Loving the Stranger in an Election Season

This morning during my run I listened to Krista Tippett’s 2010 interview with Lord Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of Great Britain.

Can I say once again that I could totally see myself as Jewish… except I just can’t quit Jesus.

Anyway.

We keep hearing about how polarized we are as a society. Are things really more rancorous than they used to be? (The Civil War was pretty polarizing, folks.)

Or have we just gotten meaner?

Have the stresses of modern life given us short fuses? (I’m thinking the Black Plague was a bit stressful, amirite?)

Does the relative anonymity of the Internet give us license to say things we wouldn’t normally say face to face?

Sacks offers one perspective as we ponder these questions:

It seems to me that one of the things we most fear is the stranger. And at most times in human history, most people have lived among people who are mostly pretty much the same as themselves. Today, certainly in Europe and perhaps even in America, walk down the average Main Street and you will encounter in 10 minutes more anthropological diversity than an 18th-century traveler would have encountered in a lifetime. 

Maybe things seem more rancorous simply because we’re bumping against more people who don’t look or think or talk or act or believe like we do.

I don’t know what we do with this, other than give ourselves a little bit of a break for having some growing pains. Maybe we’re not going to hell in a handbasket. Maybe we just are learning how to deal with more diversity in that handbasket, wherever it might be going.

Sacks goes on to say that, while “love God and love your neighbor” are the twin commands of love, “the one command reiterated more than any other in the mosaic box — 36 times, said the rabbis — is love the stranger.”

I’m preaching on James this Sunday: “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” I think we could use some of that.

Friday Link Love: Hoarding, Introversion, and a Mean Mean World?

And away we go!

A 6 Year Old Guesses What Classic Novels Are About Based on the Cover — Babble.com

Atlas Shrugged:

This is about Daydis (her spelling it’s actually – Daedalus). He is an ancient god guy who prays a lot. This book is about him crying. He is crying because he doesn’t like himself at all, because he hates himself. It looks like a saddy, saddy, saddy bookie.”

~

Why Introverts Fail at Attachment Parenting — Role/Reboot

My friend April planned to be an attachment mother. She planned to co-sleep, wear her baby in a sling, breastfeed on demand, and hold her child whenever she cried. In all the books that she read, April was told that mothers find this sort of constant connection wonderfully fulfilling. The intimacy of on-demand feeding, she was told, would make her feel a sense of connectedness and joy unlike anything she had ever experienced.

April describes experience with attachment parenting as the biggest failure of her life. She is not just convinced that she is a bad mother; she is fairly certain that she is a defective human being. She found the constant connection of attachment mothering exhausting.

When it comes to parenting philosophy, I tend toward the attachment parenting end of things. But our practice was pretty spotty. This article offers an intriguing possible explanation.

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Aurora, and the Mean World Syndrome — Big Think

Movies don’t make people murderers any more than guns do. Still, guns make muderousness much more feasible, and popular entertainment certainly plants ideas that sick minds can use as inspiration for deadly reality.

Does violence in media lead to violence in the real world? Yes, according to something called The Mean World Syndrome, the idea posited by communications theorist George Gerbner, that violent content in popular media – Gerbner focused on the entertainment media but the concept includes the violent and alarmist nature of news content too – makes people believe that the world is a more violent place than it actually is.

Actually, the implications of the Mean World Syndrome go far beyond what happened in Aurora or Colombine or Port Arthur, or even the idea that violence in the entertainment media might spur violence in the real world. It describes something far more insidious, and far more potentially harmful. The Mean World Syndrome is the byproduct of what Gerbner called Cultivation Theory, the idea that the more we watch the news and entertainment media and the more they depict the world as a violent and threatening place, the more we come to accept that those are the norms of society, and the more those norms shape how we live. A world that feels more violent and threatening than it is makes us more worried than we need to be. The implications of that are enormous, far broader than awful but thankfully rare mass murders by people who are clearly mentally unstable.

Gerbner’s idea holds that if we think the world is a ‘mean’ and violent and unsafe place, the kind of world we see again and again in both the news and so much entertainment media, we live our lives accordingly. We buy guns to protect ourselves (guns purchased for self-protection are far more likely to go off in accidents, suicides, or in crimes against others). We live in gated communities. We support candidates who promise to keep us safe, and policies like the Patriot Act that cede civil liberties in the name of safety. A Mean and worrying world causes us to magnify our fears of anything, be it terrorism or industrial chemicals or economic uncertainty, sometimes prompting personal choices or social policies that feel right but do us more harm than good.

What do you think?

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A Suburban Christianity — Patheos

When I was at Burke, we did a book study of The Suburban Christian, so this article was of interest:

America in 2012 is far more suburban than it was in 1950. American Christianity in 2012 is far more suburban than it was in 1950. …How has American Christianity shaped the suburbs? And how have the suburbs shaped American Christianity?

I contend that the latter influence has been far greater than the former. I believe, in other words, that American Christianity has been shaped by the suburbs far more than the suburbs have been shaped by American Christianity. To borrow a word from the Apostle Paul in Romans 12, American churches have conformed to the suburbs.

…The suburbanization of American Christianity has had a huge impact on institutional and denominational structures. Automobile-shaped development has produced an automobile-shaped ecclesiology. The car has abolished the possibility of the parish. And that, in turn, has helped to redefine “neighbor” as a matter of preference more than of proximity — as optional rather than obligatory. That redefinition is rather significant, since “Who is my neighbor?” is kind of an important question for Christians.

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Why We Love to Hoard… And How You Can Overcome It — BBC

A discussion of the “endowment effect”: the idea that you place increased value on what you have simply by virtue of your having it.

I am not a hoarder—probably the exact opposite—but there’s an interesting mental hack in here that’s good for anyone:

Say I am cleaning out my stuff. Before I learnt about the endowment effect I would go through my things one by one and try to make a decision on what to do with it. Quite reasonably, I would ask myself whether I should throw this away. At this point, although I didn’t have a name for it, the endowment effect would begin to work its magic, leading me to generate all sorts of reasons why I should keep an item based on a mistaken estimate of how valuable I found it. After hours of tidying I would have kept everything, including the 300 hundred rubber bands (they might be useful one day), the birthday card from two years ago (given to me by my mother) and the obscure computer cable (it was expensive).

Now, knowing the power of the bias, for each item I ask myself a simple question: If I didn’t have this, how much effort would I put in to obtain it? And then more often or not I throw it away, concluding that if I didn’t have it, I wouldn’t want this.

I find this a better question than “can I imagine a use for this someday?” Because c’mon, of course you can imagine a use!

~

Loving What Is — Weavings

Byron Katie wrote a book by this title and I found it to be flakiest thing I’ve ever read. Which is a shame, because I love that phrase—it’s even become one of my twelve intentions.

This post is short but has a lot packed into it. It spoke to me this week:

We usually associate love with a warm, fuzzy feeling. We like what we see and are happy to embrace it and lend our energy to it. It feels GOOD. In my experience there is another kind of love that is cool, clear and compassionate. This kind of love is more objective and sometimes even chilling. It demands more of us.

If we are to love “what is”, it is the second kind of love that is needed since much of “what is” doesn’t suit us at all. It requires inner spaciousness — a capacity to be inclusive. In the final analysis it requires us to be whole. This love asks us to include all the horror, terror and awesome beauty of life — no exceptions. It asks us to allow for everything to belong to us in some way and for us to belong to it in some way. It asks us to be humble enough to have such an attitude. It asks us to be real so we can accept reality. In other words it asks us to be utterly human.

~

And a part of loving what is is taking a long mindful look around:

Face Reality As It Is — Colossal

The technique is “anamorphic typography.”

I see Emily Dickinson’s “tell all the truth but tell it slant” here:

Pottermania Part II: Love Leaves Its Own Mark

Back in 2007 I preached a series on “the gospel and Harry Potter.” This series coincided with a huge cultural moment among HP fans: the release of the seventh book and the fifth film. Before I left for Collegeville, and in honor of the final chapter of the saga hitting theaters, I threw them up here on the blog. Enjoy…

~

“Love Leaves Its Own Mark”
John 15:12-17

One of the things I am not addressing much in this series is the discomfort that some people have with a series of books that are populated by witches and wizards—stories that are soaked in the language of magic. It bothers some, because aren’t there prohibitions against sorcery and witchcraft in scripture?

Yes, there are. And while it is important for parents to know what their children are reading, and I do hope that parents are circumspect in how they share these stories, especially with young children, there are at least two reasons why I find no major cause for concern.

The first is that the magic employed in these books is totally disconnected with any sense of religion or deity. There are no rituals of magic, no calling forth of satanic spirits or agents of the occult, indeed no mention whatsoever of spirits in the traditional sense. Magic serves a utilitarian purpose; it is not a means of worship or devotion. Magic is simply an aspect of the natural laws governing their universe. Just as we get around by car and bicycle; they get around by Portkeys and Floo Powder. Just as young people in our world might play a prank on a friend by TPing his house, young wizards might, say, turn his pet owl purple. (Not that I am condoning either activity, of course!)

The second reason I see no real concern, however, is much more important. Even with all the clever tricks, charms and potions we find in the Harry Potter books, there is a much deeper and universal force at work in the Potter universe. This idea is expressed well by an inhabitant of a different magical world, Aslan of Narnia, who says of the Witch in that story, “Though she knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know.” (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe)

Just as there is in Narnia, there is a deeper magic in Harry’s world. It is a magic that hums underneath all the comings and goings of the wizarding universe. And as fantastical as certain elements of Harry’s world are to us, this deep magic is instantly recognizable to us as well.

There is a scene toward the end of book 1 in which Harry fights Voldemort by way of one of his followers, who has insinuated his way into Hogwarts in the guise of a teacher. During the battle, every time the man tries to grab Harry, he recoils in terrible pain, and Harry prevails—much to his surprise, I might add.

Dumbledore, the headmaster, later explains to Harry why the evil one was unable to touch him:

Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realize that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign. …To have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever. It is in your very skin. Voldemort’s servant, full of hatred, greed, and ambition, could not touch you for this reason. It was agony to touch a person marked by something so good. (Sorcerer’s Stone, p. 299)

“If there is one thing evil cannot understand, it is love…”

—Love that cares nothing for self-preservation;

love that would sacrifice itself for another.

This love trumps everything else in the wizarding world, and that’s a basic theme of the books. So not only is the series not hostile to our faith, it underscores one of the basic principles of it.

Jesus said, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” And we know the long line of people throughout history, including Jesus, though of course not starting with Jesus: people who gave their lives for the life of another… in witness to the kingdom… in sacrificial love. The band U2’s classic song about the death of Martin Luther King sings “In the name of love, what more in the name of love?” It’s about King, but not just King. The lyrics suggest what we know, that it’s an old, old story indeed. One person dies that others might be free.

Just last week at the youth choir concert, the youth sang an anthem that was written in the wake of a plane crash that claimed the lives of several from a college choir who returning from a tour. One of the individuals who died was a young man who survived the crash, but was overcome by smoke inhalation as he led others to safety.

It’s a story that reverberates in our deepest heart of hearts—it appeals to our best hopes for ourselves. If last week’s sermon addressed the question, “Who are you and to whom do you belong?” perhaps today’s central question is, “What story are you in?” Are you in a story where it’s every man for himself, every woman for herself? Or is it a story in which we are powerfully and inevitably marked by the grace and love of God? …a grace and love that calls us to great sacrifice?

This is the story that weaves throughout the wizarding universe as well. Just listen to this exchange between two characters who were both close to Harry’s parents, one of whom betrayed them to Lord Voldemort:

Sirius: You sold Harry’s parents to Voldemort. Do you deny it?

Peter: What could I have done? The Dark Lord… you have no idea… he has weapons you can’t imagine… I was scared, I was never brave like you and the others. I never meant it to happen… He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named forced me.

Sirius: Don’t lie! You’d been passing information to him for a year before Lily and James Potter died! You were his spy!

Peter: He—he was taking over everywhere! Wh-what was there to be gained by refusing him?

Sirius: What was there to be gained by fighting the most evil wizard who has ever existed? Only innocent lives!

Peter: You don’t understand. He would have killed me!

Sirius: THEN YOU SHOULD HAVE DIED! DIED RATHER THAN BETRAY YOUR FRIENDS, AS WE WOULD HAVE DONE FOR YOU! (Prisoner of Azkaban, p. 374-5)

I myself pray that when faced with a life or death decision, to offer my life to save others, that I would make the faithful choice.

Yet I also know that if my past experience is any indication, the opportunities to truly sacrifice one’s life for someone else… well, they don’t come along very often.

What does it mean to lay down one’s life for one’s friends, each and every day? What about the day-in, day-out care for a spouse who has a chronic illness? Or the children with special needs and abundant energy?

“This is my commandment; that you love one another…” Love that isn’t wrapped in gauzy sentimentality, filmed through a soft-filtered lens. Love that is real and transformative, both for the giver and the receiver. I can think of at least three ways that we are called to love sacrificially even in the midst of everyday life.

I.

First: love takes the long view, keeping the big picture in mind. Love values long-term wholeness over present gratification.

Toward the end of book 1, Harry and his friends Ron and Hermione are working through a series of tests and challenges in order to retrieve the so-called sorcerer’s stone from falling into the wrong hands. These challenges include a game of wizard’s chess—not the tabletop version, but a life-size chessboard in which swords are drawn and pieces are smashed to rubble. Listen to what Ron says to Harry as he prepares to make a decisive move:

[Play clip in which Ron says he must be sacrificed in order that Harry can go on]

Sometimes love means knowing what is most important—being able to see the larger picture. Jesus, for example, could have refused to go to the cross. He could have stayed and fed another crowd of 5,000, healed scores of others, preached more sermons. But he had a deeper mission—to feed the whole world, to heal all of creation; and his death and resurrection said more about the grace of God than a lifetime of sermons ever could.

That’s obviously a rather dramatic example. Maybe for us it’s as simple as forgoing a hurtful word or a nagging comment toward a loved one, in service to the larger goal of a harmonious relationship. Or maybe it’s letting a child make her own mistakes, resisting the urge to rescue every time she threatens a misstep, because that’s how children learn. Maybe it’s knowing that real love keeps the end in mind: a time when she will be an independent adult, able to make her own decisions and dust herself off when she falters.

Love takes the long view.

II.

A second aspect of real self-sacrificing love meets people where they are. This is suggested in the experience of another character from the wizarding world, a werewolf. Now werewolves are perfectly safe to be around, except during the full moon, but they are second-class citizens in the society. Listen to a passage in which one of these individuals describes how his friends respond to his condition:

I became a full-fledged monster once a month. My transformations in those days were—were terrible. It is very painful to turn into a werewolf. I was separated from humans to bite, so I bit and scratched myself. But apart from this, I was happier than I had ever been in my life. For the first time ever, I had friends, three great friends. At first I was terrified they would desert me the moment they found out what I was.

But they didn’t desert me at all. Instead, they did something for me that would make my transformations bearable. They became Animagi—[humans who can transform into animals]. They couldn’t keep me company as humans, so they kept me company as animals. A werewolf is only dangerous to people. Under their influence, I became less dangerous. My body was still wolfish, but my mind seemed to become less so while I was with them. (Prisoner of Azkaban, p. 352)

This character’s friends walked alongside him each month, keeping him safe, letting him know that he wasn’t alone.

Sometimes laying down one’s life for one’s friends means meeting them where they are, not where we want them to be.

Rather than:

“Why can’t you just snap out of that depression?”

“Shouldn’t you have dealt with your grief by now?”

“You just need to accept the breakup of your marriage as God’s will.”

…we strive instead to pursue what Paul called “a more excellent way,” the way of love (I Cor. 13).

Remember poor Job? His friends had it right at first. When he’d lost everything and was sitting in the ash heap, they sat in silence with him for seven days. For just a little while, they lay down their lives—their need to fix, to seek explanation, to control the situation by picking it apart and finding someone to blame. (Too bad they don’t quit while they were ahead—they can’t resist jumping in with all sorts of well-meaning but tragically unhelpful theories.)

Love meets others where they are.

III.

Third: love persists in loving, even when it seems foolish, weak, or naïve to do so.

At the end of the second book, Harry is fighting Voldemort (do you sense the trend?), who has taken the form of his younger self. Harry is fighting the good fight, but he is the underdog, and he is all alone. Watch what happens next.

[Show clip in which the gifts arrive to help Harry (phoenix bring the sorting hat) and Voldemort responds with scorn]

Love means that the tools at your disposal are going to seem woefully inadequate. Look at the contempt on young Voldemort’s face. This is what Dumbledore sends to help you? he sneers.

It is ridiculous. Love seems a feeble tool indeed in a world drowning in despair. We tear ourselves apart through a seemingly endless war and ever-more-horrific acts of terror, and the answer is to love one another? No wonder we’ve let marketers co-opt the word love to describe everything from carpet cleaner to sport utility vehicles: We know that any power the word love might have seems ridiculous in the face of real threats, real destruction.

The “old hat” doesn’t look like much, but it brings with it a powerful gift. And the “songbird” is a phoenix, and provides its own gift when Harry is mortally wounded:

[Show clip in which Harry is healed by the phoenix’s tears]

Is it any wonder that the phoenix has been a symbol used in Christian art from the first century? Not just because it rises again from its ashes, but because through its tears—an expression of true vulnerability if there ever was one!—it is able to heal.

Isn’t it Paul who reminds us, “God has chosen what is foolish to shame the wise”?

Christ’s power was in his weakness.

Real love persists in loving even when to do so makes us look foolish, weak, or naïve.

There are many more aspects of love we might mention. Like all great mysteries of life, love has depths and dimensions that will never be fully explored. The question is simply this:

What story are we in?

…The story written by the giants of commerce, empire and advertising, that might makes right, money is power, go along to get along?

…Or the story told in the life of a wandering penniless prophet from Nazareth who commanded us to love, who said to the evils of the world, “You think you’re going to have the last word? Watch what I do next.”

The choice is ours.

Why Guilt and Duty Matter

Donald Miller has an interesting post today about why we do what we do. Excerpt:

I did an interview today and was asked about how I make decisions regarding helping others. I told the interviewer if I encounter somebody in need but don’t feel like helping them, I usually don’t. It sounds terrible, doesn’t it? But I explained the reason I don’t is because there are plenty of people I actually do feel like helping. And each of us only has so much time and so many resources, so I can’t choose both.

If I help the people I want to help, I’ll actually follow through, they will sense my sincerity, and the whole experience will be more enjoyable for both of us.

Not only this, but if I help the other person out of a sense of duty, I’m not so much helping them as I’m trying to get rid of my negative feelings of guilt or responsibility. My reasons are marginally selfish: I WANT TO STOP FEELING GUILTY.

Are there times when we should do something because we feel guilty? Sure. But I don’t think there are as many as we think. I don’t want to be driven by guilt, I want to be driven by love.

I agree and I don’t. I read recently (and may have blogged it) that guilt is not a good motivator for behavior. (I remember in the movie Hotel Rwanda, Paul Rusesabagina says, “We will shame the West into helping us,” and I thought sadly, That’s not going to work… for one thing, it assumes we have any sense of shame to begin with.)

And I do think that with so many problems in the world, and so many issues vying for our attention, I think some discernment of gifts is essential. I think Buechner’s axiom is as good as any: to find the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s great need.

That said, Miller’s post reminded me of this bit from Office Space:

Peter Gibbons: Our high school guidance counselor used to ask us what you’d do if you had a million dollars and you didn’t have to work. And invariably what you’d say was supposed to be your career. So, if you wanted to fix old cars then you’re supposed to be an auto mechanic.
Samir: So what did you say?
Peter Gibbons: I never had an answer. I guess that’s why I’m working at Initech.
Michael Bolton: No, you’re working at Initech because that question is bullshit to begin with. If everyone listened to her, there’d be no janitors, because no one would clean shit up if they had a million dollars.

Having a personal sense of satisfaction is important, but I’m not sure the answer is to listen less to our sense of guilt and duty. Perhaps we need to listen more, or listen more faithfully.

Personally, I think guilt has gotten a bad rap. The problem is we go to extremes with it. On one extreme, we experience a guilt that morphs into a crippling sense of shame, a feeling of worthlessness that manifests itself as inaction. On the other extreme, we dismiss the role of guilt altogether. One of Miller’s criteria for serving “for the fun of it and the love of it” is:

I normally try to serve people I like and respect. This makes serving easy because you just get to hang out and partner with good people. Helping people you like and respect makes helping fun.

I think this is dangerous. And I don’t think it’s biblical, for those who care about that sort of thing.

Guilt is an emotion like any other; it is morally neutral. It’s what you do with it that matters. If I ignore a homeless person on the street, I hope I feel guilty about that. Not so that I will flog myself for being a terrible person. Rather, the guilt is an important message that I need to hear: I am somehow responsible for that person. Not just when it feels good, or when I know the best way to help him or her. I am my brother and sister’s keeper. I tell parishioners this all the time when they ask me whether they did the right thing by helping someone (or not helping someone they suspected was a con artist). I can’t tell you that, because I don’t know, I say. And then they counter, But I feel very unsettled and uncomfortable about it.

Good, I usually respond.

Later in the post Miller says:

If you asked your dad why he sacrifices so much for you, which answer would be more affirming, an answer in which he stated it was his duty as a father, or an answer in which he just said “because I love you.” Which answer seems more selfless?

I agree that the love answer is more affirming. But I don’t think that acting out of love makes one more selfless. In fact, I think he creates a false dichotomy between love and duty. Duty is an outgrowth of love. What is love without a sense of duty? Warm, empty feelings.

All those nights I woke up to nurse an infant, when I was so tearfully, fretfully tired that I would have given large sums of money to have someone else do it for me, I did so because I had a responsibility to that child. And I had a responsibility to my child because I love her. They are the same thing.

One of the favorite shows in our family is “Dirty Jobs.” Mike Rowe is the host, and he travels the country visiting people who do, well, dirty jobs: leech wranglers, spider-venom collectors, roadkill cleaners, etc. He learns their jobs and usually does the work right alongside them.

Mike Rowe has spoken about the traditional advice we receive in determining our career and has called it hooey:

“When I left high school–confused and unsure of everything–my guidance counselor assured me that it would all work out, if I could just muster the courage to follow my dreams. My Scoutmaster said to trust my gut. And my pastor advised me to listen to my heart.”

“If I’ve learned anything from this show, it’s the folly of looking for a job that completely satisfies a ‘true purpose.’ In fact, the happiest people I’ve met over the last few years have not followed their passion at all—they have instead brought it with them.”

I say Amen.

What do you say?

Love All—A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

“Love All” is the final theme of the four-week Advent Conspiracy study. It’s been an interesting challenge to connect those themes with the lectionary texts each week. This is how I did it today.

MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Idylwood Presbyterian Church
December 19, 2010
Fourth Sunday of Advent
Matthew 1:18-25

Love All

For many long nights he had tossed and turned, gripped by his dilemma. The truth was, he loved Mary. He didn’t understand what had happened; she was such a level-headed young woman, but this… this story, about an angel and the Holy Spirit and a pregnancy. It would have been easier if she had just said there was another man.

It was an agonizing situation. He dared not tell anyone, instead going about his work as a carpenter. You know—to get his mind off this nightmare. Just keep working on nice tangible things. A table. A chair. Sturdy, concrete things. But it at night, his plight loomed once again, and there was no escaping it.

There were two options that Joseph could see. Well, three.

His first option was to report Mary. Make it public. If he did that, she could be stoned to death. That’s what the letter of the law would suggest. She was pregnant, the child wasn’t his, it was an open and shut case.

…It was warm this time of year, but he shuddered under the wool blanket to think of it.

The second option was to quietly call off the engagement. Mary’s life would be spared, but their life together would be over. Other men had done it. Other men had realized that the letter of the law was cruel and bloodthirsty. Other men had quietly dismissed their wives or fiancées for adultery. It was a lesser punishment than death but still serious. And he would be free to marry another and live a nice, comfortable life in obscurity once he’d put that whole mess behind him.

The third option was to go ahead and marry her… but that wasn’t really an option at all. Joseph was righteous. It would have been a disgrace to his honor to go on as if nothing had happened. And if, by some slim chance, Mary’s story was true, well, what kind of life would that be? No, God didn’t need Joseph. God could find some other way of bringing the Messiah into the world. God would find another way.

For many nights he turned over the options. Option 1, stoning, was unthinkable; Option 3, marrying the girl, unpalatable. It had to be Option 2, dismissing her quietly. But still, he wasn’t sure.

Joseph was a righteous man, and so he prayed for guidance. He prayed that God would give him a sign. Something, some little nudge. He didn’t need the burning bush that Moses had received. The still small voice that had whispered in Elijah’s ear would suffice. Just something, anything.

But there was no sign. Night after night, nothing. He was on his own.

But when the decision finally came to him, he was at peace. It was a relief to have a way forward. He made up his mind to go to Mary the very next morning and tell her that she could have her life, but their engagement was broken, their relationship severed. He rehearsed the conversation, planned what he would say, began to picture life after this decision: A new bride, someday. Children. His own children. A whole houseful! Several strapping sons to learn the carpentry trade. He drifted off to sleep with this image clear in his mind, and it brought him comfort.

This was the right decision. He was certain of it.

But that night, his certainty dissolved… his comfort whisked away on the wisp of an angel wing, his decision evaporated in a whiff of a dream. Mary… wife. Child… Holy Spirit. Save the people. Fear not.

He woke up, disoriented. Where was he? What time was it? Was he just given a message to do the exact opposite thing he’d already decided to do?

In the fog between sleep and wakefulness, he was irritated. The decision was made, for heaven’s sake. Where had God been during all those agonizing nights of indecision? And only now, once the decision had been made, does God make it clear what Joseph is supposed to do? What kind of crazy timing is this?

And do not be afraid? OK, that part just made him mad. He wasn’t afraid. He was a righteous man. He didn’t want Mary to be disgraced, that’s all. He was trying to do the right thing. The good thing. Where does this angel get off calling him afraid?

*    *    *

Now, it’s possible that it didn’t happen this way.

It’s possible that Joseph woke up the next morning fresh as a daisy, stretched, wiped the sleep from his eyes, scratched his beard contentedly and said, “Whew, what a relief. I was going to have a nice comfortable anonymous life, but now I get to raise an illegitimate child as my own, who is apparently the son of God. Bring it on, Yahweh.”

But I doubt he turned on a dime. Because he’d made his decision. The deal was sealed. He had resolved, he had determined how his life would go, he had everything all worked out before that angel invaded his dreams and took one look at all his well-laid plans and said “Not. So. Much.”

It’s one thing to be visited by God when you’re in the throes of a decision, still trying to discern which way to go. But for God to intervene when everything’s all nice and settled—well, it’s just downright rude, isn’t it?

In any case, Joseph took Mary for his wife. Whether he did the angel’s bidding without a second thought, or whether he dragged his feet and stammered out a protest, I guess we’ll never know. But it wouldn’t surprise me if he shook his fist at God and the future God had planned for him.

Because we know other things:

We know that Abraham and Sarah were too old to have children. Period. It was so out of the question that the mere idea of being pregnant made Sarah laugh so hard that she almost fell over.

We know that Elijah, one of the greatest prophets of Israel, was once so discouraged that he prayed for death and laid down in the middle of the wilderness to die.

We know that Jonah had made up his mind, no ifs, ands, or buts—he was not going to go to Nineveh like God commanded, and he was so committed to that course that he bought a ticket on a ship bound for the other direction.

And we know that Paul—called Saul—was so convinced of the danger of the Jesus movement that he was having Christ’s followers tortured and put to death.

In each and every case, like Joseph, they had resolved what they would do. And in each and every case, God confounded their expectations. You think you’re so smart? You think you know how this is going down? Watch what I’m going to do next.

And Sarah… had a child.

Elijah lived.

Jonah went to Nineveh and the city was transformed.

And Saul became Paul, a titan of the early church, who would suffer the same torture and imprisonment that he had perpetrated against the followers of Jesus.

Each of them had carved out a path for themselves—had resolved, like Joseph, to follow a certain path. And each of them was shown the expansive, explosive grace and purposes of God, which disrupted all their best-laid plans and thrust them into a bold new future. And in Joseph’s case, that wondrous future would mean the liberation and salvation of the world.

But no, strictly speaking, we don’t know if Joseph had a “you’ve got to be kidding” moment. But if he did, he is in excellent company.

Because the gospel is full of “You’ve got to be kidding” moments.

Turn the other cheek?

Sell all we have?

Sin no more?

Deny ourselves?

Take up our cross?

You’ve got to be kidding.

You want me to give to the poor in a down economy? You’ve got to be kidding.

You want me to show hospitality to the immigrant?

You want me to love Barack Obama?

You want me to pray for John Boehner?

You want me to treat the Muslim as a child of God?

the gay man?

the woman with the sign on the corner?

the mentally ill cousin who ruins Christmas dinner?

the obnoxious dolt at the office? Child of God? Child of God? Child of God?

Love All? Really, All?

What Joseph, and Abraham and Sarah, and Elijah, and Jonah, and Paul, all come to realize, is that God’s always bursting things open for us, moving us in the direction of inclusiveness. There is a kind of reckless grace to the whole thing. We know it when we see it. It’s like going off the map, into something wilder and deeper and more interesting than we ever could have planned ourselves.

*    *    *

It’s a story on every TV channel at this time of year, about a man named George Bailey. George has an adventurous spirit, and his life is filled with great decision and ambitious plans to get himself out of the tiny hamlet of Bedford Falls—but these plans get thwarted every step of the way. He’s all packed for college when his father has a stroke and George must take over the family building and loan. His brother comes home from college with a new wife and a promising job, and again George’s plans and dreams take a backseat. He gets married and is on his way to the honeymoon when there’s a run on the bank and he and his bride must use their honeymoon money to help out the building and loan’s clients. At every turn, George has resolved to do big things, grand things, but it is never meant to be. And yet, as he discovers with the help of an angel named Clarence, he is deeply loved, and he’s had an impact way beyond what he could have imagined. He realizes, as we do, that It’s a Wonderful Life.

“We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”

That’s the testimony of Joseph, and George Bailey, and anyone who’s come to realize that stepping into God’s future is scary and wonderful and terrible and life-giving in ways we never would have imagined without God. That’s the good news of Christmas that we’re waiting for, yearning for: that God is coming into the world, reconciling all things, shaking things up, offering crazy abundant life.

I realized something for the first time this year. In the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, there’s a character up in ‘heaven’ that is sort of in charge of all the angels. Clarence talks to him from time to time when he gets stuck on how to help George.

His name is Joseph.

Now… I sure don’t want to make too much of this. But I have to think that if anyone was going to understand George Bailey, it’s Joseph. If ever there was someone who knew what it meant to let go of one’s resolutions and plans and decisions in order to embrace a more life-giving path, it would be Joseph, the father of Jesus—who didn’t quite live the life he planned to live, but who became a hero of our faith by stepping into the incredible drama of God.

Last Sunday’s Sermon on Park51

Several people have asked to read the sermon from Sunday. I’ve been waiting for it to go up on the church website, but until then, here it is.

It’s funny, looking at it now. It really doesn’t feel all that controversial.

MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Idylwood Presbyterian Church
August 22, 2010
“God’s Greatest Hits”: Sermon Series
Baby Moses: Exodus 2:1-10

Among the Reeds

We’ve heard a lot of great stories this summer in our series, many of which were chosen by members of the congregation. Today’s text is one of my choices. I distinctly remember learning this story as a child in Sunday School, and can picture the coloring page that our teacher handed out with an adorable baby Moses nestled in the basket while his big sister looks on.

As I learned the story, Moses’ sister (Miriam) was the clear hero, quick to jump in with a solution, ready to manipulate Pharoah’s daughter into not only allowing their mother to continue to nurse him, but to get paid for it! Quite a clever girl indeed. In my childhood remembrance of the story, Pharoah’s daughter has a less prominent role.

Now, it’s certainly possible that Pharoah’s daughter is “played” by Miriam. It could be that she’s set up to be nothing more than a dumb member of the ruling class. This is a well-established framework for these kinds of stories, from the book of Exodus to Br’er Rabbit. But I think Pharoah’s daughter knows exactly what’s going on. I think she understands the situation quite well: that this baby, and the young girl looking on, and the woman who will nurse him, are all part of the same family, victims of a heinous plot cooked up by her father to decimate the Hebrew people by eliminating the sons (see Exodus chapter 1).

But what is it about Pharoah’s daughter that gives her the generosity to let the woman nurse the child—and pay her for it? Where does she get the compassion to let this Hebrew child, a child of another race, not only live, but be raised as royalty?

The other night I was working on the computer and a friend (who’s a big fan of musical theater) sent a message: “Hey, South Pacific is on Live at Lincoln Center!” I had some laundry sitting in the basement to be folded so I thought Sounds good! Many of you know South Pacific; it’s one of the great musicals from the 20th century. It takes place during World War II and addresses themes of racism.

I tuned in just in time to see the scene in which Nellie finds out Emile (her love interest) has fathered two children. Nellie, from Arkansas, just cannot handle the scandal of this news. In the next scene, another character (dealing with his own prejudices) says such feelings are “not born in you” and he sings the famous song:

You’ve got to be taught To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught…

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

I’ve read that Rodgers and Hammerstein were under great pressure to change the song and to soften the themes of the show. In fact the Georgia legislature wanted to outlaw entertainment they saw as sympathetic to communism. One legislator said interracial marriage was “implicitly a threat to the American way of life.”[i] Sad, isn’t it?

Somehow, Pharoah’s daughter was not taught to hate the people her father hated. For whatever reason, she missed that lesson. Which is amazing, really. Her father had a campaign underway to slaughter the Hebrew sons, because he felt threatened, because he hated and feared the people, but somehow his daughter didn’t get the message. Something in her took pity on the baby in the reeds. Something in her heart softened toward him and his plight. And thank God for that, because if Pharoah’s daughter hadn’t done what she did, the little baby among the reeds would not have grown up to be a man who would one day stand before Pharoah’s corrupt regime and say, “Let my people go.”

I remember watching South Pacific as a teenager in Dallas—and I specifically remember this scene in which Nellie finds out about Emile’s interracial relationship. And I remember thinking Really? This was an issue? Thankfully we’ve moved on though. How quaint this show is—a period piece, for sure—but how relevant really is this musical to the world that we live in now?

Oh, how naïve I was… to think that we were past all that.

You only need to listen to the rhetoric of the past several days, over the so-called “ground zero mosque,” and the fact that many think anti-Islamic sentiment is on the rise, including a Christian church that is planning a “burn the Quran” party[ii], to see that issues of race, and culture, and how we accept people who are different, are absolutely still of utmost importance today.

I’m going to thread the needle as best I can with this, because tempers are hot around this one, and a sermon is intended to start a conversation, not finish it. This conversation takes place among you and me and scripture and the culture, with the Holy Spirit knitting it all together.

I must first say three things:

  1. 9/11 is a terrible wound. The trauma of that day may never fully heal.
  2. There are people in the world who want to do harm.
  3. Good people can have different ideas about the appropriateness of Park51 (the community center and mosque project) at this particular place and at this particular time.

That said:

What an opportunity this public discussion could have been—an opportunity to talk with one another about who we are and who we want to be as a society. What is appropriate? What does sacred space look like? If not a community center, built by a Muslim group (with the approval of rabbis and clergy, by the way, who will serve on the board), then what do we want to see in that space? How do we react to the two mosques that are already in the neighborhood? If there can be a Muslim place of prayer at the Pentagon, how is Ground Zero different? Is it different? How do we uphold the values of our nation while acknowledging the pain of those who grieve?

That would have been an important discussion, a healing discussion.

That is not what has been happening.

Instead, most civil and respectful debate has been drowned out by fear-mongering and scapegoating. One person has called the planned project a “command center for terrorism at the 9/11 site.” Imam Rauf, who has a long history of interfaith work, who attended Daniel Pearl’s funeral and spoke as an honored guest, who is widely considered to be a moderate Muslim, who somehow earned the trust of two administrations such that he is on a State-Department-sponsored speaking tour, has been branded as a radical. An extremist. Someone who is out to get “us.” The evidence for this is sketchy, to put it kindly—the best people can do is a kind of guilt by association.[iii] One person even said, “after you’ve killed 3,000 people, you’re going to now build your mosque?”, as if the 9/11 terrorists and the Muslims involved in the Cordoba Project are one and the same.[iv]

To put it bluntly, the Muslims we know in our workplaces and neighborhoods have as much complicity in 9/11 as you and I do for the KKK. Our former President, George W. Bush, said, “Those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow citizens to take out their anger don’t represent the best of America, they represent the worst of humankind, and they should be ashamed of that kind of behavior.”[v] He said that six days after 9/11.

Salman Hamdani was a police cadet, part-time ambulance driver, incoming medical student, and devout Muslim. When he disappeared on September 11, law enforcement officials came to his family, seeking him for questioning in relation to the terrorist attacks. His remains were finally identified 6 months later. He was found near the North Tower, with his EMT medical bag beside him, presumably doing everything he could to help those in need.[vi]

The God I believe in was as heartbroken at the death of Salman Hamdani as with the death of any other innocent victim that day.

Pharoah’s daughter peeked through the reeds of the river and looked into the face of the stranger. The other. Different race, different culture. It would have been no skin off her nose if she had just put that basket back and tiptoed away. Let someone else deal with him, or not. It’s not her problem. But she couldn’t ignore him. She couldn’t leave. I hope we as Christians, who are supposed to be about loving our neighbor, would be no less compassionate with the other than she was.

“You’ve got to be taught…” the song goes. What are we teaching as this debate rages? What are we teaching about Jesus? What are we teaching about hospitality? There’s a lot of heated rhetoric, not just about the Park 51 project, but all kinds of issues of the day. And as I said, good people can disagree. But are we going to add heat or light? Are we going to speak out against the hate and noise? Are we going to bear witness to the Prince of Peace? You’re a teacher. I’m a teacher. What are we teaching about the God we follow?

. . . . .

My poor children have my seminary training inflicted on them from time to time.

Years ago I was reading this story to Caroline from a children’s Bible. The last line was “and she named the baby Moses.”

What I said was, “she named the baby Moses, which is Hebrew for ‘pulled out,’ because she ‘pulled him out of the water.’ ”

From the other room I heard Robert say, “Give the poor child a break, she’s four!”

But you see… the name of Moses is the key to the whole thing.
This business of being “pulled out”—that’s the beauty of the whole story.

And you know, it wasn’t Moses who was pulled out.
It was Pharoah’s daughter who was pulled out.

Somehow or other God reached into her sheltered upper-class existence and pulled her out to a new place.

God pulled her into a place of empathy for the oppressed.
God pulled her out of the cocoon of self-interest and said, “This foreigner needs your care. ”

And God’s pulling us out—
pulling us out of our own agendas,
our own tightly-held prejudices,
into a new place, an uncomfortable place, to be sure, a vulnerable place, where not everybody looks like us or dresses like us or thinks like us or worships like us.

But it’s a good place we’re being pulled into.
It’s a place that looks a whole lot like the kingdom of God.

This I believe.


[i] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/You%27ve_Got_to_Be_Carefully_Taught references the following article:

Andrea Most, “‘You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught’: The Politics of Race in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific” Theater Journal 52, no. 3 (October 2000), 306.

[ii] Religious Freedom, Free Speech Face Off Nationwide, by David Shaper on NPR, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129330121&sc=fb&cc=fp

[iii] For Imam in Muslim Center Furor, a Hard Balancing Act, New York Times, August 21, 2010 http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/22/nyregion/22imam.html

[iv] http://www.glennbeck.com/content/articles/article/198/44403/

[v] http://www.religioustolerance.org/reac_ter1.htm

[vi] http://islam.about.com/blvictims.htm