Saturday, February 25, 2017

There's religion, then there's religion

Some people use religion like a pot-head uses incense: it's about covering up the smell.

I recently had a relative of mine -- one who is still struggling with addiction -- suddenly become religious (apparently ... for a couple of weeks). That is to say, he developed some of the outward trappings of religion: he read the Bible a lot, and prayed a lot, and talked a lot about how much he was reading the Bible and praying. This is a person who had not shown much interest in religion over the years. And I still didn't see him showing much interest in religion, I just saw him spending a lot of time talking about how much he was reading the Bible and praying.

It's like the crowd we used to run with as teenagers: the stronger the smell of incense, the more I could be sure there wasn't anything wholesome going on. I think a lot of religion-haters have developed the same reaction to "religion" that I have to incense: in my experience it has been used as a cover-up, and so my first thought is that it's only there to hide the smell.

Reading the Bible and praying -- it's something that the religious people do, too. But thinking that's the whole of it ... It's like someone whose first experience with art was as a kindergartener with an 8-pack of jumbo crayons and a book of color-by-number line drawings. If that person, as an adult, still only had the 8-pack of crayons, we'd wonder about how much he was actually into art. Or if someone claimed hatred of art because it was all color-by-number, we might encourage her to get out more and see some of the more mature work of people who had kept with the discipline past elementary school. And yet even the mature artists' work might still use some of the same colors and shapes, and may have begun in the same kindergarten.

Sure, religion can in fact help hide the smell -- but mature religion doesn't stop there. Mature religion also goes to the cause of the stink. Mature religion does pray -- and seek the will of God -- and seek to become an instrument of his peace in this world. Mature religion does read the Bible -- and the words sink in, and begin to create in us a clean heart. The words take on flesh in us -- not as we talk about having read them, but as we begin to be the one who stops for the stranger, and knows the sorrows of our friends. True religion becomes less like my experience of incense, and more like a breath of fresh air.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

On being like God: Knowing each others' sorrows

And the LORD said, "I have surely seen the affliction of my people in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows" (Exodus 3:7)
 A man of sorrows, acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3)
Jesus wept. (John 11:35)

Those who walk in the footsteps of God are oddly vulnerable. I don't mean "vulnerable to the usual attacks from enemies of God" in a way that calls us to put on our armor. I mean that in moments of trust we take off the armor. There is a fellowship in shared wounds. Martha may have said "I know my brother will rise at the last day", and we may say it too. Jesus did not dispute it; yet Jesus wept. When we hide our sorrows, we lose the fellowship of others who share them -- and they lose the blessing of fellowship too.

We are vulnerable to the wounds of others, wounds of compassion or empathy. We listen. We know each others' troubles. We are all acquainted with grief.

When Jesus proved himself to Thomas, he showed his scars -- which was what Thomas had asked, and had needed. There is a credibility in old wounds. Would Thomas have accepted the Risen Lord without the scars?

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Blessing and Rest

There was a man all alone, with neither son nor brother. There was no end to his toil ... (Ecclesiastes 4:8)
I am deeply in need of a Sabbath rest. I need more than a day. There is wisdom -- and blessing -- in the cycle of rest in the Old Testament: rest on the seventh day, rest in the seventh month, more rest in the seventh year, and after the seventh set of seven years, a jubilee. The land rests, the people rest, debts are forgiven, and there is an end to toil. There were special prescribed celebrations each year where the people did not work, much like our national holidays, or something like our vacations with the annual pilgrimage feasts and celebrations.

A pause from work is not much of a blessing if it is done for the sake of preparing to work again. The best rest is not taken for the sake of refreshing our work; instead, the work is done for the sake of securing our rest. A pause from work is only restful if it is satisfying: if it is savored, if there is some beauty admired or fellowship shared or celebration, if we have enjoyed a moment of blessing. Without that, our toil seems meaningless to us.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

The 7 Habits of Peacemakers: John 8:3-11

When looking for the habits of peacemakers, I was struggling with the risk of writing a pet peeve list against people who cause conflict. In the hopes of escaping that trap, here are observations from a conflict that Jesus resolved. I expect that this portion of Jesus' history is familiar to most people likely to read here, so I will introduce it with just the opening verses:
And the scribes and Pharisees brought him a woman caught in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst of them, they said to him, "Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the Law commanded us that such should be stoned: but what do you say?" (John 8:3-5)
  1. Integrity and wisdom that have gained respect. The peacemaker is not a meddler who inserts himself into other peoples' business, but has earned such a reputation that he is sought. There is a chance -- though not a guarantee -- that all parties would respect this person's words. The reputation is a mixed blessing: this particular peacemaking opportunity was meant as a trap (v6). 
  2. Accepts the legitimate concerns and upholds the standards of right. At no point does Jesus question the legitimacy of the laws upholding marriage, which are the basis of the complaint. His reply takes for granted that the law against adultery is a legitimate reflection that adultery is wrong. He upholds standards that are rightly respected. As we see later in Jesus' more private comments to the woman ("Go and sin no more"), he recognizes the crowd's original complaint that the woman's action was in fact wrong, and could not be tolerated in a God-fearing nation or among God-fearing people. Without shared standards, there is no basis for shared peace.
  3. Discerns multiple conflicts with multiple wrongdoers. Without denying the legitimacy of any honest complaint, the truly right party in one area can be self-seeking and self-righteous in pursuing (partial) justice for that complaint. Self-righteous and partial justice is not in the interest of peace. Jesus' answer to the crowd, to the teachers and legal experts, is one of Jesus' best-known answers to a trick question: "He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone at her" (v7).
  4.  Respectful treatment of both sides. He did not call them hypocrites. He did not harangue them to see the value of mercy. As surely as he was not the woman's accuser, he was not the crowd's accuser either.
  5. Without accusing, opens eyes to see their own role in the conflict. An accusation would have closed their ears, instead of opening their eyes. He worked with the basis of their accusation, their sense of right, as common ground. Their legitimate concern for what was right had the crowd lining up to condemn the woman. While they were in line so eager to uphold the right, Jesus suggested who could come to the front of the line. And so their eagerness to do right was employed so they could see right more clearly, as each one had to examine himself by that same standard. There are things we might never accept from another person, but we could possibly see for ourselves. The people dropped their stones and left, one by one.
  6. Resolves all the legitimate grievances. Even though no one from the crowd remained to accuse the woman, she was still genuinely in the wrong. He confronted her after the crowd had left, in a way that did not worsen the secondary problem of the self-righteous crowd. Very few stubborn problems have only one wrongdoer. There was no implication that multiple competing grievances cancel each other, no confusion that only one party could possibly be wrong, or that those who were wrong in part must be wrong in whole. Neither was the goal to identify and apportion blame. The peacemaker does not confuse or conflate issues, or minimize the original cause once the attention has shifted. And so Jesus both relieved her fears and insisted on her redemption: "Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more." (v11)
  7. May leave both sides with more than they expected. Both the crowd and the woman left that day with more wisdom than they entered, with more compassion, with a firmer dedication to the right. I suspect that they could not have attained peace without it.