Sunday, February 28, 2021

Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, Lost Son: Looking at the Hero of the Parables

Recently I have been taking an on-line course in story-telling. I may use it for writing, though the course instructor comes from a background in movies and performing arts. The instructor has a basic definition of a story that raises some interesting questions: 

Story: a hero's struggle against an obstacle to reach a goal. 

Let's grant that as a working definition and look at Jesus' "parables of the lost" through that lens. 

The lost sheep

Some things are obvious: The hero is the shepherd. The obstacle is the sheep's running off. The goal is the safe return of the sheep. The hero's motive drives the story: the hero values the sheep. The key point of interest is that the shepherd has reason not to bother, but cares anyway. That is Jesus' picture of God: surely we can think of reasons why he might not care -- and while we're lost it will look like he does not care -- but he cares anyway.

The lost coin

Another story with the same point: valuing what is lost, and the belief that what is lost is worth the trouble to find.

The prodigal son

We could look at this story from more than one angle. 

If the hero is the father, then the struggle is hidden in the waiting and the loving, and the goal is reconciliation. And yet the action does not follow the father, and from the story's viewpoint we might look somewhere else for the main character.

If the hero of the story is the lost son, he has a lot of struggles. He begins the story by gaining money and losing his father as his goal is wealth. He struggles with whether joy comes from material pleasure. Whether acceptance comes from riches. Whether riches are sustainable without production of more. Whether security is possible alone without human connections. By the end of the story, the son has reversed entirely: he has lost all the money but regains his father. There is a celebration. He has gained acceptance without wealth, joy without material pleasure, and security through human connection.

In what sense is the lost son the hero? He's not a traditional hero: his actions lead from bad to worse, and the only thing he contributes to the happy ending is trusting, hoping, that he will receive some kind of welcome as he returns home.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Self-love and self-denial

Jesus taught us that the most vital commandments were to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves. The key to a healthy love of neighbor is a healthy love of self. So the self-love isn't about ourselves alone: it's about our neighbor too. It's about the nature of love: a connection of value and affection and goodwill, so that this love builds a community where people are treasured and flourish.

But in the harshness of Lent we hear, "Take up your cross, deny yourself and follow me." No one can want to deny the self; it's against the nature of desire and the nature of the self. Despite the harshness, I continue because I want to know Jesus. No other person in the long history of the world has captured my attention so thoroughly, gained my trust so convincingly, that I find myself believing him that he is the way, the truth, and the life. 

In one sense, I can follow him as I read the accounts of his life: he goes to Jerusalem for the Passover. He goes to the Mount of Olives and prays. And he faces the prospect of death and prays that gut-wrenching prayer: "Not my will but yours." He denies himself. It's not possible for person with a healthy mind and body to want death. He can only take up a cross after denying himself. He doesn't ask us to do anything he hasn't done. He wasn't asking us to follow him like a facebook narcissist who wants to ramp up his follower count. He asks us to follow him and we're all in it together. Even the self-denial builds fellowship.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

What is Valentine's Day good for in a pandemic?

It's easy to be dismissive of Valentine's Day. (Especially easy in the middle of a record-breaking winter storm in the middle of other crises.) Chocolate and flowers: candy and eye-candy. But like most easy dismissals it's also shallow. In the same things we could see easy proof that there is good in the world, and that it doesn't take much effort to make a day better. Gentle recognition that we see value in each other. An understood language of thoughtfulness -- an etiquette of kindness.

So today I'd like to honor simple expressions of kindness and thoughtfulness: 

  • A card
  • A text
  • A treat
  • Listening
  • Time together

Each one has its part in building a kinder and more civil world. It's about intentional kindness, and it matters.

Sunday, February 07, 2021

First they came for Q-Anon, but I am not a Q-Anon. Now what?

Over the last few months, I've been reading more political research than I can usually stomach, mostly in an effort to satisfy myself on various questions that have come up before, during, and since the November 2020 elections (none of which is my point here). I've read and watched videos from people of various political stripes, including of course libertarians (which was as far afield as I'd gone before) but also some different varieties of Q-Anon'ers (which initially gave me the urge to watch my back, but it turns out they aren't quite what I expected).

To be clear, I've met a handful that I think have been separated from their good judgment; I've met more that I'd class as eccentric. I've also met a handful of skilled researchers who still generally believe at least one eccentric thing, but make positive contributions in other areas. For how grounded they are, I see it as something of a bell curve there. 

Here's the thing: I don't see their bell curve as so very different than any other group's bell curve. For Q-Anon, the far edge of the bell curve thinks that there are organized rings of pedophiles in D.C., Hollywood, the Roman Catholic church, and other places. For Republicans, the far edge of the bell curve may be the ones who imagine Antifa thugs around every corner; for Democrats it may be the ones who imagine white supremacists around every corner. I'm sure there are more candidates for the outlier beliefs, but I'm hoping the examples suffice to make the point: at the far edge of the bell curve, our fear and distrust can get the better of us, and we can imagine something as common without a lot of evidence for that belief. And the slightest evidence that the problem exists somewhere is magnified and distorted by that fear and distrust, until it becomes easy to believe the worst about people because we hate them, and hate them because we already believe the worst about them, in a self-reinforcing perspective-proof closed loop.

People are still generally more skeptical of Q-Anon than other groups, and to some extent I can understand that. I'm writing here to humanize them, though, so I will talk about one way in which I can relate. One main thread of the Q-Anon's is a deep distrust of the official narrative in the major media outlets. On that count I can sympathize for reasons I've discussed before and won't rehash now. Lots of people do not have a trusted voice that has enough power to speak for them effectively. That alienation can leave people susceptible, suggestible, depending on their temperament. From their point of view, a "conspiracy theory" is the belief that unethical people keep quiet about it. So every criminal activity that involved more than one person was also a conspiracy, and every unethical maneuver that involved more than one person was also a conspiracy. I've come across some Q-Anon'ers who have believed far more than proved; I've also seen a few who have done some commendable research on unearthing real-world situations of people who are doing unethical or illegal things and keeping quiet about it.

I write this in an effort to humanize the Q-Anon'ers, not just the ones who are good researchers but even the ones who are lost in a "sheep without a shepherd" kind of way. Who has never succumbed to the urge to believe the worst about their enemies? It's human. We don't need more ostracism; we need more connection. We don't need more blame; we need more empathy. And we certainly don't need a scapegoat; we need humility. Every time we say "those people" cannot be reached, evil laughs at getting a potential two-fer.

So if they come for Q-Anon, I will say something even though I am not a Q-Anon.