Faith Thinking Aloud

Sleeping with a Snake

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A new friend whose son is deeply engaged in learning about and caring for snakes passed along to us a cautionary tale his son had told him. A woman had taken to napping with her pet snake, a constrictor, sharing the bed with her. It stretched out beside her, and she seemed certain it loved her in the way a dog might. Our friend said his son assured him the snake did not love the woman or feel any affection for her whatsoever but was more likely sizing her up as potential food. One can hope only that either the snake stopped growing or the woman wised up before it grew big enough to strangle and swallow her.

A snake is a reptile and, the son explained, cannot love. It does not feel affection, is not capable of loyalty. It simply is not in the nature of a snake to care about a human except as threat or food source (one way or another).

After casting her vote not to convict, Senator Susan Collins explained that she believed Donald Trump would have been chastened by his impeachment and so have learned a lesson. Trump rejected her suggestion as offensive nonsense, insisting he had done nothing wrong and had no lesson to learn. It is not in the nature of Donald Trump to feel remorse, accept correction, or care about either the law or the well-being of others.

Our current president is said to be a malignant narcissist, and that mental illness is said to be incurable, at least currently. The descriptions I have read of malignant narcissism seem to fit disturbingly well. He does seem incapable of empathy with other humans, and he does seem to see everything in life as being all about him and only him or else irrelevant. The very idea of remorse for something hurtful he has done offends him.

In the final confrontation between Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort, J. K. Rowling’s protagonist and chief antagonist, Harry warns the Dark Lord to try for some remorse because Harry has seen what Voldemort will become if he does not. The Dark Lord exclaims, “What is this?” and then makes his move to kill Harry. For him, remorse is unthinkable. It is not in his nature but contrary to all he has become as he has grown less and less human and more like a snake.

Donald Trump is a human being, not a snake, but seems to lack the most essential human qualities and capabilities. He evidences no empathy and, therefore, no compassion. Everything is continuously and embarrassingly all about him, and he requires constant and extravagant praise upon which to feed his ego. He exalts revenge as though it were an honorable virtue and delights in it.

Theologically, I must insist Trump is not beyond redemption, even if the psychiatrists are correct that his condition is (currently) incurable. I can pray for his healing even though seeing how healing can come is far beyond me. What I think is clearly dangerous is to imagine that, by experience or his own conscience, he will learn to be a better man and a better president. He will not. His condition is tragic, but for now the tragedy is not his alone but our nation’s and, because the United States wields so much power, also the world’s. Therefore, my prayers for his healing must come second to my prayers for our deliverance from his power.

Scrap the Latin Phrase

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Quid pro quo, “this for that.” While the phrase covers enough different types of proposals for deals to include what Donald Trump did to the president of Ukraine, we should stop using it because the Latin phrase hides his illegal and gangster-style action which threatened two nations – Ukraine and the United States of America.

If you and I both have children who play soccer, and I call you to suggest that I’ll drive your child to the practice tomorrow evening if you will drive mine home afterwards, that’s a quid pro quo that would merely give each of us some free time that evening. Such a deal bears no resemblance to what Donald Trump did. I have not threatened to hurt your child or burn down your house if you refuse.

Trump made the president of Ukraine “an offer he couldn’t refuse” (from the book and movie, The Godfather) and withdrew that “offer” only after learning he had been caught making it. Call it a shakedown or an attempt at extortion, not an offer of quid pro quo. It was extortion. Call it what it was.

What President Trump demanded was an illicit advantage, not for the United States, but for Donald J. Trump. He wanted the president of Ukraine to announce that his nation was initiating an investigation into alleged corruption involving Joe and Hunter Biden so the Trump campaign could gain phony dirt on his expected opponent in his upcoming race for a second term. Ukraine didn’t need to find anything or even fabricate something corrupt but only to announce the investigation including the Biden name and keep it going. Trump was after another Benghazi: no need to find anything, just keep investigating and chanting the name.

How was this shakedown an offer Ukraine couldn’t refuse? The military aid had been appropriated by our Congress to protect Ukraine and keep Russia from pushing further in and slaughtering Ukraine’s people. Congress was protecting an ally and so looking out for our national interest and security. For Trump, the stake in the deal was political advantage for himself; for Ukraine it was a matter of life and death.

Trump further dangled a White House visit, a sinister offer that would have corrupted the Ukrainian president himself by showing the world he did the dirty deal for his own political advantage, also. The White House visit would have enhanced the Ukrainian president’s standing at home, and so his hands would have seemed as dirty as Trump’s.

“Do as we tell you, and take the money we’re offering you or something might happen to that lovely daughter of yours, and it would be a shame if her face weren’t so pretty any more.” If the official takes the mob’s money, he does so to protect his daughter but also thereby becomes corrupt himself. He cannot protest later without incriminating himself. That’s how mobsters take control of officials. That’s the nature of this Trump deal.

The president had no right or authority to withhold the military aid Congress had appropriated. His doing so violated the law. His making the offer the president of Ukraine “couldn’t refuse” violated the law and was an abuse of his office.

Was the offer for a quid pro quo? Yes, the Latin phrase covers it but vaguely and not helpfully. It certainly wasn’t anything like parents helping each other navigate an evening that included their children’s soccer practice. It wasn’t just a deal. It was a dirty deal that would have ensnared an ally’s leader and made him a puppet, not of the United States, but of Donald Trump.

Waiting Tables

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Four years of college, a hundred thousand dollars in debt, graduated with honors, more than a hundred applications sent out, but no job. She’s waiting tables in a local restaurant, and waiting is the irony. It truly is what she’s doing, waiting. Trying. Hoping. Trying to hope.

People think they are being helpful. “You need to enlarge your geographical spread of applications.” I’ve sent them all over the country, even to places I don’t really want to live. “Maybe you should retrain.” I’ve just finished college, and I’ll be in debt for the rest of my life. Sure, I’ll retrain. Then I’ll be twice as deep in debt and unemployed in two fields.

She took the course on résumé writing. More money gone. She took the workshop on interviewing, on how to suck up to human resources people. She even tried some of the tactics – hated herself for the cloying things she said, wanted to stick her finger down her throat. But didn’t get a job.

“You need to network.” Right, network. Waste more time on social media, go to gatherings of people who can’t get jobs, make connections. Yes, networking worked for my friends who have gotten jobs: they networked with their own parents who had connections. Am I supposed to find new parents with connections?

She doesn’t go to church services any more, not so much because she doesn’t care about God (although her faith is strained just now) as because she’s sick of listening to advice from older people who can tell her offhandedly what she’s not doing right. She’s tired of explaining, of rehearsing her frustration and shame for near-strangers who begin their questioning with, “Are you still . . . ?” Yeah, I’m still looking for a job. Thanks for reminding me. That’s why I came to church you know – to be reminded of my failure by someone wise who knows even less about it than he cares.

Will she soon be among the passed over? The already picked over applicant pool? The rejects? The not chosen? Disqualified because she’s been looking so long?

“Miss, what’s taking so long for our drinks to come?”

The Nursery

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The nursery is freshly painted, the crib empty. Her due date has become the birthday never to be. She’ll never know whether her baby was a boy or a girl. Baby? It wasn’t a baby, they’ve told her. It! She wanted to scream, “My baby is not an ‘it’!” My baby is not. My baby . . . not.

“It would have been worse if you’d lost a child you had birthed, gotten to know, and loved.” Worse. So, I could be hurt even more. If this is what it feels like to hurt less, I so glad it isn’t worse. Just so damn glad!

“You can try again. Maybe God just wasn’t ready for you to have a baby yet. Maybe you needed to learn something first. Maybe the child you do have will be even more precious to you, and you’ll be better parents.”

“Maybe.” Am I so deficient that I wouldn’t have been able to love the child I wanted so much? Am I not enough to be a mother?

“Maybe God . . . .” She believes in God. Not just in God’s existence. She trusts God, counts on God, even tries to love God. Did God do this to her? Why do people have babies they don’t want? Why do some go for abortions? Is she supposed to be learning something from this? Please, don’t let me turn bitter. Please don’t let.

She had a due date. Now that date will not be a birthday, but she knows she’ll never get it out of her mind, off her mental calendar. As long as she lives, it will be the would-have-been birthday. No candles, no cakes, no parties. Tears.

Isn’t the death of expectation and promise worthy of grief? Are her arms less empty for never having held her child?

She closes the nursery door, but it won’t close. Not really.

Plant Closing

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The plant is closing. Just like that. Thirty years of dedication and hard work gone. Health care insurance gone. Pension? Who knows? Maybe that’s gone, too. They had to make the announcement right before Christmas, didn’t they? Merry Christmas! and go to . . . . Years ago, the company gave Christmas parties for all the men who worked on the line, the production line. Yes, men. They were all men then. The only women worked in the front office, as secretaries.

Didn’t he know that the work he was doing was damaging his body, ruining his health, and no doubt shortening his life? Yes, of course he knew it, but a man has to do. He’s a man, and he’ll do what it takes to provide for his family. But what can he do now? How can he be the man in his family, for his wife and kids? What will he leave for his grandkids? Hell, they still owe some on the mortgage. Will they lose their home, too?

The society has moved on, leaving him behind. Retrain, they say. He’ll soon be fifty. Who wants to train him, and for what? He didn’t go to college. He’s missing half a finger he lost to his job when something slipped, the safety guard that was supposed to protect his hand. He still doesn’t know how, but it surely did slip. His fault they said.

Competitive, that’s their word. The company has to stay competitive. That means shipping fabrication work out of the country, first to China and then, when that deal didn’t work, to Canada. Now, he guesses, it means shipping everything out, leaving behind a ghost town.

That and poison. Years ago, the company had so poisoned the creek that he couldn’t fish it in any more — no point. The tap water began to taste funny and only got worse. He’d almost gotten used to the smell in the air, but when he took the family on a vacation, it was there waiting for them when they returned. Well, at least he won’t have that problem any more; there won’t be any more vacations, except maybe one long one going nowhere.

But for all that – lost finger, stinky air, bad water, and body aches here and there, shortness of breath – he was a man. He did what he had to do and provided for his family. And there were good times. He could afford the food and beer for a big family reunion. He could put aside some savings and still buy his wife new clothes. He could hold up his head.

What now? Some on TV talk about the great economy. Yeah, right. Just great. Merry Christmas. And happy New Year to us.

Vignettes

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For a while, my blog posts will be vignettes. None of the people in these vignettes will be one specific person I have known, but I hope the figures represent real people in real situations. My purpose is to invite empathy because lack of empathy opens the door and holds it open for all manner of evils.

At its base, evil means harm, and in the Bible, such is frequently its meaning – harm in contrast with benefit or blessing. Evil can also go deeper, festering into callousness and oozing out as malice. The lust for revenge arises from bitterness nurtured in a darkness of the soul.

Self-righteous judgment excuses, justifies (falsely), and even sanctifies evil. We tell ourselves it is right to hate “them” because “they” deserve our scorn. We label them disgusting or simply push them out of our empathic range as something other, something lesser, than we are. They are alien, strange, threatening, and unworthy, and we don’t want to understand them or feel any sympathy for them.

Empathy opens the door and holds it open for compassion. Then it is possible that someone who has been scorned can look into the eyes of an enemy and see there a friend. Then maybe we can find the humanity we have refused to share.

Pretending to be Asleep

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Pretending to be asleep, a girl lies in her bed dreading the sound of her door opening. If only, he will not come for her tonight. One night at a time, she hopes her father will fall asleep before thinking of her small body. Should she pray? Does God care?

After years of dread, terror, shame, and self-disgust, she feels something new stirring inside her: rage. Just last night, she realized her father did not open her door because he had gone to her younger sister’s room instead. No! She cannot, will not, allow him to do to her sister what he has done to her. She must tell someone, but who? What adult can she tell who will believe her but not blame her? Will her mother help now, but why now and not until now? What would her minister say if she were to tell him one his Sunday school teachers was doing what he did to her? If she tells, will life in their home get better or worse? Will her father just deny everything and try to make her look crazy or evil? Will her mother hate her?

In the darkness, she hears sounds all too familiar. He has gone to her sister’s room again. Against her will, she wishes he had come to her room instead.

But if either girl gets pregnant, the family must blame the helpless girl, accuse her of being with some boy, and insist she must have the baby in isolated shame. Because the conception will be, of course, God’s will. If only God, she thinks, would die and go away. Then she hates herself for such a terrible thought.

Hail Caesar!

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[8th and final post in a series on abuses of the Bible in the service of power]

[For the first post in the series, click here.]

In his letter to the Christians in Rome, the apostle Paul makes the following statements.

For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. (Romans 6:14 NRSV)

But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit. (Romans 7:6 NRSV)

For Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes. (Romans 10:4 NRSV)

What might a Roman official think of such statements? Hopefully, the Christians reading Paul’s letter will understand that Paul is speaking of God’s Torah as he, a former Pharisee, understands it. He writes repeatedly in this letter that the law of God itself is good but he himself is not good and so cannot keep the law. Instead, for all his efforts to keep the commandments, he stands condemned under the law.

Paul’s arguments require understanding of his struggle to please God and his persistent failure (see Romans chapter 7). But, again I ask, what might a Roman official make of the declarations, “. . . since you are not under the law . . . ,” “But now we are discharged from the law . . . .” and, most dangerous of all, “Christ is the end of the law . . . .”? Do those statements apply to Roman law? Are these Christians, then, scofflaws, rebels, outlaws? After all, their leader, their avowed Lord and Savior, was executed by Rome as a supposed rebel against the empire.

There is danger in Paul’s distinction between law and grace, two-fold danger. Yes, Roman officials might grow suspicious of this new religious movement, but some Christians themselves might misunderstand Paul as declaring them free of obligation to Roman civil laws.

So, Paul writes the now infamously abused paragraph we find in Romans 13:1-7. The very first sentence declares the apostle’s message to believers and government officials alike:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. (Romans 13:1 NRSV)

There it is, the Bible quote people pull out when they want to support a particular “ruler” and raise that individual above criticism. Here we are, back to the notion of “king by the grace of God” (see my earlier post on that subject here). In the misuse of Romans 13:1-7, we find false biblical support for the latest “anointed one” of some political movement tending toward totalitarianism. Here is the attempted elevation of a Henry VIII above all other authority. Here is fraudulent support for the deified or nearly deified dictator, from “Hail Caesar!” to “Heil Hitler!” Supposedly to question the dictator is to question God, to oppose the dictator is to rebel against God, and to reject the dictator is to reject God and God’s will for the nation.

In both the Old Testament and New Testament, there is much that contradicts such an interpretation or Romans 13:1-7. Leaders that fail to make justice happen for the poor and vulnerable are condemned and rejected. Particularly in the book of Revelation, the Roman emperors themselves are declared evil servants, not of God, but of Satan. Paul’s hopeful statement, “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad” in verse 3 proves at many points in history to be mere wishful thinking, although it truly is more because its declaration of what authorities should do turns into judgment upon those authorities who do not measure up.

Paul is not freeing Christians from civil authority and secular law, but he does set a standard for that authority and its laws. Authority’s charge from God, whether the officials know it or not, is to uphold and shelter what is good and to oppose and punish what is bad. But what happens when the authority itself does what is evil? When good behavior is punished and bad rewarded? Does God support corruption, brutality against the vulnerable, and lawlessness on the part of the authorities themselves? The Bible as a whole overwhelmingly declares, “No!”

Now, let’s take a step back and survey our own situation in the United States of America. To form this nation, our ancestors rebelled against a “king by the grace of God” they came to regard as a tyrant. Since then, authority for this nation is lodged, not in any person or small group, but in us, the American people. “We the people” are together the authority Paul declares has been appointed by God to keep order and to reward what is good and to prevent or punish what is bad. No president has that authority in, by, and for himself. No president can rightly claim or have claimed for him such authorization from Paul’s Letter to the Romans. We the people through our elected representatives are responsible for the maintenance of justice. It is our duty to keep power out of the hands of swindlers and liars. We together stand accountable to God, whether we acknowledge God or not, for cruelties inflicted by our elected officials and their appointees. We are answerable for institutionalized bigotry, persecution, and self-serving greed.

The misuse of Romans 13:1-7 in support of evil, of the tyranny and lawlessness of a president, and of the abuse of power for self-enrichment, is a terrible corruption of scripture. Such an abuse of the Bible opposes God and brings shame and infamy upon the name of Jesus Christ.

A Convenient Half-Truth

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[7th in a series on abuses of the Bible in the service of power]

“God,” people say, “never gives you more than you can handle.” The comic strip character Ziggy replies wryly, “I wish God didn’t think I was so strong.”

I have blogged before about the problems in this pseudo-biblical declaration. First, it’s usually spoken to someone else (the sufferer) and so tends toward the judgmental and dismissive: “Don’t bother me with your problems, just buck up.” Second, it implies that our troubles come from God, which is a bum rap. Third but derived from the first, it minimizes the need for compassion since, well, your problem is your problem not mine. Fourth and most pertinent to this series of blogs, it calls for patience and endurance on the part of the sufferer rather than either personal deliverance or societal justice. In a similar vein, we are told frequently that real harm is not done to us by outside circumstances or forces but by our own responses to them and handling of them, which is a half-lie told to blame the cheated and injured for their own pain. Sure, part of the problem and, sometimes, all of the problem can lie within me, and we all know people who blame everyone and everything for problems they are causing or exacerbating themselves. Certainly, I can be my own worst enemy, but suggesting any complaint I might make about terrible circumstances or forces of human evil doing me harm is mere griping that reveals weakness in me does no more than add insult to injury. The message is, “You’re on your own. Make it or break, but don’t trouble me and don’t rock the boat by challenging family, community, or society to change.”

It is popular these days to reduce faith to a matter of what people call spirituality, a vague term that frequently implies the matter is my own and all about me, an internal strengthening or pacifying with no necessary external implications. Faith becomes a retreat into myself where God, the universe, or something deep and wonderful supposedly resides. So, it seems, my true home is within myself.

The falsehood is, as often, a corruption of a half-truth. Yes, faith should strengthen us internally, but so we can face the challenges and troubles of the world around us and so we can strengthen others within the community of faith and beyond it, not so we can turn self into a fortress. Any spirituality that does not send me back into the messiness of the world to represent the justice, mercy, and compassion of God is not biblical.

Objection! Are there not times when a person can do no better than turn self into a fortress, retreat “under the wings” of God, and receive peace in the midst of suffering from trouble that defies change externally. Yes, there are such times and circumstances. Aging brings us reminders of the truth that sometimes inner strengthening and trust’s peace of mind are all we may have left, and faith must strive to make them enough for us. At any age, we may find ourselves unable to do more unless something beyond our control changes. But generalizing such sometimes-truth becomes very convenient for the powerful and privileged seeking to use religion to pacify people who might otherwise demand change and work for it.

Pensions are stolen. Children are caged. Women are raped and then blamed for it. Whistle blowers are threatened and silenced. Public education is sold off for profit and data collection from computerized education then sold for more profit. Earth itself is ravaged and poisoned. People are fired for being who they are rather than for anything they have done or failed to do. The cheated are cheated again and again as their lands are stolen from them. Every day we are lied to so we can be manipulated and turned against each other by fear, resentment, and hatred. Institutionalized prejudices assail people’s dignity every day. God is not doing such things to us; people are doing them, and the systems people devise for their own benefit are legalizing and maintaining the evils people are doing. So, telling us that external circumstances are nothing, that only our own attitudes and inner strengths matter, is very, very convenient for those who benefit from our silence.

Danger: God’s Plan

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[6th in a series on abuses of the Bible in the service of power]

This post requires a careful distinction. We stand at a fork in the road where both ways forward are marked with the same sign: “Trust in God’s Plan.” The choices, however, lead to very different destinations. One leads toward hope, courage, responsibility, and freedom. The other leads toward resignation, purposelessness, shallow thinking, servitude and perhaps festering resentment.

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. (Jeremiah 29:11-14 NRSV)

That passage, a favorite of many people seeking encouragement, comes from a vision beyond the impending doom of destruction and exile. Evil times are coming because the people and their rulers would not listen to the word of their God but chose instead to hide themselves in the false security of official religion. They fortified themselves with certitude that Jerusalem could never fall to an enemy, the king descended from the great king David could never be toppled from his throne, and Yahweh’s own Temple would forever guarantee security and prosperity – regardless of what Yahweh God’s own prophet tried to tell them. They had removed from their religion all commitment to faithfulness, justice, and compassion. All that remained was toxic belief that the way things were was the way things were meant to be and would remain forevermore because they were, supposedly, divinely ordained.

Looking at the passage from Jeremiah quoted above, however, we can see that God has “plans” for the people, for their turning and seeking God wholeheartedly, their restoration to being Yahweh God’s covenant people, and their future well-being as God’s faithful people, IF ONLY they will listen and seek wholeheartedly. It does NOT say God has an all-inclusive plan automatically following a script written in advance. That distinction brings us to the fork in the road.

The notion that everything happens according to a great divine plan is unbiblical and unhelpful. It comforts the rich and powerful while narcotizing the poor, cheated, and desperate. “Are you rich? That’s God’s plan for you. So, enjoy! Eat, drink, and be merry!” “Are you poor? That’s God’s plan for you. Accept it, and serve your superiors without complaint!” No! Such oppressive lies are not biblical at all!

Jesus was not a fool. When he taught his followers to pray that God’s will would indeed be done on earth, he was not telling them to pray for the inevitable. There was and still is a struggle going on. The world’s ways of power, prestige, and privilege war against God’s will and do great harm. God’s desire is not simply to establish a perfect world but to win the hearts and minds of humans and of humanity as a whole so that we will accept our responsibility as the creature to whom care of the earth was entrusted. God wants willing love and willingly wrought justice, not mindless obedience or resignation to fate.

As a Presbyterian whose theological ancestors fell prey to a doctrine of predestination that was degraded into fatalism, I have long felt compelled to speak against all forms of determinism. No, everything is not predetermined, and much happens that is not in accordance with God’s will. Let me put simply. It was not God’s will that the child’s mother or father got cancer, suffered, and died. It was not God’s will that the five-year-old girl was kidnapped. It was not God’s will that Hitler and his Nazis set out to kill all the Jews. It was not God’s will that the robber barons of America’s Gilded Age grew filthy rich. It was not God’s will that Japan should bomb Pearl Harbor or that we should bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki nor that we should firebomb Dresden. It is not God’s will that parents who refuse to have their children vaccinated should then see their children get measles. Mental illness is not God’s will; neither is depression or addiction or suicide. Nor is it God’s will that Donald Trump should be president of the United States. We are the ones who vote, choose not to vote, or are blocked from voting by political maneuvers designed to steal an election. All who hold power stand under God’s judgment; none has carte blanche to do as he or she pleases, and we cannot rightly imagine that Trump or any other president may act unjustly or maliciously in accord with God’s plan and so with God’s approval. No!

But God does still have plans for us and for this created world. The poor are not called to resign themselves to inferiority and deprivation. The rich are not entitled to declare their wealth and comfort to be God’s blessings granted to them because God is either rewarding them for something or favoring them above others for some reason. The Bible is not fatalistic. Indeed, it is the very opposite of fatalistic, proclaiming release for the captives, God’s love for the poor and the sick, and God’s opposition to power structures that keep the rich increasing their wealth and the poor sinking further into their poverty. A person cannot amass wealth through cunning greed and then call that wealth God’s blessing.

Yes, God has plans for us but NOT some grand plan that reduces us to mere chess pawns or mindless slaves like ants under the sway of their queen. We are not puppets. We make choices, bear responsibility, and need the changes that come from truly seeking God’s will and way.

Fatalism is an enemy of faith and hope. Resignation to injustices and sufferings is not submission to God’s will. So-called destiny does not justify or excuse brutality, slaughter, or theft by illegal or legal means. It was never God’s will that Europeans should sweep across this continent, destroying its native peoples. Manifest Destiny was a lie.

Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors; lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.


I know the plans I have for you, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. . . . Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the LORD . . . .