Thursday, December 17, 2009

Short - Listed Ethics and Paradoxes

Since wrestling with ethics is one of my passions, a blog on ethics recently attracted my attention. However I soon discovered that the blog was not written by a Christian, but by someone who conveniently used biblical terms in contemplations of right and wrongs of specific situations. I began to do some contemplating myself. Just how do you make ethical decisions without a solid unshakeable standard for making those decisions?

As a believer I can short list many layers of possibility because of clear biblical principles and explicit instructions. What a privilege to be able to confidently short list many decisions. However, real life exposes us to a wide variety of decisions that require ethical decisions that cannot be answered with a quick Scripture quip. And if we gathered a crowd of theologians from a wide variety of Christian backgrounds to discuss right and wrong on a hot topic we would likely see butting head discussion with individuals each preaching the biblical basis for their decisions. Who’s right? Now that’s the key question.

Our theological camp could adamantly defend our position based on our personal study and understanding of Scripture and still be wrong because we haven’t seriously considered another perspective based on their study or understanding. We are faced with an amazing aspect of Christianity – biblically based paradoxes rooted in God’s character and ways. Serious discussion of ethics requires us to closely examine the extremes God presents to us. Unconditional love and justice. Mercy and justice. Sermon on the Mount meekness and prophetic name calling (white-washed sepulcher!)

Paradoxes foment energetic debates between best friends, challenge the most vigorous academics to write lengthy tomes to express their understanding, and create extreme theological camps whose leaders charismatically pull adherents after them. However I would like to suggest that biblical paradoxes should serve a vital role for all Christians. Each biblical paradox expresses an important revelation of God’s character that serves to soften the hard edges of human character and behavior.

Some are tempted to hide unkind bigotry or selfish ethnocentricity behind “defending righteousness.” A hearty look at God’s kindness, long suffering, and compassion could challenge our bigotry. Others have been wooed into embracing “tolerance” as an expression of God’s love without being challenged by God’s hatred and judgment on destructive sin. Remaining in any extreme camp without regular forays into genuine dialogue with those outside of our camp leaves us in danger of missing hearing others’ glimpses of another side of God’s character and its impact on decision making.

Paradoxes implanted within the Bible should provide a moderating impact on each of us. After all God acts consistently out of his character. By observing his actions through out the Bible and history we see all facets of his character presented. Sometimes his love is most obvious, sometimes his anger is prominent, and other times his justice is the outstanding feature. However, God never has the luxury of choosing one characteristic over the other! His responses to humans must be at once consistent with all of his character. As humans we do not have the right to define God by one side of his character while ignoring other parts. Therein lies the tension when we make ethical decisions. We do not have the luxury of picking and choosing which end of the biblical paradoxes we will align with. No matter how uncomfortable, we must be willing to be moderated by the other end of the paradox.

I was raised within a major theological camp. I was confident in all of my views and could appropriately defend each of them until I entered into significant dialogue with someone of another theological camp. That person’s gentle presentation of his views and life practice moderated my view and gradually moved me closer to his theological stance. In a later work situation I became a meek ambassador of my theological camp to others resting securely in their camp. I believe my presence and conversation moderated my coworkers in a healthy way that delighted God.

So, biblical paradoxes are part of reality and actually vital to healthy ethical decisions. On that basis I need to be willing to move outside of my comfort zone and quick biblical quips to genuinely engage others in meaningful conversation. And not just others in my camp, but others who have contrasting perspectives to share with me. But more than that, I desire to allow others’ perspectives to contribute to broader understanding of biblical paradoxes and to help inform my own ethical decision making. And yes, be willing to gently share with those outside my camp in a way that they can hear and appreciate my glimpses of God’s ways. Together we may just get a better handle on God’s amazing paradoxes.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Party Coping Strategies

I am not really a party person. I love one to one conversation in a quiet setting. My idea of ambience does not include a large group of noisy people all trying to chat at once and talking about topics I either know nothing about or don’t care to know more about! An invitation to a party throws me into a dilemma. I know I need to be sociable and I have a sense of responsibility to others, but I really don’t want to go. Most often I say “yes” and drag myself rather reluctantly down the road and hesitantly into a room crowded with way too many people for my taste. I’m sure there are others like me, but I don’t usually find them because they also attend the parties half-heartedly and valiantly attempt to fit into the incessant noise and chatter.

Well I attended such a party recently and realized that I have developed some personal party coping strategies. In the past I have chosen to sit on the edge of the crowd and become a basic observer. But this time I plopped myself right in the middle of the fray and prayed for one or two people to sit by me with whom I could have a deeper one on one conversation. Now that sounds cozy, but let me tell you, it’s not easy to carry on an intimate conversation of a personal nature in the middle of chatter that competes with a rock band! Imagine asking someone to speak up (try shout) when she is telling you about the recent death of her husband or her strained relationship with her kids. But all in all, the tidbits I picked up and the relationships I built with those brief encounters far outweigh surface conversations with a myriad of individuals regarding weather, traffic, or Christmas ventures.

Another strategy is to arm myself with a determined focus on enjoying other peoples’ joy that bubbles up at such events. Yes, there are far more party lovers who load up their USB heart drives with heaps of fun, laughter, jokes, and conversation. Parties are for them. Watch their faces light up with each person they hug and enjoy the sight of animated discussion flooding each table. Join in the applause as names are called out and people honored (and rejoice that its not you!)

And lastly, I work on being a “you” person, focusing on others and their needs and not on my own needs. I find that if I go in with the goal of being a listener, an encourager, and an affirmer I can forget about my own need for security, quiet, or recognition. I’m on the hunt for those who need a ready ear, an empathetic response, a pat on the back, or a cheery “go for it.” And it works. I left my last party without thoughts of regret for the quiet night I missed at home with a good book, and I left with some quality relationships strengthened. I did more than “endure” the noise and chatter. I actually enjoyed others’ exuberant fun. And I think that is just what God wanted.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Sabbath Monitors or Lord of the Sabbath

Anybody old enough to remember “hall monitors” in school? They were appointed to monitor student activities in the hallways of our schools. The positive thing was that they were appointed by school authorities to keep the peace and protect (who, I don’t know). But I remember some rather arrogant hall monitors who abused their power to belittle freshmen peons and others who showed favoritism to those in their clique. I can’t really recall their protection or peacemaking skills.

Well I stumbled upon some Sabbath Monitors in my Bible reading today. The Pharisees were patrolling for Sabbath offenders and came upon the shocking crime of Jesus’ disciples picking grain from a field on the Sabbath. As it was their duty to patrol for non-Sabbath behavior they stopped Jesus and his entourage to question them. “Hey what do you think you are doing on the Sabbath?”

I love how Jesus handled these Sabbath Monitors. Jesus gave clear explanations of why he and his disciples had the right to eat on the Sabbath and then challenged these Sabbath Monitors for being ignorant of what God actually desired of them – mercy! And finally, Jesus told them, “Hey I’m the appointed Sabbath Monitor.” Your Bible probably reads “For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

When I read this, I was convicted. I can think of frequent occasions when I appointed myself as “Driving Monitor” and corrected my husband’s driving! In fact, I can easily get into the “monitor mode” and begin judging any one and everything. I’ve been “Dress-Code Monitor,” “Leadership Monitor,” and “Parenting Monitor.” So I’m thinking, “Who made you the hall monitor, Jane?”

I can also think of specific situations in which as appointed “hall monitor” (read “leader monitor, “teacher monitor”) to keep the peace and protect, I have misused my power to criticize or condemn. Granted, the Pharisees were appointed religious leaders entrusted with the Law, but they were known to carry out their appointment with harshness and criticism.

How could the Pharisees have responded when they thought some prominent Jews were publicly breaking the Sabbath Law? How about a friendly respectful chat? “Hey, Jesus, I see that you’re followers have been picking ears of corn on the Sabbath. I’d like to hear your thoughts on that?” Jesus had some very valid reasons for their eating decisions and had an interesting take on integrating the Sabbath Law and God’s instructions about mercy over sacrifice. I’m not sure that the Pharisees really benefited from his insight at this point. They were too busy defending the Sabbath and their right as Sabbath Monitors. I realize that I often miss hearing other people’s valid perceptions and interpretations when I quickly make condemnations as a monitor or I am in defensive mode to protect my monitor role.

As I reflect on these issues I realize that the real issue is my heart attitude. Yes, there are many times that I am appointed to responsibilities that require making judgments and evaluations. But God really wants me to carry out my monitor role with love, compassion, and generosity just as Jesus did. I can learn from his humility and gentleness. Jesus was appointed “Sabbath Monitor” or Lord of the Sabbath, and I feel loved and protected as he patrols the halls of my heart.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A Life Worthy of Those I Influence

Not that Tiger Woods needs any more pressure or criticism, but I want to take a moment of reflection. There’s something I think I can learn from this rather disappointing glimpse of a darker side of Tiger’s life. And that’s where I want to start. One of my heroes has fallen. I took a bit of pride in the fact that Tiger was such an accomplished golfer and a consistently upright citizen who displayed gentlemanly self-control. I have to say I have experienced a rather dampening disappointment. Not Tiger! If Tiger has fallen then who can possibly stand?

So this brings me to the lesson I can learn. The higher I go in success and leadership the more weight of responsibility I have for my personal life and integrity! It is not just about my choices for me, but my success leads me to a level of influence that makes me responsible to many others for my choices, even in my private life. No, they may not be paying my salary. No, they won’t vote me on or off of a board. But they have entrusted me with the power to influence how they live their lives! I can lead them onto a higher standard of self-control and kindness through my lifestyle, conversations, and consistency; or I can lead them down a road of skepticism, self-centeredness, or compromise through my own private choices. I do have a choice to utilize my freedoms, no question. But at a higher level my choices have to take into consideration those I influence, those who have come to honor and respect me.

While Tiger attempted to keep his private life and choices secret, his darker side was exposed in the end. There really is no separation of private and public at any level. I write rather soberly as I consider the weight of responsibility I have in my daily choices. May I live a life worthy of my Father and a life worthy of those I influence.