Monday, December 5, 2016

Who's Gonna Fix This?

Do animals envision a better world? Do they speculate at all? Or are we humans the only ones who can imagine the world being different than it is? Scientists debate this. But it leads to an even deeper question: why are we able to do this? Where do these images of things that never were, that we have no actual experience of, come from? I can see where we get the concept of things being somewhat better. That's merely tweaking our experience. But where do we get the concept of perfection? We have never been in a situation where absolutely everything goes right. And yet we tend to judge everything against a standard of the ideal way of things working. Humans everywhere have a deep-seating feeling that such a thing as perfection exists, either in the distant past, or in the far future, or on some other plane of existence.

The Bible affirms all three. We were created to live in a paradise. God will recreate the world as a paradise sometime in the future. And heaven, where God dwells, is a paradise. But our present experience is not just of things not quite working right but of actual harm being done. We live in a world with injustice and pain, where people are violently in conflict with each other and with nature.

One way of dealing with this truth is to deny or ignore it. We try to create a bubble of comfort for ourselves and those we love. Our country makes a pretty good bubble. We only represent 7% of the earth's population. Most of us can read and write. You probably don't know any of the 14% in the world who can't. Oh, and 66% of the world's illiterate are women. We have clean water. 13% of the world's people don't. We have homes. 23% of the world's population doesn't have some sort of shelter. We are properly nourished and 36.5% of us are actually overweight. 15% of the world is malnourished and 1% is starving. Most of us have internet. 56% of the world's population doesn't. Most of us have cell phones. A quarter of the world's people do not. If you attended college, you are part of the mere 7% in the world who have. And if you make more than $90 a day, you are among the 1% in the world who do. 56% of the people in the world make between $2 and $10 a day and and additional 15% make less than $2 a day. So 71% of the world have to live on less than a moderate lunch in America costs. In consequence, 1% of the world's population controls 50% of the money.

If you live in certain places of this country, it is easy to think the way you live is the norm and that those who lack what you have must live far away in tiny pockets of the third world. But 14% of people in the US can't read, including 19% of our high school graduates. And 70% of our prison inmates can't read, which may have something to do with where they ended up. There are 643,000 homeless in our country and 44% of them are employed. 14.6% of Americans can't count on having food on any particular day. The most recent census data shows that half the US population either qualifies as poor or low income. 1 in 5 Millennials live in poverty as do 14% of seniors and 18% of children. 1½ million American households live on less than $2 a day before government benefits, which includes 2.8 million children. UNICEF ranks the US as having the 2nd highest child relative poverty rates in the developed world. Even in this country you have to live in a very tiny bubble to deny or ignore the fact that a lot of people suffer from deprivation and injustice.

Another way to deal with the injustice and pain in this world is to acknowledge it but to say that's just the way things are. Things are bad for some people and they will stay bad. Some will get enough to live on and some will get more than enough and some won't get either. It's always been that way and it always will be. Just give up on solving those inequities. The problem with thinking this way is that it goes against our sense of justice. So some people act as if the world is by and large a meritocracy. Oh, sure, some innocent people suffer but most of the time people get what they deserve.

We know that's not true. Remember how 44% of the homeless are employed? If this world were just, they would be able to afford a place to live. If this were a just world, then 2.8 million children in the richest country in the world wouldn't be trying to live on less than $2 a day. If this were a just world, 1% of the population wouldn't control 50% of the money. 

Now what caused those problems? Are they result of happenstance or are they intentional? Are they more like the weather or are they more like the situation when you have a bunch of kids over to play and they rush to the toy box and each grabs what they want, some more than they can actually play with, even if it means those who come last get little or nothing? In other words, do you think that the fact that a lot of people are lacking the basics is totally beyond our control, caused largely by, say, disasters, or primarily within our control, that is, caused by some people grabbing more than they need or deserve and others missing out because they weren't as powerful and aggressive as others?

The other way to deal with the injustice and pain in this world is to try to fix it. That's what God wants us to do. And a lot of people do try to fix the world's problems. But obviously not enough. Nonprofit organizations account for just 10.3% of all private sector jobs in the US. That's 11½ million people out of a nation of 325 million, or just over 3 people out of 100. And only 25.4% of the US population volunteer, a 10 year low. And of course, not all nonprofits do as much good as others. The Tampa Bay Times once compiled a list of the 50 worst charities, primarily those who use less than 4% of the money raised to actually aid the cause they espouse. The rest goes to salaries and fund raising. They say they do things like grant dying kid's wishes, or help disabled police officers, or veterans, or cancer patients. But they are merely taking advantage of donors' generosity to enrich themselves. They are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

We flawed human beings need to be fixed as well. As John the Baptist says in our gospel (Matthew 3: 1-12) we need to be baptized, immersed in the Holy Spirit. We need to be changed. And we can't do it ourselves. We need outside help. We need leadership. We need someone who not only knows how to fix the problems of this world but who knows how it is supposed to work. And that's what we get in our passage from Isaiah 11:1-10.

A shoot will come out from the stump of Jesse...” Jesse was the father of David. The royal line was left a stump after the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem and took the Jews into exile. Descendants of David existed but they never took the throne again when the people were allowed to return to Judea. God will remedy that.

But this Davidic ruler will be different. Roughly half of the kings of Judea were bad. But the “spirit of the Lord shall rest on” this anointed king. And then Isaiah enumerates the properties of this spirit. “The spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.” Notice that 4 out of those 6 attributes are cognitive: wisdom, understanding, counsel, and knowledge. This precludes someone who acts on impulse; you want a ruler who thinks first and then acts.

Wisdom is mentioned first because it is primary. Mere intelligence is not enough. For instance, knowledge is important—you need to have the facts at your command—but you need wisdom in order to correctly use that knowledge. As they say, knowledge is knowing that a tomato is actually a fruit; wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad. Wisdom is a deeper knowledge of how things really work, as well as what really matters. In contrast, it is said that a cynic knows the price of everything but the value of nothing. Wisdom is giving the proper weight to all factors.

Understanding is key as well. You want a ruler who has insight into people and processes. Studies have shown that psychopaths often rise to positions of leadership because of their superficial charm, ruthless manipulation of others, lack of empathy and lack of fear. In Jesus, we get someone who understands our pain and suffering. Jesus said, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45) He is the model of the servant-leader, the person who leads not for his own benefit but for the benefit of those he governs.

Counsel is another characteristic of God's ruler. In other contexts the Hebrew word means advice. Again this flows from wisdom. Being able to take advice and give advice is something you want to see in a leader. But would the Messiah, God Incarnate, take our advice? We see that God does listen to and modify the execution of his plans when, for instance, Abraham bargains for mercy for Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:16-33) and when Moses asks God to be merciful to the Israelites when they worship the golden calf (Exodus 32:1-14). Why should we pray if God is absolutely implacable? God is responsive to our input and so is his Messiah.

The remaining attributes are an attitude and power. Fear of the Lord, a proper respect and reverence for God, is the beginning of wisdom, says Proverbs 9:10. There are a lot of factors that a ruler must take into account, like his supporters and what's popular. But often those considerations have led rulers into doing things that ignore God's standards. For instance, the high feelings that people had after 9/11 led our government to resort to methods of torture, called enhanced interrogation techniques, which the laws of the world and our country prohibited. Fear of the Lord would make a leader consider what Christ said—that we must love our enemies, that we must treat others the way we wish to be treated, that what we do to others we do to Jesus—and decide not to do something that failed to meet the standards by which our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ commands us to live.

And that leads us to the subject of power. Power can be used for good or for evil. Electricity can be used to electrocute a person or to get his heart rhythm back to normal. God promises that his ruler will not use power for evil but use knowledge, wisdom, counsel, understanding and respect for God in deciding how to use the power granted to him.

One way in which we see this in practice is how he uses his authority to judge. “He shall not judge by what his eyes see or decide by what his ears hear...” We all know how unreliable hearsay evidence is and science has confirmed that even eyewitness testimony can be flawed and manipulated. Look no further than the videotaped interrogation of Brenden Dassey, found in the Netflix documentary Making a Murderer. Without a lawyer present, this minor is pushed by detectives to change his testimony to saying he was a participant in a horrific crime, though he is clearly unaware of the details of the crime, like what weapon was used. He also doesn't understand the consequences of signing a confession. After saying what the officers want him to say—that he raped and murdered a woman—he asks if he can return to class. By which he means his special education classes. Which he takes because his IQ is in the borderline deficiency range. He is now serving life in prison. 

In contrast, Isaiah writes about God's ruler, “...but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth...” And why, you may ask, are the poor and meek addressed specifically? Because the powerful are rarely in real jeopardy. They have resources. We have seen where a corporation, like T-Mobile or Wells Fargo or Comcast or Humana (and I could go on), is fined millions of dollars and yet the company has billions and can write it off as the cost of doing business. Whereas the poor (the Hebrew word has overtones of “weak”) and the meek (the word here has overtones of the “browbeat” and the “oppressed”) are relatively powerless and need help. On NPR's interview series Here's the Thing defense attorney Dean Strang tells of one trial in which the case for including certain evidence and the case for excluding it were equally strong. The judge said that US law presumes the innocence of the defendant and so he felt he must find for the defendant. The burden to prove a crime falls on the prosecution. The judge decided for the weak.

Which leads to verse 5. I like how the Today's English Version renders it: “He will rule his people with justice and integrity.” And that's what we want.

Verses 6 through 8 give us a poetic picture of the reconciliation of nature and humanity. Predation will end not only among humans but even among animals. The vulnerable will be protected. “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, “ says the Lord. Contrast that with today where the Leatherback Turtle, the Black Rhinoceros, the Chinese Crocodile, the Seychelles Sheath-tail Bat, the Dama Gazelle, the Wild Bactrian Camel and the Sumarian Orangutan are all expected to go extinct in the next 10 years.

Finally and significantly for a Jewish prophet, Isaiah says “...the nations shall inquire of him...” meaning the non-Jewish people will ask for the Messiah's counsel. Our passage from Romans 15:10 quotes Deuteronomy 32:43. “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.” God has not forgotten his people nor will he neglect the other nations. Under the Messiah, the Gentiles and the Jews will come together.

That is the way we want things to work, right? We want someone, and we know it can't be a mere human, who will restore justice and peace to this world. We long to see things run with knowledge, good advice, wisdom and understanding. We want power used to right wrongs and not to perpetuate them. We want nature to thrive and not wither. We want a world safe for children and the vulnerable. We want all people to come together.

That's what God initiated when he came to us in Christ Jesus. That's the work he wants us to continue till Jesus comes again. That what will be completed when Christ returns.

Or is it? When I was researching for our Bible study that commenced last Wednesday I was reading the Greek version of the annunciation in Luke. And in Luke 1:33 Gabriel tells Mary about her son: “...and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.” The Greek verb for "end" also means "conclude" or "complete." So this means his kingdom will never be completed?

And then I realized, of course. When you build something you don't say, “Well, I'll never have to clean it or repair it or work on it ever again.” You need to maintain it or it will fall apart. God's kingdom isn't going into stasis; it won't be frozen, never to change. The work of maintaining justice and equity goes on. The work of maintaining peace continues. The work of learning and understanding God and those made in his image is ongoing. Our life in the new creation won't be sitting around on our fat behinds like the people on the spaceship in Wall-E. We will be doing our part in keeping the kingdom working properly.

I recently read about the difference between merely liking something and really loving it. If you like a flower, you pluck it and put it in water but eventually you have to throw the withered, dead thing out. If you love a flower, you don't pick it. You plant it and water it and fertilize it and nurture its growth. God doesn't just like us; he loves us. He's not going to press us in a book. He wants us to live and flourish and blossom. And as people who are following his son, that what's we are to do and what we will be doing ever after: loving and nurturing others, so we all grow and become ever more like our limitless, wise and loving God.

Sunday, November 27, 2016


Just this week I started riding a bike—well, a trike really—to the church on the days I have office hours. When I was in physical therapy the first 15 minutes of each session was spent peddling a stationary bike. I need exercise; the weather was lovely; and I live only about a mile from here. Thanks to Peggy for lending me the adult tricycle. The only problem was that the trike had no light. So I had my son drive me to the bike shop on the island so I could pick one up. Also, I got a helmet and I got a rear view mirror that clips to my glasses. The main reason for all of those things is protection. The mirror helps me keep track of cars coming up behind me; the helmet protects me from brain damage; the light helps me see and be seen when I drive during the increasingly early twilight hours.

Everybody is, if not afraid of the dark, at least more cautious in it. Darkness hides stuff. It could be a serial killer or it could be something you might trip over. The latter concerns me more than the former. When you are driving darkness can obscure potholes or people or key deer in your path. You don't want to hit any of those. Of course, if you are a serial killer, or doing anything illegal or unethical or disreputable you might want the darkness to hide you and what you are doing. The reason we have lighted certain areas of cities or the outside of our houses and businesses is at least partially to flush out thieves and robbers and all manner of unwanted activity.

Light reveals things and by doing so, protects us from threats we otherwise might not know about. It can change the threat. Psychological experiments have shown that people do not cheat or steal when they think they might be observed. As Jesus said, “Everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds be exposed.” (John 3:20) Small wonder then that light and darkness have taken on metaphorical meanings as stand-ins for good and evil.

In the first chapter of the Bible, Genesis 1, the first thing God does is create light. And in the last chapter of the Bible, Revelation 22, God eliminates all darkness: “And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.” (Rev 22:5) 

Light is associated with life. In the first chapter of John, Christ is called “the true light” and it says, “In him was life and the life was the light of men.” (John 1:5) It is also a symbol of joy. Psalm 97:11 says, “Light dawns for the righteous and joy for the upright in heart.” It also stands for wisdom and truth. Psalm 119:130 says, “The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple.” (By the way, notice the parallelism in the psalms, saying the same thing 2 ways. That will be important later.)

In 1 John 1:5 it says, “God is light and in him is no darkness at all.” Since God is light and Jesus is “the light of the world,” (John 8:12) it follows that those who follow him are vessels of light. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “You are the light of the world.” (Matt 5:14) Paul says, “For you are all children of light and children of the day.” (1 Thess 5:5) We are therefore to “walk in the light, as he is in light.” (1 Jn 1:7)

In our reading from Romans 13:11-14 Paul urges Christians “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” It's not the first time Paul uses the metaphor of spiritual armor and it won't be the last. Paul sees us involved in a spiritual battle. In Ephesians 6:12 he writes, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age...” Darkness in the Bible is a symbol of death, chaos and ignorance. If we are opposing darkness, our armor must be of light.

Here we come to an issue that we cannot ignore. Paul clearly means spiritual powers in this passage. Regardless of whether you believe there are evil spirits out there—and there are times where so many things go bad that there is a cascade of catastrophes and it is tempting to see a cosmic conspiracy behind it all—I think this can even apply this to things we see. There are powers and rulers in this physical world that promote and live in darkness and shun the light. I am not one who generally believes in massive conspiracies, because they are impossible to keep secret, but the powerful have often succeeded in shaping the world not so much to benefit others as to increase and preserve their wealth and influence. They don't advertise it and they don't like it pointed out.

For instance, in the "tough on crime" 1980s and 90s, when we started incarcerating more and more people, privately-run prisons became a popular solution to keeping costs down. The problem is that they turn out to be just as expensive as government-run prisons, but because they need to turn a profit, they cut back on how they feed prisoners, on the medical care they give inmates and on programs offered to help the incarcerated better themselves. Since 1994 the number of college programs open to prisoners across the country has gone from 350 to just 12. Prisons thus ensure that little or no actual rehabilitation takes place. And since in their contracts many private prisons penalize the states they are in should they drop below a certain occupancy level, they give state and local law enforcement an incentive to lock more people up. Add to that the fact that a lot of small communities use traffic and other fines as revenue streams to support local government, and those fines grow when not totally paid off, it is actually in the interest of both towns and private prisons that crime not go down. And indeed the explosion of our prison population has not made a dent in crime.

There are other industries and even governments who do not want light shed on their activities. That's why one of the first things dictators do is stifle the press. Hitler forced out of business newspapers that opposed him, sometimes by passing laws that said Jews could not own publishing companies and sometimes by just having his thugs break in and physically destroy the offices and printing presses. It happens today. Worldwide 40 journalists have been killed so far in 2016, a third not in combat or on a dangerous assignment but by murder. Since 1992, 56 journalists have been killed in Russia, 21 since Putin came to power in 2000, and nearly 2/3s were murdered. As Jesus said, “...people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” (John 3:19) That's one reason that the founders of our country put freedom of the press in the first amendment. Dictators hate the light of a free press.

Darkness can distort and disguise the truth as well. The internet has enabled us to have nearly instant access to the news. Reporting is no longer local but can spread globally. Unfortunately, so can badly reported or deliberately distorted news. And now there is fake news, things made up out of whole cloth. Some of the fake news is propaganda but some is simply done to make money. NPR recently tracked down the person behind a fake story about a fictitious FBI agent and his wife dying in an apparent murder/suicide after leaking emails in the recent scandal. The publisher said the story, which featured a fake town and fake people, got 1.6 million views and was done not to influence the election but simply to drive traffic to certain websites and their advertising. He has 25 domain names and makes $10,000 to $30,000 a month. And he will continue to do so as long as people do not check to see if reputable news sites back up or fact check the stories he makes up.

Like good journalists, our only weapon as Christians is the truth. We proclaim the good news of God in Christ calling all people to him for forgiveness, healing and restoration. Our job has gotten harder because of the cacaphony of competing voices essentially broadcasting any kinds of “news” you can imagine. Paul foresaw this. He wrote, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” (2 Timothy 4:3-4) Paul is recognizing something we now call confirmation bias. Scientists have learned that people tend to select out data that seems to agree with their deeply-held beliefs and ignore or explain away facts that contradict those beliefs. This bias is so strong that showing people stuff that disproves their beliefs just makes them more firmly committed to their worldview. We are more concerned with our justifying our personal opinions than in learning the truth.

What I find fascinating is how people who supposedly base their beliefs on the Bible will disregard scriptures that contradict their personal understanding of Christianity. You would think they would change their views to conform to the whole of scripture. Thus we have churchgoers who put their trust in political leaders despite the fact that the Psalmist says not to. (Ps 146:3-9) We have churchgoers who believe revenge is all right even though Jesus said to turn the other cheek and love your enemies. (Matt 5:39, 44) We have churchgoers who think it is ok to turn away the homeless, aliens and refugees though the Old Testament explicitly says to shelter the homeless (Isaiah 58:7; Leviticus 25:35-36) and Jesus, who, along with Mary and Joseph, was a refugee in Egypt, said that not welcoming the alien is tantamount to not welcoming him. (Matt 25:43) As Stephen Colbert, who teaches Sunday School, said, “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don't want to.”

Light can be harsh. There's a reason why those in power are not really in favor of people telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. That's in large part why they felt that Jesus had to die. That's why those who preach a santitized and comfortable version of the gospel become popular and those who preach the unvarnished and uncomfortable truth are not. In the same way, as a nurse I have found that people prefer not-very-good doctors with good bedside manners over quite good doctors with less than comfortable bedside manners. As Paul said, people would rather hear what they want to hear than listen to the truth. But the only way to get better is to get the real diagnosis and to follow a treatment plan that is honest if not the most pleasant.

This does not mean being mean. Paul says, “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ...” (Ephesians 4:15) The purpose of knowing and acting on the truth is not to lord it over others or gloat over their flaws but to become more Christlike. Indeed in our passage from Romans just two verses after telling us to “put on the armor of light” we are told to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” I think Paul is using the same kind of parallelism we see in the Psalms and other Hebrew poetry. The two phrases are two ways of saying the same thing. To put on the armor of light is to put on Jesus Christ.

And how are we to do that? When I was acting in school and community theatre, to become a character, I had to study what he said and did and then practice saying and doing those things. I would think about why he spoke and acted as he did. Once I realized that my character had to be in love with the female lead from the beginning of the play rather than out-of-nowhere at the end. It changed the whole play for the better. With the help of the director I had to learn to relate to the other characters. I hoped that eventually people would not see me, Chris Todd, pretending to be someone else but would instead come to see the character I inhabited in all that I said and did.

In a sense that is how we become more Christlike. We study and learn Jesus' words and deeds. We put them into practice. We look for his motivation in it all. With the help of his Spirit we learn how to act towards and in concert with others. If we immerse ourselves in Christ, we will begin to see others as Jesus sees them and they will see him in us. We will speak to others as he would and they will hear him in our words. We will reach out to help and heal and comfort others as he would and they will feel his love and power in our actions.

The way to fight the darkness is to light the darkness. Put on the armor of light. Put on the Lord Jesus Christ. Be the light of the world. 

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Who Done It and How

Most mysteries fall into one of two categories: the Who Done It and the How Done It. Heist movies are usually How Done Its. The mystery is how will someone commit the crime. The recent film Now You See Me about 4 magicians pulling spectacular heists is a How Done It, as are many of the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries by Dorothy L. Sayers. The now classic film The Usual Suspects is a Who Done It, as are most Agatha Christie mysteries. But since you get to know several characters during the course of the investigation and one of them is the non-obvious person behind it all, most Who Done Its also explore the question “Who are you really?” And in fact, Now You See Me does reveal that one character is also the non-obvious mastermind of the whole enterprise and not really a bad guy at all. And, like the reveal of the mastermind in The Usual Suspects, this new information makes you rethink the whole story.

The central question of the New Testament is “Who are you really?” and it is directed at Jesus. In the center of the 3 Synoptic Gospels (Mark 8:27-29; Matt 16:13-16; Luke 9:18-20) Jesus turns that question to the disciples: “Who do people say I am?” Then he probes deeper. He asks these folks who have been traveling and living with him for 3 years, “Who do you say I am?” And Peter answers, “You are the Christ.” Christos is just the Greek word for the Hebrew word Mashiach, Messiah, the Anointed. Peter identifies Jesus as God's anointed prophet and king. But I doubt Peter sees Jesus in the same light as those Jews who expected the Messiah to be God's anointed priest. Jesus is not of the priestly class, as his cousin John was. There is no expectation that he will make sacrifices on the part of the people. Which is one reason why Peter immediately rejects the idea that Jesus will be killed by his enemies. A conquering king, especially one chosen by God, doesn't get killed; he kills God's enemies. In short order Peter is proven wrong and he comes to see Jesus differently.

But the idea of Jesus as conquering warrior did not die. We see it in certain passages of Revelation. And we really see it when the ruling class and warrior cultures became “Christian.” Jesus was increasingly pictured in Christian art as an enthroned monarch, Pantokrator, literally, the All Powerful. Since the church in the first century came to see that Jesus was not a mere man, and that the term Son of God was not simply an old title for the king of Israel but was literally true in Jesus' case, it is appropriate to see him as God Almighty. But that doesn't do justice to all that we know about him.

I've got to give credit to the people who compiled our lectionary, the texts we read each week, for juxtaposing on Christ the King Sunday this passage from the New Testament with the one they chose from the gospel. In Colossians 1:11-20 we have this statement in regards to Jesus: “He is the image of the invisible God.” At the end of a murder mystery, we want to know who is the bad guy. In the Bible, we want to know who the good guy is; that is, what is God like. In the passion narrative in Luke 23:33-43, we see an indelible but startling image of God: a naked man crucified between two criminals. But how can that be God? Like Peter's problem with Jesus' conception of the Messiah, our mind rebels against the notion of a helpless, suffering God.

But if Jesus is God incarnate, then that image is as accurate an image of him as the one where he is all-powerful. The key clue is found in 1 John 4:8—God is love. When we read the Old Testament, we tend to think of God as being all about judgment. And now we veer into the territory of How Done It. How can the Old Testament God be love?

I learned that when I had kids. Nobody can make you as angry as your kids when they are doing things that can harm themselves and/or harm their brothers and sisters. My daughter once got between two back to back metal shelves at a Sam's Club and started to climb them. My wife and I were beside ourselves. If she had fallen, getting to her would have been impossible without moving huge ceiling-high shelves packed with bulky merchandise. When she finally deigned to respond to our entreaties, descended and squeezed herself out from between the shelves, laughing at our concern, I gave her a few swats on the bottom, the only time I can remember doing that to her. My action and my furious face sent the message that this wasn't a joke or a game but a deadly serious situation that she had gotten herself into. She never did that again.

In the Old Testament we see the nation of Israel in its infancy and adolescence. God keeps telling them not to do things like exploit the poor, mistreat the immigrants, and sacrifice their children to Moloch and they keep disobeying him. He warns them of the consequences and when they don't listen, he lets them suffer the results, often meted out by the empires around them. But in the same way that a good parent forgives and resumes his or her relationship with a child after the bad behavior is dealt with, God always forgives and restores his people. Because he loves them.

God's justice arises out of his love. If you have more than one child, you have to be fair to all of them. Favoritism towards one spoils him or her, gives them a sense of entitlement and makes the favored one think the world will treat them better than it really will. It also breeds resentment and rebellion among the unfavored children. If you love all your children, you treat them fairly.

Which means that you punish those who break the rules. You don't turn a blind eye when one deliberately hurts or harms another. But many parents who have tried to be fair still find that a child may not listen and learn. What happens when that child gets him or herself into a situation where the consequences are dire, where their health or their life is endangered? The loving parent will do whatever they can to save their child. They might even donate an organ if a child's kidney or liver was damaged. They would certainly give their blood to save their child.

In a sense that's what God did in Jesus. He shed his blood to save us. He gave his own life to save ours. And he did it despite our bad behavior.

That's exactly what we see in our gospel. Jesus is crucified between two criminals. Mark and Matthew say they were robbers, the Greek word being the same as the one used by the historian Josephus for revolutionaries. They were probably colleagues of Barabbas, the man released by Pilate in place of Jesus. So these were men who committed violence. Now they are dying by a nasty form of execution reserved for slaves and those considered traitors to Rome. And Jesus is hanging there between them. One insultingly tells Jesus if he is the Messiah, he should hurry up and save himself and the two men. The other rebukes his colleague in crime. They got what they deserved. Jesus didn't. He asks Jesus to keep him in mind when he comes into his kingdom. And Jesus says to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” This violent person, pinioned to a cross, cannot at this point change his behavior to merit a change in God's attitude towards him. Yet he is the only human being in the Bible we know for sure is in heaven, because he is the only one given that assurance in Jesus' own words.

That is the true image of God in a nutshell. The God who is love giving himself for the world and forgiving a dying sinner because the man recognized him as his king.

And that's why some traditions adorn their churches like this:  

It's been a bad year for my family. Among other things my sister-in-law's mother died. She was Greek Orthodox and her funeral was done in accordance with that long tradition. This was laid on her coffin. My brother says neither his wife nor his daughter can look upon it without crying. So he gave it to me. I haven't decided whether to keep it or give it to our Greek Orthodox friends who have met in this sanctuary. But my brother, raised like me in a Protestant tradition that prefers crosses to crucifixes, found it a bit grisly. I understand. There is a church here in the Keys that has behind its altar a life-size, realistic and rather bloody Christ on the cross. I could see the point if they just displayed it during Lent or Holy Week and then substituted the empty cross, the cross as it was on Easter, the rest of the year. But every time they hold Mass they look upon Christ crucified.

I get it, though. Without the death of Jesus, Christianity would be very different. It wouldn't speak to our mortality, our limits, our brokenness. It wouldn't grapple with the true extent of evil in our world. It wouldn't show us the depths of God's love or the extent of his grace. See the skull at the base of the cross. It is a reference to the Place of the Skull, Golgotha, of course, but it is also a reminder that Jesus does not merely suffer but dies. Without Jesus' death there would be no resurrection and therefore no triumph over death, our greatest fear and greatest adversary. If Jesus can conquer death, what can possibly stand in his way? And if by uniting to him our fear of death is taken off the table, then what is stopping us from taking up our cross and following him all the way? In the recent film Risen a Roman centurion is investigating the disappearance of Jesus' body. He arrests the disciple Bartholomew and interrogates him. He threatens to crucify the apostle if he doesn't produce Jesus' body. Bartholomew laughs and tells him to go ahead. Because he has seen the risen Christ, he no longer fears death.

So who is God? Let's face it: even for believers, God is kind of nebulous in our minds. Theologically, he is a mystery. Sure, he created the universe but what he is really like? To find that out, we have only to look at Jesus, who, despite all we have done to his world and to each other, and what we have done to him specifically, loves us to the end and gives his life for us and to us. He is the God of life, whom even death cannot hold. He is the God of forgiveness and redemption and renewal.

We are created in the image of God. People should be able to see in us that same love, which gives deeply of itself and is concerned with acting justly towards all and mercifully towards those who like us fall short of God's glory. We need to ask ourselves “Where is Jesus in this thought? Where is Jesus in these words? Where is Jesus in this act?” And whenever we find that we are not reflecting Jesus accurately in those things, we must ask God for forgiveness and for his Spirit to work in us so that there can be no mistake of who is behind it all. The mystery is revealed. In everything, our incarnate, crucified and risen Lord is at work to save us all. And his motive is love.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Dealing with Painful Change

I was in my hometown of St. Louis the last two weeks where, among other things, I was helping my brother make my mother comfortable in a very nice nursing home. It doesn't look like a nursing home; though rather recently constructed, it looks like a sprawling old home with a large screened-in porch and cozy little rooms. There are no hospital beds. It's all carpeted and there are lots of comfy chairs and her name is on a brass plaque outside her room to which she has a key. It's lovelier and more homey than any nursing facility I ever worked in. Not that my mom sees it that way. Well, some days she does and some days she doesn't. She misses her house, which she bought and paid for by herself and where she lived for more than 50 years. Though she can't live by herself any more, not even with a live-in caretaker, she resents being moved. And it is hard on my brother, whom on her bad days, my mom sees as the villain. 

Change is hard. It means some things end. We miss what was. Some things that we had, tangible and intangible, are lost when our lives change. Some of our dreams for the future must also change or be let go altogether. Change often leaves us nostalgic. It can even leave us mourning.  

Change means we have to adapt to the new state of things, the new normal. The old ways were familiar, even if in retrospect, they weren't really better than the new ways. But we knew how things worked. We knew where we stood. And now the landscape is different and we need to get reoriented to the way things are now. Looked at one way, it can be fun, an adventure, an undiscovered country to be explored. But it can also be a tremendous pain in the neck.

Change can be a real challenge. I know that from my recovery after my accident. I'm getting better at standing and walking but the act of standing up and the act of sitting down can still be difficult. Transitioning from one state to another is tough. And sometimes literally painful.  

The biggest changes come from disasters. A tornado, an earthquake, a hurricane can take away everything you own and anyone you love. That includes man-made disasters like the Great Recession. People lost jobs, pensions, homes. And the worst part is not necessarily the disaster itself but the aftermath. Even if you survive, rebuilding your home, your business, your life is a daunting task. 

In today's gospel (Luke 21:5-19) the disciples are curious about the ultimate disaster: the end of the current world order when God's kingdom comes. Jesus does not paint a comforting picture of that transition. Things will get worse. There will be wars. There will be destruction. There will be persecution. There will be false messiahs and doomsayers. "And he said, 'Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!' and, 'The time is near!' Do not go after them." (Luke 21:8)

I find it interesting that certain Christians will study every prophesy in scripture and build up these elaborate timelines of the end of the world and even predict when it will be and yet they ignore the fact that Jesus tells us specifically not to do that. Things will get bad, he says, "but the end will not follow immediately."  In the parallel account in Matthew 24 Jesus says, "All these are but the beginning of birth pains." Anyone who's had a kid knows that means it's going to be a long, drawn-out process. My wife's labor when we had our son was about 20 hours, and that was after a few false alarms. All my nursing texts said the second birth would be faster and more regular. Wrong! My daughter also took about 20 hours to make her appearance. So Jesus is saying, Cool your jets! It ain't going to happen all at once and it isn't going to be as predictable as you think it is. The scenario found in the Left Behind series is totally fictional.

Jesus also says, "But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only." (Matt 24:36, emphasis mine) Even Jesus, at least in his earthly life, didn't know when this would happen. How arrogant do some so-called Bible teachers and preachers have to be to think they have it all worked out! 

If we don't know when Jesus is coming what should we do? Jesus says, "Stay awake!" (Matt 24:42) Be alert. Keep your wits about you and think of this not as a disaster but as an opportunity to represent him. (Luke 21:13) When everyone else is losing their head and blaming you, stand up for Jesus. Testify to what he has done for you. Endure. It won't last forever.

Again in Matthew, Jesus asks, "Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find doing so when he comes." (Matt 24:45, 46) In Mark Jesus says, "It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to stay awake." (Mark 13:34) Jesus doesn't want us spending our time on end times seminars but doing the work he has given us to do. 

And what is that work? To love God with all we are and all we have. To love our neighbor as ourselves. To love our enemies. To love each other as he loves us. To treat the least person we encounter as if he or she was Jesus because how we treat them is how we treat Christ. 

That's what we are supposed to do every day so that on whichever one Jesus returns he finds us doing those things he commanded us to do. We don't want to be like that servant who slacks off and indulges himself and starts abusing the other servants. Things don't go well for him. Jesus says, "there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." (Matt 24:48-51) And if that doesn't clue you in as to who is really serving Christ, Jesus said, "You will recognize them by their fruit." (Matt 7:20) And Paul enumerates the fruit of the Spirit as "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control." Jesus doesn't care what you say you believe with your lips; if it is contradicted by what you say with your life, things will go as well for you as the heart patient who claims he's following doctor's orders while actually smoking 3 packs a day and eating junk food for every meal and not exercising at all. That person obviously doesn't believe in or trust his doctor in any meaningful sense. And if you don't show even the early buds of the fruit of God's Spirit, you don't really believe in or trust the Great Physician in any meaningful sense. We are saved by grace through faith. Like any doctor, God can't save those who don't trust him. 

Our gospel is talking about the biggest change we can imagine: the transformation of the kingdoms of this world into the kingdom of our God and of his Christ. Most of the changes we have to deal with pale in comparison. For instance, right now our country is transitioning from a president we've had for 8 years to another. Whoever got in, this change was going to be hard, more so for those who supported the other candidate. Yet the strength of our country is the fact that from its beginning we have had a peaceful transition of government.That's built into our constitution. We don't need a revolution to change leaders. We don't have a monarchy or a dictatorship, either. We have a constitutional government and a balance of powers. Nobody can rule by fiat. The 3 branches of government keep each other in check. But that means to get things done people from different parties or different wings of the same party have to cooperate for the common good. To do that we have to recognize that our political opponents are not enemies of our country. We all love our country, even though we all see flaws in it as it currently exists. We all want to fix those flaws, though we tend to focus on different flaws and have different solutions for those problems. We can either keep pulling in different directions or we can decide to sit down and talk with each other and find common ground. 

As Christians we are called by our Lord to be peacemakers. We have been given the ministry of reconciliation. Jesus never told us it would be easy, as today's gospel shows. After all, to reconcile us to God Jesus was crucified. How can we compare our task of enduring the discomfort of listening to different viewpoints and having painful discussions to that? There are those who cause harm in this world and those who bring healing. I think we know which group Jesus wants his followers to be part of. And the aftermath of this very contentious election is a good place to start. Our new president is going to need a lot of help bringing this country together. As Christians bringing people together in love is a big part of what we are commanded to do. Reach out to someone who voted differently than you did. Listen to their hopes and fears. Share yours. Pray together for our leaders and for our nation. 

And be thankful that God put you in a country where what unites us is not where we are from or what we look like or how we worship but a commitment to freedom and justice for all. And be thankful that as hard as this change may be, it is not the end of the world. And if it were, what matters is the person to whom we owe our ultimate allegiance: Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace. His kingdom is not from this world. It doesn't come about through rage and violence but through love and reaching out to help and to heal.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Alternative to Violence

When I was in the hospital I learned to appreciate things that we usually take for granted. Like feeding yourself. Like being able to walk. Like breathing. At about 3:30 am February 5th I lost the ability to breathe in my left lung. I was grateful that the aide and nurses and on-duty docs came running when I hit the call button but less pleased that they were arguing about whether I was having a heart attack or had thrown a pulmonary embolus. They were asking about chest pain and I was gasping out, “I—can't—breathe!” Finally someone decided it must be a PE and rushed me to ICU. But my point is that we are rarely aware of breathing and the air around us because they are always there. And the prevalence of other things makes them invisible, too.

Race, for instance. If you are white, it is rarely an issue, personally. You are not constantly being reminded that you are white. But if you are a person of color, you are made aware of that every day by the way people treat you and talk to you. If you are black, you notice that salespeople follow your throughout a store, probably thinking you may shoplift. If you are a black man, you notice that people will often be wary around you, fearful of you. If you are a black woman, you notice the facial expression of the checkout people who sometimes look askance at the items you buy, judging you if you buy liquor, or looking skeptically at expensive purchases. If you are driving, especially in a nice neighborhood, you are rarely surprised to be pulled over by the police and quizzed about why you are in that area. They are often doubtful if you claim to live in that same nice neighborhood. These are not things I made up. They are things told me by fellow Episcopalians at the anti-racism training we are mandated to take. When we broke into small groups and shared our experiences, I was astonished at how pervasive racism was for brothers and sisters in Christ who happened to be brown. But to me as a white male it was just not a factor in my life. And that's why some people think racism is not a problem anymore. They just don't see it.

There is another thing that we don't see because for many of us it doesn't rear its ugly head in our lives very often but it pervades the world and that is violence. Today's reading from Habakkuk (1:1-4, 2:1-4) is concerned with the problem of violence and injustice. Habakkuk apparently lived around the time that the Assyrian Empire, which had taken the northern kingdom of Israel into exile, was about to fall and the Babylonian Empire was rising. Babylon would sack Nineveh, the Assyrian capitol, and conquer the southern kingdom of Judah and take it into exile. So it was a time of violence on a major scale. But Habakkuk is initially more concerned with injustice among God's people. And having them punished by Babylon is harsh in his eyes. The cure seems worse than the disease. He is told that Babylon is also destined to fall but that's hardly satisfying. Habakkuk, like Job, questions God's justice and, like Job, he is not considered sinful for doing so.

Violence can achieve a sort of rough justice, which is why we arm our police and use our military to try to straighten out problems overseas. But violence is never surgical; it is always a blunt instrument. And violence is contagious. If I hit you, you might back down. But you are just as likely to hit me back. And sure enough, we have found that not all situations can be handled by inflicting violence. Terrorism, which is asymmetrical warfare, is not stopped by violence. In fact, the harder we hit the terrorists, the easier it is for them to recruit our own citizens to hit us back by means of random, limited in scope but horrifying violence. Because they don't usually present an actual front line or represent a nation, we have no practical way to hit back. And when we try to lash out against, say, refugees who are trying to flee ISIS, the more terrorists we create at home by seeming to confirm ISIS propaganda that this is a war against not terrorism but Muslims.

In his book The Locust Effect, Gary Haugen argues that poverty can't be ended until the violence that keeps people in that state ends. The reason that many poor girls don't go to school in third world countries is the real fear of sexual violence befalling them when away from their parents. The poor are oppressed by violence by neighbors, by family members, by employers and by police. In many countries, the poor are not automatically provided with legal representation, law enforcement officers are not well paid and thus corruptable, and the wealthy can get away with murder at times. Violence is a regular feature in poverty-stricken areas in America, because of gangs and drugs. And throughout all strata of society, rich, middle class and poor, domestic violence and sexual violence can be found. And much of that falls upon females. Between 2001 and 2012, 11,766 American women were murdered by their male partners, current or ex. That's nearly double the number of our troops who died during the same period. 4,774,000 women each year are the victims of violence by their intimate partners. 1 in 4 women will suffer severe domestic violence during their lifetime; 1 in 7 men will. 85% of women who are physically abused are also sexually abused by their partner.

Because violent people seldom pick on someone their own size, children also suffer. At our recent clergy conference an expert told us that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before the age of 18. That's 10% of all school children. Contrary to popular belief only 10% of abusers are strangers; 30% are family and 60% are known to the child. I was shocked to find out that 50% of child abuse is perpetrated by their peers, usually older kids.

You would think in view of the negative effect of violence we would have a negative view of it. Not if our entertainment reflects our tastes. In movies, TV and books good guys defeat bad guys through violence. There is very little difference in the means good guys and bad guys use to achieve their ends. In fact, those heroes who have scruples get criticized. Batman, motivated by the murder of his parents, refrains from using guns and from killing bad guys. And some people have argued that by not killing the Joker, Batman is responsible for all the people the Joker has subsequently killed, including one of the Robins. Because, in many people's minds, the end justifies the means.

There are religious people who believe that as well. Torturing a bad guy is justified. Killing bad guys is justified. And as bad as it is to see Buddhists in Myamar leading mobs against Muslim-owned businesses, it is distressing to realize that some people can call themselves Christians and still inflict violence on other people. Jesus commanded us to turn the other cheek and yet some folks think it is all right not only to hit back but to start fights. And this in the name of Christ who told his disciples to put up the sword when they tried to defend him from being arrested and crucified! If Christians can't use violence to defend Jesus when he was physically on earth, how can we justify using violence in his name now that he has passed the baton to us? We are the Body of Christ today. So we have to ask ourselves, “Whom would Jesus harm?”

Generally people lash out in violence when they are angry and frustrated. But we don't all do that. Why do some folks turn to violence?

Jesus points to one big reason: retaliation. (Matt  5:38) People tend to hurt others if they feel that people have hurt them. And the folks they hurt don't necessarily have to be the same ones who originally hurt them. People who grow up with violence become violent in turn. They learn from their environment that violence is an acceptable response to things that anger you. Or irritate you. Or frighten you. Or just disturb you. Small wonder people who were abused as children so often turn into abusers.

Most people are taught as children not to hit other people. Abused children might be taught that as well—by being beaten when they hit their siblings. Which means they are getting a mixed message. Hitting is okay if you are big. Or in authority. When I was working as production director and copywriter at US-1 Radio, I was asked to do some ads to recruit for the Sheriff's Office. So I wrote some creative commercials along the lines of “Wouldn't you like to be a crime fighter like Batman? Or Sherlock Holmes?” When I read them to Sheriff's Public Information Officer Deputy Becky Herrin over the phone, she told me, “No! We don't want to attract that kind of person as a Sheriff's Deputy!” They don't want crusaders. They don't want zealots. They want law-abiding, reasonable people who can de-escalate situations when necessary. We have all seen what happens when law enforcement officers act unprofessionally and basically go Dirty Harry on someone who clearly hasn't done anything to merit such extreme measures. I was glad to learn that our Sheriff's Office was trying to filter out such people from the start.

Violence has been a problem from the beginning of humanity. According to the Bible, the first murder occurred between the first siblings. (Genesis 5:8) Violence is given as the reason God decides to reboot the earth with Noah. (Gen 6:11-13) And God tells Noah that murder is wrong because human beings are created in God's image. Homicide is symbolic deicide. (Gen 9:5-6) That means each person has intrinsic worth. No one is expendable.

Later God reinforces this through the enacted parable of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham believed that God might very well ask him to sacrifice his son because other gods did. It was a common practice in the land of Canaan. Archeologists have excavated cemeteries full of children sacrificed to Moloch. But then God stops Abraham. He reveals himself not to be a God who asks us to sacrifice our children to him.

And in Jesus, God reveals himself to be self-sacrificial love incarnate. If anyone is to be the scapegoat for our wrongs, it is God. If anyone is suffering to redeem us, it is God. If anyone is to be the target of religious violence, it is God. In Jesus, the script of violence is flipped.

At this point it is tempting to get sidetracked by certain Old Testament episodes where, say, God tells his people to cleanse the land of the Canaanites. I wish I could take the time to wrestle with this here but entire books have been written on this problem. (A good one is Show Them No Mercy: 4 Views on God and the Canaanite Genocide, in which 4 Biblical scholars look at this from different perspectives.) But that was about the events leading to the establishment of the kingdom of Israel which, like all earthly kingdoms, involves violent conquest. We Christians do not live under the Old Covenant nor in Iron Age theocratic Israel. We live under the New Covenant inaugurated by Jesus, the Prince of Peace. His kingdom does not come from this world and he never intended it to be spread by violence (John 18:36) but by love and the proclamation of the gospel, the good news of what God has done and is doing through Jesus Christ.

Jesus commanded his disciples to be non-violent, even though he knew they would face violent persecution. Paul heeded that and though he used the military metaphor of the armor of God, (Ephesians 6:10-18) he pictures it as chiefly protective. The only weapon he includes is “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” He also includes sandals which stand for “the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.” Paul gives no quarter to those who would commit violence for God, saying instead, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: 'It is mine to avenge; I will repay,' says the Lord. On the contrary: 'If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:17-21)

It is not our place to pass sentence on anyone. (Matt 7:1) God will handle that. We are to love our enemies and do good to them. (Matt 5:44) Hopefully, our responding to their bad behavior with good behavior will cause them to burn with shame and change their minds. “Change your mind” is the literal translation of the Greek word for repent.

Changing people's hearts and minds is how Jesus intends to make the kingdoms of this world into the kingdom of God. (Revelation 11:15) He will not do it by force. He will do it through us. He will do it through our loving words and actions towards others. We must proclaim the good news of God's love with our lives as well as with our lips.

The world believes that the only way to handle violence is to meet it with opposing violence. But that only increases violence and enriches arms dealers the world over. After all, humanity has been tried to end violence by resorting to violence since prehistory. And all that we've done is come up with more horrific ways to harm and kill more people. When you keep doing the same thing over and over and over again expecting different results, that's just stupid!

The Bible suggests another way. Proverbs 15:1 says, “A gentle answer turns away rage.” Really? Really. When Michael Brandon Hill slipped into an elementary school in Georgia carrying an AK-47, Antoinette Tuff, who worked in the front office, talked him down. She told him her struggles, told him she loved him and offered to walk him outside to surrender so the police wouldn't shoot him. When Brian Nichols, who shot his way out of a courtroom, killing 3 and wounding 1, took waitress Ashley Smith hostage in her apartment, she read to him from the Bible and from The Purpose Driven Life and made him pancakes. Speaking of her daughter, whose father had died, Smith managed to convince him to let her go. When a man walked into the small North Carolina church of Pastor Larry Wright with a rifle and ammo, the retired Army sergeant thought of tackling the gunman. But instead Wright talked to and prayed with the man, taking his rifle and handing it to a deacon. Church members hugged the man, and told him they loved him. The man let Wright finish his sermon, which, ironically, was on gun violence, and afterwards, the gunman answered the altar call and gave his life to Christ. Police took the man to the local medical center at his request for voluntary commitment.

There are other ways to deal with violence other than violently. But you have to be coolheaded and vulnerable and not play into the script that violent people and society think you must follow. You have to reach out in love and with a real desire to understand the other human being. You have to pray and let the Spirit guide you. It's not easy. And it won't always work. (For instance, in  the typical cycle of domestic violence where it is of primary importance to protect children and oneself as the non-abusive parent.) The violent person may be totally irrational. But if you never try, we know from the news how these things usually work out.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Peace, shalom in Hebrew, means total well-being. If we want peace, we need to work for the total well-being of everyone. Nobody should have a legitimate reason to feel they have been harmed. Everyone should feel it is everyone's job to help those who need it.

In today's gospel (Luke 19:1-10) Jesus befriended a man who was a great sinner and turned him into a new person. That's how Jesus gets rid of bad guys: by turning them into good guys. Let us go and do likewise.  

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

What We Don't Know

I once saw the late Douglas Adams, author of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, tell this story to David Letterman. He said he was waiting for a train in his native Great Britain and he went to shop to get tea and biscuits and a newspaper. (Biscuits is what the British call cookies.) So Adams selects a table, sets down his cookies and his newspaper and goes to get hot water for his tea. When he comes back to his table, he finds another man sitting at the table with his own newspaper. Adams sits down, opens his paper, pulls out the section he wants to read and sips his tea. He hears a tearing sound and when he looks over his paper the other chap has opened the cylindrical sleeve of cookies, taken one and is eating it. Adams is astounded that the other chap had the temerity to eat one of his cookies but he's British so he doesn't want to make a scene. Instead, to assert his ownership, Adams reaches over and take the next cookie in the sleeve. He returns to his paper but then hears the crinkle of the sleeve and glances up to see the chap take another cookie. Adams cannot believe this chap has done it again. But wanting to seem the bigger man, Adams simply reaches over and takes the next. And so it goes until the last cookie is gone. The chap's train is announced; he gets up, takes his paper, and without saying anything to Adams, like “Thank you for sharing your biscuits,” the man leaves. Adams stews about this until his train arrives. He then picks up his tea and his paper and when he does so he sees the sleeve of cookies he bought were in fact under one section of his paper. Instead the chap eating cookies that weren't his, Adams was. And he realizes that somewhere in the United Kingdom there is this chap who is telling the same story about this guy boldly eating the chap's cookies. But, Adams tells Letterman, he doesn't know the punchline to the story!

I have since heard that story attributed to other people so I don't know who it actually happened to or if it happened at all. But the point is that when we judge others we don't usually have the whole story and without it, our judgment can be way off. And that's something to keep in mind while we read today's gospel, Luke 18:9-14.

Jesus tells us of two men, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector, who go to the temple to pray. The Pharisee thanks God but not for anything God has given him. He thanks God that he is better than other people. And he classifies others as thieves, adulterers, rogues (or unrighteous) and even takes a swipe at the tax collector. Now to be fair, tax collectors were Jews working for the Romans. And not only were they collecting taxes for the army occupying their country but the tax collectors could set whatever fee they wanted and so they were getting rich off of their own oppressed countrymen. They were seen as traitors. As for the other people the Pharisee mentions, I don't think we can say much in favor of thieves or those who betray the person they are married to. And let's grant the Pharisee some common sense. He would be stupid to lie to God. God would know what this man does and does not do. And if he did in fact fast twice a week and give 10% of his income to the temple that's more than most religious people do today.

I don't think Jesus' problem is with the man's morals, so much as his attitude. This guy supposedly came to pray but he is really bragging. In fact, by thanking God for his superior moral character he is humble-bragging. He is pretending to be grateful to God but he is really just reveling in his self-righteousness. And while he may be doing all he says, we know that he, like the rest of humanity, is flawed. He has some sins in his life but he is not bringing them up. How is his temper? How is his compassion? From what he says about the rest of humanity, I'm guessing he feels that people who aren't doing as well as he is deserve their misfortune. After all, the introduction to this parable says Jesus was targeting arrogant people who treat others with contempt.

Arrogance is the chief of the so-called seven deadly sins. People who are arrogant really believe they are better than other people. They look down on others and usually feel they don't actually need them. They rarely if ever acknowledge what they owe to others, thinking they are largely self-made. They don't take advice from other people because they don't see the need for any other viewpoint than their own. Unfortunately, their arrogance is often mistaken for self-confidence and folks think that confidence equals competence, despite all evidence to the contrary. We've all worked with or for people like that and seen the damage they can do because they won't ask for help. But when things go wrong, they blame everyone but themselves because it can't possibly be their fault.

The Pharisee sees only his own strengths and everyone else's weaknesses. Thus he won't ask God for forgiveness and grace and so he won't receive any either.

The tax collector is anything but arrogant. He stands off by himself, probably feeling the eyes of everyone on him, judging him for his profession. He won't even look up. He just beats his chest and says, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” There is no self-congratulation. There is no boasting or gloating or comparing himself to others. He doesn't try to bargain with God. He knows he is flawed and he knows he needs forgiveness. So he asks for it. And Jesus tells us he gets it.

The news constantly bombards us with the worst things people have done. And it's easy to feel superior to, say, the horribly neglectful parent, or the abusive spouse, or the person who succumbs to addiction, or the politician who says supremely stupid things, or the crooked CEO, or the viciously cruel terrorist, or the spoiled rich kid who harmed somebody, or the single mother who made some bad decisions in life. Underneath that feeling is the assumption that we would behave differently in the same circumstances. We think we could resist the culture and the genetics and the upbringing that they had and would triumph over everything they didn't. And we are like Douglas Adams and the other chap, making judgments without knowing the full story.

An inmate I visited regularly when I was chaplain at the jail was a good looking man in his 40s with some real skills at rapping. It's not my preferred musical genre but he got the meter right and his rhymes were really clever and his subject matter was riveting. Instead of bragging about his sexual prowess or wealth or smarts, his raps were usually about his life, which was dire. His father was a pimp who was murdered. His mother was a crack addict who died from AIDS. The inmate has some mental health issues and has been in trouble with the law on and off since he was 14. He can be violent with others but more often he tries to harm himself. So he spent much of his time in jail in solitary confinement, sometimes on suicide watch. And though he was in his cell for 23 of every 24 hours, being let out only to shower, go to the rec yard, make phone calls and select another book (if he was allowed books; when he's on suicide watch he only has a hospital gown and a bare mattress), the guards would let him spent more than an hour with me, usually unshackled. I brought him a dictionary with a built-in thesaurus and he would ask me how to pronounce words so that he could rhyme them correctly. I told him that when he got out he should get a YouTube channel or a blog and share his raps. I know I kept him from harming himself on various occasions by giving him hope.

But ask yourself this: what if you were the one growing up with a pimp father who was murdered and an addict mother who died? What if you were wracked with depression and heard voices and at times just wanted to end it all? And what if you were poor and found out through your mother that there were drugs that quieted the voices in your head, that gave you the energy that depression had stolen from you, or that made you just not care about how bad your life was? Do you think you would still turn out to be the person you are?

We argue about what is more important, nature or nurture, but when you are born, you have no choice in either of those. Some people do find ways to transcend them but they always have help. And they usually have not a modest but an outsized talent that makes people notice them and see some worth in them. They find someone who believes in them and does what their deeply flawed parents didn't or couldn't do: get them an education or introduce them to someone influential in the field in which they show talent. But again that only happens to prodigies. If your talents are fairly ordinary, it is rare for anyone to lift you out of a situation where nature and nurture have conspired to make your life hell.

Even Jean Valjean in Les Miserables gets help. Imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread, he reverts to stealing when he gets out, until the bishop he robs pretends to have intentionally given him his silver and throws in some candlesticks when the police detain Jean. Bishop Myriel tells Jean he has been spared for God and the bishop's mercy changes Jean's life. In his introduction to the book Victor Hugo points to three problems: “the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night.” And indeed science has shown us that poverty alone negatively affects the brains of children. Add to that neglect and abuse and it is insurmountable for a child to beat the odds, without lots and lots of help.

That's why Jesus tells us not to judge others. We may see a successful business man, unaware of how he was born to wealth, helped out by his family, bailed out by friends, and lucky in his investments. We may see a poor woman, unaware that she was born into poverty, only able to get minimum wage jobs, or ones where they pay her under the table and don't pay much, burdened with hospital bills because she has a severely ill spouse or mother or child, and unlucky in not being a gifted athlete or musician or scientific genius who is worth rescuing by someone with money. We may see a homeless man, unaware that he is a veteran suffering from chronic pain or mental health issues, who has consequently lost jobs and is unable to make enough to put down first month, last month, and security deposit on a place, and since he is without an address, he has problems applying for jobs or getting his checks sent to him and is lucky not to be dead from the heroin he does because his prescription meds just don't help enough with the mental and physical pain he suffers. But because of what we don't know about them we condemn them. And because of that we don't help them. And then we wonder why their lives are hell.

Speaking of which, I saw a Twilight Zone in which a former concentration camp guard was condemned to relive the suffering of each person for whose death he was responsible. I can't think of a better version of hell than that. Weirdly, though, in Jesus' parables of hell, like the one about the sheep and the goats and the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus zeroes in not on sins of commission but sins of omission. "If you didn't do it to one of these, the least of my siblings, you didn't do it to me." That's what he tells the goats who go off to punishment. If in addition to judging us for those we harmed, one were to throw in those we could have helped in this life but didn't, there is not one of us in such an afterlife who wouldn't know first hand the consequences of the evil we have done and the evil we have not done anything to alleviate.

But God is merciful. He forgives. All he asks is that we repent and trust him. And “repent” in Greek means literally to change one's mind and consequently one's behavior. But like the child born into poverty and neglect and abuse, we cannot do this unaided. Which is why when we put ourselves in God's hands, he puts his Spirit within us. It is only with God's Spirit working in us that the image of God in which we were created can resurface. If you go to the Mel Fisher museum, you will see people working on those weird greenish lumps recovered from the wreck of the Atocha, painstakingly removing the accumulation of the years to reveal a ruby cross or a golden chalice previously unseen. So too the Holy Spirit slowly works on all the muck under which we have buried our true selves to reveal the person God meant us to be.

When we judge ourselves, we tend to look at our intentions. When we judge others we tend to look at the results of what they accomplished, regardless of their intentions. We cut ourselves a lot of slack; we seldom do that for others unless they are loved ones. And maybe that's the problem: we don't love our neighbors as we do ourselves. We certainly don't love our enemies as Jesus said we should. So our judgment of others is harsh whereas we let ourselves off easy, as well as those we love.

What if we really did love others as we do ourselves? What if we treated them the way we would like to be treated? We would give others the benefit of the doubt. We would listen to others with empathy. We would believe them when they said they wanted to do better and we would help them do so. We would forgive them as we want to be forgiven.

Unlike the Pharisee, we shouldn't be comparing ourselves to others. Arrogant people compare themselves to the less successful and give themselves a pat on the back. People who are acutely aware of their flaws tend to compare themselves to more successful and beat themselves up about it. We are all broken and we need to acknowledge it and then trust in God's mercy and forgiveness and go forward in the power of his Spirit towards our goal: to become ever more like Jesus.

It is hard. It was hard for me to walk after the doctors put me back together. But I kept working at it with the help of therapists and after 4½ months of therapy I am walking without a walker or crutches or a cane. I have a brace, which I will probably have for the rest of my life. I have pain and I get exhausted at times. But I am walking again. And I will get better at it.

Walking in Jesus' footsteps is hard. We need the help of the Holy Spirit and we will need him all our lives. But if we don't give up on God or ourselves, we will get better. Day by day. Step by step. Because God is merciful and his love is relentless.