Monday, July 25, 2011

Secrets and Surprises

The problem that arises when they make a movie out of a TV series is that what makes for good television is not generally the same stuff that makes for a movie blockbuster. You can see this in the hit-and-miss movie series based on the various incarnations of Star Trek. But it is most evident in the Mission Impossible series. Often these movies start with one of the elaborate schemes reminiscent of the TV show. Then something goes disastrously wrong and the rest of the movie abandons the successful TV formula for the more typical overblown movie blockbuster formula of explosions, gunplay and mano a mano fights that by all rights should leave both villain and hero permanently disabled if not dead.

The joy of the TV version of Mission Impossible was watching the team's meticulous plans unfold. Even so, the audience did not know the entire scenario Phelps and company had dreamt up. We knew who or what their target was. We got glimpses of the disguise Roland was working on. We saw some of Barney's gadgets, specially created for the mission. And then we watched the plan unfold, knowing only slightly more than the villains did. Yes, something unanticipated would happen in the third act to jeopardize the plot but the team deftly improvised until everything was back on track. If it was a good episode, the audience was as surprised as the bad guys but also gratified when the final piece of the Rube Goldberg scheme was triggered and the team walked away with the code key, or the crucial piece of an enemy's weapon, or the freed political prisoner they were seeking. And the IMF rarely had to fire a shot--unless the gun was filled with blanks.

In real life, such complicated plans rarely come off as envisioned. Though in World War 2, there were a number such espionage plots that the Brits pulled off. In "Operation Mincemeat," dramatized in the book "The Man Who Never Was," a corpse was given the identity of a fictitious naval officer, handcuffed to a briefcase with papers indicating that the Allies planned to invade Europe via Sardinia and Greece and then allowed to wash up on the shores of Spain. The Spanish passed the intelligence to the Nazis who were thus unprepared when the Allies invaded Sicily instead. In another elaborate ruse, Nazis were misled by a waiting invasion force of tanks, trucks and cannons that were in fact canvas, wood and inflatable props.

On a more serious note, the Brits had captured a German Enigma cipher machine that allowed Allies to decode intercepted Nazi military communications. Knowing when and where German forces would strike helped us foil their war strategy. But they could never suspect that the Allies had the decoder. The importance of this secret was the basis of one of Winston Churchill's toughest decisions. According to Group Captain F. W. Winterbotham, the British got the word that the Luftwaffe was going to bomb the cathedral city of Coventry. If the populace was evacuated, the Nazis would suspect that UK could decode their secret commands. So Churchill did nothing to give the city advance warning. The city was bombed; the cathedral was gutted by a firestorm; hundreds of people died. It was sacrificed to protect a vital secret.

Today's Bible readings are about valuable secrets. In Genesis 29, Jacob, who got his elder brother's birthright and blessing through trickery, is married to his beloved's elder sister through trickery. I know ancient Middle Eastern bridal veils were thick but the wine must have flowed freely because Jacob doesn't realize the deception until the morning after. He confronts Laban, his new father-in-law, and asks what gives. Laban explains that it is against local custom to marry off the younger daughter before the elder. Sure, now he brings that all-important custom up! Because Laban kept it secret, Jacob has to work another 7 years to gain the hand of Rachel, though Laban lets them marry after a week.

That secret is like the cons that the Impossible Mission Force ran on bad guys. And the eventual result is that the next act in Jacob's life reads like a French bedroom farce. Leah and Rachel are literally sister-wives and their rivalry for Jacob's affections leads to a baby arms race. Leah is first out of the gate giving birth to 4 sons, one after the other. Rachel is barren and, as was the custom since the time of Abraham, gives Jacob her maid Bilhah as a surrogate. Any children born to the maid count as Rachel's. Bilhah has 2 sons. That provokes Leah to do the same with her maid, Zilpah, who bears 2 more sons. Then we find that Jacob's sleeping arrangements can be adjusted by the wives trading nights with him for herbs. Leah meets him on his way home from the fields and tells him that the going rate for his services is a bunch of mandrakes. The result of this decidedly non-erotic schedule is 2 more sons and a daughter from Leah. Finally Rachel has a couple of sons, giving Jacob 12 sons, the ancestors of the 12 tribes of Israel.

This serio-comic family saga is a crucial step in God's plan to bless the world through Abraham's offspring. Which illustrates what Paul says in Romans 8:28--"We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose." This is a core concept of faith. If God is the master of creation, if he is good and loves us, then it follows that he would make all things work together for the good of those who love and obey him. But this is not always obvious at every point in life. I'm sure that when Jacob awoke with a massive hangover and the wrong woman as his wife he could not discern God's hand in that. When David, anointed to be Israel's next king, was a fugitive from Saul, his mentor, he probably couldn't detect how this served God. And the Friday of the crucifixion, Jesus' disciples thought that nothing about it made sense, much less that this was God's will.

The greatest test of faith is continuing to trust God when it is hard to see his hand in what is going on. Part of the problem is that we tend to see good in terms of what is good for ourselves. So it may be hard to see something as good if it does not seem to benefit us. Losing one's job is a disaster, though it may spur one's spouse or children to start down a path that ultimately becomes a good career. It's amazing how many successful men, like Charles Dickens or Arthur Conan Doyle, had unsuccessful fathers. Another example: having a handicapped child can be devastating, though the child may be the occasion of bringing a family closer and turning their minds to what is essential. C. S. Lewis pointed out the difference between a simple variety of goodness, which is obvious and unclouded by negative circumstances, such as love, and a complex kind of goodness, one that can only arise in response to evil, such as forgiveness or healing or reconciliation. A complex good or the opportunity to create one can be difficult to recognize.

Another reason we do not always perceive that God is indeed working all things together for our good is that we see good in terms of what is happening now. We have a hard time seeing the long term results of immediate pain or adversity. The whole premise of "Slumdog Millionaire" is that a young man's painful childhood and harrowing life is what prepares him for a great triumph. At times, the movie is hard to watch but that makes the resolution all the sweeter. During a period of trial, it may be hard to say, "This will prove to be a helpful experience down the road."

The ability to think long-term and delay gratification leads to a better life. In the 1960s, psychologist Walter Mischel gave a bunch of 4-year-olds one marshmallow each and told them that if they refrained from eating it for 20 minutes, they would get another. To fight temptation, some kids closed their eyes or kept thinking of how good 2 marshmallows would be to keep from eating the first one. One kid licked the table all around the marshmallow. On the other hand, some just scarfed it down. 14 years later, Mischel checked up on the children and found that those who couldn't wait and ate the marshmallow right away had low self-esteem, were impulsive, easily frustrated, prone to envy others and seen by their parents and teachers as stubborn. Those who were able to wait ended up doing better in school, were more intelligent emotionally and were self-motivated. They were better adjusted and more dependable.

In Matthew 13, Jesus talks of how those who wait and invest their time, labor and money in the Kingdom of God received a surprisingly big payoff. Plant a tiny mustard seed and you will get a huge tree. Put a pinch of yeast in your dough and it will yield a lot of food. Invest all you have in the Kingdom and you will receive a treasure beyond measure. Cast a wide net and you will get a boatful of fish. It requires patience, like waiting for a tree to grow. It requires work, like the woman kneading the dough or the fishermen pulling nets. It requires a big investment, such as buying a rich field or fabulous pearl. But the payoff will come. You just have to have faith in the God who is working through all things for our good.

We are really good with dealing with visible threats and working for immediate rewards. We have a harder time recognizing threats that are slowly creeping up on us or rewards that take time to materialize. Jacob originally sought immediate benefits through deceit, something that divided his family. He had to learn the benefits of achieving what you desire through long hard work and the importance of keeping peace in a tricky family situation. Only then was he the kind of man God intended him to be. And in hindsight, he could see how God was orchestrating all these unlikely elements--a conniving father-in-law, the rivalry of sisters, his discovery of his talent as a shepherd--to bring him to this point.

A lot of bad behavior comes from short-term thinking and acting impulsively. Jesus encouraged us to count the cost, to plan ahead, to wait, and to prepare for his coming. Our motivation is the hope we have in Christ, a hope not yet visible, as Paul pointed out in last week's epistle, but one which can inspire and guide us, especially in times of trial. And Paul knew what he was talking about. All the dire things he mentions towards the end of Romans 8--hardship, persecution, the sword--he endured. There had to be times when he wondered why, if God was behind the gospel, so many roadblocks were being thrown in his way. But he saw the power of the gospel--people healed, lives changed, different races reconciled, communities sprouting up all over the empire--and it encouraged him. And he saw things that defied his imagination, things way beyond coincidence, that revealed to him that God was indeed working behind the scenes, making things work out despite what appears to be happening.

There are people who take the brief mention of predestination in this passage and say that God has stage managed everything; that he's nailed down every detail; that not a single thing happens that he doesn't approve of. I don't think that's how it works. There are Bible passages in which God changes his mind and in which Jesus shows surprise at things both good and bad. I think that, to honor the free will that he has given us, God refrains from over-riding our wills or forcing us to do his bidding. Like the IMF, he has a master plan. And, like a chess master, he is carrying it out, countering moves made to stop it. I could not outmaneuver Garry Kasparov in a chess match. And Paul is saying that nothing in this world, least of all us, can stymie or frustrate or derail God's loving plan to restore his creatures or creation to their goodness. I can't put it more elegantly than the apostle himself: "Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?...No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor heights, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Dirty Harry and the Problem of Evil

They had a Dirty Harry marathon on one of the channels last weekend. What's interesting about the series is how it justifies the fact that Police Inspector Harry Callahan has appointed himself judge, jury and executioner. In the first movie, he is up against a serial killer based on the unsolved Zodiac murders. And to make it absolutely clear that the suspect is actually guilty, the movie has the fictional Scorpio killer do what the real Zodiac killer only threatened to do: target a school bus. Harry chases the bus and shoots the killer. Of course, in real life, no one wants a cop to open fire around kids. In fact, in real life you don't want cops like Dirty Harry deciding who lives and who dies. So in each sequel, the bad guys are made even worse than Harry. Think Harry is taking justice into his own hands? In "Magnum Force," a secret squad of cops hunts down and kills bad guys in cold blood. Think Harry is sexist? In "The Enforcer," Harry gets partnered with a woman who proves to be as tough as he is when facing terrorists. Think Harry is a vigilante? In "Sudden Impact," Harry encounters a real vigilante--a woman taking revenge on the men who raped her. Think Harry's films inspire violence? In "The Dead Pool," Harry is up against someone modeling his murders after a popular horror movie franchise. Not only is each movie a rebuttal of a specific criticism of Harry, but each makes sure that its bad guys deserve to be shot--by the biggest gun Harry can lay his hands on.

Too bad Dirty Harry isn't a sci-fi franchise. Hollywood knows that you can kill all the robots, aliens or zombies you want and there are no moral objections. Outside of "District 9," no one doubts that non-humans are completely evil and exterminating thousands of them is heroism, not genocide.

But in real life, we don't fight bad guys with guns or machetes; we work and live with and among them. Nor are they usually serial killers or drug lords or monsters. They are liars and bigots and gossips and backstabbers and jerks and people who cut corners. Yes, there are extremely bad people out there, people who do major harm: physically, financially, sexually, psychologically, or socially. Most of us will never meet them, though occasionally we know of one, the quiet guy who seemed so nice and did something unthinkable.

And then there are the people we know whose sins we'll never know, the ones who secretly abuse their wives or children or aged parents, who drink or drug themselves into a stupor, who betray their spouses, who are up to no good on the computer, who cheat on their taxes, who steal from their employer, or indulge in other destructive and self-destructive habits.

These expressions of evil are varied, both in degrees of intention and the damage incurred. Some of these sins are in fact our own; some belong to those we love. Some we excuse, rightly or wrongly, for that reason or because we feel they are not that bad. Some we might even contend are necessary evils, like war, at least when it is waged to stop evil done by others. Of course, to our enemies, we are the evil ones. Vlad Tepes, the historical Dracula and model for the fictional vampire, was a prince of Transylvania who repelled Turkish invaders. He did this by lining the roads into his land with thousands of his impaled countrymen. After passing miles of this appalling spectacle, the Turks retreated, deciding they didn't want to fight someone with such a disregard for human life, especially that of his own people. To the Turks, he was a monster. In Transylvania, he's a national hero. People like Vlad Tepes beg the question of whether the end, in this case national security, justifies the means, like unspeakable cruelty. We had a version of this argument a while back when it was disclosed that, in interrogating terrorism suspects, our government authorized the use of waterboarding, for which we prosecuted the Japanese for using during World War 2. Does that make us bad? Is evil relative? Who is the final authority? If it is human government, how can we criticize Vlad Tepes or Saddam Hussein for what they did in their own countries? If it is God, then how does he see us? Should he be as ruthless as Dirty Harry in wiping out what and who is evil? If he doesn't, how can he be called good or powerful?

In Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43, Jesus deals with some of those questions. Jesus pictures a situation in which a farmer's rival has sown the seeds of weeds among his wheat. Once this becomes evident, the farmer's slaves suggest weeding the fields. But the farmer says no; the efforts to uproot the weeds would lead to the loss of some wheat. Wait until it's time to harvest the crop. At that time, the weeds can be separated. Jesus later explains that the sower is himself, the Son of Man, and the wheat and weeds are the children of the kingdom and of the evil one, respectively. They must live together in the world until the end of the world when the final judgment will sort out who is who.

Understanding this parable depends on noticing what specific question it is answering. And it is not about the existence of good and bad people, nor of the last judgment. You find those issues throughout the Bible. The unique feature about this parable is that it answers the question, "If God is all-good and all-powerful, why doesn't he eliminate all evil?" It is a question still asked by atheists hoping to prove that a good and powerful God does not exist. If God can't get rid of evil, he's not all-powerful. If he can but won't get rid of evil, then he must not be all-good. Thus the existence of evil shows that God is either not powerful or not good. Or that he doesn't exist.

The syllogism is not air-tight, however. There is another alternative. The answer Jesus gives for God not eradicating evil is that he is being merciful. What's more is God is being merciful to the good people! As we saw, the lives of the good and the bad are intertwined. The good and the bad are our friends, our relatives, our coworkers. In many cases, we don't know who is truly good or truly evil. Just as rigorous weeding would uproot some of the wheat, how could God pluck all the evil people out of the world without disrupting the lives of the good? And which of us can say without a doubt that we are among the righteous?

Parables, like all analogies, have their limits. And Jesus knows the situation is even more complex than this parable can show. There are no completely good people out there. Jesus picks up where John the Baptist left off. His message also begins with repentance. He is sent to save sinners, not the righteous. Jesus' message has a special resonance for society's notorious sinners, like corrupt tax collectors and prostitutes. Jesus knows that the righteous are not sinless but sinners who change their minds and lives and turn to God. For God to get rid of evil is for him to abort the process by which the children of the evil one become children of the kingdom.

One of the metaphors Paul uses to describe the process is that of adoption. In Romans 8, Paul says, "For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry 'Abba! Father!' it is the very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ." Adoption in the Roman era made one as fully a child as a natural born son or daughter, even in the matter of inheritance. To this, Paul adds the Semitic usage wherein the phrase "to be the child of" someone means to act like them. The children of God have his Spirit and act like him.

But learning about our God and how to behave in accordance with his Spirit takes time, just as it takes time for a child to grow to the maturity he needs to properly exercise his inheritance. It takes wisdom and self-discipline. In our passage from Genesis 28, we see the beginning of the transformation of Jacob. When we first meet him, he is a conman and trickster. He talks his brother, admittedly not the sharpest knife in the drawer, into giving up his birthright. Then, in an elaborate ruse, he impersonates his brother to steal his blessing. He is not what anyone would call a righteous person. But while fleeing his murderous brother, he has this vision of God. The Lord promises to fulfill his covenant to Abraham through Jacob. And yet, the fulfillment was years off. Jacob would meet his match in Laban, an even bigger conman than he is. Jacob will learn to work for and earn what he wants. He will have a family to provide for. He will, like his brother, have a lot to lose. And then he will go home and have to face his brother and reconcile with him. He will again see God and have his name changed to Israel. He will at last be a righteous man. But if his story ended with Jacob's ladder, he would not fulfill his potential to become the person God wanted him to be.

While a lot of people may get freaked out by the mention of the devil and the furnace of fire, the actual message of the parable is that God is merciful. He doesn't come on like Dirty Harry, taking out all the bad guys. Because we all start out as bad guys. But we can change. And thanks to God, we are given time to change. There will come a time at which God will decide that the process is done, just as there comes a time when a wise doctor realizes that a course of treatment is done. But as long as there's hope, God will not pull the plug, so to speak. And the hope, as Paul says, is for the redemption of our bodies. It is part of the redemption of the whole world, for which all of creation groans and longs. Why not? The human race, created to be just a little less than the gods, has used its powers of memory, reason and skill to really mess things up for each other and for the world in which we live. Our transformation into wise, loving stewards will transform the world as well. Paul's use of the phrase "redemption of our bodies" lets us know that Christianity has never been merely about saving souls. We were created as unities of body and spirit and the two are ultimately inseparable. That's why we say in the creed every Sunday that we look for the resurrection of the dead. The spirit gives meaning to the body; the body gives expression and impact to the spirit. God created both; God is interested in both; God will redeem both.

Unredeemed humanity's imagination has not been able to come up with a better solution to the problem of evil than "kill them all; let God sort them out!" God has a different idea. "Let me die for them all; let those who answer my call come to me and with my Spirit working through them, we will sort my new creation out."

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Secret is in the Soil

Remember when the big controversy fueling the news and talk shows was the presence of the Ten Commandments in government buildings? People were trying to have them removed to preserve the separation of church and state. This in turn got push back from conservatives who saw this as undercutting the Christian foundation for our society. The ironic thing is that many of the representations of the Ten Commandments had not been erected by either churches or states out of religious or civic fervor but had been donated by Paramount Pictures as a publicity campaign for the 1956 film "The Ten Commandments" directed by Cecil B. DeMille and starring Charlton Heston. I'm surprised Hollywood didn't decide to do a remake and cash in on all the public attention.

What bothered me at the time, as it had after the Columbine shootings when once again it was proposed by some that the Ten Commandments be posted in classrooms, is that both those championing these Decalogue displays and those opposing them seemed to think they were imbued with a mystical power. Did they really think that their presence would make people appearing in court spontaneously repent or convert? Or that looking at them would make teenage gunmen hunting classmates suddenly go, "'Thou shalt not kill?' D'oh! I forgot!" If so, it shows that what both sides really believe in is magic. Magic is the belief that the mere incantation of certain words will alter reality to suit someone's will. Magically endowed items are what Indiana Jones pursues in the movies. In real life, the cup that Christ used would be the greatest archeological treasure ever found. It would not, however, turn Nazis to dust or heal Sean Connery or convert Harrison Ford. It would not be an Energizer battery powered by God.

Even the scriptures do not posit Jesus himself as having this kind of power. In the 6th chapter of Mark, we are told that in his hometown of Nazareth he was able to do no deeds of power, other than heal a few of the sick. Why? Because of their unbelief. They knew him as the carpenter's son, Mary's boy, whose others sons and daughters were still living among them. He was a wise speaker, yes, but they just couldn't see him as a prophet of God. Without their trust, he couldn't do much for them.

When I wrote radio ads, I would sometimes encounter clients who expected their commercials to have a magical effect on their business. One high-toned restaurant in Key West, trying to drum up business in the doldrums of summer, tried to pass off a $27 fixed price lunch as a local's special. I tried to explain that "local's special" means something cheap and affordable and that using those words would not induce most workers in a tourist town to blow a week's lunch budget on one meal. But the salesperson who dreamt it up would not listen to reason. After running it a week with no results, the place's food and beverage manager was willing to change the ad to reach the audience that would be receptive to it.

Jesus knew this marketing truth. That's why he said in Matthew 13, where we find the parable of the sower, "Let anyone with ears listen!" The version of the passage used in our lectionary omitted some verses, obscuring the fact that Jesus explained the parable to his disciples privately. As for the others listening, Jesus quotes Isaiah to the effect that he is purposefully keeping it obscure so that its hearers will not understand it. That sounds shocking but there are 2 ways of looking at this which justify Jesus' words. The first is one I read of when researching this passage this week. The idea is that what Jesus was preaching was aimed at oppressed people and was so radical that if their oppressors understood it, they would suppress Jesus' preaching. It's an interesting theory and there are 2 things to commend it. First, that is exactly why the Book of Revelation is so hard to interpret. The writer used a lot of opaque Old Testament imagery and even a numerological code to hide his message from the Roman officials who were persecuting the church. Unfortunately, this has led some Christians to take what was intended to be a message of comfort about trusting in God's sure victory over violent persecutors into a Rorschach test for those who wish to combine bloodlust and Christianity, not noticing that Christians are depicted as non-combatants. And its numerical pattern, built around Sabbaths, attracts those who think God's Word is a cross between a Will Shortz puzzle and a Dorothy L. Sayers railway schedule mystery.

Secondly, up until the creation of the United States, religion and politics were inextricably combined. Rome usually insisted that its conquered peoples make room in their pantheons for the divine Emperor, who called himself King of kings and Lord of lords. So what might sound to us as a merely spiritual message could be perceived as a political message. The religious leaders of Judea played that card to get the belligerent Pilate, already on shaky ground with Rome, to go along with Jesus' crucifixion.

But I think something else is at work here. I opt for William Barclay's idea that Jesus is talking about people who just don't get it when it comes to spiritual wisdom. They have closed minds and though they might hear Jesus' words, they really aren't listening to the meaning. They have a kind of intentional deafness, akin to the intentional blindness that psychologists note in humans. In an experiment you can see on the internet, psychologists filmed people passing basketballs and instructed subjects watching the video to keep track of how many times the players passed the ball. People did pretty well at what they were instructed to do. But they were so focused on their task that they missed something else in the video. And it wasn't subtle at all. While the viewers were counting passes, they did not see a person in a gorilla suit saunter into the middle of the screen, beat his chest and stroll off camera. Many viewers did not believe the researchers when they were told what they had missed, until they were shown the video again. You tend to see what you expect to see. It's the same with hearing.

And the point of the parable is that, just as Jesus could not reach people who were not receptive, neither can the Word of God magically change everyone. And Jesus lists the main reasons.

For some, the word just does not penetrate. These people simply don't get it. Tell them they can have eternal life and they will cancel their life insurance. Like seed on a sidewalk, the word never gets below the surface. The next idea or desire flits by and it's gone.

Then there are the folks which do seem to react to the gospel. And how! "Eternal life? I'm all for it! Give me my WWJD bracelet and cross necklace! Slap on the "In case of rapture, this car will be unmanned" bumper sticker! Love the Praise music! Go, team Jesus!" And then things get tough. And the person has no roots. He's just not that grounded in the faith. He doesn't seem to realize that the cross around his neck stands for suffering, and that following Jesus doesn't grant you a sweeping exemption from all "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune." To be fair, such a person today may have been sold a bill of goods. If he was enticed to come to church by hearing someone preach a "prosperity gospel" that tells you that following Jesus automatically means health and wealth and invincible happiness, he may be unprepared for the reality of discipleship. I don't subscribe to that form of devotion that fetishizes suffering but neither should its existence be denied. Judaism and Christianity are 2 religions that admit that not all misfortune is caused by sin and that even the innocent suffer. But not all believers seem to have gotten the memo. And for some that's a deal breaker.

Then there are the people who may be rooted in the faith but their expression of it gets choked off by the weeds, "the cares of the world and the lure of wealth." It is interesting that Jesus lumps these 2 together. The cares of the world is better translated the "anxiety of the age." It carries a sense of distraction. So this does not rise to the level of the troubles or persecution that laid low the previous kind of believer. Here we are talking about the everyday things that continually demand our attention and chip away at our calm and our trust in God. If you let them, they will distract you and make it hard to keep your focus on God and his priorities.

To them Jesus adds the lure of wealth. And the word translated "lure" has overtones of deceit, the way a fishing lure is not a real fish or worm. When we feel well-off and prosperous, we should be thankful to God. But often that's when we forget him. We go to him in times of trial but when good times come, we are too busy enjoying our good fortune to take time for him. Plus riches do have a downside. They may solve some problems but they create others. When you have more money, you tend to spend more. You have more choices to make. You have more property to protect. You in fact have more cares of the world. And maybe that's what Jesus meant by the deceit of wealth. Studies show that after you make enough to live comfortably, any additional money doesn't really make you happier. Winning the lottery briefly makes people happier…and then they go back to however they originally felt. So unnecessary amounts of wealth do not deliver more delight. But they can crowd out the author of delight.

Finally Jesus speaks of the good soil and how the Word of God, planted there, is amazingly fruitful. Jesus doesn't define what makes this type of hearer good. One can assume that, in contrast to the others, that person has spiritual depth and is not being strangled by worldly cares and wealthy snares. But the main factor is his or her receptiveness to the Word. There are no barriers, only a desire to understand what God is saying and a willingness to put it into practice. Only then can the Word have results.

Which is why posting the Ten Commandments in public places is not going to have a magical effect on everyone seeing them. For one thing, if the words are there every day, they, like the color of the walls, will be not be noticed by those who frequent the courthouses and schoolrooms. But should someone notice, only the person who is already receptive to God's Word will get any benefit. And odds are that person already knows the words.

God knows that as long as his commandments remain external they will not work. In Jeremiah 31:33, the Lord says of his new covenant, "I will put my law in their very core and upon their hearts will I write it." Just as a seed needs more than a surface on which to grow, God's Word, his law, the expression of his true nature, cannot bear fruit if it does not burrow itself into the good soil of our hearts and minds. It must send down its roots deep within us. Only then can it grow, sprout and produce what it is supposed to.

Even the farmers of Jesus' day knew that soil didn't just remain fertile. It needed to remain fallow ever so often. It needed nutrients. It needed to be plowed and have its soil stirred up. It needed to be weeded. And it needed to get seeded properly. Just so we need our rest, the Sabbath. We need the nourishment of the fellowship of those united in the Holy Spirit. We need to have our habits of thought overturned from time to time, so we don't overlook what new and unexpected things God is trying to show us. We need to ruthlessly weed out the stuff that distracts us and lures us away from God. And we need to receive God's Word. We need to let it germinate, change and then break forth in riotous new growth. Only by receiving the Word, in all its unlikeliness, can we hope to bear sweet fruit.

Monday, July 4, 2011

For a Baptism

I wrote this for a baptism. I removed the name of the child because I don't know if the parents want their child to be Google-able.

In my other job, as a nurse, I've been taking care of an infant with health issues for the better part of a year. So I've been paying attention to whether he is hitting certain developmental landmarks. And it suddenly hit me one day that this is only possible because these landmarks are programmed into us. Practically all healthy children can smile when smiled at by 3 months and smile at themselves in a mirror at 6 months. By 1 year, a healthy child should say at least one word, crawl, and walk while holding onto furniture or another person's hand. There is a range of time in which these things are achieved, of course, with some kids talking or walking a few months earlier and others a few months later. But the fact that the vast majority of children reach these landmarks at approximately the same time means this is not a random process. It is hardwired into them. If a child is very far behind in most of these, his or her doctor will suggest medical tests to see what might be causing these developmental delays.

It used to be thought that morality was not part of human pre-programming. But now we know that a sense of fairness is found in certain primates and other animals. And any parent with more than one child will tell you that they demand equality of treatment--for themselves, at least. If his sister gets a cookie, he will insist on getting one himself. And heaven forbid you should give her chocolate milk in a glass shorter than the one you give her brother. Kids don't understand how the same volume of liquid can look unequal in different diameter glasses. But aside from such basics, much of morality's finer points must be taught. Yet in our society we pretty much leave the development of moral impulses, such as fairness and empathy, into more complex moral concepts, such as justice, forgiveness and duty, to our schools, special episodes of TV shows, and occasional long talks when specific issues rear their heads. This leads to our children getting mixed messages from various sources rather than learning any kind of systematic approach to morality. It's too bad there isn't some place in every community where people could take their kids and have them educated in a comprehensive system of time-tested morality and age old wisdom! Somewhere so dedicated to teaching people how to think and act ethically that they don't charge a set fee but let people voluntarily pay whatever they can and feel they should pay. Where would you find such a place?

Today we will witness the baptism of a child. And in a few minutes, I will be asking the parents and godparents if they will bring him up in the Christian faith and life. Because baptism is not a magic spell; we are not imposing our will on reality. It is a sacrament; we are accepting God's offer of grace on behalf of this child. It is like giving him dual citizenship: that of earth and the Kingdom of God. But like all those with dual citizenship, one day he'll have to choose for himself. But how will he choose if he doesn't know the treasured heritage to which he is heir?

Forget the arguments about whether the U. S. was ever intended to be a Christian nation. Today, it is, at best, post-Christian. And I'm not talking about the fact that Americans identifying themselves as Christians has dropped from 86% to 76% of the population, or that, at most, less than 20% of the population go to church on an average Sunday. I am talking about the fact that many Christians do not live very differently than non-Christians and do not seem to know much about the Bible. The only part of the Gospel that most Christians know is that God loves us and forgives us. The necessary response to that, repentance and obedience, has been quietly dropped. And this is part of the reason we see the culture coarsening. Our society is much more indulgent towards, if not actually encouraging, rage, lust, envy, laziness, gluttony, arrogance, and, until recently, greed. Those used to be considered by Christian society as deadly sins; now they are seen as, at worst, stupid and, at best, as natural. Our leaders and celebrities flout them. Only if someone has gone too far and been caught does he make a show of regret and talk of going into rehab. I have nothing against rehab, but it seldom seems to come from a true realization that one must totally change one's lifestyle. Only a radical rethinking of how one lives will do, as anyone working in rehabilitation knows.

We have a wealth of information of the effects regular church attendance has on kids. Children who go to church at least once a week are less likely to commit crimes, less prone to drug and alcohol abuse and have higher recovery rates, less likely to have sex or get pregnant outside marriage, less likely to divorce as adults, less likely to engage in domestic abuse, less likely to commit suicide, less prone to depression and more likely to recover faster, more likely to do better in school, be happier, be healthier and live 8 years longer. If I could bottle that, I'd be a millionaire. But it's like exercise: to get the full benefit, you have to commit yourself and just do it.

We also know that a child's church attendance is usually dependent upon his parent's attendance, especially that of the father. And, of course, it doesn't work as well if the things they learn in church are not modeled in the home. Children have first rate BS detectors. If your works do not match your words, they will see that and live their lives accordingly.

So it is with faith and hope and love that his parents and godparents present this child and make these promises on his behalf. They will vow to renounce all evil, be it spiritual, worldly or personal. They will promise to turn to Jesus Christ, accept him as Savior, trust, obey and follow him as Lord. And then we will all of us renew our own baptismal vows, to continue in the apostle's teachings and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread and prayers. We will vow to persist in resisting evil, to repent when we do wrong, to proclaim the Gospel by with our lips and in our lives, to seek and serve Christ in all people and to work for justice, peace and dignity for all created in God's image. We are conspiring, so to speak, to be Christlike and raise this child to be the same.

And we all need to be reminded periodically of what that entails, because we are all developing short attention spans and humans are already terrible at spotting slow motion threats. Thus we are only vaguely aware of the things gradually eroding our faith. Like the sense that all is or will be well. The vast majority of scientists see the signs of global climate change but absent something with the scale and speed of a Hollywood disaster, much of the public doesn't perceive it as worrisome. So, too, we Christians have let essential articles of the faith be silently dropped from serious consideration because of the relentless waves of materialism, secularism, hedonism and political correctness. The proclamation that there is one God, revealed in Scripture as our righteous and loving creator, is dismissed as naïve. The uniqueness of the Incarnation of God in Christ is denounced as exclusivist. The death of Christ on the cross for our sins is seen not as a revelation of God's deep love but of his barbarism. Jesus' bodily resurrection from the dead is considered irreconcilable with science. And his command to go throughout the world and teach others to believe in and follow him is intrusive on other cultures. Other systems of thought may assert themselves wherever they wish but for us to do so is thought disruptive. And so we are left with a timid inoffensive message that would not seem out of place in a greeting card and which is just as memorable a call to action.

And action is what we need today. But not just any kind of action. We need action based on the affirmation that God created this world, pronounced it good and is working to make it so again. We need action based on the belief that God so loved the world that he entered it in the form of Jesus Christ so that in him we see both what God is like and what we can become. We need action based on the example of God's self-sacrificial love revealed in Christ willingly crucified to save us from our sins. We need action based on the proclamation that God raised Jesus from the dead, so we need not fear anything in following Jesus. And we need action based on Jesus' command to share the Good News about what God has done and is doing in Christ, to make disciples and spread his reign and his kingdom.

Don't worry: we are not putting all this on this child. But he has a part, large or small, to play in God's plan. Even if his role is small, we know that from God's point of view, size and importance are two different things. David was the smallest of his brothers but God selected him to become a great king. The mustard seed was the smallest that the ancient Jews knew and yet it grew into a huge plant. We don't know this child's destiny. But our task is to make sure he is planted on solid ground, to properly nourish his body, mind and spirit and then watch him blossom.