The Moral Compass

I have early morning coffee twice weekly with an informal group in a local restaurant. The coffee is always accompanied by lively conversation. One man is fond of finding obscure Bible passages and seeming contradictions and seeing if he can stump the pastor. It’s a game we have been playing for several years. I don’t mind. It at least introduces the Bible into an otherwise secular conversation and often leads beyond the often trivial verse to deeper, more important subjects.

Recently I remained behind after the last of the group had left with the idea of spending some uninterrupted time with my laptop. It wasn’t long before a young man sitting nearby edged his chair closer to my table and asked if I were a pastor and if those were members of my congregation. I said yes and no. I am a pastor but only two of the group are active in a congregation and it isn’t one I serve. He was silent for a moment, then asked, “How can you be sure this stuff is real?” By stuff I took it that he meant Jesus and the Bible. I responded that there is a great deal of evidence to support the New Testament narrative from sources outside of the Bible, but ultimately, it is a matter of faith based on experience. No one will get very far in the Christian life if his faith is based only on the knowledge of a millennia-old book no matter how much of it he memorizes.

He seemed to struggle with that for a moment, then asked, “Why should I have to be told by a book what I can and can’t do?” I’ve learned after many years of pastoral care-giving not to push people to share beyond what they are ready to disclose, but it was obvious that something was troubling him. I said, simply, “Most often, the Bible just reinforces what we already know. There is very little in the Bible regarding behavior that is either new or novel. We know the difference between right and wrong without being told.” To borrow a phrased from the Gospels, “He went away sorrowful.”

I’ll never know what his specific dilemma was, but I have been at this long enough to know that he didn’t need me to tell him what to do. His struggle arose out of an internal conflict between desire and conscience. The Apostle Paul reminds us that if we listen our conscience will sometimes accuse and sometimes excuse us, but it will rarely be silenced. And that is because we share a built-in moral compass. As Moses spoke to the people of Israel as they approached the Jordan River:

Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us that we may obey it?” No, the word is very near you; Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so that we may obey it?” No, the word is very near you, it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it. (Deuteronomy 30:11-14)

To freely paraphrase Harry Emerson Fosdick: No one stays awake at night worrying about what happened to the Jebusites. Who hasn’t spent a sleepless night worrying about what we’ve said and done? No, we don’t need a book to tell us what to do and how to behave, but those old stories tell us a lot about how we as people behave and what the consequences of our actions are likely to be. Those stories also tell us about a God who can be experienced in the here and now. What happened to the Jebusites is interesting to some of us, but of more interest is the God those stories reveal, the God waiting to be discovered in our daily lives. Do I believe what I teach others? Yeah, I do. And I find, like Moses, that it’s not too hard or too far away. I think Immanuel Kant said it best: “Two things fill my mind with ever increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more intensely the mind of thought is drawn to them: the starry heavens above and the moral law within me.”

The most conscientious healthcare worker will make a mistake. Two Ebola cases in Dallas put an exclamation point behind the old adage that protocols (why can’t we just call them what they are: procedures?) are never failsafe. Yet, we continue to believe that with a little foresight and a lot of technology we can handle any situation. That is why we believed the CDC when they pronounced that Ebola could never enter the USA; when they pronounced that our healthcare system would be able to recognize and isolate anyone with suspicious symptoms and travel history; and when they pronounced that infected individuals – hypothetical of course because Ebola could never penetrate our borders – would be cared for at minimal risk to our hospital staff and communities. That’s why Nina Pham and Amber Vinson have to be blamed for contracting the disease. The alternative, that we really can’t guarantee the safety of everyone from these all but invisible predators, can never be mentioned. Instead we attempt to reassure ourselves and others with bold pronouncements and declare an expertise that we do not have. Healthcare workers make mistakes, travelers evade screening, and Ebola, once a world away, came to a suburban Dallas neighborhood.

It only took one. A man who declared on his exit form that he had had no contact with an Ebola victim. Something we now know to be false. But would airport screening have made a difference? No. Thomas Eric Duncan was asymptomatic. No amount of questioning or infrared temperature probes would have led to his denial of entry or his isolation. With a twenty-one day incubation period, Ebola will continue to evade detection in all but the sickest individuals, and therein lies the problem. Having traveled to Liberia often in the 1980s, I know there are many paths from West Africa to the United States. The CDC admits that screening at five major airports will cover only ninety-five percent of travelers from the infected zone. As that zone continues to expand, so will the number of unscreened passengers arriving from European, Asian, and Canadian airports.

The answer, of course, is to isolate the zone of infection – the old fashioned public health standby: quarantine. The explanations for not doing so ring hollow. There is no medical reason that isolating foci of infection won’t contain the disease. Then why aren’t we taking these historically effective measures? Complex geopolitical concerns. No one wants to further destabilize Africa. Most of the involved nations are barely able to function in the best of times. In these worst of times they face intractable poverty, struggling economies, political unrest, and militant Islamic forces ready to capitalize on any government failure. Propping up these governments is the tradeoff that is being made.

This tiny, strangely beautiful, filamentous organism has contributed to a perfect storm. More than a decade of war in the Middle East, the continuing success of ISIL, the collapse of the coalition government in Iraq, and the moribund world economy have made western governments impotent. Into this geopolitical mixing pot of crises steps a hemorrhagic fever so potent it kills seventy percent of its victims. The West was simply unprepared to acknowledge the threat until it came home to a suburban Dallas neighborhood.

In St. John’s Revelation, the vision proper begins with the unleashing of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Far from a vision of the future, the horsemen represent the ever present forces of war, famine, pestilence, and death. Until we acknowledge our role in these powers of destruction that threaten us we will forever be at their mercy, whether they present as fanatical soldiers or filamentous viruses. The first step with Eblola is to acknowledge that this virus is far more contagious than our laboratory experiments and limited field experience have indicated. The second step is a pragmatic assessment of what we can reasonably do to contain it. The time for hubris and arrogance is past. The time for prayer and prudent action is now and always. This is a wake up call even if we avoid a pandemic.

Some years ago I had the opportunity to attend a “technical dress-rehearsal” for an opera at the Kennedy Center. The actors and orchestra were ready; opening night was two days away. All that remained was for the technicians to program the lighting and curtain calls. For several hours I watched as the technicians’ fine-tuned placement and program so that each movement on the stage was accompanied by the seamless rising and dimming of lights that changed color with the mood on the stage. Ebola in Dallas has been our technical dress-rehearsal, and we have failed miserably. We failed to recognize what in hindsight seems to have been an obvious infection; the CDC gave permission for one of Thomas Eric Duncan’s primary caregivers to travel on an airplane after she had developed a fever, resulting in eight-hundred additional people being placed on a watch list; and we are being told that the situation is under control. No, it isn’t.

We don’t know how these two young professional nurses contracted this disease. I do know this much. I worked for more than a decade as a chaplain in healthcare facilities around virulently contagious diseases. Nurses are not cavalier about safety measures, and every nurse I ever worked with knew and followed proper protocol for donning and removing protective equipment. The more dangerous the pathogen, the more care taken. There is something amiss here, and it isn’t sloppy nursing. Either this disease is no longer playing by the rules or we don’t know what the rules are.

It is time for decisive action. That action includes an honest reassessment of this disease, including all of our assumptions and preconceived notions. So far, the Administration’s response is to tell us we are overreacting and to appoint a political activist as Ebola Czar. We need doctors not politicos. We need good medicine not spin. There are huge geopolitical ramifications associated with this outbreak and we need to fight this epidemic on multiple fronts. Yes, we need to assist the Africans, but we also need a transparent medical response, one that inspires public trust. Right now we’re getting neither. This may not become a global pandemic, but the Four Horsemen are at large, and all we are getting is an object lesson: politics and public health are dangerous bedfellows.

Broad leaf lettuce, vine ripened tomatoes, and purple sweet potatoes caught my eye. Arranged like an artist’s palette, the tomatoes, lettuce and an assortment of pole beans and radishes framed the sweet potatoes – Stokes Purple. They have been commercially available since 2006, but are not widespread in our super markets. These were huge by any standard, and any two, picked at random, would make a delicious lavender casserole. Such is the greeting you receive when you ascend the few brick steps to Alexandria, Virginia’s Market Square on a Saturday morning. For over 260 years, local farmers, along with artists and artisans and bakers and butchers, have brought their goods for sale in the square. There is an apocryphal story that local farmer George Washington gave the land to the city for just this purpose. When the market was established in 1749, Washington was a magistrate for the local court and a trustee of the city. He was among those who approved and oversaw the construction of the new city hall and courthouse in 1752 and argued for the continuance of Market Square – the place where he sent his own farm products for sale.

The farmers market had fallen on hard times by the 1970s. Fortunately the city’s commitment to maintain the market as a local tradition was strong enough to ensure its survival, even though only a few venders set up their stalls on Saturday mornings for a handful of local residents. The 1980s saw resurging interest in healthy food choices and in locally grown produce. The city responded with new rules for the market intended to bolster its popularity and to ensure that the market tradition would remain strong. Today, the Alexandria Farm Market, held every Saturday morning throughout the year, is the oldest continuous farm market in the country, a delight for residents and tourists alike. There were no purple sweet potatoes in 1749, but I’m sure that their pale-yellow cousins were arranged just as artfully; business is, after all, business.

The outcome could have been different. Reduced popularity and support by local residents could have spelled the end of the market. There are many readily available alternatives. But these alternatives lack two essential elements – history and tradition. Such connections with the past speak to our need for both meaning and stability, assuring us that we are part of something of enduring value. Innovation and modernization ensure that we are not mired in the past, but agents of change need not abandon the core essentials that define organizations and enterprises.

There is a movement within American Christianity to redefine what it means to do church. Groups like “Fresh Expressions” are open to new ways of expressing religious faith in the public square. These non-traditional “churches” experiment with different modes of worship, different worship venues, and different organizational structures, and within both mainstream and evangelical churches there are calls for radical rethinking about all aspects of worship and discipleship. All of this is in the cause of modernization and the perceived need to make church relevant. Much of it is singularly ineffective.

What is missing is a vision of the future that includes a deep and abiding connection with the past, with those who have gone before us in the faith. It is not only possible, it is imperative that we modernize the church. At the same time, it is a terrible mistake to think that we can do so by severing ties with tradition. When Isaac returns from the lands of the Philistines to the land of his father Abraham, the writer of Genesis tells us: “Isaac dug again the wells of water that had been dug in the days of his father Abraham; for the Philistines had stopped them up after the death of Abraham; and he gave them the names that his father had given them.” [Genesis 26:18] It is again time to re-dig the old wells. The traditions of the church – traditions in hymnody, traditions in preaching, and traditions of liturgy – are rich wells that can be dug again in every generation. They bear the names our fathers have given them for a reason. They present the timeless truths of the Christian faith that remain relevant for every generation.

There were no Purple Stokes sweet potatoes on market shelves in 1749, but there were sweet potatoes. Lavender or pale yellow, they make the same casserole.


Harperella Hunting

Saturday was hot. One of those humid, sulphurous, late-Summer days that turns an ordinary walk through Allegheny bottom lands into something to be borne, never enjoyed. Deep in the woods, beside the river, the smell of mold and decay mixed with the sulphur that made the region a haven for those Nineteenth-Century Americans “seeking the cure.” Slapping mosquitos and paying little attention to what lay ahead, I stumbled into a spider web, rising from my knees to my above my head, spanning the trail. As I swatted my way through, a fist-sized spider rushed toward me along the last remaining upper support. Just short of my nose, she abandoned her attack, disengaged, and floated gracefully on a barely visible lifeline to the leaves below. I lost sight of her as I tried to clear web fragments from my eyes, nose, and ears. I do not dislike spiders, but I hate the feeling of invisible silk strands clinging to my face. For the next hour I had the sensation of being crawled upon – a feeling made more intense with every imagined bug and tick that proved to be real.

I had left the house in good spirits, angling through the woods toward the river on my annual Harperella nodosum survey. Harperella is a small aquatic plant found in very few places, and although native to the Cacapon River, it has been rendered nearly extinct by a succession of hundred-year floods. I suppose it is of no particular importance, at least not in terms of property value, but I hold out hope that some isolated plants might have established a freehold along the little piece of riverfront I claim. So I continue to look on the cobble-margins of the river for a thin, small plant with wet feet, its tiny white flowers opening to the full sun, testifying to the resilience of life. But I found more spiders than Harperella, more ticks than white flowers.

We often overlook the fact that in the Genesis creation story mankind was created on the same day as all of the other animals, and God declares the whole creation good, not just our part of it. Some things, like harperella, are worth finding and protecting just because they exist. In the case of harperella, the task is made easier because they are delicate and beautiful. James reminds us that we are all too ready to embrace the beautiful, the powerful, and the important at the expense of those less fortunate.  A walk down any city street should remind us that not many of us are special. But we are all part of that sixth day that God declared was “indeed, very good.” Take that walk, even in the midst of recession and war, there is much to celebrate in the people we meet and there is much to be done if we are truly to love our neighbor as ourselves.

As I walked back to the house I stepped off of the trail to avoid a new, large spider web. Along its margin a fist-sized spider worked quickly attaching new strands, rebuilding what I had destroyed. Resilient creature, that spider. Perhaps we are all more resilient than we give ourselves credit for being, but it doesn’t hurt to have a little help and a little love from our neighbors now again.

I often take a sunset walk through the Chapel Garden, or as I call it: the chapel ruin. Diffused, shadowless sunlight, that midway point between light and darkness – like slack water between the tides, deadens contrast and softens the hard, brick edges. There is something timeless in this the close of day. Perhaps that is why I always think of “Little Gidding”, T. S. Eliot’s last poem of the Four Quartets, whose opening sentence contains one of my favorite words, sempiternal, a word whose sound seems heavy with quality in contrast to its quantity-laden synonym, eternal. The ruin at sunset stands sempiternal beside its successor.

In the parish of Little Gidding, the Church of Saint John the Evangelist (1714) stands on the site of its predecessor. No chapel garden marks Eliot’s brief haven where Charles I, a “king at nightfall,” fleeing toward the gallows, stopped to rest his lathered horse. Nor are there visible marks of the lives of generations who took their vows before the church altar; who breathed out silent prayers for their infant sons and daughters as they were marked with the sign of the cross; who stoically recited the liturgy for the burial of their dead; who in their time lay silent before that same altar.

Neither kings nor yeoman hallow a place. That task is given to time alone.The new seminary chapel will shortly become the beloved chapel, the place where generations of students will worship together and where they will learn the art and craft of ministry. But they will also know that something else, something worth remembering, stood here among these ruins, once a place of worship and ritual, now ghosted by soft-edged memories in the dying light.

We are the makers of memories. Contemplating them in some future chapel-garden of the mind, what will the not-yet-living imagine of us, the long-dead? Near the end of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Macbeth responds to news of his wife’s death: “Life’s but a waking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more. It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.” Sound and fury and futility – a life lived for oneself in lathered haste, strutting and fretting ourselves across the stage, mistaking quantity for quality. There is another way, a way based on the three great loves: love of God, love of neighbor, and love of self; a way that leads beyond ourselves to a life of meaning; a way to a life lived abundantly in the sempiternal moment. In the words of Eugene Peterson’s Jesus: “If your first concern is to look after yourself, you’ll never find yourself. But if you forget about yourself and look to me, you’ll find both yourself and me.” (The Message, Mt. 10:39)

A life worth remembering is a tale full of sound and fury, told by lovers and loved, signifying everything.

The Biblical book of James has a number of disquieting passages. Perhaps the most disturbing for many Christians occurs in the first chapter where James adamantly asserts that the one who doubts can expect nothing from God.

If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does. (James 1:5-8)

But is it reasonable to expect to be free from doubt all of the time, to never entertain moments of uncertainty, to be always convinced of the absolute truth of one’s convictions? We have all known such people, and most of us have found them insufferable. What then is James saying?

First, this admonition comes to those seeking wisdom and guidance in the midst of various trials. James says, echoing the writer of Hebrews, if you want God’s help, you must first believe that he exists and rewards those who seek him. He leaves no room for the “if you exist, then …” prayer. But what about those creeping doubts that assail all of us? Those sudden, unspoken fears in the night that there really is nothing there? This is the question that so many parishioners have brought to me over the years.

We often overlook the role that doubting plays in coming to that place where we can claim belief as our own and not as something we have inherited from our parents or that has attached itself to us as part of our social fabric. An unquestioning and unwavering belief in anything that has not been rigorously examined stands on shaky ground at best. Among the early Baptists Distinctives was the then novel idea of Liberty of Conscience. Each individual has both the right and duty to come to faith in such time and manner as is dictated by conscience. And that examination of conscience may lead legitimately to reject all forms of faith and religion. Such self-examination is often painful and always requires a stubborn resignation to see it through when cherished beliefs come into question, when the dogmas of youth are confronted with new and sometimes fearful alternatives. We must then be content to dwell for a while in uncertainty. Yet as Sir Francis Bacon wrote over four –hundred years ago in his treatise on learning, “Another error is an impatience of doubting and a blind hurry of asserting without mature suspension of judgment.”(Bacon, Advancement of Learning, p. 65)

“Mature suspension of judgment” is a wonderful phrase. It describes the state where we are free as intelligent human beings, without first abandoning our beliefs, to question what we have been taught, to look at evidences, to consider alternatives, to read from our own sources, and ultimately to exercise that cherished Baptist Distinctive: Liberty of Conscience. If we are too quickly content with the unexamined faith, the unexamined life, we are forever inauthentic human beings. We believe what someone else has determined that we should believe, and we have abdicated our God-given right to choose for ourselves.

Where to begin? Begin with those Bible passages you never read. In my experience, we avoid those passages that hit too close to home, that raise a nagging voice in the back of our minds, that sometimes come to consciousness unbidden. Here is the beginning of real faith, here in the land of doubt where certainty gives way to possibility.

“[I]f we begin with certainties, we shall end in doubts; but if we begin with doubts, and are patient in them, we shall end in certainties.”

I once knew a woman who maintained that the Y-chromosome is a birth defect. Arguing with her was fruitless. She would tilt her head to look at me over the rim of her glasses and state unequivocally, “It’s a miracle that any boy makes it to adulthood.” Having raised several children, she knew whereof she spoke. It was her son who, at twelve, dared me to ride my bicycle over a small cliff at a nearby sand quarry. Things are often higher than they seem. I survived with my honor intact, but I couldn’t put full weight on my right foot for two weeks. Try hiding that from your mother.

That small, missing piece of the X-chromosome that differentiates males from females probably contains the instructions for judgment and almost certainly contains the instruction set for span of attention. Most of us eventually come around to developing both but not before we’ve had our share of misadventures – nearly all of them avoidable, like not riding your bicycle over a cliff just because your friend said you wouldn’t in front of your other friends who had no intention of following you. We grow up. But we grow at different rates and achieve different levels of maturity. For many of us, the desire to fly our bicycles never really leaves us, but those instruction sets that bedeviled us in our youth, once mastered, become the building blocks of our lives.

It is our nature to grow. How we grow is only partially determined at birth by our genes. What we are – our height, our eye color, whether we are skinny or stout – is very much beyond our control, but who we are depends on what we do with all of the elements of our lives. There is a famous quote by Dr. Samuel Johnson, a line delivered after a falling out with his friend Thomas Sheridan, “Why, Sir, Sherry is dull, naturally dull; but it must have taken him a great deal of pains to become what we now see him. Such an excess of stupidity, Sir, is not in Nature.” We may not suffer from an “excess of stupidity”, but we all have taken a great deal of pains to become something and often that something is not true to our nature. The who we are doesn’t correspond to the who we were meant to be.

The Apostle Paul reminds us in his “Letter to the Romans” that we are by nature conflicted. We are, all of us, more aware of both the desires that drive our decisions and the sure consequences that follow those decisions than we like to admit. We are rarely if ever completely innocent victims of life. “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” There is a way out. Paul cries out: “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” This is the cry of many of us who long for something more, somehow for things to be different in our lives, for life to be more like we dreamed it to be in the days when bicycles flew and we were oblivious to the consequences of our decisions. Paul’s answer is as relevant and powerful as it was when he first uttered it: “Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” There is a way back, but it requires us to surrender, to let go of the accumulated hurts and fears whose weight grounds us.

To become as children is not to return to a world of fantasy and a naïve vision of the world, oblivious to its dangers. It is to return to a world full of possibilities, a world made new each day. That is the promise of Jesus. What we cannot do ourselves is possible through a life lived in the Spirit – the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus. The Easter season reminds that the impossible broke into the world to make all things possible. We are, as in everything, free to choose what we believe, but some decisions are more destructive than riding a bicycle off a sand cliff. For thousands of years, generations have attested to the reality and power of the Living Christ. Those same generation have witnessed the misery and poverty of spirit in those who have chosen “to take a great deal of pains” to become what we now see, lonely and unfulfilled souls wishing the world was other than it seems. It still could be, but the answer doesn’t lie in broken chromosomes, it lies in the foolishness of the Cross and in the one who stretched out his arms that you and I might make our way back to our true natures, at rest and at peace with the one who created us.


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