The Enemy’s Rules

I feel very sad today. The government of Syria used poison gas on its own people. Now we have bombed an air base in Syria. In terms of “just war” theory, killing children is far worse than bombing a military base. Still, violence is violence, and begets more violence. Bombing will not bring peace.

One of our prayers for Sunday includes these words: “Help us to put our faith not in the princes of this world, but only in the Prince of Peace.”

The use of military power can force a country or group to submit, but it cannot bring lasting peace. Only the hard work of changing hearts, seeking common ground, and recognizing our shared humanity under God can bring true peace.

Adopting the enemy’s rules might help one side to “win” by force, but it will not bring peace that lasts. The Enemy (the powers of evil, the devil, our pride, our fear) tempts us to think that we can win by beating others down. To the best of my ability, I won’t play by those rules.

Maybe those are the only rules earthly governments can live by, since they protect boundaries by force or threat of force. I hope those who follow the Prince of Peace can live by other rules, ones that show the way to the true peace of God’s Kingdom coming and will being done on earth.

Flesh and Spirit

The column below is what I wrote for the church’s April newsletter.

Easter is late this year, so at the end of March we’re a little more than halfway through Lent. As we look ahead to Easter and the celebration of the resurrection, I’m looking back to Christmas. The two are like bookends. The two are like poles around which life orbits. We don’t have one without the other. These two great feast days are at the heart of our identity, our consciousness of what it means to be flesh and spirit.

The Word became flesh. Incarnation. Energy finds expression in matter. E=mc2. However we express it in words or equations, the Christian understanding is that spirit and matter are not enemies or opposites, but two sides of the same coin. That is the message of Jesus. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus shows us God. “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father,” is a mystery to contemplate, a guide to our understanding of the whole of our tradition and scripture, and a clue to the purpose of God’s project in creation. Jesus is the cornerstone of the foundation, the keystone of the arch, the central piece of the picture that shows us where life is headed, what God’s work is all about.

Jesus is the fullest expression of the eternal mystery of God. And – I hope you are always overwhelmed and amazed by this – Jesus is the model and goal for our lives! Jesus shows us “the way, the truth, and the life.” Jesus makes real life possible for us. Jesus teaches us and shows us that when we are most fully alive, we embody the spirit of God. We continue the incarnation. The church is the Body of Christ on earth. And I don’t mean, of course, a building. We are living stones. We are built together into a home for the very spirit of God.

I’m refraining from using exclamation marks on every sentence, but that’s the feeling! Christian faith is not a deal we make so that we get a reward when our life is over. It’s about making God real. It’s about the new creation taking shape within and around us. It’s about a new community following the way of Jesus in its life together.

If the church has not understood that, and if we have failed to give that message, we have been far too modest, far too insecure, far too dull in our living and sharing of the astounding news of what life is and can be. It’s safer, though, to pretend that faith is about “getting to heaven,” because it keeps us from having to make heaven real and to confront the “principalities and powers” that would rather stay in charge and keep heaven a distant promise.

Easter is a new beginning. This Easter, let’s begin again to show the power and love of God’s eternal spirit in our flesh and daily life. The very presence of heaven is at hand.

Distorted Faith

I was reading Richard Rohr this morning – his Yes, And… book of daily meditations. Writing about how a person develops a sense of the sacred, he notes that in the first half of life, many people’s spirituality is self-centered. He says,

Christians in the first half of life become obsessed with dying a happy death and going to heaven. Even religion becomes a rather privatized “evacuation plan for the next world” (as Brian McLaren calls it), and the clergy seldom recognize that much of religion is trapped at the individualistic and egocentric level. No actual love of neighbor, outsider, the poor, or even God was really necessary. This is garden variety first-half of life religion, and it has passed for the real thing for much of the Christian era.

The truth of Rohr’s insight seems obvious to me, but it runs counter to the dominant emphasis in popular religion, which focuses on “getting saved” and “being good” and “going to heaven.” But that emphasis on escapism from this world cuts the heart out of Jesus’ life and message. He came to establish a new community he called “the kingdom of heaven.” This was a transformation of this world, not an escape from it.

To the degree that we have bought into the popular, “evangelical,” message that Christian faith is about believing some idea so God will approve of us, accept us, save us, we have failed to grasp what Jesus was about. Jesus came to heal us of our divisions and gather us into a new community. But that’s hard. That takes courage and humility. It puts us up against the way of the world.

It’s easier to believe that Christian faith is about “believing” something so we can get a ticket to heaven, rather than about following the way of Jesus and joining his new community. But it’s wrong.

So, I apologize for whatever I have said that has reinforced that distorted message. The world needs people who are committed to the project Jesus came to start — the transformation of this world and the healing of all that divides people and destroys life. Clearly, we have a lot of work to do. Let’s not get distracted by “heaven,” but remember that Jesus said, “the kingdom of heaven is among / within you.”

Affordable Health Care

Just wondering — surely the Republicans in Congress know how insurance works, right?

You pay into a pool of money along with a lot of other people. The cost is based on the calculated likelihood of how many of those people will need to use the benefits. The greater the number of people who pay in, the less it costs. Which is why the ACA made participation mandatory, to try to broaden participation and lower cost.

Maybe the biggest objection to the ACA is this mandate to join. But, look, your bank makes you buy insurance on your house if you have a mortgage. And that’s not based on their concern for your well-being but for their bottom line.

The motivation for a national health plan comes from the desire to see the most vulnerable people protected from bad health and medical bankruptcy. We want to be a nation that cares for our neighbors instead of only looking out for ourselves. Love of neighbor and looking out for the interests of others and not just ourselves is a central value of Christian faith.

Most of these folks in Congress who are trying to tear down the ACA also claim to be Christian. Just doesn’t make sense to me.

The Stranger’s Blessing

This is a follow-up to yesterday’s post.

After I wrote about loving other people without condition, not requiring them to meet my expectations and standards before I can love them, I remembered something from the Rule of Benedict. In this ancient rule for life in Christian community, a central practice is that the community always provides someone to stay by the door, day and night. This person was called the “Porter” of the monastery, the doorkeeper. The job of the doorkeeper was of utmost importance. Whenever a stranger, a traveler, came to the door, regardless of the time of day or night, the Porter was to reply to their knock by saying, “Your blessing, please!”

The Porter did not know anything about the person on the other side of the door. Did the traveler believe the same things? Practice the same lifestyle? Live by the standards of the monastic community? Those questions were not asked. The first response was based in a conviction that God sent the stranger so that the community could be blessed by welcoming and providing hospitality. There were no requirements – only that the person be received as if she or he were the Christ in disguise.

We lose the stranger’s blessing if we place conditions on our love.

Aww… Do I Have To?

I can imagine the disciples of Jesus saying that when he reminded them that the most important things God had ever said to them were: 1) love God with everything you’ve got, and 2) love your neighbor as you love yourself.

In fact, there’s that famous story of the young lawyer (what is it about lawyers?) who wanted to argue with Jesus about that and said, “But who is my neighbor?” So Jesus tells that story of the Syrian refugee who stops to help the white guy who got mugged. Well… it was really a Samaritan and a Jew in the original, but you have to translate because we don’t know what the heck a Samaritan is!

Or it could be a gay couple and a wedding caterer.

I don’t understand why this has gotten to be such an issue that we have to have legislation passed one way or the other. Look, folks, “love your neighbor” does not mean you have to like them, approve of them or endorse their lifestyle. But it does mean that your Lord expects you to act for their good, to treat them with respect and to deal with them as you find them, not as you wish them to be.

That goes both ways. Jesus expects me to love white supremacists and black lives matter activists equally. That sounds good in the abstract, but it’s really, really hard to do. My preferences and prejudices affect who I’d rather hang out with – or approve of.

I saw recently a reminder of something the Trappist Monk, Thomas Merton, said about love: “The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image.” He said if we only love what we wish them to be and not who they are at this moment, we do not really love them.

Maybe the bottom line question is whether we can trust God and stop trying to control people. Speaking just for myself – I don’t need to be protected from other people’s existence. God invites me to consider that my neighbor is – all of my neighbors are – another person made in God’s image whom I am called to love. When that prolific letter-writer, Paul, said look not only to your own interests, but to the interests of others, he didn’t qualify the statement with “if you approve of them.”

Clearly, we have a lot to learn and a long way to go. But God is patient. And God is love. For that, I am eternally grateful.

Relationship Maintenance

We’ve all heard the term “high-maintenance” used as a negative characteristic when it comes to a person with whom one is connected. Those people are draining, hard to handle, irritating.

But we do admit that every relationship takes some kind of maintenance. If I don’t pay attention to my marriage the relationship won’t thrive, won’t be mutual, won’t be loving. What would life be like with your partner if you thought only of yourself?

I saw a Tom Toles cartoon today that showed a globe. Each country was labeled thus: “America First,” “Venezuela First,” “India First,” “China First,” “France First,” etc. The little cartoonist guy in the corner says, “Where does that leave peace?”

Which sent me to the Bible to look up something in the letter to the church at Philippi. Advice from the Apostle Paul to that church was, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”

Well?

If there exists such a thing as “enlightened self-interest” that would be it. We will make our country great — we will make ourselves great — by loving our neighbors, especially the enemy and stranger. Peace on earth.

Governors

So, when I was young my father told this joke:

There was a young man driving an old, dilapidated bus on a Georgia highway, going way too fast. A State Trooper pulled him over. When the trooper approached the open side door of the bus he looked in at the young driver and said, “Son, ain’t you got a governor on this bus?”

To which the driver replied, “No sir. It smells that way all the time!”

I was reminded of that joke this morning when I heard Andrew Cuomo, the Governor of New York, proposing that we pass a law requiring governors on trucks on our highways to limit their speed. In case you don’t know, a mechanical governor is a device that can be installed on the engine of a vehicle to limit the maximum RPMs of the engine.

One ponders, though, the usefulness of governors and Governors!

Who Needs God?

A thought for the day: Someone said, “People who can buy or otherwise arrange for themselves everything they ever wanted for Christmas have no need of a God.”

I wonder — is my receptivity to God inversely proportional to my comfort and my ability to supply my own needs? The old hymn based on Psalm 23 says, “My Shepherd will supply my need….” What if I can take care of myself, don’t need to depend on anyone else, can insulate myself from the world and its threats? What am I cheating myself out of if I can live my own life without anyone else?

How much of God do I encounter only in relationship? I wonder if mystics only get to that point because they’ve been so grounded in the God who comes to us in community.

All of this reminds me of a song by Peter Mayer about Christmas Morning. After singing about all things one might want for Christmas, he says, “Then again, in light of life’s uncertainties, you may not find a single one of these. But, guaranteed, underneath that tree, you’ll find a brand new day begun, the ones who love you, the turning earth, and a great big shining sun.”

Those are, indeed, gifts of Christmas to be treasured by rich and poor alike, if only we know our need.

Season of Wonder

I read in a post by someone else recently that Gregory of Nyssa (a spiritual leader from the 4th Century) said, “Concepts create idols; only wonder comprehends anything. People kill one another over idols. Wonder makes us fall to our knees.”

People talk about Christmas as a season of wonder. It’s hard to be hateful and destructive if you’re lost in wonder, gazing in awe at a baby or another natural wonder. What if we thought of the wonder of Christmas as a spiritual discipline that we might cultivate and carry in our hearts to shape our manner of living?

What if we could look into the face of another human being and catch a glimpse of that baby, that miracle of life? What if we could see that before or despite the other fearful things we imagine?

May you carry wonder in your heart and soul today and always!