Those to Whom We Could Have Been More Kind (Part 3, Spiritual Spelunking: Don’t Let Your Core Cave!)

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I.
Israeli Rabbi Yisrael Rutman talks about the importance of kindness in Jewish religion and culture. The secular Jewish citizens are prone to kindness, but are also very concerned about not being taken or hoodwinked. If someone does a good turn for someone who really doesn’t need it, that is cause for derision from observers, and they get a great laugh out of it.
Jews of faith, in contrast, are concerned to do kindness no matter what, emulating Abraham, who set up refreshment tents in the dessert–the forerunners of fast food, says the Rabbi–and when people would thank him he would tell them that the ultimate source of provisions was God, a Sunday breakfast mission model. Anyway, the religion that Jesus embraced had/has kindness at its core. You wouldn’t know that by observing life in many or most churches that claim to live by Jesus’ example, but that topic is for another sermon–maybe (as in “maybe” I can make myself wait to preach on the legacy of Pastor Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church fame!).

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February 10-16 of this year was International Random Acts of Kindness week. Who knew? I only discovered this a day or two ago since no one was kind enough to let me know about such an important celebration.
It’s been a few years since I first saw the phrase “random acts of kindness.” It was on a billboard near my church in Baltimore, and the whole message read: “Perform Random Acts of Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty.” This concept has really stuck with me. I hope it has helped to make me a kinder person.
I used to hear Glenn Campbell sing,

If you see your brother standing by the road
With a heavy load from the seeds he sowed
And if you see your sister falling by the way
Just stop and say you’re goin’ the wrong way
You’ve got to try a little kindness, show a little kindness
Yes shine your light for everyone to see
And if you’ll try a little kindness, you’ll overlook the blindness
Of the narrow minded people on the narrow minded streets

Words still worth remembering, don’t you think? “And if you’ll try a little kindness, you’ll overlook the blindness of the narrow minded people on the narrow minded streets.”
I don’t think life in the modern world is making us kinder; sadly, I think it’s making us–unless we struggle against the flow– more suspicious and defensive and, thus, irritable and angry. A modern person’s survival motto might well be: “I’m gonna cut you off or tell you off before you have a chance to cause me any trouble.” Being mean protects our vulnerability; being kind leaves it open and positioned for attack.
Maybe some people out there somewhere, certainly not any of us, need more motivation to give kindness a try or a retry after having been hurt specifically for trying to be kind. This could be the practical motivation you need. According to British researchers, kindness breeds longevity. “People who practice kindness and compassion have better general health and live longer,” they say.

II.
David was one of King Saul’s most trusted servants, clearly in the inner circle for several reasons, and David believed he had never given Saul reason to think that he, David, would do anything to harm Saul or the relationship that he had with the King he respected as his national leader whom God Godself had appointed to be in this kingly role. The possibility, though, of having a subject who seemed loyal to turn suddenly and violently against someone in power was not something Saul just dreamed up; this was a constant concern for leaders in the ancient world. Hmmmm, the modern world too, huh?
Saul became jealous of David’s growing popularity, and with the jealousy came anxiety, fear, paranoia that David would try to get rid of him so that David could claim the throne for himself. From the information we have available we shouldn’t think of David as some sort of paragon of virtue across the board. Nonetheless, David was officially a loyal subject to Saul; still, Saul became convinced that David was not what he appeared to be. So, the fearful and angst-ridden King of Israel put together a little army of 300 of his finest men to apprehend David and put him to death. David, in response, had no choice but to run and hide. Fortunately for David there were lots of hills and caves in the general vicinity. Saul was so eager to get David out of the picture that he was himself frequently searching alongside his highly trained hit squad.
One day, while hot on David’s trail, Saul got tired and wanted a little nap, OR he had to relieve himself. Apparently, the Hebrew text can be taken to mean either. In children’s Sunday School, we will keep it as a nap, but here in big church we can consider the possibility that even renowned leaders must, from time to time, find a way to experience the pause that refreshes. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t have to be either/or so we’re going to be risk-takers, go out on an interpretive limb, and say that while in the cave Saul both relieved himself AND rested a bit.

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As it turned out, David had a contingent of soldiers traveling with him as well. How the court musician managed to put together a small army is something I can’t understand, but that’s what occurred. Maybe Saul wasn’t being so outlandish in seeing some things about David that caused him to raise an eyebrow. I mean, after a while–and long before the Simply Music harp method–this growing group that David must have met with regularity and pretty quickly had to stop pretending to be David’s music class.
OK. OK. You get the picture. So Saul is in a cave, and David’s soldiers tell him that this is the best shot he’s ever going to have to get rid of the King. If he waits, the King may well get rid of him; this is his golden opportunity–no reference back to what Saul might have been doing in the cave.
David is incensed. Crazy and crotchety though he may be, Saul is still their God-appointed leader, and they will not harm him even if it means running for who knows how long; however, David did feel the need to make a point with Saul so he enters the cave and finds the King __________–you fill in the blank. If Saul were relieving himself, then he was very engrossed in what he was doing to the extent that he didn’t know David was right beside him in the dark cave; and at this point I’m really hoping Saul is sleeping rather than some of the other options for what he might have been doing when David came upon him. Regardless, David slices off a swatch of one of the King’s garments and hightails it out of there without Saul’s having a clue.
When Saul exits the cave, there’s a bit of a shouting match between the two men in which David at a safe distance waves the swatch and says, “Your majesty, look! If I wanted you dead, you wouldn’t be standing here now. I clipped a corner off your garment, and I just as easily could have slit your throat.” As the King realized David was telling the truth, there was a tearful recognition of his royal paranoia and a verbal commitment of some sort to try to see to it that their relationship returned to what it had been in the good ol’ days, when kindness had gone both ways.
There are lots of lessons we might learn from this cave story, but I’d like for us to use it today as a reminder that there are probably some folks whose paths we have crossed in time gone by–maybe last week, last year, last decade–to whom we could’ve been much kinder than we were in a given moment for whatever reason. Those people may have been family members, friends, strangers with whom we were short or rude or dismissive or out and out mean. Maybe apologies after the fact will help, maybe not, but the best way to do this, to the extent that we are able at all, is to live day by day with kindness as our guide, to live with kindness as our way of life.

III.
I had a student a couple of semesters back who didn’t have any classroom manners at all, and at first I sort of tried to deal with the fact that he spoke out loud in the middle of my lectures as if talking to himself and with his talking over his classmates whom he regularly interrupted with information that was largely unrelated to what was being talked about. I’d received no notice of learning differences from the academic affairs office so assumed he was just rude. I kept thinking to myself during his monologues that this behavior could best be fixed with kindness and gentle humor if possible. Didn’t work.
By the end of the second class session, I’d pretty much had it, and my inner kindness resources were all used up. Same with his classmates who were giving up on trying to ask questions or make observations.
I still determined that losing my cool or being abrupt with him–and he was a young adult, not a kid–could lead to nothing good. I didn’t call up that patience from within myself really. I suddenly was aware of two of my grad school professors, teaching in the same department; one was unfailingly kind, and the other was dependably unkind. There was no doubt that students learned much more from the prof who was always kind to them, even though his classroom manner was less engaging than the rude guy’s when he wasn’t be a jerk to one of his students. I thought about that contrast a lot, and it was always clear to me which of those two I wanted to emulate if I ever became a professor. How, though? Perhaps Dr. Cox was so kind because he was confident of his knowledge, AND he was at peace with himself. Not by accident, he became my major professor, and without being a pushover in any sense his kindness continued through seminars, research, dissertation writing, and oral exams. I cannot praise him enough.
A key part of spirituality, don’t you think, is being at peace, which allows us to be gentle with ourselves? Oh, sure, there have been and there are so called “spiritualities,” which were/are nothing more than channels for self-hatred and self-condemnation, ways to beg for divine forgiveness and seek protection from the elements or any other curveballs that life can throw. It’s so sad that so many are thusly engaged.
If we are looking for a healthy spirituality we have to start with kindness to ourselves, wanting the best for ourselves, wanting to be whole within ourselves. Mindfulness is as far as I know the latest and best way of trying to understand what’s at the core of any spirituality; mindfulness is fundamentally a kindness to self–honoring who I am in the present moment.
I don’t think it’s possible for most people–certainly there would be exceptions–to be kind to others unless they are kind to themselves. Those who tend to be unkind to themselves often pass that lack of kindness on to others. Again I say there are exceptions; some folks who are very tough on themselves somehow find it possible to be kind to others.
For most of us, though, self-kindness leads to kindness in relationship to others. The more at peace we are with ourselves, the more we can pass on kindness, and I don’t mean to imply that the only good reason to be kind to ourselves is so that we can be kind to others.
I’m going to be a healthier person if I manage to be kind even when someone is giving me a reason not to be. That’s worth remembering even at church. Some churches are not known for kindness, sad to say. I was trying to learn something about YouTube recently when I stumbled across a video clip of a fist fight in a Samoan church. There are probably more instances of that than are ever reported. You’d think in church of all places kindness would prevail, but I heard about someone not so long ago who left a church because of how unkind the members were in their conversations with each other.
I would say to you that there are people to whom we simply cannot and shouldn’t be expected to be kind–though we should try for kindness whenever we can. The Dalai Lama says, “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.” (I am stirred also by another comment he had on the subject of kindness: “This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.”)

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I highly recommend to you that you lean toward the Dalai Lama’s way of thinking here and not mine! But if you falter, as did Saul, only risking an apology and a fresh start will do. I may not be able to offer those, however, until I learn first to be kind to me.
Amen.

Honoring Those Who Have Died (Part 2, Spiritual Spelunking: Don’t Let Your Core Cave!) Posted in Honor of Maggie Mahood Who Died Suddenly though Quietly at Her Home Ironically Near the Time This Sermon Was Being Preached at Her Church

My pal Arbender Robinson who sings and acts and dances on Broadway and who has given a wonderful concert here texted me the other day to tell me that he was on a train, on his way to rehearsals for his new show, “Les Mis,” when at a stop he heard a horrible explosion. In the next seconds, within his range of vision, there was smoke. Now, most of us know that what he was close to on that train was the tragic East Harlem explosion, which as of last night had left eight people dead and seventy injured. Those who died as a result of unattended to natural gas leaks are: George Amadeo, Griselde Camacho, Rosaura Hernandez and her mother Rosaura Vazquez, Andreas Panagopoulos, Alexis Salas, Carmen Tanco, and one more victim who has yet to be identified as best I can research.

I hope the shrinking of the world in terms of how quickly we can know of an experience had by someone thousands of miles from us, good experiences and bad ones, is making us more sensitive rather than more callous to the challenges of our sisters and brothers in the human family. I fear that for many people, however, callousness is in the lead. I say this not because it’s so easy to take a broad swipe at human frailty and fault, which is how some preachers and religious groups keep themselves on the map, but because after so much negative anything emotional survival–most often subconsciously–presses us to become callous to protect ourselves.

When the bodies of the first casualties began to be sent home from the military engagements in Iraq, some reporters with photographers accompanying them showed up at Dover Air Force Base, for example, to take pictures of flag-draped caskets, end to end in the entrails of cargo planes. When these pictures hit the print and online news sources there was immediate objection–not at first from the rank and file news consumer, but from the Department of Defense, if not the White House.

The cabinet secretary for that department scolded the reporters and photographers who dared to show us and our fellow citizens what was really happening as a result of noble-sounding Operation Iraqi Freedom. Rumsfeld and the military industrial complex, to use President Eisenhower’s designation, tried to crush, without shame, freedom of the press. Indeed, photographing and publishing pictures of the bodies themselves would have been both invasive and grotesque. But the only objection the political power people could offer in their defense, no pun intended, was–when deciphered–fear that making the loss of life too real would cause the American public to oppose the nicely-named war.

The pictures continued to be published, and the only way not to know what was really happening was to play ostrich. Simultaneous to the pictures, news sources in localities from which the deceased military personnel had hailed began to print and speak the names of the dead–yet another way to keep those in denial about the true cost of the drive to eradicate weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist focused on reality.

Holocaust survivor, psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, recalled in his riveting retrospective on how he survived emotionally as a prisoner of the Nazis, titled Man’s Search for Meaning, his arrival at the first of four concentration camps in which he was tortured prior to liberation. What happened immediately upon entry into the camp was that males were sent in one direction and females in another. Then, everything he brought with him that could be taken away was–his clothing, a manuscript containing the results of his life’s work to that point, his hair (since they shaved all of it all off), and finally his name, which was replaced by a number tattooed onto his body. And all people to whom he was accountable for the next three years made a point never to use his name. Like Jean Valjean in Hugo’s Les Miserables, Frankl was truly only a number. There was nothing accidental about that part of protocol for the treatment of Jewish and other concentration camp prisoners.

If we visit a Holocaust Memorial today we will see disturbing photographs and read or hear stories that make us wonder how far the definition for “human” can be stretched. Those parts of the exhibits may change from time to time, but insofar as space permits what will not change is the display of the names of those who died at the hands of Hitler’s minions. The Nazis would have had all of those executed remain anonymous in death and mass grave burial as in concentration camp life (“life” being too optimistic a word for existence in concentration camps). The survivors wouldn’t have it. Same with Vietnam vets and Vietnam Memorials, for example.

In the magnificently symbolic book of Revelation, set against the backdrop of Domitian’s unspeakable persecution of Christians right at the very end of the first Christian century, some anonymous martyrs show up in one of the writer’s, John’s, visions:

I saw under the altar [in heaven] the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; they cried out with a loud voice, “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” They were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number [of martyrs] would be complete….

These martyrs were nameless, anonymous. The fear of the anonymity of their loved ones who’d died at the hand of megalomaniac Domitian disturbed the loved ones they left behind almost as much as the deaths themselves. They couldn’t bear the thought that the wicked Emperor would succeed not only in stealing the lives of their loved ones, but also doing his best to keep their names from being known by anyone who didn’t already know them. The writer of the book of Revelation is trying to show those worried about this matter that in heaven their dear ones commune with God, are attended to by God, and are known by God. God knows the name of each one. Domitian may have treated them as if they were nameless nobodies, but their loved ones would not forget them on earth–that is basic to honoring those who have died; and in heaven God Godself knew each one by name and knew as well the horrors each one had suffered in an attempt to be faithful to God under the rule of a madman.

II.
The Jews and their half-siblings, the Arabs, in their heritage identify with the land and value passionately, to say the least, the land that is theirs. If this were not the case, I believe there would be little reason for the Israelis and the Palestinians to keep their wars with each other going today. I am not snubbing the Palestinians in any way, but for today am only focussing on the Jews.

The Jews from the earliest recorded encounters of ancient Hebrews with God took note of the exact place at which someone believed she or he had had a direct encounter with the God of Abraham, Ishmael, and Isaac; the God of Sarah, Aisha and Fatima, Leah and Rachel. In fact, yet today, the two most holy places by Jews who practice the Jewish religion are are land-based. The first is the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, where their first and second great Temples stood prior to destruction–the first, by the Babylonians; and the second, by the Romans. A third Temple has never been erected. Christian fundamentalists believe the reason is that the third Temple cannot be built until God is ready to signal to humankind that human history is about to come to a close. Ugh!

According to journalist Rachael Avraham, “The Jewish people have a historical, religious, spiritual, and national connection to the Temple Mount area dating back to antiquity.” It is taken to have been the location of the creation of Adam and maybe Eve and the site of the planned but thankfully failed sacrifice of Abraham’s son, Isaac, by Abraham himself. In the time of Jesus when the second Temple was still standing, Jews were expected to come to the great Temple in Jerusalem at least three times per year to offer sacrifices. Generally, following the patterns established by their foreparents, all who could did so.

The second most holy site on the face of the earth for Jews who practice the Jewish religion is a cave, the Cave of Machpelah, also known as the Cave of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. The cave and the adjoining field were purchased by Abraham about 3700 years ago as a place to bury his wife, Sarah, on the occasion of her death; a place for him to be buried when the time came; and a place to bury their family members who would die after them. Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah are all buried in the Cave of Machpelah. These are considered the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish people. Jacob’s other wife, Rachel, was not buried in the Cave but rather near Bethlehem where she died giving birth to their son, Benjamin.

We have heard read a snippet from a more detailed account of the process by which Abraham acquired the Cave and the land nearby. However compact the snippet may have been I hope you heard something of the deep love Abraham had for his wife, Sarah.

The land was owned by the Hittites, not the Hebrews; yet, when Abraham explained to the Hittites why he wanted to purchase the cave and surrounding land, the compassionate Hittite spokespersons offered to give him what he was trying to buy. Abraham, determined to honor his beloved Sarah in every way possible, thanked the Hittites, but explained to them that he was an ingrate in any sense he could not bury his beloved in a place given to him, in a place in which he did not invest. He believed he could only bury Sarah in a place that he owned. Otherwise, in his mind he would not be honoring her.

Either way, it would have been the same cave where Sarah’s body would be taken as its final resting place whether it had been given to Abraham or whether he had the bill of sale. Some people might not have seen any difference and therefore might have thought that Abraham should have graciously accepted the generous, thoughtful offer gotten on with his grieving.

For Abraham, however, much more was at stake. The gift of a tract of land for gardening or grazing was one thing, something presumably to which he would have been open. His wife, to whom he had been married 113 or 114 years, deserved the best in death as in life, as he saw it. Don’t get stuck on the number of years they were married; after 80 years together, smooth sailing is guaranteed. So, Abraham, insisted on the best he could provide for his wife, even in death. The dynamic was hardly the same as having the funeral director imply in the midst of your heavy grief that if you really loved your departed dear one you would purchase the most expensive casket and all the highest priced funeral service options. A borrowed tomb or a freebie just didn’t suit. He couldn’t see the honor in that. Thus, we have a detailed account of how much was charged and how much was paid without attempts to bargain for a lower price. He paid full market price, and that was quite a story of love and devotion.

III.
There are many eccentricities about life and death in New Orleans. I loved that place during my family’s nearly five years there and except for the ways my now ex-wife’s health was challenged by climate I might never have left.

One of the city’s traits that immediately stood out to me was the way someone’s, almost anyone’s, departure from this world was dealt with. Some might call the customs ostentatious, but only someone who didn’t understand a typical New Orleanian’s zest for life could think that.

A new-comer probably first became aware of the local ways of honoring the dead by an encounter with one of the treasured sites of entombment that long ago got the designation “cities of the dead.” Since underground burial of caskets or urns is not possible in a city built below “sea” level, only above ground options for interment are possible. Enter any of the cities of the dead, and you will see rusty decorative wrought iron. If it’s a sunny day, you are likely to be nearly blinded by the white-white sun-bleached tombs. Crosses and statues, in that heavily Roman Catholic city, cast contorted shadows. Those entering the cities of the dead on holidays will see votive candles in all kinds of wind-proof holders calling attention to certain tombs and reminding observers that those buried in those particular tombs have living relatives who are physically able to continue to show their concern through the lighting of those candles.

In those cities of the dead, both the largely unknown and the celebrities are buried–pirates, politicians, and voodoo queens not infrequently next to each other. For those with limited funds, economical vaults are used and stacked on top of of each other. Wealthier families can afford larger, elaborate tombs with crypts. Many whole-family tombs look like miniature houses, enclosed with iron fences. The walkways in front of the rows of tombs resemble streets. Little houses, fences, and streets–no wonder these final resting places became known as cities of the dead.

At one time, as I understand it, almost everyone’s casket or cremains was carried or drawn to a cemetery in a parade. In time, the more well-to-do citizens’ caskets or cremains would be driven to a tomb or mausoleum amid an impressive motorcade in which the preacher or priest or rabbi rode in the limousine provided solely for her or him. This country boy thought I’d wandered into the high cotton for sure the first time a limo driver arrived at my church office to collect me and then drive me in a stretch limo about a mile down St. Charles Avenue to the funeral home where only the most prominent citizens were mourned and celebrated.

The less prominent citizen would not be overlooked at the time of death, though. It was a way of life to be stopped in your vehicle now and then, for up to half an hour, while a funeral parade made its way from a church or home to a cemetery. Even if the band were only a squeaky clarinet, a trumpet, a trombone, and a banjo–players decked out in tuxes and top hats–there it was; someone for whom the bell had tolled was on her or his way to a modest site for earthly rest, and busy people like me just had to wait through several rounds of “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” interwoven with “When the Saints Go Marching In.” The family was honoring its dead loved one, and for the moment nothing else in all of New Orleans was more important.

The finest way to honor those whom we love is to cherish them moment by moment as they live and then when they have “graduated” to the realm of higher consciousness–as thanatologist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross put it–celebrate them. A tangible expression of that celebration of life may be a lasting visual of some sort–interment in a named family plot, placement of a grave stone or a memorial plaque, and so on–but none of that name remembrance will have much meaning unless done out of love and not mere duty.

Images: the flagged-draped caskets, New Orleans’ Cities of the Dead (2 images), Dr. Viktor Frankl, the Temple Mount, the Cave of Machpelah (2 images)

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Posted in Loving Memory of Maggie Mahood who, unbeknost to her faith community, died suddeny but quietly at home near the time this sermon was being preached

Reflective Rumblings (New Series, Spiritual Spelunking: Don’t Let Your Core Cave!)

I.

My ex-wife used to say in the midst of our unsuccessful attempts to resolve conflict that I was a blamer. By that she meant when something went wrong I wanted to know who was responsible. She thought once something had been done, even if it were a mistake or a mess, that who did it didn’t matter; all that mattered was resolution or cleanup will take place. I did not overlook the importance of cleaning up and such, but I wanted to know who was responsible so that we could negotiate-and I say that in the nicest possible way–a way for this not to happen again in the future.
I don’t know if what she said was on target or exaggerated. I know I have no interest in graveling apologies, but I do appreciate when there’s a problem if someone had a hand in creating it she or he acknowledge complicity; and we move on from there. If I am at fault, and I certainly make tons of mistakes–thanks for acting surprised–then I need to be able to accept responsibility for them. When I done something that disturbed or hurt someone, then it’s especially important for me to offer an apology of some sort indicating I know I was involved and that I regret it.
If I am a blamer, as my ex-wife lovingly suggested, and this reflects my psychological makeup, then my theological makeup is at the opposite end of the continuum. This is to say there is never any reason to ask why the big bad things happen in life or the big good things for that matter. Plenty of thoughtfully religious folk think there is reason to embrace the belief that God caused tragedies and triumphs, willed then, or allowed them and should therefore be praised for divinely impeccable insights or actions.

 

 

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One small rabbit to chase. The idea that God doesn’t directly cause the big bad experiences for humans, but “only” allows them is supposed to soften perspectives on an otherwise sadistic deity–creating humans only to turn around and torture them. I see no difference at all between a god willing something directly and a god allowing something dreadful to happen. I understand that a number of theologians who follow this line of reasoning are trying to draw a distinction between God saying the roof needs to fall in on your head because you’re a bad person over against somebody having a roof fall on her or his head because that person did not keep up the repairs in the house; God doesn’t come in and do the repairs for that individual. As the years have gone along and I’ve had more and more opportunity for reflection as well as interaction with people who have dealt with catastrophes my belief is as I said there’s no difference between a God who wills it and a God who could stop tragedy but doesn’t. That God is no better or better off than the God who simply says, “Lets just go ahead and crash the roof in on your head and be done with it.”

 

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One of my seminary students who is also studying in a hospital setting this term was told recently by his chaplain supervisor not to pray aloud for healing with patients who are seriously ill. The chaplain explained by saying the reason is that when you do this you are implying that God has the capacity, the wherewithal, to heal somebody who is critically ill and will do so if God wants. If things don’t turn out toward healing, the patient may feel frustration, defeat, confused. God gets the blame…for what God could have done but refused to do.

It was a wise thing for the chaplain to have pointed out to my student, by the way. I told him I agreed with what the chaplain instructed him to do or avoid doing.

This business of blaming God for disaster is its own kind of disaster. When we determine that God is in any way calling all the shots as history unfolds then we have ourselves a problem; one that is long established and never solved.

 

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II.
The book of Job in Hebrew Scripture is a grand piece of literature. It is complex. It is multi-layered. It is disturbing, but it has captured the attention of people throughout the centuries from the time it began being edited over a period of years with three or four writers contributing before the final draft was in place. If you’ve ever heard anybody slapped with life crisis upon life crisis say, “I feel feel like Job,” the central character in this drama is the person with whom they are comparing themselves.

The book has captivated attention from its initial circulation. Archibald MacLeish used it as the basis of his Pulitzer Prize winning play, “JB.” The original Hebrew play takes, on the surface, the widely held Hebrew theological perspective that God is in control of all good and bad that happens to individuals and nations; however, there is some questioning of that view.

Such a horrible, emotionally destructive way to look at life’s tragedies, it’s hard for me to imagine why anyone hangs onto it. Were the perspective accurate, I’d think this would be enough to drive any thinking person away from God except out of fear and the need to please God in the hopes of staying off God’s hit list.
In short, the most horrible tragedies befall Job and his loved ones, one after another, and to make matters worse God is clearly shown as having been involved in allowing those attacks to befall the Job family, which is exactly what most of the people hearing the story read or the play performed would have felt during the times that the book of Job was being composed and compiled.

 

Job by Marc Chagall

Job by Marc Chagall

 

 

To challenge the unexamined acceptance of such a theological notion, the drama portrays a God who would allow such horrors in the world to be careless about it all, at least in the case of the Job family. God has a chum whose name is never given; he is simply referred to “ha satan,” the satan–that is, the adversary. “Satan” is not a name. “Satan” is a description of this crony of God who interacts with God as if a poker buddy. There are several reasons we know that the adversary in Job is not a devil, and the main reason is that no doctrine of devils or a hell had evolved at this point in time. If you believe that God makes your life miserable when it is miserable–then you don’t need a devil in this world.

The satan drops in on God and says something like, “That Job guy is a real piece of work.”

God was confused by the comment, “What do you mean? Job is the best of the best among humans. Job is a reflection of my best creative work. He is entirely upright morally speaking, and he loves me more than anyone on the face of the earth, perhaps.”

“Oh, God,” taught his pal, the adversary, “You are so gullible and easily flattered. If you didn’t make life so nice for Job and his family, he wouldn’t give you the time of day. Give me a few weeks or a few months to call the shots in his life without your interference, and I’ll show you both what kind of person he really is and how little he cares for you when you abdicate your Sugar Daddy routine.”

“You’re on,” God was quick and confident to say. “You’re going to come up looking really dumb, though, because Job will not turn away from respecting me and loving me no matter what you do to upset his pomegranate cart.”

So, the tragedies caused by the adversary pellet Job–loss of property, loss of loved ones, loss of health. Job is left a truly miserable person–emotionally, physically, spiritually. In this low point in life, there are ongoing conversations with his so called friends and with his wife who were trying it seemed on the surface, to get him to a better place. The friends voice the traditional theological perspectives from differing angles. God caused these losses. You must have displeased God. You’d better get right with God by seeing forgiveness, or God will keep hammering you with more calamities.

Job’s wife, the only one of his loved ones not to have been wiped out in one of the attacks arranged by the adversary is a voice reason in the drama, and the only source of reason anywhere near Job in his suffering. She insists on honesty and reason in responding to all he has lost at God’s hand, they think. At one point, Mrs. Job says to her husband, “If God is the God that you have believed in and honored and loved, and this God causes you, causes us, such unspeakable tragedy, then you should just curse God and die. With your integrity, there is no other pathway open to you.” I think his wife was right on target because she was asking him to consider getting rid of his pain once and for all in the only way anyone could be sure not to be God’s moving target for another round of divine fun and games.

In MacLeish’s play, “J.B.,” Job is a devout, wealthy, and charitable businessman who loses everything. Angry that her husband won’t impugn the God who causes such suffering she deserts Job.

 

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I have to tell you, in this entire set of fictional reflections and fictional characters I really like Mrs. Job the most. She’s my favorite character in the story. Job, my heart goes out to him, and I think he’s a genuine seeker trapped in traditionalism, but I like the Mrs. the most. I also love that the writers that far back and in the cultures that produced the book of Job caused the only voice of reason in the whole mix to be a woman’s voice. There was much more to her than old wives’ tales. “If your God has it in for you and won’t let up, then the only way you can escape pain upon paid with no end anticipated is to end your life–curse God and die,” she said to her husband.

 

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III.
You may know the story of when David who would become the king of Israel was still a shepherd boy and a gifted harp player he was brought to Saul, the king of Israel, because Saul had some chronic emotional challenges that the harp music helped to calm. After a trial run, David was brought in full time as THE court musician, and Saul grows to love David, as does Saul’s son, Jonathan; many of Saul’s advisors; and more than a few of the rank and file subject of the kingdom. In time, some are saying aloud that when Saul retires, which maybe should be sooner rather than later, David would make a better king than Jonathan would make. In a very personal conversation, Jonathan himself said as much directly to his beloved David.
In time, Saul became insanely jealous of David’s popularity, and he did what was well within his rights as monarch–set out to kill the one whom he perceived to be the competition. David hears about what is going on and is able to make a great getaway, but Saul with his special ops people make David’s life on the run miserable. David found himself frustrated and fearful, far removed from palace comforts and frequently foundering around in caves. Believing as did most of his Hebrew contemporaries that God called all the shots, as we’ve seen painfully played out in Job, David is upset with God for failing to rescue him. In a cave, he complains to God about his plight.

 

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Even in a mess, David evidently had a way with words, and his prayer of complaint and lament to God became poetry recited by others after him and eventually lyrics for a song sung in worship at the great Jerusalem Temple. An introductory note included with Psalm 142 identifies that psalm as a maskil (“a maskil of David when he was in a cave”): “Dang it, God, in the path where I walk they have hidden a trap for me. There is no one watching out for me. No one cares about me. I cry to you, O Lord. Save me from these assassins. Have you not heard me play the harp, God?”

If I cannot enhance my wholeness, which is the goal of healthy spirituality, because I am in some sort of negative association with God–whether God is perceived as energy, being, force–then nothing beneficial is going to come as a result of my efforts. Whatever God is and however I am trying to unite myself with the core positive part of the universe God cannot be an antagonistic and threatening force in my mind. Forget an angry god. Forget a punitive God. Forget a capricious God. Forget a God who goes to sleep on the job. Forget a God who causes plane crashes and tsunamis and dreadful diseases and war. I’m serious. For your health, you must forget about a God who is so destructive.

 

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Probably more people wrestle with this issue than any other upheaval. At the moment, worldwide, anybody who cares about human suffering is preoccupied with the missing Malaysian jet. Blamers are blaming God or praising God depending on point of view for the massive suffering and loss. I think it was in a BBC update where I read that in Malaysia’s capital city, Kuala Lumpur, a police officer by the name of Hamid Ramlan, told reporters that his daughter and son-in-law had boarded that plane, intending to take some holiday time Beijing. “My wife is crying,” he said. “Everyone is sad. My house has become a place of mourning. This is Allah’s will. We have to accept it.” Allah’s will huh? God willed this disappearance of this plane? Of course not.

 

 

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How crass and uncaring, though, were we to be critical of this sincere man who is beginning to wrestle with what may well become staggering grief. I do point out, though, that he is one, alongside countless likeminded others, who believes and takes comfort in the notion that God caused the tragedy. He, for one, has at this point nothing at all to criticize in a God who’d engineer such an episode. All he can do is brace for the final blow.

Seven Deadly [Societal] Yens: Sloth

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I.

There’s a good chance that in the vast majority of cases, laziness is in the eye of

the beholder–whether the beholder thinks of herself or himself as the slouch or of

someone else as the slacker.  For how many years did large percentages of teachers

accuse learning disabled students of being goof-offs when, in reality, we have begun

to catch on to the fact that most of them simply couldn’t learn using methods

developed for the rank and file, “more traditional,” learner?  Alexis de Tocqueville

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couldn’t have been more off base than when in his ignorance he wrote, “The Indians

of North America view labor as not only an evil but also a disgrace, and their pride

combats civilization as obstinately as their indolence.”

 

 

I heard all my growing up years in the racist South that people of color were lazy,

were naturally lazy, born lazy.  Once I was able observe enough of life to draw my

own conclusions, I was perplexed.  The work I saw Black people doing was, across the

board, manual labor.  We can be sure that the persons of color who worked as slaves

on the plantations were anything but lazy; their masters would’ve beaten them if

they’d begun to fall into such habits. I have most recently been reminded of how

difficult the work and life in general were for plantation slaves as I finally got

around to watching the opening scenes of the film, Lee Daniels’s, The Butler.

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So, still quite young, I couldn’t understood how anybody would draw the conclusion of

congenital laziness of persons of color; it had to have been based on

misunderstanding and lack of information, which racism permits.

 

 

In mid-December this past year, the Sun newspaper in London put out a list of the

laziest politicians in its nation. I wonder when somebody will do that for us here.

Unfortunately, the research, if you will, was compiled by someone who simply counted

how frequently politicians had shown up to vote in the months leading up to the

article. We all know there’s much more to being a politician than voting although we

certainly do expect our elected officials to be present as much possible to vote.

That’s a big part of what we sent them there to do.  Back to Britain.

 

 

A Member of Parliament by the name of Lucy Powell had been absent for a couple of

months late in 2013 and therefore had not been in attendance at several voting

opportunities. The Sun reporter or reporters did not take into account

that she had been on maternity leave and named her, as I described, one of the

laziest politicians in the country. Her staff naturally responded with protests; she

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also responded in protest and reminded them of her maternity leave, also informing

them that some others on the list had been absent recently because they were dealing

with very serious illnesses, which the paper had taken no time to investigate.  Had

the person or persons preparing the article been writing on who had voted less often

in the past several months without trying to give reasons why then there would’ve

some suitable data on hand, but without interpretation beyond mere numbers the data

was useless. Once again it is likely that in many instances laziness is in the eye

of the beholder.

 

 

That said, laziness is a reality; there really are people who are

lazy, but laziness isn’t an ethnic or cultural trait, passed along from generation

to generation.  One of my students knew I had this sermon topic coming up, and she

shared with me a report by Christopher Hudspeth called, “25-ish Signs That You’re Really Lazy.”  Of

course I’m not going to share the whole list with you; that would take too much

energy.  But some few of the items on the list I must share with you.

 

 

1. Your clean clothes are at this very moment in your dryer where they will remain

for the next several days or weeks, being  removed piece by piece, as they are

required.

2. You’ve sat through movies that didn’t do a thing for you and television shows

that turned your stomach only because the remote was on a table across the room.

3. You’re perfectly capable of walking, thank goodness, but you drive around a

parking lot for 20 minutes just to be a few steps closer to an entrance.

19. You hope karma is for real because you don’t have the energy to get revenge on

people who have done you wrong.

20. On cleaning days you help out by lifting your feet so someone can vacuum under

them.

21-25. You use stale tactics and lame shortcuts to finish things.

 

 

II.

“Lord o’ mercy, Mary, get yourself up out of that bed, and help me get this lunch

fixed so we can be on time for church.  You know good and well the Evangelist’s coming

home to eat with us after services,” Martha yelled through the bedroom door at her

sister.  “This chicken ain’t gonna fry itself.  Already wrung its neck, plucked it,

cleaned it out, and cut into the pieces. You think it would be too much for you,

Madame, to coat it and fry it?  No way we’d have a preacher to eat without fried

chicken on the table.  We’ll cook it now and then just heat it up right before we

serve it. Mary? Do you hear me?  Brother is out chopping wood for the stove and

milking the cows so we’ll have fresh milk. Only you are still in bed, Sleeping

Beauty.”

 

 

Mary had heard every word her sister yelled, but she refused to respond partly in

rebellion to her sister’s bossiness and partly to aggravate Martha.  Mary and Martha

had been roommates all of their adult lives. They were sisters who loved each other

without question, but some level of sparring was nonetheless always going on,

especially as initiated by Martha.

 

 

The Bethany sisters were as different as night and day, but their differences were

typically kept from upsetting the household apple cart by the presence of the third

person in the household, their bachelor baby brother, Lazarus, whom they spoiled

rotten as their late parents had done before them.  As a family, they loved the itinerant

evangelist they would soon hear, a frequent visitor to their church, and each

individually had a treasured one to one friendship with him.  The

Evangelist, the Reverend Jesus José, could not officially play favorites in the

congregation, but the Bethany family knew just the same, as the good Reverend knew,

that they were the best friends he had in the world and that whenever needed they

had his back.  Others in the congregation knew about the Bethany family’s absolute

loyalty to Preacher José; some had learned of it quietly while some few others had

learned it the hard way by saying something critical of this frequent visitor in front of one

or more members of the Bethany clan.

 

 

When Mary came out of her room, more or less on her own timetable, she was already

dressed for church, her long black hair beautiful combed and free flowing (unlike her

sister’s every-Saturday-shampoo-and-set-every-hair-in-place-do), Bible in hand

ready for Sunday school and the preaching service to follow. Mary always dressed to

the nines, and this particular Sunday was no exception. She went into the kitchen to face the scowl of

her sister and slipped a full apron over her favorite church dress so that she could

do her sister’s bidding and coat and fry the chicken. Though no one could figure how

from the outside, the truth is that together, sparring all the while, the

sisters made the best fried chicken in El Paso, Texas.

 

 

As much was done as could be done right up until it was time to leave for church,

and the family went together; the three of them as usual found their ways into their

Sunday school classes and then to their favor pew in the sanctuary where the Rev.

Jesus José, in the absence of their pastor, preached a thoughtful sermon that somehow

spoke to each of them. The sermon text was from the book of Proverbs, and of all things

Preacher Jesus focused on ants.

 

 

He pointed out how the writer of Proverbs used an ant an example of someone who

was always prepared, working hard, anticipating, doing more than her or his share.  Martha

nodded in agreement throughout the sermon because she, anything but lazy,

surely was right down the line everything the ant was.  She ran through in her mind,

while listening attentively to the sermon, the countless tasks she’d already completely

since she had arisen with the rooster that morning and how many more tasks she

would undertake before she rested that night.

 

 

Mary heard the sermon very differently and took the admonitions of her favorite

preacher to challenge her to prepare herself spiritually for life’s challenges

rather than to be so concerned about the toil of daily life, not that necessary chores were

omitted from the sermon’s concerns but that those who are lazy about tending to their

spiritual well-being, which is probably the easiest thing in the world to ignore,

may not do as well as they might with other aspects of life.

 

 

The sisters hurried home–each one thinking how inspired she had been by the sermon

and how Preacher Jesus had been trying to preach in particular to her sister.

Martha hoped Mary heard the sermon that day and would in the future be more diligent

about her chores around the farm.  Mary hoped Martha had heard the sermon that day

and would make a moment for prayer here and there.

 

 

Lazarus’ was to walk Jesus from the church to the house after he had greeted all of

the congregants and had a cup of  chicory coffee with the socially-minded ones in

the fellowship hall.  Lazarus knew he was supposed to delay as long as possible home

arrival with the Preacher in tow to give his sisters time to add the final touches

to the feast for four.

 

 

The instant Martha and Mary had flown into to their kitchen, they donned their aprons

and scurried around madly to make things perfect before their evangelist friend came

for yet another cherished visit. They never took his visits for granted, carefully

treating each one as if it were the first and most special of all.

 

 

About that time, Lazarus and Jesus walked through the front door and, without

lingering in the parlor, were called to the beautifully set table where the Preacher Jesus,

of course, was asked to say the blessing before they all dug into a fine meal–

fried chicken; mashed potatoes with gravy; deviled eggs; collard greens flavored

with bacon grease; corn on the cob; sweet tea and yeast rolls.  Yum yum!  Of course, there

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were homemade salsa and tobacco sauce for the use of the Mexican evangelist in their midst.

The meal was topped off with rhubarb pie under a big ole scoop of homemade ice cream.

 

 

Everybody was full.  Martha naturally started cleaning up and prevailed upon her

brother to assist.

 

 

Mary followed Jesus out to the rocking chairs on the side porch.  She began to talk to him

about what she had heard in his sermon that day in regard to not letting tasks and chores cause

one to be lazy about spiritual matters.  Right in the middle of that rocking chair conversation,

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Martha stomped onto the porch and began scolding her sister right in front of company.

Could she pick another day to be lazy, Martha wanted to know. She, Martha, reminded

Mary exactly who had done most of the early morning work and who had already done a great deal

of the clean up as well.

 

Mary told Martha to leave what she didn’t want to do, and she, Mary, would happily

finish up in a little while.  That didn’t shut Martha up, though.  She ranted on and

eventually apologized to Jesus for drawing him into family business.

 

 

The Preacher told her he was used to hearing the sisters spar and normally kept his

nose out of it, but in this case he said, “Mary made the right choice today.  We’ll

both be in there to help you and Lazarus in a few minutes, before I head back over

to the church for a healing service.  But for now let us finish our

conversation about how not to be spiritually lazy.”

 

 

The minute Mary made it to the kitchen, bossy Martha gave her another job:  “Go ahead

and pour the after lunch wine.”

 

 

Mary said, “OK, I will, but I still feel funny serving wine to a preacher…just

how we were raised, as you know.”

 

 

“Pour the wine and hush that nonsense,” Martha barked.  “That’s why we left those

crazy Southern Baptists and switched to the Presbyterian church–so we could have wine without

being told we were going to burn in hell for imbibing.  Besides, Preacher Jesus

likes wine; I’ve even heard he makes his own.”

 

 

 

 

 

III.

In my early days as a preaching professor in Louisville, we used a textbook in our

intro to preaching courses to which I have made reference from time to time,

Preaching the Good News by Princeton homiletician, George Sweazey. In that book, Dr.

Sweazey writes about the many facets preaching, which is the purpose of the book,

but also tosses in a lot of handy advice for pastors since most preachers preach in

a pastoral context and the whole process of preparing and delivering a sermon is

done within that context–something very different than an itinerant preacher

experiences.  One of the things that stood out early on for me was Sweazey’s

definition of “laziness” for the preacher, which was doing an easier or less taxing

task while putting off the more demanding, more difficult task.

 

 

It is not impossible to find a lazy preacher, but most preachers today have the

opposite problem of workaholism whether or not they’re congregants happen to know

it.  For the lazy preacher, however, if you can find one, and for the preacher who

wants to avoid falling into that habit to use Swayze’s advice is to require of

oneself that the more difficult task not routinely be put off until the easier tasks

are finished.

 

 

If that is a suitable definition of “laziness” or of one kind of laziness, I’m sure

there must be several types, then I wonder how that principle might apply to the

congregation at large instead of just to the minister:  doing the easier things

first or always, while putting off the more difficult tasks or perhaps concentrating

on the easier duties as a way of avoiding having to deal with the more difficult

stuff. For example, planning, spewing forth ideas, letting creativity flow are much,

much easier and for many people much more fun than doing the nitty-gritty work of

implementing the ideas that have come forth from creative planning sessions.

 

 

Not everybody in the church family, naturally, is okay with the absence of

implementation, and they become uncomfortable after a while with an abundance, an

overload, a storehouse full of creative ideas about what MIGHT BE while very little

energy is being put into what needs to be or must be done now, what should’ve been

done yesterday. That is not nearly as attainable for many folks.  I’m not suggesting

that cranking out creative ideas happens without expending energy, but if Dr.

Sweazey were correct then when coming up with fun ideas gets in the way of

implementation of anything substantive then there is a problem.  Some kind of

laziness has won the day.

 

 

In all likelihood, laziness as preoccupation is only a part of why congregations put off doing

specific tasks. There is also laziness attached to fear of  rejection, fear of failure, angst that the

expected outcome doesn’t come around at all.

 

 

Every new or repeat undertaking may either succeed or fail. We have known since the beginning

of  human civilizations, however, that unless some effort is made to create a change there is no change.

Also, there must be failures because human beings are imperfect people and because even when

perfect people come up with the ideas and plans, imperfect people, probably lazy–right?, fail to implement

them properly.  Regardless, we cannot let laziness caused by either preoccupation or fear of failure keep us

from tackling with full strength the demands of the hour.

Seven Deadly [Societal] Yens: Pride

I.

 

Arrogance is the sibling of pride, and humility is the nemesis of haughtiness.  As I use the word “pride” today, I’m not talking about healthy self-appreciation and with it the ability to enjoy appropriately one’s connections and accomplishments; these are not expressions of arrogance by any means, and–in fact–the inability to appreciate self and personal accomplishments is an indication of low self-esteem, which is a glaring symptom of compromised emotional health.  Ironically, unbridled pride is also a kind of emotional illness closely connected to megalomania. 

 

Glancing through a two-year old list of “The 50 Cockiest Athletes of All Time,” I see Tiger Woods as the last athlete on the list, number 50 of 50.  Brian Wilson is number 48, and he believes that he is hot stuff playing baseball or wherever he may be; quote, “My I.Q. is 188. End of discussion, it’s been proven. Certified genius.” John McEnroe 28.  Number 24, LeBon James, said, “I’m like a superhero.  Call me, ‘Basketball Man.'” Soccer star, Christiano Ronaldo, is number 12; he once said, “God sent me to Earth to show people how to play soccer.” Michael Jordan, at number 9, once told a reporter, “There is no ‘I’ in ‘team,’ but there is in ‘wIn.'”  Larry Bird is number 7, “I didn’t care who guarded me–red, yellow, black.  I just didn’t want a white guy guarding me, because it’s disrespectful to my game.”  Number 6 is Terrell Owens, “I’ll watch the highlights every now and then, but, as far as watching the game, I feel like I AM the game.”  Number 1.  As little as I know about sports, this was the athlete I guessed would hold slot number 1.  I first knew him as Cassius Clay; a religious experience motivated him to change his name to Muhammad Ali.  Often seen in interviews with the haughty sportscaster, Howard Cosell (who described himself as:  arrogant, pompous, obnoxious, vain, cruel, and verbose), Ali once crowed, “I am not the greatest; I am the double greatest!”

 

OK, so overpaid athletes don’t have the corner on arrogance.  Overpaid performers rank as well.  Figuring out who the most arrogant person is among contemporary US entertainers would be difficult since arrogance is highly regarded by a number of people, sad to say. I can’t begin to make a reliable list, but I would have to think Kanye West would be on it. I came across a handful of quotes that Kanye West had made, and one never knows with a job in which one needs to be in the limelight whether outrageous behavior is authentic or staged.  Nonetheless, here is a Kanye West sampler, “My greatest pain in life is that I will never be able to see myself perform live.” Another.  He was saying in an interview somewhere that he was going to go down in history as a legend, and from there he jumped to say the Bible has 20, 30, 40, 50 major characters in it.  “You don’t think that I would be one of the characters of today’s modern Bible?”  One more for now; he said in an interview with Sirius XM “I am Warhol. I am the number one most impactful artist of our generation. I am Shakespeare in the flesh.”

 

It seems to me that almost every president while he occupies the Oval Office is regarded by many Americans and others around the world as incomprehensibly arrogant.  Obama certainly gets plenty of such criticism, and all over the place people are calling him and his administration the most arrogant in history.  That would be very difficult to say.  Picking out a humble president would be an easier task since there are so few to consider.  Brooks D Simpson is a professor at Arizona State University and a highly regarded historian of the American presidency. He believes that judging from memoirs the most humble of all US presidents was Ulysses S Grant.  Professor Simpson bases his assessment in part on Grant’s willingness to accept the blame for what went wrong on his watch.

 

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Journalist Ken Klukowski wrote around the fourth of July a couple of years back, “We [Americans] celebrate American exceptionalism–everything that makes the United States the greatest nation on earth.”  We should realize that just because many of our citizens have amazing opportunities to live out their freedoms exactly as they wish not all citizens can do so, and not all who do, make choices that benefit any, other than themselves.                                  

 

In the formal study of critical thinking, a core part of introductory content centers in learning to spot various fallacies in claims that are made–generally nullifying the statement by their very presence.  In a  sense, the four that I have in mind today are subcategories of what often are called “Us versus Them” fallacies, and each one is based in utter arrogance.  They are:

 

  • Egocentrism
  • Ethnocentrism
  • Anthropocentrism
  • Antiquacentrism

 

“Egocentrism” means that it’s all about me, baby.  There are many ways to conceive of this, but let’s use an explanation of trouble as our base for today.  In this context, egocentrism flows forth from the mouth of someone who finds it impossible to entertain the notion that she or he could ever be at fault, period.  Dame Maggie Smith’s character on the hottest television drama in the world right now, “Downton Abby,” was told by her son that he would take her advice as long as she would be willing to admit she was wrong if things blew up in his face.  She said, “Oh, that’s an easy promise for me to make since I’m never wrong.” 

 

 

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I’m so grateful in all the churches I’ve served that there have been a few members who were never and could never be wrong.   When something went awry, one thing we could always count on was that those people could not be considered to have been involved in any wrong choices or actions that got us into whatever bind we were in.  Thank you, Lord, for the perfect among us!

 

“Ethnocentrism” means that there may be a problem alright, but people in my racial group couldn’t have been at fault. The Klan was born based essentially on ethnocentric perspectives, and we all know that most problems in our country are caused by immigrants, right?

 

“Anthropocentrisim” is a perspective that says animals and the natural order are here to serve humans and must exist always and only for human satisfaction so, for example, it’s fine to kill a rhino so it’s easier to cut off his horn to be ground up for use in Chinese traditional medicine.  Why not?

 

“Antiquacentrism,” my coinage, is a belief that anything from bygone eras has more value than whatever the present or future can come up with.  Without a doubt, we need to build on historic successes and failures, but not without adapting the principle to modern circumstances.

     

 

II.

Religious arrogance abounds.  As you have noticed, the people most likely to be haughty in theistic traditions are those who believe God likes, most of all, those folks who are in the same religious group they are in.  If God likes an outsider at all, it’s certainly significantly less than God likes their religious insiders.    

 

Several years ago a Sunday morning rolled around when I had laryngitis and, thus, could not preach. By coincidence, Dr. Tom McDaniel, who died just a few days ago–a tremendous loss, was already scheduled that morning to lead Forum back in the days when Forum met after the gathering on Sundays, and he happily agreed to add preaching a sermon to his Sunday morning duties. I was in the congregation for a change listening to a preacher in the Silverside pulpit, and it was a wonderful sermon.  No surprises there, of course.

 

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In the sermon Tom spoke about the chosen people theology, which can be traced back to the ancient Hebrews, who were said to have been the chosen people of God. Almost always in modern times that designation is taken out of context, not that it was left completely in-context all through the centuries. However, in modern contexts many people make their own uninformed interpretation of what “chosen people” means and often rather largely ignore what is going on with the biblical text. So the idea that the ancient Hebrews were God’s chosen people did not ever mean, as Tom explained with wondrous detail growing out of his vast knowledge of Hebrew language and culture, that God liked them better than God liked anybody else. He said something like this, “`Chosen’ did not mean `chosen for adulation.’ Rather, `chosen’ meant `chosen for a purpose,’ `chosen to do some great task.’”

 

Contemporary US foreign policy with reference to Israel still reflects a perspective based on unexamined biblical literalism that says the Jews are and always have been and always will be divinely favored over all the others within the human race.  As such, they are always right.  This is why Palestinians in the American eye have largely been the culprits any time there are differences of opinion between Jews and Palestinians.  This simply can’t be the case.  Former President Carter was roundly criticized some years ago by some Jewish folk and their ardent supporters when he wrote a book that said, in summary, the Palestinians have not always been on the side or wrong in interaction with the Jews.  The Jewish nation is just as apt to make mistakes as any other nation—wherever God may fit into the picture.  I’ve never run across a Holocaust survivor who believed that the Jews were the chosen people during Hitler’s reign of terror.  

 

That chosen-people-confusion came to this country in the minds of the British settlers who used it to bolster their confidence in making their homes here as well as stoking the fires of pride, on religious grounds, allowing them to see themselves as far superior to the indigenous Americans, more easily thereafter taking their land and if necessary killing them off.

 

In his book, Lies Teachers Tell, James Loewen points out that Indigenous Americans have been the most lied-about subset in our population primarily because of the intentional omission in teaching of anti-Native racism.  In 1788, the United States government declined to cooperate with the Delaware Indians when they proposed that Natives be admitted to the union as a separate state.  Congress steadfastly refused even to debate the idea. We had a racist Congress. 

 

A little more than 50 years later, the so called Indian Territory attempted to send representatives to Congress, something other territories had been doing. White Southerners in Congress stopped them, but promised to admit the Territory as a state IF the South won the Civil War.  Even if the South had won the Civil War, the chances of the South’s following through on this political promise was virtually zilch. 

 

Our beloved forebear, those of us who treasure the separation of synagogue/church/mosque and state, Roger Williams, challenged Massachusetts in the 1630’s to renounce its royal patent on the Native land, insisting over and over again that the Natives and only the Natives were the owners of that land.  The angry outcry against him was the primary reason he fled Rhode Island. 

 

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Helen Hunt Jackson got a similar response from our lawmakers at the time.  She paid out of her own pocket to have copies of her famous book, A Century of Dishonor, given to every member of Congress in 1881.  She was all but ignored; Congress wouldn’t even consider her concerns. 

 

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These are only two among many examples where arrogant lawmakers refused to give any attention whatsoever to a race of people most of them thought undeserving of equality.  “Congress repudiated Helen Jackson’s book, and the Puritans ran Roger Williams out of town. This contrast is noted as cultural racism, since the neglectful views enforce the inferiority of Native Americans. The time between 1630 and 1881 changed nothing within white supremacist ideologies.”

We do well to remember the biblical injunction.  “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”  There is no way to water it down; it can be ignored or written off, but it can’t be watered down.

  

 

 

III.

Probably anybody who takes a stand expressing an opinion as rather absolute is subject to be criticized by others—others who are insecure in what they believe and therefore made uncomfortable by those who are quite sure what they believe and also by others who are jealous of the fact that enough people are interested in the opinion someone has expressed actually to take the time to listen and respond even if not favorably. What this latter group is feeling is that if they were to go out and take a stand no one would pay attention anyway.

 

Jesus had his detractors as we all know, and some of them disliked Jesus simply because they took him to be arrogant. His most serious critics believed that he pitted himself against the rather inerrant tradition of the ancient Hebrews. Here was a carpenter, and the son of a carpenter, so the Pharisees reasoned, who thinks he knows more than the great teachers in our past history not to mention the contemporary (contemporary to Jesus’ time) scribes who are the professional interpreters of the ancient law.

 

Jesus wasn’t trying to put himself into conflict with anything. He was simply trying to demonstrate that living by ancient laws as well intentioned as they might have been would not get anyone anywhere along the way toward understanding God.  Thus, they believed he was not only flat out wrong but also arrogant.

 

What Jesus really would be remembered for by those who studied his life closely was his humility. Jesus bowing down before his followers and washing their feet to demonstrate symbolically that he was the servant who had come to minister, not as somebody who would win with popularity and political power but rather as somebody willing to do the most menial tasks necessary in order to be able to care for those who needed ministry the most.

 

Paul quoted this memorable hymn when writing to the Christians at the Church in Philippi:

 

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 

who, though he was in the form of God,

   did not regard equality with God

   as something to be exploited, 

but emptied himself,

   taking the form of a slave,

   being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form, 

   he humbled himself

   and became obedient to the point of death—

   even death on a cross. 

Therefore God also highly exalted him

   and gave him the name

   that is above every name, 

so that at the name of Jesus

   every knee should bend,

   in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 

and every tongue should confess

   that Jesus Christ is Lord,

   to the glory of God the Father. 

 

The concept of a preexistent Jesus, that is one who lived with God in God’s realm before becoming a human being on earth, is clearly a theo-poetic image.  What the hymn writer whom Paul quotes here is caught up with is that from such magnificence Jesus came to earth and lived like a servant to others.  He emptied himself of all divine trappings to live his life in humble service to others, even to the point of losing his life because he wouldn’t stop pronouncing God’s blessings on those regarded as inconsequential to the wider society in which he ministered.  Pope Francis, a really cool pope, said rather recently, “If a thought, if a desire takes you along the road of humility…in service to others, it is from Jesus.”

 

Our true theologies aren’t necessarily spoken and don’t have to be.  We are living them out day by day.  If you are one who humbly serves others in any way, you have a powerful theology shaping you.  Amen.

Seven Deadly [Societal] Yens: Lust

I.
All members of the Beaver Dam Baptist Church in Halls Crossroads where I grew up were warned by most of our pastors along the way not to dance, unless with a marriage partner.  They said over and over again that dancing is a sin.  Thus, my sister and I were forbidden by our parents from participating in, or even attending, school dances.  This was enforced even though several  characters dance in various stories in Scripture, and with God’s approval as it were.  So, one wonders how dance can be regarded as a sin and pronounced as such by people, particularly preachers, who evidently believe they must augment the teachings of Scripture in this dimension.
My Hebrew Scripture professor back in undergraduate days believed that the reason dancing and smoking and drinking became the big three sins in United States history was because of the place of the saloon in the development of the country–particularly in the westward expansion and gold rush eras. Everything you didn’t want to do if you wanted to be an upstanding person, morally or otherwise, was done in the saloons–drinking, dancing, smoking, hanky-panky, you name it. So when preachers began to preach against such things it was easy to group them all together. That grouping mentality has continued in many places even until today.
The book of Ecclesiastes insists that there are times in life to dance.  King David must have loved to dance, and his most memorable dance was the one where he forgot to put on his royal undergarments wearing then ONLY a mini toga and began to dance all over the place, bringing humiliation to all who were connected to him and sober at the time.  Regardless of the evidence, however, young people and single adults heard at the Beaver Dam Baptist Church that it was good not to show up on the dance floor.  Dancing would lead to lust, and lust would be our undoing.

 

Even so, I say that lust felt and expressed in the proper contexts is a wonderful thing. Who would want to live in a lustless relationship as long as there was some way to avoid that? Like anything good, however, it can be misused and abused until it becomes something quite impious and destructive.

 

When I got old enough and brave enough actually to risk asking my father why we had the no-dance rule in our home, long before I had any sort of serious theological study, his first answer was the typical answer he gave to any kind of challenge:  Because I said so. That response from him had to be respected, but on occasion one could perhaps ask for a little more information and clarification. And so I tried.  I must have been 13 or 14 years old. “Okay, Daddy, but other people are dancing; in fact, every kid we go to church with gets to go school dances. What is the issue?”  And he said, “Well, either way you dance-whether fast or slow–it can cause you to get charged up sexually by somebody you find attractive.  Since sex is reserved for marriage, you don’t need to see someone you’re attracted to gyrating like Elvis, and you don’t need to be pulling a girl right up next to you in a slow dance so that you all would be touching each other too much.”  And so, that rule remained official in our home–not saying my sister and I failed to find ways to sneak out to a sock hop now and then.  Despite our disobedience, we managed to avoid being overtaken by lust.

 

I vividly remember, and I’ve told some of you about this probably a time or to, when Jimmy Carter was running for the presidency, and he gave his infamous interview to Playboy magazine.  In that interview he confessed that he had lusted in his heart after a number of women. He could not help that he said, and as long as he didn’t act on it he knew that God forgave him. If you’re wondering why I know about the content of the interview, maybe someday after a glass of wine I can tell you about it.

 

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Carter was referring back to Jesus’ teaching, which was one example in a collection of antitheses Jesus presented to his hearers, probably on more than one occasion. And he was a contrasting how an ancient law had been applied in the culture that produced it with the spirit of that law and how it could be applied in the modern world–the world as Jesus experienced it, I mean.  Trying to follow the letter of the law could well cause someone to miss its point altogether.  Rather than soft-soaping moral standards, following the spirit, rather than the letter, of the law could be much more demanding a task.  The letter alone, literalism, might get someone off the hook, so to speak, rather easily. 

 

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Adultery, Jesus preached, was unacceptable.  Wouldn’t it have been have been fairly simple for men at least to avoid committing adultery in a polygamous society?  He could  just take another wife. But Jesus said that if you even look at another person though sexual lenses, with enough thought and planning that you would be willing to become intimate under the right circumstances, you already committed adultery in your heart before anything physical ever happens.

 

My great mentor Dr. Stagg used to stress that thinking is certainly not the same as taking action–that is, following through.   Still, you have already put yourself in a position to act in a way that is morally improper if the circumstances are right.  Jesus was constantly dealing with the legalists of his day; in our context, the religious right would be the outspoken legalists.  The legalists known to Jesus were all caught up in how to live literally by the laws.  Jesus said that there’s a whole lot more to it than literally not committing adultery physically; when you set your mind to do it under the right circumstances, when the the possibilities creep up, you’re already stepping over the line.

 

I’m not sure that’s what President Carter meant when he gave the interview.  I rather think he meant he had had thoughts about the possibility of having sex with attractive women without ever making plans to act on it.  He was and remains an amazingly moral person, and he participates in a strong and beautiful marriage.

 

In our culture, given what we choose to read and watch on TV and at the theater, we may believe it’s virtually impossible not to commit adultery since sexual suggestiveness is in practically everything we choose to entertain us. For that matter, let’s not forget that there are some sexually-charged, juicy-juicy stories in Scripture that could get someone’s mind working in the direction of seeking out some sort of sexual expression. May I remind you, for example, picking on King David again, the ancient Hebrews regarded him as the greatest king of all fully aware of his blatant, lustful, adulteress chase after yet another woman, Bathsheba. He did not need another woman in terms of having his sexual desires satisfied because he already had several. And he could have added concubines to his household by bringing aboard any unmarried women he wanted.  So there was way more to his fault than adultery though that was at the core.
My take on the subject is that lust in the right context is a wonderfully exciting thing. Outside a proper context, though, it can lead to using other people as nothing more than sex objects, and I think that is wrong even if the other person is okay with being used.

II.
Once upon a time I was pastor of a church in which a staff member was having an extramarital affair with a church member whose spouse was also a member of the church.  And when this situation was brought to my attention by someone who demanded that I do something about it I had a conversation with the staff member involved.  I said what I thought was very magnanimous as the pastor of precisely the same king of congregation.  I said, “When you get this improper relationship behind you there’s no reason that you would need to lose your job or be criticized or castigated. But even liberal churches have to have principles, and one of those principles is that of a staff member married or not cannot have a relationship with someone in the congregation whose spouse or partner is also in the congregation. Please get this behind you as soon as possible,” The staff member cursed at me and resigned.

 

Within a few days the congregants, probably as outspoken as Silverside without email at their disposal, began to make their opinions known. Some praised me for my compassionate courage and my standard; others were highly critical of me for trying to apply antiquated standards in a modern, liberal church.  One Deacon said to me when she came to my office for a face to face on the subject, “We’re grownups around here; didn’t anybody tell you that before you came?”

 

I have known more than a few people who married and certainly loved the person but did not find in that person the soulmate connection.  Later in life the soulmate was found, leading to a divorce (sometimes after a secretive affair) and the start of a new life with the soulmate, which brought both of them happiness they had not previously known. The notion that karma would come around and bite one or both of these happily-connected people on the buttocks like a poisonous snake didn’t hold water. Karma left them be, and God wasn’t sitting around ready to zap them for violating the standard of monogamy based, by the way, on scriptures written in polygamous societies. 

 

Dr. Judith Orloff is a psychiatrist who has done a lot of thinking about the difference between love and lust, since a fair number of people don’t know the difference.  She wrote, “As a psychiatrist, I’ve seen how intense sexual attraction is notorious for obliterating common sense and intuition in the most sensible people. Why? Lust is an altered state of consciousness programmed by [a] primal urge.… Studies suggest that the brain in this phase is much like a brain on drugs. MRI scans illustrate that the same area lights up when an addict gets a fix of cocaine as when a person is experiencing the intense lust of physical attraction. Also in the early stage of a relationship, when the sex hormones are raging, lust is fueled by idealization and projection–you see what you hope someone will be or need them to be rather than seeing the real person, flaws and all.”

 

Dr. Orloff has devised comparative lists:  the signs of lust versus the signs of love.

 

Here are her signs of lust:

  • You’re totally focused on a person’s looks and body.
  • You’re interested in having sex, but not in having conversations.
  • You’d rather keep the relationship on a fantasy level, not discuss real feelings.
  • You want to leave soon after sex rather than cuddling or having breakfast the next morning.
  • You are lovers, but not friends.

 

 

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And here are Dr. Orloff’s signs of love:

 

 

  • You want to spend quality time together doing things other than having sex.
  • You get lost in conversations and forget about the hours passing.
  • You want to honestly listen to each other’s feelings, make each other happy.
  • He or she motivates you to be a better person.
  • You want to get to meet his or her family and friends.

III.
Some years ago in a speech class, a student delivering a speech to inform said that his mother worked as an activities director in a nursing home and that her primary problem or challenge most weeks was dealing with sexual activity between the residents. I was probably shocked enough actually to be jolted physically. I doubted that could possibly be true, and I began to think about the many, many nursing homes I had visited across the years. I must confess that lustful activity is not what I think is going on when I enter a  a senior care facility.  I have been out of touch with reality, though.

As recently as a few days ago, the Los Angeles Times ran an article with the title, “Seniors Are Putting the S in STD.” Yes, according to this journalist the rise of sexual activity in nursing homes and independent living facilities is accompanied by the rise of sexually transmitted diseases.

 

The article went on to say that since senior women do not have to worry about menopause, many who are sexually active choose not to worry about protection. Many of them are simply not in the know about risks of being sexually active in modern times. One woman tells the story of her daughter bringing her package one day at the retirement center, and she wondered why the daughter would bring her all those individually wrapped Alka-Seltzers. (In reality they were condoms!)

 

There are many more senior women than men, and so in a typical facility men have the pic of all the pretty women they want. In the article one gentleman says that he already has 4 girlfriends, each one a sexual companion, and is ready to ask the 5th; he is 78 years old, and he has nothing on a 90-year-old gentleman who says that Viagra responsible for his happiness.  This 90-year-old gent says that sex is great and that he never intends to stop enjoying it. He believes anybody should be able to keep at it until she or he is 120 or 130 years of age.

 

These seniors and Americans of all ages had better watch themselves when it comes to contending with lust.  Adultery is a punishable illegal activity in 20 or so US states. Penalties range from $10 in Maryland to 3 years in jail in Wisconsin. And up until about 10 years ago life imprisonment was still on the books as the appropriate punishment for adultery in Michigan.

 

The fix is not to allow oneself to get into a situation where something that should not happen can happen. And in our society where there are so many ways to juggle schedules and text out the message that there’s suddenly a sliver of time for a quickie, it’s much easier than ever before to let the lust find fruition. Some people obviously are watching their P’s and Q’s, but others are not. Statistics are all over the place on the issue of marital infidelity say that approximately 10 to 15 percent of married women in this country have had the extra marital affairs, while 25 percent of the men. Other sources say 40 percent of all married couples have had infidelity visit their home.

 

It is inappropriate, but some people who are dissatisfied with themselves and/or their relationship use lustful activity often with others who are supposed to be protecting commitments to try to fill the vacuum.  I mention again that there are those who are being unfaithful or helping someone else be unfaithful who simply lack the gifts of being able to be monogamous.  They should never have gotten into a relationship that required it. They’re not cut out to be in relationships at all. These people are not those who have the loosest morals by any stretch of the imagination. They’re simply people who find that the kind of intense connection to one person required for longterm monogamy isn’t suitable for them.

 

The people who have terrific marriages or partnerships may lead the way in trying to match up every single person they know.   They are constantly trying to set up blind dates and such.  My ex-mother-in-law used to refer to her unmarried friends as “unclaimed blessings.”  Most of the people in my life who tried to fix me up with somebody else once my divorce made me single again were not in happy relationships themselves, which always made me wonder exactly why they were spending so much energy on me rather than on trying to fix their own situation.  Some of them undoubtedly wanted to be sure I didn’t have to give up appropriately lustful activity, but since I was the pastor they also wanted to be sure that I did so within the confines of marriage. How could I not thank them for their efforts?

 

Keeping lust in check boils down to a matter of respect—respect for other people and self-respect as well. I believe that wondering eyes are often attached to someone who doesn’t want to put the hard work into maintaining a healthy long-term relationship. Maybe someone is incapable of monogamy or other traits needed to make a relationship endure.  It’s a mistake to think that everyone should be or needs to be married or partnered so if she or he fails at it there is no sound reason to place blame.  And if we really want to cut back on broken relationships between two people who are capable of maintaining one, then we would have to advise them not to be led astray by extraneous sources such as what we read and watch on television and so forth or what hear about at the hair salon or barber shop.