Apathy in the darkness

People say that the two biggest problems facing western civilization these days are ignorance and apathy. How can we confront these two concerns? Frankly, I don’t know, and I don’t care.

In ancient Greece and Rome, a group of philosophers who called themselves Stoics sang the praises of apathy. They insisted that a virtuous person will not love anything in this world too much, not even a family member or a friend. The world, to Stoics, is a bad place, and everything in it is bad. They recalled the words of Socrates, who pictured the death of his body and the release of his soul as a bird flying free from its cage. So, for the Stoics, should be the attitude of every wise man and woman. We should be unencumbered by the things of this world. We should be seeking freedom from the physical world, freedom to become purely spirit, freedom not to care about food and drink, about clothing and shelter, about health and safety, or about any other matter than pertains only to our physical existence in this world.

Already two thousand years ago, a trade network linked the Mediterranean world with Persia, India, and China. Possibly Buddhist teachings traveled along this network, suggesting thoughts to the Stoic philosophers in the West. For Buddhists also seek to be unattached to the things of this world. Desire, or craving, leads to suffering. Learning to live without desire promotes life without suffering. Buddhists do not completely withdraw from the world—they consider proper vocation as important as proper beliefs and proper meditation. But behind all that is proper lies unattachment—freedom from desire for anything in this world, with the expectation of nirvana—complete freedom from suffering and from the burden of maintaining a self-identity.

In the Star Trek world, Vulcans practice the same apathy and non-attachment as Stoics and Buddhists. Vulcans seek to be guided by logic and reason, not by emotion. Scriptwriters could not resist toying with this philosophy, forcing Mr. Spock in one way or another to confront human emotion. Spock struggled to remain faithful to Vulcan values, to be apathetic and unattached, to be guided by logic unclouded by emotion. Doctor McCoy found Spock’s apathy to be cold and unappealing, but Captain Kirk often found Spock’s Vulcan ways to be helpful to the crew and the mission of the Enterprise.

This winter I am starting with a new therapist, hoping to overcome the burden of apathy. My own depression, combined with the challenges of the past year, have left me feeling burnt out and uncaring. The virus crisis, the year’s political chaos, and threats to my own job and income have exhausted my inner strength. Moreover, I have for years been taking medicine to help control my feelings of anxiety and depression. Christmas season was an ongoing struggle—I did not want to celebrate the holiday, and I did not want to spend time with family. I stopped caring about my health and well-being; I was uninterested in taking care of myself. My writing lagged. My personal space became increasingly cluttered and untidy. Even my decision to seek therapy comes, not from any desire of mine to recover, but from the insistence of family members that I need help.

Christians are not meant to be unattached. We are to love God whole-heartedly, and we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. Christians are not meant to be apathetic. We are to hunger and thirst for righteousness; we are to mourn our sins and the world’s evil—then we can be comforted and satisfied. Christians do not seek a spiritual existence untouched by the physical world. When God created the world, what he made was good. When the world became corrupted by sin and rebellion and evil, God became a physical being, as human as we are, to redeem the world. He defeated death by dying and by rising to life again—rising with a body that could be touched, that could eat and drink with his disciples, that remained physical and human. He promises his people a resurrection to a new and perfect world where we will eat and drink together at his table and enjoy everything that was good in the first creation.

Not caring is a problem. The loss of emotion means fading into darkness, not walking in the light. Right now, I honestly don’t care, but with help I expect to start caring again. With that change, other parts of my life might also start falling into place, aligning in a way that is right for me and for those around me. J.

John Lennon (1940-1980)

John Lennon was born eighty years ago today—October 9, 1940.

Without John Lennon, there would have been no Beatles. Surely some other group or individual would have filled the gap that the Beatles occupied, but their artistry and creativity would have been different. As a result, the 1960s and history since that time would also have been different.

When Paul McCartney met John Lennon in 1956, John was leading a skiffle group called the Quarrymen. (Skiffle is a British folk music, not unlike some of the Appalachian and Ozark folk music still performed today in the United States.) Paul and John established a musical partnership, that was soon joined by George Harrison. Other members came and went, and various names were used by the group. The Beatles did not approach the peak of success, though, until Ringo Starr became the regular drummer of the group in 1962.

In their early years, the Beatles performed many rock-and-roll hits from the United States, from black performers as well as white performers. They paid as much attention to B-side songs as to the promoted hits. They also wrote their own songs and performed them. An early Beatles hit, “Please Please me,” reveals both the word-play for which John became famous and the innovate harmonies that helped the Beatles to stand out from the crowd of early Sixties musicians. While Paul is sometimes considered the more musical of the pair, comparing Paul’s “And I Love Her” to John’s “If I Fell” (both from the album and movie Hard Day’s Night) reveals that they had equal and complementary talents. When the Beatles stopped touring and became a studio band, John was able to direct his word-play into more complex songs such as “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” and, “I Am the Walrus.” But his musical abilities were also evident in songs such as “All You Need is Love,” which sounds like a simple rock anthem but has a complicated rhythmic structure which, every so often, drops half a beat.

John had a troubled childhood. Both his parents were absent, and John was raised by an aunt; his mother, Julia, died while John was still a child. (Oddly, Paul’s mother Mary also died while Paul was young.) John was perpetually contemptuous of authority and found it hard to maintain stable relationships. He was the first of the Beatles to marry; also the first to divorce and remarry. He was as absent from his sons’ lives as his father had been absent from his. John admitted that his promotion of love and peace for the world did not match the life he was living. John also experimented with a number of mind-altering substances, drawing his fellow Beatles and many other people into the drug culture of the later Sixties. He was briefly interested in Transcendental Meditation, a version of the Hindu religion promoted by a yogi who became very famous and wealthy as a result of his teaching. As the members of the Beatles sought meaning for their lives in various forms and aspects, the group fractured. John’s solo career was noted especially for the anti-war anthem “Give Peace a Chance” and the ballad “Imagine,” both of which are frequently quoted in contemporary conversations about life, politics, religion, and idealism.

John retired from the musical scene for several years, then began a comeback with new music in 1980. In December of that year, he was shot and killed by a deranged fan. As the Beatle martyr, John’s image and reputation became even more strongly associated with the values of peace and love. The Beatles remain cultural icons today, not only as representatives of the Sixties but as creators of music that continues to entertain, having passed the test of time. In the decades since the Beatles, many performers have enjoyed successful careers, but no one has shaped and defined music and culture as much as the Beatles did in their time. J.

Love your enemies

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” (Matthew 5:43-47).

Many people come to Jesus hoping that he will make their lives easier, that he will spare them from the problems of this evil world. Jesus warns of persecution in this world, remarking that those who have received the blessings of God are the same people who will be persecuted in this world. Jesus offers several examples of ways that people of the world take advantage of God’s people, adding that we should not resist them. Now, instead of saying that Christians will have no enemies or that we will conquer all our enemies, Jesus acknowledges the existence of those enemies and commands his followers to love our enemies.

In the Stoic philosophy/religion of ancient Greece and Rome, people were taught to be disinterested. Apathy was a virtue to the Stoics. People were taught not to treat others on the basis of what they had done for one in the past or on the basis of what they might do for one in the future; instead, all people were to be treated fairly and equally. Here, Jesus points out that God acts in the same manner: he gives sun and rain to all people, no matter how good or holy those people are. When good things happen, all people benefit; when disaster strikes, all people suffer. God does not use sicknesses and accidents to sort the good from the bad. If an airplane crashes, we cannot judge the goodness or sinfulness of the passengers by analyzing who survived and who was killed.

We are told to be like God, treating everyone the same. Yet Jesus makes it clear that the disinterested approach of the Stoics is not good enough for God. We are to love everyone, even our enemies. We are to imitate Jesus. He did not resist those who sentenced him to death, those who mocked him, or those who nailed him to a cross. Instead of resisting their evil, Jesus prayed for them, asking his Father to forgive them for their sins.

This kind of love surpasses our usual way of living. We are more likely to measure other people by what they have done for us and by what they can do for us. The other religions of the world protest this selfishness. Still, only Jesus has been able to live according to the higher standard. As Jesus calls us to be like him and to be like his Father, he knows that he is asking something difficult from us. When he tells us to love our enemies, he knows from his own experience how unlovable those enemies will be.

God hates sin. God hates sinners. Whenever we sin, we are God’s enemies. Though it seems a paradox, God also loves his enemies and wants to rescue us from our sins. When we were still enemies of God, lost in sin, Jesus died for us. He took our guilt upon himself and absorbed God’s wrath so we could be treated as the sons of God. We could become, in God’s eyes, righteous people who deserve God’s rewards. Jesus grants this blessing to his people. When he commands us to love our enemies, Jesus requires us to be living pictures of his love, the love that has transformed our lives. J.

Down dooby-do down down (semicolon)

Breaking up is hard to do. That’s not just a song from the Bubble Gum Era of rock music (the early 1960s); it’s also a fact, one that is hard to deny.

This summer would be a bad time to end a relationship. I say that because of the ubiquitous song “Be Alright,” written and sung by Dean Lewis. (“I know you love her, but it’s over, mate….”) If I were dealing with the aftermath of an ended relationship, I would probably want to destroy my radio the next time that song began.

That’s unfortunate, because most of that song contains good advice. Alright: the “bottoms up to forget” is bad advice, because drinking only increases the pain; it doesn’t make it go away. But the rest of the song is fitting: breaking up does hurt a bit for a while, and after a while things do get better.

I have experienced ended relationships, and I have not forgotten the pain. But I survived—life goes on, and new joys replace the old. I have encouraged others when they were grieving ended relationships. Being the supportive friend can be difficult—you see the light, but they only see the darkness. You know there is hope, but they don’t want to hear about hope. For a while, it seems that they want to cling to the pain, to coddle it, to make it the center of their lives, the meaning of their existence. For most people, that stage also ends, and life goes on.

What would I add to Dean Lewis’ words of wisdom? It doesn’t rhyme, but it’s still worth saying: love makes us vulnerable. When we love someone, our love makes it possible for us to be hurt. That is true of more than romantic love: family relationships can be painful, and even friendships can be painful. But the possibility of pain—even the reality of pain—is worth bearing because of the immense, immeasurable value of love itself.

Even the Almighty God has made himself vulnerable to the pain of rejection. He loves his fallen creatures. He grieves when any of us turn away from him and reject his gifts. The lover whose loved one chooses someone else has a taste of the holy, divine grief of God. The lover whose loved one wants to end the relationship knows how Christ felt when Judas betrayed him for money, when all the disciples ran away, and when Peter said three times that he did not know who Jesus is.

Love is central to God’s nature. Love flows among the Persons of the Holy Trinity outside of time and space. Creation happened as a gift of love from the Father to the Son. We are created in God’s image, meaning that we are created so we can love God and so we can love one another. When God speaks of our relationship with him in terms of family—even in terms of marriage and romantic love—he is not taking an experience we know and using it as a metaphor. He is speaking a truth that is not metaphor: he is saying that he loves us with all the passion of human romantic love.

The cross proves that God would do anything for us. Perhaps God allows us the pain of broken relationships in this lifetime so we can look at the cross in a new light. Our minds might not grasp the connection, but our hearts can feel the love of God that would bear a cross and accept its pain and suffering, all for the sake of love.

Breaking up is hard to do. God does not want to break up with his people. Through the message of the Bible and in the life of the Church, God nourishes our loving relationship with him—our faith—so we remain in a proper relationship with him and are not in danger of breaking up with him. For all the messy complicated problems of the Church on earth, it is valuable as a link to God, who pours his blessings into our lives through his Church. J.

Guest post from Johannes Tauler

Years ago we used to sing a song in church with the title and refrain, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” Christians indeed ought to be recognized by their love. We were created in God’s image, and God is love. Redemption transforms sinners back into the image of Christ, and Christ is love. The greatest commandments require us to love God and to love our neighbors. Love should be characteristic of every Christian.

This month several Christian bloggers have commented on other people who call themselves Christian and yet are deficient in love for their neighbors. Such observations generally are tempered by the understanding that not one of us is without sin; and that even the most annoying and aggravating Christian would likely be an even worse person without the redemption of Christ and the guiding of the Holy Spirit. One saying tells us that we cannot understand another person until we have walked a mile in his or her shoes. (Taken literally, that’s a silly picture. What would we do—expect them to walk that mile barefoot? Or leave them barefoot while we take their shoes a mile away from them?) We cannot know what kind of aches and pains, digestive problems, fears, and anxieties might cause another person to act unloving towards his or her neighbors. If they that they are Christians, we owe it to them to assume that they are doing the best they can under the circumstances. At the same time, Scripture encourages Christians to exhort one another toward a higher standard of behavior. If the love of Christ has changed our lives, we want to bear witness to his love by example and not by words alone.

Johannes Tauler would have blogged if he had the technology. Born around 1300, he never had that opportunity. Instead, he preached and he taught. Tauler noticed the people of his century who called themselves Christians, yet whose lives made that label questionable. He observed, “Then there are the others, who are devoted to religious life and enjoy great esteem and reputation. They are pretty sure that they have left the darkness far behind; and yet they are fundamentally Pharisees, filled with self-love and self-will. All their striving is centered on themselves. Outwardly one can barely tell them from God’s friends, for they often spend more time on pious exercises than God’s friends. One can always see them reciting prayers, keeping fasts, and strict rules. If judged by externals, they are hard to recognize. But those in whom God’s Spirit dwells know them for what they are. In fact, even outwardly there is a way of distinguishing them. They are always sitting in judgment upon others, also on those who love God: but you never see them judging themselves, whereas the true lovers of God judge no one but themselves. In everything, in God and in his creatures, such people seek nothing but their own gratification. So deeply embedded is this pharisaical tendency in their nature that every corner of the world is invaded by it. It is impossible to overcome this habit by natural means: one might as well try to break down mountains of iron. There is only one way, and that is for God to take over and inhabit man. And this is what he does only for those who love him.”

The more things change, the more they stay the same. J.

I Corinthians 13

Jesus is the Word. And the Word is God. And God is love.

Therefore we know that Jesus is patient and kind; Jesus does not envy or boast; he is not arrogant or rude. He does not insist on his own way; he is not irritable or resentful; he keeps no record of wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Jesus bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Jesus never fails.

We strive to be like Jesus. We were created in his image; since God is love, we are created for the purpose of loving God and loving one another. Unlike Jesus, we sometimes fail. But Jesus keeps no record of wrongs. Unlike Jesus, we can be impatient and unkind toward one another and even toward God, but Jesus remains patient and kind. We can be both arrogant and rude with other people and even toward God, but Jesus is not irritable or resentful. We find much that is unbearable, but Jesus bore our sins on the cross to grant us victory over all evil. We sometimes falter in our faith, but Jesus never stops believing in us, because he has already redeemed us. Our hope sometimes crumbles, but Jesus continues to hope for our restoration, because he has already paid in full to reconcile us to God. We sometimes lack endurance, but Jesus endures all our doubts and worries, all our failures and shortcomings, and all the ways we disappoint him. He never fails, and his success has become our success.

When we measure love, we find that it falls short of God’s standards. When we measure Jesus, we see that he never fails, and that his love is perfect. We are redeemed, not by our love for him, but by his love for us. His love and forgiveness change us, transforming us back again into his image. Without the love of Christ, we are nothing—noisy gongs and clanging cymbals, nothing more. Through the love of Christ we are children of God, heirs of everlasting life, and more than conquerors through him who loves us. J.

Protecting marriages

God says, “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14).

Luther explains, “We should fear and love God so that we lead a sexually pure and decent life in what we say and do, and husband and wife love and honor each other.”

Salvageable adds: In explaining most of the commandments, Luther lists things we should not do as well as things we should do. Only in the first commandment and in this commandment does Luther omit the negatives and describe only the positives. Perhaps he feared that the list of things we should not do regarding marriage and intimacy would become too long to be practical. Perhaps he feared that such a list would give people sinful ideas. Probably, though, Luther wanted to emphasize the positive about a matter that too often is discussed only in negative terms.

As people hunger for food and thirst for water, so most people have an appetite for the intimacy that belongs in marriage. God created that appetite for good reasons, including the mutual support of a man and a woman, and the raising of children in a secure environment. As people can crave food and drink that is not healthy for them, so people can seek to satisfy their desire for intimacy in ways that are impure and indecent. This commandment of God protects marriages. Marriage is important to God. In a perfect world, he created a man and a woman, both in his image, to love and honor each other, to care for the planet and all that it contains and to be helpers or teammates to one another.

The devil and the sinful world hate everything that is good. They seek to damage or destroy the good things God made, twisting those good things into things that are adulterated, indecent, and impure. Whether a person is married or single, that person should respect the marriages of others and not seek to undermine them, whether for personal gain or just out of spite and envy. Jesus said that looking at another person for the purpose of lust is adultery, but the world surrounds us with suggestive images, seeking to inspire lust within us. Lust is sinful, not merely because of this commandment, but also because it treats another person as an object, an It, rather than a person, a Thou. The devil has an additional trick, throwing guilt at a person who has been tempted and has resisted the temptation. Luther had an expression for people who felt guilty about experiencing temptation: “You cannot keep the birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.” When we encounter temptations to sin and resist them, we should feel thankful and not guilty, for we are partaking in the victory Jesus won over all evil.

Also, Luther may have noted how Bible writers often compare idolatry to adultery. They do this because God compares his people—Israel in the Old Testament and the Church in the New Testament—to his Bride, saying that he loves his people as a husband loves his wife. Any attack on marriage, then, is an attack on love in general and on God’s love in particular. Paul counseled husbands to love their lives as Christ loves the Church; he goes on to paint a picture of Christ purifying the Church by his own sacrifice to make her holy and acceptable. Having been made pure, we want to remain pure. Christ’s forgiveness is available every day to remove the stain of sin from our lives. This redemption changes us, subtracting lust from our hearts, teaching us truly to love, building intimate love within marriages, and causing us to respect also the marriages of others. J.

No other gods

God says, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).

Luther explains, “What does this mean? We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.”

Salvageable adds: Should Christians fear God? Not just Luther, but the Bible itself calls all people to fear God. But the fear of a Christian for God is not the kind of fear that causes us to want to run away and hide from God. Sinners without faith in Christ will respond to the appearance of Jesus on the Day of the Lord in that way, for they will see a righteous Judge and not a loving Savior.

Our fear is different. First, it is respect for God, wanting to do what he commands because he is always right. Second, it is awe for God, realizing that he is far greater than even we have comprehended. Third, it is placing God first in our lives. When we fear God more than anything else, no threat or danger will push us into sin. Because we fear God more, we stand up to those enemies that would separate us from God, and we overcome because of Christ’s victory.

Obviously we should also love God above all things. In the Large Catechism, Luther points out that if we loved God sincerely and continuously, we would not break any of the rest of his commandments either. Whenever we sin, we love something else more than we love God. In that case, something else becomes our god—whether it is a husband or wife, parent or child, job or hobby, political cause or moral crusade, money or property, sports team or entertainer, or any other idol. Most of all, we sin because we love ourselves more than we love God.

Christians say that they trust God, but sometimes we trust something else more than we trust God. Moralists trust their own good deeds and their obedience to the commandments. They fail to trust Jesus to be their Savior. Rationalists trust their own thinking more than the Word of God. Emotionalists trust their own feelings more than the Word of God. Egoists of both kinds ignore the parts of the Bible they do not like or somehow change them to match their own thoughts and feelings.

Every day we catch ourselves fearing something more than we fear God, or loving something more than we love God, or trusting something more than we trust God. Whenever this happens, we repent—admitting to God that we have done wrong and asking for his forgiveness. We ask, knowing that his forgiveness is given to us because of the perfect life of Christ and because of his sacrifice on the cross. Relying on his righteousness and his redemption, we find power to fear and trust and love God even more. J.

Why am I here?

Why do I exist? What is my purpose in life? Why did God put me here? Most of us grapple with these questions from time to time. Even Socrates knew that the unexamined life is not worth living. Does the Bible contain answers to these questions, or are we doomed to ask them again and again until the day we die?

The Bible says that the first man and the first woman were made in the image of God. This can refer to many things—intelligence, moral sense, and creativity, for example—but the most important quality of God, according to God, is love. “God is love.” Outside of creation, the Persons of God have pure and perfect love for one another. Creation itself can be viewed as a gift of love from the Father to the Son. God created many more beings that he could love, beings that could return his love. We are created to love God whole-heartedly and also to love one another. God needs nothing from us, but we glorify God and serve God when we love and help each other.

How do we love God? We place no other gods ahead of him: not Baal or Zeus or Thor, and not money or power or fame or entertainment or any person or animal or cause or job or hobby. We love God when we use his name properly, rather than using it to trick other people (or using it carelessly to punctuate our conversations). We love God when we give him the time he deserves—not merely an hour on Sunday morning, but time each day to speak to him in prayer and to learn from His Word about his commands and his promises. We love God when we honor, respect, and obey human authority in the home, the workplace, and the government. The way we treat those in authority over us shows how we truly feel about God’s authority.

We love and serve God by loving and helping our neighbors. We respect their lives, their marriages, their property, and their reputations. Not only are we careful not to harm them in these matters; we look for ways to help them in these matters. We love God and our neighbors when we are content with what God has given us and made available to us. When we are not content, we do not love God, for we accuse him of failing to give us what we should have. When we are not content, we do not love our neighbors, for we become angry seeing them enjoy things we do not have.

This is why we were made: to love in all these ways. Different people in different situations will have different opportunities to love. Marriage is one kind of love; friendship is another. Children love their parents by honoring, respecting, and obeying them. Parents love their children by instructing them and by modeling God’s love and forgiveness. Workers and managers do their jobs with mutual respect. Citizens honor and obey their governments, while those with authority do not abuse their authority but use it for the good of the people they serve.

Each of us has a different blend of resources, abilities, opportunities, and interests. Each of us can spend a lifetime serving and glorifying God while helping his or her neighbors in a different way. To find your niche in God’s creation, if you have not already found it, I recommend answering three questions: “What do I enjoy doing? What do other people tell me I do well? What tasks do I most notice need to be done?” When the answers to these three questions converge, you may have found the unique purpose for which God put you into his creation.

We were created to love, to do good works motivated by love. When we fall short—when our love is incomplete—we cannot restore ourselves to perfection or reconcile ourselves to the God who made us. No matter how hard we strive to love properly and to do those things that love requires, the more we will see ourselves falling short of the glory of God. The better we know the commandments of God, the more clearly we see how we have failed to accomplish them. Each of us was created to love. None of us can rescue ourselves when our love has failed to meet God’s standards.

God’s plan for salvation is entirely separated from his plan for creation. When we do not do the things God created us to do, we cannot change matters by trying harder to do them. God does not redeem us or reconcile us because of anything we did in the past, or because of anything we are doing now, or because of anything we will do in the future. God redeems us and reconciles us because he loves us. He rescues us without any merit or worthiness in us. We cannot earn his redemption, and we cannot repay his redemption. If we try to do so, we only insult God and his gift.

Yet the forgiveness of God, his redemption, and his reconciliation, change us. They erase all sins from our record. They restore to us the image of God. They made us able to love as we should love. It does not happen instantly; our transformation will not be completed until the Day of the Lord, the Day of Resurrection. Along the way, though, with no stain of sin to restrain us, we are able to love more and more in the way God intended. The good things we do are not proof of our redemption. We have all the proof we need in the promises of the Bible and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. As we deny ourselves and follow him, we stop measuring ourselves and our worthiness (which are insufficient for our redemption) and we instead measure Jesus Christ, his perfect life, his sacrifice on the cross, and his resurrection (which are fully sufficient for our redemption).

Why am I here? To love God and to love my neighbors. Why am I saved and a citizen of heaven? Because of what Jesus has done for me. It is as simple as that. J.