Advent is a season in the church year, a time when Christians wait in anticipation both for the celebration of Christ’s birth and for his return to earth at the end of time. It’s common to read daily devotional messages during the season. I was asked to write such a devotional message, and I chose to reflect on a passage from the book of Ecclesiastes describing a posture of openness and receptivity. I’ve put the devotional below.

Photo by Michael Burrows on Pexels.com

Better is a handful with quiet than two handfuls with toil, and a chasing after wind. (Ecclesiastes 4:6)

The Teacher of Ecclesiastes asks, “What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? (Ecc. 2:22) What payoff do we get from all our striving to acquire more money, power, recognition, or appreciation? We may, as the text states, manage to acquire “two handfuls” of whatever it is that we are working for. But is what we gain in this way truly what is best for us? The Teacher thinks not. He warns against laziness (Ecc. 4:5), but also rejects the opposite, overexertion. Rather than using both hands to grasp for all we can get, he suggests that we are better off if we quiet ourselves, turning one hand up to receive what God has for us.

In this Advent season of waiting and reflection, I sometimes consider my stance regarding striving versus receiving. I have to admit that I’m often inclined to be grasping for what I think will satisfy me rather than waiting in peace and stillness for the blessings God has for me. I’m prone to restlessness; perhaps I think that I can get more of what I want through my toil than I can by waiting for God’s good gifts. But what I want is not necessarily what I most need, and it is God, not me, who does best at supplying what I truly need. In the New Testament, Martha epitomizes the life of constant striving. In his mercy, Jesus pointed out that her way of doing things led to worry and distraction. What she really needed was what her sister Mary had already gained by sitting and listening to Jesus: one handful received in quiet rather than the two handfuls that Martha was seeking “by her many tasks.” (Luke 10:40,42)

What Mary received is what I need and you need this Advent season. Peace. Calm. Rest. Awe. Wonder. And most of all, Christ, for he is the ultimate gift that God provides to those who humbly stretch out a hand to receive.

Prayer: Forgive us, Lord, for our tendency to turn from you in order to strive for that which doesn’t satisfy. Help us to wait in stillness for the good gifts you have for us, especially the gift of your Son.

The description of Babylon in the book of Daniel seems oddly familiar 2500 years later. Here’s a tongue-in-cheek take on that empire and all empires from then until now:

Just settle in, assimilate
ignore your grief, ignore your ache
and when the music plays, bow down
before the king of Babylon.

You will be taught (tuition free)
all magic spells and oddities;
it may seem strange, it may seem wrong;
it’s how things roll in Babylon.

Our businessmen are savvy whores,
there’s merchandise in all the stores;
buy fig trees now on Amazon!
wealth does accrue in Babylon.

So I give thanks, at night in bed
for clothes and houses, wine and bread,
and I decide that I belong
consuming stuff in Babylon.

The king is petulant, it’s true:
“Tell me my dream, or off with you!”
The vision comes before the dawn
to men who prayed in Babylon.

There’s just a few who will not sing
their native songs, or anything.
They think instead of days begone
and turn their hearts from Babylon.

The kingdom of the Lord will come
and we’ll rejoice before the Son,
while waiting though, we still are fond
of all the charms of Babylon.

In a remarkably short period of time the coronavirus has changed how people throughout the world are living their lives. Here in the U.S., we are exhorted over and over again to practice social distancing—to stay home as much as we can and, should we have to venture out, to remain at least six feet away from those we encounter. The director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases tells us that we’ll need to practice these restrictions for several more weeks at minimum. That degree of restriction will be difficult for many of us to handle.

I was thinking of all of this when I read the lectionary passages that a large number of churches will read this Sunday (or would read if they could have services). I was particularly struck by the psalm that the Revised Common Lectionary uses this the fourth Sunday in Lent. It is Psalm 23, David’s psalm of thanksgiving for God, the shepherd of his flock. It begins as follows:

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.  (Ps. 23:1–3, RSV)

That passage speaks to me in this time of trouble. Many now fear want; David tells us that the shepherd anticipates the needs of his sheep and makes provision for them. It’s interesting that the first thing the shepherd has the sheep do is lie down. That suggests that what the sheep needs most is rest and stillness. Though I’m partly retired, most of the time I have a variety of projects going on, so rest is usually in short supply. Maybe the coming weeks will be a time to stop the busyness and “lie down.” And then I might discover that I don’t need to look elsewhere for green pastures; God has already provided them where I am.

Once the shepherd has brought the chaos we’ve created to a halt, we are more inclined to hear his voice and follow him as he leads us beside still waters–places of peace and refreshment. I’m inclined to be on the outlook for tumultuous waters, and I find plenty of those in the news stories that my phone, computer, and TV direct me to every day. The challenge will be to push those aside and notice the still waters I’m being led to walk beside. Following him there, my soul will be restored.

And that in turn will prepare me to be led in the paths that are right for me. For some of my life I think I’ve been on such a right path; other times I’ve strayed far away. I didn’t set out to stray; I was on a good and healthy path, then I wasn’t, and was uncertain how that had happened. Perhaps I stopped listening to the shepherd. Perhaps he wanted me to just lie down for a while, to let him take care of me until I relaxed and trusted enough to see what was the best path to take going forward. I hope I can use the next several weeks of social distancing as a time to lie down in God’s good pasture, follow him beside still waters, and, restored, listen to his guidance for the path ahead.

 

I recently went on an Alpha retreat at Maranatha Conference Center near Lake Michigan. We could walk down to the beach, and, though the day was cold and blustery, many of us did, and climbed from there to an outlook deck. Here’s the view from the site:

The stiff wind blowing off the lake reminded me of the description of the Holy Spirit as breath or wind, and the tumult of the waves reminded me of the chaos that, according to the book of Genesis, the Spirit hovered over at the beginning of creation. The next day, I wrote the following poem about that moment:

Come Holy Spirit

The breakers roil, but I am heading up above them,
climbing wooden stairs in search of a deck floating
atop the hill, levitating amidst the bare-branched
trees. I leave a bit of breath behind on the climb,
but, summiting, I’m met with a greater breath, wind
across the waves, rushing through the pristine space
vast between the scudding clouds and troubled waters.

I spread my arms, mindless of the cold, gathering
as much as I can of the robust wind, for it recalls
the fullness of God’s hovering, fecund Spirit
above the primal deep, world-birthing, propagating,
molding, making, all-creating. Let the sea in all
its fullness roar. Breathe on us, Lord, that we may
be renewed. Come Holy Spirit, come, I pray.

Tomorrow is All Saints’ Day, a day for Christians to remember those who went before us in the faith. Remembering our predecessors is part of seeing ourselves as one with them:

“The choice is not to load our ancestors down with honors or run away from them as fast as we can–our countercultural faith requires us to take the past seriously and to receive its people warmly and wisely. It requires us to be generous, and in a fundamental way truly inclusive.” Margaret Bendroth, The Spiritual Practice of Remembering

Here’s a poem I wrote for All Saint’s Day in 2005 and recently revised:

ALLHALLOW

Our fellows stepped along the highways of history,
persevering through the nights and staggering against the storms,
withstanding the pull from clan or past companions,
spurning the flash and sparkle of roadside diversions.
They seldom walked alone
for their strength was in the intertwining.
When the passage was obstructed,
a hundred shoulders pushed as one to clear the way.
When a member of their number fell,
two hundred hands would lift the faltering one,
a hundred tongues would rumble with encouragement.
They were a host but not a horde,
intermixed but each distinct.
These are the saints that constitute the church;
its amaranthine beauty spans the ages.
We now walk along the pathways they inscribed:
we are the ones
following the followers of Christ.

I recently read Tish Harrison Warren’s wonderful little book Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life. For her, the regular, mundane events of our daily lives are practices that shape our souls. She finds the spiritual significance of such apparently unpromising candidates as making the bed, brushing teeth, and getting stuck in traffic. In a previous post, I wrote about her experience with losing keys. In this post I’ll reflect on one of these familiar events pregnant with meaning, namely eating leftovers.

Most of us, I would venture to say, have more unremarkable than memorable meals. We eat the same thing again and again. Sometimes, as with Warren, it’s reheated from the night before. Her taco soup was just a quick and easy way to feed the family, and reheating some of it for lunch was particularly uninspiring. Yet such humdrum meals are important. Warren says,

“Thousands of forgotten meals have brought me to today. They’ve sustained my life. They were my daily bread.” p. 65

I, too, mostly eat what’s unremarkable. My diet is rather monotonous–usually oatmeal and boxed cereal for breakfast; fruits and veggies, yogurt, and bread for lunch; and soup and a salad for dinner. It doesn’t take much preparation, is cost-effective, and is environmentally friendly. It’s simple but nutritious. Yet I’d be hard-pressed to remember the specifics of any of those meals eaten more than just a few days ago.

Warren pauses to pray before she eats, offering thanks to God. This reminds her that everything we have is a gift from him. Such gratitude for things large and small is in fact a spiritual practice, one that gradually replaces the grasping hands of self-sufficiency with the open hands of receptivity to what God supplies. It’s easy to undervalue the foods we eat and the large and complex system that delivers them to us:

“This abundance, the sheer amount and variety of food and the ability to keep it for days, would astound much of the world and most people throughout history. But I have been dulled to the wonders before me. I take this nourishment for granted.” p. 68

Once in a while, when shopping at the local supermarket, I’m struck by the abundance and variety of what is there. Within those four walls is a veritable horn of plenty–foods from across the world, fresh, frozen, baked, cooked, pickled, butchered, roasted, juiced, homogenized, pasteurized, dried, or prepared in countless other ways, transported here by boat, train, plane, or truck, all available for a fraction of the money in my wallet. Most of the time, I am, like Warren, “dulled to the wonders before me.” I do a little better at the local farmers market, where much of the bounty on display was grown within a fifty-mile radius, often by those there selling it to me. Somehow, it’s easier to direct gratitude locally. especially when I receive the food from the grower’s hand. There is of course just as much reason to be thankful for food from far-away fields tended by farmers I’ll never meet.

We do not live by bread alone. As Warren notes, the central acts of Christian worship, Word and Sacrament, are comparable to the food we eat each day. “Both are necessary because both, together, are our nourishment.” (p. 63) And, like our meals, the Word of God in Scripture sometimes seems mundane or tasteless:

“There are times we approach Scripture, whether in private study or gathered worship, and find it powerful and memorable–sermons we quote and carry around with us, stories we tell of being impacted and changed. There are other times when the Scriptures seem as unappetizing as stale bread. I’m bored or confused or skeptical or repulsed.” p. 67

What to do when the Word is dry or tasteless?

“We keep eating. We receive nourishment. We keep listening and learning and taking our daily bread. We wait on God to give us what we need to sustain us one more day.” p. 67

There were times in my life when I didn’t seem to get much out of reading Scripture. For the most part, I managed to follow Warren’s advice: I continued to go to it for sustenance, just as I continued to eat foods that didn’t seem particularly appealing. And, just as food does nourish me in ways I don’t understand, the Word somehow nourishes me. Some portion of it has become a part of me, just as molecules from meals I’ve eaten have been incorporated into my cells. I’m a different person than I would have been had I not regularly chewed on Scripture–less egotistical, braver, more at peace. Both physically and spiritually, I’m sustained by God’s good gifts. Some of those gifts seem mundane, some extraordinary, but each is remarkable in its own way.

FIRST REFORMED, Ethan Hawke, 2017. ©A24/ Everett Collection.

I recently saw the movie First Reformed on DVD (having missed the theatrical run last year). The film is writer-director Paul Schrader’s most significant work in years, and Ethan Hawke has been widely praised for his portrayal of Reverend Ernst Toller, the troubled pastor at a historic church in upstate New York. The church has only a handful of members and is being kept alive through the efforts of Abundant Life, a local megachurch whose theology and approach to ministry are far removed from First Reformed’s Calvinism (Schrader does know Calvinism, having grown up in the Christian Reformed Church, a North American bastion of Calvinist beliefs. I’m from the same tradition, and in fact attended the same church-related high school and college as Schrader did).

Most of the plot has to do with Toller’s efforts to help Mary, a pregnant parishioner (Amanda Seyfried), and her husband Michael, a radical environmentalist who despairs for the planet and is opposed to bringing a child into it. Toller tries to foster hope in Michael, using arguments like the following:

“Courage is the solution to despair. Reason provides no answers. I can’t know what the future will bring. We have to choose despite uncertainty. Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our mind, simultaneously, hope and despair. A life without despair is a life without hope. Holding these two ideas in our head is life itself.”

If you don’t find that a stirring call to a meaningful life, well, I don’t either. The problem may be that Toller is himself forlorn. He is a former military chaplain who encouraged his son to enlist. When his son was subsequently killed, his wife left him. He tells Michael,

“I can promise you that whatever despair you feel about bringing a child into this world cannot equal the despair of taking a child from it.”

Much of what we learn about Toller’s interior life comes in the form of voice-overs from the journal he resolves to keep for a year. His intent is:

“To set down all my thoughts and the simple events of my day factually and without hiding anything. When writing about oneself, one should show no mercy.”

He quickly displays such mercilessness towards himself:

“I look at the last lines I wrote with disdain.”

A few days afterwards, he’s again faulting his efforts:

“When I read these words I see not truth but pride.”

He’s even critical of his criticism:

“I wish I had not used the word ‘pride’ but I cannot cross it out.”

Give it a rest, dude! Your self-loathing is getting in your way.

Toller describes his journal as a means of communication, “a form of prayer,” though he later laments that he is unable to pray. Apparently, talking to himself in his journal is an attempt to obliquely talk to God. It isn’t quite true that he can’t pray–when Mary asks him to pray for her, he does so without hesitation. He just can’t take himself before God. This is despair of the Kierkegaardian sort, not over God or the state of the world but over having to be oneself.

Toller is what the 19th century philosopher and psychologist William James called a “sick soul,” a person whose view of everything is “based on the persuasion that the evil aspects of our life are of its very essence.” Even if the sick soul believes that evil will eventually be overcome by a greater good (as Toller apparently does, since he leads the congregation in the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism, which points to Christ as savior), evil is not easily dismissed. By contrast, Reverend Jeffries, the pastor of Abundant Life, exemplifies James’ contrasting “healthy-minded” religious type, the optimist who is taken by the goodness of life and dismisses the seriousness of evil. Jeffries tries to be pastoral towards Toller, but there’s no crossing the gulf between them.

A while later, there’s another revealing voice-over from the journal:

“Some are called for their gregariousness. Some are called for their suffering. Others are called for their loneliness. They are called by God because through the vessel of communication, they can reach out and hold beating hearts in their hands. They are called because of their all-consuming knowledge of the emptiness of all things that can only be filled by the presence of our Savior.”

Toller is such a lonely, desolate disciple, responding to the call but in travail. Though he states that Christ’s presence can fill his emptiness, that’s not what he’s experiencing. In his Spiritual Exercises Ignatius of Loyola describes the contrasting states of spiritual consolation and spiritual desolation as follows:

“I call it consolation when some interior movement is caused in the soul, through which the soul comes to be inflamed with love of its Creator and Lord…. I call consolation every increase of hope, faith, and charity, and all interior joy that calls and attracts to heavenly things and to the salvation of one’s soul, quieting it and giving it peace in its Savior and Lord.” From the Third Rule

“I call desolation all the contrary of the third rule, such as darkness of soul, disturbance in it, movement to low and earthly things, disquiet from various agitations and temptations, moving to lack of confidence, without hope, without love, finding oneself totally slothful, tepid, sad and, as if separated from one’s Creator and Lord.” From the Fourth Rule

Per Ignatius, believers typically alternate between consolation and desolation. Except possibly at the very end of the movie, Toller receives no consolation, only desolation. Perhaps his compunction and self-reproach dam the flow of God’s mercy. I am, like Toller, more inclined to be sick-souled than healthy-minded. I am grateful that, unlike him, my spirit receives much more consolation than desolation.

When true consolation is absent, it’s tempting to seek ersatz consolations. Perhaps Toller’s growing fanaticism over environmental activism serves that purpose. He spends considerable time on Michael’s computer viewing sites that document  environmental degradation. He eventually has to choose between committing a violent act that would garner attention for the environmentalist cause and protecting the well-being of someone he cares for–you’ll have to see the movie to find out what he does. In the end, he may be heading toward recovery, but he’s still an ailing soul. It’s an unflinching portrayal of what might happen to any of us if we go too long without God’s consolations.

I am a coordinator for a group studying Live Justly, a ten-session curriculum designed to help followers of Christ to pursue justice in every aspect of their lives. There would be no need for such a pursuit if our world was already a mostly fair and equitable place, so the study has pointed out various ways in which injustice pervades the world in which we live.

The most recent session was titled “Justice and Prayer.” It included a short essay describing how believers in Africa and North America responded to the plight of 160 women and children who had been displaced by the outbreak of civil war in South Sudan. The author, Kristen deRoo VanderBerg, described an outpouring of prayer for those who had fled the violence and ended up in an abandoned UN camp. VanderBerg reports, “God not only heard their prayers, and our prayers, but worked in us to make clear what we could offer to bring his kingdom in that place.” That meant mobilizing aid–food, plastic sheets, blankets, mosquito nets, laundry soap, cooking pots, and more. As a result, “The semblance of normal life returned to those families in need.”

The essay was written sometime in 2014, less than a year after the outbreak of violence. I recalled later reports of continuing armed conflict, so I did an online search to find out what’s happened over the last four years. There’s an extensive Wikipedia page describing the war and its effects on the population. After the initial fighting, there were a number of cease fires, with each typically violated within days by whoever thought they could gain an advantage by doing so. The rebels split into competing factions, as did the majority Dinka tribe, and no peace deal (including the one that some parties are now following) was comprehensive enough to end all violent conflict. There has been ethnic cleansing, sexual violence, famine, and attacks on civilians and aid workers. Over four million people have been displaced either internally or to surrounding countries. A study in early 2018 estimated that at least 383,000 people have died as a result of the war. I looked specifically for news about Yei, the city to which VandenBerg’s initial 160 women and children fled, and found that the population of refugees there has grown substantially. In July of this year the UN refugee agency was planning to distribute “plastic sheets, blankets, kitchen sets, buckets, jerry cans, mosquito nets, sleeping mats and soap” there. The need for such items seems to be never-ending!

South Sudanese refugees arriving in Uganda, 2017. Image from http://www.worldvision.org.

It was disheartening to find out how much worse things got after VandenBerg’s optimistic report of a successful relief effort. As she notes, by praying for peace we become more aware of how we may be peacemakers, and that’s a good thing. But subsequent events in South Sudan also show us that it is tremendously difficult (sometimes impossible) to make peace no matter how much we pray and work. Why is that so? Why doesn’t God intervene? What’s the point of either prayer or relief efforts in a situation like that?

The persistence of evil and suffering has caused many to lose their faith. We often don’t notice that not only faith but the other two theological virtues are impacted as well. Many lose hope–not necessarily for the blessings of an afterlife, but for “the goodness of the Lord/ in the land of the living,” as the psalmist (Ps. 27) put it. Others lose charity, not only in that they no longer try to alleviate human misery but also that they uncharitably accuse sufferers of being responsible for their hardships. So as not to blame God, they blame the victims instead.

I don’t blame God for what’s happened: He gave humans free will, never intending that they use it to slaughter their enemies or innocent bystanders. Neither do I blame those who have lost their livelihoods, their communities, their innocence, or their lives. For a few days after reading about the war, I was preoccupied with and saddened by the enormity of the suffering that it brought. I was sensitized to news reports of other conflicts, especially the war and humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Unlike South Sudan, my country is implicated in perpetuating that conflict.

My morose state of mind was mild, though, and I knew that it would pass. To some extent it already has. While in the midst of my preoccupation, I happened upon a TIME magazine cover story on parents who have had a child die in a school shooting. They never recover fully from their sorrow, not even after decades. One couple, the Phillips, whose daughter was killed in the Aurora, Colorado theater shooting, sold almost everything they owned, moved into a mobile home, and devoted themselves full-time to helping survivors of gun violence. What would it be like if all of us were similarly touched by the world’s pain, giving our lives to help those who are suffering?

That thought brought me back to God. He is not a distant deity who watches us from on high, tossing down an occasional thunderbolt when things get out of hand. He’s not like me, saddened by what he sees but not doing much in response. He’s like the Phillips’, who changed their lives totally in response to human need. That’s what we celebrate at Christmas, after all. God gave up the glories of heaven to be born as one of us, surrendering everything for the sake of the suffering world. “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering”  wrote Isaiah (53:4). I take that to mean that he suffers with the victims of every war that has ever been fought. And one day, when God’s kingdom comes fully, war will be no more. For now, when I struggle to hold on to my faith–and also my hope and charity–I look to his example to get the strength to go on.

 

 

Entrance to auditorium, Ephesus. Cross on lintel shows it was converted into a church.

Following a trip earlier this year to archaeological sites in Turkey, I’ve been writing about the cultural setting in which the apostle Paul and other evangelists preached the good news of Christianity. I’ve looked at Roman architecture, religion, and politics, noting the forces arrayed in defense of the existing order. So why did what started out as a marginal movement located far from centers of power succeed at upending that order? Why, a little over three centuries after the first missionaries set out, was a majority of the populace Christian, while paganism was in decline?

We Christians are likely to respond that God was in it. Sure, but what means did he use? In The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History (1996: Princeton University Press), Rodney Stark tries to answer that question. Trevor Wax has provided a helpful summary of Stark’s main points here.

The numerical growth of Christianity of course depended on a lot of people converting, and Stark offers some interesting observations on what prompts conversions. In particular, he notes the following:

  • Converts are typically those who have strong relationships with members of the movement to which they convert–“conversion tends to proceed along social networks formed by interpersonal attachments.” (p. 18)
  • Converts typically don’t have pre-existing religious commitments that would interfere; they tend to be “the religiously inactive and discontented, and those affiliated with the most accommodated (worldly) religious communities.” (p. 19)
  • Converts to new religions are similar to early adopters of other sorts of cultural innovations. They tend to be “well among average in terms of income and education.” p. 38
  • It is only when such more privileged members of society are discontented with the conventional religious options available to them that there is an opening for a new religion to flourish.

In line with these general principles, Stark suggests the following about Christian conversion:

  • Paul’s missionary efforts were most successful among the middle and upper classes, so the early church was largely a movement of the more privileged members of society.
  • The Christian message was particularly appealing to the Hellenized Jews of the diaspora. They were socially marginal, and thus were not likely to obtain the rewards available to those more integrated in the culture. At the same time, corresponding to the second point above, they were “relatively worldly, accommodated, and secular.” (p. 60) They were also likely to have interpersonal attachments to Jews who were already Christians.
  • The social and religious structures were periodically overwhelmed by epidemics. “The epidemics swamped the explanatory and comforting capacities of paganism and of Hellenistic philosophies.” (p. 74) Whereas pagans tended to abandon those of their number that were ill, Christians cared for their sick and also for some of the non-Christians who were ill. Thus, a higher percentage of Christians survived. Non-Christians who survived often lost many of the attachments that kept them from converting and were attracted by the Christian ethic of caring for those in need.
  • Women enjoyed much higher status in the Christian subculture than they did in the society at large. Infanticide of girl babies led to a shortage of females in the broader society but not in the church, where girls were raised to maturity. There was a low fertility rate in the society as a whole, but not among Christians. Women converts often brought their husbands with them into the church (secondary conversion); intermarriage between Christian women and pagan men probably also led to conversions.
  • The cities of the Roman empire were places of intense human misery. They were extremely overcrowded, much more so than even the densest cities today. Most people lived in tiny tenements lacking furnaces, fireplaces, clean water, or efficient sewers. Besides the periodic epidemics, “illness and physical affliction were probably the dominant features of daily life in this era.” (p. 154) Mortality rates were high, necessitating a constant stream of newcomers, resulting in deficient attachments and clashes among diverse ethnic groups. The typical city was vulnerable to “attacks, fires, earthquakes, famines, epidemics, and devastating riots.” (p. 159) All of this misery may have led residents to desire something better.

The desire for an improved lot may be most acute when a society is in chaos, but it is something common to humans of every era and social situation. What did Christians offer that was better? Stark makes a couple observations about Christian belief that probably were radically new. Christians maintain that God loves humankind and shows mercy to us even when we don’t deserve it. In contrast, Greek and Roman gods were mostly capricious or selfish, not loving. In fact, the ancient world thought mercy and pity were weaknesses, qualities to be avoided. Christians also linked a social ethical code with religion–believers were to love others and act out that love in their social interactions. Pagans did have their own ethical obligations; for example they were to worship the gods by offering sacrifices. This was mainly a form of social exchange, though, and one’s faith didn’t create much obligation to treat others well. Christianity introduced ethical obligations to everyone, ethical obligations that were to be followed whether or not there was an expectation of immediate earthly rewards.

Of course such ethical standards were a matter of imitating God himself, who sent his son to care even for those in rebellion against Him. God is love. Love him and each other. That’s still the core of the Christian faith. The world needed that message in the first century. The world needs that message today.

Christian symbol etched into pavement of a synagogue in Sardis, Turkey

 

 

Denarius

This morning we had an interesting discussion at the Men’s Bible Study I attend. The passage we looked at was Mark 12, which includes an attempt by Jesus’ opponents to trap him by asking a politically charged question about whether it was permissible to pay taxes to Rome. Jesus first asks his questioner to bring him a denarius, the coin used to pay the tax. The passage continues:

They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” (NIV)

Our pastor suggested that Jesus was implicitly comparing the image on the coin–Caesar’s–to the image on the hearts of his hearers–God’s. In other words, Jesus was alluding to the account of creation in Genesis 1:

So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

A member of the group questioned whether we make too much of the image of God, thus neglecting that a couple of chapters later Genesis describes the Fall, an event in which humans lost a substantial part of what it means to be like God. This resulted in a lengthy discussion. My contribution was that we can mistakenly focus too much either on the ways we humans fall short of the image of God or on the ways we continue to display that image. Each is monumental in scope, and to lose sight of either is to have an erroneous view of what it means to be human. When we focus too much on how much humans fail to display godlike characteristics, we are tempted to dehumanize them. When we focus too much on the ways in which humans still have godlike features, we are tempted to idealize–and often idolize–them.

Thinking about this further after the meeting, it seemed to me that the major philosophical streams in Western society that inform everyone’s sense of self–enlightenment rationalism and romanticism–are both prone to these sorts of errors. To oversimplify here, the enlightenment rationalist may idolize humans who exhibit our capacity for godlike qualities such as reason, objectivity, and commitment to truth, while dehumanizing those they consider still trapped in superstitions like religion or respect for tradition. The romanticist is prone to idolize humans who take the inner journey to discover something true about their nature, but dehumanize critics who question the verities that inner journey supposedly reveal.

As I thought of the errors we make when we have either too high or too low a view of God’s image, I thought also of the political controversy of the moment in the U.S., i.e. the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation. Christine Blasey Ford presented riveting testimony of her memories of attempted rape. As a therapist who has had many conversations with trauma victims, I found her account convincing. To my mind, she showed in her brief time on the public stage a desire to tell the truth, a radical openness about a terribly painful experience, and a willingness to sacrifice her own well-being for the good of society. In all these things, I think she showed something of what God intended all of us to be. But couldn’t she be mistaken as to the identity of her assaulter? I tend to think her memory was accurate, but it might not be. She’s only human, after all. Those who think she couldn’t possibly be incorrect are overestimating human capability. Our memories aren’t godlike, after all.

So some are overestimating the image of God in her, seeing her as incapable of error. Others are making the opposite mistake, dehumanizing her so as to discredit her testimony. President Trump may unfortunately be among those losing sight of her humanity: at a rally last night, he took a mocking tone in describing her testimony, then added, “They [apparently meaning Dr. Ford and other accusers of sexual assault, though the reference isn’t clear] want to destroy people. These are really evil people.” So she’s not merely wrong, she’s one of those others, the evil ones, who are in some sense less than the rest of us good folks.

How about Judge Kavanaugh? I only heard about 20 minutes of his testimony, then saw clips from the rest of it. In the part I heard, he seemed arrogant, defensive, and entitled. His tone has generally been described as angry. It’s easier for me to come up with reasons he might deny a sexual assault that he actually remembers than to imagine Dr. Ford making up such allegations.

Yet I remember that he, too, bears God’s image. As such, there may be more truth in his denials than I am inclined to believe. I think his anger has resonated with conservatives, many of whom have had their motives impuged in a way similar to what they see in the commentary about Kavanaugh.  David French wrote of this in support of Judge Kavanaugh the day after the hearing:

“[I]t is a simple fact that time and again good conservative men and women have been subjected to horrific smears for the sin of disagreement, for in good faith believing in different policies, or in good faith holding different religious beliefs. They (we) have been called bigots, racists, and — yes — evil.”

In other words, they have been dehumanized for their political views. They’ve been judged not just as mistaken but as having evil intentions, as being somehow less than the enlightened ones on the Left. There have been plenty examples of this in responses to the Kavanaugh hearing. For example, Jeff Flake, who as much as any other Senator seems to be trying to hold in mind the humanity of both Ford and Kavanaugh, has for his troubles been labeled a “rape apologist” by the Woman’s March.

Ford, Kavanaugh, Flake, Trump, me–all of these bear the image of God. In all of them the image of God is distorted, shadowed by human corruption. To find my way through these troubled times I need to continually remind myself of these truths.