Monday, August 10, 2015

Not So Simply Love

The scriptures referred to are Ephesians 4:25-5:2.

The NPR show “On Point” this week examined the current slogan being touted in business circles: “Fail fast; fail often.” It sounds absurd but it encapsulates some of the lessons that Silicon Valley and innovative companies have learned. The idea is that if you are afraid to fail, you will be afraid to come up with new and radically different ideas and enterprises. What I liked about the radio discussion is that they were talking to a Psychology Today writer, a leadership and management professor from Harvard Business School and the author of a book on winning and losing. And they gave a very nuanced discussion of the topic. They talked about the importance of persistence, of learning the right lessons about your failure, and in what contexts quitting makes sense. Sometimes your idea was so bad its failure was inevitable. Then the smart thing to do is to quit—or at least, to give up on the idea or approach that failed and try a different one. One of the guests gave a great breakdown of how to analyze your failure so that it is not in vain. Another guest pointed out that people often learn more from their failures than from their successes. All in all, it was a very thoughtful and helpful discussion of the latest mantra on success.

In using the Bible, too many people tend to oversimplify the theology and take things out of context. They ignore or miss nuance and so everything comes out very black and white. And people like that. They want the rules of life to be simple. And in a way they can be. But like “Fail fast; fail often” those simple rules have to be unpacked and explored.

Jesus summarized all the laws in 2 simple rules: Love God with all you are and have; and love your neighbor as yourself. But what exactly does that mean in various contexts? In our passage from Ephesians today, Paul is basically telling us what the second greatest commandment means in very specific ways.

First off, loving one another means being honest. Sometimes, out of love, we want to spare somebody's feelings rather than tell them the truth. The problem is that down the line they will probably learn the truth the hard way, either by bitter experience or by hearing the truth from someone else who will not break it to them in a loving way. And they may feel betrayed by your not telling them first. They may wish that they had learned earlier so that they would not have been living their life based on false premises. Wouldn't it have been kinder if the laughably awful American Idol wannabees had been told by family and friends that they were terrible singers than for them to have blithely gone off to be humiliated in front of the world on TV?

I have seen patients calmly accept very bad news because at least now they knew what was going on with their bodies and what to expect. I have see the same thing with inmates receiving a prison sentence when they were hoping for jail time or parole. They could prepare themselves for what was coming. The truth, if told the right way and taken the right way, is immensely helpful. And that's the reason we should be honest with one another: we are members of one another, says Paul. If one member realizes that the truth runs contrary to what everyone else thinks, he is duty-bound to correct misconceptions so that everyone is dealing with the real situation.

Paul's next pronouncement about loving one another seems to fly in the face of that commandment. “Be angry,” he says, “but do not sin.” Now how is that loving? If something angers you and you don't let anyone know, how are they, out of love, going to stop angering you. There's nothing worse than finding out that something you've been doing for a while has been ticking off your mate or friend the whole time. This goes back to being honest with each other.

Notice that Paul says, “...but do not sin.” Anger by itself is not necessarily a sin. It is how you express it that leads to sin. A man once told me that in an argument with his wife he threw a can of peaches. But it hadn't hit her, nor had he intended to hit her with it. “But she didn't know that, did she?” I said. He sheepishly admitted I was probably right. We tend to judge ourselves by the slacker standard of what we intended and others by the tighter standard of what they actually did. Not only violence but tones of voice, the use of belittlement and humiliation, and the dismissal of the other person's legitimate points, objections and grievances are all ways we can sin when we express our anger. What we could do instead is regard anger, either ours or that of someone else, as a warning signal that something is out of whack and then try to fix the problem. Many reformers, like Martin Luther or Martin Luther King Jr, channeled their anger into changing the world.

Of course, what is out of whack could be our warning signal itself. We could be over-reacting to something that should not make us that mad. Irrational fears work the same way. Lucille Ball didn't really remember the day that her father died when she was three but remembered that a bird got trapped in the house. Thereafter she suffered from ornithophobia, a fear of birds. Just so when people get angry all out of proportion to the offending behavior, it could hark back to some past outrage or perceived injury they suffered. The thing that sets them off now triggers feelings of anger or powerlessness from long ago. The sin then is not in the anger itself. But once made aware that they are reacting in rage to things relatively trivial, if they do not seek help for dealing with it, that would be sinful. To put it another way, if you have an accident because your brakes failed, you are not liable (morally, not necessarily legally; I'm no lawyer). But if you knew your brakes were bad, and never got them fixed, then, yes, you would be liable for the accident. So it is possible to be angry without sin. But you should take care how you express anger and look into the causes.

Whether your anger is justified or not, you should not stoke it or prolong it by going over and over what people did to provoke it. “Don't let the sun set on your anger,” says Paul. Take care of the matter today. Don't let things fester. That's what he means by “ not make room for the devil.” Don't let destructive forces, from within you or from without, use your anger as an opportunity to make things worse. Martin Luther got angry at the way the church of his time was distorting the gospel of God's grace. When he couldn't get the matter debated and discussed, he decided, among other things, to translate the Bible into his native tongue so that the people could read it for themselves. He initiated much needed reforms in a church he had to set up after being excommunicated from the Roman Catholic church. His efforts got the attention of like-minded folks who also started looking at what the scriptures actually said and made their own reforms. He could have just written a bunch of angry tracts but he used his anger to do many constructive things.

Paul's next way in which Christians show love might be a no-brainer: Thieves should turn to honest work. Loving someone means respecting their property. That means if you need something belonging to someone else, you must ask and receive permission. As I said, a no-brainer. It makes you wonder why Paul had to say it. But it must have been an issue the church in Ephesus was dealing with. And theft not only feels like a personal assault, it destroys trust. Since trust underlies all relationships, no one can follow Jesus and do something so destructive to community.

What's interesting is that Paul says thieves must do honest labor so that they have something to share with the needy. A thief usually thinks only of himself and his desires. Paul says a Christian has to look outside himself and think of the needs of others. Altruism is an appropriate spiritual prescription for the person who used to steal.

Another way to show love for others is to control what you say. “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths.” The Greek word translated “evil” literally means “rotten, putrefying.” The thing about putrefaction is that it spreads. If you see one bad strawberry in the package, you worry that it's already affected the other ones. And the Bible says a lot more about sins of the tongue than it does about more heavily discussed sins. Gossip is condemned more than 50 times, more times than fornication; lying is condemned 80 times, twice as often as adultery; and slander is condemned 100 times, more than prostitution. Why do we focus on the sexual sins and neglect those mentioned more often? Gossip, lying and slander can be just as destructive to relationships and to the community. And today with the 24/7 news cycle and the internet, gossip, lying and slander can follow a person anywhere in the world and not only destroy his or her current life but also any attempt to start a new life.

Rather than talk that pollutes the atmosphere and leads to destruction of people and the deterioration of relationships, Paul wants us to say “only what is useful for building up.” Think of how much human communication is used to tear people down. Paul wants us to use words that build up people and the community. “ there is need...” When we see an occasion where someone's spiritual progress needs a boost, we are to give them the words they need at that moment “so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” We are to be channels of God's grace through what we say as well as what we do.

Paul adds one sentence that seems to be all about loving God: “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were sealed for the day of redemption.” How does one grieve the Spirit? The same way you grieve anyone who loves you—by doing things that go totally against what they stand for. In the case of the Spirit, according to The New Bible Commentary, it is by opposing “the very of direction of his reconciling, unifying, new-creation work in the believer.” And reconciling and unifying are actions that also have to do with loving our neighbor. You cannot really separate loving God from loving those created in his image.

So Paul says, “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice...” He is summarizing what he said before about all the things that have us going after one another and destroying our unity. Then he turns to the positive: “...and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” Following Jesus isn't like following your favorite athletes in the sports news. You follow Jesus the way you follow a guide through tricky terrain where going your own way is hazardous to you health. Whenever you hear of hikers getting lost in the wilderness, it is always because they strayed from the path. The path of Jesus is the path of kindness, compassion and forgiveness. We are to follow in his footsteps, acting towards each other the way he acted towards those seeking him.

To emphasize that point Paul says, “Be imitators of God, as beloved children...” My granddaughter has started picking up various mannerisms of my daughter-in-law, my son and myself. Like my little ex-patient, she is taking Kleenex, holding them to her nose and blowing a raspberry to simulate the noise I make when blowing my nose. Children imitate their caretakers which can both delight and horrify their parents. Say “please” and “thank you” and they will pick it up. Say a bad word and they will repeat it.

We are to imitate our heavenly Father as he is revealed in Jesus Christ. We are to “live in love, as Christ loved us...” And this is not sentimental love or a vague fondness; it is self-sacrificial love. I would put myself in danger to save my granddaughter. I sacrificed sleep to take care of her. I sacrificed days off, using them to finish sermons that would have been done earlier had I not been interrupted by the task of keeping a toddler from dismantling the church. I sacrificed all my vacation time last year to visit my father multiple times during his last illness and to do his funeral. You have all done the same, I'm sure.

There are a lot of silly and just plain wrong definitions of love floating about. “Love means never having to say you're sorry.” Yeah, that relationship is going to last—until after the first argument! Here's another one: “You'll know when a relationship is right for you. It will enhance your life, not complicate it.” It's been my experience that it will do both. Love is about putting another's welfare above your own. If it doesn't pinch, if it doesn't inconvenience you at times, if it doesn't demand more of you than you would normally give, it isn't really love.

We live in a selfish world, in a world where it seems that everyone is asking, “What's in it for me?” and “Why should I put myself out for that person?” Everything is about “me and mine.” “You shouldn't talk about certain things because they offend me and mine.” “You shouldn't do certain things because they affect me and mine.” Guess what? Unless you live in a cave by yourself, you will affect others and vice versa.

If you watch any of the forensic shows out there you will have heard of epithelials. They're skin cells and they come off whenever you are in contact with someone or something else. You can't help it. There was a real life forensic case in which a man was put at a crime scene that he couldn't have possibly been at. The court saw it as pure black and white: the DNA found in the samples taken from the corpse came from the man and therefore he must have been there. And he must have killed the other man. It was as simple as that. It wasn't until someone was able to think more subtly and investigate how the accused could have left traces off himself on a victim he never met that the truth came out. It turns out that the EMT who treated the first man and took him to the hospital was later called to the scene of the crime and transferred the first man's DNA onto the dying man. They discovered it because someone realized that life is not lived under lab conditions; it is too messy to be treated as if everything was sterile and separate and contained. The idea that we can be isolated from each other is nonsense.

When you touch people, some of them rubs off on you and some of you rubs off on them. And you can transfer some of them to others. That's true not only physically but emotionally and spiritually. That's also one way you can spread the gospel. Be in such an intimate loving relationship with Jesus that a lot of him rubs off on you, so that when you touch the lives of others, some of Jesus rubs off on them as well.

Go; infect someone with God's love.

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