The Issue’s Not the Issue

Jim and I were reminiscing about our science teachers the other night.

The conversation pushed buttons on memories long crowded out by more important things.   Most of 7thsaving yourself grade fits that description.  What passed for “Science, Health, and Math Module” was team taught by two guys.  First Aid  was  disguised in “How to Survive a Nuclear War.”   We took a break from math to study Gun Safety with a curriculum provided by the NRA.
The lesson on that particular day was about obtaining food and water after The Bomb.   Assuming that we survived by hiding in our basements with 18 inch granite walls, safe from radiation,  Mr. B. suggested that urine could be made drinkable by rigging up an evaporator/condensation unit from the tarps we certainly had on hand in our basements.  I was appalled.  He made a pitch for credibility by rehearsing the science of the water cycle. Then he crossed the bridge too far.   He suggested we could make raids on what was left in the refrigerator, or in our neighbor’s refrigerator by making brief forays out of our basement bomb shelter.  If we found meat, even if it was green or slimy we could just cut off the green part and eat it anyway.   On the heels of the Urine Evaporator Condensation Unit, this suggestion was too outrageous.

“You can’t eat slimy green meat!” I protested.   “It will make you sick!”

He insisted that it would not, because it would be irradiated meat, and therefore the radiation would have rendered it sterile.

“I don’t  believe you!” I challenged him.  “How do you know this?”

“It’s right there in the book. ” He laughed and waved the book before us.

“Would you eat it?”

Still grinning, he replied, “If you’re hungry enough you won’t care.”

I was very upset.  His cavalier grin and dismissal of my challenge upset me even more.  Then he addressed the unacknowledged elephant in the room.

“If a bomb were dropped on us–and we would be a prime target where we live here   –no one is going to survive it anyway.”

underground fallout shelterOf course, he was right.  Nothing he could say could make it right, though.  The Issue just wasn’t the issue.     Our house didn’t have a basement, with or without 18″ granite walls.  My seventh grade soul was afflicted by visions of the apocalypse, vividly described by the southern baptist extension of the family and their church.   My seventh grade soul feared losing my parents. There was a draft, and my brother was old enough to get called into it.  I was even afraid of losing him.  The Issue was the profound fear of loss and helplessness in the face of loss that terrified me nightly.   I’ve since learned that this is a very typical and common experience for 7th graders.  The course was predicated by the wrong question, so all the supposed right answers were destined to be ridiculous.

There are times: an otherwise calm discussion escalates for no apparent reason, an issue that should be rather benign is  weighted with much more emotion and importance than it deserves, solutions to easy problems become suddenly complicated, expensive, and convoluted.  We even have an expression for it:  “it went nuclear.”  When an issue erupts like this, bystanders shake their heads in clueless wonder.

Money is a bell-weather. We think a $500 newspaper advertisement will build our church membership, or a younger pastor, or an older pastor, or a new sidewalk.   We spend money on the small issues and are satisfied  we have done something about it.  Too much money is required to satisfy a simple problem.  Too little money is afforded to resolve too great an issue.  That money is proposed to solve the problem at all makes one scratch and wonder if we’re missing the point.   There is a risk of believing that all problems can be solved with more money.   There is a risk of believing that great problems can be solved without money.  Altogether, something seems to be off kilter in the conversation, and people stopped listening to one another a long time ago.

The issue –whatever it is–just isn’t the issue.  Jesus is accused of not observing proper handwashing in our reading from Mark 7 this weekend.  Bear with me while I wander a bit.  I’m not lost.

We think handwashing is a big deal because we know about germs.  That’s a pretty recent understanding of only the past 165 years. Ingaz Semmelweis was a young doctor was assigned to the maternity clinic at General Hospital in Vienna in 1846.  He wanted to figure out why women died of childbed fever.  He discovered that the women who ignazdelivered babies in the midwife clinic died less frequently than women in the clinic attended by physicians just down the hall.  He noticed all kinds of things.   Women who delivered in the midwife clinic labored on their backs, doctors delivered babies as women lie on the sides.  Maybe the position of the birth mattered.  The priest would visit the physician clinic followed by an acolyte ringing a bell.  Maybe the sound of the bell frightened the women of high breeding.   Then the hospital pathologist, his close friend, died with symptoms very much like child bed fever. The light bulb went on.  Physicians must be carrying some kind of invisible particle on their hands as they moved from morgue to bedside.  He insisted that doctors wash hands in chlorine.  For a while, the number of deaths from childbed fever declined sharply.   You would think everyone would have jumped up and down and on board, but they didn’t.  He wasn’t exactly diplomatic, and offended important people.  His colleagues were offended that he was accusing them of killing their patients.  No one believed him, and the handwashing stopped.    He lost his job and died in an asylum at age 47.   You might think that the most important issue to the doctors of General Hospital in Vienna was the loss of life, but it wasn’t.   Other issues crowded to the fore:  seniority, status and stature, manners, respect, insult, education and so much more.   I wonder if class and wealth were also clouding the issue–women of the lesser classes delivered with midwives.  The wealthy were attended by doctors and visited by priests.  Even Ignaz had a hard time sorting through what was and was not relevant to the issue of women dying after childbirth.  Ultimately, lives continued to be lost.

Handwashing is a big deal for the religious folks in Mark 7 because it was about religion, not germs.  Religion is that complex web of rules and behaviors designed to win favor and fortune from the greater powers of the universe.   Handwashing was part of the complex web of rules described in the laws of Moses in Leviticus, well embroidered and interpreted since Israel’s return from exile. Some religious authorities had a lot to gain from the interpretation of these laws and support of the temple.    Jesus was not about religion. (Don’t leave me now.) The religious authorities were like the medical authorities I just described:  do this, do that, avoid this, twirl and dance under the blue moon and you will live.      The religious authorities were like that crazy curriculum on how to survive a nuclear blast.  They avoided the elephant in the room wearing a broadside “We ALL die.”  They were like us and our evangelism committees:  putting stickers on bumpers and pages on the internet in order to broaden our base of support.   They could justify a person as holy for attending church every week, tithing, and posting their faith on facebook, while ignoring how that person treated family and neighbor.  They were, in fact, just like us.  In attempting to do the good thing–live a life that is holy, as God is holy–they strayed from the The Issue.

Jesus was about relationship, not religion.   Relationship with God is the source of all that is life giving.  Jesus becomes quite crass when the disciples don’t get it again.  Don’t you see?  What goes in a person comes out as crap.  Crap is what defiles.    All these things driven by evil intentions–murder, adultery, avarice, slander–they come from within a person and come out as defilement.  Sewage.  The real issue here isn’t about some dainty handwashing.  It’s about drowning and dying and gasping for air as we come up out of the water, air that rips our lungs and our hearts open and makes life new again.  That dainty ritual handwashing isn’t going to do the trick.  The issue is about living and doing more than just Not Dying.  Is it possible to survive a nuclear blast?  Hard to imagine.  Would you want to?   I’m not qualified to answer that.   What if we spent all that precious space in our brains and our hearts becoming the kind of people who wouldn’t launch bombs in the first place?   That’s the real issue.  The answers aren’t as neat and well packaged.  In fact, it gets quite messy when one can’t rely on the rules and traditions of the elders to protect us from what is truly dangerous in this world.  You could find yourself sitting with Ignaz in the insane asylum.  Or nailed to a cross.

Ultimately, it is time and love that reveals the real issues in our world.  Ignaz didn’t live to see those signs in every public restroom and hospital room, or the hand sanitizer pumps at every school, hospital, and desk top.   He would have been pleased.   The sages of his day could not  see through the obfuscating clouds of what they thought they knew.    Love clears the clouds, even a little.   Love anchors us to life and one another so that we stay in the conversation, even when it takes us to places we don’t want to go.   Love is where patience comes from when time doesn’t hurry.   Love is where courage comes from when there is no more time for patience.  Love is the real issue, and all the ways we try to weaken or avoid love  or to justify our hard heartedness  distract us from Love.

nuclear bomb testDistraction and obfuscation are the devil’s workshop.  We succumb when we  take our eyes off God’s love for this world and the real matters of life and death.  Listen longer.    Wait for The Issue.  Ignore pettiness.    The cross is the real issue at the end of every Gospel.  It’s the matter of life and death.  Anything else makes us believe we can escape a nuclear blast because we have 18″ granite walls in our basement, eat green slimy meat, and know how to recycle pee.

Read more about Ignaz at



About Pastor Betsy Williams

I am a mom. And a wife. And a Friend. And a homeowner. And a dog ...uh....owner? Actually make that two dogs. Two kids. One husband. I'm an ELCA Lutheran pastor of a beautiful downtown church. I am the third senior pastor in a century, so my 10-12 years here may feel like an interim to some of the folks here. Recently I have had no spare time. In my spare time in the future, my imagination inhabits a novel I am writing, The Funeral Preacher. My primary blog is a personal reflection on the Revised Common Lectionary...mostly: "Not All Who Wander are Lost." A few years ago I was on a team of writers who produced a little book for Augsburg Fortress in the Washed and Welcome series called "Living the Promises." It's 101 ideas for helping parents and godparents nurture their children in the faith of their baptism. I am developing another blog, more about worship at St. Paul's Lutheran Church, Newark, Ohio and including a summary of the past week's preaching. Otherwise, I imagine myself to be a musician, liturgical artist, cook in a five star restaurant where the patrons keep ordering chicken nuggets, but never a bottle washer. I know how to delegate and share.
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2 Responses to The Issue’s Not the Issue

  1. “The issue is not the issue.” I haven’t thought about that statement outside of a powerful leadership retreat more than 10 years ago. That’s a shame! Truly thoughtful leaders would learn to listen for the REAL issue in any interaction and not just wait for some divisive comment that gets dropped like a bomb ONTO the conversation. So many times we are not even in the room when we say we are so important that we “are IN a meeting.” To be truly IN-tentional we would pay attention to ALL of the words being said as our speaker as she/he works to define a problem or describe an experience. We would concentrate on using our turn to speak for adding words of support and clarification. Doing that, our human mind would be unavailable for our current MO—the one where we are not truly listening but are preparing our own “brilliant” remark or (yes, to be completely hones with myself.) LOOKING for something to dispute.

    What a concept! And to think Mark saw God’s intent—the REAL ISSUE–eons ago. Why must we be so slow to see God’s desire? Even right there in print. AHA: The construction of the story mimics our 21st century filthy habit: We do not practice any type of mindfulness ritual before (even IF) we settle down and LISTEN as we read scripture. We just love to argue….
    Forgive me, Lord.

    Kay Meyer
    Child of God, Learning to Behave

  2. Your post reminded me of a church sign I saw recently: “You can’t purify the water by painting the pump.” Thanks for sharing such an insightful post. Much to think about and even more of a challenge to live it.

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