Taxes Can Mitigate Sin (357)

Tax cuts are in the air. The political class seems committed to making that happen. I hope we’ll all be skeptical of any politician’s claim about the benefits of their particular tax cut proposal. Regardless of political party, they all seem to make the same mistake: They assume their proposed tax cut will lead people to modify their behavior in a way that’ll benefit both themselves and others. In other words, they assume that if people receive a tax cut, then with the extra money, they’ll make choices that’ll benefit our society rather than be solely selfish. For example, let’s say a politician proposes a particular tax cut. Their rationale for the tax cut is that it’ll do something good, not only for those receiving the tax cut, but also for others as well. So, they say: If we cut this particular tax, then that’ll cause those receiving the tax cut to (and here we can fill in the blank) create jobs, or re-invest the funds in a business, or somehow spur economic growth. Notice the assumption being made: People receiving this tax cut will behave civic-mindedly rather than doing something else that would only benefit themselves.

Richard Thaler, Nobel Prize winning economist and the unofficial “father” of behavioral economics, points out that human behavior’s historical modus operendi shows quite clearly that these assumptions about such civic-mindedness are mostly not warranted. He contends that people, regardless of their income level, simply don’t behave that way in real life. They don’t do what we want them to do (to our great consternation). In the example above, sure, some people might do noble, civic-minded things with their tax cut, but others are just as likely to make choices with those funds that are purely selfish; that don’t create more jobs, build new businesses, and the like.

Human sin being what it is, we all want the benefits of a safe, civilized, and just society we just don’t want to pay for them (or, more truthfully, we want someone else to pay for them). Taxes force selfish, well-off people like me to share so we all can have some semblance of the common good. We’d all like to keep more of what we earn, but such a desire doesn’t account for an honest recognition of human sinfulness. There’d be no need for taxes if everyone, left to their own devices, behaved generously and readily supported the common good. But they don’t and they won’t this side of heaven.

There’s no such thing as a “Christian” tax policy. In fact, the word “Christian” should never be used as an adjective (e.g. “Christian” aerobics?). Still, Christianity’s teaching on human behavior should make us wary of any public policy proposition (concerning taxes or anything else) that assumes people will mostly act selflessly or behave civic-mindedly. Some of us will some of the time, but not often enough for any society to be healthy, safe, and good. So, it’s naïve to make public policy on the assumption that if we’d just leave everyone to their own devices, then we’d have a just, civilized, and safe society. That may be true in a politician’s bar graph, but human behavior in real life disproves it.

Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. famously wrote that “taxes are what we pay for a civilized society.” True that. I’d add that taxes are the price we pay for an honest recognition of our sinfulness. Taxes should mitigate the worst of our impulses.

+Scott

 

Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.
– Matthew 5:13-14

To my mind, there’s nothing better on a late summer day than slicing up a freshly-picked, ripe tomato, sprinkling salt all over it, and then savoring each bite as the tomato’s juice dribbles down my chin. Adding the salt makes it special. It just wouldn’t taste as good without it. But I can’t imagine just eating plain salt all by itself. Salt is best used to bring out the flavor in food. It enhances and adds zest to the food we eat.

Likewise, it’s hard to imagine pure, unfiltered light. No one in their right mind stares into a bright light, especially during an eclipse like we just had. Although, some not in their right mind, did just that. Light, like salt, enhances and reveals other things, such as beauty and color. Both salt and light then direct us to other things.

Jesus tells us we’re called to be salt and light to the world.
Our mission as the church then is to make God’s grace visible in a world where it’s not the norm to see it. As Psalm 34 calls us to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” As salt and light for Christ, we flavorfully reveal his grace to those who are lonely, lost, and left out by the world.

Such a mission is exhausting at times. We can end up feeling like Don Quixote tilting at windmills if we’re not grounded in something deeper, more eternal than simply the desire to serve those who are lonely, lost, and left out.

That’s why we must ground ourselves in the worship of God. It’s not in caring for the lonely, the lost, and the left out that we come to know we need to worship God. It’s the other way around. It’s through our worship of God that we discover we can do nothing other than humbly minister to those hurting in this world.

As Evelyn Underhill wrote:
One’s first duty is adoration, and one’s second duty is awe and only one’s third duty is service. We observe then that two of the three things for which our souls were made are matters of attitude, of relation: adoration and awe. Unless these two are right, the last of the triad, service, won’t be right. Unless the whole of your life is a movement of praise and adoration, unless it is instinct with awe, the work which the life produces won’t be much good.

Underhill is correct. Adoration and awe must precede service. But such adoration and awe, can’t be all we offer because of one unmistakable truth: The Gospel of Jesus. The adoration and awe of our worship cannot lead us to become as Johnny Cash sang: “so heavenly-minded, we’re no earthly good” If so, we become, as St. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13, nothing but a “noisy gong” or a “clanging cymbal.”

Our worship of God compels us to love our neighbors. And the most loving way we do that is to share with them the amazing news that God loves them right where they are and just the way they are – no exceptions.
God doesn’t love them after they “clean up their act,” whatever that means. No, God loves them just as they are, even if they never engage in various self-improvement projects suggested by others.

So, evangelism is the most important way we love our neighbors. It’s sharing with them the Good News that through Jesus and his cross, God is loving us all the way into eternity. Nothing will affect the rest of their lives more than that truth.

During this Convention, Carrie Headington has already helped us learn some basic skills for how to invite people into that grace-filled relationship with God. And we’ll learn even more tomorrow. Carrie has helped us with the “Invite” part of “Invite, Welcome, & Connect.” As churches in this Diocese, this can’t be at the bottom of our priority list. It must be at the top, for everything else we do flows from the sharing of the Good News of Jesus.

What happens when it finally washes over a person that they’re totally loved, forgiven, and accepted by God? We have biblical evidence of just that. His name is Zacchaeus. Y’all remember him. He was the grifter that ripped off his own people through a sweet deal he had with the Roman occupation forces. He was like a “Mafia Don” squeezing money out of even the poorest widow.

When Jesus loved and forgave him right where he was and just the way he was, Zacchaeus joyously declared he’d return four-fold all he had defrauded from his people and he’d give half of his wealth to the poor. That’s the kind of reaction that happens to people when it finally sinks into their souls that God loves them no matter what.

And that’s why our evangelism, sharing the Good News of God’s unearned love and grace, and our stewardship are really two sides of the same theological coin. Once God’s grace-filled love has sunk into our souls, we can do nothing other than give generously from what we have.
Our Diocesan ministry around stewardship through Project Resource and our ongoing ministry using Invite, Welcome, & Connect are then really one in the same ministry. They’re about all of us together as the church responding joyously and generously to God’s unearned grace.

God has given us the grace and courage to live into such a life together. I see signs all around the Diocese that many of us are embracing this joy and generosity. And yet, there are still some in their congregations who’d rather spend time blaming others for why they can’t live into such a life. As your Bishop, I must admit there’s little I can do to help those congregations other than to prepare someday to say the Burial Office over them. They have convinced themselves that they’re powerless over their situation. I hear them complain about not having enough money, or enough time, or enough people to do anything.

While I recognize the challenges we all face in living together courageously and gracefully, such complaints don’t make any sense to me.
About not having enough money, I simply ask: “How much does it cost to love your neighbor as yourself? What’s that price tag for that?”

About not having enough time, I ask: “Don’t we always seem to find the time for what we see as important?”

And about not having enough people, I ask: “Isn’t evangelism just sharing in word and deed with another person just how much God loves us? It just takes one person who’s willing to do share that with another person.”

God has given us in this Diocese all we truly need. Sure, like you, I’d love to have more money, and more time, and more people, but we have what we have. To paraphrase the immortal John Prine in his song, Dear Abby, “we are what we are and we ain’t what we ain’t.

So, let’s rejoice that God has already given us far more than we can ask for or even imagine.

Let’s rejoice that young adults at Georgia Southern, Valdosta State, and at Columba House in Savannah and Augusta are hearing from us that God loves them completely no matter what their current GPA is.

Let’s rejoice that homeless persons in Savannah have a worshipping community where they are their own musicians, lectors, and Eucharistic Ministers.

Let’s rejoice that we’re partnering with our Lutheran sisters and brothers, not just at St. Patrick’s Albany, but also now in planting a new church in Grovetown.

Let’s rejoice that we’re training and equipping clergy who are talented and smart and willing to go into new and different places with the Good News of Jesus.

Let’s rejoice that all across this Diocese the hungry are fed, the broken-hearted are consoled, and the poor have good news shared with them.

You’ll recall that when the disciples of John the Baptist came to Jesus asking on behalf of their imprisoned leader if Jesus were the real deal, Jesus didn’t just say “yes.” He answered them by saying: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” (Matthew 11)

So, Jesus is not Lord and Savior because we say so. He is who he is because of what we’re seeing and hearing all around us. From Augusta to Valdosta, from Kingsland to Cordele, the hungry are being fed, the broken-hearted are being consoled, and all kinds of people are having the Good News shared with them.

Brian McLaren in his book The Secret Message of Jesus tells a story about his friend Tony Campolo who was having coffee in a donut shop late one night. While there, he overheard a prostitute who was taking a break between tricks say that the next day was her birthday and that she had never had a birthday party in her whole life.

So, after talking it over with the shop owner and some regular patrons, the next night Tony came back with a cake, candles, and decorations and they all threw a surprise birthday party for the woman. She was deeply moved by this and so were others in the donut shop.

The shop owner, who had figured out that Tony was a pastor of a church, asked him what kind of church he came from. Tony told him: “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.” A bystander overheard him and said. “”No, you don’t.” There ain’t no church like that. If there was, I’d join it.”

My hunch is that there’d be a lot of people who would flock to join a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning. And I want to be bishop of a church that does just that. You and I can be that church.

Now wouldn’t that be salty and shine some light on things?

 

Dr. Benhase’s Prescription for Well-Being (356)

What if loving our neighbor was not only the primary and most important way (as Jesus says) we love God, but also was remarkably good for our personal health and well-being? Consistent research indicates that across all races, ages, genders, income levels, and social classes the lack of regular neighborly connection causes a risk of premature death that’s about twice as threatening to us as being obese or smoking. The research shows the best way we can improve our well-being is to devote ourselves to neighborly relationships like the ones we have with our family, friends, and, well, our neighbors.

And yet. The Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes what’s called their “Time Use Survey,” which sounds like what it is, a survey of how we use our time. Its survey says that the average American invests a little more than one half hour a day on neighborly interaction compared to three hours watching television and around one hour on personal grooming. We do this even though the overwhelming research about human well-being tells us that the most consistent predictor of our well-being depends on the time we spend on our relationships with others. In other words, if we want to have personal well-being we should really be spending less time alone, not more.

Ruth Whippman, author of America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness Is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks, writes that the above data is virtually ignored by much of the advice given about well-being found in self-help books, at seminars, or on retreats. She says these mostly pitch well-being as an “inside job,” where we seek to find our “true self” unencumbered by our relationships. We’re urged by these so-called experts to become emotionally independent (not interdependent), diving deep into our souls to “discover” ourselves, thus finding personal contentment and well-being.

On the surface this sounds like a good spiritual exercise. And it can be. Such soulful introspection can help us become more self-aware, thereby understanding ourselves better. But the more self-aware I become, the more I “discover” myself, the more I realize just how awful I can be to other people, how so often I tend to be overly self-focused bordering on self-centeredness. The last thing I need for my well-being then is to become more that way. When I take a deep-dive into my soul, the discovery I make about my “true self” is that I’m, at least in part, a self-absorbed sinner. Not a news flash.

What pulls me out of my self-absorption isn’t more “me” time. It’s the claim my neighbor (i.e., my wife, children, friends, colleagues, community members, etc.) has on me simply by being near me (“neighbor” literally means one who’s “nigh” or near to us). Now we may not like their claim on us. It may seem at times like a burden. It may even appear to us that they only have one goal in mind: making our lives difficult. Still, their claim on our love for them is God-commanded and, as it also turns out, the best thing for our long-term well-being. It seems that God has so ordered the creation that we can only thrive (i.e., have well-being) through the often messy, joyful, and complicated love for our neighbor. So, Dr. Benhase has a prescription for your well-being: “Go, love two neighbors as yourself and call me in the morning!’

+Scott

 

Often Our Feelings Trump the Facts (355)

NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard University School of Public Health recently polled a national representative sample of Americans about their experience of being on the receiving end of discrimination when interacting with police, applying for jobs or seeking promotions, renting apartments or buying homes, or when going to a doctor. All minority groups reported some experience of discrimination in those situations. What caught my attention was 55% of white people polled perceived that they too we’re victims of discrimination. Few of those poll respondents, however, could report they’ve experienced it themselves. They just feel it exists. One white man polled said such discrimination has been going on for decades and it’s getting worse. When asked how he knows that to be true he gave an example from his own experience. He said he lost out in a promotion at work when a younger African-American candidate, rather than he, was selected to be a finalist for the promotion. So, the African-American got the job rather than him? No, the promotion eventually went to another white man, but this man still felt he was being discriminated against because he was white.

Even though very clear data show that white people are persistently better off financially and educationally than minority groups, there’s still a feeling among many white Americans that anti-white discrimination is real. Of the poll respondents who insisted this was true, very few of them could point to any specific experience where they or someone they knew experienced it. And even when an example was given, like the one above about a work promotion, it turns out there was no anti-white discrimination occurring – the job eventually went to a white man. But the man still felt like he was a victim of anti-white discrimination. This canard of anti-white discrimination defies credulity. All one must do is look at who leads our government, businesses, and yes, churches, to see there’s no evidence to back this up. We should never be afraid of the facts, come what may, cost what they will, because only then can we address what’s really going on. So, what’s really going on?

Well, one further insight from the poll may shed some light on why this feeling persists among these respondents. Their income level was a great predictor for how they reacted. The lower the white person’s income, the more likely they perceived discrimination in applying for a job, getting a raise or promotion at work, or in applying for college. Former president Lyndon Johnson once observed: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” The idea there’s wide-spread and growing discrimination against white people is just another classic misdirection, the kind to which Mr. Johnson referred. Working-class folk see how hard it is for them to make ends meet. They’re being left behind in the economy and educational opportunities are increasingly beyond their financial reach. Rather than address the real wage stagnation these folks are experiencing or their ballooning costs for higher education over the last 40 years, we’re told who to blame: “It’s those darn minorities who are getting all the goodies.” The facts, of course, don’t bear this out, but too often for us our feelings trump the facts.

+Scott

 

What’s Killing Us? (354)

When I preached at the closing Eucharist of our recent Cursillo on Sunday, I reminded participants that they’d just been gifted with a cross on which was written: “Christ is counting on you.” I told them (to a few gasps in the congregation) to please forget about that for now. They should rather be “counting on Christ.” Later, when they’re a bit more mature in faith, they could heed the words on their crosses, while never forgetting to always first “count on Christ.” In today’s church, “What have we done for Jesus lately?” seems to be more important than “What has Jesus done for us on the cross?” I say that because much of Christianity today is more and more mirroring the worst parts of our “performacist” culture and that culture is literally killing us.

In the August 2017 issue of the journal First Things, Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of California Irvine School of Medicine, wrote an essay we all should read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest. His article, Dying of Despair, documents our culture’s state of health. He writes: “Depression is now the most common serious medical or mental health disorder in the United States. Sixteen percent of Americans will have an episode of major depression at some time in their lives, and six percent of all Americans—14 million—have suffered from major depression in the past year. We are witnessing a rising plague of melancholy.”

Along with depression, we’re also experiencing rising rates of suicide and opioid abuse. Dr. Kheriaty connects these to our increased social fragmentation. He writes: “Since the 1980s, reported loneliness among adults in the U.S. increased from 20 percent to 40 percent.” Loneliness increases our risk of heart disease, premature death, and, yes, violent behavior (pay attention to that one). Add to that the declining rates of religious participation and we see why many have lost meaning and hope. Church used to be a place for people to develop not only a relationship with God, but also social cohesion protecting them from the medically-documented disease of loneliness. Today, however, the religiously unaffiliated account for 23% of all adults, up from 16% ten years ago.

But that’s not the most alarming aspect of his essay. Whether we’re referring to wealthy folk in suburbia or poor ones in Appalachia, the message of our “performacist” culture is now this: We’re valuable only when we perform well in this economy. Dr. Kheriaty writes: “When the useful replaces the good and efficiency becomes the highest value, human beings are instrumentalized. Rather than opening new vistas of freedom, economic and social liberation has made [us] subject to a logic of utility.” The social Darwinism of our current socio-economic model is making us sick. Only those with the greatest utility and capability can survive and thrive.

The unmerited grace of the Gospel of Jesus is the only medicine that can cure this socio-economic disease. That Gospel tells us that we’re not valued for what we produce. We’re valued because God graced humanity in Jesus and the imputed righteousness of his cross declares we all have infinite worth. But such a Gospel can only be taught by a church that sees our “performacist” culture clearly. And our culture is literally killing us.

+Scott

 

On Being “Too Political” (353)

My last eCrozier addressing the massacre in Las Vegas prompted a lot of responses from those who received it via email and those who read it on social media. I’m used to this. The responses were as varied as I’ve come to expect leading a diverse diocese. I’m very appreciative of people who engage in a thoughtful “give and take” over the profoundly complex moral issues we face as Christians today (I try also to be appreciative of the less thoughtful remarks that tell me I’m an “idiot,” which happen regularly).

One recurring concern people share is that what I write sometimes is “too political.” They suggest I “stay in my lane” limiting my writing to things purely religious. While I understand their concern, it’s impossible to avoid the issues of our common humanity without driving a bit in the “political” lane. I agree that as a bishop I should stay away from political partisanship (I try to be careful to avoid it). I don’t belong to any political party (I confess that I’m not deluded enough to be a Democrat while I’m not rich enough to be a Republican). I also try to avoid ad hominem criticism of elected officials, but I believe it’s imperative that I challenge public policies when those elected officials advocate something that will create an injustice for the poor or fail to “respect the dignity of all people,” to which our Baptismal Vows call us. Of course, I could be wrong about a particular topic I address. That should hardly be a news flash. The potential for any of us to get things wrong is, as the Bible might say: “legion.”

Bishops have a public role as part of their ordinations. There’s a long tradition of this being “political” (look up St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, and his excommunication of the Emperor Theodosius for his violent excesses in Thessalonica in 390 AD). At the 1966 Annual Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia, Bishop Albert Rhett Stuart, the 6th Bishop of the Diocese, said these words: “Is the Church sent to be a refuge from the world or to transform the world? Is the Church sent to maintain the status quo or to protest evil in this culture or any other? The Church is not a religious club organized by man for pious sentimentality or personal status.” Amen!

For example, recently when I’ve written about our gun violence epidemic, some people replied: “You’re just a liberal Democrat so of course you’re going to say that.” My reply, which often is ignored, is that “I’m not a liberal Democrat. I’m a Bishop of the Church. I don’t take moral positions based on any political party. Gun violence is a sin. Therefore, I must speak against it and try to prevent it. It’s not about being conservative or liberal (whatever those terms even mean these days). It’s about listening and being obedient to the Scriptures and Tradition of the Church.” They usually have stopped listening by then.

Our Anglican tradition teaches that the Church can’t hermetically seal herself off from what goes on in the world. The Church “is not a religious club,” as Bishop Stuart stated. But it’s not a political party at prayer either. The Church and her bishops then, as our tradition teaches, must speak out clearly from the sources that shape our identity. That may make us appear as “too political” for some observers who believe the Church should remain a “religious club” for “pious sentimentality.” So it goes.

+Scott

 

Here we are again (352)

Like most people (but clearly not all – more on that below), I’m still emotionally and spiritually reeling from the massacre that occurred in Las Vegas last weekend. I have been writing my weekly eCrozier now for nearly eight years. I spent a few minutes this week going over the file that contains them. Unfortunately and tellingly, there are way too many past statements I’ve written about previous gun massacres. Part of me just wants to cut and paste sections of those previous eCroziers, insert them here, and be done with it. What does it say about us as a people that a bishop of the Church has to keep writing about such events; that I actually have a hefty file of previous public responses to mass murders done by Americans to their fellow Americans? Shouldn’t it strike us as more than absurd that I actually have a file of past responses?

Well, it strikes some as absurd. For others, it’s become the new normal. And for even others, they see it as the price we all must pay so some folk can have almost limitless access to all sorts of weapons, weapons not for sport or self-defense, but weapons designed specifically to kill as many people as possible in the shortest possible time.

Earlier this week I listened to a guy call in on a radio show. He proudly said that he’s a gun-owner and a former Army riflemen. He then said this about the weapons used in the Las Vegas massacre: “there’s only one reason these weapons exist, and that’s to kill masses of people.” He said it was “absurd” that these kinds of weapons could be in the hands of anyone other than the military or law enforcement. He ended by saying: “There’s no way that should be allowed in a civilized country.”

Yet, here we are again. Other, more civilized countries (it appears) have found a way to balance the “right to bear arms” with the basic “right” to not have one’s life ended in a barrage of machine gun fire. The 2nd Amendment is important. People who so desire should be lawfully allowed to have weapons for sporting purposes and for self-defense. But there must be rational limits to any freedom, especially when one amendment’s excesses can be deadly to the lives of others.

Guns handled responsibly aren’t dangerous to the public. Just as cars operated responsibly aren’t dangerous to other motorists, and yet we require licensing, skill-testing, and insurance for those who wish to own and operate a vehicle. We even put limits on the kinds of vehicles we allow on public roads, that is, we make it illegal to drive rocket-propelled vehicles on public thoroughfares. It seems reasonable and wise to require similar measures for gun owners as we do for motor vehicle owners (licensing, testing, and insurance). No responsible gun owner would be threatened by this just as responsible vehicle owners aren’t threatened by similar requirements.

And yet, I have no illusion that there will be changes to gun laws even after yet another gun massacre. The people who make such laws are controlled by powerful forces that will prevent any such changes. My hunch is my hefty file will be added to again in the near future.

+Scott

 

 

“God will not play our games” (351)

Today is the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels. The Gospel appointed for this Feast Day is from John (1:47-51) where Jesus begins a conversation with Nathanael by saying: “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Upon hearing that rather mundane observation, Nathanael declares: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God.” John’s Gospel doesn’t indicate Jesus’s facial reaction to this, but Nathanael’s reply must’ve amused Jesus. All Jesus said was that he saw him under a fig tree and this so impresses Nathanael that he confesses that Jesus must then be the Son of God. So, maybe Jesus had a smile on his face with a slight shake of the head when he responds to Nathanael, asking: “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?” Without waiting for Nathanael’s response, Jesus simply says: “You will see greater things than these.” Yes, indeed, “greater things than these.”

There’s something in the human psyche that longs for (and, possibly, needs) the spectacular, even the mundanely spectacular, that’ll help us, maybe even convince us, to believe. Nathanael was impressed by Jesus’s apparent clairvoyance (or at least his ability to see around corners!). Because he saw him under a fig tree, that was enough. Nathanael was convinced. This Jesus must be the Son of God if he has that magic trick up his sleeve! This was a recurring challenge for Jesus during his earthly ministry. Whether it was water into wine or healing a man born blind, the crowds just ate that stuff up. He’d be trying to teach folk about the merciful nature of God and how we, too, must learn to be merciful, but everybody would be saying: “That’s all well and good, Rabbi, but how about one of them spectacular signs to bring down the house? Maybe water into beer this time?” This must’ve frustrated Jesus. In some ways, his miracles were getting in the way of his message.

Lest we think we’re beyond that, just read about those who see the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary on a water tower or those who react to a miraculous healing by some religious divine, and see how many flock and respond to such occurrences. We humans apparently need such things for us to muster belief. And because of that need, the simple, straight-forward declaration that God has saved us sinners in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus will always get somewhat lost in our need to be entertained and impressed by a show-stopping extravaganza. But we must not lose that truth. It is, if we ponder it, far more spectacular than anything our imaginations could cook up.

Anyway, mustering up enough belief so we can convince ourselves to believe is beside the point. Do we really think that our belief (or unbelief) sways God one way or the other? God isn’t like Disney’s Tinker Bell whose continued reality is predicated on us mustering up enough belief. God didn’t take a Gallup Poll to field test our belief before God acted. God didn’t deploy focus groups to discover what miracle was necessary to capture our imaginations. Without our permission or participation, God just saved us from our sin through Jesus on the Cross. As Vassar Miller writes in her poem:
God will not play our games nor join our fun,
Does not give tit for tat, parade His glories.

+Scott

 

The Past is Never Past (350)

If the dead could speak, what would they say to us? That’s a conceit of more than a few books and films over the years. Charles Dickens used it in A Christmas Carol. Jesus used it in the Parable of the Rich Man & Lazarus where the rich man begs to return from the dead so he can warn his still-alive brothers to change their greedy ways.

I spent time earlier this week at Bishop Stephen Elliott’s grave in Savannah. He died suddenly on December 21, 1866, after having just returned from an episcopal visitation. He served 25 years as the 1st Bishop of Georgia from 1841-1866. He’s buried in Laurel Grove Cemetery in Savannah, which isn’t far from my home. He was 60 years old when he died. The same age I am now. To get to Laurel Grove cemetery from my home, one must ride past St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, a parish with a long, strong history in the Diocese of Georgia. St. Matthew’s is also an historically African-American congregation, an ironic gateway to anyone visiting Bishop Elliott’s grave.

In 1867, the year after Bishop Elliott’s death, Thomas M. Hanckel wrote a “memoir” of Bishop Elliott in a book of the Bishop’s sermons. Hanckel’s work is more hagiography than memoir. As I read it again this week, I noticed how carefully Hanckel avoided any engagement with the issues of race and slavery. He preferred to wax on about how Bishop Elliott, like many of his contemporaries, was caught up in the “great political questions of State Sovereignty and Free Trade” that “shook the country.” Hanckel further describes him as “a States’ Rights man in the highest and best meaning of those words. He believed in the simple story of the Sovereignty of the States as he read it in every child’s history.” Well, maybe not in every child’s history. Here we see, just two years after the Civil War’s end, Hanckel’s effort to change the narrative for the war’s cause, which he’d have us believe, wasn’t fought to end the vile and morally corrupt practice of one human being “owning” another human being. No, he argues, the war was about political differences concerning governmental jurisdictions and rights.

Bishop Elliott was a devoted bishop who sacrificed both his health and his family’s fortune as he sought to build up the Church of Jesus Christ in Georgia. His sermons are eloquent exhortations on God’s grace poured out for us sinners on the cross of Jesus. He was also a man who owned many slaves and saw it as his God-given right to do so. We’re still a people trying to sort through our “original sin” of racism in this country. The latest chapter is about monuments to generals who fought on the immoral side of a long-ago war. It’s easy for us to judge them now. Our judgment about them might really be a form of self-justification, thinking that if we simply take all those statues down, then it’ll cure what ails us as a people. I wish it were that easy. The statues should come down, but let’s not fool ourselves into believing that’ll even remotely heal our sickness.

William Faulkner famously wrote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Maybe we could also say that about the dead? They’re never past as well. Even though we may not want to admit it, they live on as a reminder of just how much we’re like them. We could all benefit from hearing one of Bishop Elliott’s sermons on God’s grace for sinners.

+Scott

 

Hurricanes and Prejudgments (349)

Since Hurricane Irma has passed and recovery has begun, I thought it was a good time for me to check some of the prejudgments I’ve had during and after previous disasters, which seem to be occurring more frequently these days. I’m not proud that I have these prejudgments, which have slowly turned into prejudices over the years (prejudices are just prejudgments that have gone spiritually lazy), but admit them I must.

The first is this: with so many people evacuating, with law enforcement focused on responding to human safety concerns, and with sin being what sin is, there must be lots of theft and looting going on at such times. I’ve always just assumed that’s happened. Rather than continue to rest on those assumptions, I decided to check the data. It turns out the data show that crime actually goes down during and after disasters. Scott Knowles, a history professor at Drexel University and author of The Disaster Experts: Mastering Risk in Modern America, has studied many disasters. He says the data reveal less crime during and after disasters. He attributes this to people, even folk who have criminal inclinations, wanting to help their neighbors. Disasters apparently bring out the best in us, even those who we might not see as the “best people.” He also reports that misleading stories about potential looting can potentially place people in greater danger. They may choose not to evacuate (when they have the means to do so) out of a fear their home or business would be looted. It turns out such fear isn’t well-founded.

The second prejudice I’ve had is about people who chose not to evacuate and then needed rescue. Bill O’Reilly shared my prejudice. After Hurricane Katrina, he said: “Many, many, many of the poor in New Orleans are in that condition. They weren’t gonna leave no matter what you did. They were drug-addicted. They weren’t gonna get turned off from their source. They were thugs, whatever.” His colleague Shep Smith chimed in: “Despite the warnings, lots of people have said they’re not going anywhere. They’re stocking up supplies, boarding up their homes and hoping, which is moronic.” I don’t feel good about having shared the same ignorant prejudices as those two, but I did.

What I needed to realize (and I now have) is that there are complex reasons for why some people don’t evacuate. Some people are simply physically unable to leave their homes due to disability or illness. Others don’t have cars or access to transportation. Some live so on the edge that they’re afraid to miss work and lose even one day’s paycheck. And many poor people live in a part of town where the land values are less because they’re in flood zones. Like many other people (maybe you, too), I’ve assumed my privileges in life and superimposed them on everyone else and asked myself: “Why won’t those people just do what I would do,” implying “what I would do” is both what everyone else can and should do and, of course, it’s the right thing to do as well.

Responding to hurricanes brings out the best in the us, mostly. Neighbors unselfishly help neighbors. Strangers just pitch in and lend a hand, thanks be to God! But such disasters also bring out our prejudices about others. We shouldn’t be spiritually lazy. We should confront our own prejudices holding them in the light of truth.

+Scott