My Morality Mirror (Final Sermon in Series: Preaching from A HUMANIST BIBLE)

 

 

 

I.
I think the fundamental morality is utter honesty with oneself about who one is.  Thus, “Who am I,” isn’t merely a core philosophical question; it is also an acknowledgement of the standards by which I live–or try to.  I am not only what I eat, but also what I do.  I’m not talking about the magnets on my refrigerator or the bumper stickers on my car that reveal the person I long to be, the person I wish I were; I’m talking about the way I actually live.  That more than anything else determines who I am, and I cannot be an authentic person until I own that reality.  That reality reveals my moral standards.
My older son is someone whom I admire tremendously, which is also true of my younger son but in different ways from his big brother.  Jarrett always seemed to know who he was and to embrace who he was with a level of comfort and pride.  For example, from the time he was 16 until he was 18 and heading off to college, he seemed to know instinctively that he was the person in the world appointed by God or the Universe or the Karma Catchup Committee to make my life hell.  He did it with ease, with dedication, with flair.  I believe it became an art form for him, and he did it so well that he was widely admired by his friends for being able to make me so angry I couldn’t see straight, clearly desiring to fill the void and take over the role left when his mother moved out of our lives.  He was astoundingly successful.
I have rarely felt more hopeful than I did the day he called me from Sarah Lawrence College in New York, asking me to get the train and come up for a good long talk and a nice dinner.  Bronxville is about half an hour north of Manhattan on the commuter line that runs out of Grand Central Station.  Brand new Silverside pastor that I was, I was on the train from Wilmington to New York the very next day.
The conversation was joyous, yet tearful, for me.  He told me he loved me and that he didn’t know why he’d tried so hard to drive me crazy for those two plus years.  “All that’s in the past now, Daddy,” he said.  “I’m so sorry it happened, but it’s over.”  Words I longed to hear, but had doubted for a long that I ever would.
Jarr gave me a big hug and kiss as he put me on the train home.  I wept, and just before the train pulled out he said, “Oh, yeah.  One more thing.  I know you worry about some of my recreational activities, but I don’t use anything other than what grows naturally out of the good earth.”  My mouth opened to say something; I have no idea what, but even if I’d been able to say it, the train was pulling away.  He was waving and saying, “Thanks for coming, Dad.  I love you.  I’m so glad the air is clear now.”  Had I been able to speak, he’d not have heard me, which I’m relatively sure, is what Jarrett intended.
He was 18 and a half back then, and he’ll soon be thirty.  He didn’t pretend to be someone he wasn’t back then, and he hasn’t since.  When he embraced his sexuality, he was equally as direct and matter of fact.  I support him fully, and, again, I admire him tremendously.  He is a person of integrity, and that is a key part to who he is.  I would say that he knows who he is and that such integrity is the foundation of his morality.
His ring tone on my cell phone is a clip of a song from “La Cage aux Folles,” the original Broadway version, “I Am What I Am,” sung by memorable baritone, George Hearn.

“I am what I am;
I am my own special creation.
So come take a look,
Give me the hook or the ovation.
It’s my world that I want to take a little pride in,
My world, and it’s not a place I have to hide in.
Life’s not worth a damn,
‘Til you can say, ‘Hey world, I am what I am.’”

One of the reasons we become so angry or frustrated or flabbergasted at these big name celebrities–whether politician, preacher, performer or pro-golfer–when they are found out for some shocking faux pax is that they have pretended so hard, insisted so consistently that that is NOT who they are; yet that is exactly who they are.  Maybe at moments, they wish they were their ideal selves and not their real selves.  Thanks to teams of true journalists we get to find out who these women and men are who have their names and faces plastered all over the net, billboards, and four color publications.
Even so, someone else’s moral flaw or failure is none of my business.  In a 1963 speech, Dr. King made these insightful comments, and we hear him in that speech not as a preacher or a civil rights leader, but as a brilliant person who earned a Ph.D. is social ethics:

“…while it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a person love me, but it can keep [her or] him from lynching me….”

Assuming that law enforcement personnel are taking responsibility for protecting each citizen and ensuring her or his safety, the only person’s morality about whom I need to be concerned as far as upkeep and adjustment are concerned is my own.  Am I who I say I am?  Do I live according to the pledges I’ve made to myself and not by the performance preferences that someone else has tried to force upon me?  If I live only by what others expect of me, then there’s no possibility for me to have personal moral standards since I’ve taken myself out of the picture and given others control over how I will act.
As long as the candidate does in office what she or he promised to do on the campaign trail, I’d say her or his morality is in tact.  The issue for outsiders is really the personal judgment of the one who has done something to embarrass self, family, nation; not her or his morality.  Maybe she or he never set out to be faithful in a relationship, partnership, or marriage; maybe those were values superimposed on the person by outsiders who had a vision of how she or he should conduct personal life.  I am only responsible for the moral principles I willingly embrace whether I speak them to anyone other than myself or not.  I am not responsible for behaving the way others think I should behave, and, let me tell you, practically everyone in the western world even if they have nothing to do with clergypeople or with religious institutions still have a clearcut image of how a minister should behave–at church, at home, and even on an excursion to the moon.
I believe that as a clergyperson I should conduct myself in a respectable manner as often as I can; it should certainly be the norm.  Chances are, though, my decorum isn’t always well decorated, and if my spouse should run outside in the middle of the night to bang the class out of my vehicle while screaming at me–therefore bringing the police and the press into the episode–chances are pretty good that I might not look so good in the news articles that are written up about the incident.
I should not be the town drunk.  I should not have long hair–no wait!  Strike that from the record.  I should not be involved in an affair with someone who has made a monogamous commitment to another person.  I should not be involved in any kind of intimate relationship with anyone associated in any way with my congregation just as a physician should not be involved in that manner with any of her or his patients; that kind of connection for me should be reserved for a Unitarian or maybe a Quaker.  These are matters of morality for me (well, except for the Unitarian or Quaker thing), just for me; not necessarily for anyone else.  I made these choices.  No one made them for me.  We must never forget that taste, style, manners, and preference are not matters of morality at all.

II.
Some psychiatrist, who gave the impression of being psychotic, was on a tirade in a blog the other day in defense of Newt Gingrich after one of his ex-wives told the press that before asking for a divorce he had asked her to join him in making their marriage an “open relationship.”  The point the psychiatrist was making (sounding very much like a paid political announcer) was that just because Newt had been unfaithful to two wives that we know of there is no proof that he would be unfaithful to the United States of America, and while I’d rather go to self-absorbed Dr. Phil for treatment than Newt’s psychiatrist friend, I agree fully with his central concern.  More than a few exemplary presidents of this country have been, from what has been passed around through high class journalism, rotten as husbands and inept as parents.  So, Newt, I wish you as much luck as I’m wishing anyone on either side at this point.
By the way, I’ve told some of you before that I hold the distinction of having served as pastor of the church with which Newt affiliated when he first re-embraced the Christian faith as an adult, St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans.  Of course, this momentous event occurred long before I arrived in New Orleans and goes all the way back to the when he was a grad student at Tulane working on his Master’s and his Ph.D.  He earned his doctorate in history and titled his dissertation “Belgian Education Policy in the Congo: 1945-1960.”
Though Dr. Gingrich had been raised as a Lutheran, he and many others found something new and freeing and refreshing in the preaching of my predecessor there, Dr. G. Avery Lee.  Avery is now deceased, but as Newt became increasingly well known Avery, who remained a member of the church after his retirement and a brief reprieve to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, used to love to talk about Newt’s baptism by immersion, which he, Avery Lee, performed.  Avery in his wry way, pipe in hand, would typically conclude a retelling of how Newt came to be baptized by saying, “I should have held him under a while longer!”
There are two major efforts chronicled in Judeo-Christian scripture to whittle the massive number of ancient Hebrew religious rules and laws down to a handleable few.  The first of the two was the work of the Prophet Micah, and the second one was Jesus’ effort.  We will not have time to deal with Jesus’ take on this issue today, but let me give you a tip as to both.  They help us focus, but their reductions are deceptively simple.  Micah reduces the law load down to three.  Jesus reduces it down to two.  Surely it’s easier to keep up with three or two than a couple of hundred.  It depends on what works best for you, but not necessarily at all.
Here is Micah’s effort, and this is truly one of the most pivotal passages in the Bible, First and Second Testaments combined:

“‘With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before God with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’” God has made known to you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

I didn’t say the reduction of numbers of rules meant it would be easier; to the contrary, I gave you a huge hint that that would not be the case at all.
Be a just person; don’t just talk justice.  Be just enough to DO justice.  Don’t be a kind person because it seems proper or expected; be kind because you love opportunities to live out kindness that most likely can never be reciprocated.  In terms of standing, sitting, or walking in the presence of God, forget about it.  I learned by reading the work of Dr. John Holbert that the word translated “humbly” here is better translated “attentively.”  If we are walking attentively with God, we are seeing more readily those who need our help experiencing justice and who need our acts of kindness to help them get by, maybe to help them survive.  That’s all there is to it.
If only living in this manner were so easy, but it’s not; and accomplishing any of these can’t mean that we work for justice now and then, that we’ll certainly show some kindness here and there, that we’ll give up seeing ourselves as the center of the universe periodically.  Micah was speaking of three lifestyle qualities.  These are not descriptions of scattered behaviors; they are descriptions of how some people live hour by hour.  They are true standards of morality to be embraced, worth being embraced–even though, I stress again, until you claim them as your personal standards of morality, they aren’t.
So Micah is all caught up with hoards of Hebrews who believe that the one and only way they can be in good with God is by keeping a backbreaking collection of rules that had nothing whatsoever to do with God.  What to do and what not to do on the sabbath, and I assure you the Super Bowl was OFF the list!  What to do with rebellious children who make it their life goal for time to drive their parents to distraction.  Most significantly, which foods to place in a bowl with other foods.  The perceptive prophet began to preach one day, and he began to make a little fun of the patterns he and his fellow Hebrews had fallen into regarding their religious lives–you know, the kind of humor with a point behind it.
Let me paraphrase if I can.
“So just how worried is God about our worship posture?  Does God really have a preference as to whether we stand or sit or bow down before an altar that has been erected in honor of God?  Do you really think that’s what God is noticing?  OK.  OK.  So maybe God’s not concerned about our prayer position, but surely God IS concerned about what we bring as an appeasement offering.  There are stories about our ancestors offering the wrong sacrifices and, thereby, irking God to the nth degree.  Is God going to be tickled pink watching us slit throats and burn the blood of a barnyard full of year old calves, throwing their carcasses aside for trash?  Is God going to be jumping for joy and sending us all kinds of gifts if we change animals and up the ante to, say, a thousand–a thousand rams.  Wow!  That should get protection for our families for years to come!  Farmers, planters, who have no animals to sacrifice could get together all over the land and burn ten thousand rivers of oil and amaze God with their burning sacrifice that never seems to get extinguished.  Oh wait!  Do we really want to blow God’s mind?  Let’s all keep the human sacrifice going by bringing our firstborn sons to sacrifice like we sacrifice our livestock.  We’ll slit their throats and catch the blood in a basin to burn at God’s altar and then toss the corpses of the fruit of our bodies into mass graves.  Tragically, my sisters and brothers,” he preached, “this is what it’s come to because we don’t want to be bothered with what really matters:  justice and kindness in relationship to humanity and humility in relationship to God.  We have come to a pathetic place, sisters and brothers, a seriously pathetic place when we’d rather kill our children than to work toward for those we don’t think deserve justice.  We’d rather burn up the food supply for a few years than to show kindness to those whom we despise.  We’d be fine walking attentively with God if God would just leave us alone in the religion department and let us do it the way we’ve devised it.”

III.
God doesn’t give a holy rip whether we sit or recline in worship, and regardless of those old stories, God is not concerned with sacrifices we bring to worship no matter how grand we think they are.  These are what God wants as sacrifices from us, which become strong standards of morality if we dare to make them our own.  Doing justice means doing what justice requires, and that, most simply put, means bringing fairness to those who are being denied fairness.  Is it right for some people to have enough animals to slaughter just to catch some blood in a basin and have everything left trashed while people are literally starving to death all around them?  Uh, no.
According to Micah, God is much more pleased with meat eaters who instead of destroying a food source at the altar take some poor folks with whom they really don’t want to be associated a couple of roast beef sandwiches and make that their sacrifice.  Instead of sitting around whining about what God might want us to do, we take the teachings we already have, and we get out there and demonstrate to those whom others have shown disdain the opposite:  lovingkindness.  That’s an emotion filled word, but it has plenty of action implied in it too.  Lovingkindness isn’t patting a beggar on the head or smiling and saying, “God bless you,” to someone huddled with a cardboard box on a freezing cold night on the streets of a big city.”  It is possible, you know, to look into a morality mirror and see absolutely nothing.
We cannot be attentive to God while being inattentive to people who are suffering and otherwise in need; even if we are politicians.  If I have pledged to myself to live out a measure of my morality seeing about those in need, to say in the words of Phillip Landgrave, “I cannot see another’s need, and I not care,” then that must become a lifestyle pattern for me, not a seasonal ritual.
If you haven’t claimed that as one of your moral principles, then you’ve done absolutely nothing immoral when you feast while someone else starves right before your eyes.  If, however, I have said that attending to such a concern is a part of the way I will live, it is therefore a part of the morality I profess to embrace; then I am living in an immoral manner when I glut up and let the hungry fend for themselves.
“Mirror, Mirror, on the wall, who’s the most moral of all?”
My dear friends, if morality matters to us at all–and I believe it does to everyone here and to everyone else in the Silverside family–then we would never be concerned about recognition and rewards for our moral standards press us to go where we must go.
We have found some gems of wisdom in A. C. Grayling’s A HUMANIST BIBLE, and though today is the last sermon in that series we will likely visit it again.  In regard to what we’re thinking about together today, let me repeat the little snippet that you heard read earlier in the Gathering.  This is a superior morality mirror:  “Each day I examine myself on three counts: whether I am loyal to those on whose behalf I act; whether I am trustworthy towards my friends; whether I practice what I teach.”
How am I doing in the morality department today?  If I have embraced these three items that the atheist Grayling lists, and I hope that I can and that you will if we haven’t already, how are we doing at living by a few significant moral standards?
The first issue to confront is loyalty.  Have I been loyal today to everyone to whom I’ve pledged loyalty?  My spouse or significant other, my kids, my aging parent who needs my time and attention but will never know how to ask for it, my siblings, my friends who have signaled a need for attention from me including the friend who is in prison, my parishioners who trust me to juggle what I juggle in such a way that I have time for them when they are suffering or burdened or afraid, my country who needs patriots much more concerned with the well-being of destitute citizens than with how the flag is flown, my pets who depend on me exclusively to see that they have food and water and medicine at the proper times.
Grayling’s second item is trustworthiness toward friends.  If I have embraced that as part of my moral fabric I have to pause for a minute and be sure that I’m doing what I promised them I’d do for and with them, that I’m carefully guarding confidences shared with me as confidences, that I will share any burden they wish to share with me if I can help lighten their load.
To finish up my checkup in my morality mirror, I need to ask myself if I have included honesty as a principle of morality by which I’m willing to live, “Have you today practiced what you teach and preach?”  That’s a tough one.  Yet, the British biologist, Thomas Huxley, said:  “The foundation of morality is to be done, once and for all, with lying.”  This is precisely where we began today.
Notice that as you and I stand before a morality mirror, our concerns are exclusively with our own behavior, not with how anyone else may be succeeding or failing.  This is a matter of self-focus.  I can only know who I am by evaluating the principles to which I’ve committed AND the degree to which I am putting them into practice.   Again, I am what I do.
A quote from Aristotle, the great rhetorician in ancient Greece who taught the credibility is the capstone of communication, will bring our deliberations to a close today:

“Moral virtues are produced in us neither by nature nor against nature. Nature, indeed, prepares in us the ground for their reception, but their complete formation is the product of habit….Moral excellence comes about as a result of habit. We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.”

Amen.

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The Joys of Pessimism (Twelfth in Series: Sermons from A HUMANIST BIBLE)

I.
How would you know you’d come upon a pessimist?  What are the tell tale signs that the person with whom you’re communicating is a bone fide pessimist?  Well, there are many kinds of pessimists in regard to look and attitude.  What they have in common is that in at least one area of life and thought, maybe more of course, they live in a worst-case-scenario world.  Our English word “pessimist” comes from a Latin word pessimus, meaning “worst.”
Philosophical pessimism concentrates on ample proofs that this world is the worst it can possibly be.  Voltaire had his charming and beloved character, Candide, caught between philosophical pessimism and a kind of opposing blind optimism whose mouthpiece in the novella carrying Candide’s name was one Dr. Pangloss.  We know that Pangloss tended to live by a way of thinking not grounded in reality.  He said in every horrific situation, “Fret not.  This is the best of all possible worlds.”  Those words were uttered in real life by a mathematician and philosopher, Leibnitz.  In real life, Voltaire detested people who thought as Leibnitz did.  The author, Voltaire, thought that those who bought into a “This is the best of all possible worlds” mentality would no nothing to make the world a better place and, furthermore, as many of them demonstrated in response to the Lisbon Tsunami of their day there was little sympathy for victims because things like that happen in this world.  We can’t make them stop so even tragedies are parts of proofs of our best possible world.  There are plenty of people in our world today who believe this very thing.
As you know, or as you could well guess, many who held to this point of view were theists who saw God as somehow calling the shots, even the shots that brought unspeakable physical and emotional pain and needless death.  Voltaire kept asking, “Regardless of what you believe about how or why this event happened, can you squeeze a little sympathy out of that hard and pessimistic heart of yours?”  Most could not.  To see a tragedy as a problem, a fault, an accident would be to question God’s will, knowing–as they saw it–God wills all things; God causes all things so even a murderous tsunami was planned by the great Weatherperson keeping an eye on earth, kinda sorta, from the heavenly throne.  Their lack of compassion had Voltaire up in arms, and he wrote a long, stirring poem, “On the Lisbon Disaster,” which happens to be a superior theological treatise.
My dear friends, this is NOT the best of all possible worlds.  Those of us who are living in this world have the responsibility of making a better world for our contemporaries and for those generations who will follow us.  Voltaire had Candide discover that while we can’t fix all the bad in the world, especially natural disasters, we can keep our energies fixed on what is positive and good wherever we can.  Voltaire had Candide learn his key lesson from a Muslim, which irked the Christian fundamentalists more than they already were with Voltaire.
Enough of that for now.  We need to return to more general pessimism that doesn’t blame God for life’s negative turns and twists and to less tragic negative events–like life’s little irritations.
Back to my opening question.  Would you know a pessimist if you saw one and/or struck up a conversation with one?  Oscar Wilde said that he knew a certain way to spot a pessimist; a pessimist is one who when given a choice of two evils chooses both of them.
One of the greatest of all humanitarians in the twentieth century was the amazing Albert Schweitzer who said:
“An optimist is a person who sees a green light everywhere, while a pessimist sees only the red stoplight… the truly wise person is colorblind.”  As far as I know, this next description of a pessimist is anonymous:  “A pessimist is one who feels bad when he feels good for fear he’ll feel worse when he feels better.”
Let’s face it. There are those of us who enjoy being pessimists and others of us who, while we like to see ourselves as optimists and have others think we are first class optimists, thoroughly the company  of a pessimist. In the latter case, maybe we wish we could be more pessimistic, but we don’t have the grit. We’ve been cursed with a Polly Anna complex, and we don’t have it in us to utter anything negative.
A pessimist can be useful, though. Think about it!  A pessimist may be the first in the crowd to be honest about how wrong things are. Others can see only the positive, or maybe some in that group can see at least a little negative; but they don’t want to name it because in many group settings, the person who names or complains, names whatever is negative and/or complains about it and who is not a pessimist, is the very person appointed to fix it, to turn the negative into a positive. That is truly no fun for a pessimist!
Well just in case you aren’t in a sufficiently pessimistic mood this morning to appreciate the sermon, let me help you out here with some words from some writers and philosophers, most of whom aren’t usually thought of as pessimists, beginning with Edna St. Vincent Millay:
“It is not true that life is one damn thing after another. It’s one damn thing over and over and over.”

We’ll say more about St. Augustine later, but for now, just a word from him.  A word from him is about all I can take at a time anyway:
“If a choice were given him between suffering death and living his early years over again who would not shudder and then choose death?”

There is a blogger named Srini Kumar. This is what he says about the American way of life:
“It has destroyed our individuality while pretending to cater to it, and the natural interdependence of society has been compromised by the media and the cubicle farms that they call workplaces.”

Edward L. Bernays:
“In almost every act of our lives whether in the sphere of politics or business in our social conduct or our ethical thinking we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.”

Someone named Kirruth, another bad boy blogger:
“Scientists in the 19th century postulated that in time, the world would be taken over by morons. My belief is that this actually happened, but we are now too stupid to realize it.”

Philosopher Bertrand Russell:
“Most people would rather die than think; in fact they do.”

Aldous Huxley:
“Maybe our world is another planet’s hell.”

II.
Some persons and/or groups are pessimistic, but not across the board; they are only pessimistic about certain complications.  For example, to be very broad based, right at this past Christmas, Gallup did surveys in fifty-one countries; that’s a little more than a fourth of all the countries in the world.  I’m sure the countries were carefully chosen by the Gallup people, and only one area of optimism or pessimism was considered; that was economic outlook.  Of course, we realize that any number of other factors are irrevocably tied to economics.
Anyway, let me rush to tell you that the most pessimistic country in the world when it comes to economic outlook is France.  The second most pessimistic country in the world when facing economics is Ireland.  Austria comes in third.  I’m trying to offer you no optimism whatsoever in this sermon, which is why Melissa has promised to bring you back from the brink with her closing organ piece, which we like to call around here, “Interlude to Inspired Living.”  Here’s a tidbit of optimism though, just for sake of comparison.  The most optimistic country in the world when it comes to economic outlook is, of all places, Nigeria, followed by South Vietnam and Ghana.  Regarding continental despair and pessimism, Europe takes the lead followed closely by the United States of America, which may have a lot to do with Paula Deen’s recent diagnosis with Type 2 Diabetes.  Continentally speaking, Africa is the most hopeful continent in the world.  I’m astounded.
Some of the most well known pessimists in history:

  1. Chicken Little.  She constantly cried out for all to hear, “The sky is falling!  The sky is falling!.”  She was the big joke in her coop.  One day, of course, the sky actually began to fall, but it was going to do that anyway; even without the constant reminders that from Chicken Little.
  2. The writer or writers of the third chapter of Genesis.  This person or these persons created a mythological account of why there is supposed animosity between God and humanity and, therefore, why God punished a disobedient humanity and keeps it up.
  3. King Saul.  King Saul moves from what appeared to be utter trust of young David in Saul’s innermost circle to absolute suspicion, hatred, and a willingness to kill him.  Once trusted, never to be trusted again.
  4. The teacher/preacher of the book of Ecclesiastes.  He found no meaning in life.  Everything was either vanity or pointlessness.
  5. The writer or writers of Psalm 90.  This writer or this writing team was one of/were some of the great champions of scaring themselves and others with vivid pictures of an enraged God who is at all times to be feared–by all people.
  6. St. Augustine.  Monsignor Cormac Burke in an article titled “Saint Augustine and Conjugal Sexuality” begins with a paragraph he plans to blow to bits.  Many of us, though, think the paragraph is on target and needs to be left as is:  “No one has ever questioned the extraordinary quality of St. Augustine’s mind. Some, however, consider that mind to have been stained by a pessimistic streak, especially with regard to sexuality; and they feel that Augustine’s subsequent influence–proportionate to the quality of his mind–has left the Church’s thought burdened, right down to our days, with a negative and defective ethic on sexuality and marriage.”  This is clearly the case.  Roman Catholicism and conservative Protestantism still suffer and will suffer for the foreseeable future from Augustine’s pessimism about inherent goodness in human beings and inherent goodness is healthy sexual expression.
  7. Nicolo Machievelli.  His harsh views of what was needed to govern human beings was based on his low view of human potential.  He believed that most people were out for themselves, regardless of cost to others whom they had to hurt or use to get what they wanted.
  8. Sigmund Freud.  Someone in a helping profession who loses her or his ability to be hopeful and optimistic should get out of the business.  I think Freud was to some degree pessimistic, certainly more than his protege, Jung.  Still, in fairness, we have to say that Freud was most concerned about what he called cultural pessimism. Cultural pessimism causes an increased risk for depression and narcissism for a broad society, and why shouldn’t it?  According to Freud the main causes are losses of religious and secular scenarios of redemption along with the conviction that history is cyclical; it repeats itself even though decay of what is in the world now is inevitable.
  9. Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.  Some historians of philosophy have said that this guy, Schopenhauer, was the most pessimistic person in human history.  Here’s a key quote from him, which gives you a very good idea about why the historians would say such a thing about dear Arthur:  “Optimism has to be condemned as not only absurd, but also as infamous thinking, indeed, as bitter mockery of the nameless sufferings of humankind.”
  10. Archie Bunker.  “The only thing that holds a marriage together is the husband being big enough to step back and see where the wife is wrong.”
  11. Donald Rumsfeld.  “Death has a tendency to encourage a depressing view of war.”
  12. Oscar the Grouch Muppet.  “Hello, this is Oscar the Grouch speaking. I can’t stand Christmas! I’m a 100% Grouch and proud of it.”
  13. The recently departed Andy Rooney.  “The most unfair thing about life is the way it ends. I mean, life is tough. It takes up a lot of your time. And then you die. What’s that? A bonus?”

III.
The so called fall of humanity in Genesis chapter 3 is classic etiological mythology–meaning the kind of mythology that tries to explain why some recurring experiences are the way they are.  This material follows the stories the editors placed just ahead of it about Eve’s and Adam’s choices to violate the singular rule of Eden–not to eat any of the fruit from the tree in the center of the Garden.  They both had violated that rule, and the ancient mythologists had used those events to explain why four unusual events take place in nature, which–presumably–did not happen that way when God initially created the earth and the skies.
I say the writer or the writers of that part of Genesis was a pessimist/were pessimists.  The ancients believed that serpents originally walked upright–proud, tall, brilliant being; the symbol for tremendous wisdom in a number of eastern cultures still today. Now the serpents had to crawl on their bellies and eat dirt on their way to finding more tasty and substantive prey.  God ordered it; that’s kind of mean on God’s part.  The serpent didn’t break the rule.  He had encouraged Eve to do so, which hadn’t been a challenging effort.  She was all too ready to chomp down on that fruit whatever the fruit happened to have been.
Add to that, pain in childbirth; originally, delivering a baby was supposed to have been pain free.  I mean, that was the talk.  No woman ever delivered a child before Eve botched things up.  So, God orders pain in childbirth for Eve and all women after her.  That doesn’t seem so nice on God’s part.  Don’t you think the punishment outweighs the crime?  I mean, how about some community service trimming Garden plants or something like that?  For men, food was no longer going to be easy pickings; they’d have to struggle to feed themselves and their families, and sometimes they’d fail.  Oh yeah, every created thing initially created to live eternally–the humans, the animals, the plants–they’d all eventually die now.
What a pessimistic view of why these natural events happen the way they do.  There you have it, though.  Just one sample of biblical pessimism.  Just one.
Hear these words from the book of Psalms, a compendium of worship materials, particularly songs and prayers along with a handful of antiphonal readings. Some are inspiring; some are depressing. Several of the depressing ones were penned by pessimists. Psalm 90 is a sample of a psalm, this one a prayer, written by one or more pessimists:

For a thousand years in your sight, O God,
are like yesterday when it is past,
or like a watch in the night.

You sweep them away; they are like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the morning;
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers.

For we are consumed by your anger;
by your wrath we are overwhelmed.
You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your countenance.
For all our days pass away under your wrath;
our years come to an end like a sigh.
The days of our life are seventy years,
or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;
even then their span is only toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.

Who considers the power of your anger?
Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due to you.

Lovely!  Grist for suicide!  If I thought that divine wrath was constantly bearing down on me, I’d fall defeated and discouraged in failure.  How pessimistic to view God as behind such emotions and  events, but it was widespread then; and it’s widespread now, even among Christians who are supposed to know what a different interpretation Jesus had of God.
Almost as lovely are the conclusions about life drawn by the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes, the Teacher and/or Preacher he should be called.  He concludes that there’s really nothing new under the sun.  There’s some fun along the way, but it’s short lived; and good fortune will not keep sadness and struggle at bay.  Trying to make life any better than it is, is pretty much chasing the wind.  There’s a time for everything, and just when you think life might be about something good, it’s opposite will strike–stun you, shock you, slam you, fill you with pain from out of nowhere.   Poetic pessimism.  I’d like to think there’s something more to my life than chasing the wind or pointlessness.
From A. C. Grayling’s, A HUMANIST BIBLE, we come to a stirring passage that doesn’t help us any more than the ancient Hebrews did:
“When…the afflictions common to humanity were upon me; then I lamented and said: We are born to suffer and die, and the days of our laughter are few in the land. Every joy we foresee has its cost in the loss that must follow, for nothing survives its hour, and the first to fade is the season of pleasantness. To love is to contract for sorrow, since one of two must depart first, and affections diminish and vanish.”
Pessimism is a big kick for too many people.  Tearing down the dreams and sandcastles of others evidently is a real hoot for those who fear optimism.  Just because a joyous or meaningful event or relationship lasts for a finite amount of time is no reason to write it off as inconsequential, worthless,  or cruel.

Friendship as Both Natural and Virtuous (Eleventh Sermon in Series: Preaching from a Humanist Bible)

 

 

I.
Today I begin by sharing with you a description of “friendship” that I am almost certain you will never forget.  As far as I know, this quote is anonymous. I think you will understand why, once I read it to you.  “Friendship is like wetting your pants. Everyone can see it, but only you feel the true warmth.”
I want to propose to you today that the word “friendship” never needs to be attended to or modified by an adjective.  A friend who is a friend does not need to be described as your true friend or your real friend. There is no such thing as a friend who is anything other than a real friend; if the person is unable to function as a real friend then she or he is no friend at all. “Acquaintance” is not a bad word, you know.  The word “friend” should only be used of a proven friend, never of a mere acquaintance.  William Blake:

“The bird a nest,
the spider a web,
the human friendship.”

I grew up hearing that a human’s best friend is a dog, and I thought about that every time I watched one of the several heart-rending episodes of “Lassie.” I am certainly a dog lover and have thought of several dogs I’ve had as best friends. This must be one of the reasons I like Wikipedia’s definition of “friendship” so much:
“Friendship is a type of interpersonal relationship that is found among humans and among animals with rich intelligence, such as the higher mammals and some birds. Cross-species friendships are common between humans and domestic animals. Less common but still of note are friendships between a non-human animal and another animal of a different species, such as a dog and cat. Individuals in a friendship relationship will generally welcome each other’s company and often exhibit mutually helping behavior.”
Limiting our considerations today to human friends, I recall the first advice I was given about friends.  This advice came from my Mother who said, “To have friends, you must show yourself friendly.”  That is certainly true; it’s good advice.  At the same time, though, most of the lasting friendships with which I’ve been gifted began rather incidentally–meaning I didn’t go out and pick someone from a crowd deciding to make him or her my friend by showing myself friendly.  Well, I did, but it backfired.  Today we call that stalking, and it may not work out so well for you or the person whom you’ve decided to make your friend.
Friends usually have mutual interests, compatible personality styles, and similar values.  This isn’t always the case, but in my experience it is even though just because two people have mutual interests, compatible personalities and similar values a friendship between the two people is not guaranteed.  There must be on the part of each a desire to be with the other person, an enjoyment of her or his company.
Indeed, there are different kinds of friends.  I noticed not so long ago that beloved Facebook had to contend with that reality.  Someone who is trying to “friend you,” meaning trying to get you to say yes to her or his request to be added to their list of friends leaves you with the responsibility of deciding just what kind of friend the person making the request is to you.  Originally, there were two possible responses to those who asked to be recognized as your Facebook friends:  yes or no.  And Facebook, as I recall, promised to help the request disappear so the person being cyber-rejected as an online friend could save face and avoid heartbreak.  Now, there’s still a basic yes and a basic no, but if you choose “yes,” you must designate where this person actually fits into your friendship hierarchy.  These are my interpretations of Facebook’s options.  At the top of the list is “Great Friend.”  In the middle is “Basic Friend” or “Just Barely a Friend.”  The final option is where you want to put those who narrowly escaped having their friendship requests denied altogether.
A Great Friend is someone whose every post and indication of whereabouts you want to read, and you want that person to have access to the same information from you.  In the case of a Basic Friend, you tell Facebook to send you about half of that person’s posts; you don’t need or want to know everything about this person, and you don’t want the Just Barely a Friend to have everything you post–just a few things here or there.  An Acquaintance gets only major life change information about you–a move, a name change, a change in relationship status, and so on.  That’s as much as you want an Acquaintance to know about you–even though that person may think of you as the best friend of all time.  This is much better than trying to do essentially the same thing with the only a telephone and a variety of ringtones, one of which you attach to the names of those in your directory to whom you are only willing to talk under very limited circumstances.
I’m thinking now of a group of “come hell or high water” friends.

“Thank you for being a friend,
Travel down the road and back again
Your heart is true;
You’re a pal and a confidant.
And if you threw a party, invited everyone you knew
You would see the biggest gift would be from me
And the card attached would say, ‘Thank you for being a friend!'”

Fictional though they were, the wonderful Golden Girls showed us week by week that friends could differ, differ strongly, even argue vigorously, and still be friends.  I think of a friend as someone who is naturally interested in my joys and in my pain, who is never judgmental, who participates in initiating, who will take time to let me talk, if I choose to verbalize anything about either good times or bad times, and–most significantly will be there for me in person–not via Skype or trauma texting, but physically–no matter what.
Bill Withers:

“Lean on me, when you’re not strong,
And I’ll be your friend;
I’ll help you carry on,
For it won’t be long,
’til I’m going to need somebody to lean on.”

Not utterly altruistic, but reciprocity ain’t bad.

 

II.
My paternal grandmother died when I was a freshman in college.  Prior to that, death had visited our family only once–when my beloved Uncle Paul died suddenly at the age of 49.  I was shaken up, and I recall that not one person I’d grown up with, gone to school with, called my friend showed up to express condolences.  A new friend did, however.  We’d only known each other a partial semester, but he drove from the college down to Knoxville, a thirtysomething mile trip, just to stand in line, when it came his turn to greet me to shake my hand, say, “I’m sorry for your loss, David,” and then to give me a quick hug.  That meant the world to me, truly comforted me, and warmed my heart because I’d experienced in his gesture, in his presence true friendship.  He graduated from our college a year later, and, sad to say, I haven’t seen him since.
I did find him by phone a few years after my graduation.  I discovered that he was living in Texas, trying to make a living as a pianist.  Things weren’t going so well even though he was a magnificent pianist and even though he changed the pronunciation of his last name from East Tennessee “LUT-trul” (actual spelling, “Luttrell”) to “Lu-TREll.”
He wasn’t particularly thrilled that I’d called, though he was polite enough.  He gave me the highlights of what he’d been doing since graduation; I did the same.  I gave him my phone number; this was before email.  He never called me, and I never used his number again either.
Too bad we can’t say, and know it to be true, “Once a friend, always a friend.”  There are few, so very few, “forever friends.”
There are two stories about how David became a part of King Saul’s staff.  One, King Saul was in the market for a court harpist, and to the surprise of all Saul’s emissaries the perfect candidate came from among some shepherds who weren’t the kind of people you’d normally go to if you were looking for someone to serve the king close up and personal.  Still, David was summoned to the palace and interviewed by King Saul.  David was well spoken and smart, and he made all the other harpists who’d been vetted for the job pale in comparison during the audition part of the interview.  The King was on board all the way.
The other story has King Saul very interested in David’s courage and fighting skills.  He had seen David slay the giant Philistine, Goliath, and he wanted him placed in a leadership position with his, Saul’s, military.  I said earlier that most lasting friendships I know anything about were built over time, but truly there is the rare friendship at first sight just as there surely is love at first sight.
David came to Saul, and Saul pretty much told him that he was being hired for a military job, and it was a job to which he couldn’t say, “No.”  Literally, David couldn’t say, “No.”  Saul ordered him to take the position, and David had no choice but to do so.  After getting his orders, David turned to leave Saul’s throne room, and he ran into Prince Jonathan, heir apparent to Israel’s throne.  Immediately, somehow, they knew that they’d be forever friends.  The writer of the book of First Samuel fills in a few, just a few, of the details of how this lasting friendship began.

“…the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul….Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul.”

Powerful and nearly beyond comprehension, but the friendship proved to be exactly what it seemed from its beginning.
Most people who hear the first part of the amazing story of Ruth and Naomi love the story, though that might not be the case if they ever bothered to read the rest of the story.  The first part is stirring nonetheless.  Ruth had been Naomi’s daughter-in-law, but Ruth’s husband died as had all other males in Naomi’s life except for maybe for a few in another country.  The younger woman had become a devoted friend to her bereaved mother-in-law, and Naomi was just as devoted to the friendship.  One day, however, Naomi told Ruth that it wasn’t her responsibility to give up her own life and a potentially productive future taking care of an old woman who was once her mother-in-law.  Ruth said, “Your age is immaterial to me as is the fact that at one time we were connected only by our relationship to your son whom we have now lost.”
Naomi said, “I appreciate that, but I won’t stand for it.  You need to get out of here and go to a place where you can meet a nice young man.  You need to marry again and build your own family the way you’d intended to do when you married my son, Mahlon.  When Ruth responded, Naomi knew she had lost this argument so she never said anything else about it.

“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!”

So beautiful.  You can hear it hundreds of times and still find yourself at the point of tears, witnessing the power of friendship.
There’s another May/December friendship talked about in the stories the ancient Hebrews told and passed along to their children and grandchildren.  This story involves the greatest of the ancient Hebrew prophets, Elijah, and his protege, Elisha.
Elijah is at the end of his earthly life, and he knows it.  Everyone seems to know it.

“Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal.  Elijah said to Elisha, ‘Stay here….’  But Elisha said, ‘As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.’ So they went down to Bethel.  The company of prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha and said to him, ‘Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?’ And he said, ‘Yes, I know; keep silent.’  Elijah said to him, ‘Elisha, stay here….’  But he said, ‘As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.’  Then Elijah said to him, ‘Stay here….’  But he said, ‘As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.’  Elijah said to Elisha, ‘Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.’ Elisha said, ‘Please let me inherit a double portion of your spirit.’”

Not money.  Not prestige or power, but more of the spirit of his friend, Elijah’s, intertwined permanently to his, Elisha’s.  If I am your friend, I will stay with you to the end.

III.
Jesus heightens the stakes, “Greater love has no person than this, to lay down her life for her friends, to lay down his life for his friends.”  I’m sure in combat situations there are innumerable accounts of one soldier taking a bullet or a grenade knowing full well that she or he will die, but in the process save the lives of others in the unit.  Serving together and under such dire circumstances, they have inevitably become friends.
Six years ago, there was an extraordinary act of courage on a battlefield in Iraq.  The story has floated to the top of the stack again because an unspeakably courageous soldier was under awarded.  He is deceased and didn’t do what he did for his friends for any kind of recognition; his family, however, given his remarkable sacrifice wants him to get the highest of all awards for combat courage.
I’m paraphrasing a story from military.com news.  A roadside bomb detonated ripping through the fuel tank of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, which ignited like a blowtorch. The seven men in the vehicle were knocked unconscious and had no chance to escape the fire.  But the gunner, Sgt.1st Class Alwyn Cashe (pictured at the top of the post), somehow crawled out of the metallic fireball. Though wounded himself and drenched with flammable diesel fuel, he pulled the vehicle’s driver out of his seat before the flames got to him.  Cashe dragged the driver to safety.  Then he went back.
Cashe was a 16-year Army veteran.  He was not a novice in any way.  Still his own uniform caught fire as he desperately tried to open the Bradley Vehicle’s hatch.  By the time he got in, all he had on was his body armor and helmet; the rest of his uniform was in ashes or had seared to his skin. With help, he carried one of the dying men out of the fire and back to overwhelmed medics.   And then Cashe went back again.
He moved another friend to safety.  And he went back yet another time.  There was nothing more he could do this time, though.  Sgt. Cashe was the last of those injured in that fiery attack to be evacuated from the scene; he insisted on walking off the battle field in his own strength without any help from anyone.  Rushed to a military hospital, doctors said he was suffering from second and third degree burns over 90 percent of his body.
Cashe spent the next three weeks at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio trying to recover as most of his men died one by one in adjoining rooms. Of the seven he helped evacuate, five could not survive the burns.  After the destinies of the seven men, his friends, were set, Sgt. Cashe himself died.
Les Miserables, the musical:

“At the shrine of friendship,
Never say die.
Let the wine of friendship
Never run dry.”

If you were to take up a research project on how many lasting friends the typical American thinks she or he has, the largest number you’d likely find is 5.  Most people say two or three, and some few say if you have one lasting friend in life you are wealthy.  Don’t let that come across as bleak to you because when you think about how any relationship of significance requires time to nurture and develop you realize that there isn’t unlimited time most people have to do that.
Some would-be friendships in which we’ve invested eventually show us that they aren’t good for us, but rather are bad for us.  Susan Barash calls “bad friends” toxic friends, and she says they need to be gotten rid of as soon as possible.  This has nothing to do with being judgmental; it does, though, have to do with an honest, healthy, assessment of the relationship, and toxicity you don’t need.  Jesus himself is credited with saying, “Don’t cast your pearls before swine.”  This little parabolic saying can be applied in a number of ways, and I think we’re using it here in a legitimate way.
Barash says there are eight reasons to end a connection you thought was a friendship.  Any one of these should compel you to disengage from the person with whom you honestly thought you were building a friendship.
1) If your so-called friend is jealous of another person who is important in your life or jealous of any of your accomplishments, buh-bye.  Warning sign.  It can only get worse from there.

2) If your so-called friend is someone else’s doormat, she or he may have chosen you as the rescuer.  You are being used.  Get out the back, Jack, and keep yourself free!

3) Oops, you’ve fallen into the habit of using her or him in return.  The future is no brighter.

4) Something of great significance happened for you, and your so-called friend was no where around to help you celebrate or to comfort you if the event were a sad one.

5) One day you awaken to face the truth.  This would-be friend is ultra needy, and she or he is draining you.

6) You discover that you don’t share nearly as many significant values as you thought you did.  In time, she or he is violating your standards.

7) Not that it’s all about you, but, honestly, you’re getting nothing out of the relationship–nothing healthy, that is.

8) Your so-called friend is hurting someone else and/or is involved in something illicit.  Count yourself an accessory.
Still, healthy friendship is vitally important to most people.  It potentially enhances their health and their enjoyment of life.
Hear this excerpt from the Book of Concord in A HUMANIST BIBLE:

Concord 8:3-5
…the clear indication of virtue, to which a mind of like character is naturally attracted, is the beginning of friendship. When that is the case, the rise of affection is a necessity. For what can be more irrational than to take delight in objects incapable of response?

Grayling, the compiler of A HUMANIST BIBLE, says, then, that friendship doesn’t grow because of mutual interests or similar values; at most, that’s a start.  He says a friendship takes off when people with common interests and values have genuine affection for each other and understand the necessity of reciprocity.  One-sided friendships don’t work any better than one-sided marriages.

Pursuing healthy friendships, though, is virtuous.  It’s also natural for most personality types; hermits, not so much.
Amen.

How Quickly an Enemy (Tenth in Sermon Series: Preaching from A HUMANIST BIBLE)

And%20the%20Walls%20Came%20Tumbling%20Down

I.
I can still remember how surprised and uncomfortable I was when I heard that the man I, like most people I knew, took to have been the closest friend of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had published a book that, among other things, criticized the leadership and motivation of Dr. King. The Reverend Ralph David Abernathy had gone on in his book to accuse the late Dr. King of a series sexual indiscretions. Why would Abernathy have done something so hurtful to the memory of his friend and so hurtful to Mrs. King and her children who had to live with Abernathy’s gutter images of their husband and father even if what the author claimed to be true was, in fact, true?  And why, if what Abernathy had to say was of such critical importance, did he wait so long to publish it?  The short answer, as I see it, is that Abernathy wanted greater fame and a heftier bank account, and he was willing to become an enemy of the late, great civil rights leader, the one with whom he had once said he would be willing to die for the worthy cause to which they both had given themselves, for a chance at notoriety and cash. How quickly an enemy!
Admittedly the book, titled And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, did not utilize a great deal of space demeaning Rev. King. In fact, the words some said were intended to humiliate the martyred civil rights prophet took up only a few pages; however, what Abernathy wrote on those pages was very incriminating, morally speaking. To be blunt, King’s “dear friend,” Abernathy, said that Dr. King had had long-term liaisons with two women, and he had had a heated argument over the telephone the night before he was killed with a third woman, presumably a potential number three.
The press was quick to ask Rev. Abernathy the same questions I just raised  Why? Why run the risk of hurting the King family? And why wait so late in the game to make these accusations if they were true?  How quickly an enemy!
Does anybody remember “The Today Show” when Matt Lauer was not the lead host?  Does anyone who does remember that “before time” recall who was in the role that Lauer assumed immediately before he got the job?  Well, the correct answer is Bryant Gumbel, and Bryant Gumbel, a fellow African American, interviewed Rev. Ralph David Abernathy about his book when it was a hot press item. He put Abernathy on the hot seat and turned the interview from a planned ten minute conversation into a twenty minute interrogation of sorts. “Why did you do it,” Gumbel questioned Abernathy, “when you knew what you would reveal would give great comfort to those who would like to demean Rev. King?  Why do something so clearly contrary to King’s wishes?”
This was Abernathy’s reply. “I wanted to show that Martin Luther King was simply a human being, not a god, not a saint.  I wanted to tell the truth, nothing but the truth, so help me God.” Jane Pauley, Gumbel’s cohost on “The Today Show,” told media people around her that Gumbel believed Abernathy’s explanation, and for him his interview responses put the matter to rest. That was not the case, however, with large numbers of people who remained incensed that Abernathy would use his affiliation with Dr. King and the civil rights movement to better himself through trash talk about the face, the voice, and the soul of the movement.
Rev. Abernathy took up the leadership the Southern Christian leadership conference after the tragic death of Martin Luther King Jr. And it was Abernathy who became the motivation for mobilizing those who thought their hopes died with Dr. King to pull themselves together for the March on Washington planned for May of 1968, undoubtedly, a follow-up to the March on Washington during which Dr. King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, the speech that historians of American oratory have consistently called the greatest speech delivered in the twentieth century.  By then Abernathy was no longer in the shadow of Dr. King. The spotlight was his. I’m just saying….
King was no longer around by this time to defend himself, and I don’t know that any of the women in alleged intimate contact with this great man ever came forward to collect some cash and get their pictures in the papers for a while those in Bill Clinton’s bevy did.  To my way of thinking, Abernathy had nothing altruistic in mind whatsoever and didn’t care that history be correctly written as he claimed the information he had could do.  I think he symbolically stomped on and spat on King’s grave, as I’ve said, to get back into the public eye and maybe recast himself as having had more of key role in the great American Civil Rights Movement than he really did and sharing juicy tidbits of gossip only he could have known, as Bryant Gumbel said to him, that would diminish Dr. King.  Then, I also wonder if Abernathy would have had the guts to bring out the book had Dr. King lived on.  Oh well, the Eskimo proverb comes to mind, “You never really know your friends from your enemies until the ice breaks”
Mark Twain said, “It takes your enemy and your friend, working together, to hurt you to the heart; the one to slander you and the other to get the news to you.”  I’m not sure that in every case a friend should carry hurtful news to a friend who has had something unkind said about her or him or whose significant other is cheating.  I would not want to carry hurtful news to any friend of mine if I could help it at all; she or he more than likely doesn’t need to know what kinds of ugly remarks others have made about her or him.  Unless it gets so bad that the friend is going to find out from someone who will pass along the news without compassion, then a friend has to step up to the plate and spill the beans, “You and I are the only two people in the world who don’t think you’re an idiot.”  How many times has that statement been made in the White House across many administrations?!?
I think my job as a friend in case of hanky panky that I know about but about which my friend doesn’t seem to know is to go directly to my friend’s significant other and say something like, “I’m not going to let you hurt her; she doesn’t deserve the likes of you, but she loves you.  I want you to carefully absorb what I’m about to say.  If you don’t re-monogomize yourself, I will, as painful as it will be for her and for me, tell my friend what you’ve been up to, and you’ll likely lose the best thing that ever happened to you.  I hope you won’t leave me with that responsibility.”

II.
One of life’s great pains is to find out that someone you’ve thought of as a friend, a dear friend even, isn’t a friend at all–far from it.  The pain pierces through a parent’s heart as well when a child comes home from school one day, having learned this horribly painful lesson.  We know as parents that as much as we’d like to say, “This will rarely happen to you again, for the rest of your life,” the truth is that it’s not really very unusual.
Back when I was growing up in Halls Crossroads, a person who wanted me to get the hint that she or he didn’t want to be my friend any more would stop being available whenever I wanted to do anything from talk on the phone to sit together at Shoney’s on Sunday night after church where all the young people gathered every week.  Then, where there had been reciprocity it became nonexistent.  These days there are so many other ways to let someone know that you no longer consider her or him a friend, and if the point is pushed you easily could be come an enemy.  No responses to text messages.  Being unfriended on Facebook.  Getting removed from the “Favorites” list on a cell phone.  Or the worst:  getting insulted on a blog that everyone in the school reads.  It’s nice that Kathy Bates is back on television regularly, and I really enjoy her show, “Harry’s Law,” in which she plays an attorney who has a penchant for taking hopeless cases–and still managing to win almost every week.  One of her cases had her representing the parents of a daughter who had taken her life when a one-time friend, at least that’s what she thought, put on a blog read by almost all the students in their school, “I’m not her friend any more because she’s a lesbian.”  We know that it shouldn’t have mattered either way, but even if it were so and had been shared in confidence that kind of accusation didn’t belong on a blog.  How quickly an enemy.
In a church I once served as senior minister, two of my associate ministers–one right after the other more or less–decided my job should be theirs.  To complicate things, I didn’t agree with them, and, as it turned out, neither did the church as a whole.  Now, I thought of both of these folks as the dearest of friends, close friends, trusted friends, some of the rare few with whom I could share confidences.
This was in a city far far away, a place to which most of you have never traveled and never will be able to travel, but I remember it as if it were just down the street.  The first of the two was a retired military man.  His energy and organizational skills were impressive, and I knew that anything I asked him to do or anything he volunteered to do would be done well and on time.  He had no pastoral experience and little preaching experience even though he was older than I.  I didn’t know my job looked so easy, but he believed that he could and should have my job; and his theological underpinnings brought God into the picture.  Can you believe it?  According to him as word circulated around on his grapevine, it was God’s will that I should be tossed and that he should be canonized as pastor of the church.
For the longest time, I knew nothing of his plans; he was slowly, secretly trying to build a movement large enough to oust me.  I do remember thinking one day that he was getting too nice and too eager to please and comply.  When I’d ask him to take the lead in managing a project, he’d virtually salute me and nearly burst his ankles clicking his heels together.  When I finally caught on in a not so subtle way, he was trying to line up a no-confidence vote.  The deacons who made such choices at this choice allowed voting for me to stay or leave to put be on a business meeting agenda; thankfully, in most churches by now such brutish and often humiliating tactics are not permitted.  I think seven people out of a hundred and something voting, voted for me to leave.  My job remained secure, and the Personnel Committee met with him within the next week and gave him the ax for insubordination and the spreading of falsehoods; or maybe they allowed him to resign to avoid termination.
I was irritated and angry with this guy, but most of all I was hurt, really hurt.  As different as we were, I trusted him and thought of him as my friend.  How quickly an enemy.
Early in Jesus’ ministry, when he felt that his disciples were ready to head out and do some work on their own without his being present, he described various positive and negative situations they might encounter while trying to share the good news of God’s love with strangers.  The advice Jesus gave them on how to determine who is really interested in what they’re saying and, in contrast, who will be tossing them out of their homes in mid-sentence applies in a sense to knowing the difference between enemies and friends.
Sometimes, we know that someone is an enemy the first time we meet them; there are people who have hated my guts, in churches too, the first time they saw me, and that view never changed.  Conversely, thankfully, there are those who saw me as friendship material from the first handshake on, and they have remained my friends from then on, until this very moment in time.
Most of the time, though, enemies or friends develop over time; it could go either way, or it could be one way for a while and then quickly change to the other way.
Jesus told his disciples that when they didn’t know whether the people to whom they talked would end up on the “friend” list or the “enemy” list to “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
On the one hand, I can’t be gullible and live imagining that everyone I know or meet is going to be my friend.  On the other hand, though, there’s something of a risk I have to take to allow for the possibility of friendship; I have to become vulnerable.  I have to be open about my willingness to share friendship even if the response from the other person hurts me because she or he chooses to be my enemy rather than my friend.
I still don’t think that’s as hard as seeing someone as your friend for a while, maybe even for years, and then suddenly she or he is an enemy.  In reality, that transition probably didn’t happen suddenly at all; it was probably working in that new direction for some time, but our knowledge of it still may be sudden and shocking.  It can jolt us emotionally to discover from our point of view that someone whom we thought of this morning as a friend is an enemy.  How quickly and how crushing an enemy.

III.
At least it’s easy to know what to do once we know where we stand, right?  Well, not necessarily, and Jesus doesn’t help us out in terms of how we believe an enemy is to be treated in this world.  What he describes is something he managed, but we don’t see outselves as up to Jesus’ standards though he clearly thought his followers could do everything he did and more; so, he preached in the Sermon on the Mount:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your God in heaven; for God makes God’s sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.  For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?  Be perfect, therefore, as your God is perfect.”

OK, sure.  Fine.  That takes care of it, right?  Doesn’t matter if someone is an enemy or a friend, they get the love treatment.  Again, that’s fine for Jesus, but, really, do you think I’m going to be praying for my enemies and wishing all of them well in all of their endeavors?  I mean, one of their endeavors is to do me in, in some kind of way.  How can I endorse that?
Jesus did not retaliate when an enemy did something hurtful to him.  He did get aggressive verbally, and in one case physically, with those who were enemies to others, those who were hurting others–namely, the ultra religious who had made themselves enemies to all who didn’t measure up to their self-standards.   The experience was reversed in Jesus’ experience.  Indeed, he never suddenly became someone’s enemy and turned on that person, but that happened to him on a number of occasions–most notably with his disciple, Peter, the one who’d proclaimed his love and devotion for Jesus more loudly and more widely than any of the others.  Still when Jesus was taken into custody by the Romans for probable execution, who was the first to say, “I have no idea who that man is.  I’ve never seen him before in my life”?  It was Peter.
Some might want to say that Judas suddenly became the enemy of his rabbi, but that isn’t the case.  Judas was never an enemy of Jesus and never ashamed that he was connected to the Jesus Movement.  Judas was terribly confused, and what he did made it a little easier for the Romans to get Jesus’ pretense of a trial underway; but Judas kissed Jesus in the seeing of a group of soldiers working for the handful of Jewish higherups who detested Jesus.  Never imagine that it was a hoard of Jews who disliked Jesus and wanted him dead; it was a very few.  Most Jews in Jesus’ day had no idea who he was, never heard of him.  This is why Judas had to kiss Jesus in the presence of the small group of soldiers in service to the Jewish high priest; presumably those soldiers also were Jews, and none of them knew who Jesus was.  The higherups and their spies knew who he was, but the rank and file Jew did not.  Judas gets Jesus to the Jewish high priest who, then, gets him into the hands of the Romans.  Judas thought if he could get Jesus cornered by the right people, he’d come out swinging and become the militaristic messiah most of the Jews who actually looked for a messiah, of which Judas was one, expected and wanted.  Judas, though, was not Jesus’ enemy.  He was in no way ashamed of Jesus or ashamed to be associated with Jesus. He believed in Jesus’ potential more than any of the others who claimed to be his faithful followers.  He’d have stood with Jesus to the end had he, Judas, not become so overwhelmed at the magnitude of his failure as friend and follower of Jesus that he killed himself before Calvary was in clear view.
In President Kennedy’s inaugural addresses he said:

“Now the trumpet summons us again–not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are–but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, ‘rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation’–a struggle against the common enemies of humanity: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.”

A parable from A HUMANIST BIBLE.  A fox once lived near a leopard in a land of such plenty that the leopard always had as much as he needed to eat, as well for his wife, the leopardess, and their young; and therefore the fox felt safe. But although the fox and leopard were friends and good neighbors, the fox knew that if dearth came, and the plenty ceased, he might end as prey for the leopard himself; for hunger ends friendships, and necessity brings great change.
Hunger ends friendships, and necessity brings great change–in this case, negative change.  Someone doesn’t actually have to be hungry, but the fear of hunger unless certain economic supports are in place and secure is as compelling a reason to name an enemy as the person who is literally stealing food from your family’s garden or storehouse.
Why did the Civil War eventuate, when brother became enemy of brother?  It wasn’t foundationally because of disagreements about the worth of Black Africans; rather, it was the fear of the southern plantation owners that they couldn’t operate and turn a prophet without slave labor.  One of the burning reasons many of our fellow citizens hate all immigrants is the fear that the immigrants will come in, individually and en masse, and take what we have–namely our jobs.  Thus, hunger ends friendships–and quickly.  Certainly, there are many other reasons why those who weren’t our enemies suddenly become our enemies.  Sometimes, we help them.
In Aesop’s fable, “The Eagle and the Arrow,” the moral of the story is:  The shaft of the arrow had been feathered with one of the eagle’s own plumes. We often give our enemies the means of our own destruction.  And quickly.

The Struggle to Claim Your Best Self (A New Year’s Day meditation. Ninth in Sermon Series: “Preaching from A HUMANIST BIBLE”)

 

 

I.
What is it that happens to us to make us want to be our very best selves and not merely average or, worse, our lowest, most destructive selves?  We know better these days than to say that everyone is born with the will to become her or his highest, most noble self.  We understand that too many children who have that drive get it knocked out of them by put downs or abuse, emotional and/or physical.  We also know, though, that children with every advantage and a home in which unconditional love undergirds them at every turn can rush to embrace evil and become loathsome, destructive beasts, behaving more like rabid animals than human beings.  So, there isn’t always a connection between excellent parenting and a child who reaches to be her or his best self just as there isn’t always a connection between poor parenting and a child who becomes a menace to society as an adult.
Jane Austen said, “We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.”  And existentialist Kierkegaard upset the apple cart, as usual, with his observation that there “is nothing with which every person is so afraid as getting to know how enormously much she or he is capable of doing and becoming.”  I’m pretty sure he meant, exclusively, in a good sense.
The Apostle Paul who gets plenty of bad marks for being braggadocios gets a few balancing, positive points for this gut-wrenching confession:

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.  I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.

Paul lived in a world that blamed acts of evil on evil forces–a devil, demons, unseen and indescribable malevolent beings scattered throughout the cosmos.  There was a degree to which he knew he had to accept responsbility for the decisions he made and the actions he took based on those decisions, but there was also a sense in which he blamed evil forces for putting wrong ideas in his mind to begin with, ideas that would lead him to temptations over which he believed himself to be powerless.
I had a parishioner once who in so many ways was a delightful person; sadly, however, she was a schizophrenic, and her mental health deteriorated as she aged.  Finally, she was in psychiatric institutions more than she was out.  She believed that the voices she heard had control over her behavior and that she had no choice but to obey what these voices demanded of her.  Fortunately, the voices she heard were relatively benign though they robbed her of her sanity.  They might tell her to steal a bag of potato chips, to phone someone who’d demanded that she not call her or him, or to chew someone out, maybe not the best of choices of people to chew out; it didn’t matter though.  If the voices commanded it, she believed she had to do it.  When I left the city where she was institutionalized, my heart was torn.  She was begging for a change of rooms at her treatment facility because she was absolutely convinced that she had been able to pinpoint the locale of the voices she heard; they were in the radiator and the radiator pipes where she had to face them every time she tried to take a nap or get a decent night’s sleep.  The staff was not very sympathetic to her request, which I found ludicrous, and when I spoke to her charge nurse on her behalf, the nurse seemed to be thinking about me, “Crazy preacher,” and pondering restraints so I left quickly and decided that I’d make my concerns known through a telephone henceforth.
Some mental health professionals have read Paul’s words here with intense interest, and some have concluded that Paul was himself schizophrenic.  He did have at least one major personality shift about which we know, but it was a change from being a zealously destructive person to those who questioned his religious views to becoming a person who left the bad behind and to the best of his ability invested the remainder of his life doing good as he understood it for as many people as he could.  Something happened to cause the abrupt aboutface, and though it didn’t free him totally from temptations to do his worst he fairly consistently stuck to the good.  Could it have been an encounter with the divine?

 

II.
One of my several favorite stories from Hebrew scripture is the tale that is before us today, Jacob’s infamous wrestling match.  No matter what we or the finest of scholars do with this account, it remains shrouded, to some degree, in mystery.  That is part of what gives it a sense of authenticity; when details get too specific in the realm of spirituality something, somewhere is inauthentic.  As is true of Jesus’ parables, we may learn something solid and still be left with questions about the full ramifications of what he intended to get across.  So also, with ancient Hebrew lore that tells us a story with numerous details we can understand but that leaves us still asking questions as we, scratching our heads, try to walk away from the narrative.
Jacob, by the way, isn’t just any old ancient Hebrew.  He has a serious pedigree.  His grandfather was Abraham, the founder, for lack of a better word, of Hebrew monotheism.  Impressive huh?  His father was Abraham’s beloved son, Isaac, conceived by his wife, Sarah, when they were old and beyond the help of fertility physicians–or so they thought.  Jacob’s uncle, then, was Ishmael, and Jacob’s brother was Esau.  Jacob and Esau were twins, though they weren’t a thing in the world alike.  Esau had been born first, making him heir to the greatest portion of his father’s, Isaac’s, holdings at the time of Isaac’s death.  Jacob would get a stash too, but not as much as Esau would inherit by right of birth.
He was sneaky, and he was a survivor.  The midwives who delivered him noticed that as the boys exited their mother’s womb, Jacob was holding onto one of Esau’s feet–obviously, to make sure he wouldn’t be left behind in the womb.  As you know, names in that culture typically described a dominant trait a child was thought to possess; in other instances, a parent might give a child a name that proclaimed a message such as “Emmanuel,” which means God is with us.  As I’ve often said, parents didn’t rush to name their children; they wanted a sense of who the child was before they did.  In Jacob’s case, though, there was little waiting.  In the birth process, he somehow sensed, so the story went, that he should grab his brother’s foot to ensure that he got out of where he was.  His parents, Isaac and Rebecca, named him Jacob, Yacob, meaning “you cute little user or trickster you.”  These traits weren’t nearly so cute when Jacob became an adult.
Now, a person was not stuck for life with her or his birth name.  If some momentous event took place, say a powerful experience of spiritual renewal, a person might change the birth name to reflect more accurately who she or he would be moving forward, based on the life-altering experience.  Jacob’s name would be changed to Israel, and in a sense–to get back to the pedigree thing–he would be the father of the nation as he would be the father of the leader of each of the twelve tribes of Israel.  The name “Israel” means, so you can keep it in mind is, God rules or God shines.  This is not a confession of faith that Jacob could have made for himself before the story that teases and teaches us today.
Jacob had tricked–remember his name–his brother into granting his little brother, Jacob, his birthright.  Then Jacob tricked their blind old father into thinking he, Jacob, was Esau, and not being able to see to confirm otherwise, father Isaac spoke the words of blessing to Jacob, words supposedly reserved only for a first-born son.  Words were believed to have more power than most of us accord them today; thus, when he discovered the truth, heart-sick Isaac could not take back what he had spoken.  Words, once released, could never be recalled.  Esau, big-strong Esau, was irate, and that put Jacob on the run for years.
There was absolutely no contact between the two brothers because Jacob feared that if Esau ever found him, he’d kill him on the spot; Jacob knew that no one would blame Esau.  I can’t imagine being estranged from my brother, even if he stole, which he would not from anyone, but Esau and Jacob didn’t even exchange Happy Circumcision stones, remembering that joyous day for their parents when not one, but two foreskins were chopped off with a make-shift ax.  No matter how far apart they grew emotionally or moved geographically, their birth and their Grandfather Abraham’s magnificent circumcision ritual now required for all Hebrew males they’d always share in common.

III.
At least in part because he feared his brother’s, Esau’s, retributive wrath, Jacob was rarely if ever alone.  He had the funds to keep a few servants around who were, in effect, body guards.  The story on which we focus today, though, finds Jacob not just alone, but alone in the wilderness.  He’d been accused of being willing to keep his own family between himself and Esau if Esau showed up on the attack.  Now the family was elsewhere, and Jacob was truly alone.
A desert sky with no moon, Jacob was in the deepest darkness he could possibly have been in, and in that darkness–or was he just dreaming–someone who could see him came up and grabbed him in an antagonistic way, as if to do harm to him.  What ensued was a wrestling match.
One of the gifted communal storytellers told the story over and over again, and her or his way of telling the tale is how it came to be written.  Listen again to the core of the powerful narrative:

…a man wrestled with Jacob until daybreak.  When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.  Then the man said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”  So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.”  Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”  Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But the man said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him.  So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”  The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

The storyteller tells us clearly that Jacob’s opponent was “a man.”  For reasons to which we are not privy, Jacob came to believe as they wrestled through the night–and physical exertion definitely was not Jacob’s thing–that he was wrestling with God Godself.  Presumably, this is why he asked for a blessing–not that humans were believed incapable of blessing.  Jacob asked for the man’s name; the man refused to give a name, which is what God did.  God did not give out God’s name.  The man knew his wrestling moves, and before he gave the requested blessing, he did something to create a painful injury to Jacob’s hip.  That was the thing.  Jacob could have written the whole incident up to a dream, a very powerful and meaningful dream, except that when he got up at dawn to get out of there, his hip was hurting for real.  He limped the rest of the day and maybe for the rest of his life.
The widely held belief among Hebrews in Jacob’s day was that a human couldn’t see the face of God and live, but Jacob believed that he had wrestled with God, had spoken to God, had been injured by God, had been blessed and renamed by God, and that in the shadowy dawn had caught a glimpse of God’s face.  He was alive to tell about it.
The ultimate interpretation of the story is up to you, but in which ever way you go with your interpretation the story, completely by accident, is tailor-made for New Year’s Day.  Whatever else the story means to you, it’s about change.  It’s about leaving the bad behind and embracing the good for the rest of your days on this earth.
Maybe the story wants us to think that Jacob had a wrestling match with a messenger from God, or maybe Jacob–and this is how I interpret the story–was wrestling with himself and found the capacity to embrace evil or the divine within himself.  I don’t believe the storyteller or many of those to whom Jacob related his experience believed that Jacob had actually fought with God or, for that matter, that God wrestles with anyone.  It could have been a dream, and that would make a lot of sense; the painful hip could have had something to do with the position in which he slept in the desert.  If any of you have any experience with aging, you know readily that such a pain is not beyond the realm of possible.  Whatever it was, it reminded him of that painful confrontation, and the irrefutable reality that no person can serve evil and good at the same time, and we can’t be on the side of good today and the side of bad tomorrow.  We choose not a grouping of individual acts–some of this, a little of that; but a way of life.
In any case, sometimes some of us become so deeply entrenched in living in ways that harm ourselves and others that it takes something painful to pry us away from that life and open ourselves to live for the good from here on out.  No, I don’t think God gives us horrible diseases or even ingrown toenails to warn us to leave our lower selves behind.  No, I don’t think God kills off our loved ones to wake us up though numerous times I’ve heard that stated at funerals.  “God took my daddy so I’d get off drugs.”  No, God did not snuff out a life to make you give up your self-destructive ways or seek treatment for your addiction illness.
You have wrestled or you will.  You may never be sure of who your adversary was.  The point will not be who wins or who loses the match.  The point will be the focus toward goodness, toward your best, that you’ll never again be able to limp away from.
Amen.