acts of the apostles

Acts of the Apostles: A Hollywood Story

After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.

Acts 1:3

A new phrase in modern times is called binge-watching. A new television series comes out and we watch all the episodes from beginning to end, sometimes in one sitting or perhaps two or three. It makes me think of how worthy some of the books of the Bible would be to binge-watch. Certainly, Genesis with its great stories like Noah’s ark, Joseph in the well or the intrigue between Jacob and Esau. A book filled with subplots, hero’s and villains. Certainly, The book of Acts is the same.

In Acts, we have jail cells collapsing. A missionary braving dangers and wanders for close to twenty years to spread the good news about Christ. We have the Holy Spirit teaching people to talk in tongues. And a story of the first Christian Martyr. Hollywood could easily make this book into a series. I know I would binge watch it in one sitting.

Why does Acts Exist?

Some have asked me why does Acts exist or what is its purpose. Simply, it is the bridge between the Gospels and the great Christian Epistles in the New Testament. It is also the history of the early church and its development from 33AD to 60AD. A support system to moving from the Gospels to the letters written by Paul and other great early Christian writers. Without it, we would have to rely on circumstantial evidence to get the whole story.

Acts is the second half of the letter to Theophilus written around 80AD. The first half of the letter is Luke. This entire manuscript, as the author says,  was to write an orderly account. And it certainly is, from Jesus’s birth to the resurrection, to Peter becoming the leader of the early church, to Paul’s wonderfully successful but dangerous journeys, all spanning the first 60 years of Christianity.

Let’s go to the drama scenes and intrigue.

Imagine yourself in Jerusalem and Jesus is standing in front of you. Know that he has just risen from the dead to save us from all our sins, and in an instance, a cloud takes him out of sight. And while he is going up two men stand by you in white robes, telling you not to worry. A few days later, you hear a rushing wind and all-around people start speaking in other tongues. Is this a Marvel comic book story or the Bible?

Later Peter organizes the church and begins converting thousands at a time. The authorities getting nervous and throw him in jail, only to be released by an Angel.

Then we have a Paul, the chief persecutor of Christians, traveling to Damascus to murder and capture early Christians, only to be dramatically struck down by Jesus. Jesus revives and converts Paul, who goes on to become the ambassador for Christianity.

But we also have political intrigue. The early believers want the new believers to comply completely with Jewish traditions. But Paul says no, knowing that it is only important that you believe and have faith in Jesus. On one side you had James the Just arguing vehemently for compliance to the Jewish traditions and on the other, the skilled orator Paul arguing against. In the middle was Peter, who has a vision that tells him that it is okay for the Gentiles not to have to comply.

The Center of Christianity

Next, Paul travels over ten thousand miles and preaches to all who can hear, the story of Jesus. He as well ends up in jail. Likewise, he is released through supernatural and divine intervention. On these journeys, Paul is beaten and ridiculed. But he never gives up. Staying the course, he creates followers throughout the Roman Empire. Even in Rome, which would centuries later, become the center of Christianity.

Paul later returns to Jerusalem as he had promised, having firmly entrenched Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. Only to encounter more drama, and is arrested, and sent to Rome for trial.

Certainly, we have popular television series made up of less dramatic events airing every week. But they’re right in front of us, is a story even Marvel or Disney couldn’t replicate. We don’t need to watch TV or visit the local cinema. The story is there for us to read in the Bible. A wonderful historical account of our faith.

The story of our faith is written in God’s technicolor for us all to see. Maybe we can’t binge read it one sitting, perhaps in two or more.

The Acts of the Apostles, an orderly account, is for all to believe and read.

Listen to the Full Podcast – Acts of the Apostles

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

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original artwork

Finding Jesus in A Tree

Zacchaeus come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.

Luke 19:5

Jesus enters the town of Jericho and is met by a throng of people. As he walks into the town, he passes under a sycamore tree. He looks up and sees a man in the tree. To the man he says; Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today. To which Zacchaeus agrees and has Jesus stay at his house. After the visit, Zacchaeus a very rich tax collector states he will give half his wealth to the poor and any that he has defrauded, he will pay back four times.

On the surface, this seems like a simple conversion and change of heart created by Jesus. An interesting story that we pass through when reading the Gospel of Luke. But it isn’t so simple, especially when we consider the historical and deeper theological implications.

First, Zacchaeus was a tax collector and not only that, the chief tax collector in Jericho. Jericho was a very wealthy commercial center in the first century and as such a tax collector could and many did amass a fortune. Tax collectors were locals who worked for Rome and were given quotas to collect. Whatever they collected above the quota they got to keep. In Jericho, that could be a sizeable amount. Naturally, they were despised by their neighbors and considered to be no more than thieves who preyed on the local population.

Zacchaeus was not only a tax collector but the chief tax collector.

He amassed a large fortune through his own efforts and from the kick-backs he got from the other tax collectors. In his lifetime, he had defrauded many. He was considered to be the worst of society. Ironically, Zacchaeus means pure of heart in Hebrew.

Zacchaeus had heard Jesus was coming to Jericho and desperately wanted to see Jesus. But the crowds were so large, the only viewing place was in a sycamore tree. So, up he went into the tree. His goal was just to see Jesus, and was stunned when Jesus called him down from the tree.

The crowd grumbled when they heard Jesus wanted to stay with a tax collector. Amazed that someone of such ill-repute could be singled out by Jesus.

After the visit and when Zacchaeus stated he would give back a large sum of his wealth, Jesus declares; Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.  For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.

This statement by Jesus contains many thoughts.

For instance, note that Jesus said, this man too, is a son of Abraham. Implying that we are all worthy, regardless of our past. Which brings us back the meaning of Zacchaeus in Hebrew, pure of heart. This is what Jesus saw in Zacchaeus, a pure heart, and this is why Jesus searched him out.

We could ask and judge, how can this man be pure of heart after he bilked his neighbors? But that is the point of the story. We don’t really know where a person’s heart is, and it is not ours to judge. Jesus’s point is we have all fallen short at times in our lives, not because we are inherently bad, but because we made bad choices.

I can imagine, when Zacchaeus started his life journey as a young man, trapped by his ability to scheme and ploy. He turned to tax collecting to become rich. Not thinking about his impact on other peoples lives. Later, in life he became trapped by his wealth, left empty and unsatisfied.

But we could also ask, why did he want to see Jesus so badly that he climbed a tree? Simply, I suppose he wanted a change. Which leads to the age-old theological question, Do we find God or does God find us? In this story, it appears to be both. In a recent poll I took of believers, the overwhelming response I got was that both happened to them.

For Zacchaeus, he was ready to meet God and God met him.

Likely none of us has gotten as far off course as Zacchaeus and had such a dramatic change to make. But I think this makes the story more relevant for us. No matter how far we get off course, we can always find God and God will find us. And as believers we should try to help those returning to God and not judge.

Each person’s Journey with God is special and very personal to them. It takes turns and twists along the way. God never gives up on us, even the Chief Tax Collector.

In the Beatitudes, Jesus said, Blessed are the pure of heart, for they will see God. Does this mean Zacchaeus as well?

Listen to the Full Podcast – Finding Jesus in a Tree

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

By Niels Larsen Stevns – Own work (photo: Gunnar Bach Pedersen) (Randers Museum of Art, Randers, Denmark), Public Domain,https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1428023

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what is the church

What is the Church?

Is it the People or the Building?

For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.

Matthew 18:20

 

Recently we moved to a new part of Asheville. In doing so we had to find a new church to attend. Over a number of Sundays, we attended a few. One church was too stuffy. While in another we felt like a number to be counted. And even in another, the pastor was too political. We finally found one that seemed right. Not because it had a great building and environment. It did, but we have been to those before. Not because the music was great, because it wasn’t. It had a spirit that we didn’t see in the others.

The people were friendly and inviting. During the Passing of the Peace, everyone left their pews and went to see friends. They mingled with new-comers like ourselves. The greetings took way longer than the normal time. There was an air of true Christian companionship.

The pastor delivered a sermon with a distinctly unique southern drawl, but her words were laced with inviting phrases. Not that she didn’t challenge the group, but did it a way that made you think harder. She was as inviting as the congregation.

It reminded me of a time went to a church in Canada, that rented space in a school building. The service had three hundred or so people who knew each other and open their arms to those that were new. Likewise, the message of the sermon wasn’t an easy message, but both challenging and inviting. It wasn’t the building that made our time there special, it was the people.

So these experiences made me think, What is the church? Once again, as I am prone to do, I asked this question on my twitter feed. Sure enough, the replies came roaring in. The overwhelming majority described it as the people. Some more specific in stating; where two or three are gathered. Right from today’s verse. Some said, the body of Christ. Others said the bride of Christ. Some were very theological and others very direct. But no one mentioned a building.

The Greek word for church is Ekklesia.

It means in old Greek, to call out of. Over time the meaning has morphed into meaning; an assembly, congregation or convocation. So what does it mean when you say we are going to church? Does it mean we are going to a building?

Personally, I think resolving this question is critical for the survival of the church in America. In many churches, more than fifty percent of the donations are spent on the building. In fact, nationally well over eighty percent is spent on buildings and administration. While less than six percent is spent on adult and children education. And only one percent is spent on local or national giving.

When I was in Africa a few years ago, on Sunday, I would see people walking up to five miles to attend church. On the hillside, you would see long flowing lines of people dressed in white moving to church. Yet they didn’t have buildings like those we see in America. If they had a building, it was modest.

Christianity is declining in America

While  Christianity is declining in America, worldwide it is growing, especially south of the equator. In fact, Christianity still represents the same percentage of the human race that it did one hundred years ago. Why? It is growing quickly in other parts of the world. For instance, twenty-five percent of all Christians now live in sub-Saharan Africa.

Perhaps there is a lesson for our churches in what the people on Twitter said and those of the areas where Christianity is growing. Maybe we are too focused on the buildings and not on the people. Maybe it is time to let go of the buildings and rent school space. The average parking lot in a church in America is only used fourteen percent of the time.

This may seem like a radical suggestion and when it has been brought up in the past, it has been quickly dismissed by leadership. Especially, by our national denominations. This suggestion is scary for them. Where would they find their relevance? What would they have to give up? Or is it that, it is all they know? Change is scary to leadership.

I really don’t think this suggestion is all that radical. Just a century ago, many churches met in homes. During the time called the Great Awakening in the early 19th century, many people heard preachers who stood under trees. Revivals occurred in tents. In the Old Testament, even God used a tent.

Maybe we should ask all people; why do you go to church?  I am pretty sure, it isn’t the building, it’s the gathering in which Jesus is present.

Perhaps we could even ask Jesus, but he has already given us His answer; it is wherever two or three are gathered in his name.

The Twitter world agrees.

Listen to the Full Podcast – What is the Church?

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

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gospels

The Gospel According to John

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

John 1:1

Sometime near the end of the first century, a write skilled in Greek language and philosophy wrote the last Gospel, called the Gospel According to John. In some quarters the authorship is assigned to the Apostle John, while others declare it was another person, perhaps another person named John. While the authorship is a hotly debated item, what is not debated is this Gospel is very different than the first three.

The Kingdom of Heaven

This Gospel is far more philosophical; and contains longer and deeper theological expressions by Jesus. In the Synoptic Gospels;  Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus speaks in quick bursts and uses parables for many of his teachings. Here we have philosophical explanations by Jesus; about the Kingdom of heaven and who he is.

Nowhere is this more evident than in chapter three, where Jesus is talking to Nicodemus late at night. Jesus is being questioned by Nicodemus about his purpose. Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin, who were very much opposed Jesus and his teachings. But Nicodemus was not so sure. In the middle of the night, he went to see Jesus. In a way, Nicodemus was acting as a foil for Jesus to explain why he came. In this chapter you have the famous Christian slogan, John 3:16, where Jesus states very clearly who he is, by saying;

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son, that whomever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

Jesus also uses images in this chapter; such as light versus darkness and the Spirit to describe how one arrives at having faith in the unseen. The complexity and philosophical nature of this chapter requires a number of readings to fully grasp what Jesus is saying to Nicodemus, but like many parts of the Bible, Jesus’s message is not just for Nicodemus, but is very important to the 21st century reader.

Book of Signs

While in the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus’s divinity is expressed and demonstrated through healings and miracles, in John they are called “signs”. In fact, there are seven signs spread throughout the Gospel. From changing water to wine, raising Lazarus and walking on water. Causing some to call the Gospel, the Book of Signs.

At the very beginning we also get a very philosophical statement about who Jesus is. In verse one, it says; In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. In this well-crafted sentence we see the theological and fundamental statement of who exactly Jesus is.

But notice the use of the word, Word.

And also notice it is capitalized. In Greek, Word means logos. And the fact it is capitalized means divinity. So we can safely assume,  the author is using the word logos to describe Jesus. So when we reread this verse with Jesus substituted for Word or Logos, it now reads; In the beginning was Jesus, and Jesus was with God, and Jesus was God.

In this simple statement, we get the essence of Jesus, from the beginning Jesus was with God and was God. Later, in Christian history this became one of the fundamental statements in the Nicean Creed and is now part of our current confession of faith. There is no ambiguity in this statement as to Jesus’s place in the Trinity. Jesus is God and with God, and has been since the beginning.

The Gospel

The Gospel contains many of the features similar to the other Gospels; from Jesus’s life, his death and resurrection. In fact the term, Gospel means; the teaching, revelation and life of Jesus. So while this Gospel is a very different and more philosophical, it is a complete history of the teaching, revelation and life of Jesus. From his ministry, to the crucifixion and resurrection.

So we might ask, why is it needed? Or why is it so different? Well, my best answer is; it’s part of the beauty of the Bible. It provides another avenue to get to know Jesus. Perhaps for the person who is very analytical or philosophical, a different and easier way they think about their faith. In fact, each of the four Gospels have different appeals.

It doesn’t mean that John is better or inferior.

It represents the beauty of all four Gospels combined. While some may say they like the Christmas story in Luke, or others might say they like the connection to the Jewish traditions in Matthew, even others will say they like the crispness of Mark. Each of the Gospels pull us into the story of Jesus differently. In effect giving us many ways to enter the story of Jesus’s existence on earth.

All were written to encourage the early Christians in their faith. Written for separate audiences. But so well written, that their lessons and revelations about Jesus are easily transportable to today and future generations.

The Gospel of According to John, rounds out our understanding of Jesus through a different, but equally reliable lens. Placed in the Bible by people and circumstances inspired by God.

Listen to the Full Podcast – The Gospel According to John – The Bible and Its History

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

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holy spirit

Who is the Holy Spirit?

Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?”

I Corinthians 6:19-20

Recently, I was asked by a group of people who wanted to know exactly who the Holy Spirit was and would I wrote a blog. Thinking to myself, you know that is something I get asked about a lot and agreed I would do the research and write a blog. But simply stating that the Holy Spirit was part of the Trinity and substance of God wouldn’t be enough.

Complicated Answers

So, I earnestly set out to read all the verses in the Bible about the Holy Spirit and all the reference material. The more I researched the more complicated the answers became. In fact, when I read what scholars thought, I couldn’t seem to find concrete agreement from person to person. The search became murkier as I tried to distill the Holy Spirit into a simple explanation.

Some of the readings claimed if you had the Holy Spirit, you could talk in tongues. Some other writings called the Holy Spirit the great counselor. Others claimed the Spirit created miracles. But there was no one simple answer.

Then it dawned me, that it wasn’t important what scholars wrote, but how people experienced the Holy Spirit. That in their own personal relationship with the Holy Spirit was the true definition.

So, I went to Twitter and asked, “How do you experience the Holy Spirit? Surprisingly close to seven thousand people saw the question and many responded. As I expected I got a wide range of experiences.

One person felt the Holy Spirit in a grocery store after she helped a disabled person with their groceries. For no reason at all, she had felt compelled to help and after she got to her car she broke down in tears. Not tears of sorrow, but tears of joy knowing that she had experienced the Holy Spirit.

A sample of shorter descriptions that were written are;

The Holy Spirit gives me inner peace and calm.
The Holy Spirit reminds me to do good every day.
The Holy Spirit gives me strength, courage, and wisdom to lead my life.
The Holy Spirit is my daily guide.
I hear the Holy Spirit when I pray.
The Holy Spirit helps me see God in others.  

I also got longer answers, like; I was baptized in the Holy Spirit, I don’t have the gift of tongues, but I still feel the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Still, another wrote; I am an optimist 90% of the time, but on those days I am down, the Holy Spirit lifts me up and helps my attitude.

On and on these wonderful expressions went on. People sharing not because they were answering a question as if it was a test to get the right answer. But sharing a special relationship they felt strongly about. Each different, but all theoretically correct.

In my research, I found one verse that seemed to explain this phenomenon. Paul in First Corinthians states, that the Holy Spirit exists in all of us and our bodies are a temple for the Holy Spirit. A gift from God!

Different Explanations

To me, this explains why each individual has a different explanation. Because we are all uniquely different. And our relationship with the Holy Spirit that dwells with us is a reflection of our individual life experience. Almost as if the Spirit which dwells within us meets us where we are.

Sure there are those who can speak in tongues and become wildly exuberant when they feel the Spirit. While others of us, feel the Spirit in a less demonstrative way. It doesn’t mean one person has a better relationship than the other, it means its different.

The Holy Spirit meets us where we are and in a way that we can understand.

I guess I wasn’t surprised that this was the result of a survey that seven thousand people saw. Many wonderful expressions of a very personal relationship that we all share.

Discovery

So I didn’t complete my task and theologically explain the Holy Spirit. Rather, I discovered more important questions. Questions I and others should explore. How are we individually in a relationship with the Holy Spirit? And are we completely invested in this relationship?

Perhaps this is the place we should start versus trying to discover the metaphysical aspect of the Holy Spirit.

Try today to ask the Holy Spirit to visit you. The same Holy Spirit that Paul says dwells within you.

Listen to the Full Podcast – Who is the Holy Spirit – Episode 3 – Inspirational Christian Stories

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

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vatican hill

Is It Peter “The Rock” or Peter “The Connector”?

And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.

Matthew 16:18

Jesus said Peter the Apostle; And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock, I will build my church. True enough, it was Peter that built the church after Christ rose into heaven. Simple enough on Jesus’s part to say this and for it to happen. But there is more to Peter, than just being The Rock. He was a complex person, with very obvious human weaknesses and strengths, to undergird why Jesus picked Peter.

In fact, I don’t believe it was just that he was Peter, The Rock. He was also Peter, The Connector.

Before we get too far, a brief biography about Peter.

His given name was Simon and not Peter. He was a fisherman from Bethsaida. In the book of John, Peter was the first one called, along with his brother Andrew. Peter was married; we know this because Jesus healed his mother-in-law in Capernaum. (Luke 4:38)

So how did Simon become known as Peter? Well, Jesus gave him the name. Jesus actually called him Kepha, in Aramaic. In Greek it is Cephas and in Latin it is Petrus. Leading to the English name of Peter. Kepha in Aramaic means rock and some researchers will say it actually means Jewel.

Peter was also the first to speak when Jesus asked a question, in many ways the one who spoke or asked a question for the other Apostles. Acting in a way as the leader of the other eleven. It was Peter, who left the boat to see if he could walk on water. When Jesus asked, Who do you say I am?, it was Peter who answered.

But Peter didn’t always get things right.

He failed at walking on water. He denied knowing Jesus before the cock crowed three times, during the trial of Jesus. Many times Peter would say something, and Jesus would rebuke him. Peter’s failures are actually identifiable to those of us in the 21st century. How many times do we try to be faithful, but fall short? How many times does Jesus help us, but we deny him? To me, this is an important connector with Peter. Peter, The Rock failed many times and Jesus never gave up on him, nor will Jesus with us.

In fact, after the resurrection, Peter returned to fishing. Only to be visited by the risen Christ, who told him how to fish. Near the end of the Gospel of John, Peter and Jesus have a final chat. Jesus asks Peter, Do you love me? Perhaps we can understand why. But three times Jesus asks this question of Peter, and after two half-hearted answers, Peter finally gets it right. Then Jesus says to Peter, feed my lambs.

After this scene, we find Peter in Acts as the early leader of the church. He had become a persuasive speaker. In fact, after one sermon he converted three thousand people.

But his greatest accomplishment was helping Paul get permission to convert the Gentile community. Initially, the new Christians of Judea believed that to be a true Christian you must also follow Jewish traditions. Things like being circumcised. Paul’s argument was that this wasn’t part of the message of Jesus and certainly would slow the growth of Christianity. Through Peter’s help, Paul was given the freedom to spread Christianity throughout the Roman empire without the need for new converts to follow traditional Jewish customs.

Freeing Christianity to become a global religion.

Again, Peter became the go-between to connect early Christians with an emerging part of Christianity, the Gentile world. His role as the mediator freed Christianity from being a backwater sect in Judea to an international religion.

One of the most controversial aspects about Peter centers around whether or not he was ever really in Rome and was he the first Pope. Well, he actually did visit and live in Rome late in life. While there is no Biblical account that he was there, there are plenty of non-biblical accounts that he was in Rome.

A gentleman, named Ignatius from Antioch, who knew both Peter and Paul, wrote about Peter’s time in Rome. As well, other early Christian historians like, Irenaeus of Lyons and Clement of Alexandria also give accounts of Peter being Rome.

Historians place Peter’s death in Rome as it is written about by Tertullian, an ancient Christian historian. The accounts state that Peter was crucified in Nero’s garden.

Interestingly, Peter asked that he be crucified upside-down because he felt he wasn’t worthy enough to be crucified in the same way Jesus was crucified.

In 325 Ad, after Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, he had a basilica erected on Peter’s burial site. Yes, St. Peters Basilica of today sits on top of the burial site and was built on a hillside called Vatican hill, the present site of the Vatican.

Jesus called Peter The Rock.

But I think we can extend this to The Connector as well. In Peter’s lifetime he served this function many times. First, as the go-between in many ways between Jesus and the other Apostles. Second, as the person who got all sides to agree that Paul could spread the message of Jesus without the requirement of circumcision. And finally, for each of us, Paul’s human imperfections never prevented Jesus from giving up on Peter. Constantly pursuing Peter in spite of his human frailties.

As Jesus does with us as well!

Listen to the Full Podcast – The Apostle Paul – Episode 3 of Great Christians of the Past

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

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“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.”

Philippians 2:3

LEADERSHIP LESSONS FROM HUMBLE PEOPLE

Brian Flores is not well known and humbly does his job every day. He is the son of Honduran immigrants and grew up in a tough neighborhood in Brooklyn. Protected from the wrong path in life, by his hardworking parents and uncles, he became a scholarship athlete that played college football at Boston College. Where he was known for his quiet leadership style and team-first attitude.

Brian had an injury while at Boston College and his chances for playing in the NFL where eliminated. Instead, he chose to become a coach. His first stop was as an assistant in scouting for the New England Patriots. Essentially, his job was that of fetching. Getting coffee or delivering important papers to the scouts were his primary responsibilities. Nothing remarkable and mostly his days were spent getting things for others.

Brian stayed loyal to this job and eventually became recognized for his quiet, but effective execution of his job. He rose up the ranks from his mid-twenties to mid-thirties to becoming the de facto defensive coordinator for the New England Patriots.

His Claim to Fame

His biggest claim to fame was being the person who sent Malcolm Butler on the field in the final minutes of the Super Bowl, that won the Super Bowl for the Patriots in 2014. He recognized an unusual formation by the Seattle Seahawks as they were posed to score and win the game. Immediately the coaches changed the defense and Brian said, “Go Malcolm Go.” Malcolm had been told about the play and proceeded to intercept the pass that saved the Super Bowl for the Patriots.

He has since been promoted a few more times and this year was given the chance to be the lead defensive coach for the Patriots, a remarkable climb for the son of hardworking immigrants.

This year, no less than four NFL teams have asked him to interview to be their Head Coach. Yet Brian is little known outside of New England and likes it that way.

He was recently asked where he discovered his quiet but effective leadership  style. His reply, “The Bible. There’s plenty there as far as how to lead and how to forgive and how to love. I think that’s all qualities of a great leader.”

Wow! What a remarkable quote that is so different in our age of bombastic leadership impressions. Leadership through the Bible that is focused on forgiveness and love. A humble expressions of leadership as a servant.

While I was at Theological school for seven years, I would often hear other students complain that the great leaders of the Bible were flawed and were not great leaders.

In many cases my fellow students were right in describing the flaws of the great leaders of the Bible. Certainly, there is Abraham who many times lost faith in God and went his own way, even lying to Pharaoh that Sarah wasn’t his wife. There is David who committed adultery. Or Rahab the prostitute. How many times did the great Peter ignore Jesus? Or Moses who refused and pushed back with God about his leadership role.

The Bible is littered with stories about leaders who failed at one point. God’s response was one of forgiveness and love. It is God’s response that we find the leadership lessons of the Bible. God loved and forgave these great people in the Bible.

The great stories of the Bible wouldn’t have existed without these two important Christian qualities. Moses never would have led the Israelites to the promised land. Abraham would never have become the father of three great world religions. Rahab would never have become the person who saved the Israelites. Peter would never have become the founder of the church.

God leadership lesson is that of forgiveness and love.

The knowledge that we are human and we all will at times become victims of our own human frailties. The lesson Brian refers to in the Bible is not about the frailties of our human nature, but God’s appealing to the better nature of our humanity. Appealing to our role as forgivers and our responsibility to love our neighbor.

Sure myself and other future theologians missed this point at times. Victims of our frailty, but recovered through our better nature. God waited for us and never let go.

Maybe this year a Brian will become a head coach in the NFL. A remarkable climb from a meager start as a son of immigrants from a tough neighborhood. If not Brian will still be a humble servant leader for God.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

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“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

JOHN 1:1

DOES FACEBOOK HAVE TOO MUCH POWER?

Has Facebook gotten too big? Almost seventy percent of Americans have a Facebook account. Of those three quarters visit the site daily. Almost half of Americans use Facebook as one of their sources of news. Facebook has become the largest hangout in America.

In corporate terms they are close to a monopoly. At the very least they have become an important part of the information flow and an influencer of our society. But has their growth stayed consistent with their controls and morale maturity?

Recently, Franklin Graham was banned from Facebook. Why? Because of a post protesting North Carolina’s position on bathroom access. Franklin Graham is the son of Billy Graham and certainly has conservative Christian views that not all agree with. But he is an American and has the right to express his opinion and practice his religion.

When the leadership of Facebook discovered their misstep, they immediately apologized and restored his status. Their explanation for the ban was that one of their fifteen thousand content moderators had determined that Graham’s post was hateful based on his viewpoint.

Wait! They have fifteen thousand people reviewing posts every day to decide if what gets posted is appropriate? Seems like a little bit of Big Brother.

As Facebook has grown to become an important influencer in American life and thoughts, it needs a closer look at its policies of determining what is appropriate and isn’t. At the very least it shouldn’t be left to a one of fifteen thousand hidden in a cubicle with their own views of morality to decide.

Certainly, any post that promotes violence or contains offensive words should be questioned. Certainly, any conversation that derides or is discriminatory against any race, creed, religion, gender or age group needs to be questioned. But what are Facebook’s boundaries? Have they left content decisions up to a single person who has more power than their position dictates?

Facebook is definitely having growing pains. From allowing Russian influencers to impostor as average Americans and post false news in our last presidential election. To allowing Cambridge Analytica the ability to acquire sensitive information about Facebook users. They have grown so large that they can no longer control content without making a misstep.

Franklin Graham has a belief that the truth lies in the word of God and more specifically is a devout Christian. While we may disagree with Graham on his interpretation, we can all agree he is a Christian. Throughout most of his adult life, he has supported worthy causes and helped his neighbor. He hasn’t been one of those evangelists that take advantage of others or preached selfishly. He has always said what he believed with his only agenda of speaking his truth about God. He certainly isn’t a hate monger. He just believes what he believes and loves his neighbor.

But Franklin Graham has a big following and a bigger voice than most Americans. When he protested his ban, it made national news. But what about other Christian’s who don’t have an influential name or base. They become powerless against a hidden force that can ban them because they don’t agree with their views on faith. There is no one you can call at Facebook to protest. They only answer emails. In fact, most responses from Facebook are form letters. No real answers, just frustration. Their truth gets lost.

It makes us wonder in this age of identity politics and political correctness, has some unknown figure taken on the role of deciding what the truth is about Christianity without recourse? In America today, according to Pew Research, seventy five percent identify themselves as Christian and two thirds of this group prays daily. If identity politics is the current way of thought. Why would we ban Christian input on a site where the vast majority identify themselves as Christian?

As Facebook has grown, it also has unwittingly become a powerful forum. A forum of ideas and points of view. It has become a forum that can be manipulated by insiders and outsiders. A forum of national debate that needs more openness. But it should also be a forum where those who intend harm are better identified and those who express views not to harm, are not restricted.

Facebook does provide valuable resources and contains wonderful content. Most companies have learned that Facebook advertising is a very effective way to promote products. For many, it is a way to keep up to date on family and friends. For shut-ins it is a window to the outside world. Many who post on Facebook have content that is insightful and sometimes down right humorous. We may not always agree with what we read, but more often than not it helps us keep track of our world.

Facebook does help us every day, seventy percent of Americans use it frequently. But Facebook can’t be the decider of our religious beliefs or morality. It certainly shouldn’t be left to some unknown person sitting in a far off cubicle deciding what is the truth and what isn’t. It certainly shouldn’t be selling our private information to unknown entities. It should also know when twelve million messages and users from a foreign country are trying to influence our elections. It has gotten so big that it needs to be more focused on what counts and what doesn’t.

Recently, many people have opted out of Facebook and their membership is declining. The reason, the impersonal and ambiguous way they decide what content can be presented. They have not protected our privacy, in attempts to generate more profits they have sold our information. Unwittingly they have become a source for false news and allowed their immense influence to be appropriated by those who seek their own mission.

Facebook stands at a crossroads of either hearing the complaints and changing or stubbornly continuing a path of profit accumulation that will eventually cause them to fail. Not an uncommon dilemma for those who gain remarkable success, but a crossroad that needs humility.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

Photo by Glen Carrie

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“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.”

Matthew 7:1

SHOULD WE JUDGE OR OFFER HOPE?

Stephen A. Smith, the highly controversial sports analyst of ESPN, was the first to criticize Josh Gordon, the suspended NFL wide receiver. In a highly insensitive way Smith showed no sympathy for a man who has suffered with mental illness for most of his adult life. In a highly critical rant, he was dismissive and unsympathetic of Gordon’s journey. So uninformed was his rant, that many spoke out, not about Gordon’s latest failure, but by the way Smith carried on. A rant so insensitive, that it sparked an enormous backlash on Twitter.

In late December, Josh Gordon was suspended for the fifth time, for using substances banned by the NFL. Gordon, earlier in the year had been given another chance at playing in the NFL. He was traded by the Cleveland Browns to the New England Patriots. The Patriots, a team who have in the past been successful with dealing with troubled players, was seen as Gordon’s last and best chance. For a while Gordon performed well and was becoming an important part of the famed Patriots offense.

The Patriots put his locker next to Tom Brady’s and Brady worked closely with Gordon to fit in. The assigned a security crew to help him deal with drug use. In fact, the entire locker room worked hard at accepting their new teammate. Bill Belichick, the coach and Robert Kraft, the owner, had a number of conversations of support for Gordon.

Then he let them down. What was interesting, there was no harbinger of ill will from the team. The team made statements about their desire for Gordon to overcome his mental illness. All the players spoke out in support of Gordon and commented on what a great teammate Gordon had been. Both Tom Brady and Julian Edelman came out and posted public support of Gordon on their social media.

But what we heard from the national press, notably from Steven A. Smith was insensitive remarks of condemnation. When the Patriots picked up Gordon in the trade, I heard many judgmental comments that said, “don’t get too excited he will fail again.” Sure he failed again and maybe this lesson in life will not be his last.

But should we judge a man with documented mental illness issues, who grew up with sketchy surroundings or should we offer hope. Not hope that is enabling, but hope that he will heal.

Gordon’s issue is symbolic of how we should view all those who struggle. Should we attack and issue judgmental comments or should we lend a hand. Is it fair that we isolate people who make a mistake and become defined by that mistake.

Let’s be clear Steven A. Smith is controversial for a reason, not to help. But to increase ratings. His livelihood is based on his ratings and the more he attacks the higher the ratings.

Today in America, bad news sells and good news is a yawn. Encapsulating those who stray and giving them a scarlet letter. What is missing in this discourse, is we will all fail. Sometimes in spectacular fashion and sometimes not. But part of the human existence is the hard lessons we all have to learn.

Jesus warns to be careful in judgement, because it will be returned when we have our day in the inevitable refinery of life.

Others personal tragedy is not a reliable predictor of someone’s future, many have gone on to turn their story of tragedy into a story of hope.

Consider first lady, Betty Ford, who was an alcoholic. She recovered and went on to establish the Betty Ford clinic that helped thousands recover from alcoholism.

Michael Vick, who was involved in the terribly inhumane sport of dog fighting. Who went to prison for two years and then had to file bankruptcy. After he served his time, thanks to Andy Reid and Tony Dungy was given a second chance in the NFL. With his second chance he once again became an elite quarterback. He paid back every dollar he owed to those who had lost out in his bankruptcy. Today Vick is actively involved with the Humane Society to help prevent cruelty to animals.

What is not reported about Vick, is that for 544 nights he went to bed in prison reciting Psalm 23 and falling to sleep with his Bible under his head.

I have friends who have also suffered from alcoholism, but recovered through wonderful programs run by organizations like the Salvation army. All who have gone on to productive lives.

Chris Carter the former NFL great and TV personality, admits he is an addict and states, “I have been in recovery for twenty eight years.” Today, Chris helps those needing to be in recovery.

We can turn to Ray Rice, the standout running back from the Baltimore Ravens, who savagely beat his wife in an elevator. He was cut from the NFL and lost his livelihood. Becoming a symbol of a spousal abuser. What’s not reported is that both he and his wife have reconciled. He got the treatment he needed to reconnect with his family and become a reliable husband. Where is he today? He is a spousal abuse activist, and speaks at many functions discussing the impact of spousal abuse. His football career is over, but his life isn’t. He feels he got a second chance, not a second chance at football, but a second chance at being a great husband and father.

Those of us who failed, have regrets and many are willing to pay the price of our failures. I have walked with many who have disappointed and let people down. I have seen them grow.  I have also walked with many who don’t give second chances. I have seen a hardened heart. I have seen it is easy to kick someone when they are down. I have seen that more good comes from hope than judgement. It doesn’t mean we don’t have to pay back what we did or that those who failed should be enabled.

I pray for Stephen A Smith to view life as good and not as another chance to gain fame at someone else’s demise.

We can sit in judgement of people who have failed or we can offer prayers that they will overcome. We know as Christians what is required. Not judgement or enabling behavior, but prayers of hope for recovery.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

Photo by Ben Hershey

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“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Matthew 22:39

 

TONY DUNGY, BELL RINGER FOR THE SALVATION ARMY

Every year, from late November until Christmas, the Salvation Army has volunteers to ring a bell in front of grocery stores and on street corners. Tens of thousands volunteer every year to ring a bell in front of the iconic red kettle. In New York city, one thousand people volunteered this season. Millions are collected throughout the country, supporting the Salvation army’s programs to feed the poor and help families in duress.

This year in Central Florida, Tony Dungy was spotted ringing the bell. Yes, the Hall of Fame ex-football coach and player, Tony Dungy. Soon a crowd gathered to meet Tony and his family. It was posted on social media and went viral. When Tony was asked why he was ringing. He said, “I heard there was a shortage of Bell Ringers this year, so I volunteered.” This type of helping behavior is not unusual for Tony Dungy, he has spent a lifetime of  “doing the right thing.”

On most Sunday’s you will find Tony Dungy on TV, Football America to be exact. Tony teams with Rodney Harrison and analyzes the upcoming games. What is interesting in this age of “shock and be famous media”, Tony smiles and is extraordinarily respectful. He provides no shocking revelations to draw attention to himself or is unnecessarily over the top with his humor. Just an ever present smile and good well thought out opinions. In just a few minutes of viewing you can quickly tell he is a decent guy.

Tony has been a life-long Christian, where he played and coached he hung on to those values. His job was always to help out first and be taken care of second. With his players, he asked them to put their faith first, followed by their family. Football came last. This attitude created a team committed to a strong work ethic and values. Tony’s teams made the playoffs ten years in a row and he won the Super Bowl coaching the Indianapolis Colts.

As a player, Tony played as a starter on the famed Pittsburgh Steeler team of the seventies. He was the safety on a defense nicknamed the Steel curtain. Tony wasn’t a high draft choice, in fact he wasn’t drafted. The Steelers asked him to come in for a tryout. He did and became an undrafted member of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Tony is also a community activist and has been involved with past president’s leadership council of Faith-based neighborhood partnerships, as an advisor on fathership issues. Tony is a public speaker for Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Athletes in action. Today he continues to work with Big Brothers/Sisters and the Boys/Girls club in Indianapolis. Tony is frequently heard on Christian radio and has several regularly scheduled shows.

Some things you might not know about Tony Dungy:

  • Among sports figures, he ranks second behind Hank Aaron in polls on respect.
  • He was the first African American coach to lead a Super Bowl winner.
  • He developed the “calm coaching” technique for other coaches.
  • He is one of the few people to win a Super Bowl as a coach and player.
  • He is the most recent NFL player to have and throw an interception in the same game.
  • He was the youngest coordinator for an NFL team at the age of 28.

Tony is a decent man and a role model. He goes about his craft, whether it is playing or coaching football differently, he puts his faith first. As a broadcaster, he doesn’t want to be known for outlandish comments, only to be known as thoughtful and decent man. Helping his neighbor has and was his main goal in life. He is a man of character not a character.

It’s refreshing to know that some good guys do finish first. It’s nice to know that in a polarized world we have a symbol of rational thinking. It’s nice to know that we can openly speak about our faith and succeed.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

Photo by frank mckenna

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