Archive for July, 2015

Cosby,Character, Congruence, Christ

“‘As surely as God lives’ [David]  said to Nathan, ‘the man who did this ought to be lynched!’… ‘You’re the man!’ said Nathan.“ –2 Samuel 12:5, 7 MSG


I didn’t want to believe the ugly stories  about Bill Cosby. He’s one of my all-time favorite comedians. I’ve liked what I’ve known of his offstage life. He’s supported his alma mater Temple University. He’s stood up for civil rights when that stance was costly. He’s worked toward increased opportunity for African Americans and other minorities. He’s spoken with no-holds-barred honesty about the need for black people (especially young men) to take responsibility for themselves and their actions.

I’ve hoped that the ugliness would somehow be explained away. But the evidence continues to accumulate. I have to admit that at least some of the charges have credibility. I’ve looked for honesty, if not apology, from Cosby. But he and his advisors have thus far chosen not to address these matters except with denials and as required to in court.


This longtime Cosby fan struggles with the chasm separating Cosby’s highly-regarded reputation and the dramatically different revelations regarding his character. Reputation is our public image. We (and/or our PR staff) craft our “reputation” with the vast array of tools available to 21st-century image-smiths. Reputation may be crafted to suit ourselves. Character, on the other hand, is lasting, authentic, and not subject to manipulation. .

Suddenly Bill Cosby’s character and his long-time reputation seem to belong to two different people. Of course he’s hardly the first public figure whose character and reputation contradict each other. As the Watergate affair came to light, President Richard Nixon tried to do business as usual. To his credit, he ended the Vietnam conflict and opened up US-China relations during that time. But the deteriorating cover-up revealed the widening gap between Nixon’s well-publicized reputation and his increasingly dubious character. He’s hardly the only president who was sometimes less than “presidential”. Extramarital affairs marred the reputations of Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Clinton. Beyond the White House, General David Petraeus resigned after his affair not only crossed the line of marital fidelity but raised national security issues. And beloved (at least in Cincinnati) baseball player Pete Rose’s reputation suffered severely when his betting on his own team’s games came to light.

We expect national leaders and other public figures to be the same person privately and publicly. But my “let’s-get-real” side says let’s stop kidding ourselves. Consistently congruent lives are increasingly rare commodities.


Two geometric figures are “congruent” when they are exactly the same size and shape.  You can lay one on top of the other and they fit perfectly. I worked hard in high school geometry learning to prove the congruence of various geometric figures. Living a congruent life means our life is one seamless piece. Our walk and our talk match perfectly.  We are the same person at work, at school, at home, driving, playing, in church and out. We thought Bill Cosby’s life showed reasonable congruence. But he’s as fallible a human being as the rest of us.

David was Israel’s greatest king politically, militarily, and spiritually. One day David looked out from his balcony, saw a beautiful woman bathing on her balcony. He wanted her. Kings got what they wanted back around 1000 BCE. David had Bathsheba brought to his palace. Her husband Uriah was away fighting in King David’s army. David had his way with Bathsheba and sent her back home. A few weeks later she sent him this message: “I’m carrying your child.” Actions have consequences—even for the King!

David went into full cover-up mode. He brought Uriah home on leave. David welcomed him at the palace and urged him to go home and see his wife. Uriah refused. He would not enjoy the comforts of home while his men were in harm’s way. He slept in the palace with the king’s servants. Plan A failed miserably. So David initiated Plan B. The king sent Uriah back with sealed orders for his commander: “Place Uriah at the front of the fiercest battle, and then pull back from him so that he will be struck down and die.”  (2 Samuel  11:15 CEB).

Sometime after that fatal battle the prophet Nathan dropped by the palace. He told David a story about a rich man’s outrageous treatment of a very poor man. David exploded with outrage– “…the man who has done this deserves to die…” “You are the man!” Nathan replied. (2 Samuel 12:5, 7) Nathan shined a million-candlepower spotlight on David’s congruence failure. Psalm 51  is the song of repentance David may have written after his encounter with Nathan—and Nathan’s God.


I don’t presume to know Bill Cosby’s spiritual state of affairs. I have no desire to preach to him or judge him. I do believe this word might well shape our perspective on Cosby, ourselves, and whoever happens to be the media’s Sinner of the Week :“This saying is reliable and deserves full acceptance: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I’m the biggest sinner of all.” (1 Timothy 1:15 CEB) Paul claims the title for himself based on his pre-Christ persecution of Jesus’ followers. All of us who follow Jesus have had our moments. We’ve all laid claim to that title: “I’m the biggest sinner of all!” We seldom made headlines or video clips with our wrongdoing. But Bill Cosby’s globally-proclaimed sins are no less deadly than our less public misdeeds.

While we condemn Cosby’s sexual misconduct, we who are people of faith also affirm that we are equally “Congruence-challenged”. Even more important, we dare to claim that “biggest sinner of all” is not the end of the story. The last word—for Paul, for you and me, Bill Cosby, for every human being–is the limitless love described in Paul’s previous statement: “Grace mixed with faith and love poured over me and into me. And all because of Jesus.” (1 Timothy 1:14 MSG)

From Gleaners to Neighbors

Rufus the Wonder Dog takes me for a walk nearly every morning. On Wednesdays and Saturdays we usually see John (my temporary name for him) pushing his shopping cart down our street. Wednesdays and Saturdays are trash pickup days. Every other Saturday is a recycling pickup day, likely John’s biggest payday. John takes from our bins items we residents have designated “trash” that he hopes will gain him a little “treasure”. He does his work neatly and unobtrusively. I’ve started putting my stuff out the night before in case I have something John can use. He’s doing his very best to survive. He clearly needs the little he makes more than the trash company does.

I say “Good Morning” whenever our paths cross. John responds with a smile and an almost-reluctant wave. I don’t think I’ve ever heard his voice. Is he not sure he’s worthy of a greeting? Not wanting to be noticed even that much? At first I mentally labeled John an “independent recycler”. Recently, however, I’ve upgraded his title. John is a gleaner. He lives off our leftovers and discards. He uses what we’ve declared useless. He works around the edges and values “seconds”, just as agricultural gleaners have done for centuries—gleaners like a prematurely-widowed woman named Ruth. Ruth went into Farmer Boaz’s barley fields seeking food for herself and her widowed mother-in-law Naomi. (Boaz was a very distant relative of Naomi. That ancient Jewish mother-in-law likely had matrimony in mind as she orchestrated his meeting with her daughter-in-law.)

Boaz ordered his harvest workers not to bother Ruth and to do things that would make her job a little easier. He wasn’t doing Ruth favors he hoped she’d reciprocate. His kindness to Ruth followed the requirements of Jewish law: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest…you shall leave them for the poor and the alien…” (Leviticus 19:9)When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow…” (Deuteronomy 24:19)

Membership in the community of Israel had clearly-defined boundaries. But Hebrew law also made room for folks who lived in the “neighborhood” but either weren’t “citizens” or lived a marginal existence—“…the alien, the orphan, and the widow…”  Israelite leaders recognized their responsibility for these vulnerable folks, whether they were officially Israelites or “aliens”. The tradition of gleaning encouraged generosity that enabled the “aliens” in the community to find sufficient food. Interestingly, Sabbath observance also applied to everyone: “…the seventh day…you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.”(Exodus 20:10)

Jewish law prescribed that “…you shall love your neighbor as yourself…” (Leviticus 19:18).The provision for alien residents and other vulnerable folks cracked open a door through which many “outsiders” would eventually enter and become “neighbors”. Prophets like Isaiah envisioned a day when clearly-excluded “aliens” would become “neighbors”. Eventually, of course, Jesus came along and ripped this door clean off its hinges. The holy men loved to bait him with the question this verse raises—“Who is my neighbor?” Where’s the line? Who’s clearly outside my circle of trust? The real question, he knew, was “Who’s not my neighbor?” One day Jesus answered the question with the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37)  His (self)-righteous audience was stunned. Jesus had made the most impossible, least likely, and least-liked character the Model Neighbor! As his listeners picked up their dropped jaws, he told them, “Go and do likewise.” Go stretch your “neighborhood” boundaries far enough to include folks like him. After all, this man whose tribe you love to hate just stretched his “neighborhood” boundaries far enough to include you!

Jesus insists rightly that John and his counterparts among us are more than “gleaners” or “homeless”. John’s my neighbor along with my other neighbors who have live indoors and drive nice cars instead of shopping carts. I confess that I don’t know how to “neighbor” John and others in similar circumstances. Frequently we drive through busy intersections where ragged folks hold “Please help”-type signs and hope against hope for something–anything. We keep “agape bags” of food and water in the car for them. (Our 4-year-old grandson relentlessly insists that we and his parents observe this spiritual discipline.) Sometimes we offer our fast-food leftovers to these “gleaners”. (I know there’s more to their story than meets the eye. That’s another discussion.) These efforts are band-aids at best. Meaningful “neighboring” ranges from meeting immediate needs  to social and political action that addresses the root causes of suffering and transforms life for all involved. But it’s far from easy to know exactly what’s the most helpful action right here and now.

Neighboring is a learn-by-doing skills. We learn to “do likewise” as we learn to see people differently. We see “neighbors”, not labels;  “neighbor”, not “poor”, “homeless”, “welfare mother”, “different”, “lazy”, “illegal”, etc. Labels obscure our neighbors’ humanity and our common kinship. Remove the label and we reveal the image of God in every human God has ever created—even “them”.  “Neighbor” becomes both  noun and verb as we learn to “do likewise”. Jesus’ question might well have been, “Which of these three neighbored …?” His first response to human need was that he “felt compassion”—literally, he “felt with” them. There is no “them” when we have compassion. We’re all us. Jesus’ compassion triggered transformative action, often in the form of physical healing (e.g. Matthew 14:14, 15:32-35, 20:34.) So it will be with us as we learn to neighbor alongside Jesus.

Our new pastor taught us a Sesame Street song last Sunday: “Who are the people in the neighborhood?”  In the coming weeks, I’m anticipating some solid, specific—and sometimes uncomfortable—wisdom about neighboring our diverse neighborhood in the spirit of Jesus. I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re invited into some “adventures in neighboring” as we follow Jesus and learn to “do likewise” .