity to hold a rainbow flag. Somehow, I can’t picture Jesus, the One who welcomed the little children and blessed them, doing this.

I think that my favorite passage in all of the Bible is Luke 4:18-19. The story recounts Jesus’ coming out at a synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth.

He stood to read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He found the text he desired and read,

The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me. Because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives. And recovery of sight to the blind. To set free those who are oppressed, To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.

I could go on and on. And, I will. Eventually. I intend to broach issues that Evangelicals prefer to ignore. Or, worse, disparage. I am going to poke and poke to evoke a response in folks who think differently. This is a place for civil discussion.

So, let us begin. What do you think about slavery? If there is some bondage, how do we move toward freedom? Does God require that we wear some heavy yoke?

Use the comments. Please note that I moderate the comments. Refrain from inflammatory language.

A Response to my Friend

BibleA couple of weeks ago I shared a blogpost written by Benjamin Corey . It was basically a critique of the way in which many people in our Western, particularly American, culture read and interpret the Christian Bible. A very good friend of mine commented about that posting:

“It seems that you have shared a number of articles about what Christians are not doing right. They take scripture here or there to justify something or to maybe judge. The article you shared once again is telling people to understand what is being said in scriptures based upon the times and how they were written. So, I am asking the question, how do you use scripture to reveal the truth of Jesus and his saving grace?”

As I reflected on this, I realized that this is not just one question, but two. First, he is leveling an accusation that I am antagonistic toward Christians. The question seems to be, ‘Why are you attacking those with whom you have identified for so many years?’ The second question is, ‘How do you present the gospel to others?’

I responded to him that I thought that these were valid questions that would require further reflection. What I’ve written here is that response.

Question One: ‘Why are you attacking those with whom you have identified for so many years?’

Actually, my friend, I’m not. As I’ve grown older I have found that I’m not nearly as sure of the things that I thought, felt and believed earlier in life. Back then it was easy to be absolutely sure of myself. I knew that God had created the universe. I was convinced that anyone who did not accept and believe the Christian Bible as we in the West accepted and believed it were wrong and in danger of eternal punishment. The foundation of my world view was set firmly in a patriarchy. And, I had no doubt as to my eternal destiny as a child of God.

Then, the doubts started to seep in. I learned that others who were not a part of my ‘tribe’ were not the evil, depraved creatures that I had been led to believe. Many of them were hard working, family-loving people simply trying to get by in life. Many others were devout believers in God, but not in the same way that I was. Still others diligently searched for God in other cultures and settings. I saw women who were gifted to lead and teach. These people were able to stand before God and others in confidence. Were the things that I had held up as ‘gospel truth’ able to stand in light of these observations? Honestly, I wasn’t sure. One thing I did know, however, was that things I continued to hear week after week from the pulpit were quickly becoming incongruent with my life’s experiences.

So, I became a seeker. I needed to find out if my thoughts were, in fact, opposed to the ‘orthodox’ position that those around me embraced. Or, was there hope in this cloud of doubt.

I entered Ashland Theological Seminary in the fall of 2006. (That’s a whole story in itself. I’ll save that for another time.) I didn’t know what I would experience there. I only knew that it was the place I needed to go. The next five years took me on a journey that changed my life and my way of thinking and believing. I learned that it’s ok for followers of Jesus to think! Imagine my surprise. I had been trained, or better, indoctrinated to believe that everything that came out of the mouths of church leaders was to be accepted. After all, these men were God’s anointed shepherds. To question them was to question God. I also learned that there is really no one…let me say again, No One, who can know totally and with certainty what God thinks, cf. Isaiah 55:8-9,

8    For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord. 9    For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways And My thoughts than your thoughts.

One cannot read the text ‘simply’ and understand the mind of the writer, let alone the mind of God. Especially, when one is reading a translation of a translation. These texts were written millennia ago in cultures and languages that no longer exist. I learned that we cannot take these texts out of their social and cultural context and place them directly into our culture in the 21st century. What this led to was an understanding that the playing field of orthodoxy is a very large one. As long as one is able to keep the ball from going completely across the boundary line, that person must be considered orthodox.

With this being said, my intention in sharing the kind of material I do is to present other views of orthodoxy. Rather than attacking the church, I offer a different opinion. I’ve shared many times on Facebook that I like to stir things up. I want to stretch people’s understanding. Is what the predominantly white, male-dominated evangelical church’s view of God and scripture the only viable one? Obviously, I don’t think it is. Simply put, I want to give people an opportunity to think.

Question two: ‘How do you present the gospel to others?’

The simple answer to this question is, I don’t. At least, not in the way it has been pursued by most evangelicals. I don’t knock on doors. Nor, do I ‘cold sell’ to people. I’m not going to assault strangers and begin to ‘witness’ to them.

What I am going to do is be prepared to give a reason for the hope that I have,         (cf. 1 Pet. 3:15). That reason, or explanation, is based on personal experience. Lofty, theological vagaries don’t help. What good is it to speculate and theorize with people who have no interest in the text to begin with? However, no one can take away nor refute what I have experienced. Like the beggar who Jesus healed, when questioned by the authorities, responded that all he knew was that before he was blind, now he could see. It is our life with God that speaks. A statement attributed to St. Francis sums this up. “Always remember to preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words.”

What does this say, then, about my approach to using scripture to “reveal the truth of Jesus and his saving grace?” I’m not sure that’s the right question. This question diminishes the scripture and makes it a users’ manual of sorts.

How to get someone ‘saved.
Step one: The Roman Road.
Step two: The Four Spiritual Laws

A more accurate question would be, what is the purpose of the Scriptures? Is it history? Science? Myth and fairy stories? Or, is it what it claims to be…the inspired Word that is living and active in the world? I think that the text provides us with a glimpse into the heart of God. It allows us to see how people have related to God and one another over the centuries. And, it gives us hope that we can share in these experiences as we grow to know this Person. That is what I share.

Ok…So What?

The fact is, I don’t know everything. (Surprised, right?) In most things I’m most likely mistaken. As I’ve written before, I follow the theology of Snoopy. This allows me to be myself as God has made me. I am extremely confident in my ability to be wrong.

I can be friends with people for who they are as God has made them. It doesn’t matter what their politics are or their station in life. I am not concerned about their sexual orientation or their view of science and the cosmos. I love and accept them as they are. After all, didn’t Jesus himself say that to love God and our neighbor summed up the entire Law?

Yeah, I disagree with people. Sometimes with vigor. But, that doesn’t diminish them. That elevates them to dialog partners. Like I wrote above, I am a seeker. By definition that makes me someone who is not afraid to go places that are unfamiliar, and perhaps, uncomfortable. It opens me up to opinions that are different than those that I hold. For me, this has been freeing. I don’t have to fear other opinions and concerns. I’m pretty sure that God’s not afraid, either. My friend, this life is a journey, not a destination. To hold lightly to what we think and believe, yet to hold tenaciously to God makes the journey a good one.

The Wise Men…Who Were They?

wisemenOne of the stories that has become part of our holiday season is the story of the Magi. It’s been romanticized to the point that the story we tell today bears little resemblance to the story written by Matthew. It now has three kings from the East bearing gifts to the infant Christ. They have even been given names! Tradition in the West has graced them the monikers Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar. They are depicted as riding their camels across the desert ‘following yonder star.’ In some places, even the crèche has them standing around with the shepherds and animals. It’s a nice story. It’s a warm and emotional story. But, it’s not the story that Matthew tells.

Matthew’s story is one of international interest. It also has touches of courtly intrigue and deception. It starts with the statement, “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea…” The writer doesn’t give us a time frame for this. It’s just sometime ‘after.’ Later in the chapter we learn that Jesus may have been as old as two years. But, that’s a story for another day.

The Magi were most likely astrologers from the region we now know as Iraq. These people had a relationship with the heavens that has been lost to us today. At some point they recognized some new celestial event. They called it a ‘star.’ Through their training and practices they discerned that this ‘star’ hailed the birth of a new king of the Jewish people. Perhaps they were sensitive to this because there was still a fairly vibrant Jewish community left from the Babylonian captivity half a millennium earlier. In any case, they thought that a new king of the Jews would be in the Jewish capital of Jerusalem, so they loaded up their caravan and headed west. It’s highly unlikely that there were only three Magi in the caravan. And, they would have been traveling with an armed escort as well as servants and supplies.

They arrived in Jerusalem and began asking where the king was. Well, of course they were directed to Herod the Great. They told their tale to Herod, who was not happy about this. Matthew tells us that “when King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.” I can understand why Herod was disturbed. He was ruthless in his pursuit of power and prestige. He spent millions building cities and edifices for the glory of his name and legacy. He was probably the greatest builder of his day. He was also a man who would not hesitate to have someone’s throat cut if he thought they were a threat to his position. Caesar Augustus is reported to have said that it would be better to be one of Herod’s pigs than one of his sons. This was the person to whom the Magi reported. The rest of Jerusalem would be upset and worried if Herod was upset and worried. No one knew what he might do, but they all knew what he was capable of. And, there was the problem of Rome. As a vassal state, Palestine could come under Rome’s scrutiny if a new ‘king’ suddenly appeared on the scene. As we see from the end of the gospel, claiming to be the ‘king of the Jews’ did not have a great retirement policy.

Anyway, Herod had his people figure out that the new king would be born in Bethlehem. He sent the Magi out to find him and report back his location. At this point Matthew states that the “star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.” Apparently, after the star originally appeared, they must have lost sight of it. They knew it was about the Jews, so they traveled there. But, now, having left Herod’s presence, the star reappeared and they could not contain their exuberance. When they found the house where Mary, Joseph and Jesus were staying, they “bowed down and worshiped him.” They presented the child with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Royal gifts for a royal child. As they slept that night, the story reports that they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod. They decided to return to the East by a different route and left.

Now, I could stop here. That’s pretty much the story in a nutshell. But, I think that there are some things to be learned about God and God’s love for humanity as a whole. I’ve always been intrigued by the fact that God chose to announce Jesus’ birth to those who were marginalized in society. Those who had no voice or who were considered unclean or ‘outsiders.’ First, the choice of Mary and Joseph to be parents. They were not upper class folks. Joseph was a craftsman and Mary was a child herself. Second, the shepherds. These people could not even testify in court because their word was considered to be as worthless as their vocation. Third, the gentile Magi. Not only were they outsiders, they worshiped the heavenly host and other gods. They were idolaters! Yet, God chose these people to welcome the Word of God into our world. The Magi used their own, dare I say, God given talents to discern what God was doing in the world. Pagan astrology and knowledge led them to worship Jesus. After they came and bowed before Jesus and worshiped him, they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod. What I found interesting was that we are not told how they happened to receive this dream. In the two instances where Joseph received divine instructions through dreams, we are clearly told that “the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream.” There’s no such caveat in the Magi’s dream. Could it simply be that the writer did not want to reveal such a close association between the God of the Jews and these gentiles? Perhaps. Or, could it be that there was another way that dreams are communicated to people other than God? I’m not speaking of something dark or demonic. But, perhaps something natural, that because of their training and practices, the Magi they were sensitive to? God works in many mysterious ways.

How should this inform how Christ-followers should respond to others? We see that God seems to prefer communicating with the poor, the marginalized and the ‘other.’ The wealthy, powerful and privileged are left on the outside wondering what’s going on. The ‘other’ includes those who do not think nor believe like ‘we’ do. And, apparently, that’s OK with God! Perhaps we should take a lesson from God and learn that God is accepting of all people wherever they live and whatever they happen to think and believe. They do not need to become like ‘us’ for God to love and accept them. If God can ask the Magi to join in God’s plan for the world and send them on their way in peace, why can’t we?