No, I’m not creating some sort of new age spiritualism combining Christianity and yoga. Meet my Yogi.
Yogi is the newest member of the pack at my house. He’s a 13 month old Alaskan Malamute that moved in with us two months ago. Yogi is a rescue that I located through the Washington Malamute Rescue League (WAMAL). I began working with WAMAL last summer with the idea of getting a new dog that Kenai could train. I was planning to introduce you to Yogi earlier, but Kenai’s tribute took precedence.
Bringing Yogi into our home was a challenging experience. My wife isn’t the biggest fan of Mals, after our experience with Kenai (he grew on her, and Yogi is too… but don’t say anything because she’ll deny it). It took a lot of work to convince her that Kenai wasn’t the norm, and that I’d learned a lot from training him, that would help me integrate a new dog into the house with a lot less stress and drama. Then there were the rest of the members of the house: in addition to Kenai, we had (still have) two geriatric cats, along with my daughter and son-in-law (who are living with us until they get a house bought here), and their two dogs–a Great Dane and an Italian Greyhound. Both of these dogs are rescues as well, and come with their own… quirks. It’s a rather full house, with a higher energy level than we are accustomed to, before you add a 90# puppy.
Yogi arrived just after New Year’s Day, and overall his integration has gone amazingly well. Yogi is very different from Kenai personality-wise. Where Kenai was a true Alpha, Yogi is more of a surfer-dude personality. He’s not interested in being in charge of anything, and just wants to have fun. I still need to convince him that chasing cats and excavating the backyard aren’t “fun,” but he’s learning.
Yogi, like all Mals, is super-smart. Almost too smart. Malamutes are a difficult breed for many people, which is probably why there are so many in rescue situations. No one can resist the cute fuzzy puppy:
Awww, he’s so cuuuutteee…
But cuddly becomes less cute when he’s a little bigger, a lot stronger, and bored. Mals need mental stimulation as well as physical. If I don’t do something to keep Yogi’s brain busy solving a problem, he creates a problem.
Yogi is a great student-he learns what you teach him on the first try… but he makes you do it twice to determine if you really mean it. He’s always thinking, always testing rules and boundaries. It’s really entertaining, unless I’m in a hurry to do something, and he decides to test my boundaries… and patience. But as I said, I learned a lot from Kenai, and it’s helped me understand Yogi much better.
As I said in the Kenai post, I’ve learned a lot about relating to people, and even about understanding God, from dogs. The idea for this, and some future posts, is to share what I’m learning about God, from getting to know Yogi better.
The first lesson/observation I made–the one that gave me this idea in the first place–was shortly after Yogi came to live with us. Yogi is VERY food-motivated. A dog treat gets his undivided attention, and will cause him to obey just about any command you give. That can be useful, but eventually you want him to obey commands without knowing there’s a treat involved. This particular night, I really wanted to give him a treat for no reason… just because. But I told him to sit. I had the treat in my hand, but he didn’t know it. That treat was the thing he wanted most… And he thoroughly understood the command “sit.” But part of training a dog is consistency. You give the prompt once, and you don’t reward any other behavior.
I told Yogi to sit.
He wandered around my closet looking for things to sniff…
He looked under the bed for a cat to torment…
He tried to leave the room…
He knew what I wanted him to do… but he wasn’t going to do it. He wanted things his way, not realizing that doing what I asked would get him what he wanted more than anything–more than smelly shoes, or hissing cats–a TREAT!!!!!
And I wantedto give it to him!!! All he had to do was plop his butt down, and doggy nirvana was his.
I was beginning to get frustrated. I had decided for no particular reason to give him something that would bring him sheer joy. I wanted to give him a good thing, and his stubbornness was keeping it from happening.
And I laughed. I wonder how many times God has had a good thing for me, something he wanted to give, something I wanted, but I was too stubborn, too independent, too selfish to realize that I was missing out on something my Good Father wanted me to have.
The Bible says God is “patient.” The older translations use the word “long-suffering.” I think that means he puts up with our annoying stubbornness much better than I do Yogi’s. But how much better would things be if I did what I was asked, instead of doing what I wanted?
The Christian church in the US (and the western hemisphere) is in undeniable decline. Despite the recent surge of influence of “evangelicals” in our political environment, the reality is that we are less and less likely to be affiliated with Christianity in the US, and the influence of churches is waning. Church leaders have been wrangling with this for several years; numerous explanations have been offered and various approaches to addressing the decline have been discussed. Pockets of change are out there, but as a general rule, the decline continues, and seems to be picking up steam.
I’ve been pondering several things lately, and I think I see something worth considering. The idea started forming when a friend recently talked about a spiritual conversation she’s been having with her 5-year-old daughter. The little girl, who has not been raised in a “Christian” home, informed her mom, “Mommy, when you die you go to Heaven if you are good. When you are bad, you might go to Heck. God says so.” My first reaction was a mix of “how cute” and amazement that a 5-year-old was processing something so complex. Her mom had not taught her this, and was unsure where the little girl picked up the idea.
My second thought was, “NO! You’ve got it all wrong!!!” But, really, she hasn’t. This is in essence what the Church is teaching today. It’s been what the Church was teaching since I was a little boy. Oh, sure, I was told, “God loves you,” but that was peripheral. The message I received for most of my 52 years has been some version of, “when you die you go to Heaven if you are good. When you are bad, you might go to Heck. God says so.” My learned theology was founded on being good enough (which really meant following all of God’s rules well enough) that he loved me, then I could go to Heaven when I die. If I wasn’t good enough, I was bound for Heck, or a less censored version of it.
How Religion Works: If I obey, then God will love and accept me.
The Gospel: I’m loved and accepted, therefore I wish to obey.
Tim Keller’s tweet is profound, and points to the idea that I’ve been considering: Maybe the Church is losing members and influence because we’re teaching religion, and not the Gospel. I know as a younger person, I had trouble with the God I’d been taught: He seemed mean. He WAS mean! A God who says, “follow my rules well enough to earn my love, or else I’m going to torture you endlessly”? If a husband or employer behaves like that, we call them an abuser. Why would I want to sign up for that?
Consider it another way: Why would HE want that? Suppose you paid for an “arranged marriage” with a person from a third world country, brought them to the US to live with you, then told them that if they showed you affection, you would treat them well, but if they broke your rules, you would punish them severely. When this spouse hugs you, kisses you, says “I love you,” do they really love you? Or are they following your rules out of fear?
Our God is different. He loves us. Period. He pursues us with love! He offers love to us with no preconditions. We just receive it. This life is not a crucible to be run, in order to win a prize or avoid eternal damnation! It’s an opportunity to know our Father, the one who loves us, cares for us, and wants to be with us.
It was terrifying to me growing up fearing a God who was waiting for me to break the rules so he could smite me. Or even a God who, at the end of my life was going to make a judgement of whether I was “good” or “bad” to determine if my eternity involved a cloud castle, or a lake of fire with barbed-wire floaties. I spent most of my life with some version of that God in my head, and knowing that I couldn’t measure up… I just hoped he wasn’t paying attention to me too closely, or that I lived long enough to shift the scales once I was too old to be bad anymore.
It would be one thing if the God I was taught were true; it’s a travesty (heresy?) that we are teaching this when it’s NOT TRUE! Can you see how this false God is driving people away from the Church?
You might object that my perception of Christianity isn’t the common one in our culture. I am not going to argue with you; instead I’d ask that you just take a look with fresh eyes. With 5-year-old eyes.
I like metaphors. They help me put shape to concepts, and often help me see things from different perspectives. Jesus liked them as well; he often used them to make difficult truths seem understandable. He would tell a story, or compare his followers to something they could relate to–like a grapevine, or sheep and shepherds–all common elements of 1st Century Jewish culture.
Dogs have been a common element of my life. I was an only child, and have had at least one dog throughout my life, except for the first two years of my Army career (my platoon sergeant wouldn’t have thought too highly of me having a dog in the barracks). Dogs help me better relate to people. I’m not a “dog whisperer,” but I’ve always been “good with dogs.” I felt like I could relate to them well (go ahead and insert your own joke here… I’ll wait).
I have been thinking about dogs and how they help me relate to people, and to God, a lot in the past few weeks. We’ve got a new dog, and I’m getting to relate to him a lot while I’m teaching him how to be a part of our family. I’ve been composing a few posts in my head of ideas he’d revealed to me in this process, and plan to start writing them down soon. But that’s for another day. This post is a tribute. Monday I said goodbye to a pretty special dog. This is for him.
Part of my early success working with dogs was blind luck. Most of the dogs I’ve had were Great Danes. Danes are very much like people–and not just in physical size. If you can relate to a person, you can probably build a good relationship with a Great Dane. When my kids were young, we had two amazing Danes-Zeus and Hera. They were the best family dogs anyone could ask for. Zeus was 140# of solid muscle, but he took care of his little girl, Shelbi, like she was his baby. He protected her from other dogs, and strangers passing by, but let her walk him, even though he was twice her size. Hera was a goof, and loved to play, snuggle, and generally make you laugh. Hera had some serious health problems, and although several years younger than Zeus, she left us all too soon.
Not too long after Hera died, Shelbi (by then in junior high) came home from a friend’s house, all excited about the puppies her friend’s dog had. The momma was a Malamute, who had a midnight tryst with the neighbor’s Siberian Husky. An unrelenting stream of “Daddy, they’re so cuuuuttteee, can we go look at them, please” numbed my brain. I remember saying, “We don’t know anything about those breeds.” This was over 12 years ago, so I don’t recall every detail, but I can see us standing in a dark wooded yard, with the momma and one puppy left, a little furball with a lot of energy. I can hear myself muttering over and over, “we don’t know anything about these breeds” as I was bombarded on three sides (my wife, son, and daughter) with a torrent of “but he’s so cuuuttteee). I’m pretty sure there were promises to brush him every day, walk him, even in the rain, train him, and buy the dog food with their allowances. Somewhere in this mindless stupor I relented. That’s how Kenai became part of our family.
My concerns were prophetic, but understated. Kenai turned out to be a whole different species. Northern breeds are in general a lot closer in behavior to the first animals that strayed from the pack to come into the fire ring with humans. They’re very strong pack animals, and are a lot less people-like than a Great Dane, or a Golden Retriever. And, in every pack, there’s occasionally one born who is perfectly wired to be the pack leader. If you’ve ever watched Cesar Milan, aka The Dog Whisperer, you’ll here him tell people that their dog is being dominant because the people aren’t. Most dogs don’t want to be the leader, but realize someone has to be. If their humans aren’t leading the pack, the dog steps up, reluctantly. But there’s that 1%, whose DNA is coded with “pack leader.” That was Kenai, but I didn’t realize it. I just knew he was the most difficult, ill-behaved, obnoxious beast I’d ever been around. Any promises from kids to care for and train him were quickly abandoned. This guy was a nightmare-high energy, teeth, and a bad attitude. We wanted a cuddly little fluff-ball. We got Cujo.
He was also a runner. In more ways than one. If he was outside, unrestrained,
he ran. And ran. No human was going to catch him, although he found our attempts to do so quite entertaining. Most of those escapee chases ended in a bath (he liked mud too).
But he also liked to run on the leash. While I was nearing the end of my forced running career (at the tail end of my Army days, I no longer had to go to organized PT), I could still put down a pretty healthy pace for 4-6 miles. So I decided that I would run that energy out of him. Ha! We could take off for Frye Cove Park, and run the loop multiple times, at a pace that would have my heart rate in the danger zone and my legs burning, and he would finish, look at me, then go tearing through the house like he had just finished warmups.
Kenai never understood rain days. Living near Olympia, Washington, this could be a problem. I was never a fan of running in the rain, but I was less of a fan of an over-energized Mogwai (amazingly appropriate 1984 pop culture reference). So we ran. Every. day. When we moved back to Alaska, I discovered that cold didn’t bother him either. In fact, he kinda liked it, like he was made for it or something. So we ran. Every. day. 25 below zero? He didn’t care. My best estimates are that over the last 12 years, we logged over 10,000 miles running together.
But running didn’t solve everything. His aggressiveness was a problem, and I wasn’t very good at dealing with it. Oh, and by this time, he’d become “my dog.” Part of that was just because I was the only one big enough to physically handle him, and partly because he had no respect for anyone else in the family, and very little for me. By this time, Kenai had grown to about 90 pounds of solid muscle. What “respect” he had was based on fear.
Kenai had a lot of behavioral issues, including a fierce protectiveness of his food. Or any food he decided was his. This lead to a pretty ugly incident where he stole my daughter’s Easter basket, and had it under the desk, devouring the chocolate. My daughter, out of either a concern for his health, or her own protectiveness of all things chocolate, tried to retrieve it, and Kenai bit her foot. I came close to killing him on the spot. I’d always had a rule: Any dog in our house ever bites anyone, he’s gone. And I tried to find a new home for Kenai. We had him on Craigslist for about two weeks, with no response. He spent a lot of his time in his crate, or outside during this stretch. In my mind he was already gone. My daughter was the one who came to me after two weeks, and reminded me of something else I’d always said, “There are no bad dogs, only bad owners.” So I set out to find someone to help me train Kenai.
Up until this point, I had never watched The Dog Whisperer. But I found a trainer who came to our house, and she had studied under him. Part of my homework was to watch the shows, and in the process I realized that my lack of understanding was making Kenai a problem. Cesar uses the phrase “rehabilitating dogs, training people.” That was exactly what I needed. In the process, I learned to understand what Kenai needed, what he was telling me, and how to lead him. It was a LOT of work. For most of his life, I said, “I’ll never get another Northern breed.”
But we ran together. Every morning. For 12 years. No matter what was going on, all I had to say was “Go for a run?” and his eyes lit up, the problems went away, and he was looking for the leash. And slowly, we became closer.
After seven years in Alaska, our pack relocated to South Florida. Kenai enjoyed the road trip, but we were concerned that a true Alaskan dog was going to have a hard time adapting to the Florida weather and lifestyle. Kenai enjoyed the snow, and the mountains. He chased moose and bear out of our yard, and occasionally stood on the hill, howling along with a wolf pack that ranged the valley below.
Kenai took to Florida. He actually enjoyed the heat. He would nap on the back patio, soaking the warmth into his aging joints. His disposition improved too. He was mellower, and although he never became “cuddly”, he’d occasionally seek out a friendly pet on the head. We jokingly said that Kenai was the first Northern breed to have Seasonal Affective Disorder.
A year ago, as we moved back to Washington, Kenai was really starting to show signs of aging. He had arthritis in his hips, and I had to stop taking him on runs because he would drag his back toes until they bled. He wouldn’t stop running, he just couldn’t control his legs well enough to not hurt himself. We downgraded to walking, which he still managed 2-4 miles per day. Raining or not. By this fall, the walks were getting shorter, and the stairs in our house were becoming a challenge. This past weekend, I could see it in his eyes. It wasn’t fun anymore. He was never going to give up, but his body was giving up on him. We spent the weekend saying goodbye, taking slow walks, and spending time rehearsing memories. Monday morning we took one last ride. As I laid with him on the vet’s office floor, with him sedated and resting before the vet came in, I was trying to whisper “happy” words to him. I assumed he was pretty well out of it, and figured it was safe to say “go for a run.” His eyes snapped open, his ears perked up, and for just a moment the face was that of an energetic pup. I smiled through tears.
When the vet came in to administer the injection, Kenai was sound asleep. She was going to use a back leg for the injection. All of his life, Kenai was pretty adamant that people weren’t allowed to touch him unless he okayed it, and then only on his head. On rare occasions you could pet his shoulders, but anything else got you a rather stern growl-warning. Even with me, if I had to do anything to his legs, or heaven forbid touch his belly, teeth were slashing and he was having nothing to do with it. Grooming and toenail trimming were a significant emotional event. Even under heavy sedation, in the twilight of his life, when the doctor grabbed his back leg, he came to, and firmly explained that he didn’t approve of ANYONE touching his legs.
Kenai was a great dog. He wasn’t an angel; far from it. But he was my devoted companion. And, in the process of learning to be a pack together, he taught me much. This has already been a long post, but if I didn’t share some of the lessons, it would not be clear what made him a great dog. I’ve had good dogs all my life, and Kenai really wasn’t a good dog. But he changed me more than any other dog has, and that’s why I say he was great.
Lessons from a Great Dog
Love is a verb, not an emotion. Many Christians know this fact. The “love” we read about in the Bible is most often an English translation of the Greek word agape. It is about self-sacrificial action that benefits the other. I knew that bit of information, but Kenai made me really experience it. The “feelings” of love for a cute fuzzy puppy fade with destroyed belongings and bad behavior. Loving Kenai took work. The funny thing about agape love is that while self-sacrifice doesn’t sound very appealing, certainly not as appealing as the infatuation of a new romantic love, this love is ultimately the most rewarding. Kenai was often a jerk. There were times when you knew he was going to try to bite you (like toenail clipping time). He was often deliberately disobedient. I loved him not because he was good. I loved him because he was him. His behavior never caused me to love him any less, even when he had me so mad I couldn’t see straight.
Lordship is not domination; submission is not subjugation. Growing up, I always had trouble with the idea of a God who wanted me to completely submit to him. I had thoughts of complete power and utter powerlessness. Quite honestly, this was how I treated most of my dogs before Kenai. Not abusively or inhumanely, but I “owned” them. Kenai wasn’t about to be owned, and the more I tried to dominate him, the more difficult he became. As I learned to lead him, to act in his best interest, understanding him and wanting him to thrive, not just obey, he began to submit. Not a subjugation to me out of fear of my power, but out of a recognition that he could be more himself, and live a more enjoyable life, with me holding the leash. At that point, when he knew he could trust me, I found I could trust him. Then he could run off-leash, because I knew he wanted to come back. Our walks and runs were different too. At first the leash was a tool of captivity and enforcement–that’s how I controlled him. Those days, the leash was taut; he was pulling, or being pulled. But the leash became a means of communication; it’s how I told him where we were going, and at what pace. It’s how he told me when he needed to pee, or that there was the most amazing aroma coming from that particular tree. The leash was still there, but it was slack. We were working together.
The most effective leadership is empowerment, not control. When I learned to know what he was thinking, what he was trying to do, what was important to him, I could align his goals and mine. When that happened, we were both working together. He wasn’t out front pulling me to his objectives. I wasn’t out front dragging him to mine. We were moving side-by-side, enjoying each other’s presence, accomplishments, and the journey itself.
The Bible is disappointingly silent on what happens to our pets. Disney says “all dogs go to heaven.” Kenai taught me so much about my relationship with God, that I believe God’s gotta have a special place in his heart for Kenai. I’m going to believe that Kenai has found a good trail in heaven, and he’s running free, waiting for me to catch up with him. That would be my idea of heaven.
Thanks for everything, Buddy Bear. I’ll miss you until we meet again.
I started this series talking about my heritage, and how my upbringing led me to be a member of the “Heritage, Not Hate” crowd. I did so with two hopes:
To help those who cannot comprehend how a person displaying a Confederate flag can claim they are not racist,
To help folks with backgrounds like me to consider how we might be hurting others without realizing it.
I am hoping that some might choose to pursue a journey of understanding similar to mine. I’ll warn you up front, it’s not a fun trip. You’ll find yourself between two warring factions, understanding, yet disagreeing (in some aspects) with both sides. You’ll be frustrated, misunderstood, attacked and condemned, sometimes by your own friends. Not the greatest sales pitch, is it? Best answer I have for why you should walk this route comes from my faith. If you’re not a Jesus follower, this might be meaningless to you, but you may have a similar principle in your faith background. But Jesus told his followers, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
In Part 3 I explored the idea of “heritage” and the key point that “you have exactly zero input into your heritage.” Heritage is inherited from our ancestors-it is what they did, not what we did. Today I want to explore the other side of the “heritage” coin. We call the coin our ancestors made our heritage, but the other side of that coin is theirlegacy. You have nothing to do with forming your heritage, but everything to do with forming your own legacy–what you hand down to future generations. You choose your own legacy.
The legacy I’ve chosen is one of love, of peacemaking. “That’s a nice sentiment, Greg, but it’s not going to change the world we live in. This has been going on for centuries.” I will agree that it’s easy to look around, and become overwhelmed with a sense of doom. We’ve been fed a pretty steady diet of fear and defeatism. But here’s the thing: While I might not be able to change the world, I can change the world around me. Jesus called his followers to be peacemakers, not to set us up for an impossible task, but precisely because it is possible!
How? Good question. I don’t have all, or even most of the answers. But I offer a few things that have helped me.
“If you never leave the small comfortable ideological circle that you belong to, you’ll never develop as a human being.” -Malcolm Gladwell¹
“Read one thinker and you become a clone. Read two and you become confused. Read a hundred and you start to become wise.” -Tim Keller
Unfortunately, what passes for learning in our culture today often is simply reinforcing what we already know or believe. If I keep reading the same books, or blogs, from the same authors whose ideas I already approve, all I’m going to learn is how to embed the same ideas more deeply into my thoughts. Repetition of a thought is critical if you want it to become something that you call forward without thinking, but it’s not “learning.”
Read things you disagree with! This is hard, but it’s key to learning. If your news feed doesn’t include at least one or two sources that are from the other side of the ideological aisle, you’re becoming a clone. I’m not saying you have to go totally extreme. But if your thoughts and perspectives on a subject aren’t challenged, they’ll remain shallow.
With respect to the discussion of heritage, and race in our country, take the time to read things from the “other side.” A couple of suggestions:
The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois. Written over 100 years ago by the first black man to earn a PhD from Harvard, who founded the NAACP, this is a great look at the history of black Americans in the initial decades after their emancipation.
Don’t want to buy a book? Pick some topics and read the Wikipedia posts for free. Start with Jim Crow Laws, Emmitt Till, Lynching, 1917 East St. Louis Riots. This last one was eye-opening to me, because it happened near where I grew up, less than 50 years before I was born, and yet it didn’t once get mentioned in school, not even in my state-mandated Missouri History class in high school.
Beyond reading, I recommend listening. Not just to podcasts and famous speakers, but also to those around you. Really listen. Remember the story about SPC Marshall in Part 2? I learned from her because I took the time to consider her perspective. I could have easily dismissed it, because it didn’t align with my own, and simply told her what I really meant, and called it good, because I had taught her “truth.” That route would have left me continuing to believe what I believe, and reinforced her beliefs as well. We’d have both been worse off.
If you don’t get “Black Lives Matter,” ask them. And listen. Especially in light of the history and personal experiences you may not be aware of. Consider that the white person in the Midwest who is railing against immigration may have very legitimate concerns that aren’t driven by an ideology of racial superiority. Discover why “systemic racism” and “white privilege” are not condemnations of personal character.
Add some variety to your life. Ruts are easy, but pretty much guarantee things won’t change. Think in new ways. Here are three ideas:
Stop “winning.” Start “excelling.” Don’t mistake this for “everybody gets a trophy.” Winning is measured against an opponent. To win, someone else has to lose. Excellence is measured against a standard. The Latin word literally means “beyond lofty.” When I was in the infantry, we had an award we could earn called the “Expert Infantry Badge.” One of the tasks was to complete a 12 mile road march carrying a 35# pack and weapon, in under 3 hours. It’s a difficult task, and in theory, 10 soldiers could finish the road march, but not make it in the 3 hour time limit. The first one across the line still “won”, but none of them “excelled.” Conversely, in an “excellent” unit, all 10 might come in under three hours. When we set our standards as beating the next guy, winning can be as easy as choosing an inferior opponent. If my goal is to beat the clock, I have to push myself. If my goal is to beat you, I can just push you in a ditch.
Ask a brilliant question. When you find yourself ready to disagree, to fight for your (correct) position, ready to condemn those ridiculous fools on the other side, ask this question: “Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person act that way?”² Part of the problem with the polarization we see in our country today stems from the mindset that everyone agreeing with me is a genius, and those who don’t are either idiots or devious evil people bent on all us good folks’ destruction. In truth, the vast majority are reasonable people. Rational people. Decent people. So, if they’re acting contrary to my way of thinking, that means there is a good chance they have a reasonable, decent explanation. If you begin there, and then ask, they’ll be likely to share, and you can learn. If you aren’t in a position to ask, check yourself, because you’re likely about to head down a dangerous, divisive road. You’ve already started forming a story in your head to explain the action. Most likely, that story begins with a belief that the actor isn’t reasonable, rational, or decent. Once you re-start the story, you might find a plausible explanation, or at least be open to one. Most of the people you disagree with, really aren’t the enemy. They’re not even necessarily wrong.
Get out of the box. This goes along with learning by listening. Too many of us are living such a homogenous life that we can’t listen to diverse voices because we don’t have any in our circle. When’s the last time you had a person of color as a guest in your home? Had coffee with someone from outside your political, social, economic circle? Be deliberate about making friends with people different than you. Sure it’s awkward, but if it’s genuine, people will appreciate your willingness to reach out. You’ll discover that most people are just waiting to be invited in-but someone has to be bold enough to be the inviter.
One of the most overused, misinterpreted words in English. I’m referring to sacrificial love; not an emotion but an action, a choice that says, “I value the wellbeing of others more than I do my own.” Love says, “I want to see you excel.” Then love surrenders some of oneself in order to actually make it happen.
Call me naïve, but consider history. When real cultural change has occurred, strength and power didn’t achieve it. Military force or threat of violence doesn’t make someone think differently. Power might subdue someone, but it won’t make them your friend. Loving those who aren’t like you is the most counter-intuitive, objectionable answer there is; And it’s the only answer that actually brings about real, positive change.³
What about you? Have you seen people change for the better? Have you experienced change in your own perspective? What has worked? What are you struggling with? Let’s keep the discussion going. Drop a note in the comments. Help us all learn.
¹ Malcolm Gladwell is an author and speaker that I’ve just started listening to. His podcast is called “Revisionist History.” If you want to be exposed to some new thoughts, I highly recommend it.
² I stole this question from Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes Are High. This book is probably second only to the Bible in helping me change how I view and interact with others. It has helped me become a better problem-solver and communicator. Even if you don’t want to change the world, it’ll make you a better employee, spouse, friend. It’s really that good.
³ If you’re a Jesus follower, love isn’t an option. It’s a command; Jesus says it’s how the world will know you are a Jesus follower. It’s your identity. Beyond the “spiritual” aspect, consider Roman history. The world’s most powerful country, a pagan empire that oppressed and killed Christians to defend its emperor-religion, became a “Christian nation” in just a few hundred years, not through force, but in spite of it.
This article, published in “The Gospel Coalition,” is adapted from a speech the author gave in May 2016. He does an excellent job laying out a Biblical foundation for bringing refugees into the US. No tweetable platitudes here–sound theology.
I do have one disagreement though–In the author’s fourth “Biblical truth”: “Though God generally establishes government for the protection of all people, he specifically commands his church to provide for his people”, I believe the author provides an unsupportable excuse to prefer Christian refugees over non-Christians. I don’t believe a comprehensive reading of Jesus allows his followers to show preference.
The author supports his point with one passage from Matthew 25, focusing on the word “brothers” when Jesus says that what we do, or don’t do, for the least of these, we did, or didn’t do for him. The Greek word translated “brother” in this passage has a base meaning of “flesh and blood male sibling,” but culturally the Jews used it to mean fellow Jews, and the Greeks and Romans of the day used it to mean “compatriots.” Taken by itself, one could infer, as the author does, that Jesus was talking about taking care of fellow disciples of Jesus. But we shouldn’t interpret a stand-alone passage of Scripture to build a comprehensive understanding of Jesus’ way of thinking. Consider other teachings of his:
In Luke 10 we read Jesus teaching one of his most well-known stories–the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus tells of a man who is beaten, robbed, and left on the side of the road. His fellow Jews, his “brothers,” pass by without helping, because they have good legal or religious reasons not to help. A hated enemy, from a race of people whom the Jews of the day considered inferior people, stops and goes to great trouble and personal expense to help the wounded Jew, even though society would say he was well in his right to leave the Jew to die. The story by itself should convict us, but it is important to note why Jesus tells the story: He’s answering a question. A religious expert asks Jesus what the man must do to earn God’s favor. Jesus asks the man what the Scriptures say. The man replies with the correct answer: Love God with your entire being, and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus tells the man that he has given a good answer, but the man isn’t satisfied, because this answer is too open-ended. It requires self sacrifice. The man seeks to clarify, asking, “And who is my neighbor?” The man is looking for a way out–a way to show that he is good enough for God, without having to sacrifice. THAT is when Jesus tells the story. He ends the story with a question back to the religious man: “Who do you think was a neighbor to the man who was robbed–his fellow Jews, or the low-life?” When the man answers, “The one who had mercy on him,” Jesus affirms his understanding by saying, “Go and do likewise.”
In the teaching on the Good Samaritan, Jesus is explicitly answering the question, “who is my neighbor (or brother)?” Earlier in Luke’s account of Jesus’ life and teachings, Jesus makes a similarly difficult point: “Love your enemy.” This passage is one that gets a lot of “interpretation” (read qualifying) to help make it more palatable. A straight-forward reading of the text is pretty easy to comprehend, and totally incongruent with what we believe to be “right.” A more nuanced reading, with the benefit of some Greek background and cultural understanding of Jesus’ day makes this even more difficult to swallow. Jesus isn’t talking about “enemy” like a foreign army. He’s talking about anyone who isn’t “in your circle.” To his immediate audience, this was anyone outside your family, or your community, and even outside the Jewish religion. When he says “love,” Jesus doesn’t mean to have warm feelings for them; Jesus is saying “do good things for them, even when it isn’t in your best interest to do so!” In case you want to argue with him, he even expounds on his point in the latter part of the passage, saying, “Don’t be proud of yourself for loving those who are in your circle–even evil people do that. My followers will love those who are outside their circle!” And then he drives the point home: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” We were all outside God’s circle, but he sacrificed so we could be brought back in–he sacrificed at a great price.
Full disclosure: I despise the thought of Christians being killed because they are follow Jesus. It makes me sad, angry, and vengeful, to be honest. Nik Ripken, a former missionary to Somalia who has extensively studied Christianity in closed cultures, writes in his book “The Insanity of Obedience: Walking with Jesus in Tough Places” that these martyred Christians have a better understanding of Jesus’ teachings than we do! When Jesus teaches in his Sermon on the Mount,
“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil things against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:11-12)
he is telling us to “Rejoice and be glad!” In another teaching, Jesustells us that he is sending us out like “sheep among wolves.” He’s not telling us to be mindless here, because he follows that statement with the directive to be as shrewd as snakes, but innocent as doves.” However, he also tells a parable in Luke 15 about how important it is for people who don’t know Jesus to be connected to him. He tells a story of a man who has 100 sheep, but loses one. He leaves the 99 in the open country (where they are most susceptible to attack) to go find the one. He tells of the man calling all his neighbors to celebrate when he finds the one, and then says, “In the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”
While I’m in no way wishing martyrdom on any Christian, could it be that if Jesus wants us to show preference to refugees, that we should be more concerned with providing refuge to those who don’t know him than those who do? As Ripken describes in his book, many Arabic Christians who have converted from Islam point out that American Christians are soft. They are more concerned with getting former Muslims to safety outside their Arabic nation, but the Arab understands that Jesus has called him to risk his life to tell his Muslim brother the Good News! Rather than taking these indigenous missionaries out of the country, perhaps we should be preferring (if any religious preference is indeed necessary) to provide refuge to Muslims who can then experience the life-saving love of Jesus!
If you’re not a Jesus follower, I don’t expect you to agree with this. I’m ok with you disagreeing, because you aren’t claiming to submit yourself to Jesus’ teachings and leadership. But if you call yourself a “Christian”, literally a “little Christ,” I would encourage you to examine whether you are showing beliefs and attitudes that are more in line with Jesus’ teaching, or with a need for safety and security.
It’s been a while, and this isn’t really a deep post, but it’s more than a Facebook comment for friends. I hope everyone is having an amazing, perfect Christmas, but the reality is, most folks aren’t. Lots of people are hurting, missing someone, worried about finances, their future, their children, or a hundred other fears. They might be battling depression, or just overwhelmed by the difficulties of life, and more than a little irritated that no matter how they try, they can’t seem to get a break. This time of year it’s especially hard, because, you know, you’re supposed to be HAPPY!
As I’ve been contemplating the Christmas story this year, I have been drawn to thinking about it from Joseph’s perspective. He was a good man. He always did the right thing, to a fault. He worked hard, and tried to honor his girlfriend even though the world said he should publicly humiliate her for cheating on him. Then, God sent a messenger with a crazy message-he was supposed to keep her, and raise the boy as his own, even though he was God’s son.
Sometimes when we’re doing exactly what God wants us to do, we expect everything to be easy and go our way. I’m guessing Joseph did too. But he got ostracism, gossip, shunning by the people of his community. Every day. And, just when it couldn’t get any worse, he gets ordered to travel to be counted (and taxed) by the oppressive government. With a 9 month pregnant wife.
I can hear him shouting in desperation, “Seriously God?” (Joseph sounds a lot like me in my imagination, and I’ve been saying that a lot lately).
I can’t imagine traveling with a 9 month pregnant lady, on foot, for days. It can’t be good. I suspect the conversation was more than a little strained. Hours of long walking in silence, rehearsing conversations, counting frustration on frustration… And then they get to Bethlehem, and there isn’t even a decent place to stay to have the baby.
There’s no record of any other divine communication to Joseph after that initial visit from the angel. He’s had 9 months to second-guess himself, to doubt what God was doing, to consider how lousy his situation is, when all along he was doing the right thing. There was one thing that was undeniably real. There was a baby.
Our nativity scenes and Charlie Brown Christmas Specials really skew our understanding of that event. The multitude of heavenly host didn’t show up at the birth; from what we can read, there was no angelic presence at all at the manger. The shepherds got to hear the angels worshipping; all Joseph got that day was a visit from a bunch of smelly low-lifes who claimed to have seen angels. That was Joseph’s only confirmation that the promises were coming true.
Joseph’s “Christmas Story” wasn’t a “happy holiday.” But God was working. And even when we can’t see it, he can reassure us that we are on track, even by the least-likely of messengers, if we will listen.
“Merry Christmas” doesn’t always mean “Happy Christmas.” “Merry” would be better translated as “joyful” because joy isn’t dependent on feelings or emotions, or even circumstances. Joy is the reality of being in God’s will, doing what he made you to do. Joy is always available, even when you have no reason to be happy.
I truly hope your Christmas is happy, but I pray it is joyful.
Haven’t posted in a while. It’s a crazy season, both nationally and personally, and I hold to the Thumper-rule: “If you can’t say something nice… don’t say nothing at all.” OK, I try to hold to that rule.
Today, I can say something that, if not “nice”, should at least be encouraging.
My Bible reading this morning included the first two chapters of Exodus. The Cliff Notes version:
Chapter 1: A whole lot of time passes between the death of Joseph and the birth of Moses (We’ll leave the specific amount of time to another discussion). During that time, a new Pharaoh took over, and decided that the Israelites who were welcomed during Joseph’s time, had become too numerous, and were now a threat to the Egyptians. The Pharaoh declared first that they would be treated harshly as slaves, and when that didn’t decrease their numbers, he decreed that every male baby should be killed at birth.
Chapter 2: This chapter only covers 80 years, and if you’ve watched the Charlton Heston movie, you know this story: Moses is born to an Israelite slave couple. His mom hides him for 3 months, then decides she can’t hide him anymore, puts him in a basket in the river, where his sister watches while Pharaoh’s daughter discovers the baby. Pharaoh’s daughter gives baby Moses back to his mom to nurse him. When he’s older, she takes young Moses into Pharaoh’s house and raises him as her own son. Fast-forward to 40-year-old Moses, a member of Pharaoh’s household, who also knows that he’s of Hebrew descent, goes for a walk in the brick yard, sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave, and kills the Egyptian, hides the body, and apparently is not found out. The next day, when he interrupts two Hebrew slaves fighting each other, they get mad at him, he suddenly becomes paranoid that he’s going to be found out for the murder, and runs away into the desert to the land of Midian. There he marries the daughter of a shepherd, and spends the next 40 years unremarkably watching sheep for his father in law. The last three verses of the chapter tell us that Pharaoh dies, and the Israelites cry out to God about their oppression in Egypt. God hears their cries, and remembers his promise to Abraham to make Israel a great nation.
I’ve read this account countless times, and seen Charlton Heston act it out several more. What stood out to me today was the last verse of Chapter 2, and particularly the last three words. Today I was reading from the English Standard Version (ESV), and it translates Exodus 2:25 as, “God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.”
“and God knew.” That’s interesting. I couldn’t recall ever reading that before. I pulled out “old faithful,” my worn NIV (84 version) and read the verse, where those translators converted verse 25 to the English, “So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them.” That sounded a lot more familiar! In fact, I had looked at that verse many times, and thought, “What a primitive understanding of God.”
It always seemed as if the writer is giving the impression that God forgot about his promise to Abraham, and the fact that his chosen people, Abraham’s descendants, were being beaten as slaves for over 80 years, and then one day he said, “Oh, I wonder how they’re doing? I seem to hear them carrying on about something. I should check on them. They may be having some sort of difficulty.”
Now, I hold to a view of God as all-knowing, all-powerful, and present everywhere at the same time, so I am certain that he hadn’t become unaware of the plight of the Israelites. I just chalked the peculiar language up to the fact that the writer of Exodus didn’t really have as complete an understanding of God as us modern folks do (that’s a joke, by the way).
“and God knew.” OK, now my curiosity was piqued. I needed to know more. It turns out the Hebrew word translated by the ESV as “knew” and by the NIV as “was concerned about them” is yada. This is a complex Hebrew word that has a lot of variation of meanings in the 944 times it is used in the Old Testament. Without going into all of the variations, it is safe to say that both translations are accurate interpretations of what the word could mean. Being “concerned about them” fits within the various meanings of yada, but “know” hits the primary meaning.
“and God knew.” As a parent, this resonated with me. As we watch our children mature, we sometimes see them experience something for the first time, and we understand their experience better than they do. Often, we understand what they’re going to experience before they get there. Imagine a teenager in their first romantic relationship. They are “in love,” but parents know… There is going to be infatuation; sickeningly-sweet, life-long commitment; and eventually the devastation that elicits sobs of, “I can’t live without him (or her)!”
“and God knew.” As that parent, we can’t intervene, we can’t stop the process, we can’t lessen the pain. We can warn, we can cajole, we can make crazy threats and buy “Dads Against Daughters Dating” t-shirts, but no matter how much we would like to spare them (and us) of the experience, we have to let it play out. But we know. We let the scenario play out, standing back, but watching intently, knowing that there will be a time when the lovelorn child cries out to us in anguish, and we are ready to step in and comfort.
“and God knew.” God hadn’t lost track of the Israelites. He hadn’t become distracted, and suddenly realized he’d left them alone. He knew. He was there, ready, waiting for them to cry out.
“and God knew.” Not only was he waiting, but he was prepared! Read Exodus 2, or at least my summary above, again. How plausible is this story? A Levite couple (the family that priests come from) hide a baby. The king’s daughter finds it, and says, “Hey, Dad! I found a baby today while I was taking a bath. It was one of the Hebrew babies you are trying to kill. Right after I found it, there was a girl standing there who said she could find a slave woman to nurse it for me, so I gave the baby back to her. When he’s weaned, I am going to bring him here and I’ll raise him like he was my own baby, ‘K?”
Then, when the 40-year-old Hebrew/Pharaoh man kills somebody, he runs away into the desert and hides in another country for 40 years. So a guy with a top-flight education, military training and leadership experience sits on a brown mountain for 40 years watching sheep do sheep-stuff, until one day when God randomly finds this perfect candidate to take on Pharaoh and lead hundreds of thousands of slaves to freedom from the world’s greatest power. That’s only plausible if there is an unseen power directing the events.
“and God knew.” In Jeremiah 1:5, God tells the prophet Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew (yada) you; and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” God had given Jeremiah a purpose before he gave him a heartbeat. Exodus 2 is a story that God authored before “In the beginning…” I am always hesitant to try to determine or explain God’s purposes, but if we look at Exodus 2, it would appear that God needed to get the Israelites miserable enough in their current situation that they’d be willing to go through the hardship, fear, and unknown of leaving Egypt for a “promised land” that they’d only heard stories about. And while they were getting good and miserable, God needed to raise up a leader, train him, and then shield him from the misery until the time was right.
“and God knew.” There is a lot of turmoil in our world, our nation, our cities, and even in our own homes right now. My wife and I are facing an exciting, but terrifyingly uncertain future as we prepare to move across the continent to a city we’ve never lived in, to start a church in a place that doesn’t perceive a whole lot of use for Christians or God. Oh, and the cost of living is higher, starting a church isn’t real lucrative, and my retirement savings is depleted after 3 years of being a volunteer (that’s Hebrew for unpaid) pastor. Things are looking pretty chaotic, unorganized, and… impossible. Some of my friends are facing uncertainties much greater than mine. They’ve lost their health, livelihood, or even their spouse, or father, way too soon. There’s no way this can work! In their more honest moments, they might even tell you that they might not want it to work. It’d be easier to just quit. And if you take the time to sit in their place for a minute, you can see how they think that.
“and God knew.” God didn’t take away the Israelites misery. In fact, he used it to move them. He was standing close by, watching, waiting for their cry, and at just the right moment he sent the leader he had begun preparing (on earth) 80 years prior. Truth is, if you consider how quickly the Israelites were ready to abandon the Exodus and return to slavery in Egypt, he probably should have let them get a little more miserable before sending Moses. But he knew.
And he still does. The Israelites never got all the answers, and their suffering didn’t magically go away. In some ways, life got harder once they were freed from slavery. But God was with them, watching over them, knowing them, throughout their time in slavery, their time of testing in the desert; always watching, acting at just the right moment.
“and God knows.” Wherever you are today, whatever you are enduring, or fearing, or mourning, he still knows.
My news feed is blowing up with highly distorted references to a “Harvard Study” that allegedly presents a “shocking conclusion” and “pokes a massive hole in Black Lives Matter claims.” I’m not linking to this internet propaganda that masquerades as journalism; if you want to see it plug the quotes into your favorite search engine.
Here’s a better NY Times article on the study. While the skewed articles are factually correct in their statement that the study found no racial bias in police shootings, they leave out critical findings from the study. A more accurate summary of the findings, from the study itself (it’s 63 pages, but over half is statistical data and tables, it’s not too difficult of a read, if you’re interested in facts and details):
On non-lethal uses of force, there are racial differences- sometimes quite large– in police use of force, even after accounting for a large set of controls designed to account for important contextual and behavioral factors at the time of the police-civilian interaction. Interestingly, as the use of force increases from putting hands on a civilian to striking them with a baton, the overall probability of such an incident occurring decreases dramatically but the racial difference remains roughly constant. Even when officers report civilians have been compliant and no arrest was made, blacks are 21.3 percent more likely to endure some form of force. Yet, on the most extreme uses of force– officer-involved shootings- we are unable to detect any racial differences in either the raw data or when accounting for controls. (p35, emphasis added)
I could expend another couple of paragraphs detailing how what the report actually says in no way punches holes in the Black Lives Matter argument, or vindicates those who oppose it. But that’s not the real point of this post.
Significant numbers of the African American community are telling us in multiple different ways, from tweets, blogs, speeches, sermons, and protests, that there is a problem. When us white folks answer with “All Lives Matter,” or with statistics purporting to tell them that they are wrong, we are totally missing the point. THERE IS A PROBLEM!!! We can have a discussion about what the problem is, or how we solve it, or even about whether the problem is one of fact vs. perception, but that requires a willingness to have a dialog first. If your answer fits in a tweet, or a meme, particularly if it points out how the other party is wrong, or how the problem doesn’t exist, you have failed at dialog before even demonstrating a willingness to participate.
“The further away we are from a problem, the simpler it looks…. Most of us, from where we sit as white people, we are far away from what you’re talking about. We just are. We believe you, it’s a reality (Greg’s note: I would argue that this isn’t always accurate), but it’s still so far away and our answers, our emotional response is so simplistic.
“The closer you get to a problem, the more complex it becomes, because the closer you get to any problem there is the actual facts.”
We have to quit throwing out simplistic answers (“just comply”) or statistics and “facts” that deny the problem (see above), or pithy statements that dismiss the problem (“All Lives Matter”). These do nothing but degrade our African American brothers and sisters. We need to listen. We need to lean in. We need to get closer to the problem, so we start understanding it. If you don’t think there is a problem, you’re too far away. Sit down with the mom of an African American teenage boy, and ask her what she fears. Ask her what she teaches her son about being pulled over by the police. Listen.
Stop being defensive. The African American community is not calling you or me an explicit racist. What they’re trying desperately to tell us is that there is bias in the system, and it’s hurting them, it’s creating fear, and we need to help. If your solution is a study to prove that the problem doesn’t exist, maybe you need to lean in a little more.
One more thought for my Christian brothers and sisters: Prayer is vital, and necessary. I implore you to pray, but not some lame prayer of “Jesus, fix what’s going on in our country.” He empowered the solution 50 days after his crucifixion. Jesus’s solution for addressing what’s going on in the world today is, and has been the same for the last 2000 years–the Church.
Instead, I ask you to pray the prayer that Andy suggests:
“Prejudice and racism are almost impossible to see in the mirror because it’s hidden in our hearts…. Would you ask God to do for you what he did for Peter (in Acts 10:28)? Would you ask God to show you? Would you say ‘God, I think I’m good with this, I think I’m free and clear.’… Regardless of your experience, would you at least have the courage to say, ‘God, show me. Help me to spot it and despise it the way that you do. Help me to despise it and to stop defending it. And give me the courage to eradicate it from my heart, rather than keep telling myself that same story over and over and over that justifies it in my heart.’ “
But when you’ve prayed, don’t consider your role finished. As Christians, we need to act. Andy’s concluding words:
The church has to be at the epicenter of this. Only in the church are we taught that I am looking at someone who is made in the image of God…. You cannot mistreat my children and get along with me, and I cannot mistreat you and get along with my Father in Heaven. That is the message of the New Testament, and that is the message of the Cross, and that trumps my experience, and your experience.
Lean in. Get close to your brothers and sisters–so close that the problem is not “theirs,” but “ours.” And when your response begins with, “But…” stop and listen again.
One of the things I observed in Orlando on Monday, a little more than 24 hours after the Pulse shooting, was the people. The feeling was different. Even in the restaurant where we ate lunch, about a mile away, the staff was waiting tables, but you could tell their minds were distant… numb. The traffic was horrendous, as a main arterial through the middle of the city was closed for several blocks, yet people were patient. Courteous, even.
I was struck by who was there.
The first people I noticed were the locals. People who had this occur, in some cases literally in their back yard. Most of the time, catastrophic news happens in a place on TV. It’s not a real place; it could be a movie set in Hollywood as far as we know. But for these people, this was in their neighborhood, their place of work, at the Subway where they buy their lunch every day. It is their home. And it had been invaded, not just by a gunman, but by the world.
The next group of people I noticed were the media. Satellite trucks were everywhere. Miles of cables strung through the streets. Power inverters hooked to the batteries of rental cars for blocks in every direction. Enough pop-up tents to equip the infield of a NASCAR race. I’d already seen the Facebook posts about the “truth” that the media is keeping from us. You know, those plastic-faced souls who are trying to brainwash you into believing their version of America? Lies. All of it. Am I biased? You could argue that, since my son is one of them. Or, you could consider that maybe, since I know one of them, I have a better perspective on reality than most people. As I watched these reporters, producers, photographers, and others work and sweat, trying to make sure every detail was correct, to uncover truth and provide accurate details without spreading inaccuracies, I was struck by their determination. In horrific conditions, they were sweating it out, suppressing personal emotions, sleep deprivation, and technical frustrations. They weren’t doing it to control minds, nor to get rich. They were doing it because presenting the truth is important to them. Hear me on this one: The media plays an important role in our free nation, and these professionals perform their duty with the same gravity as law enforcement or military does. We owe them respect, and the benefit of the doubt.
It was impossible not to notice the law enforcement presence. What was most surprising was the number, and the variety. Local, county, and state police, but that was just the beginning. Federal agents from multiple agencies, mobile crime labs and command trailers from cities hundreds of miles away, some of which made no sense for them to be there, until you consider the enormity of the task. Again, I was impressed by their professionalism in horrific circumstances and in incredibly difficult conditions. The heat and humidity were brutal. Cops controlling closed roads who had to answer the same insistent plea to go down that street, from a different person every three minutes, for whatever brutal length of time their shift covered. Men and women who had spent hours working through the carnage of a crime scene that can’t be comprehended. All with a calm, patient presence that concealed their exhaustion, tension, and …pain. These men and women were there to “protect and serve.” The law enforcement profession has been battered lately in the public eye. But they deserve our respect and appreciation for their work on this day. All of them face death on a daily basis, much more often than most of us ever realize.
Then there were the volunteers. Christ Church Orlando is just 5 doors down the street from Pulse. They opened their doors in the first hours after the shooting, providing a needed respite for the first responders and law enforcement, offering A/C, food, water, and a place to rest, 24 hours a day. As a general rule, Christians haven’t done the best job loving the type of people who frequented Pulse, but Pastor Paul impressed me with one thing he said: Since starting the church, they have always stayed true to their call to remain in the heart of the city. I didn’t get the impression that they had much of a connection to Pulse or its customers, but they were there, and they went to work, ministering to their community the best way they knew how.
If your news feed has an evangelical Christian channel to it, you’ve seen the posts about the Chick-Fil-A that opened on a Sunday to feed the first responders. If you don’t know, this is a big deal, first because Chick-Fil-A never opens on Sunday, because their owners are Christians who make it a corporate policy to allow all employees to have Sunday to be with their families (and go to church, if they choose). Chick-Fil-A has received bad press in the past on LGBT issues, so Christians are trumpeting it from the rooftops that no one has heard about this act (often with an air of self-righteousness because it’s not being reported by the biased media). Here’s the thing: It’s probably not making the news for several more legitimate reasons:
I get the impression they didn’t do it for publicity, but because they were serving a need in their community
EVERYONE was serving. Businesses were donating whatever they could to help out. The Target store just a few blocks away gave pallets of bottled water. Grocery stores were donating food. Restaurants were donating meals. Chick-Fil-A was just one business among many. ALL deserve to be appreciated for their selflessness, yet no one was doing it for appreciation. People needed to serve one another, to put their love into action.
I saw thousands of people. Straight and LGBT; community leaders and the impoverished; multiple ethnicities, and most likely multiple political parties. People who want to abolish guns, and 2nd Amendment loyalists. There were rednecks and illegals. Muslims, Christians, and atheists. But on this day, something was different: There was a respect being shown, by everyone, to everyone. Suddenly, we were once again aware of the humanity of each one, even those who were different. It felt much the same as the feeling I had in DC, near the Pentagon, in the days after 9/11.
That day, no one was a them. Every person I encountered was a we. Someone who mattered, who hurt, who was a son or daughter, a sibling, a friend, a spouse… Most importantly, EVERY person there was a PERSON, with intrinsic value, which I believe is because they are first and foremost an image-bearer of God. God gives every person value, and no one has the right or authority to take that value away. On that day, in Orlando, each saw the value of the lives around them. My prayer is that we will all be changed by this event… that we will see that value for the rest of our lives, and even in those that we dislike, disagree with; and that we will think and act differently.
I’m not asking that each of us hold hands with a Muslim, or a transgender person, or an NRA Life Member, and sing Kumbaya. Start with your next door neighbor. Or the jerk that just cut you off in the grocery store parking lot. How about just changing your political rhetoric–not your opinions, but the words you use to state your opinions? Because, like it or not, Hillary, Donald, and Barack are people too. Once we start dehumanizing them, we are well on our way to hating them. And as I wrote a few days ago, that hatred is the evil that resides in each one of us, that is the root cause of this tragedy.
For my readers who aren’t followers of Jesus, you can jump out here. The rest of this post is a family talk with my brothers and sisters.
In Luke 6:27-49 Jesus issues what is arguably the most difficult commands in all of his teachings. He tells us to love everybody–not just those who are loveable, or who are in our circle and meet our standards. Because everybody does that. His followers are to be different, and to show that difference by loving those who hate them. And he’s not commanding us to have warm feelings from afar–he’s talking about real, sacrificial action, without expecting anything in return. Then he puts some teeth in his teaching: in v 35 he tells us that in doing so, “then (we) will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked” (including me). He goes on to tell us that we will be judged, condemned, and forgiven with the measure we use to judge, condemn, or forgive others. We get this backwards. We want God to forgive us as we forgive ourselves, and judge others the way we judge others. He talks about the fruit in our lives coming from what is stored up in our hearts, either good or evil.
He then drives the point to a non-negotiable conclusion with his parable of the wise and foolish builders. He starts in v 46 with a question that should cut each of us to the bone: “Why do you call me , ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?”
The answer is, “because we don’t want to, Jesus.” We want to do things our way, with your blessing, so we parse and interpret the words of this passage and others like it, to give ourselves loopholes to avoid doing what he plainly says. But looking back at the logical implication of v 35 above, if we are children of the Most High if we obey him, then when we choose not to obey, or twist his words to make his commands more suitable to our liking, then the converse is true–v 49 tells us that like the house without a foundation, we will collapse, and our destruction will be complete.
My wife and I spent Monday in Orlando, on Orange Street, looking for ways to help in the aftermath of the Pulse tragedy. The day was emotional, exhausting, and difficult to process. I tried to take everything in… the people, the emotion, the activity. I spent much of Tuesday writing, and trying to distill what I sensed, and what I’m feeling. Most of those words will probably not leave my notebook. There are several blog articles that I’m not certain if I’ll ever publish. Some because I just needed to get my thoughts down on the page, and some because, well, I’m not sure they will mean anything to others. I’m also hesitant because so much has already been said, and I can’t seem to write fast enough to not be rehashing the thoughts of others.
I have to publish this one. I’ve been wrestling with it since Sunday. My (small) audience covers a really broad spectrum politically, philosophically, and theologically. I can bet that all of you disagree with me on something, which is OK, because there are some issues that I have trouble finding consensus with myself on. I work to write in a way that doesn’t compromise my deeply held beliefs, but at the same time encourages constructive dialog, or at least meaningful thought, even in those who hold core values that differ fundamentally from my own. But today I am writing from an unabashedly Christian viewpoint, yet with the same desire to cultivate meaningful dialog or thought amongst those who might disagree.
Much has been written to attempt to explain why. Hundreds of investigators are interviewing thousands of connections, exploring terabytes of data, all for clues as to what motivated the shooter. Some want to blame religion. Or hatred of homosexuals. Or repressed sexuality. Or ethnicity, mental health, or some other cause that we can find reprehensible. Donald Trump wants to blame Muslims and Syrian refugees. Hillary wants to blame guns. Some want to blame the FBI for not recognizing “warning signs” that are only perceivable after the fact. The reality is we all want to blame something. We’re looking for an external cause, a them, or a that, which we can then abolish, hate, or kill to make this stop.
Carey Nieuwhof is a Canadian pastor who teaches about leadership in the church. He wrote a blog Monday morning that contained a thought that rattled me. He offered up several thoughts on how churches should respond in this “age of terror,” and point #2 gave me trouble. He talks about the importance of confession and humility, two Christian staples that may have lost some of their importance in our Western church culture. In that discussion, he made a statement that I flat disagreed with, when I first read it. He said,
“The opposite of confession is blame…and that’s an instinctive reaction most of us have.”
I don’t disagree with the “instinctive reaction” part–we all are good at blame, and it comes from deep inside, without effort or conscious thought. My issue was with the “opposite” part. I have a fundamental issue with people creating dichotomies and this one seemed to be stretching quite a bit. I read enough stuff that I disagree with that I didn’t dwell there much, but as I thought and pondered throughout the days, it kept bubbling back to the surface. And I started to consider the significant truth packaged there: Blame is an attempt to ascribe cause to the other… Confession is the admission that “I did it.” Not “I did it because…” or the original casting of blame that followed the original sin, in Genesis 3, where Adam blames Eve (“The woman you put here with me, she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” See how he did that, not only was it Eve’s fault, but it was God’s fault for putting her there!).
But, what do I have to confess? I didn’t shoot anyone. As I considered all the different angles being explored as we all seek a satisfying answer to the question “Why?”, I crashed into this confession thought again. Because the Christian concept of confession starts to point to the answer to the question. There is one common denominator to all of the tragic events that have dominated our news in recent years (and all of history, for that matter). It’s not religion, race, ethnicity, or weapon. It crosses every boundary. It is most often a silent killer, destroying from the inside out. It is a blackness of the human soul called evil.
We can all agree that the actions of the shooter in Orlando were evil. Our desire to blame is simply looking for an external locus for that evil. What made him evil? Was it his religion? Was it his upbringing? Was it defective brain chemistry? Repressed sexual urges? Any one of those causes can be a viable explanation, so long as we don’t share that same defect. That last phrase is important. As long as it was them, we can accept an explanation. But when the explanation includes us, we react with vehemence. I am not in any way blaming this tragedy on guns, but observe the response of gun owners: When the expected call to in some way blame guns for this tragedy came, the shouted challenges and impassioned memes exploded across the ether. In this case, I have to agree: guns didn’t cause this, and banning guns won’t stop it. Because guns aren’t the problem.
Many want to blame religion, or Middle Eastern culture as the source of the evil we see, but that explanation doesn’t fly in the case of the Charleston shootings. Guns can’t explain away Timothy McVeigh’s actions. The Bible tells us the problem lies within each of us. Evil is inherent in the hearts of men and women. We don’t like to hear that, and mankind has pursued multiple philosophies to refute this claim. My purpose today is not to defend the claim, so much as to encourage us to consider it. We don’t want to, because if the shooter’s motivation was evil, and evil is inherent, then the logical implication is… we are all capable of similar atrocities.
I cannot prove this statement to be correct, but the more I consider it, the more I believe it is true. I suspect that each of us, if we were bold enough to take the time and consider the deeper recesses of our souls, would come to a similar realization. I’m not blaming here, I am confessing. I am capable of incredible evil. I wouldn’t shoot up a gay nightclub, because that’s not where the objects of my hate are found. But there is hatred in my heart, and it can cause me to consider unthinkable actions against my fellow man. I would humbly submit, based on both my knowledge of people and my study of the Bible, that we all have that same capacity. I further submit that if you haven’t seen that level of hate in your own soul, it’s because you haven’t met the object yet, not because you don’t have the capacity.
This post could become book-length, and not exhaust the consideration of this thought. My goal isn’t debate. Today, all I want to do is confess. I am capable of hating, and that hatred has the potential to judge a person bearing the image of God as a sub-human that I have the right to destroy. I believe that is the essence of the shooter’s action, whether his target is eventually determined to be because the victims were gay, or because they were Americans complicit in the bombing of his claimed country, or some other reason that we will probably never know.
I believe for each of us, there is a them.Them are the people that we don’t see as human. It might not start that way. It may just be a disdain for an action, or an origin, or a belief, or a characteristic. As we allow that disdain to separate us from them, the disdain can strengthen. As the chasm grows, their humanity shrinks, and eventually we can quite easily see them as not worthy of… You may not have pursued that thought to the point of being willing to take a life, but I believe we are all capable.
Before you think I’m just making this all up, let me point to someone who most agree was at least a great philosopher/ethicist/teacher. Jesus said that anyone who is angry with another person is subject to judgment the same as one who murders. Without delving into a deep parsing of the Greek word translated as “anger” in Matthew 5:23, he’s not rewriting the Ten Commandments. He’s pointing out that murder starts in our hearts as a judgment of another. John affirms this interpretation in 1 John 3:15 when he says “anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer…”. The rest of that verse tends to answer the next question: “What is the solution?”
John goes on to say “and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.” Christians will tell you that Jesus is love, and that having Jesus residing in you provides eternal life. For the sake of time, let me jump a few steps in this logical process–the antidote to the evil and hatred in each of us is LOVE. That’s the ONLY thing that is going to stop the atrocities. Gun bans wont. Walls wont. Bombing the Middle East into a parking lot wont.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails….
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.- 1 Corinthians 13:4-8, 13