Monthly Archives: May 2011

Saying Good-bye

Christ’s Farewell to his Apostles from the Maesta altarpiece (1308-11) by Duccio di Buoninsegna

Good-byes are difficult, and I’ve said my share of them.  In the Navy I have said good-bye to my family before going on deployments and once when I went off to war. I’ve also said good-bye to friends and loved ones at funerals, which were sometimes sad but sweet, often gutwrenching and painful. When you leave those you love, whether for a little while or permanently, you wonder, Will those I am leaving behind be okay? Will they be strong, stay safe, and keep their faith?

For those being left behind,  it’s  even worse when the person saying good-bye doesn’t need to leave: when a spouse gives up on a marriage, when a parent abandons a child, when a person commits suicide, when a pastor leaves a congregation for greener pastures. All of these can be bewildering and painful experiences for those who are left behind. Jesus’ disciples faced such a crisis when he announced his coming departure.

In John 14-17, we find Jesus’ farewell address to his disciples. It consists of three discourses (14, 15:1-16:4a, 16:4b-33) and a prayer (17:1-14). From the first discourse comes this Sunday’s Gospel lesson, which you can read here: John 14:15-21. The theme of the initial discourse is comfort in the face of impending loss, and it begins with Jesus saying, “Let not your heart be troubled” (14:1).  

There are many people whose hearts are troubled. Some are troubled by the bad economic times and unemployment. It’s hard not to be anxious when you can’t pay your bills or make ends meet. Some are troubled by relationships. Husbands and wives fight. Parents and children don’t get along. There’s conflict and strife in the workplace. Some are troubled by the future. What will I do? Where will I go? Who will I become? Such questions can cause a great deal of anxiety. Jesus says to all of us, whatever our worry, “Let not your heart be troubled.”

Our passage begins with an often misunderstood promise. Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (15).  Some mistakenly take this as a command, like a parent who leaves on an errand and tells the child: “Behave! Do what you’re supposed to while I’m gone!” But that’s not what Jesus’ words mean. His words are actually a promise in the form of a conditional, if-then statement. Here’s the sense of the original Greek: “If you keep on loving me, you will keep my commandments” (Robertson’s Word Pictures). The disciples’ job is to continue to love Jesus after he has departed. If they do that, Jesus promised they will keep his commandments.  And by keeping his commandments, they demonstrate their love for Jesus (21). It is contradictory and sinful for us to say we love God and live like there is no God.

It’s not possible to keep God’s commandments by a sheer act of the will like the Little Engine, who said, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.” Name-it-and-claim-it theology won’t  work either. We can’t simply play mind games by “claiming victory” over sins.  Obedience flows from love. When you love someone it’s easier to do what they want. That’s why Jesus summarized the entire law in his twofold exhortation to love God and love your neighbor as yourself (Matt. 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34).  

Although there is no fully formed doctrine of the Trinity in the New Testament, we see all three persons of the Trinity in this passage. Jesus, the Son, asks God the Father, to send the Comforter, who is the Holy Spirit. Some people are bothered by the masculine language for God in the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—either because they think it sexist or because they had absent or abusive earthly fathers. To these people I say, “Let not your heart be troubled.” True, God was incarnated as a male, as Jesus. True, Christians have traditionally thought and spoken of God in masculine terms. However, we know God is a spirit and as a spirit God is neither male nor female.

Jesus calls the third person of the Trinity the “Comforter” (16). The word “Comforter” (Paraclete) means “someone who is called alongside to help,” an Advocate. Although God the Father is enthroned in heaven and Jesus is soon returning to be with him, the Holy Spirit remains with us, helping us. I wrote in a recent blog post, “If the thought of having Jesus alone disappoints us, if we think it’s not enough to make us happy and fulfilled, then we don’t know Jesus.” The same is true with the Comforter: if we are disappointed having the Holy Spirit’s presence instead of Jesus’ physical presence, then we don’t really know the Holy Spirit.

Jesus also calls the Holy Spirit “the Spirit of truth” (17). My friend Rev. Abby Thornton at Broadneck Baptist Church reminded her congregation this morning of the unique origin of the word “truth,” which is a form of aletheia in Greek. The word has two parts. The prefix a- means “un-” or “not” or “without” as in the English words “asymmetrical” (not symmetrical), “atypical” (not typical), and “amoral” (without morals).  The second part of the word comes from Lethe (LEE-thee),  which means “forgetfulness.” It was the name of the mythical river in Hades which caused dead souls to forget their lives on earth when they drank from its waters. So “aletheia” literally means “not forgetting.”  The Holy Spirit comforts us with his presence and with honesty, not denial.

When Jesus left his disciples, he promised them he wasn’t leaving for good (19). We don’t  know when Jesus will return, and it is misguided to predict his coming. Those who try to predict his return will be disgraced and sorely disappointed like Harold Camping, the preacher in California who said the world would end on May 21, 2011. Jesus said no man knows when he will return (Matt. 24:36, Mark 13:32). Still, I don’t believe all End Times enthusiasm is nutty. The early Christians eagerly awaited Jesus’ Second Coming. We should too. At the very end of the Bible we read the words, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20). Both Scripture and all of the great creeds and confessions of church history tell us that Jesus will come again to make all things whole. In the meantime, we should strive to keep his commandments, remembering that the greatest of these is love.

 Now that I’ve said a lot about love in the abstract, what does it mean to love God and your neighbor in concrete terms? Here’s your homework assignment. Complete the following two sentences: “If I really loved God, I would. . . .” and “If I really loved my neighbor, I would. . . .” Be specific. Don’t just say, “I’d pray more” or “I’d be a better husband.” Say instead, “I’d spend 10 minutes with God every morning before rushing off to work” or “I’d give my wife flowers once a week to show her I love her.” If we take this exercise seriously, I believe the Holy Spirit will convict us and give us some good ideas of what love for God and others should look like in our lives.  Then it’s just a matter of putting those ideas into practice. Try this exercise as an experiment and then let me know how it goes.

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Desiderata

The title of this 1927 poem is Latin for “desired things,” which seems appropriate since I’m studying for a Latin final. I’m not to keen on the couplet “Therefore be at peace with God / whatever you conceive Him to be,” because it sounds New Agey. Still, there’s a lot of wisdom here, so I thought I’d share it.

DESIDERATA

by Max Ehrmann (1872-1945)

Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
And remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly & clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull & ignorant;
they too have their story.

Avoid loud & aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain & bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.

Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing future of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs;
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity & disenchantment
it is perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue & loneliness.
Beyond wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.

You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees & the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labours & aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery & broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.

Be cheerful.

Strive to be happy.

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The Good Life

Shepherdess With Her Flock by Julien Dupree (1851-1910)

In the United States we have a national myth called “The American Dream,” which says that with hard work people can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and achieve the blessings of prosperity. In his book American Dreams in Mississippi, historian Ted Ownby identifies four dreams created by American consumer culture: the “Dream of Abundance” (materialism), the “Dream of a Democracy of goods” (economic equality), the “Dream of Freedom of Choice” (individualism), and the “Dream of Novelty” (newer is better). The mobility provided by affordable automobiles like Ford’s Model T allowed even those of modest means the ability to pursue these illusive dreams.

But is having an abundance of material possessions what the good life is all about? If economic prosperity satisfied people’s needs, then explain why the richest countries in the world have the highest suicide rates and the poorest countries, the lowest.

Maybe the good life isn’t a product of net worth or possessions but family. Country singer Kenny Chesney’s 2002 number one hit “The Good Stuff” celebrates the family and places the highest value on relationships. In the song a bartender who has lost his wife to cancer explains how he overcame his addiction to alcohol by remembering  how much his family meant to him:

He said I spent five years in the bottle when the
cancer took her from me
But I’ve been sober three years now
’Cause the one thing stronger than the whiskey
Was the sight of her holdin’ my baby girl
The way she adored that string of pearls
I gave her the day that our youngest boy Earl married
his high school love
It’s a new t-shirt sayin’ I’m a grandpa
Bein’ right there as our time got small
And holdin’ her hand when The Good Lord called her up
Yeah man, that’s the good stuff

Family is certainly important, it’s important to me, but what if you have no family or your family is abusive or dysfunctional? Is the “good stuff” only for those who get married, stay married, and live to see their grandchildren? Can singles and the childless not experience the good life? I’m not trying to belittle family or bash the song, but there’s gotta be something more than your family circumstances that accounts for happiness and fulfilment in life.

At the end of the Gospel reading for this Sunday (John 10:1-10), Jesus says, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10b). This statement is nestled between two parables, Christ the Door and the Good Shepherd, and each parable contains one of the seven “I am” sayings of Jesus. In the first story Jesus tells about sheep and the shepherd, abundance depends upon the sheep recognizing their shepherd’s voice and following him out of the shepfold. Mixing his metaphors, Jesus identifies himself both as the shepherd—the Good Shepherd (10:11)—and the “door” or “gate” to the sheepfold (10:9). In the passage we learn that the shepherd’s purpose is to give his own sheep abundant life, but curiously neither Jesus nor the John tells us exactly what it is.

By extending the metaphor we could presume that abundant life is like a sheep being led into peaceful meadows to chomp on fresh, green grass. Psalm 23 comes to mind: “he maketh me to lie down in green pastures” (2a). But he never comes out and says exactly what this peaceful life looks like for his followers, for real people like you and me.

He does make clear that the abundant life is something we can have here and now. We don’t have to wait until we die to get it. It’s also clear that it depends upon following Jesus. But consider what happened to those who followed God most faithfully. Cain murdered righteous Abel. Job lost everything he had: his wealth, his children, and even his health. God made Hosea marry a whore. John the Baptist was beheaded by Herod. Peter was crucified. Paul was beheaded in Rome. Tradition tells us that almost all of the Apostles met a martyr’s death. So either Jesus was wrong or the abundant life doesn’t guarantee wealth, family, health, or even physical safety.

So what is the abundant life? I think that’s the wrong question. It’s not a matter of what? but who? The abundant life is knowing Jesus. I don’t mean walking down an aisle and saying a prayer—what we Baptists call “gettin’ saved”—though that may be a part of it. (You can walk down the aisle, say wedding vows, and be legally married without having a relationship with your spouse.) Knowing Jesus is personal, spiritual, and life changing. If the thought of having Jesus alone disappoints us, if we think it’s not enough to make us happy and fulfilled, then we don’t know Jesus.

I’ve often sung the hymn “I’d Rather Have Jesus” but do I really mean it? Would I rather have Jesus than material possessions, family, health, and safety? Do I want him more than I want my goals and dreams to be fulfilled? Do you?

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Do Not Rejoice

One of the senior instructors in the ethics department at the U.S. Naval Academy where I teach tells a story about the officers of a Navy warship, who were celebrating their successful cruise missile attack on an enemy target, giving each other high-fives in the wardroom when the chaplain spoke up: “Let’s keep in mind that we just killed a lot of people.” To which another officer replied, “What do you want me to do, feel bad about it?” It’s a good question. How should we feel about killing our enemies in wartime?

Across America citizens celebrated the death of Osama Bin Laden on May 2 after the president announced that our military forces had killed the Al Qaeda leader in his hideout in Pakistan. Here in Annapolis the midshipmen swarmed into T-court, the quad in front of the main building Bancroft Hall. Late into the night they shouted “U-S-A,  U-S-A,  U-S-A!” The middies were celebrating as if their football team had won a national championship. Similar celebrations took place at West Point, in Times Square, and in our nation’s capital.

In a very thoughful editorial,  David P. Gushee, Professor of Ethics at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology, reminds us of a verse in proverbs, which says, “Do not rejoice when your enemies fall” (Prov. 24:17). At the risk of soundling like a clerical killjoy, I have to agree with Gushee . . . and Scripture. It’s not right to gloat over your enemies’ destruction.

While I am glad the leader of Al Qaeda is gone, I feel uncomfortable with the exuberance at his passing. Being pro-life means more to me than being anti-abortion. It means believing that the life of every human being sacred, even the life of an evil man like Bin Laden. What do you think?

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