God’s Bargain

One of the charms of Democracy is the barren privilege of our belief that we can bargain with an incredibly powerful being – our government – that knows almost nothing about us. We have a vote, and we hang on the words of candidates, hoping to hear a promise that we can bind with our vote. Those that draw upon other resources (whether the free market or faith) to garner security tend to wish to limit the role of government. Those looking at success from the outside often wish to draw upon governmental power to avert personal calamity. In most of the electorate, those two impulses join in incoherent combination. Witness, for example, the Floridian retiree who pronounces that entitlements must be cut to reduce the federal deficit, but insists that Medicare and Social Security are sacrosanct.

Entitlements for the elderly were established as a “New Deal” during the Great Depression. At that time, the elderly were the most impoverished segment of society. Since that time, the elderly have become the wealthiest segment of the population, being replaced on the lowest tier by our children.

The challenge of loving people unconditionally – of saying that you will invest in the survival of others without regards to merit – is to create conditions in which the loved ones may choose to use their power to hurt themselves and others. In our modern democracy, the elderly – the community with the most time for political organization – have used that opportunity to steal power from those without a political voice – children. That hasn’t happened directly, and any specific senior citizen would be angered by my characterization. But governments are aggregates, and my statement, in aggregate, is irrefutable.

The Bible, of course, is the story of Unconditional Love’s attempt to enter into and glorify the world. It celebrates episodes of human grace, but for the most part it is a record of iniquity – of the rejection of unconditional love in favor of material possessions (land, wealth or political alliance) that provide security. Inevitably, the strategies of material possession create competition between individuals and communities, often culminating in violence.

How does God deal with this problem? Well, in the Old Testament, generally by disassembling the nation. In the record we have Noah’s Flood, the subjugation of Egypt, the culling of the Golden Calf, the jealous threats of Exodus and the exile to Babylon. So we have this paradox: the gifts of Unconditional Love are showered on the people, but when they abuse them, they suffer terrible punishment.

Unfortunately, the power of this rebuke was projected onto individuals. If the nation should suffer as a whole for sin, so must the individual. Personal misfortune was interpreted as a consequence of personal sin, when in most cases it occurs as a result of sins committed by others. The hungry child sleeps at her desk while the septuagenarian on social security tees up on the golf course.

Jesus rails against such hypocrisy in the opening verses of Luke 13. He speaks of Galileans whose blood was added to the Hebrew sacrifices, and the people killed by the collapse of a tower, and warns that they were not alone in their sin. To the audience, he proclaims twice:

Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.

But then Jesus tells a strange little story about a landowner that planted a fig tree in his vineyard. When it bears no fruit, he orders his gardener to cut it down as it was “wasting the soil.” To this, the gardener replies [ESV Luke 13:8-9]:

Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put manure on. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.

In many other parables, Jesus speaks of himself as a landowner, prince or bridegroom, but in this case, I see him renewing his role as a tender of life, most familiarly through the parables of the shepherd. To those familiar with the story of the Golden Calf, it might come to mind that God threatened to destroy the entire Hebrew nation, and relented only when Moses assumed responsibility for their future conduct.

Here Jesus says that the problem is not with the Hebrew people (the tree) but with the ground they are planted in. He vows to spread his loving spirit on them, and counsels that they will flower and bear fruit under his care.

And if not, then God may destroy them. Note that: the landowner orders the gardener to cut down the tree, and the gardener offers to care for it another year, building a bond of caring that means that the landowner must do the work of clearing the ground.

In disobeying the owner the following year, will the gardener himself by cut down? Is Jesus offering this assurance to his disciples: “I will care for you as Moses did, and if you fall, I will fall with you.” Recognizing both that sin must not be allowed to take root in the land, but also committing himself without reservation to preservation of the tree of human spirit that will eventually spread Divine Love over the entire world?

Ultimately, the only stable security is in knowing that we are loved. God is the only perfect source of that love, but his restless seeking to heal the world means that we cannot take that love and hide from the world. We cannot “retire” in comfort. We must go into the dark places where people hunger and live in fearful ignorance and bring them love. If we do not, love will pass round us seeking another way, and the sins of others will overwhelm us.

God’s purpose is pure, and embraces everything. It can serve us only if we serve others.

God loves us, but he cannot be bargained with like we can bargain with a government.

But why would we want to?

What’s Wrong With this Picture?

Nothing. Nothing at all.

I was telling my Mom yesterday that the election will probably hang on the debates, and that the trick for Hillary was to simply allow Trump’s negativity to pass right through her while she addressed the voters directly.

Given the new “Love trumps hate” meme for her campaign, it would also be interesting to have her gently chide him when he starts lying “That’s just not true, Donald. You known, Duckie, when you talk people don’t understand a word that you’re saying. But you are quite good at encouraging them to believe that you’re saying what they want to hear.”

Suffering Children

A former football player held court after yoga yesterday morning, explaining his role as a private coach. He is a huge name, so strong in the arms that the instructor warned him against straining his leg muscles in the binding poses. “It’s not just the athletics: I try to be an advocate for the athletes.”

“I suppose that’s only for boys?” asked one of the mothers present.

“Well, I used to think that, but I am opening the program to girls. I realize that they need that advocacy, too. They need a strong father figure to help them believe in themselves.”

Down in Watts yesterday, surrounded by people that came barely to my solar plexus, those words echoed dissonantly in my mind.

I have sought opportunities to share the energies that I possess with the youth of my community. I gave a service at church one Sunday a couple of years ago, and the next week one of the children sought me out and sat on the floor next to me. His mother, a firm atheist, gave me an irritated look and dragged him back to his seat.

Or a more extreme example from seven years ago: I had taken my sons out on Easter to the mega-church down the freeway, pastored by a charismatic speaker. As I walked up the steps into the stadium seating, a young lady gave her heart to me. After the service, the boys enthused about the charismatic pastor, and urged me to fill out an information card. The next weekend, I was woken early on Saturday morning by two parents. The wife asked, “Excuse me, who is this?” before her husband demanded “We want to know where our daughter is.” He carried on until she broke in “He doesn’t know, dear.”

I still have my sons, but – whether they understand it as such or not – they have already learned to draw energy form the eternal source. They really don’t need me any more. So when I read in Unite 4 Good about the Red Eye program down in LA, I was open to the calling.

The prospect down on 114 Street was daunting. It is lined by split-level apartments, perhaps four hundred square feet on each floor, windows and doors heavily barred. A long block breaks the progress of the street about three blocks down from Compton. The program address was the recreation center. Across the street, a group of middle-schoolers were gathered around adults in azure t-shirts. The basketball court inside was occupied by high-schoolers and adults. I asked around about the Red Eye program, but those loitering at the entrance claimed no knowledge of it.

There was one other Caucasian present, a young woman hiding in the hallway. Next to her, a dark-skinned girl, almost her height, regarded me with reluctance. I struck up a conversation, discovering that we were all there for the same reason. When I asked for her name, the girl said “I don’t have one,” but then relented when I just shrugged and turned my attentions elsewhere, and offered “Dazzle.” We admired the antics of the four-year-old on his four-wheeled scooter (the kind that moves when the front wheel is turned).

Brenda, the young woman, identified the organizer Justin when he pulled up, and we all congregated in the gym. I asked about registration, and was pointed at Edna, who advised me that there was no agenda – our role was just to “pour loving” on the kids. I spent most of the next two hours on the basketball court, watching the older elementary-aged boys heave up shots from well outside their range, and trying to keep the bricks and outright air-balls from beaning the younger ones.

With some surprise, I did discover that my efforts in hot yoga were paying off: the bone spurs in my right elbow have subsided. I’m able to snap at the top of my release again. The first ten minutes on the floor were pretty embarrassing, though. My muscle balance is grossly different than when I last picked up a ball seven years ago, and my only form of exercise involves holding isometric poses. But things began to come back, and the boys were admiring, asking me, in order, whether I could dunk, how old I was, and how tall I was.

I was by far the oldest person on the floor. Most of the other volunteers were twenty-somethings.

The real connections began to develop as the adults and kids trickled out to the playground. I started giving advice to some of the kids regarding their shot mechanics. My focus was to get them to come in a little closer and get their muscles to work smoothly together. As the arc of their shots increased, the ball began to fall more softly on the rim, and bounce its way in instead of out. When I enthused “Look at that! That’s how it’s supposed to work!”, they opened up to me, one by one, and I’d feel this surge of energy move into them. They took it all in stride, just going back to their practice with extra enthusiasm.

Edna finally broke camp in the gym and brought everybody together up front for the walk to the store, along the refuse-lined sidewalk between the apartments. It was a local market, full of alcohol and snack foods. I was worried that I didn’t have any cash, but learned that Justin was covering the charge for snacks and drinks. A number of high-school boys and hookers joined the parade, but Justin didn’t mind. He even waved across the street to an older man in a wheel-chair, and sent his friend inside to get a drink for him.

As we stood in line, I noticed Dazzle braiding a friend’s corn rows into a pony-tail. She felt me looking at her, and glared back. I stepped closer and sympathized, “I know it’s hard to open our hearts, but we have to keep trying.” She got this vulnerable look on her face, and went back to her work.

I chugged down a bottle of 24-oz Gatorade, then squatted with my heels on the curb to meditate in support of the good will that was gathered. My little friend on the scooter stopped in front of me and shouted “You’re sleeping!” I opened my eyes to find him with a finger pointed accusingly at me.

“No. I’m meditating.”

“What are you meditating on?” Wow, this kid didn’t miss a beat.

“About good people.”

“Good people?” His tone suggested that it wasn’t a concept that he encountered very often.

“Yeah. Everybody here is a good person. I’m meditating to support that.”

Either satisfied or mystified, he walked off. I turned around to discover a three-year-old sucking the frosting out of his mini-bite cookies and tossing the crackers into the dirt. I advised: “Oh, you should eat the cracker, or we should throw them away. If we leave them there, animals will come, like rats.”

“I don’t want to talk to you.”

“I’m sorry, I can’t help it. It’s just the way the world is.”

He started chewing the cookie in his hand. His older sibling came by, mouth full of metal caps on his teeth. The little guy admitted, “My Mom has rats in her house.”

On the way back to the rec center, I saw their future on the sidewalk. A cluster of five thirty-year olds was gathered around a dice roll. The two contestants danced about with money in their fists, the roller throwing down or picking up bills after each toss. Energy bled from the scene and dissipated into the harsh light reflecting off the pale blue stucco.

Most of the volunteers and kids didn’t go back into the gym. I found a cluster of boys on the bleachers, and spent another fifteen minutes with them. Getting really hungry, I found Edna out front and said that I had to leave. She remarked that it looked like I had fun, and, not wanting to ask whether that was the point, I shared that it was good to pick up a basketball again, and talked about my bone spurs.

But as I drove away, I reflected that I had been allowed by the children to pour water into their thirsty spirits, and recognized what a blessing that had been to me.