Be Happy. Practice Gratitude! (final sermon in series, “Don’t Worry. Be Happy!”–with necessary apologies to Mr. Bobby McFerrin)

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I.

Maybe for Thanksgiving this year, we could focus our active expressions of gratitude on all those people and experiences and opportunities that we’d like to have enjoyed more of, but for all sorts of reasons could not.  “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all”; that kind of thing.

I’d like to have had many more years with my Dad than I did.  Losing him when he was only 70 years old was way too soon—and quite unnecessary.  Instead of focussing on how slighted he felt in those final, fleeting hours, if he had any flashes of rationality, and how slighted I feel to have lost him at such a young age for this day and time, the more valuable emotional expression from me is to be grateful for the years we did have together and for the lasting contributions he made to my life during those years.  Understatement.

I found myself wondering this past Friday what might have happened if President Kennedy had not been assassinated and if, instead, he had lived a full life during which he might have had more time to try to make his dreams for our country—indeed, our world—come true.  Perhaps these were most clearly articulated in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September of 1961:

Terror is not a new weapon. Throughout history it has been used by those who could not prevail, either by persuasion or example. But inevitably they fail, either because [people] are not afraid to die for a life worth living, or because the terrorists themselves came to realize that free [people] cannot be frightened by threats, and that aggression would meet its own response….I come here today to look across this world of threats to a world of peace. In that search we cannot expect any final triumph—for new problems will always arise. We cannot expect that all nations will adopt like systems–for conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth. Nor can we expect to reach our goal by contrivance, by fiat or even by the wishes of all. But however close we sometimes seem to that dark and final abyss, let no  [person] of peace and freedom despair. For [that person] does not stand alone. If we all can persevere, if we can in every land and office look beyond our own shores and ambitions, then surely the age will dawn in which the strong are just and the weak secure and the peace preserved….Never have the nations of the world had so much to lose or so much to gain. Together we shall save our planet, or together we shall perish in its flames. Save it we can–and save it we must–and then shall we earn the eternal thanks of [humankind] and, as peacemakers, the eternal blessing of God.

 

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I am grateful that he rose to leadership when he did and for as long as he was able.  Detesting that his life ended as young as he was and in the manner it was taken from him, I can yet be grateful that we benefited from his leadership for the years that we did.

Rosalind Franklin was a teenager in the 1930s; she attended one of the only girls’ schools in London that taught physics and chemistry.  She told her father that she wanted to be a scientist; he said, “No way.  No how.”  Eventually he gave in to Rosalind’s persistence and gave her his fatherly blessing when she enrolled at Cambridge where she earned a doctorate in physical chemistry. Afterward the conferring of that degree, she studied in Paris where she learned techniques for X-ray crystallography.  Returning to England, she worked in the chemistry lab at London’s King College.  While in that role, she made X-ray images of DNA and was about to determine the structure of a DNA molecule when a couple of male coworkers pretty much stole her work, published it, and took credit for it.  The truth eventually came out but not before, Franklin died of ovarian cancer in 1958—having not reached her fortieth birthday.   And if she had lived longer?  Who knows how far her discoveries would have taken her, and others.  An early death doesn’t negate powerful contributions.  

 

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One wonders how the Jesus Movement might have evolved if Jesus had had more time to guide it first hand.  Surely, it would have been stronger, no thanks to Rome; and, thus, surely it would not have succumbed to institutional self-centeredness and other weaknesses common to human power groups.  I occasionally mention, because it astounds me, that we have no more reference to a life than lasted roughly thirty-three years than, perhaps, thirty-three days.  It cannot be denied that the teachings of Jesus—whether remembered and recorded verbatim or in summary fashion—changed the world and, apparently, continue to do so.  His vicious and paranoid enemies brought his brief life to an abrupt end, and those of us who consider ourselves followers of Jesus could become caught up in that tragedy, but his contribution is better utilized if we take what we have, relish it, and run with it in gratitude.

 

II.

I’m a great fan of a modern martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer—a brilliant theologian, ethicist, and pastor who openly opposed Hitler and eventually was sent to a concentration camp for his lack of patriotism and his companion opposition to the movement to create Hitler’s “super race.”  Just a handful of days before the Allies won the war and began freeing captives as quickly as they could, Bonhoeffer—another young one who died way before his body was worn out—was executed by hanging in the camp where he’d been imprisoned.  He, nonetheless, left us many powerful lessons about values and how to live.  In relationship to our subject today, he said, “In ordinary life we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich.”  One compound sentence, two powerful life-changers.

 

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We most of us hurry through life, and if we are givers at all, we casually assume that we are giving more than others; the truth, most often, however, is that we are gifted more often than we gift.  That fact should alter our attitudes and our appointment books.  His second eye-opener, already alluded to in ways today, reminds us to take in the reality that no one who lives without gratitude is really wealthy in this world, and there are surprisingly large numbers of people who, for all sorts of reasons, lack the capacity to be grateful about anything or anyone.

The Apostle Paul, writing to the Christians in Philippi, admonished:

Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Jesus, the Anointed One.

With thanksgiving.  

At the heart of communing with God is thanksgiving, at the heart of affirming life is thanksgiving, and at the heart of contentment is thanksgiving.  Without some sense of gratitude embedded in our depths, there is no possibility for enjoying and embracing life.  Here’s one example from Eleonora Duse:  “If the sight of the blue skies fills you with joy, if the simple things of nature have a message that you understand, rejoice for your soul is alive.” 

 

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For Thanksgiving this year, let’s give thanks for opportunities we have to make a difference to someone or some group through our efforts and/or through our financial investment.  So often Thanksgiving becomes for the “haves” in our nation a kind of gloating holiday.  I am thankful for the finest foods on my table each day, for my fab wardrobe that looks amazing and keeps me warm or cool as the need may be, for my successful facelift or tummy tuck, etc., etc.—you know, the very things for which the Pilgrims were grateful at the food sharing event, thanks to Indigenous American, that led to the annual remembrance of an embellished event that never actually took place.  

I hope you give thanks for the opportunity to support this unique community, your church.  There aren’t many Silversides in the world, my dear friends.  Many of you give faithfully year after year; some of you give sacrificially so that your church, your spiritual community, can breath on its own rather than requiring a respirator.   It’s somewhat self-serving for me to say thank-you since when you give you are contributing to the payment of my income.  Even so, I will say thank-you, and I hope you will be thankful as you count your blessings for your opportunity to support financially this polite but rabble-rousing community built on the foundations laid by rabble rousers before your time.

We have been around for 178ish years because and only because you and your forebears have believed that a place for open theological investigation and spiritual seeking that lead to ministry to the strugglers is of utmost importance.  Churches in the Free Church tradition get no financial assistance from any religious hierarchy the way some churches may receive regularly or on occasion.  

Some people who don’t know about the inner workings of a church like ours must think we get grants to keep going or that since we try to do good in God’s name that God fills our Financial Secretary’s mail slot with cash and checks enough to pay all the bills.  Neither is the case.  Only you keep us going.

 

III.

Our world does not push us to live with thankful hearts; it would have me focussing on what I don’t have rather than what I do have, and I’m not speaking exclusively about materialism though that is the first love of modern First World societies across the globe.  Sometimes, the world gets the upper hand, and I’m caught up in a preoccupation with what I don’t have, leaving no energy for pondering what I do have–again, not speaking exclusively from a materialistic point of view.  I understand why many people, all over the world, can’t find a reason when they awaken day after day to give thanks for the danger or the hunger or the emotional pain through which they will have to live until the next round of sleep gives them a slight reprieve.

My materially poor material great-grandmother, Granny Ingle, used to say to me when I was a little boy, “Ain’t God good, honey?  The Bible says that all the good gifts and all perfect gifts come from God.  Don’t ever forget that.”  She had in mind a specific Bible verse from the King James Version of the book of James; this is how the translators of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible translate James chapter 1, verse 17 today:  “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the God of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”  

I believe that the loving force to which we refer as God is in or behind all good in some kind of way.  Whether or not we recognize or acknowledge it, I believe it is nonetheless true.  By no means am I diminishing the place of humanity in bringing good to fruition, but I am persuaded that Living Love lures us toward what is good–whether that is going on in a scientific research lab or in a seriously broken relationship that, against all the odds, gets mended.  Keep in mind that I believe God is the Life-force and the Life-source, not your fairy godmother.

Counting our many blessings, as a hymn writer urged us to do, does not or should not mean loving a fat bank account, vast real estate holdings, multiple residences, and a fleet of automobiles.  We should be able to count blessings and give thanks without any thought of material advantage.  Shame on the growing number of prosperity gospel preachers around the world who try to convince their hearers that divine rewards are tangible rewards, and shame on those hearers who have the sense to know better than to believe what their prosperity pastor is preaching to them but who let themselves believe it anyway.  The prosperity gospel preachers wouldn’t still be around if they had any difficulty building followings.

My all-time favorite person from the Enlightenment era is Voltaire who detested religious intolerance more than anything in the world and who believed that anyone, however highly or widely regarded, attributing tragedy to God was an idiot if not a spokesperson for evil.  This brilliant playwright, historian, poet, essayist, and activist said of gratitude:  “Appreciation is a wonderful thing. It makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well.”

 

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Most of us who care about giving gifts when we can and doing things that help others don’t do either because we expect any expression of gratitude in return.  We do what we do out of love and/or concern—nothing more, but if there is to be an expression of gratitude in response, let it come when I can still remember whatever it was that I gave you or did for you.  For most of us, as we age, that means a month after the fact is much better than two years after the fact.

A so-called Humanist proverb says this:  “Gratitude soon grows old and dies.”  To me this means gratitude that was real gratitude when it was new and fresh goes unexpressed long enough, gets stale, then old, and finally dies.  Not only did the person who did something kind for me never know that I, at first, felt tremendous gratitude for the kindness, but also if I don’t express it in a timely manner the gratitude dies within me.  The effect is the same as if I never felt any gratitude at all.

  I have received a few notes through the years from former parishioners or former students or former contributors to one of the magazines I edited.  Parishioners I have rarely forgotten, but a student who studied with me in one course or a contributor who contributed two pieces to Pulpit Digest in my 18-year run as editor, I have often forgotten.  The notes will be too general for me to be able to piece the details together or, as I said, even the persons who wrote the very thoughtful notes.  

It’s nice to think for a few minutes now and then that I must be, or at least was at some point—according to these notes, a really wonderful guy!  What in the world did I do?  Of course, I’d never write back and ask so I put the note in my rainy day box where I put communications from folks who thought I did something that helped them along the way.  I like to be reminded privately now and then that, probably without going out of my way in the least, I made a little difference in someone’s life, and someday I want my children and grandchildren to read those notes too so that they might understand why I spend my time the way I do.

The gratitude that others express to me–though never required or expected if I am where I should be emotionally and spiritually–pleases me, surprises me, lifts me up, but the gratitude I feel toward other people, toward God who is love, toward the Universe is what truly enriches my life.  Why, then, would I be careless enough to let such gratitude die?

Be Happy. Foster Forgiveness!

I.
Forgiveness, one possible response to careless and callous treatment of us by those to whom we relate in personal, professional, and political contexts; generally, we should be able to forgive those who hurt us in ways that don’t maim or incapacitate us physically and/or emotionally. We still have to make peace with those encounters that do, in fact, leave us permanently scarred, but I don’t think “forgiveness” is the right word for the appropriate  response here.    

Let me give you an example. While I was a pastor in Baltimore, I was in DC one afternoon for a conference, and I met a young man from Richmond, Virginia, who was considering a call to ministry and in attendance at the same conference. Like many or most people entering the ministry these days, he was already in his first career–contemplating a change. We had been seated together at a dinner, and we connected well conversationally. We stayed in touch after the conference ended, and he visited my sons and me in Baltimore on a few occasions.

    As I got to know him, he began to share the dark story about events in his early years that had nearly crippled him emotionally for life. His father had sexually abused him from the time he was about four or five years old until he was an early teen and could physically force his father to stop the molestation. His mother knew what was going on but never uttered a word or, in any sense, came to his rescue.      

He had found a psychiatrist in Richmond who specialized in helping adult victims of incestuous child abuse. The psychiatrist got him into a residential treatment program on the west coast known to have tremendous success in helping people who had suffered this kind of unspeakable abuse find wholeness again. The requirements of the treatment program were extreme, but–obviously–necessary. His therapists and advisors in the program required him to cut off all ties with his parents–presumably, for life. They told him his parents had not acted, by any means, like parents and that he shouldn’t and couldn’t treat them as such. They had kept him around for abuse, not for love. There was no advice or expectation from program leaders that he should forgive them and start afresh. By the time I knew this young man, he was several years into living his life as someone who had never had parents.  
     
Now, you may or may not agree with this principle, but I’m using it to say that making peace with a horrible event like a rape or murder of a significant other is necessary for moving on healthily. Forgiving the perpetrator isn’t typically the proper healthy emotional response for such an extreme attack.    

This is not to say that the kinds of offenses we can and should forgive are piddley and inconsequential and that we should treat them like water off a duck’s back. I’m absolutely not saying that we should practice forgiveness only when it’s easy for us.
Forgiving those who intentionally hurt us and our loved ones emotionally and practically can take every bit of energy and resolve we have. Yet, if we don’t find a way to forgive, then what we’re left to deal with eats us up. So, in addition to being a Jesus-like thing to do, forgiving prevents ongoing, unresolved anger and grudges from stealing life from us. If we can practice forgiveness, then the person who hurt us doesn’t have power over us to keep on making us angry or fearful or embarrassed or whatever it was we initially felt when we were hurt.    

In what has been termed “the Lord’s Prayer” and/or “the Model Prayer,” which was supposedly a demo-prayer Jesus prayed in the presence of some of his disciples who had asked him, “Sir, how do we pray?”, we hear–and many of us have prayed: “…forgive us our debts or trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”    

As those of you who have the energy to try to keep up with my theology know, I have many problems with this prayer as it has been typically translated and used. One of my issues is precisely with how this segment of the prayer is understood by most people, it seems, who hear an English translation or who pray the prayer themselves. The usual take on what Jesus meant here is that God is refusing to forgive us UNTIL or UNLESS we forgive others; said another way, God holds our offenses against us unless or until we forgive all of those who have offended us in any kind of way.  
 
What I think Jesus meant here–or was it the early church who may have put these words in his mouth?–is not that God is as petty as to play such a silly game with struggling, conflicted human beings. Instead, it’s a very practical reminder that until we break down the inner barriers called grudges we have built, not only will we close ourselves off emotionally from a means to let go of the residual negativity, but also that same barriers block us from basking in God’s love; this is not because of anything that God does or withholds–no not at all! This happens because when we build those kinds of barriers, they block not just one thing, but several things. We simply aren’t made up emotionally in such a way that we can keep on hating another human being and, at the same time, feel the uninterrupted flow of God’s love.    

What I’m about to say would certainly be tossed as misguided or just flat wrong by some who would hear it, but I will say it anyway. Forgiving someone who has wronged us isn’t just a matter of doing something morally commendable or civilized; forgiving someone who has wronged us is something we do also because we love ourselves and know that proper emotional care requires us to let go of all the negative energy we possibly can. In other words, no one who cares about her or his own emotional health is willing to carry around the unresolved anger and frustration and resentment–or whatever it is we hold onto when we have been wronged. Therefore, it is legitimate to think in terms of forgiving that someone, at least in part, for our well-being.    

To further our pragmatism in this regard, take just a minute to reflect on how pointless it is NOT to forgive someone who said something hurtful to or about us, who offended us, who lied to us, who left us standing in the lurch, etc. etc. Why pointless? Well, they’re going right along with their lives–maybe just as they were all along. If we don’t forgive them, many times they won’t care. But if we don’t take the high road, we leave ourselves saddled with what bogs us down and prevents us from enjoying life the way we deserve to!

II.      
Some reflections on forgiveness from the Apostle Paul to the faith community in Ephesus: 

So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for evil….Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another…(Eph 4:25-26,31-32a NRSV).

Paul had a way of dealing with multiple subjects at once–not always, but often. And one of the fascinating things about reading Paul for me is to notice what he’s stringing together in what often are collections of his pet peeves.     

In this case, I find it ironic, on the one hand, but all too painfully true on the other, that he starts off by reminding the fine Christians of Ephesus that they needed to stop lying to each other. Another thing that’s very important to remember when reading and interpreting Paul is that he wrote to real life situations, problems, and concerns. He would not have just pulled this out of the hat as a random point for discussion or consideration. 

    What an intro to a column on religious advice! From there, Paul moves to the subject of anger, and he’s very pastorally insightful here, as he generally seems to have been. His suggestion is, “Be angry, but do not sin.” That is to say, it is possible to be angry–and, in fact, it’s very healthy to be angry without crossing the line. We have no idea what he thought “the line” was, but this much we can read and understand clearly–that Paul affirmed the notion that pious people can be healthily and ethically angry.     
 
The truth is, almost everyone is angry at some point, in some kind of way. The thing is that having realized and admitted we are angry, we’re supposed to handle our anger in an appropriate way. I’d say often that means being honest with the person who made us angry, but doing so in a way and perhaps at a time not to further complicate relational or practical tensions. 

    Sometimes, I think it’s good to let someone know right on the spot that she or he has made us angry. At other times, it’s better to wait, calm down, think a bit, and then tell the truth in love. Anger and conflict management are absolutely necessary to healthy personal relationships–marriages, partnerships, friendships. The same is true in community too. In church (but don’t let this get out to the general public!!!), fine Christian folk get angry at other fine Christian folk just as spouses and partners get angry with each other and just as parents and their children get any with one another. That’s no surprise. That’s life. That’s being a human being.     
 
The question is, will we handle our anger healthily and responsibly in our homes and at church? All too many people will have to answer that question, “No.” Pride, pettiness, immaturity, lack of interpersonal skills–did I mention stubbornness?–keep us from handling productively something as natural as anger. And I have to be quick to say that not everyone with whom we are angry cares that we are angry or why we were angry and, thus, isn’t receptive to our admission of anger and our offer to forgive and clear the air and work things out; unresolved anger can do all kinds of awful things to our insides and to our behavior patterns.   
   
Therefore, put away, he told the Ephesian Christians and their Christian neighbors, bitterness, wrath, anger…oops! Didn’t he JUST tell his readers to go ahead and be angry, but not to let it get out of hand? Yes, so this anger reference must be to the kind that got out of hand; the kind that began to eat up someone’s insides and have her or him acting out in destructive and crazy ways. Get rid of that nonsense, Paul insists!     
 
There’s more from Paul to that warm, Christian fellowship about what to put away that surprises us because none of us has ever been in a church situation in which people became angry with one another and behaved badly toward each other! Thank goodness, we’ve all been delivered from that. But the people at Ephesus didn’t have a record the way we do! Paul had to tell them to stop lying to each other and to get rid of wrangling, slander, and malice. Paul had to tell these people who had pledged to live like Jesus to be kind to each other. Should church folk need to be reminded to be nice to each other?  
   
Paul said we church folk should also be tender-hearted with each other. Remember that this Pauline advice isn’t about how Christians should act beyond the church–although we might hope the same principles apply! Let’s be tender-hearted with each other in the fellowship. Kind and caring.     

One of the scandals at Carson-Newman College during my years there, other than the streaking incident that landed us a spot a national morning news show, was a philosophy professor who wore a badge on his jacket that read: “Give a Damn!” Wow! On a campus that didn’t allow dancing since Southern Baptists knew any true Christian wouldn’t commit the sin of dancing, Dr. Patteson’s badge was something to be noticed and discussed.     

Paul was telling the congregations at Ephesus and nearby to care about each other, to give a damn. Is this something followers of Jesus should need to be reminded to do?    
  
Finally, he said, be forgiving of one another. Evidently, even people of faith in their faith communities have to be reminded to be forgiving of one another. The absence of forgiveness among people in a faith community can create so much negative energy that healthy and sane people will sense it when they visit and run as far away, as fast as they can. One of the major reasons some congregations don’t grow is because the infighting and absence of forgiveness are so strong and so evident there that emotionally stable people will have nothing to do with such a group.

III.

      Soon-to-Be-Saint John Paul II amazed me and inspired me when he went to Mehmet Ali Agca, the man who attempted to assassinate him, and forgave him for trying to take his life. That would not be an act I would encourage those who sought my pastoral counsel to forgive; I’d put it in the category of “be angry without crossing the line” and then move on.     

Another scene that stirs me is the one described by those nearest the cross of Jesus as he was dying, breath by failing breath, at the hands of Roman executioners. Someone or someones reported that Jesus, near the end of his earthly life, prayed this little prayer, saying, “God, forgive my executioners since they don’t understand what they’re doing.” I certainly don’t think Jesus was saying that violence and unjust punishment of innocent citizens of any nation were OK, but I’m guessing he recognized that the executioners were just doing a day’s work. They were only doing what they did regularly with those sentenced to death in Roman courts. There were people who DID understand why Jesus was there and who were responsible for it; they were Romans by the way! But there was no need to hate the executioners. Even so, that’s magnanimous beyond my capacity to understand. I can describe to you how the story goes, but I can’t tell how Jesus could have maintained such an attitude as he suffered physically beyond words. That prayer might have been something added to a more bare bones account of Jesus’ crucifixion in order for a Gospel writer to portray for all to remember what kind of man Jesus had been.     We now come, in any case, to some other famous words attributed to Jesus. These words come in response to a question Peter asks him.  What Matthew tells his readers is that Peter comes/is coming up to Jesus (and Matthew is using present tense here giving the sense that something is in process) and asking Jesus this odd question. “Sir [a translation I prefer over the typically chosen “Lord”], how many times can my brother [or sister] sin against me and I forgive [her or] him? As many as seven times?”      

Peter is absolutely NOT asking a generic question here. The word “brother” that he has intentionally chosen (I added sister to my translation for inclusive language) meant just that. He was referring to his blood brother or to someone who was close to him in the Jesus movement. This is NOT a “some one” kind of word. Peter is asking Jesus how many times he has to forgive someone close to him, by blood or by community affiliation, who keeps on offending him.      

I don’t think the “seven times” framework was a random thing either. We do know that in some strands of Jewish thought, the number “seven” symbolized completeness. Perhaps, Peter thought if he managed to be forgiving seven times he would have tried to be as forgiving as any human being could have been.     

My take on the question is that Peter was asking a real-life question about a real-life concern he had. Someone close to him was offending him repeatedly. He wanted to be a good guy, and he wanted to please his mentor, Jesus, with how he behaved; but he knew himself well enough to know that he wasn’t going to keep on giving his brother all these opportunities to stop offending him!     

Jesus’ response is literally unforgettable. My translation of this brief segment from the Gospel of Matthew: “Jesus is saying to him, `I am telling you, “Not as many as seven times, but as many as seventy times seven!”’”     

Seventy times seven! In other words, stop counting! This is your brother; this is your sister. Sit down and work it out or strengthen and lengthen your patience, Peter, but stop counting up the wrongs of someone you’re supposed to love–your own flesh and blood or your brother or sister in our faith community. Peter was kind of thick-skulled, though, you know?     

Now, we don’t have the benefit of knowing what offense or offenses got Peter so stirred up. And Jesus certainly wasn’t telling Peter that he had to keep putting up with nonsense or taking abuse right on and on. Jesus himself let more than a few people know that how they were behaving was getting on his last nerve! Surely, Peter should have been free to do the same.

    Thus, I think we have to say again that Jesus’ seventy-times seven directive here isn’t literal. It means, we shouldn’t keep count of the wrongs of those we love. Another part of what I’m guessing Jesus had in mind was a challenge to Peter to try to work things out with his brother or sister. If the person kept intentionally trying to offend Peter, he certainly had the right to call foul and say, “This needs to stop.” But he did have the responsibility to do his very best to let the bad feelings go, to stop keeping track of all the ways someone he supposedly loved offended him, and to do all he could to restore that relationship to health.     

Not everyone will permit a relationship to heal. So you may try and be rebuffed. But we never have to give up, in any case, you know?      

I’ve seen people hate themselves to such a degree that they couldn’t forgive themselves for something they did, in their recent or distant past, something they regard as morally unacceptable. Not being able to forgive themselves makes it nearly impossible, or maybe out and out impossible, even to entertain the notion of forgiving others.    

…..They can’t forgive themselves for what they regard as some moral offence, some ethical misjudgement, or a really bad choice. That is very painful! It can be tragic.      

Think about this. If the monotheistic religions–Christianity included, and maybe at the top of the list–continue to present to constituents a god who is hateful, reluctant to forgive those who stray from that god’s strict pathway for humans, and who ultimately forgives only a few humans who benefit from their own or someone else’s act of pure appeasement, then we’re a part of a vicious cycle demonstrating to the world–and more significantly to the communities right around us–the rarity of forgiveness rather than the abundance of God’s love for all human beings regardless of how or how often we may fail others and ourselves. 

    Amen.

Be Happy. Live in the Present!

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I.

In the early days of his presidency, Ronald Reagan, feeling the constant nearness of “the football,” the plans and procedures that could instantly unleash nuclear attacks on a vast number of global targets, wondered out loud if he might be God’s instrument to bring the great battle of Armageddon to pass–essentially destroying the world and forcing God to end history as we now know it.  I was scared to death when I read in a Louisville newspaper early one morning about what was going on in his head while Nancy was down the hall on the phone with her astrologer, getting guidance for the day. 

Robert Patterson, an Air Force major who carried the football during the Clinton administration, explained that the specifics of the football’s contents are, naturally, classified. Patterson confirms that the leather-bound satchel manufactured by Haliburton does, indeed, contain a handbook detailing options for unleashing U.S. nuclear weapons, and the military aide carrying the football would be expected to help the president implement the turning of Planet Earth into hell. Patterson told the press long after his tenure as football carrier had passed that everything one might imagine is in the 45-pound case, instructions about “…everything from firing a tactical nuclear weapon…to full-born Armageddon.”

It was well attested during Reagan’s presidency that he had a keen interest in biblical prophecy–particularly what he read in the Bible as end-time predictions. In Mr. Reagan’s personal diaries that were published, I believe, 2007, there’s an entry for June 7, 1981, and it reads, “Got word of Israeli bombing of Iraq–nuclear reactor. I swear I believe Armageddon is near.” We’re lucky to have lived through those eight years, and the next eight, by the way. I’m not sure who told whom what, but the word is that the football was opened on 9/11.

Christianity, through no fault of Jesus, became early on a religious movement inordinately preoccupied with the future. Jesus was clearly not future focused; he very much lived in the present moment and pressed his followers to do the same. There was more to do “right now” than they possibly could have gotten done so why waste energy pondering the future?  One very memorable place where Jesus taught the futility of futurism was in what scholars now call his Sermon on the Mount.  “Don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today” (Matt 6 NRSV adapted).  If food is an issue, his example, worry about it one day at a time. Worry about it today for today and not today for tomorrow.

Jesus certainly did offer a few comments here and there about how he, very generally, thought the present chapter of human history would come to an end or to a major transition, at least. Again, though, being preoccupied with the ways and means history as we know it would close down was an utter waste of time. Something out there was coming; things won’t always be the way they are right now, “but about that day or hour,” Jesus said, “no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Child of Humanity, but only God Godself” (Matt 13:32 NRSV adapted). Jesus makes it very clear that he and God are not one and the same entity, and he tells his followers that God knows; but no human being, including he himself, the Child of Humanity, knows how this chapter in human history comes to a close. How in the world could Jesus have been more clear than that?  There is not from Jesus any impetus whatsoever, any mandate, any encouragement to try to predict when the end of the present world order will come to a close.  

Even so, that hasn’t stopped Jesus’ followers including those who first heard him say this with their own ears from predicting the immanent end of the age. Here’s an interesting fact to keep in mind: not a single person who has ever attempted to predict the end of time as we now know it has been correct. No prediction of the end of time has in human history to date ever been correct. Human history continues. Frighteningly, there have been those who believed that they could force the end to occur and that they should do so because everyone could immediately begin enjoying her or his next world reward–no more waiting and no more struggling with the problems common to earthlings.

 

II.

I’m one of those non-eschatological and/or non-apocalyptic followers of Jesus. I don’t think God has ever or will ever make any plans for destroying the divinely-created world. I don’t buy for a second, as an example, any theologically literal readings of the story of Noah’s Ark. I believe there may well have been a great flood and a Noah who managed to escape death with a handful of his family members. What I don’t believe is the introductory part of the story that gives as a reason for the flood God’s anger at humanity and God’s sorrow that God had ever created our forebears to the point that God was willing to destroy them, wiping them and most animals off the face of the earth.  That sounds like something a frustrated human being might do, but not God. 

Brilliant 18-year-old Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein in that year of her life and had it published by the time she was 21. In her Gothic novel–and, by the way, the first ever sci-fi novel written in any language–Shelley has her Dr. Frankenstein become so disgusted with the life he has tried to create he leaves the creature for dead with thanksgiving that the creature is dead; at least he thought the creature was dead. That callous and uncaring attitude would certainly come back to haunt Viktor Frankenstein, but at the time he made the decision he was happy with it; and we understood his feeling.

God, though, isn’t one of us. God could not create humanity and bathe us in divine love–making provisions for both our failures and our successes, our potential and our frailty–only to let the divine surprise and the divine anger at human rebellion fester and grow until it had to explode in a divinely-ordained death sentence for almost the whole of humanity.  This issue of whether God is fundamentally a God of love or fundamentally a God of angry judgement–and the two absolutely canNOT go together–has a tremendous impact on how people who ponder such things are able to view where God fits into human life—past, present, and future. If God is capricious and arbitrary in the present and beats up on imperfect human beings in the here and now, I think there is every reason to believe that God will keep on being God, just this kind of God, in the future. If you’re not happy with the God of your present, you’ll likely not be happy with the God of your future.  Maya Angelou, a very wise woman, gives this advice, and I’m paraphrasing:  “If someone tells you who she or he is, you should believe it.”  I’d say exactly the same thing is true of God.

As some of you know, I don’t think God has a name and, therefore, never told anyone the divine name. The words we have for God describe God in some kind of way, but they don’t name God. The most famous of these descriptors is YHWH, four consonants eventually known as the tetragrammaton. 

From the burning bush, God told Moses to lead the Hebrews out of Egyptian slavery, and Moses said, “Sure thing. What could be easier than that? I’ll do it today, but whom shall I say has given me my orders?”

God’s voice from the burning bush said, “YHWH.” It’s obviously descriptive of the Deity though not a name, and it means, of all things, something like: I will be (future) who I am (present).

Once upon a time, Jesus’ followers thought, for some reason, there as an opportune moment to ask Jesus about when he was going to get on with becoming the Messiah their ancestors had dreamed of and longed for.  Jesus, of course, never became that Messiah.  That is another very important story, but we will not linger there today.

The disciples asked Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 

He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that God has set by divine authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 

Jesus, in that answer, showed that he continued to refuse to let those who were his followers be preoccupied with the future.  He told them the future was God’s business, not theirs; and he meant that in the nicest possible way! What they needed to focus on, he told them, was the outpouring of God’s energy upon them in the here and now, which would allow them to serve strugglers in the present. God’s energy would burst within all the faithful, allowing them to be God’s witnesses, telling all over the place—all over the inhabited world they knew about—the story of the God Jesus had taught them, all over the place.

The world as we know it will end when it biologically and chemically self-destructs or when we crazy humans destroy it and each other. The first of these we can’t do anything about unless it is to take better care of our Planet; the latter of these we can do much about by living out and promoting the God of love whom we have learned about through Jesus.

Therefore, let’s concentrate on the present where we know for sure we can make a positive contribution to God’s people and God’s world. Now. The present is perpetual.

Sir Winston Churchill didn’t get heavily pious about his perspectives of the future. He said, “It is a mistake to look too far ahead. The chain of destiny can only be grasped one link at a time.” And Mark Van Doren, the poet and educator, put it this way: 

There is one thing we can do, and the happiest people are those who can do it to the limit of their ability. We can be completely present. We can be all here. We can give all our attention to the opportunity before us.

 

III.

Until quite recently, many of us around the world have, for a while, felt under economic siege—to name one, and in that survival mentality we generally haven’t thought a great deal about the future (except in churches where end-time sermons are frequently the main course) other than to wonder if we’ll have the funds to get by when tomorrow becomes today.  Our hard-earned money if we’re lucky enough to have enough to put aside—invested for our future, for our retirement years—lost over a period of months tremendous value. Only a handful of world citizens are wealthy enough not to have been bothered wondering or worrying about how they might pay for their children’s educational expenses or how they might be able to live independently in their twilight years. 

Remember when Americans were singing that now well-known song, “That’s the Night that the Lights Went Out on Wall Street”?  Tons of our fellow citizens began losing their jobs and/or pensions. All of us knew or knew about someone who lost her or his home.  The US financial strongholds in the minds of the average citizen–the big investment companies, the big mortgage companies, and the big auto manufacturers–were all suddenly in danger of going under. Suddenly, it seemed to us, the future had to take a back seat to the present. We had to approve bailouts for all of these failing business entities–one after another. 

No wait! No one asked us; they promised our money away without asking us. They promised our children’s money away without asking them or us. They who? Oh yeah. “They” are the elected leaders whom we elected to watch out for our best interests; that’s who.

Violent acts happen frequently enough and close enough that nearly all of us have felt that we need to worry about keeping safe today; thinking too much about the future just doesn’t work, just doesn’t make sense. I was stunned as I read along about the account of the ridiculously tragic shooting at the Lost Angeles airport a few days ago.  The forty-year-old gunman was from Wilmington, Delaware, and had gone to high school not far from where we gather today.  I guess he could have done what he did when he came home for a visit and not in LA.

Black Friday is supposed to give the retail world an indication of how much US citizens who have money to spend are going to invest in Christmas shopping in any given year.  My sister is usually the American who spends the most at Black Friday sales and is thus a great friend of the retail world.  Her husband says that she loves to get a bargain so much that if she saw cow manure with a “SALE” sign on it, she’d buy it.

So Black Friday is supposed to go well this year. Kim, my sister, is already making plans with her best friend since high school to begin hitting the sales even if doors open before Black Friday officially begins.  To let go of any money is a sign of optimism that the economic problems are going to continue to improve, but we don’t know.  The future is always out of our certain reach.  

We want to be able to get to the place where we focus on the present, the perpetual present, not because we are threatened in some kind of way forcing us to concentrate on getting by in the present. The future shouldn’t be either an escape for us so that we can avoid dealing with serious problems in the present or what we get to think about because we’re so well set in the present that we believe we have a right to claim our place in that future out there. Christianity has been guilty of pushing people to think in both of these wrong ways about the future. On the one hand, when life is good, it teaches that things will only get better for the faithful.  I didn’t say Jesus taught this.  I said the religion that named itself after him teaches this kind of thing.  On the other hand, when life is rough, Christian futurism has been escapism; it has been a counting on Jesus’ return or God’s intervention otherwise to bring human history or at least this chapter of it to a close. 

The bottom line is this. The future, whether we see it as our escape or our paradise, may or may not come to us. All any of us really has is the present. We have today, or more precisely, right now. The best connection to the future whatever it turns out to be is a well-lived present, a well-invested present. 

Amen.