Healthy Growth

How an organism responds to its environment determines, in large part, how it will grow. Human organisms are no different. C S Lewis affirmed in various places that we are shaped by the choices we make. So it becomes vitally important how we respond to incidents like the one that recently occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia.

When we are confronted by people who espouse racism or any type of racial superiority, how can we or should we respond? Violence begets violence. Hatred breeds hatred. I think I understand the angry responses of some who opposed the marchers supporting a philosophy of white-supremacy. It was easy for me to get swept up in that anger as well. In most of these cases however, anger simply increases anger. We may feel righteous after it is all over, but have we grown in a healthy way in those moments? Have those responses caused us to be more loving, kind, and generous? I suspect not.

I don’t always make Christian choices, but as a Christian, I live under sweet constraints that have been placed on me. Restraints that call on me to love my enemies, speak the truth in love, and pray for those who would persecute me.

There are other options than screaming words of hatred. Choirs could coalesce along the marchers’ parade route and sing “they will know we are Christians by our love” or “Jesus loves the little children”. Groups of men and women could join together and in unison pray aloud over the marchers, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” I am certain that there are better loving responses that can be given than the two I have just mentioned! But my point in all of this is to affirm that we can respond to bigotry and racism in ways that will promote love, compassion, peace, and understanding. In so doing, we grow in the image of Christ.

 

 

 

Be Extravagant

Recently I heard a fine sermon by Sarah Shelton, pastor of Baptist Church of the Covenant in Birmingham Alabama.  She referred to Jesus’ parable of the sower. In the parable, the sower strews seed over various kinds of soil, e.g. hard trodden down soil, rocky soil, weed-infested soil, and rich soil.

I confess that for years I struggled with those different types of soil. Assuming that ‘soil’ referred to human hearts, I kept asking the question of how do soils or hearts become characterized as in the parable. What makes them, hard or rocky or weedy or rich? Detesting the answers of either Calvinism or Gnosticism, I always ended up shaking my head in sad confusion.

However, the quagmire into which I had waded did not lead to the meaning of the parable. It was, as Sarah pointed out, all about the extravagance of the sower. He or she did not pick and choose just certain places to strew his seed. No, the seed was cast far and wide with no concern about any so-called worthiness of the soil.

What a wonderful reminder to us not to be stingy or discriminating with our acts of love, compassion, and care. Toss them out here, there, and everywhere! Trust that some will bear good fruit. And it may even be in ‘soil’ we might have thought unworthy or unproductive. Extravagance in love is never bad.

A Counter-Cultural Policeman

Baseball season has begun, so I tuned in to the first Braves’ game. They were playing the Mets in New York. Before the game the announcer asked for a moment of silence to honor some persons who had died in the past year. Among those named was former New York city cop, Steven McDonald. The announcer noted that he had been shot in the line of duty and paralyzed for the rest of his life.

Oh, but that is only the context for the story of Steven McDonald. In 1986 at the age of 22, McDonald had stopped three teenagers to question them about a stolen bike. One of them, Shavod Jones, pulled out a gun and shot him three times.

After he was rushed to the hospital, the surgeons told his wife that he would be paralyzed for the rest of his life. She was 23 and three months pregnant. Six months after the shooting, Patti Ann gave birth to their son, Conor. At his son’s baptism, McDonald publicly forgave the young man who had shot him. Later reflecting on what he had done, McDonald said,

I wanted to free myself of all the negative, destructive emotions that this act of violence awoke in me–the anger, the bitterness, the hatred. I needed to free myself of those so I could be free to love my wife and our child and those around us. I often tell people that the only thing worse than a bullet in my spine would have been to nurture revenge in my heart. Such an attitude would have extended my tragic injury into my soul, hurting my wife, son and others even more. It is bad enough that the physical effects are permanent, but at least I can choose to prevent spiritual injury. (Plough Quarterly, Spring 2017, p. 13)

McDonald spend the rest of his life–some 30 years–promoting the importance of forgiveness.

I call this counter-cultural. In America today, the majority of citizens (including many, many Christians) believe more in retributive justice than in mercy and forgiveness. In promoting the death penalty, they refuse to follow the example of Steven McDonald. And more importantly, the teaching of Jesus who clearly disavowed the ancient law of retribution–an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and a death for a death. (Leviticus 24:19-21 and Matthew 5:38-48)

If I ever face an experience as painful as that of Steven McDonald, my prayer is that I will follow his example and the teaching of Jesus Christ rather than our present American culture. Jesus calls us to forgiveness over vengeance.

 

Jesus Was Not a Strict Constructionist

Jesus had regular run-ins with people who affirmed the importance of the letter of the law. They were legalistic literalists. One of the more frequent disagreements revolved around the Law of the Sabbath. Jesus set this law aside time after time after time. The law was pretty clear: “Remember the sabbath day , and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all  your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any  work. . . ” (Exodus 20:8-10, emphasis mine)

One sabbath, Jesus allowed his disciples to pluck heads of grain to eat. They weren’t starving. They could have fasted. Also, Jesus occasionally worked healings on the sabbath day. Generally, these people were not in crisis. He could have waited a day.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke clearly as one who would not be a literalist. In Matthew 5 he rejected three laws: 1) the specific law concerning divorce that had been handed down in the Mosaic code; 2) the law giving permission to make vows; 3) the law of retribution, i.e. an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

Jesus was not a literalist. He was an essentialist. He was interested not in the letter of the law, but the essence of the law. He declared both in word and deed that the essence of the law was to love God and to love one’s ‘neighbor’. No law could be used to override or ignore the absolute law of love.

A Firm Foundation Pathway

In the Gospel of John chapter 5, Jesus has a confrontation with some Jews who were upset that he had healed a man on the Sabbath Day. According to Jewish tradition, the Sabbath was the day, once a week, that God had set aside for the people of Israel to rest. This was part of the Law of Moses.

In so many words, Jesus accused his accusers of not believing in the venerated Moses. They would have scoffed at those words. They were obeying the Law of the Sabbath and Jesus was not. The did ‘believe’ in Moses. However, Jesus pointed out that Moses had prophesied concerning Jesus. Since those particular Jews did not believe in Jesus, then they were also not believing in Moses.

I hope you are still with me! I have belabored this point that they believed and did not believe in Moses in order to affirm that this pattern seems true of many American Christians today. They believe in Jesus, but they don’t believe in him at the same time.

In the sense of affirming that Jesus is Lord and Savior, America is one of the more Christian nations in the world. But how many of this great multitude believe in Jesus to the point of taking seriously his calls to non-violence in Matthew 5:38-48 and  to a simplified life-style in Matthew 6:19-34? He closes this great sermon affirming that only those who act on what he has said will stand on a firm foundation.

Roads that will last must be built on solid foundations. One of the more effective pathways to God is to read the Gospels concerning Jesus over and over again on a regular basis. To do so will make it much harder to believe in Jesus and simultaneously to not believe in Jesus.

Worth Reading Again

The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J R R Tolkien and Silence by Shusaku Endo have something in common. They are fiction books I have read at least twice. As much as I like to read, to read something more than once indicates serious engagement.

animaatjes-lord-of-the-rings-73676I read the Tolkien fantasy for the first time in the late 60s. I was in my late teens or early twenties. As I finished the last page of the final book, something was playing on my radio. I have no idea what it might have been, but for at least the next 20 years after that day, whenever I would hear a certain chord progression in a song, I was immediately transported back to Middle Earth. What was it about that book that so insinuated it into my psyche? Perhaps it was the heroism of the little faithful hobbits, who, against all odds brought down the seemingly all-powerful evil that threatened to conquer all that lay before it.

Silence is the other work of fiction that I have read more than once.  silence-by-endo

I first read it perhaps 10 years ago. I read it again just recently in anticipation of seeing the film adaptation by Martin Scorsese. Having been a missionary in Asia for 20 years, the book reminded me of the struggles many Christians–both foreign and national–have endured in order to bear witness to Jesus Christ. The heroism of the book is mixed. And there are many other issues worthy of deep meditation. It is a powerful and disturbing book.

Both books deal with what is worth suffering and dying for. Or, in the case of Sebastian Rodriguez, what is worth suffering and living for.

I would love to hear from others about fiction books you just had to read more than once.

This Morning’s Meditation

This morning I read Luke 1:39-56 which is called The Magnificat or Mary’s Song. One spiritual exercise that I practice occasionally is writing a haiku related to what I have read. I do this to focus my attention on the text and to find some specific meaning for me at this particular point in my life. This is what I wrote:

Mary’s mighty God

Forgets not His promises

To raise the lowly

Afterwards I found myself praying for our President-elect. The prayer went something like this:

That he might care for the poor suffering people of our world and of our nation, I pray that You would soften his heart. Create within him a heart of compassion and give him the wisdom and courage to oppose those who seek only to increase their power and wealth at the expense of the lowly. May Mary’s God be Donald’s God.

Finally, this morning I turned to a meditation by Richard Rohr in Preparing for Christmas: Daily Meditations for Advent. He also looked at the Magnificat. He pointed out that Mary’s Song and the teaching of Jesus both emphasize that attachments to power, prestige, and possessions will numb our hearts and dull our spiritual perception. I believe he is right.

May the God of Mary and of Jesus be our God in 2017