I don’t remember the flight but I look back on it now and wish I had it on film. The numbers have gotten fuzzy with time but it seems to me that I flew about 100 feet. Ok so I wasn’t challenging the Wright brothers record but in the spirit of accurate comparison, they did have a plane. I was just launched through a bus window doing 60ish mph down a cliff. The bus followed closely and may have overtaken me if it had not been for the very large rock we both stopped at. I stopped at the foot of the rock in a crumpled pile and the bus stopped at the high point of the rock leaning directly over me. I was nonsensically babbling and speaking more incoherently than normal up until the time they placed me on the helicopter to go to the hospital. My head was banged up, my ribs were in bad shape, my shoulder felt like it was no longer attached, and there was a gaping hole in my arm. Beyond that I was ok.
Years later I was reflecting on the scars that were still visible. I have two small lines on my right cheek just below my mustache that I see each day I shave and my right arm has a healthy divot drawing an L around my elbow. They have served as a reminder and sometimes a painful one at that. But one thing is utterly true; they are not something that happened to me, they are a part of me.
I had a history professor in college who said “We are the sum total of our experiences”. At the time I was wondering if the experience in that class would ever be useful but thinking back, I learned far more in the class then just facts about the Maginot Line and Germanys driving tactics. I learned that the scars on my face and arms are not just visual markers; they describe part of who I am.
It is far too easy to deflect pain and sublimate bad experiences into the darkest recesses of our minds but if we do that, we run the risk of letting it shape us without our even recognizing it. We kid ourselves sometimes in the deflection by saying that other people have it worse so we are just not going to let things bother us. Simply put that is scary.
I was in a Pavilions parking lot today and saw a homeless man trying to light half a cigarette that he picked up off the ground in the rain. He definitely has it worse than I do right now. I would be a fool to think anything else. But there is no comfort in that thought. His discomfort in no way elevates my comfort. Knowing that somebody else is in pain does not decrease mine one iota. If we follow this logic that recognizing others have it worse, we also need to recognize that still others have it better. If my load becomes lighter recognizing that someone else has it worse then my load should also get heavier when I see someone else who has it better. The relativity of our position to another person in discomfort has no bearing on how we should feel or the problems we have.
The only way to grow as a person is to allow the problems you have to shape you into a better version of yourself instead of lesser version. This sounds overly trite and almost insensitive but truth is usually blatant, we sometimes just learn to ignore it. We need to become the person we want to be. It is not just going to happen. George Saunders said that character is the total of moments in life that we cannot explain. I love that line. I am not sure I agree with it completely though. Character in and of itself is the thing that comes out of the fire. I cannot explain how it is formed but I am pretty sure I know the ingredients that went in. Character has a direct correlation to scars. The things that form the scars typically form character as well.
When I look at the life of Christ I see scar making throughout it. As a child his parents did not understand him. The educational system at the time was sorely lacking to the point that he was teaching others at age 12. When he started his own ministry, many including the social and religious elite of the time rejected him. He was next to homeless for years and found comfort in having a rock for a pillow. His closest followers whom he called friends ran off the moment things got real. He was a walking scar map in many ways. His scars were just a real as mine. I think he handled them differently though. Somehow by the very thing that caused him pain, he was able to show compassion. By the very things that created scars he healed me. I am not sure I understand the logic but I am grateful that his scars tell a very different story than a lot of mine do. Maybe I should do something about that.
I remember being lead to the room he was in. The sterile antiseptic environment was almost chilling and the forced condolences by those around were providing the absolute opposite of what they were intended to do. I was hung-over and had not eaten and had been forcefully awakened to the news that my father was gone. I had dressed quickly and arrived at the hospital in what seemed like moments and had to force myself up to the floor he was on. My fists were clinched so hard my knuckles were screaming and the skin covering them was about to split. That was the best I could do. That was all I could do. There was no magic pill or easy answer. There was pain, and a great deal of that. No matter what was said to me or offered I couldn’t get past that.
We wish life was simple and that difficult moments were passable by taking the platitudes given during them to heart. The reality however is that pain is part of life and does not go away with an attempt at a kind word. Simply put pain sucks and getting through it is a process.
It has been over 30 years and that memory and pain are still very real at times. I don’t wear it on my sleeve or try to carry it with me, I do what many do and file it away with the other moments in life I have “white knuckled” through. I was reminded recently that this moment and the rest of my mental filing cabinet should have been dealt with differently. As a Christ follower, I should have just given them all to God.
With all the seriousness and honesty I can muster, I have to ask: “What does that even mean?”. I get the concept. “Cast your burdens on the Lord” in Psalms and “Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden” in Matthew. But I am not looking for conceptual support as much as practical method. How am I supposed to do that? How can I cast an overwhelming sorrow onto God?
Don’t get me wrong I have tried. At this point in my life I have come to the conclusion that either my aim or my strength are sorely lacking when it comes to this. Also, I should take a moment to apologize to anyone who was standing near me when I did this. Casting and handing off are apparently not my spiritual gifts and I must have skipped that class in Seminary.
I think part of the problem is that we are looking for something that isn’t promised in these passages. God is saying he will bear the burden but that doesn’t mean we wont feel the struggle or the pain that comes with it. Pain has a purpose. Physically it typically lets us know we are approaching the limits of our abilities. I think that works mentally too. I look to be invincible and superhuman in how I deal with things and address issues but maybe the pain is just showing my limitations and giving me a hint to tap out so to speak.
Another part of the problem is the root of the pain itself. Problems have either internal or external causes. If we are the ones causing the problem, stopping what we are doing to cause it is the best way to stop it. If the problem is external it is not always that simple. External crises can be overwhelming, daunting, and frankly impossible to get through. Most problems facing the church today fit that statement. We learn Gods word as black and white but the world lives in the grey. If we just apply Gods word without understanding the context of the situation we may very well be right, but we will also miss the point and cause ourselves or others to carry there own burdens. I have a hard time thinking God will be happy with my ability to regurgitate his word if in doing so I am making people “white knuckle” through life.
When God takes our burdens, he is not just trying to alleviate our circumstance; he is paving the way for us to be light enough to carry someone else’s. I have to wonder if we do that enough. Mike Pence has been very clear in his career about how he feels on LGBTQ issues. He also makes it clear that his feelings are based upon his belief in God and the bible. I can’t imagine the amount of “white knuckling” this has caused.
I really wonder when we will stop making the focus of our family (pun intended) to be telling everyone what we disagree with and start making it about whom we believe in. Christ’s message of grace did not start with “Change and I will love you”. It started with love so powerful that people wanted to change. Why do we forget that so easily? This world is turning into a very dark place. It really doesn’t matter what side of the political spectrum you fall on, we are nowhere near the garden where we started and I don’t see returning there in my lifetime. Making the focus something other than what it should be is greater sin than what we argue about in my view, mainly because we should know better.
John Oliver took a shot at Mike Pence in a very tangible way. He released a children’s book on the same day Pence did mimicking his with a message aimed at kids about acceptance and the LGBTQ community. All proceeds from his book are going to the Trevor Project and Aids America. I have to think that showing love in a tangible way is a far more powerful message than just telling people we disagree. As a matter of fact, I think that in the long run when God looks at how we are handling his message, he might be the one “white knuckling”.
Last Thanksgiving was one to remember. Somewhere in-between the compliments on my mashed potatoes and questions about whether dessert should be both pumpkin and pecan pie, I was told by a fellow Christ follower that I was accursed and going to hell. The conversation had turned from culinary choices to Christian responsibility in discussion of things like same sex marriage, security at church, and evolution versus creation. I felt comfortable around my fellow believers to speak openly about the bible and how it is used in our modern churches. I think that may have been my mistake. Honestly it probably was one of the better thanksgiving meals I have had. It was enlightening.
The specifics of the conversation are less important but the overall context speaks volumes to how we understand God and how the world actually sees us. The modern church seems to have adopted a unique view of biblical understanding. We mash verses like James 1:5 explaining where we should seek wisdom together with Colossians 2:8 about reliance on Christ and not human acumen and we end up with the ability to blame the Holy Spirit for our willingness to argue with the world about what we don’t like. Do we really think that is honoring God?
It seems like our desire for expedience and frankly our fears that we might agree with something we shouldn’t causes us to jump to conclusions about things we probably should chew on and struggle with more. Paul preached in a town called Berea and their response in Acts 17 was to examine the scriptures daily to see if what Paul said was true. The word used (anakrino) is one of active and diligent searching. We seem to have sacrificed that today with a rote memorization of lists of things we are suppose to oppose. One offers the ability to swim in the words of the Creator himself and see how they change us to be more like him. The other affords us the ability to regurgitate on command. How can this truly honor God?
This is not a dark plot to squelch the words of the Spirit or a plan to usurp the throne of God with a conservative agenda of monotone “churchspeak”, it is more realistically a direction adopted from society itself to ease the burden of actually performing anakrino. With the information superhighway linked to everyone’s phones and the focus of modern communication, we are inundated with so many factoids that the only possibility to absorb them is to respond with “like” or “dislike”. We have exchanged the idea of a well-rounded and thorough education with a strong web presence. This does not honor God.
Don’t get me wrong, technology is not to blame, it is just a tool. Our use of it though will determine our efficacy in preaching the true gospel. I met a young man who was pursuing an online theology degree through a major Christian University. He explained it was faster and would get him into ministry sooner with the same educational value. He had been studying for a while so I asked who his favorite theologians were and his answer was that he couldn’t remember the names but he was willing to let me review his textbooks. If the quality of theological education being pursued by ministers today reduces the need to understand the history that brought us where we are and replaces that need with the requirement to offer an opinion in a class discussion post then we are breeding future ministers that will have no real ability to speak for the God they serve. Frankly this dishonors God.
If the some total of biblical examination that we are fostering in our church bodies is to look at an abridged online commentary or for that matter listen to a person who has done that and accept their version of truth, than how are we actually pursuing the call that was given? We are no longer preaching the gospel. We are preaching modern “churchspeak”. One of the clearest directives given in the text is from the prophet Micah. He tells us to pursue justice and mercy and walk humbly before our God. Humility starts with recognizing that our words about God are steeped in the tension of the fact we are speaking about something we have no possibility of understanding fully. If we present it as if it is simple and can be verified through a checklist, if we address the world’s concerns as if they are either on that list or not and therefore some type of abomination, if we stop examining the scripture and just read it to find agreement with our preconceived notions, than our ability to honor God has left the building. I have a large concern that God will follow shortly.
The message of the modern church is being obscured by our own voice. We are reaching some people, but I have to wonder if we are doing justice to them or the ones we are not reaching if we are encouraging compliance instead of diligent scripture searching. This does open up doors for possible misunderstanding and even not addressing sins in peoples lives. I am just not certain that is a bad thing. If we are truly seeking to honor God, then the most important thing to remember is we cannot bind his power to work in people’s lives by the insecurities of our own beliefs. The alternative is simply not working and I fear is an offense to the one we serve.
The rumble and roar of evangelicals could be heard around the internet. People boldly went to their nearest social media outlet to proclaim to the world, or more realistically their social circles, that they disapproved of the SCOTUS decision that marriage in the United States is now federally approved to include people of the same sex. One post even declared “we are followers of Jesus Christ first and foremost. Unto Death a Christian”. In response people from the opposite side of the argument posted pictures of the White House filtered through a rainbow and rainbow flags and images. The battle lines are being drawn and the newest Civil Conflict is being declared. One truth stood out above all other. Both sides feel it is us against them and the first casualty is communication.
The Church is preparing for the conflict, but in a unique way. The modern Church in general would consider themselves a New Testament Church but for some reason we are greatly modeling our actions out of Old Testament thought. I am not referring to the assessment of whether Homosexuality is acceptable in God’s eyes. I am referring to how we are responding to the perceived threat from the “gentiles” or more specifically, those outside the body of believers who support this ruling. We are calling out to God for protection from our enemies and seeking his strength for vindication as David did. We are gathering supporters and preparing for action as Gideon did. We are making stands for ourselves and our houses like Joshua. We are preparing our battle cry to call out like the army surrounding Jericho, “Marriage is between one man and one woman!”.
I think that is where we have missed the mark. We have been preparing for a fight for so long we forgot to check our facts. The Bible does not teach that marriage is between one man and one woman. Out of the 100 or so times marriage is mentioned, only a handful of verses mention anything in the way of instruction. Most of those instructions are about how to act between spouses and not who to marry. The statement “Marriage is between one man and one woman” comes greatly out of inference. In the garden when Eve was created she was given to Adam and the two became one flesh. Ok, I see the inference in the story but I don’t see the mandate. If you look at the rest of the bible the practices of marriage were steeped in polygamy and a brokerage system that involved purchasing a wife.
The standard response to this is that God tolerated these things but did not support them. I think this is where the real problem lies. We are inferring what the correct standard should be from the bible. We are allowing it to change to meet the social structure of a modern world based upon our understanding of what God intended. We have adopted that structure within our bodies and are encouraging our congregations to honor God through their involvement in that practice. All of that makes perfect sense within the church and we have every right and reason to create mandates for membership in our churches surrounding those inferences. But how exactly do we think that gives us any right to place those mandates on the rest of the world? How can we expect people who are not following God to sacrifice there personal desires to approximate a relationship with God without actually having one?
We are throwing around the word love and telling people that it is our responsibility to warn them that they are headed down the wrong path. I am not sure I can even fully agree with that sentence but even if I do, how exactly do we feel that legislation to prevent people from doing something we don’t agree with is warning them? We are not warning, we are preventing. How does lovingly warning turn into policing? That is clearly not our job yet for some reason, around this subject specifically, we not only want to take it on, but we are claiming God is requiring us to.
We have been so caught up in our preparations and supplication I have to wonder if we have forgotten invocation. Have we truly sought guidance from God on this and truly asked for his presence in our actions or are we running as fast as we can like a child with scissors in their hand. We are doing horrific damage to our own witness and causing people to turn away from the church, not because they are rejecting God, but because they are rejecting us. We need to stop this train before it permanently derails and get back to a focus of letting God be God and being happy with being his people. We have every responsibility to regulate actions within the church. We seem to have forgotten that responsibility stops at the church doors.
Somewhere between loss and recovery is a four letter word that both screams into the darkness and relishes in the light. It lays down beside our broken bodies at the worst points of our lives and comforts us. It reaches deep into our souls and pushes us toward rehabilitation and restoration and yet seems to cling to us when we think we no longer need it. It is a universal need and true universal constant that connects all living beings in a way that breaks the bonds of even death itself. It heals like no medicine can and without it no medicine can truly work. It provides the ability to stand against the worst of the world with resolve. It gives us the ability to lay our heads down and find true rest when needed. It’s echo lingers long after the word is spoken and it’s effect has changed the course of history. That word is hope.
Everyone needs it and yet you can so easily see when someone no longer has it. I saw a man in local parking lot recently. His beard was rough, untrimmed, and dirty. His clothes were similar in condition and somehow expressed his outlook but not his character. He struggled in the corner of a parking lot to cover his cart with a tarp to protect it from the rain. Moments earlier the tarp was his blanket but as the day began and people came around he needed to move so he would not draw too much attention to himself. He needed to protect his things. In his mind, that was all that mattered. In his mind, that was all he had. He was broken, whether by the world around him or by his own choice is a philosophical discussion he really didn’t care about. How he got there was academic in relation to where he was was. Each moment hung in the balance between fear and loss. They were his constant companions but offered no solace in their company. He was a man clinging to a rope over a deep pit whose life expectancy was measured in how long he could hold on. He had lost hope and he was merely waiting for his fingers to give way.
Christianity is supposed to be the embodiment of hope. In the first century the biblical writers cultivated the idea and focus around a term that in and of itself was rather mundane and simple. The word was gospel. It simply meant good news. It was the kind of thing that was said about a birth announcement or a wedding. You would send a message of good news to people to let them know there was a reason to celebrate. The early writers captured this term and used it to describe the message of Christ because it was the ultimate reason to celebrate. It was the pivotal point in time where all that was evil collided with all that was good and was obliterated. This meant the chains that held us to death, destruction, and separation from God were now gone. The idea was that we who were lost were now found in such a powerful and overwhelming way that the very core of existence has changed and our souls are now free to be with God forever. This is the truest possible good news. So I have to ask if we have made it something that is less than good?
Today’s message from the global church seems one saturated with political and social opinion. It is one of recognizing so called true strength by becoming enlightened through knowing the way. This “way” includes a structured method of achieving ones goals and desires through naming and claiming. It includes the power to devastate the opponents arguments through use of scripture (whether or not that use is contextual, synchronous with the rest of the church’s teachings, or even aptly applied to the circumstance). It involves social gatherings around music and light shows. Lastly (though I am sure not completely) it involves totems and spiritual symbols that are carried around and venerated at yearly festivals. In other words, it looks a great deal like paganism, idol worship, and gnosticism rolled together and tied in a bow made of new ageism.
Churches even within denominational structures are becoming brands and franchises seeking to be the center rather than reflect the center. They argue within themselves who is better, more accurate, more scripturally relevant, or more seeker sensitive. Or they go the other direction and work so hard to stay out of the arguments they miss the need to unite as one movement. This is truly a harsh message but one that if not heeded will cause us to not only close our doors but to close our hearts as well.
Please understand I know how cynical this sounds. I am not saying it lightly. I am however saying it because it needs to be heard. If our goal is to communicate the good news and have others join us in our relationship with the Creator, we are focusing on all the wrong things. We need to stop focusing on trying to get something out of the gospel message for us and start explaining why it is good news to others. We have built structured self-ology for far too long and need to get back to our theology that God is the reason we are here. We need to stop trying to build castles and monuments to him and start building his kingdom.
The message being heard today is one of control. We need to make it one of sacrifice. It is one of self. We need to make it one of others. It is one of piety, we need to make it one of righteousness. It is one of security, we need to make it one of justice. Simply put, we need to make it one of hope.
He felt alone, misunderstood, and rejected by his parents because they would not accept his choice to be a girl. They felt confused, upset, and morally justified in denying his will. He could not see a way out and could not accept their view so he felt a better answer was to not exist. He wrote a note, planned it out, and stepped from this world to the next. Leelah Alcorn was a troubled and confused person whose choices I cannot agree with, but if we are unwilling to look at the problem honestly we are condoning it. I cant do that either. Camps are starting and the internet is full of people’s opinions. They start with or center on a pronoun. Should he have been or be called a she. The specifics and legal ramifications will be debated for a long time to come but the ethical response has no reason to wait.
Is Gender a characteristic that can be defined by human will or is it set in stone? Is it malleable or do we have the right and need to discover it? Science has an answer, conservatives have an answer, liberals have an answer, but are we asking the right questions? Human DNA coding on a base level promotes the pairing of chromosomes that either match in type or do not. If they match in type science determines the person female and if they differ in type it determines male. This seems simple enough as the DNA code writes the person and their growth patterns throughout their life. This however also creates a problem. If the will of the person does not agree with the genetic coding, is the coding wrong?
Gender dysphoria is understood as a person who strongly feels they are not the gender they physically appear to be. The DNA coding somehow misfired and their consciousness went one direction while their body went another. The medical response is to surgically and chemically alter the body to realign these two diverse views or recreate what has been created. God is removed from the picture and man takes over to right the wrong that has been done. Does that just address the symptom though? If the DNA code does not change, is the person truly changing? This may seem like a minor point but I think the entire argument rests on it. If the surgical and medical solution does nothing to change the causal factors of the dilemma, have we truly addressed the problem that the person has or have we merely changed outfits? I am not trying to make light of it, I think this is the core. If we are not able to fix the root issue then are we helping the situation by focusing on the pronoun and attacking those who do not agree?
Richard Dawkins stated that “Nature is not cruel, only pitilessly indifferent. This is one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn. We cannot admit that things might be neither good nor evil, neither cruel nor kind, but simply callous—indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose.” If nature (DNA) is truly purposeless, then it cannot be wrong as wrong would indicate it went against its own or a superior designer’s directive or desire. In other words DNA can’t be wrong, only God can. The very nature of this problem philosophically begs the question, “Can God make a mistake”?
In short, many on both sides of the fence, feel he can and does. I think the challenge is two fold. One, if we claim he made the mistake, we are claiming to have superior knowledge to him and thereby become better than him. If that is the case, why is the world still in trouble? The second part is that our answer doesn’t help the person in trouble. In the case of Leelah Alcorn, we all failed. The church, society, his school, his friends, his loved ones, we failed at helping him address the problem of accepting who he was. That lead him down a path to make a very dark choice. All we are left with is asking how we will help the next person?
The church should be a haven for people like Leelah but in his own words, it was not for him. Maybe that had to do with some misguided and frankly aberrant social science behavioral modification garbage his counselors were using, or maybe it had to do with just not communicating well enough that God loved him for who he was. Either way, we missed our goal of loving the world.
Gender is not truly malleable but a person has the freedom to be who they want to be. His parents felt that he was headed down a wrong path and wanted better for him. Society taught him rebellion against them was fine as long as it lead him to who he wanted to be. That frankly is as irresponsible as the behavioral modification. Like many social issues today, there is a lot of red paint. We will never solve the problems if all we do is blame the person who is covered the most. The issue of gender is symptomatic to the acceptance of who we are. Christianity teaches that who we are is less important than whose we are. Maybe we need to do a better job explaining that before our voice stops being heard completely.
Labels sometimes betray us. They can say more about the labeler than the one being labeled. I grew up in a time when the concept of feminism was a liberal agenda that had more voice than value, or at least that was how the conservative side painted it. That was met equally by the conservative side being labeled by the liberal side as misogynistic and oppressive with more greed than brains. Somehow the true problems being voiced got buried and I fear they have just increased as they have rippled through time.
Webster’s defines Feminism as “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities”. The simplicity of this makes me feel I am missing something. How can anyone not be a feminist? If a person is ever willing to say or think seriously that gender should ever dictate rights, they are simply somewhere between addle minded and deranged. The scariest part about that is historically the church fit somewhere on that scale. This misanthropic myopia linking the church’s theology to the dark ages clearly did more to support the battle of the sexes than it ever did to call armistice and seek a resolution. In fairness to the church, they felt justified because the Apostle Paul mentions roles of women and cultural customs in two of his epistles. Why some more enlightened scholar did not point out that the social roles and customs Paul spoke of directly related to a society that can not even be remotely linked to modern America, I do not know. What I do know is that using the bible to support injustice offends God even more than me.
With the labels firmly in place after decades of battle, will we ever truly get down to the issue that needs to be addressed? What really defines equality of the sexes? Is it pay or status? Is it whether we have the appropriate ratio of male/female politicians and business leaders? Is it gender neutrality in language, or is it securing reproductive autonomy for women and removing the male voice entirely. Whereas these are specific ideals in some feminist groups, I don’t see how these characterize gender equality or how they secure rights and opportunities as the definition states.
Like many problems, the real issue is in the words we use to argue a point. To argue for or against the widening or narrowing of roles for women in society and the church starts with a fallacy. Why are there expected roles placed by either the church or society? By simply agreeing that there are expected roles that should be followed we are advocating that some people were intended to be in those roles. In short, they were made for them. The church has believed God created men for some roles and women for others. Secular society would call it nature or the evolutionary process. The problem is that both groups are saying the rules were not created by them but we need to follow them. That is where the error lies. Roles should not be defined by expected rules and norms. They need to be defined by the people who choose to accept them for themselves. Basically outside of physical limitations, people should not be limited by anything other than their own desire and willingness to achieve. By even addressing the issue, we are in part encouraging it.
Still deeper in the problem is the history itself. As both society and church we have committed heinous and utterly stupid acts in relation to this. We have told women outright even to our own detriment that they were not capable of performing tasks because of their gender. Some of those tasks may even have been done better by women but the social structure of the times not only permitted the prejudice but also fostered it. We own that and we carry it with us. We can not change the history but we can change how it affects the present and future. Frankly, I feel the church should be leading this effort. We are far too reactionary when it comes to social concerns and issues.
The real question however is how to lead? Women who choose to live in the established gender roles have just as much right to do so as those who choose not to. Forcing societal change through regulation or teaching has never been successful and reversing the discriminative practices will not correct the past or benefit the now. The inaction of the church in the past has caused more problems then we care to admit. We are seen as the problem when in reality we should be the solution. God called for us to love all and Christ himself placed women in leadership positions in his own ministry. Why don’t we? Some of the greatest biblical scholars are women. I (or anyone for that matter) would be a fool not to listen to them inside or outside the church. If we are truly thinking that gender is the dominant indicator of worth, we are doomed. Maybe I am being simplistic, but shouldn’t we be interested in whether a person has something of value to offer and not limiting the type of things they offer? I wish I had a way to solve the problem but I am not sure there is a solve as much as a path. We need to as individuals stop discriminating based on gender and be willing to look at our actions openly for motivating factors and change them. If we start the change, maybe it will spread. If we do nothing, we are only supporting the problem and wishing it changes. I for one can not accept that.
I read a story recently about a neighborhood tomcat who had become known to people as “Ugly” because he was always filthy, scarred, and getting into fights. He would go up to people and they would throw cans at him or turn the hose on him. Their motto became don’t touch Ugly and they made sure others knew this when going through that neighborhood. One day Ugly bit off more than he could chew and got into a fight with a couple of large dogs. A man heard the scuffle and went outside to find Ugly mortally wounded and lying still on the ground. His heart went out to him and he picked the cat up fearing he would be scratched and started to the local vet. Instead, Ugly nestled into his chest and purred with affection. He didn’t make it to the vet and the man wondered if affection was what the cat truly needed and if he had shown him affection earlier, would things be different? The allegory to Christians reaching out to the unlovable in this world screamed out and the guilt strings played a familiar tune. And yet, when I was done reading, I felt more anger at myself than anything else. If we as Christians need a story of a dying cat to remind us to love the unlovable, there is something very wrong. If we need to be forced by emotion to take the action that God wants from us, we are in trouble. But I have to wonder if it is simply because we just don’t really understand the concept of Love.
Love is thrown around like a fix all and be all. It is all we need and means never having to say you are sorry, as well as a thousand other trite greeting card slogans. But is that really love? Some posit that love is an innate quality that we are born with. Mothers bond with their children immediately and create a connection that cannot be replaced. But is that love? Love is not a biological imperative. It is not caused by a physiological manifestation or chemical process. Those are feelings and are a cheap substitute for love. They are certainly motivating factors especially in relationships where love can or does exist, but they are not love.
Some feel that love is a learned behavior. It is the “input” required in order to gain something we want. We love in order to receive affection and caring from others. The problem is that it takes morality out of the question. If there is no higher purpose or reason other than quid pro quo, than love is neither universal or sustaining. We would be able to find a balance on expectations of what is required for love and then regulate it to the point of not caring for those who don’t match up. Regulating love to a moral commodity removes its value all together. Love is an action, it is a reality made true by choice. If the evolutionary model that modern science proclaims is accurate, then relationships with others are created based upon a biological need. those needs are to secure internal wants. Love however is an external choice that is willing to give of itself in order to achieve the best for another. Christ said (and many have quoted both in religion and out) that there is no greater love than a man who lays down his life for a friend. How does biology account for that? If the existence of a person ends at death, how does a biological need give a willingness to sacrifice for others. Quid pro quo makes sense to some extent, but if there is no pro quo, how can their be quid?
Because love is an action it is worthless unless it is chosen and made to happen. It cannot be sugarcoated and it cannot be faked. If it is real, then sacrifice follows it. Not necessarily the ultimate sacrifice Christ mentioned but a true giving of self that cannot be expected in return. If we truly love, whether or not we see results such as change in another person doesn’t matter. What matters is the sacrifice and the love shown. A christian should not be loving for any other reason than virtue. Don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting there is any value in piety or self promotion of virtuous behavior. The truth is far more realistic. We love because Christ loved us first. That is the backstory for virtue. It is not a normal process in mankind, and it does not exist in nature. We take action based upon our desire to serve God and that action causes us to give of ourselves in love even at our own detriment if needed.
Love is not for the faint of heart and not for people who want quick reward. It is a long journey to be lived with an expectation of nothing more than to meet our Savior face to face upon completion. That is when we will truly see the benefits of love.
I was on a conference call with a group of people completing a project and one of the key players was thanking everyone for their participation in adding to the success of the project. He had clearly not planned what he was going to say and began spewing praise that somehow looped in on itself and began to sound a bit weird. He tried to get out of if by making an analogy to Hannibal crossing the Alps into northern Italy during the Punic wars. You could hear everyone squirm on the phone hoping he would just stop talking. His message and intent were powerful, his delivery and method were not so much.
Words have power, far too much at times. We can have the best intentions or the worst intentions but if our words are not chosen correctly, our intentions do not always communicate. The funny thing is the words themselves are actually neutral, the power they possess we give them. The challenge that many followers of Christ face is centered on this. The intent seems simple, proclaim the message of a loving God who created this planet with the desire that man should explore the wonder of it and thrive. Then it gets challenging. It is a multi faceted conversation that starts with the human interaction with choice and ends with the self sacrifice of Christ allowing reconciliation. Almost every word in those two sentences needs to be unpacked, discussed, and chewed on to make them real in the life of the person doing the chewing. But for some reason, historically, the church seems to throw out the message like it is instructions on how to turn on a light. We then get frustrated when people don’t hear the message.
Maybe some people just want to present it in a clear and concise way to feel like they have achieved a clean understanding. We want to keep it simple and keep the main thing the main thing (along with other cliche’s from the 60’s and 70’s). In order to do this we limit the message by focusing it on the parts that impact us and we find most important. The problem is that we declare what is simple and risk judging what another person can handle and risk actually insulting them in the process. It is almost like we want to chew the food up for them so they can swallow it. (Sorry, that was a bit graphic but did go with my theme.)
Maybe others feel that God values some parts more than others. We want to focus on the parts that he approves of most so we can please him ourselves and help bring others up to speed quicker. Whether by good intentions or just fear, the message is altered by this. The problem here is that when we do this, we are actually usurping the throne of God to declare what parts have more importance and negating the other parts as less valuable. This comes across more like inviting a person for a steak dinner and only letting them eat rice and white bread. They may even like that but are not getting the flavor or nutrition of the meal.
Maybe still others want to feel the security of their own knowledge as a warm blanket. We focus the message only on what we can fully explain and dismiss the rest as “deep study” material. Maybe some things are, but if we direct people away from parts because we don’t like to talk about them, we are providing a gospel different than what God gave us. We give the people the menu at our steak dinner but tell them what to order and what will taste good. Some may appreciate this but is that truly providing a full dining experience?
The message was intended to reach into a person’s soul and confront the demons that hide there. It is a story about how a person connects to the Divine and revels in the power of the Creator. It gives life, true life, not just an approximation established by momentary success. It is the story of a God who’s anger was so great he could only extinguish it himself and whose love was so great he couldn’t stop himself. It is the story of how the infinite became finite to teach us to transcend the distance between them. It is a story that must be heard in full to be evaluated and must be chewed on to be understood. We need to stop being afraid and let people chew.
The sidewalks were cracked and littered with filth and the stench of desperation. People were laying on the ground next to buildings hoping to stay warm in whatever makeshift covering they could find and praying that the refuse they were depending on for life would not be stolen from them by someone while they slept. When you have walked this part of Los Angeles at night a few times you begin to realize that a person sleeping in his own urine is a defense mechanism more than just a person who doesn’t care. We would take groups down here regularly to pass out food and blankets and offer servings of compassion to anyone who had a way to hold on to it. But this night was different.
Each night we go and set up a location where within moments of arrival flocks of people would start standing in line. After a few minutes, another of the leaders and I would step away and scout out some of the even less desirable areas where people who were in worse shape would be. Our goal was to see if it made sense to take small groups into these parts to hand out food and water or if safety was an issue that night. Fearlessness and foolishness are two sides of the same coin at times. We walked out of sight of the main group and down a side street. We saw and alley off to the side that was dark but about 100 feet in you could see cardboard boxes and signs of life. We brazenly walked in and got about 50 feet in when several men came out to meet us, or more specifically stop us. At the same time several others moved in behind us to make sure we understood they were in charge. From where we were we could see the women and children farther down the alley and the far end was blocked off. This was their home where they protected their families and we just walked in the front door unannounced. The myriad of ways this could have played out were as dark as the street itself but I learned a long time ago that compassion speaks louder than fear. I held out some water an offered some food explaining we were from a church with only a desire to show God’s love. The guy who was obviously in charge silently motioned and the area opened back up. We left food and water with them and took away lessons in humility.
What we saw as a filthy alley, they saw as a home they could defend. What we saw as people who needed help, they saw as people who needed protection. What we saw as lost, they saw as hope. Perspective changes circumstances, events, and even our understanding of the truth. We see things from our perspective with a mission to communicate the power of God to “the lost” but need to incorporate the perspective that “the lost” don’t always see themselves that way. As a matter of fact, our perspective created by that word sees them in a way that prevents us from seeing the humanity of the person first. The overriding fact is they are a creation of God. Are we seeing that and communicating that in our discussions of “lostness”? Our perspective is one of a clinical understanding of the text. There are two groups. Group A knows God and has “the truth”. Group B does not and needs “the truth”. We keep presenting it in a way that explains the facts as if people will adopt truth just by hearing it. The problem is that Group B understands “the truth” from their perspective which we see as at odds with our perspective so we end up arguing about “the truth” rather than communicating about the Creator who gave life abundantly through his son Christ. What we don’t see is that many times we lose the ability to speak effectively because we don’t understand and respect the perspective of the people we are ministering to.
Maybe it is fear. Maybe it is pride. Maybe it is an exaggerated sense of justice. What ever it is, we need to change it. I am not advocating we change our practices of communicating within the church. If we are experiencing the love of God and healthy worship in the church, there is no need to change. How we present it to the outside world however needs to change. If the message is more than the words, they message needs to be the focus and not the words. If the perspective is the thing that is blocking us from communicating Christ to the world, we need to stop looking for excuses and change our perspective. The people in the alley were doing the best the could under the circumstances they had to live. How they got there and the mistakes they made doing so are irrelevant. They still needed help. Maybe by seeing life through another perspective, we might learn that better and become better able to spread the real truth, that God is love.