Religion is a bad word

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There is a famous quote by Mao Tse Tung where he says, “Religion is poison”. Whatever you believe about the motive behind Mao’s quote, it may come as a surprise to many that people who follow Jesus are in complete agreement with this. Or at least what we call “the spirit of religion”. The spirit of religion teaches that if you engage in certain practices and hold certain beliefs, then you will be saved. It is the exact opposite of the Kingdom of God, which is characterised by grace through a relationship.

While trying to remember the actual Mao quote (and how to spell his name correctly) I found a website where a lot of people were commenting saying things like, “religion is responsible for thousands of deaths and it brings division between people by its very definition.” another person said that “religion gives us a reason to hate each other”. Others said “all religion is a means of control”. The spirit of religion is the very thing that people hate about any form of… let’s call it organised faith.

A proper response for me is not to put my head in the sand or rant and rave at how “wrong” they are. I don’t think all people that say this stuff are necessarily attacking Christianity for some hidden agenda. People in different religions have been hateful, controlling, divisive, judgemental and downright cruel over the ages. But then again so has everyone else. And if Christians can be like this then what they believe may be effectively worthless. If we act like everyone else then what good is our belief? Ouch.

But not all Christians are like that. Fact is, if evil is perpetrated in the name of Christianity, then that person doesn’t understand Jesus at all. It’s a subtle and insidious idea. Putting Christianity before Christ.

Israel at the time of Jesus was very theocratic. The chief priests in Jerusalem had a lot of power and authority in society. However they couldn’t carry out death sentences because Rome had conquered them. They were meant to be the most knowledgeable about God. The best teachers about Him. Jesus called them hypocrites and whitewashed tombs. They led people into slavery to their tradition and practices. According to them, only through doing what they taught can anyone be close to God. That is the spirit of religion, of self-righteousness. Religion builds itself up and seeks to punish.

Jesus didn’t say that he knew the right way. He said he is the way. To grasp what he was on about requires a fundamental shift in thinking. A shift from being a slave to practices and requirements, to entering into a living dynamic relationship. Some might say, “If God is all about love then what does it matter if we do something bad?” This is how the religious spirit wants to scare the world.

Now think about a love relationship. If you love your husband or wife, nobody needs to tell you to not commit adultery. You just won’t, because you love them. Yep, God is holy and hates sin. His answer to sin and evil is love. We respond to love like nothing else. That kind of love makes me want to be a better man. Not because I think being better will get me to heaven. But because Jesus opened the door to heaven for me already, and I want to be a good friend to him because of it.

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Who is Jeff Hanneman?

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I wonder who will read this? There will be a few people here because we go to the same church. Most of them will have no clue who Jeff Hanneman is. And then other readers will pull their hair out at the fact that someone might not know who he is. So I guess I better get the introductions out of the way.

Jeff Hanneman is a founding member of one of the world’s most well-known metal bands – Slayer. Slayer is one of the esteemed “Big 4” San Francisco Bay Area thrash bands that include Anthrax, Megadeth and Metallica. I’m sure everyone knows at least one of those bands. Unfortunately Jeff passed away on 2 May, a few weeks ago, at the age of 49.

Now full disclosure: I’ve never been a huge Slayer fan. I do however love the other members of the Big Four (at least their early stuff). I think most metal guys can be drawn into two broad categories, which I’ve dubbed “Punk” and “Prog”. I’m unashamedly Prog. Most guitar players are. Those on the Punk side love their metal brutal, fast, loud, in your face, loads of attitude, no apologies, no prisoners, more disturbing imagery in the lyrics and album covers the better. The Prog guys love complexity with their loud and in your face. Disturbing imagery and attitude isn’t as prized. If you haven’t guessed yet, Jeff was definitely Punk.

So are you all still waiting for the shoe to drop? What’s this Christian bloke going to say? How is he going to sum up Jeff? How will he judge his life? Did he go to Heaven or Hell? The answer is, I wouldn’t have a clue. Not only have I never met Jeff, I don’t decide any of that other stuff. I have an opinion about it sure, but what’s that worth to you? Will it change you or add something positive to your life? I’m pretty sure it won’t.

Unfortunately the Westboro Baptist Church has decided that not only is Jeff in hell, they also want to picket his funeral, and the memorial held in LA on Thursday. Who pickets a funeral?! Honestly! Slayer fans aren’t like your average concert-goer. They are a more dangerous breed, by their own admission. On that level alone it’s a bad idea.

My Jesus teaches me to love people. It’s as simple and as difficult as that. Some Christians think that means doing all they can to speak against metal bands like Slayer. Tough love I think they call that. Although I’m not all that sure “tough love” fits into the “Love others as yourself” rule. Fact is a lot of my friends will be quite upset about what happened to Jeff. For literally thousands of people the world over, this is akin to losing John Lennon. And when friends I know are grieving, what does love do? It comforts. It ain’t “rocket surgery”, as they say.

A lot of metal fans are wary of Christianity. Many see it as “the enemy”. Just another group that wants to tell me what I like is wrong. I wanted to write this to say that Jesus doesn’t hate metal, or the metal fan. He offers His overwhelming acceptance and proved it by His life, death… and life again. He forgave the soldiers that nailed His hands and feet to wood. Christians aren’t always good at showing that love. I am sincerely sorry about that. But thank God it ain’t all about us. It ain’t all about religious practices and making sure you’re perfect first, before you’re allowed into Heaven or some such. It’s all about a living, dynamic relationship with this Jesus guy.

If any of you are interested in Christianity, and want to know more. I would freaking love to talk to you about it. But when I say “it”, I really mean Jesus. He’s someone I know. He calls me a friend and wants to know you as well. And if you want to put on your headphones and jam Slayer well I ain’t going to judge. I’ll just be rocking to some Dream Theater or something.

What do you do at church?

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Meet Bob. Bob is my fictional guy. Over the years Bob has fought dragons, used the force, and been dropped into a host of examples. By now he has a vast breadth of experiences. Right now, Bob has taken an interest in Christianity. He doesn’t really know what that means. In his mind he has pictures of old guys with beards and white robes waving incense about and being generally out of touch with modern society. But he’s interested and wants to know what people do at church anyway.

So right on 10am he rocks in to my church – Manningham Christian Centre. He didn’t want to get there too early. Just wanted to slip in, sit up the back, and then slip out at the end. But there’s no escape for Bob, as soon as he walks in the door there’s a couple of people who welcome him in and ask if he’s doing ok. They seemed genuinely interested in who he was. Although he’d rather not talk to anyone he had to admit it was nice someone welcomed him. He asked if he should sit anywhere in particular and they said it was totally up to him.

So 2nd row from the back it was. Music was playing over the PA system and there was about as wide a spread of age groups as you could get. They all seemed happy to see each other and chatted about what they’d been up to during the week. Seemed like friends just catching up. Over in the corner wafted a very nice coffee smell. Mmmmmm.

All the chairs faced a stage which had a few lights and quite a few musical instruments. Keyboard, acoustic guitar, bass, electric guitar, and….. is that a drum kit? Well that’s different. There were overhead projectors and screens. On each screen a media presentation was playing a countdown. There was 30seconds left to go. He could see a group of five people off to the side of the stage. They all put there hands in a circle and yelled a word. Bob thinks they said “Jesus”, or “glory”, or something. They all took to the stage and grabbed an instrument. Ah ok, it’s the band, thought Bob. So we’re getting some music first up. The guy with the acoustic guitar wished everyone a good morning. He asked everyone to stand up. The drummer counted in and off they went. It was fast and a little rock and roll. The words to the song came up on the screen and everyone seemed to enjoy singing. Bob realised that the song was a type of prayer. The people who sang actually believed what they sang.

There were a few more songs and the last one sort of quieter than the others. Bob took a quick look around and saw a few people with tears in their eyes. Most people had their hands in the air as well. What are they doing? Is this all for my benefit? It became clear that most people weren’t really interested in the songs or the church for their own sake. They were more interested in Jesus. Fair enough, Bob thought, Jesus was a pretty cool guy. As the band kept playing quietly in the background a lady got up from the crowd with a microphone and asked everyone to “stay in this place of worship” and “thank Jesus for who he was”. Bob realised he hadn’t heard anyone use the word “worship” as a positive in his entire life.

The band stopped and the lady asked for the notices to roll. Everyone sat back down. A video came up on the screen and showed what was coming up in the church over the next coming weeks. Pretty slick video. At the end of the video it said there was a free coffee for any visitors. Bob was pretty happy about that part.

Then the lady asked if there were any “testimonies”. What did that mean? A few people got up and talked about answered prayer. Someone said they were healed from a flu. One lady had an unsightly mark on her hand removed. She’d had it her entire life. A few people talked about how they worked up the courage to pray for a stranger that needed help. One guy had a son, whom he was estranged from, suddenly get in touch. A lot of “coincidences” as well. But Bob wondered.

Then it was time for “Tithes and Offerings”. Bob wondered when the whole money thing would rear it’s ugly head. There were small different coloured bags held by some people up at the front. Some people came forward and put money into them. The lady with the microphone said that if anyone was visiting from another church that they should give their tithe to their own church. “Tithe”, what does that mean? Bob resolved to look it up later. After people had sat back down they prayed over the bags. That the money would be used wisely and that God’s Kingdom would be advanced though it.

The band played quietly again in the background as the lady with the microphone asked that the Communion be given out. Bob got a little bit of cracker and a tiny little cup filled with some red cordial. Bob was a little disappointed it wasn’t red wine. The lady with the microphone explained that Communion was meant to remember Jesus. Not just His sacrifice but also who He was – God made flesh. Bob finally realised that these people believed Jesus was God. The cracker had little holes in it and the lady said it represented Jesus broken, whipped, and pierced body. She said Jesus took on all of our sicknesses and infirmities in his body. “Infirmities”? Another one to look up. People ate the cracker and then the lady said that the cup represented Jesus’ blood. That in drinking we remember His sacrifice that cleanses us from sin. Bob didn’t really understand what was going on at this point. He did know it was important though. He drank the cup.

Then the cups were collected and most of the little kids went out to what Bob assumed was Sunday school. The kids all seemed excited to go. The lady with the microphone introduced the senior Pastor of the church who was going to get up and speak. It ended up being the drummer from before!

The Pastor opened in a prayer and started to speak. On the overheads a slide came up with the words “Furious Love”. Apparently it had been a running topic for a few weeks. It was interesting. The Pastor really wanted his people to learn how to love. “Love who?” Bob thought. The Pastor actually asked the same question moments later. There were a few voices in the congregation. All said the same thing – “everybody”. Bob quietly thought it was a great sentiment but a bit of a hard ask. Then the Pastor said that it was really only possible through Jesus. He said that our lives, our identity, and our future belong to Jesus. His love passes all understanding, and the closer we are to Him, the better we can love others. Love others with no agenda to convert them. Nothing expected in return. He said that the spirit of this world had no defence against that kind of love. The congregation agreed.

As the Pastor was making his closing remarks the band took to the stage once more and played quietly. He asked if anyone needed prayer, or needed Jesus, to make their way up front as the meeting closed.

Now I must apologise as I pull you out of my little example. I’d like to say Bob jumped out of his chair and ran up to the front with tears in his eyes wanting this Jesus that has changed the world. But Bob is just an example guy. He wasn’t really there. He doesn’t have a spirit, soul or body. He could never respond that way because he wasn’t in the presence of God. Bob might be able to say yes or no to the Pastor guy up the front. But the Pastor guy isn’t really what Bob was after. You see I don’t drag myself out of bed early on a Sunday because it’s expected of me, or because I think I have to. I haven’t come through sickness, pain and anxiety because of any great strength I possess. I do what I do because I have a living dynamic relationship with Jesus. I can’t explain it in writing. I can’t give you examples enough. I can’t tell you about answered prayer that you can’t dismiss. I can only say that when I cry out in my distress He is there for me. And that’s a God I’ll serve till my dying day. I know it through and through. To my bones.

PS. Bob got his coffee, and it was awesome.

What is truth?

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Have you ever seen the titles of articles in those obscure science journals? Such as “The effect of negative pre-compositional eukaryotic membranes on the flight paths of the South American geese”. Well it’s possible I made that up. But the articles are usually equally complicated. It’s often made me wonder how focused and miniaturised a person’s passion for knowledge can be. I always much preferred taking a step back, to try and see the larger picture. What is the first step in knowing truth? You have to step back past biology, history, sociology, psychology and even theology – to philosophy.

Philosophy attempts to answer a number of the “unanswerable” questions. Many people believe it is a useless endeavour, because the questions it seeks to answer seem to be unanswerable. And what is the most basic question in philosophy:

What is reality and truth?

Not many people think about this question. However your particular brand of answer to this fundamental question is basic to every single thing you know and believe. There are almost as many different opinions on this as there are people. But when you have to go to work, buy the groceries and get the kids off to school, it doesn’t figure into your daily life all that much. But all of us have an opinion on it. Even if it is as simple as “I can know things with certainty” or “Truth is just… what is.” It’s more of an unconscious decision.

But the idea that truth is a separate thing from what you believe about it, is really a western way of thinking. Classic eastern philosophy out of China or India has a much more fluid view of truth. Truth is defined in terms of what is useful to an individual or group (or country, or world). One only has to see “The Life of Pi” or “Big Fish” for examples.

The fact is we can’t answer these questions with certainty. We simply can never know. Maybe you’re living in your own personal Truman Show or we’re all batteries for machines in the Matrix. And all this preamble brings me to my point.

The only way we can ever know truth is if someone who knows better, tells us.

Put another way, faith is the first step in knowledge. And every scientist reading this just cringed. You have to decide whom to trust. Whom do you trust to believe what truth is? It seems only a god could do it. If indeed there is one who created our space/time. What is truth? What is reality? What’s the meaning of life? Only a creator can attach meaning to a creation. If I go to the Louvre and see the tiny Mona Lisa, I could wonder about the weird perspective differences over each shoulder in the background. I could wonder about that smile. But I can’t know why it was painted like that unless Da Vinci stepped out of a time machine and explained it.

I think Jesus knew that trusting a creator is a first step to knowledge about the truth. When Pilate asked Him what truth was he used a turn of phrase that inspired this very article. He said, “All those on the side of truth listen to me.” I often thought that was a weird way of saying it. Why didn’t he say, “Listen to me if you want to know the truth”? Maybe the answer is in what he told his disciples at dinner: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”

Christians can find it enticing to get into arguments with militant atheists about this point. We’d long to point out that their beliefs are based on a step of faith just as much as ours. It often ends in name-calling and taunts of poor IQ scores. I’d ask the reader to remember that the difference between a Christian, Muslim, Atheist, or New Age devotee is not one of intelligence, just faith.

No-one was ever argued into being a Christian. The first step has to be a faith response to the love of Jesus. Do I trust Jesus to be the truth? I did a while back. It’ll take the rest of my life to get his teachings from my head to my heart. I found I’m happier about my first step of faith more and more each day. But I cannot blame others for their steps. I can merely offer what was offered to me.

– D