In Him We Live and Move and Have Our Very Being
Text: Acts 17:22-32
Rev. Dr. John E. Manzo
May 25, 2014
President Herbert Hoover coined the phrase, “rugged individualism.” Poor Herbert Hoover was the President when the Great Depression began. Try as he would, and he really did try, he attempted to pull the nation out of the abyss. He was actually a very capable and compassionate man, but nothing he did was able to lift the country. He saw the great hope in the rugged individualism of the people in the nation and credited that imagery for building the nation.
Politically this is a great debate. One could say with some sense that the Republican Party is based, in part, on the premise of “rugged individualism.” Some could say that the Democratic Party is built on the premise of “It takes a village.” We could make political arguments for both and there is merit and virtue in both of these perspectives. I’m not writing about politics, however.
In recent years the phrase rugged individualism has shown up more in churches. I hear often about people and their personal salvation and their personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I am not going to downplay the role of salvation or relationships with Jesus Christ. I will not and cannot diminish that in the least. I worry, however, about the increasing use of the word ‘personal’ in terms of Christianity.
The word only shows up four times in the Bible with three of the times being used in Judith as an adjective. Here are the three verses where it appears:
10 On the fourth day Holofernes held a banquet for his personal attendants only, and did not invite any of his officers.
11 He said to Bagoas, the eunuch who had charge of his personal affairs, "Go and persuade the Hebrew woman who is in your care to join us and to eat and drink with us.
13 They came to Holofernes' tent and said to the steward in charge of all his personal affairs, "Wake up our lord, for the slaves have been so bold as to come down against us to give battle, to their utter destruction."
The only other time it appears and is used in something other than this particular kind of direct adjective is on Proverbs:
2 A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing personal opinion.
One word can be used to describe this passage from Proverbs: Ouch.
So, in expressing my personal opinion I may not be taking pleasure in understanding and may, in fact, be a fool. Okay, I get that.
There is a reason ‘personal’ and ‘individualism’ is not dwelled on in the Bible. It’s not a concept or a part of Judaism or Christianity. Judaism and Christianity are built around the concept of community. Within Judaism there is virtually no sense of personal relationships with God or personal thoughts about Worship. None. Zero. Judaism is a communal religion.
The reality is that while there is a little sense of individualism in Christianity, it’s a LITTLE sense. Christianity is very much built on its Jewish heritage and follows in the same path of community.
Jesus called apostles and disciples together into a community.
The concept of ‘church’ was built on a community of believers. Baptism was not done in a secret place, but in front of others. The breaking of the bread was not done solitude but with a community of believers. The words ‘Communion’ and “Community” derive from the same root for a very particular meaning.
Monasteries are often the quietest places that Christianity is practiced and lived out and most of the monasteries follow the Rule of St. Benedict. Benedict placed great emphasis, in his rule, on the value and virtue of community. Monks may spend a lot of time being quiet but they also spend a great deal of time together. They pray alone but they mostly pray together. Together. If you join the Marines they teach you the importance and the virtue of the Corps. Marines are brothers and sisters to each other to the max. Monks have no sense of individualism or sense of personal because they are part of a monastic family. It is ‘trained’ out of them, much in the same way it’s trained out of Marines. (Marines and monks might find it odd that I’m linking them but this is actually an accurate linkage; what they do, however, is vastly different.)
Which brings me back to Herbert Hoover. The phrase, to me, has some merit in society as does the whole concept of village. To me, it takes both great individualists and villages to build a nation and I think over the years we have done that. It takes both and requires both.
In God’s church, however, while I would promote personal prayer and study, I am a great advocate for community. To me, Christianity is, by definition, a communal endeavor. We simply do not live lives of faith as well as we can when we try and do so as rugged individualists on a personal endeavor. From a theological perspective, the Bible advocates community over personal in a big way.
We are called into a community of believers for a reason and that reason is that it is God who has called us together.
I’ve been thinking about rotten fruit.
As much as I like Facebook the more time I venture into this world of social media, the more I find that appalls me. It actually is beginning to offend me to the core of my being. It’s becoming more and more like a pile of rotten fruit.
There is a meanness in the air that just looms over everything and that meanness tends to lead us in the direction of that which is rotten.
I read about Michelle Obama speaking at a high school graduation. What an incredible thing! The First Lady of the United States was going to a high school to speak. Of course, this whole thing was bashed. Who did she think she was? The tirade went on and on with very little respect to the fact that she’s the First Lady.
Condoleezza Rice was scheduled to speak at Rutgers University. She is currently a professor at Stanford University and was the Secretary of State under President George W. Bush. Controversial? Sure. Brilliant? Yes. Was it an honor for Rutgers that such a high profile person was going to address them? Absolutely! She pulled out because of the backlash she was receiving. There was a tremendous lack of respect.
One of the major news stories has been kidnapped and missing girls from Nigeria. Rush Limbaugh decided to mock this. Jon Stewart, in turn, mocked Rush Limbaugh. Ann Coulter mocked the story and was, in turn, mocked by others. All of this great hilarity took place over missing and kidnapped girls. Did any one of these people give one iota of thought to the indecency of being, ahem, funny, about this? Are the hearts and souls of our society so incredibly cold and empty that we find this remotely entertaining?
Donald Sterling, the owner of the Clippers obviously made truly awful comments. He decided to go on Anderson Cooper and ‘apologize,’ but he really never got around to that claiming he was set up and furthering his vile toward Magic Johnson. A few weeks ago very few people knew who this man was and, frankly, most of us wish we didn’t. Columnist Kathleen Parker wrote an insightful article on the subject and broached the subject of privacy. Bill Maher, who himself loves to plunge into being indecent toward others, skewered her column in a vicious fashion. He also distorted her intent but he got laughs and ratings so…….
At this years White House Correspondents Dinner Joel McHale must’ve read from some sort of “tips for lazy comedians” manual. His premise seemed to be to make fat jokes, mostly at the expense of Chris Christie. So funny and cruel was he.
And now Karl Rove is going on television and telling the world that Hillary Clinton has brain damage. Of course, pundits are picking this up and are just filled with hilarity and cruelty about this as well. Of course, people are now mocking Karl Rove. It’s all funny and cruel.
This is not an exhaustive list. These are just some things I’ve been observing of late and, frankly, it is very distressing. It’s actually beyond distressing, it has become repulsive.
This is a problem because we tolerate it. We even embrace it. People on the left love Bill Maher because he mocks people on the right; people on the right love Rush Limbaugh because he mocks people on the left. We are very tolerant, even joyous, when people mock those we may not agree with or even dislike. The joy of hating others has become the new American sport.
The problem is, embracing it and even tolerating it is part of the problem. When we use Facebook and Twitter to pass on the cruelty, and we’ve all been guilty of this, myself very much included, we also share the guilt.
Jesus says something incredibly inconvenient in the Sermon on the Mount:
13 "Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. 14 For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it. 15 "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? 17 In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Matthew 7:13-18
The whole ‘good fruit’ and ‘bad fruit’ imagery has hit me between the eyes. Sharing rotten fruit is sharing rotten fruit. Being a false prophet is not just what we say, but the spirit of what we say. If our hearts are cold and cruel we are false prophets. We cannot help ourselves. It is only when we choose that which is noble and good that we become truly prophetic and truly bear good fruit.
As for me, I’m going to try and be light in the darkness. For me, it’s time to pass on good fruit and express that which is noble and good. I know I won’t be perfect at it, but I’m certainly going to try.
I was reading this morning and the author, Joan Chittister, used a remarkable phrase: holy listener.
We live in a chatty, speaking culture more than we do a listening culture. People on TALK radio, talk. That sounds obvious, doesn’t it? They talk. Being on the radio there is nothing to see so someone has to be doing something and other than singing or playing an instrument, one would expect them to talk.
Some of them take some phone calls but most of the phone calls they take are from fans who largely agree with them. This gives the talker the opportunity to expand on their own point of view and they do it over and over again. Rarely do they take time to listen.
On television it’s much the same way. Even interviewers now seem to think that a good interview comes as the result of the interviewer talking more than the interviewee. The hope, I would imagine, is if you, as the interviewer talk long enough in trying to pose a question to really stump the interviewee, you’ll get a great interview. Of course, one of the best interviews of late was Anderson Cooper interviewing Donald Sterling. Cooper BRILLIANTLY sat quietly and let Sterling talk and talk and talk and before you knew it, Sterling had dug himself into a far, far deeper hole than he began with. Anderson Cooper did something unusual. He listened.
Then there is holy listening. Often people define prayer as talking to God. We place ourselves in a spot of attempting to acknowledge God’s presence around us and we talk and talk and talk. Whether we actually felt God’s presence is often not part of the equation. We talked. We often talk about what we need to God.
We sometimes use the Bible to ‘listen’ with a sense that we will read something and that will enable us to listen to God. This is a great opportunity but all too often instead of reading the Bible to listen, we talk right through it. We find passages we like and we preach to ourselves on how we were right about something the entire time. We read the Bible to affirm our position; which means we probably didn’t bother to listen.
Holy listening is taking the time to be quiet and listen to other people. They may have something to say we had not thought of. Holy listening is reading Scripture and discovering what is there and allowing the Word to speak to us and, Heaven forbid, challenge us. It invites us to learn and discover more about God, not just we thought we knew.
Holy listening is taking the time to listen to other people. To REALLY listen to other people. To listen to their words instead of composing our response. To take the time to digest what someone else is saying instead of assuring our point is made.
I’d like to say I’m good at this. I wish I was. To me, this holy listening is something I need to work on. The phrase provoked my own thinking because it challenged me.
Take the time to quiet down and listen and allow that listening to become holy. Let’s try to become holy listeners.