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His snoring gives him away. Like a feral cat going to ground, Zamboni is deep in the linen closet. Unlike his wild counterparts, he prefers Fabreze-scented towels and soft linens. Growing older, he sleeps twenty hours a day. Sometimes basking in streams of sunlight in the middle of the library floor, at other times, hidden in what are now predictable haunts. Zamboni is the largest of our three cats, but he is the least sociable, the least courageous. Hiding is his reaction to any change, whether changes to routine, changes to the environment, or changes to people. A house guest can spend a week with us and never catch a glimpse of him.

Few of us can afford the linen closet however tempting it might be to hide from the world. We can accept it or resist it, but unlike a cat in hiding, we are rarely able to ignore change. I have known a score of people in my life who slept twenty hours a day. They are the ones on the subway with fixed stares and the blank-faced ones, motionless and emotionless before their computer monitors. Most of us are like the Daschiell Hammett character in the Maltese Falcon of whom Sam Spade said: “That’s the part of it I always liked. He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to their not falling.” Accommodation and compromise. Perhaps the compromisers and the blank-faced ones are not that far apart. One acknowledges the changes, the other doesn’t notice. Neither questions.

Understanding each new situation is key to the art of living. How often do we react before we really understand what we are reacting against? The Apostle Paul writes to the Romans: “Welcome those who are weak in the faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions.” Paul is acutely aware of our shared tendency to defend our position regardless of the cost. He counsels restraint. Can I win this argument? Can I change the situation? Or are we both so entrenched in our positions that no mutual understanding is possible? If so, the only real outcome is resentment. Often, we go to battle before deciding whether or not this is a hill worth dying on.

Again and again in the Gospels, Jesus refuses to be drawn into an argument. His reply to inflammatory and confrontational statements diffuses the situation and leads to a deeper understanding of the real issues. We are not so quick witted as Jesus. David gives us sound advice in the fourth Psalm. “Be angry and sin not. Commune with your own hearts on your own bed and be still.” There is a time for the linen closet. A time for solitude and quiet meditation. It is in quietness and reflection that we will discern the courageous alternative. There is a time to rend and a time to sew; a time to keep silence and a time to speak. Knowing the season makes all the difference.

 

 

 

A foundational belief among Baptists was the idea that each person, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, was capable of interpreting and actualizing belief in Scripture. This individual freedom was to be moderated by a community of faith to which each individual was expected to belong. That is, early Baptists could not imagine anyone claiming the name of Christian who would not willingly seek out like-minded individuals to join with them in worship and mutual support. A corollary of this belief was and is that individuals are free to reject the claims of the Bible and to pursue their own interests, free of any coercion. Separation of church and state, another prized distinctive of founding Baptists flowed naturally from these beliefs. Baptists, who had suffered in England and the Colonies under harsh laws restricting their right to assembly and to proclaim their faith, were determined that the new nation would protect these basic rights.

Baptists were never naïve about religion in the public square. Reports from early Baptist missions through the newly-created states found “right thorny ground,” as one young man wrote in a letter to his sponsoring Association. Conversions and baptisms were few. The same individualism informing Baptist faith led many Americans to very different beliefs, or as was often the case to no beliefs, creating an American religious landscape that is pluralistic and often divisive.

The current culture wars reflect this diversity, but there is a disturbing tendency among evangelicals to forget both our own history and the promise of Jesus with respect to secular society. Far from declaring the triumph of the cross, Jesus proclaims rejection, betrayal, and persecution for those who follow him. “In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world.” Jesus’ statement reflects the “already but not yet” dilemma facing the church in the modern world. Faith is required to witness to a different reality. Courage is required to proclaim the truth as we understand it. Humility is required to acknowledge that our interpretations may be wrong. In all things, we Baptists must give place to “soul competency,” i.e., that no one may be forced to the foot of the cross.

Jesus prayed for his disciples: “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” We are called to proclaim this love, making Jesus known to our world, not by force or legislation, but by example. The world sees neither God the Father nor the Son, but it sees us daily. The mistake we make is to believe that this witness will be painless, will be without cost. The last of the Beatitudes proclaims: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” We do not live in a country where masked men behead us on a beach, where frenzied mobs set fire to us and our families in our cars, where government agents dismantle the crosses on our buildings and remove church names from our doors. We do live in a country that is increasingly intolerant of our message, but living on “right thorny ground” is a far cry from the persecution experienced by our brothers and sisters around the world.

For us, the cost of discipleship is modest and the demand light. “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame.”

We are back to normal – at least our children are. On this cold and icy start to March I went to walk at a local mall on my lunch hour. Very young children, accompanied by parents, were nearly as numerous as the un-shepherded teens. Belatedly, I remembered that most of the local schools were closed. Anxious parents, unaccustomed to entertaining overactive, bored children, wrapped them in coats and boots and mufflers and whisked the whole family off to shop. America at its most American. American Girl and Build-A-Bear Workshop were packed tighter than Verizon Center’s kiosks at half-time. Young teenage girls prowled in groups, swinging shopping bags like pom-poms. America’s sport.

The shopping bags tell the story. The last several years have been unkind to the retail industry. Saturday afternoons saw shopping-center crowds with few purchases in hand. People are buying again. The deep recession has eased to the point that Americans are confident enough to return to the big department-stores with earnest money in hand. There is more than a little room for thanksgiving. The economic downturn hurt. It hurt the poor and the middle-class, and it scared the wealthy.

But there is another not so benign side to the recovery. It can be seen on the faces and in the giddy laughter of teens heading for the dressing rooms, arms wrapped around mountains of clothes – all of them in the latest styles, designed to make a statement about its wearer. Retail sales may be the engine that drives the economy, but it is all too often the engine that drives a shallow culture. In a letter to Adlai Stevenson, John Steinbeck observed: “What a strange species we are. We can stand anything God and Nature can throw at us save only plenty. If I wanted to destroy a nation, I would give it too much, and I would have it on its knees, miserable, greedy and sick.”

Things in themselves have no power, neither power to enhance nor power to corrupt. But the habitual striving for the new and fashionable, everywhere visible in the American marketplace, is symptomatic of a deeper discontent. Disconnected from the life around us, from the natural world we experience only in well-manicured parks; disconnected from the communities we live in, lonely in a crowd of millions; disconnected from ourselves, unable to bear the doubts that come unbidden when we are alone; we run, directionless, seeking only distraction.

Into this world we are called to offer the alternative of the Gospel, as Paul writes to the Corinthian Christians: to know and proclaim Christ crucified. It is a foolish proclamation to those who are “miserable, greedy, and sick,” but to those hungry for meaning, it is a message of hope and promise. All too often, Christians, in despair, retreat inward into their faith-communities, complaining that the world has changed and is no longer receptive to the Gospel message. “We live in a post-Christian age!” is the cry of the defeated.

If we believe with the great creeds of the church that Jesus is the God-Man, risen from the dead, and seated at the right-hand of the Father, there can be no post-Christian era. Furthermore, the materialistic culture of today is neither new nor immune to the call of Christ. Anthony Thiselton writes in his commentary on the Greek text of 1 Corinthians of the Apostle Paul’s struggles with the Greco-Roman culture of his day. He describes the Corinthians as being immersed in “the self-sufficient, self-congratulatory culture of Corinth coupled with an obsession about peer-group prestige, success in competition, their devaluing of tradition and universals, and near contempt for those without standing in some chosen value system.”[Italics in the original]

Thiselton goes on to note that 1Corinthians “stands in a distinctive position of relevance to our own times.” (Again, italics in the original.)The world of the New Testament was not different from our own. The message of hope in Christ, the message of grace and love is as powerful as it always was. The Gospel penetrated to the heart of the ancient world and has never ceased to draw the seekers who feel deeply in their souls that there must be more to life than the “miserable, greedy, and sick” offer. We are not called to change the world, we are called in Corinth and in Washington, in Athens and New York to proclaim Christ and Him Crucified.

All the Rest is Commentary

Some years ago, researching transportation law for a contract, I settled in at Georgetown Law Library, yellow pad at the ready, and began reading federal statutes. I awoke an hour later with my forehead resting softly on the pages of a book I don’t remember opening. I determined right then to buy a complete set of the United States Statues at Large; you never know which volume might be needed on a sleepless night. Judging from the traffic in the library, lawyers and law clerks must find the Statutes fascinating, but I can’t see much value in them beyond their soft pages. They just don’t seem to connect with my life

There comes a time in most of our lives when we need a lawyer to help us navigate the complexities of the law, whether it be wills or trusts or powers of attorney. But for most of our days, how many laws does a person need? Jesus answered that question: two. “He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

If we are honest with ourselves, most of us have problems determining just how those two commandments apply to our daily lives, much like the problem with those Statutes at Large. In a famous sermon, Harry Emerson Fosdick, pastor of Riverside Church of New York City, suggested six ways to tell right from wrong; that is, what loving God and neighbor might look like if we put them into practice. The first is simply common sense. At a deep level, you and I know the difference between right and wrong. It’s not the same as the dictates of conscience; it’s simply to engage our brains before we act. Secondly, if we apply the principles of sportsmanship, we won’t break the rules or take special privileges because we expect a level playing field and we should be willing to extend that to others. Thirdly, in the deepest level of that place we call “self,” there is in all of us something that is good and noble – something opposed to the careless, vulgar, greedy self. It takes practice to call this higher self into conscious conversation and to follow its leadings. In fourth place is the Facebook test. What if everybody knew what I was doing? How many “likes” would the selfie of my thoughts and motives get? Fosdick cites Bishop Phillips Brooks: keep clear of concealment and the need for concealment, and “do nothing which he might not do out in the middle of Boston Common at noonday.” Fifthly, what would your most admired personality do in a similar situation? Put another way, what would Jesus do? That simple question would stop us in our tracks more often than we care to admit. Lastly, and perhaps most practically, where will this lead? Foresight is not just for the prophet. Some courses of action lead to outcomes impossible to predict but most consequences are clearly visible from the beginning. As Fosdick said, “Every man who picks up one end of a stick picks up the other. Aye! Every man who chooses one end of a road is choosing the other.”

How would my life look if I applied these six, simple principals? I suspect it would look a lot more like someone who loved God and neighbor, and if we believed Jesus, in those two laws are contained all the statutes we could print. All the rest is commentary.

 

Every Who

Down in Who-ville

Liked Christmas a lot …

But the Grinch,

Who lived just north of Who-ville,

Did NOT!

With a heart two sizes too small, the Grinch is not only unable to join in the Who’s Christmas joy, he is incapable of understanding either the nature of Christmas or the reason for the holiday. He thinks that without the presents and the decorations and the Who-roast-beast there will be no Christmas. But in the end he finds he hasn’t stopped Christmas at all as hand-in-hand the Who’s joyfully sing “Without any presents at all!” Like Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge, Dr. Seuss’ Grinch finds that there is something more going on here, and like Charles Dickens, Ted Seuss Geisel has written a classic tale that reminds us that buried beneath the weight of the Christmas industry there is something worth recovering.

Ted Geisel was fifty-three when he wrote How the Grinch Stole Christmas. In the book there is a self-reference that expresses his frustration with what Christmas had become and his own struggle against the commercialization that by 1957 had all but obscured the true meaning of the season.

And the more the Grinch thought of this Who-Christmas-Sing, the more the Grinch thought, “I must stop this whole thing!

“Why, for fifty-three years I’ve put up with it now!

“I MUST stop this Christmas from coming!

… But HOW?”

We cannot stop this whole thing nor can we reverse the tide that has brought us here. The trouble is within us. Writing about the commercialization of Christmas has become hackneyed, and worse yet, misses the point. Our material culture exists because we want it. The mad rush to buy and sell, transforming what was once the second most sacred holiday in Christendom into an orgy of over-consumption, is the symptom of a greater malady. We have lost the ability to value the quiet, the sacred, the eternal that is our true self – the self-that walked with God in the cool of the day. (Gen. 3:8) And like our first parents we are found to be hiding, hiding from God and ourselves, for we dare not be found naked.

Yet it is the naked soul and only the naked soul that experiences true peace. The soul that seeks to shroud itself in robes spun from its own fancy can never be satisfied. This is the song of the world. Hurry! Hustle! Run! Quickly now, you mustn’t fall behind! The true song of the soul is heard in quietness and rest, and as Isaiah says, there is your true salvation. There is the music of the universe to soothe the soul. In Sand and Foam, Kahlil Gibran wrote, “How narrow is the vision that exalts the busyness of the ant above the singing of the grasshopper.” Have we lost the ability to appreciate the music of sheer play for play’s sake? How priceless are our days? Gibran went on to write,

They deem me mad because I will not sell my days for gold;

And I deem them mad because they think my days have a price.

It is wonderful to give and to receive at Christmas, but it is tragic to lose ourselves in that giving and getting. It is only the one whose days have no price that can joyfully join hands in Who-ville and sing, without any presents at all. And that is the message of the angels, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” That’s you in your soul’s most nakedness. This season: give with abandonment, receive without restraint, share without measure, and love unconditionally. Such is the love of Jesus, and the meaning of Christmas.

We can continue to live as if our hearts were two sizes too small, but wouldn’t it be better to live our days without a price, dancing to the music of God?

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.

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