Archive for the 'Neighbor' Category

Damn Christians Part II

“Because I’m a [damn] Christian.”—Will Campbell

Orlando clubI’d scarcely clicked “Publish” on my last post “Needed-Damn Christians”—when I realized I needed to say more. I’d told the story of the late Will Campbell and his unique ministry to folks on all sides of political and religious divides. I described his presence at the long-delayed murder trial of Ku Klux Klan leader Sam Bowers. Bowers had allegedly ordered the killing of a number of civil rights activists, most notably Vernon Dahmer—in the mid-1960’s! In 1998, thirty-twoyears after the fact, Bowers stood trial again in Mississippi, this time with new evidence and a realistic chance of being convicted. Campbell spent some of the time at the trial sitting with Dahmer’s large family on one side of the courtroom–and about the same amount sitting with Sam Bowers, who sat all alone on the other side. When a reporter asked why he did this, Campbell growled, “Because I’m a damn Christian.”  I concluded that our fragmented society needs more “damn Christians” who will share the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:20) modeled by Jesus and pursued by Campbell, Martin Luther King, and countless others. I said, “I believe the church’s place relative to the red and blue faultline running through American society is standing tall with our feet planted firmly on both sides… with neighbors who are easy to love and with those we struggle to love.”

But I hadn’t said much about how we arrive at that conviction, or what equips us for that uncomfortable and challenging stance. Then the Pulse Nightclub shooting happened early Sunday morning. It brought folks together. It also re-opened some old wounds and re-started some old arguments:

  • Omar Mateen’s anti-gay feelings clearly informed his choice of target. Those feelings still live in many hearts and minds.
  • He was an admirer or supporter of Isis. That’s enough to reanimate both rational concern over terror and misinformed or simply mean-spirited anti-Muslim prejudice. The ongoing investigation seeks to determine the exact nature and strength of that connection in this incident.
  • His primary weapon was an assault rifle like the ones banned from sale in this country until 2004. We’re having that yelling match again.

Thirty or so hours after the shooting, before all the dead are identified and their loved ones notified, the noise around these divisive issues grows ever louder. Politicians speak out, seeking every advantage. Activists on both sides strain to shout down the opposition. But if we’re simply yelling past each other, once again we’ll generate plenty of heat but precious little light.

What if some “damn Christians” dare to love our neighbors more than our ideology? Something could change. If we behave differently, the future would play out differently. Don’t misunderstand me. I have very strong convictions about these issues. But beyond the issues are our relationships with our neighbors. “If it is possible,” Paul urges us, “so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Romans 12:18 NRSV)

So I offer here a framework within which we who follow Jesus might find ways to “live peaceably” with “all sorts and conditions of persons” while still maintaining the integrity of our convictions.

  1. We see and honor the image of God in every person.

“God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.” (Genesis 1:27 CEB)

Every human being bears the divine image. No exceptions. No exclusions. No weasel words. No fudge factor. Sharing this divine DNA makes all seven billion of us family–for better or worse! That includes all those folks who post their ridiculous nonsense online (and who feel the same way about our brilliant, witty, profound posts); folks from places whose names we can’t possibly twist our tongues around; folks with whom we fit perfectly and folks with whom we clash catastrophically; folks who energize us and folks who drain us; folks with whom we feel welcome and folks who just give us the creeps. All of us, in all our glory and uniqueness, created alike bearing the divine image. All means all. “Damn Christians” practice the spiritual discipline of looking for the divine image, no matter how hidden, marred, or disfigured, in every human being.

  1. We recognize every person as someone for whom Christ died.

“This is how much God loved the world: He gave his…one and only Son…so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life.” John 3:16 MSG

Still no exclusionary clause. “…whole and lasting life” is God’s will for each of us and all our divine kin on this planet. Not exactly the message we get from our “I’ve got mine and I’ll take yours if I want it” culture. Claiming God’s gift doesn’t require a dazzling resume or a twenty-page application. It requires only “believing”–trusting with our whole being– that the way of life we see in Jesus leads away from destruction toward more and better life than we’d dared to imagine.

Easy to say, but very hard to accept. Abundant negative evidence exists, much provided by so-called “Christians” in the form of both actions and deadly silence. Our not-yet-believing neighbors want to be told less and shown more. “Believing” takes what God always knew it would take—incarnational evidence.

Orlando hug

  1. We will embody Christ for others through everything we do and are.

 “Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what…When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human!” Philippians 2:5-7 MSG

 That’s all it takes. Just turn my back on this 21st-century  privileged, entitled, “I want it all” culture. Climb down the ladder I’ve worked so hard climbing up. Invest myself in folks from whom I thought I’d managed to insulate and isolate myself. Give up my self-important illusions and just be my created-in-the-divine-image self. All that takes is someone who …didn’t think so much of himself…” “didn’t …cling to…status…” “…set aside…privileges…took on the status of a slave, became human.” It takes some “damn Christian” foolish enough to follow Jesus to places and people most folks say aren’t worth the effort; foolish enough to believe “God loved the world…” means the whole creation and everyone who’s ever been or ever would be a part of it. Some damn Christian like Miss Velma Westbury. According to Will Campbell, Miss Velma often said, ‘”If you just love the folks what’s easy to love,that really ain’t no love at all…If you love one, you have to love’em all.”

“Of course,” Campbell points out, “some folks said Miss Velma was crazy.”

KNOW YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF

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One day this week our youngest grandchildren (Lucas, 5-1/2, and Amelia, almost 4) took Dianna and me to Sunset Park. We didn’t know that’s where we were headed when we started out. Small people have a way of “redirecting” the big people who think they’re in charge. Geese winter at this park’s sizable lake. Huge flocks of ducks call it home year-round. Some people even claim they catch fish.

The lake and the surrounding shoreline were teeming with waterfowl–and pigeons. They expected, sometimes demanded, that their visitors pay the price of admission—FOOD! But we had nothing to offer. We’d set out without knowing our destination. But we were standing near a couple with two boys about Lucas and Amelia’s ages and a younger girl. They’d come well-prepared with scraps of bread. We watched those boys toss bread to the ducks, geese, and pigeons for a couple of minutes. Their dad soon noticed that Lucas and Amelia wanted to be more than spectators. He asked his oldest son, who was holding the bread bag, to share.  All the children shared the bread, the birds stuffed themselves chowed down, and a great time was had by all.

Finally we returned Lucas and Amelia to their parents and made our way home through rush-hour traffic. We moved into the left-turn lane at an intersection teeming with nearly as many cars as hungry birds at the lake. Our green arrow came on—and nobody moved. Then cars began leaving the turn lane. We wound up sitting at the red light next to the reason for the delay. The first car in the left-turn lane sat with flashers blinking, engine not running, and the driver on the phone looking very flustered.  Nobody was doing anything to help her. We went through the intersection, worked our way back, and decided to park and offer assistance.

The stranded driver agreed to let us push her–maually!–out of the intersection. Her car was very nice—and very heavy! Just as we ran out of “push”, two young women joined us. When the four of us couldn’t get all that steel up the driveway and off the street, a very fit young man helped make the final push. The driver had a safe place to wait for help and the rest of us went on our way.

Now here’s the rest of the story: The family we met at the lake was African American. Race didn’t matter as they shared their bread with Lucas and Amelia. Race didn’t matter as we enjoyed being outdoors together watching those birds. The driver of that stalled car was African American. So were the two young women who helped us push her stalled car. The “muscle” who helped us make the last push was White. Race was irrelevant as we worked together to solve a problem.

I believe our experience suggests a way to build bridges in our culture. Someone took a first step—that family shared their bread; Dianna and I offered to help the stranded motorist. Others joined in. Our shared experience—feeding the birds, watching children be children, pushing a car out of a busy intersection into a safe place—transcended, just for a moment, cultural barriers. Such shared experiences can become building blocks for deeper relationships.

Somewhere in this discussion we who follow Jesus remember his words we call the Great Commandment: “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ And…’You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:37-39 NRSV) Most of our “social justice” initiatives have roots here and/or in the teachings of Old Testament prophets. But our efforts to address large systemic issues often become abstract and impersonal. I’m more intensely motivated to work for change when I know people who are experiencing injustice and will benefit personally from the change we seek.

What if we heard that Great Commandment say …”know your neighbor as yourself”? (See Luke 10:25-37 for Jesus’ definition of “neighbor”.) We can’t know personally all our 7 billion neighbors on this planet. But we can cultivate relationships that expand our knowledge of neighbors. We  can begin putting faces on black, white, brown, liberal, conservative, senior, boomer, millennial, Jew, Muslim, etc. The more we do that, the more those stereotypes disintegrate. Nobody I know is adequately described by labels, stereotypes, or social role labels. Our creative God has made us unique individuals. We discover the rich wonder of that creativity as we learn to “know our neighbor as ourselves”.

Before we were taken to the park, I’d been reading Jim Wallis’ book America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America. While the book addresses a complex and divisive cultural issue, it flows out of Wallis’ experience growing up in Detroit. On his first job he worked with a young black man named Butch. They became friends and learned a lot about their very different lives. One day Butch invited Jim home for dinner. During the evening Butch’s mom described the negative experiences all the men in her family—her father, her brothers, her husband, and her sons– had had with Detroit police. “’I tell all my children,’” she said, “’if you are ever lost and can’t find your way back home, and you see a policeman, quickly duck behind a building or down a stairwell. When the policeman is gone, come out and find your own way back home.’ As Butch’s mother said that to me, my own mother’s words [and mine and many of yours as well] rang in my head…’If you are ever lost and can’t find your way home, look for a policeman. The policeman is your friend. He will take care of you and bring you safely home.’”

“Love—and know– your neighbor as yourself.” I don’t know precisely the way from here to there. I do know it’s long, complex, and challenging. I know Buddhists say, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” Let’s take those first steps! We are Easter people. We serve a God who says, “I am about to do something brand new” (Isaiah 43:19 MSG); “Look! I’m making everything new.” (Revelation 21:5 MSG)

I expect these beginnings will happen first at a minew beginningscro-level, in neighborhood, community, congregational, less formal settings. Watch for them. Join in as you’re led.Let us become the new beginning for which we work and
pray!

From Gleaners to Neighbors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postal Weeds and the Common Good

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 The weeds had grown up around our corner post office–again. So I cut them down–again! Our “post office” is at a street corner about a quarter-mile from our home. It’s not one of those sterile, institutional steel fortresses. Years ago (before we lived here) our neighbors turned down the Postal Service’s offer to install one of those. So our rural “post office” still consists of individual mailboxes in a row, each on its own post (unlike this picture), planted and maintained by its owner. This works well enough—most of the time. In July and August the “monsoon” comes to Arizona. “Monsoon” in this country means at best a couple of inches of rain. But it’s enough to get the weeds very excited. By this time most years they reach mailbox height. Every time I pull up and reach through my truck window, I worry that a man-eating plant will grab my wrist and drag me home for dinner.

Our boxes are in a public right-of-way. It doesn’t seem to be anyone’s job to cut down the weeds. So my neighbors and I wait…and wait. Finally I get my weed-eater from the garage, throw it in the back of the truck, drive up to the corner, and cut down the weeds. It takes less than half an hour. Everyone now has easy access, my horror-show fantasy is over, and I got to use a power tool!

This is our third summer here since I retired. It’s the third summer I’ve cleared those pesky postal weeds. Last year I tried unsuccessfully to wait out my neighbors. This year I was equally unsuccessful. Or did my neighbors successfully outwait me? It doesn’t matter. The weeds are cleared. Our corner “post office” is easily accessible. I have done my bit for the common good.

Remember “the common good”? At our best that’s why we elect leaders—to serve “the common good”. That’s why we volunteer to serve others in various church and community organizations—to serve “the common good”. Trouble is, we humans aren’t always at our best. Self-interest poisons the political process, both on the part of those who run for office and all of us who vote. Self-interest poisons our volunteering and even our church-going. We tweak and twist “the common good” until it means “good for me and my tribe”. Our tweaked, twisted visions clash with increasing intensity. We no longer care if “good for me” means “too bad for you”. We’ve abandoned any pretense of working for the common good. We’ve chosen instead to live by the law of the jungle—“Everyone for him/herself.”

Jim Wallis has devoted his life to working for the common good. The title of his latest book is On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned about the Common Good. Wallis wrote recently in Time Magazine that “…the ethic of the common good has been lost on all political sides. We have entered a dark and dangerous period of selfishness in both our culture and our political life. ‘I’ has replaced ‘we’. Winning has indeed replaced governing, and ideological warfare substitutes for finding solutions to real and growing problems.”

Wallis urges people of faith to help transform this toxic trend. He suggests that our shared spiritual traditions in this country offer common ground from which we can work together for the common good. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is a core teaching common to Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Even the US Constitution states that one purpose of our government is to promote “the general welfare”. Can we set aside our ideologies and special interests and agree on some basic moral values ? For example, love of neighbor, care for the weakest and most vulnerable among us, and a more equitable distribution of resources are values that unite people across traditional divisions of age, class, ethnicity, and ideology. They are affirmed by many who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious”. “A commitment to the common good,” Wallis writes, “could bring us together and solve the deepest problems this country and the world now face: How do we work together? How do we treat each other, especially the poorest and most vulnerable? How do we take care of not just ourselves but also one another?”

Restoring our nation’s commitment to the common good will take more than one guy with a weed-eater. It’ll take more than an army of weed-eater-wielding old guys! It will take our personal commitment to let our lives be guided by our understanding of “the common good” instead of “what’s in it for me?” It will take courage and patience in every conversation where we have a chance to encourage others to join us in moving beyond polarization to partnership. It will take political involvement that holds all candidates to the standard of serving the common good rather than the largest contributors. It will take prayerful persistence and persistent prayerfulness. We didn’t reach this “…dark and dangerous period of selfishness…” overnight. We won’t find our way into the light without an equally long journey. A fourth-century Christian named John Chrysostom wrote, “This is the rule of most perfect Christianity, its most exact definition, its highest point, namely, the seeking of the common good…for nothing can as make a person an imitator of Christ as caring for his neighbors.” Twenty-first century Christian Jim Wallis says, “Only by inspiring a spiritual and practical commitment to the common good can we help make our common life better.”

Yes, we need much more dialog about the content of “the common good”. But let’s take the first step first. Let’s choose to make the common good the standard for our lives. Let’s reject once and for all the Law of the Jungle in our common life.

Recognize Anybody?

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Recently my wife and I spent a week in a large RV Park/campground just south of San Diego, CA. Officially we went to watch our grandson play in a baseball tournament. Truthfully, summer in San Diego is The Promised Land for summer-weary Arizonans. Any excuse will do! It was our first trip in our new-to-us travel trailer. The “RV lifestyle” had a fairly steep learning curve at first. But the closest we came to a major crisis was a brand-new water hose that burst our second day out.

A fence separated the park from the river that ran along one side of the park. During the day a gate allowed campers access to the river bank. It was a popular place to run or walk, with or without a dog. Carson (by his own account the fiercest, bravest 17-lb. Shih Tzu on the planet) and I walked the bank daily. We met both two-legged and four-legged neighbors from the park. We also met  folks for whom that river bank was their freeway. While we vacationers walked or jogged along, they pushed their shopping carts and rode their bicycles along the bank to get to work and do whatever it took to survive. Under the bridge we saw evidence that some of our neighbors slept there regularly.

That campground accommodated everything from tents to sophisticated RVs worth as much as our house. The total value of the rolling stock in that large park was well into the millions. A few campers were long-term park residents working far from home in construction or other jobs. But most of us (in July in San Diego) were “on vacation”. We had comfortable, spacious homes awaiting our return. Our camping “equipment” represented substantial “discretionary spending”. Yet literally within a stone’s throw were neighbors whose worldly possessions fit in the shopping cart they pushed everywhere. They biked to work out of necessity, not the pursuit of fitness or an environmentalist ethic. They slept under the bridge at night out of necessity, not because they enjoyed “camping”.

The stark contrast has stayed with me. What’s wrong with this picture is not merely that some of us have more than others. Life will always be like that. What bothers me is a nagging question: Did the folks in in the campground recognize their neighbors? If so, what did do about the gap between our abundance and their need? I said a silent prayer for the guy who went past on his bike and the woman (and children) pushing the shopping cart; smiled and waved when I saw the same person at the same time each day. Since I’m home, I’m feeling nudged to address this issue I can’t even name in a more substantial way than just blogging about it. But I’m convinced that lasting change will come when many of us recognize the other person as a person. He/she is a human being just as we are. Therefore we are family. We are neighbors with responsibility for each other. Once someone asked  Jesus,, “Who is my neighbor?” His answer was, in effect, “Who isn/t?” (Read the story in Luke 10:25-37.)

Another time Jesus told a story about a rich man who saw a poor on his doorstep–but never recognized his brother:

“There was once a rich man, expensively dressed in the latest fashions, wasting his days in conspicuous consumption. A poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, had been dumped at his doorstep. All he lived for was to get a meal from scraps off the rich man’s table. His best friends were the dogs who came and licked his sores.” (Luke 16:19-21 MSG)

For weeks, months, perhaps years, that rich man stepped over Lazarus every time he left his house. Maybe he used another door so he didn’t have to pass that disgusting sight.  Or maybe he just developed a blind spot. Lazarus was so desperately poor and disease-ridden, the rich man thought to himself, that he wasn’t merely at the bottom of God’s list. Lazarus had been deleted from God’s list! The rich man may well have prayed every time he stepped around Lazarus, “Thank you, God, that I’m not like this miserable wretch.”

Eventually both men died. Lazarus wound up in the lap of Abraham (heaven). The rich man found himself “in hell and torment”(16:23). When he complained, the response was, “You enjoyed your life and ignored that poor soul on your doorstep. You didn’t recognize your brother in need, your neighbor. Now the tables have turned. How does it feel being as anonymous and unrecognizable as Lazarus was to you?”

Imagine Jesus walking the river bank with us. After we’ve passed a few folks, he asks us, “Recognize anybody? That guy on the bike? That woman with the cart? Those folks sleeping under the bridge?”  “No, Master,” we reply. “Never seen them before.” I hear Jesus sigh with disappointment. Then he takes a deep breath and retells another one of his stories(Matthew 25:31-46) . We obviously didn’t get it before. At the day of judgment folks are lined up and sorted into two groups. The difference between the two groups? How they treated the most vulnerable people within their reach: “…as you did it (or not) to one of the least of these…members of my family, you did it to me.” ( Matthew 25:40)

Look more deeply at the folks you meet on the street today. “Recognize anybody?” Your brother, your sister? You’ll soon discover a family resemblance with the most unlikely folks.If you dare, let Jesus’ story play in the background: “…as you did it to one of the least of these members of my family, you did it to me.”

LOCKOUT! (Flood Journal 4)

Last Saturday we met our contractor at the Jobsite (known as our home prior to The Flood). We reviewed the week’s progress, paid the bill, and discussed next steps. Next steps led Dianna and me to the Home Improvement Palaces to find tile and paint. At HIP 1 we found clearance-priced tile for the basement kitchen backsplash. The color led us to consider painting that area a different color. Pursuing this possibility added new color chips to my wife’s growing collection.

Then we left the store—and returned to our still-locked, still-unlockable car! Too much was happening at once when we’d climbed out of the car. In the confusion the only set of keys stayed behind. (Don’t ask. We momentarily blamed each other until I decided it was the dog’s fault.  He loves to visit Home Improvement Palaces. I’d set the keys down beside him when I got him out of the car and he didn’t remind me to pick them back up.) Dianna and I had agreed we should call AAA before we went into the store. But we didn’t stop and do it, and then we were caught up in our mission. What were we thinking? That the car might forgive our haste-inspired stupidity and magically unlock itself?

It didn’t. So we called AAA when we emerged from the store. “Within an hour”, we were told, our Liberator would arrive to end our self-imposed Lockout. We could get some lunch in the meantime. Last time we’d visited this store, the hot-dog vendor just outside the exit had served up the best Chicago Dog I’ve had this far from Chi-Town. He enjoyed his work, he’d told us that day, but he was losing money, and a man can’t afford to do that forever. Forever must have come, because the vendor, his stand, and the table where we’d eaten were all gone.

So we stood around next to our car, waiting…waiting…waiting. Carson, our dog, found some shade near the edge of the car. It was still lunchtime. But the hotdog stand had been the only source of food within walking distance. Undaunted, I delved into my survival training (a very shallow delve), took my trusty key-hiding dog Carson, and foraged up a candy bar and some water inside the store. We ate and drank and stood around in the warm sunny parking lot some more. Winter seemed to have followed the school schedule and taken its own Spring Break. It was getting uncomfortably warm.

The Lockout bumped me just far enough outside my comfort zone that I found myself praying, “Lord, I thank you that this condition is temporary and I don’t live in those tight spots where people get trapped, too often for good.”

  • We’re locked out of the car and can’t go anywhere. Not to worry. I’ve paid my AAA membership, the repair truck will arrive soon, and within minutes we’ll be free. Thank God for our comfortable, air-conditioned, well-running eight-year-old car and the lifestyle that makes it possible. Thank God that this Lockout is temporary and not like the desperate, “no-way-out” lives folks live due to their own unfortunate choices, circumstances beyond their control, or a paralyzing mix of choice and circumstance. (Most of us have been there at some point in our lives.)
  • It’s getting hot out here in the sun. But I can get out of the weather. I can walk inside the store. I know I’ll have a warm, dry place to sleep tonight and a cool, shady place out of the sun and wind every day.
  • It’s way past lunch-time and I’m hungry. Thank God for financial resources and physical strength to walk into the store and get a little something. Thank God for strength and ability to feed and care for myself and my family (including our trusty key-hiding dog Carson).
  • I wish that locksmith would hurry up and get here. Once again, thank God for the resources to have a car, to call a locksmith when we need one, and to have a cellphone which can receive text-message updates on our Liberator’s estimated arrival time.

Lots of people walked or drove past during our hour-plus wait. Some stared at us. What did they think? Were we homeless and living in that car? Had we had had a breakdown? Could we really be dumb enough to lock keys in the car? (Yes.) My wife made eye-contact with two or three and volunteered an explanation. They’d listen, then walk off, mumbling and smirking their way into the store. She soon quit explaining. Let them mumble and smirk without our assistance!

About two-thirds of the way through The Lockout a woman pulled into the parking space next to us. Everyone else had carefully avoided it. She asked about our situation with genuine concern. ”Called anybody?” Yes, we had, and they were coming. “Got some water?” Yes, and you’re the first one to ask. Bless you. Thanks for asking. She went into the store, did her shopping, and returned to find us still waiting. She inquired again about our situation. We said that we’d just learned our Liberator was about two minutes away. We thanked her again and she went on her way. The Liberator arrived and quickly unlocked the car. (I miss the time when a carefully-sculpted wire clothes hanger and a steady hand could unlock almost any car.) We thanked our Liberator, drove to have lunch, and found the rest of what we needed at Home Improvement Palace 2.

If we were exploring this story the way we often study Jesus’ parables, I’d ask, “Which of these characters do you identify with? The locked-out folks? The Liberator who’s coming as fast as he can but not fast enough? The passers-by in the parking lot? The helpful woman who expressed genuine concern? The trusty, key-hiding dog who was a convenient scapegoat?” (Please forgive me, Carson. It won’t happen again.)

Jesus might ask, “Which of these passers-by was truly a neighbor to the locked-out folks?” (Luke 10:36) The question that matters most is not where we see ourselves in the story right now. It’s who we will seek to be next time we come upon some locked-out folks that our eyes of faith recognize as neighbors. That moment is very near. After all, Jesus teaches us through stories like the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) that our neighbor is in fact any person within our reach at a given moment.

Let’s Not Fix Our Church

In this Lenten season of giving-things-up, I want to suggest something that we United Methodists and other mainline Christians could give up for Lent—in fact, for good. Let’s give up trying to fix our church. Let’s give up trying to save/renew/bail out failing, floundering, foundering institutions that are at best resistant to change and at worst incapable of the “adaptive change” that some would make our new United Methodist buzzword. (When I told my wife what I was writing about, she said, “So you want to let the church go to hell?” Of course not. Stay with me as we move toward a transforming alternative.)

I’ve been reading the latest round of “how-to-fix-the UMC” blogs, articles, and ponderous pronouncements. This excruciating experience has driven me to offer this drastic strategy. Let’s give up trying to fix/revive/bail-out/prop up our church. Let us embrace anew our stated mission: “Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”. Let us dare to make our stated mission our actual mission by aligning the expenditure of our money, time, energy, prayer, and attention. Let us begin with ourselves and the brothers and sisters in Christ within our reach on any given Sunday.

One obvious question arises. “What is a disciple?” We could spend endless time and energy pharisaically debating the issue. Some (including myself) would say that our penchant for endless debate and insufficient action has gotten us exactly the results we should have expected. We’d also point out that our planet already has a climate-change crisis. The last thing we need is more hot air!

My working definition of “disciple” comes from Dallas Willard:

“A disciple or apprentice…is simply someone who has decided to be with another person, under appropriate conditions, in order to become capable of doing what that person does or to become what that person is…as a disciple of Jesus I am with him, by choice and by grace, learning from him how to live in the kingdom of God…I am learning from Jesus to live my life as he would live life if he were I. I am not necessarily learning to do everything he did, but I am learning how to do everything I do in the manner in which he did all that he did.”

Nearly every church has at least a few people who embody this vision of discipleship. Nearly every church also includes others whose growth has been severely stunted. Sometimes  these are long-time church members, but “developmentally delayed” immature disciples. (DISCLAIMER—All of us have periodic relapses into immaturity—especially when we judge and point fingers at someone else’s “immaturity”.) With that in mind, consider Johnny, the clearly-out-of-place student in this video, “Faith in Kindergarten”. [For those unable to view the video, “Johnny” is a 40-ish man enjoying his “career” in kindergarten. He embraces his success and steadfastly refuses to leave his comfort zone to face the challenges of first grade and beyond. If you can’t see the video, I urge you to get some technical support—perhaps your child or grandchild! It’s really a must-see.]

Who’s responsible for our collective spiritual immaturity? I am—along with my clergy colleagues, laypeople in every church I know, and conference and denominational leaders. We have settled for mediocrity in ourselves and others. We have accepted and even cultivated spiritual immaturity. Granted, we have seen notable individual and institutional exceptions. But they have been just that—exceptions. Our growing desperation to reverse decades of decline points like garishly flashing neon to our collective immaturity. Mature discipleship focuses minimally on ourselves and mainly on God and our neighbor. But we care more about ourselves, about “my church” “my needs”, and “being fed”. We care more about not rocking the boat and maintaining the institution than about embracing and immersing ourselves in God’s mission where we live life.

Bishop Robert Hoshibata, the recently-appointed leader of the Phoenix Area, wrote recently in his column “Living the Connection, Renewed by the Spirit” about getting acquainted with the congregations he now serves. He says that he’s heard inspiring stories of sacrifice, dedication, and accomplishment in his visits with churches. But so many of those have been “good old days” stories. Now those same congregations struggle with decline. A few, not nearly  enough, are finding a way forward. He identifies three questions that seem to shape that way forward:  “‘Who is my neighbor?’…‘What are the… physical…AND spiritual needs of the people who live around the church who are not yet part of the church?’…‘What can I or we offer them if we really want to reach out and touch their lives with the love of Jesus Christ?”’ 

NOW, AS PROMISED, A TRANSFORMING ALTERNATIVE— Let’s give up trying to fix our church. Let’s invite the Holy Spirit to heal the brokenness of our “developmentally-delayed” discipleship. Let’s stop living out of fear and start living by faith. Let’s decide to be who we say we are. Let’s intentionally focus all available resources on “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”.

It doesn’t take years of political maneuvering. It doesn’t require mountains of legislation. It begins with a critical mass here and there. The size of a “critical mass” varies according to our context. Jesus did a lot with twelve people. He told those twelve that “two or three” plus his presence could form that critical mass (Matthew 18:20).

Talk to folks who might join you in becoming a “critical mass”. Share your hope and dreams. Pray together deeply and frequently. Keep your pastor in the loop. Work with him/her, not against. Don’t be secretive. Do be humble and open. Find people who are serious about apprenticing themselves to Jesus. Explore together what that means for you separately and as a community. Your “critical mass” may well include formerly-churched, differently-churched, de-churched, even unchurched people.

Bishop Bob offers us one model for living out our mission. It’s hardly the only one. But it’s a great starting point. It’s simple, Biblical, and comprehensive. PLEASE—Let’s not engage in endless debate like good Methodists. Let’s be good Nike-ists. “JUST DO IT!” Let’s give up trying to fix our church. Let’s take up following Jesus as faithful apprentices wherever he leads us.

John Wesley on Voting–and Community

“I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election, and advised them, 1. To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy: 2. To speak no evil of the person they voted against: And, 3. To take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side.”                             –John Wesley, October  6, 1774

Some of my United Methodist colleagues have recently rediscovered Wesley’s election-year advice. If they haven’t already, I hope they will soon build a Sunday message around these words. But my unscientific assessment suggests that will happen rarely if at all. “Be sure to vote” is all the political speech many pastors dare in public. Besides, worship calendars in November are already overcrowded with stewardship season, Veterans Day on Sunday this year, Thanksgiving, then a week to breathe before Advent begins. We’re busy, busy, busy. Besides, “voting” isn’t in the lectionary.

Nevertheless, I believe Wesley’s words contain a word from the Lord that needs to be heard–more than echoes of “busy, busy, busy”. So I urge some of my active colleagues to reprioritize beyond “worship as usual”. Yes, sisters and brothers, I hear you: “Easy for you to say from the safety of retirement.” Yes, and even easier since I’ll be out of the country when the election happens. But this word needs to be heard. On Nov. 7, winners and losers will have to figure out how to live together for four more years. Folks with diverse political views will still have to worship and work together. Wesley’s wisdom provides an alternative to the prevailing polarization and winner-take-all attitude.

If I were preaching, I’d ground the message biblically in Romans 13-15. Paul points out that “Love does no wrong to a neighbor…love is the fulfilling of the law.” (13:8-10) In ch. 14 he calls for tolerance among folks with very different strongly held views. “Why do you pass judgment on your neighbor?” (14:10) Being right matters less than making sure we do not cause our neighbor to stumble (14:13). Paul moves on to remind us that building up our neighbor matters more than pleasing ourselves (15:1-2) and challenges everyone to “Welcome one another…just as Christ has welcomed you…” (15:7)

I’d address Wesley’s three points (not my typical preaching MO) from that perspective:1. To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy:” I identify the “fee or reward” that tempts us today as narrow self-interest. Today’s political propaganda addresses one very basic question: “What’s in it for me?” Rarely do we ask “What’s best for our society as a whole?” “The common good” isn’t commonly considered in our political discourse. Rarely does a candidate or elected politician dare call for sacrifice to help the neediest among us, or to achieve a worthy common goal, e.g. deficit reduction. Jesus urged us to put others’ needs before our own. “The person judged most worthy” sounds to me like the one who would best serve the common good. What if from now on we refuse to settle for endless political pandering to narrow self-interest? What if we demanded that candidates address their vision of “the common good” and how to achieve it?

  “2. To speak no evil of the person they voted against:” Earlier Paul wrote, “…There is no one who is righteous, not even one;” (Rom. 3:10). What fun is election season if we can’t bash the other side—especially when they’re so wrong/incompetent/buffoonish/crooked/fill in your own word. Besides, the worse the opponent is, the better my candidate looks. But every poisonous, polarizing half-truth and stereotype we repeat poisons our spirits as well. The other side loses their humanity in our eyes and becomes “them”. Every time we dehumanize another person, we dehumanize ourselves as well. “Why do you pass judgment on your neighbor?” Let us who follow Jesus practice more civil political speech. We can debate policies and positions without demeaning persons. Cosistent Christ-like behavior in this respect is a powerful witness. Our neighbors might find such credible Christianity attractive or at least intriguing.

“And, 3. To take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side.” It’s hard to get close to someone with a “sharpened” spirit. The razor edges hold us at bay. Most of us won’t risk trying to move closer. Instead, we tend to “sharpen” in response. We claim our position even more strongly whether our candidate won or lost. “Sharpening our spirits” sinks us deeper and deeper into self-defensive self-righteousness. We confirm the other’s ideological [and personal/spiritual] wrongness as we confirm our own (self-) righteousness. Our differences don’t magically dissolve following an election.In fact, lately we seem to take a brief break and then resume hammering each other even harder as if nothing had been decided.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Let’s listen closely to Wesley soon after this intense and often bitter election campaign. Let’s also listen closely to Paul: “Welcome one another…just as Christ has welcomed you.”  We could probably use a preacher to lovingly and firmly challenge us in the spirit of Joshua: “Choose this day who you will be.”

As I said earlier, it won’t be me. I’ll be out of the country. I have no invitations to preach after we return. Brother/sister preacher, will you be the one who shares this word? My stuff isn’t copyrighted. I would like to know how you use it and what response you get. Laypersons, will you be the one who encourages your pastor to speak this word we all need to hear? Maybe you can do it together. It doesn’t matter so much who’s in the spotlight. It matters hugely that the word is heard—and embraced—and lived.

Neighboring by Walking Around

A while back some earnest folks trying to be both authentically Christian and environmentally responsible wondered aloud, “What would Jesus drive?” I’m pretty sure they’d rule out my 4WD pickup. Our mid-size SUV would be on the bubble at best. But Jesus didn’t drive anything! Jesus walked the earth centuries before the automobile appeared.

“Jesus walked…”  I know, I know. So did everybody else in first-century Palestine. Walking provides a different perspective on life. Everything looks different when we pass it at a few miles an hour instead of a few dozen miles an hour. We notice so much more at that slower pace. When we’re not sealed in our automotive isolaton chambers, we can stop and talk with folks we meet. Walking around our neighborhood connects us to the place we live in a way that driving cannot.

Our daughter and son-in-law bought a house and moved into it not quite a year ago. Its finest feature is a first-floor grandparent-ready guest room. The first time we brought along Carson, our ShihTzu, he insisted on an early-morning walk just like at home. One early-morning walk quickly became every-morning-and-every-evening. Carson and I met the neighbor who babies his car that’s just like one I sold long ago. We found the houses where dogs lived–and barked! We saw a wide variety of cars and trucks, as well as some nice boats and RVs. We noticed the personal touches some folks had added to the nondescript subdivision landscape–and other houses with little or no personal touches. Had their occupants decided not to try to make that temporary place “home”? Were they too busy, too stressed, too financially-stretched?

Our morning walks have helped me learn to read people’s trash. No, I don’t touch it, I just look! Before we met the neighbors across the street, I had deduced that they were Asians. Their trash contained large cartons that had contained large quantities of rice! You can also tell by the cartons when people have new furniture, appliances, or toys for their kids. Curbside trash also identifies houses in transition. Someone moving out has left at the curb what they don’t want and can’t get rid of any other way. Someone’s moving in, it appears by the discarded packng materials. This neighborhood, like so many , has experienced its share of Southern Nevada’s  real estate struggles. It contains some long-empty houses that just won’t sell, some that are in transition, and a few that appear to be headed toward foreclosure.

Our grandson Lucas (almost two) also likes to walk around the neighborhood with me. We met the man with the old car–and his poodle. He and the poodle appear to be about the same age.  One warm evening we met a man sitting in his garage playing with his toddler and trying to entertain his 6-month-old twins. His van/tour bus sits out front and I suspect it doesn’t haul as many people as often as he’d like, but he’s doing the best he can. We met young teen boys playing basketball with a portable goal. Lucas loves to sit on the curb and watch them play. One day one of the boys invited him to play. They rolled the ball around a little. Then we lifted Lucas up to the hoop and helped him drop the ball through the basket. He loved it! Of course the basket was well below the regulation ten-foot height, so those boys  could dunk and imitate the moves they saw the pros make on TV.

My preliminary exploration of the neighborhood (with Carson and Lucas’s help) reminds me of God’s action in Jesus: “The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood.” (John 1:14 MSG).  Our “neighborhood” is wherever we live our lives. Most of us live in other neighborhoods in addition to our physical neighborhood–work, online communities,  church, school, family, various other communities to which we belong. God is not aloof from our “neighborhoods”. In Jesus God has “moved into the neighborhood”. God cares about that young father and his family, those boys playing basketball, those families trying to survive through the housing crisis. Jesus doesn’t sit around the church all week waiting for us to come visit him on Sunday. He’s immersed in the wondrous dailiness of our ordinary lives!

 So what does all this mean for us who follow the One who’s “moved into the neighborhood”?

  • Expand your definition of “neighborhood” as it makes sense, but don’t neglect your physical neighborhood.
  • Take a walk. Take regular walks, mostly when some of your neighbors will be outside.
  • Pray for the neighbors you know and the ones you don’t, for issues you’re aware of and could reasonably expect to exist, and for your observations as you “move into the neighborhood” with Jesus.
  • Don’t expect instant results. Getting to know the neighborhood takes considerable time and attention. Relationships will develop through dozens of small steps.
  • Our mission field begins at our doorstep. The people in our neighborhood are our neighbors–those whom Jesus calls us to love as we love ourselves (Luke 10:25-37). Our loving presence invites them into the best news ever–“The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood”.

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