Category Archives: Letters of Saint Paul

Like a Child at Home Romans 8:12-17

In his Letter to the Romans St. Paul writes: “All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. . . .”


It seems as if everything these days wants redefinition. Nothing is exempt. That is certainly seems to be true of the word “church.” All sorts of outlandish things want to be thought of as churches. So what exactly is a church as opposed to some other organization that uses religious language to talk about themselves?  Well, the word “church” could be defined in any number of different ways, but usually means a group of believers of whatever number who gather to worship together, who perform rituals and rites that mark the stages in their lives, and who are encouraged to nurture and care for one another. That seems to me like a rather cold but pretty accurate definition of what “church” means.

So, beloved, what do you think that an organization that doesn’t have a congregation, doesn’t hold worship services, doesn’t baptize, doesn’t do weddings or funerals. Is that a church? Probably not. Then how about Focus on the Family? Last fall Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian group that promotes socially conservative causes, declared itself church. What churchly things does Focus on the Family do? Well, not much of anything, the truth be told. It does do some things churches shouldn’t be doing.

It uses its $90 million annual budget is to deliver to its estimated 38 million radio listeners a message that often frankly political. It funds ads against state legislators who support bills intended to prevent discrimination against L.G.B.T. people. It initiates programs to combat what it calls “gay activism” in public schools. It opposes public assistance on principle—believers are charged with the task of caring for the poor. (Considering some of the believers I know, I certainly would not want to be dependent upon them for my daily bread. But be that as it may.) It opposes legislation aimed at gun safety. It resists access for women to comprehensive reproductive care. It calls environmentalism “one of the greatest threats to society and the church today.” It carries a spear in the war on science, and distributes material that teaches that the earth is a mere 6,000 years old.

Of course, our constitutional freedoms give Focus on the Family a perfect right to do all of those things, but its claim that to be nonpartisan is laughable. James Dobson, the group’s founder, staunchly supported Donald Trump in the 2016 election, saying on the air that the prospect of a Clinton presidency “scares me to death.” So why would any organization with such a blatantly political agenda want to be considered a church. Well, the short answer is money. Churches enjoy a number of tax benefits over other religious nonprofits. Various tax exemptions are made for clergy, for instance. But more important, unlike other nonprofit groups, churches do not have to disclose where their funds come from. Exemption from reporting contributions would allow Focus on the Family to accept large amounts of “dark money” intended to be used for overtly political ends. You may agree or disagree with those ends, but gathering bucks into a war chest to influence politics is not what it means to be a church.

So what does church mean?

My family and I go to the Episcopal Cathedral here in St. Petersburg—a church in every possible sense. The music is very beautiful and the preaching excellent. Things are done with a rightness that I find very satisfying. But the order of service does not take up my entire attention. When I am there I still have plenty of leisure to consider who else is. You know how that is, beloved. Church is other people, and it is always interesting to see who we have become one with.

We usually sit in pretty much the same pew every Sunday. There is a little family that sits directly ahead of us—two middle-aged men, obviously a couple, and a boy of about twelve years, the son of one or other of them. It is often hard to tell which. They are as unremarkable as three people could be. They do nothing whatsoever to draw attention to themselves. They are simply there to go to church like everybody else. But you can’t help noticing—focusing, if you will–on the great tenderness that exists among them. They both treat the boy with the gentleness and firmness of a father, and he treats both of them with offhanded, casual affection of a son.

And seeing them together I can’t help reflecting on what a church is not. It is certainly not an organization intended to support political candidates of whatever stripe or to influence social values, either toward the left or toward the right. It is a community in which we find a home within the Trinity of Persons–one enormous, inclusive family bound together by the Holy Trinity, whose feast we celebrate today.

The Church spent much of its early life trying to understand the doctrine of the Trinity, and finally gave up. (Someone once said—“If you try to explain the Trinity you will lose your mind, if you deny it you will lose your soul.”) It remains the great Christian mystery and also the great Christian reality–the essential Really Real that underlies everything else. It is the energy that holds together the Church, the world, and the universe. It is easy to exaggerate how the persons of the Trinity are three—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–but it is impossible to overstate how much the three persons of the Trinity are one. Someone once tried to clarify it for me this way: The Son is the Father’s love for Himself, the Spirit is His idea of that love.

But the more you try to explain the Trinity like that the less sense it makes. We can only really define it by the effect it has upon our lives. It is the power that draws us together, that makes families out of strangers. It is eternal, but it is not a closed circle—the love that binds Father, Son and Holy Spirit together into One has been opened to us by the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. And the church, where his cross and resurrection are proclaimed, is the place where the life of the Trinity spills out into the world and into our lives.

In the church we are welcomed into the interior life of the Trinity. We are adopted into its oneness, and we become one with God and a part of a family that includes all who have confessed the Trinity in every place and time.

It is abundantly clear that the boy loves both his care-givers deeply and they love him. By the grace of God, three random people have become one family–not a conventional family, but part of an adoptive family infinite in space and time—the family of the church. It is the miracle which is degraded when we turn the church into a mere tax shelter or a political club. Churches sometimes become that, but that is not what a church is.

A church in order to be a church must be a family, a group of people gathered around shared beliefs and experiences, and the chief among those experiences is oneness.  Its profoundest meaning is summed up in the Holy Trinity. The church participates in the unity of the Trinity, which is as much an unconventional family as that little group that sits ahead of us in church. But they have found a place—Bless them!–a home, an abode within the family of the God who has opened his life to them in Jesus Christ.  In the words of  that wonderful hymn–“My Shepherd Will Supply My Need”—“Here would I find a settled rest,/ while others go and come;/ no more a stranger, nor a guest,/ but like a child at home.”


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Filed under Church, Holy Spirit, Letters of Saint Paul, Life in the Spirit, New Testament, Trinity

What Did Martin Luther Do?

“Luther”                               by W.H. Auden

With conscience cocked to listen for the thunder,

He saw the Devil busy in the wind,

Over the chiming steeples and then under

The doors of nuns and doctors who had sinned.

What apparatus could stave off disaster

Or cut the brambles of man’s error down?

Flesh was a silent dog that bites its master,

World a still pond in which its children drown.

The fuse of Judgement sputtered in his head:

“Lord smoke these honeyed insects from their hives.

All Works, Great Men, Societies are bad,

The Just shall live by Faith. . .” he cried in dread.

And men and women of the world were glad,

Who’d never cared or trembled in their lives.


In a few weeks we will mark the 500th anniversary of an event which, dependent upon your point of view, was either the greatest tragedy that ever befell Christendom or the most heroic moment in its long history. While the rest of the world is celebrating Halloween—somewhat appropriately–some of us will remember that it was on the eve of the Feast of All Saints in the year 1517 that an obscure monk in a remote town in what is now Germany nailed ninety-five subjects for theological debate to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. The Ninety-Five Theses constituted a direct challenge to the authority of the Roman Catholic Church, the most powerful institution of the time, and their publication set in motion what is narrowly called the Lutheran Reformation. More broadly, however, that dramatic moment marked the end of the medieval world and the beginning the long Halloween we call the Modern Age, the fright night through which we are now living, beloved.

“Cometh the hour, cometh the man,” the scriptures say. And in this case the man was Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk and professor of New Testament at the University of Wittenberg. Martin was a scrupulous monk and a brilliant teacher, but he was obsessed with doubts about his own relationship to God. His conscience condemned him, and he was tormented by feelings of unworthiness and guilt. How could all-holy God have anything to do with a man as profoundly sinful as Luther thought himself to be? He tried hard to be the perfect monk, and he struggled to follow the rules which the Church had laid out as the road to salvation. He confessed with exaggerated care every trivial fault and received absolution for his sins, real and imagined. But every attempt at obedience to the rules ended in abject failure and despair. And Luther could find no reason in himself why the all-powerful and all-holy God should not cast him into the eternal nothingness of hell.

His superiors in the monastery offered him what comfort the Church could give, but he still lived in constant dread of God’s righteous judgment. He knew that in Jesus Christ God was supposed to have revealed himself as a God of love, but all that Luther could feel was God’s hatred. That is the reason he was drawn to the manifestations of a God of weakness and vulnerability—the baby in the manger, the dying Christ on the cross. But the question remained: How can a sinner find his or her way to the God of love, who often hides his face and then reveals himself a God of wrath?

The medieval world was a world of barriers–social barriers, barriers to travel, exploration, and thought. In his search for a loving God, Luther faced the greatest barrier of all, the Church itself. In the medieval Church authority flowed down from above, from the risen Christ, through the pope, his representative on earth, through the hierarchy of the Church and its priests, to ordinary believers, and that authority extended from this world into purgatory in the next. Through its seven sacraments—baptism, Holy Communion, penance, marriage, holy orders, confirmation, and the anointing of the sick—the Church followed the believer from the womb to the tomb and beyond. And through the sacraments it offered heaven to those who believed its doctrines, followed its precepts, and performed such good works as it prescribed, and threatened damnation to those who did not.

Salvation was its sole possession; it could come only through the ministration of its ordained priesthood. Ordinary men and women could not approach God directly nor discover his saving grace without the mediation of the clergy. Access to the Holy Scriptures, which were available only in Latin, was confined to the literate few, priests mostly. Vernacular translations of the Bible were forbidden.

In the realm of the spirit, the authority of the Church was absolute. It was an all-embracing universal community of believers which forbade opposition and burned dissenters. This is the Church into which Luther was baptized and ordained a priest, and in which he struggled with his questionings and doubts. And it was within the Church that the brilliantly gifted Luther was given the post of professor of New Testament at the newly created University of Wittenberg. There he searched the scriptures, especially the letters of St. Paul, to find a basis for the church’s claims to absolute authority and could find none. What he did find was a verse from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: “The righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith’” (1:17).

The revelation that salvation came through faith alone by grace alone was like a thunderclap. It woke Luther out of his tormented dreams into the vocation of a prophet and reformer. Now it became clear to him that salvation was a pure gift, an individual experience achieved through a direct encounter with the Word of God, not a commodity to be purchased with good works. Faith answered Luther’s need to find a way to God not through the mediation of the Church, but by the simple trust in God’s forgiveness. Luther came to understand that every individual man and woman could approach God directly as a member of the priesthood of all believers. And freedom came through free access to the God of grace whose love is manifest to all in the cross of Jesus Christ his Son.

Luther’s was a time of great excitement and ferment. Bold explorers were discovering continents. Humanists were uncovering long lost classical texts. Artists were breaking free of medieval constraints. Scientists were challenging the established ways in which the world and the universe had been viewed. New ideas were everywhere, spread by the newly invented printing press. And there was wide dissatisfaction among educated people with a corrupt and autocratic church. In this heady atmosphere Luther’s Reformation spread like wildfire through Germany and its surrounding countries, eventually dividing Europe between Catholic and Protestant lands. The Roman Catholic Church went on to counter-reformation glory and to spread its faith through new discovered worlds, but it could never again claim absolute, sole authority over the European heart and mind. There would always be other competing voices. It was still a long ways to what we call religious freedom, but Luther offered each individual man and woman freedom to question, to doubt, to search, to find and to be found by God.

Luther was an ambivalent character. In his lifetime and ever since he has called forth both uncritical adoration and virulent hatred. But no one has ever denied that he was a powerful force to be reckoned with. He still is. He was a vastly prolific writer in the German vernacular. He was the brilliant translator of the Bible who gave a voice and identity to an entire German nation.  He was undoubtedly a man of great personal bravery and conviction, who proved that one ordinary person can stand up to authority and change the world. In later life he became a loving husband and tender father. But Luther could also be racist, violent, and profane. But he has never ceased to fascinate people of all kinds with his complexity and his humanity.

But Luther’s greatest accomplishment was that he broke the barriers, barriers he never intended to break, barriers he would have been horrified to see broken. Luther unleashed a hurricane. He was never a social reformer, and like many of us with regard to politics Luther became more and more conservative as grew older. He regarded order as a gift of God and condemned in the most violent terms revolt against secular authorities, whom he considered God’s representatives on earth. He never intended to tear Christendom into Protestant and Catholic halves or inspire revolutionaries to violence. What he wanted was to reform the Church so that it would preach the Word of God in its purity and administer the sacraments rightfully. What he did—unwittingly–was lay the groundwork for modern secular democracy.

But the influence of Luther and his Reformation goes further than that. I heard a character on the television drama the other night say: “I don’t know the meaning of barriers.” He was a sociopath, as it turned out, but those words stuck with me—I don’t know the meaning of barriers. This too is part of the legacy of the Lutheran Reformation. Luther’s teaching that every man and woman is responsible for his or her own salvation evolved into political freedom.  After all, if in the most central aspect of human life, his or her relationship to God, faith could set a person free, why should he or she not be free in other matters?

And political freedom has evolved into that rampant individualism of modern society in which every man and woman is his or her own pope. So Luther became the pioneer and patron saint of those who push the frontiers of freedom in directions he would never have dreamt of. And those who “never cared for trembled in their lives” as the poet puts it, are granted unexampled liberty and rights that he would never thought of granting.

So the Lutheran Reformation is the spiritual source of the great struggle of our times, between the rights of the individual and the rightful demands of the community. Where do individual rights end and the rights of the community begin? Luther struggled with that problem too, the tension between the freedom of the Christian man and woman and good order in the world and the church. Luther fiercely advocated obedience to the secular authorities. But the direction of his teaching is clear, and from the beginning people saw its implications—in the greatest matter, the person’s relationship to God, the Individual the New Man and the New Woman, the sole sovereign over his or her own body and soul. And if barriers exist, they are there only to be overcome or ignored.  If independence becomes egoism and selfishness, is that not to be expected? “Men and women of the world” do not know much if anything about Brother Martin’s struggle for faith, let alone share it. But from his “dread,” he gave them freedom of choice, and if they take it and are “glad,” who can blame them.

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The Sweet Smile of Moderation

“God did not give us a spirit of cowardice,” St. Paul writes in his Second Letter to Timothy, “but rather a spirit of power and of love and of moderation” (1:7).

It has become commonplace to say that America is a highly polarized place. There is a tug of war going on between the alt right and the alt left for the soul of the nation. As hard as one team pulls, the other team tugs more fiercely. And for the rest of us the challenge of these times is to find a place to stand, as far away as possible from the fundamentalisms of the far right and the far left. Because one is not the opposite of the other–they are both simply different forms of barbarism and fanaticism. And moderation is the opposite of both, the only place where there is peace in a world where peace is in short supply.

Moderation is not a faith, nor a political party, nor an ideology; it is a way of dealing with the dizzying complexity of our divided times. It copes with the complexity in the world outside by acknowledging and nourishing the diversity within ourselves. People who follow the path of moderation are never just one thing—always many.

I had the great good fortune to grow up in a household where moderation was the rule, not the exception. My parents were many things at once–a complicated mixture. They were deeply conservative and devout in matters of religion, strongly opposed to strong drink and tobacco in all its forms, and generous almost to fault. And at the same they were shockingly liberal when it came to social issues; they were strongly anti-big money, pro-labor, pro-civil rights, and pro-choice. They were both pietists and socialists at the same time. They taught me the importance of having many identities, not just one. And the possibility and even the desirability of holding two opposing ideas at the same time. You can believe that abortion is a sin, as they did, and at the same time believe just as strongly that it is also a sin to force a woman to bear an unwanted child.

At our house we were dyed-in-the-wool moderates, but there were fundamentalists in our larger family, people who were just one thing with a vengeance. That was the reason that at Thanksgiving children were never allowed at the main table, because inevitably an unseemly argument would break out among those who were just one thing religiously or politically. As a child I wanted more than anything to sit at the adult table and listen to what my father referred to it as ‘the Thanksgiving food fight.” But it was forbidden, and neither of my parents took part in it. When it began my mother would go into the kitchen and my father would become stubbornly silent and focus his attention on her excellent food.

The Thanksgiving food fight was always a battle for something called “The Truth.” Radicals regard “The Truth” as singular and their own possession. Moderates understand the truth about “The Truth,” that it is plural and endlessly complex. There is no single formula that embraces all that can be said about the universe or human life within it, no set of doctrines that excludes all others. On my desk I have a Coptic icon of Christ the Good Shepherd and a head of the Buddha. They both look down on me as I write, both wearing the same calm, sweet smile of moderation. They say to me–No question can be settled once and for all in this world. Everything is partial and impermanent. The only thing that lasts is love, and in this violent time love is another name moderation.

And like love, moderation takes courage. It means standing on the deck of the ship and facing the storm rather than locking yourself in a water-tight compartment below. It means opening yourself to many different visions of truth, some of them uncomfortable and upsetting. Radicals of all kinds see the world as an apocalyptic struggle between the forces of good and evil. They want to impose their particular vision of reality—called “The Truth”–upon everyone else. And it takes courage to stand up against these fundamentalisms of the left and the right, and to say that everything is not cut and dried. There is always room for another opinion.

So moderation also demands humility, a clear vision of yourself. No one knows all the answers. Every earthly arrangement is temporary and contingent upon the circumstances—and that is very good news, beloved, because every earthy arrangement would be hell if were extended forever. There is no right polity, no pure doctrine, no perfect government, no absolutely correct way to worship the Eternal—only ways. The best that can be said is that God wishes to be approached “with humility and gentleness,” as St. Paul writes to the Ephesians (4:2). But his heaven is not located in the past or the future. Things should not stay the same, nor should they change too quickly. Heaven is present here and now, where ever there is tolerance, balance, self-discipline, and humility.

Moderation is not an easy path, but it is always a blessing to know where you stand, beloved—with both feet planted on solid ground and your eyes fixed on the only thing that lasts. The byproduct of such a well-balanced life is peace.  And the Lord, as the prophet Isaiah says, “will be the stability of your times” (33:6).  Not you yourself.

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Filed under Letters of Saint Paul, Life in the Spirit, New Testament

Ruthless People


Pastor Bill Roen

August 25, 2017


What has made Americans so cruel?  There is no point in denying that something has. The torch-wielding white nationalists and neo-Nazis of Charlottesville are only the deckle edge of American ruthlessness. Their cruelty is made glaringly public on the news. But behind them is a third of the nation—I’ll leave it up to you to decide which third–who whose ruthlessness is more discreet. This is the third who would like to take food stamps away from hungry families, dismantle unemployment insurance programs, ax benefits for the disabled, and take coverage away from tens of millions, visiting countless households with the nightmare of losing their health insurance.

Now we have to ask ourselves—in a country that once prided itself on its compassion what justifies such cruelty?  Harshness toward the poor has always liked to dress up in Biblical costume. In his Second Letter to the Thessalonians  St. Paul writes—

“Even when we were with you, we gave you a command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living” (3:10).

Passages like this are often used to justify  hostility toward the poor and to add credibility to the widely-held myth that safety net programs reward lazy people who don’t want to work. According to this way of thinking, of those who want to do away with these programs, persons who accept the government help are blood-sucking parasites, unworthy to be thought of as human, let alone as fellow citizens or fellow children of a fatherly God.

Of course St. Paul is right—in a limited sense. There is no excuse for laziness. Those who can work should. Work is—or should be, at least—a blessing, not a curse. It is God’s way of giving meaning and order to our otherwise random existence. It is the way he continues his work of creation through us. But what about those who cannot work–children, the disabled, the mentally challenged? What about the unemployed—not from sloth but from inability to find work? What about the underemployed, those working two jobs who still linger below the poverty line?

Why punish them? The opinion of the “ruthless third” is that the government should be out of the rescue business altogether. People should be left on their own, to sink or swim.  To soften the harshness of such sentiments, those who feel this way often justify themselves by saying that care of the poor and disabled should be left to individual charity. Not necessarily their own individual charity but somebody’s. This point of view could hardly be less realistic. What I know about individual charity—and it is quite a lot—I would be very loath to depend upon it for my daily bread.

In America a handful of people are far richer than they have ever been, but it is a mistake to think that if the government got out of the welfare business they would step up to the plate. Mostly the very rich are consumed with the enduring problem of how to get richer. In our society they are well-rewarded with tax-credits for whatever charity they offer, but their random giving is driven more my fashion and display than by compassion. At a Rotary meeting I once heard a man remark, “I don’t know how the people who work for me live on what I pay them.” That sums up things pretty well. With notable exceptions, the rich are not so much hostile to the poor as indifferent.

Some of the ruthless third would argue that churches and charitable non-profits should take up the task of caring for the poor. Christians often point to the example of the early church, which provided care for its needy members. This too could not be more unrealistic. The churches and similar non-profits do what they can, and what they do is admirable, but they are consumed with the problem of their own financial existence, and they could never begin to the shoulder the staggeringly complex problem of caring for the needy in our society. Try going around seeking help with your rent or your electric bill and see how far you get. Churches and agencies would be tapped out before they even began to feed to hungry multitude.

The truth is that the “ruthless third” are not looking for ways to help struggling Americans. They are seeking ways to avoid doing so. Their motto is–Not with my dollar you don’t.

So we return to our original question—What has made Americans so cruel? The simple answer is fear. Those who have a deepest hostility toward the poor are not the rich, but those who themselves are not far from being poor—the white lower middle class. For those who consider themselves “the real Americans” this is a time of great anxiety. Their standard of living has for a long time been eroding. The old certainties are melting away. The structures that ensured that the white middle class could define what it means to be an American are crumbling, and the new definitions of American seem strange and threatening.

And fear is what motivates anger, the anger of the elder son in the prodigal son story. And anger generates cruelty. The ruthless third fear that next step downward on the economic ladder. They don’t hate poor people individually,  they just want them to stay poor. There is a security in being able to look down and see someone below you. And there is a cruel logic at work—if someone else suffers, my family and I won’t. Or if we suffer, someone else should suffer more.  It has to do with punishing the poor for being that way, punishing minorities for being different, punishing immigrants for working hard to succeed in a new land, punishing the helpless for being helpless.

And there is no reason under this administration and this climate of anxiety and uncertainty, that the ruthlessness toward the poor should not get worse. So it is necessary for those of us who are trying to be disciples of the risen Lord to decide what should we do?  Well, first of all we should not give way to our own cynicism. There are many problems with any structure that tries to deliver help to the poor. There will always be those who try to exploit the system. There will always be duplication and waste and intrusiveness.

But in this time and place you and I must make up our minds what the government is, or should be. We have to decide kind of America we want.

It is central to the Judeo-Christian tradition in which we live that the government is a representative of a fatherly God, and that under God the citizens of the state are responsible for each other.  Our welfare system has its foundation in the idea that government should act as a surrogate father offering security, discipline and order to all, citizen and alien alike.

Opposed to the fatherly idea of government is the pagan conception of a state which has no responsibility except to itself. It exists to secure the welfare of one particular group of citizens and to its chief beneficiaries, the powerful and the wealthy. Under the varnish of pious banalities of the God helps those who help themselves variety, the ruthless third are the strongest advocates of the pagan state in America today. They worship its symbols—the flag, the anthem, the military–but mostly they are united by a deep-seated hatred of its opposite–government that taxes them to give fatherly protection not just to one class, one ethnicity, one color, or one language but to all its citizens.

We need to recognize that if government is not the representative of a merciful God, who cares for his people materially and spiritually, it will be a cruel despot, buyable by the wealthy and biddable by the powerful. And this pagan understanding of the state is what dominates the thinking of the ruthless third, an attitude that is immoral and profoundly Anti-Christ.

And as followers of the Crucified we should not be dismayed the self-righteous, flag-waving and tiki torch brandishing advocates of an essentially pagan government. Nor should we be seduced by a godless worship of the state parading under the guise of patriotism. Because ruthlessness is not patriotic, and it is certainly not Christian. The only true patriotism is allegiance to a government that is merciful and nurturing.

No government is perfect, just as no act of kindness is perfect. Every system is flawed by selfishness and greed. But recognizing that, we still need to call cruelty by its right name. And in every way to we need to reward with our votes, our voices, and our prayers government that gives fatherly care to the righteous and the unrighteous alike, recognizing that each of us is some of both. That is the state worthy of our loyalty, and no other.

And we should keep in mind those words St. Paul writes to the Galatians in a more gracious mood: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things” (5:22-23).

Nor should there be.

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This Very Moment. Luke 23:42-43.

According to Luke’s gospel (23:42-43), the thief who was crucified with Jesus said to him, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
If you want to discover the life that really is Life, take the New Testament and read. But if you just want to find out what’s going on, subscribe to the New York Times. My wife and I read the Times at breakfast with devout regularity. Without it we would feel hopelessly out of touch down here in the wilds of Florida. And besides, there is something about the Times that dissolves so perfectly in our coffee. Yes, the news it delivers does sometimes leave a slightly bitter, artificial aftertaste, but we’ve gotten used to that. And if you read the Times daily you will certainly find out as much about what’s going on in the larger world as you could ever wish—and then some.
For instance, the other morning it was reported that folks are paying a lot of money, and occasionally a fortune, to be buried in close proximity to dead celebrities. If they weren’t able to hang out with them in this life, their admirers consider it worth hundreds of thousands, even millions to reside among the stars in the next. In 1992 Playboy magazine publisher Hugh Hefner paid a hefty $75,000 for crypt near Marilyn Monroe’s. But more recently a Los Angeles woman, whose husband had been interred just above Marilyn, sold his crypt for $4.6 million on eBay. He had been resting in peace for 23 years, but by shifting his remains and selling his crypt to the highest bidder his widow was able to pay off the $ 1 million mortgage he had left behind–with change left over to be merry on.
Now that’s serious bucks! But resting places near the famous are available to more ordinary people for less lofty sums. Pauline Smith, 74, a retired school teacher who lives in New Rochelle, recently paid an undisclosed amount for a plot in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx proximate to the graves of jazz legend Duke Ellington and Frankie Manning, one of the creators of the Lindy hop. Miss Pauline explained her decision this way: “Who knows what life is after death. Not knowing what it is, I want to enjoy the thing that brings the most joy to me in my life right now, so I want to be close to them.”
Well, bless her heart! We may consider her reasoning a bit clouded, but Miss Pauline is right on one score—no one does know what existence is after death is like. The great mystery of this life is its Great Opposite. People of every time and culture have faced the darkness in the certainty that there is something waiting behind the curtain of this world. But what exactly? No one knows. So it has always been an overwhelming temptation for us mortals to picture the life to come in terms of the life we experience now–or our life now as we would like it to be. So who can blame Miss Pauline, avid jazz enthusiast and swing dancer, if she wishes for a hereafter where the music is always cool and dancing goes on forever under stars that never fade and go out.
It’s an interesting vision of the hereafter, you must admit–an everlasting shag dance with the best music imaginable. Maybe with someone you greatly love as your partner. But it becomes less attractive when you really stop and consider it. The problem is its forever, beloved. You never could stop. You could never say—I’ll just sit this one out. After a million years or so, you might just want to sit one out. But the dance must go on. It’s nothing new about the idea. The life to come has often been pictured in terms of an endless whirl of transcendental music. But even the tunes of the incomparable Duke Ellington would become tedious if they played on and on and on and on. In time everything wears out, and when it does, boredom and exhaustion set in. Anything forever is hell.
In his Metamorphoses the first century Roman writer Ovid recounts the tragic legend of the Cumeaen Sibyl. The sibyl was a mortal woman, but her ravishing beauty attracted the attention of the god Apollo who offered to grant her a wish—anything whatsoever–in exchange for her virginity. A prophetess should have been smarter, of course, but she agreed to his terms. In exchange for a single night of love the sibyl demanded for as many years of life as the grains of sand she could squeeze into her hand. Apollo agreed, but when push came to shove the sibyl changed her mind and rejected him. The god was furious. But rather than renege upon his promise, Apollo granted her wish—literally. He gave her a thousand years of life, but allowed her body to wither away because she had not asked for eternal youth. In time Ovid tells us the sibyl became smaller and smaller and smaller until at last she was only a voice, which was kept in a jar that hung in the mouth of a cave. People came from far and near to receive her oracles, but when a band of rowdy boys demanded to know—“Sibyl, what do you want?” she would only reply—“I want to die.”
It is a parable about the terrible result when even the best thing—life—goes on too long. Forever is a dangerous thing, and smart people who should know better continue to wish for it. But our human nature is stronger than we are, beloved. A recent article in the magazine Prevention called human death “a design flaw” in the structure of reality, a defect which may soon with the advance of science be remedied forever. It’s an interesting idea, but don’t rush on my account. Even if the beauty and boundless energy of youth could be preserved, an existence indefinitely extended would in time would be worse than the sum of all our nightmares. Life is the best of all good gifts—the jewel of God’s creation–but nothing is good that lasts forever.
But forever is not the same as eternity. Eternity is open to all of us at every moment in our lives. Its door is always ajar. So the evangelist Luke, in midst of his passion narrative, pauses to tell us the story of how one man found that door. He goes nameless in the gospel, though tradition calls him Dismus and gives him a fictional life’s story in which he had previously known Jesus and had even been baptized. But there is no basis in fact for any of that. It is pure legend. All we actually we know about him is that he was a condemned criminal, possibly a bandit. But there is absolutely no indication that he knew anything about the prophet from Nazareth that was not contained in the ironic superscription over the head of Jesus, “This is the king of the Jews.” So this so-called “Good Thief” could never have understood the full import of what he was asking when he begged—“Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom!”
An examination of the Greek verb suggests that he said it not once but repeatedly, over and over again. Probably he was delirious with pain. In such a state racked between pain and fear, he certainly could not have fully reckoned with whom he was dealing. Nevertheless, the dying man ranted on, pleading with Jesus not to be utterly forgotten, not to disappear utterly from human memory. There was nothing so remarkable about the request itself–we all wish for that. Remember me.
It is Jesus’ reply that is truly mind-blowing–“I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Originally paradise was the term used for the Garden of Eden, the timeless place where humanity had its beginnings and took its terrible fall. It was the place where we were before time and death got ahold of us. But in the first century in the Judaism of Jesus time paradise had come to mean that place, again outside of time, where the righteous dead remained until the final resurrection. Paradise was an achievement, a promise to the good, but the dying Jesus offers it without condition to one who was manifestly unrighteous. The thief is saved without baptism or sacraments or good works, without theology or creed, with hardly a hook to hang his faith upon. From the point of view of the later church, he was something of an embarrassment–the thief who stole heaven. But Jesus cuts through all the red tape that tangles us and rescues him by the purest grace imaginable. The former bandit is saved by the mere presence of the Savior.
And that is the New Testament’s mind-blowing message about Jesus–eternal life begins at the moment of our encounter with him. And eternity is always now—in that moment. “Today you will be with me in paradise,” Jesus says. Today—not yesterday or tomorrow. And the crucified and risen Lord is the open door by which we enter it. Eternity is his mediate presence. So in the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas Jesus says—“You search for God through heaven and earth, but you don’t know the one who is right before your eyes, because you don’t know to search into this very moment.” Instead of looking into this very moment, we search for God elsewhere, and our search always ends up mired in some form of superstition.
Superstition differs from faith in that superstition always focuses upon what we do, on our effort, and not what God does. It is composed of all the ways we try to manipulate the will of God for our own purposes. As the faith of our fathers becomes more clouded and remote to many, superstition is flowering luxuriantly around us. And if you need proof of that, all you need do is look at the proliferation of little shrines along our highways. These roadside memorials, marking the place where someone has died violently, have been proliferating tremendously during the last few years. Here in Florida they are everywhere. But what is the motivation for erecting them? And why so many more of late? Well they seem to be reflections of those massive outpourings of public grief that have surrounded the untimely deaths of certain much-adored celebrities. Recall if you will the vast heaps of flowers that were piled at the Pont de l’Alma in Paris where Princess Diana perished in a fiery crash. These roadside memorials are nothing on that scale, of course. But they do seem to be the same sort of attempt by grieving friends and families to deal with the sudden death of a loved one away from home.
There is such a roadside shrine here in Tarpon Springs I see almost daily–a cross made of PVC pipe with a rotting teddy bear attached to it. The words– “We love you Luther” are printed in glitter on a ribbon around the bear’s neck. (A young man by that name was shot during a drug deal gone bad on that spot a year or so ago.) There is a heap of artificial flowers mounded at the foot of the cross. New ones appear periodically. I look at that sad little memorial with vague curiosity and from a cultural distance. It belongs to a world view quite different from my own. (For better and worse America in the 21st century has become a foreign country to us all.) Obviously Luther’s little roadside Calvary is an attempt to keep his memory alive—a desire we all share, But its real meaning certainly goes deeper than that. It represents an offering to his spirit. To those who built it and maintain it, its meaning almost certainly goes much deeper than that. For them something of Luther’s personality still lingers in the last place where he was alive. And the bear and the flowers are intended to comfort him and assure him that he is not forgotten
The dying thief says to Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” But does Jesus ever forget? We certainly do. Stuffed animals rot and the even artificial flowers fade. Human memory also withers with time. So what lasts? We live in a world that is deeply confused about the survival of the self. People—even Christian believers—worry about life’s Great Opposite and form all kinds of silly notions about what waits for us there. This anxiety is nothing new. The Christians living in ancient Corinth wondered about the life to come and about whether those they loved would be there to share it with them. So St. Paul writes to reassure them: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. For if in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died” (1 Corinthians 15:16-20).
For those who follow Jesus, Paul is saying, their hope must be centered entirely on the crucified and risen Lord. In him there is neither past nor present. And the resurrection life that he promised to the thief and all those chipped and damaged saints who followed after, the life he shares with us is a life that is not enslaved by time. Resurrection life is the eternal now. We experience paradise in our encounters with the risen Christ right now. In the sacrament. In the reflection of a sunset on the sea. In the taste of strawberries. In the smile of someone we will never stop loving. In those moments everything comes together free from the dictatorship of time. In those moments there is no future of worries and fears and no past of anger and regrets. There is only the eternal now, which is where Paradise is.
Eternity is a low door in the garden wall, but it has been intentionally left unlocked and wide open.

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Sitting on the Edge of Eternity Ephesians 5:15-17

June 9, 2014

Everything worth saying is obvious, but we all occasionally need to be reminded of what we already know. St. Paul is always doing this in his letters—reminding his readers of what they already knew. In the midst of a discussion of how to lead an appropriately Christ-like life in the midst of a pagan world, St. Paul, the Christian rabbi, reminds the members the Christian synagogue in Ephesus of what they already knew. You may well feel out of place in this time and place, but the Lord has a purpose in putting you where you are. You are the seed of his New Creation. Therefore, “be careful how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.”

 “The days are evil,” Paul wrote almost two millennia ago, and they still undoubtedly are—but no more evil than ever.  My wife and I go to a gym where a certain conservative television “news” network plays continually—I doubt that I need to tell you which one. So I also don’t need to tell you that after I have sweated for an hour on a treadmill with that for background noise I am pretty d— sick of contrarian bitching. Now I would do anything before I would deprive anyone of his or her constitutional right to listen to that ear wash. I do my best to tune it out for sake of freedom of speech. But it ain’t easy, heaven knows. I have even tried thinking about my sins, and not even that works very well. Now, beloved, I don’t know how much you relish listening to a bunch of heads talking about how fast and far things have fallen since the good old days. Many of the people who do seem to think of themselves as hot-shot Christians. If you are one of them, knock yourself out. But it is worth reminding ourselves that for followers of Jesus there never were any good old days. They always have been bad.

 They haven’t gotten any better of late, I’ll grant you that. The actual news is a litany of on-going disasters—the latest outrages of religious radicalism and sectarian warfare, the latest violence perpetrated against the innocent with constitutionally protected firearms, the latest crimes against good taste and public decency, the latest evidences of catastrophic climate change—over and over, endlessly repeated. It would be easy for any of us to form the idea that things have gotten a lot worse of late. So you and I need to be reminded of what we already know, that Christians have always been islands of eternity in a chaotic sea of change. We aren’t at home in this world, but this is where we have been put—and for a reason. And we are confronted with the same question those ancient Ephesians faced–How do we make the most of time we have been given in these undoubtedly evil days?

In his letters St. Paul was fond of comparing the Christian life to a footrace, and which is apt enough, I suppose. You have to remain focused on the finish line if you want to win the prize. It takes all the stamina and determination the Christian athlete can muster to capture what the apostle calls an imperishable wreath of glory (1 Cor. 9:24ff). All well and good. But from my point of view the Christian life is more like those construction workers walking along a ribbon of steel a hundred stories up above the city. Now I am a confirmed acrophobe, and so I look with awe at pictures of those sky walkers, eating their lunch like birds on a wire, perched on the edge of eternity, apparently so nonchalant.  To me following Jesus is much like that, overcoming your fears, doing your job while balancing on a narrow beam. It is a terrifying place to find ourselves, beloved, but here we are.  

It is a lonely place was well, so high up, looking down on the bustling world so far below. That why you and I need each other so much, beloved–for company on our narrow beam. Everyone else has someplace solid to stand; their feet are planted firmly on some patch of this world they claim as their own. But you and I are in-between worlds, here but with one foot stretched out gingerly towards eternity. It was a difficult balancing act for those Christians in ancient Ephesus, and it is for us too, beloved. Christians in every time, Christians no better than we are, have lost their balance and, like Humpty Dumpty, had a great fall.  

It’s no wonder Paul cautions us to “be careful how you live,” or we might paraphrase his words by saying—watch your feet. Be mindful of your situation and make the most of its possibilities.  There is a Zen teaching that goes like this:

All you who seek the Way


Do not waste this moment now.

Eternity may be the only thing that is ultimately important, but we were not born into eternity, like the angels. The ultimate purpose of our lives will be revealed there, but we were born into time. Especially towards the end of their lives or after the shock of a great loss, people have often asked me—Why am I still here? There is no real answer to that question for any of us. Why are any of us still here? We will never know fully what the purpose of our lives was until we have achieved it. Then it will come to us in that ultimate blinding flash of enlightenment. But in the meantime we are called to make mindful use of the hours as they pass, giving thanks for each of them and rejoicing in their brilliant possibilities. We are sky walkers, beloved, walking a narrow beam, stepping out toward the infinite. But while we still have one foot planted in the here and now, we need to “make the most of the time.” we have. We need to treat each separate hour of our existence—even most painful ones–as an unexpected gift, like a priceless jewel discovered by accident in the grass.

I had a wonderful teacher when I was in seminary. He told us only things that we already knew. There was no required reading for his class. There was no syllabus, no schedule of lectures. He made no requirement of attendance. The school forced him to ask us for a final paper so that he could issue us a grade, but he apologized for that beforehand. All he did was talk to us about whatsoever entered his head at the moment. He just let one thing lead to another, like water finding its own way. No one, himself included, knew where the stream would lead. But I never tired of listening to him teach. It was sheer joy, like hearing the Lord. Rabbi Lipmann had spent a large portion of his younger life on a kibbutz in Israel tending orange groves, and there he had acquired a great love of the trees he tended. Practically his whole thought during those years was of oranges, and from that intense concentration came a veritable mysticism of oranges. And it seemed as if Rabbi Lipmann could read all the secrets of the universe into the culture of that most miraculous of trees, the very Tree of Life.

One day he brought an orange to class and pealed it in front of us. (I don’t ever expect to see anyone peal an orange more artistically.) And as his fingers worked, making a single long perfect curl, he reminded us of what we already knew, or should have known–that our lives are not a single fruit, but many individual sections. He divided the orange among us—we were a small enough class for that—and all the time he was saying something this effect: We tend to worry about the meaning of life the whole, and judge its meaning and worth that way.  But what is important about our existence is the significance we give to each part. Because how we spend our hours is, in the end, how we spend our lives. 

Reading the New York Times has been a source of daily reassurance and comfort to my wife and me since we moved to Florida. There is a lot of unsettling information in the Times—who could deny it. Its apocalyptic visions are at times as vivid and alarming as those in the Book of Revelation. On its leaves we behold a world being ripped apart of tornadoes, incinerated by bombs, abducted by terrorists, and drowned under melting polar ice. Nevertheless, in all that mayhem, there is a word of cold comfort for residents of Florida who at times are tempted to believe that all the peculiar and alarming things in the world take place here, in the Chopped Nut and Candied Fruit Cake State. True, an awful lot of weirdness does flourish here. (I blame the climate.)  But an awful lot of crazy-ass stuff apparently goes on in greater New York City as well. Of course, a lot of New York crazy will eventually migrate southwards, as everything does, and end up here in Florida, but if you read the Times you at least know what is coming, and forewarned is forearmed, as they say.

For instance, the Times recently reported that elderly Korean people have occupied a McDonald’s restaurant in Flushing, Queens, and are transforming it into a sort of septuagenarian clubhouse. The oldsters show up as early as 5 a.m. and camp out until well after dark, occupying the place so that there is no room for other customers to sit. From the point of view of McDonald’s the situation is going from bad to worse. They arrive in ever growing numbers with walkers and wheelchairs and leaning on canes, and order a coffee or share a small order of fries. Then they settle down to spend the day, chatting in their own native tongue about events, here and back home, about the weather, about their ailments, about nothing in particular. Or they just sit in silence, being together. They come to spend the day, dressed up to the nines. Mostly men, but also a few women. Other customers complain. The management fumes. But they say they are entitled to take their time.  The police are summoned several times a day to tell them to move on. So the oldsters dutifully get up, walk around the block, only to return as soon as the officers have departed. This has been going on for the past five years, but during the last few months the stand-off has gotten ugly. Coffee has been spilled. Harsh words have been exchanged in several languages.

It’s not because they have no other place to go. Several local facilities provide nice, well-lit parlors for playing baduk, an Asian board game, and offer a multitude of classes from English to calisthenics. The Korean Community Center up the street has set up a cheerful little café with 25 cent coffee, but no one goes there. The seniors stubbornly return daily to McDonald’s, even though they say they do not really like the food there and feel manifestly unwelcome. But at this point it is a matter of principle. They have made a purchase and refuse to be rushed. They have a right to take all the time the need. Enough time to drink a large McDonald’s coffee—which is refillable. The sign in the McDonald’s says customers have 20 minutes to finish their food. That’s how much time McDonald’s wants to spend on each customer, no more. But how can you finish a large cup of coffee in 20 minutes? It’s impossible, the Korean seniors say.  

The conflict goes much deeper than the question of how long does it should take to drink a large cup of coffee. It represents the clash between two conceptions of time and its meaning. For McDonald’s time equals profit, and profit is the highest good. This is fast food. In and out, the quicker the better. The ideal here is to reduce life to a perfect lightning flash. Now I would be very slow to take the side of McDonald’s in any matter. I myself don’t like the food there. (Except for their ice cream—which isn’t half bad and surprisingly low calorie.) But I can readily understand that from their point of view those Korean oldsters must be devilishly frustrating.

They had put themselves at odds with the whole idea of time as a lightening flash, and profit as the highest good. For them time is a preparation for eternity. The ideal is to slow time down until it reaches a motionless stillness. For them the highest good is not to be found in profit but in loss. The Buddha taught that there are four stages in a person’s life. First comes the infant, when the individual first discovers the pleasurable experiences of a body living in time.  Then comes the child, when those pleasures are refined through play. When the person leaves games behind then comes the stage in which the five senses are developed most completely. Adulthood is the stage when we are in deepest bondage to the things that can be seen and heard, touched, tasted and smelled. We are gripped by them and we in turn seize them. It is the time of holding tight.  

And if that were all there was to it, grasping, life would indeed be wholly tragic. But there remains a fourth stage when the senses loosen their hold on us and we are able to seek freedom from their tyrannical demands. This is the time of letting go when through meditation—what I would call thoughtful prayer—we can find the detachment from things which leads ultimately to peace. This fourth stage of life, according to the Buddha, is “more exalted and more refined than the former ones,” because it is an opportunity for the individual, freed from the sensory demands of the body, to be able to reach its highest potential. In that fourth stage of life time stops being a millstone and becomes a gift, an opportunity to reach the place where the clamor of our fears and desires is extinguished–what Emily Dickenson called “that stillness ultimately best.”  And when that stillness is attained, the Buddha said, the person can greet whatever comes with calm indifference. And when it finally comes, death is as incidental and unimportant as a single leaf falling from a tree.

Now drinking a large cup of coffee at McDonald’s as slowly as possible will not bring anyone to that stillness ultimately best. But being able to take a day to drink one may be a sign we are on the Way. Whether they are fully aware of it or not, those Korean oldsters are in that fourth stage of life, where the furious demands of the senses are being replaced by detachment. They no longer care about being a nuisance. They are content to sit. To think. To be together. Or to be alone. Or simply to be. The coffee doesn’t matter. The fries don’t matter. The occasional visits of the police don’t matter. They just get up, calmly walk around the block, and come back and sit down again. They simply are. How much time is needed to finish that large cup of coffee? As much as it takes.    

            It all seems such a great waste of time, doesn’t it? Just sitting around sipping tepid coffee all day. It is just the sort of thing I was raised to disapprove of.  When I was a kid my parents were always calling me on the carpet for doing just that, wasting time. They taught be to be ashamed of doing nothing when there is so much to do, and when they were no longer around I went on scolding myself for dreaming my life away. They were hard working people, my parents, two steps off the boat from Scandinavia, and it was their most deeply held belief that time is a precious commodity, like cattle or wheat, something so valuable needs to be converted into something equally valuable. Money. That means work, and work, my parents lived as well as taught, is the purpose of life in this world.

It is a very prevalent American idea, and I wouldn’t be much surprised if many of you were taught the same lesson. And I’m not being critical of the high value our parents placed on work. They were good people who toiled and sacrificed for us, and we have every reason to be grateful. But for myself, I have gotten pretty critical of the time is money idea. Ever since both my parents worked themselves to death, quite literally, I have begun to wonder if maybe what they taught me about using time was not so much mistaken as it was incomplete. And now that I have reached the fourth base—the place in life that is isn’t a place at all, somewhere between third base and home—I have come to believe that there is something very positive to be said for idleness.

When St. Paul tells us to “be careful how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil,” he isn’t telling us to get up off our lazy duffs and get busy. For the apostle, time is not a commodity, like pork bellies and barley, something to be converted by work into profit, but a gift, an allowance we have been given to spend in preparation for the eternal destiny we share as children of the resurrection.

And maybe sometimes making the most of the time is doing nothing at all.

Of course, some things still have to be done. St. Paul was certainly not anti-work. He was proud of working. And he taught that all Christians have a calling, or rather a series of things that need to be accomplished in the hours we are allotted. But the best use of time is what which brings us closest to Christ. Other things don’t ultimately matter. In his First Letter to the Corinthians in the midst of discussion of something else entirely Paul says–“I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on let . . . those who deal with the world [be] as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away” (7:29ff). And in a fading world there is no better use of time than what helps us detach ourselves from it–prayerful thought or mindful prayer or whatever brings us closer to what is Really Real.

In retirement I garden, as a promised myself I would. Now in order to have a garden you must make a garden. You have to plant and hoe and weed and water. But none of those things constitute a reason to garden. They are just work. I am so often distracted by the tasks of gardening that I have to constantly remind myself that the reason to garden is none of things that need to be done. It is so obvious, beloved, but that is why is worth saying. The only real reason to garden is as an excuse to sit and idly gaze at the beauty of a good creation. It is not a waste of time. Indeed, it is the only reason time was created. And we have not made the most of the time we have been given unless we have spent—or wasted, if you like—an hour or so of each day just sitting on the edge of eternity and looking.

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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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