Sunday, October 23, 2011

Once More With Feeling

Do you ever get tired of me preaching about love?

I try to mix things up. I usually preach on something that pops up in the week's lectionary readings. Once a month I preach on whatever question I draw from the sermon suggestion box. I retell stories from the Bible at times, and on rare occasions tell new stories. I cite pop culture a lot, for that contains our current values and modern mythologies. Ever so often I dive into a specific movie, TV show or book in depth, if I hear echoes of the Gospel there. Once in a blue moon I engage in a conversation on a topic using my puppets or dummy. I read lots of translations, commentaries, throw in archeology, history, etymology, psychology, medicine, and science where appropriate. I don't shy from confronting elephants in the room and I point out when good Christians have different positions on certain issues. And yet, when I come to wrap it up, it all boils down to God's love.

I didn't grow up in a particularly religious home, so I didn't get it there. When I was small, we did go to church occasionally. In fact my first memory is being in church, surrounded by people singing. I didn't know the hymn so I joined in with a song I knew: "Old MacDonald." Still, though we lived just a block from church, we stopped going. Mom did for a while read to us from the New English Bible's translation of the gospels. When I was a tween, my mother felt we needed a religious background and we church-shopped until we found a Presbyterian church to our liking. But love was not a major topic of the 40 minute long sermons the preacher routinely gave. I discovered that theme when I read the New Testament as a teen. And when our youth group was asked to run a service at the skid row ministry our church supported, and I was asked to preach, my topic was God's love, something I frequently read in the Bible but rarely heard from the pulpit. Apparently the same was true at the mission. After I sat down, the preacher who ran the mission got up and agreed that God loved us but IF YOU DIDN'T ACCEPT CHRIST AS YOUR LORD AND SAVIOR YOU WERE GOING TO HELL. His hellfire coda to my homily only ran 5 minutes but it effectively shattered the mood. As we toured the soup kitchen afterward, one homeless man told me my talk of God's love almost had him at one point. I admit I didn't feel too loving towards the guy who ran the mission.

So here it is again. In Matthew 22:34 and following, Jesus' critics are testing him. The Pharisees, who really got into parsing the 613 laws found in the Torah, ask Jesus which of them is the most important one. The word in Greek is "megas" from which we get our prefix mega and simply means "big." So this is a big picture question. And it was a common discussion among rabbis. Even they could see that some laws were of greater weight than others. In fact, to save a life, a Jew is permitted to break other parts of the law. Thus when Gentiles hid Jews from the Nazis, and their rescuers could only give them non-kosher foods, often obtained at great risk using falsified ration cards, the Jews could eat the food since it was a matter of life and death. But which laws took precedence over others? And in this hierarchy of commandments, what stood at the summit? Jesus' choice of Deuteronomy 6:5 was a popular one. Loving God with all one is makes an excellent starting point and overriding principle for any ethical system. But Jesus throws in another popular answer as well: Leviticus 19:18, about loving one's neighbor as oneself. And linking the two shows real incisiveness of thought. People will sometimes do very unloving things to their fellow human beings out of their so-called love of God. But as God tells Noah, murder is wrong because humans are created in the image of God. In a sense, killing a person is symbolically killing God. Logically, therefore, any act of intentional harm towards another person is evil for the same reason. Sadly, this still needs to be spelled out today. As the author of 1st John says, "If anyone says "I love God" but hates his brother, he is a liar, because the person who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen." In other words, loving other people shows a functional grasp of what loving God means. Whereas the mere assertion of loving God doesn't qualify as evidence that one really loves him.

I love the way N. T. Wright translates the next verse: "The entire law consists of footnotes to these two commandments--and that goes for the prophets, too." Footnotes explain the main text; they don't replace it. People often forget that. All the numerous things the Bible tells you to do or not do are just working out the implications of the commands to love God and love others as ourselves. In fact if you do any of the other commandments but do them out of something other than the spirit of love, you're probably doing them wrong. Without love, a pat on the back could just as well be assault. Without love, being frank with someone could just as well be trash talking them. Without love, sex could just as well be rape. The intent behind an action, whether it's meant to harm or to help, is as important as the action itself.

Skill is also important. Right now we are still trying to teach my toddler patient how to play with the dogs. Pet them, I tell and show him. Don't pull their hair or poke their eyes or put your finger in their noses. The dogs are amazingly patient and gentle with him. If it's too much, they just walk away. But not every dog will be so forgiving. He needs to learn the difference between petting them and punishing them.

There are times when even loving gestures can seem like punishment. Ever try to remove a deeply embedded sand spur from a dog's foot? It's a rare canine that will sit still for that. It's the same with humans. When in pain, people will lash out at others, even if they are trying to help the sufferer. We forget that being cut open with a knife can be bad if an attacker's doing it, but good if it's a doctor. So when you have to do something unpleasant but necessary to help someone, be firm but gentle. And when it comes to God's Word we need to use it surgically to heal, not wield it sloppily or maliciously to harm. That difference is lost on some who quote Scripture.

You need to learn how to love properly. We are also teaching my patient not to bite the folks he loves. He doesn't do it out of anger but when he's snuggling against your chest. Consequently it is more alarming to his mother than to me. It reminds me of the Doctor Who episode we discussed last week. When his TARDIS, in the form of a madwoman, sees the Doctor for the first time, she kisses him and then bites him. Biting, she says, is like kissing, only there's a winner. But love isn't a fight or a competition. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves precisely so we can remind ourselves how we do and do not like to be treated and act accordingly towards others. Empathy is absolutely key in learning to love.

Paul gave us a wonderful break down of the elements of love in 1st Corinthians 13. Love is patient, he begins. The old word "longsuffering" is closer to the original Greek. And indeed for impatient people, waiting can be torture. It can literally be painful if you are waiting for an infant to get the idea that biting is an inappropriate way to show affection. But if you love someone you are willing to give them and your relationships enough time to mature.

Love is kind. Odd how people forget to be kind to those they love. It's seems like we are the most cruel to those we claim to adore the most. A report of child abuse is made every 10 seconds in this country, amounting to 3.3 million reports a year involving an estimated 6 million children. More than 78% of the abuse is neglect. And more than 5 children die every day due to abuse, the highest rate in the industrialized world. I'll bet most of the parents responsible would tearfully declare their love for their children. If true, their "love" is deficient in both patience and kindness.

Love is not envious, boastful or arrogant. That's because one of the wonderful things about love is that it takes us out of ourselves. Anyone truly in love is not thinking about him or herself, but of the other. In a real love relationship, both people are more concerned about each other and more committed to the relationship than they are to their personal prerogatives. As Paul says, love does not insist on its own way.

Love is not rude. It isn't easily provoked, nor is it quick to take offense. It doesn't brood over past wrongs or store up grievances. In a recent article entitled "4 Pieces of Relationship Advice Movies Need to Stop Giving," Dan O'Brien points out that only in films can a person be a "giant, manipulative, selfish [jerk] and also a sweet, deep, compassionate softie." And only in films is that cool. It's interesting that TV has recently dealt with 2 such characters by having the womanizer in "Two and a Half Men" killed by his jealous wife and having Dr. House thrown in jail for driving a car into his ex-girlfriend's dining room. That's recognition that, in real life, such people may have relationships but they are not pretty and their partners are miserable and in need of therapy. If you love, you have to be able to forgive and let go.

Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing but celebrates truth. A seriously disordered love lets the loved one get away with murder, sometimes literally. We've seen parents cover up for kids who broke the law and harmed others. We've seen women stick with their boyfriends even if they abuse or kill their children. That's not love. That's indulgence or dependence. That will never help the person you love become a better person. Love can't live on lies, either. Love depends on trust and trust requires truth. More devastating than any bad action one commits is the sense of betrayal when the other person realizes it was covered up and they were lied to.

I like the way J. B. Phillips translates the next verse: "Love know no limit to its endurance, no end to its trust, no fading of its hope; it can outlast anything." Real love has staying power. It hangs on. Look at anyone who has come back from a real setback or challenge, be it addiction, jail or illness, and 9 times out of 10, you will find they were supported by the powerful love of one or more family members, friends and/or God. Love is a strength we can impart to others.

I've been using examples from romantic and familial loves but the same principles operate in loving God or our neighbors. You act with patience and kindness. You put away envy and bragging and arrogance. You don't act rudely or selfishly. You avoid being quick tempered and resentful. You don't let wrongdoing slide. You stay truthful. You don't let anything stop you from loving the person.

"What the world needs now is love," wrote lyricist Hal David in 1965. And though today's popular music sounds nothing like that Burt Bacharach song, the statement is still true. Our public discourse is more shrill and aggressive than ever. The most innocuous topic draws vitriolic rhetoric on the internet, talk radio, opinion TV shows and political debates. Our politicians are more focused on winning elections than making the country they supposedly love work. Partisans are more intent on making points than on making sense. People defend one minority by attacking another minority. Customer service is a nightmare on both sides of the phone. Etiquette and self-restraint are unknown. Unfiltered disclosure of whatever happens to flit through one's mind is the order of the day and other person's sensibilities are their problem, not ours. We just don't care who gets hurt by our words and actions. That's apathy. Which is the opposite of love.

The world needs love, God's love. And he has given us, Christ's disciples, the task of showing it to the world. It isn't easy. We can't repay evil with evil. I saw a picture of a man in Key West holding a sign that says "God hates [gays]." Next to him was a man holding a sing that said "F*** this guy." They're both wrong. We can't hate the haters. We are to love and pray for them. Hating those who hate you is just treading a Moebius strip of recrimination and retaliation. Love breaks such cycles. It doesn't insist on its own way and it doesn't insist everyone agrees with its opinions.

Sadly even the church hasn't learned this lesson. We have church officials bad mouthing one another and suing one another and fighting over material goods and the use and absence of words and who can affiliate with whom. I'm not sure what message we're sending the world but it doesn't sound like the good news of God in Christ reconciling the world to himself through self-sacrificial love.

Jesus didn't say "love one another only if it's easy." He didn't say "love another only when you are in complete agreement." He didn't say "love one another except when it comes to an issue I never addressed." There are no conditions on his commandments to love. If folks don't like that, fine. There are plenty of religions where you are free to hate all you want. Join the never-ending war to eliminate everything about anybody who ticks you off. Good luck winning that battle. Just don't say you are following the one who is God's love incarnate. That's hypocrisy. And we all know how Jesus felt about that.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind. Love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, is God Incarnate and God is love. Everything else is footnotes.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Gospel According to the TARDIS

When someone asked Gene Roddenberry where he got the brilliant idea for having the crew teleport, he explained that he couldn't afford to film a scene showing the Starship Enterprise land on a new planet every week. Hence they put the actors on a set, filmed them, removed them, filmed the set empty, and in editing, overlaid the two, faded the image of the actors in or out, and added sparkling colors and voila: a science fictional way to solve a budgetary problem.

The producers at the BBC had a similar problem with Doctor Who's transport. The Doctor's time machine is central to the series. It can travel anywhere not only in time but in space. Of course a race as advanced as the Time Lords would not want the TARDIS, which stands for Time And Relative Dimensions In Space, to stick out in each era or world, so it is equipped with a chameleon circuit. But that would mean that a new version of the TARDIS exterior would have to be designed and built for every time the Doctor landed. Unlike Roddenberry, the BBC came up with a more low tech solution. On his first adventure, the Doctor notices that his TARDIS hasn't changed and deduces that the chameleon circuit is stuck. He never gets around to fixing it. And so in a series in which everything else changes--the time, the planets and dimensions visited, the human companions and even the Doctor's appearance, due to his ability to regenerate--the one thing that doesn't is the TARDIS, which is still in the form of a blue 1960's Police box.

It makes sense, though. After all, the Doctor is a renegade Time Lord who stole an old TARDIS which was in for repairs. Or that's what we thought until the recent episode entitled "The Doctor's Wife." When an evil entity removes the TARDIS' sentience and deposits it in the body of a madwoman in order to hijack the vehicle, the Doctor finds himself able to speak directly with his time machine's essence. She reveals that it was she who stole him, the Time Lord, wishing to travel the universe as much as he. Soon they are squabbling like an old married couple. She chides him for not following the directions on her doors. He accuses her of not always taking him where he wanted to be. "But I always took you where you needed to be," she retorts. And he realizes it is she who makes sure that the Doctor is always there to save planets and protect the oppressed and make people better.

Of course, a human body is not an appropriate vessel for something so vast, that experiences past, present and future all at once. They must restore her soul, so to speak, to her more expansive form of her machine. You see, the TARDIS contains a pocket dimension that gives the Doctor, his companions and all his equipment a spacious place in which to dwell, while outwardly looking not much bigger than a phone booth. The first thing most humans mention upon entering the TARDIS is that it is bigger on the inside. And during her brief incarnation, the TARDIS discovers to her surprise that the same is true about people--they are bigger on the inside. And in this, the time machine agrees with the timeless truth of the Bible.

Physically humans are animals. We are similar enough to other mammals that we can learn things by studying the bodies and behaviors of pigs, chimps and mice. Animals can make and use tools like us. Ants and beavers build and transform their environments. They can communicate. They can learn things and pass them on. Some even seem to have individual self-awareness. So in what way are we different? While we do things that fall in the same categories as other animals, our results are more sophisticated and nuanced. We don't just use sticks and rocks; we make Swiss Army Knifes and Gamma knives and computers. We even create substances that didn't previously exist to make our tools out of. We create environments that allow us to live well outside our habitats, such as undersea laboratories and space stations. We don't just communicate warnings and enticements to mate and locations of food. We communicate abstract ideas and fictional stories about aliens who travel in time and space. The differences between our abilities and those of other animals are so great in degree that they might as well be differences in kind. Both a mechanical adding machine and a computer can be used to do basic math and one evolved from the other but, though broadly in the same category of machines, they are now more different than alike.

But there is something else about human beings that sets us aside from the other animals and that is spirit. Animals spend their days eating, drinking, mating and sleeping. Everything they do is to further these basic activities. But as Jesus points out, humans do not live by bread alone. Even when human beings lived as animals, hunting and gathering their food, they took time to create art and to practice religious rituals. This need to create beauty and to relate to forces greater than ourselves springs from our being bigger on the inside. As Psalm 42 says, "deep calls unto deep." From the depths of our being we call to the depth of all being which is God.

The reason for this, according to the Bible, is that we are created in God's image. What does that mean? When the phrase is first used, in Genesis 1, what we know about God is that he is creative, intelligent, organized, purposeful, communicative, giving and good. We also see that he loves life in all its diversity. In 1st John we are told that God is love. We find these reflected in humanity to various degrees. Some people are more creative, others more intelligent, some more organized, others more purposeful, some more communicative, others more giving, and some are very good. No one human being reflects every one of these qualities to the same degree. Not every person finds delight in all forms of life. But taken together, all of humanity should be a very good composite reflection of the image of God.

We should be but we aren't. For us to do so we would have to act in harmony. And we don't, fundamentally because we are so bad at the key element of the image of God: love. By love, we don't mean romantic love, brotherly love, or mere friendship. We mean divine love. As we mirror God, so should our love. But it also falls short. We love primarily out of need. As infants, we have no choice. We are helpless and the source of our nutrition and care becomes the object of our love and if we are fortunate, is the source of parental love as well. Such love is an actual need. Infants physically cared for but not given love can fail to thrive and die. Those that survive often have severe psychological problems to overcome.

As we grow, we usually find friendship and romantic love. While not as essential as parental love, they are necessary for good psychological health, which in turn affects our physical health. But any of these loves can be unhealthy as well. And the reason is often inadequacy.

Sometimes the problem is that the object of our loves are inadequate. The most obvious example is when we invest our love in things, rather than in people. The person who puts all of his time and effort into collecting cars or art or comic books or trophies can squeeze out all room for human affection. Sometimes such an activity can lead to friendships with others who share the same hobby, but if the relationship never goes beyond the mutual obsession, it can still be narrow and inadequate as a form of love.

And of course if the thing loved is money and its trappings, well, I needn't point out that scripture has a lot to say about that. So does science. A recent study of 1700 couples found that the higher the priority they give to money and material goods the less likely they are to be satisfied with their marriage. As for individuals, money increases happiness up until it reaches a level where all needs are met. After that, more money doesn't buy happiness.

This also applies if the object of love is an ideology or even religion. A system is not a person. There was a study that showed that if people were more attached to their religion, while they were altruistic towards other members of their faith, they tended to be less friendly towards those outside their belief system. People who were more focused on God were more benevolent towards all people. That's why Jesus stressed loving the God who loves us and sent him to save us. It is vital to go beyond giving intellectual assent to a series of statements about God and actually have a relationship with him.

Sometimes it is not the object but the quality of the love that is insufficient. If we love people merely for what they do for us, that love will founder when they can no longer fulfill our needs. The opposite is also a problem. If we try to be everything to someone, and never ask for or receive anything back, that relationship will be dysfunctional. It's true for couples, friendships and families. It's only real love if it is mutual and if each person is willing to put the other ahead of him- or herself. If one holds back or tries to do all of the sacrificing, the relationship is lopsided and will collapse.

Often we can trace these inadequate forms of love back to us as individuals. If we are primarily focused on ourselves, our pleasures, our sufferings, our resentments, our regrets, our injuries, real or perceived, we will find it hard to love anyone, much less God. C. S. Lewis said that a man all wrapped up in himself makes a very small package. We've all encountered people like that. Outwardly they may look like they have it altogether, like they are successful. But let them open their mouths and you realize they are petty and shallow and self-centered. They are smaller on the inside.

But how can that be? If we were created in the image of God how can we lose that? If we are to be temples of God's Holy Spirit how can we be so small and shabby? The image of God is still there but it is marred. The reflection of God's glory is dim and warped in most of us. We have filled most of the rooms in our temple with garbage and baggage from our lives and have so diminished our inner space that we can only imagine a smaller God, scaled down to fit the cramped places remaining.

That's not what we were intended to be. We were created to be bearers of God's image, and therefore bigger people on the inside. We were intended to love God with all our being and love other people as he loves us, which would make us more expansive, more forgiving, more generous. Sadly, too many Christians live narrow lives, with narrow minds and narrow hearts. Like people with body dysmorphic disorder and anorexia, we only think we are large, when actually we are shriveled and emaciated, starved for spiritual sustenance. We need him who is the Bread of Heaven to feed us, him who is the Living Water to slake our thirst, him who is the Life of the World to heal us and restore us to robust spiritual health.

If we love him and obey his words, Jesus promised that he and his Father would come and make their home in us. God in man--how could that be? We don't know but we know it happened before--in Jesus. Now we are called to emulate him, to embody his Spirit, to be his body on earth. And that can only happen if we open our hearts wide for the Love that created the universe and dare to live the paradox of being ordinary people carrying around in them an extraordinary God, souls who are bigger on the inside that we appear to be, ready to go not always where we wish to be but where we need to be, to save and to protect and to make people better.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Party On!

Most people probably don't know that the members of Monty Python had prepared for quite different careers. The late Graham Chapman was a doctor, though he never went into practice. John Cleese studied law. Terry Jones studied medieval history. And he is the only one who has returned to his academic roots, making a series of quite entertaining TV shows on history. However, I was very disappointed with "The Surprising History of Sex and Love," mostly because his depiction of Christianity and paganism was anything but surprising. Old pagan religions were nothing but a fun sexy party with no concept of sin while the Christians hated sex. It's a mixture of misrepresentation and oversimplification that I would hardly expect from a trained historian. Sadly, it is precisely what most people think today.

Fertility religions may have been a sexy fun party for guys but the attitude towards women was "keep 'em barefoot and pregnant." Women were seen as sex objects, even more so than today, if possible. Oddly enough, women were closer to equality in warrior cultures. Fertility religions featured temple prostitutes and public sex at festivals to encourage the gods to get busy and make the fields productive. Sex acts and sexual organs were depicted in every medium and displayed everywhere in pagan cities, and not just at the times of festivals. Jones shows us a depiction of the god Pan committing bestiality and reveals it was a garden ornament! With such things taking the place of garden gnomes, as well as all the other explicit statues and paintings archeologists tell us were found everywhere, walking through an ancient city would make Duval Street look like Sesame Street.

Human sacrifice was also a part of most fertility religions, with the idea that flowing blood would be followed by a fertile earth. This was one of the practices of Canaanite religion that God condemned but which crept into Israelite practice in dark times. People forgot the lesson Abraham learned when the angel of the Lord stopped him from sacrificing his son Isaac: that unlike the fertility gods of the peoples around them, Yahweh doesn't demand human blood. The animal sacrifices offered at the Temple were understood as vicarious. The sacrifice of the best of their livestock was an expensive way of reminding God's people of the cost of sin.

Like their neighbors, the Israelites were largely agricultural. Their calendar and festivals revolved around seedtime and harvest. But they did not use sympathetic magic to get God to make the land fertile, nor did God do it in a way analogous to how animals and people fertilize their mates. This made the God of Israel a bit abstract to some. The temptation was to make their God more like those of their neighbors.

That's what we see in Exodus 32:1-14. It seems to us amazingly ungrateful for the people to abandon God for a golden calf but Moses has been gone for 40 days. For all they know he is dead. However, they haven't switched gods. If you read the passage closely, what they are doing is reimagining God in a way that is more familiar to them. Aaron says that this is the God that led them out of Egypt. But now that God looks like other gods, as a young bull, strong and fertile. The Israelites are not breaking the first commandment, not to worship another god, but the second, not to make an image and worship it.

Why is this bad? To make an image of anything you have to make choices--yes to this, no to that. To depict God as a bull is to say "yes" to strength and virility but "no" to intelligence and wisdom. In contrast, the Bible uses a wide array of metaphors to describe God--as father, lover, judge, king, fire, storm, fountain, redeemer, provider, protector, shepherd, and more. No one image can encompass all that God is. To make an image of God is to limit the way you see God.

We do that to God all the time. We have favorite metaphors for God that we use often to the exclusion of others. Some people see God only as father, and an indulgent Western one at that, who may disapprove of some things but will never say no to his child if she wants something badly enough. Others see God as simply judge, jury and executioner, a divine Dirty Harry who is more interested in punishing evil than in forgiving and redeeming sinful people. Some see God as mainly a CEO, who is primarily interested in pushing a product, achieving market penetration and expanding the customer base. Some see God as an Eastern sage who is more interested in asking thought-provoking questions with no definitive answers than in laying down basic truths.

When we limit the way we look at God it's like taking one picture of the waters here in the Keys and saying that's how they always look, rather than noticing the way different light, cloud cover, wind, currents and seasons give them different colors, textures, and moods. When it comes to dealing with the different challenges of life, sticking with just one image of God is like emptying your toolbox of everything but a hammer, or a single wrench, or a solitary screwdriver. What good is a God less versatile than a Swiss Army knife or a smartphone? What good is a God who is only guide, but not a healer, who is only a comforter, but not a protector, who is only a lover but not a teacher, who only judges others but does not confront us?

Terry Jones' image of Christianity as nothing but a killjoy is not only erroneous but makes you wonder how it ever would have caught on or endured. In reality, Paul was reacting to an overly sexualized culture, one that makes Fantasy Fest look like Girl Scout Jamboree. But rather than simply ride the pendulum to the opposite end, the way people usually do, Paul counters one extreme with…a plead for being appropriate. As a Jew, Paul is not against sex but inappropriate sex. After all, the first commandment is to be fruitful and multiply. Paul tells married couples not to abstain from sex. He tells wives that their bodies are not their own but their husbands' but then, surprisingly, tells husbands that their bodies are not their own but their wives. Paul is not anti-sex anymore than traffic laws are anti-driving. In both cases, they are merely against their abuses. Only the thoughtless and reckless would characterize them as eliminating the pleasure of either activity.

Paul was celibate, though as a member of the Sanhedrin he must have been married at one point. In view of his insightful advice to married couples, I imagine him to be a widower. And even he realized that his contentment with celibacy was a gift and an uncommon one at that. The early church fathers understood that and did not endorse celibacy as a general rule. It took 200 years for the idea to spread from various small groups, some of which were heretical, and become considered an special and highly desirable kind of holiness. Nevertheless, we know of several honored bishops in the 3rd century who were married. And while in the 4th century pressure was put on clergy in the West not to marry, or if married not to have sex with one's wife, it was not mandatory. In fact, the last married Pope was Hadrian II, elected in 867 AD. Marriage for clergy was not absolutely prohibited in the West until 1123. In Eastern Orthodoxy, married men can still be ordained to the priesthood.

Another thing that bothered me was Jones' attributing one of Paul's quotes to Jesus and implying that Christ was against sex. One wonders how he would reconcile that with what Jesus really said. Jesus saves a wedding banquet at Cana by providing more wine. He defends marriage against the extremely lax rules of the day that allowed men to divorce their wives for the most trivial of reasons. And Jesus' favorite metaphor for the consummation of sacred history was a wedding banquet, something that both Paul and the Book of Revelation also use. Paul picks up one of the metaphors from the Old Testament, that of God as the husband of Israel, which justified the inclusion of the "Song of Songs" in the Hebrew Bible, and applies it to Christ and the church.

In view of salvation being depicted by Jesus as a big wedding celebration, and noting the frequent emphasis on rejoicing in the Lord, as we have in Philippians 4, where did the idea arise that Christianity is dour arise? Some of it is definitely the fault of believers who saw the Christian life as one of grim dedication to duty. And they were aided by those who go beyond Scripture, or even go contrary to it, by adding rules on what is and is not permissible. The Pharisees would do this, making a Scriptural law more stringent in order to put a "hedge around the Torah," keeping people from even getting close to violating God's precepts. It's like those rules schools used to have when I was a teenager, judging whether one was dressed decently by how long one's hair or hemline was--morality measured in inches. The problem is that if you elevate such additional precautions to the level of what God's Word actually requires, you make it easy to confuse the two. And should the extra rule appear to be excessive or ludicrous, you discredit Scripture. You also take away all flexibility and discretion. Eventually the original purpose of the rule is forgotten and it is no longer served by the added restrictions. This is the kind of thing Jesus regularly denounced.

But another reason that Christianity is depicted as a killjoy is that people don't like to be told what they should and shouldn't do, especially when it comes to sex. Many people think freedom means doing whatever you want to. But freedom is never absolute. As my 8th grade teacher said, your right to swing your arms ends at my nose. In any society, individual freedoms have to be limited in certain aspects for the common good. I have a license that gives me the freedom to drive; it does not give me the right to speed, drive recklessly, drive drunk or impaired, or break traffic laws. And few would argue that I should be able to drive any way I wanted.

But there are those who think that sex is different than any other area of life, despite the wreckage that has been wrought in terms of broken homes, broken lives, STDs, crimes of passion, incest, child abuse, human trafficking, pornography, rape, sexual harassment, sadism, addiction and millions of children growing up without both parents. This is not because sex is bad but because sex is powerful. Anything powerful has to be handled properly to avoid harming people.

As C. S. Lewis said, God likes sex. He invented it. Used properly it is as close to a transcendent experience as anything physical can be. Misused, it can be hell. You can read of the ruined lives in any of a thousand biographies or hear it the sad stories of friends betrayed by a spouse or by their own urges. Despite what some think, studies show that married people not only have sex more often than others but are more satisfied. In the final analysis, doing something the right way is the most fulfilling way to do it.

Doing things the right way is the point of the last part of Jesus' parable in Mathew 22:1-14. It is understandable that the king would punish those who not only don't respond to his invitation but murder his messengers. He is unusually magnanimous to invite everyone on the street to his son's wedding feast. But why would he balk when one of these last-minute guests is not properly dressed? If the king had offered everybody a robe, why didn't Jesus say so? On the other hand, if the man had a good reason, why didn't he say so? Why didn't he ask for a robe if he hadn't one of his own? Evidently he is the only one not properly attired for the royal wedding. His speechlessness when asked about this is what condemns him. He hasn't got a single reason not to have entered into the spirit of the festivities.

The moral of Jesus' story is still clear. Paradise is a party and God opens his doors to all--sinners, Gentiles, people you'd never expect to see in God's kingdom. But that doesn't mean they are free to do as they wish. Clothes are often metaphors in the Bible for a person's character. Changing one's clothes means changing what one used to be. God may invite one and all but those who accept his invitation need to, in turn, get cleaned up, make themselves decent and clothe themselves in righteousness. We're not talking priggishness but becoming an upright person. And when they need help with that, they can ask God to provide them with what they lack. His inviting everyone in the first place demonstrates his generosity. As Thomas Merton points out, our very desire to please God pleases him.

God wants us to have a good time. And since he invented good times, he knows how best to go about having them. The idea that good times mean no rules is that of shallow and selfish people. Someone has to referee the game or it will likely end in an argument. Someone has to enforce the traffic laws or the result will be smashed cars and shattered lives. Someone has to tell party guests to refrain from juggling the wine bottles like Tom Cruise in "Cocktail" or a lot of good drink will be lost and someone may cut themselves on the broken glass. If everybody follows the basic rules the party can go on. But God's not going to let anybody spoil it for the others. They can leave. Those who can get into the spirit of things can stay. Paradise is a party and God wants the party to go on forever.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Living in the Now

"A Bridge Too Far," based on the non-fiction book by Cornelius Ryan, is an unusual war film. It chronicles how a daring military plan to do an end run around the Nazis fell apart due to a bunch of garden-variety screw-ups by the Allies. Paratroopers are dropped at the wrong sites; radios are dispatched with the wrong batteries; and everything takes much longer than planned, leaving a brave group of British soldiers behind enemy lines waiting for reinforcements that never come. In one of the more harrowing episodes, Major Julian Cook, played by Robert Redford, is to lead an Allied force across a river to secure the other end of a bridge held by the Nazis. The plan is for them to cross by night, with the help of fog machines, to minimize casualties. The special canvas boats don't arrive until midday the next day. The wind blows the wrong way, taking the artificial fog with it. Thus Cook and his men must paddle directly into enemy fire in broad daylight. As Nazi snipers and machine gunners pick off his men, Cook shouts for his troops to keep low. In between, he is paddling in the lead boat using his rifle butt. With each stroke he says one fragment of prayer. So the crossing is divided into numerous small moments as he repeats "Hail Mary, full of grace," "Hail Mary, full of grace," "Hail Mary, full of grace." Besides the comfort of the prayer, Cook is keeping himself in the present moment when to think too much about the future, even the next second, could paralyze anyone with anxiety and fear. Half the boats make it to the other side where they then have to run across 200 meters of open beach. And perhaps Cook's prayers work. The Nazis have dynamited the bridge. When it falls to the Allies, the commanding officer gives the order to blow it up. Inexplicably, the charge doesn't ignite and the Allies roll their tanks and trucks across the bridge.

What struck me was the psychological wisdom of concentrating on one stroke, one phrase, one moment to get through an ordeal. Our slip from the sermon suggestion box reads, "In God, there's only now, timeless and eternal. How can we, caught in the 'busyness' of life remember to focus only on the joy of this moment, not on our past failings or worries of tomorrow?" The writer correctly sees eternity not as endless time but as being outside of time so that every moment is now. Time is also a creation of God so he lives outside it but can visit it at any point, the way a helicopter pilot can visit any point of a parade without being subject to its flow.

We, however, have our assigned place in the parade. We are subject to time. We cannot revisit the past, save in memory, and we only think we can see the future. We count on current trends and conditions to continue but any disaster or an unforeseen decision on the part of someone else can alter our future in a second. We can only decide and act in the now.

That doesn't mean that the past should be forgotten. We can learn from the past, provided we draw the proper lessons. Often we are too focused on specifics rather than principles. We try to avoid painful or unpleasant situations we encountered before, not considering whether it was the situation itself or our reaction to it that made it so bad. I've seen that happen to successful men, who, when hit by chronic disease that can't be outwitted, outspent or intimidated, simply despair. If we let an adverse situation paralyze us with fear or drive us mad with rage or overwhelm us with sorrow, maybe what we should take from that is that we need to learn and exercise self-control. Or the lesson to be learned might be that we need to see an obstacle as an opportunity to try something new. Edison tried nearly 100 different materials before he found the one that worked best as the filament for his light bulb. He didn't treat each unsuccessful attempt as a failure but as accumulating data on what didn't work.

Even previous successes can trip us up. We may get cocky or superstitious. We try to reproduce our past triumphs or simply continue to do what worked before, never considering that different circumstances demand different tactics. For instance, a lot of businesses get successful and start multiplying locations. As they do they bring in more income and their stock price rises. But they can't expand forever. I remember when 7-11 convenience stores became so numerous that you couldn't travel more than 5 or 6 blocks in my hometown without seeing one. Over-saturation led to bankruptcy and buyout. Not everything that led you to success will keep you successful. Being able to discern what to keep and what to change is key to staying successful.

So neither worshiping nor mourning the past is wise. What is it about the future that keeps us from living in the now? Pretty much the same positive and negative emotions that ensnare us in the past--except that the future has not yet been written. We rarely have enough data to construct more than a rudimentary picture of what the future will bring. We will awaken--unless we don't. We will go to our job--unless our job or our company goes away. There are so many factors that could change that the future is largely fantasy. We project onto its blank canvas our dreads and dreams.

Jesus said, "Do not worry about tomorrow." He didn't say not to plan because he also spoke of kings planning to go to war or vineyard owners planning to build towers and how they must count the cost. It is prudent to plan for what is foreseeable. On the other hand, in the parable of the rich fool, Jesus warns against trusting in purely materialistic plans, because we never know when we will die. Planning is good but don't live in the future. Now is the time to be prepared for whatever is God's will.

Living in the now has a bad connotation. It has come to mean living without considering the consequences of one's current actions. Obviously this is not what Jesus means. He is warning us against worrying overmuch, not about what is likely to happen but what might happen. The human imagination has a capacity for being able to spin out some truly horrific scenarios of what might possibly happen to us. If we start cataloging all that might go wrong, we will be paralyzed. Likewise if we bask in the imagined glory of grandiose things not yet accomplished, we may miss opportunities facing us right now. It's like being so intent on looking at your destination on a map, that you don't watch the road.

When our family went to the UK and Ireland for our 19th wedding anniversary, we had a lot of problems with the flights. The now defunct airline that flew us from Miami to Gatwick Airport, near London, was late, and so we missed our connecting flight to Ireland. Getting another flight was a nightmare because it turns out a lot of Brits go to the Emerald Isle for the weekend much like Miami tourists visit the Keys. We had hotel reservations and plans for seeing Dublin. We had to give that up and take whichever flight next landed anywhere in Ireland to get to the next leg of our trip. We ended up in a charming little hotel in Cork, ate in an authentic Irish pub, saw a nearly 2000 year old ring fort in Clonakilty and a small collection of local animals, such as adult deer spotted like American fawns, each with their English and Gaelic name on a sign. It was a delightful, unexpected and relaxing way to start our vacation. Had we stuck to our plans, we'd have missed it--and probably have spent a night in the Gatwick airport.

Another way to miss present delights is to nurse grudges from and regrets over the past. As Alzheimer's disease progresses, and recent memories fade, people travel back in time. But working in nursing homes, I have met a few people who deliberately live in the past in order to gripe over some slight or pick at the scab of an unfortunate event or decision that's older than I am. The staying power of the loss of a loved one or a major tragedy is understandable. But just as often it's an old family feud over some forgotten insult or the sting of some jerk getting away with something at work for a company that doesn't exist anymore. Sometimes, when they bring it up every time you see them, you want to shake them and say "Get over it!"--were that not considered abusive rather than therapeutic (for the patient, not you, the listener) and in reality it's a sad waste of time.

How do we live in the now in the Christian sense? First, stop thinking of the present as a way station between the past and the future. The past will be available to you as long as you are you. Unless it contains unique insights or is a recognized source of wonderfully entertaining stories, revisit it only when helpful. The future you will actually live through will never be exactly the same as the one lives in your head. Unless you savor irony, don't pay it much mind. The present is much more worthy of your attention. It's the only point in time in which you can definitely make a difference.

Secondly, put away the phone or iPod or game controller occasionally. I don't know precisely when it became acceptable to ignore the live people around you in favor of colorful electrons but the person who never looks up from his or her phone is becoming a stock character in comedies. Look for such inattention to one's environment to become a major contributing factor in the deaths of people on CSI, Bones and slasher films. Sadly, it's rooted in the truth. I've seen people in restaurants choose texting over rapidly congealing food. Heck, I've been that person. Not only can the text wait; it's unlikely to be as memorable as a really good meal. When was the last time you said, "Boy, I had a really good time texting last week at that new eatery in Key West?" Don't let virtual reality veto real life.

Thirdly, practice the presence of God. This refers to the compilation of letters and conversations of the 17th century Carmelite monk Brother Lawrence. He tried to be aware of God's presence with him always. You may or may not want to try conversing with God continuously as Lawrence did but you can try to remind yourself often that all you see, every person and creature, is God's creation. You can seek to see his hand in everything. Our lives are so busy and so much of them takes place in man-made environments that we lack the sense of being surrounded by and a part of God's creation, something people used to find natural. I notice that when people lose their faith in God it is usually because they are too immersed in the follies and outrages of humanity, coupled with a very selective view of nature. Atheists try to use the problem of evil to disprove God, as if religion ignores rather than engages with evil, Christianity most profoundly. Evil originates with humans. Remove God and evil remains. All you've taken away is its meaning and hope of a remedy. It's a distorted view, one so limited that people cannot thrive and barely survive under its constraints.

We view God through the corrective lens of Jesus Christ, his beloved Son, his love made incarnate. Viewing the world this way is like remembering to put on your glasses so you see what is really there, all of it, in all its color, sharpness and detail. Yes, some of it is disturbing but it is possible to find its meaning through the eyes of faith. For example, excretions are gross but looked at medically, they are the way the body expels what it would be poison to retain. Generally speaking, the uglier the body part, the more vital it is, for maintaining life or maybe creating life. Pain is necessary to tell us something needs attention, like damage or sometimes, new birth. Keeping God in mind, seeing the world through his eyes, sensing his presence in the present, seeking his meaning in this moment, can free us from the tyranny of the unforgiving past and the uncertain future. Taking time to meditate helps but then it's out of the pit-stop and back into the race. So try paying attention to life. The Buddhists call it mindfulness. It's being aware of things like breathing and karma. For Christians it is being aware of creation, of the image of God in humanity, of the subtle way sin distorts it, of the fact that God still loves us and creation, of the fact that Christ died to restore it, and of his Spirit at work in us and all things for good. It's not just feeling the pain but the promise. It is seeing in the crucifixion the seeds of resurrection. It's being aware of what is passing and what, or rather, who is eternal. It is participating in the Great Dance, as C. S. Lewis put it, the give and take, the offer and acceptance, the call and response.

We can never be cognizant of all of this all the time but we can increase our awareness of it. We can stop to take a breath, get our bearings, appreciate our current vantage point. We can stop trying to be God and start trying to be his eyes and ears and hands in every situation. We can stop trying to use God for our benefit and start letting him use us for the benefit of all. We can take ourselves off autopilot and take in the scenery along the way. The present is just that--a gift that we can both appreciate and enjoy using. And the best way we can use it is as a way of saying "thank you" to the Giver of all good things.