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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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. 

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Right Thing, Wrong Reason

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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.

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