Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Peculiar Integrity

Something interesting happened at the restaurant the other day.

Five young men were seated at a table in my section, and as they walked in, I judgmentally perceived them as thugs. At most restaurants, you get all types of people, and right or wrong, you learn to quickly categorize them in order to interact appropriately.

These fellows wore very casual clothes; jeans, clean shirts, and a couple wore caps. As I walked over to the table to greet them, I got a closer look, and they were covered with recognizable tattoos. They were members of a Hispanic gang, whose name is not important for this essay.

I took their order, brought them their sodas, food, and eventually the check. The leader of the group, who was easily discernible, casually gave me a $100 bill, no change needed. They left, and as time went by, I began to ponder a few things.

First off, I had a sense of who and what they were from the moment we started to speak. There were no 'hard' looks, no cliché dialogues, no pretensions. Those kinds of affectations are common in movies and television, but entirely unnecessary for the real thing. These guys were instead very friendly and gracious, and even used my name respectfully while talking with me.

They were laughing and having a good time, no one was acting like a bad-ass... but I had the very palpable feeling that I would never, ever, want to cross them. Not that I would ever have a reason to do so, or that they would seek to force that kind of interaction; it's just that people who live with that level of intensity are not prone to pretending they're crazy or out of control. On the contrary; their daily lives eliminate the need to generate false demonstrations of machismo.

Secondly, I felt an odd sort of kinship with them, which puzzled me a great deal. I have no interest in drugs or drug culture. I have no interest in involving myself in illegal activity. The shared Hispanic lineage may have contributed to the feeling, but on a very low level, as my life growing up was very suburban.

I think what may have caused me to identify with them despite their method of making a living is that I could sense a strict adherence to a set of rules, a code of honor amongst themselves that not even death would make them violate.

Yes, it's true: I don't think it's wise for human beings to buy or sell substances that may do long term anatomical and behavioral damage. I certainly don't want my future children getting involved with drugs or gangs. The fallout from such lifestyles can sometimes include the injury or death of random uninvolved people. All that, yet it is hard to look at such a strong obedience to an oath of loyalty with a censorious eye.

The purpose of their allegiance may be ultimately destructive, yet the fact remains that they would rather die than break the rules or betray their fellow members. I doubt the same can be said of many people who claim to worship God and obey His commandments.

Some of the most honorable persons mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures were courageous souls who fought incredible odds in battle, always risking their lives. They killed many in the process, simply because a God (Who most back then didn't even believe in) told them to do so. Think about what that means... taking a human life is not an easy thing to do. How much more difficult would it be when an Entity you can't even see or understand is ordering you to do it.

Coming back to my experience at the restaurant, I am left with the following thoughts:

Is what these truly dangerous men do for a living considered moral? Perhaps not.

Do I wish to personally embrace their lifestyle? Not really.

Interacting with them was sort of like looking at a National Geographic episode devoted to lions in the wild. Do I want to risk my life trying to join the pride? No. Do I want to have them all caged? No. Do I respect them, despite their sometimes ruthless activity? Yes.

I admire their devotion to their unbreakable code of ethics.

What does integrity mean anymore in a world where so many willingly sell their souls for money or attention? At least these young men are not liars and cheats.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Forgiveness requires sincere remorse

Anyone reading my essays (all two or three of you) is familiar with my occasional references to God. Sometimes I write about concepts, sometimes things in my own life, and sometimes the world in general from my own exposure to actual text from the Bible.

In my 'real' life, while I am glad and happy to discuss matters concerning God and spirituality, I don't seek to push my ideas or theories on anyone. My policy is yes, I'd love to talk about it, but only if you want to do so. I am not an official 'representative' of God, so please remember: if you truly seek truth about God, you should always look in the Bible yourself. You may be surprised what you find if you search with sincere intentions.

That being said, I'd like to take a few moments to reflect on one of the classic problems people encounter when they're trying to reconcile the Bible with what they view as their own correct conscience. That problem being the question about who can be truly forgiven by God. For certainly, if you believe in the God chronicled in the Hebrew and Greek scriptures, you may be quite puzzled about all the arguing people do regarding who gets 'saved' and who does not.

First off, I will dutifully point out that no human being knows or can know the mind of God. This is supported by the writing of Isaiah: "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts."

Even still, there are those who will try to tell you that God wants this or that. All I can say to that is, if you don't find it on the printed page between Genesis chapter 1 and Revelation chapter 22, then you'd be wisest to just dismiss it as the undependable opinion of whomever is doing the 'teaching.' And that includes church elders or anyone else who is supposedly in a position of authority.

Secondly, there is much controversy in the Abrahamic faiths about what it takes to gain the good grace of God. Faith, works, faith, works, faith and works, etc. To please God, true intentions seem to matter a great deal. If you attend church and observe the rituals of your chosen religion, but still offend God by your behavior, and write it off with no genuine remorse... well, you're only fooling yourself. The God who gave you life and constantly sustains it every second of every day is not fooled at all. Ever.

King David wrote:
"O LORD, thou hast searched me, and known me. Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising, thou understandest my thought afar off. Thou compassest my path and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways. For there is not a word in my tongue, but, lo, O LORD, thou knowest it altogether."

David experienced this firsthand when God allowed David's child to die for David's theft of the wife of a loyal soldier. The soldier was a man named Uriah, and David sent him to the front lines to die on purpose, just so he could get busy with Bathsheba. Nothing escapes the eyes of God, and God does not give free rides to even his most favorite human beings.

Thirdly, what is one theme that seems to follow references to forgiveness?

Genuine repentance.

Since only God seems to truly understand the heart of every person, only God is qualified to judge anyone's true character. But the delusion of subjectivity is that it becomes very easy for many to talk themselves into the mercies promised by God by theories that make the most sense to them. Even many who will readily admit when they are wrong will still stubbornly think their sacrifice to God is more than sufficient.

Here is a short parable that was spoken by Jesus:
"And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted."

What could all that mean? Is God just a lover of irony over justice? I doubt it.

The only way to discern between the Pharisee and the publican in that parable, is to trust the ability of God to see what's really going on in their hearts. That aspect of human beings is hidden from other human beings. That's why we often do such a lousy job in our judgments of others. We usually see only the part of the picture that we want to see, good or bad.

Bottom line...

Who can be saved from the wrath of God when all of us commit sin on a daily basis?

Only those who are truly sorry for what they do, and seek to the best of their abilities to steer clear of the sins that make them guilty.

Anything less than that is just useless rationalization and worthless theory, because in the final analysis, God knows the truth of each of us, even when we lie to ourselves.

"For if a man think himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceiveth himself. But let every man prove his own work, and then shall he have rejoicing in himself alone, and not in another. For every man shall bear his own burden."

"Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap."