Sunday, January 25, 2009

Decisions, decisions

Isaiah 2:4 “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.”
Joel 3:10 “Beat your plowshares into swords and your pruning hooks into spears.”

I stopped for gas yesterday. As I stood there in the cold, some seagulls swooped down nearby, hoping for a few dropped fries from the Burger King at the rest stop. I looked at them and marveled that the same basic skin and feathers protected them both in this biting cold and in the heat of summer. I thought about the way God designed the creatures of air, land, and sea to live in their environments. And I thought of the way that God provided each of them with some form of defense from enemies and how some of them were actually given offensive weapons: talons and claws and very sharp, pointy teeth.

“But what about human beings?” I thought, as I shivered under several layers of clothes and coats. Our God-given skin protects us from neither snow nor sun. It is not thick enough to protect me even from the cat kneading my lap and no porcupine quills or skunk spray spring up to throw at those who threaten me. What was God thinking?

I continued to think about that on the way home (it’s mentally exhausting being me) and realized that what God provided for us was a body that could be used for many different endeavors and in many different circumstances. Like getting a naked Ken and Barbie in a box, however, we have to be intentional in deciding how we will dress and equip ourselves. Our hands are designed for delicate work, but whether we perform surgery, tat lace, or make bombs is up to us. We have legs that are designed to propel us, but whether we use them to compete in sports, run from our enemies, charge into battle, or dance with our children is our decision. We can digest foods of so many types that almost all options, from the vegan to the cannibal, are open to us.

I think that range of choice is evident in the seeming contradiction of the biblical prophets. Isaiah’s call is for a time when wars will end as people elect to use the raw material of metal to cleave soil rather than flesh—swords to plows. But Joel calls people to a different task: to leave their farms and seek vengeance in war—plows to swords. And just a few verses later, in verse 14, Joel describes all the nations under God’s judgment: “Multitudes, multitudes, in the valley of decision.”

I think that is indeed how we will be judged—by the decisions we have made. How have we decided to equip ourselves? Have we made more plows or more swords with the raw metal of our lives? Have we used our hands to push others down or to raise others up? Have we used our legs to kick or to dance or to support a child on our shoulders? Have we nourished ourselves with what is good? God gave us our bodies for a reason, but elected not to make that reason entirely clear. If we had a big rhino horn instead of a nose, we could make some assumptions. Instead, however, we were deposited naked into the valley of decision.

The good news is that just as I can put away my winter clothes and dress for summer when the weather changes, so I can decide to change many other things. I might be surrounded by swords, but at any time I can begin to beat those swords into plows. Or not. God gave me hands capable of wielding either and left the decision to me. Our new envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, put it in this hopeful way: “Conflicts are created, conducted and sustained by human beings; they can be ended by human beings.”

And so we sit in the valley of decision—our decisions about our own lives and God’s decision about whether our choices have helped or hurt the world. It’s both the most hopeful gift and the most weighty responsibility. Swords or plows? It’s up to us.

Sunday, January 18, 2009


Philippians 2:4 “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”

I have been keeping a box of tissues near the television this week. For some reason I am much more likely to cry in response to heroism than in response to tragedy, at least on the national scale. I think I must be a closet pessimist, expecting the worst, so when disaster strikes—either in the form of an accidental disaster or an intentional horror—I am angered and motivated to right the wrong, but don’t feel personally disappointed enough to shed tears. Sadly, harm is what I generally expect, much as I hate to see it happen. Somebody drilled that original sin/fallen humanity/bound for hell mentality into me a bit too deeply.

But then there are weeks like this one—a week of heroes. While I mean his mother no disrespect, overcoming a name like Chesley B. Sullenberger, III is no small feat in America. I can’t imagine what his Jr. High years must have been like. But somewhere along the line he beat the rap, became simply “Sully” and rose to master his profession as an airline pilot. And when a flock of geese flew into both engines of his plane full of passengers, he kept his cool and landed with perfection in the Hudson, saving every last person aboard. And he walked the length of the frigid-water filled plane twice before bringing himself to safety, just to be sure. And he’s known at home for his work in the community. And he raises guide dogs for the blind. And the media covered news so fabulous it became known as the “Miracle on the Hudson” non-stop for days. So I got out the tissues.

And tomorrow we celebrate another hero, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A man of faith—we read his Letters from a Birmingham Jail in seminary; a man who took Paul’s teaching seriously, risking his life and ultimately giving his life for the freedom of a people. He was a man who believed that violence solved nothing, no matter how natural or understandable a violent response might seem. His dream was of harmony, not discord; unity, not division; peace with justice for all. There were some who couldn’t bear it, and one shot hope through the heart. Or tried. The hero died, but not the heroism—the man, but not the dream.

Now there is Tuesday and the inauguration of that dream to the highest office in the land. If you remain unmoved by the history unfolding before us, then I wish you tonic for your heart. While every presidential candidate, and ultimately every President, puts a large red target on his chest, if you think that isn’t magnified a million-fold as an African American, then you haven’t been paying attention. A black church was torched on election night, specifically to register racist anger at the election of a black President. The perpetrators went back to the scene and laughed. And that was in 2008. In Springfield, Massachusetts.

In the face of such actions and the still vile, bigoted evil spoken of him online and elsewhere, our President-elect stood up in three historic cities yesterday and called for “An appeal not to our easy instincts but to our better angels.” That any African American can believe in humanity’s “better angels” is a wonder to me. And I hold the box of tissues a bit tighter.

Whether Obama will carry that heroic spirit into the grueling work that lies before him remains to be seen, but by some miracle the inner pessimist in me is quieted. The part of me that thinks Bernard Madoff is just the tip of the financial corruption iceberg is willing to give ground to the hope that Barack Obama actually can inspire those better angels in all of us.

That’s actually what Paul was trying to do in his letter, written from prison, to the church in Philippi. This verse leads into what may well be the earliest hymn in the Christian tradition, the hymn that urges us all to have the “mind of Christ” and to follow Christ’s example in sacrifice. It is a call to do more than recognize a hero. It is a call to be one. As Christ was, so we can be. We can be—indeed are called to be—both saints and heroes, simply by looking not to our own interests, but to the interests of others.

It remains to be seen whether Obama can land our damaged national plane as perfectly and with as few casualties as Chesley B. Sullenberger, III. But, as a passenger on that flight, I’m pulling for him. And I’m willing to follow his instructions to stow my inner pessimist in the overhead bin and inflate the life jacket of hope beneath my seat.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Hot Shower

Mark 2:17 “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

It has been a stormy month and, here in the Northeast, that means snow. And ice. And the dreaded “wintry mix.” When all of that falls from the sky it makes demands. You have to shovel, put some sort of de-icer on the walk and, if you’re like me and don’t have a garage, you have to brush and scrape your car to remove snow and ice. We’re barely into January and all that is getting old already. It has, however, reminded me of a basic truth: Hot showers feel their best when you are actually cold and dirty.

The minute I said that to myself, the words of Jesus from Mark leapt into my brain. Jesus has just come under fire from the religious leadership for inviting a tax collector to be a disciple and for eating meals (a sign of personal acceptance and honor) with tax collectors and sinners. To get into the sentiment, imagine Jesus having dinner (and obviously enjoying dinner) with Bernie Madoff when he had an invitation to dine with the local bishops. Jesus points out that he hasn’t come to validate the righteous but to help those headed in another direction to turn around and see the God who loves them.

There are two things that strike me when I consider that passage and my hot shower experience. First is that the Church today seems much more interested in seeking out those who are basically warm and clean and trying to convince them that they are actually cold, dirty and in need of a shower. Rare is the church that truly seeks those who are metaphorically (or literally) cold and dirty. Those who are literally cold and dirty bring too many problems and demand services that they can’t usually support. We give a lot of lip service to seeking “those people,” but we rarely try to find them except when giving out Thanksgiving baskets. When those who are metaphorically cold and dirty (i.e. “sinners”) show up, we call them hypocrites for being in church and yet leading a sinful life. Who wants to stick around for that?

The second thing that strikes me is that (perhaps because the church has focused on serving those who are righteous for so long) we often come to believe that if we do fall into sin, Jesus is the last person who wants to see us. Sin becomes the reason we should NOT go to church, NOT take communion, and NOT try to engage God in prayer, scripture, or anything else. We imagine God sitting on his throne with his finger poised by the button opening the trap door to hell, just waiting for us to make a misstep. Or, if our image of God isn’t quite that severe, we figure we’ll at least get “that look.” So we decide it’s best just not to bring the matter up anywhere that God might be listening.

Jesus points out both in his words and in his behavior that he is not interested in a religious club for the “good” people. Nothing wrong with them, but that’s just the point. His mission is very specifically to those who can’t get their act together and need help. To those who are in some way “lost.” And the thing that seems to get under the skin of the Pharisees is that Jesus seems to actually like those lost people--love them even. He doesn’t come into their midst proclaiming their damnation—he comes in with “good news.” That the Kingdom of God has come near, even to them. Especially to them. And Jesus later calls the Pharisees every name in the book for trying to deny them access to God.

The healthy don’t need a physician; the clean don’t need a shower. Jesus came to heal the sick and to find the lost and when we are in that condition, he should be the one we hope for, not the one we dread. For those of us who have climbed onto the discipleship bandwagon, both as churches and individuals, the mission of Jesus is our mission. How are we doing with that?

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Two Wolves

Philippians 4:8 “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

In the last few days of 2008, media of all types and all ideologies spent time looking back over the year. Everybody had their top ten lists and the re-hashing of both the presidential campaigns and the economic meltdown. After watching one such recitation I heard one news pundit say to another, “Personally, I have never seen a year filled with such huge yet equal amounts of both hope and fear. It’s like they’re battling and we don’t know which one will win.”

When I heard that, it reminded me of an old story, usually attributed to Native American sources, about two wolves. You may well have heard it before. The general story goes that a tribal elder is speaking to a young boy. “My son, there are two wolves who are fighting within every person’s heart: love and hate. You can hear them snarling if you lie very still and when one isn’t looking the other will pounce. It is a great and terrible battle and the outcome will determine who you become.” The young boy’s eyes grow wide as he asks, “But which wolf will win?” The old man answers, “The one you feed.”

I doubt that story ever actually happened, but it is a “true” story nonetheless. And the same truth is reflected in Paul’s letter to the Philippians as he reminds a church facing persecution to focus on the positive—to feed the good wolf, if you will. Remember that Paul is writing this letter from prison, facing execution. The circumstances for both Paul and the church in Philippi are dire. The bad wolves are circling in both cases. But, even so, Paul encourages the church to think on the good, in order to give life to what is honorable, just, and pure even in the midst of great turmoil and evil.

I think the news pundit was exactly right about our contemporary situation. Hope and fear circle each other like two wolves seeking dominance. Right now they are of equal strength and stamina. It will be up to us to decide which wolf to feed and that, in turn, will decide the battle. I think Paul would tell us to feed the hope. The hope wolf may still sustain some wounds in the fight, but if hope goes in better fed and cared for, it will win in the long run.

What Paul advocates is not easy, especially when you are in dire circumstances, but I think Paul gained his strength from exactly that sort of practice. Remember this was the guy that early on in his ministry was found singing hymns in his dungeon cell. He learned to feed the good wolf and it became strong enough to guard against despair, even when starting his own execution in the face.

Welcome to 2009. Hope and fear are on the prowl, looking for food to sustain them in battle. Which one will you feed?

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