Sunday, March 11, 2018

Respect Requisite Relationships

Dear Woman,

                   here is your son

                                           ... Here is your mother                                                       John 19:26-27) A man in a Western state lived as a hermit years ago. After living his life in the solitude of a lonely mountain area with his herd of sheep, he made national news when he moved into a nearby valley community and took up residence in the front window of an empty shop. Living the life of a loner has limitations.

One can choose to become a hermit and live in distant mountainous solitude, but sooner or later the life’s quality becomes more enjoyable when shared with another.

The good life is most often lived in bunches and is best lived in the fullness found in relating with others like us. In spite of the ability of some like this writer, for example, to absorb lots of solitude, life most often tastes better in the plural.  It is in our family, friends, and neighborhoods that we most often find the greatest riches. It is when we interface with those we love as much as life itself that life blesses us to the optimum. It sees that relationships bless our lives as nothing else can.

By the same token, when bad times come as they always do, they seldom affect us in single, solitary actions. Our most serious moments involve concern for another, someone we love as much as of life itself, like the eight-year-old grandson I watched recover from surgery after discovering the seriousness of his Avascular Necrosis.

The threat of a hip replacement; the possibility of life in a wheelchair [like my great granddad Warner]; drew me out of my orbit of self-absorption and exposed a cluster of vulnerabilities.
Thus; our most meaningful times often become those gatherings like the family reunion, where families gather, renew, and celebrate neglected relationships and discover new family members previously unknown.

Solitary living offers some rewards, but the investments made in the larger circles beyond ourselves are the ones that most enrich our lives. I now look back and glow with pride remembering how my point of concern overcame his physical disability, became a three-year varsity defensive back on his University team and recognized co-captain with conference honors.

The Biblical Creation began with one solitary man. Seeing the dissatisfaction of Adam’s solitary life, God did not rest until he provided a helpmate. God endowed the man and his helpmate with a gregarious nature, intending for them to live in community, both with him and each other. Whereas our Western culture has placed exorbitant values upon rugged individualism, God created life to be lived in relationships.

People ask “What is in it for me?” and reflect a common choice we must all make in deciding whether our best moments are those personal or public.

John R. Mott looked at our human diversity and concluded there are only two kinds of people. Some are givers. Some are takers. Relating this to the church and faith, Mott suggested “A multitude of laymen are in serious danger.”

Dr. Mott then added, “It is positively perilous for them to hear more sermons, attend more Bible classes, and read more religious and ethical works, unless accompanying it all there be afforded day by day an adequate outlet for this new truth.”

In other words, he was insisting Christianity expresses itself best through our relationships. Being a man of prayer and great devotion, he saw the utter inconsistency of claiming to receive the Grace of God privately without sharing it with another. He understood life is never intended to be lived privately and without any accountability to any other.

Life never intended for us to receive “only” and spend it as we please, however, whenever, or wherever. We are potential participants in life through the giving and sharing of ourselves with others.

A reporter once asked one of football’s greatest coaches, Bud Wilkinson, “What would you say is the contribution of modern football to physical fitness?”

“Absolutely nothing,” replied OU’s legendary coach of the nationally televised Sooners. Pressing the issue, the reporter asked Wilkinson “would you care to elaborate?” “Certainly,” Wilkinson replied, “I define football as twenty-two men on the field desperately needing rest and forty thousand people in the stands desperately needing exercise.”

This gridiron veteran understood what hundreds of church pastors have discovered--while twenty to thirty percent of congregational teams get involved in playing the game, the majority sit in the bleachers spectate passively. They ignore the Psalmist’s warning to “Declare His glory among the nations” (96:3).

According to Dr. Mott, if a man has religion, “he must do one of two things with it; if it is false, he must give it up; if it is true, he must give it away.”

This relational word from the cross jabs us awake and elbows its way into the center of our attention. Jesus’ third word from the cross lifts up his widely practiced principle of relating responsibly to others and mutually withy others. With physical life seeping slowly from his body--like the tide returning to the sea; his concern for his beloved mother, Mary, remained personal and purposeful.

Standing before his cross, Mary this noblest of women suffered silently as women have done through the centuries. Recalling the strange circumstances surrounding the unusual birth of her firstborn, she felt the tremor in her heart as she heard the thud of the hammer against the nail heads piercing her son‘s body. Hanging as a common criminal on that cruel Roman gibbet, Mary’s memory remained distinct as fresh dew in early morning. It shaped a memory she treasured above all others.

She remembered her astonishment and wide-eyed excitement upon visiting Elizabeth in her special hours; the hushed awe of those Eastern Kings; that strange music accompanying those humble shepherds. And yes; there was that strange prayer of the prophet Simeon… but this…?

The word Mary heard from the cross revealed the humanity of her son, as he gave her, his mother, to John, the disciple he loved with “special” love. Directing Mary away from himself, Jesus charged John with her well-being. He made John a surrogate son to do what he would have done.

This word proclaims a divine perspective of a relational theology and unfolds it before our very eyes.  We are left to meditate on how much Jesus valued these human relationships so essential to all of us.

Studying the edges of the larger picture, we glimpse God’s firm approval on our homes as places where men and women live together and raise their children in the safety of a private harbor. Christian homes are secure places where members learn how to mutually relate with one another in an environment of acceptance. Our homes should be living laboratories where each enjoys patience and love, while learning how to live together. In this quiet drama, Jesus touched his finger to the pulse beat of social history and gave us “the needed corrective” for our worst of human social ills.

Epictetus, the Greek philosopher, agreed before his death that he would like for life to find him busy at something noble, beneficent, and for the good of all mankind. “But, since that is little likely to befall me,” he allowed, “I should choose next to go out remembering what is due to every relationship in life.”

Jesus, in a homely but dramatic manner, brought the best of our human intentions together: charging his followers with responsible relationships through this act of linking together the two people he most loved in life. As surely as we sow a thought, we reap an active behavior. Sow a habit and we soon reap a character. By sowing character, we eventually reap a destiny.

In spite of the truth that everything Jesus did and said reaffirms this truth, non-involvement still paralyzes large segments of our Faith Community. Parents still abdicate parental roles, neglecting to provide correction and training for their children. Couples give birth thoughtlessly and parent children fearfully, professing their fear of losing the love of a sometimes wayward and disobedient child.

Some prefer to jeopardize the future of their offspring rather than risk investing responsible parental involvement. Others are selfishly into their own preoccupations with life and leave their homes totally inadequate because they neglect making their home the training center God intended it to be, with the help of the church. These parents leave the church as effective in its spiritual warfare as a one-legged man running in a track meet.

While working at the Ann Arbor Center for the Study of Youth Policy, Ira Schwartz suggested people should only talk about children being our greatest national resource. Contradicting what most of us say we believe, Schwartz pointed to the fact that we had more children living in poverty than at any other time in recent decades. “We have more children, by far,” he suggested, “in institutions - group homes, foster homes, detention centers, psychiatric hospitals - than ever before.” That is true a decade later.

The head of a large government medical center, with a psychiatric ward of several hundred patients, reported the greatest number of patients in his wards were there because they lacked home discipline--second only to substance abuse via alcohol.

Jesus’ third word from the cross helps us understand that our homes are the foundation on which our social structures are built [rest]. What a marvelous thing God did by bringing Joseph and Mary together and providing them a son via the Holy Spirit. What an awesome influence for any father to exert upon his son, that his son would teach other men to pray as Jesus taught his disciples to pray: “Our Father … in heaven …”

God took outrageous risk with Joseph and Mary, perhaps more than our government pledging to put a man on the moon by an announced time. God made himself uniquely vulnerable. Yet, Joseph and Mary illustrate in their parental success with Jesus the overwhelming worth of the home as an institution deserving of both divine approval and human involvement.

God foresaw the value of basic relationships and he blessed the eternal consequences of those relationships. Like all couples, Joseph and Mary were free to be takers or givers. They were free to choose between responsible behavior and irresponsible living. By elevating humanity above the biological level of the animal kingdom, God endowed humanity with the capacity for moral and ethical development. Once initiated, he was beyond the point of return and he had to hold to his intentions.

In her studies, early anthropologist Margaret Mead described what has been called the exaggerated males. She found that -
            We muffle him in feminine affection, and present his father to him as
            an animated whip to enforce his mother’s role of affectionate ruler.
            All through his impressionable years he associates with women whom
            he cannot take as models, interesting and admirable as often they are.
            This being so, without being able to identify with the only adults
            he knows, denied the stimulating companionship with men, he falls
            back on the age-group, that standardizing leveling influence in which
            all personality is subordinated to a group type.
Arthur Witt Blair and William H. Burton,
Growth and Development of the Preadolescent.
(New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1951), pp. 110-111.

Much of the social breakdown in today’s family comes from the double standard forced by a male population anxious to maintain its “good ‘ole boy status,”  oftentimes supported by thoughtless Christians fearful of giving Mary equality with Joseph. We certainly need men like Joseph who will take seriously the need to provide male role-models for sons, daughters, and step-children. We need them every bit as much as we need Mary’s to complement their family’s. Every child has a civil right to benefit from  both a Joseph and a Mary model and no child should be deprived of either.

The charge Jesus gave to John and Mary at the cross finds precedent in the concept Jesus taught his disciples, “Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:34). In like manner, Paul seemingly implies that it was the will of God for Christian believers (both husbands and wives) to become mutually submissive to each other. “Submit to one another,” Paul told his friends, “out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:22).

David Popenoe described the average American as “anxious, unsettled, and insecure,” seeing the erosion of personal relationships and failing social values. Addressing the decline in fatherhood and marriage, Popenoe called fathers one of our “two most important” role models in children’s lives, and suggested our national response should be the “reestablishment of fatherhood and marriage” as strong cultural realities. His ultimate concern “…is that slowly, insidiously, and relentlessly our society has been moving in an ominous direction - toward the devaluation of children.”
David Popenoe, Life Without Father, The Free Press (Simon & Schuster Inc. 1996), pp. 13-14. 

As the home goes, so goes the nation.  Thus, Margaret Sangster described a work-weary widow wending her way into a North Galilean village, looking like a warped toothpick. Coming out of the countryside, she accepted a small house from the villagers who saw her agony-filled eyes at near flood level. She bothered no one and the villagers avoided disturbing her, being especially kind to her since hearing the teachings of the new Galilean prophet.

That all changed one day when a brown-eyed girl fainted on her doorstep. The villagers did not accept the girl in the scarlet gown, but the widow took her in. Eventually, the widow delivered the baby and cared for him as if he were her own.

“You loved him, your son, so much that all other babies are dear to you - for his sake…?” the young woman posed the question. The older woman answered all the questions about her son’s learning, and about his cleverness, but she never spoke of how he died.

Eventually, she gave the baby a blanket for a gift, filling the young mother’s eyes with tears. The lonely old lady described making the garment. She told of waiting months for the birth of her son, and of embroidering a tiny “J” in the corner. Of course, the young mother went out telling everyone of the kindness, of her convalescence, and of the other woman’s son born in the South of Jerusalem.

As the story spread around the countryside, the youth who had fathered the infant finally stepped forward and confessed his responsibility for both the mother and the child. With the villagers visiting the aging widow, the reunited couple determined to stay. Then on the anniversary of the star, the villagers brought gifts to the widow, including a carved manger scene. Finding the feeble widow weakening, the villagers sought her blessing.

In time, she could no longer recognize them, seeing only the countryside and her own son.  “The fields of Kerioth are so green in the springtime,” she whispered “and soon he’ll be running home.” As her weakened body slipped from time, some heard her whisper, “Come home, come home, my little one, for it is bedtime. Come home. Judas. . .”
(Golden Moments of Religious Inspiration, ed. by Ruth M. Elmquist
/New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1954), pp. 28-39.
“The Mother” by Margaret E. Sangster).

A seminary Professor I once knew vacationed in the Smokies with his family. They enjoyed food at a small cafe noted for its steaks and country-fried ham where they watched a family of four enter and sit while waiting to be served. The newcomers gave their order - except for Junior, who demanded a Hot Dog. The waitress explained they had no Hot Dogs on the menu, and retreated. The family held a quick summit conference, called the waitress back, cancelled their order, and explained they would have to go where Junior could have his Hot Dog. As the home goes, so goes the church.

Many a church pew finds itself occupied by a new kind of secular critic today. This modern mind can observe a clover field filled with a drove of hogs, a herd of sheep, a flock of geese, and a herd of cattle. After a great deal of consultation, this thoughtful person still cannot determine why the hogs grow bristles, the sheep grow wool, the geese grow feathers, and the cattle grow hair--although they all feed from the same patch of clover. Similarly, Mr. & Mrs. Critic go home from church and eat ham, mutton, baked goose, and beefsteak before sleeping on a feathered pillow. Then, after a good night’s sleep, they brush their hair with a bristle brush and clothe themselves in wool. Yet, they dispassionately reject the bible as God’s Word--all because their prejudices, misconceptions, and misunderstandings cannot explain how so much variety can come out of a single field of clover.

That’s how it was when they nailed Jesus to his cross. They nailed his hands so they could not serve. They nailed his feet so they could not carry him to places of service. The heart of Jesus, nevertheless, went out to the watching crowd. Seeing his beloved mother among the bystanders, Jesus pointed her out to John and John to her. This word from Jesus to each of them incontestably condemned the religious irresponsibility of all of us who attend church and experience little more than a light case of moral intoxication.

They get just enough of the spirit of worship to make them feel good; just enough to immunize against the real thing. Being without a truly transforming experience, they feel good for having attended. They are satisfied that they are part of a worshipping community, but they fall far short of walking with Jesus and they see no need for displaying their faith through interpersonal relationships in the public arena.

Such people would not understand Nurse Sarah, whose faith followed her from her place of worship to her place of work. It fell Sarah’s lot to care for a gruff, lonely male patient who made all the nurses dread doing duty in the surgical ward. Every nurse who crossed his path found him difficult, behaving so miserably that staff members brought him his essential medications, gave him his food promptly at mealtime, and otherwise responded to his troubled and obnoxious calls only when they could not do otherwise.

Following serious surgery, the patient’s surgical wound healed nicely but his wounded spirit failed to find the needed will to get well - until Sarah Smith came to work on his floor. Warned by previous staffers, Nurse Smith called on the resources of her personal faith and began meeting his curses with smiles. She made extra trips to assure him of fresh drinking water. She inquired about his special needs. When he took a turn for the better, she smiled with evident pleasure. After a few days, the doctors began discussing his improvement and possible departure. When it finally came time for him to leave, this terrible-tempered patient in room 610 had only one question to ask. “Why have you been so nice to me?”

“What do you mean?” inquired sweet-smiling Sarah.

"All the other nurses came and went,” he explained cautiously, “doing only what their duty demanded. But, you smiled when I cursed at you. You were kind so many times when you didn’t have to be, and I’d like to know why.”

“I’ve been nice to you because God wants to love you;” Sarah Smith smiled again, confiding to her transformed patient, “I’m letting him love you through me.”

It takes a minimal amount of faith to become a Christian, but it requires an active and growing faith to become a relational Christian. It takes only a mustard seed of faith to open a bank account, but it takes a series of serious investments to convert that bank account into an active financial investment. It takes sound money management to maintain that account as a sound, growing, and profitable investment. Only serious study of the market, wise investing, and the Christian practice of stewardship and good money management principles will enable the entrepreneur to expand the worth of the account and achieve the goal of comfortable living.

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich showed the life of the German people after the fall of Hitler as they viewed the truth about their country, which they had previously ignored and refused to believe. Martin Neomiller, the primary strategist for the Nazi resisters, was often heard to tell his American audiences,

            First, they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because
            I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I
            did not speak out because I was not a Trade unionist. Then they
            came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.
            Then they came for me, and there was no one left but me.

Many in the German church believed Neomiller was being a little “wooden headed,“ but the hypocrisy of this kind of disengagement from the political process is more obvious to us more than seven decades later. It also illustrates a more serious hypocrisy that comes even closer home, offering us just enough religion to keep us from being miserable when we sin, without providing enough moral fervor to transform our lives and cause us to participate in that spiritual process.

As someone noted; many would be horrified to hear Christianity doubted, but they would be equally horrified at seeing it practiced. We are sufficiently vaccinated to feel no fever of sin when we slander our brother, gossip about our sister, or live one life in church and another at the office. Not seeing the mite in the other person’s eye can be tragic, but refusing to treat the log in our own eye quickly brings visual glaucoma.

Jesus’ third word from the cross calls us to mutually responsible relationships that make the cross itself our ultimate symbol. In speaking this word, Jesus invites all who will come within hearing range, to move beyond the subtlety of self-complacency and live on the high plain of interpersonal relationships. Practical Christianity begins with that vertical relationship of the cross, as the inquiring lawyer admitted to Jesus; i.e., loving God supremely (Luke l0).

However, when Jesus told the story of this Good Samaritan, he instructed the lawyer to “Go and practice it yourself.”  Jesus not only illustrated this pointed, pertinent, and practical lesson in Christian character; he also gave us a specific instruction. Using popular jargon, we should admit Jesus told the lawyer he needed an attitude adjustment. It is that same “attitude adjustment” that many of us need to experience anew, so we can better relate to others on our journey through life (cf. Luke 10:37, Williams).

We begin by loving God supremely. But, that beloved disciple John wrote later in life, “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” (I John 3:17).  He was saying we follow the model of the cross best when we share God’s grace through loving relationships and when we practice loving our neighbors of whatever color, creed, or culture as ourselves. 

For all his eloquent philosophizing about human rights, Rousseau left a poor model as he wallowed in his creaturely vomit, sneaking through the dark night of irresponsibility to leave his babies on the door of the foundling home.

This story from India helps us search for the contours of Christian character. It illustrates our interdependence by painting a verbal portrait that reveals the importance of these relationships to our own development. Dr. Wealthy Fisher recalled Sadu Sindar Singh going out with other Christian believers every winter, to witness in the remote areas across the Himalaya mountains. On one occasion when it was cold and snowing, this outstanding Indian leader stumbled across something in the snow. Uncovering the nearly frozen form of a man, Sindar Singh determined to carry the frozen victim to safety.

“No,” said Sindar’s companion, “I’m going on. We cannot make the journey ourselves if we carry him.”

Nevertheless, Sindar Singh began to carry the man, and soon he realized the warmth of the man’s body helped him to be warmer than he had been without the extra burden. As Sindar continued carrying the victim, the man began to move. After walking with his heavy burden for a long distance, Sindar saw a light. He knew it would be a house, but as he approached within about a hundred yards of the house, he stumbled over something buried in the snow. Looking down, he quickly recognized the frozen form of his former companion who had walked on ahead, leaving him to carry the nearly frozen body he had found.

The man, who had pushed forward by himself in order to save himself, had frozen to death in a snowy grave. Sindar Singh repeated the verse that crossed his mind: “He that saves his life shall lose it.” In that thoughtful dawning, he realized the man he had found in the snow had kept him alive, the same man his co-laborer had feared would become a burden and possibly cause both of them to lose their lives.

In this responsible word from the cross, Jesus shows us how to walk with him, discover life, and save ourselves. Dr. Marlin Hotle, Executive Director of the Christian Holiness Partnership, remembered attending Camp Meeting as a child and becoming confused after hearing someone disgustedly remark, “That evangelist doesn’t preach holiness. He preaches a social gospel."

Hotle had read enough of John Wesley to know that Wesley’s message caused early Methodists to wage war against slavery, and later prompted other Holiness folks to apply “social holiness” in inner-city missions.  Hotle had no problem with those who protested abuses of the welfare system, but he insisted that real holiness feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, visits the fatherless, and weeps with those in prison. He concluded that God’s holiness works for social justice
(Holiness Is a Social Gospel” by Marlin R. Hotle, Editor The Holiness Digest,
Clinton, TN.: Christian Holiness Partnership, Vol. 13, No. 4), pp. 4-5).

Those who follow the role Jesus modeled quickly discover that giving a helping hand is a sure way to find new life. By taking our cue from the life of Jesus, we rediscover what Sindar Singh discovered --life is encountered, enriched, and expanded, when we reach out with a helping hand. How thankful I am to live in a nation whose government honors this fundamental Christian concept enough that we can provide a social safety net some  denigrate by calling it “Welfare.”

Welfare reform was an idea whose time had come and no one understands that better than the disciples of Jesus: life reveals its most abundant dimensions when we allow God to freely channel his manifold blessings of grace through our lives into the lives of others.

             There’s a destiny that makes us brothers;
                        None goes his way alone:
            All that we send into the lives of others
                        Comes back into our own.
From “A Creed” by Edwin Markham.
The Best Loved Poems of the American People, ed. by Hazel Felleman,
(New York: (Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1936), p. 299.

A Scotchman had the good fortune to rescue a certain lad from a dangerous bod near Darvel. The simple Scot refused the gratitude of the Nobleman whose son he rescued, but he agreed the man could help educate his son. That Scotchman’s son went on to graduate from St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School and later discovered penicillin. His name was Sir. Arthur Fleming. During World War Two the Nobleman’s son was stricken with pneumonia, but he lived because of Penicillin. His name was Winston Churchill.

I am 
,,, looking back on a long life with solitude that I valued.
Yet: one thing I have learned as a Christian: life is relational. At its optimum, it is enhanced and enriched when shared with the Christ that teaches us how to live life at optimum best--relationally with one another.                        

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