20 October 2013

The Mystery Man and Tyler from Spartanburg, SC  

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I live by routines. I have a morning routine and a before-bed routine. When I sit down to eat, I have a routine.

Likewise, when I'm in my car, I have a routine. Trash goes in a plastic bag in the back behind the passenger seat. When I stop at a gas station, I empty the trash. Sometimes, it piles up.

After my most recent roadtrip, it was getting pretty dire back there. I finally pulled up after a long run to fill up the tank and empty the mound of trash that had accumulated.

I'm in running shorts, a singlet, and running shoes, obviously still sweaty from seven miles of torture, bent over the back seat of my car when a man approaches me. He's wearing a red checkered shirt with the top button undone, no tie, tucked into freshly pressed grey dress pants. He is middle-aged, with a smart comb-over, and slightly stocky.

"Here," he says, "You look like you could use some reading material."

He hands me a small booklet, about the size of a checkbook, and walks away. I call after him with a half-hearted, "thanks," but he had already disappeared.

I look down at the booklet in my hand. "This Is Your Life!" it declares, in bright red block letters.

As I read through, I realize that this is a religious pamphlet written in cartoon format. A man who declares "I've been a good man!" is taken through the process of dying and traveling through space (?) to stand before God, who goes through everything the man has ever done, said, or thought throughout his life. The first part of the pamphlet ends with the man being thrown in the lake of fire, i.e. Hell, by God for either failing to live a perfect life, or not becoming a "born-again" Christian.

In the second part of the pamphlet, the man awakes from what it seems was a dream. He goes to church and asks his priest how he can become born-again and dedicate himself to Christ. The rest of the booklet is full of pictures of the man doing charitable things, like visiting the elderly at a retirement home and working at a soup kitchen, and at the end he accepts death and is welcomed by God into Heaven.

I put the pamphlet down, still sweaty but now sitting in the driver's seat of the car. The small cartoon strip had an impact on me, because I'm well aware that I have not lived a perfect life. My church attendance has fallen off, but I do not view myself as someone who has turned his back on God or faith. Christianity--or any religion, really--is more than simply going to church. In my view, the majority of Christians in America go to church on Sundays but do not put that faith into practice in their daily lives Monday through Saturday, anyway.

But the pamphlet from the unnamed gas-station man brought up a good question, and reminded me of a conversation I had with a good friend a few years back:

Is God really vengeful?

If I was in the business of "ranking" Christians, Tyler would rank light-years ahead of me. I'd guess he has been doing bible study since the day he was born, and he is an easy quoter of obscure biblical passages. On top of that, he is a legitimately good guy. He's not born-again, but he is a Christian, and for the sake of this column, his particular "sect" is irrelevant.

"What does 'vengeance' really mean?" he asks. "And more basic than that, how does Christianity actually fit into human history?"

Christianity was not the first faith, nor was it the first monolithic faith. Before it, human beings from around the world prayed to, sacrificed for, and lived in fear of gods they saw as judging their daily acts. Everything "bad" that happened to them was viewed as punishment from the gods, which is where our concept of religious vengeance comes: if you do X, and X is bad, then god will do Y, where Y is punishment for X.

"That's the belief system that Christianity was brought into. And while it supplanted a lot of the old pagan rituals, it's tough to really eradicate the millennia-old belief that you will be punished by god. Even after the concept of the Christian God came along and was revealed through Jesus Christ as being something greater, people still held this belief."

God, Tyler argues, stands opposed to punishment. "If you consider the passion story, you realize that God proved he was like us by sending down his son. He did this to prove a point, because what happened to Jesus? He was crucified, because we had made the very act of being God a crime! And what did God do after we had essentially killed Him?"

Nothing. Through that act--the most profound in human history--he proved that there is good, and there is evil, and it is up to us to act in accordance with the former without resorting to the latter.

"God allowed himself to be slain by man, and did not slay man in return. There is no such thing as a vengeful God. When I hear people call themselves "God-fearing" I think, why aren't you God-loving? Why don't you love your fellow man, without judgment and without malice? That's the message. Everything else is false, I think. And when you accept that reality about God, about man, and about life, the world brightens up. It becomes a really beautiful place."

Human beings aren't perfect. But through the example of Christ--which, consequently, is an example that permeates all faiths and all people--we can work towards a better life for all people.

So while the mystery man from the gas station and the printers of the small pamphlet aren't evil, I don't think they are fully correct. The message of the day is acceptance, with malice towards none and love towards all. 

This is not easy; in fact, that last sentence may be the most difficult concept in the world to grasp. One of my favorite biblical passages is Matthew 18:21-22: "Then came Peter to him, and said, 'Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Till seven times?' Jesus saith unto him, 'I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.'"

When you consider how astounding that is in today's world, you might be discouraged. But realize that there is no punishment if you fail at perfection, so why not try? This is not to be dictated by a government program, or left only for Sundays in a pew somewhere. With His example as our guide, we hold the power to change the world for the better and make our dwelling here on Earth a little more like His kingdom up in Heaven.

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