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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

4 Bible Heroes Who Were NOT Called

Am I allowed to be a missionary if God didn't "call" me?

I'm defining "God called me" as "God directly commanded me to go do this certain thing." Maybe through placing a thought in my head, with no obvious source. Maybe I have this feeling, like I'm supposed to go do this thing, and then it grows stronger.

I've also previously defined "called" in the following ways:

"out of nowhere, God orders you to do something dumb that you totally don't want to do, but then you HAVE TO because it's GOD."

"I always thought it meant I'm sitting quietly, praying, and suddenly, out of nowhere, I have this thought: 'GO TO CHINA!' And then I'd be like 'ahhhhh nooooooooo!' and begrudgingly re-organize my whole life to go to whatever stupid place God is FORCING ME to go to."

(If you have a different definition, write me a guest post!)

At any rate, "called" means God told you to do this thing. It does not mean that you look at the situation yourself and (possibly through prayer) think it through and come up with a good idea.

And some bible characters were "called" by God to do things. Abraham was called to move to another land. Mary was called to be the mother of Jesus. Samuel was called to be a prophet. Jonah was called to preach in Ninevah. Tons of examples. (Though I wonder if it was really God speaking in an audible voice or the writer just wrote it that way to simplify that part of the story.)

But I've found 4 bible heroes who did huge things THEY WERE TOTALLY NOT CALLED TO DO. Things they decided to do themselves. Things that, when you learn these stories in Sunday School, are definitely presented as wonderful actions done in service to God. But they were not called. Here they are:

4. Hannah (1 Samuel 1)

For a long time, Hannah really wanted to have children, and she was terribly upset about not being able to get pregnant. At one point, she desperately prayed that if God would give her a son, she would give him back to God. And then it happened. She became pregnant and had a baby boy named Samuel, and she took him to the temple and left him there so he could serve God for his whole life. (And Samuel was kind of a big deal. The first of the prophets.)

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She LEFT HER BABY at the temple. Okay, wow, that's a huge crazy thing to do. And she did it because she had promised God she would, if he answered her prayer. It was totally her idea. Not something God told her to do. Not something God "called" her to do. (And I suppose you can debate whether it was a good idea or not, whether it was good parenting or not, but the bible seems to portray it as good in the long run, because Samuel turned out to be really important.)

Somewhat related (okay it's actually kind of the opposite): I have heard Christians say, when talking about a family they know that has adopted foster kids, how great it is to be doing that, and "you really have to be called to it." That adopting foster kids is a big deal and a lot of work, and you mustn't do it unless God calls you. I think this is nonsense, and it really sounds like they're actually making excuses for why their family hasn't adopted any kids.

Like, I definitely do not believe that every Christian family with money is morally obligated to adopt some kids. No, definitely not. Why? Because not everybody has the skills/resources/passion to be good at that. That's a perfectly legitimate reason. "You really have to be called to it" is not.

3. David (when he fought Goliath) (1 Samuel 17)

Goliath, a member of the Philistine army that was fighting against Israel, challenged the Israelite army to send out their strongest soldier to fight him. Unfortunately, Goliath was huge and scary and nobody really wanted to fight him. So day after day, Goliath would yell his challenge at them.

At one point, David, who was young and wasn't actually in the army, happened to be there and heard what Goliath said. He also found out that the king had promised a reward for the person who killed Goliath. David decided to go do it. He reasoned that, as a shepherd, he had killed lions and bears to defend his sheep, so he was physically capable of killing Goliath. Also, Goliath had insulted God, so clearly God would want someone to go challenge him and kill him. So that's what happened- David fought Goliath and killed him.

Goliath also had amazing matrix-moves, didn't you know? Image source.
He was totally NOT "called" by God to do it. He looked at the situation and reasoned that somebody needed to go fight Goliath, and that God would support him because God didn't appreciate Goliath's insults either. God did not order him to do it, God did not call him to do it, but God was definitely with him and gave him success.

2. Esther (Esther 4)

So this bad guy, Haman, convinced the king to make a law saying that on a certain day, everyone could kill the Jews. The Jews were obviously not a fan of this law. The queen, Esther, happened to be Jewish, and after some fasting, praying, and convincing from her cousin Mordecai, decided to go talk to the king about it and save them all. This was a big deal because nobody was allowed to just go talk to the king- she risked her life by coming to see him uninvited. But it worked out- she talked to him and the Jewish people were saved.

God did not order her to talk to the king. God did not "call" her to talk to the king. Instead, she was in a position of power and decided to use it to save her people- even though it was a great risk to her own life. She assessed the situation and used whatever resources/influence she had, and it worked out.

1. Nehemiah (Nehemiah 1-2)

Nehemiah was an Israelite exile living in a foreign country, when he found out the sad news that Jerusalem's walls were ruined. (This is a big deal because it was kind of God's chosen city, a symbol of God's favor toward his people.) Immediately, he was horribly distressed about it, and wept and fasted and prayed. Then he decided to do something about it. Nehemiah was a servant of the king in that country, and he asked the king for permission and supplies to go rebuild the walls. The king totally helped him out with that, and Nehemiah went to Jerusalem, got everything organized, everybody did a ton of work and the walls were rebuilt. (And they thanked God for helping them do it all so successfully.)

God didn't order him to rebuild the walls. God didn't "call" him. He just heard about it and felt really strongly that something had to be done. So he prayed, trusted that God supported the project, and did it.

All four of these people did big things because they saw a problem, they prayed, and they came up with a way to address it- a way that they believed God would support because it was consistent with their view of God. Not because God told them to. They came up with these things on their own.

And that's what I'm doing now. I've been to China, I know that it's awesome and I love it and I don't want to not live there. And learning about other languages and cultures is totally consistent with God's character and his command to love others.

But other Christians keep telling me- sometimes explicitly and sometimes in subtle ways- that I mustn't go if that's my reason. Me discovering the world and determining that I would be happier in China isn't good enough. I can only go if God is MAKING me go.

So I've made my decision. Not because God told me to, but because God showed me this opportunity, and I want it. I'm going to China.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Not a Cliche

Sometimes the bible seems really cliche to me. I can't help it, I've been a Christian my whole life- I have a lifetime of experience in Christian culture with people always reciting the popular bible verses, putting them up against a pastel background on a powerpoint slide, cross-stitching them into pillows...

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And I'm sorry but it gets old and kind of meaningless.

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If anyone could explain how the flowers relate to any of these verses, I would be most grateful. Image source.
All these encouraging verses, ripped from their context, presented as a simple answer to the world's problems. Just putting a good face on stuff as if we're always TOTALLY FINE AND HAPPY when we're Christians.

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(Though I must admit, I really do like a lot of the above images and verses...)

So I read Psalm 57 and yeah, a lot of these verses, I've heard them before. "Be exalted, O God, above the heavens; let your glory be over all the earth," and so on. And my first response (though I'd probably keep it to myself) would be "blah blah blah yeah I've heard that before"- IF I hadn't read the entire psalm.

Because dude, Psalm 57 talks about some scary stuff! "I am in the midst of lions; I am forced to dwell among ravenous beasts- men whose teeth are spears and arrows, whose tongues are sharp swords."

Yikes. Let's see that one pasted onto a photo of a majestic waterfall. Let's use that as the theme verse for our women's conference. Deck it out in pastels and flowers. And we can have the little kids in Sunday School draw lions. Perfect.

Psalm 57 is so odd- it has these 2 seemingly unconnected themes running through it. First, David being in incredible danger from these "lions," his enemies, and he's crying out to God for help. And second, abundant praise and love for God.

What is the connection? Well I guess the connection is that God saved him, so then he praises God? I guess? To me, reading this psalm, they just appear to be completely separate ideas, set there next to each other.

Basically, out of his distress and danger, he was able to say, "My heart, O God, is steadfast," and worship God with so much adoration. And wow, I love that. THAT is authentic. THAT is not a cliche. That is NOT just saying nice things to pretend that there are no problems in the world- no, David was suffering and yet he still praised God.

Wowwwww. Context is everything. A few more examples:

Ever hear the verse, "I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth"? Ah, that's nice, my redeemer lives, obviously we're talking about Jesus, yada yada yada.

Wait, this is Job 19:25? Job? As in, the guy who lost everything he had, and all his kids died, and then his "friends" were like "well obviously this is your fault for being a sinner"? And in Job 19, Job accuses God of doing all this to him...
“Though I cry, ‘Violence!’ I get no response;
    though I call for help, there is no justice.
He has blocked my way so I cannot pass;
    he has shrouded my paths in darkness.
He has stripped me of my honor
    and removed the crown from my head.
He tears me down on every side till I am gone;
    he uproots my hope like a tree.
His anger burns against me;
    he counts me among his enemies.
His troops advance in force;
    they build a siege ramp against me
    and encamp around my tent.
He has alienated my family from me;
    my acquaintances are completely estranged from me.
My relatives have gone away;
    my closest friends have forgotten me.
My guests and my female servants count me a foreigner;
    they look on me as on a stranger.
I summon my servant, but he does not answer,
    though I beg him with my own mouth.
My breath is offensive to my wife;
    I am loathsome to my own family.
Even the little boys scorn me;
    when I appear, they ridicule me.
All my intimate friends detest me;
    those I love have turned against me.
I am nothing but skin and bones;
    I have escaped only by the skin of my teeth."
(Let's cross-stitch some of those on pillows. And you guys, there's a lot more where that came from. Seriously let's get working on those pillows.)

And then, right near the end of the chapter: "I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth." Wow, that verse means something different now, doesn't it?

And have you heard those verses from Philippians? Things like "Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!" and "I can do all things through him who strengthens me." Did you know Paul was IN JAIL when he wrote Philippians?

Jail. JAIL! Image source.
Dude. Dude. When we read the bible, we have to see the good and the bad- or else it comes across like all those Christian cliches which deny the existence of suffering, imply that Christians should hide their problems, and give pat non-answers to those who are hurting.

And wow, Psalm 57 does this really well. The extremes of the good and the bad. "Be exalted, O God, above the heavens," and "I am forced to dwell among ravenous beasts."

As I said in The Bible Is Less Naive Than Me:
I thought the bible presented a naive religion that couldn't handle anybody asking questions about God letting evil things happen. I thought it promised puppies and rainbows and had nothing to say about sickness and tragedy. But nothing could be further from the truth.
The church NEEDS to talk about pain and suffering, because pain and suffering are real.

The church NEEDS to overflow with worship in response God's love and faithfulness, because God's love and faithfulness are real.

The church NEEDS to fight injustice in this world, because the injustice in this world is real.

The church NEEDS to believe in the goodness of God, because the goodness of God is real.

And it is that goodness that will win in the end. God's love and justice will transform this world so there will be no more pain. (Can I get an amen?)

And as we look forward to that, as we join Jesus in his mission to change the world, let's be honest about the good and the bad. Just like Psalm 57.

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This post is part of a link-up on the topic of Psalm 57. To read other people's posts, click here: Breakthrough, A Reflection on Psalm 57.

Monday, May 27, 2013

The Truth Comes Out

Hi readers! Today I'm very excited to be guest-posting for Registered Runaway as part of his "love letters" series.

Go read it here:

The Truth Comes Out

And if you got here from Registered Runaway, you may enjoy these other posts:

Is this my God?

3 Reasons Christians NEED To Support Gay Marriage

From Now On, I'm Breaking the Rules

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Blogaround

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1. Examining Adoption Ethics: Part One (posted May 14) "The missionaries and locals are saying something very disturbing: so often vulnerable birth moms are coerced and misled, families are manipulated and deceived, children are flat out bought. International adoption is Big Business. I’ve read emails describing orphanage directors who paid $20 for birth certificates and $75 to take a baby right out of his mother’s hands."

2. A False Gospel of Reconciliation (posted May 17) "The goal toward which the resurrected Jesus is working in the world right now is not some imaginary peace where people 'reconcile' in name only while the abuse is never stopped and the wrong never righted. No, this is instead a total bending of the violent and unjust world back toward God’s shalom, until it is completely put to rights on the final day."

3. a cartoon for the victims of tornadoes (posted May 20)

4. The legacy of silence: Why we ignore the rape of women from Guatemala to Syria (posted May 13) [trigger warning] "I’ve heard multiple stories that detail honor killings after women have been raped in Syria—a survivor is shot by her own brother/husband/whoever in the family."

5. A letter from a former anorexic to the CEO of Abercrombie and Fitch (posted May 24) "Because beauty is not a number. I know, because I got down to size zero. And it wasn't enough."

6. Is Pope Francis a universalist heretic? (posted May 24) "I think we have a much better chance inviting someone to share in the sacred mysteries of Christ when we’ve sat in the trenches with them and fought for causes that we’ve shared than when we come in and say none of what you’re doing is worthwhile because I haven’t yet presented the gospel to you."

Friday, May 24, 2013

I Never Want to Believe in "Deserved Tragedy"


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Everything in me hopes that Rachel Held Evans is right.

Her post, The abusive theology of "deserved" tragedy, looks at the consequences of the belief that God has so much wrath, and all people deserve hell- and she speaks out strongly against this theology. First of all, she connects it to some pastors' insensitive responses to tragedy; when there is violence or some terrible natural disaster, inevitably some famous pastor will come out and say this is God's judgment and we're getting what we deserve.

Because really, we deserve hell, right? Infinite eternal torture. Oh, your kid died? Well WHATEVER, that's NOTHING compared to the hell you really deserve.

And Evans says no, this is wrong, this is horrible. And all my emotions want to believe her. Because... because how can you look at a grieving parent and... and... imagine that they deserve this?

[trigger warning for the next 2 paragraphs: sexual abuse]

And Evans goes on to relate this to the case against Sovereign Grace Ministries, in which many many people have come forward and told about how, as children, they were sexually abused by ministry leaders, and the organization covered it up, even forcing the children to "forgive" their abusers, who were still free to victimize others.

Many bloggers have linked this horrific child abuse cover-up to the theology preached by Sovereign Grace Ministries. We are all sinners who deserve hell. So if you got abused, I mean, really you deserve worse. So seriously just get over it. You sin, your abuser sins, what's the difference?

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But it is the end of Evans's post which is the most powerful. Again and again, with many examples, she says no one deserves these tragedies. And then this:
You are not worthless. You are not disposable. You are not merely the object of God’s wrath.  You do not deserve to be abused.
Let me say that again: 

You do not deserve to be abused.

You do not deserve to be threatened. You do not deserve to suffer. You do not deserve to be hated.
You are profoundly, infinitely, and intimately known and loved. You are valuable. You are precious. You matter.
God doesn’t hate this world. God loves this world—enough to become a part of it, enough to suffer along with it, enough to weep with it, enough to work through it until one day every tear will be wiped from every eye.
And I read this and cheered and amened. Yes! Yes!

This is what I want to preach and shout from the rooftops. And indeed, on my own blog, I've been writing similar things, with posts like Good News?, The End of My Gnostic Faith, You Are Not Gum, and probably others that aren't coming to mind at the moment.

And it makes so much sense to me, it resonates with my heart, it means I should just go love people instead of twisting "love" into some convoluted thing about telling people why they're wrong.

This. This is what I want to be true. This is what I want Christianity to be about. If this is who God is, then I want to run to him as fast as I can and sign my name- oh Lord Jesus, I will follow you wherever you go.

But... is it true?

All the posts I've written along these lines, I wrote because it just makes so much SENSE. But still I doubt...

Because it just makes so much sense, and feels so right, supported with every emotion I have- so it can't be right, can it? Because, as I was told, the gospel is offensive. And people are always trying to water down the gospel into some feel-good message.

So we should be highly suspicious of anyone who presents the Christianity in a way that truly sounds like good news.

Right.

A few weeks ago, I posted a link on my Facebook, to a blog post written by a gay Christian. And one of my Facebook friends commented something to the effect of, "What this person is saying, about Christians coming alongside gay people to help them and listen and not judge them, it sounds all good and nice, but don't forget our God is a God of wrath."

A God of wrath? Is it true? Is that God?

And I think of all the Old Testament prophets that Christians seem to very rarely read. Prophesying destruction and war and things so horrible that whenever I'm trying to sum up one of these passages, I can't help but censor it... And it's all punishment for sin.

But what is sin? Is it me breaking one of God's rules, which is bad because God said so, for more or less arbitrary reasons, or is it me hurting someone, which is bad because I'm hurting a person that God loves?

Maybe "God's wrath" doesn't mean "hey you sin sometimes so God thinks you're worthless and deserving of eternal torture- and yes this applies to everyone." Maybe it means God sees the destruction in our world, he sees the evil that people do to each other, and he loves us so much that he weeps and gets angry at those who perpetuate the violence and injustice- angry that anyone would hurt a person so valuable, so loved by God.

And even as I write this, I'm astonished at this picture of God I've been slowly working towards and hinting at, which is becoming clearer and clearer, especially because of Rachel Held Evans's post. A God who loves like that- seriously, where do I sign up to commit my life to him?

But can it be true? What about hell? Well, if this is true, then hell CANNOT be what I always thought it was. Because if this is true, people do not deserve hell. People are GOOD, created in the image of God, and deserve love and respect and dignity and equality. And people are BAD, with a sinful nature, deserving of punishment but no, not eternal punishment. Not torture. Not hell. Nothing like that.

Does the bible support this view of God? Well, I'll have to see. Because ya know, I never thought it did. Because I'd always read the bible through this lens containing God's enormous love against a backdrop of hell and sin and the punishment we all supposedly deserve. But I'll keep reading, and see if I can find a different God in there.

It sounds too good to be true. But all my life, as a Christian, I've claimed to believe in a God who is loving and just. And what else could that mean, besides this conclusion I have reached: That people do not deserve hell. People do not deserve tragedy and suffering and abuse. And that God suffers with us- he understands, he's not so far away. He came to earth and lived as a human being and suffered and died- and then lived again. And he will renew this whole world and bring the justice and freedom and healing that we long for.

If it's true, if this is God, then I will lay down my life and follow him to the ends of the earth.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

6 Ways I'll Face My Fear of Flying


Good news! I'm moving to China soon!

Bad news... I'm sort of afraid of flying. Like, just kind of moderately afraid... it's never stopped me from buying a plane ticket and getting on a plane, but seriously, all through the flight I'm trying not to think we're about to just fall out of the sky.

Good news! I have flown a lot. I've been to China twice, so, ya know, that's 4 13-hour flights right there, plus whatever silly places we needed to stop for layovers. Seriously, coming back from my first trip to China, I took 5 flights in like 48 hours and by the end I was like, okay let's just take off and land already, I am SO OVER this "fear of flying" thing.

All right. So. Here are Perfect Number's 6 tips on dealing with fear of flying:
  1. Statistics. Okay so in the United States, 28000 commercial planes take off and land every day and ALL OF THEM ARE FINE. (Couldn't find a super-legit-looking webpage that said this, so here are 3 mediocre ones which agree. And tsa.gov says 1.8 million passengers pass through US airports every day.) Seriously. ALL OF THEM ARE FINE. Like, we've heard news stories of plane crashes, but just think about all the days you DON'T hear stories of plane crashes. Yep. Each of those days, 1.8 million people are FINE.
  2. The pilot. The pilot has probably flown this exact route hundreds of times. Also, the pilot and whoever else is up front have a whole bunch of safety things to keep an eye on. They're not just going to accidentally not pay attention and the plane falls out of the sky. Remember, they are also interested in not dying in a plane crash.
  3. Engineering! A lot of people spent a lot of time building the plane and thinking of everything that could go wrong and how to put backups in place. This isn't like hopping in a barrel to go over Niagara Falls. This is decades of engineering, mandatory inspections, redundant systems. (And I think the more I learn about the technology behind passenger planes, the more obvious it will be that they are not just going to fall out of the sky.)
  4. Don't read the "emergency information card in your seat back pocket." Don't pay attention to the safety talk from the flight attendants. If you've flown before and you've already heard it, then there's no point to focusing your attention on worst-case scenarios. You already know the spiel. Use your seat cushion as a floatie. The nearest exit might be behind you. Put your own oxygen mask on first. You should generally know the information, but beyond that, DO NOT let your mind imagine horrible emergency situations and how much you are going to die. (Although, every now and then a plane has a problem but IT'S STILL FINE. Like this one, which had to do a belly-landing because its landing gear wasn't working. And EVERYONE WAS FINE. A little bumpy, but IT'S FINE. The pilots and flight attendants are trained for this kind of stuff.) Seriously, if it's going to make you panic, tune out during the safety talk.
  5. When there's turbulence or the plane seems to be tilting WAAAAYYY too much, look over at the flight attendants. Look how much they don't care. Seriously. They're just walking around acting like everything's normal. They've probably experienced a bunch of turbulence a million times and they know it's nothing to worry about.
  6. Just relax and think happy thoughts. Read a book. Try to forget the fact that you're flying through the air at hundreds of miles an hour, shoved in a metal tube with a bunch of strangers. I mean, if you're gonna die in a plane crash, it's not like there's anything you can do to stop it. Might as well just forget about the plane and read a book. OH ACTUALLY, wow Perfect Number, let's try to spin this in a more positive way. Ahem. During the flight, you might want to marvel at the amazingness of modern technology, allowing us to travel all the way around the world in a matter of hours. Oh isn't that wonderful! Think of the cultural exchange that takes place, think of all the awesome things made possible by air travel. And oh my goodness, you can be part of it! You can experience this fantastic phenomenon for yourself! They sell tickets!
All right wish me luck because I'm going to have to use all these tips in a few weeks!

One more thing: Seriously, check out flightradar24.com for a real-time map of planes currently in the air. There are TONS. And ALL OF THEM ARE FINE.

Also, I'd like to point out that several of these tips are very meaningful for me because I'm a math and engineering person. I wonder if other people are as moved as I am by the statistics and the engineering things. So please tell me in the comments: Are you afraid of flying? How do you deal with it?

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Why I Don't Trust God

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"In God I trust and am not afraid.
    What can man do to me?"
        -Psalm 56:11


I used to believe that. I used to believe it with everything in me. It was my whole life, it was everything. Trust in God. It gave meaning to all I did.

"What can man do to me?" What can anyone or anything do to me? God is on my side. God is in control. Nothing can happen to me unless God allows it, and he is with me all the time, and he loves me and he knows me better than anyone. Oh how I trusted him.

No fear. I can face anything. With God, I am strong and independent. Untouchable.

But...

And I feel so bad saying this, but I don't trust God anymore.

Why? Because my gall bladder failed. And I was sick and in pain for 2 months while doctors tried to figure it out. And I had surgery and the gall bladder is gone and the pain went away but... but now it's almost a year later and I'm not back to where I was before. Being sick and unable to do anything for months brought a bunch of other consequences into my life. Delayed my graduation. I felt like a failure for not being in China- I was sure I would be moving to China a year ago. And I'm dealing with depression and anxiety too.

I feel like right now, things are getting better. (I finally got a job in China, by the way, and I'll move there soon.) Health is getting better. I guess.

But see, I can't trust God.

Or at least, I can't trust him to not let my own stupid organs turn against me and completely derail my life for 2 months and I'm still not fully recovered a year later... I can't trust him for that.

And I'm not telling this story so everyone is like "oh my gosh Perfect Number, I'm so sorry." Gall bladder surgery is not really a big deal, apparently it's pretty common... well, not for people who are 23... I know other people have problems much worse than mine. And see, they can't trust God to keep them safe from those problems either.

So when we talk about "trusting God," I need that defined better. Trust him to DO WHAT?

(Oh, right. I know the answer for this one- God doesn't give us a guarantee that he won't let bad things happen, but he does promise to be with us through it all. Oh, great, thanks. What's the point of that? If he doesn't actually do anything for real, just tries to make me feel better or something. Yeah, not helpful.)

And ya know, right when I first got sick, I wondered if God had a reason for it. Why was this happening to me? I had a couple guesses- maybe God wanted me to stay in the United States a little longer, for various reasons. But I don't believe in that anymore- I don't believe in trying to come up with reasons for bad things, I don't believe in any explanations about how God caused this bad thing to happen so that this other good thing could come from it. I believe God redeems, but I don't believe he did this to me on purpose so I could learn and become a better person and all that garbage.

So whatever. I don't know. I don't trust God- I used to, I want to, but I don't even know what that's supposed to mean. 

And this post is a little angry, but I'm actually optimistic about this- I am reworking my definitions of faith and trust. I'll totally blog about that soon. I'll have faith again, somehow.

But for now, I don't trust God.

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This post is part of a link-up on the topic of Psalm 56. To read other people's posts, click here: This I know, God is for me.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Blogaround

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1. “What Atheists Wish Christians Knew” (posted May 12) "You don't know us better than we know ourselves."

2. Psalm 55- Betrayed (posted May 14) "Instead he starts off the service with a word on the same-sex marriage bill that passed the house last week. ...I hear him start with the disclaimer- that I matter to God... but then it is like I don’t matter to God."

3. Is God's presence limited to Scripture? (posted May 14) "Furthermore, to limit the presence of Jesus to the words of Scripture, as if Christ’s presence is restricted to paper and ink, is to deny the resurrection of all its power. Christ is not merely an historical figure that we read about, a person from the past to whom we make intellectual assent. Christ is alive! Christ is present! Christ is directly accessible to all who believe!"

4. The Afterlife of Cheap Clothes (posted June 2012) "In the rag-cut room, two men were silently pushing T-shirts, dresses, and every other manner of apparel into a compressor that works like the back of a garbage truck, squeezing out neat cubes of rejected clothing that weigh a half ton each." What happens when you donate used clothing.

5. Check Your Privilege Alert: #FitchTheHomeless (posted May 15) "I don’t think that’s particularly empowering to a group of people to know that they’ve been designated at the bottom of the totem pole and even the people that are presumably trying to help them agree with that designation."

6. The Incredible Power of Concentration (posted May 16) Step 1: Watch this video. Step 2: Pick your jaw up off the floor.

7. help or harm? power, intent, & objectification #FitchTheHomeless (posted May 16) "This kind of drive-by 'charity' looks a lot like degradation to me, and I can think of a few things homeless people need more than an Abercrombie tee shirt shoved at them by a stranger with a video camera."

8. Christian denominations and marriage equality: A simple quiz (posted May 16) "1. Does your denomination regard marriage as a sacrament? If 'yes,' see Answer A below."

9. Ask a Recovering Alcoholic...(Response) (posted May 16) "I wish more pastors didn’t still view addiction in primarily moral terms. Yes, addictive behaviors often begin with a moral failing like selfishness or overindulgence. But full-blown addiction involves physiological and psychological components that go beyond sin or even choice. Trying harder, reading the Bible more, or praying more are rarely the solution."

Friday, May 17, 2013

Pro Tip: Beheading People is Wrong

So, remember John the Baptist? He was pretty great. Unfortunately, in Matthew 14:1-12 he gets beheaded.

But nobody wants to see a picture of that. Instead, enjoy this lawn gnome. Image source.

So before we actually get into the content of this passage, let's clarify the timeline. Here is how the passage is structured:
  • Verses 1-2: Herod hears about Jesus and thinks Jesus must be John the Baptist raised from the dead.
  • Verses 3-5: Herod arrests John.
  • Verses 6-12: Herod ends up beheading John.
So it seems that verses 3-12 are a flashback, a clarification of Herod's thoughts in verses 1-2. As far as how this fits in with the previous and next chapters of Matthew, I'm not really sure- though remember John was in prison back in chapter 11. Beyond that, the chronology is unclear. (Though writers of the time tended to prioritize grouping similar events rather than making sure everything was written down in the exact order it happened.)

So anyway. Here are the details of what's going on in this passage:

Herod arrests John the Baptist

So apparently Herod stole his brother's wife, and John was not a fan of that. And John kind of got in trouble for speaking his mind about it. Matthew's account says, "Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of the people, because they considered John a prophet." Mark's gospel says, "So Herodias [the wife] nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to, because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him."

So Herod seems a little torn over what to do with John.

And then things turn bad.

So, Herod had a party, and Herodias's daughter danced and Herod was so impressed that he offered her anything she wanted. So obviously her mother, an upstanding role model, makes her ask for John's head on a platter.

So what's Herod going to do? "The king [Herod] was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he ordered that her request be granted and had John beheaded in the prison."

Well, eww.

It seems like Herod really didn't want to do it, but all these people just saw him make a promise and he can't take it back. (Which seems a bit odd to me- if you're at a fancy dinner, and someone gets beheaded... doesn't that kind of reflect BADLY on the host?)

An important dimension to consider here is culture. I know that Asian culture is very honor/shame-based, much different from Western/American culture. And the ancient Middle East was more honor/shame-based than the modern American culture I come from. So for Herod to make a promise and not do it- even if it was something terrible- was probably a much bigger deal in that culture than it seems to American readers.

(Okay now I have to define what I mean by "honor/shame-based." At the risk of over-simplifying and stereotyping, I'll define it like this: When someone makes a very obvious failure in front of others, they carry a lot of shame for that. And when someone directly addresses someone's wrongdoing or mistake, it comes across as insulting and can ruin the relationship. So communication is indirect and conflict is hidden, or maybe just expressed in more subtle ways that drive me crazy when I'm in China. I MEAN SERIOUSLY why don't people just SAY what they wanna say? No, actually it's fine and all cultures are beautiful and I love China but this is something I need to adapt better to.)

SO ANYWAY. Now we move on to the question that has haunted me my whole life: What should Herod have done?

I remember reading this passage many years ago, and wondering for a long time what Herod should have done. He had made a promise to give the girl whatever she wanted. When you make a promise, you have to do it.

But that would mean killing John the Baptist! And Herod really didn't want to kill John. When he made that promise, he didn't mean it like that.

So what can he do? You CAN'T break a promise. You just CAN'T. But but but... he doesn't want to kill John...

Probably something else you need to know here: My way of thinking is super-literal and rigid. (Related: I have Asperger's and I'm totally going to blog about that at some point.) So I just had this idea in my head that you CAN'T break a promise- you just CAN'T. I didn't think "well let's weigh the consequences here: breaking a promise, or murder..." because you just CAN'T break a promise.

She said, "Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist." And yes, all those years ago, I came up with a loophole, a way that Herod could keep his promise, AND not kill John.

All right, ready? Here it comes.

Image source.

I went the literal genie route. You know, sometimes in fairy tales there's a genie who promises to grant a wish, and they take the request far too literally and the wisher ends up with something completely different than what they wanted.

So, Herod should have taped a platter onto John's chin- you know, with John fully alive and intact, and then brought him out to say hi to the girl, and that's that. Nobody gets killed, but there you have his head on a platter.

Success!
Image source.

Umm, right. So, haha, no that's not what I think of this story now. (Though seriously, that WAS literally my thought process at one time.) Because now I think it is okay to break a promise under certain circumstances. (Such as when you accidentally promise to murder someone. Also, please lie to Nazis.) Herod should have just been like, "no, actually when I said 'ask for anything' I didn't mean it like that, sorry for the confusion, what do you want instead?"

Also, when I think of this story of Herod and John the Baptist, I can't help but relate it to the story of Jephthah and his daughter in Judges 11, a similar bible story which occurred hundreds of years before Matthew 14.

Jephthah was the leader of Israel's army. Before the battle, he made a vow to God- if God gives them victory, Jephthah would go home and sacrifice the first thing that came out of his house.

So, they won the battle. And Jephthah went home and his daughter came out to meet him. Well darn.

So yeah he killed her.

Actually I have heard some less gory interpretations where he took her to the temple to serve there for life (kind of like Hannah and Samuel?) but... I don't know about that...

But really, what was he supposed to do, break a promise to God?

YES!

YES! ALL DAY LONG! Because I don't believe in a God who is pleased when people sacrifice their freaking children!

(Umm but what about the thing with Abraham and Isaac? I don't know, man, that was just weird and messed-up.)

All right, to sum this all up, I would like to quote from Slacktivist's post on Jephthah's daughter:
What impresses me in this commentary is the rabbis’ condemnation of Jephthah’s vow as “not valid.” That’s quite different from the way I was taught this story in my own evangelical/fundamentalist Christian tradition, in which this story is almost always referred to as that of “Jephthah’s Rash Vow.”

That word — “rash” — is treated as the key point of this story, which is presented as a cautionary tale against imprudent or reckless promises. I don’t recall ever hearing a Sunday sermon on the story of Jephthah, but I probably heard a half-dozen Sunday school or Bible class lessons, and all of them pointed to this as the moral of this immoral story: Don’t make rash vows, because you will be bound by them just like Jephthah was.

And that’s monstrous — almost as horrifying as the original story. Those well-meaning Sunday school teachers all assumed, as Jephthah did, that he was absolutely bound by his vow, no matter what. And thus they all repeated Jephthah’s error — assuming that such vows and rules might somehow matter more than the life of Jephthah’s daughter.

That seems to me to be precisely the opposite of what this brutal little story actually illustrates. It shows us the lethal ignorance and sinful pride of remaining “inflexible.” The story of Jephthah is the story of everyone who decides that vows and codes and rules must be absolute. That way of thinking always ends in death.
(click here to read the whole thing)

Well-said. Herod should have said no. Jephthah should have said no. Murder is wrong, and no amount of promises or social pressure can change that.

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This post is part of a series on the gospel of Matthew.

Previous post: Sell Everything (Matthew 13:44-58)

Next post: Jesus' Time Management (Matthew 14:13-36)

Click here to go to the beginning of the series.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

"Where were you when it mattered?"

Image source.

A week ago I read Hemant Mehta's post Is It Okay for Christians to Support Marriage Equality Long After the Rest of Us?, and couldn't stop thinking about it. Why has it taken Christians so long to come around and support marriage equality? (As I've said before, I believe Christians MUST do this precisely BECAUSE Christianity is about loving others, which means listening to what they say they need and taking that seriously.) Why has the church been the main obstacle in the way of equality on this issue?

In Mehta's post (seriously, go read the whole thing), he discusses the fact that recently many Christian leaders have voiced support for marriage equality- but it would have been nice if they had done so BEFORE now, before the "tipping point." Currently, it seems that most Americans- even opponents of marriage equality- agree that it will inevitably be law in the United States. We're past the "tipping point" in the legal sense.

Better late than never, but "where were you when it mattered?"

I have a few things to say about that. First of all, it still DOES matter. There are many many issues affecting gay people besides marriage equality. Gay marriage may be legal, but LGBT people face discrimination in so many other ways in their day-to-day lives. Gay students are bullied and have a high rate of suicide. The very act of coming out is difficult and many people fear rejection- some children are even kicked out by their parents after revealing they are gay. The laws may change, but we still live in a culture where these totally horrible things happen. And that needs to change.

And it matters in the church. So, I'm a Christian, and you have no idea how many arguments I've had with other Christians, now that I found out gay people are real people who, ya know, actually matter and deserve equality and respect. There is SO MUCH IGNORANCE within the church, and it's so wrong. Christian leaders declaring their support for marriage equality may not have an effect in terms of the legal battle for gay marriage, but it does get them in a lot of trouble with other Christians. But it's the right thing to do.

I can't imagine what it's like to be an LGBT Christian. To want so much to follow Jesus, but fear that other Christians will reject you if they really knew you. And to the LGBT Christians out there, you all are my heroes.

And the church desperately needs more people to stand up and say, "We need to support gay rights and love gay people, accepting them unconditionally, because they are PEOPLE and I think the bible may have mentioned something about loving people."

----------------------

So yes, this still matters. But Mehta also says in his post that the church can never claim they helped advance gay rights. Christians can never claim we led the fight for equality and justice on this issue. Actually, we were the main opposition.

And he's right. And I'm ashamed to say that for a long time, I opposed all of the gay rights.

Why? Why has the church been the biggest obstacle here? Well I have a theory. There are 2 things present in Christian culture (or maybe just evangelical culture? not sure- my background is evangelical), and it's a dangerous combination:
  1. Absolute faith in what pastors/ Christian leaders say.
  2. Incredible skepticism toward regular people's accounts of their own personal experiences, emotions, and beliefs.
There are tons of Christian leaders out there that want to tell you "God's way" to do something. Or "the biblical way." "The Christian way." Etc. And for a long time I never questioned. I thought, hey they must be right, because they're Christians and they're presenting this as OBVIOUSLY the way that GOD HIMSELF wants things to be.

So what happens when I go into the real world and get to know people and find that their life experiences do not match what I was taught in church?

Suppose I meet an atheist who says they are content with their life. They're happy and they don't feel like they're missing anything by not having religion. Well... in church I was told that's not possible. "There's a God-shaped hole in everyone's heart." There's no way they're really content with life.

And what if I meet someone who says, "I had sex back in high school and I don't regret it"? Or "I had an abortion and I don't regret it- it really was the right choice for me at the time"? How can this be? In church they said people would always regret it...

What if I meet a gay person who says they didn't choose to be gay?

What if I meet a same-sex couple with children, and they say their family is healthy and loving?

What if I meet someone who says they were raised Christian and lost their faith and tried so hard to be a Christian but... it didn't happen?

And the truth is, since I spend so much time blogging and reading other people's blogs, I have met all of these people online. And in some sense I've gotten to know them.

And there's a choice, when an evangelical Christian encounters real people who do not fit the narratives we were told in church. We can either stand strong for the truth, or let our emotions lead us astray, deceived by the world. Oh wait. No, what I meant to say is, we can either shut our eyes and ears to reality, or have love and compassion for people and work hard to understand them, like Jesus did.

Image source.

But far too often, Christians DON'T listen. Instead, they conclude that this complete stranger is lying about their own personal life. Christians, including me, have argued "no no, deep down you really DO believe in God." Christians have told gay people "you just need to repent and God will change you." We have heard of people's struggles and difficulties and said "well you just didn't pray hard enough."

Either there's a world-wide conspiracy, and everyone who claims to have experienced something that doesn't match up with what I was taught about Christianity is lying, or maybe I should have some empathy and re-examine my beliefs. (Though the "world-wide conspiracy" thing finds some support in the whole "all people have a sinful nature" thing. You know, all people except those Christian leaders who claim "THIS IS GOD'S WAY TO DO IT!")

So, in summary: I hypothesize that it has taken so long for prominent Christian leaders to support marriage equality, and the church has stood in the way, because Christians believe we already have all the answers. We already know all there is to know about everyone's personal life and we would like to give them advice on what to do.

And that was the case for me too. I read story after story about what coming out is like, what it's like to discover that you're LGBT, how the church has misunderstood and hurt the very people Jesus loves- story after story after story, with immense skepticism, before I was willing to consider that maybe everything the Christian propaganda machine told me about "the homosexuals" was a bunch of bullshit.

Please, Christians, let's stop this. Please, let's be like Jesus. Empathy, love, humility.

Get your head out of your own personal interpretation of the bible, and go love people.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

I Used to Argue with Atheists

Image source.

I used to argue with atheists. All the time. Back when I thought I knew everything, back when I thought all Christians believed all the same things (and anyone who differed was not a "real Christian"). Back when I thought being right was the most important thing, and I wanted to change people's minds so they'd believe in Jesus.

I knew all the answers. I could tell you all about the evidence for the resurrection. I could argue against evolution. I believed dating was dangerous and did my best to shut down my attractions. I could recite all the arguments for how a loving God could send people to hell. I knew all there was to know about Jesus' death, about the bible, about God's justice. I could argue about how gay marriage would be a slippery slope to destroying society. I argued for the existence of God, for Jesus' transformation in people's lives, for every human being's NEED to know God.

Because that was the most important thing. People need to be Christians, so Jesus can change their life and bring healing and freedom, and so they don't go to hell.

Christians on one side, non-Christians on the other. Christians had all the answers, and that's what mattered. Being right.

Image source.
And oh how things changed.

It's a long story, but I'm a Christian feminist now. And I believe bringing the kingdom of God to earth is far more important than convincing everyone of the facts about God. What is the "kingdom of God"? I believe it's the way God intended the world to be: justice, freedom, love, peace, respect equality. With no corrupt governments, no senseless death, no oppression, no violence.

And oh, I still argue. I argue that Christians need to support all the gay rights. I argue that hell doesn't make sense because why would God have people tortured for believing incorrect information about him? And I will not for a moment tolerate "oh this person's not a real Christian because they said this."

I argue that we all must LISTEN to those who are different from us, rather than telling them we know all the answers for their lives.

But when I argue these things, I'm arguing with Christians.

And they tell me I'm not following the bible. And they tell me I've been led astray by the world.

And they probably think I've "fallen away" and I'm not a "real Christian."

And that hurts. That hurts more than any argument I've ever had with an atheist. It hurts more than being told I'm irrational for believing in God. It hurts more than all the times I've shared how I experience God and people told me it wasn't real.

As Psalm 55:12-14 says,
If an enemy were insulting me,
    I could endure it;
if a foe were rising against me,
    I could hide.
But it is you, a man like myself,
    my companion, my close friend,
with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship
    at the house of God,
as we walked about
    among the worshipers.
Why can't you see I'm just trying to follow Jesus? I want to love God and love others- the greatest commandments. Why won't you listen? You're so sure you know what the bible says, so I'm just wrong, no need to actually listen.

My friends, my evangelical Christian friends- you KNOW me. You KNOW how much I love the bible and how hard I've worked to follow God. Am I suddenly not a Christian because I voted for Obama? Am I suddenly not a Christian because I believe gay people actually matter and are part of the body of Christ? Am I suddenly not a Christian because I believe teaching girls about purity and modesty is a bunch of garbage?

And now I argue- not to defend doctrine, but to defend people. And I think that's what Jesus would want.

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This post is part of a link-up on the topic of Psalm 55. To read other people's posts, click here: Psalm 55: aka, Praying While Wishing Others Were Buried Alive.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Blogaround

Baby prairie dogs. Image source.

1. Gay pride festivals: a real-life follow-up. (posted May 5) "There were a lot of families there, and bounce houses for the kids."

2. Jonathan Frakes proves that someone can get away with anything for years if they’re smooth enough. (posted May 9) Wowwwww. I'm a trekkie and NEVER noticed this. This is hilarious.

3. Baby Duck Can't Stay Awake. ADORABLE.


4. Trauma Recovery Not About the ‘Story' (posted May 10) "We’re here to support you, we’re so sorry this happened to you and how can we support you? Those are the most important things to say (to the survivors)."

5. We built a well! (posted May 9) "Thanks to your help, people here are walking significantly less every day to collect water. This means each family now can use up to 15 liters per person per day! Most importantly, the water they bring home each day is safe enough to drink."

6. Baby Tortoises.


7. The Troubling Viral Trend of the “Hilarious” Black Neighbor (posted May 7) "Ramsey’s heroism is quickly being overshadowed by the public’s desire to laugh at and autotune his story, and that’s a shame."

8. In this corner: Justice! And in this corner: Love! (posted 2011) "The argument continues to assert that we should not rely too heavily on God’s Love, because that would make God out to be a wussy hippie. And if you emphasize too much of God’s Justice, you make him out to be a pathological warmonger."

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Sell Everything

Image source.

In Matthew 13:44-58, we have a few parables, then Jesus' rejection in his hometown.

The Parables of the Hidden Treasure and the Pearl

These two parables are basically the same idea. In the first one, a man found treasure in a field, and sold all he had and bought the field. In the second, a man found a very valuable pearl, and sold all he had to buy the pearl.

(These parables are the same, right? Or is there some subtle difference in what each of them is trying to communicate?)

And I'm just now realizing I've always misinterpreted these 2 parables. See, the treasure and the pearl are supposed to represent the kingdom of heaven. And Jesus says it's worth it to sell all you have- with great joy- in order to get involved with the kingdom of heaven.

I used to think the treasure and pearl symbolized Jesus, or a personal relationship with God. And certainly in other places, the bible says it's worth all you have to know Christ.  But that's not what these particular parables say.

Selling all you have in order to find the kingdom of heaven and be part of it. And what is the kingdom of heaven? Well, as I've said before, I believe it's God's work and God's people both on earth and in heaven. It's justice and freedom and healing and forgiveness and love. It's "the first will be last and the last will be first." It's feeding the hungry, helping the poor, setting the captives free. It's following Christ's example.

So perhaps the message of the parables of the hidden treasure and the pearl is that this is worth all you have. Dedicate your life to bringing God's kingdom to this earth. Partner with Jesus to fight the evils in this world and restore everything to the way God intended. Help people. Love the world.

Which is far different from "give all you have to get Jesus." I definitely believe Jesus brings dramatic transformation to one's individual life, and I've experienced that (and highly recommend it!)- and perhaps this is the first step towards working for the kingdom of God. But the kingdom of God is far bigger than my own individual life.

The Parable of the Fish in the Net

The next parable about the kingdom of heaven describes a net catching many fish, and then the fishermen sort them into good and bad. Similarly, Jesus says, there will be a final judgment, and "The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."

Umm. So, I don't like that. I've mentioned before that I really really REALLY don't want to believe in hell. (For lots of reasons, which I'll probably put in a blog post someday.) But it sounds like Jesus is talking about hell here. So, umm, apply the brakes to my not-believing-in-hell thing.

BUT. This passage does NOT say hell is infinite torture. It does NOT say hell is eternal. It does NOT say everyone in hell gets punished equally. It does NOT say the criteria for heaven or hell is believing the correct religion.

It says the "wicked" will be separated from the "righteous." What does traditional Christian teaching about "you can't earn your salvation" and "saved by faith alone" have to say about that?

So I will continue to stubbornly cling to my skepticism abut hell, until I get these questions answered. Because really, it doesn't make sense.

Because how do we integrate these 2 teachings about the kingdom of heaven found in this passage? It's worth sacrificing all you have, to help others and restore the world to the way God intended it. Oh, but some people don't make the cut, so screw them.

Uh... Ideas, anyone?

Bringing out of the Storeroom

The last parable is, "Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old."

Sounds like the kingdom of heaven preserves some old things and introduces new things. Sounds pretty good. (Yes? If anyone has another interpretation of this parable, let me know.)

Rejected

So Jesus goes to his hometown and starts preaching, and people don't really take him seriously because come on, we know his family and where he came from, how can he be something special? 
I mean, he's a carpenter, remember? Image source.

"And he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith." A long time ago, I found this to be a very puzzling statement. Why not do miracles? That should convince them, right? Or is it saying that these people are so stubborn that they won't pay attention to any miracles? Or is is saying that Jesus' "miracles" were just tricks for gullible people, and those who lacked "faith" wouldn't be fooled?

But now I see it completely different. Everybody believes what they believe for a TON of reasons. A lot of people have a lifetime of experience following a certain religion, and you're not going to change that in a day, with a couple miracles. (You're not going to change that in one online argument either.)

Some people are at a stage in their life where they're unsure about what they believe and they're looking for answers. Those are the people who will be convinced by miracles. The people who at least had enough faith to investigate who Jesus was.

So if the people in Jesus' hometown have a deeply internalized view that says Jesus can't be anything special, well, it's not like he can change that so fast. It's a change that can happen gradually, and maybe doing some miracles right then and there wouldn't help at all.

Soooooooo the moral of the story is to be realistic. If someone believes something that's wrong or even harmful, you're not going to change their mind in some sudden display of force. It has to be gradual. You have to respect them.

And as for the summary of this passage: Give all you have for the kingdom of God. Perfect Number is confused about hell. And people's beliefs are deep and complicated. :)

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This post is part of a series on the gospel of Matthew.

Previous post: Jesus and Gardening (Matthew 13:24-43)

Next post: Pro Tip: Beheading People is Wrong (Matthew 14:1-12)

Click here to go to the beginning of the series.

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