whoonga

 Whoonga; The New and Evil Drug of South Africa

Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”

Luke 13:16

In Luke, we find Jesus healing a woman who had been crippled for eighteen years. She had been bent over in an awkward position for all this time. Jesus had met her on the Sabbath in a synagogue. Jesus put his hands on her and immediately she stood up and praised God.

The synagogue leader and other parishioners became angry because Jesus healed her on the Sabbath. To which Jesus said; Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”

In this amazing statement by Jesus,  it wasn’t just that He fought back about healing on the Sabbath, but that he blamed her illness on Satan, the dark force of evil. Evil that had caught this woman eighteen years earlier, and despite all efforts, it took the hand of Jesus to heal her.

Evil comes in many forms, in this case crippling a woman.

But like all of the stories in the Gospel, this story is remarkably transportable to the 21st century. We certainly have evil in this world. In comes in the form of addictions, bad life habits, depression and bad decisions.

As I was reading this verse, I instantly thought about addiction, to alcohol and drugs. I am not sure why, but this is what stood out for me in this story. I am sure others would focus on the grumbling about a healing on the Sabbath, and they would be right. It is one of the messages of this story. But addiction stood out for me and particularly, the onslaught of new and more dangerous drugs that have emerged. Evil that catches it victims and relentlessly keeps them trapped.

In my research, I discovered a new drug, I had never heard of before, called Whoonga. A particularly addictive drug that is crippling people in Africa. It is so addictive, that one hit of the drug will hopelessly entrap a person. Turning a productive life into a desperate daily search to find money to pay for the next hit. In this search, I found a recovery story about a woman named Sesy.

Miraculously, Sesy has been drug-free for more than a year.

This mother of one was now looking to turn to college. She had been hooked on a Whoonga, for a couple of years. A drug that is a cocktail mix of low-grade Heroin, cannabis and rat poison. It is first smoked during the early part of the addiction.

Sesy, stated she was prone to experimenting and trying things new. When her friends introduced her to Whoonga, she quickly agreed. And as she tells the story, she was immediately hooked.

Over time, her family noticed substantial changes in Sesy. Changes like quitting her job, sudden disappearances, and especially loss of weight. They got Sesy into a rehab program sponsored by The South African National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (SANCA) SANCA was set up to provide resources to those with limited resources to fight drug addiction.

Sesy, described her withdrawal time as more painful than childbirth. Bouts of nausea and unrelenting body aches. With the help of SANCA and her family, she made it through to recovery.

There are not many stories like Sesy’s. Most people addicted to these new drugs can’t win the battle of withdrawal. Trapped by a drug they no longer like, but desperately need. They have become modern zombies. Their deep wish of being drug-free is not as great as the drug addiction and the sickness of withdrawal.

Each year evildoers create more addictive drugs, cocktails of destruction. People get deeply entrapped and ruin their lives. In fact, ninety percent of those trapped have an underlying mental illness and they use these drugs as a form of self-medication. Then as they drift down into addiction, they become outcasts. A vicious cycle and descent.

Even in America, this drumbeat of evil is accelerating.

Today, if you are under the age of fifty, the leading cause of death is through an overdose. Fifty thousand people a year are dying from an overdose. Worldwide almost half a million people a year die from drug overdose.

When I was younger and a teenager, I would hear every night about the numbers killed in Vietnam on the nightly news. Yet today, when more people are being killed worldwide by drugs than the whole of the Vietnam war, I wonder why isn’t this worldwide crisis made more public.

We will hear about the Corona Virus, and the arguments between petulant politicians on the news. But the rise of these evil drugs goes unnoticed. This is why I write about drugs. While I am a mere pebble causing a very small ripple, I pray that more becomes published about this vicious preying on innocent souls.

I can only ask and pray that Jesus finds these people, like the woman crippled by satan, even if it is on Sunday, and touches them. I know there are Christian warriors, like my friend Gary Frieze and Lou Strugala, who have given up successful careers to tend to the addicted. But they fight a lonely battle.

Evil does exist and cripples’ people.

Listen to the Full Podcast – Whoonga; The New Evil Drug of South Africa

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

Photo by Hu Chen on Unsplash

We love giving credit to budding photographers to help them gain more exposure.

fruit tree

Faith Built by Stealing Fruit: The Story Of Saint Augustine

Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people because all sinned

Romans 5:12

 

Augustine, the great doctor of the early Christian church, famously said, Give me chastity, but not yet. An amazing statement when you consider his elevated status as a great ancient leader of the church. Augustine had a significant influence on many church doctrine, especially the Doctrine of Original Sin. Yet as a wild youth he stole fruit, because he was told he shouldn’t! As a young adult he enjoyed the illicit pleasures of life. This statement and his actions as a youth makes us wonder; How did this man become the great leader of the early church?. The answer is complicated, but when we know the back story of his life, we will know why.

Augustine was born in Algeria, in 354AD. His father was moderately wealthy and was a pagan. His mother, Monica was a devout Christian and likely a Berber. Because of the family’s wealth, Augustine was well educated. In fact, the family only spoke Latin at home and not the local language. He was a brilliant student, who excelled at both mischief and his studies. Later in life he was so skilled in reading and writing he was recruited to Milan to teach oratory.

As a youth, Augustine was prone to explore the seamier sides of life.

Which left his mother praying for his soul. In one particular incident, as mentioned before, Augustine and his friends stole the fruit, not because they wanted to eat the fruit, but because they were not permitted to take the fruit. This particular event would significantly shape his views on sin.

At the age of 21, he had a relationship with a woman from Carthage, but would not marry her. Further aggravating his mother Monica. Instead of Christianity, he followed a pagan religion called Manichaeism. A form of religion that existed only from the 3rd to 7th century. What attracted his interest was that it was more reason-based and less faith-based then Christianity. Believing in something he couldn’t see, or touch seemed illogical. He remained a follower for around ten years.

He was in constant pursuit of the origin of life and how we fit into the universe. His mother constantly told him that he would find the answer through Jesus. Not surprisingly he resisted all her attempts and focused on philosophical and physical explanations.

Later, through a contact, he was asked to go to Milan and teach.

He left, with his mother Monica chasing after him, still pleading with him to convert. While in Milan, he was introduced by his mother to Bishop Ambrose. Over time they became good friends, but Augustine resisted any attempt to convert. But still searched for an answer. His heart was unquieted.

Eventually, the graciousness of Ambrose overwhelmed him. One day sitting desperately tormented in a garden, he heard a child’s voice say, take up and read, referring to the Bible. To which Augustine did and providentially opened to Romans 13:13 which said;  Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy.  Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.

A message he could identify with and in that moment he committed his life to Jesus. And his heart rested with Lord and became quieted.

As the story unfolds, Augustine goes back to Africa and becomes ordained and eventually becomes the Bishop of Hippo.

In his role as Bishop, he worked with his compatriots on many church doctrines, because of his skill in language he could easily decipher and explain critical aspects of the Bible. By nature, he was a leader and was soon leading numerous theological discussions.

One doctrine in particular, that he is credited with is, is the formulation of the thoughts of Original Sin. Essentially, it states that all humankind is inherently sinful, as a result of Adam and Eve’s eating the apple in the Garden of Eden. That it was inherited by us through them. However, what is not quite agreed to is the severity of the inherited sin. Augustine believed that humankind was much enfeebled by original sin. A few didn’t take it that far. However, in many quarters, notably the Catholic church and many segments of Protestantism, adopted Augustine’s point of view on Original Sin.

So let’s go back to the fruit that Augustine stole as a youth,  his view of human nature and sin were derived from this moment. He believed that the total depravity he showed in this instance was universal and that all humankind shared this characteristic. He didn’t take the fruit because he needed it, but because he was told he couldn’t have the fruit. Thus became the center point on his and the later church thinking about original sin.

So here is where I disagree.

I don’t believe that humankind was enfeebled as Augustine decreed. I have seen many acts of kindness in my life to buy into his viewpoint. Frankly, I am in more agreement with great saints like Julian of Norwich, who didn’t see sin as so disabling. It’s not that I don’t agree with original sin, I do believe we all fall and fail, but no to the extreme of complete depravity proposed by Augustine. I have seen too much kindness in my life to agree.

My own belief is that Augustine saw the whole world as he saw himself. What I mean by that, it is to be expected that people with good self-images have a healthier view of humanity.  Augustine’s stolen fruit and his love of pleasurable things affected his viewpoint and in his assignment of the severity of sin.

But I must also admit, this goes against two thousand years of Christian thought. And I know there will be people who write and will vehemently disagree.

But remember Augustine who stole the fruit and was the one who said, Give me Chastity, but not yet.

Listen to the Full Podcast – Faith Built By Stealing Fruit

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

Photo by Annie Shelmerdine on Unsplash

We love giving credit to budding photographers to help them gain more exposure.

do you want to get well

Do You Want to Be Made Well

When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him,

 “Do you want to get well?”

John 5:6

 

In the Gospel of John, Jesus performs seven miracles. In one case he changes water into wine. With another person, Lazarus, he raises him up from the dead. But not all these healings or miracles required the supernatural power of Jesus. For instance, in John 5:6, Jesus asks a man lying on the ground;

Do you want to get well?

We normally see Jesus in the Gospels, as a white knight who heals with miracles. But in this case, Jesus hesitates and sternly asks the question, Do you want to get well? . The answer to why Jesus asks this question is found in the preceding verses. The man, posing as an invalid, had been going to a pool called Bethesda for thirty-eight years. The pool was a place to go and be healed. Many went; the lame, the blind and the paralyzed. Legend has it that the pool would be stirred up by a spirit and if you entered the pool during this time you would be healed.

But for thirty-eight years the man never entered the pool. Knowing this Jesus, asks the question, Do you want to get well? To which the man meekly complains that there is never anyone around to help put him in the water. Jesus knew this was a weak excuse. Certainly, in thirty-eight years someone would have been able to help.

So we can also ask the question, Why after thirty-eight years did the man keep going back? Many that I tell this story have the same question.

Jesus then tells the man, Take up your mat, and walk. Now, no-where in the story does Jesus say he healed the man. Only the man says he was healed. In fact, the Jewish authorities who complained mightily to the man that it was unlawful on the Sabbath to take up you mat, never state he was ill or healed.

What Jesus did was a different kind of miracle and not the way we normally think about Jesus. Jesus simply reframed the man’s circumstances and told him to give up going to the pool for healing. Instead to stand on his two feet and get on with life. Jesus’s miracle was getting the man to see how futile it was to do the same thing every day and not get a different result.

We could imagine or even assume that the man was trapped in a bad habit. A habit that lessened his existence. He had become so used to his routine, that the routine became more important than living a productive life. In following this destructive habit he had become stuck.

Sin no more

Interestingly, Jesus says to the man at the end of the story, See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you. Jesus wasn’t talking about his ailment, but about how he had approached life. Jesus wanted him to be productive in his life, not trapped in a life of bad habits and routines.

While it is easy for us looking into this story to be amused that someone would do the same thing, over and over for thirty-eight years, are we really any different? Hopefully, not for thirty-eight years, but we all get caught up in routines that don’t help our lives. And I must confess, I can rattle off a few in my own life.

Bad habits limit our lives.

So this is not a miracle in a supernatural way, but a miracle of good advice on Jesus’s part. But also a lesson for us as well. Many of us know the saying, what would Jesus do? This is part of the life we sign up for when we accept Jesus. Not to be healed, but to follow his example. Certainly, if the man had asked himself, would Jesus being doing what I am doing? He would have given himself the same answer Jesus gave him.

Sometimes we don’t need to be healed, but our minds reframed. What we are doing isn’t working and we need to change. Or what we are doing is limiting ourselves as Christians to live a fuller and more productive life.

Is there something in our lives we can change to give ourselves a more productive life.

Maybe today is the day we; Take up your mat, and walk. 

Listen to the Full Podcast – Do You Want to Get Well?

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

Photo by Alex Duffy on Unsplash

We love giving credit to budding photographers to help them gain more exposure.

emperor constantine

Was He Really A Christian? 

for whoever is not against us is for us.

Mark 9:39-40

 Flavius Valerius Constantinus was born in Serbia in 280AD. While not a native Roman, he would rise to become the Roman Emperor in 324AD. Later in life, he shortened his name to Constantine. His rise to becoming the Roman Emperor changed the course of Christianity. Christianity would move from being a persecuted underground religion to becoming the state religion of the Roman Empire.

Constantine’s father had been the Western Roman Emperor, during the period when the Roman Empire actually had three co-rulers. Because of his birthright, Constantine rose quickly up the military ranks, but in his own right, he was a great general and administrator.

Too late

Constantine was skillful in politics and convinced a superior over wine to let him be assigned to his father, which would help his career. To ensure the decision would not be overturned the next morning. Constantine rode multiple horses through the night to give the news to his father. At each outpost he would leave his horse and mount up on another. By the time he got to his father, it was too late for the decision to be reversed.

Constantine worked under his father in Great Britain and was key in a number of the battles. As his father was dying he was appointed to take over his father’s position. But his status was always in question. Like many of the rulers of Rome, having a strong army was the key to gaining and keeping power. Over the next few years, Constantine fought a number of battles to keep his position.

The Emperor

One battle, in particular, was critical for Constantine and Christianity. During this period of civil war, his main competitor Maxentius, was threatening Constantine and would engage in battle with him at the Milvian Bridge on the Tiber river. The winner would be the emperor of the western Roman empire.

Prior to the battle, Constantine had a vision that prompted him to have the letters CH put on his soldier’s shield. CH being short for Christos or Christ in English. Even though Constantine was outnumbered two to one. He won the battle.

While previously a worshiper of the Roman Sun god, he became a quasi-Christian. Not fully in, but curious about Christianity.

The following year in 313AD he issued the Edict of Milan, which legalized the Christian religion. Essentially, ending all persecution and allowing Christianity to move more freely in the western Roman Empire.

The Nicene Creed

During the next few years,  he consolidated his power and became the sole Roman Emperor. At the same time he moved closer to becoming a Christian. One thing he noticed was the amount of discord with the theology of Christianity. Particularly with the divinity of Jesus. Knowing this could create discord and upset harmony in the Roman Empire, in 325AD he called for a meeting of the bishops in Nicea. Out of this meeting, Jesus’s divinity was affirmed, and the Nicene Creed was developed.

Constantine still didn’t give up his worship of the sun and in a way merged in his mind Christianity with his sun God worship. For instance, He made the first day of week into a day to worship the sun, a day of rest. To which he made Christian’s move the Sabbath to “Sunday.”

Not only that, he is responsible for making Christmas the 25th of December. In those times the Winter Solstice was thought to be on December the 25th. To honor the birth of the new sun, he made it a feast day. Merging the birth of Christ with the birth of a new sun.

He also was anti-Semitic and thought celebrating Passover was inappropriate for Christians and had Easter replace the Passover. Easter at that time was a feast for springtime fertility.

Once again merging Roman theology with Christian theology.

Constantine held off being baptized until he was near death. Afraid his sins would be taken into account. So even at the end of his life, he bent the rules.

It would easy to say that Constantine wasn’t really a Christian. Perhaps he was just happy that Jesus helped him win an important battle. Maybe that is true. But it is also true that he released Christians from having to worship underground. He supported and created some of the Christian holidays, while in a misguided way. And he did become fully Christian at his death.

It reminds me of the verse that Jesus said to the Apostles, who were complaining about a person who was driving out demons in Jesus’s name but wasn’t one of them. Jesus said; for whoever is not against us is for us.

I think about this verse often.

As humans, we all don’t follow Jesus exactly,  and some stray more than others. And Constantine certainly mangled a lot of Christian theology. But in the end, he was for Christianity and not against it. While some scholars will doubt this an accurate portrayal, I prefer to give Constantine the benefit of the doubt, because I succumb to my own weaknesses on how to follow Jesus. As do others. We all have our shortcomings, but it doesn’t mean we aren’t Christians. It means we sometimes let our human impulses get in the way.

I suppose Jesus is right, not all of us follow exactly as we should; it is more important that we try with all our heart and soul to follow Jesus.

Listen to the Full Podcast – Emperor Constantine

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

Photo by guille pozzi on Unsplash

We love giving credit to budding photographers to help them gain more exposure.

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

Photo by guille pozzi on Unsplash

We love giving credit to budding photographers to help them gain more exposure.

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

We love giving credit to budding photographers to help them gain more exposure.

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

Photo by John Cafazza on Unsplash

We love giving credit to budding photographers to help them gain more exposure.

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

Photo by Alabaster Co on Unsplash

We love giving credit to budding photographers to help them gain more exposure.

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

Photo by Mateus Campos Felipe on Unsplash

We love giving credit to budding photographers to help them gain more exposure.

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

Photo by Jan Tielens on Unsplash

We love giving credit to budding photographers to help them gain more exposure.