Mirrors and Windows

Fake news has been making a lot of real news lately. These lurid fabrications have been feeding people’s sense of grievance and igniting outrage like a a string of firecrackers at a Fourth of July picnic.

Some claim that “fake news” swayed voters and affected the outcome of the 2016 election. For all that is wrong with fake news — and there’s plenty — this is an argument I just don’t buy. I find it hard to believe that a Hillary supporter would change allegiance because he believed the “news” that she operated a child sex ring out of a pizzeria.

I thought that rather than swaying votes, the election’s fake news was a classic case of confirmation bias. It didn’t change minds; it just confirmed and legitimized what we already believed. Recent research supports this view. (Hmmm. Is that why I believe it?)

By the way, real news can do this, too, if we limit our exposure to voices that we already agree with. This is equally dangerous. Listening only to what is pleasant and affirming — whether it’s real news or fake — makes us thin-skinned and intolerant. That’s the last thing the world needs right now.

Living in this echo chamber of “confirmation bias” news can spill over into our spiritual life, too.

We can just as easily treat Scripture like any other source of information: picking and choosing so that we only hear what conforms with what we already believe. Easy, but wrong.

It is wrong because the Bible’s purpose isn’t information, it’s transformation.

Scripture asks us to conform to it, not the other way around. It offers an alternate reality in which we are most assuredly not the ones calling the shots, where our lives have meaning far beyond what this world can offer. It invites us into a world where we are challenged and equipped to live radically countercultural lives

to forgive and not retaliate
to bless those who persecute us and pray for our enemies
to love extravagantly
to submit our will and our discernment to a King

To do this, we first have to lay down our desire to have our own ideas affirmed and confirmed by Scripture. We need to leave behind the prerogative to choose what we will allow into our bubble. Instead, Scripture demands we listen to all of it — the beautiful promises of God, the words of judgment, the puzzling incongruities, the violence, the mercy, the unimaginable love. Scripture asks us to risk being uncomfortable, uneasy and occasionally unsettled.

Despite all our efforts to domesticate it, use it to support our political views, or make excuses for why parts we dislike should not apply to us today, the Word of God remains gloriously untamed.

Scripture defies attempts to reduce it to a sweet bedtime story full of meadows and puppies and instead confronts us with some hard truths.

Sometimes our desires and God’s desires for us are not the same and no amount of rationalizing will change that.

There are some things that we have to chalk up to mystery, as much as that offends our rational, 21st century minds.

There will be times when we crave certainty and it offers nuance, and other times when we want wiggle room and it offers none.

So, read it. All of it. Ask the Spirit of God to pull up a chair next to you and guide your mind and heart into all truth. Read the icky parts that talk about judgement and the parts that make you weep with gratitude. Wrestle with it as Jacob wrestled with God, and let it bless you as God blessed him.

I love what William Willimon has to say about how to read Scripture:

“We trust the Bible because it keeps making sense of, as well as disrupting, the world in which we live. The Bible does not just “make sense” in the sense that the Bible is congruent with our present experiences of and definitions of reality. We must read the Bible in a way that is more careful and respectful than simply going to the Bible, rummaging about, picking and choosing on the basis of what we consider to be possible and permissible within our present context … The temptation is to discard that which makes us uncomfortable or that which does not easily fit into our present conceptual scheme of things.

 

Therefore, an appropriate hermeneutical question is not simply, What does this text mean? but rather, How is this text asking me to change?” (from Pastor: the Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry)

Unlike every other information source in our lives, let’s not construct a Bible that reassures us that we are right and just fine as we are.

We don’t need a mirror to tell us we’re the fairest of them all.

We need a window to show a reality of God’s making, not our own.

It is a reality in which we might be asked to do the unthinkable — to surrender our certainties and have the courage to be formed by God’s word.

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Meryl Streep is a Pharisee and So Am I

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Let me get this out of the way: Meryl Streep is a phenomenal actress. I admire and respect her talent and have been moved by much of her work. She has the right and privilege of free speech. I am not here to dispute or debate any of these things. In fact, in her acceptance speech at the Golden Globes the other night, she said something that was absolutely dead on.

“Disrespect invites disrespect.” I wonder if she knew how right she was.

After declaring that those gathered were “among the most vilified segments in American society right now,” she warned that if we kicked out all of the “outsiders and foreigners” in Hollywood, “You’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts.“ Really? Without Hollywood we wouldn’t have the arts? What about ballet? Music? Theater? Hollywood certainly isn’t the only — or even the best — source of great art around. That she could be at once so self-pitying and self-aggrandizing is remarkable. Yes, the Hollywood she rhapsodizes about can produce great art. But for every “Sophie’s Choice” there is “Ricky and the Flash” which you’d be hard pressed to describe as Great Art.

Second, who’s to say that movies and television are better (that is to say, more refined, more edifying, more civilizing) than sports? Has she ever seen “Marriage Boot Camp?”  How about “Gigli?”  Apparently, instead of “vilifying” Hollywood, we should be thanking it for saving us from a life of low-brow entertainment (at least the kind that doesn’t come from Hollywood). 

She went from celebrating diversity to looking down her nose at any other form of entertainment than her own in seconds flat.

I heard another voice when I heard her say these words. I heard the voice of Jesus. In the gospel of Luke, he tells this story:

“He told his next story to some who were complacently pleased with themselves over their moral performance and looked down their noses at the common people: “Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax man. The Pharisee posed and prayed like this: ‘Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid, like this tax man. I fast twice a week and tithe on all my income.’ Meanwhile the tax man, slumped in the shadows, his face in his hands, not daring to look up, said, ‘God, give mercy. Forgive me, a sinner.’”
Jesus commented, “This tax man, not the other, went home made right with God. If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.”

Jesus makes plain who the “villain” and the “hero” of this story are. The Pharisee is self-righteous and lacking humility before God; the tax collector was self-effacing and very aware of his sin.

The message was not lost on the Pharisees who were among his original audience: be on guard against the insidious sin of pride.

And here’s just how insidious that sin is. When we read the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector, our natural instinct is to denounce the Pharisee’s arrogance, self-importance and sense of superiority over that sinner over there. We might even say to ourselves, “Thank God I’m not like that legalistic, bombastic Pharisee.” And in doing so, we become the Pharisee ourselves.

In telling this story, Jesus shows us how easy it is — how human it is — to become what we condemn.

I can’t help wondering if my pointing out Meryl’s Streep’s condescension isn’t tinged with a little, “Thank God I’m better than that.”  How easy it is to feel pride over my humility!  All I can do is echo the words of the tax collector: “God, give mercy. Forgive me, a sinner.’”

Meryl, if Hollywood continues to be “vilified”, don’t be surprised. As you so plainly put it, “Disrespect invites disrespect.” May God give us all the humility to break the cycle.

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Shhhh

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The Incarnation is strange. Amidst all the gifts under the tree wrapped in ribbons and shiny paper, it’s the one wrapped in wrinkled paper, with its bow crumpled and askew. Inside is something you didn’t ask for; in fact, it’s the opposite. Instead of the latest iPhone, it’s a pair of socks.

At least, this is how I imagine the Incarnation seemed to a world waiting for a Messiah, long ago.

Longing for God to act powerfully and unmistakably as he had in the past, God’s people waited for a miraculous intervention. You know, something dramatic, like the ten plagues or the parting of the Red Sea. But there was no obvious miracle on Christmas. No, just a small, everyday miracle: a healthy birth, remarkable only to the parents who know His true provenance, some shepherds who had a vision and three foreigners who followed a star.

For the rest of the weary world, this gift was just another Jewish boy born into occupation and poverty, one more generation waiting to hear God speak through His prophets, one more generation longing for God’s rescue. For all the world knew or cared, this child was like thousands of others born that day.

The Christmas carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” paints a beautiful picture of the strange beauty of the Incarnation.

“How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.”

No fanfare to demand our attention. For the world that so desperately waited for a Messiah and the pageantry that would announce him, the child arrived in deafening silence. They continued to hope and to pray for deliverance, never knowing that it had arrived and lived among them.

And even once He came into His ministry, His very ordinariness was reason to overlook Him. When Jesus proclaimed that He was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy about the Messiah, the crowd responded, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” They might as well have said, “This is not the gift, nor the wrapping, we imagined.”

How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.

This year, my Christmas Eve will be different. Usually, Christmas Eve is music and laughter and loud conversations. Instead of a houseful of people and too much food, it is just the two of us (well, four if you count the cats). We might go out to eat, or I might make a simple dinner before we head off to church. I am surprisingly OK with this. As much as I have loved all those boisterous Christmas Eves with family and friends, somehow having a quiet Christmas Eve feels right this year.

I want to to have the space and the silence to notice how quietly Christ enters: My Stealth Savior.

Like the world He was born into, I am waiting for miraculous interventions. I wait for prayers to be answered. I wait for suffering to stop, for children to be rescued from war, for persecutions to end. I want the big, Technicolor miracles. And I may see one or two. While I wait, I want to be quiet and take my eyes off the bright, shiny objects. I want to look instead at the homely gift I didn’t ask for, but that will be exactly what I need.

How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven
No ear may hear His coming
But in this world of sin
Where meek souls will receive him still
The dear Christ enters in

I wish you a joyous, silent Christmas.

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I shift in my seat.
I grumble and mumble.
I roll my eyes and let out exaggerated, exasperated sighs.

This is how I wait.

I’m not proud of this, mind you. I know that petulance never makes the line move faster or the plane take off any sooner. But man, I hate to wait.

There seems to be only two ways to wait: passively and actively.
The passive waiter is patient, unhurried, easygoing. In other words, not me. No, I take charge and act: I switch lines or switch flights. I make things happen, though often action born of impatience turns out to be ill-advised, unwise and generally not a good idea.

But Advent shows us a third way of waiting.

In Advent, we see a push-and-pull of action and stillness, of active preparation and passive acquiescence that leads to nothing less than a miracle.

Mary and Joseph are able to act decisively and boldly when it is required of them to act. They both actively collaborated with God’s plan when they each said “Yes” to the angel’s proclamation to them. Mary wastes no time hurrying to Elizabeth when she hears of her miraculous pregnancy. Joseph obeys his visions and marries Mary, then takes his family to Egypt to avoid Herod’s murderous rampage.

Yet, they are also able to be still, to rest and allow God to work out his purpose, in His time, in His way. They could prepare for his birth, but nothing they could do — no amount of  impatience — could hasten the birth.  Once their son was born, they would feed and clothe, nourish and instruct him in the the faith. But their actions could not prepare them for the singular challenge of raising the Messiah, for watching Him die, or seeing the glory of His resurrection. For this they could only depend on God’s action, and they did.

Mary and Joseph live in this tension of action and rest, knowing and not knowing. They are able to live “in the meantime”, not with passive inertia nor with frantic, panicked activity.

They know the difference between what is theirs to do and what is God’s.

In Advent we mark the time when we wait for Christ to be born in us.

  With Mary, we ponder how God will use us to bring about his Kingdom.

  With Mary, we wonder how He will make life where there is none.

  With Mary, we hear ourselves say, “I don’t see how you’re going to use me, but I’m willing.”

  With Mary, we do what is asked of us, then wait with patient trust and expectancy.

The first Advent, and every one since, marks the uneasy, uncomfortable, hidden, mysterious, beautiful time when we are asked to act and wait, to be still and to be on the move, to do our part and to leave room for what God will do.

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new.

And yet it is the law of progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability —and that it may take a very long time. And so I think it is with you. Your ideas mature gradually — let them grow, let them shape themselves, without undue haste. Don’t try to force them on, as though you could be today what time (that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will) will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be. Give Our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.
                                             (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin)

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The Gift of Hope

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This Christmas, I’m asking for the gift of hope.  

I don’t mean the kind of hope we casually toss about in our every day conversations. We say “I hope you feel better” and what we really mean is that we want it to be true, and — fingers crossed — maybe it will be. It is no more than a wish we might make on a shooting star.

That kind of hope is easy, cheap and useless.

No, the hope I want is different. Not a facile, throwaway pleasantry, the hope I want is grounded in certainty and expectation. When God’s people say they have hope, it means they fully expect something to happen, despite any evidence to the contrary.

In the times of trouble, when darkness whispers that there is no light and never will be again, people of hope hear another voice. Probably the most radical thing the Christian faith teaches is that even in these dark moments — especially in these dark moments — we can can hear that other voice, reminding us that God is faithful. Faint at first, then growing stronger and louder, we hear the words that say we can hope in God because He has never forsaken us and never will.

Although we can’t be certain how or why or when, hope says we can be confident that God will act.

Scripture is full of this kind of hope. The Psalms declare over and over God’s steadfast love and faithfulness; the Prophets warn of God’s judgement, but just as often remind us of his inviolable covenant with us. But for my money, if you want to know what real hope looks like, listen to Mary’s song in the gospel of Luke:

And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
    and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
    For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
    and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
    to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”

Now this is a young woman who has every reason to be afraid and worried. She knows that her pregnancy will, at best, make her the subject of gossip, snickering and shaming. She knows that at worst, it could lead to her death as an adulterer.  She has been given the unimaginable responsibility of raising the Messiah, something nothing can really prepare you for.

And yet she has hope — not the wishing kind that would have her saying, “Man,it would really be nice if God shows up!”

Her hope is the expecting kind, the kind that says, “I know what God has done in the past, and I know He will do it again.”

Confession: There’s a cynical world-weariness still lurking in dark corners of my soul that thinks this not something a real person could actually do or feel in times of trouble. The Mary I met in Sunday school was someone so impossibly holy that although I found her admirable, she was no more real than a princess in a fairy tale.

And yet, as I have grown in age and faith, I know that there are people — real people — who have the same kind of expecting hope as Mary. Real people who face uncertainty with the certainty that God will act. Ordinary people who face death — their own or others’ — with a peace that undergirds to their grief. And I ask myself, how do they do it?  How did Mary? 

The answer lies in the angel’s declaration to Mary: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.”

The power of the Holy Spirit is what will make the impossible — a virgin conceiving — happen. It is also what makes it possible for her to have the joyous hope she sings about in her great song of praise.

Her expecting hope is nothing less than a gift of the Holy Spirit.

My jaded reaction that having this kind of hope isn’t something that real people could do is partly right: it isn’t something that comes naturally to us, or something we can manufacture. It is a gift we receive from God, a gift we can ask for and that will be joyfully given, a gift we can nurture, a gift that is nothing less than a beautiful mystery.

This gift allows Mary and us to do two things: remember God’s faithfulness to the individual and the community.   First, the gift of the Holy Spirit reminds her of what God has already done for her:

“For He who is mighty has done great things for me”  

Second, the Holy Spirit reminds her of what God has done for her community:

“He has shown strength with his arm…
he has exalted those of humble estate …
he has filled the hungry with good things …
He has helped his servant Israel …”
This Christmas, I’m asking for the gift of hope. I’m asking the Holy Spirit to come upon me and the power of the Most High to overshadow me, as He did to Mary.   I am praying Paul’s powerful prayer from Romans Chapter 15 over myself and over a world sorely in need:

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit, you may abound in hope.”

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Division

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THE MOST IMPORTANT ELECTION OF OUR LIFETIME  … is over.

Unfortunately, nothing has been settled. Oh, we have elected a president, but it feels more like the campaign has just gone to extra innings. People’s antipathies towards the candidates or their supporters didn’t change just because one of them got more than 270 electoral votes. In fact, they have hardened into brickbats that we’re just itching to hurl at each other.

To hear the fake news sites tell it, we have only two narratives to choose from:

  • The benighted, racist, uneducated people in those flyover states have led us down the road to perdition.
  • The arrogant, out-of-touch liberal snowflakes can’t seem to grasp that they’ve gotten their comeuppance and should suck it up and move on.

In the real world — the world where people have to look each other in the eye as opposed to the faceless ether that is social media — things are messier. I have a friend — a dyed-in-the-wool liberal Democrat — who had as much distaste for Hillary as any Trumpster. I know people who voted for Trump, believing as much as any blue-stater that he is at best a vulgarian and at worst a sexual predator. True believers aside, I think many people made a decision that required them to make peace with things they found objectionable, even abhorrent. And many, like me, are angry and resentful about being forced to make such a choice.

Now that the election gravy train has left the station, the media are only too happy to continue the narrative that we are hopelessly polarized. Reactions to the election have dominated the news, from violent anti-Trump protests to reports of attacks (verbal and physical) on minorities. Once more, we are being asked to wade through the muck and discern what is true (some reports have been proven false), and figure out what we will do about it.

“How could this be?” a friend lamented. “Has this river of hate been here all the time? I thought we had made such progress since the days of segregation. Now I think it never really went away.”

If we are surprised by the vitriol we are hearing it is because we have bought into the idea that if we legislate goodness, people will be good. We think that if we make it socially unacceptable to express the ugliness in our hearts, the ugliness will disappear.

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
                    Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

We can be frightened, we can be disappointed, we can be angry about the ugliness being manifest in our country. But we should not be surprised. There is a dividing line between good and evil, all right. But it isn’t only between Us and Them. It is also within us — each of us, all of us, no exceptions. This is not something that can be legislated, regulated or reasoned away.

It is not a political problem, it is a spiritual one.

I’m not suggesting that some people are irredeemably evil (as one candidate did) and we should sit idly as we descend into mayhem.  Laws can and should regulate behavior by imposing penalties for actions society deems undesirable. They are necessary, both as a deterrent and as an enforcement of the common will. This is one of the primary functions of government.

But laws cannot change the human heart.

While they can constrain our behavior, no government and no law has ever succeeded in making people good.

With the humility of people who know that the dividing line between good and evil runs through our hearts as well as those we vilify, there are things we can and should do in this most unsettling season:

We can and should look at why, at this moment in our history, the angry beast within us has been awakened, and with such fervor.

We need to ask why we won’t tolerate any views other than our own. Technology has allowed us to construct intellectual bunkers, and in this respect, it has not served us well. Armed with a TV remote and the “hide” button on Facebook, we can filter out what we’d rather not hear. 

Let’s be brave and actually listen to “one of them”. Not agree, not affirm, not encourage. Not try to convince or out-argue (does that ever work?) Just listen, and if asked, state our position with as much grace and love as we can muster.

We need to use every means given to us by our democracy to uphold our ideals of justice, equality, opportunity and freedom:

Vote. Pray. Write letters.  Run for office. Teach.  Be an example of the good you want to see. Pray some more. 

We need to do one more thing. We need to seek God, who alone can change our hearts and the hearts of those who sow dissent and rancor. I think of John Newton, the slave trader whose heart was transformed by the knowledge and love of God. He renounced his wicked profession, went into ministry, and became a mentor to William Wilberforce, who was instrumental in ending the slave trade in England. He also wrote these words:

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.

This is what God can do that Congress can’t: make the blind see.

This is what no president or senator or court can do: redeem an “irredeemable” and declare victory over a divided heart.

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Who’s Afraid of Election Day?

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This is what this election season has been like for me: I’m trapped in a never ending loop of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”, watching my hosts savage each other, amazed at their capacity for violence, wondering when it will stop, desperate to go home.

For months, I’ve been saying I just want it to be over, but who am I kidding? I know that on Wednesday, whatever the result, it will not be over. I can’t really believe that we’ll all wake up on Wednesday morning and say, “Well, all right then. It’s settled. Let’s move on.” Our national discussion (if you can call the screeching, fear-mongering and doomsday scenarios emanating from all sides discussion) will simply enter a new phase, with new recriminations, new apocalyptic visions, new war cries.

This morning, as I face Election Day with no small amount of exhaustion and dread, I read Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the weeds. In this story, Jesus tells of a farmer who finds that an enemy has come and planted weeds among his crop of wheat. The problem is, this particular weed is indistinguishable from the wheat. The farmer cautions against trying to pull the weeds lest they pull the wheat with it. Wait, he says, until the harvest, then we can safely separate them. While not the primary meaning of the parable, this scripture got me thinking about what has been sorely missing in this election season: humility.

So many of the speeches, debates, media reports, Facebook posts, tweets and water cooler discussions we’ve had over the last 18 months traffic in absolutes. This is the victim, this is the villain.  We are not satisfied to say others are wrong; they must also be evil.  We give no quarter and we receive none. It’s as if we’re not secure enough in what we believe — in who we believe — to admit any nuance, subtlety of thought or admission of flaws.

But Jesus’ words offer no such binary choices.  Wheat and weeds can look an awful lot alike, and we are not the final judge of which is which. We are asked to make a decision using the information we have, true.  But can we admit that our knowledge isn’t perfect?  Can we leave room for the possibility — however remote it seems — that we could be wrong? 

So, we will vote for what we consider the wheat — the good seed, the desirable outcome. Or, maybe we will vote for the “least objectionable weed.” We will make our choice tomorrow, based on what we believe is best for our country. I pray that we can do this with the humility that says we might be wrong. Without it, we’re just trapped in the dinner party from hell.

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When God Says, “No Thank You”

Poor Cain.

We remember him as the world’s worst brother and its first felon. Over the millennia, he has been portrayed as arrogant, deceitful, vengeful, stingy towards God and nothing less than the son of Satan. To me, he is a tragic figure, the star of a cautionary tale of what can happen when we offer what we have to God and He says, “No thank you.”

Cain was a farmer in a land East of Eden, where his parents had been exiled after The Fall. His work was hard and painful, but still produced enough that he could bring some of his crops to God as an offering. God looks favorably on his brother’s offering, but not his. He isn’t told why and neither are we.

We don’t like it, but sometimes God is like that. In His perfect freedom and sovereignty, God can act in ways we don’t understand, and He doesn’t explain.

And so Cain reacts as most of us would. He is angry at God and at his brother, God’s favorite. He is a bubbling stew of envy, resentment, shame at his own rejection and offense at his sense of fairness and justice. Unable or unwilling to turn down the heat — even after God cautions him — Cain lets it all boil over into murder. He is exiled, a marked man. Poor Cain.

Poor us. Cain is the spiritual ancestor no one wants to claim. His protest of “It’s not fair!” springs as easily from our lips as from his. Whenever someone else gets the blessing we think is ours, our envy can burn as hot as his did. (Joseph Epstein put it best: “Of all the deadly sins, only envy is no fun at all.”)

And sometimes, we know the pain and confusion Cain felt when God does not seem to want the gifts we are offering.

Hang around church long enough, and you’ll hear talk of identifying your spiritual gifts. There are spiritual gifts inventories, Myers Briggs tests and Enneagrams that are used to reveal our unique gifts and abilities. God will open doors for us to use those gifts, and He watches with great pleasure as we flourish and His kingdom grows. Frederick Buechner is often quoted to illustrate this:

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

And yet, there are times when we arrive at those places, gifts in hand, and find the door shut.

Where once we found the Lord had regard for our offerings, where our gladness meshed perfectly with the world’s deep hunger, now the way is barred. Like Cain, we are left wondering why. Cain is the object lesson of what not to do in this situation. So, what do you do when God says, “No thank you”?

Do the opposite of what you feel

Feeling hopeless? Pray hope. Feeling angry and slighted? Pray thanks. Feeling envy? Pray blessing on the one you envy.  You probably won’t mean it (at least not at first), but that’s ok. Do it anyway. It is a powerful defense against the sin that “crouches at the door.”  I find the Psalms are perfect for this.  No matter how despondent, frustrated, angry, or baffled the Psalmist was, these prayers always contain praise and thanksgiving to God. They are reminders that for every time you feel abandoned, forgotten or rejected, there are 10 times that God has rescued, remembered and welcomed you. 

Consider that God may be using “closed doors” to draw you to Him.

Cain is angry at God for overlooking his offering, but he sulks in silence. It is God who pursues him and wants to talk about it.

“God spoke to Cain: “Why this tantrum? Why the sulking? If you do well, won’t you be accepted? And if you don’t do well, sin is lying in wait for you, ready to pounce; it’s out to get you, you’ve got to master it.” (Genesis 4:6-7 The Message)

Knowing all the ugliness that lurks in Cain’s heart, it is possible God wants to bring it to the surface and show him how to deal with it. It is possible that God hopes in his pain, Cain will turn to Him. It could be that God wants Cain to recognize sin when he sees it, and having recognized it, resist it.

If you’re knocking and the doors aren’t opening, you could be in the wrong hallway.

Spiritual gifts inventories and personality tests are all well and good, but make no mistake: they don’t bind or constrain God. God could have something else in mind for you. Sometimes God invites us to places we feel we don’t belong, to a far country where the gifts and talents we use to define ourselves are a worthless currency, an offering that is unwelcome.

You may be happily using your gifts teaching Sunday School, but that doesn’t mean that God might not call you to pick up a hammer with Habitat for Humanity — even if you’re all thumbs. It may not make sense to now (or ever) but we have to be ready say, “I’m willing.”

Look beyond yourself
Maybe it’s not about you at all. As hard as it can be to imagine, God’s “rejection” of your offering it might not be about you at all. God’s ”no” to you could make “yes” to someone else possible.
In John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, the meaning of Cain’s story hangs on the translation of one word in verse 7 of Genesis: timshel. In most English translations, it is rendered must as in “Its (sin’s) desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” This is a command, and it can seem as if it is up to us to white-knuckle it and rely on our own strength and will. But timshel can also mean may, as in “you may rule over it,” which gives us a choice and a responsibility. To me, it also leaves room for the grace of God to help me to do what I can’t do on my own.

Sometimes we offer what we have to God and He says, “No thank you.” What we do next will lead us in the way of Cain — wandering in exile, far from God — or in the way of God’s sometimes surprising will for us. 

timshel-thou-mayest

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Imagine That

Photo credit: Laura LaSpalluto

With the late afternoon sun at just the right angle, the Creation of the World, rendered in stained glass, had never looked more beautiful. I have worshipped in this space many times, with many of the same people that are here today for an interfaith worship concert. I know that this institution and the people in it believe the church is a force for good in the world, a light in the darkness. That’s why I was so unprepared for what happened.

In this sacred space, a lampstand of the second largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., people got to their feet and cheered the notion that what was wrong with the world was religion.

The song that elicited this Standing O was John Lennon’s “Imagine.” The soloist invited us to “Imagine all the people, living life in peace.” How we ache for that, when the city of Aleppo is reduced to rubble and its citizens dead, starving or in exile. Dare we hope for a world that “will be as one” when terror and mayhem are striking ever closer to home? We wake every day to a cacophony of political distrust and acrimony. It’s no wonder we hear hope in Lennon’s words and we stand and we cheer. Yes. This is what we want. This is what we hope for. We want it so badly that it’s easy to only hear the words of love and peace.

But there are other words that get lost in the sentimental haze of this beloved anthem. They are the words that show us Lennon’s way to this utopia:

Imagine there’s no heaven …
Imagine there’s no countries …

And no religion, too …

We can have the peace we long for if we could just be free from the corrupting forces of political and religious institutions. No countries, no religion, no possessions: this is how we can be selfless, loving and living in pure harmony. This is the thoroughly modern worldview that says people are basically good, and if they’re not, we can blame the government, or the church, or economic systems.

The Christian worldview is very different. Humans are a paradox. We are created in the image of God and declared good by Him, as depicted in the stained glass windows that were the backdrop for this afternoon’s exercise in irony. Yet at the same time, we carry within us the potential for rebellion, selfishness, violence and greed. In other words, we have the capacity for sin.

In this view, we can acknowledge that political and religious institutions have brought pain into the world. Yes, greed keeps some fat and happy while other starve. But these are the result, not the cause of human depravity and violence.

There is disorder in this world that political and religious institutions neither foster by their presence, nor prevent by their absence.

There is disorder in this world because there is disorder in us, and when that disorder is allowed to flourish, we have Aleppo and Orlando. We have modern day slavery and gun violence and every form of suffering a depraved mind can invent.

Ironically, “Imagine” — Lennon’s paean to basic human goodness — reached #1 in the U.S. after his death in 1980. The sources of violence and discord Lennon cites in his song — country, religion, greed — are not what motivated his murder and their absence wouldn’t have prevented it.

No, for that we have to look beyond the easy answers of oppressive systems into the human heart — even into our hearts.

The Christian worldview says that there is a persistent force of evil at work in the world, a force we can either resist or surrender to. To contend that the only obstacles to the peace we long for are political, economic and religious systems leaves us dangerously vulnerable to the most formidable obstacle of all: Sin.

Like John Lennon, the prophet Isaiah had a vision of a world without conflict and pain. Unlike Lennon, in Isaiah’s vision, the root cause of all the world’s pain will be dealt with by a savior with the power to do what we cannot. Our savior, in his life, death, and resurrection began the work of making us selfless, loving and able to live in peace with one another. And in his return, he will complete that good work he has begun.

“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
    from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.

The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
    the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
    the Spirit of counsel and of might,
    the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—
 
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.
He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
    or decide by what he hears with his ears;

but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
    with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
    with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.

Righteousness will be his belt
    and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

The wolf will live with the lamb,
    the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling[a] together;
    and a little child will lead them.
 
The cow will feed with the bear,
    their young will lie down together,
    and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
                                               (Isaiah 11:1-7)

Imagine that.

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“Speak to Us Smooth Things”

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For 5 days, we kept our eyes to the sky and our ears tuned to the Weather Channel. We dusted off our hurricane vocabulary and liberally sprinkled our conversations with isobars and wind speeds, storm surges and a new addition — post-tropical cyclone. The forecast was dire: high winds, lashing rain, flooding and rip currents. We fretted, changed vacation plans, took in all possible projectiles and waited for Hermine to join Belle, Gloria, Irene and Sandy, the Storm Sisters that have made history on the East Coast.

We got a few drops of rain and a strong breeze.

You’d think people would be relieved and thankful. Instead, they were disappointed and just a little mad. Newspaper headlines sneered: “No-Show Hermine.” The Twitterverse accused forecasters of hype, fear-mongering and causing undue economic hardship for beach towns depending on Labor Day weekend tourism.

It didn’t take long for the memes to pop up. It’s not that we’re rooting for disaster; most of  us are not that perverse. But if you’re prepared for one and it doesn’t haphermine-150x100pen, you feel pretty foolish standing under a clear blue sky wearing rain boots and wondering what you’ll do with all those extra batteries and bottled water. And when we feel foolish, somehow, “thank you” isn’t what springs to mind. We should be grateful for being spared, but somehow all we can think about is our ruined weekend at the beach and those “weather types who are always wrong.”

All this crankiness about our near-miss with a hurricane got me thinking:

We have an uneasy relationship with prophets of any kind — whether they’re meteorologists or messengers from God.

We don’t like it when they’re wrong. We like it even less when they’re right.

When they are wrong — and in the case of God’s prophets, this means their prophecy has not yet come true — we treat them with contempt and scorn.

God’s prophet Jeremiah knew this well. For 40 years, through the reign of five different kings, Jeremiah warned that if Judah didn’t turn back to God and His commandments, there would be destruction and exile. Many didn’t listen because they just couldn’t believe it could be true — that the God of Abraham would abandon them, that He would allow His temple and His city to be destroyed by pagan nations. So they just stuck their fingers in their ears and went on with their idolatry, injustice and unholy alliances they thought would secure their future.

It must have been hard for the faithful — there must have been some — to see the wicked go unpunished for their obstinate rebellion. They weren’t grateful that God was showing mercy and patience, that more might repent. They mistook mercy for weakness, or for evidence that the prophecy and the prophet couldn’t be trusted. When our forecasters are wrong, we just shrug and vow never to listen to them again (or at least until the next hurricane). Jeremiah wasn’t so lucky. The price he paid for being “wrong” was ridicule, being called a traitor, death threats and imprisonment.

Of course, we’re not really happy when they’re right, either. I doubt that the people of Judah were pleased when, finally, Jeremiah’s vision of destruction and exile came true. Oh, you might have heard the occasional “Why didn’t I listen?” But human nature being what it is, I imagine the exiles were more likely to blame Babylon’s agression, their own king’s failed policies, or even God for abandoning them before they would admit that the judgement was on them. Anyone but them.

When prophets are “wrong” and the consequences of our sin have not yet materialized, we mistake mercy for weakness or ineffectiveness. When they are right and we see the consequences of our sin, we are quick to look everywhere but ourselves for responsibility.

Unless they’re telling us we’re perfect just as we are, prophets can’t win for losing with us.

Another of God’s prophets, Isaiah, put it this way:

“For they are a rebellious people,
lying children,
children unwilling to hear
the instruction of the Lord;
who say to the seers, “Do not see,”
and to the prophets, “Do not prophesy to us what is right;
speak to us smooth things …”
                                                                    (Isaiah 30:9-11)

And so, I pray.

I pray that we will have ears to hear, even — especially — the stuff we don’t want to.

I pray that we will be faithful and patient, even when God’s prophecy has not yet been fulfilled.

Most of all, I pray that God will deliver us from the prophets whose words never offend— prophets who speak to us smooth things.

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