The Gospel According to Steinbeck

steinbeck_green_crop

“We don’t take a trip, a trip takes us.” – John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley

We parked our motorcycles at the curb in front of the John Steinbeck Public Library in Salinas and paused a moment to get our bearings. We had meant to stop at the Steinbeck Museum for our afternoon break, but Pastor Dave, the only one of us three motorcycling pastors who had his phone mounted on his handlebars and Bluetooth connected to a com unit in his helmet had entered a little bit of misinformation into the guidance system. So there we were at the library. Not at the museum. “Let’s walk,” said Dave. “It’s only a few blocks and it will be good to stretch our legs.” So, carrying our helmets, jackets draped over our arms, off we went. For a few blocks. Very. Long. Blocks. And more than a few. Or maybe it just felt like that because our footwear, ideal for long miles on motorcycle foot pegs was a little less well-adapted for city hiking. And yet, because we were on foot we saw the town differently than if we had simply motored through it.  The buildings stood out, each proclaiming both its individuality and the timeless, simple elegance of a bygone era.

 “Try to understand [each other]. If you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a [person] well never leads to hate and almost always leads to love.” –John Steinbeck

If you ever find yourself near Salinas with a little extra time on your hands, the Steinbeck Museum is worth every minute  you can spare. I confess that I have not read much of his work beyond what was required in high school. I have seen a few old movies adapted from his works or written by him for the screen, but it has been so long ago that I had forgotten, if I ever knew, just how much impact he had on this country. To walk through settings that evoke both the scenes of his life and work as well as the decades and social conditions of the time while surrounded by quotes from his writing and well-selected video clips of film and stage scenes from his pen was a powerful and moving experience. I learned long ago that the Word of God can come to us in unexpected ways and through unexpected voices. I was reminded once again that one persistent, prophetic person whose eyes are wide open, who is really thinking about what they see and why they are seeing it, a voice who is not afraid to name both the injustice and the beauty of the world can make a difference, can nudge the slow tide of transformation in the direction of God’s vision for us all.

“But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.” –East of Eden

Life is a journey. That little chestnut is such a cliché that we tend to file it under the pile of overdue bills in the unsorted stacks of “things we’ll deal with later” in the cluttered corners of our souls. Cliché or not, it’s still true, and sometimes it takes an actual journey to remind us of that truth. We make choices or we don’t—which is also a choice. We pay attention or we don’t. We follow the map or just follow the road we’re on because we’re not sure where we’re going anyway. And even if we’re very careful and sure of our route the truth remains: “We don’t take a trip. A trip takes us.” Stuff happens. People say things. People do things. We respond. Sometimes our responses are good and appropriate. Sometimes not so much. Sometimes we stand firmly in the life and love and light of Christ. Sometimes in our own shadows.

“I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one. . . . Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil. . . . There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?” –East of Eden

 “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” said Jesus in Matthew 5:38, except that he probably didn’t intend to say that at all, at least not in the way we tend to hear it. Walter Wink in his book Naming the Powers points out that in both Hebrew and Aramaic there is no such word as “perfect” as in flawless. Even the Greek word which gets translated as “perfect” was only very rarely used to mean flawless. In all three languages the word that gets translated as “perfect” really means “whole” or “complete.” Be whole as your heavenly Father is whole. Be complete as your heavenly Father is complete. Be the person God made you to be. Have integrity, be consistent, be good, be generous and loving, be forgiving, but don’t delude yourself that you can ever be flawless…at least not in this life. Doesn’t that make more sense? How much evil has been perpetrated by people trying to obtain or enforce some kind of externally defined “perfection?” How many people have twisted their own souls out of shape by trying to be flawless in a world where flawlessness is a self-righteous trap?

“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.” –East of Eden

 

A Nation Possessed

Last week was very difficult for me, as it was for a great many of us. I get up early on Sunday mornings, so the very first thing I saw when I turned on my computer at 4 a.m. was the news of the massacre in Orlando. It was still an unfolding story when I saw it; the body count was still being estimated. I confess that I was at a loss as to what to do with that horrible news at that early hour.

For a number of reasons I didn’t mention Orlando in worship that morning. The biggest reason was that I was pretty sure that few, if any, of the people attending would have heard the news yet and I didn’t want such horribly shocking news to cast a pall over worship and especially not over our farewell to two much-loved members who were moving across the country. Also, I needed time to process it before trying to deal with it pastorally and theologically.

By Monday morning Orlando was the stark lens through which I was seeing the whole world. I was filled with a deep sadness tinged by more than a little anger. In an effort to shift gears I clicked over to read a sermon written by my friend and colleague, Pastor Jennie Chrien who serves in Oxnard.   Her sermon was on the same lectionary text I had preached on the day before but she had taken a very different approach from mine. In addressing the Gospel of Luke’s account of the woman who washes and anoints Jesus’ feet (Luke 7:36-8:3), she had focused on the moment when Jesus turns to Simon the Pharisee and says, “Do you see this woman?” From that simple question Jennie had built an eloquent, powerful and moving sermon.

That important question, “Do you see?” wouldn’t leave me alone, jangling up against the ragged wound of Orlando as I turned my attention to the Gospel text for the coming week, the story of Jesus’ encounter with the wild, demon-possessed Gerasene man running naked among the tombs (Luke 8:26-39). I was also remembering anew the horror from almost exactly a year before when a crazy young white supremacist murdered 9 African Americans after sitting through Bible study with them.

Do you see? The question still hangs in the air.

As I read the Gospel for the week with all these things echoing in my heart, I realized that we, the good old US of A, we are the demon-possessed man. We are the man made crazy by fears and anxieties and bigotry and scapegoating. We are the man made crazy by blind rage and unreasoned hatreds.

We are the man with a hopelessly divided mind, made bipolar and schizophrenic by a cacophony of opposing inner voices—entrenched political parties with no common ground—conservatives vs. liberals and ne’er the twain shall meet on any common ground of common sense, putting our party identity or our ideology ahead of everything else that’s supposed to define us, making even our faith subservient to our chosen place on the ideological spectrum. We are so blinded by the ideological lenses we wear that we see only what we’ve decided in advance that we want to see. And since our biases rarely completely align with or truly resonate with the Gospel we hear and profess, our cognitive dissonance creates the first degree of our madness.

Do you see? Do you really see?

Oh, we have our moments of clarity but then the rage wells up in us and we explode in violence.

For most of us it’s just a violence of rhetoric and attitude, but it opens the door and for those who would turn it into a horribly tangible violence of death and destruction. Even among the most enlightened among us, our racism or our discomfort with sexualities that are different from our own our anxieties about those other religions—all these things creep out in unguarded words and give permission to the violence that is always waiting to happen. We breed the craziness.

Do you see?

We cloak our prejudices in our religions. We project our own craziness, our own fears and anxieties and hatred onto the most vulnerable and marginalized then drum up a sacred text or two to support our bigotry and give us permission to treat them horribly.We are so blinded by our own interpretation of our religions that we can’t see children of God standing right in front of us.

Do you see? Do you see that more than a little of our craziness comes from being caught in the middle of an epic struggle between love and hate?

Do you see that if you’re not actively and passionately on the side of love then you are at least passively on the side of hate? Do you see that if you are not generating light then you are opening the door to darkness?

Do you see that we are not just the crazy man among the tombs? Do you see that we are also the craven townspeople afraid of our own shadows. We recognize our own craziness and try to lock it up, to bind it with chains but we know, deep down that that’s not going to work.

Do you see that even when God works a miracle and restores one of us to our senses we respond with more anxiety because that is just so different from our usual experience?

Do you see a way out of all this?

Do you see how Jesus sees? Can you see the way Jesus sees? Can you put aside your politics, your ideology, your biases and prejudices, the less savory voices of your childhood, your inclination for self-protection, your fear of the “other,” your anxiety about a constantly changing world—can you put aside your own demons long enough to see the person in front of you?

Do you see how Jesus sees? Do you see that Jesus doesn’t see a prostitute washing his feet but a woman beaten down by the world who has had to make horrible choices in order to survive? Do you see that Jesus doesn’t see a crazy man running amok among the tombs but a human being bedeviled and enslaved by the legion craziness of the world?

Do you see that in Christ we are all children of God through faith, that in Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave nor free, male or female, gay or straight or trans or bi, us or them?

Do you see that Jesus is our common ground even with our Muslim brothers and sisters? Yes, we understand Jesus very differently, but he is a central voice in both or our traditions and if we’re ever going to find peace with each other, Jesus, not Abraham, is our most likely common ground.

Do you see? Do you see that we are all going to have to learn to see differently?

No, we can’t afford to be stupid. No we can’t afford to be blind to real threats. But do you see that we are going to have to first recognize and deal with the real threats that arise from our own hearts and minds and souls?

Do you see that we’re going to have to stop listening to all the voices that divide us and pit us against each other? Do you see that we’re going to have to switch off the news channels and radio voices and web feeds and political voices that want to tell us how awful those “others” are, who want to tell us that “they” are not the real “us”?

Do you see that we’re going to have to really listen to Jesus—not the Old Testament—not even Paul, but Jesus—if we’re ever going to be freed from our own demons, our own contagious craziness?

Do you see that we are all of us, each of us, going to have to have at least one “come to Jesus” moment if we’re ever going to be freed from our demons?  Or to put it a more scriptural and Lutheran way, do you see that we are all, each of us, going to have to take off the lenses of our preconceptions and put down our guard long enough so that Jesus can come to us and cast our demons into the sea of God’s love?

Do you see? Can you see? Do you see that love—the love of Christ, the love exemplified and perpetually renewed by Jesus whether you know that’s where it comes from or not, is our only hope of ever being able to sit with each other calmly and in our right minds?

Do you see?

I Can Read it Myself. Sort of.

Every God-breathed writing is also useful for teaching, for reproach, for correction and restoration, and for instruction in righteousness and justice so that the person of God may be completely equipped for every good work. – 2 Timothy 3:16, (my translation)

“I have my own Bible and I can read it myself,” said the man, a little heatedly. “I don’t need anybody to tell me what it says.” Much as I wanted to respond, I knew it wasn’t the right moment. That discussion would have to wait for a calmer time. Besides, I knew exactly how he felt. I remember feeling that way, too.

When I first went to seminary I thought I was pretty darn well prepared, at least in the important qualification of Knowing My Bible. In 1980 I had worked as a line producer on the team that recorded and produced Zondervan’s NIV translation of The Bible for distribution on cassette. We would start recording the narrator at 6:00 a.m. Mid-day I would edit the tapes, cutting out mistakes and outtakes. In mid-afternoon we often recorded actors from the South Coast Repertory Theater voicing different characters in the text. I did some of the voice work, too. In the evening, more editing, then mixing with sound effects and music. Often we worked until midnight. Many nights I simply slept at the studio so I could start the cycle all over again at 6 the next morning. For nine months I was utterly immersed in the Bible. Genesis through Revelation. So when I entered seminary in the fall of 1992, I Knew My Bible.

I knew my Bible. Well, I knew that Bible, the NIV—and that was what set me up for my first shock in my first class on my first day at seminary. We were required to used a different translation! We were required to use the NRSV as our primary Bible, but also to use it in reference to other selected translations, commentaries and lexical materials. Not only that, but, at least in Dr. Victor Gold’s Old Testament class, the NIV was specifically NOT allowed. This did not sit well with me. When I asked why, he stated that there were several reasons and that he hoped that by the time I completed his class I would be able to answer that question for myself. Then he picked up my copy of the NIV from my desk, thumbed through a few pages and read from the forward, “One of the goals of this translation team was to adhere as strictly as possible to the traditional interpretation of the text.” The traditional interpretation of the text. “That’s code,” he said, “for the King James Version, and the King James, for all its poetic grandeur, is in many respects a very poor translation of the original texts.”

I thought I knew my Bible. I thought I could read it myself and didn’t really need anyone to tell me what it said. I was just beginning to learn how little I really knew. It was more than uncomfortable. Sometimes I felt something akin to anger as this thing I loved so much, this hard-won familiarity with the text in which I had taken so much pride and in which I had found some necessary self-assurance as I embarked on this adventure in seminary education was dismantled piece by piece to reveal a chasm of ignorance.

Thank God for my professors, my teachers, who managed to humble me without humiliating me so that they could spark a hunger for a deeper knowledge and more complex and meaningful relationship with the Bible and, more importantly, the God we encounter in its pages. Thank God for Bob Smith and Everett Kalin who taught us to read and translate the ancient Koine Greek of the New Testament and opened our eyes to myriad translation choices that must be made in doing so. Thank God, even, for curmudgeonly Victor Gold who set a very high bar for exegesis of the Old Testament, demanding that we understand the cultural context in which the texts were written, requiring us to compare translations and textual variants, and requiring us to compare the Hebrew stories to analogous stories from the ancient writings of the other neighboring ancient cultures. Thank God for Martha Ellen Stortz who boggled our minds in Church History with an overview of the astonishing diversity of beliefs that fell under the label of “Christian” in its first four centuries before Orthodoxy was officially established by imperial edict. Thank God for all of them for teaching us that The Bible, as such, didn’t even exist until Constantine ordered Eusebius to arrange production of 50 copies, and that, even then, the question of which books were in and which were out would not be “officially” closed for another 12 centuries and is, in fact, still an open question when different denominations and traditions discuss the matter. Thank God for Timothy Lull, that giant of a Luther scholar who helped us put all these pieces together in the context of Martin Luther’s writings, theology and interpretive paradigms. Thank God for Ted Peters, the systematic theologian, who opened our eyes to the ways that these sacred texts have created divergent theological rivers through history and are still branching new streams today because different people in different places living in different circumstances will hear the same text in very different ways—and God is speaking through all of them. Thank God for Gary Pence, the thoughtfully good-natured classics scholar/theologian/psychologist who helped keep our heads from exploding and steered our angst into what would eventually become deep pastoral channels. Thank God for all of them for reminding us, repeatedly, that this book we cherish and carry with us, this book which has quite literally shaped our world—this book is not a book at all, but a library, an aggregation of ancient pieces written at diverse times over a period of 3000 years by more than 40 authors in at least 3 languages—a collection of history, folk tales, poetry, laws and prophetic oracles that portray how these ancient peoples experienced God so that we can have some context for our own experience of God.

I have my own Bible. I can read it for myself. But oh, how much richer I am because I have learned to read it with others. And I still need others to help me discern more fully what it is saying. Thank God for those who have read with me, who taught me to read more deeply, who teach me still.

Each will be like a hiding place from the wind, a covert from the tempest, like streams of water in a dry place, like the shade of a great rock in a weary land. Then the eyes of those who have sight will not be closed, and the ears of those who have hearing will listen. –Isaiah 32.2-3

So…with whom are you reading your Bible?

The Hole in All Assumptions

It’s hard to believe that it has been 10 years since Dr. Bob died. Robert H. Smith was a theologian, Biblical scholar of the highest order, exceptional instructor and guide into the mysteries of ancient Koine Greek, the language of the New Testament, a Professor in every good sense of the word. You can read a brief bio on Wikipedia that will give you the highlights of his career but it won’t tell you how much he was loved by his students or how in his Christlike way he managed to include so many of us into his circle of friends and yet make each feel uniquely appreciated and held dear. That Wiki bio also won’t tell you about what it was like to be in class, reading and translating our way through a text with him—a text you know he had been through hundreds of times before—when suddenly he would pause, cock his head a bit, then share some “small” theological insight that would rock your world and forever change the way you perceive things.

I vividly remember just such a moment from 20 years ago, my last semester of seminary. We were comparing the different gospel accounts of the Resurrection and discussing why they were so different from each other. Naturally, everyone had a firm opinion on which gospel account was her or his favorite. We were seminary students. We had firm opinions about everything in those heady days before real life in the parish softened some of our edges and sharpened others. Dr. Bob listened thoughtfully as we debated the merits or drawbacks of each account until, inevitably, someone piped up and asked, “Dr. Smith, which is your favorite account?” After a moment’s thought he said, “The one that haunts me most is the original ending of the Gospel of Mark.”

In the oldest manuscripts Mark ends in the middle of verse 8 in chapter 16. Most scholars concur that everything that comes after that was added by a later hand, a person or persons who were just plain uncomfortable with the unresolved feeling of the original ending. In that orininal ending the women find the tomb empty. A “young man dressed in a white robe” tells them that Jesus has been raised and has gone ahead of them to Galilee and that they will see him there. But the women flee from the tomb “for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

“Why is that your favorite Resurrection account?” we asked Dr. Bob. “I like it for what’s not there,” he replied after another thoughtful silence. “I can just picture those women, trembling and frightened as they stare into the empty tomb. There’s a young man dressed in white—and who is he? They don’t know, but he’s not Jesus. A young man dressed in white tells them Jesus is raised and that he has gone ahead of them to Galilee and they will see him there. But that’s how it ends, with trembling and fear and a promise. No emotional reunion. Just trembling and fear and a promise. In the end that’s all any of us have in the face of death—trembling, fear, maybe half a hope, and a promise. You either trust that promise or you don’t. I like this version because the empty tomb leaves a hole in all assumptions.”

A hole in all assumptions. Those words stuck with me. They have worked in me slowly and gently over the years, wearing down many of my adamantine assumptions like water polishing stones in a stream.

A week later I attended Easter worship at a small church in Oakland along with Dr. Smith, his wife, Dr. Donna Duensing, and several others. The pastor, a dear friend of us all, was fairly new to this congregation and was doing her excellent best to turn around a declining congregation with aging membership, but on this particular Easter Sunday it was clear that she had her work cut out for her. The pews were far from full.

This is a dying church I thought. But the hole in all assumptions was already at work in me. Well aren’t all churches dying churches? Isn’t every pew and seat in every church in the world filled with the dying? And isn’t this the day when we stand before the empty tomb, even our own empty tomb, with nothing more than fear, trembling, half a hope, and a promise? Faith equals trust. Look at these people who have come here today. Think of all the friends and loved ones who have filled these pews with them over the years. Think of not just their faith, but the faithfulness and love that brought them here today. Yes, this is a dying church in a dying world. But we have the promise, the Word of Resurrection. Jesus has gone ahead of us. You either trust that promise or you don’t.

Easter in a Dying Church
April 9, 1996

They come because they have always come…
and on this day of days,
not to pass through the beckoning door,
not to let their careful footsteps drum
old echoes from the wooden floor
would deny the pattern of their ways
and all the times that they have come before.

They sit where they have always sat…
each in the customary pew,
with room enough for all,
even for the visiting few
who do not hear the sweet, unearthly voices
singing Alleluia in memories so loud;
room enough for those who do not recall
the passings, the accidents, the choices
which have thickened the witnessing cloud
and left this sparse, embodied remnant of the hosts
surrounded by their ghosts.

They come to meet where they have always met…
to taste the wine with a beloved friend
who has faded from sight
but still shares the cup in the world without end,
to break bread with the cherished spouse
who, though swallowed by the light,
still prays beside each member of this house,
to meet children, uncles, sisters, mothers,
cousins, aunts, fathers, brothers,
in soul or body distanced from their common place—
to allow for them a sanctioned space.

They come to be seen with the unseen…
to testify to the most revered of their presumptions:
that before and beyond here and now
the empty tomb
leaves a hole in all assumptions.
——
Postscript: For what it’s worth (a lot, I think) that little “dying” church is still going.

The Path of the Foxes

playfulfoxIt was my privilege last night to be the keynote speaker at the annual awards banquet of the South Coast Interfaith Council. What follows is my address to that group.

It is a great honor to be here as your keynote speaker this evening and I thank you for inviting me. Also, congratulations and well done to all those being honored here tonight. Before I begin, though, let’s take a moment and turn to the person next to you and say in the language of your own faith tradition—namaste, shalom, alssalam ealaykum—peace be with you.

Human psychology being what it is, I am well aware that there is a high statistical probability that right now at least a few of you are thinking, “Who is this clown, what is he yammering about and how long is he going to be up there talking?”

So…there’s a high statistical probability that some of you are worried that you’re about to be bored, that there will be an as-yet-unknown number of minutes of your life that you will just never get back. Not only that, but because this is an interfaith audience, there is also a high statistical probability that at least a few of you are worrying that I might devote too much time to the perspectives of my own faith tradition or that I might say something insensitive or offensive to your faith tradition. I truly hope I don’t. But if I do, please let me know and I will apologize. These worries are, in fact, very human responses to a situation like this. Those very human responses come from a well documented and universal element of human psychology called the Negativity Bias.

The Negativity Bias. I will say more about it in a moment, but first I want to distract you from your Negativity Bias with a story about foxes. Domestic foxes. Pet foxes. And to do that, I’ll start with dogs.

Dogs have been, unarguably, the most important domestic animal in human history. They were the first animal that humans domesticated and we have formed a bond with them that has not only proven mutually beneficial, but has quite literally transformed both our species. Many anthropologists now believe that our relationship with the dog was a significant factor in our own evolution as a species and even enabled us to develop civilization. So well done, Fido.

We’ve known for a long time that dogs are simply domesticated wolves, a fact that’s now been proven through DNA. So that little Chihuahua peeking out of Paris Hilton’s purse? That’s a wolf…which will give you some idea of what can happen with selective breeding. But how did we ever come to domesticate the wolf in the first place? How is it that in some distant past our hunter-gatherer ancestors struck up this partnership with a species that was not only one of our primary competitors, but actually quite dangerous to us—as we were and are to them?

Dmitri Belyaev, a Russian geneticist, wondered about this, too. He believed that our prehistoric ancestors selected wolf pups based on temperament. So, along with Lyudmila Trut, he set up an experiment in 1959 to prove his hypothesis. He set out to see if, selecting for temperament alone, he could create a distinct breed of domestic foxes–pet foxes—a tame version of an animal related to wolves and dogs but one that had never been domesticated.

They set up their experiment in Siberia near the Soviet government facilities where foxes were being bred for their fur, so they had an ample selection of fox pups to choose from. Their selection process was fairly simple. The fox pups that showed aggression or bit them or would flee from the experimenters when stroked or handled were put into one group. Those who responded with curiosity, playfulness and friendliness were put in another group. They continued breeding selectively for these traits of friendliness and curiosity, and in only six generations Belyaev and Trut had succeeded in breeding a new class of foxes they designated as “domesticated elite,” foxes who not only tolerated human companionship, but were eager to establish and maintain it. Foxes who behaved very much like dogs. After 20 generations of breeding, nearly 80% of that group were rated “domestic elite”—suitable as pets and human companion animals. The breeding project is still going and they now help support their research by selling some of these foxes as pets.

freddytopBelyaev and Trut were able to create domestic foxes by selecting pups that were willing to overcome their Negativity Bias. See, humans aren’t the only ones who have it. Many mammals have it, especially those with more highly developed brains.

The Negativity Bias is a feature of our psychology that originates in our physiology – our neurophysiology, to be specific. The Negativity Bias arises from the most primitive part of our brains, the amygdala—sometimes called the Lizard Brain. This is the part of our brain that looks at everything as a possible threat and responds with only 3 options: fight, flight or freeze.

The Negativity Bias is a universal factor in human psychology and it served a very practical purpose in our evolution as a species. That thing you’re about to pick up, is it a stick or a snake? That shape on the horizon, is that an antelope or a lion? That person coming toward me, is that a walking stick in his hand or a spear? Is he from my clan or is he one of those people from two hills away? Is he here to offer us a partnership in something or to scout us out for a raid? But the Negativity Bias doesn’t just make us evaluate things, events and people, it biases us toward the negative—it makes us lean toward fight, flight or freeze instead of investigate, make friends, and play.

I’ve done a fair amount of reading about this and I could say a lot more about the Negativity Bias, but I’m mindful that there’s a fine line between a long speech and a hostage situation.   So let’s cut to the chase. What does all this have to do with the South Coast Interfaith Council? Well I’m coming to that…but to get there I have to go here.

This is an election year and election years have a tendency to throw a lot of things into sharp relief—and nothing shows up more sharply than the shadow of our fears. Election years in general, and this one in particular, have a way of bringing out the worst in us because candidates and parties play our Negativity Bias like a violin. And since we, as a species and as individuals, are always only one layer of civility away from being ferocious, this is a very dangerous thing.

Remember those other foxes? The pups who bit or acted aggressive or fled from their human handlers? Well they did a breeding experiment with them, too. And the results are terrifying. On the other side of the compound from the tame foxes are the cages that only specially trained handlers can enter. They have to wear protective gear when they go in to feed these other foxes, because these foxes delight in attacking. They live for it. They are bigger, meaner, and astonishingly aggressive. And now nobody knows what to do with them. Animal rights people don’t want them euthanized, but there’s also a very real worry that they might escape into the wild–and that could be a whole new ecological disaster. They are a living object lesson for us.

Election years tend to bring out that aggressive fox inside us, the one we’ve kept somewhat subdued, barely restrained in the tension between first-amendment free speech and laws against hate speech.   There is a spirit of meanness and fear abroad in our country that wants to manipulate our Negativity Bias, that wants to make us suspicious of each other, that wants to make us feel threatened by each other, that wants us to imagine each other as enemies so that we can be directed to vote for the manipulator who promises to be our great leader and protector, who promises to keep us safe.

Religion is one of those traditional dividing lines that can be easily manipulated if we’re not careful. Religion has always been a productive field for those who want to play on our Negativity Bias. There are loud voices right now in our culture who not only want to make scapegoats of particular religions, but want to widen the divisions within our religions. There is a loud noise of Xenophobia and unbridled racism shouting in our land, and I have to say that right now, as a white, male, Christian Protestant, speaking to this wonderfully diverse and eclectic group of people, I feel like I should apologize for some of the things that other white Christian Protestants are saying and doing. Quite frankly, sometimes I am ashamed of my people. We have a lot to answer for. But that’s another speech for another time.

I’m not here tonight just to tell you what you already know about the bad news, about anti-Muslim rhetoric or blatant racism or the long litany of injustices that are all manifestations of our fears, especially White Anglo-Saxon Protestant fears. I’m not here just to tell you the bad news about our Negativity Bias. I’m here to give you the good news that there is an antidote.

There is an antidote. It comes in two steps. First, it’s necessary to acknowledge the Negativity Bias. Admit that it’s there. Second, it’s important to intentionally focus on positive possibilities and positive dynamics.  Focusing on possibilities allows other parts of our brains and psyches, more highly developed parts, to take the lead instead of those instincts driven by fear.

You are here tonight, we are here tonight because we are the tame foxes. We are the ones who have had enough curiosity, bravery, friendliness and even playfulness to look beyond the edges of our own religious traditions to try to see what others are seeing, to try to understand what others are understanding. We are the ones who are curious enough to learn to appreciate a different perspective without abandoning our own. We are the ones who have read past the rare verses in our sacred texts that would exclude us from each other or pit us against each other if taken in the wrong context to find the rich and plentiful vein of gold in those same texts that calls us to transcend that impulse, to be inviting, to be accepting, to embrace the stranger. We are the ones who see that our destinies are woven together. We are the ones who hear that clarion voice in every one of our traditions that says simply and firmly, “Be not afraid.”

There are things we can do together as an alliance of faith communities, things we have been doing, that can show the rest of the world that religions do not have to be in competition with one another or antagonistic to one another but can cooperate to achieve things together even more effectively than what we can achieve independently. The Farmers Markets initiated by this Interfaith Council, the support of Centro Shalom, the Habitat for Humanity building programs—these are all great examples of how we make a positive difference together, of how we “intentionally focus on positive possibilities and positive dynamics.”

But there’s more that we can do together. We can advocate for improving the status of women. We can brainstorm about how to improve education…and access to education and affordable child care. We can find ways to address injustices in our policing and criminal justice systems, particularly those injustices endured by persons of color. We can work together on water and environmental issues—after all, regardless of whatever else we do or don’t agree on, we’re all riding through space and time on the same planet.

I would especially like to suggest tonight that we unite as advocates for the homeless. We can speak with one great, united, faithful voice to our cities and counties on behalf of a people who have been literally swept to the curb. We can get creative together to imagine new ways to address this growing problem that all too often winds up on the doorsteps of our houses of worship. We can advocate for comprehensive housing-first programs that address the needs of the whole person to give those forgotten souls a new lease on life. And we can do it all in the name of God, even if we don’t mean exactly the same thing when we say that.

We need to be doing good things together and we need to be very visible in the doing of them. We need our positive interfaith actions to speak louder than their anti-faith words.

I can’t help but think sometimes that maybe we are at a tipping point in the domestication of our own species. Who will win? The aggressive foxes or the tame ones? The aggressive foxes have been let out of their cages. This is no time for us to sit quietly in ours. This is the time for the tame foxes to come out and play. With gusto.

Peace be with you. And be not afraid.

 

 

Stirred Up or Battered Down?

I saw a Facebook post today that cast a shadow over my afternoon. It was written by someone I greatly respect and admire, a person whose opinion I value highly, a person who has shaped my own thinking more than a little. Here’s what he wrote that saddened me: “Remember how unrealistically high hopes for an Obama presidency crashed when he actually began to govern? It’s far simpler to make stirring speeches than to effect genuine change. I am increasingly inclined to vote for Clinton’s pragmatism over Sanders’ utopian fantasies.”

Now before I go any further, I want to make it clear that I don’t want what I’m writing here to be taken as any kind of statement in support of or against any candidate. I do have a preference among the candidates, of course, but that’s something I keep mostly to myself. No, the matter that worries me, that saddens me, is not that my friend is leaning more toward Clinton than Sanders, the matter that deflates something inside me is that more and more we the people of these United States have become willing to give up our ideals of what’s possible and settle for what’s pragmatic. More and more we are willing to characterize our best hopes as “utopian fantasies” and sacrifice them on the cross of pragmatism, lamenting them and praying that the next generation will resurrect them even as we abandon them to the forces that will crucify them.

My friend and teacher is right that many of our high hopes for the Obama presidency have gone unfulfilled. We were, many of us, naïve in our assessment of how much pressure for change his election could really bring to bear on the status quo. We grossly underestimated the kind of backlash and opposition he would face in response to that pressure. We were unaware of any number of commitments and entanglements that would limit his effectiveness. And we seriously failed to anticipate the myriad ways in which a Black Man in the White House would become a catalyst who would surface the not-at-all latent systemic racism that is still too much a part of the fabric of our national culture…if there is such a thing as our national culture.

My friend and teacher is also right that it is far simpler to make stirring speeches than to effect genuine change. That’s absolutely true. But let’s not dismiss or discount the power of stirring speeches too quickly. I have lived long enough and have studied history enough to remember some powerful and sweeping changes that were initiated in this country by stirring words in both documents and speeches. In 1776, Thomas Jefferson ignited an effective change when he wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” And yes, it’s true that “all men” meant “all property-owning white males” at the time, but deep inside us we knew that these words represented a higher ideal than that. It has taken a long time and extraordinary sacrifice by many and the work is certainly not finished, but most of us now know that all persons are endowed by their Creator with those inalienable rights and that Governments should not only be instituted and maintained by Men but by all persons. We know now that “consent of the governed” is supposed to apply to all the governed. It took us a long time and more than a little hardship to get there, but it is the ideal planted in those stirring words that has carried us forward through two centuries to a day when we can see it begin to blossom as a pragmatic reality.

In 1962 at Rice University, President John F. Kennedy said, “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone…” In more ways than any of us could have anticipated, that stirring speech—that stirring fragment of a stirring speech—shaped not only the remainder of the decade but our entire future. It gave us a goal. It gave us a national will to achieve something great. And in spite of the myriad voices that warned that it couldn’t be done, that it was not practical, that it was too dangerous, that it was not economically feasible, we did it. We did it, and in the doing of it we also initiated an era of tremendous inventiveness, creativity, education, industriousness and prosperity—a prosperity that didn’t trickle down from the wealthy top but that flooded out from our common center. I grew up in the flowing heart of that stirring speech, and it made me believe that if we put our minds and hearts to it we could, indeed, make our utopian fantasies a reality.

“I have a dream,” said the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in 1963. “I still have a dream, a dream deeply rooted in the American dream—one day this nation will rise up and live up to its creed, ‘We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men [sic] are created equal.’ I have a dream…” This stirring speech, too, rang through my childhood and adolescence, continued to stir me through adulthood and still brings tears to my eyes as I quote it to my grandsons. And yes, this dream, too, is still unfulfilled. This dream, too, is still far too much a utopian fantasy and not nearly enough a reality. So should we abandon this dream because it has proved far more difficult to realize than we imagined? Should we settle for a diminished national soul because racism is still with us a half century after this prophetic and stirring speech? Or do we repeat these words to ourselves and rekindle the power of that dream, that utopian fantasy, and let that stirring speech inspire us to keep working for a more perfect union, toward a day when we will rise up and live up to our creed?

“Politics is not the art of the possible. It consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable” wrote John Kenneth Galbraith, and somewhere along the way during the last 15 years we all swallowed that poison pill. We have allowed cynicism to infect all our dreams. There is a spirit of meanness abroad in the land—how else to explain the popularity of the Hitleresque Mr. Trump and the disturbing Mr. Cruz?  There is a loud voice shouting through our country to tell us what we cannot do, what we cannot accomplish, who we should not help, who we should not trust, and what we should not even try to imagine. That voice stirs us up to batter us down.  It wants us to think that we cannot feed every hungry child and provide medical care for every person or provide job training and education for every young adult or….well, it’s a long list, the things that voice wants to tell us we cannot do. But I don’t believe it. I grew up listening to a different voice. I grew up listening to a voice that stirred our hearts by announcing a dream that called us to live up to our national creed. I grew up with a voice that inspired us to work toward the realization of our utopian fantasies, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone…”
There is so much at stake in this divided nation of ours right now. There are too many who are being stirred by speeches full of anger, hatred, xenophobia, Islamophobia– energetic  speeches that play on fears and resentments of every kind. And lest we forget, sometimes those speeches, too, have stirred many, have moved history and swept whole nations and even the world into an ocean of suffering.

So yes, we need to be ‘wise as serpents but innocent as doves’ as another stirring speaker once said long ago. He was the same one, though, who announced that the ultimate utopian fantasy was within reach.  “The kingdom of God is at hand,” is the way his words are usually translated, but make no mistake–he wasn’t talking spiritual pie-in-the-sky.  He was talking about a utopian world of justice and equality, a world where no one goes hungry, a world where everyone’s basic human needs are met.  We’ve been working on making his vision a pragmatic reality for more than 2,000 years now.  Lord knows it’s been difficult and costly, but I, for one, refuse to give up on it.  I, for one, still believe it can happen.  So yes, Candidate, please show us your pragmatism.  It’s essential.  But more essential than that, stir us with a vision.

Optics

Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? –Mark 8.18

I’m seeing things a little differently these days. Specifically, I had to get new glasses. It wasn’t something I planned on doing just yet. It hasn’t been even a full year since I got my last glasses and my prescription hasn’t really changed all that much in the last 10 months. Still, two doctors and a therapist strongly suggested that I would be better off looking at the world a different way.

Even though I’ve had progressive lenses for at least two decades it’s not a good idea for me to wear those lenses anymore. Don’t read too much into that metaphorically. Did you know that the eyes and the ears work together to help you maintain balance? The brain is constantly evaluating information from the vestibular (balance) organ in the inner ear against information from the eyes to keep the body balanced. The brain is also processing data from the feet and other parts of the body, too, but the eyes and ears do most of the work and if the vestibular-ocular reflex is out of whack your world starts to spin.

It seems, according to the two doctors and the balance therapist, that the seamless shift in focus that makes progressive lenses so desirable and efficient in so many ways was actually causing me a problem. Because I have Meniere’s Disease, those lineless lenses with their fluid shifts in focal lengths were probably contributing to more frequent bouts of dizziness and vertigo. Their field of focus at all focal lengths isn’t wide enough to give good clarity to peripheral vision and my formerly nimble but now aging neural processor can’t adapt the way it used to with things going in and out of focus. There’s a metaphor you can go to town with.

So I’m seeing things a little differently. I now have to use multiple pairs of glasses—distance and reading bifocals, computer and reading bifocals, distance only. Sunglasses, of course. It takes some getting used to, this business of switching out glasses depending on what I’m doing and where I’m looking, and like anything that takes some getting used to I have moments when it all seems excessively bothersome and I’m sorely tempted to go back to my one-lens-does-it-all spectacles. But even when I’m grousing about it I have to admit that I’ve already noticed an unexpected benefit. I’m actually seeing everything more clearly, at least when I’m wearing the right glasses at the right time. Feel free to play with that metaphor, too.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” says Jesus in Luke 4 as he reads from the scroll of Isaiah in his hometown synagogue. “He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind…” Recovery of sight to the blind. Jesus was speaking of restoring the actual capacity for sight to those with physical visual impairment, of course, but I think he also was speaking in a broader metaphorical sense. After all, he frequently referred to the eyes and to sight as metaphors for perception and understanding.

“There are none so blind as those who will not see,” wrote John Heywood in 1546. We all have our blind spots. We all have areas of life where it would do us good to switch out lenses, to make sure we’re getting the whole picture, to make sure we are really seeing what is right in front of us and what is off to the side and what is coming in at an oblique angle–to make sure we’re focused on the right thing at the right time with the right lens. The problem is that we get so comfortable with our old lenses that we might not even notice that they’re distorting our vision of the world; it might not occur to us to take them off and try on something with a clearer view.

One very popular lens that we cling to as we get older is “The Way Things Used To Be” and its even more astigmatic variant “Back When Things Were Great.” The world we see now seems to have gone askew but we think it’s because the world has become twisted and it doesn’t occur to us that it might be the old lens that’s skewing our vision. Sure, things are different, things have changed, but is it really so bad as it looks or are we seeing it through a skewing lens? Ah, that old lens that’s so comfortable, that we’re so used to—that lens that we carefully ground for ourselves out of years halcyon memories. It’s a great lens.…the problem is that it never really was anything like accurate. Sure, Things Were Great “back then,” but only if you were one of the people included in the category of People For Whom Things Are Great. If you broaden your focus to the larger number of People Who Are Not You and then look at People For Whom Things Were Not So Great you’ll get a more realistic picture of how things were and how things are. But you’ll have to change lenses to do that.

There is a whole family of Idealized lenses. Some skew the world toward the positive and some toward the negative but they’re all distorted to some degree. Take, for instance, the “Everything Is Perfect” lens. How anyone manages to navigate the world with this lens is beyond me, but people do. They tend to stumble a lot over things the lens obscures, things which are not perfect but which they just won’t allow themselves to see. There’s the “Everything Will Be Perfect When” lens which, while it gives a more realistic view than its cousin, tends to keep one’s focus narrowed in on a few small things which need to get fixed in order to achieve either personal or collective utopia. For all its claimed farsightedness this lens can be dangerously myopic.

There is, of course, the polar opposite of the Idealized family of lenses, the Cynical family which not only distorts but darkens everything you see, and not in a good Ray Bans-on-a-Sunny-Day kind of way. These lenses make you see the world through a perpetual fog of gloom.

So what lenses are you wearing? How are you seeing the world? Jesus came to restore sight to the blind—to all of us who are blind in any way. Jesus came to change our lenses, to teach us to see the world and each other anew through the lens of God’s love, and then to become opticians of the heart so that we can bring the clarity of God’s love, God’s vision, to others.

But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it. –Matthew 13.16-17