Thursday, February 26, 2015

How to Study the Bible

Somebody once asked me how I write my sermons. My impression was not that this person was asking about the actual writing process but the way I string together the ideas. One answer is simply that this is the way my mind works. I have always been a mental magpie, plucking bits of wisdom from wherever I spot them—a proverb, a line in a comic book, a news story on NPR, a pop culture trope—bringing them back to my nest and arranging them in some coherent pattern. Formally, you could call it inductive reasoning, bringing together various observations or pieces of data and deriving a general principle from them.

In most cases it starts with scripture. I read the lectionary texts for a particular day, often in more than 1 translation; I take note of what words, phrases, ideas or questions leap out at me; I look up any interesting Greek or Hebrew words; I read commentaries; I mull them over and look for parallels in other sources, in my personal experience or in the experience of others. Then I organize and write it, verifying facts and quotes and honing the language and the logical and psychological reasoning that connects it all.

But I'm not going to be doing that for these Lenten midweek services. That is, I'll do the research and the mulling but we are going to be doing a series of Bible studies prepared by the Florida-Bahamas Synod. The purpose is to encourage and come up with ideas for local churches to do missions in their area. And the way we are going to do this is by inductive Bible study.

The simplest form of inductive Bible study is to break it down into 3 steps: observation, interpretation and application. First you observe what the Bible says in a passage. Then you interpret it. And finally you apply it to your life—if appropriate. Some passages of scripture are prescriptive. They tell us what to do or give us an example to emulate or adapt to our circumstances. Other times a passage is descriptive. It's a bit of history or background details. Or it might be a bad example for us to avoid, like the actions of Lot and his family. You can regard it as a cautionary tale or just another instance of sin.

That's one big reason why it's important to look at the context of a verse or passage. People are forever taking Bible verses out of context and then twisting the interpretation to justify their opinions or desires. But context can be crucial. Let's say in a story a woman walks in on a man and says, “What are you doing?” To really understand her question, it's vital to know whether the man is scattering rose petals on their bed or standing over a dead body. So context is key to understanding.

We are going to use a passage from Mark. Normally I would look at the whole chapter or even the chapters before and after the passage in question, just to make sure I knew the context. In this case, though, this is one in a series of confrontations in which Jesus' critics are lobbing religious questions at him hoping to trap him in some heresy. Read Mark 12:28-34.

What do you notice? Any words or phrases that jump out? Any interesting or surprising details? With a familiar passage I like to take note of what it actually says. And what it doesn't say. Ever read a passage you thought you knew and realized it was different than you remembered?

Now since we are doing a study of a core ethical idea I want you to read Luke's rather different version of this. This topic was quite a hot one in Jesus' time and it's possible that it got discussed often during Jesus' mission. Read Luke 10:25-37.

First look at it as if you had never read any version. What do you observe?

Now what differences do you see between this and Mark's version.

What does Jesus' parable reveal about his interpretation of the word “neighbor'?

The second step in inductive Bible study is interpretation. What does the second commandment mean? What principle can we derive from this passage?

So let's go to the original that Jesus is quoting. Read Leviticus 19:18.

What does neighbor seem to mean in that verse?

One last piece of data. Please read Leviticus 19:34.

Does that cast light on how Jesus sees verse 18?

This time we didn't have to venture outside scripture to interpret it. Read as a whole the Bible often comments on itself and leads us to better understanding of it. That's why it's good to constantly study the Bible.

The third step is application. How can we put what we've learned into practice? In the light of this passage how we should think about other people? How should we talk about or to them? How should be act toward them?

There are other ways of studying the Bible but this is a start. And there are lots of books and tools out there that will help you get a fuller and deeper understanding of scripture. One great website is Another is, There are even apps you can use on your phone. 

But the important thing is to first open yourself to God's Spirit. Without the Spirit, people try to read their own ideas into the Bible. But the proper way to read scriptures is to get yourself, your desires and your fears out of the way and listen to what the Spirit is saying to God's people. 

And remember, the center of the Bible is the good news of God in Jesus Christ. Not rules, not theology, not intellectual arguments, not denominations, not your pet idea of God but God himself. Just as no commandment is greater than the two commandments to love that Jesus cited, so nothing in the Bible is more important than the God who is love. He is the lens through which we see the Bible and indeed all of life.    

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Well, There's Your Problem

What is wrong with the world? That's what my wife and I often say whenever we hear of the latest outrage on the news. But actually that is one of the key questions that is at the root of most religious and political movements. Despite the fact that the world is not perfect and that no one has ever experienced a perfect society, most people have a deep sense that something is wrong with the world. We see how in some parts of the world things almost but don't quite work right. In other parts of the world it is evident that very little works right. And we wonder why. Because maybe if we could figure why things go wrong, we could fix the world.

There are lots of answers to the question of what is wrong with the world. The most common among highly educated people is that--surprise!--not enough people are highly educated. Ignorance is the problem, they reason. If we just got everyone enough schooling, the world would be a much better place. Indeed it would, but the problem is that while education may make you smarter, it does not necessarily make you a better person. Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS and the person most directly responsible for the Holocaust, graduated from university. Ted Bundy was an honor student at the University of Washington and went on to law school. Osama Bin Ladan had a degree in civil engineering and 3 of his 5 wives were highly educated university lecturers. Education is good but it is no panacea for what's wrong with the world.

A popular answer to what is wrong with the world is “them” as in “us against them.” “Us” is the good guys and “them” is any group of people whom you think is most responsible for the terrible state of the world. Historically “them” has been blacks, Jews, communists, the Irish, the Germans, Asians, immigrants, Muslims, fundamentalists, atheists, gun nuts, welfare queens, bleeding heart liberals, conservatives--in short, anyone who is not “us.” And lest you think this way of seeing the world is not pervasive, let me point out that most of our big budget movies, which now make most of their money overseas, are all about “us versus them,” even if the enemy is portrayed as aliens, robots, zombies or Jedi of the Dark side. It is so satisfying to say “the whole problem is those people.” It makes the solution so easy: get rid of them. Although no one today would dare to call it “the Final Solution.”

The old comic strip Pogo famously said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Jesus would agree with this misquote of Caesar. He said the problem is not external but internal. In Mark 7:21-23, Jesus says, “For from within, from the human heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immoralities, thefts, murders, marital unfaithfulness, greed, malice, deceit, promiscuity, envy, insults, arrogance and recklessness.” Our problem isn't so much ignorance or evil people as it is our own sins.

We all do what we shouldn't, what we wouldn't approve of in others, what we wouldn't want done to us. We think things that are hateful, say things that are hurtful, do things that are others and even to ourselves. Our problem is not that we don't have the smarts to work out our problems, it's more often that it conflicts with what we want. For instance, 3.5 million children die every year from starvation. Yet experts say we make more than enough food to feed everyone. Why don't we? It often has more to do with politics and corruption than logistics.

I am reading a book called The Locust Effect by Gary Haugen of the International Justice Mission and federal prosecutor Victor Boutros. It documents the many ways in which the poor are victims of violence. And why is that? Because they are weak and desperate and in most countries law enforcement does not protect them, even if the laws say it should. And you really can't call what those who prey on the poor do as anything other than evil—intentionally harming someone for selfish reasons. “Recruiters” lie to poor women in the third world about job opportunities in cities or other countries and once they separated them from their families and communities, they put them in brothels, using violence to keep them in line. Business owners give new employees an advance and then use the “debt” to keep them working as slaves, paying them poorly and charging them for food and board to keep them from ever paying it back and using violence to keep them from running away, working other jobs, going to school or even seeking medical treatment. You know the biggest reason why girls from poor families don't go to school? The very real threat of being raped either on the way to or from school or at the school itself. Haugan and Boutros show that if we are going to end poverty we must also do something about the violence that most poor people deal with everyday.

Here in the US, a female soldier is more likely to be raped by another soldier than to be killed in combat. In our armed forces, there are an estimated 19,000 sexual assaults yearly. But superior officers frequently retaliate against accusers, discharging 90% of them and often overturning decisions that go against the accused. In fighting a lawsuit over this, the Department of Defense argued that the “alleged harms are incident to the plaintiff's military service...” That is, rape is an occupational hazard. The federal judge agreed.

Banks that crashed the economy by offering bad mortgage loans are now doing the same with car loans. Tobacco companies who are seeing their sales in the US plummet are suing third world countries over legislation aimed at reducing smoking. For a decade a car manufacturer knew about a ignition switch problem that caused engines to shut off while the car was in motion, also cutting off deployment of the airbags, and yet did not recall the cars with that switch until it was sued. A Reuters report linked 153 deaths with this problem. A company which markets a pendant that will signal for help if one falls and can't get up also offers free phones, though they lack the GPS feature other phones have. That feature allows 911 operators to locate people who are in trouble but can't tell the operator where they are, a crucial element in a world where few still have land lines.

It's easy to find examples of how human arrogance, laziness, lust, greed, rage, envy and overindulgence make the world far from perfect. How do we fix it?

Once again people propose education. And certainly some problems can be handled by simply teaching and training people about hazards and the right and wrong way to do things. But no amount of education will stop someone from doing what they shouldn't if they don't want to stop. I remember the reaction to the Columbine High School shooting. Some people actually said that we should put up copies of the Ten Commandments in schools to prevent future shootings. But I don't think the problem with the shooters was that they had forgotten the commandment against killing. They didn't care. In fact they knew they would not be able to kill everyone in their school but said in a recording they made that they knew they would traumatize those who survived. That shows a shrewd awareness of other ways of harming humans and a chilling desire to use that knowledge. That is not ignorance. That is evil.

Deciding who is “us” and who is “them” and then doing something drastic to “them” won't work. For one thing, there is no one group from which all evil flows. Think most suicide bombers are Muslims? If so, you'd be wrong. The largest number of suicide bombers belonged to the Tamil Tigers, a Marxist group in Sri Lanka. Think all terrorists are poor people with nothing to lose? Actually most are educated and middle class young people who get radicalized. This week's This American Life podcast tells how making assumptions about “them” almost got a cop killed. Called to a largely black neighborhood about a random shooting, he expected the perp to be black. Witnesses pointed him in the direction the shooter ran and the cop gave chase. He came upon a Walmart from which people were fleeing in a panic. He knew that the overwhelming majority of mass shootings are caused by white men and changed assumptions about who he was hunting. He entered the store. He spotted a man with a gun in the automotive department and was creeping up on the guy when he came across a woman. Temporarily confused at her presence, he almost got shot. He returned fire, winged her and retreated. He assumed that there was one shooter and that, of course, he was a man. He never considered that the mayhem was caused by a husband and wife. “Them” is an elusive group to pin down. And it is a red herring. Evil is much closer to home.

Sin is an individual thing, even if someone is egging you on or tempting you. It is a choice, even if you are influenced by external factors. And because, as Jesus pointed out, the impulse and intention comes from within, no external fix will do. We must be changed from the inside out. But how?

Bill W., one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, wrestled with the same problem. He knew from experience that his drinking was out of control and that he was powerless to stop it. He was only able to do so after he let God take control of his life. God created us. He can fix us. But like a surgeon, he needs us to consent and comply before he can open us up and fix what has gone wrong inside us.

To change the metaphor, if your computer is malfunctioning, you don't attach more peripherals or just keep entering the same commands; you call an expert. You even let him take control of your computer remotely. And he will probably install software to clean up your PC. He will also give you instructions to periodically run the software to keep malware, viruses and the like from messing up your computer in the future.

That's what Christianity is like. It is not about simply trying to do the commandments you haven't been able to follow anyway. It is about letting the expert, your creator, inside. It is letting him take control and install his Holy Spirit to patiently track down and uninstall the things that are causing you to malfunction. It is periodically running a scan of your spiritual self to see if you need to be cleaned again.

C.S. Lewis used the metaphor of an orchestra to explain the 3 areas in which humans mess up. The musicians have to first keep their instruments tuned if they are to make music and not just noise. But then they must make sure that they are in harmony with the other instruments and that they keep the same tempo and are literally in the same page. And finally they must be playing what the conductor has chosen and is directing. It won't do any good if he is trying to get them to play Beethoven's “Ode to Joy” and they are trying to play “100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.”

In the same way, there are 3 components to morality. We must make sure our own instrument, our self, is in good repair and in tune. We need to practice working in harmony with our fellow human beings. And finally we must be working for the right goal. Nazi society worked harmoniously but the person they were following was a monster and their goal would have been hell on earth. We Christians should be following Jesus and working to realize his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

But it starts with becoming a Christlike person. Obviously this will not take place all at once. We are works in progress but as we open ourselves to the Spirit and let him work in us and as we grow through the process, we will find that slowly but surely we are taking on his characteristics. We will become more faithful, more hopeful, more loving people. We will see him in others and serve him by serving them. We will work for their well-being and see to it that they have justice. We will tell them the good news of Jesus Christ and invite them to join us in following him.

The problem with most systemic reforms is that they focus on the system. But even the best system in the world will not function correctly if the people running it are untrustworthy, self-serving, or out of control. Whereas a not-so-great system might perform well beyond expectations if the people running it are conscientious, compassionate and have common sense. Character matters. And ultimately that's what salvation is: not merely moving us from the bad side of the ledger to the good but recreating us as God's children, so we grow up to be just like our heavenly Father.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

For Jim Hardiman

For most of us, our discovery of the Keys is first by accident and then we recognize it as serendipity. Jim Hardiman first came to Key West when he was stationed there as a member of the Naval Reserve during the Berlin Crisis. And though he moved back to his native Philadelphia after he was put on inactive status it wasn't too many years before he and his wife Marie returned to the Keys for good.

Though in Philadelphia he had been a sheet metal worker, building outdoor signs, in the Keys Jim turned from working with man-made art to the beauty of God's works. He became a park ranger at Bahia Honda State Park and became known as the person to whom you bring lost and injured animals. When he was to be transferred to a park on the mainland where he would have had to wear a gun, he resigned. He went to work for the DOT, inspecting the work being done on US-1, including, ironically, the new Bahia Honda bridge.

But his love of nature led him to help an ailing friend with his bee-keeping business, which his friend signed over to Jim shortly before the friend's death. For two decades, Jim, Marie and their kids developed and ran Key Bee Apiaries. And when he found a market for them in research labs, Jim collected and shipped cockroaches. I, for one, am grateful he was doing his part to send these creatures out of the Keys.

Jim branched out into trees, herbs and orchids. He also consulted for Little Palm Island, designing their beautiful landscaping and leaving his mark on the appearance and appeal of one of the Keys' most distinctive resorts.

There is a passage in one of the Sherlock Holmes stories in which the great detective looks at a rose and says, “Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its colour are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again we have much to hope from the flowers.” I think Jim would have agreed and would have extended Holmes' reasoning to the fauna as well as the flora of this world. I saw this in how Jim immersed himself into each of the areas of his interests, ever discovering fascinating aspects of them.

And Jim was not just passionate about the creation but also the creator of all this beauty. He came faithfully to the services at St. Francis. And when his illness would not permit him to come anymore, he eagerly awaited my visits, where we shared interesting and wide-ranging talks even as we shared the bread and wine of communion with Christ. He read my sermons online and gave me great tips on computers. Jim saw no contradictions between nature and technology or science and faith. The world and God are big enough to encompass it all.

I'm going to miss Jim. I'm going to miss those visits and those talks. Right up to the end I learned new things about his fascinating life. The scope of his interests was inexhaustible.

The good new is that life continues. Jim is with God, the Lord of life, the one who made all the things of this world that Jim loved and pronounced them good. The bad news is that from our perspective we cannot see that. To us it seems that life has ended.

During his last days, Marie said something that struck me. She compared Jim's struggles to labor. It was like he was being birthed into a new world. And she was right.

Were we conscious in our mother's wombs, birth would seem like a terrible thing. There is pain and stress and you are pushed out of the only world, the only environment you ever knew, and then you are pushed out of sight. As far as you know, your life would be over. You could not possibly conceive of what things would be like once you went down that passage and out into that mysterious realm of light.

We are in the same situation in this life. We can't imagine what life will be like nor how it could possibly continue once the cord which binds us to this world is cut and we journey down the tunnel and out into whatever lies beyond. All we can do is, like Holmes, trust in the goodness of what he called Providence and what we call God.

Fortunately, we have hope in Jesus. He's the only one who has died and come back, never to die again. He assures us that life not only continues but does so in abundance. He assured the penitent thief on the next cross that “Today you will be with me in paradise.” The word Jesus used literally means a walled garden, such as a king might have. What a wonderful picture of what awaits us.

And what a wonderful place to imagine Jim awaiting us. His restored lungs drinking in the perfume of the flowers, his curiosity piqued by what kind of flowers they are and whether they are pollinated by bees, his wondering if God still needs a gardener as he did in Eden.

Of course, the garden could be a metaphor. But that doesn't mean it's less real. We use metaphors, pictures of what is familiar, to try to communicate what may not be familiar. Jesus compared the kingdom of God to seeds and bushes and wedding banquets, all things plucked from the everyday life of his listeners, to explain spiritual things that otherwise were too huge, too mind-blowing for human minds to grasp. If heaven isn't a literal garden, it is something much grander and too wonderful for us to conceive of.

In his first letter to the Corinthians (2:9) Paul tells us “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has imagined the things that God has prepared for those who love him.” While we miss and mourn the fact that Jim is no longer with us, we can also remember that not only is his struggle and suffering over, he is now experiencing those marvelous things that God has prepared. And one day we shall join him in that world beyond the womb of this one. And I, for one, look forward to hearing what he has learned and what fascinating new things will share with us on that day.  

For Joan Colasurdo

God gives each of us gifts, talents or qualities that, while we can develop and hone them, we did not choose but just seem to be part of the package of who we are. Joan's gift, I think, was energy. It was the first thing that struck me about her. Here was this little old lady in her 80s and yet she radiated this liveliness. She had the wisdom of age but also this spark that made her seem younger than she was. And that was coupled with a sunniness of temperament, and even a pinch of impishness, that just made you love her.

And so it was a real shock when we received the word that she was no longer with us. We saw and talked with her that Sunday morning during the service and we enjoyed the coffee hour that she presided over after the service and then we find out later that she went into the ER that evening and within a few days, she was gone. This woman who was everything we could hope to be when we get to her age seemed to be the very antithesis of death.

And apparently she was always that energetic. After she met the love of her life, Michael, they built their first home together, brick by brick. And even though she was a great mother to her children, Lynn and Michael, she still had the energy to make clothing, braid rugs, do needlepoint and cross stitch, and teach ceramics. She also enjoyed cooking, baking, gardening, swimming, diving, skiing, traveling and entertaining in her home. Did I mention that she was the manager of two restaurants which she and Mike owned with her brother Bob? Plus she acted as caregiver to her parents, to various aunts and uncles and eventually to her husband.

When she and Mike retired to the Keys in 1987, you'd expect her to take it easy, right? Wrong. Joan volunteered to establish the Summerland Cove Civic Association, served as its first president and later as treasurer. She organized the monthly Ladies Birthday luncheon and the annual February food drive. After Hurricane Georges, she and Mike also got hundreds of palms planted along the streets of Summerland Cove. Because she wanted to maintain the quality of life in Summerland, she also worked against incorporation of the Lower Keys, against short-term vacation rentals in residential neighborhoods and against FEMA inspections of downstairs enclosures. She was also named volunteer of the year for her work at Sugarloaf School. And several years ago, she took over the coffee hour here at St. Francis.

And so we enter into the paradox of grieving as Christians. We don't deny the fact of death. We don't deny its power over our emotions. We don't deny the wound it makes in our hearts. We deny its permanence. We deny that it is part of God's original plan for us. And we deny its power over our way of thinking about life.

And yet we cannot deny that we miss Joan. We know that as Christians we should be happy for her. Any suffering she had from her grievous injuries is over. And while she is not with us, she is in the best hands we could hope for, the loving hands of her heavenly Father. For we who believe, having someone die is rather like having a loved one go on a long voyage. You are happy for them because they are off on an amazing journey and a much needed rest from the trials of this life. And yet, because you will not see them again for a long time, you are sad. As King David said, our loved ones will not return to us but we will some day go to them.

We do have memories and those are a comfort and an immortality of sorts. But they are tinged with the bittersweet knowledge that no new memories will be forthcoming. This chapter on our life with her is over. And so once again happiness and sadness are entwined. We mourn.

And that's OK. It's OK to weep and mourn because Jesus did at the grave of his friend Lazarus. It's just that, as Paul said, we do not mourn like those who are without hope. And that hope sustains us. The fact that just because this chapter is over it doesn't mean that there won't be another. Every week in the creed we say we believe in the resurrection of the dead. Because that is God's basic modus operandi. He is the God of the living. He resurrected his Son. He will resurrect those who are members of the body of his Son. He will resurrect his wounded creation. And he will populate it with his people, in new and improved bodies, our same software, debugged and downloaded to new hardware, as scientist and Anglican priest John Polkinghorne put it.

Our hope in Christ is living with him forever in a new creation. Not only new but better. There will be no pain, no mourning, no disease or death. We will not lose our loved ones there. That's where we will find them, safe forever. And so the only tears will be tears of joy, when we join Joan in God's new paradise. And I don't know about you but I can't wait to see what Joan will have organized for us when we join her in Christ's kingdom. 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Give It Up

The two penitential seasons of the church year are all about anticipation. In Advent we are looking forward to the birth of Jesus, our Lord and Savior. In Lent we are looking forward to his death and resurrection. So while the anticipation in Advent is joyful, in Lent it is more somber. Though Jesus' triumph at Easter is sweet, the suffering he endured leading up to that is anything but.

And in response to all Jesus gave up for us, many Christians give up something for Lent. Some fast during the season, either doing special fasts throughout the 40 days or giving up one particular thing that they like. Unfortunately what many people give up is usually some trivial luxury that they can easily do without. Some people however actually try to do without something very important to them, something they will really miss. It needn't be a food item either; it could be an activity they enjoy. One year I gave up Facebook. That was hard!

This year at a clergy retreat our guest speaker was an Episcopal nun named Ellie Finlay. She told us about the 3 vows she had to take, namely, obedience, chastity and poverty. And she had an interesting take on poverty. We tend to think of poverty as a matter of lacking material things. But she found it more meaningful to think about the non-material possessions she needed to give up. She listed 4 and I would like to consider each.

One thing we really ought to give up is entitlement, the expectation of how we are supposed to be treated. People really get bent out of shape when they encounter someone who does not treat them politely enough or with due deference. How would you feel if you asked a waitress for a refill of your coffee and was told “When I get around to it?” Setting aside the whole question of proper customer service, you would probably be upset because you are paying this person to serve you. Of course, her salary is probably less than minimum wage (because that's legal) and she probably is suffering from sore feet and a bad back most days. We have bad days and we expect others to cut us slack. Why don't we do the same for waitstaff? Probably because their job is to serve us and it is hard to remember that that is merely a role and not an indication that the person is inferior to us in some way. Some form of the question “Who does she think she is?” probably floats up out of your subconscious. But what you probably don't say in answer to yourself is that she is a person created in the image of God, just like you, albeit a flawed one, just like you. The tricky bit about entitlement is that, like any privilege or advantage, you don't consciously think of it that way, as expecting others to treat you as the special person that you are. It can lead us to treat others as if they aren't all that special. This Lent examine your sense of entitlement and take a fast from it.

Another non-material possession we think we own is time. We act as if our time is our own to do with as we please. But in no way do we own time. Time is more like a river in which we are floating. We can't stop or conserve or control it. We are at its mercy. And yet when someone comes to us in distress or asking for help, we resent their taking up our time. But our lives are gifts from God and as such we are supposed to give a little back to him (1 day a week—and we don't even give him that much!) and we are supposed to spend some time serving others. Thinking others are taking up our time is like thinking a fellow beachgoer is soaking up OUR sun! This Lent give up the idea that time belongs to you.

Another non-material possession Sr. Ellie says we think we have is escape. Specifically that we have some sort of escape from God. This is the delusion that Jonah possessed. But we belong to God and we live in his world. You might as well try to escape the universe. But we still try to elude the inevitable. We try to ditch God for other gods, for idols, for substitutes, for distractions from the truth of our total dependence on him. We use sophistry or our pet philosophical or theological theories to try to escape from the fact that God exists and has claims on us. We live in a universe dense with connections and interdependence and yet we act as if we can disengage from all of it and from our creator and go off on our own. You might as well act as if you can nullify gravity and still go for a walk on this globe. This Lent give up the idea that you can escape from the reality that is God.

Finally, another non-material possession Sr. Ellie says we must let go of is our survival. If we are weirdly possessive of time, we are even more so when it comes to ourselves. We act as if our life is something we can hold onto. Yet any number of things can snatch it from us and we are powerless to stop them. As the Shel Silverstein song says, “you can have safe sex but you're still gonna die; you can switch to Crest, but you're still gonna die; you can get rid of stress; get a lot of rest; get an AIDS test; enroll in EST; move out west when where it's sunny and dry, and you'll live to be 100 but you're still gonna die!” The question is not is this life going to end but what are we going to do with it in the meantime. 

A lot of people think the fact of our inevitable death means, as a character says in Jesus' parable in Luke 12:19 (cf. Isaiah 22:13), we should “eat, drink, be merry.” But not only is that short-sighted it is selfish. There are lots of people who don't even have that as an option. They don't have enough to eat or to drink. They can't be merry because they are enslaved, or caught up in a war zone, or being trafficked for sex, or just living in a poor and dangerous community. As Christians how can we fritter away the precious gift God gave us on our own pleasure when there are others who live lives that are devoid of justice, peace or pleasure? Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” And 2000 years later science has finally caught up with him. Bioethicist Dr. Stephen Post says study after study shows that living a life of of altruism and compassion enhances our physical and mental health, reduces depression, lessens stress, leads to fewer aches and pains and to more meaningful relationships. 

Normally we think if something is in short supply, the thing to do is to hoard it, to hold onto it tightly. But not in God's economy. Jesus said, “Freely you have received, freely give.” (Matthew 10:8) It is ultimately a matter of how much we trust God. Do we think that he is limited in what he can give us so that we must be misers of his gifts? Or do we believe what Jesus said when he proclaimed, “I have come that they might have life and have it in abundance?” (John 10:10) Do we believe him when he says that whatever we give up for him we will receive back a hundredfold? (Mt 19:29) Do we believe that our life is truly eternal?

This Lent give up entitlement, all claim to time, all false hopes of escape and deny yourself the rights to your own life. And take on something else: a mission, a purposeful activity based on Jesus' commandment to “love our neighbor as ourselves.” During our joint Lenten services, our two churches are going to be looking at the Book of Acts and asking ourselves fundamental questions as to who we are, why are we here and who is our neighbor. And then we are going to look for concrete ways we can love our neighbors here in our community.

If this bothers you, then you are welcome to try to escape to another god or philosophy. But if you believe that God is love, that Jesus is the God of love incarnate, come to save us from our self-destructive ways of thinking, speaking and acting, if you believe that God implants in us his Spirit to renew and guide us on our pilgrimage to follow Jesus and become more Christlike, then this is our task. And if we are to call ourselves Christians, then we have no other option than to learn to love one another as he loves us. We all say that love is our highest and most treasured experience, and yet we balk when we have to face how difficult and messy it is. But you can't have the beautiful baby without the ugly diapers.

The world tells us our lives are our own. The world lies. They are gifts from God. And in this season we think long and hard about how, just as Jesus had a mission of love to accomplish, so do we. Jesus knew his time was not his own but his Father's. Neither is our time on this earth. All that we have here, our lives and our talents, is on loan. And talk about truth in advertising, it's been there all along in the name of the season: Lent.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Real Glory

The scripture referred to is Mark 9:2-9.

Though I don't work as a nurse anymore, I still follow medical news. And this week I heard of a really great advance we've made in treating cancer. Researchers were asking themselves why, when our immune systems fight off so many things that seek to harm us, they don't go after cancer. And they found out that cancer hides itself from our immune systems by tricking our T-cells into thinking they are part of the body. So scientists have developed checkpoint inhibitors to stop cancers from using their “invisibility cloaks,” so to speak. Once the immune system sees the cancer as the threat it is, it attacks the mutant cells. It seems to work well on lymphoma and on cancers of the head, neck, kidney and bladder and possibly breast and lung cancers.

How can you deal with something if you don't know what it is? How can you work with someone if you don't know who they are? That is what the apostles are wrestling with. Yes, they know Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed one promised by God to save his people. Peter just said so in Mark chapter 8. But then Jesus started with this crazy talk about his getting arrested and killed and rising again from the dead, and that was not at all what Peter and the rest of the twelve were expecting. And when Peter tried to set Jesus straight, the Messiah called him Satan, literally “the adversary,” for opposing him.

In fact, Jesus says, if you want to follow him, you better check your personal rights at the door and pick up your cross. If you don't, Jesus says, he will be ashamed of you when he returns.

It's 6 days later. Apparently nothing of significance happened between that incident and the subject of today's gospel. I imagine the disciples have been unusually quiet and reflective. Have they backed the right man? Is Jesus the one to lead them against their enemy? Have they made a mistake?

And that's the setting for the Transfiguration. Jesus takes Peter, James and John, his core group, up a mountain. They probably thought they were going up there to pray with him. But suddenly Jesus is transformed, his clothes go all “Clorox 2 commercial” white, and he has two guest stars: Moses and Elijah. And the three disciples are flabbergasted. I was going to say speechless but Peter can't keep his mouth shut. He starts babbling about building some houses for Jesus and his famous friends. Then a cloud descends on them, and out of it they hear a voice saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” and just as suddenly this vision is over and all they see is regular old Jesus. On the way down the mountain Jesus tells them to keep the whole thing under their hats till later.

What's going on here? In the Torah, where does Moses meet God to receive the commandments? On a mountain. How does God manifest himself on the mountain? In a cloud. Where does Elijah have his signature encounter with God? Again on a mountain. And who are these two prophets of God now meeting and talking to? Jesus. What happened to Moses after he spoke to God? His face glowed. What is said about angels, God's messengers, when they come to this world to speak to men? That their garments shown brighter than the sun. All of these things are coming together in this vision on the mountaintop.

The disciples see Moses, who prophesied that God will send a prophet after him to his people that they must heed and obey. They see Elijah, who learned that God isn't always manifested in lightning and wind and earthquake and fire but sometimes in a quiet voice. More importantly they see Jesus as he really is, radiating God's glory. He is the divine person that these two, the greatest of the prophets, are talking to. Finally, God himself tells them that, yes, Jesus is his beloved son and so they should listen to him.

What is the purpose of all this? Elijah had his mountaintop tete a tete with God after he had just scored a great triumph over the prophets of Baal. He revealed that Yahweh was the only true God. But then Queen Jezebel threatened his life and Elijah flees into the desert, afraid that he is the only prophet of the true God left. But the still small voice assures him that he is wrong and all is not lost. Here the disciples are coming off of a tremendous declaration. They realize that Jesus is the Anointed One of God and they tell him so. But then Jesus' talk about his impending death creates doubt. So in the Transfiguration they are assured that they are wrong and that what Jesus has predicted is not a disaster. They need to keep trusting in and listening to him, even though things are going to start looking bleak.

I tell inmates that the time when they really need to trust God is when it is the hardest to do so. It's easy to trust God when everything's going your way. But it's when it's all turning to crap, when it looks like God is doing nothing, or even orchestrating the cascade of calamities that are burying you, that you need to trust that in fact he has a good reason for letting this happen and that it will turn out to be ultimately for the good. And that's tough. Actress Julianne Moore says she stopped believing in God when her mother died. Former Saturday Night Live cast member Julia Sweeney stopped believing when her brother died of AIDS. I had a real crisis of faith when my long-time friend and parishioner Corinne Wade died of a brain tumor. Bad things happen to good people. And because that violates what we see as God's promises to us, we are wracked by doubts. “Hey, God, that wasn't part of the deal! I'm supposed to believe in you and you protect me and mine and cause us all to prosper. Go punish the wicked! Leave us believers untouched.”

But the thing is that the Bible itself says that bad things sometimes happen to good people. After 40 years journey Moses never makes it to the promised land. Jonathan, David's ally even after his father Saul turns against him, dies ignominiously at the hands of the Philistines. King Josiah, who renews God's covenant with his people, whose reforms include ending pagan worship in God's temple and destroying all the pagan worship sites in Jerusalem and Judah, who reinstitutes the celebration of Passover, dies in battle against Pharaoh Neco. Jesus himself says, “In this world you will have trouble...” Anybody who thinks that God promises his followers a smooth and stress-free life on this earth is just not paying attention.

Why? Why don't all the bad things happen to the bad people and all the good things happen to the good?

Well, for one thing, nobody is all good and nobody is all bad. If you are honest with yourself, you will have to admit that you do not always do what you know to be the right thing. You cut corners at work. You don't always listen to your spouse and you have lied to him or her about why certain things didn't get done or got done in a way they explicitly ask they not be done. You don't always drive the speed limit, occasionally text while driving, maybe even get behind the wheel after having a couple of drinks. You aren't as scrupulous on filling out your income tax forms as you should be. And you may have even darker secrets in your life, things you would not want anyone to know. Would you willingly take truth serum and let Nancy Grace quiz you about every aspect of your life? Probably not. No one is that good.

Working at the jail, I see people who have done things that society frowns on. Some are really bad; some are relatively minor breaches of city or county ordinances. Should God strike all those bad people down? Should he leave their children orphans? Should he strike down addicts who are trying to get better but still sometimes fall off the wagon? Should he only strike down murderers? Should he strike down those who didn't intend to kill? Should he strike down those who killed accidentally? Should he strike down all soldiers who kill? The result of what they do is the same, regardless of intention. What about those who fought and harmed someone but not fatally? What about those who tried to harm someone but didn't succeed? 

Should God strike down rapists? Should he strike down 18 year old boys who have sex with their 16 year old girlfriends and so committed statutory rape? Should he strike down people who have only viewed child pornography? Should he strike down those who have ruined the lives of others through identity fraud? Should he strike down those who have ruined people financially? Should he strike down all the bankers and brokers and CEOs who ruined our economy and caused such suffering worldwide? Should he strike down people who buy products whose raw materials or manufacture cause suffering to poor people in other parts of the world? That would include all who use electronics which cause pollution, who eat chocolate which is often harvested by child slaves, who buy wooden products that encourage deforestation.

There is a video on College Humor entitled “Why it's socially unacceptable to do anything.” In it a bunch of 20-somethings are unable to find an activity that doesn't harm the environment, patronize a company that exploits people, support entertainment that encourages stereotypes, or tacitly approve of a celebrity who has done bad things. Finally one person says, “Want to sit in a dark, dark basement until tomorrow comes?” And that's the only unobjectionable thing they can agree on. It's done for laughs but the point is valid. In our globally connected world, there is no completely innocent option in many areas of human endeavor. Even eating a salad could be making profitable the use of overworked underpaid migrant workers. If God were to wipe out all traces of evil...well, it reminds me of the X-Files episode where Mulder encounters a genie and asks for world peace. What he gets is a world devoid of people.

There is no way to design a world where bad things never affect relatively good people or where good intentions never have unintended negative effects. Unless you replace humans possessing free will with robots. That's why grace and forgiveness and healing are so central to our faith. It's not that there aren't people who do harmful things intentionally; it's just that sometimes all of us are one of those people. And remember that the Bible comes down just as hard on those people who don't do what they can to help people with unmet needs or who are suffering injustice. In fact Jesus' parable about the last judgment in Matthew 25 is all about sins of omission. What we do or don't do to the hungry, those without drinking water, those who don't have sufficient clothing, those who are sick, those who are imprisoned, those who are not welcome outside their homeland, Jesus will take personally. Every single person on this earth was created in God's image and Jesus sees each one of us as a brother or sister. And nobody better mess with one of Jesus' siblings.

Right now God is giving everyone the chance to realize this and ask for help in fixing our own messes. And God wants us to tell everyone else that he will forgive and help them with their messes too. But that means things are still going wrong and bad things still happen and we can suffer the effects of what we do or what others do. Some of it is minor and some of it is major and will make it hard to see past it to God's grace.

Jesus realized that his disciples needed this mountaintop experience before entering the valley of the shadow of death. In the same way, we need to see him for who he really is before we enter into the fray. He is the one who created the universe yet notes each sparrow's fate. He is the Almighty who champions the weak. He is the Holy one who forgives sinners. Jesus is the Embodiment of God who embraces the leper, the outcast and the imperfect. He is the man in a patriarchal world who teaches women as well as men and who protected the woman taken in adultery. He is the righteous one who ate with sinners and celebrated the fact that prostitutes were entering the kingdom of God ahead of religious leaders. He is the pacifist whose kingdom is still expanding without any weapons. He is the one who, before his death, said he has conquered the world.

The weird thing is that the disciples witnessed all this but just didn't see Jesus for who he really was. They saw him feed thousands but didn't realize the abundance of his power. They saw him heal many who were sick in mind and body but didn't see him as the source of all health. They saw him raise the dead but didn't recognize him as the Lord of life. So Jesus had to reach them visually, giving them a eye-popping sight they couldn't unsee.

We can't literally see this event but we do have the evidence of what he said and did, as well as the effect he had on the people who encountered him, not only in the 1st century AD but in every century since. The first Christians followed Jesus despite the threat of persecution and death. They impressed pagans by not fleeing plagues but staying in cities and taking care of the sick and dying, again despite the risk to themselves. They often freed their slaves and even selected slaves to be bishops. As the centuries went on, Christians built and staffed hospitals, schools, and universities. The first scientists were largely clergy, people who believed that because human beings were created in the image of God, they could also examine and understand the products of the mind of God. Christians worked to abolish slavery in both the US and the UK. They set up and ran the underground railroad, defying federal law that all runaway slaves must be returned to their masters. In the Second World War Christians hid Jews from the Nazis. In the 1950s and 60s Christians worked for civil rights. And, yes, a lot of establishment Christians opposed these things. And this paralleled the confrontations the Pharisees and other religious leaders had with Jesus. They were defenders of the status quo and Jesus was the defender of the marginalized and oppressed. They felt that the rules trumped the needs of people and Jesus said that healing and forgiving people came before the rules because no rule was greater that the commandments to love God and to love others.

In the Gospel of John it becomes clear that Jesus identified his glorification with his being lifted up on the cross. The glory of God is revealed in Jesus' self-sacrificial death for the world. That act is the ultimate manifestation of the depth of God's love for us. It would have been wonderful to have been on the mountain and to have seen what Peter, James and John saw. They needed that. But for the rest of the 12, and for us, the true moment where we see just who Jesus is occurs on not a mountain but a hill named Golgotha. And Jesus is not dressed in blindingly bright garments but is stripped naked and bathed in red. It is not a glorious sight as the world sees it but for those of us who see through the worship of power, what Jesus did in those hours on the cross is more glorious, more worthy of worship. True splendor is not that which dazzles the eye but that which pierces the heart: an act of love so pure, so freely given, so bereft of selfishness that the only reason we have trouble looking at it is because of our tears of joy. And that explains why when Jesus appeared to the disciples in his resurrection body, he still bore the marks of his crucifixion. His greatest glory was not to be seen in his new body but in the old scars, the lasting signs of his love for us, his fallen creatures, who once were lost but now, thanks to his sacrifice, are forever found.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Stress, Burnout and the Bible

The scriptures referred to are Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-12, Mark 1:29-39.

I thought it was a weird thing to put in front of a church but insightful nevertheless. The Marathon church sign read, “Those who burn out were first on fire.” Unfortunately it's true. People who are the most enthusiastic are most at risk for burnout, just as the bigger a fire is, the faster it will go through its fuel. If it's not replenished, it will burn out.

Burnout is not the same as stress but stress can contribute to burnout. It could be a job in which you are overworked and underappreciated, or where the work is monotonous and unchallenging. It could be family responsibilities: dealing with small children, ailing parents, or even an overstressed mate. It could be all of the above. It doesn't help if you are a perfectionist, a pessimist, or a control freak. And it is exacerbated by a lifestyle in which you don't get enough relaxation, social support or sleep. The result is an increase in adrenaline and glucocorticoids, hormones which, in a brief burst, help a zebra outrun a lion, but which, when experienced over a long time, can damage your immune system, clog your arteries, make you fat, shrink your brain and shorten your lifespan.

A lot of this has been discovered by researchers who have studied 2 surprisingly similar societies: British civil servants and baboons. In both cases, it was found that those at the top of the hierarchy have less stress and better health than those who worked or ranked below them. The less control you have over your circumstances, the more at risk you are for illness. The fact that the civil servants all were covered by the British health care system allowed the researchers to eliminate other factors, like differences in pay, to reveal that stress alone is responsible for a host of health problem. (It also eliminated the stress of the civil servants being shot with tranq darts as the baboons were.)

Prolonged stress can lead to the state of emotional, mental and physical exhaustion called burnout. Instead of having too much of everything, you now have too little: too little energy, too little motivation, too little ability to care. Whereas under stress you felt pressured, anxious and pulled in several directions at once, when you're burned out it's hard to work up any feelings about anything—work, home, life. Your viewpoint on everything becomes cynical and negative.

This can even happen to people of faith. We can try to do so much for so long that we can burn ourselves out. We can be so overwhelmed by all that should be done that we can run dry of compassion. We can get so discouraged by the sins of others, even those within the church, that we can give up on our ideals and become disillusioned.

A little sidebar on disillusionment: the illusion that is being shattered is not that there should be ideals but the illusion that they already reside in some human being or institution. Ideals are goals to shoot for, not states of being already existing in our world. An ideal is not like Shangri-la, waiting to be discovered, but like the United States in 1775, waiting to be created. In the same way, Jesus came not to find the kingdom of God on earth but to found it. Even today, like the ideal of freedom for all, God's kingdom is a work in progress. It's like a movie script. It needs to be realized through the hard work of many people, toiling towards a common goal, as envisioned by the writer/director.

There are ways to prevent burnout, many of which are touched upon in today's lectionary readings as well as other scripture passages. As the page about burnout on the website says, step one is to start each day with a relaxing ritual. Among their suggestions are meditating for 15 minutes or reading something inspiring. How about reading the Bible, or the Daily Office in the Book of Common Prayer or remembering God's blessings as our psalmist does? In Psalm 119 it says, “Make me understand the way of your precepts and I will meditate on your wondrous works.” Remembering that we have a just, powerful and loving God is a good way to start the day.

Prayer is the way Jesus starts his day in our gospel. He just had a very busy day and evening, healing everyone brought to him. Most of us would sleep in but but Jesus gets up before dawn, finds some place where he won't be disturbed and prays. He probably prayed for strength for the new day. He probably prayed for guidance. He might have prayed for those he healed, who had to make major adjustments in their lives. Like getting a job if they had been disabled and relying on handouts. Or not falling back into bad habits that would undermine their newfound health. Or just finding the strength to keep believing as everyone offered their own take on why they had recovered. Whatever the content, Jesus began his day by communicating with God and no doubt relieving himself of the burdens he didn't need for that day. recommends adopting healthy eating, sleeping, and exercise habits, important for us, not so much for people in the days of the Bible. They didn't have our labor-saving devices. Just walking everywhere, fetching water from the well, working in the fields, hauling loads and other everyday activities kept them fit. If someone was seen running, it was probably an emergency, not a daily jog. They also ate more fruits and vegetables than we do, ate a lot less meat and no cheese fries whatsover. They didn't stay up late watching TV, surfing the web, or playing video games. On a National Geographic special, neurologist Robert Sapolsky admits that the time he spends in the bush in Kenya studying baboons is probably better for him than the time he spends in the labs of Stanford.

It's likely he benefits from another action recommended by the website: disconnecting from technology. Studies show that too much time spent staring at your laptop, your phone, your iPad, your TV can lead to depression, loneliness and obesity. Each day we need to spend time away from screens. We might find more time to praise God's works if we spend less time plugged into the works of man.

Jesus illustrates another principle of burnout prevention. He sets boundaries. He says “No” to people demanding more of his time. The folks at Capernaum wanted Jesus all to themselves. Jesus wanted to move on and take his message to more people. To prevent burnout, we need to say “No” to certain demands on our time and energy. We need to make some time for what we want to do.

Our psalm both advocates and is an example of another principle of burnout prevention. “Nourish your creative side,” the site says. “How good it is to sing praises to our God!” says our psalm. Indeed! Or to praise him with painting, or sculpture, or dance, or poetry, or photography, or fiction, or glassblowing, or calligraphy, or needlepoint, or chipcarving, or metallurgy, or jokes. You needn't do it well enough for mass consumption. Make it your personal gift to God, your exercise of the gifts he's given you, for his praise and your self-expression. Do something non-utilitarian for a change and do it with joy.

Finally, the website tells us to learn how to manage stress. The key word is “manage.” Studies of hierarchies show it's the amount of control a person has that is the determinant of whether stress harms him or her. Those with the most control over their environment have the best health. People who have little or no control over their work or living environments are the most at risk for the negative effects of stress.

But we can choose to be part of different environments. You can be a lowly office drone at work but also the coach of your kids' softball team. You can be a dental hygienist Monday through Friday but a knight of the Shire of 3 Rivers in your local Society for Creative Anachronism group on weekends. You can sell car insurance on weekdays and teach history at the community college on weeknights. You can be anywhere in your work hierarchy and find a place to be indispensable and appreciated at your local church—teaching Sunday school, singing solos, administering the Eucharist, keeping the books, doing coffee hour, leading a Bible study, serving on the Vestry or Council, organizing an outreach ministry.

Of course there are areas of life where no one on earth has control, not even the alpha males at the top of the hierarchy. There are several ways we can react to this fact. We can choose to ignore those areas; just go about life as if we weren't all susceptible to death, disease and disaster. We can respond with fear, shivering in the knowledge of our helplessness. We can despair and give up in the face of the inevitable.

Or we can respond with faith in God. And the great thing is that God is not your typical top dog. He cares for the underdogs. In the words of our psalm, “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds....The Lord lifts up the lowly but casts the wicked to the ground.” Those humans who get to the top tend to lord it over those they dominate. But not God. When his kingdom is realized, the last shall be first and the first shall be last. The meek shall inherit the earth. But that's just a myth, isn't it?

No, it's science. About 10 years into his study of a troop of baboons in the wild in the Africa, Robert Sapolsky witnessed something that devastated his subjects and should have destroyed all further research on them. The baboons discovered the trash dump of a nearby resort. They ate the garbage of the kitchen. The aggressive alpha males hogged the food and gorged themselves on it, limiting their inferiors' access to this food source. But the meat was tainted and all the alpha males sickened and died. This left the troop with a majority of females, plus the less aggressive males from further down the hierarchy. It changed the whole culture of this baboon troop. There was less bullying and more cooperation and grooming. The females were no longer the target of male temper tantrums. And when aggressive young adolescent males joined the troop, within 6 months they learned the ways of this tribe and calmed down. The last became first and this baboon society is the better for it.

The baboon society did not fall apart when its culture of strict hierarchy and brutal aggression changed. Human societies can change, too. In fact, a study of women raising severely handicapped children showed that some of the damage done by the stress on them can be repaired. It was found that the compassion and caring expressed in a support group activated a chemical which protected the mothers' genes from the extreme aging that otherwise should afflict them and shorten their lives. Numerous studies have shown that regular church attendance is associated with better physical and mental health and longer life. Stress kills but community and compassion save lives.

God is compassionate. He forgives, he heals, he gives us peace. That makes him trustworthy and our trust in his goodness gives us hope. And that hope allows us to keep working for the realization of God's kingdom and to hang on for its consummation. So as Isaiah says, “The Lord is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary....he give power to the faint and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles. They shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.”

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Weak and Strong

The scriptures referred to are 1 Corinthians 8:1-13.

You may find this hard to believe but some people think I'm a know-it-all. (Wait for inevitable laughs) Yeah, I find it funny, too. At best, I am a know-a-lot. And that's limited to subjects that I am interested in. My family learned a long time ago that if they wanted to keep me from winning Trivial Pursuit keep asking me sports questions. I know virtually nothing about sports outside of the names of athletes whose scandals enter the mainstream news. There are types of music I don't know much about. And I love meeting people who have worked in uncommon jobs and learning about whole realms I never knew existed. Believe it or not, when I find myself in conversation with an expert in something, I tend to shut up and listen to what they can teach me. I subscribe to what Will Rogers observed when he said, “We are all ignorant, just on different things.”

In today's New Testament reading Paul says, “Knowledge puffs up but love builds up.” Paul was a rabbi and very knowledgeable about the Bible. He also was fairly well informed about pagan culture, quoting Greek playwrights and referencing boxing and other sports. He took books with him on his journeys. So it is a bit surprising that such an intellectual man could say that knowledge inflates one's pride while in contrast love builds people up. That insight underlies this whole passage.

Again you will notice quotation marks in the passage which indicate the parts of the letter from the Corinthians that Paul is referring to. The question is whether a Christian can, in good conscience, eat meat that had been previously sacrificed to idols. The reason this was even a problem is that most meat markets were attached to pagan temples. Excess meat sacrificed to the idols was sold to the public. Some Christians had no problem with this because “no idol in the world really exists” and “there is no God but one.” In other words, to some Christians the meat may as well have been offered to the tooth fairy as an idol of marble or gold. It was just as unreal. But the consciences of some Christians were no so easily assuaged. We do not know if their primary objection was that the idols were real or just thought it looked bad for Christians to eat the leftover sacrifices from pagan gods. But going against their consciences made them feel that they were betraying their faith. Paul says their consciences were weak. The Greek word used here basically means “strengthless.” It could also be translated “feeble, sickly, impotent.” So Paul told the Christians with such feeble consciences to grow up, grow a pair and stop whining!

No, he didn't. Instead he told those who had more robust consciences to make allowances for their weaker siblings in Christ. Paul is saying, “Yeah, you are more knowledgeable. But don't let your knowledge make you arrogant and callous. Rather out of Christian love, limit your own freedom in Christ.”

Wait! Paul, the foremost advocate of Christian liberty, is saying to instead tailor your freedom to accommodate those with more feeble consciences? Why? Because of the primacy of love. If you walk with a small child you don't take your full stride. You deliberately limit your freedom to walk at your normal speed out of deference for someone smaller and unable to keep up. You do so out of concern and compassion for the child. Paul is basically saying that if you are dealing with someone whose conscience is not as strong as yours, you need to accommodate them as you would a child.

This goes contrary to the way the world looks at strength. In this world, if you are strong others either defer to you as a matter of course or you bend them to your will. In the old days it was the physically strong who ruled and most great kings were great warriors. But under the right circumstances a strong mind could defeat a strong body. The Bible tells us that David was not a tall man but he was a master strategist. How do you fight someone bigger and stronger than you? You stand at a distance and hurl a stone into his forehead. Then, when he's down, you chop off his head. Brains versus brawn.

There are other sources of strength, though. With agriculture came the accumulation of valuable things, like food and livestock. When money was invented as a medium of exchange, having a lot of money gave you a lot of power. That in turn allowed you to hire lots of people and become a powerful force in your community. It also allowed you to bribe judges which gave you power in legal matters and allowed you to bribe other officials which gave you political power. And if you combined political, financial and military power, you could pretty much do whatever you wished. And powerful people usually do.

For instance, powerful people do occasionally murder spouses or other individuals in rage. But I cannot remember a single one winding up on death row, much less being executed. If I stole a ring from you I would be in hot water legally. Vladimir Putin, upon meeting New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, admired his Super Bowl ring. Kraft took it off and showed it to Putin. Saying, “I could kill someone with that ring,” Putin pocketed the $25,000 diamond ring and left. When Kraft asked for it back, Putin claims he remembered neither Kraft nor the ring—which, by the way, is on display as a gift to the Kremlin. Were I to defraud you of a few thousand dollars and be caught and found guilty by officials, I would probably get jail time. JPMorgan Chase was fined $20 billion dollars for its financial wrongdoings and not only did no one go to jail but the same year, it increased the $11.5 million it paid its CEO Jamie Dimon by a few more millions.

People with power can do a lot of things. They rarely ask themselves if they should do them. And they primarily use their power for their own benefit. They rarely see their power as a resource for the use of others, as a stewardship from God to be shared generously with the poor and powerless. When they do, it is news. Sadly it is much easier to find news of the outrages above than news of people such as Tom White, a Christian and a construction company owner, who decided to give away his fortune before he died. It's a goal he reached at age 84, having given $75 million dollars to more than 100 charities, especially Dr. Paul Farmer's work in Haiti.

Power seeks to justify itself. It rarely says, “I am a fluke,” but almost always “I am deserved.” Which means that those who are on the opposite end of the spectrum apparently deserve to be powerless. Thus we have the pernicious idea that anyone can be rich if they work hard enough. If hard work were enough to make you wealthy then the hotel maids and restaurant waitstaff and floor nurses and elementary teachers of this world would be in the top 1%. Hard work is only one factor in achieving power.

I was watching the PBS series on the Roosevelts and was once again very impressed by Teddy, our 26th president. One historian said he was a genius, reading a book a day, 3 if he had the time. He wrote over 150,000 letters during his 2 terms, dictating them to a succession of secretaries, one picking up when another was exhausted. We like to think that Teddy marched into the presidency based on his merits alone. But Theodore was the child of a wealthy family. He was home schooled by tutors. He went to Harvard. He received help from family and influential friends. If you took away that privilege, do you think this sickly child who had multiple near fatal bouts of asthma would have achieved as much? And what if he were not white? Or not male? The prospects for such a person in the late 1800s were not good.

But what Theodore Roosevelt did with his strengths marked him as a very unusual man of power. He fought corruption in government and in the New York police department. He fought corporate greed. A month into his presidency he invited Booker T. Washington to dine with him, his wife and his daughter in the White House despite a storm of protests from southerners. He insisted labor be represented in arbitration to end a coal mine strike. He convened the first White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children. He used his strength to help the weak.

Perhaps Roosevelt picked this up from his regular attendance of his Dutch Reformed Church or his wife's Episcopal Church. I do know that when something he proposed was criticized as not being within his constitutional powers, Teddy paraphrased Jesus and said, “The constitution was made for the people, not the people for the constitution.”

In the musical Camelot, King Arthur is trying to make his realm a better one. He realizes that the world thinks might makes right. Whatever strong men want, they make it so by power. Arthur's revolutionary idea is “Might FOR Right.” In other words, his knights will use their prowess with the sword to bring about, not their own wills, but what is right. It's not quite a Christian idea because physical coercion is involved but certainly the Bible makes clear that God gives us various gifts to use for the good of all the people. To those he gives power, he does so not that they might get their own way but that they might help those who have little or no power. God has nothing against those who are rich, provided they came by their wealth honestly and they are generous to the poor. In the same way, the strong are supposed to help the weak. And the same principle applies to those with stronger consciences.

What does Paul mean by a strong conscience? For Paul the conscience is like an internal tribunal that judges whether our thoughts, words and deeds match our moral standards. A good or strong conscience helps one bring them into harmony. A weak conscience, which he also describes as “defiled” (1 Cor 8:7), is one that doesn't function so well when it comes to maintaining one's integrity. It allows one to go against the very standards one supposedly agrees with. Such a weak conscience can be “wounded” (8:12) and it can cause the person to “stumble” (8:13) and be spiritually “destroyed.” (8:11) The person with the strong conscience wants to make sure he isn't the cause of a person going against their conscience and so, out of love, abstains from behavior that might tempt someone to compromise their integrity.

Notice that we are not talking about areas in which the Bible is clear but rather specific instances where Christians legitimately have different views. Paul is not saying that everyone has to think alike in such matters. In 1 Corinthians 10:29, Paul says “why should my freedom be judged by another's conscience?” As he writes in Romans 14:5, regarding the differences Christians were having over which, if any, holy days to observe, “Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind.” This is freedom in Christ: not that anything goes in every matter but that in nonessential matters, one is free to make up one's mind so long as one is fully convinced.

So how does this relate to us today? There are a lot of issues confronting the Church on which Scripture is either silent or ambiguous. Christians of good conscience have come to different conclusions and some Christians are still wrestling with these controversies. Paul would say “Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind.” But he would also tell those who are convinced, whichever side they are on, to have consideration for those who are still struggling. Don't bully them and try to force them to do something they are not fully convinced is the right thing. No one should feel compelled to do something ethically that they are having grave doubts about.

How does one decide on such issues? The first step is to study Scripture. Even if the matter is not directly addressed, it is good to know what the Bible says about analogous topics or related issues and see if there are some principles that can be derived from them. A broad and deep knowledge of the Bible is always a good place to start.

The second step is to look at what Christians have done about the issue in the past. Were these rooted in Scriptural principles? Which ones? What other reasons did they appeal to? And what did Christians on the other side say? A good knowledge of church history helps us realize that we are not necessarily the first to deal with a problem and it helps us to learn from how our predecessors dealt with it.

The third step is to use reason, remembering that reason is not a position in and of itself but rather a method for teasing out the implications of certain principles or data and trying to remain self-consistent. Two people can be totally logical and come up with opposite positions because they started with different premises. As Christians we start with the revelation of God in Scripture. Still scripture encompasses a awful lot and what one chooses to emphasize can lead believers to differ. So our emphasis has to be rooted in God's living Word, Jesus Christ. All Scripture must be seen through the lens of what we see of God in the teachings, acts, death and resurrection of Jesus. For instance, if we are looking at something in the Old Testament that seems pretty harsh we must nevertheless remember that Jesus said all of the Law and the prophets are dependent on the two greatest commandments to love God and love our neighbor and that none of the commandments are greater than those 2. So our response in any situation must be a loving one, even if we disagree on the specific way in which we express that love.

And even though Paul says we can't bully those with weak consciences, it doesn't mean we can't talk about such matters. We can help people who are struggling clarify what issues they are wrestling with and share our struggles and what helped convince us. We should listen to them. We can also share our questions and insights and even doubts. That's scary because it reveals our vulnerability. But true strength is daring to show your vulnerability and admitting your own imperfection to another. Those who act as if they have no questions and no doubts but are 100% certain are often not the strongest people but the most insecure. It's a mask to fool others. But we don't live in a comic book world and can only help others and help ourselves when we remove the mask of pretending to be perfect.

And then we need to give our so-called weak brothers and sisters in Christ the freedom to decide for themselves and to realize that we are not to pass judgment on them anymore than they are to pass judgment on us. And we should be humble, realizing that we don't know it all and are in all probability not correct in everything we believe. Remember, knowledge puffs up but love builds up.

Jesus did not say, “The world will know you are my disciples by the way you agree on everything.” Rather the sign of discipleship is our love for one another. And in this fractious world what better testimony can we offer the world than being able to disagree with our fellow Christians on some issues and yet still worship together and work together on those things which Jesus made clear he expects of us: to love others, to forgive their wrongs, to admit our wrongs and to use our strengths not to take advantage of the weak but to help them and to encourage them to grow and become stronger in faith, hope and love?