Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Good News About Bad News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We'll tackle that next week.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Show; Don't Tell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 9, 2017

System Restore

Jack Parr was the host of the Tonight Show from 1957 to 1962. He was so popular that they actually renamed it The Jack Parr Show. He was, in the words of Wikipedia, “often unpredictable, emotional and principled.” When censors literally cut a joke he told out of the pre-taped program, without telling him, he walked off the program in protest. He returned 3 weeks later when the network apologized and let him tell the joke. He began his first broadcast back with “As I was saying...”

I got interrupted last year by something a lot less forgiving than a TV censor. Tomorrow is the 1 year anniversary of my accident. It was a Saturday afternoon, and besides sidelining me for the better part of 8 months, I was prevented from delivering a sermon I had written for the next day, the first Sunday after Epiphany. 

So as I was saying...

This person I know had his computer crash and he got a new one. And he set it up and ignored a very important warning that was right there on the instruction sheet: Write down the password for logging into the computer itself. He didn't because of, well, arrogance. He thought of a password which fulfilled all the criteria about caps and numbers and symbols but which was easy to remember. And the very next time he signed in, he couldn't get it right and tried every variation of the “easy to remember” password but, you know, computers don't give credit for close and so he could not use the computer for anything but a doorstop. Friends tried to help but nothing worked and so that he could get into his new computer he had to take it to the electronics store and pay to have them restore it to factory settings. Everything he had done in setting it up, all programs he had downloaded, all work he had done on the computer were gone. Lesson learned.

And this got the person thinking about metaphors because that is the strange way this guy's head works. Today we commemorate the Baptism of Our Lord and we contemplate the nature of baptism. And what is baptism but a sort of returning a person's software to its factory settings after they are so screwed up that nothing else can be done? If our bodies are our hardware then the ways we operate them are the software. The basics are already on the hard drive: the capacity for language, the ability for learning our way around the environment, for understanding that some things are able to manipulate the environment and create order, and some things can't. This, by the way, is why children, without any indoctrination, tend to believe in God. According to research cited by Dr. Justin Barrett in his book Born Believers, children very early in life learn to distinguish agents, live things with intent and the ability to make purposeful changes in the environment, from mere objects. They are preset to spot the evidence of unseen agents and to detect the purpose of the things around them. It is natural for them to see order and purpose in nature the way they do in man-made elements. That's their basic programming. Until the age of 12, it is very hard to convince the average child that the world is not made but is the result of countless undirected and random accidents. Even if we are taught otherwise, subconsciously we think in terms of the world and everything in it having a purpose. Indeed having a sense of purpose is vital to happiness.

Along the way, we develop some bad habits when it comes to using our hardware and we download some bad software because everybody else does and because we believe the hype about certain programs. We ignore the terms of service and the changes that the software is going to make in us and what it will demand of us and just accept it. Eventually our operating system can get glitchy. It can cause system-wide problems because of the malware we take on. And it can be bad enough to require a system restore.

Baptism is kinda like a system restore. When everything is so infected and buggy that it's difficult to function normally, we need to be restored to what we were intended to be. That's one of the purposes of baptism. It is not a magic ritual, nor merely an initiation rite. It is a new start in life. Everything old is gone; you are a new creation in Christ.

One of the things you have to do after a system restore is reinstall everything you need. I had to reinstall my preferred word processing program. Or rather this guy did. The new start meant beginning again even with the basics, just as a patient with a new hip or knee needs to learn to walk again. It's a time to unlearn bad habits and institute new and good ones. Diabetics have to rethink the way they eat and exercise. New Christians not only have new teachings and practices to take onboard but also need to start seeing things in new ways, just as I—or this guy—had to install his preferred browser. Your life is no longer seen as your own to live in any way your whimsy dictates. People are no longer divided into those we care for and those we wouldn't spit on if they were on fire. All are seen through the eyes of Jesus. All are created in the image of God. All are either brothers or sisters in Christ or potential brothers or sisters in Christ. We must love all, even if it is not reciprocated. We must pray for all, even those who mistreat us.

This world and its creatures are no longer seen as raw materials for our comfort and amusement but are seen as belonging to God. We are but stewards of them, expected to treat them wisely and to give an accounting of how we took care of them. It's like renting a furnished home. You need to consult the landlord before you just start knocking out walls; some may be load-bearing. And you can't shrug off damages because its not your stuff.

Another thing you do if you had to do a system restore because of malware or a virus is you pay attention to your security. You don't click on ads or strange emails that might harbor a malicious bit of code. The recovering alcoholic will stay away from bars. The newly baptized should likewise avoid areas in which he is most tempted and come up with strategies to deal with those that are unavoidable. If rage is your problem, take anger management classes. If overindulgence is, find an accountability partner. If you are too materialistic, work out a stewardship plan. If you have trouble loving someone, pray for them.

On the positive side, just as there are things you do to keep your computer healthy so there are things you do to remain spiritually healthy. That means updating your computer, especially its security. In the same way, you need to keep in communication with God so that your concerns and his concerns are in sync. In other words you need to pray regularly. And not just in a rote way. Whether you use a prewritten prayer, speak spontaneously, or just listen meditatively, you need to open your heart and mind to God's Spirit. This is vital for spiritual growth and health.

When you first start working with your computer you learn the basics of how it works and also what you need to do to make sure it works correctly. You might even read the owner's manual! In the same way, you ought to read the Bible regularly. It will tell you what God is doing in this world and how he is going about that. It will give you examples of both what you should do and what you should not do. It shows us how God can work even through imperfect people, which is all of us. It also shows you what to do when you screw up. That's one way in which I prefer God's system to computer systems. When I—or the guy—couldn't come up with the password, there was no other way to get into the computer. In fact, if you had not prepared a Password Reset Disk, or had another administrator on the computer, you had no alternative but a system restore. God is more forgiving than computer programmers. We only have to be baptized once. We can seek forgiveness as often as necessary and know that he will not, say, lock us out after 3 attempts. Jesus says we are to forgive our sibling 70 times 7. How much more forgiving is our Lord!

To fix a problem with your computer, it's important to diagnose it properly. If you don't know what's wrong, it is impossible to correct. That's why it's good to have software that scans your computer on a regular schedule to detect and clean out spyware and malware. In health care, we encourage people to do self-examinations for breast and testicular cancers. In the same way, we need to do a spiritual self-examination regularly and confess any sinful attitudes and actions we find. It just makes sense to periodically look for problems or potential problems and get them taken care of before they make things worse.

People rarely use computers offline these day. They use some form of social media to keep in touch with other people. Not only do they spread jokes and cat videos but they also share personal joys and concerns. They encourage one another and even raise money using kickstarters to help get projects off the ground or pay for medical bills. Recently engineers have helped children who are missing hands by designing and using 3D printing to construct prosthetic hands that are much cheaper than those made by medical companies. There are other ways in which people are using computers to help one another.

It is absolutely vital that spirituality not become merely a private, inwardly focused discipline, lest it become isolating and even toxic. The Dead Sea is called that because of its extreme salinity. Located at the Earth's lowest point on land, all other bodies of water in the area, including the Jordan, drain into it but it has no outlet. It is so salty, you can't drink it, you don't want to get it in your eyes, and the immediate area around it is desert. Just so, if you do not go outside yourself and your own concerns, if you do not meaningfully connect with others, if you do not reach out and help others motivated by and using what you have learned from your intimacy with Christ, your spiritual health will be seriously compromised and can even become toxic. Christianity is about love, about being Christ to others and seeing Christ in others and helping everyone better reflect Christ in their lives. Otherwise we set about creating a God in our image and try to make everyone conform to that magnified and distorted picture of ourselves. When you hear someone claiming to speak for Christ but saying things Jesus never said nor would say, they are just trying to make God channel them rather than the other way around.

Finally computers have in some ways made people more honest. Typing something rather than hearing yourself say it out loud can make you less diplomatic. The anonymity that certain forums offer allow people to express their darker thoughts and attitudes, like racism, misogyny, and a general disdain for anybody who doesn't think like them. Reading the comments section of most articles or blog posts can shatter your faith in humanity. But like a malware scan it can reveal the problems that are out there that need to be attended to. It can make our follies and sins all the more obvious by capturing them in black and white. And once they are on the internet, it is almost impossible to cover them up or deny them. Some will just double down and become more arrogant and adamant in their opinions. Approached rightly, however, they can make us more humble. They can make us admit that—yeah, I am that guy and I screwed up and I am sorry and I ask your forgiveness and your support in changing and not being that guy anymore.

We will not become totally glitch-free in this life. But we believe in the resurrection of the dead. Just as your avatar in a computer game can die but be brought back to play again, God can save our software, who we are, and debug it for good and will one day, as priest and physicist John Polkinghorne put it, download it into new hardware. It's the ultimate upgrade. Death and disease and the degradation of who we were created to be will be no more. God plans to do a system restore on all creation. And he wants our participation and our input. And we need not worry about him doing in the same oblivious and alien way that programmers sometimes do. He has become one of us. He has lived and died as one of us. And we can trust him to get it right.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

New Perspective

It is suggested that you change the batteries in your smoke detector when the country changes to and from daylight savings time. There's nothing magical about it; it just serves as a good reminder. The time change is purely arbitrary anyway.

It used to be that you were told to change your oil every 3000 miles. Most modern car manufacturers say you should do it every 7500 to 10,000 miles because of changes in the technology. Nevertheless most mechanics want you to change it every 3000 because it brings in money. Again nobody recommends waiting until your car is about to throw a rod but the specific mileage given is arbitrary.

When we begin our calendar year is arbitrary. Many cultures use a lunar and not a solar calendar so their new year might begin on January 28 (Chinese New Year in 2017) or September 21 (Islamic New Year) or September 20 (Jewish New Year). Despite there being no fixed time when a new year has to begin, every culture makes a big thing out of the day it celebrates the new year. Each has tradition. In Spain you are supposed to swallow 12 grapes as the clock strikes midnight. You are also supposed to wear red underwear. In Japan all Buddhist temples ring their bells 108 times. You are also supposed to send postcards to all your family and friends and make sure they arrive on January 1. In Cambodia it is traditional to donate to charities for the poor on the second day of the new year. In America we make resolutions.

I think one of the reasons most of our resolutions don't last is because we make them at an arbitrary time. Resolutions people keep are made when a pertinent event takes place. After they have a heart attack, people are liable to make resolutions about changing their lifestyles that might actually stick. Colleagues tell me that my accident made them change their minds about driving long distances after an event on the mainland. Jamie Lee Curtis said she resolved to give up recreational drugs at a friend's funeral. Seeing her friend's family grieve made her decide she could not do that to hers.

You need a strong motive to change. It can be self-preservation or love or witnessing something that shocks or angers you or which calls for compassion. For Gandhi it was being thrown off a train in South Africa despite having a first class ticket because a white man complained. For Martin Luther it was finally understanding the meaning of God's grace and finding forgiveness. For St. Francis it was a beggar to whom he gave everything he had. As a nurse, what I have seen is that when the status quo becomes too painful for a person to continue in, he or she at last seeks to change.

Albert “Racehoss” Sample was the mixed race son of an alcoholic black prostitute. He was abused by her until she abandoned him at age 6. He spent his childhood living however he could and his adulthood getting into fights. Finally, during a 30 year sentence, he found himself naked in solitary in the total darkness of “the hole.” In despair he prayed for the first time in his life and literally saw a glimmer of light and felt God's love and presence. He saw his mother's life in a different light. At age 4 her father killed her mother in front of her. Albert forgave her. A voice told him not to worry but to tell others about God. He was released after 17 years, received a full pardon and became the first ex-convict in Texas to work out of the Governor's office, making reforms in corrections and rehabilitation. He won many humanitarian awards for his work.

Some people come to Christ because of the truth of what he said. It resonates with what they have seen or experienced. They are attracted by his mission or his vision of the kingdom of God. But many come because they realize they need to change and they see in him someone who will save and heal them. And as Jesus observed, the ones who are forgiven the most love God the most. (Luke 7:47)

You may be one of those who has never done anything that bad or who has been a churchgoer since you were a child. You may never have had to make a radical change in your life to follow Jesus. Which means he may not mean as much to you as someone he saved from a horrible life such as that of Albert Sample. But as Joni Mitchell pointed out, you don't know what you've got till it's gone. We all have nights when we lay in bed and think icily of the fact that our life will one day end. Sometimes we might speculate how our life would be different if we hadn't met our spouse or had our kids. So let's do a thought experiment. What might your life have been without God or Jesus in it?

Right off the bat, you can throw out any friends you made at church. Unless they also went to your school or were part of another of your social groups, you would probably never have met or bonded with them.

You can also throw out any pleasant memories you ever had in church: Christmas Eve services, youth groups, Sunday School, beloved preachers or teachers, singing in the choir, any of the music you wouldn't encounter in secular settings, any phrases or words from the liturgy or the Bible, any assurance about eternal life, any detailed ethical teachings.

Speaking of which, a recent Pew Research Center study had the famous “nones,” those who are not affiliated with any religion, rate 16 beliefs and behaviors as either essential, important or neither in relation to being a moral person. Their top value, according to 58%, is being honest at all times. That's admirable, although odd, because for both liberals and conservatives, caring for others is their top moral value, according to Jonathan Haight's research. But indeed 67% of all Christians and 81% of highly religious Christians say honesty is essential to being moral. The problem is that we all know people who pride themselves on being honest, when what it really means is they don't filter what they say. They simply spout whatever they think or feel without any consideration of others. Paul writes of speaking the truth with love. There is, unfortunately, nothing in the survey about love.

Where things really diverge is when we get to forgiving others who have wronged you. 69% of all Christians rate it as essential while only 39% of the unaffiliated do. 52% of Christian feel that working to help the poor and needy is essential to being moral; only a third of the non-religious think that way. So their morality is strictly a personal thing having little or nothing to do how one treats others. In fact, only 23%, or less than a quarter of the nones, rate the golden rule as essential to being moral. Practically every religion holds up some form of the golden rule as a key ethical principal. 77% of the non-religious don't see it that way.

So if you grew up without God, you would be less likely to see forgiving others, or helping the poor, or treating others the way you would like to be treated as essential to being a good person. Thus you would be less likely to volunteer to work for a charity. And indeed, a Gallup poll showed that Christians are more likely than the unaffiliated to volunteer time or make donations to charities. You can forget about any relationships formed in that kind of activity. You can also dismiss any good feelings gained by helping others in that way. Remember that the “nones” are not necessarily atheists or agnostics, just those who do not affiliate with an organized religion. Which is possibly why their ethics have mostly to do with themselves and not with their relationships with others.

Without God, what would you put as the top value in your life? Family? Work? Your own personal happiness? While all good, putting them above everything else is not. For instance, if you are overly invested in your family, you will find your happiness and self esteem riding on their doing what you want them to do. Put too much emphasis on your child being a top athlete or a scholar or a doctor or a star and you may be bitterly disappointed if he or she decides to wash cars or wait tables or work as a grocery clerk, rather than put up with stress and high expectations. Worse, they might do what you want them to do, though it is not what they want, and end up miserable. Remember, the Borgias were a tight knit family. Ma Barker put family first. It is not a good policy.

Put work as number one in life and you may well sacrifice your family. And there is no guarantee that you will succeed in business. Napoleon Hill spent his whole life coming up with “get rich quick” schemes. He actually did have a hit with his book, Think and Grow Rich, but he ran through that fortune and at the end of his career ended up broke and left behind many people with ruined lives, including those of his wives and children.

Pursuing happiness is a fool's errand. Happiness is a byproduct of how you live, not something that can be seized and held. A 75 year long Harvard study of 268 men tracked their lives, including IQ, alcohol intake, income and relationships, and came to the conclusion that “Happiness is love. Full stop.” And so you need to find “a way of coping with life that does not push love away.”

Jesus knew that. The two great commandments are about loving. But if you didn't have Jesus in your life how long would it take you to discover that on your own? Would you discover it? Albert Sample did not know what love was from his family. Neither his mother nor his grandmother was able to love him. He found love when he broke down in that pitch black cell and prayed and God came to him.

The sad thing is that many people who have a lot of the so-called “good things in life” don't know real lasting love either. (I remember when Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston broke up, Tina Fey joked, “If these two are tired of having sex with each other, what hope is there for the rest of us?”) The lives of the rich and famous show that neither money, nor beauty, nor acclaim, nor getting what you want can magically make you happy.

So imagine that you are one of the people who does not have God and is seeking a purpose in life (another thing that correlates with happiness). Imagine living your self-contained life, where nothing the world offers can give you lasting peace of mind. Where anything in your life can be taken away by disaster, divorce, financial problems, accident or ill health. Where once the brief span of your life has ended you will cease to exist and as loved ones die off, all memory of you will cease as well.

With Christ all of that changes. You experience a love greater than any mere human love. You get to share that love with others. You are given gifts to use in expressing that love. Your daily life is given meaning by whichever mission you feel called to by Jesus—to teach or to nurse or to help or to make music or to build or to act or to tell jokes or to repair or to listen or to nurture or to comfort or to strengthen or to reconcile or to do a million other things. You can express that love in all you think and say and do.

And you know that his love will last. The pyramids, the Grand Canyon, this very planet will not last forever. God's love will. And those who share that love will as well. We tend to forget that people are created by God to outlast this creation and become part of his new creation. That's one reason why humans and what we do to ourselves and others are important. We are made to last forever. We matter eternally.

People in crises who turn to God discover those things in a very stark way. Those of us who grew up in the church seldom do until we face some major disruption of our lives and then for the first time God is not an option but a necessity. God is not a nice enhancement of our life but the very thing that keeps us alive.

So I want to propose some resolutions that are hopefully easier to keep and will have lasting impact.

1) Commit to learning more about God. Put aside time each day to read the Bible. Get a translation you understand. Put aside time to read Christian books by people like C.S. Lewis and Philip Yancey and David Gushee and N.T. Wright and Dorothy L. Sayers and Barbara Brown Taylor and a host of others. Keep a journal where you put down what you learn about God and Jesus and living as a Christian from them and from your own life experience.

2) Pray daily. If you don't have a regular time to pray, make one. It can be early in the morning or just before bed at night or on your lunch break. Make sure you not only ask God to help you and others but that you thank him for everything you can think of. Be honest in your prayers; it's not like you can hide anything from him. Let him know how you feel. Remember how open the psalmists were about their feelings, both positive and negative. Listen to God, and remember he sometimes speaks through others and through the events in our lives.

3) Consider the real priorities in your life. You can do it simply by looking at where your money goes and by how you spend your time. Do they match what your think your priorities should be? If not, how can you change your life to reflect them? What should you do more of? What should you do less of? To what should you give more money? Where can you cut expenditures?

4) Since loving God and loving other people are our top ethical priorities as Christians, consider how you can reflect that in the way you act. How can you show God's love at work, in group activities, in the way you interact with strangers? Do you really listen to others? Do you go the second mile when people need help? Do you, when encountering a person who is angry or self-destructive, ask yourself, or them, why? Do you look for Christ in all the persons you meet?

The earth doesn't know this is a new year. Our marking of this day as the first of 365 is arbitrary. But we can use it, not as a reminder to change batteries, but to change ourselves Be transformed, said Paul, by the renewal of your mind. If we truly change the way we think, we will change how we live.

Let us pray.

Lord God, heavenly Father, King of the Universe, we thank you for all you've done for us. We especially thank you for sending your son Jesus to reveal your love in his life and in his death for us. We thank you for the promise of our resurrection in his and for imbuing us with your Spirit. Starting now help us to be more like Jesus everyday. Help us to think more like him and talk more like him and act more like him day by day. Help us to see Jesus in everyone we encounter and help everyone we encounter see Jesus in us. And because contemplating doing this for a year is intimidating and exhausting help us to focus on being Christlike today, at this moment in this place with each person before us. We ask all these things in the name of the one who made us, the one who died for us, and the one who lives in us, the one God who reigns forever and ever. Amen.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Hard Christmas

Christmas is not hard on kids. Well, there is the waiting. And the wondering what you'll get. And the trying to be extra-good so you get what you wanted. Kids aren't good at patience and waiting. So maybe it's a wee bit hard on kids.

But Christmas is really hard on parents. They're the ones engineering Christmas for the family. They're the ones purchasing presents and paper and trees. They're the ones setting up the trees and cooking the food and arranging for visiting relatives. This was true 60 years ago in Great Britain because C.S. Lewis said that after the hectic season leading up to Christmas, people look less like they've been celebrating and more like they've just had a major illness. They need a holiday to recover from the holiday.

The first Christmas wasn't much better. Contrary to our Hallmark card vision of the nativity, Mary and Joseph had a tough time. First, there was the timing of the pregnancy. Betrothal at that time and in that culture was as binding as marriage but without the sex. Mary was right to be troubled by the angel's announcement. Getting pregnant before actually sleeping with Joseph could get her killed. If Joseph was mad enough, he could denounce her and they would drag Mary out of town and stone her to death. Joseph shows mercy in the solution he came up with, quietly divorcing her, but still the outcome would be bad for her. She would be a fallen woman with a child, damaged goods. She would probably have to leave her hometown and finding another husband would be very difficult. As a single woman with a fatherless child she would be a disgrace in an honor/shame culture, with absolutely no social standing or economic power.

But by not getting rid of Mary, Joseph would lose his standing as a righteous man, a Jew who scrupulously followed the law. There would always be rumors. He would also be seen as damaged goods by the religious community of his small town. Yet as Mary did when visited by an angel, Joseph accepts God's will and does the right thing, despite the personal consequences.

So both Mary and Joseph showed a lot of courage in what they did. But it wasn't smooth sailing from there. The Roman Empire held one of its periodic censuses. Unlike the ones we are used to, this was primarily for accurate tax records. Which means Joseph will have to go back to his ancestral home of Bethlehem. Why? He probably had some family property there. Otherwise, he could have stayed in Nazareth, his current town. But this means at least 3 days travel because the Holy Land is as long as the Keys and Joseph will have to walk it with whatever provisions he needed.

And he is faced with a choice: take his pregnant, due-any-day wife with him or leave her behind. Whether it was to spare her the malicious gossip of a small town, where she may have lost friends due to her condition or whether it's because they loved each other, they decide to travel together. Which means twice as many provisions. And possibly a donkey, though scripture doesn't tell us this poor couple actually used one. So things just get harder.

Once they arrive in Bethlehem, the level of difficulty goes up because (A) housing is a problem and (B) Mary goes into labor. I am reading the excellent book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes by Kenneth E. Bailey. He explains that the traditional translation of Luke 2:7 (“...there was no place for them in the inn.”) is wrong. What it should say is that there was no place for them in the guest room. If Joseph is going to his hometown, where he owns property, he surely has relatives, however distant, there. And by the rules of Middle Eastern hospitality, nobody was going to let Joseph and his wife in labor sleep in a corral. But if the guest room was already occupied, they would have to sleep in the only other room, the main family room. This room was typically built on two levels. As you walked through the door, you would be on the lower level. At night, your animals (a cow, a donkey, some sheep) would be brought in and stay there. Steps from that level lead up 2 or 3 feet to a raised portion where the family did everything, including eating and sleeping. Between the two levels, on the lip of raised part, was a feeding trough or two for the animals. So Mary would have delivered in the family room, raised above the animal stall but one of the feed boxes would have been commandeered for use as a makeshift cradle for Jesus. So, no, they wouldn't have been in a cave or a rickety shed exposed to the elements but, yeah, it wouldn't have been that pleasant, and the animals would be right there, doing their business. Imagine delivering a baby in a studio apartment with a small menagerie looking on and smelling up the place.

So this is how the Messiah enters the world, not in a hospital, not laid in an incubator but in the living room/bedroom of a tiny family home, crowded with relatives and livestock. God wasn't making things cushy for the people raising his son.

Now think about how you would treat your son. Would you have him born in those circumstances? Surely there were some rich descendants of David to serve as parents. Why didn't God put his son in a better environment with more resources available to him?

The vast majority of the people in the world are not wealthy. In fact, Oxfam published a study this year that showed that the earth's 62 richest individuals have wealth equal to that of half the world's population; 62 persons have as much 3½ billion people. The worldwide median household income is just under $10,000. The wealthy have always been less representative of the bulk of humanity.  So if God wants his son to understand how the average human being lives, he needs to put him with a poor family. (And we know that Mary and Joseph are poor because when they go to the temple to make an offering for the birth of Jesus, they give a pair of doves or pigeons, the least expensive offering required by the Torah.)

This difficult Christmas would be followed by a difficult life. Mary and Joseph would have at least 4 more sons and an indeterminate number of daughters. Joseph apparently dies before Jesus sees the age of 30, so for a while he is the family breadwinner. His mother is a widow and Jesus actually makes provision for his beloved disciple to take care of her—and he does this from the cross!

We have this idyllic picture of the birth of Jesus. It was anything but. And his life was not an easy one. And that's a good thing. Our lives are not easy. We deal with financial problems, family problems, disease and death. And Jesus did too. We know pain, both emotional and physical. Jesus did too. And when you are suffering it helps to know and talk with someone who's been there. Which means we can talk to Jesus about whatever we are undergoing and know that he understands and will act out of love to help us get through it.

To return to Mary and Joseph, what can we learn from them? First, when God is asking something of you, have the courage to say “Yes.” But don't expect an easy time doing what God wants you to. It is a measure of God's trust that he gives us challenging tasks. If your 2 year old wants to help you do a chore you give her something very easy to do, something she almost can't fail at. You can ask a 12 year old to do things that require a higher level of difficulty. God trusts us so much that he gives us tasks that require intelligence, persistence, strength and even creativity. As always we have his help but not to the point that we are mere puppets. Instead he extends to us the privilege of serving him as people created in his image.

Secondly, I think what we can learn is you can do what God asks even when you don't have all the resources to do it “properly.” Mary could have said, “Thanks, Gabriel, but I'm barely out of puberty. There is no way I am prepared to raise God's son. Go ask Dinah down the street. She's already married and has done a good job with her twins.” Joseph could have said, “Thanks, but I am not a rich landowner; I'm a carpenter who does a bunch of small jobs to eke out a living. It's going to be a stretch to support a wife. I don't think we could handle a kid at this point. Try Abinadab, who owns a vineyard on the outskirts of town.”

But they didn't. They said, “Here I am, Lord. I'll do it.” And then they made do. Gotta travel so close to the due date? OK. Gonna have the baby in a distant relative's living room with a bunch of animals standing about? Very well. Gotta pick up and move in the middle of the night to Egypt to avoid the wrath of a homicidal, paranoid monarch? Let's get cracking. Mary and Joseph's can-do attitude is an vital one in following God.

Our church is not unusual in being small and struggling. Sadly, most churches, especially in rural setting, are in the same boat. But the original church was a handful of people meeting in an upstairs room. As the church spread it encountered official persecution. They couldn't build churches, so they met in people's homes. They would have loved to have a dedicated worship space like this. For that matter, there are lots of third world churches whose members would weep with joy to have our kitchen. They would be awed to have access to our humble computer. And they would not know what to make of our air conditioning. To them our little church would be a veritable temple.

Our biggest resource is ourselves. We all have brains and education. We all have skills and talents. We all have friends and acquaintances. When we need to, we can think things out. We can draw upon the gifts of our members to do what needs to be done. We can invite people we know to join us. We can do it if we have to. We have to grow. Once something stops growing, it starts dying.

We need to let go of the idea that we can't do anything unless we can do it perfectly. That's a great recipe to not get anything done. As G. K. Chesterton said, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” All early attempts are imperfect. Everything needs to be refined as it goes along. Edison had to try out at least 100 different materials till he found the right filament for his light bulb. Dr. Seuss had his first book rejected by 27 publishers before it was accepted. During its first 28 attempts to launch a rocket into space, NASA had 20 failures.

Maybe that's why the angel greeted both Mary and Joseph with the same words—“Do not be afraid.” We mustn't be afraid to fail. We must instead be afraid of saying “No” to God when he is leading us in an unconventional direction. And we have something those famous failures who eventually succeeded didn't: the Spirit of God working in us.

The first Christmas was a disaster. But the person Jesus grew into was a triumph. The world tells us you need to be extraordinary to do extraordinary things. The Bible shows us that's not true. Mary and Joseph did what they could with what they had and, with God's help, that was enough. We need their courage to look at the unlikely task God has asked of us and say, “Here I am, Lord. I'll do it.” 

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Hero's Quest

We understand the world and ourselves in terms of stories. Kids get hooked on stories early. We read stories to them. They see them on TV. And they eventually want to hear the story of their family, how Mommy and Daddy met or stories of what they did as a baby. Our faith is transmitted largely through stories. And Joseph Campbell noticed that almost all stories have the same structure. They start with a protagonist who is called to adventure. He leaves his home and travels to another place. He encounters various trials. He may receive help from a father figure. He may be enticed by a woman. He discovers a great boon and returns home with it, the master of two realms. And while perhaps not all stories fit the Hero's Quest, as Campbell called it, most of the great ones, the ones that resonate with us, do.

Let's take two from pop culture. Star Wars was consciously modeled after Campbell's theories. The hero, Luke Skywalker, lives on a boring desert planet. His call to adventure is the message from Princess Leia that he discovers in the droid his uncle just bought. That leads him to Obi-wan Kenobi, a father figure who aids him by teaching him the ways of the Force. They travel in the Millennium Falcon into space and are pulled into the Death Star. Luke and his companions rescue the princess. Obi-wan sacrifices himself so they can escape. They return with the rebels. Luke destroys the Death Star with the help of the Force and returns a hero.

The Godfather also fits the pattern set out by Campbell. Michael Corleone is the son of Vito Corleone, a Mafia don. Michael is a war hero, a Marine, with a college education whom his father hopes will go legit and become a senator. Then Vito is gunned down in a mob war and Michael decides to avenge his father. With the help of Clemenza, a capo and friend of his father, Michael kills the men responsible and flees the country to Sicily. There he marries a local girl who is killed by a car bomb meant for him. He returns to avenge his brother Sonny and take over his father's business. He becomes the new godfather.

Interesting how both a story of heroism and a story of a man becoming the monster his father was both follow the main points of the Hero's Quest, or to use Campbell's other name for the story, the monomyth. For this reason I rather like Dan Harmon's simplification of the story. In his version, the protagonist starts out in a comfortable or at least a familiar place. Yet something is not right. He needs something in order to fix it. He leaves to get it and goes to another place, often a place of chaos. As he searches for what he needs, he undergoes trials and learns to adapt to the new order of things. He finds what he needs and takes it but pays a great price. He returns but is a changed person.

Now you can see more clearly the parallels between the two stories. Luke is called from the farm he grew up on. Michael is called from a comfortable life. Luke needs to go get the princess. Michael needs to protect his father and avenge him. Luke joins the rebellion and goes into space. Michael joins in the ways of the Mafia and flees to Sicily. In the Death Star Luke meets Leia, who kisses him. In Sicily Michael marries Apollonia. Luke destroys the Death Star and flies back to the rebel base. Michael kills the heads of the 5 families and returns to the family business. Luke becomes a Jedi knight. Michael becomes a Mafia don.

It works with just about any story, whether the protagonist is good or bad. It works with superhero stories, coming of age stories, rags to riches stories, science fiction stories, historical romances, and detective stories. Why is it so universal? Is there an archetype deep in our collective psyche?

Let's look at the story that brings us here tonight. The Son of God lives eternally in God his Father's love. But something is not right with the earth, God's creation. It has become corrupted with sin and evil. He leaves heaven to come to earth and become a human being. Though he speaks the truth about God's love and forgiveness, he nevertheless faces opposition. He finds a few people who believe him. He is tried and crucified by those who don't. He descends into the realm of death. He returns from death to life, bestows his Spirit upon his followers and returns to the Father. It fits.

But there is something that is different about this story. Luke has a lightsaber and an X-wing jet. His quest ends in the death of the millions who live on the planet-sized Death Star, including technicians and food workers and janitors. Michael has guns and an army of mob assassins and achieve his goal by taking out his enemies. Batman tries not to kill his enemies but he is not opposed to beating them into unconsciousness and hurling sharp batarangs into them. Superman can level cities in his fights. The Lord of the Rings features several battles. Robin Hood shoots knights with his arrows. King Arthur and his knights wield their swords. In almost all of our stories the good guys win by committing violence upon the bad guys.

But that's what we see in this world, isn't it? Bad guys have no qualms about hurting good guys so good guys should retaliate by hurting bad guys, right? Of course in the real world the definition of who is good and who is bad is harder to determine. They are all human beings who can and often do both good things and bad things. And from their own viewpoint, nobody sees themselves as evil.

Let's say someone hates our president, wants to remove him from power and then invades with overwhelming force. In our eyes they are the bad guys. But let's say this is Iraq, our president is Saddam Hussein and the invaders are Americans. To most Iraqis the Americans are not the good guys. That's why a lot of their top officers joined ISIS. To them we are the evil Empire and they are the scrappy rebels. Because if both sides are using the same basic tactics—violence—it's tough to tell who is good and who is bad.

In the movies the difference between the two sides is that bad guys kill good guys whereas good guys kill bad guys. But after a while Hollywood figured out that this isn't a very useful moral yardstick. One of the things that bothered me about the Matrix movies is that they establish that if you kill someone in the matrix you kill the human person in the real world, who is, by the way, just being used as a battery and is unaware that they are avatars in a simulation. Plus these people can be taken over by Agent Smith and his ilk. So Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus are killing other humans who are unwitting pawns of the programs.

So now bad guys in the movies are robots or aliens or zombies or vampires or orcs. That way the good guys can kill a slew of them without looking like they are committing war crimes like genocide. But that also means those stories we love are not very useful in dealing with evil in the much more complex real world with human beings.

And indeed what we seldom see in the fantasy wars of the cinema are things like the ruins of Aleppo. We don't see the widows and orphans that blowing up the Death Star left. We don't see the dead children, the people with missing limbs, the soldiers with brain damage, or the survivors with PTSD that we see in real life. That's what war does. That's why real soldiers, like my dad was, rarely talk about war and what it's really like. And if they try and are honest about it, they find that family and friends are so upset they stop asking about it. That's why Frodo is not a happy hero at the end of the Lord of the Rings. J.R.R. Tolkien fought in World War 1. He couldn't even pretty up war's effects in his fantasy world.

What's different about Jesus' story is that his only weapons are truth and the power to give life. Instead of wounding others, he heals them. Instead of killing people, he raises them from the dead. Instead of establishing his kingdom by shedding the blood of his enemies, his kingdom is based on letting them shed his blood.

People say Jesus is naive. They say his way won't work. They also say one definition of stupidity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. People have been fighting and killing each other for 10s of thousands of years. According to the UN there are at any given time about 40 wars going on around the world. It hasn't made the earth noticeably better.

But what about Jesus' way? Hasn't it been tried and found wanting? On the contrary, as G.K. Chesterton said, Christianity has been found to be difficult and not tried. Not in any large or sustained way. When people have tried to truly love their neighbors, to really forgive others as they wish to be forgiven, to actually reach out and listen to and show love to their enemies, it has worked.

Johnny Lee Clary joined the Ku Klux Klan when he was 14 and was the Imperial Wizard, the head of the KKK, by age 30. He believed in white supremacy and in violence against non-whites. He even set fire to the church of the Rev. Wade Watts, a black civil rights advocate. But his contact with Watts, with whom he debated several times, changed him. Not only did he leave the Klan, and work with Watts and the NAACP, he eventually became a minister. He was the only white man ever ordained in the black Church of God in Christ. He was a changed man.

Joshua Milton Blahyi was a feared warlord in the African nation of Liberia. He led child soldiers into battle in the 90s when Liberia was controlled by rival militias. He went into battle wearing only shoes and magic charms he believed would protect him from bullets. He believed that cannibalism and human sacrifice was necessary for the magic to work. He claims he killed thousands of people. After one battle he saw a vision of Jesus and he left the battlefield. When the hostilities were over and Liberia had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Blahyi was the first warlord to testify. He confessed to his crimes and said he was sorry. In 2007 he founded Journeys Against Violence to rehabilitate the former child soldiers he led. He lives in modest quarters and preaches in small churches that if God can forgive him, he can forgive anyone.

When I was chaplain at the jail, the Bibles I distributed from the American Bible Society had a forward written by David Berkowitz. Yes, the infamous Son of Sam who shot 13 people, killing 6. In prison in 1987, he became a Christian. In 2002 he was up for parole. He wrote the Governor of New York and asked that his parole hearing be canceled. He wrote, “In all honesty, I believe that I deserve to be in prison for the rest of my life. I have, with God's help, long ago come to terms with my situation and I have accepted my punishment.” He has continued to refuse parole. In his introduction to the Bible, he said that he has been called to minister to his fellow prisoners.

In our stories, we divide everyone into good guys and bad guys. The story is about how the good guys get rid of the bad guys. Jesus' story is, too. But the way he eliminates bad guys is by turning them into good guys. He forgives and heals and restores them to the persons God intended them to be. Sometimes one of our stories is about a bad guy with a guilty conscience who is trying to redeem himself. Jesus redeems others by taking upon himself the consequences of what they are guilty of.

In our minds, our life is a story and we are the hero or heroine. We know something is not right and we seek that which will make things better. We look for what we are missing among the stuff the world tells us is important—money, sex, power, admiration, vindication, etc. How do we go about it? We may not use violence but do we in other ways ignore the needs of others in order to get it? And when we get it, if we get it, is it really all it's cracked up to be? Does it fill the emptiness we sometimes feel? Did what we do to get it change us? Does it make us into a better person or not?

Jesus is calling us to adventure. He is calling us to make his story our story. He says what we need is the love and healing and forgiveness and sense of purpose only he can give. But we need to leave the rut of our comfortable life, or maybe our uncomfortable but familiar life, and venture into a new life. He won't lie to us. There will be trials and temptations. There will be times when you will be challenged for doing not the wrong thing but the right thing. You will have to leave behind cherished thoughts and habits that are really unhelpful and self-defeating in order to find new ways of thinking and acting that are actually healthy and liberating. But he will imbue you with his Spirit and guide you through the dark times and hold your hand through the scary parts. And it will change you. You will become the person God wants you to be, the person he created you to be.

It may not be glamorous. After all, the one who calls you was born in a barn and his cradle was a feeding trough. He didn't lift x-wings out of swamps; he lifted people from illness and despair. He didn't battle dragons with a magic sword; he fought ignorance, indifference, hypocrisy and arrogance with truth, compassion, integrity and humility. He didn't kill the bad guys; they killed him. And then he rose again. And it is he whom we remember and revere, not them. Nobody says they want to be like Pilate or Caiaphas; they want to be like Jesus.

And that's what he calls us to: to be like him—to heal, not to harm; to build up, not to destroy; to unite, not to divide; to love, not to hate; to be Christlike.

The stories of Johnny Lee Clary, Joshua Milton Blahyi, and David Berkowitz should have had very different endings. In the movies, they would have. They would have been villains, destined to die at the hands of the hero. But Jesus is their hero. He stepped into the picture and their stories went in unexpected directions. In a major plot twist, the bad guys turned into good guys.

Where is your story headed? Is it turning bad? Is it turning sad? Is it turning scary? Or is it just meandering? It can change. You can change. Your past need not determine your future. Every second is a second chance to turn things around.

Jesus is calling. He is calling you to be part of something bigger, something greater, something nobler. Don't stay on the farm; don't stay in the Shire; don't stay in Kansas anymore. There is something wrong with this world and you can be one of those people who makes it better. You can be a peacemaker, a light to the world, a child of God, a hero. Like Jesus. Christ is born today; the new you in Christ can be too.