“The Unholy Trinity”
I was visiting family in Ohio a couple of weeks ago. Every summer, we have a sort of family reunion. I think my mother plans these so I get at least an annual dose of pigs and cows. Sometimes, I also get a healthy heap of freshly picked black raspberries or tomatoes. This year, Owen and I made an extra stop at the church camp I went to every summer of my childhood. All in all, it was good to be home. Sadly, one of our most eagerly anticipated family members decided not to come.
I thought to myself as I was driving back to DC, “Why is it that we tend to hurt the ones we love the most?” One of my uncles, now an honorably retired Presbyterian pastor but always the practical theologian, offered this theory. We hurt the ones we love the most because we know that they’ll always be there for us. In otherwise healthy family situations and those other systems that aren’t brought down by drugs or alcohol, mental health crises or abuse, we hurt the ones we love the most because it’s safe. Your mother will remain your mother, even if you tell her that you hate her. Your close friend will probably remain your close friend even if you skew a shared business transaction in your own favor. Your wife will most likely remain your wife even if you embark in a law-breaking scandal (well, unless you’re Bernie Madoff, and we all know where that landed). I will still be your pastor, even if you tell me that you’d rather I not stop by for a visit. And, as we’ve heard affirmed by the prophet Hosea, God will still be our God even after we hurt God in all of the ways that we try.
Our gospel lesson leads us toward another elemental reason for why we so often hurt the ones we love. We often hurt the ones we love because we are, quite simply, self-centered. Self-centeredness is what motivated the man in the crowd to ask Jesus to break away and become his family’s private judge and arbitrator. Self-centeredness is at the core of Jesus’ response as he shares the parable of the rich man. – That rich man who had the terribly distorted perspective that he controlled his own fate, thinking to himself, what should I do with my crops and my goods and my soul and my years ahead. Self-centeredness was what informed the rich man that he was not dependent upon God. Self-centeredness was what precluded him from understanding God’s intention for each of us to live in mutuality with others.
Each of us can recognize this in ourselves. Really, I’d be hard pressed to believe that you can’t think of at least one situation or occasion when you believed that you were the center of your universe. Who isn’t able to recall a time when she made a decision – a hasty decisions or maybe even one that took a year to make – without ever consulting God? Who hasn’t taken credit for something good or maybe the blame for something bad, as if you had ultimate control over how it ended? How many times have you tried to get back to sleep by your version of counting sheep rather than resting your cares on God?
These private rejections of God are often a leading indicator of our attitude toward members of our families and circles of friends, immediate community and even broader, governing or ecclesial systems. The inverse is also true. These subtle rejections of God or others suggest how in any of our relationships, we can default to a “go it alone” way of living like the Lone Ranger that we might otherwise identify as a mark of our independent spirits or capable minds. Now, that said, there are times when we might indulge in a little give and take with those we love, lobbing out an idea and snatching the response. Of course, we’re not really internalizing what’s been offered nor reflecting on what it might mean for us next.
Our self-centeredness is finding a home in what is becoming a rather transaction-based society in which it seems we have little incentive to wholly invest of ourselves. I’m coming to believe that it’s an unforeseen result of our computer-based reality when hitting send or reply on an email chain doesn’t really require a response. Our faceless, voiceless computers make it easy to engage in this level of relationship, since we can walk away or shut down the box if we don’t really think we need to see what comes back or if receiving someone’s response becomes less of a pressing priority. Now, don’t get me wrong. I love computers. SKYPE and emailed pictures are a primary way for Owen’s family to watch him grow up. But I am concerned that our computer-based requirement to engage in transaction-like responses can infect our way of looking at the world, corrupt our perception about how we might best share our lives with God and one another, and can reinforce our often-inflated sense of self.
Michael, whose spot is on Pennsylvania Avenue, gave me a lesson in the relational side effects of our transaction-based, self-centered way of living that might seem at first blush like a lesson in simple semantics. I came upon Michael sitting in his usual place. I stopped to talk with him – as you would’ve, too. I asked what I could get from Trader Joe’s to give him for supper. His response was animated enough to stop people walking on the street behind us. He didn’t want me to get him anything to give him. He wanted me to share something with him. He immediately went on to tell me the difference between giving and sharing. Sharing, he said, has a layer of ourselves on top. When we share, it means we care. Giving means we’re just handing something over. Wow. Just handing something over. It was a quick lesson of how self-centeredness might lie beneath what I want to believe is my generosity in friendship.
Michael reminded me how our words communicate our intentions toward others in ways we don’t even realize. David Brooks, the NY Times columnist who is clearly no Maureen Dowd, wrote a piece on relational word studies performed on the new Google database called NGram. In case you’re not familiar, NGram is a database of over 5mm books published between 1500 and 2008. You can search on specific words to find out how frequently they were used in different periods. For instance, I quickly typed in “faith” from 1999-2000 to see what I would get. The number of all books published between 1999 and 2000 in which the word “faith” was included was flat at .007% (commentary in itself). Then I changed the time period to span from 1600 – 2008. As you would expect simply from the kinds of books that used to be written – bibles, books of sermons, devotional prayer books and the like, the frequency of use of the word “faith” was strongly skewed toward the earliest years.
Anyway, the Brooks article referenced three studies done on words found in books published from 1960 to 2008 – the last 48 years of the database. The first study he used found that “individualistic words and phrases increasingly overshadowed communal words and phrases.” Over the 48 years, words and phrases like “personalized,” “self,” “standout,” “unique,” “I come first” and “I can do it myself” were used more frequently. Words and phrases like “community,” “collective,” “tribe,” “share,” “united,” “band together” and “common good” were used increasingly less often.” 1
Brooks then considered another study that showed a decline in the use of general moral terms like “virtue,” “decency” and “conscience.” Words associated with moral excellence (– words) like “honesty,” “patience” and “compassion” were (also) used much less frequently.” Interestingly, and to a conversation Linda Greensfelder and I had recently, the use “of gratitude words like “thankfulness” and “appreciation” dropped by 49 percent. (Also, t)he use of humility words like “modesty” and “humbleness” dropped by 52 percent. The use of compassion words like “kindness” and “helpfulness” dropped by 56 percent. Meanwhile, the use of words associated with the ability to deliver, like “discipline” and “dependability” rose over the years, as did the use of words associated with fairness and economic production and exchange.2
Now, the third study Brooks referenced was on the idea of demoralization. This study found a steady decline of the use of terms “like “faith,” “wisdom,” “ought,” “evil” and “prudence,” and a sharp rise in what you might call social science terms like “subjectivity,” “normative,” “psychology” and “information.’” Phrases like “run the country,” “economic justice,” “nationalism,” “priorities,” “right-wing” and “left-wing” showed a steady rise. The implication is that political and governmental ideals are prevailing over faith-based concepts. The studies direct us to conclude that over the last half-century, society has become more individualistic, more politically minded, less compassionate and caring, less faith-centric and less communally motivated.
You don’t even have to go as far as multivariate research from a popular search engine to know this to be true. Just listen in on some hallway conversations to hear how first person pronouns have slipped into place before second and third person pronouns: Me and her, Me and you, Me and him. You’ll hear this coming out of our most well-educated kids and their parents as often as on poorly written sit-coms, reality tv and even our morning news programs. This careless, improper ordering of pronouns not only drives me nuts, it punctuates the point that in our culture today, we have a base preoccupation with “me” over someone else. Our transaction-like interactions, our prioritization of individualistic words over communal ones, our disorder in pronoun choices illustrate our society’s increasing self-centeredness and the pervasive sense of privilege for “me” over anyone else, even God.
The church has a role to play in affirming the role of community – Godly community – in the world. You and I bear a responsibility to redress the egocentrism, or the real, i-based mentality that is so prevalent in society today. While it’s hard to reverse, like my favorite NYNEX commercial from the 80s, “Enough about me, what do you think about me?” maybe our corrective can begin with a few carefully placed grammar lessons. Or maybe it begins with an internalization of the lesson in relationships our friend on Pennsylvania Avenue shared through his exposition on share and give. Or maybe it begins with a simple prayer asking God to break into our Unholy Trinity of Me, Myself and I and draw us back into an up-righted sense of self in relationship with others – especially with God.
In the first few verses of the lesson from the prophet, Hosea shows the coming and going relationship of Israel’s life with God. God shows compassion in spite of Israel’s repeated transgressions, in spite of Israel’s constant turning away from God toward those things that would bring them only temporal comfort. In the next few verses, Hosea reminds us of how often Israel turned away; how often the children of God turned their backs on their God, leaning on false gods and attempting to store confidence in people and places and things that were not on God. Hosea uses the metaphor of parent and child – imagery of the loving parent toward his wayward sons – to communicate the ideal love that God continued to feel for Israel. God would not let go of God’s children in spite of the pain that the Israelites inflicted upon this parent of theirs. In God’s ongoing conversation with the prodigal and faithless people of Israel, God is revealed to be compassionate and tender, with a full and heavy heart toward God’s children, crying out in anguish. When the people hear God’s cry, they return, their transgressions in full light but behind them as they come into a new wholeness at home in their land with their God.
When we deliberately hurt the ones we love, God cries out. When whole nations hurt whole nations, God cries out. When we undermine peers to get a favored position, God cries out. When we grandstand about our accomplishments, God cries out. When we second-guess the bounty that befalls a neighbor, or brother or friend, God cries out. Whenever we say or do hurtful things toward even those we love the most, God cries out because in hurting others, we are in effect hurting God.
But it’s also true that anytime we turned our backs on our God and one another, leaning instead on the unholy trinity of me, myself and I, God will not let go. Like all of Jesus’ parables, our gospel reading doesn’t offer us a new law or a quantifiable definition of how to correct our self-centeredness. But, as it often does, the text prods our imaginations so that we continue to listen for God’s call for how we can return the faithfulness that God has so bountifully given to us. In spite of our pervasive choice to let go of God and those around us, the good news from the prophet Hosea and from Jesus, himself, is that God (and those we love the most who love us so much, too) are so faithful that they recognize that we are essentially good, loving us back into a new wholeness at home and with our God.
Thanks be to God. Amen.