The (Almost) Impossible Paradigm: Following Jesus, Part 4

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Impossible?

Picture the largest indigenous land animal in your country—on the west coast of Canada it would be a grizzly bear. Now picture the smallest hole which technology of our day has devised—that would be the apertures made by UC Berkeley’s semiconductor laser that are smaller than a single protein molecule. Now, imagine you want to communicate a hyperbole to make a point. You might say something like, “That’s as likely as a Grizzly squeezing through a semiconductor laser aperture!” It would be unusual enough that you would be making your point (no pun intended).

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record Jesus making a similar comment—a first century Middle Eastern version of it. Jesus uses hyperbole to make a point, to catch His disciples’ attention, to correct a firmly held cultural belief. Jesus’ comment follows His interaction with the rich young man who has turned away, unwilling to redistribute his wealth, precursor to softening his heart to following Jesus.

“Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:23-27).

The problem was that Jewish culture equated wealth with spiritual blessing. It read Moses’ words, “God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to” (Deuteronomy 15:10) and made it into a holy grail. Wealth became a defining sign of God’s reward. The wealthier the Jews became, the more they ignored God’s words fore and aft of the ‘blessing.’ The commands, “do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother” (v.7), and “be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land” (v.11) had been disregarded. It is human nature to twist God’s words in such a way that it benefits oneself rather than obeying the true spirit of the command.

Jesus’ hyperbole was meant to bring that mindset to a screeching halt. The disciples are “amazed” and then “even more amazed” at his words. He is clearly explaining that we can neither earn our way to eternal life nor presume that our wealth, social status, or ethical standards give us a foot in the door to paradise. There is nothing we can do to position ourselves to deserve God’s blessing. No one can be saved.

Exactly, confirms Jesus. “With man this is impossible.”

But Jesus continues. There is hope because God turns the impossible into the possible. As in creation when He speaks His Word and everything from rainbows of light to species of life are created, His Word must be spoken for humanity’s salvation to occur. Jesus is the Word of God in the flesh, and it is He who makes salvation possible for each of us. He is the one who has spent the wealth of His perfect sinlessness to pay with His life-blood the debt of our moral bankruptcy. They unpayable bill has been paid in full.

No matter where we are at today—long-time followers of Jesus, cautious explorers of this thing called saving faith, or hard-nosed atheists—we are all on common ground. Not one of us can access any real paradise on our own. It’s impossible. But Jesus can and does. Jesus makes the impossible possible.

Be amazed an even more amazed. He has made eternity available to us.

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The (Almost) Impossible Paradigm: Following Jesus, Part 2

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Identities.

“Good teacher,” asked a young man one day, running up to Jesus and falling on his knees before him, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

At first glance, we seem to be observing an individual who is a genuine seeker. His posture has communicated keen interest and even submission; his face has likely transmitted eagerness and enthusiasm; his words have articulated respect and resolve. What more could Jesus want in a seeker? Yet Jesus begins His response with a challenge.

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone.”

Strange. The man has merely used a respectful form of address, and yet Jesus confronts the very first word that has come out of the man’s mouth. Why?

From our records of Jesus’ three years of ministry, His death and resurrection, Jesus does not routinely correct people’s usage of language, so why now? Why this word? The answer lies in Jesus’ correction of the mindset behind the man’s use of the word ‘good’.

Jesus already knows something about this young man that the young man himself does not know—that he is motivated by false identities and false loyalties. He sees Jesus as a teacher—a good one, yes, but just a teacher. This is one of the easiest identities for us to apply to Jesus. It allows us to show him respect as one who authentically tried to add his voice to help a hurting humanity; it allows us to learn from his compassionate disposition; it allows us to appear to be reasonable, inclusive and tolerant of him, as one of many good moral teachers this world has produced. But it also allows us to distance ourselves from real core life change—from a relationship with the Son of God. Teachers are significant and memorable, but they’re neither perfect nor eternal. They’re not God. But Jesus claims to be God.

Secondly, the young man sees himself as good—a good obedient son and a good obedient member of the Jewish religion. He hears the list of commandments Jesus recites, and checks them all off as done.

“You know the commandments:” reminds Jesus, “Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.”

“Teacher,” he declared (notice the young man has withdrawn the word good as he addresses Jesus this time), “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” Wait. Has he really kept all the commands? Flawlessly? This young man has a self-identity issue happening here. He has defined goodness as something he has attained. He has already forgotten Jesus’ intelligence that “no one is good—except God alone.” Not only that, but he has failed to notice that within the list of the commandments to be followed Jesus has deliberately omitted the prime commandment contained in the Mosaic Law: “I am the LORD your God…You shall have no other gods before me”(Deut.5:7).

This is no coincidence. Jesus has been testing the young man. He has been trying to help the young man discern the state of his inner being, of his soul, of his relationship with the LORD his God. But the young man comes up empty. He completely forgets why the commandments exist. And the reason the young man has become distracted from the prime calling and purpose of human life is because he has found a replacement for God. He has found wealth.

Money, material possessions, and the power and social status that accompany the acquisition of wealth have bumped God into second place in the rich young man’s life. Perhaps it has happened so gradually he has not even been aware of it. He has conferred a false identity upon both wealth and God that inverses their true value and sovereignty.

Jesus has diagnosed the foolish rich young man’s heart condition from the moment the young man had come to Him. And now, Jesus offers the one prescription that will reverse the prognosis of spiritual decline into which the young man has fallen: dispose of the intruding god; jettison the cargo that is causing his ship to sink; eradicate the disease that is killing him. Give away his wealth.

Ah, say we. I’m not that wealthy. This doesn’t apply to me. But take a good hard look at how we identify ourselves. What two or three things are we most likely to want to communicate to others about ourselves overtly or covertly? Is it about our social position, our trendiness, our gender, our education or career, maybe even our identity as a victim of something? Anything with which we identify ourselves above our identity as worshipers of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a false identity, and Jesus says ‘Get rid of it! It’s destroying you and it’s destroying your relationship with God.

If this stirs our hearts, if it shakes anything within the core of our souls let’s do the impossible; let’s put God back into first position in our lives. It might hurt. It will mean a change of identities. But there is one thing we can know for absolute certain: it is good.

(Photo Credit: By Daderot (Own work) [CC0], File: False Identity Cards; via Wikimedia Commons)

Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 24 (Conclusion)

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‘Taw’

“How Should We Then Live?’ asks the provoking title of Francis Schaeffer’s documentary which bears the sub-title ‘The Rise and Fall of Western Thought and Culture.’ The documentary is an expression of Schaeffer’s defense of Presuppositional Apologetics—the view that Christian faith is the only basis for rational thought. Remove that basis and rational thought decays. It’s a bold presupposition, isn’t it?

We all make sense of our experiences from presuppositions we hold. That is why two observers seeing the same thing can come away with two very different impressions. These suppositions, inferences, even hunches create the worldviews through which we make sense of everything we observe. Christian faith, explains Presuppositional Apologetics, presupposes the universe, the Bible, and Jesus, the Son of God are divine revelations without which every other worldview is lacking essential information for rational human life. There are no neutral assumptions from which reason can arise. Only the assumptions that arise from God’s revelation provide us with full rational thought that leads to full flourishing life.

As the psalmist brings us to his concluding stanza of Psalm 119, he summarizes Scripture’s teaching on the personal nature of God. He connects his experience of God with the rational basis of human thought: the Scriptural revelation that God alone is worthy of worship, that God’s precepts alone are faithful guideposts for life, and that God has created one salvation, the ultimate solution to every human problem.

“May my cry come before you, O LORD; give me understanding according to your word. / May my supplication come before you; deliver me according to your promise. / May my lips overflow with praise, for you teach me your decrees. / May my tongue sing of your word, for all your commands are righteous. / May your hand be ready to help me, for I have chosen your precepts. / I long for your salvation, O LORD, and your law is my delight. / Let me live that I may praise you, and may your laws sustain me. / I have strayed like a lost sheep. Seek your servant, for I have not forgotten your commands” (Psalm 19:169-176).

“Give me understanding according to your word,” pleads the psalmist. He is convinced that the wealth of wisdom (rational thought and the behaviours that arise from it) for the present, and hope for the future come from God. As modern thinkers, we may be tempted to think social consensus or political charters make Scriptural revelation obsolete. But can charters of rights and freedoms really trump the noble virtue God’s character and principles express? What about when society or nature and their current cohort of ‘freedoms’ and restrictions fail us?

The psalmist’s hope is in the Lord. “May your hand be ready to help me,” he prays, and “I long for your salvation…” So the psalmist guides us to look to the Hope of the Nations, the Lord’s salvation—Jesus—who alone offers a rational basis for believing that there is hope for us.

How ought we live each day in order to reflect the rational foundation of our faith? By coming to the Shepherd of our souls admitting we are “strayed…lost sheep” and “servant(s)”, and asking for His help to live lives of integrity, lives aligned with the truth of His revealed will. That is the message the psalmist has painstakingly taken 176 verses in twenty-two stanzas to communicate. Without God we are nothing. With His salvation we become everything He imagined. That’s more than epic. That’s rational.

Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 22

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‘Resh.’

If there is one thing God has communicated to us humans, it is that we matter. The most relevant piece of information we will ever be able to grasp is that you and I are immeasurably loved and valued by Him.

“(Our) shared core hunger,” writes Tony Schwartz in an article for the New York Times, “is for value…We each want desperately to matter, to feel a sense of worthiness.” It’s what he calls ‘The enduring hunt for personal value’. James Gilligan, who authored “Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic” after studying human violence for over 40 years, began to observe “the frequency with which I received the same answer when I asked prisoners…why they assaulted…someone. Time after time they would reply, ‘Because he disrespected me’.”

As the psalmist moves into the third-to-last stanza of the interminable one hundred and nineteenth psalm, his singular petition is that God—who has embedded an element of His own worth into each person—will express the ultimate act of valuing human life: to preserve it indefinitely.

“…Preserve my life according to your promise,” the psalmist appeals. “…Preserve my life according to your laws,” he adds, and “…Preserve my life, O LORD, according to your love.” What does he mean by promise, laws, and love as the mechanisms of preserving life—the psalmist’s life, or yours and mine for that matter?

Firstly, the promise the psalmist references goes back ages to the time of Abraham. Abraham was God’s handpicked individual to begin a nation and race of people to whom and through whom God would speak. At God’s chosen time some 1500 years later, when strange prophecies like a virgin birth came together with others in fulfillment, Jesus was born from that race. The promise made to Abraham was, in short, “You will be a blessing…and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” The promise of blessing was fulfilled not at Jesus’ birth, but at His death and resurrection, because with that moral ransom paid, Jesus made the eternal preservation of human life available to every person on this planet. That was the promise. That is what is available to each of us who have accepted Jesus as our ‘ransom-payer’; we will find eternal life with Jesus on the other side of this life. That is how the promise preserves lives.

Secondly, the laws the psalmist references go back fewer ages to the time of Moses. Moses was God’s handpicked individual to lead the nation that Abraham had fathered into the Promised Land. On that journey, Moses was also given the daunting task of teaching the nation that God is a God of integrity, and that He can only be in relationship with people who respect God’s authority to require that integrity to be developed in them. The laws were commands God clarified through Moses, commands like: “I am the LORD your God; you shall have no other gods before me” and “You shall not covet.” Those two commands alone were enough to make it pretty clear that every human on planet earth was incapable of obeying God completely. That was fine because it turns out that “through the law we become conscious of sin” (Romans 3:20). Consciousness of sin leads us to do one of two things: rebel further against God and make a grab for complete freedom from God’s presence, or submit to God in humble repentance, accepting God’s gift of forgiveness through Jesus, and access to His presence for eternity. That is how the laws both condemn and preserve lives.

And finally, the psalmist references the LORD’s love which covers both the span of eternity and of creation, of which this planet is a mere blip in time. God, who is three persons in one—Father, Spirit, and Son—exists in a unity described by perfect love. He is completely fulfilled in the expressions of love that bind the Trinity unsparingly, perfectly, and completely together. Yet somehow—in the greatest mystery of the ages—as God created the universe, He made humankind the pinnacle of His loving creative expression. To be in loving relationship with Him was the purpose God embedded into every man, woman and child. We are created in such a way that our greatest joy and fulfillment comes only through loving Him in return.

The psalmist was right. The promise, the laws, and God’s love, are the essential components of God’s great gift to us: the preservation of our lives for eternity. He values us immeasurably. He wants us to be in continuing existence with Him—in future bodies created to last forever—long after these present shadows of bodies have ceased to be preserved. So dig out a Bible. Begin again to pour through its pages and find out how God valuing our person is tied to His intention to preserve us for eternity. Come to this sanctuary of preservation.

 

Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 21

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‘Qoph’

Distraught. That’s how the psalmist sounds as he pens ‘Qoph’, this fourth-to-last stanza in his epic 119th psalm. Anxious. Something is deeply troubling him. Further along he gives a few more details of his dilemma, but he avoids the kind of details that might tempt us to discount his anxiety as an obsolete cultural anomaly. Perhaps he knows how endemic anxiety is in many a culture, in every era, in most people. Perhaps he is giving us clues to lead us to find the kind of relief he has found. Listen to how he puts it.

“I call with all my heart; answer me, O LORD, and I will obey your decrees. / I call out to you; save me and I will keep your statutes. / I rise before dawn and cry for help; I have put my hope in your word. / My eyes stay open through the watches of the night, that I may meditate on your promises. / Hear my voice in accordance with your love; preserve my life, O LORD, according to your laws. / Those who devise wicked schemes are near, but they are far from your law. / Yet you are near, O LORD, and all your commands are true. / Long ago I learned from your statutes that you established them to last forever.”

It doesn’t take much for us to see that, according to the psalmist, relief from anxiety comes from the LORD. Let’s explore that a little. Who is the LORD, what do we know about Him, and how can He help—not only with anxiety, but also with every dilemma that we face?

‘LORD’ is the English term for the Hebrew name Yahweh by which God refers to Himself. The psalmist understands a few things about Yahweh—the LORD—that come into play as he composes this psalm-prayer. Rather than an impersonal cosmic force, the psalmist understands that the LORD is a personal, relational Being whose essence is expressed to humankind in the form of His Word. His Word is not only Scripture—a body of writings including the Law, poetry, historical records, promises, prophecies, and later the Gospels, epistles, and more prophetic writings—but most succinctly in the form of Jesus, who is called “the Word”.

The LORD loves people and He engages in meaningful dialogue with people because it brings Him joy. Through His Word He expresses His eternal views and expectations as far as we are concerned, because they are for our good. He hears and answers those who cry out to Him. He even holds Himself accountable to making and keeping promises with people because He wants to give us hope and a meaningful future. He is not far off (as those who don’t know Him imagine), but is near—nearer than our worst dilemmas, our most overwhelming anxieties, or our most daunting enemies.

And as the psalmist comes to this point—the nearness of the LORD—we can almost hear the soul-deep sigh of relief the psalmist breathes. This is it: the nearness of the LORD is what God’s Word is ultimately about. The psalmist only grasps a small piece of it, but he knows that God’s nearness—His presence—is the key to human flourishing. He is also aware that God’s nearness is on a very different plane from the nearness he experiences from “those who devise wicked schemes.” The nearness of human dilemma, of anxiety and trouble is trifling compared to the great nearness of God to those who call on Him with all their heart.

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” asks the Apostle Paul a millennium and a half after the psalmist’s time. “Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?” Then he answers, “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:35-39).

The love of God that is expressed Christ Jesus—also known as ‘God-with-us’—is the prescription for our greatest anxieties. The nearer we draw to Jesus through prayer, through exploration of the Scriptures, and through a determination to obey His commands of love, the more we will sense His great nearness. It may mean “ris(ing) before dawn” and even staying awake “through the watches of the night (to) meditate on (God’s) promises” rather than yielding to anxiety, but it will be worth it.

Let’s do as the psalmist does. Let’s call on the LORD with all our heart today. Let’s read His written Word, obey His commands, meditate on His promises, and enjoy the communion we have with Him who is so closely present here with us. “You are near, O LORD.”

Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 20

 

IMGP0068.JPG‘Tsadhe’

Get rid of religion and the world will finally be at peace’ say some. ‘There are no moral absolutes; even if God does exist, it is narrow-minded and socially repressive to believe his way is the right way’ they continue.

Let’s stop for a moment. On the surface these statements seem to have merit, but let’s go deeper. The great social experiment of Communism has sought to eradicate religion. According to Stéphane CourtoisThe Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, no less than 94 million deaths have occurred under the regimes of China, the USSR, and other communist countries which determined, among other goals, to get rid of religion. It would be difficult to support the ‘no religion—no conflict’ thesis based on the results of communism.

And take another look at the ‘no moral absolutes’ premise; isn’t insisting there are no moral absolutes a statement insisting a morally absolute claim? It is fallacious to use an argument already undermined.

Perhaps the better approach is to be open to exploring God’s existence. See what the Bible says about Him, about His right to be sovereign, His expectations for humanity, and His unfailing involvement in people’s lives. Take on the role of objective investigator. The psalmist does.

“Righteous are you, O LORD, and your laws are right. / The statutes you have laid down are righteous; they are fully trustworthy. / My zeal wears me out, for my enemies ignore your words. / Your promises have been thoroughly tested, and your servant loves them. / Though I am lowly and despised, I do not forget your precepts. / Your righteousness is everlasting and your law is true. / Trouble and distress have come upon me, but your commands are my delight. / Your statutes are forever right; give me understanding that I may live” (Psalm 119:137-144).

The psalmist is awestruck as he considers the absolute integrity of God. His very first word in the Hebrew, ‘tsadaq’, describes a character trait of God known as righteousness. Righteousness means ‘to have a just cause’, ‘to be in the right’, ‘to be just (in conduct and character)’, ‘to bring justice’, ‘to be proved right’, and even ‘to make someone else righteous’.

Our human concept of justice, equity, and rightness comes from this foundational divine trait featured in the psalmist’s prayer. What the psalmist is considering is that God does nothing from arbitrary whim; having the advantage of omniscience, everything that exudes from Him comes from His eternal innate sense of justice. Think on that thought for a moment. Consider the breadth of the justice that is embodied in God, the one eternal Being. An eternity of justice—the extremity of its reach—is contained in the One the psalmist breathlessly addresses as ‘LORD’, Yahweh, the Great I AM. And so, from His being right and righteous flow actions that are equally right. Similarly, His standards and expectations for His creatures (us) are completely right.

This concept challenges the pervasive worldview of Moral Relativism which says ‘There is no objective standard. I can live the way I want. What works for me is what counts.’ But is this philosophy one that can be truly lived with integrity? Extrapolate that worldview to its extremes and we would find society breaking down, selfishness–not tolerance–pervading the human race. Anything less than mercenary egocentricity would not be consistent with the philosophy.

But accept the initially more challenging worldview—that God exists, reigns in justice, loves us immeasurably and knows how our lives work best—and we find we can live with complete integrity. By increments we learn to trust God’s character to be fully righteous, to appreciate how trustworthy His ‘statutes’ are. Seemingly contradictory and impossible commands like “love your enemies” and “do good to those who hate you” prove God’s wisdom as we learn to obey them.

Jesus lived the perfect example of a life of integrity by unflinchingly obeying His heavenly Father’s precepts. The task prepared from eternity past for Him to accomplish involved submitting Himself to an unjust earthly execution, and—more importantly—accepting an immeasurable weight of divine justice against humanity’s rebellion. In doing so He bought back every individual’s life from an eternal separation from God—an eternity where Moral Relativism would reach its full and horrible potential.

Remember the last part of the definition of God’s righteousness? It was ‘to make someone else righteous’. Here, In Jesus’ role as substitute penalty-taker, God grants us a concession in an eternally binding covenant; we become completely right in His sight—not by what we do but by humbly accepting what Jesus has done once-for-all for us.

So today, as we think rightly about God’s righteousness, everything changes for us. See if thankfulness doesn’t begin to surge through our souls, love for the One who loves us doesn’t grow greater every day, and integrity doesn’t become our defining trait of character. All because of ‘tsadaq’.

 

Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 19

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‘Pe’

There is a mantra, a cliché, a rumbling reaction whenever an ideological conflict arises between members of society. The most vocal insist their rivals are motivated by nothing less than ignorance and hatred along with a good dose of hypocrisy. Any expression in opposition to their voice is routinely termed harassment and is dealt with sternly. These are the current buzzwords. They are emotionally charged words intended to hijack and shut down all dialogue through the shaming of any dissenters. This is twenty-first century western society, and if you don’t agree, you must be one of the ignorant, hateful bullies out there.

It was not much different three millennia ago. The psalmist who wrote ‘Pe’, the seventeenth stanza of the longest Psalm, felt it. He understood that following the precepts of the eternal God—principles and standards for human flourishing—was not politically correct. He felt the oppression both from external sources and from his own internal bent toward selfish autonomy. But was he a perpetrator of ignorance, hatred, and harassment?

“Your statues are wonderful;” the psalmist begins, “therefore I obey them. / The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple. / I open my mouth and pant, longing for your commands. / Turn to me and have mercy on me, as you always do to those who love your name. / Direct my footsteps according to your word; let no sin rule over me. / Redeem me from the oppression of men, that I may obey your precepts. / Make your face shine upon your servant and teach me your decrees. / Streams of tears flow from my eyes, for your law is not obeyed.”

Firstly, the psalmist recognizes that his faith is based on understanding—on reasoning and on thinking rightly about God, himself and the world around him. “The Bible,” explains theologian Timothy Keller, “teaches that faith is not only compatible with reason, but that it consists of, requires, and even stimulates profound thinking, reasoning, and rationality.” Christians are deeply committed to truth. So while Christians may need to discern the nuances and applications of truth in difficult areas, they are more likely to be committed to embracing truth than to hide in ignorance. All truth is God’s truth, and “exists,” explains John Piper, “to display more of God and awaken more love for God.”

This brings us to the second challenge. Are Christians defined by hatred? The psalmist describes people of faith as “those who love (Yahweh’s) name.” Jesus expands on that by summarizing God’s Law as “Love the LORD your God…and love your neighbour as yourself.” And the evening before His death Jesus reiterated His foundational command to His followers to “Love each other.” So, just as with ignorance, the accusation of hatred is neither founded nor representative of people who live by faith. A Christ-follower’s life and beliefs may be different from and unpopular with that of the culture around her, but it is not a result of hatred.

And thirdly, how does the psalmist address the accusation of hypocrisy? “Direct my footsteps,” submits the psalmist, “according to your word; let no sin rule over me.” The psalmist recognizes that integrity occurs when understanding and love inform action. Authentic living is the result of ceding God’s authority over our lives and then making choices that are in alignment with His sovereignty over us. Hypocrisy is either the result of saying ‘God is in charge’—but then living as if we are, or else of saying ‘There is no God and no basis for morality’—but then expecting others to abide by our subjective beliefs about ‘rights’. Both worldviews are foreign to Christianity.

The psalmist verbalizes for us that faith is the kingpin for right living. By faith we are given understanding, by faith we are enabled to truly love, and by faith we walk according to the light. These are not in, or by, or of ourselves, but as a result of the indwelling Spirit of Jesus who epitomizes truth, love, and authenticity. The more seriously we embrace faith, the less prone we will be to engage in ignorance or hatred or hypocrisy.

Photo Credit: MeghanBustardphotography