The Key to the Good Life

The good life is all about good relationships. Our most serious problems and our greatest accomplishments involve relationships. Studies have repeatedly shown that good relationships contribute more to happiness than success, and bad relationships contribute more to unhappiness than failure.

The Harvard Study of Adult Development has tracked the lives of 724 men for 75 years. The study director, Robert Waldinger, summarized its findings this way: “The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”

One of Western society’s principal myths envisions the good life waiting at the end of a career path. But the good life is found in healthy and appropriate relationships with those who share the path with us, not at its end. People who sacrifice good relationships for money or career unwittingly pull the rug out from under their own contentment.

The word the Christian tradition uses to denote healthy and appropriate relationships is “righteousness.” The noun and its cognates appear over a thousand times in the Bible. Being righteous was a chief concern of both Jews and Christians.

Unfortunately, many people thought that righteousness was about keeping rules rather than living in right relationships. The Pharisees, who were contemporaries of Jesus, are a case in point. Their experts had composed 39 separate categories of rules just to govern Sabbath Day conduct. Every poor Pharisee had thousands of rules to try to remember and keep.

One rule, for example, prohibited a person from carrying “a burden” on the Sabbath. That seems straightforward enough. But not so fast. What constitutes a burden? To answer that question, religious scholars composed endless lists of proscribed burdens. A burden was food equal in weight to a dried fig, enough wine for mixing in a goblet, milk enough for one swallow, water enough to moisten an eye-salve, ink enough to write two letters of the alphabet”—and on and on.

If memorizing lists like these is what it takes to be “righteous,” the only a righteous people will be nit-picking, fastidious cranks. But the righteous people of the Bible, including Abraham, Moses, David, Ruth, Esther, and especially Jesus, were anything but nit-picking cranks.

Fastidious rule-keeping is not righteousness. A person does not cross the “righteousness boundary” because he or she has achieved 75 percent of perfection on some official list of religious behaviors.

Righteousness is all about relationships. No one, not even God, can be righteous in isolation; it requires relationship. To be righteous is to be right in relationship; that is, to relate appropriately. An appropriate relationship will be different with a spouse than with a boss – it’s probably best not to kiss your boss hello and goodbye – and both will differ from an appropriate relationship with God.

Of course, many people feel like right and good relationships are no longer possible for them. Their relationship with spouse, child, parent, or co-worker has been so badly damaged that it seems beyond repair. So, they give up on good relationships and pursue money or success or endless distraction instead.

But it is never too late. No matter how strained a relationship is, one can always begin to relate appropriately. That won’t “fix” a damaged relationship, which may require years of rebuilding, but it will put it on different footing. Even if the other person rebuffs all communication, one can still act appropriately, given the situation. One can forgive or request forgiveness, pray for the other person, refuse to speak badly and instead speak well of him or her to others. In a badly damaged relationship, such actions might be what righteousness entails.

The good life is about good and healthy relationships, and good and healthy relationships begin in a right relationship with God, made possible through confidence in Jesus Christ. By its very nature, a relationship with God interacts with every other relationship we have, making it the perfect place to start. It gives a person room to stand, and the strength and insight necessary to begin new ways of relating to others.

Put simply: the good life is all about good relationships, and good relationships depend on a right relationship with God.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 2/17/2018

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The Strange History of St. Valentine’s Day

It’s almost Valentine’s Day. The pressure is on. Forget to buy a gift, and you might be in the doghouse. Forget to send a card, and you’ll be lucky to get the doghouse key.

I almost always remember to buy my wife a card, but even if I didn’t, she would still love me. If giving cards and gifts is a “love language,” as the psychologist Gary Chapman maintains, neither my wife nor I are fluent in it. Some years ago, during a busy week before Valentine’s Day, we were together in a store. She picked out a card for me and I picked out one for her, showed each other the cards, probably kissed (I don’t remember), then returned the cards to their respective shelves. Hallmark hates us, but we love each other.

February 14th has not always been the way it is now. It used to be worse. During the Roman festival of Lupercalia, drunk, naked men hit women with the skins of recently sacrificed animals in a raucous fertility ritual. The women were then paired with the men who beat them, and the couple’s fertility was put to the test.

What did St. Valentine have to do with this? Absolutely nothing. Valentine was, historians believe, a Christian priest who lived near Rome during the time of Emperor Claudius II, a sworn enemy of the faith. In fact, there were two Christian priests named Valentine, living around Rome at the same time, and Claudius had them both put to death on February 14, during Lupercalia, though not in the same year.

It is possible the stories of the two Valentines, executed under Claudius, have been conflated, and that St. Valentine is really an amalgam of both. According to one tradition, Valentine had won the emperor’s admiration, but lost it – and his life – by trying to convert Claudius to the faith. The emperor was so outraged by Valentine’s unwanted evangelism, he ordered a three-part execution: beating, stoning, and beheading.

Another version attributes Claudius’s ire to the fact that Valentine was secretly marrying Christian couples, against the edict of the Emperor. Since newly married men were excused for a time from serving in the wars, Valentine was accused of hindering the war effort.

It is often said that just before Valentine was led away to execution, he wrote a note to the daughter of his jailer, whose vision was restored after he prayed for her. According to legend, he signed his encouraging note, “from your Valentine.” Hence the tradition of sending Valentine cards.

Whether or not our current traditions can be traced back to a third century saint is debatable, but there is little doubt they can be traced back to medieval and Renaissance poets. It was during the age (one might almost say, the “cult”) of courtly love that Valentine became an A-lister among the saints. When Geoffrey Chaucer linked the saint to romantic love, Valentine’s popularity soared. Shakespeare added to his fame in Hamlet, with a song about a girl who lost her virginity on Valentine’s Day.

Because of a line in Chaucer’s poem “Parlement of Foules” lovers in the royal court began sending each other handmade paper cards on Valentine’s Day. In eighteenth century England, the practice of sending cards signed, “from your Valentine,” expanded well beyond the court. But it wasn’t until 1913, when Hallmark saw the commercial opportunity the holiday afforded, that Valentine’s Day became a hotbed not of love but of profit. Analysts estimate that Americans alone spent over 18 billion dollars on Valentine’s Day last year.

What would Valentine, the third century Christian martyr (or martyrs, as the case may be), make of all this? Would he laugh hilariously at the absurdity of men giving their wives lingerie in his name, or would he appreciate the expressions of affection that spouses share, or would he cry over the vast expenditure of resources without a corresponding increase in genuine love and affection?

Perhaps he would do all three. Or maybe he would express his feelings by quoting an earlier saint whose wisdom he revered, St. Paul: “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.”

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 2/10/2018

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Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide?

The U.S. Department of the Treasury maintains three gift funds, one of which is known as the “Conscience Fund,” established in 1811. The name stuck after the Civil War when a former Army quartermaster who had misappropriated funds sent a check along with a note that read: “Suppose we call this a contribution to the conscience fund and get it announced in the newspapers, and perhaps we will get some more.”

Most contributions to the fund have come through people who cheated on their taxes. The interesting thing is that gifts to the fund have been declining rapidly. In 2014, people gave over a million dollars to the fund. In 2015, that amount was cut by more than half. In 2016, just $23,000 was given. According to Business Insider, halfway through 2017, only one gift of $1,600 had been given.

What is behind this sharp decline? Some have speculated that people believe it is no longer possible to hide their identities from Big Brother. A darker explanation is that the decline in giving to the Conscience Fund follows a decline in efficiently operating consciences.

The poet Ogden Nash wrote: “There is only one way to achieve happiness on this terrestrial ball, and that is to have either a clear conscience or none at all.” One can only hope the reduction in giving to the Conscience Fund is due to the former possibility, and not the latter.

Conscience is not a static system. It can evolve or devolve in the lives of individuals and societies, become more sensitive or less sensitive. It can respond vigorously to certain stimuli in one period, and not at all in another because conscience must be informed, if it is to work. There needs to be, as it were, software as well as hardware.

The software running the conscience regularly receives updates. This happens, when we are children, through interaction with parents, teachers, pastors, friends, and a host of other sources. As adults, the sources may change, but the conscience continues to update. It runs on the psychological equivalent of continuously modified open source software.

One suspects that the conscience code is now being generated by different sources than it was thirty or forty years ago. Parents and teachers have been largely replaced by media. Pastors have been discarded and not replaced. Books are less influential than movies and television. And it must be remembered that parents and teachers and pastors are also continuously receiving conscience code updates from all these sources as well.

An influential source in history has been the Bible. Its message has informed and updated the consciences of individuals and societies for millennia. Its writers also understood the nature of the conscience and how it functions. For example, the New Testament authors understood that the conscience can exist in a variety of states: it can be a good or bad conscience, one that functions effectively or one that doesn’t; a clear or guilty conscience; a weak conscience or a strong one. Some of these states can overlap.

St. Paul writes that he has a clear conscience but admits that does not make him innocent, since a conscience can be clear for one more than one reason. It may be clear because it is innocent, or because it lacks sensitivity and no longer functions efficiently.

A weak conscience, like a weak circuit breaker, may activate unnecessarily. A person with a weak conscience feels guilty for no good reason. Every little thing sets him off. According to the Swiss psychologist Paul Tournier. that sort of “diffuse and vague guilt feeling kills the personality.” So one can feel guilt when innocent, or feel innocent when guilty.

St. Paul further suggests that the conscience can stop working entirely, can be, as he strikingly pictured it, “seared as with a hot iron.” This happens when a person repeatedly ignores the alarm of conscience until he or she effectively has, as Ogden Nash might say, “no conscience at all.”

We need trusted sources for updating the conscience. Such sources can be found in our traditions, rituals, and shared history. These include what might be the most influential shaper of conscience in the history of the world: the richly layered, compelling message of the Bible.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 2/3/2018


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Churches as Contempt-free and Condemnation-free Zones

It is generally acknowledged that our society has become increasingly mean-spirited. Unless today’s politician is chronically incensed and habitually scornful, no one will take him or her seriously. The so-called “liberal elite” are famously contemptuous: that conservatives are morally-challenged dimwits is for them a matter of orthodoxy. I, who have expressed thoughtful opposition to gay marriage, have been repeatedly belittled and insulted.

But the contempt of the irreligious for Christians has been frequently matched by Christians’ condemnation of the irreligious. David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group, a research and communication company that explores cultural and religious trends, reported in his book UnChristian that 87 percent of unchurched people born between 1966 and 2002 believe present-day Christians are “judgmental”.

That perception is not limited to people outside the church, either. When Philip Eaton was president of Seattle Pacific University, a Christian liberal arts college, he asked: “Why are Christians so mean to one another so often?” and went on to speak of a “meanness within the Christian community, a mean-spirited suspicion and judgment that mirrors the broader culture.”

These two issues, contempt and condemnation, devaluing others and damning them, are clearly addressed in the Bible. Jesus spoke to both issues in the celebrated Sermon on the Mount. He saw contempt and condemnation as so destructive that he prohibited his students from engaging in either.

Jesus warned his followers that contempt, expressed in invective and insult, would place them “in danger of the fires of hell.” He knew that contempt opens the door to abuses that could not otherwise happen. Sexual harassment, gay-bashing, racial discrimination, and every other crime of hate begins with contempt.

The Nazis are the ultimate example. They turned contempt into a science. When Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and people with disabilities has been transformed by propaganda into something subhuman, the population was able to ignore, and in some cases even applaud, the atrocities committed against them.

Jesus also warned his followers, in no uncertain terms, against adopting a posture of condemnation. He told them, point-blank: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged…”

Contempt and condemnation are analogous to two poles of an electromagnetic field. It is possible to distinguish between them, but they come from the same source. In the case of contempt and condemnation, that source is self-righteousness. When people enter a contempt-condemnation field, they can feel it. Some will be attracted by it and others, good people, will be repelled by it.

No one should ever enter one of these contempt-condemnation fields by going to church. Churches ought to be contempt-free, condemnation-free zones. This does not mean that appropriate rebuke and correction cannot take place. It can, and sometimes ought to take place, but it must be performed in a manner like that of St. Dominic. He was said to reprimand “so affectionately that no one was ever upset by his correction and punishment.”

Of course, churches are not condemnation-free, contempt-free zones. (Just ask 87 percent of young, unchurched people—or ask churched people, for that matter). If they are ever to become condemnation and contempt-free, it will not be because they implemented diversity training or held communication workshops, however valuable these may be. It will be because they took seriously their commitment to Jesus and put his instruction into practice.

In the absence of a strong commitment to live Jesus’s way, our differences with each other will produce contempt and condemnation. Indifference to the lordship of Jesus virtually guarantees our differences will divide us. But it is right here that the genius of the church is most apparent: when we share a commitment to Jesus as our leader, our differences make us stronger.

That shared commitment does not lead us to value diversity in the abstract, but to value each another – in all our diversity. This is such a rare feature in contemporary society that when people see it – even the 87 percent of young, unchurched people – they stand up and take notice. Jesus clearly foresaw this when he told his followers, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Really, who else lives like that?

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 1/27/18

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More Links Do Not Make a Stronger Chain

A fellow-juror once told me, at the conclusion of a trial, that he really enjoyed jury duty. I could see how he might say he appreciated the American system of justice, or how he counted it an honor to serve, but how he could enjoy serving on a jury was beyond me.

I’ve served on two juries, the second time as a foreman, and in neither case did I enjoy myself. I and my fellow-jurors were tasked with making a decision that had the potential of changing the course of a human life. That was a heavy burden to bear.

I can remember the judge explaining to the jury the meaning of “reasonable doubt,” but the line between reasonable and unreasonable doubt is notoriously hard to fix. And it seems to be placed differently for different jurors.

This became clear to me when a defense attorney told the jury he was going to present us with twenty-six reasons to find his client “Not-Guilty.” He began with the letter “A” and worked his way through the alphabet. It was a dog and pony show. Many of his twenty-six reasons were ludicrous, and most had no bearing on his client’s innocence. After the prosecution presented its case, I had little doubt of the defendant’s guilt. By the time the defense attorney reached the letter E, I had no doubt at all.

In the afternoon, a witness inadvertently presented evidence that had been previously ruled inadmissible. The judge immediately halted the case, and sent us to the jury room. A few minutes later, a bailiff told us we could discuss the case. To my amazement, several of my fellow-jurors spoke about how convincing the defense attorney’s argument had been. “He had twenty-six reasons!” one of them said, obviously impressed.

The lawyer piled up twenty-six “reasons,” and committed about that many logical fallacies in the process. The number of reasons proves nothing: piling up fallacies remains fallacious, no matter how many there are.

This kind of argument is often used to prove a doctrinal point in Christian circles. A person will amass biblical verses in support of some ecclesiastical or social position, then triumphantly declare, “You can’t argue with Scripture,” or “This is God’s word, not human opinion!” But each proof must be considered on its own merits. Fifty unsuccessful proofs are less convincing than a single successful one.

Not long before the turn of the millennium, a friend brought me a video of a well-known Christian teacher, and asked for my opinion. The teacher claimed that Jesus would return in or around the year 2,000, and he had dozens of biblical proofs to support his claim. He committed one logical fallacy after another in the application of his “proofs.” I remember telling my friend, “Jesus may return in 2,000, but it sure won’t be because this guy said so!”

A hundred prooftexts do not a sound argument make. Each text must be examined for relevance and consistency. Some time ago, another friend asked me to watch a teaching video, which he enthusiastically endorsed as “biblical,” since the teacher’s material came exclusively from the Bible. Indeed, the teacher constantly quoted the Bible, but that did not make his instruction biblical. He wrenched one text after another out of its context, and entirely ignored verses that undermined his point. Yet he maintained that the number of texts he had amassed proved him right. His argument was as faulty as the alphabet lawyer’s, and for the same reasons.

I have noticed that people who argue this way usually place considerable stress on the idea that their idea is biblical – how can it not be with a hundred proof texts? – thereby implying that anyone who disagrees with them is, de facto, unbiblical. But this is to assume the very point that remains to be proven: the argument’s faithfulness to the biblical witness.

A chain, whether forged from steel or logic, is not stronger because it has more links. The links must really connect with each other and with a premise that is true. This is something to remember the next time someone claims biblical support for a position based on the quantity of texts presented.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 1/20/2018

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Is There Still a Place for “Onward, Christian Soldiers” in the Hymnal?

Thirty years ago, there was a ruckus in the United Methodist Church over its hymnody. The hymnal revision committee had recommended the removal of two well-known gospel songs with militaristic overtones: “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Onward, Christians Soldiers.” Because of protests, the hymns were retained, but the issue has resurfaced periodically.

The hymnal committees’ sensitivity to the lyrics of these songs is understandable. The spread of Christianity has been regrettably associated with British and American imperialism. In the 19th and 20th centuries, it was not only the cross of Christ that won the day but the capitalism of the West. Christian missionaries smuggled Western values into other cultures, sometimes unwittingly, under the guise of gospel truth.

So, for the hymnal committees of the Methodist denomination and others, the idea of singing militaristic songs in the name of the Prince of Peace was incongruous at best. At worst, it undermined biblical values and militated against (irony intended) the proper spiritual mindset of those who sang them. It conjured up images of the Crusades, and promoted an “if you can’t convert them, conquer them” mentality.

The desire to avoid songs with martial overtones is understandable, in the light of Western imperialism and our own shameful history of using empty promises and loaded guns to deprive Native Americans of their lands. If these hymns link Christians with ethnocentrism in the minds of others – or worse, in Christians’ own minds – they are doing considerable harm.

Nevertheless, I would argue that there is still a place in our hymnody for hymns and gospel songs that make use of military metaphors, like “Onward, Christian Soldiers” or “Soldiers of Christ, Arise.” The ample use of military metaphors by the inspired biblical writers supports the continued use of such language in our hymns.

Take, for example, the Apostle Paul. He repeatedly chose military metaphors to make important points regarding Christian living. He referred to his co-workers as fellow-soldiers, and in so doing evoked an image of the kind of all-for-one, one-for-all camaraderie that is characteristic on the battlefield, and ought to be in the churches.

He used military metaphors to make clear the need for Christians to be properly outfitted and supplied. He further used such images to remind Christians that they are in a battle – not to subdue members of another culture or religion, but to “vanquish evil with good.” His military metaphors point out the need for courage and endurance among Jesus-loyalists. He does not want his readers to mistake the life of faith for a walk in the park; he knows it is more like a march through a minefield.

The military metaphors in the New Testament call Christians to be alert, strong, prepared, smart, and loyal. They emphasize the need for discipline and self-restraint, virtues which have fallen out of favor in contemporary society. But it should be remembered that these military images are never used, in any context, to call Christians to perpetrate physical violence or to attempt the subjugation of people from other cultures or religions. The very idea contradicts the gospel and would have been condemned by Jesus, who told his people to be as “harmless as doves.” Obviously, military metaphors are not the only kind in the Bible.

The principal reason to continue using hymns with militaristic images and language, though, goes beyond biblical proof texts to take in the larger biblical narrative. Christians need to be reminded that they are part of something bigger, the advanced guard of a kingdom that is coming but has not yet been established. They are on duty. The Christian life is not a walk in the park with the savior but a mission for the king. It calls for alertness, determination, cooperation, endurance, and strength.

When Christians forget they are part of something bigger – a kingdom that is strongly resisted by the existing powers of the world – they begin to value comfort above usefulness and security above courage. The Christians who have made a difference in the world – who have cured diseases, cared for the poor, freed slaves, and ended wars – were not people who valued comfort above kingdom. Nor are they today.

That’s why those old hymns still have a place.

First Published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 1/13/2018

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Common Ways – and One Uncommon Way – to Handle Conflict

The beginning of a new year can serve as a catalyst for dealing with old problems, including long-standing relational conflicts. Every family – every person – experiences conflict. Two people are all that it takes to set the stage and for the drama to begin. When it was just Adam and Eve, with no ex-boyfriends, girlfriends, or mothers-in-law, they probably argued over whether to go with the trim-fit fig leaf or the loose-fit sycamore.

Everyone experiences conflict, and we all have our own ways of responding to it. One way is with anger. The psychologist Neil Warren, who founded eHarmony, identified four common ways people express anger in conflict. Some people blow up, and there are shrapnel wounds all around. One never has to guess what is wrong with this kind of person. When the top of his head comes off you can see what is on his mind. He erupts like a volcano, and you know what’s bothering him.

There are other people who don’t blow up; they burn up. They don’t explode, they smolder. If asked, they will probably say that nothing is wrong. They even tell themselves that nothing is wrong. As far as externals go, everything is cool. But there is internal combustion going on, and it is eating them up. If nothing changes, their insides will eventually turn to ash.

Then there are people who pout. Their weapon in conflict is not explosive anger, but corrosive guilt. They suffer terribly, and yet, oddly enough, it is everyone else who is miserable. A good example is the older brother in Jesus’s famous parable of the prodigal son. He is conspicuously missing from the family celebration, demanding attention by his absence, and yet spurning it when it is given. His father asks him to join the others, but he lays on the guilt: “You give him, the bad son, a party. You never gave me a stupid party. You always loved him best.”

The fourth way people deal angrily with conflict is with payback, frequently delivered on the deferred payment plan. They slowly torture their victims, using words to injure, but often under the guise of humor. They won’t admit they’re angry, but they won’t be satisfied until they see their victims squirm – again and again.

The way conflict is handled can intensify it rather than quell it. The initial disagreement, handled appropriately, might have been resolved with relative ease but, dealt with in the wrong way, ratchets up the anger. One sees this often in troubled, long-term relationships, both at home and at work. The principals in the conflict can provide a long and specific list of complaints, but can’t remember where the trouble started.

At this point, a good counselor can be helpful. He or she can clarify the steps needed to resolve the conflict. But knowing the steps will not help much if the desire for a better relationship is missing. I have asked people point-blank, “Do you want a better relationship?” only to hear the response, “Yes, but…” followed by a list of accusations. Until the emphasis is on the “yes” and not on the accusations, real progress will be rare.

In conflict, people become profoundly adversarial, even when they compromise, concede, or withdraw. It’s been my experience, both as an observer and a participant in conflict, that the most important and most difficult step in healing a relationship is to stop thinking of the other person as the enemy and instead think of the unresolved issue as the enemy.

If people can do this, the conflict will often be resolved very quickly. But who can do this – who can think of the person who has injured (or is injuring) them as anything but an adversary? It is not what normal people do.

Perhaps not, but it is what spiritual people do. When I have had the privilege of seeing it happen, there has always been a spiritual dynamic present. The people who love enemies and do good to them, as Jesus instructed his followers to do, are conscious of God’s presence and confident of his help. Because God is real to them, they can risk being vulnerable to others.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 1/6/2017

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