Tag Archive: Sermon on the Mount

So, You Love Those Bears More Than You Love Jesus?

teddy angelsMy life as a Christian can best be described as passionate, committed, and devoted, yet at same time be described as wild, chaotic, and ever-moving. Years ago, I read a passage in one of Thomas Merton’s books wherein he talked about how people often judged him based on his past and not on where he was presently. As a devoted follower of Jesus, I often experienced similar judgment. I was an ever-moving target, and people bent on judging me often did so based on the past and not where I was presently. This happens even today. Evangelical critics will zone in on a particular point on the timeline of my life and use my beliefs, practices, and experiences at that point in time to render judgment. This, of course, totally misrepresents my journey and leads to faulty conclusions. In particular, critics will focus on what they consider the AHA! point in my résumé; for example, that I was an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) preacher. They think they have me right where they want me; however, I reply, yes, but I wasn’t always an IFB pastor. I left the IFB church and moved on to Calvinism, generic Evangelicalism, and then progressive Christianity. Always restless and moving — that best describes my life, even to this day.

I always envied Christians who were steady-eddies; people whose Christian lives never changed or moved. Of course, I couldn’t understand such staid living. Weren’t we to always challenge ourselves with the teachings of the Bible and be sensitive to the leadership of the Holy Ghost? Weren’t we supposed to follow the promptings and directions of God’s Spirit? Why did it seem that God was ALWAYS leading me to take up my cross and follow him or sell all that I have and give it to the poor, but he never seemed to be leading my colleagues in the ministry to do the same? Why was I willing to do without to advance the kingdom of God, yet most of the Christians I knew weren’t willing to do the same? I often wondered why I seemed to be on a spiritual wave length different from most Christians, including men who labored in God’s vineyard.

I believed, for many years, that the Bible was the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God, and that its words were to be read, meditated over, and obeyed. The Bible wasn’t a book of suggestions. Yes, it was a book that spoke of God’s grace, but it also had hundreds of laws, commands, and precepts Christians were commanded by God to follow. I never viewed these commands as optional. The Bible — at least to me — was clear: Do THIS and thou shalt live. Obedience led to life eternal, and disobedience led to God’s chastisement or Hell. Passage after passage in the Bible talked about the importance of following in Jesus’ steps and keeping his commandments. Solomon, in the twelfth chapter of Ecclesiastes, summed up the whole duty of man this way: Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. Jesus himself summed up the laws of God this way in Matthew 22:36-40:

Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

These verses described my heart’s desire: love God with all my heart, soul, and mind and love my neighbor as myself. I thought, at the time, these verses are in every Christian’s Bible, yet why do so few Christians take them seriously? By the way, I STILL wonder this to this day. Most Christians live lives indistinguishable from those of atheists, agnostics, humanists, pagans, and the adherents of religions deemed false by Evangelicals. Outside of what they do between the hours of 10:00 a.m. and noon on Sundays, there’s very little difference between saints and sinners.

When it came to material things, Jesus said:

For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Matthew 6:21)

No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. (Matthew 6:24)

These words come from a passage of Scripture (Matthew 5-7) commonly called The Sermon on the Mount. Jesus gathered his disciples on a mountain side and taught them what it meant to be his followers; what would be required of them if they were to follow the Lamb of God withersover he goeth. I believed then, and still do, that Christianity and the world would be better served if the followers of Jesus actually read and practiced the teachings found in Christ’s hillside sermon.

I am in no way trying to paint myself as once having been a perfect Christian. As this story will later show, I ended up living a life no different from most Christians. I was far from perfect, daily breaking the commands of Christ in thought, word, and deed. That said, I couldn’t help but notice the difference between how I lived my life and how most other Christians lived theirs.

In the late 1990s I felt convicted over what I perceived was my materialism and that of my family. Hell was hot, souls were lost, and people were dying, and I believed God wanted me to do more to reach the unwashed, uncircumcised Philistines of the world. Thanks to my oldest to sons, who were living at home at the time and paying rent, along with Polly working at a local manufacturing concern, and me drawing a modest salary from the church, the Gerencser family was starting to take on the look of a typical middle-class midwestern Evangelical family. There were four cars in the drive, a TV in the living room and master bedroom, a computer in the office, and newer furniture in the living room. Polly and I were able to take our first vacation since the 1980s — without the children. We had money to go out on dates, buy clothing/shoes, and enjoy a bit of the American dream. But, thanks to Jesus and his teachings, I became increasingly uncomfortable with our way of living. I thought, how can we live this way when there are billions of people in the world who don’t know Jesus? What kind of example was I to the church and other Christians? These judgmental questions and others began eating at me, and soon I believed that the God want me (us) to embrace simplicity and frugality, giving our excess money to the church, missionaries, and other groups who were engaged in building churches, evangelizing the lost, and ministering to the poor. I began selling off things I thought I didn’t need: firearms, hundreds of books, electronic equipment, and a large collection of political memorabilia from the 1960s and 1970s given to me by my political junkie mother (letters from notable politicians and campaign buttons/literature.) I dutifully and happily sold these goods and gave them to the Lord’s work. I was gladly willing to do without for the sake of gospel. Only one life twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last, went the Evangelical mantra. Little did I know that this time, my wife wasn’t willing to join me in suffering for Jesus. (One night, I gathered up all the things I had collected over the years from the various churches I pastored, including sermon notes and tapes, and set them on fire in the back yard. In my mind, this was me setting fire to the past and telling God I was ready to be used by him in any way he saw fit. I sure wish I had these things today!)

polly gerencser late 1990s

Polly Gerencser, late 1990s, carrying water from the creek to flush the toilets. An ice storm had knocked out the power.

Polly loves collectible bears. As our finances improved, I started buying Polly Teddy Angel bears for her birthday, our wedding anniversary, and other special days. As my great sell-off continued, I noticed Polly wasn’t joining me in giving a burnt offer to God. We had a few “discussions” — Greek for Bruce talking and Polly listening — about her unwillingness to forsake all and follow Jesus. I specifically mentioned her bears. One day, after yet another round of eBay listings and nothing given to the cause by Polly, I said to her, “So, you love those bears more than you love Jesus?” “No, I really do love Jesus,” Polly replied. “It’s just that some of these bears have sentimental value.”  I asked, “what bears, then, don’t have sentimental value?” One by one, I picked up the bears and asked, “This one? This one?” I learned that almost every bear had a story: “Mom gave this to me for my birthday, you gave this to me for Valentine’s Day, you gave this to me with a letter that told me you loved me.” In what would be one of the greatest regrets of my married life, I badgered Polly — in Jesus’s name, of course — into selling many of her bears, regaling her with stories about what would be accomplished with the money gained from their sale. With tears in her eyes, Polly gathered up half of her bears and gave them to me to sell. I remember saying, “see that wasn’t so hard!”

Brutal, I know, but if I am going to honestly and openly tell my story, I must tell it, warts and all. Quite honestly, I am embarrassed to even write this post. All I can visualize is the love of my life crying over giving up her bears. She had few things to call her own (as did I) in our married life, yet here I was asking (demanding) that she give up reminders of some of the happy times in her life. Gifts were far and few between for both of us. We didn’t buy each other Christmas gifts, so, for Polly, all the gifts she had from me were bears, Fenton glass, and other collectibles. Small tokens of love, yet each of them carried great meaning for Polly. I grossly underestimated how much these things meant to her. At the time,  I saw her attachment to these things as a sign of love for the world; an unwillingness to forsake all and follow Jesus.

This phase of my life would pass, never to return. I finally realized that I was standing alone on this matter, and that every other Christian I knew was busy pursuing houses, lands, cars, and material wealth. I realized while still a Christian that I had been a fool; that I had sacrificed my health and financial security, and to what end? Hell was still hot, souls were still lost, and people were dying. Bible verses that spoke of laying up treasure in heaven no longer satiated my spiritual desires. I wanted the lives other people had, as did Polly and our children. I became, I suppose, just another preacher who loved Jesus, but also loved the good life.

I left the ministry in 2005, and left Christianity in 2008. Since decoupling from Christianity, I have had a lot of time to reflect on the religious and psychological forces that led me to a life of servitude, self-denial, and poverty; that led me to demand that my wife and children follow in my steps. Had I been single, the only harm caused would been to self, but as a married man with six children, I harmed those I loved and cared for the most. There are not enough lifetimes left for me apologize for the harm I caused to Polly and our children. I now know that I spent much of my life serving a myth; and that my sacrifices and voluntary poverty accomplished almost nothing. I say almost, because I know the money and material goods I gave to the poor, sick, hungry, and homeless helped them, so my giving had some effect, but all in all, my life of devotion to Jesus was “a waste of time, money, and talent” — to use the line oft recited by Baptist preachers when trying to goad congregants into doing more for Jesus. I pissed away tens of thousands of dollars, and even more when not-taken salary is added in. As with all past misdeeds, there’s nothing I can do to undo them. The past is the past. All I can do is learn from past mistakes, pass what I have learned on to others, and spend what life I have left living one hell of a hedonistic, sinful life — that’s sarcasm, by the way, for the Evangelical dullards who happen upon this post.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

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Evangelical Dualism: It’s Not Me, It’s Jesus 

crucifying the flesh

Christians will tell you that the good works they do are all because of Jesus. Recently, an Evangelical woman by the name of Pam left several comments detailing her battles with perfectionism. It was only when she learned to let go and let God that she was able to find victory over her perfectionist tendencies. According to Pam, the flesh is the problem, and the only way Christians can live fulfilled, happy lives is to die to self and allow Jesus to have absolute control. It was Jesus himself who said to those who would be his disciples, let a man deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. It was the apostle Paul who said that without Christ he could do nothing. Paul reminded Christians that they must deny the flesh and give themselves over, without reservation, to Jesus. In First John, Christians are reminded that if they love the world and the things that are in the world, then love of the father is not in them. In fact, the writer of First John tells Christians that if they sin, they are children of the devil.

Now, everyone knows Christians sin. We know that Christians live lives that are, for the most part, indistinguishable from non-Christians. How then, do Christians square what the Bible says about how they should live their lives with how they actually live? Christians believe that humans are either bipartite or tripartite beings — body and soul or body, soul, and spirit. This dualistic understanding of human nature allows Christians to rationalize and reconcile conflicting teachings in the Bible about human nature and God’s demands. It’s the body that sins. It’s the flesh that Satan can take control of, resulting in Christians committing all sorts of sinful acts. The Bible teaches that Christians are to walk in the spirit and not the flesh. Over and over, the Bible reinforces the belief that Christians, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, are dualistic creatures that will spend their lives on earth in constant battle with competing desires, needs, and influences.

For 2,000 years, Christians have been practicing some sort of self-flagellation that is meant to crucify the flesh, rendering them dead to sin and alive to Christ. Over the years, I heard countless illustrations (and gave many myself) about the battle between the spirit and the flesh. I remember one pastor saying that this battle is like having two dogs — spirit dog and flesh dog. The strength of these dogs is determined by which dog we feed. If Christians want to live victoriously, then they must feed the spirit dog. Feeding the flesh dog leads to lives of sin, carnality, and the chastisement of God. This cosmic battle between good and evil can be illustrated many different ways. What most Christians don’t know is that this dualistic understanding of human nature comes from Gnosticism, a system of belief judged heretical centuries ago. In fact, if you listen carefully to what Christians say, you will quickly conclude that in 2016 Gnosticism is alive and well. This is no better illustrated than with the way Christians explain the constant tug and pull in their life between good and evil, righteousness and unrighteousness, and the flesh and the spirit.

In Romans 7, the apostle Paul talks about this battle:

Wherefore, my brethren, ye also are become dead to the law by the body of Christ; that ye should be married to another, even to him who is raised from the dead, that we should bring forth fruit unto God. For when we were in the flesh, the motions of sins, which were by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death.But now we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held; that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter. What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet.But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence. For without the law sin was dead.For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died. And the commandment, which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me. Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good. Was then that which is good made death unto me? God forbid. But sin, that it might appear sin, working death in me by that which is good; that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful. For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin. For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good. Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.

From these verses, and others, Christians include that their flesh (body) is sinful and that the good deeds they do are not their own works, but the works of God who uses them for his own purposes. This is why Christian zealots can ignore the commenting rules on this blog and post comment after comment filled with Bible verses, sermons, and other acts of Evangelical masturbation. You see, it’s not them saying/writing these words, it is Jesus. They are just conduits through which Jesus speaks to poor deluded atheists and other unbelievers. In many ways, these zombies for Jesus are not much different from Madam Zelda, who channels dead loved ones so she can give messages to those they have left behind. Evangelicals must daily crucify their flesh. The use of the word crucify reminds them to the degree they must be willing to go to be used by Jesus. Jesus was willing to be brutally, viciously beaten, ultimately dying on the cross, so that human sin could be atoned for. Wanting to be like Jesus, Evangelicals physically and psychologically flagellate themselves, hoping by their acts of self-denial that Jesus will find them worthy and use them for his purpose and glory.

Lost on Evangelicals is the fact that their very acts of self-denial are they themselves doing works. They are the ones dying to self. They are the ones crucifying the flesh. They are the ones taking up their crosses and following Jesus. No matter how far along the Christian experience you want to go, eventually human action will be found. This is why I have argued that Christianity, at its heart, is not a religion of faith/grace. It’s all about works, and it always has been. If God is the same yesterday today and forever, then he cannot and will not change. The Old Testament is clear, God had a prescribed way his chosen people were required to live, under the penalties of judgment, death, and eternal damnation if they did not. In the Gospels, Jesus made it very clear in the Sermon on the Mount that if people wanted to be his disciples they would have to live a certain way. Paul continues this works-based thinking in his epistles when he contrasts the works of the flesh and the works of the spirit. James says that faith without works is dead and the writer of First John spends five chapters listing the works that must be in the lives of those who say they are followers of Jesus. Even salvation is a work. For sinners to be saved, they must accept the gospel message, repent of their sins, and believe in Jesus Christ. They must put their faith and trust in Jesus alone. No one becomes a Christian by sitting at home and just waiting for it to happen. The new birth — being born from above — requires an act of volition. Christians will go to great lengths to explain why these acts of the will are really God’s doing, but the fact remains that it is unbelievers who are making  conscious choices to either accept or reject Jesus Christ.

Dualism, of course, is a theological construct that is used to explain the contradictory teachings of the Bible. There is no possible way to reconcile Jesus, Paul, James, and John without resorting to some sort of dualistic magic. Those of us who are atheists have an entirely different view of human nature. We recognize that our lives are affected by genetics, environment, personal choices and decisions, and being at the wrong/right place at the wrong/place right time (to name a few). We also know that luck plays a big part in who and what we are. Most of us would agree that choices and decisions are not made in a vacuüm and that every action results in a reaction. Choices have consequences,  and while we can look at the various reasons that people make the choices that they do, at the end of the day all of us are responsible for the choices we make.

My life is in admixture of good and bad works and good and bad decisions, with a healthy dose of neither good or bad. As a Christian, I ascribed the good that I did to Jesus and the bad that I did to Satan and/or the flesh. As an atheist, I accept full responsibility for what I do, and when I do good things I rightly accept the praise and approbation of others. After all, it is I, not God or some other person, who did the good work. While I may deflect the praise of others through humility, realizing that others often play a big part in the good things that I do, I now know that is okay for me to say (and for others to say) good job, Bruce. I also know that when I do bad things that I need to look no further than me, myself, and I. While my wonderful, loving, awesome, super, fabulous, beautiful wife of 38 years can irritate the hell out of me, if I respond to her in anger or impatience I have no one to blame but myself. I am in control of my actions, words, and, to some degree, my destiny. I can look back over my life, as I am wont to do, and see how the various decisions I have made have affected where I am today. While I know the reasons for my health problems are many, some of which are beyond my control, I also know that choices that my parents made and choices that I have made play a part. Who among us hasn’t said, I wish I had done __________. I believe it was George Foreman that said that his obituary will one day read that he died of one too many cheeseburgers. Foreman understood that connection between choices and consequences. Our lives are complex mixtures of many factors, all of which are rooted in naturalism and materialism. I need not look far to find the reasons and answers for who and what I have become. Voltaire was right when he said, “Each player must accept the cards life deals him or her. But once they are in hand, he or she alone must decide how to play the cards in order to win the game.” Napoleon Hill, the author of Think and Grow Rich, stated, “You are the master of your destiny. You can influence, direct and control your own environment. You can make your life what you want it to be.”  While I certainly don’t take Hill’s words as far as those who believe that by mere thinking and believing they can cause things to happen, I do understand that the life that I am now living is mine alone and that to a large degree what I do with it is up to me. Believing that a deity is the master of my universe and the controller of my rudder complicates things, so cutting him out of my life allows me not only to make my own decisions but also accept responsibility for what good or bad comes as a result of the choices that I’ve made. While I still have moments when I wish there were someone to blame — say the devil or the flesh — I know that when I look in the mirror I see the one person who is responsible for how Bruce Gerencser lives his life. To quote an oft used line, the buck stops here.

How did dualistic thinking affect your life as Christian? How have things changed for you now that you no longer believe? If you are a progressive or liberal Christian or the practitioner of another religion, how do you view your life and the decisions you make? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.

The Disconnect Between what Christians Say and How They Live

 

christian hypocrisy

Several months back, I asked readers to submit questions they would like me to answer. If you would like to ask a question, please leave your question here.

Chikerin asked:

Jesus said that if someone asks for your coat, to give them your cloak as well. Shouldn’t Christians therefore not only cater gay weddings, but cater gay birthdays as well? Why are Christians so stinting and stingy when Jesus said to give without thought of reward? Why are Christians always outraged when they are supposed to have peace and meekness?

The short version of this question is, why are many Christians hypocrites?

Evangelicals frequently demand that everyone live according to the teaching of the Bible (note recent battle over homosexuality and same-sex marriage). They think morality is derived from the Bible, that it is God’s standard for behavior. Pastors spend a significant amount of time preaching sermons on living the Christian life, reminding parishioners of what God expects of them. Despite all the preaching, videos, books, and conferences on living the Christian life, most Evangelicals are unable to live according to the teachings of the Bible.

In Galatians 5:22,23, the Bible says:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.

How many professing Christians do you know whose lives demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit? Supposedly, Evangelicals have the mind of Christ, and the Holy Spirit lives inside of them, teaching them everything necessary for life and godliness. Yet, there is no difference between how the Evangelical and the atheist live their lives. Why is this?

Christian apologists will likely say that many “Christians” are not true Christians; that they have a cultural form of Christianity. When pressed to give a clear statement of what a true Christian life looks like, most apologists quickly appeal to grace or suggest that every Christian is a work in progress. Sometimes, apologists say the non-believer is the hypocrite for demanding that Christians live according to the teachings of the Bible when they themselves are not willing to do so. However, it is the Christians who claim the high moral ground, and in doing so, they shouldn’t be surprised when non-Christians expect them to practice what they preach.

How many Christians do you know who live according to Galatians 5:22,23 and Matthew 5-7, the sermon on the mount? I suspect you’ll have a hard time coming up with anyone who actually lives their life according to these two passages of Scripture.

How about pastors? In 1 Timothy 3, Paul gives the qualifications for being a pastor. Note that he says a pastor (bishop/elder) then MUST be, not hope or aspire to be:

This is a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work. A bishop then must be

  • blameless,
  • the husband of one wife,
  • vigilant,
  • sober,
  • of good behavior,
  • given to hospitality,
  • apt to teach;
  • not given to wine,
  • no striker,
  • not greedy of filthy lucre;
  • but patient,
  • not a brawler,
  • not covetous;
  • one that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity;  (for if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?)
  • Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil.
  • Moreover he must have a good report of them which are without; lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.

Do you know of ONE pastor who meets these qualifications? I certainly didn’t when I was a pastor, and neither did any of my fellow pastors.

Now, to answer Chikirin’s question. Christians are human like the rest of us. They are capable of doing good and bad, and on most days their lives are an admixture of good, bad, and indifferent behavior. They are not morally/ethically superior, regardless of what their pastor, church, and Bible tell them. They are, in every way, h-u-m-a-n. When the news reports stories of Christian malfeasance, infidelity and criminal behavior, we should not be surprised. Humans can, and do, fail morally and ethically. None of us is without fault and failure.

Christianity would be better served if believers dismounted the moral high horse, returned it to the barn, and joined the human race. As long as they continue to think they are morally superior and demand others live according to the moral teachings of the Bible, they should expect to be mocked and ridiculed when they fall off the horse.

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