Friday, June 27, 2014

Diagnosis and Treatment

The Scriptures referred to are Romans 6:1b-11 and Matthew 10:24-39.

This man was telling my wife that his car was making funny noises. My wife asked if he had checked his oil. “No,” this highly educated professional said, “I never check the oil. I've never even put oil in the car.” As Adam Savage of Mythbusters might say, “Well, there's your problem!”

It's not that my wife is an expert on engines: it's just that we both know firsthand why checking and changing the oil is vital to car maintenance. In 1981, my moped was stolen from the hospital parking lot. Since we were expecting our first child, and since as a neurosurgery nurse I had seen the kind of damage you can sustain when you have even the slightest accident with a two-wheeled vehicle, it made sense to take the insurance money we got for the stolen moped and get something safer. We got a very cheap used car, a Dodge Dart, that had been owned by a mechanic who worked for the St. Louis County police. A month later as we drove to see a movie, the car started making a clicking sound. On the way home, the clicking became much louder—and then it stopped. As did the car. Which stranded my pregnant wife and me on the highway, many miles from home, at night. Eventually a cop stopped and radioed a tow truck. The next day, my mechanic told me the car was absolutely drained of oil and had thrown a rod. I would have to replace the engine. The police mechanic who sold me the car had either never added or changed the oil or had neglected to tell me of a serious leak. Ever since then, my wife and I have religiously checked and changed the oil in our cars.

Everyone knows that cars won't drive without gas. But because there is no immediate consequence, we don't always change our oil every 3000 miles. You can go a bit over that and your car will still run, though not as efficiently and your mileage per gallon will drop a bit. Never change your oil, however, and you will ruin the engine. The car is not getting back at you; it simply can't continue to operate if you don't follow the rules of basic maintenance.

This principle works for human bodies as well. We all know you need food and fluids to survive. But many of us neglect to get enough sleep. And we are now seeing more and more studies linking insufficient sleep with obesity, heart disease, depression and memory problems.

So it shouldn't surprise us that neglecting basic moral and spiritual rules has automatic negative consequences as well. That's the way the universe works. Asking God to protect us from the results of our continually engaging in spiritually and moral harmful behavior makes as much sense as asking a doctor to protect us from cancer and heart disease so we can continue to inhale burning tobacco. And yet when I worked at the nursing home in Plantation, I gave respiratory medications and nebulizer treatments every day to patients who would then try to bum a cigarette off me so they could go outside the facility and smoke.

Jesus and Paul encountered the same thing when it came to certain Christian wannabees. There were those who wanted to be forgiven without giving up any of the habits that make forgiveness necessary. It betrays a misunderstanding of God's laws. They thought the laws were arbitrary like some human laws. In fact they are more like the laws of nature.

To dramatize the stark choice one must make when it comes to following him, Jesus uses words that grate on our ears. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword. I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and one's foes will be members of one's own household.” Jesus is paraphrasing Mich 7:6. And he is using a semitic style of rhetoric in which the results of an action are spoken of as if they were the intent of the action. It's like a parent saying, “So you came to share this news with your sick grandmother and kill her?” Of course, that wasn't your intent. But the results might be the same nevertheless. And it could have been foreseen.

Why would Jesus think his words of love and peace and forgiveness would have the opposite effect? I could quote a raft of Christ's words but let's stick to one that still divides people today. Jesus said, “Love your enemies.” But what if President Bush, the day after September 11, 2001, had said, “As a Christian, I must follow the words of Christ. He said, 'Love your enemies.' We must figure out how to respond to this outrage in a way that does not go against Jesus' explicit command.” Can you imagine the political firestorm that would have engulfed this “Christian” nation if he said anything remotely like that? Or if he said, “We must turn the other cheek”? Even Dick Cheney would have gone on TV and said, “Let's impeach this guy!” And in his day, Jesus' words upset his contemporaries, both those who wanted a warrior Messiah to drive the Romans out of Judea as well as the religious elite whose authority he undercut. They were so upset they didn't impeach him; they killed him!

Jesus knew his message was so radical that it would polarize people. Those who loved it and those who hated it would be facing each other across the dinner table. Each would think that they were right and that the other was dangerously wrong. And because this concerns things of ultimate value, namely, God and how he proposes to deal with evil, it's not an issue folks can simply shrug off or ignore. To use another medical analogy, if the problem is heart disease rather than a hangnail, then our choice of treatment is vital. If a treatment is toxic or quackery, it will spell death for the patient. So we mustn't let ourselves choose a course based on whether it sounds nice or comforting. Only acting on the truth will save the patient.

If we are talking about how God is going to fix the world, it is essential that what is proposed be examined to see if it fits what we know of human nature. Lots of people think they know what's wrong with the world and have nice neat solutions. We've seen many solutions for an earthly paradise. It's been proposed and even implemented by people like Hitler, Stalin, Jim Jones, and others. And it's frightening how many folks have been attracted to their visions of how to set everything right. So what makes Jesus' version better?

For one thing, Jesus has the right diagnosis. Socrates, for instance, thought the only good was knowledge and the only evil was ignorance. But smart and educated people do evil all the time, fully aware that they are doing harm. Remember back in 2008 when 2 hedge fund managers were arrested for urging investors to stay in a couple of funds they knew were about to go under? One manager pulled $2 million of his money out of the fund even as he was telling others to keep cooperating. In fact only smart and educated people could have dreamed up the whole sub-prime mortgage scheme. Lots of people do evil despite knowing better.

Ignorance is not the source of all evil. Neither is poverty or war or tribalism or sexism or any other “-ism.” None of them are the actual disease; they are just the symptoms. They are evil's fevers and rashes and pains and excretions. Treating the symptoms will certainly make the patient feel better, but they will erupt all over again unless you also get to the cause of the disease. In Jesus' day rigorous observance of certain external rites were considered vital lest one become ritually unclean. But that's superficial.

If the problem was external, then imposing rules would make people good. A police state would be populated with virtuous people. We know that is not true. Changing the externals of our existence won't make us more ethical. When it comes to church attendance, we have the most religious country in the industrialized West. And yet we have one of the highest murder rates, one of the highest prison populations, one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy and one of the highest divorce rate in the world. Is the problem that it's hard to get Bibles or that there are too few churches or that a lot of people are Christians in name only and that what's preached in church stays in church? We live in the richest country in the world. Yet our life expectancy doesn't even make the world's top 40. Is that because we lack medical knowledge or that we lack the will, the heart to what we know we ought?

The real problem is internal. We all fall short of the glorious image of God in which we were created. We let ourselves become enslaved to our fears and desires. We all misuse and abuse and neglect God's powerful gifts to us, which harms ourselves, our fellow human beings and our world. Jesus said, “What comes out of a person is what makes him unclean. For from within, out of people's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual sins, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a person unclean.” If that is the state of our heart, then what we need is a heart transplant.

And that's what Jesus offers: new life. As Paul says, if we unite ourselves to Christ, it is as if our old selves were crucified and buried with him. The lives we now live are new lives, lived in and through him. We are not just the same people forgiven; we are new people. We should live in a new way. Why do we not see this more in the church?

Part of this is a misreading of the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. How did that come about? Jesus emphasized the importance of faith or trust in him. Trust underlies all healthy relationships. It is the prerequisite for a love relationship. It is a prerequisite for the kingdom of God. That kingdom is not like earthly kingdoms, which are created by external conquest. The kingdom of God is created by him for those who trust in and love him and each other. This must be voluntary. You can't force people into those relationships or into this kingdom.

Paul, in trying to explain the idea of a kingdom not defined by externals, emphasized the essential nature of faith. We are accepted into the kingdom, we are saved, not by any externals like race or class or heritage or circumcision or acts that make one ritually clean or moral worthiness, but by trusting in God's goodness. We don't earn it, just as you can't earn having someone give you his heart to be transplanted into you. It is God's gift. We don't merit this gift. We were still sinners when Christ died for us. It is such a great gift that nothing we can do afterward can repay him. There are no deeds good enough to equal its value.

And here's where that misreading comes in. Some people take this to means we don't need to do good deeds. We are saved by faith alone. To feel obligated to do good is to still be trying to earn God's favor. And this fact devolved into the idea that we needn't change the kind of person we are or the way we behave because God can't help but forgive us. He loves us just the way we are and we needn't change a thing. This wasn't what Paul meant at all! Since our sin prompted God's gracious act to save us, Paul asks rhetorically, “should we continue to sin so that grace may increase?” His answer is so forceful that it can't be adequately translated into English. The Greek phrase means something like “May it come to pass that it never actually came to be.” Other translations have rendered it “God forbid!” or “By no means!” In the light of the impossibility of expressing the paradoxical verb tense used, I would translate it “Unthinkable!” Continuing to live as you did before you became a Christian makes as much sense as getting a heart transplant and continuing to eat Philly cheese steaks, curly fries, blooming onions and pork rinds. It is a mind boggling contradiction.

Faith doesn't exclude good works; it gives birth to good works. In fact, as Jesus' brother James writes, faith without works is dead. It's like telling someone you love them but never actually doing anything about it. No cards, no gifts, no helping out, no commitment. We have a lot of people who say they love Jesus but you would never know it by looking at their lives. James says, “Show me your faith without works and I'll show you my faith by my works.” Jesus himself said, “By their fruit you shall know them.” You can't claim to be a good mechanic if you never check or change the oil.

You can't go against the moral or spiritual laws of the universe any more than you can defy its physical laws. There are consequences to living a spiritually unhealthy life. You can't ask God to make an exception in your case either, because these laws are expressions of God's very nature: love. He loves us all which means he must be just to all. And because he loves us, he gives us the freedom to decide if we love him back. If we don't, he won't force us. But it does mean that eventually there will be permanent consequences. Don't take care of your car and one day it will just stop. It will end up in a junkyard. By the way, the word Jesus uses for “hell” is literally the name of the Jerusalem city garbage dump, where the useless was discarded and dumped. If you don't follow the rules of healthy living, your body will stop and end up in a graveyard. What happens if you don't live a spiritually healthy life?

But maybe you can get a new engine put in your car and give it new life. Or you could have a new heart transplanted into your chest and come back from certain death. In the spiritual life, we can ask God for forgiveness, a new heart and a fresh start. We can ask him to repair the damage we've done and to help us change direction and to guide us in living a healthy spiritual and moral life. But it means following the Great Physician's orders. It means denying yourself the bad habits that harmed you and those around you. It means practicing good habits like prayer and studying the Bible and meeting with others that are following Jesus. It's the equivalent of visiting your doctor regularly, eating your vegetables and joining a support group. It means giving generously of your time, talents and treasures to help others.

It also means not letting fear of what others may think and do stop you from doing and saying what's right. That's where the parallel between what's healthy physically and what's healthy spiritually sometimes diverge. Speaking and living God's truth can be very risky. It got Jesus and most of the apostles executed. For a lot of Christians in the early church there was nothing metaphorical about the command to “take up your cross.” But they did it anyway. They were witnesses to the truth even to death and today we call them martyrs, which comes from the Greek word for “witnesses.” What they did, just like the last verse of today's gospel, only makes sense if Jesus was right about the next life and resurrection. That's why we need to trust him. Otherwise everything he said was not merely mistaken; it's crazy.

The world is sick. Desperate measures are needed to save it. Jesus is calling us. Will we answer? Will we go? You can play it safe for now and hope that Jesus was wrong. Or you can bet he was right, take up your cross and do what's right, putting your hope in him who loved us enough to die and whom God resurrected in anticipation that he will do the same to all of creation. It's a clear difference and a life or death decision. And one you've got to make, each and every one of you, each and every day.

Monday, June 9, 2014

For the Common Good

The scriptures referred to are Acts 2:1-21 and 1 Corinthians 12:3-13.

Last week Netflix got the third and most recent season of Sherlock, the British TV series that updates the Great Detective's adventures to the 21st century. Sherlock Holmes is the most portrayed fictional character in film and screen and it got me to thinking about all of the versions I've seen. Why do I like Benedict Cumberbatch's modern Holmes more than some of the more faithful portrayals? Cumberbatch's Sherlock, with his unruly curly hair, his nicotine patches and blue coat, looks very little like Sidney Paget's original drawings of a middle aged man with a prominent widow's peak, pipe and Inverness cape. In fact, a British actor named Arthur Wontner, who played Holmes in 5 films made in the 1930s, looks like he stepped right off the pages of the original stories. But Wontner's Holmes was very laid back and unexciting, showing none of the manic energy Sherlock displayed when the game is afoot. Cumberbatch captures Holmes' mercurial nature, his imperious manner, his ironic humor and his passion for solving puzzles. Wontner had the look; Cumberbatch embodies the spirit of the man.

Have you ever seen a version of Shakespeare or some other old classic which pulled you into the drama to the point that you forgot that it was something that bored you to tears in your high school English class? There are lots of stories that get retold for every new generation. The successful versions are the ones that capture the essence of the original even if they make some changes in the plot. The 1980s TV series starring Jeremy Brett, the epitome of the traditional version of Sherlock Holmes, capturing both the look and the spirit of the character, even fixed a problem an original story. On the page, the bad guys in The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter get away. In the Jeremy Brett version, Sherlock and Mycroft deduce which of the trains leaving the area the villains would take for their escape and intercept them. It's not only a more satisfying ending, it is perfectly in line with what we know of Sherlock and his smarter if more sedentary brother. Catching bad guys with cleverness is totally in the spirit of Holmes. One wonders why Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the original author, didn't think of it.

Today is Pentecost, one of 3 great festivals celebrated by the Jews of Jesus' day. Pentecost means “the Fiftieth” indicating how many days after the beginning of Passover it starts. It commemorated Moses receiving the Law on Mt. Sinai. It was also a harvest festival. But for us it is the day when God poured out his Holy Spirit on all believers. It is the birth of the church proper, the ingathering of the first Christians who had not seen Jesus in person. You might say it showed that the gospel of Christ did not die on the cross. It struck the people who heard Peter preach as a still relevant message and one that was eagerly accepted by pilgrims from all over the Roman Empire. But it wasn't just the word of God alone that did it; it was the Spirit of God acting on both the apostles and the listeners.

If what kickstarted the church's birth was the Spirit, it follows that what keeps the church alive is the same thing. We've all been to lackluster services where people are just going through the motions. There is no feeling, no passion behind it. It is dispiriting. They say the right words but the underlying music, so to speak, is missing. It's not enough that we say Jesus died to save us, we must internalize the fact, realizing its infinite cost to God and the great love that motivated it. It's not enough to say that Jesus rose again from the dead, we must grasp the remarkable nature of this event and the tremendous implications of God's act of restoring life to those who should be beyond hope. It's not enough to say that the Spirit of God dwells in each Christian, we must open ourselves to that reality and let God's Spirit work within and through us to do things that quite frankly will surprise and amaze ourselves and others.

And the Spirit equips us to live as a member of the Body of Christ. In our passage from 1 Corinthians 12, we learn that while we are one in the Spirit, he provides us with a variety of gifts, ministries and activities for the common good. 

To some the Spirit gives the ability to speak wisely, the ability to know how to live, how to think, how to approach the situations we encounter daily as a follower of Jesus. Wisdom is about values: what is essential, what is important and what is neither. Wisdom is about observing the ways of nature, human nature and the divine nature. Wisdom is about seeing connections and patterns, differences and nuances, qualities and purposes, improvements and deterioration. It's about putting things in context.

To some the Spirit gives the ability to speak knowledgeably. Some people are sponges for knowledge. They want to learn everything they can, at least about some area or areas of interest. But knowledge is different from wisdom. Knowledge is facts. They are very useful. They are the foundation of all learning, all science, all history, all expertise. Before you proceed in any endeavor it is imperative that you have the facts. But if you don't have wisdom, you can misuse knowledge. In Tuskegee, doctors pretended to treat syphilis in black men but instead were observing the progress of the disease. They were seeking knowledge but lacking in compassion and wisdom. There are also a lot of educated fools, who, to repurpose Oscar Wilde's quote about cynics, know the cost of everything but the value of nothing. Knowledge can answer the question of whether we can do certain things; wisdom asks the question of whether we should do them or not.

To some the Spirit gives faith. Faith is often set up against knowledge as if it was impossible to be good with both. But faith is trust and knowledge requires trust. You have to trust that the source of your knowledge is accurate. Scientists must trust that those whose work they are building on did their data collection properly, interpreted their data correctly and did not cheat in the process. Cherrypicking data and even falsification of results happen more often than we'd like to admit, largely because of the amount of money at stake in big research. And I just recently read a very disturbing article on about how textbooks are largely ghostwritten by non-specialist writers working on tight deadlines. The article came from one of those writers!

Faith in our context is trust in God. But shouldn't all Christians have faith in God? Yes, but there are degrees of trust. Remember the distraught father with the epileptic son who, in reply to Jesus telling him to have faith, said, “Lord, I do believe; help my unbelief.” (Mark 9:14-27) We have all met people with a remarkable amount of faith in God. These are people who do not panic, do not fret but proceed in the firm conviction that God will provide whatever is necessary for the task at hand. And they encourage those of us who are like that frantic father, trusting God but not as much as we should. Working with a person of deep faith and seeing how God works with them can increase our faith.

One is tempted to consign the rest of the gifts mentioned in this list to the first century when the church was originally being established. The miraculous signs certainly helped the faith spread. Today such extraordinary gifts are not much in evidence. But there are modern day equivalents which are just as vital to the common good of the Body of Christ.

To some the Spirit gives gifts of healing. Paul is probably primarily thinking of the miraculous healings he and the other apostles were able to do in the service of Jesus. But even today there are people who have a gift for bringing healing to the numerous modern ills of the spirit which plague so many people. They bring peace and well-being to the troubled. They can bring home God's forgiveness to those who are burdened unnecessarily by feelings of guilt. They bring God's love to those suffering from neglect by other human beings. They bring healing to relationships, reconciling those who have let a history of slights and fights in the past keep them from forging a better and united future.

To some the Spirit gives the “workings of power,” to render it literally. Most translate this as miracles. Again this is not something commonly seen today, though we know people who were prayed for do and survived and recovered from diseases and injuries against all odds. And if we look at this more broadly, we know people who accomplish miracles in the sense that they have a knack for making things happen. They can organize an outreach program, get a ministry up and running, realize something that was just an idea when presented to them, connect someone seeking help to precisely the person they need, and throw together a charity fundraiser that even amazes those working the event. These modern miracle workers may not have the gift of activating or speeding natural processes up, like that of healing, or arranging to have natural phenomena exhibit convenient timing, like the sudden dying down of a storm, but they do have the ability to make things come together when needed and that is not a talent to dismiss lightly.

To some the Spirit gives prophesy. Unfortunately this is a word with a much broader meaning in the Bible than we give it today. We think of prophesy as being primarily about foretelling the future. But that was just one aspect of what the prophets did. They were mainly preaching to God's people, warning them about following their current trajectory away from God and urging them to return to him and his ways. To that end they teased out the implications of each of those paths and pictured vividly God's promises of eventual reconciliation and restoration. But at its heart to prophesy is to preach and to some the Spirit gives the gift of framing God's message in arresting words, striking images and a compelling call to follow Jesus.

To some the Spirit gives the discernment of spirits. What is that? In the New Testament it is about which messages given in the name of prophesy were true and which were false. In the early days of the church there were no ordained clergy in the modern sense: trained in schools. People spoke as moved by the Spirit—or by their own spirits. And if you give some people a platform, it goes to their head and they start spouting all kinds of nonsense or even things harmful to the Body of Christ. Thus 1 John 4:1 says, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit but test the spirits to determine if they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” Paul's suggestion in 1 Corinthians 14:29 is: “Two or three prophets should speak and then the others should evaluate.” So what was preached was compared to the scriptures and the proclamation of the gospel by the apostles to see if its message was consistent with them. Christians were encouraged to use their heads and not blindly accept everything that was preached, especially when it contradicted what was revealed by God in Christ. There are some churches where that might be a beneficial practice to revive.

To some the Spirit gives the ability to speak in tongues and to others the gift of interpreting such utterances. While Paul thought speaking in tongues benefited the individual, he felt in public worship they needed to be interpreted so the whole congregation was edified. Otherwise, tongue-speaking should be a private thing. 

When I was a floating office manager for a home health company, I once noticed, upon entering the city where I was working that week, that an Episcopal church was advertising a Wednesday prayer meeting. I went only to find everyone wandering all around the sanctuary, speaking in tongues. There had been no indication that this was a charismatic service. And I remembered what Paul had said—that if an outsider came into such a service he would think everyone was crazy. Been there, done that! Paul was fine with tongues as a private devotional practice but in public worship everything was to be done for the common good.

And that's really what Paul is getting at in this whole passage. No one person has all of these gifts and so we need one another. Recall how we often speak of “the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.” One of the key things the Spirit is to do is to make us one. We are no longer just out for ourselves but part of the Body of Christ, which has many members with various gifts and functions but one purpose: to be Christ's ongoing presence on earth.

We we forget that as Christians we are part of a larger whole, we get into trouble. Apart from other Christians one can begin to think that Christianity is imply about my personal relationship with Christ; in a group of Christians, we should be struck with the fact that we are here to love one another and bear one another's burdens. Apart from other Christians we get so caught up in our own personal interpretations of Scripture, that we think Christianity is all about getting every detail of every doctrine worked out just so; in a group of Christians, we realize that others also have valid insights and that some things can be seen from different perspectives and we should not insist that everyone see and say everything exactly the way we do. Apart from other Christians we can start to think that Christianity is all about personal salvation; in a group of Christians, especially a very diverse collection of people from every race and country and culture, we should come to realize that it is in fact about saving and restoring the world God created and helping it become the Kingdom of God.

The Spirit is not here to turn us all into Lone Rangers, each riding out of town on our private missions. Rather the Spirit is here to restore what is broken, especially our unity as human beings created in the image of the God who is love. We are to become one in Christ. And we are commanded to love one another. That's hardly possible if everyone is off doing his or her own thing, seeing stuff only from his or her own perspective, insisting that everyone else conform to his or her own idea of how things should be. As Benedict Cumberbatch does with the spirit of Sherlock Holmes, we are to embody the Spirit of Christ, not the outward trappings. We are to manifest Jesus' love, his forgiveness, his putting people ahead of legalistic rules, his reaching out to the outcasts of society and bringing them into people of God. Changing bad guys into good guys with love is totally in line with the Spirit of Jesus.

If Christianity is simply about orthodoxy and orthopraxy, it would not be unique among the world's religions. Most religions want everyone to think and act alike. Which is why we often try to keep the Spirit fenced off from a lot of what we do in the church. We try to keep him in a box or within clearly demarcated boundaries. Because we are afraid of what he will do. We are afraid of whom we will have to preach to and accept and love in Jesus' name. We are afraid of being embarrassed, of looking foolish, of people thinking we are out of our mind, like folks who drink first thing in the morning, when it is really that the Spirit has set our hearts on fire with the good news of God's reconciling love in Christ.

As Jesus pointed out, the Spirit like the wind is not predictable. The Spirit moves where he will. And we must trim our sails to catch the divine wind lest we be swamped. To stay afloat and on course, we need all kinds of people filled with all the diverse gifts with which the Spirit equips us. And so our motley crew needs to be dedicated to our common mission and our common destination, the Kingdom of God. And we need to remember that we are part of one body, animated by one Spirit, with “one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and to all.” (Ephesians 4:4-6)

Monday, June 2, 2014

Feeling Redeemed

You've got to be careful when commenting on Facebook. When someone says their dog died, you don't want to click the “Like” button. That much I know. But I recently blundered into a situation is which I did not perceive the depth of feeling that underlay what seemed like a rather commonplace occurrence. A female friend, who evidently is currently working a Geek Squad type of job at a computer center, wrote that a man had walked into the store and despite the fact that she was nearest the door, had walked up to her male colleague. She tagged it #sexism. I made a joke. Knowing she was wearing a cast on one foot, I wrote that maybe the guy was looking for a dance partner. Another female poster took me to task for making light of a real problem. And I made the mistake of defending myself, pointing out that on the basis on the status alone, one could not read the man's mind and know why he chose one of 2 people at the desk. A firestorm erupted. The women all felt I did not apparently know that sexism existed and was something they encountered all the time. I was called names, told I was a bad pastor and Christian for not taking my friend at her word that this was indeed sexism. I had unknowingly touched on a sore point and had not gauged the intensity of feeling this problem generated.

On the other hand, when I, in my feeble defense, raised the point that I understood discrimination because I had been bullied for being a geek, that experience was ridiculed as not nearly as serious as sexism. Despite the fact that in my case I was actually beaten up by bigger boys. My accusers, for their part, did not take seriously the depth of my feeling about what was not only an emotional but a physical assault. They were as blind to my feelings as I was to theirs. (BTW I and my friend, the original poster, who did not take part in the abuse showered on me, worked things out via private messaging.)

We human beings are supposed to be empathetic. Toddlers will sometimes try to comfort a person crying by offering that person one of their toys. But they might also say, “Look at that man with the big nose!” so loudly everyone in the place can hear. We need to teach our children how to show and to refine one's empathy. We don't always do a good job, often because of our own limitations. We each see the world from our own viewpoint, colored by our own experiences. So we may to sensitive to the slights suffered by us or people we know and care about. We can communicate those to our kids. But the prejudices that others deal with may never even occur to us. I know what it's like to be called “foureyes” and “brainiac” and to be treated badly because of that. I don't know what it is like to not be taken seriously because you are a woman. Or to be seen as dangerous because you are a black man. Or to be assumed to be a pedophile because you are gay. Or to be considered lazy because you are unemployed. You really have to listen to someone else to know what being different from others in any specific way feels like.

Not only do we not always know what others are feeling, we sometimes don't know what we ourselves are feeling. Complex emotions, such as those elicited by dysfunctional family members, can elude us. Do you love or hate or pity an abusive parent or all 3? When they die do you feel grief or relief or both? All too often one of the main reasons people drink or do drugs is to avoid unpleasant emotions. People in recovery programs are often given a cheat sheet with variations of smiley and frowny faces to help them identify all the emotions they are feeling now that they are sober.

Emotions enrich our lives. They can also cloud our thinking. Fear, anger or love can make us do truly stupid things. Strong feelings for or against a person can keep us from seeing the truth of a situation. And yet, science tells us, being truly unemotional can hamper our judgment as well.

Our sermon suggestion slip reads, “How has the death of Christ brought us redemption, when no one feels redeemed?” Before we tackle the second part of this sentence, let's make sure we know what the first part means.

In the Old Testament redemption referred to buying back property or ransoming someone from bondage. A person in severe debt might sell himself into slavery to pay off what he owed. He could however be redeemed by a kinsman. Indeed it was the kinsman's duty to do so. And the prophets used this image from the culture to illustrate God's role in saving his people. The Hebrew word for “redeemer” appears 18 times in the Old Testament and 13 of those times it is used in Isaiah. God is seen as the Redeemer of Israel primarily in his bringing his people out of slavery in Egypt but also in later bringing them out of exile in Babylon.

In the New Testament, Jesus gives himself as a “ransom for many.” His death on the cross is the cost of delivering us from sin and death. That's the redemption he offers us: freedom from the penalty of sin.

And I have met people who did not feel that. They still felt the guilt for what they had done. I had a patient in a nursing home who had stopped eating because he felt he had sinned against God. Knowing him to be a Christian I asked him if he had confessed his sin to God. He said he had. I then quoted 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” I told the man that he could stop punishing himself because Jesus took the punishment for us. He starting eating again.

As I said at the beginning, feelings can't always be relied on. When you hit a significant birthday, people always ask you if you feel older. And you probably don't feel any older than the day before. I've seen people disturbed when they don't feel grief for someone they just lost. Sometimes shock or numbness keeps you from having an emotional reaction until later. Feelings don't validate facts however much we think they do.

After the Emancipation Proclamation, all the slaves in the South were free. They didn't feel it then, of course. But even after the Civil War was over, a lot of former slaves did not feel free to leave the plantations and determine their own future. Many settled for working for the same folks who had owned them but for small wages which were often eaten up by the room and board they were now charged. Technically they were free. But they didn't feel like it and they didn't act it. And this could be why some people don't feel that Jesus has redeemed them.

If someone gave you a ticket to Disney World or a cruise and you never redeemed it, your life would be the same as if you had never received such gifts. If we do not use the redemption given us by Christ, we will not feel any different.

Our salvation is spoken of in 3 verb tenses in scripture. We are told in some verses that we have been saved, in some others that we are being saved and in still others that we will be saved. How can that be? By what Jesus has done for us on the cross, we have been, as I said, freed from the penalty for our sins. God does not hold anything against us. We are saved by his grace and all we have to do is trust him for it to become a reality for us.

By virtue of what the Spirit is doing in our lives, if we let him, we are being freed from the power of sin. This is process in which we are engaged during our earthly life. Relying on God's Spirit within us, we should be seeing victories in our lives over some of the sins that have enslaved us. This doesn't happen magically. We need to cooperate with the Spirit in the same way one cooperates with the physical therapist after major surgery. If you don't listen to her and do as she says, you won't get any benefit from what the doctor did for you and won't feel any better. It's the same with living in the Spirit. If we don't work with the Spirit, we will not see God at work in our lives. As it says in Philippians 2:12, “ out your salvation with fear and trembling”--which, C.S. Lewis points out, makes it sound like it all depends on you--“for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.”--which makes it sound like it all depends on God. We can't do it on our own and God will not do it without us.

Finally, when Jesus returns and establishes the Kingdom of God on earth, we will be freed from the presence of sin. Healed from our penchant for thoughts, words and acts that are destructive to ourselves and others, we will not have to worry about others harming, cheating, slandering, harassing, or taking advantage of us nor will we have to worry about ourselves deliberately or thoughtlessly doing the same to others. As it says in 1 John 3:2, “Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him...” We shall be like Christ—morally and spiritually. We shall be totally reconciled with God and thus in harmony with him and with each other.

Because what Jesus did for us on the cross is in the past, and because it frees us from the penalty of sin, we may not feel redeemed in this sense. Unless, like my patient, we are acutely aware of our sins and then the relief and gratitude that comes from the fact that we need not torture ourselves over them will be palpable.

That fact that one day we will be freed from the very presence of sin may not help us feel redeemed precisely because it has not happened yet. And that leads to the main reason a person may not feel redeemed: the present tense of redemption, freedom from the power of sin. This is an ongoing process and it requires our active engagement. Like the course of physical rehabilitation, we have our good days and our bad days. Sometimes we find victory over a persistent temptation of ours and feel invincible. Other times we succumb to the same temptation that has snared us in the past—a outburst of bad temper, a moment of hubris, time spent stewing in envy, costly procrastination, a binge of gluttony, degrading lust, or a wallow in greed—and we feel unredeemed and irredeemable. We feel that Christianity doesn't work; it's a joke. Or it's a pie in the sky dream and not a practical program. We ask, “Why, God, do I keep failing? Why am I still so weak?”

This requires a virtue that we rarely talk about these days: diligence. In this day of instant fixes and instant results, instant service and instant gratification, we have lost our patience with persistence. We don't realize that even those apps and services that make things so easy are the result of countless hours of people thinking them up, refining them, testing them, and reworking them. Edison tried 100 different elements before he found the best one to use for the filament of his light bulb. Scientists have determined that it take 10,000 hours of practice to master anything—a sport, a job, a musical instrument, computer coding and programming. No one, no matter how talented, masters their field without putting in 10,000 hours just doing it. It takes perseverance. Why should becoming a strong Christian be the exception?

To be diligent at something you must make a commitment. You must decide to keep at it, rain or shine, day in and day out, like an athlete training for the Olympics or a musician rehearsing for an audition for a conservatory. Anything worth achieving requires diligence. Which requires a commitment. Which necessitates prayer. You must pray without ceasing, showing that you are serious about your desire to see the power of sin diminish in your life. Like a wise parent God doesn't grant every whim that pops into our head. He wants to see if we really want it.

Feelings are great but they are often like the chocolate sprinkles on an sundae. They add to it but are not essential. We don't always feel different even when we have a major event in our lives. We don't always know how we feel. And though we are called to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus, we may not always feel the emotional impact of all he has done, is doing and will do for us. But it is all real. And some days we just have to take it on faith.