Follow by Email

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

She Took My Hand

   Twenty-year-old, Alexis Fulbright, had more to complain about than most.  I preached her premature funeral a year ago.  But recently I found a note about her I’d recorded seven years previously.  I wrote that I was nervous, but suspected it was one of those "now or never" moments when I needed to be bold.  So, I reached across the pew and offered Alexis my hand…
    At age 14 she was a beautiful, yet smaller than her younger sisters, who did not have cystic fibrosis. Periodically Alexis’ lungs filled up.  She became susceptible to the infections that eventually took her from us. Yet, her ill-health made it easier for her to pay better attention to the story of creation than other kids. 
      The story goes that God formed Eden as a small temple compound where life could thrive.  Outside it was scorching barrenness and surging breakers of death. Yet, God erected floodgates that put limits beyond which such chaos could not travel. Still, these forces seemed maddeningly resurgent; so much so that Hebrews 2:8 says, “presently we do not see everything subject to [God]."
     Biblical creationism would not have us boast that "everything happens for a reason." Cystic fibrosis is not part of God’s inscrutable eternal plan.  Insurance companies are wrong to call natural disasters "acts of God.” The floodwaters of the Sea do their damage in defiance of God's creative will. The scholar, Jon Levenson, says that scripture never explains why evil exists; evil just needs "blasted."     
     We are tempted to speculate about why God allows injustice to persist, but these partial answers will be unsatisfying until we remember we are only in the middle of the story of creation. The story ends with death, itself, destroyed in the lake of fire.  One day there will be no more reckless Sea. Injustice will get blasted. God will make evils like cystic fibrosis right.        

      And so, I tell you that it was no small joy that as I began thanking God for his resurrection victory over death, young Alexis reached up and took my hand.  And God saw that this was good.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Love's Secret is Secret Love

      A couple weeks ago I shared that while I recently fixed my neighbor’s fence, I still needed prayers about my learning to enjoy doing so. 
      Somebody took up that prayer challenge, because when I went back to my house a week later, I discovered that the sidewalk on my side of the fence had been carefully weeded.  Somebody blessed me in a far bigger way than I had blessed my neighbor!
       This is the secret to freely loving others.  Rather than feeling cheated, we experience ourselves as a recipient of even greater love.  Jesus says that he who thinks he “has been forgiven little, loves little." But the person, forgiven much, loves much.  “We love because he first loved us.”
        The problem is that a lot of us have not known anything but counterfeit love.  In Charlotte Bronte’s novel, Jane Eyre, the religious leaders of a school for orphans so mistreat orphan Jane that it’s obvious they don’t care about Jane as much as they do about appearing benevolent in front of potential donors.  Real love isn’t attention seeking, like this. Love is not a come on.  It’s not always a fundraiser.  It doesn’t want anything in return.  Love weeds our yard anonymously.
      The story of our age is one of loved-starved people trying to be nice in order to get other love-starved people to love them. But this isn’t love.  It’s manipulation.  The genius of Bronte’s novel is that it shows those of us, who have been scarred by manipulation, that we are not respecting ourselves by continuing to seek love in the wrong places.  We can be filled up by God’s love so we escape neediness and stop making manipulative demands of already depleted people.
      We find love from others when we quit demanding it.  We find our lives by secretly giving them away. Filled with Christ, we enjoy mending others, asking nothing in return.  It’s then that it is far more likely we will find ourselves married to the person who secretly weeds our sidewalk for no reason other than they love us. 


Monday, July 3, 2017

On Moral Dependance

       I took the week of the 4th to read one of those books which American intellectuals talk about but seldom still read.  Walter Lippmann’s A Preface to Morals is a 1929 effort to construct a set of values to guide public policy in an age that rejects Christian faith.  Lippmann writes for people who have become perplexed by their own irreligion:
   “Prisoners who have been released [from religion]…ought to be serene and composed. They are free to make their own lives.  There are no conventions, no taboos, no gods, priests, princes, fathers or revelations they must accept.  Yet, the result is not as good as they thought it would be. The prison door is wide open…yet they stagger out into trackless space under a blinding sun.”
    Lippmann’s description was as prescient as it was poetic.  The illicit experience of being morally adrift, which haunted Harvard a hundred years ago, has now ravished and defiled the American countryside. Once severed from tradition, people discover there’s still no shortage of folks who tell them what to do.  The government, the boss, the bank and the insurance companies collude to keep a better stranglehold on them than the church ever did, but now these institutions lack moral authority, and people do not have anything but their inarticulate rage with which to criticize them.
      Lippmann’s proposal was for the educated elite, unburdened by “popular religion,” to grow up—to learn to discipline their desires according to their own original conscience.   
      Yet, I wonder if even smart people might not benefit from some Transcendent help in disciplining their desires.  It’s rather burdensome to whip up moral vision from scratch.  Honestly, this age of moral experimentation doesn’t seem to be stumbling onto many digestible social recipes.  The ones on the menu appear to be the kind of arbitrary solutions our Founders rebelled against.
      American Independence works if it is thought of as independence from arbitrary power. But when traditional moral authority is thought to be arbitrary, too, and we become independent from long-established claims on one another, then democracy will descend into the chaos our founders feared. Our ongoing independence requires dependence on God.  Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain.


Thursday, June 29, 2017

A New Harmony Discovery

      In New Harmony, Indiana I found an inscription of Father Laurence Freeman’s words: “A culture that does not teach prayer soon runs mad with desire.”  
      The Father’s implicit assertion is the conviction that most human desire is not genetically fixed. It is formed by prayerful words and images and practices. 
      Advertisers know this is true. They manipulate cultural images so as to create longings within us. The sociologist Raymond Williams once called this cultural messaging a kind of “cultural hegemony” where consumers are molded to want the things the powerful want to sell. 
     Madison Avenue knows what the literary critic Rene’ Gerard taught: we tend to desire things because we see other people desiring them.  Our subconscious strategy is to obtain what others want so we will feel valuable in their eyes. We saturate ourselves in this consumer practice, pretending the hole in our heart can be filled if we purchase things others want.     
      My basic point is that such desires and preferences are acquired tastes.   Since childhood my favorite color has been red—the color of the Santa suit in the Christmas books my mother read to me six months out of the year.  My Dad coached at three high schools in my youth.  All of them had red as their team colors, and we ritually rooted for the team in red every Friday night. 
      Memorable rituals like this develop psychic associations which in turn form desire.  Once formed, these desires resist “simple changes of will.”  I might wish to change my favorite color, but I’m still going to like red unless I spend a long time sunburned, staring at red in the desert heat.  I have no reason to engage in such a practice, but it’s apt to make me a lover of damp greens and blues.   
      Desire can be changed.  Life-long lovers of Cheetos may discover with practice they can acquire a taste for green beans.  Habitually angry people may learn to love mercy.

     Achieving this new harmony between what we need and what we crave takes practice--the practice of prayer. 

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Fixing Fence

 In the 1914 poem “Mending Wall” Robert Frost popularized a 17th century proverb, “Good fences make good neighbors.”  Even now when the group Restless Heart sings of reconciling with others they still speak of “Mending Fences.” 
      I grew up fixing fence.  There are few sentences that still cause more of a visceral reaction than, “The cows are out.”  The whole family had to drop everything, night or day, in order to locate the gap where the cattle escaped, drive the escapees out of the neighbor’s garden, and re-stretch new wire in the broken places. 
       Boundaries kept the neighborhood at peace.      
      I, like Frost, grew up in a world where houses had porches which formalized entry into another’s space.  Before Funeral homes ruined the word, front rooms were called “parlors,” which were formally decorated in order to honor and receive guests.  People came over by invitation, or else apologized for “dropping by” just for a moment.  Once guests arrived at another’s home, they did not roam through that person’s house without being shown into the other rooms.  Both host and guest paid respectful attention to boundaries. 
     Healthy neighbors take responsibility for transitional space. 
      A few weeks ago one of the wood slats from my neighbors’ new fence was somehow knocked off into my yard.  I propped it up on their side of the fence, assuming they were the ones who busted it.  The next week I again discovered the slat thrown in my yard—probably by the professional crew that mows my neighbor’s place.  I started to get irritated. 
     Then I remembered my baptism.   Jesus does not ask me to like how my neighbor or his renters keep fence.  He commanded me to love my neighbor.    And so, I didn’t throw the slat on the other side of the fence, again.  I didn’t anonymously call code enforcement about other things that might irritate me.  Christians must not create resentment and suspicion like that. 
     I fixed my neighbors’ fence.  Love cannot do less.   Now, I just need for people to pray that I will enjoy it more next time.


Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Shameful Driving

     These days many people are sufficiently cut off from their neighbors that they no longer care what others think.  Last summer a fellow drove over the cones I set up to protect the fresh sealer I was spreading on the church parking lot.  I raised my arms as if to ask what he was doing.
       He gave me the finger.
       Honestly, I’m glad my disapproval bothered him enough for him to offer me his own.  I’m more worried about the kid who later drove through the wet lot and laughed.  Such people, as we say, “know no shame.”  They seem unfazed by the disapproval of others. 
       It’s a problem.
      And for that reason our culture has intensified its attempts to embarrass such people.  In varying degrees people may deserve this rising tide of ridicule. Businesses may deserve their negative reviews on Angie’s List.  Cheating boyfriends are ousted in front of a thousand friends on Facebook.  Celebrities become fodder for late-night farce while our most fragile people have Judge Judy scold them on national television. 
       Other people are slandered for a mere lapse in judgment.  Others have just taken moral stands that are completely misunderstood.  But in all these cases we seem to justify shouting at them; we boycott, threaten and single people out for public scrutiny—not because we are calling them to a transcendent moral standard, but because their behavior makes us mad.
     This culture of shame is a much bigger problem.
     Shame is an intensely painful embarrassment that will not easily go away. It spawns every form of defensiveness.  It’s the primary emotion which drives addiction and leads to death.  It is such a problem that after humanity made its first mistake, God fashioned clothes to hide our nakedness.  Jesus teaches us, that "If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you.”  The love of God covers over a multitude of sins.  The gospel offers people who have otherwise fallen into disrepute an opportunity to find in God a refuge from the disapproval of others.  
      God does not want to “put them to shame.” God doesn't want them cut off; he wants them integrated with their neighbors so that their neighbors feelings mean something.  I’m not sure it helps us or others to honk at people for their shameful driving. I’m not sure that publicly exposing people and creating a culture of perpetual outrage is doing any of us much good.

A Father's Day Note to the Bereaved

       National holidays like Father’s Day are too preachy for this preacher. 
     Don’t get me wrong. It’s important to honor parents. Scripture says that honoring parents is the first commandment that has a promise attached to it—“that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth." 
      Honoring parents is not a bad idea for Mom and Dad’s sake, either. 
      I usually have to fly to Texas right in the middle of cherry season, but this year my wife and daughters climbed up on the ladders and started picking cherries for me.  They picked and pitted and bagged and froze my favorite fruit in order to honor me with cherries on Father’s Day.    I was touched.
      But our national celebrations of parenthood can get on my nerves because in the pews every Father’s Day sit any number of children who do not know who their Daddy is.  Two pews down sits a man who ran away from his abusive father, whom he still regards as dangerous.  On the other side of the sanctuary sit children whose hearts ache because their loving Dad has died prematurely.   Their wounds are not rawer than the father who has cried through his prayers every night for a decade wondering where he went wrong with his kids. 
      These people are too bereaved for the sentimentality of Father’s Day. 
      This article is for them. 
     God would have them celebrate Advent, which assures us of the coming future that will heal all wounds.  Christmas speaks of a God who has come as an infant into a world of fatherless infanticide.   By Good Friday we learn that there is nothing he will not bear. By Easter and Pentecost we are declaring with him that death and failure are undone by the loving power that has come to dwell in our midst. 
     The church calendar has what Father’s Day lacks—dignity for the childless--adoption for the orphaned.  The secular calendar preaches about being thankful, but it does not offer a Father to the fatherless nor does it offer eternal life as the ground for true hope.