Monday, February 25, 2013

Gang Mentality

"What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh?  For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.  For what does the Scriptures say?  Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.  Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due.  But to one who without works trust him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness..."    --  Romans 4:1-5

This past week I began to notice similarities between the way Christianity is sometimes practiced and the way gangs behave.  You may think this is really far-fetched, but I had an epiphany this week.

You see, in my youngest son's second grade class there is a boy who has formed a "club" in which members are ostracized if they don't do what he says.  He doesn't ask them to do terrible things, necessarily.  Unless you count the fact that everyone in the club must also ostracize the non-compliant one, or else they too will be ostracized.  Wanting to play with his friends, and fearing ostracism, meant that my son was being completely controlled by this other boy, and was learning to be less than loving to his classmates, to say the least.  I'm glad he told me what was going on, so I could let his teachers know.  They are now trying to put a stop to this "club," which acts like a gang.

At the same time, I have been considering whether to take our church youth group to a particular Christian summer camp this year.  Trying to gather information about the camp, I looked on their website, and read their "Statement of Faith," a list of nine beliefs about Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit -- each one supported by passages from the New Testament, quoted book, chapter and verse.  Regardless of what it said, I have a problem with statements of faith, in general.  At the very least, I don't find them at all helpful.

That's because statements of faith, or rather statements of belief, unless very, very general, are inherently divisive.  The more specific they are, the more divisive they are.  No differences of opinion were ever resolved by making a statement of faith.  Just think about all of the creeds that were put into place so long ago.  These statements reveal more about what was disagreed upon at the time --  the humanity or divinity of Jesus, his birth, his death -- than what was agreed upon by all.  Have you ever wondered why the Apostles' Creed skips from Jesus's birth to Jesus's death, with nary a mention of his life?  That's because no one argued about whether or how he lived.

The official creeds simply illustrate one side of the disagreement -- the winning side.  Those on the losing side became the "heretics."  Yet, even after the statements were made official by certain churchmen (the ones with the greatest influence), the people who disagreed with them continued to disagree with them.  And usually, after much heartache, if not violence, the body of Christ separated into opposing camps, called denominations. 

It doesn't even matter whether the particular statement of faith can be supported by passage(s) in the Bible, because oddly enough, the opposite statement of faith can also find support in the Bible in all of these divisive issues.  That's is primarily what causes the debate in the first place:   biblical support for opposing sides.

This has been true for millenia.  Most divisions are caused by the certainty that one group has the right belief and the other group has the wrong belief, and that only those with the right belief are favored by God.   So, either you are "in," or you are "out."  You are either saved or damned by your beliefs.   Carried to its logical conclusion, there is only one group in the whole world that is saved by the grace of God:  the group with all of the same right beliefs.  I wonder which group that would be?  My Southern Baptist friend in high school thought that unless I was Southern Baptist, like her, I would go to hell.  My Greek Orthodox friend in graduate school thought that only Greek Orthodox, like her, go to heaven. 

Do you see the gang mentality in all this?  Paul in many of his letters was also dealing with gang mentality.  Then, whether you were circumcised or not was thought to determine whether you were in or out of the club.  He told them to consider Abraham.  Abraham was counted righteous by God before he was circumcised.  It was Abraham's faith alone that made him righteous in God's eyes.  Somewhere along the way, however, "faith" got twisted into "belief".  Simply trusting in God couldn't be the only criteria.  No, surely you have to believe what I believe about God.  If you don't, well then, you have to be excluded from the club.  That's gang mentality.

How did it get to be like this?   How did we stray so far from Jesus's Good News?

Throughout this week, one phrase has kept coming into my head.  "You shall know them by their love."  Actually, the NRSV has it as, "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."  It seems to me that that is, or ought to be, the distinguishing mark of a Christian.  If you love one another as Jesus loved, then you are a disciple of Christ.

But guess what that means?  Carried to its logical conclusion, it means that a Hindu could be a disciple of Christ, or a Muslim, or a Buddhist, or an atheist.  It also means something else.  It means that if you exclude someone, anyone, from God's Kingdom, you are not loving them as Jesus loved, and therefore you are not a disciple of Christ.  You have just excluded yourself!  I guess that's what Jesus meant when he said,  "Judge not, lest you be judged."

Dear God, thank you for clarifying some things for me this last week.  Sometimes it's very hard to know the difference between right and wrong, and sometimes it's not.  Love always, Pam.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

True Love

"Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?"  Jesus answered, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance."  -- Luke 5:30b-32

The religious leaders of Jesus's day could not understand why he associated with the unrighteous.  They thought that righteous people should only associate with other righteous people, that those who had committed sins should be left alone, if not ostracized altogether.   Otherwise, they might be tainted by the same sins, by the association.

This thinking  is still prevalent today, especially among religious people.  We know that some conservative Christians certainly have a propensity for separating themselves from people they think are wrong:  wrong in what they believe, wrong in the way they live, wrong even in their outward appearance (tattoos, and piercings, and attire, oh my).  Very often, simply being different is somehow equivalent to being sinful.  And being sinful is reason enough for separation.  How did this happen, when Jesus taught and lived so differently?

Any yet, I would not be truly honest, and might even be guilty of calling the kettle black, if I did not admit that I too find myself tempted to take the same attitude as the Pharisees, again and again.  Most often this temptation comes in my desire to protect my children from harm, or from what I think are negative influences, especially at their school.  When they are  being picked-on, or when they copy the bad behavior they see, or tell me about something that I wish they hadn't seen or heard, my first inclination is to pull them out of school, and find another one or home-school them, in order to protect them from all this.   Sometimes, I even momentarily think of enrolling them in a Christian school, but then I worry that they will pick up on messages about Jesus and God that I don't agree with -- especially messages of exclusivity!  I know... just call me "Pot."

I mean really, what did Jesus expect people, and therefore us, to do?  Did he truly expect people to be gentle with someone who had hurt someone else?  Did he truly expect people to forgive someone who had hurt them personally?  Did he expect people to value someone who had broken laws of human decency?  Did he really want disciples to associate with someone who thought about right and wrong, and God, so differently?

Well, yes, actually.  He did expect people, and therefore us, to love others as God loves.    

God seeks the lost sheep, the undeserving, the wicked even, and brings them back into the fold again and again.  If you doubt the truth of this statement, think about the people in the Bible whom God chooses and uses for good:  Moses, who committed murder;  Rahab, who was a prostitute; David, who committed adultery;  the Apostles, who doubted, who got it wrong, who complained, who bragged, and who betrayed him; and Paul, who persecuted Christians, and sanctioned their murder.   That's just to name a few.

And thank God this is true.   Thank God that God loves us despite our mistakes, our transgressions, and our wrong-headedness, no matter how small or large these loom in front of us.  For if God only loved the truly righteous, and the truly right, very few -- if any -- would qualify.   For even when we try our very best to always be right and to do right, we sometimes get it wrong.  Sometimes we just don't know what is truly right.  And sometimes, even when we know what is right, we don't do it -- and make excuses as to why we don't. 

So does this mean that it doesn't matter what we do?  And does this mean it doesn't matter what other people do?   Does this mean that we just accept the bad behavior and negativity we see or experience, knowing that we too aren't always perfect?

No. Jesus preached a message of love and repentance -- to both the sinner and to those who thought they were saints.  He didn't encourage complacency, but transformation.  Fully embodying love and forgiveness, he held a mirror in front of people, and taught them a better way.   So, if we truly want to follow Jesus, then we must do the same.  We cannot forsake anyone, for any reason.  To do so, is certainly not very loving.

True love means loving one another despite our flaws or theirs, and it means learning how to share God's love courageously and humbly.

Dear God, thank you for loving me as you do, for continually showing me how to love my neighbor as you love me, and for never giving up on me.  Love always, Pam

Happy Valentine's Day to Everyone!!

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Resolving Conflict

"If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
   Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  
   Love never ends...  For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end...."   -- 1 Corinthians 13:1-6, 9-10

I just finished reading an interesting book on leadership.  "Leadership and Self-Deception" by The Arbinger Institute deals with the fundamentals of leadership:  how we think about other people, and how we think about ourselves in relation to other people.  Effective leadership is all about maintaining effective relationships.  The advice found in this book applies to all our relationships, whether they be at work or at home.  For, how we think about other people, and about ourselves in relation to other people is the key to all of our relationships.

It seems too obvious to be worth much thought:  if we think well of other people, then we have a good relationship with them, we are able to work well with them, and we can achieve the best results; if we don't think well of other people, then we don't have a good relationship with them, we don't work well together, and we don't achieve the best results.  End of story.

True, but how do we always think well of other people?  Clearly that is the goal because that will always achieve the best results.

Is this possible?  What about conflicts, differences of opinion?  What if we think they are wrong?  How then do we maintain our good opinion of them?

That is the challenge.  Because, very often, when we are in conflict with someone, we tend to defend our opinions, our person, and, simultaneously, we tend to judge their opinions and them.  Even if we do this only in our own heads, and never once voice our opinions to the other person, just thinking this way colors how we interact with them.  In our tone of voice, in our body language, and facial expressions, we will convey our opinion of them just as clearly as if we had spoken our thoughts aloud.  If the other person responds to conflict with the same defensiveness and judgmentalism, overtly or covertly, then there will be no end to the division.  It will just get worse and worse, until the relationship breaks down altogether.   

According to the Arbinger Institute, it is possible to get out of this mess, but very often, what we think will alleviate the situation doesn't help at all.  Trying to change the other person, doing our best to "cope" with them, leaving them, learning skills and techniques for better communication, even changing our own behavior, does not help the situation.  For one, thinking that they need to change or that we must learn to put up with them just continues the blaming attitude that is causing the trouble to begin with.  For another, since the essential problem is how we think about the other person, leaving them isn't going to change that -- we will take that with us wherever we go.  And while better communication techniques sound good, they won't ever work as long as we maintain our negative opinion.  It doesn't matter if we speak kindly, if we use "I" language, if we go out of our way to tell them how important they are to us.  If we do not truly care about them, as fellow human beings just like ourselves, these strategies will not make a difference.  We can't even make a difference by changing our own behavior.  For it is possible to change our behavior while still maintaining our poor opinion of someone.  When it is our attitude that needs to change, nothing else will matter.  The only way to resolve a conflict with someone is to see them as a real person, worthy of respect.  We must actually understand that they may have good reason for thinking the way they do.   

Many examples come to mind, but one particularly resonated as I read this book --  perhaps because I tried all of the ineffective ways to alleviate the situation before seeing the light.   My husband and I have very different parenting styles.   A few years ago, there seemed to be no end to the conflict between us when it came to our children.  He thought I was too lenient.  I thought he was too harsh.  He wanted me to be stricter.  I wanted him to be more patient.  When I tried to be as tough as he wanted me to be, I ended up hating myself and resenting him for it.  When he tried to be as patient as I wanted him to be, he felt like a pushover and blamed me even more.  I remember praying to God to either change the situation, or help me cope with it.  I frequently thought of leaving, but fortunately knew deep down that even divorced we would have to come to some agreement on how to raise the children or face unending trouble over them.  What seemed like a solution to both of us, learning how to calmly discuss our grievances with each other, also didn't help.  It just made us feel more divided.  The only thing that has helped in any way is acknowledging that my husband is correct.  We are both partially correct.  I do have a tendency to be too lenient.  I do let our children get away with more than they should.   To their ultimate disadvantage.  I am learning, with each new situation, to honor both ways, to find a common ground between his way and my way.  It helps me to know, and to keep in mind, that we have a common goal.  We both want our children to grow up to be confident, responsible, and loving people. 

The resolution of this conflict, and the readings lately, makes me wonder if many of the conflicts that seem unresolvable could begin to be resolved if both parties were able to accept and respect, at least in part, the sentiments of the other.  Would the division between those who want gun control and those who want to protect the right to bear arms be eased if both parties could honor the reasons, the needs, and the fears of the other side?  Would a compromise be reached?  Would the division between those who want equality of marriage for all and those who think same-gender partnerships are a sin be eased if both parties understood the great desire of both sides of the conflict to love and honor God's word to the best of their ability?  Would greater acceptance result?  As I said, there are many conflicts that come to mind.

Conflicts, in general, come about because we like to simplify our world into black or white, right or wrong, us versus them.  But in reality, the world is not so simple, not so clear cut.  The only way through conflict is to acknowledge that we hold part of the truth, and our neighbor (or enemy) holds part of the truth.  Paul's Ode to Love, written to stem the divisions forming within the church in Corinth, teaches us to love even in the midst of conflict.  For nothing we say, nothing we know, and nothing we do, will make one bit of difference, if we do not first love, honor, and respect, the truth in the other person.  Like faith in God, love of neighbor, not works, is all that is needed.

Dear God, thank you for your loving guidance every day, through every question.  I am grateful for your care of all people.  Help me to see them as you see them, as you see me.  Love always, Pam