Monday, October 26, 2020

A Complex Word & a Simple Commandment


Matthew 22:34-46

Proper 25 / Year A

Confucius observed life is simple, but we insist on making it complicated.  Tax forms and outlet mall parking lots are just two examples.  It just seems we humans are wired to make life more challenging.  Social theorists have identified something they call a “complexity bias”, which is our tendency to focus on the 10% of a problem or situation that is difficult, while ignoring the 90% that is doable.  On their blog site. Marc and Angel Chernoff, authors and life coaches, identify twenty things many of us do to make our lives way more complicated than they need to be:

·    We try to do too much

·    We try to control too much

·    We lose our patience and our poise

·    We respond with negativity

·    We seek constant validation from others

·    We spend too much time with toxic people

·    We let the haters get to us

·    We feed into the drama

·    We worry constantly about our problems

·    We hold on to tight, to everything

·    We hesitate every step of the way

·    We focus on every time and place other than right here, right now

·    We try to cut corners

·    We avoid the tough and necessary conversations

·    We lose track of our priorities

·    We procrastinate

·    We have far more baggage than we need

·    We let old mistakes live on in our hearts and minds

·    We give up on ourselves too soon

·    We compare ourselves to others who seem better off

If more than a few of these seem to describe you, chances are good you are making your life more complicated than it needs to be.

To be sure, religion is not immune to complexity bias.  There are 613 different commands in the Law of Moses.  That is a lot.  The number of corollaries emerging from them over the years becomes astronomical and oppressive by Jesus’ day.  A website by Christian Assemblies International states there are 1,050 commandments in the New Testament (most are statements in the imperative) and breaks them down into 69 categories with headings like…

·    7 things to abstain from

·    7 things to avoid

·    3 things to ask for

·    2 things to awake to

·    74 “be’s”

·    30 “be not’s”

·    14 “beware’s”

·    3 things to cast away

·    6 things to honor

I could go on (and on and on and on), but you get the idea.  Just as with life, there is a pull to make religion more complicated than it needs to be.  It is so refreshing and freeing to hear Jesus distill all of it down to two basic commandments: Love God and Love your neighbor.  As one theologian observed, everything else in the bible after this is merely commentary. 

“Love the Lord your God with all you heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.”  What does this look like in practice?  Well, it certainly is not love as in a teenage crush.  It manifests itself through adoration, worship, honoring, and obeying.   “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  What does this look like in practice?  In part, it has something to do with valuing every person as much as you value yourself.  How do I want to be treated?  This is how I am to treat other people.  Want to I need from others?  This is what I am to offer.  How do I want my dignity to be affirmed?  This is how I am to respond to every person I know and every person I meet and every person who is influenced by my actions.

Wendall Berry, the poet and farmer, rephrased the Golden Rule in this way: “Treat the people downstream the way you want the people upstream to treat you.”  That is a wonderful image for want it means to love your neighbor as yourself.

I read an interesting article this week by Joan Cook on the subject of post-traumatic growth.  Cook is an associate professor of psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine and in the article she describes the realities making hyper-stress the normative experience in our society today: the pandemic, the coarse and corrosive political climate, natural disasters associated with climate change, and on and on.  Cook details the adverse affects these things can have both on individuals as well as our society as a whole, but notes “trauma can also positively transform people and leave them with a renewed, reinvigorated perspective on and purpose in life.”

Writing about a 1990 study of middle-aged adults going through bereavement, Cook says positive changes emanating from post-traumatic growth can include “improved relationships, more empathetic feelings and compassionate behaviors, additional coping strengths or mastery muscles, living more in line with one’s values and an increased connection to spirituality or God, as well as a deeper, sweeter appreciation of life.”

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we emerged from these strange times better for the experience.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we found a way to value simplicity rather than complexity; basic decency and goodness rather than vitriol; kindness and gentleness rather than violence; generosity and helpfulness rather than self-preservation and self-promotion; godliness and humility rather than arrogance.  I don’t know if it will happen or not, but one thing I do know is this: it can start with me and it can start with you.  It can start by each of us refocusing on what is the most important commandment of all: Love God and love your neighbor.