Monthly Archives: January 2014

Ephesians 6:1-4. Happy or Good?

In his letter to the Ephesians St. Paul admonishes his readers: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’—this is the first commandment with a promise: so that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.’ And fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”

One of the positive things about retirement is that it gives you time to have leisurely, polite conversations about interesting subjects, subjects that might never have arisen earlier in life. For example, my wife and I were talking to some nice people our own age recently, friends of ours whose children are also raised and on their own, and the question came up: Were you raised to be happy or to be good? And after a while a second question came trailing along: So how then did you raise your own children, to be happy or to be good?
Well, nothing important ever comes with proper instructions, beloved, and rising children is certainly no exception to the rule. None of us come to parenthood prepared. Our parents did not, and neither did we. We may seek expert advice—there is plenty of it out there, heaven knows. There are books and magazines and afternoon TV shows full of it. But the experts on parenting are divided on nearly every point. The instructions they give are well-intentioned, but the advice of each developmental guru is discredited and cast aside by the next generation as worthless. So we all pretty much wing it, depending mostly on what we learned—positively or negatively—from our own upbringing. And the result is—well, the result.
Even the Bible, that vast trust fund of wisdom and experience, has little practical guidance to give on how to raise children who are not selfish or miserably guilty or hopelessly unable to form relationships with other people. Lord knows there are plenty of excellent examples of how not to raise children in the Bible. Isaac and Rebekah played favorites with Jacob and Esau, and that turned out very badly. David spoiled Absalom rotten and that turned out even worse. Jesus’ parable called The Prodigal Son, so sublime on other levels, is certainly of very limited value as a guide on how to raise boys.
The advice offered by the Bible on parenting is general rather than concrete. The Old Testament book of Proverbs says–“Train children in the right way, and when they are old, they will not stray.” Wisdom affirms the lifelong importance of a sound training, but parents are left pretty much on their own when it comes to discerning exactly what “the right way” might be. In our text from Ephesians, St. Paul pauses to emphasize the importance of respect for parental authority and the need for firm parental discipline that stops short of being abusive. But Paul hurries on quickly to other matters more in line with his own concerns, leaving us to decide how best to apply his advice. So in this, as in so many other matters, the Bible leaves parents to decide, according to their own dim and flickering lights, whether to raise their children to be happy or to be good.
But must it be one or the other, you ask? Don’t we want our children to be both happy and good? Oh, yes, beloved! Indeed, we do! But no, alas, in the end one or the other—goodness or happiness–will be our paramount intention. One motive will always govern everything else, determining the thousands of smaller choices we make along the way.
Of course we know that there are parents who fail to raise their children to be either happy or good. They are not our present concern—although the results of that failure are a danger to the goodness and happiness of our whole society. They have glutted our prison system and transformed our schools into armed camps. But I am certain that those of you to whom I am writing were almost certainly raised to be either happy or good. And if you have children you have already decided one way or the other, and are living with the result of that choice. So which was it, beloved?
Everyone’s answer is going to be different. A woman once told me something to this effect: “My parents made a lot of mistakes raising us, but more than anything else they just wanted us to be happy. And that’s what I’m doing too. I want happy children. I love them too much to raise them any other way.” That was a long time ago, but her words made an impression on me because they reflect an experience so foreign to my own. Because for myself I can say without a nanosecond’s hesitation, that I was raised not to be happy but to be good.
Now there is some evidence out there to the contrary. For instance, there is a charming series of pictures taken of me when I was three years old on a visit to Yellowstone Park in which I am seen feeding chocolate-covered cherries to the bears through the open window of the car. Now based solely on the evidence of those photos, you might believe that my parents were raising me to be happy rather than good. Everyone in those pictures looks deliciously happy. The bears, of course, look happy. My young parents look happy, and I look happy too. Supremely happy. Any why not? What child wouldn’t be? But what kind of parents would permit—even encourage–their three-year-old to stuff chocolates into a bear’s mouth through a car window?
My own, it appears. And when I look back on them from the other side of a lifetime, I realize that they were in some ways more audacious than my wife and I ever were. They gave my brother and me all the freedom they could–more than we ever gave our children, that’s for certain. I got away with a lot—I know that now, looking back—and my brother even more. As children their lives had been rather narrow and pinched, and they gave us all the things they themselves would have wanted. They were often demanding, but they were not cautious. And some of the things they allowed us to do for fun take my breath away now, looking back from a safe distance. Feeding chocolates to the bears is an early, but by no means a unique example.
That does not change the fact, however, that their highest aim, as far as I was concerned, at least, never changed—to produce a person like themselves–unselfish, disciplined, well-mannered, conscientious, and devout. In short, good. Whether they succeeded is a matter of opinion. I sometimes like to pretend they did, but in my most lucid private moments I know otherwise. None of us is good—not all the time, at least—and certainly not in everyone’s opinion. There was even some disagreement on that score regarding Jesus himself. According to John’s gospel: “While some were saying, ‘He is a good man,’ others were saying, ‘No, he is deceiving the crowd” (7:12). And since all of us depend to a large degree upon others to tell us how we are doing, and even the Lord’s own contemporaries sometimes called his goodness into question, what chance have any of us got? Zero.
Maybe it is enough to say that although we may not always be good, or even appear good to others, those of us who were raised to be good know what goodness is. And in a world where goodness and integrity are often remarkable by their absence, we feel responsible to make things better. We feel it is our duty to pick up the trash. To go the extra mile. To take up the slack. To keep the peace.
Those who were raised to be good are the constant gardeners, always pulling the weeds and covering the tender plants to protect them against the late frost. Now our sense of moral duty isn’t a bad thing, heaven knows. But the imperative to be good can and does often go haywire. And when it does, we good children of good parents end up struggling, and sometimes stumbling under the weight of responsibility for things that never were our fault and being crushed by the obligation to change things we can never change, never in a million years.
Gardening is a good, perhaps the best thing we mortals can do, but it is an enterprise doomed to futility. The weeds and the frost win out. Restoring a fallen Eden is God’s business, and he seems to have his hands full doing it. But good children go on trying to fix things anyway, and blaming themselves when things are beyond their strength to mend. I have heard it so many times by those who were raised to be good—I wish I didn’t feel as if it was up to me to make everything right. Why does always fall to me? Why for a change why can’t somebody else … fill in the blank? Take the blame? Clean up the mess? Be the unsung hero? I’ve asked myself all those questions numberless times, and never gotten a satisfactory answer.
People who were raised to be happy don’t seem to have that problem. They are usually willing enough to let someone else take the blame, clean up the mess, and be the unsung hero. They have problems, however, mostly because they were raised to believe that life is a comedy, and not a tragedy. They are always dumbfounded when, through no particular fault of their own, things stop being funny. And when things get really terrible, as things will, their astonishment turns to anger. If I should be happy, then why the hell am I not? Whose fault is it, if it isn’t my own? It’s all so goddamn unfair.
Well, blame the ones who said it was. Happiness is at best a seasonal fruit. We should enjoy it when it comes along, like strawberries, but we shouldn’t expect it to last beyond its time. And when it’s gone, it’s gone. In fact, it appears that the universe has little respect for our individual happiness. Those who were raised to be happy run into that hard truth again and again—head on and hard.
Those who were raised to be good, take it for granted. My own parents didn’t tell me so right out, but they made it transparently clear–the world we live in is a tragic place, at least in the short run. Someday things will be different, but right now there is little truth in the old saying: To be good is to be happy. Happiness may be a byproduct of goodness—or it should be at least, in the best of all possible worlds. But this is hardly that. In fact in this world happiness and goodness track separately, and often have very little to do with each other.
So which were you? It is no reflection on any of our parents that they chose one or the other. Love pulls us in both directions—toward goodness and toward happiness. But in the end you choose, and then do the best you can.
So I would be interested to know. Were you raised to be happy or good? Very young people are not in a position to answer that question, because for them it is complicated with too many other issues—getting and keeping their independence, carving a meaningful place for themselves in the world, losing and finding love. Besides when you are young there is no time to think about such things. But when life has given you the necessary perspective, when your own kids are raised and your parents are either gone or going, then you are able to consider the consequences of the decision that made you who you are, and in the light of what you learn to make some necessary corrections.
Because there is no point in knowing who you are, beloved, if adjustments are not possible. The Holy Spirit, who enlightens us with the truth, also gives us to power to change. For my own part I know that my parents did a good job, indeed too good. When I was playing football in high school, I came in for some ridicule for saying “excuse me” when I ran into people. I when I think back on it now. But that’s how I was raised. It is one thing to be good, but quite another to act as if everything is your fault. Some things are, no doubt about it. But not everything. And I do not have to fix everything. The mending of the world, like it’s making, is not my business. I have to keep reminding myself of that–once a day, at the very least. I only am to blame only for the things for which I am I to blame. Nothing else. It may not sound like much, for me it has been an important insight, made late—but not too late. I don’t blame my parents for raising me to be who I am. “All any of us can do is try,” my father was fond of saying. And as long as we try we make mistakes. We all have regrets, heaven knows. But regret like everything else has to have a limit, and it is up to each of us to set it.
As far as our own children are concerned I am not completely certain whether we raised them to be happy or to be good. And my wife and I did try—very hard. But now our children act as if they believe they raised themselves, and did a splendid job of it. Aren’t you lucky that we didn’t turn out like….here they fill in the blank? It this has been a frequent refrain for as long as I care to remember. It is the exact attitude of that nasty Pharisee in the temple who looked down his long nose at the tax collector—see Luke 18:11-12–but we won’t go there. Our children did not raise themselves, whatever they may think. And I am certain that we did raise them to be either happy or good, and someday it will be up to them to decide which. When they do, I’m sure they will grumble about the burdens our decision caused them. But as I said earlier, nothing important ever comes with proper instructions. And if we don’t give our children something to complain about, what good are we?


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Who Is This? Job 38:40

January 5, 2014   (My Birthday, by the by)

“Who is this?”

                When I was a child I was an avid collector of stones. It commenced early. My mother said that as soon as I could walk I started picking up rocks and stuffing them into my pockets, and from then on I was never—night or day–without at least one stone on my person at any time. I suppose there must have been some deep psychological significance to my compulsive rock collecting. Who cares? All I know is that there was something in the beauty and the solidity of stones that I found comforting as a kid. They are dependable and companionable—in their own reserved fashion. And since mine was a solitary childhood—we lived miles away from our nearest neighbors–they became my silent playmates.

The badlands of western North Dakota were silent, empty place back then–the oil boom that has changed all that, and not altogether for the good. But back then McKenzie County where my father’s ranch was located was rapidly hemorrhaging population. There were few people—and every year fewer—but there were lots of stones everywhere. Wonderful stones. My father’s pasture with its deep gorges and coulees was rich in fossil life. There were petrified stumps taller than the tallest man and sandstone slabs printed with the most beautiful, delicate falls of Paleocene leaves.

                We didn’t see other people that often, out there back then, and when visitors did come to the ranch I always wanted to show them my fossil collection. “Don’t bring out those old stones, Billy,” my mother would beg, but I did anyway. The stones were part of me–the most interesting part, I thought. Most people were kind and pretended to show as interest, even if they didn’t feel it. But then once when I was ten years old or so my great uncle Dwight came to see my father on some matter or other, and I brought out my fossil collection to show him.

                  That was a big mistake. I really should have known better. Everyone knew what Uncle Dwight was like. To say he was zealously religious is the grossest understatement possible. Dwight was besotted with religion. He was God-intoxicated. A twice-born fundamentalist, an ardent adversary of “demon rum,” a fanatical puritan in every sense, he was the author of several religious tracts which he published at his own expense condemning women for wearing pants and “scent,” and putting forth the idea that if they ran around seductively dressed and smelling like harlots, it was their own fault if they got themselves raped. Shameless seducers, it was they and not their attackers who should be put in jail. You get the idea. It is hardly worth saying that he never married. He lived alone and devoted his spare time to the study of the Book of Revelation. He was as thick as two boards nailed together and just as rigid.

                And it was to this zealous old Pharisee that I presented my fossil collection for inspection. As I said, I should have known better. It gave him the perfect opening. He stood up like an Old Testament prophet and denounced my lovely, innocent stones in no uncertain terms as satanic imposters. They weren’t millions of years old as they pretended to be; they were lately forged by the devil himself in an attempt to mislead people into believing in the hell-inspired theory of evolution—which he persisted in mispronouncing “evil-ution.” The world was created in six days only five thousand years ago and loose change. The Holy Bible (KJV) said so.

I can see him yet, glowering down on me and my fossil collection with unmasked hatred, his eyes burning like coals of hungry fire. He looked as if he would have cheerfully stoned me to death with my own rocks, if he had been able.  I was ten years old—no more—a lonely, backward kid in thick glasses. And of course I could find nothing to say in reply to his tirade. Children didn’t “sass” their elders as much back then, and when stirred up great Uncle Dwight was indeed a very intimidating sight. For one thing, he turned a succession of nasty colors, one after another, his eyes bugged out, and the veins in his forehead stood out like sash cords. Sometimes in the heat of passion he would stamp his feet and do a sort of war dance. It was enough to frighten anyone.

So I just stood there, holding my box of fossils, and took it. I feel sure that in heaven I will forget Dwight completely for what he did to me that day, but I’m not there yet. No child needs to be humiliated like that—I certainly didn’t. It wounded me where I was most vulnerable, at the heart of myself.  But even though I stood there mute before his tirade, I knew Uncle Dwight was full of it.  

At ten years of age I already knew that the world wasn’t just five thousand and some odd years old. I knew my fossils weren’t the works of the devil intended to deceive anyone. They were the imprints left by ancient life forms laid down in sedimentary rocks millions and millions of years ago. I had a book with wonderful pictures that explained it all. The book compared those layered sedimentary stones to a book of wonders, its pages recording the epic story of life on our planet, how it evolved to greater and greater levels of complexity and awareness. And I believed what the book of stones said about the evolution of life on earth. I believed it instinctually, as one is drawn to the truth.

I believed in the Bible too, the ultimate book of wonders. I grew up in a household saturated with the Bible. My parents were both enlightened and devout. As a child I heard the Bible read and quoted constantly. It ordered our existence in this world, and drew us steadily toward the next with the monofilament line of grace.  We knew the risen Lord was with us, even in our obscure corner of the world, and his presence brought light into our wintery darkness and spoke peace to our loneliness. As a child I couldn’t see any real conflict between those two books, the Bible and the book of stones.

I still can’t.  Both are books of great mystery and beauty, and what binds them together is a sense of awe and wonder at our world—that it is—that we are in it—and that there is a Real Presence hidden in all things, like the bread and wine of Holy Communion. And that our world is so very, very old—so many millions of years that only God can count them—was a source of admiration and wonder to me as a child. And it came to me as a profound shock to discover that not everyone felt the same way. It still does.

                Here in Florida my wife and I usually worship at the Greek Orthodox cathedral up the street. But this Christmas our kids were with us and everyone felt the need to hear the familiar carols. So we celebrated Christmas Eve at a Lutheran church near where we live. I won’t burden you with its synod affiliation—some of you will guess it anyway. And the congregation made no bones about what they believe and teach. In the bulletin I found a list of affirmations under the title “OUR FAITH,” outlining what they believe and teach. And there is nothing wrong with that. They should know what they confess, and everyone else should too. But among their espoused doctrines, together with the redemptive suffering and death of Jesus Christ and his resurrection, I found this statement—“We believe and teach that man is not the product of evolutionary development but was created by Divine design in the image of God.” And suddenly through the candlelight, I saw the face of Uncle Dwight glaring down at me, his eyes still burning with hatred for the hell-inspired theory of “evil-ution.”

                My Uncle Dwight is long dead, but his point of view lives on in churches and flourishes. According to a recent Gallup poll, 46% of Americans believe that God created human beings in pretty much their present form at one moment in time, less than 10,000 years ago. And in the face of the efforts of scientists and educators to convince them otherwise, the percentage of Americans who believe in what has come to called “creationism” has increased by 2% in the last thirty years. Uncle Dwight hasn’t won his battle with the devil, but he certainly hasn’t lost it either.

                Of course, we Americans are free to believe anything they jolly well want to. The right to be contrary is enshrined among all the others. I read the other day that there are people out there who believe America is 2014 years old. The Constitution protects stupidity as well as wisdom. So here in America churches can believe and teach that the world is flat and the moon is made of gorgonzola—and some of them do pretty much just that. But here in America I also have a right to speak my little piece—thank God. And it is a sad thing for a fervent believer like myself who loves Jesus very much—and I do, each day more–to see something that is demonstrably untrue as creationism affirmed together with the Lordship of Jesus, as if one must accept the first affirmation in order to embrace the second.

Which, of course, you do not. According to the same Gallup Poll, thirty-two percent of Americans subscribe to what the pollsters call “theistic evolution,” a belief that human beings evolved over millions of years, but that God was present to guide that process. But those moderate souls, who believe in the Bible and the book of stones, make up a fairly small minority of those who attend church regularly—only about 25%. Virtually everyone else who goes to church believes that God created the world in six days in the not too distant past and that fossils are creatures that drowned in Noah’s flood, or other such nonsense.

And of course they are free to believe that. This is America, after all. Who cares? I do, actually, because when they believe and teach something that is demonstrably false and lift it to the level of revealed truth, they call the whole Creed into question. That is the kind of willful ignorance is what gives our Christian faith such a bad name among those whom Friedrich Schleiermacher called “the cultured despisers of religion.” They like to style themselves champions of the truth. But in fact such incorrigible ignorance arises not from courage but to cowardice. People who hide behind the wall of fundamentalism are afraid to face the facts. Now facing the facts is often tough. I know, because I have struggled to do it most of my life. It forces us to acknowledge that we don’t know the answers to the greatest questions—and never will.  It forces humility upon us, and humility runs counter to our human nature. But as Albert Camus wrote somewhere–“The most incorrigible vice [is] that of ignorance which fancies it knows everything.”

In the Old Testament book that bears his name, a man called Job learns the painful lesson of humility. By the end of the book the Lord has lost patience with prideful humankind in general, and in particular with Job’s presumptuous questioning of his ways. In chapter 38 comes the showdown. God addresses Job out of the vortex of a desert whirlwind and demands- “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up you loins like man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” (38:1-7)

Where? Who? The questions keep on coming and coming, with no space for an answer. And no space is necessary because the answer to every question is the same—nowhere and nothing. We were nowhere when God created us. We are nothing compared with such majesty and power.  But the grilling continues relentlessly through the next four chapters of the book, until finally poor Job, who represents us all, exhausted by so much close interrogation, cries out, “I know that you can do all things, and no purpose of yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you will declare to me.’ I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (42:1-6) 

And that is essentially where the book ends, with Job crushed by the magnificence of the created universe and reduced to his proper place in it, to dust and ashes. He is humiliated, but at the same time he is exalted. It is the paradox that runs through all of scripture. The mighty are pulled down and the lowly are lifted up. Pride and the pretense of understanding makes fools of us. But humility restores to what we intended to be, the creatures through whom God experiences his creation.

                And as for all the answers to the questions we ask about that creation—Where did it come from? Where is it going? What came before and what follows after?–revealed religion doesn’t have them all. It can’t explain how the world came to be, only celebrate the Creator in poetry and song and in service that imitates his faithfulness and love.

Science doesn’t have all the answers either. In certain realms it can lead us to the truth, but its method simply does not work when it is applied to the question of, say, what is beautiful? Or what is good? Or why is there anything at all?  Religious fundamentalism simplifies things that cannot be made simple, but science often does the same thing. It “murders to dissect.” It persists in asking the wrong questions, as if when confronting the “Birth of Venus” by Botticelli, we could explain its effect upon us by analyzing the chemical composition of its pigments.

The truth is that no one understands how the things that are came to be or why they are, not the atheistic scientist or the literalist believer. What makes us what we are is a mystery that goes beyond us all. Anyone who pretends to grasp that mystery, whatever his or her faith or lack thereof, is pathetically deluded. The best we can do is get close enough to that mystery to feel its warmth. In one of the apocryphal gospels Jesus is reported to say—“Whoever is close to me is close to the fire.” Did he really say that? Who cares?  It is true. And it is also true that nothing becomes us better in the presence of the mystery of What Is than to adopt an attitude of humility and there is nothing wiser we say about it than—I don’t know.    

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