“A system of morality which is based on relative emotional values is a mere illusion, a thoroughly vulgar conception which has nothing sound in it and nothing true.” Socrates
They did it with lightning speed! That’s what everyone was saying last week about the pace with which the Massachusetts legislature enacted a law so that “upskirting” is now illegal in the Commonwealth. Just a two days prior, the Supreme Court decided that, according to the way voyeurism laws were written, it had been legal to look up a woman’s dress in public. Obviously, lawmakers saw the foolishness of such a law and without haste corrected it with unanimous support from both chambers.
I’m writing about this because just the day before, as I led the Ash Wednesday service at church, there was visible flinching among the gathered congregation when I spoke these words:
“In confessing, let us name though sins which separate and distort: sins of pride, self love, and resentment; since of hatred, bitterness, and jealousy. Let us also name our connection with humanity sins: sins of poverty, war, hunger, injustice, neglect, and discrimination.”
Those words make me flinch, too! And they are confusing and confounding – so much so that I felt the need to elaborate and speak about personal and political willfulness regarding poverty. I said that we are guilty of allowing systems that bolster power and support laws for the wealthy while creating laws and systems to maintain poverty and hurt the poor.
Imagine if the legislature and the citizens of the Commonwealth were properly shamed over sins of poverty. Within a short period of time, they would focus their efforts to create equity for all and it poverty would be eradicated, especially if citizens and businesses worked in consort with lawmakers.
I confess that I am ashamed of our society that allows these travesties to perpetuate. I am embarrassed by friends who speak about people “using the system” and taking advantage of laws for their own benefit, even as they take advantage of tax breaks for mortgage interest, having dependent children, and more that bolster their comfort and status.
To not see ourselves as part of the problem, and thus part of the solution, for social ills depends on ignorance. The legislature of Massachusetts proved this week that moral outrage of an informed citizenry can produce legislative miracles.
When are we going to become indignant enough over poverty to demand action in changing the laws that promote it?
Rampant poverty is a threat to our very existence as a culture and speaks volumes of our morals and values. But maybe it’s more tolerable to have people sleeping on the streets in all sorts of unbecoming appearances than it is for a man to look at others’ body parts without their permission.
"Lent offers us an opportunity to slow down, to meander rather than to rush, to allow life to sink in a bit, to find ways to go deeper and not always stay on the surface. A time to observe, to pay attention, and then to act — and in so doing provide the space to move from rush to replenish. When we take this practice seriously, we plant its blessings so that they benefit not only us in our lives for this season, but also extend to the world around us."
Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Matthew 7:1-2
I have an acquaintance who is relentless with the word “should.” If there is something wrong in the world, she responds, “Well, he should have done it this way and that never would have happened.” Lorraine knows best – for everyone. She shoulds all over everyone with whom she comes in contact. Only the older she gets, she finds herself more isolated because there are very few people who can live up to her standards.
Divorced twice, Lorraine has given so much marital advice that her married friends steer clear of her – the ones that are still married. “He should just be home every night for dinner,” was her advice for her friend whose husband sells financial products – as if all his customers should be home during the day to do business with him.
To her friend whose child was failing the fourth grade, she said, “She should stop gymnastics on the weekends so she can study more. Kids who study should never fail.” In her shoulding, Lorraine, the expert on all things children, didn’t understand that the fourth grader was traumatized over the summer by a softball coach. If Lorraine would have found out, her friend knew the response would be something like, “Well you should have seen that coming from a hundred miles away – the way he treats those girls. He never should have been allowed to coach.”
Every once in a while Lorraine switches things up and throws in the words ought and must. “David ought to be able to pay his mortgage. He just needs to work harder.” Oh, add needs to her list of imperatives.
I’m a person of faith, some might even say a religious man, so I understand Lorraine and her mindset. I use those words on occasion - if Jesus or the prophets used them, but try to avoid them when I can. It would be a wonderful world if platitudes became reality, but they don’t very often. Life is challenging and most of the hard-set rules don’t work for everyone all the time.
It’s informative that a recent study has shown that the most vocal and supposedly devout Christians have a higher than average divorce rate – even higher than non-believers. Their strong family values seem to be shoulding all the way to dissolving their marriages. In fact, one comprehensive view of highly religious conservative Christians found that “whether the issue is divorce, materialism, sexual promiscuity, racism, physical abuse in marriage, or neglect of a biblical worldview, the polling data point to widespread, blatant disobedience of clear biblical moral demands on the part of people who allegedly are evangelical, born-again Christians. The statistics are devastating.”
I’m all for following the way of Jesus, but it seems like grace is missing from the equation in too many Christians’ lives. I wonder if should has anything to do with it. Or ought, or must. My friend Lorraine uses these imperatives way more than Jesus is reported to have spoken them. In fact, more of Jesus’ teachings are in the form of parables. He says, “The kingdom of God is like …” and then he illustrates, but rarely mandates, especially when it comes to all the things so many Christians think people should live.
The problem with taking offense is that it’s really hard to figure out what to do with it after you’re done using it. Better to just leave it on the table and walk away. Umbrage untaken quietly disappears.
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation;that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself,not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 2 Corinthians 5:17-20
Last week, at the local Interfaith Clergy Association meeting, I expressed something that came to me years ago in prayer - that faith communities should be working now for the inevitable. I am neither a climatologist nor a prophet, but the writing is on the wall. Within the next decade, the Eastern United States will have tens of thousands of homeless refugees due to the devastation of houses, cities’ infrastructure, and large landmasses being swallowed up by rising tides.
I know, in the midst of this cold, snowy summer, that many ridicule the idea of climate change because so many people have called it “global warming.” The fact is that, even as we get more snow and the temperatures remain well below freezing, the globe is warming and the seas are rising. 2013 was the 37th consecutive year that worldwide temperatures were above average. And there was only one year in the past century that was warmer than last year.
California is running out of water. The nation is experiencing unprecedented tornado activity and subsequent human catastrophe. Climate change has caused dramatic losses for farmers and ranchers throughout the country and the world. And, did I mention that expanses of the East Coast in on the verge of being swallowed by the rising Atlantic Ocean – even in my front yard which is right on the edge of Boston Harbor.
I believe that the church is called to help reverse the effects of climate change by modifying our lifestyle – particularly churches in the USA. I believe that a new definition of patriotism should include conservation, energy efficient living, and zero landfill contribution.
I also believe the church throughout the world, especially where the effects of climate change are making life so volatile and vulnerable is called to refocus our mission priorities. Churches in our area need to retool and refocus to plan for that inevitable day when Cape Cod residents swarm greater Boston for safety and sanctuary.
I started talking about this idea almost a decade ago among colleagues when this issue first came to me in prayer. It seems that the Federal Government now understands the imperative for this. I read an article last week that said the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) wants to train church leaders so that houses of worship can help them coordinate emergency responses to natural disasters. They’ve seen the power, resiliency and faith of religious communities in the wake of countless disasters. We still have churches in New Orleans serving as command and control for post-Katrina neighborhood rebuilding. Churches, synagogues and temples have been the pillar of strength in the wake of many recent natural disasters. But we are not prepared for something as massive as hundreds of thousands of refugees.
It seems that Jesus’ model for mission engagement works really well for a number of things, including disaster response. Maybe there’s more to his teaching that could help us retool for the inevitable “great disruption.” I think we need to talk about this as a church – sooner than later.
We keep praying about our mission and purpose. Could this be it? Could we become the new creation through a new ministry of reconciliation?
My idea may seem too lofty, but as we were leaving the meeting the rabbi in our group quietly said to me, “I think we should start by figuring out where we can store a thousand cots.”
If not now, when do we prepare for the inevitable?
“How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg? Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.” ~ Abraham Lincoln
It takes a lot to shock me. It takes even more for me to get upset into a prolonged sullen state. But I can remember being stunned into a sadness and I’m still wrestling with the issue. This situation to which I refer occurred during a church meeting. A group was sharing during a time of Bible study, I think about the passage from 1 Corinthians 13 where the apostle Paul speaks of faith, hope and love. I asked the group about their hopes for their lives and the world. One person talked about her hope for ending homelessness in the US. Another talked about his hope for an end to war. One person talked about his hope that it’d be a while before we had another Democrat elected to the presidency. And the person who shocked me said she hoped that her children would have a better life than she has had.
Whoa! This was someone with an excellent education and great job, a loving husband, wonderfully bright and beautiful children who were gifted beyond belief - over-achievers like she and her husband. She lives in a lovely home, has a supportive family and church community and she loves her friends. I’m still not able to fathom how life could be better. She was not someone who is easily impressed by people with lots of money or swanky homes.
I still don’t get it. I love my life, my family, and my vocation but I am not an icon in the community like she is. She is so deeply loved that people see her in a restaurant and they fawn over her. Her kids are loved just as deeply. Granted, I’m not in their home to know what goes on. Maybe she has a problem with drugs or maybe she’s a compulsive gambler, but I don’t think so.
What I think she was saying, because she took a few minutes to describe her concerns, is that she didn’t want her kids to have to work hard and she didn’t want them to be exposed to death or illness or social troubles like she has witnessed throughout her life. She wanted them to be so prosperous that they’d be shielded from anything other than goodness and love.
I know that’s a wonderful ideal, but I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy. Kids need to experience some hardship or they have no aptitude for real life when it happens. They need to struggle with money or they never learn to manage it. Woe is the one who has everything given to him on a silver platter. Kids need to know how to cope when they are suffering from illness or sadness or compassion fatigue. If they don’t learn those things as a young person, they will struggle as an adult … and likely always have to rely on Mommy to rescue them.
I should qualify my remarks: I’m speaking here as a pastor, a citizen of the world, and someone who loves kids. And someone who has experience with rotten kids and precocious adults.
Last week I read an article about a college class whose assignment was to design a religious system to suit the new generations. It’s a good read and insightful. What stuck out for me is that there was nothing in the religious system to help cope with suffering. Hardship was completely absent from the students’ lexicon or understanding of what it meant to be a citizen of the world. Also absent from their thinking was the concept of discipline.
I’ve not dedicated my life to raising a family, so I really am not speaking from a place of authority. Please forgive me if I am missing something. But when and where did our culture make this shift?
What system is going to replace the school of hard knocks? Who is going to rescue the adults who are still like children in their emotional and spiritual development?
I’m praying and reimagining the transformative power of God’s grace.
Last year, a good friend, Julio, was going through a financial rough spot. His business had not recovered from the Great Recession and he was so close to defaulting on some debts that he was consulting with a bankruptcy attorney. Like most of us would, Julio took it personally. He felt like a failure. He shared with Gregor and me that he didn’t think he would ever be able to retire as he put all of his savings into his business, trying to keep his office open and pay his employee and vendors for the work that was still trickling in.
We gladly listened to his woes whenever we visited with Julio, but we really felt powerless. We were not in a position to lend our friend money. Even if we could have, it seemed as if it would have been a really poor investment. He hadn’t been able to repay anyone else who had lent him money over the last few years. So we prayed, invited him to dinner and spent time with him as we were able. And as Julio’s birthday was approaching, we asked if we could host a small party for him. He assented, but thought that, since his birthday fell on a Monday, few people would attend.
Despite his prediction, everyone came to the party. They ate, drank and socialized to their hearts’ content. Julio sat in the same spot the whole night and “held court” in style. The group was having such a good time that we didn’t think they would leave in time for us to get a full night’s sleep. Gregor had early appointments the next day, and I was planning a twelve-hour day at church. So, knowing Julio well, we served ice cream. Ice cream for Julio is like Ambien for most other people. And sure enough, his eyes got heavy and he talked about being worn out from all the attention. So the party broke up quickly. And as people were leaving, they told Julio they loved him and wished him a “Happy Birthday” in demonstrative ways – hugs, kisses, hand-holding, and other expressions of esteem.
After they all left, Julio remained. The first word from his mouth to Gregor and me was “Wow!” He went onto talk about how honored he felt that twenty people came out on a stormy Monday night to celebrate his birthday. He intimated that he couldn’t be as big a failure as he thought himself to be if everyone gave up their time to celebrate with him. He got a little weepy, gave us hugs and said, “I don’t think I can adequately thank you, but I want you to know that I feel more hope than I have in a few years. I’m glad all I got was gag gifts because I can see that the best gift was just being with everyone.”
I tell you this story because I think we underestimate the power of companionship. Despite the fact that Facebook, Twitter, email, text messaging, and other modes of communication can occupy a huge portion of our time, it’s not the same as spending time physically in each other’s company. Even if conversations turn to small talk, we are afforded the nuance of gestures, facial expressions, vocal intonation, eye contact, and touch that go far deeper than mere words… or emoticons.
I remember a few years ago, when I was facilitating a small group on forms of prayer, we were debriefing what we got out of our time together. One woman said she still didn’t feel like she was praying as she ought, but that holding hands and getting hugs from people in the group made her feel like she was connecting to God. “And looking into each of your eyes makes me feel so grounded in love,” she said, “your companionship has become answered prayer. Besides that, since my husband died, this is the only time all week that I get to touch others or be touched.”
It seems to me that our worth is so often calculated with things like money, titles, homes, degrees, vacations, awards, and more. My experience is that those measures pale in comparison to companionship. It is in the physical presence of others when we understand just how valuable our relationships are. It is in the physical presence of others that touch, laughter, and eye contact bolster our faith in a God who dwells among us and affirms our self-worth as “beloved.” It is in the company of others where we understand just how precious life is.
With the words of the writer of the Book of Hebrews in the Greek Testaments, we are implored: “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together.” Most of us who have experienced the saving grace of God have done so through spiritual companions who have channeled the mercy and love of God. Now, more than ever, we need companionship to remind us of God’s unwavering presence.
We have the responsibility to be kind to one another, and that responsibility extends to celebrities, too. We’re the ones who placed them on their teetering pedestals. Justin didn’t ascend his without our help. So when they tumble off, the fact that we cheer and sneer is awful, hypocritical, and deeply, sometimes savagely unkind.
As for people of faith, we should be rushing to his aid in whatever way we can, which for the vast majority of us is prayer. Pray for Justin. Pray for Justin’s friends. Pray for God to send Justin his Anam Cara - soul friends, the rarest and most valuable and necessary kind for any of us to have as we navigate our lives on this side of the veil.
Don’t shame Justin. Instead, remind him of who he is: A beloved child of the Most High God whose love for Justin is the same as it was last week and last year and every moment since he took shape and form in his mother’s womb. There is nothing Justin can do to make God love him any less and there is nothing Justin can do to make God love him any more.
Grace isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card, but it covers not just a multitude of sins - it covers them all. Even if you’re a celebrity. Even if you act like an entitled, spoiled brat. Even if you get drunk and pee in mop buckets, or swear like a sailor at the cop who’s arresting you. Even if you get behind the wheel of a car drunk or stoned and you drive it and you hit someone and you kill them. Grace is still there. Grace is the final word and we should remind Justin of that.