Month: November 2013
Matthew 5:21-24, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca, ‘ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to that person; then come and offer your gift.”
Jesus knew all about religious professionals. It was the professionals who were usually questioning him and his disciples about one regulation or the other on ritual purity or his own authority. He knew the game, following certain rules and using the right language could make you very religious, but though he valued those same traditions and valued religiosity, he never let it become elevated over the value of people. So he touched the untouchable. He associated with the social pariah. He told parables like “The Good Samaritan” which seemed to break down ethnic and religious barriers. He repeatedly healed on the sabbath.
Our final passage is a message to the religious professional in each of us. When we begin to value our religion above people, we begin to go through the motions even while our relationships are crumbling all around us. We can go to the altar to leave a gift and bless God, all the while ignoring the lack of blessing happening between us and our sisters and brothers. Jesus says, “Stop! Don’t go to play church when you know you have some rebuilding to do with your brother or your sister. Church just doesn’t work when valued above and outside your relationships.” (That was my paraphrase.)
What is civility to a Christian? Is it the recognition that we speak and act as reconcilers, seeking to break down the barriers and reconnect to one another. Civility is never just an “elective class” we can catch one semester or simply ignore and still graduate without it. It’s not an extracurricular activity. We speak and act to reconcile and remain reconciled. We are not called to be barrier builders. We are not called to giving insults, to humiliating or to tearing others down. We are called to restoration, restoring our broken selves one to another.
This is the way a person of faith goes about civility, recognizing that we’re maintaining some of the most important stuff that Jesus has called us to be and do. Civility is not our religion, but our religion leads us to be civil. God has never called us separate from one another, but together. Let us then see to it that our religion is pure and true to the value of one another. Let us show how people of faith live and breathe a civility that reconciles us to one another, mutually encourages one another, and gives everlasting glory to our great God. We’ll close the month of exploring our Christian scriptures with three final selections from Micah, Jesus and Peter.
From Micah, Micah 6:6-8
“With what shall I come before the LORD and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown all you people what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
From Jesus, John 13:34&35
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
From Peter, 1 Peter 3:8-11
“Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. For, ‘Whoever among you would love life and see good days must keep your tongue from evil and your lips from deceitful speech. Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.'”
Matthew 5:13-16, “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
We began this month of exploring Christian scripture to understand civility with Jesus, and we’ll end with Jesus. This is a very familiar passage to most anyone who grew up in church. Jesus loved to teach in symbols, and this is some of his best… it’s simple, we can relate to the content, and it inspires. We are called to be salt, seasoning the world for the better. We are to be light, a source of illumination and joy for those struggling to see. Amen and amen.
Jesus lays it all on the line for us in these simple words: we are salt, and we are light. No matter what you’re cooking, the salt becomes part of the dish, lost for any other purpose other than favoring and then never being seen again. Oh, it’s flavor is there, we know where the salt has gone… but that’s just it, the salt is gone. The dish remains. The dish is so much better for having been salted.
No matter the light source you choose, it burns up, it gives all it has and it’s gone. A lamp burns away it’s oil. A candle melts. A bulb eventually burns away it’s filament or it’s gases, batteries go dead… all lights on this earth end in their using. This is our calling. We are used up in service to this world. We are sent to make the world better for everyone else, and Jesus evens asks what we’re good for if we reject that calling! If we will not salt and we will not light, then what use do we have?
The word civil at the base of the word civility is a very fun study if you ever feel like digging in and chewing on it a while. It denotes both the meaning of responsible/polite behavior, but it also denotes this aspect of being a common member of society, a citizen. The two concepts are united in the word, both being a citizen and acting a citizen. Jesus does this with salt and light, both being and doing. Salt is our identity and our action. Light is both what we are and what we do. Our place in the world hinges on this calling… we exist in this capacity of purpose.
So what does all that mean? It means that I don’t salt the earth one day a week, or two days a week, or only when I choose to be salty. I must reflect on the needs around me and strive to be salt all the time. I must own the call to saltiness and pursue it with all my heart, mind and soul. It’s not just a thing I do on weekends or when there’s a Bible study. It’s in my walk, my talk, my laughter, my weeping, my falling, my failing, my dancing and my singing.
My light doesn’t have a on/off switch for my convenience. I am not choosing to be light for only those I have deemed worthy of the time or the effort. I am shining, shining on my worst day, my best day, in the rain, in the snow, in the pain and in the green of springtime joys. I am being what I am called to be, to the best of my ability and with all the joy of the call I can muster on any given day. And if we have come together to make a community like the one Jesus has described in the verses preceding this passage, in those amazing words we call “The Beatitudes,” then when my savor lessens and my light dims, it will be renewed in my kingdom fellowship with you. Together, we are called to be salt and light, never alone. Never alone.
I am salt with you. I am not salting the earth alone! I am light with you. I am not lighting anything by myself! Civil is not something I am or do alone. Civil exists within the community of the citizens! If we are to find a singular truth of civility in the teaching of scriptures then let it be the truth of our need for one another! I need you! I need you to myself be salt. I need you to myself be light. I need you, and that is why I am striving to be civil, to keep us in the bonds of love, mutual encouragement, sharing and growth.
Never alone. Thank you, God, I am not alone.
Colossians 3:15, “And be thankful.”
And be thankful. I’ve always liked the way that St. Paul would throw that in here and there, and he does it often. He does in his letter the Colossians in chapter 2 as well, speaking of being rooted and grown up in Christ he adds an “and be thankful” for good measure in verse 7.
When our passage ended with those words yesterday I knew I’d have to come back and use them again. I don’t think St. Paul scatters them around without intention and meaning… I think he sows his letters with the seeds of gratefulness hoping for a nice harvest in the lives of his readers!
I believe that thankfulness, or gratefulness, or gratitude, whichever word we choose, is a seriously underrated theme in scripture and a solid foundation for civility. Ingratitude and being unthankful leads to a lot of harshness in our words and missed opportunities to build one another up. St. Ignatius said, “I think that that ingratitude is at the root of all sinfulness.” Amen. I’m declaring him the patron saint of our Thanksgiving this year and including a painting of him I made a couple of years ago. =)
Be grateful! Be joyous! Love with gusto!
Colossians 3:13-15, “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.”
Bear with each other. What a great twist of language that the word bear gets to be an expression of gracefully putting up with each other and a 400 pound mammal that might pull your head off. Maybe civility can feel that way sometimes, like trying to smile in the face of a raging beast? Maybe.
One of the hardest things about the teaching on forgiveness in scripture is that we are so often told to forgive without any mention of waiting for an apology. It seems that when incivility is done to us, our forgiveness is supposed to kick in without even waiting on that other person’s recognition that they need it. Honestly, that’s tough for me. I’ve managed to rationalize this away at times with arguments about not wanting to “enable” their continued naughtiness, but that wears thin after a while.
Someone might be a real bear towards me, and make it hard for me to bear with them through it, but I have to dig deep and find that needed strength to carry my own responsibility to restoring peace. Let’s be clear, I don’t always want to do that! Sometimes I would much rather respond in kind, making it just as unpleasant for them as it is for me. For a Christian it comes down to relating to Jesus and the way he modeled forgiveness in the biblical narrative. His words “forgive them” from the cross didn’t wait on an apology.
I suppose what I want to say today is that it’s ok to struggle with civility, but not to give up. I wouldn’t want this whole month of blogging to just be a “pie in the sky” dream of what things could be if we were all perfect. Sometimes I’m the bear, and sometimes I’m doing the bearing. Sometimes I fail in the civility realm and move from being a victim of incivility to a co-combatant in a contest of incivility. But I’m trying, and if anything I’ll try harder next time.
I’m going to meditate today what I might call cruciform timing, living a forgiveness that doesn’t wait. If I can do that better, civility has a chance to grow in me. If a peace and thankfulness can be rooted in me, and be bounded by love, as the passage today images for us, then maybe a little more bearishness can be tolerated and forgiven. I’m going to splurge and have two graphics today because I think the passage makes a cool illustration. It’s that mentioned peace and love that can make all this possible. That peace and love are layers that help protect the true me when bears attack.
Easier said than done? Yes it is, but so is everything worth working hard to obtain. It’s the same love and peace that protects me that will be extended to one who attacks me. It’s a hope of mutual assured survival.
Galatians 5:26, “Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.”
Are you one of those folks who must make everything a competition? Is everything a contest for you with a first place, second place and third place, winners and losers? You might want to say no, but think about it. When someone shares something amazing in their life, is your first thought one of comparison to your own life?
I like to think I’m not all that wrapped up competitive ways, but I know that there are certainly areas of my life where I do harbor envy. There are parts of my life where I like to think I’m better than others. Better than most? Maybe. I have to admit it’s there within me, and it threatens my civility. I’ve never been an athlete, so I’m not all that into competitive sports, but I’ve found ways too make most everything else in life into a sport with winners and losers. In those other areas of life it’s the “I’m an expert” syndrome.
My image with this blog is a painting I did a few years ago of St. Francis of Assisi. I painted it intentionally as a picture of St. Francis and a little bit of a self portrait. His eyes are downcast and closed, not because he failed at anything, but because I know I fail so often to live up to the prayer he prayed, “Make me an instrument of your peace.” I’m too often a bit too self-serving to be used on anyone else’s behalf. His prayer makes me feel ashamed. The painting expresses a great paradox of my life: I want to live that prayer, but my conceit keeps me fettered to vanity and pride.
You might think a guy who likes to talk so much about humility wouldn’t be thinking how much better he is at something than you are, but then again that’s why I’m happy you’re not in my head. I hope you don’t mind a little more honesty, today. It’s simple human conceit, and I have it.
Conceit, too much pride in your own worth or goodness
I like to think I keep it well hidden, but I know it shows sometimes. When it does show, well that’s when I’m saying things that make you frustrated. It often shows itself in provocation, sometimes when I’m challenging your ideas and your accomplishments. I do it because I don’t want you as happy with yourself as you are. I do it because I want your success moderated a bit, lowered a bit closer to the level of my own (or just a bit under mine own). It’s not pretty, but it does happen.
A commitment to civility will help impose certain filters on me that not only help me not do this to you unnecessarily in our conversations, but also I hope it will shine a light on the inner conceits that trip me up. St. Paul is expressing this whole idea in the context of a discussion on personal freedom, a choice to serve others or myself. Your accomplishments can become part of my joy. Your wins can become my celebrations. Your joy is not then at my expense, but instead it is my gain. Honestly, I’m trying to love you that much.
Galatians 5:22 & 23, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.”
I have to admit that this passage from St. Paul has been a favorite of mine my whole life. It’s not that I have in some way mastered it or think that I’m a great example of it, but it reminds me to raise my expectations for myself, and even for you. I’ve been accused of having a “thin skin” when someone’s rudeness or naughty behavior will be hurt or disappoint me, but I don’t want to let my expectations slip! I’m a textbook Gen-X in some respects, and I always struggle to keep a high level of pessimism and cynicism at bay.
If you want to go and see the list that St. Paul has of the “sinful fruits” (Galatians 6:13-26) you’ll find many of the things we’ve identified and renounced as incivility throughout our exploration of scripture: rage, discord, selfishness, divisiveness. But I’ve never spent a lot of time on the sinful fruits; I know them too well. My imagination is better fed on the fruit of expecting and identifying God in action in me or in you. I want to dwell on those moments when our goodness shines. I like seeing our patience surprise someone, our kindness meet a need, our self-control end a conflict, our love warm a soul, our joy become infectious, and our peace break down barriers and make us a family.
The fruit are a strong reminder that civility is not just what we don’t say, but what we do say. Our faith and spirituality are the same in respect to renouncing some things and embracing some things. Renouncing and letting go of some things can be seen as a bit passive, simply making sure that some things are absent from our lives. Choosing to embrace other things that we wish to manifest in our lives can be a bit more active, even aggressive.
This morning I’m meditating on these on these things that I can embrace, things against which I will never find a law or an obstacle outside of my own heart. I’m going to include a photo with this blog, a six foot goose that my wife and I hand-made and painted for an arts festival a few summers ago. In Celtic spirituality the Holy Spirit is sometimes pictured as a wild goose, and I want God’s presence today in my life to be a goose, to be flamboyant and noisy, aggressive and loud. I want God’s presence in me to take flight.
Galatians 5:15, “If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.”
By the way, please excuse my silly graphic, today.
When I was growing up in church, in my little slice of the world, there was definitely a lot more emphasis placed on being right than on love. In fact, unfortunately, love could be withheld on grounds of someone’s doctrinal correctness. It’s not that there weren’t mavericks who did dare to love, even to love the people with questions and shaky doctrines, because there were! Thank goodness for me!
I’m going to always agree that we should strive to have a good understanding of doctrines and treat right knowledge and thinking with it’s due respect, but correct doctrine is never lauded as the sum of the entire Law. Love, and it’s consistent expression, is. Here with the Galatians St. Paul echoes the summary of religious Law similar to the way Jesus summed it up (Matthew 22:34-40) a few years before him, and it’s worth seeing that passage expanded a bit:
Galatians 5:13-15 “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.”
We are called to be free agents, but with a choice. Our free will can be used to serve ourselves and our own wants and needs, or we can use our own free agency in humble service to one another, choosing paths that could mean the life or death of our communities and relationships. It sounds rather dramatic, but I have found it to be true. Biting and devouring the people around you is a sure fire way to be the last one standing. Call that a win if you’d like, but it sounds lonely and defeated to me.
Civility calls us to building others up and meeting their needs by word and action, as does our love and freedom. So maybe civility is the responsible expression of freedom? I think that when we choose an uncivil path, one of judging and not loving, or as Paul so poetically puts it, as one of biting and devouring one another, we can expect to be consumed in the end. We may be free while tearing and biting, and having a bit fun and filling our bellies, but that freedom is being squandered, and it’s ultimately lost in the demise of our relationships and connections.
Proverbs 3:34, “He mocks proud mockers but shows favor to the humble and oppressed.”
There is an undeniable stream of thought in scripture that highlights the thrill God feels in elevating the poor and disenfranchised, often at the cost of the rich and un-empathetic who have prospered while their neighbors suffer. It’s not a stream of thought that supports a hatred of rich people or a disdain for wealth, but certainly does remind us that God doesn’t judge our value based on our financial bottom lines. In contrasting generosity and greed Jesus famously said, “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.” (Matthew 20:1-16)
So the Proverb above warns us against a pride which isolates us from God’s favor. God prefers a person to live in humility instead of an inflated idea of self. God favors the oppressed. I think it reflects on God’s character that the joy of the Divine is found in favoring the least able and most needful. God doesn’t sit back and revel in one person’s great accumulation of wealth and pride in self, but in the opportunity to lift another from despair or to reveal that person’s hidden and less known value and worth. I get a strong sense that humility is actually the inner wealth we carry and live, while pride is an infection that can grow from the accumulation of material wealth. I said “can,” not must.
God mocks the mockers. Among the lessons for civility we find in scripture, this one rings loud and clear. A prideful, disdainful attitude that mocks and decreases another’s value is not in line with the movement or favor of God. God isn’t laughing with you when you tear another person down. But a humility that reveals the worth of the other person is joining God in the Divine disposition.
I think civility will be a natural outgrowth of choosing to reveal and support the other person’s value and dignity. It doesn’t mean I have to agree with everyone, but I sure better not value myself over them. I can disagree with someone while still protecting the inherent value of their life, opinions and aspirations. It’s not just that God loves an under dog, God loves to fill gaps of inequity and oppression. Civility, and the humility from which it grows, will create fewer of those gaps by affirming and revealing the value and dignity of others.
Exodus 23:9, “Also you shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of a stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” New King James Version
I want to carry yesterday’s idea forward another day. We looked at the passage in Colossians 4 and chatted about the way that our grace, particularly civil attitude and conversation, wasn’t just reserved for “us” but was also for “them.” Today, I want to show that this isn’t a new idea introduced in the New Testament, but this was in the formative concepts of justice when God gave Law to the Israelites.
That verse from Exodus is a nice example of the way God included “care of the other” from the earliest days of expressing divine will on justice and fairness. The people of Israel had been the strangers, the foreigners, the aliens, the “other” while living in Egypt. They began that sojourn fleeing famine, but ended up as slaves. They knew the truth of injustice. The passage above reminds them that they should know “the heart of a stranger,” how it feels to be unknown, on the outside, seen as “the other.” From that experience, they are commanded to care for those not like them and not from among them. Justice was for all, and this is a firm foundation for civility being for all.
There are other verses that echo this idea of God wanting Israel to transcend the “us and them” divide in life, even to the point of acting as if there was no difference between they and the other. All people’s value was to be supported and Israel’s behavior was to be consistent:
Leviticus 19:33-34, “And if a stranger dwells with you in your land, you shall not mistreat him. The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”
Exodus 22:21 “You shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Deuteronomy 27:19 “‘Cursed is the one who perverts the justice due the stranger, the fatherless, and widow.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen!'”
I think God has always wanted to break down barriers between us. The “chosen people” language of God’s nation Israel might cause us to think otherwise. The “called out” ecclesial language of the church might cause us to think otherwise. But the choosing and the calling has always been purposeful, and I believe part of that purpose is to break down the barriers of division, animosity and hatred that arise between us.
I need to be a safe person for all others, even “the other.” My civility is an extension of this truth. I cannot reserve a special hatred for the outsider because she is an outsider. I cannot reserve my love only for those I know. I cannot hoard my peace and civility for those who like me or think like me. My heart needs to beat for the stranger, for the outsider, for the alien. I need to be “safe” for all.
Colossians 4:5 & 6, “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”
It might be easy when reading the scriptures to fall into an us and them attitude when thinking of how we ought to behave, speak and act. The scriptural writers, especially when we’re reading Paul, Peter and James, are very concerned with helping a new community in it’s formative first generation. This leads to a lot of us language, but it doesn’t have to be to the exclusion of them. Us and them thinking can lead us to disparaging them and us defaming them, us devaluing them and us disenfranchising them. That is not our calling.
God’s grace, as it is lived and shared, and as it forgives and builds up, is not just for Christians to lavish on Christians. When we speak to someone who is not a person of our faith we do not do so with distaste, condescension or incivility. Their dignity remains intact and it is part of our responsibility to recognize and defend it. We should speak to anyone who may be “outside” as we speak to anyone who may be “inside.” We speak with grace, seasoning our speech for the well-being of the listener. When we speak with graceful seasoning those lines drawn up to separate us from them just seem to disappear.
Not to mention the simple fact that I can be a horrible judge of who may be inside or outside. We can all come to certain conclusions about what the classical or orthodox theological positions of Christianity should be, and we all know that there’s a broad field of doctrine being taught and lived across the earth. Some will self-identify as Christians, some will self-identify as another religious affiliation, or none. People with whom we interact may be very much like us, or not like us at all. The constant in all our conversations will be God’s grace, and that grace is the constant flavoring in our all conversations, all our “answers.”
My favorite example of this kind of grace is found in Acts 17:16-34 when Paul speaks to the people in Athens, Greece. At the time Paul sees a lot of idolatry, the idols lined up in the city are very real, very immediate. This disturbs Paul’s soul and he wants to share the message of Christ with the people, so he begins his address in the Areopagus (Town Hall) by complimenting them. Whoa, what? Yes, he starts by affirming their religious devotion and the thorough nature of their religious practice. He quotes their own poets to affirm all people’s place as God’s children. See how he speaks a blend of us and them? He recognizes an “us” aspect with his hearers. With this kind of foundation he unpacks his message. All the people won’t believe him, but they sure heard him. He delivered his message seasoned with grace. And it’s no wonder that our verse today is from his letter to the Colossians. How many times today do we see Christians rationalizing their way into beginning their gospel presentation with some form of, “How’s that road to hell going for ya, sinner?” or some other form of turn or burn harness that begins with stripping a perceived outsider of dignity and respect?
When feelings of condescension rise up in me I must renounce them and find a new footing. When my conversation becomes animated by distaste instead of grace I must stop and change my heart. When my speech is flavored by bitterness it’s not what my hearer needs. When I’m loving us and not loving them I’m playing the wrong game all together.