Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Limits of Worldly Wisdom

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Worldly wisdom and faith do not mix well. I want to use the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth as examples of this. Rather than rely on worldly wisdom to plot his course in life, Jesus turns our expectations upside down, and stands worldly wisdom on its head. He does this because worldly wisdom cannot guide us through the pains and losses of our lives into the hope we need to move beyond the pain. However you define worldly wisdom, the Bible is clear that Jesus didn’t have it.

There is no place in the Bible where this is more evident than in the Beatitudes, that series of blessings (which we call the beatitudes) and woes (which we usually ignore!) that are sometimes called the Sermon on the Mount or the Sermon on the Plain. But wherever it took place, and there is no reason to assume that he didn’t preach the same sermon in two different places, nothing in that sermon agrees with worldly wisdom.

Think about it. Jesus says that the poor, and the hungry, and the grieving are blessed; and, on the other side of that coin, woe upon (or cursed be) those who are now rich, or who are full, or who are respected by society.

Before we go on, please note this carefully: If you are going to understand this, you have to understand clearly that Jesus is not saying that this is the way things should be – that is that the poor should be blessed, or that those who mourn should be blessed and comforted, or that those who have no standing in the society should be treated with respect.

He is saying that this is how things are now in the Kingdom of God. The poor are blessed, the hungry are blessed, the reviled are blessed, those who mourn are blessed. Jesus says that God is doing this in the world, right now: blessing those who have received little blessing in their lives, and cursing those who believe that, just because they “have it made” in the material things of the world, they have it made with God. They don’t.

Here is cause for hope for those who have experienced little of the blessings in this life, for those who have known some blessings and have had them torn from their grasp, for those who weep and mourn and are not now consoled in their weary lives.


Do you think that this is just another exercise in biblical theology that does not apply to you? Sorry. But I know better. I know that a lot of you don’t feel nearly as good as you act when you post and comment here. I know that you are trying your best to look good, to appear “just fine, thank you,” to the rest of us. We all try to keep that stiff upper lip. But, look behind that facade and we may discover that not all of us are in nearly as good a shape as we pretend to be.

Some of you are in pain; hoping that the posts and comments and the sense of fellowship here might just cut through the pain and give you a little peace. Others are here knowing that, with their world in shambles around them, maybe for a few minutes or hours they can concentrate on something, someone, else, and maybe, with a little luck and God’s help they might just be able to forget: if only for a brief while. And some of you are numb with grief, or fear, or depression.

I know all about your tricks and denials and attempts to appear stronger than you are, because I have been there, done that – right here in my own interactions with you. There have been times when I am in so much pain tears form in my eyes as I type, times when I am afraid to even admit to myself how hard it is to accept that I will likely get worse, not better. But, strange as it sounds, I’m glad that I know that little secret about you and me, because I don’t much care for the alternative.

It seems to me that it would be such a terrible grind, such a phony existence, to live in a world where everybody smiles so much you think their lips will crack off: where everybody is always so very, very happy, so totally successful in the ways of the world, and so pleased just to be wonderful "me."

I think that would be a dangerous place in which to write or try to reach out to others. Just one cancer that can’t be cured, one heart attack that can’t be stopped, one stroke that leaves a loved one paralyzed, one case of Alzheimer’s, one firing, one divorce, one act of adultery, one “F” in chemistry, one beating by one's spouse, one death, one – of anything bad – cracks the phony fa├žade and crumbles the clay feet of the health and wealth preachers who are in such amazing abundance in this country.

It doesn’t take a whole lot of thought to realize that this pain we feel, however much we hide it, is real, and that it is interconnected. Those secret, personal, disorders that you brought here with you, the ones you imagine no one else has had, or if they did, that they handled so much better than you are handling them; that pain that you know not how to name, that you are ashamed to name to anyone – all those very real and disturbing concerns -- tip you off that something isn’t quite right with the world, or with the world’s great desire to sweep things like those under the rug.

No, shocked as you may be to hear it, it isn’t just you that feel this way. Something is not right with the world and, chances are, the something that is not right in your life is also not right in thousands, maybe millions, of others. But, who will listen? Who will validate those lonely and empty feelings in your heart, that hunger in your soul for something better, that thirst that the things of this world cannot quench?


The good book says that Jesus came down and talked to them where they were, on the plain, on a level place, looking them straight in the eyes; feeling what they felt, seeing what they saw. And then he said outrageous things, like: “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh”.

And those who weren’t weeping, who had nothing that they figured they needed to weep about, laughed. And Jesus said, "Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.” And the Bible doesn’t say so, but I imagine that they laughed again. "What utter nonsense,” they thought.

The poet, W. H. Auden once said, “Seeing the joy of a bubble-brained world, I was glad I could be unhappy”. Or, as Jesus put it, “Fortunate are you that weep now.” He didn’t say, “in this bubble-brained world,” but he must have thought it. Blessed are you if you have noticed that people are hurting, dying, in pain, and mourning. Fortunate.

Jesus knew that there was something much more dangerous than tears. And that is the dangerous deception that our world is secure, stable, and is, after all, the best of all possible worlds. That deception says that if we just act happy, we’ll be happy; that if we ignore the pain, it will go away; and that, if we feel the pain, we are weak: so just don’t feel the pain. And, above all, do not put yourself in a position now where you will feel pain later. Avoid love, for the price of love is the pain of later loss.

Jesus didn’t see it that way. He said, “Woe to you that laugh now.” Woe to you if you feel too good, if you are settled too comfortably into the way things are, the way, you think, you have made them; the way, you think, you deserve them to be.

Against this self-congratulatory self-deception Jesus hurls, “Woe to you that laugh now. Fortunate are you who weep.” You are lucky, he says, if you embrace your loss, feel the pain now, touch it, grieve over it, weep. And then he says, “You shall laugh.” You shall see a new world, rising out of the ashes of the old; joy rising out of the ashes of the pain.

But you can’t believe that hopeful word until you have embraced the grief. First you must go through the grief, recognize it, own it, and know it. To hope too soon, to laugh too easily, to fake the happiness, all that is self-deception. Weep now, that you may laugh later.


Maybe that doesn’t make a lot of sense to some of you. But it does to me. I do a lot of counseling. The number one symptom I deal with is depression. The reasons people say they are depressed are about as myriad as the stars, but the symptom is depression. And the number one cause of the depression isn’t what the counselees think it is; it is failure to deal with the pain, to own it, to admit it, and then, hopefully, to place it in God’s hands.

One can try to heal too soon. I have seen it countless times. “But, Monte, she’s been gone over two years; I’m not doing well with this grief. All my friends say I should be over it by now.” Well, he isn’t, because he’s been listening to his friends; and they started telling him that he needed to get on with his life after his wife had been dead three months. And he’s been taking their advice, denying the grief, and faking it ever since.

Jesus has a different answer. Jesus says, “weep now; tomorrow you will laugh.” He says that your faith will give you hope in the midst of your chemotherapy, in the quiet of your hospital room, in the still darkness of your lonely nights. There, when you need it the most and expect it the least, hope will come.

We cynically downplay our losses, and try to bravely cover-up the pain, but we seldom think or talk of the promise. And the promise is joy, and the laughter that goes with it. Jesus says laughter is the fruit of the serious admission of our pain, and then of the embracing of the hope of the promise made to us by God. You will laugh, not because the pain is not real, but because God is rummaging around in the ruins of your life, putting things together, and getting ready to bring to you new life, in this life and in the next.


Can all this be true? Can we be like the alcoholic who has to “hit bottom,” and cry out in pain, and then, and only then, can he be healed? Is it true that our futures will not be bought by anything that we can bring to the bargaining table, or purchase with the almighty dollar, but only by the grace of God? Is it true that we can’t buy laughter, or peace for our weary souls, or any of the things that will pull us out of the pain? Is it true that faith in the grace of God will sustain us through the deserts of our lives and bring us to a new oasis of life on the other side? Is that true?

You know I believe the truth of those promises. The issue is what do you think about them?

If the Beatitudes tell us nothing else they say that God wills the dismantling of our uncomfortable pretense, of our false bravado; and urges upon us the embracing and owning of the pain, and then letting it go and letting God have it.

When we do we will laugh, laugh like Sarah when she bore a son at a time when worldly wisdom said she could not; laugh like the disciples laughed only three days after they had wept the tears of sorrow over Jesus’ death on the cross even as the world laughed at the possibility of his Resurrection; laugh as we shall laugh when the prophecy of St. John is fulfilled and we inherit this promise:

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away." And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making all things new...." (Rev. 21.1-5a)

May God bless us in our weeping and in our laughter.



Addendum:

Luke 6. 17-26

17 He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. 18 They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19 And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them. 20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21 "Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. "Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22 "Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. 24 "But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25 "Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. "Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. 26 "Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.



Monday, September 14, 2009

When I Was Young: Pop Hits of the 60s

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Aren't you just a bit tired of being wound tight as a drum and frazzled by the all the insane political infighting, screams of "You lie!", two wars, the swine flu, and the apparent total disconnect from reality of a large portion of our population right now? I know that I am.

So.......I spent Sunday evening putting together a bit of a lull in all the craziness. I did this for me as well as for you. And like my Sinatra Playlist, there is no socially responsible agenda here. There is nothing to think about in this post unless you know this music. If you are it might bring back some great memories of a time that will likely seem like both long ago and only yesterday.

I was 22 when I entered the 1960s. This is the music of that formative decade of my life. This music is called Popular Music, or "Pop." It is the music of the people; the music you got over the radio when you were riding in the car; it is Top Ten and Top 100 Billboard Magazine music; it is the music of American Bandstand and music sung on TV prime time variety shows. It is the music you found yourself memorizing and singing in the shower, humming on the way to work, or when you were working in the garden. It is simply the music most listened to by much of middle America in the 1960s. Little of it is "cutting edge," but some of it is; and all of it was influential and set the tone for the next generation of popular music.

I have not put into the Playlist one song by each artist or group so I could have 20 different artists. Rather I have included a representative group of songs by a few of the artists who rose above most others on the popular music airwaves.

We start with the only seminal work of the Beach Boys: "Good Vibrations." From there it is only some of the very best of The Mamas and the Papas, The Association, The Lovin' Spoonful, Peter, Paul and Mary, Simon and Garfunkel, Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, and Bobby Darin. And while all those individuals and groups were "Pop" they each represent a very distinctive style within the genre. No one could confuse one with the other.

Are they the only singers and groups that were important in the 60s? Of course not. There were dozens of others in the Pop music genre alone. Not represented here are very important musical genres of the 60s: Rock, R&B, Soul, Jazz, Rockabilly, Standards and Country to name a few. But this Playlist does represent the Popular music that most of America listened to in the 60s.

So sit back, and allow yourself to be propelled into the magic of the songs of my young adulthood. Just slip on some headphones, or turn on some nice speakers, and listen. Open OS or any other site in another tab and go about reading, writing or whatever else you want to do. The list will keep playing until you want to stop it.


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