Interesting times. It’s safe to say we live in interesting times, is it not? In fact, I’m feeling much in agreement with Thomas Paine who, in December of 1776 wrote the words, “These are the times that try our souls.” (Well, he wrote “men’s souls”, but times have changed – and women’s souls are being tried as much as men’s souls – and in many ways, even more.)
It’s hard to know where to begin when attempting to come to terms with the trials currently at hand in this nation and in the world. It’s no longer adequate – even while attempting to justify our words and behaviors on behalf of those who are facing or who may soon be facing the cruel effects of legislative change – it’s no longer adequate to call ourselves advocating for the disadvantaged as we use the kinds of speech that makes reference to how “horrifying” the presidential election and its aftermath, even thus far, either seem to be or threaten to be. We may have gained, in response to these political developments, strong feelings of righteousness, telling ourselves that because we care about the downtrodden, we are justified in the use of anger and accusation no matter what. I’m deeply troubled in my spirit to admit that I can take ownership of some of that kind of thinking and speech.
And thankfully, I’ve been made aware, because in our very midst as a community of faith, a growing chorus has begun to voice the question, and in a variety of ways, as to “Where’s the love?” Passionate, intelligent, sensitive voices all around us have begun to wonder, “How are we following Jesus’ command to love our enemies?” Is it the best we can do, this pointing a finger at “the other”, identifying as “them” and as “horrifying”? Are we taking too deep a satisfaction in the mistaken belief that we’ve cornered the market on righteousness and that it justifies “us vs. them” rhetoric?
In our gospel passage for today we find the launch of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Interestingly enough it begins as John the Baptist’s ministry comes to an end, as he is “handed over” and “delivered up”, themes repeated at the end of Jesus’ public activity.
As one of his first acts, Jesus calls his disciples. He does so with a kind of authority that is, apparently, impossible to resist. The call is absolutely unapologetic and the disciples follow him without checking his credentials, without showing concern for their careers or how they might be provided for, and they leave everything they knew, all the comforts they’ve known, even their families. This call story is a very powerful symbol of what it means for us to follow Jesus’ teachings. Because whether we’re called to leave our homes or not, it appears we’re definitely called to leave behind our comforts. And while it may give us some kind of comfort to express our political frustrations in angry ways, we’re also called not to soothe our souls with the kind of self-righteous rhetoric that gives us permission to tiptoe over what it means to be loving. This is some of the harder-to-hear information about how we’re to know Jesus, and how we’re to know how he loves. He talks about love a lot. And he exhibits love in many ways.
Later on in Matthew’s gospel he gives us the greatest commandments – love God, love neighbor and self – and it sometimes seems that loving our neighbors as we love ourselves is easy compared to another of Jesus’ messages in Matthew – we’ll see it in a few weeks as Jesus says: “you’ve heard it said love your neighbors and hate your enemies, but I say to you, love your enemies…!”
But what does that love look like? Is it a kind of love that tiptoes over any and all offenses, pretending no harm has been done? Somehow I don’t get that impression from the ways Jesus loves in the gospels. I met with my spiritual director last week, having brought this quandary with me for discussion and discernment. He’s a former contemplative in the Roman tradition, now a parish priest serving uptown. He’s also a Zen Master. And as I shared how challenging it’s seemed lately to search for the loving response, I found myself lamenting my tendency to be antagonistic to political forces that seem to seek the further disadvantaging of the already disadvantaged. I was reminded that Jesus was greatly antagonistic of the Pharisees. And, furthermore, the prophets – major and minor – were all very antagonistic toward those powers and principalities that sought something other than God’s purpose in the world. Aha! The light of clarity beings to shine a bit brighter. A certain amount of anger clearly drove the prophets and even Jesus in some circumstances. And while we know that anger can be a very productive thing, the most important thing to remember – the standard by which we must assess our own use of anger, perhaps especially in times that try our souls – is whether that anger is pointing us toward the light of God, or whether our anger is simply a dark and reactionary spirit bent on satisfying a perversely comforting urge for vengeance.
So perhaps part of what this love looks like is related to understanding how Jesus speaks and behaves on behalf of the disadvantaged. Understanding that our speech and behavior must always be geared toward God’s purpose rather than assuaging our own sense of violation with a different brand of violation.
How can we be sure we are moving toward God’s purpose in the world? I don’t know if we can ever be sure. In fact, I sometimes get the feeling that God asks us, “…what is this thing you keep talking about, this certainty thing?” At best, maybe, we can comb through the scriptures and collect truths about Jesus, and about God’s purpose across the story of salvation. That’s a good place to begin – gaining impressions rather than certainties.
From there we might consider St. Paul’s guideline to us in Galatians chapter 5 where he speaks of the fruit of the spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. If we experience any of these – or even if they’re not the exclusive province of our own emotional interior – if our behavior and speech bring about such fruit in the lives of others – then we are likely seeing signals of God’s purpose.
And there are two other guidelines I’d like to offer for your consideration in this matter. They may or may not be seen as secular, but I find them sacred nonetheless. One is a kind of a maxim or philosophical statement I learned last year while watching the Ken Burns series on the Roosevelts. It’s really pretty exciting in light of present political issues, because it was a way of believing shared by Teddy, FDR and Eleanor (and, ironically, Teddy was Republican and Franklin Democrat, so it’s not about party affiliation). It goes like this: “…everybody does better when everybody does better”. Hold that up against St. Paul’s list of spiritual fruit. The connections are irrefutable.
The other guideline I like to live by is one I discovered almost forty years ago. I’d been made the gift of a book by my uncle, a Roman Catholic parish priest. The book is called “Reality Therapy” and it was written by William Glasser, some say the earliest voice of personal transformation in modern psychology. In it, he defines “responsibility” in this way: “…satisfying your upper level needs (and I would suggest it would best include all your needs and even your desires), but not at the expense of another…”
So, we’ve gathered some impressions about Jesus from the gospels. We’ve seen how his antagonistic behaviors are not borne of vengefulness. We’ve gained some insights into how and when the Holy Spirit might genuinely be part of our speech and behavior as we advocate for the downtrodden. And we’re now holding these impressions in tension with a social philosophy that seeks the best for everyone, as we carefully and very caringly scrutinize social mechanisms through the lens of responsibility. This process, while not certain, may wind up being very helpful as we find ourselves aligning with what I’ve also begun to observe as a growing moment of resistance to political and social systems that place greed and fear above compassion and love. It’s very comforting, this counter-movement. Yesterday’s marches, all across the country, are emblematic of this new movement. Do let’s enter in with knowledge of maintaining the focus on God’s purpose, and at every level.
It’s entirely possible we may have a number of years to go further down this path. We’ll likely have plenty of time to talk about the nature of cheap forgiveness and what’s really required for real forgiveness and the rebuilding of trust. And we will, doubtless, have plenty of time to revisit Richard Rohr’s mystical Christian “Immortal Diamond” of non-dualism that exists in each and every one of us – even in our enemies. And, God willing, we’ll continue to explore the ways in which discussions like these help us in our efforts to know and to demonstrate God’s loving response in the times that try our souls.
Thomas Paine, in his essay of December 23rd 1776 entitled “The Crisis”, went on to say of the conflicts encountered in the creation of a nation,
“’Tis surprising to see how rapidly a panic will sometimes run through a country. All nations and ages have been subject to them. … Yet panics, in some cases have their uses; they produce as much good as hurt. Their duration is always short; the mind soon grows through them and acquires a firmer habit than before. But their peculiar advantage is that they are touchstones of sincerity and hypocrisy and bring things (and men) to light which might otherwise have lain forever undiscovered. … They sift out (the) hidden thoughts (of man) and hold them up in public to the world.” “Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value.”
I said a few moments ago that my spirit has been deeply troubled. It’s a discomfort made sharper in light of being made aware of the brand of righteousness that seems so frequently to be used in relation to the political landscape at present. Troubled, yes. But troubled in a way that speaks of God’s presence – the presence of love. Troubled by how to love God, self and neighbors better? I could not be more grateful for such discomfort.
The Rev. Edwin Chinery
January 22, 2017