Thursday, July 8, 2010

Losing Generations

But you were unwilling to go up; you rebelled against the command of the LORD your God. You grumbled in your tents… When the LORD heard what you said, he was angry and solemnly swore: “Not a man of this evil generation shall see the good land I swore to give your forefathers.” (Deuteronomy 1.26-27, 34-35)

Essential Reading

Commenting on the July 4 post on Christian and civic responsibility, Philomena Ewing guided me to an article by Ron Rolheiser, a Roman Catholic priest and the president of San Antonio’s Oblate School of Theology. His piece—also dated July 4, also on faith and politics—consists of “fragments” gleaned from talks by Dr. Walter Brueggemann, noted Old Testament scholar and United Church of Christ minister. As Fr. Rolheiser lays out his lecture notes, the double space between them feels less like formatting than pastoral suggestion: “Think about this.” Halfway down, I paused to digest three notes on Deuteronomy, a book I apparently don’t know as well as I should. Here are choice fragments:

The Book of Deuteronomy is one of the greatest social documents ever written... It directs faith always to the poor, towards “widows, orphans, and strangers.” [It] might be the most subversive document in the entire Old Testament… Deuteronomy keeps reminding us that we once all were slaves and that it is not good to have amnesia. We should not absolutize the present and imagine it has always been this way.

Are we reading different books? Though less tedious than Leviticus and Numbers, I find Deuteronomy ponderous. From this side of Calvary, the do-this-or-else messaging holds little appeal. Yet the article indicates Deuteronomy ranks high (or should) on Christians’ essential-reading list. The suggestion comes by way of Christ Himself:

In the temptations of Jesus in his dialogue with the devil, he quotes scripture three times and each time it is a passage from Deuteronomy.

I never realized that. Without pause of any kind, I opened Deuteronomy and it instantly began to speak new things—remarkably relevant things I’ve glossed over countless times.

Fearful, Reluctant, and Pessimistic

The book’s Christian title, Deuteronomy, is a misnomer based on a Greek word meaning “Second Law.” Reading it as law drains its life by playing up the or-else angle. The Hebrew Bible calls it Devarim, which translates as Things or Words. This makes sense, since the book is an anthology of five sermons Moses preaches near the end of his life. He and his people are in transition. They will soon part ways. Leadership will pass to a new generation. If it’s to succeed where Moses and his generation failed, there are vital things to remember. Thus, Deuteronomy serves many functions, as a leader’s guide, memoir, theological treatise, social policy manual, and valediction. Yet tone and content make plain its chief purpose: pressing one generation to learn from another’s mistakes. At this stage in Moses’s life, regret for his failures mutes the triumph of his exploits. He’s led Israel out of Egypt, but he’s not led them out of themselves. After 40 years, they’re still fearful, reluctant, and pessimistic.

Deuteronomy opens with Israel overlooking Canaan, yet strangely ambivalent about seizing it. Moses sends 12 men to spy out the land. They return with two findings—one good, one not so good. The land is all that God promised. (They even bring back fruit to whet Israel’s appetite to take it.) But when they also report stronger, taller people possess the territory, that’s all Israel hears, even though the spies are eagerly optimistic: “It is a good land that the LORD our God is giving us.” (Deuteronomy 1.25) Moses indicts Israel’s spineless reaction: “You were unwilling to go up; you rebelled against the command of the LORD your God. You grumbled in your tents and said, ‘The LORD hates us; so he brought us out of Egypt to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us.’” (v26-27) While God has habitually forgiven Israel’s grumbling and pessimism, this time He exacts a steep price. He swears, “Not a man of this evil generation shall see the good land I swore to give your forefathers.” (v35) And though Moses accredits this to God’s anger, one sees the providence in His decision. He’s severing one generation from another’s mistakes.

We Must Go Up

Much of the Old Testament adopts the theme of learning from mistakes. But Deuteronomy’s stress on a community’s previous failures adds wealth worth considering. We no longer enter Israel’s story identifying with it as a whole. We must choose sides. Will we justify the hesitance and fear of Moses’s generation, given its slave beginnings and decades of hardship? Or will we embrace the next generation’s optimism and courage? If we choose the latter (and it’s obviously the better choice), Deuteronomy challenges us to desert our tents of grumbling and pessimism. We must know God hasn’t brought us through our wildernesses to destroy us. He has promised us a land where we will grow and prosper. Yes, it’s populated with people and institutions taller and stronger than we. But we must go up. Yes, there are pulpits some say we aren’t tall enough to fill. But, still, we must go up. Yes, there are church doors some say we’re not strong enough to open. Still, we must go up. Yes, there are laws and prejudices and taboos some say we’ll never change. But we must go up.

We can’t wait for those who won’t shake chains and hardships of the past to mend their ways. Waiting enslaves us with their fear, reluctance, and pessimism. Meanwhile, we’re losing generations to their predecessors’ mistakes. Time quickly slips into the future. Sooner than we realize, the promises of God calcify into utopian ideals, not ordained realities. Getting close enough to see Canaan across the river and taste stolen bites of its sweetness gets us no closer to the good land the Lord our God is giving us. We have a choice: follow tradition—take to our tents of grumbling and gloom—or ignore tradition and go up, seizing God’s promises with great courage and optimism. We must go up.

As long as we dwell in tents of grumbling and pessimism, we’ll perpetuate the mistakes of past generations. Only by greeting present challenges with courage and optimism will future generations flourish.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Designated Drivers

Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins. (James 4.17)

Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people. (Proverbs 14.34)


I’m not easily offended. I’ve inadvertently offended enough people in my time to grant license to others, assuming it’s never their intention to offend. The other day, however, I saw a t-shirt that truly galled me. “Designated Driver,” it said, with this below: “(I drive people to drink.)” The pun worked on a literal level, but it didn’t sit well with me. It seemed to indicate sober, responsible people are dull, boring, unpleasant company, etc. In this instance, I took offense for very personal reasons. My father lost his only sibling to a man who was too drunk to know he was driving full speed, lights-out, down the wrong side of a two-way highway. As often happens, the other driver lived. After serving time for involuntary manslaughter, he reunited with his family. Meanwhile, our family lives in hope of the day we’ll see Cyrus again. Had the t-shirt said I save lives or I protect families, I’d have hugged the guy who wore it. But picturing designated drivers as dull enablers rubs me the wrong way. Given my family’s tragedy, I find them uniquely exciting disablers. They perform a civic duty of highest importance.

With numerous national celebrations slated in July (Canada Day, Independence Day, Bastille Day), civic duty merits sober consideration for people of all faiths. God appoints us as His surrogates, to protect and care for His Creation—all of it. We serve as stewards of righteousness in our homes, our communities, our nations, and our planet. We’re essentially designated drivers. Our task consistently boils down to disabling potential harm to others by shouldering responsibility for their travel. To push the metaphor a bit, we’re charged to maintain sobriety, vigilance, and concern for the greater good. Sometimes this requires bold action to take keys from people reeling under the influence of popular poisons. Sometimes we forego indulging in our favorite intoxicants—behaviors and attitudes that make us high—to remain clear-headed so we can help the staggering and disoriented around us safely find their way home.

Dual Citizenship

Separation of church and state is a divinely ordained principle. The Gospels record a well-known episode in which the Pharisees and their political allies attempt to trap Jesus with a civics question. First, they butter Him up, saying, “Teacher, we know you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.” (Mark 12.14) Then they come in for the kill. Having implied Jesus’s sole concern is obedience to God, they ask, “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Their hypocrisy is transparent to Jesus. The group challenging Him verifies Israel’s religious and civic leaders have bedded down together. Their purpose is luring Him into a policy debate. Jesus doesn’t falter for a second, though. He shows them a coin and asks, “Whose face is on this?” They tell Him it’s Caesar’s face. That settles the question. “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s,” Jesus says, after which Mark notes, “And they were amazed at him.” (v17)

Jesus teaches politics and faith are mutually exclusive—but He stresses we’re to honor our duties to both. As followers of Christ and members of society, we hold dual citizenship. The laws of God’s kingdom govern our participation as individuals in human affairs. Paul brilliantly encapsulates divine governance in Romans 14.17: “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Our sacred and civic duties as designated drivers synch up in our commitment to righteousness, peace and joy. We embrace religious and political policies ensuring justice, amity, and personal happiness. On the other hand, we abhor all policies—church or state-mandated—that poison with deceitful rationales for injustice, strife, and human suffering. Our obligations as dual citizens of God’s kingdom and His world demand this of us. We’re ever aware service to God is service to others, and service to others is service to Him.

Righteousness Flows Up

Contrary to received thought, politics and faith don’t intersect in the public arena. They don’t meet in personal life. Their paths cross in the privacy of one’s heart. It’s there we retain the knowledge of right and wrong, good and evil. This holds true for everyone, regardless of faith or civic conviction. In Romans 2.14, Paul explains human beings’ instinctive capacity to know what’s right and good shows “the requirements of the law are written on their hearts.” Thus, righteousness flows up. It cannot be legislated top-down. It must grow in obedience to laws inscribed in our hearts, where desire to please our Maker is born and dwells.

Should we override our hearts, we can easily forget our responsibilities as Christians and citizens. While this is unfortunate in human terms, in God’s kingdom, it’s a prosecutable offense. “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins,” James 4.17 warns. What’s more, the ramifications of neglect cross all borders. They shame God’s people and our fellow citizens. Proverbs 14.34 says, “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people.” In the midst of this month’s fireworks and anthems, as our pulses pound with patriotism and our lips recite idealistic platitudes, we hear our hearts call for righteousness. When that call drives our thoughts and actions, we’ll become worthy Christians and citizens, the designated drivers God would have us be.

It's our duty as people of God and citizens of the world to uphold righteousness and help those who’ve lost their way safely home.

Postscript: Listening

Writing today’s post brought to mind a favorite Carole King song—“I Think I Can Hear You.” This is the only video I found of it, and its imagery appears chosen for personal significance. But as I watched it, the pictures still spoke to me as random images of life and how listening to our hearts leads us to righteousness. I hope you enjoy it. (And for my American friends, have a safe and happy Fourth!)