Thursday, May 31, 2018

Fingers That Point to the Moon

We had a dog—a Cocker mix—named “Ginger”. She didn’t know she was a dog. She thought she was a people. She was dumb as the proverbial board; but, she was gentle and loving, and she lived a long and pampered dog’s life.
I tried to teach her to fetch. I’d throw a ball; but she wouldn’t chase it (our eldest son said she was smart: she knew if she went after it, I’d just throw it again.) But, I persisted. I’d throw the ball, and she’d jump around and watch it, and wag her tail (actually, she wagged the hind half of her body!).
I’d point to the ball, and yell, “Fetch!” And she’d get all excited and jump around and wag away; and the more animated I became, the more excited she became. I’d point my finger and yell, “Fetch!” and she’d jump around and wag herself and look… at my finger.
There is some question as to the authenticity and origin of the statement, but I recall what came to me as a quote from a Buddhist teacher: “I am a finger pointing to the moon. Don’t look at me; look at the moon.”
Our American flag, the “Stars and Stripes,” under which I served in Vietnam, and to which I have pledged my allegiance for over 70 years, has become an end in itself, and a growing segment of our population is becoming distracted from the reality toward which it points: “one nation, under God[1], indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” [italics added]
Imagine: we are fighting over the flag, while trampling all over the “liberty and justice for all” to which it is pointing. Which is the greater disrespect: to disrespect the flag, or to disrespect that for which it stands?
And, by the way, how does one disrespect the flag? According to the Flag Code, established June 14, 1923, some of the ways to disrespect the flag include: 
·         Wearing the flag, or its representation, “as clothing, or using it as drapery or bedding”; 
·         Printing or otherwise impressing it, or its representation, “on paper napkins or boxes or anything that is designed for temporary use and discard”;
·         Using it “for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever”;
·         Embroidering it “on such articles as cushions or handkerchiefs and the like…”;
·         Using it “as a costume or athletic uniform”; [I presume “Uncle Sam” is excepted, grandfathered into the Flag Code, since he pre-dates the Code by some 110 years.][2]
Having just celebrated Memorial Day along with the rest of America, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we express our patriotism, and it seems to me that working for the “liberty and justice for all” to which the flag points, would be an excellent way to demonstrate our love for our flag and, more importantly, for what it represents.
And for those who would presume to establish their own demonstrations of patriotism as the standard for everyone else, and who stand in judgment over those who don’t measure up to their standards, I would ask:
·         Have you served in the military?
·         Have you served under fire?
·         Have you thanked someone who has served under fire?
·         Have you held public office?
·         Have you been a candidate for public office?
·         Have you contributed or otherwise helped in a campaign for public office?
·         Have you voted in every election?
·         Have you communicated with the public officials who represent you? 
·         Have you worked in some concrete, tangible way to bring about “liberty and justice for all?”
·         Have you listened to, and tried to understand, the views of someone who represents a different perspective that you, but who, nevertheless, loves this country, too?
Those are some of my own standards of patriotism. I don’t claim the list is complete; but, it’s where I start. And, at the risk of sounding boastful, yes, I have done all the above. And I invite your contributions to my list.
And in a related perspective, I remember one who said, “Take the log out of your own eye before removing the speck from someone else’s eye” (Matthew 7:3-5) 
I hope I’m looking at the moon, and not just the fingers that are pointing to it.
That’s the way it looks through the flawed glass that is my world view.
Together in the Walk,

[1]  The Pledge of Allegiance was written in August 1892 by the socialist minister Francis Bellamy (1855-1931). It was originally published in The Youth's Companion on September 8, 1892. Bellamy had hoped that the pledge would be used by citizens in any country.
In its original form it read:
"I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
In 1923, the words, "the Flag of the United States of America" were added. At this time it read:
"I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
In 1954, in response to the Communist threat of the times, President Eisenhower encouraged Congress to add the words "under God," creating the 31-word pledge we say today. Bellamy's daughter objected to this alteration.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Original Sin?

It has bothered me for years, and I have spoken and written about it many times; so, for those who know me at all, this may seem redundant. Hopefully, there will be a new angle today: some new insight you or I (or, even better, we) may understand for the first time.
I’ve been reading John Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, in which the late president quotes from John Quincy Adams’ diary:
“I have already had occasion to experience, which I had before the fullest reason to expect, the dangers of adhering to my own principles. The country is so totally given up to the spirit of party that not to follow blindfolded the one or the other is an expiable offence. … Between both, I see the impossibility of pursuing the dictates of my own conscience without sacrificing every prospect, not merely of advancement, but even of retaining that character and reputation I have enjoyed. Yet my choice is made, and, if I cannot hope to give satisfaction to my country, I am at least determined to have the approbation of my own reflections.”[1]
John Quincy felt he was uniquely and solely qualified and duly compelled by God alone to enact and promote specific policies and principles. His adamancy (many called it blatant stubbornness) did not help him win friends and influence people. As Kennedy put it, “He was, after all, ‘an Adams … cold, tactless and rigidly conscientious.’”[2]
And yet, what most severely alienated him from even his own Federalist Party was that he prioritized the good of the country over the platform of his, or any other, party. After serving as sixth President of the United States, he was elected to serve in the legislature of his home state of Massachusetts. When first asked to serve in that capacity, he agreed, but declared that he would not actively seek or campaign for the office, and, if elected, he would serve on the basis of his own sense of what was right, “completely independent of my party or the ones who elect me.” Adams remains one of few American statesmen who served from a non-partisan position.
It’s been around since Cain and Able, and has manifested itself at the social level at least since Abraham’s son, Ishmael, viz., a hateful, antagonistic division, defined by diverse ideology or competing self-interest. We humans simply cannot tolerate any divergence from our own individual and/or group ideology or goals. It makes virtually no difference how large a group may be, or how the group is constituted and designed. It can be a couple or a family, a sports team, a civic or fraternal organization, a religious community, town, state, tribe or nation; but, it is most visible in the political partisanism that has raged in virtually every culture since humanity manifested a social nature.
If there is an original sin that has cursed humanity, it’s not the eating of an apple. It’s our failure to accept each other on the same basis God accepts us, viz., grace. Indeed, we don’t even accept the grace God extends to us (which may well explain our human tendencies toward adversarialism).
In theological terms, we speak of “realized grace” as a category distinct from grace, itself. Though grace is extended to all, without merit, we humans have great difficulty realizing and accepting “something for nothing” (which is precisely what grace is!) In the experience of unworthiness regarding offered grace, we humans attempt to justify ourselves by comparing ourselves with others: “I’m not as bad as she!” (a practice Jesus compared to taking the speck out of a brother’s eye while ignoring the log in one’s own eye).
Yet, when we put conditions on grace, we thereby totally erase any vestige of its qualities. The moment it is made conditional in any way, it ceases to be grace, and we all are condemned, “for all have sinned” (Romans 3:23). Thus, in our condition of “unrealized grace,” our struggle for justification takes on the aforementioned adversarial nature.
It is significant that Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:23-35) immediately follows his response to Peter’s question, “Lord, if (a brother) sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”[3]
Perhaps the first step in overcoming our partisan divisions is to surrender our obsession with self-justification, and to open ourselves to the possibility of grace. German-American pastor, teacher, and theologian, Paul Tillich, put it this way in one of his most frequently read sermons:
“There is too often a graceless acceptance of Christian doctrines and a graceless battle against the structures of evil in our personalities. Such a graceless relation to God may lead us by necessity either to arrogance or to despair. 
It would be better to refuse God and the Christ and the Bible than to accept them without grace. For if we accept without grace, we do so in the state of separation, and can only succeed in deepening the separation. [Italics mine.]
We cannot transform our lives, unless we allow them to be transformed by that stroke of grace. It happens; or it does not happen. And certainly, it does not happen if we try to force it upon ourselves, just as it shall not happen so long as we think, in our self-complacency, that we have no need of it.
Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged.
It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage.
Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: "You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!"
If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement. And nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing but acceptance. 
In the light of this grace we perceive the power of grace in our relation to others and to ourselves. We experience the grace of being able to look frankly into the eyes of another, the miraculous grace of reunion of life with life. We experience the grace of understanding each other's words. We understand not merely the literal meaning of the words, but also that which lies behind them, even when they are harsh or angry. For even then there is a longing to break through the walls of separation.
We experience the grace of being able to accept the life of another, even if it be hostile and harmful to us, for, through grace, we know that it belongs to the same Ground to which we belong, and by which we have been accepted. We experience the grace which is able to overcome the tragic separation of the sexes, of the generations, of the nations, of the races, and even the utter strangeness between man and nature. Sometimes grace appears in all these separations to reunite us with those to whom we belong. For life belong to life. [Italics mine. This is the key to my thoughts today.]
And in the light of this grace we perceive the power of grace in our relation to ourselves. We experience moments in which we accept ourselves, because we feel that we have been accepted by that which is greater than we. If only more such moments were given to us! For it is such moments that make us love our life, that make us accept ourselves, not in our goodness and self- complacency, but in our certainty of the eternal meaning of our life. We cannot force ourselves to accept ourselves. We cannot compel anyone to accept himself. But sometimes it happens that we receive the power to say "yes" to ourselves, that peace enters into us and makes us whole, that self-hate and self-contempt disappear, and that our self is reunited with itself. Then we can say that grace has come upon us.[4]
That’s the way it looks through the flawed glass that is my world view.
Together in the Walk,

[1] John F. Kennedy, Profiles in Courage (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1956) page 38-39 (italics mine).
[2] Ibid, page 39.
[3] The saying is rendered, “seventy times seven times” in some translations. In either case, the number seven signified completion or perfection, and to pair it with itself—or to multiply it times itself—was to make it infinite. The intention here is that one’s forgiveness should be without limits or conditions.
[4] Paul Tillich,You are Accepted”, Chapter 19 in The Shaking of the. Foundations (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1948).