Monday, March 30, 2015

Schizophrenic Sunday

The scriptures referred to are Mark 11:1-11 and 14:32-15:39.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “Actually, it seems to me that one can hardly say anything either bad enough or good enough about life.” And one only has to look at the news to see that he nailed that on the head. Just this week in fact, a top weedkiller has been named as a carcinogen; but on the other hand, a woman who dropped out of college at age 19 to start a medical research company now can perform hundreds of diagnostic tests on just a few drops of blood. On the one hand a lawyer in California has started a petition to have all gays and lesbians in the state shot in the head; on the other hand the Presbyterian Church (USA) now does same-sex marriages. On the one hand ISIS is beheading people in Iraq; on the other hand I have a neurosurgeon friend who is a medical missionary and is saving lives and teaching doctors his techniques in Ethiopia. It is a very schizophrenic world we live in. (And, yes, I am using that term in the popular and not the clinical sense.)

So perhaps it is appropriate that since the 1960s Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday have been combined in a mashup that commemorates both the height of Jesus' popularity with the people and the depths of his rejection by the authorities. And so we start by processing with palms and singing, remembering his royal entrance into Jerusalem, and later we stand in silence remembering his agony on the cross. 

Even though he was the Son of God, Jesus was a small town lad from rural Galilee. So he had to be struck by the reception he got when he entered Jerusalem on a colt. It was the biggest, grandest city Jesus ever visited, dominated by the gleaming white and gold temple. People started throwing their outer garments on his path and cutting down branches and laying them on the road. They were cheering him and yelling, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” It had to be a heady experience.

A week later, Jesus is humiliated and abused at a rigged trial by the leaders of his people, flogged and beaten by the occupying forces, marched out of town with a wooden beam across his shoulders and tied to his arms, stripped naked and skewered by nails and hung from a cross to die, surrounded by his jeering enemies and curious passersby. It was the worst death the Romans offered.

The fact that both happened to the same man in the same week shows that there is nothing bad enough or good enough that one can say about humankind.

So perhaps it is proper that on the same Sunday we should go from feeling exalted to feeling appalled. And that we go from identifying with those who cheered his entrance to standing in for those who shouted for his death. Because those two polls of human behavior still exist. It mirrors the ways people treat Jesus today.

We see them to a lesser extent in the way we first elevate celebrities and then just as eagerly tear them down. But usually we reserve our best behavior for one type of people and our worst for other people. Specifically people we look down on. We tend to attribute bad attitudes and behavior towards those who are different. For instance, in 1979 white men between the ages of 30 and 34 had a 1% risk of being imprisoned. Black men in that same age range had a 9% risk then. Today those same men in their early 30s have a 3% risk of going to prison if they are white and a 21% risk if they are black. And it's worse for high school dropouts. For white men 30 to 34 who didn't finish high school the risk of imprisonment is 15% today while the risk for black men without a high school diploma is 69%. And this at a time when the crime rate is half of what it was in the early 1990s. Did the 12% of the population that is black not get the memo that crime is down? Or are they being treated differently? And why is the black unemployment rate not only higher than the overall unemployment rate but more than twice the rate for whites?

Racial stereotypes die hard. Last September Kam Brock, a 32 year old black woman, was driving her BMW through Harlem when she was pulled over and accused of being high on pot. No weed was found in her car but it was impounded nevertheless. When she went to get it the next day she was understandably upset. The NYPD's response was to handcuff her and take her to a hospital psych ward where she was sedated and held for 8 days because she was considered delusional. The delusions? That she was a former Citicorp banker and that President Obama followed her Twitter feed. Which they would have found were true, had anybody bothered to go online. But the idea that a young black woman had achieved that high a social status was considered crazy talk. (BTW the hospital sent her a bill for $13,000. As one does when trying to cure someone of reality.)

To change categories to geographic differences, it's been shown that the thicker a person's Southern accent, the less intelligent other people tend to think they are. Wasn't that the whole premise of Matlock--that folks tended to underestimate the brains of the drawling old Southern guy? He was Columbo in a white suit.

People also look down on poor people, blaming them entirely for their predicament. That's why states keep instituting drug tests for people on welfare. Yet in the 7 states where this has been done, after spending a total of million dollars combined it turns out that only between .002% to 8.3% of those tested were positive for drugs. That's lower than the national drug use rate of 9.4%. It turns out drug addiction comes way down the list of major reasons for poverty, after things like lack of education, unemployment, low wages, disease and violence.

Dr. Paul Farmer said, “The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.” At the very least, that pernicious idea contradicts the second great commandment, to love one's neighbor as oneself. When you love someone they matter more to you. That's why Christ says that when we refuse to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the immigrant, visit the sick and those in prison, we are refusing to help Jesus. He wants us to value them more than we naturally do because we love him. The reason that Jesus didn't say something similar about the well-fed, the hydrated, the well-clothed, our fellow countrymen, the physically well and the free is because we already think those people matter more. We give more to those whom we value more and oddly enough, we don't give more to those who have less. In fact, we tend to take from those who have less. 

I mentioned a few weeks ago that I was reading The Locust Effect by Gary Haugen and Victor Boutros. They give statistics and examples of how the poor are taken advantage of by rich landowners, by neighbors, by employers, by their own families, and even by corrupt cops. They tell the story of 2 men in Kenya, Caleb and Bruno, who were abducted by cops on their respective ways to work and to take their children to school. They were thrown in a van, driven around with other men who were let out if they could raise the money the cops demanded. The cops went to the homes of the 2 men who were too poor to pay the bribe, ransacked them and took any money they found and anything of value. The men were taken to the woods, beaten and told to confess to stealing a TV from a local hotel. They refused but were taken to court, put in pre-trial detention because they couldn't afford lawyers and because the judge accepted what the cops said without any supporting evidence. As the men languish in jail, in many cases for years, they lose their jobs, their children can't afford to continue their schooling, and their families struggle to survive without their incomes and without the savings the cops took.

I will spare you the stories of families trapped in debt slavery and the women tricked into going for jobs in other countries but then trafficked for sex. We in the affluent West have little or no experience of such things and so think such happenings are rare. But in the third world they are common. And as we are seeing, they are not unknown in this country. They are everyday dangers and the reason why people often find it impossible to climb out of poverty. They illustrate why justice and peace must go hand in hand.

Why do humans have this split nature? Why are we capable of both great good and great evil? Philosophers, psychologists, sociologists and religious leaders all explore and debate this. To me the Christian explanation of the problem best accounts for this paradox. We were created in the image of God, the source of all goodness. God, as 1st John 4 tells us, is love. The image of God is therefore most fully seen in human beings in loving relationship—the couple, the family, the community. Love is putting the well-being of others before oneself. When everyone does that, human groups work as they should. But when, as Dr. Farmer points out, we think that some lives matter less than our own or those of our family, our community, our party, our denomination, our nation, our race, or our class, then it all falls apart. That's evil.

Evil can be approached in a variety of ways. It can be seen as a narrow definition of good, confined to what is good for me and mine, accompanied by a lack of caring about what the consequences are for others.

Evil can be seen as a parody of good, exaggerating certain features and minimizing others. Recklessness can be seen as a parody of courage, overemphasizing the overcoming of fear but while minimizing the fact that it is only courage if done in service of a nobler cause, not if it is done for thrills or self-aggrandizement.

Evil can be seen as the 2 opposite errors that skew to either side of a virtue, the way foolishness and cynicism can be equally wrong in a situation requiring wisdom.

Evil can be a falling short of God's standards or a rejection of what he has told us to do.

Evil can be viewed as the abuse, misuse or neglect of all the good gifts God has given us. Active forms of evil require the use of otherwise good things. High intelligence is required to create some truly twisted forms of evil, like fraud and con artistry. A good understanding of emotions can be used to craft particularly awful forms of psychological torture.

Evil can be defined as choosing to harm rather than to help. One's gifts and strengths can be used for either purpose. Whichever we do is a choice.

But in all cases evil is derivative of goodness; it is a parasite that cannot exist and cannot be defined except in relation to goodness. When we hear of a action that we label as clearly wrong, we can easily think of a good alternative to the action, if it's only refraining from doing evil. When faced with bad options, we usually try to find a good alternative. When faced with good options, we don't usually try to come up with a bad one.

Some people do though. The people who came up with crucifixion were looking for a particularly nasty way to kill someone. They came up with a way that was slow, painful, and humiliating. They wanted it to be graphic and shocking so as to warn other people about going up against the empire. Jesus knew what it was like. He had no doubt seen crucified men in his occupied homeland. He had to have heard about what the Romans did when the city near Nazareth, Sepphoris, rebelled when he was a infant. They crucified every man in town and lined the roads with them. Small wonder that on the night before he died, he prayed that God would let that particular cup pass him by. But he also prayed that the Father's will, not his, be done. Why?

Turning good into evil is relatively easy. Just don't do what you should, or only do the parts that benefit you and no one else, or do a imperfect version of what's good. But what if you tried to reverse the process? What if you tried to turn evil into good?

Remember when the Green family was vacationing in Italy and their car was fired upon by thieves, resulting in the death of 7 year old Nicholas by a gunshot wound to the head. His parents chose to donate his organs. Five people received his major organs and two people received cornea transplants. Little Nicholas' horrific death meant life and sight for 7 people. And the rate of organ donation in Italy rocketed.

That's what God is doing in the passion of Christ. He is turning a great evil of ours into a great boon from him. He is transforming the worst thing we could do to his son into the best thing that could happen to us. The death of God Incarnate means eternal life for all who ask and sight for the spiritually blind. And he is inviting us to do the same with a world that is looking less and less like the paradise he created it to be.

When Jesus saw a man born blind, he didn't try to work out whose sin caused his malady, as his disciples did. Jesus saw it as an opportunity to set things right and glorify God in the process. And that should be our response to evil. Reverse it. Redeem it. Reconcile the warring parties. Resurrect the good that was left to die. It may be hard but Jesus told us that following him meant picking up our cross. He carried that cross for us and so we will have to shoulder ours for others as well.

The cross reminds us that there are terrible things in this world and there are wonderful things as well. God wants us to diminish the number of things in the former category and increase the number of things in the latter. The methods he wants us to use are creation and transformation. It will not be easy. It may be excruciatingly painful. But Jesus did it. And with his help, we can too. 

Monday, March 23, 2015

Zombie Heart

The scriptures referred to are Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 51:1-13.

Zombies are the only monsters that still creep me out. I grew up watching the old Universal Pictures about Dracula, Frankenstein's creature, the Wolfman, the Invisible Man and all the rest. I graduated to Roger Corman's color adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe's works which starred Vincent Price, and the films of Hammer Studios, which, while British, were much more graphic. But zombies, the shuffling undead, I find disturbing. So it's surprising that I kinda liked the recent zombie romcom, Warm Bodies. It starts with the internal monologue of a young-looking zombie we come to know as R. That's all he can remember of his former name and life. In his head, he laments the poor social skills and aimless existence of being a zombie. Things change when he falls for a living girl named Julie after eating the brains of her boyfriend and gaining his memories. By protecting her and using his limited ability to speak, they form a bond and his love makes him become more human daily. Yes, it's a silly conceit. And I'm sure the story of R. and Julie has Shakespeare, the author of the romantic tragedy on which this fluff is based, spinning in his grave.

The movie does not even try to explain how falling in love revives dead flesh, much less how the mere notion of love converts the other zombies. We just see that in their chests their hearts go from grey and still to bright red and beating. But then no horror movie gives a plausible explanation for how rotting corpses could continue to move nor why they eat brains. I think that Warm Bodies is an analogy, not about people being physically dead so much as being emotionally dead. The same is true in Simon Pegg's zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead. There are two scenes in that film which make this clear. In the first scene, we see Shaun trudging to work, oblivious of his neighbors doing their mindless morning activities. The second scene closely parallels the first, except it takes place after the night of the zombie apocalypse. Shaun, unawares, plods to work, this time oblivious to the fact that his neighbors are now the shambling undead. Part of the joke is just how long it takes Shaun to figure this out. In Warm Bodies, R. is shuffling around the airport, reminiscing how people there used to greet and interact socially with one another. But his flashback shows everyone walking through the terminal with their faces locked onto their cellphones. The point is that even before the apocalypse people were practically zombies. In both films, the zombies are in the end integrated back into society. In Shaun of the Dead, they are given jobs like retrieving shopping carts or reality show contestants. In Warm Bodies they become human again by appreciating life, meeting people and, of course, falling in love.

People sometimes think that rules fix all problems. And if you still have problems, you just need more rules. I'm not saying rules are unimportant. Right now we are teaching my granddaughter basic rules like “Don't hit.” “Don't bite.” “Don't take things that don't belong to you.” She is slowly picking these things up. The sad thing is there are people who never seem to learn these basic rules. And no amount of repeating these rules nor punishing these folks for breaking the rules seems to work. Even the people who make our laws don't seem to learn anything about such basic ideas as consensus, compromise and compassion. They lack the common sense to realize it is stupid to keep doing the same thing and over and over while expecting different results. Perhaps they could use some brains. And working hearts.

The Torah, the first five books of the Bible, contain 613 commandments according to Jewish scholars. And yet not everything one encounters in life is covered. So, during and after the Babylonian exile, rabbis discussed and wrote commentaries on the Torah called the Misnah, literally the “study.” They were still being compiled during Jesus' day. And then they wrote commentaries on the commentaries, called the Gemarah, or “completion.” All of this was collected as the “instruction” or Talmud, the definitive compendium of Jewish law. Jewish tradition holds that God gave Moses two forms of the law: the written law we have in scripture and the oral law which was eventually recorded in the Talmud.

If having and knowing the law bestowed virtue on folks then lawyers would be the most ethical people around. We know that's not true. Similarly, Christian clergy and Biblical scholars would be the most pure. But that doesn't match reality either. For human beings knowing what's right is not the same as doing what's right.

The Bible recognizes this fact. So why does it contain so many commandments? For the same reason that a medical textbook gives you baselines for healthy functioning livers, hearts, kidneys and all the rest: so you can compare and see if you need help. It will tell you that a healthy blood pressure should be around 120/80 or less. Your cholesterol should be below 200. Your blood sugar should be between 120 and 80. You should be able to close your eyes without falling over. If you are over 50 and able to stand on one foot for 20 seconds or more, you have a lower risk of stroke. These tell you what should be, not what is. They give you goals to aim for and standards which can be used to diagnose illness. And when you try to meet the standards of the Bible you see how spiritually ill you really are.

The truth is God knows we can't live up to them. So how do we get ourselves out of this mess? We don't. God does. And he does so by changing our hearts. In the Bible the heart is not pictured as the seat of a person's emotions alone but of his or her mind and will and character as well. The root of the Hebrew word for heart is obscure but could mean “center.” And the usage is very similar to our speaking of, say, “the heart of the matter.”

So when the Bible talks about the heart it means the center of who we are. In fact, C. Ryder Smith writes that “The first great commandment probably means 'You shall love... the Lord your God with all your heart—that is, with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.'” And because of its centrality, the Bible has a lot to say about the human heart. In regards to our moral failures, it says, in the flood account in Genesis 6, that the reason God regretted making humans was that “every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil all the time.” (Gen 6:5) The particular sin in this instance that ruins his creation in God's eyes is that the earth is filled with violence (Gen 6:11). The depth of human wickedness is addressed in Jeremiah 17:9. “The heart is more deceitful than anything else, and incurable—who can understand it?” Jesus said that it was from within the human heart that all the evil thoughts and actions come. (Mark 7:21) In 1 Samuel 16:7 we learn that it is impossible to fool God because he looks upon our hearts.

Since the problem is in our hearts, how do we fix it? By a change of heart. In Deuteronomy 30:6 the image used is that of God circumcising the hearts of his people. Since physical circumcision was a sign of a person becoming part of God's covenant people, the circumcision of the heart represented people being truly dedicated to the Lord through the altering of our innermost self. This idea is expressed in Ezekiel thus: “I will give them one heart and I will put a new spirit within them; I will remove the hearts of stone from their bodies and I will give them tender hearts.” (Ezek 11:19) And here in Jeremiah 31 it says, “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” says the Lord: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts...” In other words, what was external to us will become an integral part of us. It will be at the center of who we are—how we think, how we speak, how we act.

And this is not our own doing; it is accomplished by God's Spirit. As it says in our psalm, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence and take not your holy Spirit from me. Give me the joy of your saving help again and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.” This is Hebrew poetry so the first part of each verse is paralleled by the second part. The equivalent of God creating a clean heart in us is his renewing a right spirit within us. The taking away of God's holy Spirit is the same as being cast from his presence. The joy of God's saving help comes from being sustained by his bountiful Spirit. To have a true change of heart we need to have God's Spirit within us, cleaning our hearts, renewing and sustaining us.

For some people a change of heart takes place almost in a flash. They have a realization, a sudden shift in perspective and everything is changed. People in recovery call it a moment of clarity. Like Paul on the road to Damascus, their new life begins at that moment. For others the change in point of view happens gradually. It might be subtle and just below their radar or it might be a struggle that ends with surrendering to a new way of looking at things.

With the disciples it took a while. Being with Jesus they started to see things differently. Especially Jesus. They realized he was the Messiah. But even so, the full realization of his identity did not come to them until he rose from the dead. Easter turned the world upside down for them. They were thinking of a physical conquest and setting up a physical kingdom of God. But after the cross and the empty tomb, after dining with Jesus on the shores of Galilee and the pouring out of the Spirit on Pentecost, they realized that God wasn't going to establish his kingdom by killing enemies but by winning their hearts. They realized the kingdom wasn't a matter of boundaries but of God's boundless grace spreading throughout the world. Jesus wasn't interested in being enthroned on a seat of gold but in the hearts of all. And the blood shed would not be that of the conquered but of the king. This was a new way of being a kingdom.

But the new vision is only the beginning. A change of heart is a process. It starts with seeing the world or some major aspect of it differently. And that change in the way you see things leads to more changes. It may be a change in your chief goal in life. Which leads in turn to a change of your plans. If you are driving to St. Louis and suddenly decide to go to Europe, you need to do more than turn the steering wheel. You will need to figure out how you will cross the ocean. Will you sail or will you fly? Will you do it yourself or buy tickets? Will you need to pack different clothing? Where will you go there? Where will you stay? Where will you go from there?

If you suddenly see God as love, Jesus as Love Incarnate, and the Spirit as the sharing of that love with all those created in the image of God, then that means a change in the goal of life. It is no longer earthly success, or the accumulation of wealth and power, or being adored and worshiped by others. The goal of life is to go farther and deeper into the love of God. It is inviting others to share in that exploration. It is removing the obstacles that keep people from enjoying God's love—prejudice and hatred and exploitation and oppression and dehumanization and violence and everything else that keeps our focus on our lot in this life, good or bad, and keeps us from seeing Jesus in others.

And of course this shift of perspective and changing of goals and plans leads to a change in our behavior, our actions towards others, ourselves and God. Since we see everyone as created in God's image and redeemed by Christ's death, we are able to love others and act lovingly toward them. We can even love our enemies because we realize that everyone we meet is either a brother or sister in Christ or a potential brother or sister in Christ. We write off no one.

For this change of heart to happen, for this process to begin, carry on and culminate, we need God's Holy Spirit within us. Just as it is possible to shut your eyes to the sun it is possible to shut your heart to the Spirit. We need to check in constantly and keep in contact with him. We need to be open to his direction so that the goals we set and the means we use to achieve them are in line with the Spirit of God in Christ.

For as long as human beings have been around we have tried to control behavior through rules. But rules can only do so much. If the heart of a person isn't in it, they will find a way around the rules. They will find loopholes or just ignore the rules. You cannot legislate goodness. It must come from the heart. And that means we must have a change of heart. But that big a change can only come from God. We must open our hearts to him. We must let his Spirit in. We must let him change the way we see things, the way we think, our goals and plans and the way we act. Otherwise we are no better than spiritual zombies, shuffling through life, missing out on the love that can quicken our hearts and bring us a true vision of how life can be lived. 

Monday, March 16, 2015

Stealthily Lethal

The scriptures referred to are Ephesians 2:1-10 and John 3:14-21.

Melanoma, better known as “skin cancer,” is a very deadly disease. Since we have lived down here in the Keys, my wife and I have known at least a half-dozen people who have died of it. And what makes it so lethal is that it tends to metastasize to the brain. So if you notice a spot that changes color, that gets larger, that has irregular borders, have it checked out by a dermatologist ASAP.

A friend who favored sleeveless dresses had a 2 inch black melanoma on her shoulder. I and another coworker kept quizzing her about it and she swore she was seeing a doctor. But she was afraid of doctors and was lying to us. One day she had the equivalent of a stroke, was taken to Baptist Hospital in Miami and diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. She came home and was put on hospice. A month later, she died.

We humans are really bad at judging threats that are slow-moving and non-obvious, like skin cancer and climate change. If it doesn't come roaring at us, if it doesn't cause deep and immediate pain, if it just creeps up on us slowly, we tend to ignore it or discount its seriousness. Which is why we tend to take action only after a crisis. Israel hadn't had a plane hijacked in decades and people in the know said we should copy their airline security. We didn't do so until after 9/11. My father-in-law became a big believer in exercise and eating right—after he had a massive heart attack and quintuple bypass surgery. As a nurse I've seen it again and again: people only make major changes when it becomes too painful not to. And, sadly, by then it is often too late for some.

I myself am not immune to this. I was in fairly good shape when I was working 3 12-hour nursing shifts a week 5 years ago, though working overnight was wrecking my ability to sleep. Since I now spend a considerable amount of time sitting in front of screens I have gained a lot of weight. I know all the serious and life-threatening things that being overweight leads to. But it's really hard to persuade myself to get up and exercise regularly. The immediate effect is hard breathing and pain and fatigue and sweating. The long-term benefits are both distant and hard to appreciate. They are not so much gains as a lessening of the risks of heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, etc. Like most people I am tempted to take the path of least resistance, comfort and short-term pleasure over the straight and narrow way of hard work, discomfort and delayed gratification.

Sometimes what motivates us to change is seeing a friend or family member fall afoul of some danger. This can even benefit others. For every healthy celebrity who works tirelessly to eradicate a disease, I assure you there is someone close to them who suffers from it.

There is another way to respond to a threat and we have seen it just this last week in the news. China banned a documentary on its notorious air pollution and India banned a BBC documentary on its culture's horrendous problems dealing with rape. Neither action will solve the problem, nor will they fool anyone in their respective countries about these problems. It is akin to solving your burglary problems by getting rid of that noisy watchdog. It won't save your belongings but you will be able to sleep longer. It will, however, make your eventual awakening much more traumatic.

We unthinkingly praise light and fear darkness. And yet the light can expose some discomfiting truths and so, as Jesus points out in today's gospel, some people do grow to love the darkness. It hides the inconvenient truth from others and even from ourselves. When General Patton liberated Nazi concentration camps, he was so horrified by what he saw that he rounded up local officials and townspeople and made them come and get a good hard look at the calculated cruelty and government-sanctioned carnage that was taking place in their midst. They could no longer deny the monstrous events that surely would have leaked from such places with which they did business and to whose staff they must have catered and entertained on days off.

The unpalatable truths we wish to hide are usually those things which are wrong with us, the things we do or have done. But they can also be the problems on which we do not want to work, even if we did not directly contribute to them. In the third of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy books, Life, the Universe and Everything, author Douglas Adams came up with a clever cloaking devise for a spaceship. It was called the SEP: Someone Else's Problem. The ship appears to be something no one wants to deal with and so is ignored. This is very astute satirical conceit by Adams, because we do indeed avoid engaging with certain things because we deem them Someone Else's Problem. Unfortunately, because of the interconnectedness of all things, almost every problem is ultimately ours. Some scientists think pollution from China may very well be what's been causing our recent severe winters. One third of the homeless population, or 250,000, are mentally ill. And yet 33 cities have made it illegal to feed the homeless in hopes of getting them to simply go somewhere else. Or they incarcerate them, tripling the percentage of mentally ill in jails and prisons. Which means we are paying to lock up rather than treat sick people.

We can even deceive ourselves into thinking our problems are actually someone else's. The BBC documentary about rape in India was banned in part because it includes an interview with one of the men imprisoned for the gang-rape and murder of a 23-year old woman on a private bus. Far from being repentant, the rapist accused his victim of being the reason for the crime. She shouldn't have been out that late; she shouldn't have gone to a nightclub; she shouldn't have resisted, he says. Somehow the rape and murder committed by him and 4 other men is the fault of the person they raped and murdered. I hear similar things all the time from men incarcerated for domestic violence. It was the woman's fault. She was drunk or high; she attacked him. Apparently, the only victim is the guy!

In summary, we humans are terrible at assessing what is bad for us. We ignore problems if they are slow moving and non-obvious; we ignore them if fixing them is painful or inconvenient; we ignore them if they reveal uncomfortable facts about ourselves; and if we can, by any stretch of the imagination, we try to blame others. We prefer to remain in the dark about our problems.

The weird thing is that the solution is not nearly as bad as we think it is. My friend was afraid of doctors but if she had gone to one when the spot on her shoulder first started to change, the doctor could have removed it, and the risk of her early death, with very little pain. And the solution to our moral deficit is definitely preferable to letting it get the better of us. Both our reading from Ephesians and our reading from John testify to that.

Our gospel includes the best known verse of the Bible: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” There is a lot of good news packed into that one sentence. It tells us that God's attitude towards this screwed-up world is one of love. It tells us that his love is so great that he sent his unique Son to rescue us. And how does he do this? Through a rigorous program of daunting tasks and sacrifices on our part? No, through our trusting in him. That's what believing in Jesus means in this context: trusting him the same way you trust a doctor to diagnose and remove a potentially fatal lesion.

My friend didn't go to a doctor but we believed that she was doing so because the big black spot would sometimes look a bit smaller. That was because my friend was trying to remove bits of it herself. But her makeshift efforts did not ultimately get to the root of the problem. She should have trusted a doctor. It would have meant less painful and futile work on her part. In the same way, Paul reminds us that saving us from the spiritual death resulting from our sins is accomplished by God's grace, not by anything we could do. All we can do is trust him to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. And since there is nothing we can do to deserve such treatment, we just have to accept it as a gift.

And that is perhaps another reason why we would rather remain in the dark about these things. It is bad enough to have to acknowledge that our problems are both dire and our own fault; it is really hard to admit that we are powerless to do anything about it. We want to believe we could fix it if we really tried. To face the fact that we can't is to realize that we have no bargaining chips when it comes to our fate; we are like beggars, entirely dependent on God's good favor. It is a humbling realization.

For many it is merely humiliating. They would rather die than admit they need God to save them from problems of their own making. I think a lot of the vehemence of certain anti-theists is due to their rejection of the idea that they need rescuing by God. They put their trust in themselves or in the ingenuity of other human beings or in an abstraction they call Science. But science is not a monolithic thing, nor is it all necessarily good. 

What we really have are sciences, many disciplines, being used by many people who work for various industries and governments and universities and for the money that science can generate. We have moral and immoral scientists. We have scientists working to save lives and scientists working to come up with new ways of killing people and scientists so focused on some other goal that they are paying scant attention to whether their efforts will make life worse for some people. We have people using science to attack problems and people using science to create problems and scientists trying to fix problems caused by the use of science, which were often a side effect of trying to fix some other problem. If we destroy our world or ourselves as a species, we will not do so without contributions from science. Sticks and stones may break my bones but to do serious damage to large numbers of people requires research and solid engineering.

Science, like any other field of endeavor, is only a good thing in the hands of good people. In the hands of the arrogant, the greedy, the lazy, the belligerent, or the deceitful, science, like law, education, the media, politics, religion, or any other human activity, becomes just another source of problems. The root problem is people. If we could fix them, everything would be better.

The only thing that can fix us, deep down, is God. And the only way God will fix us is if we let him. It's like the vaccine problem: the solution is there but it won't work if people won't get the vaccinations. And believing that something other than getting vaccinated will do the trick just makes the problem worse.

Why doesn't God just forcibly fix everyone for their own good? Because, as it says in John 3:16, God loves us. If you love someone you don't force yourself on them. There is a brilliant article on the Internet in which a woman discusses the problem of consensual sex. The woman says it's like offering someone tea. If they say “Yes,” you give them tea. If they say “No” or change their mind or pass out, you don't try to pour the tea down their throat. God does not force himself on us. If we say “No” he will take us at our word. If we change our mind, he will be there for us. Because that's how love works.

God loves us and wants us to love him back. But it's only genuine love if it comes out of one's free will. So God gives us the choice of whether we come to him or not. And then if we do, he gives us his grace to become the people he created us to be. Because that is another aspect of love. You want what is best for those you love. If your child is selfish, you help him become a more open and generous person. If your child is violent, you help him learn to control himself and achieve things through other means. Anne Lamott says that God loves us just as we are and he loves us too much to leave us that way. But you can only come to that conclusion if you acknowledge that you are the source of your problems and need God's mercy, forgiveness and grace. The self-satisfied never feel the need for a big change nor do they feel they need God's help.

And this is why I often find a receptive audience at the jail. I meet inmates who have stopped fooling themselves, who have hit bottom and realize they must change or die or else go on in that living death Paul writes about. They don't blink at talk of hell because they've seen it and perhaps have even lived it. They understand how giving up the things that cause you to sin can feel like cutting off a hand. They are not bored listening to talk about God's grace, his undeserved kindness towards us.

If you ask me, part of the reason that 7.5 million Americans have walked away from religion since 2012 is that they don't see the need. Their lives are fine. They've got a place to stay, a job, food to eat, entertainment at their fingertips. Even those who are not considered rich by our standards are rich compared to people all over the globe who live on less than $2 a day. They have freedom that many don't enjoy. Their life is fairly comfortable and so who needs God? It's hard to believe that things are dire for you when your physical needs are all taken care of and you are not in much distress. It is in the affluent West that Christianity is declining. It is where life is hard and uncertain that Christianity is growing and thriving. Is it because religion is a comforting illusion when your life is crap, as some think, or is it that people don't turn to God when their lives are comfortable the same way folks don't go to the doctor when they aren't in pain? But sometimes it's not wise to wait for excruciating pain to get help. I'm sure my friend would have gone to the doctor, physician-phobia and all, had that black spot burned like a son of a gun. And you just have to listen to the news to know that we are in trouble even if we are not yet feeling unbearable pain.

The reason the gospel, literally the good news, spread so well in Jesus' day was that everybody already believed the bad news. They knew everything was out of whack and they knew that each of them was part of the problem. When John scolded them for their selfishness and greed and hypocrisy and inaction, they fessed up and got baptized as if they were Gentile converts who needed to start their relationship with God from scratch. Today we have the same problems but we think that if there is a God he already forgives us and he loves us too much to let anything seriously bad happen to us. The good news is old news to us and being old it can't be that relevant to us today.

Part of the reason that some otherwise educated people aren't getting their kids vaccinated is that they don't remember a time before the vaccines. They don't remember when these childhood diseases would kill and cripple children. They think the world has outgrown measles and whooping cough and polio. They think those things are no longer worth worrying about. I think a lot of folks today believe the same thing about Christianity. They think the world has outgrown sin and the need for Christ's atonement and for God's grace. Any black marks on their souls they can take care of themselves. And I'm afraid that, like my friend, they may not realize their mistake until it is too late.

In her last month, my friend did consent to record a public service announcement for the radio station we both worked for. She bravely told her story and then told people the signs of melanoma and that they should go to the doctor and get these things checked out. This was well over 10 years ago but ever so often I hear the PSA play on the radio. And so she is still spreading the word, still saving lives.

Are you? Are you telling people the good news about forgiveness and healing and a new life in Jesus? Don't get lulled by how easy life is. Not every problem announces itself in a loud voice or big block letters. Don't worry about how gauche you're afraid you'll sound. Remember you are just passing along helpful information. If some people don't respond, then they are no worse off than they were but you may have planted a seed, nevertheless. If they listen and act on it, they will be more than better off. They will be citizens of God's kingdom, members of the body of Christ, beloved children of God, Jesus' brothers and sisters. And unlike cancer, with spiritual maladies it's never too late in this world to get help and get healed. This life has an expiration date. God's life doesn't. And that's what he's giving. That's what he's always given: his life for ours. And all we have to do is ask and trust.

Monday, March 9, 2015

A Jealous God?

The scriptures referred to are Exodus 20:1-17.

For the last decade the 10 commandments have gotten a lot of press, both good and bad, because of petitions and lawsuits to either put a copy of them in or to remove a copy of them from various public places. One thing I haven't heard from the critical side of the debate (perhaps because I rarely read the comment sections of internet news sites) is a condemnation of the specific passage that might have made you wince when listening to the reading. It is the sentence “For I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me...” When you heard that, did you ask yourself, “Is that fair?” And further along that line of thought: “Do I really want to worship a God like that?” Those 2 questions are what we are going to tackle today.

I the Lord your God am a jealous God.” Today it's politically incorrect to be jealous. But jealousy is natural if you are in love. In fact, it is impossible not to be jealous if you are in an intimate loving relationship with someone and that person switches their love to someone else. If the person you are in a relationship with leaves you for someone else and you're not jealous, you didn't really love that person. God really loves his people Israel. This is not a stalker situation or unwanted attention on his part. God heard the cry of his people who were slaves in Egypt. He rescued them. Nobody had to leave with him if they didn't want to. Now he is making a covenant with them. The 10 commandments begin with the prologue to that covenant. The people are going to swear to keep their end of that agreement and God will swear to keep his part of it. So asking the people of Israel to be faithful to their God is no more unreasonable than asking a bride or a groom to be faithful to the person they are marrying.

The reason we are justifiably wary of jealousy is entirely due to our experience of the human variety of it. We see a guy or girl go ballistic if their mate has innocent contact with the opposite sex. Or we hear of crimes of passion where a man kills his ex-wife, her lover and sometimes even his own kids. And we say, “Wow! Jealousy is terrible!” But these are examples of inordinate jealousy that crosses the line and goes over into being a sin. Is jealousy always a bad thing?

Let's consider another heated emotion: anger. Anger over injustice can be a good thing. It can motivate reformers and those who set up, campaign for, join or contribute to charities and activist groups. It can also be a bad thing, motivating anarchists, abusers and terrorists. It's all about whether you control the anger and how you channel it.

On a more personal level, wanting your children to behave justly and kindly is healthy. And so is anger if they don't. If you don't react when your child does something clearly wrong—beats up another child or steals something—the child gets the message that you really don't care about these things. The child may even conclude that you don't really care about him or her enough to correct them. In this case, reacting with anger to their clear violation of someone else's rights, and letting your child see that anger, is appropriate. That way he or she understands that justice and kindness are important values. But displaying the appropriate amount of anger is essential. Beating your child senseless for what they did would not be appropriate and would in fact send a whole different message. Anger, like any emotion including love, can motivate people to do either the right or the wrong thing. What you do with an emotion depends on your moral code and how well that code is integrated into the way you think, speak and act.

Jealousy is a naturally occurring corollary to a healthy desire for an exclusive romantic relationship. A psychologically and physically healthy person cannot have a sexual relationship and not feel the urge to bond. After all, during sex your brain releases oxytocin, the same hormone that causes mother and baby to bond. This bonding during sex makes human relationships much more complex that those of many animals, who can mate and then move on, letting the mother raise the offspring alone. We have seen the damage done when human fathers treat their children the way tomcats treat their offspring. But for us, intimate relationships are usually much more than an expedient response to a biological urge or instinct. As Christians we recognize that people are minds and spirits as well as hearts and bodies and we yearn to connect on all levels. Since pair-bonding is normal and nearly universal, threats to that bond arouse strong feelings. Problems arise when feelings of jealousy or reactions to those feelings are disproportionate. If your spouse is jealous of any co-worker of the opposite sex that you have, that's disproportionate. (Unless, say, your spouse used to be a co-worker of yours whom you stole away from someone else. Then your spouse might merely be recognizing it as your sexual modus operandi.) Likewise, while asking a cheating lover to move out is appropriate, setting fire to a lover's clothes or car in a jealous rage is disproportionate. But what if instead jealousy motivates your partner to try harder to be romantic than a supposed rival or to talk about actual relationship problems you are having? That would be a good outcome.

The real problem with jealousy is that we humans rarely react to it rationally. That's why it's so hard to talk of God being jealous. We project human jealousy onto him. So it's good to remember that all language about God is metaphorical and all metaphors have their limits. In this way it is just like talking about quantum physics in any language other than mathematical formulae. (Atoms, by the way, are not really those tiny colorful balls orbiting around each other, though that is how they are depicted in every science textbook.) When we talk of God we are using pictures and analogies that illustrate some truth about him but always with the knowledge that they pale and ultimately fail in comparison to the reality of the God to which they are pointing. The mystics recognize this when they talk of seeing God in his creation. They say, “This also is you; this is not you.”

Obviously there are differences when we are speaking of God being jealous. There is no taint of sin in God's jealousy. There is no insecurity or self-pity. Plus our relationship with God is not one of equals. He is our creator. Whereas it is wrong when a human presumes to treat another human as a possession, we actually do belong to God. That makes the freedom he grants us all the more amazing. But he loves us and he wants us to return that love. He works with those who respond to the offer of his love, beginning with Abraham, and then Isaac, and then Jacob. And now, in Exodus 20, we have come to the point where the people of Israel are promising to commit themselves to God. And he is committing himself to them and their welfare. So if Israel subsequently turns to another god, it is akin to adultery. Or worse.

You can't give up God for something better. There is nothing better. God is the source of all goodness. The things we worship in place of God, be they country, family, money, sex, art, power, human love or other stuff, even if they are good things in themselves, do not measure up to the goodness of God. They are but fragments of the whole, mere drops compared to the ocean of God's graciousness. When we put them in place of God, when we make them our ultimate goal and the source of our values, we distort our lives. Flowers orient themselves toward the sun and live by its light. A string of Christmas lights just won't do as a replacement for the sun. In the same way, we are created to orient ourselves toward God and live by his light. Lesser things, however shiny and attractive, are no substitute for God.

And this goes a long way towards explaining how the negative consequences of a parent's decision are visited upon his children and grandchildren. In the physical world, if a parent feeds his child junk food rather than proper nutrition, the child will be the worse for it. He will suffer for what his parent has done. In fact, thanks to the science of epigenetics, we know that things a parent or even grandparent does to his or her own body can have effects on the health of any descendants he or she has, by passing on genes that are already turned off or on, for both good and for ill.

Also affecting people throughout their entire lives are the things they experience as kids. In the 1990s two doctors noticed how their patient's medical conditions correlated with adverse childhood experiences. So they formulated the ACE test, 10 questions that they asked patients about any abuse, neglect or household dysfunction that occurred while they were growing up. They found that patients who answered “Yes” to 4 or more of the questions had much higher rates of diabetes, stroke, heart disease, cancer, COPD, depression, suicide attempts, alcoholism, severe obesity, and more. Just as you can inherit good traits and benefit from having good parents, you can inherit bad traits and suffer from the sins of bad parents. You can see this as merely the results of biological forces, or, since all things ultimately go back to the creator, you could chose to see them as punishments from God.

But in Ezekiel 18, God says that children are not held guilty for the sins of their parents nor vice versa. These consequences are simply results of the way the universe works. We are connected and what one person does can affect others, especially those who are close to him or her. And if we were created to worship God alone, then on the spiritual level there are inevitable consequences to ignoring that fact. Just as the rules of physics are not magically lifted because an innocent child is in a car that a drunk driver is about to hit, so also the moral laws are not suspended when a parent neglects to follow such laws or fails to teach his or her child about God by word and example of life.

Many studies have confirmed the huge drop in people in this country who identify themselves as Christians or even religious. Other studies show that there are negligible differences in the lifestyles of Christians and non-Christians in the US, casting doubts on the validity of the profession of faith of many people who claim to follow Jesus. Meanwhile, still other studies tell us that within the next 24 hours, 1439 teens will commit suicide, 2729 teenage girls will get pregnant, and 15,006 teens will use recreational drugs for the first time. Every 4 minutes a youth is arrested for an alcohol-related crime, every 7 minutes a youth is arrested for a drug-related crime, and every 2 hours a youth is murdered. Yes, some of these kids come from good homes; sadly, these things tend to cluster around those who do not.

Studies also tell us that children who regularly attend church have a significantly lower rate of using alcohol, tobacco and drugs, a much lower risk of committing crimes, reduced risk of binge drinking in college, a dramatically lower risk of suicide and they rebound from depression 70% faster. So are the ills suffered by those who don't worship God arbitrary punishments from him or are they in a sense self-inflicted wounds from unhealthy personal behaviors that are then passed on to their children?

And is God's jealousy then all about him or is it a passion to protect those he loves from the consequences of defying our own natures, about which he knows a lot more than we do because he created us?

It is God's jealousy, his unwillingness to abandon us to the consequences of our abandoning the relationship of love we once had with him, that has led him to woo us back again and again; that has led him to reveal his loving plan for the restoration of this planet and its inhabitants to the state he intended for us; that led him to send his unique son Jesus to teach us, to die for us, to rise again to kick off the resurrection of all good things through the growth of the Kingdom of God.

So do we want to follow a God who is, in this high and exalted sense, and for our sake, jealous? Ask anyone whose spouse has never exhibited the least bit of jealousy in any situation even when someone was hitting on them. Ask children whose parents let them do anything they want, if they would be willing to trade some of that freedom for a sense that their parents cared about them enough to set limits. Studies show that neglect is even worse for children's mental and physical health than abuse! Benign neglect is still neglect. And it still feels like indifference.

God is not indifferent to us. He wants the best for us. There are times when we wish he'd leave us alone, just like kids wish Mom or Dad would stop with all the restrictions and questions and just butt out of their lives. And if we wish that our whole life, he will leave us alone; the God who is love will accept our rejection and withdraw from us. There is a word for the source of all goodness truly leaving us alone forever: hell. We need to heed Joni Mitchell when she reminds us that “you don't know what you've got till it's gone.”

There is a way to avoid the negative effects of God's passionate love for us: love him back. We don't need to cease loving other things. They are his gifts after all. We just shouldn't love them disproportionately. To correct that doesn't mean we need to love them less but that we need to love him more. If we put him at the center of our life, all the other things will fall into their proper places. The reason we rebel against this is that we are used to living lives that are askew, that are out of balance. If you lived your whole life on the side of a steep hill, standing on level ground would feel weird. It would take readjusting, shifting things around, perhaps even learning to walk a new way.

God loves us. If we respond to him in love, he promises not to leave us or forsake us. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ. If that seems oppressive, perhaps your conception of God is too small. Look around you. He is the source of all that is good. He is the redeemer of all that is not good. And ask any neglected child. If your biggest problem is that your Father loves you too much, then you're lucky. Or to use the Biblical term, blessed. 

Monday, March 2, 2015

Practical Discipleship

The scriptures referred to are Mark 8:31-38.

Recently Lord of the Seas hosted graduation ceremonies for a local martial arts school. There were the usual demonstrations of what the students could do, like breaking stacks of boards. And if you're like me, you marvel at what these people can do. Of course the reason they can accomplish such feats is that (A) they got instruction from someone who showed them how and (B) they practiced a lot. Science says that it takes around 10,000 hours to master any subject or skill. That's about 5 years of 40 hour weeks. If you want to be a professional or just very good musician, athlete, scientist, actor, artist, nurse, teacher, cop, pastor or even bureaucrat you have to invest 10,000 hours in learning it.

It helps if you start out with some experience. When my mom went to nursing school, it was a 3-year program attached to a hospital. She spent half the day in the classroom and half the day on the hospital floor. When she graduated she had a year and a half hands-on experience. My Practical Nursing school was only 18 months but after the first 6 months, it was structured like my mom's old RN program, with the result that after graduating I had 6 months nursing experience. However, a Bachelor's degree in nursing treats the discipline as a major, which means the 4-year program splits its time between regular college classes and nursing classes, as well as management classes. During classes on specialties like psychiatry or geriatrics, the students spend a week or two on the psych floor of a local hospital or at a nursing home. Which is why I often found myself as an LPN showing newly graduated BSNs how to do very basic procedures. They had studied them; they could give you 20 reasons why one would do the procedure; they may even have seen the procedure done, either live or on video, but they had probably only done it once. I'm afraid that nursing is being turned into an academic subject.

There is a lot of talk in churches these days about discipleship. And sometimes they make it sound like an exotic undertaking. But the word “disciple” just means “student.” Jesus was a rabbi and the Twelve were his students. They came to realize he was more than just a teacher, but essentially they were selected to learn both what Jesus knew and how to do what he could do. Unfortunately, discipleship is often treated as if it were an academic subject, mainly a matter of studying the Bible. Studying God's Word is essential, like reading nursing textbooks, and you should make it a lifetime habit, like nurses taking continuing education. But what is often lacking is hands-on discipleship.

In the third season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the title character's trainer and mentor Giles is replaced by a younger man named Wesley. Wesley proudly announces that he has faced a real vampire under controlled conditions. “Well, you won't find any of those around here,” says Giles. “No vampires?” exclaims Wesley, incredulously. “No controlled conditions,” says the older man.

Jesus knew his students would not be benefiting from controlled conditions. They had to be ready for anything. So He sent his disciples out to preach the good news and to heal the sick. He was giving them experience in the field. He was allowing them to face things that they hadn't before, the unexpected and the unheard of. He was giving them the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them. He was allowing them to see what they could do. And we are told in Luke 10 that upon returning they were amazed at the power they had been granted over the forces of evil and illness.

And Jesus kept challenging them even when they were with him. For instance, when they realize that they are stuck in the wilderness with thousands of hungry people, Jesus tells the disciples, “You give them something to eat.” (Luke 9:13) I think Jesus was serious. He wanted the Twelve to feed the 5000. But when they balked, citing how little they had in terms of resources, he went and fed the crowd himself.

There is a point in the early career of a nurse when she realizes that her idea of being an angel of mercy, saving lives and being thanked by patients and their families, is far from the daily reality of pill-passing and paper-pushing, of dealing with bodily fluids and ungrateful and non-compliant patients, of working with a full bladder and on an empty stomach. If she can't face those unpleasant facts, she has 2 choices: she can leave the profession or go into administration.

Apparently the disciples thought that their careers would also be rosy ones, healing folks now and soon ruling the kingdom with Jesus. But then Jesus starts talking about his upcoming suffering and death. And if that's his fate, what will become of his followers? As if he read their minds, Jesus says, “If anyone wants to become my follower, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

Jesus' words were shocking. Everyone knew what a cross was and how long and painful a death it afforded one because they had seen it firsthand. Crosses often lined the roads to cities. Crucifixion was a punishment reserved for slaves and those judged as traitors to Rome. Usually the bodies were left up for days as a warning for any considering a revolt against the Empire. It was a horrifying death and Jesus said his followers had better be prepared for it.

There is relatively little chance of being crucified today, however. Does this still apply?

As we've seen in the recent news from the Middle East, there are places where Christians are still facing death for their beliefs. According to, the 10 worst countries for Christians to be in are North Korea, Somalia, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan, Iran, Pakistan, Eritrea, and Nigeria. They list 25 countries in which Christians face either extreme or severe persecution. For them following Jesus is a possible death sentence. Open Doors estimates that worldwide 100 million Christians face persecution. Each month 322 Christians are killed for their faith, 214 churches and Christian properties are destroyed and 772 forms of violence are committed against Christians, including beatings, abductions, arrests, rapes and forced marriages to non-Christians.

What can we in the West do to help? Open Doors suggests praying, advocating and volunteering to help those who are in prison, who are trying to rebuild their churches and homes and those who are in refugee camps. In America there are 125 million Christians who claim to attend church weekly. And, remember, there are 100 million persecuted Christians. If we all did something to help our brothers and sisters in Christ who are suffering like the first Christians did, we would make a tremendous impact.

But does that mean Jesus' qualifications for following him are irrelevant to those of us who enjoy freedom from religious persecution? Not at all. Jesus said that first we must deny ourselves. A better translation would be “disown.” It is the same word used of Peter's denial of Jesus that awful night before Christ was crucified.

What does it mean to disown oneself? A dictionary definition would be “to repudiate any connection or association with, or responsibility for” or “to deny the validity or authority of” something or someone. To disown oneself is to give up having authority over yourself, to give that to Jesus. It's rather like the relationship of a soldier to his superior officer. If he is told to go on a mission, he can't refuse on the grounds that he could get killed. The whole point of being a soldier is that your life is ever on the line.

As we've said, it is unlikely that in the West a Christian would physically die for his or her faith. But I think that the more important sense of dying, which Jesus meant as well, is that we are to give up all rights to ourselves. It means to stop thinking of our time, our talents, or our treasure as our own. It is to follow Jesus selflessly, putting serving him and serving others in his name ahead of ourselves. Living for Christ can be as hard as dying for him.

A peculiar heresy has arisen in the church in the last century. It is the Prosperity Gospel, the idea that God wants us all to be rich and to live like kings in this life. The problem with this is that it moves the focus off of Jesus and other people and puts it squarely on oneself and one's comfort and personal happiness. It is an unholy alliance between spirituality and materialism. And it ignores the fact that we cannot find true happiness in things outside ourselves but only in the God who is within us and in our lives.

Such a focus on the individual can also lead to people thinking they can be Christians without belonging to a church. But how is one to truly practice loving other people, people who are not friends and family, if we do not belong to a group of disparate people who are trying to do the same thing? It's quite easy to love others if you leave that vague and don't make it specific, like “I love Bob” who has body odor, or “I love Carol” whose politics are antithetical to mine, or “I love Brian” who is a bit too intense a Christian for my taste, or “I love Fiona” who always seems to have drama in her life. Trying to be a Christian without belonging to a church is like wanting to be an Olympic hockey player but not wanting to practice with anyone. You'll never be on the team if that's how you act.

If our discipleship is to be more than just words, we need to reach out to others, both those who can help us and those we can help. We not only have to read the Bible and pray but also join a community of others who are also trying to follow Jesus. We are to worship with others and serve others and tell others the good news about what God has done, is doing and will do in Jesus Christ.

One other thing: Picking up our cross doesn't mean simply dealing with our own problems. Jesus carried that cross for us, not for himself. If he minded his own business, he would never have been crucified. Our cross is the problems of others that we shoulder, the burdens that we bear for others, especially those who are unable to do it themselves. When we run errands for a shut-in, buy goods for the food pantry, help someone learn the language, relieve a sick person's caregiver so they can take a break, hear out someone who is upset, fill out a form for someone who is confused or frustrated by it, give blood, buy a meal for a homeless person, drive someone to their medical appointments, volunteer for Habitat for Humanity or a soup kitchen or a nursing home or a classroom, we are picking up our cross and following Jesus. When you notice a need in your community that is not being met and do something about it, you are picking up your cross and following Jesus. There are a lot of people who won't and don't go out of their way or give up their time for someone else, especially someone who is not a friend or family member. In the parable of the good Samaritan, Jesus showed that our neighbor is anyone we encounter and loving that neighbor can mean committing oneself to the long-term welfare of someone you don't know from Adam.

Jesus' message was not that we need to be just a bit nicer to one another but that we shown emulate him in his self-sacrificial goodness towards others. It's not a matter of meeting people half-way. Some folks can't make it that far. Many won't even go that far to help someone else. Only if we commit ourselves to going above and beyond what is deemed reasonable by the world will we be able to make real changes in this world and in its people.

Stephen Colbert is remarkable for being able to interview non-comedians live and be funny while staying in character. He attributes it to his years doing improvisational comedy. He says that in improv, your attitude has to be “Yes...and...” That is, you have to say “Yes” to whatever premise the audience throws at you, and whatever embellishments your cast members introduce. If the audience suggestion is that you mash up a private eye film with a Godzilla film, you can't balk; you just have to dive in. If then a fellow cast member says Godzilla has just started tapdancing, you can't say, “No, that's silly!” You accept that twist and then you add one of your own.

Following Jesus is very much a matter of saying “Yes...and.” You say "Yes" to whatever he throws at you and bring your personal talents to it. That's how it happened with me. When the folks at St. Francis said, “Will you go through the process and the schooling to be a Canon 9 priest and lead the church you've been a lay member of for 13 years, even though it can only be part-time?” I said, “Yes and I'll bring to my pastoral care everything I've learned as a nurse and to my preaching everything I learned as a radio copywriter.”

When Don Roberts, a Lutheran pastor from Marathon, said,“When I retire will you succeed me as chaplain of the jail and visit it at least once a week ?” I said, “Yes and I'll agree to expand my visits to 3 times a week so I can get to all 10 units in the jail each week.”

When the folks at Lord of the Seas said, “Will you be our interim pastor?” I said, “Yes and I'll make it work despite having two other part-time ministries. Because in my mind I'm still working for the same guy.”

When the Father said to his Son, “Will you give up your prerogatives as my equal, become a human being, subject to pain and hunger and thirst and exhaustion and all the other vulnerabilities that go with it, and will you live in poverty in a violent and unjust world, and try to teach a bunch of stubborn people to change their ways of thinking and behaving, and die at their hands in order to save them from themselves?” Christ said, “Yes, and I'll show them both what you are like and what they can become.”

And when God asks you, “Will you put aside the comfortable life you could easily have in order to live for and like Jesus, even when it means making some sacrifices of the time, talents and treasure I've given you, in order to serve me by serving others,” what will you say?