Thursday, November 27, 2014

Giving Thanks

As someone who worked as a radio copywriter and production director for 20 years, I came to the conclusion that there are 3 categories of motivating emotions: needs, desires and fears. And when you are creating an ad you have to figure out to which kind of emotion are you making an appeal. Is it a physical need, like food or shelter or clothing? Is it a psychological need, like love or a feeling of belonging or having a defined role in a group or society? Is it a fear for your physical well-being or that of your family? Is it a social fear, of embarrassment or exclusion? Or is it a desire? And here there is a huge range of options. People desire or can be made to desire nearly anything. And sadly, most of the desires marketers appeal to are not healthy ones. Many are in fact what the Bible has defined as sins. 

Indeed, the 7 deadly sins are practically a textbook on how to sell products and services. Sloth or laziness is a good thing to appeal to if you are selling a labor saving device. Recently the Pepsi Company has come up with a drink that combines the taste of Mountain Dew and of Doritos chips called Dewitos. That's for folks who apparently can't be bothered to open both a bottle of soda and a bag of chips. Or perhaps this is an appeal to gluttony, which drives our food companies to come up with flavors not found in nature coupled with addictive snacks that fail to fill us up, lest we stop when satisfied. Lust is used to sell a lot of products, including ones that have little to do with sex, like cars and even food. Rage certainly seems to what political ads are targeting, trying to convince voters that the other guy is not merely the wrong choice but is secretly trying to destroy the nation. Greed is a big motivator, stroking our desire to simply acquire more stuff. And envy is another, convincing us that we should be dissatisfied with who we are and what we have and should instead want to be what others are or have what they have.

What is really incongruous is that one of the biggest days for buying stuff comes right after the day on which we are supposed to be thanking God for what we have. In fact for a few years now a lot of retailers have been opening on Thanksgiving Day, encouraging people to go from gratitude to greed in a matter of hours. Or in the case of employees required to work on the holiday, from enjoying their family to resenting their job.

We live in the richest country in the world. The vast majority of us make well above the less than $2 a day that most folks in the Third World must manage on. How often do we stop and thank God for what we have rather than lament that we don't have everything we see offered on TV? How often do we express our gratitude to him for what we are?

Envy in this regard is especially insidious. A lot of products are marketed to us based on the idea that we are inadequate because we do not look like the genetic lottery winners who dominate our entertainment industry. And so we are encouraged to dress like them, drive the cars they do, use the products they endorse and even have ourselves surgically altered to look more like them.

Of all of God's gifts to us, the most basic is ourselves, our bodies and our minds. Like everything else in this world, he gave us a wide variety. But unlike the array of flowers and trees and birds and animals, we don't seem to appreciate the variety of humans God gave us. We act as if we want them all the have the same color skin or body shape or narrow range of facial features. We also prefer a narrow range of personalities. We want everyone to be pleasant and positive and agreeable and funny and no smarter than ourselves. We want a world of clones and Yes-men. And if we don't resemble the majority of those around us, we try to change ourselves rather than appreciate the unique features God has granted us.

One of the things the act of giving thanks can do is make us aware of how we have been graced with God's gifts. Like your brain. Your brain gives you a different point of view than anyone else. You appreciate certain things, notice particular details, have specific insights that no one else does in the same way. Your sense of humor, your way of thinking, your way of doing things, the way you express yourself adds to humanity's perspectives. Thank God for the uniqueness of your brain.

Today most of us have issues with our bodies. A lot of that has to do with the bodies our society presents to us as ideals. And despite the fact that we know that the actors are carefully made up and lighted, and that the models starve themselves and are artificially enhanced, and that the athletes have fitness trainers and performance- and body-enhancing drugs, and that they all were far above average in the first place, we still secretly wish we had their faces and bodies. And, yes, the world treats you differently if you have “good” looks. But people like Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Hawking and John Adams and Dorothy Hodgkin and Linus Pauling and Pope John XXIII and loads of other people that don't look like movie stars have made truly vital contributions to the world. As Shakespeare said, “there's no art to find the mind's construction in the face.” A person's worth has little to do with his looks. Ted Bundy was good-looking; Steve Buscemi is not. Bundy was a serial killer; film star Buscemi returned the firehouse where he formerly was a firefighter to pull several 12 hour shifts sifting the the rubble of the Twin Towers after 9/11. Heroes aren't always handsome. Thank God for the inner beauty he gave you, whatever the world thinks of your body and face.

There are lots of other things for which to give God thanks: friends, family, this church, this community. We thank God for the beauty of where we live, for the flora and fauna that surround us, for the water and the generally good weather.

And one of the best ways to thank God is to take care of the gifts he's given us. We should take care of our brains and not do things that mess them up, be it drugs or riding a two-wheeled vehicle without a helmet. We should feed our brains the best stuff, things that will make us more knowledgeable, wiser and nobler. (Philippians 4:8) We should similarly not do things that will damage our body and feed it enough good things to keep it properly nourished and avoid giving it too much of the salty/sugary/fatty stuff that increases weight and the risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer's and sleep apnea. (Once a year is OK, I guess.)

Let us also take care of those we love, offering encouragement, empathy, and concrete support. Let us take care of the world he made and pronounced good, using its resources wisely and sparingly and allowing them replenish themselves when they can. Let us use our God-given ingenuity to figure out alternatives to limited non-renewing resources.

Finally let us give God thanks for his love for us, shown so clearly in his giving us his son Jesus, our incarnate, crucified and risen Lord and Savior and in his giving us his Holy Spirit, so that he is always with us and in us and so that we are always connected with God. He is the reason we are here together enjoying fellowship with him and with each other. He gives our lives direction and meaning. He gives confirmation to our instinct that love is our highest value and aspiration. He gives us hope that all that is broken in our lives and our world will be healed and whole in the end.

Thankgiving has only been an official national holiday since 1941. But unofficial and regional days of Thanksgiving go back 300 years, though they were usually daylong fasts and worship services. But rather than confine it to one day a year we should, as Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5:18, “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus.” Too often we concentrate on what we resent, what we regret, what we want. Making ourselves look for what we have and what we are thankful for keeps us in the right mind to not only survive but to thrive and stay positive. That is God's will for us.

Our God is a gracious and giving God. And the very best way to thank him is to share his gifts, the bounty with which he has showered us, and the good news of his grace with others. In Matthew 10:8, Jesus says to his disciples, “Freely you have received; freely give.” Let us make that our motto from this day on. Because God has been good to us, let us pass it on. “Freely you have received; freely give.”

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Least

There is a word in the King James translation of the Bible that no other version uses. And that's because we just don't call people “froward” anymore. Not that there aren't people who fit the definition, which is “stubbornly perverse.” but the word has just fallen out of usage. But it would be a good way of to describe the process Stephen Colbert uses to craft his soon-to-end show The Colbert Report, in which he plays a TV pundit whose opinions are so comically the opposite of common sense that they expose their own logical flaws. On Terry Gross' NPR show, Fresh Air, his head writer said that first the real Stephen had to work out his actual point of view on whatever news story he was covering. Then he had to figure out how his character would see the same news and then how to have him express it in a way that makes plain the folly of the people involved. You might say The Colbert Report is a satirical exercise in frowardness.

Many of his viewers may not know that the real Colbert is a Roman Catholic who teaches Sunday School. Which explains this line which concluded a Christmas message on his show. He said, “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don't want to do it.”

A prime example of this is the current political crisis in Fort Lauderdale. The city has made feeding the homeless, if not actually illegal, at least extremely difficult, by imposing all kinds of special conditions. As a result the police have cited 3 people who violated the ordinance. They include 2 clergy, one of whom is Fr. Mark Sims, a colleague of mine, and 90 year old Arnold Abbott, who has been feeding the homeless for decades through his organization Love Thy Neighbor. The World War 2 vet started his charity with his late wife and has successfully fought the city before on similar charges. The mayor of Ft. Lauderdale has been caught in face-saving lies that the city has dozens of feeding sites when in fact there are only 4. He has said the ordinance was for public health and safety and then admitted it was for the sake of tourism. The real problem is that because a percentage of the homeless are mentally ill and because a percentage abuse drugs and alcohol, they might act inappropriately in public. Wondering if the city is just as hard on the Spring Breakers, tourists who also tend to behave badly in pubic, I went to only to find the page has been removed.

Are Colbert and the critics of Ft. Lauderdale's draconian rules on feeding the homeless right? Is our treatment of the poor and needy a top priority in Jesus' eyes?

Judging by our gospel passage (Matthew 25:31-46) the answer is a resounding “Yes!” Jesus paints a memorable picture of the last judgment. He, the Son of Man, is the judge. And the criteria used does not include the behaviors that a lot of people think are God's most hated sins. There is no mention of homosexuality; in fact, there is no mention of sexual sins at all. There is no mention of doctrinal heresies. There is no mention of denominational distinctives and practices that some prominent preachers make sound like matters of eternal life and death. Jesus focuses on 6 categories of needy people and how we treat them: the hungry, the thirsty, the alien, the naked, the sick and the incarcerated. Why these specific 6 and not other sins?

The first five of these are typically found in Jewish lists of virtuous behavior. And that is no surprise because caring for the poor and needy is also commanded numerous times in the Hebrew Bible. Deuteronomy 15 says, “ must not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother.” If you do, it goes on to say, God will consider you guilty. On the other hand, “You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him, because for this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you do.” (Deuteronomy 15:10) In Isaiah 58:6 & 7, God says, “Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked to cover him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh?” In Jeremiah 7:5-7, God says, “For, if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly practice justice between a person and his neighbor, if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless, and the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place, nor follow after other gods, bringing harm upon yourselves, then I will allow you to live in this land, in the land that I gave to your fathers forever and ever.” So Jesus is in line with the same concerns his Father makes clear in the Torah and through the prophets.

What Jesus adds is interesting: “I was in prison and you visited me.” I can tell you from experience that the thing prisoners miss the most is contact with family and friends. Letters and pictures are good; phone calls are better, though they are more expensive than you can imagine because they handled by a for profit company; but visits are the best. I have seen inmates go from despondent to resilient after a visit from a spouse, a sibling, a child or a friend. It assures them that they are not forgotten or unloved. It keeps them involved in the lives of those outside whose lives are going on while the inmate's life is on hold. It gives them something to look forward to in an environment that generally crushes hope.

This does lead some commentators, however, to combine this commandment about prisoners with Jesus' saying that “If you do it to these, the least of my siblings, you do it to me,” and say that Jesus is not talking about all unfortunate people but only his disciples. They point out that the first missionaries, carrying the good news, were dependent on hospitality for food and drink and a place to stay. They also might be foreigners to those they were evangelizing. And, like Peter, John, Paul and Barnabas, they often got arrested for disturbing the peace. So is the last judgment based merely on how one treats Christians in distress?

I don't think so. 2 conditions are hard to tie only to missionaries. How often would an evangelist find himself naked? And sickness is a condition way too broadly experienced among all people and not specifically tied to preachers. True, the passages from the Hebrew Bible we quoted above seem to apply primarily to Jews. But in the books of Jonah and Isaiah we see that God is also interested in the welfare and salvation of Gentiles. And Jesus commissions his disciples to preach the good news to all nations. Nor did Jesus limit his own ministry to Jews. He healed the centurion's slave and the Syro-Phoenician woman's daughter and the demoniac in the Decapolis, an area so pagan that they were raising pigs. He revealed his identity to the Samaritan woman.

Christianity cannot be exclusive. Unlike Judaism there is no ethnic component to being a Christian. Anybody is a potential Christian. And most people did not come to Jesus already convinced he was the Messiah but only followed him after he met their needs. So how do we convincingly bring the good news of God's love to others if we do so only with words and not also with works of compassion?

But if the last judgment depends on social action, what about role of grace? Is Paul in conflict with Jesus on the basis of our salvation? Does this mean that if Ted Bundy had just cut a hefty check to the United Way or Habitat for Humanity, he would be in heaven?

No. And it is instructive that in the case of Bundy the only such contradiction I've found in his life is that he volunteered at a suicide hotline. But given his M.O. who's to say that he didn't get a kind of vicarious thrill out of having some power over those contemplating their death? Certainly nothing else in his biography indicates any concern with helping the helpless. Quite the contrary. He preyed on helpless women.

Nor does the apostle who wrote nearly half the books in the New Testament contradict Jesus. In Ephesians 2:8-10, Paul writes, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so that no one can boast. For we are his workmanship, having been created in Christ Jesus for good works that God prepared beforehard so that we may do them.” In other words, we are not saved by good works but we are saved so that we may do good works.

In the same way, exercise will not fix a person in heart failure, but after receiving a heart transplant, the doctor will want the person to eventually increase his exercise to keep the new heart healthy. In fact, doctors use exercise to diagnose your state of health. Just as being able to pass the treadmill test shows your physical health, helping the unfortunate shows your spiritual health.

And remember we were created in the image of the God who is love. If we let the Holy Spirit restore that marred image in us, we should naturally be drawn to show that love concretely to our fellow human beings whom God loved so much that he sent his Son to save them. And we can't just love those whom it is natural and easy to love. As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your siblings, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” In other words, since God loves all so should we. (Matthew 5:46-48)

And since we are talking about the image of God, remember that image is seen most clearly in Jesus. As it says in Colossians 1:15, “He is the image of the invisible God...” So if we are made in the image of God, we are also made in the image of Christ. It may be hard to see at times and in certain people; it may be marred by sin but it is there. God told Noah that murder is wrong because humans are created in God's image. (Genesis 9:6) Murder is symbolic deicide. And neglecting or mistreating others is neglecting or mistreating Christ.

Look at it this way. The last judgment is like a diagnostic test. Those who supply the needs of the hungry, the thirsty, the alien, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned are spiritually healthy. The transplantation of Christ's Spirit has obviously been successful. They are trusting the Great Physician and are following Doctor's orders. They can be released into the general population of the kingdom of God where the love of God and love of others need not be commanded; it is now second nature to its citizens. Those who don't show the signs of spiritual health—a demonstrable love for all others who were created in God's image and for whom Christ died—are spiritually dead. They go into quarantine. They cannot be allowed to infect others with their apathy toward or hatred of other human beings.

Will they ever be released? Can they ever be released? One thing is for sure. If they do not change, they cannot enter the kingdom of God, no more than a TB patient who refuses to take his or her meds can be allowed out of quarantine and into the public. It's not a matter of whether they are nice or not. Hitler loved dogs and children. Ann Rule, a former cop and true crime writer, worked alongside Ted Bundy at the suicide hot line. She even thought of introducing the handsome, charming Bundy to her daughter! It's not a matter of whether they can be pleasant but whether they are cured.

Ultimately it is up to Jesus Christ. As the one in whose image we were made and the one who lived and died as one of us, you could not ask for a fairer or more merciful judge. But his kingdom is the kingdom of those who love. And love must be voluntary. We tend to think that people being excluded from the kingdom is terrible but to put into God's kingdom someone who will not love or reciprocate love is as bad as forcing someone into a marriage with someone they do not love. It would be tantamount to rape. As it says in 1 John 4:7 & 8, “Beloved, let us love one another for love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God for God is love.” Anyone who cannot love the poor and needy and homeless, who cannot see past the dirt and the uncouth behavior and the mental and physical illnesses, who can't be bothered to look for the image of Jesus buried in the least of his siblings, would never be happy in the kingdom. It will be too full of those kind of people—you know, the ones who care about others.

Those people are annoying, aren't they? The ones who feed the hungry and run clothing drives for the threadbare poor and who volunteer at hospitals and at prisons and who work with immigrants. They show the rest of us up. They make us feel like sham Christians. They leave us other Christians with 2 options: we can envy them or we can emulate them. Nor need we do exactly what they do. You may be squeamish about sick people; choose some other ministry. You may be frightened to go into a jail or prison; it's really not at all like it's depicted in TV and movies but you can help the hungry. And there are always positions in any ministry for organizers, for improvisers, for gofers, for drivers, for handymen and women, for people who can do legal things, or medical things or who can raise money or who speak different languages or who can just listen to people.

Never done anything like that before? You know what—everything you've ever done in your life you didn't know how to do at some point. You just learned what you could and then you did it. That includes the biggest ever responsibility a person could have which we still leave to amateurs: parenting. And if you can learn to take total responsibility for someone who is completely unable to take care of themselves, you can take on the limited and shared responsibility of a ministry.

The first person to smart off to God was Cain. God asks where Abel is and Cain says, “Am I my brother's keeper?” A better translation of the Hebrew is “guardian or protector.” Since he had just killed Abel, the question is moot. But the implied answer found in all the rest of the Bible is “Yes!” We are responsible for each other. You do what you can to help people. There are some you can't help because they won't let you but that doesn't mean you can conveniently write off everyone in that circumstance. Everyone in this world was created in the image of our Lord. We serve him by serving them. And if we look for that image in them long enough, maybe they will find it in themselves as well, and turn to the One whose image it is. And one day Jesus will welcome you both into the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Teach Us to Number Our Days

A burial litany in the Book of Common Prayer begins, “In the midst of life we are in death.” It seems a bit morbid to us. But for most of history, it would have rung true. People died of things that today could be taken care of by simple first aid. A small cut would get infected and you would die. 50 was considered old age. Half of all children did not make it to age 5. And of course a plague could wipe out large swathes of the population. It it estimated that the Black Death killed as much as 2/3 of the people in Europe. So the words “In the midst of life we are in death” were not morbid but a plain statement of fact.

Today things have changed. If you get a small cut, you simply use Neosporin and a Bandaid. People are living a lot longer. Infant mortality is down. More people die from lightning strikes than have died of Ebola—here in the US. There are still parts of the world where not much has changed in regards to the death toll.

Our psalm today, Psalm 90, is a meditation on the brevity of life. Surprisingly for such an old piece of writing, it does speak of a life span of 70 or 80 years. But that's the maximum limit, not the expectancy. According to the actuarial tables, the average person born this year can expect, barring accidents and illness, to live into their mid- to late-80s. But that's an average. If you are poor, if you have a family history of heart disease or cancer or mental illness, if your job involves manual labor, or danger, you may not get to the age the numbers crunchers say you could.

Our lives are relatively brief. Certain tortoises live a couple of hundred years. Civilizations might last for several hundred years. Certain trees live for millennia. And according to the age of the universe, our whole existence as a species has lasted for but a tick of the cosmic clock.

Some people take from that fact that our lives, like anything that is in limited supply, are precious and that our reaction should be to savor each moment. And there is much to be said for that approach. For most of us it means to seek good experiences and build up good memories of family and friends. But for some it means grabbing for all the good things you can get, with little or no regard for others. Some people use the expiration date on life as an excuse to be greedy, to be aggressive, to be self-indulgent, to break the rules because—Hey! What will it matter when we're all dead? YOLO: You only live once. So why hold back on anything? Why deny yourself anything? Why do anything you don't have to?

And if there is no afterlife, no judgment, no squaring of accounts, those people have a point. It is from Isaiah 22:13, after all, that we get the saying, “Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we shall die.” There is a whole genre of Hollywood comedies which depict a cautious, conformist person learning to cut loose. And rarely do they suffer any dire consequences. Funny ones, yes. But not death, disease or the devastation of their lives. Indeed, the person is seen as happier and healthier in the last scene of the film.

But just as that saying from Isaiah designates an attitude the prophet sees as perverse and foolish, most of us realize that such a lifestyle would sacrifice stable, long-term relationships for selfish pleasures. We all know people who are well-known for having a "good time" on a regular basis, though those good times are punctuated with fights with their friends and lovers, inability to hold or advance in a job, drug or alcohol abuse and periods of incarceration. I meet a lot of them at the jail. The consequences of such a chaotic life never seems to dissuade such folks from repeating the same patterns of behavior. Living in the moment apparently entails forgetting about past moments that might be instructive for the present and not taking into consideration future moments that are readily foreseeable if one acts in certain ways at the current point in time.

Most of us know that savoring each moment is not a license to do whatever pops into your mind. We accept limits on what to enjoy when and how. So why don't we?

One thing that interferes is the busyness of life. We have been swallowed the myth of multitasking. And I call it a myth because science tells us we really can't do two or more things at a time; we just rapidly switch between the various tasks and as a consequence do none of them well. Yet some jobs expect multitasking. Nursing for instance. Since in Florida you can legally be assigned up to 40 patients per shift at a nursing home, you are expected to not only pass all meds but also answer the phone, handle numerous small crises, order tests, answer questions, do any new admissions that come in and not make any mistakes or forget any details. Is it any wonder that vital things get overlooked and critical errors are made? Is it any wonder that so many nurses leave the profession? If you went into nursing to help people and find yourself barely able to hold a meaningful conversation with a patient who is crying, depressed or has a complex problem, because you have literally hundreds of pills to push and dozens of things to document, you find yourself tempted to go into another line of work. Other jobs are similarly asking people to do an open-ended number of tasks in a limited amount of time. We are losing a lot of people who used to be passionate about their professions because they are being asked to do the impossible: produce huge quantities of top quality work quickly.

Even when we are trying to have fun, we never seem to be concentrating on one thing at a time anymore. Instead we try to do 2 or more fun things at once and lose a lot of the pleasure each normally affords. We try to read Facebook and watch our favorites shows simultaneously. We try to play video games and talk to a friend at the same time. We have dinner with family and spend it looking at our phones. It is now acceptable to ignore a person who is physically present to talk to anyone who happens to call.

There are so many inhuman things which attract our attention away from people: computers, phones, games, and TV shows. Even when we are present for something important we tend to miss it by trying to video it. We don't see life's big moments through our own eyes but through the lens and screen of a device.

An older reason we don't enjoy our limited earthly lives is that we let low tech stuff get in the way. Like anger and resentment and thwarted expectations. We hold grudges. We get lazy. We let our thinking get warped by greed and lust and envy and arrogance. We create fantasies and then get upset when people and reality don't follow the scripts in our heads. We bring terrible baggage to our encounters rather than start afresh.

Verse 12 of our psalm says, “Teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.” A key part of wisdom is getting your priorities straight--realizing what is essential, what is important and what is neither. Since we have a limited time on this earth, knowing what has the most value will keep us from wasting time on what has the least value.

The Bible says that a healthy respect for the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. What are God's priorities? Jesus spelled them out: loving God and loving one another. And that means being fair and being courageous and being faithful and being truthful. That's the way you act with those you love. Recently a husband and wife team of psychologists who have been researching couples for years said that they've discovered that the 2 things that matter most in the survival of a relationship are kindness and generosity. Those are two aspects of the fruit of the Spirit.

So our top priority is maintaining healthy relationships with God and with our fellow human beings and doing so by behaving in loving ways. Believe me, no one on their deathbed will ever say they regret not playing more video games or not watching more TV or not posting more things on the internet. They will regret letting those things, or the emotional and spiritual problems we create for ourselves, get in the way of spending more time actually being present with the people we love.

And don't think because God offers us eternal life, it means will have plenty of time later to do what should be done in this life. Your time in the womb is a mere 9 months, a tiny fraction of your 70 or 80 years of life. But it is absolutely crucial in laying the groundwork for the body and brain you will be using for those subsequent decades. Similarly, the first 4 or 5 years of life are vital in the development of your social self. Your ability to trust and form attachments are largely determined then. Just so, this life sets the trajectory of your afterlife. Now is the time for course corrections. Now is the time to learn to love and to forgive and to reconcile and to restore trust. The strictures of this life are like the stakes one ties a sunflower to so it will grow tall and straight and so its head will face the sun.

And if you think this is just a much more elaborate way of saying, “Call your mother” or “Play with your kids” or “Bury the hatchet with your sister,” so be it. Our God is a God of love. Healthy stable relationships are important to him for our Triune God is the ultimate healthy stable relationship: the Father loving the Son loving the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit throughout eternity. He created us in the image of that love, And he wants us not only to enter into that divine relationship but to model all other relationships on it.

What is getting in the way of loving your neighbor or your child or your parent or your coworker or your sister or your brother or your friend? Is it more important than that human connection which will delight and warm and stay with you long after the game ceases to interest you or the novelty fades or the feud ceases to make sense? With what would you rather spend eternity—your regrets and bitterness and anger and resentments or your family and your friends and your God? Jesus said he came to give us life in abundance. Life only comes from life, not from things that aren't alive or which negate life. And life is only truly enriched by our connections to other persons. Make connections. Repair or restore broken connections. Maintain those connections. We were made to love by the One who is love. In the end, love is all that matters. 

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Eulogy for Howard Todd

On October 21st, 2014, my dad died. He was 91; he died in his own bed, in his sleep and without pain. One really can't ask for better than that. Before he died he wanted to hear what my brother and I were going to say at his funeral. Here's what I wrote. 

My brother's fondest memories of my dad are mine as well. Pop was always able to know what we kids would like. So he would do things like pick us up from school and drive to the zoo, so we could eat hot dogs while watching the seals being fed.

Mom was always interested in teaching my brother and I how to live and think. So she took us to church, to the art museum, to cultural events. But we learned things from Pop, too, mostly by observing and imitating him.

From him we learned to work hard. Pop had a lot of jobs, often two at a time. I can't remember when he was unemployed. If he lost a job, he found another quite quickly. And so we learned that working hard at what you do was a virtue and having a job was important, even if it wasn't always the perfect job.

And because he usually worked nights, he, unlike many men of his generation, was much more involved in raising his children. He may not always have taken us out to lunch but he always made sure we had a hot meal, even if he just heated up something he had picked up from a restaurant or deli. When my Aunt Marge, who would watch us when Mom was at work, was hospitalized, Pop would come over and watch us, even though he and my mother were divorced. Later my parents remarried, primarily for the sake of my brother and I. And we knew that was the reason because after we were raised and out of the house, they announced that they were getting divorced again. Which taught us that your duty to your family comes before your personal comfort.

Pop was always looked after his appearance with an almost cat-like neatness. This extended to us. Dan and I could not leave the house without being properly dressed and our hair combed within an inch of our life. When I started to go bald, I worried that I would have grooves in my head from Pop's comb. But this taught us that, as unfair as it sometimes seems, in this world, appearance counts, and you can do a lot to look neat and respectable.

Pop's most famous exploit in the Second World War was when, during the campaign on Bougainville Island, a Japanese sniper fired on him. One bullet was stopped by a can of beans in his pack and one got lodged in his helmet. Pop ran up under the tree from which the shots came and took out the sniper's nest with a tommy gun. His fellow soldiers kept saying Pop should take off his helmet and look at the bullet. My father wasn't going to until it was dark and he was sure he wouldn't need the protection of his charmed headgear. Had that bullet gone all the way through, we would not be here. This taught us how precarious life is and how you nevertheless had to be courageous.

While Pop got ready for work, he would listen to what was then KMOX radio. And I got hooked on listening to the news. Today I listen to NPR. And when we talked over the phone or when I spent time with him, we would discuss all manner of current and historical issues, and Pop was always well-informed and even knew all sides of the issue in question. He taught me to take an interest in the world and know what you are talking about.

My father was from the South and taught us to say “Please” and “Thank you.” We learned to treat other people with courtesy. And because he was in the service industry most of his career, he taught us that this extended to the people who waited tables and served us. They were not inferiors and they too deserved respect.

None of us are perfect and that includes my father. But he also taught me that even a flawed person could be a good person and a decent person. He taught us to put our children first and do your job and take care of your appearance and remember the fragility of life and be courageous anyway and keep informed and treat others courteously, even the so-called little people. We learned that everyone has strengths and everyone has weaknesses and the presence of one does not negate the existence of the other. I know that no hero is flawless and no one is without some good qualities.

When you lose a parent, your world changes. They were there before you existed and for most of us, they are there for a good portion of our life. And suddenly they are not. And things are different. My father is part of the reason I am who I am. I'm glad he was my dad. He was always there for me. And I will miss him always.  

Monday, November 3, 2014

All Saints, All Souls

Because a lot of scientists don't believe in God, they have trouble explaining religion. One of the popular ideas, touted especially by Sam Harris, is that religions are failed attempts at science. Harris seems to think most religions resemble the Just So Stories of Rudyard Kipling, with its fanciful tall tales of how the elephant go this trunk and how the camel got his hump. Of course, if Harris had bothered to do much research he would find that only a very small amount of most religions' sacred writings or stories are devoted to explaining natural phenomena. Yes, they tend to have creation stories but the main point is not so much how things came to be but why they came to be and what is their purpose. Religion is more about the meaning of life than its inner workings.

Another popular idea is that religion is merely a reaction to our fear of death. It reassures us of an afterlife. But this is not a universal feature of religion. Of the more than 40 religions I checked on, roughly 1 quarter of religions either espouse no afterlife or are vague on the details. Another 16 opt for reincarnation, which actually leaves less than half calling for a supernatural afterlife. So, like all reductionist theories of religion, this one is inadequate.

Religions tend to be more about how one should go about living one's life rather than being primarily about death. The motives may or may not be rooted in the afterlife but the important actions take place in this life. And some people are exemplary in the extent to which they were able to, as Jesus said, take up their cross and follow him. We have come to call such people saints. The problem is that the Bible doesn't restrict this term to super-Christians.

In the Bible the words translated “saints” means “holy ones.” And “holy” means “set apart” as in “ set apart for God's purpose.” And who sets us apart other than God? So when the Bible talks of the saints it is simply speaking of God's people. In the New Testament, the word “saints” is a synonym for “Christians.” Because our salvation is not based on how good we are but upon God's grace.

Nevertheless, some Christians let God work in them more fully than others. Eventually, the church started using the word “saints” almost exclusively to refer to these exemplary Christians. And many of them, even today, are good examples to emulate. Indeed, most of the original saints were martyrs, witnesses to the gospel who were killed for sticking to their faith. The church came to posit that these people were certainly in heaven. Which opened up the idea that asking them, the people really connected to God, to pray for you was much more effective than asking the people in your church to pray for you.

This, unfortunately, led to the cult of the saints. Heaven came to be viewed almost like a political bureaucracy, where to get things done you had to contact the right person. Saints became facilitators or patrons of certain things, like childbirth or certain professions. These connections were often drawn from their life or even their method of execution. St. Catherine of Sienna was one of 22 children born to her mother. Her twin brother died but she survived and so she is the person to whom Roman Catholics pray to prevent miscarriages. St. Apollonia was tortured by having all her teeth pulled out so she is, ironically, the patron saint of dentistry!

Some saints were probably the product of popular folklore. My favorite is St. Wigglesfoot the Unencumbered. At first her story begins like those of so many virgin saints, betrothed against her will to marry a pagan king. So she prays that God will prevent this unholy union and preserve her virginity. The result is that overnight she grows a beard! She became the medieval patron saint of women who wished to be free of their husbands.

Some saints were, quite frankly, just pagan gods repurposed. Some scholars think the Irish St. Brigit could very well have started out as the pre-Christian goddess Brighid or that the two were conflated. Both are associated with sacred wells and perpetual flames.
How this syncretism came about can be understood this way: when pagans came to Christianity, often it was because their king or chieftain converted and told his subjects to follow suit. They were baptized but were imperfectly educated in the faith. The conversions did not come from the heart and they missed their old gods. They used to know whom to pray to for the harvest or rain or healing. Now they only had one God, a new one. So somehow the saints took over the functions of the multiple gods as objects of prayer and the reasons for shrines.

Back then the Roman Catholic Church's current mechanism for checking out and confirming saints was nonexistent. Some saints began as parochial figures, either favorite sons and daughters from a region or just local legends. Modern Catholic scholarship cast doubt on some of the saints. So in the 1960s the Roman Catholic Church re-evaluated their calendar of saints and some of the ones with shaky attestation were demoted, like my namesake. St. Christopher was supposed to be a giant who carried people across a dangerous river. When a small boy presented himself to him, the big man thought him a small task to carry across the water. But as the giant sank deeper and deeper into the river, he asked the child why he was so heavy. The boy answered that he was the Christ and thus carried the weight of the world's sins on his shoulders. The man converted and got the name Christopher: “Christ-bearer.” Like a lot of the saints' stories, it's a nice tale but patently fiction. St. Christopher, patron of travelers, motorists, mountaineers and surfers, is no longer a first class Roman Catholic Saint whose feast must be observed universally. He is, however, commemorated locally in various towns across Europe and on the island of St. Kitts, of course.

From the beginning Protestants have tried to diminish or eliminate the role of saints. Yet every denomination encourages its members to honor and imitate its founders and even exemplary Christians of the past, regardless of their church affiliation. And stories of Christians demonstrating wisdom, compassion and moral courage are always edifying, even if we don't agree with them on every doctrinal point. 

But what about ordinary Christians, those who didn't reach the heights of Christlike thought, speech and behavior but who nevertheless chose to follow Jesus till their death? That's the purpose of All Soul's Day, which is November 2nd. This is when we remember those who were our companions on our pilgrimage through this life, especially those who have left this world in the last year.

This highlights one of those things that people who claim to be spiritual but not religious, those who claim they can be Christian without being part of a church, miss out on: community. Community offers us what we cannot get by ourselves—acceptance, fellowship, satisfying roles and knowledge of life outside our personal experience.

A good church offers acceptance. We are all sinners redeemed by Christ. Churches should be like A.A., open to all who show up figuring that if a person comes it indicates a willingness to change and be part of the program. Excluding sinners on the basis that some sins are acceptable and some aren't is ludicrous. Jesus did not turn away any who came to him.

Besides acceptance, we also find fellowship. It is a form of kinship, though one that is not about being part of a biological family. It is not about sharing genes but about sharing interests and concerns and passions. Fellowship binds people together, which is at the root of the word "religion." It can also lead to friendships. Ours is, after all, a faith in which showing love for others is central.

In a church there are many jobs to be done and many roles that need to be filled. Using the gifts one has been given and the skills one has developed, one can serve God and his people in any number of ways—through music, speaking, organizing, building, teaching, helping, fundraising, word processing, sewing, cleaning, bookkeeping, praying, greeting, painting, mowing, and lots more. We all contribute to the mission and maintenance of the church. And sharing one's gifts makes them much more meaningful.

In church we learn about God. Even outside it most of what we learn comes from others. When we are infants and toddlers we learn from our parents and caretakers. When we children we learn from our schoolteachers and from our classmates. Throughout life we learn from bosses and coworkers and friends and church members. Some sources are founts of wisdom and some wells of folly. Some are great examples of what to do and others are great examples of what not to do. And if you find yourself in a church that is filled with the latter, finding a new church is easier than transferring schools or finding a new job. (I've never understood people abandoning their faith because they were unhappy with one church. That's like abandoning healthcare because you didn't like one doctor. Most people simply look for a physician they like better.) 

And when a person in the church dies, we lose that particular source of acceptance, love, and knowledge. As an African proverb says, “When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.” All that experience, all those insights, all that personality is gone. And so we remember these unique persons and our losses. But they are not permanent losses. They may have been removed from the board, so to speak, but they are not destroyed. God does not waste such goodness.

God creates and re-creates. He gives life and he gives it back again. Just as matter and energy cannot be destroyed but can be changed, so too the life God gives us cannot ultimately cease to exist but it can be changed. As Paul says, “Listen, I will tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a moment, in the blinking of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” (1 Corinthians 15:51, 52)

We commemorate the dead; we miss them and feel our loss of them; we mourn them but as Paul said, we do not mourn as do those who are without hope. Death is not the end. It is not “goodbye” but “au revoir,” “so long till we see each other again.” And so for the Christian, our seeing the person off is more like a retirement celebration or a bon voyage party. There are tears and we are sorry to see them leave, but for them it is the beginning of a new life, an new chapter, a new adventure. And we will see them again. Not in this world but in the next.

And so celebrating All Souls is a balance between our sadness for ourselves and our gladness for them. As Paul said when contemplating his coming execution, “For me living is Christ and dying is gain.” All that God created he pronounced good, both this world and the next. We have not totally ruined this world and the pleasures God created are still here for us; but the next will be better still. The departed are with Jesus and while we can no longer share the simple joys of this life with them, we will in the next life share joys indescribable.

Are the dead conscious of it now? I don't know. The Bible speaks of being asleep in the Lord and resting in Abraham's bosom and leaning on the everlasting arms. And yet some passages indicate an awareness of being in God's presence. Perhaps right now they enjoy restorative sleep. And maybe it like when my granddaughter falls asleep on my chest. She can be out like a light but if I lay her down she often wakes immediately and cries, knowing I am not holding her. I pick her up again and she goes right back to sleep and naps a long time and then wakes up happy and smiling and eager to explore the world. And that's how I like to think of the interval between our death and our resurrection. We sleep in God's arms, nestled against his chest, sensing his warmth and love, feeling totally safe. One day we'll awake and feel refreshed and renewed and look upon a new creation, with delights untold, just waiting to be discovered. And if it it not like that, it will be even better. Because no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has imagined the things that God has prepared for those who love him. (1 Corinthians 2:9)