Thought Provoking Thursday – But I Know I am Right!

“There is always the danger that those who think alike should gravitate together into ‘coteries’ where they will henceforth encounter opposition only in the emasculated form of rumor that the outsiders say thus and thus. The absent are easily refuted, complacent dogmatism thrives, and differences of opinion are embittered by group hostility. Each group hears not the best, but the worst, that the other groups can say.”
C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics.

And so just why do we focus so intently on things that divide, while seeking to reinforce our precious opinions and denigrate those with whom we disagree?  This is not only the bailiwick of the religious, though we who profess to have faith seem to be inordinately skilled at it.  It also seems to be the only mode of operation available to the modern politician.  No wonder there has always been a long-standing social motto “You can talk about anything as long as it is not religion or politics.”  The current bi-partisan stand off in the US had me more focused than usual on this, but it seems to be a reflection on a deep-seated human tendency.

So what is going on?  I am reminded of the old religious story of St Peter taking a newly arrived saint on a tour of heaven.  As they pass by a large white building, St Peter urges him not to speak, explaining that the building was occupied by Baptists who believed they were the only ones resident in heaven!  At the heart of our problem, it seems that most of us believe that what we think is right, that our way of doing things is the correct way and more importantly, we know better than those who don’t do it thus.  We reinforce this position by surrounding ourselves with those who agree and as C.S. Lewis opines, we apply our negative filters to those who do things differently.

The sad outcome of our differing opinions seems to be an entrenching of attitudes and a hardening of positions that allows little room for compromise.  And that’s just it.  In so many quarters we are talking about opinions.  This is particularly true when it comes to matters pertaining to what we believe.  I can remember, to my shame, many times when I have put my opinion above relationships.  I have valued being right more highly than promoting unity.  And what is the cost of this attitude?  It is the break down of relationship, the inability to see past the log in my own eye in order to rail against the speck in the eye of those who don’t  ‘see things my way’.

As I have gained the benefit of a few more years painfully realizing that relationships with people are more important than opinions held, I have begun to focus more intently on the issues we can probably mostly agree on.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I still wonder at some of the traditions of the Catholic Church, though I do think Pope Francis is a stand up guy.  Do I question some of our more fundamentalist tenets of faith, and do I still think the Anglicans got it wrong on infant baptism?  Yes, my opinions have changed on some things, but have stayed fairly consistent on others.  What I am realizing more these days though, is that these things are just my opinion.  I may not be right.  Does it really matter in the light of things that really matter, like loving, serving and giving life where I can?

I have a very good friend who I respect and admire but whose political views are alien to my whole way of thinking.  I find myself wondering how some of those views can be reconciled with a faith in Jesus Christ, who I secretly believe was a socialist by the way!  (Don’t go getting all riled up at that throw away line!).  Now, I am asking myself, ‘what can I learn from this different point of view?  How can this opposing opinion color and adjust my prejudices and opinions?’  I am looking for meaningful relationships that are not spoiled by a difference of opinion and I am seeking not to be surrounded by those who agree with me for that would be a place lacking in challenge and healthy provocation.   How am I ever going to change if I never hear something new or examine the stand of those with whom I am at odds?  In many ways it boils down to respect.  It has not always been so for me, but I am learning something new, and I happen to know I am right by the way!

I’ll leave you with a quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and hope that we can all agree to disagree from time time whilst promoting reconciliation and understanding to bring down the walls that divide us!

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”  Hamlet.

Sunday Sermon – Please Forgive Me!

“Please forgive me”… “Oh I forgive you, don’t worry about it”. How many times have I heard that? Or perhaps more pertinently, how many times have I been a party this exchange or something similar?  But is this really forgiveness?  It took me a long time to see that forgiveness achieved quickly with a few words, often involves one party begging and the other condescending.  Perhaps more importantly, I came to the realization, with some help from David Augsberger (Caring Enough to/not to Forgive), that forgiveness granted as a favor to the ‘offending other’ is no more than a form of control.  This never really achieves the real goal intended and often leaves the difficulty unresolved.

The Lord’s Prayer certainly implies forgiveness moving in multiple directions; from God to us and from us to others. But I want to focus on the mutual act of forgiveness that doesn’t allow flippant granting of release without true reconciliation. I believe that reconciliation is the true reward for all parties concerned when the journey to forgiveness is fully engaged. Here is something that looks more like “forgive me as I forgive you.”

Probably one of the most well-known and profound stories told by Jesus was that of the ‘Prodigal Son’. If you have don’t know the story, you can find it in Luke chapter 15. There is much to be gleaned from this story, but I want to focus on the attitude of the father when his son returns, destitute and expecting to be no more than a servant. The father comes out to meet him when the son is still far off in the distance. He then treats him as an equal and reinstates him with extravagant celebration as his son. Now, I am not sure I wouldn’t have had the same petulant attitude as the older brother to this turn up for the books, but I believe the story has a vital message to convey.

First of all it begins with love. Love is a choice, as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13, which takes no account of wrongs. Before forgiveness can happen, those involved must choose to love, and unconditional love puts value on the individual, takes no account of past wrongs and accepts the person just as they are, warts and all.  The father in our story starts right there before any questions, accounts, explanations can even start to happen.

Once love has been chosen, the real work of forgiveness can begin.  I have no proof of this, but I would like to think that the father accepts he had a part to play in his son leaving with his share of the inheritance. Perhaps he didn’t feel valued, perhaps he had in some way pushed his son away.  His attitude, in meeting the son as he arrives, conveys his willingness to enter in to the ultimate reconciliation. He also senses the son’s contrition and sorrow as he approaches this opportunity for healing.  His shame has brought him to an end of himself and he is humbled to believe his rightful position would be as servant in his father’s house.  But this is not where his father sees him.  It is on these grounds that the real work of forgiveness can take place.

Without this two sided approach to forgiveness, the wounds and pain inflicted seem almost certain to blight their futures.  Now, don’t get me wrong here, I don’t believe that every journey of forgiveness ends in fairy tale happiness.  There is no guarantee that relationships will be restored to their original state.  Those who were married may separate.  Those we were close to may be more distant.  Friends inevitably come and go.  Sometimes there are real opportunities for greater measures of trust and togetherness.  I have experienced this in my own life where I sadly gave opportunities for forgiveness and was met in a place of  reconciliation.  Whether relationships are restored completely, move on to higher levels of intimacy or simply go their separate ways, forgiveness opens a door to the future that can otherwise stay closed and hinder what may lie ahead.

Lastly,  the celebration of the father in the story for the return and reconciliation with his son puts a seal on the transaction.  The father wants there to be no ambiguity about where the son stands and though the prodigal’s elder brother may be struggling,  it also draws the whole household into the transaction that has taken place.  For those who seek to walk once again in step, to grasp the opportunity and the other’s hand in seeking out that future together, forgiveness is no ‘one off’ occasion and sometimes draws others into the work of reconciliation.  So, till the next time, when, once again, we have the opportunity to bring an end to pain through the journey to mutual forgiveness, I look to choose mutual forgiveness and not the one sided version that I have so often been tempted to accept!

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Ephesians 4:31

Sunday Sermon – Shame on You

“Shame is a soul eating emotion.” Carl Jung.  I am so grateful for the feedback I received on last week’s sermon on confession and was challenged to meditate on the impact of shame on our lives.  If you read last week’s treatise, you will remember that confession is a key to releasing us from guilt and shame, but what is shame and how does it impact us?

Our earliest introduction in the bible, in Genesis 2:25, states “Now the man and the wife were both naked, but they felt no shame.”  Then in Genesis 3:10, just a few statements further on in the story, the man speaks to God, “I heard you walking in the garden, so I hid.  I was afraid because I was naked.”  What happened?

In this allegory, we find a transition from ignorance to a very real perception of imagined wrongdoing and the sense of moral failing.  The first important lesson from this story is that God is not the accuser here, but the man feels the sense of shame he had not felt before he and the woman had eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  At the risk of being somewhat controversial, the implication is clear that had they not eaten of this fruit, they would have remained in a state of blissful ignorance and would have been incapable of guilt or shame.  But they would also have been incapable of making any kind of moral judgement.  It is my conjecture that real freedom was being granted to mankind and the presence of evil, personified by the serpent was necessary to release this ability to choose.  It would also necessitate the entrance of Jesus who “because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame” (Hebrews12) in order to give us the power, in our turn, to be free from shame.  It was bound to happen, and was always intended.

So what is shame?  One dictionary defines it as “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.”  So, this again emphasizes the source of the emotion as coming from within; a realization that impacts self-worth and value that causes pain.  Another definition links this emotion to the conscious realization of failure.  Without conscience and the guidance of perceived moral failure, we would potentially all run amok both in our personal lives and in the lives of others causing untold collateral damage.  Quite different from a conviction or even feelings of guilt, shame is, I believe, a crippling and destructive influence that can do untold damage to self-worth and our ability to relate to those around us.  As I mentioned last week, confession and sometimes real forgiveness is needed to find freedom from this emotional prison.

“You should be ashamed of yourself”.  “Shame on you.”  These are phrases we have all heard at some point and they illustrate the last point I want to make on this subject.  To my mind, there is no place for shame that is inflicted by others.  Shame, as I have already suggested, is crippling emotional baggage, and when inflicted by others, it was suggested by a friend that this is primarily a way of controlling another person.  I found myself in agreement.  It is one thing to be consumed by our own sense of failure and be held in the grip of shame, but quite another to be made to feel that shame.  It is not our responsibility to be the moral arbiters of others, however much we may feel the responsibility to do so.  As I pondered this subject this week, I realized I had, in some manner been responsible for doing this as a parent, husband and friend.  Even the use of those phrases above convey powerful emotional holds over those to whom they are directed.  I am sure I have used them on occasion.  May I be forgiven.

I believe it was the purpose of Jesus to enable us to stand naked and risk exposing our true selves to those around us but without shame.  I do not believe that it was intended we lived in ignorance and without the ability to make moral choices.  For this reason, we all have the capacity to feel guilty for our wrong choices. We have the capacity to be overcome by shame in the light of our failings.  We can find freedom and healing from the impact because Jesus threw aside his own immunity and suffered the shame of the cross.  For those wounded and controlled by shame dished out by others, I encourage you to reject those judgements and find the grace to forgive.  I believe forgiveness properly experienced by both parties involved enables freedom from this form of control.  In the meantime, I am grateful for the conscience awareness of when I mess up and I will determine to be more diligent in not putting shame on those around me. (Next week just might turn to the subject of forgiving!)


Thought Provoking Thursday – The Bible Part 2 – Questions

So, I was listening to an atheist the other day expound the virtues of rational thought.  Though important to feed your mind and soul with stuff that strengthens your faith, I also believe that we need to listen to those who do not share our point of view.  I found myself smiling as he did what many atheists do when making comparisons with their purely rational stance.  He attributed certain beliefs to all those who profess faith in Jesus.  As if we all believe the same thing!  In my experience, we followers of Jesus have nothing like a common set of beliefs, and if I were to set out to discredit us, I would question the myriad of doctrinal differences that seem to exist!  For goodness sake, we can’t even agree on whether it is OK to drink alcohol or not!

I am going to ask a number of questions and hope that this stimulates some thought and debate on why there are so many inconsistencies in the way we view that wonderful collection of books we call the Bible.

First of all, why do I hear constant references to the Bible as ‘The Word of God’, when in the first chapter of John, it is almost universally accepted that referring to the ‘Word’, he is talking about Jesus and not a large leather bound book?  Even If we accept the ‘Word of God’ maxim, which words did he intend to be more important than others?  We have elevated certain statements and created binding doctrine and yet ignore any number of statements spoken by the same person, or at best explain them away as a cultural blip on the scriptural landscape.  I think of the words of Paul in Romans.  On the one hand in chapter 3 he declares that no man will be declared righteous by observing the law, and yet in the previous chapter, he maintains that only those who obey the law will be righteous.  A complete contradiction.

In one statement to Timothy, Paul extolls the universal benefit of the scriptures, a much quoted verse to support the supremacy of the bible.  I happen to believe in the inspiration he talks about.  But what do I do with the contradictory statements that women should be silent in the churches and yet should wear head covering when praying?  Back in the old testament book of Leviticus, the main verse used to condemn homosexuality is accompanied by statements that propose the death sentence for those who curse their father and mother and also outlaw blended cloth or different crops being planted in the same field.  I will attempt to address the subject of homosexuality in a future blog, but for the time being, the dearth of biblical condemnation is at least challenging.

Is the account of the beginning of the universe a literal account or a poetic picture examined through the limited lens of knowledge at the time?  Does it matter that an old testament author seemed to regard the earth as flat?  What do we do with the overwhelming support for slavery argued in previous centuries based on words that teach how slaves should be treated or how they should behave?  How can Christians advocate going to war when Jesus clearly calls on us to ‘love our enemies’?  Why can’t we agree on whether alcohol is delicious or of the devil?  Why is there such a concentration on hell and eternal damnation when there seems to be so little said on the subject by Jesus himself?  Why can’t those of us who profess to follow Jesus agree on the big stuff and let the trivial fade into obscurity?

Truthfully, I have struggled with these questions.  One of our biggest mistakes is to unwittingly behave as if God himself is contained within the scriptures.  A friend of mine once said that many Christians seem to imagine that the white horse in Revelation 19 would be ridden by a large leather bound book rather than Jesus himself.  To my mind, the nature of God must far outstretch the boundaries of a library of books.  At this point in my journey, I believe in the inspiration behind the words but equally in the fallibility of the humans who wrote them.  I garner truth for my life in the broad message of love and fulfillment, but shy away from the absolutes of this verse or that.  I choose to receive revelation through more than just this library of books, and try to stay open to input from nature, art, relationships and the very experiences that life throws my way.  Am I leaving too much open ended?  I feel a sense of freedom to focus on the love that seems so central to Jesus’ message.  But perhaps I am too simplistic.  Let me know, I would love to hear.


Topical Tuesday – A People of Color.

I don’t know if you caught the story last year that made the news for a couple of weeks concerning Benedict Cumberbatch and his remarks concerning ‘Colored People’?  Yes, yesterday was MLK day in the US, so I am being somewhat predictable with my topic this Tuesday!  Back to my opening.  What was remarkable about this piece of news and the remarkable attention drawn to it were two things.  First of all, Mr Cumberbatch was taken to task over his use of the words ‘Colored People’ rather than the politically correct ‘People of Color’.  Secondly, and perhaps more substantially, he was seeking to make a point in defense of actors of color (if that is the appropriate nomenclature – OK, right up front, I apologize if I use an inappropriate phrase as I tread on dangerous ground here as a white caucasian).  My question is, despite papering the cracks with politically correct speech, do we still have substantial holes under the wallpaper?

We can point to some headline grabbing events that suggest some progress has been made in the realm of civil rights.  Perhaps the most notable among these is the election of an African American President in the US.  The slim majority of voters who made up the national vote certainly suggests a shift in attitude.  However, there are still too many incidents and weighty statistics that suggest we have a long way to go.  The beating of Rodney King and subsequent racial tensions, and more recently the Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown shootings only highlight some disturbing statistics.  For instance, approximately 100 unarmed African Americans were shot by police in 2015 alone.  This figure represents 5 times the number of unarmed white people who were shot in the same period. (see Police Violence Statistics).

Perhaps more seriously, the rate of incarceration of the black community is hugely disproportionate.  According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, 13.6% of the population are black (including hispanic black), whilst 39.4% of the prison population were non-hispanic black.  “Our prison population, in fact, is now the biggest in the history of human civilization. There are more people in the United States either on parole or in jail today (around 6 million total) than there ever were at any time in Stalin’s gulags. For what it’s worth, there are also more black men in jail right now than there were in slavery at its peak.”
Matt Taibbi, The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap.  Of course, there are a lot of reasons for this, including levels of poverty amongst the black population, geographic bias limiting opportunities for education and many more that I have not had the time to research.  My feeling is that this represents a significant indictment on our treatment of ethnic minorities and particularly the black community.  The injustice Mr Taibbi speaks about also stands in stark contrast to the complete absence of criminal convictions of those who prosecuted massive fraud in the lead up to the banking crisis of 2008.  The majority of these offenders were white by the way.

Now, I understand that it takes time for underlying attitudes to shift and perhaps even longer for actual conditions to improve.  The changing nomenclature promoted by political correctness unfortunately seems to be no more effective than putting lipstick on a pig.  The fact that so much was made of the specific words used by Mr Cumberbatch rather than the real desire to improve the lot of the black artist shows how far removed we have become from the more important issue of underlying attitude.

Just because we passed laws in the 1960’s outlawing segregation and the persecution of people of color in the US, this no more removes underlying racism than speed signs seem to stop motorists speeding on our roads.  One only has to listen to the current crop of Republican presidential hopefuls on the fate of immigrants and/or our muslim population to know we still have a problem.  As politicians, they believe and are probably right in thinking they are appealing to a large number of the electorate.   So why do we still have what looks like a long journey ahead to change the nature of this story?

First of all, as with any conflict of ideas and opinion, it is really important to understand those we might disagree with.  Not only that, we should also examine our own hearts and minds to discover just how out of step we might be with what we say is our position on this.  Reluctantly I admit that on occasion, much to my discredit, I have caught myself in less than progressive thoughts on this issue.  Those of us who profess faith in Jesus can surely agree that he represents an all encompassing and unmitigated support of all races, creeds and backgrounds.  I think some of us would be shocked at just how far removed Jesus himself may have been from the white, blue eyed, blond haired image so often portrayed.   However, it was not so long ago that slavery and then segregation were argued as biblical by many representing our faith.  I wonder at how much these beliefs still color the patterns of thought in our current day and age.

Perhaps the most prescient influence on our underlying attitudes has to do with a fear of what we don’t understand.  I had the wonderful opportunity to visit South Africa, on two occasions, at the height of the Apartheid era and what struck me so powerfully was the underlying fear of the consequences of allowing the black majority to gain any standing in the country.  A mass exodus of white citizens of South Africa including many Christians highlighted the uncertainty and fear for the future when Nelson Mandela was eventually released and came to power.  I had to work hard not to judge and to put myself in the shoes of these people and understand their concerns.

You might think it irrational, disturbing or worse, but I believe we will never achieve progress in these divisive areas without a recognition of what motivates those with whom we disagree.  In my opinion, just as in the realm of the positive, there are spiritual forces at work here, particularly when it comes to fear that appears irrational.  But pursuing understanding and engaging with those we disagree with is the only way to allow open dialogue and mutual understanding that can lead to a shift in attitude.  Some argue that many amongst the black population are just as racist in attitude towards the white population,  but again, the history of oppression and segregation and lack of opportunity has led to understandable suspicion and fear.  It seems to me that Jesus would have shone a light on the fear, suspicion and division in order to dispel those things that divide and, through reconciliation, the alarming statistics above might just change over time.  It may not seem like we can achieve much on our own, but searching our own deeper seated attitudes, reaching out to those we disagree with and bridging the gap between us and those we do not understand may just shift the balance a little more in the right direction.