Sojourners

We have a tendency to get bogged down and distracted by the great amount of negativity surrounding the biblical texts in our culture and society. Maybe it’s the way Christians use the Bible to devalue women or to promote hate, or maybe you’ve been sucked into the scientific debate that focuses our attention on peripheral concerns instead of the beauty of our text.

One biblical concept that restores my faith in the glory of the bible is the sojourner, or the alien, the person dwelling in a foreign land. The cultural chasm between the biblical world and ours is sometimes difficult to cross, but we are keenly aware of what it means to be a in a foreign land.

The life of the sojourner is challenging, isolating and long-suffering. Last week, Canada declared Mexico a safe place to live. That will cause alarm for any who are aware of the growing violence and organized crime making many cities extremely dangerous places to live.

Canada’s designation is not about the living conditions in Mexico or the safety of travel; it is a statement determining how we are going to treat Mexican immigrants. The statement makes certain immigration possibilities unavailable, most notably the refugee status.

We are keenly aware of our borders and cultural surroundings. We feel out of place when we are unfamiliar with language, cultural practices and the unspoken societal rules. We become vulnerable.

Addressing this vulnerability in the sojourner, Leviticus sets an ethical standard far above the societal standards of the time, and even challenges us today.

“You are to not oppress the alien…you are to consider the sojourner a citizen among you…love the alien as yourself…For you were once an alien in Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)

Law codes do two things. First they determine a minimum ethical standard and dictate appropriate actions. Second, every law code contains a motivation. We are most familiar with punitive measures as the motivation, and the Leviticus law code often includes punitive motivation.

When addressing the treatment of sojourners and aliens, however, Leviticus calls for the highest ethical standards: love them as yourself.

The motivation behind the law also changes its impact considerably. Instead of simply dictating actions, the law continues, “for you were once aliens,” and calls the reader to identify with the alien, to identify with the ‘other.’

Found right in the middle of a strict religious law code is this magnificent concept of the sojourner and a call to empathy.

The practice presses beyond any rule that could be put in place. The practice is to identify with the ‘other.’ The practice is empathy.

When you identify with the ‘other,’ the world changes…first in your own eyes…then through your actions.

A version of this article was published in the Maple Ridge News, February 22nd, 2013.

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Transformational Forgiveness

In March 2010, 19 year old Conor shot and killed his 19 year old fiancée, Ann. Conor  had never been in serious trouble before that day. It was the final moment of an argument and fight that had stretched over the course of three days. It ended with Ann on her knees with a shotgun in her face. Conor then turned himself into the police.

That is not the story to be told today, only the beginning. It is a parent’s worst nightmare to deal with the tragic death of a child at an age still full of life, hopes and dreams.

Ann was still alive when emergency crews arrived that afternoon; she would remain on life support, unresponsive for several days until her parents had to make the decision to let her go. As Andy sat with his daughter in the hospital, he kept hearing her voice, “Forgive him, forgive him.”

Andy didn’t think that he could ever forgive anyone for this, even Conor, someone that had grown to be part of the family, someone he loved. It wasn’t possible, not realistic, too much to ask. Yet he kept hearing her voice, “Forgive him.”

It was his faith that finally allowed Andy to listen to her voice. It was Christ’s call for him to listen that allowed him to begin the process of healing and forgiveness. If only we could all hear that call, the world would be a different place.

While Ann was still in the hospital on life support, Kate visited her daughter’s murderer in jail with a message of forgiveness, and the two cried together. Her faith led her to a place Conor never deserved and could never earn.

True Christ-like forgiveness and compassion by Andy and Kate paved the way for a healing process unprecedented in our court system. A restorative justice process seeks to open the lines of communication between the offender, the victim(s), and their community. Justice then is restored through accepting responsibility, making amends and forgiveness rather than traditional punitive measures.

In the case of Conor’s actions, few would even attempt a path of restoration, and no amount of reparations can restore justice. Andy and Kate, however, were called to forgive, and with exceptional compassion they refused to define Conor by this one moment (or allow their daughter to be defined by that single moment). In a restorative justice community conference, Conor shared his entire story, each parent expressed their loss and hopes for moving forward.

Jesus stood next to a broken and guilty woman and asked for compassion and forgiveness from her community. As Jesus hung on the cross, he asked forgiveness for those responsible. I don’t pretend to understand the compassion necessary for those words, but Andy and Kate offer us an example of how it transforms lives and how forgiveness speaks louder than any words.

Christianity is defined by Christians and their actions. Our community is transformed when we strive for forgiveness and compassion that shocks the world around us. This is the example set for us in Christ. This is our call, “Forgive him.”

Read the full story of Ann Grosmaire and Conor McBride written by Paul Tullis in the New York Times Magazine, 6 January 2013.

A version of this article was published in the Maple Ridge News, 8 February 2013.

God is a Mystery

While talking with the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu commented on the greatness of God, saying, “The glory of God is a mystery.” In a world where lives, families, communities and nations have been built upon our knowledge of God, where this information determines our politics, our ethics, our beliefs, and how we treat our sisters and brothers of humanity, Tutu reminds us that God is a mystery.

It is his following reflections that really begin to make us think: “God is actually quite incredible in many ways. But God allows us to misunderstand her…but also to understand her.”

“He can watch us speak, spread hatred, in his name. Apartheid was for a long time justified by the church. We do the same when we say all those awful things we say about gays and lesbians. We speak on behalf of a God of love.”

It is the Christian that can do (and has done) the most damage to the faith of another, or the faith of multitudes. We have watched Westboro Baptist Church drag Christ’s name through the mud, and we’ve watched Christians committing hate crimes, burning down mosques and treating the LGBT community with the kind of hatred only found in the self-righteous Christian.

As Tutu reminds us that part of God’s glory is in God’s “incredible reverence for [our] autonomy,” we are reminded that we can use this freedom and our knowledge of God to oppress God’s people, or we can use this freedom to liberate God’s people.

In these instances and thousands of others, Christianity is used and abused for the sake of power, to control, to maintain the status quo, to promote and sustain the elite. Isn’t it ironic—a little too ironic (sorry)—that God has created a world in which we are given autonomy of thought, belief and speech even at the hindrance of God’s work, yet we use this precise freedom to control and create power structures over others, stifling this God-granted autonomy.

Our God is omnipotent and chooses to love us in a way of pure sacrifice. We, in turn, choose to run with this love and freedom to create and gain power, which our loving God is relinquishing. Ironically, these are our feeble efforts to imitate our loving God…to hate, to oppress, to attack. These are our efforts? This is our legacy? This is our impact on our communities?

In following his thoughts through, Tutu sheds light on religion, “And you have to remember that religion is of itself neither good nor badReligion is a morally neutral thing. It is what you do with it…Religion is good when it produces a Dalai Lama, a Mother Teresa, a Martin Luther King.

He asks, “What does your faith make you do? Make you become?

This is the question to ask of our faith. The fruit of your vine is your witness and the glory of God.

 

Find the full story of Tutu’s interaction with the Dalai Lama in THE WISDOM OF COMPASSION: Stories of Remarkable Encounters and Timeless Insights by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Victor Chan.

Peculiarities of the Fiscal Cliff Deal

Photo Credit: Flickr user rogerblake2, used under CC license

Photo Credit: Flickr user rogerblake2, used under CC license

We’ve watched repeatedly as the conservative right sheds concern for the “least of these” to improve the lives of wealthy Americans. Like any other financial bill making its way through Congress, there are a few items that we should take note of in the “fiscal cliff bill” that reveal the true powers of our society. Spoiler alert: It’s not the people.

Given the GOP’s close ties to conservative evangelicalism and the overall religious bent of those in political offices, financial decisions that impact our community are closely tied to our religious ethics.

As you work your way through the fiscal cliff bill, it is not difficult to see the compromises made by each side of the senate, but you’d be surprised by some of the winners of the bill that result from these partisan compromises.

These are a few items that Brad Plumer discovered at the Washington Post; you can read the full bill here.

You’re probably already aware of the extension of the Bush tax cuts for household incomes under $450,000, but how about the $9 billion in tax breaks to multinational companies to compete overseas? According to a report from Dan Eggen, companies like JP Morgan and GE receive breaks for certain types of overseas business (read job creating overseas). It’s not a coincidence that they also spend a great deal of time and money lobbying for this lucrative tax incentive.

We’ve come to expect big business and Wall Street to insert itself in financial policy and to receive special treatment, so that one probably didn’t catch you off guard. But how about NASCAR?

The fiscal cliff bill extends tax breaks for NASCAR to build new racetracks to compete with theme parks. This inclusion is expected to cost more than $40 million this year.

Another $75 million will subsidize Hollywood film industry when they film %75 of a movie on US soil.

Almost $550 million will be taxed on rum this year, and then the money will be returned to the rum industry in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Seriously.

All of this money looks suspicious when conservative congress members fight to keep tax breaks for the wealthy, NASCAR and JP Morgan. Then, to cover for the big business, they toss under the bus those who really need it: those in poverty, seniors, unemployed, underemployed, etc.

Our Christian call is to care for these people in need that Jesus calls “the least of these,” so why do so many support the policies and political figures working to do them harm?

Is the Church Radical? Jesus Was

Reposted from my Maple Ridge News article July 27, 2012.

Jesus was radical, but you wouldn’t always know that by looking at his followers. I am consistently amazed at how Jesus re-envisioned the heart of the scriptures.

Radicals are scorned, hated, attacked and persecuted. Jesus was, as were the early Christians, but most of us today (save those facing intense persecution in places like China) are generally unaware of persecution due to our radical Christianity.

If these are true statements, we need to ask two questions: what was radical about Jesus? and, what isn’t radical about our Christianity?

When Jesus was asked what is the greatest commandment, he replied with two. Both of them came direct from the legalistic laws of his misguided adversaries. “Love the Lord your God…and love your neighbour as yourself.”

This is not new information to his audience. They know these laws forwards and backwards. The message, however, has been re-envisioned and radicalized. Jesus expands neighbour to include the broken, the impoverished, the outcast foreigner, and even your enemy.

Jesus consistently asked his audience to pause and rethink the religious order, not to refute the law, but to challenge his listener to a higher authority found in the author and the intent.

He was scorned and hated, because his message challenged the status quo and threatened authorities. Jewish leaders feared the passion and challenge, and Roman authorities feared the threat of disruption to societal order.

Christians do have a growing sense of persecution in North America, but I’m pretty sure it’s not because we love our neighbour in a way that threatens the fabric of society.

What if it was?

A recent Nat Geo documentary (When Rome Ruled: The Rise of Christianity) had an interesting story to tell of the early Christians. The radical Christianity, inherited from Christ, which led to their persecution and scorn, may also have had an impact on the growth of the church.

They even suggested that Christians lived longer, fought off diseases more frequently and survived better in harsh times. This documentary attributed much of Christianity’s growth to how they cared for their community, the poor and the outcast.

That is to say that, “love your neighbour as yourself” was a radical message that caused both growth and scorn, liberation and hatred.

What if we did love our neighbour in a way that threatened the fabric of our society? What if the scorn Christian’s faced today was not because of our piety and condemnation but because of our radical love, passion and care for people?

Is there a problem with that? Sure, in the process we will also disrupt the religious order, the status quo of our churches. In the process of living our faith, we’ll probably give in to all of society’s pressures and fall victim to secular culture. Well, that’s what I’m told.

Radical faith has to constantly fight against the human desire to create a new law that makes obsolete the radical message and love of Christ.

Down Syndrome Day & Christian Community

Today was the 7th annual World Down Syndrome Day, and a post from Amy Julia Becker has me thinking about the relationship between our faith communities and those affected by Down syndrome. Several incidences have brought it the forefront of my thinking lately, which has caused me to realize that I’m very conflicted about the tough decisions parents-to-be are required to make.

Since the late 1960’s, in utero testing has been used to determine chromosomal abnormalities like trisomy 21 (a third copy of chromosome 21 – the most common cause of Down syndrome). With that testing comes an enormous ethical decision for parents who learn that their child will face extreme difficulties throughout their life. Most are probably aware of the developmental challenges and physical abnormalities, but the health risks for those with Down Syndrome also include thyroid disorders, hearing loss, gastrointestinal diseases, and a 50% rate of both congenital heart disease and epilepsy.

The question then presented to potential parents are questions of quality of life, the capacity for a parent to care for their child with Down syndrome (physically, financially and emotionally), and the inevitable burden on others. For these reasons and more, studies show that the abortion rate after parents learn of chromosomal abnormalities may be as high as 90% in the US, and similar numbers can be found across the globe in developed countries.

Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum have made the choice of the ten percenters. The decision is a testament to their faith, and unfortunately, they have each made that clear by politicizing their decision, Santorum even going as far as making it a platform to end paid-for prenatal testing if elected. Even though this is a terrible idea (here’s why), their commitment to their faith in the face of exceptional adversity is what the conscientious objective is all about.

On the other side of the spectrum, Christian Post reported last week that a jury in Portland, Oregon awarded a couple $2.9 million for a wrongful birth case. Prenatal tests showed no chromosomal abnormalities, yet their baby was born with Down Syndrome. They essentially sued their doctor for improperly admitting the tests (keep in mind that no current prenatal testing is 100% accurate) which resulted in faulty test readings, and claiming that they would have aborted the fetus, they won. I’m at a loss for words with the amount of brokenness of our society to allow this situation.

These examples bring to our attention the ethical decisions and complications that arise with Down syndrome testing, but as most of us our outsiders, it doesn’t give us a sense for how we are to respond to those in need.

Capacity of our Christian Community

It is important that we understand the need for our involvement in the lives of those affected by Down syndrome. Two obvious ideas come to mind when thinking about the potential for offering radical community to those facing considerable struggles.

For a variety of reasons, I love living in a townhouse, and not only because I don’t have to do yard work (although that is nice). It actually boils down to one word: community. I run into neighbors everyday walking, taking Khai to the playground, getting the mail, or simply coming and going.

I’m not alone. A couple of weeks ago, we ran into a neighbor whose son has Down syndrome. In the course of the conversation, we discovered that their 18mo old was having his third open heart surgery the following week. When Jenna offered to help out in different ways, the support was greatly appreciated. In fact the family had specifically moved into a townhouse for the potential for community support—not help—simply community.

The emotional and physical strains of caring for a child with Down syndrome had this family seek out a place to live that could offer more community support than a traditional neighborhood. Is this necessary? If so, Christians are not living out their calling.

The implications are, of course, that my neighbors, and yours, are in desperate need of what we have to offer and what Christ calls us to—community. We don’t need to wait for others to literally move searching for community. Offering this community can be as simple as reaching out to someone we already know in our church, community, or neighborhood.

It is necessary to remember that we effect change in the culture around us. Our culture has the tendency to diminish the value of those with disabilities. Offering radical community means changing the culture around us by finding places in our congregations and communities to engage those who are overlooked and allow them to give back to the community in new and impactful ways.

Dirty Words

Evangelism is a dirty little word. To me it’s a dirty four-letter word that Christians before me have used to drag Christ’s name through the mud, ruining the reputation of my church, my sacred texts, my God and many opportunities to genuinely reach out into my community. Brian McLaren tells a story in which he was interrogated about his theology by an interviewer, who ultimately asked this question, “Tell me this. If you’re talking to someone who doesn’t believe in Jesus, will you or will you not tell him he is going to hell?” If this is the expectation, or goal, of evangelism, count me out. These and all the stories that follow suit are why evangelism is a dirty four-letter word to me. In the same sentiment, Jim Henderson writes A.K.A. Lost and asks the question: what then is evangelism?

I read a lot. I hate to be static, so I end up finding places around town to sit and read. One that has quickly become a regular is a nice comfy chair at a local slow-moving mall. Like a small living room, my chair sits in the middle of the large hallway with three other chairs. People come and go, taking a quick load off, waiting for a ride or their shopping spouse, etc. Last week I was reading when a girl in her early twenties sat down across from me. It’s rare for someone her age to not be on her phone. Several minutes go by, and she isn’t reading, texting, talking or fidgeting, just sitting. Just for kicks I like to offer people a book to read when they look bored. It’s funny to me, because I generally carry several books with me, and not a single one are of interest to most people. So I asked her, “Would you like a book to read?” as I pointed to my bag of options.

“What?” she asked, a bit perturbed.

“Would you like a book to read?”

“Oh, no thank you. What are you reading?” she asked. I was reading a book about church models and processes…fun right? She said, “Oh, I’ve been reading a book called Goodbye is Not Forever.” And she continued to talk about the pain and suffering people experience in the story. Then she continued to talk about pain and suffering she saw around the world, things that she could never even begin to bear or comprehend, things that didn’t add up with her own worldview. I didn’t prompt any of this; it was simply something that she was trying to wrap her brain around. Because we, in general, and she, in particular, had life so easy, pain and suffering didn’t fit.

Maybe she would have burst into this conversation with anyone. Maybe the Christian books gave her enough security in how I would respond that she felt comfortable delving into this serious topic. Maybe she doesn’t often get an audience willing to listen. Whatever the case, she needed someone to hear her voice, her struggle, her conflict. I’d be lying if I told you I intended to provide that opportunity. I only intended to offer her a book…in jest.

I ask you: is this evangelism? There was no sales pitch or an invitation to repent. She doesn’t know what I do or why. All she knows is that I’m a Christian, and I listened to her. She didn’t show up at my church the next Sunday, and she probably never will? How could she? She doesn’t know where it is.

Is this a story about evangelism?

You’re not a sales person. Like me, you may not even be outgoing. But can you listen? Can you be in your community?