The Tale of Four Brothers

As Christians, we face a variety of reactions from our communities. They vary from the sometimes ridiculed from the Atheist camp to the homecoming from other Christians. Personally, my heart is warmed whenever I meet other people of Faith – regardless if they Christian, Muslin, Hindu, Buddhist. To have Faith gives you a strength that Atheists don’t understand.

On the other side, I understand where the Atheist are coming from. I spent half my life as an Atheist and I understand why the picture of the white guy with the long white beard (Gandalf?) appears ridiculous. But that isn’t what Faith is about.

Typically people find out about religion through family and friends. Most likely if your parents go to church, you grow up “in the faith.” Some kids stay in the faith of their parents, some explore other faiths, and many just don’t bother with it.

Its like reading. All kids read because they have to for school. Some will read books for fun. Some read for the rest of their lives never being without a book. Some get out of school and say, “I’m never reading another book again!” and they don’t. Maybe a book will interest them later in life, and they read it but they won’t read another for months or even years. Some read all the time and one day they finish a book and just never read another one.

So how do you get someone to read again? I, for example, was ‘good reader’. I always had a book, and typical another one ‘in the wings’. Eventually ‘Life’ overtook my reading habit – work, kids, family – and at one point, I struggled through an uneventful book (‘Insomnia’ by Stephen King if you must know). A friend of mine tried everything to get me back into reading. He bought a few books for me and pestered me about my progress. Eventually, I told him I was not going to read his book because I simply didn’t have time.

Faith has similar aspects. Typically religion starts out as a chore, something you have to do. Some embrace their religion and it becomes their sanctuary – like the reader that loses the day wrapped up in a warm book. Some use it for its intended purpose but are never really pulled away in rapture, but still love to read. Some go to church because that is what they should do, like the reader that reads the book for work but never the novel on vacation. And then there are those that drop their religion, like the graduate that never picks up a book after they finish school.

So why do some, as said in the REM song says, ‘lose their religion’?

I have found many who lose their faith do so due to the hypocrisy so many organized religions display. Love your neighbor – unless they’re gay; believe in God and good things will happen to you; God must be punishing them for something they did; Well – it’s a mystery (ok, that was from George Carlin but its still a valid point).

Religion, or rather Faith, like most of life, isn’t simple. Faith is the emotional concept and Religion is the outward projection of that concept. Faith is personally defined, Religion is defined by others. Ironically both are difficult to define. Obviously Religion is tough because so many people are trying to define it. Faith is difficult because it is emotional and changes constantly. Religion helps us define our Faith, but I believe no two Faiths are the same.

So as far as people ‘losing their religion’, it would make sense that they are falling away from organized religion – based on some of the extreme views of some church leaders, pastors, priests and ministers I’d fall away too – in fact I did. Not as a form of protest, more from the point that it didn’t make sense to me. As a young man, my faith was still developing. I had the bravado of a twenty-something, I was smart, I could figure this religion/faith thing out.

Its been a long journey, almost 40 years. And while I’m definitely closer, I’m just beginning to put the pieces together. One of these pieces is Truth. And if you’ve been awake during the last presidential election, you know for a politician the Truth can vary like a snowflake.

Ever post something interesting on Facebook or forward an email only to have some obnoxious person reply you’re wrong with a link to Snopes or some other website? Yea, sorry about that, it was probably me. It comes from my fascination of Urban Legends. Like Tall Tales, Urban Legends typically have moral implications – lessons or warnings to the reader about our culture at large, like “the rat served at Kentucky Fried Chicken” or “Red Velvet Cake recipe” or the classic “Hook“. There are hundreds, thousands of these stories.

Every once in a while you run into one that is real. Those are the most heart-warming or terrifying; and there within lies the problem. So when you send an Urban Legend as ‘truth’, and that obnoxious guy replies back that it’s not true, what do you do? Do you read the link? Do you double check your story? Do you feel stupid? are you angry? Is this directed to the obnoxious replier? at yourself? Or do you not read the link? What happens when you see that story again? or someone else brings it up? Do you defend it? do you trash it?

What happens if Snopes or other sources don’t know what the truth is? what if it’s ‘Undetermined’? Is it like the optical illusion of the young lady/old woman below:

Can you see both? What happens when you can’t? Even when someone traces their finger on the image – “here’s her eyes, the nose, her mouth is down here.” Do you keep trying to see the old lady?

In my quest for my own faith, I read the book The Shack by Paul Young. The story was very moving about a father who takes his family camping for the weekend while his wife works. During their camping trip, one of his daughters is kidnapped and murdered. The story is not about the murder itself, rather Mack’s (the father) faith in light of such extreme life circumstances. As Mack tells his story through a friend who is a writer, it is “the whole truth, as far as he can recall.”

Mack ends up spending the weekend in the Shack where his daughter was murdered. There he meets God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Philosophically it is wonderful. It becomes incredible as Mack solves his daughters murder with the help of the Holy Trinity. The book is actually well written but it attaches to a growing trend of falsehoods.

Any horror fan of the last decade is acquainted with the movie Blair Witch Project. Where a group of young people go off into the woods to find the witch. The story is told in the fashion of “…and all that was left was this video camera.” To the first moviegoers who saw Blair Witch it was gripping and frightening. So when it is revealed that this was just a movie, and the truth is revealed the movie falls flat on its face. To watch it now without the possibility that it is true, it becomes a shaky amateurish videotape you’d wouldn’t watch for more than 5 minutes on Youtube. With the movie Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind, Steven Speilberg took the opposite perspective, he added fake ‘actual footage’ to make his movie more believable.

So in The Shack is just a novel. Paul Young wrote the novel while he was a Hotel Night clerk. So why the pretense that this is a true story? Faith, belief and religion have enough reality issues without muddying the faithful/faithless waters any more than necessary. Faith is complicated and personal. There are experts on either end, in fact, you probably know some of these Arm Chairs experts on both sides of your own perspective on faith. So while the message from The Shack is sound, there is a ring of trickery, deception. Atheists LOVE pointing these things out.

Which is why Christians are held to a higher standard – right or wrong, we are. So here is a different story, based on truth, that I would like to share, The Tale of Four Brothers. The title always reminds me the children’s book The Five Chinese Brothers. This a true story though not nearly remarkable as The Shack.

The Tale of Four Brothers

Many years ago, though not as many as you may think, a couple lived on a farm. The farm was in Elgin Illinois, a smallish town, at the time, west of Chicago. The couple had four sons. And as the Great Depression lessened its grip, a couple sold their farm and bought a house in the City.

The First Brother got married settled down in a far northwest suburb of Chicago. He and his wife had 5 children – 3 girls and 2 boys. He was in construction so it was long hours but satisfying work.

The Second Brother also got married and settle down in a home with a northwest suburb of Chicago. He and his wife also had 5 children – 3 boys and 2 girls. He worked a bakery delivery bread.

The Third Brother got married and settled down in a near north suburb of Chicago. He and his wife had 2 children – a boy and a girl. He was a building engineer.

The Fourth Brother, who was a bit younger then the other three eventually moved to Florida, got married but did not have any children.

In the early 70’s, tragedy strikes the First Brother. As he is returning home after a Canadian Fishing trip in a small private plane, the pilot has a heart attack, the plane crashes and everyone on the plane is killed, including the First Brother.

In the mid 70’s, the Second Brother’s life spirals out of control. Dealing with Alcohol and mental illness while going through a divorce, he shoots his wife and them himself. Both he and his wife die.

In his grieve over what the Second Brother has done, the Father of the Four Brothers, went to the garage and runs his car until he dies of carbon monoxide.

In the 90’s, the Mother of the Four Brothers dies of natural causes.

In the late 90’s, the Fourth Brother finds out he has a terrible bone disease that is very painful and is terminal, but not before much suffering. He quietly closes his Tool and Die business, checks into a hotel and hangs himself.

Leaving only the Third Brother – who lived, but not happily ever after.

Devastating and tragic this is all true. So how do we, as Christians, talk to the Third Brother? True, he could embrace the Christian faith or any faith for that matter. He could also reject it. And if he rejected and said there was no God how would you convince him otherwise? What words would you use?

And who is the Third Brother? Is he a neighbor? A Co-worker? The mother or father of a kid your kids play with? Your Customer? The woman in the car next to you to at the stop light?

But the point of the Tale of Four Brothers isn’t about happened to the Third Brother and how he lived through all these tragedies. This story is about how YOU fit into HIS story. What you may not realize is you are already a part of his story. You are already in it. You see, I am the son of the Second Brother and the fact that you are reading this makes you part of my story. And while my story is part of The Four Brothers, it takes a different path and is to be told another time. But as I said before, faith is personal and religion can help, or hurt, to frame your beliefs.

I understand the Atheist perspective. When encountering God we ask for proof and when none can be offered, the idea – the concept of God – is rejected. I, for a long time, rejected God.

So how do you approach the Third Brother? You can’t. He will see your religion coming a mile away. If he doesn’t avoid you and he will debate you. And at that game, the best you will get is a draw. You cannot relate to him unless your story is more tragic, then his debates will take you down philosophical rabbit holes.

My advice is to be there for him, or her, and let the Holy Spirit work. Be a friend – a real friend – because if you fake the friendship, you will do more harm then good. If you can’t keep religion out of your conversation then walk away. He will see you as a peddler of your religion.

My belief, unlike the grief-stricken father in The Shack, did not change over a weekend and it wasn’t a dream. Nothing was solved, and no one will ever be brought to justice. My belief is a choice and a choice I make almost every day. And every day I struggle. Some days I see God in nature, sometimes it’s in our human nature. I fit the pieces where I can and set aside the others for later reflection.

Regarding Evil, I like the Einstein as a child myth where he debates a teacher on God, I do not believe in Evil but I believe we can move far enough away from the Truth to represent Evil. I believe once the Truth is finally revealed we will find in the Light of our Savior Jesus Christ until then, we are all just guessing with our faith.

So if you approach the Third brother with the intent to save him from eternal damnation, you may well force him into oncoming traffic when he runs from you.  I suggest being a friend to him and an example. That way you can create an environment of trust where you can answer his questions.

I thank those who have been a part of my story and I hope the ‘Tale of Four Brothers’ help you with your story. Please use it to talk to the Third Brothers you know – in our church, we call these ‘park benches’. So have a seat and keep reading.

God bless.

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