And It Was Night

I was reading this morning from the Book of John, searching for an appropriate passage with which to frame my song selections for worship.  I was looking through Jesus’ great teachings on the night of his betrayal.  He delivered his “new” commandment that his disciples love one another.  John’s opening to the scene of that Last Supper in 13.1 included a statement that I have not heard discussed frequently, if at all.  There, he tells something about Jesus’ character when he says, “…having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”

In the course of John’s writing, he mentions “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”  If John were speaking of himself, perhaps he was focusing on how that love felt to him, as if he were indeed special.  But here in 13.1, he says,” …he loved them to the end.”  Plural.  Jesus practiced what he preached.  He emphasized that further in his symbolic act of humility in washing the disciples’ feet.

But as I read through chapter 13, another phrase caught my eye, and it was as if I had never before read the verse, or at least not paid much attention to it.  The scene shifts to Jesus announcing that someone in the room would betray him, and that he would pass a morsel of bread to the one who would do it.  It would have been a scene of great suspense for the company reclining at table that night.  Perhaps they sat up straighter as he mentioned the traitor.  Perhaps each one was wondering if he would be the implicated party.  But only Jesus knew.  And Judas.

Judas had reached a point of no return.  He could have refused the bread.  But he didn’t.  He was locked on the target of turning over this dangerous man to the Jewish authorities. 

At that point, John reflects that Satan entered into Judas.  Whether literally or figuratively, it doesn’t matter.  He had colluded with Jesus’ enemies, and this night would bring the fruition of that dark collaboration.  Perhaps John means that Judas’ devilish scheme was no longer secret, and that was why Jesus then encouraged him to finish his task.

Judas took the bread, acknowledging that he was indeed the one.  He turned his back on Jesus and walked out.  In the first chapter of his gospel account, John had said of Jesus, “4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men.  5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

He turned his back on the true light.  And in doing so, John says of Judas’ condition both temporally and spiritually, “And it was night.” 

Judas had entered the darkness.  He led the contingent of soldiers and representatives of the High Priest and council to the Garden where Jesus would be arrested.

In Matthew 27, as the next day dawned, so did the realization of what he had done.  Judas tried to return the blood money paid to him by the chief priests and elders because he was responsible for the condemnation of an innocent man.  They refused.   In his guilt and shame, Judas hanged himself.

Judas was not the first man to betray a friend, nor would he be the last.  But each time one turns on another, he enters the darkness, the night, where his shameful deeds may be hidden, but where there is also confusion and uncertainty.  A person in darkness can easily lose his way.  A person who has a sense of morality would have pangs of guilt, as apparently Judas showed.  But those sins were laid bare in the light of day. 

I had never noticed those four little words before, but they speak volumes about the events that would soon transpire and about the darkness that would consume a one-time friend and disciple of that teacher from Galilee.  In I John 1, the apostle writes, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”  Judas failed to appreciate the light of Jesus.  But the darkness did not satisfy in any way.  Those four little words teach a powerful lesson.

The Inescapable Forces of Politics and Religion

According to the old saw, it’s often pretty safe to talk about most subjects in polite conversation, with the exception of politics and religion.  That’s good advice, but hardly practicable.  Why?  Well, there are several reasons.

First, we are dealing with two important aspects of a person’s life.  Politics governs everyday affairs, religion governs spiritual affairs.  As multifaceted beings, we are dimensionally obligated to deal with matters in each realm.  Because we exist, we are influenced by—and may influence—conditions in each of those realms.

Second, for those who practice religion, it is hard to separate faith from politics, since faith informs every aspect of that person’s life, including political positions.  It is equally apparent that those who avoid anything dealing with faith may let their anti-religious leanings influence their political views.

Problems come, however, when we confuse the two, when we mistakenly construe rights granted by civil authorities as being matters of faith.  The recent photo of young woman clutching an assault rifle in her right hand and Bible in her left, while standing in front of a US flag is a case in point: the blending of nationalism, militarism and faith is a dangerous mix that is a breeding ground for conflict.

Third, there are those among the politically minded for whom politics is their religion.  They live and die by party platforms and positions.  It is sad to think that anyone could dedicate their all to such fickle masters but it apparently happens.  Similarly, there are those people of faith who have such disdain for political matters that they refuse to engage in the democratic process.  Unfortunately these people are frequently the first and loudest in their criticism of government leaders and policies.

Fourth, it is commonly observed among religious bodies of all faiths and persuasions that religion itself is often too political.  Within local congregations and among churches of a particular denomination, and among denominations political posturing and machinations are common.  This should not be.  People of faith should adopt the attitude expressed by God, when through the prophet Isaiah, he appealed to the erring children of Israel by saying, “Come, let us reason together.”

If I reflect upon myself and my own actions, interests and beliefs, I suppose I fall squarely into the second group in this non-exhaustive list.  I believe that faith must inform us, but that as the founding fathers so adamantly asserted, there must be a separation between church and state.

We may see and take exception to those instances where religion exerts influence in politics.  However, there are instances where politics, embodied in the form of governmental legislatures, executives, judges and agencies, impinges on religion.  This is equally dangerous, if not more so, since governments have geopolitical boundaries and are temporally restricted.  Religions are longer lived than governments, and may extend around the globe.  Should a local government affect the policies and practices of a religion, the effects may extend far beyond the jurisdiction of the political body.

I have no qualms about discussing either politics or religion.  They are integral parts of who I am.  Throughout my life, I have been on a journey of discovery.  I began with rather simple-minded acceptance of a position—in my case, conservatism in both politics and faith.  However, I neglected to enforce the usual conservative embargo on thought and reason.  In both realms, my views have expanded beyond their initial boundaries, not out of sheer exasperation with the confines of the ideology, but more out of seeking greater application and understanding.  In both realms, my changing views have been guided by principles that I read about constantly in scripture: justice, righteousness, mercy, faithfulness.  I have discovered that I can no more embrace the most conservative restrictions than I can the most liberal license.  My political views have paralleled or more accurately, they have been shaped by my spiritual awakening and understanding.

As one who believes that God is ultimately the artist who crafted a very good universe, my political positions reflect that in that I want to see that very good creation restored and celebrated for the beauty and awe that it is and inspires.  As one who believes that I am indeed my brother’s keeper, my political positions reflect support for social programs that help people, not because I approve of the abdication of individual responsibility in such matters—that still holds—but because government’s role in the distribution of such aid is the only workable paradigm we have, necessitated by the logistics involved in seeing to the needs and welfare of more than 300 million people.  As one who reads and takes to heart the repeated calls throughout the Bible for justice and helping the oppressed, my political views drive me to call attention to factions, policies, and ideologies that not only approve of continued oppression of the poor and hurting, but propose instituting oppressive policies as law.

I grew up influenced by a strict religious conservatism.  When I opened my eyes and my mind to seeing issues from different views and to reading more of scripture than had been stressed in my formative years, my conservative convictions gave way to something more.  Similarly, I grew up influenced by a political conservatism that suggested on one level or another, that liberal concerns are fundamentally wrong, without explanation of why that was so.  When my maturing faith informed my political views, I emerged as someone still conservative on some issues, far more moderate in some respects, and even quite liberal in others.  Dogmatism, whether religious or political, is nothing more than slavery of heart, mind and spirit.

I am not offering my own story as a model for others to follow, by any means, but rather to explain the experiences I have had on this journey, experiences that have shaped who I am today.  I encourage every person to open their minds in terms of both politics and religion, to examine their dogmas and philosophies in both realms and be willing to embrace change if indeed that change comes from substantiated reflection and reason.  Having just registered another birthday only yesterday, it occurs to me that life is too short to let another equally fallible human run it for me, define my motives and actions and views.  I choose to live by grace, love and mercy in all aspects of my life.

That reflects the grace, love, and mercy I have received.

And for that grace, love and mercy I continue to be temporally amazed and eternally grateful.

Beware the Sin of Sodom

Sin is a tricky thing.  It is always easier to see it in someone else than in ourselves.  A case in point is found in the Genesis story of Abram/Abraham and Lot.  You recall in the Abraham story that Abraham split the land with Lot.  Lot took the best, well-watered ground and Abraham was left with less desirable holdings.  Lot wound up living in the city of Sodom, whose rather prophetic name may be translated as “flaming” or “burnt.”

Sodom was indeed a wicked place.  God told Abraham that if he found 50 righteous men in all of Sodom, he would not destroy it as he had planned.  Abraham knew that was unlikely, and immediate set out to lower the required number.  To his credit, Abraham was trying to save his nephew and his family.  Perhaps the thought of so much death was frightening to Abraham.  God finally agreed to withhold his judgment against Sodom for the sake of 10 righteous people.

But that didn’t happen.

Most conservative Christians will point to a single issue as the trigger point of Sodom’s downfall: the apparent call for homosexual rape against Lot’s angelic visitors.  But that was merely one facet of Sodom’s sin.  Since not even 10 righteous people were found within its walls, it was a sin–or a suite of sins–shared by a population.  In Ezekiel 16 the prophet relates the words of God, “48 As I live, declares the Lord GOD, your sister Sodom and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done.  49  Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.  50  They were haughty and did an abomination before me. So I removed them, when I saw it.”

Of all the pertinent applicable lessons that could be learned from these three verses, I offer this:  Beware the sin of Sodom.  Today more than ever, we need to examine ourselves individually and as a nation.  Are we following in the ways of Sodom?  I am not speaking about the misplaced emphasis on homosexuality.  I am talking specifically about what God said through Ezekiel.

Having only the experience of being born in this country and living here all my life, I can only address my perception of this nation.  From our popular music to our bumper stickers, we are proud of our nation.  “I’m proud to be an American…”  And I can agree with some of that.  But when that pride prevents us from examining our faults and flaws, our policies and laws, our pride has become our downfall.  We are not perfect.  To declare ourselves perfect arrogates perfection: we claim what can never be reality in a fallen universe.

We have excess of food—or at least some do.  We are so careless and uncaring toward the needs of others that we have made food into sport.  We have eating contests where the object is nothing but thinly veiled gluttony.  We support all you can eat buffets, and the majority of the super-sized patrons of those establishments do not need to be there.  (As a person who has struggled with weight all my life, I’m talking to myself.)  We throw phenomenal amounts of food away.  When we have the means and opportunity to help feed a child or a destitute neighbor, our lawmakers opt to save money and cut aid to the needy.

While our people may work a lot, some say more than other industrialized countries, we do still have an enormous amount of leisure time.  The leisure industry spans electronics to motion pictures to sports, to recreational vehicles and travel resorts.  We focus more on our own leisure than on the survival of the less fortunate.

Sodom was prosperous, “but did not aid the poor and needy.”  God’s words.  They were haughty, and in their prideful arrogance, did “an abomination”, which was unspecified in the passage in Ezekiel.

God’s solution: “I removed them.”

That is a chillingly understated comment, if we take the Genesis account as true.  Sodom, and its sister city on the plain, Gomorrah, were utterly destroyed.

When we consider where we are, how we live, what we do, it is so important that we wake up and realize that as a nation, we are precariously close to Sodom.  But there is an answer to this condition.  God told Israel through the prophet Isaiah in the first chapter if his message, “16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, 17 learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.”

When we cling to our perceived rights to things like firearms and fail to feed a hungry child, we are guilty of the sin of Sodom.  When we allow the sick to suffer because we are reluctant to regulate skyrocketing costs or pay for care, we are guilty of the sin of Sodom.  When we support an economic system that entrenches the poor in abject poverty and sends the vast majority of all of the wealth to a privileged few, we are guilty of the sin of Sodom.

The sin of Sodom was not merely sexual.  It was the systematic, predatory oppression of those without power.

In a favorite passage in Micah 6, the prophet speaks for God, saying, “8 He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”  Justice is equivalent to righteousness in much of the Old Testament writings.  Are we practicing true righteous justice in seeing that the needs of all are met before any take more?  Kindness as rendered here is also seen as mercy, elsewhere.  How merciful is it to allow money to take precedence over people, whittling away at safety nets and forcing the most vulnerable into the darker indignity of poverty?  The humility of walking with God is far from the pride we exude on a daily basis.

God defined the sin of Sodom for us.  And all we have to do to see it is look in the mirror, collectively speaking.

But sin is a tricky thing.  It is always easier to see it in someone else than in ourselves.

Exceptionalism

It’s hard not to think about patriotism from Memorial Day through Labor Day.  The central holiday of the patriotic season, Independence Day, brings on the most patriotic of presentations and songs.

I love this country.  I love the freedoms we enjoy, as guaranteed by the organizing document of our Republic.  I love the land, and its people, from so many nations and backgrounds, yet all united in their admiration, their respect and their love for the great American experiment.

I love my country.

But I wonder if some of my fellow citizens have taken that love to a level that might be just a little beyond where it ought to be.  I’m not talking about patriotic pride.  I’m talking about a concept that has been around for a long time, but appears to be crystallizing into a divisive philosophy: American exceptionalism.

American exceptionalism is the idea that the United States is fundamentally different from and even superior to other nations.  I don’t quite get that, since people from other nations are people, too.  Certainly, there are repressive and oppressive regimes across the globe.  But there are also very democratic nations, as well.

Perhaps much of this came from the great immigrant influx of the 19th and early 20th centuries, when so many people made the United States their destination, seeking a better life with more opportunities for success.  Many of those people were fleeing from antiquated systems of government, like the oppressive monarchies of many of the western European countries, with their class structures and aristocracy, or like Russian feudalism.  Some were fleeing economic conditions brought about by natural disasters, like the Irish Potato Famine.  Whatever the reason, they were coming to America, to borrow a phrase from Neil Diamond.

I’ve also wondered if some people might have misconstrued some of the lyrics to the wonderful patriotic anthem, America the Beautiful.  According to stories, the poem on which the song was based was written by Katherine Lee Bates in the late 1800’s, based on imagery she captured during a cross country excursion.  It became popular soon after it was written, was modified a few times, and was finally woven into the fabric of the national tapestry around 1913.  The 1913 lyrics are the ones best known by most people.  But most people only know the first stanza. Some may know the last.  But few know the two in between.

Here are the words to this wonderful song.

America the Beautiful 

O beautiful for spacious skies,

For amber waves of grain,

For purple mountain majesties

Above the fruited plain!

America! America! God shed His grace on thee,

And crown thy good with brotherhood

From sea to shining sea!

O beautiful for pilgrim feet,

Whose stern impassion’d stress

A thoroughfare for freedom beat

Across the wilderness!

America! America! God mend thine ev’ry flaw,

Confirm thy soul in self-control,

Thy liberty in law!

O beautiful for heroes proved In liberating strife,

Who more than self their country loved,

And mercy more than life!

America! America! May God thy gold refine

Till all success be nobleness,

And ev’ry gain divine!

O Beautiful for patriot dream

That sees beyond the years

Thine alabaster cities gleam,

Undimmed by human tears!

America! America! God shed His grace on thee,

And crown thy good with brotherhood

From sea to shining sea!

I wonder how many people construe the phrase “God shed his grace on thee” as past tense, that God had already done it, given the United States his stamp of approval.  But if taken in parallel to the next line, “God shed” is not talking about history, but is rather a prayer, a plea for God to bestow his grace on the nation.

In the second stanza, where some people have put forth the idea that the United States is (or more likely was) perfect in its form and function, Miss Bates pleads to God to “mend thine every flaw.” She doesn’t declare it to be flawless.  Apparently, she understood that as a nation, we are not perfect.

In the third verse, she again pleads, “May God thy gold refine.”  Apparently, she still considered America a work in progress.

On what can a person base the notion that the United States is better than any or all other nations?  Certainly not on educational performance or attainment.  In a study reported by Pearson in 2012, the US ranked 17th among a field of industrialized nations.  Finland was number one, South Korea number two.  The UK, Canada, Switzerland, Belgium, Australia, Germany, New Zealand, Ireland, Japan, Denmark and the Netherlands were among the countries that outranked us.

We can’t claim the best medical care, either.  The author of a 2010 New England Journal of Medicine opinion piece discussing the United States’ 37th place in the World Health Organization’s ranking of health care systems wrote, “It is hard to ignore that in 2006, the United States was number 1 in terms of health care spending per capita but ranked 39th for infant mortality, 43rd for adult female mortality, 42nd for adult male mortality, and 36th for life expectancy. These facts have fueled a question now being discussed in academic circles, as well as by government and the public: Why do we spend so much to get so little?”

The US ranked 6th in a field of more developed countries in terms of lowest unemployment rates in 2015.

I believe in the greatness of America.  I know we have accomplished much: we have defended other nations from tyranny as in the Second World War; we are usually the first people to respond to disasters in other parts of the world; we send tremendous amounts of aid to needy people all over the world; we have been the incubator for many of the greatest inventions in modern history.

But people in other countries love their countries, too.  The idea that we are so far superior to so many other nations is divisive and counterproductive to global relations.  When people think that Americans look down on them, the conversation will not be a discussion among equals.  It starts with defensiveness and degenerates from there.

I always chafe when I hear people decry someone who is a realist, who is accused of “apologizing for America.”  That is perhaps the utmost expression of my issue with exceptionalism.  The honest to God truth, though, is that we have made mistakes that have hurt other people.  We would be far better served to admit it and make amends like good neighbors.  Taken as a lesson from the realm of faith, there is no forgiveness without repentance.

God has not placed his stamp of approval on any nation, because all nations have their faults.  But that means that we should all the more adjure God not to forget us, but to mend our flaws, refine our gold, and shed his grace upon us.  We are a great nation among many great nations.  Among nations it is much like it is among citizens of any country: our greatest strength can only be experienced when we join together in purpose.  Leadership is not about dictating our terms to everyone else, but working together for a common good, or as Katherine Lee Bates expressed, “and crown thy good with brotherhood.”  If America can become better at extending the hand of fellowship and brotherhood within our borders as well as beyond them, then that is one measure of exceptionalism that will fill me with pride.  God knows we need a renewed spirit of brotherhood in these troubled times.

God bless America…

…please.

Beyond Stone Tablets

As I read about the uproar in Oklahoma over the State Supreme Court’s ruling to remove the Ten Commandments monument at the State House, I couldn’t help but think that those who are or are about to get bent out of shape over this may be doing something wrong.  Here is one of three instances of the same idea, first from Jeremiah in the OT and twice in Hebrews in the NT: “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds…” –Heb 10.16

No, that doesn’t remove the sting of the ruling.  But what it says to me is that there would come a time when stone tablets would not be necessary.  We don’t just live in fear of violating the Ten Commandments.  We live by a new command, at once easier to remember but in many cases harder to enact: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” John 13.34.

And it is important to also remember that while some in government may be pressing for people of faith to change their beliefs, the faith supported by those laws written in our hearts and minds is not subject to government approval or regulation.

I can’t help but think of the old hymn, “Faith of Our Fathers.”  In a verse added to Frederick Faber’s original lyrics, we are reminded, “Our fathers, chained in prisons dark, / Were still in heart and conscience free.”  As of this writing, I am unaware of any Christian believer who has been imprisoned and is under threat of death in this country for his or her beliefs.  To predict such is easy, but unfruitful.  Hand-wringing and anxiety engender nothing but more hand-wringing and anxiety.

The last verse of Faber’s hymn concludes

“Faith of our fathers, we will love

Both friend and foe in all our strife;

And preach Thee, too, as love knows how

By kindly words and virtuous life.”

I can think of no better resolution than this.