Friday, March 4, 2011

Sacred Love

Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces. (Matthew 7.6)

Love Junkies

Compassion, or actively expressed love, is a noble thing—the noblest thing, according Jesus, Who teaches us that, concomitant with wholly loving God, loving our neighbors as ourselves fulfills the Law. It’s also a sacred thing to be handled with utmost respect and care. To love unconditionally should not be misinterpreted to mean indiscriminately, without first considering whether our compassion will be welcomed and appreciated. Repeatedly, Jesus moots any question of whom we should love. The answer is always, “Everyone—including enemies—equally.” At first, the enormity of this takes us aback. But, with much prayer and persistence, love becomes our defining ideal. We feel its weight in every decision. Am I thinking love? Expressing love? Speaking love? We see the wisdom of Proverbs 10.12 borne out in matters great and small: “Hatred stirs up conflict, but love covers over all wrongs.” Wondrous as this is, though, we should also be mindful of downsides that come if enthusiasm for compassion dulls our sense of its sacredness. We can never love too much. But we can love too freely.

The more we find we’re governed by love, the more we’re prone to a sort of euphoric fervor. It’s “Love! Love!” all the time, everywhere we go, with everyone we meet. If they want to hear it or not, we make sure they know we love them without condition. Some of us get so caught up in loving others we go out of our way to tell them, “Hate me as much as you like, I still love you.” Others of us lose our minds to love. We slip from tolerance and compassion into indulgence and carelessness. “To prove I love you, I’ll never disagree with you or prevent you from harming yourself, another, or me.” Stances like these have a very potent—almost narcotic—effect; they trigger compassion highs that leave us feeling happy and powerful. But true compassion’s purpose focuses entirely on the recipient; benefits to the giver are afterthoughts, secondary at best.

If we love for the sensation, our motives are screwed up. We abuse love’s sacredness for pleasure, like idealistic love junkies who write poems, draw posters, and sing songs about how good love feels. Remember: while Jesus advocates ideals, He’s indubitably a Realist. There’s a real purpose in teaching us to love unconditionally—and hence we must love on purpose. That entails serious consideration of how we love. And before we do anything else with compassion, we must honor and protect its sacredness.

Say What?

I’m a child of the late 60s-early 70s who doodled bubble-lettered LOVE icons on any surface amenable to fluorescent markers. “Make Love, Not War” was our motto and every tune in the air—from “All You Need is Love” to “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” theme—seemed to trumpet love’s grooviness. So when I open The Sermon on the Mount and hear Jesus sound compassion’s drumbeat in verse after verse, it’s mother’s milk. I’m trucking through Matthew 5 and 6, higher than a kite. I turn to chapter 7, read the injunction against judging, and I say, “Right on, Jesus!” Then, verse 6 slaps me in the face: “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.” Say what? What happened to all the love and forgive and go beyond business? Why is Jesus suddenly saying, “Don’t give,” and calling people dogs and pigs? Everything about it feels wrong—especially after we’re told not to judge others.

What brings this on? The commentaries net little help. The writers—most being stiff-collared, male defenders of the faith—pounce on the chance to talk some God-smack. Wesley’s Notes reflect the general tone: “Talk not of the deep things of God to those whom you know to be wallowing in sin, neither declare the great things God hath done for your soul to the profane, furious, persecuting wretches.” Wow. No love lost there. To be fair, Jesus makes similar statements elsewhere. In Matthew 10.14, He tells the disciples not to bother with people who won’t listen. He even practices what He preaches. In Nazareth, when His hometown rejects His teaching, He walks off and, as far as we know, never returns. (Luke 4)

But why introduce such a volatile topic in this context? Why use such corrosive imagery—ungrateful dogs and ravenous pigs? It seems (in my inexpert opinion, anyway) Jesus intentionally raises a reality check for people like me, who get a little woozy from all the heady love talk. He splashes cold water in our faces, reminding us love is precious, a rare treasure not to be handled cheaply or showered indiscriminately on those who will neither receive nor respect it. Basically, then, Wesley and his buddies are correct. But I think their skew is off. It’s less about not giving to ungrateful dogs and ravenous pigs than reminding us our compassion is too sacred and dear to squander on them. Must we love them? Absolutely. Must we make them pet projects, relentlessly striving to love the ambivalence, hatred, and violence out of them? No. Jesus says it’s a futile, filthy, and even potentially dangerous endeavor.

Compassion is Contractual

If we’re to make the most of God’s love in our lives, it’s essential we detach Christ’s principle of love from its practice. Obedience to principle is a personal decision each of us confirms individually: “I will love everyone equally, without condition.” We remove hatred and animosity from our hearts to give love full sway. We resist resentful and rancorous impulses to regard anyone as less than us, less worthy of love than us. Yet we can’t forget compassion—love’s practice—is contractual. It transpires between others and us, and therefore involves mutual consent: we agree to love; they agree to be loved. We can honor our end of the deal sincerely and diligently. Without their participation, however, our compassion has no real value.

That’s where the principle’s practical underpinnings rear up. Our love is forever sacred because it’s wholly self-contained, born of personal desire and sustained by self-determination. While our compassion is also sacred, it’s subject to dismissal, mistreatment, and dishonor by others. We must safeguard it. That’s why Jesus paints such an alarming picture of misguided compassion. Mongrels sniffing at sacred love as if it were garbage, pigs crushing priceless compassion and devouring the eager soul who offered it should repulse and terrify us. Therein lies the lesson. We can never love too much. We can love too freely.

Compassion is too sacred to be devalued by dismissal, mistreatment, or dishonor.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

We All Have Thorns

In order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. (2 Corinthians 12.7)

In the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. (Matthew 7.2)

“They’re Like Me!”

Bette Midler told a story at a 1976 concert I attended. If I’ve told it here before, I beg your indulgence, since it bears repeating in light of today’s texts. “Walking down the street,” she said, “I met a lady with a fried egg stuck to her forehead. I prayed, ‘Dear God, don’t let me end up like her, wandering around with a fried egg on my forehead.’ I thought some more and prayed, ‘If I do end up like her, please don’t let people notice.’ I walked on and changed my prayer again. 'If they notice, please don’t let them laugh at me.' Finally, I prayed, ‘Dear God, if I do end up with an egg on my head and people do see and laugh, please don’t let me know they’re mocking me.’” After the laughter faded and the room grew still, Bette said, “Because, when you think about it, we all have eggs stuck to our heads.” The audience sat in silence a moment before bursting into applause.

The parable collapses the polite (and convenient) distance we put between people we don’t understand and us by saying, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Such charitable regard implies we’re less troubled or more blessed than they. Either way, we come out ahead, don’t we? Intentionally or not, a strand of pride twists into our gratitude. When we encounter people crippled by addictions and attitudes we’d never tangle with, it’s easy to focus on what torments them, not the frailty spawning their defeat. We forget we’re all weak. We’re all vulnerable. We all wear eggs. The type of egg isn’t the thing. Be it addiction, selfishness, intolerance, and on and on, it’s still an egg.

That changes the detached empathy of “but for God’s grace” to an immediately honest—and unsettling—“They’re like me!” I may not be an alcoholic scratching out existence on the street. But he’s like me. I may not be an enraged driver cursing at traffic. Still, she’s like me. I may not be society’s worst—a killer, pedophile, embezzler, et al. But seeing them paraded on TV in jail jumpers and handcuffs, I see they’re like me. Once I get this truth instilled in my heart, then I can say, “But for God’s grace…” My egg is no better or worse than another’s. Nor is my need for grace any less. That’s why knowing God’s grace is so vital to each of us. It’s why extending God’s grace is what we do. Today’s readings—which brilliantly couple Jesus’s edict against judging with Paul’s confession of frailty—make this vividly clear.

The Self-Honesty Filter

Paul’s metaphor is much less benign than an egg signaling his weakness. He speaks of a “thorn in the flesh” as his source of torment. It’s something in him that makes him think, look, sound, and act crazy. Since he doesn’t say what it is, theories abound. Is it an actual physical infirmity? Oblique mentions elsewhere of Paul’s eye problems support this idea. Yet he also discloses other frailties he fights to overcome. Then, we detect a few on our own that emerge inadvertently in his tone and topics. We know Paul battles intellectual pride and impatience with those who dispute him. He’s ferociously protective of churches he leads and unleashes diatribes against anyone who usurps his authority. Whatever the thorn may be, apparently it’s so overt he needn’t spell it out to his readers. His point isn’t focused on what the thorn is, anyway. He’s more interested in why he’s tormented. “To keep me from being conceited,” he writes in 2 Corinthians 12.7, “I was given a thorn in my flesh to torment me.” The weakness Paul aches to be rid of persists to keep him humble. Physical or not, it alerts him to his blind spots. When seeing others battle frailties that make them think, look, sound, and act crazy, it enables him say, “They’re like me!”

Using self-honesty as the filter through which we regard others is the rudiment in Jesus’s command that we judge no one. He couldn’t be more explicit: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7.1-2) Jesus’s metaphor of choice is wood. “Why do you look at a speck of sawdust in someone else’s eye and ignore the plank in yours? How can you correct someone else’s vision when you obviously can’t see yourself?” (v3-4) Should I detect blindness in you, before I rush to judge your inability to see, I need to do a quick mirror-check. Hopefully, what’s blinding me isn’t so enormous I won’t see I’ve got sight issues, too. My condemnation of you condemns me. As soon as I see that, my response no longer is “How can you be so blind?” It’s “You’re like me!”

Kept by Grace

Jesus’s metaphor leads to a different result than Bette’s egg and Paul’s thorn, however. He instructs us to “take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (v5) It’s an invaluable solution to our fondness for knee-jerk opinions and stereotyping. It quickly gets us to admit, “I’m no one to judge”—exactly where Jesus wants us be. The egg and thorn push us to confess some weaknesses vex us for life. We haven’t strength to defeat them. When Paul gets this, he pleads with God to remove his thorn. God refuses. Why would God do that? Doesn’t God know Paul’s thorn impedes his ministry and growth? Isn’t God concerned about Paul’s suffering? Here’s God’s answer: “My grace is sufficient for you, because my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12.9)

Absence of weakness removes our need for grace that loves, forgives, and abides with us unconditionally. Thorn-free life deprives us of awareness we’re kept by grace. Grace is provided before we realize we need it. It remains whether or not we recognize it’s there. It’s given beyond measure, endlessly, repeatedly, extravagantly. Others’ weaknesses cause us to say, “Because of God’s grace go I—just as God’s grace keeps him, her, or them.” We all have thorns. We all rely on God’s grace. Once this reality permeates our beings, compulsions to judge become humbling invitations to witness grace, forgiveness, and tolerance. People we want to judge are like us. They wear eggs like ours. They ache with thorns like ours. But they’ve also been given what we’ve received. Why would we judge them, when we can turn their thorns into reminders of God’s grace for them and us?

Weakness is the great leveler. Our struggles may not look as extreme as another’s, but they’re there. That’s why we judge no one and see everyone as worthy of grace.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Back to Nature

So do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” Your heavenly Father knows that you need them. (Matthew 6.31-32)

Fascinating Lesson

For the moment, let’s set afterlife theology aside for an ersatz reincarnation scenario in which we choose our next lives. I can say without hesitation I’d return as a pet—not any pet, but my pet or your pet. (Having heard many of your stories, life in your care would be a swell thing indeed.) The bond between master and pet is unique because the terms of the relationship are clearly defined up front. When we adopt animals, we realize they’ll totally depend on us for everything they need: food, shelter, health, discipline, companionship, love, and so on. We commit to cleaning up their messes, forgiving their sins, tolerating their stubbornness, and accepting their quirks. We assume these duties voluntarily and soberly. In exchange, they repay us in loyalty, affection, and endless surprise. Who wouldn’t want to be our pets?

It’s said pets teach us a great deal about life. I believe that. We learn one fascinating lesson in how quickly and unabashedly they trust us. Once they grasp our roles in their lives, they have no reticence about expecting us to perform them. We feed our cats, Cody and Maxwell, every morning at six a.m. Whether we got to bed late, want to sleep in, or could use more rest, they expect to be fed at six. “Not today” means nothing. Nor do “I did it yesterday” or “I’ll do it tomorrow.” Yesterday was yesterday. Tomorrow will be tomorrow. This is today. Confident we won’t let them go hungry, they’re waiting bedside to escort us to the kitchen when the alarm goes off. If there’s no alarm, they wake us. Of course we get up. Because we love them, we’re true to them. And since Max and Cody trust us to stay true, they don’t worry. We all know how it works. Why should today be different? It’s a terrific way to live. And in Matthew 6 we hear Jesus insist it's precisely how we should live.

Stealing from Ourselves

Today’s Gospel stands pretty tall among the most beloved of Jesus’s teachings. Few of His statements compare to its poetry and simplicity. But Jesus has more serious reasons than eloquence for framing this message as He does. He uses imagery and accessible comparisons so His audience can see what He’s talking about and internalize what it means. The central theme is “Don’t worry. God will take care of you.” That sounds straightforward. And it is. Yet difficulty accepting it at face value today helps us relate to how much tougher it must be for His original listeners. Our worst nightmares—irrevocable loss, catastrophic disease, financial ruin, legal disasters, family crises, and so on—are identical to theirs with one exception. Those gathered for Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount live in a nexus of uncertainty. Regimes topple overnight. Common people are crushed. Healthcare is a luxury. Property is often a greater liability than asset; if people want what you’ve got, there’s little to prevent them from taking it. Life can be glorious one day and wretched the next. These people have a lot to worry about. Merely assuring them God will see to their needs won’t ease their anxiety. Jesus presses them to see we don’t work the same as God works. With no convincing example of this in human affairs, He goes back to nature.

Jesus urges them to “look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” (Matthew 6.26-27) He asks why they worry about clothes. “See how the flowers of the field grow,” He says. “They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.” (v28-29) Does Jesus really mean we should trust God much like pets rely on us? That we should grasp God’s’ role in our lives, expect God to perform it, and not panic if we can’t predict how things will turn out? That’s exactly what He means. Anxiety is contrary to nature, He says. It’s counterproductive to life. The clock starts ticking the moment we allow anxiety to overtake us. Every second we worry we’re stealing from ourselves. The only thing that worry changes is us, and not once has it done us any favors. Jesus wonders, “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” Of course we can’t. And since we can’t, perhaps the only concern worth worrying about is wasting time on worry.

Now is All We’ve Got

So, we ask, what’s the alternative to worry? Well, let’s consider what worries us. Either we fret over something we did or may have to do, what’s lost or may be lost, what happened or may happen. Even if we find satisfying reasons for past mistakes and miseries, we can’t rewrite the record. Lessons learned remain timely; tests don’t. What if tomorrow unfolds as we worry it will? Tying ourselves in knots about inevitabilities won’t alter them. Anxiety about the future is like hiding in a cellar on a gorgeous day because a storm’s due to hit the next morning. What we’ve been given now is all we’ve got. Worry destroys that and promises nothing better.

How do our pets understand time better than we? Watching Cody and Max move through their day is a wonder. When it’s time to eat, they look to us to feed them. When it’s time to play, they drop their toys at our feet. When it’s time to exercise, they expect full run of the house. When it’s time to sleep, we let them sleep. Every day follows the same pattern. Every day we provide what they need when they need it. And when new needs arise—if one of them is sick or wants extra attention or stumbles onto mischief—we’re there. Does Cody stress about not eating? Does Max dread the possibility we won’t play with him? Perhaps, but not likely. Our natural impulse is to care for them, just as God cares for us. So what are we so worked up about? Why can’t we understand how it works?

“Stop worrying,” Jesus says in verse 31. “God knows what you need.” Then, in verse 33, He says, “Seek God’s kingdom and righteousness first, and all these things will be given to you as well.” That’s how we discover God is present now. God meets our needs now. God gives answers we need now. Now comes when tomorrow turns into today, and not a minute sooner. “Therefore don’t worry about tomorrow,” Jesus tells us. “Tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (v34) That’s the nature of things. And all the worry in the world won’t change it.

Cody (l) and Max (r)—without a worry in the world. If they get it, why don’t we?