Pastor’s Perspective – March 2018
Once again we are dealing with the problem of evil.
When we confront the evils around us it is easy to attempt to solve the world’s problems with faithful prescriptions from on high. We wish to solve the problem of school shootings with legislation and gun bans. We want to stop the sexual objectification of people by introducing new social codes or rules in the workplace. We attempt to solve the obesity crisis by making sure that we restrict the availability of junk foods from the school lunch counters. Most importantly we seek to make sure that all right-minded individuals agree with the righteousness of our ideas.
We do this because we believe that thinking righteous thoughts is the gateway to truth. We believe that if only we could find agreement on these substantive matters then violence, illness and criminality could be eliminated. In a democratic world view those who can shift opinion become the brokers of power. Television talk show hosts, media moguls, and gifted speakers carry far more weight in the world of ideas than those who live and work in community.
The problem that we face is that evil is not eliminated by deep resonant words, nor can it be expelled through legislative fiat. Evil is best dealt with in community. Evil is best dealt with in local interconnected communities in which the social structures support the families that they serve. The good news of our time is that transparent loving communities of faith can still make a difference.
The battered and beaten Church can find its resurrection in the renewal of the local community, but only if we are willing to step away from our need to control the language of virtue. Let me explain how we can return to a world in which the virtues of the Church can once again become transformative.
We can learn a lot from our Lenten practices. Every year the Church submits to a season of contemplation and discipleship that involves personal repentance and corporate worship. In doing this we make concrete the aspects of our own disobedience by “giving up” something for Lent. The season of Lent ushers in a time of fasting from things that throughout the year we indulge in without spiritual struggle or guilt. Lent asks us to make our faith real in some substantive manner.
Lent is an exercise in obedience and priorities. Even in its most infantile acts of compliance, such as when a Christian gives up chocolates for Lent, the penitent is asserting that real life decisions and actions are spiritually and eternally consequential. This is a marked departure from the usual trappings of faith.
Most Christians live in our heads or our hearts. Those who choose to live in our heads have become guilty of intellectualizing the faith. We are comfortable arguing over modes of justification and debating inconsequential scriptural issues. For those who live in our heads what we believe is the most important thing that we can assert. Those who live in their hearts feel their way to the truth. While they are not guilty of intellectualizing their faith, they instead live in the world of emotions. They seek to feel the right things so that they might feel good about their own positions. The intellectual speaks of truth, while the emotional will speak of love, but neither of them have found a way to impact the world without the physicality of actions.
For all of their distinctions, both groups are guilty of separating thoughts (or feelings) from actions. For most of our lives we separate the physical from the intellectual / spiritual. We live in a dualistic reality that has been made worse by our American separation of church and state issues both within our churches and within our lives. We live unintentionally shattered lives.
Good Christians (and good people) think nothing of supporting evil men and women for political reasons or for personal gain. We think nothing of supporting entertainers or corporations who support and encourage sinful life styles and dangerous social attitudes. We consume “unclean” media and “impure” ideas without contemplating the results of our actions to our minds, our hearts and our souls.
We must learn to concretize our morality. To live by what we believe. Imagine if every person who supported a gun ban stopped going to movies or watching television shows that glorified violence? Imagine if every person that felt that promiscuity and sexual sin was damaging to our families and children stopped consuming media that objectified men, women and children sexually? Imagine if we lived as if our own actions and choices made a real difference in the world?
Most of us are content to hold to correct positions and ideas. We may support the idea of unionized workers, but we will also drive across town to buy our milk for 35 cents less a gallon at a non-union store. Our bumper stickers claim that we support our local schools, but if our child crosses the line behaviorally, we have no problem attacking the character of the teacher that called her out in front of her peers.
All of this is another way of saying that we live our lives for our own benefit. We know what is right and wrong but can easily argue for the righteousness of doing the wrong thing when it is personally beneficial to us. Our problem is not a lack of morality. Never have we lived in a more moralistic time. Our problem is that our morality is not in sync with the values of our community. Our morality is personal. Everyone has a personal system of morality that they are more than willing to aggressively share with you. Social media and Facebook are filled with moralistic posturing and public displays of piety all shouted at you in words that would have made our grandparents pale. We scream our morality even when we fail to live it.
The core of our problem is that in the 21st Century our spirituality, both within and outside of the Church, is determined by what we believe and not by how we live. If we believe the right things, then we qualify as a good and moral people. This understanding of morality would have been unheard of in the world of Moses, Jesus and Paul. Morality was not what you thought, it was how you lived.
N.T Wright, in his book “Paul: A Biography” writes, “In the ancient world there was virtually no such things as a private life. A tiny number of the aristocracy or the very rich were able to afford a measure of privacy. But for the great majority, life was lived publicly and visibly.” In a world without privacy a man’s morality was easily interpreted. You watched how they lived their lives.
Lent asks us to watch how we live our lives. It removes from us the illusion of personal piety based on righteous thinking and returns virtue to the realm of action. This return to the morality of the past can be a welcome transformation in a world that has become sick of the virtue signaling of celebrities and political leaders. In a world that is tired of powerful hypocrites living verbally virtuous lives, a Church that fails to ACT our faith will never make a difference.
The good news is that our old values and virtues are still transformative. While wordsmiths will always be prioritized in a media centric world, those who live substantial lives of faith are becoming more valuable by the moment.
I was once taught to live my life as if I was the only Bible that some people would ever read. This is still a valuable life hack for the Church. Know that people are watching how you live, and while others may be confident in the virtue of their posts and opinions, the world will be won by the meek who live a quiet faith through silent virtue. Faith without work is dead. Live your righteousness and change your world.