Monday, February 13, 2017

It's Complicated

For some reason Blogger doesn't like the white on black color scheme I have used for 7 years. It won't do black on white either. Hope this is readable.

In the Billy Crystal comedy City Slickers 3 middle aged men go to a dude ranch to live out their childhood dreams of being cowboys. They encounter a very scary cowboy named Curly played by Jack Palance. At one point Crystal's character Mitch gets into a philosophical discussion with the grizzled wrangler. Curly says, “Do you know what the secret of life is?” He holds up one finger. “This.”

Your finger?” asks Mitch.

Curly replies, “One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don't mean [crap].”

But what is the 'one thing?'” asks Mitch.

Curly smiles. “That's what you have to find out.”

It's a very Zen, very appealing moment. And it is, to use the euphemism I substituted for Curly's word, crap. We are back to the problem we were talking about last week: the intense desire to oversimplify everything and boil it down to one cause, one purpose, one task.

And I understand this desire. Life is complex. It would be so much easier if we could just focus on one thing and ignore everything else as small stuff. But the devil, as they say, is in the details. A rocket just has to go up into space, right? Well, it also has to come back to earth safely. And it has to support the life of the astronauts inside. And it's not a thrill ride so it has to has some scientific purpose and therefore instruments on board. If you just concentrate on the so-called main purpose—to travel into space—but ignore everything else you get dead or stranded astronauts. There is an irreducible complexity to everything.

We cannot fathom the complexity of the simplest organism. Which is Mycoplasma genitalium, if we exclude viruses and nano-bacteria which cannot live on their own. And this organism has 580,000 base pairs and 482 protein-coding genes. Compare that the human genome that has 3 billion base pairs and between 19,000 and 20,000 protein-coding genes. So since we've counted all of the human genes, we should have the Mycoplasma genitalium all worked out. Not if you mean we know what all those genes do. And if we don't have the simplest free-living organism sorted out don't expect us to figure out the inner workings of humans anytime soon.

The closest thing we have to a simple purpose of life is to reproduce. But then you also have to raise and nurture what you reproduce. And in social animals you have to work out how to live together in a way that balances benefits to individuals with benefits to the whole society.

Jesus tackled this when asked which of the 613 laws in the Torah was the greatest or foremost commandment. Jesus, knowing that this idea was an oversimplication, gave two: love God with all you are and all you have and love your neighbor as yourself. He said no other commandment was greater and that all the other laws and all the writings of the prophets depended on these two.

Jesus thereby indicated that there were at least two categories of ethics: our behavior towards God and our behavior towards others. Most ethicists would include a third: our behavior towards ourselves, which could be deduced from the fact that the second greatest commandment is to love our neighbors, as we do ourselves.

C.S. Lewis compared these to the 3 disciplines necessary for an orchestra. Each musician needs to take care of his or her instrument, keeping it in tune and in good condition. They all must learn to blend their sounds with the other musicians and instruments, keeping the same rhythm and observing the dynamics. And finally they must be play the same music the conductor has chosen. If he's conducting Beethoven's 9th they mustn't be playing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” instead.

Now the interesting thing is that just as different Christians emphasize different doctrines, they also emphasize different parts of Christian ethics. Some focus almost entirely on our duty to God. But if they neglect our duty to others you get people who are pious but tolerate injustice. Other Christians emphasize loving our neighbor but neglect their own physical, mental and spiritual health. Eventually the chaos in their personal lives spills over and they are no good to anyone. Some Christians are really good at personal discipline but don't let that overflow to loving others and so they are moral in their personal life but lack compassion. Christian ethics involves all of our relationships—with God, with others and with ourselves.

You see these in various combinations throughout the church. There are people who think the number 1 thing in the Christian life is worship, the people who think the church should be primarily a social action agency, and those who think Christianity is mainly about personal morality. They are like the Buddhist parable about a group of blind monks encountering an elephant for the first time. One feels a tusk and says an elephant is like a spear. One is touching the elephant's side and says an elephant is like a wall. One feels its trunk and says an elephant is like a snake. They are all correct as far as the part of the elephant they are in contact with. The problem arises when they deny the other monks' findings. The elephant is like all those things and more.

Yet we see Christians who insist that the chief part of morality is personal responsibility. They feel the church should stick to that and not make pronouncements or policies about social issues. But Jesus himself talked about helping the poor and vulnerable. In Matthew 25:31-46 he made our treatment of the unfortunate the center of his parable about the last judgment. What we do or neglect to do to others amounts to how we treat Jesus. He excoriated the Pharisees for focusing on lesser issues and ignoring things like faithfulness, mercy and justice. (Matt 23:23) In this he was in line with the prophets who constantly reminded the people that God was “a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows.” (Psalm 68:5) Much of the Old Testament is about loving your neighbor and not mistreating the poor and the resident alien.

But if you accept that mankind is sinful then it follows that our imperfections come out in the laws we formulate and the systems we create. So if we are to love our neighbor we need to look for and try to eliminate the flaws in our laws and systems that cause them harm or neglect. As it says in Proverbs 29:7, “The righteous know the rights of the poor; but the wicked have no such concern.” So we cannot fall into thinking that if we live a moral life and don't commit evil that is sufficient for a good Christian life. Jesus calls us out of our lives and into the lives of others. Love does that.

On the other hand there are Christians who are so focused on the social demands of the gospel that they ignore the fact that there is such a thing as personal morality. Indeed we have had a number of scandals in the church in which people who have done a great deal of good for others are revealed to have had horribly self-destructive personal lives. And it usually spills over and destroys the good work they have done. Remember Lewis' orchestra analogy. If you misuse or abuse your violin, you will not be able to make beautiful music with it for very long and it will affect your contribution to the orchestra. Arrogance, greed, lust, rage, envy and self-indulgence are harmful to your own spirit and will infect what you are doing for others.

And the same applies to those we help. When Jesus saved the woman caught in adultery from the mob, he didn't say, “Neither do I condemn you. Go back to living your life as you always have.” He said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” In fact if a person doesn't cooperate, you can't do much to help them. I have tried to help homeless men and found what I could do was limited by how well they could exercise self-control. I tried to get them jobs which they did not stick at. People gave them places to stay whose hospitality they abused. I have helped them get a ticket home only to have them return to the Keys where they cannot possibly afford a place to live. It reminds me of times when, as a nurse, I took care of people who could barely breathe but who didn't even try to stop smoking, or people who couldn't walk but wouldn't do their physical therapy. We do people no favors if we make it sound as if we can help them without them doing their part. As I might say to a patient, "Help me help you."

But that is no excuse not to help them. As a nurse I can't refuse to treat anyone who needs medical aid, regardless of how I feel about their personal decisions. As a nurse I must treat everyone who seeks help and as a Christian I must act lovingly towards all others, up to and including anyone who could be called a enemy. Jesus allows us no exceptions.

And as it turns out 75% of the homeless are only that way for 2 or 3 months. They eventually find a home. People do get their messed up lives turned around. But they can't do it alone. And we can't help them if we are messing up our lives. As Jesus said, first get the 2 by 4 out of your own eye, and then you'll be able to get the speck of saw dust out of your neighbor's eye.

Remember that Jesus wants us to be peacemakers. And in the Bible peace means total well-being. And if we are students of Jesus we need to learn and be working on all 3 areas of our relationships. We need to strive for total well-being in relationship with God, total well-being in our relationship with others and total well-being in our relationship with ourselves.

We won't get them down perfectly but if we are making any significant headway people will notice and that will help our witness to the power and love of our Lord Jesus Christ.
We started this series speaking of what Epiphany meant. It means to “manifest.” It was originally about how Jesus manifested his glory to the world. Jesus said “I am the light of the world.” (John 8:12) And just last week we read the part of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus said, “You are the light of the world. (Matt 5:14). How can they both be true?

Because we are the body of Christ. While he was in the world, Jesus was the light of the world. Now he has passed the torch to us. The fire does not come from us; it comes from him. But we are to put it “on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matt 5:15,16) We are to continue his work while he is away. In John 14:12 Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do....” It's not that the works save us; it's that the works naturally flow from being saved, the way a healthy person can, say, go up a flight of stairs without being out of breath. A spiritually healthy person can do the same kind of works Jesus did without worrying that they will run out of what they trust God to supply.

Those works will include ethical actions, both personal and social. If we are not loving or trustworthy people, folks will be suspect of any good works we do. If we do not demonstrate God's love for others through helping the poor and unfortunate, people will suspect that our faith in Jesus is all talk. Arguing about which is more important, faith or works, personal morality or social justice, is, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, like arguing which blade of a scissors is more important or which wing of a plane is essential. They go together, and you're never going to soar without both.

The way we manifest Christ in our lives is not merely by praying and going to church but also by going out into the world and proclaiming the gospel by what we do as well as by what we say.

And if you think about it, what is really lacking in the world is an overwhelming litany of examples of people acting like Christ. The news is full of people exhibiting behavior that is definitely not Christlike. And some of those people call themselves Christians. We get stories of people harming others in the name of religion but how often do we see stories of people helping others in the name of Jesus? We get stories of people denigrating others in the name of Christ but how often do we see stories of people lifting up others in his name? We get stories of people making it harder to feed and shelter the homeless or get healthcare to the poor or rehabilitate those in prison but how often to we see stories of people giving the homeless food and a place to stay, or helping the poor get their healthcare needs met or educating ex-prisoners and helping them start over and doing so in Jesus' name? I know these things are happening but it is not getting proclaimed. Nor, sadly, can we say that it is happening so frequently that people are simply taking it for granted. Nobody automatically says, “Oh, the churches are making the world better.” Indeed a lot of people think we are either making it worse or doing nothing to change the status quo.

Speaking of which, the Rev. Scott Gunn has posted a great sermon on his blog sevenwholedays.org. In it he points out, “There are no saints of the status quo.” We don't honor people for keeping things just as they are. Rather we look up to Christians who rocked the boat. They challenged and disrupted the status quo. They reformed the church or went out of their way to spread the gospel or pushed the boundaries to minister to the sick or the poor or the uneducated or the outcasts. St. Francis didn't kiss some random dude he met on the road; he kissed a leper out of love for Christ. Mother Teresa didn't start a discussion group on the concerns of the sick and dying; she set up hospices to care for them in the name of Christ. Dietrich Bonhoffer didn't try to work out a way to bridge the gap between Christianity and the ruling Nazi party; he worked with a group of renegade churches that opposed everything that evil government said and did because it was antithetical to Christ. Jesus didn't tell folks that everything was fine the way it was because God is in control; he said everything was out of whack in relation to God and that he was sent by God to set it right. And they killed him for it.

When someone is sick, their status quo is not good. To make them better you are going to have to change how things are for them. You may even have to cut them open and removed diseased parts of them and put in replacement parts. But if that's what you need to do to repair a broken person, you do it. The world is messed up. The status quo is disease and brokenness. We need to make sure we are being repaired by God's Spirit and then get up out of these seats and go out into the world and do what's right. 

And we need to do it noisily. If we remain quiet no one will find us, and, more importantly, no one will find Jesus. To paraphrase St. Francis, we need to proclaim the gospel every day in every way; and if necessary, use words.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Resistance

For some reason people like things to have one cause. It's simpler intellectually if the problems we encounter can be pinned down to one origin: character, or environment, or genes, or a specific culture. It makes fixing those problems easier and cleaner. If we just get rid of this (piece of technology/gene/behavior/group of people) the problem will cease to be. The difficulty is that's rarely true, especially if the problem is complex. The reason we haven't wiped out cancer the way we have wiped out, say, smallpox, is that cancer is not so much one disease as it is a family of diseases. Some cancers are caused by mutations that seem to arise spontaneously, some are caused by external triggers like smoking or chemical exposure, and some seem to be caused by viruses. And it looks as if you both have to be genetically predisposed to a certain cancer and then encounter something that activates that cancer.

Many diseases seem to work that way. There are internal and external factors that come together to cause the emergence of the disease. There is as yet no reliable way to change our genes but we can do something about the things that trigger the diseases. Want to reduce the odds of getting heart disease? According to the Mayo Clinic, (1) don't smoke or use tobacco, (2) exercise for about 30 minutes on most days of the week, (3) eat a heart-healthy diet, which includes lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans, and avoid red meats, full-fat dairy, fast foods, snack foods, crackers, chips, cookies, sugars, salt and fats. (4) maintain a healthy weight, (5) get enough quality sleep, (6) manage stress, (7) get regular health screenings, with special attention to blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar. Are you doing all those things? Why not? Do you want to die?

There is a reason why heart disease is the number one cause of death in the US and why 3 of its causes—tobacco use, high blood pressure and obesity—are the top 3 causes of preventable death: we don't want to change our habits. We don't want to give up our vices; we don't want to stop eating our favorite foods; and we really don't want to exercise and sweat for 30 minutes every day. We want to live but we don't want to work at it. And so more than a half million of us die before our time.

Last week we explored the ways Jesus wanted to make us and the world better. We said that it meant a world where people were responsive to God and to other people in positive ways: where they recognize their need for God's help, go to him for forgiveness, really desire that all things be in a right relationship with God and with others, pursue justice and peace, and manifest humility, gentleness, compassion and mercy. And we asked if that was so desirable, why is it more people aren't following Jesus?

Well, it's complicated. There are a lot of reasons. One is that people really don't want to see a world like that. They may not like the God part or they may not like the humility part, or they may even object to the justice and peace part.

Some people object to God either on intellectual grounds or for emotional reasons. Often the latter leads to the former. People have bad experiences in their religion as kids and then start looking for reasons to dismiss God from their lives when they get older. Some actually find theological questions that are difficult to resolve. Often they do not go on to realize that these questions are not new and believers have been wrestling with them for a while and there are whole books on them. Some difficult questions about faith are even discussed in the Bible. Nor do these critics honestly deal with the fact that all philosophical systems, including agnosticism and atheism, have similar unresolved questions. But it gives them what they really want: reasons to reject God. And sadly, a lot of these people do not even grapple with these theological quandaries. They just note that these questions exist and simply parrot them rather than research the issues and try to find out the truth. A surprising number of anti-theists just regurgitate common misunderstandings and errors, like the idea that the church caused the Dark Ages, or that religion causes most wars. They could easily clear up these misconceptions if they just googled them.

A lot of the same people do not like the humility part. They see the advances that humanity has made through science and see no reason for humans to be humble. Part of this is a misunderstanding of humility. A lot of folks think being humble means putting yourself down. In fact, humility is having an accurate idea of your strengths and weaknesses. Like most virtues humility lies between two opposite moral errors: self-denigration and arrogance. Putting yourself down in every department of life is not humility; it is a denial of the image of God in you and of the gifts he has given you. Arrogance is a kind of self-deification, where you attribute all good things to yourself and deny or diminish your very real weaknesses. A humble person maintains a healthy evaluation of his or her good and bad qualities. It is having a balanced view of yourself.

So as Christians we must admit to all of the advances science has wrought: healthier, longer lives and tools and machines that make those lives easier. But science has also led to the degradation of the environment and the rise of injuries and illnesses, like motor vehicle collisions and radiation poisoning, not previously seen in history. When the founding fathers sanctioned the right to bear arms in the Constitution, they were thinking of guns that fired one shot and then took several minutes to reload. Science has given us guns that fire 300 rounds a minute. None of the mass shootings we have seen involved muzzle-loading rifles. Indeed, science has given us weapons of mass destruction. Our biological and nuclear weapons can do something no past army could do: kill millions or even wipe out all life on earth. Science is powerful, which means it can do great good or great harm. And if we are arrogant, we will not guard against its misuse. Personally I would rather have such things in the hands of the humble: people who realize that they are flawed, both in their thinking and in their morality and who realize that just because we can do something doesn't mean we should.

Last week we pointed out that there are people and industries that actually oppose justice and peace. No dictator wants true justice, with everyone, including them, subject to the same laws and consequences. In fact, everyone wants strict justice for those who harm us and wants loopholes in the rules for themselves and those they care about. There are judges who got kickbacks from the local privatized jail in return for providing long sentences for adolescents who made minor mistakes. Those judges weren't interested in true justice. They were only interested in money. 

And not everyone wants world peace. According to Business Insider, the U.S. and Russia are the leading suppliers of weapons around the world. The U.S. has sent more than $26.9 billion in weapons to other nations and Russia has sent more than $29.7 billion in weapons to nations around the world. And those are just the value of the weapons, not the actual prices paid for them. If global peace broke out, do you think the companies that make their money selling them would just shrug and go away? When the Civil War ended, gun manufacturers saw their sales drop. So they started marketing to civilians, fanning fears of immigrants and the horrible conditions in cities to create new markets for their products. Sorry, peace is just not profitable.

There is another reason why people do not want to follow Jesus. And that is the whole matter of forgiveness, both getting and receiving it. Nobody likes acknowledging that they have done wrong. Arrogant people don't see the need to seek forgiveness because they don't admit that they have done anything wrong. However, for those of us who are honest with ourselves, we know we need forgiveness. And it is good to have our sins forgiven and our consciences clear again.

Nevertheless we have problems with forgiving those who wrong us. Even in families, grudges can be held onto for decades. I have a friend whose grandfather fell out with his siblings. My friend knew he had more family in St. Louis than the direct descendants of his grandparents but it wasn't until he was an adult that he started researching his family tree. He found out that his grandfather had so many siblings that my friend had dozens of cousins he had never met. Two worked at the same company as his wife, unaware of the connection. How different my friend's childhood would have been had his grandfather and his siblings been able to make up with one another.

And let's face it: it feels good to contemplate revenge on those who have wronged us. In my freshmen year in high school I had a sadist in one of my classes. The kid I sat next to in the first tenor section of Boys Glee tormented me everyday. Once he even took to jabbing me with a pin. I didn't complain to the teacher because I didn't want look like a baby. But I still vividly remember a dream I had in which I kicked him down the stairs outside the music room. And we were on the fourth floor. It felt great! He is one of two people in my life I can remember wholeheartedly hating. If you had told me then that I must forgive him, I would have balked. As a matter of fact when I recalled this for the purposes of this sermon, I said a prayer asking God to forgive him and help me to do so because I don't think I ever had.

Hate feels good. Forgiveness is an acquired taste. Some folks never bother to try. My grandmother on my father's side used to cut people, including relatives, out of pictures when she got mad at them. I don't know if she ever forgave them but the damage to the family album and our history was done. Forgiveness deferred can leave holes in our relationships and life stories. But our thinking is so short term that we don't realize the loss until much later.

And often forgiveness needs to be asked and given on both sides. Both sides have transgressed. Right now one political party is asking the other to give our new president a chance. The other party is pointing out the horrible words and actions directed towards our last president. Neither side wishes to ask for forgiveness for what they've done wrong nor grant forgiveness to the other. Lack of forgiveness is part of the problem we have in society. Whites rarely admit to the history of grievous wrongs they've done to blacks, Asians and native Americans and those groups in turn aren't willing to forgive centuries of wrongs. Neither liberals nor conservatives will admit to making policy mistakes nor will they acknowledge times when the other side was right. Worse, in nearly every controversy each side views the other as not merely wrong but as enemies. Each side speaks as if the other doesn't just have different ideas as to how to make this nation better but as if it intentionally is trying to destroy our country. Only comic book villains, psychopaths and 2 year olds destroy things just to destroy things.

And this brings us to one of the most insidious obstacles to following Jesus: what C.S. Lewis called “Christianity and...”. This is where people's support of Christianity is yoked with another pet issue—Christianity and patriotism, Christianity and civil rights, Christianity and gun rights, Christianity and vegetarianism, etc. The danger, Lewis pointed out, is that people who link such things often only espouse Christianity because they see it as supporting their pet cause. Jesus become a means to achieving the other issue rather than the goal himself. If you are for Jesus because that's part of being a good American, then you have missed the point of being a Christian. We are to be Christians first. Any other identifier is secondary. I am a Christian, who just happens to be American. Because there are Christians who just happen to be Haitian, or Chinese, or Cuban, or Syrian or Palestinian. I am a Christian who just happens to be white. Because there are Christians who just happen to be black or Asian or Arabian or Native American. There are Christians who happen to be Republican or Democratic or third party. The problem is that too many people put the other identifier first and filter everything through that identity rather than seeing things through the eyes of Christ. Paul, who dealt with divisions in the early church, said, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female for you are all one in Christ.” (Galatians 3:28) Elsewhere Paul compares our differences to the different parts of the body. “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ.” (1 Corinthians 12:12) For one part of the body of Christ to reject another is self-destructive, not to mention stupid. (1 Cor 12:21)

The last reason that people don't follow Christ is apathy. Some people simply don't care about spiritual matters. It may be a lack of exposure to Christianity or that the exposure didn't take. It's almost impossible to get such people to care, just as it's almost impossible to convince someone who doesn't like musicals to be a fan of Rent. You can't reach everyone.

What are we as students of Jesus to do about those who don't follow Jesus? One thing that really doesn't work is coercion. Making laws that force people to say prayers or go to church or financially support religious institutions is the medieval model. It ties Christ to Caesar and it alienates people. If you want to see churches wither as they have in Europe, combine church and state. Then when people get disillusioned or cynical about government, they will with Christianity as well.

We cannot force people; we can only seek to persuade them. When Paul uses the analogy of the armor of God, the only weapon listed is the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” (Ephesians 6:17) We can use words to woo. Some would add prayer, which Paul mentions in the next sentence. But Jesus in today's gospel gives us another way to reach people. “...let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)

Actions speak louder than words. If you want to convince someone that your way is better, put it into action. Works do not save us but the work Christ does in the people he saves will manifest itself in what they do as well as what they say. Unfortunately Christians are known more for what they say than what they do. As someone once wrote, “When all is said and done, there's a lot more said than done.” And sometimes Christians say and do things that run contrary to what Jesus actually said and did. And when we do, people do not give God the glory. If God has gotten a bad name today it is because Christians have done things to besmirch his name.

The most potent witnesses to Christ remain people like Mother Teresa and St. Francis and Dietrich Bonhoffer, people who displayed the self-sacrificial love of Christ in their actions. They were not perfect but they proclaimed the gospel in the totality of their lives.

People can dispute and manipulate and argue about words. It is more difficult to discredit loving actions. In our passage from Isaiah (58:1-12) we are given a number of loving actions: to loose the bonds of injustice, to share your bread with the poor, to bring the homeless poor into your house, to clothe the naked and not hide from your own kin, to stop pointing the finger in accusation, and to satisfy the needs of the afflicted. Jesus enumerates even more in Matthew 25: giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the alien, looking after the sick and visiting those in prison. These are all concrete ways we can show God's love for those who cannot pay us back.

As students and followers of Jesus we need to demonstrate the fact that Jesus makes people better. How?

We'll look at that next week.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Better

Doctor Who is the longest running science fiction TV series ever. The title is a question: Doctor who? After 53 years, we still don't know the hero's name. He simply calls himself “the Doctor.” But in the new version of the show we at least learn why he chose that title. He is “the man who makes people better.” And indeed from the beginning of the show in 1963 the Doctor has not only been fighting evil, he has been inspiring ordinary people to do so. Because of his presence, they become better versions of themselves.

We all want the world to be better and we often put our trust in systems and gimmicks and technology to make that happen. And, yes, we have defeated diseases, lengthened life, made crops grow where they previously couldn't and reduced poverty. The problem is that the same technology that allows us to understand diseases can be used to create more terrible ones. The same systems that make factories more efficient can be used to manufacture more and deadlier weapons. The same social media that can disseminate information can be used to spread disinformation. Because while technology changes, human nature does not. If we are going to make the world better, we need to make humans better.

That idea did not originate with Doctor Who. It began with Jesus, on whom recent writers of the TV series seem to have consciously remodeled their fictional hero. Jesus is the historical person who makes people better.

But what does “better” mean in this context? Jesus will not make us physically stronger, or faster, or even smarter. That's the job of technology. How will Jesus make us better?

I was going to simply go back through the list of the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. And that is a good list of Christian qualities. But in today's gospel passage (Matthew 5:1-12) Jesus offers another list, the beatitudes. These are conditions that sound awful but which Jesus paradoxically calls “blessed” or “fortunate.” They certainly don't sound lucky. But God's values often look topsy-turvy compared to our values. Let's look at each of these 8 qualities.

Blessed are the poor in spirit...” I have read a lot of biographies of famous people who grew up during the Great Depression, who said that while they now realize they were poor, back then they didn't. Everyone they knew was in the same boat and you don't miss what you never had. But the Greek word Jesus uses is closer to “destitute.” It has the sense of “crouching” or ”cringing” and is related to the Greek word for “beggar.” Jesus is speaking of those who are so spirituality impoverished that they fully realize how bad things are.

Why is that good? People only seem to go to the doctor when their pain or condition is so bad they can't ignore it and must get medical help. Jesus is saying the spiritually destitute have no illusions of being the person God wants them to be and so they will seek God's help. So Jesus is saying “How fortunate are they who realize how bad off they are spiritually...”

Each beatitude has a promise. In the case of the spiritually destitute, the promise is “...for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Again we need to look at the Greek behind this. Kingdom” doesn't mean a geographical or political place but a royal reign. “Heaven” in this case is a euphemism for God. You only find “kingdom of heaven” in Matthew. Because of this and other aspects of this gospel, we think Matthew was writing to Jewish Christians who exercised the same caution about saying the divine name that you find among Orthodox Jews today. So “kingdom of heaven” is another way of saying the “royal reign of God.” As Jesus says elsewhere, “Seek and you will find.” If you seek out God, you will find yourself under his reign and care. The spiritually impoverished will find themselves restored and spiritually enriched by the great King of heaven. That's better than thinking you are just fine and only discovering you are spiritually bankrupt when it is too late.

Blessed are they who mourn...” Jesus doesn't say what they are mourning. Perhaps it is their spiritual state as in the first beatitude. Maybe they are mourning the loss of their innocence. Perhaps it is the state of the world they mourn. Or maybe they have lost someone. Whatever they have lost, their grief is severe. The Greek word can be translated “wail.”

Why is this good? Because it means you value innocence or the way things should be or people. There is a lot of nonsense out there about never having regrets. To not have regrets means to not learn from your mistakes. Or to not care. Psychopaths have no regrets. A normal person regrets bad decisions. A normal person mourns the loss of people. Grief should eventually diminish but you should never get to the point where, when looking back at the good people or qualities you've lost, you don't feel at least a twinge of sorrow.

The promise Jesus makes? “...for they will be comforted.” The Greek word can translated “encouraged.” In this life we can lose things and never see them again. But not with God. Just as a parent will do whatever they can to restore to their child whatever they are missing, God will restore to us life, health, even those we have lost. And it is encouraging to realize that the things that matter to us the most, matter to our loving heavenly Father as well.

Blessed are the meek...” The Greek here means basically “the gentle” and by implication, “the humble.” In this life we see that the aggressive and the arrogant seem to get everything. They elbow their way in ahead of others. They bully others and bogart whatever they want. The extremely wealthy and very powerful are rarely the shy and retiring type.

So if the world favors the aggressive and arrogant, why is it good to be meek and gentle? Don't they get steamrolled in this world? Often they do. But Jesus promises “...for they will inherit the earth.” How can that be? Jesus is not talking about the world as it presently is. This world is messed up, remember? Jesus is talking about the new creation. God not only intends to restore us to what he intended us to be all along but the earth as well.

And this brings up a problem people often have with Jesus. His ethics seem naive. His way looks foolish, as Paul writes in today's epistle. (1 Corinthians 1:18-31) It is a recipe for getting run over by the aggressive, the arrogant, the evil. In this life, that is. Or as God sees it, in the short term. Jesus is taking the long view, seeing beyond this brief life and this fragile and fragmented world to the values and methods that endure. The dog-eat-dog methods that dominate this world are not sustainable. Eventually all dogs but one are eaten and that remaining dog will starve. When all wealth is owned by the few, the rest of the world will have no way to buy the goods and services the few sell to make their wealth. Henry Ford made sure he paid his workers enough that they would be able to buy the cars they made. In the long run the best leaders are those who are gentle and humble. As Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:12, “If we endure, we will also reign with him.” Jesus is recruiting for the new creation; the proud and aggressive need not apply.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness...” Again the Greek is more intense. A better translation is “Fortunate are those who are starving and thirsting for righteousness.” That last word is another stumbling block to understanding what Jesus meant. We think of righteousness as personal moral rectitude. But in the Bible it means being in the right relationship with both God and with everything in the whole created order of things. So Jesus is talking about those who are famished and parched because things are not the way God created them to be.

Why is this a good thing? Because we all get used to the way things are, which is to say, messed up. And if we are too apathetic about the injustice and dysfunctional relationships in this world, we won't work very hard to put things right. But those who simply cannot stand the state of affairs are those who do things about it. Jesus wants us to work for justice and peace in this world. Those who tolerate the destructive and self-destructive ways of the world will do nothing to change them.

And Jesus' promise to those who are starving for the restoration of wholesome relationships with God and others? “...for they shall be filled.” The Greek can mean “gorged” or “satisfied.” God will not fob off hors d'oeuvres of righteousness on those who crave it but will stuff them full of what they live for. God does not ration us but gives in abundance.

Blessed are the merciful...” Compassion is a hallmark of Jesus as a person and that should be true of his followers. Again in this world we see the ruthless rise to positions of power. In the Philippines their president brags about killing drug dealers and in the last 6 months 6000 people have been killed, 2000 in police operations and 4000 by vigilantes. None of these people were tried in court to establish evidence of their guilt. Which means mistakes were probably made in a number of cases. There are numerous news reports of bystanders being killed as well as murders committed under the cover of the drug war. The Biblical standard of justice is that you need at least two or three witnesses to convict someone. How do you think God feels about such collateral damage done to beings created in his image?

Why is mercy good? Because it usually comes from the recognition that all of us are flawed and can make bad decisions. Merciless people often are loathe to admit that they can and have made mistakes. Mercy is a quality that psychopaths lack because they have no empathy. Unfortunately, our society has become extremely unforgiving lately. In this day of 24/7 news hungry for things to cover and discuss endlessly, one bad decision can ruin one's life. Especially when it gets to the internet, which makes idiocy immortal.

Jesus' promise is “...for they will receive mercy.” The kindness you show others will be shown to you. Every time we pray the Lord's Prayer, we ask God to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Or in modern language, “forgive us our sins to the same extent that we forgive those who sin against us.” Life is hard. We all mess up from time to time. If we don't learn to forgive and be merciful and kind and compassionate to each other, life will get even worse.

Blessed are the pure in heart...” The Greek word is more properly translated “clean” or “clear.” We are none of us naturally pure or clean. To get clean we must confess our sins to God to receive his forgiveness. The pure in heart are not superhuman “saints” but simply people who admit their sins, go to God and receive his forgiveness and grace.

Why is this good? Consider this analogy. Perhaps one of the biggest advances in hygiene was the recognition that we should wash our hands. Believe it or not, it was quite a struggle to get doctors to do so between patients when the idea was introduced more than 100 years ago. But when they did, the incidence of patient deaths dropped. To be spiritually healthy we need to realize that we need to get clean before God as often as necessary.

And Jesus' promise is “...for they will see God.” You can't see anything if your glasses are covered in mud. You can't see God clearly if you are harboring certain pet sins. It will distort how you perceive God. People who are angry tend to see God as angry. People who don't care about their sins see God as indifferent to them as well. People who think rules are more important than people see a God that thinks the same. We see what we expect to see. If we aren't on the same wavelength as God we will either not see him at all or see a malformed God created in our image. Only those who regularly have God clean up their hearts will see God as he is: loving and just and yet forgiving.

Blessed are the peacemakers...” Jesus is of course talking about those who make peace with and between others. This involves forgiving sins against you as well as getting people to forgive one another. But the word “peace” in the Bible means total well-being. So a peacemaker can also be someone who works to make things better for others. After all, making sure people get the food and shelter and justice they need will give them a considerable measure of peace and well-being.

It's obvious why this is a good thing. And Jesus' promise is “...for they will be called children of God.” What does that mean? When a child displays a trait associated with a parent we say “they take after their father” or “they remind me of their mother.” To be a child of God means to manifest the qualities seen in God. And God is the source of all well-being, who in the person of Jesus made peace with sinful, wayward humanity.

Finally, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake...” The Greek word translated “persecuted” literally mean “pursued.” So Jesus is saying you are fortunate if you are hounded for trying to make things right. But why would anyone oppose putting things right? This world is not messed up simply because people cannot be bothered to do things right; there are those who benefit from the misery of others. Payday loan companies take advantage of those who are desperate for money now, usually the poor. Businesses hire illegal immigrants because they can pay them peanuts and even cheat them without fear that they will go to the authorities. Medical drugs cost more here in the US because big Pharma paid congressmen to make laws that prohibit us buying the same drugs cheaper from, say, Canada where they regulate the prices and laws that stop Medicare from negotiating drug prices the way the Pentagon does for our servicemen. So we may say we stand for truth and justice but if anybody really makes progress towards either of those, they will get hammered.

Why is this good? Because most people will do the right thing so long as it doesn't cost them. The minute they start getting crap for trying to right a wrong, they walk away. Jesus wants people who are made of sterner stuff, who will keep going when the going gets tough. Would the Civil Rights Act have been passed if Martin Luther King Jr. had given up the minute he first was put in jail? Would the Reformation have started if Martin Luther had folded when the Church threatened to excommunicate him and worse? Would the gospel have survived if Jesus shut up when the religious establishment of his day opposed him? People are not good if they are only good when it's convenient. Good people are willing to do what's right even when it seems like everyone is against them.

The promise? “...for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Again those who stay the course in the face of persecution and slander are those who find themselves in the realm of God's love. Their reward in the long run, Jesus says, is great.

So when we talk of Jesus making people better, what does that mean? It means people who realize just how much they need God's help, who value other people and justice enough to mourn their loss, who are humble and gentle, who live to see things put right, who are merciful and compassionate, who go to God to have their hearts cleansed, who work for peace and who do the right thing even when it costs them dearly. It means a world where things are in the right relationships with God and the rest of creation and where when they aren't, people put them right and forgive others and ask forgiveness from them. And of course such people will notice that by letting God's Spirit work in them they will produce more than enough love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Jesus is the great physician who makes people better. You'd think people would be pounding on the door of this place to learn more about him and experience that healing of the spirit we all need. Why don't they?

We'll look at that next week. 

Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Good News About Bad News

Everyone likes to hear good news. “Uncle Bob is getting better.” “My daughter finally had her baby.” “Our team is in the Super Bowl.” The odd thing is that often good news is predicated on the existence of bad news. Things weren't looking too good for Uncle Bob for a while. It's his turnaround that is good news. The expectant daughter was way overdue. We were worried about her and the baby. Now we're relieved and happy. Our team has sucked in recent seasons. The fact that they are back on top makes us proud of them once more.

Sometimes the good news is that there's a solution to a bad problem. Alzheimer's is a cruel disease that slowly strips away a person's memory and thus themselves, leaving a living body where a whole person used to be. Recent studies in Australia and Japan seem to hold hope that this disease can not only be halted but reversed. If the human trials work out, it will be very good news.

The weird thing is that we often prefer bad news. It's more dramatic. I personally thought the TV series Gotham was going to be canceled after one season. After all the series begins with the death of Bruce Wayne's parents when he was a kid. Although the focus would also be on the rise of Jim Gordon from detective to police commissioner, neither the man nor his police force could make much headway against crime and corruption or there would be no reason for Batman. So why would anyone want to watch a good man fail for seven seasons? But apparently people do. They like watching the origin of the super-villains. Maybe it's the same impulse that fuels endless sequels to horror films or that keeps people watching reality shows about obnoxious people. It is the equivalent of slowing down to gawk at a car accident.

Scientists have noticed this bias towards bad news and think it is a survival mechanism. Being able to spot threats is vital. So we are attuned to look for signs of predators, for potential accidents and their probable causes, and for illness, as well as for people who make things worse: bullies, gossips, thieves, liars, and fools. A lot of the troubles in the world are due to people, not natural causes. We can be our own worst enemies. For instance the top preventable causes of death in the United States, from most to least, are tobacco use, high blood pressure and overweight, alcohol use, infectious diseases, toxins, motor vehicle collisions, firearms, sexually transmitted diseases and drug abuse. If you add in medical errors in hospitals and preventable colorectal cancers, they account for 61% of preventable deaths. These things don't always kill, at least immediately; they also cause disability and decline. Changing our personal habits and being more sensible would not only save lives but make them more enjoyable.

People not only cause problems for themselves but for others. 6 of the 10 commandments are about how we treat others. Leviticus 19 also prohibits lying, deceiving, defrauding, robbing, slandering, or endangering the life of your neighbor, as well as hating, seeking revenge, bearing a grudge, pimping your daughter, abusing the disabled, disrespecting the elderly, and mistreating resident aliens. It is the chapter from which Jesus gets the commandment to love your neighbor. The thing is, like warning labels on products, the fact that it had to be spelled out reveals that people were engaging in these harmful practices.

And they do so today. Companies are constantly being fined for deceptive practices, such as those of Wells Fargo, who opened bogus accounts for its customers without letting them know.

Companies have endangered public health through air, water and land pollution. Mines often engage in industrial practices that endanger their workers. Takata, the Japanese manufacturer, has just reached a $1 billion settlement with the Justice Department over defective air bags that have caused at least 16 deaths, 11 in the US alone. Executives knew about the defect and submitted false test reports to automakers rather than, you know, fix the lethal problem.

Our social media is rife with people expressing hate, bearing grudges and seeking revenge on others. It makes it easy to bully children, harass women and destroy careers.

As many as 300,000 children in the US are at risk of being commercially sexually exploited. One third of runaways are lured into prostitution within 48 hours of hitting the streets.

About 25% of vulnerable elderly people report abuse each month. It can be physical, emotional, sexual or financial abuse or it can be neglect. The exact numbers are hard to determine because it is hidden in the privacy of home and family or in institutional settings. Another problem in determining the amount of abuse is that the elderly may have physical or cognitive problems that impair their reporting it. The same difficulties mask the scope of the abuse of the disabled.

Immigrants are easy targets for mistreatment because they often stick out in our society. And illegal immigrants are easily exploited by those who employ them because they are afraid to go to authorities. By the way, Leviticus 19, the same chapter that tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves also tells us to love immigrants as ourselves. God is on the side of the underdog.

No one is as vulnerable as the poor. And so more than 300 verses in the Bible spell out our duty to the poor. Civil rights lawyer Gary Haugen of International Justice Mission says one hidden reason for poverty is violence. It can be political violence and organized crime, but it can also be the fact that people can pick on the poor with impunity. The poor have little power in society and so they are vulnerable to all who would prey upon them. They are easy to rob of property and land. They are easy to enslave (and there are more slaves today—35 million—than ever before). Poor girls in third world countries often do not go to school because of the danger of being grabbed and raped on the way. And in much of the world the police are underpaid, corrupt, and work for the rich and powerful. In much of the world, there is no right to an attorney without cost. In much of the world the poor have no recourse against those who victimize them.

Disability and chronic illness often cause poverty. Mental illness also impoverishes families. Societies that do not provide adequate healthcare to the poor simply perpetuate poverty and increase the cost to us all. As one doctor pointed out, the ER primarily treats 3 kinds of people: the really old, the really sick and the really poor. And if they don't have health insurance, the hospital passes on the cost to everyone else.

Global warming will also impact the poor disproportionately. Widespread drought will cause water and food shortages, which will increase migrations and food riots. The US military sees global warming as a significant threat, because it will cause greater instability and more terrorism in the world.

There are other consequences to mistreating the vulnerable. Ezekiel 16:49 says, “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” Isaiah 10:1-2 says, “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making the widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.” In Jeremiah 5:28, 29 God decries those who “'do not defend the rights of the poor. Should I not punish them for this?' declares the Lord. 'Should I not avenge myself on such a nation as this?'”

Ah, but I am neither rich nor a person who takes advantage of the vulnerable,” you may say. Very good. But do you actively work to counteract the exploitation of the poor, the sick, the elderly, children living in poverty and the like, or do you just go along with society as it is? Do you agree with the common criticism of the morals and choices of the poor as a way of justifying their poverty and ignore the same behavior when it is displayed by the rich and famous? In other words, do you condemn poor people who have children out of wedlock and children from many partners without doing the same when celebrities have many spouses or partners and children with several of them? Do you come down more vehemently on welfare cheats than on corporations that manipulate laws and lobby elected officials to get government subsidies in the form of huge tax breaks and write-offs? If you are complacent about the way things are, then you are complicit in the injustices committed everyday.

Compounding our personal problems is our partisanship, which Paul addresses in today's passage from 1 Corinthians (1:10-18). We are blind to the major faults of the groups with which we identify: factions, political parties, denominations. We cut ourselves and the people we care about a lot of slack while we hold others to higher standards. We judge ourselves and those we care about by our motivations while we judge others by the results of what they do or say. Because of our tribalism, we are loathe to admit the other side has a point in their arguments and we bristle at any criticism of our side. We view our differences as a zero sum game where if one side is a winner the other must therefore be a loser. Hence even when both sides realize they have a mutual problem, we cannot come together to solve it. I remember hearing on the news about how a bill in Congress to fight cancer in kids died in committee because one party didn't want a member of the other party to get credit for it. That's evil.

As Paul says in Romans 3:10, “None is righteous, no, not one.” The world is messed up. And people are the cause of much of it. That's the bad news.

The word gospel means “good news.” The Greek word underlying it, from which we get the word “evangelism,” originally referred to a proclamation made by heralds announcing the king's arrival. That was good news because it meant everything would be put right. The good news of Christianity is that God knows that all is not right with the world and that he has sent his son to put things right.

The people of Jesus' day thought he would do so with military action by ousting the oppressive Romans from the Holy Land and setting up a political kingdom of God. Jesus knew that such a coercive act would solve nothing, just setting up further violent conflicts. The problem isn't an external one but an internal one.

Jesus lived in a society that treated problems externally. It was obsessed with ceremonial laws that could not possibly fix internal problems. Jesus said, “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:21-23)

If the problem is internal, then the solution must be as well. If you are limping because you shattered the bones in your leg, then changing to more comfortable shoes won't work. You will need to be opened up and have the problem fixed surgically. The problem with this world is the people in it. And more specifically the problem is in the hearts of people. As it says in Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” Because of it, we act selfishly, irrationally and ultimately self-destructively. We need the source of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faith, gentleness and self-control dwelling within us. We need the Spirit of Jesus in the hearts of the people in this world.

The good news is that can happen. We can have the Spirit of God within us. But since we are talking about love, consent is needed. God cannot simply override people's wills and enter their hearts. That's like rape. People must welcome his Spirit into their hearts.

But before that people must make room in their hearts for God. Our lives are full of things that just do not go along with having God within us. Our sins, of course, but also our resentments. Our grudges and rage and envy. Our arrogance and self-indulgences and inordinate love of things above God. We need to repent, which means rethink, our attitudes, priorities, and choices. Thoughts, words and deeds that harm rather than help are not compatible with a life lived in the Spirit.

That's not a popular message. People don't want to make sacrifices to follow Jesus, even though he said that those who want to follow him need to disown themselves and take up their crosses. Folks want to be able to follow Jesus and somehow keep their pet sins—their arrogance, their adulteries, their hatreds, their greed, their indifference to the plight of others. It's like people who want to be cured of cancer but keep smoking, or people who want to be cured of STDs but still sleep around. You can't become healthy if you persist in unhealthy behaviors.

The good news is there is a solution to our severely messed up world. The bad news is that we will have to make changes in the way we think, speak and act. It's like the good news I received when I woke up from a coma a year ago. Though I had broken both legs and both wrists, among other things, I would be able to regain use of my hands and legs. But I was going to have to do a lot of painful, difficult work to get there. However, I had seen what happened to patients who refused or dropped out of therapy because it was hard: nothing. No change to their inability to stand, or walk, or leave the nursing home and go back to a normal life. No getting better. For the promise of being whole again, I was willing, if need be, to go through hell.

As students of Jesus, we need to understand and pass on the good news. First we must acknowledge the bad news: this world and the people in it are messed up. There is no aspect of life that is not messed up. The good news is that God is love and his son Jesus is the embodiment of that love and through Jesus we can restore our lives to health and wholeness. All it requires is rethinking your life and choices and trusting Jesus to do what he says. This also means trusting him enough to do what he tells us to do, the way you would follow a doctor's orders if you really trusted him and wanted to get well.

The good news is that Jesus can make folks better. But perhaps one reason why people are less willing to take him up on his offer is this: what exactly does “better” mean?

We'll tackle that next week.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Show; Don't Tell

One of the mantras of movie making is “Show; don't tell.” Don't give the dramatic backstory of a character in some long expository speech; dramatize it. Don't tell us a character is strong or smart or compassionate; show him doing things that demonstrates those qualities to the audience. Imagine a Sherlock Holmes movie where he doesn't do his trick of merely looking at a person and reeling off several facts about them, or going to a crime scene and noting several tiny details that totally change the way we see the crime. Imagine instead a movie where people just talked of how clever Holmes was and it was simply accepted as fact. It would be a dull movie and quite frankly the audience would be skeptical about the claim. The same thing thing would be true if you filmed the story of Jesus and didn't show him healing people or feeding the 5000 or dying and rising again, but just said he was God.

Epiphany comes from the Greek word meaning “appearance” or “manifestation.” Historically, it began as a celebration of Jesus' baptism, when God's voice from heaven declared him his beloved son and the Spirit in the form of a dove landed on him. Now it includes all the events in which Jesus was revealed to the world. So we remember the magi, the first gentiles to whom he was revealed, and his first miracle at the wedding in Cana. To me the significant thing is that these are events. It wasn't a matter of hearsay, where people heard something about Jesus and went about their business. These were times where people encountered Jesus and he or God or angels did something that revealed who he was or what his mission was all about. Jesus didn't just tell; he showed.

For instance, when Jesus healed the man lowered through the roof by his friends, he at first said the man's sins were forgiven. His critics immediately thought Jesus was blaspheming because only God can forgive sins. Jesus knew they'd think this way and said, “Which is easier: to say, 'Your sins are forgiven' or to say 'Get up and walk?' But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins...” Then he said to the paralytic, 'Get up, take your mat and go home.' And the man got up and went home.” (Matt. 9:5-7) Actions speak louder than words and Jesus knew it.

Why did people come to Jesus in the first place? For just about everyone except his disciples it was for his works of healing, not for his words. They had a need and Jesus met it. In the 1st chapter of Mark we are told, after Jesus healed Peter's mother-in-law, “That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed. The whole town gathered at the door and Jesus healed many who had various diseases.” (Mk 1:32-34) Later we are told that “When people heard all he was doing, many people came to him from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon. Because of the crowd he told his disciples to have a small boat ready for him, to keep people from crowding him. For he had healed many, so that those with diseases were pushing forward to touch him.” (Mk 3:8-10) Later, we are told that “so many people were coming and going that they [Jesus and the disciples] did not even have a chance to eat.” (Mk 6:31) Coming and going isn't the behavior of folks wanting to hear a good sermon; it is the behavior of those who are coming to be healed or bringing loved ones to be healed. People came to Jesus because he did something for them. Only then did they stay to hear what he had to say.

David Wong, a writer for the humor site Cracked.com gave the best, most clear-eyed analysis of the past election anyone has written. Before that, he wrote what has become the most popular article on that website. It is called “6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person.” I suggest you read it. Basically, it all derives from the first truth he lists: “The World Only Cares About What It Can Get from You.” Sadly this is a fact of life. Outside of those who love you, people don't generally care about who you are so much as what can you do for them. The reason we were mourning so many actors and musicians who died last year was not merely because they were especially talented; it was because they entertained us. The world would not have cared that David Bowie or Prince or Carrie Fisher died had they not created music or books or scripts or performances that captivated us.

Yes, you can get people excited about you through mere hype and by promising big things but if you don't deliver, may God have mercy on your soul. For instance, to get people to see a film, it used to be enough to splice together a kind of highlight reel of the most exciting or funny scenes from the movie and put them in an ad. The problem is that we consumers have all had the experience of going to a movie feeling giddy with anticipation and then leaving feeling cheated because we belatedly realized that we had already seen all the best parts of the movie in the trailer. We have also seen this in superstar CEOs who are hired to turn a limping company around. They lay off people and do things that are calculated to generate good PR but do nothing to fix what's fundamentally wrong with the company's products or services or culture. There is a long history of politicians who campaign using popular slogans and sweeping promises upon which they cannot possibly deliver.

In his article, Wong points out how often Jesus says a tree is judged by its fruit, (Luke 6:43; Matt 7:15-20; John 15:2) in other words, by what it produces. And of course Jesus is talking about people's lives. Paul expands on this when he writes, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23) Now all of these are personal qualities. The problem is that we think these are primarily internal. And while fruit does have a function that benefits its species, ie, spreading its seeds, it does so by involving other species, namely the animals that eat them. Fruit therefore is rarely hidden. Indeed they often are highly colored and usually contrast with the leaves and branches of the tree. Green fruit is almost always unripe fruit and blends in. I don't think Jesus and Paul are thinking of invisible fruit.

Fruit advertises what a tree is. And it does so by advertising its benefits for others. Fruit says, “Here is something nourishing. And if you spread the seeds that would be great.” That's how spiritual fruit should work. Like love. Love is an attitude towards others. It is not meant to be kept to oneself. Like fruit it really doesn't benefit anyone if it is left alone to rot. And when the love offered is accepted, the seeds of that love are spread.

The other fruit of the Spirit are likewise meant to be shared and spread. Think about that. As Christians we are meant to spread joy, to share peace, demonstrate patience, offer kindness, act out of faithfulness, reach out in gentleness and exercise self-control especially with others. They all flow from our treating everyone with love.

Carrying these virtues out also spreads the seeds of the gospel. A big reason why a minority faith like Christianity was found to be attractive by many in the Roman Empire was the way Christians behaved. Their courage in facing persecution and death impressed some but their compassion in treating victims of plague and risking their lives by staying in the cities while the rich fled to the countryside made a bigger impact. It was the fact that when Christians said they were to love others self-sacrificially, they meant it.

This illustrates David Wong's point. One of his 6 truths is: “What You Produce Does Not Have to Make Money, But It Does Have to Benefit People.” It was not the mere existence of Christians that caused the faith to spread; it was that what they did benefited others. As William Temple said, “The Church is the only organization that does not exist for itself, but for those who live outside it.” And, sure enough, the churches that grow are doing things in their community. They are helping the needy, feeding the hungry, providing daycare or schools for children, visiting seniors and the ill, offering alternative activities to youth, and supplying a place for support groups for people with common problems, like grief, divorce, and addiction.

And they don't do that accidentally but intentionally. They make one or more of those things a priority and put it in the budget. I am reading Call The Midwife by Jennifer Worth, the basis of the wonderful TV show. Worth was a nurse-midwife who worked with an order of Anglican nuns in the terribly impoverished East End of London in the 1950s. In that place and time the role of the church was vital. “For the young people, surprisingly, the church was often the centre of social life, and every church had a series of youth clubs and activities going on every night of the week. All Saints Church in the East India Dock Road, a huge Victorian church, had many hundreds of youngsters in its youth club run by the Rector and no less than seven energetic young curates. They needed all their youth and energy to cope, night after night, with activities for five or six hundred young people.” They couldn't have done that on a shoestring. It had to be an intentionally high priority in the church's budget. And this was in a desperately poor area. But the church saw the need and somehow rose to the occasion. Then as now, churches that meet the needs of their community grow.

Church attendance peaked in the 1950s and 60s. Part of this was the effect of the baby boom. But part of this was that our men returned from the hell of battle in World War 2 and wanted nothing so much as a normal life. They had seen the worst of humanity and so as an antidote they, their wives and children went to churches to find sanity, order and the gospel. They came for spiritual healing. Because of the demand, the philosophy of church planting at this time was the same as Kevin Costner's in Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.”

That's not true anymore. The Baby Boomers gradually dropped out of church leading to a decline that became precipitous in the 1970s and is still going on today. Only 22% of Americans go to church regularly these days. The average child only attends when relatives are married or buried, or on the rare occasion they have a baby baptized. Most kids never see the inside of a sanctuary during the periods in between folks being hatched, matched and dispatched.

The old model (by which I mean the 1950s) doesn't work anymore. Most people will not simply seek out a church and start attending. We need to go back to the older model, by which I mean 27 AD. We need to go where folks are and meet their needs, as Jesus did. We need to realize that if my stomach is empty, if my body is in pain, if I don't have enough money to pay the rent, if my physical self is in trouble, I am less likely to be concerned about my spiritual self. But if you take care of my body, I may grant you the time to speak about my soul.

The odd thing is that because we are both physical and spiritual creatures, it goes both ways. An ailing body or mind can impair one's spirituality but what is good for the spirit is also good for mind and body. Numerous studies show weekly church attendance (the only objective way for scientists to measure religious devotion) is associated with lower blood pressure, less stress, lower rates of depression, lower risk of suicide, more sexual satisfaction, better marriages, greater likelihood of being happy, and a longer life. Children who go to church weekly tend to do better in schools, are less likely use drugs, tobacco and alcohol, and have lower rates of getting divorced later in their lives. But like exercise, it has to become a regular part of your life before you see the benefits. Contrary to what skeptics think, faith in God is not magic.

One thing I learned during my 20 years of writing ad copy and recording radio commercials is that the secret of selling is simple: offer people something they want at a price they are willing to pay. What do we offer? God's love. What's the price? It is free to all who accept it in trust. That's the gospel, or good news. But church members are very bad at spreading the word. They are more likely to recommend a restaurant they like or a doctor they trust than the Lord they supposedly love. A bishop once asked what do you get when you cross a Jehovah's Witness with someone from our denomination? Answer: someone who knocks on your door and then doesn't know what to say.

We're going to change that this year. Our focus will be on discipleship. “Disciple” is just a fancy word for “student.” We are called to be students of Jesus Christ. We are to study what he does and says and then put what we learn into practice. Otherwise we are just fans, on the level of the out-of-shape, sedentary sports fan who watches his team play from the comfort of his La-Z-Boy while eating cheese puffs and drinking 2 liter sodas. He in no way resembles what he claims to admire.

And Epiphany is the right time to start. Jesus didn't stay at his home and wait for people to happen through the door and then find out about him. He took to the road, to the point that he described himself as homeless (“Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Matt 8:20) Now he didn't have anything like Facebook or Twitter to spread the word but you also can't lay hands on others or feed people through the internet. Jesus manifested God's love through his deeds as well as his words. Today's church has become very lopsided, favoring words over works. As James says, “But be sure you live out the message and do not merely listen to it and deceive yourself. For if someone merely listens to the message and does not live it out, he is like someone who gazes at his own face in a mirror. For he gazes at himself and then goes out and immediately forgets what sort of person he was. But the one who peers into the perfect law of liberty and fixes his attention there, and does not become a forgetful listener but lives it out—he will be blessed in what he does.” (James 1:22-25)

Or as David Wong states in the last of his 6 harsh truths: “Everything Inside You Will Fight Improvement.” He elaborates. “Remember, misery is comfortable. It's why so many people prefer it. Happiness takes effort.” Why do people let themselves get out-of-shape? Why do some people let themselves get to weigh 600 pounds? Why do people continue to smoke after they develop such severe coughs that they are left breathless after a particularly long episode of hacking? Because change is hard. And while I wouldn't say misery is comfortable, it can be familiar. Change always involves some elements that are unfamiliar. And as the Irish saying goes, better the devil you know than the devil you don't. As I've said, I have seen patients choose to remain invalids rather than do the hard work of the therapy that will restore them to mobility and health.

And because change involves transitioning to a state that is unknown, as Wong says, this requires courage. This is possibly one more reason why angels always start with “Do not be afraid.” Because, unlike so-called psychics who primarily reveal stuff people already know about themselves, the angels' messages are about change, usually radical change, in the world but first in the life of the message's recipient. “God is going to do this and here's your part in this mission. In fact, he wants you to take point.”

We have a mission and it is called the Great Commission. Before his ascension, Jesus told his students to go and make more students in every nation, to baptize them and to teach them everything he has commanded us. We are like teaching assistants, students who in turn teach the newer students. Or med students who learn by seeing a procedure done, then doing it next time, and then teaching it to the first years. But before we do that, we need to know our subject well. And that's what we'll be doing this year.