About Me

My photo
Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

At Least We're Not Like THEM

    2015-08-30 Mk 07 01-08 At Least We're Better Off Than Them
    At Least We're Better Off Than Them
    When I leave the church and drive north on Alcoa Highway, I see a sign above.
    Do you see it, too?
    Good. I was hoping it wasn't just me.
    Over the road is what's probably a very expensive light-up sign, like a scoreboard, with messages from the great and powerful TDOT.
    Last Wednesday the sign from on high said, "Already 580 highway deaths in 2015." 
    That's terrible. 
    And, as with most things, I take it personally.
    Obviously, the sign's shaking its big, light-up finger at me. 
    TDOT wants to make me drive more carefully, but it doesn't work.
    It makes me very depressed.
    I stare at the sign.
    I think about the 580.
    I think about being number 581.
    I imagine all the ways it could happen in the next 300 yards.
    Sadly, this isn't hard, because it's Alcoa Highway and because I've seen every episode of The Walking Dead.
    Maybe Daryl will get me with a crossbow, from the hillside.
    This is why I drive with the windows rolled up.
    But it does make me wonder if TDOT should also post the numbers from Kentucky and Alabama.
    They're terrible drivers.
    Then we'd have a basis for comparison.
    We would reassure ourselves that no matter how bad things get, at least we're better off than THEM.
    At least we're better off than them.
    Have you said this?
    Sure you have.
    Sometimes it's a good thing.
    You say it in thankful humility.
    Like when you're in the hospital and the poor man in the next bed keeps moaning and yelling, "Whooaah! Help me Jesus! Help me!" 
    And you say, "Well, at least I'm better off than he is." 
    I've seen this happen.
    I've seen it enough that I sometimes wonder if hospitals employ loud, moaning yellers just to keep the other patients from complaining so much.
    Luckily, I've been trained to help people embrace their own suffering.
    "No way," I tell them.
    "You're much worse off than him.
    He's a whiner."
    Comparing your hard luck to somebody else's can give you sense of perspective.
    There's always bound to be someone, somewhere, who has it worse.
    "At least I'm better off than them" or, if you're grammatically correct, "they," – this can be a good thing, if you're truly, humbly grateful.
    But it can turn ugly, too, before you know it.
    I think a lot of it depends on how severely you say, "THEM."
    You remember teeter-totters, the pre-liability playground toys.
    I think gratitude and complaining are like opposite ends of the spiritual teeter-totter.
    If you push off with gratitude, your complaints get lower.
    But if you elevate your complaining, your gratitude smacks the dirt.
    The trick is to center your own teeter-totter.
    To maintain a sense of balance.
    That's hard.
    Did you ever do competitive teeter-tottering?
    I did.
    Then again, I'm from West Virginia, where our state motto is, "Thank goodness for Mississippi."
    If you push off strong enough, the other kid lands so hard his teeth rattle.
    But look out, because then it's his turn.
    The last kid standing, or able to stand, wins.
    Teeter-totters are all fun and games until it's a pain in the tailbone.
    If your heights of gratitude come at the expense of someone else's tailbone, something's wrong.
    And in the opposite way, if your complaints have to crash everybody else's gratitude, something's out of balance.
    "At least I'm better off than THEM," turns into a grown-up game of being the best on a sorry scoreboard that keeps track of bad things.
    The one with the best score is not the winner.
    You might be privileged.
    You might be lucky.
    You might take the battle.
    But you're definitely not the winner.
    Religion tends to have a lot of rules.
    That's understandable.
    Wherever two or three gather together in God's name, there need to be some ground rules.
    Don't murder, even if it's a really long committee meeting.
    Don't steal.
    Don't covet.
    Don't use the tablecloths unless you wash them and put them back in the cabinet by the door in the Big Kitchen.
    GOD may not love you more for keeping the rules, but PEOPLE will like you better.
    Back in Jesus's day, rules about cleanliness and purity were super important.
    Not because people obsessed over germs.
    They wouldn't know a germ if it killed them.
    Purity rules were the great religious teeter-totter and scoreboard scrolled into one.
    If you kept the rules, you were on the upside.
    You were higher up, closer to God.
    Don't keep the rules, and you're on the downside.
    If you didn't wash the right way, or eat the right food, or buy the right sacrifices from the prosperity gospel priests, your tailbone was in trouble.
    You know where this is going.
    This is the religion of power.
    This is the religion of anxiety.
    Power and anxiety balanced on your back.
    You're always teetering, you're always tottering on the brink of becoming the unwashed THEM.
    The unclean them.
    The ones people point to and say, "Well, at least we're better off than THEM." 
    You can hear it in today's scripture:
    Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem [(the HOLY city)] gathered around him [(Jesus)], they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them.
    (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.)
    Speaking of compulsive hand-washing, I think of my friends might be addicted to hand sanitizer.
    He's sixty years old and he won't leave the house without at least one travel bottle.
    He must go through two or three a week.
    He's clean enough to perform surgery, but I worry because his hands are turning translucent.
    He's very religious about the cleansing ritual, and because he's also very nice, he always offers me some.
    This is kind, but I'm reminded of when someone really wants to give you a breath mint.
    Oh my gosh.
    Am I one of those people?
    Am I the germ-infested, close-talking, halitosal, sweat-stained THEM?
    But good news, worried, anxious people.
    Because the Bible says:
    Then he called the crowd again and said to them, "Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile." For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly."
    Oh, praise the Lord.
    At least I'm not THAT bad.
    I might have bad breath, but at least I'm doing better than THOSE people.
    Those thieving, murderous, adulterous, fornicators.
    I mean, I might go in for a little pride and folly, especially during football season, but when you look at the whole list, I'm probably running about 80-85%. 
    That's a B.
    That'll pass.
    At least I'm not like THEM.
    You see the problem, here?
    It's not the cleanliness.
    It's the scoreboard.
    It's not being up close to God.
    That's a wonderful thing, and good for you if you are.
    The problem's when we can only get close to God by looking at how lowdown someone else is.
    "You see those wicked people, Johnny?
    "Don't be like them." 
    If your goodness depends on someone else's relative badness, something's wrong.
    If you can't give thanks without an "Ew" shooting up to take its place, something's out of balance.
    Because, the truth is, teeter-totters don't go that high.
    The difference between up and down is very, very small.
    And then there's when the kid at the bottom end of the teeter-totter decides she's had enough, and gets off, without warning.
    And you come slamming down to earth, hard.
    You ever have that happen?
    The impact of your own weight is shocking.
    I think the future of the church, the only healthy and hopeful future for the Christian church, balances on giving up the words, "At least we're better off than them." 
    I think the church is at one of those historic turning points where it either thrives and survives or crashes.
    If it falls apart it won't be because people weren't holy enough.
    It'll be because we made our cleanliness contingent on someone else's unwashed hands.
    Jesus said to the religious people, "You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition." 
    Which human tradition?
    The one that keeps score.
    The one that says, we might not be perfect, but at least we're not as bad as them.
    The one that needs to protect its purity by keeping the impure out.
    Churches - and all society - are scrambling in so much panic to build higher walls, 
    to pass policies without loopholes, 
    to claim they're just defending themselves and their tradition so we can keep the impure, illegal, or immoral out based on our deeply held beliefs.
    You know what they call a church that keeps all the bad people out?
    At least we're better off than them. 
    Would it even be possible to eradicate those words?
    Wednesday afternoon, I was still driving.
    I thought again about the sign and reconsidered my bright idea, you know, the one about posting comparative state statistics.
    The problem is they're not "just" statistics.
    The problem with putting other states' traffic fatalities on the big TDOT scoreboard is that it turns life and death into a "friendly" competition.
    It's not friendly.
    Ask those 580 families.
    It's not a game.
    Nobody wins.
    Life is too short to prop up your virtue on someone else's back.
    To have to complain in order to feel gratitude.
    To balance your gains against someone else's loss.
    After all, who knows?
    The people about whom you say, "Well, at least I'm not like them," might be saying the same thing about you.
    At his best, God became like us.
    God became like us in Christ.
    At God's best, God became like all the sinful, dirty, unwashed little people.
    And all the pure and holy ones, too.
    Jesus became like us, the Bible says.
    We've got that going for us.
    We all do.
    God can take our little saying and turning into something good.
    Because as Jesus, this fragile baby who grew into a fragile man, who lived a died a fragile life,
    God can say, "At least I AM like them.
    "And at best - at THEIR best - they're kind of like me."