The One Verse

“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12)

The Bible is complicated. Sometimes it is boring. For most people, Netflix is a lot more fun. The Bible can be hard to understand. There are 31,071 verses to try to make sense of in the Bible. It tends to overwhelm the average reader.

But I can give you the Bible in just One Verse.

Let me tell you the story of Rabbi Hillel.

According to tradition, Rabbi Hillel was born about 110 BC and died around 10 AD. He is associated with the development of the Mishnah and the Talmud.

One famous account in the Talmud (Shabbat 31a) is about a gentile who wanted to convert to Judaism. He announced that he would accept Judaism only if a rabbi would teach him the entire Torah while he, the prospective convert, stood on one foot. First, he went to Rabbi Shammai, who was insulted by this ridiculous request and threw the gentile out of his house.

The man did not give up. He wandered on until he found Rabbi Hillel, who accepted the challenge. As the man stood on one foot, the rabbi told him:

“What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this—go and study it!”

This gets to the heart of things. Jesus, about a hundred years later, will make a similar comment about the Bible, as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew:

“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12)

The phrase Jesus used, “the Law and the Prophets,” is the way Jewish people of Jesus’ time referenced the Bible.

And so there it is. The One Verse that sums it all up. The entire Bible in just One Verse.

And, in fact, that single verse is a verse repeated over and over throughout the Bible. And all the rest of the Bible merely explains that One Verse.

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Becoming Inhuman

The urge to make people do and say and act the way you want them—because it is good for them, because it is right—is the beginning of destruction. Like a gentle snowfall on the mountain slopes, it brings an avalanche. The thought may arise that if someone even disagrees with me on what I hold dear, on what is obviously the only reasonable way to think, then that makes them not just wrong but evil.  Obviously evil.  Because I am right and what I do and what I say and how I act is good.  Therefore, any opposition to me by definition is evil.  And it is okay to hate evil. Therefore I can hate you because you are evil.  And therefore you are no longer my neighbor.  And therefore the commandment to love my neighbor does not apply to you. I do not have to do to you what you would do to me.  I can kill you. 

If you wind up at hate, you’ve taken a wrong turn.  This should be obvious.

If you un-neighbor those you disagree with, you are, in the name of doing what is right, in the name of opposing evil, becoming the very evil you abhor.

We belong to God; he bought us when we were broken and he loves us because of what he’s going to do with us, because of what we will become because he is now in our lives.

Therefore, God defines neighbor in the broadest way possible. It includes absolutely everyone: even those human beings who are the most horrible, the most deserving of our contempt.

Loving those who love us is simple. Anyone can do that. And that’s how most people think about it. We love our friends, we love our family, we love nice people, we love people who have dogs, we love grandmas who give their children candy from their purses. We love those who help the disabled and elderly. Of course we love the kind-hearted.

Unless they betray us or in some way hurt us, we love the people we come in contact with.

War and conflict are a regular part of our world and unfortunately too often part of our individual lives. People have hurt us; people have hurt those we love. People have weird beliefs, weird thoughts, say harsh things that make us angry. They vote for jerks. They have outrageous and stupid points of view. They believe crazy things. They put ketchup on their scrambled eggs.

The hard thing is that God asks us to love those awful people the same way God loves us: unconditionally. Despite how we feel about them. Despite what they have done to us and those whom we care about. Despite what they think. Worse, he expects us to love those who hate us, to love those who persecute us, to love those who actively seek to harm us, to love those who have and do hurt us and continue to hurt us without remorse. Because that’s how God “so loves the world.”  (John 3:16-17)

Remember: while Jesus’ life ebbed from him, as he writhed in agony on the cross, with his last breath, he asked God to forgive those who were torturing and killing him.

This is inhuman behavior. God asks us to be like Jesus. He’s demanding the impossible of us. The unfortunate thing, from our perspective, is that “my neighbor” includes the person I most despise, my worst enemy, my nightmare. I have to love the guy across the street who plays his music too loud. The guy on the next block with all the signs in his yard for political candidates I think are evil. That woman at my crappy job who keeps trying to get me to buy essential oils from her.

We are told to submit to those who have wrong thoughts, wrong attitudes, wrong actions.  To be servant to all.  Just like Jesus:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. (Matthew 5:38-42)

What God asks is not easy.  It goes against a lot of our preconceptions, of what seems obvious. It stands against the way of the world.

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The Question

The question of why bad things happen to good people is a question that is directed at a particular someone: God.  And inherent in the question is blame.  “Why did you let that happen?  Couldn’t you have stopped it?  You’re the almighty creator of heaven and earth.  Couldn’t you have done something?  Couldn’t you stop the pain, the agony, the loss?  Why did my baby have to die?”  Our query is not unreasonable.

It’s also at the heart of what is sometimes called “the new atheism” in the bestselling books by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Victor Stenger, and others.  Of course, calling it the “new” atheism, is a bit of a misnomer, since it’s what has driven atheism for a long time.  Voltaire submitted the same question back in the eighteenth century in his book Candide.

From the horrors that fill both our histories and our memories, the atheist recoils and concludes that either God is a sadistic son of a bitch, or that he doesn’t exist at all. The atheist has decided that the best explanation for the world as it is, is to believe that there is no one to believe in, no one to put one’s trust in, no hope, and no future: God does not exist. There is no one out there that cares. And that’s why bad things can happen to good people.

Are atheists right? How can we answer their—and our—agonizing howl of why? What does suffering demonstrate about God? What does pain tell us about who God is, how he relates to his universe, and what our expectations are? 

The better we understand God, the easier it will be for us.

* * *

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I will fear no evil: for thou art with me   (Psalm 23:4)

This is what life is like.  We are all walking through the valley of the shadow of death.  Bad things are going to happen to me.  If they are not bad now, just wait.  If they are bad now, just wait.  Back and forth we go, like a ping-pong ball.

The problem of the ultimate question, the question of suffering, is that our emotions are in play.  We are not just thinking about an intellectual, academic issue. We mostly don’t approach it with cool, clear logic.  It is personal.  Our guts are fully engaged.  We too often have tears in our eyes. 

We get mad when our expectations are not met.  That’s part of the difficulty in our relationships in general.  We go to McDonalds.  We order a strawberry milkshake.  Then they tell us they are out of strawberry, but they can give us a chocolate shake.  We get angry.  Because our expectations were not met.  Our reasonable expectations.

When something bad happens to you, and you get mad at God, the reason you are mad at God is because he didn’t meet your expectations of what he would do for you. 

But consider a possibility: that our expectations of God are out of whack.  Who we think God is, what he has to do for us, how he has to behave—we might have misunderstood everything.  It would be ludicrous, for instance, to go to McDonalds and then get mad because they refused to sell us golf clubs.

We need to worship the God who actually is, not the one we wish for, not the one we made up in our heads.  If we are mad at God, perhaps the problem is that we don’t know God as he actually is.  We might be mad at the god we made up in our mind.  In which case, we need to stop believing in our made-up god and find the real one.  Then we won’t get mad at the real God.  The real God won’t disappoint us. The real God won’t tell us that we can have a strawberry shake when he knows there aren’t any there.  There won’t be any bait and switch with the real God.

The characters portrayed on the pages of scripture sometimes get mad at God.  They accuse God.  But that’s because they had expectations that weren’t accurate.  They’d made something up in their head about God that wasn’t so.  We all do it, and we all do it all the time.  We need to work at minimizing that.  We’ll probably be happier if we ever can.

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Belief and Unbelief

Belief is hard. Disbelief is easy.

I’ve been following SpaceX for a very long time. Many people didn’t think they’d ever launch anything. Then many thought landing rockets was impossible. Others doubted they’d ever make any money. At each step, each new thing they tried, there was a division between those who believed and those who didn’t.SpaceX has now successfully landed their first stage boosters 57 times; they have reused those boosters (that is launched and landed and then relaunched) 39 times, with a couple of the boosters having been reflown up to 5 times.

Elon Musk, SpaceX’s CEO, is today the 10th richest man in the world. SpaceX just took people to and from the space station. It’s the first time Americans have flown on an American spaceship from American soil since 2011.And yet there remain those who think it is a scam. You can find YouTube videos of people claiming it is all just cgi. Sort of like those who try to say the moon landing never happened. As if there was only one moon landing. Forgetting, or perhaps not knowing, that 12 Americans have walked on the moon. The US landed people on the moon not once, not twice, but six times between 1969 and 1972.

There are those who insist that the Earth is flat and prefer to imagine that all the images and videos of a round Earth are fake.

Some people reject vaccinations as hazardous. They don’t believe in modern medicine.

There are those who believe that 911 didn’t really happen, that it wasn’t planes flown by terrorists who took down the twin towers, but instead a nefarious government plot involving explosives.

Pretty much everything, no matter how obvious, will have those who reject reality and substitute their own, no matter how crazy, no matter how much harder it often is to reject the truth.

And so it should not surprise us that there are those who refuse to believe the Good News that Jesus died for our sins. Or who will refuse to believe that salvation is by grace alone, by faith alone, by Christ alone and that it is free and requires no contribution or help from them. Instead, they prefer to think that they have to work to maintain their salvation.

That atheists exist should not surprise us at all.

It is not startling that some people refuse to accept the resurrection of Jesus. It is to be expected that there are human beings who do not believe in the afterlife.

Why do people reject the truth, even when it is obvious? What makes someone decide the moon landings didn’t happen? What makes someone an atheist?

Why do people buy into odd conspiracy theories?

Because they find comfort in the “alternative” explanations of reality. The truth is usually hard. The truth is often painful. The truth is not always comfortable. Let’s not pretend otherwise. And there is comfort in postulating the alternatives. Lies can be very sweet and tasty.

When Jesus was alive on earth, some people believed him and it changed their lives. Some people believed, and they didn’t want to change their lives. And most people just didn’t believe.

Because that’s what they wanted. And what people want often trumps everything. Even reality.

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Even Bad People Matter

There are those who seem to get bent out of shape by the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” This is odd, because the phrase has arisen due to Black people facing a crisis of racism. The response by some, “All lives matter” misunderstands the point. There is a story in the New Testament that might be helpful:

“See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.
“What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish. (Matthew 18:10-14).

To respond to Jesus’ parable with “All Sheep Matter” would mean you missed the whole point.

And so there is justifiable push back against the phrase “all lives matter.” It’s not that it isn’t true in other contexts, of course.

But not all attempts at pushing back against the misunderstanding of “Black Lives Matter” are any better. Some are worse. I recently found a remarkably stupid meme posted on Facebook which states:

All lives don’t matter.

KKK lives don’t matter.

Nazi lives don’t matter.

Rapist lives don’t matter.

Pedophile lives don’t matter.

Stop saying all lives matter.

On the surface it seems a clever response, perhaps and certainly emotionally satisfying.  But justifying hatred leads to very dark places.  Once you can start saying certain people don’t matter because they are bad people, you soon find the people you can decide are bad easily grows exponentially.  We will all agree that these sinners that have been listed are guilty of despicable actions.  But they remain human beings nevertheless, and saying that a human being doesn’t matter means you are open to gas chambers sooner or later. You are willing to decide some people are to be excluded from the human race.  Dehumanization is a dangerous road to get on. What have you become when you walk that path?

Abraham Lincoln is quoted as saying that the best way to destroy your enemies is to turn them into your friends.  That’s what God is in the business of doing: the opposite of what humans by their nature do.  We pervert good for evil.  God likes to pervert evil for good.

Paul stood by approvingly while a lynch mob murdered Stephen, and sought to arrest any Christians he could find.  But rather than kill him, God redeemed him and transformed him into a friend, making him a preacher of the very thing he had most hated.

Jesus of course had something to say about the attitude reflected in the meme.  He was talking to people who had experienced much mistreatment and oppression.  They did have enemies that it was only natural to hate.  But love, mercy, forgiveness and grace do not ask us to say that bad behavior is okay. It simply means that even bad human beings can be transformed and that should always be our goal.

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor z and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48)

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:16-17)

 Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live? (Ezekiel 18:23)

 So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 7:12)

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! (Romans 5:6-10)

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25-37)

One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

 Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:35-40)

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Our Opinions are Not God’s Opinions

Jesus spends a surprising amount of his time being annoyed. He regularly seems to be rolling his eyes and biting his tongue, along the line of my reactions to one of my adult daughters. Admittedly, she has struggles, legitimate struggles. I know she is seriously ill; but when she asks me to make her popcorn–something normal people do for themselves–it is hard not to let my eyes roll and to sigh with resignation and almost despair. Like, how hard is it to make popcorn? Take the bag out of the box, remove the plastic wrapper, stick it in the microwave on the right side, and then hit the button that says “Popcorn”. Terribly hard. Admittedly, she wants me to add some melted butter and some salt and to put it in a bowl. But really, that’s so hard that only I can do it? She tells me I do it better than her. How, because I “make it with love?” Or am I making it with “hate?”

Jesus isn’t like me at all. That’s an important point, really, that we get wrong all the time. Our perspective rarely lines up with God’s. Our opinions are not God’s opinions. Most of what we think is important, most of our views, God probably doesn’t agree with us. If he were like our so-called friends on Facebook, he would have unfriended us long ago, justifying it like the meme I’ve seen: “I’m not unfriending you because your opinion is different than mine, I’m unfriending you because what you believe is evil. It’s an issue of morality. That’s different!”

Uh, yeah.

No, we do not hold God’s opinions. The best illustration of this is from an event in the Old Testament during the time of Joshua. After forty years of wandering in the wilderness, God has finally brought his people to the promised land, let Moses see it and appointed Joshua to lead God’s people into the land that he had promised to give them, that he had promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He had blocked the Jordan River so they could cross over, fed them mana, protected them, helped them. And now they are on the verge of beginning the conquest.

And then you get this incident (Joshua 5:13-14):

Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?”

“Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, “What message does my Lord have for his servant?”

Even in the middle of doing precisely what God wanted them to do, the answer to the question, “are you on our side or the side of our enemies” is “neither.” That tells us an enormous amount about the gap between us and God, getting at attitude, opinion, motivation, our hearts and minds verses his. God told Isaiah:

“Seek the Lord while he may be found;
call on him while he is near.
Let the wicked forsake their ways
and the unrighteous their thoughts.
Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will freely pardon.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:6-9)

We look at the world through the lens of morality, of what is right and what is wrong, which seems like a good thing. God looks at the world through the lens of Matthew 7:12, which comes at the end of these words beginning at verse 7:

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”

We live by Matthew 7:12, “do to others what you would have them do to you” very rarely, in very narrow circumstances. God sends rain on the just and the unjust: those who deserve it and those who don’t. He loved us so much that he died for us when we were his enemy. Not just when we were stupid, not just when we were making bad choices, but when we were actively fighting against him. Because he did for us what he would wish us to do for him.

Even when we are doing what God wants us to do, even when we say what God wants us to say, we’re still not holding God’s opinions. Even when our intentions are good, we are not in agreement with God and the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

That’s why Paul could write in Philippians 1:15-18:

“It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.”

Our motivations are impure, our attitudes are off, we are selfish. This is why Proverbs 3:5 is so critical to keep in mind at all times:

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding…”

Because our own understanding is mostly wrong.

During the American Civil War President Abraham Lincoln met with a group of clergy. Toward the end of the meeting one of them asked, “Mr. President, would you like to join us in prayer that God would be on our side?”

And Abraham Lincoln’s response was, “I won’t join you in that prayer, but I’ll join you in a prayer that we would be on God’s side.”

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Who Do You Think You Are?

What are you willing to do in the service of what you are convinced is the truth, for the noble cause that dominates your thoughts?

D.W. Criswell writes,

“The desire to prove what you intuitively or instinctively believe is so strong yet so insidious. In scientific research there is the phenomena of confirmation bias, where in some cases scientists alter data or just misinterpret their scientific results in order to prove or confirm what they believe. For years it has been debated whether the geneticist Gregory Mendel faked or modified his data, since it is too perfect to believe that he accurately collected and recorded the data. The prominent geneticist Daniel Fairbanks with others extensively analyzed the issue and came to the conclusion in the book ‘Ending the Mendel-Fisher Controversy’ that Mendel suffered from conformation bias, he probably adjusted his data to make it look better since he was convinced his ideas were right. So the compulsion to prove your beliefs is a universal behavior.”

It happens in all walks of life. There are Christians who are so convinced of the reliability of scripture and its inerrancy that they are not careful to make certain that an archeological “discovery” or “story” are true before sharing them on social media. They don’t think about whether they are spreading lies or misinformation: if it helps the cause of Christ and leads unbelievers to accept the Gospel message then what else matters? There are people who will push narratives that match their political leanings just because it trashes their opponents or makes their side look good, without finding out if it is really so. There are commentators and pundits for any number of fine causes who will push a narrative even though they know it may be a lie just because it helps the right side win and crushes their dangerous, unhinged opponents.

In the final Harry Potter novel, one finds Dumbledore and Grindelwald as young men being caught up in an ideology that would oppress and potentially harm people. But it would be for the “greater good” and they would be doing it for all the right reasons.

History is littered with organizations and individuals who did reprehensible things because they believed their cause was that important. They were certain that their truth would win out, and if they needed to shade it with a lie, the greater good, the ultimate reward, the danger inherent in the situation, made it necessary and acceptable. Like Dolores Umbridge who was willing to use the Cruciatus curse on Harry Potter in order to find out where Dumbledore was hiding, because protecting the Ministry of Magic from being overthrown was that important.

On the other hand: in episode 19 of season six of Star Trek Deep Space Nine we get an interesting episode entitled “In the Pale Moonlight.” In an attempt to goad the Romulans into war with the Dominion, the Deep Space Nine commander Benjamin Sisko enlists the former Cardasian spy named Elim Garak to help him create false evidence of a Dominion plot to invade Romulus in order to get the Romulans to join the war with the Federation against the Domnion.

On Garak’s request, Sisko secures the release of a forger named Grathon Tolar from a Klingon prison. Then, in order to obtain an authentic Cardassian secure data rod, he is forced to trade a large quantity of bio-mimetic gel, a rare, dangerous, and highly regulated material. Dr. Bashir strongly objects, and relents only when Sisko orders him unequivocally; providing the doctor with the orders in writing, the doctor still vows to lodge a formal complaint. Matters are complicated when Tolar stabs Quark in an altercation while drunk. To keep Tolar out of trouble, he bribes Quark and convinces Odo to drop the matter. At this point, Sisko recognizes the legal and ethical compromises he is making but presses on knowing it is for the greater good.

Tolar creates a holographic record of a Dominion meeting between Damar and Weyoun discussing plans involving the invasion of the Romulan Empire. Meanwhile, on Garak’s advice, Sisko invites Vreenak, an influential Romulan senator, to Deep Space Nine in secret. Sisko shows Vreenak the recording and gives him the data rod, but the senator discovers the forgery and departs, furious and vowing to expose the deception. As Sisko faces the possibility that his actions may actually force the Romulans to join with the Dominion once Vreenak returns to the Empire, he learns that Vreenak’s ship has exploded, killing all on board.

Sisko angrily confronts Garak, who admits he planted the bomb on Vreenak’s ship just in case the forgery didn’t work. Garak also admits he killed the forger Tolar in order to keep his work secret. Garak maintains that when the Romulans scan the wreckage of the senator’s ship and find the rod, any imperfections will be attributed to damage from the explosion, and thus the recording will implicate the Dominion as planned. Garak asserts that Sisko included him in the plan to do the things that Sisko was unwilling to do himself. Garak also states that Sisko can ease his conscience with the knowledge that the Alpha Quadrant has been saved, and all it cost was the life of one Romulan senator, one criminal, and the self-respect of one Starfleet officer.

Subsequently, the Romulans join with the Federation and declare war against the Dominion, quickly striking at nearby Dominion outposts.

At the end of the episode, as he’s recounting all these events in his journal, Sisko admits that Garak was right about a guilty conscience being a small price to pay. He admits that he can, in fact, live with his decision. And then he erases his journal.

What lies, what crimes, what evil would one be willing to commit in order to defeat the Nazis? Can we really fault Sisko for his choices? Wasn’t the greater good worth the moral turpitude?

In the first place, you’d better be damned sure you’re actually fighting the Nazis.

Existential evil on that level is rather rare. Oh, sure, we’re always certain that our political or religious opponents are “just like the Nazis.”

You might not want to go there.

Dolores Umbridge stands as a fictional example of how wrong you can be. So does the non-fictional woman in the news this week who called the police because “an African American man is threatening me” when he complained about her dog being off its leash.

The world is full of well-intentioned, but horribly deluded people who committed horrific crimes, or just did the “stupid” because they were absolutely convinced of things that simply weren’t so.

On balance, it seems best to not give into the temptation to think that “the ends justify the means.”

But that doesn’t mean we should focus our attention on always trying to do “the right thing.”

That focus on “the right thing” is in fact what leads us astray and makes us justify the ultimately unjustifiable. Wanting to do what’s right is what too often paradoxically leads to doing what’s evil. Remember, knowing “good and evil” was forbidden to humanity by God at our beginning. Eating from that tree was a huge mistake.

Instead, our focus must be on what it was supposed to be from the beginning. The new commandment, which is actually a very old one: love one another.

Jesus made it very clear: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12) If we focus on that, instead of on “what’s right” it will keep us from harming others for “the greater good.”

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Saying the Unsayable

Do you have freedom of speech? Do you have freedom of the press? Of course you do. In the United States you can say, write or print anything you want. No one from the government is going to show up at your door and drag you off to jail. No secret police will show up in the dead of night and make you disappear.

But there are still consequences to what you write or say. It has been and always will be that way. So, you have to decide: is what I say true? Is what I say kind? What sort of reaction do I think I’ll get? Is it worth the potential fallout? Am I willing to lose friends? Am I willing to lose my job? Am I willing to be an outcast? Because there are things you can say or write that will alter your life on a personal level for good or ill forever.

Just talk to the people who have gotten in trouble for an old tweet or Facebook posting.

Or public figures who said or did or wrote something twenty years ago that no one thought twice about, but today they have to try to apologize for it and will lose everything anyhow.

Of course, we can debate whether it is right that people should be cancelled or get in trouble for their words. But it has always been this way. The right of free speech and freedom of the press is just about absolute for an American citizen, and well it should be. But that right only protects you from the government. It doesn’t protect you from your neighbors. Our friends, our colleagues, the twitter trolls, the pundits, and Karens of the world are not so limited—and never have been. If you start cheering for USC when you’re a student at UCLA, you should not be surprised at the pushback. Because freedom of expression goes both ways. You can say or write anything you want. But so can the people around you. And they will. Oh, they will.

Welcome to the real world. Say anything you want. Someone is going to answer you and you won’t necessarily like it. That’s what freedom means.

You can tell someone to shut up. And they don’t have to listen to you. They might start yelling. You can write anything you want, but no one has to publish it, and no one has to read it, and no one has to accept it. And people don’t have to be respectful.

Jesus, of course, operated in a world that lacked the basic human rights that we take for granted as Americans. In the world Jesus walked in, you could be arrested for your words. And so it was doubly dangerous for Jesus to say and do what he was doing. It wasn’t just social opprobrium that he had to worry about.

Notice that his family thought he was nuts and came to get him and take him away in Mark 3:20-21:

Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”

Jesus was willing to get in trouble with his family and lose their support; he was willing to let them think he was crazy. Jesus was willing to lose followers. We saw that in John 6:66 when some stopped following because of what he said about drinking his blood:

“From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.”

Jesus was willing to suffer the consequences from the religious authorities and the Roman government. He was willing to accept the repercussions even from his family, his friends, and his most ardent admirers. He made the choice that what he had to say, the reason he had come to Earth in the first place, mattered more than anything else.

Many Christians were then willing to suffer at the hands of the religious authorities and the Roman government. Spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ was of greater importance than personal safety or approval. They were willing to suffer the consequences for their words. There are Christians today who suffer the same extreme outcomes for their faith.

We Americans live in a place where we do not fear such deadly effects. The ramifications of our free speaking and writing, the penalties we might suffer for our words, are less dire, though still potentially painful.

Every time we use our words, we must make a decision about whether their costs are worth the price.

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Love Your Neighbor

“Do to others as you’d have them do to you” Jesus is recorded as saying in Matthew 7:12.

He then says that that phrase sums up the Bible. The rest of the Bible exists to illustrate and explain that, in the hope that we won’t misunderstand it. But that central point, to love, is still mostly missed, explained away, or just ignored because it is inconvenient and because it is uncomfortable, and because hating is much more natural.

Jesus makes a contrast between who and what he is all about, and who and what the religious establishment is all about in John 10:1-21. Consider the context: Jesus healed a man born blind. Rather than celebrate it, they focused on whether it was okay to do it on the day it happened.

Another way of looking at the contrast is to consider Jesus’ words to his disciples when John and James got their mother to ask him to put them in charge when Jesus came into his kingdom.Jesus upended their world view on so many levels with his response. And the implications for all our relationships, all our social structures is fascinating. But it all grows out of the One Verse, the Great Commandment, to love our neighbor.

“Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’” (Matthew 20:25-28)

How the church organizes itself must be in line with this. How our families work together, must be in line with this. To submit, to serve: it is what Jesus did. He came not to rule but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many. Time after time, from the washing of feet incident (John 13), to what Paul says in Philippians 2: that Jesus did not try to hold on to the perks of being God, but gave it up and became nothing, became a servant, to die for us.

The urge to make people do and say and act the way you want them—because it is good for them, because it is right—is the beginning of destruction. Like a gentle snowfall on the mountain slopes, it brings an avalanche. The thought may arise that if someone even disagrees with me on what I hold dear, on what is obviously the only reasonable way to think, then that makes them not just wrong but evil. Obviously evil. Because I am right and what I do and what I say and how I act is good. Therefore, any opposition to me by definition is evil. And it is okay to hate evil. Therefore I can hate you because you are evil. And therefore you are no longer my neighbor. And therefore the commandment to love my neighbor does not apply to you. I do not have to do to you what you would do to me. I can kill you.

If you un-neighbor those you disagree with, you are, in the name of doing what is right, in the name of opposing evil, becoming the very evil you abhor.

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Thoughts and Prayers

Psalm 23 tells us:

 Even though I walk

through the darkest valley, 

I will fear no evil,

for you are with me;

your rod and your staff,

they comfort me. (Psalm 23:4)

This is a description of life.  We live in a world where darkness can decide to take up a weapon and attack strangers in a school, in a mall, in a church, in a park, in a movie theater.  And there is nothing that can be done to stop it. We are all going to die some day. We don’t know when.  We don’t know where.  We don’t know how.  And there isn’t a thing we can do about it.  Life is beyond our control.

Politicians and pundits will disparage the offering of “thoughts and prayers” after a tragedy as meaningless drivel that accomplishes nothing.  At first glance it is hard to deny that the peddlers of outrage have a point. After all, James wrote:

 “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”  (James 2:15-17)

But we miss the caveat inherent in James’ words.  James’ assumption is that we have the ability to solve the problem before us if we would only act.  Taking care of feeding and clothing someone huddling at our feet is well within our wheelhouse.  But resurrecting the dead?  Preventing mayhem?  Stopping crime?  Ending bloodshed?  Perhaps not.

The Bible also warns us against putting our trust in rulers, relying on other people, or even trusting in ourselves. 

Instead, we are encouraged to rely on God.

In the time of Samuel, God condemned the Israelites for asking for a king. God told Samuel that their request was a rejection of God.  He argued that it was no different than when they had  replaced Him with idols.  It was just more of the same.  Relying upon a human leader for salvation is no different than relying on any other false god.  And that sort of trust is doomed to disappoint in the end.

I cannot prevent criminals from hurting people. I cannot bring back the dead.  I cannot restore sight to the blind.  I cannot make the deaf hear.  I cannot make the lame walk.  I cannot so much as cure the common cold. About all I can do is bore you to death and help you catch up on your sleep. How am I supposed to solve mass shootings, end starvation, or bring peace to the world?

If I can’t solve those existential problems, why would I imagine some politician yelling at me and demanding my vote is going to be any more successful than I would be? Since when has any politician done what they say they are going to do?  How are they better than me?  How are they better than anybody else? Why would I put my trust in them?

And then I return to thinking about prayers.  And you know what?  The book of Revelation speaks directly to that issue. 

The point of the book of Revelation is that the kingdom of the world will become the kingdom of God.  And how will it happen?  Because we choose the right politicians? Is there even such a thing as a right politician? 

What did Jesus say?  Three times in the book of Revelation we see the prayers of all God’s people being poured out on the kingdom of the world.  And they are remarkably powerful and effective. More effective and powerful than the rulers of an empire.

And James also had something to say about prayers, too, after that part about words being meaningless when it comes to filling empty bellies (not unlike the ravings of political hacks).  In James 5:15-16 he wrote that prayer is not, in fact, empty and meaningless:

“And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”

You want to change the world?  We all do.  The church can do that.  Not by using the weapons of the world.  Not through joining the rage mongering of politicians who really only care about getting elected.  Instead, by prayer: because God is real and God can intervene in our world. Prayer is not just meaningless pleasantries blowing in the wind. Our prayers are not just feel good vibes. 

We can change the world through our prayers and through our proclamation of the Good News that Jesus Christ has come, that he gave himself for our sins, that he rose again, and that he is coming back:

Comfort, comfort my people,

says your God.

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,

and proclaim to her

that her hard service has been completed,

that her sin has been paid for,

that she has received from the Lord’s hand

double for all her sins. (Isaiah 40:1-2)

And then Isaiah went on:

A voice of one calling:

“In the wilderness prepare

the way for the Lord;

make straight in the desert

a highway for our God. b

Every valley shall be raised up,

every mountain and hill made low;

the rough ground shall become level,

the rugged places a plain.

And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,

and all people will see it together.

For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

A voice says, “Cry out.”

And I said, “What shall I cry?”

“All people are like grass,

and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.

The grass withers and the flowers fall,

because the breath of the Lord blows on them.

Surely the people are grass.

The grass withers and the flowers fall,

but the word of our God endures forever.”

You who bring good news to Zion,

go up on a high mountain.

You who bring good news to Jerusalem, r

lift up your voice with a shout,

lift it up, do not be afraid;

say to the towns of Judah,

“Here is your God!”

10 See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power,

and he rules with a mighty arm.

See, his reward is with him,

and his recompense accompanies him.

11 He tends his flock like a shepherd:

He gathers the lambs in his arms

and carries them close to his heart;

he gently leads those that have young. (Isaiah 40:3-11)

We must not underestimate the power of prayer and the proclamation of the Good News to transform a life.  A single transformed life has endless repercussions. 

Jesus is the answer to the world’s problems.  We’d do well to remember that and to take it seriously. 

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