Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Cost of Change

The scriptures referred to are Jonah 3:1-10, 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 and Mark 1:14-20.

Is having a change of mind a good thing or not? For most of us, it depends on the final position one arrives at. If, in our estimation, your original position was the wrong one, then we applaud the sudden enlightenment of the prodigal son. If, however, the change was from our orthodoxy to a different stance, then we deplore the change as the act of someone going astray or even as a form of betrayal. All in all, we don't like people to change. Even if they do come over to our side, we are often suspicious of their motives. For better or for worse, we often see a change of mind as a sign of weakness.

Thus it shocks a lot of people to read in the Bible that God changes his mind, as he does in today's passage from Jonah. Surely God is always right. So how could he change his mind about anything? Doesn't the Bible say God is changeless?

There are 2 sources for the Christian conception of God. One is the Bible, of course. The other is a philosophical tradition that flows from Plato and especially from Aristotle. This second stream emphasizes the perfection of God, a God who affects everything else but who is not affected by anything. This God is far removed from the lustful, warlike, petty, flawed and very human gods of Greek mythology. But this passionless God is not identical to the God of the Bible. And when thinkers like Thomas Aquinas wed Christian theology to Greek philosophy, the result subtly distorts portions of our picture of God.

The God of the Bible is never the cool abstraction the philosophers idealize. He is a God who loves, who is symbolized by fire. His love is that which does not change. But that in turn means he responds to the various needs and decisions of those he loves: his creatures. A loving parent does not respond in the same way to his children fighting as to them playing together. Different behavior demands different responses. What should remain consistent is that what you say and do should always come out of your love for your children and your desire for what is best for them. So you encourage your child to learn about and explore his world while stopping him from sticking a fork into an electrical outlet. And when you cannot redirect a child from destructive or aggressive behavior, you confront the child and lay out the consequences of her bad behavior. But as any parent knows this doesn't work if you aren't willing to carry out the punishment. Kids can sense when you're bluffing.

And that's the context of what's happening in the Book of Jonah. Nineveh was the capitol of the Assyrian Empire, which eventually destroyed the Northern kingdom of Israel and carried its ten tribes into exile. Its arrogance, ruthlessness and violence were proverbial. King Shalmaneser III boasted of building a pyramid of human heads in front of an enemy's city. The prophet Nahum, whose entire book is a denunciation of Nineveh, wrote, “Ah, city of crime, utterly treacherous, full of violence, where killing never stops!” So you can understand Jonah's reluctance to deliver God's message to such a detested place.

When Jonah finally does announce God's judgment, the city responds in a surprising way. Its inhabitants repent. And that causes God to repent—yes, that's what the Hebrew word means and how it's translated 41 times in the Old Testament. God changes his mind. But he doesn't change it about the sins that the citizens of Nineveh had done in the past. He didn't change his mind about the standards of behavior he expects. We are told that he changes his mind about the calamity he had announced. In response to the people changing their minds about their sins, God changes his mind about punishing them.

The fact that God can change his mind about which actions he will take is a good thing. It makes forgiveness possible. It makes prayer possible. It means that what we do is important. If God were to simply stay on course regardless of our actions, then our lives would be meaningless. We would be like the nameless crowds in the background of Hollywood movies, just computer-generated window dressing for panoramic scenes. But our actions can affect how God reacts.

But those actions must be sincere. Our heavenly Father is not Homer Simpson, easily duped by Bart. God knows our hearts. When repenting, mere tears and declarations of regret are not enough. Especially inadequate are the words “I'm sorry if you were offended.” That is not an admission of guilt but of a breach in etiquette. It is not even an apology for what you've done but rather for how the other person reacted. A confession of sin is the one time when one ought to talk only about oneself, not share the blame with others.

God expects our actions to reflect our professed change of heart. Real repentance demands a changed life. Lots of people quote Jesus' lack of condemnation of the woman caught in adultery and forget that he tells her to “go and sin no more.” Jesus was not saying that he saw nothing wrong with what she did. He was disputing the mob's right to judge and execute her. Based on his reading of her change of heart, he pardons her.

As we see in Mark's gospel, repentance was very much at the heart of Jesus' message. And you would think that it would make it a very unpopular message. But when you know something is not right, you want someone to tell you the truth. When you are very sick, the last thing you want your doctor to tell you is there's nothing wrong with you. You want a diagnosis because then you will know what you are up against. I've seen as a nurse what I was taught in pastoral care class: in certain cultures, the family doesn't want the patient to be told anything negative. They think this is a mercy. But often the patient knows that something is wrong. He senses that the family and the nurses are tiptoeing around some very serious topic. And so the patient's fear and dread are increased because a nameless threat is much scarier than one that has a definition.

In the first century Judea and Galilee people knew that there was something wrong with their lives, their country and the world. And so Jesus' blunt diagnosis was welcome. He said it was our own sins, our falling short of God's standards, our lack of trust in him, our lack of love for him and for each other that held back the establishment of his kingdom. He told them bluntly that they would have to stop making excuses and instead make changes in their hearts and minds and lives in order to enter the kingdom. They would have to put their trust in Jesus, a hick who worked with his hands, as God's agent in laying the foundation for God's reign. They would have to disown themselves, take up their crosses and follow him. It was a hard message to accept but many realized it was better than the lies that the politicians, within their faith community as well as outside, were telling.

And some would have to turn their backs on more than just their sins. Ever wonder how Jesus chose his disciples? In Mark, it looks as if they are merely responding to some magical siren song when he says, “Come; follow me.” But John tells us that Andrew was among those who followed John the Baptizer. He heard John refer to Jesus as “the Lamb of God” and Andrew told his brother Peter. It's also probable that they told their fellow fishermen and partners James and John. When Jesus goes into the desert for 40 days the men go back to work on Lake Galilee. Then Jesus reappears and issues his invitation to them and they follow.

At this point Jesus may have invited others who are not mentioned because they did not follow him. We know that he invited others to follow him at a later time and most of them had excuses. But the twelve disciples, his core group, responded without hesitation. And they left more than their sins behind. They left businesses and family, too. Not because these things are bad but because Jesus was establishing the kingdom of God and had called them to help. Like soldiers they left their family and livelihoods behind because they realized their mission took precedence. And maybe that's why Jesus chose them. They understood the priority of what he was doing.

That scares us. We know that God's objectives take priority over our own. But in our hearts other things take priority over God—not only our families and our jobs but also our lifestyles, our interests, our hobbies, even our flaws. A lot of the fear has to do not just with losing something we love but with losing our identities. We define ourselves through these things: what we love, what we do, how we spend our time, even how we screw up. Leaving them behind means leaving parts of ourselves behind. It means disowning yourself. Which is part of following Jesus—perhaps the hardest part.

But it's the idea of giving up our family that really disturbs us. Would Jesus really ask us to do that? Well, of the Twelve, the only one we know was married was Peter. And we know from Paul's first letter to the Corinthians that Peter took his wife with him on his missionary journeys. So leaving behind one's family is not an arbitrary, “one size fits all” rule.

We have to connect leaving one's family for Jesus to what he said in Luke about families being divided over him. The pressure of family disapproval discouraged a lot of people from following Jesus. It still does, especially in cultures where family solidarity is valued over individual decisions. While Jesus denounced those who used religious excuses to get around doing their duty to their family, he also felt it was wrong not to do the right thing simply because your family was holding you back. When push comes to shove, God comes first. The real question is whether your family is supportive. Peter's wife obviously was. (Jesus did, after all, heal her mother!) but if she hadn't been, Peter would have had to make a real tough choice. And it couldn't have been easy for James and John to just up and leave their father in the middle of net mending to follow an itinerant preacher.

Jesus had a similar problem with his family. John's gospel tells us how his brothers mocked him. The synoptic gospels tell us they thought he was crazy and tried to grab him and forcibly bring him home. Even his mother thought he'd lost it and she, of all people, should have known better. So Jesus had to choose between doing what his family wanted and fulfilling his mission. We know how he chose but we can only imagine what it cost him.

Imagine what it was like when Paul Revere and the other riders spread the word of the advance on Lexington by the King's Regulars. The Minutemen easily had dozens of good reasons not to leave their families and face an army of the greatest superpower of their day. Some had sick kids at home; some couldn't spare the time from their farms; some had to disentangle themselves from sobbing wives and children urging them not to get shot or get hung as traitors. But if they hadn't gone, the British would have arrested John Hancock and Samuel Adams and seized the patriots' arsenal.

Or imagine the resistance followers of Martin Luther King Jr. encountered from their families. They knew they would be set upon by dogs, be knocked off their feet by the full force of fire hoses and be beaten with billy clubs by police. But if the Freedom Marchers had made their fearful families happy, they would never have seen those families free to vote or to buy the house they wanted or to get the education they wanted or to get the job they wanted. By disregarding their families' objections, they helped their families and others.

When God calls us, he expects us to respond, not to make excuses. Some of those excuses might be reasonable and even commendable. But we must have the discipline of soldiers and realize that our mission is no less a matter of life and death. We do not go to destroy but to save. We have no weapons but the Word of God and the Spirit of God. We can but pray and teach and love. And we must travel light. We must leave behind all encumbrances. That includes our sins, obviously, but also anything that keeps us from doing the right thing. The list of obstacles will be different for each of us but we must recognize them for what they are.

And for most of us that will not mean leaving our family. In fact, for many of us our family is our mission field. And they are the toughest because they know you and they know if you are displaying signs of a God-centered life. Whenever you are tempted to act holier than thou, family members can be counted on to take you down a peg or two. Which means that when we approach family on spiritual matters, the best approach is to be humble. In fact that is the best approach to take with anyone.

To paraphrase Martin Luther said, evangelism is really just one beggar telling another one where to find bread. Jesus is the Bread of life. We are not the Baker, just beggars. If we look at it that way, the biggest cost to following Jesus is giving up our arrogance, our personal pride, our egotistical need to seen as perfect or larger than life. That's what Jesus meant when he said to follow him, we must first disown ourselves. If we leave the heavy weight of our egos at the foot of Jesus' cross, picking up our own cross won't be nearly the burden we fear it to be. Especially if you consider not just the cost but the reward. All drastic changes mean choosing one thing over another. But the best changes leave you with much more than you left behind. In Matthew 19, the disciples said to Jesus, “Lord, we have left everything to follow you. What then will there be for us?” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things,...everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.” (Matt 19:26-29) What we give up to follow Jesus is temporary. Even the best of it--wealth, power, acclaim. It was never going to last forever. But what we receive from him will. And chief among what we receive is ourselves, our true selves as God intended us to be, created out of his love, object of his love and channel of that love for all eternity.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Trade-offs, Knock-offs and Settling for Less

The scripture referred to is 1 Corinthians 6:12-20.

I was reading a blog on which people were posting silly, obvious and bizarre product warnings. A label on an air conditioner warns owners to “Avoid dropping air conditioners out of windows.” That's the last thing I want to do with it. One brand of iron warns consumers not to iron their clothes while wearing them. Ouch. That reminds me of the clothes label on a kid's shirt that tells us to remove the child when drying. Uh, thanks. Most shampoos bear the legend “For external use only.” Are some people unclear on how to use shampoo? A string of Christmas lights that tells us they are “For indoor/outdoor use.” So what are they excluding? Outer space? There is the powdered baby formula that helpfully tells us “Must add water.” Anyone who can't figure that out should not be left alone with a baby. My favorite, though, is found on a can of mace: “May irritate eyes.”

The sad thing about these “Well, duh!” warnings is that some corporate attorney felt strongly that each of these was necessary. Does that mean an iron manufacturer was sued by someone who tried to touch up his shirt while he was still in it? Did someone try to get clean hair by swigging Head and Shoulders? Did someone somewhere think that Mace was a suitable substitute for Visine?

Not all risks are as obvious as those, however. After 9/11 a lot of people were so spooked they chose to travel by car rather than fly. Yet each year only 200 people die in plane crashes whereas 40,000 die in car accidents. Practically everyone here has had or knows someone who has had a serious car accident, some of which easily could have been life threatening. But we drive so frequently and are so familiar with the procedure that it lulls us into a false sense of safety. Which is why we put on makeup, eat, text, search our playlists, check our Facebook, jot notes and do a whole lot of other things when we should be focused on driving. This doesn't even include bad habits of driving itself like tailgating and disregarding the signs that tell us the speed limit and when not to pass. I'm not saying we should refuse to drive ever again but that we should never forget how dangerous it is and we should at least avoid behaviors that needlessly risk our lives and those of others.

Paul is dealing with something similar in today's passage from 1st Corinthians. Corinth was the “Sin City” of its day. In fact, the town's name was turned into a verb that meant “to get debauched.” So some of the Christians there liked it when Paul talked of being freed from the law and living by the Spirit. What they took away from this was that obeying the law was bad. I've met so-called Christians who espoused these views. They weren't pro-murder or pro-theft but they felt that saying you shouldn't get drunk or stoned or sleep with whoever you liked was tantamount to siding with the Pharisees.

But they were misinterpreting what Paul meant. Paul meant that having the right relationship with God was not a matter of legalistically observing the letter of the law of Moses. Rather it is a matter of living in the Spirit. That means responding wholeheartedly to God's Holy Spirit and living a life that embodies the Spirit of Christ. Unfortunately some members of the church at Corinth took it to mean that the only thing that was important was the life of the Spirit; what you did with the body was not important. In our reading Paul quotes his opponents and then refutes their ideas.

First Paul takes on the idea that freedom in Christ means that anything goes. He points out that even if “all things are lawful for me,” it doesn't follow that all things are beneficial. It's true of human law. You are free to do lots of things that are not in your best interest. There are no laws against eating 10 times as many calories as you actually need each day but the result will be anything but beneficial. Stupidity is not illegal, sad to say. Though texting while driving is against the law, painting your toenails while doing so is not. That doesn't make it a good idea. Freedom in Christ doesn't mean freedom from using your head. Wisdom and discernment are still Biblical virtues.

Paul also points out that just because something is lawful doesn't mean you should let it take over your life. Of course this is true of things that are bad for us. But let's forget about drugs and alcohol and the like for a minute. Using Dr. Drew Pearson's definition of addiction—any behavior that one persists in despite mounting negative consequences—we've seen that nearly anything can be addictive for some people. There are people addicted to sports, to eating, to following politics, to surfing the net, to collecting things, to exercise and to any number of otherwise morally neutral activities. Things that are thought to be harmless can in excess disrupt lives.

People can even be addicted to things that are good, like certain religious practices, to the detriment to the rest of their life, to their family, even to their own spiritual life. In this case it is a matter of the practice in question being out of balance, just like an exercise enthusiast can overdo running or weight lifting to the point that it is destroying their joints and their health. It is literally too much of a good thing. Jesus said we are to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves. That means there should be a balance between the 2. The Christian life is about prayer and worship and studying the Bible and also about getting out into the world and serving others. Remember that in Jesus' parable about the last judgment in Matthew 25 the big sin is neglecting the physical and social needs of others. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus also said that lots of people will think their place in the kingdom of Heaven is secure because they preached and cast out demons and did miracles in his name. Jesus' withering reply, “I never knew you. Get away from me, you evildoers!” Even a virtue can become a vice if it crowds out other healthy parts of life. This is what Jesus objected to in the Pharisees: a lack of a sense of proportion that let them value ritual over our more important duties to our neighbor.

The freedom we receive in Christ is freedom from sin and whatever else enslaves us. Paul says it therefore makes no sense to turn around and become enslaved again. That would be like celebrating graduation from rehab by going to a bar.

The next thing Paul says is another quote from his opponents' arguments: “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food.” The thrust of this saying is that both are natural and are meant to be used. Paul responds in 2 ways. First Paul agrees that both of these are natural but then points out that they are both temporary. Too often we forget that most of what we encounter in this life are transitory. And it is not merely material things that pass away but also governments, cultures and even temptations. On the other hand, our life in Christ is eternal. And it would be silly to trade away what is eternal for what is temporary. That would be the ultimate in short-term thinking.

Next, however, Paul denies the implicit analogy between eating and illicit sex and reveals the true nature of the argument. “The body was not meant for fornication...” The Greek word porneia, here translated fornication, includes everything from adultery to incest. The relationship between sexual sins and the body is not at all like the relationship between food and the body. The body needs food to live. The urge to have sex with someone may feel like a need but it isn't. And if it is the wrong person, forgoing such sex can save your life. Because of heterosexual promiscuity, AIDS is orphaning generations in Africa. Here in the US after a decade of declining, sexually transmitted diseases are on the rise. That includes syphilis which was almost eliminated. And STDs are especially going up in those over 60 years old! Germs do not engage in age discrimination.

Uncommitted sex is not good for a stable love life either. Scientific studies found that people who live together break up at a higher rate than married couples, even if the cohabiting couple marry later. And we've seen how adult sexual promiscuity negatively impacts children's lives, through broken parental relationships and poverty. It also causes problems for those offspring maintaining adult relationships once they've grown.

And yet Paul doesn't uses any of these pragmatic reasons for avoiding sexual sins. After all you can speed occasionally and not crash and you can fool around occasionally and not get caught or get a disease. People always use these exception to excuse their indiscretions. Paul takes another tack. “The body is not meant for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.” Paul raises a question even Christians rarely think about: to whom do our bodies belong?

Our bodies belong to us,” is the modern politically correct answer. That what we do with our bodies is no one's business but our own. But we get our bodies from God. Yes, our parents provide us with their DNA and a place in which your body could develop but they don't decide which genes we get from whom, which genes will be switched on and which will be switched off and how they will combine into a unique individual. And we are more than mere matter. We are also spiritual beings, created in the image of God. We bear the signature of our creator. We are his.

Part of the image of God in us is our ability to choose. And we have not always chosen well. To save us from the consequences of our bad and self-destructive choices, we were redeemed by Jesus Christ. So we are doubly his, by virtue of being his creations and by virtue of his having bought us with his blood.

Perhaps the Corinthians were influenced by some kind of incipient Gnosticism. It was a philosophy that radically separated the material from the spiritual. Matter was bad; spirit was good. Salvation was achieved through secret knowledge that enabled one to transcend the body. Some Gnostics were ascetics, who sought to subdue the body through extreme physical deprivation and discipline. Other Gnostics felt that since the body was inherently bad, you couldn't redeem it. So you might as well let the body do what it wanted while your mind was occupied with higher things. This last variety of Gnosticism seems to be the one that was infiltrating the church at Corinth.

Paul, however, was saying that the body and the material world are important and are capable of redemption. They are not to be despised. God did not create this world just to destroy it. He wants to put it right again. Just as Jesus did not return from death as a disembodied spirit but as a complete person, God is working towards a physical world that is directed by and embodies his Spirit of love, justice and peace.

The embodiment of the Spirit of God in this world starts with us, the people redeemed by Jesus. We are to be his hands and his eyes and his mouth and his arms and everything else of his to the world. That's why we can't simply do whatever we like with our bodies. Especially when it comes to making parodies of committed human love. The world is inundated with inferior knock-offs of what God intends for us. People have come to accept that this is all that is available. They ignore the inner voice that says that love should be lifelong, that those who truly love should commit themselves to support each other through any adversity, that they should be unafraid to declare their commitment before God and others. In place of “till death do us part,” we have substituted “till the way we feel about each other at this moment changes do we part.”

I find it ironic that at a time when 1 out of every 2 new marriages does not last, when the number of people marrying has declined by 50% since 1970, when 68% of couples cohabit rather than or before marrying, that the people who have been waging a concerted legal campaign to marry in the traditional way are gays. Heterosexuals have always been able to marry and they have been discarding it so callously lately for the hazards of uncommitted sex whereas gays, having been forbidden to marry for centuries, have been eager to seize the opportunity to trade their so-called wild “anything goes” lifestyle for fidelity and a family. Who'd have thought back in the 60s and 70s that the straights would be the ones abandoning the nuclear family and that the gays would be the ones defending it?

We have lowered our expectations of ourselves and of each other. And so relationships are now entered into with no thought as to whether it will be long-term or not. And just as this short-term thinking has invaded our most intimate, foundational relationships, it has infiltrated every other relationship in society. People run their businesses as if their client were one-night stand, to whom they have no long-term commitment. Politicians have led on the voters with empty promises until they have gotten what they wanted from them: election. Even parents' commitment and unspoken promises to their children has eroded, so that not merely fathers but also mothers abandon their flesh and blood for a lover. And those children have learned that they cannot count on the relationship that should nourish, buttress and protect their home life. Children from broken homes have not only have trouble in school and with their mental health but, lacking a positive model of a stable adult relationship in their developing years, they in turn have trouble establishing long-term relationships as adults. Because they've learned that everyone is on the make, everyone is looking for immediate gratification. They've learned that promises are merely a way to get what you want and in no way should be seen as real obligations. They've learned that any consequences of your actions can be weaseled out of, just as baby daddies do with the children who are the consequences of their acts.

Shun fornication!” Do not fall for the easy way, the way of exploitation, of short-term thinking. I'm sure Paul hoped his audience would react to his warning with the kind of “Well, duh!” that accompanies the warning not to drive or operate heavy machinery after taking sleeping pills. But he knew and we know that in this matter most people do not think with the 3 pound organ that resides in their skulls. As Christians we must model God's truly loving, committed, long-term approach to all relationships. We must remember that when we accepted Jesus into our life, we did not merely adopt an external moral code . We invited God to come and dwell within us. And that means turning ourselves into a fit habitation for the Spirit of God. We are to be temples of the Holy Spirit. We are to be lanterns of God, bringing his light into the darkness, exposing what is inferior, degraded and distorted, highlighting what is better, nurturing and inspiring. This is what we were made for. This is what God wants for us. Let us not settle for parodies of faith, hope and love. Let us show the people of the world that there is more to life than settling for scraps of temporary pleasure. Jesus told us that he will never leave us or forsake us. Let us do the same for those we love. And let us thereby renew the foundations of human society.  

Monday, January 12, 2015

New Beginnings

The scriptures referred to are Genesis 1:1-5, Acts 19:1-7 and Mark 1:4-11.

I think most writers of books, articles, short stories or even sermons would agree that the hardest part of the task is the beginning. Even if you have a definite idea of where you want to go, how do you set out to get there? Do you start off by introducing the long backstories of the characters or do you wait? If you ask me, way too many of the comic book movies feel they have to begin with the hero's origins even if it's general knowledge, like those of Superman and Batman. And each time they reboot a series they feel they have to do the origin story all over again!

Do you set up the general situation and all the factors or issues that will pay off later? The second Star Wars trilogy started off with some very boring trade negotiations that somehow seemed to George Lucas to be the logical beginning of the story of Darth Vader. Most fans disagreed. I think the problem of crafting a beginning is why so many stories today begin in the middle, right in the heat of action, and then say, “48 hours earlier...” and then flashback to how the characters got into that crisis. The film “Momento” actually starts at the end of the story and goes backwards, scene by scene. It is mimicking the problem the protagonist, a detective trying to find his wife's killer, struggles with: brain damage that prevents him from remembering what happened just a few minutes ago. So watching the scenes in reverse order, the audience also doesn't know what preceded it. When you get to the end of the film, you see the beginning of the story, which is astonishing but makes total sense. It's a neat trick but obviously, it's one that has limited use. In general, it's best to start at the beginning. And today's lectionary readings are all about beginnings.

You can't start any farther back than Genesis 1:1. However I do have some quibbles with the New Revised Standard translation on this passage, especially verse 2 which reads in part, “A wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” I wish they used the traditional translation of the Hebrew word ruach. Yes, it can mean “wind” but its most obvious translation in this context is “Spirit.” The “Spirit of God” arguably is closer to the author's intent than a “wind from God.” Also “swept” is a rather vigorous rendering of the word rachaf which usually means “hover” or “brood.” Wind doesn't hover. But the Spirit of God could, especially in the sense of “brood,” like a hen about to hatch eggs. The Spirit of God is poised over the formless void about to bring forth creation.

God then speaks: “Let there be light.” For God, to say is to do. In fact a more literal translation of verse 3 would be: “God said, 'Let light be.' Light was.” In the Hebrew there's no delay, no build up. God says it; it is. Bang! There.

Each act of creation follows this pattern. God names something and calls it into existence. He then makes some distinctions in what he has just created and organizes the elements of it. It's all very orderly. In the first 3 days of creation God sets the stage. Day one—light; day two—sky and sea; day three—land. For the next 3 days he populates the settings: first, sun, moon and stars; then birds and fish; finally land animals and humans. And at the end of each creative day God looks at his work and pronounces it good.

The reason Genesis 1 is read on the first Sunday of Epiphany is to display its parallels with Jesus' baptism. And in harmony with the terse poetry of Genesis, we have the abrupt, straightforward, simple Greek of Mark's Gospel this year. Mark is the briefest, most stripped down, fastest paced of the gospels. So we get a lot less information about John the Baptizer in Mark than in the other gospels. In Mark, John appears, introduces Jesus, baptizes him and leaves the stage. Even his death is told in flashback. John in fact only has one speech to say because Mark is ruthlessly focused on Jesus. Mark sticks to the essentials.

Even so, Mark's brief account of the beginning of Jesus' ministry resonates with the Genesis account of the beginning of creation: there is water, there is the Spirit, there is God pronouncing things good, Let's look at each separately.

The water of creation parallels the water of baptism, which is associated with birth and cleansing. Jews had many kinds of ceremonial washings. The sole “one time only” ceremonial cleansing was reserved for a gentile converting to Judaism. For John to call Jews to be baptized was shocking and for Jews to respond by coming forward and undergoing baptism was surprising. Evidently, the call to new birth was seen by people as exactly what they needed. And the river Jordan is important because it was by crossing this body of water that Joshua (in Hebrew Yeshua, the same as Jesus) led the Israelites into the promised land. In the same way, the baptized were returning home from a spiritual exile.

The action of the Spirit in Mark echoes Genesis. The Spirit doesn't come like a roaring wind here, nor does he swoop in like a raptor. He descends gently like a dove. This recalls that Hebrew word that means “brood” and which could also mean “flutter.”

As in Genesis God makes a pronouncement on what happens. He calls Jesus his son and says he is more than just “good.” Jesus is called the Beloved. God is well pleased with him.

There is even a subtle reference to light. We are told that the heavens were torn apart. This probably means the clouds parted and the sun shown brightly. It was dramatic enough to impress those who witnessed it and it underlined the significance of the event when it was retold. Alternately, it could have meant that the veil that keeps us from looking beyond the surface of reality was ripped open and that there was a vision of heaven, giving a rare glimpse of the dimension in which everything is in harmony with God's will. In that case, everything is now seen in a different light.

There is of course a difference between Genesis 1 and Mark 1. Genesis tells of the definitive beginning. This is the first time for everything. The Gospel tells us of a new beginning. God is kicking off a new creation, a redemption of the old creation. This kind of creation is both easier and harder. It is easier because you already have stuff to work with. You don't have to reinvent the wheel. You can simply retain the bits that work well and either jettison, replace or rethink the bits that don't. The hard part for humans is distinguishing which is which.

For an example of a re-creation that didn't work look at New Coke. Coca Cola executives really hated the fact that, despite the fact they outsold Pepsi, in blind taste tests people preferred their rival's sweeter product. And Pepsi continually ran ads that touted this. So Coke execs changed their basic formula until they came up with a sweeter Coke that beat Pepsi in those blind taste tests. But people didn't want a Coke that no longer tasted like the Coke they grew up with. New Coke tanked and they had to bring back the old formula. Which still outsold Pepsi.

For an example of a re-creation that did work, look at the longest running science fiction show in the world, Doctor Who. After 27 seasons, the classic series about a mysterious alien who traveled through all of time and space fighting evil was canceled. It was a beloved institution in Britain and a cult series here in America. After a decade and a half, it was revived. They discarded the quaint and outdated bits—the 25 minute episodes always ending in a cliffhanger, the rubbery-looking monsters, wobbly sets, laughable special effects and the almost complete absence of an inner life for the Doctor and his companions. They retained what was essential—the eccentric hero who periodically changes his face and personality, his marvelous time machine, the mind-blowing science fictional concepts and the fact that the show was made for the whole family. They improved the characterizations, the pacing, the drama and the special effects. Now the series' hero is as mainstream as Sherlock Holmes or James Bond.

We face a similar challenge in the church. God is calling us to be his agents in the ongoing work of establishing his new creation. The problem is that we tend to be very bad at discerning what is and is not essential about the old creation and thus what needs to be preserved. Some people want to throw everything out. Others want to retain it all. As usual the truth is somewhere between the two extremes.

You would think the essentials are obvious. For instance we don't know what Jesus looks like. We don't need to. That isn't essential to understanding him or following him. What he did and said are, however.

Our passage from Acts tells how Paul went to Ephesus and found some followers of John the Baptizer. They knew of the need to repent but not of their need for the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is essential. He leads us into truth, convinces us of sin, and encourages us. The Spirit helps us pray, gives us the words to help us defend our faith, distributes spiritual gifts to believers. The Spirit unites us. The Spirit is the Spirit of Christ. The Spirit is God within us.

We've seen what happens when people attempt to follow Christ apart from the Spirit. We've seen when churches substitute hate for God's love. We've seen what happens when people try to turn the church into a money-making machine. We've seen what happens when people try to turn the church into a personality cult revolving around a super-star preacher. We've seen what happens when people try to eliminate all talk of sin, omit the confession from the worship service, get rid of all preparation for baptism, and erase all distinctions between Christianity and other religions, all in the name of a love that functions more like benign neglect. Those are all bad theologies. None are in the Spirit of Christ who loves all and calls all to repent, to deny themselves, to take up their crosses and to follow him.

One reason we don't see as much evidence of the kingdom of God in this world as we should is because people in the church tend to get sidetracked by non-essentials. Most news about the church is usually on issues like creationism, abortion, gay rights, priestly celibacy, saying “Happy holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas,” nativity displays in public places and other issues. They may or may not be important but they clearly aren't essential because they were never mentioned by Jesus. We spend so much energy on them, though, that people think that they must be central to the faith.

It's partially the media's fault. A nasty conflict within the church makes for a better story than church members feeding the hungry or setting up schools or staffing hospitals overseas or rebuilding communities after disasters or working for peace or helping refugees or sheltering the homeless or rehabilitating substance abusers or educating prisoners or fighting human trafficking or reconciling races or working across denominational lines or all the other boring good things we do.

But it's also true that when we have conflicts we often  go to the media to get our side out. And we are the ones who say the issues are so important that we can't possibly stay in the same communion or church or organization with those Christians who disagree with us. We put these issues ahead of the principle of accommodating the weaker brother and ahead of Christ's command to love one another.

The great thing about new beginnings is that they can take place practically anytime. You can decide to stop, rethink things, turn around, and start over. The church has gotten offtrack before. And the Spirit chose Christians like Benedict, Odo, Martin Luther, Francis of Assisi, General William Booth, Dorothy Day and others to pioneer a new direction for the church. And not just any direction. First they asked what are the essentials of the Christian faith and practice and then they made changes in order to express them anew. They didn't simply return to a earlier expression or way of doing things. Recognizing the specific situations they found themselves in, they found new ways to express timeless truths. They didn't reinvent the wheel; they changed the worn out tire!

It's a new year. We face new challenges. Some people are going to want to hunker down and lay low until the whole thing is over. That's not going to work. Some folks are going to try going back and living in a golden age of the past. We don't have a time machine so that's not going to work. A few will see this as an opportunity to try something new. Of these, some will want to throw everything out and start from scratch. They will get attention but only some of what they come up with will be useful and most will not last. A very few will actually try to distinguish between what is essential and what is not, what to keep and what to change. They will use these insights to generate new paradigms, new ways of looking at and dealing with the challenges, ways that are paradoxically anchored in ancient truths.

It will take dedication. It will take passion. It will take a commitment to Jesus Christ. It will take the gentle touch of the Spirit. It will take listening for the approval of God. It will take humility and self-sacrifice and putting others before ourselves. God has set the stage. He has put the actors—us—in place. Every part, large or small, is important. We need to trust the author. And, saying “Yes” to what he has established, we need to move the drama towards its conclusion. There is no script but we know how this story will end: with reconciliation, with peace, with oneness, with the mutual love that will let the world know that we are his disciples and that the Spirit of God is doing something new. We are to model now the fact that the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ.  

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Constants of Change

The first birth I attended as a nurse ended once and for all any romanticized idea of the beginnings of life. It was very bloody, very messy and, though I knew the baby's skull was designed to “give” a little in order to make it through the birth canal, I was shocked to see how much it could deform. I thought at first the baby's skull was crushed. But slowly it expanded from a football shape to a rounder one. The mother's pain was obviously great. It was so far from a Hallmark card moment that it influenced my first Christmas sermon, which was a somewhat more realistic look at what the birth of Jesus would be like. I entitled it “Christmess.”

Beginnings are rarely clean and neat. And it is difficult to make clear delineations of when the beginning actually begins. Just as a baby doesn't come into this world out of nothing but only after 9 months of development, it is often hard to say precisely when something starts. We've just entered a new year but the world didn't reboot at midnight on December 31. For that matter every new day is largely made up of the state of affairs that existed the previous day. There will be new developments and of course some lives will begin and others will end but much will remain the same. That consistency can be comforting and stabilizing, while the new features keep the world from stagnating.

It's the same way with human growth. Every day cells in your body die and new cells take over and yet you are not radically different. Every 7 years all the cells in your body have been replaced and while a comparison of photos and medical imaging that far apart will reveal obvious differences, you will most likely be recognizable as the same person. There is that You Tube video in which we see a little girl, photographed every week, go from infant to 14 year old. At each point it is clear we are looking at the same kid, yet the changes between her original and final state (in terms of of the video) are plain.

Newness then is not a matter of total discontinuity but of the accumulation of many small changes over time. This is true not only of the material world but of spiritual and moral development as well. Jesus frequently compared the kingdom of God to mustard seeds, wheat and other things that slowly and often imperceptibly grow into something quite different looking. This is important because a lot of people think, say, repentance should work like the Emergency Bat Turn Lever in the 1960s Batman TV series which allowed the Batmobile to make a 180 degree turn in place. That was ludicrous even in a campy TV show. It is well-nigh ludicrous in real life. A few people do seem to change their lives overnight but for most of us change is slow. And that can make people doubt that change is taking place. I've had patients feel like that when when recovery from surgery seems to be taking forever or they seem to have hit a plateau while in rehab. We aren't microwave meals. It takes time for us to be ready.

The reason I bring this up is twofold: first, many people make New Year's resolutions to change some habit of theirs but second, and more importantly, Christianity is about transformation. It is not about maintaining the status quo. That's the role the powers that be want religion to play in society: tell everyone that God is cool with the way we are running things. But Jesus was also a prophet, called by God to critique society and hold it up to God's standards. He was anything but a proponent of continuing to do the same old boring thing. As Dorothy L. Sayers said, “The people who hanged Christ never, to do them justice, accused him of being a bore—on the contrary, they thought him too dynamic to be safe. It has been left for later generations to muffle up that shattering personality and surround him with an atmosphere of tedium. We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified him 'meek and mild,' and recommended him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies.”

Jesus started his ministry by quoting the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has appointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and the regaining of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor...” Isaiah was talking about the exiles in Babylon coming home. These are the captives and the oppressed being referred to. The “year of the Lord's favor” also harkens back to the Jubilee year. According to Leviticus 25:8-13, every 50th year in Israel all debts were canceled, all economic slaves were freed, and all leased land was returned to its original owners. Imagine if we did that today. It would disrupt our economy. Being in debt is an accepted part of life nowadays. It's how we do business. The banks and corporations would oppose canceling debts. Jesus is using it in a spiritual sense, though. He is talking about how he will free us from our enslavement to our sins, our own self-destructive habits, our indebtedness to God over past harmful behavior. In Christ God graciously forgives us our sins and cancels the penalties we otherwise would incur for them.

And just as the Jubilee year, and the return of the Jews from exile in Babylon, would disrupt life as we know it, so should our liberation in Christ. In the case of Zaccheus the chief tax collector, after Jesus met with him he gave half his possessions to the poor and reimbursed any whom he cheated 4 times the amount he took. (Luke 19:1-10) In Acts chapters 2 and 4 we see the early Christians selling their property, putting it in a common fund and supporting everyone from it. That's pretty radical. And we see that the reason that it apparently didn't survive was selfishness and deceit. People were not willing to give everything and more importantly, they were not willing to be honest about not giving everything, even though that was not required.

Maybe the problem was that they were trying to radically change everything at once. Sometimes that's necessary to make a change stick. You could argue that the reason why the change to the metric system failed in America because the government let the English system remain alongside the metric. People weren't forced to learn the new and so they didn't.

But sometimes this "all or nothing" approach works against making the change stick. If you are going to take up running, don't just run outside and start doing marathons. You need to, after talking with your doctor, start small and work up to running several miles a day. A lot of us try to suddenly radically change our whole life—no snacks, no coffee, no cigarettes, all organic foods and getting up at 5 to work out at the gym 4 times a week—and it falls apart because it's too big a change. The best way is to work out a timetable that you can stick to, phasing out some things and adding others according to a plan.

One important element to making changes is having a plan. We know what we want to change but we don't come up with a feasible plan to do it. We expect to wing it. But inertia and our ingrained habits will stop us every time. We need to work out just how to implement the change.

Speaking of inertia and our habits, there are many obstacles to change. For one thing we may be comfortable with the way things are. In my experience as a nurse, people don't make healthy changes until their present condition is so painful that change and all its attendant inconveniences are seen as much needed relief. People decide to stop smoking when the hacking cough leaves them feeling beat up. People decide to get in shape when their hip and knee and back problems get so bad that they must do something. They give up texting while driving only after the collision that harms or kills someone else. Comfort and complacency are major obstacles to change. Sadly enough, pain is often an important element in getting us to change.

A lack of knowledge or the skills to change can be an obstacle as well. You want to change but you don't know how. Fortunately, today you can find all kinds of resources to help you—your doctor, a trainer, a 12 Step group or support group, books by experts, and reputable internet sites. Ignorance is no excuse today. We live in the information age. My only caveat is to look for consensus. For instance, there are lots of diets that claim if you simply eliminate one kind of food or start eating one exotic vegetable, the weight will melt off without additional effort just like magic. Even if it did it may be impossible to maintain such a radical diet. If one site or book insists that there is a one-size-fits-all single factor to change, keep looking. Especially if they are trying to sell you the cure. Life is rarely that simple.

Fear can be a huge obstacle to change. It may be fear of the change itself. If you are trying to give up alcohol and you fear this will change your ability to socialize with friends or a spouse, that may discourage you from making this vital change. Or you may fear failure. You may be afraid that if you tell everyone about the change you are trying to make and you fail, you will look bad or silly in the eyes of others. Getting an accountability partner, someone who is also trying to make the same change or who has already done so, can help tremendously. Give them your plan and give them permission to check up on your progress. Keeping your plans to yourself can make you fail.

Perfectionism is a major obstacle to making a change. You want to do it perfectly or you don't want to do it at all. I am a recovering perfectionist. And paradoxically it resulted in me procrastinating. I didn't want to try anything unless I was completely ready to do it perfectly. Which is really not an option in this life. But I would put things off because I wasn't sure I could do them flawlessly. Two quotes helped me deal with this. One is by Samuel Johnson who said, “Nothing will ever be attempted if all possible objections must first be overcome.” Certainly it is advisable to consider the most likely objections and obstacles to arise and make plans to avoid or minimize them. But some will always remain and you have to accept that nothing you do will be absolutely without fault. The second quotation really helped with this. Christian writer G. K. Chesterton wrote, “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” He was speaking about hobbies and amateur pursuits but the point is similar to Johnson's. Don't avoid doing something just because you won't do it as well as you'd like. Rarely will you will called upon to improvise something that will result in death if you don't do it precisely right. Everything you have mastered in life you once did for the first time and you did it badly. Every artist, every writer, every salesman, every mechanic, every nurse, every public speaker, every teacher, every leader has some early effort that they look back on which causes them to shudder—or to laugh. If you don't try something, you'll never get better at it. Everyone can improve. If it's worth doing, it's worth doing badly, at least at first.

And that applies to following Jesus. The disciples screwed up royally again and again. They said and did the wrong thing many times. Jesus didn't kick them out. He worked with them. He knew they were imperfect when he chose them. Even after Jesus' ascension Peter still could be hardheaded as we see when in Acts 10 where he argues with a vision God gives him about accepting Gentiles. We see in Galatians 2 that Peter chickened out on his stance on Gentiles until Paul confronted him. And Paul, too, was flawed in seeing an asset given by God. He evidently changed his mind about John Mark, the nephew of Barnabas, his first missionary partner. Their joint ministry broke up because Mark had left them during a trip and Paul would not let Barnabas bring him on the next. Yet in no less than 3 of his letters (Philemon 1:24; Colossians 4:10; 2 Timothy 4:11) Paul commends Mark as a fellow worker and as someone who was very useful to Paul's ministry. Even Paul could be wrong!

Following Jesus isn't a science. And even if it were, science is always a work in progress. You wouldn't want to teach a class with a science textbook from the 1950s. This is not to say that there aren't certain constants in following Jesus. You still must pray, study your Bible, find and join a community of Christians trying to follow Jesus, worship regularly, be a good steward of the gifts given you, tell others the good news and obey the commands to love God and to love others, not just in word but in action. But you are going to find yourself fighting the devil in the details. C.S. Lewis said that becoming a Christlike person is more like painting a portrait than following rules. The only way to get better is by practice.

My granddaughter is starting to walk. She takes a step or two and then ends up on her butt. Nobody is trying to stop her from attempting to walk until she gets it right. We are encouraging her and trying not to make her feel too bad about the setbacks. Every step pleases us. And every step we take in following Jesus pleases God. He is, as Lewis said, easy to please but hard to satisfy. Just as we would be unsatisfied if by age 21 Zoe still couldn't walk. But what's important is that she's trying. And that's true of our walk with God. The whole point of the parable of the talents is that the 3rd servant didn't even try to use what his master gave him. The master even suggests a conservative course he could have taken that would have seen him make some increase. (Matthew 25:14-30)

To paraphrase Lao-tzu, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step...followed by another and another and another. As hard as making the changes necessary as we follow Jesus are, that pilgrimage also begins with a step, followed by many, many more. But we have a great companion who has trod that path before and who will encourage us to keep going until we arrive at the gates of his Father's house.