The Keeper Basket (10/23/05)
Dr. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
When I first entered seminary, I found the experience shocking. I had no idea what to expect. I remember spending the months leading up to the first semester pouring over little details, memorizing the names of the twelve apostles, and making sure I could list all the books of the Bible. As it turned out, the seminary professors could not have cared less for my newfound knowledge on such matters. They were much more concerned with my learning to think theologically than they were in my ability to memorize passages from the Bible.
Most quality seminaries are ecumenical, meaning they cater to a wide variety of denominations. The first semester of seminary is a strange experience, because students from a wide variety of backgrounds are thrown together. The only thing they share in common is some sense that they are supposed to be there, that in some way they are answering a call from God.
The drop out rate after the first semester is huge. I suppose a lot of people enter the process thinking like I did that as long as they acted holy and memorized plenty of scripture they would do just fine. That’s just not the way it works. Those sadistic seminary professors want people to think! And it doesn’t take but a few weeks for some to be crushed beneath the weight of all that new thinking, all that new knowledge.
The first thing you learn is to forget everything they taught you in Sunday school. The creation stories found in Genesis are myths—stories. Abraham is most likely a fictional character, along with his wife Sarah and all twelve of their sons. Moses did not write the first five books of the Bible. In the New Testament there are thirteen books attributed to Paul, but he only wrote seven of them. The other books were written by well-meaning followers of Paul who signed his name to their own work so it would carry authority.
An in depth examination of the four gospels soon reveals that the Bible gives us four very different versions of who Jesus was. Each of the four authors had a distinct theology, and the actual names of the authors are unknown, but are almost certainly not Mathew, Mark, Luke or John. And to top it all off students soon learn that many scholarly authorities believe both the virgin birth and the physical resurrection are myths, and should not be a central part of the Christian faith.
Ouch! No wonder seminary freshmen spend their first semester looking like deer caught in the headlights. And it isn’t until the second year that one begins to understand what the professors are doing. The confusion comes from the fact that for every scholar who says the virgin birth is a myth, there is another who insists it is an historic fact. For every theologian who dismisses the physical resurrection there is another theologian who insists it stands at the very center of our faith.
The point of a good seminary is not to teach people what to believe. It is to teach them how to think. One of my seminary professors described it to me this way. At seminary you are supposed to take everything you believe—all the things about the Christian faith that have been ingrained in you over the years—and your supposed to dump the whole mess out on the table. Don’t hold anything back. And then you rebuild your faith from scratch. You take every little idea, every cherished belief you have ever had, and you pick it up off the table, look at it from every possible angle, and determine whether or not that idea actually belongs in your belief system. Does that particular idea really deserve to be a part of your faith?
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That process nearly destroys some people. But for mainline seminaries it is an essential process. If you make it through, you have a well anchored faith. You have a solid foundation built on truth and understanding. You can defend your positions on theological matters.
I think it is important for all people of faith to take inventory every now and then—to take a close look at the religious ideas that drive us, that serve as our foundation. Because when the day comes that we need our faith as an unshakeable anchor, it had better be comprised of something more than nice ideas we learned in Sunday school. It is essential that we occasionally dump all our ideas out on the table—not just religious ideas, but all our ideas—and examine them one by one to see which ones deserve a place in our lives and which ones should be thrown onto the trash heap.
When I first came to this church I sometimes did sermons for the children during Sunday school. There is something about children’s sermons. They only last five minutes or so, so you have to get right to the point. You must take ideas down to their most basic form, where they are easy to understand. And you have to set aside all the fancy poetic language and heavy theological symbolism and just say what’s on your mind. And I know what you’re thinking. That sounds like some good rules for adults sermons too!
One of the sermons I did for the children was called “The Keeper Basket.” I asked the children if any of them collected things, and many of them did. And I talked about how a collector has to look over his collection every now and then, whether it be coins or stamps or anything else, and decide if everything in the collection deserves to be there. To have a really nice collection you have to go through and weed it out once in a while. I then took a basket with a bunch of large, paper sea shells I had crudely fabricated, each with an idea written on it, and dumped them out on the table.
There were lots of ideas written on the side of those paper sea shells. I set two baskets on the table—a trash basket and a keeper basket—and we went through each idea and decided which ones belonged in the keeper basket and which ones should go in the trash.
The ideas were fairly simple. I wasn’t trying to stump anybody. If I were to play this game with the adult Sunday morning discussion group I might have one of the shells says something like, “Jesus was an eschatological prophet preaching the impending apocalypse.” That would give us something to argue about! But for the children I kept things down to earth. One shell said, “God loves us all.” That one went straight into the keeper basket. Another shell said, “Little white lies don’t hurt anybody as long as nobody finds out.” You’ll be relieved to know they unanimously voted that idea into the trash basket.
I have a feeling if we adults got together and played this game, throwing all our ideas and convictions out onto the table for examination, there would be some occasional arguments about what should and what should not make it into the keeper basket.
Now, you know me well enough to know I would never tell you how to think—what belongs in your particular keeper basket. After all, the ideas we allow into our keeper basket determine who we are. Seriously! Any one of us could be described by our physical traits—we are so tall, and weigh so much, and have this color hair and that color eyes—but that doesn’t really say who we are. It’s all about how we think. It’s all about which ideas we allow to be the driving forces in our lives, which ideas we allow in our keeper basket, that determines who we are. And that’s what makes it a little frightening to play the keeper basket game. It is the ultimate form of self-examination.
As we embark on the keeper basket game, I admit that if I was very smart I would keep this simple. I’d throw out onto the table some idea like racial prejudice, and we could unanimously agree that it needs to be thrown in the trash basket. But I’m not that smart, and the fact is, just as the experience of seminary students needs to be a little painful to be of benefit, we should probably look at some ideas that might make us squirm a little bit.
Ideas like how we decide who to vote for as our President. And I would never tell you who I think you should vote for in any election. And I would never say that in our polarized nation it is the liberals, or the conservatives, who are on the right track. All I am saying is, when we look at our keeper basket, what ideas lie behind our decision? Surely we all have some way of determining who we will vote for in any given election. What is the process?
One idea is probably most popular. Who will create an atmosphere in which I personally will most prosper? That is a very common idea, isn’t it? Every four years we hear the same refrain: Are you better off than you were four years ago? The message is clear, and it is a message that packs a lot of power: vote your pocket book.
There are lots of other ideas regarding the way we individually choose the candidate who will get our vote. Who will protect a woman’s right to choose, or, on the other hand, who will work tirelessly to overturn Roe v. Wade? Who will be toughest on crime? Who will cut my taxes? Who will protect my right to bear arms? Who will get serious about gun control? Who will stand up for the death penalty?
Most people seem to have a favorite, sacred issue that they simply never vote against. We have lots of ideas about why we would or would not want a particular candidate to be our president. But what if we threw all those ideas out on the table, just stripped ourselves clean of every preconceived notion we have about why we elect a person to that office? What ideas would we want to put back in? Do we really want to be defined as human beings by our particular stance on abortion, or the death penalty, or tax brackets, or the gun lobby? Is that who we are?
What if we threw all our political prejudices on the table, made a real attempt to move beyond our selfishness, and replaced them with a single idea? I believe that the only reason we exist is to love, and that God breathes life into these bodies in the hope that we will attempt to build the kingdom of God in this world. And so, when we vote, why don’t we ask ourselves one simple question: Which candidate, in our admittedly humble opinion, is professing views that would come closest to building the world that Jesus envisioned?
That would seldom be the candidate talking loudest about his religion. And I recognize that sincere people of faith will disagree about which candidate’s ideas come closest to envisioning the kingdom of God. But I have to wonder why we, as Christians, never list that as a reason for our vote. Why do we anchor our political decisions on personal wealth, the right to possess and carry deadly weapons, and personal views on abortion and the death penalty, as opposed to the prayerful contemplation of what God’s will is for this world?
Let’s get away from politics and turn to another sacred cow. Every person should be successful, making the most of his or her life. I would say that idea deserves to go straight to the keeper basket. Surely we are meant to live successful lives, to make the most of the gifts we are given.
But you know what we should take a closer look at before putting this idea into our keeper basket? The way we measure success. This is really difficult for us—for Americans. We learn from an early age that there are winners and losers in this world. It’s not enough to learn how to spell. You need to win the spelling bee! I remember the arithmetic game we played in grade school where the teacher held up flash cards and we competed with each other to see who could most quickly solve the problem. It’s not enough to learn to add and subtract. You have to make sure everybody knows you can do it faster than little Johnny.
Even at recess the games of kickball were extremely competitive, and a critical misstep could leave a person with his head hanging for the whole afternoon. I remember a recess when I was in fifth grade and I got beat in a foot race by a girl! For two weeks the kids on the bus were asking me, “Did Stephanie really beat you in a race?” This wasn’t supposed to happen. I was on the track team. And not only had I disgraced myself, it was made clear to me that I had let down the entire male half of the human race.
We’re competitive. We learn early on that to be a success we have to win. We have to get the biggest piece of the pie, and you get it by grabbing for it. It reminds me of that old joke about the mother who was preparing pancakes for her two young sons. When the first pancake was placed on the table and the boys started arguing over it, the mother said, “Jesus would let his brother have the first pancake.” One of the boys turned to his brother and said, “Today you get to be Jesus.”
I think the problem is that we too often confuse success with the prosperity that can come from being a success. It is fine to prosper as a result of success. But the prosperity is not the success. People deserve to prosper when they work hard. But it is what they do that makes them a success, rather than the wealth they accumulate from their work.
For example, the person who works a steady job, is devoted to his of her family, and maybe even spends some precious time volunteering for a worthwhile charity, is much more of a success than somebody who becomes a millionaire by hitting the lottery, or by skirting the edge of the law to enrich themselves at the expense of others. I refuse to judge the success of those two people by the size of the house they live in or the cost of the car they drive.
With a group as intelligent and as educated as this congregation, we could play the keeper basket game forever, and never run out of good, and heated, conversation. But there is one more idea I want to examine, namely, love makes life worthwhile.
When we look out at this world, we see a lot of suffering. When we look at nature we see a universe that evolved over a period of billions of years, a universe that quite frankly appears to be amoral—neither good nor bad. It’s just there. And of course we can find beauty in nature, but just as we are admiring the great beauty of some adorable, fuzzy little creature, a lion jumps out of the bush and devours it in about two bites. That’s nature, and it is not all sunshine and light.
And when we think about what it means to be a human being on this beautiful planet, we have to ask ourselves, Is it all worthwhile? Considering all the suffering, the pain, the disease, the anguish, is it all worthwhile? Sometimes this world seems to generate pain in disproportionate amounts to joy.
Why did all of this happen? Love. Love is the one thing we had better keep in our keeper basket, because without love all the other ideas lose their meaning, their value, their purpose.
How powerful is love? Is love so powerful, so perfect, so eternal that the love we find within ourselves, the love for one another and for God; is that love so powerful that it can justify the existence of all that pain, of all that sorrow, of all that suffering?