June 12, 2011

What Is Godliness?

I was recently asked to speak in church and this was the result.  I realize it's a repeat of many of the ideas I've expressed in this blog, but it's an attempt to put many of them together into a cogent argument.
Some of the finest people I’ve ever met were dogs, and that’s especially true of Jesse, the sleek and long-legged black lab that Lori and I had in our home for many years.  One day Jesse and I were walking on a favorite trail in Briones, when we noticed a strange plant obscured by shadows on a hill.  It was shaped like a paddle and stood tall above the grass with a bushy black fringe and a white stripe down its middle.  As Jesse bounded ahead to investigate, I scratched my head, wondering what kind of plant it could be. 
That’s when it did the inexplicable: That plant took a step or two back.  Now, I might be a nuggat short of a nut cluster, but I’m smart enough to know a couple of things: 1) plants shouldn’t oughta do that and 2) the description of a “black fringe with a white stripe down the middle,” could apply to something that wasn’t a plant at all.  Regarding the events of that day, I later wrote a poem that goes like his:

I commanded, “No!”
But still he leaped,
Then whirled in midair,
Blinded and sneezing,
Frothing from the mouth.

As for the skunk,
It wandered off,
Just another day
For a being possessed with power
Worthy of a comic book character.

It was a bad morning to be without a long leash.
Hand to collar,
We stumbled to the nearest pond,
Barely able to breathe,
Rubbing the stink and the sting
From our tear-filled eyes.

Oh, I dunked him—
Rest assured I dunked him good—
Muttering all along,
“You darn dog.”

On the way home—
He in back,
Muzzle on paws,
Sad eyes only now opening
To the possibility of new
And disquieting hazards—
I lowered all the windows
And laughed into the passing breeze.

So what if the Jeep will never be the same?
Will I condemn the penitent
For his most endearing
Instincts and preoccupations:
Childlike enthusiasm
And boundless curiosity?

Perfection is unwarranted.
Give me quirkiness instead,
And other sweet foibles
In their glorious variety.
If so blessed,
Laughter and affection will accompany me
Everywhere I go.

I entitled the poem, Brushing Up to Godliness, to convey the idea that in Heavenly Father’s intercession with humanity, we see clues to how our mortal obligations might be fulfilled.  The trouble is that even when following Nephi’s admonition by “likening all scriptures unto us,” we can justify disparate behavior in ways resulting in moral ambiguity.  In response to Jesse’s disobedience, for example, I could have smote him as a sinner or reassured him with a hug.  The options are as different as chalk is to cheese, but still supported by scripture. 
That brings me to the subject of my talk: What’s God’s true nature and what did our Savior say about Godliness?  The answers are critical, because to understand what God stands for is to know what to emulate.  
I once thought of our Father in Heaven as a kind of exalted venture capitalist.  Sure, His rewards were great, but when dealing with His creations, He was tough and demanding, willing to fire those who didn’t produce and cut His losses when displeased with results.  That notion of Godliness translated into a premise that ruled my existence.  I believed there was only one excuse in life and it was this: I didn’t want it badly enough.
I truly believed that a lack of desire and hard work was all that kept anybody from any achievement.  That worldview made me awfully intolerant.  (Actually, Lori had a better word for me, but we won’t go into that).  I had no patience for the castoffs of the world, because where I saw privation, I could write it off as an example of people who didn’t want the alternative—a good life—badly enough.  
There is, however, a gentler version of Godliness—one expressed in Christ’s declaration to a fallen Israel:

How often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings…

This form of Godliness considers the interests of others as equal to its own and was practiced by Christ’s followers prior to the convening of the First Council of Nicaea.  As described in Acts 4:32-35: 

…the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul…  Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, And laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.

Elaine Pagels, a Pulitzer-winning author and historian of the early church, describes a remarkable people who fully deserved the title of saint.  While Rome entertained itself with the public slaughter of Christians, the surviving faithful sustained each other in communal enclaves.  They gave the indigent and homeless—especially abandoned children who were numerous—a place of unquestioned welcome and belonging.  When plagues struck and cities were abandoned, Christians were the few who remained behind to practice literally the Savior’s admonition to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and administer to the sick. 
While such sacrifices are inspiring, they can still be viewed in one of two ways: either as 1) noble, but unnecessary, or 2) the fulfillment of the true intent of Christ’s gospel.  If you believe in the Apostasy, however, there’s not much of a leap in logic to assume that the early Christians had it right, until something went terribly wrong.  What went wrong is beyond the scope of my talk, but Pagels, as well as other historians, have written extensively on the topic.  It’s enough to know that many early Christian traditions were violently crushed by a powerful orthodoxy and one tragedy of that history is that a central message in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount was misinterpreted for political gain.  That message, found in Matthew 5:17, reads:

Think not that I have come to destroy the law and the prophets, I come not to destroy but to fulfil.

Now, the first part of the verse isn’t subject to debate.  In it Christ claims He has no intention of destroying the Mosaic Law, which on this and other occasions He refers to as, “the law and the prophets.”  What’s less clear, however, is the final clause.  How did Christ intend to fulfill the Law of Moses? 
Many fundamentalists believe that Jesus affirmed the Mosaic Law as His gospel and in doing so they practice a faith that is far more Levitical than Christian.  Yet, if we read what follows Matthew 5:17, we can clearly see that Christ had no such intention.  To understand what He did mean, it’s helpful to refer to the original Greek text of Matthew, from which the word pleroo was later translated into that elusive term fulfill
Pleroo is a word that conveys multiple nuanced meanings, but it’s generally translated as: to fill to the top, to cram down, or to make complete.  Knowing how Christ fills or completes the Mosaic Law is critical, so I’ll summarize what I understand about the subtlety of the term.  If I have a bottle that’s nearly full of water, which I then fill to the rim, stopper and set aside, I’ve pleroo-ed the bottle.  Notice that while I’ve filled it, I’ve also rendered the bottle useless as a vessel that can store more water.  And that’s an essential sense of the word.  In fact, it’s sometimes translated as meaning to render obsolete. 
The correct view of Matthew 5:17, therefore, is that Christ didn’t destroy Leviticus, but He nevertheless rendered it obsolete.  Just like we can still use typewriters in a computerized world, we can follow the Law of Moses—if we choose—but Christ wants us to be better than that and graduate to a standard more powerful and grand.  He describes that better way in five telling passages in Matthew 5, the first of which is found in verses 21 and 22:

Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill…But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment…

By these verses, Christ asks us to do more than simply refrain from murder, but to exact discipline over our passions.  In the same way, He invites us in four subsequent passages to: 1) Do more than abstain from adultery, but bridle our appetites, 2) Do more than just honor our contracts, but be true to our word, 3) Refrain from vengeance and instead forgive and 4) Do more than love those who love us back, love all of God’s children.
We could spend hours discussing each one of these critical passages, but let me say a few words about one of them.  Verses 38 and 39 say:

Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you…whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.

The notion that we must demand an eye for an eye was never meant as a requirement even in Moses’ day.  Think of where his people had been.  They’d suffered through 400 years of bondage, during which the capricious whips of their Egyptian masters had been their only measures of justice.  To them, the penalty for a stolen crust of bread might have been the loss of a hand, but Moses told his people not to be like that—to allow no punishment to exceed its crime.  The reason for the law was to establish a maximum penalty, not to require one.  In contrast, the gospel standard is more explicit.  Christ wants us to forgo retribution altogether.  
You might very well ask what this has to do with God’s true nature, and I will answer:  Everything.  Can you imagine Heavenly Father demanding from us one thing and doing another?  Neither does our Savior, since He says in the final verse of the chapter:

Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

We gloss over this verse or read it without context, but it's a scripture that begs for context.  Why?  Because it includes the conjunction “therefore,” which is a word used to connect a premise to a conclusion, as in the relationship: A therefore B.  The premise here is Christ’s description of His gospel found in the passages I've just cited.  It leads us to the conclusion, found in the latter part of the verse, that Christ’s perfect gospel is what God not only honors, but practices.  In other words, Heavenly Father is in control of His passions and appetites—He isn’t vengeful, or jealous.  He’s forgiving and true to His promises—He doesn’t abandon His children.  His love knows no bounds—He doesn’t play favorites.  And we should do the same.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: Why is Alan, who isn’t even an active member of the ward, talking about Godliness?  You have a point.  There’s no question that I’m an awful human being.  I realized decades ago that I had neither the courage nor the fortitude to live Christ’s gospel—at least, not the way He’d intended.  If there’s a Celestial Kingdom, I won’t be there.  Visit me, please.  But even though I’m a goat among the Shepherd’s flock, that doesn’t mean I don’t love the Shepherd.  He’s taught me too much—including many tough lessons that He had to nurse me through—not to love Him dearly.   
Now, here’s a note about those tough lessons.  A funny thing happened to me on the way to thinking I was in complete control.  First, I noticed how the difference between success and failure could be measured by a moment of hesitation, a step in the wrong direction, or an accident of geography.  Then my smug and self-assured worldview was crushed in a deeply personal way when my oldest son tried to take his life.  If I’d wanted anything more urgently than the need to breathe, it was for him to be happy, but I couldn’t will it so. 
I won’t explain what it’s like to raise a depressed child who self-medicates as an escape.  I won’t tell you what goes through a father’s mind as his son spends a night behind bars, or is institutionalized on suicide watch.  What I will say, however, is that Lori and I never—not once—ever considered cutting our losses or walking away from that beautiful boy we’d helped bring into the world.  We’d loved him before he could walk.  We’d loved him before he could speak.  We could do no less, even though he was blind to the seed of divinity inside him.  Could Heavenly Father do any differently?
Despite our chest-thumping demonstrations of toughness, we humans are terribly fragile creatures and many of our brothers and sisters don’t deserve and cannot prevent their unfortunate circumstances.  They could also benefit from our better attempts at Godliness.  In closing, I’ll read an excerpt from a letter I once wrote to a friend who was going through a though time.  In it, you’ll hear what life experience and Jesus have taught me about God’s true nature. 

Why do we love our children?  Is it because they spring from the womb with Olympic medals on their chests, Harvard diplomas in their hands, and the chiseled good looks of Venus or Adonis?  Obviously not.  Children are born plain and without any means of survival beyond an instinct for growth.  So we love our children despite their weaknesses.  Or do we?
Let me tell you a secret.  When Matthew was born, Lori and I looked at each other and in one spontaneous voice whispered, “He looks like Jabba the Hut!”  With his pressed face, frog-like legs, and catfish-skin belly, he really looked like a Star Wars’ character, but this endeared him to us all the more.
During the inexplicable moments when I feel God’s presence most vividly, a picture enters my head.  I see a smiling Father kneeling on the floor along one side of a spacious room.  His arms are spread wide and He entreats me to take awkward, first steps toward Him.  And when I stumble (as I am prone to do) gaining His forgiveness always seems easier than forgiving myself.  Sometimes I’d rather remain on the floor to pout and be punished with thoughts of my enormous stupidity.  But He tells me to put away the excess baggage, to rise up and attempt again, to take a few more steps—as awkward as they may be—toward Him, toward Godliness.

May we understand and emulate God’s great love for His children, I pray in the name of Jesus Christ.  Amen.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I hope Ty reads this. I'll be interested in his response. Thanks Alan. -- Dan