A friend asked yesterday, “How did things get so broken?” after witnessing a Facebook exchange on how to deal with the tragedy of school shootings.
There are so many people screaming at each other that they have the answers, and they have the memes and talking points to prove it! Maybe if this brilliant thought goes viral, I can unlock the key to all the solutions! Or maybe I just wish to backhand a “friend” who irritated me with their silly views.
But where are the people with listening ears? Where are the courageous and curious souls willing to read that article from a differing viewpoint? Where are the humble souls willing to say, “It’s possible I’ve had it wrong before.” Who are the leaders willing to sit and listen. Really listen.
My blog has been silent now for months. That is by design. My mind has not stopped pondering. My ideas and questions are still there. I’ve not lost my drive to implore people to ponder bigger questions. But, really, what is the point? To add to the cloud of unheard voices feels…depressing.
Don’t for a moment buy that I have been a paragon of virtue in this pursuit of listening to understand. There have been people who angered me to the point of slapping back. There are falsehoods that I have been unable to scroll by without offering a snarky retort. There are times when my inner voice speaks through my fingers before my brain scans the bigger picture. The sarcasm runs deep in this one, and she likes to use it.
But, it is now past time for kindness and consideration to overrule stubbornness. It is past time to insist that our facts are facts when someone proves otherwise. It is time to accept that different opinions may have things to teach us. It is time to admit that some things are unknowable. It is long past time to accept that the greater good, the atmosphere of our community, matters more than insisting we are right. Are we really so proud that we can’t even imagine that we may have bought lies unwittingly? We can’t all have the best brain. We can’t be infallible. Are we so certain of the foundation of our beliefs that we need not even consider other possibilities? It’s a big world out here. There are people smarter, more educated, and with more expertise, than us.
Or perhaps certainty of our rightness is not the core reason for digging in our heels and covering our ears. Perhaps we are afraid. Afraid that we may be wrong. Afraid that admitting our mistakes would be terribly embarrassing. Afraid to acknowledge that we’ve never actually looked deeply into many things we say we believe.
I caution you to proceed with the following recommendation with some wariness (or even a little trepidation). Examine and question your beliefs. All of them. Questioning our beliefs– if they are real; if they are correct; if they stand the test; is frightening territory. Not knowing the ending chapters to that mystery is unsettling. Often times painful. Uncertain days will lie ahead.
If you are unwilling to take the time and mental and emotional energy to consider the very real possibility that you might be wrong, then don’t. We all have that right. Sometimes we need to just float along the surface for our own health and sanity. Sometimes we need to watch puppy videos and giggle at Pinterest fails.
But, might I suggest, we are missing out on so much if we stay in our comfy inner tube and never risk diving in. We miss the wild flailing as waves knock us under, yes. We miss the frantic search for daylight and air after getting flipped around under water. But, then we also miss digging our toes into the sand too. We miss feeling particles as old as the earth under our feet. And that is worth the turmoil.
I have spent roughly the past year or two intentionally questioning my beliefs. Are the things I was taught in Sunday school true? Are the nuggets of wisdom repeated generation after generation really the core teachings of Jesus? Or are they a mashup of opinions, biases, and thoughts, of old teachers? Are the tenets of faith so vehemently defended by the loudest and most stern voices really what are the most important lessons of Jesus’ life?
Are the predominant political views of those claiming Christian faith correct? Do they line up with the teachings of Christ? Do the things that anger us? Upset us? Grieve us?
The journey is not complete and, I suspect, will never be 100% concrete in all facets of faith and life. Questioning means we need to accept change, expect change, embrace change. I have reached some conclusions that change everything in my life. Because perspective changes everything.
We who grow up in the evangelical tradition are taught that we are to be different from our culture. We are to forge a clearly different path than those who don’t believe. But do we? No. We don’t Not in the areas that matter most. Not in the areas that were modeled directly through the life and words of Jesus.
Jesus reached out to people who lived on the fringes of society. He ate with them. He touched them. He told others to love them (recall the story of the good Samaritan in the book of Luke 10). He fed them (the miraculous feeding of the crowd is a Sunday school favorite). He lived simply. He rejected political power.
The American church that I see speaks of love very well. But when it comes to demonstrating love, I must confess, my agnostic friends do as well if not better. I have watched them spearhead campaigns for the rights of others. I have seen them clothe someone else’s children. Open their homes and hearts to distressed and difficult teens. Not bat an eye at a goth kid with a septum piercing. And one of the most beautiful examples I have observed is a rag tag group of friends who created their own family of support and love. They are all different personalities, all different temperaments, even different ages. But they love. They share their lives regularly. They eat together, go to events together. They accept each other–annoying quirks and all. The way we Christians are supposed to. But do we? I have been a part of many small groups through my years in the church. Not one group has made me feel completely and unconditionally loved. Not one group has known much about my life, nor I of theirs. We didn’t spend time together outside of Bible studies. We never really knew each other’s children. I never felt completely comfortable to speak up when my thoughts differed because when I did I was nearly always quieted or shot down.
This is not to say that Christians don’t do any of the above things. Some do them very well. But what I see more often than not is that those things come with strings attached. I will love you if you come to church with me. I will feed you if you let me pray publicly for you. I will give you a warm coat if you promise to …. (fill in the blank). I will accept you as a friend as long as you think and act in an approved manner. What I then observe is disappointment, disapproval, even resentment if the generosity is not recognized or unspoken rules not followed. To me, this does not appear to be different at all than the culture we rage against. Do and say the things I find acceptable and I will care for you. If not, you may be on your way. This does not seem like unconditional, Christlike love to me.
When Jesus healed the ten lepers, only one of them returned to thank him. The rest just happily ran off. When this story is told in churches it is often used as an illustration of how we must show gratitude. But is it? Jesus made a point to say that the one man who came back to thank him was a foreigner, a Samaritan. The very people that were culturally unacceptable. Jesus used that man as an example. Could He have been trying to tell us that we have much to learn from those different than us? That even our enemies can make good choice? Could He have been telling us to not assume we know people or how they will react? Could He be telling us to care for all people regardless of background, faith, status or outcome?
I am passionate about caring for the poor and neglected. I make no apologies for beating that drum every single day. And I need to tell you that the people who break my heart on a regular basis in their dealings with the poor are the American evangelical church. I’ve had people argue that clothing school children is just enabling bad parents. If those parents can buy cigarettes and tattoos they can buy sneakers for their kid! Yes. Yes they can (…maybe). But, it is not the child’s fault when they don’t. And nowhere in scripture do I see evidence of a mandate to help only the responsible poor. (Which, by the way, seems to be an oxymoron in a majority of American Christian’s eyes). This is where Christ’s teaching hits its core. Love God, love others. This is where the example of Jesus was countercultural. And this is where the American church is so very very wrong. Help. Meet needs. Love. Not only for those who never buy drugs or alcohol. Not only for the loving parents. Not only for the clean. Not only for those who listen to us. All.
What is the difference between poor oversees and poor in our backyard? There is an ocean of difference in the way many Christians talk and think about them. Many Christian homes have a picture or two on their fridge of someone they sponsor oversees. They are pleased to hear progress and updates about these people. They are proud of their financial part in making their lives better. They do not ask questions about what led to their sponsored person being poor. They do not ask about parenting, drug use, abuse. Do we fool ourselves into thinking those problems don’t exist in third world countries? Are we playing the savior to these poor, lost, and clueless souls in our own minds? While tsk tsk-ing the poor, lost, clueless souls we can actually see and touch in our own community?
We need look no further than the example of Franklin Graham to see this mental and moral disconnect. He is the head of a Christian international aid organization. Among other things, his organization helps make sure disaster victims have food, shelter, and medical attention. They have set up medical tents for refugees and delivered supplies to camps. Wonderful! Yet at the same time, after touring refugee camps in the middle east, he is speaking into his large megaphone that we need to close our borders. Think of our citizens first. For our safety. Are those seeking safety and asylum here not the same people in the photo op oversees? He claims it is not a faith issue. Isn’t all of life a faith issue? Can anyone point me to the story where Jesus talked about His safety? Where is the teaching on putting ourselves first?
THIS is where the church should stand out. THIS is where there should be so much contrast to the rest of the culture that there is no denying that something is radically different about those who follow Jesus. Instead, I see fear of the refugee. Fear of the immigrant. Fear of the homeless and poor. Fear of judgment from others for getting too close to the messiness of life. Fear of anything or anyone who may invade our protective bubble. Fear of questions. Fear of uncertainty. Fear of being wrong. Scorn for the possibility of enabling a less than “worthy” person.
But who decides who is less than worthy? I thought that we loved to quote “For God so loved the world…” Doesn’t “world” include everyone? Even the refugee? Even the smelly poor parent who doesn’t take proper care of their child? Even the gay person? Even the alcoholic? Even the scared woman considering abortion? Or the girl who already had an abortion? Even the screwup that keeps coming back to the food pantry after spending all her money elsewhere?
Yes, you purists who haven’t given up in disgust by now–I know the rest of the above verse. I know that it speaks of Jesus being the savior of the world. I know it speaks of people choosing to follow Jesus to find life. But I can’t help but wonder how many people would want to follow a Jesus who only chose to love refugees from a vast and safe distance. How many people’s lives would be impacted by a Jesus who only gave to the poor single mom but not the poor addicted man? Isn’t that man part of “the world”? Isn’t the woman in the hijab just as loved by God as the missionary? Isn’t the gay couple just as loved by God as your own children? What if they are your children? Does the definition of God’s love change then?
You see, I don’t believe it was an accident that Jesus used the example of the Samaritan. It was no accident that he had lowly, working class people in his group of closest friends. It was no accident that he befriended prostitutes. No accident that he ate with sinners and crooked tax collectors. He was teaching by example for those who would learn of Him later. Just like parents whose children imitate us, He wants us to imitate Him.
That is difficult. Insanely difficult at times. I find lovable people more…lovable. I want to be sure my resources and time are best served. I love to be in control. But, as one who claims to follow Jesus’s example, I don’t get to decide who to love. All the world. All. Even those who hate me. Even those who live, believe, and behave differently than me. Even those who will only take from me and disappear. Even those who may be dangerous. And I don’t get to tell them what they must do in return. I don’t get to condemn them. I don’t get to feel superior to them.
Didn’t the early followers of Jesus end up being led by the man named Paul? Many current day Christians actually seem to prefer his teachings over Christ’s (but that’s another topic). And yet that man had been a persecutor of them before then. Saul had taken pleasure in trying to destroy the followers of Christ as a way of keeping his religion pure. He was being pious and godly (he thought). But God changed him (and renamed him Paul) and made him a key player in His church for all of history. Is our current day God smaller than that? Is He not capable of turning would-be terrorists of us into alibis and leaders for us? So why so afraid of Muslims? Of Hispanics? Of “others”? Church, why no different than our culture in this area?
Why is the Church so tied to one particular political party? Why are the Church leaders seeking power and influence in the political arena? Didn’t Jesus teach by example when he rebuffed the calls to become the political king? It had to be flattering to have followers tell Him that He would be a great king! But he wholeheartedly rejected accepting political power. He was here to teach, to love, to guide. He was never here to rule. The church seems to have lost the ability to copy Him on that one. Humility and service. Not power and dominion.
So, what do all of these thoughts and realizations have in common? They are all the results of allowing myself to ask questions. They are more meaningful facets of genuine faith that I never would have come to if I had not risked being wrong. If I had stayed in my comfy inner tube I would never have seen the pain in the eyes of the Christian woman who regularly feels she is out of line for wondering if Jesus really stood for…..(fill in the blank of hot button topics). If I had not been bruised by the waves crashing on me, I would never have looked at poverty from a completely different, and refreshingly nonjudgmental, perspective. If I had not known the panic of searching for the sky while my lungs burned I would not have been able to put my arm around my unsettled friend and say (with deep sincerity), “I understand. It hurts. It’s lonely. You will upset friends. You will upset family. You will upset you. But you will not upset God. Ask. Wonder. Doubt.” And my friend can take comfort in knowing that I found my way to the sand beneath my feet. My toes are digging into the ancient earth. The sand still shifts. But now I know that it’s okay.