Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Life is Too Short ...

Complete this sentence: “Life is too short to … “

How did you finish it? “ … hold a grudge?” “... be boring?” “... worry?” Or maybe something practical, like “...drink bad coffee?”

The Beatles think that “life is very short, and there’s no time for fussing and fighting, my friends.” That’s a line from their 1965 #1 hit, “We Can Work It Out.”

What if we could all adopt that attitude? How would the world change if more people believed that life is just too short to fuss and fight with one another?

Or, as the apostle Paul might put it, what if more people would “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

Actually it isn’t that Paul “might” put it that way. It’s that he DID. That’s in the book of Ephesians, right at the beginning of chapter 4.

A life “worthy of the calling” of Christ is much too short “for fussing and fighting, my friends!”

Why does it seem to be so difficult for people to avoid animosity? Maybe it is because we think “unity” means the same thing as “uniformity,” and that means if we’re not in lock-step agreement with one another, we must be bitter enemies?

I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that life is far too short to think that way. I’d rather work it out. Life is very short; surely we can work it out!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Money For Nothin?

Dave Ramsey’s website points out that there are over 800 passages in scripture that deal with money. That clearly makes it one of the Bible’s most important topics. Money thoughts appear in the Torah, the prophets, wisdom literature, the Gospels, the letters of Paul … throughout the entire Bible.

Money is a subject of Jesus’s own teaching. It is Jesus who says that we cannot “serve two masters,” and if we try to serve both God and wealth, we will fail (Matthew 6:24). He throws down a challenge for his followers, saying that none of us can become his disciples without giving up our possessions (Luke 14:33).

Jesus’s thoughts on wealth might be summed up in one big idea: “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15).

How quickly we forget this profound truth!

I look at our house, our cars, our various screen devices, our closets filled with clothes. I think about our bank accounts, our insurance policies, our college funds, our retirement plans. So. Much. Stuff.

I wonder, does my life consist in an abundance of possessions? What would my life be if all of these things were gone?

It’s easy enough to answer those questions about wealth and possessions while I’m enjoying their benefits. “Of course I’m not ‘serving two masters!’” I might say … from the soft couch in my warm and dry living room, with my full belly, dressed in clothes appropriate for the weather.

Will there ever be a time I can honestly say that “I don’t care too much for money, ‘cause money can’t buy me love?”

Or am I stuck with “Money can’t get everything it’s true – but what it don’t get I can’t use!”

There’s a great documentary called “Happy.” (Available on Netflix.) In it I heard an idea that changed my thinking about money.

“Anybody who says ‘money doesn’t buy happiness’ should go talk to somebody living under a bridge.” And immediately following that, “But anybody who says ‘money buys happiness’ should go talk to Bill Gates.”

“Neither of those things is actually true.” This was according to Daniel Gilbert, PhD.

It turns out that there is a noticeable increase in a person’s happiness when they have sufficient resources to meet their basic needs. After that, there isn’t much of an increase at all.

In other words, “The difference in happiness between a person who earns 5,000 and 50,000 is dramatic. The difference in happiness between a person who earns 50,000 and 50,000,000 is not.”

So having a whole boat load of money doesn’t actually make you happier. But being able to eat does.

One’s life does not consist of possessions. But having a safe and warm place to live sure helps.

Or maybe we say it this way: after our need for food, clothing, and shelter is met, even the richest person in the world cannot buy what they truly need. 

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Freedom, Humor, and Violence: The Charlie Hebdo Mixture

Until now, I haven’t written anything about the Charlie Hebdo attack. Nor did I address it specifically in Sunday’s sermon. (Though I did say, “If it is not loving, it doesn’t come from God,” so that pretty much covers it, I suppose.)

I haven’t really said anything yet because, frankly, I’m having a hard time processing it. For many people, it is simple. Freedom of expression was attacked, and those attackers are evil because, beyond the senseless killing of 17 people, they were attacking one of the core principles of a free democratic society.

To be clear, I abhor violence. Nothing I write here should indicate otherwise. The murderers/terrorists who committed the Charlie Hebdo killings were in the wrong and there should be clear consequences. Violence never resolves conflict, and I will never condone a harmful act.

And at the same time, also on my mind are the limits that society places on freedom of expression. Simply put, you cannot just say anything you want at any time to any person. And as a person of faith myself, I believe one ought not ridicule, demean, or belittle another’s belief system. I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to do so to my own.

But on the other hand, I have no trouble laughing at some of the more absurd satirical presentations of Christianity. I love Betty Bowers, for example. So snarky! And Lark News is always good for a laugh (Headline: “Man Tired of Being Used in Sermon Illustrations”). I usually get a kick out of Jesus when he appears on South Park, too, although you can’t really watch that with your kids, if you know what I’m sayin.

So back and forth and back again; this whole thing is really complex for me.

The Vatican has officially denounced the attack while at the same time asking media outlets to treat religions with respect. And that would mean ALL religions. Pope Francis is quoted saying, “There are so many people who speak badly about religions or other religions, who make fun of them, who make a game out of the religions of others. They are provocateurs.”

Okay, but in no way shape or form does that mean they deserve to die. The staff of Charlie Hebdo was murdered in cold blood. They did not “have it coming to them.” It was shocking, appalling, an act of evil and hatred. And the Pope also said that it is an “aberration” to kill in the name of God and that religion can never be used to justify violence.

Now, a lot of religious satire seems to point at the way religious principles have been altered by practitioners of said religion. In that sense, the humor can be prophetic. I absolutely love the South Park scene where Cartman forms a “Christian” rock band and replaces the words “baby” and “darling” in pop songs with the word “Jesus” in order to make them “Christian,” for example.

Stuff like that illuminates truth, and if we can manage to laugh at it without taking offense, it can be quite helpful in our spiritual growth.

Comedians can be prophetic, too. People like Louis CK and Ricky Gervais and Nick Offerman sometimes say things about religion that might sound pretty harsh. But those things resonate because they are grounded in truth. I often end up laughing and wincing at the same time.

Of course also in the mix here: I had never heard of Charlie Hebdo before last week, so I was curious. Looking at their stuff now, it just really isn’t all that funny to me. It is crude, defiant, bold, all-inclusive, yes. But I guess I’m not really in the right context to find it amusing. And lacking the humor, the bite of the satire isn’t quite as illuminating.

So you see, all of that is tumbling around in my head, which has made it impossible to form a clear and coherent response. Freedom of expression. Humor. Violence. Prophetic words. Humility. Religious diversity. Truth.

So here’s where I am:
- You can’t just say whatever you want and expect no consequences to follow, especially if it is demeaning or insulting or harmful.
- To be able to laugh at yourself and your own absurdity is a gift and sign of maturity.
- Nobody should ever be killed for expressing an idea, no matter how crude and offensive it may be.

I guess what I’m saying is, we need to somehow figure out how to have all three of these ideas held together, always.

Friday, January 02, 2015

"Unconditional Love" and Leelah Alcorn

Let’s talk a bit about “unconditional love.”

First, why don’t we start with John Wesley’s pithy definition of love: “…to desire and pursue their happiness as sincerely and steadily as our own….” This definition appears in Sermon 139, “On Love,” focusing on 1 Corinthians 13:3 as the text. (You may read the text here if you wish.) This is my favorite definition of love, in part because it is active. In this definition, love isn’t just “the way I feel about a person.” It means that I want them to be happy, it makes me happy to make them happy, and will do all that I can to ensure that happiness.

Now let’s apply the word “unconditional” to that idea. This phrase appears nowhere in the Bible, by the way. In fact, if you look online, there are plenty of articles that reject the idea. However, I believe the concept is certainly present in Scripture. For example, Jesus removes the conditions for “love” by asking his followers to love those who do not necessarily love in return (Matthew 5). Paul affirms that God’s love is not conditional to our behavior, but rather is proven in that “while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5). Even in the Hebrew Bible, no conditions are placed on the idea that God has chosen the Hebrew people. Of course, having been thus “unconditionally chosen,” behavioral expectations are applied. But no conditions are placed on God’s initiative in their lives.

So that would mean that “unconditional love” means that I want that the one I love to be happy and I act and speak in such a way that the one I love will be happy, no matter what they do, who they are, what they say, how they act … right?

Okay, now, it gets tricky.

What if my loved one’s actions are harmful? What if their words are hateful? Would expecting them to change these actions or words be placing a “condition” on my love?

In general, I don’t think so. In fact, expressing my desire that they change may in fact be an act of love, if it prevents harm from being done or hate from being expressed.

So how far can I take that? Where’s the line? If a parent believes that being gay is sinful, and their child tells them he or she is gay, could it be considered an act of love if the parent insists that the child change? If a child is born a girl but her body is male, but her parents do not accept her transgender identity, would their continual reference to her as a boy be considered “loving?”

These are not hypothetical questions. This is real - Leelah Alcorn is dead now because of how real this is.

My own belief is that being gay is not sinful in any way, shape, or form. If you peruse my blog you’ll find plenty of posts describing why I believe the way I do. However, for the purpose of this post, that isn’t the question.

The question is: What does unconditional love really look like? If someone you love comes to you and says, “So, I’m gay,” what does a truly loving response look like?

However you personally answer this question, I hope you would agree that a loving response wouldn’t be one that itself inflicted harm or expressed hate. A loving response would support and encourage and lift up. A loving response would listen and affirm and validate. A loving response would seek to know and understand and empathize.

Unconditional love never says, “I love you, but...” Unconditional love says, “I love you, and…”

And so EVEN IF you think being gay is a sin, if your response to another person’s sexual identity causes them harm, it is NOT unconditional love. You can't say, "I love you unconditionally, as long as you are straight." That's actually a "condition." If you really love them, your response will be to listen to them, to respect who they are, and to affirm that you’ll be with them no matter what.

I grieve for Leelah Alcorn, even though I did not know her at all. I grieve for a sacred life that is no more, and I grieve for her parents whose pain must be unbearable right now. I cannot imagine what it must be like to experience the death of your own child.

At the same time, it breaks my heart that the response of other people, her parents included, likely led to her death - and that response was falsely labelled “unconditional love.”