Thursday, December 30, 2010

What Matters--A New Year's Meditation

"It could happen any time, tornado,
earthquake, Armageddon. It could happen.
Or sunshine, love, salvation.

It could, you know. That's why we wake
and look out--no guarantees
in this life.

But some bonuses, like morning,
like right now, like noon,
like evening."    
           -William Stafford,
             The Way It is

Today begins a brand new year. I put a brand new calendar on the wall. I took my appointment book and started over. The pages are all blank. A new year is beginning. A new chance to do things differently than we have before. These new pages remind me of a story. When James McCord retired from the Presidency of Princeton Seminary he took the new President, Tom Gillespie out to lunch. McCord had served during the turbulent sixties, seventies and eighties. It was not an easy time to lead a school. But the outgoing President told Gillespie that day, “I gave in on everything that didn’t matter and on nothing that did.” Pretty good advice for a new year. The trick is knowing what does not matter and what is really important.

To learn to give our energy to the things that count and to spend little, if any time on the inconsequential seems a healthy way to live. Most of us spend too much firepower on the things that do not matter. Dr. Ernest Campbell once preached a sermon on: “Every Battle is Not Armageddon.” Why should we drag out the big guns on every concern?

It seems to me that much of the church has yet to learn this. There was a time when the church was silent on every social issue. I remember the deafening quiet of the white church during the Civil Rights days. Now the reverse seems to be true. Pick any issue: gay rights, women’s rights, abortion, stem cell research, evolution, supreme court justices, supporting the war, illegal immigrants, pornography, voting for particular political candidates, church and state issues, prayer in schools, school vouchers, defense of private schools, the Alabama state constitution, taxes, environmental concerns, health care for all our citizens, capital punishment. The list is seemingly endless. Whether we are church people or not we all spend a lot on a multitude of issues. Churches and nation are divided along these particular issues. Are you a red state or blue state—somehow it matters terribly.

I am not advocating turning our back on the world. But maybe it is time for all of us to prioritize. Some things we all have to compromise on or we can get nothing done. A nun used to hearing confessions in the nunnery said it was like being stoned to death with popcorn. We all feel like that most days. We are pelted with too many issues and problems. Do they all need our response?

How do we make sure that we do not give in on the things that truly matter? Perhaps our Judeo-Christian heritage gives us some clues. A little boy talked about rules in his home one day. “There are ten kids in my family and one bathroom,” he said, “you gotta have rules.” And we know there are rules and there are rules.

What matters? The old prophet may have been right: “Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with thy God.” Our constitution says: “Liberty and justice for all.” That all covers a lot of territory. And anytime we try to pare down that great big word, all it is time to go to work. Justice is the God-given right of every human being. And if some group or groups are being ignored or categorized or treated less than human it violates the heart of faith. When Nazi propaganda smeared the Jews long enough—this was the first step to the gas chambers. And the tragedy was that most of other countries and religious institutions did not raise their voice until it was almost too late. Liberty and justice for all are worth fighting for.

What matters? Mercy, or the love of mercy. The stratification of our society may not change. The lines that divide us grow harder and firmer. But every person deserves mercy, even those behind bars. William James’ nephew asked the great man if he had any words of advice before he left home. “Just three words,” Mr. James said. “Be ye kind, be ye kind, be ye kind.” Mercy and kindness are linked. You cannot be kind without showing mercy. This year think of ways you might be kind and show mercy.

What matters? Walking humbly with our God. There should be some transcendent quality about life. We are more than what we see and feel and touch. We are more than consumers. We are more than Democrats and Republicans. We have to come to terms with mystery. There ought to be some moments in every day and every week in which we can stand back and just say: “Ahhhhhhh.” We can’t compute love. We can’t compute faith. We can’t compute hope. Find some way in the New Year to put down our ipods, our blackberries, our DVD and turn off the computer and ponder mystery and touch wonder.

We have been promised three score years and ten. Many never make that. But even those that do know those years are not near enough. The New Year offers us a new chance and a new start. We have a new opportunity to separate the things that do not matter from the things that we cannot live without. Someone said of retirees, “I have never met any one of them who told me they wished they had spent more time on their job.” It’s those other things the New Year calls us to. They teach us justice, they make us merciful and doing these we may just learn more than we thought about walking with God.

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