Memorial

I push open these double wooden doors – they’re stained a beautiful dark rosewood. My eye is drawn to the purple carpet that marks the aisle all the way forward to a raised platform. It separates two groups of chairs. There seems to be a decidedly purple and white theme to the flower arrangements. Soon groups of people begin arriving and conversing with one another. Mostly they know each other, they all mean something to the guest of honor, and the guest of honor all mean something to them. This is a celebration.

The guest of honor is the matriarch – an older lady of average height, her short hair has a defiant red tint to it – hence her long-time nickname, “Red.” Her strong personality had developed as she conquered many obstacles in her day. As a result, her relationships could be complicated and no strangers to drama – but today is a good day and there’s no hard feelings. It’s also a miraculous day. Friends that she had long out-lived made an appearance alongside all her relatives.

Memories are being shared – some for the first time, others are being repeated much to Red’s delight. All of her favorite foods and drinks are available should anyone get hungry. I’d like to imagine laughter and delight. Everybody should be celebrated because everyone matters.

But such a celebration can never be. My grandmother has died. We found out on Christmas day that things weren’t looking so good. I asked for some time off the next day – but had to work my shift that evening. Some time in the middle of the night or the next morning – I’m not sure which, she stopped breathing. I’m not at all sure how to process it. Could I have insisted that I couldn’t work my shift so that my family could leave immediately and have a chance of meeting her while she was still alive? My only comfort is knowing that in many cases, despite hours of waiting alongside an ailing relative, they tend to like to pass away when the visiting hours are done and others aren’t around – so says the internet anyway.

I wish I knew where her obituary was – so I could read a little more about her. I wish I had bothered to actually call her every now and then just to talk a little.

For those who know my grandmother, her strong personality made for complicated relationships – it doesn’t mean that we love her any less … it’s just not always an easy kind of love. I grew up watching these kind, sweet grandmothers on TV shows – and my own grandmother was just so different. I wished in so many ways that she was like them – and I didn’t notice that she had her own charms about her. Some of the things I admire most are that fierce independence, that no-nonsense attitude, and she knew what she liked and didn’t hesitate to make it clear.

Her name meant Shining Light, Pride/Fame/Glory, and Blessed. That she most certainly was.

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Stumbling Stewards

Not long ago, a lot of protected land was opened up for potential development. I shook my head in disbelief when the guy said, “You know how to take care of your land.” The whole history of pollution is a testament to how little we have take care of our land.

Centralia, PA – In May of 1962, an underground coal mine has a coal seam that catchs fire from the burning of a trash dump – it’s still burning today.

Picher, OK – a former lead and zinc mining area, lots of toxic remnants were placed in heaps in the area, which in turn has polluted the water table. One study suggested that as many as 1/3 of the children in town were suffering the effects of lead poisoning. The mines themselves also pose a danger – they could collapse and the buildings above would be taken down with them.

Cuyahoga River – perhaps the most famous example; these polluted waters once caught fire.

When pollution is a factor, what comes first? Usually it’s the bottom line, the cheaper disposal method; rather than the proper, more expensive one. When the priority is putting people to work, putting any thought into pollution control seems like you’re trying to put the brakes on progress. Never mind that putting people into pollution control is also creating jobs.

The whole history of pollution shows us that we never have known the best way to take care of our land … because we didn’t do that well, it put human lives on the brink – destroying the health and vitality of some – taking the lives of others. It may be annoying that waste chemicals can’t just be dumped into our water supply or that mine remnants can’t just be dumped in huge piles all around town – that even nuclear waste has to be sealed away in very specific conditions – but it’s far better than the alternative. We might not know how best to take care of our land, but at a very high cost we have learned how not to take care of our land. Sometimes the best thing you can do for some land is to let it be at least a little wild and to leave it alone.

Effort Matters

“You know how it is, when nobody else is giving it a hundred percent, you realize that it’s not worth it and start letting things slide.”

I blinked. I couldn’t fathom not giving it my all, my best, all the time. How you work says a lot about your character.

Perhaps the theology of work still rolls around in the back of my mind. The story of the workers in the vineyard, the parable of the talents, the verse about working as if you’re working for the Lord, and the lengthy Bible Study I did on the subject while I was in the midst of unemployment, but something in me told me that it was wrong to not work to the best of your ability.

For me, I like to be satisfied in knowing that I did the best that I could and I didn’t hold back or do half-measures. I challenge myself to do well, to do better, to work more quickly, to work accurately so that when my head hits my pillow at night, I know that I worked well.

It’s more than that. I remember watching this comedy, the story isn’t all that important, but one refrain was “Be excellent to each other.” This idea – well, it caught on and paved the way for the world to clean up it’s act and finally be at peace – plus they got good music. In a way, that’s what I believe.
It means to do your best and to treat others exceedingly well. It means to dare others to rise to the challenge of meeting their potential. It means … well, to borrow a quote from another movie:

Akeelah: [quoting Marianne Williamson] Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
Dr. Larabee: Does that mean anything to you?
Akeelah: I don’t know.
Dr. Larabee: It’s written in plain English. What does it mean?
Akeelah: That I’m not supposed to be afraid?
Dr. Larabee: Afraid of what?
Akeelah: Afraid of… me?

I think that for so long, we end up aiming for somewhere in the middle. Sure, we could do more or better if we applied ourselves, but it nobody else is, why bother? Anyone who stands out in any way seems to get too much attention, either good or bad. We don’t want that. We want to be good, but not too good. We want to do well, but not too well.

Let’s face it, people who are excellent, who choose to be the best at what they do – their effort is often rewarded. It’s not that they’ll get a plaque or trophy or bonus, as nice as that would be, but they get personal satisfaction and pride. I don’t know why you wouldn’t want that.

“Hey, I could have gotten everything done, but I choose to do only 2/3 of my work instead.”
“Hey, I could have gotten an A, but I settled for a B.”
“Hey, I could have gotten first, but I didn’t feel like it and took second.”

Pretty soon, that becomes:

“Hey, I could have gotten 2/3 of my work done, but I chose to do only half.”
“Hey, I could have gotten a B, but a C was so much less taxing.”
“Hey, I could have gotten second, but forth was easier.”

Or,

“I could have opened that door, but I didn’t feel like it.”
“I could have said something kinder, but I changed my mind.”
“I could have reached that for her, but it was funnier watching her jump for it.”

Excellence isn’t the worst thing ever. We should strive to leave mediocrity behind us.

Giving Love and Compassion Every Chance to Change Things For The Better

I’ve been thinking of everything I’ve ever learned about God’s holiness. It can be this wonderful source of power – that is, when it’s not threatening to do serious harm. When I first heard the story of Uzzah’s death; how he reached out to steady the ark because the oxen pulling the cart had stumbled and that was something that God viewed as irreverent and so he smote him then and there. I would have thought God could have weighed his motives and intentions to see that all Uzzah wanted was to keep the ark from falling off the cart and smashing into pieces – that even though Uzzah wasn’t holy and pure, his intentions were and therefore he was worthy of not dying.

It’s like the time that Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu offered unauthorized fire to the Lord who felt incensed that his instructions were not obeyed to the letter so he burned them. One guy told me this story as a warning not to go beyond what was prescribed because God never changes and one day he might decide that anyone who worships him in an unauthorized manner is guilty and deserving of the same punishment.

Or when Korah dared to speak up and ask why only Aaron and his sons were allowed to have the priesthood to the Lord when the whole Israelite people were also holy. “Isn’t it enough for you that as a Levite you’re more special than everyone else?” Moses asked him. The Lord gave them his answer to the question – in causing the ground to open up and swallow Korah and the families of the 250 men who were on his side – as for the men themselves – they were burned.

This is where I just don’t get God. He could choose to be consistent and our history could be littered with every single movement or denomination that angered God that he ended up smiting – with only one exception – the authorized form of worship that pleases Him. But the New Testament version of him only makes a few short corrections – as Ananias and Sapphira and Simon the Sorcerer discovered.

I wonder, how would Jesus have answered the questions, “Is it okay for just anyone to read the Holy Bible?” “Is it okay for just anyone to worship God however they please?” “Is it okay for just anyone who step into a leadership role in the worship of God?”

It’s true that Christianity doesn’t have a lot of holy relics – the kind that you’re not supposed to touch. My denomination was never one to believe in such things anyway.

It’s also no great surprise that modern Christianity has a variety of styles of worship, bluegrass, gospel, hymns, contemporary – some are rather toned-down and others are full of energy.

Now the God of the Old Testament was rather specific about who could and who couldn’t be a priest, priests had to be men who were descendants of Aaron, they had to be without any defects whatsoever (blind, lame, disfigured, deformed, crippled hand or crippled foot, hunchback, dwarf, eye defect, sores) – even their wives had to be virgins – any woman who had been a prostitute or divorced was considered disqualifying. God demanded nothing less than perfection itself. But today we would consider it an awesome testimony of our leaders to have struggled with disabilities and found faith in God. Some of our denominations have no problem with letting women be leaders.

Surely, if God hasn’t changed – then he’s waiting for the full measure of sin to be built up in the church before smiting them like he did with the Egyptians and Canaanites of old. Or perhaps, we’ve misread the playbook. God might not have changed, but his plans might have changed. I don’t know why people are so scared of the idea that God might not operate in the same way in the Old Testament than he does in the New Testament and that he might operate differently now than he did way back then. All of us are who we are regardless of what we do when, right?

Why is it we think that when it comes to God, his holiness and sovereignty are his most important attributes through which all of his other attributes (love, compassion, meekness) must be filtered through? “God is love” but love alone isn’t enough to keep him from acting in wrath in order to protect his holiness from us sinful, dirty, human beings. “God is love” but this love bows to God’s sovereignty by which his power can be used to harden people’s hearts and prevents them from loving him. Really? If anything, it seems that our New Testament version of God is all about love and compassion and tends to let matters of holiness and sovereignty slide. Perhaps that’s why the circumcision party wasn’t more harshly punished for their interference and various false teachers were left to their own devices. Perhaps God wanted to give them every chance to come to the right way of thinking – rather than outright punish them for having wrong beliefs.

I wish we’d do that – give everybody every possible chance to do their own homework and come to believe as they should in whatever ways that work for them than to take matters into our own hands and punish and shun people for not believing as we would want them to or in ways just like us. The thing is – we’re not God, I don’t know if we have the capacity to restore love and compassion as the highest attributes of how we worship God and how we view the world.

 

Christian *Love, (meaning changes)

Much has been said about grace. I believe that there are two kinds of grace: saving grace and living grace. One is concerning spiritual birth “once and for all” (Hebrews 9:12, 10:10) which demanded no effort on my part, because my Savior Jesus, finished this on His cross and from His empty tomb. The other kind of grace is spiritual growth that does demand my effort (2 Peter 3:18). It also includes discipline (Hebrews 12:5-11). A wise man told me that discipline is not the absence of love, but the application of love. We love Maddi Runkles. The best way to love her right now is to hold her accountable for her immorality that began this situation. – A letter from Maddi’s principal to the student population of Heritage Academy.

It occurred to me the other day that I had failed to mention how love often falls victim to it’s definition being changed. That’s why in certain circumstances, people will do unloving things in the name of love. For example, it’s not uncommon for Christian parents to kick out their LGBTQ teenagers in the name of tough love in the hopes that one day their child will repent like the prodigal that they are. Hundreds of thousands of teenagers like Maddi made the “True Love Waits” oath; roughly 60% of them has admitted to breaking it before the terms of the oath were completed. According the New York Times article about Maddi, roughly 80% of young Evangelicals couldn’t keep that oath either.

If you define loving someone as desiring their well-being and promoting their true flourishing, ultimately you decide what form that takes. If you think Maddi will truly flourish after being held accountable for immorality, then you might decide that the ordeal of punishing her and shaming her on top of her bearing the obvious consequences is necessary. But if you think Maddi will truly flourish when you support her decision and help her to fulfill her new vision as a mother, then you might find the punishing and shaming to be overkill and doing more harm than good.

You can do a lot to people in the name of love, some of it truly wonderful and kind, and some of it awful and mean-spirited. We don’t really have a code of conduct on the things you can’t do in the name of love; well, I suppose anything that stops short of sin or crime; but even so, some sins are lesser and forgivable – like gossip. But hey, love is a good thing. One would think that how love is expressed would also always be a good thing.

But if you love somebody – why require them to make a promise they have no way of knowing they’ll be able to keep? There has got to be a better way, one that doesn’t punish and shame – but accepts human nature for what it is and let’s everybody walk away moderately happy. Love has got to be more and do more than hurt people – because whatever hurts isn’t love.

 

Christian *Love, (*conditions apply)

I remember when the church loved me a lot more. I was perfectly obedient and known to be sweet and gentle. I knew the Bible exactly as much as I was supposed to – which was everything they taught me or everything from previously approved materials, trusted authors, and competent ministries. Most of all, I believed exactly what I was taught from the pastors and deacons and elders and teachers as they taught it without question. Everyone would point to me as an example of someone who “does it right” and “has it together.” Christianity loved me most when I was it’s ideal, when I fit completely in it’s narrative.

But something changed. I remained myself, consistent and true – but the church seemed to like me less and less. Perhaps it was because I was still single and they couldn’t figure out why. After all, I was supposed to have met him by now they taught, gotten married by now they taught, and have had kids by now if I was doing everything right they taught. They probably thought there was some rebellion in my heart, some sin that God alone knew of that was the reason why I wasn’t ready to meet him, or something or other to explain it. Their attitude toward me started to cool as I had fallen out of favor. It was puzzling to know that those younger girls who had been told to follow my example were now being pointed to as an example for me to follow, “Don’t be so picky, you’ll marry and be happy like they are soon enough if you lower your standards. But seriously, don’t settle for anything less than the guy God has selected just for you or there will be terrible consequences.” (Thanks for that confusing message, just one of many.)

To be honest, it felt an awful lot like moving the goalposts. Or perhaps, having lost something important you used to have and you miss a lot. A sense of belonging that had been there for the longest time seems to up and vanish. For all the talk that love is unconditional, it’s just human to love those who are on the same page you are. It’s human to love those who follow the same team you do and to dislike those who follow your team’s rival. And this is a day and age where ideals divide more sharply than ever before. We end friendships and relationships due to similar disagreements all the time. Perhaps we have never truly learned to accept people we disagree with. In a Christianity famous for dividing itself into denominations over anything and everything – we never really got into the practice of being okay with different opinions and beliefs among us because there’s this tiny fear that we could wind up on a wrong turn and miss the way to Heaven.

I don’t think it was really on purpose either, but when everything you do is geared around doing it just one way, the same way, each and every time, then it results in a religious environment that has not bothered to create spaces for doing different things in different ways and naturally excludes everyone who is into doing things in different ways. Then, of course, you fall victim to expectation. When you do the same things the same way for long enough, it becomes the traditional thing. Doing something different would be turning your back on the way it is supposed to be done and has been and should be done … though you know not why. Well, anyone who turns their back on that is turning their back on God or how God would have things done in the biblically prescribed manner. Anyway, you can’t love someone as well if they don’t believe the same things you do. You can like them, you can think well of them (except for those particular faults), but because the two of you don’t see eye to eye, they will always be unlovable in some regard or another.

It is really hard to make space for people who don’t agree with you in your church. Your church is your church because it’s just the way you like it … changing it up to offer something for people who like other things means having to have less of the things that you like about it in the first place and it ceases to be your church; it becomes theirs – I guess “ours” was never truly an option. It’s not something we’d like to admit – that it really does come down to taste because it’s not supposed to – so we cloak it in terms of “proper” and “biblical” and “gospel” – it’s merely a coincidence that our tastes just so happen to align with the proper biblical expression of the gospel and how other people do church in other ways is never proper, not biblical, and it certainly isn’t the way the gospel should be.

In the process, we lose sight of what love was originally meant to be. We do believe in a sort of unconditional love, we love everyone who is just like us unconditionally, but we love others who are not like us conditionally. That’s the only explanation I can come up for to describe the difference in my own church experience. I guess I can’t help how other people can’t love me because we believe different things, but I can understand this failing and do my best to ensure I don’t fall victim to the same tendency myself and as a result treat others who are not like my as if they’re inferior in any way. Who knows, they might be right, after all.

An Untrustworthy Compass

Most of us live by a moral compass that tells whether what were doing falls into the “right” or “wrong” category. We know the difference between a guilty conscience and a clear one. We like to punish guilt and praise innocence. That’s just how our society works.

Jesus’ society was that of an an honor/shame dynamic. For them, that which was honorable was right, that which was shameful was wrong. It often also took an outside party to confirm honor or shame as being of good esteem and well-known, or having a bad reputation and being infamous, depending on your perceived character.

Being in an honor/shame society is a tricky proposition for those who are outsiders. After all, whatever restores honor is right, whatever tarnishes honor is wrong. So some actions our society would declare wrong could be viewed as right in that culture. Somehow, our society’s morality was informed by the ideals found in Scripture and it diverged from honor/shame into guilt/innocence. Our moral compass changed.

And it’s still changing. I was reading a conversation where a Christian drew up a scenario where a home was being invaded and it’s owner had two options: kill or be killed. It was obvious the answer the Christian was looking for was that the home owner should kill the invaders. But I began to wonder: Is that the only option? What reasons motivate the invasion in the first place? Can the invaders be reasoned with? Would being disabled or wounded be a better option? I wondered why the thought of hypothetically assisting God render his verdict of eternal condemnation and torture in Hell by speeding criminals to the afterlife didn’t register even the slightest moral concern on their radar. This value happened to be the opposite of the early Christians who were so sure of their eternal salvation, they wouldn’t kill others, giving them as long of a chance as possible to repent and join them in heaven, where they could forgive them for murdering them as they ate together around the Lord’s table. Think about it – Saul persecuted Christians, was on the wrong side of Stephen’s martyrdom, believed and became Paul, and will spend eternity in Heaven with Stephen. Quite a turnaround!

Likewise, I’ve seen Christians get so riled over their side of their favorite cause, they loose sight of the individuals who would be affected by their ideas and the circumstances involved. Sometimes there aren’t easy one-size-fits-all solutions or answers to the toughest questions of all and it’s marginalizing to decide for other people what they get to choose from without any direct interaction with those who are most affected by the decisions being made. Unique individuals become part of some faceless crowd, “the victims” or “the sinners” or whatever label they want to use to describe them this week – and their whole story gets erased alongside with their identity, as well as any desire to be respectful because of the distance involved from the matter because it’s all being argued on some higher hypothetical plain that we forget affects everyday people who sometimes live a lot closer to us than we think.

We have this big cosmic battle of changing morality playing out in this very day and age. Things that were utterly immoral not that long ago have found a measure of acceptance as we question the original assumptions about what’s right and wrong. And we’ll continue to question and change our minds about morality as the years go on. It seems that we’re finally asking the right questions. One of my favorite moral teachers is Martin Luther King, Jr. who had quite a bit to say on the subject said it best during his sermon explaining his opposition to the Vietnam War:

“A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies. This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing, unconditional love for all men. This oft misunderstood and misinterpreted concept, so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force, has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of mankind. And when I speak of love I’m not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of John: “Let us love one another, for God is love. And every one that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love. If we love one another, God dwelleth in us and his love is perfected in us.” “

I so wish Christians would learn to erase the divisions and shift their loyalties and learn to see the world as an “all of us, together” kind of people. Sadly, I’ve read so many End Times stories where any attempt to unite the world, declare peace, put an end to famine and poverty and feed the hungry is viewed with the utmost suspicion that the Anti-Christ is somewhere active in the world and is just about to take it over. I’ve seen regular Christians talk about the Mark of the Beast as if it’s just a day away from being something real and tangible.

And I wonder what’s become of Christian morality, that broken compass that swings wildly as if it’s confused and lost it’s way. Each believer seems to read it differently and point to a different direction to head in as the true way to salvation; but I’m not so sure that any of us have it right.