Reflections on Grief and Ennui

“I feel like I’m swimming in molasses.” That’s how my journal entry for today began, and it’s how I’ve been feeling for the last week or two. Everything takes more time and effort – running errands, figuring out what to do with my day—it all feels like I’m moving in slow motion.

If I ran a search for the word “ennui” in all my computer files I don’t think it would be found. Ennui is not a common word in my vocabulary, but from somewhere unknown to me it surfaced in my journaling this morning. Right after “swimming in molasses” my fingers typed “this must be what ennui feels like.” That of course sent me to the dictionary where “boredom” is listed as a synonym. That didn’t feel quite right. I’m not bored but the other suggestions did: “languor, world-weariness, dissatisfaction.” World-weariness especially struck a chord. I’m so depressed and angry about the state of the world and especially our nation that I want to scream.

The last 16 days have been strange and not wonderful. My father died on February 12 and two days later on Ash Wednesday the massacre at Stoneman Douglas High School occurred. My personal grief and my mourning for those young lives snuffed out have been so intertwined and yet so different that I’m not sure how to sort them out let alone process them.

My dad was 96 and at the end of a long life. His quality of life has been in free fall over the last year; so my predominant feeling for him and for me and my sisters is one of relief. Those kids in Florida and their teachers were nowhere near the end of their lives. There is no relief at their deaths, only pain and anger.

Like life death is complicated. My dad and I were never very close. He coped with his own demons by being very rigid in his faith and morality and was often judgmental and intolerant of others with a different perspective, including me. As I grew in my own faith and worldview I rejected his way and too often him as well. I am grateful that we both lived long enough to accept each other for who we are and heal some of those differences. I’ve also come to appreciate that my dad’s high expectations for me to achieve excellence in what I did with my life was a huge motivation. I didn’t like those pressures to please him as a youth or young adult, but in hind sight I have come to realize he did the best he could as a father, husband, provider and Christian. That’s all any of us can do.

I have not cried for my dad. I never cry easily. I don’t know if the tears will come when we bury his ashes 11 days for now. I wish the other grief for my violence-addicted nation wasn’t all mixed up with my personal feelings. A friend passed on a thought to me after my dad died that has been bouncing around in my head and gut. I can’t find the source of the quote but the gist of it is that we never really grow up until we are orphans. I think I understand part of that. As the now oldest member of my family I have a sense of needing to be a role model. I don’t think I’ll ever be the kind of patriarch my dad was, and I worry that I’ve gone to the other extreme to avoid the rigid, doctrinaire way he showed his love.

The running joke in our family is that almost all of us at one time or another received letters from my dad expressing his displeasure at something we had done or were doing. Those letters were not the most effective way to motivate us to change and usually created the exact opposite kind of rebellious response and sometimes painful alienation and broken relationships. From my earliest days as a father my wife and I chose a much more affirming and tolerant approach to parenthood—and we got letters from Dad advising us that we were sparing the rod and spoiling our kids. Sorry Dad, I still think we were right.

But how do I now as the elder of the clan be a responsible parent/citizen in a nation that I believe is going to hell in a hand basket? I have not written letters or emails to my Congressional representative or to one of my senators since the Parkland shooting because I know they are both intractable in their support of gun rights. They are in the pocket of the NRA and unmoved by the fact that the vast majority of people in this country want AR-15’s banned and background checks enforced. How they can sleep with the blood of innocent kids on their hands is completely incomprehensible to me.

So I’m angry, and I know anger is one of the stages of grief. But my question is how to break out of the ennui so I can function? Or do I need to live with it longer? I saw a sign on the news today as the Stoneman Douglas students and teachers returned to the scene of the crime. The sign said “Welcome Back Eagles.” The eagle is apparently their school mascot, but my mind immediately went to the Isaiah 40 reference that says “God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” (Vss. 29-31)

We all have to swim in molasses sometimes. We all get weary. The exiles these words were written to had to wait decades in captivity before they were liberated. Waiting sucks, especially when our big problems of violence and racism and poverty seem to getting worse. Elderhood raises questions about the meaning of life. Have I made a difference? Is the world a better place for my having trod my jagged life journey? Those questions are more real for me this year because it will be 50 years this spring since I graduated from college. 1968 was not a normal year by any stretch of the imagination. My college graduation was just a few days after the assassination of Bobby Kennedy and two months after that of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

It was a time of political and social turmoil much like today and I wonder what it all means? Have we/my generation, have I made any difference or left any improvements in life for the generations to come? In the molasses my own demon torments me with the cynicism of Macbeth: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage And then is heard no more. It is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.” (Act 5, Scene 5)

I realized this week that the advice of Isaiah to “wait for the Lord” does not mean giving up or doing nothing. Faithful waiting is active waiting. My generation has not achieved the idealistic dream of John Lennon that the “world will live as one.” (“Imagine”) But we have seen that idealism and energy burning brightly in articulate, determined students from Parkland and from schools all over the nation. It’s time to pass the torch of leadership to a new generation. It’s time to admit our generation has blown it. Instead of faithfully waiting for God’s way we have drunk the poison of materialism and with it the fear and isolation of protecting our stuff. Our role now is not to be the “sage on the stage” but “a guide on the side” standing with and supporting the idealism and enthusiasm of youth.

I don’t know if or when I will soar like an eagle out of the molasses, but I know I have in the past and I will again. I don’t buy Macbeth’s negativity. Just writing this reflection is healing for me. But I still need the patience to embrace my grief and learn from it, and in those moments or days when God renews my strength I will, to paraphrase Gandhi, be the change God wants to see in my little corner of the world.
What does that look like for me in this new season of elderhood? When I figure that out I’ll let you know. Part of the value of ennui is learning the lessons of waiting, of listening to what my heart is trying to say to my over-intellectualized brain–and keep treading molasses till I find solid ground again.

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Do Not Say “I Am Only a Youth”

Like many I have been very discouraged about the prospects for the future of our nation. The re-emergence of latent hate and racism that have poisoned our country in recent months has made me despair about human nature itself. The shooting in Parkland, Florida only added to my depression. But this week as I listen to the impassioned pleas and protests of young people demanding action about the epidemic of gun violence in our nation I am encouraged about our future for the first time in much too long.

It often takes the idealism and passion of youth to force change upon adults too enslaved to the status quo. Young people were the prime movers that brought an end to the Viet Nam war when adult leaders could not. Some of those young people paid with their lives at Kent State and Jackson State along with their peers who died in Southeast Asia. Young Freedom Riders suffered and died in the civil rights struggles of the 50’s and 60’s just as their fathers did on the beaches of Normandy or in the Battle of the Bulge.

Freedom is never free, and freedom from the fear of deranged gunmen with AR-15’s for our students and teachers and parents is not free either. It has been bought and paid for by the blood shed everywhere from Columbine to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. It has been paid for by Gabby Giffords and her crusade for gun control reform. And now I hope the final payment will be made by politicians and gun manufacturers who may have met there match in the angry young survivors in Parkland.

These young people understand that truth and justice do not know generational boundaries. The God of peace and love is rejoicing at the witness of these students because whether they know it or not in the depths of their pain and grief over their friends and teachers these young prophets have caught the spirit and power of God’s words to Jeremiah:

Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”
But the Lord said to me,
“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
says the Lord.” (Jeremiah 1:6-8)

These brave student survivors like Isabella Gomez and David Hogg have articulated beautifully the pleas of the youth of this nation for action, and their passion has struck a chord with young people all over the nation who have had enough empty adult talk. Will they be heard this time? History says “yes” because those on the side of peace and justice do not fear because God is with them and will deliver them.

Bump Stocks and Log in My Eye

Some of my readers have probably been pleased that I have been less “political” in what I’ve posted in recent weeks. There are several reasons for that, but one of them is not that I am less concerned about the state of our nation and world. I became a part-time pastor again this summer and that has affected my writing in a couple of ways. Given more pastoral duties means less time for other things, including writing. The writing I have done has been primarily sermons and prayers. Secondly with the privilege of being a pastor of a congregation comes an expectation to handle political matters tactfully and in a non-partisan way.

I did not realize how much I felt constrained by that non-partisan expectation until I retired and wasn’t serving a congregation. I felt liberated to speak my mind more freely, and now that I am back in a formal relationship with a congregation that freedom is one of the things I miss most. As a student of persuasive communication I know full well that effective communication requires a meeting of minds, a shared understanding and respect for one another’s ideas and feelings. That’s a quality of community that is sorely lacking in our bitterly divided nation and world.

No meaningful communication occurs across the chasm of ideological extremes where we view others as enemies (political or foreign) instead of as fellow humans doing the best we can to make sense of the lives we have been given and the world we inhabit. So my philosophy of ministry is one of trying to understand what people believe and why they hold those beliefs so I can then facilitate a process of faith development that moves all of us toward the peaceable kingdom God covets for us and all creation.

I am not always successful at being empathetic and understanding, and as one who is very uncomfortable with conflict I fear I have been too timid during most of my ministry to share my true thoughts and feelings because I feared that to do so would be unpopular. I greatly admire my colleagues who have the courage and faith to speak prophetically about controversial issues.

I recently saw a list of the 15 most popular hymns of all time. I don’t know how the list was compiled or how scientifically valid the methodology was for surveying people, but the list was pretty much what I expected it would be: “Amazing Grace,” “How Great Thou Art,” “In the Garden,” “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” “It is Well With My Soul” etc. All 15 hymns on the list focused on personal salvation and holiness. What was lacking was the other half of the Gospel, what John Wesley called “Social Holiness.”

I imagine that such a list might have inspired the prophet Amos to proclaim the lines that are part of the lectionary for this week: “Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an overflowing stream.” (Amos 5:23-24) I don’t know how long Amos would have lasted in a church pulpit but I do believe that we dare not ignore the biblical imperative to be agents of social justice.

I cringed this week when I saw a Facebook meme that hit much too close to home. To paraphrase it said, “Don’t be nice. Jesus wasn’t crucified for being a nice guy.” I often encouraged my preaching students to heed the advice of Ephesians 4:15 that tells us to “speak the truth in love.” Looking back on my career as both a preacher and teacher I fear that I have erred on the side of love in that equation and sugar-coated or omitted hard words of truth. As a pastor I often criticized myself for sacrificing prophetic truth in exchange for a parsonage and a pension.

Ironically it has almost always been the case that when I have dared to speak my true understanding of God’s will about controversial issues of social justice someone that I least expected to agree or appreciate those views has let me know they did. For example in today’s news there is not much that is more divisive than people’s views on gun violence and the second amendment. It has become a partisan political issue when it should be seen as a basic human problem to be solved. But most politicians are afraid of the NRA and dependent on financial support from the gun lobby. So even though a majority of Americans are in favor of stricter gun legislation a majority of Senators and Representatives are unwilling to risk their office and its perks to oppose a vocal and powerful minority.
This morning I read an article in the Columbus Dispatch that reported that Congress has passed the buck on dealing with the sale of “bump stocks” that transform semi-automatic rifles into automatic rifles/machine guns (which are illegal) to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives instead of acting on it themselves.

Immediately after the massacre in Las Vegas there was widespread agreement including even the NRA that those devices needed to be banned or “restricted.” But as the news cycle moved on to sex scandals and other mass killings, the mood shifted, the NRA changed its mind, and Congress lost its political will to act.
After reading that article I wrote the following note to my two Senators and my Congressional Representative: “I was appalled to read in this morning’s Columbus Dispatch that Congress has done nothing about bump stocks after the Las Vegas massacre. Stop passing the buck and do something to stop this insanity of gun violence. It is way past time for someone to have the courage to stand up to the NRA. We need to reinstate the ban on assault weapons but in the meantime banning devices whose sole purpose is to circumvent the law should be a no-brainer.”

I also posted that message on Facebook with some fear and trepidation that it would be too “political” for a preacher. But again I was pleasantly surprised at the number of “likes” and even some “loves” I got in response. Some of those positive responses were from people I didn’t expect would agree with me. I would never have known had I not had the courage to say what I was feeling.

I wrote the above part of this post in the wee hours of the morning, and then when I went to bed and couldn’t get to sleep I realized that I had been guilty of seeing the “speck in my legislators’ eyes and ignoring the log in my own” to paraphrase Jesus in Matthew 7:5 and Luke 6:42. As is often the case I am often most judgmental about things in others that I don’t like about myself. It’s easy to criticize political leaders for not living up to the profiles in courage standards I expect of them, but much harder to admit I do the same thing. I don’t always say what I truly believe, and I certainly don’t always live up to the values I hold dear. Peer pressure, societal or professional expectations and other human weaknesses get in the way of speaking the truth in love. If I am honestly and fairly judged by my ideal goal of living up to the profound standards of Micah to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God” I am in deep trouble.

When I shared my late night insight about being guilty of living out of integrity with my values with my dear wife this morning Diana cut to the chase as she does so well. She said, “That’s true of every job. We all have to make compromises and concessions to employers who control our livelihood.” If those compromises create too much cognitive dissonance or inner turmoil with our consciences we can say “no” to that employer and choose a different path. Those are very hard decisions that try our souls, and that is why we all stand in need of a generous helping of God’s grace.

Well, this blog certainly took an unexpected turn. It was good for my own introspection. Thanks for listening. If it was helpful for you too that’s a bonus.

The Dark Side of the Prosperity Gospel

“Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.” (Galatians 6:7).

It’s been a busy week since Monday night’s presidential debate. I don’t have time to say much but feel compelled to address something that struck me Monday night while it is still relatively fresh in our memories. There has been much debate about who “won” the debate and how you vote on that is pretty subjective. I think most of us heard what we expected to hear filtered through our own political lenses and that of the media analysis we choose to rely on for “expert” opinions.

What struck me most were two things. When Donald Trump said that not paying taxes makes him smart and that taking advantage of the foreclosures during the recession was “good business,” he showed again why he is the poster boy for the dark side of the prosperity Gospel and even of Capitalism itself. The prosperity Gospel is the misguided interpretation of Christian theology that emphasizes material blessings and rewards for those who proclaim their faith in Christ. It is responsible for the growth and success of many mega churches and television evangelists, but it is totally contrary to the teachings of Jesus.

There are too many examples to cite them all here but these quickly come to my mind. “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Matt. 6:24, Luke 16:13). The parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21), the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3), and numerous times where Jesus says, “leave what you have and follow me.”

Mr. Trump said earlier in the campaign that his favorite Scripture is “An eye for an eye.” When one’s only concern for how to measure one’s worth is material wealth and power, that’s a great motto to live by, but I pray that some of Mr. Trump’s Christian followers will prevail upon him to someday learn what Jesus said about that desire for revenge by reading the Gospels or even just the Sermon on the Mount.

The Gospel of Christ has been twisted into the prosperity Gospel because it sells. Promising people they will have to take up a cross to follow Jesus, or to share what they have with the least of those as judged by the world’s standards, or to love their enemies and turn the other cheek – those just are not good marketing techniques. Promising potential church members they need to sell all they have and give it to the poor doesn’t entice many recruits to sign up. Maybe that’s why Jesus only had 11 faithful ones?

The spread of the prosperity Gospel also explains the conundrum many political commentators have wrestled with this year, namely how to make sense of Trump’s popularity among some Christians. Galatians 6:7 says it so well, “we reap what we sow.” Creating a flock of materialistic, wealth-worshipping “Christians” over the last few decades has produced this strange phenomenon of those who call themselves evangelicals enthusiastically giving their support to a man who is the antithesis of the values and lifestyle Jesus Christ calls us to live.

It also explains how those who claim the name of the Prince of Peace can be devout supporters of the NRA and gun rights. Fear of losing one’s prosperity leads to taking very drastic and unChrist-like measures to protect and defend those “things that thieves can steal and rust and moth can consume.” The rest of that advice from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount says, don’t put your faith in those perishable things, “but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt. 6:19-21).

God is not mocked. We have planted seeds of greed and selfishness, and now we are reaping what we have sown.

Will the Circle Be Unbroken?

I attended a Bluegrass Festival with some friends a few weeks ago and have been singing or humming “May the Circle Be Unbroken” ever since. Bluegrass is not my music of choice; so I’ve been pondering why that song has stuck in my head. There are good memories of singing that song around campfires when I was a youth minister many years ago. But it has taken on a deeper more pervasive meaning lately. Some of that became clearer to me this week after a depressing visit with my 94 year old father who has outlived his mental and physical faculties and is miserable. Is there a better day coming for him and his wife suffering from dementia?

I don’t think it’s in the sky but where? What? How? Those questions become more relevant as morality pounds harder on my door each day, in aches and pains, friends in surgery, cancer diagnoses and biopsies, longer list of things I can no longer do. I’ve toyed with the lyrics of that song by changing the “e” to an “i” in “better,” i.e., “There’s a bitter day a coming….” That’s what happens when we turn in on ourselves, we get bitter and go victim. “Why me?” “It’s not fair!” “Why didn’t I take better care of myself?” “Let’s try one more miracle supplement that flows out of the fountain of youth!” Fear springs from the unknown “in the sky” or in some place of darkness, from regrets over a lifetime of sin or just dumb mistakes we can never erase.

Fear is epidemic in our society. I was at a wedding reception recently where I was told one of the men at my table was carrying a concealed weapon “because you never know what might happen.” The next week my relatives at a family gathering were discussing preparedness drills for an active shooter at their little country church and in their schools where children are being taught to throw anything they can find at a shooter ala David versus Goliath–only Goliath didn’t have his NRA sanctioned AR 15.

A father was shot dead last Friday in front of his six kids and wife in a burglary in our affluent “safe” suburb. And today Ted Koppel was on the morning news talking about his new book Lights Out, about the coming cyber-attack that will paralyze our society. The temptation to buy some guns and a generator and become a survivalist is so strong even I feel it tugging at me. There is a little solace for me that I’m old enough I may not have to deal with the worst of the Hunger Games scenario, but I fear for my kids and grandkids and feel hopeless and helpless to do anything significant to help them.

Will the circle be unbroken? Or has human depravity and selfishness reached epic proportions that strain the bonds of civility beyond the breaking point? Is Jesus’ pacifist advice to turn the other cheek and put away our swords just naïve idealism? Those are not verses that fearful Christians cite when they turn to Scripture for comfort. I quoted Isaiah (2:4) and Micah (4:3) once to a life-long Christian, the verses about “beating our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks,” and she said that in 60 years of going to church she didn’t remember ever hearing those words! Unless prophetic voices stand up to the fear mongers and proclaim a message of hope and reason to a world gone mad, the circle may indeed be broken.

I remember being this depressed about the state of the world back in 1972 after Nixon’s landslide victory in spite of Watergate and the protests about the Vietnam War. I wrote a letter to the editor saying that all we could do now was “wait for the inevitable judgment of God.” 43 years later we are still here. We’ve survived that war in SE Asia, the resignation of Nixon and his Vice President, 9/11 and a host of other terrorist attacks, too many mass shootings to count, a huge economic recession, and at least so far several ill-advised wars in the Middle East that have only fanned the flame of hatred in that cauldron of religious and ideological conflict that is the eternal flame of human strife and animosity.

The circle is frayed and contorted out of shape, but it is still unbroken; and that last paragraph is a micro-second in the eternity of the cosmic circle viewed from God’s perspective. As we scroll backward in time through Holocaust, Civil War, Slavery, Genocide of native people, the Dark Ages, the Crusades, Roman, Greek, Syrian, Egyptian, Ottoman Empires, the rise and fall of numerous Dynasties in China and Japan, Exile and Exodus, Stone Age and Ice Ages, and all the other eras of our planet’s history that I missed in history class, our current fears and woes are put in better perspective.

In every generation there have been concerns about the elasticity and tenacity of the circle, and it is still unbroken. That is not an excuse to blithely bury our heads in the sand or in our parochial platitudes. We must counter the fear mongers with words and lives of hope and visions of peace in any way we can. And remembering the great circle maker and sustainer gives us the courage to witness to our faith even when fear and doubt threaten to overwhelm us.

“Tradition: Only Part of the Formula,” Genesis 29:15-28, I Kings 3:5-12

One of the all-time classic stories that highlight the lack of male observational powers is the account of Jacob’s wedding night in Genesis 29. Jacob has traveled 500 miles to find the love of his life. He has worked 7 years to earn the hand of his beloved Rachel. 7 years! And yet when his new father-in-law pulls the biggest bait and switch in history on him he doesn’t realize he’s consummating his marriage with the wrong woman until he wakes up with Rachel’s older sister Leah the morning after the wedding.

Jacob is certainly not the only newlywed to ask “what in the world have I done?” the morning after, but this story challenges our ability to suspend our disbelief. I don’t know what weddings were like in Jacob’s day. We learn in the New Testament that Jewish wedding celebrations lasted many days and involved much wine (John 2); so perhaps Jacob was impaired by too much wine. But beyond the practical questions of how this could possibly happen are the important issues the story raises about how we make tough ethical decisions. Jacob obviously has a problem, but so does Laban, his new father-in-law. Laban’s dilemma is his paternal obligation to both of his daughters. The traditions of his culture dictate that the older daughter must be married before the younger (v. 26); and Laban justifies his trickery by appealing to that tradition.

For the last 40 years I have not been able to think about “tradition” without hearing the loveable Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” sing “Tradition!” During that entire marvelous musical Tevye is caught in a tug of war between tradition and his heart. His struggle also involves daughters but is more complicated than Laban’s since three of his daughters challenge the traditions of their family and culture in progressively more radical ways. (Quick synopsis: Tzeitel, the first daughter, challenges the custom of arranged marriage; her sister Hodel falls in love with a revolutionary and moves “far from the home she loves” to Siberia where he is imprisoned; and another daughter, Chava, elopes and is secretly married outside their Jewish faith in a Russian Orthodox Church. For details, rent the movie).

Thinking about the “Fiddler” story side by side with Jacob and Laban’s dilemma exposes the sexism of the Hebrew text. While Genesis focuses on the ethical dilemma from the patriarchal bias of its time, “Fiddler” invites viewers to empathize with the struggles of Tevye, his wife Golde, and their daughters. Genesis pays no attention at all to the plight of Rachel and Leah. They have no voice at all in these life-changing decisions. They are merely pawns, property to be exchanged between Laban and Jacob for the agreed upon price of 7 years of labor per each. (See Gen. 29:27-28 for the details of how Laban and Jacob resolve their conflict by Jacob’s agreement to work an additional 7 years for Laban in exchange for the woman he thought he had married the first time around.) And yes, tradition sanctioned polygamy in those days, in case you’re wondering about Jacob having two wives, and if you read the rest of Jacob’s fascinating story in Genesis you will see that he never gets over his favoritism of Rachel at Leah’s expense.

Tradition! How often do we hear tradition used as the justification for why things are done in a certain way? “We’ve always done it that way.” “We’ve never done it that way before.” Tradition is important. We inherit important life lessons from our culture and our families, from history that enable us to move through life without having to reinvent the wheel every time we are faced with a decision. We Americans don’t have to decide which side of the road to drive on every morning or what a red traffic light means. Most traditions are valuable and useful, but that doesn’t mean all are. Slavery and denial of women’s rights were traditions that humanity in many cultures (including our Judeo-Christian tradition) lived by for centuries, and far too many still do. Why? Because well-entrenched traditions that benefit those in places of power and privilege are not easily changed. Such change usually requires great sacrifice and suffering on the part of brave prophetic persons who dare to ask why we have always done it that way.

John Wesley, one of the founders of the Methodist denomination developed a very useful paradigm for putting tradition in its proper perspective when it comes to making ethical decisions. Wesley’s quadrilateral, as it is known, lists four sources of input that should be consulted when making such choices: Scripture, Experience, Reason, and Tradition. I like the balanced model Wesley provides because it honors the importance of tradition while realizing that traditions are constructs created by fallible humans and therefore can be found to be in need of correction by the other three legs of the quadrilateral.

Making ethical decisions with fewer than all four components of the quadrilateral is like sitting at a table that has one leg shorter than the others, and therefore wobbles like a teeter totter every time anyone leans on it.
There are many examples of complex ethical dilemmas that we postmodern 21st century citizens of the global village must come to grips with. Traditions that worked in previous generations may no longer be viable when new knowledge provided by reason and experience is factored into the equation. Examples include biomedical decisions, the viability of military force to solve differences in a nuclear age, and attitudes toward people with a different sexual orientation. The latter provides a prime example that is dividing the Christian church and consuming vast amounts of time and energy from a church that should be addressing more pressing issues like poverty and immigration and global climate change.

There is no doubt that a few verses in the Judeo-Christian Scripture condemn homosexuality in no uncertain terms. That is the position of the Christian right that tries to make ethical decisions based on only two legs of the quadrilateral, Scripture and Tradition. But if we add reason and experience to the equation, namely the scientific and medical knowledge gained in recent decades, the solution to that dilemma changes. Where Scripture and Tradition base their ethical judgments about homosexuality on the assumption that sexual preference is a matter of choice, modern reason and knowledge teach us that such critical matters are predetermined by genetic coding. That may not explain why things are the way they are or how we feel about it, but it should change radically how we treat people of a different sexual preference and the kinds of basic human rights they should be afforded.

Tradition without the rest of the quadrilateral is too often treated as if it were written in stone. The U.S. Constitution is a good example. As insightful and inspired as our Constitution is, it is essentially a tradition created by human hands. The authors of that great document realized it needed to include a process for changing as situations and conditions required. That’s why they included a process for amending the constitution based on new insights and reason and experience and created a judicial system charged with interpreting the principles of that foundational document as they are applied to ever-changing situations. The Second Amendment is a case in point. The right to bear arms as a concept written in the days of muzzle loaders and militia obviously needs to be re-evaluated in a time when people carry AK 47’s into department stores and family restaurants.

To interpret laws and wrestle with ethical dilemmas by balancing Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience requires great wisdom. One of the other Hebrew texts in the lectionary for this week speaks directly to how important true wisdom is. In I Kings 3 a very young Solomon has just succeeded his father David to the throne of Israel, and the new King has a dream where God offers to grant him anything he asks for. Anything at all! What would you request if God made you that kind of offer? Health? Wealth? Fame and fortune?

Here’s what Solomon says, “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” (3:9).

That’s a great request—like one that a parent would be very proud of if his/her child asked Santa for something for a needy friend instead of more toys or gadgets for herself. And God is an equally proud parent. The Scripture tells us, “It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.” (3:10-12).

As parents, citizens, friends and foes, and especially as leaders of groups and nations wrestling with traditions and cultural situations changing at warp speeds, we all need the Wisdom of Solomon. We feel as overwhelmed as he did taking on the responsibilities of his kingship. And his request is a most relevant prayer for all of us: “Lord, give us understanding minds able to discern between good and evil.”

Ends and Means?

A few weeks ago I had one of those “did he really say that?” conversations with a clergy colleague. We were discussing a news story about Baptist churches in Kentucky and New York that were advertising they would be giving away door prizes to entice new people to attend their church.

Apparently forgiveness and salvation aren’t reward enough to get some people through the church doors since many churches have tried similar gimmicks. There was a church in Columbus, Ohio a few years ago giving away a car on Easter. Sure beats the coffee mug, cheap pen and refrigerator magnets our church offers as welcome gifts.
What got my attention about the Baptist churches’ promotion was that they were promising to give an AR-15 and other guns to the lucky winners of their door prizes. The church in Troy, NY even went so far as to quote John 14:27 (“…my peace I give to you”) over a picture of a semi-automatic rifle! To make matters worse, the churches in Kentucky were in Paducah – where three students were killed during a school shooting in 1997. Really, you can’t make stuff like this up!

Foolishly assuming that most followers of the Prince of Peace and certainly most pastors would agree that this was a really bad idea, I made a comment to my colleague about how absurd, if not blasphemous, this was. His response blew me away. He said, “Well, we wouldn’t do that in my church, but if that’s what it takes to appeal to the target (Freudian slip?) audience in that community, then it might be OK.” I was too dumbfounded to respond.

When I relayed the conversation to another friend, his immediate reply was, “No it’s not OK. A stripper would attract some people to church too, but that wouldn’t make it right.” Churches that start acting like businesses are in danger of selling their souls along with their “products.” Marketing strategies are fraught with ethical dilemmas in any business, but certainly the church must hold itself to a higher standard than Wall Street or Main Street when it comes to promoting the Gospel. When churches or any institution fall prey to the temptations of growth and institutional preservation as the primary motivation for what we do and say, we are on the slippery slope of believing that any means are justified if they achieve an honorable end.

It is no secret that mainline churches are in trouble. Membership and attendance figures have been in a steep decline for decades, and that reality can convince otherwise good people to compromise their ethical standards and fall into a panic mode of self-preservation. It is an inherent danger to institutional religion. Institutions almost always have a primary value of preserving and maintaining themselves. Institutional leaders have a vested interest in looking successful and maintaining their livelihood that can cloud objectivity. And the more dire the statistics become the greater the danger. Desperate people do desperate things, like giving deadly weapons to people instead of “beating their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” (Isaiah 2:4, Micah 4:3)

Yes, these are scary times, and I understand why individuals want to protect themselves and why churches want to keep themselves alive. And I know all motives for what we do are mixed. I’m sure those Baptist churches have a genuine desire to share the gospel along with the guns. Self-preservation is a very basic human motivation, but Christians are called to measure the means we use to achieve our means by the higher standards of the one who said, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:24).