October 4, 2009
"Be Not Too Hard" by David Lloyd
Be not too hard for life is short and nothing is given to man.
Be not too hard when he’s sold or bought for he must manage the best he can.
Be not too hard when he blindly dies fighting for things he does not own
And be not too hard when he tells lies or when his heart is sometimes like a stone.
Be not too hard for soon he’ll die, often no wiser than he began.
Be not too hard for life is short and nothing is given to man.
And nothing is given to man.
I first heard that song by Christopher Logue & Donovan on an album by Joan Baez, back around 1970. Over the years it has stayed in my head, and although I hadn’t played it again until recently, I found that I had remembered it accurately.
I carry a lot of songs in my head. I’m sure I’m not alone. Doesn’t each of you have at least one song that you can’t quite forget? Maybe your song represents a memory of a special time or place or memories of a special person, or some combination of these. Maybe it’s even a song that reminds you of a lost love. When I was a boy my father occasionally sang "I Dream of Jeannie with the Dark Brown Hair," and each time my mother would give him an odd look, and it wasn’t until decades later that I learned his last girlfriend before he met my mother was named Jeannie.
Or your song might remind you of a void in your life. When I sing Judy Collins song, "Song for My Father," it’s not just about her father, but about my own relationship with mine, including the parts of the relationship we didn’t have, and can never have…unless we meet in heaven. Or maybe your song represents something you believe in deeply, so deeply that in some way you know your life has been about the words of that song. Either they are words you believe in, or they are words you have struggled against.
"Be Not Too Hard" doesn’t recall a memory of any particular time or place or person. So I see three possible interpretations for its persistence in my memory. (1) Maybe it’s reverse psychology -a message from my subconscious telling me that I haven’t been critical enough of others, not hard enough on them when they make excuses for their behavior, rationalizations that they should be ashamed of. To think that I’m not hard enough on others is an interpretation I’d like, but deep down in my heart I know that’s not right. Those of you of you who know me well are shaking your heads, you know that I’ve been way too critical of some of you and of Seekers Church as an entity over our life together. (2) Maybe my subconscious is telling me that I have been far too critical of others. No, that can’t be it, can it? You are already nodding your heads before I even get to the third possible interpretation! (3) The third possibility is that my subconscious is saying: You, David, are the man in the song." ME? I’m the one who is sold or bought as I try to manage the best I can, who fights for things I don’t own, who tells lies, whose heart is sometimes like a stone, who will die not wiser than I began? ME? The one who comes up with weak excuses, lazy rationalizations for my behavior? Yes, I know that this is also a true message from my subconscious. I can’t forget the song because it has two truths for me – I’ve been far too critical of others, and far too easy on myself.
Our commitment statements don’t have too much to say about being too hard on others or about being too easy on ourselves. Our commitment statements say only that we commit "to work for the ending of all war, personal and public…" We can work together as citizens and voters and with our Seekers budget to end all public war. But how do we end private war? At first I couldn’t think of how to get a handle on it. Then I reread the prayer of dedication and commitment we have been using, a prayer derived from the commitment statements, says, "to work to end all war, and violence, and discord." Well, I can end my own and others’ use of violence, and I can do a lot to end discord.
What is discord? It’s more than just disagreement – people disagree, even identical twins, because no one thinks exactly the same way as another person. I think discord is disharmony that leaves people estranged, unbound from the common links to each other. Stating a view, voicing an opinion in a way that leaves no room for any disagreement, implying that everyone thinks as the speaker does, or if they don’t, that something is wrong with them and they should get with the program and change their view, that kind of speech creates discord. It has the same effect as frequent or strident criticism. Both leave wounds, create estrangement, and unbind us from the ties of love Christians are always engaged in weaving. I encounter this kind of criticism and this kind of speech that creates discord a lot in my work, from those outside the military community who insist that the Defense Department adopt practices that work in the civilian sector, but which don’t work very well in the military environment.
I have to confess that far too often I engage in creating discord myself. In addition to being a world champion critic, I’ve become quite good at proclaiming the "Word of David" over the years and at the same time I am not exactly a shrinking violet when it comes to disagreeing with something someone else said, whether they proclaimed it or merely stated it. I find that at age 61 I am still learning how to become open minded and to converse civilly. I am not alone. Apparently parents and teachers stopped teaching these skills some time ago, as the hectoring on our talk radio and TV news and opinion shows, the recent Town Halls, and the most recent presidential address to the Congress have shown. To his credit, President Obama repeatedly has stated in various ways that reasonable people can disagree about public policy; to our nation’s shame, in addition to reasonable people disagreeing about public policy, unreasonable people on both the conservative and liberal sides disagree about it, too, proclaim that their view is indisputable truth and closing their ears and their hearts.
It would be bad enough if I was the only one creating discord here at Seekers, but unfortunately, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, I am not alone. Some of you have engaged in creating discord, too, with criticism, or by directly or indirectly proclaiming your views as indisputable. I remember being called out for having shopped at the Wal-Mart in my home town, although in that location, at least, Wal-Mart has done some good. I have heard more than one person announce that of course everyone should become a vegetarian in a way that left no room for exceptions, including those who live in places around the world in climates far less hospitable to horticulture. Some of you have made it crystal clear that consumption of beef is bad for everyone without exception and for the planet, apparently ranking right down there with the love of money as the root of all evil, and I thought of my dear African students in my Peace Corps days whose whole culture was based on raising the cattle that their supreme god had given them when the world began. Apparently they must abandon the practices that give them their identity in the world. A year or so ago there were Stewards who seemed taken aback by the reality that not every Steward wanted to approve the hanging of a banner that condemned torture.
Maybe you feel justified in proclaiming your opinion as if it were undisputed truth. After hearing the Gospel this week you may think, hey, Jesus was pretty critical, declaiming his indisputable truth in this passage. And we’re supposed to be followers of Jesus, so it’s OK for us to be critical, to be the accusers of the unjust. Well, the crowd – some ancient texts say the Pharisees – was testing him, trying to make him commit blasphemy by contradicting Moses’ teaching, the Torah. But Jesus gives it back to them – divorce is lawful, there is no contradiction with the Torah, but the larger truth is that in this instance the Torah is contradicting God’s plan. I don’t think it was Jesus’ purpose to sow discord. I think it was theirs.
Too much criticism and too much declaiming opinion as indisputable truth destroy community, both in secular society and in the church. There is a time and place for Christians to criticize unjust social practices. And I believe there are some indisputable truths. For Christians, the primary indisputable truths we should be proclaiming are that God has loved all of creation so much that God’s only Son, Jesus, our Lord, was given to us, so that for those who follow his way, even to the cross, life everlasting is given. That God keeps reaching out to us. That the Holy Spirit sustains us. These are not truths to sow discord, but invitational truths, inviting discussion about the implications for us as individuals, as a congregation, as part of the eternal Body of Christ.
Confession is good for the soul and I am glad our Sunday worship includes it. I am pretty sure it’s good for my soul. There are many, many things I am silently confessing every week along with the occasional things I say aloud. Every week I confess my anger at some wound unintentionally inflicted on me by some critical comment or someone’s indisputable truth and all too frequently I have to silently confess that I lashed back with wounding words out of my hurt feelings. The more seriously I take confession, the more I recognize in myself the thing that prompted my anger, the less tempted I am to lash back or to proclaim the "Word of David."
I am glad our confessional prayer is followed by words of absolution. But I really miss saying the Lord’s Prayer in worship. I don’t have anything against our ending our prayer time by saying the unison prayer of dedication and commitment, especially this one that is derived from our commitment statement. But I miss praying "forgive us our trespasses" – to my mind asking for forgiveness of my sins comes after confessing them – and I especially miss the accompanying reminder, "as we forgive those who trespass against us," because somehow I never learned the lessons about how to forgive others very well. I know Celebration Circle has reasons for not including the Lord’s Prayer in our worship regularly, but I miss it. It was a great joy for me two weeks ago to be led in it by some of you.
As I said, in my recommit this year, I am focusing on ending discord, using this song as a reminder. Is the other part of the song true, that nothing is given to man, to woman? I know that much has been given to me. In my rich life, I have made choices and decisions, but the context in which those were made was a context given to me. I did not choose the family that shaped me. I thought I chose Sharon – she has always insisted she chose me – and while I hoped to be a father, it was a biological gift and I had no way of knowing that the decisions I made for our girls would produce the gifts they are to me. I chose to enter the Peace Corps, but winding up in Dembi Dollo, Ethiopia was a gift. I chose to enlist in the Army, but it was a gift that I would be assigned in Alexandria instead of in Viet Nam. I chose to devote my career to improving the lives of children, but I have received the gifts of workplaces where I learned so much and had opportunities to learn from professional colleagues around the country. Sharon and I chose to attend the Church of the Saviour, but it was my mother who had read the article by Catherine Marshall and suggested it. Most recently, in our study of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic, Life Together, I read that "it is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to live in visible fellowship with other Christians."
I suspect that you know that much has been given to you, too. It is simply untrue that nothing is given to man, to woman; the truth is that Christians know that much has been given to us. We have the gift of Christ in our lives, a gift that passes all understanding.
So I come from a place of gratitude as I recommit to this local expression of the Body of Christ, for much has been given to me, to you, to us. In a few minutes we will gather together and share the bread and the cup. As we do so, I hope that we will remember that it is not true that nothing is given to man, to woman, that the bread and the cup come from Christ, given to us in forgiveness of our sins. I hope that we will look at each other and remember to seek forgiveness from each other, and offer forgiveness to each other, to leave room for each other’s views, to be civil and loving. And I hope that we be not too hard on each other, for life is short.