Division

57075-broken-heart-divided-in-two-parts

 

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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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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