Sunday, June 21, 2015

Fatherhood and Plan B

G.K. Chesterton wrote, “Don't ever take down a fence until you know why it was put up.” This was illustrated quite vividly by an incident that took place during the PBS reality show, Frontier House. A group of modern people were trying to live like their homesteading ancestors from the 1800s. Fences were not a high priority to these re-enactors until a nearby rancher drove his cattle through the settlement. The cows trampled the settlers' crops and pretty much everything in their way. Seeing this, the viewer understood both the need for fences as well as the enmity that farmers have for cowboys. Not for cows, mind you, because farmers also have cows, which they control with fences and barbed wire. Without them cattle see no distinction between the croplands and the meadows. Not only will they destroy people food, they will trample the very crops which are meant to get the cows through the winter. Fences can protect.

Fences are barriers and today it's popular to look down on barriers. And yet everyone lives with them: the walls of your house, the internet firewalls that keep hackers from hijacking or crashing your computer, and the personal space most people observe. When someone who is not family or a close friend violates that by getting closer than 2 or 3 feet of us, we become very uncomfortable. It all comes down to what the barriers keep out and how well they do so. The Great Wall of China did keep the Manchus from invading, at least until someone left a gate open. That could be either good news or bad news depending on how you feel about the Manchu dynasty. However, had the levees surrounding New Orleans worked as effective barriers to keep out the flooding, that city would have been spared the worst of Hurricane Katrina. Barriers can be good.

However we have seen barriers, especially societal constructs, like the Jim Crow laws or redlining, used to exclude others and unjustly restrict people's freedom. Following Chesterton and knowing why they were put up—to oppress or segregate certain groups—means they and their ilk definitely should come down. But some people think that making definitional distinctions of any kind are exclusionary and want to dismantle all of them. One definition that people seem intent on dismantling is the concept of the traditional family. Critics say not all families are alike and they are right. They say traditional families have problems and they are right. No family is perfect and some families are downright toxic. It does not follow that there is something inherently wrong with the traditional family, any more than the existence of birth defects means that natural reproduction is inherently flawed. Nor does it mean that the alternatives, such as in vitro fertilization or the use of surrogates, are less susceptible to problems than nature's method for making babies. In fact, nobody who can safely conceive and give birth naturally uses any other method. The alternatives were developed for those who, for whatever reasons, couldn't do it that way, as a Plan B. Plan B can be good.

The biological family, consisting of a man, a woman, and any children they have is Plan A, that is, the plan most people consider first. Not everyone can achieve Plan A. Not everyone wants Plan A. That's why there's a Plan B. Plan B might be your preference. But that's no reason to disparage Plan A or deny that it is Plan A. For instance, if you're going to the mainland from the Keys, the fastest, cheapest way to drive is via the 18 Mile Stretch. That's Plan A. Card Sound Road is 7 miles longer and you have to pay a toll. That's Plan B. Now, like me, you might find Card Sound Road is more scenic and less stressful. You might feel it's worth the extra time and the $1 toll. Good. That doesn't change the fact that it is both the longer and more expensive drive to the rest of the state.

When it comes to the definition of the family, the first fence post people have been trying to remove is the father. The ongoing biological necessity of a mother is a given. Her body is designed to gestate, give birth to and feed babies. The father's role, aside from contributing half of the chromosomes needed to make a person, is less obvious. Some think that he is therefore redundant. But that's not what science says. More and more studies have shown that fathers are vital to both the physical and mental health of children. According to the National Principals Association, 71% of all high school dropouts come from fatherless homes. According to the Department of Justice, 70% of juveniles in state-operated institutions come from fatherless homes. According to the U.S. Census, 63% of youths who commit suicide are from fatherless homes. Children from fatherless homes are twice as likely to engage in early sexual activity, 7 times more likely to get pregnant in their teens, 5 times more likely to be poor, 10 times more likely to abuse chemical substances, 20 times more likely to have behavioral disorders, 32 times more likely to run away, 14 times more likely to commit rape and 20 times more likely to end up in prison. According to the US census 25 million children are living apart from their biological fathers. That's 1 out of every 3 kids.

Having an actively involved father in the home not only tends to protect his children from bad outcomes, but those children tend to have a higher IQ, better verbal scores, and better academic success. They are more likely to be emotionally secure, more confident in exploring their environment, and more sociable with their peers. Playing with their fathers helps children regulate their feelings and behavior. As a government study says, “Generally speaking, fathers also tend to promote independence and an orientation to the outside world. Fathers often push achievement while mothers stress nurturing, both of which are important to healthy development.”

Of course, this is greatly enhanced if the father and mother have a loving relationship. And, to quote the same US government paper on child welfare that I've been using, “Research consistently shows that the married mother-and-father family is a better environment for raising children than the cohabiting (living together) mother-and-father family.” No, it's not the magic of having a piece of paper; it's the willingness to publicly make promises and commitments. Promises never uttered are easier to break.

Now we all know of the damage bad marriages and bad fathers do to their children. Husbands who are continually angry with their wives, who show contempt for them or who clam up and refuse to discuss important issues with their wives tend to have children who are anxious, withdrawn or antisocial. Abusive fathers (and mothers) model behavior that is unconsciously copied by their children in their future relationships. But again, the flawed execution of an idea doesn't disprove the validity of the idea itself. Otherwise, based on the disastrous movie adaptation, you would have to conclude than Man of La Mancha is a pretty crappy musical. A more logical conclusion is that they just didn't do it right.

How do you do it right? Since this is Father's Day, I'm going to address fathers and potential fathers.

First and foremost, resolve to be a good father even before you are one. That means refraining from situations that could make you an unwitting father. One of the most neglected areas in all the discussions of sex today is the fact that, biologically, it's primarily about making babies. That's why it is such a strong urge in all species that have 2 sexes. That's why salmon fight their way up raging streams. That's why male peacocks grow gorgeous fantails and shake them in dances to attract females. It's why the male bowerbird spends hours building a little hut and decorates it with hundreds of carefully arranged flowers, feathers, stones, discarded glass and plastic, all in the same color. Whatever else the participants are aiming for, their bodies are simply trying to create new life. This is not a side effect of sex; it's the main purpose. Ask any biologist.

Once you've found the person with whom you wish to create life, marry her. Being a baby daddy doesn't make you a man. Men make commitments. Men accept responsibility. The world was not built by those who lost interest in something once it became difficult but by those who persevered. Being in a committed relationship is not always easy. Raising children certainly isn't. A real man isn't afraid of the hard work of building a good relationship and a strong family.

A key element of that is the strength of your word. Only make promises you can keep; keep every promise you make. Do that and your wife and kids will respect you, and what's more, trust you. Trust is the foundation of any good relationship. The world is full of untrustworthy people and unreliable promises. Be different. Your kids will be the better for it.

That also applies to discipline. Let rules and the principles that underlie them be clear. Let the penalties for breaking the rules or violating the principles be clear—and reasonable. Don't threaten your kids with any punishment you are unwilling to follow through on but let them know bad behavior has consequences. The world is not going to shrug off dishonest, selfish, illegal or unreasonable behavior. Prepare them for that.

Unless you are willing to spend a couple of hours a week personally laying out for your children an integrated worldview and comprehensive ethical philosophy, take them to church. Don't send them; take them with you. Children are the keenest judges of hypocrisy. If you want them to do something, you must do it yourself as well.

Read the Bible to them. Discuss it. If you don't know something, be honest and tell them so. Then tell them you'll look up an answer. Don't worry. Children ask tough questions but it's unlikely that theirs hasn't already been asked in the last 2000 years. There is probably an answer, perhaps several. Don't give them the impression that faith means having all the answers all the time. Or the first time they are at a loss for one, their faith will collapse. Teach them that faith isn't believing a bunch of facts about God; faith is trusting God, relying on him in the present based on his goodness to us in the past.

Once again, children tend to do what you do. Teach them to trust God by trusting God. Teach them about thankfulness by being thankful. Teach them about mercy by being merciful. Teach them to admit their faults and amend their lives by admitting your faults and amending your life. Teach them about faithfulness by being faithful. Teach them about love by loving them and loving their mother. It's as simple as that; it's as hard as that. That's Plan A.

Sometimes it's harder than that. Sometimes things aren't going the way you planned. Or maybe they are and you realize you made the wrong plans. Maybe you neglected to plan. Maybe things came up that nobody could have planned for. Sometimes for whatever reason you find yourself smack dab in the middle of Plan B. Welcome to the club. That's life. But God is not frustrated. He can bring goodness out of whatever happens.

For proof of that, you need go no further than Abraham and his descendants. We think his family must be Plan A because they are God's people. But they are really examples of how God can even use people in Plan B, no matter how broken they are.

Sarah gave up on the idea of Abraham having the child God promised through her. She chose Plan B and so gives her maid Hagar to her husband as a surrogate. And when Hagar got pregnant, things got tense, as, by the way, all plural marriages in the Bible do. Sarah drove Hagar and her child out into the desert. But God saved Hagar and made her son Ishmael the father of a great nation.

Isaac and Rebecca had twins and each had a favorite. This exacerbated the sibling rivalry between Esau and Jacob and the jockeying for birthright and blessing led to a legacy of jealousy and deceit. Rebecca's favorite, Jacob, had to flee so his brother wouldn't kill him. She never saw him again. That was not her Plan A. But God used the situation and both brothers eventually prospered.

Jacob planned to marry one woman, Rachel. But that trickster was himself outsmarted by his father-in-law Laban and found himself hung over and married to Rachel's sister, Leah. After what reads like a bedroom farce, Jacob ends up with 4 jealous and competitive wives and 12 sons. But God makes them the ancestors of the 12 tribes of Israel.

Despite the obvious lessons of his childhood, Jacob favored the children of Rachel, especially Joseph, over his other sons. That situation almost led to fratricide and Joseph spent years in slavery and in a foreign prison. That doesn't sound like Plan A. Yet, though his life seemed to go from bad to worse, God used Joseph to save a nation as well as his father and brothers. Joseph turned out to be the noblest of the patriarchs.

Life seldom unfolds the way we'd like. Most of us find ourselves working under what we'd call Plan B at times. And yet most of the principles I listed can still be implemented. It's never too late to start following God. There is no situation that God cannot redeem. He can make Plan B look like it was really Plan A all along.

Never forget that you too have a father, one who understands you better than you do yourself. One who loves you more than you do yourself. One who can take any sorry state of affairs, even our crucifixion of his son, and turn it into a blessing. And so he cannot be stymied by any predicament we get ourselves into. The only question is whether we are going to continue to work against him or if we are going to start working with him.

Fatherhood is not for wimps or spoiled brats. It's not for the rigid who can't stand it when Plan A goes off the rails and you have to resort to Plan B. We all have to improvise at times. The two things that must remain constant is your love and your willingness not to give up but to persevere. Nor can you turn back the clock to the hallowed days of your childhood and do everything the way your dad did it. The best way to honor your father is to be the best father you can. And to realize that our Father in heaven is ever ready to help us and to bless us if we just let him.       

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Problem of Partisanship

The scripture referred to is made to 2 Corinthians 5:6-17.

I've never understood the fervor people have for their hometown team. It's not like you chose the team because it's the best one around. It could just as easily be the worst team in the nation. We all know of cities who continue to support teams that lose year after year. Then again it might be a good team. But that's not why you chose it. You chose it because of geography; because you live near it.

Which is fine. They represent your city or region. But getting into heated fights with fans of other teams makes no sense. After all they chose their team for geographical reasons as well. And most, if not all of the team members, probably did not come from anywhere local but were hired from somewhere else with offers of millions of dollars. If someone else had offered more, they would probably have gone to that club's town. Look at LeBron James. He was beloved by the citizens of Cleveland until he went to play for Miami and then he was vilified. Until he returned to Cleveland, where he is treated as a hero again. Nothing changed about LeBron's athletic ability, just his location in space and the team he played for. Cleveland and Miami's shifting attitudes were pure partisanship.

Partisanship is when you are loyal to a side or a party, period. It has nothing to do with that side's virtues or the others' vices. It has nothing to do with ideology or causes. Partisans forgive flip-flops made by their own side simply because it is their side. And they will attack and ridicule the other side, regardless of its views or virtues simply because it is the other side. We see this in politics. It doesn't matter if the idea your opponents are supporting used to be the brainchild of your own party. Once the other party adopts it you are against it. If the other party suddenly declared itself anti-cancer, your party might seriously consider being pro-cancer, if you can just find the right spin, because you cannot admit that they might be right about something. When you are partisan, winning is more important than being right or being good or being reasonable. The ends justify any means you can think of, even if it goes against everything you supposedly believe in.

We see this partisanship in the church, too. Some people are more committed to their denominations than they are to God and refuse to admit that their denomination is or ever has been wrong, nor that another denomination might have some good points. When people do things in the name of Christ that contradict what Jesus actually said or stands for, that's not Christianity; that's partisanship. It's mindless loyalty to a side.

Partisanship is all about the superficial. It's about brands or symbols or colors or certain words or phrases or gestures or rituals. What it's not about is substance. And if you think about it, a lot of the problems we have in our society are about partisanship and not about anything substantive. Our politics are about getting elected and reelected and money and media and images and getting people stirred up about anything at all so long as it helps the politician. What it is not about is being wise and just leaders serving the common good. What it is not about is engaging with important issues and coming up with real solutions. Partisanship cares more about being seen as a winner than actually solving problems. In fact, resolving things works against partisanship because it thrives on conflict.

The problem with partisan words and actions is that in this superficial world a lot of people take them at face value. A lot of damage is done to religions when highly visible members do and say things that are purely partisan but which the public sees as characteristic of the beliefs or practices of that group. I am thinking of the Florida pastor who announced that he was going to burn Qurans. That message said nothing of the gospel, of grace or love or forgiveness or reconciliation. There was nothing of Paul's attempt on Mars Hill to reach those with different beliefs by emphasizing what we have in common in order to present the good news. It was akin to burning the flag of an enemy, an act of provocation and partisanship. I'm sure you can think of many other examples of so-called Christians doing and saying things that reveal an “Us vs. Them” mentality and which are the antithesis of the ministry of reconciliation God has given us.

The other problem is that some people do see these words and actions for what they are, partisan behavior, and cynically assume that such Christians, or all Christians, are equally cynical in using them. In other words they see Christians and other religions as so many teams, ultimately interchangeable because none of them actually point to, or indeed are concerned with, the truth. They are merely interested in gaining the most followers and the most power over the lives of others. In Galatians Paul condemns partisanship and terms it a work of the flesh, that is, purely human, unspiritual thinking.

In today's passage from 2 Corinthians, Paul talks of those who boast about people on the basis of their “outward appearance and not in the heart.” In this he is echoing what the Lord says in 1 Samuel 16:7, “God does not view things the way men do. People look on the outward appearance but the Lord looks at the heart.” Unfortunately because Christians are also human, we tend to fall into the same mental trap. We boast of things that are big, flashy and impressive. Large churches can do more by virtue of having more people to do things and more money to do it with, and so we pay a lot more attention to them than the smaller church working with less people and capital. But if the bigger church is built around the larger-than-life personality of a superstar preacher rather than around Jesus, then when that preacher retires, dies, or is disgraced that church will falter or even fail. Think Robert Schuller and the Crystal Cathedral or Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and Heritage USA.

I'm not saying that all large churches are similarly flawed or that small churches are more virtuous but that what is essential is whether they are focusing on following Jesus. Are they asking themselves “What would Jesus do with the resources we have?” Are they more interested in impressive numbers or in transforming lives?

It is the deep-down change of human beings that is at the heart of Christianity. Jesus wasn't interested in merely collecting partisans. John's gospel tells us that after Jesus fed the 5000 the people were ready to make him king. But Jesus eluded them and then, when they caught up with him, he gave a very hard-to-stomach speech about him being the bread of life and how people would have to eat his flesh and drink his blood to have eternal life. We are told that after this, many disciples left him. Jesus asked the Twelve if they were going to leave and they said, “To whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life...” Jesus wouldn't pander to the crowds to get power, and his true disciples were more focused on the life-transforming truth he told than in going along with the crowd.

Most actors can convincingly change the way they look, speak and act for a role without it changing who they are at their core. In the last year, more than 2 dozen women have revealed that Bill Cosby was personally quite different from the beloved father figure he played on TV. Rock Hudson, the love interest in many Doris Day movies, and a Hollywood heartthrob for decades, came out as gay towards the end of his life. Many a movie bad guy is known by his costars and friends as a nice guy in real life. And in real life, sociopaths, who are devoid of genuine empathy for others, hide in plain sight by observing and imitating normal people expertly. Jesus was not looking to make people good in a superficial sense. In fact, the word translated “hypocrite” in Jesus' excoriation of the Pharisees in Matthew 23 literally means “stage actor.” The thrust of his criticism is that they were not at heart what they appeared to be to the world. Which is why, he said, the tax collectors and prostitutes who repented—literally, had a “change of mind”—were entering the kingdom of God way ahead of the Pharisees.

C.S. Lewis said that God is not so interested in making people nice as in making them new. We tend to confuse niceness with goodness. And yet we have all encountered people who seem very nice but who are actually quite treacherous. Serial killer Ted Bundy disarmed his victims with his nice persona. He was so good at this that ex-cop and future crime writer Ann Rule, who worked with Bundy at a suicide hotline, was at one point contemplating introducing him to her single daughter! On the other hand, the head of neurosurgery at one of the hospitals I worked had the worst bedside manner of any doctor I've met but he was absolutely the surgeon you would want to operate on your brain. Ted Bundy would kill you while the doctor would cure you. But if you judged them by their first impressions you would probably end up with the wrong guy cutting into you.

What God wants instead of niceness or superficial modifications is an inside-out change of the way we think, speak and act. And it starts with altering the way we perceive things. We need to start seeing the world as God does. We need to see people as created in the image of the God who is love. We need to see sin as both the willful departure from the ways God wants us to go as well as a disorder of the heart which needs healing. We need to see ourselves as both rebels against God and estranged objects of his love needing his forgiveness, healing and grace. We need to see this world as something not that God wants to end but to which he wants to give a new beginning.

If we start seeing things this way, we will start thinking differently. If I am a partisan I think of ways to destroy my enemies; if I am a Christian I think of ways to love and redeem them. (Matthew 5:44) As a partisan I can resort to anything to achieve my goals; as a Christian I cannot do anything unloving or immoral in reaching God's goals for me. As a partisan, whoever is not for us is against us; as a Christian, whoever is not against us is for us, as Jesus said. (Luke 9:50)

If we start thinking differently, we start speaking differently. As a partisan, I can trash talk others; as a Christian, what I say should build people up, giving grace to those who hear it. (Ephesians 4:29) As a partisan I can be as harsh as I want with others; as a Christian I must speak the truth with love. (Eph 4:15) As a partisan I'm expected to call people names and insult them; as a Christian I know that insulting a brother or sister or calling them a fool is deadly serious in the eyes of God. (Matthew 5:22)

If we start speaking differently, we must behave differently. As a partisan I can say one thing and do another; as a Christian, I must love, not just in word or speech but in truth and action. (1 John 3:18) As a partisan I can do what's expedient; as a Christian I must do what is right. As a partisan I want to do what looks good; as a Christian I must do what is good.

Of course, none of us can do this by ourselves but must rely on the Holy Spirit. We are sealed by the Spirit at our baptism and he equips and empowers us to live as Christians. More importantly he sanctifies us, changes us into the people God created us to be. He makes us more Christlike which means he turns our hearts from the things we desire that we shouldn't and helps us to start desiring the right things. Because the whole “thinking to speaking to doing” thing only works if we are totally rational beings like Mr. Spock in the original Star Trek. But as Paul confesses in Romans 7, you can know what you ought to do and yet find yourself unable to do it. It is only through the power of the Holy Spirit working in us that we can be truly and thoroughly changed.

And that's what God is aiming for: not to make new partisans for his side but new people with a new heart and a new mind. As Paul says, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away. Behold! The new has come!” There are two words in there that are associated with God. Creation is the expected one. The first thing that the Bible says is that God created everything. The first way that most people think about God is that he is our creator. The weird thing is that people think that his creating days are over. He did it all back then and apparently retired. Or he's itching to destroy everything he once made. But that's not the picture we get in the Bible.

The second word associated with God is “new.” God hasn't stopped creating just because the physical world seems complete. He is still creating. In Isaiah 43, God says, “See, I am doing a new thing.” In Ezekiel 36:26, he says, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you...” Jesus talks about new wine; he makes a new covenant and gives us a new commandment. In Isaiah God announces he will make a new heaven and a new earth and in Revelation we see it. And in Revelation 21:5, he says, “Behold! I am making all things new!”

We tend to think of God as old and picture him as having a long white beard. We think of him as old-fashioned with his best work in the past. But that's not true. He is still creative. He is making all things new. And that includes us. The old ways, the ways of tribalism and partisanship, of designating people as enemies and fighting them, are passing away. The time is near when the new creation will sweep them all away. And we are supposed to be his vanguard: people made new by his Spirit, sowing the seeds of new growth for a new world. In Romans 12:2, Paul writes, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” We need to think new thoughts, speak and act in new ways. If we continue in the old ways, the ways we always acted, nothing will change. But if we obey our creative God and act as his agents of change, we will find hope. And on that day when the new heavens and the new earth are revealed and we stand in the new Jerusalem we will know the truth of Zephaniah 3:17: “The Lord your God is among you, a mighty one who will save. He will rejoice over you in mirth. He will renew you with his love; he will celebrate you with singing.” 

Monday, June 8, 2015

Lead Us Not into Temptation

The topic comes from our Sermon Suggestion Box, but reference is made to Genesis 3.

In the Lord's Prayer, why the line 'Lead us not into temptation?' Why would God lead us into temptation when we find it so well all by ourselves?” Our sermon suggestion question gets right to the point. Why did Jesus, in giving us a model prayer, have us ask God not to put us in the way of temptation? Would God do that? Doesn't the letter of James say, “God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone?”

Part of the answer to these questions have to do with the exact words used and part has to do with the nature of temptation itself. Let's take these in reverse order.

We all know from experience what temptation is. It is the siren song to do something that we know we shouldn't. Or it can be the almost instinctual shrinking from some good act that we ought to do, but don't wish to. Sometimes it is the voice that says, “Go on! You know you want to!” or “You'd be a fool to let this opportunity pass without taking advantage of it!” or “What the heck! Just this once!” Temptation can even appear as the cool voice of rationality, giving you a list of reasons why you should or shouldn't do something.

However you view the story of Adam and Eve and the serpent in Genesis 3, it is an absolutely true picture of temptation. The snake first minimizes the negative consequences of the contemplated act. In this case he says, “You will not die!” And that's true in the literal sense. But when Eve goes against God's command, part of her dies. It is the beginning of spiritual death, the death of her relationship with God. If not reversed, it results in total separation from God, the source of all love and goodness.

Several years back, I read in the Miami Herald about a teenager who was really angry with her father for his strict rules. So she accused him of abusing her. The state swooped in and took her out of that home—as well as her siblings. The kids couldn't even see their mother until she was cleared by DCF. Then they couldn't go back home until the father left. The girl took back her false accusation but the process still had to be completed. Eventually it was confirmed that her accusation was groundless and the family was reunited. But the damage was done. Things would never be the same. A certain measure of trust had died the day the girl started the whole thing.

So the serpent accuses God of fibbing or at least exaggerating the consequences of the behavior in question. Then he talks up the advantages of going ahead. And the woman starts looking at the fruit and adding more reasons as to why it was desirable. And then she just does it. Like a teenage girl, chafing under her father's rules, Eve has no idea how much misery she is setting in motion. Adam goes along with her without any objections. But when God quizzes him about his disobedience, he unchivalrously points his finger at his wife, and indirectly at God, blaming “the woman you gave me.” Notice that distancing language he uses. I bet his wife never let him forget that. And I'll bet he brought up what she had done whenever things went badly for them. And the whole thing probably popped up just about every time they argued. A part of their trust and unconditional love for each other died that day.

As C.S. Lewis pointed out in The Screwtape Letters, his delightful satire of how devils would see human life, fuzzy thinking is a key part of temptation. If we have been well-taught and retain our wits we can resist most temptations. Most of us go along with the rules of society. We don't embezzle from our companies or murder people or sleep with every person we meet. But then a strong temptation seizes us, rationality goes out the window and we find it hard to fight the urge. Maybe your finances take a downturn and for the first time it occurs to you that if you borrow just a little of the cash you handle at work, you could put things right and pay it back. Or you meet someone really exciting and attractive, who really understands you, someone you wished you had met before meeting your spouse, and you find yourself back in the giddy throes of infatuation and acting like an adolescent in love. Or maybe your temptation is to use that very damaging piece of gossip you heard to eliminate someone vying for the position you want at work. Or maybe the temptation is just to go along and not make waves, to not disclose the deceptive business practices of your company or the illegal behavior of your boss or coworker. Hey, times are tight.

And so you rationalize. You come up with reasons to do what you want to do anyway, reasons that don't really hold up to logical analysis. Which is why you don't even share them with your closest friend. Of if you do, and they get shot down, you ignore the whole exchange.

So you just don't think too hard about the fact that your taking company funds is going to be discovered by someone someday and it's not going to be laughed off. Or you don't really think about all the damage you're doing to your marriage with all the lies, and with all the time spent “working late” and all the extra expenses. You don't think about the very real problem of trying to treat 2 different people as the number one person in your life. Or if you're the “other woman” you don't really want to think about the fact that if he is willing to cheat of his wife, there isn't any guarantee that he will be any more loyal to you. And you certainly aren't going to think too hard about the kind of person you are becoming by doing these things.

So as our suggestion writer says, it's not like we need lots of help in finding temptation. Heck, there are whole sectors of our economy whose primary purpose is to tempt people into doing and buying what they shouldn't. It's not like the soda companies are going to say, “There is no reason on earth for you to drink this stuff. Water is healthier.” It's not like the lottery is going to say, “You have a better chance of being hit by lightning than winning. Put your money to better use.” It's not like Las Vegas is going to say, “If you need to keep what you do here secret, you really need to reexamine your life.” Instead they are trying to bypass your capacity to say “No.” Why need we worry about God leading us astray?

The Greek word translated in the Lord's Prayer as “temptation” can also mean “testing,” especially in the sense of testing the strength of something, like metal, through the application of pressure. So the NRSV translates the petition as “Do not bring us to the time of trial.” The New Jerusalem Bible says, “Do not put us to the test.” These reflect the fact that we do not need to worry that God might tempt us to do wrong but we do want to be conscious of the fact that God might put us in situations that could end up testing our strength. Why would he do that? Not out of idle curiosity, but rather because that is where we are needed. Just as a general sends soldiers where the fighting is fiercest and their skills are required, God sometimes puts us where things are most perilous because we need to hold that line or push back or relieve others under fire. Why?

It takes a thief to catch a thief,” the old saying goes. In other words, sometimes you need someone with experience. A cleaned up and recovering addict would be a better spokesman for sobriety than me, because that's not an area with which I've had to wrestle. Let's say a person in recovery decides that she is called to work in a mission in the area where she used to buy her drugs in order to help others trapped in that lifestyle. But that could really test her because being around substance abusers might trigger cravings. Studies show that the reward centers of the addict's brain get revved up in anticipation of getting high just by looking at pictures of drug paraphernalia, or of places where one used to go for drugs, or even pictures of people exchanging money. So the places where she would be of the most use would also be the places that most tempt her to return to her habit. If she really feels called to this ministry and not, say, working in the office away from the front-line action, and if she shows a knack for it, she is going to need help.

The petition asking God not to subject us to testing is linked to the next one: “but deliver us from evil.” So we are not so much asking God to keep us clear of anything at all that can test us—which in effect might make us useless to God—as we are asking to be kept safe even while under testing. In other words, “Lord we ask not to be put to the ultimate test but whatever you do, protect us from succumbing to evil, from being defeated or overcome by evil.” Or to put it more simply, “Lord , don't subject us to any test beyond our ability to bear.”

In his 1st letter to the Corinthians Paul writes, “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to humans. God is faithful and will not let you be tested beyond your ability, but will, along with the testing, make the way out, so you will be able to endure it.” This spells out what is implied in Jesus' prayer. God will not test us beyond our strength. He will provide the way out. We can trust him on that.

One of the things that can help us is a thorough knowledge of the Bible. When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, he used the scriptures to frame the situations properly and counter the lies he was being fed. When I first became a Christian I was given verses to memorize, many of which helped me frame this sermon. But Bible verses cannot be used as magic incantations or protections. Instead by continually studying and meditating on God's Word, one finds oneself being steeped in the mindset of God. One starts to see sins not as stuff God just happens to dislike but as things that disrupt, degrade and destroy the harmony of God's creation and of the relationships of his creatures with him and with each other. Goodness is spiritual well-being and evil is spiritual disease and individual sins are symptoms of it. God wants to keep us from unhealthy ways of thinking, speaking and acting for our own good.

Like a deep knowledge of medicine, a deep knowledge of the Bible helps one see problems before they develop and take pre-emptive action. We clergy are required to attend a workshop on sexual harassment and sexual exploitation. When it came to the part where we were told not to get romantically involved with parishioners, one of my colleagues joked, “Just say 'no.'” Nancy Reagan was ridiculed for her approach to drug use but there is a lot of common sense in using this as an initial response. When you see temptation coming your way, don't listen to its enticements; don't engage in justifications; don't get entangled in arguments with yourself, especially ones that you'd love to lose. Just say “No.” A lot of the ethical complications that people get themselves into could be avoided if, when the situation first arose, they recognized it for what it was and just said “No!”

Unfortunately, we live in a time when the recognition that not every moral issue is a matter of black and white has led many to believe that no moral issue is ever black and white. There are no moral absolutes, we are told. But that is not true. Theft is wrong. Murder is wrong. Sexual abuse is wrong. Knowingly harming another person or allowing them to be harmed, especially for selfish reasons, is always wrong. We may debate whether the basic principle applies in this situation or that, such as, “Is it murder if you kill someone in self-defense?” But you don't throw out the core ethical principle because of exceptional circumstances. The existence of airplanes does not nullify the law of gravity.

As more people grow up without the basic moral and theological education provided by going to church, they are less able to recognize, much less handle, temptations. It is no longer rhetorical to ask certain questions, such as: Is lying wrong? Is shoplifting wrong? Is cheating wrong? How about impregnating someone and then letting mother and child fend for themselves? Are there any categories of human beings you just shouldn't have sex with—another person's spouse, siblings, children, the unconscious, the unwilling, or someone under your authority? Do successful people have any obligation to help those less fortunate, especially if their labor contributed to their success? Are the only restrictions we should observe on our behavior legal and not moral? In a world where more people can name Marvel superheroes than can state the 10 commandments, we need to reintroduce the concept of things you just don't do, period.

One thing to keep in mind: evil is always a bad deal. It is a cheap knockoff of good. It is never worth the price. Its promises are bogus. Its pleasures are temporary but the damage it does is not. Yet, like “get rich quick” schemes, people keep falling for it. We never learn that if it seems too good to be true, it is probably neither good nor true.

The good news is that we have an ally in fighting temptation: the Holy Spirit, God within us. When we seem to be at the end of our strength, we can tap into his. When we can't think of reasons to resist, he will provide them. The only condition is that we must call on him. We must, in the heat of temptation, pray to him, honestly and continuously. Just that shift of attention from the shiny object of our illicit desire to the divine lover who seeks our redemption is enough to break the spell at times. And as long as we stay in contact with him, praying for help and with a clear head, we can, with his help, not stray from our path. As Jesus said in Gethsemane, “Watch and pray, that you may not enter into temptation.”

But what do you do when you do give in to temptation, when you never said “No” before or during the act, when you never looked for God's way out, when you listened to serpentine rationalizations rather than God's clear command? What do you do the morning after when you realize you've let God, yourself and those who rely on or love you down? Are you beyond redemption?

The other good news is that God is gracious and forgiving. In 1 John, it says, “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Is there a limit to his forgiveness? In Matthew 18, Peter asks Jesus, “If my brother sins against me, how often should I forgive him? Up to 7 times?” Jesus says, “Not up to 7 times but up to 70 times 7.” In the Lord's Prayer, we ask that God forgive us as we forgive others. If we forgive our brothers and sisters that often, how often will God forgive us?

Provided we are truly trying to turn to him and follow his ways, he will forgive us as often as necessary. He does not give up. He does not grow tired of us or lose faith in us, the way we often lose faith in him and in ourselves. He has promised never to leave us or forsake us. Unlike the promises of evil, we can trust him to do as he says. For one very good reason: he loves us.  

Monday, June 1, 2015

Experiencing the Trinity

I knew a man who said that he was raised Roman Catholic but now was Jewish because he just couldn't understand the Trinity! I really doubt that was the entire reason for his converting because he could have just as easily become a Muslim to escape the doctrine. Nevertheless, he finds himself among a large number of people, including many Christians, who have trouble understanding the Trinity. However he finds himself among a much smaller number of people who will have nothing to do with things they don't fully comprehend. Imagine how few people would use computers—or their phones, their ATM cards, or even their TVs—if they said they must first understand them and how they work. We all use our brains and yet not even neuroscientists understand how the electro-chemical processes in them give rise to thinking, consciousness or personality.

There is a misunderstanding that anyone actually understands the Trinity, and that includes theologians. The doctrine didn't arise because people thought it was a neat idea. It is the best working hypothesis that makes sense of the data in the Bible and the experience of Christians. This data is best summarized as 4 statements: The Father is God; the Son is God; the Spirit is God; there is one God. The classical statements of the Trinity do not so much try to explain this as they try to retain the paradox of all 4 statements being true. If you read the Athanasian Creed (page 864 of the BCP) you will notice an awful lot of the use of the word “not.” It says over and over again what the situation with the 3 persons of the Trinity is not. And indeed most of the heresies about the Trinity try to simplify the situation to make it more easily comprehensible to human beings. How would people react if you tried to change a scientific fact—such as light being both a particle and a wave, or the theory of relativity—just so people could understand it better? Rejecting the Trinity because it can't be grasped by humans is as silly as rejecting a scientific concept because you just don't get it. In fact, scientists discuss the possibility that one day we may encounter scientific phenomena that are simply beyond the capability of the human brain to comprehend. Why should God be easier to understand than his creation?

So how did it ever occur to people that the essence of God is more complex than is at first apparent? 

Let's call the primary awareness of God that of creator. To most people, to practically all children according to scientific studies, the idea of a creator is self-evident. Whereas the idea that the universe, with its complex organization on macro- and microscopic levels and its thoroughgoing coherence, being the result of an unimaginably long and highly improbable series of fortunate accidents is not at all obvious.

But the idea that a God so exalted as to have created everything might also interested in humankind is also not obvious. So the most that philosophy can do is posit a remote creator God, like a watchmaker who has built a timepiece, wound it up and perhaps has walked away.

Mystics, though, perceive that God is closer, perhaps even within us or at least, some of us. This is the second form of awareness of God. Not everyone has this sense of God within him or herself. But often we are aware that some people do seem to have this intimate relationship with the creator. We see this also in the Bible where some persons are filled with God's Spirit, for a special purpose, such as to lead the people as a nation, or to lead them in worship or to address the people in the name of God. God speaks to these kings, priests and prophets who in turn connect the people to God.

So God can be perceived as merely a creator, and a distant one at that, as the deists thought, or as so close as to be in some people and perhaps in creation. The Hebrews spoke of this second way of perceiving the divine as the Spirit of God. It was the power of God active in the world and in people. But there is little evidence in the Old Testament that they saw the Spirit as a separate person from God the creator.

However in Proverbs 8, wisdom is personified and is described as existing before God made the world and as working alongside God in creation. Wisdom is not presented as another god (or goddess) but the idea of wisdom as an extension of God and a person would become important to the early Christians as a way of approaching the Triune nature of God.

The real revolution in the thinking of a group of Jewish monotheists comes with Jesus. The disciples see him heal people, raise the dead, walk on water, miraculously feed the 5000, and become convinced he is God's Messiah. But after his resurrection they must rethink who Jesus is. His claim to be the Son of God has to be taken seriously, indeed, literally. What God begets must be divine. Yet Jesus insists there is one God.

Plus Jesus talks about another Advocate or Encourager, the Holy Spirit, who will replace him in the lives of the disciples. He speaks of the Father and Son coming to make their home with those who obey him. He breathes on the disciples and tells them to receive the Holy Spirit. And then comes Pentecost and they experience firsthand what it means to have the Holy Spirit work through them.

So the disciples, who previously saw God only as creator and lawgiver, who is still “out there,” now realize they have been living with God incarnate and finding God within them as well. Everything they write and say affirms the 4 statements we mentioned earlier: The Father is God; the Son is God; the Spirit is God; there is one God. They don't coin the word Trinity and if you asked them to explain the relationship of the Three, I doubt they would produce something akin to the Athanasian Creed. But the seed is there.

Later as the church articulated its beliefs, especially against attacks by pagan philosophers, it came up with a way of upholding all 4 statements in paradoxical tension. The church was unwilling to take any of the easy ways out—for instance, that Jesus was a lesser created God, or that God wore 3 different masks, so to speak. It chose to maintain the distinctions of the divine Persons and the essential unity of God, both of which were found in the Bible.

But rather than get into the historical theology of the Trinity, I would like to go back the kind of experiences that led to the insight.

Remember when you were a kid. You were outside and you were young enough that you still found wonder in the world. You were looking at a leaf, or a bug or your hand. And you noticed all the detail, the tiny ridges, the way everything fit together, the symmetry. And you thought of how intricate it all was, and how much work went into this thing, one of the smaller parts of the world. And you thought, this was designed. And you felt you were on the verge of discovering some great secret about the world.

One night when you were away from the city lights, perhaps camping, and you looked up and noticed way more stars than you had ever seen before. And you tried counting them but there were just too many. And some were big and bright and some were tiny and faint. Someone had shown you the constellations and you tried to pick out the easy ones. And maybe you read or heard that those stars were so far away that it took thousands of years for their light to get to earth. Some of them may even have burned out in the meantime and so you were seeing the light of stars that didn't exist anymore. And that thought was so big you felt like you had to expand somehow to contain it and you stood there silently looking into the endless depths of the night sky.

You may or may not have connected this with God. But the seeds of belief in a creator were planted. You realized that you were part of something much larger and that there was a force bigger than you that shaped the cosmos.

Now remember another time. You have just come out of a discussion in high school, or a college lecture or just stopped in the middle of reading a book. A big thought has hit you. It is unfolding in your mind. It is not so much a series of logical steps as a number of facts coming together on their own and making connections. Or you are suddenly viewing things from a perspective from which they appear to come in line with each other. It is happening in your head and yet it does not seem to come from you. It feels like a lifting of the curtain, an unveiling of a hidden truth. You feel as if you are on the edge of grasping the key to understanding the universe or our existence. You are in such a reverie that when you come out of it you find you were almost holding your breath. Afterward you feel you must write it down or share it with a friend.

Now remember a time when you saw an injustice. You just knew it was wrong. You had every reason to keep quiet—it was your friends doing it or it was a bully who would turn on you if you intervened, or you would be ridiculed by those watching. You wanted to ignore or forget it but you just couldn't. Something within you compelled you to speak up, to do something, despite fear, despite the risk of being unpopular. You were shaking, either from indignation or fear or both. Somehow what you said or did was the right thing to do. Afterward you wondered what had gotten into you.

These may not have had anything to do with the Spirit. But they might have. And what was happening to the early Christians—the insights, the courage, the unbidden words—did not seem to be coming from them but arrived as revelations and signs and prophetic utterances. God was not just out there but within. And it blew their minds.

I don't know when you first connected with Jesus. Perhaps you don't either because you just grew up with him as a major part of your family life and church. Maybe you were searching and picked up and really read the gospel for the first time. Perhaps you met someone whose face and manner and words just radiated the love of Christ. And you took Jesus seriously for the first time. To you he became more than just a noble person or great teacher; he was a window on God's forgiveness, a conduit of his grace, the very image of the God of love incarnate.

Now imagine what it was like to meet him in the flesh, to come to him for healing or to hear him preach. Imagine what it was like to travel with him, to wake up and pray with him, to eat with him, to hear his thoughts as you walk from town to town, to see him at work with people who need him, to listen to him as you sit around a campfire at night.

This is how it was with the first Christians. They already knew God as creator. After his resurrection, they looked back upon their time with Jesus and concluded that he must be divine. And then after he ascends, they find that, as he said, God's Spirit is in them, revealing truths, impelling them to help others, giving them the power to heal and to proclaim the good news to those who never met Jesus. Each divine person speaks of the others in the third person. And yet Jesus and the Spirit never talk of there being more than one God. How can this be?

I think it was John, the deepest thinker of the early church, who ties it all together when he says in 1 John 4:8 that God is love. He doesn't say that God is loving or like love. He says God is love. If that is literally true, there must be more than one person in the Godhead. If God is the original, eternal act of love, God must contain at least the Lover and the Beloved. And to be perfect love, there must be an absolute unity of the persons who love each other. And I think we can deduce one more thing. 2 people in love can be so focused on each other that they exclude others. Think of a new couple. But if there are more than 2, then the focus must keep moving between the persons, as in a family.

God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, loving each other in perfect unity, one in thought and will. And because God is not a single person but a love relationship, humans, who were made in that image, most closely resemble God when we are acting together with others in love. It can be romantic love, familial love, friendship, or a loving community.

And out of this love comes all the attributes of God. Justice, as any parent knows, becomes a necessity when you love more than one person, if you want to keep the peace. Mercy is also important because human beings are not perfect. Grace, showing goodwill to those who haven't earned it, is a characteristic of true love. Trustworthiness and faithfulness are vital to any relationship. Even holiness, which means being set apart from common things, applies for our most intimate relationships as opposed to our relationships with everyone else.

Intellectually, the Trinity is a tough concept to understand. But we experience God in each of the ways we've discussed. You could not find a much better place to experience God as creator than the Keys. The beauty, variety and complex relationships between flora and fauna, environment and climate, life and the elements are on constant display. And Big Pine is one of the few places where you can step out into your backyard almost any night and see the whole panoply of stars and galaxies laid before you.

When we quiet our babbling thoughts and focus our rambling minds on the Spirit, we can feel the divine within, giving both calm and reflection, unfolding spiritual and moral truths and then stirring us up to act in love towards others to restore justice and peace.

When we hear the good news, renew our baptismal vows, come together to share the body and blood of Christ, and go forth to display his love, we experience Jesus, God's unique Son, at work, teaching and healing, forgiving and reconciling, strengthening and sending us out.

I don't really know how my smartphone works, not in any adequately scientific way. But I know that it works and I rely on it. Even with all the theology I've read and pondered, I really couldn't say that I understand how God is three persons and yet one. But I know that I see God's work in creation and I see God working in Jesus Christ and I feel God working in me and I rely on him. And that's enough. It's enough for me to get through this life and look forward to the next, when we will be more intimately included into the original love that gave us existence and that makes our existence more than merely that, that gives us God's own life in all its beauty and mystery and abundance.