Monday, February 19, 2018

The Cardinal Virtues: Temperance

The scriptures referred to are Mark 1:9-15.

Before I read the chapter on the 4 cardinal virtues in C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity, I hadn't heard of this classification of moral qualities. Lewis, who was educated in classical literature, got the concept from the ancient philosophers. Plato first proposed that there were 4 cardinal virtues. They were picked up by the Roman writer and statesmen Cicero, and later by St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, who added 3 theological virtues. But the 4 cardinal virtues were considered universal and were honored by both Christians and non-Christians.

The first of the cardinal virtues listed by Saints Ambrose and Augustine is temperance. And that makes sense. Temperance means moderation and if you are going to be a morally good person, one of the first things you need to learn is how to control yourself. Unfortunately, due to the anti-alcohol movement that led to Prohibition, in the popular mind temperance equals total abstinence. Oddly enough, the Temperance movement was originally about moderation. But by the 1820s Temperance Societies were pushing teetotalism. And when enacted into law...well, we've seen how well that worked.

Make no mistake: excessive alcohol consumption causes liver disease, brain damage, weight gain, high blood pressure and depression. Alcohol abuse often leads to the break up of marriages and families, and is a major factor in domestic violence, child abuse, sexual assaults and crime. For alcoholics the safest course is to totally abstain. It's just unhelpful that people used the word temperance when they meant total abstinence.

So for the rest of our time we will use the terms self-control and moderation when referring to this virtue, because they are closer to the meaning of the original Greek word used by Plato. You may remember that I said on Ash Wednesday that some of these virtues would overlap with the fruit of the Spirit which Paul lists in Galatians 5:22-23. Self-control is the last one he mentions.

But as I said, it was often listed first among the virtues by others. And it is usually the first one we try to teach our kids. Children are always discovering things they can do that hadn't occurred to them before or for which they didn't previously have the skill or the access to do. What they need to learn is that just because they can do something, it doesn't mean they should. I can dismantle Dad's electric razor but should I? I can throw a diecast car at my brother's head but is that something I ought to do? I can slip that candy bar on the rack at the checkout stand into my pocket but should I ask Mom to buy it instead?

Sadly some people never master restraint in childhood. And so we have people who realize that because of their power, their wealth, their position and/or their celebrity they can pressure women or men into sex and they never ask themselves if they should. We have lawyers and corporate boards that realize they can take advantage of a loophole to do something that will profit them but they never ask themselves whether it is ethical. We have elected officials who realize that a certain political action will please a certain segment of the voters or a specific group of donors but they never ask themselves if it is good for the country or the state or the county or city as a whole. Recently we've realized that some actions which politicians have refrained from doing in the past were norms and not laws and so there is nothing to stop an unethical official from violating those norms.

Moderation is knowing the extent to which you can engage in an activity before it becomes excessive and therefore destructive. Some people who drink know their limit and rarely exceed that amount. They exercise self-control. Studies have shown that one thing that fathers tend to do is show kids how to play and yet not get carried away. Fathers will often play a little more physically with kids than mothers do but will also correct the child if he or she is getting too rough or too reckless. Ideally the kids will learn to be neither excessively inhibited nor out of control.

Moderation is all about finding that sweet spot between not doing enough and doing too much. And, as Aristotle pointed out, most virtues are found between two extremes. Love falls between indifference to a person on the one hand and being possessive on the other. Being trusting falls between displaying paranoid distrust and being gullible. Being assertive falls between being totally passive and being overly aggressive. Again it takes self-control, and a bit of wisdom, to realize when you have reached a reasonable limit.

Petronius is credited with saying, “Practice all things in moderation, including moderation.” The Roman satirist probably meant that sometimes you should enjoy a bit of excess but it is also true that in some situations, moderation is inappropriate. It is not a good thing to be moderately racist. Or to be a moderate user of heroin. Neither of those are things you should want any part of. Nor would you want to be known as moderate on the issue of terrorism. There are times when the only moral response is to say “Absolutely not.”

The Bible, like most moral authorities, encourages self-control. Paul writes, “So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.” (1 Thessalonians 5:6-8) And in 2 Peter it is part of a different list of virtues: “...make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness....” Notice two things. First, knowledge by itself is not enough. There are those today who think that simply by learning more facts, humanity will solve its problems. Knowledge of things like the sciences is important but you need self-control as well. The scientists who got us to the moon were the same scientists who enabled the Nazis to rain missiles on London in World War 2. Unrestrained use of knowledge is not a good thing. For that matter, self-control is not a sufficient check on the use of knowledge. You need wisdom. And you need a love for your fellow human beings.

Which brings us to the second thing we should notice: one virtue is not sufficient. You need them all. Courage without self-control is recklessness. Justice without self-control is merciless. And we've already discussed how you need the wisdom to tell when you should not be moderate on an issue.

While the idea of moderation and self-control should not be controversial, there is often pushback. One is in popular entertainment. It is much easier to write inappropriately behaved or extreme characters than self-controlled ones. Plus misbehaving characters are more entertaining than ones who do what they should. ( Ferris Bueller, Dr. House, etc) So we are treated to many more fictional persons who go too far in one or more directions than restrained characters. Even our so-called reality shows tend to pick people who are immoderate in speech or behavior, again for entertainment purposes. And they are not above staging confrontations or even restaging them and asking the participants to be more outrageous. Adults know, or should know, the difference between entertainment and real life but I wonder about children. And since the antiheroes almost always win in the end are kids being taught that not only is it more fun to be immoderate but that it is a successful strategy in life? After all we are seeing that kids are taking pointers on sex from porn, which is based on a fantasy of how men and women act.

What's disturbing is that the second area in which there has been pushback against moderation is in real life, and specifically in those in leadership roles. It is not at all uncommon these days for those who govern the countries of the world to use immoderate speech and take extreme positions. Ironically their positions have become so extreme that they wouldn't tolerate leaders in the past whom they claim to revere. Neither Teddy Roosevelt nor Ronald Reagan could institute today the policies they pushed during their terms. FDR would be considered a socialist by current standards. Their own parties would oppose them.

And this is a common phenomenon we see in movements: subsequent generations migrate to extremes beyond the positions their founders set out. And while some move to more aggressive postures, some become more passive. Most churches today would not hire Jesus to be their clergy because he would be too radical. There is a cartoon on the internet that shows Jesus knocking at the door of a church and a whole bunch of people on the other side of the door pushing it shut, saying, “Don't let him in! He's gonna change everything!” (Here) Sadly, many churches have followed in the footsteps of the church of Laodicea. In John's vision in Revelation Jesus says of that church, “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” (Revelation 3:15-16) If things are too hot or too cold, you get uncomfortable and try to change things. When you hit the Goldilocks point, where stuff is neither too hot or too cold, too hard or too soft, you say “this is just right” and settle in. You fall asleep and you don't awaken until the bears are at the door. And a lot of young people feel about churches as Jesus does. They don't go because they've read in their Bibles what Jesus commands and they don't see the churches doing it.

And this is one aspect of self-control people rarely think about. They think self-control is simply about restraining yourself from doing bad things. But self-control is about making yourself do what you don't want to do but know you ought to. Self-control is not only about not punching someone who's being a jerk but making yourself deal with him calmly and rationally. Among all the videos of cops overreacting to motorists pulled over for minor infractions, there is one of a Maine State Trooper being extremely professional while ticketing an irrationally irate man. (Here) Self-control is not just about not telling off someone who's expressed a very unChristian sentiment about other people but talking to the person to find out why he or she feels that way and see if you can expand their perspective. Darryl Davis is a blues musician who befriends and has dinner with members of the Klu Klux Klan. Davis is black but has convinced so many members of the KKK to abandon racism that he now has a collection of 200 robes they have discarded! (Here) Self-control, or perhaps we should call this manifestation of it self-discipline, makes you go beyond what you want to do into that scary territory of what God wants you to do.

Paul writes, “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.” (2 Timothy 1:7) As any parent knows it takes self-discipline to act lovingly towards your kids sometimes. Which brings us back to an aspect of this subject we touched on in the beginning. We mentioned how much we work on teaching kids self-control. And indeed kids with self-discipline, especially those who can delay gratification, do better in their education, in their careers, and in life in general. We also talked about how some folks never seem to master self-control, even in adulthood. And sometimes society has to step in when it comes to such people, the way parents need to step in with kids who are out of control.

Right now we are dealing with the problem of my 3 year old granddaughter and scissors. Her parents don't think she is ready to handle them, not even the safety variety, so we don't let her have them. It goes without saying that she cannot handle the longer, pointed kind. So we keep them out of her reach. It's common sense.

Yet scissors are not designed to harm. Used properly that shouldn't even be a consideration. However, we have in our society things that were designed to maim and kill. That is their purpose, whatever other uses they may have. Most people agree that children should not have access to them. In fact a startling statistic is that in the US in 2015, 18 toddlers inadvertently injured themselves with firearms and 13 managed to kill themselves. They injured 10 other people and killed another 2. That's 21 people killed by someone 3 years old and under and it is more than the 19 Americans killed that same year in the US by terrorists. (Here) Again we all agree that these kids should not have access to them. But there are, as we said, adults who have as little self-control as a child. And most of them are not mentally ill, they just cannot control their impulses. They take umbrage at the smallest of perceived slights and overreact. They fly off the handle and throw tantrums just like a kid you wouldn't trust with scissors. And yet there are those who feel that, except in extraordinary circumstances, such people should have access to guns. And then they deny that this has anything to do with the fact that on average there is more than 90 gun deaths a day in this country, the highest rate of any developed country in the world. (Here) If an adult throws a tantrum, he embarrasses himself; that we let such people have access to weapons of war that let them take out their rage fatally on others should embarrass us. They are not throwing their toys on the ground; they are putting people in the ground. That is the ultimate in not having self-control. The real adults need to put the dangerous objects out of their reach. Or we reveal that something other than common sense and compassion is controlling us.

Self-control has been considered a cardinal virtue for more than 2 millennia. Cardinal comes from the Latin for hinge. So you could say self-control is a pivotal virtue, one of the qualities on which our character and our behavior hinges. All around us we see the consequences of people who have not mastered it. For that matter, none of us has totally mastered it. We all have our Achilles heels when it comes to self-discipline. It could be chocolate, or the gas pedal, or the fact that in the 21st century copiers and printers can do everything except reliably pass papers through their innards without jamming (and on Saturday night when you are trying to print a sermon) that causes you to lose control. But again as Christians we have the Spirit to help us, rather like a coach guides you in doing something over and over until you get good at it. Paul understood the self-discipline required of athletes. “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that lasts forever.” (1 Corinthians 9:25)

In a world spinning out of control, we need to show people that you can keep it together. You can do what needs to be done no matter how hard it is. You can say “no” to yourself when your urges and appetities are trying to cut the brakes. You can say “yes” when God calls you on an adventure that will challenge you to be better than you thought you could be. The world is impressed by the control Olympic athletes display in games. Imagine how the world would react should Christians display such self-control in real life.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Give It Up

The scriptures referred to are Mark 8:34.

Ash Wednesday and indeed all of Lent are primarily associated with giving things up. And a lot of people think being good is mainly about giving stuff up. Like anything fun. And it's not true. That's like thinking health is all about giving stuff up. Yes, you should cut back on sugar and fried foods and salt and alcohol. And you should totally give up tobacco and any drug taken merely for recreation. But you should also eat healthy things and exercise and get more sleep. Being healthy is about achieving a balance in your life.

Being spiritually healthy is, too. From Lent through Easter we will be talking about 7 virtues we should be taking on. 4 of them were admired even by the pagans. 3 are mainly seen as virtues by Christians.

But today is Ash Wednesday and so we are going to be focusing on things we should give up. And I don't mean snacks or soda or sweets, though there may be merit in that. Jesus calls us to give up much more. He said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34) A better translation than “deny” is “disown or renounce.” Jesus says we cannot be his disciples unless we renounce all right to ourselves. What rights?

We give up the right to choose whom we put first in our life. We are not to put ourselves first, of course. We are not to live for ourselves but for him who died for us and rose again. (2 Corinthians 5:15) Nor are we to put family first. (Matthew 10:37-38) Like a soldier, we cannot abandon our mission when it is inconvenient for our family. In fact, we are not to put any mere human being first in our life. (Psalm 146: 3-4) Nothing and no one is to come before God. (Exodus 20:3) That doesn't mean we must love ourselves or our family or others less; it just that we are to love God more. It is a matter of priorities. If we put God first, everything else will be in proper relationship to him and to us. (Matthew 6:33)

We also give up the right to choose the path of our life. Jesus did not say we are to follow our whims or even our dreams but to follow him. Now this is not to say that certain dreams are not sent by God. Often we find God's will for us at the intersection of what we are passionate about and what we are good at. And the Spirit equips us to do what God want us to do. But sometimes what God has in mind for us is not what we initially think our path will be. Amos was not prepared to be a prophet; he was a herdsman who also worked with trees. David was a shepherd, not a prince. Paul was a Pharisee, not a likely candidate to be an apostle to the Gentiles. As it says in Proverbs, “In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps.” (Proverbs 16:9) and in the same chapter it says, “Commit to the Lord whatever you do and your plans will succeed.” (Proverbs 16:3) And in the Psalms we get this reassurance: “Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory.” (Psalm 73:23) We may not be heading where we thought we would be going but God is with us all the way.

We also give up our right to lash out at those who oppose us. Again and again we are told not to reciprocate evil actions with evil (Romans 12:17; 1 Thessalonians 5:15; 1 Peter 3:9) And you know what's interesting? I had a hard time looking up all those instances because even Bibles with chain references and topical indexes of the Bible don't cross reference all the places where we are told not to “repay evil for evil” though all the instances use those exact words! We don't like the fact that we are to give up violence, even though Jesus says that explicitly and at length in the Sermon on the Mount. “You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles....” (Matthew 5:38-41) It's a disturbing demand and causes problems if, say, we are speaking of abuse. Jesus is, I think it's safe to say, thinking of the dismissive slap, one that is an insult, and not one that is meant to do lasting physical damage. But we rarely deal with the ethical dilemmas that arise from the pacifism Jesus commands because we usually just react in kind and we like the idea of fighting fire with fire. Jesus, however, requires us to act nobly and be creative in dealing with opposition. We lose our right to just haul off and hit somebody because it feels good to get him back.

Finally, we give up the right to choose whom we are to love. In his parable of the Good Samaritan Jesus shows us that loving our neighbor doesn't mean just loving the guy next door or your coworker but anyone we encounter, even if they are of a different race or faith, and even if we find them to be in great need that will take a lot of our time and money to fix them up. (Luke 10:25-37) Remember we are to treat those in need as we treat Jesus. (Matthew 25:40)

Jesus said we must love not only our neighbors but those who are hostile to us. “But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” (Luke 6:27-28) Notice that Jesus doesn't define love as having warm and sentimental feelings about someone but as acting in a loving way toward them. We are to treat others not as they treat us but as we would like to treated. (Luke 6:31) And the night before he died, Jesus raised the bar. We are to love one another as he loves us: self-sacrificially. (John 15:12)

If all that we give up when we renounce ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus sounds a bit much, we need to remember that Jesus died to save us. And as we pointed out Jesus “...died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.” (2 Corinthians 5:15) To put it another way, Paul said, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20). That's why we take up our cross. It is to crucify our old sinful self, daily if necessary. (Romans 6:6-7; Luke 9:23)

But as we said, this new life is not one of merely giving stuff up. Being good is more than simply refraining ourselves from being of doing evil. It is about developing good qualities or virtues as we become more Christlike, through the power of the Spirit. So this Sunday we will discuss the first of 7 key virtues that we should have. They are not the fruit of the Spirit though they do overlap. And they are not the only ones we should emulate. But they are important enough that for millennia they have been called cardinal virtues. The first one we will look at is temperance. And, no, it not about Prohibition.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Light in the Darkness

The scriptures referred to are 2 Corinthians 4:3-6.

There are gradations of blindness. People who are functionally blind can see but not well enough to get around without a lot of help. They may even need Braille to read. Some people are legally blind which means they are so near-sighted that they can't drive or do other activities that require distance vision. To people with cataracts things look fuzzy. A person with macular degeneration loses vision in the center of their visual field but retains peripheral vision. People with glaucoma can develop hazy sight and tunnel vision.

What's odd is that people who are totally blind, who can't visually perceive light at all, can still sense light nonvisually. It turns out we have other cells in our eyes besides the rods and cones that transmit visual information to the brain. These cells, called ipRGCs, allow the blind person to maintain his or her circadian rhythms, maintaining a fairly normal routine of sleeping and eating at the same time most other people do.

God is often associated with light. In Genesis 1 it is the first thing created. In the last chapter of Revelation God eliminates all darkness: “And night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light...” (Revelation 22:5) The Bible mentions light more than 200 times.

As a symbol light is associated with goodness and life, probably because the cover of darkness allows predators, both animal and human, to strike. You are also less likely to trip or fall or get lost when you have light. And now we know that sunlight is both good for your mood and your health, stimulating the production of vitamin D. On the other hand, darkness is associated with evil and death. The penultimate plague striking Egypt in Exodus is darkness. When Jesus is crucified, darkness comes over the land for 3 hours. In Job death is depicted as “the land of deepest night, of deep shadow and disorder, where even the light is like darkness.” (Job 10:22) In contrast, Jesus demonstrates his triumph over death by rising as the sun rises at dawn.

So what is Paul talking about then he says “our gospel is veiled?” Again I wish the people who selected our lectionary reading had included a bit more for context. In the verse before our passage from 2 Corinthians, Paul is talking about his ministry's transparency: “...we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God.” (2 Corinthians 4:2) Still some people don't seem to get it. That's why Paul speaks of the gospel being veiled. And it is only veiled to those who are perishing.

The Greek word translated “perishing” could be rendered “are being destroyed” or “are dying.” Why are they dying? Because they do not know the truth. As a nurse I can tell you that what you don't know can hurt you. For a while a popular slur for a British person was a “limey.” That's because 200 years ago sailors spending months at sea would often get scurvy. The British noted that if their sailors ate citrus they were much less likely to get that disease. So in the 1850s the Royal Navy would put lemon juice in their grog, later switching to lime juice, because they could more easily get limes from their colonies. So Americans sneeringly called them lime-juicers, later shortened to limeys. Sadly, limes have less vitamin C, but they didn't know that.

Similarly ignorance of the link between smoking and various lung diseases killed a lot of people in the first 2/3s of the 20th century. Ignorance about what caused HIV killed a lot of people in the 1980s. Ignorance about how vaccines are made and work are killing people today. What you don't know can do worse than hurt you; it can kill you.

And in many of those cases someone was keeping the knowledge from the general public. The connection between smoking and lung cancer was discovered by the Germans in the 1920s and again by the British in the 1950s. And though American tobacco companies knew, they launched a disinformation campaign to discredit the science. With vaccines, one British doctor faked a study linking autism to vaccines and today certain parents resist the truth that vaccines save innumerable lives. For that matter, as shown in Larry Kramer's autobiographical play The Normal Heart, there were those in the gay community who pushed back against the idea that AIDS was transmitted by unprotected sex. Sometimes ignorance is willful.

Paul, of course, knew none of these examples from what was to him the future but he lived in a society where many were poor, millions were enslaved, women were not valued as much as men, and those who were at the top pursued personal pleasure that was often destructive to themselves and those around them. He saw a society that could use the good news of the forgiveness and love to be found in Jesus.

And Paul was interested in the those social problems. In his letters he mentions his collection for the poor in Jerusalem. (Romans 15:26; Galatians 2:10) But he was seen as even more radical. He was accused of turning the world upside down (Acts 17:6) For instance, while he didn't call for a slave revolt, he did encourage slaves to gain their freedom (1 Corinthians 7:21) and at least one slave owner to free his slave (Philemon). He said all people, including women and slaves, were of equal worth in Christ. (Galatians 3:28) And he, like Jesus, saw that the danger to the rich was all the temptations available to them and commanded them to be humble and generous. (1 Timothy 6:9-10, 17-18) He knew that the love of God which is given to us by the Spirit (Romans 5:5) is necessary for a good and just society (Romans 13:9-10).

But he also knew that people cannot change unless they come to put their trust in Jesus and receive the Holy Spirit. (Galatians 5:22-23) People change for 2 main reasons: out of pain and out of love. The second is infinitely preferable.

But just as knowledge of good nutrition is important to people's physical health, so too is knowledge of the gospel for those whose spirits are starving for real sustenance. And just as people are kept in the dark by those with power, like the tobacco and sugar industries, Paul says the people of this world are blinded by the god of this age. He is no doubt referring to Satan. However, Paul also said of those who were enemies of the cross of Christ that their god is their belly. (Philippians 3:19; Romans 16:18) So he was not above using the word “god” metaphorically.

A god is anything in which you find ultimate value and to which you are supremely loyal. So, for instance, Jesus famously said you cannot serve both God and Mammon, a personification of wealth as a deity. (Matthew 6:24) And indeed there are people who let money rule their lives. They don't even have to be rich; they can just be obsessed with its pursuit. Such a person is blind to the true wealth of the Spirit. (Ephesians 3:16)

Some people make a god out of popularity. Everything they do—how they dress, what they buy, what music they listen to—are driven by the desire to become and stay popular. People will even alter their faces and bodies to fit the popular image of beauty. Some of our movie stars no longer look as they did because of plastic surgery. Now if you were disfigured by an accident, disease or by, say, a mastectomy for breast cancer, cosmetic surgery is understandable. But there is actually a woman who has had countless surgeries so that she can have the face and unrealistic figure of a Barbie doll. Google her and shudder.

From time immemorial people have been indulging in, let's face it, stupid activities because they were popular. I remember Beatlemania. The Beatles were a great band but that doesn't make it any more sensible for hundreds of fans to shriek so loudly during their concerts that you couldn't hear the musicians play. There are countless videos of people hurting themselves doing dangerous stunts and numerous videos of people trying to eat huge amounts of cinnamon and getting sick. I am assuming they have been joined by videos of young people eating detergent pods. Popularity is not the same as the wisdom of crowds.

People have made a god (or goddess) out of sexual pleasure. And we are reaping the results in terms of disease, broken families, unwanted children and sex trafficking. If you want to read something sad, read interviews with Hugh Hefner's last few girlfriends. They tell a tale of a dirty and dilapidated mansion, inhabited by virtual sex slaves, presided over by a man who needed a great deal of help to actually do what he thought was life's chief pleasure and purpose. As C.S. Lewis said, all get what they want; they do not always like it.

Some make certain men their gods—literally. Lemming-like, they have followed people like Jim Jones and David Koresh into mass-suicide. And oddly enough, the popular notion that lemmings run off cliffs to kill themselves is false. The guys who made that documentary couldn't get these rodents to fling themselves into the sea and had to throw the critters in with their own hands to get the footage. Turns out lemmings have a strong sense of self-preservation. Wish I could say the same for human beings.

Others merely blindly follow powerful men and celebrities and treat them like gods. Elvis might be alive today had the people around him not acquiesced to his appetite for drugs. The same goes for John Belushi, Michael Jackson and Prince. In other cases indulging the whims of men with the godlike power to kill careers has led to assistants procuring women to be sexually assaulted and boards paying for their silence.

Some have made politics their god and sacrificed everything—their values, their integrity, even the good of their country—for their party and ideology.

And because these gods do not want rivals, they blind their followers to the better way and loving God that is revealed in the good news of Jesus. Jesus is the image of God, Paul says. And the contrast between him and the gods of this age could not be greater. Jesus did not have worldly wealth. (Matthew 8:20) He lost his popularity by proclaiming uncomfortable truths. (John 6:60, 66) He didn't use his power to indulge himself. (Matthew 4:1-4) He came not to be served but to serve. (Mark 10:45)  He deflected attempts to get him to take a stand of the hot button issues of the day by redirecting our focus onto deeper and more lasting considerations. (Mark 12:13-17)

As C.S. Lewis wrote in his pointed satire The Screwtape Letters, the last thing the devil wants us to do is think clearly about issues. Muddled thinking keeps people blind to reality. It's not just about about putting ideas into our minds but also keeping certain ideas or insights out. In the 1950s scientists noticed a marked rise in heart disease. A researcher named John Yudkin suggested it was concomitant with our increased consumption of sugar. But the industry-funded Sugar Research Foundation tried to block that idea and substituted the admittedly easier-to-understand idea that fat consumption makes you fat. And most researchers followed that path for the last 50 years. But Yudkin's research has now been scientifically validated. When you consume more sugar than your liver can process, it's stored as fat. Not that the sugar industry is conceding that. In fact, the Sugar Association has called the Heart Association's recommendation that children should not eat more than 6 teaspoons of sugar a day “baffling.” Which reminds me of the W.C. Fields quote: “If you can't dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with [B.S.]”

Evil tries to gaslight you, to make you doubt what you can clearly see or the results of objective observation by experts. Again as C. S. Lewis points out, we too often use jargon and pejoratives to characterize things as either “elite” or “ordinary,” “patriotic” or “unpatriotic,” “natural” or “unnatural,” “normal” or “abnormal,” “liberal” or “conservative” rather than ask the questions “Is this true or false? Is this right or wrong?” Just as the sugar industry has come up with 60 euphemisms to disguise added sugar, we have invented a bunch of synonyms and antonyms for “we like this.” What we don't like is total objectivity because it tells us stuff we don't want to accept as true.

And one way we decide if we accept something is true or not is whether we like the people espousing it. And sadly, certain Christians have been playing right into this. There are people who say they speak for Jesus who seem to have forgotten his commandments to love everyone, including one's enemies. Instead of displaying the way that Jesus and his gospel are different from other ideologies, they get just as partisan, just as hateful, just as dishonest as the people and movements which they criticize. They have turned a lot of people off to Christianity.

As Paul says, we should not be proclaiming ourselves or our opinions but Jesus Christ as Lord. And we should not do so out of pride in ourselves or in our cleverness or in our being right. As Paul says in the next chapter, “For Christ's love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.” (2 Corinthians 5:14-15) Our love should compel us to disclose to others the truth we have found in Jesus. And it should compel us to live not for ourselves but for Jesus who died for all. The way of Jesus is the way of radical altruism.

As Diana Ross sang, what the world needs now is love. But how do we reveal the God of love to a world blinded by the powers that presently rule it? How do we show them Jesus as he really is? Though we may see them as spiritually blind, Jesus healed the blind, even those born blind. And like the visually blind, the spiritually blind can still sense the light of Christ. After all, high profile atheists, like Francis Collins, Alister McGrath, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Lee Strobel and C.S. Lewis, have come to Christ. Unlike Paul, the other apostles and many of the early Christians they didn't have the advantage of having seen Jesus in the flesh. They never saw his face. They saw something in Christians they met. Like it or not, we are the face of Jesus to the world. We are his body on earth. And if we rely on the Holy Spirit, the light God has shown in our hearts, and if we let our lives reflect that light in all that we think, say and do, people will receive the knowledge of the glory of God and meet him who made all, and died for all, and who rose again to raise us to new life in the God who is love.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

On Eagle's Wings

The scriptures referred to are Isaiah 40:21-31.

Kids are energy vampires. They never seem to tire but they leave me exhausted. I swear they are siphoning off my energy somehow. And when they have expended it all they don't take a break; they simply drop where they are are, like marionettes with their strings cut. They are awake one second and then asleep the next. I have lots of pictures of my kids sleeping where they dropped, crumpled in heaps, on sofas, on stairs, in high chairs. I have always envied their ability to get to sleep so fast. The problem is they just won't do it when you want them to. Try to get them to go to sleep on your schedule and they can come up with more ways to postpone it than a lawyer can reasons to delay a guilty client's trial. Have you noticed it's mostly when they are asleep that we call them angels? When awake, they can rival the devil for the amount of destruction and disruption they accomplish. And in less time than it takes to realize they are being suspiciously silent.

I was reminded of this when reading the famous lines at their end of today's passage from Isaiah: “...those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with the wings of eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

The weariness being talked about is spiritual, of course. But there are parallels between some of the physical causes of fatigue and the spiritual ones. The causes of fatigue can be internal or external.

One external cause of fatigue is an infectious agent, such as the viruses that cause colds or the flu. They attack the body and fighting them leaves us with no energy. Spiritually the kinds of things that can sap our energy are the viral ideas that permeate our culture. Such as consumerism. Whether you are on the internet, or watching TV, or listening to the radio or podcasts, you are inundated with commercials that basically tell you that the products they tout will make your life better. You will be cooler, sexier, healthier, and happier if you just buy this smartphone, car, medicine, or soft drink. The continual repetition of these ads can make you vaguely dissatisfied with what you already have or even with your life. If nothing else the novelty of the latest gadget makes you crave something you never needed before.

And indeed companies are actively trying to make their products addictive. Snack foods keep rolling out new flavors. Play this video game well and you will be rewarded with more of levels of the game to play. See this superhero film and get the toys and merchandise. Alternately if a toy sells well, Hollywood will turn it into a TV show or a movie franchise. Pursuing the illusory happiness that material things promise can be exhausting. You end up with a lot of stuff and a vague sense of emptiness.

The first step in dealing with an overdose of materialism is to realize that more things don't make us happier. Indeed, studies show making more money only increases your level of happiness until you are able to meet all your needs. Making much more money than you actually need doesn't make you substantially happier. Indeed only one of the 10 wealthiest countries, according to Business Insider, appears on the list of the 10 happiest countries, according to the UN: Norway. Japan, on the other hand, while the 30th richest country in the world has 8th highest suicide rate in the world. Money can't buy happiness. Having many possessions won't make you happy. The question is “What can?”

Gratitude is one of the psychologically tested ways to increase happiness. If you list 3 to 5 things each day for which you are grateful you will, within 30 days, feel greater well-being and happiness. And expressing that gratitude to others is associated with increased empathy, optimism and energy. The secret is not getting more stuff but being grateful for what and whom you already have in your life.

Another external viral cause of spiritual fatigue is the deluge of things demanding our attention. Putting aside the commercial messages, there still is a tsunami of content engulfing us from the moment we wake up and turn on the media until we turn off our screens and crawl exhausted into bed. If you wish to know what is going on in the world or just in our country, you have to pay attention to the news. If you want to understand a major issue in depth, you need to watch the Frontline documentary or listen to the NPR podcast or read the latest heavily researched book you hear discussed on Fresh Air. But as the writer of Ecclesiastes says, “There is no end to the making of many books, and much study is exhausting to the body.” (Ecclesiastes 12:12) It can also overwhelm your mental health. As one character says to another in a New Yorker cartoon by David Sipress, “My desire to be well-informed is currently at odds with my desire to stay sane.” The sheer amount of bad news can leave you numb with despair.

We need a balanced diet of content. No one should ignore important information but we need to prioritize. Nobody can know or indeed needs to know everything. And remember that the news tends to be not what happens all the time but what is out of the ordinary. Paying too much attention to what the headlines scream can make it seem like the entire world and every single aspect of it is falling apart. You need to balance out bad news with good news. Reading the Bible and Christian books can give you a much needed perspective on our world. There have always been people doing evil but there have also always been those who are doing good: teaching, healing, and freeing other people. And we are to go and do likewise. Making the world or some part of it better can help alleviate the feeling of being helpless in the face of the ignorance, stupidity and evil we encounter.

Internal processes like arthritis or fibromyalgia can leave you physically depleted. Pain drains you. And it doesn't matter if you feel it physically or mentally. Depression can rob you of energy, and we've just found evidence that the body reacts to it as it does physical pain, namely, by inflammation. It looks like depression is another type of auto-immune disease, the body attacking a part of itself as if it were a foreign body.

Spiritually, the pain of bad theology can harm you. Scientific studies have demonstrated over and over the positive and protective effects of religious faith: less depression and anxiety, lower risk of substance abuse and suicide and a better ability to cope with stress. But that depends upon how you see God. Kenneth Pargament, professor of psychology at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, says, regarding mental health, “If you tend to see God as punitive, threatening or unreliable, then that's not very helpful.” Believing God is punishing you or abandoning you is associated with emotional distress, higher rates of depression, a lower quality of life and even an increased risk of an early death. As a nurse, I have seen a remarkable change come over patients who were distraught over their relationship with God when I ask them if they had confessed their sin to God. And when they said “yes,” I quoted to them 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, he is faith and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Their whole demeanor changed, and one started eating again and another expressed relief and gratitude. 

Accepting forgiveness also gives us hope. It means our past no matter how bad need not determine our future. With the sole exception of Jesus every person God uses in the Bible is a sinner. Moses was a murderer. Paul was an accessory to murder. Noah got drunk. Abraham was willing to pimp out his wife. David was an adulterer. Peter denied Jesus 3 times. God used them nevertheless. God uses imperfect but forgiven people to carry out his mission. Indeed his mission is to get rid of evil by transforming bad people into good people. It is a process and it doesn't take place overnight. But if the person keeps responding to God's love and direction, he or she will become a better, a more Christlike person over time.

Another cause of physical fatigue can be two different dysfunctions of the same organ. The thyroid secretes hormones that regulate your metabolism or use of energy. In hypothyroidism it produces too little. That can make you sluggish, constipated and tired all the time. The equivalent is people whose spirituality is all about prayer and meditation and frankly themselves. They don't really exercise the “love your neighbor” part of the gospel. The Dead Sea got its name from the fact that, having tributaries but no outlet, it is too salty for anything to live in. So it is with people whose spirituality is all about feeling good and not about doing good. James pegged it when he wrote, “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes or daily food. If one of you says to them, 'Go in peace; keep warm and well-fed,' but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:15-17) Remember that we are created in the image of the God who is love. If you really want to find yourself, you will do so in acting in love towards others.

In the case of hyperthyroidism, the thyroid overproduces its hormones. The person is thin, nervous, has tremors, a fast heartbeat and once again fatigue. The spiritual equivalent is someone who is constantly moving and takes no time for rest. This can be the person who overdoes the “love your neighbor” part and forgets the “as yourself” part. From the beginning God decided that we needed times of rest: the Sabbath. In this 24/7 world it is easy to forget that you need to take breaks. As Jesus said, the Sabbath was made for us. We need to take care of ourselves or we will cease to be of any use to others. So the remedy is to not find time but make time to pray, meditate on God, sing, turn off the screens, and whatever else you need to do to recuperate. Hopefully, coming here to worship with others and concentrate on your spiritual side helps you recharge your batteries.

I go to the jail twice a week. I don't always feel up to it. But then I meet people, answer their questions, listen to their concerns, pray with them, share communion with them, lead them in worship and send them literature that I hope is relevant to their situation and needs, and I find the lethargy has lifted. I am energized by talking to them about God and talking to God about them.

Finally, I want to look at who will renew their strength. Isaiah identifies them as “those who wait on the Lord.” The Hebrew word translated “wait” literally means “collect or gather together” and comes from a root that means “bind.” It can also mean “expect” or “hope” and in two translations it is rendered “trust.” Thus a more expanded translation might go: “Those who wait expectantly in the Lord, binding themselves to him with trust and hope, will renew their strength.” Mere waiting can sap your strength but if you wait expectantly, if you trust the person you're waiting for to fulfill his promises to you and put your hope in that, it will energize you. It's like a kid waiting expectantly for his birthday or Christmas, knowing his parents and relatives and friends will give him good presents. In fact, depending on how confident she is that she will get what she wants, it will be a giddy, almost joyful anticipation.

And that is how we should wait on the Lord. With joy and hope and expectation that, as Paul said, “he who began a good work in you will carry it through to completion on the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6) And as we wait in anticipation, we can make sure we are not possessed by our possessions, express our gratitude for the good experiences and people in our lives, balance out the bad news of the day with the timeless good news of God's love and forgiveness and hope in Jesus, get out there and show our neighbor real love while not neglecting to take breaks to refresh and restore ourselves by connecting to the one who is the source of goodness. And if we do that, our spirits will soar like eagles on the wing in a clear and boundless sky.  

Monday, January 29, 2018

Being Wrong About Being Right

The scriptures referred to are Deuteronomy 18:15-20 and 1 Corinthians 8:1-13.

I don't know who edited the passages we read each week in our lectionary but they often end the selection too soon. In the verses that come after our passage from Deuteronomy, there is a test given to see if a prophet is speaking for God or not: if what he foretells does not come to pass, he is not speaking for God. In that case, verse 22 says, “The prophet has spoken it presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him.” I think this part is important. In fact, I would like to see those who say they take the Bible literally apply it to some of their own. Pat Robertson, for instance, has prophesied that the Tribulation, the 7 year period preceding Jesus' return, would start in 1982. And then in 1984. And then again in 2007. He predicted Jay Rockefeller would become president in 1996 and Mitt Romney in 2012. His track record is terrible and yet his viewers do not follow the instructions found in Deuteronomy and abandon him as a false prophet.

And remember Harold Camping? He was the president of Family Radio, a Christian network that broadcast in 150 markets in the US. He predicted that Jesus would return to rapture believers on May 21, 2011. When that date passed, he revised it to October 21 of that year. He retired and his network suffered significant losses of their revenues and staff. To his credit he admitted that his attempt to predict a date was “sinful” and that he should have heeded Jesus' words that no one knows the day and time when he will return. (Matthew 24:36). Too bad he didn't come to that realization after he first predicted things, such as Judgment Day occurring  on September 6, 1994.

In the words of Deuteronomy, these men, and others who have said erroneous things in the name of the Lord, are doing so presumptuously (“arrogantly” is another good translation) and we need not be afraid of them. But this is nothing new. Many, including Pope Silvester II, thought the world would end on January 1, 1000 AD. William Miller preached the world would end in 1843 and then revised it to October 22, 1844. The day after was known as the Great Disappointment to the between 50,000 and 500,000 Millerites. Today's Seventh Day Adventists came out of Millerism. Christopher Columbus and Cotton Mather came up with multiple dates for the end of the world. Isaac Newton said it could not happen before 2060. He later revised that to 2016. So we are living on borrowed time.

Newton is not the only scientist to predict the end of the world. German mathematician Johannes Stoffler thought the earth would be flooded in 1524 when all the known planets would align under Pisces. In 1910, some scientists thought all life might perish when the earth passed through the tail of Halley's Comet. Most scientists, though, predict the world will end a long time in the future. 300,000 years from now, WR 104 is expected to go supernova and explode, according to astronomer Peter Tuthill. The burst of gamma rays could threaten life on earth. Presuming we don't get hit by an asteroid in the next 500,000 years, the Geological Society predicts a supervolcanic eruption in 1 million years, comparable to the Toba supereruption that took place 75,000 years ago and may have triggered a 1000 year glacial period and severely reduced the global human population.

But as entertaining as all this mass death is, perhaps there is a bit of wisdom in ending our passage from Deuteronomy where the lectionary does. The point is that there will be people speaking in God's name and some will be false prophets. Both listening to the false ones and not heeding the real ones are spiritually dangerous. We need to be discerning.

One way to avoid problems, in my experience, is to notice if the preacher is making a big thing out of stuff not covered in the Bible, as if God had somehow left out the most important parts of his message. I once had a lady denounce our church for having a headquarters! I'm not sure how you run a national church without some kind of central location for its administration. I'm also sure scripture says nothing against having a headquarters. And there are preachers who get bent out of shape by whatever the latest fad is whether it's clothing fashions or popular games or movies or the Internet. At the Christian college I attended, traditional playing cards were forbidden, because they could be used for fortunetelling and gambling. I remember a book that came out in the 1970s denouncing Star Wars as Satanic. I was happy that my son got into Dungeons and Dragons. When people asked me if I didn't think it was of the devil, I would tell them that the most diabolic thing about it was that to play the game, you have to buy an encyclopedia's worth of rule books. It was however a brilliant sales strategy. Thus it taught my son to make and save money if he wanted to buy the latest tome. And he had no money left over to buy drugs (were he so inclined.) Today he and his wife play it with friends. It reminds me of the Canasta parties of my parent's generation.

The Bible doesn't cover absolutely everything that the future will bring, at least not in detail. The best we can do is judiciously apply the principles we derive from it to new developments. Obviously we need to avoid anything that is harmful to ourselves or others, whether physically, psychologically, or spiritually. But sometimes we just need to stop fearing every single thing that comes along.

In Paul's day, a major controversy had arisen over whether it was all right to eat meat sacrificed to idols. After pagan priests offered the meat to the idols, it was consumed by people, of course. Usually there was so much excess that the meat was served in the temple's dining hall (kinda like today's banquet venues) and sold in its meat markets. When there was a major pagan religious festival, there was so much meat left over that it had to be consumed before it rotted and the beneficiaries of this oversupply were often the poor, who could not otherwise afford the luxury of meat. The problem for Christians was how to act when dining with pagans, such as business associates or members of their trade guild or when guests at the wedding of a friend or relative. And what if they were poor and could only eat meat during pagan festivals?

Now some Christians reasoned that, since there are no gods other than Yahweh, the ritual sacrifice meant nothing and therefore they could eat such meat with a clear conscience. That is the “knowledge” to which Paul is referring. And they felt that having such knowledge made them stronger Christians than those with weak consciences, that is, consciences not able to withstand temptation.

Remember that most of the Christians in Corinth were converts from paganism. Eating at a temple or eating meat bought there could cause some of them to relapse. So Paul said to those with stronger consciences that they should, out of love, refrain from exercising their right or freedom to eat temple meat, at least when with Christians who were less secure in their faith. Knowingly endangering the faith of a sibling in Christ is tantamount to sinning against Christ.

I think the key verses in this passage are the first three. Paul says that “knowledge puffs up but love builds up.” In other words, being knowledgeable can inflate your ego but being loving builds up other people spiritually. Also knowledge is not always accompanied by wisdom. People with lots of knowledge do not always know what to do with it. Smart people can be thoughtless. Being an arrogant know-it-all who simply criticizes others as stupid does not make the world, much less the church, a better place. That's what Paul means by “Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge.” I like the way the New Living Translation renders this: “Anyone who claims to know all the answers doesn't really know very much.” It sounds like Paul is describing the Dunning-Kruger effect: people who are ignorant don't know enough to realize just how little they actually know.

But it is not really a lack of knowledge that is the problem; it's a lack of love. Paul's phrase “...but anyone who loves God is known by him” recalls 1 John 4:8, “The person who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” If we really know the God who is love, we will not use our knowledge, however sophisticated, to harm another person.

I had situation that was similar to the one Paul is dealing with. I have a friend who is Muslim. The Halal diet of Islam are roughly analogous to the Kosher diet of Judaism. We were at the Cheesecake Factory and I think I was going to order either pork chops or a club sandwich, which of course has bacon. My friend asked that I not order pork while eating with her. So I changed my order. I could have protested that as a Christian I have no dietary restrictions and it wasn't like I was going to make her eat what I was eating. But out of friendship, which is a form of love, I refrained from indulging in what I had every right to consume.

Think of what you would do if dining out with a friend in recovery for drinking. I hope you would skip ordering anything alcoholic. Or refrain from buying lottery tickets with a friend who has a gambling problem. Or from watching a war movie with an Amish person or a prize fight with a Quaker.

Now Paul does not say that the Christians with no qualms about the meat need to give it up entirely. In chapter 10 he says they should not participate in pagan festivals or eat in temples (1 Corinthians 10:7, 18-21) but he also says, “Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for 'The earth is the Lord's and everything in it.' If some unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. But if anyone says to you, 'This has been offered in sacrifice,' then do not eat it, both for the sake of the man who told you and for conscience sake—the other man's conscience, I mean, not yours.” (1 Corinthians 10:25-29) The principle, says Paul, is “Nobody should seek his own good but the good of others.” (v. 24)

There are two other principles to consider as well. When Paul is dealing with the same issue in his letter to the Romans he says, “Accept the one whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on his reasonings. One person believes in eating everything but the one who is weak eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not despise the one who doesn't, and the one who abstains must not judge the one who eats everything, for indeed God has accepted him. Who are you to be judging another's servant? Before his own master, he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand. One person judges a certain day to be holier than another day and another judges every day to be alike. Each must be fully convinced in his own mind.” (Romans 14:1-5) After all, each person should be doing or not doing it to glorify God. And Paul reminds us, “each of us will give account of himself to God.” (Romans 14:12)

Paul is saying that good Christians can differ on certain nonessential matters in dispute. But it is vital that you be fully convinced of your opinion, which means doing research and thinking long and hard about what the data, including the Bible, says. And it is equally vital that you not look down on your fellow Christian, even if he holds a different opinion.

Some of the issues Christians differ on today are a lot more serious than eating meat offered to imaginary idols. The two most prominent are abortion and how we treat LGBTQI people. How can what the Bible says help us with these?

First of all, abortion is not mentioned anywhere in the Old or New Testament. There are passages some cite as indicating life starts in the womb and historically the church has been pro-life. In the first several centuries that meant opposing abortion but mostly it meant opposing the practice of exposing infants, that is, leaving babies that people didn't want or couldn't afford on the side of a road. They might be adopted and cared for by others; they might raised as slaves; they might simply be left to die. The church opposed the practice, though it's also not mentioned in scripture. And as we said, you cannot oppose abortion on the basis of any clear prohibition by the Bible. Believe it or not, devout Christians can have different opinions on the matter. It's not that some Christians love the idea of abortion but they feel there are circumstances, usually dire ones, where it should be an option and it should be left to the conscience of the pregnant woman.

Some preachers have said that abortion takes a terrible psychological toll on women. A rigorous study that followed 1000 women for 5 years found that those who underwent the procedure did not have any more depression, anxiety, low self-esteem or dissatisfaction with life than those who were denied abortions. Again some Christian organizations say there is a link between abortion and breast cancer. Scientific studies say there isn't. So those preachers were wrong in what they predicted would happen to women. According to Deuteronomy, they spoke presumptuously and we need not fear them.

That doesn't answer the question of whether we are dealing with life or not. So as Paul says, let each person be fully convinced of their position and not judge those with different opinions.

Now the Bible says nothing positive about homosexual acts. But it only mentions them 7 times out of 33,000 verses. Homosexuality is not mentioned in the Ten Commandments and Jesus never says anything about it. Some say the homosexual acts mentioned in the New Testament aren't consensual but are actually pedophilia and rape. They say it is better for gays to be in stable faithful relationships than casual and chaotic ones. They point out that Jesus said no other commandment is greater than the ones to love God and to love others. (Mark 12:31) But some just can't get over those 7 passages. Let each person be fully convinced of their position and not judge those with different opinions.

There have always been and there will always be disputes among Christians on issues that are important but not essential. For the most part we differ in what we emphasize and how we interpret certain passages and apply them. We should agree on the core beliefs, as summarized in the Apostles Creed, and the commandments to love God above all and to love all whom we encounter as ourselves. We are commanded to treat everyone with love, even our enemies. And when it comes to our fellow Christians Jesus commanded us to love one another as he loves us. He gave up his life for us out of love. Can we not give up insisting that our take on controversial but nonessential matters is the only option for Christians, and can we not do so out of love? Love is how Jesus said the world will know that we are his followers. (John 13:34-35) And in this contentious world, where parties, movements and nations cannot cohere because of differences in opinion, what better witness can we give to the God who is love than to work with, and to worship with, and to love all our brothers and sisters in Christ, including those with whom we disagree?