Monday, April 13, 2015

Taking the Long View

This was an historic year, religiously speaking. We had a blood moon and then Passover began on Good Friday evening just as it did the year Jesus was crucified. On Palm Sunday my wife, some parishioners and I went to the Passover Seder at St. Columba's church up in Marathon. So I felt very rooted in the faith traditions out of which the Eucharist and Christianity itself grew.

My interest in Judaism goes way back. My mother read books by Chaim Potok and Harry Kemelman and passed them on to me. Potok's books usually deal with tensions between Orthodox and Hasidic Jews and within Orthodoxy. Kemelmen's lighter mystery series that started with Friday the Rabbi Slept Late paint a picture of Conservative Judaism as it was in the latter half of the 20th century. One thing that I noticed is that it's common for Jews tend to think of their faith as down to earth and practical whereas they view Christianity as mystical and not as grounded in reality. And so I was interested when I heard this assessment of Christianity voiced in the recent TV movie Killing Jesus, although the person expressing such sentiments was Pilate! Which gives him credit for being a much more astute politician and more knowledgeable about Jesus than most historians think he was.

Still is it fair to say that Jesus was idealistic to an unrealistic degree? He did after all preach radical forgiveness of those who persecute us, loving even one's enemies, turning the other cheek in the face of violence, giving to all who ask, and being ready to die as a vital component of following him. What happens in our passage from Acts (4:32-35) is merely following that logic.

Pragmatists might have trouble with those key Christian ethical principles. Shouldn't we refuse to forgive people until they change their ways? Otherwise we are not stopping their behavior. The same objection can be made for loving one's enemies and not resisting violence. Giving to all who ask encourages the poor to be beggars rather than workers. And what if the work you are doing for Christ is so important that dying for your faith will also kill off a critical ministry?

Let's look at each of these objections. 

Should we only forgive those who ask? Generally that's what's done in the Bible. In Luke 17:3 Jesus says, “Watch yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him. If he repents, forgive him. Even if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times returns to you saying, 'I repent,' you must forgive him.” So repentance should precede forgiveness, right? The major exception to this rule is committed by, of all people, Jesus. When he is crucified he prays for his executioners: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” This is extraordinarily gracious of Jesus and is no doubt due to the fact that the soldiers have no clue as to the enormity of what they are doing. But we also see Jesus at times forgiving those brought to him for healing without them first asking for pardon. He intuited that their guilt or behavior was at least partly responsible for the damage to their body and spirit and that they needed God's forgiveness as part of the healing process.

We are not Jesus. But offering forgiveness to someone who hasn't asked for it is powerful. It is a recognition that we all screw up and do what we later regret. Unbidden forgiveness can startle someone and cause them to see you not as an opponent but as someone who cares for them. It can lead to a belated apology. Or it could offend the person who thinks that you are acting superior to them. If forgiveness produces this effect, it may mean that the person is not ready to admit their fault. They may never be. Which will give you some insight into how God feels when faced with those of us who reject his grace and mercy.

Jesus raises the bar on the behavior that he expects from us, especially when it comes to loving others. When people say that religions are all alike, what they really mean is that here is an ethical similarity. They almost all have some version of the Golden Rule, though often it is stated negatively: don't do to others what you wouldn't want done to yourself. But as far as I can tell the commandment to love your enemies is unique to Jesus. Because it makes no sense from an earthly standpoint. Let's assume that you did not initiate the aggression that caused someone to oppose you, so that the reason that they are your enemy lies with them. It is what they thought, said or did that caused the enmity between you. And that makes it extremely hard to be the one who initiates acting in love towards them. But, let's face it, rarely is the conflict entirely the other person's fault. Even if you didn't start it, it would be highly unusual if you did not then retaliate or do something that exacerbated the problem. Your actions may have been preceded by the thought, “Well, if you're going to act that way...” Usually in a conflict both sides think themselves to be the reasonable one and the other party to be the irrational one. And if that's how each person feels then it is hard to see how to compromise or resolve things.

Love, Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 13:5, “is not self-seeking, is not easily angered; it keeps no record of wrongs.” Right there he points out 3 factors in a conflict. When people seek what benefits themselves, when they are touchy and easily provoked, when they keep a running tally of others' flaws and failings, disputes are inevitable. Sometimes I think that what could best help solve the problems of the Middle East (or anywhere, really) would be global amnesia. If everybody could just forget past wrongs maybe they could make progress resolving the problems of the present. But if people keep brooding over a list of old offenses, they will never be able to get past them and objectively focus on what needs to be done now. Similarly, if people only see things in relation to themselves, they won't be able to seriously consider the concerns of other parties. And if a person takes umbrage, the discussion will never get to what's vital.

When Jesus tells us to love our enemy, I don't think he means “have warm and fuzzy feelings about him.” That may not be emotionally possible, at least not at first. In the Bible, love is not merely a feeling; it is a commitment to someone's well-being. You can do that even if you are not particularly enamored of the person. What you cannot do is try to harm that person.

Now what if your enemy is not just your opponent but is objectively doing evil, that is, intentionally trying to harm you and/or others? What did Jesus do? When Peter cut off the ear of one of those who came to arrest his Lord, Jesus healed the man's ear. He asked for God to forgive his executioners. He told the man being crucified next to him, who had hurling abuse at Jesus before, that he was going to join Christ in paradise. Jesus' love is not theoretical but actual. Again Jesus raises the standard of how we are to live.

Not that Jesus was shy about telling his opponents about their errors. But he did not kill them or call for his followers to kill them. He called for love. And he called out the Pharisees and scribes when their actions did not show love for God or for those created in his image. In his scathing denunciation in Matthew 23, he accused the Pharisees of barring the gates of God's kingdom to others. He says that any converts they make are twice as fit for hell as they are. About their devotion to God's law, he says, “ have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness.” Jesus spoke the blunt truth to those in power. As Paul says, love “rejoices with the truth.”

The exposure of the truth is a real deterrent to those who prefer to operate in the dark. There's a reason why controlling the press and censoring free expression are top priorities for dictatorships. There is a reason why countries like North Korea try to ban the Internet or, in the case of China, create their own tightly monitored alternative. The truth is no friend to those who do wrong, no matter how hard they try to portray themselves as doing right. And they know that the truth can bring down regimes.

But surely violence in the name of what's right also brings down regimes. Yes, and often with no guarantee that the new regime will be any better, as we've seen many times over in the Middle East. In contrast, the transitions of Poland and Czechoslovakia from Soviet satellites to free countries were accomplished relatively peacefully and using video and broadcast technology of the time to expose the truth.

But what about in personal conflicts? Isn't turning the other cheek just an invitation to get beaten up? At times. But if one shows courage by refusing to fight, it can impress and even turn away aggressors. Dr. Stephen Foster is a medical missionary in Angola. According to Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times, “Armed soldiers once tried to kidnap 25 of his male nurses, and when Foster ordered the gunmen off the property, he said, they fired AK-47 rounds near his feet. He held firm, and they eventually retreated without the nurses.” Had he tried to shoot it out with them, it would have ended badly.

Violence begets retaliatory violence. Someone has to be the first to break the cycle and try something different. We keep trying things the old way and we see what that gets. Is it really that Jesus' way doesn't work or that we don't trust God enough to try it?

Giving to all who ask will get you taken advantage of—by the less than 5% in any social strata who try to con people. People seeking a free ride are not confined to the poor. But the vast majority of those who ask for help sincerely need it and find it hard to humble themselves to the point of asking. And after the Great Recession, when whole companies were destroyed, charities collapsed, pensions plummeted, homes were repossessed, and people nearing retirement age found themselves forced to find minimum wage jobs to replace their well-paying jobs which disappeared, we have found that the bad choices of the rich can also make people poor, even more so than the bad choices of the poor. Unless you have a copy of someone's tax return, you really don't know enough to judge if they are the deserving poor or not. At Christmas Lord of the Seas helped out a family that maintained a small but clean and neat apartment. It was so nice that despite the fact that they lived in subsidized housing, I wondered if they were that bad off. The family was so grateful that they all came out to the living room greet me. Except the teenager who would not leave his room and was so mentally ill that he was not allowed in school. As a former psych nurse, I would bet that caring for him 24/7, his frequent hospitalizations and his psych medications were a large part of the reason that the family had financial problems. And remember in this country medical bills are the number one reason for personal bankruptcy. Often the reason why a person or a family is not making it is not easily seen.

Finally, Jesus said if anyone wanted to follow him, they should disown themselves and take up their cross. In Jesus' day, being openly Christian could get you killed. In many countries today, that's still true. But surely this does not apply to us in the first world.

Why not? Though dying for Christ was the fate of many of the first Christians, they did a lot before that death. They fed the hungry, took care of the sick and dying, freed their slaves, rescued abandoned infants, and proclaimed the gospel. They considered their life to be a living sacrifice to God. They did not live for themselves but for Jesus and for others. And we should be doing the same. Instead by most measures self-professed Christians in this country live no differently than non-Christians. And the world rightly calls such Christians hypocrites. They realize that Jesus' ethics were more challenging than just observing etiquette. And the world's problems require more than mere politeness.

Make no mistake. Following Jesus will cost you. If it doesn't lead to your death it will hijack your life and transform it into something that will not necessarily resemble the life you imagined. It will rarely lead to fame and great fortune. It will almost certainly lead you into the messy, complicated lives of others. You will face the evil in them and in yourself. You will come up against the limits of your ability to love others and your desire to obey God. You will be tested. And you may not see the seeds you've planted blossom. So why do it? Why follow such a demanding, difficult way of life?

It makes no sense. Where is the logic in constantly forgiving any and all wrongs done to us? How is it reasonable to love those who hate us? Why in the world should we not strike back at those who strike at us? What is the point of giving what is ours to others? Who in their right mind would live a life according to someone else's dictates and not by one's own whims and desires? It makes no earthly sense.

It only makes sense in the light of the resurrection. Only if Jesus rose from the dead and promises us the same does it make sense to forgive anyone anything, to love all others including those who are our enemies, to not fight back, to give to all who ask and to give up the rights to this life to the one who died for it. If you want advice about maximizing life on earth alone, go pick up any one of the hundreds of self-help books out there. If you want a life that's relatively safe, reasonably comfortable, or centered around personal pleasure, I don't recommend following Jesus.

But if you take the long view, if you look beyond the brief years we have on this globe--far longer than the mayfly but centuries shorter than the tortoise or the trees, billions of years less than the earth and stars--if you believe that we will outlive all those and what we see about us, then Jesus' ethics make sense. If you believe that we live beyond death, then logic dictates that we take loving care of our relationships with others, with ourselves and with God. How we act towards God and towards others shapes who we are and what we will become over eternity. So it makes sense not to be someone who holds grudges forever, who lets hate inhabit us forever, who is forever ready to fight, whose grip on things never loosens, who saves his life at the price of his soul, who he or she is. Jesus' resurrection turns all the temporary values of this world on their heads. What we do here can make us devils or children of God in the long run. We can bend the shoot so that it will be crooked no matter how long it grows or we can keep it straight so that it ever seeks and soars to the sky.

What Jesus commands us to do makes no earthly sense. It is resurrection logic. It is the deep wisdom of the God of love and the fundamental law of his kingdom. If that is where we are heading, then we must do as he says. After all, he's been there. And there he waits for us to follow, saving us places at the wedding supper of the Lamb, the great and glorious celebration of God's eternal love for us. 

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Love Wins in the End

The scriptures referred to are the resurrection accounts in all the gospels.

Most action films end with the good guys winning, usually by killing the bad guys. That's how the film The Matrix ends, as I expected. What I didn't expect was that this violent action film would be so obviously structured on the life of Jesus. Mr. Anderson (which, reading ander as andros, man in Greek, could be translated as “son of man”) is Neo, the One who will be able to break through the illusion of the Matrix, and free other people from this machine-generated virtual reality. Morpheus is his John the Baptist, Cypher is Judas Iscariot and Mr. Smith is the devil. Neo is killed by Smith but comes back to life through the love of a woman named Trinity. And the film ends with Neo literally ascending from the earth. It's a good action film, but I have trouble with a messiah who kills such an astonishing number of people. And it is established that if you die in the Matrix, you die in reality. This makes Neo different from most other action heroes, who kill monsters, zombies, robots or aliens but not humans. Neo doesn't care about collateral damage. In effect, he is the opposite of Jesus, who came to bring life to all.

As the film series goes on, we find out more about the war between the machines and the humans. We find out that humans, having created Artificial Intelligence, treated the robots and machines badly, which caused them to rebel. In the last movie, in the Matrix Neo defeats Smith by inhabiting all the versions of the evil program and turning them into versions of Neo. In the physical world, Neo dies and this brings a truce between the machines and humans. There are parallels to the indwelling of the Spirit and the atonement. But Neo is just a man and stays dead. Trinity dies also. So while in the end Neo kinda brings reconciliation between the two sides, lots of people die through violence and the ending is a real downer.

I used to enjoy all the documentaries on the Bible that would come out around Easter. Well known scholars would be interviewed, new archeological discoveries would be discussed and I would gain some insights into the scriptures. But, possibly because they have covered every major event and issue over and over, they now no longer try to balance the skeptical and the more faithful viewpoints by scholars. In their desire to present novel interpretations and yet not overly offend the Christians and Jews who are most likely to tune in, they present controversial ideas but then refuse to evaluate them using critical thinking. These documentaries used to at least present the views of distinguished scholars on each side. Now they just seem to grab anyone who teaches religion at any college, however obscure, and juxtapose them with clergy I've never heard of. If you don't follow Biblical scholarship, you get a very distorted look at the state of the field.

I gave up on one such documentary this week when a guy in T-shirt proposed that the reason that the tomb was empty because, constrained by the approaching Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea just stashed Jesus in the nearest tomb and later moved him to his permanent resting place. This is the dumbest theory ever. It assumes that not only did Joseph do this immediately after sunset Saturday but that he never bothered to tell Jesus' other followers, not even after they were preaching the resurrection in public. At least Hugh Schofield in his book The Passover Plot put some real thought into his bizarre and elaborate theory of Jesus faking his death, even though Agatha Christie would reject it because she knew more about the effects of dangerous drugs than he apparently did.

I am not going to rehearse here all the problems with all the attempts to explain away the resurrection. Respected Biblical scholar N.T. Wright points out that there were many would-be messiahs in the time before and after Jesus. Their followers, if they escaped execution by Rome, either returned to their former obscure lives or decided to follow the next self-proclaimed messiah. Only Jesus' followers not only remained loyal to him after his death but insisted that he came back to life and lives still. Michael Grant wrote in his book on Jesus said that as an historian of ancient Rome he really ought to end the book with Jesus' death. The problem is, he found, without Jesus' resurrection it is extremely hard to understand why his disciples went from cowering from the authorities in the locked upper room to fearless witnesses willing to die for their belief, nor how this faith in a carpenter in a tiny corner of the Mediterranean spread throughout the Empire in less than 100 years. Because of his followers' testimony and martyrdom, Jesus is not only known today to people other than scholars but is worshiped the world over as Lord.

Rather than talking about how this happened I would like to focus on why. Why was the resurrection so vital to the first Christians and why is it still essential today?

To the disciples Jesus' death was much more than a downer. It was devastating. It was the death of their dreams, the destruction of their hopes. It plunged them all into despair. And remember many had followed John the Baptist, who had also been killed. Now the man who they thought was the Messiah, the Son of God, the new king from the house of David, was killed in the most grotesque and humiliating way possible. And they, his friends who thought they would rule the kingdom with him, ran like cowards when facing armed opponents. Their picture of Jesus and their images of themselves were shattered. In abject misery they holed up and could not even think of what to do next.

Denial is a part of grief, though usually before an imminent death. And some people say that the resurrection was some kind of hallucination born out of denial that Jesus was really dead. But it would have to be a group hallucination, one in which everybody saw and heard and touched the same thing. In fact, it would have to be a series of them that stretched out for forty days. And happened to 500 people, according to Paul. And then stopped. And the effect of this illusion would have to last all the way up to their deaths.

And they were avoidable deaths, depending entirely them on sticking to their story that Jesus arose from the dead. All they had to do to live was deny the resurrection. If their memories were at all odd or dream-like or influenced by others, why did none of them doubt and opt out of martyrdom? If it were a lie, their deaths are even more inexplicable. People might kill to cover up a scheme they concocted but who would die for a lie?

Grant is right. Only a real resurrection accounts for the change in the behavior of the disciples. They went from fearful to fearless at a time when most people would have given up and gone home. They had fled the authorities even when they had swords. Now they defied those same authorities armed only with the good news of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

One reason is that, of course, Jesus' triumph over death meant that they would, too. All those promises of eternal life turned out to be not poetic but actual. Few people would volunteer to be the first person ever to use a parachute. But if you were in a falling airplane and saw a parachute save the life of someone who jumped from that plane, you'd be willing to be the second person to try it. In the Antarctic, hungry penguins are nevertheless reluctant to go into the water for fish out of fear that their predator, the sea lion, is waiting to eat them. So they crowd along the edge of the ice until one falls in. If he doesn't get eaten, they all dive in. Jesus raised the dead and then was the first to return from death on his own. So the disciples knew it was safe to die for him.

More than that, though, the resurrection of Christ meant that everything he said about himself was vindicated. It took decades for the vindication of the work of two Australian scientists who discovered that the bacteria H. pylori causes stomach ulcers. In 1982 medical journals and conferences rejected their work. Finally, one of the men, Barry Marshall, consumed the bacteria, developed an ulcer and then cured himself with antibiotics. In 2005 the two scientists won the Nobel Prize for their work. 

For the disciples, Jesus' credibility was vindicated on Easter. And even so, the disciples did not accept the first reports, those of the women who went to anoint the body that morning. When Jesus appeared to them they did not believe at first, thinking he was a ghost. Once it sank in that he was truly and bodily alive again, they had to reconsider everything Jesus said about himself, about his death and about the kingdom of God. They called him the Son of God. But they may just have meant that as a traditional title for a Davidic king. Now they realized that title was literally accurate. Jesus liked to call himself the Son of Man. And again that could just be a way of saying he was a human being. But now they thought of the passage in Daniel where it says, “And with the clouds of the sky one like a son of man was approaching. He went up to the Ancient of Days and was escorted before him. To him was given ruling authority, honor, and sovereignty. All peoples, nations, and language groups were serving him. His authority is eternal and will not pass away. His kingdom will not be destroyed.” (Daniel 7: 13-14) Who else could this refer to other than God's Anointed, Jesus, whom God raised from the dead?

All of the Hebrew scriptures were seen in a different light, especially the passages in Isaiah that spoke of God's suffering servant who was despised and rejected by the people, who was wounded for our sins, who died among criminals and was buried in a rich man's tomb. Who else could this refer to but Jesus, who was executed though innocent and whom John called the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world?

All they had to do was keep trusting Jesus, Son of Man, Son of God, Lamb of God, and he, being faithful to those who are faithful to him, would be with them to the end of the age. So they passed the word along: Jesus is Lord and Savior to all who trust in him.

That's what Jesus' resurrection meant to the first Christians. What does mean to us today?

All of that and more. It means our faith is vindicated. Today's world, for all of our advances in science and medicine and democracy and human rights, is still being ruined by our arrogance and laziness and lust and greed and rage and envy and overindulgence. Even more than in the past we know what we should do and so it is all the more dispiriting that we don't act on this knowledge. We have had our trust in our leaders, our institutions, and our charities betrayed. To listen to the news is to invite your faith in your fellow man to be shattered.

But Jesus' resurrection means we can trust God. If Jesus did not rise again, then he would have been just another martyr, another good person destroyed by the world. And if he was the best person this world had ever produced, we would have to look askance at God. We would have to wonder if he really cares for us. Or if he is either indifferent or hostile to human beings and our pain and suffering. But if God raised Christ from the dead, then we know our faith in God's love is well-placed and that he will never leave us or forsake us, no matter how dark and dangerous our situation gets.

Jesus' resurrection means our hope is vindicated. Not only is our world bad now, it appears to be getting worse. Every advance in our technical prowess seems to be followed by a decline in our morality. Things that people and governments used to do in secret they now shamelessly do for all to see. The powerful oppress and exploit the weak and don't even hide it. The greedy proclaim greed a virtue; the unrestrained shrug and say they are powerless pawns of DNA or their environment; the liars ignore those who point out the truth and just repeat their falsehoods until people start to believe them. And none of this looks like it's going to change. To become better informed today is to invite your hope for humanity to be crushed.

But Jesus' resurrection means we can continue to hope for humanity's redemption. On Good Friday, it was Jesus' prospects and those of the movement he started that looked bleak. Jesus was helplessly bleeding out as his enemies mocked him; his disciples were hidden behind locked doors. But if God raised Christ from the dead, then we know we can place all our hopes in him. We know that God will make all things work together for the good of those who love him and that any delay is because God's timing is not ours. We know that despite events that tempt us to despair, God is making sure that everything will be all right in the end.

Jesus' resurrection means the love of God is vindicated. This week I heard a report from the Southern Poverty Law Center that says there are 784 hate groups in the US. And, after California, our state Florida has the second largest number of them: 50. There seemed a ray of light when the editor of the report said that their memberships were declining. But he said a lot of that is due to people going online instead, where the can express their hate under the Internet's anonymity. Nearly 50 years since the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and nearly 70 years since the death of Gandhi and of course just 15 years shy of 2 millennia since the death of Christ, people still think their problems do not reside in themselves but in some other group of people. And if they can just suppress or enslave or annihilate that group, everything will be wonderful. And this despite all evidence to the contrary. So ISIS continues to kill Christians and Shiite Muslims; Hindus and Muslims kill each other in Pakistan and India; Arabs and non-Arabs kill each other in Darfur. This world is a very unloving place.

But if Jesus rose after all the forces of hate did their worst to him, that means we know that God is love and that love wins in the end. It means we are not crazy for loving others including our enemies because whatever happens in the short run, God is love and love wins in the end. It means that demanding an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and a life for a life is not only a futile and counterproductive strategy, it is an evil one because God is love and love wins in the end. God's love, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13, by way of the Phillips translation, “knows no limits to its endurance, no end to its trust, no fading of its hope; it can outlast anything. It is in fact the one thing that still stands when all else has fallen.” And if Jesus is the love of God Incarnate, then we know that when this world divided against itself falls, Jesus will be the last man standing. Because God is love and love wins in the end.

It must have been hell for the disciples all night that Thursday, when Jesus was arrested, and all day that Friday, when he hung on the cross, and all that night and all that Saturday and the next night, when he lay in the tomb. All of their faith and their hope and their love were smashed to pieces. Until just after dawn that Sunday when the women went to the tomb and the angels appeared and Jesus greeted Mary and Jesus walked to Emmaus and Jesus came to the upper room and they found out that Jesus was alive again and that everything they thought knew changed. Because God is love and love wins in the end.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Last Word: The Seventh Word from the Cross

For a dozen years I have been participating in the Community Good Friday Service at the Big Pine United Methodist Church. Preachers from the local churches--Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Vineyard, Episcopal--each preach on one of the 7 words Christ spoke from the cross. I was asked to preach on Luke 23:44-49. 

"Father, into your hands I commit my spirit."

It is 3 in the afternoon on a Friday in April, 30 A.D. Jesus has been awake since early Thursday. He has been betrayed with a kiss from a close friend, tried illegally in a kangeroo court, interrogated several times, slapped, beaten, whipped, ridiculed, rejected, marched stumbling through the streets of Jerusalem while carrying a heavy wooden beam, stripped naked, nailed to a cross, jeered at, and endured seeing the shame and sorrow of his widowed mother. His eyes sting from sweat and blood running down his thorn-crowned forehead. His mouth is parched; his throat is raw; his lungs burn from the effort to breathe. His arms ache from the weight of his body while his hands have gone numb from lack of circulation. His legs and pierced ankles scream with pain every time he raises himself on them to get a breath. His back is cross-hatched with lacerations and hanging strips of skin from the whip and he shudders every time it scrapes against the rough wood of the cross. Gnats and flies buzz around him, landing and walking on his helpless body with impunity, feeding on the blood and open wounds. He has been hanging here for 6 hours.

The only mercy shown to him is that the scorching sun has hidden itself for the last 3 hours. Eclipse? Clouds? He cannot turn and see. He can barely lift his head. His strength is running out of him with his blood. He knows that death is near.

God has let this happen to him. God led him to this, the most horrible death imaginable. He has lost his friends, his modesty, control over his own body. But most importantly, he has lost all awareness of God. That loving presence he has always felt around him is gone. That comforting voice that has always spoken to him is silent. That clear vision that has always guided him is absent. He is alone, utterly alone.

Does he curse God? Does he cry out in rage? In pain? In despair? No, he gathers his last breath. He summons the last particle of his strength. He painfully raises his shaking, protesting body to open his lungs and shout one last utterance. Not a roar of defiance, not a wail of despair, but a prayer. A prayer to a God he can no longer sense, the God who has left him to die, pinned to a stake on a rock in a dun-colored hell.

The prayer comes from Psalm 31, a song of David, his ancestor. David wrote it at a time when he was besieged. Part of it goes,
"Be merciful to me, O Lord, for I am in distress;
My eyes grow weary with sorrow,
My soul and my body with grief.
My life is consumed with anguish
And my years by groaning;
My strength fails because of my affliction,
And my bones grow weak.
Because of my enemies,
I am the utter contempt of all my neighbors;
I am a dread to my friends--
Those who see me on the street flee from me.
I am forgotten by them as though I were dead;
I have become like broken pottery."

David went from Hero of Israel to a fugitive from his former friend, King Saul. Hunted by the army he once led, David must have wondered if his anointing by Samuel was a blessing or a curse. He too felt separated from God. "In my alarm I said, 'I am cut off from your sight.'"

Perhaps this is why this psalm suddenly comes to Jesus. He is at his rope's end. He is as low and as helpless as anyone can be. He can do nothing himself; everything is out of his control. That is the most terrifying situation in which we can find ourselves. Those who have been mugged or beaten or assaulted say that the worst part of it is realizing that you cannot stop it. The fact that you cannot prevent your attacker from doing anything he wants to you is the most shattering aspect of the whole experience. You are completely vulnerable, entirely at the mercy of your assailant. Jesus is at that point.

It is typical, it is understandable, that when you find that everything is beyond your control, you despair. Horrendous experiments on rats found that when they realized that they will get shocked no matter what they do and that there is no escape, they lie down and let the electric convulsions flow over them. They give up. When I was a private duty nurse, I saw rich and powerful men give up in the face of chronic or debilitating illness. The drive that enabled them to conquer the treacherous world of business dries up in the face of an enemy they cannot out-think, bribe or intimidate. The spirit goes out of them.

When everything is beyond your control, you can act as if all is lost...or you can realize that everything was never within your control. You can wake up from your childish daydream of omnipotence and see your true position in the universe. And then you can throw yourself upon the only one who really is in control: God.

But that is cold comfort to the one who believes that if there is a God, it is an impersonal force that governs the immutable laws of the universe impartially. To expect any relief from such a creator is foolishness. And certainly at this point it looks as if the God who let this happen to Jesus is at best indifferent to his plight. On what basis can he--can we--expect mercy, much less help?

We trust people when they have come through for us in the past. We base our faith in others on our experience of their love. The infant cries until he sees his mother. He knows she will feed him, change him, comfort him because she has done so in the past. Mom means everything will be all right. The same infant looks startled the first time Daddy tosses him in the air. But he catches him and it is all right. The baby begins to love that giddy feeling of free falling because he knows that the strong arms of his loving father are always there to catch him. What was scary becomes thrilling because we know that ultimately we are safe.

In the psalm that is running through Jesus' mind David follows his verse about being cut off from God with this one: "Yet you heard my cry for mercy when I called to you for help." David does not let his awful present blot out his remembrance of God's grace in the past. Despite all the expressions of persecution and suffering in this psalm, there is an undercurrent of hope. Hope is a confidence about the future that is rooted in God's goodness to us in the past.

But what good things could Jesus reflect on? He was born into poverty. He worked hard, supporting his family after Joseph died. When he started his mission, he was violently rejected by his hometown. His mother and brothers thought he was crazy. His cousin John was beheaded. He had been hounded and threatened by the Pharisees and Sadducees throughout his ministry. He was betrayed by one of his best friends. His life as God's Anointed hadn't been personally rewarding. On what could Jesus base his trust?

At the end of It's a Wonderful Life, George Bailey sees that, though it may not have been what he wanted, his life was a blessing to all whom he touched. And through being a blessing to others, he himself was blessed. Though Jesus did not seem to benefit by following God, those who encountered him did. The blind regained their sight, the deaf their hearing, the mute their voices, the lame their legs, the possessed their selves. He brought enlightenment to the dim and nourishment to the ravenous. If he could not see God's grace in what God did for him, then he could in what God did through him.

Jesus knew the love of God as it was manifested in his life. He experienced the power of God as it flowed through him into those he healed. He saw the mercy of God as he pronounced forgiveness on the suffering. He could say with David, "How great is your goodness, which you have stored up for those who fear you, which you bestow in the sight of men on those who take refuge in you."

And so, as he hung there, seemingly forsaken by God and man, Jesus could draw upon the mighty acts of God that happened in and through him and he could, with his final tortured breath, pray to the Father who he knew, despite his present condition, loved him. William Barclay says that this verse from Psalm 31 was a familiar prayer to Jews. Mothers would teach it to their children at bedtime. And so we have this most abused man, with his last seconds of mortal consciousness, praying as if he were a child about to drop into a peaceful sleep in his father's arms.

He knows that his labors are over, He knows that he has earned his rest. And he knows that he will awaken again, a new man, at the dawn of a new day, a new era, made possible by his obedience to his Father's will, that through his sufferings, humanity might find an end to its pain and through his sacrifice, we might come to know the love that triumphs over death. 

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Love and Dirty Feet

The scriptures referred to are John 13:1-17,31-35.

You may have heard about the firing of Jeremy Clarkson, one of the hosts of the British car show, Top Gear. I've only caught bits of the show but I knew he had gotten in trouble before for making blunt and politically incorrect statements. I figured he'd done it again but was even more offensive this time out. But, no, he was sacked for cursing at a producer of his show for 20 minutes and then punching him. The reason for his violent rage? After a day of filming on location, he didn't like the soup and cold meat platter he was offered. He wanted a steak, despite the fact that the chef at the hotel they were staying had gone home for the day. What he thought the producer should do about that I haven't discovered.

In his autobiography, talk show host Phil Donahue wrote of how insidious becoming a celebrity can be. After his Dayton, Ohio show went national and became the first daytime talk show, ostensibly aimed at women, that tackled serious and controversial issues, it became wildly popular in the 1970s and 80s. And as Donahue was increasingly recognized in public, he noticed that he was offered perks. His restaurant reservations and plane tickets were upgraded once those in charge realized who had made them. And it gets very easy to start expecting special treatment when you are rich and famous and in charge of something popular.

We see this, sadly, in religion. Creflo Dollar, promoter of the prosperity gospel, wants his followers to get him a $65 million airplane. Other TV evangelists have displayed extravagant lifestyles that contrast strongly with that of Jesus of Nazareth who had no place to lay his head. And it's really hard to imagine any of the modern batch of TV preachers stripping off their thousand dollar suits and doing something as menial as Christ does on the first Maundy Thursday.

Science Fiction author Phillip Jose Farmer once wrote that the first thing that would strike a time traveler going to earth's past would be the smell. People didn't bathe much if at all, weren't particularly hygienic about the disposal of human waste, and often kept their animals in their home. Streets were filthy and so in Jesus' day when guests arrived, it was the job of the lowliest slave in the household to remove their sandals and wash their feet. It was a nasty duty. So imagine the shock of the disciples when Jesus stripped off his outer garment, wrapped a towel around his waist and began to wash and dry the feet of his students. It would be akin to having the Pope plunge a toilet you clogged. You would be appalled.

Now usually when we talk about Jesus washing the disciples' dirty feet we talk about his humility. And certainly that's part of it. But that's not the main point he's making. He says in verse 15 of our gospel, “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” But I don't think Jesus was saying, “I want you to make a big show of your humility.” That's a humblebrag, a contradictory way of showing you are humble. Rather I think Jesus was building to a slightly different point. And he stated it in the same form. In verse 34 Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (Emphasis mine) Put the two verses together and you see the parallels. “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you....Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Jesus is not so much saying “Be humble like me” (at least not here) so much as he is saying, “Be loving like me.”

How is doing the most repulsive task of a slave a show of love? Ever seen a mother wipe the runny nose of her child? Or a woman brush dirt off the back of her husband's shirt? When you love someone, you care about their cleanliness and appearance. Parents clean the butts of their infants, something they would not do to a stranger. And children will often reciprocate when their parents get too infirm to clean themselves. It is amazing what you will do for someone when you love them.

We have a tendency when thinking of Christian love to spiritualize it to such an extent that it ceases to resemble real love. It becomes thinking good thoughts about people we may or may not actually have made an effort to get to know rather than doing good and helpful things for them. Because getting involved with people is messy. Just as the disciples' feet got dirty by moving through the streets of Jerusalem, we all pick up less than savory stuff as we journey through life. People are messy. And love means dealing with that mess.

The primary way that Jesus dealt with the messes we make of our lives is through the cross. But his actions on this night mean we should also deal with the everyday messes in the lives of those we love. Of course we naturally do this with our children and our families. But Jesus is dealing here with his students, the people he is mentoring. Now I don't think Jesus is saying “Insert yourself in the drama of those you work with” but “Do what is necessary to help the people around you when their lives are messy. And do it out of Christian love.”

Notice, too, that what is unexpected about the situation is not the action itself, it's the person doing it. Normally a slave should have done it. I don't know if the family whose upper room they were using didn't have a slave, or were bad hosts. I like to think that the slave walked in, all ready to clean feet, with the bucket and towel and Jesus saw him and relieved him of them, seeing a good opportunity to make a point. So, too, we should look for opportunities to serve people in Christ's name doing stuff that ought to be done.

My colleague, Fr. Mark Sims, was supposed to appear in court for doing what ought to be done. He is one of 3 clergy who were arrested for feeding the homeless in Ft. Lauderdale. It seems that the city, along with 33 others in the country, have passed ordinances that make life even more difficult than it is for the homeless in the hopes that they will move on. The council has made feeding the homeless almost impossible outside of a very well-appointed shelter or a restaurant. Mark was supposed to appear in court Monday but someone probably thought that jailing a priest during Holy Week for feeding the homeless would just garner the city another round of terrible press. So it was postponed. But Mark and his partners in this mission are just doing what Jesus said to do in Matthew 25: feeding Jesus by feeding the least of his siblings.

What's really interesting is Jesus' interaction with Peter. At first the outspoken fisherman wants nothing to do with Jesus washing his feet. Jesus in effect says to him, “But this is what I do—I serve people. If you don't let me do that, you really aren't a part of me and my mission.” At a recent reception at another church in the Keys, a man tripped and fell headlong into the refreshment table. Quicker than anyone else could react, all 3 off-duty nurses at the event were there were at his side. It doesn't matter than one of us was retired and another was no longer actively nursing; we reacted because we are nurses. If someone needs first aid we are on it like white on rice. It's what we do and what we are. The same is true for Christians. If someone is in need, we should be on it like red on a Holy Week stole. It's what we do and what we are.

Once Peter realizes that he must let Jesus wash his feet, he goes in the opposite direction. “Wash the rest of me!” he says. But Jesus says, “You don't need a bath; just a footwashing.” Jesus is concentrating on what is needed at the moment. He is not setting up a footwashing business, much less a spa; he is doing the task at hand. So Jesus is not saying to us, “Do psychotherapy on your troubled neighbor or coworker,” but “Listen to their troubles. ” He's not saying, “Become this homeless guy's social worker,” but “Feed him.” He's not saying, “Solve all the world's problems,” but “Love and serve your neighbor, right here, right now.”

Of course, you may feel called into a more organized ministry, to start one or to join an existing one. You can always refer the troubled person to therapy if you realize that what they need is beyond your abilities or resources. But the main thing is to do what is necessary when it needs to be done. The Red Cross knows that the first and hardest step in first aid is just getting people to do something. Folks tend to wait until someone else acts. If just one person goes to the rescue of somebody, other people will also respond. Jesus knew that. So he set us an example...of humility, yes, but mostly of love. If we are his followers, we need to do likewise. We need to be ready to get our hands dirty, and do the messy job of loving one another. 

Monday, March 30, 2015

Schizophrenic Sunday

The scriptures referred to are Mark 11:1-11 and 14:32-15:39.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “Actually, it seems to me that one can hardly say anything either bad enough or good enough about life.” And one only has to look at the news to see that he nailed that on the head. Just this week in fact, a top weedkiller has been named as a carcinogen; but on the other hand, a woman who dropped out of college at age 19 to start a medical research company now can perform hundreds of diagnostic tests on just a few drops of blood. On the one hand a lawyer in California has started a petition to have all gays and lesbians in the state shot in the head; on the other hand the Presbyterian Church (USA) now does same-sex marriages. On the one hand ISIS is beheading people in Iraq; on the other hand I have a neurosurgeon friend who is a medical missionary and is saving lives and teaching doctors his techniques in Ethiopia. It is a very schizophrenic world we live in. (And, yes, I am using that term in the popular and not the clinical sense.)

So perhaps it is appropriate that since the 1960s Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday have been combined in a mashup that commemorates both the height of Jesus' popularity with the people and the depths of his rejection by the authorities. And so we start by processing with palms and singing, remembering his royal entrance into Jerusalem, and later we stand in silence remembering his agony on the cross. 

Even though he was the Son of God, Jesus was a small town lad from rural Galilee. So he had to be struck by the reception he got when he entered Jerusalem on a colt. It was the biggest, grandest city Jesus ever visited, dominated by the gleaming white and gold temple. People started throwing their outer garments on his path and cutting down branches and laying them on the road. They were cheering him and yelling, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” It had to be a heady experience.

A week later, Jesus is humiliated and abused at a rigged trial by the leaders of his people, flogged and beaten by the occupying forces, marched out of town with a wooden beam across his shoulders and tied to his arms, stripped naked and skewered by nails and hung from a cross to die, surrounded by his jeering enemies and curious passersby. It was the worst death the Romans offered.

The fact that both happened to the same man in the same week shows that there is nothing bad enough or good enough that one can say about humankind.

So perhaps it is proper that on the same Sunday we should go from feeling exalted to feeling appalled. And that we go from identifying with those who cheered his entrance to standing in for those who shouted for his death. Because those two polls of human behavior still exist. It mirrors the ways people treat Jesus today.

We see them to a lesser extent in the way we first elevate celebrities and then just as eagerly tear them down. But usually we reserve our best behavior for one type of people and our worst for other people. Specifically people we look down on. We tend to attribute bad attitudes and behavior towards those who are different. For instance, in 1979 white men between the ages of 30 and 34 had a 1% risk of being imprisoned. Black men in that same age range had a 9% risk then. Today those same men in their early 30s have a 3% risk of going to prison if they are white and a 21% risk if they are black. And it's worse for high school dropouts. For white men 30 to 34 who didn't finish high school the risk of imprisonment is 15% today while the risk for black men without a high school diploma is 69%. And this at a time when the crime rate is half of what it was in the early 1990s. Did the 12% of the population that is black not get the memo that crime is down? Or are they being treated differently? And why is the black unemployment rate not only higher than the overall unemployment rate but more than twice the rate for whites?

Racial stereotypes die hard. Last September Kam Brock, a 32 year old black woman, was driving her BMW through Harlem when she was pulled over and accused of being high on pot. No weed was found in her car but it was impounded nevertheless. When she went to get it the next day she was understandably upset. The NYPD's response was to handcuff her and take her to a hospital psych ward where she was sedated and held for 8 days because she was considered delusional. The delusions? That she was a former Citicorp banker and that President Obama followed her Twitter feed. Which they would have found were true, had anybody bothered to go online. But the idea that a young black woman had achieved that high a social status was considered crazy talk. (BTW the hospital sent her a bill for $13,000. As one does when trying to cure someone of reality.)

To change categories to geographic differences, it's been shown that the thicker a person's Southern accent, the less intelligent other people tend to think they are. Wasn't that the whole premise of Matlock--that folks tended to underestimate the brains of the drawling old Southern guy? He was Columbo in a white suit.

People also look down on poor people, blaming them entirely for their predicament. That's why states keep instituting drug tests for people on welfare. Yet in the 7 states where this has been done, after spending a total of million dollars combined it turns out that only between .002% to 8.3% of those tested were positive for drugs. That's lower than the national drug use rate of 9.4%. It turns out drug addiction comes way down the list of major reasons for poverty, after things like lack of education, unemployment, low wages, disease and violence.

Dr. Paul Farmer said, “The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.” At the very least, that pernicious idea contradicts the second great commandment, to love one's neighbor as oneself. When you love someone they matter more to you. That's why Christ says that when we refuse to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the immigrant, visit the sick and those in prison, we are refusing to help Jesus. He wants us to value them more than we naturally do because we love him. The reason that Jesus didn't say something similar about the well-fed, the hydrated, the well-clothed, our fellow countrymen, the physically well and the free is because we already think those people matter more. We give more to those whom we value more and oddly enough, we don't give more to those who have less. In fact, we tend to take from those who have less. 

I mentioned a few weeks ago that I was reading The Locust Effect by Gary Haugen and Victor Boutros. They give statistics and examples of how the poor are taken advantage of by rich landowners, by neighbors, by employers, by their own families, and even by corrupt cops. They tell the story of 2 men in Kenya, Caleb and Bruno, who were abducted by cops on their respective ways to work and to take their children to school. They were thrown in a van, driven around with other men who were let out if they could raise the money the cops demanded. The cops went to the homes of the 2 men who were too poor to pay the bribe, ransacked them and took any money they found and anything of value. The men were taken to the woods, beaten and told to confess to stealing a TV from a local hotel. They refused but were taken to court, put in pre-trial detention because they couldn't afford lawyers and because the judge accepted what the cops said without any supporting evidence. As the men languish in jail, in many cases for years, they lose their jobs, their children can't afford to continue their schooling, and their families struggle to survive without their incomes and without the savings the cops took.

I will spare you the stories of families trapped in debt slavery and the women tricked into going for jobs in other countries but then trafficked for sex. We in the affluent West have little or no experience of such things and so think such happenings are rare. But in the third world they are common. And as we are seeing, they are not unknown in this country. They are everyday dangers and the reason why people often find it impossible to climb out of poverty. They illustrate why justice and peace must go hand in hand.

Why do humans have this split nature? Why are we capable of both great good and great evil? Philosophers, psychologists, sociologists and religious leaders all explore and debate this. To me the Christian explanation of the problem best accounts for this paradox. We were created in the image of God, the source of all goodness. God, as 1st John 4 tells us, is love. The image of God is therefore most fully seen in human beings in loving relationship—the couple, the family, the community. Love is putting the well-being of others before oneself. When everyone does that, human groups work as they should. But when, as Dr. Farmer points out, we think that some lives matter less than our own or those of our family, our community, our party, our denomination, our nation, our race, or our class, then it all falls apart. That's evil.

Evil can be approached in a variety of ways. It can be seen as a narrow definition of good, confined to what is good for me and mine, accompanied by a lack of caring about what the consequences are for others.

Evil can be seen as a parody of good, exaggerating certain features and minimizing others. Recklessness can be seen as a parody of courage, overemphasizing the overcoming of fear but while minimizing the fact that it is only courage if done in service of a nobler cause, not if it is done for thrills or self-aggrandizement.

Evil can be seen as the 2 opposite errors that skew to either side of a virtue, the way foolishness and cynicism can be equally wrong in a situation requiring wisdom.

Evil can be a falling short of God's standards or a rejection of what he has told us to do.

Evil can be viewed as the abuse, misuse or neglect of all the good gifts God has given us. Active forms of evil require the use of otherwise good things. High intelligence is required to create some truly twisted forms of evil, like fraud and con artistry. A good understanding of emotions can be used to craft particularly awful forms of psychological torture.

Evil can be defined as choosing to harm rather than to help. One's gifts and strengths can be used for either purpose. Whichever we do is a choice.

But in all cases evil is derivative of goodness; it is a parasite that cannot exist and cannot be defined except in relation to goodness. When we hear of a action that we label as clearly wrong, we can easily think of a good alternative to the action, if it's only refraining from doing evil. When faced with bad options, we usually try to find a good alternative. When faced with good options, we don't usually try to come up with a bad one.

Some people do though. The people who came up with crucifixion were looking for a particularly nasty way to kill someone. They came up with a way that was slow, painful, and humiliating. They wanted it to be graphic and shocking so as to warn other people about going up against the empire. Jesus knew what it was like. He had no doubt seen crucified men in his occupied homeland. He had to have heard about what the Romans did when the city near Nazareth, Sepphoris, rebelled when he was a infant. They crucified every man in town and lined the roads with them. Small wonder that on the night before he died, he prayed that God would let that particular cup pass him by. But he also prayed that the Father's will, not his, be done. Why?

Turning good into evil is relatively easy. Just don't do what you should, or only do the parts that benefit you and no one else, or do a imperfect version of what's good. But what if you tried to reverse the process? What if you tried to turn evil into good?

Remember when the Green family was vacationing in Italy and their car was fired upon by thieves, resulting in the death of 7 year old Nicholas by a gunshot wound to the head. His parents chose to donate his organs. Five people received his major organs and two people received cornea transplants. Little Nicholas' horrific death meant life and sight for 7 people. And the rate of organ donation in Italy rocketed.

That's what God is doing in the passion of Christ. He is turning a great evil of ours into a great boon from him. He is transforming the worst thing we could do to his son into the best thing that could happen to us. The death of God Incarnate means eternal life for all who ask and sight for the spiritually blind. And he is inviting us to do the same with a world that is looking less and less like the paradise he created it to be.

When Jesus saw a man born blind, he didn't try to work out whose sin caused his malady, as his disciples did. Jesus saw it as an opportunity to set things right and glorify God in the process. And that should be our response to evil. Reverse it. Redeem it. Reconcile the warring parties. Resurrect the good that was left to die. It may be hard but Jesus told us that following him meant picking up our cross. He carried that cross for us and so we will have to shoulder ours for others as well.

The cross reminds us that there are terrible things in this world and there are wonderful things as well. God wants us to diminish the number of things in the former category and increase the number of things in the latter. The methods he wants us to use are creation and transformation. It will not be easy. It may be excruciatingly painful. But Jesus did it. And with his help, we can too. 

Monday, March 23, 2015

Zombie Heart

The scriptures referred to are Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 51:1-13.

Zombies are the only monsters that still creep me out. I grew up watching the old Universal Pictures about Dracula, Frankenstein's creature, the Wolfman, the Invisible Man and all the rest. I graduated to Roger Corman's color adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe's works which starred Vincent Price, and the films of Hammer Studios, which, while British, were much more graphic. But zombies, the shuffling undead, I find disturbing. So it's surprising that I kinda liked the recent zombie romcom, Warm Bodies. It starts with the internal monologue of a young-looking zombie we come to know as R. That's all he can remember of his former name and life. In his head, he laments the poor social skills and aimless existence of being a zombie. Things change when he falls for a living girl named Julie after eating the brains of her boyfriend and gaining his memories. By protecting her and using his limited ability to speak, they form a bond and his love makes him become more human daily. Yes, it's a silly conceit. And I'm sure the story of R. and Julie has Shakespeare, the author of the romantic tragedy on which this fluff is based, spinning in his grave.

The movie does not even try to explain how falling in love revives dead flesh, much less how the mere notion of love converts the other zombies. We just see that in their chests their hearts go from grey and still to bright red and beating. But then no horror movie gives a plausible explanation for how rotting corpses could continue to move nor why they eat brains. I think that Warm Bodies is an analogy, not about people being physically dead so much as being emotionally dead. The same is true in Simon Pegg's zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead. There are two scenes in that film which make this clear. In the first scene, we see Shaun trudging to work, oblivious of his neighbors doing their mindless morning activities. The second scene closely parallels the first, except it takes place after the night of the zombie apocalypse. Shaun, unawares, plods to work, this time oblivious to the fact that his neighbors are now the shambling undead. Part of the joke is just how long it takes Shaun to figure this out. In Warm Bodies, R. is shuffling around the airport, reminiscing how people there used to greet and interact socially with one another. But his flashback shows everyone walking through the terminal with their faces locked onto their cellphones. The point is that even before the apocalypse people were practically zombies. In both films, the zombies are in the end integrated back into society. In Shaun of the Dead, they are given jobs like retrieving shopping carts or reality show contestants. In Warm Bodies they become human again by appreciating life, meeting people and, of course, falling in love.

People sometimes think that rules fix all problems. And if you still have problems, you just need more rules. I'm not saying rules are unimportant. Right now we are teaching my granddaughter basic rules like “Don't hit.” “Don't bite.” “Don't take things that don't belong to you.” She is slowly picking these things up. The sad thing is there are people who never seem to learn these basic rules. And no amount of repeating these rules nor punishing these folks for breaking the rules seems to work. Even the people who make our laws don't seem to learn anything about such basic ideas as consensus, compromise and compassion. They lack the common sense to realize it is stupid to keep doing the same thing and over and over while expecting different results. Perhaps they could use some brains. And working hearts.

The Torah, the first five books of the Bible, contain 613 commandments according to Jewish scholars. And yet not everything one encounters in life is covered. So, during and after the Babylonian exile, rabbis discussed and wrote commentaries on the Torah called the Misnah, literally the “study.” They were still being compiled during Jesus' day. And then they wrote commentaries on the commentaries, called the Gemarah, or “completion.” All of this was collected as the “instruction” or Talmud, the definitive compendium of Jewish law. Jewish tradition holds that God gave Moses two forms of the law: the written law we have in scripture and the oral law which was eventually recorded in the Talmud.

If having and knowing the law bestowed virtue on folks then lawyers would be the most ethical people around. We know that's not true. Similarly, Christian clergy and Biblical scholars would be the most pure. But that doesn't match reality either. For human beings knowing what's right is not the same as doing what's right.

The Bible recognizes this fact. So why does it contain so many commandments? For the same reason that a medical textbook gives you baselines for healthy functioning livers, hearts, kidneys and all the rest: so you can compare and see if you need help. It will tell you that a healthy blood pressure should be around 120/80 or less. Your cholesterol should be below 200. Your blood sugar should be between 120 and 80. You should be able to close your eyes without falling over. If you are over 50 and able to stand on one foot for 20 seconds or more, you have a lower risk of stroke. These tell you what should be, not what is. They give you goals to aim for and standards which can be used to diagnose illness. And when you try to meet the standards of the Bible you see how spiritually ill you really are.

The truth is God knows we can't live up to them. So how do we get ourselves out of this mess? We don't. God does. And he does so by changing our hearts. In the Bible the heart is not pictured as the seat of a person's emotions alone but of his or her mind and will and character as well. The root of the Hebrew word for heart is obscure but could mean “center.” And the usage is very similar to our speaking of, say, “the heart of the matter.”

So when the Bible talks about the heart it means the center of who we are. In fact, C. Ryder Smith writes that “The first great commandment probably means 'You shall love... the Lord your God with all your heart—that is, with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.'” And because of its centrality, the Bible has a lot to say about the human heart. In regards to our moral failures, it says, in the flood account in Genesis 6, that the reason God regretted making humans was that “every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil all the time.” (Gen 6:5) The particular sin in this instance that ruins his creation in God's eyes is that the earth is filled with violence (Gen 6:11). The depth of human wickedness is addressed in Jeremiah 17:9. “The heart is more deceitful than anything else, and incurable—who can understand it?” Jesus said that it was from within the human heart that all the evil thoughts and actions come. (Mark 7:21) In 1 Samuel 16:7 we learn that it is impossible to fool God because he looks upon our hearts.

Since the problem is in our hearts, how do we fix it? By a change of heart. In Deuteronomy 30:6 the image used is that of God circumcising the hearts of his people. Since physical circumcision was a sign of a person becoming part of God's covenant people, the circumcision of the heart represented people being truly dedicated to the Lord through the altering of our innermost self. This idea is expressed in Ezekiel thus: “I will give them one heart and I will put a new spirit within them; I will remove the hearts of stone from their bodies and I will give them tender hearts.” (Ezek 11:19) And here in Jeremiah 31 it says, “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” says the Lord: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts...” In other words, what was external to us will become an integral part of us. It will be at the center of who we are—how we think, how we speak, how we act.

And this is not our own doing; it is accomplished by God's Spirit. As it says in our psalm, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence and take not your holy Spirit from me. Give me the joy of your saving help again and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.” This is Hebrew poetry so the first part of each verse is paralleled by the second part. The equivalent of God creating a clean heart in us is his renewing a right spirit within us. The taking away of God's holy Spirit is the same as being cast from his presence. The joy of God's saving help comes from being sustained by his bountiful Spirit. To have a true change of heart we need to have God's Spirit within us, cleaning our hearts, renewing and sustaining us.

For some people a change of heart takes place almost in a flash. They have a realization, a sudden shift in perspective and everything is changed. People in recovery call it a moment of clarity. Like Paul on the road to Damascus, their new life begins at that moment. For others the change in point of view happens gradually. It might be subtle and just below their radar or it might be a struggle that ends with surrendering to a new way of looking at things.

With the disciples it took a while. Being with Jesus they started to see things differently. Especially Jesus. They realized he was the Messiah. But even so, the full realization of his identity did not come to them until he rose from the dead. Easter turned the world upside down for them. They were thinking of a physical conquest and setting up a physical kingdom of God. But after the cross and the empty tomb, after dining with Jesus on the shores of Galilee and the pouring out of the Spirit on Pentecost, they realized that God wasn't going to establish his kingdom by killing enemies but by winning their hearts. They realized the kingdom wasn't a matter of boundaries but of God's boundless grace spreading throughout the world. Jesus wasn't interested in being enthroned on a seat of gold but in the hearts of all. And the blood shed would not be that of the conquered but of the king. This was a new way of being a kingdom.

But the new vision is only the beginning. A change of heart is a process. It starts with seeing the world or some major aspect of it differently. And that change in the way you see things leads to more changes. It may be a change in your chief goal in life. Which leads in turn to a change of your plans. If you are driving to St. Louis and suddenly decide to go to Europe, you need to do more than turn the steering wheel. You will need to figure out how you will cross the ocean. Will you sail or will you fly? Will you do it yourself or buy tickets? Will you need to pack different clothing? Where will you go there? Where will you stay? Where will you go from there?

If you suddenly see God as love, Jesus as Love Incarnate, and the Spirit as the sharing of that love with all those created in the image of God, then that means a change in the goal of life. It is no longer earthly success, or the accumulation of wealth and power, or being adored and worshiped by others. The goal of life is to go farther and deeper into the love of God. It is inviting others to share in that exploration. It is removing the obstacles that keep people from enjoying God's love—prejudice and hatred and exploitation and oppression and dehumanization and violence and everything else that keeps our focus on our lot in this life, good or bad, and keeps us from seeing Jesus in others.

And of course this shift of perspective and changing of goals and plans leads to a change in our behavior, our actions towards others, ourselves and God. Since we see everyone as created in God's image and redeemed by Christ's death, we are able to love others and act lovingly toward them. We can even love our enemies because we realize that everyone we meet is either a brother or sister in Christ or a potential brother or sister in Christ. We write off no one.

For this change of heart to happen, for this process to begin, carry on and culminate, we need God's Holy Spirit within us. Just as it is possible to shut your eyes to the sun it is possible to shut your heart to the Spirit. We need to check in constantly and keep in contact with him. We need to be open to his direction so that the goals we set and the means we use to achieve them are in line with the Spirit of God in Christ.

For as long as human beings have been around we have tried to control behavior through rules. But rules can only do so much. If the heart of a person isn't in it, they will find a way around the rules. They will find loopholes or just ignore the rules. You cannot legislate goodness. It must come from the heart. And that means we must have a change of heart. But that big a change can only come from God. We must open our hearts to him. We must let his Spirit in. We must let him change the way we see things, the way we think, our goals and plans and the way we act. Otherwise we are no better than spiritual zombies, shuffling through life, missing out on the love that can quicken our hearts and bring us a true vision of how life can be lived. 

Monday, March 16, 2015

Stealthily Lethal

The scriptures referred to are Ephesians 2:1-10 and John 3:14-21.

Melanoma, better known as “skin cancer,” is a very deadly disease. Since we have lived down here in the Keys, my wife and I have known at least a half-dozen people who have died of it. And what makes it so lethal is that it tends to metastasize to the brain. So if you notice a spot that changes color, that gets larger, that has irregular borders, have it checked out by a dermatologist ASAP.

A friend who favored sleeveless dresses had a 2 inch black melanoma on her shoulder. I and another coworker kept quizzing her about it and she swore she was seeing a doctor. But she was afraid of doctors and was lying to us. One day she had the equivalent of a stroke, was taken to Baptist Hospital in Miami and diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. She came home and was put on hospice. A month later, she died.

We humans are really bad at judging threats that are slow-moving and non-obvious, like skin cancer and climate change. If it doesn't come roaring at us, if it doesn't cause deep and immediate pain, if it just creeps up on us slowly, we tend to ignore it or discount its seriousness. Which is why we tend to take action only after a crisis. Israel hadn't had a plane hijacked in decades and people in the know said we should copy their airline security. We didn't do so until after 9/11. My father-in-law became a big believer in exercise and eating right—after he had a massive heart attack and quintuple bypass surgery. As a nurse I've seen it again and again: people only make major changes when it becomes too painful not to. And, sadly, by then it is often too late for some.

I myself am not immune to this. I was in fairly good shape when I was working 3 12-hour nursing shifts a week 5 years ago, though working overnight was wrecking my ability to sleep. Since I now spend a considerable amount of time sitting in front of screens I have gained a lot of weight. I know all the serious and life-threatening things that being overweight leads to. But it's really hard to persuade myself to get up and exercise regularly. The immediate effect is hard breathing and pain and fatigue and sweating. The long-term benefits are both distant and hard to appreciate. They are not so much gains as a lessening of the risks of heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, etc. Like most people I am tempted to take the path of least resistance, comfort and short-term pleasure over the straight and narrow way of hard work, discomfort and delayed gratification.

Sometimes what motivates us to change is seeing a friend or family member fall afoul of some danger. This can even benefit others. For every healthy celebrity who works tirelessly to eradicate a disease, I assure you there is someone close to them who suffers from it.

There is another way to respond to a threat and we have seen it just this last week in the news. China banned a documentary on its notorious air pollution and India banned a BBC documentary on its culture's horrendous problems dealing with rape. Neither action will solve the problem, nor will they fool anyone in their respective countries about these problems. It is akin to solving your burglary problems by getting rid of that noisy watchdog. It won't save your belongings but you will be able to sleep longer. It will, however, make your eventual awakening much more traumatic.

We unthinkingly praise light and fear darkness. And yet the light can expose some discomfiting truths and so, as Jesus points out in today's gospel, some people do grow to love the darkness. It hides the inconvenient truth from others and even from ourselves. When General Patton liberated Nazi concentration camps, he was so horrified by what he saw that he rounded up local officials and townspeople and made them come and get a good hard look at the calculated cruelty and government-sanctioned carnage that was taking place in their midst. They could no longer deny the monstrous events that surely would have leaked from such places with which they did business and to whose staff they must have catered and entertained on days off.

The unpalatable truths we wish to hide are usually those things which are wrong with us, the things we do or have done. But they can also be the problems on which we do not want to work, even if we did not directly contribute to them. In the third of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy books, Life, the Universe and Everything, author Douglas Adams came up with a clever cloaking devise for a spaceship. It was called the SEP: Someone Else's Problem. The ship appears to be something no one wants to deal with and so is ignored. This is very astute satirical conceit by Adams, because we do indeed avoid engaging with certain things because we deem them Someone Else's Problem. Unfortunately, because of the interconnectedness of all things, almost every problem is ultimately ours. Some scientists think pollution from China may very well be what's been causing our recent severe winters. One third of the homeless population, or 250,000, are mentally ill. And yet 33 cities have made it illegal to feed the homeless in hopes of getting them to simply go somewhere else. Or they incarcerate them, tripling the percentage of mentally ill in jails and prisons. Which means we are paying to lock up rather than treat sick people.

We can even deceive ourselves into thinking our problems are actually someone else's. The BBC documentary about rape in India was banned in part because it includes an interview with one of the men imprisoned for the gang-rape and murder of a 23-year old woman on a private bus. Far from being repentant, the rapist accused his victim of being the reason for the crime. She shouldn't have been out that late; she shouldn't have gone to a nightclub; she shouldn't have resisted, he says. Somehow the rape and murder committed by him and 4 other men is the fault of the person they raped and murdered. I hear similar things all the time from men incarcerated for domestic violence. It was the woman's fault. She was drunk or high; she attacked him. Apparently, the only victim is the guy!

In summary, we humans are terrible at assessing what is bad for us. We ignore problems if they are slow moving and non-obvious; we ignore them if fixing them is painful or inconvenient; we ignore them if they reveal uncomfortable facts about ourselves; and if we can, by any stretch of the imagination, we try to blame others. We prefer to remain in the dark about our problems.

The weird thing is that the solution is not nearly as bad as we think it is. My friend was afraid of doctors but if she had gone to one when the spot on her shoulder first started to change, the doctor could have removed it, and the risk of her early death, with very little pain. And the solution to our moral deficit is definitely preferable to letting it get the better of us. Both our reading from Ephesians and our reading from John testify to that.

Our gospel includes the best known verse of the Bible: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” There is a lot of good news packed into that one sentence. It tells us that God's attitude towards this screwed-up world is one of love. It tells us that his love is so great that he sent his unique Son to rescue us. And how does he do this? Through a rigorous program of daunting tasks and sacrifices on our part? No, through our trusting in him. That's what believing in Jesus means in this context: trusting him the same way you trust a doctor to diagnose and remove a potentially fatal lesion.

My friend didn't go to a doctor but we believed that she was doing so because the big black spot would sometimes look a bit smaller. That was because my friend was trying to remove bits of it herself. But her makeshift efforts did not ultimately get to the root of the problem. She should have trusted a doctor. It would have meant less painful and futile work on her part. In the same way, Paul reminds us that saving us from the spiritual death resulting from our sins is accomplished by God's grace, not by anything we could do. All we can do is trust him to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. And since there is nothing we can do to deserve such treatment, we just have to accept it as a gift.

And that is perhaps another reason why we would rather remain in the dark about these things. It is bad enough to have to acknowledge that our problems are both dire and our own fault; it is really hard to admit that we are powerless to do anything about it. We want to believe we could fix it if we really tried. To face the fact that we can't is to realize that we have no bargaining chips when it comes to our fate; we are like beggars, entirely dependent on God's good favor. It is a humbling realization.

For many it is merely humiliating. They would rather die than admit they need God to save them from problems of their own making. I think a lot of the vehemence of certain anti-theists is due to their rejection of the idea that they need rescuing by God. They put their trust in themselves or in the ingenuity of other human beings or in an abstraction they call Science. But science is not a monolithic thing, nor is it all necessarily good. 

What we really have are sciences, many disciplines, being used by many people who work for various industries and governments and universities and for the money that science can generate. We have moral and immoral scientists. We have scientists working to save lives and scientists working to come up with new ways of killing people and scientists so focused on some other goal that they are paying scant attention to whether their efforts will make life worse for some people. We have people using science to attack problems and people using science to create problems and scientists trying to fix problems caused by the use of science, which were often a side effect of trying to fix some other problem. If we destroy our world or ourselves as a species, we will not do so without contributions from science. Sticks and stones may break my bones but to do serious damage to large numbers of people requires research and solid engineering.

Science, like any other field of endeavor, is only a good thing in the hands of good people. In the hands of the arrogant, the greedy, the lazy, the belligerent, or the deceitful, science, like law, education, the media, politics, religion, or any other human activity, becomes just another source of problems. The root problem is people. If we could fix them, everything would be better.

The only thing that can fix us, deep down, is God. And the only way God will fix us is if we let him. It's like the vaccine problem: the solution is there but it won't work if people won't get the vaccinations. And believing that something other than getting vaccinated will do the trick just makes the problem worse.

Why doesn't God just forcibly fix everyone for their own good? Because, as it says in John 3:16, God loves us. If you love someone you don't force yourself on them. There is a brilliant article on the Internet in which a woman discusses the problem of consensual sex. The woman says it's like offering someone tea. If they say “Yes,” you give them tea. If they say “No” or change their mind or pass out, you don't try to pour the tea down their throat. God does not force himself on us. If we say “No” he will take us at our word. If we change our mind, he will be there for us. Because that's how love works.

God loves us and wants us to love him back. But it's only genuine love if it comes out of one's free will. So God gives us the choice of whether we come to him or not. And then if we do, he gives us his grace to become the people he created us to be. Because that is another aspect of love. You want what is best for those you love. If your child is selfish, you help him become a more open and generous person. If your child is violent, you help him learn to control himself and achieve things through other means. Anne Lamott says that God loves us just as we are and he loves us too much to leave us that way. But you can only come to that conclusion if you acknowledge that you are the source of your problems and need God's mercy, forgiveness and grace. The self-satisfied never feel the need for a big change nor do they feel they need God's help.

And this is why I often find a receptive audience at the jail. I meet inmates who have stopped fooling themselves, who have hit bottom and realize they must change or die or else go on in that living death Paul writes about. They don't blink at talk of hell because they've seen it and perhaps have even lived it. They understand how giving up the things that cause you to sin can feel like cutting off a hand. They are not bored listening to talk about God's grace, his undeserved kindness towards us.

If you ask me, part of the reason that 7.5 million Americans have walked away from religion since 2012 is that they don't see the need. Their lives are fine. They've got a place to stay, a job, food to eat, entertainment at their fingertips. Even those who are not considered rich by our standards are rich compared to people all over the globe who live on less than $2 a day. They have freedom that many don't enjoy. Their life is fairly comfortable and so who needs God? It's hard to believe that things are dire for you when your physical needs are all taken care of and you are not in much distress. It is in the affluent West that Christianity is declining. It is where life is hard and uncertain that Christianity is growing and thriving. Is it because religion is a comforting illusion when your life is crap, as some think, or is it that people don't turn to God when their lives are comfortable the same way folks don't go to the doctor when they aren't in pain? But sometimes it's not wise to wait for excruciating pain to get help. I'm sure my friend would have gone to the doctor, physician-phobia and all, had that black spot burned like a son of a gun. And you just have to listen to the news to know that we are in trouble even if we are not yet feeling unbearable pain.

The reason the gospel, literally the good news, spread so well in Jesus' day was that everybody already believed the bad news. They knew everything was out of whack and they knew that each of them was part of the problem. When John scolded them for their selfishness and greed and hypocrisy and inaction, they fessed up and got baptized as if they were Gentile converts who needed to start their relationship with God from scratch. Today we have the same problems but we think that if there is a God he already forgives us and he loves us too much to let anything seriously bad happen to us. The good news is old news to us and being old it can't be that relevant to us today.

Part of the reason that some otherwise educated people aren't getting their kids vaccinated is that they don't remember a time before the vaccines. They don't remember when these childhood diseases would kill and cripple children. They think the world has outgrown measles and whooping cough and polio. They think those things are no longer worth worrying about. I think a lot of folks today believe the same thing about Christianity. They think the world has outgrown sin and the need for Christ's atonement and for God's grace. Any black marks on their souls they can take care of themselves. And I'm afraid that, like my friend, they may not realize their mistake until it is too late.

In her last month, my friend did consent to record a public service announcement for the radio station we both worked for. She bravely told her story and then told people the signs of melanoma and that they should go to the doctor and get these things checked out. This was well over 10 years ago but ever so often I hear the PSA play on the radio. And so she is still spreading the word, still saving lives.

Are you? Are you telling people the good news about forgiveness and healing and a new life in Jesus? Don't get lulled by how easy life is. Not every problem announces itself in a loud voice or big block letters. Don't worry about how gauche you're afraid you'll sound. Remember you are just passing along helpful information. If some people don't respond, then they are no worse off than they were but you may have planted a seed, nevertheless. If they listen and act on it, they will be more than better off. They will be citizens of God's kingdom, members of the body of Christ, beloved children of God, Jesus' brothers and sisters. And unlike cancer, with spiritual maladies it's never too late in this world to get help and get healed. This life has an expiration date. God's life doesn't. And that's what he's giving. That's what he's always given: his life for ours. And all we have to do is ask and trust.