Sunday, October 16, 2016

How to Survive

I love survival books. Not the ones about living in a bunker and fighting off the hordes of looters that will come when the government either collapses or reveals itself to be SPECTRE only worse. I mean the ones that give you tips on what to do if you are ever in a flood or in a fire or trapped in rubble after an earthquake or lost in the wilderness, stuff that, however infrequent, could actually happen to you. I do have one of the Worst Case Scenario books that does deal with improbable events like avoiding a stampede such as the running of the bulls or how to escape from a plummeting helicopter, but that's just for fun. I've also got the Disaster Preparedness Handbook, a very practical tome that gives common sense advice on dealing with disasters you are likely to encounter, such as hurricanes for those of us living in southern Florida.

I also like reading true stories of people surviving extreme events, such as Lost on a Mountain in Maine, in which Donn Fendler tells how, when 12 years old, he got separated from his scout troop and spent nearly 2 weeks surviving the cold, hunger, encounters with bears and hallucinations. He credits his scout training and faith in God with helping him make it. I devoured Unbroken, the story of how Olympic runner Louis Zamperini, who was part of a bomber crew in World War 2, survived a crash in the Pacific ocean, spent 3 months in a life raft and finally endured being captured and tormented by a Japanese officer while a POW. Again faith ultimately saves him.

What I get from these books is (1) practical advice on, say, what to do if a dog attacks, which did happen to me, (2) vicarious thrills from the adventures, of course, and (3) encouragement. I figure if someone can survive being mauled by a bear, or being trapped in a mine, or being in a concentration camp, I can surely deal with the less-than-dire problems I am currently facing.

The Bible is not exactly a survival book. It is actually a library of books but they do comprise a treasure trove of spiritual as well as practical wisdom that for thousands of years has helped people survive anything life throws at them. And that's because it has elements that you also find in survival books.

In U.S. Military Survival Manual FM 21-76, the word “survival” is used as a mnemonic device for those in a crisis situation. So “S” stands for “Size up the situation.” In other words, take note of your surroundings, what your physical condition is and what equipment you have. I would add that you also ought to take into account what your emotional or psychological condition is and, because we are talking about the Bible, your spiritual state. The psalms often tell us a lot about the condition of the individuals who wrote each. Some were composed in times of turmoil and stress. The person may be physically ill, socially isolated, psychologically stressed and at a spiritual low point.

The frankness of the psalms is why I think folks prize them so much. Psalm 42:9-11 says, “I say to God, my Rock, 'Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy? My bones suffer mortal agony as foes taunt me, saying to me all day long, 'Where is your God?'” When things are going badly for us, especially when we are suffering, we do get tormented by doubts. Is God punishing us? Ignoring us? Is he even there? The Bible lets us know that it is not a sin to feel that way. And indeed people have done spiritual damage to themselves because they felt that as a Christian, they had to always be upbeat and pretend that everything was well with them. Expressing doubts are especially forbidden. And the cognitive dissonance of denying reality defeats them.

But the Bible values honesty, even when we reveal unpleasant or even ugly things about ourselves. Psalm 37, written during the Jews' Babylonian exile, concludes with “O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us—he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” It's understandable for a oppressed people to feel this way but it is one of the grislier passages in the Bible. Mind you, the psalmist doesn't say God should do this. It is a descriptive passage, revealing his mood, not a prescriptive passage for us to follow.

The equipment check is obviously important for the person likely to encounter physical danger. Someone about to hike into the wilderness should see if his equipment is working properly. When you are in a spiritual crisis, what you need to do is tally up your assets. That would include your talents and strengths but also your weaknesses. Again the hiker should check that, say, his canteen doesn't leak. Other major assets to consider are your family, your friends, your church, your pastor and God. Believe me, I needed them all to get through my medical ordeal psychologically and spiritually intact.

U' stands for “Use all your senses, Undue haste makes waste.” The first line of the paragraph that follows reads, “You may make a wrong move when you react quickly without thinking or planning.” Contrary to what its critics say, the Bible is big on thinking things through. Jesus told us to “count the cost” before following him. He began many of his parables by saying, “What do you think?” And indeed Jesus often asked disconcertingly difficult-to-answer questions which left the crowds with lots to think about.

It helps to be thinking about the right things. Paul says, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8) Since my accident, I have had to change my viewing habits. I like dark documentaries and dramas. But for my mental and spiritual health I have to restrict my consumption of them, especially at night before bed, because otherwise negative thoughts and images dominate my dreams. I need time focusing on more uplifting and encouraging matters. We all need to look up from the grind of daily life at regular intervals and take in the vista and the bigger picture. And we need to use both our senses and our good sense to lay out what we should do next.

R” is for “Remember where you are.” The manual suggests using a map and a compass to figure out where you are, especially in relation to enemy units and enemy controlled areas, friendly units and areas they control, local water sources and places to conceal yourself. Spiritually, if you are in a crisis, you need to get your bearings. Consider whether you are in a place, either physically or psychologically, that is hostile to you and your continued spiritual health and growth. If you have a problem with, say, alcohol, bars and liquor stores are not where you should be. If you have problems with self-esteem or anger management or depression, you may need to stay away from places and people that are consistent sources of drama or trauma. A battered spouse, for instance, may need to find another place to live, somewhere that is friendly and controlled by those with her welfare in mind.

And look for places of refreshment and places where you can lie low for a while. Again, these can be mental spaces where you can relax and recuperate, aided by a book or music or an activity that revives you. Use centering prayer. Let God's Spirit guide you to the place where you need to be. Psalm 43 says, “Send forth your light and your truth, let them guide me; let them bring me to your holy mountain, to the place where you dwell.”

V” is for “Vanquish fear and panic.” The manual says that if fear and panic are uncontrolled, “they can destroy your ability to make an intelligent decision. They may cause you to react to your feelings and imagination rather than to your situation. These emotions can drain your energy...” Remember what we just read a few weeks ago in 2 Timothy 1:7, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear but of power and of love and of self-control.” Hold onto the fact that God is powerful, that he loves us and that he will help us keep control of ourselves. When you sense feelings of fear and anxiety come, say, “Not now.” Psalm 55:22 says, “Cast your cares on the Lord and he will sustain you.” I have asked God to take my anxiety upon himself so I can think clearly and act decisively. I cannot serve him or anyone else if I am plagued by worries that fog up my thinking and leave me too exhausted to do anything. In Philippians 4:6-7, Paul says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” The antidote to fear is faith—trust in God and in his promises.

I” is for “Improvise.” Stephen Colbert explains the secret to doing improv comedy is to say, “Yes! And....” In other words you must say “Yes” to whatever the premise or your improv partner says. If you are doing a Harlequin romance scene and your partner says, “Godzilla just rose from the sea," you can't reject that. You say, “Yes! And he's dancing the cha-cha!”

We need to accept whatever reality God has presented to us and then go with it, willing to improvise in the same spirit he has given us. And Jesus liked to flip the script. “When someone strikes you on the right cheek...” the expected response is to hit him back. But Jesus says, “...turn to him the other also.” (Matt 5:39) Jesus wants us to zig where others zag. For instance, there are way too many animals in shelters that do not get adopted. One Uber driver puts puppies in his back seat. His customers often fall in love with them during their ride and end up adopting them. That is a creative solution to a persistent problem. Then there is the woman who has designed coats that become sleeping bags for homeless people. And she hires homeless people to make them. Some companies are making edible packaging for food so that we don't make more waste when we eat. I really wish that Christians were more creative in doing good and show people that we don't have to follow the world's script. We can improvise good things rather than just fall into the rut of doing the same old thing over and over and not making the world better.

V” is for “Value life.” Odd how the most important things get forgotten in our busy and cluttered lives. We get distracted and while away the most basic gift from God, looking at screens and playing games and being spectators rather than actors in our lives. Jesus said, “I have come that they might have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) We may not be in danger of losing our physical life, as the manual clearly means, but we are in danger of losing a meaningful life. It is not just acute crises that threaten us spiritually. The slow and steady deadening of our response to life is a subtler threat to our spiritual vitality.

That's one reason that volunteering is so important. People who regularly volunteer, who dedicate their time and talents to something outside themselves, tend to experience less loneliness, have lower blood pressure, stay mentally sharp and live longer. But it only works if they are truly altruistic, doing it for others and not for themselves. Jesus was right again; it is more blessed to give than to receive. (Acts 20:35)

A” is for “Act like the natives.” The manual means if you are in an unfamiliar land, watch what people eat and drink and even the animals. (Although animals, especially birds, sometimes eat things that are toxic to humans.) If the natives are friendly, show interest in them and respect them and you will learn how to live in that environment.

How does this apply to us spiritually? Well, you can read and study the field notes and meditations and lives of those in the Bible, of course. But you can't directly ask questions of them. So befriend and observe those who seem the most at home in the kingdom of God. When you encounter someone who really seems in sync with Jesus and his Spirit, get to know them and how they deal with life's problems. Adopt what they do and adapt it to your own circumstances.

Jesus drew his parables and teachings from the people and plants and animals and occupations around him. I have learned important spiritual lessons from the elderly, from the sick, from children and even from jail inmates. I learn from their different experiences and diverse perspectives, just as I have a different view of healthcare from being a patient for several months rather than a nurse. I see helpful parallels between spiritual and physical health, which I am addressing in my book.

L” is for “Live by your wits, but for now, Learn basic skills.” The ability to improvise is important but before you do that you need to learn the basics. Even improv actors learn the basics of acting. They don't go on stage unprepared. The basics provide the foundation which your contributions build on.

One real danger is called the Dunning-Kruger effect, named for two psychologists. Basically, it describes how people who don't know much about something overestimate how much they know. In other words, people are ignorant of exactly how ignorant they are. “How hard can it be?” says the overconfident but incompetent person. And that can be fatal in a survival situation. You need to learn the basics of survival at least.

In the same way Christians who don't know the basics are spiritually dangerous to themselves and to others. They mindlessly mouth platitudes to sufferers when they should be quiet and listen. They assure newly born-again Christians of things that aren't actually in the Bible, like “God won't give you more than you can handle.” And if they believe that themselves, when a major disaster totally upends their life, they will be bewildered as to why they are suffering so much.

Doctors, nurses, clergy and most professions require continuing education. So should Christians. We need to learn more about the Bible, about theology, about church history and about current events. And we must always be learning more about Jesus, not just by reading but by following him as well. We need to learn to trust him. We need to learn to love one another as he loves us. We need to learn how to be the body of Christ on earth.

In our New Testament reading, Paul says, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim 3:16, 17) Usually I would preach on this verse but today I wanted to look at what many people have testified to for millennia: that at times when they were at their wits' end, they found the Bible and in it, found how not only to survive but also to thrive. That's the reason why this 3000 year old Middle Eastern anthology has itself survived this long when many other ancient tomes have not, or are only of interest to scholars. That's the reason why as of 2016, the Bible has been translated into 554 languages and portions of it into 2,932 languages. That is the reason we are talking about it today. This book changes lives. Because the written word of God introduces us to the living Word of God, Jesus, who is the way, the truth and the life and who gives life in all its abundance.   

Sunday, October 9, 2016


One of the things we are trying to teach our granddaughter is that actions have consequences. Some of those consequences are merely physical laws, like gravity, which she likes to defy by climbing on bookcases and standing on chairs. Some relate to biology, so her parents love that she likes fruit but she needs to learn that her body needs proteins as well. And the toughest subject seems to be social relations, like learning that if you hit another kid or yank toys away from them they will not take kindly to those things. I have even told her that such aggressive behavior, when she becomes a bit older, has legal consequences. Sadly there are adults who have not learned these things. We hear of adults who die from activities, like base jumping, that are inherently risky and a lot less forgiving than other sports. We know adults would won't eat anything green or unprocessed, which has health consequences. We know adults who look out only for themselves, who are nor merely selfish but greedy, ruthless and insulting and then wonder why people have a problem with them.

There are spiritual consequences to certain actions and a lot of people don't realize that. They do things that are unethical but not technically illegal and they don't seem to understand that these things harm who they are. And that's what spiritual consequences are all about. They are about things that shape you and your character, for good or for ill. Some people think religion is about being good so God won't put you on the naughty list and punish you. But God is more like a lifeguard than a cop. He is not so much interested in keeping track of your bad actions as trying to keep everyone from harming themselves or others through careless or deliberately harmful actions. He will rescue you, too, even when it was your own fault that you got in over your head and nearly drowned. Actions have consequences and if everyone behaves, everyone will have a good time.

In today's passage from 2 Timothy (2: 8-15) Paul gets rhapsodic about spiritual consequences. In fact most commentators think Paul is quoting an early Christian hymn in verses 11-13. It seems a little out of place at first but Paul is following through on what he said in verse 10: “ that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory.” Paul is thinking about long term consequences and that reminds him of this hymn.

If we have died with him, we will also live with him.” Now some may see this as Paul talking about martyrdom but he uses the past tense: “...we have died...” This is something that his readers have undergone: baptism.

A Facebook friend, Gwen Powell, who has graduated from a Lutheran Seminary recently, had a baby. And she put on her blog ( the first of a series of letters to her daughter on the day she was baptized. And part of it says that it is appropriate when babies cry at their baptism because it is after all the day of their death. “This baptism that we have so casually signed you up for is your death, the big one, the one in which we, your mom and dad and grandparents and godparents, say on your behalf that we promise you will die, have died, and are dying to the old world, the old way of things. Not just your old self, but to all the old things. The old world that you were born into, full of old sorrow and old despair and old hopelessness and helplessness and decay and chaos.”

Now this may sound heavy, especially at the baptism of a baby, but Gwen is calling upon the language of Paul himself. In Romans 6 Paul says, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Rom 6:3-5) And in verse 8, Paul writes what is almost the first line of this hymn: “Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.”

The cross and the empty tomb are at the center of Christianity. If Jesus hadn't died and risen again, he would be just one more Jewish sage and Messiah wannabe. Jesus died for our sins and rose to give us new life. And the way we appropriate that is to declare our allegiance to and trust in Christ and be baptized in his name. And while the symbolism of being buried into his death and resurrected might be hard to see in the way we baptize people, in the first century Christians were immersed in a river. You would go under the water and come back up, sputtering and catching your breath. Your sins were crucified with Christ and the old you was buried with him. You were now a new creation in Christ.

So Paul is saying if you want to live with Christ, you first must let the old you die and identify with Christ by being baptized. The consequences of giving up the old destructive ways is a new life. Eternal life is not just living longer; it is living infinitely better.

If we endure, we will also reign with him.” In Jesus' parable of the sower and the seeds, he speaks of the seed that falls on rocky ground. The soil is not very deep so it springs up fast but then it withers in the sun. Jesus says, “The seed sown on rocky ground is the person who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy. But he has no root in himself and does not endure; when trouble or persecution comes because of the word, immediately he falls away.” (Matt 13:20-21) Endurance is a virtue we seldom hear about in church anymore. But you hear it in sports because the way you get better at something is to persist in doing it. To master any skill requires about 10,000 hours of practice and a refusal to give up.

Perseverance in spiritual matters also pays off. Jesus makes it a requirement of being his disciple. “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Daily! Nor was that hyperbole. Jesus knew that his followers would be persecuted. “But the person who endures to the end will be saved,” he says in Matthew 24:13.

Why is persistence important? For one thing it is a sign of commitment. I took violin lessons when I was a child but after two years, I decided the catgut sounded better back in the cat and quit. I was not as committed as, say, Wayne or Holly, who have become accomplished musicians. Persistence is important because it reveals the importance you put on a task or achievement. People make a lot of resolutions in life. The ones they stick to reveal their true priorities.

And perseverance is important to making things actually happen. Jesus stresses persistence in prayer. But if God loves us, why should we have to ask him for something over and over? A good parent knows why. Kids ask for a lot of things. Their bedrooms are littered with the relics of enthusiasms that evaporated. A wise parent holds out to see if the child still wants the item a month or two later. For expensive items you might want to hold out for the better part of a year. (Because, for instance, I'm not sure what the resale value is on a pony!)

In the same way, God wants to be sure we are serious about what we ask for. St. Augustine, a bit of a womanizer, famously asked God for chastity...but not right now! Obviously, Augustine was not really ready to commit to conforming his life to Christ. And what this line in this early Christian hymn is saying is that if we are serious about following Jesus, the result of our endurance will be that we will reign with Christ.

We were created to reign over the earth as God's co-regents. We blew that. But just as God intends to restore earth to its status as paradise once more and us to being clearly created in the image of God, so he intends to restore our royal status. Exactly what we will be doing in that role is not spelled out but it could be analogous to what we try to do now—govern people, protect the environment, prevent the extinction of animals, innovate and create—but accomplished without rancor and partisanship and greed and the pursuit of power for personal reasons. If we reign with Christ, it makes sense that we will reign as Christ does—with love and mercy and understanding.

If we deny him, he will also deny us.” This is the first line that shows the negative consequences of negative actions. And like the rest it is based on what Jesus said. In Matthew 10:32-33, he says, “Whoever, then, acknowledges me before people, I will acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever denies me before people, I will deny him also before my Father in heaven.” Jesus is not talking about the many ways we let him down by sinning; the Greek word translated “deny” means “disavow” and “reject.” Jesus is talking about those who renounce him as their Lord and Savior. If they want nothing to do with him, then he will have nothing to do with them. In the early days of the church, the temptation was to deny Christ to save yourself from torture and death. Today we are so soft that people deny their Christianity simply because of ridicule, because some clique or class of people they want to be part of has no use for Christianity or even religion in general.

Rarely does someone leave the faith for purely intellectual reasons. They do it because because it is cool, or it is smart, or it is popular, or because they can do certain things without guilt. Or because of anger at God or the church. I remember watching outspoken atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair on a local talk show. She said she had read the entire Bible when she was 11 and had dismissed it as illogical and contradictory. The TV host then took questions from the audience. A priest in his clerical collar stood up and the host held the microphone to him. The priest barely got out a word before Madalyn unleashed a stream of vitriolic abuse upon him and organized religion. She went on so long the priest told the host he would sit down so someone else would get a chance to ask a question. And I thought, “Yeah, Madalyn, that really sounds like your beef with Christianity is purely rational!” Later when I read the memoir of her surviving son, a Christian, I learned that Madalyn was an unwanted child who grew up to be a bitter and angry person, who had trouble holding jobs because of her abrasive personality. I wonder if her life would have turned out better if someone had actually shown her Christlike love.

Jesus does not say his denial of a person cannot be changed if the person takes back his own denial of Christ. Peter denied knowing Jesus 3 times while his Lord was on trial. After his resurrection, John's gospel records how Jesus asks Peter 3 times if he loves him. Peter answers each time that he does. And Jesus tells him 3 times to feed his sheep. Peter goes on to be one of the most prominent of the apostles, who suffered martyrdom. So even denying Christ can be forgiven if we repent.

If we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself.” Out and out denial of Jesus leads to Jesus denying that person but being faithless doesn't. Why is that? Being faithful is about keeping promises. We may not keep our promises to God—like when we say, “let me get through this and I promise I will go to church every Sunday and give up porn and liquor”—but God still keeps his promises to us. And that is amazing! And comforting.

Our salvation, for instance, does not depend on how good we are at living the Christian life. We don't get into heaven by scoring so many Brownie points with God. We are saved by God's grace through trust in him and his promises. We can't earn it. It is a free gift God promises to all who simply receive it. Which is why you may be shocked to find in heaven such people as David Berkowitz, the infamous Son of Sam shooter, and Jeffrey Dahmer, the cannibalistic serial killer. Both of them came to Christ in prison. If they were sincere, God in his grace has saved them, just as he saved the thief crucified next to Jesus. We are no more deserving than they.

Our faith rests on the fact that God remains trustworthy even when we prove not to be.

While Paul remembered this hymn, he was a prisoner of Rome. He speaks of “being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained.” And that had to give him hope. Not that he would avoid martyrdom but that the gospel, the good news of what God has done and is doing through Jesus Christ, was free and spreading through the same empire that would take his life. The world thinks that by killing the messenger, you can kill the message. Because of Jesus, Paul knew that wasn't true.

So it would be ironic if the gospel in America gets smothered not by lethal opposition but by apathy. By ennui. By complacency. By a hesitancy to speak up because we fear the social consequences of declaring ourselves to be followers of Jesus. Christianity spread because the early Christians not only believed the gospel but let that belief express itself in their actions. For instance, when plague hit the cities of the empire and the rich fled, Christians stayed and took care of the sick, even at grave risk to their lives. Though they were a persecuted minority, the pagans sat up and took notice. Christians didn't just preach the gospel; they lived it.

Today the second largest faith group in the US is those who claim no religious affiliation at 23% of the population. Evangelicals come in at number 1 with 25.4% of Americans. Third is Roman Catholics at 21%. 14.7% of Americans are mainline Protestants. Now, adding in Black Protestants (6.7%) it turns out more than 67% of those in the country say they are Christian. And yet we know that many citizens do not seem to know what real Christian values are. We see, instead of love for our neighbor and for the alien, hatred. We see, instead of compassion for refugees fleeing ISIS, suspicion. We see, instead of empathy for the underdog, contempt. And young people who grew up in church, see these attitudes and know they are not Christlike and they leave. If that's Christianity, they don't need it in their lives. And polls say they are not coming back!

What we think, do and say has consequences. If we have died with Christ, we will live with him. If we endure pain and wrong as he did, we will reign with him. If we renounce him, he will renounce us. And yet if we are faithless, he remains faithful. But that doesn't mean we can cruise along, living as we like. (Romans 6:1) Paul says works don't save us but God made us to do good works. And those works we build our life on will be tested by fire. If they are not approved by God they will be burned down. We may survive the fire but everything we have built up in our life will not and will have been for naught. (1 Corinthians 3:13) We will have nothing to show for all that God has entrusted to us.

The spiritual consequences of what we do and do not do show up in us, in who are and who we become. If we want to be like Jesus, we need to build on his words and deeds. Because that is what our goal is: to be like him. What Jesus wants us to deny is our right to live as we want. When we give our life to Christ, we don't get it back. We get something better: his life; a life that is eternal, a life that is pure, a life that is love.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Who Do You Trust?

TV and movies both influence our culture as well as mirror it. Apparently mafiosi did not dress or act like the characters in The Godfather before the release of that film. The same can be said for investment bankers, who did not slick back their hair or wear ostentatiously expensive suits before the release of Oliver Stone's Wall Street. But sometimes films merely show us what we are already concerned with. The original The Day the Earth Stood Still is a pretty transparent parable about our fears in the 1950s that we would destroy ourselves with nuclear war, just as the remake is clearly about us destroying the environment. So whether they are reflecting public attitudes or influencing them, it is disturbing that some of the most pernicious ideas about faith can be found in films and TV.

One such idea is that faith is simply some kind of optimism. “Just have faith,” characters say in a tense situation, as if reality has the same bias towards happy endings that Hollywood does. They ignore the fact that you need something or someone to put your faith in. The logical question is how trustworthy is the thing or person in which you have faith. The often filmed story of the Titanic is a cautionary tale about putting all your faith in any over-hyped product of human ingenuity, as well as believing any company that would declare a ship “unsinkable,” as the Vice President of the White Star Line said on the very day the Titanic sank.

Another destructive idea about faith, and especially religious faith, is that it is simply believing in certain ideas which are absurd and/or untrue. It confounds faith with superstition or a belief in magic, so that it therefore becomes the opposite of logic or reason. In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Who Watches the Watchers? a group of Federation observers are seen by a primitive species, who take the advanced humans to be gods. Picard is upset and doesn't want to send this race which had previously abandoned belief in the supernatural back to “the dark ages of superstition and ignorance and fear.” Similarly the crew of Stargate SG-1 spends a lot of time convincing primitive people that their gods are fake. Usually they are merely very advanced aliens. But the point is that faith is for the unsophisicated and for children.

Another insidious idea is that somehow fantastic beings need faith in order to continue to exist. We see it in the play Peter Pan, where the children in the audience are asked to clap if they believe in fairies and somehow that show of belief cures Tinkerbell of poisoning. We see it in Elf where Santa's sleigh is powered by children's belief in him. Today he uses a modern engine to help because belief in him has been decreasing. We see it in the original Star Trek episode Who Mourns for Adonais, where a cosmic being claiming to be the Greek God Apollo says all the other gods have faded away because people have stopped worshiping them. When he fails to get the Enterprise crew to worship him, he concludes that humanity has outgrown him and he chooses to fade away. This idea may go back to Plutarch, the Greek philosopher, who told of how the god Pan died when people just thought he was a made up story.

Certainly the influence of religions fade as people cease to believe in them. That was a good thing when, say, people ceased worshiping Moloch to whom they sacrificed infants! The prophets warned the people about precisely that. Abandoning Yahweh, the God of justice and mercy, of faithfulness and steadfast love, would lead to the self-destructive moral decline of the nations of Israel and Judah. Not worshiping God did not hurt him but hurt those who left him to worship gods who demanded human sacrifice and fertility gods who encouraged sexual license that undermines stable relationships. People tend to end up resembling what they worship. You see it today where people essentially worship money or politics or sex or science or other human constructs. These things are not bad but they are powerful and can be misused or abused, especially if they are elevated to a position that puts them above everything else, like God.

In the Bible faith is not so much believing in the existence of God as trusting him. As James writes (2:19) “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” As James emphasizes that kind of faith—merely that God exists—is as good as dead if not acted on. A medical analogy would be how people know that vaccines exist but when they do not trust them, they don't take advantage of them and so this nation has had an increase in certain childhood diseases that were previously not doing much damage to kids.

In the same way, Mark (6:1-6) tells us that Jesus could not do any miracles in his hometown, because he grew up there and they just couldn't believe that anyone they knew as a snot-nosed kid could be the Messiah. Jesus was able to heal a few sick people because they trusted him. But any doctor will tell you they can't do much for patients who do not trust them and will not comply with their treatment.

Trust underlies all relationships, from family and friends to our business dealings. You can't do much with people you don't trust. And faith is a 2-way street. If I need my car fixed, not only do I have to trust that the mechanic will do it but he has to trust that I will pay him the agreed price. If he doesn't actually fix it I will not go do business with him again. If I don't pay him, he won't work on this car or any other car I bring him in the future. If either of us betrays the trust of the other, the relationship will suffer, if not be completely severed.

Marriage requires a lot of trust between the parties involved, and so it is often used in the Bible as a metaphor for the relationship between God and his people. In fact, the Bible can be seen as the story of a loving God who is betrayed by the people he created but who nevertheless works to win them back. He gives them a land, frees them when they become slaves, and brings them out of exile when they are conquered and deported. He gives them a law that guides them to a life that is simultaneously good in the moral sense and good in the sense of being satisfying. But again and again they are unfaithful to the God who in his love shows his steadfast faithfulness to them. They turn against him and they turn against each other. So finally he sends us his son.

In Jesus God becomes one of us. Being the embodiment of divine love, Jesus shows us what God is really like. Being human, he also shows us what we can be, if we simply let God's Spirit work in us. It is through Jesus that we can become the persons God created us to be.

We can trust God because of Jesus. When I was in the nursing home recovering from my accident, I was fortunate to have a lot of good nurses. But one of my favorites was Emily, not just because she was conscientious and sweet but because she knew what I was going through in a way no one else did. When Emily was 16, she was also in a car accident. But in her case, a drunk driver hit her car and her friend, a passenger with her, was killed. Emily had to be revived several times on the way to the hospital and in the ER. She awoke in ICU, terrified. Luckily one of the nurses there sat down and explained what had happened, why she had so many tubes and IVs and machines plugged into her and why her hands were restrained (so she wouldn't pull any of those life-sustaining tubes out). And eventually Emily would have to learn to walk again and deal with the pain and exhaustion that goes with it. Emily knew what I was going through, because she had gone through it herself. And because of Jesus, God knows firsthand how difficult and painful human life can be. Just as I could discuss my aches and pains and concerns with Emily and know that she knew what it was like, it is comforting to know that we can go to Jesus with our problems and know that he has been there and dealt with that.

Jesus dealt with family problems: his brothers mocked him and thought he was crazy. Jesus dealt with the problem of being misunderstood by both enemies and even his followers. Jesus dealt with the problem of being opposed for doing the right thing. Jesus dealt with being exhausted by the demands people put on him. Jesus dealt with missing meals because he was so busy. Jesus dealt with being thirsty. Jesus dealt with being betrayed by a friend—friends if you include Peter denying him. Jesus dealt with being abandoned by others when he needed them the most. Jesus dealt with the feeling that God had abandoned him. Jesus dealt with unbearable pain. Jesus dealt with dying. Because of all the things that he underwent, we can trust him—especially when you consider the fact that he did them out of love for us.

We can trust Jesus because he said he will never leave us or forsake us. It's bad enough to go through pain and suffering; it is terrible to go through them alone. I like to think Jesus made this promise because at the worst time in his life, he did have to face it alone and he doesn't want that for us. So Jesus is with us whatever happens. And this again shows God's nature. When God tells Moses his name is “I am,” the Hebrew could also be translated “I will be” and even “I will be there.” God is there for us when we need him. And because of that we can trust him.

But it is not enough to trust God passively, merely for what he has done for us. We need to trust him actively. We need to trust him enough to do what he says.

As a nurse I have had many patients who trusted a surgeon enough to let themselves be knocked out, rendered helpless and then cut open. They will trust a doctor to remove cancerous or diseased tissue and even to replace broken hips and knees with one's made of metal and other materials. But I was surprised that they would not then obey the doctor's orders. They would not change their lifestyle so as to avoid the same health problems or do their physical therapy so they could walk again.

We meet Christians like that. They love to hear about God's grace and forgiveness. They love to hear what Jesus did for them on the cross. And they believe those things. But they don't trust God enough to take the next logical step: do what he says. They don't trust him enough to follow doctor's orders. They don't trust God enough to turn the other cheek, to love their neighbor, let alone attempt to love their enemy. Just like the people with new hips and knees who nevertheless preferred the comfort of their wheelchairs over the pain of trying to stand and walk, even when supported by therapists, a lot of Christians don't want to leave the comfort zone of the church and actually go out into the world and try loving others and sharing the good news with them, despite the fact that God will be with them and his Spirit will support them. I used to wonder why those patients bothered to have their hips or knees replaced if they weren't going to use them. And I wonder why people let God into their life if they aren't going to live the life he makes possible for them.

I know what it's like to fear the pain of standing on broken legs and trying to walk. But I don't want to be bed-bound or wheelchair bound. (Or cane-bound; I stop using one today.) And I know what it's like to fear the ridicule of people who think I am naive to still believe in God in this day and age. I mean, I'm a nurse. I know science. I've never seen city walls just fall down or water change into wine or somebody walk on water. But I have seen the walls people build around themselves to protect themselves and keep others out crumble and fall to let God in. I have seen people change into new creatures in Christ with a new purpose in life and a new love for others. I have seen people somehow manage to stay on top of a situation that should have swallowed them whole because they trusted in God and stepped out in that faith. I have never seen a lame man suddenly leap up and dance but I have felt the power of God heal me and help me get back on my feet a lot faster than even doctors and therapists believed it would happen.

It doesn't all happen at once. And that's why, when his disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith, he tells them that you can start with just a tiny bit of faith, the size of a mustard seed, and do more than you thought it could. Elsewhere (Matt. 13:31-32) Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed. It's tiny, roughly the size of one of those poppy seeds you get on a bagel, and yet it can grow into a plant ten feet tall, four feet taller than me. The point is that a little can do a lot. Faith may start small but if you let it, it can in time grow to be a lot bigger and more powerful than you thought possible.

I started out with some defective portrayals of faith in pop culture and I want to end with one that is just about perfect. And its source is Stephen King. A lot of people don't know that he calls himself a Christian, has taught Sunday School and frequently puts Christian symbolism into his stories. And one of his short stories is called The Last Rung of the Ladder. In it a man recalls the time he and his sister were kids, playing in the family's barn. They took turns climbing this very tall ladder to a beam running the length of the barn, walking the beam and jumping into this enormous haystack. But the old ladder breaks and his sister is left hanging from the top rung. Her brother desperately starts grabbing armfuls of hay and starts piling them directly under her. And just when she can't hold on any longer, he tells her to let go. The pile of hay does break her fall and saves her life. And he is surprised when she tells him she hadn't looked down before letting go. She didn't know about the pile of hay. She just trusted her loving brother to save her.

God loves us. Because of Jesus, we know what he is really like. Because of what he has done for us in Jesus, we know we can trust him. We just need to do so. We need to let go of our fear, of our embarrassment, of the things we worship in place of God, and trust him. We need to take the steps we are afraid to take—to feed the hungry, clothe the threadbare, care for the sick, visit those in prison, welcome the alien, go the second mile, turn the other cheek, love the unlovable and forgive the unforgivable. The reason the church hasn't changed the world more is that we play it safe. We don't do anymore than we have to. We cling to tradition and the way we have always done things in the past. We need to let go and trust that beneath us are the everlasting arms, the arms of our loving heavenly Father. He is there for us and he's not going away. Do not be afraid; have faith in the God who is love.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

What Makes the World Go Round

Those stick figure families on the rear window of your car or van are no longer novel. So people are getting creative with them. There are versions where a fleeing family is being attacked by a T-Rex or a guy with a hockey mask and chain saw or the starships of the evil empire from Star Wars. There are versions where the Mom or Dad figure is missing and an arrow points this out with the words “Position open.” There is one that purports to be from Utah that shows 1 daddy and multiple wives each with several stick figure kids. There is one with a daddy, a mommy and about a dozen kids. Over this, hand written on the dirty window is “OMG, get off her!” Because I primarily see these funny ones on the Internet, there is a possibility that they are photoshopped. But my daughter posted one this week that she saw in real life. It shows a stick figure man and next to him isn't a woman or a man or kids or even a dog but a large bag of money. It's meant to be funny, but I think it's sad.

Today's New Testament lesson contains perhaps the most misquoted verse in the Bible. Rather than saying that “money is the root of all evil” the verse is properly translated as “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils...” Part of the problem is the King James version added the definite article “the” which the Greek lacks and neglected the fact that the word “evil” is a plural. But almost all modern translations have corrected this. Unfortunately people also forget that it is the love of money that is being condemned, not money itself. Money and wealth are powerful and as we've said before, they need to be treated as one would fire. Put to their proper use they can do a lot of good. Put to evil purposes, they can do a lot of damage. ISIS funds itself by seizing the money and assets of the territories it invades. It also imposes taxes on those it conquers and turns oppressed minorities into slaves whom it sells. Most terrorist organizations operate like criminal enterprises. Few people know that Frank and Jesse James began as members of the pro-Confederate terrorist group, Quantrill's Raiders, during the Civil War and after the war, they just kept robbing trains and banks as a way of making money.

Part of the danger of money is that it is fungible. Unlike, say, a movie ticket, which is only good for a specific film at a specific time, money can be used for any purpose. So we get angry when money raised for a charitable purpose like disaster relief instead mostly goes to enrich those who run the charity. But aside from careful accounting and transparency, it is difficult to make sure money set aside or given for a particular reason will actually be used for that purpose.

Another problem with money is that it made in ways both ethical and unethical. Usually a business makes money by offering a product or service people want at a price they are willing to pay. But as we've seen there are many other ways that businesses can make money. They can promise a good quality product or service but deliver something inferior, saving themselves money on parts or labor. They can inflate the price as they have done with certain drugs; they can sell additional services that are overvalued or unnecessary, like undercoating; they can set up a payment plan with an interest rate that insures you pay many times the actual cost of the product. 

They can also produce things that are toxic or dangerous to either consumers or to those who work in manufacturing them, rather than pay for materials or methods that are safer. Remember old-time watches with glow in the dark hands and numbers? The women who painted them with radium died slowly and horribly of radiation poisoning, which the companies then covered up. Right now one of the world's chief manufacturers of airbags may go into bankruptcy because their product was apt to explode with such force it also propelled metallic pieces of the mechanism, killing several people. Sometimes a product is dangerous by accident but too often companies are loathe to admit it and opt to cover it up to protect their investment and profits, rather than protect their customers.

Again the money itself is morally neutral; it is people's love of it and some of the ways they try to get it or use it that are evil. God is not against people being rich, provided the person achieves it through ethical means and is generous to the less fortunate. Several of the Old Testament patriarchs were wealthy. And our passage from 1 Timothy has an awful lot to say about how the rich ought to think and act.

Paul starts by linking godliness with contentment. Greed and an envy of others are not compatible with being Christlike. If we have the basics, like food, clothing and shelter, we need to be grateful instead. If we have more than we need, we should share with those who lack even the necessities of life.

But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.” If all you are aiming for is to be wealthy, you can do so by stealing or by conning or cheating people or by intimidating them. On NPR one former drug dealer said he actually came from a family of successful people. He wanted to be one too and drugs seemed to be a fast and easy way to do as well or better than his relatives and siblings. Of course, the price paid is the destruction of the lives in his community as well as the danger to himself in turf wars.

Paul says that in pursuit of riches people have “pierced themselves with many pains.” And indeed one way to get rich is to do things that are ultimately self-destructive. In the Netflix documentary Hot Girls Wanted the filmmakers follow a group of young women who come to Miami to get into porn. One of the reasons that South Florida has become a Mecca for this kind of thing is that California law demands that condoms be used for the safety of the “actors.” Our state has no such requirement. And the riskier or kinkier the sex, the more money you make. At first the girls love the money and the attention of fans. They are mostly small town girls right out of high school who become celebrities in the porn world. And they are making hundreds of dollars a day simply by having sex. 

But it starts to take a toll on them. There is the constant testing for STDs like HIV. There is the wear and tear on the body. It is harmful not only physically but psychologically. One girl finds a boyfriend who says he understands her choice but has an increasingly hard time dealing with the nature of her work. There is also the problem of breaking it to the family. In the age of the internet family usually finds out. The girls also start to experience the inherent misogyny in the business. They begin to realize that they are just fresh meat in a highly competitive business. Most of these young women are out of porn in 3 months, only to be replaced by naive newcomers. As Jesus said, what does it profit a person to gain the whole world at the price of one's soul? How can you buy back what you've lost?

But as we've said, while the Bible sees acquiring wealth as a spiritually risky venture, those who have riches can protect themselves from its deleterious effects. “As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty...” Arrogance is a huge temptation when you have a lot of money. You tend to forget how fortunate you are. For every person who is financially successful, there are thousands who don't make it. Even if you inherit your wealth, just one bad deal, just one terrible investment, just one product failure, just one market downturn and you can suffer a major reversal of fortune. I am always surprised that more successful people don't acknowledge the role of chance in their rise to riches. Oddly enough, most movie stars do, knowing that they were lucky to get cast in a certain great role, sometimes simply because some other star dropped out. Humphrey Bogart, for instance, owed many of his iconic roles to George Raft, who turned down the leads in The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. But few other millionaires will admit that they were just lucky. They cling to the myth that they were entirely self-made and just smarter or harder working that ordinary mortals.

Arrogance, the self-assurance that one doesn't need the help or advice of others, is the chief of the so-called seven deadly sins because such people are reluctant to acknowledge their dependence on God as well. It is, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, the complete anti-God state of mind. And because wealth gives you more power over your life and the life of others, it can lull the rich into thinking they are totally in control of what happens to them. Paul warns such people not “to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” Humility and gratitude for his gifts are more appropriate than thinking we are the masters of our fate.

They are to do good, to be rich in good works...” Wealth is power and used rightly it can do a lot of good. Bill and Melinda Gates are using their $44 billion foundation to increase healthcare and reduce extreme poverty in the world, among other things. The largest faith-based charity is Lutheran Services in America with an annual operating revenue of $21 billion. It serves 6 million people, about 1 in 50 Americans, especially low income children, youth, seniors, those with disabilities, the homeless, veterans and refugees. 

So one thing a person with excess wealth can do is use it to help others. In fact, the rich man in today's gospel (Luke 16:19-31) is suffering because he couldn't even be bothered to help the poor man who lay at his gate. Seriously, if you had a poor starving guy, who had sores that the dogs licked, right at your door—I mean, you practically have to step over the guy when you go in or out of your house—and you didn't even give him your leftovers, much less have someone tend to his wounds, could you blame God for being angry with you? The man is in Hades, not because he is rich but because he is an uncaring jerk. The least he could have done would have meant a world to poor, hungry, sick Lazarus.

So Paul says the well-off should be “generous, ready to share...” We are having problems right now getting our granddaughter to share with other kids. But she's 2 and an only child. Less forgivable is an adult who makes more money in an hour than most people do in a year and yet who can't share his wealth with others through a charity. I mean there are tons of them out there and many are quite specific in what they do. So you can make sure you are supporting education, or housing, or food for the hungry, or support for veterans, or disaster relief, or help for the mentally ill, or fulfilling the wishes of dying children, or cancer research, or healthcare in general. You can provide help across the globe or here in the US or in your local community. And there are websites that will tell you how much a prospective charity actually spends on helping people. So there is no excuse not to give.

Paul says, when people do this, they are “...storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future...” Successful people are often driven by a vision of the future, although it's usually a future they create. But this is a future God is creating. And it is about things that will last, unlike wealth which is ephemeral. We brought nothing into this world, Paul says, and we can't take anything out of it. When the things of this world go away, what's left is eternal. One of the bittersweet lessons of this life is that we can't really hold onto anything. And I'm not just talking about money or possessions. I understand how young mothers, like my daughter-in-law, want their newborns to stay little forever. But babies grow into toddlers, toddlers into children, children into teenagers and teenagers into adults. We change and grow older. We gain mastery in certain areas of life and then gradually lose them. The mantra of our culture is don't live in the past; live in the present. But the present becomes the past with each second. And if you are just thinking about this life, you have to acknowledge that it will end.

By using the present to serve God by serving our fellow human beings, we are laying a good foundation for the future. And what is that future? To “take hold of the life that really is life.” Too often wealth gives one ways to avoid really living life. If you have enough stuff, you can distract yourself from everyday life. You can bypass some of the hard work and unpleasantness of life but you can also miss out on wonderful moments. You can't stop and smell the roses when you are running from meeting to meeting or working late into the night because markets on the other side of the globe are open.

It can also make you jaded toward simple pleasures. Why go for a walk through the woods when you can experience the exhilaration of speeding around in a really powerful car? Why read to your child when you can simply install an entertainment center in their bedroom that will give you more time to pursue your own interests? Riches can remove you from real life. When you are on your deathbed you are not going to regret not working harder, nor are you going to wish you had played more hours of golf or video games. You may regret not being there for someone when they needed you, however unpleasant that may have been at the time. You may regret missing certain special moments with loved ones, because of busyness or self-indulgence. What you will regret are missed opportunities to love. The best parts of life are steeped in it—the love of others and the love of doing something meaningful, that is, something that will have a positive impact on others.

Fortunes come and fortunes go. The true treasure is everlasting. It is being included, enfolded in the eternal life shared by our heavenly Father, Jesus, his Son our savior, and the Holy Spirit of love that unites them as one. It is becoming part of the divine life of our beneficent God, “who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” God doesn't want to take all your toys away from you; he wants you to share them with others. When you truly love someone, you say, “What is mine is yours.” God says that to us everyday when we open our eyes and once again enjoy life, love, nature, our bodies, our families, our friends, our talents and all the other gifts he so graciously showers upon us.

In a few minutes we will enter into the mystery of God's greatest gift—his loving presence made real in his son our Lord Jesus Christ, in whose body and blood we will partake. When our hoarding and fighting over and misusing God's gifts poisoned our lives, Jesus said, “What is mine is yours” and gave us his life. Every week we, the Body of Christ, share the Body of Christ. We come forward with empty hands to receive what he so freely gives. But I like to think that we are actually offering him our poor, empty lives and receiving his rich, full life in exchange. It's a poor bargain on his part, as the world reckons things, but that is because you cannot measure or monetize love. You can however receive it and return it and you can still pass it on. Because there is no limit to God's love. You cannot corner the market on it because its source is endless. Nor can it be contained. It overflows all vessels as it overflowed even the life of Jesus, the fountain of living, refreshing, life-restoring water. So let's stop trying to hoard it. Let's be extravagant with it. Let's pour it out on everyone we meet, baptizing them, soaking them with God's love. Because it springs from a well that will never run dry. 

Sunday, September 18, 2016

How to Choose a Leader

In any group of people, certain folks arise as leaders. If you need to get a task done together, it helps to have someone organizing it and if not telling people what to do, then at least asking or suggesting what needs to be done. In the early days of humankind, it often fell to the alpha male of the group to protect the family or clan from other groups. When we were in Ireland, my family toured a reconstructed ring fort that went back a good 1000 years. There was a little hole in the ground that the kids found they could crawl into and they asked about it. It turns out that was a hiding place for women and children in case the neighboring tribe attacked and tried to take them for slaves. Hence the popularity of the strongman ruler. The first leaders were basically military leaders, selected for their fighting prowess and strategic ability.

But life is not just dealing with conflicts outside the group. A leader has to deal with internal conflicts as well. He could just favor close family members and friends, or, in the interest of peace, try to set up rules and decide disputes on their basis. In fact, when times were good, a wise and diplomatic ruler made more sense than one who was simply a fighter. Some Native American tribes actually split the position into a war chief and a peace chief. In most governments, we want a ruler who is both good with domestic issues and with foreign affairs. 

Until just a couple of centuries ago, most rulers were kings. But after World War 1, a lot of countries got rid of their royalty or severely limited their power. We now think of elected leaders as the norm. So we live in a quite different world than that of the people in the Bible. We can feel that our leader is ours in a way that they couldn't: we vote for them. Even if we personally didn't, the majority of our countrymen did. But nobody voted for the Roman Emperor. It was a dynastic position. He served until he died. Or, in the later part of Roman history, until he was deposed or assassinated.

One of the other things ancient leaders like kings and emperors did was serve as a spiritual focus for the people. In Biblical times, the tribal leader would make sacrifices to God for his people. However, the emperors of Rome and the pharaohs of Egypt were treated as living gods. Obviously, the Jewish people, unlike pagan subjects of the empire, could not make a sacrifice to Caesar as a god. But they could make sacrifices in the Temple to God dedicated to the emperor and pray for him. And it seems from passages like 1 Timothy 2:1-2, that early Christians continued the practice of praying for the emperor and the appointed leaders. And each week our church also prays for our leaders.

That may bother people. They may think it is a violation of church and state to do so. Or they may not want to pray for a leader they voted against. But as we said, in the Bible no one got to vote for the king or emperor. But still they prayed for political leaders.

What we can do that earlier peoples couldn't is select who our leaders are. But because the requirements of government are a lot more complex than before, we need to use wisdom. And part of wisdom is knowing what the job requires.

When the Hebrews settled in the land of Canaan, they functioned as a rather loose federation of 12 tribes. When they were attacked they rallied together under leaders they called judges. But that meant they didn't have much unity except when under assault. So the elders of Israel approached Samuel, the judge, and said to him, “Look, you are old, and your sons don't follow your ways. So now appoint over us a king to lead us, just like all the other nations have.” (1 Samuel 8:5) Samuel was none too pleased with that but God told him to go ahead but to warn the people just exactly what they were asking for.

Samuel says, “Here are the policies of the king who will rule over you. He will conscript your sons and put them in his chariot forces and in his cavalry; they will run in front of his chariot. He will appoint for himself leaders of thousands and leaders of fifties, as well as those who plow his ground, reap his harvest, and make weapons of war and his chariot equipment. He will take your daughters to be ointment makers, cooks and bakers. He will take your best fields and vineyards and give them to his own servants. He will demand a tenth of your seed and of the produce of your vineyards and give it to his administrators and his servants. He will take your male and female servants, as well as your best cattle and your donkeys, and assign them for his own use. He will demand a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will be his servants.” (1 Sam 8:11-17) In the Hebrew the word for “take” appears 6 times, about once a verse. The people of Israel will get a lot more than they bargained for.

Administration, conscription, and a professional standing army are just some of the costs of a nation state. You also need a justice system to administer the laws and judge those who break them. You need people to advise the leaders; you need ambassadors; you need trade policies; you need support personnel. There is a certain irreducible cost to it all. And so, as Scripture points out, you need taxation to support it all.

Because of the complexity of modern government, what you want in choosing a leader is a process rather like that of selecting someone for the job of CEO. What we have is more akin to a popularity contest. Seriously, a good way to predict who people will vote for is to ask them which candidate they would like to sit down and have a beer with. That's actually the basis of a poll by Survey Monkey. That's not a good way to choose who will run a country.

As we said, choosing a leader requires wisdom. So let's look at a few things the Book of Proverbs, the pinacle of biblical wisdom literature, says about rulers. And right off the bat, I want to thank the website for leading me to the verses I will discuss. Of all the lists that popped up when I googled the subject, they had the best. The commentary on the verses is mine.

In Proverbs 8, wisdom itself is personified. And it says in verse 15, “Kings reign by means of me...” So the first principle is: a good leader is wise. That means a good leader not only knows the price of everything, as the cynic does, but also the value of everything. A leader needs to know the value of intangibles, things that can't be measured by money or other metrics. An insurance company puts a price tag on how much a life is worth in terms of dollars. You want a leader who knows that lives are priceless and thus will not spend them carelessly.

A wise leader needs to understand other people and how they think and act. Because a leader needs to work with other people—members of Congress and the leaders of other nations. A leader really can't do things by decree. He or she needs to persuade and motivate others. Which means listening to other people, not just talking at them.

A good leader has personal integrity. Proverbs 16:12 says, “Kings detest wrongdoing, for a throne is established through righteousness.” Proverbs 29:4 adds, “By justice a king gives a country stability, but one who is greedy for bribes tears it down.” Even in ancient Israel, money's influence on politics was felt. In fact, the Bible tells us that it was one of the reasons why the elders of Israel wanted a king. Samuel's sons went “after dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice.” (1 Sam 8:3) As Jesus says in today's gospel, you cannot serve both God and wealth.

And you can't run a nation if you are putting the wealth of a few ahead of the welfare of the many. Just this week, an episode of Adam Ruins Everything revealed that vitamins and supplements are shielded by law from the same kind of scrutiny that drug companies come under. So when you take, say, echinacea, you have no assurance that the plant is even in the pills you ingest. One study says you have a 60% chance it's not. Our laws keeps Medicare from negotiating with drug companies for lower drug prices. On the other hand there are no laws prohibiting Luxottica, a virtual monopoly which owns most brands of eye wear and most places that make and sell glasses—Lenscrafters, Peale Vision, Sears Optical, Target Optical et al—as well as the vision insurance company Eye Med, from using its power to keep your glasses costing as much as your smartphone.

This state of affairs didn't happen by accident. Today 42% of former House members and 50% of former senators become lobbyists. An academic study showed that the rate of return on lobbying was 22,000%. In other words for every dollar spent by an industry on lobbying it got back $220 in subsidies and tax breaks. Perhaps if Zika victims had a wealthy lobby, we could actually get our Congress to do something about it.

In biblical times, as today, money distorts justice. You want a leader who will do something about getting money out of the process of writing and enforcing laws.

A good leader has good advisers. Proverbs 11:14 says, “For lack of guidance a nation falls, but many advisers make victory sure.” Running a nation has a lot of facets. Nobody knows everything. You want a leader who surrounds herself or himself with good advisers. The other advantage to this is that different people have different perspectives. To get a detailed and three-dimensional view of a complex problem you want more than one viewpoint. Lincoln has been praised for his so-called team of rivals, a cabinet that included at least 3 men who had run against the president for the nomination in 1860. You want a leader who will listen to those with perspectives different from his or her own. You want a leader who can still learn.

A good leader has self-control. Proverbs 28:15 says, “Like a roaring lion or a charging bear is a wicked man ruling over helpless people.” You wouldn't buy a car with wobbly steering and bad brakes. You wouldn't let someone with road rage issues drive your kids to school. The person at the helm of the ship of state needs to be able to control him or herself. You have alliances to maintain and enemies to keep an eye on. You have a worldwide economy that catches cold every time the U.S. sneezes. If you are a good leader, you have to choose your battles. You have to choose your words wisely. A good leader is never out of control.

A good leader is compassionate. Proverbs 29:14 says, “If a king judges the poor with fairness, the throne will always be secure.” It's saying the security of the nation depends on how it treats the poor. In Jeremiah 5:27-29, it says it more forcefully. It says of the wicked “'...they have become rich and powerful and have grown fat and sleek. Their evil deeds have no limit; they do not plead the case of the fatherless to win it, they do not defend the rights of the poor. Should I not punish them for this?' declares the Lord. 'Should I not avenge myself on such a nation as this?'”

Our country is the wealthiest in the world and yet has the highest poverty rate in the developed world. You've already heard how the top 1% of wealthy families own more than a third of the total wealth in our country and how the top 20% own 85% of the wealth. That means the rest of the population, including the upper middle class, are left dividing up the remaining 15% of wealth. Upward mobility is pretty much dead these days. Studies show that if you were born poor you will likely remain poor throughout your life. Wealth inequality hasn't been this high since the Great Depression!

The Bible mentions the poor around 300 times, or about once every 104 verses. It stresses how much God cares for the poor and it emphasizes our duty to them. It forbids oppressing or cheating the poor. It even says that the sin of Sodom was that “she did not help the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49) Technically as points out, sodomy should more accurately be defined as not helping the poor! So Proverbs 31:8-9 says to kings: “Speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” A good leader speaks up for the powerless and defends their rights.

A good leader is kind and truthful. Proverbs 20:28 says, “Mercy and truth preserve the king; and his throne is upheld by mercy.” In a recent episode of the podcast Hidden Brain the host interviewed Dacher Kelner, a psychologist who wrote a book called The Power Paradox. In his studies, he's found that people who are kind and empathetic and who work for the greater good are more likely to rise to power, rather than those who are Machiavellian and self-seeking. The danger, he found, is that the more power you get, the more it erodes that kindness and empathy. When people are fawning all over you and treating you as someone special, it's easy to become accustomed to such treatment and start thinking you deserve it. It is easy to forget what it's like to be an ordinary person or even a powerless one. It's easy to start to look down on those who haven't managed to do as well as you have and blame them for their misfortune. Power corrupts, as Lord Acton famously observed. 

One way to fight that loss of mercy is with truth. A good leader is truthful not only with others but with him or herself. They should admit to having faults, which will make them more merciful to other imperfect people. And a good leader seeks out those who will tell the truth to his or her face. They can't be thin-skinned. They must be able to accept the truth of a situation. Stable leadership is based on mercy and truth.

There are other characteristics of being a good leader and again I recommend reading the whole page on But the key qualities are that a good leader is wise, has personal integrity, has good advisers, has self control, is compassionate to the poor, is merciful and is truthful.

And if you are confused because no candidate fits all of those criteria, then good! That means you are paying attention. No candidate is perfect. We are electing a president, not a savior. As Paul says immediately after his admonition to pray for secular leaders, “there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus...” It's an important election but we must never lose sight of whom our ultimate leader is.

As Martin Luther pointed out, we are citizens not just of the Kingdom of God but also of one of the kingdoms of this world. Balancing the two is tricky. We are called to be in the world but not of it. We must use our God-given wisdom to make the best choices we can for the common good. We must not be swayed by popularity or likability but who will be the best steward of this country's resources and the wisest governor of the people who live here and the best person to represent us to a complex world that includes allies and enemies. We are also electing a lot of other people to national, state and local positions. Without good leaders in those offices, the president can't do much.

Study and pray before you vote. And then, whoever is elected, even if you didn't vote for them, pray for the person who is our new leader. Whoever it is, they will need it.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Religion and Violence

I remember what I was doing when President Kennedy was shot. I was waiting in the gym at Lindenwood Elementary School to return to 3rd grade. It was a rainy day and so we couldn't play in the school yard after returning from lunch at home. And that's when my friend Kenny Cross, sitting next to me on the bench, told me the president was shot. I didn't believe him. Until later that afternoon when the teacher interrupted our rehearsal of the Thanksgiving play to confirm what my friend said. All the girls cried. I was Turkey #3 and I was a kid, so I was irritated that our rehearsal came to a screeching halt.

I remember where I was 6 years later when the first man walked on the moon. I had to switch from channel 11 where they were showing Arsenic and Old Lace to one of the three major networks in order to watch what I knew was tremendously historic. But I was still a kid so I was still irritated.

I remember where I was when President Reagan was shot. I was in orientation at St. Louis University Hospital. We had just watched an instructional video and when the tape was stopped, the TV went back to the broadcast channel it was on and we were smack dab in the middle of the coverage. It had just happened. I was shocked.

I remember where I was the Challenger space shuttle exploded upon liftoff. I was writing and rewriting a news report for my radio class.

I remember where I was when the Columbia space shuttle exploded upon re-entry. I was helping with the Bahia Honda beach clean up St. Francis used to do.

You probably remember where you were and what you were doing on most, if not all of those days. And I bet you all remember what you were doing exactly 15 years ago today...when the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were hit by commercial airliners and a fourth plane, United Airlines Flight 93, crashed into a field when the passengers revolted against the hijackers.

It's sad that most of those dates we remember for terrible reasons. One was a scientific and technical triumph for humanity. Two of them were technical failures. Two of them were caused by lone gunmen. Only one was caused by religious fanatics. But that last has become a day of infamy for the 21st century.

And now it seems like every few months there is a new outrage caused by religious extremists. It's caused a huge split in the attitude of people not only toward a particular religion but towards religion in general. Is there something about religion that makes people do violent things?

Yes and no.

Yes, in that religion is about ultimate values and when people feel that their ultimate values are under attack they fight back. But those ultimate values don't have to be religious. They can be ethnic. They can be political. The Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China were both officially atheistic systems. And under Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong, they killed 60 million people. On, they occupy the number 2 and number 7 slots of the list of (Possibly) the Twenty (or so) Worst Things People Have Done to Each Other. 60 million is just 6 million shy of the death toll of World War Two, which is number one on the list. In fact of the events listed only one can be said to have been started over purely religious reasons: the Thirty Years War, with an estimated death toll of 7.5 million. Actually, it was a series of wars kicked off when the new Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand II, tried to impose his Roman Catholicism on all his subjects and triggered a Protestant revolt. But by the end, most of the major powers in Europe joined in and the main conflict became the Hapsburg succession, which is why Roman Catholic France joined the Protestant side and why the Muslim Ottoman Empire and Orthodox Russia gave support as well. It concluded with the Peace of Westphalia, whose principles led to the recognition of national self-determination and co-existing sovereign states, the idea that such states should not interfere in the internal affairs of one another and that aggression between states should be held in check by a balance of power, all of which influenced international law. (Thanks, Wikipedia!)

On the religion front, people were given the right to worship as they pleased no matter where they lived. Period. As far as I know, no changes were made in the lines of any creeds, just political boundary lines. So what started as a war over religion ended up being about politics, as do almost all religious wars.

So can religion be a cause of violence? Yes. Take the Crusades with an estimated death toll of 3 million. Or the witch hunts, with an estimate of 60,000 deaths. Or the Spanish Inquisition, which clocks in at a surprisingly small 32,000, only 8,800 under Torquemada. Horrible. And indefensible. And yet nowhere near the numbers that the USSR and Communist China killed in just 1 century.

Is religion the only cause of violence? Obviously not. Ah, but is it the main cause? No again. In fact according to the Encyclopedia of War, only 7% of all wars are religious in nature. So the other 93% must be about matters--land, resources, politics, glory.

Oh, and by the way, the original suicide bombers were the Tamil Tigers, Marxists who wanted India out of Sri Lanka. So today's religious extremists can thank another atheist group for that technique.

The second part of my answer to whether religion can make people violent was “and no.” The key word in the question is “make.” In other words, can you take an otherwise non-violent person and make him violent simply by exposing him to religion? The answer is “No.” NPR featured an interview with a former ISIS member, a middle class German kid, now imprisoned, who went to Syria. He said that all throughout his training they kept approaching him about becoming a suicide bomber. He kept saying “No” and they would go away and ask him again in another week or two. When a video he was in turned into a beheading, he left. We think “How could he not know what he was getting into?” But that wasn't why he went. He thought he was helping his fellow Muslims. He didn't sign up to kill them, which is mostly what ISIS does. There is a reason why Al-Queda and ISIS like to recruit in prison. They want people who already have little regard for others and for laws. And, if they are in Europe, they want criminals because they can get access to guns. In America, that's not important, because they think our gun laws are—their words, not mine—“dumb.” They want Americans for their passports. Contrary to popular opinion, our current immigration laws and asylum laws make it difficult for them to come in. So they recruit those born in America to operate in America.

They also don't look for the poor so much as for idealistic youth looking for a group to belong to and a cause to support. It helps if you are a minority in your country and are treated badly, but if you are not, they will fan the flames of hatred by showing you examples of Muslims in other parts of the world being treated badly by the West. The blog of one lone wolf recruit shows that it was his empathy for fellow Muslims suffering that led to his self-radicalization. Authorities picked him up before he could do any harm. One wonders if he would have ended up like the German recruit and become revolted by ISIS killing other Muslims. Because ISIS is to Islam what the Westboro Baptist Church is to Christianity, if the Westboro Baptist Church wasn't satisfied with just waiting for God to throw 99% of all other Christians into hell but felt they had to help him out...a lot.

So religion cannot make a person violent. Violent people make people violent. They do so by either being violent to you (this is the reason that the children of domestic abuse tend to become domestic abusers) or they make you violent by convincing you that violence is the only way to get what you want, whether it's money or fame or power or revenge or a sex slave or a caliphate.

If you have more than 1 child, you know that people can fight over literally anything! How many wars are little more that jacked up versions of “He's on my side of the car?” In the comedy The Gods Must Be Crazy, a random Coke bottle causes fights among previously peaceful bush folk because it is both unique and useful and therefore an object of desire. The causes of human violence arise from the human heart: from desires like lust and greed, from envy of others' privilege, from rage over injustice or others' laziness and from fears--fears of those different from us or fears of going without our basic needs being met. The Syrian Civil War was due in part to a shortage of bread, as was the Russian Revolution of 1917.

The more important question is “Why doesn't religion make violence go away?” Let me ask another question: “Why don't condoms make HIV and AIDS go away?” Or this: “Why are measles coming back when we have a vaccine?” There's one answer to all three questions: No thing works if you don't use it. Vaccines don't work if you think they only apply to other people and other children. A condom won't work if you leave it in your wallet or purse like it's a magic charm. Religion doesn't work if you compartmentalize it from other parts of your life.

AA and the other 12 Step programs have helped a lot of people get and stay free from alcohol and other addictions. But their mere existence alone won't do that. People have to join the program, attend the meetings, and do the steps. A doctor can't cure those who don't come to him. He can do very little for those who come but then won't comply with the regimen of diet, exercise and medicine he prescribes. And it's hardly fair to blame him if people throw out the diet and exercise and simply take the prescription he wrote them and then abuse it. But people seem to have no problem blaming religion for the people who discard key parts of it and misuse other parts. And they think that if religion doesn't magically transform a world that isn't interested in reorganizing itself along the lines of its moral principles, it doesn't really work.

People also forget that it only takes  a few people to cause mayhem for the majority. 72% of Muslims worldwide and 81% of Muslims in America said attacks against civilians were never justified, in a 2013 Pew Research Poll. That's what the average Muslim feels about terrorism. ISIS is an outlier.

As for Christians, Jesus explicitly told us to love our enemies, to turn the other cheek, to put up the sword—this last command given to Peter who was trying to stop Jesus' arrest! Those are words from the son of God himself on the use of violence for his cause. Need I say more?

But what is amazing is that on this day in our gospel reading assigned by our lectionary is Jesus' solution to terrorism!

One of the many parts of the recent episode of Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman (“What Makes a Terrorist?”) that intrigued me was that the way terrorists recruit is through networks. They have them in prisons but they also work through friends, family and social networking sites. And like I said they look for the impressionable. It really helps if the person feels alienated from his country or culture. Because people who are happy with themselves or the way things are don't want to change the status quo. So they look for outcasts.

In Luke 15:1-10, Jesus is criticised for welcoming sinners and even eating with them. He responds, not by telling them that a doctor's place is with the sick not the healthy, as he does in Matthew 9:12, but instead tells 3 parables. The third one, the so-called Prodigal Son, is the one we usually concentrate on. Our lectionary ends just before Jesus gets to that one. And I'm glad because the point of that one is slightly different than these two. Instead we get a picture of how a shepherd, realizing he has lost one sheep out of a hundred will go looking for it, and how a woman who loses one coin out of 10, which represents a day's wages, will sweep the house till she finds it. And Jesus tells us how everyone in God's presence rejoices over just one person returning to the fold. In other words, Jesus is saying “leave no one behind.”

You want to win someone over? Then be welcoming. You want to bring someone to church? Then calling him a sinner is probably not the best strategy. You want someone to agree with you? Then calling him an idiot won't help. You want someone not to blow up people in your country? Then making them feel unwelcome in your country is counterproductive. In that same Through the Wormhole episode, one social scientist shows how including people in a group, through something as simple as using language like “we” and “our” and “us," will get most of them to eventually say they will sacrifice themselves to save the group! So when we look at a Muslim and say, “You are not one of us” but ISIS says to him, “You are one of us,” to whom will that person gravitate?

But come on! Jesus' parable about searching for the lost sheep and bringing him back is a way to fight terrorism? Being welcoming to radicals will change them? What are you thinking? 

I'm thinking of something I learned from the NPR podcast Invisibilia. In the episode “Flip the Script” Hanna Rosen tells how in 2012 the Danish town of Aarhus started noticing a lot of Muslim youths had gone missing. Actually, the Muslim community noticed it and went to the police. Two officers, Allan Aarslev and Thorlief Link, caught the calls from hysterical parents. They eventually realized that these Muslim kids were going to Syria to be radicalized. At a time when most of Europe was dealing with this by lowering the boom on Muslims, these cops flipped the script. Or took a page from the gospel, perhaps unwittingly.

Aarslev and Link let their Muslim community know that if any of their kids returned to Denmark from Syria, they would be welcomed. They should call the officers and they would receive help going back to school, getting an apartment, meeting a mentor or a psychiatrist and whatever else they need to become integrated again as a Danish citizen.

And it worked! 34 kids left. Some were killed or captured. But of the 18 kids who left Aarhus and returned, they all got calls from Aarslev or Link and ended up in their office and took advantage of the program. As have 330 other potential radicals. So far there have been no terrorist attacks in Aarhus, Denmark. And the number of young people leaving for Syria just 1 in 2015.

Social scientists call this noncomplementary behavior. Complementary behavior is treating others the way they treat you. You are nice to them if they are nice to you. You treat them badly if they treat you badly. Jesus is the champion of noncomplementary behavior. If they berate you, bless them. If they persecute you, pray for them. If they wrong you, forgive them...even if they are nailing you to the cross at the time!

I remember how I felt on 9/11. You do, too. And I know why more people don't feel like doing what Jesus said. But that's no excuse. If he is truly our Lord and God, if we say we are his followers, we know what we've got to do. And if that scares us, that's why he said we need to have faith in him. If we feel we are signing our death warrant, well, he did say we need to take up our cross. We need to trust him, the living embodiment of the God who is love, and go where he has trod. If we don't do what he says, it's our fault if it doesn't work, not his. It all comes down to living in the Spirit of Christ, trusting in his grace. It works if you use it.