The Fear of the Ordinary

“There was a man who lost an ax and thought the boy next door stole it. For the next few days he watched the boys movements and decided that his behavior and looks were like those of a guilty person. Later the man found the ax in a deserted area in the woods. When he got home his neighbors boy no longer looked like a thief. Whether someone is guilty or not depends on your opinion of them in the first place.” (Lieh-Tzu translated by Eva Wong)

Is there a connection between hatred and falsehood? Most definitely. The Ten Commandments tells us ‘You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Parents tell their children this means you must not tell a lie. All too often that is as far as it ever goes. The commandment is concerns a legal problem. If someone believes he has something to gain in a lawsuit or by getting someone else convicted with their property confiscated, that person may be tempted – very tempted to lie about it. The story of how Queen Jezebel legally steals Naboth’s vineyard by having him falsely accused and executed is the most well-known Biblical example. The most well-known American example is the Salem Witch Trials.

The commandment has a further application as well. If we hate another person, we tend to believe anything negative about that person. We will wish to hear dirt. Or we might hope someone gets the goods on that person. Or they may hope that others learn what that person is “really like.” If a rumor is voiced about someone the people who hate him or her will enthusiastically pass it along. It does not matter if the accusation is true. Scoring points against that person is all that matters.

I often cringe when I see some obviously false accusation made against a public figure. When I find myself tempted to believe something and pass it along, I attempt to force myself to remember that I know very few public figures personally. I hope to be fair in my judgements. I really want to know what a person actually said and make the best judgement I can from there.

All of us though have ego problems. The desire to get the goods or know the dirt on someone comes from issues we have about ourselves and our place in the world. The present era allows for much more nonsense and evil to be perpetuated by “bearing false witness.” Both Idiot America and Fantasyland are books that detail some of the worst ideas held by too many people. We can call them “conspiracy theories” or malevolent views about other human beings. Either label fits the definition of ideas that are designed and perpetuated with little factual basis that allow for the construction of evil responses. During the late eighties, I read an article by a religious leader that dealt with “Satanic Conspiracies.” I saw the author in a university café and went to him to ask why he wrote something that has been debunked that is to say proven false. He walked quickly away without providing an answer or acknowledging I spoke to him. He simply knowingly wrote something that passed along false information with the intent of improving his standing among readers in his fundamentalist audience. In other words, he “bore false witness” to make himself more popular as an author and preacher.

What motivated that preacher and other people like him? He was afraid of being ordinary. He wanted to be a star in the world in which he lived. Being once on the talk show Donahue had gone to his head. The fear that so many people have of being ordinary leads them to try to shine without any effort. Reality television and internet video has made this possible. I recently listened to an Audible documentary called It Burns. The documentary is about the quest to breed the hottest pepper. The narrator points out that there are a number of people doing internet videos showing themselves trying to eat “Ghost Peppers” and “Carolina Reapers” causing themselves to suffer the burning sensations, vomiting, and eventually endorphins. In their minds, they are no longer ordinary. They are heroes or at the very least spectacles of a sort.

Ultimately, this is the same motivation of those people who are not great talents in anything to perpetuate untruths on websites, magazines, and books. Ego, either inflated or decimated, causes conspiracy theorists to tell lies about other people. It is the fear of being an ordinary human person that makes them become the most loathsome of liars. And it does not matter if such lies are told in the name of religion, patriotism, or getting your football team’s coach fired.

It takes courage to be ordinary. It takes humility to be a saint no one remembers. One person cannot receive the affirmation of their life from the willingness of other people to believe falsehoods. People may not love you for standing in and for truth. But stirring up their hatred makes one worse than a scoundrel.

The Promise of Generations

I am privileged to have members of “the greatest generation” as my grandparents. I am even luckier to have been able to learn so much from them as I grew up. My grandparents on both sides lived until I became an adult. That benefits me in two important ways. I learned a lot from them. I was also able to discern whether or not I believed anything they were saying.

I have known many people who were never able to question what they were taught by their elders. I have been able to reject the racism, sexism, superstitions, and attitudes of persecution I learned. I continue to honor their memory. And to remember that when everything is being taken into account, I still love them. I was never harmed by them. As I said, I am luckier than some others.

Tom Brokaw gave us the term “the greatest generation.” The people who survived the Great Depression and fought the Second World War made our lives today possible. The story of The United States of America, indeed the course of the whole world, could have been very, horribly different. My grandparents generation had to do the same things I have done. They needed to learn from their ancestors and learn what they must reject from the times of their ancestors. Families that root every bit of their identity in the past become emotionally unhealthy.

The first commandment “with a promise” is the fifth one on the list of the Ten Commandments. “Honor your father and mother so that your days may be long in the land…” There is a wonderful principle of love in action in this command. When one’s parents have become old and unable to earn a decent living, the children must step up and help the parents take care of themselves. If age and infirmity require, the adult children must care for them. In this way, the people would have a long secure life in the land.

The nature of family life is preserved by the fifth commandment. My work, though, has demonstrated how difficult it can be to deal with parents that are cruel, self-absorbed, mean spirited, and greedy.  The adult children may not be capable of forgiving or tolerating abusive parents. It is never my place to tell such people what they should do. The baby-boomer generation faced the dilemma of having to choose on occasion if their attention should go to their parents or their grandchildren. It has become difficult in this modern society in the West to do what was once done.

I was told a story by a church member about her brothers problem in World War 2. They trained and reached certification as pilots in the Army Air Corps. However, they did not fully graduate with their flight class. They were to be commissioned as officers in the Army. Their commissions were delayed. It took a few months to clear the issue up. They were informed that their background checks revealed that they were related to Nazi Party Leader Rudolf Hess. Who would have guessed? My friend remembered it very well. Her grandmother often wrote to the Hess cousins in Germany. She was in fact the last real contact with that branch of the family. The pilots were given approval and served in the war. No contact was no problem.

Years later Rudolf Hess was the only prisoner in Spandau prison. He was an old man. The American and British governments wanted to release him and destroy the prison that held the surviving major Nazi criminals. The Soviet Union refused. Hess committed suicide in prison. My friend told me afterwards she was disturbed and resented the Russian government for its choice. I guess he was family after all.

It is important that the Church begin to review its teaching surrounding the fifth commandment. Modern society relieves the pressure on families by governments instituting social insurance in different forms. The Church needs to ensure that we are able as people within families that we can care for children and elders to preserve the positive connections and to change the legacies we have.

Can the Church advocate for better care of health and social life? Yes, it can. In fact, it is a divine imperative. The Church should help to conserve what matters most for human life. Christians should motivate these institutions to fulfil the promise of generations.

 

Allow For The Children

Garth Brooks is coming to town. It is funny how associations are made in one’s mind. When I hear the name of Garth Brooks, I think of one fan in particular. His name was Travis. He was a super fan. When his favorite singer came on the radio I could ask who it was. He would dance and yell out the name “Garth Brooks!” I could not let it go. “Who?” I asked. He would shout it again and give me that lopsided smile of his. He knew I heard him. He loved the game.

I was in college in Oklahoma City. It was a small Christian University near Edmond. I needed a Physical Education credit. It had to fulfill two requirements. It needed to fit my schedule. And it did not need to be too demanding physically. The latter requirement was not because of any health issue. I was being lazy. Gym class was never my thing. Exercise to me should involve purpose, destination, and if at all possible adventure. So I read the available course descriptions. I found something I liked. It involved playing with children from the local public schools. The catch was it required the professor’s approval and an orientation.

I was quickly approved after my interview with the “coach.” The orientation was very interesting. The students from the local schools were special needs children. I mentioned Travis had a lopsided grin. He had a cleft palate and several learning issues. He was what older people called “hare-lipped.”  I sat in orientation and listened to the coach describe the students. A few of the students were immobile. A few of the helpers would sit and hold them on the large trampoline where the students would receive some stimulation from the gentle movements. The other students would enjoy the basketball court, the multicolored parachute, the foam balls, and tricycles. We would help them with it all. Then the coach said some other things to us. He became very serious.

“The teachers tell me about the children,” he began. I cannot give a verbatim. I will never forget the points he made to us. The teachers knew that some of the children when they boarded the school bus for the special needs students would know it was “O.C” day. The students liked coming to Oklahoma Christian University for the time with us college student helpers. The reason for that, the teachers observed, was the college students hugged the children, held their hands as we walked with them, and remembered their names. The children attended some of the other local state colleges. Those students played with the students and talked to them. They never were able to show them they were loved. The students in the state colleges were restrained from touching the children in any way. Was this about policy? Were the students following instructions from their teachers?” It is difficult to say. My fellow students were loving, helpful, and joyful people. We enjoyed working with the children.

The grim side of what we were doing included the assumption by the teachers that some of their students were neglected at home. Some of the children, my friend Travis among them, went directly to the radio when their favorite songs were being played. A few children knew the lyrics very well. The teachers thought these children were sent to their rooms and listened to the music for the rest of the evening. Travis never knew the words. The fact that he knew the singer meant someone was listening to the music with him. He was not neglected. One student was in the special needs program because of severe child abuse. Another child had a terminal illness. I saw her when the make a wish program brought her wish to her. The work was going to strengthen emotional muscles.

I learned the sheer joy of working with children in that class. During my ministry I took Child Safety and Safe Sanctuaries very seriously.  Whether the work was with the church, sports, or scouting, ministry to children has been important to my life. I am saddened when children are not in existing congregations. I am equally saddened when parents leave a church because “there is nothing for the kids.”

I have to ask though. Why aren’t children and their spiritual development more important to the adults? The most well meaning parents will move heaven and earth to get their children what they need in the way of health, education, and future opportunities. And yet, the spiritual development is not as necessary. There are no spiritual practices at home or in the church. How can compassion, the healthy sense of self, and the love of the community be developed in them?

The church has failed children. We cannot seem to get it right. We either ignore children or cater to them. We do not demonstrate the love they need the most. It would be wonderful if the children approached Sunday mornings as joyful times. If the children got excited about being there would we finally live out Jesus’ call to allow the children to show us how to build the kingdom of heaven?

I think it would help us to find more ways to partner with local schools and do more outreach to minister to children. Sponsoring a classroom and teacher may be a good beginning. The ministry focus of the local church should change. It is important for the lives of the church and the local community.

THE SON OF MAN?

The Sunday School teacher will stand before his or her class and ask, “What do we mean when we call Jesus the Son of God?” The answer will be either “He is Divine” or less often “He had no human father.” The teacher may then ask, “What do we mean that Jesus is the Son of Man?” Often the answer will be given that “He is human.” And most of the time these answers are acceptable along with the affirmation that Jesus was one hundred per cent Divine and one hundred percent human. That affirmation is definitely orthodox by the Chalcedon formulation. However, the answers are wrong.

“And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.'” (Matthew 3:17 NRSV) The ancient Christian heresy called “adoptionism” claimed after his baptism is when God adopted Jesus as his son. It is wrong for important reasons. The simplest reason is that God never adopted anyone. Still, there were certain people in the Old Testament that were regarded as God’s “sons.” Who were they? These men were the Kings of the Davidic line. And while later Kings of Judah might have claimed a divine connection by adding the divine name of “Je” to their names (Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Jeconiah) none of them were truly regarded as divine. The prophet Jeremiah once refers to the last king of this line as “Coniah.” (see Jeremiah 22:24-30) Some fundamentalist interpreters would likely claim, “Of course, the prophecy had not been fulfilled yet.” However, that begs the question of what was given to them as they were being called “son of God.” The answer is kingship with the responsibilities and the authority that accompanied the role of the King.

First century Jewish scholars would certainly understand being called the son of God was a witness to kingship. And according to Daniel Boyarin in his work,  The Jewish Gospels only one person could ever take up the mantel of King in the Davidic line. That person was known as the Son of Man.

Boyarin argues that the belief that the Son of Man as a Divine Being was held by many first century Jewish scholars. He uses the witness of Daniel chapter 7 and 1st Enoch and the Similitudes of Enoch to demonstrate the Son of Man was supposed by a large number of scholars to be a divine being originating in heaven and arriving on earth to return to the side of God. That man would be a truly anointed one of God – the Messiah of God. Jesus was saying nothing that these believers in the promise to Israel did not already believe. He was merely claiming the mantel for himself.

A larger number of Jewish scholars did not accept the conclusions about the Son of Man that some others had reached. The visions given in the books previously mentioned are vague to say the least. There is even a conclusion that marks Enoch “who walked with God” and was taken by God to be the Son of Man. Interestingly enough each group tended to refer to the other as “hypocrites.”

The synoptic gospels then understand the term Son of Man to be a Divine Being. And they are witnessing to Jesus claiming to be that person. By the time John’s gospel was written the Divinity of Christ was affirmed by enough early Christians that the writer sets out to explain what is meant in a seeming duality of God.

Modern scholars today have concluded that Matthew’s gospel was written by the early Christians who settled in Antioch in Syria (Acts 11:26). If so, this would explain one of the most problematic passages in Matthew’s book. “When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes” (10:23). The context of this verse is when Jesus sends out the twelve disciples to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Albert Schweitzer believed this text demonstrated Jesus was not divine because it appears Jesus got it wrong. Searching the gospels for “the historic Jesus” is probably the wrong way to go about it. The gospels are meant to witness to a resurrected and ascended Messiah. Another problem is that we forget how Matthew interprets a passage of Scripture.

The prophet Hosea in chapter 11 and verse 1 of the Old Testament book bearing his name. “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.”  Matthew tells the amazing story of the holy family fleeing Bethlehem and staying in Egypt outside of Herod’s jurisdiction. When Joseph is told to return home, the writer uses the statement from Hosea to affirm that Holy Scripture is being fulfilled. And yet, the context of Hosea 11:1 is a reference to God recounting Israel’s history as a wayward child using the tribe of Ephraim as the stand-in for all of the northern Kingdom of Israel. The narrative of the gospel is that Jesus is taken to Nazareth which is in Galilee in the area once occupied by the northern kingdom. Matthew interprets Holy Scripture with actions in the life of Jesus even if the plain meaning of the text indicates something unrelated. Jesus’ words and actions are related to these texts in Matthew’s understanding of how the Scriptures can be fulfilled.

Obviously, then, the writer of the gospel will interpret Jesus’ words into the life of the church. Jesus does not mean geographical Israel (which really cannot be said to exist) but the “towns of Israel” wherever Israelites live. The Christian community in Antioch assumes the Son of Man will reappear soon.

Using Boyarin’s Talmudic scholarship, it is evident that the Christian Scriptures (both the interpretations of the Old Testament and the writings of the New Testament in the Christian tradition) are taken from the Jewish community that believed the apocalyptic visions of the Son of Man and accepted Jesus’ claim to be Him. The Jewish community that did not understand the apocalyptic visions of Daniel and the works bearing the name of Enoch would have been most likely not to understand the claim.

Boyarin’s book includes more material about how Jesus went about observing the Torah. He also describes how those that followed Jesus’ way accepted the suffering and death of the Messiah as fulfilling Isaiah 53. To this writer, it appears that Jesus’ claim to be the divine being known as the Son of Man is crucial to understanding the Christian viewpoint that eventually changed Christianity from a Jewish movement to a primarily grouping of Gentile communities that is too far separated from its Jewish roots and even misunderstands its Scriptures and Tradition making untenable claims about both.