Loyalty (Sermon 4 in Series: Pathways to Personal Fulfillment)


I.

When I do an internet search about loyalty, I get more results related to dogs than to humans such as this comment from actor, Dick Van Patten:

The only honest reaction and true loyalty we get is from our animals. Once they’re your friends, you can do no wrong.

Being a serious dog lover, it will be difficult for me today to constrain myself from concentrating on canine loyalty, but I will certainly do my level best to keep the loyalty about which I want us to think centered on humans.  I’ll begin with something Ann Landers wrote–and, by the way, Dr. Phil on his best day will never give advice as sound and practical as Ann Landers’ advice.

Love is friendship that has caught fire. It is quiet understanding, mutual confidence, sharing and forgiving. It is loyalty through good and bad times. It settles for less than perfection and makes allowances for human weaknesses.

Because of the strictness of most marriage vows, plenty of couples believe that one foul-up is grounds for divorce, especially if the foul-up is related to the matter of loyalty.  Indeed, loyalty is a key issue in a healthy, trusting relationship, and to tarnish it or break it altogether are serious breeches, not in any way to be taken lightly by the partner who has been disloyal or the partner who, while practicing loyalty with great care and intention, gets the news that her or his beloved has fallen short in that regard.  Some rush off to divorce court in a hot minute; others believe that responding to an act of disloyalty by saying, “I’m gonna fix this so that I don’t have to be loyal to you any more either,” is, although provoked, an act of disloyalty itself.

I hear folks bemoaning the ease of getting a divorce these days; well, that depends on where you are or where you’re willing to travel.  I didn’t find getting a divorce either easy or cheap, but, of course, I’m not bitter!  In ancient Israel, a man–not a woman–could divorce one of his several wives by speaking aloud three times, “I divorce you,” in response to any weighty failure or any little slip up.  For example, let’s say the wife whose duty it was to prepare the family meals, fell into the horrible habit of burning the breakfast pita, becoming preoccupied with other tasks and leaving the pita over the fire flat out too long.  Why should a hardworking husband have to put with such careless behavior?  Many of them didn’t.  They’d say, “I divorce you,” three times, and that formally ended the marriage; the ex-wife had to move back in with family, or, absent that option, was out on the streets.

A number of Indigenous American were matriarchal, and the women in the lead in family units could do to their husbands a Native version of what men in ancient Israel could do to their wives.  The practice in many tribes was for a wife who’d had it with her husband to leave his moccasins outside the longhouse or wigwam, and if he came home and found those moccasins waiting outside for him, he knew that the marriage was over.  The woman of the house had spoken, albeit without words, and former hubby was out; there was nothing to discuss.  Add that to your list of “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover” as Simon and Garfunkel sang it:

You just slip out the back, Jack.

Make a new plan, Stan.

You don’t need to be coy, Roy.

Just get yourself free!

As you heard earlier, Ann Landers, the great advice columnist, wrote that loyalty deals with what is less than perfect.  There’s often no fun and games to confronting an expression of disloyalty; sometimes the offended party is angry, sometimes frustrated, sometimes crushed, but she or he, according to Ms. Landers, makes allowance for human weakness.

Let us not think of relational loyalty only in terms of marital or relational sexual fidelity for those who have agreed to that in the commitments they make to each other.  The traditional wedding vows, which many couples including Episcopal couples don’t realize go back to the first Book of Common Prayer in the Anglican tradition dated 1522, ask couples to promise to cleave to each other in good times and bad times with these now very familiar words.  Do you take such and so to be your wife or husband, as the case may be…

…to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part?

You have undoubtedly seen such loyalty at work many times in your life, as we have seen it work right here in Silverside Church several poignant times.  Probably for reasons of the power of love growing across the years much more than because of the vows themselves, we have seen spouses sticking with their beloved in the worst situations of declining health imaginable.  Nita Balderston’s Dad, Dr. Bill Pritchard, was a saint, a hero, and an example in that regard.  His loyalty to his wife over years of her struggles of completely debilitating illnesses was astounding to behold; yet for him, soft-spoken gentleman that he is, he was only doing what love led him to do.  The love that Bill and Kathy shared is a story that needs to be told far and wide–not to praise Bill, for indeed that is not the reward he sought in his extraordinary attentiveness to Kathy, but to teach others about the extremes to which true loyalty will take us.  Pointing out one person around here as exemplary doesn’t mean we’ve lacked others who also were heroines and heroes to their spouses and partners when the going got as bad as the going can get.

I’m not sure when I preside over an exchange of vows at a wedding these days that the couple gets what they are vowing to each other with the words they say to each other, whether I or they prepared the vows.  Not so many couples whom I marry these days choose the old Anglican vows, but many of the modern variations say nearly the same thing:  “I will never leave you or forsake you regardless of how tough the going gets.  When you are at your worst or most helpless point, I will remain by your side, and when you can’t do what you once were able to do, my love for you will be as strong as ever.”  Again, I’m often uncertain of the degree to which some couples understand such a promise.  I get the feeling that they’re promising to go to the 24 hour pharmacy at 2 am to buy some Thera-flu and ginger ale for a sick spouse two or three times in a lifetime if that’s absolutely necessary.

I performed a lovely wedding last night at the Delaware Art Museum, and the couple either wrote or borrowed the vows they asked me to preside over:

I love you. You are my best friend.
Today I give myself to you in marriage.
I promise to encourage and inspire you, to laugh with you,
and to comfort you in times of sorrow and struggle.
I promise to love you in good times and in bad,
when life seems easy and when it seems hard,
when our love is simple and when it is an effort.
I promise to cherish you and always to hold you in highest regard.
These things I give to you today and all the days of our lives.

Nice, meaningful vows.

I was moved by the vows Jenn and Dave Forgac chose for their wedding:

I choose you to be my spouse,

to be by your side through our life’s journey together.

You are my best friend.

You are my dearest love.

You are the one with whom I wish to spend my life.

I vow to you today, 

in the presence of our family and friends,

to dedicate myself to our marriage,

our friendship, and our love.

I promise to cherish, to honor, and to respect you,

to comfort and encourage you when we are healthy,

and when we must endure sickness,

when we are filled with the joy of success

and when we are burdened with sorrows.

I promise to love you without condition for all the days of my life.

This is loyalty.

 

II.

Loyalty, naturally, needs to be functional in many other areas of life beyond intimate relationships that are supposed to be committed relationships.  There are other relationships that call for our loyalty, and there are institutions, communities, and causes to which we must be loyal.

There are several powerful stories of loyalty, as well as disloyalty, in both Hebrew and Christian scripture.  A stunning story of loyalty in Hebrew scripture is the story of Ruth and Naomi.  My guess is that it’s one of the most well known of all the “big” stories in Hebrew scripture.

During the time of the Judges who ruled over the tribes of Israel before there were kings, a famine fell upon Israel and had a negative impact on all citizens in and around Bethlehem, among other places.  The writer of the book of Ruth, however, focuses on a single family in the midst of the tragedy:  wife and husband, Naomi and Elimelech, and their boys, Mahlon and Chilion.  There was no “right away” to respond to the crisis; each person had to do her or his best to care of self and family.  The Elimelech family made the decision to move temporarily, they assumed, to another country, a nearby country called Moab.

To add tragedy to tragedy, beloved husband and father Elimelech dies after which there is doubt or about whether or not the family will return to Israel.  While pondering the possibilities, the sons marry two Moabite women.  Mahlon, likely the firstborn son, marries Moabite Ruth, and the baby of the family, Chilion, marries Moabite Orpah–not to be confused with Oprah.

Famine.  Death of the beloved family patriarch, Elimelech.  Now for a third round of tragedy.  For completely unexplained reasons, both of Naomi’s sons died at the same time; we’d have to think accident or attack from someone who didn’t like Israelites.  The grief in that family was overwhelming:  three sudden widows, all childless; one of them, Naomi, a foreigner in the land where she was living.  The wails of grief and mourning often filled the night skies around where they tried to sleep.

From a pragmatic point of view, each one needed to be attached to a man to be safe and to be able to function in either Moab or Israel.  Mother-in-law, Naomi, decides that her best bet is to get back to Bethlehem where she might find a male relative who’d invite her into his household.  Naomi assumes that her widowed daughters-in-law will stay in Moab, return to their respective father’s homes, go through a decent period of mourning, and finally seek marital opportunities again with the full realization that most men who married wanted virgins.

What we presume is a scene of separation, where three women will go their separate ways, Naomi clarifies that she is going to Bethlehem, and she directs Ruth and Orpah to return to their families right there in Moab.  Orpah, though reluctantly, does what her mother-in-law tells her is best for her.  That leaves Naomi and Ruth to say their goodbyes; perhaps, there was a little more closeness between them as Ruth had been married to Naomi’s firstborn son who was the star in that culture in any lineup of offspring.   Prepared for a last goodbye hug and kiss, Naomi is shocked when Ruth refuses to take her advice as Orpah had done, and the words spoken by Ruth to Naomi in that instant have been remembered in vivid detail by Jews and later by Christians, adopting Hebrew scripture as foundational to their own.  Says Naomi’s fiercely loyal remaining daughter-in-law, Ruth:

Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die–there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!

These powerful, though poetic, words established a life bond between the two women.  It’s confusing that Ruth’s words to her mother-in-law, Naomi, have been turned, in modern times, into a wedding song–presumably as words a bride or a groom would sing to each other.  That’s so much of a stretch it just can’t happen.  It is not a wedding song at all.  It’s a song of loyalty sung with intensity during a time of profound grief.  “I lost my father-in-law, my brother-in-law, and my husband, but I will NOT lose my mother-in-law.  Wherever you are for the rest of your life, that’s where I also will be, and one day we will meet up again the land of the dead.”

I often hear daughters-in-law and their brand new mothers-in-law expressing precisely these kinds of words and emotions to each other as soon as the wedding reception begins.  You’d be surprised at what all I do hear behind the scenes at weddings!  My lips, however, are sealed…until I write my book.

Back to ancient times.  Ruth leaves Moab behind, but not alone.  She is traveling with her mother-in-law to Bethlehem.  The two women make their way to Bethlehem.  Ruth will be the loyal daughter-in-law and friend to Naomi she says she will be.

What loyal people are you thinking of in your world, even as we have this ancient story before us?  Or what importance do you place on loyalty as a quality in your relationships?

Someone asked Harry Potter’s creator, J. K. Rowling, what she thought were the most important qualities in a friend.  She answered with two words:  “tolerance” and “loyalty.”

British writing genius G. K. Chesterton said:  “We are all in the same boat in a stormy sea, and we owe each other a terrible loyalty.”

One of the writers of the book of Proverbs collecting her or his laundry list of truisms and choice pieces of advice, right in the middle of a collection of seemingly unrelated tidbits tosses this one in:  “What is desirable in a person is loyalty.”

There’s a book titled The Soldier’s Guide, published by the U. S. Army, and it has behaviors with which soldiers have been charged over time; among those are charges to every soldier to be loyal to nation, commanding officers, and comrades in peace time and in war time.  Not favoring war, but recognizing, nonetheless, that many soldiers do put their lives on the line for the well-being of others, the following except gave me pause.

The warrior ethos concerns character, shaping who you are and what you do.  It is linked toArmy values such as personal courage, loyalty to comrades, and dedication to duty.  Both loyalty and duty involve putting your life on the line, even when there’s little chance of survival, for the good of a cause larger than yourself.  That’s the clearest example of selfless service.  Soldiers never give up on their comrades, and they never compromise on doing their duty.  Integrity underlies the character of the Army as well.  The warrior ethos requires unrelenting and consistent determination to do what is right and to do it with pride, both in war and military operations other than war.  Understanding what is right requires respect for both your comrades and other people involved in complex arenas like peace operations and nation assistance.  In such situations, decisions to use lethal or non-lethal force severely test judgment and discipline.  In every circumstance, soldiers turn the personal warrior ethos into a collective commitment to win with honor….Loyalty to fellow soldiers is critical for generating confidence and trust.  Loyalty to one’s leaders and fellow soldiers is the most vital resource a unit has.  

 

III.

When the grossly misunderstood book of Revelation was written toward the end of the first Christian century, the Christians were under such attack by the dangerous megalomaniac of an Emperor, Domitian, that many expected that they and their loved ones might easily not live through another day.  In such a time of tension and threat, some of the Christians did what Domitian demanded even though it meant seeming to renounce their commitment to the way of life Jesus’ teaching had outlined for those who wanted to honor God.

The whole book or drama of Revelation is, in a sense, about the inevitable connection between loyalty and longevity.  A relationship will be short lived unless loyalty is a part of that relationship.  A nation will not survive for an extended period of time unless the bulk of its citizens are loyal to its principles.  An institution will not survive unless its constituents remain loyal to it; the church is no exception; a church, after all, is people, not a building, and if the people who are the church become disloyal to the reasons and causes for which that church stands, that church will fail.

To tie this to the book of Revelation, in what we designate as chapters two and three, there are letters written to seven churches according to what John the Seer sees in his amazing and amazingly complex vision.  Presumably the Risen Jesus is writing the letters to key churches, but in the book of Revelation one always has to look for symbolism FIRST and maybe exclusively.  The number seven is a symbol for divine plus human completeness.  These seven churches represented any church and all churches.  And Jesus doesn’t write literal letters to churches.  The corpus, though, of what he taught becomes, in a sense, a continuing letter to every church in every age trying to live according to his message and how his teachings framed God for us.

Some of the Christians during Emperor Domitian’s bloody reign of terror were renouncing their faith, or as I said earlier, at least they seemed to be doing that.  The ongoing word of encouragement in the book of Revelation is “loyalty.”  Don’t give up.  Don’t give in.  Stand fast.  Be loyal to what you know; this matters much more than Domitian ever will.

Here’s one of those famous letters written to the seven churches in the book of Revelation.  The one I’m reading here is the letter to the church at Smyrna, and I don’t mean Delaware!

And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of the first and the last, who was dead and came to life: “I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich. I know the slander on the part of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Beware, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death.”

So the first item of importance in this and all seven of these letters is that each one is written to the angel of that specific church.  Instead of thinking that each had a winged being flying around the church, playing a harp while offering some kind of protection, think pastor; think the pastor of that church.  After all, pastors are angels, aren’t they?  Aren’t we?  The word “angel” should be translated “messenger” in many contexts for clarity, and, by the way, that’s its most basic meaning and how it is used most frequently Christian scripture; not exclusively.  Indeed, the New Testament has winged beings here and there such as those who filled the skies and sang at Jesus’ birth and those who, according to the book of Revelation, attend God in God’s abode.  Here, though.  “angel” should be translated “messenger” as the writer is clearly referring to the pastor of the church.  The next time I need to win an argument around here, I’m going to use this to my advantage; I’m going to remind you that I am God’s angel, and would you dare to try to argue down an angel of God?  Brent would.  Else might, but would you?!?

One of the most important characteristics about the content of this letter and the content of the whole of the book of Revelation for that matter is that safety and security are not promised those who remain faithful to the cause.  Even the loyal might be thrown into prison.  Even the loyal might be sent to Domitian’s executioners.  “I beg your pardon; I never promised you a rose garden!”

Loyalty is its own reward.  We don’t force ourselves to be loyal to this or that just to win awards or prizes; well, we might do that, but it won’t work in the long run, not with any of life’s big issues.

There are two very strong synonyms for “loyalty” in the passage.  “Be faithful unto death.”  That is ultimate loyalty.  Again, the writer doesn’t say, “If you are faithful, you will be protected from Domitian’s evil.”  No, ma’am.  No, sir.  This is one of the ironies of walking the way of Jesus, which is supposed to be at the heart of the Christian movement.  Absolute loyalty might well cost you your life; that’s the thanks Jesus got for his loyalty.  Prosperity preachers who tell you otherwise are ignoring the clear facts about why Jesus died, and they are out and out lying to get a crowd or a contribution.

“Conquer” is the other powerful synonym for “be loyal.”  To outsiders, historians for example, being tossed to the lions by Domitian’s henchmen looks like a big win for Domitian, but that’s not necessarily true at all.  If the person being tossed to the lions is in that position because she or he remained loyal to the cause for which she or he lived, then the lions are taking out someone who leaves this world with dignity and principles in tact.  That brave martyr did not give in to evil, did not let evil win out, did not give evil the last word.  She or he conquered because nothing in this world, not even the ire and cruelty of the most powerful man on the face of the earth at that time, could make the person of faith renounce her or his core beliefs.

The person or the nation or the institution remaining loyal to higher principles and ideals, will be much happier and more content than the safer counterpart who bases life and existence on disloyalty.  Those who are disloyal to what they once embraced or pretended to embrace may last longer temporally speaking than those who are loyal to their causes, but they last as empty shells, beautiful to look at perhaps but decaying on the inside.  This is precisely the accusation Jesus made against the Pharisees; their loyalty was to their religion and to the keeping of religious rules.  Jesus stunned them and angered them by saying, “You can’t be loyal to God if any human-made institution–even a religious institution–eclipses the clear concerns of faithful people.”

Jesus said that the Pharisees who tried to be loyal to a list could look mighty good; they could look as shiny and clean as the limestone tombs in the cemeteries after their annual cleanings.  Don’t be fooled by the spotless exterior, though, Jesus said.  Inside each of those tombs, which represent the Pharisees, is death and decay.

Loyalty to God is always demonstrated and, thus, proven if need be by the degree to which we care for those who can’t care for themselves.

  • This week that might have meant being at the side of a largely non-communicative, somewhat combative Martha Brown who after being the winner in bout after bout with cancer may have taken a knock-out punch by the devious disease hiding in the darkness just waiting to strike her in a time, a rare time, of significant inner weakness.
  • This week, loyalty to the God about whom Jesus spoke might have had us gathered outside the Georgia prison where Troy Davis was eventually put to death despite protests from around the world about proven prosecutorial weak spots.  If we couldn’t be there, at least we could have spoken out as did President Jimmy Carter and Archbishop Desmond Tutu to name only two of thousands upon thousands to whom the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles turned a deaf ear.

Often, loyalty isn’t very glamorous is it?

Never Disqualify Yourself (Sermon 3 in Series: Pathways to Personal Fulfillment)

I.

The little engine who could.  “I think I can.  I think I can.  I think can.”  He could, and he did.

The little church who could.  “Oh yes we will.  Oh yes we will.  Oh yes, we will.”  They did and prevailed.

The countries with the healthiest economies in the world right now are not the larger, historically richer and more powerful countries.  The world’s top three healthiest economies at the moment appear to be:  Singapore, Hong Kong (one of China’s two Special Administrative Regions, but given tremendous autonomy), and New Zealand.  They thought they could.  They thought they could.  And they did!

There may be a hundred reasons why logic or repetitive patterns of the past or the attitudes of others about your capabilities push you to disqualify yourself when faced when a substantive challenge, but my word of encouragement to you today is, “Never disqualify yourself!”  When presented with a challenge or when pondering something you’d like to achieve, never disqualify yourself.  The world would be in much better shape today if more people like you believed the world could be changed for the good and set out to make that happen, even if in small steps.

Michael Korda says what should be self-evident, but it must not often be:  “In order to succeed, we must first believe that we can.”  If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.  No one said success was typically or frequently achieved on the first try.  If you have tried something and have not succeeded, I still say to you, “Never disqualify yourself.”

The noted “Power of Positive Thinking” preacher, Norman Vincent Peale, world famous for his consistent encouragement of those who heard and read what he said about keeping positive thoughts in the forefront no matter what, wrote:  “Believe in yourself! Have faith in your abilities! Without a humble but reasonable confidence in your own powers you cannot be successful or happy.”

Coming from a very different theological and social perspective than Peale, Henry David Thoreau sounded very much like Peale when he said:  “Live your beliefs, and you can turn the world around.”

Jesus tied a belief in what one could accomplish to faith, which for him was a combination of trust in God to support us in trying to accomplish the good mixed in with our willingness to use our skills with gusto.  To illustrate that point, dramatically, he once said to his disciples, “You know, if you had the faith of a mustard seed, you could tell a mountain to jump into the sea, and it would.”    He didn’t mean that literally as far as actual mountains were concerned; instead, he meant to instill confidence in people who had disqualified themselves spiritually and otherwise largely because of holier than thou Pharisees who made a career of bragging about their own accomplishments while overtly reminding non-Pharisees how pathetic and unaccomplished they were in the faith department–so inadequate, in fact, that they couldn’t accomplish anything worthwhile.

Jesus routinely addressed crowds of people who thought they had to have faith as big as a mountain to effect even a little, bitty change, symbolized by a mustard seed, which historians and archaeologists specializing in everyday life in the Holy Land during the time of Jesus, tell us would have been the smallest seed Jesus or any of his followers would have known about.  This parabolic saying stressed dramatically that you don’t need a mountain to move a mustard seed; it’s the other way around.  Just a tiny bit of faith can move a mountain.

Sometimes the world has been changed for the good by the efforts of a single person who would never have tried to do what became so significant without the encouragement of one person, just one person, who said to her or him, “You can do this; I know you can.”  The power of the encouragement of one person!  Even so, until you believe in yourself the way she or he believes in you, that great encouragement is nothing more than a mantle piece.  It’s just something to get off the shelf now and then to polish up and brighten a day, perhaps.  Until you believe you can accomplish whatever you set out to accomplish, though, nothing much will happen.

Dr. Benjamin Spock, the pediatrician who wrote books for  parents rearing children in my generation, and yes I was a child once, said and not just to parents trying to raise kids:  “Don’t limit yourself. Many people limit themselves as to what they think they can do. You can go as far as your mind lets you. What you believe, remember, you can achieve.”  Of course, if you do believe in yourself, but you make no effort to achieve your dreams, you will still get no where.

I like what the controversial Irish novelist, James Joyce, said in this regard:  “I am tomorrow, or some future day, what I establish today. I am today what I established yesterday or some previous day.”  Passivity will keep you from reaching your potential whether you are someone who believes in yourself but is too lazy to work toward your dream or someone who makes no effort because she or he has already pronounced failure on most every project before it is even attempted.

Back in the summer of 1968 about this time of year, as I recall, I preached my first sermon.  I was 14 years old and had, earlier in the year, told my pastor and my home church that I was drawn to the preaching ministry as my career aim.  The time for Youth Sunday rolled around, and the pastor, Jerry Hayner, asked me to be the preacher on that Youth Sunday.  I had no idea what I was doing when it came time to begin preparing the sermon; with my pastor’s help I pieced together a poor excuse for a sermon, but maybe acceptable for a first sermon prepared by a 14 year old boy.  The title of that sermon was “Youth in the Bible.”

All it was, really, was a hop, skip, and jump through the Bible stopping off at those stories about young people called on by God to do something and how they responded.  Many of these young people, and they wouldn’t have been as young as I was when preaching that sermon, resisted and offered God various excuses including their youth and inexperience.  Some few jumped right to the task to which God pointed them, but a number of them disqualified themselves.

Moses was one of those.  Moses was called on by God to take a job that required a lot of public speaking, and he was being perfectly honest when he reminded God that he didn’t do public speaking because of his stuttering problem.  God’s solution was to have Moses’ brother, Aaron, join Moses in the task.  Aaron was an effective, maybe an eloquent, speaker.  Moses passed along to his brother the messages he believed God had given to him; then, Aaron would speak to the people.  It worked out nicely overall.  Had Moses’ initial self-disqualification prevailed, though, the Hebrews might never have escaped Egypt and the slavery in which they were held.

When I choose to press on toward the realization of my dreams, in refraining from disqualifying myself I am not claiming to know how I will overcome my own weaknesses or the pitfalls I’m sure to encounter.  Maybe I’ll be able to strengthen some of the areas in which I am presently weak, but I’ll never be rid of all my weaknesses; and roadblocks are absolutely sure to show up along the way.  Refusing to disqualify myself means that I’m aware I’m imperfect and will still be imperfect when I achieve what I’m drawn to do or make real what, at present, I can only dream about.

Gandhi had a slightly different perspective on this matter.  He surely was someone who often, as one solitary figure, accomplished much.  These are his words:  “People often become what they believe themselves to be. If I believe I cannot do something, it makes me incapable of doing it. But when I believe I can, then I acquire the ability to do it even if I didn’t have it in the beginning.”

II.

Going back to that great first sermon of mine, “Youth in the Bible,” and just so you know I don’t have a copy any more as far as I know.  I kept it for years as an odd kind of souvenir.  I don’t think I intentionally trashed it, but it was lost in one of my moves.  I still remember a few things about it.  I already told you something about the Moses part of that sermon.  I think my favorite part was the Jeremiah section, though.

These are Jeremiah’s own words, a mature man looking back on his youth and particularly to how he got into the prophecy business.

Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.” Then the Lord put out the divine hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”

I think I may have liked this passage so much because I got into the process of actually preparing the sermon and finally, weeks later, while stepping into the pulpit to deliver it, I was saying to myself, “How do you get yourself into such messes?  I shouldn’t be preaching.  I’m only a boy.”  I felt like I was kind of playing dress up in way, as if I’d gone through my pastor’s old clothing already put in a giveaway box and was wearing one his suits much too big for me.

I was there, though, and I was going to go through with it so as not to embarrass my parents, my pastor who had entrusted his pulpit to me for the morning, or myself for being chicken.  I’m aware that I might still have embarrassed myself by going through with it and trying to preach in front of a few hundred people; I’m aware of that, and I don’t have to wait until Sermon Talkback for someone to remind me of that!  I pressed on and finished that 35 minute sermon in 11 minutes flat.  Back to Jeremiah though.

Since God is speaking audible words and using the divine hands, we catch on to the fact that this episode from Jeremiah’s youth was a vision.  God begins speaking to him, lets young Jeremiah know that God knew where Jeremiah’s life would be heading even before Jeremiah was born, and with that knowledge God tells Jeremiah that God decided to lure Jeremiah toward a career in prophecy from the get go.  From a human perspective, history–whether the history of a person or the history of a nation–unfolds chapter by chapter, and while no human can know either the mind of God or how God works I think it is very plausible to conceive of God as capable of seeing the whole of human history at a single glance, so to speak.  This is not to say that God calls the shots, but rather that God sees beginnings and endings and may well intervene to lure people in certain directions that will be more beneficial for them than where they might have ended up without that divine pull.

God must see with this single glance at history unfinished business, tragedies that didn’t or don’t have to be.  What God sees as ideal, though, doesn’t always happen, and many people choose not to heed God’s luring.  None of us is obligated to do what God sees as best.  We have full and complete freedom of choice; otherwise, there would be no give and take in the exchange.

So, God says, “I knew you when you were en utero, and I saw the direction your life would go.  I saw you as having great gifts to do the work of a prophet, and I am now asking you to accept that challenge.”  Jeremiah was not obligated.  He knew that he had the freedom to say, “No,” and initially that is what he did.

I must interrupt the flow here to say that this passage of scripture is one of several used by anti-abortionists to support their claim that the Bible forbids abortion. It most certainly does not.  Neither does it speak in favor of abortion.  As with many contemporary ethical issues, the Bible simply doesn’t deal with it at all.  There may be broad ethical foundations given that could be seen by some scripture readers as addressing the principle or principles needed to make an ethical decision about something completely unknown to the biblical world, but it is inaccurate to say that the Bible has a specific answer to every problem faced by contemporary women and men.

This passage has nothing at all to do with abortion or why one should avoid it or move ahead with it.  God is telling Jeremiah, in this vision, that God knew him ever since he, Jeremiah, could be known.  With that and seeing where his life would head, God lures him when he is still a lad to consider the ideal role in which God can see him, a prophet to the nations; not a prophet only to his sister and brother Hebrews, but to the nations.

This gutsy kid did not refuse God’s hope outright, but Jeremiah did disqualify himself.  Jeremiah didn’t say, “I’m uninterested.  I don’t want to be burdened with that level of piety.  I really don’t want to go to seminary!”  He said in a sincere and earnest way, though in a way by which he disqualified himself, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”

God replied, “Jeremiah, don’t disqualify yourself because of your youth.  I’m not going to send you out untrained or alone. I will tell you what needs to be said before each audience.  I will go with you, and if there are jams I can get you out of I will.”

We know that God who is spirit doesn’t have hands, but in the vision the divine hand touched Jeremiah’s mouth, a symbol of God’s having put the message Jeremiah needed to speak to the nations in the young, prophet-to-be’s mouth.  They were words that would lift up those who needed to be lifted up.  They were words that would confront those who needed to be confronted.  They were words that would inspire his hearers to uproot evil and build up good.  Jeremiah accepted the challenge and, indeed, became one of the greatest of all the prophets.  It wasn’t a requirement, though; he didn’t have to say, “Yes.”  He could have kept on living in the world of self-disqualification he seemed to be more than ready to construct.

The world of self-disqualification is a prison, a prison into which we place ourselves.  We sentence ourselves to these prisons because we refuse to believe that we are capable of making a positive difference in the world.  There are smarter people than I.  There are people who are more experienced than I.  There are those who are flat out more talented than I.  There are those with more financial resources than I.  There are those with fewer bruises to nurse than I have to nurse each day.  Yes, all of those may be true, but none of them individually or all of them taken together mean that one must self-disqualify.

  • Surely you’ve seen a runner running in a race even though one of her legs is an artificial leg made of steel to absorb the repetitive impacts of running.
  • Surely you’ve seen a blind person pushing someone confined to a wheelchair.  The person in the wheel chair is the eyes for both of them, and the blind person is the power to move them both around.
  • One of my all time favorite actors is James Earl Jones.  I got to see him perform in person in “On Golden Pond” here at the DuPont Theatre a few years ago, and hearing his magnificent voice in person was worth the price of the ticket several times over.  It just so happens that he’s a superior performer besides.  Many people are unaware that as a child, James Earl Jones stuttered so badly that the embarrassment finally got to him, and he stopped speaking altogether for a number of years.  In high school, he lucked into an English teacher who worked with him not only in written work, but also in reading poetry and dramatic scenes from literature.  Today, he performs not only in films, where a new shoot could be redone if he faltered, but also on stage where it has to be correct every time.  He rarely stumbles in front of a camera or crowd, but he still in private conversation sometimes stutters.  Someone, his teacher, made him believe that he could work around the stuttering and achieve his goal of becoming a noted actor, and that he has done.  He isn’t simply a noted actor; he’s among the best of the best, and he is what he is because an attentive and patient teacher convinced James Earl Jones that there was no need to disqualify himself.

III.

The most common reasons people in our culture give for having to disqualify themselves from meeting a challenge or realizing their dreams would be:  I’m too young.  I’m too old.  I’m too poor.  I’m uneducated and/or untrained.  Too many demands from others are placed on me, and I can’t walk away from those; in other words, I’m overcommitted, but it’s not all my doing.  Someone important to me would disapprove.

Finally, I have too many wounds; I honestly don’t have enough energy to get myself through, much less to get involved with others.  I can easily fall into depression.  Younger people didn’t used to talk disrespectfully to older people, and now that I’m one of those older people I see how dramatically that has changed.  I guess I really can’t be worth much to anybody at my age.  I’ve never gotten over the way she or he walked out on me, and those wounds leave me unable to trust anyone, anyone at all.  The teachers I had in high school successfully made me feel like an idiot; I have no confidence whatsoever in conclusions I draw, and I use every ounce of energy I have second guessing myself.

Early in my seminary master’s program, I along with everyone else who was about where I was in the process, had a required book to read.  I can’t recall if the book were a part of a course called “Formation for Christian Ministry” or not, but I think that must have been it.

It wasn’t a long book, and it wasn’t an expensive book–good news for most struggling seminarians.  The author was a professor of pastoral theology at Yale Divinity School, Henri Nouwen, and the very title of the book challenged the attitude many of us had about ministry whether, deep down, we thought we measured up or not.  Most people I have known who have chosen the ministry as a vocation, in whatever denomination or tradition, feel responsible for being a step ahead of those whom they are supposed to lead.  We clergy shouldn’t have doubts about our faith.  We should have exactly the right words and other responses to those who are dealing with pain and struggle.  Most importantly, whatever we messed up in the past, before we consented to enter the ministry as a profession, had better be cleaned up and swept neatly out of sight for the rest of our lives.

The very title of the book was incongruous and disconcerting:  The Wounded Healer.  That had to be a play on words, didn’t it?  How oxymoronic can you get?  Healers aren’t wounded are they?  They have to get all well before trying to heal others, right?  Physician, heal thyself and all of that.  If we couldn’t get our own houses in order, as Paul once told those who wanted to be higher ups in the church hierarchy, we have no business trying to help people fix theirs, huh?

Thank goodness for the courage and the insights of Professor Nouwen!  His book, The Wounded Healer,  is a challenge to clergypersons and clergypersons-to-be not to disqualify themselves on the grounds that they are imperfect.  It’s a tough profession, and the only survivors are those with both a tender heart AND tough skin–two traits that usually don’t go together.  Dan Romenesko, our Deacon Chair, accused me of plotting to force the Deacons and the church leadership to see more behind the scenes pastoral realities than some wanted to see during my study leave this summer.  I confess that I did not plan or plot toward any such thing, but I do remember telling my sister that it might be good if more laypersons knew more of what goes on behind the scenes of planning a worship service or funeral service or doing hospital and nursing home visitation.

I’m too mean and tough to whine, so let me just spit out some statistics for you.  I don’t know for how long this has been true, but it’s been a while:  90% of those who begin their careers in ministry do not retire from any ministerial career.  50% of those who stay in the ministry do so only because they can’t find any other kind of job.  Sometimes there’s too much heat in the kitchen, and sometimes they botch it.   (Don’t sit there and wonder if I’m trying to work out a subtle confession to you.  I’m not very subtle.  If I had anything to confess, you know me, I’d probably send out an eblast with color pictures!) As I told you, though, a couple of weeks ago, plenty of churches fire a pastor when she or he has done nothing wrong, morally speaking.  Enough people get loud with their complaints against the pastor’s style; others hoping for peace in the church, though they have nothing against the pastor necessarily, go with the squeaky wheels.

Not all pastors wait to be canned.  As many as 80 % leave within their first five years out of seminary.  On the other end of the spectrum, Rabbi Cohn, my dear friend in New Orleans, has a life contract with Temple Sinai; they can’t get rid of him without a burial, and he can’t get rid of them unless they all move en masse to another state!

Enough about my complicated and beleaguered profession except to say that Nouwen spoke to those who might just have the grit to last, but who are so morally sensitive that they decide they must disqualify themselves because they feel inadequate in one or more ways, especially because they feel that they carry some hurt they’ve never been able to resolve.  Nouwen says that’s not a good reason because most of us in ministry are wounded types, and we entered seminary hoping to fix ourselves so we could help fix others who carried around pain similar to our own.  In one of the later editions, a new subtitle appeared:  “In our woundedness, we can become a source of life to others.”

These are Dr. Nouwen’s words:

The minister must bind her or his own wounds carefully in anticipation of the moment when she or he will be needed.  The minister is called to be the wounded healer, the one who must look after personal wounds, but at the same time be prepared to heal the wounds of others.

There are plenty of other reasons to jump the ministerial ship, but disqualifying oneself because one is wounded as many or most human beings are in some way, though you won’t hear a word of this at prosperity gospel churches, is a cop out.

The Apostle Paul often found it hard to admit, but he was a wounded healer.  He didn’t let his failures cause him to disqualify himself when he felt that he knew what God was luring him to do.  He urged the Christians at Colossae to follow suit–in their case, not to be bullied by holier than thous who were telling them that they weren’t good enough to be called followers of Jesus and should, therefore, get away and leave the few really good and worthy people alone.  There was a group there who thought one’s faith could be verified by worship patterns, one’s selection of food and drink, and approved good works.

Paul writes:

…do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Jesus. Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.

Don’t let anyone else disqualify you, and don’t you disqualify yourself in matters of spirituality or any others.  Regardless of the odds, what others have said or are saying to you; regardless of how entrenched you are in a self-pronounced years-old identity of incompetence, let it go.  A challenge to be confronted or a dream to be realized await; don’t you be your own naysayer, preventing yourself from claiming your joyful, fulfilling future.  Perfection is neither required not expected!

Amen.

Own Up to Your Errors (Sermon 2 in Series: Pathways to Personal Fulfillment)

I.

“I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”  I hope you recognize those as words from former President Clinton and did not think I was giving you details of my recent vacation and study leave.  To the public, it took Bill Clinton, for whom I have lots of respect as a professional and a leader–not so much as a husband (which is none of my business), several months to acknowledge his infidelity with a White House intern, and I don’t know what he has said in retrospect about other reported infidelities with various other women here and there.

I believe Tiger Woods may have had him beat, numerically speaking, but there was another huge difference between the two men.  Tiger Woods called a press conference and acknowledged his errors.  This did not win back for him his wife, many of his fans, and any of his spokesperson’s jobs yanked away from him when his wholesome reputation was forever tarnished by several women trying to win fame and get rich by telling about their sexual escapades with the great golfer.  Even so, Tiger Woods won back the respect of many when he stepped up to the microphone at a press conference, his own mother sitting in the crowd, and admitted to moral failings.

Same with David Letterman.  He confessed rather quickly to his huge viewing audience that accusations made against him by women who worked for him about his having sex with them were largely true.  Admittedly, the public doesn’t have the same moral expectations of an entertainer as it does of a political or religious leader or of someone like an athlete who has become a role model for large numbers of youth.  It is certainly true that having confessed people may never see you the in the same positive light they once did, but they will generally respect you more than if you continued denying your wrong doings or mistakes and ultimately pretending to be someone you’re not.

If you’ve ever read Margaret Mitchell’s novel or seen the film version of  “Gone with the Wind,” both magnificent accomplishments, you know that one of the most important secondary characters is Belle Watling, the madam of the local brothel near where most of the story is set.  Only Melanie, aka Miss Melly, and Rhett Butler treat her with courtesy and respect.  Even when she wants to make a financial contribution to the needs of the military men fighting for the principles of the Old South, most citizens turn up their noses at her and her money.  Not Miss Melly, however.  Miss Melly meets Belle in a carriage because there is really no public place Belle could go without being harangued.

Belle says, in essence, “Miss Melly, most people to whom I’ve offered this money have refused it because of how I earned it, and I don’t deny how I earned it.  But it’s still good money that can help the cause.”  Miss Melly affirms Belle and accepts the money, thanks her and praises her for her generosity, and gets it into the proper hands.  Belle didn’t pretend to be anyone but Belle; nor did she make her contribution anonymously.  If what she did was wrong, she owned it and accepted responsibility for it.  In any case, she refused to pretend to be someone she wasn’t.

The late Virginia Satir was a therapist and social worker who was a pioneer in the family therapy movement and, eventually, became known as “the mother of family therapy.”  Here’s a quote from her that I discovered all the way back in grad school, and I still find in powerfully insightful and inspiring.

I am Me. In all the world, there is no one else exactly like me. Everything that comes out of me is authentically mine, because I alone chose it–I own everything about me: my body, my feelings, my mouth, my voice, all my actions, whether they be to others or myself. I own my fantasies, my dreams, my hopes, my fears. I own my triumphs and successes, all my failures and mistakes. Because I own all of me, I can become intimately acquainted with me. By so doing, I can love me and be friendly with all my parts. I know there are aspects about myself that puzzle me, and other aspects that I do not know–but as long as I am friendly and loving to myself, I can courageously and hopefully look for solutions to the puzzles and ways to find out more about me. However I look and sound, whatever I say and do, and whatever I think and feel at a given moment in time is authentically me. If later some parts of how I looked, sounded, thought, and felt turn out to be unfitting, I can discard that which is unfitting, keep the rest, and invent something new for that which I discarded. I can see, hear, feel, think, say, and do. I have the tools to survive, to be close to others, to be productive, and to make sense and order out of the world of people and things outside of me. I own me, and therefore, I can engineer me. I am Me, and I am OK.

Those people who never allowed anyone to put them on a pedestal of perfection are in a much better position in general than those who want to be idolized as paragons of virtue.  The former types never have to say, “Oh no.  I didn’t do that.  I didn’t make that mistake, or I didn’t commit that act of immorality.”  If someone asks them about a rumored offense, they tend to say, “Not that it’s any of your business, but, yes, as a matter of fact I did do that.  If it bothers you, boo hoo.”

Representative Wiener should first have changed the pronunciation of his name to “Wine-er,” and then should have admitted to sending the lewd phone pix he shared with some of his female groupies when first confronted with the accusation.  There are those who, while feeling disgust and embarrassment that an elected public servant would do such a thing, would still respect him as an honest person albeit an honest person who is an Android exhibitionist.

Thankfully, most of us don’t have the whole country or the whole world watching our every move, seemingly bent on finding at least one flaw to exploit big time.  If we are persons of integrity, though, living completely out of the limelight, we will still not try to lie our way out of some imperfection that someone else discovers.

I’ve had several young couples ask me across the years, in premarital counseling sessions, if they should talk about their previous sexual histories with the person they’re about to embrace as life mate, and this is not often thought of in terms of necessary confession of a moral wrong or a series of moral wrongs.  I’d say few young couples these days see premarital sex as morally improper.  The reason they might want to tell their future partner is for the sake of clearing the air and starting anew, as it were.  I usually say something like this when asked, “For some people the past is the past, and whatever happened before the two of you became a couple is of little consequence to the relationship you are building.  If, however, one or both of you feels strongly that knowing those details is an important part of understanding the person to whom you’ll be giving yourself intimately, here is my rule of thumb. If you can talk about your sexual involvement with others before this relationship began in ten minutes or less it might be ok, but if you’re looking at several hours or a whole weekend to tell the complete story I’d strongly encourage you to let it go.  Say, instead, ‘My life started when I met you, darling; nothing before that is even worth remembering, much less mentioning.’”

II.

A few thought-provoking tidbits.  John Maxwell:  “A person must be big enough to admit her or his mistakes, smart enough to profit from them, and strong enough to correct them.”

Oscar Wilde:  “‘Experience’ is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.”

Harold Smith:  “More people would learn from their mistakes if they weren’t so busy denying them.”

Mark Twain:  “Always acknowledge a fault. This will throw those in authority off their guard and give you an opportunity to commit more.”

I love, literarily speaking, the twists and turns in the Eve and Adam story in the book of Genesis.  I probably make more reference to this text than I should, but it captivates me.  God has given Eve and Adam magnificent Eden in which to live; they have great freedom there, and the only restriction is that they must not eat any fruit that grows on the tree in the center of the Garden.  You know that the serpent tempts Eve to try a bite or two, and, in turn, Eve tempts Adam to do the same.

From the Broadway musical, “Apple Tree,” the serpent sings a song that develops the extent of his temptation of Eve.  Indeed, it would have been tough to turn away.  This is what the serpent sings by way of temptation in the production, and incidentally the scriptural story says nothing about the fruit being an apple:

Listen closely. Let me fill you in

About the rich ripe round red

Rosy apples they call forbidden fruit.

What I’m about to say is

Confidential so promise you’ll be mute.

Because if every creature in the garden knows

They’ll come ’round like hungry buffaloes,

And in no time there’ll be none of those

Precious apples left for you and me.

Now in the average apple

You’re accustomed to skin, seeds, flesh and core,

But you will find that these are

Special apples that give you something more.

Why, every seed contains some information you

Need to speed your education; the

Seeds, indeed, of all creation are here.

Why be foolish, my dear?

Come with me

To that tree.

With every sweet and juicy

Luscious bite of this not forbidden fruit

You’ll see your mind expand and

Your perceptions grow more and more acute.

And you can teach him plumbing and philosophy

New techniques for glazing pottery

Wood-craft, first-aid, home economy.

Madam, Adam will be overjoyed!

Both Eve and Adam succumb to their respective tempters and do the single thing they’re not supposed to do.  In a little while, God their Creator comes calling to ask why they had disobeyed the lone rule they were asked to follow.  When God asks, the blame game begins.  Eve blames the serpent and accepts no responsibility for giving in to the serpent’s dare or for getting Adam to share in her error.  Adam follows suit.

The truth is both Eve and Adam were fully responsible for the choices they made; tempters are not to blame for the ethical wrongs we do.  Temptation is a part of life; advertisers bank on it.  Yet, if we give in to a temptation, it’s a clearcut choice; we do so intentionally, and the only person we have to blame is ourselves.

Ironically in this Genesis 3 story, only the serpent accepts God’s accusation without excuse or blame.  To refresh your memory:

They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.  But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” God said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”

Notice here that the man, Adam, doesn’t answer God’s question at all.  The question as you just heard was simple and direct:  “Have you eaten from the tree from which I commanded you not to eat?”  That was not a philosophical question requiring definitions, context, and historical precedent.  “What really do we mean when we say, ‘Eat.’”  “You know, the tree is not precisely in the middle of the Garden if you pace it from the north and the south.”

God’s was a simple question, though a painful question, requiring only a yes or a no answer.  That’s not what God got by a long shot.  Instead, the man, Adam, answered God’s question by not so subtly blaming God for creating the whole dynamic in which Adam found himself a failure.

The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.”

Another way of saying what Adam said would be, “You know, let’s be clear about this.  I’m sure you remember that until you created Eve, nothing even close to this happened.  Until you placed Eve in the Garden, and I admit that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed her company, I never failed you, not a single time.  So, God, aren’t you the one who needs to ‘fess up here and admit that you made an error in creation or placement. You’re God, after all, and you should be plenty big enough to own your errors.”

Now God gives the woman, Eve, a chance to speak for herself, but she follows Adam’s pattern in not answering God’s question at all.  She, like her man, more or less blames God for her plight.  It was as if she prepped for her responses with Judge Judy’s staff.

Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.”

In other words, “God, if you hadn’t created the serpent and forced us to have to live with the serpent in the Garden, there’s no way this could’ve have happened.”  The audacity!

God wouldn’t be drawn into their triangling efforts.  Each one was independently responsible for her or his own actions, and, thus, each one had consequences to face.  God might have gone much more easily on them had they simply been honest when God asked them each a direct and pointed question.  “Did you eat from from the tree in the center of the Garden?”

“I’m ashamed to admit it, God, but I did.  I’m so sorry I didn’t live up to the simple standard you established for Garden dwellers.  I will not make this mistake again if given another chance.”

I want to stress again, as I mentioned earlier, that not all mistakes are moral failures; in fact, many mistakes have no relationship whatsoever to any morality scale.  Even so, some people still blame God for their mistakes.

You jocks undoubtedly caught LeBron James’s excuse-making back in June for the Miami Heat’s loss to the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA finals.  A reporter told the story this way:

In what must have been an emotional moment of frustration and an attempt to explain the Miami Heat‘s loss to the Dallas Mavericks, Heat forward LeBron James found the best place he could to put the blame for coming up short.  Following the game this is what James’s Twitter account, @KingJames, looked like:

KingJames: The Greater Man upstairs knows when it’s my time. Right now isn’t the time.

Really, LeBron? Blame God?  I understand blaming the fans, the coaches, teammates, the weather, and everything else under the sun.  Perhaps the pregame music was not what you wanted, the towels were not folded right, all the fans wearing white threw you off or someone put the wrong kind of powder out for you to throw into the air. If you ask me it was because your headband was too tight.  I could handle all of that, but blaming God? Not your best move.

III.

Joan Didion:  “The willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life is the source from which self-respect springs.”

Albert Einstein:  “People must cease attributing their problems to their environment, and learn again to exercise their will, their personal responsibility.”

The ancient Greek playwright, Sophocles:  “It is a painful thing to look at your own trouble and know that you yourself and no one else has made it.”

Denis Waitley:  “A sign of wisdom and maturity is when you come to terms with the realization that your decisions cause your rewards and consequences. You are responsible for your life, and your ultimate success depends on the choices you make.”

A business writer, Trent Leyshan, has come up with a little proverb:  “Own your mistakes, or they will own you.”  I think that’s very powerful and right on point.  Own your mistakes, or they will own you.  Owning, I think, means acknowledging them, doing what you can to correct them, and then letting them go.  Owning up to a mistake does not mean wearing it as a badge or keeping in your self-identity scrapbook for the rest of your life.  When you’ve done what you can do to make things right, then that’s it; you have to move on as best you can.

The Apostle Paul was certainly an arrogant sort, and without a doubt it’s the arrogant who have the most difficulty admitting their mistakes; sometimes, marriages and partnerships fail for this very reason.  Foundationally, as far as his involvement with Christianity went, he had once persecuted the Christians.  As a zealous conservative Jew, he took the Christian sect within Judaism to be a threat to true Judaism, and being as zealous as he was he had every intention of doing all he could not only to squelch the movement, but to snuff out its adherents who, tragically, were his sister and brother Jews.  Ultimately, that did not matter to him; his principles mattered more to him than his people.    The Romans to whom all Jews were subservient took the conflict between Paul and the Christians as a squabble within Judaism in which there was no way they were going to get involved.  Further, Paul had some way been given Roman citizenship so he got some breaks from Rome in that regard.

In the midst of persecuting the Jews who wanted to take up Jesus’ interpretation, or more properly his summary, of the ancient Jewish laws and live according to it rather than all the Jewish laws in which the Pharisees basked, but which weighed a non-Pharisaical type down to depression with her or his religion, Paul has one of the most amazing conversation experiences we know about in the history of the Christian movement.  He was terribly confused by the vision he had after he’d been knocked off his horse by a big ole bolt of lightening; in his vision he heard Jesus of Nazareth–by this time executed and entombed, some said raised from death into God’s realm, but a man Paul clearly had never known except by reputation–asking him why he was persecuting his fellow Jews who wanted to follow a renewed Judaism.  Ultimately, he understood, as confusing and as painful as this seemed and felt, that God wanted him to become one of the Jewish Christians and carry the message of Jesus into the the Greek world where polytheism prevailed.

As if that weren’t conflictual enough, there was this other thing–actually the camel in the middle of the room.  Word got around, and even though Paul was his new name replacing his birth name, Saul, the people in the Greek world to whom he would speak the message of Jesus would eventually put two and two together and realize that he was the one who had persecuted Christians; now he was asking them to embrace the Jesus Movement.  Was it a trick?  If they did embrace the Jesus Movement, would he turn on them and persecute them as well?

I mean, if Karl Rove called the Democratic National Committee tomorrow and said he wanted to become a Democrat and lend a hand to getting Obama reelected, more than a few eyebrows would be raised.  How could it be otherwise?

This being the case, Paul frequently had to own his errors of persecution in order to get any kind of a hearing at all from smart people in the Greek world who didn’t have anyone harassing them regarding which deity or deities they favored from their sacred pantheon.  When he wrote to the Philippians, for example, he had to speak to what they knew of him before he could speak to them about his new life:

If anyone…has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Jesus. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain membership in the family of God as Jesus understood and established it.

He owns his failure as someone who persecuted Jewish Christians, but distastefully he does so in the context of much bragging.  It’s not the best way to own errors, but it gets the job done now and then.

In a more personal and real way, he discusses unspecified failures in his letter to the church at Rome:

I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?

Paul makes the mistake here of trying to confess and deal with several areas of personal failing in one quick clip; that doesn’t work.  We have to own and deal with our failings one at a time if we are sincere and if we really want to change our ways and fix the damage our poor choices have done to others along our life’s journey.

Here are parts 8, 9, and 10 from a twelve step addiction recovery community such as Alcoholics Anonymous:

8. We made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.

9. We made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

10. We continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

A testimony from Deb Ng:

I tried something new this year; I stopped making excuses. Whenever I forgot to do a task or let an email fall through the cracks, I told the truth. I didn’t make up an excuse. In fact, I stopped believing in making excuses. I admitted my screw ups and accepted the responsibility. I apologized and I made amends…Almost every negative situation in my life is my fault. Most can be written off to lack of concern, lack of attention or lack of caring. As soon as I stopped attributing negativity and mistakes to other people and other situations, I became a much better person.

Amen.

If You Are Able, Earn Your Keep (Sermon 1 in Series: Pathways to Personal Fulfillment)

I.
Monday, tomorrow, is our country’s holiday intended to celebrate those jobs that make it possible for us who aren’t independently wealthy to support ourselves and our loved ones.  Many of these jobs allow us, to greater or lesser degrees, to make contributions to betterment of humanity–one person at a time or whole groups through job tasks well done.  It is a privilege to have both the health and the job opportunities that allow us to be and remain meaningfully employed.
Those who have health issues that prevent them from working are not supposed to feel guilty because they are unable to work.  They are not drains on those who do work, and their value to families and to society as a whole equals those who work.
I have a great job–at least I did before I left for an eight-week study leave, and if anything has changed as to my employment status no one has yet told me.  I love being the pastor of a theologically progressive, socially responsible and active and amazingly diverse congregation where there’s all the fresh air in the world for thinking one’s own thoughts along the lifelong pathway of searching for truth.  You could call us a community of eccentrics, and that would be correct as long as you didn’t think we lacked a unifying thread or reason for being.  Actually, there are two.  One I’ve already mentioned:  joining together in the search for truth, not expecting to come out at the same place along the way or at the end of the journey.  The other unifying principle for the Silverside seekers’ community is the commitment we have to each other to care and to be there to celebrate with each other when rejoicing is in order as well as to be there to encourage and support each other when times get tough; and times do get tough.  In that vein, I’d like to thank our Deacons, a few members and friends who have no special church appointment but who have the gift and the calling to minister to the sick and struggling and suffering, and to the Reverend Gordon Umberger for taking the lead in caring for those who were ill and those who lost loved ones while I was away from Wilmington for my study leave.

So, as far as I know at this moment, I left a job that I loved, and I’ve returned to that same place still employed.  The pastor of my former congregation in New Orleans didn’t fair as well as I did in that department.  Two years into his ministry, he was having some conflicts with strong-willed congregants; this end of one’s second year in a ministry is as predictable as the “terrible twos” in growing children.  He left some of these conflicts unresolved and went on a one month study leave and vacation.  He came back to find that while he was gone a small group of detractors, with many members away on vacation themselves, had put into place a series of planned confrontations whereby he would rather quickly lose his job, and he did.  He wasn’t fired out right; he was given the opportunity to resign or be out on the streets with only one more paycheck in hand.

He’s not terribly experienced; he’s not a newbie by any means, but he’s only 35 years old.  His wife doesn’t work outside their home, and they have three children.  My former congregation, and shame on them, did not do all they could have done and should have done to repair the criticisms of the pastor of which most congregants were completely unaware.

This young pastor is not a personal friend, though we have talked from time to time before and during his two year tenure.  He seems very gifted to me, and every word that had floated north from New Orleans for the last two years was exceptionally positive.  In his inexperience, he didn’t respond in the best of all possible ways to what he justifiably took as threats to his livelihood, but the church is–or at least was–mature enough to handle this and help him not hang himself; it’s a congregation membered by more lawyers than should ever be allowed to descend on a single faith community!

I’ve been on the phone, on Facebook, and on email hours and hours the last couple of weeks trying to do my very limited bit as a former pastor to help remediate a situation that didn’t have to end the way it has ended.  I’m not regarded by most members of that present congregation, many of whom don’t know who I am since I’ve been gone some twenty-one years, as someone who could be called on to help them solve their problems.  I did, though, love the place and have kept in touch with a few people, as many as wanted to keep in touch with me; and some are seeking my input.

Never in its history, as far as I can recall, had this church terminated a pastor.  There will be a vote this coming Wednesday I believe to vote on a severance package; I was told that he is asking for salary and benefits through the end of the year.  He has to have at least that much; jobs for clergy aren’t any easier to find than are jobs in any other sector in the US right now.  The economy has left any number of congregations unable to pay a full-time pastor; such churches generally are trying to work with a permanent part-time pastor or an interim with no end of the interim in mind.  Every one of these churches is in decline.

Well, I will use with my second successor in New Orleans in mind to point to another group who must be remembered on this Labor Day 2011:  those who are skilled and who desperately want to work but who, nonetheless, remain unemployed.  There is national concern that those who stay unemployed for an extended time become unemployable regardless of what the economy does.  Therefore, I am calling for a parallel commemoration for tomorrow that I’m naming as you saw in your eblasts “Can’t Labor Day.”  This honors those who desperately want to work but can’t find a job.

Here are some hot off the press statistics from the US Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.  The numbers I’ll be giving you reflect the employment/unemployment situation as of this past Wednesday, the last day of August for this year:
The total number of unemployed persons, 14 million, was essentially unchanged in August, about the same as in recent months.  This makes the unemployment rate 9.1 percent of that part of the population able to work; that rate has remained relatively unchanged since April.

The Bureau tells us how many people are unemployed from what it calls “the major worker groups.”  There are 8.9 percent of adult males able to work and wanting to work who can’t find work.  Adult women, an even 8 percent.  Among teens who want and need to work, the unemployment rate is 25.4 percent.

Looking at this grim picture from an ethnic point of view the Bureau of Labor Statistics reveals to us that 16.7 percent of our African Americans citizens who are able and willing to work can’t find jobs.  For Hispanics, that number is 11.3 percent.  For Caucasians, it’s 8 percent, and for Asians it’s 7.1 percent.

The number of long-term unemployed persons–long-term referring to those who have been unemployed for half a year or more–is holding at 6 million of us; that’s 42.9 percent of the total number of people who are unemployed in our country at this moment.

The labor force rose to 153.6 million total workers in August.  Given the other numbers I’ve given you, obviously, that’s a very small increase.

The number of us employed part-time for economic reasons (in other words, involuntary part-time workers) showed an increase in August from 8.4 million to 8.8 million. These members of the work force had their full-time hours cut back to make them part-timers, or they were never able to find a full-time job to begin with.

There’s still another group of unemployed people.  They are considered marginally attached to the current labor force because they keep on seeking work, but had not looked for a job during the month before the Bureau compiled the statistics I’m sharing with you.  There are 2.6 million of these folks, and that’s an increase of .2 since last year at this time.

Among the marginally attached, there are presently 977,000 “discouraged workers,” those who have stopped looking for work because they believe no jobs are available for them; for the time being, at least, they’ve given up.  We see them out on the street corners and at busy traffic intersections wearing their business suits, but holding the same signs the obviously destitute hold in similar places:  “Will work for food.”

II.
I think it was NPR I was listening to the other day whose reporter was telling the story of more and more super wealthy people who bequeath their children enough cash on hand to make life a little easier, but not enough to keep them from working.  These are wealthy people who earned their money by working hard, and they believe in the importance of working to build both self-esteem and responsibility so they want their children to work too; the big bucks, then, are put in a trust to be paid out at key life events and, in fact, will benefit the grandchildren of the benefactors more than their children.  For example, a chunk might be left to make a solid down payment on a new house, but not enough is left to buy a house outright or make house payments beyond the closing on the home purchase.  There’s something that matures us to work and earn our own keep if we are able; some people, as I’ve said, aren’t able because of physical and/or emotional difficulties.  And again I say, they are not second class citizens.

It’s rather astounding, though, to see how work opportunities are created or adapted so that persons with various physical and/or emotional limitations are still able to work and earn their own pay.  Work means much more than money to many of these, our fellow citizens too.

Immigrants relish jobs in the new countries to which they’ve moved in hopes of a better life.  They need not be fancy jobs either.  My older son’s, Jarrett’s, partner, Joseph, was telling me just this week that when his parents immigrated to this country from Peru several years ago, his mother was delighted to have a job scrubbing toilets for two years until something better for her came along.  Mrs. Faura didn’t take a job that any US American wanted; no one here wanted the job she was glad to get.  She was able, through her own toil, to make it possible for her family to live here in safety.  Now their son is the proud holder of a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Maryland in Baltimore County and an Instructor in Art and program coordinator of the degree in communication studies and digital art at Baltimore’s College of Notre Dame.  Without a doubt, Joseph’s academic opportunities and these early career successes rest to some degree on his mother’s work scrubbing toilets so that her children, Joseph among them, would have a brighter future than she could have imagined for them in their country of origin.  I might add, in case it isn’t evident enough already, that I, too, am exceedingly proud of Joseph.

Thinking people in our culture are surely aware that not all necessary work results in monetary pay.  The mother or father who stays home with the children in their early years, putting her or his career on hold is, working harder, much harder, than many workers in any workplace, not knowing if the progress she or he had made in the career will still be recognized when the time comes to reenter the for-pay workforce.  I have many students at Wilmington University who worked to get their children’s educations paid for before they, the parents, decided to use any of their cash to pay for a bachelor’s degree for themselves.  These are people whom I admire greatly.  In a way, these students have worked some twenty years before using their hard-earned money to pay tuition for English 101 and love it!

I had a few scholarships and grants along the way, nothing stupendous by any means, but my family had no money whatsoever to help me with educational expenses; nor were they prepared for the number of degrees I’d go after.  I worked and paid my own way as I went; I knew I didn’t want student loans hanging over my head when I got out while trying to provide for a family living on what a typical religious professional was paid so I worked and paid as I went.  I didn’t talk much about it, still don’t.  Those who knew that I was working and paying my way through three degrees as I went, never taking out any loans, said to me, “You’ll appreciate your degrees more than those who had someone else pay it for them.”  I don’t agree if that’s supposed to be true of everyone who ever took out a student loan, but there’s some truth to what I was told in many cases.

I can usually detect early in any term which of my students are having to work to pay their way through school and which ones have someone else paying the bills.  Those paying their own tuition would never just decide willy nilly not to complete a critical assignment that’s worth, say, 20% of their final grades; whereas, students who have someone else paying the tuition bills do such things every semester I teach.  I tried to turn that around a few years ago by plastering all over my syllabi for every class I taught:  “ALL ASSIGNMENTS MUST BE COMPLETED IN ORDER TO PASS THIS COURSE.”  All that did was make my life miserable reading papers about which the free ride students didn’t give a hoot.  Now, if students choose not to complete assignments, fine with me.

My first boss at Wilmington University, who has since retired, told me one day that you can get a really clear picture of how these students will perform in the career world by taking note of how they behave in class.  Chronic latecomers will be late for work as a rule, and plagiarists will cheat on sources of information used in compiling work reports–not infrequently taking credit for an insight or principle that wasn’t theirs at all.  Generally, he said, these students will not last long in any job; they will eventually be lazy enough and sloppy enough to be caught taking credit for what is not theirs.  Essentially, they’ll be found out as worthless workers; not worthless human beings, but worthless workers.  Some of them will grow up and learn better; others, sadly, will not.

Samuel Butler, the British poet, is credited with having said something along these lines:  “Every person’s work, whether it be literature or music or art or architecture or anything else, is always a portrait of that person.”  We understand the importance and the truth of that statement, but we must also see that for most of us work should not be the central defining trait of our identity, a facet of truth that allowed Oscar Wilde to get his foot in the door on this topic:  “Work,” he said, “is for people who have nothing better to do with their time.”  Not everyone with a similar perspective is a comic; Henry David Thoreau is one example; he wrote, “There is no more fatal blunderer than the one who consumes the greater part of life earning a living.”  Understood, and we all know someone who is unmistakably what the great pastoral theologian and counselor, Wayne Oates, called a “workaholic.”  That’s the wrong way to go.

We know that Jesus, who during the years of his ministry greeted every new day with the overwhelming reality of critical human need all around him, still had to make time in his life for meditation and mindfulness.  He had to get away from the demands and pressures, as important and as critical as they were, to refresh himself in order to be able to do any effective work at all.  His life couldn’t be all work, or he could have been no benefit whatsoever to those who needed him most.

III.
There’s a hymn written for Labor Day Sunday, and the words by Densley Harley Palmer are at least thought provoking.

We who live with great advantage
must not crush with tyrant’s boot
but raise up earth’s weary workers
to share in their labor’s fruit.
People are not born for slavery,
destined for a life of need.
None should toil in cruel condition
so the few can quench their greed.

How we live, each acquisition
grows from out another’s toil.
As we press to live unwisely
we another’s life defile.
All earth shares in tight connection
resting on inequity;
as some live in grand condition,
others endure poverty.

All is giv’n to us as blessing,
naught to claim as lot deserved.
No life should be born for wasting
but as gift to be preserved.
As we smother in our plenty,
seeking warehouses to store,
myriad lives are counted forfeit
in our chase for ever more.

No doubt about it.  One of the reasons we work is so that we can amass material goods.  If we can’t buy something or at least qualify for a credit card that can, why bother with working in the first place?

Several years ago, I had the privilege of attending the joint graduation exercises of the Harvard Medical and Dental Schools as the guest of one of the graduating physicians who had been one of the Johns Hopkins undergrad students active in the life of University Church in Baltimore.  I enjoyed being the pastor of Ricky Grisson, and when he left Baltimore he honored me by staying in touch; a friendship developed, and I love Ricky as kind of a cross between a peer and one of my kids.

I don’t recall exactly how this worked, but there were no outside speakers at that commencement.  All the speakers were in-house folk.  Because the Med School was larger than the Dental School, two Med School professors and one Dental School prof addressed the crowd.  Similarly, three Med School students and two Dental School students gave relatively brief speeches.  It seems to me that the last of the three Med School students spoke before the first of the Dental School students spoke.  I was sitting there in awe at the brilliance of what I was hearing about the dreams of some of the brightest and best who’d one day be providing health care for us.  Of course, this was before lawmakers decided that only wealthy people and politicians who by some freak accident weren’t already wealthy deserved health care.

The med student who stirred us all, some of us to tears, was going to take his diploma and his cap and gown home that day, maybe lunch with his family, and then get right back to work in a clinic in one of the poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods in Boston.  He wasn’t just going back to work there that day, but for the foreseeable future that’s where he intended to stay with his Ivy League Harvard degree in hand.  He talked about the gunshot wounds he treated on almost a daily basis.  He talked of the burgeoning roster of patients needing treatment for HIV/AIDS and the limited funds for getting them treated.  He talked about how few patients could pay anything at all and how the clinic’s life and the lives of many of its patients depended on the sporadic donations of benefactors, but all too many benefactors want to give only to causes where they will be honored or praised with plaques and recognition banquets.  That’s what practicing medicine had meant to him during his training, and that’s what it would mean to him after his costly diploma was nailed to a plaster-cracked wall in a little room he called his office.

This physician was followed by a Dental School graduate, and the two speeches couldn’t have been more different.  He wanted to be an orthodontist to the wealthy and drive the most expensive sports cars that money could buy.  Had he spoken before the clinic doctor, there might have been more laughs or snickers when he made his materialistic announcement; there were still a few who laughed as well as a few who nodded their heads as if to say, “Well, at least he’s an honest orthodontist-to-be.”

Straightening crooked teeth is not a waste of time, but worrying about how many teeth he will have to straighten in order to buy the next sports car on his list is.  By now, both of these men are a few years into their respective practices.  One of them knows exactly when he will leave the office every day; one of them never knows and rarely makes it home to dinner on time.

Both get paid, but there’s quite a differential in their salaries.  Same thing goes on in my profession, the ministry.  From the earliest church on into today there are those who believe that anyone who does anything for a church should do it gratis–the preacher, the musician, the grass cutter.  There are some bivocational clergypersons who take no pay from the churches they serve, letting the other job, the second job, pay the bills.  (Sorry I got some of you thinking about that scenario!).  Then there are megachurch clergy millionaires (Sorry I got ME thinking about THAT scenario!).  These rich and famous clergypersons, I can guarantee you, don’t do nearly as much work in a week as a solo pastor of a little church out in the middle of no where; no one twenty-five miles away has ever even heard of her.

Once when Paul was writing to the young man he hoped would take over his ministry when he’d preached his last sermon and written his last pastoral letter, he was giving some advice.  Paul wrote to Timothy:

Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching; for the scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves to be paid.”

The elders to whom Paul referred were not lay leaders in local congregations, but rather some kind of professional clergypersons.  We aren’t at all sure just how the hierarchy worked except that Paul thought of himself as the leader of all the churches founded and functioning in the Greek world.  These elders might have been lead pastors in churches with more than one clergyperson in their midst.

Not all pastors had the gifts of preaching and teaching, but Paul thought those who preached and taught should be highly honored, and that honor, he thought, should be expressed in two ways:  1) By giving them freedom in pulpit or lectern, if such implements existed in Paul’s day–probably not.  But the elders weren’t supposed to be asked to suppress their beliefs or their fervor in presenting them.  The other way they were to be honored was to pay them appropriately for their ministerial services. Proper pay for effective work.

Like Paul, these elders were almost certainly bivocational.  Paul kept up his tentmaking work while he conducted his ministry; he was bivocational, and so were these elders about whom he wrote.  Even so, one of two ways of honoring them was by paying them.

Some of us are fortunate enough to have jobs that we’d do for free if we could afford it.  I’m one of those lucky people, and I do love my job.  Tomorrow, part of my day will be celebrating what for me is the gift of work.  Labor Day.  Those of you who are retired may celebrate your years of work as well as the freedom of retirement if you haven’t overcommitted yourselves in retirement.  But I will spend a part of my day pondering the plight of those who want work, but can’t find any work at all.  It will also be, after all, Can’t Labor Day.  I will certainly not be glib about the opportunity I have to do meaningful work.  Amen.