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Making the Holidays Meaningful - Micah, Desmond Tutu, and My Friend Jim

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I have a guest blogger this week - the following is excerpted from a sermon by my friend, co-author, and co-conspirator, Rev. Jim Beebe Rector of St. Patrick's Episcopal Church in Incline Village, Nevada. He was preaching on a reading from Micah, but the message of the sermon is one that, taken to heart, can make the holiday season and the coming year more meaningful for all of us.

Over the years I've heard a lot of sermons. And one of the things that drives me crazy about them is how they belabor the obvious. Preachers start with ideas like faith, hope or love. They define them and give examples of them. They will poorly state that faith is better than doubt, that hope is better than despair, that love is better than hate.

Then, right at the end, with a seriousness that is as earnest as it is shallow, the preacher will say, "And therefore, brothers and sisters, have faith" or, "In sum, then, beloved, maintain hope" or, "Consequently, my friends, we should love one another."

It's like if the preacher says it, it's assumed we'll do it. It's the same mistake Plato made when he assumed that to know the good is to do the good. Please.

This week's reading from the prophet Micah (5:2-4) is misleading because it's taken out of context. The prophet gives us hope that Someone will come along to right the wrongs of the world. But that's not all he says. He vacillates between love and hope, on the one hand, and fury and vindictiveness on the other. Want to know how this chapter from Micah ends? Well, it revels in the destructions of Israel's enemies:

'In that day,' says the Lord, 'I will cut off your horses from among you and will destroy your chariots; and I will cut off the cities of your land and throw down all your strongholds; and in anger and wrath I will execute vengeance on the nations that did not obey.

It's like that throughout the book of Micah - one minute his heart is filled with hope and forgiveness and the next, well, he's out after blood. But this is the very reason I like this book - it tells the truth about how we experience suffering in this life. It's never a simple matter of experiencing the pain, then forgiving those who trespass against us.

It's more like we bounce back and forth - at this moment, our hearts are full of compassion and hoping, at the same time, they get their just desserts. The spiritual reality of forgiveness as it's actually lived out is that it takes a lot of time. And sometimes we need to go back over that same ground and live it out again. In his book, No Future Without Forgiveness, Desmond Tutu tells the stunning story of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. His assignment? To help a land ravished by apartheid heal the wounds of racism and oppression.

Taking the simple idea at the core of his faith - forgiveness - Tutu led a brutalized nation in an unprecedented exercise in truth-telling. If we had to do this in the United States, we'd just declare a National Day of Forgiveness, at the end of which some preacher would get up in front of us and say, "And therefore, brothers and sisters, we should forgive each other." Not so in South Africa. Tutu patiently led the nation back to where it needed to go.

The testimony from the more than 20,000 victims was overwhelming. Stories of police fixing supper as the bodies of their victims burned nearby. Of "disappearings." Of unspeakable - but now spoken - tortures. The hearings revealed that the South African Defense Force, the special security arm of Botha's government, was responsible in one way or another for one and a half million deaths, four million refugees, and the economic destruction of the equivalent of $60 billion U.S. dollars.

Tutu and his commissioners created a process where such stories of suffering could be told and where people who had committed such atrocities could come forth and take responsibility for what they had done. And they could receive amnesty as long as they told the truth. In essence, they created a new reality, an environment of shared ministry in which all of a nation's people - victims, oppressors, and bystanders - could work together to heal.

This is not to say, of course, that South Africa is a healed nation. Far from it. But the work has been started because one man was not afraid of the truth. One man was willing to do the hard work of reconciliation and not just blow it off with some facile remark about how we ought to forgive each other. It is that shallowness which is leading to the exodus from mainstream churches these days.

So I'm not going to stand before you and wind up this homily with, "And therefore, brothers and sisters, we ought to forgive one another." What I will say, instead, are these three things:

1. First, the simple thing. We can all do some preventive medicine so that we don't create a situation where others have to forgive us. Deep in our reptilian brain we have something called the amygdala. Its evolutionary purpose is to warn us of threats. It works really, really well.

That's why fear-mongering politicians are so effective. At any rate, when that little sucker kicks in, there's an eight-second burst of chemicals in your brain that demand fight, flight, freeze, or appease. Those urges are nearly irresistible. Nearly. Count to eight and the possibility of holding your tongue goes up exponentially.

2. Second, when you read the Bible, read the whole Bible, not just your favorite parts. Read the ugly parts, the difficult parts, the disturbing parts. Allow your minds to experience the rage of the authors as well as their gentleness.

3. And finally, do the work of forgiveness and don't just say the words. Forgiveness is a journey in which rage, as well as kindness, are frequent friends. Take the time. Be honest. And don't expect your "final answer" to be nearly so final.

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