Sticks and stones

This morning I read a parent’s rebuttal to “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” The mom’s daughter committed suicide over relentless verbal bullying at school and via internet. Words hurt.

Words have power. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. (1 Thessalonians 5:11 ESV) If that is possible, then so is the opposite. We can discourage and tear one another down.

The “sticks and stones” thing is one of those sayings that has wide acceptance while actually contradicting God’s Word: And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. (James 3:6 ESV)

A counselor friend told me that in her work with women who’ve been abused, she hears things like, My physical injuries healed. But the stuff he said still cripples me.

I think the sticks and stones saying must have been invented by someone who verbally beat on people and wanted to minimize responsibility for the damage done.

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Indict Geraldo?

Well, maybe there’s a statute of limitations so Geraldo Rivera is free and clear on his 1972 ambush interview at New York’s Willowbrook institution, where people we would now define as living with special needs were warehoused in appalling conditions.

At about 3:15 of the video, Rivera says that he and his camera crew showed up at Willowbrook “unannounced and unexpected by the school administration.”

Ambushes and “stings” used to be seen as harsh but important exercises of freedom of the press, necessary checks on the power of the state and special interests.

Now comes the news that a Grand Jury in Houston will let the District Attorney bring legal action against those who stung a powerful, state entangled interest group.  The DA is going after videographers who exposed Planned Parenthood’s flippant money making on body parts from aborted people harvested for “research.”  David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt could face up to 2o years in prison for “tampering with a governmental record,”  apparently based upon fake or altered drivers’ licenses they used to gain entrance and interview the abortionists and profiteers.

It’s as if the Willowbrook Institution were shielded from reforming its treatment of people with special needs by having Geraldo Rivera indicted for trespassing.

Evil like this is not new.  In the time when God allowed Babylon to conquer corrupt Jerusalem, the Prophet Habakkuk announced,

So the law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted. (Habakkuk 1:4 ESV)

The institutions become more corrupt as they grow in power.  And a state and it’s funded interest groups are at a zenith of power and nadir of corruption when they assert their authority over life and death, punishing all who question their pretension to divinity.

 

 

 

The best revenge

One of the most uncomfortable verses in the entire Bible is the end of Psalm 137.  It’s often omitted from public reading or recitation in prayer:

Happy shall he be who takes your little ones, and dashes them against the rock!  (Book of Common Prayer 1979 USA)

The Psalm is a lament by God’s Chosen People.  After years of neglecting their covenant with God and ignoring the warnings of His Prophets – in particular Jeremiah – they were left without God’s protection and conquered by the Babylonian Empire in 587 BC.

JewsInExileThe Babylonians marched the leaders and the most skilled people of the city off to serve in Babylon.  Psalm 137, in less than ten verses, evokes the bitterness of that experience; the longing for home, the captors’ mockery of the exiles, the passion to preserve identity, and, in that horrific final verse,  desire for justice veering off into revenge.

We all feel it at some point – probably more than one point – in our lives.  We are hurt and our perception, right or wrong, is that what was done to us was so bad that the only satisfaction we can imagine is equal or greater suffering falling on the one(s) who afflicted us.

Psalm 137 puts us in touch with the whole reality of “exile.”  We are living in the fallen world, separated from our heavenly home, and our emotions and even our prayers suffer that separation.  In the Kingdom of Heaven Christ intercedes for sinners; on earth we wish them agony.

The verse’s honesty is so raw that we recoil from it.  As I said above, it’s often edited out of the readings for church services.  There are attempts to spiritualize it, as the great Saint Benedict did in the Prologue of his Rule, where “little ones” symbolize nascent evil thoughts and “dashing them against the rock” is to refute them with the teaching of Christ.

We deny it with secular platitudes like living well is the best revenge.  We won’t hurt anybody and we’re certainly above any ugly thoughts.  We’ll just get on with our lives.  But this ignores the power of our Babylonian captors – the forces of the exilic realm in which we live – to define living well.  We start to sing their tunes and forget the music of our true homeland.  We intone denial of our bitterness while playing out our hurt over and over in discordant emotions and behaviors we cease to control.

Tonight I read A romance on the Psalm By the Waters of Babylon (137) by St. John of the Cross.  I wondered what this mystical poet, who suffered kidnapping and nine months of squalid imprisonment by his rivals, might do with the last verse of the Psalm.

He offers the Psalm in first person, and ends it

O Daughter of Babylon,

miserable and wretched!

Blessed is he in whom I have trusted,

for he will punish you as you have me;

and he will gather his little ones

and me, who wept because of you,

at the rock who is Christ,

for whom I abandoned you.

(Kavanaugh/Rodriguez translation)

angel-bringing-news-taht-babylon-is-fallen-apocalypse-dc-1250-english
Angel announcing the fall of Babylon (Revelation 14:8).  England, 13th cent.

The “revenge” is that Babylon – any realm or situation run by the world, the flesh and the devil – doesn’t get to keep us.  As “Babylon’s” lifetime of distractions and deceptions separated us from the perfect peace that Christ gives us, so Christ will separate us from Babylon’s outwardly gloating yet inwardly miserable “power.”

As Babylon sought to enmesh us in a wretched “life” that is simply prolonged dying, we are dashed on the rock that is Christ, our old life put to death so that we can rise up and walk with Christ into life eternal.

We, the little ones that Babylon delighted to abuse, need not imagine – let alone inflict – any disaster on that sad, decaying realm.  It is its own catastrophe.

Living well – whatever that means – is not the best revenge.  Living is.

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20 ESV)

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m so ashamed

I recently heard some efforts to distinguish between guilt and shame.

Guilt is a function of an healthy conscience – I do wrong, I feel badly about the wrong, and I can do something corrective and move on.

Shame is heavier – I do wrong and conclude that I am a ‘bad person,’ and will continue to condemn myself as ‘not _____ enough.’

The awful permanence of shame, as well as it’s antidote, is expressed in a verse from the New Testament,

…looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:2 ESV)

The Permanence of Shame

The cross points to permanent condemnation.  The Romans crucified people and posted the victims’ crimes on signs as an epitaph of irrevocable judgment.

In the religion of Jesus’ earthly time and place, execution by crucifixion was considered a form of hanging, defined in the Scriptures as a final proof that the victim was – talk about shame – cursed in the eyes of God and a stain upon the land and people,

…his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance. (Deuteronomy 21:23 ESV)

On the cross, Jesus shared the death of the uncounted and unnamed multitude who die bearing a label.  No way to do anything about it; no way to atone for the offense if guilty or to clear one’s name if unjustly condemned.

That’s how shame works, There’s nothing you can do about it.  You’ll never be _____ enough.  You’ll always be _____.

ShameShame reflects an external voice that we internalize. The voice is often that of a parent but can come from some other impactful person or group in our lives.  The Greek noun for shame used in Hebrews 12:2 appears in the Gospel of Luke to express public humiliation, and in Paul’s Second Letter to Corinth about the secrecy that shame engenders – the desire to hide ourselves from what we’ve come to perceive as an accusing world.

The Antidote for Shame

However shame enters our makeup, the antidote involves putting it in its place.

Jesus despised the shame with which the Roman government and the Temple Priests alike labelled him via the cross.  The Greek verb translated “despise” is an intriguing compound of “down” and a complex word connoting “thought, feeling, understanding” – key inner qualities that can guide our behavior.

That is, Jesus thought down upon the effort to humiliate him.  He belittled it by enduring it and going on toward the joy set before him.  He founded and perfected faith, knowing that ultimate worth, validation and reward are with God and not the fleeting opinions and indignities inflicted by people.  Jesus rose from the finality of the world’s shaming verdict and sits gloriously at the right hand of the throne of God.

The antidote for shame is to internalize a stronger voice than the one(s) that condemn(s) us.  By this voice we endure the world’s judgments, fair or not, and carry on in the assurance of our value to God.

It is the voice of God in Jesus Christ, speaking through the Holy Spirit,

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.  (Romans 5:1-5 NRSV)

Put That Down

It seems pretty easy to put down affluent college students who protest “microaggressions” and want “trigger warnings” so they don’t have to so much as hear words that bother them.

The Church of England is gobsmacked (learned that word from a Brit, I did) because theaters in the UK are refusing to run a church ad in which the Lord’s Prayer is heard – because the theater owners think it might offend some people.  Seems pretty easy to put down the theater owners (or the potentially offended patrons) for their putting down of the ad.

Some are pushing back against the cult of sensitivity with put downs like this meme:

offended

OK, that’s funny.

But words are powerful and they can build up or tear down.  Or so the Apostles of Jesus taught in the first churches:

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.  (Ephesians 4:29 NIV)

Some survivors of abuse report that while physical injuries heal, the sustained verbal lashings leave lasting marks.  The Bible recognizes this reality as well:

As with a deadly wound in my bones,
    my adversaries taunt me… (Psalm 42:10 ESV)

It shatters my bones, when my adversaries reproach me… (42:11 NAB)

We need to put verses like that down on paper and memorize them as warnings to keep abusive words from our lips.

We need to put down our egos so we can build up our neighbors.

This is not to exalt a wimpy lifestyle.  As I’ve pointed out before, powerful figures like Elijah and Jesus could handle the hostile words thrown their way.  Yet even they suffered times of fatigue and temptation to despair as their enemies hounded them, an experience given voice through the Psalm Jesus began to quote as he was crucified,

Everyone who sees me mocks me.
    They sneer and shake their heads, saying,
 “Is this the one who relies on the Lord?
    Then let the Lord save him!
If the Lord loves him so much,
    let the Lord rescue him!” (Psalm 22:8 NLT)

 

Verbal abuse is profoundly evil, because it insults the image of God in which we are made.  Abuse is one more symptom of a world that’s fallen away from God.

Because when the universe is in order, it pours forth praise to its Creator.  This is called “doxology,” from Graeco-Roman roots meaning “good word.”  We are meant for “good words.”

Put that down in your notes.  Even better, put it into practice in what you say of others and in what you’ll accept in what’s said of you.

 

 

You are (not) here

Oh, you know the signs.  Or maybe not.  Now that we all shop online, are shopping mall directory signs any more familiar than 78 rpm records?You are here

Trying to stand in the right place isn’t easy.  All kinds of signs and symbols to figure out.

A lesson from the New Testament tries to orient us toward the presence of Christ in the church:

Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.  (Ephesians 4:29-32)

While one meets some wonderful saints in most congregations (that is, gracious people who radiate the love of God and/or broken people, gratefully on the mend and praising God for His help), most churches are far from what that Bible passage describes.

evil talk… slander… Churches are epic gossip circles.

building up… Churches are like other organizations in that small groups look to self interest at the expense of the whole.

bitterness and wrath… American churches in particular are still in the throes of the “culture wars,” with many members more acutely defined by angry political positions than by identity in Christ.

kind, tender-hearted, forgiving… churches don’t do much better than any other gathering of human beings when it comes to these Christ-like qualities.  In fact, they are just as likely as any other group of people to be dominated by mean, cold-hearted, self-righteous jerks.

It is a conundrum.  The New Testament is very clear about followers of Jesus being part of the church, gathering with other believers to seek the Lord and help one another walk in His way.  This is presented as urgent:

And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.  (Hebrews 10:23 NLT)

Of course there are no “perfect churches,” because there are no perfect people.  But churches have become cavalier about this.  There are very few testimonies to Christ-transformed lives to be heard in churches.  If they are there, they’re pretty much concealed under a bunch of other priorities that take center stage (and stages or “platforms” really do replace pulpits and altars).

When Elijah was down in the dumps, God reassured him that there was a faithful remnant within the corrupt Kingdom of Israel.  The Apostle Paul brings this up in the New Testament,

God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew. Don’t you know what Scripture says in the passage about Elijah—how he appealed to God against Israel: “Lord, they have killed your prophets and torn down your altars; I am the only one left, and they are trying to kill me” ? And what was God’s answer to him? “I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.”  (Romans 11:2-4 NIV)

May we be blessed to figure out the signs and symbols and stand in the place where Jesus and the mercy of God are welcomed and celebrated.

 

 

 

 

Anger

Those of us who follow Jesus have a hard time with anger.  Generally, the Letter of James serves as a caution,

Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. (James 1:19-21 ESV)

But does this mean that all anger is unrighteous?  Is there an anger that is not just “of man” and reflects the image of God in which we are made?

Jesus is our righteousness, and he expressed anger:

 

Another New Testament passage tells us that anger is not in and of itself a sin, but becomes evil when not expressed,

Therefore, putting away falsehood, speak the truth, each one to his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun set on your anger, and do not leave room for the devil. (Ephesians 4:25-27 NAB)

So anger must be expressed and addressed in a timely way, so that reconciliation can take place before the devil builds walls of estrangement between people and dumps spiritual toxicity into the individual’s soul.

But we (Christians) don’t always do that very well, because we hear James’ warning that our anger won’t produce godly outcomes. Our ambivalence lets the devil move in, sometimes, as abusive clergy or lay bullies inflict their self-serving anger on well meaning folk who feel duty bound to appear anger free.

And appearing anger free isn’t to be free of anger. Anger is like sexuality, a powerful force that doesn’t just evaporate when ignored. It builds up and festers. Depression is sometimes defined as “anger turned inward.” When we swallow our anger,  the righteousness of God, the abundant and joyful life of Christ in us, is sabotaged just as James warns.

I guess that the key word in James is “slow.”  “Slow to speak, slow to anger.”  We need to consider our anger – is it godly, a force to resist that which is manifestly evil?  And if it is, we must consider how we express it, being slow to speak until our tone and words are helpful,

Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. (Galatians 6:1 NIV, emphasis added)

Slow, but not too slow.  As the Letter to the Ephesians warns, “don’t let the sun go down on your anger.” Wise old married couples counsel “never go to bed angry.”

While we live in this age, we’ll be fighting (and often losing fights with) the world, the flesh and the devil.  Like all other sins, our misuse of anger can humble us and remind us that we live by the grace of God in Christ.  As one baptismal liturgy* puts it,

Q: Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?

A: I will, with God’s help.

Not “IF you fall into sin,” but whenever.  It is inevitable, and anger is one of the most common sin pits into which we fall.  Even in the bottom of that hole, Christ waits to boost us out and get us back on the path that leads to life.  He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. (Psalm 40:2, ESV)

*Book of Common Prayer (1979 USA)