More Religion, Please, Not Less (#319)

“We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.” – Jonathan Swift

A common contention of many non-religious people is that we have too much religion in the world; that if people were less religious we’d have fewer wars between peoples and nations; that religion is a prime motivating factor in inter-tribal and regional conflicts. On the surface, this seems to make sense. After all, people who give affinity to a religion and then engage in barbarity in its name, appear to prove such contentions. But appearances are often deceiving. Just because people give allegiance to a religion doesn’t mean they’re faithful practitioners of that religion. Riffing on the Jonathan Swift quote above, these people have cherry-picked the part of their religion that justifies what they want to do. They’ve accepted just enough religion to justify their behavior, but not enough to be faithful to the whole of their religion. In other words, they have enough religion to justify hatred, but not enough religion to practice love.

Fundamentalists from every religious tradition ought to be the ones that take the whole enchilada and not just the tortilla of religion, but experience shows they’re the least likely to do so. Mohamed Atta, Eric Rudolph, Yigal Amir all used their religion to justify their actions. But these men were dabblers on the fringe of their respective religious traditions. Their politics and worldview were what informed the part of their religious tradition they used to support their actions. Their approach should’ve been the other way around. If they had delved deeply into the tradition and practices of their respective religions, then they would’ve been appalled by their actions.

Not enough religion produces not only terrorists, but also successful politicians. The 2016 U.S. election proved candidates only need to show their religion publicly in a limited way, but they don’t need to take it seriously. After all, most Christians voted for the “Two Corinthians” guy who publicly declared that his ghost-written book was second only to the Bible on the all-time list of great books. The Pew Research Center discovered from post-election polling that Christians who voted for him didn’t truly believe he was at all honest or serious about his religious convictions. That, however, didn’t seem to perplex these voters. It was enough that he kept up the appearance that religion in some way mattered to him. We’re very good at suspending disbelief.

We don’t need people to “cafeteria-ize” their religion to suit their already-held hateful convictions or to use just enough religion to get elected to public office. Rather, we need people to go more deeply into their religion and its practices. In other words, we need us all to drill one 90-foot-deep well rather than numerous nine-foot-shallow wells. As an old rabbi friend of mine from North Carolina once told me: “Scott, we Jews will never again be afraid of Christian violence against us if y’all do just one thing – take Jesus very seriously and do everything he says. If y’all do that, then we’ll be just fine.”

What we need now is more religion, not less, in this world.



Christmas Message from Bishop Benhase

There have been pregnancy announcements that were easier to receive than the one Joseph received from his betrothed, Mary. Discovering your fiancé is pregnant before the wedding isn’t exactly novel in the history of human relationships, but when you know you’re not the father, it’s still difficult news to receive. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that since Joseph was a decent guy, he swallowed hard, accepted the news, and vowed not to put Mary through any “public disgrace.” Then, as we all know, the angel intervened.

But what Joseph hadn’t yet discovered was that God has never been averse to “public disgrace.” In fact, God has welcomed it. Part of God’s very nature, God’s modus operendi if you will, is God’s continuing vulnerability to “public disgrace” in human eyes. For what other term could we possibly use to describe first the Incarnation and then the Cross? None of us can understand the mystery of God becoming human until we first get it through our hardened hearts that God is a flagrant flaunter of the proper and seemly. The Bible is chock full of examples of God not caring one whit for what we humans see as respectable behavior.

There was an early Church heresy called Docetism. It comes from the Greek word meaning “to seem.” It bothered these early heretics that God would become human; that God would enter the same diseased and alienated flesh as ours and become fully as we are. They thought it was no way for any respectable God to act. It was so messy and uncouth. So, they argued Jesus only “seemed” like he was human, sort of like one of the gods in Greek mythology who took on a human form, but only for short time.

But we Christians contend that God fully entered our humanity in the birth of Jesus. God entered every part of our confused and broken humanity at Christmas and began his journey toward our healing and transformation. Beginning in Bethlehem, Jesus picked up our humanity on his back and carried it on this journey all the way to the cross, where in his sacrifice for our sins, he completed that healing and transformation. And then he took our humanity, healed and transformed, into heaven at his ascension.

For many, that’s no way for a respectable God to act. Shouldn’t a proper God hold us personally accountable for our unrighteousness? Any God worth his salt would insist we do something to deserve being carried on his back. Such a God is an affront to our sensibilities that demand we earn what we receive; that insist we be judged by our merits alone; that dictate suitable behavior of which no Pharisee would disapprove.

Yet, God doesn’t care at all about being proper in our eyes. Any God who’d be willing to be born in a stable behind an over-booked inn in a backwater town like Bethlehem wouldn’t be too proud to share his lot with the likes of you and me in a place like Georgia. That truth sinks thoroughly into our hearts when we stop long enough in our over-booked lives to trust that’s what God has done in the birth of Jesus. God became fully and “disgracefully” human in Jesus. As we learn to trust that truth more each day, we will begin to behave just as “disgracefully” with one another.



Compassion and the Urgency of Our Lives (#317)

When do we show compassion and when do we not? That was the question a study recently tried to answer. To answer that, the researchers gathered some seminarians and asked half of the them to prepare a sermon on the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The other half were given other passages from the Bible on which they would prepare a sermon. When finished, they were asked to go to another building to deliver the sermon. As each left, they had to pass by a person the researchers had placed there who was exhibiting great distress. The researchers postulated that the seminarians, who had just worked on the Good Samaritan sermon, would be more likely than the others to help. They, however, discovered something else. They had also told the seminarians as they left that they had varying amounts of time to get to the other building. Some were given plenty of time, enough time even to stop for coffee. Others were told they had to hurry if they were to be on time. The researchers discovered that it didn’t matter which Bible passage the seminarians had worked on. What mattered was how much time the seminarians believed they had to reach the place where they’d deliver the sermon. Most of those who were given enough time stopped and assisted the person. Almost all of those who thought they had very little time failed to stop and help the person.

So, it’s not teachings from the Bible that determine whether we’ll show compassion to another hurting soul. It’s whether we believe we have time in our schedules to do so. That doesn’t speak highly of our collective Christian characters, now does it? Still, that’s the disturbing truth of my own life. I’d like to think that the Bible has so formed me that I’d respond to such an obvious biblical warrant to assist someone in distress. Of course, I always have a good excuse when I don’t. As a Bishop of the Church, I’m a busy person with important work. Besides, someone else will help that person. I’m always sure of that or at least that’s the story I tell myself to engage in self-absolution.

I get it. We all have busy lives. We have schedules and commitments to keep. We have obligations to our employers and families that matter. Helping another might mean we don’t fulfill a job or family commitment. Life’s messy and complicated, always. Still, I’m uneasy with such excuses. Can I recognize the difference between the urgent and the important? The urgent (e.g., being on time to deliver a sermon) may seem at the time as trumping the important (e.g., stopping to assist someone in distress). Discerning the difference between the urgent and important is where we live as disciples of Jesus.

As we approach our celebration of God becoming flesh behind an inn that was so over-scheduled it had no place for him, we find ourselves in a rush of holiday frenzy. We have work to do. Our employers demand it. We have family commitments that can seem overwhelming, even if some of them are banal (“What will we get Uncle Joe this year for Christmas?”). So, can we stop for a moment and learn again the difference between what’s urgent and what’s important? Can we set aside our pathetic efforts at self-absolution that seek to justify ourselves at the expense of those we think don’t measure up? After all, as Jesus asks in the parable of the Good Samaritan: “Who is it that does the will of God?” His answer: “The one who shows compassion.”



Truth in a Post-Fact Culture (#316)

President-elect Donald Trump early next year will nominate President Barack Obama to serve on the Supreme Court. This is true because I read it on social media. But some will respond to this news by saying: “That can’t be true. How do you know it’s true?” My answer is simple: “A lot of people are saying that, and besides, it feels like it’s true to me. It’s the truth I choose to believe.”

Of course, it’s not true. It’s absurd. But it’s where we’re headed and we may have already arrived there. When a president-elect can assert that the Chinese government created the crisis of climate change as a hoax or that millions of people voted illegally in the November election and people accept this as a matter of fact, then it’s hard not to deny we’ve entered into a post-fact culture where just stating a wild thought that has passed through our heads makes it true. Of course, when it’s your crazy uncle spouting such stuff at the Thanksgiving table, it’s one thing. When it’s a person with a great deal of power, it’s another, much scarier, thing all together.

Recently, a North Carolina man was arrested after he walked into a pizzeria in Washington, D.C. carrying an assault rifle. The man told police he had come there to “self-investigate” a conspiracy theory involving Hillary Clinton that spread on social media during the presidential campaign. This week, a Florida woman was charged with making death threats against the parent of a child killed in the Sandy Hook school massacre because the woman thought the attack was a hoax and that the parent was using the hoax as an attempt to take away her gun rights. Both of these poor souls chose to believe something that was absurd. But it felt true to them, bless their hearts.

We didn’t arrive at this point in our culture without a lot of groundwork being laid. During the last half of the 20th Century we entered what has become known as “post-modernism,” where the very idea of truth existing apart from one’s experience or belief came into question. Jacques Derrida and other leading intellectuals challenged any truth claims that weren’t contextualized to a person’s or tribe’s experience. In theology, something called Situational Ethics became popular taking post-modern contextualism to its logical conclusion: that we must be flexible in applying moral laws based on a person’s circumstance; that there’s no moral law that exists beyond a person’s context.

The chickens have come home to roost on this liberal project and it’s highly ironic that white supremacists like Richard Spencer and other neo-fascists are using the language of post-modern contextualism to mainstream their convictions. After all, they contend they’re entitled to their version of the truth claiming “America belongs to white men.” In a culture where everyone gets to have their own truth, who’s to tell them they’re wrong?

Pontius Pilate’s question to Jesus on Good Friday (“What is truth?”) resonates even more powerfully today. For Christians, the way ahead will be perilous. Still, no matter what, we must insist on the universal and timeless truth of God’s grace, mercy, and compassion for all people through the merits of Jesus Christ. No exceptions.



Reality & Repentance (#315)

Advent is a season that calls us to repent (which means to “change our understanding) reflecting deeply on our lives and the world. I know from experience that repentance requires such reflection. Thirty-six years ago, I was a young man with a desire to serve God, but I’d never engaged in any meaningful repentance. At the time, I was doing a poor imitation of a missionary in Honduras. Next to Honduras is El Salvador, which was then experiencing a bloody civil war. Many were fleeing their homes and coming to refugee camps across the border in Honduras. I decided to visit one camp to see what was going on. I had no idea what I’d see there. I arrived in the camp right after a slaughter had taken place. Salvadoran Helicopter gunships had crossed the border and fired on the refugee camp. The dead and wounded were all women and children. Those helicopters and the crews that flew them were supplied and trained by my government. My tax dollars had supported the slaughter of women and children. Before that, I’d seen the world only through the lens by which I had grown up. Now, I saw the world differently. I was humiliated. I had to repent. I had to change my whole understanding.

Dom Helder Camara wrote: “I have the impression that God knows the importance of humility. God knows our weakness, our pride, and God purposely sets in our path each day four or five humiliations and in the course of our life, four or five great humiliations. If we do not comprehend them, if we do not accept them, it is a serious matter. But if we accept them, then we learn the generosity of God.”

It’s God’s generosity that allows us to see the world with God’s eyes; to see ourselves and the world in the context of God’s love, mercy, and compassion. Humility, sometimes even humiliation, is the necessary precursor to such sight. As we see the world around us with God’s merciful eyes, a whole new world opens. It humbles us. We learn to confess that we’ve been wrong about how we’ve seen ourselves and the world.

Repentance also helps us to place less importance on the ways we define other people. It demands we begin to see others as sacred creations whom Jesus came to love and save. It brings us to a point where we care less about being right and more about doing right. The more we practice it, the less we care about a person’s political persuasions and the more we care about the fruit produced from that per¬son’s life. The more we practice it, the more we see the world through God’s eyes. That means we’ll be less worried about the earth’s fate. That’s not to say we’ll have a naive worldview. Just because we try to see the world as God sees it doesn’t mean we need to deny reality. God, of course, has never been in denial about the reality of the world. The cross of Jesus is God’s declarative statement that God has accepted the world as it is. And the resurrection of Jesus is God’s clear exclamation that the world (as it is) is unacceptable to God.

Advent calls us to look again at ourselves and the world; to understand that if we believe the world is only the way we have always seen it, then it simply means we have not yet repented. Our repentance requires us to see the world through God’s eyes and that will definitely change us.


Our Project to Save Ourselves (#314)

“Save Yourself!” is the prevailing cry of those gathered around Jesus as he hangs on the cross. The religious leaders question why Jesus isn’t saving himself. The soldiers mock him by exclaiming: “Save yourself!” And one of the criminals crucified with him cries out: “Save yourself, and while you’re at it, save me, too!” Everyone is showing their true colors: It’s all about their self-preservation. The religious leaders get the Romans to crucify Jesus so they can preserve their peace with the Roman military occupation. The soldiers preserve their own self-justification for executing a person who they know is an innocent man. And the criminal, he’s just trying one last ditch attempt to preserve his own life. So, it’s “Save yourself!” all around. Easier said than done.

This inclination for self-preservation is deeply ingrained in our neurons and DNA from evolution. It’s so deep in us we don’t even think about it or reflect on whether it’s right in every circumstance. Well, occasionally we do. There are certainly times when we humans have cast aside our strangle-hold on self-preservation to act selflessly. For example, we hear stories of people running into, and not away from, burning buildings in order to save others. But such examples aren’t the norm for our behavior.

We’re more likely to do what’s good for us, what preserves our safety, or preserves our status, or preserves our position of privilege. And then we justify it by concluding that if it’s good for our preservation, then it’ll be good for others as well. We even created a phrase to justify this. We called it “enlightened self-interest,” which follows this logic: If our “self-interest” is “enlightened,” then it must be good, after all, it’s “enlightened” (Paging Mr. George Orwell!). My hunch is that most of us vote in elections for our “enlightened self-interest” and not for what’ll benefit the most vulnerable and needy in our society. When it comes to self-interest, we’re quite determined.

We spend much of our time on this earth seeking to “save ourselves.” And much of the rest of the time, we spend finding ways to justify ourselves to others so we won’t appear overly selfish as we do so. We give money to the church or charities from our abundance, we volunteer here and there for a good cause, but not in a way that demands much sacrifice from us and certainly not in a way that would ever threaten our comfort or limit our self-satisfaction, let alone our self-preservation.

That’s why what Jesus doesn’t do on the cross is so mind-boggling to those of us bent on self-preservation. It’s why those around him that day were equally stumped and incredulous. He doesn’t save himself. Afterward, most concluded: “He was just a loser.” We might further conclude that any Son of God with an ounce of “enlightened self-interest” would find a way to make Good Friday a “win-win” for everybody. “Let’s just find a way to leverage that huge salvation thing for all of us, but in a way that won’t really cost anybody anything.” But Jesus would have none of that. He embraced being a loser, so that he’d save self-preservationists like you and me. Jesus isn’t a winner. He’s a loser. And we have God alone to thank for that.



November 11, 2016
The Right Reverend Scott Anson Benhase, Bishop of Georgia

In my obviously biased opinion, one of our greatest living public theologians is singer-songwriter John Prine. His music captures the human condition honestly and sometimes with a profound sense of humor.

One of his songs that’s not at all humorous is entitled Bruised Orange. The chorus goes like this:

You can gaze out the window get mad and get madder,
Throw your hands in the air, and say “What does it matter?”
But it don’t do no good to get angry, so help me I know.
For a heart stained in anger grows weak and grows bitter.
You become your own prisoner as you watch yourself sit there
Wrapped up in a trap of your very own chain of sorrows.

You and I live in a time of great anger and bitterness where many people have “become their own prisoners.” With Smartphones in hand they send out words and images that reflect that anger and bitterness. You and I may not do that, but if we’re honest with ourselves, we sometimes have those same feelings. We’re tempted to defy St Paul’s admonition in our Epistle lesson and not “restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness,” but rather we can behave in a spirit of anger and self-righteousness.

It’s oh so tempting, is it not? It’s almost become a Kantian Categorical Imperative in our culture to run roughshod over one another taking great pains to point out how awful the other is. And, it’s about to get much, much worse. And it might not get better for a long, long time. We should prepare ourselves now for that reality.

God won’t be discovered in what we’d like to believe about ourselves and the world around us. God is actually present more fully in the death of our delusions about ourselves and the world. For God is no stranger to the fearful, the broken-hearted, the abandoned, the worried, the hypocritical, or the oppressed. The God we worship, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, isn’t a God we voted for. Rather, this God is a God who voted for us on the cross of Jesus.

Yet, we’re still tempted to see God as the former and not the latter, which we must confess is narcissistic. St. Paul warns us about that temptation and calls us rather to “bear one another’s burdens.”

In a coarse culture about to get coarser, what if we became a church known for our gentleness? What if we became a church known for bearing the burdens of our neighbors? What if the only thing people in Georgia knew about The Episcopal Church was that we were a people known for extending the grace of Jesus to all? What if we became infamous for our scandalous compassion and mercy to our fellow sinners? In a culture hell-bent on blaming, shaming, and naming everyone else’s faults, we’d become a counter-cultural beacon of grace.

In the bloodiest year of our nation’s Civil War, Frederick William Faber wrote these lyrics known as the hymn, There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy:

For the love of God is broader than the measure of man’s mind
and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind.
If our love were but more faithful, we should take him at his word;
and our life would be thanksgiving for the goodness of the Lord.

Faber was as insightful about the human condition as John Prine. We tend to think that the human mind is just like God’s; that God shares the prejudices and mean-spiritedness of human beings. But God’s love is broader than what we can ever hope for or even imagine. And if we believe the Gospel of Jesus, then God’s heart is indeed “most wonderfully kind.”

Can we take God simply at God’s word, as Faber implores? When we don’t, then we become functional atheists where we give assent to God’s Grace for the world “God so loves,” but we actually live our lives as if we’re not part of a divinely coherent story of redemption in Jesus. The Bible is clear: the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ isn’t stumped by the sins of the world. To prove that, the crucified Jesus rose from the dead and made grace the operational reality for creation.

Through such Grace, we learn that the world isn’t a meaningless place. It’s God’s world full of love. That doesn’t mean the world is perfect. We know better. It’s full of sinners like you and me. But it does mean that the human story is rooted in and underwritten by God’s grace. It shouldn’t surprise us then that the most recurring words of Jesus are: “Don’t be afraid.” And we should be even less surprised to recall that Jesus’ last words from the cross were: “Forgive them.”

Our congregations are called to be outposts of such amazing grace; islands of mercy in the growing polluted sea of our culture; where people don’t have accusing fingers pointed at them as they enter, rather they have grace-filled arms opened wide to welcome them home. I believe with all my heart that’s the vocation to which God has called all the congregations of our Diocese. And it’s why we have focused our Capital Campaign, not on building buildings or creating endowments, but on building our capacity to lead, and grow, and share the grace of Jesus Christ.

During this convention, you’ve seen and heard the stories of how Campaign funds have strengthened leaders, grown the capacity of our congregations, and shared the love and grace of Jesus with others. They’ll be others you’ll hear from and see tomorrow morning. As the Clergy and Lay Leaders of this Diocese: we of all people know how crucial it is for our work that this Campaign meets or even exceeds our goal. To date, we’ve raised over $1.8 million and we need to get to $3 million if we’re to secure the resources to continue this vital work. We can do that if we all pull together and ask all of us to be generous.

During my nearly seven years as your bishop, I’ve tried to remind myself regularly that I’m the Tenth Bishop of Georgia. There was a Ninth and there’ll be an Eleventh. I’m just the steward of this holy office for the time being. Bishops come and bishops go. Such perspective brings a necessary humility. Some part of God’s Kingdom will come a bit closer because of my ministry as bishop. Some will remain far in the distance. I’ll occasionally succeed in being the bishop God has called me to be and at other times I’ll fail miserably to live into that calling.

It does no good for any of us to be fixated on what our legacy might be. If there’s a story of my life or your life, we who trust radically in the unmerited Grace of God in Jesus, then it’s at best a story that’s but a footnote to that one, great and true story we love to tell. As the old Gospel hymn states, “the old, old story of Jesus and his love.”

The amazing Broadway musical, Hamilton, is the story of the life of one of America’s Founding Fathers, Alexander Hamilton. The musical ends with a mournful, chilling song that asks this question: “Who gets to tell your story?” And the song ends with these haunting lyrics:
But when you’re gone, Who remembers your name? Who keeps your flame? Who tells your story?

50 years ago, at the 1966 Annual Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia, a great saint of this Diocese, Bishop Albert Rhett Stuart, our 6th Bishop, spoke these words:

“Is the church to be a refuge from the world or to transform the world? Is the Church to maintain the status quo or to protest evil in this culture? Is the Church to provide a chaplaincy for its members or to serve all? Is the Church to provide a stained glass sanctuary before a carved reredos for white people or is it to be a place of prayer for all God’s people? The Church is not a religious club organized for pious sentimentality or personal status. The Church is a divine organism created by the Lord for the redemption of humankind.”

The questions he asked 50 years ago should make us all wake up. Given the current context of our culture, Bishop Stuart’s words could’ve just as easily been written about our present time and delivered today. The Church is indeed a “divine organism created by the Lord for the redemption of all humankind,” Black, White, or Brown, Male and Female, Gay and Straight, and yes, Republicans and Democrats! So who will tell our story 50 years from now? What will people then say about the Diocese of Georgia in the year 2016? What will be the story they tell about us?

While we don’t have control of our legacy as the leaders of the Diocese, we do have control over how we act now in following Jesus by extending his grace to our neighbors.

I do hope when future diocesan leaders tell the story of the Diocese of Georgia 50 years from now, they’ll look back on us gathered here this night and say that even though we faced enormous challenges around us, we did not shrink back from what was before us. We planted the banner of God’s unmerited grace in the ground and said here’s where we stand because all other ground is sinking sand.

That’s the story I hope they’ll tell. There’s still time to make that our story.


The Pursuit of Happiness vs. Soul Wellness (#312)

In the film, Tender Mercies, Robert Duvall plays a washed-up, alcoholic country singer named Mac Sledge who finds recovery and redemption through sobriety, marriage to a widowed woman (Tess Harper), and his adoption of her young son. Toward the film’s end, Duvall is working in the family garden behind their house. Much has happened to him since sobriety, marriage, and new parenthood especially the recent tragic car-accident death of his 18-year old daughter by a previous marriage.

As he’s working in the garden trying to understand his grief, Harper’s character comes out to check on him to see how he’s doing. He tells her he doesn’t understand why all this has happened. He, by all rights, should be dead for all the stuff he’s done. And yet, he’s alive and his daughter is dead. He doesn’t understand why his life is now redeemed and whole. He sees it as somehow not being right. He ends by saying to Harper: “You see, I don’t trust happiness. I never did. I never will.”

To me, those are the most powerful words in a film full of amazing writing, because Mac Sledge, even in his overwhelming grief, has a “soul wellness” that’s beyond and more vital than what might be called “happiness.” He’s received grace upon grace by his new wife, his new son, and his new friends. The film ends with the simple act of Mac tossing a football back and forth with his adopted son. The look on Mac’s face says it all. His grief isn’t gone. His past isn’t forgotten. But there’s a “soul wellness” with him as he tosses the football back and forth with his adopted son.

This is the “soul wellness” that I’m still learning how to live out in my own life. And I’ve come to understand that it’s not reached through my “pursuit of happiness.” Yet we live in a culture where that pursuit is expected of us all. Thomas Jefferson wrote the following to a friend in 1763: “Perfect happiness I believe was never intended by the deity to be the lot of any one of his creatures in this world; but that he has very much put in our power the nearness of our approaches to it, is what I as steadfastly believe.”

Jefferson thought that if we’d just worked hard enough at it, we’d have the power to get near to “perfect happiness.” This has become a central part of our cultural mythos. It’s deeply ingrained in us early in the life. It then functions in our life like a form of the “law” (about which St. Paul wrote in contrast to the “Gospel”). The pursuit of happiness becomes a law-like imperative for us and when we fail to achieve the cultural ideal of happiness (and we always will fall short of it), then we experience an unbearable judgment on ourselves from both inside and out. “Happiness” becomes just another contest to see who can get the most of it.

“Soul wellness” for Christians, however, isn’t achieved by the impossible pursuit of happiness. It’s reached through accepting God’s gracious acceptance of us in Christ and then living into our identity and purpose as forgiven and loved sinners. The Gospel of Jesus makes it clear that in resting in God’s “tender mercies” we find meaning for our lives and thus we learn the destiny to which we’re called.



Religion That Doesn’t Measure Up (#311)

Jackson Browne sings in Soldier of Plenty:
God is great, God is good, He guards your neighborhood
Though it’s generally understood, Not quite the way you would
You try to take the slack, Stay awake and watch His back

Anxiety is a powerful driver of human behavior. Just Google “Generalized Anxiety Disorder” and see how many hits you get. Anxiety, and the fear it produces, can lead us into all manner of behaviors, most of which, upon our reflection, don’t draw from us a strong testimony to God’s Grace and Providence. And yet, we live in a time when political leaders use our anxieties as weapons of control. They know we’re anxious about things like terrorism, unemployment, and health care, so they play on those anxieties, reassuring us that if we just elect them, then they’ll take care of us and end our anxieties. They want us to believe that God is outflanked by what’s wrong in the world. So, as in Jackson Browne’s song, we need someone powerful to watch “God’s back.” But that’s such a weak god. It’s the god of the functional atheist. Functional atheism means we give assent to God’s Grace and Providence, but we actually live our lives as if we’re not part of a divinely coherent story of redemption in Jesus. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ isn’t stumped by our sins, and certainly not by our anxieties.

Now there’s nothing wrong with having anxiety. Our anxieties can be “canaries in the coal mine,” letting us know that we might need to be careful. It’s how we handle our anxieties that matter. Will they cause in us reptilian reactions or will they help us learn the higher soul-functions of compassion and empathy? Unfortunately, much of modern religion won’t help us cope with anxiety. In the U.S., there’s a direct correlation between states where people classify themselves as “highly religious” and the more frequent use of anti-anxiety medications there. When religion is used to cowl us into believing we always must be happy and content (because we’re told that’s what religion should make us), then of course we may become anxious or depressed. After all, we’re not measuring up to the religion’s expectations. Believe me, I’m all for such medication for those who need it, but maybe we’d have less need for it if we had less of that kind of religion?

The Gospel, however, isn’t about us measuring up to a set of religious expectations. It’s actually about God lovingly recognizing we can’t and then intervening in the cross and resurrection of Jesus. The Gospel calls that result, Grace. When we rest in God’s grace, our anxieties don’t magically disappear, but they’re placed in the context of God’s providential Grace. Through Grace, we learn that the world isn’t a random, meaningless place. It’s God’s world full of love and meaning. That doesn’t mean the world is perfect. We know better. It’s full of sinners like you and me. But it does mean there’s a telos to the world rooted in and underwritten by God’s grace-filled Providence. It shouldn’t surprise us then that the most recurring words of Jesus are: “Don’t be afraid.” As we’re increasingly grounded in God’s grace, we’ll relieve ourselves from the anxious attempts we make each day to appear to others as if we’re always just fine and well put-together. In our hearts we know that, but we seemingly have to relearn it anew every day.



Grace and Bootstraps (#310)

On NPR’s Fresh Air this week, listeners were introduced to a new film being released entitled Moonlight. The film tells the story of a young man’s life growing up in a housing project in Miami. He endures bullying for being gay, but the greatest challenge he faces is growing up in a home where his mother is addicted to drugs. The film is based on playwright Tarell McCraney’s life. “There were times when we were without food and the lights got turned off often,” McCraney says. “If I did get money from an aunt or a grandmother or whoever, more often than not my mom would find a way to take it or talk me out of it, or sometimes the TV would disappear, or sometimes the furniture would disappear.” With no father in the picture, the local drug dealer became the nearest thing to a father figure McCraney had.

McCraney’s childhood resembles J. D. Vance’s childhood that he writes about in his book Hillbilly Elegy. Vance’s mother also suffered from drug-addiction and he talks about the numerous men who came in and out of his life as supposed father figures. Vance recalls growing up in Middletown, Ohio (right near my hometown) and often not knowing where the next meal would come from or where he would be sleeping on a particular night. Although he did have some stability from his grandparents, his grandmother was known to have taken out a pistol from time to time and shoot it at her husband in their kitchen. She claimed she never intended to harm him because she was too good of a shot. She missed shooting him on purpose.

Both McCraney and Vance have remarkable stories. Both excelled in spite of their childhoods. McCraney went on DePaul University’s theatre program and then Yale after that. In 2013, he received a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called “Genius Grant.” Vance put himself through Ohio State University and then Yale Law School and now has a position with a major firm in San Francisco. Both young men were able to make it out of their difficult life circumstances and thrive.

With these two stories, it would be easy for us to conclude that if these two young men “made it,” then everyone who has had to endure similar childhoods should be able to do the same. It’s the old “bootstrap” argument, as in “they pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps,” so what’s preventing everyone else from doing the same? I grant you it is theoretically possible for everyone to do it, after all, McCraney and Vance did it, but there are factors that we often ignore when such examples are trotted out as proof.

Life can be hard for all of us even when things go our way much of the time, even when we have had a supportive, nurturing home life growing up. Blaming the poor and others who have “two strikes against them” even before the enter kindergarten doesn’t help anyone. Yes, we should celebrate those like McCraney and Vance who have overcome so much in their lives to excel as they have. But we also need compassion for those who have not, who were not able to climb out of their difficult childhood circumstances.

A little grace is in order when we’re tempted to blame others for their lot in life.


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