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.

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