Thursday, February 28, 2013

Beautiful and Depraved

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956
We know this about ourselves and others, but we don’t like to admit it.  Especially the evil part.  We’d like to think that we have a dividing line in our hearts between good and not-so-good, or at the very least between good and bad.  But evil?  We always find that evil exists outside ourselves, someone else, the really despicable person, but not us.  Not evil.
      The truth is that we are mixtures of good and evil, and it is also true that we tend to minimize both.  We don’t really believe we are as good as we really are, or as bad as we really are, but the truth is that we are more beautiful than we think we are, and more depraved than we think we are.  We are both too hard on ourselves and too easy on ourselves.
There really is something beautiful in each person.  With few exceptions people are quite generous with their time and their resources.  We really do want to help.  Most of the time we are quite warm and hospitable, sometimes in spite of appearances.  In those times where we appear cold and distant it is usually because we are wounded or hurt or lonely or ashamed.   Jodi Picoult, in her novel My Sister's Keeper, wrote “Let me tell you this: if you meet a loner, no matter what they tell you, it's not because they enjoy solitude. It's because they have tried to blend into the world before, and people continue to disappoint them.”
Inside every person there is a tremendous capacity for love, gentleness, compassion, faith, peacemaking, understanding, grace and mercy.  And it often takes little to trigger these things.
We need to be reminded of this, for we are often too hard on ourselves, and some, not all, but some can be attributed to our religious upbringing.  Teachings about the total depravity of humans are neither helpful nor biblical, even if we believe it to be so. That we are unable to save ourselves doesn’t mean we are totally depraved, just ultimately helpless to do that which only Christ could do.
But we are not void of depravity either.  I'm not quibbling with the depravity part, but that total part.  There is much depravity in us, and we tend to underestimate it.  We are congenitally selfish, petty, jealous, suspicious, and small-minded.   And blind to our condition.  We think we can see the speck in our neighbor’s eye and can’t even see the plank in our own.  Ironically, where we think we're sinners is usually not the place where others struggle the most with us and where our real faults lie. Conversely it's in those areas where we think we're virtuous and righteous that, most often, our real sin lies and where others struggle with us.
We need to be reminded of this as well, for we are often too easy on ourselves, and that bleeds away most of the energy and urgency we need for the difficult process of spiritual transformation.  Not recognizing our depravity is how people who are not pure evil can participate in things and systems that are.
To not recognize our beauty leads to depression, and to not recognize our depravity leads to inflation.  Recognizing both the depths of our beauty, created in the image of God, and the depths of our depravity as rebels against our Creator, sets us free.  It sets us free to “press on toward the high calling” while recognizing how formidable that task is, and impossible without God’s help.
     We are too hard on ourselves and too easy on ourselves.  We are loved sinners, both.
     And the good news is that the loved part ultimately wins if we embrace both.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Unconditional Love--No Asterisk

Few of us really believe in God’s unconditional love.  We accept it as true doctrinal fact, correct orthodox belief, an accurate description of God’s nature, but few of us, if any, really believe in it.  We are always putting an asterisk next to it.  Like this:

“God’s Unconditional* Love.” 

* God is also, of course, a God of wrath and justice and must therefore punish unrepentant sinners.
*Don’t forget, however, that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, even though someplace else in the Bible someone said that perfect love casts out fear.
*The Jews, of course, rejected God’s Messiah, so God has rejected them as his covenant people.
*Besides all that, I find that I am continually disappointed in myself, in my lack of discipline, my laziness, my hypocrisy, and the darkness that lurks within, and can’t imagine that God, who knows me better than I know myself, can be any less disappointed.
Here is a spiritual exercise: write down all your asterisks to God’s unconditional love.  All the qualifiers, exceptions, caveats, and yes-buts that you have to God’s unconditional love.  Write them all down, and then write this: “The word ‘unconditional’ allows no qualifiers, exceptions, caveats, or yes-buts.”  Because it doesn’t; the moment you put an asterisk by it, it is no longer unconditional.
Except for rare, graced moments we still believe in a God who is hyper-serious, wired, intense, pained, disappointed in us, disappointed in the world, and far from unconditionally loving and forgiving.
It is true that God is often portrayed in the Bible as wrathful, that he does mete out punishment, that he is to be feared, and that, yes, he is probably disappointed in each of us, sometimes profoundly so, but it is time that we stop placing these things in tension with, if not in opposition to, God’s unconditional love.  All of these are true within the context of God’s unconditional love.
The fear of the Lord is not the kind of fear we have when walking down a dark alley, or turning the corner only to be confronted by a gang of thugs, or when you have to tell the boss that your project is over budget and isn’t going to meet expectations.  No, fear of God in its healthy sense is basically love's fear, a fear of not living with the proper reverence and respect before the one we love.  It is the fear of violating love's proper boundaries.
Likewise, God’s justice is different than our justice, which seeks to mollify anger by seeking a punishment which somehow evens the score and balances the scales that Lady Justice holds in her hand.  God’s justice is about restoring relationships, returning things to the way they were meant to be.  It’s the father wrapping his arms around the prodigal’s neck because the family is whole again, as opposed to the older son’s  anger and resentment.  And with God, punishment is never about getting even, satisfying some karma-like concept of justice, or receiving our just  rewards—it’s always about restoration, renewal, and transformation.
And if God is ever disappointed in us, it’s not in a “well, you’ve let me down again”  way, it’s more because he knows what we can be, and he wants so desperately for us to stop pursuing dead ends and to become what he created us to be as quickly as possible.
But the promise and the power of unconditional love is that God will never give up until we have become the children of God he created us to be.
No, these other things never put an asterisk on God’s unconditional love.  To the contrary, his unconditional love puts an asterisk on them.  
Believe that.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Good and Very Good

In the creative process, one strives for perfection even while accepting that it will never be achieved.  When I write I want it to be perfect, and I am constantly revising.  I write a sentence and immediately ask myself, “Does this say what I want it to say, in the way I want to say it?  Can I say it better, more concisely, more vividly, more clearly?”  Sometimes I write a sentence and immediately know it’s bad.  Sometimes it’s so bad that I erase the whole thing and start over, but usually it’s a matter of some revising—changing a word , adding or deleting a clause, rearranging the order of things.  “There, that’s better,” I'll think.  Better.  Not perfect.  Not necessarily even good.  Just...better than it was.  An improvement.  I'll do the same thing with paragraphs, and finally, when it’s all written, I'll go back and read the whole thing, getting a sense of the flow.  I'll make other word or sentence changes.  Sometimes I'll see that a paragraph, good in isolation, isn’t so good as a part of the whole, and it’ll have to be revised or even eliminated.  In pursuit of perfection, this could go on endlessly.  Fortunately there are deadlines to meet—I need to send the article to Erin for her to include in the bulletin, or it’s 7:30 a.m. on a Sunday and I have to get to church, or I have other things I want to do with my life other than endlessly revise something I’ve written.  However the deadlines come, I have to say, “There.  That’s as good as it’s going to get.” Never have I said, “Wow, that’s perfect.  There is nothing more to do to make it better.”  Never.
Then the question is, when I read the thing again, will I see the good that I’ve written, or will the flaws, the weaknesses, the could-be-betters stand out so much that they overwhelm anything and everything else?  All too often it’s the latter.  “The good is the enemy of the great” is a common aphorism in many circles.  Translation: don’t settle for merely good, not even for merely very good.  Don’t stop until you reach the great.  And if the good is the enemy of the great, the great is the enemy of the perfect.  And that’s a tough standard to have to live up to.
Ask most people what the world was like when God created it, and most will say, “It was perfect.”  I know, because I have asked, and this is what I hear most often.  The world, before sin entered, was perfect.
But the word perfect is never mentioned is Genesis 1.  On day one God creates light.  Amazing stuff, this light.  Fastest thing in the universe, it’s heat and illumination and photosynthesis and all sorts of things.  And yet God simply says, “It’s good.”  And on it goes, day after day.  “It’s good.”  Then on the sixth day God says, “It’s very good.”  Now much is often made of the fact that God only says that creation is very good after he creates the humans, as if we are the pinnacle of all creation, but I rather think that God was saying, “This was the final piece.  There’s nothing more I need to add.”  The final piece isn’t necessarily the best piece—often isn’t—it’s just the last one.  It’s not the humans that make it all very good, it’s the whole thing taken together that he is pronouncing to be very good.
The point is, things went from good to very good, which means that things were never perfect.   Perfection can’t be improved; any change in perfection results in less-than-perfect.  But God’s goal in creation was never perfection; it seems that what he was going for was something that was good and very good and always with the potential to be even better.   Which means there was always something less than perfect.  But God doesn’t look at the less than perfect and say, “That’s bad, let’s scrap the whole thing,” he says, “That’s good, let’s make it better!
Do you find yourself thinking when God looks at you all he sees are the flaws?  I think God looks at you and all his children and says, “That’s very good!  Let’s keep going!”  That’s the process of spiritual transformation—he takes the good in us and makes it even better.  And God doesn’t work on a deadline when he has to say, “That’s as good as it will ever get.”  No, he has all of eternity.
And in Christ, so do we.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

A One-Issue Man

I know a lot of one-issue Christians, people who care about one cause or issue more than anything and advocate for that cause or issue almost exclusively.  A lot of times it’s the result of a recognition that they are only one person with limited time and limited resources, and so instead of spreading  their energy among several worthy issues or causes, they have decided to pick one that they care deeply about and concentrate everything they have in order to really make an impact.  But often there is something very personal about the issue—something that has happened in their past to them or someone they are close to that causes them to feel very deeply that no one else should have to ever experience that again, or, conversely, it was so good and so beneficial that everyone should experience it.  The former recognize that other people pursuing other causes are legitimately following Jesus and expressing their unique calling in the Body of Christ, but all too often people in the latter category treat their issue or cause as a sort of litmus test to determine who is really following Jesus.  The issue may be moral, like abortion or gay marriage, or it may be church related, like attendance at worship or participation in a discipleship group, or it may be a doctrinal issue, like women pastors or the literal interpretation of Scripture, but one issue is singled out so as to become the basis for an ultimate discriminating judgment, a litmus test, as to whether someone else is worthy of religious and moral respect. 
Now, it’s good to be passionate about things, as long as you realize that not every one will feel as passionately as you do, or even that everyone will agree with you.  Failure to recognize such leads to the deep polarization we see in our county in which we fail to listen to one another and refuse to have actual conversations and discussions with those with different viewpoints, instead engaging in caustic debates that, as the old saw goes, generate a lot of heat but little light.  I don't want to talk right now, however, about the level of discourse in our society; I have done so before and will do so again.  But here’s what I want to know: are we passionate about the things (or thing) that Jesus himself was passionate about?  Christians often do a good job of drawing Jesus into their debates and arguing that he supports their position, but do we do as good as job of looking at what issue or cause Jesus was most interested in and allowing ourselves to be drawn into that?  I'm not so sure.
Of course, that assumes that Jesus was a one-issue guy, but was he?  I believe so, although we have to recognize that each writer in the New Testament presents it in his own unique way.  But I think it is most clearly stated by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew.  At its center lies this challenge: Can you love an enemy? Can you truly forgive someone who has hurt you? Can you bless someone who has cursed you? Can you be good to those who have done you harm? Can you forgive a murderer?
This challenge is what sets Jesus' moral teaching apart from others and gives it its unique character - and its real teeth. This is meant to be the distinguishing mark of a follower of Jesus: he or she can love and forgive an enemy.  If the Gospel of Matthew, or perhaps the New Testament as a whole, gives us a litmus test for discipleship, this might be its one-line formulation: Can you love and forgive an enemy?   Luke nuances the same idea  in the form of a compassionate father who loves in equal measure a prodigal son and an angry, self-righteous son , and in the form of a Samaritan man who goes to great lengths to care for a man who is of a class of people who despise Samaritans.  Other examples abound, not just in the Gospels but in Paul and the other New Testament writers.
Christians need to get this right, and until we do—until we make Jesus’ one issue our issue—we will love our issues more than we love people.  But when we get this issue down, we will find that we can pursue these other things will fervor and passion while still being respectful, forgiving, and loving.