Tuesday, February 8, 2011


In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. Like clothing you will change them and they will be discarded. (Psalm 102.25-26)

Replacing New With Newer

Hearts that cherish freedom and democracy have rejoiced worldwide while watching the first two weeks of the Egyptian revolution. Yet over the past weekend those same hearts sank as reports of the current regime’s concessions belied a baldly sinister motive. The government’s selective compromises were designed to placate the middle and upper classes that shocked the world by joining ranks with the poor and young to demand change. The strategy seemed to work; it appeared life was returning to “normal”—shops reopened, traffic gummed the streets, and banks were back in business. Masses that poured into Tahrir Square went home, leaving a few hundred diehards camped in makeshift tents like squatters. This was as Mubarak & Friends intended. Fully aware crushing the revolution was no option, they shrewdly tried to isolate its leaders, expecting to wear them down until the movement literally vanished before the world’s eyes. (Their cynicism may have backfired, however. Today, tens of thousands of disgruntled citizens retook to the streets. We pray they persist until repression is vanquished and legitimate self-rule becomes the law of the land.)

Observing the conflict from afar—reacquainting ourselves with hope’s elusive ideals and fragile realities—reminds us how rapidly humans get worn down. Fatigue and waning commitment waylay far too many quests for peace, freedom, and justice in comparison to those that succeed through tireless stamina and tenacity. Nowhere is this more frequently seen than in consumerist cultures, where replacing new with newer is the norm. So little we possess endures, not because it won’t last—as advertisers would have us believe—but because faith and loyalty no longer have staying power. Obsession with newer-better-faster-bigger easily spills into our regard for intangibles that sustain our stability and ideals. Grabbing one thing and tossing it aside for another has become a way of life, which is why Americans failed to mount a decisive campaign against the Iraqi War, the French have yet to rally effectively against ethnic inequality, Russians settle for faux democracy, and China’s new capitalists show no interest in ending political oppression. It’s why we find the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts refreshing. Seeing a people commit to whatever it takes, as long as it takes, to rid itself of corruption and injustice has become so rare it actually looks new. Finally, it’s also why so many resist believing in a God Whose nature and promises endure. Everlasting sounds a whole lot like out-of-date to us. So we let God go for trendier “spirituality” and “consciousness”--replacements that taste very similar to faith yet offer none of the sustenance provided by tireless, tenacious trust in the nature and promises of God.

Sameness Isn’t Stasis

I’m increasingly convinced fixation with novelty rests at the core of our greatest struggles, as a species and as cultures, communities, and individuals. We’ve severed the cord that connects endurance with reliability, timelessness with truth. Thus, when we read of God’s timeless endurance, we’re apt to brush it aside before affording it attention it deserves. What do we take from Psalm 102.25-26? “In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. Like clothing you will change them and they will be discarded.” It’s easy. God remains the same while everything else comes and goes. “Fine,” we say. “What else you got?” We look for something newer and more exciting than that, never imagining that God’s enduring nature and promises are consistently the newest, most exciting aspects of our faith. That’s entirely our fault for mistaking “God remains” to mean “God’s stuck.” As a result, the text winds up revealing less about God than how poorly we comprehend God. If we knew God better, we’d understand God’s sameness isn’t stasis. Indeed, with God, sameness is anything but stasis, remaining is the complete opposite of being stuck.

From Genesis to Revelation, newness defines God’s sameness. Creativity and experimentation are the hallmarks of God’s nature and promises. Nearly every page of the Bible finds God coming up with fresh ideas and attempting new approaches. Yes. Attempting—not instituting, and by no means always succeeding. Relentless compulsion to partner with humanity fuels God’s drive to create and experiment. That introduces a wide margin of error that sends God back to the drawing board again and again. In fact, it’s neither inaccurate nor sacrilegious to read the Bible as a chronicle of divine disasters. Eden is a failure. The Flood punishes human waywardness but doesn’t correct it. God’s promised greatness and pledged fidelity to Abraham become Israel’s excuse for arrogance and irresponsibility. The Law of Moses turns into a recipe for sin and injustice. Prosperity doesn’t work. Nor does hardship. The switch from fear of retribution to faith in redemption through Christ launches 2000 years of religious debate, strife, and hatred. Yet, with astonishing, superhuman endurance, God keeps doing new things and finding new ways to revolutionize our lives in order to restore the relationship we were created to have with God. The objective remains the same. But God’s sameness is evidenced by persistent willingness to invent new ways to meet the objective. Jeremiah sums up this contradiction in Lamentations 3.23, saying God’s mercies “are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”

The Face in the Mirror

We don’t know who composed Psalm 102. All we’re told is it’s “a prayer of an afflicted person who has grown weak and pours out a lament before the LORD.” While we wish we had more background linking historical events to the poem’s vivid description of flagging determination—as we often do with David’s blues tunes—perhaps it’s best we don’t. The face in the mirror can be anyone’s, even ours. Life’s afflictions and fears often feel endless, causing us to grab one thing, toss it aside, and reach for another, thinking that latest, allegedly greatest must be the best. In the end, these novelties turn out to be the same old nonsense repackaged in new wrapping. What the psalmist concludes (and we should, too) is enduring doubts and struggles call for an enduring God Who remains but isn’t stuck, Who’s timeless yet never out of date, Who’s sameness isn’t static, Who’s always new, constantly creative, and eager to try fresh approaches. The sun will never rise on the day God’s nature and promises aren’t the newest things we possess. God’s faithfulness ensures they’re new every morning. We rely on that and nothing else.

Modern obsession with newness urges us to look elsewhere for answers to our struggles, when God’s enduring nature and promises are forever new.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Do the Right Thing Right

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. (Matthew 5.17)


I’m a big biography nut who finds enormous pleasure in reading how history unfolds in the lives of people who make it. Absent the filter of their talents and compulsions, fortes and flaws, the human story seems, well, less human. It devolves into dates and events that feel too arbitrary and neat compared to the messiness of modern life. I’m less a fan of biographical movies, however, as time constraints typically mandate conflation. Melding two or more lives into an emblematic figure or similar dilemmas into a single conflict often enhances pace and clarity. Yet what gets lost is the reminder human struggle and progress don’t happen quickly and clearly. Ongoing authorship of our story entails tremendous patience and precision in the writing, revisions, and edits of a record that’s anything but arbitrary, neat, and concise. We constantly need to be reminded of this by revisiting our predecessors’ lives if we’re to make sense of our own.

Conflation especially hounds me in certain Gospel passages, where the writers merge material to help organize our thoughts, hold our attention, and spare us the ordeal of sifting for essentials and consistency of message. For example, it appears Matthew’s detailed transcription of The Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7) conflates a number of Jesus’s sermons into one record. Shards of it pepper Mark’s gospel, while Luke 6.17-49 offers an abbreviated version (curiously set “on a level place,” not a mount) with a few omitted sayings turning up elsewhere. While one supposes Matthew gets points for crystallizing Jesus’s basic doctrine into one easily found passage, he also loses them by suggesting His message appeared fully formed, all at once, and free of social, political and religious immediacy.

In other words, the conflation invites us to read the Sermon as a collection of platitudes akin to Confucius’s Analects or Gibran’s Prophet. Easily found doesn’t translate into easily read or understood, unfortunately. One minute Jesus talks about our roles as the salt and light of the world. The next, He’s onto legal issues like slander, adultery, perjury, and retribution. That’s chapter 5. Chapter 6 runs a gamut that includes helping the needy, prayer, fasting, materialism, and trust in divine provision. In 7 we hear admonition not to judge, the Golden Rule, and resisting human wisdom. And while The Beatitudes at the top of the Sermon set an immensely useful tone, they offer little guidance regarding how and why these seemingly random comments hang together. That we find in Matthew 5.17—one of the Sermon’s least quoted, most misunderstood, and habitually abused verses: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” It’s the pivot on which everything else turns.

Convention, Custom, and Etiquette

Whether Jesus does, in fact, deliver The Sermon on the Mount in one sitting or spreads it over three-and-a-half years of ministry, the problem He addresses is the same. With few exceptions, His primary audience consists of everyday people whose values, thoughts, and behaviors are steeped in rigidly religious, proudly devout cultural tradition. Mosaic laws and customs are so profoundly imbedded in first-century Jewish culture that Rome treats Palestine as a case apart. Unlike other conquests, the Jews’ religious and legal systems remain intact, with Roman ideology of Caesar’s divinity and absolute power existing in uneasy parallel, like a shadow government beside the majority regime. This endows Jewish religious leaders, teachers, and lawyers with final authority over every aspect of daily life. In the interest of protecting Jewish identity and beliefs at all costs, they effectively turn Palestine into a police state, closely monitoring each citizen’s activities. Scofflaws, non-conformists, and social liabilities are banned from a community ironically founded on principles that adamantly promote tolerance, justice, and compassion. During previous periods of independence and foreign oppression, prophets arose to oppose trends forsaking these values. But given the delicate balance of power shared by Romans and Jews, any rabbi who advocates adherence to principle over legal compliance is a threat to Palestine’s stability and survival. Jesus—by far, the most radical Upholder of principle—may be a big hit with His followers. But He’s an even bigger menace to those charged with protecting Jewish interests.

Jesus knows this. He’s astutely aware His mission to restore divine principle flies in the face of contemporary obsession with behavior. Oddly enough, the establishment’s heavy-handed enforcement results in what may be the most law-abiding period in Jewish history. Rampant idolatry, violence, and carnality seen throughout the Old Testament aren’t consistent with Jesus’s day. (Who knew it would take Caesar, a self-proclaimed god, to drive Jews to embrace God’s edicts?) Yet in their compliance Jesus finds something worse than flagrant immorality. He sees self-delusion. Conformity minus principle equals unprincipled behavior. He looks at a people doing the right thing without right reasons. When He testifies, “I’m not here to abolish the law and prophets, but to fulfill them,” He’s urging His listeners to do the right thing right. The problem isn’t the law and prophets. It’s their reduction to code for convention, custom, and etiquette.

Overly Exercised

The dynamic at the root of Jesus’s concerns hasn’t changed. The Church exists in uneasy parallel with secular governments and cultures that oppose principles of our faith. Religious leaders, teachers, and legalists assume responsibility for protecting Christian identity and beliefs at all costs. In the process, many forsake principle to obsess with behavior. That’s what those outside the faith find most confusing. They can’t perceive how so many of us can become overly exercised about rules at the expense of principles they’re meant to reinforce. “Where are tolerance, justice, and compassion?” they ask. It’s a question that rarely crosses the legalist’s mind. All that matters is doing the right thing, with no consideration that the right thing can be done the wrong way.

Christ’s laws and instruction aren’t the problem. Reducing them to code for convention, custom, and etiquette is where we err. Misreading Jesus’s insistence He came to fulfill the law and prophets to mean blind compliance to Biblical directives somehow honors His purpose will lead us astray every time. Jesus commands us to do the right thing right—to live the principles of the law, not leverage the law to enforce conformity. It goes beyond practicing what we preach. Fulfillment of Christ’s laws is about preaching the practice of principles.

We may all start out in the same direction, but if we allow obsession with behavior to overtake obedience to principle, we’ll end up doing the right thing the wrong way.