Friday, June 15, 2018

The Gospel Call

Over the years, I’ve come to understand the follow-on Genesis creation story of Adam and Eve in a very different way than how I used to understand it, particularly the 3rd chapter. This is the part where “Adam” and “Eve” seem to be engaging with God on a pretty normal basis.

[An Aside: “Adam” isn’t a guy’s name, like “John” or William”… it’s actually more an adjective. In Hebrew it literally means “Person from/of the earth”, “Earth-Person”, or more appropriately, “Human Being”]

They’re being “raised” in this place called The Garden of Eden – a place where everything is taken care of for them, a place where they are not held responsible for anything (and can’t be held responsible for anything), since they are pretty much immature children; undeveloped in the moral sense, completely immature in their ability to distinguish right from wrong. In a very real and practical sense, both “Adam” and “Eve” are not… in psychologically technical language… independent moral agents.

They are free to cavort in this Garden as much as they would like, frolicking joyfully, blissfully unaware not only of their own nakedness (I’ll get back to this later), but also completely unaware (and certainly uninterested) of how much energy and time and money it takes to keep the place up and running!

However… and here’s the element in the story that turns this into the story that it is… God has made a rule – a prohibition… the first “Thou Shalt Not!” God has told them they are not to eat from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil. “You may not eat from this tree, or even touch it… or you will die!” (Gen 3:3) A terribly dangerous thing this tree is to Adam and Eve! It could kill the two people God created!

Best to have this dangerous tree put away some place where it can’t hurt these two innocent creatures – who of course aren’t responsible for taking care of any of this themselves! Oh, I know a good place for this -says God-… I’ll put this most dangerous of things right smack in the middle of the garden!

God wasn't around 24/7… otherwise the wily serpent wouldn’t have had time to influence them. The serpent indeed influences them enough to eat from the fruit of the tree… and not long after this, they recognize they are naked.

I certainly don’t believe this is a literally true story, but it does have some deeper truths and fundamentals related to healthy human development. For example, initially Adam and Eve were not independent moral agents. But after eating from the fruit of this tree they were, presumably, able to indeed distinguish between “Right and Wrong”… they started metaphorically “growing up”… their eyes were opened, and they became… (or were on the way to becoming) fully functional adults!

This is what we are called to do… to become mature grown-ups. Not only is it within us, but it is our calling to venture into the maturing process of becoming independent moral agents… to do our best to become self-responsible, self-aware, self-conscious.

My two kids used to not really care whether they were dressed on not... when they were really little… when they really didn’t know the difference between right and wrong. Now, I’m not saying nakedness is wrong (or right), so much as I’m commenting on the developmental stages of humans and how, at generally a certain age, we begin to become more self-conscious, more aware of the fact that we’re not extensions of someone else… we’re growing into the idea that we’re indeed our own persons.

This journey of self-responsibility is, and has always been, a challenge to us as human beings! Just look at the rest of this story: Adam blames Eve, and Eve blames the serpent… they passed the buck.

Oh, how human it is to “pass the buck” of responsibility! Even so, in spite of our normal tendency to “pass the buck”, the deeper message of this story is that it still remains our deeper work to stand up and say, “the buck stops with me”.

While we may see this story as humanity’s terrible loss of Eden – which many do – (Oh, if it hadn’t been for that evil serpent [and that wicked Eve], we’d all still be living the blissful worry-free life of Eden!), I contend this desire to go back to Eden, to go back to our infantile pre-moral agency, is really a desire to abdicate personal responsibility… like a theological version of the Peter Pan syndrome.

So, after they eat, Adam and Eve recognize they’re naked! Well, isn’t that interesting… that’s what happens to kids as they grow up; they start to become self-conscious! Self Aware!

This growing-up business also include us becoming more aware of what’s right and what’s wrong. And… our own responsibility with regard to right and wrong.

And here we have it all in the Eden story. If we want to grow up in a healthy way, we must indeed eat from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and we must indeed learn the difference between Good and Evil, right and wrong.

We must, in essence, leave Eden! The story continues with God telling “Adam” that he must learn to live “from the sweat of his brow”, his own toil. Basically he must become responsible for his own life. And “Eve” will experience pain in childhood. Certainly there will be joys in life (like in Eden), but the point is that in the “grown-up” world of self-responsibility… of living a life of self-consciousness, self-awareness… we humans will also feel the pains of life; of our choices, of our existence. 

After the “banishment talk”, God then kicks them out of Eden – and they’ve never been invited back! And to make sure of this, God then places an angel with a flaming sword at the entrance of Eden to prevent them from returning. Basically, if they really want to grow up (and they really didn’t – they were sort of forced to), they can’t do this in Eden.

So, how does this apply to our call to life our faith in life? Well, how clear are we of God’s call in our lives? To gain clarity of God’s call in our lives, we discern, we read the bible… and if we are listening closely enough… we know!

In the Gospel of Mark, there’s a story where Jesus is in a house teaching and healing. He’s surrounded by people who want to hear him, to learn, to be healed, and of course there are those there to challenge him. People everywhere, so many things happening, the crushing crowd, the noise, the chaos… the story makes it clear there’s just an overwhelming amount of things happening here.

In the story, his mother and brothers show up to save him from this madness. They wait outside of this chaos, sending someone in to pass Jesus a message that they’re here to take him away. “Hey Jesus, your mother and brothers are here!” Jesus turns to the crowd and says, “Who are my mother and brothers and sisters? Those who do the will of my father in heaven are my mother and brothers and sisters!”

So clearly those who wish to follow Jesus are called to do “God’s will”. When we do God’s will, we are following the path of Christ! When we do God’s will we are indeed disciples of a Living God!

This assumes we have an idea of what Jesus is calling us to do. This assumes we have an idea of how Jesus is calling us to live.

When I asked in church what words might describe the characteristics of this call to life… people used words like “Forgiveness”, “Faith”, “Grace”, “Love”, “Mercy”, “Justice”, etc. Lot’s of words like that.

Then I asked… “How do you know?” How do you know these words actually describe the kind of life we’re called to live as we follow Christ? We might be exactly right to equate words like these with God’s call for us… but how do we know we’re right? Well, this call comes from God, right?? Makes total sense. Just… how can we know for certain?

Jesus sure seemed pretty clear about what God called him to do. But you know what… so did the Levites… and the Pharisees… and the Essenes… and even the Samaritans! They all had a clear sense of God’s call – and none of them agreed on what that was!

But… but… God is clear about what how we’re supposed to live!? God is clearly an external, objective source of this divinely inspired call… this call to a particular morality!

Well, some people do indeed seem to be very clear about God’s morality. How did they gain this clear sense of God’s will for their lives? How did they get so clear about this morality? Well, it’s sort of obvious… God is THE external, objective source! There is no other source!

Here’s some extreme examples just to make a point a little more clearly: The people of Westboro Baptist appeal to this very same external and completely objective source of morality. Neo-Nazis also appeal to this same external and completely objective morality.

Granted, these are extreme examples, but I wanted to make a point.

Most people certainly don’t interpret their views as legitimate… as divinely inspired, by any means! And yet the people of Westboro Baptist and the Neo-Nazis make this claim… that they are just being loyal to God! Just like we claim!

Yes it is true that most people, most congregations, most denominations, most religions do not interpret these moralities the way the extreme groups I mentioned earlier. But even among the “normal”, general Christian world, there still are such huge disparities of moral views on a whole list of social issues, such as abortion, homosexuality, race issues, immigration, and many others.

The deeper point here is that if we all point to this supposedly external and “objective” source and seem to come up with a whole array of differing moralities… it’s really not a very objective source after all! Because if it were, we’d all be interpreting this in the same way.

Here’s the thing, we really have a hard time stomaching the notion that we have to make our own choices… that we’re responsible for what we say and do, and how we live, and what we do. And we’re responsible for our sense of morality!

We want to attribute our morality to a “divine” source. We want it to come from a sacred, external and objective source. We want divine rules to live by – not a bad thing in theory. And even if these rules are in every way healthy, we really like them to come from something other than us… we have this need to “legitimize” them through a divine being outside of us. Indeed, how much easier it is to appeal to an external, objective source for all this.

Who’s to say we’re right? How do we know if we’re right? If we’re having such trouble agreeing on what the supposed external and objective source of our morality is saying… how can we even say we’re right?

Well, for starters… just because we might have some trouble agreeing, in no way means all choices are morally equivalent!

In terms of our perceived calls of discipleship regarding Christ… Westboro Baptist Church and the Neo-Nazis are NOT morally equivalent to our perceived call of discipleship regarding Christ!

But how do we know?

In the story of Eden, God calls us – through the metaphor of Adam and Eve – to become more self-conscious, more self-aware, more self-responsible… to become more aware of our choices and just as important… why we make them!

This administration has a policy regarding separating the children and parents of illegal immigrants. I get that they are coming illegally… but this is still not moral! It is not moral, no matter what!

“But they are here illegally!!” Separating children from their parents is NOT the only option here! We could certainly start with changing this policy while we re-think (fix!) our immigration system! We could create special courts and cases at the very least!

“But we want to teach them a lesson! We want to make it SO traumatic that they WON’T come back!” THAT may be the deeper thing! We might win the battle... but lose the war!

Folks, there IS a higher moral ground!

In my past career as an Army officer, I went to professional development schools (Military Intelligence and Chaplain schools), and in these, they told us clearly… “We (meaning the US military) do not torture. We don’t do this for two reasons… 1- it doesn’t work (people will tell you whatever they think you want to hear to make the pain stop), and 2- … we’re Americans… we just don’t this!”

It’s the same with this current policy of separating children from their parents! We’re better than this! Maybe we can’t all agree on details of our morality… but doing this is just the wrong thing!

While there may not be as clearly an objective source for morality as we’d like to think, the truth is the responsibility for our choices rests squarely on our shoulders! We may not be able to all agree on moral pronouncements from this clearly “objective” and external source… but it’s a very safe bet that the more self-aware and self-conscious and self-responsible we are, the healthier our views of morality will be. And as a result, we’ll probably have healthier solutions to moral issues.

We have to ask ourselves… what do we stand for? (Remember the “We’re Americans, we just don’t do that!” story?) I’d like to believe we’re better than this! I’d like to believe the US can be a safe place for immigrants who are seeking a safe place to life, in peace, just like the rest of us! I’d like to think that we have enough smart people in our government to be able to figure out a more moral solution to protect our borders, to improve to the immigration process.. and STILL help us be a “Shining Light on a Hill”.

But it takes a depth of self-awareness and maturity to be able to find these healthier solutions. It takes us being responsible for our own choices, and resisting the easier choice of abdicating our responsibility for growing up!

For sure we may not always get it right, but it’s always a healthier choice to admit error… to have enough self-awareness to take responsibility…and move towards healthier directions!

This bible/faith-stuff… it’s not just theoretical! It calls us to apply the principles and values we say we believe in. There is a higher moral way! It starts with our diligence in doing the work of growing up, in doing the work of maturity, in resisting the urges to blame others for our own problems and issues. It starts with leaving Eden and seeking the path of self-responsibility.

Just because we may not all agree on what this “external and objective” source reveals to us about our morality… this in no way means all moral choices are equivalent! Ironically, the further we get from Eden… the healthier we are, and the more moral our choices become!

Who are the brothers and sisters of Jesus? Those that see through the lenses of growth and maturity and self-responsibility… those that uses this lens to see Christ in others, that listen for the word of Grace, and Justice, and Mercy, and Love… these are Jesus’ brothers and sisters!

This is the Gospel call! And it IS a higher way!

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