Monday, September 21, 2009

Hope and Outcomes - Part Two B

For this wondrous world you created, and are creating still, mountains and seas, lands and peoples beautiful beyond all telling of it, we thank you, O God of us all.
For the common humanity you created us to be, our family joined in the mystery of you, yet babbled into many branches to challenge and enrich us all, and deliver any from arrogant over-reach, we thank you, O God of mercy and wisdom...
For your insistent call to hallow our lives by loving our neighbors as ourselves, our enemies as our neighbors and you above all, we would thank you with out lives as well as our lips, for only so will we become does of your will, fulfillers of your dream, members in truth of your human family, and beautiful beyond all telling of it, O Judge and Lover of us all ....
Excepted from My Heart In My Mouth: Prayers for our Lives.

Before I temporarily suspend posting my blog until later in October, I decided to try to finish the one on Hope by concluding Part Two with section B. So here it is.

I think Cormac McCarthy is one of the most probing spiritual, Christian oriented authors of our time. In his novel, No Country For Old Men, tells the story of a tough old sheriff trying to catch a vicious killer. At one point, the old sheriff says, "People complain about the bad things that happen to 'em that they don't deserve but they seldom mention the good. About what they done to deserve them things. I don't recall that I ever give the good Lord all that much to cause to smile on me. But he did."

To me, that seemingly simple observation tells a story of the grace of God. And it reflects something essential about Christian hope. People do complain about bad things that happen they don't deserve but seldom mention the good or what they did to deserve them. We all do that. Why? I'm not sure. Maybe we get some benefit from presenting ourselves as victims when we don't get what we want; or by claiming good things are our due, or should happen because of our virtues and efforts. But whatever the reasons, deep inside we know it ain't necessarily so, as the old song has it.

All of us really know, or surely can imagine, what the old sheriff meant when he said he didn't think he gave God much cause to smile on me but he did. We can all say that, too, can't we? Just for starters, being alive is one obvious example of being smiled on by God. The natural world is another. Beauty, music, being forgiven by others, being loved by someone -- the list is long once we honestly start on it. I used to ask my wife, Jan, why she loved me. You see, if she told me, then I'd assume it was all about irresistable me. I could emphasize whatever reasons she named and so "possess" her, to use a common term for a destructive and dehumanizing way to treat another person. But her answer was always, "Why do I love you? Just because I do."

Grace is God's "just because I do." It isn't something we do, something we earn or deserve, even if we claim it because our faith is so strong, or our good works so many, or our cause so right. Even though those claims we make might be partially true, they aren't even close to completely so. Life is a gift, each one's life, and loving and being love, and work, and struggle, and learning, and being creative, merciful, compassionate and being related to others. Its all a gift. It's all grace.

That's why Christian hope is based in gratitude, not in outcomes. Or to put it another way, hope is based in our being an outcome ourselves, that is, our living gratefully in the present, what the theologian Paul Tillich called "the eternal now." Ultimately, the engine, the fuel of ethical action isn't duty, or obedience, or some self-defined goal, though all those can be contributing motives or influences. But all of them are still primarily about us, our scorecards, so to speak. We act morally because it makes us feel good and that's not totally irrelevant. But as the novelist Francine du Gray Plessix put it so provocatively, "The greed for salvation is pretty much like every other form of greed." I'd argue that it isn't quite like every other kind of greed because at least it's pointed in the right direction, which is toward God, even though it needs a mid-course correction. Gray's point is an accurate correction and worth heeding. Since the truth is that our motives are always so mixed and rarely if ever pur, our mid-course correction is back to God's grace, and back to gratitude.

Gratitude is expressed not by what we say, considerate and appropriate as that is. Gratitude sharpens how we see the world, and how we understand ourselves, and so how we at least try to live. It generates courage, humility and honesty. It unbinds imagination, as Nobel Laureate physicist Richard Feynmen, described it: Our imagination is stretched to the utmost, not, as in fiction, to imagine things that are not really there, but just to comprehend those things which really are there." Gratitude is the dancing partner of imagination and helps us discern what is really there in life. A result of that is several degrees of self-forgetfulness and so of freedom and joy. Hope is its staple ingredient because God never ceases to smile on us.

What I mean by the freedom and joy of it is that we can work, and keep working with indomitable good will and against whatever the odds about getting a particular outcome we measure as a success, whether it be for badly needed health care and climate change, or helping rich countries like ours to find ways overcome poverty that kills children and mothers even if it means cutting back on our wanton consumerism, or establish clinics and personnel to deal with kids and adults who have curable diseases, or respect and appreciate people of other religions and cultures than our own while at the same time rejecting the destructive ways of their terrorist fanatics as well as our own fanatics who advocate killing people we consider enemies. That list could obviously go on. It's about helping each other, helping the human family, to realize God does smile on us all. At last, maybe even at first, that's what hope means. We are outcomes of it.

Think about it. And please honestly let me know your thoughts about my blog Ted

Friday, September 11, 2009

Hope and Outcomes - Part Two A

O God of patience and of peace, more than sometimes we get damnably busy, and enchanted with it, over-reaching and insensitive, vain and irritable, careless of all else save paddling on the rapids of our self-preoccupation and ambition, while being increasingly terrorized by whirlpools of emptiness and regret, feeling as if you have abandoned us to our own fretful devices. Then a chance to change bursts in ... on the peach-pink lips of a pucker-up day like this, snuggles against us in bed, tickles us in a joke on ourselves ... confronts us in an exploited person's just challenge, and the world swells with possibilities again ... grace teems around us like new galaxies, the first wave comes singing into our hearts, sets them to singing their own songs in the shower, in boardrooms, voting booths, and malls, and compassion comes in on the second wave, courage on the third, commitment on the fourth, You and peace in them all.
Thank you!" Excerpt from My Heart In My Mouth: Prayers For Our Lives.

My previous two blogs were about Christian hope not depending on hopeful circumstances or on particular, desired outcomes because that hope is not for something but in someone, namely God. In the last of those blogs I said that in this one I'd try to deal with the heavy questions of who or what's in charge of all this complicated tumult and uncertainty of creation and life? Anything? Anyone? Is there any purpose to whatever order and structure there is in our world?

The questions lead to the frequent lament: Why God does let bad, painful, what to us are obviously wrong things happen to us, or in the world. The old conundrum puts it this way: "If God is good, he is not God. If God is God, he is not good." The argument is about God being omnipotent or all powerful which must necessarily be what God is. So if God is good but can not prevent bad things from happening, then God is not really God, or there really is no God. But if God is God and could prevent those bad things yet does not, then he is not good and doesn't much matter. It's a simple argument and for many, it's persuasive. But if, or for Christians, since love is as essential an attribute or quality of God as is omnipotence, that simple argument gets less compelling.

At the heart of the issue is the truth that freedom is one of the greatest gifts love can give to the beloved. Amazingly, freedom is a gift laced all through creation, as physicists keep discovering. It includes the behavior of photons, atoms and galaxies as well as the material world we live in and it's creatures, and probably applies most emphatically to human beings as free will .

Of course, there are limits to that freedom. They provide the order and structure of life. Science has defined many of those limits as laws governing the universe and the world. That fact is the context that gives freedom its consequences. For example, for us humans the combination of freedom, limits and consequences means we are free to jump out of windows, but if we do, a consequence will be plunging to earth and being hurt or killed because we're not free to fly , at least without airplanes. Gravity limits that.

For us, then, the combination of freedom and consequences results in our having responsibility and accountability for our actions. We're free to think, choose, decide, act as creatures who are wondrously endowed and both remarkably free and independent yet inescapably interdependent and responsible. Mostly, we benefit enormously from being that mysterious mixture. In the process of living, it enables us to be creative, imaginative, inventive, productive, generous, helpful, ethical, cooperative, compassionate, communal and to enrich each other's lives as a consequence. In a vast majority of our encounters with each other we're supportive, caring, instructive, moral participants in the human enterprise.

At the same time, often in our encounters we make mistakes, bad choices, irresponsible decisions, betray, manipulate, unfairly discriminate, cheat or simply by chance, are at the wrong place at the wrong time as in the 9-11 tragedy. We can unaccountably suffer from a crippling disease, or cell gone wild or gene malfunction that severely restrict our lives. The same is true of other human beings..

So, as the saying goes, "S--- happens." We have collisions with other creatures like sharks, mosquitoes, infected birds, flocks disabling jet airplane engines, or with natural disasters like hurricanes, earth quakes, floods, epidemics. Most often our collisions are with other human beings: terrorists, exploiters, distracted drivers of cars, mean-spirited neighbors, bullying ideological or radical enemies at home or abroad, or just others like us who unfortunately show up in our lives at the wrong time and place, with emotions or motives at cross purposes with ours, or sometimes just innocently but which, either way, result in damaging collisions. Some collisions are small, others large, others catastrophic, some instructive but still painful and frustrating.

The point is, our control of outcomes is limited and yet not completely so. Never-the less, and this is a critical point, nothing happens that completely eliminates our freedom to decide how and what our responses to those collisions will be. That is the mystery of God's grace or love.

Probably the closest human example of such love is that of parents who nurture such freedom in their children while also exposing them to limits. They don't put their children in an antiseptic bubble or restrict them from any activity that may injure or harm them, as if that were possible. No, they nurture their children in their freedom by encouraging them to play with others, go to school, make friends, date, make their own choices, do risky things, make mistakes and discover the consequences, help children learn to think and decide for themselves, work out their problems, deal with disappointments and take responsibility for their own bad and thus become more wisely independent and responsible. Parents do that because they love their children and do not consider them pre-programed extensions of themselves.

All such analogies fall short but essentially that process and reason is what I believe God the Father-Mother of us all does as well. Love suffers as well as rejoices for the beloved. That's at least something of the meaning of Jesus' life and death. He confirms our love and yet critically redefines and expands it by showing that God's love mysteriously exceeds ours. That's why we call God's love ,"grace." In a nutshell, our love is always conditional because it's finite; God's is unconditional, infinite and unfathomable.

But what about God's omnipotence, God's power. Why doesn't God intervene to bail us out of those painful, bad things that happen? Well, think of it this way: suppose that God uses power not to control everything or everyone, but that God uses power to cope with everything and everyone. I believe that is what God's love or grace means. It isn't about whether God has power but it's about how God uses that power; it isn't about whether God loves or is good, but how God loves and is good which is different, more, than how we would be or do it. Humility is essential here because, all claims to the contrary, no one can fully know the how of God's ways. We only have important and sufficient clues enough to trust.

Consider two events in Jesus' life as examples. One is in Gethsemane the night he was taken to be crucified. He knew the extreme danger he was in and prayed, "Father, let this cup pass from me. Never-the-less, not my will be yours be done." The other is as he was being executed and prayed, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Two painful, bad things happening to Jesus and God didn't bail him out. What's the deal?

The deal is that for God there are no dead ends. That's what resurrection demonstrates. How's that for omnipotence and goodness? God copes by continuing to give us options and choices. That's what I was suggesting before in making what I called a critical point, namely that nothing happens to completely eliminate our freedom to decide how and what our responses to those collisions, those bad, painful things will be. Even death itself does not eliminate that freedom. That's the mystery of God's grace. I believe that the process of growing, changing, learning and dealing with our own challenges and relationships in all their marvelous, grace-full complexity will continue after death because I believe that's what God's purpose is. But that's a mystery. It's enough to trust will be with God, and God with us, in a different way than it is this side of death.

But on this side, we cam choose to trust that God responds to us by continuing to give us options and alternatives. Isn't that really our experience if we honestly reflect on it, namely that nothing deletes our freedom and responsibility to choose and action? That truth is the core of Christian
hope. It means we can grow wiser and more compassionate through experiences of trial pain, whatever bad things that happen because God gives us that choice again and again. Struggle, yes, and disappointment as well as delights, broken dreams as well as mended hearts, frustrations and accomplishments, injuries of body and psyche but through it all come unexpected possibilities, options, choices and chances for us because, by God's grace there no dead ends!

A true story from Sports Illustrated, August 24, 09 puts it powerfully. Marc Buoniconti was a outstanding college football player at The Citadel when he suffered a severe spinal cord injury in a game in 1985. He nearly died, spent months in a immobilized in a Stryker frame and was left a quadriplegic. He was consigned to a wheelchair which he moves by blowing through a tube. He'd been a careless student, a wild party guy, even a borderline delinquent as well as great football player. His father, Nick, had been a Hall of Fame player for the Miami Dolphins and the family joked with some justification that if Marc hadn't been paralyzed he would have ended up dead or in jail.

"If Marc hadn't been paralyzed ..." Well, maybe, even probably. But then who really knows what would have happened? What we do know, however, is what really did happen for Marc. According to the SI story, was this: "Once he felt himself he stopped grieving, once he felt himself cared for by so many selfless people, saw so many strangers give time and money to help cure him, Buoniconti began to believe: Being paralyzed didn't end his life. Being paralyzed saved it."

He became involved with the Miami Project a scientific research and treatment institute for paralysis including that of children Then Marc organized the Buoniconti Fund to raise money help push for a cure. He said, "This chair made me grow a conscience. I never had one before."
One of Marc's old teammates says of him, "He's more of a man in that wheelchair than I'll ever be with two arms and two legs. Because when he enters a room he changes people's lives. When they hear him speak, people want to be part of what he's doing,. Can you imagine being in a wheelchair 20 years and having the courage to say, 'I don't think there's any help for me, but I want to get other people out of wheelchairs.'"

God is sneaky and there has been help for Marc -- God's quiet grace. Marc's body is paralyzed but his soul flies. Grace gave Marc options and choices after his terrible injury and Marc responded in ways that change his life and made him "more of a man ..." which, man or woman, is much of what faith, hope and love are about. Marc significantly partnered in his own healing which, you see, is also a gift of grace. And through his responses, Marc became part of God's own work in the world. No dead ends for him, or for us. Just grace, powerful grace and choosing to be part of God's kingdom day by day.

Think about it. Ted

P.S. Friends,
This will probably be my last posting until at least mid October, maybe longer. I know I ask a lot of those who access and read my blogs. I know they are long and challenging. I know they are not typical down and dirty, quick and easy which I guess is the typical blog format. So this may not be my medium. Any comments you care to share on that would help me decide how or if I will proceed. If what I write helps anyone, that's very important to me but I'm not sure if that is the case. Blessings and courage and joy to you. Ted