I was offered the new position almost a week ago. At that time, the message was, “We don’t have the compensation numbers handy but will let you know shortly.”
Like I say, a week ago.
I went to HR at midweek and asked – nicely – if I might know what’s coming my way for stepping up in responsibility. Basically got a get right back to you reply.
Still no word.
As I stewed about my offended dignity over the compensation non-reveal, the Spirit made me aware of a line from the wicked and slothful servant in one of Jesus’ teachings,
I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours. (Mattewh 25:25 ESV)
An excuse, an evasion of responsibility, and then a grudging effort.
I am not tolerant of my employer’s excuse (Hey, it’s a busy week), evasion (We’ll get back to you) and, when the reveal takes place, I’ll resent their offer coming from necessity rather than respect.
BUT, very often, our reactions to annoyances and even real injuries inflicted upon us reveal the very ways in which we sin against God.
Where am I making excuses for direct disobedience to God’s Word?
Where am I evading responsibilities entrusted to me by the Lord?
Where am I planning to give pro-forma, grudging efforts instead of offering my self in love to the people and work God sets before me?
That’s what I’m praying about this weekend. A good place to start such prayer is Christ’s Great Commandment,
Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.
I have a feeling I’ve been pleading too busy, get back to ‘ya, and OK, did that thing you asked, burying the treasure that God has placed within me rather than investing it liberally in his service. And I think that is being revealed while I stew about a hidden dollar figure.
After a catastrophic season of burnout, I stepped away from parish ministry and took an available job in retail to help maintain insurance and pay the bills. And to see if I was the POS (pardon the coarse self-reference, but it’s what I felt at the time) I’d come to perceive or if I really did have anything worthwhile to lend to other people and organizations.
Long story short, I’m back to active ministry within the structures of the church, and I’m still with the retail gig. I’ve received a good bit of healing. God’s had a hand on everything in this strange passage of my life.
When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
Working in retail camps me out among the harassed and helpless, for whom Jesus feels compassion. It’s helps me “sit in the pews,” mentally, recognizing more of the stresses and strains that people bring to church. I still don’t like the toxic ways in which they act them out, projecting them onto the clergy in particular and very often onto the other lay people, rather than receiving the transformation that Jesus offers them. But I have more compassion than I did a couple of years ago.
I know what it is to give a long week’s effort for a few hourly bucks. Yes, clergy are way underpaid – but so many folks in the “secular” workplace toil under more stressful, less uplifting conditions for longer hours for as little or less compensation.
I recognize that it isn’t only churches that that suffer busts having little to do with the quality of their efforts. Folks in retail can do sustained, quality work only to watch hundreds of customers and thousands of dollars leave for a flashy, cheap or geographically convenient place that opens up a few miles away (or on the internet). And I see how the “losers” in such shifts are helpless against harassing feelings of failure.
I watch managers in the retail setting and realize how much more harassed they are than I was as a congregational pastor. Pressure from “corporate” to bring in more sales; pressure from customers aggrieved by this, that and the other thing; pressure from well intended laws and policies that force them to be accommodating to even their most lazy and incompetent employees; the normal human pressures from within themselves and their relationships.
I’ve gained respect for the South Sudanese members of one congregation I serve, many of whom work in a meat packing plant for long shifts and still manage to clean up and get their families to church. I know more of how a work week can exhaust people, and what a precious offering working folks make to take part in worship, let alone all kinds of mid-week church stuff. And retail is especially guilty of the diminution of Sabbath in our culture – we’ve turned so many aspects of not working into a feeling of added work.
Then there are the experiences that give me thoughts like, “OK, maybe I went a little nuts, but it’s not like the church isn’t a bit of a crazy-maker.”
There’s the reality that “I’ll pray for you” means more when I say it to folks in the retail store than when I said it as the expected (and often unappreciated) thing in church. I used to keep a discipline of calling church members on their birthdays and asking, “What should I be praying for in your life?” It became one of my most deflating and eventually abandoned practices, as time and again the reply was something like, “Oh, nothing. You save those prayers for the people who really need them.”
Now, when I offer to pray at the store, I find myself and the person who wants the prayer huddling between teetering pallet loads of merchandise as our sanctuary. I see tears in others’ eyes. I hear sincere “God bless you”s in return for my fumbling words. I got a heartfelt “God bless you” just this morning for doing a minor favor to help out a coworker. The apt sharing of Scripture seems to reach people at the store whereas it often bounced off of people in the church.
This Sunday’s Gospel goes on to reveal that where people are harassed and helpless is exactly where Jesus wants his church,
Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
Working the retail job seems to drop me in that harvest field in a way that the church itself resists.
Their superb memories help elephants stay alive in ways that go beyond just recognizing threats. Matt Lewis, a Senior Program Officer with the World Wildlife Fund’s Species Conservation Program, tells mental_floss that one of the best examples of elephant cognition “comes from desert-adapted elephants, where the matriarchs remember where reliable water can be found and are able to guide their herds to water over very long distances, and over the span of many years. This is a pretty clear indication that elephants have a great ability to remember details about their spatial environment for a very long time.”
Humans have impressive memory as well. Just have a fight with your spouse, and marvel at your ability (and your spouse’s) to remember every bad thing (and many good things reinterpreted as bad) over decades of marriage. We use our memory to exalt the self rather than build the common good. We are like defective elephants.
Right now I’m attending a church with a mainly immigrant population. One of the groups there was asked to leave because they were getting into violent confrontations over issues in their homeland. Both factions remembered all the details of the division – interpreting them differently, of course – vividly enough to demonize the other group.
Now that they are gone, the remaining group (a different ethnicity) is encountering the same problem. My charismatic friends would suggest there is a malign spirit at work in the place.
Maybe so, but all that spirit would need to do is exploit our existing capacity to use our prodigious memories for evil. Although made in the image of God, we are fallen creatures, as much as much contemporary thinking feeling would like to deny that.
We need to look to God, who has the ultimate memory but also a great capacity to forget.
God remembers with love:
Yet Jerusalem says, “The Lord has deserted us; the Lord has forgotten us.”
“Never! Can a mother forget her nursing child? Can she feel no love for the child she has borne? But even if that were possible, I would not forget you! See, I have written your name on the palms of my hands. Always in my mind is a picture of Jerusalem’s walls in ruins. Soon your descendants will come back, and all who are trying to destroy you will go away. Look around you and see, for all your children will come back to you. As surely as I live,” says the Lord, “they will be like jewels or bridal ornaments for you to display. (Isaiah 49:14-18, NLT)
And God is practiced at forgetting bad stuff,
For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more. (Hebrews 8:12, ESV)
Christ Jesus uses his cross as an eraser so that much is forgotten,
Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross… (Colossians 2:14, KJV)
Let us pray that our memory be surrendered to the One who willingly forgets our sin and remembers us with loving favor.
Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Then Jesus looked around and…
went on social media and posted a meme that showed the hypocrisy of the rich fellow and his religion;
got in a cutting last word as the man walked away, then gestured a mic drop;
followed the rich guy down the road, yelling at him about living in a rich people bubble and questioning his sanity;
militated for a law to limit the possessions held by any one person;
organized his disciples to picket the man’s house and boycott his businesses until he agreed to liquidate his holdings and give to the poor.
Bible readers know that Jesus did none of the above. The honest among us might confess to having dabbled in one or more of those behaviors.
The striking thing about this lesson is the non-coercive example set by Jesus. He doesn’t do anything to compel the rich man to do the right thing. He allows him to walk away.
And, although he says some very clear things to his disciples about how riches can keep people out of God’s kingdom, Jesus frames this as concern for the spiritual hardship faced by the affluent. He doesn’t mock the man who walked away, he worries about him and holds out hope that God can overcome the man’s enmeshment in passing possessions.
The culture wars, in which the church has chewed up so much time, treasure and so many people, are based on proving “our side” right and the other wrong. More emphatically, it is a quest to justify our side and demonize theirs or, to put it in secular speak, to demonstrate our enlightened state and their stupidity (or even insanity).
What “victory” can Jesus have when people fight on terms dictated by the world, the flesh and the devil? As St. Paul warned the church,
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. (Galatians 5:13-15)
The culture wars are yet another mockery of the Eucharist, a “Black Mass” in which we bite and consume others to exalt ourselves as righteous rather than share the bread and the cup that proclaim the self-sacrifice of Christ for sinners, including ourselves and our perceived enemies.
The passage might be summarized as You’re no better. The King and people of Judah believed themselves to be entitled to God’s favor, even as they behaved in ways no better than neighboring nations. Elijah warns them of God’s disfavor, and the prophecy comes to pass as the kingdom is devastated by those it considered lesser people.
You’re no better runs through my head as the American political reality show plays on in the two major party conventions, and in the news and social media surrounding them. There is a whiff of perception in people saying I don’t think I can vote for either one. But that avoids any recognition of how we might might enable both.
This morning I saw this well done video about the rise of Hitler. Comments on it, as you might guess, tend to be Yeah that’s exactly what the other side is like. Which cries out for the warning, You’re no better. Both “sides” play to our resentments and real and imagined problems; we behave in ways that allow them to grab and maintain power.
You’re no better. We’re no better. We need that kind of humility and realism to stop ceding more and more power to Caesar to slay our bogeymen, who are all to often just flesh and blood neighbors.
But even from the religious or spiritual community, which should carry the prophetic voice, we hear Wait, yes, we are better. There’s an opinion piece trending, in which the writer condemns a key penitential prayer and demands that Pope Francis abolish it. Yes, some kind of cosmic peace and love is to be attained by appealing to an authority figure to ban what bugs you, never mind what it means to others.
Which is to say to the author, You’re no better.
Confession of sin is a great equalizer and can be a source of peace. It asks us to stop and question what we’re feeling, thinking and doing. It is to hold up the constant possibility and probability that we’re no better and to restrain action based on the false narrative that we are. It is to admit that we all stand in need of mercy and, as we receive it, are all obligated to offer it.
I’m no better for sure. I’m as bad as the next person when it comes to saying There oughtta be a law. But most laws beyond a few big ones that value and protect all people equally – You shall not commit murder, for example – are just one group of people considering themselves entitled to impose themselves upon others.
Watching the Hitler video can be a good spiritual exercise. If you can watch and say, Yeah, that’s those other guys. Glad I wouldn’t have been part of that, it is worthwhile to ponder what Jesus says in Matthew 23:29-30,
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’
I’m not saying much about Presidential politics or the racial turmoil roiling the nation. In fact, I’m trying to say less about all kinds of things.
There is great temptation to post the “mic drop” comment or meme on social media. It doesn’t add to the truth, just to the noise. For all our proclamation of “listening to one another” and “dialogue,” and with the superabundant means of communication at our fingertips, we don’t seem to be advancing good will and common interest.
I’m rediscovering the virtue of silence. Especially my own.
Again the Lord says in the gospel: an account will have to be given on the day of judgement for every vain word. Each of you is to weigh his words and have a proper restraint for his mouth, so that he may not stumble and fall through speech and his fall be irreparable and fatal. He is with the prophet to guard his ways so that he does not offend through the tongue. Silence, which is the promotion of justice, is to be diligently and carefully observed. (The Rule of Albert #21, 1247 AD)
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. (1 Corinthians 13:1 ESV)
The Politics of Personal Destruction refers to gaining advantage over a political rival by impugning his or her… well, his or her anything. Assumed motives, looks, friends, decades old quotes, model of car driven, college attended; anything can be turned into a critique more effective than engaging in debate of consequential issues and ideas. Instead of Lincoln and Douglas debating slavery, we might have had the two square off in a Yo Mama joke smack down.
But I think that the personal destruction hastened by our present politics is our own. Recently released research indicates that our American political identities generate growing dislike for those who disagree with us, to the point of not wanting to have them as friends, live around them or have them marry into our families.
A friend posted the following on Facebook:
Setting myself a challenge for today: every time I feel frustrated by political news, I will look for some kind words to say to someone nearby, or some kind act to perform to improve the lives of those around me. I suspect this will be hard, but I want to try.
That’s insightful. Political news frustrates us into a disposition that is the opposite of kindness. Kindness must be employed like the antidote to a toxin.
In the Letter to the Galatians, the Apostle Paul sets forth the personally destructive works of the flesh, several of which are palpable in our current politics,
Now the works of the flesh are evident… enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy…and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21 ESV)
Against these, Paul sets the fruit of the Spirit, gentle on the one hand but a conscious order of execution carried out against one’s works of the flesh,
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. (Galatians 5:22-24 ESV)
We need to shrink our politics. I write this not as some theoretical argument for limited government, but as a theological appeal to pull some of us out of self-destrutive behavior.
In contemporary American politics, winning might be the biggest loss of all.