Living in a Messed Up World: Creation, Fall, Character and Commitment

It’s a messed up world.

Not that that’s any big news. But it really is. And it’s only getting worse, according to many observers.

Why am I thinking about this?  Because almost everything we see today is some sort of alteration, revision or perversion of how things ought to be.  One group fights for their rights, while another group wrings its hands and brays on about how awful things are, and offers no real solution.

And it’s been this way for a long time.  If you accept the Judeo-Christian scriptures, since not long after humanity came on the scene.  The lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, the pride of life…and the Fall.  Not just any fall but the Fall.

I am far from being a theologian.  I am fascinated by it from an academic perspective, and I have tremendous respect for those who can engage in it objectively, non-dogmatically, and from a doctrinally neutral perspective.

But the Fall was perhaps the single most devastating event in human experience.  From the idyllic setting of perfection, a paradise of fellowship between God and all his Creation, a single act, followed quickly by another effectively broke the Creation.  Not just a little piece of it, but all of it.  The perfect became imperfect.  The complete became incomplete.  And all of Creation groans for redemption from that brokenness.

I have thought long and hard about this story.  Obviously, if God had intended for this never to happen, he could have denied mankind its free will.  But he did not, which suggests that although he suspected it would happen, he was willing to give humanity a chance.

Over the succeeding few generations, things got progressively worse.  By Noah’s time, evil had reached a peak and even God was sorry he had created such as mankind.  But he wasn’t ready to give up.  The slate was wiped (almost completely) clean and Creation started over.

Only to repeat the process of failure and loss and descent into imperfection.

And then, after generations of failure and partial restoration and deeper failure, he presented humankind with a new way of being: while the concept had been there from the beginning, the way of Love was cast in no uncertain terms as an alternative to the depravity of a broken, fallen system.  The coming of Jesus into the world restored a sense of goodness and directed any and all who would accept it into a life beyond the self, into a life that would channel the perfection of the original perfect Creation into a corrupted world.  And it was then as it is now based on Love and Service and Sacrifice.

So many who claim to follow that Way do little to show it.  When we complain about everything and condemn all that we disagree with, we are not children of a loving God, but instruments of a vengeful one.

If God made the world as perfect, is it not logical to conclude that it would be his will that it be restored?  The beautiful and moving passage in the Revelation of John declares, “Behold, I am making all things new.”  I saw where someone once said that he didn’t say “I am making all new things,” but the emphasis was on the restoration of what had been from that elusive, singular point of origin, the Creation.  In fact, the same could be said of how he handled the restoration of the Creation after the flood:  the Earth had not been sterilized or cleansed of all evidence of a previous state.  It was restored using pre-existing materials—i.e., living things, species including humans.

I cannot help but agree that the world is indeed broken.  And I cannot help but think that so much of what we see today is more related to a disconnect from the perfection of Creation and the perfection of that Way that Jesus so eloquently lived.  Of Jesus, Peter said in Acts that “he went about doing good.”

Consider a few examples.  Because of generations of systematic oppression and suppression, when a young black man is killed at the hands of law enforcement, a movement arises that declares, “Black lives matter.”  I fully concur: black lives matter, and so do white ones, and brown ones…. We all matter.  But when white people, and people of faith at that, automatically take up the unconsidered position that the anger brought about by a questionable or at least questioned killing is completely unfounded and unjustified, they essentially telegraph the view that black lives don’t matter.  This is an unloving expression of racism, and it is not consistent with a drive toward the restoration of a perfected Creation.

When a furor erupts over who can use a restroom assigned to be used by people of a specific karyotype, we are not displaying any understanding of how a broken world has affected a small minority of people who are not comfortable in their own “birth-bodies,” for lack of a better term.  The transgender restroom debacle may one day be seen as a point where people who claim to follow the precepts of love failed, not because they were trying to maintain a perception of God’s intent in the distinction between males and females, but by failing to lovingly deal with those who have from a very early age experienced a manifestation of that imperfection that happened as a result of that fateful event so very long ago, that rippled and echoed throughout all of Creation, darkening what was once bathed in light to a shadow of its former perfect glory.  To pledge violence and violation in response to a supposed danger from transgendered individuals is not in any way consistent with a restoration of a perfected Creation.

When people of faith support systems and measures that not only promote but ensure inequality, that allow wealth and power to be centralized in the hands of a few while the poor are oppressed, repressed and suppressed, this is inconsistent with a view that purports to herald and welcome a restored Creation.  Those with wealth have responsibilities to help those who have less.  It’s a principle from scripture, from the Old to the New Testaments.  But the Neoliberal co-opting of the socially and politically conservative element of the population has been so insidious and so complete that its anti-Christian foundations have been recast as being Biblical, effectively reversing the moral polarity and calling evil “good.”  (And no, Neoliberalism has nothing to do with what is commonly called Liberalism today.  For an excellent and thoughtful primer on Neoliberalism, see the article from The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/apr/15/neoliberalism-ideology-problem-george-monbiot?CMP=share_btn_fb .)  The hopelessness of an unending cycle of poverty, the broadening gap in life span between the rich and the poor, the worship of wealth and its celebration through conspicuous consumption are all contrary to living by principles of love and goodness.

So what is a solution?  Should we close down, wring our hands in dismay, mutter curses in between expressions of disbelief, dig our heels in and vow to fight no matter what?  Should we acquiesce to any and every trend, allow our principles to be compromised, accept all social changes?  Some see these diametrically opposed sides as the only possibilities.  But like it is with so many things in life, the solutions are not cut and dried.  And trust me, I don’t claim to have all the answers.

But I do know that for every action that is launched in spite and anger, the cause of love and peace is harmed.  For every threat made to inflict harm on a person or group with whom we disagree, nearly irreparable damage is done to that cause.  For every sin we angrily or arrogantly accuse another of, our own are hovering in the shadows, waiting to condemn us.

In the 20th Century, there were two great leaders of the non-violence movement whose thoughts fit well with this argument:  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “At the center of non-violence stands the principle of love.”  Mahatma Gandhi revealed, “Anger is the enemy of non-violence and pride is a monster that swallows it up.”  Love cannot be expressed in anger, nor can it be extended in pride and arrogance.  For a refresher on the characteristics of love, I Corinthians 13 is the place. Indignation precludes understanding.  Only by patient, rational consideration can we ever hope to understand that which opposes our values. If a quiet answer turns away wrath, shouting insults and threats will only engender it.

Here is the hardest part: we are conditioned to believe that since we are confident down to our very cores that we are in the right, we will always win when confronted with the social and moral dilemmas that accompany the moral entropy that is so evident around us. This is not always so.  Even though we want to believe it, there is a good chance on many issues that the opposition is insurmountable and we will lose.  How we respond to losing speaks volumes about not only our commitment but our character. If after losing on some point, we give up and refuse to face defeat again, we are not committed to our cause.  If we meet failure with anger and violence, we display a deeply and tragically flawed character.

Fretting over social changes, politics, and cultural drift will do little to maintain the central mission of doing good and giving hope by restoring even a small portion of a fallen Creation.  Contrary to what we may believe, today’s society has not sunk to the depths of 1st century Rome. We are not powerless in the face of change as long as we have faith and hope and love.  And continuing to do good in whatever way we can brings a little more of Heaven’s light to fight back the darkness.

So, yes, it’s a messed up world.  But we can make it better.  Like Jesus says in the parable of the talents, doing nothing, hiding the resources entrusted to us in the ground, is unacceptable.  The good we can do may be a little or it may be a lot.  But no matter what, we are expected to do something.

Memorial Day, 2016: On War and Peace

(The following began as a social media post, but I thought I might preserve it here on the blog, with a few additional thoughts.)

Today is a day of remembrance in America. There is the usual casting of aspersions toward those who fail to acknowledge the intent of the observance of this holiday. For some, there emerges if only for the day an almost palpable nationalism that some see as patriotism but others may come to fear.

I do not in any way wish to minimize the importance and significance of the sacrifice that so many have made across the various conflicts we have found ourselves collectively engaged in over the centuries of our history, whether in service to a political ideal or in support of basic human dignity and freedom. Most of those things have been worthy, necessary, or both.

In too many conflicts, civilians have paid an equal or greater price. In World War II, the total military death count may have been around 23.5 million. Civilian deaths as a result of military actions on all sides and including war-related disease outbreaks and famine may have added in excess of 50 million more deaths to the total count. When do we remember those people?

As long as there is the quest for power; as long as there is the rallying cry of extremist ideology; as long as human life is held in such low regard that death is dealt as a tool of subjugation that must be countered with more death to defeat it, we will have wars. Young men–and now young women–will be sent into harm’s way to defend against an ever-growing evil and disregard for the value and sanctity of life.

Like so many others, I dream of a world without hate, where wars are no longer necessary; where life and peace are valued above power and control; where security is measured not in guns and bombs but in freedom from want and in the full expression of basic human rights.

I believe that this is more in line with a life of faith than what I see in so many who claim to be children of God.  While I understand the position that many hold, that their affinity for guns and deep reverence for the military is rooted in the idea that they are willing to defend their constitutionally guaranteed rights and professed faith even to a violent end, I cannot help but wonder if that is truly in accordance with John’s three word declaration of the nature of God, that “God is love.”  (Yes, I know that Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”  But Jesus laid down his life without raising a weapon–unless, of course, the love he demonstrated in that act could be construed as the ultimate “weapon” to overcome hate.)

Personally, I cannot “celebrate” Memorial Day, only observe it. I ache for the loss of too many bright young people who may have brought great things to the world had they not been cut down too soon. Their sacrifice, while so deeply appreciated and understood, should drive us toward building a world where no more good young people–civilian or military–must die. A peace secured through superior fire power or through mutually assured destruction is no peace at all, merely capitulation to the baser elements of a fallen, flawed humanity.

Let us remember the fallen, but let us always work toward a future where fewer must die, where our celebrations are more for achievements toward peace and equality and toward service to better life, not recounting the emptiness and sadness of loss.

It’s Not Easy Being Between: Confessions of a Radical Moderate

I am a middle child.  I wasn’t that when I was born, of course, but I was destined to become one some years later when my younger sibling came along.  At any rate, winding up as a middle child carries with it a host of issues.  On the plus side, you may not have the responsibilities (or expectations) of the oldest, and your parents may have made fewer parenting mistakes.  On the other hand, you don’t get the same treatment as the baby of the family.  In a lot of ways, being in the middle means you are the “other child.”  I’m not the only one to think that:  probably every middle child from time immemorial has felt at least a little of that sort of thing.  In fact, my third grade teacher, who was also a middle child, knew how things worked: she always found out who the middle children were in her class and picked them to do special things.  For those short months in third grade, I felt like a king.  But then fourth grade came and all bets were off.

A lot has been written about birth order.  Middle children have been characterized as lower achievers than first-borns, lacking competitive drive.  They have never been the complete focus of their parents, so they learn about sharing pretty fast.  They tend to be more flexible. They can see different points of view and tend to be peacemakers.

The youngest are frequently characterized as rebels, and often avoid responsibility, since they have been the object of more care in childhood.  They dislike competition and may choose different career paths, perhaps to avoid comparisons with older siblings.  However, that often backfires, especially if there is a measurable variance in comparative success.

At any rate, other middles will understand if I say that it’s hard being in the middle.  As I’ve moved through the ages and stages of life, I believe that more and more all the time.  Whether in religion or politics, the extremes are increasingly unappealing to me, and yet being in the middle seems to be a limbo disdained by the most vocal among us.  To seek the middle ground is to sit on the fence, to lack conviction.  From either extreme, the us/them mentality says there is a great gulf that divides the powerful ideologies, and no one of consequence can exist in that no man’s land of mediocrity.

But if we were to plot this on a graph, it might actually look more like a bell-shaped curve, where the middle is the pinnacle, where common ground becomes the high ground.  For years, that is where I have found myself.

Whether in religion or politics, I am neither liberal nor conservative.  Well, I’m as much both as neither, I suppose.  I have come to believe that in order to be true to anything, we must think for ourselves.  The most vocal ideologues in politics or religion have the least ability to see things from different perspectives.  They believe what they have received, and repeat that frequently and loudly, never giving the light, almost whispering voice of reason a moment let alone a full audience to be able to judge and balance what fits the evidence and supports a position.

I lived much of the first five decades of my life as staunchly conservative in politics.  Perhaps I should have known I was destined for something different when I found it so hard to accept any sort of religion for a very long time.  When I finally accepted faith, it was not based on the “fire insurance” peddled by so many who preach and teach in my faith tradition.  I would not, no, I could not stake a thing of such importance solely on fear.  It was not until I heard and saw love and selflessness as the true foundation of Jesus’ teachings that I wanted to be his follower and friend.   As I have said before, I have never looked back.

Politically, I was as right wing as any good Republican could have been without being Libertarian.  I had little use for liberals of any stripe.  Until I opened my eyes to what too many GOP leaders were touting as conservative values: in my estimation, these amounted to little more than strategies and plans to make the rich richer and keep the poor in a state of economic slavery.  The government can’t give handouts to the poor, and yet the government will not support raising the minimum wage to a livable level of income so that people don’t need handouts.  The action has come down to the states, where conservative lawmakers just pushed through a bill in Alabama to prohibit local governments from raising the minimum wage, all under the guise of sparking economic growth.  They seem to forget that workers are potential consumers of goods and services, and a better paid worker will have more to spend.  Conservatives must be pro-life, but after a baby is rescued from abortion, there appears to be no public responsibility to care for that child, feed it, provide health care and a good education: those must be the parents’ responsibility.

In so many ways, the conservative call has come down to money, more money, and don’t stand in the way of some people making as much money as they can.  The shameful Supreme Court decision referred to as “Citizens United” may well go down as one of the worst things ever in the history of jurisprudence.  The idea that corporations are in fact “people” with constitutionally secured and guaranteed rights of speech through an inexhaustible flow of money into the political arena was nothing more than the Court handing over the keys to the Capitol.  I stand among liberals when I express my disdain for this travesty of justice that left the door open for billionaires to legally buy elections.  Money may buy power, but wealth and power are not necessarily coexistent with morality and ethics—at least not in the positive sense.

I have seen people whom I respect and admire discuss a lost vision of prosperity by failing to elect a “good businessman” with government experience.  They seem to forget, however, that that very businessman had at one time espoused principles and practices that made him a successful governor that were contrary to what he would later tout as a presidential candidate.  They seem to discount the fact that much of his business success was based largely on vulture capitalism, buying struggling companies for pennies on the dollar and picking their bones, selling off viable bits and putting thousands of real people out of jobs.  That’s okay, I suppose because it was only business.  And, they failed to consider that his choice of running mate was a man who was a professed and devoted disciple of Ayn Rand, one of the most despicable characters in 20th century economic philosophy who was vehemently opposed to Christian principles, choosing rather to rewrite a code of morality to elevate selfishness as the crowning virtue.

The misplaced admiration they exhibit for these captains of industry who set their sights first on profit and then on politics to make more profit is far removed from the teachings of Jesus, who warned that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven, and who looked with love at a wealthy young man who was very good at law-keeping and told him to sell all of his possessions, effectively whatever would stand in his way to a life of service, and give it to the poor.  A man’s income does not reflect his virtue, but rather what he does with it.

Others enumerate what we must do in order to return to greatness, including things like eliminate all environmental regulations, eliminate social programs, and let the failed theory of trickle-down economics run its course.  The free market must be allowed to be completely free for there to be prosperity.  But by eliminating social programs, we will only punish those who truly need them: children born into a cycle of poverty, the disabled, the elderly, those displaced by corporate actions motivated solely by maximizing profit.  They may point to their interpretation of scripture and note that Christians should take care of other Christians in need.  But the need is so incredibly great that it cannot be carried by the few that try to shoulder the burden.  And many who are so vocal about such Christian responsibility do little or nothing to individually meet those needs.

According to many staunch conservatives, the God-given environment is full of resources to use, and anything that stands in the way of the money that can be made from the exploitation of those resources must be rejected.  Never mind that without regulation, we tend to exploit things into oblivion, resulting in unstable ecological communities.  And when we destabilize communities, we run the risk of ecological collapse.  We cannot escape Muir’s observation, that when we pull on any thread in nature, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.  Neither can we escape God’s instruction to Adam when he was placed in the Garden of Eden, that his responsibility was to take care of it.  It is interesting that such an instruction was never rescinded after the Fall.

At the same time, we cannot ignore the human side of an environmental equation.  We cannot deprive anyone of a livelihood without providing an alternative.  If we close a coal mine, we need to make sure that every former miner is trained to do something else and can make a comparable living.  I am sensitive to this, I suppose, because I remember how tobacco used to be a huge cash crop back where I am from.  But when tobacco was finally acknowledged to be the threat to public health that it is, government price supports and later subsidies for production went away, and people lost income.

I suppose I am on the moderate side of conservative when it comes to issues such as abortion.  I make no apologies for my unwavering opposition to abortion as merely elective birth control or a way to deal with an “inconvenience.”  If a woman claims to have a right to determine what she does with her body, she first has a responsibility—along with her partner, to be sure—to prevent unwanted pregnancies.  Contrary to what many may think, sex is not the defining feature of a genuine, loving relationship, and if it is, the relationship has little to commend it.  Birth control is inexpensive, effective, and available.

I cannot support, however, the complete legal prohibition of a medical procedure that may be necessary to save a life in those admittedly rare instances. Nor could I remove such a procedure from the options when dealing with a pregnancy violently initiated by rape or incest.  I could not imagine being an innocent victim and being sentenced to relive daily a life’s most traumatic event.  The “contragestive” drugs applied within hours of a rape would prevent implantation of an embryo of only a few cells if fertilization has taken place.  This would be far less costly, harmful and cruel than forcing a woman to carry a rapist’s offspring.  (And yes, I have seen the stories of those whose lives were owed to rape, and how wonderful the contributions they have made because they were not terminated.  We may never know how many lives of women and girls have been destroyed, however.  But that is not important, I suppose.)

There will be those who say that rape or incest are not valid reasons to allow the medical termination of a pregnancy, and such may only account for less than 1% of all abortions.  Well, if you were one of that 1% it’s likely that it’s enough to allow for those rare exceptions.  Consider that in one study, 33% of rape victims had seriously considered suicide vs. 8% who had not been crime victims; 13% of rape victims had attempted suicide vs. 1% of non-victims. Add to that a higher rate of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression and substance abuse and the effects of rape are far more than the physical assault and injury occurring at the moment the crime was committed: the issue of saving a life may indeed be a valid one.

Contrary to the conservative position that abhors big government, I believe in a government big enough to protect a nation’s people.  “Protection” to some is only equated with national defense, but I assert that it must be more.  The people must be protected from industries that would endanger them and put them at risk as those corporations pursue only economic prizes.  Some of the leading captains of 21st century industry seem to be nostalgic for the Gilded Age of the Robber Barons, when labor was populated by ignorant, compliant sheep, life was cheap, and money flowed freely into their banks, largely because environmental regulations did not exist and worker safety was little more than a passing benediction on the way to the shops and mines.  Consumer safety would be far less comprehensive if industries were charged with policing themselves as some of the most Libertarian leaning leaders would like to see.

I am firmly entrenched in the more liberal call for tighter gun control, but certainly not the surrender of all firearms…which puts me somewhere back in the middle.  I have no problem with sporting weapons.  I don’t even mind if trained, qualified, mentally stable people have a weapon for personal protection.  But I am firmly opposed to unfettered commerce in assault weapons, large capacity magazines and ammunition designed only to kill humans.  I have been vilified by my friends who like guns, and considered wishy-washy by those who would like to see complete disarmament.  Both groups have put words in my mouth that I have never said and motives in my mind that I have never proposed let alone allowed to direct my activities.

Sometimes I sit and think about the words of Jesus when he talked about entering in at the narrow gate.  The broad way, the easy path leads to destruction.  But what if that broad way simply involves going with the flow, any flow, whatever that flow may be?  What if Jesus wanted people to get things right, but do so by doing some of the hard work themselves?  If we never strive, if we never wrestle with questions of temporal or eternal importance but accept without questioning any particular view, have we not merely followed the broad way?

I have a desire, no, a need to know things.  I must examine and explore and understand.  If I fail to do that and accept without thought or reflection any view or idea, whether religious or political, I have taken the easy path.  That portrays not conviction, but the lack of it.  Blind acceptance is not faith.  It requires no effort to simply comply without testing.  Faith is hard to attain, at least for many of us, and it is harder to maintain in the constant flow of ideas and arguments that surround us.

But it is worth it.  There is fulfillment in knowing what you believe and why.  I cannot be like one of my staunchly Republican ancestors, who believed that a Democrat had as much of a chance of going to Heaven as a member of an unnamed denomination of which she was not a part.  She likely couldn’t say why she thought Democrats were damned: she just knew they were, perhaps because that’s what she had heard.  I cannot, nor would I ever condemn her for her view, since I recognize that she was a product of her environment as much as anything.  She worked with what she had, the light available to her.

And so, I wind up in the middle.  Pendulums swing and slowly move away from the extremes, and eventually they rest in between, at least without further disturbance.  But life is not without disturbance, and soon, the pendulum is pulled to one extreme, or pushed to the other, and the loud proponents of diametrically opposed ideologies again fan the flames of conflict.  And those who seek the sanity of the middle are again in the crosshairs of either side, or dismissed as collateral damage in the on-going war of extremes.  Perhaps we will always be there in that no man’s land, those of us who seek peace and reason and sanity.  Maybe it’s time to plant our flag and claim that ground for the radical moderates.  There’s plenty of room for company.  

Good Tidings of Great Joy

And so it begins.

Every year, as the days grow short and the nights grow long, as the sun fades and its warmth recedes, a pageant of negativity plays out driven by the faithful of very literal-minded conservative churches: it is the annual denial of Christmas.

Every year, articles will be written, fingers will be pointed, sermons will be preached, tongues will be clucked in abject scorn against those who would add to the plagues written in the book by choosing to honor the birth of the Son of God.

“We don’t know when he was born!”  “It certainly wasn’t in December!” “We weren’t commanded to remember his birth!” “Christmas is just a re-tooled pagan solstice holiday!”

I’ve heard all of the arguments.  And I’ve made most of them myself.

But no more.

While Christians are commanded to remember Jesus’ death with every observance of the Lord’s Supper, we must never forget that there could have been no death without him first being born.  If we are to make so little of Jesus’ birth, why were so many words, both prophetic and reportage, wasted on detailing the circumstance of his nativity?  If there had been no incarnation, there could have been no temptation to experience all things that we mortals contend with.  He could not have been a capable high priest to intercede for us if he didn’t know what we face.  The fact that Jesus became one of us is indeed a most fundamental reason to rejoice.

In fact, there were celebrations at his birth ranging from a multitude of the heavenly host all the way down to a lowly group of shepherds, and all noted by a young mother who treasured all of the things that had transpired in her heart.

Luke 2.8 And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9  And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear.

10  And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  11  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  12  And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”

13  And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 14  “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

15  When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16  And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 17  And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child.  18  And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.  19  But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.

20  And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

But there is the issue of not being directly commanded to celebrate Jesus’ birth.  Well, did Jesus celebrate feasts and holy days that were not scripturally authorized?  John 10 says he did.  There, it is noted in verse 22 that Jesus was in Jerusalem during the Feast of Dedication, a feast to celebrate the rededication of the Temple following the Maccabees’ defeat of an invading army nearly two centuries before Jesus’ ministry.  That Feast of Dedication is identified with the Jewish festival of Hanukah, which does indeed occur during winter, and because of its more recent commemorative antecedent, logically was not included in the catalog of commanded holy days as written in the Law.

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As I think about Jesus’ earthly beginnings, I often try to imagine what he must have been like as a child.  Haven’t you ever wondered what Jesus must have been like as a baby, as a toddler, as a rough and tumble youngster who was at home with laborers as well as lawyers?  He must have been a handful.

That reminds me of one of the most captivating of modern-era Christmas songs, Mark Lowry and Buddy Greene’s “Mary Did You Know?”  From the first time I heard it—I think it was Kenny Rogers’ and Wynonna Judd’s version, or maybe the great Kathy Mattea’s, I can’t rightly recall—I was completely enthralled by it.  The premise of querying Jesus’ mother in what amounts to a synopsis of his miraculous ministry was nothing short of inspired.  One verse captures the reason for the incarnation in succinct and unmistakable terms:

“Did you know

that your Baby Boy has come to make you new?

This Child that you delivered will soon deliver you.”

I have loved the music of the Christmas season for most of my life, even though I was afraid to admit it for fear of reprisals from the faithful.  Music speaks to our very souls, and the joyfulness of the songs extolling the birth of this humble servant-king cannot be under-estimated.  “Joy to the World.”  “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.”  “O, Holy Night.”  “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.”  Each one filled with joy, with reverence, with thankfulness for the coming of the Son of God.

While the date in December (or January, by Greek and Eastern Orthodox standards) was dubiously fixed by over-zealous monks seeking practically numerological significance to calendar events, the actual date is of little importance.  That he was born is enough to celebrate.  That he taught peace and forgiveness and mercy and would pay for his revolutionary teachings with his sinless life is reason to rejoice.

The prophet Isaiah said, “9.6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  7 Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.”

Of the ancient songs and carols of the season, the hauntingly beautiful “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” may just be my favorite, and it echoes the message of Isaiah.  Some sources place the text’s origin in the 12th century, while others trace hard evidence of the Latin lyrics to 1710.  Whenever it was written, the sentiment is one of anticipation of the coming of Jesus, with the admonition in each stanza to rejoice for the promised liberation, for the comfort of God indeed being with us.

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

The 19th century English poet, Christina Rossetti, penned a poem that would become the lyrics of another beautiful carol, “In the Bleak Midwinter.”  Yes, I know, Jesus was not likely to have been born in winter, shepherds in the fields and all that.  But perhaps the Bleak Midwinter was the sunless depth of a bleak point in human history, when life and freedom were oppressed by the crushing weight of occupying armies.  When that darkest time had arrived, a beacon of heavenly light emerged promising better life.  Despite Rossetti’s temporal setting in winter, the response of the observer is of much greater importance.  The fourth stanza says,

What can I give him, poor as I am?

If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;

if I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;

yet what I can I give him: give my heart.

When considering the significance of Jesus’ arrival into the realm of time and space and humanity; when considering his role as teacher of peace and love and restoration; when considering his sacrifice that there might be reconciliation of a fallen creation with its creator, there must be a response. Jesus’ call to his first disciples was, “Follow me.”  And they did.  They gave him their hearts and minds and bodies and their very souls.  Like Rossetti, poor as we humans may be, even giving our hearts, the well of our own love and compassion and reason and will, all that makes us truly us, in exchange for the gift of living water and the bread of life seems so meager, so insubstantial, so insufficient.  But it is an acknowledgment of that wonderful, amazing grace.  And by Heaven’s accounting, it is enough.

Whoever Knows the Right Thing to Do

Another semester has come to a close.

And as usual, I am drained and exhausted beyond measure.  I am exhausted because agonize over whether I was effective in getting my message across.  I agonize over grades, fully realizing that my actions and judgments affect the lives and futures of my students.  I always wonder how students can leave an exam completely oblivious to how they performed on it, and then irately contact me when they think they deserve a higher grade.

Another thing that exhausts me is dealing with those students that choose to engage in academic dishonesty.  I have little sympathy for the ones who engage in egregious infractions of a standard code of academic integrity.  It always feels like a personal affront when people cheat instead of try.  All students enter my class as equals, with my respect for them intact.  I hate that breach of faith that destroys an otherwise decent human interaction.

But something that hurts me worse than all else is something that I learned the last week of classes as I was making my way back to my office after my last lecture on Wednesday afternoon.  I started across the quad, pulled out my phone to check my messages, and was immediately met with the news that a student in another of my classes had completed suicide.

I was devastated.  I almost felt like I would collapse on the sidewalk.  I felt sick.  And helpless.  And I felt like I had failed.

I mean, after all, I’ve been trained in suicide prevention.  I thought after leading sessions on prevention, I would be ready for dealing with suicide, and I was going to be ready to help change the world.  But that just made me cocky and a little too self-assured.  Or deep down, maybe I just thought I’d never need to use it.    

In this case, I saw none of the signs that we are supposed to look for.  This quiet, bright young man apparently quietly suffered with depression.  He was bent on completing the only thing that he thought would end his pain. 

But in his state of confusion, he, like so many others who choose suicide, failed to account for the pain he would leave behind.  I can’t imagine the pain his family is dealing with right now. 

I barely knew the young man, as my only interaction with him was in the classroom.  But I have spent hours wondering what I might have been able to do to help him.  Why didn’t I expend the effort to get to know him? Why didn’t I give the talk I often give about suicide prevention in that class?  Why didn’t I let him know I was there to listen, and that I cared about him and that I wanted him to live?

But I kept my professorial distance.  

And I will forever be haunted by those questions.

I have written on many occasions about the need for learning more about how to help people with suicidal thoughts.  That has not changed.  We still need to know what to look for and be willing to ask the hard questions and reach out to them.  More than ever, I affirm my belief in Donne’s stirring declaration, that “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”

I do feel diminished, but resolute that I must be more accessible to those in pain. I must be more empathetic.  I must be more compassionate. 

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the way our world is made. No individual or nation can stand out boasting of being independent. We are interdependent.”  This is the goal: to achieve fulfillment as a human being, I must fully become part of humanity.  To take my place in the fullness of the human experience I must help others to achieve all that they can be. 

According to the biblical author, James, who some say was the brother of Jesus himself, “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” (James 4.17) Therefore, from the position of faith, I must do what I can to help others, I must alleviate suffering, I must be willing to carry a weight.  To do any less is to sin against my own humanity, against all humanity, and by extension, its Creator.

Another semester is done.  But there is so much left to do.  I resolve to leave less unsaid and less good undone.  Life is too short to shy away from uncomfortable situations.  I hope that I will not someday look back on my life with regrets for lost opportunities to make a difference.  I hope that I can say and others can see that I did what I could; not for my own glory, but because of my understanding and acceptance of what it means to be made in the image of God, to show love and grace and mercy.

I must be better.  And while I may not be able to do it all, I know that through a strength born of faith and a fuller resolve to channel Heaven’s grace, I can do more to help others, and do it more effectively.  I know the good I can do.

Now it’s time to get to work.    

News and Blues and Candles Against the Darkness

For several days now, I have just felt depressed when I open my news page: recently, there have been a number of very troubling murders, including some allegedly perpetrated by children.  A pastor’s pregnant wife was murdered in her home, there have been sexual assaults, including teens assaulting toddlers, and now a coordinated terrorist attack killing more than 120 across the city of Paris.

But it isn’t just the violence: it’s the clash of ideologies that wearies me to the very bone.  One group sues to have a nativity scene banned from display on public property because religion offends them, while another bunch of religious crazies gets bent out of shape because Starbucks goes with a red holiday cup.

We have politicians and would-be presidents that gleefully toss around threats of deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants including children who would be uprooted from the only home they have known and sent back to a greater uncertainty, well except for the near certainty of poverty and misery.

We allow ourselves to be blinded by the counterproductive values of those who are driven by greed.  We turn our faces from the uncomfortable reality of suffering and seek our security if not our happiness in a warm gun.  And when violence erupts in a school or church, the immediate call is not for controlling access to guns but rather arming more people to deter (read “preemptively kill”) would-be mass killers.  And we can do all that while quoting scriptures and patting the cover of a dog-eared King James Bible.

We worry so much about rights and not bruising the delicate sensibilities of this special interest group or that special interest group that we forget about responsibilities, and I’m talking about the ones that predate the Constitution and the assembled code of laws accreted since the founding of this country. 

The most fundamental directive of humankind is to love one another.  That love could be manifested in many ways, but none more genuine and foundational than seeing to the needs of the poor, weak, sick and vulnerable. 

I know there is evil in the world.  I’ve been alive since the dark days of the 1960’s.  I remember the body counts from Vietnam on the evening news.  I remember the saber-rattling that preceded the fall of the Soviet Empire.  I remember the first and second Gulf Wars.  And I have watched the rise of radical religious zealots who are bent on establishing an oppressive, blood-soaked global theocracy.

The news disturbs me daily, and far more than it ever lifts me up.  I need good news. I need to know that there is still goodness in this world.  I need to know that there are those who have not given up the fight against darkness, against inhumanity, against suffering.  I need something to rekindle my faith in the goodness of humanity.

Whatever happens in the world, the evil without must not be an excuse for the growth of a malignant evil within.  We must never dim the divine light loaned to humanity in deference to the darkness of hate, greed, selfishness and the shadowy passions that degrade our innate nobility.  We were made for better than what we see in the news.  Like a tiny candle flickering against the night, every small act of kindness strikes a blow against evil.  Never be afraid to join the light and make a difference.  The alternative is darkness. Those are the only two choices.

I choose light.

The Curious Case of Christians and Coffee Cups

The annual festival of offenses has begun.

Every year, someone decides that society has waged a war on Christmas.  It is true that people have moved to a more generic greeting in many cases, from Merry Christmas to Happy Holidays.

None of that really bothers me.  What does bother me is that people are giving Jesus a black eye by violating the very principles he taught.  If someone offends you, turn the other cheek.  He would have agreed with the wise man who spoke of gentle answers that turn away wrath.  He would have agreed with his apostle who said as far as it depends on you, be at peace with all people.

When people are spoiling for a fight about something as ridiculous as Starbucks’ choice of holiday paper cups, we have a problem.  One meme I saw said something about people wanting to put Christ back in Christmas, but that they should first pay attention to putting Christ back in Christians.  I usually despise memes.  But that one has a kernel of truth.

A larger issue than disposable drink-ware is a study that came out that, whether accurate or not, has painted children from religious families as less empathetic, less altruistic and more likely to suggest harsher punishments for rule-breaking.  How did we get to a point where cups are more important than teaching our children the most elementary principles of a life of faith?

Why are those who are nominally Christians the ones who are most likely to fight for lower taxes even though it means cutting programs that help the poor?  Why are Christians at the center of the fight for gun rights ostensibly to defend their own lives and the lives of their families and who lead the charge against abortion, but support reducing or eliminating programs that feed children who would otherwise have nothing to eat and put them at risk of dying?

Have we become so legalistic, so fearful of an angry God that we fail to comprehend the true fundamental principle of grace, that as we have received from him, we should share with others?  Have we let the fear of punishment distort the joy in service to the Prince of Peace we can have by serving others?

The Jesus I know had compassion on crowds of hungry people.  He comforted those who were hurting.  He wept with those who mourned.  He even prayed for the forgiveness of the men who nailed him to an undeserved cross.

“But Jesus made a scourge of cords and drove money changers from the Temple.”  He did indeed do that.  But those people had made the courtyard of the holiest house of worship into a profit-seeking market, likely taking advantage of people in the process.

Sometimes, I wonder if Christ ever really was in some people who call themselves Christians.  If we are Christians only because we fear hell, we have missed the point entirely.  To be a follower of Jesus is more than filling a pew and feeding the collection plate and being opposed to practically everything.  It is reflecting his light and his love to a hurting world.  If all people see from us is scorn and outrage and selfish actions, it is no wonder that religion is fading in America.

Until we see Jesus as he truly was—as I believe that he still truly is—we will make little headway in expanding the borders of the Kingdom.  Jesus showed us the way.  He changed hearts one at a time with honesty and kindness and love.  The Prince of Peace stooped down to wash his disciples’ feet.  He reached out with open arms in humble service, not clinched fists lifted in outrage.  Mobilizing a mob—even one on social media—with the fervor of a religious militancy is as far from honoring Jesus as one can go.

So if Starbucks offends you, drink your coffee somewhere else.  Or better yet, have a glass of water and give the price of a latte to someone who has no food.  I’m pretty sure Jesus would be OK with that.