The two boys were a bit different from the other parishioners, even from the other kids in the church. One was 15, the other was 17. They were both in a band. There were both on the cutting edge of culture. Their parents were active in my church, but their two boys were not. One Sunday they call came to church together. It may have been Mother’s Day, I don’t remember. One of the boys had blue hair, the other had dyed his green. Their dress was about as provocative as their hair. But they were there.
As they sat down, a voice behind them said, in a voice loud enough for anyone within two pew lengths to hear, “I think it’s disgraceful the way some people come to worship. If they can’t dress appropriately, they have no business being there.”
The family got up and left, and the two boys never came back. The parents did not leave the church but scaled back their participation to almost nothing.
I was on the evangelism committee of the church I attended before I became a pastor. One person had an idea for outreach. It was not well accepted by the group. They didn’t think it would be very successful. The person who brought the idea stormed out in a huff, saying, “I thought this church cared about lost souls!” He never came back.
The Catholic novelist Walker Percy has a character in his book The Second Coming ask, “A mystery: If the good news is true, why is one not pleased to hear it? And if the good news is true, why are its public proclaimers such [jerks] and the proclamation itself such a weary used up thing?”
He has an interesting point–what is it about religion that can turn good people into self-righteous jerks? From Fred Phelps gay-hating Westwood Baptist Church, to the racist Christian Identity movement, to the local street preacher yelling at people, what is about religion that can bring out both the best and the worst of people?
Billy Joel wrote a song, The Angry Young Man, about, well, an angry young man:
He refuses to bend, he refuses to crawl
He’s always at home with his back to the wall
And he’s proud of his scars and the battles he’s lost
And he struggles and bleeds as he hangs on the cross
And he likes to be known as the angry young man
Unfortunately, when I was in college that song described me to a tee. I was full of faith, and had traveled to third world countries, had seen the poverty and hunger, and I wanted to change the world. I was positive the Gospel of Jesus Christ called us all to do our best to eradicate poverty and hunger. That should be our number one priority as a church, and I was frustrated because not everyone else shared my values. And I am sure there were times when I was an obnoxious, angry young man. I had conviction–but no heart.
I wanted others to join me, and when they didn’t quite see things my way I was more than capable of letting them feel the full brunt of my self-righteous (and misguided) anger.
When Dorothy and the Scarecrow meet the Tin Man, he is a rusted wreck. Frozen in place because of a rain storm, he can barely mouth the words “oil can.” But that is not his biggest problem. He tells his two saviors that he has no heart.
I’d be tender – I’d be gentle and awful sentimental
Regarding Love and Art.
I’d be friends with the sparrows …
and the boys who shoots the arrows
If I only had a heart.
To have a heart—to care—to show compassion for others, that is what the Tin Man wants. And he is right to want that. When I look at the current climate in our country, I feel like we are a Tin Man, in need of a heart. The political discourse has grown heartless. I am prone to get into discussions on Facebook, and sometimes they are political discussions, and I have noticed that with many people, when they run out of arguments, they just start attacking me as a person. Of course when I watch similar discussions on TV news shows, I know where they get it. We have people marching in the streets, openly, under banners of hate. About once a week there is post where someone has videoed a person being ugly to another person, often an immigrant or a person of color, saying things that are just plain hateful. I read letters in our newspaper from people who are concerned about the homeless in our community, and some of comments show absolutely no compassion for others.
On the face of it we have become a country of self-interested individuals. According to novelist Marilynne Robinson, that makes us a “moral blank slate.” She goes on to say, “Self-interestedness is not a trait well thought of in traditional moral systems…That it is presented to us as uniquely and inevitably our governing motive puts an end to all the old struggles of the soul, and moots old considerations like loyalty or compassion.”
In other words, she says we have become like the Tin Man sees himself–empty of empathy and compassion.
And the shocking things is that we find the same attitude in churches. One thing I noticed when I got back into ministry several years ago was how much had changed. Where once a lot of churches were able to get together to help one another do works of compassion, now that is blunted. I have been meeting with a group of people about getting a permanent, regional shelter in our community. The group includes people from various social service agencies as well as governmental bodies. And at every meeting one question has consistently come up; where are the churches? And of the ones that are involved, why can’t we work together. I don’t have the heart to tell them that our various theologies keep us apart.
Perhaps I am overstating this a bit. I can look around here and see many, many compassionate people. There are some churches involved. You can find civil discourse in some places. But the loudest voices are often the ones that are heard, and the loud voices tend to be the people who have little in the way of compassion for others. Where are the loud voices crying for compassion? Where are the voices that are speaking for you? Like the Tin Man, it seems sometimes that our mouths are rusted shut.
We need more spiritual Tin Men. We need people who care deeply, who have and exhibit compassion for others in need. We have too many angry people. We have too many apathetic people. We have too many self-absorbed people, who just don’t care about others. We need spiritual Tin Men.
Before we go any further with this, I need to talk about one more character–The Lion.
He gets a bum rap. He is known as the Cowardly Lion, because he is constantly scared. However anyone who knows anything about courage knows that cowardice and fear are two separate things. Sometimes being afraid just means you are paying attention, and the fact is the Lion finds himself in some really hairy situations. The Lion, as he says, lacks “da noirve,” but he tries.
Aristotle says that courage is the golden mean between two things–fear and stupidity. The person who does not act because of fear is not courageous, but the person who is just too stupid to know any better is not courageous either. People who are never afraid may not be courageous–they may just be to stupid to know how dangerous things can be.
A few years ago I wrote an editorial denouncing racism. Some people complimented me on my courage, but it was not a courageous action. I had no fear about writing it. In fact I was thinking it would be a good thing for our church if people knew we were not racist. So you might say I wrote that editorial out of self-interest.
On the other hand I have been in situations where someone said something that was racist, and I didn’t say anything. I told myself I was just being polite, but in fact I didn’t speak up because I was afraid. Clearly my silence was not courageous.
Courage is when you overcome your fear, but act with intelligence. Yelling at someone who makes a racist remark is not necessarily courageous; it could just mean you are a jerk.
The important thing about the Lion is that for the most part he overcomes his fear. That is the definition of courage. He is scared when he goes to the witch’s castle to rescue Dorothy, but he goes nevertheless.
I will admit that when we first meet the Lion, he is a mess, and the name seems to fit. But as we get to know him we realize that just like the others, he has within himself the very virtue he seeks. When it counts, when the well being of others is on the line, he rises to the occasion. If he just looking out for himself, his fears seem to get the best of him, but when, for instance he has to help storm a witch’s castle to save Dorothy, he is there, flying monkeys or no flying monkeys. The overall arc of his journey is learning what he can do when he has to, and learning that he can overcome his fears.
Spiritual Lions are people who can face their fears, and can charge in where angels fear to tread. Like Martin Luther, who stood up the entire Roman Catholic church, who stood on his convictions and said, “Here I stand! I can do no other,” or Martin Luther King Jr., who stood for peace and the dignity of all people, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer who stood against Hitler and for Jesus, spiritual Lions are able to live out their convictions no matter the cost.
But more than that, you need to know that the
A spiritual journey is not for cowards. A person whose spiritual journey is driven by fear is a dangerous person, for fear can push into some real destructive behavior. It is fear that causes people to distrust people of other races and ethnic groups. The complexity of faith can scare us to death. If our own faith is shaky and we see someone else who does not believe as we do, but is doing just fine, we can feel threatened. And some people, when threatened, lash out and attack. Others hide out, and shut themselves off. Either way we lose our connection with the broader aspects of faith. When we are afraid, it is all about us and our fears. When we overcome our fears is when we show real courage.
When I talk about compassion and courage, I am talking about how we practice our faith.
In the Micah passage we heard, “what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness.” To do justice, to act with courage. (To be a spiritual Lion.) And to love kindness, to act with compassion. (To be a spiritual Tin Man.)
In the Gospel lesson, Jesus is confronted with a man who had a withered hand. He has compassion on this man. But it is the Sabbath, and the Powers That Be had said that healing on the Sabbath was forbidden by the law. To heal this man would be to publicly break the sabbath laws, and would mean, at very least, that Jesus would be ostracized by the religious powers of his day. It would mean he was picking a fight with them, and for the most part, they held all the trump cards. They could make or break Jesus.
And what does he do? He acts with courage and compassion. He heals the man. He tells them why: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” And then he does good. He is not afraid. He is compassionate.
I have been talking about Spiritual Scarecrows, the Tin Men, and the Lions as if they were all different people, as if you can be one, but not the others. That is not really the case. In fact, we should all embody aspects of all three. We are to love the Lord our God with all our minds, all our hearts and all our strength. Anyone who exhibits just one of these is wildly unbalanced.
I talked about compassion. One of the biggest hindrances to compassion is fear. “What if I help that person, and they latch on to me and never let go? What if I try to help and I fail. What if I say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing? I will look stupid.” What if, what if, what if? And before we know it, we are paralyzed.
But courage without compassion can be brutal. Have you ever met one of those people who just tells it like it is, without any thought of how their words may affect others? When I was in college, I wanted to do justice–but I lacked compassion. When Jesus confronted the Pharisees in the Gospel lesson he grieved. He did not confront them with self-righteous anger. He grieved that they were so far from God they could not see how helping a man was an act of God. His courage was backed by compassion.
And finally, we need an intelligent approach to both compassion and courage. You can have the compassion, you can have the courage, but that all needs to be tempered with making sure you are doing the right things in the right ways.
I worked with pastor who drilled this into me. He got it from a friend of his. The friend was driving home from work, and saw smoking rising from a neighbor’s house. He had compassion. He did not want to see the house go up in flames. He did not want his neighbor to lose his home. He had courage. He stopped his car and went into the house. And what happened? When he opened the door, it caused a back draft, and an explosion of fire raged out the door, and he was almost killed. About that time the fire department showed up, having been called by another neighbor. They treated the man, and put the fire out and told him, “If you ever see anything like this again, call us. We know that feed a smoldering fire with oxygen, like when you opened the door, causes the fire to flare up. We know how to fight the fire without making it worse.”
I have seen programs started to serve people that lacked intelligence. I have seen people who were afraid to help others, because the lacked the courage of their convictions. I have seen people work so hard to do good, that they forget to be good.
That is why we need each other. While we should have brains, a heart and the nerve, some of us have more of one of these things than others. People who have great big hearts often need to listen to people who have great big brains. People who have ‘da noirve” need to listen and learn from people who have compassion, and brains. None of us are perfectly balanced in these three areas, but all of us can be.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, tells the story of three brothers, all of whom are dysfunctional at a basic level. Dmitry, Ivan, and Alyosha represent the sensuous, the intellectual and the spiritual, respectively. What makes the three brothers dysfunctional is their division. Ivan, for example, has nothing of Aloysha’s spirituality or Dmitry’s love of life. Dmitry throws himself at life with abandon, but also without any thought to his actions, nor with any thought to how his actions affect his own soul. You would think that Alyosha the monk, the spiritual brother, would be the ideal for the novel and the first time I read it, I thought he was. But as I got to know him, I saw his naivete, and his fear of life, and realized that if he had more of Ivan and Dmitry in him, he would be a better person, a better Christian.
We need each other. As Dorothy made her way down the Yellow Brick, she needed a brainy Scarecrow, a compassionate Tin Man, and a courageous Lion. As we make our way down the spiritual yellow brick road of life, we need the same thing; brains, a heart, and “da noirve.”
We need to love God with all our minds, all our hearts, and all our strength.
“With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
1 Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. 2They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” 4Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. 5He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. 6The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.