Kids: Tomorrow’s Energy Core

I.

Two-time Prime Minister of Great Britain, Benjamin Disraeli, was also a novelist, and some say his best novel was the one that carried the title, Sybil, published in 1845.  In this novel, Disraeli has his characters criticize forced child labor.  After a vivid description of what the men looked like as they came up out of the mines after a long, long day’s work–12 or 13 hours–Disraeli’s narrator gets around to a more heart-rending image:

 

Image

 

 

 

So, too, these emerge from the bowels of the earth!  Infants of four or five years of age, many of them girls, pretty and still soft and timid; entrusted with the fulfillment of responsible duties, the very nature of which entails on them the necessity of being the earliest to enter the mine and the latest to leave it.

 

One poignant detail after another in Nigeria of late.  A couple of days ago some news sources reported that several of the fathers of the Chibok schoolgirls–at least 200 of them, proudly abducted by the terrorist organization Boko Haram–are speaking out about the complexity of their tragedy.  Not only do they feel utterly helpless before an evil organization, but also the fathers of these beloved children, missing for a little over a month now, report that not a single representative from their local government or from the Nigerian federal government, no police investigators, and no military personnel have come to them to ask any questions about the identity of their daughters whom the fathers still hope will be rescued.  One of the fathers who was willing to give his name to the press, Abana Maina, said, “We want the International World to help us in prayer so that God may help us to rescue these girls one day.”

 

Image

 

 

How I wish, not only with the issue of the safety and rapid return of these young ladies, that people in none of the religions of the world would be taught that God allows tragedy but might, in some cases, reverse it.  That, however, is for another sermon or another book or another career to promote.

Some of us parents who have walked the floors at night, worrying about the wellbeing of one of our children who was out and unreachable for several hours, have had a taste–and only a taste–of what the parents and siblings of these girls are going through.  If there were a hell, this would be one of the emotions that stokes the fire.  

As with war, God neither causes nor corrects abuse and aggression.  While each of us understands the feeling of the father who has asked people around the world to pray that God would make a way for his daughter and all the others to be returned safely home, a God who could grant such a prayer-wish and who waits to be asked is not a God any of us would care to be connected to anyway.

Let’s not forget that the girls are more than pawns or puppets and that they are the ones suffering the most acutely.  Sometimes, in trying to understand the depth of someone’s pain, there are those of us who focus on how the situations affect the ones to whom we can most readily relate, and those tend to be the ones connected to those who most acutely suffer.  As we may not know what it’s like to suffer the way this person or that one has, we might concentrate on how the tragedy affects someone we CAN see and relate to–for example, a relative of someone who suffers.  Not to minimize the horrors the parents of these girls are enduring, we still have to understand that the children themselves are terrorized directly; they are not supporting characters in the drama.

 

 

II.

The Apostle Paul who didn’t know doodley squat about raising children, which didn’t keep him from expressing an opinion–or, as was the case with the snippet Gail read for us earlier, borrowing an existing commentary on the subject and weaving that into his own composition; adapting if he were so inclined.  

 

Children, the right thing for you to do is to obey your parents as those whom God has set over you. The first commandment to contain a promise was: “Honor your father and your mother, that it may be well with you and that you may live long on the earth.”  Fathers, don’t over-correct your children or make it difficult for them to obey the commandment. Bring them up with Christian teaching in Christian discipline (Ephesians 6:1-4, Phillips).

 

This directive to children is one section of a whole code of behavioral guidelines for a complete household.  There is advice for the wife and mother in the typical home as well as advice for the husband and father in the home.  Then, Paul gets to his words for children that is followed by directives for slaves in the household.  German scholars call these lists of appropriate behaviors haustafeln, household codes.  Paul uses them in more than one place. I say this just to confirm the fact that Paul wasn’t writing along to the church in Ephesus and suddenly decided to slip in a quick word to get a quick word in for kids.  

Now let’s concentrate for a moment on what Paul said to kids within the household unit.  You may know that Paul’s letters were  received by the pastor of a church, and the pastor read the letter to assembled congregation so the children in the congregation would have heard Paul’s word as it was read to a small church group as a whole.  In this case, what he said to them was that it was their responsibility to honor their parents, which was stated in the Ten Commandments–specifically, in the first commandment on the list of ten to have a promise attached to it.  The promise was that if children obey parents, they will inherit long life.  

The fifth commandment on that most famous list of communal behavioral expectations does not promise a long life to obedient children individually.  Rather, it is a promise of longevity, on the basis of common sense, to a society in which children practice parental respect in comparison to a society in which appreciation for parents is neither taught nor expected.  There is a time when obedience to parents’ guidelines is honor parents but in reality is much more a matter of safety and survival, but a maturing honor of parents can’t be tied to behavioral demands by parents of their adult children.

I find it interesting, therefore, that the original commandment among the ten was probably directed not to little kids in the process of growing up, but to adult children.  Adult children, honor your parents because you love them, yes, but also out of a healthy sense of duty as well as the practical realization that a society that throws away it’s elders like yesterday’s suddenly dated pieces of technology will not endure. 

Paul, however, is clearly using the commandment to admonish children still growing up in the homes of their parents.  There is a caveat.  Even a guy who loved rules realized that eventually neither obedience nor honor can be coerced.  And with that in mind, this household code that Paul used, with tweaking or not, has a built in warning for despotic parents.  Overhearing parents had better watch out, or else they’ll lose out.  A growing up kid who has no motivation to respect a parent’s wishes other than the fear of retaliation will escape such a parent’s sphere of influence as quickly as possible.  

 

Image

 

 

Evidently, the writers of the code that came into Paul’s hands believed that fathers more than mothers were the ones inclined to berate children who didn’t inherently love scads of enforced rules.  Thus, Paul and the code to dads:  “Fathers, don’t provoke your children to anger.”  Or, as the Phillips translation has it, “Fathers, don’t over-criticize your kids.”  Don’t weigh them down with so much criticism that keeping the commandment about honoring parents becomes an impossibility. There are many reasons children fail to honor their parents; the one Paul points to here is the emotionally abusive parent who has removed respect for kids out of the relational equation.

 

III.

What do Nita Balderston, Robin Bryson, Patty Fregdant-Yost, Bob George, Don Neal, John Neal, Ann Sharp, Lisa Frankel, Walt Stapleton, Marion Symonds, and Bonnie Zickefoose have in common other than the fact that they are members of Silverside Church?  Hint:  it’s something good! 

Answer:  They were once upon a time Silverside kids or teens or both! Where would we be without these core members today?!? Not in a very good place!  If we can gift the future Silverside with a core such as this one from our present crop of kids, there would be no better endowment.

In the now-old film, “Bye Bye Birdie,” Paul Lynde—playing the father of teens—sang these memorable words:

 

Kids!

I don’t know what’s wrong with these kids today!

Kids!

Who can understand anything they say?

Kids!

They a disobedient, disrespectful oafs!

Noisy, crazy, dirty, lazy, loafers!

While we’re on the subject:

Kids!

You can talk and talk till your face is blue!

Kids!

But they still just do what they want to do!

Why can’t they be like we were,

Perfect in every way?

 

 

Image

 

 

 

Hilarious!

So what IS the matter with kids these days?  Generally speaking, not a thing except what taints them from the outside.  Of course, there are are exceptions.

At Silverside, I know I can talk about this in a company of affirmation and agreement, which is to say, all the parents I know—and I think I know them all—are excellent parents, whatever the ages of their children.  We love kids—our kids and the kids of others.  Kids get priority treatment around here—not because we hope to get a payback from them, though it would be great to see many of tomorrow’s leaders coming out of the ever-growing group of kids we have here at Silverside today.  We make kids a priority, and we do what we can for the kids to give them an enduring foundation for spiritual health and well-being because they deserve it.  An enduring foundation is one that will always contribute to their overall wellbeing, which includes the comfort of self-affirmation rather than self-condemnation, the birthright many of us inherited in our hellfire and damnation church-homes.  An enduring foundation is one that can be built upon; it is a foundation and not a finished structure.  A fitting spirituality is not one set for the ages as it were; rather, it is one that is adaptable to times and circumstances.  Believing that all aspects of a spirituality for one generation become or should become or can become a template for the spirituality of some future unknown and unknowable context is mostly naive, and somewhat selfish—but mostly naive.  

My background for evaluating a healthy spirituality was based on maximum church attendance, maximum Bible study, and maximum scriptural memorization.  That got me started, but had I left it there I’d quickly have outgrown it; and I’d have been left with nothing to replace were it not for the amazing opportunity at just the right time to begin the study of religion and spirituality with a larger-world focus.

All of us here hope that abductions and abuse of children would come to a screeching, permanent stop; if not, the kind of spirituality we want to equip our Silverside kids with—as they are the potential golden energy core for our future—is a spirituality that would have taught them that spirituality is not about private meditation time exclusively or primarily, but heavily focused on making the world a better place.  Today, that we would mean we cannot sit idly by while kids are abducted by terrorists anywhere in the world, as one of countless concerns for justice in all of creation.

Pouting Places: Spiritual Spelunking, Don’t Let Your Core Cave!

I.

My neighbor said to me the other day, ”I must be the only one in the neighborhood who cares about keeping things looking good here.”  

I said, “Yeah, you probably are.”

He explained, “I notice you and those Mexicans across the street aren’t too particular about how fast your bring your trash cans in after the trash guys come.”

I responded, “Thank goodness for you.  The `Mexicans’ from the Dominican Republic and and I–we’re so thankful for you, and we’re all the time wondering what in the world Elsmere would do without you.  Keep up the good work.  We’re all depending on you to set the standard for rapid trash can retrieval!”

 

 

Image

 

 

“Pastor,” said my parishioner in Baltimore who was doing everything in her power to keep the church from pulling out of the Southern Baptist Convention, “I think I’m the only one in the church who truly loves this church.”

Responding, having to draw deeply into my well of formal pastoral counselor training in order to say the professional thing, I managed to form these words, “Your love for our church is well attested.”  

“God has told us,” she went on, “that if University Church dissociates with the Southern Baptist Convention, we will have to find another church home.”

“I didn’t realize that God has such vested interest in the Southern Baptist Convention.  How did I miss that in a lifelong association with the Southern Baptists?” I asked her.  [Before anybody gets up and walks out on me, let me clue you in to the fact that I walked out on Southern Baptists shortly after the conversation I’m reporting.  Geez!]

“God has used the Southern Baptist Convention in a mighty way,” she said.

And I said, “Not as much as the Southern Baptists have used God.”  

“Whatever you may think about them, I will never stop supporting them; and if you and the deacons loved the church like I do you’d stop this pullout process right now.  If you don’t, we’re outta here.”

“You’re a core member of this congregation,” I explained, stating the obvious, “and we would all be pained if your family were suddenly not a part of us.  In any case, you will vote at the business meeting like the rest of us, and the count will be taken; and we will live with the results.  Please do keep in mind as you ponder all of this that some of the people who will vote for the withdrawal will be doing so because of their own powerful love for our church.”

As she was departing in a huff, she blurted out, “Like I said, no one loves this church more than I do, even the pastor!”  

I’d been found out. Now everyone would know I was and had been pastoring a bunch of people for whom I felt low levels of love or no love at all.  Maybe one day, I thought to myself, I can learn how to love my church a lot.

 

Image

 

 

 

Have I ever been guilty of playing the victim?  Let’s keep this professional, and I must confess, yes I have.  I don’t like that I let myself go there, but since I’m pinging others who have I must say in fairness I also have given in to whining–usually not in earshot of too many people.  

In an academic setting or two in which I’ve taught, I’ve sometimes thought, “Am I the only one upholding basic academic standards here?  Yes, I think I must be.”  I didn’t really believe I was the only one; I figured there was one other, probably.  When academia became a branch of big business while students became consumers and deans became division managers, professors–especially part-timers–began to wonder what the price would be of assigning low grades. If you don’t keep the customers happy, what use are you to the business?  

Same thing happened when the age of the mega church dawned.  Mega churches are unashamedly entertainment-based.  There were (and are!) churches who wanted to have mega church memberships and money, but they detested the entertainment model for church.  There is only one place to affix blame in this case–church leadership, the paid folks and the elected lay leadership.  And, yes, I have gone to bed many a night through the years when my church numbers weren’t keeping up with the churches down the street–and that wasn’t always the case–asking myself, “Am I the only one in the crowd who realizes that church growth doesn’t happen because of wishful thinking or because of a dogged determination to avoid thinking about anything other than what made the church grow in the good ole days.”  I think I can safely say that while I’ve been a pastor during the last 28 years of the three best ches any liberal pastor could have served, I’m quite sure that even though the future has always been a concern the vast majority of conversations I’ve had have focussed on the congregation’s long gone hayday.  Poor-pastor me.

The victim mentality is a certain way to prove to oneself and others that we are frozen in the past and generally unable to be free enough of the past to move into an ever-changing, curveball future.  The mega churches grew, thrived, and survived in many places because some folks at the respective helms would not allow the victim mentality related to congregational numeric deline to blind and paralyze them.

II.

Talk about a winner-take-all kind of deal!  A prophetic powers contest was staged in ancient Israel.  On the one side was a group of the most highly regarded prophets of the god, Baal, whom the ancient Hebrews regarded as a figment of his followers’ imaginations though to his devotees he was very much alive.  On the other side, was the greatest of all the Hebrew prophets, Elijah, working (or performing–you might say in this case) solo.  

Elijah won the match, and in his victor’s glory, he ordered that all the prophets of Baal should be slaughtered; and so it was done.  One might well wonder why or how a prophet of God would desire a mass execution of clergy-nemeses, even though such wishes and implementations came to be repeated frequently as history unfolded from Elijah’s point onward.  

A tiny bit of background to set the stage.  The king of Israel at this point in Elijah’s ministry was Ahab.  Many of Ahab’s subjects were displeased with their king for having chosen a wife who not only rejected the God of Israel whom they believed was the one and only deity there was, but also she was the primary benefactress to the Baalite religion.  She–Queen Jezebel–contributed to the upkeep of worship sites; she kept the seminaries afloat financially.  No one knew how they could survive without her.

Jezebel had a particular dislike for Hebrew prophets, and since Elijah was the most famous of them all, she hated him the most.  Elijah didn’t help his cause with the Queen because he loved to stir things up by reminding those in power that he, Elijah, was a servant to the real power in the world–namely his God.  

At one point for reasons unstated, Jezebel had it in for a group of a hundred Hebrew prophets in particular, and they would have died at her demand had not King Ahab’s chief of staff not secretly hidden them in caves and kept survival supplies flowing there for them.  This likely was one of the reasons Elijah called for the slaughter of a huge group of Baalite prophets when he won the “Israeli Idol” episode in which his God acted as per his request while Baal didn’t do a thing his prophets begged him to do.  Instant fame, which not many clergy have handled so well through the years.  

Elijah expected the God who apparently performed on cue in the big prophetic power event to continue to do so.  Thus, when Jezebel announced her plan to have him rubbed out, Elijah expected God to show her who was boss, but when her troops were selected for the singular mission of killing off the greatest Hebrew prophet of all, Elijah thought that was much too close a call, and he began to run.  The more he ran, the angrier with God he became.  

At some point he decided that he’d rather die than be unsupported by his people and, worse, unappreciated by God.  That is certainly the most absolute way of making sure that nobody can benefit from one’s talents.  

By and by, Elijah found a cave in which he decided to take emotional and spiritual refuge.  Eventually, God found the Hebrews’ star prophet, and God asked Elijah, “Don’t I remember a sermon you preached once upon a time, Elijah, in which you explained to your hearers that it’s not possible to run from me?”

 

 

Image

 

 

“Nope,” snapped Eliah.  “You have me confused with some other so-called prophet.”

“That must be the case,” God said.  

“Why don’t you go spend time with your hard-headed children who get by with murder, literally?  Or how about those much less successful prophets–the few you have allowed to live?  They seem to be your favorites.”

“Is that a fact?” asked God.

“Yes,” insisted Elijah.  “The God I know is a God who can send fire down from heaven and who could send a killer ailment down on an evil queen trying to undo God’s greatest prophet to date.”

 

Image

 

 

“And you’re sure, are you, Elijah, that you’re not confusing me with a Jinn or a genie?”

Elijah droned on with his pity party, and finally God interrupted and said, “If it wouldn’t be too much trouble, Elijah, I want you to take note of something.”

“Fine!” Elijah shouted.

God said:

“Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.

 

 

Image

 

 

Do you follow the writer?  God was in the silence.  God had been quietly present throughout Elijah’s escape effort, but not in anything earth-shattering, if you will.

III.

My middler seminarians were preaching the other evening, and there seems to have been the group tendency that particular night to blame any sermonic difficulty on time constraints. Now, there’s always a time limitation on sermons in any of my preaching classes, just as there was when I taught public speaking.  A professional needs to learn to speak within a given time frame each time she or he speaks.

In every course, there’s someone who has an interesting cell phone timer or a clever timing app on her or his laptop, and that person usually ends up being the timekeeper.  On Thursday, one too many students complained about the lack of time as the basis for having made a particular error.  It was humorous after a while.  I have to tell you these students are phenomenal, and so the polish is for sophisticated errors, not beginners’ let’s-get-to-first-base polish, but don’t tell them that yet in case some of them stumble into a Gathering before end of term.  I don’t want them to ease up on themselves until the very last day of the semester.  

 

 

Image

 

 

Anyway after hearing those nonstop complaints about lack of sermon time the timekeeper asked the most recent complainee if he wanted some cheese with his “whine.”  Hilarious.  Of course, I was probably the last person in the United States to have heard that expression, but it was a first for me; and I couldn’t help laughing for a while.  

When it comes to personal challenges, the dynamics are different.  Let me let you know that if you need to whine about a personal difficulty, your pastor is available to listen.  That said, let me also say that the people of Silverside collectively have suffered tremendous tragedy and loss without whining at all–even when whining would have A-OK.  In my almost 14 year tenure here there has been no whining about about overwhelming personal affronts.  None of us would have faulted anyone who cried or cried out while feeling like the weight of the world had been suddenly thrust on her or his shoulders.

There’s a difference, though, between the emotions that result in having lost a loved one to some dreadful disease, for example, and letting oneself come to believe that she or he actually is the only one who cares about an enterprise or an undertaking when results get to the place of being undesirable as in Elijah’s case.  The victim mentality is pointless and contributes nothing to resolution.  Of course, by the time the typical victim menality “victim” gets to that point, she or he is not much interested in resolution.  The whining, by then, is the only reward desired.

Nurturing the victim mentality usurps energy that would be better utilized in coming at the problem one more time OR admitting that if there is a solution someone else may be, probably is, in a better position to bring about the needed result than I.  The future of the Hebrew religion didn’t rest on Elijah’s shoulders though he was quite disappointed to make that discovery.  

 

 

Image

 

 

I’m not convinced that my neighbor would be happy if I and the neighbors across the street brought in our trash cans as quickly as he does.  If we took that away from him by leaving out our trash cans several hours longer than he, we’d be robbing him of one of probably several victim roles he enjoys playing.  And the pseudo-logic that I love my church more than anybody so I’ll leave it if it doesn’t do exactly what I want is its own ridiculous, pointless babble.  

How about if we tried determining to be victor instead of victim…period!?

 

 

Seven Deadly [Societal] Yens: Sloth

Image

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

Image

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.

Image

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

Image

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

Image

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,

Image

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.

 

Image

 

 

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.” 

 

 

Image

 

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.

 

Image

 

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. 

 

Image

 

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. 

 

Image

 

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.

 

Image

 

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. 

 

Image

 

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.

 

 

Image

 

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.

“I’m a Misfit!” (First sermon in a five-sermon series for the Season of Expectation aka Advent: Signs that You Are (or Should Be!) a Seeker)

I.

As much as many human groups prize conformity, we realize with only a tiny bit of reflection that the world would never have progressed to any great degree without misfits.  Had every one remained a status quo type, nothing could have changed.  Knowing that, however, typically doesn’t make a misfit popular or welcome.  A spiritual community in which most everyone is a misfit might be an exception to that pattern.  Regardless, let me be quick to point out that there is often a heavy price to pay for being a misfit in groups that fear nonconformity.

Jonathan Merritt is a young and very successful writer of books and blogs.  His blog is called “On Faith and Culture,” and on 9/11 of this year he published a piece on a misfit pastor.  Imagine how hard it would be to find one of those!  Where in the world would you look?!?

If any of you thinks I’m an alien, you need to get acquainted with the Reverend Nadia Bolz-Weber.  She’s the author of a wildly popular book, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint.  She founded a congregation in Denver, which was named House for All Sinners and Saints; it’s an Evangelical Lutheran church, and an increasing number of people out there are drawn to it.  This is something for our Growth Committee to keep in mind!

Image

The Reverend Bolz-Weber has tattoos all over and makes no effort to hide them.  She cusses when she pleases even when her congregants are in earshot.  In the blog post to which I have referred, Merritt shared an interview he did with this pretty amazing woman.  One exchange went as follows.

Merritt:  You’re something of a misfit pastor, and you seem to embrace this identity.  In your book, you talk about your unusual call to ministry.  Can you tell us about this?

Bolz-Weber:  I left the fundamentalist Christianity of my youth when I was a teenager and spent a decade outside of the church quite literally hating Christianity. When I returned to it, I came back to a very particular tradition that had an articulation of the gospel and a liturgical tradition that put language to things I had already experienced to be true in my life. So, despite the fact that in some ways I’d rather be something besides a Christian, I cannot deny the experiences in my life of a surprising and unexpected and destabilizing God.  To not confess that would be to deny what I’ve experienced in my life.  So I have no other choice.

Pondering my sermon subject during the week, I found myself humming over and over again a song that was majorly popular when I was barely into my teens.  It was a solo release by Cass Elliot who was part of the group Mamas and Papas; these were the words of the refrain:

You gotta make your own kind of music
Sing your own special song
Make your own kind of music
Even if nobody else sings along

Image

Thoreau certainly made his own kind of music.  He knew it.  He thought about it and wrote about it.  This snippet from Thoreau hung in poster form on the wall of one of my college professors:

Image

If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.

There’s a spiritual short-short-short story by Shams-e Tabrizi.  I have no idea who the narrator is supposed to be, but we get the point.

I have been a misfit since childhood. I knew that no one understood me, not even my father.  He once said, “You are not a madman, fit to be put in a madhouse, nor are you monk to be put in a monastery. I just don’t know what you are!” I replied: “You know, father, I can tell you what it is like. Once a duck egg was put under a hen to be hatched. When the egg hatched, the duckling walked along with the mother hen until they came to a pond. The duckling took a nice dip in the water. But the hen stayed on the bank and clucked.”  Now, my dear father, after having tried the sea I find it my home. If you choose to stay on the shore, is it my fault? I am not to be blamed.

II.

Both John the Baptist and Jesus were misfits—though John was a PK (preacher’s kid) and more predictably became a misfit!   John, Jesus’ second cousin, was a little older and had gotten into the ministry biz before Jesus realized his commitments would take him in the same direction.  Initially, John was Jesus’ mentor, and Jesus springboards into ministerial service on John’s teachings and his example—though Jesus’ ministry would take him in a significantly different milieu.

Jesus still held onto his carpentry skills for money to live on, but John had rejected what he thought was corrupt society and had moved out into the wilderness to join a group of spiritual seekers who were convinced that they could never be the people God wanted them to be as long as they lived in the middle of societies bound by self-centered standards and not by God’s radical call to be light in the world’s darkness.  Therefore, John joined an escapist—I think that’s a fair description—religio-political party within Judaism called the Essenes, and he lived with this community out in the wilderness depending on nature alone to provide for his needs.  His monastic community’s shelter was carved out of a cave.  His clothing was made from shorn camel’s hair, and his food, distinctive wilderness delicacies:  sun-dried locusts and fresh-out-of-the-hive honey.  There has been some disappointing research lately trying to prove that John didn’t eat insects—one of the reasons I’ve always thought John was so cool—but rather that the word often translated as “locusts” actually refers to carob-like plants.  Oh well.  Believe what you will, but John wasn’t going to be dependent on a city-based market to get access to what he needed to be nourished.

Jesus was a standout disciple in John’s band of followers, and the day came when John knew that Jesus had to leave the wilderness-nest and take up his own ministry that would reverse what John personally had done.  John left big city pressures and corruption, as I’ve said; people who wanted to hear him preach had to go out into the wilderness to do so, and if they were sufficiently committed to John’s radical ethics as made known in his fiery sermons, they would be baptized right there in a part of the Jordan River that ran into the wilderness area near where John and his brother-Essenes lived.

The time came when Jesus needed an introduction, and the person who decided to introduce him was his rabbi, his mentor, his second-cousin, John the Baptizer.  John preached to various collections of Jewish city folk who had come to hear him and, having been deeply convicted by the truth of what he said, more than a few renounced their attachment to Pharisaism and Sadducaism, for example.  As a sign of their new turn in life, they chose to be baptized by John in the Jordan River and to give their lives to the model of spirituality that John’s sermons demanded.

His converts, we could call them, realized as they heard John preach that, indeed, religious rules would not make them or keep them rightly connected to God or to human beings.  They had to admit in great discomfort that the ways they had seen themselves and portrayed themselves as superior to others, other Jews included, showed how small and small-minded they really were.  In their baptismal moments they agreed to serve from that point forward all those they’d heretofore given their lives to treating with angry disgust because they believed themselves to be so much better than anyone who didn’t do religion the way they did.

These converts to John’s take on living in such a way as to honor God must eventually have said to their Baptizer, “We leave you now, Preacher, for we must get on with the business of serving, but we will always honor you and know it was you who saved us from being swallowed up by lifeless religious rules.”  John said in response to their pledges of devotion to what he was about, “Hold on here, gents!  I baptized you with water for repentance, but one who is more spiritually grounded and gifted than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals.”

John believed that Jesus “got it” even more profoundly than he did; thus, the real guy to go to henceforth was not John but John’s disciple, Jesus, who was so spiritually mature that John regarded himself unworthy, spiritually speaking, to be Jesus’ slave.  It would have been a slave’s job to carry her or his master’s dirty, dusty shoes.  Thus, because of a misfit, the adult Jesus—Rabbi Jesus, Minister Jesus, Misfit Jesus—was introduced to the world.

III.

Are you, or should you be, a seeker?  Many of us at Silverside Church consider ourselves seekers.  “Seeker” isn’t a code word for anything; there’s nothing formal about it.  The word “seeker” simply means that many of us refuse to believe that the end of all truth is anywhere in the past.  Having agreed on that, we couldn’t agree on hardly any point of theology even if you tied us in chairs and made us watch endless broadcasts of televangelists until we agreed to subscribe to a creed.  We’d be watching Franklin Graham until the cows came home.

Many of the folks in this same core group of misfits, frankly, don’t find theological reflection all that meaningful; nor do they believe that their spirituality must grow out of biblical teachings or theological formulations.  There have been plenty of prospective members here through the years who are very unhappy with all the organized religion of which they have tasted but who are afraid to let go completely of the beliefs and behaviors they once thought made them right with God and, perhaps, “saved” them.  Someone who keeps one foot in any established organized religion evidently believes that she or he will always have a safety net in case assurances of heaven are needed.

Silverside misfits are free-fallers.  They have no theological or ecclesiastical safety nets. They have no need to conform to what other religious folk think of the pathway they have chosen to travel.  Since I’m just an old-fashioned Bible preacher, I don’t know how I’ve survived here for 13-plus years!  (ha! ha!)

Seriously though folks…

There’s are prices to pay for demanding spiritual fresh air.  One of those prices is being a misfit and being willing to be regarded as a misfit by those who know you best.  I won’t say it is impossible to make this happen, but pretending to be a conservative or a traditionalist while being in the closet as a progressive is infrequent.  Some clergypersons do so to get a pay check.  How suffocating that must be.  I feel so bad for my clergy sisters and brothers who believe this is what they must do for survival.  And who knew that Mother Teresa, at least early in her life before she became a gold mine because so many people admired her work, sincerely served the poor, but only went through the motions of being a faith-based nun—not that she could help it.  I do not say that to be critical of her.
Some of you, I’m sure, have read excerpts from her diaries showing that from the time she began her work with the poor in 1946 through the moment she died in 1977 she felt absolutely no connection to God.  Listen to her words penned in writhing:

I call, I cling, I want — and there is no One to answer — no One on Whom I can cling — no, No One. — Alone … Where is my Faith — even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness — My God — how painful is this unknown pain — I have no Faith — I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart — & make me suffer untold agony.

So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them — because of the blasphemy — If there be God — please forgive me — When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven — there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul. — I am told God loves me — and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.

Image

If someone at Silverside felt that way, she or he would say so—not that Mother Teresa kept her doubts a complete secret.  Her admirers and benefactors around the world didn’t know, but as Adam Lee points out, “The church assigned a long series of priests and bishops to act as her confessors, trying to help her recover her faith, but all of them ultimately met with failure.”  How sad for her.  How lonely.

Speaking of loneliness, misfits can easily find themselves without community, and few of us do well without community.  At Silverside, we have tried to connect without other groups, but nothing been lasting for us in that regard for the last several years.  I may have found us a solution though.  There’s a group, and I don’t know how I missed knowing about them, called “The Wild Goose Chase.”  They have an online presence, and they meet every summer down in Hot Springs, North Carolina, for their communal boost.  This coming summer, the conclave will be held June 26-29, and I’m thinking I’ll be scheduling a week off then so that I can attend.

Image

One of the participants describes the Wild Goose Festival as a progressive “Christian gathering centering on spirituality, justice, and art….The people the Wild Goose Festival attracts are from a very diverse range of spiritual heritages—many of us are recovering fundamentalists, along with a mix of mainliners, evangelicals, agnostics, neo-pagan-christians, `nones,’ spiritual-but-not-religious, confused, and everything in between.”  Misfits who need misfits are the luckiest misfits in the world.

At this time of year, as we anticipate our rather non-traditional way of celebrating or commemorating the birth of Jesus from Nazareth, we should incorporate into our reflections the vital role of a serious misfit who got Jesus started in a ministry that would change the world—John the Baptist.  John modeled for Jesus the life of a spiritual misfit.

If you know that you’re a misfit spiritually speaking and you can embrace it, giving up the need to conform to any religious group’s theological expectations of you, then you’re probably a seeker.  Come on in!  The water’s fine…and I don’t mean in the baptistry!

Amen.

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

Image

 

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.

 

Image

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.  

 

Image

 

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.

 

Image

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.” 

 

Image

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.”

 

Image

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?