Sermon: Tamed Greenery and Smooth Streets

07.24.2016     Preaching Text: “See that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.” (Colossians 2:8)

One of my umpteen theories of life has to do with growing up. Here I’ve used the dialectical method which starts at thesis, moves to anti-thesis, and ends with synthesis. This, for me, roughly mirrors the stages most of us go through as we move from childhood to adolescence to maturity.

In childhood, we naturally tend to adopt our family’s ways of seeing and interpreting the world. One doesn’t need to investigate the habits and mindset of children too deeply to notice the way they eagerly imitate their parents’ behaviors.

Of course, sooner or later, they reach adolescence, and things change. I’m reminded of Mark Twain’s famous quip: “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”

It’s almost as if adolescents make a point of consciously rejecting everything their parents (and other adults) have taught them. As Twain’s quote illustrates, adults know little if anything at all. Why then would anyone listen to them about the ways of the world?

Hopefully, and I use the word advisedly, we grow out of adolescence by claiming the new insights we have gleaned from our independent self-exploration while integrating these with the tried and true verities born of family, church, and community.

Healthy adults, in other words, aren’t mere clones of their parents but an integration or “synthesis” of new experiences and older timeless ones.

To this point I recently came across an article in the Washington Post with a heading that read, “I rejected by parents’ WASP values. Now I see we need them more than ever.”

It was written by Pamela Constable, who is roughly my age and in fact grew up in my hometown in CT. She is on the Post’s foreign news staff and is based in Delhi and Kabul, regularly reporting on Afghanistan and other trouble spots overseas.

She describes her WASP parents and the people she grew up around as “gracious to everyone, self-reliant and discreet…There was no need to raise one’s voice or belittle those less fortunate…”

Her mother’s philosophy was, “If you can’t find something nice to say about someone, don’t say anything.” She says she never heard her parents argue, ever.

Describing her childhood as a “cocoon of tennis and piano lessons,” she then reached her teens, right around the time of the cataclysmic upheavals of the 60’s. Suddenly her entire perspective changed. She decided her parents’ entire worldview was utterly fake and phony.

She turned not only against their values and norms, but against them personally. As her work took her to various hotspots, war zones, and refugee camps around the world, she admits rejecting their repeated pleas to come home for a visit.

On the advice of a friend, and only toward the end of their lives, does she seek some sort of reconciliation with her estranged parents.

“Visiting home between assignments,” she writes, “I found myself noticing and appreciating things I had always taken for granted – the tamed greenery and smooth streets, the absence of fear and abundance of choice, the code of good manners and civilized discussion.”

“I also began,” she adds, “to learn things about my parents I had never known and to realize that I had judged them unfairly.” She cites various “belated epiphanies” regarding them, including aspects of their character and virtue that had been forged, she discovers, by suffering, both hidden and silent.

As I observe the increasing breakdown in our civil society, I can’t help wondering if we could learn from Constable. It’s as if we’re living through a stage of collective adolescence, what psychologists call “reaction formation,” the phenomenon of rejecting one thing by adopting its opposite extreme (antithesis).

By denying wholesale the classic Christian virtues of our past, we risk losing the things we not only take for granted but naively assume will go on forever. (Note Constable’s sudden appreciation for the “tamed greenery and smooth streets” of her past.)

We continue to believe that things will get better, but forget about the very source of our optimism: the gospel, the same gospel that has lighted our way in the past.

Years ago Mahatma Gandhi captured the imagination of the world. And as we know, his non-violent resistance became the model for the early civil-rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

What is rarely discussed, however, is how Gandhi’s resistance could only have succeeded in a nation such as Britain, where Christian values of equality and freedom made sense. It’s hard to image, for instance, Vladimir Putin caring one whit about a Gandhi-like plea for justice and human rights.

Along these lines, I recently came across this quote, though I forget where: “Why was [Martin Luther] King, and the coalition of people walking with him, so successful? The answer isn’t complicated. With a few exceptions the 1960s civil-rights movement was made up of law-abiding middle class people (in values, if not uniformly in economic status) who espoused ideas thoroughly identifiable by middle class Americans not attached to the movement.

“King embraced the Declaration of Independence and the Enlightenment principles of America’s founding; like the great Frederick Douglass before him, he asked only that the benefits of those principles be extended to black Americans in the places they were not. He made an argument that no American in good faith could reject.”

In our increasingly balkanized, hyphened world we’re now taught to value tribalism over unity. The time-honored, unifying truths of Christianity get lost in the shuffle, truths that champion community, tolerance, and agape love. It is these gospel truths that call us to a life of honesty, humility, gratitude, discipline, character, courtesy, respect, kindness, consideration, and selfless action.

Paul warns, “See that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.”

As the formerly tamed greenery born of Christ’s gospel sprouts weeds and threatens to go to seed, and as the once smooth streets born of His wisdom and truth are left to deteriorate and crumble, we would again beseech our God, Lord of the ages, to instill once again in our world and nation the gospel’s eternal verities which, at their core, honor and respect the dignity of every human being, God’s creatures all. Amen.