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Friday, May 25, 2018

Do You See?

“Do you see this woman?“
-Jesus, Luke 7:44 (NIV)

So I spent last weekend with about 50 people at a retreat out in the farmland of Illinois.
     The ages of the participants ranged from student to septuagenarian. There were professionals, blue-collar workers, and retirees. Some were new believers, and some had followed Jesus for decades. There were men and women, urban and suburban, Black, White, Hispanic, and Asian. It was one of the more diverse groups I had been a part of, and that’s saying something. There were even some White Sox fans there, and they don’t leave the house much these days.
     What brought this group of people together was a desire for the church to take the lead in our society’s struggles for racial unity. Every person in that group, I think it’s safe to say, believes that “the saints,” the people of God through Jesus, should be salt and light in the struggles over skin color and ethnicity that have plagued our cities, our nation, and our world for three centuries or more now. Everyone who showed up out in the Illinois countryside last weekend came to do the hard work that might let the Spirit of God have his way in our hearts and help us to see how we might better be channels of the grace of God to heal the wounds of racial division.
     At some point during the weekend, as people opened up about their experiences of racism and the ways that they have been marked by it, I thought of Jesus at Simon the Pharisee’s house. 
     If you don’t know or remember the story, Jesus goes to dinner at the house of Simon. Simon is a very religious guy, a very godly person according to most standards. Deliberately or not, Simon fails to show Jesus the basic courtesy of a host: having a servant wash his dusty feet before inviting him to the table. 
     So, while Jesus and the other guests are reclining at the table — that’s the way it was done back then, so you can imagine that foot-washing was more than just an interesting custom — an uninvited guest shows up, a woman who “lived a sinful life.” She comes to honor Jesus, and as she approaches him near the table she starts to weep. She’s weeping in gratitude for the forgiveness of her sins, maybe mixed with some sorrow for her past.  In any case, she finds in Jesus someone worthy of honor, and she intends to honor him by pouring a jar of perfume on him — probably the most expensive thing she owns.
      Maybe she intended to anoint his head with the perfume, but as she gets near him and sees his dusty feet sticking out as he reclines at the table, she shifts gears. Her tears suffice to wash his feet. And then, having nothing to dry them with, she bends down and uses her hair. And, while she’s there, she kisses his feet before pouring the perfume on them.
     Luke give us a glimpse of what Jesus’ host is thinking as this is going on. He doesn’t say it out loud, apparently, but what he’s thinking is something like, “How could Jesus let this —insert insulting/demeaning word for a woman with questionable morality here — touch him like this?”
     See, this is how racism works. And classism, and jingoism, and xenophobia and misogyny and ageism and whatever other -isms and philosophies and half-baked ways of thinking let us justify our prejudices and keep at arm’s length the people we don’t want around our tables. When we categorize people who are different from us as ignorant, inferior, morally defective, malicious, and so on, we give ourselves all the leeway we need for our worst impulses and most sinful, heartless actions.
    Look, while we might think of Simon twirling his mustache and cackling evilly, for all we know this story captures a very good man on a bad day. This is why we have to be vigilant, even those of us who consider ourselves religious and godly and call ourselves followers of Jesus. It’s so easy to think we know “what kind of people” this group or that bunch or this race are. And once we “know” that, it’s even easier to dismiss them all and feel justified — even righteous — in doing so.
     We excuse racism by assuming that Blacks are criminals. We excuse xenophobia by assuming that Muslims are all radicalized, or that immigrants are taking “our” jobs or our children’s spots in the best schools. Women are blamed for sexual assault because it’s assumed that they “asked for it” in some way. We know what kind of people these are. We say, with Simon, “The problem is in them, not me."
     What Jesus says to Simon in response is, I think, a simple antidote to the poison of our prejudices. It’s easy to overlook. The story he tells Simon to highlight the woman’s joy and gratitude and Simon’s own stinginess is interesting, but it’s not what I’m thinking of. His connection of the experience of forgiveness with love is helpful, but what I’m thinking of is even simpler.
     Jesus asks him a simple question: “Do you see this woman?”
     That’s why I thought of this story over the retreat weekend. “Do you see her?” That, I think, is the alpha and omega, the beginning and end, in confronting the sin of racism. Whatever racist attitudes I may have brought with me to that retreat, it would have been difficult for me to hold onto them in regards to any of the people there with me. At the very least, praying and talking and interacting with them over the weekend would have required me to add a caveat to my racism: “but not them.” 
     Not them. Because I saw them. I saw something about who they were. I heard the pain in their voices as they talked about their experiences wrapped in a skin different from mine. I saw that in every way that mattered they were no different from me, but that through no fault of their own they had lived some very different experiences than the ones I took for granted. And it dawns on me that this is the way forward. But to see takes work.
     A friend told me recently he and his wife are moving to a neighborhood that I would consider “bad.” It’s made me think of why I would label it that way. Do I mean “bad neighborhood” as the code for “Black neighborhood” that I sometimes heard growing up? I don’t think so. Do I mean that it’s economically less well-to-do than where I live? Maybe. What am I assuming about the people who live there? What don’t I see? I bet they’ll be able to tell me before too long because they will see their neighbors. They’ll get to know who they are, and will see that they’re not so different from anyone else, in positive and negative ways.

     As people who have been seen and loved by God through Jesus Christ, may we see with clearer eyes those around us, especially those different from us. May we get to know them so that we can see our similarities more clearly than we see our differences. And may we with joy show them the same love we have received.            

Friday, May 11, 2018

Warnings

And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone...
-1 Thessalonians 5:14 (NIV)


We wish we had been warned.
     On a family vacation this past week, we got the chance to swim with some dolphins. Lots of fun, of course. When we were done, though, Laura asked me to look at her back. She thought maybe she had gotten sunburned, but the welts she had looked nothing like sunburn. I noticed a few similar welts on my arm; they itched and burned considerably. Then Josh mentioned that his back was burning a little too; sure enough, the red, angry-looking welts were raising up from his shoulders to the middle of his back. We were pretty puzzled, at first. Had the dolphins passed on some rare cross-species skin disease? Was the Caribbean sun particularly dangerous to pasty-skinned people from the Midwest? 
     We started asking a few questions, and the guys who worked at the dolphin place came back with a quick answer: “Fire coral. We put vinegar on it.” So Laura and Josh spent the rest of the day smelling like salad dressing. (Laura also bought some hydrocortisone cream, which probably worked better than the vinegar.) They recovered quickly. Vacation crisis averted.
     As near as we can guess, the fire coral was growing on the dock we were holding onto while waiting our turn to play with the dolphins. After we had been there for a while, the trainer did mention we shouldn’t brush up against the side of the dock, but by then the damage was probably done. A late warning is really no warning at all. Would have been nice if, while he was telling us exhaustively what the dolphins did and did not like, the trainer had mentioned that there were little sea creatures growing on the dock that hated us and would take advantage of any opportunity to make us miserable. Guess that didn’t cross his mind. I suppose it isn’t very Christian of me to wish for fire coral to grow in his underwear drawer.
     We recognize from time to time that warnings are necessary. We even understand that it can be irresponsible to fail to warn someone. Ever seen a child doing something dangerous right under her parents’ noses? Ever noticed a person about to brush up against wet paint? If you’ve stopped someone from straying into traffic, called a friend to tell her about traffic on her route to work, or pointed out to your neighbor a house repair that needed to be done, then you know what I mean. Sometimes a warning is exactly what’s needed.
     So why, I wonder, do we not consider warnings to be necessary to our walk with Jesus?
     The Bible says we should warn each other. The text above mentions warning those who are “idle and disruptive,” but there are actually quite a few places in Scripture where warnings are encouraged, for all sorts of things. According to the Bible, folks need to be warned about the likely future consequences of their actions. Warnings are needed against sin as a general category, along with specific sins. The expectation for God’s people is that we won’t be afraid to warn each other when we aren’t living in a way that’s worthy of the label. 
     Expectation is the right word, actually. The Old Testament book of Ezekiel says explicitly that we’re responsible for warning “a wicked person.” He probably has in mind especially people who claim to worship God, but whose behavior belies that claim. If we don’t issue a warning, he says, we’re “held accountable” for what happens to them. The human heart can be deceptive, and sin can do such damage that it’s irresponsible of God’s people not to warn one another away from ways of life that can hurt others and undermine our own spiritual lives.
     Maybe this is the problem for us: we don’t feel adequately responsible for one another. “That’s between him and God,” we sometimes say, as though that absolves us from responsibility to say something if we see something (to borrow an idea from the TSA). Of course a person’s behavior is between him and God. But how do we know that ours isn’t the voice God would use to warn someone and get him or her back on the right track? How do we know that warning that we decided not to give wouldn’t be the very thing that might bring someone to his senses?
     Our world has created a disconnect between private faith and public life that didn’t really exist in the early church, and probably was never supposed to exist. Simply put, “my” faith is a community matter, and the community has the responsibility to help each other in our walks with the Lord. A community in which no warning against sin is forthcoming when necessary is not really a community at all.
     Look, don’t get me wrong here: this isn’t an excuse for gossip, judgment, and self-righteousness. I’m not judging you if I warn you that a bus is coming and you should get out of the street. I have no right to take pleasure in your predicament, or point out to others how much better a person I am than you because I didn’t walk out in front of a bus. The holier-than-thou, the self-righteous, the judgmental snobs who look down their noses at everyone else’s sins need to be warned as well. Their attitudes jeopardize the community too. But that possibility is no excuse for winking and laughing at the most obvious, blatant sin in the lives of our brothers and sisters in Christ. 
     Maybe it’s our own sins that discourage us from warning each other. Most of us probably don’t feel very qualified to warn anyone about anything, knowing that if someone were to look hard enough at our own lives — or maybe not very hard at all — they’d find plenty to warn us about. That’s a fair concern, but really it’s exactly that attitude that makes a warning go down a little more easily. Warning a sister or brother is not about having any power over them, or pretending to be better than them. Often, a warning is most credible when it comes from someone who’s upfront about their own failings, and maybe has even been burned by the very thing he or she is warning against. No one person in a community should be doing all of the warning while holding him or herself above receiving a warning, either; that’s a disaster waiting to happen. 
     The kind of warning I’m talking about comes out of a sense of love, not judgment, anger, control, or disdain. It should be expressed in loving words and tones. It should invite repentance, not demand reparation. It should make the person being warned feel valued, not diminished. It should honor their agency and freedom to make their own decisions. It should always be offered in a way that emphasizes God’s grace, compassion, and forgiveness. It should always offer a way forward. It should be accompanied by reassurances of the person’s place in the family of God and the family’s commitment to their support, encouragement, and well-being. 
     Maybe we should look again at what Paul says: “warn…encourage…help…be patient.” Warning should be part of our life together in the community of faith. Love demands it. But encouragement, help, and patience will ensure that those warnings are delivered in the proper context and with the right spirit, and that they accomplish what they’re supposed to accomplish.
     Trust me: sometimes the most loving thing you can say to someone is “Stay away from that!”

     And a warning not given may be something you end up regretting.

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