Sunday, August 31, 2014

Pet Theory: Our hearts and minds grow in proportion to ...

Reflections on how to love God and neighbor with heart, soul, mind, and strength ... 

I have a pet theory: Our hearts and minds grow in proportion to how many people we honestly admire. Sometimes I dream of achieving great things, and work towards them. But even if I should achieve my wildest dreams, I hope I never become so full of myself that I don't admire other people more. It would be so small. Some people seem embarrassed to admire other people, as though admiring someone is unbecoming, or somehow lessens their own prestige. I couldn't disagree more. Admiration -- looking at another person, finding their excellence, recognizing it, being truly glad for it -- is the kind of stuff that expands our hearts. And as it expands, it grows stronger, more able to love. Our capacity to love, to take delight in the world, grows larger. Permitting ourselves to enjoy an honest delight is refreshing. And with this permission we grant ourselves, and with practice, the eye becomes more capable of seeing the good in others. Our understanding of other human beings, their thoughts and their accomplishments, increases. Striving to appreciate everything that makes someone worthy of notice, worthy of respect -- this builds in our mind habits that will be put to good service with other people as we go along in life.

Jesus teaches us to consider love as the foundation of what is good. But love has been sentimentalized and trivialized to the point where people hesitate to speak of it as a topic worthy of serious consideration. Admiration has likewise been corrupted into fawning or obsession; it is time to reclaim a more healthy view of it, with a rightful place for esteem and enthusiasm. It seems to me that admiration is one of the more basic aspects of love, one worthy of remembering, and one worthy of practice.

We start as children by admiring people we see as heroes. And we begin by admiring those who are easy to admire. But as we mature in the skill, we become able to recognize the good wherever we find it, and be honestly glad for it.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Is love is blind? How it sees the good in us all

(Some thoughts on how to meet another person, and to view each other.) 

They say that love is blind, and there is some truth to that. Love keeps no record of wrongs. That is why love can see good things in another person that a less sympathetic view will overlook. If love keeps no record of wrongs, on the other hand hatred takes no notice of the good that has been done.

Of course there are other options besides those two. Indifference overlooks good and bad together. But what about a determined, impartial scrutiny to weigh the good and the evil in another person? Wouldn't that give us the clearest view? The clearest view of what, exactly, though? That approach sets us up as the judge. Are we that sure of our own impartiality? Are we that sure of our own purity and wisdom? Does the lack of humility there weigh against such self-confidence? What about the lack of compassion? And would we want others to view us so unsympathetically? Do we owe anything to our shared humanity to take a kinder view as a starting point, rather than to meet another person with a determination to weigh them in the scales before we recognize their worth? Do we owe anything to the Lord who made them, to the image of God within them, to trust that within them is the potential to be that child of God, as good as we are if not better?

When we have to choose an approach to another person, the wisest approach is love, and the humblest approach is love, and the kindest approach is love. The one that gives us the clearest view of any good in the other person is love. And the most constructive approach -- the one that helps build up the other person -- is love.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The paradox of morality

If a person aims at morality for his own sake, it is self-serving and can never be moral. He has given not only faith but all of holiness, morality, and religion a bad name, which at times even stains the name of God. For those who want to become better people, it is an easy thing to become self-adorers, admiring our own works and purity, failing to admire others, and so becoming small and petty by the very path it seems should lead beyond that.

If a person instead aims at loving his neighbor, he would make every effort to add to his own store of goodness, kindness, patience, gentleness, and self-control; he will dedicate himself to be found welcoming, friendly, and given to hospitality; he will think of others more highly than of himself. In all this he will pursue the heart of faith, will in his own flesh and blood live out the holy teachings, will run and overtake the one whose self-seeking faith is satisfied with lesser goals.

In this he will be not only like Paul who with good reason numbered himself among the sinners, but will become more like Christ, who was likewise numbered among the sinners, who made no move to justify himself, valuing those he loved more than his own reputation. We should watch ourselves that we do not become the type of moral person who does not care to be numbered among the sinners; that is not the way to follow Christ. If we are not numbered among the sinners, who exactly do we love?

Sunday, August 10, 2014

God chose weakness

When God acts in this world, he often chooses a way that surprises us: he often chooses weakness.

God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, and the weak things of the world to confound the mighty. (I Cor 1:27)
  • When God chose a patriarch for his ancient people, he chose a man so old you'd expect he could no longer have children, and his wife who was beyond the years of childbearing.
  • When God chose to wrestle with Jacob (or to send an angel to wrestle with Jacob, for those who believe that is the best interpretation), he chose a human form that was no stronger than Jacob's. In fact, the form chosen was so equally-matched to Jacob that the wrestling match lasted all night. That is to say: God isn't trying to overpower us. Does anyone doubt he could overpower us if he wanted, that God could be an irresistible force? But at times like that, it looks like he has no interest in overpowering us.
  • When God chose one of Jesse's sons to be the king of Israel, he chose the youngest.
  • When God wanted to speak with the prophet who was fleeing for his life, he sent a still, small voice. He made a point of showing that he rejected the more powerful alternatives of earthquake, wind, and fire.
  • When God chose an apostle to the Gentiles, he chose Paul, a man who later counted himself  "worst of sinners" in those days before God called him. 
  • When God made Paul his chosen instrument, he did not remove all of Paul's physical infirmities. Not only did God decline to heal Paul despite his prayers, he also told him,
    "My grace is sufficient for you: for my strength is perfected in weakness." (2 Cor 12:9)
  • When God chose the parents of John the Baptist, he chose the old man Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, who was barren. 
  • When God chose a mother for Jesus, he chose humble Mary. 
  • When God chose a birthplace for Jesus, he chose some sort of place where the animals stayed. 
  • And to cap them all: When God chose the redemption of the world, he chose the cross. 

And Paul explained it:
The foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength. (I Cor 1:25)
Why wouldn't God use his strength? I think it's because "overwhelming force" is not the right tool for every job. You may have heard the saying, "If the only tool you have is a hammer, then you treat everything as if it were a nail." But we're not a nail, and God has more tools than a hammer.

Update: Martin LaBar has a poster on the topic, and has kindly granted his permission for a link::

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Religious experience: Rethinking how our lives touch others

If religious experience can be reproduced, that has implications for how we live. Some few of us may be great artists who could communicate a religious experience in that way, but I think the greatest of spiritual gifts may be the most common, and most under-valued. Consider that some of the most poignant of timeless moments can be conversations, times when peoples' lives meet in profound ways, when people recognize themselves in each other. Or they can be simple moments of kindness that leave us changed. True fellowship is a profound experience.

We are each involved somehow in creating a measure of the holy somewhere in this world, for ourselves, for our families, for our neighbors. When we think of following in Christ's footsteps, we see the way he touched other peoples' lives. I think that, in some ways, our challenge in this world is more than simply having a religious experience, even of the quiet and everyday type. Our quest is not merely to acquire religious experience as religious consumers in the world. From what I can tell from reading the gospels, many people acted as though being with Jesus was itself a religious experience. I think the challenge is to be that unfailing warmth and trustworthiness, so that our homes and our lives become other peoples' profound moments of fellowship. The greatest gift one person can give another is love. It transforms not only the giver but the receiver as well. There is something about being loved that lifts us up and reflects worth and dignity. There is something about being loved that gives us strength and hope. That is what God does for us, what God does for the world. This is what he calls us to do for each other. When our fleeting "peak experiences" have gone, this is what makes the lasting substance of our lives.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Religious Experience in Art and Literature

Is it possible to capture or reproduce a religious experience?

There are some common themes in religious experience. As we've seen before, one of those is nature. Nature, in its unspoiled state, is an essential part of what makes "paradise". The nature-triggered religious experience may involve recognizing the paradise within nature, perceiving the holy or the timeless quality of what we see. While religious events and spiritual retreats are held in natural settings to increase the background perception of holiness, that is not quite the same as capturing it.

Some authors may have recorded a religious experience in a way that it can be re-experienced by the reader. There are some well-received authors who have done a respectable job, such as Coleridge and Tolkien. Tolkien, for example, describes nature so vividly that someone with a good imagination could have a nature-based religious experience from his description. Even if reading does not trigger a "peak experience", the reader may still have a quiet and persistent sense of the holy.

Likewise a painter or musician may attempt to capture a religious experience in such a way that it can be re-experienced by others. The Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah seems to have captured some of the essential traits of a religious experience in such a way that many people have a sense of the holy when listening to it. When it comes to Handel's Hallelujah Chorus, the words manage to form one part of the experience. They convey the sense of timelessness ("forever and ever ... "), the sense that God's benevolence is the ultimate power in the world ("For the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth"), that any trouble we have in this world is a small thing compared to the world to come ("King of kings, and Lord of lords!"). There is some artistry in portraying a sense of underlying unity as all the different voices join in the one song, but with slightly different timing, so that you don't lose the sense that there are a series of different voices joined together. The music is also crafted so as to reinforce those messages, and enhance the sense of an intricate beauty, where beauty is also an underlying motif of religious experiences.

There is, in the best of art or literature, something profound, something that transcends. And for some artists who are drawing on the depths of the holy for their inspiration, that art itself can communicate the holy.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Christianity v. religious rule-keeping

There are people who think of Christianity as a system of religious rules. That's surprising to me: Reading the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament, and Paul after him, Christianity at its foundation contains a direct challenge to the whole system of religious rule-keeping. It openly questions the value of time-honored religious traditions. It points out the risks of thinking there is something spiritual about rule-keeping. And here, I would not say that rule-keeping is seen as "nothing" -- since "nothing" could be harmless. Rule-keeping is discussed as something far worse than "nothing". In the New Testament, there is plain discussion of the problem of religious rule-keeping as a temptation to pride, an excuse for cruelty, a "respectable " mask for the self-righteous, an occasion for arrogance. It shows how rule-keeping can blind us to the human need for mercy. And that last may be the worst of all: as Christians, we are asked to be the face and voice of mercy in this world.

What about the Ten Commandments, "Thou shalt not murder" and "Thou shalt not commit adultery" and all that? Well, nobody who is determined to be the face and voice of mercy in the world is going to murder someone or sneak around with their wife or husband. That's a lot different from thinking you get brownie points for not being a murderer or a homewrecker. "The rules" are there to safeguard and protect a good life. The more we want to make things good for people all around us, the less we need to be told not to steal their things or lie about them behind their backs -- and the less we think we deserve some sort of special recognition merely for not being evil.

Once we have grasped the law of mercy, the wisdom of kindness, then we'll recognize those "rules" as tools meant to implement that kindness. Beware if you hear of someone telling you to keep the rules for the sake of your own perfection. Keep them for the sake of your neighbor.