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Your Best Life Now

Your Best Life Now

Storms: How to Navigate Life’s Storms

posted by smcswain
Navigating Life's Storms

Navigating Life’s Storms

I’m thinking about those times in life when the doubts of faith are many and the difficulties of life are manifold.

Thank God, on the sailing journey of life, those times are few.

Do you remember that time when Simon Peter and the other disciples were sailing on the Sea of Galilee (Matt 14)? Suddenly, unexpectedly, a storm arose quickly and it did so as if it nature was looking for vengeance on the world.

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The disciples saw Jesus walking on the water. And Peter jumped ship to join him.

At first, he seemed to manage pretty well. But, before long, the wind and the waves overwhelmed him. He was afraid and began to sink.

Has it ever occurred to you what this story about?

When I was young, I was taught by well-meaning religious people that this story was all about Jesus and his ability to walk on water. He was a miracle worker, you see. Which meant, he was God incognito and, as a consequence, he was really the Commander-and-Chief even over the forces of nature.

Furthermore, I was told, this is a story about Jesus and everyone’s need to put their faith and trust in him to save them from destruction, even to rescue them from the storms of life.

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Really?
That’s how most read the story.
Which is why most miss the point entirely.

When I became an adult and, hopefully, a little wise and more spiritually-discerning, I realized this is not a story about Jesus at all. It’s a story about Peter. It’s a story about you and me. Jesus plays a secondary role and, as such, he’s a role model for Peter, as well as for you and me, about the capacity…the possibility…of living life in peace…tranquility…inner calm, even when all around you there are storms…there is chaos and confusion…

Peter was learning, as the story indicates. He managed for a short time doing pretty well. But, before long, he looked around…he lost focus…the storms overwhelmed him…the winds frightened him…and, he began to sink.

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Sound familiar?
That’s been the story of my spiritual journey.
So, here’s what I’ve learned.

1. You will have storms.

The winds will howl from time to time. Anybody who tells you differently…isn’t alive. Oh, they may have a heartbeat, but they’re divorced from all reality. Life is damn tough. And, for some people, most of the time.

2. Nobody will rescue you from life’s storms.

If that’s why you’re religious…why you’re sending your hard-earned money to the religious charlatan on television who’s promising, if you do, you’ll be delivered, might as well flush your money down the toilet. Stop looking for a rescuer…a Savior who’s going to deliver you. Jesus made it pretty clear, “In the world, you WILL have trouble…” (John 16:33).

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3. You will, and can, learn how to navigate your storms and live more at peace than you know now. How?

Face your storms. They may not be going away any time soon. And, in fact, they may get worse before they lighten up at al.

Embrace your fears. Sometimes, you WILL be afraid. But to be afraid does not mean you’ve lost faith or have a weak faith. People who pretend they aren’t afraid are not exercising faith themselves. They’re just acting strong so you can’t see their weakness.

Forgive your weaknesses. Stop believing this nonsense you hear from radio and television preachers that people of faith are never weak or afraid. Or, that people with strong faith are never doubt or feel spiritually vulnerable. It isn’t so. Everybody sinks occasionally, except the pretenders. And, they do, too. They’ve just fooled you into thinking they don’t.

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Find peace within. It may be chaotic around you, but it can and will find the “quiet” within your soul. It’s there. I promise. If you’re focused entirely on the storm, however, and not on the example of the Spiritual Master himself, you’ll sink like Simon Peter.

And, you may sink anyway, from time to time. No worries. So did Peter. But, if there’s anything the Savior does do is offer you a helping hand to get back on our feet and try again. He does not magically put an end to the storms. At least, not every time. But, he’ll show you how to tap your inner Source of strength…your inner peace.

Try making this your spiritual practice and, when the storms do come, and they will come, you will begin to stand.

And, who knows. You might even walk on water one day.

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Pray: How Hard Do You Have to Pray to Get an Answer?

posted by smcswain
How Hard Do You Have to Pray to Get an Answer

How Hard Do You Have to Pray to Get an Answer

PRAY HARDEST

I just drove past an electronic billboard located in front of a local church. The following message flashed brightly for those passing by:

“Pray Hardest

When It’s Hardest to Pray!”

I thought to myself: “Clever. Memorable. But is it true?”

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This much is true. At least, true for me.

1. Sometimes, I find it very hard to pray. I’m just not in the mood for it. As if you have to be in the mood before prayer can be real. Ever thought similarly?

2. At other times, I’ve questioned whether prayer makes any difference. Yes, I have doubted the veracity of prayer.

Who hasn’t?

Well, maybe the television preachers. Heck, the way they pray on television and before a live audience, with all their shouts of “Hallelujah!” and “Praise Jesus!” and, especially, when they scream, “In Jesus Name!” you’d think they had a direct line to God. That, when they pray, it’s like a trainer in a three-ring circus cracking a whip to get God up and off his “you-know-what” to answer their prayers.

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I assure you, however, they’re hardly as “spiritual” as they’d like you to believe and, if you send any of them money in order to demonstrate your ‘real’ faith and get God to release blessings on you the way they want you to think He does on them, you need to see a shrink. You’ll get more from a shrink than you’ll ever get from the “spiritual” dudes you watch on the tube.

3. And then, I can think of a time when I worried that my praying wasn’t proper. You know, not according to procedure. Or that the posture I was using was not appropriate. Or that the prescription I followed was misinformed.

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In other words, I worried that I wasn’t using the proper words.

Has any of this been your experience? How hard do you have to pray in order to get an answer from God?

Here’s what I’ve come to believe:

Remember what Jesus said?

      “Ask, and you will be given what you ask for. Seek, and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened. For everyone who asks, receives. Anyone who seeks, finds. If only you will knock, the door will open. If a child asks his father for a loaf of bread, will he be given a stone instead? If he asks for fish, will he be given a poisonous snake? Of course not! And if you hard-hearted, sinful men know how to give good gifts to your children, won’t your Father in heaven even more certainly give good gifts to those who ask him for them?” (Matt. 7:7-11)

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Three ways to get an answer to your prayer:

1. Ask – No need to beg, plead, struggle, strain, try to overcome doubts. Just ask. I love the simplicity here. Why do religious people complicate things?

This is the point Jesus is making. Just ask, like a child who unhesitatingly approaches a parent and asks: “Can I have a cookie?”

2. Seek – No struggle here either. “Seek” means “look.” To be watchful. To ready oneself. Prayer does this, doesn’t it? And, it does this, to prepare you for the next step.

3. Knock – Which means, to test what you know, and know deeply, you need to do. In other words, I have come to believe you have the answer to your prayers already inside you.

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Why do I say that?

I say that because Jesus promised, just before He left, the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, the Presence of God, would be in each of us (John 14). This is what that chapter is about. What it’s not about is who gets into heaven and who doesn’t. Which is why, if you hear anybody using John 14 as the “proof text” for who the “insiders” are, they’re likely an outsider who hasn’t discovered it, yet.

Jesus promised God is in you.

Pretty big promise.

Which means, if God is in me and I’m praying to God, I’m praying to myself and the answer is there already.

It might not be apparent at first. Which is where the “knocking” comes in. To knock means to take action. In other words, as you ask and seek, the answer begins to emerge.

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When I think back on my prayer life throughout life, I think that, very often, if not indeed, every time I have ever prayed about something and sought to know the direction I should take, I actually knew the direction all along. It was not always clear at first, however. And, my continual asking…seeking…would eventually reveal the answer.

In other words, my problem was not knowing what I needed to do but finding the courage to risk doing it when it began to become clear. Or, clearer. Sometimes, it’s a process of gradual discernment.

Which is why I love this image created by Jesus of “knocking.” It implies testing a few possible directions to follow and discovering the right path to follow.

To Pray is to Ask

Here’s a real life example of what I’m talking about.

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I remember when my father suffered a massive brain attack twenty years ago this November. They called it a “stroke” in those days. And, it was a doozy. He never regained consciousness. I gave the sermon at his memorial service.

He lived for ten days. But only because, shortly after they admitted him to the ICU at Baptist Hospital East, they put him on life-support. Instead of breathing on his own, the machine kept his body alive, long after his mind was gone.

And, his mind was gone. They were never able to stop the bleeding on his brain. And, every day, whenever they took a picture of his brain, more and more of the brain cavity was full of blood.

My father’s doctors had suggested by the second or third day that he would not recover and it would be best to shut down the life support.

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But we did not agree.

To Pray is to Seek

If you’ve ever been in a similar situation with a beloved family member or friend, you understand how reluctant we were to give up hope.

We prayed. We prayed. We prayed still more.

We asked.

We sought for any sign of his recovery. Every twitch of his body we were certain was a sign our prayers were being answered and he would soon open his eyes and recognize us.

Although no one was able to accept it at first or admit it at the time, we knew with each passing day, however, he was not going to make it. It took us ten days to muster the courage to act on what we knew intuitively. Therefore, on the tenth day, we signed the release papers and the medical personnel turned off the machine.

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He was gone.

To Pray is to Knock

Actually, he had been gone for days. But it took a lot of courage for us to step up to the door of death and actually knock.

I firmly believe that you and I always know what to do. The answers we seek in prayer are inside us all the time. That’s how God has wired us, since the Holy Spirit showed up anyway.

Prayer then, and its process, is one designed to help us move closer and closer to the doorway where we courageously knock and then proceed. This is faith in action. Faith isn’t mustering up confidence enough to shout “In Jesus’ name” the way Aladdin feverishly rubs a lamp hoping a genii god will pop up and out and grant three wishes.

Nope that’s a lot of drama for television preachers, but it has nothing…I repeat…nothing to do with authentic faith.

Faith is full of doubt but it determines to go forward, knocking as it does.

Ask. Seek. Knock.

No begging. No pleading. No struggle. Doubt, maybe. But, determination, nonetheless.

Why? “Your heavenly Father knows already” what you’re about to discover.

 

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Money and Our Weird Relationship to It

posted by smcswain

I read a story today shared by one of my Facebook friends whom I’ll simply refer to as Joe. It is a powerful, illustrative story shared by the Lutheran Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton about money and our weird relationship to it.

Money Money Money - Free RangeStock Free Photos

Money Money Money – Free RangeStock Free Photos

Money!

Here’s her story in her own words:

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“A church in the Northeastern Ohio Synod describes itself as a ’50/50′ congregation. It gives away half of offerings received. A significant portion goes to mission support, but the congregation also supports local projects and ministries. I visited this congregation on the day it was bringing in offerings for a special appeal. One by one, somber parishioners came forward and placed their offerings in a basket before the altar.

Farther back in the congregation I noticed a girl, maybe 5 years old, sitting on her father’s lap. She squirmed and wriggled until he gave her his offering and set her loose. She came tearing down the aisle, check held high, looking for all the world as if she had won the lottery. As she returned to her seat, I pointed out the joy of giving this little girl embodied. Someone from the congregation quipped, ‘It’s not her money.’ I waited for a minute and then said, ‘No, it’s her Father’s money.'”

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Nothing has changed.
It’s all a gift.
No matter how much or how little you have.
It’s all…all of it…it’s all “the Father’s money.”

Most people never learn this, however. Which explains their weird relationship to money throughout most of life.

Money, Money!

Sometimes, I know my readers on Your Best Life Now or the Huffington Post – Steve McSwain or who follow me on Facebook – Dr Steve McSwain wonder what I do. Sometimes, a few will muster the courage to ask me, and usually they do in a private message, “What do you do?”

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I respond with one word “Money!” and just leave it at that.

Most do, too.
Why?

The one subject about which most people will not talk is money, unless of course they mistakenly think you might know how to get more of it.

Which many seem to think I might just know. At least at first, they do.

If you’ve ever flown on commercial airlines as much as I have, you know how irritating it is to sit beside some stranger who believes the two of you are best friends who haven’t seen each other in years. You exchange a polite hello but it does not end there. In fact, from the first hello, he has you. From then on, and almost the duration of the flight, his mouth runs faster than a Boston Marathoner.

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It’s all about who he is, too, what he’s done, what he’s doing, where he’s been, where he’s going, and on and on he goes. Nauseatingly.

Just before the flight comes to an end, however, and he’s finally slowing down on how fortunate the world should feel that God has brought him into it, he turns and asks…

“And, what is it that you do?”

“Money,” I respond.
“Money?”
“That’s right, money.”

By which he, and almost everyone else, assumes I mean, “I am a stockbroker or a banker or a financial advisor,” none of which would be true. Not exactly anyway. So, I take this brief interruption in his recitation of just how wonderful he is, to explain…

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Money, Money, Money!

“In our society, there are those financial advisors, abundant in number I might add, who tell others how to make all they can, save all they can, and die rich. But that would not be the kind of advisor I am.”

“Oh?” he typically responds. “There is another kind?” he asks and genuinely surprised.

“Yes” I answer. “I’m the kind of financial advisor who encourages people to make all they can, then GIVE AWAY all they can, in order that they might die broke.”

That ends the conversation.

It did for Jesus and the Rich Young Ruler, too.
You most likely remember the story of the young rich guy who approaches Jesus one day and asks, “Teacher, what must I do to have eternal life?”

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He asks the second of two questions that concern most religious people today.

It’s true.

Go into almost any church in America today, watch almost any preacher on television today, and you’ll hear two primary sermons being preached. The first is along the theme of “How to be happy, healthy and wealthy in this life…”

It comes in many packages but that’s the basic message.

The other sermon you’ll hear is “How to stake your claim on eternity…how to get ready to meet God…how to know you’re going to heaven…how to be sure you’re saved!”

It, too, comes in many shades, but it’s basically the same pattern.

What more could anybody want from religion?

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Prosperity on earth now?
Security in heaven then?

The substance of most religious rhetoric today.

So, the rich dude, presuming he had made already a shit-load of money here, which he probably had, and was now concerned to secure his place in eternity, asks Jesus, “What must I do to be saved?”

They rehearsed a few things after which the rich dude responded, “But Teacher, I have done all these things. Isn’t there something else?”

To which Jesus responded, “Well, yes there is. Go…sell everything you have…give it to the poor, and then come follow me” (Mark 10:17-22).

That ended the conversation.

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It ends most conversations today, too.
And, that’s because the hardest lesson to learn in life is the lesson of detachment. It’s the core issue of faith, however, precisely because what most of us want is content…something to which to hitch our soul because security is our greatest concern, whether in this life or the next.

It’s all about security. Just think about that today. Think about how much your life is driven by the want of security.

It is the explanation for why people are attracted to a preacher, or religion, who promises wealth and prosperity today and eternal security tomorrow.

But that’s the irony. The rub. The crux of the matter.

To have, you must learn turn loose. “To gain,” said Jesus, “you must lose” (Matt. 16:25).

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Hardly the American way. I mean, we are so drunk on “winning.” Talk about “winning,” and you’ll have followers. Talk about losing, however, and…well…it’s a lonely world.

This is what I call the “great TRUTH reversal.” It’s just the opposite of everything you’ve been taught. Everything our western culture is built upon – independence, ruggedness, having, getting, attaining, achieving, becoming, acquiring, possessing…

Madness. It’s all madness. And, it’s the greatest single delusion of life. Because we are scared, we seek. We want. We crave. We claim. We acquire. We save. We sue. We will do almost anything, believe almost anything, lay claim to almost anything…and all to feel secure.

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And, the irony?

We never do. Feel secure, that is.

Which explains why the rich have to be richer. And, the poor can think of nothing else.

I don’t know much about poverty because, like the Rich Young Rule, I have had it pretty good in this life. It’s the next I get preoccupied with…worry over.

But the rich? The really rich? Well, now, they might just be the most frightened of all. Or, insecure. Same thing. Why? Because they have more. Plain and simple. If you have more, there’s more to worry about. A bigger security blanket is needed to make them feel more secure.

And, most don’t.

Faith, however, real faith has little to do with content. And, everything to do with conduct.

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It’s all about letting go, not latching onto.

The eastern religionists knew this, too.  Indeed, they have known this for a long time. Which is why the Buddha talked almost incessantly about “detachment.”

Jesus came along after the Buddha and his message, though shared in a different context, was virtually the same. He told the Rich Dude, “Sell everything,”…his way of saying, “Detach…let go…be done with…and then, Come Follow Me.”

But instead, it ended the conversation.
It ends most conversations today.
I mean…come on, now…

Who wants a religion that’s all about…
Getting all you can…
Giving away all you can…
And then, dying broke?

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Hell? Are You Going There?

posted by smcswain

“Hell? Are You Going There?”

“Heaven or Hell…Which?”

“Are You Saved? Only the Saved Go to Heaven!”

“Have You Heard of the 4 Spiritual Laws?”

Those were the cliches’ I often heard…heck, I even used them…when, at one time in my young adult life, I was an over zealous evangelical out to “win souls,” and lead everybody I met to Christ.

I viewed anybody and everybody who did not believe as I believed as destined to spend eternity in hell, apart from where the real Christians like me were going to spend eternity.

In heaven, of course.

Then, one day, I made the mistake of actually thinking about what I had been saying…about what I had been preaching…what what I had been told to believe…and, what I had never really examined for myself. Instead, I just accepted it and then hid behind cliches’ like, “I just believe the Bible.”

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The truth is, I only said things like that because I was scared of God. I called my fear of God, “respect” because it didn’t sound respectable to say “I’m scared of God.”

Well, you can dress up a pig in any outfit you’d like, but a hog is still a hog.

But, there was another reason I hid behind things like, “The Bible says it. I just believe it.”

All the peers who I secretly envied said they believed these things I sometimes secretly questioned. But, because their good opinion of me was far too important to me to ever let on that I might have thought or believed differently, I sang the same refrain.

In other words, I lived prisoner to everyone’s opinion of me.
How’s that for authenticity?

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Think about this. Be confident enough to believe that, if God gave you a mind, he expects you to use it. And, that means, question things. You have no faith until you question your faith. At best, you have nothing but a satchel full of somebody else’s beliefs.

So…here goes…a little intelligent reasoning.
Are you ready?

When you really think about it, this hell and heaven stuff I mean, much of what we believe about it makes very little sense make much sense.

Consider this about hell for example, and expressed quite well by a Catholic priest himself, Father Richard Rohr, in his wonderful little book, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.

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“If your notion of heaven is based on the exclusion of anybody else,

then it is by definition not heaven, but hell.”

He’s right, you know.
No matter how you wish to spin this – “Well, the Bible says it, so I just believe it.”

Really? What you’re actually saying is not too different from what I used to say, too. But, the truth is, there is much that the Bible says you will secretly find hard to believe, once you really start thinking about it.

And, to think critically and honestly about the Bible, or to question the beliefs of old that are recorded for us on sacred pages, well…what’s so wrong with this?

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People in Bible times believed the earth was flat and the sun revolved around the earth. Nobody believes that anymore. So, when we read where it says things we know just aren’t so, as in Joshua 10 where the sun is said to have “stood still,” you don’t have “to twist your brain into a first century pretzel,” as Spong loves to put it, or react by throwing out the Bible. Nor do you have to decide that none of it is trustworthy ever again.

Just because the thinking and the believing of ancient people was limited, and sometimes even wrong, does that mean they were unfaithful to what they did know?

Of course not.

Can you and I grow up ourselves and let the Bible grow up, too? Can we stop trying to explain every discrepancy we find in scripture as if it is a tumor that must be removed? And, isn’t it the truth that the only reason we argue about the Bible and try to explain everything in it is because we secretly know it’s full of mistakes?

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But of course. Otherwise, we would not be trying to explain the mistakes. Period. End of story.

I long for the day, don’t you, when religious people finally grow up? And, let the Bible be what it is, too? A collection of stories of faithful people who, across many centuries, followed their experiencing of and understanding of God…to the best of their misguided ability.

The New Testament has some strange stuff in it too, but, thankfully, most of the stuff I secretly doubted as a young minister was in the Old Testament.

For example, did God really command the Israelites to engage in mass extermination of the people they would encounter when the crossed the Jordan and entered the Promised Land?

That’s what it says in Deuteronomy 7:1-3. Go read it.

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Secretly, however, in my young adult days, I didn’t believe this. I still don’t. Did they believe it? Of course, they did. Were they wrong? Of course, they were. But they were unconscious they were wrong. They thought they were right. And, in the end, if there is a judgment, I suppose God judges on the basis of what we know, not what we do not know.

Now, when I was young, I didn’t know how to explain any of this. So, again, I did what other people did, especially those mindless preachers in big churches who I also secretly envied and wanted to be like, too, so I just dismissed such questions and disbelief from my mind for fear, if I did not, God might just exterminate me.

But, the fact is this: If you are a follower of Christ, as I am, and you think about any of this with any depth whatsoever, you could not possibly…you could not humanly say that you will enjoy heaven one day, knowing that some of your own flesh and blood, not to speak of the enemies Jesus insisted on us loving, too…but, my point is, you could not possibly say you will enjoy heaven for any one minute of eternity knowing your offspring…or some of your family…or any of your friends were suffering in “the flames of hell fire?”

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Now, could you? How could you?
Wouldn’t there suffering make your heaven into your own hell?
Now, don’t tell me that in heaven God will remove them from your sight or memory so your experience of heaven won’t turn into some kind of hell. Where did that nonsense come from? Certainly not the Bible because, since you take everything literally anyway, doesn’t Lazarus in heaven know the Rich Man is in hell?

Go back and read Luke 16:19-31

Of course, knowing others are in hell would make your heaven into one, too.

Of course.
How could it not?

So, if it would not for you, please do not bother to answer the question in the comment section. Keep your answer to yourself.

Why?

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Because your answer will likely reveal more about who you really are than even you are aware.

Hell...Are You Going There?

Hell…Are You Going There?

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The Stuff I Was Raised to Believe and What I Believe Today – Part One

posted by smcswain

Like many of you reading this, I was raised to believe many religious things. Much of that stuff, however, I no longer believe today.

The Stuff I Was Raised to Believe...And, What I Believe Today

The Stuff I Was Raised to Believe…And, What I Believe Today

Make no mistake, I’m still a believer. And, what I believe today is very important to me. But what I believe has been and continues to be subjected to rigorous questioning and self-reflection – which, of course, all beliefs should. As you will read what follows, some of  you will recognize many of the beliefs, as beliefs you perhaps held as well or maybe still hold today. In either instance, I hope it will be helpful to you, as you look at what you believe and ask your own questions.

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The Stuff I Was Raised to Believe

For the most part, I grew up being taught to believe the following things:

1.The Stuff I Was Raised to Believe: God is up above you and me, somewhere in the heavens but beyond the clouds. I had no idea where heaven was and I was sure nobody else did either. Anytime I asked about where heaven was I got the proverbial “deer in the headlights” response.  In other words, almost everybody I knew pretended to know and called their pretense “faith.”

I also remember the day I learned just how big our universe is. Or, more accurately, I remember the day I began to sense the vastness of outer space. Nobody has the capacity to conceptualize just how big this universe is. It’s so big in fact, no one has the capacity to even imagine it.

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Light travels at 186,000 miles per second, for example.

“So?” you say.

Well, wrap your head, if you could – but you cannot, around this one thought. The little galaxy we live in – which we call the Milky Way – is so vast itself (and, it is a small galaxy compared to the billions of other galaxies astrophysicists have seen), if you were to travel across our galaxy at the speed of light, it would take 85,000 years to cross the Milky Way.

85,000 years. I repeat the number because this number alone is hard to conceptualize.

When I first learned this fact about our Milky Way, I remember wondering whether that meant Jesus was still traveling to reach heaven. For example, when Jesus ascended from the earth two thousand years ago in what the Church celebrates as the Ascension, if Jesus were traveling at the incomprehensible speed of light, he has by my calculations about 83,000 more years of travel before he will ever be able to sit down “at the right hand of the Father in heaven” (Hebrews 1:3). I hope he remembered to bring along some scraps from the twelve baskets of leftovers (Mark 6:43).

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What Do You Believe?

I was an adult before I became aware of the vastness of outer space. Like most religious people, I just didn’t think about it. I know now it was because such thoughts are too scary to think…too frightening to imagine. Such thoughts raise serious questions like, “Where is heaven?” Or, worse, “Is there a heaven?” Or, worse still, “If there is no heaven, does that also mean there is no God?”

I have always had an interest in the moon, stars, and planets I can see. I never thought much, however, about the infinity of space I could not see. Then, one day I realized that outer space is more about nothing than it is about anything, more about emptiness…nothingness…than it is about the few stars or planets we can see on a clear night. Oh sure, what we can see is interesting, intriguing, and invites our study. What we cannot see, however – the darkness itself – is infinitely more mysterious. And, unimaginably more infinite.

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2. The Stuff I Was Raised to Believe: God was like a cranky grandfather who was hard to please. But I never ceased trying, largely because I was afraid that, if I did not, I might just offend him and he would reject me.

Even after all these years, it is still hard not to think of God as a kind of Santa Claus who lives above the sky and watches us like a principal monitoring a playground of school kids.

“Better watch out, better not cry, better not pout I’m telling you why…”

Do You Question the Stuff You Were Raised to Believe?

I know those lyrics are in a Christmas song we sing about Santa Claus. But, the truth is, I was raised to think about God in much the same way. As a kind of parental monitor in the grade school cafeteria who dared anybody to step out of line, misbehave, or disturb his neighbor.

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So, I spent much of my early life trying to please God. I never felt too successful either.

3.The Stuff I Was Raised to Believe: Heaven was somewhere “up there,” or “out there,” too, and that’s where all the “saved” people would go. I was never fully certain whether I was among the “saved.” Not surprisingly, many raised in a similar environment are not either.  I was especially concerned about this when I discovered there were other people beyond Baptists, the group within which I was raised, who said they were the ones instead who were actually going to heaven.

I was taught that Baptist were right in their theology and beliefs.

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  • Episcopal folks were liberals and, therefore, could not be trusted. They were likely secret Communists, too, and should be viewed suspiciously.
  • Presbyterians were rich people and owned local banks in town, as well as many of the businesses.
  • Methodists were too much like Catholics.
  • Catholics were ritualistic and we thought the statues inside their churches proved they were really idol worshipers.

We were certain, therefore, they worshipped many gods. We blamed their idol worship on the fact that none of them really “knew” the Bible like we Baptists did. It never occurred to us that the Bible was our idol. We regarded it as an infallible, inerrant book written by God himself and in the King James tongue. For all practical purposes, therefore, we regarded Catholics as lost and in need of saving. So, whenever a Catholic made a conversion in our Baptist church, it was like a Superbowl win for God.

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  • Pentecostals were ignorant country people…snake-handlers, too, and they were those who lived in uninhabitable shacks in the hills and valleys and cooked by a potbelly stove.

We held a lot of strange ideas about people inside our own religion. Which explains why most Christians today have a hard time not stereotyping people of other religions or the religions they believe.

4. The Stuff I Was Raised to Believe: “Saved” people were the ones who had been “convicted by the Holy Spirit” – which was the only way you could be saved – and they were the ones who responded to that inner conviction by stepping out into the aisle at invitation time and making that long journey to the front of the church during an altar call.

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Picture a Billy Graham crusade and the choir singing “Just As I Am” and…well…you’ve got the picture.

The “saved” were those, therefore, who agreed with the pastor or “counselor” that they were terrible sinners, deserving of hell because it was their sin that sent Jesus to the Cross. But, now that they had repented, they could be forgiven, provided of course they asked Jesus to come into their hearts.

Which I did. I did several times, in fact. Not publicly, but at night, lying in my bed and all to just make sure that, “if I die before I wake,” I’d be sure to make it.

I do not mind admitting I never quite figured out this whole salvation thing. It never made much sense to me that God hated sin so badly that he had to punish something, or Someone, in order to feel better about things. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on how you view it, his own son stepped up and said “I’ll go. Kill me. I’ll be the sacrifice.”

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From there, the story only got more convoluted in my thinking.

I never quite figured out how any father, much less a “loving” Heavenly Father, could kill his own son and avoid prosecution. It did not help me to question this, as my religious superiors would look askance at me for pointing out such unexamined inequities in our religious story. Instead, they would just look offended by my questions and reminded me that “God’s ways are beyond our ways,” and that “there are some things we just have to accept by faith.”

Really? Then, why did God give us a mind to think with…and a moral code written into our genes that makes us to know deep down there are some things that are just wrong?

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Like killing your own Son.

I always found it odd that what I regarded as their fear of questioning things they did not understand, my religious superiors called “faith” instead. I remember many times asking myself, “How is believing something you’re afraid to question an act of faith?”

Mark Twain didn’t help. He’s the guy who laughingly said, “Faith is believing things you know ain’t so.”

If You Don’t Question What You Believe…

Nobody had the guts to answer my questions. At least in my memory.

I always felt, had God been placed on trial for murdering his own son, what jury would have ever accepted his alibi for doing so, “My ways are beyond your ways…” “Somebody had to suffer and die…” “Sin had to be punished…”  “Trust that I know best.”

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I don’t know about you but those alibis sound Hannibal-like to me.

As soon as I thought such things, however, or raised questions like the ones I’m raising here, I felt my religious teachers viewed me as a troublemaker because they would say things like, “You’d better watch yourself!” “Don’t question God.” You keep that up and you’re likely to end up in…you know where!”

They would never say it because “hell” was regarded as a curse word. But I knew what they were thinking.

5. The Stuff I Was Raised to Believe:  Hell was the place where bad people go. Murderers, except God of course, and rapists and disbelievers and people who believed or followed other religions and we were pretty sure the Catholics were all going there, too. Except for the ones who had repented and joined our church.

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And, where was hell? It was “down there” and, although like heaven “up there,” I had no idea where “down there” was, again I was sure nobody else did either. I knew one thing for sure, however: I knew I didn’t want to go there. Which was largely why I got saved. I am also pretty sure that’s why everybody else around me got saved, too. Salvation was to rescue you from hell and take you to heaven when you died.

And, that was all there was to it.

Is What You Believe Worth Believing?

Every summer, we had Vacation Bible School. Since every parent in the neighborhood looked for something that would get their children out of the house, and out of their hair, everybody’s neighbor brought their kids to our church for VBS. I figured out early on that the real reason we had Vacation Bible School was not because anybody really liked it. They didn’t. It was a way of getting the neighborhood kids “saved,” however. Their parents did not have the fear of hell in them like we did in us.

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All that really mattered in life, you see, was that people get “saved.” In so many different ways, this was all that was important about anyone’s life.

Which never made much sense to me, either.

I remember thinking, “If what’s important is that we get ‘saved’ so as to avoid hell and spend eternity in heaven, why does everybody bother to get an education, compete for the best jobs, concern themselves with getting married, or having children, or buying a house and cars or saving for their retirement?  If this is all there is to this life – getting saved – why does everybody pretend this is what’s important while they’re in church, but then spend the rest of the week trying to get to the top?

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The top of the social ladder, that is?

(End of Part One) Originally published on Dr. McSwain’s blog.

Dr. Steve McSwain is an author and speaker, counselor to non-profits and congregations, an advocate in the fields of self-development, interfaith cooperation, and spiritual growth. His blogs at BeliefNet.com, the Huffington Post, as well as his own website (www.SteveMcSwain.com) inspire people of all faith traditions. Dr. McSwain is an Ambassador to the Council on the Parliament for the World’s Religions. His interfaith pendants are worn by thousands on virtually every continent, sharing his vision of creating a more conscious, compassionate, and charitable world. Visit his website for more information or to book him for an inspirational talk on happiness, inner peace, interfaith diversity and respect or charitable living and giving.

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Spiritual Life, Health, and Vitality

posted by smcswain

The illusion of spiritual health and disease may actually run in both directions.

Spiritual Life

Spiritual Life

There are those, for example, who regard the Church in almost any of its communal expressions as wrought with a kind of irreversible and terminal illness. And, truthfully, there are times I feel this way myself. Like this branch and its brown leaves, these communions may be attached to the vine but there is no resemblance of spiritual life or health and vitality in any of them. Because of this sad reality, many people have chosen to walk away from the Church entirely.

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Is There Spiritual Life in Today’s Churches?

I understand this universal walkout and I blame no one for choosing to do so. From time to time, I have come close to doing the same.

Reminders from creation like this one, however, tell me otherwise, when it comes to spiritual life, health, and vitality within some churches and within all persons.

There are always those individuals who are connected to the Source of spiritual life and health. As a consequence, there will always be some Christians communions that display the spiritual life, health, and vitality that thrives within them. But, generally speaking, it is NOT the ones that presume they are. Yet, there are likely more communions with real spiritual life within them than any of us are aware.

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Here is the most salient of all spiritual truths.

There IS Spiritual Life and Guess Where?

Whether there is the appearance of spiritual life or not, whether there are communions and persons green with spiritual health and vitality or brown with spiritual illness and dis-ease, all branches are still connected to the Vine (John 15:5).

And, that means YOU!

Listen, it takes a lot of determined effort to detach from your natural spiritual state. I will not say it is impossible. But I will say this: if you’re concerned whether you are…you aren’t.

And, that’s for real.

Dr. Steve McSwain is an author and speaker, counselor to non-profits and congregations, an advocate in the fields of self-development, interfaith cooperation, and spiritual growth. His blogs at BeliefNet.com, the Huffington Post, as well as his own website (www.SteveMcSwain.com) inspire people of all faith traditions. Dr. McSwain is an Ambassador to the Council on the Parliament for the World’s Religions. His Interfaith Pendants are worn by thousands on virtually every continent, sharing his vision of creating a more conscious, compassionate, and charitable world. Visit his website for more information or to book him for an inspirational talk on happiness, inner peace, interfaith respect or charitable living.

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Interfaith Spirituality: Interview with Author Tom Ziemann

posted by smcswain

His name is Tom Ziemann (pronounced “Zee – Man”). I’m not exactly sure when we met. I do know, however, how we met. It was on Facebook. When? Maybe a couple of years ago, but that’s about all I can say.

Interfaith Spirituality

When I think of all the people I’ve met – amazing people – on what my mother-in-law calls “the Facebook,” I am grateful. Many of them, like Tom Ziemann, were raised, as I was raised, Christian. Today, however, many of them are still Christian but they have embraced, as I have embraced, an openness to interfaith spirituality.

As I write this, I do not yet know where author Tom Ziemann might be with regard to his faith positions. I’ll learn, as you will learn, during the interview. What I do know is that he embraces an interfaith spirituality, as many do today. This is hardly surprising to those of you who follow my blogs and are familiar with Interfaith Spirituality Pendants

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I am more Christian today than I have ever been. I am more deeply committed to Christ than at any other time in my life. Yet, I am increasingly aware there has only ever been one spiritual truth, experienced and expressed in a variety of different ways, idioms, cultures, and contexts.

I suspect I will find the same to be true of Tom Ziemann.

What I do know is that I have made many friends from literally around the world via Facebook. While many of them I would not likely recognize if I met them on the street, I am richer as a person for having crossed paths with them on this brief journey through life.

I suspect I’m going to feel the same about Tom Ziemann during the interview.

Unquestionably, Tom Ziemann is one of those for whom I am grateful to God our paths crossed. No mistake in any of that. I stopped questioning a long time ago – at least I think I have – whether the persons we meet, and the varied ways in which we meet them, is part of a divine destiny. I’m not saying it is. I’m admitting instead that I do not know. I just don’t question it anymore.

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But do I enjoy it?
You bet I do.

Tom Ziemann is a self-described layman. He’s a terrific author. He is a mature person in interfaith spirituality and he possesses a depth of spirituality many self-described clergy persons never seem to either appreciate or possess.

He’s friendly, too. I am guessing this will come across in the interview just as he does on Facebook. Finally, he is a very talented, gifted artist as well. Go here and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

But it’s this book he wrote that has captured my attention.

Interfaith Spirituality

Interfaith Spirituality

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The Department of Zenitation: A Layman’s Guide to Making Spirituality Work in Real Life.

It’s terrific. Full of insight and spiritual guidance. It’s interfaith in nature, drawing from the many wells of spiritual insight found among the world’s great faith traditions.

Interfaith Spirituality: It Works in Real Life

I am so impressed by him and by this book and I highly recommend it. I have this feeling you’ll be purchasing his book and visiting his website just as soon as you hear him speak and respond to my questions in this brief interview. Check him out. Check out his book. Visit his website. Observe his artistic skill. And, enjoy going deeper in your own spiritual walk.

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There are 160+ interfaith spirituality devotions inside this book. I regularly read one or more at the start of a new day. I find great inspiration in the things Ziemann shares. I think you will, too.

Enjoy the interview. Then, get your copy of his interfaith spirituality book: The Department of Zenitation: A Layman’s Guide to Making Spirituality Work in Real Life

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Hell No, I Do Not Believe in Hell

posted by smcswain
Hell No! I Do Not Believe in Hell

Hell No! I Do Not Believe in Hell

I think I have finally decided that to believe in hell, as I once did, is really the admission that Love does not exist in you.

How could it?

HELL? HELL NO!

Just imagine. You’re in the imaginary heaven (I say “imaginary” because, I now believe heaven, just as I believe hell, is a dualistic creation of the mind and that both are states of consciousness, not literally places. BTW, before you judge that as “unbiblical” that is exactly what Pope John Paul II believed, too). But, my point is this: just imagine you’re in heaven – a real place, if you wish, and, from that lofty and eternal place of bliss, love, and compassion, you look down into hell below and see a soul who is burning in torment and suffering.

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How could you possibly stand it? Wouldn’t you have to turn away? And then, when you turned away, how could get that picture out of your mind?

That is, if you were really filled with compassion…with love…with forgiveness…how could you ever rest and enjoy the eternal bliss of heaven knowing there were people, maybe some of them your own family, suffering eternally?

If you could stand this, which I no longer believe you actually could, but, presuming you could…if you could…I think what you are really admitting is that your heart is devoid of love.

How could it not be?

That’s my conclusion.

You do not have to agree and many of you will not. But this is the conclusion to which I have come.

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To believe in hell is to admit your heart is devoid of compassion. And, for me, I want to become more and more compassionate, not the opposite. So, I have no choice but to refuse to live at a level of existence that actually looks forward to justice and punishment being executed on anyone. So, no, I do not believe in any future judgment or ultimate punishment on you, me, or anybody.

COMPASSION? HELL, YES!

I believe only in compassion, mercy, and love. If that makes me a heretic to you, then I welcome that label with as much enthusiasm as a soldier would welcome the Purple Heart.

I want everyone, whether they deserve it or not, to know and experience Eternal compassion.

And, yes, that means everyone. So no need to start listing those you’re sure should be excluded. Leave that where it belongs – inside a cold, compassion-less heart.

Just my morning thoughts.

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