Sunday afternoon Teresa and I asked Isaac what they had studied in youth group class that morning. He said they had talked about “rules” and done some reading in Leviticus. If I recall correctly he said something along the lines of “Man, there’s some crazy stuff in Leviticus.”
First, let me simply concur. There are many things in the scriptural book of Leviticus that seem quite crazy to us, today. As a few examples, we have to stop enjoying our bacon, but even more than just bacon, no fat! (Leviticus 11 & 3). We also find ourselves in a Hipster paradise with no rounded beards… all squares and angles, baby. (Leviticus 19) And sorry, Maryland, no more of the planet’s best crabcakes! (Leviticus 11)
On a far less humorous note, verses from Leviticus that proscribed certain sexual activities are used today to condemn and promote hatred toward our valuable LGBTQ neighbors, friends and family. (Leviticus 18 & 20) Not awesome.
It was a great conversation starter with our son to share an important principle: I love and revere our scriptures, and showing them the utmost respect often means knowing when not to quote them. Those verses from Leviticus seem crazy to us mostly because they are from a far away place, far away time and for a far away audience. As a white, GenX, Texas raised Evangelical turned Episcopalian, I could hardly be further from the context and time of the Levitical audience. We’re separated by time, geography, culture and we’re even different religions.
There’s nothing respectful about quoting and handling scripture as though we aren’t in a different time and place. In fact, for scriptures to be most understood and beneficial to us today, we have to be aware and accepting of our own time and place. This way we let the message for that time be what it was, and we trust in God to help us understand the message for this day and time. Some of those messages may be the same. Some will not.
When it comes time to quote something, let’s hold tight to the timeless values and ideas that transcend and permeate our scriptures from beginning to end, as summarized by our Sovereign: 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Jesus in Matthew 22:37-40 If we’re serious about finding an application for the verses from Leviticus in life today, we’ll do so within the love Jesus points us toward. Any application or understanding of the Law will be upheld by or be removed by that love.
Within my own faith tradition (and maybe yours) God is love, the driving and primary orientation of God toward us is love, the reason for the incarnation of Christ is love and the love of God for us is unending, complete and steadfast, not able to be removed by any other power or circumstance of life. These are some of the assurances from our scriptures about love. Love is the greatest command, the identifier Jesus wanted associated with his followers and the fulfillment (summation, pinnacle, totality, completion) of religious aspiration. Are those just poetic words from our scriptures or actionable realities that people of faith need to weave into life’s fragmentation and pain?
To hear so many of us chattering away on a daily basis, you’d think that “God is love, but…” You might think, from the current divisive posturing and fighting about flags and marriage equality on the internet and around dinner tables, that God’s love for us is on hold, waiting for us to be a little more deserving, a little more compliant, a little more something other than we seem to be.
We are quick to assign hate and happy to alienate. We are quick to be threatened and shameless in our rejection of people in their noncompliance to our assumptions about life. We live the love, but lifestyle so often that we forget rightness isn’t really the point of either faith or of following Christ. The moment we choose a posture of rightness with/from God and others that assumes our deservedness to be sharing that love, it is no longer the love of God that scripture witnesses to us.
I know, we’re talking about love, but and not love butts. Sorry. That was a gratuitous attempt to garner clicks. =) And a way to label a problem we have in our current disagreements around the reading of scripture and history. Rarely has love got a thing to do with the questions we’re posing (or screaming) to one another and the drive to dominate conversations and win arguments. We’re arguing from a love, but position that assumes too much about the “other side.”
Maybe to keep love at the center, we need to move these conversations off the Facebook timelines and away from the dinner table, and chill ourselves out. Maybe we need some quiet time (some really need a paddling & time out, to be honest) to regain our center with the God of love, the love of God, God, Love.
I’d like to offer two suggestions, simple things that can have an impact. We can do these things right now, and start now even if we’ve been running the opposite direction. I have nothing here new and certainly not unique to me or my own life, but these are real, timeless and helpful. They can help us leave behind the love, but lifestyle and reengage with one another in our diversity, imagining new ways forward together.
1. Take a deep breath and celebrate God’s love for you.
Really. This is for everyone, white or black, and every shade of the beautiful human experience. This is for my gay friends, my straight friends and my friends trying to make an authentic life all along that spectrum of orientation. This is for my gender conforming friends and my gender fluid friends. This is for my rednecks, my Democrats, my Republicans and my independents. This is for my Christians, my Buddhists, my Hindus, my Muslims, my Wiccans, my Jews and my atheists. This is for my humans, and any trees or cats that happen to read my blog. This is for all: God loves you. God loves you. God loves you. Anthony de Mello spoke it simply and truly, “You don’t have to change for God to love you.” God’s love does not just pursue you; that love has already overtaken you and is yours right now. Breathe it in. Ignore all the voices that deny this truth. Let your heart be still and calm. Let your soul rest in God’s love.
We each need to begin our day with a reminder that this love is the house in which we awaken, the clothes in which we wrap and present ourselves. It’s the food of our soul throughout the day. We may and often do hear the untruth of not having God’s love during the day, but we can recognize it for the untruth it is, and roll on. Words may still have the power to hurt us and rejection from our fellow humans can still pain us, but we have a reservoir of truth to salve the wounding.
Really, please grab hold of this and make it your own. When someone hates you or mistreats you, that is the lie. Their lack of love or outright hatred is an untruth. It’s not true. Your value and worth are the truth. You are a recipient of God’s love. Their injury to you is not who you are or a true reflection of your value and dignity. When we know the love of God in which we stand we can then recognize the untruth in another person’s words and actions and avoid the danger of our soul feeding on that lie and faltering in health and growth.
Having been able to recognize the untruth in another’s words and actions, we can honestly love them, as they are. Maybe we can move past their hurtful words and see or hear something deeper in them, the pain and hurt that has caused them to be makers of pain and hurt. This is how God loves, without reservation and without any needed reciprocity. Jesus taught this kind of love, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Only by seeing the untruth in others and loving them anyway can we begin to forgive them and avoid letting the untruth take root in our heart and soul.
2. Stop the fighting, all the fighting.
There’s no culture war if we don’t show up on the front lines loaded and ready to get it on! Really, stop viewing everything as a fight and a conflict. Stop buying the rhetoric of political and religious leaders who claim you have to wage a war for your belief and opinion. We’re being herded by powers that deal in human misery when we answer a call to battle our neighbor. Neighbors are for loving. (Jesus said that, too.)
We are not going to wake up tomorrow to a world that agrees with you. You may be in the majority one day and minority the next. Your candidate might win, and yours might lose. Jesus gave us no marching orders to dominate this world… even Paul knew the difference between every knee bowing to Jesus and bowing to us. We are not promised world domination and we are not asked to attempt it.
Every time we speak in competition, every time we speak in conflict, every time we try to win a point, win an argument, out shout or out think or out debate someone, love loses. You know that passage about love from Paul, the one we always read at weddings? Yes, the one from 1 Corinthians 13 that is the “but have not love” and “love is” stuff… it has nothing to do with marriage and weddings. At least, no more to do with weddings and marriage than any and every day of life. That passage is about us sharing the world together, all of us and every day. It does not leave room for power games or cultural wars over tradition and personal opinions. All of the religious posturing about the fragility and offense of our faith is ridiculous and just comes across as a clanging symbol, selfishness and comical self-matyrdom. Claiming your rights over someone else’s on a religious basis is not kind, patient, humble or honoring of others. We fight or we love. What will it be?
Please. Whatever side of whatever issue is most compelling and meme-worthy of the moment, love will outlast it. Love will win. Love will be here. But will we be here? Will there be anything or anyone left on either side of any issue to enjoy the pride and power of dominance? You want to be amazing? You want to make God smile? Love somebody near you like they’ve never been loved before. And if you just can’t love them right now, at least take some quiet time to yourself until you can reboot the heart and catch a breeze of that free-flowing grace that God has woven into our DNA and the very elements of our world.
You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one anotherhumbly 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.Paul, Galatians 5:13-15
Matthew 15:10 & 11, “Jesus called the crowd to him and said, ‘Listen and understand. What goes into your mouth does not defile you, but what comes out of your mouth, that is what defiles you.'”
Quick definition: Civility “polite, reasonable, and respectful behavior”
Let’s begin by stating the obvious: Civility is a term that we don’t find in our scriptures, though it is a good old term. This month-long exercise is not about forcefully inserting civility into the scriptural narrative, and thereby “hijacking” scripture to teach something it doesn’t want or intend to teach. Instead we are going to dig into the teachings of scripture to illuminate the role and action of civility in our daily lives.
My belief is that civility (“polite, reasonable, and respectful behavior”) should flow very naturally from the mouth and life of someone acquainted with our scriptures. Christians, in their imitation of Christ and following the teachings of both the Old and New Testaments, should always be incredibly civil in daily discussions, when interacting with diverse neighbors and even when disagreeing. But we know that’s not always the case. Christians are often some of the most shrill and uncivil voices in our religious, political and social discussions and debates. (In October of 2009 I blogged about my embarrassment that Christians with bullhorns rudely disrupted many of our Muslim neighbors praying for our nation at the National Mall in DC.)
I’ve also heard and seen Christians act and speak with abrasive incivility and then rationalize and justify their words and actions upon religious arguments. They will judge, condemn and ridicule others, or one another, and then say something like, “I’m just following the Bible” or “It’s just what my faith demands of me.”
I believe that Christ and our scriptures show a better, immensely better, way. And so we begin with Jesus confronting those who devalued others (specifically their own parents) and rationalized it away with religious reasoning. In Matthew 15 some religious leaders questioned Jesus about his followers not being very correct in their observation of ritual purity, and he turns the question back on them in a deeper way, asking why they observe religion in a way that neglects the needs of their elderly parents. In the context of our verses in Matthew 15 Jesus is pointing out that people are more important than rules and regulations, even the best rules handed down by tradition and seeming so religious and right. The needs of the neglected parents matter more to God than legalistic excellence in the children. Jesus quotes Isaiah to say that their mouths and lips seem to be praising God and doing the right things, but it’s all wrong because their hearts are misplaced, moved far from God. I believe the teachings of our Christ and of our scriptures consistently show that religious practice and God’s heart are inextricably intertwined with the way we are called to treat others.
The passage is also a strong lesson that I am much more responsible and identified, not by what I might hear or see, but by what I might say and show. And this is where I must start with civility in my own life: within myself. My being civil is not dependent on someone else, but it’s a responsibility and an attribute of my own life, my own heart, my own words and actions. I hope that as we explore scripture in November we’ll be mutually encouraged and taught in deeper ways how the teachings of our Lord and our sacred texts lead us life-affirming, God-honoring and neighbor-serving civility.
If you’ve been around me much, then you know that civility is an issue that interests me. I surely haven’t perfected the skill of civility, but I do try to use it and I appreciate so much when others do the same. Incivility makes me crazy. I’ve preached about civility and I’ve written about civility.
One of the funner things I’ve done was last year when I blogged and twittered statements about civility each day of October. All that is sitting in another blog of mine that’s been mostly inactive since, The Civil Pen. Those statements tended to be original ideas I wanted to convey, along with famous quotes and statements.
I really enjoyed that month of writing. I enjoyed it so much that I’m back for November of 2013. But this time I want to contribute something to the “theology of civility.” Each day of November, for each and every one of the 30 days, I’m going to blog, Twitter and Facebook a passage of Christian scripture, something from the Old or New Testament, that opens up the wonder and grace of civility. We’ll hear from Jesus, we’ll share ancient Proverbial wisdom, and we’ll dig in with other writers from the New Testament who are actively forming and being formed by the earliest Christian traditions.
I look forward to any and all participation from my circles of friends and family. I will try my best to be first and foremost faithful to God, then respectful of the scriptures and loving of my neighbor. I think it will be fun. I will also be preaching a series on Sunday mornings in November tied to some great scriptural themes on civility that we’ll see emerging from the scriptures, things like “control your anger” and “shut your mouth.” One of my favorite themes is that Jesus doesn’t send us out into the world to “win,” but instead to “make peace.”
Ultimately, I do this because I need it. I need to wrestle with these passages. I need civility planted deep in my heart and mind, and having taken root there, to grow into fruit in my life by which my God is both pleased and honored. If I end up boring you, then I apologize in advance. If this resonates and moves with you, if we make some connections that vibrate in your soul and cause us to dialogue and pray, then I will be satisfied. Either way, I commit the journey to God.
The stuff I’m writing and throwing out there will be available through my Twitter account (@Swirlyfoot) and my Facebook (also Swirlyfoot), and my own blog here (A Faithful Path) as well as our Church in Bethesda Blog. You’re invited to follow along as best suits your tastes.