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.”

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