Sunday, November 27, 2011

What's Keeping Him?

I always had trouble with the Second Coming of Christ. I could understand the first. I could understand God becoming human and living as one of us. I could understand the atonement and death of Christ. I could understand the resurrection. But why, after rising from the dead, did Jesus leave, only to say he's coming back again later? Why not just stay and let the world know in no uncertain terms that things were different now, that he had taken on the consequences of our evil, dealt with them decisively and was instituting a whole different kind of Kingdom? I mean, who defeats death and then takes off? And, more pertinently, why?

Let's do a thought experiment. What would most likely have happened if Jesus had revealed himself in all his glory after his resurrection and declared himself the rightful King of Earth? Would anybody accept this?

Absolutely. We learn in John's Gospel that people wanted to force Jesus to be their king. The Book of Acts says that thousands accepted Jesus as the Messiah at Pentecost. In his absence! Imagine what they would have done had he been there, displaying his pierced hands and feet! They would have formed an army behind their badly misused king. But would that have been a good thing?

The real problem is that not everyone would have rallied behind Jesus. Would the chief priests and the Sanhedrin, who condemned Jesus, have turned around and subjected themselves to him? Some might have. Many--I suspect most--would not. But how could they have ignored the miracle, the divine vindication of his resurrection?

Let's ask ourselves this question: do those in power ever deny inconvenient truths because it would mean reversing all their policies? I can think of a number of instances, many quite recent. Another question: Do those in power, when proven wrong, ever willingly step down and give their power over to their enemies? I can't think of any, offhand. So, had Jesus marched into the Temple and confronted the leaders of the people, what would have happened? At the very least, a riot; more probably, a civil war. Therefore, the first step in Jesus establishing his Kingdom on earth would have been the outbreak of war among his people. I don't think he would have wanted that.

And there were others who would have had to decide how to react to Jesus: the Romans. Would they have surrendered to Jesus' authority? Doubtful, even if Pilate himself were to have undergone some sort of conversion. What would Pilate have told the Emperor? "I had this man executed but now he's back from the dead. Therefore, I feel you should abdicate your throne as King of Kings and give it to this Jew." I don't think so. And everything we know about Pilate is that he was anxious to stay in Rome's good graces. Some historians think that Pilate's uncharacteristic caving in to the Jewish leaders as reported in the gospels was due to the fact that his patron, Sejanus, was suddenly condemned as a traitor. Pilate, not known as a diplomatic man, couldn't afford to have the Jews report his disloyalty to the Emperor Tiberius. In fact, eventually his brutality did move the Samaritans to complain to Rome and he was removed as procurator. Regardless of his amazement at Jesus' resurrection, Pilate would probably not taken Jesus' side in opposition against the entire Empire. So not only would Jesus' presence have touched off a conflict among his people but he would have embroiled them in a war with Rome.

Remember what Jesus told Pilate when asked if he was the King of the Jews? For a long time his reply was badly translated as "My kingdom is not of this world." That makes it sound as if it is not a part of real life. But Jesus actually said, "My kingdom is not from this world." Its origins are not worldly. But obviously his kingdom is for this world. It is meant for its salvation, its restoration to what God wants the world to be. But does God want his Kingdom established by war and blood, like every other kingdom this world has seen?

Evidently not. Because Jesus follows up his statement about the origins of his kingdom by saying, "If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to deliver me..." Jesus rebuked the one disciple who did try to fight, Peter: "All who draw the sword will die by the sword." Jesus then heals the man whose ear was severed by Peter. There's the difference. Jesus is about healing, not fighting. His kingdom will not come about in the usual way, with bloodshed and force. But if Jesus were to simply physically confront the world's leaders after Easter, he would have been a lightning rod, a person to rally behind or align against. There would have been a slaughter.

Perhaps what was needed was an intermission, an incubation period. The world needed time to assimilate Jesus' ideas. It needed time to come to terms with a new kind of Kingdom.

If Jesus wasn't going to force his Kingdom upon others, how was he going to bring it about? By persuasion. He was going to spread the idea by sending out a small band of ordinary men and women to talk about what they had heard him say and seen him do. He was the originator of the viral campaign.

And it took hundreds of years for Christians to go from being a small sect of Judaism to a separately recognized religion to being a major force in the world. But it's been nearly 2000 years since Jesus left us. Isn't it time for him to return?

On the night he was betrayed our Lord said, "By this will all know that you are my followers, if you have love for one another." No other religion makes love its central command. Islam emphasizes surrender to Allah and allegiance to Mohammed as his prophet. Judaism concentrates on studying and keeping the Torah. Buddhism has the eight-fold path of right behavior, speech, and thought. Hinduism is about maintaining good karma so as to move closer to Nirvana with each rebirth. Only Christianity demands that we not only treat people justly but that we love them. And we start by loving other Christians.

And we haven't really done a very good job of that, have we? None of the divisions within the church happened in an amicable way. And none of them have revolved around one side's refusal to obey the command to love. They have concerned doctrine or practice or church organization. I'm not saying that some of these weren't important issues but how many were so essential as to split the church? And have they helped spread the idea of a kingdom based on loving God and loving your neighbor and even your enemy?

The gospel has been narrowly interpreted to refer only to the good news of what Jesus did in the past. What about what he has done since then? And by that, I mean the Body of Christ. The good news is that God is still working in the world. He is doing it by the power of the Spirit through his people. People who take following Jesus seriously are feeding the the hungry, healing the sick, clothing the naked, comforting those who mourn, visiting those in prison, counseling the addicted, giving sight to the blind, teaching the illiterate, taking care of widows and orphans, giving shelter to the homeless, making breakthroughs in medicine and more. God is not just out there or back then; he is active here and now in his present disciples.

Unfortunately, they don't make the news as often as those who who misbehave, who preach hate in the name of the God of love, who so focus on side issues that they are elevated to the level of the essentials, who lust for power and fame in exactly the same manner as those who don't represent the Body of Christ. The world sees such things and concludes that whatever Jesus did in the past has made no difference in the the world. Such things reduce the gospel to mere words, limit its power to attract others and and hinder its spread. As long as "Love one another" is seen as a slogan and not a reality, most people aren't going to be interested in becoming part of Jesus' Kingdom. Living the gospel is as much a part of evangelism as preaching it.

Slowly parts of the church are realizing this. They are trying to establish bonds despite differences. I am talking not so much of the usual ecumenical structural talks but ways in which denominations and local churches do ministry and outreach together. I thinks it helps tremendously every time Christians of all stripes cooperate to help others. As a Methodist told me, "Theology may divide but service unites."

The world is convinced that differences mean division; that unity is only possible if there is uniformity. Countries are coming apart because they cannot envision a nationality that encompasses different races, religions, languages and customs. Even the U.S., a nation of immigrants, is having that problem. But Paul saw that this is what God was doing in his Kingdom. Not only Jews but also gentiles, not only free men but also slaves, not only men but also women were being called to become one in Christ. Our differences aren't liabilities but strengths, if only we realize and use them.

I love the sayings they put on the sign at Summerland Hardware. One read, "An idea is a funny thing that doesn't work unless you do." The world still doesn't get the idea that love can conquer differences. It doesn't help that a lot of Christians don't seem to get the idea either. And as long as that remains true, there is no way to establish the Kingdom of God apart from imposing it. There are plenty of politicians willing to do just that. So maybe what's keeping Jesus away is that we aren't keeping his command to love one another, our neighbor and our enemies. As St. Augustine said, "Without God, we cannot. And without us, God will not." While we wait for Jesus to return, he waits for us to finish our part--laying the foundation, preparing the soil, not only talking about God's love but demonstrating it. When Jesus returns, do we really want him to find us squabbling, or do we want to be found doing the work he told us to do before he left?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Usurping Shameless Shepherds

The relevant scriptures are Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 and Matthew 25:31-46.

I imagine that an individual's political power and his physical power were originally one and the same thing. The strongest guy in the tribe and best fighter was made chief. In return for successfully defending against the raids of rival tribes and leading raids against others he got the biggest share of the loot, the most slaves, the best food and his pick of the women. It was a trade-off the others in the tribe were willing to make in exchange for security. It wasn't a bad system if the man in power was a just and reasonable guy. But it had to be very tempting for the leader to just take whatever he wanted, even if it belonged to another member of the tribe. And if the biggest guy was a jerk or a bully, it could be quite intolerable. The only solution was for some other big guy to take him on and depose him. This was never a sure thing and the aftermath would be very bad for those who backed the losing side.

From chieftain to king to emperor, variations of the strong man rule has continued right up to this day. People want a strong leader, especially when they need protection against a nation or another group of people. Sometimes they think a strong leader can offer security against impersonal forces, like the economy or the climate. To that end they are willing to give up a lot and tolerate a lot of bad behavior on the part of their leaders.

And that happened to God's people as well. When David's kingdom split under Solomon's son, the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah suffered under kings both strong and weak, both bad and good. The result of this highly unstable leadership was that the kingdoms fell to successive empires, the northern to Assyria in 722 BC, the southern to Babylonia in 588 BC. In both cases, the empire in question would take the aristocracy and artisans of the conquered Hebrew nation into exile. The cream of the 10 tribes of the northern kingdom were so assimilated that they never returned home but were lost to history. The exiles of the southern kingdom maintained their religious identity even in Babylon, substituting a devotion to God's law for worship at their destroyed temple back in the ruins of Jerusalem. They formed communities and naturally leaders arose. And inevitably some of those leaders were abusive in the exercise of their power.

Ezekiel was a prophet ministering to a community of Jewish exiles. He proclaimed God's judgment on those leaders who enriched themselves at the expense of their followers while neglecting their needs. These false shepherds would be removed and God himself would be their shepherd. He would seek out his sheep, scattered throughout the Babylonian empire. He would return them to their home. He would give them good pasture. He would make them lie down. He will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak.

The metaphors aren't hard to decipher. The promise to bring the sheep home was a promise to end the exile of God's people. And in 70 years, that promise would be fulfilled. Cyrus the Persian would conquer Babylon and give the Jews permission to return to their homeland.

The promise of good pasture was a promise to feed the people. I'm not sure if we are speaking of literal hunger among the exiles but their spiritual hunger was obvious. "How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?" asks Psalm 137. Held as captives, far from everything familiar, the Jews were starving for words of comfort and encouragement. And their leaders were not providing them. God would.

The promise to make them lie down is the promise of rest. This could be rest from their wanderings. It could equally be a reference to the Sabbath, which they probably had trouble observing while living in pagan Babylon.

The promise to bind up the injured and strengthen the weak is the promise of the restoration of justice. Which also explains the line about destroying the fat and the strong. Normally a shepherd would not hurt the fat sheep and would save the most robust members of his flock. But if he had disruptive animals in his flock, here depicted as shoving and butting the other sheep out of the way so they could get the best to eat and drink, he would do something to separate them from the rest. A fat or strong sheep might be an asset but not if it is the reason the rest of the sheep are in bad shape. The needs of the whole outweigh the needs of one or two members.

All analogies break down. What God proposes would be business suicide for a real shepherd. But the people aren't animals. God cares about them. And he will not allow the strong to bully and harm the weak. With men, might makes right but God uses his might for right. Those who gets fat by hogging all the food, who get rich by rigging the game against others, who use their power to commit injustice will experience God's justice.

Note, too, that the metaphor has changed a bit. The corrupt leaders of the Jews are no longer seen as shepherds, as above the animals they take care of but are demoted, if you will, to sheep as well, albeit violently aggressive sheep whose actions divide and harm the other sheep. They must be put down, as if they were rabid.

Now this is a reversal of the way religion functions in most societies. Usually religious leaders bless the status quo. They tell the people that the strong men who lead them are put there by God. In ancient times kings and emperors were often considered divine or semi-divine. Later in European history, kings were said to rule by divine right. But here God himself is saying "No, your leaders are not doing my will. They are bad and I will depose them." Ezekiel, like prophets before and after him, fearlessly pronounced God's disapproval on certain strong leaders and the status quo. Being in charge doesn't make you special nor does it give you license to do what you wish or excuse you for breaking the laws of God. Nor may you simply disregard the "little people," or sacrifice them to your ambition. God's evaluation of who is valuable is different from that of the people in power.

This passage obviously influenced Jesus' parable in Matthew 25. He mentions a shepherd separating the sheep from the goats at the beginning of his story of the last judgment. And the criterion used is how people treated those who were weak and disadvantaged. And Jesus makes it more personal that just "this is my flock." He says how you treat the hungry, the thirsty, the foreigner, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned is how you treat him.

Why this identification with the suffering? 3 reasons. First, he is the original image of God. Just as God tells Noah that murder is wrong because human beings are made in his image, so Jesus is telling us that mistreatment and neglect of human beings is wrong because we are made in his image.

Secondly, Jesus is not only fully God but also fully human. He has undergone mistreatment. It is not theoretical to him. He knows what it is first hand and he cannot ignore it.

Thirdly, he loves us and will not let the mistreatment of those he loves get a pass.

Jesus is in fact the opposite of the strong arm leader. Jesus did not coerce people into following him. Becoming his disciple was entirely voluntary and people could and did leave him if they wished. And his kingdom would not come about like earthly kingdoms, with force. Jesus spoke of the kingdom growing organically, like a tree. It would come from within and among people who responded to his call, who recognized him as their shepherd, the good shepherd.

In Ezekiel 34, God said he would be his people's shepherd. But in the same passage, we see that God is setting up his servant David to be the one shepherd over them. Now obviously this is not the original David. Just as Israel comes to mean no longer the original man but his descendants, David comes to mean his descendant, the Messiah. Jesus, from the house of David, the great shepherd-king, is the one whom God has anointed to be prophet, priest and king over his people. He will feed the people.

On the last Sunday of Pentecost we celebrate Christ the King. Some people don't like the idea of Jesus as king because of the long history of kings abusing their power over the lives of others. But just as our sins have distorted the image of God in us, so has it distorted the image of true kingship found in Jesus. In Christ the strong and the privileged are not automatically given positions of power and leadership. In Christ leaders are not excused from obeying the laws of the land nor the law of God. In Christ you are not given power to make others serve you but power is given so you can serve others. In Christ we do not look to the powerful for examples of how to live like Jesus but to the powerless for opportunities to act like him.

The terms "nobility" and "gentleman" originally referred to aristocrats. Gradually, they came to refer instead to ideal qualities people wished their social "betters" would exhibit. Today if you call someone "noble" or a "gentleman" people think, not of their high birth, but of their high moral behavior. Just so when the Bible speaks of Jesus Christ as King, it is not describing how the rulers of this world do act but prescribing the way all people should behave. After all, we are told that in the new creation we are to reign with him. If so, we'd better start practicing, not by playing God or acting entitled, but by seeking the lost, those whom the world despises and disenfranchises. And as he stripped himself to wash the feet of his disciples, we must do likewise. Because disciples are not greater than their master. And our Master did not come to be served but to serve.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Diversions and Essentials

Ya gotta hand it to the Roman Emperors. When the masses got upset at the injustices and inequalities of society, the emperors knew what to do: provide bread and circuses. The bread filled a real need for the multitudinous poor, of course. The circuses, which included chariot races, athletic games, staged exotic animal hunts and later the execution of Christians, were technically sacred and state affairs but functioned as diversions from the problems of the Empire. And even today local governments with other pressing financial problems are so eager to keep professional sports teams that they will enter into ruinous contracts to build stadiums with more luxury boxes where the lion's share of profits go to millionaire team owners and the lion's share of the costs go to taxpayers. Entertainment would not seem to be essential to human life, yet we pay athletes, movie and TV actors a lot more than we pay teachers, nurses, and police officers. If money is value quantified, what does it say that we value those who amuse us more than those who educate us, who protect us and who take care of us when we are most vulnerable?

One sign of how much we value entertainers and sports figures is what we do when one of them does something bad. When O.J. Simpson's ex-wife was brutally stabbed and slashed to death, the police did what they do in any similar homicide: they looked at the ex-spouse. And despite the fact that the DNA of a dead waiter, who just happened to be dropping off Mrs. Simpson's sunglasses at the time of the attack, was found in O.J.'s car, the jury somehow thought that this was not sufficient evidence of the Hall of Famer's guilt. And an incredible number of people were happy to see him acquitted. Because despite ample evidence that he was a controlling and abusive spouse, despite his bizarre slow motion car chase complete with lots of cash and a disguise, despite the fact that Ron Goldman's parents were able to win a wrongful death civil suit against him, he was a great sports figure. One who now resides in jail on a 33 year sentence for trying to resolve another situation with violence.

Roman Polanski was not only a great director but his actress wife and their unborn child were victims of Charles Manson's cult of murderers. But when he was arrested by the Swiss in 2009 for fleeing the US in 1977 after pleading guilty to having sex with a 13 year old, many people went on the record saying he should not be extradited to our country to be sentenced. Being a great director apparently excuses him for committing statutory rape.

And recently Penn State students rioted when college football legend Joe Paterno was fired for not doing enough after getting an eyewitness report of the rape of a 10 year boy by one of his assistant coaches. He did pass the report on to his Athletic Director but did not follow up, though the retired assistant coach ran sleepover camps on the Penn State property for years afterward. But people are more upset over the loss of the most winning college football coach. I wonder if their reaction to his perfunctory response would change had the boy been murdered rather than merely raped.

There is nothing wrong with a harmless diversion now and then. It's one way of getting some relief from the stresses of life. It can literally help with pain. When I was young our pediatrician told me to count backwards as he threw out random numbers. While I was concentrating on the countdown, he would give me my shots and I barely felt them. One intriguing study shows that counting money has a similar pain-fighting effect, probably because we are focusing on something of value. I've found I can stop my patient from crying by offering him something with a lid. He is instantly engaged in putting it on and taking it off.

The problem comes when what we are diverted from are things that we ought to be attending to. You would not want a police officer playing Angry Birds on his phone when he ought to be stopping or solving crimes. Or the tech support person watching an episode of Real Housewives while he's helping you figure out why your laptop has frozen up. Or a health care worker posting You Tube videos on her Facebook page when she is supposed to be getting your loved one up to use the toilet. The nursing home I last worked for forbade staff from bringing in cell phones and personal electronics. And I've caught enough staff members hiding in empty rooms making calls to understand why.

We have gotten so addicted to being constantly diverted that it is one of the leading causes of traffic accidents in this country, responsible for anywhere from 25 to 50% of all crashes according to AAA. More than 85% of the 100 million cell phone users in this country use them in their cars. If there's anything you should be concentrating on, it's navigating a 2000 pound car going 35 to 55 miles per hour through streets being used by other vehicles piloted by distractible human beings.

But diversions needn't be trivial to keep us from focusing on what is essential. In our country, poverty has risen to its highest level in 27 years. More than 46 million Americans, or 1 in 6, makes less than $12,000. 22% of our children live in poverty. Only during the Great Depression has this country's unemployment rate been higher. Just under 50 million Americans have no health insurance. Medical bills are the number 1 reason for bankruptcy. Yet our elected officials are more focused on winning elections or stopping the other party from winning elections that are a year away. Matters which may seem important to them are diverting our leaders from matters that are essential to the people they supposedly represent.

Even church politics can distract people from things that are essential. At our Diocesan Convention, the matters that generated the most debate, money and rights, may have been important issues. But as we watched a video of what our church is doing in the Dominican Republic, where malnutrition, contaminated water, malaria, rabies and diseases that can be prevented by vaccinations are still major health problems, I thought "Thank God we have all of these missions and ministries attacking these issues. Why don't we talk about these things more? Why do we devote so much time and energy to issues which are not matters of life and death?"

How we spend our time, talents and treasure is a vital issue to Jesus as his parable in Matthew 25 reveals. The talent mentioned in the Bible is a unit of weight equal to 30 kilograms, so if it was in gold or silver, even the slave given 1 talent had considerable capital to work with. The fault of that slave is obviously not the amount he was given but what he did with it, which was nothing. His master would have been pleased if the man had taken the most conservative course he could with what he was given. He is punished for not even trying. The gifts we receive from God are to be used, not hoarded or hidden. We are not to be distracted from putting them to their proper use or diverted by considerations like fear of failure. He wants us to be bold.

Everybody has talents. And I'm not just talking of the artistic kinds. Some people have a talent for detail. Some have a talent for seeing the big picture. Some have a talent for making friends. Others have a talent for making things. Some have a talent for connecting ideas that at first appear to have nothing to do with each other. There are people with a talent for numbers and others who have a talent for words. Some folks have a talent for making money and others have a talent for coming up with off-the-wall solutions. Everyone has a talent or 2 or 3. Some can do big things and some can do small but crucial things. And wonderful things happen when people bring their talents together for a common cause.

And what would such a common cause be for the body of Christ? Exactly what Christ did. When people were hungry, he fed them. When they were sick, he made them better. When they were repentant, he forgave them. When their faith was faltering, he encouraged them. When they lacked wisdom, he taught them. When they were hypocritical, he called them on it. When they showed extraordinary faith in him, or were unusually perceptive about God or ethics, or were particularly generous, he praised them. And he told his disciples that ministering to the needs of anyone lacking food, water, clothing, health, freedom or acceptance in a strange culture was the same as ministering to him.

The church first got noticed positively for doing such things--taking care of plague victims when others fled, for instance. As the faith spread, the church was known for setting up hospitals and schools, for feeding and clothing the poor, for freeing their slaves and working to abolish the slave trade entirely, and in the modern era for fighting prejudice. We still do these; why aren't they the first things that come to mind when Christians come up in popular discourse?

Because we have let ourselves get diverted onto other issues. We have made priorities of being theologically pure, or politically consistent, or culturally in-step, or structurally intact, or just plain popular. These may be important issues but they are, in the final analysis, not absolutely essential.

And what did Jesus consider essential? A lot less than we do. He said that if something was coming between you and God, you should ruthlessly remove it from your life, even if it were a hand or an eye. And he's right. Today, if having an eye or a limb surgically removed meant it would save you from a deadly form of cancer, most of us would, after hard consideration, agree. I don't, however, think Jesus wanted us to literally lop off our hands or tear out our eyes. But he must have meant something just as important if less physical, something we might consider to be a big part of us and who we are, something which would definitely be seen as a big sacrifice on our part, though we could live without it.

The most difficult part is deciding what is essential and what is merely important. Often we think that what makes us different is what is essential but that's not true. Practically every branch of Christianity has distinctive doctrines, or structures, or practices that they consider essential, but regarding which other branches of Christianity think or act differently. Is the Papacy or the number of sacraments or the age of baptismal candidates or the way a church is organized or the structure of the worship service or the language used essential to Christianity? If so, then we must reject either Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy or Evangelicalism, or Pentecostalism, or the Amish as Christian. But that would mean what is essential to Christianity is what divides us rather than what unites us. It would be like saying only a poodle is a true dog and all other breeds are entirely different species.

As I read it, the essentials consist of who Jesus Christ is, what he has done for us, and how we respond morally to that. The details must be fleshed out, certain decisions of which way to go on controversial issues must be arrived at, but they are not essential to what Christianity is. They are merely ways it was expressed at certain times, in certain cultures, in response to certain challenges. It is in what these various expressions share that we find the essence of belief.

There is one distinctive that is essential: Jesus' commands to love--God, our neighbors as ourselves, each other as Jesus loves us, our enemies. Anything that claims to be Christianity but does not recognize that at the center is love is not true Christianity. To paraphrase the documentary on the Dominican Republic, Christianity requires both faith and practice, both proclamation of the Gospel and loving service, the way a dove needs 2 wings in order to fly.

Whenever you see a grotesquely deformed version of Christianity, the defect is found in either how it sees Jesus or how it sees love. Most often it cannot resist collapsing and simplifying the central paradoxes of the faith--Jesus Christ as fully human and fully divine, both victim and victor, both servant and Lord, the earth as both fallen and redeemed, believers as both sinners and saints, the imperatives to pursue both justice and peace, love and righteousness, to take up one's cross and live an abundant life. It is usually in trying to resolve these tensions by tossing out or diminishing or ignoring one side, or overemphasizing the other, that things go off the rails. And often to deal with the stress of maintaining these paradoxes, we get diverted by other, more easily comprehended issues, matters that we would much rather contemplate or handle. It is much easier to focus almost entirely on a pet cause, or to nitpick another's theological fine points or to only see one side of a problem than to grapple with the complexity of reality. Just as it's much easier to get lost in a video game or a cozy sitcom or a contest between two teams, where there are clear winners and losers, unclouded loyalties and an unvarying format.

One of the problems of diversions is they take our attention off of vital matters. Another, however, is that we try to impose their simplified schemata on messy reality. It would be lovely if good and evil were as easy to spot and to deal with as they are in Star Wars or a first person shooter game. They aren't. To paraphrase H. L. Mencken, for every complex problem there is a simple solution…and it's wrong. Jesus told us to give Caesar what is his and God what is his but didn't provide us with a checklist to tick off which duties were which. Jesus told us to turn the other cheek but not what to do if that doesn't stop our attacker. Paul told us not to respond to evil with evil but with good but didn't go into the specifics. God gave us both brains and hearts and lets us find the balance between the two we must strike in every circumstance.

Life is not a no-brainer and neither is the Christian life. Rather it is a full brainer. We need both hemispheres and every specialized lobe and section to handle it. Sometimes we need a diversion, comfort food for our brains, like a nice murder mystery where all the loose ends are tied up and neither hero nor victims carry the trauma over into the next adventure. But we mustn't set up housekeeping in these castles in the air. We live on earth and if we are going to bring about God's Kingdom, we need to see and think clearly to discern what is essential, what is important and what is trivial.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

That Old Magic

My brother is the President of the Society of American Magicians Assembly 8 in our hometown of St. Louis. And I like to think I'm partially responsible for that. I was the one who was interested in magic originally. When our Dad took us downtown to buy supplies for his tavern, I was the one who wanted to go to Gene DeVoe's magic shop. "Genial Gene" would do magic to entice us to buy the tricks. And as the one who saved his allowance, I would usually buy at least one trick, like the finger chopper. Eventually, I realized that knowing how illusions were done spoiled the effect for the observer. But my brother got hooked for life. He not only bought the simple little tricks, he also bought books Gene sold explaining how other tricks were done. He bought rabbits to produce from his magical props. And as a teen he built not one but 2 guillotines so he could cut heads of lettuce in two while letting the blade pass harmlessly through the necks of volunteers from the audience. His wife, then his high school sweetheart, was his assistant. And not only did he do shows for our church, he didn't see this as hypocrisy.

Penn Jillette, the larger, louder member of the magical duo Penn and Teller, has a new book out called "God, No! Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales." In it he expresses astonishment that any magician can be spiritual. And coming from such an intelligent man, that astonishes me. Because it shows a very primitive and limited understanding of religion.

One of the problems of the modern anti-theist movement is that they reduce religion, which they evidently don't understand, to something else that they do, and then they denigrate it. The most common version of this is seen in the thought of Sam Harris. He thinks that religion is simply a defective form of science, as if religion's primary role in believers' lives is to explain how material things work. But if religion was ever supposed to do that, it hasn't for a long time, at least not for most believers. Religion is more interested in exploring questions of "why" than "how." Despite what some creationists think, the Bible is not a scientific book, the writing of it having begun a millennium or so before the most rudimentary form of science existed.The Bible takes pains to be specific that God created the world but is non-specific on the details of how this was done. It doesn't go into the genetic differences between humans and other creatures but focuses on the spiritual difference: humans bear the image of God.

Until recently, the Bible was not interpreted literally by most people. They were more interested in what it said about God and ethics. A third of the world's population claims to be Christian. I doubt that most of them would say its primary attraction for them is what it tells us about how the world works physically. More would say its importance is what it says about how to live, as an individual, as a member of a community and as a child of God.

To me, Jillette's reduction of religion to magic is the same kind of confusion of categories of thought. To begin with, magic means many things. Does he think religion is a form of stage magic? That may be true of some religions that make statues drink milk or weep, but it's not true of most churches. Plus, while Penn and Teller usually explicitly say they are doing tricks, almost everyone going to a magic show knows that's true of all magicians. The fun is in seeing something you know is not possible, wondering how it's done, and enjoying being fooled. Nobody goes to church hoping to be fooled but enlightened. While I know clergy who use magic tricks in the pulpit, they perform them as enacted parables. They neither have the intention nor expectation that people believe they are able to perform miracles. Rather than entertaining by deceiving, they are using visual metaphors to teach spiritual truths.

True, there are televangelists who are known as faith healers. They theatrically claim to know that there are people in their audience who have specific diseases and they touch them. These folks, some of whom are shills and some of whom are genuinely caught up in the excitement, claim to be healed and leap, dance or faint at the touch of the faith healer. Some of these evangelists even sell prayer cloths that they will send to those who write and make a donation. And, yes, some of them use magic tricks. There have been a number of exposes of this kind of scam for decades in print and on TV. There was even a 1992 movie starring Steve Martin that revealed some of the high-tech tricks used. Those that do these things do so for money, the same reason crooked cops, corrupt politicians, or quack doctors betray their professions. They are hardly representative of mainstream religion. You aren't likely to walk into a Methodist or Presbyterian or Episcopalian or other mainline church and see that kind of healing service. Nor do such big obvious shows of supernatural power feature very largely in most believer's faith.

I suspect that Penn Jillette knows this. His parents were Christian. So I imagine that Jillette thinks religion is magic in the sense of the first definition of the entry in "the art of producing a desired effect or result through the use of incantation or various other techniques that presumably assure human control of supernatural agencies or the forces of nature." Which betrays either a very shallow understanding of religion or an inability to see the very large differences between magic and religion. The key words in the definition that relate to this difference are: "presumably assure human control." Magic is the attempt to control natural or supernatural forces. To that end a person chants words or performs rituals. An especially egregious form of magic involves invoking the names of demons or spirits and making pacts with them in exchange for the accomplishment of one's desires. This is what lies at the heart of the tale of Dr. Faustus and the non-biblical idea of selling one's soul to the devil.

Magic is a parody of religion. We do not summon up demons but call upon God. We don't try to try to bind the powers-that-be with words of power but humbly make our requests to God. We don't make contracts with devils but we do have a covenant with God initiated, not by us, but by Jesus Christ. And it in no way obligates God to fulfill our every wish like a genie. One shouldn't expect a loving God to say "yes" to every request anymore than one would expect a loving parent to give a child everything it asked for. Most importantly, we do not try to impose our will on the universe but say to God "not my will but yours be done." We are not forcing anyone or anything to behave the way we wish but simply asking our heavenly Father within the context of our loving relationship with him.

That said, there are those who do advocate a distortion of Christianity that certainly smacks of magic. That's the Word of Faith churches with their "name it and claim it" theology. Basically, this Prosperity Gospel, started by E.W. Kenyon in the late 1800s, says our covenant with God guarantees our health and wealth. Thus health can be claimed by quoting a Bible verse about healing and claiming it as our divine right. Kenneth Copeland, a leading proponent of this kind of theology, says that the idea that God ever uses suffering for our benefit is an unbiblical deception of the devil! Wonder what he makes of Romans 5:3-5? But in this theology, if we are sick, it is because we let Satan rob us of our rightful health. It is interesting that Benny Hinn, another leading preacher of the Prosperity Gospel, is also a very controversial faith healer.

In the same way, if a Christian is not wealthy, it is because he or she is letting Satan have authority over his or her life. Word of Faith adherents also dispute the picture of Jesus as a poor itinerant preacher but say Jesus and the apostles were wealthy. Of course to maintain such things, one has to ignore or explain away all the verses that say the opposite.

Some in this movement teach that believers are literally gods, not just a little lower than gods as it says in Psalm 8. As preacher Creflo Dollar puts it, if the offspring of horses are horses and the offspring of dogs are dogs, the children of God are gods themselves. Therefore it follows that "a god should never be sick, and a god should never be poor." Such an emphasis tempts its followers to live with a sense of entitlement, if not outright arrogance. As John Piper says, "the prosperity gospel will not make anybody praise Jesus; it will make people praise prosperity."

And many would gladly agree to that trade-off. But buying into this "feel good" theology does have a down side. What does a person do when chronic illness strikes or wealth continually eludes one? What if you get cancer? Or you lose your job and savings due to the economy? You can only blame yourself. Because in this theology, you are a god and the only reason your life isn't perfect is that you don't have enough faith to name it and claim it. The idea that what you think determines reality is a classic example of magical thinking.

The answer to bad theology is not abandoning theology but turning to good theology, just as the answer to bad medical advice is not giving up on medicine but getting good medical advice. The problem with the world is not that we don't act like gods; rather it is that we are only too willing to play God. We act as if the universe owes us nothing but good things and we are willing to take short cuts, using whatever power, be it magic, money, position, politics, technology, or brute strength, to make our desires happen. We may theoretically accept the idea that mankind has major flaws but we tend to make an exception when it comes to ourselves. And the only thing worse than flawed people are flawed people who think they really aren't. Confidence doesn't guarantee competence. When faced with a tempting situation to which are attached obvious risks of a very bad outcome, we tend to think "that won't happen to me." Yet everyday people blithely get into recreational drug use, promiscuous sex, ill advised financial moves and more despite the fact that they see numerous examples of the inevitable negative consequences in the news and in the lives of the those around them.

Humility, honest self-examination and a timely reminder of Jesus' call to repent are a vital part of true Christian living. As is the realization that becoming Christlike is a ongoing process, not a fait accompli. It requires prayer and God's grace. It has nothing to do with the accumulation of physical goods but the cultivation of spiritual fruits. It's not about accruing quantities but producing qualities.

Was there a time when religion and magic were the same or practically so? Anthropology and history look at cave paintings, the contents of graves, and representations of ailing body parts presented at the temples of Apollo and say yes. The Hebrews and early Christians largely avoided that because they did not worship idols that could be rigged but worshiped a God who could not be compelled by ritual or invocation of his name to do anything they wanted. What he did was what he decided to, consistent with his just nature and tempered by his love and mercy.

If some religions did start out as magic, it is important to point out that so did science. The science of chemistry began as the magical art of alchemy and that astronomy began as astrology. It took a millennium and change for us to gain the knowledge to make those into sciences. And science is always a work in progress. There is a lot that science cannot explain, like the scientifically verified connection between faith and physical health, longevity and faster healing. The idea that science will eventually explain everything or that we humans can understand everything is by no means assured and thus a statement of faith.

Our biggest problems primarily lie in the moral and spiritual realms. We know what we should do but we don't want to. It's not a matter of lacking knowledge but rather not using the wisdom we have possessed for thousands of years in the Bible. And the Bible is not a grimoire of arcane magical lore, nor a particularly obscure and mystical tome. It is, instead, remarkably practical, telling us what we are, whether we wish to hear it or not, but also what we can be, if we follow its advice. Jesus doesn't promise magical answers to all our woes in this life but assurance that, though we will have trouble, we can find triumph in him. Though, to the world, it may seem as if we possess nothing that cannot be verified by the physical sciences, yet to those who see through the tricks and illusions of this world, we are revealed to be rich in everything that counts: a deep, abundant life, an unshakeable trust in our heavenly Father, an undaunted hope, and the undying love of God in Christ from which nothing can separate us.