Upstaging the Ump

The difference between democracy and anarchy isn’t much nowadays. In a democracy the will of the people is decided by the ballot box. Anarchy, on the other hand, exists when it’s everyone for themselves resulting in mass confusion. Our society’s polarization exhibits democracy and anarchy simultaneously run amok. The line between them are so blurred that we don’t know how to act. We’re uncertain about what to tolerate anymore.

Did we see democracy or anarchy in the 2016 US presidential election? Donald Trump got around 26% of the vote, and Hillary Clinton got roughly 26% of the vote. As a matter of fact, she received more votes than Trump, but in our homage to state’s rights, each US state is delegated a certain number of electoral votes based on the latest census records. Though Clinton had more popular votes, she had less electoral votes. Donald Trump won, but both candidates combined got just 52% of the popular vote. Neither one came close individually to a 50+1 majority because 48% of those eligible to vote didn’t! Both candidates lost 74% of eligible voters.

Who would want to serve with 74% either against you or too ambivalent to vote? Someone this week said that the highest electoral turnout in the US is for county sheriff’s elections. It makes you wonder why that number is higher than the presidential one. Is it because of the old adage that “all politics is local?” We care who our sheriff is because of our individual personal safety or that of our loved ones. Is it about our property values and local quality of life? Is it because we have a personal investment in the outcome because we actually know the candidates?

It’s an interesting enigma, but we choose between democracy and anarchy every day. Is it my way or the highway of anarchy, or is it whatever is best for the common good of democracy? I certainly hope that I’m a kind of person who values the common good over personal desires. The foundation of civilization is an agreed upon set of values and a uniform adherence to those precepts. Unfortunately, we have rules interpreted in a way that’s all over the map. Left-coasters see things one way, and New England’s Down-Easters see it another way. The Midwest has another opinion. Southern Bible-belters espouse yet another set of virtues, and the South West another. Texas is big enough to have it all.

Here’s the problem as I think of American democracy on the edge of anarchy. We have lost touch with what our values are, both personal and national. We care about who our sheriff is because we’re so darn self-centered. We have snubbed our nose at both common sense and God. It used to be that everyone had the same curfew. Everybody in town knew what time it was, and every date got home on time. Not anymore. The Ten Commandments are 10 suggestions, not laws, and the Golden Rule has been changed to “Do it unto others before they do it unto you.” It is quite literally a sad state of affairs.

Here’s an example of what happens if we can all do our own thing and upstage the umpire. In Cuba they love baseball and they know the rules. However, not that long ago, Cuba’s former dictator, Fidel Castro came up to bat in an exhibition game against Venezuela. The game was held in the Cuban capitol of Havana. The Cuban dictator grabbed an aluminum bat and walked up to homeplate. Not to be outdone, the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, went to the pitcher’s mound. The first pitch from Chavez to Castro didn’t even reach the plate. Castro kept his bat on his shoulder. The next pitch went over the plate, and Castro swung and missed. In short order the two heads of state were locked in a 3-2 full count. The next pitch went across the plate straight down the middle and the umpire called Castro out.

“No,” Castro said. “That was a ball.” He walked to first base. No one argued. Chavez said nothing. The opposing team said nothing, and neither did Chavez or the umpire. Later Castro joked, “Today just wasn’t Chavez’s day.”

It’s hard to get the batter out when he or she has the power to overrule the umpire’s calls. That’s the way most of us have been behaving about a lot of things. Someday there’s going to be a payday when God’s Word will be final. No more upstaging the big Ump! What are our values? What’s right, and is anything wrong anymore? Jesus said in Matthew 7:13-14, “Broad is the way that leads to destruction and many enter it, but narrow is the way that leads to life, and only a few find it.” Is the ball fair or foul?


Scruples: Too Many or Not Enough

Scrupulosity is an interesting phenomenon. Some might call it perfectionism or a kind of obsessive-compulsive disorder. God bless those folks (I’m not one of them) who use up a bottle of hand-sanitizer every day. They have to physically or mentally touch base with all their possessions or routines ad infinitum in order to bring order out of their personal chaos. They are over-achievers who have high standards, and beg the question in our morally lax culture, “Is it possible to have too many scruples?”

“Scruple” is an old word, “a small piercing stone,” the kind that gets caught in your sandals as you make your way to the beach lugging all the chairs, towels, and suntan lotion for the family. It’s literally a pain to stop, put everything down and shake out the offending pebble. In ancient days people actually put scruples in their sandals as reminders, sort of a “to-do list” to keep them from forgetting something important. A person with scruples, therefore, is a person quite aware that there are things worth remembering, especially when it comes to morality. When I was a child we tied strings around our fingers to remember things. I don’t think we do much of anything to do it today. The absence of these reminders is dangerous, but there must be a balance between being over and under scrupulous.

Sometimes scrupulosity takes remembering your Mother’s admonitions to the max: “Don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t chew, and don’t hang around with those who do.” Being obsessive about scruples leads to a perfectionism that is not forgiving of others and even worse on oneself. It can also lead to the fate of the hyper-religious. Hyper-religious people can take sin so seriously that they become callous to all those sharp little stones and forget that there’s anything wrong. Over-sensitivity can led to insensitivity.

It’s like the Native American story of people’s conscience being shaped like a diamond in their chest. When they do something wrong the diamond turns, and it hurts. However, if they continue to do wrong things and the diamond perpetually turns, pretty soon the edges of our conscience have worn down and our wrong-doing doesn’t hurt anymore. Building a rock pile out of scruples can actually lead us into worse trouble. Those with an over-the-quota number of scruples have little or no tolerance for slackers or sinners. They have set the bar so impossibly high that they become judge and jury on the rest of the world.

Frankly, the swing back and forth between being judgmental or non-judgmental is cultural and religious quicksand. Not having enough scruples is just as dangerous as having too many.  It’s pretty weird that we spend so much of our time sanitizing our hands while we let our minds, bodies, and souls go to pot. Can’t we find a place somewhere between grace and judgment? My wife uses hand sanitizer religiously thanks in no small part to her beloved nurse grandmother and germ phobic mother, but then she kisses me! See the problem?

It strikes me that as a church and as individuals we aren’t sure what to do about scruples. We are either too holy and self-flagellate ourselves with a list of sins, or we preach prevenient grace a lot more than sanctifying grace and end up with a mushy goo of over acceptance of sin. Sure we believe that God draws us through pre venio grace, a grace that comes before we ever come to God, but some of us want to theologically and personally stay in this warm fuzzy place and never judge anyone or move toward real change. We’ve given up on transformation. There is no need for justifying grace. We have reduced sanctifying grace into little more than an extension of prevenient grace, except on steroids; i.e., “God loves everybody so let’s do it even more!” Wow, that’s 20th century United Methodism defined.

We missed the step in the three-fold Wesleyan stages of grace that calls for Jesus’ righteousness to supersede our own and entails repentance, humility, and a clinging to Jesus as our only savior. With our focus on prevenient grace we have called everything good as if that stage is our end all of the Christian faith. We have become so pre-loving due to prevenient grace that we forgotten that God has prejudged us and found us all wanting. We need to move beyond a shallow blind acceptance of the way things are, and we need some more sharp rocks in our sandals, standards in our hearts, and values in our society. We cannot keep on accepting things the way they are and sitting back as if this is the way God meant it to be. God wants better for us. God didn’t send Jesus to leave us the way that God found us, but to transform us for the transformation of the world.

21st century United Methodism is trying to find a way to the middle of grace and judgment. We must not clean the outside of the cup like the Pharisees and leave the heart as-is. We can’t make ourselves perfect no matter how many rocks we put in our shoes, but if we let Jesus rule our hearts then there’s a winning chance that by the sanctifying grace of God we might actually change.

Do you want things to stay the same old way every day in your life? I don’t think so, and neither do I. I also don’t want so many scruples that I become desensitized, callous, and careless in the way I live. Neither do I want to lose all my rocks, marbles, and moral compasses and end up lost forever. We cannot have it, whatever it is, both ways, but there has to be a middle way!

Hand sanitizer pic

The New Normal

I was walking on Saturday morning in my daughter’s neighborhood. There’s not a lot of space between the houses or townhomes so there’s not much yard for kids to use for recreation. Something caught my attention in the semi-darkness of dawn. There was a basketball goal in the driveway of a small home, and there’s not a flat driveway in the whole neighborhood. You should have seen how that goal post and net tilted like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
One thought as I walked by was about the need for a neighborhood playground or rec area. Another thought centered on some poor kid who winds up being a great basketball shooter in his own driveway on an off-kilter goal, only to be the worst shooter ever on a real basketball court because he’s spent too much time aiming at a target that’s off.
We set ourselves up for failure when we aim at the wrong targets. Our New Normal is off in our society. The normal for the kid with the lopsided basketball goal will not help his shooting when he gets on a real court with a level goal. It doesn’t do us any good either if we aim at wrong targets. We learn bad habits and think they’re okay or normal because that’s all we know.
My hope this week is not to yield to a New Normal but to the old but fresh standard of God: Scripture. If I don’t stay grounded in what God’s Word says then I end up yielding and conforming to the culture around me. I remember the days when I would walk out of a movie theater if certain words were used; now I hardly change the channel when the same words are on the TV. I’ve been conforming to the New Normal too much. I want to get back to God’s standard and stay there. That’s my goal this week.