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Anything I Want to Be?

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You Can Be Anything You Want to Be
The Help and Harm in this Common Saying

The Nonsensical

Taken literally, this popular word of encouragement would be ridiculous. If I had wanted to become an opera singer, could I have done so through persistence? I can’t carry a tune, and worse, I don’t usually even hear myself singing off key. I wonder whether I even hear all the music other people hear. Could there be a musical equivalent of partial color blindness? To believe I could have become an opera singer or any kind of singer would have required severe delusion. Maybe I should have wanted to play football in the NFL or basketball in the NBA. Why should I let factors such as size and insufficient athleticism stop me, if after all, I could be anything I wanted to be?

The Helpful

In reasonable usage, the saying is meant to lift imposed restrictions and break through unnecessary barriers. “A girl can’t be an engineer.” “A woman can’t become president of the United States.” “A black girl can’t become a ballet dancer (this bias featured in one episode of the television series, “Fame”). Many barriers have been breached already, but a breached wall does not let through everyone who wishes to pass and could pass through it but for artificially imposed restrictions. Because some have pioneered does not guarantee that many others are not impeded still. The true import of the saying is to tell the person she or he has the right to pursue any (legal) goal she or he is able to pursue when freed from the unreasonable restrictions of societal prejudice, parental authoritarianism, religious regulation, or unjust laws.

Girls don’t climb trees (even though many do). Men don’t wash dishes (even though many do). I recall reading somewhere that during the apartheid years in South Africa, white students had a difficult time earning money to help pay for a university education because the jobs available to students in other countries were closed to them because they were white and those jobs were considered beneath their status. For them, prejudice backfired, but the real issue was the limiting of non-white South Africans to those menial, poorly paid jobs. If a white student couldn’t clean floors or tables, neither could a black or “colored” person qualify for jobs restricted to white South Africans.

So, the helpful word in the saying, “You can be anything you want to be,” is its call to freedom and dignity. You are not born to be a slave to repressive forces; neither are you restricted to whatever other people decide you must be. With commitment and diligence, you may become who and what you can be, according to your capabilities and your own preferences, or at least you have the right to try.

The Blaming

If it is taken to be true that I can be anything I want to be if only I apply myself thoroughly and persistently, am I not thereby condemned for my failures, no matter their causes? More broadly, if groups of people within a prosperous society fail to prosper, are they not thereby proved to be lazy, shiftless, and of no account? More broadly still, can we not suppose that all earth’s poor are self-made failures? If it is true that anyone can be anything she or he wants to be, then nothing external can stop us – no oppression, discrimination, cruelty, deprivation, or violence – but only our own lack of ambition.

Here the saying that can be inspirational becomes, instead, a judgment of the successful upon the unsuccessful, the rich upon the poor, the happy upon the miserable. It says to them, “Don’t complain! Whatever is holding you back from success is your own fault! No one can keep you down but you yourself. You are a loser of your own making.”

Like other maxims of the rich and powerful, this one is a convenient lie designed to make privilege appear to be self-propelled attainment and greed appear to be virtue. Many of the accepted beliefs in prosperous societies, including their religious beliefs, have been developed to favor those enjoying privilege, prestige, and power and to maintain the status quo by keeping the repressed in their assigned places.

For Me

Because of the faith commitment that has claimed me from childhood and been renewed repeatedly throughout my life, my question about my future could never be simply, “Who do I want to be, and what do I want to do with the life given to me?” but rather, “Who am I called to be and become, and what am I called to seek and to do?” It would be pretentious and self-deceiving to say my own desires have had nothing to with my life-answers to those questions, as it would be silly to suggest my capabilities and limitations played no part. There has been no blueprint for my personhood or road map for my seeking, learning, failing, succeeding, floundering, and advancing along the winding path.

Because biblically and for me truly, life is relational, the questions of who to be and what to do have never been allowed an isolated, individualized answer. I am or have been many people to various others: son, brother, classmate, husband, father, friend, pastor, student, stranger, opponent, colleague, neighbor, fellow, and so on. All by myself without even memory of relatedness to other people, I would no one and nothing I wanted to be, but that truth applies to all of us whether we know it or not. Biblical understanding of faith promotes relational concerns to the forefront of aspirations for self and life.

Have I always wanted to be who I was and what I am? No, and neither have I always held unqualified gratitude for what I have believed myself called to do. I wonder if anyone of us truly and without reservation likes himself or herself. I cannot even imagine being thoroughly satisfied with who I have become so far and what I have done with the time, life, friendship, abilities, experiences, and love I have been given. The notion of having no regrets is lost on me.

Vocation

In Christian church history, vocation came to mean a special religious calling away from the world, apart from the people (the laity). Biblically, however, to be chosen means to be called out by God from the people, the many, for the purpose of service to the people. Even a king is a shepherd, called to take care of the people and see to justice and compassion that faithfully represent God’s own justice and compassion. Being a prophet came to mean, for the great prophets, being called to live in sympathetic vibration of the soul with God’s pathos – God’s intense and vital love for the people and the creation – while, at the same time empathizing with the people and standing with them and for them before God.

Martin Luther protested the division between the vocations (priests and nuns) and the laity. He insisted that all Christians are called so that all can and should see and live their lives as vocations. Here the word vocation is not limited to a trade, art, or profession – to a job – but defines a whole life lived as a person called by Christ to follow him for the sake of the world and its people whatever the job, marital status, ability, disability, or path. Here life is a gift given with each breath but also a calling renewed each new day.

In practice, however, the idea of a calling or vacation can be degraded right back to prescribed duty, place, and station. The whole idea of the saying, “You can be anything you want to be,” is to break the restrictions imposed upon a person by society, parents, custom, or religion. So, for the one who believes herself (or himself) called to follow and to serve, becoming who I am to be is not just a struggle between ego and calling but a three-way struggle among ego, suppression of the self, and calling.

Because life is relational, maturing happens in continuous tension between the need for personal freedom and the need for acceptance by others and belonging with them. Vocation or calling adds a vertical dimension to this tension, but I think it is a serious mistake to imagine that the vertical (between God and the self) eliminates the tension between freedom and belonging, as though God dictated my choices and told me which way to go at every turn. I hear people declare, “God told me to do such and such,” and I fear that such passing upward of all human responsibility provides a dangerous opening for magical thinking and self-deception. The so-called prosperity gospel plays upon just such thinking and self-deception, does it not?

Conclusion

The saying, “You can be anything you want to be,” clearly should not be taken literally and simplistically. I could not have become an opera singer or a pro athlete. Plus, there are always trade-offs. Could I become a good, published writer? Maybe, but only with a lot of work in isolation from other people. Am I willing to give up much of life’s interaction to strive to show something of life with words (not just tell about it)? In the tensions and choices of living, almost every gain has a corresponding loss.

To me, the saying functions best as a hammer to break chains or a pry bar to open boxes of confinement into which people have been placed. It protests confinement and restriction, opening new possibilities. As such, it can do good.

Danger comes from self-delusion or just selfishness. Life is not given to me so I can be all about what I want. Having it all, as people say of supposed success, is a trap in which the self is snared by taking all to itself. The greater harm is done by blaming the repressed for their own repression. We’ve heard more lately of this vicious nonsense: only weak women get abused. Once again, insult is added to injury as the powerful dismiss the protests of the victimized.

For the Christian I must add that following Jesus Christ does not excuse me from making choices, struggling with responsibilities, and thinking for myself. There is a big difference between thinking for myself and thinking only of myself. Unthinking faith is a contradiction in terms. As Augustine declared and the Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall insists, belief seeks understanding. I must put my trust in Christ, but I may not pass off to him my responsibility for myself, my life, and my service.

The helpful force of the saying seems to me now especially important for girls who much too long and far too imperiously have been told what they must (and must not) do and who they may be. Not only girls but especially girls. Not only the young but especially the young. Not only people in minorities but they especially.

[References available for Heschel, Hall, and the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (biblical Hebrew word for “chosen”).  The footnotes didn’t move well from WordPerfect to WordPress.]

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Circumstances Don’t Matter?

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It’s Not Your Circumstances that Matter
But What You Do with Them
The Help and Harm in this Common Saying

The Potentially Helpful

In my ragged copy of a 1969 book, Journey to Freedom, I find a quote from Tennessee Williams’s, Camino Real, in which one character (Quixote) tells another (Kilroy), “Don’t! Pity! Your! Self! The wounds . . . the many offenses our egos have to endure being housed in bodies that age and hearts that grow tired, are better accepted with a tolerant smile . . . Otherwise what you become is a bag full of curdled cream – leche male, we call it – attractive to nobody, least of all to yourself! Have you any plans?” Kilroy answers, “Well I was thinking of going on from here.” Quixote responds, “Good! Come with me!” (Dowdey, 25,26)

The idea is at least as old as Stoicism: don’t let anything that happens outside you touch and hurt your soul. The common versions might be expressed as, “Don’t let life get you down,” and, “Your life is what you make of it.”

Surely self-pity is a trap – in John Bunyon’s allegorical terms (The Pilgrim’s Progress), a “slough of despond” that, as we say, bogs us down. As long as we remain stuck in this bog of self-pity, we go nowhere. So, very often in life, what we do with our present circumstances determines whether we go on from there.

Bravado’s overblown version of the indomitable human spirit finds voice in William Ernest Henley’s poem, “Invictus.”

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

The call to rise above our circumstances and live again with courage can, indeed, be inspirational and may even be just what we need to hear from ourselves at certain dark times in our lives. Self-pity is a bog, and it will in time repulse other people, even friends, pushing them away from the one wallowing in that bog. We do need to go on from here, wherever here may be when we get stuck, but I do not believe we need to go on unmoved, untouched, unhurt. Self-protection, self-insulation, can become as dangerous as self-pity.

The Personal Danger: Hardening

Part of Paul Simon’s lyrics for the song, “I Am a Rock”:

I’ve built walls
A fortress, steep and mighty
That none may penetrate
I have no need of friendship
Friendship causes pain.
It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain.
I am a rock
I am an island

Don’t talk of love
Well, I’ve heard the words before
It’s sleeping in my memory
And I won’t disturb the slumber
Of feelings that have died
If I never loved, I never would have cried
I am a rock
I am an island

. . .
And a rock feel no pain
And an island never cries.

If I won’t let myself feel my own feelings, how will I empathize with anyone else? If I try to make myself emotionally invulnerable, how can I allow myself to be loved? If I won’t acknowledge my own pain, how will I not become hardhearted and perhaps even cruel?

As we mature, we undergo of necessity a certain degree of hardening. We dare not allow every little slight, injury, or unfairness to get us down. It is neither wise nor safe to go out into the world looking wounded, both because the jackals will move in upon us and because friends will move away us.

Compassion (suffering with another person enough to be moved to care about that person’s plight) requires vulnerability and the strength to allow myself to be so moved, but how much vulnerability is enough and how much would be too much? In the Gospel of John, Jesus uses a Semitic expression that translates literally as something like, “What to you and to me?” (John 2). The idea is that for another individual’s problem to become mine, there must be some relational context that draws us together in the matter. Otherwise, the problem as presented may be none of my business, which is not the same as saying, “I don’t care,” but does recognize that I am not responsible for solving that problem. I find this expression helpful for guarding against being drawn into others’ relational conflicts in which I have no rightful part. Of course, there may also be good reasons for me to accept that I really do have a responsibility within the matter, but the question, “What to you and to me?” asks what those reasons are. For example, a man demands that Jesus tell his (the man’s) brother to share with him properly the inheritance from their father. Jesus asks the man who made him an arbiter between the two brothers, then tells him he would do well to make his priority reconciling with his bother. The relationship has greater value than the money or property, and Jesus will not insert himself into their family dispute.

If, however, I decide that outward circumstances really do not matter to human happiness and should not affect the soul, then I make myself as nearly as possible invulnerable to other people’s sufferings as well as to my own. In so doing, I am making myself less and less human. I develop a “get over it” attitude toward grief. I dismiss concern about injustices. If necessary for self-protection, I blame people for their sufferings: “No one else does anything to you, except as you do it to yourself by allowing them to trouble you.” So the abused and exploited, the many victims of human cruelty or random misfortune have our self-righteous condemnation of their unhappiness added to their pain.

Social Consequences

If everyone is responsible for his/her own life and happiness, then what place remains for concern about social injustices? Are human systems exempt from the demands of justice? If circumstances don’t matter, what need is there to improve them? Let everyone take care of himself (traditionally women have been expected and forced to accept their circumstances as dictated to them, even as divinely ordained).

Two great lies buttress this hands-off attitude. The first is the lie that we are individuals with no crucial relatedness to each other, that relationships are optional, that one’s life and self are completely one’s own. The second is that prevailing social structures and hierarchies are somehow natural and proper. The truth is that the poverty of many greatly benefits the relatively few who prosper from it, and social hierarchies are enforced to maintain and increase that benefit for the relatively few. Most of us who call ourselves middle class can maintain that status only because poorer people suffer to provide us with goods we otherwise could not afford. Until we recognize our interrelatedness and interdependence, we will continue to live in a world of so-called winners and losers, and the losers will continue to suffer for the benefit of the winners while being blamed for their own misery and the futility of their efforts. For this reason, charitable giving (while better than not giving) serves to blind us to inequities and shield the conscience from the unfairness of “the way things are” while stroking the egos of those with money to spare.

For this reason, also, we love the exceptional, the one who makes it up out of poverty, despite discrimination and the systemic heel on his or her neck. “See!” we tell ourselves, “that one did it, and so what excuse have the rest?” From the back of my mind echoes Buffy Sainte-Marie’s question, “Can’t you see that their poverty’s profiting you?” (“My Country ‘Tis of Thy People You’re Dying”).

Conclusion

Is there a conclusion? I suspect that in one way or another we must, each and all, transcend our circumstances. Can the well-off rise above their prosperity to recognize their privilege and so arrive at the possibility of redemption? Can the crushed rise up with hope above their pain and bitterness? Can the grief-stricken go forward in hope without denying their love and the pain it will suffer as long as they live? Can I tell myself not to get bogged down in self-pity without turning and oppressing others with my platitudes about their happiness being their own responsibility and no one else’s?

Abraham Heschel told us the world does not need more people who love justice – the great and wonderful ideal of justice – but more who cannot abide the injustices done to others. Circumstances do indeed matter, and I really don’t believe we should make peace with evil, personal or social. It should matter that a child has cancer. It should disrupt our happiness that a girl is told she cannot become what she could be, all because she is not a boy. It should grieve us that so many women find expression of a truth of their lives in the “Me too” movement. It should trouble us that people have to insist, against the prevailing attitudes, that “black lives matter.” Circumstances do indeed matter!

We do not need to shield ourselves from grief by denying love. We do not need to minimize our love of life when faced with our own mortality more immanently than we expected. We do not need to put on a happy face. I have known couples who desperately needed to talk with other about their griefs, fears, and losses but, instead, protected each other by keeping silence about impending death until one was gone.

Self-pity is a bog we must escape and keep escaping. And denial of our feelings, needs, and disappointments is a fortress-prison we must escape also. Either trap keeps us from each other, from life, and from honesty with ourselves.

 

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Everything Happens for a Reason?

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Everything Happens for a Reason
The Help and Harm in this Common Saying

Cry from Distress

“I know everything happens for a reason, but why . . . ?” Anguish is speaking. Life has betrayed a person’s trust in goodness – life’s goodness or perhaps God’s. Fear has displaced confidence. Chaos threatens to take over, and this affirmation of some hidden reason rejects chaos as the person’s conclusion. She or he is badly shaken and deeply distressed but refuses to abandon completely the trust that life makes sense and that God cares. I would consider it wrong to dismiss this cry from distress as merely an empty platitude – indeed, worse than wrong. It would be cold and cruel but also arrogant. The person crying from distress is saying, “I matter, and my life matters. I am not just a passing shadow. All that has been good, all that I have been thankful for in my life, was not a deception or a sand castle built in childish delusion that it meant something.”

“Life has turned against me.” “This hurts.” “I am shattered, but I will not yield myself to despair. I will not give up on life (or on God), and I will not give up on myself. I will stand and affirm, however unsteadily, that life makes sense even though I cannot see right now what that sense could be. I will not give up my faith or my hope, either.”

Such fortitude is to be respected. As an affirmation of life, the cry from anguish, “Everything happens for a reason!” speaks a truth deeper than anything reason or science has to offer. It is an assertion of human strength from within the context of human weakness. It keeps faith without explanation to justify that faith. Defiantly, it says, “No!” to the void and, “Yes,” to the future.

Attempted Assurance

Here we listen to a different speaker: not the person in distress but another seeking to comfort the one expressing anguish. I must speak here with care because the line between compassion and self-protection blurs, and people trying to help and support the anguished find themselves in very uncertain territory where good intentions may be misunderstood and words meant to console misinterpreted.

Psychologists speak of something they call “the empathic wall.” At issue is how much we can afford to let other people’s feelings get to us versus how well we must protect ourselves so we are not too easily drawn into another’s fear, rage, or grief. Witness a room full of infants playing contentedly and watch what happens when one starts to cry. The crying builds steadily to a full-throated wail of distress, but see (and hear) what happens to the other infants. They too start crying in what is the empathic form of music’s sympathetic vibration where one struck tuning fork placed close to another of the same pitch will start the second vibrating. For infants, such empathy is natural and fine; for an adult, it would not be healthy. The philosopher Martha Nussbaum writes of an incident in the experience of the Stoic, Seneca. A Roman aristocrat lamented tearfully to Seneca that the shipment of peacock tongues from Africa he had wanted for his dinner party had been interrupted. Seneca laughed. (Upheavals of Thought, 309). Why did Seneca not feel empathy with the man in distress?  He considered the problem trivial and, therefore, the anguish laughable. It would not require a particularly high empathic wall to protect someone from sharing anguish over the loss of a delicacy for an aristocrat’s dinner party. After laughing, Seneca could have offered the ambiguous comfort of, “Everything happens for a reason.”

From the standpoint of the person responding to another’s anguish, saying that everything happens for a reason may come from sympathy’s attempt to comfort or from self-protection’s desire to block empathy. The effect is another matter.

As a Platitude

Minus empathy with the anguished, the saying become a mere platitude, a bromide for the suffering that puts forward false comfort with no heart in it. As a platitude, the saying that “everything happens for a reason” falls far short of the gospel, and the hope it offers is meager by comparison. Worse, it can be cruel. Do we tell parents whose child has been raped and murdered that such a grievous outrage fits somehow nicely into the will and purpose of God? Really? God wanted their child raped and murdered? What monstrous God is that? Women who have conceived by rape have been told the conception was God’s will. Is God in cahoots with rapists? Does God give children cancer or cause dementia in even the most brilliant or most loved of people? If so (and I contend it is not so), what justification can there be for grief or even for compassion? If declaring as a truism that everything happens for a reason meant everything, however horrible, happened in accordance with “God’s good pleasure,” then faith could not mean anything better than surrender to unfathomable power, certainly not trust in God’s compassionate love.

Biblically, God is faithful and just, filled with compassion for even the undeserving, and grieved by human misery. In the hands of the powerful, theology and religion became justifications for the status quo and all the systems of power and authority in place for their benefit. In contrast, the God of Israel enters the stage of human history as the lover of slaves and destroyer of systems of oppression which benefit the rich and powerful at the expense of everyone else. God intervenes in misery, changes so-called destiny, lifts up the downtrodden, casts down tyrants, and transforms the ways of life on earth. Israel’s God is the breaker of chains and destroyer of convenient platitudes that burden people without power in the world. The book of Job protests innocent suffering, human suffering that makes no sense, and rejects all rationalizations of it. Jacob (Israel himself!) wrestles with God and prevails. Abraham and Moses stand up to God’s righteous judgment upon the wicked, and God is pleased with their impudence and so relents, withdrawing punishment. The Bible, even before we get to Jesus, is a book of protest, not an accommodation to the way things are. God does not send Moses back down into Egypt to tell the Hebrew slaves to resign themselves to their subjugation because “everything happens for a reason” that will be made clear someday. Moses must tell them to get up and get ready to move out.

Jesus of Nazareth and the Kingdom of God

Jesus’ beatitudes have been neutralized too often into platitudes. They are not inspirational nuggets of Christian virtue but promises of radical change in this world. Jesus declares the poor blessed, not because he sees some virtue in poverty, but because God is coming to lift up the poor and cast down the rich. The kingdom of God belongs to the poor, the humbled, the grieved, the merciful, and all who look to God with hope for the promise of a world in which love and human dignity at last triumph over power and oppression.

“Thy kingdom come!” is not a plea for heaven someday but the expression of longing for the transformation of earth into a realm of compassion and justice. It prays for the passing away of the status quo of earth’s domination by wealth and power. It expresses the longing of the faithful, especially the powerless, for a world in which nothing is allowed to hurt or destroy life. It longs for the very opposite of what those in charge presently maintain for their own benefit.

“Thy will be done on earth . . . !” voices Jesus’ opposition to everything that happens contrary to God’s will. For him, sickness is not God’s will. Suffering is to be overcome, not rationalized. God’s people are to meet life with hope and courage, not resignation to the way things are and to whatever happens. Death makes no sense to him because it is not what God wants for us, even though we and everything else born into this world live currently under the dominion of death. Look at the evils in life and throughout this world, and believe that God’s will is otherwise! Then act accordingly.

A leper, an outcast regarded as sinful and not merely sick, challenges Jesus’ representation of God’s will: “If you will, you can heal me.” Like Abraham, Moses, and the great prophets, this leper challenges Jesus and calls God out on God’s commitment to compassion. And the impudent leper is vindicated. Jesus answers, “I do so will; be healed.”

People use Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane as the model for resignation to the hurtful and destructive. That’s wrong. There was something Jesus had to do, and he knew it would be terribly painful and humiliating, but he had to do it for the sake of God’s love for this world and its people. He did not give us the right to say of every horrible thing that happens in this world, “It’s God’s will.” No, it is not! As Christians, we believe that Jesus represents God’s will and purpose truly and embodies God’s empathy with us and compassion for us. As the theologian Jürgen Moltmann boldly proclaimed (The Crucified God), Jesus’ suffering on the cross reveals and represents God the Father’s suffering all along since committing to this created world, to Israel, and to the people of all nations and ethnic groups. If God would not simply destroy evil and all who belong to it, then what was left was for God to do but suffer it with us? The Bible presents a God who refuses to go on being God without us, and the crucified Christ represents in his own body what refusing to give up on us means for God.

All Things Work Together for Good? How?

The eighth chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Romans plunges the apostle, the Roman Christians, and us into the conflict between what happens in life on one hand and what God wants for us on the other. Romans 8 presents, not a study in resignation to evil in blind trust that it somehow makes sense to God, but a resolution to live with hope and expectation in a world groaning under its bondage to decay and death. Paul sees the world as given over to its present systems, however futile they may be on their own, in hope for liberation when the children of God are liberated from their own bondage to death. So, yes, bad things happen and will continue to happen until God’s work is consummated and all creation is made new, made as it should be in accordance with God’s will.

What does Romans 8 mean,“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (NRSV)? Does that knowledge not amount to resignation to whatever happens in trust that it will all work out? No, Paul is no champion of determinism but, rather, a proponent of hope. He is not calling evil somehow secretly good, but calling people to faith that God will transform the harm done by life’s chances and cruelties into something better than ever. I call this process “redemption,” not just in the ultimate sense, but in the present sense of taking up our griefs and putting them into the service of something good.

The past is past, and the events of the past are done and gone. Paul is not talking about some divine version of time travel to go back and undo the past but about transforming the effects of the past. Redemption of the hurtful in our past does not make that evil into good but redeems it by turning the effects of the bad toward the creation of something good. It’s not, “Oh, thank goodness the child died because it made her parents much more compassionate people.” No! I refuse to buy into that kind of pious and pitiless sleight of hand. What is grievous is grievous. What is unjust is unjust. What hurts and destroys is evil. We may thank God for the newly compassionate lives of the dead child’s parents but not for that child’s death. The grief remains within the compassion.

I have made mistakes, and I have done wrong I regret. I cannot go back and undo what I have done, nor can I go back to do what I regret not having done. Neither can I “just turn it all over to God” and no longer regret it. How convenient for me it would be if I could, but then how would I change, learn, and grow?  My regret would be wasted. God’s Spirit is not brain wash like the mythical waters of forgetfulness. I can, however, work toward trusting God to bring good out of evil, service out of regret, understanding and empathy out of pain, and compassion out of shame. Please note that I tend to see the good God brings out of harm as turned outward for the sake of other people and not merely for my personal improvement. Is that noble? No, it’s realistic. As Jesus was sent to represent God to us, so he sends us to represent him to others in the world.

Conclusion

While I will never like the saying, “Everything happens for a reason,” nor agree with it in principle, I do understand how it helps people who find in it an anchor for hope when life no longer makes sense but just hurts. I will not accept the notion that evil in and of itself happens for some good reason or higher purpose, certainly not for “God’s good purpose.” I do believe in God’s will and power to redeem the hurtful and senseless, in both the immediate (here and now) and the ultimate (when all tears are wiped away and all hurts healed). I believe that God’s will for us is for good and not harm, for hope and not despair, for courage and not fearfulness, and for life not death. I base this belief upon the primary belief that in Jesus of Nazareth we see the will of God as it truly is, for us and for all creation, and that will is for life and wholeness.

 

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Questioning Popular Truisms

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When I began this project, I called it, “Inspirational Falsehoods,” but soon changed my mind. In my next three posts, I’ll consider three popular inspirational sayings that may be helpful at some times to some people but can also be misleading and oppressive. What I realized quickly was that dismissing these sayings as utter falsehoods was itself false to people’s experiences of them as well as presumptuous. Because these sayings have helped people through difficulties, I’ll take care to recognize what strengthens, encourages, and uplifts but also examine what stifles, misleads, discourages, and may even crush people under the weight of a presumed truth that is not true for them at all.

Pointing out falsehood from a faith perpective requires care because the theologically false often holds a grain of truth and may, with that grain, genuinely have sustained some people’s faith, hope, and life through periods of pain and grief. Historically, the church would have done better to listen to its heretics (teachers of falsehood) than sweepingly condemn their teachings as though the errors arising from human need and experience had no truth in them. Especially where objection to current orthodoxy arises out of the unanswered cries of suffering, exclusion, or resentment, that objection needs to be heard and understood. If the disagreements were purely academic, they could be worked out academically, but the existentially painful needs to be heard even if its theology strays from accepted norms.

The popular inspirational truisms I’ll question in the next three days are:

1. Everything happens for a reason.
2. It’s not your circumstances that matter but what you do with them.
3. You can be anything you want to be.

This blog is called, “Faith Thinking Aloud,” and so I’ll look at each saying in terms of its reasoning and our life experiences but also in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I’m concerned with the saying’s effect upon people. What do people hear, and how are they helped or afflicted by what they are being told? In each case, I wish to oppose fatalism, resignation, escapism, discouragement, indifference, cruelty, and the suppression of the human spirit while supporting hope, courage, justice, compassion, trust, healing, and a sense of human community.