Monday, November 22, 2010

Reconciling the Physical and the Spiritual

There’s a kind of war going on in scientific circles. Some scientists are trying to diminish the things that make humans unique from the other animals. Our use of tools? Chimps, birds, elephants, dolphins and octopi also use tools. Opposable thumbs? Most primates have them. The importance of the relative brain size of humans compared to other creatures is disputed as well. Even chimps and African Grey parrots seem to be able to learn and use language appropriately. There is nothing that human beings have that is not possessed in some degree by the other animals.

On the other hand, there are scientists who point out significant differences in humans, such as our upright posture, our shoulder, our throat, our smaller jaw, our ability to cry tears, and our sheer versatility. There’s the fact that, unlike all other animals, humans are not limited to one climate or region or continent. And we don’t adapt by changing our physiology but through developing our technology. Which, though tools, are considerably more sophisticated than those other animals create and use. The difference in the DNA of humans and chimps may be less than 2% but the fact remains that the most versatile tool chimps have devised is the stick. My not very smart phone can wake me up, keep track of my appointments, take photos and videos, play music, check my emails, give me a ten day weather forecast, my location by GPS and access the web including an online medical dictionary, several translations of the Bible, and Wikipedia. At some point differences in degree are so great that they might as well be differences in kind. St. Francis-in-the-Keys and Canterbury Cathedral are both Anglican churches but the differences in size and complexity are so vast that any detailed comparison would only serve to highlight the dissimilarities.

Still, biologically, we are mammals. And that brings us to our sermon suggestion question. It concerns “the duality of human nature--animal vs. spiritual. How to resolve the dichotomy without neglecting either side or self-destructive.” It’s an old question. The Greeks wrestled with it and decided we were spiritual beings trapped in physical bodies. The Gnostics smuggled that idea into the church. But the Bible sees us as the union of body and spirit. In Genesis 2, God forms Adam from the earth and breathes into him the breath or spirit of life. The 2 can only be separated in theory or by death. Contrary to popular belief, Christians don’t believe in a disembodied afterlife but, as we say in the Creed, “the resurrection of the dead.” God plans to reintegrate our bodies and spirits, or as John Polkinghorne puts it, save our software and install it in new hardware.

After all, if God became incarnate in Jesus Christ, then our bodies cannot be inherently bad. And indeed, they come with an operating system that allows us to learn how to walk, use language, even to seek God. But just as computer software is built on earlier versions, so we have programming that comes from our animal heritage. We are inborn tendencies to fright, to fight, to reproduce. and we need to control these proclivities lest our lives and our societies devolve into chaos. Yet we have physical needs that we cannot ignore. How does one achieve balance?

One way is to understand what those needs are and what they aren’t. For instance, we need food and water. Healthy food, of course, and neither too little nor too much. And that’s a good way to deal with all of our needs: in moderation. We need clothing, shelter, sleep and the healthiest option is always somewhere between too much and too little. Or as Goldilocks put it--just right.

A good deal of our problems with our bodies is paying them too little or too much attention. Too little and we can fall into extreme asceticism, a form of self-denial that goes beyond reasonable self-discipline. This is something Paul cautioned against in his first letter to Timothy. He warns his protégé against those who “forbid marriage and demand abstinence from foods…for everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving, for it is sanctified by God’s word and prayer.” We should not reject the good things God has created for us to use and enjoy.

On the other hand, just as eating or drinking too much is unhealthy, so is overindulgence in our other needs. We need clothing but we all know people who pay too much attention to clothing and have way too many clothes than is reasonable. We need shelter but nobody needs a mansion unless they have an extremely large family. There really is too much of a good thing.

I drew much of my list of needs from the lower tier of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. But I think he has mislabeled one of the things on the list of physical needs: sex. Maslow should have put physical affection in there instead. The lack of physical affection can cause babies to die, even if their other physical needs are met. Those who survive have severe psychological problems. Physical touch lowers blood pressure, relieves stress and releases oxytocin, the chemical that binds humans. Physical affection is a need, even if it’s just a hug.

Sex, while definitely a need in regards to perpetuating the species, is not, strictly speaking, an individual need. The desire for it, though, is strong enough to feel as if it were. Even animals recognize that the desire for sex can and should be controlled for the common good. Among most social animals, only an alpha male or a queen or an alpha couple are allowed to mate. The others may not, often at the risk of expulsion from the pack or family, or even on pain of death. Unlike lack of food, water, or even exposure to the elements, going without sex won’t kill you. Overindulging, on the other hand, can, through disease or jealousy. Like other animals, we need to observe certain restrictions when it comes to sex.

In the Bible, sex is reserved for marriage. And most human societies agree. Within marriage, sex is important for the health of the relationship. In fact, the first commandment in the Bible is for humanity to be fruitful and multiply. The Song of Songs is a very sensual poem of married love. Sex is a gift from God and as Paul said, everything created by God is good, provided it is received with thankfulness, and sanctified by God’s word and prayer. That‘s what we do when we bless a wedding.

And it goes without saying, that sex should always be loving and never humiliating, degrading or harmful. As our prayer book says, marriage is meant for the couple’s mutual joy.

We have other needs as well, needs that are not physical. Some are social, like belonging to a family or group. Others are spiritual. Some scientists think that because belief in God is universal it must have an evolutionary advantage, something that caused humans who had it to thrive and the humans who didn’t to die off. They think it has to do with ensuring that people cooperate with one another. In fact, studies show that when reminded of God, people tend to be kind and helpful even to those outside their own family or group. It works better than simply being reminded of religion in general.

Belief in God activates several specific parts of the brain and brain chemicals. The evidence shows that, contrary to what some non-believers think, belief in God is normal and natural. We are hardwired for it.

But does that make it good? As we’ve seen in regards to certain biological urges, just because something occurs in nature or is the norm, that doesn’t necessarily make it good or beneficial. But belief in God has been clinically shown to reduce anxiety and promote healing and good physical health.

Neglecting our spiritual lives is bad for us in the same way that neglecting exercise or good hygiene is. It may not kill you as quickly as neglecting to eat, but overall it takes a toll on our spiritual and even physical health. In a study of women 50 years old and up, those who attend religious services weekly were 20% less likely to die in any given year. Religious observance is associated with 2 to 3 years of additional life. That’s on par with taking statin drugs for cholesterol.

Can you, as with eating, overdo religion? Yes. Studies show that people who only go to religious services get not only health and personal benefits but are kind and helpful to other members of their group. However, they are also more likely to think and act negatively towards those outside their faith. Jesus denounced the Pharisees who got so caught up in the minutiae of religion that they lost track of its most basic principles of justice and compassion to the marginalized and outsiders. Those same studies show that people who have a strong prayer life as well, those who have a direct relationship with God, are more altruistic to all people, including those who don’t belong to their faith or ethnic group. So it is vital to be connected not just with a religious group but with God himself.

We are amphibians, C.S. Lewis said, adapted to live in both the spiritual and physical worlds. We are not meant to live exclusively in either, so balance is important. The best way to do that is to obey the 2 great commandments Jesus laid out. By loving God, we stay in touch with the source of spiritual health, and by loving our neighbor as ourselves we stay connected with the physical world. As James reminds us, faith must manifest itself in the physical world as works to be genuine. As I’ve said before, the physical gives expression to the spiritual and the spiritual gives meaning to the physical. In that sense, our every action in this world should be sacramental, a giving of spiritual grace in some concrete form.

We need to reject the false dichotomy between the spiritual and the physical. When we try to divorce them, or overemphasize one at the expense of the other, we get into trouble. They are meant to go together in harmony. Sin and temptation, especially the temptation to oversimplify the situation, make achieving this balance hard but not impossible.

Above all, we must do everything in love and with gratitude to the God who created the world and everything in it as good gifts to be used wisely for the good of all. Or sometimes just enjoyed for what they are: physical expressions of his love.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Gospel According to Everyone

It was a very dramatic way to begin an episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” The crew no sooner detects a temporal anomaly in space than another Federation ship comes out of nowhere, hits the Enterprise and they both explode into tiny bits. Cue the opening title sequence and theme music.

After the first break, we are back on the Enterprise before their fatal crash. We see a little more of that day and then the catastrophe repeats itself. And we go to a commercial again. The whole episode goes that way except that during each iteration the crew begins to get clues that something is out of whack. Besides everyone experiencing massive amounts of déjà vu, the number 3 keeps popping up: in their traditional card game, in computer diagnostics, everywhere. But the end result is always the same: the other ship rockets towards them and both ships explode. By the final repeat of events, they are starting to piece together what is happening. They are in a time loop. And they are trying to figure out what they can do differently to avoid getting stuck in the same sequence of events. Should they avoid the anomaly? What if avoiding it is what triggered it all? They are second guessing everything, especially the significance of the recurrent appearances of the number 3. When the other ship appears and they have seconds to act, both Data and Commander Riker are at the helm and make hurried suggestions to get the Enterprise out of the way of an imminent head-on collision. Captain Picard orders the logical android to carry out his suggestion. But just as he is about to punch the necessary buttons, Data notices Riker’s rank insignia: 3 pips. He intuits that Riker’s idea is the correct one and follows it instead. The Enterprise narrowly escapes hitting the phantom ship. Later they check the ship’s chronometer with Star Fleet’s and realize they have been in the time loop for 17 days. When they hail the other ship, it turns out they have been missing for 80 years! Data figures that during one of their unsuccessful attempt to abort the collision, in the split second before the explosion,he encoded the number 3, Riker’s rank insignia, into his positronic brain. When the loop repeated, the number leaked out into everything he did. Its frequency drew attention to the clue which indicated the person who knew how to save them.

What if humanity kept getting itself into a series of disasters by making the wrong choices? What if you were God and wanted to save them? What if they didn’t have a universal translator like the Enterprise but hundreds of languages and cultures and religions? How would you encode the clue to the person who could save them?

You might do what Data did: insert a meme, a persistent idea that would pop up everywhere, into their brains. The best place for it to manifest itself would be in their stories. Every culture tells stories of the hero’s journey, in which he is called to adventure, given supernatural aid, heads off on the journey, faces temptation and challenges, undergoes literal or metaphorical death and resurrection, wins a victory, is transformed, returns to his people with a great boon. Joseph Campbell called this the monomyth, the basic story that underlies the stories of countless cultures. It is the basic structure of many Greek, Roman and Mesopotamian myths and specifically the stories of Osiris, Prometheus, and Buddha. It also sounds a lot like the life of Jesus Christ.

Because of that, some people think Jesus is either fictional or that the gospel writers changed his story to make it fit this pattern. But that takes a level of literary awareness not found in the gospels. C.S. Lewis was a professor of literature who studied the myths of other cultures, in the original languages when possible. He said the gospels were not as well written as the myths. They struck him as reportage. But he did see the similarities and one of the things that led Lewis to become a Christian was that he became convinced that in Christ, myth became fact. The existence of pagan stories of dying and rising gods didn’t bother him. If the gospel were true, if this was God’s plan, then we should expect him to grant these prophesies even to pagans. “Good dreams” Lewis called them.

Joseph Campbell listed 17 stages in this universal hero’s journey. Few myths have all of them. Let’s see how close these pagan prophesies come to describing the gospel.

The first stage is the call to adventure. The hero is called from his mundane life to go on a quest. The parallel would be John the Baptist’s announcement that the Kingdom of God is near. It is at this point that Jesus comes to John to be baptized and begins his ministry.

Next the hero receives supernatural aid from a mentor or helper. When Jesus comes up out of the water, the Holy Spirit descends on him. Jesus says that it is by the power of the Holy Spirit that he casts out demons.

The hero crosses the threshold from the mundane world into a unknown and dangerous realm. It leads to his transformation. After his baptism, Jesus is driven by the Spirit into the wilderness where he is tempted by the devil.

The hero walks the road of trials, facing tests he must overcome. As Jesus walks the roads of Galilee, he is tested by Pharisees, scribes and those who have no faith in him.

At this point the hero usually encounters a goddess or a temptress. The closest we have to this in the gospels is the woman taken in adultery and in a reversal on the myth, Jesus protects and forgives her.

At the center of the hero’s journey, he encounters the father with the power of life and death and makes atonement. The hero dies and is reborn. Jesus makes atonement for us with his Father by undergoing death on the cross and then rising again.

Having achieved his quest, the hero is granted the great boon he sought, often one that gives life or immortality. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus brings us life everlasting.

The hero returns over the threshold, sometimes facing further trials, and becomes the master of the two worlds. He achieves freedom from the fear of death. The trials Jesus faces after his resurrection is convincing his disciples to believe he has returned. They overcome their doubts and fears and proclaim him the Lord of heaven and earth.

Were it not for Jesus, the monomyth would be an interesting cross-cultural artifact, a oddly common story plot. But Jesus of Nazareth is real, a person in history. Paul’s earliest letters, written just 20 years after Jesus’ earthly life, already proclaim him as the Son of God who died for us and even mention 500 witnesses to his resurrection, most of whom are still alive at the time of the writing. The first gospel, written by Mark, the protégé of both Paul and Peter, will be written shortly after their martyrdoms. This is a mere 40 years after Jesus, well within the lifetime of witnesses who could contradict it.

Could what we have in writing have been altered or the truth lost over the years? We have literally thousands of early manuscripts with which to reconstruct the original texts. Look at the footnotes of any modern translation and you will see the variant reading, which are largely trivial. In addition we have hundreds of translations, which allows us to reconstruct the versions they were based on. Finally we have enough quotes in the early church fathers that we could construct the entire New Testament, except for 11 verses, from them alone. The only alternate gospels we have are more fantastical than the canonical 4. What we don't have is a demythologized account of Jesus. 

If we do not believe the writings of the New Testament, and the Jesus they describe, we must dismiss all ancient writings as well as the existence of all significant ancient individuals, such as Aristotle, Plato, Hippocrates, Pythagoras, and Archimedes. Because the gap between the earliest copies of their writings and the original manuscripts is not mere decades but 800 years or more. Throw out Jesus and you must also lose any reliable evidence of the beginnings of science and reason in ancient Greece.    

Historians know that Jesus was born somewhere between 7 and 4 BC. He was crucified about 30 AD. Within 20 years he was worshipped as divine in communities across the Roman Empire. 40 years after the first Easter most of his disciples had gone to their deaths, joyfully proclaiming his resurrection. If it weren’t true, it would be like a growing community of people proclaiming President Kennedy’s resurrection at this close an interval to his death. In contrast, the legend of King Arthur doesn’t arise until nearly 400 years after he might have lived. And in Arthur’s case we have documents that show us how the legend evolved and the sources from which the elements were drawn. To say the same thing happened with the gospels in a 10th of that time is to assert something for which there is no historical evidence and which in fact goes against all historical precedent.        

C.S. Lewis was right. In Jesus, this myth, whose variations cross all times and cultures, became a fact. God seeded the human psyche with the clues, so that we would recognize him who can save us. And the story so answers our needs that we still consciously or unconsciously use it to weave the modern myths we tell in movies, TV, and comic books. Superman, the creation of two Jewish young men, is a kind of messiah. So are Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Doctor Who, Sherlock Holmes, Neo, Mr. Spock, Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Aslan the lion and multiple characters in “The Lord of the Rings.” All these characters from pantheons past and present are clues leading us back to the original hero, Jesus Christ, who made the myth reality and calls us to the adventure of following him, offering us his aid through the tests and trials we encounter, and at the end of our journey, everlasting life in his kingdom.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Wedding sermon for Amanda and Eric

I recently officiated at the wedding of my niece and new nephew. They are both unashamed geeks (his blog: and hers: theme of the reception was Wonder Woman and Batman. So I tailored the homily to that. The Scripture cited is Genesis 1:26-28.

It’s traditional to begin the story of a hero with his or her origin story. In it we learn how the hero got his unique power and often why he uses it to fight evil. Sometimes it’s an act of injustice, usually personal, that spurs him to take on his mission. In the classic stories, he is called to adventure by a mentor who trains, equips and commissions him to fulfill his quest. At some point he usually meets one or more close companions. Together they face a series of challenges which promise to yield a great boon.

Aside from Spiderman, few superheroes are married. And I really think that the writers of comic books are depriving themselves of some really meaty drama. Because marriage is one of the greatest challenges a person can take on. Next to it, matching wits with mad scientists and evil geniuses and defeating monsters is fairly straightforward.

In our reading from Genesis we have the origin story of humanity. God subdues chaos to create the world and then creates and commissions human beings to take care of it. And they are to act as a team as our reading makes clear: “male and female he created them.” In chapter two, where we get a close-up of the creation of humans, the woman is called a “helper” in most translations. But the word in Hebrew is a military one and is best translated “ally.” Not “sidekick’ but “ally.” According to the Bible, the sexes are created equal. Sin is the reason for the subsequent inequality.

It’s essential that the members of a team stick together and have each other’s back. Basically that’s what one promises in the wedding vows. The liturgy just puts it more eloquently.

The liturgy also states the team’s mission, as clearly as the oath of the Green Lantern Corps does their‘s. As I said at the beginning of the ceremony, the total union of husband and wife is “intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God’s will, for procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord.” Let’s take each separately.

“For their mutual joy.” A grim hero might make for good drama but this team is meant to delight in each other. According to the Bible, joy is a vital feature of our spiritual life. We are meant to enjoy God and enjoy his creation. And since we are created in God’s image, we are to enjoy each other. God is love, which is why there is more than one person in the Godhead. The Trinity says that God is literally a love relationship and some of life’s deepest joys can be found when two people discover the image of God in their love for one another.

So some of the challenges this team must deal with is anything that kills that joy: uncharitable criticism, ungovernable anger, and letting the minutia of everyday life distract you from your duty to look for things that delight you about your spouse or crowd out time spent doing things together that bring you both joy.

“For the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity.” The whole idea of a team is that you are not alone on your mission. You look out for each other and provide support. You don’t leave a team member behind. You give them cover when they are taking necessary risks for the good of the mission. You give them encouragement when they are down, space when they need it and a judicious and, I stress this strongly, very occasional kick in the pants when their self-doubt is in danger of paralyzing them. You need to always be there for your team member, even if all you can do is be a strong and sympathetic presence for the other.

It’s obvious that we need help and comfort in times of adversity but why does the Prayer Book include prosperity? Because the final enemy of success is success itself. It’s not just that success can make you lazy and sloppy in those things that made you successful. You can begin to believe you are infallible. That’s arrogance, the most lethal of the 7 deadly sins. There’s no better antidote to arrogance than a grounded but loving partner who calls you on your B.S. This takes sensitivity. And creativity. Sometimes just being sent to the grocery store to retrieve some ingredient about which I have no more knowledge than a dog has about quantum physics is enough to keep me humble.

It’s also helpful to have someone who can help you work out which of the things that made you successful you should keep doing and which you should stop. One of the advantages of being part of a team is having a different perspective to draw on. It’s good to have someone who not only knows and appreciates your strengths but also knows and compensates for your weaknesses. Don’t neglect to ask for and grant each other forgiveness as needed.

Finally, marriage is intended “when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord.” Having children is, in most cases, the easy part. Raising them is definitely a job for a team. And in this environment of narcissism and consumerism, the best way to keep them from becoming wrapped up in themselves and in the accumulation of material things is to nurture them in the knowledge and love of God. They need to know that there is that which is greater than them and a higher purpose than just indulging their own desires. And quite frankly, it is obvious these days that kids don’t just pick this stuff up automatically as they go through life. They need some kind of structured way to learn about God and ethics. Find a church you like with a balanced emphasis on personal spiritual development and moral teachings that flow from the twin commandments to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. Wherever their path takes them, your kids will have a solid foundation of thinking clearly and deeply about matters that most people don’t think about until they’ve already made a lot of bad choices. Think of it as adding to the variety of tools they can choose from to deal with the moral and spiritual challenges they will face.

Remember, any kids you have will be part of your team. Teach them the importance of loyalty, honesty and keeping their word by being loyal to them, honest with them and keeping your word to them. The best way to get a kid to be the person you want them to be is to be that person yourself.

As I said, most heroes in modern fiction don’t marry. Maybe that’s because in classic hero tales, a wedding usually signified the end of the story. But in real life, it is the start of the one of the greatest adventures you can have. The mission is laid out. The heroes answer the call. The fellowship is formed. Then they are blessed and sent out to face great challenges and find treasures that are even greater. That’s what we are about to do. Look out, world. Here comes one dynamic duo!

To see pictures of my niece's wedding, go the my other niece's blog:

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Laws, Sins and the Spirit

If you were a big fan of the comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes” you may remember a sport the eponymous boy and his tiger played. It was called “Calvin Ball” and its rules were more complex than Cricket and Quiddich combined. Probably because the participants made them up as they went along. Which meant it was hard to tell who was winning and the games usually ended up in a fight. For Calvin and Hobbes, that was part of the fun. They liked the chaos of doing anything, including changing the rules, to win. But most of us wouldn’t. Thank God, there are fixed rules for other sports. Or are there?

Basketball has acquired a new but unofficial tactic called the flop. A guard falls to the ground and pretends he was fouled. His team gets the ball and the other team gets penalized. Flops can often be detected by watching the replay. Some flops are so obviously bogus you don’t even have to resort to tape. But enough players get away with the flop that it’s changing the game. And many want to know why the referees aren‘t calling these players on this.

Society has rules. Some are serious enough to be encoded as laws. Others are more cultural and range from rituals to etiquette. And there are always those who game the system, who know how to violate the spirit of the law while keeping the letter of the law. If they’re careful, they can’t be touched, though they ruin things for others. Like the banks and financial institutions who made the mess we’re in by creating self-destructively risky ways to make money that were nevertheless legal because they weren’t regulated. It’s like they were playing Calvin Ball--with other people’s money!

Now it’s interesting that all human beings recognize that justice and following the rules are not always the same thing. Why is that? In this world there is no higher authority than those who make the rules, which is ultimately the state. Yet everyone believes in a standard that is above that. Where do we get the idea that there is anything other than the injustice we know? Who makes the law that is above all earthly laws? How do we even know there is a lawmaker? How do we know the idea of a higher law is not just a cultural thing, the invention of human beings? How do we know it is part of the real world?

A basic sense of fairness has been found in Capuchin monkeys. They will be happy to exchange a rock for a cucumber slice if they see another monkey get the same deal. But if one monkey gets a delicious grape, the other monkey will refuse to settle for the cucumber. Justice is apparently an inborn concept.

Of course, one could argue that this is just a form of entitlement. No account of this study said the monkey who got the grape shared hers or refused to take a grape if the other wasn’t offered one. But privileged human beings do sometimes try to get better treatment for others. Simon Bolivar was a rich aristocrat who led Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Peru, and Venezuela to independence, spread the ideal of democracy and is known as the “George Washington of South America.” Florence Nightingale was an upper class British woman who felt she was called by God to take on the then-disreputable role of nurse. She reformed the training of nurses, redesigned hospitals and worked for more hygienic living conditions. Moses was raised as Egyptian royalty but gave it up to help his people, the Hebrews. He is called by God to lead them out of slavery to form a new nation in a new land.

So people recognize a law and an authority over and above all earthly powers. And we call violations of this greater law sins. Some sins, like murder, are also recognized by human laws and called crimes. Some sins, like rage, are not recognized as crimes, though they may lead to crimes, like violence. Some sins, like gluttony, are merely considered personal failings. And some, like greed and envy, are not considered sins but motivations that are useful in a consumer society. Some sins, like lust, are considered natural desires that we either can’t or shouldn’t suppress. Some sins, like arrogance under its old name of pride, are actually considered good qualities for a person to have.

We are quick to recognize sins in other people. In certain moments of clarity, we may recognize them in ourselves. But the problem with sins is that while we acknowledge them, they are hard to deal with. Unless a sin is also a crime, the authorities won’t punish it. Certain hedge fund managers not only recognized how risky sub-prime mortgages were but even encouraged banks to create more of them so they could bet against them. That’s greed, plain and simple. But it’s not illegal. So will they never have to answer for it? Not in this life.

On the other hand, how does one undo the damage sins cause? Sins of the tongue--lying, gossiping, defaming someone--are explicitly condemned in more than 50 Bible verses. They can ruin reputations, destroy relationships, split groups, deflect attention from more important matters, and cause people to be fired or shunned. Should the person who started the whole thing regret what he or she did, what can be done? You can’t get people to unhear what you’ve told them. The words, the innuendo, the mental images are out there and cannot be recalled. You can apologize but where can you and your victim find healing for the damage done to each of you?

If there is a higher law than the laws of men, and it has a lawgiver, then how about a judge of those that violate that law? Of course, we’re talking about God. And part of us would love to see him judge those who get away with causing death, suffering, ruin, and anguish; those who lie, cheat, swindle, and steal; those who corrupt, seduce, pervert, and distort the truth. And we wish he’d do it right now.

The problem is that if he were truly just, how could he overlook our sins? Where should he draw the line? Hitler was responsible for the death of 6 million Jews and 5 to 7 million gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, gays, Slavs, dissenting Protestants and Catholics, not to mention basically all the casualties in the European theatre during World War 2. That shouldn’t be hard to judge. But what should his sentence be? Lee Harvey Oswald just killed two: one a cop, one a president. Do he and Hitler get the same punishment? Bernie Madoff didn’t kill anybody but he ruined a lot of lives, even bankrupted a few charities. What should his sentence be? How about someone who embezzles from one company? What about someone who takes office supplies? Should God turn a blind eye to some sins, the little ones? Is that just? What about those who lure women into the sex trade? Should he deal more harshly with the pornographer than the customer, without whose patronage the business wouldn’t exist? What about liars? Goebbels was Hitler’s propaganda chief. His lies helped the Nazis carry out the Holocaust. Should he be more harshly judged than modern politicians lying to people about the bad things their governments do, lying to get votes and support for policies otherwise hard to sell? What about CEOs who lie to their board of directors, stockholders, employees, customers? What about an employee who lies to her boss, fudging on timecards, or taking credit for another’s work or shifting blame?

If God is absolutely just, who can stand before him? Who is without sin? God is forgiving but how can he ignore all the damage we’ve done? Who’s going pay for all the destruction and desecration? Who’s going to absorb all the pain, horror and despair? Who’s going to reverse the reign of death and decay? Not us. We’ve inflicted such damage upon everything, including ourselves, that we can’t do it, anymore than a cardiac patient can do heart surgery on himself. Who can?

As Psalm 65 says, “our sins are stronger than we are, but you will blot them out.” Only God can deal with the thoroughgoing devastation of his creation that we’ve wrought. Only he can take on our sins, and make sure they are dead and buried. Only God can leave the bad buried and resurrect the good. Sound familiar? Jesus Christ is God, dealing with our sins, paying for them, fixing us, giving us his blood, his heart, his life, his spirit that we might live.

A lot of people really hate that. They don’t like the idea of being sinners. They don’t like the idea they need to be saved. They don’t like the idea of being indebted to anyone, least of all God. They really don’t like having to humble themselves. Just like the Pharisee in Jesus' parable (Luke 18:9-14). Under the guise of praising God, he is really congratulating himself for being such a fine fellow. Flawless, in fact, at least in his own eyes. He never mentions his sins. But he has them. Just like the rest of us.

The tax collector in the parable is under no illusions. He knows he is a sinner. He knows he needs the mercy of God. Which means God can work with him. God can work in him. He is open to the Spirit of God. Because the law cannot fix lawbreakers. Only a change of heart can.

It’s the 21st century but our biggest problems aren’t technological; they’re spiritual. It’s not because we can’t do the really important things; it’s because we won’t. We will not to do them. We still think the point of life is to win at all costs, even if it means trying to change the rules. We still need to deal with sins like arrogance, laziness, lust, greed, rage, envy and gluttony. We still need to learn to love our neighbors as ourselves. We still need to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus. We need to open ourselves to the outpouring of God’s Spirit. We need to trust in the love of God. We need to become like a child, who simply, humbly, unselfconsciously says, “Daddy, I can’t do this by myself. Can you help me?”