Thursday, August 18, 2016

God as Santa Claus

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Belief in God is comparable to belief in Santa Claus, say some skeptics. It’s childish and nothing but wishful thinking.
I respect their views, and given the fact that my faith includes doubt, I understand their skepticism. But for many reasons, it’s really not a good comparison.
For one thing, belief in Santa Claus is a relatively recent phenomenon and is culturally specific. That’s in contrast to belief in a supreme being, which is universal and dates to the beginning of history. Secondly, few people past the age of 10 continue to believe in Santa Claus, whereas over 85 percent of adult Americans say they believe in God.
There are no ancient writings on which to base a belief in Santa Claus; there’s no huge body of literature, music and art devoted to him; no one has ever claimed that Santa Claus is the author of life or is in us and around us. After the Christmas season, at least, people aren’t comforted by the idea that Santa Claus knows and loves them.
Get Stuff
One reason for the comparison, perhaps, is the notion held by many that if they believe in God, they’ll - to put it crudely - “get stuff.” Many people searching for God overtly or secretly have the idea that if they succeed in their search, if they become people of faith, their material and physical lives will improve. In short, that faith is the road to material success.
“The more I give, the more I get,” sort of sums it up, with the “I get” part referring to material prosperity. Indeed, some evangelists have mined this idea, urging people to give in exchange for some material reward.
As far as I know, nothing of the sort is found in the Hebrew or Christian Bibles nor do I know of any  major religion that promotes such an idea.
“To wrap ourselves in the name of God and then sit and wait for the benefits is imprudent,” writes Eric Hollas, a Benedictine monk, in his blog, A Monk’s Chronicle, “and it is the foundation for a life of hypocrisy. It is a life in which we may fool others, but we mainly fool ourselves. And it’s so because we’ve used the name of the Lord to achieve power or wealth or influence — when in fact God offers none of that to those whom he loves.”

Eric Hollas
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What does God offer? The “churchy” answers are “eternal life,” “salvation,” “grace.” But another way of saying it is “centeredness,” the discovery of meaning in an apparently meaningless universe, the confidence – even though subject to the doubt that plagues all humans about virtually everything – that God clings to us and won’t let go even in the midst of suffering.

“For those who hear the word of God and act on it, then, there is no pass on experiencing the trials of life,” writes Hollas, “nor does it offer an express lane to the best that the boutiques have to offer. Rather, those who hear the word of God and do it will have the assurance of “God with them.”

Merely passing through trials doesn’t assure success, either, of course. During the Olympic Games, we have heard many stories of athletes passing through great personal trials on their way to success in Rio. But for every athlete who went through those kinds of trials and won medals, there are thousands of others who never won anything except, possibly, the satisfaction of having made the effort.

No, the search for God offers no medals or material rewards, though this could be misunderstood by Christians in reading some portions of the gospels, and Jesus’ disciples undoubtedly misunderstood.

Mathew’s gospel, according to The Message translation, has Peter asking Jesus, “We left everything and followed you. What do we get out of it?”

“Jesus replied, ‘Yes, you have followed me. In the re-creation of the world, when the Son of Man will rule gloriously, you who have followed me will also rule, starting with the twelve tribes of Israel. And not only you, but anyone who sacrifices home, family, fields – whatever – because of me will get it all back a hundred times over, not to mention the considerable bonus of eternal life.”

Poor All His Life
Jesus, who was poor all his life, certainly wasn’t offering material rewards. “Don’t hoard treasure down here where it gets eaten by moths and corroded by rust or – worse! – stolen by burglars,” he also says in Mathew’s gospel. “Stockpile treasure in heaven, where it’s safe from moth and rust and burglars.”

It’s obvious he had something entirely different than “stuff” in mind, whether the stuff is material, political or power and prestige. That may be why so few of us take the gospel seriously.

“There will still be storms, there will be challenges galore, and there will be tests of every sort,” writes Hollas. “God does not promise to set those aside. But God does promise to help us rise to the occasion, to meet the challenges nobly, and to emerge as his beloved sons and daughters.”

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Why Church May Have Lost Its Appeal

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A few months ago I wrote a two-and-a-half page letter to the liturgy committee at the church my wife and I attend.

For those unfamiliar with the term, “liturgy” refers to public worship, in this case, the Masses that are held in Catholic parishes. My letter contained a half dozen or so suggestions on how to make the weekend liturgy more people friendly, more welcoming and more relevant to the lives of parishioners.

I was subsequently invited to speak to the committee and during the discussion of my suggestions, the parish priest asked me what I believed to be the point of the Mass.

“Prayer,” I answered. “Community prayer.”

He seemed satisfied with that answer and I thought about that when I recently stumbled across a notebook compiled by my deceased brother, Richard Carney, who for 53 years was a priest in the Kansas City- St. Joseph Catholic Diocese.

The notebook contains his notes on “centering prayer,” which incorporates silence and meditation – or “listening” to God – into prayer. It has become popular with many Christians who are looking for ways to make prayer more meaningful.

Though it holds a certain attraction, I have never mastered it. I pray frequently, but centering prayer just doesn’t seem to be my “thing.” I find it hard to distinguish between listening to God and listening to my own thoughts, including biases and negative thoughts that swirl around in my brain.

But one of my brother’s notes got my attention.

“…People who have learned to pray privately, who have developed a personal rapport with God through private prayer hardly ever just ‘put in their time’ at Sunday mass. …Private prayer is the training ground for proper public prayer; it will only be so good as one’s private devotedness allows it to be.

Richard Carney
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“Private prayer, then, is at the heart of public prayer; the heart developed in loving God in private is the same heart brought to Mass on Sunday.”

It occurs to me that people who lack an appreciation for the liturgy – or “going to church” - probably have little to no prayer life. How could you understand public prayer if you don’t pray in private? And how could you not appreciate public prayer if you do pray in private?

If we complain about God’s silence, just imagine the case he/she has against us in that regard. We are also silent, ignoring God – except, perhaps when we’re in crises – for reasons that often boil down to indifference and apathy.  

The search for God, which must include prayer, requires some tenacity and self-discipline. If you’re serious about weight loss, you first have to decide to do it, apply some determination, then adopt a regimen of diet and exercise. You may occasionally fail, but to be successful you put your shoulder to the wheel and try not to look back.

All that applies to prayer for people searching for God: a decision to pray, adopting the determination to do so, then the times and places to do it. Sometimes you’ll feel that you’re talking to yourself; sometimes you’ll be distracted by so many things it doesn’t seem like prayer; sometimes you’ll be so tired you can’t focus. That’s the prayer of human beings.

The Devil in the Detail
But sometimes the devil is in the detail. The time and place are important, choosing a time when we can get it done – such as early morning or late at night – and a place of quiet and solitude. If we have some success in prayer, we will become more determined in our search for God and eventually, be able to “hear” God’s responses in the form of intuition. We’ll feel closer to him/her and to others.

And that closeness to others should spark a desire to pray with them. I believe many people don’t get church because they don’t get prayer. They haven’t learned to appreciate the value of prayer or make the connection between praying privately and publicly.

Jesus did both, according to the gospels, and so did the ancient Jews, moving throughout their history from private encounters with God to public prayer in the Temple and synagogues. Muslims pray and so do Hindus and Buddhists, though in a different form than Christians, Jews and Muslims.

Universally, private and public prayer is fundamental for people searching for God.


Thursday, August 4, 2016

Doctrine Is Not “Church”

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A curious thing happened after the close of the Democratic National Convention last month. Sales of pocket-sized versions of the U.S. Constitution skyrocketed.

That’s right, the document, sold for $1 by the National Center for Constitutional Studies, became the second-best-selling book on Amazon, according to the Washington Post. And Google searches for the pocket constitution increased ten-fold the day after the convention.

The unlikely increase is ascribed to the image of Khizr Khan, father of fallen Muslim U.S. soldier Captain Humayun Khan, waving his pocket-sized constitution in the air at the convention. Responding to Donald Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigration, he took the document from his breast pocket and asked Trump, “Have you even read the United States Constitution? I will gladly lend you my copy.”

It’s easy to see why the constitution hasn’t always been a best-seller. Written in the English of 225 years ago, it’s a formidable read. It’s not always clear and not many Americans are willing to give the time and effort to actually read it. I must admit I haven’t since my school days.

Happy to Have It
Still, I believe the vast majority of Americans are happy to have a constitution. Although we seldom refer to it, we know it’s there in the background, defining what the United States is and stands for, providing an unseen safety net against the risks of democracy.

I believe church doctrine is similar. Few people read it or refer to it, and many people are absolutely put off by even the idea, seeing it as making a church rigid and unyielding. But its existence is essential to the existence of a church. It describes what members believe and why. And as the constitution is supplemented by reams of court decisions, so official church doctrine is supplemented by thousands of years of commentary by scholars and saints.

But like the constitution, all that is in the background. Doctrine doesn’t define the church, which is a community of believers, and for Christians, the Body of Christ. The Church is defined by how its members live out their faith in their daily lives.

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Pope Francis has a refreshing view of doctrine, as evidenced in the recent papal document, The Joy of Love. He was writing specifically about church doctrine on marriage and the family, but much of what he has to say applies to doctrine in general.

He acknowledges that church doctrine isn’t the last word, that God is not bound by it and that there are “various ways of interpreting some aspects of the church’s teaching or drawing certain consequences from it.   

“This will always be the case as the Spirit guides us towards the entire truth (cf. Jn 16:13), until he leads us fully into the mystery of Christ and enables us to see all things as he does.”

He also acknowledges that church doctrine was not handed down to us as the commandments were said to be handed down to Moses and that doctrine and church practices can, and do, change.

“Neither today’s society nor that to which we are progressing allow an uncritical survival of older forms and models,” the Pope wrote.

As always, distinctions have to be made between what is essential and what is not, and that’s the hard part: How to distinguish, and who decides?

Sheer Authority
“It is true that there is no sense in simply decrying present-day evils,” writes Pope Francis, “as if this could change things. Nor is it helpful to try to impose rules by sheer authority. What we need is a more responsible and generous effort to present the reasons and motivations for choosing marriage and the family, and in this way to help men and women better to respond to the grace that God offers them.”

But, he continued, “we also need to be humble and realistic, acknowledging that at times the way we present our Christian beliefs and treat other people has helped contribute to today’s problematic situation. We need a healthy dose of self-criticism.”

One of the greatest difficulties of people who belong to a “doctrine-heavy” community like the Catholic Church, to which I belong, is forgetting that love trumps everything. It’s obviously an important principle for the pope, but everybody searching for the God of Christians and Jews should keep it in mind. 

In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus reminds his listeners of the Hebrew Bible’s greatest commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” and, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”







Thursday, July 28, 2016

Losing God and the Sense of Regret

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In her book, “The Nones Are Alright; A New Generation of Believers, Seekers and Those in Between,” Kaya Oakes sums up nicely the plight of young people who are leaving God and religion behind.

They often do so “with a sense of regret,” she writes. “Instead of becoming confirmed non-believers, they live in a space of permanent questioning.”

She quotes a 27-year old man whom she interviewed about his inability to believe in God.

“I really want to,” he said. “But there’s nothing that certainly states, ‘Yes this is fact,’ so I’m constantly struggling.”

Oakes, author of four books, including “Radical Reinvention: An Unlikely Return to the Catholic Church,” was among those who gave up on God and religion before returning to her faith. She teaches writing at the University of California at Berkeley.

More Cerebral Than Emotional
In these blogs I tend to be more cerebral than emotional but I’m sure that most people – no matter how intellectual we may believe we are – make most of our decisions on emotion, or at least a mix of the two. So I’m not sure that providing rational arguments necessarily changes anyone’s mind – including the 27-year-old interviewee.

But in searching for images to illustrate a previous blog post, I came across this poster in Google Images: “I don’t need God to explain the world to me.”

All I can say is, “I don’t, either. Science does that nicely.” And if the young man is searching for God the magician, I believe he’s barking up the wrong tree. 

I believe many people who have intellectual doubts about God set up a false dichotomy between belief and scientific evidence. Our education system – which for better or worse ignores the question of God – accustoms us to value only such evidence.

Kaya Oakes
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It’s true, God is not needed to explain how the universe works, the makeup of matter, the workings of the human genome, the intricacies of the cell, the functions of the human psyche or the complexities of higher mathematics.

The God in whom I believe expects us to use our brains to explore those areas and solve problems, although I acknowledge that in earlier times, God was used to explain what we couldn’t.

But if like me, you need to find meaning in the universe, if you mean to discover something of the hidden world, the world behind the “world,” if you believe there’s a reason for the historical and universal belief in a “higher power,” if you trust the wisdom of generations of believers who preceded you, if you can’t otherwise explain the universal acknowledgement of right and wrong, if you have a feeling “in your gut” that God exists, you are wise to continue your search for God.

True, you may go about your daily business without giving God a thought. You don’t think about breathing or your metabolism, either, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re essential to your life.

It’s easy, of course, to understand the necessity of breathing and metabolism, but God? Honestly, do I need him/her?

I can only speak for myself, but I know that billions of others, living or not, had similar good reasons for believing. God provides meaning; that is, with God as my father/mother – making all other humans my brothers and sisters – I know my place in the universe, that I’m one of billions of his/her creations loved by him/her. My faith helps me see all things more clearly and have confidence that ultimately, all is as it should be. Despite doubt, occasional lack of trust in God and intermittent anxiety, I believe God embraces me and won’t let go.

Plenty of Reasons to Believe
Is this rational? Yes, because though I can’t prove God’s existence through scientific methods, there are plenty of reasons to believe. We know, after all, not only from scientific evidence, but from non-scientific pursuits like music, art, literature, history, nature and relationships.

That doesn’t mean that I have everything figured out. Many of us can relate to Oakes, who writes, “Although I may be a believer, in many ways I’m still figuring out what I believe and why I believe it. That shrugging confusion, and a willingness to admit to it, makes faith less smug and more relatable to those on the outside.”

It’s also more honest. No matter how firm our faith, we are all still people who seek God because that’s what faith means. Believers can never be smug. That would mean that we lack or have lost the awe we should feel about our beliefs, that we have grown so accustomed to them that they now seem ordinary. The reason many people don’t believe, after all, is that so much of our faith is “unbelievable.”  

Finally, like the young man Oakes interviewed, we should never stop questioning. It’s an important part of faith.




Thursday, July 21, 2016

Three Teens on an Irish Pier

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At age 19, I made my first of many trips to Ireland where my mind recorded a simple but unforgettable scene.

A friend and I had driven to the far west end of the Dingle Peninsula, said to be the closest spot to the U.S. Before tourists discovered it, it was also one of the most isolated parts of Ireland where many people still spoke Irish.

It was a cool day. The green of the place was stereotypically Ireland. Lumps of land called the Blasket Islands could be seen in the distance protruding from a wild sea. Three teens about my age, two boys and a girl, were alone on an old pier that jutted a few dozen feet into the Atlantic doing what they could to entertain themselves. One of the boys was playing a concertina, sort of a primitive accordion, the other a “penny whistle,” a kind of Irish flute. The girl was singing.  

I don’t know if they noticed our presence and I didn’t know the tune, but with the sun casting its glittering hue over the ocean, the scene was stunning and the music haunting.

Rather Been Elsewhere?
But it was a lonely place and a bit sad. I imagined that being teens, they would rather have been elsewhere, somewhere more exciting, more glamorous than a sleepy, rural part of Ireland where at that time most people resigned themselves to being poor.

The term “terrible beauty” has been applied to the Ireland of that era and before, and though I haven’t seen any “official” definitions, I’ve always interpreted it to refer to the dilemma of people contemplating immigration: to leave a beautiful land, filled with wonderful family and friends, for a strange, foreign destination, or to stay and tolerate the lifelong poverty that awaited them.

I may have simply been projecting my own feelings on the scene in Kerry, but there’s a good chance one or the other of those teens emigrated to the U.K., the U.S. or some other destination. They would now be in the twilight of their lives, and if they were to look back on that same scene, I wonder if they would still feel the need to leave, to search for something more exciting, more glamorous and more prosperous than that peaceful, beautiful place.

The perspective of distance and time is transformative. What we at one time think is important isn’t so much later in life. What we think is inconsequential becomes fundamental.

Abraham Heschel
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This idea occurs to me when thinking about the “nones,” the growing number of Americans who do not identify with any religion, who answer “none” on surveys asking their religion. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated, says the Pew Research Center, the highest percentages ever in Pew polling.

Would the perspective of time make a difference in the nones’ perception of God and religion?

Back in 1976, Rabbi Abraham Heschel wrote a book called “God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism.” Even 40 years ago, it seems, the handwriting was on the wall about a lack of enthusiasm for religion.

“It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society,” he wrote. “It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.”

It’s true that like all human endeavors, religion can become all of those. The question is, is it the religion itself – its principles, beliefs and practices – that is the problem or the people who lead or practice it? Do the doping scandals in sports mean that sports are bad, or that some people who play sports may be?

Many people, I believe, cling to caricatures of religion to justify attacking or ignoring it.

Human and Divine
Many religions, including my own Catholic faith, believe that the church is human but also divine because God had a hand it its birth and maintenance. Religion’s purpose is to help us in the search for God, and to the extent that we find him/her, help us in our subsequent relationship to God and each other. I believe Catholicism, and most religions, fulfill that function and more.

“God is always present to us,” Heschel writes. But because we are not always, or perhaps even usually present to God, God must “reach out to us (from around us and from within us) to elicit our presence, our responsiveness.”

Age is irrelevant in the search for God. We need God and religion as much or more when we’re young as when we’re old, whether we’re teenagers like those on the Irish pier, American millennials whose lives are whirlwinds of busyness, or people so old they won’t buy green bananas.


Thursday, July 14, 2016

How Could God Allow Dallas, Baton Rouge, St. Paul?

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I once had a heated conversation with a police officer on the subject of evil, specifically, whether some people are simply evil, as he contended, or whether as I maintained, people “go bad” because of life circumstances or factors we don’t yet understand.

Several weeks later, the officer’s wife was jogging on a trail in Minnesota when she was brutally attacked by a man who did all he could to kill her. He strangled her, beat her and used a stick to gouge her eye. She fought him and survived but she lost the eye and was badly injured.

As I recall, the attacker was taken into custody, and presumably prosecuted, but no cogent motive was ever provided. When I read about it in the newspaper, I recalled the conversation with the officer and reconsidered my theory about evil.

An Agnostic on the Subject
I didn’t come around to the officer’s view but became an agnostic on the subject, having to acknowledge that I just don’t know. I want to believe that humans are basically good. I’m also uncomfortable with labeling people as “evil” because it justifies the use of violence to destroy the evil.

The “problem of evil” has always been one of the principal stumbling blocks for people who want to believe in God. Since the beginning of Judeo-Christianity, people have asked how a good God could allow awful things to happen. Undoubtedly after the recent shootings involving the police in Dallas, Baton Rouge and St. Paul and the terrorist attacks in Orlando, Istanbul and Baghdad that left 300 people dead, many people are asking that question.

My preferred argument is to consider the alternative to God allowing evil: a determinism that doesn’t align with the image of God as parent. How could we have the freedom to reject God if he/she prohibited bad people and evil acts?

Elie Wiesel
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This problem was much on the mind of Elie Wiesel, the author and Nobel Peace Prize winner who died recently at age 87. A prolific writer and peace advocate, he had good reason to focus on the problem of evil having survived one of the most cruel, inhumane and horrific systems imaginable, the Nazi concentration camps.

An online paper by Robert E. Douglas Jr. on Ellie Wiesel’s Jewish faith quotes from Wiesel’s novel about Auschwitz, The Gates of the Forest:

The executioner killed for nothing, the victim died for nothing. No God ordered the one to prepare the stake, nor the other to mount it. During the middle ages, the Jews, when they chose death, were convinced that by their sacrifice they were glorifying and sanctifying God's name. At Auschwitz, the sacrifices were without point, without faith, without divine inspiration. If the suffering of one human being has any meaning, that of six million has none.”

One can only imagine what effect such suffering, and witnessing such horrors, would have on one’s faith. Wiesel spent his life helping us to imagine it, we who have much less reason to question God’s part in the evil we see around us.

To say that Wiesel had a problem with a God who allows massive evil is an understatement. But that doesn’t mean he gave up on God or his faith. He cleared that up in a 2006 interview with Krista Tippet on American Public Media radio.

Divorced God?
“Some people who read my first book, Night, they were convinced that I broke with the faith and broke with God. Not at all. I never divorced God. It is because I believed in God that I was angry at God, and still am. But my faith is tested, wounded, but it's here.

“So whatever I say, it's always from inside faith, even when I speak the way occasionally I do about the problems I had, questions I had. Within my traditions, you know, it is permitted to question God, even to take Him to task.

“I never doubted God's existence. I have problems with God's apparent absence, you know, the old questions of theology. And they are topical even today.”

What sustained him, and should sustain us who are searching for God?

“I went on praying,” he told Tippet. “So I have said these terrible words, and I stand by every word I said. But afterwards, I went on praying.”



Thursday, July 7, 2016

Slip Slidin’ Away: The Fear of Falling Behind

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My parents’ scare tactic for encouraging their five children to study was that if we didn’t, we could wind up being “ditch diggers.”

That occupation was relatively rare even in my childhood when mechanized digging was being introduced but my parents undoubtedly heard that advice from their parents when such jobs were common. The equivalent today may be “slinging burgers at McDonald’s.”

No matter how you express it, few things worry humans more than the fear of “not keeping up,” of falling behind others in the economic and social rankings we keep in our heads. Much of contemporary advertising is based on this idea. Successful people drive nice cars, take great vacations and choose food and medicines that make them active, healthy and happy. Buy our product and you can be among them.

A woman interviewed after the recent Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, in which voters decided to leave the European Union, said many believed the union was keeping them from economic success.  “It shows that there are people that are definitely not coming up with others,” she said, “people that feel like they are being left behind.” 

This fear of falling behind brings to mind a song written and recorded by Paul Simon in 1977 called Slip Sliding Away. It appears to be about the inability of people to meet goals in their family lives, love lives, economic lives and lives in general. It can also be interpreted to refer to the rapidity with which we approach death. The chorus is,

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“Slip slidin' away
Slip slidin' away
You know the nearer your destination
The more you're slip slidin' away.”

And Simon throws in a bit of theology.

“God only knows
God makes his plan
The information’s unavailable
To the mortal man.”

Ok, I didn’t say it was good theology. The image here is a God who is arbitrary and manipulative. It’s true that God was sometimes portrayed that way in the Hebrew Bible, but revelation, too, is evolutionary, and subsequent revelation revealed a much different God, one who is above all loving and compassionate.

As hard as we might try to project human values onto God, the ultimate message of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles is a jolting one: the idea that God made us in his image and likeness is qualified by our freedom to mess up.

In the first book of Samuel in the Hebrew Bible, God chooses David as king of Israel against all odds, rejecting the human choice.

“But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look on the appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord sees not as a man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

Union Members Appalled?
One of the hardest stories in the Christian Bible for modern people to appreciate is Jesus’ story about the workmen in the vineyard who are paid the same regardless of the hour that they start work. I’m sure union members are appalled each time they hear it or read it.

The vineyard owner agrees with a group of workers on a day’s wages and pays what he promises. But he hires other workers who start much later – even an hour before quitting time - and pays them the same. Not surprisingly, the first to be hired complain and in Jesus’ story, the employer responds.

“…Do you begrudge my generosity?” Then Jesus delivers the punch line: “So the last will be first, and the first last,” generally interpreted to mean that those who are most important, most powerful, most fortunate and wealthiest in this world will not be so in the next. 

The fear of falling behind is “normal,” I suppose, for humans who measure their value by comparison to others. But that can’t be the measure for people of faith or people searching for God. For us, “success” is incomparable because it depends on God’s judgment, not that of other human beings.