Monday, January 30, 2017


Doctor Who is the longest running science fiction TV series ever. The title is a question: Doctor who? After 53 years, we still don't know the hero's name. He simply calls himself “the Doctor.” But in the new version of the show we at least learn why he chose that title. He is “the man who makes people better.” And indeed from the beginning of the show in 1963 the Doctor has not only been fighting evil, he has been inspiring ordinary people to do so. Because of his presence, they become better versions of themselves.

We all want the world to be better and we often put our trust in systems and gimmicks and technology to make that happen. And, yes, we have defeated diseases, lengthened life, made crops grow where they previously couldn't and reduced poverty. The problem is that the same technology that allows us to understand diseases can be used to create more terrible ones. The same systems that make factories more efficient can be used to manufacture more and deadlier weapons. The same social media that can disseminate information can be used to spread disinformation. Because while technology changes, human nature does not. If we are going to make the world better, we need to make humans better.

That idea did not originate with Doctor Who. It began with Jesus, on whom recent writers of the TV series seem to have consciously remodeled their fictional hero. Jesus is the historical person who makes people better.

But what does “better” mean in this context? Jesus will not make us physically stronger, or faster, or even smarter. That's the job of technology. How will Jesus make us better?

I was going to simply go back through the list of the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. And that is a good list of Christian qualities. But in today's gospel passage (Matthew 5:1-12) Jesus offers another list, the beatitudes. These are conditions that sound awful but which Jesus paradoxically calls “blessed” or “fortunate.” They certainly don't sound lucky. But God's values often look topsy-turvy compared to our values. Let's look at each of these 8 qualities.

Blessed are the poor in spirit...” I have read a lot of biographies of famous people who grew up during the Great Depression, who said that while they now realize they were poor, back then they didn't. Everyone they knew was in the same boat and you don't miss what you never had. But the Greek word Jesus uses is closer to “destitute.” It has the sense of “crouching” or ”cringing” and is related to the Greek word for “beggar.” Jesus is speaking of those who are so spirituality impoverished that they fully realize how bad things are.

Why is that good? People only seem to go to the doctor when their pain or condition is so bad they can't ignore it and must get medical help. Jesus is saying the spiritually destitute have no illusions of being the person God wants them to be and so they will seek God's help. So Jesus is saying “How fortunate are they who realize how bad off they are spiritually...”

Each beatitude has a promise. In the case of the spiritually destitute, the promise is “...for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Again we need to look at the Greek behind this. Kingdom” doesn't mean a geographical or political place but a royal reign. “Heaven” in this case is a euphemism for God. You only find “kingdom of heaven” in Matthew. Because of this and other aspects of this gospel, we think Matthew was writing to Jewish Christians who exercised the same caution about saying the divine name that you find among Orthodox Jews today. So “kingdom of heaven” is another way of saying the “royal reign of God.” As Jesus says elsewhere, “Seek and you will find.” If you seek out God, you will find yourself under his reign and care. The spiritually impoverished will find themselves restored and spiritually enriched by the great King of heaven. That's better than thinking you are just fine and only discovering you are spiritually bankrupt when it is too late.

Blessed are they who mourn...” Jesus doesn't say what they are mourning. Perhaps it is their spiritual state as in the first beatitude. Maybe they are mourning the loss of their innocence. Perhaps it is the state of the world they mourn. Or maybe they have lost someone. Whatever they have lost, their grief is severe. The Greek word can be translated “wail.”

Why is this good? Because it means you value innocence or the way things should be or people. There is a lot of nonsense out there about never having regrets. To not have regrets means to not learn from your mistakes. Or to not care. Psychopaths have no regrets. A normal person regrets bad decisions. A normal person mourns the loss of people. Grief should eventually diminish but you should never get to the point where, when looking back at the good people or qualities you've lost, you don't feel at least a twinge of sorrow.

The promise Jesus makes? “...for they will be comforted.” The Greek word can translated “encouraged.” In this life we can lose things and never see them again. But not with God. Just as a parent will do whatever they can to restore to their child whatever they are missing, God will restore to us life, health, even those we have lost. And it is encouraging to realize that the things that matter to us the most, matter to our loving heavenly Father as well.

Blessed are the meek...” The Greek here means basically “the gentle” and by implication, “the humble.” In this life we see that the aggressive and the arrogant seem to get everything. They elbow their way in ahead of others. They bully others and bogart whatever they want. The extremely wealthy and very powerful are rarely the shy and retiring type.

So if the world favors the aggressive and arrogant, why is it good to be meek and gentle? Don't they get steamrolled in this world? Often they do. But Jesus promises “...for they will inherit the earth.” How can that be? Jesus is not talking about the world as it presently is. This world is messed up, remember? Jesus is talking about the new creation. God not only intends to restore us to what he intended us to be all along but the earth as well.

And this brings up a problem people often have with Jesus. His ethics seem naive. His way looks foolish, as Paul writes in today's epistle. (1 Corinthians 1:18-31) It is a recipe for getting run over by the aggressive, the arrogant, the evil. In this life, that is. Or as God sees it, in the short term. Jesus is taking the long view, seeing beyond this brief life and this fragile and fragmented world to the values and methods that endure. The dog-eat-dog methods that dominate this world are not sustainable. Eventually all dogs but one are eaten and that remaining dog will starve. When all wealth is owned by the few, the rest of the world will have no way to buy the goods and services the few sell to make their wealth. Henry Ford made sure he paid his workers enough that they would be able to buy the cars they made. In the long run the best leaders are those who are gentle and humble. As Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:12, “If we endure, we will also reign with him.” Jesus is recruiting for the new creation; the proud and aggressive need not apply.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness...” Again the Greek is more intense. A better translation is “Fortunate are those who are starving and thirsting for righteousness.” That last word is another stumbling block to understanding what Jesus meant. We think of righteousness as personal moral rectitude. But in the Bible it means being in the right relationship with both God and with everything in the whole created order of things. So Jesus is talking about those who are famished and parched because things are not the way God created them to be.

Why is this a good thing? Because we all get used to the way things are, which is to say, messed up. And if we are too apathetic about the injustice and dysfunctional relationships in this world, we won't work very hard to put things right. But those who simply cannot stand the state of affairs are those who do things about it. Jesus wants us to work for justice and peace in this world. Those who tolerate the destructive and self-destructive ways of the world will do nothing to change them.

And Jesus' promise to those who are starving for the restoration of wholesome relationships with God and others? “...for they shall be filled.” The Greek can mean “gorged” or “satisfied.” God will not fob off hors d'oeuvres of righteousness on those who crave it but will stuff them full of what they live for. God does not ration us but gives in abundance.

Blessed are the merciful...” Compassion is a hallmark of Jesus as a person and that should be true of his followers. Again in this world we see the ruthless rise to positions of power. In the Philippines their president brags about killing drug dealers and in the last 6 months 6000 people have been killed, 2000 in police operations and 4000 by vigilantes. None of these people were tried in court to establish evidence of their guilt. Which means mistakes were probably made in a number of cases. There are numerous news reports of bystanders being killed as well as murders committed under the cover of the drug war. The Biblical standard of justice is that you need at least two or three witnesses to convict someone. How do you think God feels about such collateral damage done to beings created in his image?

Why is mercy good? Because it usually comes from the recognition that all of us are flawed and can make bad decisions. Merciless people often are loathe to admit that they can and have made mistakes. Mercy is a quality that psychopaths lack because they have no empathy. Unfortunately, our society has become extremely unforgiving lately. In this day of 24/7 news hungry for things to cover and discuss endlessly, one bad decision can ruin one's life. Especially when it gets to the internet, which makes idiocy immortal.

Jesus' promise is “...for they will receive mercy.” The kindness you show others will be shown to you. Every time we pray the Lord's Prayer, we ask God to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Or in modern language, “forgive us our sins to the same extent that we forgive those who sin against us.” Life is hard. We all mess up from time to time. If we don't learn to forgive and be merciful and kind and compassionate to each other, life will get even worse.

Blessed are the pure in heart...” The Greek word is more properly translated “clean” or “clear.” We are none of us naturally pure or clean. To get clean we must confess our sins to God to receive his forgiveness. The pure in heart are not superhuman “saints” but simply people who admit their sins, go to God and receive his forgiveness and grace.

Why is this good? Consider this analogy. Perhaps one of the biggest advances in hygiene was the recognition that we should wash our hands. Believe it or not, it was quite a struggle to get doctors to do so between patients when the idea was introduced more than 100 years ago. But when they did, the incidence of patient deaths dropped. To be spiritually healthy we need to realize that we need to get clean before God as often as necessary.

And Jesus' promise is “...for they will see God.” You can't see anything if your glasses are covered in mud. You can't see God clearly if you are harboring certain pet sins. It will distort how you perceive God. People who are angry tend to see God as angry. People who don't care about their sins see God as indifferent to them as well. People who think rules are more important than people see a God that thinks the same. We see what we expect to see. If we aren't on the same wavelength as God we will either not see him at all or see a malformed God created in our image. Only those who regularly have God clean up their hearts will see God as he is: loving and just and yet forgiving.

Blessed are the peacemakers...” Jesus is of course talking about those who make peace with and between others. This involves forgiving sins against you as well as getting people to forgive one another. But the word “peace” in the Bible means total well-being. So a peacemaker can also be someone who works to make things better for others. After all, making sure people get the food and shelter and justice they need will give them a considerable measure of peace and well-being.

It's obvious why this is a good thing. And Jesus' promise is “...for they will be called children of God.” What does that mean? When a child displays a trait associated with a parent we say “they take after their father” or “they remind me of their mother.” To be a child of God means to manifest the qualities seen in God. And God is the source of all well-being, who in the person of Jesus made peace with sinful, wayward humanity.

Finally, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake...” The Greek word translated “persecuted” literally mean “pursued.” So Jesus is saying you are fortunate if you are hounded for trying to make things right. But why would anyone oppose putting things right? This world is not messed up simply because people cannot be bothered to do things right; there are those who benefit from the misery of others. Payday loan companies take advantage of those who are desperate for money now, usually the poor. Businesses hire illegal immigrants because they can pay them peanuts and even cheat them without fear that they will go to the authorities. Medical drugs cost more here in the US because big Pharma paid congressmen to make laws that prohibit us buying the same drugs cheaper from, say, Canada where they regulate the prices and laws that stop Medicare from negotiating drug prices the way the Pentagon does for our servicemen. So we may say we stand for truth and justice but if anybody really makes progress towards either of those, they will get hammered.

Why is this good? Because most people will do the right thing so long as it doesn't cost them. The minute they start getting crap for trying to right a wrong, they walk away. Jesus wants people who are made of sterner stuff, who will keep going when the going gets tough. Would the Civil Rights Act have been passed if Martin Luther King Jr. had given up the minute he first was put in jail? Would the Reformation have started if Martin Luther had folded when the Church threatened to excommunicate him and worse? Would the gospel have survived if Jesus shut up when the religious establishment of his day opposed him? People are not good if they are only good when it's convenient. Good people are willing to do what's right even when it seems like everyone is against them.

The promise? “...for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Again those who stay the course in the face of persecution and slander are those who find themselves in the realm of God's love. Their reward in the long run, Jesus says, is great.

So when we talk of Jesus making people better, what does that mean? It means people who realize just how much they need God's help, who value other people and justice enough to mourn their loss, who are humble and gentle, who live to see things put right, who are merciful and compassionate, who go to God to have their hearts cleansed, who work for peace and who do the right thing even when it costs them dearly. It means a world where things are in the right relationships with God and the rest of creation and where when they aren't, people put them right and forgive others and ask forgiveness from them. And of course such people will notice that by letting God's Spirit work in them they will produce more than enough love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Jesus is the great physician who makes people better. You'd think people would be pounding on the door of this place to learn more about him and experience that healing of the spirit we all need. Why don't they?

We'll look at that next week. 

Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Good News About Bad News

Everyone likes to hear good news. “Uncle Bob is getting better.” “My daughter finally had her baby.” “Our team is in the Super Bowl.” The odd thing is that often good news is predicated on the existence of bad news. Things weren't looking too good for Uncle Bob for a while. It's his turnaround that is good news. The expectant daughter was way overdue. We were worried about her and the baby. Now we're relieved and happy. Our team has sucked in recent seasons. The fact that they are back on top makes us proud of them once more.

Sometimes the good news is that there's a solution to a bad problem. Alzheimer's is a cruel disease that slowly strips away a person's memory and thus themselves, leaving a living body where a whole person used to be. Recent studies in Australia and Japan seem to hold hope that this disease can not only be halted but reversed. If the human trials work out, it will be very good news.

The weird thing is that we often prefer bad news. It's more dramatic. I personally thought the TV series Gotham was going to be canceled after one season. After all the series begins with the death of Bruce Wayne's parents when he was a kid. Although the focus would also be on the rise of Jim Gordon from detective to police commissioner, neither the man nor his police force could make much headway against crime and corruption or there would be no reason for Batman. So why would anyone want to watch a good man fail for seven seasons? But apparently people do. They like watching the origin of the super-villains. Maybe it's the same impulse that fuels endless sequels to horror films or that keeps people watching reality shows about obnoxious people. It is the equivalent of slowing down to gawk at a car accident.

Scientists have noticed this bias towards bad news and think it is a survival mechanism. Being able to spot threats is vital. So we are attuned to look for signs of predators, for potential accidents and their probable causes, and for illness, as well as for people who make things worse: bullies, gossips, thieves, liars, and fools. A lot of the troubles in the world are due to people, not natural causes. We can be our own worst enemies. For instance the top preventable causes of death in the United States, from most to least, are tobacco use, high blood pressure and overweight, alcohol use, infectious diseases, toxins, motor vehicle collisions, firearms, sexually transmitted diseases and drug abuse. If you add in medical errors in hospitals and preventable colorectal cancers, they account for 61% of preventable deaths. These things don't always kill, at least immediately; they also cause disability and decline. Changing our personal habits and being more sensible would not only save lives but make them more enjoyable.

People not only cause problems for themselves but for others. 6 of the 10 commandments are about how we treat others. Leviticus 19 also prohibits lying, deceiving, defrauding, robbing, slandering, or endangering the life of your neighbor, as well as hating, seeking revenge, bearing a grudge, pimping your daughter, abusing the disabled, disrespecting the elderly, and mistreating resident aliens. It is the chapter from which Jesus gets the commandment to love your neighbor. The thing is, like warning labels on products, the fact that it had to be spelled out reveals that people were engaging in these harmful practices.

And they do so today. Companies are constantly being fined for deceptive practices, such as those of Wells Fargo, who opened bogus accounts for its customers without letting them know.

Companies have endangered public health through air, water and land pollution. Mines often engage in industrial practices that endanger their workers. Takata, the Japanese manufacturer, has just reached a $1 billion settlement with the Justice Department over defective air bags that have caused at least 16 deaths, 11 in the US alone. Executives knew about the defect and submitted false test reports to automakers rather than, you know, fix the lethal problem.

Our social media is rife with people expressing hate, bearing grudges and seeking revenge on others. It makes it easy to bully children, harass women and destroy careers.

As many as 300,000 children in the US are at risk of being commercially sexually exploited. One third of runaways are lured into prostitution within 48 hours of hitting the streets.

About 25% of vulnerable elderly people report abuse each month. It can be physical, emotional, sexual or financial abuse or it can be neglect. The exact numbers are hard to determine because it is hidden in the privacy of home and family or in institutional settings. Another problem in determining the amount of abuse is that the elderly may have physical or cognitive problems that impair their reporting it. The same difficulties mask the scope of the abuse of the disabled.

Immigrants are easy targets for mistreatment because they often stick out in our society. And illegal immigrants are easily exploited by those who employ them because they are afraid to go to authorities. By the way, Leviticus 19, the same chapter that tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves also tells us to love immigrants as ourselves. God is on the side of the underdog.

No one is as vulnerable as the poor. And so more than 300 verses in the Bible spell out our duty to the poor. Civil rights lawyer Gary Haugen of International Justice Mission says one hidden reason for poverty is violence. It can be political violence and organized crime, but it can also be the fact that people can pick on the poor with impunity. The poor have little power in society and so they are vulnerable to all who would prey upon them. They are easy to rob of property and land. They are easy to enslave (and there are more slaves today—35 million—than ever before). Poor girls in third world countries often do not go to school because of the danger of being grabbed and raped on the way. And in much of the world the police are underpaid, corrupt, and work for the rich and powerful. In much of the world, there is no right to an attorney without cost. In much of the world the poor have no recourse against those who victimize them.

Disability and chronic illness often cause poverty. Mental illness also impoverishes families. Societies that do not provide adequate healthcare to the poor simply perpetuate poverty and increase the cost to us all. As one doctor pointed out, the ER primarily treats 3 kinds of people: the really old, the really sick and the really poor. And if they don't have health insurance, the hospital passes on the cost to everyone else.

Global warming will also impact the poor disproportionately. Widespread drought will cause water and food shortages, which will increase migrations and food riots. The US military sees global warming as a significant threat, because it will cause greater instability and more terrorism in the world.

There are other consequences to mistreating the vulnerable. Ezekiel 16:49 says, “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” Isaiah 10:1-2 says, “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making the widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.” In Jeremiah 5:28, 29 God decries those who “'do not defend the rights of the poor. Should I not punish them for this?' declares the Lord. 'Should I not avenge myself on such a nation as this?'”

Ah, but I am neither rich nor a person who takes advantage of the vulnerable,” you may say. Very good. But do you actively work to counteract the exploitation of the poor, the sick, the elderly, children living in poverty and the like, or do you just go along with society as it is? Do you agree with the common criticism of the morals and choices of the poor as a way of justifying their poverty and ignore the same behavior when it is displayed by the rich and famous? In other words, do you condemn poor people who have children out of wedlock and children from many partners without doing the same when celebrities have many spouses or partners and children with several of them? Do you come down more vehemently on welfare cheats than on corporations that manipulate laws and lobby elected officials to get government subsidies in the form of huge tax breaks and write-offs? If you are complacent about the way things are, then you are complicit in the injustices committed everyday.

Compounding our personal problems is our partisanship, which Paul addresses in today's passage from 1 Corinthians (1:10-18). We are blind to the major faults of the groups with which we identify: factions, political parties, denominations. We cut ourselves and the people we care about a lot of slack while we hold others to higher standards. We judge ourselves and those we care about by our motivations while we judge others by the results of what they do or say. Because of our tribalism, we are loathe to admit the other side has a point in their arguments and we bristle at any criticism of our side. We view our differences as a zero sum game where if one side is a winner the other must therefore be a loser. Hence even when both sides realize they have a mutual problem, we cannot come together to solve it. I remember hearing on the news about how a bill in Congress to fight cancer in kids died in committee because one party didn't want a member of the other party to get credit for it. That's evil.

As Paul says in Romans 3:10, “None is righteous, no, not one.” The world is messed up. And people are the cause of much of it. That's the bad news.

The word gospel means “good news.” The Greek word underlying it, from which we get the word “evangelism,” originally referred to a proclamation made by heralds announcing the king's arrival. That was good news because it meant everything would be put right. The good news of Christianity is that God knows that all is not right with the world and that he has sent his son to put things right.

The people of Jesus' day thought he would do so with military action by ousting the oppressive Romans from the Holy Land and setting up a political kingdom of God. Jesus knew that such a coercive act would solve nothing, just setting up further violent conflicts. The problem isn't an external one but an internal one.

Jesus lived in a society that treated problems externally. It was obsessed with ceremonial laws that could not possibly fix internal problems. Jesus said, “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:21-23)

If the problem is internal, then the solution must be as well. If you are limping because you shattered the bones in your leg, then changing to more comfortable shoes won't work. You will need to be opened up and have the problem fixed surgically. The problem with this world is the people in it. And more specifically the problem is in the hearts of people. As it says in Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” Because of it, we act selfishly, irrationally and ultimately self-destructively. We need the source of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faith, gentleness and self-control dwelling within us. We need the Spirit of Jesus in the hearts of the people in this world.

The good news is that can happen. We can have the Spirit of God within us. But since we are talking about love, consent is needed. God cannot simply override people's wills and enter their hearts. That's like rape. People must welcome his Spirit into their hearts.

But before that people must make room in their hearts for God. Our lives are full of things that just do not go along with having God within us. Our sins, of course, but also our resentments. Our grudges and rage and envy. Our arrogance and self-indulgences and inordinate love of things above God. We need to repent, which means rethink, our attitudes, priorities, and choices. Thoughts, words and deeds that harm rather than help are not compatible with a life lived in the Spirit.

That's not a popular message. People don't want to make sacrifices to follow Jesus, even though he said that those who want to follow him need to disown themselves and take up their crosses. Folks want to be able to follow Jesus and somehow keep their pet sins—their arrogance, their adulteries, their hatreds, their greed, their indifference to the plight of others. It's like people who want to be cured of cancer but keep smoking, or people who want to be cured of STDs but still sleep around. You can't become healthy if you persist in unhealthy behaviors.

The good news is there is a solution to our severely messed up world. The bad news is that we will have to make changes in the way we think, speak and act. It's like the good news I received when I woke up from a coma a year ago. Though I had broken both legs and both wrists, among other things, I would be able to regain use of my hands and legs. But I was going to have to do a lot of painful, difficult work to get there. However, I had seen what happened to patients who refused or dropped out of therapy because it was hard: nothing. No change to their inability to stand, or walk, or leave the nursing home and go back to a normal life. No getting better. For the promise of being whole again, I was willing, if need be, to go through hell.

As students of Jesus, we need to understand and pass on the good news. First we must acknowledge the bad news: this world and the people in it are messed up. There is no aspect of life that is not messed up. The good news is that God is love and his son Jesus is the embodiment of that love and through Jesus we can restore our lives to health and wholeness. All it requires is rethinking your life and choices and trusting Jesus to do what he says. This also means trusting him enough to do what he tells us to do, the way you would follow a doctor's orders if you really trusted him and wanted to get well.

The good news is that Jesus can make folks better. But perhaps one reason why people are less willing to take him up on his offer is this: what exactly does “better” mean?

We'll tackle that next week.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Show; Don't Tell

One of the mantras of movie making is “Show; don't tell.” Don't give the dramatic backstory of a character in some long expository speech; dramatize it. Don't tell us a character is strong or smart or compassionate; show him doing things that demonstrates those qualities to the audience. Imagine a Sherlock Holmes movie where he doesn't do his trick of merely looking at a person and reeling off several facts about them, or going to a crime scene and noting several tiny details that totally change the way we see the crime. Imagine instead a movie where people just talked of how clever Holmes was and it was simply accepted as fact. It would be a dull movie and quite frankly the audience would be skeptical about the claim. The same thing thing would be true if you filmed the story of Jesus and didn't show him healing people or feeding the 5000 or dying and rising again, but just said he was God.

Epiphany comes from the Greek word meaning “appearance” or “manifestation.” Historically, it began as a celebration of Jesus' baptism, when God's voice from heaven declared him his beloved son and the Spirit in the form of a dove landed on him. Now it includes all the events in which Jesus was revealed to the world. So we remember the magi, the first gentiles to whom he was revealed, and his first miracle at the wedding in Cana. To me the significant thing is that these are events. It wasn't a matter of hearsay, where people heard something about Jesus and went about their business. These were times where people encountered Jesus and he or God or angels did something that revealed who he was or what his mission was all about. Jesus didn't just tell; he showed.

For instance, when Jesus healed the man lowered through the roof by his friends, he at first said the man's sins were forgiven. His critics immediately thought Jesus was blaspheming because only God can forgive sins. Jesus knew they'd think this way and said, “Which is easier: to say, 'Your sins are forgiven' or to say 'Get up and walk?' But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins...” Then he said to the paralytic, 'Get up, take your mat and go home.' And the man got up and went home.” (Matt. 9:5-7) Actions speak louder than words and Jesus knew it.

Why did people come to Jesus in the first place? For just about everyone except his disciples it was for his works of healing, not for his words. They had a need and Jesus met it. In the 1st chapter of Mark we are told, after Jesus healed Peter's mother-in-law, “That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed. The whole town gathered at the door and Jesus healed many who had various diseases.” (Mk 1:32-34) Later we are told that “When people heard all he was doing, many people came to him from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon. Because of the crowd he told his disciples to have a small boat ready for him, to keep people from crowding him. For he had healed many, so that those with diseases were pushing forward to touch him.” (Mk 3:8-10) Later, we are told that “so many people were coming and going that they [Jesus and the disciples] did not even have a chance to eat.” (Mk 6:31) Coming and going isn't the behavior of folks wanting to hear a good sermon; it is the behavior of those who are coming to be healed or bringing loved ones to be healed. People came to Jesus because he did something for them. Only then did they stay to hear what he had to say.

David Wong, a writer for the humor site gave the best, most clear-eyed analysis of the past election anyone has written. Before that, he wrote what has become the most popular article on that website. It is called “6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person.” I suggest you read it. Basically, it all derives from the first truth he lists: “The World Only Cares About What It Can Get from You.” Sadly this is a fact of life. Outside of those who love you, people don't generally care about who you are so much as what can you do for them. The reason we were mourning so many actors and musicians who died last year was not merely because they were especially talented; it was because they entertained us. The world would not have cared that David Bowie or Prince or Carrie Fisher died had they not created music or books or scripts or performances that captivated us.

Yes, you can get people excited about you through mere hype and by promising big things but if you don't deliver, may God have mercy on your soul. For instance, to get people to see a film, it used to be enough to splice together a kind of highlight reel of the most exciting or funny scenes from the movie and put them in an ad. The problem is that we consumers have all had the experience of going to a movie feeling giddy with anticipation and then leaving feeling cheated because we belatedly realized that we had already seen all the best parts of the movie in the trailer. We have also seen this in superstar CEOs who are hired to turn a limping company around. They lay off people and do things that are calculated to generate good PR but do nothing to fix what's fundamentally wrong with the company's products or services or culture. There is a long history of politicians who campaign using popular slogans and sweeping promises upon which they cannot possibly deliver.

In his article, Wong points out how often Jesus says a tree is judged by its fruit, (Luke 6:43; Matt 7:15-20; John 15:2) in other words, by what it produces. And of course Jesus is talking about people's lives. Paul expands on this when he writes, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23) Now all of these are personal qualities. The problem is that we think these are primarily internal. And while fruit does have a function that benefits its species, ie, spreading its seeds, it does so by involving other species, namely the animals that eat them. Fruit therefore is rarely hidden. Indeed they often are highly colored and usually contrast with the leaves and branches of the tree. Green fruit is almost always unripe fruit and blends in. I don't think Jesus and Paul are thinking of invisible fruit.

Fruit advertises what a tree is. And it does so by advertising its benefits for others. Fruit says, “Here is something nourishing. And if you spread the seeds that would be great.” That's how spiritual fruit should work. Like love. Love is an attitude towards others. It is not meant to be kept to oneself. Like fruit it really doesn't benefit anyone if it is left alone to rot. And when the love offered is accepted, the seeds of that love are spread.

The other fruit of the Spirit are likewise meant to be shared and spread. Think about that. As Christians we are meant to spread joy, to share peace, demonstrate patience, offer kindness, act out of faithfulness, reach out in gentleness and exercise self-control especially with others. They all flow from our treating everyone with love.

Carrying these virtues out also spreads the seeds of the gospel. A big reason why a minority faith like Christianity was found to be attractive by many in the Roman Empire was the way Christians behaved. Their courage in facing persecution and death impressed some but their compassion in treating victims of plague and risking their lives by staying in the cities while the rich fled to the countryside made a bigger impact. It was the fact that when Christians said they were to love others self-sacrificially, they meant it.

This illustrates David Wong's point. One of his 6 truths is: “What You Produce Does Not Have to Make Money, But It Does Have to Benefit People.” It was not the mere existence of Christians that caused the faith to spread; it was that what they did benefited others. As William Temple said, “The Church is the only organization that does not exist for itself, but for those who live outside it.” And, sure enough, the churches that grow are doing things in their community. They are helping the needy, feeding the hungry, providing daycare or schools for children, visiting seniors and the ill, offering alternative activities to youth, and supplying a place for support groups for people with common problems, like grief, divorce, and addiction.

And they don't do that accidentally but intentionally. They make one or more of those things a priority and put it in the budget. I am reading Call The Midwife by Jennifer Worth, the basis of the wonderful TV show. Worth was a nurse-midwife who worked with an order of Anglican nuns in the terribly impoverished East End of London in the 1950s. In that place and time the role of the church was vital. “For the young people, surprisingly, the church was often the centre of social life, and every church had a series of youth clubs and activities going on every night of the week. All Saints Church in the East India Dock Road, a huge Victorian church, had many hundreds of youngsters in its youth club run by the Rector and no less than seven energetic young curates. They needed all their youth and energy to cope, night after night, with activities for five or six hundred young people.” They couldn't have done that on a shoestring. It had to be an intentionally high priority in the church's budget. And this was in a desperately poor area. But the church saw the need and somehow rose to the occasion. Then as now, churches that meet the needs of their community grow.

Church attendance peaked in the 1950s and 60s. Part of this was the effect of the baby boom. But part of this was that our men returned from the hell of battle in World War 2 and wanted nothing so much as a normal life. They had seen the worst of humanity and so as an antidote they, their wives and children went to churches to find sanity, order and the gospel. They came for spiritual healing. Because of the demand, the philosophy of church planting at this time was the same as Kevin Costner's in Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.”

That's not true anymore. The Baby Boomers gradually dropped out of church leading to a decline that became precipitous in the 1970s and is still going on today. Only 22% of Americans go to church regularly these days. The average child only attends when relatives are married or buried, or on the rare occasion they have a baby baptized. Most kids never see the inside of a sanctuary during the periods in between folks being hatched, matched and dispatched.

The old model (by which I mean the 1950s) doesn't work anymore. Most people will not simply seek out a church and start attending. We need to go back to the older model, by which I mean 27 AD. We need to go where folks are and meet their needs, as Jesus did. We need to realize that if my stomach is empty, if my body is in pain, if I don't have enough money to pay the rent, if my physical self is in trouble, I am less likely to be concerned about my spiritual self. But if you take care of my body, I may grant you the time to speak about my soul.

The odd thing is that because we are both physical and spiritual creatures, it goes both ways. An ailing body or mind can impair one's spirituality but what is good for the spirit is also good for mind and body. Numerous studies show weekly church attendance (the only objective way for scientists to measure religious devotion) is associated with lower blood pressure, less stress, lower rates of depression, lower risk of suicide, more sexual satisfaction, better marriages, greater likelihood of being happy, and a longer life. Children who go to church weekly tend to do better in schools, are less likely use drugs, tobacco and alcohol, and have lower rates of getting divorced later in their lives. But like exercise, it has to become a regular part of your life before you see the benefits. Contrary to what skeptics think, faith in God is not magic.

One thing I learned during my 20 years of writing ad copy and recording radio commercials is that the secret of selling is simple: offer people something they want at a price they are willing to pay. What do we offer? God's love. What's the price? It is free to all who accept it in trust. That's the gospel, or good news. But church members are very bad at spreading the word. They are more likely to recommend a restaurant they like or a doctor they trust than the Lord they supposedly love. A bishop once asked what do you get when you cross a Jehovah's Witness with someone from our denomination? Answer: someone who knocks on your door and then doesn't know what to say.

We're going to change that this year. Our focus will be on discipleship. “Disciple” is just a fancy word for “student.” We are called to be students of Jesus Christ. We are to study what he does and says and then put what we learn into practice. Otherwise we are just fans, on the level of the out-of-shape, sedentary sports fan who watches his team play from the comfort of his La-Z-Boy while eating cheese puffs and drinking 2 liter sodas. He in no way resembles what he claims to admire.

And Epiphany is the right time to start. Jesus didn't stay at his home and wait for people to happen through the door and then find out about him. He took to the road, to the point that he described himself as homeless (“Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Matt 8:20) Now he didn't have anything like Facebook or Twitter to spread the word but you also can't lay hands on others or feed people through the internet. Jesus manifested God's love through his deeds as well as his words. Today's church has become very lopsided, favoring words over works. As James says, “But be sure you live out the message and do not merely listen to it and deceive yourself. For if someone merely listens to the message and does not live it out, he is like someone who gazes at his own face in a mirror. For he gazes at himself and then goes out and immediately forgets what sort of person he was. But the one who peers into the perfect law of liberty and fixes his attention there, and does not become a forgetful listener but lives it out—he will be blessed in what he does.” (James 1:22-25)

Or as David Wong states in the last of his 6 harsh truths: “Everything Inside You Will Fight Improvement.” He elaborates. “Remember, misery is comfortable. It's why so many people prefer it. Happiness takes effort.” Why do people let themselves get out-of-shape? Why do some people let themselves get to weigh 600 pounds? Why do people continue to smoke after they develop such severe coughs that they are left breathless after a particularly long episode of hacking? Because change is hard. And while I wouldn't say misery is comfortable, it can be familiar. Change always involves some elements that are unfamiliar. And as the Irish saying goes, better the devil you know than the devil you don't. As I've said, I have seen patients choose to remain invalids rather than do the hard work of the therapy that will restore them to mobility and health.

And because change involves transitioning to a state that is unknown, as Wong says, this requires courage. This is possibly one more reason why angels always start with “Do not be afraid.” Because, unlike so-called psychics who primarily reveal stuff people already know about themselves, the angels' messages are about change, usually radical change, in the world but first in the life of the message's recipient. “God is going to do this and here's your part in this mission. In fact, he wants you to take point.”

We have a mission and it is called the Great Commission. Before his ascension, Jesus told his students to go and make more students in every nation, to baptize them and to teach them everything he has commanded us. We are like teaching assistants, students who in turn teach the newer students. Or med students who learn by seeing a procedure done, then doing it next time, and then teaching it to the first years. But before we do that, we need to know our subject well. And that's what we'll be doing this year.  

Monday, January 9, 2017

System Restore

Jack Parr was the host of the Tonight Show from 1957 to 1962. He was so popular that they actually renamed it The Jack Parr Show. He was, in the words of Wikipedia, “often unpredictable, emotional and principled.” When censors literally cut a joke he told out of the pre-taped program, without telling him, he walked off the program in protest. He returned 3 weeks later when the network apologized and let him tell the joke. He began his first broadcast back with “As I was saying...”

I got interrupted last year by something a lot less forgiving than a TV censor. Tomorrow is the 1 year anniversary of my accident. It was a Saturday afternoon, and besides sidelining me for the better part of 8 months, I was prevented from delivering a sermon I had written for the next day, the first Sunday after Epiphany. 

So as I was saying...

This person I know had his computer crash and he got a new one. And he set it up and ignored a very important warning that was right there on the instruction sheet: Write down the password for logging into the computer itself. He didn't because of, well, arrogance. He thought of a password which fulfilled all the criteria about caps and numbers and symbols but which was easy to remember. And the very next time he signed in, he couldn't get it right and tried every variation of the “easy to remember” password but, you know, computers don't give credit for close and so he could not use the computer for anything but a doorstop. Friends tried to help but nothing worked and so that he could get into his new computer he had to take it to the electronics store and pay to have them restore it to factory settings. Everything he had done in setting it up, all programs he had downloaded, all work he had done on the computer were gone. Lesson learned.

And this got the person thinking about metaphors because that is the strange way this guy's head works. Today we commemorate the Baptism of Our Lord and we contemplate the nature of baptism. And what is baptism but a sort of returning a person's software to its factory settings after they are so screwed up that nothing else can be done? If our bodies are our hardware then the ways we operate them are the software. The basics are already on the hard drive: the capacity for language, the ability for learning our way around the environment, for understanding that some things are able to manipulate the environment and create order, and some things can't. This, by the way, is why children, without any indoctrination, tend to believe in God. According to research cited by Dr. Justin Barrett in his book Born Believers, children very early in life learn to distinguish agents, live things with intent and the ability to make purposeful changes in the environment, from mere objects. They are preset to spot the evidence of unseen agents and to detect the purpose of the things around them. It is natural for them to see order and purpose in nature the way they do in man-made elements. That's their basic programming. Until the age of 12, it is very hard to convince the average child that the world is not made but is the result of countless undirected and random accidents. Even if we are taught otherwise, subconsciously we think in terms of the world and everything in it having a purpose. Indeed having a sense of purpose is vital to happiness.

Along the way, we develop some bad habits when it comes to using our hardware and we download some bad software because everybody else does and because we believe the hype about certain programs. We ignore the terms of service and the changes that the software is going to make in us and what it will demand of us and just accept it. Eventually our operating system can get glitchy. It can cause system-wide problems because of the malware we take on. And it can be bad enough to require a system restore.

Baptism is kinda like a system restore. When everything is so infected and buggy that it's difficult to function normally, we need to be restored to what we were intended to be. That's one of the purposes of baptism. It is not a magic ritual, nor merely an initiation rite. It is a new start in life. Everything old is gone; you are a new creation in Christ.

One of the things you have to do after a system restore is reinstall everything you need. I had to reinstall my preferred word processing program. Or rather this guy did. The new start meant beginning again even with the basics, just as a patient with a new hip or knee needs to learn to walk again. It's a time to unlearn bad habits and institute new and good ones. Diabetics have to rethink the way they eat and exercise. New Christians not only have new teachings and practices to take onboard but also need to start seeing things in new ways, just as I—or this guy—had to install his preferred browser. Your life is no longer seen as your own to live in any way your whimsy dictates. People are no longer divided into those we care for and those we wouldn't spit on if they were on fire. All are seen through the eyes of Jesus. All are created in the image of God. All are either brothers or sisters in Christ or potential brothers or sisters in Christ. We must love all, even if it is not reciprocated. We must pray for all, even those who mistreat us.

This world and its creatures are no longer seen as raw materials for our comfort and amusement but are seen as belonging to God. We are but stewards of them, expected to treat them wisely and to give an accounting of how we took care of them. It's like renting a furnished home. You need to consult the landlord before you just start knocking out walls; some may be load-bearing. And you can't shrug off damages because its not your stuff.

Another thing you do if you had to do a system restore because of malware or a virus is you pay attention to your security. You don't click on ads or strange emails that might harbor a malicious bit of code. The recovering alcoholic will stay away from bars. The newly baptized should likewise avoid areas in which he is most tempted and come up with strategies to deal with those that are unavoidable. If rage is your problem, take anger management classes. If overindulgence is, find an accountability partner. If you are too materialistic, work out a stewardship plan. If you have trouble loving someone, pray for them.

On the positive side, just as there are things you do to keep your computer healthy so there are things you do to remain spiritually healthy. That means updating your computer, especially its security. In the same way, you need to keep in communication with God so that your concerns and his concerns are in sync. In other words you need to pray regularly. And not just in a rote way. Whether you use a prewritten prayer, speak spontaneously, or just listen meditatively, you need to open your heart and mind to God's Spirit. This is vital for spiritual growth and health.

When you first start working with your computer you learn the basics of how it works and also what you need to do to make sure it works correctly. You might even read the owner's manual! In the same way, you ought to read the Bible regularly. It will tell you what God is doing in this world and how he is going about that. It will give you examples of both what you should do and what you should not do. It shows us how God can work even through imperfect people, which is all of us. It also shows you what to do when you screw up. That's one way in which I prefer God's system to computer systems. When I—or the guy—couldn't come up with the password, there was no other way to get into the computer. In fact, if you had not prepared a Password Reset Disk, or had another administrator on the computer, you had no alternative but a system restore. God is more forgiving than computer programmers. We only have to be baptized once. We can seek forgiveness as often as necessary and know that he will not, say, lock us out after 3 attempts. Jesus says we are to forgive our sibling 70 times 7. How much more forgiving is our Lord!

To fix a problem with your computer, it's important to diagnose it properly. If you don't know what's wrong, it is impossible to correct. That's why it's good to have software that scans your computer on a regular schedule to detect and clean out spyware and malware. In health care, we encourage people to do self-examinations for breast and testicular cancers. In the same way, we need to do a spiritual self-examination regularly and confess any sinful attitudes and actions we find. It just makes sense to periodically look for problems or potential problems and get them taken care of before they make things worse.

People rarely use computers offline these day. They use some form of social media to keep in touch with other people. Not only do they spread jokes and cat videos but they also share personal joys and concerns. They encourage one another and even raise money using kickstarters to help get projects off the ground or pay for medical bills. Recently engineers have helped children who are missing hands by designing and using 3D printing to construct prosthetic hands that are much cheaper than those made by medical companies. There are other ways in which people are using computers to help one another.

It is absolutely vital that spirituality not become merely a private, inwardly focused discipline, lest it become isolating and even toxic. The Dead Sea is called that because of its extreme salinity. Located at the Earth's lowest point on land, all other bodies of water in the area, including the Jordan, drain into it but it has no outlet. It is so salty, you can't drink it, you don't want to get it in your eyes, and the immediate area around it is desert. Just so, if you do not go outside yourself and your own concerns, if you do not meaningfully connect with others, if you do not reach out and help others motivated by and using what you have learned from your intimacy with Christ, your spiritual health will be seriously compromised and can even become toxic. Christianity is about love, about being Christ to others and seeing Christ in others and helping everyone better reflect Christ in their lives. Otherwise we set about creating a God in our image and try to make everyone conform to that magnified and distorted picture of ourselves. When you hear someone claiming to speak for Christ but saying things Jesus never said nor would say, they are just trying to make God channel them rather than the other way around.

Finally computers have in some ways made people more honest. Typing something rather than hearing yourself say it out loud can make you less diplomatic. The anonymity that certain forums offer allow people to express their darker thoughts and attitudes, like racism, misogyny, and a general disdain for anybody who doesn't think like them. Reading the comments section of most articles or blog posts can shatter your faith in humanity. But like a malware scan it can reveal the problems that are out there that need to be attended to. It can make our follies and sins all the more obvious by capturing them in black and white. And once they are on the internet, it is almost impossible to cover them up or deny them. Some will just double down and become more arrogant and adamant in their opinions. Approached rightly, however, they can make us more humble. They can make us admit that—yeah, I am that guy and I screwed up and I am sorry and I ask your forgiveness and your support in changing and not being that guy anymore.

We will not become totally glitch-free in this life. But we believe in the resurrection of the dead. Just as your avatar in a computer game can die but be brought back to play again, God can save our software, who we are, and debug it for good and will one day, as priest and physicist John Polkinghorne put it, download it into new hardware. It's the ultimate upgrade. Death and disease and the degradation of who we were created to be will be no more. God plans to do a system restore on all creation. And he wants our participation and our input. And we need not worry about him doing in the same oblivious and alien way that programmers sometimes do. He has become one of us. He has lived and died as one of us. And we can trust him to get it right.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

New Perspective

It is suggested that you change the batteries in your smoke detector when the country changes to and from daylight savings time. There's nothing magical about it; it just serves as a good reminder. The time change is purely arbitrary anyway.

It used to be that you were told to change your oil every 3000 miles. Most modern car manufacturers say you should do it every 7500 to 10,000 miles because of changes in the technology. Nevertheless most mechanics want you to change it every 3000 because it brings in money. Again nobody recommends waiting until your car is about to throw a rod but the specific mileage given is arbitrary.

When we begin our calendar year is arbitrary. Many cultures use a lunar and not a solar calendar so their new year might begin on January 28 (Chinese New Year in 2017) or September 21 (Islamic New Year) or September 20 (Jewish New Year). Despite there being no fixed time when a new year has to begin, every culture makes a big thing out of the day it celebrates the new year. Each has tradition. In Spain you are supposed to swallow 12 grapes as the clock strikes midnight. You are also supposed to wear red underwear. In Japan all Buddhist temples ring their bells 108 times. You are also supposed to send postcards to all your family and friends and make sure they arrive on January 1. In Cambodia it is traditional to donate to charities for the poor on the second day of the new year. In America we make resolutions.

I think one of the reasons most of our resolutions don't last is because we make them at an arbitrary time. Resolutions people keep are made when a pertinent event takes place. After they have a heart attack, people are liable to make resolutions about changing their lifestyles that might actually stick. Colleagues tell me that my accident made them change their minds about driving long distances after an event on the mainland. Jamie Lee Curtis said she resolved to give up recreational drugs at a friend's funeral. Seeing her friend's family grieve made her decide she could not do that to hers.

You need a strong motive to change. It can be self-preservation or love or witnessing something that shocks or angers you or which calls for compassion. For Gandhi it was being thrown off a train in South Africa despite having a first class ticket because a white man complained. For Martin Luther it was finally understanding the meaning of God's grace and finding forgiveness. For St. Francis it was a beggar to whom he gave everything he had. As a nurse, what I have seen is that when the status quo becomes too painful for a person to continue in, he or she at last seeks to change.

Albert “Racehoss” Sample was the mixed race son of an alcoholic black prostitute. He was abused by her until she abandoned him at age 6. He spent his childhood living however he could and his adulthood getting into fights. Finally, during a 30 year sentence, he found himself naked in solitary in the total darkness of “the hole.” In despair he prayed for the first time in his life and literally saw a glimmer of light and felt God's love and presence. He saw his mother's life in a different light. At age 4 her father killed her mother in front of her. Albert forgave her. A voice told him not to worry but to tell others about God. He was released after 17 years, received a full pardon and became the first ex-convict in Texas to work out of the Governor's office, making reforms in corrections and rehabilitation. He won many humanitarian awards for his work.

Some people come to Christ because of the truth of what he said. It resonates with what they have seen or experienced. They are attracted by his mission or his vision of the kingdom of God. But many come because they realize they need to change and they see in him someone who will save and heal them. And as Jesus observed, the ones who are forgiven the most love God the most. (Luke 7:47)

You may be one of those who has never done anything that bad or who has been a churchgoer since you were a child. You may never have had to make a radical change in your life to follow Jesus. Which means he may not mean as much to you as someone he saved from a horrible life such as that of Albert Sample. But as Joni Mitchell pointed out, you don't know what you've got till it's gone. We all have nights when we lay in bed and think icily of the fact that our life will one day end. Sometimes we might speculate how our life would be different if we hadn't met our spouse or had our kids. So let's do a thought experiment. What might your life have been without God or Jesus in it?

Right off the bat, you can throw out any friends you made at church. Unless they also went to your school or were part of another of your social groups, you would probably never have met or bonded with them.

You can also throw out any pleasant memories you ever had in church: Christmas Eve services, youth groups, Sunday School, beloved preachers or teachers, singing in the choir, any of the music you wouldn't encounter in secular settings, any phrases or words from the liturgy or the Bible, any assurance about eternal life, any detailed ethical teachings.

Speaking of which, a recent Pew Research Center study had the famous “nones,” those who are not affiliated with any religion, rate 16 beliefs and behaviors as either essential, important or neither in relation to being a moral person. Their top value, according to 58%, is being honest at all times. That's admirable, although odd, because for both liberals and conservatives, caring for others is their top moral value, according to Jonathan Haight's research. But indeed 67% of all Christians and 81% of highly religious Christians say honesty is essential to being moral. The problem is that we all know people who pride themselves on being honest, when what it really means is they don't filter what they say. They simply spout whatever they think or feel without any consideration of others. Paul writes of speaking the truth with love. There is, unfortunately, nothing in the survey about love.

Where things really diverge is when we get to forgiving others who have wronged you. 69% of all Christians rate it as essential while only 39% of the unaffiliated do. 52% of Christian feel that working to help the poor and needy is essential to being moral; only a third of the non-religious think that way. So their morality is strictly a personal thing having little or nothing to do how one treats others. In fact, only 23%, or less than a quarter of the nones, rate the golden rule as essential to being moral. Practically every religion holds up some form of the golden rule as a key ethical principal. 77% of the non-religious don't see it that way.

So if you grew up without God, you would be less likely to see forgiving others, or helping the poor, or treating others the way you would like to be treated as essential to being a good person. Thus you would be less likely to volunteer to work for a charity. And indeed, a Gallup poll showed that Christians are more likely than the unaffiliated to volunteer time or make donations to charities. You can forget about any relationships formed in that kind of activity. You can also dismiss any good feelings gained by helping others in that way. Remember that the “nones” are not necessarily atheists or agnostics, just those who do not affiliate with an organized religion. Which is possibly why their ethics have mostly to do with themselves and not with their relationships with others.

Without God, what would you put as the top value in your life? Family? Work? Your own personal happiness? While all good, putting them above everything else is not. For instance, if you are overly invested in your family, you will find your happiness and self esteem riding on their doing what you want them to do. Put too much emphasis on your child being a top athlete or a scholar or a doctor or a star and you may be bitterly disappointed if he or she decides to wash cars or wait tables or work as a grocery clerk, rather than put up with stress and high expectations. Worse, they might do what you want them to do, though it is not what they want, and end up miserable. Remember, the Borgias were a tight knit family. Ma Barker put family first. It is not a good policy.

Put work as number one in life and you may well sacrifice your family. And there is no guarantee that you will succeed in business. Napoleon Hill spent his whole life coming up with “get rich quick” schemes. He actually did have a hit with his book, Think and Grow Rich, but he ran through that fortune and at the end of his career ended up broke and left behind many people with ruined lives, including those of his wives and children.

Pursuing happiness is a fool's errand. Happiness is a byproduct of how you live, not something that can be seized and held. A 75 year long Harvard study of 268 men tracked their lives, including IQ, alcohol intake, income and relationships, and came to the conclusion that “Happiness is love. Full stop.” And so you need to find “a way of coping with life that does not push love away.”

Jesus knew that. The two great commandments are about loving. But if you didn't have Jesus in your life how long would it take you to discover that on your own? Would you discover it? Albert Sample did not know what love was from his family. Neither his mother nor his grandmother was able to love him. He found love when he broke down in that pitch black cell and prayed and God came to him.

The sad thing is that many people who have a lot of the so-called “good things in life” don't know real lasting love either. (I remember when Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston broke up, Tina Fey joked, “If these two are tired of having sex with each other, what hope is there for the rest of us?”) The lives of the rich and famous show that neither money, nor beauty, nor acclaim, nor getting what you want can magically make you happy.

So imagine that you are one of the people who does not have God and is seeking a purpose in life (another thing that correlates with happiness). Imagine living your self-contained life, where nothing the world offers can give you lasting peace of mind. Where anything in your life can be taken away by disaster, divorce, financial problems, accident or ill health. Where once the brief span of your life has ended you will cease to exist and as loved ones die off, all memory of you will cease as well.

With Christ all of that changes. You experience a love greater than any mere human love. You get to share that love with others. You are given gifts to use in expressing that love. Your daily life is given meaning by whichever mission you feel called to by Jesus—to teach or to nurse or to help or to make music or to build or to act or to tell jokes or to repair or to listen or to nurture or to comfort or to strengthen or to reconcile or to do a million other things. You can express that love in all you think and say and do.

And you know that his love will last. The pyramids, the Grand Canyon, this very planet will not last forever. God's love will. And those who share that love will as well. We tend to forget that people are created by God to outlast this creation and become part of his new creation. That's one reason why humans and what we do to ourselves and others are important. We are made to last forever. We matter eternally.

People in crises who turn to God discover those things in a very stark way. Those of us who grew up in the church seldom do until we face some major disruption of our lives and then for the first time God is not an option but a necessity. God is not a nice enhancement of our life but the very thing that keeps us alive.

So I want to propose some resolutions that are hopefully easier to keep and will have lasting impact.

1) Commit to learning more about God. Put aside time each day to read the Bible. Get a translation you understand. Put aside time to read Christian books by people like C.S. Lewis and Philip Yancey and David Gushee and N.T. Wright and Dorothy L. Sayers and Barbara Brown Taylor and a host of others. Keep a journal where you put down what you learn about God and Jesus and living as a Christian from them and from your own life experience.

2) Pray daily. If you don't have a regular time to pray, make one. It can be early in the morning or just before bed at night or on your lunch break. Make sure you not only ask God to help you and others but that you thank him for everything you can think of. Be honest in your prayers; it's not like you can hide anything from him. Let him know how you feel. Remember how open the psalmists were about their feelings, both positive and negative. Listen to God, and remember he sometimes speaks through others and through the events in our lives.

3) Consider the real priorities in your life. You can do it simply by looking at where your money goes and by how you spend your time. Do they match what your think your priorities should be? If not, how can you change your life to reflect them? What should you do more of? What should you do less of? To what should you give more money? Where can you cut expenditures?

4) Since loving God and loving other people are our top ethical priorities as Christians, consider how you can reflect that in the way you act. How can you show God's love at work, in group activities, in the way you interact with strangers? Do you really listen to others? Do you go the second mile when people need help? Do you, when encountering a person who is angry or self-destructive, ask yourself, or them, why? Do you look for Christ in all the persons you meet?

The earth doesn't know this is a new year. Our marking of this day as the first of 365 is arbitrary. But we can use it, not as a reminder to change batteries, but to change ourselves Be transformed, said Paul, by the renewal of your mind. If we truly change the way we think, we will change how we live.

Let us pray.

Lord God, heavenly Father, King of the Universe, we thank you for all you've done for us. We especially thank you for sending your son Jesus to reveal your love in his life and in his death for us. We thank you for the promise of our resurrection in his and for imbuing us with your Spirit. Starting now help us to be more like Jesus everyday. Help us to think more like him and talk more like him and act more like him day by day. Help us to see Jesus in everyone we encounter and help everyone we encounter see Jesus in us. And because contemplating doing this for a year is intimidating and exhausting help us to focus on being Christlike today, at this moment in this place with each person before us. We ask all these things in the name of the one who made us, the one who died for us, and the one who lives in us, the one God who reigns forever and ever. Amen.