Monday, March 30, 2009

Am I?

Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”
“I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
The LORD said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse…” (Genesis 4:9-10)

I do some of my best thinking while getting my hair cut.

Maybe it’s the fact that there’s not much to do but sit and think. Maybe the blood just starts flowing better to my head. Maybe it’s the conversation with the lady who does the cutting. Whatever the case, I kind of connected up something I had never connected this past week while the clippers buzzed and the scissors clicked.

We were talking about our kids, and this lady mentioned how growing up seems so different now than it did when she was a girl. She’s a little concerned about raising her kids in the city, about the people and values that influence them, and about the dangers they face. “I think people are more bad today,” she said in her Albanian accent.

“People are more bad.” I thought to myself, No, that’s not right. But I couldn’t argue that things are different for Josh than they were for me, just as they were different for my parents. I wanted to say something to this lady, something to give her an option other than “people are more bad,” but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. And she seemed to have a point. It does sometimes seem that kind, trustworthy people with integrity and character are harder to find, and that the evil people do has grown exponentially in degree and quantity. But I don’t think it’s because people are worse, I thought. It’s not like people have changed that much. It’s not like there weren’t bad people in the world doing evil things when I was a kid.

And that’s when a connection snapped into place in my mind.

“Am I my brother’s keeper?”

In the neighborhood where I grew up, a lot of folks would have answered that question with a yes. People knew each other. Looked after each others’ kids. Brought food when there was illness or death in a family. Neighbors knew each other and felt a sense of responsibility for each other, and the practical result was that we kids could run in and out of each others’ houses and all over the neighborhood, and our parents had a reasonable expectation that we’d be safe.

I’m not saying that was the case in every neighborhood in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in the 70’s and 80’s. And I’m not saying that it’s not the case in any neighborhoods in Chicago today. I’m just saying that’s the difference. It’s not, by and large, a question of whether people are better or worse today as opposed to yesterday. It’s about that sense of responsibility for one another. It’s about recognizing that our lives connect with one another like the strands of a spider’s web, that what happens to one touches us all.

It’s about answering that question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?

Cain’s answer to his own question was “No, I’m not.” He didn’t feel that sense of responsibility for his brother. He saw nothing but his own agenda, was compelled by no sympathy to protect Abel, and the result was predictable. And even when God asked him about it, Cain could work up nothing but contempt for the relationship he should have had with his brother. The result was predictable: as soon as Abel got in his way, Cain killed him.

And God almost seems shocked. Outraged. He can hear Abel’s blood crying out to him for justice, and he sees what Cain has done. And he makes clear to Cain what his answer to that question should have been. “Yes, Cain, you were to be your brother’s keeper. You were to love him, protect him, take responsibility for him. You were to recognize that you and he were part of a web of relationships that can’t be broken without consequence.”

We picture Cain’s curse as God’s punishment on him, sometimes, and I guess that’s not entirely inaccurate. Maybe, though, it’s better that we understand that the curse is at least in part something that Cain creates for himself. “You will be a restless wanderer on the earth” – because that’s what happens when we forsake the relationships that God gives us. We create homes and neighborhoods where no one takes responsibility for one another, and so we never find a place where we feel at home.

But we know better, those of us who know Jesus. At least, we should. “Who is my neighbor, whom I’m obligated to love?” the religious leader asked. Jesus told a story that served to say that since we all are interconnected, there’s no one who can be arbitrarily placed outside my circle of responsibility. I am to love my neighbor, whoever that neighbor is and however he may be different from me. I am my brother’s keeper, whoever it is that God brings my way. And Jesus lived that out, didn’t he? He held no one outside his circle of responsibility. Squarely on his shoulders sat the burden of the world, and he accepted it as a burden God wanted him to carry. And carry it he did, all the way to a cross.

“Each member belongs to all the others,” Paul said of the church. (Romans 12:5) The church can create a new reality in this world that sometimes seems “more bad” than ever. We can intentionally work to become communities where we take responsibility for each other, and for the world outside our walls. To the degree that we can share the burdens of others, model love and hope and peace for them, and be willing to love them as people created by God and not just potential Christians, we will have taken steps toward creating a new ethic of responsibility and care for one another.

What I said to the lady cutting my hair was, “I think in a lot of places there’s no sense of responsibility for each other.” That seemed to make sense to her. It got me thinking about the degree to which I take responsibility for the people around me: in my home, in my church, in my community. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, and if we define “brother and sister” in a way that excludes then we’ve clearly missed the point.

We are responsible for each other. Let’s show our world what that looks like.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Compliment Guys

Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If you speak, you should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. (1 Peter 4:10-11)

They were tired of it. Tired of people being grumpy, depressed, and worried. Tired of always worrying about the current economic climate. So Cameron Brown and Brett Westcott decided to do something to bring a little light and joy to their corner of the world – which happens to be Purdue University.

They became The Compliment Guys.

That’s what everyone calls them, anyway. Every Wednesday afternoon from 12:30 to 2:30, Cameron and Brett set up their “Free Compliments” sign near a main walkway outside the chemistry building. Rain, snow, sleet, cold – whatever the weather, The Compliment Guys are “In”. For those two hours on Wednesday, they live up to their name. Every person who walks by gets a compliment. To a guy in Purdue sweats they say, “Love your school spirit." To a woman carrying a trendy black bag: “Very nice purse." “It's very large.” To the student who ran past them in knee-high leather boots: “I like your hustle.” “I like your boots, too.”

The guys try to be very personal and specific in their compliments, too. “I like your red coat,” Westcott says to a woman listening to her iPod. She turned and laughed, which prompted Brown to say, “Very nice smile.” Three women leaving biology lab purposely walked by them. “I like your curly hair. Great smile. I like your glasses,” the guys said, pointing to each of the women. One Wednesday, they told a professor to enjoy his coffee, thanked the groundskeepers for their hard work and encouraged someone eating an apple to “stay nutritious.”

While most people react positively, the guys sometimes get ignored, or get nasty looks, or the occasional obscene gesture. They get accused of being there only to pick up girls. (They both have girlfriends.) Some think it’s a psychology experiment. But Brett Westcott says their reasons for being The Compliment Guys are pretty straightforward, if not too sophisticated: “Just overall, making people's day is really satisfying. Not enough people do nice things anymore.”

I don’t know about you, but I think The Compliment Guys might be on to something.

We’re a culture that doesn’t take seriously the power of words. Strange, when you think about how many words we speak, process, e-mail, and text every day. Everywhere we look, there are words: on signs, on screens, on forms and petitions, in documents and books, on labels and menus, billboards and bumper stickers. Everywhere we go, people are speaking: cell phones clamped to ears as they walk, Bluetooths (Blueteeth?) clipped to ears while they drive, in meetings and at coffee shops, in schools and churches and offices and bars and restaurants, over dinner with family and over conference calls with the home office. So many words.

So little thought.

How else to explain the careless ways that husbands and wives, parents and children, students and teachers, friends, colleagues, and fellow church members speak to each other? How else to explain the torrents of profanity yelled out of car windows when a driver feels cheated out of a spot in traffic that he thinks should have been his? How else to explain how we trivialize things like sex or family or even God with too many meaningless, thoughtless, graceless words? How else to explain all the ways in which we use words to hurt, manipulate, belittle, and control?

So many words. So little thought.

No wonder members of some religious orders take vows of silence. When you discipline yourself not to speak at all, you gain a better understanding of the value of words, in much the same way as a person who’s fasting understands the value of food. Maybe we Christians should give more thought to the vow of silence. I can certainly think of situations that would have worked out much better if I had taken one.

Or maybe better, let’s discipline ourselves to use words more carefully. That’s where I think The Compliment Guys have it right. They’re making a choice to use words to “make peoples’ day.” They’re disciplining themselves, at least for two hours on Wednesday afternoons, to speak in ways that are positive, affirming, and encouraging. I suspect, too, that those two hours on Wednesday carry over, at least to some extent, in the ways that they speak when they’re “off duty.”

“If you speak,” wrote Peter, “you should do so as one who speaks the very words of God.” I love that it’s Peter, of all people, who wrote that. Peter, the guy who was so well-acquainted with the taste of foot. The guy who swore he’d never desert Jesus, and then swore just as vehemently that he didn’t know him. He learned, somewhere along the line, and by the time he was the elder statesman of the church he had learned how much words mattered. He had begun to regard words, and the opportunity to use them, as gifts from God. He understood that the faithful words of God’s people are one of the many ways in which God’s grace takes form in this world is. So he wanted the church to take words seriously. He charged them to give careful thought to what they said, to consider whether or not the words coming from their mouths or pens were suitable vehicles for the grace of God to travel in. “If you say something, make sure it’s something that wouldn’t seem out of place coming from the mouth of God himself.”


Well, we can try to do better at least, can’t we? It might not work for you to set up your own “Free Compliment” stand at your own work or school. But then, there are other ways to bless people with your words than firing compliments at them as they walk by. We can speak encouraging words to someone who’s having a bad day. We can be gentle and careful when we have to reprimand a child or an employee. We can remember to say “I love you” more often, and “Your problem is…” less. We can speak truth, lovingly, to people who are spiraling out of control. We can tell the story of Jesus a little more often. We can add to and listen to slanderous, gossip-filled stories a lot less. We can choose to use words to defuse anger instead of adding to it. We can be quiet and give others a chance to speak, when that’s what God is calling us to. And we can choose to use words to bless others, instead of gratifying ourselves or getting what we want.

Give it a try. You’ll get the hang of it.

Hey – good job reading this.


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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.

Monday, March 16, 2009

With Sober Judgment

Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. (Romans 12:3)

Lois Draegin understands that she has a lot to learn.

Lois is an intern at the web start-up, a site that targets accomplished women over 40. Certain technical skills are a necessity on the job, and Lois just doesn’t have some of those skills. So she hasn’t been shy about asking her colleagues’ help with, say, doing search engine optimization for a story she’s working on, or writing a URL, or using Google Trends, or doing a screen grab to get stills from a video into a story. She’s learning, but some of those skills still elude her.

Since she doesn’t already have those technical skills, you might be forgiven for asking how she got this internship. I suppose you’d say it was her real-world experience that got her the job.

Lois Draegin, who’s 55, came to this internship from TV Guide. She was an editor. With a six-figure salary.

Now she’s making…well, less. The internship is unpaid, three mornings a week.

Like a lot of people in the current economy, Lois was laid off from her job. But she’s chosen not to spend much time feeling sorry for herself. While some might consider it a career free-fall to trade a six-figure salary for an unpaid internship, Lois sees it as a chance to gain some skills that she lacks and position herself for a future job opportunity, while making a contribution to a project she believes in. Having to ask the help of colleagues young enough to be her daughters doesn’t seem to bother her.

But I can’t help but think how many laid-off workers would have missed the chance to do what Lois is doing simply because they would have considered an unpaid internship beneath them. In our world, where status is so often tied to salary, and job title, Lois’ bare cubicle and paycheck – or lack thereof – aren’t going to turn many heads. We value competence so highly that some would see Lois’ dependence on the help of her colleagues as a sign of weakness. We tend to take ourselves – and our positions relative to the positions of others around us – very seriously. And we don’t want to do anything that might be perceived as lowering our stations in life.

We can be so very self-conscious, so preoccupied with image and perceived position that we can miss amazing opportunities to widen our circle of friends, develop new abilities, take on new challenges, and grow personally.

I think that’s why Paul tells his readers in the church at Rome that they shouldn’t “think of [themselves] more highly than they ought.” Thinking too highly of ourselves is so limiting, so counterproductive to real growth, real community, and real life. Thinking too highly of ourselves forces us to dwell on our own perceived importance and downplay the value of others. It causes us to see the worth only in circumstances that serve our interests, and makes us blind to the ways in which we can serve another person. To think too highly of ourselves – and the corollary to that, to think too little of others, is isolating. It keeps us from the very things we were made for: living in relationship with other people, learning from them, considering their interests at least as much as we consider our own, and working with them to achieve in the world we share things that are impossible when we depend only on our own skill sets.

Paul seems to think that Christians should learn from Jesus how to take ourselves down a couple of pegs in our own regard. The driving metaphor he uses for human interconnectedness is the way a body depends upon all its parts in order to survive. He reminds us that we belong to each other – that we have responsibility for one another. And he reminds us that God has given us different gifts and skill sets so that we’ll learn that we only function as we’re supposed to when we do the things we do in concert with one another. Believers, who through Jesus are in the process of being transformed by learning to think in new ways, are to model this new way of thinking about ourselves and the people around us. Though it’s really not a new way of thinking. It goes back to creation, back to God saying, “It’s not good for the man to be alone.”

I’ve been confronted by this – and by some of my own tendencies to think too highly of myself – while working in the food pantry our church runs. We provide food to fifty to sixty families each week, and I have to admit that I’ve at times had a somewhat patronizing attitude toward some of the people who come in. I imagine those attitudes are in me because to some degree I still buy into the spurious and arbitrary ways our society – and even the church – assigns value to people. I tend to sort people into categories: folks who need help, and folks who provide it. And guess which of those categories is most important in my mind.

I’m learning, though. God is stretching me through the people who come through our pantry. I care more now about the problems and inequities that often contribute to people needing help to feed their families. As I get to know some of those folks better I see their nobility and their character as they try to make the best of difficult circumstances and take care of the people who depend on them. I’ve learned that they have dreams, and I’ve learned that they know things I don’t and can do things I can’t, and I’m becoming convinced that a lot of them give me much more than I can ever repay with a few bags of food.

Most of all, I’ve been reminded that they’re all, every one, God’s creatures. And though our status in a society preoccupied with wealth and position and competence might be different, our status in God’s eyes is not different at all. And though I have something to give them – something which, incidentally, comes from others as well – they have something to share with me, too.

Let’s not miss what God would teach us and show us and do in us and do with us though other people. Let’s not miss it by thinking so highly and so exclusively of ourselves that we have no room for the people God would bring across our paths. Through those people he’ll teach us the joy of sacrifice and the humility of receiving the sacrifice of someone else. He’ll show us what we lack, and show us how to remediate that lack. And he’ll give us the chance to be much more together than we could ever be alone: to fill our homes, offices, neighborhoods, schools, and churches with the community in which he created us to live.

We all have a lot to learn. And we all have a lot to give.

God give us the grace to think soberly of ourselves.


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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well-fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:12-13)

Emergency. For me, the word brings to mind catastrophes. A fire, an earthquake, a tornado. A broken dike that floods a city. A terrorist attack. A violent crime. A terrible accident. To my way of thinking, an emergency requires the intervention of police, rescue, or medical personnel. But maybe I’m too narrow in my definition. Maybe I should broaden my understanding of the word to include, say, a restaurant running out of delicious chicken products.

Latreasa Goodman would apparently say so. Earlier this week, she ordered a ten-piece Chicken McNuggets™ meal at a McDonald’s in Fort Pierce, Florida. After she had paid for the food, she was told that they were out of McNuggets™. Latreasa became “irate,” especially after the cashier told her (mistakenly, as it turned out) that she couldn’t give Latreasa a refund. She offered Latreasa another choice from the menu, and that’s when Latreasa decided it was time to let the professionals handle this emergency.

She called 911.

Three times.

Wouldn’t you love to hear those 911 recordings?
Click here
and here
and here

No, sorry, Latreasa. I can’t buy it. Being hungry and completely without food, like many people in the world actually are – that’s an emergency. But a restaurant being out of your favorite item, with a whole menu full of alternatives? Well, at best, I’d call that an inconvenience. A minor annoyance.

But aren’t we good at magnifying those minor annoyances into major catastrophes? I mean, maybe you’ve never called 911 because of anything that’s happened at the counter of a fast-food restaurant, but I imagine you’ve sat fuming in traffic, staring at your watch, thinking about all the important things that weren’t getting done while you sat there. Or, if not that, maybe you’ve inflated a small setback at work into a crisis. Perhaps you can relate more to allowing a romantic reversal to send you spiraling into depression, or to losing your temper at a relatively minor spousal misstatement or misdeed. Maybe it’s none of those things specifically, but you get the picture, right? And I’m guessing that you, like me, have been guilty of breaking the glass and pulling the “emergency” alarm just a hair too quickly.

Our problem, I think, is that underneath our grown-up exteriors and our ability, when necessary, to make sacrifices, is still that cosmology we had in childhood. You know the one I mean. The one where the world revolves around me.

And if the world revolves around me, then everything that goes wrong for me is potentially an emergency. And, thus, potentially an occasion for sulking, yelling, lashing out, or striking back.

That’s why I’m intrigued when Paul says that he’s learned “the secret of being content in any and every situation.” If you know anything at all about Paul, then you know that he found himself in some fairly hair-raising situations. He was hungry sometimes – not in the sense of wishing he could get some delicious chicken products, but hungry in the sense of literal starvation. He spent some considerable time in jail. He narrowly escaped lynch mobs more than once. He had health problems, relational problems, and he was even shipwrecked once. And that doesn’t even include the stress of travelling all the time, dealing with church problems, and putting up with people who went out of their way to sabotage everything he tried to do.

So when Paul says he’s learned to be content, I tend to want to pay attention.

The secret, though, is a little tough to hear. Paul says that his ability to be content whatever the situation comes out of replacing himself as the one around whom the world revolves. With his believe that Jesus had risen from the dead and his decision to let Jesus call the shots in his life, the center of gravity in Paul’s life changed. What happened to him mattered not nearly as much as whether or not he lived a life that was faithful to his new calling. And with that perspective, things that he once would likely have considered crises – emergencies – became non-events.

And the serendipity of this change, for Paul, was that Jesus became not just Lord but “Him Who Gives Me Strength.” By choosing to trust the Lord and not hit the panic button when things seemed to go off the rails in his life, Paul discovered a source of strength to endure and overcome that he never would have known otherwise. He discovered that he could not only survive in difficult situations, but that he could thrive – because where his strength ended, there Jesus’ began.

That’s the problem, see, in not learning to find contentment in Jesus regardless of circumstances. When we hit the panic button too early, we invariably lurch into crisis mode and try to come up with out own solutions to our problems. Trouble is that our own solutions are almost always about finding a quick way out, with as little personal discomfort as possible.

Worst of all, when we chase our own solutions, we miss out on what the Lord would do for us.

So here’s what we do, I think. First, we tell God that, with his help, we’re going to find our contentment in him. We’re going to trust in his goodness and generosity, and when times are lean we’re going to believe that in him we’ll have all the strength to endure whatever we have to endure.

Secondly, we tell someone else. We tell other believers that we’re working on being more content in God’s power instead of our own schemes. We ask them to pray with us and for us, and we ask if we can talk to them about the things we learn about God and ourselves.

Finally, we resist the urge to hit the panic button when things seem to go bad. When we feel like lashing out at someone, we pray instead. When you feel like compensating for sadness or anger with sundaes or substances or sex or shopping, we sing worship songs or read Scripture. When we feel like hiding or sulking, we seek out people who will bless us, or who we can bless.

And when we’re weak, we’ll seek him out and discover, with Paul, that God is “Him Who Gives Us Strength.”

By the way, McDonald’s is sending Latreasa a gift card for a free meal. A spokesperson said that the cashier was mistaken and should have refunded her money. Turns out that Latreasa didn’t need the 911 call after all – she just needed to know who to talk to.

The same goes for us.

And we know who to talk to.


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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.