Sunday, July 9, 2017

Murray Bowen on a Bicycle

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30


One of the biggest questions we can wrestle with as humans being is, “What is the good life?”  And like it, “How do I live a good life?”  In my work as a hospital chaplain I have the privilege of serving on our hospital’s Ethics Committee.  The opportunity to explore what is ethical in the context of medical care has given me a framework for exploring what is ethical in other contexts.

There are four ethical principles which inform us in our search for the good.  These four principles are:  autonomy (or the right to self-rule), beneficence (or bringing about a good outcome), non-maleficence (or minimizing harm), and justice (fair and equitable distribution of resources).  Ethical dilemmas arise when two or more of these principles are in tension. 

For example:  If a very wealthy patient comes into the hospital and demands to have a procedure done no matter the cost (the patient is willing to pay out of pocket in full), a procedure which the medical staff deems to come with little to no benefit and a high chance of causing significant harm or suffering, we have an ethical dilemma.  In this scenario, the patient autonomy – the right to decide what happens to their body – is at odds with the principles of both beneficence and non-maleficence.  Because the patient is willing and able to pay for any procedure, justice – as an ethical principle – is not at play in obviously significant way.

As an ethicist, if a consult is requested, I get to hear all sides of the debate and make a recommendation for a course of action that is most ethical.  The surgeon then gets to decide whether or not to follow the recommendations offered.

Much of what we hope to discover and create in the context of religious life and community is another path to answer the question, “What is the good life?” and like it, “How do I or we live a good life?”

In seeking the good life, we often create all kinds of rules about what is permissible and what is not permissible, by whom, and where, and when, and how.  And Jesus was born in to a culture that had a LOT of rules, which we sometimes call Commandments.  We all know the big ten, but there are also an additional 613 commandments found in the Torah – what we know as the first five books of the Old Testaments.  These are made of up of positive commandments (“You shall do x, y, and z”) and negative commandments (“You shall NOT do a, b, and c”). 

All in an attempt to codify living a good life – something which probably seems impossible to do 100% of the time.  We’re only human, after all.  We all make mistakes.

In Joseph Keller’s book, Catch-22, we see reality of impossible situations laid bare.  Set in World War II, on an island in the Atlantic, a group of Army airmen try desperately to get out of flying missions, knowing they will be placed on the most dangerous fronts.  And it is possible to get out of flying missions.  Airmen can be grounded if they are crazy.

There was, however, a catch.  Any man who claimed to be crazy and applied to be grounded demonstrated a rational concern for his safety and could not be deemed unfit to fly.  At the same time, any man who expressed the joyful anticipation of these missions – no matter how dangerous the mission and how crazy the man – was deemed fit to fly because they needed airmen willing to fly the missions.

It was this novel from which the phrase “Catch 22” sprang – a type of unsolvable logic problem.  In psychology, this is known as a double-bind; an emotionally distressing situation in which a person receives two or more conflicting messages, each of which nullifies the others, such that the person receiving the messages will be wrong no matter their response.

This is a dynamic clearly seen in our gospel lesson today. 

Listen, I was a Religious Studies major in undergrad; I went to seminary; I was a leader in an ultra-conservative, bible loving, Evangelical student ministry through college and seminary.  I have read the bible in several contexts at various times in its entirety over the course of studies and ministry.  So, it was with a bit of surprise that I read the scriptures for this week and found myself thinking, “No really, what’s the joke?  Jesus didn’t really say that.  I have absolutely no recollection of reading this passage before.”

“But to what will I compare this generation?  It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn’” (Matthew 11:16-17).

What?  Seriously, I found myself thinking, what does that even mean?  And how have I never read it before!?

I was puzzled by this for a week and as I tried to come up with something relevant to say to all of you today, I just kept coming back to it.  Children.  In the marketplace.  Playing flutes.  No one dancing.  Wailing.  No one mourning.  Something in me couldn’t make sense of it even within the context of the full reading for today.

And then, it struck me.  A double-bind.  A catch-22.  God forgive me the coarseness of the phrase, but I’m sure we’ve all heard it before:  Damned if you do; damned if you don’t.

“We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed for you, and you did not mourn.”  “John the Baptist came neither eating nor drinking, and they say ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man [i.e. Jesus] came eating and drinking , and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’”  Double-binds.

We do one thing, you call us possessed; we do the opposite thing you call us sinful.  Two conflicting messages, each of which nullifies the other, such that the person receiving the messages will be wrong no matter their response.

This, is perhaps, the most important thing we can learn in life:  When we live our lives, no matter how well intentioned, with the purpose of pleasing or satisfying those around us, we generally end up pleasing no one.  We often find ourselves in impossible situations, acting out of our understanding of someone else’s values, failing to live within our own values – often failing to even define our own values.

When we live according to someone else’s values, we often find ourselves caught between two impossible options.  And Jesus tells us there is perhaps a third way.

Because it was never about playing the flute and it was never about mourning.  It was never about fasting and it was never about eating and drinking.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

This strikes me a slight understatement of facts.  Jesus’s personal burden, after all, included crucifixion.   And yet, yokes are created with incredible specificity.  They are not one-size-fits-all.  Yokes, when fitted properly, distribute the weight of the load evenly across the musculature of the wearer and realizes the full potential of the individual to bear the load.  By contrast, a poorly fitted yoke will cause discomfort, open the wearer to potential injury, and limit the potential to bear a load.

I recently experienced this phenomenon myself when buying my first bicycle as an adult.  I found one I liked – the frame material, gearing, and handle bar style all fit what I wanted.  I gave it a test ride and told the salesman it just wasn’t the bike for me.  It wasn’t any fun to ride.  I knew that biking for the first time in 20 years was going to require some effort, and the test ride it was pleasant enough, but it was a lot of work to just scoot down a relatively flat bike path for a quarter mile and back to the shop.

“Let’s give the next size up a try,” the salesman told me.  “Just to make sure.”  I wasn’t sure how I was going to muster the energy for another test ride when the 5 minutes we’d just spent on the first bike had nearly killed me, but I decided to give it a go.

The next size up was a frame that was 2 centimeters larger.  Less than one inch.  Looking at the bikes side-by-side, it was impossible to tell any difference at all.  We jumped headed to the bike path, rode for a mile before he insisted we return to the bike shop.  I felt like I was doing no work whatsoever.  It was amazing.  And it was fun!

And that’s the difference between living according to someone else’s rules and living in accordance with your own values.

To be clear – I am not advocating for throwing out all the rules.  We still have to live with one another.  Basic respect for the dignity of our fellow humans in aspects of life is still a really good thing.  And because we as human beings were created for and must live within communities in order to survive and thrive, being aware, mindful of, and respecting others’ values is pretty important. 

Experts tell us that those who are best at differentiating their selves and their values from the cohesive mindset of group thought are successful only 70% of the time.  We are created for connection – and connection sometimes means watching an action movie on date night when you’d prefer the latest animated Disney film because compromise and a shared experience are more important than getting your own way (which might lead you to sitting in a theater, watching a movie alone).

“To what shall I compare this generation?” Jesus asked.  It pushes and pulls and makes impossible demands.  So, stop working yourselves to death to meet their impossible standards!  Stop.  Rest.  And wear the yoke of your own values – for that will lessen the burden of the load.

And my I suggest today that as we continue in our journeys to live good lives, may we always consider that which:

  • Respects the autonomy of individuals;
  • Seeks to produce a good outcome;
  • Limits the impact of any incidental harm; and
  • Furthers the justice in the fair distribution of God’s resources for all of God’s people

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