Friday, October 15, 2004

You Can Tell a Lot About a Person by the Company He Keeps

My wife has lovingly and wisely (as usual) cautioned me that this blog could come across as self-righteous. Please trust me when I say that that is not my intension or my purpose. This was written from my heart to my heart. It is neither a condemnation of Christianity or even the modern Church as a whole but rather individual elements of it--elements which I know intermittently rise up within me.

If Christ returned to Earth today, inauspiciously cloaked once again in human flesh, would anyone on this planet recognize Him?

Would I?

Physically, Jesus resembled those who would have been kicked out of Bible college and rejected by most churches. Among his contemporaries he gained a reputation as a drinker and a glutton. He was regarded as a troublemaker and a disruptor of the peace by those in authority, whether religious or political. His views on both rich men and loose women were uncompromising, yet both types enjoyed his company. No public figure had a more diverse list of friends, from the extremely wealthy to the utterly destitute—Roman military officers to leprosy victims; religious leaders to tax collectors; criminals to prostitutes.

The old proverb says you can know a person by the company he keeps. Imagine the consternation of people in the 1st century who tried to apply that principle to Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus was a friend of sinners. He commended a groveling tax collector over a God-fearing Pharisee. A Samaritan woman with a habitual history of sexual sin was the first person to whom He openly revealed himself as the Messiah of the world. As his shattered body hung impaled on a cross, he pardoned a thief who would have absolutely no chance for spiritual growth.

The more unpleasant the person, the more at ease they seemed to feel around Jesus. In glaring contrast, He got a chilly response from the respectable types. Somehow we have created a community of respectability in the church. The down-and-out who flocked to Jesus when he lived on earth no longer feel welcome. How did Jesus, the only perfect person in history, manage to attract the notoriously imperfect? And what keeps us from following in His steps today?

“The absolutely unpardonable thing,” says theologian Hans Kung, “was not his concern for the sick, the cripples, the lepers, the possessed…not even his partnership for the poor, humble people. The real trouble was that he got involved with moral failures, with obviously irreligious and immoral people; people morally and politically suspect, so many dubious, obscure, abandoned, hopeless types, existing as an eradicable evil, on the fringe of every society. This was the real scandal. Did he really have to go so far?…What kind of dangerous and naïve love is this, which does not know its limits.”

Why don’t we look more like the church Jesus described? Why does the body of Christ so faintly resemble Him? If Jesus could foresee such disasters as the Crusades, the Inquisition, the slave trade, to say nothing of Nazi genocide, rampant racism, apartheid and homophobia often ignored if not occasionally condoned by the church, why did Jesus ever ascend and leave us to our own devices? I cannot provide a confident answer to such questions, for I am part of the problem. Examined closely, my query becomes distressingly personal: why do I so poorly resemble Him?

How utterly and absolutely different I am meant to be.

We cast the verbal equivalent of hellfire and brimstone on those we deem as degenerates and then turn around to eat our own wounded and dying. A divided body of Christ is agonizing to look upon—the childish bickering among the denominations, the prejudice that many of us seem to have inherited with our mother’s milk, the insipid and irrational distrust between Catholics and Protestants, the longstanding biases we so stubbornly cling to, the terrible misunderstandings of one another’s doctrine and belief systems. Wars have been fought for issues such as these.

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “I like your Christ, but I don’t like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ.” Similarly, Annie Dilliard said, “What a pity that so hard on the heels of Christ come the Christians.”

Jesus’ uncompromising blend of graciousness toward sinners and hostility toward sin is astonishing, made all the more so by His followers’ utter lack of regard for His example.

We give lip service to “hate the sin while loving the sinner” but how well do we practice this principle? The church says, “hate the sin, love the sinner” but so often, what it really means at best is, “hate the sin, ignore the sinner” and at worst, “hate the sin, despise the sinner.”

We foolishly equate the zealous and rabid distain of sin as some sort of spiritual barometer. Or, we convince ourselves that we are somehow holier if we refrain from spittle-flying attacks and instead dig moats around our homes and churches to keep the world at bay.

At church several Sundays ago a woman gave a testimony of not neglecting but instead embracing a homosexual couple who happened to be her neighbors. A timely and needed message? Yes. But what a shame that the words had to be uttered at all! What a shame that the woman even considered ignoring these women merely because they were gay.
Since when did God categorize sin according to levels of severity?

Rarely is the modern church found in the trenches anymore. Instead the church’s members are cloistered in silence. So often, I am nowhere to be seen. Some even see it as their spiritual duty to plant bombs in abortion clinics or man lines of rabid chanters who see AIDS as an apocalyptic judgment from God. Who are we, finite and drowning in sin, to judge the actions of God?

How often has the gospel been used as a tool with which to maul the uncircumcised of our cockeyed worldviews, instead of as a blanket with which to wrap them in the cold of an existence without the warmth of God’s love?

Brennan Manning said, “Whenever the gospel is invoked to diminish the dignity of any of God’s children, then it is time to get rid of the so-called gospel in order that we may experience the gospel. Whenever God is invoked to justify prejudice, contempt or hostility within the body of Christ, then it is time to heed the words of Meister Eckhart, ‘I pray that I may be quit of God to find God.’”

There is very little about our personal lives and as an extension, our modern churches that embraces rather than pushes away. God warned us against hiding our light under a bushel and yet that is exactly what we have done. If we are not using the Scriptures as a sort of convoluted bully-pulpit, we sit smugly in our sanctuaries, proclaiming the good news to the peanut gallery and then congratulate ourselves afterwards for our evangelization of the lost. Only later do we wonder why we have no visitors. Perhaps if we looked at how we spent our time and energies we would begin to glean an answer.

To paraphrase the quote, one does not save the lost by building a cathedral, but by setting up a triage clinic a yard from hell’s gate. If we claim to want to save sinners, why do we never go to where the sinners are? Why do I never associate and befriend them? “Increasingly,” Phillip Yancey says, “I fear, the church is viewed as the enemy of sinners.”

What then was Jesus like? If He is to be our example, what can we draw from the Scriptures as a template for our own actions and day-to-day relations with a world we are a part of and apart from?

It’s painful to look at how we’ve denied Jesus, since the only witness that He asked for was His love. Jesus said, “You’ll be known as Mine by the way you love one another.” He did not say, “You’re going to be known as my disciples because you are chaste, celibate, honest, sober, law-abiding, respectable; because you are churchgoing, Bible-totting, and psalm-singing.” What He did say is that we’ll be identified by one sign only: our deep and delicate respect for the sacred dimension of every personality.

As Manning has said, “What Jesus was saying is that discipleship is all about loving. It is not about worship and morality, except insofar as worship and morality are expressions of the love that causes them both. A loveless liturgy, a loveless act of worship, is a meaningless liturgy in the sight of God. A loveless marriage, a loveless celibate life, anything without love, as Paul says, is nothing but wounding brass, a tinkling cymbal. Christ is all about loving and you can take it or leave it.

This and this alone is authentic Christianity. Not a code of dos and don’ts, not a tedious moralizing, not a list of forbidding commandments, and certainly not the necessary minimum requirements for avoiding the pains of hell. It is the thrill and excitement of falling in love with Jesus Christ. Genuine Christianity pulls us away from the stupefying, specious religion that points to some future opportunity to practice virtue on some misty ideal. Christ wants Christians to love in the present, to love now, to touch this person in these concrete circumstances. The bottom line is that the transparent Christian resembles Jesus, becomes a professional lover who is motivated by compassion in all that he or she thinks, says and does.”

If only I could see people as God sees them. I wouldn’t for a moment consider even one person ordinary, of no import, average, or without influence. Each life, no matter how mundane it is perceived, is extraordinary. Strip back the venire, peel back the layers to reveal the true personhood beneath, view that core with the eyes of God and not man and suddenly each and every life, from the spiritual giant to the pimp on the street becomes sacred, becomes treasured, becomes adored.

Again, Manning: “My identity as Abba’s child is not an abstraction or a tap dance into religiosity. It is the core truth of my existence. Living in the wisdom of accepted tenderness profoundly affects my perception of reality, the way I respond to people and their life situations. How I treat my brothers and sisters from day to day, whether they be Caucasian, African, Asian, or Hispanic; how I react to the sin-scarred wino on the street; how I respond to interruptions from people I dislike; how I deal with ordinary people in their ordinary unbelief on an ordinary day will speak the truth of who I am more poignantly than the pro-life sticker on the bumper of my car. We are not for life simply because we are warding off death. We are sons and daughters of the Most High and maturing in tenderness to the extent that we are for others—all others—to the end that no human flesh is strange to us, to the extent that we can touch the hand of another in love, to the extent the for us there are no ‘others.’”

How easy it is to join the politics of polarization. How hard it is to remember that the Kingdom of God calls me to love the woman who has just emerged from the abortion clinic (and yes, even her doctor), the promiscuous homosexual who is dying of AIDS, the wealthy landowner who is exploiting God’s creation. If I cannot show love to people such as these, then I must question whether I have truly understood the gospel of Jesus.

The insistence on the absolutely indiscriminate nature of compassion within the Kingdom is the dominant perspective of almost all of Jesus’ teaching. What is indiscriminate compassion? “Take a look at a rose,” said Anthony DeMello. “Is it possible for the rose to say, ‘I’ll offer my fragrance to good people and withhold it from bad people?’ Or can you imagine a lamp that withholds its rays from a wicked person who seeks to walk in its light? It could do that only by ceasing to be a lamp. And observe how indiscriminately a tree gives its shade to everyone, good and bad, young and old, high and low, to animals and humans and every living creature—even to the one who seeks to cut it down. This is the first quality of compassion—its indiscriminant character.”

So often the church expects people to come in the doors as changed men and women. We shift uncomfortably in our pews because of the ratty-dressed woman next to us, covered in tattoos and smelling of pot. We shutter at the course language of the business man whose breath reeks of stale beer and who appears to wish he was anywhere else but here. This is not the way it is supposed to be. We do not enter the sanctuary as new creations, we leave as such. Indeed, we enter as sinners: grimy, vile, malodorous souls who have come seeking an end to our addiction, our pain, our lifestyle of spiraling depravity. It is when we rise to leave that we are clean, restored, and in the words of C.S. Lewis, gleaming “little Christs.”

Why is it we are so repulsed by the effects of a sinful lifestyle? Why are we surprised when sinners act like sinners? Are our own memories so short? Do we not expect form to follow fashion? If sin surprises us it is perhaps a glaring sign that we spend far too much time safely within the walls of our churches with our fellow believers. We should never be afraid of rubbing elbows with sinners. Am we so brittle? Are we worried that we will be tainted or marred by proximity to the unredeemed? Is not He Who is in you stronger than he who is in the world? Let’s get our hands dirty!

I believe the church is God’s “safe place” to make risky decisions. If the church can be less and less a place where you come to be perfect and more and more a place where you come to be healed—less and less a country club and more and more a hospital—then we’re heading in the right direction.

Normally in this world we look up to the rich, the beautiful, the successful, the powerful. Grace however, introduces a world of new logic. Because God loves the poor, I love the poor. Because God loves the suffering, I love the suffering. Because God loves the persecuted, I love the persecuted. Because God sees no undesirables, neither ought we. God has not absconded at all. Rather he has taken on a disguise—a most unlikely disguise of the stranger, the poor, the hungry, the prisoner, the sick, the ragged ones of the earth. Where is the church when it hurts? Manning says that “the heartfelt compassion that hastens forgiveness matures when we discover where our enemy cries.

St. Matthew 25 says, “I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me drink, naked and you clothed me, sick and your comforted me, in prison and you came to visit me.”

If I am to love my neighbors, before doing anything else I must see my neighbors. I must look and go on looking until I have seen exactly what is there. And then I must act. The only thing that matters, says Galatians, is the faith that expresses itself in love.

It is not our words which will win the world, but our actions.

Ken Gire says it so succinctly: “The difference between the inscripturated word and the incarnate word is the difference between the recipe and the bread. As essential as the recipe is, it is not the recipe that attracts people the most. It is not a billboard on the bakery. It is not a catchy ad campaign or colorful packaging or the promise of some prize inside.

It is the smell of baking bread.

In smelling that bread, the soul instinctively salivates and is reminded of the hunger it has for so long been suppressing. It is the smell that entices the soul to taste, and the taste that entices it to eat. So often, though, instead of giving out bread to the hungry, we give out recipes.

The recipes come in all kinds of cookbooks. From Bibles to bumper stickers. From Books to cassettes. From sermons to smidgens of advice. And all of them come full of words. Good words, many of them. Well-intentioned words, certainly. But words that have not been made flesh. Words that have not dwelt among us.

I wonder what would happen if one day all those words went away.

What if one day the entire body of Christ were struck dumb? Couldn’t write a word. Couldn’t speak a word. Couldn’t even move our lips to mouth one. What then? What would be left?

Our lives.

And what would our lives say? What would they say about who we are and who our God is? What would they say about what we believe? If we were to take away the words, how much of the gospel would the world understand?

Would we discover that the world is illiterate? That our words are illegible?

Would the writing on the pages of our lives, which we always took to be literature, turn out to be the scribbling of a preschooler? Or would the pages simply be blank?

‘Preach the gospel,’ Saint Francis said, ‘and when necessary, use words.’ And he said that, I think, because he realized that the most impactful words are those incarnate in our lives. Words that have been made flesh and dwelt among us.

When asked why he wanted to go to Africa to work among the natives, Albert Schweitzer said it was because he wanted his life to be his sermon. He wanted the days of his week to be a Sunday text so clear and so compelling that little else needed to be said.”

“If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing. If I give everything I own to the poor, and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love. Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head, doesn’t force itself on others, isn’t always “me first,” doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, doesn’t revel when others grovel, takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back, but keeps going to the end. Love never dies. …Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love.” -- I Corinthians 13 from The Message


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