A Truly “Christian” Man

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter waves to the congregation after teaching Sunday school at Maranatha Baptist Church in his hometown of Plains, Georgia on April 28, 2019. Carter has taught Sunday school at the church on a regular basis since leaving the White House in 1981, drawing hundreds of visitors who arrive hours before the 10:00 am lesson to get a seat and have a photograph taken with the former President and First Lady Rosalynn Carter. (Photo by Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

I was teaching journalism — specifically, a course entitled News Editing — at George Mason University in January 1981, when I could find no established precedents or protocols, no style guides or textbooks, to cite to my students about the layout dilemma.

On January 20, 1981, two distinctly remarkable, historic, front page news-making moments occurred simultaneously: After 444 days, Americans held hostage by Iran were released; and Ronald Reagan, a former actor and California governor, was inaugurated president of the USA. The hostages were formally released into United States custody just minutes after Reagan was sworn into office as the country’s 40th president on January 20, 1981.

How would or should newspaper editors handle the coverage, my students and I debated: Was one more important, more timely, more consequential than the other? Which story should be featured more prominently? There was no question that both stories demanded front page placement. But where on the page? Traditionally, newspapers place the most important stories at the top of the page; being on the right-hand side implied that a story was more important than others on the page. The Washington Post devoted its front page to these two stories, although one was placed “above the fold,” the other on the bottom half.

Guess which story took priority and preeminence?

Jimmy Carter was bedeviled by two behemoths during his single, four-year presidency.

On November 4, 1979, a group of militarized Iranian college students took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Soon, 52 United States diplomats and citizens were held hostage. A diplomatic stand off ensued. Lasting 444 days, this terrorist act triggered the most profound crisis of the Carter presidency, as well as a personal ordeal for the president himself.

President Carter pursued a policy of restraint that put a higher value on the lives of the hostages than on American retaliatory power or protecting is own political future.

Allegations of conspiracy between Reagan’s presidential team with Iran until after the election to thwart Carter from pulling off an “October surprise” abounded. And thus began the changing of the guard–from partisan distinctions to ugly words and vicious divisions.

The other dragon that President Carter couldn’t slay was economics. Between high inflation and fixed mortgage rates hitting over 14%, it was also about the money … as it always is.

Jimmy Carter has always been a good man. Moreover, he’s been a good Christian man–not just in terms of religious etymology but in practical ways, too. He practiced the words preached by the itinerant Jewish rabbi from Nazareth.

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus explained what it looks like to live as his follower and to be part of God’s Kingdom. These passages from Matthew perhaps represent the major ideals of the Christian life.

They also reflect peanut farmer Jimmy Carter’s life and legacy.

• Blessed are the weak, for they shall inherit the earth.

• Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the “salt” of the earth.

• Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

• Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

• Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

(About that thirst blessing above, let’s not forget that Jimmy was overshadowed by his younger brother, Billy, and the infamous Billy’s Beer. Indeed, the Georgia farmer brought a colorful cast of characters with him to Washington.)

At 98, Jimmy Carter is one of America’s most active former presidents. His efforts at peace-making, international negotiation, home construction for the impoverished (Habitat for Humanity), and the eradication of diseases in Africa earned him the world’s respect. Forty years after leaving office, he continued to remain an actor on the world stage and at home.

As president, his tireless efforts to bring Israel and Egypt together in a peace agreement during the 1978 negotiations at Camp David may be seen today as the most consequential contribution any U.S. president has made towards Israel’s security since its founding. The treaty earned the Israelis everything they so long had sought: a separate peace treaty that ended not only the state of war with their most threatening neighbor, but also the freedom to carry out other strategic and military objectives without concern for igniting a regional war.

Despite serving a single term, Jimmy Carter ranks as one of the most consequential U.S. presidents when it comes to environmentalism. He installed solar panels on the White House, urged Americans to turn down their thermostats while sporting a sweater, and pressured Congress into putting tens of millions of Alaskan acres off limits to developers.

In 1982, with his wife Rosalynn, he founded the Carter Center dedicated to the protection of human rights, promotion of democracy, and prevention of disease. His determination to promote the rights of women led him, in 1920, to sever ties with the Southern Baptist Convention after six decades, over its rejection of women in leadership positions. He explained his decision to quit the church in a 2009 article entitled “Losing my religion for equality,” which later went viral. “Women and girls have been discriminated against for too long in a twisted interpretation of the word of God,” he wrote in the article.

The Nobel Peace laureate and longtime human rights advocate campaigned to end violence and discrimination against women since leaving the White House in 1981, calling it the “human and civil rights struggle of the time.”

In an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Carter said that Southern Baptist leaders reading the Bible out of context led to the adoption of increasingly “rigid” views. Defying the largest Protestant denomination in the United States whose leaders also voted to condemn homosexuality, abortion, pornography, and adultery, he stated, “In my opinion, this is a distortion of the meaning of Scripture … I personally feel the Bible says all people are equal in the eyes of God.” Carter continued as a deacon at the Baptist church in his hometown of Plains, Georgia, where he was a faithful Sunday school teacher drawing congregants and visitors alike to rub shoulders with this humble, heart-warming man.

Carter, 98, decided to spend his last days with his family, supported by palliative care rather than medical intervention.

We should nod our heads, hold hands together, and allow our hearts to embrace these words from the scriptures according to Jimmy Carter: “I have one life and one chance to make it count for something. My faith demands that I do whatever I can, wherever I am, whenever I can, for as long as I can, with whatever I have to try to make a difference.”

Beginning of birth pains …

Normally, I don’t like to talk about politics. Or politics and religion. Or politics, religion, and the “end times.”

Because I don’t consider myself to be a prophet. Nor a learned rabbi. Nor even a madman.

But, as John Pavlovitz would put it, there’s stuff that needs to be said.

The verse in the Bible about “For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again” (Matthew 24:21) has been sticking to my ribs.

How can it not be, with all the devastation and deceit we’re seeing daily—which some call the “new normal.” All of a sudden, it seems, plagues … the ability to use computers and artificial intelligence to control our lives … the anger of Mother Nature, increasingly hurling floods, draughts, seemingly endless heat waves, landslides, and unquenchable fires … and the barometer of international currency exchanges are conspiring with geopolitics to bring us war, famine, homelessness, helplessness, poverty, disease, prejudice, and hatred.

For me, these are signs of the times. The end times. Which, along with these dreadful gasps of a world spinning and sinning ingloriously away from salvation, ushers in an anti-Christ—the polar opposite and ultimate enemy of the Messiah in every way.

Let me stop here for a moment.

We are a people who have become numb and blind witnesses to what is occurring right before our very eyes. “Oh, people have always thought they were living in the end times,” theologians and people in the pews will nay-say. “We’ve lived through conditions like these before … and we will again,” they say.

But, have we? Really?

Never before have so many apocalyptic arcs aligned simultaneously.

Take the anti-Christ, for example.

I know who he is—and so do you. Not just deductively by the logic of our minds … but in our heart of hearts that truly senses such things and separates spirits from souls.

Even before they were spoken of in the Hebrew Testament’s Daniel all the way through the Greek Testament’s Book of Revelation, scholars agree that the Bible – whether or not you believe it – indicates a tumultuous series of events that will happen upon the anti-Christ’s arrival:

According to Christian tradition, he will reign terribly in the period prior to the Last Judgment.

The Christian conception of Antichrist was derived from Jewish traditions, particularly The Book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible. Written about 167 BCE, it foretold the coming of a final persecutor who would “speak great words against the most High and wear out the saints of the most High, and think to change times and laws” (7:25).

The Antichrist will grow up in obscurity and begin his open “ministry” at age 30, gaining followers by giving signs and performing wonders.

Antichrist’s triumphant reign will last for three and a half years. Like Christ, Antichrist will come to Jerusalem, but, as the Messiah’s antithesis, he will be enthusiastically hailed and revered by the Jews. During his reign he will “rebuild the Temple and sit on the throne of Solomon” in a sacrilegious and hideous perversion of priesthood and just kingship. He will convert the rulers of the earth to his cause and persecute Christians.

Here’s how the Antichrist will unveil his true self as he rises to power:

He will exalt himself.

He will heed his inner voice above others.

He will be hostile toward the true God.

He will exalt human logic above faith.

He will prosper for a season and be loved.

He will think of himself as greater than God.

He will become increasingly lawless.

He will honor military power above faith.

He will love wealth.

He will hoard precious things.

He will become a man of war.

He will wage war on all people of faith.

He will force Israel to ratify a treaty.

He will divide Israel and Jerusalem.

Who do we know that acts that way? Who has been that abusive, acrimonious, adulterous? Who has said he could “commit murder on Fifth Avenue” and get away with it? Who has manipulated nations and leaders? Who has done everything possible to enrich himself from the spoils of others? Who has presided over a “deal” uniting Israel with Arab nations, while separating Jerusalem from the rest of Israel by moving his embassy? Who has withdrawn his nation from peace accords and climate agreements? Who has instigated riots, revolts, and – ultimately – murder? Who has taken and hidden top secret documents for his own objectives? Who has swindled his subjects out of money and means? Who speaks mumbo-jumbo from both sides of his mouth? Who has desecrated God in a publicity stunt, holding a Bible upside down in front of the National Cathedral? Who has leisurely spent more time on the golf course than in the course of his duties? Who has sworn on the Bible and taken an oath to uphold his duties and the laws of his land … but, then, deliberately ridiculed, mocked, and ruled to desecrate them? Who has been powerful enough to develop a cult of worshipful fans and followers that follow him faithfully, the truth be damned? Who has usurped the balance of powers such that he can continue to get away with murder, casting evil over all that believe in him?

You know who I’m talking about.

Will we let this devil without disguise get away with dividing good, well-meaning people who’ve lost control to contain him? Will we wait for a whole bunch of debatable apologetics — a rapture, four horsemen from the east, a Savior appearing in the sky?

Watch for the mark of the beast, my friends.

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Partying with the Portuguese

Imagine it’s the 4th of July, Mardi Gras, or New Year’s Eve … only bigger. Because the festivities continue day after day–typically for four days or so.

There’s food and drink, people dancing in the streets. Musicians and merriment. DJ disco. Friends and family who now live elsewhere returning to their homeland and birthplaces to celebrate with drink, games of chance, special lottery tickets and prizes. Often, even a Mass (or two). Albeit in the village’s streets, backyards, taverns, cafés, and church yards, it’s loud, begins late (10:00 PM), and continues through the hours most people otherwise are sleeping soundly..

What are they celebrating?

Perhaps they’re paying homage to a particular saint. Remembering a day from their particular history. Or momentarily singing the praises of Portuguese life.

It’s that time of the year when we see — and hear — a different side of our Portuguese neighbors … as saudade takes a break in the back seat, giving way to saúde.

No matter how small the village — our little Lousa (not Lousã) has fewer than 500 residents — these summer festivals are big events. So big, that the population surges four-fold with people staying with relatives, at their family’s original dwellings despite their delipidated condition, at lodging facilities, even commuting between nearby villages not hosting their shindigs at the moment. It’s nearly impossible to find a parking spot, as vehicles of all vintages, shapes, and sizes double (and triple) park … or are simply left wherever.

Broken beer bottles, plastic cups, and cigarette butts awaken the mornings after to the garish light of another day too hot to deal with overflowing trash bins, as streets become sticky–drunk by grit, gristle, grease, and grime fried by the day’s scorching sun.

Yet these annual festivities are good for the soul and give evidence of a spirit eager to be freed. While it may seem as though we’ve wandered into the midst of a circus or carnival, other days and times are set aside for such events.

Pause …

Of course, people need time and space to recuperate and regain their wits about them; so late mornings and afternoons are set aside for life’s more mundane tasks. Including sleep. Half-hearted attempts are made to clean up the public areas littered beyond the local bins’ capacity. But much of the time is traditionally spent with family.

In some Portuguese towns and villages — including ours! — the highlight of the doings is saved for near the end: running of the bull(s), an event that involves people running in front of a bull (or small group of bulls) that have been set loose on sectioned-off streets.

Ours is that sectioned off street in Vila Boim, our home in the Alentejo, as the usually dormant bull ring is located at the end of our road.

I guess, like most everyone else on our street, we will need to move our cars.

And stay inside, watching the wild frenzy through our windows.

Portugal has a vibrant bullfighting tradition, but killing a bull is deemed tantamount to murder by some and was outlawed in 1928. The vast majority of Portugal’s population doesn’t watch, go to, or support bull fights. But bull runs are something else entirely. Especially in Sabugal and Terceira in the Azores Islands. I’m told that in Portugal, after the running, the bulls aren’t killed but get a few weeks off because of their bravery. Maybe that’s pure … errrr … bullsh*t, said to appease this American’s loathing of animal abuse.

“It’s not a show! It’s life, it’s partying, it’s adrenaline, it’s conviviality, they are roots that hold us tight to the land that saw us born and to which we return,” insists President Victor Proenca of the Municipality of Sabugal. “The gallantry of the riders, the courage of those who face the ‘proof bull,’ the public’s expectations with each new bull that comes out, the scoundrel who calls to the calf, the nostalgia of the party that ends in the unwinding… this is Capeia, land of passions, strong emotions and feelings that are repeated year after year.”

Bull runs are also the highlight of summer street festivals held in villages throughout Terceira, where the island is big on its bulls since they literally defended the Portuguese island from a Spanish invasion during the 16th century. When King Philip sent the Pedro Valdes to Terceira for a diplomatic takeover, its crew was met by 600 angry bulls and subsequently wiped out.

Here’s how writer Robin Esrock describes the bull running experience:

“For a moment, the huge Bull stops to weigh its options. There are people everywhere, taunting him, laughing, showing no respect whatsoever. There are rock walls, and wooden barricades, and more people on those walls and barricades, exuding a cacophony of celebration. Around the Bull’s neck is a thick rope, held many yards back to several men dressed in white. They’re supposed to condition his movement, but the Bull knows, and they know, it’s more of a nuisance than anything else. A nuisance like the young men who dare to step forward, threaten him with movement from jackets or blankets or hypnotically twirling red umbrellas. The impetuousness! To dare challenge such a beast, so strong and muscled that cows shudder their udders at the sight of him. A young man crosses the imaginary line and the Bull springs forward, horns primed, an unstoppable tank of nature. But the man sidesteps, deftly turning in a circle. Although the Bull is big and fast, it does not have power steering. They play this dangerous game, closely bonded, man and beast, until the man skips away safely to the applause of the crowd. The Bull pauses. He has choices. Should he charge into the crowd to send everyone scattering? Should he trample the man holding a notebook, with his baseball T-shirt and distinctly un-Portuguese appearance? Should he make an unexpected leap over a low wall where many others stand in mistaken safety? Should he turn back down the street toward the pen from which he came? The Bull turns its thick neck toward me, and I am frozen stiff. Reflected in the black orbs of its eyes, I see him weighing his options.”

Back in Vila Boim, as the annual festival wends its way to the end, one final event is scheduled. It’s the closing church service.

I contemplate the irony of bulls running down my street followed by a holy Mass–a communion commemorating the martyred body and blood of their Savior, Christ Jesus.

The next national holiday is the Assumption of Mary, marking the the Virgin Mary’s (supposed) bodily ascent to heaven at the end of her life. Assumption celebrations are accompanied by festivals, colorful street processions, fireworks, and pageantry. “Feasts” aren’t actually required, yet there is a longstanding tradition of blessing the summer harvest.

In 2022, Mary’s assumption is famously celebrated on 15 August.

Bruce Joffe is the publisher and creative director of Portugal Living Magazine, the magazine for people everywhere with Portugal on their minds. Read our current issue and subscribe — FREE of charge — to future ones at: https://portugallivingmagazine.com/our-current-issue

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“The Internet started as a bastion for free expression,” a former Reddit C.E.O. wrote. These days, “the trolls are winning.” Illustration by Javier Jaén.

It would appear that we are surrounded — swallowed — by lies, untruths, distortions, and alternative realities or interpretations and understandings. Lies come in all shapes and sizes … spread from pulpits, political podiums, and public squares. I’ve selected three here which must be turned on their heads, despite how gigantic and rampant they are.

The Big Lie:

Donald Trump won the USA’s 2020 presidential election; Democrats, dilettantes, and demons conspired to deny and deprive him of office.

The Bigger Lie:

The best defense against bad people with guns is good people with guns.

The Biggest Lie:

The US Constitution guarantees the right of all citizens to have and use guns.

Trump did not win the 2020 election. Umpteen challenges, court cases, recounts, and eye-witness testimonies show quite the contrary: He lost. But he used every tool — from lies to blackmail, conspiracy and terrorism to rile up his followers … which, ultimately, led to the Great Insurrection. On January 6, 2021, a mob of Trump supporter attacked the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., seeking to overturn his defeat by disrupting the joint session of Congress assembled to count electoral votes that would formalize President-elect Joe Biden‘s victory. Yet this heinous moment of American history wasn’t yet over … in fact, Trumpism has been spreading by Trumpsters intent on destroying democracy.

There’s no need for gun control in the USA? Bullshit. The lie propagated by the National Rifle Association advocating for additional guns, not fewer, has become the mantra of the country’s Republican party fed by egregious sums of financial contributions and favors to their campaigns by the NRA. Even as massacres and killings — of children! — continue to rise, politicians blame (other) people rather than the weapons of mass destruction. The height of hypocrisy was only recently reached when politicians like Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Texas Governor Greg Abbott addressed the NRA’s recent annual convention in Texas in the same state and time that a gunman killed 19 school children and two teachers at an elementary school.

“The rate of gun ownership hasn’t changed. And yet acts of evil like we saw this week are on the rise,” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz told crowds at the National Rifle Association’s convention in Houston. Cruz’s claim about stagnant gun ownership (which is factually misleading), is among the trove of inaccurate claims made by GOP officials at the NRA’s annual gathering, making clear that the string of mass shootings in recent weeks has not influenced their pro-gun convictions. On the other side of the world, much as I cringe and cry at loss of lives and homeland during Putin’s war against Ukraine, I can’t help but shudder at the billions of dollars in assembly line armaments sent continuously by the USA to Ukraine. (In the long run, I believe, it will be the sanctions against Russia by a steadfast European community of nations and the Russian people clamoring for change that will be the determining factors for Putin and his enablers’ defeat.)

And the Constitutional basis for bearing arms? I’m neither a historian nor a Constitutional scholar, but I cannot understand how these words upon which rest vigilante injustice and bloodshed aplenty have been interpreted and blessed by the government–executive, legislative, and judicial branches alike.

Second Amendment to the Constitution:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

For decades, the US has been locked in a reckoning over the breadth of the language in this amendment protecting the right to keep and bear arms. But in recent months, national attention has instead shifted to the lesser-considered subject of its first clause: “A well regulated Militia …”

Armed self-described militia members have shown up with growing frequency this summer to racial justice protests held in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police. Their appearance, usually carrying rifles and dressed in military-style gear, has ratcheted up the tension at demonstrations and the risk of confrontation. Militia groups also attended gun rights rallies and demonstrations protesting coronavirus lockdown measures. Militia groups have, for years, argued that their actions are constitutionally protected. But legal analysts say the Constitution does not protect private military groups that are unconnected to or outside the authority of the government. In fact, all 50 states prohibit and restrict private militia groups and militia activity with several different kinds of laws as well as provisions included in most state constitutions.

If militias can be defined and defended these ways, is there any doubt that legislators and courts will accede to “pro-life” group demands to do away with abortion, denying women control over their own bodies? Or that same-sex marriage and adoptions will be redacted (at best) or overturned (at worst)? And that even issues concerning data privacy will be applied?

This is an unprecedented time we live in. We are living through climate change, a pandemic on pause, and an international conflict that has the potential to turn global. People around the world are struggling with conflicts and atrocities, at times due to the American military’s involvement, while hundreds more are dealing with increasingly dangerous heat waves as a result of the climate crisis. Still, others are trying to face the consequences of the pandemic, including the devastation left behind due to the loss of lives and the increasing financial insecurity that continues to widen the inequality gap between the struggling and the affluent. War in Ukraine wages on with what seems like no end in sight, while the Pentagon discusses options of US involvement in the fight against Russia.

This regression of rights in the democratic nation which has claimed countlessly throughout history to “spread democracy into the world” seems beyond ironic and hypocritical.

Although an ordained pastor, I’m certainly no Bible literalist. But when the same words are repeated nine separate times in one book (Deuteronomy) of Hebrew Testament Law and echoed at least once in the Christian Testament (I Corinthians 5:13), it’s time to take note:

You must purge the evil from among you.

I doubt that any of us disagrees about the importance of ridding ourselves and our society of evil; the problem arises because of our different values, beliefs, and interpretations of what constitutes “evil.”

In terms of the nine commands in Deuteronomy to remove evil, such “evils” are said to include liars (false witnesses); children who are stubborn, rebellious, gluttons and drunkards; idolaters; kidnapping and human trafficking; purity, unity, and promiscuity; showing contempt for judges and priests; prophets and dreamers advocating rebellion against God; and God’s so-called jealousy.

Moreover, Deuteronomy 17 describes three apparently disconnected aspects of justice:

  1. How to handle an allegation of idolatry. (Verses 2-7)
  2. How to handle a case that is too difficult for the local court. (Verses 8-13)
  3. How to ensure a king remains humble and accountable to God. (Verses 18-20)

I say “apparently” because they are connected by more than the overall theme of justice. For example, the sequence illustrates the roles and responsibilities of various members of the nation as their relative authority increases. The picture begins with individuals, moves to the community, then to the nation, and finally to the king.

You must purge the evil from among you.

Bruce Joffe is publisher and creative director of Portugal Living Magazine. You can read the current issue and subscribe, free of charge, to the magazine on its website:

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The Sheep

Feeding my three miniature schnauzers their morning meal, the youngest one goes through the same ritual every day: While gulping food from his bowl, he invariably misses one kibble that falls to the floor. He stops what he’s doing and searches for that kibble before casting an eye at all the chow still in his bowl waiting to be eaten. He ignores the bowl, however, until he’s swallowed that one errant nugget.

As he went through his routine this morning, for some reason the parable about the “lost” sheep came to mind. I couldn’t shake it all day. Like so many of the parables Jesus tells, I believe there’s more than one take-away or meaning to this one.

Conventional wisdom has it that even one silly sheep out of a hundred is important to the good shepherd, who leaves the 99 in search of the one. We all will be saved!

Doesn’t that make you feel good? That none of us “sinners” will be abandoned until we’ve all been brought back into the fold. That God so loved the world that …

But, wait a minute.

Aren’t we making some assumptions about this parable? That the shepherd is good and the sheep isn’t? That the 99 were respectful, while the one may have been resentful? That the one responsible for the incident was the sheep, not the shepherd?

Perhaps this parable is also about responsibility?

The Parable of the Lost Sheep appears in the Gospels of Matthew (18:12–14) and Luke (15:3–7). It is about a shepherd who leaves his flock of ninety-nine sheep to find the one which is “lost.”

Lost? Who is lost and who is responsible for the loss?

In the Gospel of Luke, the parable is as follows.

He told them this parable. “Which of you men, if you had one hundred sheep, and lost one of them, wouldn’t leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one that was lost, until he found it? When he has found it, he carries it on his shoulders, rejoicing. When he comes home, he calls together his friends, his family and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ I tell you that even so there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance” (World English Bible).

It’s interesting that, in Luke’s Gospel, the one responsible for the sheep being lost is the shepherd, who wasn’t keeping watch when the sheep happened to wander off somewhere. Look how the verse is translated by different biblical versions:

(NIV) “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?”

(NAS) “What man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture and go after the one which is lost until he finds it?”

(Complete Jewish Bible) “If one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them, doesn’t he leave the other ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it?

(KJV) What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?”

(MSG) “Suppose one of you had a hundred sheep and lost one. Wouldn’t you leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the lost one until you found it?”

(Living) So Jesus used this illustration: “If you had a hundred sheep and one of them strayed away and was lost in the wilderness, wouldn’t you leave the ninety-nine others to go and search for the lost one until you found it?”

Only the Living Bible translates the verse such that the sheep had strayed and was lost, until the shepherd sought and found it. The other verses put a more mercantile twist to the story: The shepherd was responsible for the care and welfare of 100 sheep. Maybe he was napping or day-dreaming; perhaps one shepherd wasn’t enough to watch over 100 sheep. Nonetheless, one of the sheep was gone—leaving only 99 accounted for.

Perhaps that “lost” sheep was of critical importance to the flock—a leader, innovator, “heretic,” visionary, prophet whose role is essential to all the others? We assume that the errant sheep had wandered off … but what if that sheep had left to escape? Who’s at fault here: the shepherd or the sheep? In every single translation, the man has lost the sheep (i.e., the fault is his), rather than the sheep has gone astray (the sheep’s fault).

Remember the Napoleon character in George Orwell’s Animal Farm?

Sheep symbolize the masses. A clever and designing leader can easily lead them anywhere. Their numbers count in getting things done, but they never want to know the reason for any change. They are content to do what the leaders want them to.

Napoleon was quick to realize that they could be of great use to him in his struggle to attain supreme power. He therefore pays attention to their education, and teaches them to repeat the slogan “Four legs good, two legs bad.”

Another animal on the farm, Snowball, is addressing a meeting. This interrupts the meeting at crucial stage and Snowball fails to control his audience. When Napoleon expels Snowball and announces that there will be no Sunday meeting in future, four of the pigs voice their protest. At that, Napoleon’s dogs begin to growl and the sheep start bleating “Four legs good, two legs bad.”

The sheep are part of the massive propaganda machine that Stalin set up as he came to power in Russia, and they’re also the people who were swayed by that same propaganda. Instead of thinking for themselves, they just repeat slogans over and over.

The sheep represent the duped citizens of a totalitarian state.

In the New International Version, the words of Matthew’s Gospel tell the story a bit differently … such that the sheep caused the problem by leaving the flock:

(KJV) “How think ye? if a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray?”

(NIV) “What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off.”

(NAS) “What do you think? If any man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go and search for the one that is straying.”

(Complete Jewish) “What’s your opinion? What will somebody do who has a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away? Won’t he leave the ninety-nine on the hillsides and go off to find the stray?”

It’s a matter of responsibility—individual and collective.

Atlas Shrugged, a 1957 novel by Ayn Rand was her fourth and final novel; it was also her longest, and the one she considered to be her magnum opus in the realm of fiction writing. Rand described the theme of Atlas Shrugged as “the role of man’s mind in existence.” The book explores a number of philosophical themes from which Rand would subsequently develop her Objectivism philosophy: reason, individualism, capitalism, and depicts what Rand saw as the failures of governmental coercion.

The book depicts a dystopian United States in which private businesses suffer under increasingly burdensome laws and regulations. Railroad executive Dagny Taggart and her lover, steel magnate Hank Rearden, struggle against “looters” who want to exploit their productivity. Dagny and Hank discover that a mysterious figure called John Galt is persuading other business leaders to abandon their companies and disappear as a strike of productive individuals against the looters. The novel ends with the strikers planning to build a new capitalist society based on Galt’s philosophy.

In Atlas Shrugged, she shows that without the independent mind, our society would collapse into primitive savagery. Atlas Shrugged is an impassioned defense of the freedom of mankind’s mind. But to understand the author’s sense of urgency, we must have an idea of the context in which the book was written.

Rand called her philosophy “Objectivism,” describing its essence as “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” The world is best served, she believed, when individuals act entirely in their own rational self-interest. In other words, when they act selfishly.

This, of course, is contrary to the basic tenets of Christianity and most other faiths based on living out the Golden Rule.

The “absolute,” when taken together, is that we truly do need each other. It is both through community and leadership that we survive. With leadership without community, we have Putin’s aggression against his neighbor and brother. With community without leadership, we are lost and without direction.

Like that one missing sheep.

Bruce Joffe is publisher and creative director of Portugal Living Magazine. Read our current issue online and subscribe at no charge (free!) at https://portugallivingmagazine.com/our-current-issue/

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Rise and Shine

Sometimes I feel like Jacob, wrestling with an angel of God.

Especially when I can’t grasp an unqualified answer that satisfies me; I continue plunging on, like Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel because he demonstrated that he was willing to let God prevail in his life. In response, God then promised Israel that all the blessings pronounced upon Abraham would be his.

Remember the story?

Jacob got up in the middle of the night and took his wives, eleven children, and everything he owned across to the other side of the Jabbok River for safety. Afterwards, Jacob went back and spent the rest of the night alone.

A man came and fought with Jacob until just before daybreak. When the man saw that he could not win, he struck Jacob on the hip and threw it out of joint. They kept wrestling until the man said, “Let go of me! It’s almost daylight.”

“You can’t go until you bless me,” Jacob replied.

The man asked, “What is your name?”

“Jacob,” he answered.

The man said, “From now on, your name will no longer be Jacob. You will be called Israel, because you have wrestled with God and with men, and you have won.”

Jacob said, “Now tell me your name.”

“Don’t you know who I am?” he asked. And he blessed Jacob.

Jacob said, “I have seen God face to face, and I am still alive.” So he named the place Peniel. The sun was coming up as Jacob was leaving Peniel. He was limping because he had been struck on the hip, and the muscle on his hip joint had been injured. That’s why even today the people of Israel don’t eat the hip muscle of any animal.

The Lord never told Jacob his name.

There’s plenty of questions I have for Him, but I know He’s not ready (or, maybe, it’s me) to tell me my name or my story.

Take Easter, for instance. There are those who swear that unless you confess the bodily resurrection – that, after being dead for three days, Jesus rose to live again – the Christian faith means nothing. It’s all based on that singular miracle that God raised Jesus from the dead.

Did God?

Who knows? I certainly don’t. But neither did the people who spent their time walking and talking with Jesus. Did he really die? Why didn’t those people walking on the road recognize him? Was Mary really the first to see him? Then ran to share the good news with the other disciples? And what about Thomas, the one we refer to as “doubting?”

So many theories have historically buzzed that Jesus never died. That it all was part of a Passover plot. That there was no resurrection—at least not in bodily form. That it’s all meant to be a metaphor or a basis for building the faith. That the primary Gospel left out the resurrection, while the latter ones added and embellished it.

On the other hand, we also read about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead to new life. And Elijah, who stretched himself three times upon the widow’s son … “And the Lord heard the voice of Elijah; and the soul of the child came into him again, and he revived” (1 Kings 17:21-22).

Not that it matters.

Our beliefs shouldn’t be “eithers” or “ors,” fact vs. faith, allegorical and/or historical.

Truth be told, most people hang onto their religions for one of two reasons: They’re afraid to die and cease existing as they know it. Or, they’ve been clobbered with verses to avoid sins-or-else-hell and enticed by angelic choirs, streets paved with gold, and celestial reunions with their loved ones.

Apart from certain curiosities and circuitous circumstances, I’ve yet to meet anyone who has died and returned to talk about what it’s like on the other side of the paradise we’re hell-bent on destroying.

That’s where Easter comes in …

The Easter questions comprise our belief that hope springs eternal.

It’s not about faith. Nor love. Nor tradition. Nor creeds and confessions. Neither is it about recognizing a masterful act to validate our experience and what we believe.

Instead, it’s about our determination to persevere, hoping that our hearts and what we hold most dear will prevail. Against tyrants like Vladimir Putin. Oligarchs and capitalists who create a special kind of autocracy that absolves them of any resolve to repent and be merciful. Or democracies gone bad when the greed factor turns to prejudice and hate, special interests and injustice.

Whether I know, instinctively, that the Son of Man was or wasn’t killed and did or didn’t rise again to life, isn’t that important to me. That he was martyred, however, was … as it beckons me to his words and ways, deeds and indeeds. I want to know his story. And do my best to follow his path.

“How does us appreciating spring help the people of Ukraine?” asked Facebook friend Anne Lamott. “If we believe in chaos theory, and the butterfly effect, that the flapping of a Monarch’s wings near my home can lead to a weather change in Tokyo, then maybe noticing beauty — flapping our wings with amazement — changes things in ways we cannot begin to imagine. It means goodness is quantum. Even to help the small world helps. Even prayer, which seems to do nothing. Everything is connected.”

At my age, I ache. So, as I rise each morning to new days full of promise and potential, I am thankful. I’m still alive and kicking. As I follow the news and see trends – the ups and downs of the stock market, the urgent desire to help others against all odds, the Covid crisis taking a back seat to other “Breaking News!” of the moment, the small advances that dedicated scientists and philanthropists are making against the behemoth that is climate change, even the blessings that progressive theologians have brought to enliven the hitherto hold fundamentalists and literalist bondage to the Bible “just as God wrote it” – my faith surges and is restored … bit by bit.

When it comes down to it, that’s what Easter is really about and gives reason to rejoice: Hope restored.

“I will celebrate that I have shelter and friends and warm socks and feet to put in them, and that God or Gus found a way to turn the madness and shame of my addiction into grace, I’ll shake my head with wonder, which I do more and more as I age, at all the beauty that is left and all that still works after so much has been taken away,” Anne Lamott concludes.

It’s rising and shining beyond all the grit and grief … and I say hallelujah to that. Because, like Jacob, we too have been blessed!

Bruce Joffe is publisher and creative of Portugal Living Magazine. You can read the magazine’s current issue and subscribe — at no cost! — via this link:

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Illegitimate, Illegal and Condemnable:

Portugal Decries Russia’s War with Ukraine

Let’s be clear: In the early hours of 24 February, Russia launched a wide-ranging attack on Ukraine, hitting cities and civilians with airstrikes and shelling. As a result, thousands of innocent people piled into trains and cars to flee the unprovoked aggression, while Russian tanks and troops continued to roll across the border launching a “full-scale war” that could rewrite the geopolitical order of the region.  

At the request of the Ukrainian authorities, Portugal agreed to provide military equipment such as vests, helmets, night vision goggles, grenades and ammunition of different calibers, complete portable radios, analogue repeaters and G3 automatic rifles.

Speaking at a televised news conference, Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa said that the country would be sending 175 military reinforcements to help Ukrainian soldiers on the ground secure their borders as this “is a war against the freedom of self-determination of a democratic country and therefore it is also a war against … democracy.”

“It’s been reported that close to 1,800 additional Portuguese military could be mobilized to take part in NATO’s dissuasive mission within allied countries on Ukraine’s borders. The soldiers will be made up of contingents from all three arms of the military (Air Force, Navy and Army),” reported the Portuguese Journal American. “In a second phase, another 472 military could be dispatched, along with 36 tactical vehicles and two Naval war ships.”

In addition, the United States has been reinforcing its use of Portugal’s Lajes military air base on Terceira island in the Azores, including storage and maintenance of munitions and explosives.

Ukrainians in Portugal, the second-largest foreign community in Portugal, are living in fear for their family and friends back home.

Citizens, residents, and expats of one of the world’s most peaceful nations expressed their frustration and anger, decrying Russian President Putin’s decimation of the world order.

Outside the Russian embassy in Lisbon, thousands of demonstrators held signs and waved flags to protest the Russian invasion and Portugal’s solidarity with the Ukrainian people. Additional protests in Porto and Algarve called for military support from European countries to Ukraine, as well as urged the Portuguese to not purchase products from Russia.

“Portugal supports Ukraine, which is defending itself against an unjustified, illegal, and unacceptable invasion,” Defense Minister João Cravinho tweeted.

On behalf of Portugal, Foreign Minister Augusto Santos Silva also expressed his solidarity with Ukraine and condemnation of Moscow:

“We have to be prepared for all scenarios. I am sorry to say it, but I cannot say anything else: today we have to work with all scenarios on the table because what is happening is that Putin’s action is not only exceeding his words, but Putin’s action at every moment is also exceeding the maximum that we had foreseen as possible …”

Santos Silva remarked that “whatever the objective” of the Russian offensive, “it is illegitimate, it is illegal, and it is condemnable,” describing it as “the biggest security crisis that Europe has gone through since World War II.”

Prime Minister Antonio Costa condemned the Russian invasion, adding that any Ukrainians who have family, friends, and acquaintances in Portugal are welcome in Portugal. Instructions to facilitate visas to those feeling the Russian invasion were given to embassies in Ukraine, as well as neighboring countries. The Portuguese Embassy in Ukraine urged Portuguese citizens in Ukraine to leave through European Union borders, particularly enroute to Romania or Moldova.

“While refugees are usually allowed in Portugal through a case-by-case analysis of the danger each applicant faces, the government acknowledged that all refugees from Ukraine are facing dangerous conditions,” wrote Lara Silva in Portugal.com. “The only reason someone might be denied asylum is if they have committed crimes against humanity or serious crimes, according to the Minister of Internal Administration and Justice, Francisca Van Dunem.” 

Unclear whether any changes will be made to the Portugal Golden Visa, “the war in Ukraine is likely to affect Portugal’s state budget for 2022,” Silva predicted. The Prime Minister, however, said it was too early to assess whether this is the case; some Portuguese economists, however, have stated that it will – directly and indirectly – impact the state budget:

“Oil and natural gas prices will continue to skyrocket, as Russia is one of the main energy suppliers to European countries. GDP is also likely to decrease in Portugal and there could be increased military spending attributed to the budget, depending on the course of the conflict.”

The Foreigners and Border Service previously announced that it would stop the Golden Visa scheme for Russian citizens. In addition, Foreign Minister Augusto Santos Silva stressed that more Russian citizens inn Portugal would be subject to sanctions.

“SEF has suspended the appreciation of any dossier of candidacy for authorization of residency through investment, commonly known as golden visas, for Russian citizens,” he pointed out.

In addition, Santos Silva stressed that the scheme was also suspended for citizens from Belarus.

According to Portugal’s Immigration and Border Service (SEF) data, investment from citizens from Russia brought a total of €277.8 million to Portugal’s economy in the nine years since the program was created.

With a view to receiving refugees from Ukraine, Portugal’s government recently published in the Diário da República the amendment to an ordinance that regulates the regime for granting temporary protection to refugees. In a press conference after an extraordinary Council of Ministers, the Minister of Social Security announced that Ukrainians who arrive in Portuguese territory “are guaranteed to stay regular,” being immediately assigned a user number of the National Health Service, Social Security number, and Tax Identification Number (NIF).

The official also announced that the Institute for Employment and Vocational Training (IEFP) has created a “task-force” “to accompany people in a personalized way and manage to find ways of real integration,” through accommodation and a platform where companies will be able to upload job offers.

According to the Minister of Justice and Internal Administration Francisca Van Dunem as quoted by CNN Portugal’s Barbara Cruz, the regime will have an initial duration of one year, renewable for two periods of six months “provided that conditions are maintained that prevent people from returning” to Ukraine.

Although no one in the West is quite sure what Putin’s intentions are, a weakening or breakup of the European Union is suspected of being one of his primary goals, says Len Port, a journalist and author based in the Algarve who writes for the Portugal Resident.

“Fortunately for Portugal, unlike much of the rest of Europe, it is not dependent on natural gas supplies from Russia, which it is feared the Kremlin might be using as a weapon in the current stalemate. Portugal’s gas originates in Algeria, Nigeria, and the US,” Port wrote on 26 January.

Nonetheless, Portugal has concerns even though it is the most distant EU country from Ukraine and, thus, perhaps the least vulnerable should dialogue fail. It is situated more than 3,000 km west of Ukraine. In past years, top Russian warships have passed along Portugal’s coast, at times as close as 26 nautical miles from the Algarve’s shores.

“As distant as it is, defence minister João Gomes Cravinho told his 26 EU counterparts at a meeting … in Brest, France, that he was delighted with the ‘absolute refusal’ by all EU member states to give in to Russia’s attempts to divide the Union by threatening Ukraine,” Port added.

“It’s clear that Russia’s attitudes seek to divide–divide the Europeans and divide the Europeans from the North American,” claimed the defense minister. He described it as “a very worrying situation that must be dealt with firmly, with a clear purpose, and in unity among all Europeans.”

The President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, thanked his Portuguese counterpart, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, for the support Portugal has provided to Ukraine.

Zelensky said on Twitter that he spoke to Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, whom he thanked for the closure of Portuguese airspace to Russian planes, Portugal’s support in excluding Russia from the Swift international interbank platform, and for “concrete defence assistance.”

The Ukrainian head of state called the President of the Republic, who reiterated Portugal’s “strong condemnation” of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and “solidarity support for the courageous Ukrainian resistance,” according to a note published in official website of the Portuguese Presidency.

Portugal also aims to accelerate its energy transition and increase the proportion of renewable sources by 20 percentage points to 80 per cent of its electricity output by 2026, four years earlier than previously planned, a transition that is being accelerated after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” according to a 2 April report by Reuters.

Unlike central European countries, Portugal does not depend on Russian natural gas pipelines, as it mainly imports liquefied natural gas from Nigeria and the USA, not importing Russian crude since 2020.Committed to become carbon-neutral by 2050, Portugal currently gets 60 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources—one of the largest proportions of green energy in Europe.

Elsewhere, Pope Francis prayed for peace in Ukraine in a ceremony that harkened back to a century-old apocalyptic prophecy about peace and Russia sparked by purported visions of the Virgin Mary to three peasant children in Fatima, Portugal, in 1917.

The pontiff invited faithful from around the world to join him in the prayer, which opened with Francis entering St. Peter’s Basilica before an estimated 3,500 people and concluded with him sitting alone before a statue of the Madonna. There, he solemnly asked forgiveness that humanity had forgotten the lessons learned from the tragedies of the last century, the sacrifice of the millions who fell in two World Wars,” noted Nicole Winfield for the Associated Press.

“Free us from war, protect our world from the menace of nuclear weapons,” the pope prayed.

The service was Francis’ latest effort to rally prayers for an end to the war while keeping open options for dialogue with the Russian Orthodox Church and its influential leader, Patriarch Kirill. “Francis has yet to publicly condemn Russia by name for its invasion, though his denunciations of the war in Ukraine have grown increasingly outraged,” observed Winfield.

Bruce Joffe is publisher and creative director of Portugal Living Magazine. Read the magazine’s current issue online and subscribe at no cost via this link:

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A Seat at the Table for Elijah?

For many of the same reasons that Christians celebrate Easter – being released from bondage into freedom – Jewish people traditionally celebrate Passover as a series of observations passed down from generation to generation. It’s a holy day to recall how God saved his called people from plagues and the death of their first-borne sons, the latter by painting the lintels framing their doorways with the blood of sacrificial sheep so that the angel of death “passed over” their homes while the Egyptians suffered an entirely different fate.

One of the central themes of Passover is telling the story of oppression and the journey to liberation.

“Let my people go!” Moses repeatedly pleaded with Pharaoh.

And finally, with the death of his own first-borne son, the story goes that Pharaoh relented. Miracles of the water parting so the Jewish people could walk safely through while, later, as Egyptians had second thoughts and pursued the Israelites through that same water, it gathered back together and drowned the Egyptians hunting their hostages. Even the matzoh – the unleavened bread – is part of the Passover story, reminding us of the haste in which the Hebrews fled (with not even enough time for their bread to rise).

While we may understand that spiritual maturity means accepting that life is the integration of the bitter and the sweet, the matzoh sandwich also reminds us that we live our lives “in-between.” We hang in the balance, alive, but not immortal, sandwiched between a fragile, limited, carnal self and our eternal Divine DNA.

For both faiths, Easter and Passover have the same significance: remembering our freedom from bondage. We gather together, observe certain rituals, and share a communal meal while passing down these remarkable legends.

For Christians, Easter Sunday is preceded by Palm Sunday which, in turn, is preceded by days of Lent, preparing ourselves for worship in church. Often, there are processions (especially in predominantly Roman Catholic countries) with banners, floats, and flowers. For Jews, however, Passover is a home-based, solemn festivity, worshiped around the family table … with a very interesting tradition: one of the chairs is always left empty.

It’s Elijah’s.

Jewish tradition teaches that Elijah the prophet will be the harbinger of the coming of the Messiah and the world’s redemption. It is a chair of hope. Elijah’s cup, in Judaism, the fifth ceremonial cup of wine poured during the family (seder) dinner on Passover is left untouched in honour of Elijah, who, according to belief, will arrive one day as an unknown guest to herald the advent of the Messiah. His presence signals the messianic era: a time of redemption, peace, and spiritual bliss. The full cup ―one for the future ― remains untouched to honor and offer hospitality to Elijah when he ultimately appears. Symbolically, he is also welcomed when families open their doors during the Passover Seder.

During the last generation, however, Elijah’s chair and cup have been taken.

By cell phones and digital devices.

How ironic that holidays which are supposed to lead us by faith from bondage and oppression to freedom and peace have been usurped by humans putting their faith on hold should they be beckoned by a telephone call, Facebook message, or Instagram photo.

Each year, the chairs around our table are filled with different individuals who join together to retell, once again, the story of our enslavement and redemption. The Passover seder is more than a history lesson, for each of us is instructed to see ourselves as if we had personally been freed from Egypt. It must become our own story, told in the context of our family’s generations and community. We add new layers as each new year’s experience melds with the memories of the past.

Some years are painfully different. A beloved family member or friend has died during the past year. A country has been destroyed, whether by politics, war, and division. There is an empty chair – Elijah’s – at the table. How can we go through the same rituals when life has been so drastically altered? What if we begin to cry at the seder table? What if everyone is so afraid of pain and grief that they ignore the empty chair? Are we even allowed to bring our sadness to the seder, which seems like it should be a happy occasion? Sometimes death changes family/social relations, also the empty chair at the table.

How do we find meaning in the holidays now?

With God’s grace, hopefully beyond our fleeting “new normals.”

Bruce Joffe is publisher and creative director of Portugal Living Magazine. You can read the current issue and subscribe — at no cost! — by clicking on this link:

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Parable, Extended

Whoever has ears, let them hear:

The Kingdom of God beckons like a splendid real estate listing for a sprawling property still under construction. But, instead of a firm or non-negotiable asking price, its Multiple Listing Service (MLS) description states, “All offers considered.”

From near and far, many people looking for a new place to live decide to visit this extraordinary place. Some are newcomers to the neighborhood, while others are old-timers who have lived here much of their lives but, for one reason or another, have decided that the time now has come to change their residence.  Although a number of those interested in the property are first-timers entering the market, more than a few are quite experienced with making monthly mortgage payments including the PITI: principal, interest, taxes, and insurance.

Approaching the entrance to the building, a sign has been tacked to the front door:  “Open. All are welcome here. Please come in, make yourselves at home, and look around our habitat.”

Inside, it’s a marvel to behold.

Off the entry way referred to by the broker’s brochure as the “Gathering Room” leads a meandering corridor with rooms on the left and to the right. People introduce themselves, hang up their outerwear, and laugh about such a remarkable property on which they have been encouraged to make an offer. 

All offers considered. Really? What is expected and how much is enough?

The Great Room beyond the Gathering Room is filled with extraordinary antiques and lovely old keepsakes. The scent of wax from candles and on heavily polished wooden seating areas permeates the air as clusters of people “ooh” and “aah” over the leaded stained glass windows which filter prisms of light. They bow before vintage figurines or larger statues, murmuring softly and reverently. By the look in their eyes and peaceful demeanor, some people appear to be touched by a ghost or holy spirit amid all the hallowed icons amassed here.

Adjoining this room of antiquities is another room—not quite so old, yet classic and traditional. Here, the people cloistered seem a bit more reserved as they pay homage to the place in a pristine and orderly fashion.  They all know the specific reply to each statement or comment made, as everyone echoes the proper response promptly and with great precision. Though, to some, this seems somewhat stifled and/or silly, the appointed words and common traditions underscore a sense and sensibility resulting in a bond enrapturing quite a few people in the semblance of hearing a holy, holy, holy celestial choir.

Several visitors to the property are held spellbound by these two rooms and find themselves passing back and forth between them. In some ways, both rooms are similar although, quite naturally, certain folks are more beholden to the antiques and heirlooms while others are bound to their more customary rites and rituals.

The formal rooms continue to unfold as we step into the Library. Silently, one of the men seated around one of several large tables looks up as we enter and points to his lips, making the “Shhhhhhhhh!” sign that we are not to speak while here. If the other two rooms we had been through were warmed by the touch of flesh through handshakes, a squeeze to the shoulder, or pat on the back, this room seems fundamentally cold and foreboding. Those seated at the tables here have their eyes glued resolutely to the pages in front of them. Their fingers follow the words on each page with Talmudic scrutiny, parsing laws and prohibitions. Every so often, someone nods in affirmation with the book or glances up at the ceiling as though the Holy One can be found ensconced there. While a few linger here acknowledging whatever truths (evidently) cause the readers to follow in thanksgiving and submission, others are very eager to move on.

Passing a series of Dormitories whose doors are slightly ajar, we peek inside. Time blurs in these bedrooms where we expect peaceful people to be sleeping. Instead, they are silently meditating on some noble truths, softly chanting their mantras, or stretching contemplatively in yoga positions—reaching reflexively toward a higher moral principle, perspective, or purpose.

Next, we approach the grand Fellowship Hall where people seem to enjoy getting together. Music plays as we smile back at those grinning our way; yet something seems amiss—odd and out of sorts. A measured “all for one and one for all” aura appears like icing to a cake—except there is no cake and the sugar is really saccharine. Squinting for a closer look, we notice close cliques and distinct separations among the people present. What’s more, apparently they’re oblivious to anyone outside of their room. Despite the frivolous camaraderie, some people evidence a heavenly joy, as if being together in a general store surrounded with all its goods.

To the left of the Fellowship Hall in an open-concept Family Room, people are listening to a lecture that follows a movie shown here earlier. No rules or regulations are enforced here, just respect for each person’s uniqueness and a hallelujah chorus of diversity, social justice, and emancipation proclamation. The emphasis here is on leaving the room a better place than how you found it.

We cannot help but put hands over our ears for all the hooting and hollering coming from down the hall. In this room, people are shouting and clapping, dancing and singing with words that don’t make any sense (to us).  As quickly as someone stands and utters a string of unknown sounds, another interrupts, prophesying praises and/or condemnations. There is neither rhyme nor reason, and, despite people lying jubilantly helter-skelter across the floor, a sense of mystical satisfaction seems to permeate the activity here. Who can say that, miraculously, they aren’t swept up in some sort of spiritual ecstasy? 

You can see the light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak, as only a few rooms are left before the backyard door which is wide open.

The next room our group comes across – those who haven’t stayed behind in one of those rooms we’ve already been through – has a bright, neon sign above its portal flashing: “Bonus Room!” But the door to this room is closed and locked. We knock and the door opens from the inside. “You have to pay – spend your money as well as time – in this room,” a voice intones.  “How much?” a member of our group asks. “That depends on what you want,” quickly comes the reply. “You need to sow seeds in order to reap a harvest.”

We are allowed to peek into the room without crossing the threshold. Truth be told, the room looks more like a bank or investment firm, with people standing as best they can – some holding tightly onto canes, the blind being led by guides gripping their hands, and others waiting impatiently as nervous tics ravage their faces – all awaiting their turn at the convenience counter.

“Do you have faith? Do you trust God? Do you believe God’s Word? Will you confess and claim it? Are you willing to put God to the test and prove that you’ve been promised health, wealth, and happiness?” asks the well-dressed proprietor behind the window grills. “Yes! Yes!! Yes!!!” cries each person approaching.

“Then, plant a seed.  Put a deposit, a down payment, on the riches in store for you,” the hawker urges, as people peel off $50, $100, and $500 bills … or more.

Shocked as we are at the nature of these “covenant” transactions, it’s amazing how some of those believers are being blessed in the process of their dealing!

Two rooms remain for us to see in this cathedral of a house.

One, we decide to bypass as it seems too reminiscent of the Family Room. This one, though, is named the “Play Room,” and it’s obvious why: Entertainment is the focus here. There are video games and sound stages with bands blasting contemporary gospel music (variety shows and theatrical performances), with plenty of young, exuberant faces eager to soak it all in. Keurig coffee makers and bagels with cream cheese are set out as snacks here. At the end of their time in this spacious room, people hug and say, “See you next week,” as they leave the room and go merrily on their ways. Yes, they have given a dollar or several during the collection and were reminded to be back a week following.

And, in between? That’s their time, to do with as they please.

The Kitchen, warm and welcoming, is full of joyful volunteers who charitably cook and clean up after themselves to feed those hungry and/or homeless. It’s truly amazing how the pantry here is never empty—each time groceries are removed and divided among the guests, the food multiplies so that even more can be served. A banner strung over the serving area subtly reminds folks that, “Joy shared is doubled. Sorrow shared is halved.”

Strangely, the last room before our exit is quite stark and quiet. People here sit in a circle on simple chairs, without the grandiose décor found elsewhere on our tour. Nobody speaks or acknowledges us as we look in; they continue in a reverie of prayer and contemplation. There is no coffee hour or refreshments here, no glad-handing or promises of prosperity, just a solemn serenity begging for peace.

Tired as we are from previewing this property, we need, at least, to take a quick look around the outside. We are standing in front of an open door that looks out on a back yard stretching as far as the heavens. People continuously coming and going from this expanse of nature are both kind and helpful to those they know or don’t know, as they bend beneath the weight of carrying another’s burdens. Here, they lay down parts, parcels, and packets of their lives for others to take while picking up pieces of wood and kindling to fuel the fires of friendship. Children and animals romp together as sunshine and rain nourish the ground, rendering it friendly and fertile.

“So, what do you think of my parents’ house?” inquires the heir and agent apparent, suddenly standing there among us.  “My family’s house has many rooms. Didn’t I already tell you that?”

We all agree—in principle, at least.

“Can I prepare a place – a room – for you here?” he asks, offering each of us our choice of no-money-down, obligation-free reservations.

It seems too good to be true to us wayfarers, as there’s faith abounding here for everyone to live together harmoniously—despite whatever our differences.

Bidding adieu, we remember the words in the property’s listing:

“All offers considered.” Yes, all offers truly are considered by the householders. This house is called The Gospel, it’s fully furnished, and the ageless rock of its cornerstone is grace.

Born Again?

Like so much else in the Bible and the important matters that Jesus talks about, being “born again” may be a metaphor … though a metaphor that is essential to the Christian testament, indeed to the Christian experience.

If I were creating a college curriculum for Christians, I might call my foundational course “Christianity 101: Being Born Again.”

Unfortunately, the term has been given a bad rap and held hostage by evangelical, fundamentalist and conservative Christians; so we tend to cringe a bit, preferring to stay away from talking about it.

But we need to.

Conservative Christians have had a near monopoly on what many people refer to as “born again language” and culture … populated by terms like fallen, sinner, altar calls, and saved … to reciting a string of words as a given formula.  You know what I’m talking about:

 Heavenly Father, have mercy on me, a sinner. I believe in you and that your word is true. I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of the living God and that he died on the cross so that I may now have forgiveness for my sins and eternal life. I know that without you in my heart my life is meaningless.”  Next, we add a bunch of our particular brand of dogma and doctrine.  And then we say: “I give you my life and ask you to take full control from this moment on; I pray this in the name of Jesus Christ.”

In Charismatic and Pentecostal circles, being born again is further complicated to mean receiving the gifts of the Spirit … especially as evidenced by speaking in tongues, if not being “slain in the Spirit.”

In addition, most of us have known at least one person who was born again in a remarkably unattractive way—practicing a rigid kind of religious righteousness, judgmentalism, and imposing strict boundaries between an “in-group” of acceptable Christians and all others.

I remember some of the churches I attended in my earlier years as a Christian, where certain places of worship were referred to positively, passionately, as “believing” churches, while most mainstream churches were summarily dismissed as not valid to be called Christian.

And yet, there is something special about being born again. 

Rightly understood, being born again is a fulfilling and comprehensive notion, one that we – and all – need to reclaim.

The theme of the story about Nicodemus and Jesus from the third chapter of John’s gospel is rich in metaphor and symbolism.  We’ll focus on verses 3-7 because they explain why being born again or born anew is so vitally important:

“In reply, Jesus declared, ‘I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again … no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.  Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.  You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’”

The idea of being born again of the Spirit is not new, nor did it end with these words of Jesus. One of my own personal favorites is the prophecy found in Jeremiah 31:

31 “The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah … 33 “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34 No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”

 Later, in I Peter 1:3, we read:

Blessed be the LORD God who has invited us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

But, let’s return to Nicodemus: a Pharisee who had dedicated his life to keeping the rules and regulations of the Old Covenant, a man totally committed to serving God in the only ways that seemed right to him.

Not only was Nicodemus a Pharisee, he was also a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling body or supreme court of the Jews at the time.

So, what on earth was someone like Nicodemus doing coming to Jesus?  Was he out to trap Jesus into saying something controversial?  Was he gathering evidence? 

No, I don’t think so …

Nicodemus came in the dark, looking for light.  There’s one of our metaphors!  He starts the conversation with a compliment:  “Teacher,” he says to Jesus, “we all know that God has sent you to teach us.  Your miraculous signs are proof enough that God is with you.”

But Jesus brushes aside the compliment to get to the heart of his message: It’s not external signs that are important, he tells Nicodemus; it’s what happens inside a person’s heart … and that has to be such a profound change that it can only be described as being “born again.”

These two Greek words can be translated three different ways.  And they have been, in different translations of the Bible where, in some versions, the words are “born again,” in others, “born anew,” and yet in others, “born from above.”  What’s more, all three are valid!  It’s one of those concepts that can’t be contained accurately in English and retain its full meaning.

What is its full meaning?  The words mean a radical and complete change … it can mean “again,” in the sense of a second or third or fourth time … and it can mean “from above,” and therefore from God.

When we try to bring all these meanings together, to get a sense of what Jesus was trying to say to Nicodemus, we essentially have Jesus saying that there is a fundamental change that happens to someone who experiences and enters into the Kingdom of God.  Something happens deep inside, in the soul, in the heart of that person, which can only be described as being reborn … and there’s nothing of self in this because it comes from the grace and power of God.

Like all of us, Nicodemus was a man who saw the need for change – and wanted to change – but he couldn’t change himself.  It’s a problem that has plagued humanity from the earliest pages of the Bible.  Nicodemus came to Jesus knowing that there was something lacking in his life. Jesus saw the root of the problem and told him what was needed.  It was too radical for Nicodemus, so he clutched at straws: “I just don’t understand how it works,” he seems to say.

Here Jesus does what he often does: He takes pictures from everyday life and uses them to open people’s eyes to the truth.  I’ve referred to pictures like this, before, as metaphors.

“See the wind,” Jesus says to Nicodemus.  “You’ve seen trees flattened by it, or leaves blown by its gusts. You may not understand the physics of what you see, but the effects are plain to see.  It’s like that with the Spirit, too. You may not know how it works, but the effects are plain to see in lives that have been changed.”

Today, Jesus may have referred to television, a computer, or the Internet instead of the wind. Do most of us know how they work?  Probably not.  Do we understand the technology behind their incredible power?  No, we don’t.  But that doesn’t matter … because the effects of what television, computers, and the Internet do are so obvious.

We may not understand the full implications of Jesus’ words when he talks about flesh giving birth to flesh and the Spirit giving birth to spirit … but we can see the effect of this spiritual rebirth in the lives of Christians who have experienced it!

One commentator explained it this way: “The unanswerable argument for Christianity is the Christian life.”  A changed lifeA life focused from the inside out rather than the outside in.

Children instinctively accept their relationship to God because they haven’t been conditioned by society’s rules, norms, and expectations.  As we grow conditioned to seek popularity, achievement, affluence, authority, in the world, we’re increasingly controlled by society, living from the outside in rather than by the Spirit of God from the inside out.  We’re increasingly separated from God as our self-concern, our self-preoccupation, intensifies. It’s what I think of as “the fall.”

Jesus concludes his conversation with Nicodemus with a warning: “I’ve tried to make things simple for you to understand,” says Jesus.  “I’ve spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how, then, will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?  If you can’t see what I’m getting at from your everyday life, how in the world are you ever going to understand the deeper, spiritual things?”

Alas, Nicodemus just doesn’t get it. He’s a literalist. “How can anyone be born after having grown old?  Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 

Nicodemus is still clueless.

The point of this classic text is clear: What Nicodemus needs is a spiritual rebirth, an internal rebirth, a personal transformation.  It’s what we all need.  Because, at the heart of the Gospel, is the mystery of God’s compelling grace, love, and redemption. 

There’s a very serious message here, I believe, for us:  Faith isn’t something you can understand by discussion, argument, reading or listening to sermons … it’s something that has to be experienced. 

To be born again, born anew, or born from above aren’t alien concepts that belong to the “happy-clappy” brigade of Pentecostals.  No, no, no!  This is fundamental change, a metamorphosis, a continuing transformation in our lives, a constant reformation of dying to the self that the world tells us we are, and being resurrected into the spiritual person that God has created us to be: in relationship to our Creator and all of creation. 

To be born again means dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way of being … dying to an old identity and being born into a new one centered in the sacred.

It’s a process, not a formula … a continuing cycle that we need to go through again and again, rather than saying the words of the “Sinner’s Prayer” and being done with it.

Being born again is the road of return from our spiritual exile, the way to recover our true selves, the path to beginning to live our lives God’s way rather than ours, the exodus from our individual and collective selfishness to the freedom from that bondage.

Most importantly, being born again is intentional; although we can’t make it happen, we can help it along.  That’s why so many sermons about being born again often end with an altar call, an invitation to realize our limitations, turn from our evil ways, and to ask God to take over by acknowledging Jesus as the way we want to live.

No, I’m not going to do that.  But I am going to ask you to bow your heads as I end this message with a prayer:

Our God and Creator, all the riches of life in your Kingdom are ours if we will but open up our lives, our hearts, our minds, and our souls to the new life that you would have us live. Open our hearts to the need for renewal and rebirth. 

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