I remember my mom, Alice, in her latter years saying that the older she got, the fewer answers she possessed.
"Heck," she added, "I'm not even sure anymore what the questions are."
That observation wasn't original with her, I imagine.
But she's the first person I heard say it.
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And it didn't make much sense to me. I was young and full of sap and owned the patents on sure-fire solutions to every dilemma.
Trying to decide who to vote for in the next presidential race? I could direct you.
Having difficulties in your marriage? I could fix it in three simple steps.
Troubled by a convoluted theology? I'd unpack it for you.
Got a squirrelly kid breaking your heart with his rebellion? I could tell you how I'd straighten him out, if I were you.
The older I get, though, the truer my mother's words become.
I see it now, Alice. I truly do.
I realize I was immature and self-deceived. Many people are.
Too often we feel required — by whom, I'm not sure — to set everyone else straight, when frankly we can't even find the wisest path for ourselves.
We voice confident opinions on weighty matters about which we know nothing.
Eventually, we suffer a jaw-slapping dose of reality. Or several doses.
These days, for me, the hardest part of my jobs as a pastor and a columnist is finding topics every week I feel strongly enough about to express opinions on.
I don't have many strong opinions left: about religion, politics, marriage, economics. Whatever the subject, I'm fairly sure I don't know the best answer.
Because half of the sure-fire answers I patented 20 or 30 years ago turned out to be wrong. They were sure-fire until I faced complicated, bone-grinding problems of my own, tried to work my solutions on them and saw all my efforts fail.
There's nothing like experience to open your eyes.
I keep gaining more and more of it.
Much of my experience is unpleasant, and that's a good thing.
If the New Testament is to be taken at face value — and (here's a genuine opinion!) I think it largely is — pride is the sin God finds most offensive.
I'm amused, and a bit frightened, when I encounter religious people railing against, depending on the decade, gambling, drinking, premarital sex, abortion, gay marriage or a big carbon footprint as the ultimate sin that makes God retch.
Nope. It's pride. That's the biggie.
Pride makes us feel superior to our fellow human beings. It enables us to ignore our own destructive actions. It lets us pretend we're so special we don't need God's mercy and don't need to show others mercy, either.
The Scripture's equally clear about the virtue that most pleases God: love.
In the biblical paradigm, love means not judging others, proving ourselves generous of wallet and spirit and, for want of a better description, basically treating everyone, regardless of his or her station or sins, the way we'd want to be treated.
It's hard to do those things as long as we feel superior.
Love, then, operates hand-in-glove with humility.
Sad to say, many of us don't come ready-made with either virtue.
From the Garden of Eden on down, outlandish hubris has been a fatal flaw of the human race. So it's in God's interest, and in our own interest, for us to discover exactly how un-superior we are. The Lord, and the very universe itself, seems dedicated to producing this discovery.
Because you're straight, are you disgusted by the idea of some man having a romantic relationship with another man?
Your favorite son, your namesake, will soon emerge from the closet.
Are you outraged by irresponsible people who make poor educational and career decisions, then expect the government to help support them financially?
As you near retirement, your company will go bankrupt, you'll lose your pension and you'll find yourself begging for Medicaid.
Do you roll your eyes at slothful, broken-down folks who eat processed food, get fat and can barely walk through Wal-mart without gasping for air?
You'll run enough marathons to wear out your hips and knees and end up motoring around Walmart in one of those carts for the feeble. Despite all that fiber you digested, you'll develop colon cancer.
When such woes beset us, we ought to fling our palms up and praise God.
We've been positioned to behold the truth: we're but dust. We're at the mercy of forces beyond our control. We're silly and deluded about our wisdom and importance.
Seeing that, suddenly we crave God's forgiveness. We crave the forbearance of other people as well. Through our newfound neediness, we discover within us affection, understanding and patience toward our fellow pilgrims.
When that happens, we've crash-landed at the doorstep of heaven.