Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Gone Are My Friends from the Cotton Fields Away

a black man was shot repeatedly by a white policeman in south carolina, and the man's final moments were caught on a video by a witness to the shooting.  there are many questions we might ask: would this death have been more tragic if the races of the two men were reversed?  is the race of the two men significant?  what are the circumstances leading up to this tragedy?  why did the bystander feel compelled to capture these moments in a video?  is this incident a reflection of our society's insistence on easy access to guns?  the list of questions that need to be answered could fill many pages.

the one that most concerns me after so many recent deaths of people of color at the hands of white officers of the law is the question of race.  this is the elephant in the cupboard of culture in the usa.  we want to say that there are also whites being killed just as callously but i don't think that's the case.  we have only to compare the reaction to mobs of predominantly white students in kentucky after a basketball game loss to the reaction to mobs of predominantly black people over the killing of a black teen in missouri to see the bias in our culture.  the race of the two involved in this south carolina incident is significant, because, in the eyes of many, non-white lives don't matter as much as white lives.  so close on the heals of our observance of the surrender at appomattox that ended the civil war, the stain of slavery and the aftermath of that horrible war still have not been cleansed from our psyche.

in our part of the country, and i expect in other regions as well, dinner table conversation too often includes little veiled barbs that suggest that blacks or hispanics are not as bright, not as moral, not as industrious as whites.  we see ourselves as a society of us and the others, and the others can't be as good as we are.  we can't let them have power.  we can't acknowledge their complete humanity.  it was all too easy for our forebears to turn a blind eye to the misery that was the lives of thousands of people of color so that a few white colonists and their descendants could enjoy lives of wealth and privilege.  under the veneer of a genteel society, blacks lives didn't matter except for what their backbreaking labor could produce so that this "gracious" way of life could exist.  this attitude continues to persist and to color all our national conversation.

this is the horrible consequence of "us versus them."  we refuse to see our sameness.  we fail to grasp the desire of non-white families to want the best for their children, to acknowledge that race has nothing to do with intelligence, the willingness to work hard, or moral integrity.  we citizens of the usa are not alone in this failure--look at the treatment of the irish at the hands of the english, at the tragedy of racism in south africa, at conflict between arabs and jew in the middle east.  the fact that other cultures are guilty of racism doesn't make it any more right here in this country; it only underscores our human tendency to live mindless lives when we allow our minds to become lazy and to look for scapegoats.

the needless taking of one black life by a policeman in south carolina or new york or missouri or ohio or california is significant.  the hostility to a president because he is african-american is significant.  the denial of voting rights to minorities is significant.  the indifference to the suffering of the poor is significant.  the desire to deny citizenship to hard-working hispanics because they dared to flee poverty and oppression in their home countries is significant.  there is no "us," there is to "them."  there is simply humanity, and it is our duty to treat every person with respect and compassion without rushing to draw the all-too-accessible weapon that can so easily bring a life to an end.

may we train our minds and hearts to see the person inside skin that is white, black, or brown.  may we love without limit.  shalom.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

In Terror and Amazement

christians have just observed easter, a holiday about which i have mixed emotions.  i am uneasy about the militaristic imagery of our hymns, filled with phrases about conquering death.  somehow this "victory march" seems wrong in light of the prince of peace having been executed by the power of a great military state.  easter leaves no room for the recognition of suffering; it pushes those who are hurting and grieving away.  i wish we'd pay more attention to the most ancient versions of mark's gospel in which there is no sighting of a risen jesus, where the women who have gone to the tomb to anoint jesus' body leave in "terror and amazement" (mark 16:8, nsrv translation), and, in their fear, they tell no one of their discovery.

for me, easter is not about eternal life.  rather it is about the permanence of love.  in this way it is tied to my lenten meditations about the qualities of love: love never ends.  as i drove home from church on easter sunday, my thoughts went to the nature of a loving God, a reasonable God, a God who would never create beings whose "very nature is evil," as our easter sunday confession had begun, a God who would delight in eternal punishment for those our religion claims this same God loves.  why would a loving God create us to live this complex existence and expect us to figure it all out in one short lifetime?  the more i think about this sort of God, the less faith i have that the god we are taught about in our churches is an accurate portrayal of the true nature of God.

if one believes in God, doesn't it make more sense that a loving and reasonable God would allow us as many lifetimes as we need to understand what life is all about, to come to a full realization of what love is?  we are such a tiny part of the vastness of the universe, and there must be creatures similar to ourselves out somewhere in the far-flung reaches of space.  is it possible that those beings have found their way to God in exactly the same way christians on this earth have?  are others here on this earth condemned to eternal torment because their cultures have led them to God in different ways than western culture has led christians?

so for me where i am in my journey, jesus' execution at the hands of rome teaches me about a love that lays down its life for its friends.  a literal resurrection is beside the point; the point is that love is unending.  it is the glue that bonds everything together.  it is the reason for living, it never dies.

may we go on loving, hoping for as many chances as we need to discover the true nature of love.  shalom.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Mystery of Love

the conclusion of st. paul's list of characteristics of love in first corinthians puzzles me.  what does it mean that "love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things?"  the new international version has the passage translated,   "it [love] always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres,"  and the phillips translation says, "love knows no limit to its endurance, no end to its trust, no fading of its hope; it can outlast anything."  the idea of love bearing all things or enduring all things isn't problematic; love, both that of God and the love that is a part of our being, should help us to face the problems of life with greater success.  if we say that love believes all things, do we mean that love has no doubts or that love accepts all dogmas without question or is unending trust, as in the niv and phillips versions, a better way of understanding the second phrase in the list?  in the same way, if we accept that love hopes all things, do we have an unrealistic outlook that hopes everything we wish for will be ours or is the idea of a hope that never fades as suggested in the phillips translation the best way of looking at the list's third phrase?

does the sum of these four phrases mean that love is optimistic and accepting?  is paul suggesting that the love which flows through all creation and which is a part of our basic nature helps us overcome the transitory difficulties of life with endurance, trust, hope, and perseverance?  i especially like the last phrase in the phillips translation: "[love] can outlast anything,"  the phillips translation ends paul's list of love's characteristics with this complementary sentence:  "[love] is, in fact, the one thing that still stands when all else has fallen."  for me, this is the great summation of all the characteristics of love;  everything else is subsidiary to love.  love is the great constant that transcends suffering, that makes life worthwhile.  it is the beginning and the end, the only reason for living, the very essence of all that is.

may we each be open to love.  may we give and receive love.  may we see that love transcends suffering and evil.  may we become love.  shalom.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Love Is Forgiving When Wrong Is Done

the phrase which is the complement to "love rejoices when right is done" in my version of paul's characteristics of love in first corinthians 13 is "love is forgiving when wrong is done."  this part of the list must present some translation problems, since there are so many different renderings of it in the various bible translations, but my own interpretation of what it seems to me paul is intending is the most satisfactory to me at this point along the path.

in the new international translation, the phrase which is often translated as love "is not resentful" is instead translated as love "keeps no record of wrongs."  for me, that corresponds well to the idea of forgiving wrongs that are done.  in the lord's prayer, jesus suggests that we pray, "forgive us our debts [the wrongs that we do to others] as we forgive our debtors [those who have wronged us]."  it is too easy to be caught up in a life of blaming others and the circumstances of life for our own situation in life.  we often rationalize our own failures by shifting blame from ourselves to others or to the vagaries of life rather than taking responsibility for our own shortcomings.

when my wife and i were first married, we engaged in arguments where we tried to blame the other for being the cause of our disagreement.  we would recite a litany of petty annoyances to one another, accusing each other of being the cause of our inability to come to an agreement.  over time, we learned how destructive this "keeping a list of wrongs" was and came to understand that we could learn to love each other more deeply by having more forgiving natures, finally realizing that those little quirks that had at first been so annoying were now endearing to us.

in the same way, we are much happier when we accept that we are so alike in our failings and that to forgive the wrongs of others is to forgive ourselves.  even great wrongs become more understandable when our hearts our filled with a spirit of forgiveness, and we see that the suffering caused to others by great and small wrongs done to them is a counterpart to the suffering being felt by the person who commits the wrong.  to forgive a wrong is not to condone it or pretend that it is justified; we must still oppose wrong actions and injustices, but we can forgive them at the same time.

may we rejoice in what is right and forgive wrong actions.  may we see that in forgiving others we also forgive ourselves and move past our own wrong actions towards making amends for the wrongs we have done.  shalom.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Love Rejoices When Right Is Done

last sunday, our service focused on the parable of the workers in the vineyard from matthew 20.  as the scripture was read and preached, i thought of the phrase which is the title of this post and wondered if right was done by the owner of the vineyard when he paid all the workers the same wage, regardless of the amount of work each had done.  the workers who worked the longest certainly didn't rejoice when they saw that those who worked many hours less received the same pay as those who had worked all day.  in introducing the parable, jesus says that the story illustrates characteristics of the "kingdom of God."  how can God's kingdom embody such injustice?

from our capitalist point-of-view, the vineyard owner is unjust.  he paid a full day's wage to workers who had worked much less than a full day without paying a comparatively higher amount to those who had worked all day.  on the other hand, maybe this wasn't a lesson about fairness, but rather one intended to teach something far more complex.  could it have been a rebuke to the jewish leaders who believed that the long history of "true religion" which they possessed would garner them a huge reward compared to the fate that awaited those who were not faithful jews?  could it have been a lesson about the need to be concerned for those whose families would have gone hungry save for the generosity of the vineyard owner in paying all the workers a full day's wage?

earlier in the service, we had spoken a prayer of confession that began, "most merciful God, we confess that our very nature is sinful."  i cringed when i saw what was printed in the bulletin and couldn't read the prayer with the congregation.  if we are created in God's image, how could "our very nature [be] sinful?"  if we are so sinful, how can we love so that we rejoice "when right is done?"  the standard evangelical answer is that we can't love in this way until we are "saved" by faith in jesus and the standard interpretation of the lesson of the workers in the vineyard is that God (the vineyard owner) generously provides for us whether we come to faith early or later in our lives, that all are "saved" regardless of the amount of time each has accepted the grace of God.  if this is so, we arrogantly teach that no one can truly love (or rejoice when right is done) unless we, like the jews of jesus' day, are possessors of the only truth.

did the vineyard owner do what was "right?"  what does "doing right" mean?  in the context of the other characteristics of love that paul lists in 1 corinthians 13, it seems to me that the right about which paul speaks is showing lovingkindness and compassion for oneself and for others.  such actions cause our hearts to rejoice as we do what is right and observe others doing what is right.  generosity of spirit is always right--none of us has cornered the market on truth, and we can always learn from others.  giving of ourselves--time, talents, possessions--so that others don't live in want lightens the heart.

may we rejoice in doing what is right, helping others along the way, listening and learning as we go.  may we not live lives focused on the unfairness of life, but may we instead see that the gift of life that come to us each day is a true cause for joy.  may we say to ourselves each day, "i am fortunate to have awakened."  shalom.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Love Is Not Resentful

we hear the expression, "life is not fair."  we've all been treated unfairly, accused of acts we have not committed, cheated out of what we believe to be ours, taken advantage of, snubbed in one way or another.  we've all had bad things thrown at us that we didn't deserve.  it's easy and natural to be resentful when life's unfairness causes us to suffer.  how we react to being treated unfairly by others or by the circumstances of life is a choice we make--we can accept that life happens and move on or we can become bitter about having bad things happen undeservedly.

choosing bitterness, living a life filled with "why does everything go wrong for me," is a miserable way to live.  those who allow themselves to take this approach to life choose unhappiness and cause unhappiness for others.  "poor pitiful me" makes all of life about me.  everything from the light changing to red as i hurriedly approach to loosing a bundle in the stock market becomes part of a plot against oneself, when such circumstances are nothing more than random acts.

when we accept that bad things, both major and minor, happen to everyone and remember that life isn't about "me," but is rather just the way things are, we can let go of the suffering that circumstances cause.  we choose to accept life as it comes to us and take ourselves out of the center of life's happenstances.  like the other things that love is not--envy, boastfulness, arrogance, rudeness, irritability--resentment is a symptom of self-centeredness, of believing there is a self that life is about.

may each of us not allow ourselves the luxury of resentment.  may we replace bitterness with acceptance and look beyond ourselves at the common suffering of all beings.  may we choose happiness, smiling at the vagaries of life when they are minor and seeking the support of others when those vagaries are significant.  shalom.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Love Is Not Irritable

it seems that so many of the characteristics of love that paul lists in first corinthians 13 are related.  those who are patient and kind are not irritable.  we all know folks who seem to be spoiling for a fight, who constantly are on the lookout for reasons to be angry:  someone cuts them off in traffic, someone barges in front of them in a queue, someone slights them in some way, the petty events of day-to-day life irritate them beyond measure.  their suffering seems so unnecessary, life is just life and things happen, but for some of us the "unfairness" of life is a cause of great distress.

in addition to the inconvenience of the minor mishaps of life, those who easily irritated suffer twice--first from the inconvenience, then by their exaggerated reaction to that inconvenience.  it is as if they expect that they should be exempt from the problems the rest of us face, and that inability to see that things going wrong are part and parcel of the human scheme of things indicates a lack of love for others, and ties into an arrogance that demands that i-writ-large should not be forced to deal with the messiness of life.

we walk on pins and needles around these people who are irritable, hoping that we can be some place far away when their irritability causes an outburst.  yet, we can't help but feel compassion for them and wish them the peace that comes from being able to accept the annoyances that we all face as we live our lives.  for them to become less irritable, they must first love others and see that all of us face the same challenges; no one is without the suffering that is caused by life's difficulties.

may we remember our sameness as we stumble along the path, and may we only suffer once from the troubles we encounter.  may those whose lack of love causes them to inflict a second suffering on themselves learn to love and accept their commonality with the rest of us.  shalom.