Monday, August 31, 2015

Law of the Heart

The scriptures referred to are Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23.

Someone tried to kill me again this week. That is, I was going to Key West and someone was attempting to pass a whole line of cars going in the other direction and it looked like we were going to crash head-on when he got back into his lane with no more than 3 seconds to spare. I had no time to do what I usually do in response to lunatic drivers which is to say a prayer that God protect them from themselves and all others from them, while blessing them with the sign of the cross. Hey, it beats giving them the finger.

What compounds the wrongness of this reckless person's action is that that whole area of US-1 is peppered with “Do Not Pass” signs and marked with double yellow lines on the highway. And it makes you wonder why we even bother to have traffic laws when the people who need them the most observe them the least. Why do we have speed limits on roads? Anyone driving in the Keys knows that if you drive the speed limit you will get passed again and again and again. The speed limit signs don't seem to have any effect on some people. However, not everyone is trying to go 70 miles per hour; most people drive, if not the exact speed limit, somewhere in the near neighborhood of the legal limit.

When two teenagers shot their classmates at Columbine High School, some commentators opined that this could have been avoided if we simply posted the Ten Commandments in schools. Really? They think the shooters just forgot about the 6th commandment and that if a copy was there for them to see, they would have stopped? What about the guy who sat through most of a Bible study before getting up and shooting 9 people dead in a Charleston, South Carolina church? He wasn't deaf as I recall and I doubt that anything discussed during the Bible study could have been interpreted in such a way that would make killing Christians acceptable. These shooters are like the people who pass despite signs that say “Do Not Pass” and who go way over the speed limit: people who ignore laws and really don't care about the consequences.

This is why some people say, “You can't legislate morality.” If by that they mean that laws don't make people moral then they are right. They even agree with scripture. A good deal of Paul's Letter to the Romans argues that the Law cannot make people good. Rather good people tend to obey laws and bad people tend not to. Since the bad people create many of our problems, then what good are laws?

Things like traffic laws do two things: they facilitate large groups of people doing something in a common space in an orderly way and they maintain a certain level of safety. They also give law enforcement a basis for stopping those who are disrupting the order and endangering others. If there were no laws, a cop would have to justify pulling someone over “because I felt he was going too fast.” This way he can cite facts: the law says the limit is 45 miles per hour and he was going 80.

Laws may not make the actions of bad or reckless people impossible, but they can make it difficult for them to do harm. Creating a registry of doctors prescribing and patients receiving oxycontin has reduced abuse of the drug. The Glass-Steagall Act, also known as the Banking Act of 1933, restricted alliances between commercial banks and securities firms and prevented us from suffering another Great Depression—until 2 of its provisions were repealed in 1999. And in less that 10 years we had the Great Recession. The Pure Food and Drug Act was the first in a series of laws regulating food and drugs, prohibiting selling spoiled food or poisonous medicines. Laws can do good.

And most people heed them. Research has found that upwards of 70% of high school and college students cheat. An interesting study showed that cheating among students was significantly reduced when they were reminded of their college's code of honor before tests. The odd thing was the college in question had no honor code. A similar decrease in cheating was seen when students were reminded of God before tests. The surprising fact was that even atheists cheated less when God was brought up! Being reminded of rules (and a lawgiving God) does encourage most people to obey them.

But why do we need rules in the first place? Because of self-interest. Left to themselves, human beings tend to put not only their needs but their desires before those of others. The thing that keeps us from being total sociopaths is our empathy for others. Even that rarely extends beyond our loved ones. There are many disturbing videos on YouTube showing experiments in which an actor falls in a public place and pretends to be in distress and most people ignore or walk around him. It can take 10 to 20 minutes before someone comes to his aid. And this in a country in which the vast majority of people—70.6%—claim to be Christian and so ought to know the parable of the good Samaritan.

The problem goes much deeper than laws or ethical rules. In today's gospel Jesus points out that we tend to concentrate on religious rituals rather than what really matters. The Pharisees were inordinately concerned with cleaning hands and vessels and did not pay the same amount of attention to what actually needs cleansing. Jesus says, “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.” I don't think Jesus meant this list of sins to be exhaustive. He was just hitting the highlights: our violations of each other's bodies and property and relationships, malice, deception, envy, insult, arrogance and recklessness.

Laws can't fix these things because they come from the heart. It is the well from which the intent to break the rules come. You might as well tell a hungry bear that eating you is murder. It doesn't care. This is why we teach our children right from wrong. Learning to restrain oneself doesn't come naturally. Patience, using your head instead of your fists, forgiveness—none of those come easily to us. They have to be taught. And even at that, it doesn't always take.

And God knows this. In Jeremiah 31:33, it says, “'This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,' declares the Lord. 'I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts...'” And in Ezekiel 36:26, God says, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” The change that is needed is a change of heart, a change in the way we think that manifests itself in a change in how we speak and act.

The number one reason that people are rejecting Christianity has nothing to do with atheism. Atheists still make up about 2% of the US population and agnostics about 4%. Most people who don't affiliate with a religion still believe in God. What keeps them from joining religions or what makes them leave tends to be the hateful words and actions of those in organized religion. Let's face it: when religion makes the news, it is rarely because of loving words and actions on the part of religious people, is it? And that is especially dismaying for the church because Jesus is all about love.

Now to be sure, people sometimes misunderstand what love is. It is not telling everyone that whatever they want to do with themselves is fine. If you love someone and what they are doing is unhealthy, you do what you can to help them. My father-in-law got an extra 25 years of life because my mother-in-law made him go to the emergency room about his chest pain, despite his trying to hide it. People have gotten their lives back from an addiction because people loved them enough to do an intervention. Love is not letting someone with self-destructive habits go about their business.

But love is showing compassion. And true compassion is not be determined by whether we think the person deserves it or not. A person self-destructing is a person in distress. Treating the addicted as if they brought it on themselves is not compassion. Neither is treating the poor or the homeless or the mentally ill as if they decided to be that way. It is certainly not treating people of color or gay people or people from another country or people with a different religion as problems and not as people just like yourself. When asked to expand on what loving one's neighbor means, Jesus deliberately chose a Samaritan, considered a half-breed heretic by his Jewish audience, as the exemplar of the principle. And Paul points out that our oneness in Christ means distinctions such as race, gender and social status are irrelevant. (Galatians 3:28) Peter discovered that God shows no favoritism towards which people we are to minister to. (Acts 10:34)

I've said this before and I will say it again: everyone in this world is a person created by God in his image and a person for whom Jesus died. Everyone you meet is either a brother or sister in Christ or a potential brother or sister in Christ. And that is how we should treat everyone.

But how can we do that? By changing our hearts. Or rather by working with God to change our hearts. He won't do anything if we don't let him. So first we need to open our hearts to him. We need to let him into every part of our minds and hearts and lives. It's like eradicating cancer. It doesn't do any good if you don't get rid of it everywhere. We need to let God's Spirit have access to every place where spiritual and moral illness can thrive. It doesn't make much sense if you let God control your finances so you stop gambling but don't let him touch your drinking. Or if you ask for help with your temper but not with your inability to remain faithful. Of if you want him to improve your relationship with coworkers but not your relationship with your family. It may be painful at times but we need to let God permeate every aspect of ourselves.

It's not enough to eliminate a bad habit; you need to replace it with a good one. People who stop smoking or drinking find themselves at a loss for what to do now with their hands or mouth. They need something to occupy their minds lest they keep thinking about how much they want a cigarette or a drink. For Christians reading the Bible and praying are good habits to cultivate. Talking to God and listening to his Word are not only good substitutes for bad habits but get to heart of the problem: transformation.

Everything that grows need nutrition and structure. The scriptures and prayer are excellent for both. Reading the Bible, either sequentially or topically, gives you insights into the mind of God. You start to see his priorities, which are often different from ours. Praying takes us outside ourselves, especially when we are praising or thanking God and praying for the needs of others. We should pray for ourselves, too, but not like a kid asking Santa for goodies. Instead we should ask God for what we need to live as he wants us to and to serve others in his name. We should also pray for sensitivity to the leading of his Spirit.

Just as alcoholics handle their challenges much better if they are part of a 12-step group, Christians do better if they are part of a community that is sincerely seeking to follow Jesus. That means worshiping together, studying together, doing ministry and outreach projects together. It means exercising the gifts and skills we have, making a contribution to the body of Christ.

By this total immersion into following Jesus, we will find that our attitudes, priorities, thoughts, words and deeds change. We should find ourselves not longer conforming to the pattern of this world but being transformed by the renewing of our minds. (Romans 12:2) We will find the Spirit is transforming us into the image of Christ. (2 Cor 3:18)

The world thinks the problem is people acting like jerks. And it shows its cluelessness by using harsher terms than jerk. But the world needs something more drastic than people being less rude or nicer. It needs new people with a new attitude: one of self-sacrificial love. We need people who are not slaves to the evil intentions that come from their hearts, who won't act in predictable and destructive ways to wrongs, real and perceived. The Arab Spring saw the overthrow of a lot of dictators. So is the Middle East at peace? No, because the oppressed are taking revenge on their oppressors. Ancient feuds are reemerging. Violent people are taking advantage of the chaos to push their own agendas, a large part of which is killing and subjugating people they hate. How much different it would be if their hearts were changed and the conflicts were resolved by loving, forgiving, self-sacrificing people on both sides!

Only a change of heart on everyone's part will save the world. And only the Spirit of the God of love can do that. And only by accepting that nobody needs to be punished for the past because Jesus has taken all the punishment for us, and by trusting that Jesus' way of self-sacrificial love is the way to go and inviting his Spirit into our hearts to enable us to follow Jesus' way will we be able to be saved from the hell on earth we've created.

We've had laws since Hammurabi. Have they done some good? Yes. Laws restrain some people. But laws don't make people moral. That requires a change of heart. A deep internal change that comes from God. That change is only possible if we let God deep inside us. If we hold nothing back. The result is transformation. It is becoming more Christlike day by day as the change works its way through us, through every cell and every thought and every word and every action. The end paradoxically is that we aren't less ourselves but more ourselves. We were created in his image or at least part of it, for he is infinite and we are finite. (1 Corinthians 12:27) And whatever part we are, whatever gifts we have been given, we are to be the best version of us possible.

And at the last day, when we stand before Jesus in our new, better than ever bodies, on the threshold of the kingdom, we will not need laws. The love of God and love of each other will be written in our hearts and in our totally renewed minds. And the world, the new world, will work as we always thought it should but could never get it to do. Because we will be new creations. The old will have passed away and God will be making everything and everyone new. Because isn't that what love does? It gives you new eyes to see the world, new energy to engage the world, a new will to do the right thing for those you love. Which will be everyone. And everyone will love us back. Because we will see beyond the superficial differences that dominate our lives now and we will see in every gesture, in every word, in every face the love of Jesus. 

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