Friday, July 22, 2011

Honor Thy Father and Mother

Two years ago I discovered a jewel in the writings of the late Abraham Joshua Heschel. Dr. Heschel was a Hasidic rabbi and prominent leader in the 1960's civil rights movement. His wisdom and prescience on caring for the vulnerable in society still reverberate through today. Here is a nugget from him concerning care for the elderly, via Trent Gilliss of NPR's "On Being" blog:

What we owe the old is reverence, but all they ask for is consideration, attention, not to be discarded and forgotten. What they deserve is preference, yet we do not even grant them equality. One father finds it possible to sustain a dozen children, yet a dozen children find it impossible to sustain one father.

Perhaps this is the most distressing aspect of the situation. The care for the old is regarded as an act of charity rather than as a supreme privilege. In the never dying utterance of the Ten Commandments, the God of Israel did not proclaim: Honor Me, Revere Me. He proclaimed instead: Revere your father and your mother. There is no reverence for God without reverence for father and mother.

In Jewish tradition the honor for father and mother is a commandment, the perfect fulfillment of which surpasses the power of man. There is no limit to what one ought to do in carrying out this privilege of devotion. God is invisible, but my mother is His presence….”

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Interpretation and Representation

Doomsday religious groups have come and gone over the centuries and will continue to do so. It's bad enough that gullible followers give up jobs, school and life savings to follow misguided iconic figures who lead them not to the Promised Land, but to disillusionment. Such embarrassing spectacles also hurt the reputation of the followers of Christ overall, even those who are mature, stable and know better than to believe such rantings.

Harold Camping's declaration that May 21st would herald the rapture followed by the end of the world was brassy in its certitude, stating on thousands of billboards "the Bible guarantees it". Then there was this on his website:

Indeed, in the face of all of this incredible information, how can anyone dare to dispute with the Bible concerning the absolute truth that the beginning of the Day of Judgment together with the Rapture will occur on May 21, 2011.

Well! How can we dare to dispute the Bible? But that's not the question. The enormous flaw in this thinking is that disputing with the Bible wasn't at issue; it was disputing Harold Camping's really bad interpretation of the Bible. And it was atrociously bad interpretation; a labrinth of dates, numbers, math equations and huge assumptions. There are many biblical doctrines that still are unresolved in the thinking of biblical scholars after two millenia of study and debate, yet Camping supposed that he had aced them all regarding the most anticipated event in escatology. Far greater scholars have spent lifetimes of study and realized in humility that they only "see through a glass darkly".

Recall too that the religious leadership at the time of Christ believed that they had the coming of Messiah all figured out from the works of the prophets. When Jesus did not fit their interpretation of prophetic text regarding the Messiah, they plotted against Him and had Him crucified by their Roman overseers.

Gallileo was placed under house arrest by the Inquisition because his scientific work brought into question the church's interpretation of the Bible verses that refer to the "rising" and "setting" of the sun and of it "standing still" in the book of Joshua. From these descriptions the church held that the earth was the center of the universe and that the sun rotated around the earth. Gallileo believed that the scriptures were the Word of God and therefore were not wrong, yet his observations and mathematics showed that the earth rotated the sun. He held that the church's interpretation of scripture was wrong: those expressions were merely colloquialisms to describe what the sun looked like approaching morning and evening, not the actual mechanism of its movement.

Thus does poor interpretation, often mingled with a strong dose of pride, spawn bad representation of the Christian faith. The religious leadership of Jesus' time, convinced they had the one and only correct interpretation of the prophets' works, crucified Jesus not because He violated scripture, but because He violated their interpretation of the scripture. The same can be said of the atrocities of the Inquisition. The doomsday silliness of the Harold Campings of the world also are rooted in the same "my interpretation is right, case closed" mentality. All of them committed the error of dogmatically placing their commentary on scripture on par with scripture itself.

Another by product of this will be that fresh scorn will be heaped upon the Christian faith and all religions by the sneering likes of today's proselytizing atheists. In dishing out ridicule they commit the same fatal conceit: declaring emphatically that there is no God, period. Their interpretation of scientific data leaves no room for God and is absolute and infallible, case closed. The Camping debacle just proves to them that all religious believers are superstitious rubes. Radical atheists mock the Christian faith by committing the same error themselves, because prideful dogmatism is not constrained to the church.

An analogy I've cited before is that I work for an excellent company, selling an excellent service. The majority of the employees do excellent, professional work. But if one employee does a poor job representing the company to customers or to the public, it reflects badly on the company as a whole. The work of all the other fine employees are not what the offended customer or public sees. Their view of the company is shaped by the misrepresentation of the one bad apple.

So it is with Christianity. For every self appointed prophet, for every smarmy televangelist, for every pedophile priest there are tens of thousands of humble pastors, brilliant scholars and selfless lay workers who humbly serve in the garden of the Lord, but whom the world never perceives or acknowledges, because the charlatans in their midst cause them shame. The life savings forfeited by a misguided follower of Harold Camping represent temporal material loss. The value of the souls left adrift because bad behavior by Christians repelled them from the joy of God's redemptive love is incalculable.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Being Truly Counter Cultural

My generation, the "Baby Boom" generation, came of age during the tumultuous 1960's and later we were dubbed with another, more dubious label: The "Me Generation".

As in me...the center of the universe. Me, the main topic of all my conversations. It's all about me. My three favorite nouns are all pronouns, "me", "myself" and "I".

This second label comes as a rather dispiriting critique given that the "baby boomers" are the children of the generation Tom Brokaw labeled "The Greatest Generation" that toughed out some of the most daunting times in modern history: the Great Depression and World War 2. It would be a feat of unsurpassed fecklessness to weather both of those tempests and not emerge with noble character, sacrificing the longings of self for the needs of others. Thus, I believe, Brokaw's descriptor was apt.

With good intentions the parents who brought us into the world wanted desperately to deliver more to us than they had known in prosperity, education, peace and freedom. And so in many ways they indulged us and showered us with the fruits of their hard labor and striving to build a better world and shelter us from the hardships they had endured.

Yet as has been said good intentions can often pave the way to a certain toasty place. Good intentions may accomplish good, but they often also spawn unanticipated negative consequences.

My generation certainly took the foundation of prosperity and education bequeathed to us and super charged it. The houses and consumer goods we have today are the stuff of royalty compared to what our parents had. But we also produced the 1960's "counter culture" revolution with it's emphasis on self: self-actualization, self-fulfillment, getting in touch with self and the pursuit of pleasure as an end in life, not just a by product of more noble pursuits. Interestingly, perhaps as a counterweight to the guilt of self absorbtion, they also seized the aparatus of government benefits begun by the "greatest generation" and infused it with steroids, mushrooming it to gargantuan size, with much of the populace as addicted to taxpayer assistance as to the most powerful of drugs. And the segment of society indifferent to the needs of the suffering people amongst us, those who pursue material prosperity with reckless abandon, not caring who they hurt in the process, also squander the nation's financial well being by inflating market bubbles to the bursting point and the subsequent expensive, expansion of regulations to rein in such destructive behavior. We would not need the monumental expenses of today's regulatory state if people acted with more selflessness in their conduct.

The entertainment industry is a morass of self-absorbed celebrities that we mistakenly make into heroes to emulate. Nightly family entertainment is dominated by "reality shows" where each week's episode features people engaged in exibitionist self degradation while the nation peers through that window into their lives known as the television.

What happens nationally is the collective work of individuals, so turning to question of what qualities compose a person of greatness, I find that the single greatest indicator of character is the opposite of what the culture has come to value. That single characteristic of true greatness is selflessness. Not selfishness, but selflessness: the concious decision to be other centered; to not think of self first. Realizing this causes discomfort as I see how far I have to go in conquering the tendency toward self-absorbtion. But it has led to awareness of the work that must be done:

~If I have an impatient, irritable attitude, it’s usually for some self-centered reason. But when I have a heart ready to serve others, it fills me with joy.

~There are times when it is appropriate to tell or even order someone to do something. But but most of the time it is much more considerate and selfless to ask politely. A selfish person barks; an unselfish person asks.

~At the heart of person full of graciousness and kindness is a unselfish individual. But a person who is critical and complaining is full of self.

~A person who has an unselfish heart doesn’t go through life thinking they are always owed something, doesn’t care if they get credit for something, doesn’t need to be the center of attention, doesn’t worry about what others think about them.

~Unselfish people have joy, selfish people are some of the most miserable people you’ll ever encounter.

~Unselfish people have a quality of authenticity to their life. They don’t put on airs. They don’t have to impress. They are who they are, humble, with no pretense.

~Unselfish people have integrity. Acts such as lying, manipulating, stealing and other dishonesties are the predatory deeds of selfish people using others for personal gain.

~Unselfish people are generous and giving and consequently, full of joy; selfish people hoard and clutch to hold on to what they have, yet never find lasting satisfaction.

~Selfish people find it hard to forgive; unselfish people forgive and seek reconciliation when conflict arises between themselves and others. By withholding forgiveness, the offended person believes they are punishing their offender, when in reality they only punish themselves. The person who forgives freely lives free from the crushing burden that carrying a lifetime of offenses imposes.

~Unselfish people accept responsibility for their own actions without equivocation or blame shifting. The three hardest words to say in any language are "I was wrong." But we cannot attain to the true character of selflessness without them.

~Unsolicited kindness, expecting nothing in return, is probably one of the greatest expressions unselfishness. Abraham Joshua Heschel said "When I was young I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people."

As always these observations are not new and find more eloquent expression in the words of Scripture. Christ said: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it." (Matthew 16:24-25) To carry the cross meant death to self and Christ said that only through the ultimate giving up of one's self would one gain all.

Then Paul later had this to say of truly mature, unselfish love: "Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perserveres. Love never fails. (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a)

The greatest people I have known and from whom I want to learn and to emulate, have lived these values with seeming ease, while I find them to be a daily conflict with the relentless appetites of self. Yet it is an ongoing quest worth pursuing without giving up. If we can attain to this, we will truly be counter-cultural in a world consumed with self.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Life Cycles

His hands are aged, the knuckles seemingly enlarged, stretched over with the papyrus skin of the elderly. They are still surprisingly strong, these 93 year old hands, given that they do little more now than grip a walker for slow treks down the hall of an assisted living facility.

Twenty nine years ago I first shook the hand of my wife's grand dad, "Pappaw", a rancher in south Texas who had raised crops and livestock all his life. At 64 he was still as vigorous and robust as a much younger man. He still worked his ranch, managing livestock, operating equipment, wielding tools. Those hands could fix anything and could seize and lift loads that I would have struggled with, being 26 at the time.

His wife, "Nannie", was abuzz with activity and talk, running her household with vigor surprising for a woman of 62. She continued to travel, play tennis and card games well into her 80's. They were the stereotypical image of the western American couple: Pap, the strongly masculine, reticent patriarch; Nan, queen bee of the household, the matronly gadfly. They raised two daughters and a son, who in turn, produced nine grand children, who in turn, generated legions of great-grand children.

Though I was a "city boy", I was embraced into this vibrant, sprawling extended family melded inseparably togther by abiding love for one another and unshakeable Christian faith. Thus I entered a new world, coming from a household through most of my youth composed just of my mom and me and with only occasional visits with a few aunts, uncles and cousins around the country. I never knew any of my grandparents.

Psalms says that God "sets the lonely in families" and though I never was aware of feeling lonely, sometimes we cannot appreciate what we have never had. It took the warm embrace of a large family to bring awareness of what I had missed. And as part of this new found home, God gave me Nan and Pap, who became for me the grandparents I had never known.

We lost Nannie this past August when, after a long illness, she slipped the bonds of this life to enter the radiance of the next. We miss her sparkling laugh, her steady and sure walk with Christ, her strength of will and character and most of all her prayers for each of us that sustained us in ways perhaps not fully seen by our earthly eyes.

Pap is with us still...may we cherish his presence as long as possible. I saw him weep for the loss of his bride of 73 years. I had seen him silently weep once before as the family began packing to leave after Thanksgiving one year. Off to one side, the rugged, quiet cowboy expressed with silent tears the love he would have felt awkward verbalizing.

Life cycles unfold inexorably before our eyes if we can pause from harried living long enough to perceive. The parents we once depended on for feeding, to help us learn to walk, who buckled us into the car, will, in their twilight years, need the same tender care from us, their grown children. We will still call them "mom" and "dad" (and I notice that grown women often still refer to their fathers as "daddy"), but those endearments no longer symbolize our dependence on them. Rather, they are now dependent on us.

But our dependence hasn't entirely ended, for even as their aging hands clasp us for support, we lean on the love, character and values they built into us over a lifetime, which we will then hand over to our own children, one generation handing to the next.

Thank you, Nan and Pap, for the legacy you have handed down to each generation after you. May our hands bear it well.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Leftovers That Wouldn't Die

Zombies have made a come back in popular entertainment, and how else to explain the Christmas leftovers that keep climbing out of the refrigerator and into my lunch bag? Last week I thought that I had eaten the last of the Christmas dinner leftovers. "Free at last! Free at last!" I exulted.

Yet what should I find lurking in my lunch bag long after I thought I was safe but baked squash with cheese, a relic of Christmas day feasting. I am convinced that last week we did indeed eat the last of the leftovers, but that a few undetected spores of baked squash cloned themselves into a whole dish in a tupperware "petrie dish". Only a total decontamination procedure involving flames or chemical retardent will finally rid us of this scourge. And don't get me started talking about "pink salad".

All of this led to a discussion...no, scheming is a better word...between my youngest daughter and myself to break from Thanksgiving and Christmas tradition next year and ditch the traditional holiday dishes for something people may consider heretical. Like barbeque. Or Tex-Mex. Or Whataburger.

Seriously, do you really like dressing? Is there any other time of year when you would eat sweet potatoes in a casserole with pecans and marshmellows melted on top? Honestly, do you truly like these dishes even at holiday time? Yeah. That's what I thought. They are a twice-a-year indulgence (?) at best.

So next year...grilled steaks. Or shrimp scampi. Or shrimp with fettucini alfredo. Or even just grilled hamburgers. Something that we will devour to the last morsel on the spot, not a leftover in sight.

And what about Santa? Does he really like all those sugar cookies left out for him on Christmas Eve? Well, maybe one battle at a time.

At least someone seems to have driven a stake into the heart of fruit cake, since I haven't seen that show up for several years.