March 2011 – Page 2 – The Wayward Willis Podcast

Billboards: What Would You Attempt…

Driving from St. Louis to Springfield this morning I passed a billboard that I’ve passed many times before and that has always brought up questions in my mind. It goes like this:

“What would you attempt for Me if you knew you could not fail? -Jesus”


A similar billboard in Kansas City.

Undoubtedly the billboard text draws from Matthew 19:26 which states, “with God all things are possible.” Naturally, I got to thinking about this proposition and some things immediately came to mind. If I knew I could not fail, I would:

Fly
 

Have Olivia Wilde’s babies
 

Start a business
 

Climb a mountain
 

Enter (and win) motorcycle races
 

Swim to the bottom of the ocean
 

I know, all of those things are stupid. But if I couldn’t fail why wouldn’t I at least attempt them? Of course this completely misses the point. The billboard isn’t asking what you would do for yourself, but what you would do for Jesus. So let’s examine this proposition in greater detail.

First, what does Jesus need? Since Jesus is supposedly god that means he’s perfect. Since he’s perfect he doesn’t need anything. And since he’s god, anything I could possibly do for him would be so pitifully insignificant it wouldn’t matter anyway. For that reason I can’t even imagine why Jesus would ask a silly question like this.

Second, if the only thing Jesus wants me to do for him is to tell my friends and neighbors (and little tribal pygmy people in the jungle) about him and win their souls for god and Heaven then why didn’t he make sure I didn’t fail when I was witnessing to everyone as a teenager? Why was it that every time I witnessed to someone out of love and concern for their eternal soul, I was met with failure? Why did they never accept Jesus when I said everything I could think of saying after having prayed over it and asked for help? Apparently even the small stuff like talking to people isn’t guaranteed to succeed.

I can only assume, therefore, that this is an empty promise from a book that is full of empty promises and the billboard is just another attempt by Christians to parade their air of superiority in front of the largest number of people possible. This billboard isn’t the only one along the Interstate between St. Louis and Springfield so I can only imagine how many more there are all over the U.S. (let alone the rest of the world). I’ll review others as I come across them in my travels.

One last question: since there are so many Christian billboards along the Interstates and I have yet to see a single atheist, Muslim, Mormon, Hindu, Buddhist, or Scientology billboard why in the heck do Christians get so bent out of shape when they see an atheist bus advertisement? Are Christians really that shallow, petty, and selfish? Grow up!

Skepticon IV

Skepticon has a new, sexy Web site!

Skepticon is an annual skeptics convention set in Springfield, Missouri. Springfield is home to the Assemblies of God and several religious universities (such as Evangel and Drury). The area is affectionately referred to by many locals as the buckle of the bible belt. This is why in the Fall of 2008, JT Eberhard, Lauren Lane, and the MSU Chapter of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster invited PZ Myers and Richard Carrier to the Missouri State campus to criticize belief in god. The event was well-attended and was retroactively dubbed Skepticon.

If you haven’t attended any of the last three years you’re missing out. The convention features big names in physics, biology, and skeptical inquiry and offers a chance for discussion, questions, and schmoozing with smart people. This year, Polaris Financial Planning has offered a $2,800 matching contribution to donations received through Skepticon’s Donations page (PayPal). Take some time to check it out and donate if you can to make this year’s Skepticon better than ever.

All Aboard the RV (Rapture Vehicle)

Everybody knows by now that Family Radio has pinned the rapture down to May 21 and the official end of the world to October 21 of this year. Led by Harold Camping (89), a man who failed in 1994 to predict Jesus’ second coming, the organization has launched a “Project Caravan” crusade wherein teams of believers drive across the country proclaiming the end of the world and the need to repent. Several members of the caravan have left behind jobs, family, friends, and responsibilities to drive these RVs until Jesus comes back to whisk them away to be with their Heavenly father.


CNN’s story on the caravan

Even while these faithful followers are so certain of their Biblical knowledge, other Christians (who read the same books) talk about them like they’re lunatics. They cite Matthew 24:36 where Jesus says nobody knows the time and place, not even Jesus himself. This gets me thinking:

If Bible-believing Christian “A” can call Bible-believing Christian “B” a lunatic (or, in kinder forms, “flat-out wrong”) for believing Biblical numerology and Christian “B” can call Christian “A” a lunatic for believing that the Great Flood was allegory and never happened, then what makes one crazy and the other sane? Are they both out of their minds?

I, of course, have my opinions on the matter but I can’t claim to know for sure whether or not Family Radio is wrong about the end of the world. I only know that I’ve seen absolutely no compelling evidence, nor have I heard any compelling arguments that would make me believe that this is probable. And while I would side with Christian “A” in the above paragraph it certainly doesn’t mean that I think Christian “A” is any more justified for believing what they do than the lunatics in the RVs. I only know that I fear for the safety and well-being of these people’s families that have been abandoned in order to spread the far-fetched news about something that was foretold to happen 2,000 years ago, didn’t happen, and hasn’t happened since. I hope god is taking good care of them.

Follow-Up: Aurora Baptist Temple

I just received in the mail a hand-written letter from Aurora Baptist Temple regarding my visit to their church on Feb. 27. I don’t know about anyone else, but I place a special significance on hand-written letters. The practice of actually writing on paper represents an investment of time that you don’t often see these days when it’s so much easier to type out an e-mail or send a text message. To that point, not that many people make phone calls anymore. I know I’m guilty of it myself.

Anyway, it’s a very nice letter and I’d like to transcribe it here, at the risk of presuming falsely that ABT would be happy to have it shared.

3-2-2011

Dear Jon,

    Thank you for visiting Aurora Baptist Temple. We hope you felt “at home” and experienced the presence of the Lord.
    We believe God has commissioned us to reach out to touch the hearts and lives of the people in this area with the Love and Gospel of Jesus Christ.
    We hope you will come again when you can.

Sincerely,
[Name Withheld] 

I’ve sent an e-mail (not a hand-written letter) to Pastor Burch asking if he’d be willing to do an interview to talk about (not debate) his faith and the church’s doctrine. I’m hoping to hear back from him soon.

An Atheist Goes to Church: Episode 2

Preface
Aurora, a town of around 7,500 people, is the home of Aurora Baptist Temple (ABT). The church sits off of a well-traveled route through town in a tall but unpretentious building with a smaller gymnasium and activity building across the parking lot. Pastor Nathan Burch leads the congregation in a down-home, friendly atmosphere that is fairly typical of Baptist churches in the Midwest. The congregation is made up of people from all walks of life and nobody makes a fuss over who’s wearing what. Visitors to the church are greeted at the main doors by kind ladies and gentlemen who smile, shake your hand, and encourage you to fill out a visitor card. As a bonus, I got to keep the pen I used to fill out my card. Yay, schwag!


Now I can write letters to Jesus!

The large auditorium is just inside the main double doors to the right. A stairway to the left leads you to the Sunday School hallway, where coffee is available. The church has its own Web site (linked above) which offers downloadable sermons, although none seem to currently be available. ABT supports over 70 missions abroad and a local pregnancy care center whose statement is that life begins at conception.

My friend, Joey, attends ABT and invited me to come and visit with him and his family on February 27, 2011. I met him for the main service which begins at 10:15. Looking around I could see that the age range was wide, with a good number of young people mixed in with a good number of people who were only young-at-heart totaling somewhere around 250 in attendance.

Chapter One: The Music Service
The praise band consists of a piano, drums, three guitarists, a brass section and a saxophone, and about four female vocalists. I was pleased when they started playing traditional hymns and could sing along from memory, although two large projector screens up front and one in the back prominently display the lyrics for everyone to see. The band is coordinated well and sounds good although the acoustics of the auditorium are not that of a concert hall. Some of the vocalists seemed somewhat bored at times but it could have just been that the music we were singing wasn’t super peppy. Regardless, there was only one song I didn’t know and I really enjoyed being able to sing along and harmonize during the music service.

Between the first two songs everyone was encouraged to shake hands and greet those around them. Some of the people eagerly sought out people to hug while others, out of ritual, turned to the people in their immediate vicinity and shook hands while waiting to be able to sit back down. This was always my experience in church growing up and it doesn’t seem to have changed much.

Chapter Two: The Offering
Prior to the offering being taken, the pastor spoke to the congregation about giving. ABT has what they call a “Faith Promise,” which is a member’s weekly or monthly (maybe even quarterly or annual) pledge that the church can budget. The pastor encouraged those who had made these pledges to keep their promise to ensure that the church’s work can continue. He spoke at length of the missions they conduct abroad (they have at least two families that they send to at least two countries every year) and here I registered my first objection.

The pastor said, “There is no better way to spend the church’s money than on missions.” I disagree. If the church’s goal is simply to win the world over to Jesus Christ then I can see how the pastor can hold this view but there’s so much work that could be done locally that could yield tangible, immediate results. People are without jobs, without food, and without homes in this area. There’s obvious need for assistance right under your nose. I’m not saying that ABT doesn’t do these things; I’m saying that if ABT does these things, then I’d more likely agree with a statement like, “There is no better way to spend the church’s money than on ensuring the livelihood of the people in our community.”

In conclusion the pastor said, “God isn’t after your money but he wants to reward your faithfulness.” I have to ask…would god reward your faithfulness if you didn’t give any money at all but helped people in your community instead? This is a point on which I’d like to get clarification. It seems to me, with the standard offering plate ritual in every church across the country (and around the world) that there is more of an interest in money than actual contributions. But that’s only my opinion.

Chapter Three: The Message
Pastor Nathan delivered his sermon over Hebrews 10:19-21, focusing on the power of Jesus’ blood. He emphasized his distaste with some churches for diluting the message of sin and salvation through sacrifice, saying that the message goes soft if you tiptoe around people who are offended by the concepts of sin and blood. He said that Christians need to be bold about the message of Jesus’ sacrifice and that Jesus’ blood gives believers that boldness. He added, “God is not a wuss.” He said that Job had that boldness in his trust in god, but here I again disagreed with what he was presenting.

Job didn’t know about Jesus’ blood…or even Jesus. The blood wasn’t the source of Job’s boldness or his faith, so the example seemed a bit awkward and tangential to me. Regardless, everyone can concede that Job was bold in his faith in god.

The pastor then said that Christians are set apart by the blood. Christians are consecrated by the blood to be as close to god as the High Priests were in the Old Testament. He spoke of the Holy of Holies and about how the only people allowed to be in god’s presence were the High Priests and I got a chuckle out of the next part because I had fallen victim to the apparent urban legend involving this Old Testament knowledge (I believe it was my dad who told me this when I was a kid): it was not the custom to tie a length of rope around the High Priests’ waists or ankles in case they were struck dead.


Kinky.

Anyway, the new High Priest is Jesus Christ and believers have a direct line to god without any ropes or curtains. Having spilled his blood for us as the ultimate sacrifice, Jesus did away with the Holy of Holies and now intercedes on our behalf.

The pastor then said that our sins are covered by the blood. He maintained the standard Baptist line of reasoning where we are to turn away from sin but that in the event our weak human nature gets the best of us, god provides forgiveness through Jesus. However, he then made a statement that I wasn’t prepared to hear:

There is no sin too great to be covered by the blood; not a single one.

What about intentionally deceiving and leading people away from god? What about denying the Holy Spirit? What about rejecting god’s gift of salvation? Presumably, the point is that the blood will cover everything only if you’ve already accepted Jesus as your savior and ask for forgiveness. It is, however, possible that someone could be a born-again Christian (I asked Jesus into my heart when I was four years old) and still reject Jesus later or cause other people to reject Jesus by your words or actions. So what happens to them? Are they covered? I need clarification on whether ABT’s doctrine is that of once-saved-always-saved.

I could tell when the sermon was winding down because of the typical lowering of the voice and the segue into talking about acceptance of Jesus’ blood. This was something I always listened for when I went to church as a kid because it meant it was almost time to go home, eat my mom’s delicious cooking, and run around the woods for six hours until the evening service. Mmmm, now I’m hungry for pot roast!

Chapter Four: The Invitation
The invitation was given to the traditional invitation hymn, Softly and Tenderly, which I love to sing. It brings back memories. Plus, it has great harmony parts! Anyway, as is the custom, the pastor urged those who don’t know Jesus to come forward and accept him and those who feel like their walk with Jesus is slipping to come forward and renew their commitment. After the music played out, a prayer was said and the service was dismissed with the pastor and his wife heading to the main doors to shake everyone’s hands as they left.

Epilogue
Going to ABT was a good experience. Everyone was very friendly and the service brought back memories for me because it was so much like the churches in which I had grown up. The music was nice and the building was clean and orderly. I had intended to have a sit-down with Pastor Nathan after the service but there were scheduling conflicts with some church activities and I was told that he’d love to talk to me but it would have to be some other time. I’ll be in touch with my friend, Joey, and Pastor Nathan to see if I can set something up soon. That makes two interviews I need to schedule now. When am I going to get the time?

My thanks to Joey and his family for having me along. Stay tuned for episode 3!

Archive:
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