An Old, Old, Story

Every generation wants to live in good times. People work to make that so.  But there are sometimes circumstances bigger and more powerful than our efforts. The American Civil War, the stock market crash and Great Depression, the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s… we could reach farther backward in time and just keep going.  It’s difficult to live during a time when our own effort cannot turn things around, when there are forces at work which make us not-so-hopeful for the present time and immediate future. But even then, we are called to learn from our mistakes and to hope. It’s just a drag that any given generation suffers because of the willful, selfish, and short-sighted concern of those who came before them, thereby paving the way for the coming day of reckoning that the aforementioned catastrophes and conflicts symbolize.

Those who count themselves part of the Judeo-Christian tradition, along with secular historians, have biblical examples of such times. We think of the repeated rises and falls of the people of Israel – economically, politically, morally. What’s interesting to note is that each time such a failure takes place – whether in the pages of biblical history or in secular annals – there is one more example added to the list. Christian history has its failures, too and yet they each seem to fit some earlier template. As the late historian J. Rufus Fears often said, “The first lesson of history is that people don’t learn from history.”

One lesson that seems pertinent is that the morality of leaders does matter, whether in the realm of religious, corporate or civic life. In hundreds of ways (if not thousands, over time), leaders communicate to their constituency. Because of each generation’s desire to live in good times, the populace seems ever willing to look the other way when the economy is good, or their group (whatever that group may be, whether racial, ethnic, political or religious) is winning. People gloss over the moral failures of deception, self-interest, arrogance and corruption because things are going well for them. They believe, hope, or delude themselves into thinking that surely the next generation will straighten out the matters of immorality, injustice, inequality and hubris — if indeed they even see them as problems. Sometimes the fall is experienced by the next — or the next after that — generation. Sometimes the leader or people of the generation that experiences the collapse are blamed. In many cases, the seeds of that harvest were planted long ago.

Like beetles under the bark of a healthy-looking tree or the invisible erosion taking place beneath an eventual sinkhole, when the foundational principles of society are so diseased that they cannot bear the weight of life’s ever-present needs and problems, collapse occurs.

I love the principles upon which the United States of American were founded, even if they have not always been realized. I am grateful and blessed to be a citizen. But these days, I sense the growth of a cancer that may, like countless examples in history, result in a collapse of the nation that Americans in every generation have dreamed would come to fruition. If – or when – it happens, I doubt historians will say “they weren’t clever enough at politics”, “there were forces that overwhelmed their ability to feed the people”, or “they were conquered by another nation that was superior in technology and military might.” I suspect that it will be the old story repeated innumerable times and still not heeded: it was the corruption of the moral standards which allowed hate, deception, partisanship, and hubris to take their eternally-predictable toll.

The “The” Word

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DNA ancestry kits are producing some interesting results. People are finding out “I didn’t know it, but I’ve got some of that in me!” I especially enjoy seeing people becoming excited enough to research and find out about a part of their ancestry of which they may not have been aware until recently. Hopefully, they develop a newfound pride in this part of them they’ve discovered exists.

What we’re learning is that no one is as pure anything as they might have believed. If only we could translate that awareness into our attitudes toward others when it comes to using the word “the.”

You know what I’m talking about: it’s all around us. Far too many people use the word “the” to lump individuals into groups, making it easier to judge, hate, and dismiss them. “The gays”. “The Latinos”. “The liberal media”. “The blacks”. “The liberals”. “The conservatives”. “The democrats”. “The republicans.” We could go on and on.

I’ve heard people talk about “the gay agenda”. There is no such thing. Do you think all gay people agree on all points of their politics, religion, or priorities? Do you think there’s some mass mailing to all LGBT+ people that gives the directive “here’s what we’re all going to do this month”? Do all republicans or democrats or whites or Baptists or Catholics agree on all things such that it might be said they all share the same agenda? Not in my experience. Even in narrowly defined sub-groups, the bell curve rules.

We make it easier on ourselves when we draw such assumptive conclusions, but we don’t make ourselves smarter. We also rob ourselves of one of the most fascinating and wonderful discoveries in life – that every person is unique. Each one has differing hurts, scars, opinions, needs, gifts, strengths, and potentialities.

It’s an easy shift – and helpful, I think – to exchange the word “the” for “some” when describing groups that may share some dominant tendencies or oft-held opinions. Even using the word “most” – if accurate – is so much better than employing the lazy and prejudicial “the”.

Think you could make the “the” shift? I’m going to try.

Do You Have the Time?

an image of people walking in rush hour

Swiss psychologist Carl Jung said, “Hurry is not of the devil, hurry is the devil.”

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been considering the truth in these words as they relate to the widely-acknowledged spirit of divisiveness and anger in our nation.

I’m not sure I have a solution except to say, “we need to slow down!” When a well-crafted meme that appears on Facebook (and let’s not even ask whether it’s accurate or true) becomes the basis for one’s political, religious, or ethical opinions, something is wrong. Someone “read something on Facebook” about so-and-so, and bases their conversation, voting, and feelings on that post. They re-post it as if it’s the gospel truth. It spreads. More are infected. Something is wrong here. But who has time to read, research, or engage the perceived enemy in conversation? Nope. Too much work.  We’re in a hurry.

Something is wrong here.

But that’s the game these days. Actual debate, discussion, or (God forbid!) listening to the other side has been replaced by the well-thought out jab, barb, or “gotcha” moment that leaders hope will be repeated, reported on, and re-posted. Two hundred and eighty characters (Twitter’s new per-tweet limit) is hardly sufficient for the kind of dialogue necessary to show compassion, interest, or respect.  But who cares about those things? –  that’s not the game these days. The object is no longer dialogue, conversation, or understanding. It’s attack, demean, and harm. Something is wrong here. But who has time for long, drawn out conversation? Who has time to investigate, reason, and consider? Why should I spend time finding out what you think and believe before I launch into telling you about what I believe? Who has time for that?

The answer: we all do.

Time management experts tell us the good news and bad news about time management. The bad news: you aren’t going to get any more time. The good news: you have all there is. Poor people don’t get any less than rich people, smart people don’t have any more than those who are less-smart. Every single person alive gets 24 hours every single day. The difference is made in how they use the time they have.

The problem isn’t that we don’t have time to do the hard work of thinking, reading and listening. It’s that we’re too hurried to do so. What might happen it we re-prioritized our online viewing or reading such that we valued quality over quantity? What if we began to see that one truthful article is of more value than a thousand that are untrue?

According the prophet Isaiah, even God is willing to sit down and listen: Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord.” (Isaiah 1:18) Seems to me like an example worth following. I’ll bet the devil wouldn’t like it.

Have You Got the Time?

Swiss psychologist Carl Jung said, “Hurry is not of the devil, hurry is the devil.”

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been considering the truth in these words as they relate to the widely-acknowledged spirit of divisiveness and anger in our nation.

I’m not sure I have a solution except to say, “we need to slow down!” When a well-crafted meme that appears on Facebook (and let’s not even ask whether it’s accurate or true) becomes the basis for one’s political, religious, or ethical opinions, something is wrong. Someone “read something on Facebook” about so-and-so and bases their conversation, voting, and feelings on that post. They re-post it as if it’s the gospel truth. It spreads. More are infected. Something is wrong here. But who has time to read, research, or engage the perceived enemy in conversation? Nope. Too much work.  We’re in a hurry.

Something is wrong here.

But that’s the game these days. Actual debate, discussion, or (God forbid!) listening to the other side has been replaced by the well-thought out jab, barb, or “gotcha” moment that both talking heads and elected leaders hope will be repeated, reported on, and re-posted. Two hundred and eighty characters (Twitter’s new per-tweet limit) is hardly sufficient for the kind of dialogue necessary to show compassion, interest, or respect.  But who cares about those things? –  that’s not the game these days. The object is no longer dialogue, conversation, or understanding. It’s attack, demean, and harm. Something is wrong here. But who has time for long, drawn out conversation? Who has time to investigate, reason, and consider? Why should I spend time finding out what you think and believe before I launch into telling you about what I believe? Who has time for that?

The answer: we all do.

Time management experts tell us the good news and bad news about time management. The bad news: you aren’t going to get any more time. The good news: you have all there is. Poor people don’t get any less than rich people, smart people don’t have any more than those who are less-smart. Every single person alive gets 24 hours every single day. The difference is made in how a person uses the time they have.

The problem isn’t that we don’t have time to do the hard work of thinking, reading and listening. It’s that we’re too hurried to do so. What might happen it we re-prioritized our online viewing or reading such that we valued quality over quantity? What if we began to see that one truthful article is of more value than a thousand that are untrue?

According the prophet Isaiah, even God is willing to sit down and listen: Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord.” (Isaiah 1:18) Seems to me like an example worth following. I’ll bet the devil wouldn’t like it.

It’s – and We’re – More Complicated Than That

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I’m not a political pundit. I understand a few things about party politics, and why parties build platforms around which they may rally support. But when it comes to human beings and the issues they seek to sort out, it’s a grave error to assume that the party can represent all persons. The same is true for denominations,  faith traditions, nationalities, ethnicities, teams, and even groups of friends who choose to associate with one another.

I’ve discovered that not all people who wear “Make America Great Again” hats support all actions and policies of the president who made those hats popular. I’m certain that the president would not support all the attitudes and beliefs of those who wear them. I’ve discovered that not everyone who supports the option of abortion is comfortable with that support, and the nuances of their belief do not include support for abortion in all circumstances. I’ve discovered that people who support civil rights and equality in the workplace for gay and lesbian people may not support gay marriage and may not be comfortable with transgenderism. While they are often portrayed in ways that seem to say, “you’re either with us or against us”, issues such as border security, immigration, #metoo, universal healthcare (and the list could go on and on), are too complex for quick judgment about both those who support and those who oppose them. Thinking people do not allow leaders to dictate their beliefs and attitudes on these issues. They think through them and do not allow identity politics to limit their analyses. To allow leaders to define what we should believe is an abdication of our greatest gifts as humans – conscience and the ability to critically reflect.

Among Jesus’ twelve disciples were undoubtedly men who shared varying views on many things. Simon the Zealot and Matthew (the tax collector) were almost certainly on opposite sides of the political spectrum – and yet, their friendship with Jesus allowed them to somehow look past those differences, and align themselves in cooperation when it comes to following Jesus.

I’ve discovered that your opinion of whether I’m liberal or conservative, right or wrong, informed or ignorant depends as much on you as it does me. If you’re to the left of me, you’ll think I’m conservative, even if I’m also left of most people. If you think I’m way too liberal, it may be because you’re to the right of me. The fact that I may also be to the right of most other people on an issue can easily be overlooked, and underappreciated.

I’m too complicated for you to judge me, or to assume that my stance on one subject necessarily implies others, as well. I suspect the same is true for you. Maybe I’m just (finally) getting to the point of truly understanding what Jesus was warning could happen when he said, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7)

 

Who Are You Going to Believe?

The Woman taken in Adultery, c.1621 (oil on canvas)

One day, Jesus was teaching when the religious authorities – those who responsible for keeping the faith the way they thought it should be, especially in terms of deciding who was guilty of what – brought a woman to him. They announced that she had been caught in the act of adultery. Commentators for generations have pointed out the interesting fact that though she was caught in the very act, the man was not brought. Just the woman.

Her sin was punishable by death, according to the rules, according to what they had learned and inherited. It’s difficult to adequately imagine the drama of that moment. Not only was this a humiliating moment for this woman, but even more, I’m sure that she was so frightened. Those who brought her recited the rules: our book says that this woman should be stoned to death. What do you say?

She was…trapped.

The gospel writer says that they were trying to trap Jesus, as well. If Jesus said that “yes, she should be stoned”, then this woman was going to die. Did she have children? Did she have a husband? Did she have parents whose daughter was this close to death? We don’t know. But it must have been a moment when those present could feel the gravity of the situation.

Man, it’s hard to be on the front lines of new things that God is doing. I sometimes see the footage of the marchers during the Civil Rights struggle of the early 1960’s. Mostly African-Americans, but you see some white people, too. Priests in clerical collars. Young people. And some old people, too. Those old white people are the ones that amaze me. I like to think, “if I was old enough back then, I would have marched with them.” But now I’m older, more honest. And I’m not as sure if I would. You can bet those people faced rejection by their friends, probably by members of their own family. It’s risky to be on the leading edge when God is doing a new thing – in your family, in the church, in society.

Jesus did not reply, but simply bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again, he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

“No one, sir,” she said.

“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

This is an amazing story, such a dramatic and beautiful story in which we are given a glimpse of God’s love and forgiveness, shown in Jesus. But the scandal, I think is not simply the fact that this woman has been labeled an adulteress. The scandal is not just the public spectacle created by those eager to judge her, who failed in their crusade. The even bigger scandal is the one created by Jesus’ answer, and his declaration that this woman was forgiven, and could leave behind her life of sin. The scandal is that though he knew the scriptures and knew what people for generations had said and believed, he dared to reveal the true heart of God that challenged those old assumptions and interpretations. That, I think is the real scandal in this story, because Jesus’ response has challenged the Law of Moses. And, in a very real way, it raised a pivotal question about authority – On the one hand, what Moses had said and taught about the punishment for this sin…. And on the other, what Jesus says about who has the right to condemn and punish her. On the one side, there is the Law, and on the other, this expression of grace and forgiveness. And the situation presents an important question in a very stark and direct way: “who are you going to believe?”

Ever been a sinner who got caught in a public way? It’s one thing to be a sinner and be caught in your own problems, addictions, failures – in the secrecy of your own soul. But public? When other people know about it? That’s different. Even if you change, you’re still trapped – by opinions, rumors, memories of others.

And then of course, there’s our own memories of failures, shortcomings. They can trap us, as well. Ever been trapped by your past, by your reputation? The promiscuous teen-ager you once were? The wild party animal? The one who made this mistake or that one, the one who got caught doing that thing, whatever it was. The one who is arrogant and won’t admit they’re wrong? The one who always admits she’s wrong, and gets walked over, time and time again? Who are you? Do you believe what other people say about you, or what God has said about us, in Jesus Christ? Who are you going to believe?

We are not told what became of the woman in this story, but this I can tell you for a certainty: there were those in that town who remembered what she had done, and probably kept remembering it for the rest of their lives. Some people are like that. And there you have it again, that question of who we’re going to believe. Who has the final say: the people who said, “You’re this. We know who you are, we remember what you did”? Or does the final say lie with the man of Nazareth, who said, “I don’t condemn you. You can leave your life of sin behind”. Who are you going to believe?

My own conversion to Christianity came in a sort of a prodigal-son type way. I had blown it, in so many ways. When I reached the end of my rope, I called out to God, and I somehow believed that my prayer was heard.

There was a verse of scripture that helped me during that time of my life. 2 Corinthians 5:17: If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. The old is gone, the new has come.”  The version of that verse I learned said, “If anyone is in Christ, he (or she) is a new creation.”  I believed that, I hoped that, but there was still a lot of the old creation in me. Occasionally you’ll hear stories – and I don’t mean to insinuate they’re not true – but you’ll hear stories about someone being miraculously released from the addiction of smoking or drinking or drugging. They are just set free. In my experience, that’s rare. That’s not what happened with me.

But over weeks, and months, and years, more and more of that old self did go away, and more and more of the new me came. But sometimes we are held captive by the memory that those other people – that reputation – that police record – is still there. How can there be a new creation when all that stuff is weighing us down and holding us back?

Well, that’s where I think the New Revised Standard Version has gotten a little closer to the true meaning of what Paul was writing about. If you’re in Christ, there is a new creation. The past really is gone, because that’s the way God works. This is a philosophy, a perspective, a worldview. Your sins really are forgiven, because God says, “I won’t even remember them anymore.”

Others may hold onto those things, but they are but mere wisps of a reality that once was. Your own guilt and regret may cause you to doubt. But will you dare believe the truth? The truth is – that old stuff is gone.

Who are you going to believe?

 

Where Could I Get One of Those?

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In mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic Churches, we are in the season of Epiphany. “Epiphany” is defined as “a revelation or manifestation of the Divine.” But how does one get one of those? How do you have an Epiphany?

In the story of Jesus’ dedication at the Temple (Luke 2), there are two people who have an Epiphany. Simeon and Anna, who when Jesus was brought to the Temple for his dedication ritual were somehow able to recognize the child for who he was. The way the story reads, it’s almost as if there were just six people there: Jesus, his parents, Simeon and Anna, and the priest who would have been a part of this service. My guess is that it was not that way. The Temple in Jerusalem was busy place. There would have been a lot of people there. But just these two see and notice, and to them is granted an Epiphany.

Does that tell us something? I think it can, if we can hear it. First, let’s note that they were looking. Expectantly aware. Hopeful. That’s important. They prayed, they worshiped. That’s important.  The more one worships, reflects, prays, and avails oneself of what are called “the means of grace”, the more those means seem to show up, and get through.

I’ve sometimes thought we should have folks go through a short course on how to come to church, how to worship. Because let’s face it, we all may come to the same place and experience the same things during our time of worship, but some people get it and some people don’t. The course would have little or nothing to do with dress code or gum-chewing. It was have a whole lot to do with attitude, openness, awareness, and expectation.

Make no mistake, I’ve been in worship plenty of times when I was not looking and listening the way I should have been. My attitude and level of expectation set the tone. I was judging, evaluating. The choir’s anthem. The ushers’ seeming confusion (haven’t they ever taken up an offering before?) The preacher’s posture or pronunciation. And, the one that most of us are guilty of – do I agree with her or him? Is he or she saying what I already believe? There have been so many times that I was like those other people who were in the Temple that day – so close to Jesus, in terms of physical proximity, but didn’t see it. Noticing cobwebs in the corner of the sanctuary. Didn’t get it. Went home unchanged.

It’s been several years now since I stopped praying, “Lord, be with us as we… (whatever)” because I realized that God was already present. Always with us. I wonder I wonder what might happen if we looked, listened, listened hoped, and acted as if that were so. We might just experience – or even become “a manifestation of the Divine.” We might just have an Epiphany.