Civility is Basic to Christian Life

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.”

This passage from Phillipians 2, written by the apostle Paul,  has been the focus of my devotional life in the past week. I’ve been reminded that humility is one of the gifts of the Spirit and that when we stop assuming we are better than everyone else, we begin to see what we can learn from people who think differently. Every day, as I have read through the passage, I have been struck by the discord in our country and how people of faith have gotten caught up in those divisions. Sometimes we have contributed to them and acted in ways that were not constructive.

Today my local paper, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, headlined an editorial, “Six steps to make America more civil again.” The piece was by Doug R. Berdie, of Minneapolis, a semiretired marketing executive and researcher. He names simple things we can do to create a healthier emotional environment . . .  from showing simple consideration for the people around us when we are shopping to doing a good deed each day. (I suspect doing a good deed for a person you don’t know well and happen to disagree with might help even more.) He named: Giving other people the benefit of the doubt; Helping in practical and tangible ways; Leaving our surroundings better than we find them.

We have been engaged in ripping apart the soul of our country. Our collective conversation has been bitter and divisive. We find it difficult to agree on much and even when we do, there is someone able to punch a hole in that unity. So, this past week, I found myself chastened often when I read the words, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”

We are tempted to only look out for “me and mine,” but God asks us to stretch our minds and open our hearts. God asks us to see others as God’s children, who are loved and cherished by God even as we are loved. Scripture tells us, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” (Phillipians 2:3-4)   What a difference we could make in our communities if we started with respect for all of God’s children.

The God From Whom We Cannot Hide

Psalm 139 has been a favorite of mine since I was a young mom with a brood of children. I’ve always preferred the older versions of scripture where the Psalmist asks in verse seven, “Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?” (RSV) Whither seems more encompassing than newer versions which interpret the word as “Where.” Where is a place, a location on a map, “Whither” digs deeper into our psychic. More than a location, it is also a state of being. It is how we are living in the world at this moment in time.

I like the older interpretation because it tells me that whatever situation I find myself in, God is there. I’m reminded that when I find myself in a dark place, wallowing in a mess, searching for a way to make sense of my world, God is with me. The psalmist tells me that even in the moments I am tempted to believe, God has deserted me, I am wrong, for there is no place where God is not. I have often read this psalm at the beside of one who is dying as reassurance, that even in death, they are in God’s hands.

The psalm begins with the recognition, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me.”(NRSV) God is aware of the facts in our lives, knows where our hearts bleed and what makes our spirits soar. God is also aware when we are less than our best selves. At least less than we would like our circle of friends and family to know of us. Our all-seeing God would be frightening, or even threatening, were it not that God is also “all loving.” God knows the secrets of our hearts, God understands what motivates us to speak and act the way we do. God loves us as we are, but loves us far too much to leave us in our messes, our bad choices and our foolish decisions.

This psalm has carried me through sick children, a messy divorce, single parenting and its resultant poverty. The words encouraged me when I made a mid-life course direction. I have found comfort in its words as I have comforted others. The simple message that God is with us gives me hope. I find strength in the knowledge that God will never let go of us. The God from whom we cannot hide, wants most of all that we realize we are loved, that we are God’s beloved and precious children. Whatever we might face in life today, we have this assurance, we will not face it alone.

First Do No Harm

If “Avenging the prophet” is what the terrorist in Paris set out to do today, they should know that they failed in their quest with their callous disregard for human life. Like the crusades which wrecked havoc in another era, misguided faith does not draw people in, grow respect for its founder or create a space to hear its values and beliefs. Faith is not defended by force of arms, but by a life lived in kindness and compassion.

Today it is easy to judge Islamic extremism, but as Christians we have our own examples of evil from the Ku Klux Clan members who killed civil rights workers in the name of Jesus, to Northern Ireland’s history of religious violence. White supremacist Wade Michael Page’s massacre at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in 2012 was grown in Christian extremism. Meanwhile there are other Christian groups who foster hate today.

People who know and love God, have a desire to love all of God’s children. A living faith is one where we encounter God’s presence. We seek to live out a call to love God and others. We aim to never harm another person. United Methodist Bishop Ruben Job, who died January 3, wrote a book, called, “Three Simple Rules: A Wesleyan Way of Living.” in which he set out these rules; “Do no harm. Do Good and Stay in Love with God.” If all of us who claimed the name of Christ were to follow those simple rules, our world would be a better place.

I certainly claim no easy response to religious extremism of another faith tradition, but I do believe that people who experience the love of Christ through God’s people, are less inclined to act with violence. Jesus told us to let out lights shine. On a personal level, there are times when all we can do to combat evil in our world is to light our own candle against the darkness. But what a mighty light that is, when all of our candles are lit.