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This morning, Amanda, the pastor of RISE in Harrisonburg, crafted the following video for the service.  Personally, I found its message to be quite powerful. 

As we wrestle with the countless struggles of life, in how many moments are our emotions overwhelmed by fear?  I, for one, certainly can relate.  Among the various types of fear, there is the fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of the unknown, and fear spawned by hate.  Unfortunately, like so many areas of existance, our political environment is dominated by these fears as well.

So, as Amanda suggests, is love stronger than fear?  For those in the Harrisonburg area, I encourage you to join us as we explore this question together.  You can do so for the next several Sundays at the Court Square Theater in downtown Harrisonburg starting around 10 AM.

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RISESince November of last year, I have been attending a Methodist church in downtown Harrisonburg called RISE.  For those who know me, this news may seem a bit odd; after all, I am not a Methodist and still am a member of a local Presbyterian church.  So what would draw me to this church?  Well, like a playwright or a musician, my actions were inspired by a woman.

Now, in truth, my church attendance in recent years has been a bit spotty.  Since coming to the realization that I was no longer a Calvinist, I dabbled in a few other churches, including the Seventh Day Adventists, but nothing ever lasted for more than a month or two.  My last roommate at William & Mary, who has since become a Methodist minister in the northern Shenandoah Valley, had been encouraging me to rejoin a church community, but the problem was that my faith no longer fit neatly into a preformed denomination.

Although I was never specifically invited to RISE, I decided to attend my first service back in November as a way to show this friend that I cared for her.  In the weeks and months that followed, our relationship flourished, was snuffed out, rose again from the ashes, and has now, unfortunately, disintegrated completely.

I’m not going to into the details of what happened here, but I will say that it has been one of the most difficult times in my life. The joy of discovering someone who became so special to me only to lose everything, to find my hopes and dreams that I had been building high into the clouds suddenly collapse into a heap of useless rubble was almost more pain than I could bear.

And yet, through these difficult trials, much like my friends, RISE has been there for me.  It is much more than mere church service every Sunday; it is a group of fine individuals who genuinely care about others, who ask me how things have been going, who know of the trials I’ve suffered, and who have prayed with me through the whole ordeal.  They have given me the strength to carry on when I was at my lowest and, as you might imagine, I am immensely grateful.

So what’s the take home message for you, my good reader? Although there is great merit in studying the scriptures on your own, as I have done most nights before bed for more years that I can remember, my advice is to similarly find a supportive religious community that you too can call home.  Sure, you may have theological differences, I still don’t consider myself a Methodist, but that doesn’t mean that one cannot find and forge strong bonds with new brothers and sisters in Christ.

In closing, although my Facebook friends have already heard this song, I’d like to share a bit of music I listen to when I’m sad or my faith needs a little bolstering.  Given that RISE plays contemporary music, maybe one day they will play this one as well.

Whatever dark trial you maybe be facing today, or a new challenge that arises tomorrow, it is likely that you too could benefit from the folks who meet in the theater behind Capital Ale in downtown Harrisonburg.  Perhaps a community like RISE will give you the support you need to endure.

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Given that today is Valentine’s Day (or Singles Awareness Day for those of us currently not in a relationship), I thought it appropriate to take a pause from politics to discuss the subject of love.  Recently at church, I was reminded of a love story that had a very profound impact on me growing up.  It is the story of Jacob and Rachel that begins in the 29th chapter in the book of Genesis (that’s in the Bible for you non-Bible reading folks out there).

The Meeting of Jacob & Rachel by William Dyce 1854

The Meeting of Jacob & Rachel by William Dyce 1854

For those unfamiliar with this tale, let me provide you with a brief summary.  Following the wishes of his parents, Jacob travels to his ancestral home to find a wife.  While there, he meets Rachel, his first cousin, and falls in love with her.  (Hey, suppress the shouts of “incest!” it was a fairly common practice back in those days.)  Although details of Rachel’s appearance and personality are extremely limited, we are told that she “was beautiful in every way, with a lovely face and shapely figure” Genesis 29:17 NLT.  Jacob speaks to Rachel’s father, his uncle Laban, and agrees to work for a period of seven years in order to win Rachel’s hand in marriage.  (Again, before you decry the idea of trading one’s daughter for labor, one has to take into account that they lived in a different culture and time period where such arrangements were the norm.)

Although we don’t know the full extent of their love, it is obvious that Jacob must have had pretty powerful feelings for Rachel.  After all, could you imagine working for seven years, (yes, seven years!) just to be with the person that you loved?  But the story of Jacob and Rachel doesn’t simply end when Jacob’s term of service has been fulfilled.  Laban, being a rather devious fellow, tricks Jacob into marrying his eldest daughter Leah, instead of Rachel.  Now this development raises all sorts of relationship questions between Leah, Laban, Jacob, and Rachel, but as this post focuses on Jacob and Rachel, we’ll set those issues aside for now.  Now, I would assume that if any of us were to find ourselves in Jacob’s shoes, we would likely be exceedingly upset, feeling horribly cheated.  Nevertheless, driven by his devotion for her, Jacob agreed to work another seven years for his uncle in order to call Rachel his bride. Although we don’t really have any insight into Rachel’s opinions in this biblical story, I’d very much like to think that the feelings that Jacob felt for Rachel were reciprocated. The story continues for several more chapters, but as it exceeds the purpose of this article, I’ll stop here.

Personally, I found the idea of finding a Rachel of my own quite appealing, so much so, in fact, that I crafted a version of her into a character in my second novel (which will hopefully be available for public consumption at some point in the not-so-distant future).  Of course, that does require me actually finishing it).  Although there were some trivial differences between the fiction and real life (including, not surprisingly, having a name other than Rachel), in an unbelievable stroke of fortune, by the end of 2012, I believed that I had found a woman who could very well be my Rachel.

So what happened next, you might ask.  Well, if you scroll down a few posts, you come across a poem, seemingly out of place among the myriad of political topics.  Unfortunately, some love goes unrequited. Drawing from personal experience, unrequited love is perhaps the thorniest kind of love imaginable and, as this love is not the love of Jacob & Rachel, it is not the love I seek.  I’ll confess that I’ve have mourned this realization every day for the last several weeks which is why you find snippets of this story recently embedded in the Virginia Conservative.  Although it is a different kind of love as it is platonic, within the larger liberty movement must I continue along that path relatively unappreciated as well?  Writing prolifically about the matter in a series of unsent letters and short stories has helped quite a bit, but a shredded heart is not something that can be mended overnight.

Even with all the setbacks of life, hope still survives.  So wherever and whoever you are, and whether we discover each other tomorrow or it takes another full fourteen years of effort, I dedicate this post to you, my wonderful Rachel.  And it is my sincere hope, good reader, if you have not yet found that special person, you too will one day come across a Rachel or Jacob of your own.

Thanks for reading and happy Valentine’s Day to everyone.

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One particularly interesting development regarding the 2012 Presidential Election is the possibility that Americans could elect a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known to many as a Mormon.  Personally, I’m quite surprised that the issue of Mitt Romney’s religious faith has not played a larger role in public discussions.

If we turn back the clock a few decades, when John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, the fact that he was a member of the Catholic Church was a cause for concern for many citizens throughout the nation, sparking fears that he would owe his greatest allegiance, not to the United States and her people, but rather to a pope in the Vatican.  Recently, in response to this potential 2012 Mormon controversy, the perhaps best-known evangelist, Billy Graham, tried to defuse the situation, offering some tactic support of Mitt Romney’s candidacy and his church.  This news was a bit of a shock to many, given Graham’s previous declarations that the Mormon Church is a “cult”. 

I assume that there is generally little widespread knowledge regarding the Latter-day Saints, also known as the LDS Church.  Before spending considerable time learning about the religion and meeting many Mormons while living in Charlottesville, VA, in the mid 2000s, I’ll confess that Mormonism put me at unease; this concern did not stem from a reasoned theological disagreement with the church, but rather a lack of understanding and general widespread prejudice.  Now, I won’t claim to be an expert on the subject, but I’ll start off by saying that there are a number of issues that set Mormonism apart from what is generally regarded as traditional Christianity.  Some of the best well-known distinctions of Mormonism include the Book of Mormon and the church’s previous support of polygamy.

Let’s start with the Book of Mormon.  According to Mormon theology, Joseph Smith, the founder and first prophet of the LDS Church, through the assistance of the angel Moroni, discovered a number of golden plates on a hill in upstate New York.  With the aid of “seeing stones”, Smith translated the writing on many of these plates into what is now known as The Book of Mormon.  The text describes the ancient people of America as a lost tribe of Israelites and explores their history and theology.  In addition, after his death in the Middle East, Jesus appeared to these early Americans to impart teachings, many of which are similar to the concepts found in the Bible.  Some time later, two factions within these ancient peoples, the Nephites and the Lamanites came into brutal conflict.  The last Nephite, the then human Moroni, wrote the final portion of the Book of Mormon and buried the text only to be discovered by Smith about 1500 years later.  Besides the Book of Mormon, the LDS have additional extra-biblical texts including the Pearl of Great Price and the Doctrines and Covenants.

Polygamy, (more specifically polygyny, the practice of a man taking multiple wives), was an early custom in the Mormon Church.  Joseph Smith had a number of spouses as did Brigham Young, who led the Mormons on their trek to what is now the state of Utah.  Perhaps not surprisingly, polygamy caused considerable tension with the non-Mormon population and the United States government, which was one compelling reason for the Mormons to move westward, away from the established American communities.  Perhaps not surprisingly, Utah was not admitted as a state in the union until the Mormons renounced polygamy, which they did in the Manifesto of 1890.

Besides the Book of Mormon and early support for polygyny, there are a number of other aspects of the Latter-day Saints, which set them apart both in theology and in practice from traditional Christianity.  For example, there is baptism for the dead, where a member of the Church can, by proxy, be baptized for a deceased person.  The reasoning in doing so is to allow the deceased person an opportunity to enter into heaven, which would previously be denied to someone who had not participated in this rite while alive.

Most people consider a fundamental element of Christianity is the idea of Trinitarianism, the belief that God exists simultaneously in three separate but united persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. However, Mormons believe that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are three separate gods.  In addition, Mormons believe in the concept of eternal progression where men and women can become like God.  As former LDS President Lorenzo Snow stated, “As God now is, man may be.”   This theological distinction could lead some to claim that Mormons are not monotheistic, but rather either polytheistic or henotheistic.

Interestingly, I have found that many socially conservative Christians, like Billy Graham, who, all things being equal, I would assume would reserve the greatest criticism for Mitt Romney’s Mormon ties, are some of his more ardent defenders.  Then again, I’ve also heard some of these very same people use the line that it is better to elect “a Mormon than a Muslim”; playing upon the fear that Barack Obama is secretly a Muslim and threatens to subvert our national interest to Islamic terrorists.  Do they dislike Mormons still, but reserve a greater distrust of Muslims?  For some people, is it simply another case of choosing the “lesser of two evils”?

One overarching question that needs to be asked is what makes a person or a church Christian?  It is simply holding the belief that Jesus is the messiah sent by God for the redemption of mankind and that following him is the only path to salvation?  Does it require a literal or figurative understanding of the Bible?  What about acceptance or rejection certain texts like the deuterocanonical portion of the Bible, also known as the Apocrypha, or the Book of Mormon itself?  Is baptism required and, if so, how and when should it be done?  Must Christians adhere to follow the leadership of a certain spiritual leader?  So, are Mormons Christians?  How about other groups often labeled as cults such as Jehovah Witnesses, Christian Scientists, or Unitarians?  Given their veneration of Mary and other differing beliefs, are Catholics Christian?  Does supporting predestination preclude calling Presbyterians Christian?   And can a person be a Christian even if the church to which he or she belongs is outside the traditional definition of the term?  What about those who have no official church membership?  Is there one simple answer to this question and can it be universally applied?

Anyway, as mentioned at the beginning of this article, it is quite possible that, like the 1960 election, this contest will re-define the American perception of what it means to be a Christian.  Mormons, like Catholics before them, once viewed with suspicion and hostility, might slowly be welcomed into the larger Christian fold.

Although I appreciate the chance to improve religious dialogue, I am disappointed that this conversation seemingly arose, not from a desire to promote understanding, but rather as an afterthought to advance a particular candidate.  Do conservatives, like Billy Graham, honestly now believe that Mormonism is simply another branch of Christianity and not a cult?  Or are they willing to cast aside their longstanding beliefs for political gain?  If the answer is the first, then I’m hopeful that this change will permit more people in this country to openly practice their religious convictions without fear of societal persecution.  However, if the answer is the second, which I worry is the case, then the state of organized religion and politics in America is in a much more sickly state than I previously imagined.

Regardless of the circumstances and any particular personal preferences, as a result of the 2012 elections, Mormonism is being mainstreamed.  Whether you adhere to a more traditional Christian tradition, you are a Mormon yourself, or you chart a path separate from either, this development does make for a lot of important theological and political ramifications in America today.

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You know, I was under the impression that citizens and businesses were allowed at least some measure of religious freedom.  After all, along with the freedom of speech and the press, isn’t that one of the primary purposes of the 1st Amendment?  Well, according to our unelected masters at the Federal Reserve, that right can be revoked.

Until late last week, a small bank in Perkins, Oklahoma displayed crosses, had a Bible verse on their website, and their tellers wore “Merry Christmas” buttons without any reported trouble.  However, having learned of this religious display, the Fed stepped in to trample upon the freedoms of the bank.  Worried that all of this imagery and holiday cheer would offend someone, it had to go.

Now, I believe that any person should have the freedom to express their religious beliefs as they see fit (assuming, of course, it doesn’t hamper the liberty of another).  If a bank wishes to display a cross, a menorah, a crescent moon, or a statue of Shiva, isn’t that their right?  Concurrently, whether they choose to celebrate (or not to celebrate) Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or anything else, shouldn’t they be allowed to?  If I don’t care for their display, as a customer, I am free to take my business elsewhere.  Is your faith (or lack there of) so weak that even the smallest of mention of a contrary opinion is damaging?  Do we live in a land of religious freedom and toleration…or a land forcibly wiped clean of religion, especially Christianity?

Fortunately, after considerable public demand, the Fed countermanded their original orders…at least for the moment.  I wish I could say that the issue has been resolved permanently, but such a claim would be extremely naïve.  This incident further illustrates that in the mad scramble for political correctness and overreaching government control, our rights can be quickly swept away if we are not constantly vigilant and willing to stand up for them.  I’d like to leave you with one question.  Would the Fed had acted in the same manner if the displays were Jewish or Hindu instead of Christian?  I really doubt it.

I want to send out thanks to the Shenandoah Valley Tea Party for bringing up this issue.  The original stories from the KOCO News of Oklahoma City can be found here and here.

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I’m going to start off today’s post with a passage from the Bible.

While Jesus was in the Temple, he watched the rich people putting their gifts into a collection box.  Then a poor widow came by and dropped in two pennies.  “I assure you,” he said, “this poor widow has given more than all of the rest of them.  For they have given a tiny part of their surplus, but she, poor as she is, has given everything she has.”  Luke 21 1-4 (NLT)

The lesson of widow’s mite (as the above passage is often known) is found both in the book of Luke and in Mark.  I want you to consider the implications.  Although we don’t know the exact amount, the passage seems to imply that, in terms of monetary value the rich people in the town gave far more than the widow could ever hope to give.  And yet, Jesus tells us that she has given more than they.  I know it would be tempting to praise the rich far more than the widow.  After all, the Temple could make much greater use of the larger sum of money than two measly pennies.  But then the point would be lost.  Although we are told that the rich could afford to give far more, they chose an offering that they wouldn’t really miss, a small portion of their vast wealth.  It was as if the rich were saying that they only valued God enough to give him a bit of their excess.  The widow by comparison gave two coins, but it everything that she had.  She had so little to offer however chose to give it all away for the sake of her faith.  If we backtrack in Luke, we find another related passage, “Much is required from those to whom much is given, and much more is required from those to whom much more is given,” Luke 12:48 (NLT).  I think that the message is clear.  If we truly believe in God and his commandments, we should free give of our possessions and ourselves.  Regardless of whether we are rich or poor, the spirit in which a gift is given is far more important that the actual amount itself.

Although I know that some people don’t like to mix religion with politics, I hope you’ll permit me to draw a few parallels using the above verse in modern political thought.  Through much hardship and struggle, our forbearers suffered much to claim for us the God-given freedoms that we enjoy today.  Now a portion of our liberty has been lost over the years and, if we do nothing, we will lose far more.  I know that a lot of you are quite busy and many of you do not have much money to throw around freely.  Nevertheless, I wonder how much you value your freedom.  Will you fight for it?  Then will you donate your time and your money to make certain they are secure?  And if you do, will your gift be just a small portion…time and money that you will not miss?   I know that most political organizations make a big deal out of high dollar donors, but, in my opinion, those who truly believe in the cause and donate until it hurts are of far greater value.

So what will it be?  Are your God and your freedoms important enough to offer your first fruits?  Or will they be a mere afterthought, assuming you give anything at all?  Now, I’ll be the first to admit due to recent hardship that I have fallen short myself.  Nevertheless, regardless of how rich or poor we are, like the widow, we must be willing to give our pennies and/or our hours for our religion and our politics.  Otherwise, we show through our actions (or lack there of) that we neither value nor deserve them.

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I don’t really understand why charity is such a seasonal thing.  During Christmas time just about every shopping center sports a little red booth, a matching kettle, and a bell ringer.  You see one, and either ignore it or toss whatever loose change you have available and go on your way, not thinking much more about it.  But what about the other 11 months of the year?  Are there no poor folks during those times as well?  Do they magically disappear?  Are there no hungry, no homeless, and no ill the rest of the year?

Consider, if you will, the situation in Haiti.  Prior to the earthquake, who took time out of their day to consider the plight of the poorest nation in the western hemisphere?  Until the Hollywood actors and Washington politicians filled the airwaves with the tragedy were we roused to action.  I’m afraid to tell you kind hearted folks that given the high unemployment, lack of education, rampant corruption, and extreme violence commonplace in the island nation, US dollars will not be a suitable fix to solve the nation’s woes.

A friend of mine recently wrote on his Facebook page,  “America: the only country where we have homeless without shelter including disabled veterans, children going to bed without eating, elderly going without needed meds, and mentally ill without treatment – yet we have a benefit for the people of Haiti on 12 TV stations.”  He makes a good point.  When properly motivated, Americans are some of, if not the most, generous people on the face of the Earth.  But I assure you, need is not a foreign concept.  Right here in Virginia, we have children struggling to learn to read, out-of-work mothers and fathers unable to feed their families, homeless shivering in the cold, night wind, and free clinics in need of medicine.

So what are you doing to help?  Do you donate your time or money to the local soup kitchen, the homeless shelter, or neighborhood charities?

Now before some of you think I’ve gotten all bleeding heart liberal on you, I assure you that charity is neither strictly a conservative nor liberal concept.  The true question becomes whether it is freely given through goodwill or mandated by the government.  When you think about it, it might seem strange that God grants humans free will.  After all, we could all be little carbon copy saints, compelled to perform good deeds 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  By contrast, we have been given the ability to be as generous or as selfish as we choose.  But, then again, isn’t the motivation for an act often as important as the deed itself?

When the government mandates either a welfare state or foreign aid, in many ways it usurps the role of God.  It is as if they declare, “we in the government know what is best and shall compel our subjects in act in accordance with our wishes.  Give us your wallets and do as we say.”  God is not a grim tyrant so why should we allow our government to act in such a fashion?  Forced giving like that causes numerous problems.  First, as the government drains money from us, we feel less inclined to give of our own free will.  Why should I donate more?  The government already takes care of the poor.  Second, as anyone knows from even the most limited understanding of the government, it is rife with inefficiency and graft.  Most charities send a far higher percentage of your donated dollar to those in need and have far less bureaucracy.  Third, government welfare and entitlements grossly overstep both the Constitution and traditional boundaries of churches and other related religious organizations.  Then again, maybe our government is nothing more than a supplier of bread and circuses?

The Salvation Army is right, need knows no season, but it also knows no border.  Open your heart, your checkbook, and your schedule to those in dire straits not just in December, but also right now.  Remember the gaunt faces on the television, but don’t neglect your neighbor in need next door.  So what’s it going to be?  Charity is (and should be) your choice, not coercion.  I’ll leave you with this familiar quote.  “…Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.  For I was hungry, and you fed me.  I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink.  I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home.  I was naked, and you gave me clothing.  I was sick, and you cared for me.  I was in prison, and you visited me.”  Matthew 25:34-36 (NLT)

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