High Expectations

Matthew 5: 13-15

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

Tiger Mom is a new term I’m hearing often these days, the result of a book published in January by Amy Chua about the parenting style of Chinese mothers. In her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Chua delivers a broadside against American parenting even as she mocks herself for her own extreme “Chinese” style. She says American parents lack authority and produce entitled children who aren’t forced to live up to their abilities. Here is how she starts her book.

Part One

The Tiger, the living symbol of strength and power, generally inspires fear and respect.

The Chinese Mother

A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids. They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it’s like inside the family, and whether they could do it too. Well, I can tell them, because I’ve done it. Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:

 

  • attend a sleepover
  • have a playmate
  • be in a school play
  • complain about not being in a school play
  • watch TV or play computer games
  • choose their own extracurricular activities
  • get any grade less than an A
  • not be the number one student in every subject except gym and drama
  • play any instrument other than the piano or violin
  • not play the piano or violin

 

Lest you think driven North Shore parents have something in common with Chua, let me read on. “Some might think that the American sports parent is an analog to the Chinese mother. This is so wrong. Unlike your typical Western over-scheduling soccer mom, the Chinese mother believes that ……you must never compliment your children in public and….. if your child ever disagrees with a teacher or coach, you must always take the side of the teacher or coach.”

Among all the hue and cry in response to Chua’s book, Maraya Steadman wrote a commentary for The Chicago Tribune in which she says she considers herself more of a chicken mom than a tiger mom. Steadman loves to drop off her kids for play dates and sleepovers. She isn’t that intense about first-grade math and her family probably spends as much time worshipping at the Church of the Holy Ice rink as studying. She says she is more of a, “product of Western philosophy and religion, the stuff that emphasizes individual choices and individual freedoms.”

All this discussion about Tiger Moms made me reflect, in light of our scripture readings this morning, on the character of God and about what kind of God we worship. Is your God a tiger, a symbol of strength and power who generally inspires fear and respect or a chicken, warm, faithful, friendly and loyal? What is your God most basically like?

Marcus Borg gives us a list of possible ways to describe the character of God beyond the usual categories of omniscience and omnipresence:

  • God is primarily concerned about personal virtue
  • God is primarily a lawgiver
  • God is concerned with requirements and rewards.
  • God is primarily a God of heaven and hell
  • God is primarily a national God
  • God is mostly ‘nice’
  • God is mostly indifferent
  • God is a God of compassion
  • God is a God of social justice

 

It is important for each of us to identify the characteristics of the God in which we believe because it determines how we see life, understand what it means to be faithful to God, how we worship and thus, what the Christian life is all about. Over the past two years as people have lost their jobs and their financial stability they have come to see me because they have also lost their spiritual footing. For many, though they didn’t necessarily recognize it, their understanding of the character of God had been pulled out from under them. Where was God in their suffering and loss, they wondered? Their God of compassion and love now seemed to be an indifferent God and they felt adrift and alone.

Borg’s list of God’s possible characteristics falls into two general categories. The first one is to see God as a God of requirements and rewards, a God of justice who rewards the good and punishes those who disobey. Like a king, this God is a judge who has requirements we must meet. We fear this God as we would a tiger. The second category sees God as a God of love and justice. God is a lover and we are the beloved of God. We are loved in spite of who we are and how we live. God’s forgiveness is always at the ready and there is nothing that God needs from us in return. This God is in no way threatening or demanding, like a chicken.

Neither of these understandings gives us the complex picture of God’s character we find throughout the Bible. But if we can somehow integrate these two pictures we may be on to something. Let’s start with the words of the author of 1st John:

“God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister. “

It is obvious that in the writer’s mind there is a direct link between God’s love for us and God’s expectations that we will work for justice for all. As Borg writes, love and justice are related, “For in the bible, justice is the social form of love. Thus the God of love is not simply ‘nice,’ but has an edge, a passion for justice.” We love, and perform acts of love and justice because we have experienced God’s love and been transformed by it.

In today’s Old Testament reading, Isaiah’s anger at the Israelites is the result of the insincerity of their worship. Instead of engaging in true worship, defined beautifully by Andrew Conners as the experience of “inhaling god’s love and grace so that they could be sent forth to exhale God’s love and grace to a broken world,” the Israelites, focused on the outward practice of worship. They were obsessed with the right way to worship in order to get God’s attention and blessing. They fasted and humbled themselves before God in worship and God had not noticed. Why, because they had forgotten the connection between love and justice. They lacked a connection between their understanding and experience of God and the way they lived.

Hopefully we come to worship, not to be seen but to enter into a relationship with God where we are transformed by love, share love, and then go out into the world to give love. God has high expectations of us and wants us to have high expectations of ourselves in relation to how we live with others, put others first and give back to the world. “The Christian life isn’t about believing or doing what we need to believe,” writes Borg, “Rather, it’s about seeing what is already true- that God loves us already – and then beginning to live in this relationship. It is about becoming conscious of and intentional about a deepening relationship with God.”

When we experience and internalize God’s love and acceptance, when we open the door to God in our lives, can we expect any less of ourselves than Jesus expects….that we will be salt and light in the world around us as individuals and together as a community? Salt has an edge as well as a satisfying taste. It makes come alive what would otherwise seem tasteless and bland. It can also be used as a preservative, keeping things fresh for an extended period of time. Light illuminates both the external and internal darkness that we experience. But as Psalm 139 proclaims, “even the darkness is not dark to [God] the night is as bright as the day for darkness is as light to [God].” Jesus encourages us to bring light to a dark and broken world. “In order for the light to be seen, we must be willing to go where the darkness exists, to engage and walk through it so that in time the light can overcome it,” writes Charles Cook.

Amy Chua assures us that her high expectations for her children have their own rewards, a sense of mastery and accomplishment. God’s love and high expectations come with somewhat different rewards….light, healing and protection.

 

“Then you shall call, and the Lord will  answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you,

the pointing of the finger, the speaking of  evil,

if you offer your food to the hungry

and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,

then your light shall rise in the darkness

and your gloom be like the noonday.

The Lord will guide you continually,

and satisfy your needs in parched places,

and make your bones strong;

and you shall be like a watered garden,

like a spring of water,

whose waters never fail.

Your ancient ruins shall rebuilt;

you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;

you shall be called the repairer of the breach,

the restorer of streets to live in.”
(Isaiah 58: 9-12)
Amen.