There Are Hypocrites, and Then There Are Hypocrites

I was thinking a while ago about the whole concept of hypocrisy.  One of the most prevalent reasons people give for not being religious is that churches are full of hypocrites.  An article I quickly perused suggested that the term “hypocrite” was not necessarily a bad thing in its early usage, carrying with it the connotation of an actor, or perhaps an understudy to an actor.  The image of acting involves a depiction of scenes and events that are a fiction, whether the play is purely imagined or based on reality.  Accomplished actors will be able to make you believe that the story is true, that they have experienced the emotions, the conflicts, and elations of the characters they are portraying.  As I was once pointedly reminded, “perception becomes reality”: If we perceive the character’s truth, then that truth, although a fiction, becomes true, at least to the audience.

The more current use of the term, “hypocrite”, lacks that classier sort of connotation.  It takes the actor and places him in the real world, where the part he plays is not to entertain or inform, but to mislead and confute.  Here, the hypocrite is not so much an object of respect and admiration as an object of repugnance and disgust.

But what is it that makes the hypocrite hypocritical?  How can you tell a hypocrite when you see one?  Why is hypocrisy so dangerous?  These are all questions that come to mind when thinking about hypocrisy.

To address the first question, it is fairly easy to see what makes for hypocrisy: the attitude of pretense to being better, more righteous than one truly is is a good summary of the hypocritical condition.  The opposite is rarely true, that one would try to make herself look less righteous than she truly may be.  Indeed, the act of deceiving in such way would defeat the purpose, for in perpetrating such a deception, the former righteous state has already been forfeited.  What is interesting to note is that this attitude recognizes a deficiency, yet rather than doing the obvious thing to correct that deficiency—straightening up and flying right—the hypocrite will take measures to avoid that difficult, yet safer path.  Everyone has heard expressions like, “Sam would rather climb a tree to tell a lie than stand on the ground and tell the truth.”  So it is with the hypocrite.

The best field guide to religious hypocrisy is found in Jesus’s pronouncement of the seven woes in Matthew 23.  From the start of this particular teaching, Jesus had the scribes and Pharisees in his sights.  In verse 2, he set the stage by saying they had the authority to interpret the law, but in verse 3, they failed to practice what they preached.  In verse 4, they frequently laid more burdens on the backs of the people, burdens that they themselves refused to lift or carry.  Verses 5-7 reveal a particularly succinct image of the Pharisaical hypocrite, “(5) They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, (6)  and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues (7)  and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.”  Everything they do is for show, calling attention to their storefront righteousness.  Verses 8-12 reveal the antithesis of their hypocrisy, which may be summed up in one word: humility.

Beginning in verse 13, he launches into a repetitive denouncement of their hypocritical ways, addressing them each time with “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”  They were condemned for preventing people from entering the kingdom of heaven, and for failing to summon the humility to enter themselves.  Their proselytes, converts to their twisted, cultic practice of law-keeping, were doubly condemned.  Following a scathing rebuke for inconsistency and splitting hairs with regard to when it was acceptable to break an oath, he rebuked them for failing to observe the weightier matters of the law–justice, mercy, and faithfulness–while still meeting the requirements of tithing.  The attention to outward appearances is aptly depicted in verse 27 with the image of whitewashed tombs, so orderly on the outside, but filled with decay and corruption inside.  In verse 30, he quotes their self-righteous pronouncement that they would never have engaged in the heinous acts of murdering the prophets God had sent to call their ancestors to repentance.  Jesus met their challenge in verses 34 and 35, where he says that more prophets and holy men would be sent to teach them, but they would be just like their forebears, murdering the innocent to salve their guilt.

In verse 37, Jesus breaks off his harsh but well deserved attack by offering up a deeply heart-felt lament: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”  He had taught them over and over, revealed to them his identity as the promised Messiah, shown them how he had fulfilled prophecy, and performed miraculous wonders that no natural man would have been able to conjure.  And they rejected him.

Each of these woes was a hallmark of hypocrisy: they professed lip-service to God, but failed to keep the most important commands.  They worried about the minutiae, and failed at the fundamental concepts.  They staked their entire religious experience on appearances of righteousness, and lacked the moral fortitude to support the superficial exercise of their “faith.”

Jesus knew a lot of hypocrites.  Were he to walk among us today right here in the United States, he would notice that people are no different 21 centuries removed from his walk in Galilee and Judaea.  He would instantly be able to size us up and know our hearts.  I wonder if he would have at least as many woes to deliver to us.  It is of no consequence, since he already told us what to look for.  And by knowing those things, we can work to eliminate them in our own lives and help others purge the incipient attitudes before they can lead to eternal loss.

And they can lead to eternal loss.  In Matthew 23:33, he says, “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?”  That question serves to warn that hypocrisy on the scale of the Pharisees would condemn, but also suggests that there is escape from that potential fate.

Why is hypocrisy so dangerous?  The crux of hypocrisy is reassurance in a false sense and expression of righteousness.  Consider the case of the Apostle Peter.  In Galatians 2, Paul relates his encounter with Peter over the thorny issue of the need for Christians to observe the Law of Moses.  Peter, one of the twelve, part of Jesus’s own inner circle, had felt threatened by the actions of a group of Judaizers, alleged Christians that Paul condemned as leading the people from Jesus’s fresh air of liberty to the stifling chains of legalistic slavery.  In verses 11-13, Paul wrote, “(11) But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.  (12) For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party.  (13) And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.”  Peter was led astray by hypocrisy; other converts from the Jewish heritage were led astray by hypocrisy; even Paul’s old traveling companion, Barnabas, was taken in.  If Peter stood condemned for this wavering, surely the others were as well.

Peter apparently learned from the experience of being taken to task by Paul.  In I Peter 2:1-3, he wrote, “(1) So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander.  (2) Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation— (3) if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.”  Everyone who is truly converted, who is a true disciple has tasted that the Lord is good.  The sweet water of redemption refreshes, the pure spiritual milk builds and strengthens.  Peter knew these things, both from his service at Jesus’s side, and through his career as an Apostle and evangelist after Jesus’s departure.  He was reacquainted with that joy of salvation when he repented of his denial of Jesus, and when he repented of his hypocrisy that kept him from treating all Christians as God saw them: equals.

If the truth were known, we are all potential victims and perpetrators of hypocrisy.  The insidious nature of hypocrisy is such that we may never consciously sit down and plan a campaign in its dubious honor.  It is a creeping sort of malady, a cancer of the soul that gives a false sense of well-being.  But anyone who has witnessed the excruciating last days of a loved one knows that they may rally for a moment before the end.  The height of hypocrisy is that rally, that ultimate false realization that “I am the standard for others to live by, and no other is worthy to be my peer.”

Peter learned the cure for a soul ravaged by self-righteous hypocrisy.  In I Peter 5:5b-7, he said, “(5b) Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”  (6) Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, (7) casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.”  The reward for humility before God is his grace, the intangible treasure of inestimable worth.  That grace will lead to exaltation, but in God’s time, not ours.  In the meantime, we have the assurance that we have a solution for all of our fears, cares, and insecurities:  a caring Father who will never fail in providing what we need.

Are churches full of hypocrites?  I’d be lying if I said there are none.  There will be some in any congregation.  They can change, if they have the will, if they have the encouragement, and if they can see the beauty of a life lived in, of and for truth.  But shunning a church because it is populated by hypocrites is really only a reflection of that same sin.  It says, “I’m at least as righteous if not more so than those church-going hypocrites with their self-serving religion.”  Jesus said it best, when he suggested that it’s hard to see with a plank in your eye.  If we take care of our own issues of self-righteousness, if we acknowledge our failings and humbly seek to do what is right, we will break the enchantment of hypocrisy.  I’d rather have God’s approval and wrap myself in his grace than to keep donning the same old threadbare coat of my own self-righteous making.  After all, God has had more experience dealing with people, whether hypocrite or humble.  He’s better at it, too.


A Quantum of Love

The following essay was originally published in an e-book titled, A Dozen Glimpses: Essays from a Regular Guy, available for Kindle at Every now and then, I pull out the old essays and review them. While they are more general in nature than most of the ones appearing on this blog, they reflect some observations on what it means to be human, with all of the attendant anxieties, concerns, and even humor. If we can’t laugh at ourselves, we are missing out on one of the most enjoyable aspects of our species. “A Quantum of Love” is not of that humorous variety, but takes a serious look at priorities as demonstrated by what we choose to support. After spending much of my life looking at the world through the academic lens of science, I have come to question many of my earlier priorities. We are more than mingled elements, self-replicating molecules, and disjunct populations. Life is far more precious than academic foolishness, and to place a question of purely academic interest above saving a life, especially that of a child or any helpless innocent, has become increasingly anathema to me. When we realize that love is the foundation of the best of the human experience, we will begin to be better humans. I would love to see that world.

At a quarter past one a.m., I jolted awake to check on my son who had gotten sick on our trip to Memphis yesterday. The fever has broken, and he roused enough to acknowledge my presence, then he went back to sleep. If only I could.

Instead, my mind races to accommodate the bizarre news of two scientists that now say, based on their mathematical models, that the Large Hadron Collider at CERN beneath the Swiss-French frontier, has caused a ripple in time: the future itself may actually be working to sabotage the most monumental physics project in history, to thwart the attempts of mankind’s most ambitious minds to find the “God particle”, the elusive Higgs Boson, that is predicted to have been present at the primordial event of this universe, attendant on the birth of matter itself. They claim that this sabotage is “like going back in time to keep your grandfather from getting hit by a bus.”

Now, this would of necessity mean that there are alternate time streams: at least one in which the Higgs Boson were not found (the agent provocateur) and at least one in which there will (apparently) be tragic consequences (look around). Hmmm. Curiouser and curiouser. But this would mean that the point of divergence happened before the LHC spun up to power and made good on its promise to mimic the Big Bang. Shouldn’t the alternate, non-Bang time stream continue on its merry way while the affected one plays out to potential annihilation? Maybe such an event would reach across all realities, ripple the unseen dimensions of the fabric of space-time, and pluck a discordant strand in the web of the ultimate, unifying reality, reaching back to that initial, cataclysmic micro-instant of “THE BEGINNING”.

Why do men climb mountains? The obvious answer is, “Because they are there.” Why do men like Craig Venter try to create synthetic life with the likes of the Minimal Genome Project? Why are we obsessed with manned exploration of space? Why should we want to send humans back to the lifeless, dangerous craters of the moon and further on to Mars? (Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s “Rocket Man” got it right: “Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids, in fact it’s cold as Hell.”) Why must we spend multiplied billions of dollars on the LHC to answer questions of nothing more than academic curiosity? “Because they are there.”

That answer is patently unsatisfying, especially when there is so much suffering in the world. Had those billions of dollars been spent on alternate energy sources, perhaps global change could be alleviated. Had those billions of dollars been spent on developing food technologies, perhaps millions of children would not die of starvation. Had those billions of dollars been spent on medical research, perhaps more millions of people would not have to die horrible, painful deaths from cancers, malaria, AIDS…. But while our fellow travelers on this terrestrial ship–both human and non-human, sentient and non-sentient–suffer, we play God.

The sad part of this is that so much effort is (mis-)spent on looking backwards. Yes, it summons and addresses the existential questions of “who am I” and why am I here”, but in light of all that we are facing in the world, why bother? We ARE here and we can do nothing about what has been; we can only affect the future. Will finding the Higgs Boson bring peace to a troubled world, or open Pandora’s box? Will finding life on Mars save a child’s life here in Tennessee? Will finding water on the moon keep Bangladesh (or closer to home, Manhattan) from becoming the next Atlantis?

While reports emerge that the Arctic ice cover will be gone (at least in the summer months) within 30 to 40 years, billionaire and political dilettante, Steve Forbes, in his infinite arrogance, proclaims, “we can adjust” to rising sea levels caused by a three to six degree Fahrenheit rise in temperature over the next century. Hey, Steve, tell that to the plants that bloom too early, only to be left un-pollinated by the insects that aren’t there to do their jobs. Tell that to the coral reefs that are already bleaching due to a fraction of degree rise in sea temperature. Tell that to the crumbling tundra ecosystem when the permafrost melts and becomes a massive carbon source as microorganisms kick their metabolisms into high gear to degrade the organic matter that had been in deep freeze since before humankind can remember. Tell that to the thousands of species on the brink of extinction due to human activity. Mr. Forbes and his kind look only at numbers with monetary symbols next to them. They don’t understand the fundamental ecological principle that biodiversity brings stability to ecosystems.

The cynic in me wonders if the intellectual community is just alright with human suffering. Like Dickens’ Scrooge parroting the popular Malthusian doctrine of his time, it almost seems that the vast majority of the intelligentsia concurs with the economically elite’s opinion that the poor should just die and “decrease the surplus population.”

Dickens, through his paradoxically jolly ghost of Christmas Present, went on to caution Scrooge of mankind’s greatest foibles. Staring at the apparition of the two miserable children exposed from beneath the Spirit’s robes, Scrooge asked,

“`Spirit, are they yours.’ Scrooge could say no more.

`They are Man’s,’ said the Spirit, looking down upon them. `And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it.’ cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. `Slander those who tell it ye. Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end.’”

I don’t think Dickens meant ignorance of quantum mechanics or particle physics.

Have we learned nothing from what our forebears taught? Why should the profundity of Descarte’s declaration of “je pense, donc je suis” (“I think, therefore I am”) trump “Love thy neighbor?” I would assert that in the case of humankind, perhaps the stronger position is, “I love, therefore I am.” Existence, being – these can be debated by philosophers, of which I am not one. I am only one human who sees need and want and suffering and tries in some small way to make the world a better place. I love this fickle and fragile creation and embrace all that it is. I accept its mysteries, and I am curious about its hidden qualities. But I respect its boundaries. Some things cannot be known, because the laws of nature do not allow it to be known with absolute empirical certainty. How did the universe begin? What sparked life here or elsewhere? Of first causes divine or mundane, these questions can only be answered through the eyes of faith. Whether that faith resides with the natural or the supernatural, well, that lies within the heart of the believer.

Greater meaning to life is achieved through love than through redundant academic pursuit. To lift another from want and despair is greater than finding the smallest subatomic particle. (Like the dog chasing the car, what would the physicist do with it if he caught it?) But by helping others, a chain of good will may be forged, strong and sure, and stretching beyond the moment into the future.

What is this “future”? It is a place, at once, both dim and bright. On this river of time, we are drifting inexorably toward it, yet never quite reaching it. By all current measures, it is our only possible direction. If by looking backward we dim the future (or worse, extinguish it) why would we ever choose to? If by determination and the open heart and helping hand of love we can ensure its brightness, why would we choose not to? Shall we, like Oppenheimer, lament that we have “become death, the destroyer of worlds,” or shall we recast the Bhagavad Gita and exult, “I am become love, the bringer of life!?”

The night is rapidly drawing to its dawning close, and I am reminded of two examples that are relevant to this reflection on the vanity of pride. First, Icarus, joyfully soaring to heights that humankind had never before reached, ignored the limits of his technology, and plunged to his ultimate destruction. Then there is the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. There, humankind banded together to prove to God that they were each and all His equal. Their hubris was remunerated with the sundering of languages. How will ours be?

Turning the Heart to Come ‘Round Right

Repentance is one of the most difficult concepts in all of the religious world.  This notion of changing, turning away from past sins and indiscretions, and correcting one’s path is easier said than done.  Consider the case of one king of Israel, that being the inimitable David.  Described as a man after God’s own heart, David had his reckless, prideful side, and he exercised it on several occasions.

Perhaps the most scandalous of David’s exploits was his infamous affair with Bathsheba.  As the story unfolds,   in II Samuel 11, David saw Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, as she was bathing, and decided he must have her.  He had her brought to the palace and, as powerful men are wont to do, had his way with her.  She became pregnant, and in order to cover his feckless behavior, he called her husband back from battle to sleep with her, but Uriah’s sense of honor and duty did not permit him to enjoy himself while his comrades were fighting and dying.  David even stooped to getting him drunk, but Uriah still didn’t cooperate.  David had to save face, so he wrote a letter to his army’s commander, Joab, and told Joab to put Uriah in the thickest fighting, then withdraw and allow Uriah to die.  The ultimate insult to the brave and honorable Uriah was that he had to carry his own death warrant to the general.  The plan went well.  Uriah died, but so did a number of other valiant men, all to serve the King’s misplaced sense of propriety.

In II Samuel 12, Nathan the prophet visited David and spun for him the allegory of the rich man who took the poor man’s lamb.  David was rightly indignant over the injustice, and while he noted that the perpetrator deserved to die, he would at least be required to repay the loss four-fold.  It would have been interesting to see David’s expression when the prophet’s stratagem was revealed with the four words, “You are the man.”  Surprise, confusion, guilt, regret.  They all likely played across his face in rapid succession.

David’s remorse is recounted in Psalm 51.  It is a powerful expression of sorrow.  He begs for mercy, and confesses, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight…” (v. 4).  Now, I think I would have to differ with David on that count.  Far be it from me to judge, but I think David missed a few victims of his selfish sin: Bathsheba, Uriah, the valiant men that died to cover David’s wanton indiscretion, even the child of David’s illegitimate union with Bathsheba—these are only the obvious ones that he failed to acknowledge.

But while David’s penitence was narrowly focused, his grief and regret were genuine enough.  He prays for mercy (v.1.), washing (vv.2, 7), blotting away of his sins (v. 9), (re)creation of a clean heart and a renewal of a right spirit (v. 10), and a restoration of the joy God’s salvation (v. 12).  Despite his sins recounted here, as well as his prideful, unauthorized transport of the Ark of the Covenant, and other violations of God’s will, he was a man who understood the need for repentance, and that brought him back into God’s favor.  He remained a man after God’s own heart.

Repentance stands as an important theme throughout both Testaments.  The prophets preached repentance to the erring nation of Israel, whose errant behavior led them to captivity.  Jonah preached repentance to the city of Nineveh.  Repentance was the central theme of John’s message as he prepared the way for Jesus.  Jesus then took up the message and preached repentance as a prerequisite to entry into the kingdom of heaven.  Luke seems to have placed a fine point on the concept of repentance by recounting the atrocity Pilate had wrought on the Galileans whose blood was mingled with sacrifices, as well as the 18 people who died in a tower collapse at Siloam (Luke 13).  In each case, he asked if those unfortunates had been any worse than the general populace, with the not so subtle intimation that they were not.  Without repentance, his listeners’ fates would be equally as tragic.

Luke also tells some very significant stories and relates some parables and teaching not found in other gospels.  In Chapter 7, he told the story of Jesus’s invitation to dine with a Pharisee.  He was not welcomed as convention of the day and culture would require.  In fact, it appears the invitation may have been little more than an inspection and an inquisition of sorts.  At any rate, a sinful woman—likely a prostitute—heard that Jesus was in the Pharisee’s household, invited herself in, and proceeded to perform one of the most menial and humble of tasks: she washed his still dusty feet with her own tears, dried them with her hair, and broke open an alabaster bottle of costly ointment to anoint his feet.  The Pharisee spoke to himself, deriding the woman for her sinfulness and Jesus, too, for even allowing her to touch him.  Jesus knew the Pharisee’s heart and set him straight with the direct comparison of his lack of hospitality to her humble act of service, love and esteem.  He also presented a parable dealing with debtors forgiven of different amounts: the one forgiven of the greater amount would love more than the one forgiven little.

Both the host and his unbidden guest were in need of repentance.  The difference between the two was that she embraced it and he denied it.  The account of this sinful, yet penitent woman, is a brilliant example of actions speaking far louder than words. It’s an easy thing to say you’re sorry for your past wrong-doing. Words are cheap. But her tears were her confession that spoke of genuine sorrow for a less than perfect past, the humility of her action spoke of deep sincerity, and her sacrifice of the expensive ointment—worth months or years of income to the common laborer—spoke of commitment. These are three attitudes that are among the most essential requirements of true repentance.

The Pharisee was true to his station in life.  He had carefully observed the Law and had staked his righteousness on the perfection of his performance.  The inevitable conclusion a Pharisee would draw from such flawless adherence would be the absolute certainty of his own “rightness”, which is actually the gateway to pride, and a portal to a whole new world of sin just waiting to be explored.  In a way, pride is the most insidious of sins, in that it speaks the comforting lie that says, “I’m alright,” or “I deserve God’s congratulation.”  Perhaps this man had been present when some Pharisees had looked down their noses at Jesus’s disciples and complained, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” (Luke 5:30) “And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”  (vv. 31-32)  The irony is that Jesus was probably telling them that they were all sick, and they all needed a doctor. Sadly, their prideful condition did not allow them to see that. This is the same scenario in virtually every scene involving the Pharisees, who over and over proved themselves to be the quintessence of self-righteous prigs.  Law-keeping on the scale to which the Pharisees took it required constant attention to human-imposed details on top of the commands provided by God.  There were multiplied volumes of commands and inferences layered on top of those commands, like spackle over a patch in a damaged wall.  Like nearsighted plowmen, they were unable to fix their eyes on any true goal or prize, and their straight furrows were running askew.  Theirs was a life of tunnel-vision as they walked a tightrope with nothing to catch them should they fall, no net, no grace, and no appreciation for the broader vista of life.

The sinful woman, on the other hand, mustered her faith and acted on it. She could have watched Jesus from the gallery of observers as he taught, she could have said to herself that she believed that he could forgive her, and then done no more. But she humbled herself in that act of utter contrition, and gave her burden to Jesus, which he took from her with four simple words, in our reading of the account: “Your sins are forgiven.”  Her active, resolute faith had saved her.  Jesus’s final instruction to her was simply to “Go in peace.”

In Luke 15, there are three parables of loss and return, fall and redemption, failure and repentance.  In the story of the shepherd and his sheep, as with the story of the woman and her coins, there was joy on recovery of that which was lost.  In both cases, there was action involved in getting back the lost possession: the shepherd searched, the woman swept, and there was joy in the return.

In the third and most famous of the trio, one of two sons asked his father for his inheritance, left home, lived riotously, then suffered the indignity of a reversal of fortune, compounded by a withering famine. This led to the humiliating scene of this once proud young man who, starving, coveted the husks fed to the hogs in his charge.  In one of the best descriptions in all of scripture, or perhaps all of written history and literature, Jesus says the young man “…came to himself.”  He woke up.  He realized his condition, and resolved to return home, not expecting to return to his place as a member of the family, but rather to be well-supplied as a servant.  Like the sinful woman in chapter 7, he demonstrated those essential attitudes of repentance: he was sorry for the way he had squandered the inheritance, a gift from his father; he was willing to accept the humble station of a servant; and he committed to his repentance by his arduous journey home.  Upon his return, the wonderful, forgiving father welcomed him with open arms: this lost boy was found, and was rewarded with the joy of the restoration of his place in the family, even as David had prayed for the restoration of the joy of God’s salvation.

The older brother was furious, accusing the gracious father of cruelty and unfairness.  After all, he had been the righteous one, staying where he was supposed to, taking care of business as he should.  This older brother was the type of person that Jesus referred to in the parable of the workers in the vineyard in Matthew 20 who signed on early for a set wage, and grumbled when those who came late were paid the same one denarius, but with less work.  Self-righteousness carries with it its own particular brand of abject bitterness, and a deep-seated anger that refuses to examine or admit one’s own faults.  It is steeped in pride, framed by suspicion, and leads to a joyless existence.  The self-righteous are wretched and pitiable creatures, but their hubris-tinted lenses prevent them from seeing themselves as they truly are.  And so it was with the older brother.

The wise father let his son go, knowing that to refuse would engender nothing but anger and discord.  He also welcomed his return.  He let him make his own choices and mistakes.  In keeping with that benevolent character, this man didn’t rebuke the older brother for his outburst of jealousy.  He gently reminded him that he had nothing to be jealous about, that he never lacked for anything as a member of the household.  I feel a catch in my throat and a tear in my eye when I read his words to this jealous son: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”  An honest person will likely identify with the younger, errant, and then penitent son.  A self-righteous person will likely find no fault in the older brother.  But anyone should see the goodness of God in the loving father.

Repenting is one of the hardest things a person can do.  It requires brutal honesty with one’s self, and like Paul, a willingness to buffet one’s body to keep it in subjection.  Over the years, I have seen people repeatedly make public confessions and pledge their repentance every week or two.  They were courageous for taking those steps, but they, too, failed to understand the meaning of true repentance.  It takes more than an expression of guilt: it takes commitment, vigilance, and strength of will to make the repentance stand the test of further temptation.  How do I know?  Because I’m human, and I know how my life is filled with temptations leading to stumbles, and not a few falls.  Confession is recognizing when you have fallen, and is necessary before asking for forgiveness.  Repentance is the will to get back up, put the past behind you and keep moving forward.  Crossing the finish line is going to require both.

True repentance is essential to true righteousness.  Self-righteousness sees no need for repentance.  But even for the most self-righteous people of the Bible, there was hope.  Nicodemus was a Pharisee who by honest investigation apparently became a follower of Jesus, trading his own self-righteousness for God’s righteousness.  Joseph of Arimathea, who was likely to have been a Pharisee as he was a member of the Sanhedrin, was a disciple of Jesus.  But the ultimate example of the triumph of true righteousness was the conversion of the self-professed Hebrew of Hebrews, the devout Saul the Pharisee who became Paul the Apostle.  Based on these examples, along with that of the eminently fallible yet penitent David, the sinful woman and the lost son, anyone can change.  The question that remains is, “Do we have what it takes to make it happen?”

Meeting Yeshua

I have often wondered what it must have been like to be in the crowd that gathered around this Jesus of Nazareth to hear the Sermon on the Mount or any of the number of other lessons recorded in the gospels.  Here was a man who taught like no other had before him.  He could see the hearts and minds of his listeners and knew what they felt and what they feared.  He was able to meet them at their point of understanding, and teach them things that they needed the most.  But since we were not there to see it first hand, we read the record and try to apply the principles as best we can. 

Still, I can’t help but let my mind wander and imagine what it must have been like.  Several years ago, I began writing a story that did just that, imagined a scenario where a man comes to encounter this teacher, the turmoil he must have experienced at listening to this fresh, authoritative message.  I put myself into the role of just such a man, and let the story take me where it decided to go, maintaining the written record as a guide.

While I am sure some may see this as a pointless exercise, I greatly enjoyed the experience, as I found the story after several years and felt compelled to finally complete it.  I hope you enjoy the story, and if you feel like going back to find the text that inspired it, it’s in Luke 15. 

And so, without further comment, let’s turn back the clocks two millennia, and see if we can catch a glimpse of the greatest teacher ever to grace the earth.       

The crowd was as large as usual, and made up of the usual sorts.  There were the drunks, looking bleary-eyed and squinting against the mid-day sun, sobering up a bit in the scraps of shade they could find beneath the scraggly trees.  There were a few prostitutes trying to look uninterested in the whole affair, and yet turning an ear to hear every word of the proceedings.  A thief, two con-men, and a runaway slave nodded from time to time.  A tax collector, hated for complicity with the occupying legions, bowed his head and listened intently.  And a knot of self-righteous Pharisees scoffed at the whole thing.

“I can’t believe it, Eleazar,” said the one called Josiah. “This, this…man…welcomes sinners.  And eats with them.”  Eleazar sniffed as if he had just smelled something horrible.  He grunted a reply that Josiah understood as agreement.

“I’ve wondered and wondered about the attraction of this man.  He obviously has them under some sort of spell.  Probably in league with Beelzebub.”

“Don’t speak such rubbish, Josiah,” said Eliakim, inviting himself to join the conversation. “Have you really listened to what this teacher is saying?  He is doing no more than giving these people hope and understanding.  You’d do well to open your ears and close your mouths for a change.  Hear him out before you judge.”

Eleazar grunted again and turned away.  Josiah raised an inquiring eyebrow and stayed.  The young man, Yeshua, made his way to a large stone and hopped easily onto it, settling into a comfortable position facing the crowd.

“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep,” he began, sweeping across the crowd with his raised right hand, and smiling, “And suppose you are in the field with those sheep, watching over them, and they need it, as you all know sheep do: after all, there are many dangers.  Thieves.  Wild beasts.  Rugged hills where lambs can fall and be harmed.  Who among you would not leave ninety-nine of those sheep to find one lamb that was missing?  And when you find it, you’ll probably call your friends together to celebrate.

“You see?  In Heaven, there will be more rejoicing over one lost sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who do not need to repent!”

Yeshua looked over the crowds again.  “What about the woman who had ten drachmas in her house and one day, one turned up missing.  She knew she had not spent it.  It had to be in the house somewhere.  So she lit her lamps and swept every corner and crevice until she found it.  She calls her friends and neighbors, and happily tells them that she has found her missing money.

“The angels of God rejoice like that when one sinner repents.”

Eliakim listened happily. Josiah looked puzzled, but remained to listen as well. Yeshua went on.

“The story is told of a father who had two sons.  You have probably seen boys just like this:  a serious older son—let’s call him “Jeremiah”—destined to inherit his father’s fortune, and a younger son—let’s call him “Eli”—who just wants to have fun.  When the younger son was grown, he knew that life in his father’s house would not be very good for him:  Second sons are always in the shadows of their brothers.  So, the younger son went to his father and, in the most grown-up way he could, said, ‘Father, I’m feeling trapped here.  I need to find my way in this great wide world, but in order to get me started, I’m asking you to go ahead and give me my share of the inheritance.  I only want what’s coming to me.’

“The old man was a little hurt by his son’s request.  Had he not given his sons all they could ever need or even want?  He had amassed a small fortune and his family was quite comfortable.  Still, he remembered how he had felt many years before.  Perhaps it was time to step aside and let the younger generation prove themselves.  So he divided his wealth between his sons and virtually retired to the keeping of his eldest.”

A breeze was stirring, and the sun faded behind a cloud.  The afternoon heat cooled a bit, and Yeshua stood up and walked around.  He took a water bottle from a little boy and splashed a portion into his mouth and drank deep, savoring the cool refreshment of it.  He handed the bag back to the boy and gave him a tousle on the hair and turned back to his story.

“Very shortly, the younger son gathered all of his belongings and headed out to find his fortune, or to seek adventure, or to find himself—only he knew for sure.  He traveled far, to a land of the Gentiles, and established himself there.  He spent money freely and made friends easily and lived riotously — that is, until the money ran out.”  Yeshua nodded.  “That’s right, the money ran out, and so did his so-called ‘friends.’  To add to his troubles, there was a famine that made things even worse.  He was out of everything, and with the famine, even begging for scraps and foraging through trash for the odd moldy crust of bread was next to impossible.  So what was this young man, this son of Israel, to do?  He had to make a living.  But what skills did he have?  His father had herds, so he had been a herder of various kinds of animal from sheep to goats, to cattle.  So he hired himself out as a herder of sorts.  But remember, these were Gentiles in those parts.  They keep and eat things that we Hebrews consider unclean.”  Yeshua paused in the story.  Uneasy gasps were heard throughout the crowd.

“The young man was employed by a good man of that country to feed his pigs.  The boy was so hungry, he would have eaten the very seed pods and husks that he was feeding the pigs if anyone had given it to him to eat.  I suppose it speaks well of the young man that he did not deprive the pigs of their feed.”

“As time passed, and it didn’t take long when he reached that lowest ebb in his life, the young man finally woke up.  Reality dawned on him.  He came to his senses.  He came to himself.  ‘How many hired hands does my father have?  And they have food to spare.  I’m starving to death with a bunch of pigs for company.’  There was nothing else for it.  ‘It may hurt a little and it may hurt a lot, but I’ve got to be honest with my father, with myself, and with God Almighty.  I’ve sinned against both heaven and home.  Maybe my father will hire me on as a servant, and I’ll work for my keep.’  And the boy got up from the hog wallow, brushed off as much of the unclean filth as he could from the rags that barely covered his back, and set off on that long journey home.

“It took a while, and lots of begging and scrounging, but he finally made it home.”

“Josiah!” The shout echoed across the crowd.  The crowd parted to the sound of shushing noises, and a woman grabbed Josiah by the arm.  “You must come quickly!  Something has happened at home!”  Josiah heard the urgency in Miriam’s voice.  And yet, strangely, he was drawn to the teacher and wanted to hear the rest of his story.

“Go, Josiah!  I’ll stay and hear the rest, and tell you what happens,” Eliakim assured him.  Josiah gathered his robe and hurried after his wife who had already made her way to the edge of the crowd and was halfway to the town gate.

“What could be so urgent?” he thought.  He focused on the street ahead and saw a crowd gathering near the well at the center of the village.

“Ruth went to draw a pitcher of water for me and two wild young boys pushed her over the wall!”

“Ruth!” called Josiah.  A splash and a whimper rose from far below.  She was alive!  “Bring a torch and some rope!  We must get to her!”  Josiah’s three other children ran quickly to do as their father had asked.  “Ruth, I’m coming to you. Hold on!”

Lemuel and Jacob secured the rope around a stout old tree and fastened the other end around Josiah’s waist and lowered him over the rim.  The well was cool and dark, and as he descended deeper, the walls became slick and wet.  The torch gave reassuring light, and down below, waist deep in the pool at the bottom of the well, Ruth reached up her hands to her father.

Josiah grabbed her and held her tightly to him and called to be hoisted up.  They emerged to cheers and shouts, and more people came from the market and houses to see what all the commotion was about.

“My daughter is alive and safe!” shouted Josiah.  “Thank the Lord, and praise him for his kindness to his humble servant!”  Josiah’s wife wrapped the girl in a cloak and dried her off, crying tears of joy to see her youngest child returned, shaken but unhurt.

“A lost lamb has been returned to the fold,” thought Josiah.  “I know the joy that the teacher was talking about, now.”

When Josiah returned to the hillside, the crowd had dispersed, the lesson over.  He was sad, but saw his old friend, Eliakim talking easily with the teacher.  He strode over to where Yeshua and Eliakim were chatting.  The teacher noticed him, and still smiling, asked, “How is she, Josiah?”

Josiah looked a little stunned.  How did he know what had happened?  ‘How is who?”

Yeshua looked him in the eye, and gently said, “Ruth.  I know she fell into the well.  Is she alright?”

“Yes, Teacher.  But how—“

“I know a lot of things about a lot of things, Josiah.”  He patted Josiah on the shoulder.  “I suppose you want to hear the rest of the story?”

“I do.  But the hour is getting late.”  He looked back toward the village. “Teacher, would you come and eat with me and my family?  I’d like for them to meet you.”

“I’d be honored.  Lead the way.”

“You’re welcome to share our meal, too Eliakim,” he added.

The three men walked on toward the modest house where Josiah’s children played in the fading light of evening.  The air was becoming cooler, and glow of the lamps around the table was inviting.  Josiah sat down with those he loved, and with this stranger who really seemed like someone he had known for all of his life.

After they had their fill of bread and a fine lentil stew, Yeshua said, “Let’s see: where did we leave off?”  He quickly recapped the story for the benefit of Miriam and the children.

“Now, for months, the old man had sat outside the house, day after day, hoping that he would see his son returning.  And every day, the older son scoffed, and said things like, ‘Good riddance.’  He was certainly full of himself.

“Then finally, while that wandering boy was still far away down that dusty track of a road, his father saw him.  And despite all of the years that had settled on him, he jumped up and ran down the way to meet him.

“The father welcomed him home, sent for a fine robe, put a ring on his finger, order the fatted calf to be roasted in celebration of this poorer, but wiser, boy’s return.”

Yeshua paused.  “Now, you might think that was the end of the story, wouldn’t you?” He looked at the children, who nodded eagerly.  “It would have made a happy ending.  But this is life we’re talking about.  Things are usually more complicated than the usual happy endings.”  He sipped the wine, well diluted with sweet cool water, and continued.

“The older son was not happy at all.  Here, he had been the good son, stayed home, taken care of business, and his old father.  When he saw the party going on, he got mad.  In his best self-righteous, sincerely injured tones, he complained that he had never even been given a goat to roast with his friends.  It sounded a little petty, didn’t it?

“The old man put his arms around the older son.  ‘You were always with me,’ he said. ‘Everything I have is yours.  But this brother of yours was gone, I didn’t know if he was dead or alive.  Now he’s back, and we have another chance to be a whole family again.’”

Yeshua sat back and smiled.  The audience was lost in thought.  “That’s how things are in Heaven when one sinner decides to repent and come back to God.  If you can imagine how that father felt when he saw his son, that’s how God feels: all of that love, relief, and joy—and even more.”

“Was that a real story, Teacher?” asked Lemuel, ever the skeptical teenager, his eyes squinted as if to see through the apparent fiction.

“All stories are real, Lemuel.  They have a meaning and a purpose.  But did these events happen?  Does it matter?  Would that change the truth of it?”  Yeshua looked up at Eliakim.  “How about it, Eli?”

Suddenly all eyes were on Eliakim, a wave of recognition passing over them. “The story certainly sounds familiar,” he said with a quiet smile.  Maybe there was a little rueful regret, maybe there was contrition, but there was certainly an overwhelming measure of genuine happiness.  “You tell it well, Teacher.”

By this time, it was well into the night, but no one wanted to sleep.  They drew strength and energy just from being there with this man, listening to him, learning from him.

The next day, as Yeshua set off on foot to find another crowd and teach them another truth, Josiah and his family were saddened.  Eliakim asked them, “So…what did you think?”

“He’s amazing.  But who is he?” asked Josiah.  “I mean really?  He taught as one who had some real authority.  But they say in town that he’s just a carpenter’s son from Nazareth.  Some say he’s trying to stir up trouble against the legions.”

“Oh, he’s somebody’s son, alright.  He’s the son of God.  But he’s not out to pick a fight with Rome, Josiah.  He’s changing the world one heart at a time.”

“You mean….?”

“The same.  He’s the Messiah.  The promised one.  Isaiah and the rest of the prophets had a lot to say about him.  I believe it with all my heart.  But don’t take my word for it.  You listen for yourself, you weigh the evidence, you decide.”

“The son of God….  He was right here in my house!”

“And now, he is right here,” said Eliakim, lightly tapping Josiah on the chest and on the forehead, “in your heart and in your mind.  Welcome to the revolution.”

Seeking Justice

“…with liberty and justice for all.”

With those words, we conclude our often recited Pledge of Allegiance.  In America, we have made liberty an art, a philosophy, or maybe even a religion.  It pervades every part of our lives.  We jealously guard our rights to maintain our liberties, and we fight wars in the name of freedom.  It is right and good that we do these things, because freedom is the foundation for the realization of human potential.  That which threatens liberty threatens life and happiness, the triad of virtues embraced by our founding fathers.

Justice is another story.  From early on, we hear of the concept of justice, usually in the context of making the guilty pay for crimes against the innocent.  The statue of blind justice stands in our courthouses, her balance raised for meting out equitable and appropriate retribution.  Our popular culture is full of justice memes, including the band of superheroes that make up the Justice League in one particular comic book universe.  The old westerns are filled with tales that warn against the dangers of vigilante justice; the more recent ones embrace it as we celebrate the anti-hero.

But there is more to justice than fair scales and white hats.  In a recent article titled “What Is Biblical Justice?” in Relevant Magazine, Presbyterian minister Tim Keller made some excellent points about the character of justice.  Specifically, in the Old Testament, there were two words that were translated as “justice.”  The first word, mishpat, occurs over 200 times in the Old Testament, and is probably closer to our understanding of justice.  It roughly means to treat all fairly and equitably, judging on the merits of a case, regardless of personal, political, or cultural bias.  It is essentially “blind justice,” but can also be viewed in terms of a society’s justness.  Throughout the Old Testament, God is described as being the helper of the poor, widows, orphans, and any who would be considered among the most vulnerable in society.  If a society will not take care of its own, it is guilty of lacking mercy, but more forcefully, guilty of defying and violating this idea of help for the helpless.

The second word, tzadeqah, which is also translated as relating to the quality of “being righteous,” is sometimes translated as “being just.”  This manifests in a righteous life, which, if displayed by more in society, would likely render the justice that rights wrongs, the rectifying justice, redundant.  If we all expressed the inner righteousness, we would do the right things, and there would be no need for righting a social injustice or deal with a criminal incident.

If mishpat and tzadeqah were tied to each other, the concept in modern usage would be something along the lines of “social justice.”  This idea has been explored by numerous religious groups with varying levels of success.  The point of social justice is to make the distribution of advantages and disadvantages in a society more equitable.  Many of the staunchest capitalists would probably not like the idea, since it rings a little too close to socialism for their tastes.

But to be “disadvantaged” is often a matter of uncontrollable circumstance, an accident of birth or geography.  Some children face tremendous challenges simply because they live in inner cities or remote rural settings.  Jobs may be scarce, educational opportunities may be lacking.  With the deck stacked against them from the start, many of these children are condemned to remaining in the cycle of poverty into which they were born.  Certainly, some will rise above it and succeed despite those obstacles.  The success stories, though inspiring, are all too often the exceptions and not the norm.

Whether social justice is palatable to the rich is irrelevant to the need for it.  Over the years, the divide that separates wealth from poverty has grown significantly.  Hunger is rampant in the streets of the inner city as well as the mountains of Appalachia and the high deserts of the southwest.  The cotton fields and tobacco fields and textile mills and sewing factories of the South were once populated by the working poor, but with mechanization, the decline of tobacco, and the rise of outsourcing, human labor has become an unnecessary surplus, at least in some areas of the domestic market.

In the past, our government has taken steps to provide a means of dealing with the inequities that mar the sociopolitical landscape and maintain the status quo in terms of advantage and opportunity opposing those of little means and little or no voice in government.  Former Secretary of State, retired General Colin Powell, was once interviewed and asked about his views on Affirmative Action, the legislated protocol to deal with racial inequities, and he said he was indeed a supporter, but not just for the “poor black kid from the inner city”, it should be extended to anyone who is in any way disadvantaged, including the “poor white kid from Appalachia.”  That is the true spirit of equity, allowing the system to level the playing field for all.

While government plans have met with varying degrees of acceptance and success, other institutions have historically dealt with issues of social justice successfully.  From the earliest records in the Judeo-Christian tradition, people of faith have been called to action to deal with these very issues.  Throughout the Old Testament, the call went forth over and over from the positive decrees of the Mosaic Law, through the earnest admonition of the Psalms and forcefully through many examples in the pages of both the Major and Minor Prophets.  The thoughts were echoed in the writings of John and James in the New Testament, and the guiding principles of mercy and love for neighbor were expounded over and over by Jesus himself in his various teachings.  The conclusion that one must reach from all of these calls to action is unmistakable: any who claim to be children of God must be caring people.

Citations like these called the erring people of Israel to return to what they had once embraced:

Isa 1:17 Learn to do good; Seek justice, Rebuke the oppressor; Defend the fatherless, Plead for the widow.

Jer 22:16 He judged the cause of the poor and needy; Then it was well. Was not this knowing Me?” says the LORD.

Psa 82:3 Defend the poor and fatherless; Do justice to the afflicted and needy.

4 Deliver the poor and needy; Free them from the hand of the wicked.

Have we changed so much today that we are not subject to that call?

But some may say, “We are not under the Old Testament Law.  Those don’t apply to us.”  John says, in 2 John 5, “And now I plead with you, lady, not as though I wrote a new commandment to you, but that which we have had from the beginning: that we love one another.”  Those calls were never rescinded, any more than the fundamental commandment to love each other was rescinded.  If anything, the emphasis was strengthened, and the call to justice, indeed righteousness in the expression of justice, is central to the concept of love.  But instead of caring for others, too often we devote hour after hour to divining the tedious minutiae of tenuous doctrines that divide.  We piously fold our hands and congratulate ourselves for getting “it” right, whatever “it” may be, while others continue to suffer.

For Christians, the one whose name we humbly wear modeled the life of a compassionate servant, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and performing the lowliest tasks for his disciples in acts like washing their feet.  We must be willing to do whatever we can to emulate that attitude of humility and service.  Certainly, we cannot miraculously feed a crowd, but we can provide a meal for someone in need.  We cannot miraculously heal any sufferer, but we can see to their comfort.  We do not have to wash the feet of weary, sandal-footed travelers, but our attitudes should spur us on to the same level of willingness to accept lowly service if it is required of us to see to the needs of another.

Early Christians understood their responsibilities to those in need, and collectively dealt with the issues at hand.  Around 155 A.D., the early Christian apologist, Justin Martyr wrote in his letter to Emperor Antoninus Pius explaining and defending the worship practices of the newly minted Christian faith, “The wealthy, if they wish, contribute whatever they desire, and the collection is placed in the custody of the president [one who presides over the worship].  With it he helps the orphans and widows, those who are needy because of sickness or any other reason, and the captives and strangers in our midst; in short, he takes care of all those in need.”  The emphasis of these early Christians was not on maintaining an elaborate building, high tech instructional technology, salaries for ministerial staff, or expensive media and advertising presence.  It was on helping people, both body and soul.  In too many cases today, we have lost that focus, to our very grave misfortune.

It is sometimes difficult even to talk of such issues, because we face a difficult balance.  Jesus spoke of doing acts of charity in secret, so that we can be sure that we are not doing them just for public recognition and praise.  Whatever praise you get for doing such deeds with that goal in mind is the only reward you get.  God sees that as a wash.  Good was done, but perhaps for dubious motives.  More than anything, this is a firm reminder to keep the heart in the right place.

Seeing the good that we can and should do whether on a large or small scale, we should be trying to find ways to get it done instead of making excuses and hiding behind the deafening peal of silence.  Exactly how we do such things is a matter of controversy among different wings of religious bodies.  Some groups place this responsibility solely on the shoulders of the individual while others use their church as a ready-made framework for organizing benevolent efforts.  Who is right?  I am not going to pass judgment on either side, as that is neither my place nor inclination.  The main issue is that the good is done.  If we elect to make this purely individualized, we had better encourage everyone to be busy doing what we can, every man, woman and child.  If we make this a matter or corporate activity, then we had better make sure all have an opportunity to be involved to the level of their abilities.  The focus is not on receiving praise for good deeds, but giving thanks for the good blessings we enjoy and for the opportunity we have for being able to share what we have received.

As we think about our responsibilities, there are principles that bear consideration as we engage in any acts of good will.  There is strength in a unified effort, both among people, and within each person.  In each regard, the words of Koheleth still ring true, “…a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” (Ecclesiastes 4:12) As we consider the nature of a triune God, we may see that mirrored in the three dimensions of body, mind and soul comprising the completeness of the human.  To deny any of the three persons of God is to lose the balance and fullness of the divine.  To neglect the body in deference to the mind or soul will weaken the man.  It is quite reasonable then, to consider the enterprise of Christianity as having a threefold nature: to challenge the mind with study and meditation, to strengthen the soul through worship and fellowship, and to serve physical needs in support of the mind and soul.  To practice a religion that is only concerned with the spiritual, stifling the intellectual and denying the physical will fail because it fails to recognize the complex reality of the human, who is made in God’s image.

Faith calls us to look upward, and to seek to do the will of God, but it also calls us to look outward and forward to seek the good of our fellow travelers here in this life.  We are not lonely disembodied spirits or wayfaring ghosts.  People are flesh and blood with needs and cares that must be addressed if their souls are to be served and saved.  Those who have been blessed with more of the world’s goods should share willingly, not because of a fear of punishment, but out of love.  Faith expressed through just, righteous love must serve the whole person, expecting nothing in return.  The irony is that in doing that, we gain the greatest reward of all: the approval of a kind and loving God.  And that never grows old or loses its value.

Fearing Irrelevance

Recently, as I was feverishly composing the conclusion of an essay “On the Conflict of Science and Faith,” I was struck by a realization.  I finally addressed a fear that I have unwittingly harbored for many years.  Perhaps it is with age and the growing acknowledgement of the inevitability of mortality that I allowed the thought to ever crystallize.  The fear that appeared on the page before me may be the fear that I “…fear the most, that fear being the twin fates of irrelevance and the inevitable oblivion of non-existence.”

As a teacher, I harbor no delusional hopes that I may attain greatness in any sense of great awards or accolades for remarkable achievement.  I gave up on that a long time ago.  Such shows of appreciation are nice to have, but if they change the way I view myself and the roles that I fill from day to day, they are ultimately counter-productive.  If I become too wrapped up in my own good press, I may buy into the notion that I can do no wrong.  And from long experience, I know that to be quite and decisively false.

Perhaps my greatest aspiration as a teacher is simply to make a difference.  I came to realize early on that I would never be a Nobel laureate, and that notion did not really bother me.  I lack the focus and drive to pursue that level of inquiry, and I am quite certain that dumb luck has played little role in the greatest discoveries as recognized by the Nobel committee–not that I have ever been the recipient of much attention from that most fickle of muses in the first place.  No, I realized my place must be in some role that would be more supportive.  And every play needs a competent supporting cast to achieve whatever measure of greatness it may.

Making a difference cannot be measured easily.  I can look at the grades and continuing successes of my students and take some pride in them, basking in the reflected glow of their accomplishments, and that is somewhat satisfying.  To be able to spark the curiosity of a young mind, to kindle some burgeoning imagination—these are sometimes difficult tasks, but if they can be accomplished, then I will have touched the future.  I will have attained at least some small measure of relevance.

The concept of relevance is not something to be taken lightly.  It has been the subject of many literary projects, and not a few popular stories and movies.  I think one of the greatest example of this idea is found in my favorite movie of all time, the 1946 Frank Capra film, It’s A Wonderful Life, based on the 1939 short story, “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern.  In the film, George Bailey (who could only have been portrayed by the original everyman actor, Jimmy Stewart), has been the good son, the good brother, the good husband, the good father…in a word, good.  He put off his plans for a college education to take over the family business after a stroke took his long-suffering father, sending his brother to college in his place.  He stayed with the business, keeping it afloat defending it from the assaults of Lionel Barrymore’s cruel Mr. Potter, all the while realizing that life was passing him by.  The crisis point of George’s story is reached on a Christmas Eve, when his Bailey Bros. Building and Loan partner, his addle-brained Uncle Billy, misplaces an $8,000 bank deposit, sending George into what would become a suicidal panic, contemplating ending his life so that his insurance might help meet the discrepancy in the books.  In order to save George’s life, Clarence Oddbody, George’s endearingly inexperienced guardian angel portrayed by Henry Travers, leaped into the icy river, knowing that George would do all in his power to save the drowning man.  He then proceeds to show George what life would have been like had he never been born.  After seeing the dismal existence of so many good people whom he had known and helped along the way in his original timeline, Clarence tells George, “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”

That each life touches so many others is an important thought, and one worthy of more consideration.  You never know how you may have touched a life.  Maybe it was a word of encouragement.  Maybe you made some sad person feel a little less sad for a moment.  Maybe you did one of those elusive random acts of kindness that people used to talk about.  (Personally, I don’t think kindness should be “random”: it should be the expected.  But there is the issue of free will, I suppose.)

Then he says, “You see George, you’ve really had a wonderful life. Don’t you see what a mistake it would be to just throw it away?”  Sometimes it is very hard to think of life as being wonderful.  I think of the last couple of years my mother shared with us on earth, and I ached for her.  I would have taken some of her hurt if I could.  But she had a wonderful life.  She didn’t throw it away.  She held on, and she brought out the best in everyone, from friends she had known for a lifetime, to now grown children she had cared for throughout her years working in daycare, to doctors, nurses, aides, and therapists who tried to help her overcome her mounting infirmities.  Indeed, as I sat with her in her final days, I asked God to be kind to her, since she truly was the best of all of us, at least of our family–and I don’t think I would get any argument from my siblings.

Clarence’s final thought to George was in the inscription in the book he left for him: “Remember George: No man is a failure who has friends.”  Friendship is relevance, at least in the lives of those who are counted as friends.  But this relevance also has a ripple effect.  The good influence that one may impress on a friend may be transferred, resonated to other strands in each of their own tapestries of life.  While Shakespeare may have noted that the evil that men do lives on, casting a pall of darkness over the memory of one departed, one act of kindness, well-placed, appreciated, remembered, may be enough to flood that memory with enough light to dispel the defaming demons.  But that act should not be the exception in a life of one who dreams of making a difference, or one who seeks that crown of relevance.  Clarence’s final message, while absolutely true, has a corollary: No man is a failure who is a friend.

Now, one might not think that there would be much said about this subject from biblical sources.  In fact, many might focus on the need for humility, and wanting to be relevant almost sounds self-serving.  It is far from the case.  To make a difference is not to seek any public acclaim, which would indeed be a violation of Jesus’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount.  It is trying to improve someone else’s life for no other reason than it is the right thing to do for the one who receives.

If we were to trace back the instructions on justice, mercy, love for neighbor, they would be seen to fill a significant fraction of the pages of the Judeo-Christian scriptures.  Too often, we focus on the passages on wrath, the promise of judgment on the evil-doer, and the promise of heaven for the faithful.  While those passages are certainly there, there are many that in my nearly half a century of attendance in Bible classes and sitting through thousands of sermons I had never heard, until my eyes were opened to what God wants most.  Consider these few passages, only a sampling of many that can easily be found, from the Old Testament.  Israel, and their estranged brothers in Judah, had forsaken the ways of God, and over and over, the call went out for them to get back to basics, to make a difference in the lives of others.

Isa 1:17 Learn to do good; Seek justice, Rebuke the oppressor; Defend the fatherless, Plead for the widow.

Hos 6:6 For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.

Hos 12:6 So you, by the help of your God, return; Observe mercy and justice, And wait on your God continually.

Amo 5:15 Hate evil, love good; Establish justice in the gate. It may be that the LORD God of hosts Will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.

Mic 6:8 He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you But to do justly, To love mercy, And to walk humbly with your God?

Zec 7:9 “Thus says the LORD of hosts: ‘Execute true justice, Show mercy and compassion Everyone to his brother.

Zec 8:16 These are the things you shall do: Speak each man the truth to his neighbor; Give judgment in your gates for truth, justice, and peace… (NKJV)

Certainly, all of these are directed at specific groups of people in specific circumstances.  But the resonance of these themes from the Law, through the Wisdom literature, repeated in the Prophets, and into the Gospels and Epistles of the New Testament is overwhelming.  The premise is simple: If God is good, righteous, merciful, and just–and he is– then we must be good, righteous, merciful and just.  But more often than not, we struggle at it, having real difficulty getting past the selfishness that we all possess, though in varying degrees of volume leading to varying degrees of “spoilage.”

There are times when each of us worries that we really just don’t matter to anyone else.  We may think about how we are unappreciated in our jobs, how because of that we may lack amenities.  It is obvious that in difficult economic times that we should be happy to have jobs, and so we should also be content with the necessities.  Jesus addressed this very concern, getting to the heart of this manifestation of feelings of irrelevance, pointing out that the ultimate arbiter takes care of every detail, from the lilies of the field that are clothed in magnificence if only for a day, to the sparrows whose lives are known and noticed by God, and thus ours.

Matthew 6:25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30  But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?

31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. 34 “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” (ESV)

So, when we get to feeling like no one cares, when we worry about making ends meet and all of the things we don’t have, we should remember that if we are truly seeking the life of righteousness as proposed and endorsed by God, we will lack for nothing.  Jesus makes this clear to his Apostles in Matthew 19:29, when Peter asked him what they would have, since they had left all to follow their Teacher.  “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My name’s sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life (ESV),” said Jesus.

That is quite a promise.  But it is not really talking about material wealth.  It’s talking about relationships.  A disciple’s life is not for everyone, and those who would enter it may suffer loss in terms of relationships.  Some people may actually disown members of their own families for trying to do what they believe is right.  Jesus says it might appear to isolate you and even make you lonely, but look at what you will have gained: the people whom you can count on will be multiplied, as all of his followers, through adoption into his family, would be brothers and sisters.  There would be no more want, in terms of daily needs.  All would be provided.  And the family of believers would be dearer than any earthly family that would hold you back.

That God knows and cares is a resounding affirmation of the relevance of each life.  Each person matters, whether we think we do or not.  But knowing this, the responsibility of each one who would embrace that relevance is to show it.  Because we have received that affirmation of relevance, we must show others that and why they matter.  And so we come full circle, back to making a difference.

The fear of the oblivion of non-existence is but another manifestation of the fear of irrelevance.  If after my time on earth is ended, I have left nothing, no legacy of good works, my life will have lacked meaning.  Understanding the special relationship we have in God’s mind should make us want to sweep that creeping fear from the porch.  And if we ever find ourselves starting to worry, Peter reminds us in I Peter 5:6-7, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, 7 casting your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” (ESV)  The promise of exaltation and the assurance that God’s broad shoulders can carry all of our anxieties should be ample evidence that each person’s life truly matters.  But those promises require humility.  Personally, I think that’s a small price to pay for peace of mind.

So the nebulous property of relevance, making a difference, and living a life that matters are all things that give life meaning.  It is to understand that because we live, we have value if to none other but God.  With that realization, then, we can begin to demonstrate to others how much they mean, how important they are, tipping over the first domino in what we might hope to be a universal chain reaction of goodness.  And each day, we start over, picking up as if we had never begun, each day a new opportunity to lift a burden, dry a tear, bear a sorrow, or dispel a fear.  And each day, the world can become better, because we come to realize that we matter, and that is only amplified by helping others come to that realization through helping others.  I am more than my brother’s keeper.  I am his servant, his teacher, his student, his friend.  When we rise to that level of confidence and to that understanding of our integral roles in life, questions of relevance are of no consequence.  We fulfill the two greatest commandments, to love God as demonstrated by loving our neighbors.  Then we can each say without reservation, “I matter.  God said so.”

On the Conflict of Science and Faith

If you ask anyone in America what happened on November 22, 1963, older ones might say it was the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, TX.  But of the myriad other births and deaths on that day, another death had tremendous impact on the soul of the world.  It was also the day C.S. Lewis died.

I have often thought of that fact: that Lewis and I overlapped here in this life a mere few months.  I never met him, and if I had I would not have remembered it.  I got to know “Jack,” as his friends called him, while I was in graduate school.  I knew he had written science fiction and fantasy.  But I came to realize the greatest offering Lewis made to the world was in his enormous command of the broader issues of the Christian faith, and the easy way in which he related that to his readers.  Many of his collected writings were transcripts of lectures and radio appearances.  While his prose was indeed admirable, his ideas were light years beyond even that.

Lewis experienced the tragic loss of his mother at an early age.  At the age of 15, he rejected his upbringing in the Church of Ireland, and became an atheist.  After service in World War I, he completed his university studies, embarked on an academic career, and after meeting some influential friends like J.R.R. Tolkien, he was reluctantly convinced to return to theism.  Two years later, he placed his membership with the Anglican Communion, to the Catholic Tolkien’s dismay.

One of the things Lewis made very clear to me was in his book, Miracles.  Lewis artfully extricated the concept of the supernatural—that which is outside of the normal natural laws—from the natural.  In that discussion, he talked about how only one who appreciates the supernatural can fully understand and appreciate the natural.  That person can step away from nature and respect it for what it is in a more holistic sense, and does not need to dissect it to it elemental parts.  He was not talking about the spooky, eerie manifestation of the supernatural, but the idea that God, and his son, Jesus, operate outside the normal laws that we have to live by in this universe.  He talked about Jesus’s first public miracle, the conversion of water to wine at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee.  In that act, he demonstrated that he had command of the natural world.  Rather than wait for the grapes to produce the juice, and the fermentation process to make the wine, he stepped around the process and went from point A (water) to point D (wine) without having to go through the middle steps as nature might do it.  Feeding the five thousand, which has been explained by some as merely demonstrating Jesus’s amazing power of persuasion to entice people to share the food they had packed with them, also stepped around the natural process of growing the grain, catching the fish, and preparing them for the meal.  He took what was already present and multiplied it, going from point A to something much farther down the alphabet.

Now, as a biologist and a Christian, I am frequently caught in the middle of the science vs. faith feud.  People on either side want to use science to prove that God exists or that God doesn’t exist.  I have come to realize that science is useless in trying to measure that which operates outside of natural laws.  We have no means to accomplish it.  For science to attempt to disprove the existence of God by the practice of science is as impossible as religion trying to prove the existence of God by the practice of science.  I know the arguments on both sides.  I understand them, at least to a fair extent.  The whole philosophy of science as an enterprise built not on proving a point but disproving a hypothesis cannot be used on a hypothesis that by its very nature (“supernature”?) cannot be empirically falsified.

As I perceive it, these two realms are like tandem subatomic particles, mirroring each other’s moves as they dance about the nucleus of reality.  If you know the velocity of the one, you have lost the spin on the other.  By knowing one’s position, the orbital trajectory of the other is lost.  To focus on one to the exclusion of the other is to lose the harmony and beauty of the interplay.

Whether you are pro or con with respect to a deity, you have a problem with using science to support your case.  The crux of the issue is this: How do you measure God?  One infers his presence from a set of data, while another infers his absence.  Any such measurement that we can use as those trapped in only four dimensions, would not be measuring God but rather some effect, some product, some trail of bread crumbs, or branches swaying in the wind.

An interesting side-effect of this is that those who use science to prove God’s existence and those who deny anything relating to God by the exercise of the process of science are actually unified in expressing their faith in a system, that science can answer any and all questions.  The position of faith is that God gave man science so that man may know and understand him.  The position of science is that man carved science from the hard rock of reason in order to subdue ignorance.  But they are both actually subject to the inability of science to penetrate the veil of concrete reality.

In the moral drama of the biblical Book of Job, there is a wonderful speech beginning in chapter 38 attributed to God, where he has listened to the complaints of Job, who questioned the reason for his many afflictions, being the unknowing pawn in the game proposed by Satan.

“Job 38:1  Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said:

2  “Who is this who darkens counsel By words without knowledge?

3  Now prepare yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer Me.

4  “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding.

5  Who determined its measurements? Surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it?

6  To what were its foundations fastened? Or who laid its cornerstone,

7  When the morning stars sang together, And all the sons of God shouted for joy?”

God goes on with a catalog of things that Job could not have known, including mysteries of nature from the movement of clouds, to the nature of constellations, to the function of great beasts thought to be the likes of the crocodile and the hippopotamus.  The questions were meant to humble Job, to remind him of his limitations, and all have limitations, on either side of this particular aisle.

On either side of the argument, the bottom line comes down to the fine point of faith.  The believer believes in God because.  That “because” is a vast and often undefinable set of reasons.  The unity and diversity of life suggest to some the hand of an artist.  The complexity of even the simplest cell suggests to some a grand designer.  But calculations of probability do not beyond a shadow of doubt “prove” God.  That is not playing by the rules of science, and it is dangerous to use a tool when we do not use it correctly, or for the proper purpose.

The denier of deity is also bound by the same yoke of science.  To hold that a possible, even probable sequence of events is the only explanation of any historic phenomenon is to speak where there is no eyewitness authority, and a violation of the very empirical rules that govern science.

According to the Book of Hebrews 11:1, “…faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. “ (NKJV)  This is easy for the believer to grasp.  Faith in the divine fills in the gaps.  It is a losing proposition to try to carry water in a basket.  But if I coat the basket inside and out with pitch, it just might work.  For the denier, faith in the system still fills in the gaps:  but for him, pitching the basket prevents water from getting in and spoiling the contents that he is already certain are there.

So, how can a person embrace both science and a religious faith?  It is not easy.  But I believe it gets down to understanding and embracing the complementary complexion of the supernatural with the natural.  Like a photon, our reality has a multifaceted nature.  A photon is at once both substance, a particle, and energy, a wave.  This is a good model for the broader reality.  By focusing on the mass of the photon, its value is diminished, since its intangible energy facet is discounted.  By only dealing with the energy of the photon, the role of its mass is poorly understood.  The photon must exist as both to be a photon.  Reality must account for the empirical as well as the spiritual, the material as well as the immaterial. The physical is easy to detect and measure, but the supernatural, in this context, even spiritual, is intangible and of an emergent or (more likely) foreign quality that cannot be empirically measured.

There are questions that relate to the physical universe that cannot be honestly addressed by the practice of science.  We may extrapolate back to 10-43 seconds after the Big Bang, but there will always be a nagging question of what happened in that infinitesimally small fraction of second, smaller than the blink of gnat’s eye, immediately before that magic interval and back to the primordial event, itself.  And if by math and the collision of particles at CERN, we should by good fortune determine what may have come in that gap, there is still another question: what came before that? (While I am in no wise qualified to enter a discussion of cosmogony, I can’t buy into the idea that the universe was a fait accompli merely because of the law of gravity.)

But other questions more pertinent to human interaction cannot be addressed by science, either: for example, what can give meaning to life?  Someone may say that this question is too vague to answer, since it may differ from person to person.  But a person of faith has no difficulty in answering that: service to others and love for neighbor as well as for self, and above all, love for God because he loved us first.  Certainly, people of faith do not have a corner on the compassion market.  Atheists may be altruists, as well.  But faith lays a foundation that promotes that altruistic view.  And although differing expressions of faith have led to bloody conflict over the years, rising above the physical drive to manifest power, rising to embrace the truly spiritual will lead to an end to that kind of suffering in the name of religion.  Many of the most extreme examples of oppression in the last couple of centuries have been forged in the fires of totalitarian atheism.  Even today, in a more subtle sense, the philosophy that drives an ultra-conservative/ libertarian movement is only nominally affiliated with religion, having co-opted the religious conservative base to serve as the deeper philosophy’s foot soldiers.

Scientists who buck the system of scoffing at religion are apparently something of a dying breed.  But there are some still out there.  Like Saul of Tarsus after his conversion, they are the object of suspicion and derision from all sides.  Both scientists and people of faith see them as sell-outs.  Religious people think that we must use our training to prove the existence of God, or refute evolution, or chastise geneticists for playing God–and some do these very things–or face the judgment as being a heretic.  Scientists usually just scratch their heads and wonder where we went wrong, having not come to the point of shedding some ancient superstition and basking in the bleak light of humanism.  But we can be a bridge between two worlds. We see and understand things that people from either distinct camp cannot or will not see.

Perhaps that is one of the greatest reasons I choose to live a life of faith, consciously choosing to believe in something greater than myself.  Although contrary to empirical reason, it is a perhaps no more than a feeling that there is more to life than the physical.  While there are many religions in the world, I am drawn to the paradoxical demands of Christianity:  its central teachings run counter to the natural tendency of the focus on self.  For example, Jesus taught that there is exaltation in humility and joy in lowly service. When Jesus told his disciples that there was no greater love than to lay down one’s life for his friends, he entered the sociobiological realm and brought group selection at least to par with kin selection, making the experience of our common humanity the superior of the preservation of common genes.  Of course, that also flies in the face of philosophies like objectivism and rugged individualism, and forces the concept of love into a more concrete service than many may care to allow for.

There is the unfortunate tendency for some to twist the foundation of religion to fit the mold of a more self-centered existence: “I’ve got to serve and obey so I can go to heaven when I die.”  But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that John Lennon’s proposition was correct, and “Imagine there’s no heaven.”  What would you lose by living a life founded on the principles taught in the pure exercise of the central themes of the Christian faith?  I’m not talking about the power plays of the priestly caste, or the mind control games of legalism.  I’m talking about living the principles laid out in its foundational concepts like The Golden Rule, and the great commandment to love one’s neighbor as one’s self.  To do these things is not to lose one’s self, but to find meaning in service and, although not expected from the outset, to be humbly and graciously served as others (hopefully) may join in and reciprocate.  The core of Christianity is not threat, punishment, and self/soul-preservation.  It is cooperation, altruism, and unassuming benevolence.

The number of scientists with religious convictions may be declining today, but we do exist.  Some of us are quite content to live in both worlds, letting each experience in one realm inform and be informed by those from the other, the natural and supernatural co-existing in harmonious balance.  We are not sell-outs or intellectually inferior.  If we shy away from demands to prove God’s existence, it is not lack of faith that drives us or fear of professional repercussions.  It is understanding the limitations of the empirical system of inquiry.  After all, if God had wanted us to know his hat size, he would have told us, or made it a lot easier to find out.  And while I may see the “thumbprint of God” in various aspects of the physical and natural world like the infinite complexity of nature’s fractal geometry, or the resonance of a divine influence in the repetition of patterns like Fibonacci sequences and Golden Ratios, these do not open God’s mind to me with respect to purpose.  It is faith that opens a dimensional portal to a different realm of existence beyond the mundane, which leads to a way to find happiness in this life, and promises the most illogical, unnatural benefit for a temporal life of selflessness:  the hope of a continuing, unending existence.  Such a reward offers a stark contrast to what we may fear the most, that fear being the twin fates of irrelevance and the inevitable oblivion of non-existence.  But even if that were not on the table, faith would make me a better person for its impetus to ever greater service.  And a world where everyone looked out for each other wouldn’t be a bad place to visit or spend a lifetime.