Category Archives: God the Contrarian

Lord, Ask me anything except to be treasurer of the church

For twenty-five years I was a member or a medium-sized Lutheran church along with my wife and kids. Over the years I served many roles, including teacher for both Middle and High School student Sunday School classes, singing in multiple choirs and holiday cantatas. Ultimately I wound up playing rhythm guitar in the Praise Band until the leaders left the church. Then I led the group for a while as well as chairing the committee to select a new full-time leader.

During that process, I assertively kept committee meetings to an hour. As anyone that has served on a church committee can tell you, that is nearly impossible to do. The pastor emeritus serving on the committee, a veteran of 45+ years in the both campus and congregational ministry, took me aside and thanked me for the efficient use of time. “I wish more of my meetings over the years had been this clear.”

That said, the decision itself still required a series of “side meetings” by committee members who thought we were moving too fast. Three months passed before they made up their minds, ultimately choosing the candidate we’d originally decided upon. Such is life in a church bureaucracy.

Years later, ordained as a minister to serve as an officiant at the wedding of a friend. An honor I never imagined, but willingly embraced.

After that term of service I was elected to the Church Board as a Member-At-Large. That role came along at an interesting and difficult period of decision in that 100-year old congregation. There was a building expansion on the table, and a band of extremely dedicated volunteers worked with architects to come up with a wise and efficient plan for growing the narthex and re-organizing space upstairs and down.

I’d been through a vote or two of approval in congregational meetings when I was asked to join the board. It appeared the decision was already made to go ahead with construction. There were a few glitches to solve that might have added pennies on the dollar, and the Board President wanted to take it back to the congregation for one more vote.

Frustrations

This took place over a matter of weeks. I could sense our Pastor’s frustration at the continuing fussiness and fear involved in the decision. I waited a few weeks to actually offer much of an opinion, which was much out of character for me. But I felt that listening was an important part of playing the role of Member-At-Large.

Painting of Easter Lilies by Christopher Cudworth

But as a meeting wore on one late winter night, and the arguments for and against the changes repeated themselves yet again, I sort of ran out of patience. Pounding my fist firmly on the table, I said out loud, “This has already been voted on twice. The congregation wants to move ahead. No more discussion is necessary. No more votes either. Let’s vote right now and get this moving forward.”

Gratitude and grace

That’s what we did. On the way out of the building that night, our 6’5″ pastor, thin like a stretched out crow in his all-black outfit, reached his arms around to wrap me in a hug. Then he leaned back and said, “Thank you.”

Sure, I was kind of an asshole about how that was handled. But it did move the project forward after weeks of what felt like self-righteous hand-wringing about fiscal responsibility and conservative ideals.

High and mighty

I’d been in other situations where people got all high and mighty about their roles while projects faltered and budgets overflowed their banks. One was a Chamber of Commerce in which the Board consisted of twenty people. Our meetings were held in a giant City Hall chambers where people sat thirty feet apart. There were no budgets for any of the events or activities of the organization and people felt no compulsion to require them. The chamber was finishing in the red every year.

We fixed all of that in a year. Cut the board to eleven people. Required budgets for every single line item. And issued all new marketing materials. The changes didn’t win me friends, but they proved effective. There’s beauty in discretion. The structure of that organization is still in place thirty years later, and it is thriving. Before that, it was directionless and struggling. That’s the type of change you call a success.

Poorly suited for the job

But there are some jobs for which I am poorly suited in life. While I understand the need for a budget, I have none of the skills needed to build or outline one. Those talents I have always left to actual accountants and other people that love to work with numbers. Then we can discuss the meaning of those numbers, and the needs they dictate.

Windmill by Christopher Cudworth

Yet a couple years after serving on the church board I received a call from a church committee leader asking if I’d be interested in being placed into the election as Treasurer for the congregation. I am embarrassed to this day to admit that I laughed out loud at the prospect of that. “I’m the last person to consider for that job,” I told her.

A few years after that, my late wife and I left that church over differences in theological emphasis. We met with the pastor to wish him well and say goodbye. He’d visited us in the hospital during my late wife’s treatments for cancer. He’d prayed with us for her healing and strength. So we were not ungrateful for his ministerial care.

But some of the beliefs that Lutherans of that synod abide we ultimately found intolerant and shortsighted. So despite the many friends we’d enjoyed and years we’d spent raising our children in that church, some of its teachings had become more intolerant and toxic over time. So we moved to a new church where I volunteered first as a confirmation mentor and then a high school assistant after my wife passed away from cancer.

No one-size-fits all

It’s clear to me after all these years that the Lord may ask us to do many things in this life. But just because the church asks you to do something does not mean you have to do it. It’s not like we’re all just a bunch of power cords waiting to be plugged into some role that God chooses for us.

And just because the church tells you to believe something does not mean you have to accept it. Neither is the Bible a literal instruction manual of any sort, or a “one-size-fits-all” garment to wrap around your body and claim protection against all misdeeds or evil.

There’s no such thing as Magic Underwear or even any sort of spiritual armor we can squeeze ourselves into in hopes of protecting us against bad things happening. We all live in the moment. We are called to make decisions based on our sense of morality and conscience. Those are quite different than assuming that “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”

We can learn from those people and events we read about in the Bible, but they aren’t direct extension cords leading from God to our souls. Every word of the Bible, whether some want to admit it or not, is a working symbol. That’s why the Bible says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Why is that so hard to understand? The words of the Bible are a connection to God, but not a literal one.

Finding our paths

The Lord wants us to find the sources of power and paths that best suit us. We all have different skills, outlooks and circumstances. Beware those who tell you there’s only one way to think about life, or who project upon you unrealistic or misguided expectations, or who want to plug you into something for which you’re clearly not suited at all. I no more belonged in the role of Treasurer than John the Baptist deserved to clean the platter on which his own head would be served.

If that’s shocking to you, then you really haven’t read or understood the Bible at all. When it comes to faith in this world, it’s great to have faith in God, but you also need to learn to have faith in yourself. And that’s the right kind of pride.

No masking these emotions

 

Mask picWhen my stepdaughter set to work a month ago making masks for those of us in the household and her friends, the sound of her sewing machine was a constant presence in the front room from the moment she got home until she fell exhausted into bed. This went on for a week or so. Then she distributed the masks and soon set about making even more.

At first, I took the mask she made for granted. The Stay-At-Home order here in Illinois made them almost superfluous. But as pressure grew to wear masks more in public, I took to wearing her creation to the grocery store, Walgreens and Pet Supplies Plus. I figured it was my social responsibility. Not that hard to do.

I kept the mask in the car so that I would not forget during these small travels. It didn’t bother me much to have it on my face for fifteen minutes at a time.

The real deal

But today I’m staged at a premier medical facility to tend to a friend going through a crucial procedure. It is a requirement to wear a mask during the whole time you’re in the facility.

Having a mask on your face for ten or fifteen minutes in a grocery store is easy. Wearing one for eight or so hours at a time is not so easy. While the mask I own is well-made, it is not some custom deal. It has elastic that binds the ears a bit after a few hours. So I discreetly pulled off the mask to take a break while eating lunch. No harm done. No one here complained. I kept far apart from everyone and ate in peace. Then went back to wearing the mask.

Sharp glances

I did get a sharp glance this morning when approaching the door to the hospital without my mask on yet. It was raining like crazy and I hadn’t pulled it out of my coat pocket after parking the car and running down the street. That’s when a tired-looking physician was headed out the door to get some air or wrap up his day. Who knows the work he’d just done? We can only imagine in these times.

There are likely Covid-19 patients here for sure. But there are also necessary heart surgeries going on and procedures being done to help patients back to health. That sharp glance at the door was justified. Get with the program, it said.

Operational kindness

While sitting in the waiting area, I overheard a surgeon talking to a man about his wife’s operation this morning. The woman surgeon described the process of implanting an artificial valve or a vein stint of some kind in his wife. He listened carefully to her patient words. She was eager to let him know that things had gone well.

Her operational kindness made me think about a sign I’d seen in the lobby while entering this facility. It said something about the fact that any kind of aggressive behavior would not be tolerated.

We must suppose that happens occasionally here at the hospital or the sign would not be posted. Some people have no patience while waiting for patients. I’ve seen that firsthand, including the day that my father was having quadruple bypass surgery. While sitting in the waiting room, I witnessed the moment a surgeon came out of the operation room to tell a woman that her husband had come through bypass operation well. But there had been challenges. From the description he gave her, things were quite serious with her husband’s heart condition. The surgeon spoke softly and slowly so that she would understand the gravity of her husband’s condition. Yet her first reaction after the surgeon finished talking was indignation: “What took you so long?” she demanded.

I was sitting next to my mother at the moment, who was a naturally nervous wreck waiting for my dad to come of surgery. Watching that exchange did not help her feel any better. How was dad doing in there?

Ingratitude redux

Fortunately, my father’s surgery went well. The next day while visiting my father in his hospital room during recovery, I saw the woman we’d seen the night before sitting with her husband in the same room with my father. The curtain was mostly drawn, but I overheard him ask her, “Can I have a cigarette soon?”

I thought to myself, “Seriously? The day after heart surgery all you can think about is smoking?” Then I glanced at my mother and she just shook her head.

Clearly, there are many people in this world who appreciate the work and skill of medical professionals such as that surgeon. Yet there are many who do not. Some are so self-absorbed they can only see a situation through the lens of their personal priorities and their selfish notion of what constitutes their “rights” as a patient or a caregiver.

And many of those people are distrusting or losing patience with medical professionals at the highest levels of our country. They’re turning to conspiracy theories and a wide array of alternative narratives to justify the worldview that people charged with protecting lives are somehow trying to ruin their own.

The painful gap

Perhaps this painful gap between gross indignation and gratitude is the product of a willing ignorance about what it takes to perform medicine––or science for that matter–– of any kind. Medicine is not an entirely predictable occupation in many ways. It’s admittedly an art, but dependent on science to inform the recommended treatments and actions. It is also true that because it depends on testing and evidence to arrive at those conclusions, science and medicine take time. And Americans, as a rule, hate waiting for anything.

We all know that diseases and medical conditions of many kinds can appear to go away only to come raging back later on. I’ve experienced that with several types of infections over the last eight years. One “bug” got into my left-hand middle finger from a seemingly innocent encounter with a sliver picked up while gardening. At first the oral medicine seemed to work. But then the infection flared up and the finger swelled. The doctors told me that if it “went osteo…”, meaning if it entered the bone, I’d likely lose the digit. That meant surgery followed by weeks of treatment with self-administered antibiotics. Then came many more weeks of hand therapy to reclaim relatively full use of my middle finger. And we all know how important that finger is to displaying public sentiment at times.

Cellulitis and a bad tooth

Three years later I contracted cellulitis from a cat that nipped me on the back of the hand while playing with her at home. That diagnosis led to antibiotics that wiped out my good gut bacteria and gave me a dangerous condition called c.diff in which you suffer intense gastrointestinal stress (I did) that if left untreated can actually kill you.

And finally, late last summer I had a tooth go bad from some less-than-optimal dental work performed by a mall-front practice when our insurance options were limited due to my late’s wife’s condition and a crappy plan offered by the small business where I worked. The infected tooth suddenly leaked through to my jaw and my entire face blew up with a sublingual infection. The oral surgeon sat me down in the chair and said, “If we don’t fix this you could die.”

I’m glad that happened last year. If it had happened this spring, I might indeed be dead.

Infectious diseases

So I know what it’s like to deal with infections. This Coronavirus pandemic that is causing Covid-19 illness is a serious infectious disease. It drowns the lungs and is deadly for those with pre-existing conditions.

That is why I’ve kept my mask on all day while waiting in the lounge of this amazing hospital. If I’m not the one at risk, I would never want to infect someone else. That hardly seems like it needs to be a point of pride for most of us. It’s the humane thing to do. But some people are so selfish or politically stubborn they take offense at even the smallest favors extended to the rest of humanity.

Granted, the backs of my ears may hurt a bit from wearing the mask all day. But let’s be pragmatic: no matter what you believe in these times, it’s still critical to do what you can to block the spread of Covid-19. That’s true even if you’re asymptomatic. I heard someone say that a friend in Florida was approached by a man who said hello and tried to shake their hand. When they declined, the man blurted, “Oh, you’re one of those Covid people.”

As if that were the real disease: protecting others by protecting yourself. Yet that’s what America has come to in many quarters. Such selfishness is a disease that infects the mind and quite possibly the soul as well. If anything, the Coronavirus epidemic has provided some clear delineation of how so many Americans think. And it’s nothing to be proud of.

Social distancing

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Here in the waiting room, we’re all sitting far apart but the hospital is not crowded. In fact, many hospitals across the country are actually hurting for business during this pandemic because Shelter-in-Place orders canceled many forms of medical procedures. Even dentists aren’t able to practice because they can’t find enough PPE to cover their practices. That’s ironic in my eyes because I’ve seen firsthand what neglected dental issues can do to your health. Gum inflammation is even associated with health problems such as heart disease and other internal problems.

We live in a world twisted apart by the threat of death from a disease that afflicts relatively few but conducts itself with consistently deadly properties. And we don’t yet know whether it can ever be prevented or cured with a vaccine. So we’re living with the unknown while people are literally forced to die alone.

Taking a deep breath

Our entire economy has been sort of breathing in with anticipation that the Stay-At-Home orders might relent sooner than later. That led to a nation holding its breath for weeks on end. The start of the exhale finally began with businesses shedding millions of employees that they can no longer afford to pay. That exhale blew away the employment prospects and income for millions, and millions more are likely hanging by a thread. People are afraid. Most of us, in fact. Are afraid.

That means there is anger brewing in the hinterlands. Predictably, the aggressive behavior of armed protesters in Michigan flared up again today. This time it caused the legislature to shut down in order to protect the safety of all those involved. One of the protesters displayed a naked brunette doll hanging from a noose. It was obviously a dog-whistle threat against the female governor. Such displays signify a willing intention of violence. Militias across the nation have been complaining for decades about supposed government overreach. Now they have a keen illustration that suits their narrative, so they marched into town with guns displayed as if they were itching for a fight. They are hoping to bully the nation into opening up the economy to satisfy their personal belief that there is no real threat from the virus. To quote an old McDonald’s campaign, they want to “have it their way.”

And unfortunately, if they are successful, that may be exactly what they get. Coronavirus, their way.

We’re all hopeful that America can find a middle ground as other countries have done. But that will require a cooperative spirit and intelligent consideration. And it can’t be politically or even economically motivated, as the original denial of the threat of the disease most certainly was. Real Americans really are hurting. There are proposals on the table to send everyday people $3T in aid to help the population through what threatens to be a major Depression if not commitment is made to the nation’s citizens rather than the money sponge of corporate welfare and stock buybacks that help no one.

Freedoms and pride

The complaints of those militia types are thus misguided. For they are largely griping about being told what to do by the government. As a tradition, Americans have long taken “pride” in their freedoms. The nation is founded on an escape from tyranny under English royalty. Over the centuries it has become popular to claim that America represents freedom worldwide. But that claim is ironic when the most we seem to have gained from that freedom is a terminal brand of impatience and ignoble immaturity that manifests itself as ingratitude toward the law of the land, and the land itself. That’s not freedom. That’s victimhood and selfishness disguised as patriotism. There’s nothing to be proud of there, because it makes us weak.

Disgustingly, some of that selfish ire is even being aimed at the heroic works of medical professionals and government officials trying to work together to protect lives. But let’s be straight about our situation: Fixing this pandemic stuff isn’t easy, and it isn’t a question of counting on miracles or religious faith to set things straight. And for all we know, God thinks America has been behaving like a pack of selfish brutes and it’s time to clean house. That’s what scripture warns us about. God does not abide by the selfishness of men. Or women. Or anyone for that matter.

The love of money

But scripture says that God is particularly disgusted when the covetous love of money drives all decisions. Yet economic fear is a special type of awful emotion to most Americans, and some just can’t mask it. We are a nation quite accustomed to having most of what w want, when we want it. Everything about our culture seems to scream “Gimme gimme” from guns to fast food to contestants on reality TV competing for someone else’s goddamned attention.

So I think back to that woman in the heart operation waiting room who stood before that exhausted heart surgeon demanding to know, “What took you so long?”

Our nation may represent liberty in some fashion, but portions of the American public are cut from the most ungrateful kind of cloth. Now those people want to protest putting a little cloth across their faces, and the President claims that it might make him look ridiculous. It goes to show you that no sacrifice is too small to use as fodder for selfish pride.

And that’s not the right kind of pride.

 

God

Something in human nature craves the idea there is always something more than what we see on the surface of existence. We choose God as that focus.

Yet it is most often pride of ownership that obscures the known and unknown channels to God.

For God is the Great Contrarian.

We call God a Creator. Yet everything created by God is always, and ultimately, destroyed.

We call God the Author of Life. Yet we know that 99% of all living things that once lived on the earth are now extinct.

We call God a King and celebrate God’s Kingdom. Yet the true authors of that kingdom often painfully pass into death. They are symbols for the challenge all of us face.

Some speak of the End Times as if there were a beginning and an end. But that is the wrong kind of human pride at work again. We’re told we cannot know that time, when in fact we cannot know time at all. It is forever behind and ahead of us. All we can truly know is this vibrant present. It too is destroyed.

That does not mean we are helpless in time. God is clear that love is an operative that brings life into full focus. We are encouraged through love to look beyond the self. Thus the world expands in our presence. And God’s presence is brought to us.

This selfless love can however be abused. It can face injustice. Even unto death.

That is exactly what God the Contrarian asks us all to embrace. Love is no sin. And sin is no love.

To understand our role in this world we must begin by knowing love even at risk of losing it. Only then can we begin to appreciate what life really is about.

That does not mean we are meant to squander that which is precious or meaningful. We know God as well through all that exists around us. Our great scriptures call up images of God through natural symbols. These help us understand spiritual principles. Mustard seeds. Yeast in the dough.

Grow love.

The Right Kind of Pride does not force these symbols into a role they were never intended to play. Seven days. Snakes in the Garden. These help us understand the advent of Creation, human nature and sin. But they are not the Final Word.

In fact The Final Word is love. That is what God wants us to know. For love exists outside the realm of all we call tangible, literal and temporal. It is both rational and irrational. And love is real.

That is why God is real. For God is love.

All our understanding must pass through this test if we hope to appreciate the motives of God. We may find ourselves contradicting the habits of society and commerce. We may find ourselves speaking alone against a crowd of voices fixed with fury and political fervor, shouting us down. Telling us that we just don’t “get it,” and that tradition says we’re wrong.

But are we out of touch with reality? Really? When we act the Contrarian in good conscience, advocating for protection of the poor out of love and mercy, we are not out of touch. We are in touch with God. And when we side with causes of mercy and social justice despite the inconvenience it represents to commerce and human society, we are in touch with God’s wishes for humankind.

These are not simple principles by which to abide. If they were, everyone would do them. Instead they require a vigilance for which so few have an appetite. Comforts distract. So does access to power and human selfishness.

But God the Contrarian sees all that and knows the hearts of human beings. That is where God connects with all of us. Even those who do not profess belief in God have a heart of their own. Neither are they ignored. Grace extends to all. Knows all faiths. And the lack of it.

For love abounds. It only disappears when we attempt to confine it to our selfish purposes or turn it into a weapon or a tool for control. We see it every day. The force of love can kill if it is wielded with sufficient anger and fear. God the Contrarian knows that too.

God has loved the world to death before. It is woven into the nature of all existence, the expression of all destruction. To come and go with wisdom, we must know this simple truth, and remember it well. God is love, and the force of love can save, or kill.

Our better natures are like God the model of contrition. God call us to this example. All of nature and a world of love awaits our answer.

The Right Kind of Pride is a book by Christopher Cudworth about the importance of character, caregiving and community in this world. It is available on Amazon.com.
This blog is a reflection on the principles found in the book The Right Kind of Pride by Christopher Cudworth, about the importance of character, caregiving and community in this world. It is available on Amazon.com.