Archive for discipline

2015 Lent 15

Posted in Lent 2015 with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 6, 2015 by timtrue


Jeremiah 5:1-9

Speaking of his people, the Israelites, God tells Jeremiah (among other things), “They were well-fed lusty stallions, each neighing for his neighbor’s wife.  Shall I not punish them for these things?” (vv. 8-9).

How do we humans get to this point?  And here I don’t mean just the particular sin of adultery, but acting well-fed and lusty, more like beasts than humans.  How do we get so fixated on our own passions that we lose all sense of rationality–the characteristic above all others that distinguishes humans from beasts?

A few days ago I wrote about an old high school friend who’d recently spent some time in jail for doing things he and I had never dreamed of doing in high school.  How did he get to the point where he either doesn’t value or care about the law–or even himself?

Then two days ago I explored an issue I really don’t know much about but nonetheless recognize as a horrible injustice: human trafficking.  How do humans become so calloused to the dignity of other human beings that they end up perpetrating such injustice?

How do we humans reach a point of such brazen disregard for God and humanity?

And then there’s this: when others do such things, oh, then it’s clearly, definitively, black-and-whitely wrong; but when I engage in them, somehow it’s all okay–or at least not so identifiably wrong.  When my opponent lies it’s, “No way!  Did you hear that malicious slander?”  But when I lie it’s, “Oh, come on; I was just bending the truth a little bit.”

It’s beastly.  It’s lusty.  It’s irrational.

I don’t know how we get to this point, exactly; but we do.  And when we do we have a knack for convincing ourselves that, somehow, in my case it’s not so bad as it seems, really.  It’s my story, we tell ourselves, and so I’m the only one who really understands it.

To which I say, yes, it is your story.  And, yes, you’re in the midst of it.  So it feels justifiable.  But have you tried to remove yourself from it, to step outside of your own narcissism for a few and look at it from an outsider’s point of view?  Maybe then it will look a little less justifiable.  Yes, no one else really understands.  Maybe you don’t really understand either.

Whatever the case, the truly loving person is the one who comes along, sees the wrong, and cares for the wrongdoer anyway.  The loving one sympathizes, sees through the wrong, finds the dignity, and even advocates, arguing on the wrongdoer’s behalf if need be.

Doing so–sympathizing, seeing through and beyond the wrong, advocating–doesn’t mean the loving one condones the sin.  A parent still loves her eight year-old after discovering a stolen teddy bear in her bed.  A loving parent sympathizes and advocates without condoning the act.

But neither does the loving one want harm to come upon the wrongdoer: what loving mother would allow harm to come to her thieving daughter?

Loving discipline requires much wisdom, wisdom that is rational.

And here is the true tension between justice and mercy: wise, loving discipline.

This tension, though, is not a dichotomy: either justice or mercy.  Rather, with love, it’s both justice and mercy.

Surely Jeremiah understood this tension.  Which is why he advocates, even to the point of arguing with God.

Surely we rational humans understand this tension too.  Which is why a loving mother disciplines her daughter appropriately.

So, to bring it back home, how do we get there?  I don’t really know, as I already said.  But maybe, it seems to me anyway, the trouble comes when set aside our self-discipline, when we allow our beastly passions to trump our rational humanity.


2014 Lent 12

Posted in Lent 2014, Reflection with tags , , , on March 18, 2014 by timtrue

I Corinthians 5:1-8

Yesterday I defended Paul’s use of a metaphorical stick, or the sting of discipline.  But today I feel the need to call Paul’s subsequent logic into question.

There was partisanship in the Corinthian church.  Now a second source of division is addressed: sexual immorality.  A member of the church is living with his father’s wife, Paul writes, something that isn’t tolerated even by pagans; and apparently there was even some boasting in this.  How should such immorality in the church be dealt with?

“With a metaphorical stick,” I want to say.

But Paul wants expel this person from the congregation.  “Forget the stick!” he says.  “Let’s think about this guy in terms of yeast.  He’s bad yeast, full of bad bacteria that will spread to all the yeast [i. e., congregation] unless you kick him out.”

And I think, really?  You mean to say, Paul, that one guy’s immoral behavior is going to cause everyone in the congregation to do the same, that everyone will start sleeping with their stepparents?  (And under my breath I’m thinking, “What if someone doesn’t have a stepparent?  Ludicrous!”)

Then there’s this term Paul uses, pagans.  It’s problematic.  Today I’ve often heard the term thrown around–usually by over-zealous fundamentalist types–to refer to anyone who is not a Christian.  Atheists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists–they’re all pagans according to this mistaken modern-day take.  But that’s not what Paul means by the term at all.

In Paul’s day, pagans were those who worshiped the pagan deities.  You’ve heard of them, right: Jupiter, Juno, Mars, Pluto, Apollo; or, in their Greek names, Zeus, Hera, Aries, Hades, Apollo?  Epicureans, for instance, weren’t pagans–but they weren’t Christians either.  The same could be said for Cynics and many others.  So, all Paul was saying was that the churchgoers in Corinth weren’t pagans.

But even the morality of the pagans was superior to the subset of non-pagans that was the Corinthian church!  I’m sure this bugged Paul.

Yet this brings up another issue.  Augustus Caesar, a pagan in practice if not belief, instituted a great deal of moral reform throughout the empire during his reign.  He was no longer at the empire’s helm when Paul penned this letter, sure (because he was a generation dead); but the effects of his higher moral standard were omnipresent.  Indeed, Gaius, a pagan, published in his Institutes in 161, a full century after Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Neither can I marry her who has been my mother in-law or stepmother in the past.”

What I think Paul is getting at, in effect, is that Christ is a god so much higher than the so-called pagan deities; thus Christians ought to have a so-much-higher morality than the pagans.  Okay.  Fine and well.  I get it.

But he doesn’t just say this and be done with it.  And he doesn’t just stop there.  He goes on to suggest–no, too light a word–to command the Corinthian Christians to expel a brother.  Just like Augustus expelled the poet Ovid for his immoral writings–not just from the emperor’s court but into exile, to an island in the middle of the Black Sea, where he died heartbroken some ten years later!  In other words, Paul tells the church, which is not pagan, to use a pagan disciplinary device: exile.

I don’t know about you, but this strikes me as more than a sting from a metaphorical stick.

2014 Lent 11

Posted in Lent 2014, Reflection with tags , , on March 17, 2014 by timtrue

I Corinthians 4:8-20(21)

This is today’s lectionary listing.  Yeah, just like I’ve written it, with parentheses around verse 21.  So–I don’t know about you, but–right away I want to jump to verse 21 and see what it says.  Why is it optional?  Why did those who put together the Prayer Book lectionary think that this verse could be left out of the public reading of scripture if one so chose?

It says: “What would you prefer?  Am I to come to you with a stick, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?”

Perhaps the verse is optional because of the allusion to corporal punishment.  God is a loving God, we rightly say in our modern American sensibilities.  But does that mean that an allegory of a spanking ought to be left out of our readings?  We, today, have a big problem with the God of the Old Testament, who drives out nations from their homeland so that the promised people can have a home.  It’s a tricky question, to be sure; and one for which I have no ready answer.  But don’t you think we go too far in the other direction when we portray a god who merely admonishes us in a spirit of gentleness?

There are a couple problems with this view of God, as I see it.  First, words of gentleness are subjective.  We are left to discern which words, exactly, God uses to admonish us.  If we say the words of the Holy Spirit speaking through other people, the end result rests entirely on us.  A friend says one thing, a spiritual director offers varying counsel, and a loved one says a third thing.  To whom should we listen?  Or, maybe the right thing to do is something altogether different still.

If your answer is to turn to the scriptures, the authoritative word of God in both the Old and New Testaments, the results are similar.  For the truths and doctrines of passages and even individual verses of the scriptures have long been debated.

(A favorite illustration along these lines is of a guy who was praying with a Bible on his lap.  “Lord,” he prayed, “show me what to do.”  So, with eyes still closed, he opened the Bible and put his finger on a random page.  Then he opened his eyes and read the verse where his finger had landed: “Judas hanged himself.”  Thinking, “No, no, that’s a fluke,” he closed the Bible and repeated the routine.  This time his finger landed on the verse, “Go thou and do likewise.”)

In other words, discerning truth through words is a highly subjective and unreliable art.

Discerning the Holy Spirit’s movement through circumstances, by the way, is similarly subjective.

The second problem I see with all this is that as a dad I know that using words only doesn’t work.  “Clean your room,” I tell one of my kids (any one of the five–it doesn’t matter).  Five minutes later–no, two hours later!–I peek in and a finger hasn’t been lifted.  Words spoken with love in a spirit of gentleness aren’t effective on their own.  But when I say, “I’m taking your iTouch until your room is clean,” five minutes later a lot of progress has been made.

Coming to a son or daughter with love in a spirit of gentleness–or, in Paul’s case, an entire congregation–is the first course of action.  Yes!  But what about when it doesn’t work?  Where does a leader go then?  Paul suggests a stick.  We can understand it as a figurative stick, sure.  But why leave it out of the reading altogether?

Now this opens a Pandora’s box regarding authority.  I’m fully aware that bad leaders exist–all too prominently!–bosses who place unrealistic demands on employees, pastors on parishioners, or parents on children.  This is another mess for another day.  (But, just saying, bad leaders are usually under authority themselves and subject to appeal processes, mediation, and so on.)  The issue before us today is a congregation that had become unruly and divisive, that clearly needed some mediation from Pastor Paul.

So then: the sting of discipline–whether in corporal punishment or taking an iTouch away–in no way negates or denies love.  Really, do we want to leave this facet of God’s love out?