Monday, January 22, 2018

Is Christianity One Long Nag?

            This past Thursday, at 4 a.m., I awoke with a start. I don’t know why, but it surprised me. I can count the number of times I have not slept through the night on the fingers of one hand.

            But there I was. Awake. So, I made myself a glass of warm milk. I drank it. I lay down on the couch. And soon enough, I was asleep again. Simple.

            The next morning, I drove Irene to the airport. On the way, she asked me why I thought I woke up in the middle of the night. I said, “I’m not sure. Maybe I’m worried: about finding people for the Art Show, about launching the Strategic Plan, and about this coming week’s annual staff-planning meeting.” And, as I said this, I also grumbled about the traffic, because it was very slow at the 401/409 interchange. “Darn it,” I said, “Darn it.” And that’s putting it lightly.

            So, Irene said, “Don’t be so uptight. Relax. Just relax.” I mentioned that I had a sermon to write, too, so I had a double right to be irritated by how traffic was eating into my day. “Darn,” I said, again. “Darn.”

            “Stop it.” Said Irene. “I mean it. Don’t be so uptight. You’ll sleep better.”

            Irene was nagging me. So, I was irritated. I said, “Irene, how about a bit of empathy, please? Dear? I mean, you can’t turn irritation off and on just like that. I need time, sympathy, empathy to get over it. So, stop nagging me!”

            And, like the angel she is, she did. She stopped nagging me.

            But oh, how I hate being nagged. We all hate being nagged. Which is why, when later in the day, while reading the Sermon on the Mount, I felt like pulling my hair out. It just never stops.

·      Blessed are the meek. (That is, maybe, be a pushover.)
·      Blessed are the pure in heart. (Be a saint.)
·      Blessed are those who mourn. (Make sadness a habit.)  
·      Be light.
·      Be salt.
·      Don’t be angry. (Well, that is impossible.)
·      Don’t look at another person lustfully.
·      Turn the other cheek.
·      Do not worry.
·      Give the coat off of your back.
·      Pray. Forgive. Seek first the kingdom.
·      Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.

           The Sermon on the Mount just never seems to stop. Nag, nag, nag. Divine nagging. 

           Oh, and I know that there are ways to read the Sermon that try to reframe it as encouragement, or a response of gratitude, or as aspirational rather than law, or as counter-cultural and subversive, or as comfort—at least when it comes to worry. But, let’s face it. It sounds like nagging. Add to the Sermon on the Mount every other New Testament suggestion about best behavior and it is easy to be overwhelmed. Theologians can talk all they want about how Protestants are not into works righteousness (good), but the truth is we are into works nagging. On and on.

            And actually, one of the biggest challenges I face, as a preacher, is avoiding this sort of nagging in the pulpit. I mean, who wants to come to church to be nagged every week? Here’s ten rules for a happy marriage, five guidelines for being a Christ-like man, and three rules for raising children. Seek social justice. Crush racism. Reconcile with First Nations peoples. Embrace the LGBT cause. Ask your friends to church. Greet visitors. Give money. Volunteer time. Pray! Repent! Relax! But whatever you do, be good, do it right, do it now!

            Is this what church is all about? Nag, nag, holy nag? It doesn’t make for much fun on Sunday. What’s the solution? Is there an antidote for dealing with all that holy nagging?

            Well, in the hope of offering some constructive thoughts about dealing with nagging, I have come up with ten ideas. Maybe one will speak to you.

            1. Celebrate. Instead of feeling bad every time you do not respond to an otherwise justified nag, celebrate your successes. Did you shovel snow for your neighbour? Hold your tongue with a naughty child? Sign up for a monthly cash donation to the Food Bank? Well, celebrate! Have a cigar or a cup of licorice tea. Unless we learn to associate doing good with celebration, it will always feel like a chore.
            2. Grace. We’re Christians. We claim to live by grace, which means when we have nothing to celebrate, we count on the divine to forgive us as we forgive others, even when we don’t deserve it, and may have asked for a nag. So relax, and live in that grace.
            3. Exercise. I walk the dog for an hour every day. It isn’t always fun, but it does keep my blood pressure down and my muscles mostly spry. We can exercise our spirits too, by making a habit of doing daily good, instead of merely doing occasional random acts of kindness. The more we exercise our good, the more likely our good will be strong, and the less likely we’ll need to be nagged.
            4. Adventure. Remember, life should be an adventure. So, do good for the thrill of it—for the hope you give people you will meet along the way, for the healing and happiness you will see in them, for the political and business cultures you can change, for the surprises that will overtake you when you when others notice your good. Doing good should be an adventure, a refusal to sit on your laurels and an insistence on making someone’s day, instead. You see, no one on an adventure needs to be nagged to press on to the goal.
            5. Community. Be part of one. When your energy for good flags, in communities there is always someone to pick up the slack. When you fail, there is always someone to embrace you anyway. Communities live in grace together and get it done together, so that it doesn’t all depend on you.
            6. Compromise. The evil at the root of nearly all nagging is the presumption that everyone else has to do it your way; or, that you have to do it the way everyone else does it. Nagging is absolute, for all time, legalistic, black and white with respect to what is good, and as dangerous as the hard edge of a granite counter top is for little kids.  I say, “Forget all that.” Offer and accept compromises. Meet people half-way. Compromise isn’t failure—it is a way of moving ahead at a different speed.
            7. Be Picky. My wife, Irene, learned early on in her career that if she offered every kind of counselling, her potential clients would view her as a jack-of-all-trades who was an expert at none. And potential clients wouldn’t pick up the phone to check her out. So, Irene became picky. She focused on couples’ therapy, and nothing else. She became an expert. Her focused advertising brought in lots of leads, and her business flourished. When it comes to her counselling, or any other good, people are less likely to nag experts. So, do good, but be picky about the good you focus on. That’s okay.
            8. Love Yourself. We’re supposed to love our neighbours as we love ourselves. So, doing good for our neighbours requires that we exercise supreme kindness towards ourselves, first; that we love ourselves. Generous self-love is an antidote for the feelings of low self-esteem and defeat that constant nagging invite.
            9. Fertilize. In ancient Israel, salt was a fertilizer for that region’s alkaline soils—as it still is in that part of the world today. To be the salt of the world is to help people grow, to help them become fully human. Grow people by blessing them, fertilizing them, with thanks and congratulations.
            Nagging, by way of contrast, is a poison that brings people down while rarely convincing them that they do need to change their ways. So, whether you are the boss at work, a mom or dad, a teacher or a card player—grow the people you’re with. Build them up. Don’t nag.

            That’s it. Just nine random thoughts, after all. Maybe someone else can come up with a tenth!