Monday, May 25, 2015

With Spirit

The scriptures referred to are Acts 2:1-21, Romans 8:22-27, and John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15.

The media have done something weird with the word “porn” lately. It used to mean sexual pictures or movies or stories that people drool over. But now I find my Facebook feed filled with things called "food porn," which is mouth-watering pictures of dishes, and “space porn” which is just gorgeous pictures of space, usually taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Or Word Porn which is a website with good quotations. There are horrors movies called torture porn because they don't try to scare you in the typical way but use special effects to show people undergoing awful suffering in a stomach-churningly graphic way. Which is why, though I grew up loving the old Universal pictures about Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolfman, I rarely see modern horror films.

What these things have in common is that they are things people with certain intense interests love to look at and, I guess, drool over. So the word “porn” loses its sexual connotations in these cases and is just about stuff people are really into. And it can also mean unrealistic fantasies, which is the main feature of regular old porn. So I guess it makes sense to see the term “competence porn” in a discussion of stories that I read. And what it means is a story in which a character is an absolute expert at something (or everything) and always knows just what to do. Which is as unrealistic as the sexy pizza delivery guy and the compliant French maid. Sherlock Holmes, with his ability to notice every tiny detail around him and logically deduce the significance of each and use them to solve a crime is perhaps the archetypal “competence porn” figure. The folks of the shows CSI and NCIS and Bones are his descendants. Most of our heroes are: Batman, Doctor Who, James Bond. For a former World War 2 naval commander, James Bond nevertheless seems to be able to drive or fly or operate anything he lays his hands on, from helicopters to submarines to rocket belts to space ships. There was a time when he couldn't. One of the most suspenseful sequences in Goldfinger was the part where Bond, having defeating the nearly indestructible Oddjob, is now faced with disarming a nuclear bomb. We see him desperately trying to stop the whirling gears or pull out wires when the hand of an expert pushes Bond out of the way and flicks the off switch. Of course, the countdown stops at 007. By contrast, today's James Bond probably has a degree in nuclear fission.

In a technological world we are really putting a lot of faith in the experts and their products. We have bought into the idea that all we need in order to solve the world's problems is somebody smart to come up with the right technological fix. And certainly there are a lot of instances where this is true. Irrigation and vaccines and prosthetic limbs and disease cures and cognitive behavioral therapy and other scientific techniques can solve a lot of problems. But they won't fix our most pressing ones.

As of last week ISIS, the self-proclaimed Islamic State, a group that wants to bring about the end of the world, captured Ramadi, the main city of the Anwar providence of Iraq. And yet they are opposed by the US with the largest military in the world and all the best weapon systems. But we are fighting this war at arm's length and trying to let the Iraqi army act as the ground forces while we provide air support. And though we are killing about 1000 of the ISIS forces each month, they are recruiting about 1000 young people a month. We probably could win if we could get all the different nations and people who oppose ISIS to work together. But they won't. Saudi Arabia is a Sunni Muslim nation. Iran is a Shiite Muslim nation. The Kurds are neither. And none of them get along, not even in the face of a common enemy. But without uniting, no amount of technology will stop ISIS. Their spirit of unity is defeating their opposition's disunity.

Technology is great...in the right hands. Biological research can fight viruses or weaponize them. Drones can be used to count endangered species over a wide area or to assassinate someone. Opioids can free people from severe pain or be a profitable way to enslave them through addiction. The internet can spread vital information widely and it can do the same for false and harmful information. The difference is a matter of the spirit of those behind the endeavor.

As I get older I find that competence is important but having the right spirit is essential. If you are dealing with someone who is good at something but not a good person, you could be in trouble. It's great to have a skilled doctor but not if he is also unscrupulous. He could takes shortcuts or pad your bill or sell you on a procedure that you don't actually need. Benedict Arnold was one of the best generals the United States had. But when he changed sides, his military expertise made him that much more of a threat to our side.

One way to explain Arnold's reversal is to say that after being passed over for promotion despite his successes, his shattered leg, and spending his own money in the war effort, he lost his patriotic spirit. You could even say he was dispirited. Here I am using "spirit" in the sense of a distinctive quality or attitude. We use spirit this way all the time. We talk about team spirit or about something being done in the spirit of someone else. Those uses of the word spirit are metaphors. Today we celebrate the literal coming of the Spirit of God into the lives of the first Christians.

I needn't repeat what we just read in the second chapter of Acts. What I want to do is to imagine what Christianity would be like if the Spirit hadn't been poured out on the church.

Without the Spirit, Christianity would become much more like any other religion. It has a founder and his teachings. It has a list of beliefs and a list of dos and don'ts. And both believing and and behaving would be entirely dependent on the individual. One would receive no inner help with either.

Without the Spirit, Christianity would of necessity become very legalistic. Biblical laws tend to be general and even when they are not, they do not cover every possible circumstance the believer will find himself in. So Christians would have to do what rabbis did—add to the commandments, expand them so that if followed one wouldn't even come close to breaking the original and getting real specific on certain things. There would be little leeway in how one acted and as the world changed, Christians would cling fiercely to old ways and become increasingly irrelevant to the world at large. Without the Spirit, Christianity would join the other two Abrahamic faiths in being mostly about interpreting and applying old laws, rather than about living in a new way.

Without the Spirit, there would be fewer reform movements to put Christianity back on track. If you know just a little bit of history, you know of the capital “R” Reformation. But if you know more about church history, you know that there have been a lot of other significant reform movements in the last 2000 years. Some did not reach the scope of the Protestant Reformation but in each of them was a desire to revive and bring forward key doctrines, practices or emphases of the early or New Testament church. Without the Spirit, I don't think folks would be as inspired to re-examine the present state of the church, find that it had lost something and try to recapture that.

Without the Spirit, there would be less motive to find new expressions of the faith. People would be less inclined to reach out to outsiders and other people and groups and more content to focus on maintaining membership and the status quo. The missionary movement would have died on the vine and we would be dying too.

Now you may have heard me describing what it would be like without the Spirit and say to yourself, “We're like that now! We are pretty much defined by lists of things to believe, to do and to not do. We have gotten legalistic. We are backward looking and inward looking. We are dying.”

To which I say, yes. Which can only mean one thing: we are trying to proceed without the Spirit. Because the Spirit scares us. He is like the wind—powerful and beyond our control. We cannot dictate the direction in which the Spirit moves. We must be like sailing ships adapting to the the way the wind blows. Or we can tie up in a nice safe marina, hooked into cable and the internet, not planning on leaving the harbor but pretending we are mighty sailors. That is not how Christianity is supposed to work.

Without the Spirit or with the wrong spirit, we cannot succeed as Christians or as a church. We can appear to be doing well. We can manage to have earthly success, attract a lot of people, raise money. Anyone can do that. ISIS can do that. But if we are doing this without the Holy Spirit, it won't really accomplish anything lasting spiritually. As it says in Psalm 127:1, “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain.” We need to stay in touch with the Spirit and follow his guidance.

With the Spirit, we receive help in trusting God and in living in harmony with his principles. We receive help in discovering and recalling the spiritual and moral truths God reveals. We receive help in communicating with God. We are impelled to recognize that God is doing new things, bringing new groups of people into his kingdom, and to seek out those who are wrongly considered beyond his interest and grace.

The Spirit brings people together. He facilitates communication and reconciliation. In 2 Corinthians 13:14, Paul writes of the “fellowship of the Holy Spirit.” The Spirit draws us together through truth and love. The Spirit brings unity, though not through uniformity. That's a human mistake. The Spirit instead distributes various gifts and abilities to all. No one has every gift and so we need each other, the way a team or crew needs people with various skills. The unity comes from a common attitude and goal.

We've seen how people can be united by hatred as in ISIS or the Nazis. They are defined primarily by what they are against. And there are people who want to define God negatively as well. But the Holy Spirit is defined by truth, unity, encouragement, comfort, communication, help, strength, life, and fruitfulness. The Spirit gives these to us and causes them to grow in us, so that we are one in the Spirit.


People have done and are doing horrible things in the name of religion. And some of these were done in the name of Christ. But they could not be done in the Spirit of Christ. And if we are filled with the same Spirit that empowered Jesus then we cannot do evil in his name either. There are those who harm and destroy and exploit and terrorize and divide and degrade and ruin God's creation and his creatures, including their fellow human beings who were made in God's image. We are not those people. We walk in the Spirit who brings forth love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faith, gentleness and self-control. He equips us to repair and restore and heal and comfort and unite and teach and build up and liberate and proclaim the good news. 

But we can only do it if we live our lives in the Spirit and open every part of ourselves to him. We need to give up the idea that we are in charge and instead open our sails and go where he takes us. It may be delightful and it may be scary but we must remember what Paul wrote from prison to his protege Timothy, “For God did not give us a spirit of fear but of power and love and self-control.” (2 Tim 1:7) We can face whatever we encounter and do whatever works he gives us to do, for we are filled with his Spirit, the Spirit who hovered over the void as God made ready to create the heavens and the earth, the Spirit who empowered Jesus to do his mission, the Spirit who emboldened the apostles and sent them all over the world to proclaim the truth to all they met. That Spirit is in us. What are we afraid of? What power in the universe can stand against us? What works of love and unity is the Spirit calling on us to do? It's time we caught fire, stood up in public and did them and let the world be amazed. 

Monday, May 18, 2015

Decline

The Pew Research Center just released another alarming study that shows that the number of people who identify themselves as Christian has dropped by 8 points in 7 years. In 2007, 78.4% of Americans called themselves Christians and in 2014 it fell to 70.6%. And the number of people who say they have no religious affiliation, because they are either atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” has risen 6 points from 16.1% to 22.8%. Most of the decline comes in Catholic and mainline Protestant churches, such as the Episcopal church and the ELCA . The number of Evangelicals only dropped by 1%.

The study really doesn't go into why people are disassociating themselves from denominational churches, though. On a recent Diane Rehm show the experts assembled connected this to the fact that an increasing number of people are abandoning institutions in general, like political parties and civic organizations. People just aren't joining any groups in the numbers they used to. Other observations are that a larger percentage of the unaffiliated are found among the affluent and those with higher education. It was speculated that the better off people are materially, the less they feel they need God. Other explanations are that people feel that religion and science conflict or that religions exclude too many people. Some speculate that the internet is to blame by presenting lots of information and many points of view. Others say that people are too busy to go to church.

There's probably some truth in all of these speculations. But except for one of them, they don't really touch on the truth of Christianity. They are largely feelings: “I don't feel like joining a group of people;” “I don't feel physically or financially insecure and so don't feel I need to be saved;” “I don't feel that people should be excluded;” “I don't feel that I have to listen to a church to form a point of view;” “I don't feel I have the time.” On that last one, I haven't noticed that people feel they don't have the time to watch the latest blockbuster movie or binge watch an entire TV series on Netflix, both of which take a lot longer than a church service.

So whether or not Christianity is true is not the issue in most cases; it's whether people want it or not. It's like people who reject vaccines; it has nothing to do with science. Study after study shows vaccines do not cause autism. Autism starts in the womb. The refusal to have your kids vaccinated has more to do with how you feel about drug companies or government mandates on the individual. In the same way, it doesn't look like a lot of people are saying “I have proof that Jesus wasn't the Son of God.” It's more like, “I just don't want to be part of a group of people following Jesus, regardless of whether there's truth to his claims.”

Now the one seeming exception to these emotional reasons is the people who think that religion and science are antithetical. But that is rarely based on a good hard look at the evidence. It is largely due to their reactions to scientists and fundamentalist Christians who insist on making statements on things outside their areas of expertise. Polls show that the majority of Catholics, Orthodox and mainline Protestant Christians and their denominations accept evolution as the mechanism by which God created the species. In fact a number of notable scientists who are theists accept it, including Alfred Russel Wallace who wrote a joint paper with Charles Darwin in 1858 proposing the theory of evolution. Many scientists who are Christians accept it today including paleontologist Robert T. Bakker and geneticist Francis Collins. Only those who insist on interpreting the first chapters of Genesis literally reject it. And to do so they must assert that the Bible was meant to be a science book despite it being written millennia before anything that could be called science existed.

Are there areas in which science and theology seem to hard to reconcile? Of course. Are there also areas within the sciences themselves where the evidence and our understanding of it seem to contradict and where scientists take up different sides against each other? Yes. And yet nobody gives up on science, because they figure that the more we know the easier it will be to reconcile the data some day. Much the same can be said of theology. These are ongoing efforts in two fields of human inquiry and any current difficulties may be resolved as we learn more. Only by unscientifically insisting that what we know now is the last word on anything can one say these things are irreconcilably opposed.

I think Martin Luther King Jr. was right to point out that science is largely concerned with questions of how and religion with questions of why. They are two very different ways of approaching our large and complex universe and assessing our place in it. Few people would want questions of ethics and human values answered on the basis of science alone, nor would most people want science to stop investigating and refer all scientific questions to a book mostly concerned with how we should live and behave.

As we said, most of the reasons seem to be concerned with personal feelings. Let's look at a few of these.

In the year 2000 Robert D. Putnam wrote the book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. In it he examined the decline in face to face social interactions in America. He cites the loss in membership and volunteer participation in such civil organizations as Scouts, the PTA, churches and political parties. Voting attendance figures are low. People are distrustful of governments and institutions. And, yes, fewer people are bowling in leagues anymore. As this was before the dominance of smartphones, Putnam couldn't mention how people today will go places together and yet totally ignore their physically present family and friends to look at a tiny screen instead. And while some say this trend has reversed itself, it is true that churches continue to decline. Why?

One hypothesis was that people are better educated and better educated people tend to be skeptical. But actually while more people are getting some college, only 22% of all adults in America have a bachelor's degree. Now 25% of atheists and agnostics have graduated from college, but they don't make up 22% of the US. Only 3% of the population are atheists and another 4% are agnostics. The majority of those who give their religion as “none,” 15% of the population, have the same level of education as most Americans and also hold some spiritual beliefs. So education may be a factor but not for most of those who are not formally religious.

And let us remember that being a college grad is not the same as being wise. 95% of congressmen have academic degrees with nearly half being lawyers and yet often express views which make one doubt their intelligence. More seriously, a 2004 study of 152,000 children found that “Unvaccinated children tended to be white, to have a mother who was married and had a college degree, to live in a household with an annual income exceeding $75,000 and to have parents who expressed concerns regarding the safety of vaccines and indicated that medical doctors have little influence over vaccination decisions for their children.” These aren't Luddites; they are well-educated people making deeply foolish decisions. Education is not necessarily the same as wisdom.

The most obvious fact about the “nones” is that they are young. Only 17% of Baby Boomers are religiously unaffiliated, as are 23% of Generation X. But between 34 and 36% of Millennials are unaffiliated. To quote a PBS headline on a different study by the Pew Research Center “Many Millennials are skipping church, marriage and political affiliations...” They tend to be single and self-described political independents. So one reason we are seeing less Millennials in the pews is that they don't “do” institutions.

But more insightful is a 2012 Millennial Values Survey. The good news is that 76% of young adults feel that modern Christianity has “good values and principles.” 63% say that Christianity “consistently shows love for other people.” The bad news is that 58% say that today's Christianity is hypocritical; 62% say it's judgmental; and 64% feel it is anti-gay.

First let's look at the charge that we are hypocritical. You can certainly see where that is coming from: TV evangelists who dress in thousand-dollar suits, live in luxurious mansions and demand $64 million planes, yet claim to follow a poor carpenter; a church that doesn't defrock pedophile priests or turn them over for prosecution but who covers this up and just moves the priests to other parishes where they do it all over again; politicians who loudly proclaim themselves Christians while advocating policies that harm the poor and oppressed. And because these people get a lot of news coverage, the fact that many more Christians help others through food pantries, clothing banks, feeding the homeless, literacy programs, disaster relief, supporting clinics and many other things get overlooked.

But there is one thing that many Christians do that is hypocritical. We say we follow Jesus. Jesus accepted any who came to him, prince or prostitute. He denounced the Pharisees for seeing some people as more acceptable than others. And yet we do the same. Even though we parrot the fact that we are all sinners, that all of us need God's grace, that the good news is about God's love and forgiveness being offered to all, we draw the line at certain sins. And we excuse other sins. Usually we look down on those whose indulge in the hotblooded sins of lust, laziness, rage and gluttony, while we give a pass to those who exhibit the coldblooded sins of greed, envy and arrogance. We look down on sins of commission, doing something bad, more than sins of omission, not doing something good. We are more disdainful of personal sins than social sins. We are more forgiving of successful and popular people when they sin than of unsuccessful and unpopular people. This picking and choosing of who is worthy of forgiveness is hypocritical and people know it and it drives them from the church.

And this ties into the charge that Christians are judgmental. Jesus said, “Judge not lest you be judged.” A better translation is “Do not condemn or pass a verdict.” Because while it is prudent to judge actions and speech that seem to be bad, we cannot pass final judgment on others. Only God can. For all we know the person is doing the best he can. But to render a judgment on a whole person's life based on what little we know of them is unfair. To reduce a person to his sins is unjust. How would you like to be permanently labeled by the worst thing you ever did? Doubting Thomas is nowhere in scripture called that. We tagged him with that nickname when he was the only one of the 11 disciples to whom Jesus had not yet appeared that Easter. And even those who saw the risen Jesus had trouble believing at first, thinking he was a ghost. But Thomas has for 2000 years been singled out as the guy who had doubts that his friend had come back from the dead.

And we also tend to label people based on what they did as if that is all they ever will be. And understandably, that drives people from the church.

As to the charge of being anti-gay, it could be leveled at a lot of people outside the church as well, including people who have since changed their minds. A lot of Christians and a lot of denominations have changed their minds. But some of the most vocal have not. And some are still wrestling with exactly how they should deal with the issue. There is not enough time at present to go into the whole area of homosexuality and gay marriage but one thing is crystal clear: as Christians we must love everyone. Jesus told us to love our neighbor, which to him means anyone we encounter. Jesus told us to love our enemy. There is no one left whom we can hate. However one feels about a person's actions our approach to one and all must be love. That means working for the good of the other person. We cannot work for or advocate their harm. We cannot try to bring back punishments that applied to people living under the old covenant in Bronze Age Israel. We do not live there or then. We live under the new covenant, the covenant of grace, established by Jesus who died for all and who invites all to come to him.

It is possible that the Millennials will come to the church when they have kids, as people usually do. Like marriage, they are delaying childbearing as well. They may return too when they find that trying to be a Lone Ranger spiritual person lacks the support and joy that being part of a community dedicated to following the Spirit of Jesus offers.

But they won't return if we continue to be seen as hypocritical, judgmental and against people of any kind rather than welcoming all who are called by Christ. And we must change these things not for appearance's sake but because they are not Christian. Jesus hated hypocrisy. He told us not to pass judgment on others. And he welcomed the outcasts and despised people of his time. He touched lepers and menstruating women which would make him ritually unclean. He taught women which was considered scandalous. He didn't insist the woman caught in adultery or the Samaritan woman or Zacchaeus change before he would protect them or talk to them or eat with them. To do otherwise would be to put up a barrier to entering the kingdom of God, something Jesus criticized the Pharisees for doing. We are not called upon to judge, but to love and to invite people into the kingdom. We are all broken and all in need of God's grace. 


Most of those who came to Jesus came for healing. Only then did they hear the gospel. If people want healing today, do you think it occurs to most of them that the church is the place to go? If not, why not? And what are we going to do about it? 

Monday, May 11, 2015

There's No App For That

The scriptures referenced are 1 John 5:1-6 and John 15:9-17.

One of my favorite apps is the Waze app. I first downloaded it as a crowd-sourced traffic app. My wife and I were on vacation and as usual were in crawling traffic surrounding Atlanta and this app told us why. The way Waze works is that everyone with the app on their phone can report heavy traffic, construction, vehicles on the side of the road, collisions, bad weather or the presence of the police. And at first that was all I used it for. Then I realized it would tell us where gas stations were and what the current prices were, which is invaluable when you are traveling. Almost immediately I discovered it would actually take us to the filling stations and would navigate us wherever we wanted to go, if I just turned on that feature. But the reason I'm really crazy about it was on a trip to a Deans' meeting. The traffic in Miami got bad (I realize that “bad Miami traffic” is an oxymoron). Suddenly my Waze app made a new sound and told me it had a better way. The route on the screen changed. It had me get off the highway, took me through various side streets, and got me back on the highway but on the other side of the obstruction that was slowing everything down. I got to the cathedral 15 minutes early!

Usually I explain the relationship of faith and works by comparing them to having surgery and then following the doctor's orders for physical therapy. The surgery corrects the fundamental problem, such as a broken hip. The PT is no substitute for surgery. But if you don't do your therapy, you don't really reap the benefits of the surgery. I've seen patients with new hips or knees remain wheelchair-bound because they won't do the tough work of strengthening their muscles and learning to walk again. Substitute Christ's atonement on the cross for surgery and good works for physical therapy and I think that illustrates the relationship between faith and works.

I want to try a different metaphor this time. If you have a smart phone you have probably downloaded a number of apps. They may give you the weather or the news. Wikipedia's app gives you access to practically all the knowledge in the world. There are apps that tell you what restaurants are nearby and how others rate them. There are apps that allow you to see movie trailers, tell you local movie times and even let you buy tickets.

Just as every business seems to have a website these days, many have apps. Your pharmacy chain probably has an app that tells you the weekly specials, sends you coupons and reminds you when your prescriptions are ready. Amazon has apps that let you read books and an app that lets you compare and buy whatever they offer. Our sheriff's department has an app that gives you info on vehicles dispatched, traffic, a list of sex offenders and our ever popular mugshots.

I got sold on the idea of apps when I heard of a man trapped in an elevator when the earthquake hit Haiti. He broke his leg and while waiting to be dug out, he treated himself using a first aid app. So I have one offered by the Red Cross as well as iTriage, which not only gives you the latest medical and health news but defines various conditions, lists symptoms and tells you everything you need to know about most medications and procedures. It will even suggest specialists in your area.

There are numerous free apps that put the whole Bible in your phone, often with more than one translation. I have one that reads the Bible to me, which is handy when driving. I have another which offers not only Bibles but a whole library of high-quality reference works from Intervarsity Press. I even found an app that offers most of the text of William Barclay's Daily Study Bible.

I didn't develop the apps. Other people put a lot of thought and work into them. I just had to download them. But some of the apps I've downloaded I rarely use. I have them but they don't do me any good. And I only use one or two functions of a few of them, as I did the Waze before discovering its other features.

We do not save ourselves. We can't. Only Jesus can do that, the way only a programmer can create an app. Downloading an app is an act of faith. You trust it will not freeze up your phone or install malware but will make your life at least a little better. But we not only have to download the apps but use them. And that brings up the way some so-called Christians seem to act. They download Jesus but rarely use him or explore all the levels and features available. They do not obey him. They do not try to really love their neighbor, much less their enemy and so they never learn the joy of sharing and reconciliation. They do not try to feed or clothe or welcome or visit the unfortunate and so miss out on the surprising revelations and the discoveries made when seeing and serving Christ in others. They do not renounce themselves and take up their cross and follow Jesus and so they do not enjoy the peace and happiness that comes of not thinking of oneself all the time but moving outside yourself into mission and the lives of others.

Part of this is the fault of the way we proclaim Christianity. We emphasize God's love for us while not emphasizing the necessity that we love others. We tout the fact that, as it says in Ephesians 2:8 & 9, we are saved by grace through faith, but neglect that as it says in verse 10 that we were created in Christ Jesus for good works. Not only do we forget they are part of the gospel, we forget they are actually benefits.

When I wrote radio ads, I liked to emphasize the benefits of whatever I was telling people about. Some things sell themselves but for many you have to spell out how this car, this seafood restaurant, this carpet company differs from the competition and why it is a better choice. I think it would be good for us to think about the benefits we have in Jesus Christ.

In Christ we have salvation. Unfortunately for many people, including many Christians, this means primarily salvation from hell. And if this is the only reason you are a Christian, it makes your faith not much different from fire insurance. It is not so much a way of life as a precaution that doesn't come to mind except in an emergency. Sadly, I am afraid that this is how a lot of people who claim to believe in Jesus see their religion. They got the idea that if they simply said the sinner's prayer or got baptized, they were now on Team God and had a “Get Out of Hell Free” card.

But really what Jesus saves us from is ourselves—our worst selves; the part of us that acts selfishly, that uses people for our own benefit, that deceives others and ourselves, that sabotages our lives, that indulges in self-destructive behavior, that puts ourselves before others, that convinces us that we are nearly always right and that those who contradict us are not only wrong but evil. And ultimately being such a person and letting those traits grow in oneself indefinitely becomes a living hell.

But uniting ourselves to Jesus doesn't just save us from the evil in ourselves, it makes positive changes in us. If we let the Spirit work in us we become more faithful, more hopeful, more loving. If following our baser nature leads to a hellish existence then letting the Spirit bring our nature into harmony with the God of love is heavenly.

Through Jesus we become children of God, obtaining the rights and duties of heirs. As God's children we can go boldly before his throne to ask for whatever we need to live and to carry out his mission. We can share with God whatever concerns us and cast our cares on him because he cares for us. (1 Peter 5:7) When we cannot express ourselves in prayer, the Spirit communicates to the Father with “groanings too deep for words.” (Rom 8:26) Our loving heavenly Father wants to know what is in our hearts.

Through Jesus we are citizens of the Kingdom of God, the realm in which God's will is to be done on earth as it is in heaven. The kingdom starts small and grows slowly but eventually will be impressively large and sheltering. The kingdom of God is thus already within and among us at least in its embryonic form but will one day reach its consummation. Our job, besides obeying our king, is to invite others to enter.

Through Jesus we are members of the Body of Christ. We are connected to him as intimately as parts of the body and like them we have a great number of functions. To accomplish these functions, the Spirit bestows gifts and abilities to each of us. No one has all the gifts, which is why we need to stick together and work together. The church needs every one of us.

Through Jesus we belong to the church, the gathering and assembly of all people called by God. In the church we worship and serve God. We are baptized. We hear the scriptures read and the gospel preached. We confess our sins and receive forgiveness. We sing to our Lord and we celebrate the sacrament of his body and blood. We are sent out to serve Jesus through serving others and to spread the good news.

So through Jesus we receive healing, forgiveness, communion with God, a loving family, an outlet for our skills and talents and a purpose in life. We become part of the narrative of God's recreation and restoration of the earth and its people. And there are more—peace of mind, reduction of stress, better mental and physical health, longer life, etc. That's a lot of benefits.

And yet many people look at our faith as if it did just one thing, as I used to think my Waze app did. Especially confounding are those critics who state that religion is merely bad science, a defective way of explaining how things work. I have never understood how it is that people who are scientists managed to never read up on the subject, on the sociology of religion and/or comparative religion and learned all of the different functions that faith fulfills in the lives of adherents. In this regard, someone like Richard Dawkins displays precisely the same kind of ignorance as those fundamentalists whom he attacks.

Sadly, there are Christians who similarly neglect to learn all the riches that God in Christ has for them. They live lives that are not substantially different than those of non-Christians. And it's not, strictly speaking, a matter of lack of knowledge. I know people in jail who spend every waking moment reading the Bible and every Christian book I send them. Some can quote chapter and verse better than I. But if their knowledge of scripture is a mile wide, it is only an inch deep. Their mastery of God's Word does not translate into living a godly life. While some of these men are mentally ill, many are not. They have simply carved out exceptions in the standard moral code when it comes to violence, sex, alcohol and recreational drugs. They only apply to themselves the parts that are easy for them to observe. Or they only apply the rules to other people.

Not all such people are incarcerated, because many sins are not illegal, especially if they don't injure others physically or financially. And so people damage themselves and others spiritually, mentally and/or emotionally, thinking they have impunity to do so or even that they are not doing anything wrong. They are like the individual who used his Waze app to find out where cops were reported to be and then he went to shoot one. That was not the purpose for which they app was created.

The purpose for which Jesus came was to help us, to reveal God's love and forgiveness and to show us how to love each other. And from that flow many other benefits for body, mind and spirit. But to get those we must use them and delve deeply into our relationship with God.

And to do that we need to stop treating God as if he were a life vest. You only wear those when you're on the water and usually only when things look like they could get dangerous. And the minute you get on dry land, you leave the life vest behind. We need to start treating God as if he were our cell phone. We won't leave the house without our phone. We feel naked without it. If we forget it, we go back for it. And we check it frequently for messages. We go to it whenever we can. Why do we do that? Because in part our phone connects us to those we love. Imagine what the world would be like if we treated God that way—as something indispensable, as something we can't imagine doing without.


Jesus is our connection not only with the God of love but with others. We love him because he first loved us. Which is also the reason we love others. Because if we look closely enough, we will see something of God in everyone. So what we do for them, we do for him. Every time we serve Jesus through others, we become more like him. And that's our goal: to become more Christlike every day in every way to every person. And the paradox is the more we become like him, the more we become ourselves, the persons we were meant to be. As hard as it is to see Christ in others, it can be harder to see him in ourselves, to see the God of love buried but growing deep within us. But John tells us that when we see him, we will be like him. There is no app for that. It simply must be lived. 

Monday, May 4, 2015

Love and Fear

The scriptures referenced are 1 John 4:7-21.

One of the books that has stuck with me long after I read it is Gavin de Becker's The Gift of Fear. A nationally respected security expert, de Becker wrote that man is the only animal that disregards his fear. In his book he advises that we listen to our fears; that they are warning us of things we are perceiving on a subconscious level. If you feel that someone you just met is getting too chummy too fast, you are probably right to be uneasy. It is a common way for criminals to catch a victim off-guard. If your boyfriend's demeanor is very Jekyll and Hyde, he is probably abusive and you should ditch him pronto. If someone keeps contacting you despite being told not to, do not talk to him, call or write back. Otherwise, you are just teaching him how many times he must keep calling in order to get you to respond.

De Becker's advice is solid, well-reasoned and thoroughly researched. He has consulted with movie stars dealing with stalkers, companies dealing with disgruntled and possibly dangerous ex-employees and the government on threat assessment. To be fearless is to be naïve and even reckless. It is a good thing to listen to your fears in situations where your physical safety is at stake.

But what about the fear of the Lord that scripture enjoins upon us? How and why are we to fear God, especially in the light of our passage from 1 John, which tells us that perfect love casts out fear?

Proverbs 1:7 says “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” What does that mean? Obviously it doesn't mean to fear God the way one fears a lion or a tornado. You flee or hide from those things. You don't develop a relationship with them.

But there are things that you have to work with that, while not exactly fearing, you need to have a healthy respect for. If one works with fire or with heights or with the sea, one cannot be paralyzed with fear but neither should one take them casually or act recklessly around them. This seems to be more in line with what scripture means by “the fear of the Lord.” God is our creator and made the world to operate according to various physical and moral laws. He has the right to judge us on how closely we are adhering to how he intended us to behave. And any honest person will acknowledge that we do not always live up to our own standards, much less God's. Thus we should always have a healthy respect for him. Just as a boater or fisherman has to balance his delight in the sea with a knowledge that it is more powerful than he. He must keep in mind that he has to adapt to it, and not vice versa.

But God is not a blind force of nature but a person. Unlike fire or gravity or the sea, he is forgiving. Why should we fear him?

For one thing God is not a typical person. He is in charge, and in a way that surpasses any powerful human being. He created and is in charge of everything. And as we know, everything is connected, and sometimes in ways we cannot conceive. Quantum physicists have discovered that on the subatomic level that things are, to paraphrase J. B. S. Haldane, not only stranger than we imagine but stranger than we can imagine. For one thing, changing the rotation of an electron in one place can trigger a change in rotation of another electron in another place that is not physically connected to the first. Genes are also more complicated. It used to be thought that if you had certain genes you would get a disease. Now it turns out that it is not merely a matter of having the gene but whether it is turned off or on, and apparently by how much as if it were controlled by a dimmer switch. We have also found that in many conditions a lot of genes are involved, not just one. They can be triggered by many things. You can also inherit genes that were activated or deactivated by your grandparents so that they were turned on or off when you got them. So, for instance, some cancers are inherited and some are triggered by chemicals or trauma or even by viruses. We live in an amazingly complex and intricately interconnected world.

My point is that asking God to change something is akin to asking an artist to change one thread deeply embedded in a vast tapestry. It's not that it's impossible but it will require lots of painstaking work and will disrupt numerous other threads. And those other threads are not just other parts of creation but also the lives of other people. Consequently we should not expect God to unravel all of that for frivolous purposes or merely for our whims. Prayer is not magic. We are not saying special words that will force the universe to conform to our will; we are asking our heavenly Father for things and doing so knowing they must conform to his will, not ours. We can no more presume that God will reorder creation for our personal desires than we can presume that an imminent storm will hold back so we can have a nice day on the water. If we sail off into a red morning sky we are not displaying a healthy respect for nature. And if we defy God's moral laws we are not displaying a healthy respect for him.

But what about forgiveness? Gravity may not be able to forgive you for jumping off a building with a homemade parachute but surely God will forgive you for breaking his laws. Yes, if you sincerely repent. This does not mean there will be no consequences to what you did. If you stole from someone, part of true repentance would be returning what you stole and asking for forgiveness from your victim. But what if what you did cannot be easily undone? Let's say you physically harmed someone. You broke their arm in a fight, or their spine in a drunk driving incident. If you repent God will forgive you and then you must go to that person and seek forgiveness. But the damage, both physical and psychological, remains. It may take a long time to heal. Your work has just begun.

I saw a documentary about a man who, when he was young, murdered a girl who had rejected him. And he got away with it. The police never found her body and nobody connected him to her. But it ate away at him. He became a Christian. He threw himself into ministries and good works. Still it haunted him. He married and had children and was a good husband and father and a pillar of his church. But still his victim's blood cried out to him. His conscience would not let him rest easy. Finally, after talking to his wife and children, he turned himself in. He got a life sentence. And though he gave the girl's family closure, they never forgave him. He is an example of true repentance. I'm as sure that God forgives him as I could be. But actions have consequences. This man also serves as an example of the fact that we do not so much break God's laws as break ourselves against them.

So if you want to be wise, begin with a healthy respect for God.

But do we lose this fear when we come to know God's love? Is that what John is saying in today's passage?

Yes and no. John is talking about judgment day and the fear he is talking about is being punished. Those in whom God is perfecting his love have no fear of this. Christ has taken the punishment for us, so if we put our trust in him, and let his Spirit work in us to transform us into children of God, we need not fear punishment. But we usually don't fear those we love either. However if we define the fear of the Lord as having a healthy respect for him, then that is compatible with loving him. One should respect persons one loves. And if somebody you love is awesome, then you can be awed by one you love. “Awe,” by the way, is a word that used to mean “fear.”

For those who “abide in him and he in us” our motivation to obey God is not fear but love. Naïve unbelievers think we Christians obey God because we fear going to hell. They rightly point out that fear is not the best motivation to be moral. But John takes fear off the table. We obey God because we love him and we love him because he first loved us. He showed us his love by sending his son. Jesus reveals his great love by giving his life for us.

It works this way in ordinary life as well. Children learn how to love from their parents. Children raised without love have issues becoming attached to anyone else. Children raised with warped versions of love learn from that. God shows us his self-sacrificial life-giving love through Jesus. Anyone who opens themselves to that will, in time, see that love come to perfection or maturity.

John writes something intriguing about this whole business: “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.” Why does John follow that first sentence, about nobody ever seeing God, with the second about God abiding in us if we love one another? Because if God is love, the eternal act of love, one way to get a glimpse of God is to love one another. The closer to perfection our love is the more clearly we see God.

Because love is the reason for our creation and because perfect love is our goal, the imperative to love is not arbitrary rule; it is an essential part of the spiritual process. That's why those who do not love do not know God and why claiming to love God but not loving those created in his image is simply lying.

Which raises the question: if this is right here in the Bible, from the first century of Christianity, why has it so often been ignored by Christians? How could they participate in the Crusades, the Inquisition, or other acts of violence? The command to love isn't a big secret. It isn't an obscure passage or in one of the less examined books like Jude. It is in one of the Johannine writings, that shares the language and theology of that most popular of Gospels, John. Right there in John 3:16, we are told that God sent his son because he “so loved the world.”And much of 1 John repeats the fact that God loves us and so therefore we need to love one another. How hard is it to get that this is the heart of the message of the New Testament?

Christians would much rather talk of righteousness and sin and salvation and faith. We would much rather judge others and condemn sinners and nitpick theology. We would much rather attack those who don't say precisely what we say or do precisely what we do. Loving others is hard. And it never ends. If you truly love someone you never stop. You don't stop loving your children when they grow up or your parents when they grow old. If I merely have to be nice to my neighbor occasionally, I can manage that. If I have to love him, it will be harder.

And now you know why laziness, under its old name of sloth, is one of the 7 deadly sins. Virtues are tough to keep up. Perseverance is not a particularly sexy virtue. But without it, virtues are mere whims, a passing urge to do good. But to stick with doing the right thing, especially as it becomes more difficult—that is true nobility. We would rather avoid the inconvenience of making a stand and holding to it. Love, when there is no promise of romance or reciprocity, tends to fade. It takes commitment and persistence. We cannot do it without the Spirit and the grace of God.


Jesus commands us to love one another. If we don't, he says, we do not know him. So to ignore this command betrays a lack of healthy respect for our God. To obey it is to live in him and to experience him living in us. Love is a direct line to God. It is our lifeline. If there is anything to fear in this world, it would be missing out on that. 

Friday, May 1, 2015

I Can See Clearly Now

The scriptures referenced are 2 Corinthians 4:1-6 and John 14:6-14.

Last week we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the launching of the Hubble Space Telescope. It has changed the way we see the universe and revealed the vastness and beauty of God's creation. Through it we have learned a great deal that we didn't and indeed couldn't know until we had the Hubble.

And yet after spending 2.5 billion dollars, they found out that it was flawed. The mirror was too flat by 2.2 micrometers, that is, millionths of a meter. This was fine for bright objects but a whole slew of observations of very distant, very faint objects were impossible. The Hubble became the butt of jokes. One of the Naked Gun movies put it in the same class as the Titanic, the Hindenburg and the Edsel. The solution was to send up spectacles, as it were: two mirrors ground to correct the Hubble's vision.

I was talking to an acquaintance who said the problem with most churches was that they have taken their eyes off Jesus. They are focusing on all kinds of issues, some trivial, some important but they have forgotten what is essential: Jesus. Our focus should be on Jesus Christ—who he is, what he has done for us and what our response to him should be. Everything else must be built on that.

So why the heck are we honoring Saints Philip and James? Why do we honor anyone other than Jesus?

The reason we have the Hubble is because we really can't see outer space very well otherwise. Earth's atmosphere makes looking at the stars akin to looking at the sky from the bottom of a swimming pool, according to one astronomer. We needed something closer to the heavens to see them clearly. And we need people closer to Jesus to see him. Just as we use Hubble's lenses to see the stars, we see Jesus through the eyes of those who hiked the roads of Galilee with him, who crossed the rough seas with him, who ate with him, saw him betrayed and executed and embraced him alive again. And just as Hubble has more than one mirror, we have more than one account of Jesus' life and ministry. Multiple viewpoints give us the proper perspective on our multifaceted Lord.

Jesus himself is the lens through which we see God. As Jesus says to Philip in our Gospel, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” Paul writes in our passage from 2nd Corinthians that Christ “is the image of God.” That's real important because how we see God affects how we respond to him.

When N.T. Wright was a university chaplain, he said that part of his duties at the beginning of every term was to address the new undergrads and tell them what services he and the chapel offered. Afterward as the students left and he shook their hands, many told him that they would probably not be back to the chapel again. “Why?” he would ask them and they would usually say, “Because I don't believe in God.”

That's interesting,” Wright would say. “What kind of God don't you believe in?” And they would often mutter something about a God who was a kind of cosmic killjoy, who when he saw anyone having fun would say, “Cut that out!”

And Wright would reply, “Well, I don't believe in that kind of God either. I believe in the God of love revealed in Jesus Christ.”

Like a lot of us, as a child I thought of God as a kind of cruel taskmaster who was never satisfied with anything I did. I feared God but I did not love him. It was through C.S. Lewis and J.B. Phillips and the New Testament that I saw God afresh. I saw a God who is love. Not a God who is “loving” but who is love itself. Our Triune God is an eternal love relationship, the Father loving the Son loving the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit. The overflowing of that love is what made the heavens and the earth. Jesus came to include us into that circle of love which is the whole reason that we exist.

But we can't always see that. We have polluted the spiritual atmosphere of the world as we have the air we need to breathe. We need a different viewpoint. We need a higher vantage point. We need help seeing God clearly.

In Jesus we see God as he is. And because he is not only fully divine but completely human, in Jesus we see what we can be. We too can be children of God. We too can mirror Jesus, reflecting the glory of his love.

So what about Philip and James? Philip features in the gospels--actually John's gospel--4 times. His record as a disciple is mixed, though. In the first chapter of John he fetches his brother and brings him to Jesus. So that's good. But then Philip pooh-poohs the idea of feeding 5000 people as being too expensive. So not much faith shown there. But then when some Gentiles want to speak to Jesus, he and Andrew approach the Lord. So, Yay! But at the last supper, Philip asks Jesus to show them the Father. “To which Jesus replies, “Don't you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” So not so perceptive.

The thing is that Philip shows that Jesus doesn't choose perfect people to serve him. Not that he has much choice. We are all a mixture of our good moments and our not so good ones, of knowing what to do and of getting it wrong. But Jesus chooses us anyway. And that's a real comfort and a reason for hope.

As for James, all we know of him is that he is the son of Alphaeus. Period. We know his dad. The gospels never record anything he says or does. Well, you know, few if any of us here will be noted in history 2000 years from now. Many of us are quiet. We don't stick out in as crowd. People forget our contributions. They turn to talk to others while we are still speaking to them. We never get the attention that flashier people do. For us, there's James; the quiet disciple, the unspectacular apostle. And yet Jesus chose him. Jesus made him one of the 12. God does not judge by outward appearance but looks at the heart.

Jesus chose “right half the time” Philip and silent James to represent him to the world. Because they, like the imperfect Hubble, could nevertheless be channels of light and offer glimpses of his grace. Even before the corrective mirrors were installed Hubble provided important information about the brightest objects out there. With those mirrors, it was also able to pick up the faintest ones.

With Jesus, the important thing is not being perfect but being willing and persistent. When Jesus told the man with the deaf, mute and epileptic son that “all things are possible for the one who believes,” he said to Jesus, “Lord, I do believe! Help my unbelief!” And that was enough for Jesus to work with. That small mixed, half-despairing, half-hoping trust in Jesus was sufficient for his son to be healed.

Jesus just needs a toehold to get started. If we provide the right soil and faith the size of a mustard seed, Jesus can work with us. We don't have to be a superhero; we just need to be open and responsive. What we have to offer needn't be much. But it must we all we've got. We can't hold back. We need to disown ourselves and pick up our cross and follow Jesus wherever he leads. If we do that, it will be enough.

The liturgical color of the day is red because Philip and James are honored as martyrs. They gave all they had. They died for their faith in Jesus and in doing so, mirrored his self-sacrifice. They reflected the love and grace of God. And for that, they are remembered.


We were created in the image of God and when we marred that, God sent his son to remind us of that image and to restore that image in us. But how can any one of us reveal all the glory of our great and multi-faceted God? We can't. Not all of it. But if each of us reflects just a bit of what God is like, then all of us, coming together in love, can, like pieces of a mosaic, compose a properly large and complex and nuanced image of the ongoing love that is our God, the love that made the universe and which is the beating heart of all creation.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Laying Down the Law

Even when people like the same thing, they often like it for different reasons. I like Sherlock, the BBC's contemporary version of the Great Detective, for many reasons. I like the writing, the clever way they update these Victorian characters, the little details that are nods to the originals, the plots, the humor, and the superb acting. Some people just like it because they think lead actor Benedict Cumberbatch is sexy. You find the same thing in others fandoms, in sports, politics or most hobbies and enthusiasms: even within a group devoted to the same idea or activity, people are drawn to different aspects of it. And the same goes for religion. Some people like it for the inspiration, some for the moral order, some for the fellowship, some for the theology, some for the artistic elements, some for the acts of devotion and some for its precepts. Which is, oddly enough, why there are so many divisions within religions, such as Christianity, despite the fact that we agree on so much. We each feel our approach, our priorities, our emphases are the correct or most important ones. And just as the worst arguments happen within families, we seem to get most upset by those with whom we share the most.

There is a way to resolve this problem, at least within Christianity. Let's look at Jesus and at the Bible. What are the most important things according to our primary sources?

The Torah, the 5 books of Moses, contain 613 commandments by the rabbis' reckoning. And not being stupid, they realized that some must be more important than others. For instance, in a life and death situation, where strict adherence to every little rule might delay or prevent a good Jew from saving someone's life, which commandment takes precedence? When asked this, Jesus gave not one but two commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself. All the law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” (Mt 22:37-40) In Mark's version, Jesus says, “There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mk 12:31) Notice that Jesus is not saying, “These are somewhat important commandments” or “These are interesting commandments.” He says they are the greatest commandments--there are none greater and all the other ethical demands are derived from these two. Or as N.T. Wright puts it, “Everything else is footnotes.”

If you asked a group of people passing by on the street what they thought Christians held to be the most important commandments, what do you think they would say? No gay marriage? No abortions? No teaching evolution? If so, whose fault is it that we have let the emphasis on those things obscure the gospel, the good news of the love of God in Christ? Doesn't Jesus tell us that the commandments to love God and to love others trump every other commandment? Why don't more Christians acknowledge this?

Because it frightens them. The commandments to love are open-ended and non-specific. How do we know what actions are loving? People do lots of things in the name of love. Whereas the other commandments are more measurable. Make an image and worship it? That's a violation. Commit adultery? That's a violation. Work on the Sabbath? That's a violation. Except that even in this example, it's not always easy to determine if a commandment is being broken. Jesus' opponents felt that his healing on the Sabbath broke that commandment. Jesus didn't. To him, it wasn't work; it was an act of love.

And we do know love when we see it. You see lovers on the street walking with arms around each other; you see a mother restraining her child from crossing against the light; you see a man get out of his car, pull a wheelchair out of the back, set it up, lock the brakes and then help his aged parent into it. Those are all acts and signs of love.

There are less clear ones. In public, a mother yells “No!” loudly at her child. Is that abuse? Or is she trying to stop the child from putting the nasty thing it found on the floor in its mouth? You see a child crying in front of a stern-faced father. Is the father being cruel? Or has he just made it clear to the child for the twentieth time that he is not getting the expensive toy he wants today? The woman is putting back on the shelf the food item her aged father just put in his motorized cart. Is she being mean? Unnecessarily frugal? Or is she trying to observe the doctor's orders on what the older man cannot eat if he doesn't want to make his condition worse?

People do a lot of things for love, including inappropriate or even morally wrong things. That's why the commandment to love scares us. Why, it can be an excuse to do just about anything! But not really. You cannot harm someone and call it love. Indeed in the oath that doctors and nurses take they promise to “first, do no harm.” They do not take an oath to love their patients but if we as Christians are to follow Jesus and obey his commandments, it is understood that part of love is doing no harm to others nor allowing any harm to come to them, in so far as we can. Anything that harms or fails to reasonably protect others from harm cannot be considered love.

This is what John is getting at in our passage today. (1 Jn 3:16-24) “How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” Letting the person who needs food or clothes or shelter or healing continue to suffer is not a loving thing to do. Not allowing people to feed the homeless, which is now the law in 33 American cities, is not loving. It makes no sense to say we love God and then do terrible things to those created by him in his image. Or allow terrible things to be done to them. Especially because, as John writes, “We know love by this, that [Jesus Christ] laid down his life for us...” The reason we love Jesus, and the way we know what love truly is, comes from what he did for us. He laid down his life; he set aside all claims to it; he gave it all up. And he did so for us. It only makes sense, then, that “we ought to lay down our lives for each other.” We need to go outside our comfort zones to help those who need it.

Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and in action.” If there is one verse that should be up there with John 3:16, or the passages on the great commandments, as one of the verses we should all memorize, it is this one. We Christians talk a good game but we often sound like fans who enthusiastically discuss sports but don't actually play them. It is acceptable today to think of sports as merely entertainment, watching and paying athletes handsomely to do what we cannot. So we are used to seeing sports fans who are grossly out of shape. But Christianity is not here to entertain us. It is an activity in which participation is mandatory.

John says, “All who obey his commandments abide in him and he abides in them.” How does this work? How does obeying Jesus' commandments lead to him living in us? Because of a fact that John lets drop in the next chapter: “God is love.” Not “God is loving” but “God is love.” God is the ongoing act of love between the persons of the Trinity. And if God is love, then our participating in that divine love makes it part of us. God created us out of the overflowing of that love and having that love in us means that acting in love should naturally flow out of that. As it says in 1st John 4:8, “Whoever does not love does not know God for God is love.” And if we do not know God how can we call ourselves Christians, followers of the God of Love Incarnate? As Sister Claire Joy of the Community of the Holy Spirit said, “...love God above all and then prove it...by loving your neighbor as yourself.”

Remember how we said that all the other commandments are footnotes to the two greatest? Those commandments are all ways one can show love. In one chapter of Leviticus alone (19) we are told: 
“Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the immigrant. I am the Lord your God.
Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not deceive one another....
Do not defraud your neighbor or rob him. Do not hold back the wages of a hired man overnight.
Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind but fear your God. I am the Lord.
Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great but judge your neighbor fairly.
Do not go about spreading slander among your people.
Do not do anything that that endangers your neighbor's life. I am the Lord.
Do not hate your neighbor in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share his guilt.
Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” And, yes, that where Jesus got that commandment.

The chapter goes on to command respect for the elderly and to treat resident aliens as countrymen. There are others which do not apply to us because we do not live in ancient Bronze Age theocratic Israel. But these are all concrete ways of loving our neighbor. There are others.

We can encourage and support and comfort and listen to and empathize with others, especially when they are in distress.
We can teach and guide and share with others helpful knowledge and our experience dealing with challenges.
We can learn from and understand and accept and strengthen and celebrate others' triumphs and joys.
We can hug and laugh with and reconcile with and forgive and ask forgiveness from others.
We can feed the hungry, provide potable water to the thirsty, house the homeless, visit the sick and those in prison, and welcome the immigrant, as Jesus told us to do in Matthew 25.
We can protect the vulnerable and give voice to the voiceless and work for the end of violence.
We can work for justice for all and peace for all.

There are many more ways to show love. They are limited only by our imagination and creativity.

In a way it is not surprising that the hardest commandments are the ones most people forget or ignore. Not many people bring up the command to love our enemies either. It's much easier to concentrate on simpler commandments that have to do with refraining from eating or drinking certain things, dressing a certain way, using or not using certain words, etc. These things are superficial but manageable. But commit yourself to love whomever you encounter--which is Jesus' definition of “neighbor”--and you open yourself up to all kinds of unpredictability. Your neighbor could not only be anyone but their needs could be things that even a Winn Dixie gift card and a boatload of platitudes could not fulfill. Love demands more of us.

Love always costs. Like everything else that's worthwhile, it will take time, it will take energy, it will take attention to detail and it will take money. That's the price of commitment. And love takes commitment. It takes commitment to the person you are trying to love, of course. But it also takes commitment to the whole idea of loving others. You can't just switch it off when you want to. Love means you can't just dismiss people. You can't deem some people unworthy of love. God loves us and if we are honest, we will admit that we can be pretty unlovable at times. God loves us in spite of that. If we are to reflect him, we need to do the same for others. We need to commit to it and make it our top priority in all that we think, in all that we say, in all that we do.

There are lots of laws in the Bible. Jesus says love is at the heart of them. The essential thing is to love God and to love those created in his image, which is everyone you meet. In 1st Corinthians 13, Paul said that you can be smart and do noble and heroic things but if you don't have love, you are nothing. If we try to impose parts of scripture on others without love, we are negating the gospel. The good news is not “You're going to hell.” It is that in Jesus we see what God is like and what we see is that God is love. If you want to know what love is, you need to get to know and follow Jesus. Knowing and being with and in Jesus is heaven. It's not a cloud; it's not Disney World writ large; it's not getting every little thing your heart desires. It's being included in the eternal circle of love that is our God. And it is including everyone we can, inviting them all and removing all the obstacles that are preventing them from entering in. Love is the mark of the Christian; it is how Jesus said the world would recognize us as his disciples. Love is the whole law.


Everything else is footnotes.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Taking the Long View

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

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

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

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

Let's look at each of these objections. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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