Pessimism Permanently Punted

Image

 

 

 

 

I.

I’m not sure how easy it is to convert a pessimist into an optimist.  I’m sure it’s possible, but probably rare.  (By the way, as I typed these words yesterday, I was sitting at Starbucks on Marsh Road, waiting to meet with Amanda Catania and our new Social Media Coordinator, Michelle Moran. 

Image

 

Looking out the window, I noticed the front bumper of a scratched up Acura.  There was a Handicap tag hanging from the rearview mirror.  One of four or five bumper stickers across the front of the car reads:  “Just Say NO to Negativity.”  What are the chances?)

So, I’m saying it’s probably rare to turn a pessimist into an optimist—though I’m sure it happens on occasion.  With that in mind, I’m wondering if it’s a responsible use of time to try to encourage thinking pessimists to relinquish their pessimism and to embrace, in its place, optimism.  I mean, if one begins with almost any day’s news from any of the major news networks, there’s not many places to grab hold of optimism.  Some of the news shows may end with a happy tale or a cutsie story, but after having been told how the world is falling apart for an hour or half an hour, the little upbeat word at the end is nearly incomprehensible.  “60 Minutes” for most of its history may have gotten in right by ending a show with an offbeat word from a pleasant pessimist—at least curmudgeon—Andy Rooney.

 

Image

 

I ran across a book review a while back of a book I’ve not read so what I’m sharing with you today is based on the review, but you can see why a book titled, The Rational Optimist, came to mind as I was gathering my thoughts for today.  The author is Matt Ridley, whom the reviewer says has made his marks in the world as a zoologist, a banker, a journalist, and for good measure an expert on evolution.  Ridley sets out to invite his readers, thinking people, to dare to embrace a positive view of the world—that is, optimism.  The gist of his argument, I gather, is that while humankind has in modern times developed “an unmatched capacity to resolve its most pressing challenges,” pessimism has probably dominated world views for about the same amount of time our country has been its own free land.  Yet, in “contrast to more pessimistic predictions, humanity has not collapsed.”  On the contrary.  In the last thousand years, life expectancy has increased significantly in many parts of the world, and violence indicators have been on the decline.  Humans have rather continuously increased quality of life for many in the species. 

 

Image

 

 

The Rational Optimist.  Worth pondering, huh?

 

 

II.

Some religions attempt to offer words of optimism, but usually in the context of that particular religion’s winning out over its enemies by and by.  Judaism is an exception in this regard.  When the ancient writers pictured the culmination of history, all nations and peoples had come together.  Yes, they were on Mount Zion, but they weren’t all Jewish by either ethnicity or belief.

Generally, religious groups that have offered optimistic options have done so on a distinctively conditional basis—mostly promising the real good out there to their own adherents, and in many cases these groups have claimed the ability to predict not only what comes to be in this world, but also in the next realm with which they seem more familiar than a traveler who has just returned from an extensive excursion at some fascinating part of the globe.

You will, perhaps, recognize at least some of these words as those of Karl Marx:

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition that needs illusions.

 

Image

 

The phrase, “opium of the people,” or, “opiate of the masses,” is often used out of context.  Marx was thinking more deeply here than at a level that would have allowed to take a callous, rather random swipe at religion.  

While I was certainly taught to scoff at Marx and any of his ideas—especially his perspective on religion—even as a professional religious insider, I have to say that, in most cases, he’s correct.  Religion isn’t without value for those who need to have their senses numbed, but when it’s time to face the real world—as he says, minus illusions about life as it really is—religion has to go.  In other words, any optimism most religions offer is real as an imagined utopia.

Perhaps the most openly pessimistic writer in Judeo-Christian scripture is the author of the book of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible.

The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem:  “Futile! Futile!” laments the Teacher, “Absolutely futile! Everything is futile!”  What benefit do people get from all the effort they expend on earth?  A generation comes and a generation goes, but the earth remains the same through the ages.  The sun rises and the sun sets; it hurries away to a place from which it rises again.  The wind goes to the south and circles around to the north; round and round the wind goes and on its rounds it returns.  All the streams flow into the sea, but the sea is not full, and to the place where the streams flow, there they will flow again.  All this monotony is tiresome; no one can bear to describe it:  The eye is never satisfied with seeing, nor is the ear ever content with hearing.  What exists now is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing truly new on earth.  Is there anything about which someone can say, “Look at this! It is new!”?  It was already done long ago, before our time.  No one remembers the former events, nor will anyone remember the events that are yet to happen; they will not be remembered by the future generations (New English Translation).

There are varieties of pessimism.  Some pessimism is built on a view of the world that says, either, the world is getting worse and worse—less moral, less safe, and so on.  It can’t get any better.  The downward spiral will keep spiraling downward until we crash at either divine destruction or self-destruction.  The end result in either case will be pretty much the same.  

The kind of pessimism with which the Teacher (or Preacher) writing the book of Ecclesiastes is frustrated is that both the natural world and human experience are just going around in circles.  Nothing is really changing or improving.  Everything is a repeat of what has gone before.  Ho hum.

 

 

III.

Jesus told a memorable story, a parable, about a guy who was in all probability congenitally pessimistic.  Sad to say, all of us probably knows more than a few of these.  Was that a pessimistic assessment? 

The story Jesus told has been so well-remembered that it has a name, “the parable of the talents.”  Dr. Barbara Reid is a nun and cutting-edge Christian scripture scholar with whom I had the good fortune of working last time I had an editing gig–four or five years ago.  Now Dean of the Catholic Theological Union, she says the traditional interpretations of the parable of the talents are wrong. 

 

Image

 

A quick overview of the story is that a demanding master, a wealthy guy, decides to take a vacation or head out on a business trip, and not wanting to lose out on any money-making opportunities from investment sources while he’s away and unable to stay on top of what’s hot and what’s not, he has some smart slaves with financial experience.  He taps three of them to invest while he’s away.  The slave with the most promise gets five talents to invest; a talent was a unit of currency equivalent to what an hourly worker would earn in twenty-five years of steady, hard work.  Let’s say five talents might be equal to a million bucks today.  The next slave got three talents to invest–six hundred grand-ish.  The third slave got a mere quarter mil to invest.  Their mission, their responsibility was simple and clear:  stay on top of this money and keep it invested in whatever makes money.  

The slaves with the most money to invest did exactly as they were told, and they were good.  When the master returned, he was thrilled with how much of a return these two slaves had gotten on the money he had entrusted to their care.  

The slave who was left with the least amount of money to invest buried what he had been given in the ground–presumably to ensure that no market decline would cost his master a single dinarious.  That worked, but no money was made.  In a good market, when there was money to be made with investments, this slave sat on the original amount and ended up not earning a thing for his master.  The master was irate and had him punished severely.  

A common interpretive approach portrays the master as God and the slaves as God’s people who have been entrusted with talents.  The moral of the story is:  to the one who has been given much, much is required.  And despite the fact that talent was a unit of currency, in English most preachers have crafted their sermons to make talent mean “inherent skill,” such as the ability to sing or arrange flowers or whatever one’s inherent or learned best skill is.

Barbara Reid says this approach is as wrong as can be.  Recognizing the subtly subversive streak in Jesus’ teachings and some of his acts as well, she says that, as Jesus told the parable, the slave who declined to invest is the hero of the story, the only one who did the right thing even though there was no happily ever after ending for him.  

How could this have been a point Jesus would have wanted to make?  Well, for starters, he was anything but a capitalist.  The two slaves who invested were status quo types. If they represented followers of Jesus, and they probably didn’t, they were the types who saw value in what he taught, but who still leaned toward traditional Jewish laws as the heart of religion.  

The master in the story didn’t represent God at all, but rather traditional Jewish leadership intent on punishing those Jews who were attracted to Jesus’ twist on what was core in Judaism and for that matter core in spirituality.  

The slave who was given the least to invest and who didn’t invest at all is the example of what Jesus’ followers needed to be doing–namely refusing to be controlled by the status quo, regardless of its power; regardless of consequences.  Investing in the past is a popular but a poor practice.

Professor Reid believes that the parable of the talents shows what happens when someone dares to expose a corrupt system—religious or political; she or he is punished.  Optimism is believing it’s still worth taking a stand against injustice and other immorality. 

Amen. 

 

Image

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Music, Spontaneity, and Spirituality (a sermon delivered on the occasion of dedicating a Steinway Baby Grand Piano, a gift to the church)

I.

When I was a seminarian taking a certain pastoral care course, there was a group counseling experience required as a part of the overall course requirements.  The professor who turned out to be one of the A-List professors in my seminary experience expected us to treat the group counseling component of the course as if he were the therapist and as if we his students were his clients in a group counseling context.  

I found that awkward for several reasons, one of which was that he was not my therapist; he was my professor, and we were going to get a grade out of the “learning opportunity” as he had devised it.  I have found it a good idea across the years not to engage one of my professors as my mental health provider in the same way that I have found it a good practice not to ask my therapist to give me a grade on how well I was maintaining mental health at any given moment.  

There I was at Southern Seminary and enrolled in a course that made me uncomfortable, but got me closer to graduation; I felt stuck.  I finally figured staying was my best option, and I’d have to come up with a way to survive.  I decided that as long as I showed myself to be engaged in the process, though my heart wasn’t in it, I could manage to keep my grade point average unblemished.  I did OK grade-wise, but things didn’t work out the way I’d hoped, the way I’d planned.

It seemed that Professor Rowatt, though I think he may have denied this when someone made the accusation, managed to get one member of the group on the hot seat each week.  The object appeared to be to poke and prode that week’s guinea pig until a sensitive spot was found.  Having made the discovery the professor wanted to be sure the student owned feelings related to having had that soft spot uncovered.  I hated that process. I hated watching one of my poor colleagues have her or his vulnerability exposed, and I hated knowing each week that, while I’d been off the hook that day, my turn was coming.

 

 

Image

Professor G. Wade Rowatt, Ph.D.

 

 

 

Sometimes we dread an impending event to the extent that the dread is much worse than the experience, but in this case my dread wasn’t half as painful as having my day on the hotseat.  I had determined not to sell my soul for a grade by pretending to feel something just because it was Thursday morning, our regular weekly meeting time, and because I knew Dr. Rowatt wouldn’t leave me alone until I emoted on cue, as it were.  Again, if he were here, I he would deny what I’ve just accused him of–not that these events took place but how and why.  Nonetheless, I wasn’t the only one in the group who had this weekly guinea pig perception of what was going on.  

Well, the day came when my esteemed professor decided it was my turn to be on the hot seat.  I experienced anticipatory blushing the night before in the event he uncovered some deep struggle within me that I didn’t want my sister and brother seminarians to know about.   

 

 

Image

 

 

Once the soft spot had been revealed in answers to a series of questions that only psychologists and God knew how to ask and interpret, tears were expected or terror so deeply felt it made peers on the other side of the circle quake with the poor soul who had been terrorized by whatever life event had created the secret scar.  The only other suitable alternative for course survival, as some of us saw it, was an angry outburst to prove we’d been treated inappropriately somewhere along the way, and instead of leaving us pained it had left us irate. Anger was a good thing. But, we were seminarians, and anger didn’t come easily for most of us.

I tired of the emotional interrogation that day but held my cool in the southern gentlemen’s way according to which I had been bred.  When he realized I consistently refused to emote on cue, though, the professor said something like this, “Well, it seems that Farmer has made it to this point in life emotionally unscathed, and for that we would have to be thankful.  He’s nice, isn’t he?  He really is.  He’s so nice he makes me sick since I know under all that southern gentleman facade is someone living in denial about the pain that rips the rest of us apart.”  See what I went through to get to be your pastor?

What he said did make me angry, and I couldn’t keep it in. I was angry for real; I’d had enough. I said so, and I added that my emotions were appropriately in tact so that I was authentic enough not to push myself to feel something just because it happened to be Thursday morning.  About that time, he began to applaud and said, “Well, will you look at that!  Farmer isn’t always Mr. Nice Guy after all.  He can even get angry.  Maybe he’s a real person after all.”  I had nothing else to say that day. 

I made it through the course, and Dr. Rowatt ended up on my doctoral committee of instruction.  By the time I graduated, he was the Associate Dean who gave me my first job as a professor.  That course may be the primary reason I’ve lasted in the pastorate all these years.

 

 

Image

 

Emoting on cue is a bad thing unless you’re an actor, and you have to cry when the director screams out, “Tears!”  I am proposing to you today that praising God and praying are in the same category.  They can’t be done because someone else tells you it’s time.

 

 

II.

I have been thinking for some time about a typical church’s, if there is such a thing, a typical church’s perspective on praise of God. As conceived in several places in Judeo-Christian scripture, praising God is a joyous thing to do; and yet, bottom line, it’s expected of those who want to honor God.  I fear that it is an extension of appeasement attempts.  That is to say, if I don’t praise God, I’d have been taught to believe, there will be a higher probability of having some tragedy befall me and my people so I’m going to join in with a community of worship and praise God to the best of my ability.

 

 

Image

 

 

It’s hard to say precisely what praise of God is.  There’s a whole lot more to it than saying, “God is great, God is good,” or, “God has done marveous deeds.”  If Silversiders were concerned with praising God as so many of our hymns prompt us to do, the fact is that just because we are here in this place, singing those hymns Sunday mornings at 10, by no means guarantees that God is praised.  

If we praise God authentically, we praise God because we can’t help it, because something wells up within us that is a combination of amazement and gratitude and spills out of us in spite of ourselves.  If you think as I do that God is the life-source and the life-force then perhaps when the nurse of doctor first put your newborn into your arms then you may inadvertently have thought to yourself, “Life is miraculous,” or with Louis Armstrong you may instead have thought to yourself, “What a wonderful world.”

The point is, you didn’t have to wait for someone to tell you what to feel.  You absolutely couldn’t help feeling what you felt.  No one could have kept you from feeling what you felt.  

Same thing with prayer.  Let’s rule out as “real prayer” what Tru Dee Burrell calls a “begging prayer”–pleading with God to give us something or to cause something to happen that we really think needs to happen.  Tru Dee’s spirituality is so evolved that prayer for her is seeing or visualizing the unquestionable good for which she longs as already accomplished.  

Many of us have grown up as part of traditions in which praying at certain times of the day or week was presented as an exemplary spiritual practice.  If that is meaningful for anyone, I would in no way be critical, but I have to tell you that since prayer at its core is communion with the Divine I don’t think it can typically be timed or performed on cue.  

 

Image

 

 

If you tell your significant other every single day that you love her or him, that can be a sweet and wonderful thing.  But if you have it on a calendar as a task to be performed at a set time every day as the reminder on your cell phone tells you to do, chances are some of the punch could be lost.  Ritual “I love you’s” are better than no “I love you’s,” but expressing love–often without words–because you can’t help yourself is likely to be more joyously received by the one whom you love.

I was pondering how much I love my kids a couple of days ago.  At a distance I couldn’t show them, so I texted each one.  The text read–and, no, I didn’t copy my words of love to one and send them to the other also–“I love you so very much.”  As if he hadn’t heard that from me with some frequency, my older son texts back asking, “What brought that about?”  

 

 

Image

 

 

I text-answered, “Uhm, your birth.”  He hasn’t communicated with me since.  Geez!  

If I pray on a schedule–on cue, fine I guess.  But if I celebrate out of the blue the Love that is God because I can’t help opening my heart to the Love, that I think is profound prayer.

III.

This gift piano has brought many of us unavoidably to aesthetic ecstasy today, and my prediction is that it will do so time and again in the future.  

 

Image

 

 

Perhaps it will be a part of having us sing in the midst of real world stuff when we can’t help ourselves a song the choir sings from time to time (along with Enya among others).  Whoever penned these words has never been publicly identified:

My life flows on in endless song;

Above earth’s lamentation

I hear the sweet though far off hymn

That hails a new creation:

 

Through all the tumult and the strife

I hear the music ringing;

It finds an echo in my soul—

How can I keep from singing?

 

E’vn though the tempest round me roars

I know the truth it liveth

E’vn though the darkness round me close

Songs in the night it giveth

 

No storm can shake my inmost calm

While to that rock I’m clinging.

Since Love is lord of heaven and earth

How can I keep from singing?

 

Some related readings from our Gathering today:

1) Plato once said, “Philosophy begins in wonder.” Building on that thought, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg says, “Meditation happens. It happens spontaneously on long walks; it happens during focused episodes seated on a cushion; it happens in packed synagogues. For me, meditation is about awareness. I don’t push away thoughts. I simply keep on breathing. If I don’t grab on to my thoughts they’ll eventually fall away of their own accord.”

2) From Amy Sullivan: “Sometimes I think God shows up in places that smell of bleach and Hamburger Helper. Places that house women in red, fuzzy slippers and children in sleeveless pajamas. Beyond banging doors and crackly announcements God sits in an uncomfortable kitchen chair that rocks but isn’t supposed to.”

3) From Fred Pratt Green:

When in our music God is glorified,
and adoration leaves no room for pride,
it is as though the whole creation cried
Alleluia!

How often, making music, we have found
a new dimension in the world of sound,
as worship moved us to a more profound
Alleluia!

Let every instrument be tuned for praise!
Let all rejoice who have a voice to raise!
And may God give us faith to sing always
Alleluia! Amen.

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.

Having to (Work and) Wait a While

I. South African Anabaptist and Christian studies scholar, John W. de Gruchy, wrote an article of excitement and amazement when Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as President of South Africa. He followed that article with several others, but none as pivotal, perhaps, as the one he wrote on the occasion of President Mandela’s death. De Gruchy did the unthinkable, as many would certainly view it, when he used the word “messiah” in connection to Mandela. It wasn’t a slip up. He explained, “The term ‘messiah’ is for [the majority of] Christians so exclusively associated with Jesus that it is difficult to think of anyone else in these terms. So we cannot use the world lightly or thoughtlessly when we speak of Mandela in this way.”

John-de-Gruchy

De Gruchy reminds his readers that in Judeo-Christian scripture, the word means “the Lord’s anointed.” In the Hebrew Bible, it is used to refer to those chosen by God to fulfill some divinely ordained purpose such as liberation of oppressed people—for example, Moses who led the Hebrew slaves out of Egyptian bondage into what they took to be their new land of promise. De Gruchy says that many other pivotal personalities in the ancient Hebrew world were referred to as divinely anointed ones: the prophet Elijah, King David, and benevolent Cyrus, the pagan King of the Persian Empire, who allowed—yeah, encouraged—Jews taken into captivity by the Babylonians before the Persians took control, to go back home and rebuild their Temple in Jerusalem. This being the case, how could it be off base to refer to Nelson Mandela as a messianic figure raised up to lead South Africa out of the bondage of apartheid and into long, long delayed freedom?

De Gruchy insists that those who are self-proclaimed messiahs through their very claims instantly disqualify themselves as what they claim to be. Mandela never did that. In fact, he said point blank, looking back over his hard life, “I was not a messiah, but an ordinary person who had become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances.” Therein was his greatness. Quoting De Gruchy directly again: Mandela “would never have claimed the title of messiah for himself, or thought of himself in that way. He lived and acted with the kind of humility, compassion, and self-service that allows us to refer to him as a messianic figure, a true liberator, an agent of God’s justice, peace and reconciliation; someone who, through his life, words and deeds [pointed] towards Jesus and not to himself….”

nm

 Interestingly, Jesus of Nazareth never claimed to be a or the messiah who’d been dreamed of from ancient times. That identity was thrust upon him like the most ill-fitting of garments. It’s all summed up in several places such as in Ezekiel 37:24-28 where the prophet shares what he believes to have been spoken by God Godself:

My servant David shall be king over them; and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall follow my ordinances and be careful to observe my statutes. They shall live in the land that I gave to my servant Jacob, in which your ancestors lived; they and their children and their children’s children shall live there for ever; and my servant David shall be their prince for ever. I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; and I will bless them and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary among them for evermore. My dwelling-place shall be with them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Then the nations shall know that I the Lord sanctify Israel, when my sanctuary is among them for evermore.

Jesus didn’t achieve any of these and didn’t set out to. He wasn’t a failure. He achieved what he set out to achieve. Those who thought he was a failed messiah said all the things the messiah was supposed to have brought about will happen at the end of time when Jesus reappears—this time, finally, as messiah-in-full. You may have heard of the group Jews for Jesus; members are Jews who claim that Jesus was the messiah. There’s another group, Jews for Judaism, that refutes what Jews for Jesus say. The Jews for Judaism make the following points in denying the claims of Jews for Jesus. They say that Hebrew scripture teaches that a complete list of criteria must be met by the one who is the long-awaited messiah.

  • The messiah must be biologically connected to the Tribe of Judah, one of the twelve tribes of Israel, and he—I think there are no references to the messiah as possibly being female—must have descended from King David. Jesus was not connected to that tribe nor was he biologically descended from David through he may have had a legal connection to the pivotal monarch.
  • When the messiah comes to reign as King of Israel, the Jews will be ingathered from the various exiles and all together in their homeland. This has never happened since they initially dispersed. And, by the way, Jesus never ruled over any individual or group.
  • The Temple in Jerusalem will be rebuilt/restored a third time. This is an odd one since the Temple was standing in all its glory during the life of Jesus. It was destroyed by Rome some 43 years after Jesus’ execution, and has never been rebuilt. When the messiah rules, peace will prevail throughout the world. Hmmm. How much we wish that had ever happened! It surely hasn’t happened in modern times. I saw a news clip the other day pointing out that though wars are waning in so far as the United States is concerned, the Pentagon budget remains robust and untouchable.
  • When the messiah’s reign is in full swing, all the Jews worldwide will be following the commandments said to have been established by God and recorded in what is now known as holy writ. This has never been going on and isn’t going on right now.

 

Now, none of this is a negative reflection on who Jesus actually was and what he was about. He was as remarkable a human being as ever lived—maybe the epitome. But we are operating at a double deficit during the Christmas season in this country. First, Santa Claus is not the reason for the season. Second, the Jesus who is supposed to be, needs to be remembered as the baby who grew up to be a remarkable person, was not a deity, was not a monarch. Nonetheless, we cannot fault those who looked to him as a liberator who might have made all things right. We’d all like one of those.

 

II.

According to Luke’s Gospel, Joseph and Mary brought their baby boy, Jesus, up to Jerusalem to present him at the Temple to the Lord since it had been written in the Torah, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord.” To mark this joyous event in their lives and to demonstrate their gratitude to God, they—doing what they believed they were supposed to do—offered a sacrifice, likely a pair of turtledoves or pigeons.

 

At the Temple, the little family of three is approached by a man named Simeon, whom Luke tells us had been drawn to the Temple that day by God Godself. Simeon was well known among some Temple-goers as the old guy who insisted that God was going to let him live long enough at least to see the messiah. He believed the well-being of his people, the very future of his people, was dependent on the that person sent from God to for the people what they had not been able to do for themselves.

 

Presumably with Jesus’ parents’ permission, Simeon takes baby Jesus in his arms to bless him and to announce to all who would listen in such a bustling place that the long-awaited messiah was now among them though in the form of an infant. That was a bit of jolt for many who expected a messiah, but expected a messiah who was already seasoned, mature, and ready to get to work. They didn’t think they, the Jewish people living and struggling at the time Jesus was born, could wait any more; they might not make it if they tried.

 

Simeon holds up the baby boy and blesses God, praises God saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:28–32). This is what Simeon had lived for. He was now prepared to die. He wasn’t going to jump off the pinnacle of the Temple and end it all; nor was he going to retire from spiritual seeking despite the fact that in this event he’d been able to check off the last item on his bucket list.

 

Many elderly US Americans, persons of color in particular, had a similar feeling when the news of President Obama’s first election was initially announced. How do you suppose an African American butler felt, a man who had served presidents in the White House from Truman to Reagan? Eugene Allen apparently respected all of them, but by the time Obama was elected he was retired and in service to no one. He was given a VIP pass to the events planned for family and closest friends during the inauguration. He died less than a year about Obama’s first election.

 

ea

 

 

The movie about this gentleman, titled “The Butler,” is still one of the hottest films showing around the country. Simeon thought he could die in peace because his people were now in the hands of the one, whom he believed, God had sent to lead them into the greatest days.

 

butler

 

 

We don’t know how soon after that magic moment he did, in fact, die. Then, an elderly woman, Anna, approaches baby Jesus and his parents. She, like Simeon, takes Jesus to be the messiah, but she has a very different response: “At that moment, she began to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38). Anna is 84ish years old, and she does not want to die. She wants to preach. Like the faithful ones who will follow her, she is driven to share with others what she has experienced. Anna is a “prophet” (Luke 2:36). In fact, she is the only woman in the New Testament explicitly described as a “prophet.” She then stands alongside women like the judge, military leader and prophet Deborah as well as the Jerusalem prophet Huldah, who, in the days of King Josiah, was asked to verify the reliability of scroll found in some Temple renovation work.

 

Unlike Simeon, Anna is not just visiting the Temple for the day; she is there all the time. According to Luke, Anna “never left the Temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day” (Luke 2:37). Perhaps she was part of some sort of order of widows (Luke tells us her husband died after only seven years of marriage) who had specific religious functions in the Temple.

 

The literary pairing of Simeon and Anna, according to the Biblical Archaeology Review, reflects Luke’s penchant for male-female parallelism when he writes about the recipients of divine blessing and salvation. The story of Jesus’ birth is framed by two such stories—that of Elizabeth and Zechariah in Luke 1 and Anna and Simeon in Luke 2. Interestingly, in both cases, the woman is portrayed as the more positive example of a person of faith. The women are not only more receptive to the message, they are more willing to act upon it, with Elizabeth realizing that her cousin is carrying the messiah and praising God for this blessing and Anna spreading the good news. The waiting has been worthwhile! A messiah has arrived, as Simeon recognizes, but, as the prophetess Anna demonstrates, a new era has dawned, and it’s time to act, not relax.

 

 

III. We have said, in this Christmas-time sermon series, that you might be—or should own if you haven’t—a self-identity as a spiritual seeker if you find yourself a misfit, spiritually speaking, among those with whom you come into contact; if your orthodoxy is less significant to you than your orthopraxy; and if your traditional theological beliefs have come in your life to fail you completely. Today, I add another trait/experience to the list, and the fifth and final item in the sequence will be the center of our thinking on Christmas Eve. Today, fourth on the list of five: you might be a seeker—or you should be—if you realize that what you seek doesn’t have to drop instantaneously into your lap to be confirmed as spiritually worthwhile or significant. We may well realize that there is something more out there for us, as well as for others who seek, but we’re going to have to wait and/or work to get it or to get there.

 

Some of us are looking for a pivotal leader—perhaps, a messianic figure. That is exactly what this season is about for many traditional Christians. The world, whether the world realized it or not, was looking for Jesus when his birth delivered him into the service of struggling humanity. In addition, the world is looking for a new appearing of Jesus to close down this chapter of human history since we, it appears to many, have made such a huge mess of things that we are beyond repair.

 

Looking for a better time and/or a better way is fine—sensible even. But have you noticed that most of the messianic figures who have contributed greatly to the betterment of humankind did not think of themselves as messiahs as we said about Mandela earlier; rather, they are much more inclined to roll up their sleeves and get busy with making the world the kind of place it needs to be and has the capacity to be if only people of good will, selfless at least to some degree, will join in and make it so.

 

Have you heard, or do you remember, how the adult Jesus identified his mission—what he saw himself doing? He laid it out at the very beginning of his public ministry, and to hear or hear again what he had to say on this subject we turn, again, to the Gospel of Luke: When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” That didn’t sound like a mission to make him rich and famous.

 

Just think about the kinds of people he’d have to spend most of his time with in order to accomplish his mission. Also, though, take note of his motivation. It was internalized. He wasn’t looking for anyone else to come along to help him or to mobilized forces that would excite people to join him in trying to accomplish a set of improbable changes. At the end of his life, he had made a huge difference in the lives of countless poor people and prisoners, but the poor we still had with us; same with prisoners. Jesus didn’t have Simeon’s experience of being able to relax because God had raised up some great person to pick up where he, Jesus, had left off. He certainly couldn’t keep preaching as Anna did. Those of us who are seekers influenced by the teachings of Jesus have no precedent other than to keep working and hoping for little pockets of positive difference made. No rest for the weary seeker. Anna and Simeon do, however, give us models for actively looking ahead, despite the odds, to a better day. Amen.