Fog

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I went out for a walk with my dog after midnight.

When we started walking, I looked up at the moon, which is about two-thirds full, and thought, “Wow, what a clear night!” It was 28 degrees out when we left.

We had walked maybe a third of a mile, at most, when I noticed it was getting foggy. We live in a semi-arid region, and while we do have fog once in a while, I associate it more with other places I’ve lived than I do with here.

Unsurprisingly, there weren’t a lot of folks out there during our walk. We encountered no other pedestrians. A car would drive past every few minutes. The fog got thicker.

When we had walked a mile, I could no longer see far at all. The moon looked hazy, like it was trying to break through a cloud cover, but there weren’t any clouds in the sky. Just fog. It started reminding me of hazardous drives back in Illinois during my teen years, when a cold front would come in on the warmer air and suddenly visibility dropped from twenty miles to twenty inches. I’m almost exaggerating.

The next streetlamp became a glowing spot in the air. I couldn’t see the pole. They aren’t set very far apart. I wasn’t really nervous–the part of town we were walking in is very unlikely to present any real dangers, on a twenty-something degree Friday after midnight. I was out with friends a few weeks ago and know first-hand that there’s a bar in town where a fight might be breaking out the very moment I decided Nicki and I had no threats on the street.

But it’s funny: I had to decide consciously that nothing was out there to make me feel nervous. Once I did, I felt peaceful and relaxed and just cold enough to keep me walking briskly. Nicki stopped to sniff often, but we moved along steadily. I wasn’t uneasy, just aware that if anything did appear, we would have little notice. Headlights were showing up at the same moment I could hear the car.

For those cold walk connoisseurs, the air was frigid enough to feel in my nose but not enough to freeze my nostrils. My standard for cold is still leaving high school basketball practice, walking from the locker room to the car, and in that time my wet hair freezing solid and my nostrils freezing closed.

Nicki and I walked a little faster back uphill toward our house. We had walked a rectangle of a few miles and, nearing the final side, either she was chilly or she’d smelled enough. She paused less and trotted more.

Then, to my complete surprise, we walked out of the fog. It was exactly the clear night we’d started in. I turned to look behind me and the fog was still there, just as thick. I couldn’t tell when we were coming out of it–it didn’t seem to lessen at all–but looking back I could see where it started, or at least I could see what I couldn’t see. That is, I could identify clearly what was missing.

The route we took was downhill, so it’s possible that “down there” was just warm enough to cause the fog when the cold air rolled through. But it’s only a few feet difference in elevation.

I looked up at the moon again, and had the same thought–“Wow, so clear!” But it wasn’t the same, because on its heels followed, “But you can’t see from everywhere as clearly as you can from here.”

Hiding from Ourselves

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I’m writing while listening to music by someone who killed himself. 

That doesn’t narrow it all the way down.

It’s good writing music. I loved it when it came out and I still really enjoy it.

I’m thinking about depression and how we hide from ourselves. I’ve chosen to be very open that I struggle with depression, but very few people seem able—or willing—to integrate knowing about my depression into their relationships with me. The people who can handle it are people who deal with depression or anxiety. Friends who work in mental health. Maybe a handful of others.

Do my friends suck? No, they really don’t. I have spectacular friends. I’m blessed beyond what I could deserve.

Putting the shoe on the other foot, I find treating others with awareness is tricky because I don’t want to patronize or belittle. But it’s also tricky because I prefer not to know negatives. I’m saying this about me, and I dwell in the land of knowing people’s “dirty little” secrets. I also don’t want to reduce anyone to their struggle. I don’t want to think less of them than they deserve. I don’t know any “drug addicts,” but I do know some people who wrestle with addiction. I don’t know any poor people, but I’ve lived next to beautiful, generous people who live in poverty.

I’m not “a depressive.” I’m a pastor and a writer and a husband and a father and a bloody good ultimate player (comments welcome). I also live with depression. Naming it doesn’t mean we become only that.

I’m thinking about a picture I saw recently, a collage of entertainers and famous people (how is that for categorizing instead of seeing individuals?), all quickly identifiable, all looking deliriously happy in that moment…and all now dead from suicide.

I hope you see where I’m going. Someone, many someones, did not integrate their knowledge of these people’s condition into their relationships. Maybe they didn’t want to know. The people–these mothers and fathers and children who had experienced success in their careers but also fiercely battled depression–hid it from themselves, or at least covered it up when they needed to be getting more help. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have that collage. I don’t know that every suicide is preventable–people have free will and some will make their decision no matter what we do–but I have known people who committed suicide and I know I could have done more. Could I have prevented it? I’ll never know. I’ll live with that question the rest of my life.

I’m thinking specifically of someone I knew for much of my life. We weren’t always close–for a while we couldn’t stand each other–but we had become friendly antagonists, the kind you have only with someone with whom you once had a fistfight (symbolically or literally). Sometimes you’re just friends due to proximity (see: high school), but because we’d bonded and kind of gotten each other, because we had good and bad memories together, we stayed connected.

We went very different directions. He served in the military. He never married. Tragically, he developed a drinking problem and then suffered a horrible accident. He got very depressed. His health was never right again after the accident. He had to use a lot of prescription medication, including pain medication. Then he died.

Except in between there, we had conversations. A few times he wrote me when he was clearly inebriated. I don’t know how much he remembered of those. He asked me questions. I tried to tell him about my faith.

Except. Here’s the part I live with. I didn’t want to force it down his throat. I wanted to be the cool Christian who wasn’t beating him over the head with my Bible. I didn’t exactly play coy–I was direct with him about what I believe and why. I talked about our work in Nicaragua. I made a few suggestions for him. But I left it to him to connect the dots. I told him I’d be happy to tell him more when he was ready to ask me more about it.

You might think that’s fine. You might even say, “Good for you! People shouldn’t push their faith on others.”

Yes. But then I woke up one morning and found out he’d died.

Could I have done more? Could I have helped prevent it somehow?

I’ll never know. But I could have told him more about the hope I’ve found in Jesus in my life. I could have been more open about my own depression and how I’ve felt suicidal at points in my life. Maybe he would have raised his hands and said, “Okay, enough.” Maybe. But I won’t know, will I? I was trying to give him the space to ask in his own time. I think I also wanted to come across a certain way.

So I’m not doing that again.

If you deal with depression, if you struggle with negative thoughts and wonder if all this is worth it, I see you. (I mean, I don’t, I’m staring at a computer screen, but I get it and I am willing to see you.) Hiding from ourselves does no good. I just checked in with a dear friend who attempted suicide a few months ago. That person is doing okay right now and has found support.

I’m still listening to INXS. Michael Hutchence is still dead. You’re reading this, so you’re still alive. If you’re hiding from yourself, not really dealing with your depression, I urge you to take a step. Talk to someone. It’s hard to know whom to trust with such heavy truth about ourselves. It’s easier just to smile in the pictures. A friend has said when he’s completely depressed, he isn’t going to talk to anyone. That means the conversation needs to happen now, before it’s to that point.

I have a friend whom I have told, “The morning I decide to kill myself, you’re the one I’m going to call.”

If reading that just made you horribly uncomfortable, I’m sorry, but I really don’t care (I’m sorry that I don’t care? Guess that’s what “Sorry, not sorry” means). I’m not making the same mistake again, ever, and to me that means helping others by talking about it. If being more open saves a life, I’m willing for you to be uncomfortable and me to be embarrassed. I’m even willing to have people be awkward around me or, if necessary, lose friendships. I’m not exactly sure why God put me here, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t to make you comfortable. Or if it was, I suck at it.

I’m being completely serious now–if you need to tell someone, do it today. If you have someone you need to check on, do it now. This time in January is reportedly when depression hits people hardest in the US: grey winter, bills from the holidays, New Year’s Resolutions broken…oh, and this year a government shutdown.

Do what you can, while you can. You don’t know what you’ll wake up to tomorrow.


Let’s Talk About

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[Mental Mealth Awareness Month is May.  That’s way too far off.  So I’m calling this Early Mental Health Month. We’ll come back to it again in May.  My friend Michele Sandberg, a psychiatrist and military veteran, agreed to write a guest post on identifying and treating depression. Please, share this if you know anyone who might benefit from it.]

Depression. It’s a word with a Latin origin (deprimere which translates to press down) that has meaning across many fields in our world: astronomy, geography, meteorology, economics and human psychiatry. It’s most ubiquitous use in our culture today, however, is the latter in describing the human condition and one’s brain processes. Depression can be related to or caused by a host of factors to include genetics, physical health changes, seasonal changes, holidays, and other environmental triggering events. Depression can mean something slightly different for anyone I talk to.

My background is in mental health, so the stories I hear can be extremely varied due to many factors, including the individual’s experiences in life, hereditary factors and emotional supports available to the storyteller. The threads that run through most stories includes a sense of hopelessness, helplessness, sadness, or emptiness. Accompanying symptoms can include decreased or total lack of energy, poor appetite, poor sleep, lack of interest in previously pleasurable activities, and sometimes thoughts of self harm. Anxiety can also be a huge accompanying presence or completely absent. (One might think of depression as a spectrum to include major problems with anxiety on one end and no anxiety at all on the other.)

Why talk about depression? Well, it’s truly everywhere in our culture. Depression (what mental health people call depressive disorders as a diagnostic category) is common among many age groups (with the highest prevalence currently in 18-25 year olds) and occurs more often in females. Many people find it difficult to discuss the topic of mental health with others. Perhaps someone was told “it’s a sign of weakness” to be depressed (or whatever mental health concern is expressed) or “you’re not trying hard enough.” Mental health disorders have nothing to do with strength/weakness or mental effort on the part of the individual.

The social stigma surrounding mental health issues still persists despite attempts to educate the public and proactive attempts with patients in routine medical checkups. As a military trained psychiatrist, I can tell you that, years ago, many military members would rather be sent off to war than be sent to a mental health clinic appointment. (I hope that the military has less stigma against mental health concerns, but I wouldn’t hold my breath that it has changed significantly in the last 25 years.)

If we as community members can discuss mental health issues candidly, we might find that we are not so alone in our struggles. Imagine if a medical disorder, such as diabetes, had such a strong stigma. Would patients check their blood sugar regularly during the day as needed? Would a patient stop using their medication because they didn’t want to “rely” on something to make them feel better and live a healthier life? Would a patient call a friend or health professional if they needed help with some aspect of their medical care related to their diabetes? Perhaps you’ve heard similar comparisons before between physical and mental health diagnoses. Truly, there is little medical difference. There are many medications and other treatments for depression, anxiety and other psychiatric disorders.

So, what if you think you or someone you care about is suffering from depression? Well, again, depression is common and there are degrees of severity. If you just experienced a huge loss (of a loved one, a job, a home, or other major stressor) keep in mind that an emotional response of sadness/grief/anxiety to a loss or a large stressor can be normal. However, if mood and other symptoms (energy/sleep/appetite, etc) become affected and persist for at least two weeks, it is reasonable to talk to a primary care provider for assessment or referral to a mental health clinician. A provider can assess whether your response is a normal emotional response versus one that suggests clinical intervention.

How do you know if you need help now? Possible symptoms include: if your sleep is poor, your energy level is low to nonexistent, your appetite has taken a nosedive, and/or you don’t want to hang out with your favorite people in your life like you might have in the more recent past. Of course, another clear indication that you need help is when you don’t care about your own life or want to end it altogether. Please know that feeling suicidal is treatable (like diabetes) and that people want to help and can help you or your loved one. There are people who train and spend their careers treating others whose thoughts of self harm keep them from living normal healthy lives.

Again, the term “depression” has varied meanings in our culture. What I might call depression as a clinician might look very different than a high school student talking about the depressing day ahead, or a retired widow’s depressed state, or a single parent’s depressing week in trying to solve a rent crisis in the family’s home. BUT, all might have a true clinical depression and could benefit from treatment.

 If you’re still reading this, I want to give you some final (and truly sobering) thoughts and statistics on suicide.

 -Asking someone if they are thinking of hurting themself does not “plant the idea” of suicide in a person. Also, It is far more important to ask the person if you are worried about someone’s safety (and get the person help if they are suicidal) than not to ask at all.

 -40 percent of all people who complete suicide have made at least one previous attempt.
-Individuals with serious drug or alcohol problems are six times more likely to complete suicide than those who don’t have those use issues.
 -8 out of 10 people considering suicide give some signs of their intentions.
-Females attempt suicide twice as often as males.
-Males are four times as likely to die by suicide.
-Firearms account for 51 percent of all suicide deaths.
-Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States, but the second leading cause of death in people 15-24 years of age.
-From 1999 through 2017, the age-adjusted suicide rate in the U.S. increased 33%.
-Save this number in your phone contacts. It might someday save the life of you or someone else you know. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

Are Most “Christians” Actually Christians?

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I write to have an impact.  I write to bring about change.  I write to try to help people know Jesus better, specifically to know that they are loved more than they yet believe.  I also write to challenge people’s thinking.  I write to exhort and encourage.  And sometimes I write to keep myself from going insane.  

My best friend from high school, who is not a Jesus follower, asked me this question.  I took a long time to think it through and respond.  I wrote this several years ago and have been fine-tuning it since then. With his permission, I’ve decided I should share it here.  

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Do I think most “Christians” are actually Christians? Okay, you’ve asked for my thoughts on this a couple times. I haven’t exactly been putting it off, just taking my time thinking about it.

This is very hard to answer for several reasons.  I’m going to try to address those.

 But of course, on another level it’s very simple to answer, because it’s a “yes” or “no” question.

No, I don’t.

Having said that, here’s why I think it’s complicated beyond such a glib answer.

What IS a Christian? 

What you’re really asking, in a sense, is “what is a Christian?” or “What makes someone a Christian?” People have developed many different answers for that. Some of them are ridiculous. Many of them try to base their answers on what Jesus said, and some of those are still ridiculous. The trouble is that Jesus didn’t just say, “If you want to be my follower–” oh, wait, yes he did.

If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” This is where it gets hard. Because if it were, “If any want to be my followers, give $1000 to the charity of your choice,” then we could tell objectively who is in and who is out. But how do I look at your life and decide whether you have denied yourself, taken up your cross, and followed Jesus? He said many other things that could be taken as definitive litmus tests for people choosing to be his followers—all equally unquantifiable. “A new commandment I leave you: love one another as I have loved you.” “There is no greater love than this: to lay down your life for your friend. If you do this, you are my disciple.”

Now in reality, I think this is cool, not awful, because all these commandments point to God’s desire for people to have a relationship with him, not to jump through hoops. Because another sketchy little secret of the Christian life is that all these things turn out to be impossible for me to do by myself. I can’t love people as Jesus loved them when I’m just trying my hardest to do that. When I try, I quickly come to the end of my strength and ability, and then have to choose whether to cry out to God for help, or decide that this is “good enough.” I mean, our best has to be good enough, right?

Pothole One: People who suck at being Christians

Ah, here’s one of the first potholes. People who claim to be followers of Jesus and do their best to love their neighbors, love their enemies, et al, but in fact, they suck at it. But they’re doing their best. It’s entirely possible that [fill in person you don’t like here] is a Christian and is doing his very best, but he is, in fact, a narrow-minded, egotistical, megalomaniac. I mean, that’s how he seems to me.  Or take my friend Jared. [Name changed here.] Jared is, in our old lingo, a loser. He’s a recovering alcoholic who either fried his brains with too much substance abuse or else, to use Dad’s lingo, he didn’t start out with much gray matter. He lives a kind of small and shallow life, plays lots of video games, works occasionally, and spouts off on FB a lot. Not long ago, he was offering Christianity lessons, I kid you not, for $50 a session. And he wasn’t doing this out of greed or as a scam; he had recently felt a powerful encounter with God and, in his utter lack of self-awareness and appropriate behavior, thought this was a good way to share what he’s experienced.

 

The thing is, I do believe Jared is a Christian. I believe that God loves him and is in the process of rescuing him from a horrible existence. But we can’t measure Jared by anyone else’s standards. The second we start doing that, we become legalists, i.e. people who set arbitrary standards (based on their own preferences) for who qualifies as “holy” or “righteous” or (gulp) “Christian.” The Pharisees who hated Jesus were legalists, and proud of it, because they believed that strict adherence to God’s laws made them righteous with God. Over time, people had decided that the best way to keep from breaking God’s laws was to add a whole range of laws in addition to those laws, figuring if we don’t break the man-made laws, which are stricter, we won’t even come close to breaking the God-given laws. This was known as “The Fence around the Law.” You can see the visual.

 Pothole two: Setting legalistic standards for being a Christian puts us at odds with Jesus

If we set any “reasonable” standard for minimum behavior of a Christian, I doubt Jared would presently qualify. He might try. He might grow into it and eventually become a more Godly-looking man. I’m believing this will happen. But the problem with setting that standard is it makes us the people who decide who qualifies. Now, part of me desperately wants to set that standard, according to my own best understanding of Scripture, so that I can answer your question with a resounding, “NO! These jackasses are NOT Christians!” The reality is, they might not be. But I don’t get to decide.

 People with different definitions of “Christian” and my definition of “Christian”

What about people who claim to be Christians but have a completely different definition of what that means? This is a bit easier, but still presents some problems. My view is that our non-negotiables for being a Christian should be very few, based on what Jesus said and what the rest of the Bible says, and that disagreements over theology, standards, practices, etc, must be discussed and worked through, preferably with some of that love of Jesus that’s supposed to define us. For me, the sinner’s prayer that everyone talks about in some form is really the entry point—and almost the whole deal. Some version of “God help me, I’m a miserable sonofabitch.” I don’t think the wording is the key. But it comes down to asking for God’s help, specifically asking for God to forgive me and be part of my life. But here’s the rub: I have to mean it. There’s no double-reverse psychology to fooling God. 

 

Here’s the bigger rub: God doesn’t actually settle for “be part of my life.” Because remember what Jesus said about “If anyone wants to follow me…” So the prayer is really, “God, forgive me, a miserable sinner, and take my life.” I believe that’s salvation. But here’s the Biggest rub: it’s Forever. Capital F. It’s not “God, get me through this rough patch and I’ll pay you back with a ‘good life.’” It’s not “I had some time in my younger years when I was on that Christian kick. I’m still a Christian, I’m just more focused on my job and family now.” It’s all or nothing. God either gets your life or he doesn’t.

Going back to Jared, God knows whether he’s a Christian or not. I believe he is, because I have seen substantial changes in him—and that’s the only way I can tell from the outside whether it’s happened or not. Is Jared committing his life to following God? It doesn’t look impressive, but C.S. Lewis makes the point that we can’t compare a godly-looking non-Christian to an evil-looking Christian. That proves nothing, because you have to take into account the vast differences between individuals. The only fair comparison is between the same person, pre- and post-becoming-a-Christian. Jared is a profoundly screwed up recovering alcoholic, but before he was a profoundly screwed up alcoholic. It’s a dramatic change. He doesn’t have it as together as our friend Murdock, lawyer, Gigi’s Playhouse board member, still in the same shape he was when he played football in high school and all-around great guy (how do we stand him?) and probably never will. But Jared is changed because of God’s life in him.

Now that we know what we mean by “Christian” 

Okay, I’m finally going to hone in on your explicit question, which is “How can they be Christians if they act like that?” or the rhetorical version, “They can’t be Christians when they act like that, right?” I have screamed and anguished and lamented in prayer over how people can seem to believe and live the opposite of what I understand to be Christianity and still be Christians. The reality is I never know whether they are or not. Never. I simply can’t judge their hearts, I can’t see their lives, I can’t tell whether they prayed for God to rescue them from their own self-destruction and are seeking to live in obedience to Him.

When I look at people who rape the environment—God’s Creation, which He designed to bring Him Glory through His extravagance to us—enslave children (in practice, with their financial and legislative decisions), spread hate about other people (homosexuals, refugees, progressives, “anyone who disagrees with us and our propaganda”), gather vast amounts of wealth and share nothing with the poor and needy (they might give to their churches, but tragically that is often another version of spending it on themselves), and do all this in the name of Jesus Christ, I strain the limits of my faith to believe that these people know the same God of love and forgiveness and justice and compassion and mercy who saved me. 

Our lives following Jesus will increasingly reveal the Spirit of God who lives in us. Our actions should increasingly reflect God’s love for one another and for the least. Jesus said, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” 

 

Matthew 25 is in some ways the most challenging of all Jesus’ teachings in regard to what following him and not following him means. You might know it, but if not, do me a favor and read the whole thing:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’

Doesn’t sound like he’s kidding, does he? People sometimes like to refer to this as “The parable of the sheep and the goats,” but it isn’t a parable. This is Jesus describing what will happen in the future, and he uses the simile of a shepherd with sheep and goats. That’s all. I see no reason in the text to take anything else here less than one hundred percent literally. BUT, I still can’t make this my litmus test, because I don’t know how God judges people. If Jared manages to share a glass of water with a thirsty person, that might be enough. If a millionaire shares $50K with some people but turns away from the starving kids in Africa, the second half might be his answer.

The Real Question

But even describing it this way feels misleading. Because again, this is what I can see from the outside. The real question is what happens on the inside. I really believe this. Jesus says, “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.” 

When I became a Christian, I experienced a change in me. I went from sometimes thinking that God is real and remembering to pray (maybe every few weeks, sometimes less) to having a conscious experience of God’s presence. It’s not like I walk around with this tangible cloud of Spirit hanging out with me (picture old Sunday night Wonderful World of Disney movies; the cloud is probably green), but internally, the connection is more or less constant. God is real to me. I don’t know how to say it better than that. Before, he was a thought among many, now he’s real to me like Claire and Ashly are to you—you don’t forget them, they don’t slip your mind and come back next week; they are your waking, ongoing reality.

But the awareness is just the beginning, just like meeting Ashly and getting to know her was just the beginning. Your life changed through your relationship with her. My relationship with God has shaped my life. I make my decisions, big and small, based on my connection with God. Now it’s not some freaky, wake-up-in-the-morning-and-pray-about-whether-to-put-on-underwear-or-not deal. God gives us brains and reason and expects us to use them. He made you and me smart for a reason, and it’s not to live like idiots (which also connects back to your question). My study of the Bible has also shaped my life. To me, Jesus is concerned about 1)whether we know God’s reality and love for us, and 2)whether we are communicating that love to others. 

But the way Jesus describes and models doing that is not handing out tracts or shouting on street corners or building political parties that can make everyone be more loving (much less make everyone drink poisoned water and breathe poisoned air while we get rich!!). Jesus spends time with children, he touches lepers and sick women, he feeds people, he goes to parties, he speaks hard truth to rich and powerful people, he gets in the faces of self-righteous religious folks, he forgives people who need forgiveness, he says, “A physician does not come for the healthy, but for the sick; I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” But the Bible makes clear that THERE ARE NO RIGHTEOUS PEOPLE. And Jesus tells this about the physician to the Pharisees when they’re complaining that he hangs out with the dirty sinners. Thus, the people who believe they are righteous have cut themselves off from Jesus. The people who know they are sinners have put themselves in the position to receive him—and he makes a beeline to them (e.g. Zacchaeus). 

So I look at these people’s lives who to you don’t look like Christians and I ask myself, “Do they seek God’s direction for their decisions? Are they growing in their awareness of His love for them and their own sinfulness and need for Him? Do they take seriously what Jesus commands? Are they trying to live this stuff? Can they have misunderstood Matthew 25 and all the other 2,000 [not exaggerating] verses about the poor and needy in the Bible?” 

And that’s how I can come to my answer: “No, I don’t believe they are Christians.”

BUT! HUGE “BUT!!!”

But I still don’t know. Because God’s grace is always bigger than I think it is. Since becoming a Christian, I have fallen off the deep end at least two times. The first was in my senior year of college, the second was the period after Isaac and Dad died, especially the year we moved to Wenatchee (2000). I had massive crises of faith, and in the latter case, full on decided to reject God and screw this whole thing because of Isaac’s death and how miserable I had become. If this was how well it went following Jesus, I thought I’d try not and see how that went.  But God never abandoned me nor let me shove him away, though I couldn’t feel his presence for about 3 years (which sucked). [I should note here that not everyone does feel God’s presence, even people who have been Christians all their lives. I can’t explain that one. People are just different.] It’s a much longer story to tell, and I’d rather do it over some really good beer or wine. I realized that telling God “fuck off” was still being in relationship with God, because I was still talking with him—I just wasn’t using nice language. God eventually helped me get back again, but I had to reach a point where I wanted to come back and asked for his help—and that took a long time, because I’m stubborn as hell. So I’m convinced that God has mercy and grace on people who look like they should be toast, because He is more loving than we can imagine. Had I been hit by a car 1 ½ years into my prodigal wanderings, I don’t believe God would have said, “Sorry, I meant to get you straightened out but you didn’t try hard enough and then you died too soon. The goats go that way.”

 

If I take that grace for myself, I have to extend it to everyone else, as well. This is one of the core truths of Christianity: It’s not whether you’re good enough, because you’re never good enough. It’s always grace, and sometimes we just see it more clearly than other times. I’m as much saved by God’s grace today, living in Nicaragua as a missionary, as I was in Wenatchee, getting myself addicted to destructive things because I had stopped caring whether I was obeying God or not. I’m still an addict and I have to live in recovery to keep away from it. It’s probably not as intense as Dan Koenigs’s recovery, but it’s serious. 

Phillip Yancey writes that “Grace has the whiff of scandal about it.” He means, in part, that grace looks scandalous because it offends us when it applies to people whom we feel deserve judgment. The thief on the cross who asked Jesus to remember him got the response, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” Now I have to believe Jesus didn’t mean “And I’ll be sending you to hell from there.” The guy acknowledged to Jesus that he was a bad man who deserved punishment and then asked Jesus for help (“Remember me”). Again, no formula. If the man meant it, I believe that’s what counts. So what happens if one of these guys who looks so horrible to us asks God–sincerely–to forgive him for his outrages against humanity? I believe God does forgive. Scandalous, but true.

What If…

But honestly, that’s not our hard question. Our hard question is, “What happens if they ask but then don’t change?” Saul was out chasing down Christians, dragging them away in chains, getting them killed. Then he saw a flash of light, fell to the ground, and a voice spoke to him.  When he got up, he couldn’t see. He went around blind for three days, and when it was over, he changed. Radically. One of our seminary profs said “The proof of Jesus’ Resurrection is that Paul ate pork.” As in, there’s no other rational explanation for a guy utterly committed to his Jewish laws of behavior to do a 180. He would have died for those beliefs, but he had an encounter with God. Encounters with God should change people. Maybe dramatically and instantly or maybe quietly and over the long term, but they should. Jesus talks about this as “bearing fruit.” Paul talks about it as “being transformed into the image of Christ.” There is no following Jesus without this happening.

I don’t think I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth when I say:

Grace means that God takes us exactly as we are and “Nothing we do can make God love us any more, and nothing we can do can make God love us any less.” (Phillip Yancey’s definition of “grace.”)

and

He will be infinitely merciful to our repeated failures; I know no promise that He will accept a deliberate compromise.” (C.S. Lewis.)

Because when we say “God takes us exactly as we are,” we mean he receives us in whatever wretched condition as our starting point with him. We don’t mean God is blasé and says, “Eh, if you want to push cocaine or molest little girls or oppress the poor and cause children to starve, that’s fine, because I accept you.” There is no sin so awful we can’t repent of it, but we do have to repent!

And I don’t know, for the life of me I cannot figure out, what is going on in the minds and hearts of these people who pray every day to the same God I know and who read their Bibles and go to church and read books by Christians and do not see their behavior as sin. But I know I have blind spots, and I know God is merciful to me while I slowly come to recognize them and even more slowly come to repent of them.

Now all this is based on the assumption that these people are Christians the way I mean it. In reality, I am guessing that a whole slew of them don’t have any actual direct connection or relationship with God, don’t understand it to mean what I described, and believe that if they go to church on Sunday and thank God for their food at mealtimes, they are Christians. I think that’s wrong, and you’d be hard-pressed to get that to match up to any one of Jesus’ definitive statements about his followers. e.g. “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” Hard to get “Dress up for church and vote a certain way” out of that. To me, anyway.

I don’t think that everyone who truly abides in Jesus will end up living in Nicaragua, or some comparably impoverished nation. (Hoo-boy, does that sound self-righteous! I don’t mean it that way. I just mean this has been our response, or at least a big part of it.) I DO think that their lives will change. Jesus also told the Pharisees that “The tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of Heaven before you,” which couldn’t have gone over well. He meant, “they are repenting and seeking life in God and following me, while you are clinging to your laws and rejecting me.” I expect to be surprised when I die, both at who has chosen to enter the Kingdom of Heaven and who has rejected the Kingdom of Heaven. Passages like this make me wonder: ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.” ‘

I have to believe, because I know God is faithful and I know what happened to me, that God is “speaking” to these people and calling them to repentance all the time. These things that horrify us certainly offend God much more. I don’t know how it works in their lives, whether they are taking tiny steps toward obedience or whether they are hardening their hearts against having to change when they like their lives just the way they are. 

I dare not try to pass final judgment on an individual, because that would only put my heart in a bad place, and what do I know? On my good days, on the days I’m praying and feeling strongly connected with God (because all relationships have ups and downs), I am so intensely aware of how sick my heart is that it would be overwhelming, except that I can see how far I’ve come already and I know God is patient with me. Having said that, I still believe I can safely say that a whole lot of people who are blind to the truth (what you and I call “caught in the Matrix”), who believe they are Christians and their behaviors and actions are just fine are in for a harsh wake up. God is certainly calling to them. I hope they will hear that call while still on this side

 

ON the Brink of a New Year

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I’m fifty now and I notice I have to fight harder to keep my optimism.  

Having acknowledged that, I think we’re in a crisis.  The world, as my father might have said, is going to hell in a handbasket (“Where are we going and why are we in this handbasket?”)  

I don’t have answers.  I don’t know how to fix this.  What I have are a few thoughts and some questions .  

I’m trying to speak up for justice while extending grace.  That’s my goal in life:  Follow Jesus who loves everyone and speaks truth to power.  That’s my hope for me.  It’s hard and I’m always failing (or flailing), but I decided thirty years ago it’s a worthwhile way to spend my life and I’m still here.

Being hateful does not bring peace.  

Getting angry is screwing up my blood pressure but isn’t helping the children I’m trying to defend.  

Every day–every single day that I pay attention to U.S. news, I get outraged by what’s going on.  News from Nicaragua, while smaller scale, often scares and horrifies me even more.  Those are both my homes and truly bad things keep happening in each.  I’m exhausted by this.  

I know you and I may disagree on some political issues (and if so, thanks for reading and not letting that stop you!), so you may not see the problems that I see.  But it looks really horrible to me right now, and even if it doesn’t to you, I think it’s hard to argue that the level of animosity and rancor over the political divide has risen to perilous levels.  

Two tempting “solutions,” neither of which I think are right:

Ignore it all and let my comfortable life take all my attention.  

I’m not starving.  I’m not fleeing a government trying to kill me.  No one is taking my children from me at the border because I fled a country trying to kill them.  I’m not being racially stereotyped or profiled.  Yes, I have some problems–many of them inside my own head–but I get to do a lot of things I enjoy and spend a lot of time with my family.  

So I can just mind my own business and let it “take care of itself,” whether it gets better or worse.  If it doesn’t need to be my problem, then it can be not my problem.  

Or

Rage on.  Keep spinning around, keep reading all the name-calling, mud-slinging, violence-hissing arguments by strangers, keep getting worked up and losing sleep.  Imagine that somehow “keeping informed” will do some good, or at least assuage my guilty conscience that I’m not doing enough good.  Get increasingly angry at people who cannot seem to see the suffering that I see, or cannot seem to experience any compassion or empathy for those suffering.  Gain more weight.  

So I can fight fire with fire, get angry at all this skubula and froth over it with the other people who feel as angry as I do about it, and together we’ll…be really angry.  

Nope 

and 

Nope.

 

I’ve got some plans for the start of the New Year, including a cleanse to cut out some of my recent horrible eating habits and and a better schedule for my writing.  Those will help, as would more consistent sleep.  

 

But I want to find some ground other than flight or fight.  I want to walk with people who see the problems and pursue solutions that involve loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us.  

In other words, I want to figure out how to resist like Jesus would.  

I am open to suggestions.  

How do I love people who…disagree with me?  

How do I love people who disagree with me and in so doing misbehave or treat me badly?

How do I love people who do these things as Christians?  

 

I know a few things.  I know Jesus commands us to treat others as we would want to be treated.  I have a thing for being treated kindly.  I like when people like me.  I feel loved when people listen to me.  So I try to offer those to others.  

Loving our enemies is hard; no one suggested it would be easy.  Most people don’t do it.  Here’s the crazy part: Jesus didn’t say to do it because it would work; Jesus said to do it to be compassionate like God.  Yeah, be like God.  Show compassion.  

 

Here are my questions. I ask them as sincerely and open-heartedly as I know how:

What are you doing to help change things while showing grace?

How are you keeping from being overtaken by anger and/or hatred?

What has been your experience of loving your enemies in these last two years?  

And finally, the biggest one for me, because this is my goal in the upcoming year:  Are there ways have you experienced coming together in community to be grace-filled agents of change?  Are you finding people to do this with and how are you working together as a team?  

If you do see this very differently than I, how are you loving people of the opposite perspective?  What do you find helps bridge the divide?  

I truly welcome responses to any of this.  

 

The Innocents

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When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.  Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
    wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
    she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

 

I’ve gone back and forth on whether to write on this.  I told myself to wait during the Advent series because it has its own day.  So now that day–the Day of the Holy Innocents or the Massacre of the Holy Innocents–has passed (technically, though I’m still living it) and I’m still hesitating.  

Herod killed babies.  

I am a good writer and I can help you to empathize, if you’ll let me.  I can make connections between things you’ve experienced and what I’m writing about.  

If you haven’t been there, I can’t bring you into having your baby die.  

I lived through darkness when Isaac died.  People asked things of me and spoke to me in ways that made it utterly clear they had no idea what I was going through.  I’d been completely cut off from a world that I had inhabited days before.  I looked the same and they talked to me as if I were the same, but I had gone somewhere else.  I was watching them.  I could hear them, but I no longer lived where they did.  

I remember wanting to spend all my time in cemeteries because only there I didn’t feel this wrenching dissonance between my inner and outer world.  

My son Isaac died of “natural” causes.  His heart started shunting blood three hours into his life, three hours after his birth, and hesurvived five more hours.  We prayed for a miracle.  We waited for the doctors to save him.  We got no miracle.  The doctors asked us if we wanted to hold him before he died.  

In the Bible, a man controlled by his fear and anger, his pride, ego, and need for power, gives a horrific order.  His soldiers don’t question this order.  They don’t object on moral grounds.  They carry it out.  Perhaps some did refuse; we have no record of it.  We have only silence on this and can only speculate.  We can also speculate how carrying out the order to go and butcher babies impacted these men.

 I already addressed the racist undercurrent that Joseph, Mary, and Jesus lived with every day.  Did the soldiers feel nothing because these were Jewish babies?  Herod had both Jewish soldiers and mercenaries at his command (German, Thracian, and Gallic).  Most likely, he sent a mix of soldiers to carry out this violence. 

Herod himself ordered the murder of many members of his immediate and extended family.  Anyone whom his paranoia led him to suspect, he had killed.  We can conclude that ordering the death of infants in remote villages meant nothing to him.  He heard the Magi asking about a king, he felt threatened and fearful, he investigated, and then decided to be “safe” by having anyone who could possibly threaten him–any baby or toddler with the remotest chance of growing up to be king–annihilated in cold blood.  

I can tell you for certain, though Herod felt nothing over this command–he may have snapped his fingers over his meal and never thought of it again–the mothers and fathers who watched their babies die were never the same.  My child’s death changed me and he received the best medical care available.  These people’s babies died because the people in power cared nothing for them and a man consumed by evil wanted them dead.  Some, I’d bet anything, died trying to protect their children from this insane, unexplained horror.  Would you rather die trying to protect your child or live with that image in your head for the rest of your life?  

It happened. Jesus came to a time and place in history which had such violence and racism and brutality that a man would order the death of children just to protect his own power.  I wish we had more times in history that didn’t describe.  God came into history and suffered with us.  Mary and Joseph fled the murderous king. 

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod.

I would have screamed, “You can send the Messiah through my wife but you can’t protect us from Herod?!?”  But Jesus entered history, Jesus didn’t fix history.  Put another way, Jesus came and gave his life to redeem people, but Jesus didn’t take away people’s free will. so murdering kings went on murdering, including Jesus’ family if the king could.  

The Bible does not whitewash.  Scripture does not pretend that life works perfectly for those who obey God.  If anyone has told you that about following Jesus, I’m sorry, but they lied.  Jesus himself had to flee in the darkness to survive.  Matthew gives the specific detail “took the child and his mother by night.”  Joseph doesn’t wait until daybreak.  They run.  I don’t know how they entered Egypt or where or how they survived there.  Perhaps some Egyptians showed them compassion.  [Edit: My brother-in-law rightly pointed out that the Magi (astrologers) had brought them very valuable and transportable gifts, which undoubtedly helped them survive their time in Egypt. God provided for them, even as they faced the threat of violence. Nonetheless, even with valuables, they still had to be welcomed in and not killed, robbed, or imprisoned in a foreign land.]

I don’t have a neat conclusion or a simple “here’s what we should do” for the massacre of the innocents.  I think it would be wrong to suggest one.  Jesus, by his life, brought out evil in evil people, just as Simeon prophesied he would.  If we follow Jesus, we speak and stand against that evil.  There’s nothing neat or simple about doing so.  It may force us to confront our own friends, community, or even family.  

Following Jesus makes us choose.  

 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem,  asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”  When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him;  and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
    who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”

 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.  When they saw that the star had stopped,[g] they were overwhelmed with joy.  On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. 

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”  Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt,  and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.  Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
    wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
    she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

Advent, Christmas Day: Ruling

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This year, Advent is 23 days long, December 2-24.  So technically, I’m done.  

But I have a few more thoughts I want to share and I’m not very good at following rules, so this will be the final post of my Advent series.  If you’ve read all the way through with me, I’m sincerely grateful.  I hope you felt a little closer to God, experienced a little more peace, or could see Jesus a little clearer through these reflections.  Writing them has done me good.*

We sang “Joy to the World” at the Christmas Eve service we attended tonight.  We’d never been to that church before, all six of us plus five extended family members attended, and I kept thinking how we appeared exactly as once-a-year visitors.  We shared communion, Corin had his first swallow of wine, and his takeaway was, “That’s disgusting.”  I hadn’t thought about it for years, but I told him on our way home that my first mouthful of wine came the exact same way.  I also thought it tasted awful.  No profound symbolism here, just a funny generational coincidence.  

He rules the world with truth and grace
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness
And wonders of His love
And wonders of His love
And wonder wonders of His love

It doesn’t look like God rules the world.  It looks, from outward appearances, that rich, powerful, and all too often evil people rule the world.  

But God’s ruling the world looks like this: a helpless baby kicks and flails in a cow feeder while his exhausted mother takes a moment to rest.  Then his father stands up to hear who is making all that noise–there isn’t exactly a door to close and lock; they’re in a barn, just a shelter, not a room or a home, not an inn–and honest to God, a group of shepherds come crowding in.  Some are carrying their staffs, others have their rods, none of them have bathed.  They smell worse than the animals.  But their smiles!  What are they laughing about?  Oh, because a baby is in a manger?  No–because they were told a baby would be in a manger by…by what?  By a cloud of angels?  So these are drunk shepherds?

Nope.  Happy shepherds.  Joyful shepherds.  God’s rule looks exactly thus: helpless looking baby who is Messiah, exhausted teenage mom who carried God incarnate in her body, smelly, sometimes drunk guys barging in to celebrate the wonders of His love.

He rules the world with a heavy hand and cold justice?  

No.  He rules with the world with truth and grace.

I think we have to understand two things in order to believe God rules the world with truth and grace.  

First, the acknowledged human power structures of the world must not be the most important things happening on planet earth.  If God really rules this world with truth and grace, then it’s in spite of appearances that God is in power and, in fact, carrying out his rule right now.  

I believe that.  We call it “God’s Kingdom” and “God’s reign.”  

God has chosen not to rule the world through the human-designed power structures.  If you believe in Jesus’ Advent, this seems obvious.  God in the flesh did not come and take power.  Satan tempted him to and Jesus said “no.”  

God right now is ruling the world with truth and grace, and Jesus incarnates both.  Jesus is truth (he says so, actually: “I am the way, the truth, and the life”) and his death and resurrection for us are grace.  

The miracle I want you to believe for Christmas is that this baby came to give you grace with his very life.  As for that keeping score of how much good or bad you’ve done, God says, “Naw, let’s not do that.  Instead, I will love you and work good through all the bad things.  Yes, all of them.  Yes, I know how bad they are.  What do I want in return?  I want you to stop killing yourself.” 

Crazy, huh?  How do I know this?  

Um, God told me.  

I know, that part’s crazy, too.  But think of me as the equivalent of these shepherds–an unlikely source for this message, an improbable choice for God to make a witness to Jesus. Yet here I am, only by the grace of God.  

Okay, first thing we understand: “God is not ruling through the established power structures.”  Turns out God’s M.O. is quite different.  Truth and grace are the undercurrent, through which God does the most important stuff, the Kingdom business, even though this isn’t always visible to the naked, unspiritual eye. Lord, give us eyes to see. 

Second, in the end truth and grace will have the final say.  God rules the world through a Kingdom present in our world–miracles happening every day, evil people experiencing love and choosing life over death–but not yet fully present.  By “not fully present” I mean Jesus is God and Messiah and Lord, but not everyone acknowledges those.  Believing is seeing. When God makes this Kingdom fully present, fully manifest in our world, all will know because all will see.  

Some people love the idea that God will come back and make his enemies grovel.  “They’ll get theirs!”  

I love that when God comes back–misnomer, God didn’t leave–when Jesus in fullness defeats death, this will happen:

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”

God’s grace, of which we have just begun to grasp the first hint, will fill our world.  

That’s Christmas: God’s plan in motion to fill our world with grace, to love enemies and help them recognize themselves as beloved children.

Sorry–to love us and help us recognize ourselves as beloved children.

Then, as we grasp who we are, Jesus leads us out to love others: dirty children, unwanted expectant mothers, and would-be enemies.  

“And wonders of his love, and wonders of his love, and wonders, wonders of his love.”

Go, tell that on the mountain.  

Merry Christmas!

 

*Cost me sleep, yes, but I might have squandered that on things of much less lasting value.    

 

 

Advent, Day 23: Intent

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If you’ve read the last couple Advent posts, you will have more context for what I’m saying here.  But you can also get this on its own.  

I’ve been wondering what Jesus was thinking when he arrived.  

In this series, I’ve been imagining and trying to recreate the experience for lots of folks: Mary, those deciding whether to take Mary in, the Shepherds, those astrologers we call “Wise Men,” and Zechariah, among others.  

What did Jesus think as he arrived? That’s a mystery beyond my capacity.  No one knows what infants think nor exactly how that works.  The incarnate God infant?  Definitely next step mysterious and unknowable.  

I remember my father-in-law (a wonderful, kind-hearted man*) many times lovingly watching my baby daughter and commenting, “How does all this look to her?  What’s she thinking about us?”

The difference between our babies and Jesus, the difference between any other child and Jesus, is that Jesus chose to enter human life.  If Jesus just happened to come as a poor Jewish baby who would soon become a political refugee fleeing his nation’s murderous leader, that would be pitiable.  But I believe God chose to come in this specific place and time, to face this suffering and identify with those who suffer the same.  

I think Jesus knows and understands me, but Jesus did not choose to be born in the U.S. Midwest to middle class parents in a small city of a rural community.  God did not choose to identify with that social position.  I consider the position Jesus chose enormously important when Jesus begins his ministry in Luke with these words: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.”  Jesus chose poverty and powerlessness–Jesus the Almighty Creator to whom everything belonged and in whom every living thing existed.

I can’t tell you what Jesus thought as a baby but I can tell you something of Jesus’ intention in becoming a baby.  

“I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

“I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness.”

 “For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth.”

“I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose.”

One of the impenetrable mysteries of our faith is when Jesus became conscious of his identity, when he gained full awareness of his mission, and how much he knew.  If he experienced life as a human being does–which I believe–then he did not open his eyes the very first time outside Mary’s womb and know all things.  But of course, Jesus experienced life as a human similarly yet very differently than we do.**

But we know this: Jesus came to make things better for us.  Jesus made himself poor to identify with the poor.  Jesus chose a family that would become refugees so the he, too, would know what it is to be a refugee.  These were not accidents but intentions on his part.  He didn’t have an adoption with a wealthy, comfortable family all set up but it fell through.  Jesus chose a life in which he would face racism and prejudice, in which his mother would be told there was no room for her, no comfort and safety even for his birth.  

Jesus chose this specific life to complete his work.  I infer that means he could best offer us life abundantly, be our light and bring us out of darkness, bear witness to the truth, and proclaim the good news of God’s Kingdom as a child of poverty.   His experience, his suffering, his lower class upbringing were integral to being our Messiah.  

That’s wild to me.  God so loved the world that he gave his only son in exactly these conditions.  Jesus was born into poverty and  an object of racism and brought light into that darkness.  Jesus was rescued by his parents from politically-motivated murder (a king fearing for his throne and killing babies to keep power is political, through and through) and they fled with him to another country and in this Jesus bears witness to the truth.  

From the lower class–and believe me, the power elite in Israel noticed it and commented on it–Jesus proclaimed the good news of the Kingdom of God.  

Today, this Advent, celebrate that Jesus loves you!  Celebrate that Jesus brought–brings!–light into your darkness. Celebrate that Jesus bears witness to truth for us.  Rejoice that we are offered life abundantly, rejoice that we know the good news of God’s kingdom and Jesus invites us to partner in that Kingdom with him!  

Then explore what all these things mean to us in the context of Jesus’ words and life.  

The baby came–“For a child has been born for us,
    a son given to us”–to grow into a man who would say to us:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

 

 

*Don’t worry that I’m saying these things about him; he won’t find out.  

**For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”  Jesus experienced temptation as we do but didn’t sin as we do, which makes his experience pretty different than mine.  Plus, the power he had and the miracles he performed as an adult were far outside my life experience.  

Advent, Day 22: Room

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Tonight, my brother-in-law, whom I love and at whom I laugh, asked if we wanted him to bring us anything from Target…which is a really nice thought, except that he doesn’t live in our city.  He lives almost three hours from here.  But he was at our Target.  That’s how we found out he was coming with his daughters to stay at our house tonight.  My wife Kim started laughing.  After she explained, she said, “Classic Jeff.”  

And it is.  Another “Classic Jeff” is to offer hospitality and provide rides to the airport at ungodly hours (okay, God’s awake, but no one else should be).  He is an immensely servant-hearted single dad who would shrug this off with a little smile, but he has a kinder heart than I ever will.  

His visit made me think of room.  We have room.  We now have a roomy house and though we already have a houseguest and our 19-year-old visiting from Nicaragua at the moment, we’ll make room for them.  Of course we will.  It’s funny that he didn’t give us more heads up time, but we don’t care, really, because we need neither a perfectly clean house nor three weeks’ notice to receive visitors.

While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

That’s all we have on Mary’s delivery room accommodations.  “There was no place from for them in the inn.”  Does that mean the inn was full?  Or was the inn too expensive for them to afford?  Or, possibly, the inn simply would not allow a woman huge with child, gasping as her first contractions hit, to have a room.  Mary and Joseph could not stay at the inn.  

Is that hard to believe?  This poor woman is about to have a baby and the innkeeper looks at her and says, “No.  I won’t let you make that mess and all that goes with it in one of my beds.”  Could be.  I think it’s safe to assume he doesn’t know Mary.  He has no obligations of kinship to fulfill here.  

Is there a moral obligation to help a pregnant woman about to give birth?  Are you more or less obligated if she’s poor?  What about if she can’t afford to stay at your inn but she needs a place to deliver her baby?

The story that has grown up around these verses is that the innkeeper refuses them but tells them they can stay in the barn.  

That isn’t business as usual for a birth.  When the angel got done scaring the shepherds he/she/it told them how they could find the Messiah.  

But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

A child in a manger suffices as a sign.  You won’t see it every day, even with people suffering poverty.  I’m guessing the angel must have given them a bit more direction than that; in any case, the shepherds do find the baby.  

So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.

We don’t know exactly where Jesus was born.  We assume it was some manner of barn because that’s where you’d find a manger.  Another word for “manger” is trough.  The just-born Jesus was laid in a trough.  Those were the accommodations available to the teenage mother giving birth to her first child.  

I’ve been present for the birth of each of my children.  Not everything worked out conveniently for those births, and in one case we suffered shattering tragedy, though well after Kim gave birth.  It’s a stretch for me to imagine that we might have had to make do with a space outside our planned-on facilities, though I have friends whose babies arrived in the car on the way to the hospital.  But living in Nicaragua, I know women who have given birth in conditions at which you would shudder.  I keep wondering if any of the young women in the “caravan”–the refugees fleeing Honduras and Guatemala, seeking asylum somewhere that their lives aren’t immediately threatened–are expecting.  

I don’t think such a young girl, pregnant and homeless, trying to find a safe place for her soon-to-be-born baby, will be welcomed in the inn.  She can’t pay, and taking her in would lead to enormous complications. 

Is there a moral obligation to help a pregnant woman about to give birth?  Are you more or less obligated if she’s poor?  What about if she can’t afford to stay at your inn but she needs a place to deliver her baby?

If you think, “But that’s not a fair comparison,” then you’re still not understanding what I’m saying about Joseph and Mary.  

I’ve always read Luke 2:7 with the accent on “in the inn.” Like this:

“And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

But perhaps Luke means this:

“And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

They. Were not. Welcome. 

There was no room for them.

 

If you’ve read my blog much, you know I often refer to Matthew 25.  Listen to how this reads:

 “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was a baby of a poor mother with no place to give birth, and you found room for me.”  

Jesus isn’t just being “spiritual,” metaphorical, or metaphysical.  He was a stranger.  Matthew 2:13-15.  Literally, Jesus was a refugee at the border. And he was a baby of a mother to whom no room was offered.  

“But you welcomed me,” Jesus says.  

You made room.  

 

Advent, Day 21: Racism

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Short and sweet tonight.  Yes, I promise.

Well, short anyway…

 

Jesus wasn’t white.  Jesus was not a white baby with blue eyes and blond hair.  Mary was not a fair-skinned teenage model.  These things I know for certain.  I doubt the angels were giant, muscular Aryan youth.  And as long as we’re at it, Santa Claus, about whom these Advent reflections are not, is Turkish and not caucasian, if he exists at all.  

I consider a white baby Jesus a symptom of imagining the world resembles us, of remaking everything in our image.  It’s not surprising that we see all the world as if it were just like us.  

A few days ago, someone asked on a Facebook post concerning the refugees seeking asylum from Honduras and Guatemala, “Why didn’t they find out the laws before they came to the United States?”

That would be a reasonable question if everyone in the world were just like us.  Could I do some research, sitting here in my comfortable home on my couch, listening to both the dishwasher and the dryer running, looking at the lights on my Christmas tree:  Could I do a thorough search to learn the immigration or asylum laws of Mexico or Honduras or Guatemala, if I was going in that direction?  I could.  I have two post-secondary degrees.  I have a computer and constant internet connection.  I know how to find accurate government information and how to filter out false information. 

What if I were illiterate?  What if never sent to school because my family needed me to make money?  What if someone had shot at my child today? What if the neighbors had their house burned down while they were inside?  What if I have no car or cell phone or refrigerator or microwave, much less a computer and a modem to provide wi-fi?  What if, in my fear and desperation, I started asking people how to flee the country and I got many different stories of people’s relatives or acquaintances or someone they’d heard about who left and now lives comfortably far from the crimes and violence here?  

What if a man heard we were looking for a way out and came to my house the day after my neighbors’ house burned, while the ashes are still blowing around my doorway and I can smell the smoke stronger than I can smell the baby I’m holding, and this stranger tells me he heard I was looking for a way out and for $200 he can get me and my children to safety.  He says he’s helped people out before, he knows a safe route, he has connections with the guards at the US border.  What if all my life I’ve experienced that if someone has connections with the right guards or police or officials and slips them a little money, the restrictions go away?  

White baby Jesus and the person’s comment have this in common: they assume that one’s own experience is the normative experience.  

Baby Jesus experienced racism.  Adult Jesus experienced racism.  Whipped, beaten, spat upon and crucified Jesus experienced racism.  He was not white.  He was Jewish.  He was Jewish in a country in which Romans held the power and gave the power to whomever they chose.  The Jews who held power in Roman-occupied Israel were largely those who would cooperate with their invaders.  They were people who liked having power over their fellow countrymen and didn’t mind appearing traitorous.  

What does racism have to do with Advent?  Why were Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem?  Their home was in Nazareth of Galilee.  They went because Emperor Caesar Augustus wanted more money from the people he controlled, the colonies he ruled, so that he could pay for his empire, keep up a huge army, and continue to control and rule and expand.  Verse one of Luke chapter two is not a benign historical detail.  It implies suffering leveled against people who had no power.  Is it not inherently racist for one people to decide they should conquer and subjugate another?  Or does might simply make right?  As followers of Jesus, we don’t believe that God desires people to hate, own, or control people of other races.  

A main reasons always cited for the American Revolutionary War is Taxation without represenation.  If you search on Google “Taxation” the first prompt is “Without Representation.”  The colonists considered that, and the subsequent failed efforts to negotiate with Great Britain, sufficient reason to start a war of independence.  That’s taught in every United States history book in the U.S. (Britain’s history books may teach it differently) and we celebrate the Fourth of July every year to commemorate winning that war.  Independence Day.

Mary, a Jewish teenager, was traveling while pregnant, childbirth imminent, because a foreign Emperor, leading a people who looked down on Jews, demanded more taxes from his Jewish colony.  How much representation in the Roman Senate do you think the Jews had?  

I have purposed in this series to 1)connect Jesus’ birth and all we call Advent to the rest of Jesus’ life and ministry, and 2)re-root the Nativity as a real world historical event.  I don’t consider this a fairy story that happened in a magic snow globe.  Jesus was a little Jewish boy.  If that makes us uncomfortable, we have missed a crucial understanding of our faith.  

A white baby Jesus is a symptom that we do not know our Bible, that we have rooted our faith not in history but in cultural fantasy.  I’m not being PC here, I’m keeping our faith rooted in history. In the Incarnation God chose to root the Trinity within our physical and chronological space: God took on a certain body at a precise moment in time.  

That body was Jewish and in that moment, the Jews were an oppressed people experiencing racism.  Into this world God chose to enter.  That is our faith.