Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Apocrypha Assessment: Judith 8

At last our title character enters the story. Judith is a wealth widow who is offended by the high priest setting God a timetable. God cannot be coerced. Instead Judith has a plan.  

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Apocrypha Assessment: Judith 7

Holofernes and his troops prepare to besiege Bethulia but the Edomites and Moabites have a better plan: cut off the folks in the town from their water supply and they will have to surrender. It is done and the inhabitants are indeed clamoring for their high priest to settle with the Assyrians. Uzziah the high priest asks for 5 more days to see if the Lord will act.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Love Who?!?

When I was a kid, I went to the Ripley's Believe It Or Not Museum in Chicago. In the gift shop I saw and bought a 1 ½ inch square of plastic that had the entire Bible printed on it. If I put it under my microscope and patiently adjusted the focus I could see, though not comfortably read, the words of all 1200 pages of the King James Bible. I was excited because I had seen machines at the library that would allow you to read microfilms of books and newspapers. I figured someday they would make a handheld version that would read books on little squares like my micro-Bible and I could carry my whole library with me in a cigarbox. What a glorious future I imagined!

The future did me one better. I now have a Kindle on which I have several translations of the Bible, commentaries, Bible and medical dictionaries, books by Martin Luther, C.S. Lewis, and St. Augustine, histories of the church, of the middle ages, and disabilities in America, all the works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and Mark Twain and Edgar Allan Poe and every one of the original Sherlock Holmes stories. And it is smaller than a cigarbox. If necessary I can also access these books on my smartphone.

We live at a time when the science fiction tropes of my childhood are becoming fact. Seeing that it encompasses everything from optimistic Star Trek to the dystopic vision of Brave New World, I am not sure whether this development heartens or disturbs me. On the one hand, we have tiny devices in our pockets that can access practically all of the information in the world with a computing power greater than the room-sized computers that got us to the moon. On the other hand, we have drones, or as I like to think of them, flying robots of death. And even our computers have a dark side, allowing others to gather information on us, which can be used to steal our identities or, we are assured, serve us better and keep us safe from terrorists.

Just before the revelations that our own NSA was collecting data on every phone call and computer search we make, my wife and I got hooked on a show called Person of Interest. In it a rich eccentric computer programmer has created a machine which can monitor all electronic data—phone, computer, security cameras, etc—for the government. It is supposed to search for clues to imminent terrorist activities but it also picks up indications of individual crimes of violence. The government sees these as irrelevant but Harold, the programmer, has built a backdoor into the software and the machine gives him the social security numbers of those who are either going to be perpetrators or victims of personal violence. Harold has recruited some disillusioned CIA assassins and cops to help prevent the crimes he is tipped off about. It's a smart and compelling show but often the solution to the threat of violence comes down to more violence.

In a particularly intense episode, one of the good guy cops was captured and tortured for having incriminating evidence about the bad guys. He refuses to tell them where the evidence is and his son's death is ordered. The bad guy uses the good cop's phone to call his son so he can hear his boy die. Then a good guy assassin saves the son, and the tortured cop manages to turn the tables on his executioner and garrotte the bad guy with his own handcuffs. And I found myself cheering as he killed the bad guy! Afterward I wondered why I was so uncharacteristically reveling in such bloodlust.

You expect violence in Person of Interest but in the recent Star Trek movie the climax was Spock, the emotionless, rational Vulcan, pummeling the bad guy into unconsciousness. And in Man of Steel Superman kills the bad guy with his bare hands. Here we are in the 21st century and while our technology has progressed tremendously, our morality has emphatically not. We still think might makes right; that the end justifies the means.

Recent studies have shown that getting revenge on people who have done us wrong, or even just thinking about it, activates the same part of the brain that gives us pleasure. The researchers call it “sweet” revenge. As Dr. Edward Hallowell, author of Dare to Forgive, admits about revenge, “It feels so good. It's a wonderfully triumphant feeling.”

So what Jesus says about loving our enemies in today's gospel (Matthew 5:38-48) goes against some of our strongest feelings. In view of the brain imagining study, you could even call his command unnatural. And what's unnatural is bad, right?

To call something natural is merely to say that it happens in nature; it doesn't tell us whether it is good or bad, helpful or harmful. After years of studying our closest relatives, the gentle and caring chimpanzees, Jane Goodall discovered to her horror that they also go to war and even indulge in cannibalism. Some animals eat their young. Or practice incest. It is all natural behavior. Does that make it morally right?

Aspirin relieves pain, reduces fever and inflammation and taken in low doses over time can prevent heart attacks. It is an artificial compound designed to mimic the properties of willow bark. It is unnatural. Does that make it bad? On the other hand, poison ivy and nightshade are both natural. Does that make them good?

It is natural for people to wish harm on those who wish them harm. So natural that, while, as we see in Leviticus 19, the command to love your neighbor is not in fact followed by the words “and hate your enemy,” we can all think of Old Testament passages where it would be easy to deduce that idea. Israel was a little country surrounded by bigger pagan countries and even empires; it had to fight to establish itself and to continue to exist. So they hated their military enemies and their religions of sex and human sacrifice. In Psalm 139:21 & 22, the psalmist says to God, “Lord, don't I hate those who hate you?...I hate them with a perfect hatred. I consider them my enemies.”

It's an understandable sentiment but that doesn't make it right. Jesus wants us to transcend that. He wants us to be better than animals or even than the natural man. Because all of the righteous violence in the world has not stamped out the existence of violence for evil reasons. Revenge engenders further revenge. Violence begets violence. If I strike you on the cheek, the odds are less in favor of you turning your other cheek than they are of you striking me back. And striking me harder than I struck you.

Which is why the Lex Talionis, the law of tit for tat, is found in the Old Testament. We also find it in the earlier Code of Hammurabi. And while today we see the principle of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” as savage, it was actually a method of limiting violence. Rather than letting any and all members of a family or tribe avenging a wrong done to one of its members (usually by killing and/or wounding any and all members of the perpetrator's family or tribe), an appointed judge was to use this guideline of proportionality. The idea was if someone injured someone so severely that he lost an eye, no more than an eye could be taken from the offender. You couldn't cut off his hand or take his life. And of course this rather quickly became a matter of payment rather than literal maiming. Jewish law laid down a method for assessing the payment based on the 5 elements of the offense. If found guilty of injuring another, the person was liable for the victim's injury, pain, healing, loss of time, and the damage to his dignity. You can see the origins of today's legal liability and compensation laws.

But what Jesus is asking his followers to do is not to insist on one's legal rights. In Jesus' time, to strike someone on the cheek was a grave insult and the aggressor could get a stiff fine, just like today. You couldn't legally keep a person's outer cloak; if they were poor it might be the only way they could keep warm at night. A Roman soldier could only make you walk one mile, to, say, carry his pack. Jesus says “forget about your rights; rise above them.” If you turn the other cheek, you are in effect saying, “I am able to take your abuse. I am able to absorb twice the abuse you've showered on me. I am not a person of vengeance and violence. I am a child of God and I trust in him to administer justice.” By acting in such a manner, the victim is not acting the victim. He is in fact confronting the person who struck the blow with the question of what kind of person he is. Is he the kind of person who would beat someone who refuses to fight back? If so, he is revealing himself to be inferior in self-control and brings dishonor upon his name and reputation. That was especially powerful in the honor/shame society of Jesus' day.

And it has worked in history. Gandhi adopted the idea of non-violent resistance in response to the oppressive governing of India by the British. He organized peasants, farmers and laborers against the excessive land taxes and discrimination. Protesting the salt tax, he led his followers on a 250 mile march to the sea to make salt the old fashioned way. Through many other acts of peaceful civil disobedience and non-cooperation with the British Raj, through many imprisonments, and by denouncing violence on either side, Gandhi shamed the British who thought themselves to be a very moral nation. Eventually it led to the British quitting India and letting them have their independence.

Martin Luther King did much the same thing. His followers would march and sing gospel songs and the sight of these peaceful people being knocked down by the torrents from fire hoses and attacked by dogs made a lot of Americans feel that this did not look like a very Christian way to treat people. In 1964 the Civil Rights Act banned discrimination. I remember the race riots that broke out in the late 60s and early 70s after the emergence of the Black Power movement and I can't help but think they would be worse were it not for Dr. King's nonviolent campaigns.

I saw non-violent resistance work in my own life. Once when I was taking a public bus home from high school, a bully, his crony and I were the last kids aboard and I knew we would be getting off at the same stop. And he was loudly declaring what he would do to me once we got off the bus. There was no way I could take on this Neanderthal and his minion. I was scared. But I said to his taunts,”Sure, you can beat me up. You're a lot bigger than me. And what will that prove? That you can beat up someone smaller than you. Anyone can. Beating me up won't make you a big man. It will only show that you can beat up someone who can't possibly hurt you because they are smaller and weaker.” When we got off the bus, he looked at me in disgust, pushed me into some bushes and stalked off. I had spoiled his fun by showing him how ridiculous his beating me up would make him look. I defeated him not with pugilism but with perspective.

In turning the other cheek, the victim is breaking the cycle of violence. The natural response is to retaliate. The natural response is for each side to escalate in response to the other side. But if one side brings that evolution of the conflict to a halt, it can prevent worse damage. It can also open a door to talking rather than fighting.

Ah, but doesn't taking it lying down merely embolden the aggressor? That's why Jesus doesn't say, “just take it” but “turn the other cheek.” That's not taking it lying down but taking it and still standing. That's not cowardice but courage. It is a way of saying, “You haven't defeated me. I can still act. I can still make my own choices. And I choose not to fight.”

It is also not saying, “What you did is not bad.” That is an issue that Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber had to deal with when the 10th anniversary of 9/11 fell on a Sunday and so by cosmic coincidence did the passage from Matthew where Peter asks if he should forgive someone who wronged him 7 times and Jesus says 77 times. Is that saying it was OK? she fretted. And then she remembered a fellow Lutheran pastor named Don. He did the funeral for Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine shooters. Because of that, he had to leave his job at his church. In her book Pastrix, the Rev. Bolz-Weber writes, “...Don had the gall to think that the promises given to Dylan by God at his baptism were more powerful than the acts of evil he had committed. It helps me to think about Don because I realize that he wasn't saying what Dylan Klebold did was OK. He was defiantly proclaiming that evil is simply not more powerful than good, and that there really is a light that shines in the darkness and that the darkness can not, shall not, will not overcome it.”

Jesus came to bring peace, not only between God and human beings but also between people. And not just between our own people. It is easy to say that “love your neighbor” doesn't include enemies. And that when Jesus said, “Love one another as I have loved you,” he was only talking to Christians about other Christians. Or when he said, “Whatever you do to the least of these my siblings, you do to me,” he was only talking about Christians clothing and feeding and visiting in prison other Christians. If you look at these things in this way, we are still free to hate our enemies. And we find ways to make even our fellow countrymen, our fellow Christians, our fellow Lutherans or Episcopalians into our enemies. But by Jesus saying “Love your enemies” we have no one left to hate. We can't hate the rich or the poor, the Republicans or the Democrats, the gays or the straights, the legal or the illegal immigrants, the Muslims or the Jews or the Wicca or anyone else. We must love every one of them. Because God created every one of them in his image. Jesus died for every one of them, whether they know it or not, whether they acknowledge it or not. God so loved the WORLD...not just some of it, not just the lovable people, not just the reasonable people, not just the admirable people. Or else the gospel is a sham.

Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you..” Why? “ that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven.” And he concludes this passage by saying, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Are you perfect? I'm not. And so if Jesus says that's the direction I must be taking, then I will have to stop hating people, stop demonizing them, stop wishing them ill. I will have to stop writing people off as a lost cause, which is what hate is. Because God doesn't. And thank God he doesn't. Or I wouldn't be here. And neither would any of you. God is a God of hope and faithfulness and love--love more powerful than hate, more powerful than evil, more powerful than any negative force out there. And because he is, we can turn the other cheek, we can go the second mile, we can love our enemies. Because greater is he who is in us than he who is in the world. He who is in us is he who was struck on the cheek, and whipped and spat upon and crucified. And he who is in us is he who rose from the grave, big as life, stronger than ever. He did that to save us, all of us. But not all of us know that. Not all of us have responded to his love. So rather than pushing anyone away, we need to draw them to us in order to draw them to him. We need to stop being belligerent and start being believers in God's power and mercy and grace. We need to be brave enough to unclench our fists and offer our hand to our enemies. And if we get slapped, that's a small price to pay for the privilege of demonstrating the unstoppable love of the God who doesn't write anyone off.    

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Apocrypha Assessment: Judith 5 & 6

Holofernes gets a rundown on the history of Israel and their God from Achior, leader of the Ammonites. If the Jews obey God, God will protect them.

Holofernes doesn't like what he hears. He is confident that his god and king Nebuchadnezzar will win. He orders Achior tied up and dumped at one of the towns near the passes to be killed after Holofernes destroys the Israelites. The townspeople find Achior and take him to their assembly where he tells them all about the council with Holofernes. They pray to God to save them from the arrogant general.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Apocrypha Assessment: Judith 3 & 4

The people are so frightened they unconditionally surrender. Holofernes nevertheless destroys all shrines to all gods so that people will worship only Nebuchadnezzar. 

In Judea, they are also frightened. They close off the passes to the country from the coast. The high priest orders everyone to put on sackcloth (including the cattle!) and ashes and pray to God for protection. And God hears.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Rules, Rules, Rules

They say “Rules were meant to be broken.” “They” are fools. Rules are meant to be obeyed unless there is some overriding reason not to. Let's take the rules which we nurses must follow. A nurse is supposed to wash her hands with soap before and after every patient contact. If she is doing a dressing change or taking blood or starting an IV or cleaning up any body fluids, she must also wear gloves. This is important to protect both the nurse and the patient from contamination. It is the breaking of those rules that have led to so many hospital-borne infections. (BTW, doctors are to wash and glove as well. Don't feel shy about asking them to do so before they touch you or a loved one.)

But one time at a nursing home I was taking care of a patient in his room when another patient, with a dementia-driven urge to walk literally every second she was awake, fell right at the door to the room. She sustained a scalp wound so it was bleeding profusely. Had I followed proper hygiene protocol I would have washed my hands with soap for at least 30 seconds, dried my hands and then gotten gloved up before going from one patient to the next. But there was an old lady bleeding from her head lying 10 feet from me! So I went right to her. I probably grabbed some paper towels to hold against her wound. And I yelled for my colleagues to come and help. I broke some rules but I knew which ones to break and why it was necessary. And as soon as I could I gloved and cleaned and dressed the wound using gauze instead of paper towels. We called 911 and sent her to the hospital and she was sent back in a few hours with stitches.

You have to know the rules and the reasons for them if you are going to break them for a better reason. If you see the very early work of Pablo Picasso, you might be surprised to find out he could draw well. Having mastered the rules of realistic art, he was able to decide which rules he could or should break in order to get the effect he was aiming for. I doubt "Guernica" would be as resonant a picture of the chaos of a civilian bombing during the Spanish Civil War had it been painted in the photo-realistic style of Norman Rockwell.

Jesus broke rules, notably the ones about observing the Sabbath. But Jesus wasn't just doing it to be a rebel like a teenager or a lovable rogue as in the movies. In fact, the rules he was breaking were man-made ones, not scriptural. The Bible simply forbids work on the Sabbath. It was the interpretation of certain Pharisees that this included healing others. And like me going to the fallen woman, Jesus broke the rules because something more important was at stake: the life or health of another human being. The prohibition about working on the Sabbath was not arbitrary. Its purpose was to dedicate the day to God. And what better way to dedicate the day to God than by healing and doing good to those created in his image?

In fact if you look at the rules Jesus is analyzing in our reading from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-37), you will see that Jesus is not so much laying them aside as bringing out the essence of each.

For instance, Jesus looks at the command prohibiting murder. On the face of it all it does is say you can't kill someone intentionally. It reminds me of a bit of dialogue in the TV series Firefly where the crew is mounting a rescue of their captain from the well-armed lair of a master criminal. And they are surprised to see the preacher on board arming himself. “Preacher, doesn't the good book say something against murder?” they ask him. “Yeah,” he admits. “But it is a might fuzzy about kneecaps.” True. But part of the reason we laugh is that we know the preacher is splitting hairs and ignoring the deeper teachings of the Bible. Jesus says that if you are angry at another person or call him names, “you will be liable to the hell of fire.” In other words, any enmity is that serious. And if Jesus says the commandment against murder applies to anger and insults, then we can assume it also rules out maiming and torture and bullying.

Why would Jesus make the leap from murder to badmouthing someone? Because in our anger we often leap the other way, from insults and curses to violence. In TV mysteries, murder is often meticulously plotted out and executed in cold blood. But in reality most murders are between people who know each other or between family members. And it usually starts with a fiery argument that escalates until one person kills another. Think of all the police reports that start out with loud voices being heard by neighbors and end with gunshots being fired. The roots of murder are in our anger with another and inflamed by our disgust for one another. Jesus is saying prevent the conflagration before the fuse is even lit.

It is so important that Jesus says it take priority over your duties to God. If you are about to offer a gift at the altar and you realize you have an unresolved issue with someone, leave your gift, reconcile with the person and then offer the gift. Why? As we said last week, the way you treat others reflects how you treat Jesus. The connection between these two things is organic.

Again Jesus looks at adultery and goes deeper, looking at its point of origin. And it is found in the act of simply looking at the person and imagining kissing or having sex with them. You plant the seed of adultery in the mind and then the desires and curiosity they give birth to will do the rest. Despite what bedroom farces show, nobody ever accidentally committed adultery. It is intentional. And if having sexual fantasies about your neighbor's spouse is off-limits, then so are flirting and oversharing and becoming emotionally intimate with that person. Jesus is simply seeking to prevent the moral and emotional and financial train wrecks that adultery inevitably leads to.

Next comes the only saying of Jesus that even literalists don't take literally. They don't tear out their eyes or lop off their limbs if they lead them to do wrong. Even Jesus says that evil comes from within, not from external things, so obviously he is not talking about amputating actual body parts or disfiguring ourselves. The rule of thumb for Bible passages is that if they are not meant to be taken literally, the imagery is nevertheless meant to point to a spiritual reality just as powerful. So what is the reality behind Jesus' hyperbole? That we should be willing to get rid of anything that leads us astray from God's love, no matter how much it seems a part of us. Those in recovery have to do this. By the time they are in recovery their addiction has taken over a lot of their lives. They have to cut out all that, including the associated habits and even associates who took up such a large part of their identity. Jesus says if we don't cut these things loose, they will drag us to hell. Again, those in recovery know this. They've been to hell. That's why they finally decide to give up the tempting but terrible things that entangle them. We must cut ourselves free from the instruments of our self-destruction, like so much unwanted ballast, if we are to soar.

In the same vein, Jesus wants to prevent the collapse of marriages for trivial reasons. In his day, some rabbis felt a man could divorce his wife for simply displeasing him. One rabbi said that burning the toast was sufficient grounds for divorce; another said finding a younger prettier woman was a good enough reason to divorce your wife. And divorce could only be initiated by the man. Jesus elsewhere quotes Genesis 2:24 where it says the man and the woman become one in marriage. Separating the joined lives through divorce is a surgery so severe that Jesus says it must only be attempted for the most dire of reasons, like when one half has already joined itself to another, and not for the kind of trivial conflicts that all couples must learn to conquer through love.

Speaking of vows, Jesus again goes to the root problem of false promises. It's not a matter of swearing by the right kind of powerful thing; it is a matter of always being honest. You shouldn't be the kind of person whom others believe only when a serious oath is made; you should be the kind of person whom others believe because they can trust your “Yes” to mean “Yes” and your “No” to mean “No.” “Anything more than this comes from the evil one,” says Jesus. We all know people who begin their lies with “Well, if you really want to know the truth...” or "If I can be frank with you..." If you always tell the truth, you won't need to preface it with such reassurances.

These are all good rules which make sense morally. But we also know that not everyone observes the rules. Almost everyone cheats a bit—driving 5 miles over the speed limit, taking home a few office supplies on occasion, playing online games when you should be working, rounding expenses up for reimbursement, overestimating your charity donations on tax forms, flirting with a coworker, skipping church for no reason other than you just want to goof off, etc. And some people really break the rules, not to save others but just because the rules are inconvenient for them personally.

Rules tell us what we ought to do; they can't actually make us do them. And they can't necessarily change a person. I know alcoholics who spend great swathes of time sober only because they are in jail. As soon as they get out, they resume drinking, even if it means they will be back in jail by that night. Being made to follow a rule doesn't mean you will make it a part of your personal life. You have to embrace it. And if the rule is too difficult, you need help to carry it out.

I'm starting to wonder how much recidivism is due to the fact that we release inmates from a totally structured environment into the chaos and overwhelming choices and demands of the modern world with little or no help. For months or years, all decisions were made for them—when to wake, when to eat, who to room with, when to shower, when to go to bed—and then one day, they are left largely to their own devices. Now you must find a place to stay; you must find a job that will hire someone with a record; you must get clothes and food and toiletries and transportation and the money to pay for it all; you must come up with a structure that will accommodate your work schedule and your need to see the parole officer at the appointed time without fail. And if you have spent years or even decades incarcerated or impaired or alternating between the two, the difficulty of now learning what people on the outside mastered in their 20s can be discouraging. Some people need rules and external structure to function.

Some need rules because they lack the ability to intuit them naturally. I recently read Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight by M.E. Thomas. That's a pseudonym for a law professor who had herself diagnosed in her 20s when her promising career and significant relationships came crashing down due to her actions. Like all sociopaths, she cannot empathize with others and while she is a shrewd observer and good mimic of human behavior, she really doesn't understand why people do things like make sacrifices for those they love or refrain from doing the wrong thing when they stand to benefit from it or not take exciting risks because of foreseeable negative consequences. She never feels guilt or regret or fear. She likes clear rules, such as those provided by her Mormon faith, because they help her stay within the bounds of normal human behavior, something for which she is morally tone-deaf. (By the way, only 20% of those in prison are sociopaths. And that's not all the sociopaths there are. Most, like Thomas, are good enough chameleons to keep out of jail, and even rise to high positions likes CEOs and politicians and lawyers. Food for thought.)

Another group of people who need structure and rules are children. Stephen King observed that children are very conservative. They like predictability in their life. Very early they pick up on the patterns their parents model for them and mimic them. Notice that they mimic actual behavior. If parents wish to have a child obey a rule, they have to do so themselves. Kids tend to chafe under rules that seem arbitrary and unfair and which others, like their siblings or parents, don't obey. Understand that and you'll see that Proverbs 22:6 makes sense: “Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray.”

That's one reason for the vows we have parents and godparents make when we baptize children. Though the children thereby become citizens of the Kingdom of God, someone needs to make sure they learn the rules of the realm. Though we are saved by grace, not works, we nevertheless need the teaching and examples of others living by grace. You may have a good singing voice but if you don't get decent vocal training you can ruin your voice. We have ample evidence that left to themselves kids do not automatically grow up into good and kind and productive citizens. They need loving guidance. And in a church made up of diverse folks committed to following Jesus, children will get numerous opportunities to learn to love their neighbors of different ages, races, cultures and perspectives.

But you can't confine it to merely 1 hour 1 day a week. Studies show it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill or subject. If you went at it for 40 hours a week, it would take about 5 years. If you only work at it for one hour a week, it would take 192 years. So it's not enough just to come to church and learn and practice your faith for one hour. You must take what you learn home and put it into practice. And since following Jesus involves every aspect of your life, you're not going to get everything down in this life, especially in the areas where you are most tempted to fail. Fortunately you are not in this alone. God gives us at our baptism his Holy Spirit to help us along. The Spirit is always there to nudge us, to empower us, to help us pray, to help us resist temptation, to help us discern and do the right thing, and to help us to become more faithful, more hopeful, more loving and more Christlike day by day.

The ultimate goal of God is that we become so driven by his love, so filled with his Spirit, so completely a new creation in Christ that we will not need rules. As he said in Matthew 5:18, “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all is accomplished,” But when the old creation passes away, when all is accomplished, that is, the new creation is unveiled, the law will pass away. We will not need it. We will be like Jesus, doing good and God's will without rules, without crib notes, without reminders but out of the goodness of our new and transformed hearts. 

Sunday, February 9, 2014

If You Really Love Me...

Someone told me of hearing a deejay say on radio that “Some people go to church; I have radio. Some people pray; I have music.” It's a pretty facile comparison. But I have seen it in fandom. A writer for wrote an article called “How Doctor Who Became my Religion.” His take was less facile because what he was responding to are the many parallels the character of the Doctor has with Jesus, though the writer doesn't say that in so many words. Still the writers of Doctor Who do not proclaim the character to be real. But basically what these 2 examples boil down to is that music and Doctor Who (and we might add other things like nature and athletics and sex) create strong feelings in people. As does religion. So people make things they are emotional about their religion. But creating emotions is not all religion does. Religion binds people together. It gives the big things in this world (life, death, the universe) objective meaning. It gives us a firm moral code for conducting our lives in relation to God, others and ourselves. According to hundreds of scientific studies, it protects the physical and mental health of those who believe and heals those who are sick or injured. And, yes, it can generate strong feelings—of peace, of belonging, of purpose and meaning. Those who aren't religious usually resort to reductionist theories about religion basically giving comfort in order to understand people who are religious. More alarming is the fact that there are people who do practice religion, not because it is true or because it is good for us morally or spiritually, but chiefly because of how good it makes them feel.

In Isaiah's denunciation of his people's religious practices in chapter 58, verses 1-12, he points out that they actually are into worship. He writes, “ after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God...” They fast and claim to humble themselves. But the problem is that they are only following one of the 2 great commandments, that of “loving” God. They don't love their neighbors as themselves. Instead, God says, “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.” In other words, they are no different from modern day hypocrites who make a show of their piety but don't let their supposed reverence for God extend to those created in his image. We see this in congressmen who follow up a national prayer breakfast by not using their power to help the hungry and poor. We see this in religious leaders who preach God's love but express hatred for Christians of other denominations or political opinions. I see this in the occasional inmate who preaches rather authoritatively to me while serving time for assault. I'm afraid that anti-theists who point out this kind of hypocrisy are late to the party. God knows this happens. And condemns it.

When your aunt, who covers her sofa cushions with plastic, and puts runners on the carpet, imposes rules upon you while in her home, you chalk it up to her personal tastes. A lot of people see God's rules the same way. They think they are arbitrary and created just to appease God's peculiar obsessions. But since he created the world and us, God's rules are closer to the manufacturers' instructions you get with an appliance. Since he loves us, his rules are closer to the wisdom of a parent who wants only the best for us. Since he is trying to fix the mess we have made of our world and lives, his rules are closer to a doctor's orders for his seriously ill patient. And we live in a very sick world.

Even before Jesus designated the 2 greatest commandments, rabbis discerned them in the twin concerns of God's commands: proper treatment of God and proper treatment of our fellow human beings. In Genesis 9, God explicitly forbids murder on the basis of the fact that human beings are created in God's image. The Ten Commandments break down into those that deal with our relationship with God and those that deal with our relationships with other people. The prophets are continually pronouncing God's condemnation on both the people's idolatry or superficial worship of God and their exploitation and abuse of the poor. In Jesus' parable of judgment in Matthew 25, the criteria is how people treated the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, imprisoned and immigrants, and the reason given is that how we treat the unfortunate is how we treat Jesus.

If everyone is created in God's image, why does he pay particular attention to the poor, or more specifically, the widows, the fatherless and the immigrants? Because few people willingly pick a fair fight. It is much easier to pick on those who have less power and resources than you do. So tax cuts for the wealthy is a taboo in Congress. Not so benefit cuts to folks on food stamps and the unemployed. In 2013 the construction of 4 C-27J aircraft was completed at a cost of nearly 76 million dollars each and they were then immediately scrapped because it was determined that it was cheaper to finish and junk them than to just stop building them. Congress is also making the army buy 436 million dollars worth of Abrams tanks it doesn't want or need because it benefits the districts of certain Congressmen. Meanwhile, for the more than 1 million injured veterans from our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (we don't know exactly how many because the Department of Veterans Affairs has abruptly stopped releasing the figures on non-fatal casualties) the average wait time for the processing of a disability claim by that same department has risen to 279 days, an increase of 2000 percent in just 4 years. Why couldn't some of the millions being spent on unwanted weapons go to help sort out the medical problems of wounded vets? Is it because military hardware is more important than military personnel?

Ask yourself who is less likely to get turned down when asking for more help: the disabled and the homeless or the millionaire sports team owner wanting a new stadium built at taxpayer expense? Why? Because the homeless and disabled don't have money or powerful PACs to run ads against the politicians who won't support them. The cynical version of the Golden Rule says it best: those who have the gold make the rules.

As I've pointed out before, the Bible doesn't condemn the rich merely for being rich. As we see in Psalm 112, it commends those who make wealth by honest hard work and are generous to those less fortunate. The ones who are judged harshly are those who are possessed by their possessions like the rich young ruler who comes to Jesus, or who neglect the sick like the rich man who has to step over starving, sore-covered Lazarus to get into his gate, or who are arrogant and have plenty of food, comfort and ease and yet fail to support the poor and needy like the inhabitants of Sodom, according to Ezekiel 16.

Wealth, like sex or fire or anything powerful, can do a lot of good or do a lot of damage. It can lead to murder, suicide, theft, fraud, overindulgence, exploitation, an inflated sense of entitlement and having an influence in society and politics all out of proportion to one's moral right. On the other hand, wealth can build and fund hospitals, schools, soup kitchens, clinics, domestic abuse shelters, scholarships, libraries, homeless shelters, daycare centers, job training programs, drug treatment centers, literacy programs, and more.

All that we are and have comes from God. Recognition of that fact is central to Christianity. Acting on that fact is stewardship. Nothing is ours in the sense that we can do whatever we please with it. We are to use everything—our talents, time and treasure—as God wants us to. This is radically different than the way most people view life.

For most people, life is a time to simply enjoy yourself. Things are evaluated on the basis of furthering that enjoyment. And that even applies to God. Most people who reject God do so because he gets in the way of enjoying their lives, at least in the ways they want to. And a substantial number of people who do seek God do so primarily for personal enjoyment. They want inner peace, release from guilt, and sense of spiritual elevation. And God provides those things. But to try to use God only for those reasons is like chewing up foods only to get their taste and then spitting them out. Or choosing foods simply for their tastes. You will lose out on a lot of nutrition and in the end it will lead to bad health. You can't live on snacks, desserts and carbonated, caffeinated sugar water. You need your fruits and vegetables, too.

You can't have a healthy spiritual life if you build it around your likes and what God can do for you. It must include what God asks of you and marshaling what he has given you for whatever mission he sends you on. Because life isn't only about enjoying yourself but about getting better and making the world better. And by “getting better” I mean as in getting healthy after an illness. We need to recover from the fever of living self-obsessed lives, from the the dislocation of putting ourselves in the center of the universe rather than God, from the delusion of thinking we are or should be in control of what happens in our lives. And, like a support group, we need to help each other get better from these spiritual maladies and spread the word so others can come to Jesus and be healed.

The first step of our recovery is the recognition that we must restore God to the central place in our lives. He must be the hub to which all the spokes are connected and around which the wheel of life revolves if we are to make any progress. If we displace him, our lives become unbalanced and even broken.

Once we have acknowledged God's place, his lordship over our lives, then we need to actually obey him. That means being good stewards of what he's given us. Which means using his gifts to serve God and obey his commands. Which means loving our neighbors—all of them: rich and poor, brown and pink, conservative and liberal, immigrant and American, thin and fat, straight and gay, Christian and Muslim and Jew and Buddhist and Sikh and Bahai and all the rest.

Think I'm going too far? Jesus tells us to love our neighbor and then illustrates that principle with a parable in which the good guy is a Samaritan, someone who was not considered a theologically correct Jew. Because you don't have to agree with people on politics or religion or lifestyle or class or anything else in order to love them. And you sure can't make anyone better if you hate them. And you can't get better if you hate anyone.

There's a reason why even people who say they love and seek God don't obey him. It's hard! It's much easier to go to church and do the rituals and say the words than to do the hard work of putting those words into practice and actually loving our neighbor. In fact, it is impossible for us human beings. But all things are possible with God in us. Only through the power of his Spirit can we love others as ourselves. Or as Jesus loves us, which was Christ's final refinement of the commandment, one so radical that Jesus called it a new commandment.

Why was it necessary? Because if I merely love my neighbor as I love myself, well, I can at some point stop loving myself. People do. I can give up on myself. People do. But Jesus never will. He will never stop loving us. He will never give up on us. And if we live and love in the power of his Spirit, we won't either. And only that never-ending love will make us better and make the world better.

If you only read Genesis 1, you would conclude that God loves creating and loves what he creates. That's still true. So he has set about recreating what we have ruined, including ourselves. He wants us all to be new creations in Christ. How can you do your part? Ask yourself, “Who is my neighbor? What does he need?” Then start working on how God wants you to do that. Love your neighbor in both word and deed. “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.”

Friday, February 7, 2014

The Apocrypha Assessment: Judith 2

Nebuchadnezzar, still inaccurately called the king of the Assyrians rather than the Babylonians, sends his general Holofernes to punish the disobedient people in his vast kingdom. He does so much damage that "fear and dread of him" falls upon those yet unconquered.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Apocrypha Assessment: Judith 1

Written perhaps 2 centuries before Christ, this is another historical fiction. The original appears to be written in Greek.

Set during the time of the Babylonian ascendancy, Nebuchadnezzar easily defeats those who oppose him, including Arphaxad, who is fictional.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Apocrypha Assessment: Tobit 13-14

Tobit's hymn of praise would not seem out of place in the Psalms or as a poetic passage in the prophets. It just falls sort of those passages poetically, though. The themes of the book--justice and mercy from God--are again stated. Verse 6 prety much sums it all up. There is a lot of praise for Jerusalem for someone who was part of the breakaway northern kingdom of Israel, though.

The last chapter wraps everything up. Tobit dies, but not before he warns his son to flee Nineveh due to the dire prophesies of Nahum. Tobit does a bit of end-time prophesying of his own, looking to the day when Jews and Gentiles together worship the true God. Tobias lives to see the fall of Nineveh and praises God for it. Both he and his dad live to within spitting distance of 120, the Biblical limit to human life.

All in all a pleasant and pious fiction.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Are You Experienced?

My wife and I saw one episode of “Naked and Afraid” and decided it wasn't really for us. This is one of those “reality” shows where they put people in a highly unrealistic situation, film them and edit it to make the whole thing much more dramatic than reality generally gets. I will say that it doesn't seem like they had to tweak the action much here. They take a man and a woman and put them into the wilderness with no clothes but one item each which they select: a knife or a skillet or something of the sort. It's not really porn because not only do they blur out the so-called “naughty bits” but there is nothing sexy about people doing the hard work of getting food, finding water, building fires, making shelters and getting increasingly dirty and disheveled over 21 days. The people chosen are either survival experts or wilderness campers or ex-military. And a panel of experts rates the victims--excuse me, “contestants”--according not only to their knowledge but also their experience. Because it doesn't matter how much you've read about living off the land if you haven't actually done so. The show naturally has a film crew and doctors on hand should anyone get seriously hurt or ill but otherwise they are not to intervene. And afterward the experts revisit their original ratings of the contestants and raise or lower them in relation to how well they did over the 3 week ordeal.

I'm a big fan of book knowledge. Forewarned is definitely forearmed. I would rather go into a situation knowing what to expect or look for. That said, as a nurse I have seen how experience in the real world reveals huge gaps between what the books says you will find and the reality of what you actually encounter, between what the proper procedure is and how the real world will allow you to do things. How do you do a dressing change where the patient is writhing in pain? What do you do when the tape won't stick or won't let go? What about if the patient is actively fighting you? They never list those problems among the steps in the texts or show them in the instructional videos. And they certainly don't tell you how to do it when you have 40 patients and nowhere near the amount of time to do things properly, not if you are going to get to all your other patients.

Theory only goes so far. Even Sherlock Holmes got things wrong. If you don't believe so, read The Adventure of the Yellow Face. Holmes is so far off that he even gives Watson permission to mention the case should the great detective ever get too full of himself.

Experience is what makes the 12 Step programs so effective. You are meeting with people who have gone through what you have. They know firsthand what you're dealing with. They can empathize in a way that those who don't have an addiction can't. They can also call you on your B.S., such as when you are trying to pin the blame on others or minimize the dangers drugs or alcohol hold for you. They've been there, done that.

God at first would seem to be the ultimate theorist. He created the world and laid down the rules of how it operates. He made us and knows our limits. So why is the world such a mess? Some people blame God. If he is perfect, why isn't his creation? Most atheists' arguments against the existence of God boils down to the lack of perfection in creation. Like fundamentalists, atheists tend to think of everything in terms of black and white. They see God, theology and morality as static, not dynamic. Everything is either/or, never both/and, never in the process of becoming. They do not ask themselves how a perfect God would deal with a world no longer perfect. Whereas that is precisely what the Bible is all about.

Let's do some thought experiments. What would you do if your creatures, which you endowed with reason and skill and the ability to make choices, were making bad ones? How would you go about rectifying the situation?

You could tell them what the rules are. In fact, make it one rule, actually, so simple so that it could not be misunderstood. Limit the creatures involved to the smallest number and tell them the rule before they had a chance to even make a mistake. You can see how well the Eden experiment went in Genesis 2-3.

You could start over. Eliminate the creatures that are making things worse, that are violent and disruptive. Take the best specimens and make a new start. And make the rules more explicit, especially about violence. Make an agreement with a big promise of unconditional goodwill on your part. That delete and reboot strategy, featuring Noah, is seen in Genesis 6-9.

You could take one creature, who is most responsive to you, who trusts and obeys you, and decide to work through that creature and its descendants to give them a much fuller understanding of who you are and what you are trying to accomplish through them. The Abraham approach begins in Genesis 12.

If the creatures you've selected get into a very bad situation, you could get them out of it. You could do it in the most obvious way possible. You could then make an agreement with your grateful creatures and include all the rules now necessary for a growing and complex society. Make the consequences of breaking the agreement explicit. Indeed, make the whole thing a bootcamp experience to get the fittest and most responsive creatures you can. This enterprise starts in Exodus 1.

You could also continue to give feedback on the progress of your creatures, passing your message to the creatures most in tune with you so they could pass it on to the others. The prophetic perspective begins in Isaiah and goes to the end of the Old Testament.

But what if your intelligent creatures still make very bad choices, after all you've done to tell them the rules by which your moral universe works? Well, if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.

Let's say you could become one of your creatures. Then you could not only tell them what they are doing wrong but also show them how to do it right. You could step in and heal them mentally and physically and change their viewpoint on everything. And it would be best if you didn't protect yourself from the most adverse effects of their reality so you can show them how to triumph even in the worst of circumstances. And you could even offer to instill some of yourself into those creatures who willingly let you to help them become what you designed them to be. The course correction in Christ encompasses the whole New Testament.

In our passage from Hebrews 2:14-18, the author is teasing out the implications of the incarnation of Christ. For one thing, being flesh and blood, Jesus has experienced all that we have. He knows what it's like to be tired, hungry, thirsty, and in pain. He knows what it's like to work hard, support a widowed parent, endure the mocking of your siblings, and face the disapproval of your hometown. He knows what it is like to have people praise you, vilify you, doubt you, betray you, and kill you. And Hebrews says, “because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”

How can Jesus help us? Well, one advantage that a person who has successfully come through an experience has is that they can tell you what pitfalls to avoid. I used to do this as Production Director when orienting people to the radio station. Especially when it came to the software that we used for running the station and recording ads, weather, promos and the like. You could tell that, unlike our previous software, it was not developed by radio professionals but rather computer programmers who asked what the software was supposed to do and then went about accomplishing that in what, to radio people, seemed like the most perverse way possible. So I had to teach new deejays workarounds that would allow them to get the system to do what they wanted it to do without getting dead air, missing start or kill dates or committing any one of a number of radio faux pas that the software was prone to.

Jesus gives us instructions on how to avoid the pitfalls that a human being following him might fall into. The whole Sermon on the Mount is a series of instructions that say in essence “don't do this; do this instead.” A lot of this has to do with seeing things from God's perspective. For instance, loving your enemy makes no earthly sense except when you look at people as God sees them: created in his image but lost, targets of his redeeming love. The change in perspective is just like that found in an recovering alcoholic or drug addict who has to stop focusing on his urges and start thinking of the normal and better life he can have instead, one that is predicated on not giving in to the craving for his drug of choice. As a matter of fact the AA mantra of “One day at a time” pretty much comes from Jesus' teaching not to worry about tomorrow for each day has its own troubles to which you don't need to add more. (Actually most of the 12 steps come from Christianity.)

Another way a person who has undergone adversity can help someone who is going through it now is by giving them hope that they can survive and come out of it a better person. Michael J. Fox's memoir, “Lucky Man,” does that by chronicling his life with particular focus on his development of Parkinson's disease quite early in his career as well as his alcoholism and his recovery. I love biographies of people who overcome great odds. Jesus did. He was the son of a poor craftsman in an obscure corner of a huge empire. We should no more know his name than we do the names of his next door neighbors. He went up against the powers that be, armed only with words. And they killed him. Yet in 3 ½ brief years he started a movement that would conquer that same empire in 3 centuries, without resorting to violence but using only words and acts of righteousness, mercy and courage.

And of course Jesus achieves the ultimate triumph over adversity by rising from the dead. As the author of Hebrews says, in this way Jesus can “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.” How true that is! How often have people not resisted evil or not done the right thing because of the fear of death? The Nazis were not the majority party when Hitler came to power through a coalition. How was he able to become a dictator? Through fear of death. Hitler learned from Mussolini to send his brownshirts to kill his political opponents. He cowed most Germans into obedience. Only a few, like Dietrich Bonhoffer, had to the courage to stand up to the Reich and tell the truth. They were no longer slaves to the fear of death.

Love is also a strong motive for overcoming the fear of death. That's what makes a hero out of someone like 8 year old Tyler Doohan, who managed to save 6 members of his family from a fire, only to die when he went back into his burning home to try to save his disabled grandfather. Most adults would not have acted so bravely. But he loved his grandfather enough to ignore his instincts and go back into the inferno.

Love for Jesus should lead us also to live lives unhampered by the fear of death. I'm not talking about becoming daredevils or reckless folk but people who will not compromise our love of the truth out of fear for our physical safety.

Finally, one way a person who has triumphed can help others attempting the same is by directly transmitting his experience to them. Today you can skydive despite lacking the hours of experience one would normally need to do so safely. It's called a tandem jump. You are strapped to an experienced skydiver. He watches the altimeter. He stabilizes your free fall. He pulls the ripcord. You just enjoy, if that's the right word, plummeting from a height of more than 2 miles above the earth at more than 100 miles an hour. It's scary but it's a lot safer than jumping solo.

Jesus can do that, go with us through whatever befalls us, not by being tied to us but by being in us. To me the guidance of his Spirit is not so much like being talked through an experience as being nudged in certain directions and having things pointed out to you and ideas popping into your head that turn out to be the right things to do, despite the fact that you're scared and clueless. Afterward you think, “Where did all that come from? That certainly didn't come from me!”

In Hebrews 4:15, the author writes, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” All the temptations, pains and sufferings we experience Jesus has as well but he did not succumb. Some may grumble that he would be more useful to us if he had sinned and knew what it was like to fall. Really? Being in a car wreck doesn't necessarily make you a better driver. Nearly drowning doesn't make you a lifeguard.

Gavin de Becker's mother was an unstable heroin addict. She shot his step-father in front of Gavin and his little sister. When he tells his story in prison, the inmates recognize that his family was as dysfunctional as theirs. Then they ask him why they ended up where they are while de Becker heads a private security firm that provides threat assessments to companies, celebrities and the U.S. government. People who undergo the same experiences can learn quite different lessons from them. De Becker says it was what he chose to do with his experience of abuse and the threat of violence. Instead of becoming an abuser or a victim, the usual outcome of such a childhood, he has become a leading expert on the prediction and management of violence. 

I can tell you from experience that inmates don't always have the best insight into themselves. The need to justify themselves can cloud objective assessment of why they do what they do. Often the best judge of what should be done in difficult conditions is one who is close to the situation but not embroiled in it.

Because we have a sympathetic but uncompromised savior, the writer of Hebrews says, “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” It is the grace of God in Christ that allows us not just to survive but to thrive in times that threaten to break us. God's grace, his unreserved, undeserved goodness toward us, enables us to see the temporary setbacks of this world as trivial compared to the spiritual gains we make. After all, it is only by that perspective that we can see the cross not as a symbol of the direst defeat but as an unfathomable victory over degradation, despair and death. Jesus should have stayed in the tomb...but he didn't. Because of that, the disciples who should have stayed hidden and silent about Jesus came out into the world proclaiming his resurrection and his Lordship over all. And with their fear of death disarmed, the world could not shut them up. They fearlessly faced the sword, the club, the spear, the arrows, the flames and even the cross, knowing that Jesus would help them through it, that he would never leave them or forsake them, and that, in the words of Paul, “to live is Christ and to die is to gain.”