Saturday, October 31, 2009

Swearing on the Bible?

I had the privilege of serving on jury duty for Mecklenburg County in the state of North Carolina last week. Of course, I’ve always known that no prosecutor in his or her right mind would ever want a person who peddles in compassion like me on a jury; that suspicion was confirmed when I was rejected on the basis of the answers I gave the prosecutor on Thursday. But I would have to say that, overall, my time at the courthouse was a comfortable experience with movies and popcorn and wireless internet access for my laptop in the suite for jurors. The only uncomfortable moment for me came right after our morning orientation. That’s when we were sworn in.

Our suite, which was equipped with all the amenities, had little racks with Gideon Bibles under each chair. When we swore our oath we were instructed to take the Bible in our left hand and raise our right hand. How archaic, I thought. But this is the 21st century after all, so we were also offered another option. We could either swear an oath on the Bible, or we could affirm something or another. (I don’t remember the wording of it, but it was basically saying the same thing only without the Bible as a prop and for some reason the word “swear” wasn’t used.) I opted for the latter.

The whole notion of swearing on a Bible offended me. First of all, there was the fact that no other holy books were available for people to swear on, should they have wanted to swear on a holy book. No Koran, for example. And then, even for those who read the Bible, the one we used was specifically a Protestant Bible. Other Christians, such as Catholics, include other books in their Bible. Jews don’t include what Christians call the New Testament. But, since this was MY Bible, why was I so uncomfortable using it to take an oath?

My discomfort has a lot to do with my understanding of what the Bible is. For me, it is more than a book to be used symbolically to take a public oath. Within the words on the pages of the Bible, God speaks to me. That makes the Bible a sacred, holy, book. To use the Bible in this way in which it was never intended is something of a sacrilege to me.

I did a little digging to find out where the practice of swearing on a Bible comes from. It goes back to English Common Law. First passed in 1777, the North Carolina oath statute says that oaths are “most solemn appeals to Almighty God, and the affiant is declared to invoke divine vengeance on himself if he lies.” Since the Bible talks about the divine judgment that will fall upon evil doers, the value of swearing on a Bible is that if you don’t tell the truth, you know God is going to punish you for it. For a long time, only Christians were allowed to testify in court because of this. If you didn’t fear the divine judgment of God, you couldn’t be trusted. Interesting theology that says the only reason why a person could be trusted to do the right thing is if they live in fear of eternal damnation if they don’t. Are there still people around who believe this?

I can’t imagine how anyone who comes to know the God Jesus has revealed to us in the pages of the Christian Bible would not be offended by such a distorted view of God. God is not an angry tyrant in the sky who is waiting for an opportunity to zap us when we mess up. God’s justice is not about vengeance, and giving people what they deserve, but it's about love, mercy, forgiveness and compassion. Actually, if Christians got to know the God of the scriptures and lived according to the standards of God’s Realm, the entire legal system as we know it might come to a grinding halt. If there is a book that we would do well to keep out of courtrooms, it is the Christian Bible.

The real irony of good Christian people swearing on a Bible is this. If they ever actually read a Bible and got to know the Jesus they claim to follow, they would read what he has to say about oaths in the Sermon on the Mount. And they would see the absurdity of making an oath by swearing on a book in which Jesus tells them not to swear an oath. (See Matthew 5:33-37)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Ben's Gift

When I was younger and was just oozing with creative energy, I used to write songs for kids to sing. It was a great way to teach Bible stories. There’s something about singing a story that goes beyond learning it. The story isn't just in your head that way. It flows through your veins and becomes a part of who you are. I wrote a number of children’s musicals. Often we used them for VBS and I’d also write the curriculum to go with it. I did this for a number of years while my kids were in elementary school, so they were a part of it. But that was back in the 80s and I haven’t done a whole lot of it since.

Now, some of you know that the relationship I have with my son Ben, who is now 28, has been challenging at times. I dearly love him, but he has a way of pushing my buttons and making me crazy and ripping my heart out all at once. My daughter Gretchen tells me it’s because we’re so much alike. But I refuse to believe that. Well, back when Ben was 20, it was one of those years when I saw him at Thanksgiving, but we weren’t together at Christmastime. Gretchen came to be with me at Christmas and she brought gifts from Ben with her. He gave me a really nice sweater that I just love. And then he also gave me an audio tape. It was one he had done himself. Ben, who is now a gifted musician, was just learning to write music back then. He had a keyboard and guitars and a mixer and did some recording. This was a tape of some of his songs. I decided I’d get around to listening to it some other time.

Later, when I was in the kitchen doing dishes, Gretchen said, “Why don’t you put on that tape Ben made for you, Mom?” So I did.

I was half listening to the tape when I suddenly realized what I was hearing. Ben had taped his own arrangements of my songs, the ones I taught him when he was a little boy. He didn’t have any of the music, but he still remembered the tunes. By adding his own creative touch to them, some were much better than I ever remembered them sounding. I stopped what I was doing, sat down and listened to the whole tape and cried my eyes out. It was beyond a doubt the best gift I ever received from anybody in my life.

First of all, it was a true gift of love. I couldn’t imagine how much time Ben spent on it. Hours upon hours. And then, it was also such an affirmation of what I meant to him. Some silly songs he learned from me when he was a little boy would be with him for the rest of his life. The faith stories they told were a part of him, as well. (Since the church has no place in Ben's life as an adult, this brought me some comfort.) And then there was also the realization that something that had brought me such joy and fulfillment in my life was also something that brought him joy and fulfillment in his life -- engaging in the creative process through music.

All the frustration I felt over my relationship with Ben just melted away. I knew that despite it all, there is a deep love between us. Of course, when I tried to express to him what that gift meant to me, he just said, “It was no big deal.” But we both knew, it was a very big deal.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Confession of a Shoplifter

Last week I ordered a full sheet cake from the bakery of our neighborhood Harris Teeter for a reception after worship on Sunday. I went to the store to pick it up the day before, and it was the usual Saturday madhouse at the supermarket. People jamming the aisles, long check out lines. And here I was with this big ol’ honkin’ cake precariously balanced sideways over the top of my shopping cart, maneuvering my way to the front door. All went well. I made it to the car, placed the cake in the trunk and took it to the church for the next day.

On Sunday afternoon, as I was heading home after a day of church activities, I suddenly realized that I had walked out of the store with the cake on Saturday without paying for it. I was so concerned about getting the cake out of the store in one piece that I neglected to stop at the cash register to pay the $72. I happened to be in my collar at the time, so I suppose no one was going to stop me. But even without the collar, I think it would have been pretty easy to slip by without paying.

There have been times when I’ve imagined what would happen if I accidently walked out of a store with something I hadn’t paid for. And now, I had actually done it. Ironically, it was no small thing that I slipped into my pocket without thinking about it, but I walked out of the store with a very large item, undetected. I was a bona fide shoplifter!

For about a half a second I thought about how I had gotten away with it and no one would ever know if I just let it go. But I would know, and I suspected that I’d probably never be able to sleep again. So, first thing Monday morning, I went to the customer service counter at Harris Teeter and reported what I had done on Saturday. I told them I had come to pay for the cake. “You came back!?” The manager was shocked. Then the cashier had to go to the bakery to get an invoice and they were even more incredulous. “I can’t believe she came back!”

I have to wonder why this was so surprising to them. Would most people in this situation have kept the money and gone on as if it had never happened? Maybe. But I’m not sure that makes me any more noble than most people. I just happen to be one of those people who suffers from OGC (overactive guilty conscience). I simply can’t live with myself if I do what is clearly the wrong thing. I have to make it right.

In our culture, guilt tends to get a bum rap. “Don’t make me feel guilty,” we’ll say, as if this is a violation of our personhood. But guilt isn’t such a bad thing. Not when it pushes us to make something right.

The problem seems to come for us, though, when we carry guilt about something that we can’t ever make right. Then, what do we do with it? We can’t be burdened like that for the rest of our lives or it will slowly eat away at us. So we confess. We hear God’s word of forgiveness. And we extend that forgiveness to ourselves and others. It's not always easy, but we really have no other recourse if we want to experience any kind of life that's worth living. And, oh, what peace is ours when the guilt is removed.

The cake incident has made me wonder about people who don’t feel guilty when they walk out of a store with something they haven’t paid for. I’m thankful that I have the capacity for guilt. And I’m even more thankful that my capacity for guilt is no match for God’s capacity to forgive.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Growing in Grace

As Christians, we believe that Jesus embodies all that God wants for us, so our life’s work is to become more and more like Jesus in the ways we live and love. The process works something like this. We all make sense of the world around us based on our own experience. And when we make sense of things, we put them neatly in a frame that we call our frame of reference. For example, we may have an understanding about how forgiveness works: when someone wrongs us, they come to us and they tell us they’re sorry for what they’ve done, and we forgive them. That’s the way forgiveness works for us. So, that’s our frame of reference and whenever someone wrongs us, that’s the way we expect it to go. That’s what fits into our frame.

But then, what happens when someone wrongs us and we’re deeply hurt, but they don’t come to us and say they’re sorry for what they did? They just go on about their business. This doesn’t fit into the frame we’ve constructed. And we can do one of two things with that new experience. We can stick with our frame of reference and decide that, since the other person didn’t apologize, we don’t forgive them. Our definition of forgiveness remains intact, and we stay where we were. Or, we receive this new experience that can’t be contained in the old frame and the old frame is shattered. The old frame isn’t big enough to contain this new experience. We need to build a new frame of reference that’s big enough.

Within our new frame of reference we realize that forgiveness is something we offer to those who don’t deserve it, just as God forgives us when we don’t deserve it. And that means that they might not even say they’re sorry. We go from one frame to a larger frame.

We have countless opportunities to grow more like Jesus in our dealings with other people. We may have a frame of reference we have established for certain kinds of people: church people are like this, black people are like this, homosexuals are like this, pretty blondes are like this, homeless people are like this. Then we meet someone who doesn’t fit into our frame: “I thought pretty blondes were all air-heads, but this is a smart woman.” Our frame is too small to contain that new experience. We need a frame that’s much bigger than the little judgmental frame we once used to figure people out. We search for a frame that’s big enough to contain the love of God.

Of course, a frame big enough to contain the love of God is a frame so big that we can never see its edges; it’s more than our finite brains can begin to comprehend. But when we have the courage to let go of the narrow little frames we carry around in our brains, we can grow in our understanding of God’s love by exploring its breadth and width, finding ourselves repeatedly going from one frame to a larger one and a larger one after that. That's how we grow in grace.