I love just after it rains. The hills in Laguna rebound immediately to a vivid green. The sun is so bright you can’t help but squint. The dust of the drought feels rinsed away and everything smells clean.
Except the ocean. In stark contrast to the gleaming landscape, the water is murky and brown. As inviting as today is to being outdoors, the sea holds up its hands and says stay out.
It isn’t just that it’s dirty. Its contaminated. The bacteria levels skyrocket after a rain. Surfers are warned to stay out of the water for 72 hours, especially when near drain pipes and river mouths.
As I stand at the outlook staring into the opaque water I can’t help but see it as a metaphor. 2016 was such a murky year. It felt impossible to make a good decision. Everything felt like damage control. News felt untrustworthy. Subjective interpretations felt unrestrained. Civil conversations would quickly degenerate into entrenched, unresolvable disputes.
It wasn’t just that the issues felt cloudy. The whole environment felt toxic and polluted. It was affecting my heart. I felt myself disengaging from those that disagreed with me. I couldn’t last in a political conversation for more than five minutes without accusing the other side of being obtuse at best, and moronic when I’d finally had enough.
Everything felt so polarized. It still does. Days later, you start to wonder if the water will ever clear.
And not just politically. The either/or dichotomy seems to find its way into every aspect of our lives. It isn’t just republican or democrat anymore. There is a conservative and progressive side to just about every discussion, be it spirituality and religion, vaccinations, eating habits, child rearing, healthcare, gender, education, you name it. Are you this or are you that? Pick a side. No one is known for what they’re for, but instead for the worst elements of what the other side is against. No one wins.
We are beginning a new year. This is the time for resolutions. For new goals, dreams, and ambitions to once again return with a freshness. We are given a blank slate or canvas. But this year I can’t do it. I can’t keep paddling through all this sewage. We need to clean this up.
But what do you do when you find all your options dissatisfying? What do you do when you find both sides equally cloudy and toxic? How do you take a step forward when it feels like there are no realistic options?
As a pastor, I’m particularly burdened by how complicit and intertwined my own evangelical faith has become with the systemic problems we face in America and the world. We have embraced power that stands in sharp contrast with our very essence of humility, gentleness and love. We have drunk deep from the power and ambition of the world and become intoxicated with it. We’ve lost our way. Both sides. Right and left. We’ve all lost our way.
James writes at the end of chapter 3 of his cautionary letter that “where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.”
How I long for this clean water! Wisdom from above is known by its texture and clarity. Integrity is not clinging to one isolated principle above all others. It is open to reason. It is known by its gentleness and mercy, by the taste of its fruit.
But if I’m honest, a quick look inward reveals the cloudiness of my own heart. So much of what I do merits praise and approval from others. How pure are my own motives? What would I do if they didn’t bring with them the privileges I enjoy? How willing am I to pray David’s prayer that God would search my heart and cleanse it? To go after the wickedness that lies deep in my own motives, that lurks in the shadows?
James says that pure religion begins by bridling the tongue. He follows it up by saying that it is followed by visiting widows and orphans and keeping oneself unstained by the world.
It makes me think of that statement attributed to St. Francis that we would “preach the gospel at all times and if necessary use words.” Today I believe that our words are doing more harm than good. The church needs instead to practice goodness in secret. We need to stop waving the triumphal banner of some exclusive right to eternal hope and start actually living in such a way that hope is the natural and contagious effect.
This year is the 500th birthday of the reformation. It feels like we’re due for another one.
We desperately need to get back to the center. To rediscover the heart of our faith. To rekindle that first love. At least I know that I do.
So here are my resolutions for this year.
I’m resolving to talk less and do more.
To remember that without love, the most eloquent words are noise.
To invest the gifts I’ve received in the lives of those in need.
To not waste emotional and spiritual energy entangling myself in disputes without end.
To instead allow my own soul to be open and laid bare before God that He would do his work of creating in me a clean and new heart.
And to place my hope in the reality that this isn’t the first time this has happened. That things can die and be reborn. That Jesus is still making all things new. For His way is the way of true hope.
May we, in 2017, have the confidence to “walk in love, as Christ loved us.” Amen.