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.

Share this post facebooktwittermail
Follow In Ordinary Time facebooktwitterrss

Meryl Streep is a Pharisee and So Am I

pharisee_and_tax_collector_003

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.

Share this post facebooktwittermail
Follow In Ordinary Time facebooktwitterrss

Who’s Afraid of Election Day?

635821750655780147-1410550549000-ballot-box-vote-660_109710_ver1-0

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.

Share this post facebooktwittermail
Follow In Ordinary Time facebooktwitterrss

Saints in the Shadows

canstockphoto19365810

In this life, there are headliners and there are backup singers. The headliners get the fame and the spotlight and the melody. Then there are those who stand in the shadows, off to the side, adding harmony and rhythm and counterpoint to the song. Their names aren’t on the marquee; they don’t have groupies and they don’t get Grammys. You might think they are pleasant but dispensable window dressing. You’d be wrong. Without backup singers, the music would be flatter, less textured, and less fun. Have a listen to Midnight Train to Georgia and tell me the Pips don’t make that song. 

The Bible transcends time and culture, so we shouldn’t be surprised to find stars and supporting players in God’s story, too. In the letter to the Hebrews, we find a lineup of All-Star saints: Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Jacob, Joseph and Moses, David and Samuel among them. Generations of people have looked to them as exemplars of faith.

There is another list, in another letter. The letter to the Romans concludes with a litany of names — 26 mostly unknown, unheralded saints of the church. (Romans 16:1-16) In exhorting the church to greet these Biblical backup singers, Paul is turning the spotlight towards these saints in the shadows.

He gives just the barest details about them.

“Greet Mary, who has worked very hard among you.”

“Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and greet his mother, a mother to me also.”

“Greet Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ.”

It is largely left to our imagination what they did to merit Paul’s gratitude and love. But we do know this: Paul wanted everyone in Rome to know that these were people worthy of honor and deserving encouragement. He didn’t just pull them aside and say, “Nice job!” He shouted: “Look at these people! They are the saints of the church. They console and nurture. They are the ushers and the bulletin-folders. They keep the lamps filled and the garbage emptied. They bake the bread for the communal supper and wash the dishes afterwards. They pray for you. They are ready to give their money and their lives for the sake of the Gospel.”

I had the privilege of reading their names aloud in worship this week.

I wanted to be sure to say their names clearly and loudly and with love.

I was determined to speak their names boldly because I wanted to turn the spotlight on them, just as Paul had.

Prisca and Aquilla.
Hermes and Hermas.
Andronicus and Junia.
Nereus, Asynchritus
Phlegon, Patrobas and Olympus

I wanted to give them the honor and praise they rarely get, living as they do in the shadow of the Greats.

I want us to remember that there are still people like them, in every community. People who quietly and humbly serve in ways most of us don’t even notice. They don’t seek the spotlight and they don’t look for praise. But they do deserve honor and encouragement.

Let’s face it: even when we’re serving out of love, we can get weary. We wonder if what we do matters. Our spirits can flag and our bodies groan. Sometimes a simple “Atta girl!” is balm for the soul. And another thing: acknowledging everyone’s contribution, whether they’re the headliner or just singing the “Wa Wa” in the background, underscores our mutual dependence and need.

So, next time you see Epaenatus straightening the pew cushions, greet him and remind him what an inspiration he’s been.

When you run into Tryphosa and Tryphena at Starbucks, thank them for their quiet servanthood.

Drop a note to Asyncritus or Philologus and tell them how their prayers have blessed the church.

And greet one another with a holy kiss.

Share this post facebooktwittermail
Follow In Ordinary Time facebooktwitterrss

Right Thing, Wrong Reason

shack-384021_640

or How I Wound up Building a Shack

 

I’ve been a writer most of my life. When I was in elementary school, I wrote in a little red diary with a gold lock and key, then graduated to spiral bound notebooks full of poetry and teenage angst. I wrote in marble composition books, in leather-bound journals and on manual typewriters whose keys would stick and tire my hands.

Eventually, I became a corporate wordsmith-for-hire and I wrote what others wanted — their message, their schedule, their purposes.  And I wrote what I wanted less and less. The thing was, at the end of a long workday, I just didn’t have any more words left in me.

Last year I decided to do what I had long dreamed of: write in my own voice. And so, three months ago, I began a construction project. I dreamed of building something beautiful, something that would use my life and my gifts to draw people closer to God. I envisioned using my words to invite people into a warm and welcoming cottage where we could sit by the fire and share the joys and challenges of following Jesus.

I tackled it like any of the other product launches I’ve worked on over the years. I took care of the infrastructure (procuring domain names, setting up the website, etc.). I devised a marketing plan. I tried to make the best product I could and deliver it regularly. I set benchmarks to measure success — Likes, followers, retweets, subscribers, comments.

I found joy in writing what is in my heart. With every post, I kept a careful eye on those “success” benchmarks. What a joy to receive praise! Every positive comment makes me giddy. Every new subscriber buoys my spirits. Every new follower makes me feel like I matter. It’s been over a year since I left my last job, a year of discernment in which I often felt uneasy and adrift. The praise and Likes and Favorites quieted that unease and gave me direction. “I have a purpose. I have value. Yes, this is who I am now.”

Wait. What?

I have always looked to external measures and rewards to tell me who I am. I was the kid who looked forward to report card day. A gold star told me I was a good girl, worthy of love and attention. To this day, when I walk into a room, I quickly get the lay of the land: Am I the thinnest woman here? the best dressed? the smartest, wittiest, most organized, the holiest? (By the way, the answer to all of these is usually “no”. Still, that’s OK. I can exhale and get on with it, just knowing where I fit in the pack. I guess in that respect, I’m temperamentally more dog than cat).

Every A, every gold star, every comparison I ever made told me
who I was and what I was worth

And I was doing it again. Without realizing it, I had gone from wanting God to use me to using God to get those gold stars that would make me feel important and worthy. I was amazed at how easily the line is crossed between doing something for God’s glory and doing it for my own. It stopped me dead in my tracks. What do I do now?

I stopped writing and started reading. A book about Ignatian spirituality, Eugene Peterson’s A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, and one about Islam. Most importantly, I started my “Bible in a Year” reading program, (only a few weeks late!) because I knew that my words needed to be undergirded by and subject to The Word. And that is where I read this:

If God doesn’t build the house,
the builders only build shacks.
(Psalm 127, The Message)

I wanted to build a beautiful cottage and instead was well on my way to building a shack. No cozy chairs by a warm fire, just made for conversation. No, what I and my hunger for the world’s gold stars had built was just a bare bones, barely adequate shelter.

That Psalm reminded me that God must be the architect; I am just the construction worker. I bring him what I have: my words, my heart, my fingers on the keyboard. I ask Him to remind me, as many times as necessary, of who I am in Him and what I am worth to Him. I bring my repentance when I forget. I ask Him to be my divine “blind spot warning system” that lets me know when I need to make a quick course correction. And I work to expand the audience for the message he entrusts me with, remembering that all those Likes, Follows and Favorites belong ultimately to Him.

Mother Theresa said, “I do not pray for success. I ask for faithfulness.” Amen and amen.

Share this post facebooktwittermail
Follow In Ordinary Time facebooktwitterrss