Running full speed

This article was originally written in June 2019.

These follower of The Way had to move beyond the borders of Judaism to be who they were called to be…and we must also move beyond the boundaries of our own comfort to be who we are called to be.

Diane LeClerc, in her book Discovering Christian Holiness, points out that as long Christianity was under the umbrella of Judaism rather than a radically new, un-Jewish form of religious faith, it enjoyed “a type of immunity and toleration” (78) with regard to the way it was seen and responded to by the Roman Empire.  The relationship between the Roman Empire and Judaism had a history with established boundaries, regulations, and expectations.  As long this new movement–The Way–kept to itself, didn’t make waves, and stayed within the already established boundaries delineated by the already existing understanding between Rome and Judaism, The Way would have remained relatively safe and unbothered.

People often say that Jesus did not come to earth to start a new religion. Whatever our opinion of that statement, one thing is clear—

Jesus presented such compelling example and demonstration of God’s power, plan, and purpose that those who took it seriously simply could not responsibly stay within the boundaries of Judaism as a religion, nor move forward while staying in the narrow lane of Roman expectations for them as nothing more than a Jewish sect. 

These follower of The Way had to move beyond the borders of Judaism to be who they were called to be.  The result brought about an era of church history in which martyrdom was viewed, according to LeClerc, the highest sign of holiness. That is, the willingness to die for ones faith in Jesus Christ was seen to be highest form of devotion, commitment, and outward evidence of a transformed heart and life.

For much of the history of the church in America, perhaps, it might be said that we have been like The Way, staying within the boundaries established by Rome. That is, perhaps the church has enjoyed the protection, safety, and comfort protection by favorable government regulations (freedom to gather, freedom to worship openly, and tax-deductions) , the safety of a general cultural favorability to basic Christian thought and life (there was a time when parents who didn’t attend church sent their children to Sunday school because it was “good for them”), and the comfort of economic and social well-being and success (large buildings, extensive facilities, land ownership, and large congregations).

At a glance it might seem that the church in America has enjoyed one of the best and most fruitful periods of church history. But it hasn’t come without a price. We’ve been able to enjoy these things as long as we stayed within our own lane.  One example–churches enjoy tax-exempt status and privileges, so long as they abide by certain state-established laws and regulations. The question that needs to be asked, however, is whether this lane–wide and comfortable as it is–has helped or hurt its ability to live out the compelling example of Jesus of God’s power, plan, and purpose.

The followers of The Way they may well-have enjoyed similar protection, safety, and comfort under Rome, if not for an undeniable conviction that their movement called them to so much more. 

In other words, their understanding of their foundational and ultimate purpose would not allow them to remain trapped inside a box—they had to break free, live out their purpose, and follow the example and teachings of Christ regardless of the consequences.  This was the way they must go.

The contemporary situation in America is somewhat different has it has been in the not-so-distant past. The church is being moved out from under the long-established protection, safety, and comfort that came with the cultural, social, economic, and religious favor of popular society. This is not a missional choice by the church, it’s not motivated by a conviction that to live responsible Christian lives the church must renounce the protections it once enjoyed. Instead, these changes are coming by way of a rapidly shifting cultural, economic, social, and religious landscape that is pushing the church out from its once well-respected position in society. As a result, there is this foreboding sense of mourning over what is being lost, anger because it is being lost, and and “all-American” desire to fight back and take back what we believe is rightfully ours, all the while only giving lip service to the overriding theme of holiness that is the ultimate purpose of God the church—full and complete love for God and Christlike love for neighbor.

            

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This article was originally presented in a class and was responded to by other students.  I have reproduced a few of those responses below:

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My Response to K:  You wrote, K — “What if we took our church calendars and examined the events and activities of the church each month or year in light of this statement?  We could do the same with our budgets and our curriculum.  Families and individuals can do the same with their calendars and budgets.” 

This is something I’ve often thought about–how do budgets reflect who we are?  How do we allow budgets to determine the things we do and don’t do?  In my particular ministry, I talk a lot about house churches or “no-designated-church-building” churches.  It’s not an idea that is easy to accept for most of our churches leaders who were taught (to put it very simply) that churches must have buildings.  But there are two great advantages–(1) churches can be planted with virtually no financial investment required, and (2) monies that are given/collected can more easily be used in ways that directly reflect the mission and priorities of the church. May we all score well on the rubric of love!  🙂

Response from G:   I really appreciate the perspective you lend when you write, “We can see the church moving out from under the long-established protection, safety, and comfort that came with the cultural, social, economic, and religious favor of popular society.” As a young up-and-coming Latina American,  I hadn’t really thought of the church as holding a respected position in society until recently. I was kind of rushed into learning about politics in 2016 because it felt like my life depended on it. The divisiveness of that time that continues to protrude into our rhetoric, has proved that half of the population in North America is unhappy with those in power, the church being one of those. I am not sure if this is because of who makes up our churches or because Christianity is what the ideals of the founding father of this nation were but now, the church is definitely facing a loss of its seat in power. People are angry at that. Truly, the “’all-American’ desire to fight back” is real as you said. But at what cost? I guess I am just echoing your thoughts and really appreciate the narrative your perspective shares. It makes sense to me! I think this may be an opportunity for our churches to gracefully respond to the challenges that face it. I hope we respond in love and haven’t lost our footing in the way of holiness

Response from M:   Thanks for your addition to this class! I appreciate what you have to offer to us by way of your perspective living outside the USA. You have the unique opportunity to look at questions of culture and exile and empire through a different lens. It is pretty obvious that the church and Christianity in general are losing their position of spiritual authority and respect amidst a culture that is changing at a rate we cannot keep up with.

I really was struck by what you pulled from our reading about The Way and how they had a certain amount of protection from Rome so long as they did not make waves or push the boundaries. I rather agree that same thing applies to present day Christianity in that we are tolerated so long as we do not make too many waves. We have not been in this place before.  We are coming to a place where we may at some point be called on to step up or step away from the protections we once enjoyed to order to live by our convictions. I was also thinking about another angle on this….I think it comes from “The Screwtape Letters,” where it is suggested that Satan will leave us be so long as we are complacent. Satan has no need to waste his energy on stopping our efforts because we are not accomplishing anything for the Kingdom. 

 

by doing good
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution…
…whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.
For this is the will of God
…that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.
Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.
Honor everyone…Fear God. Honor the emperor.
1 Peter 2:13-17
Those who go out weeping
“Those who go out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with them.” —Psalms‬ ‭126:6‬ ‭NIV‬‬
Even during these heated, divisive, challenging times may we continue to sow good seeds of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control…..so that, in time, there might be songs of joy for a fruitful, abundant harvest of the same.
“Participants in the kingdom of the world trust the power of the sword to control behavior; participants of the kingdom of God trust the power of self-sacrificial love to transform hearts.
The kingdom of the world is concerned with preserving law and order by force; the kingdom of God is concerned with establishing the rule of God through love.
The kingdom of the world is characterized by judgment; the kingdom of God is characterized by outrageous, even scandalous, grace.”

Greg Boyd

Would I be able to show such uncommon forgiveness and unexpected love?  Would I be able to say the same kinds of things that came from his heart?

Originally posted October 7, 2019

Amber Guyger and Brandt Jean

Much has been made lately of the message of hope and forgiveness given to former police officer Amber Guyger by Brandt Jean, brother of the man she killed. It was an uncommon forgiveness shown in a most unexpected way at a most unexpected time. Displays of forgiveness such as the one described here are not normal, particularly in the litigation culture in which we live, where words are closely guarded and lawyers serve as gatekeepers of what should and should not be said. Most of the time, rather than forgiveness, we run in the direction of anger, revenge, litigation, and punishment. Rarely do we see the wronged and hurting move in the direction of love, forgiveness, and mercy.

And I’m not going to say I hope you rot and die, just like my brother did, but I personally want the best for you. And I wasn’t going to say this in front of my family or anyone, but I don’t even want you to go to jail. I want the best for you because I know that’s exactly what Botham would want you to do.”

—Brandt Jean

One wonders what his family thought of this statement and the subsequent embrace that he offered to Amber in the front of the courtroom. Based on his comment, it seems likely the others in his family may have not been on the same page; in which case makes his words all the more powerful.

Reading this story and watching the video of the extended and heartfelt embrace, I couldn’t help but see healing already in process. I imagined what it might be like to be in Brandt’s shoes.  Would I be able to show such uncommon forgiveness and unexpected love?  Would I be able to say the same kinds of things that came from his heart? What if I were in Amber’s shoes? What would words like that mean to me?

Pope John Paul and Steve Taylor

Back in the 1980’s controversial Christian musician Steve Taylor released a song that, unlike much of his other music, did NOT ruffle the feather of the religious establishment. Its message was powerful:

I saw a man, he was holding the hand
That had fired a gun at his heart
Oh, will we live to forgive?

I saw the eyes and the look of surprise
As he left an indelible mark
Oh, will we live to forgive?

—First verse of “To Forgive” by Steve Taylor

Pope John Paul with the man who attempted to assassinate him.

The opening words of Taylor’s song refer back to 1981 when Pope John Paul II was shot, and nearly killed, by Mehmet Ali Aqca (see more of this story here). Aqca was sentenced to life in prison by an Italian court and then, in 1983, after having recovered from his life-threatening wounds, the Pope visited Aqca in prison. The photo of the two of them talking in the bare prison cell became an iconic reflection of Pope John Paul II life and work. In 2000, having remained in communication with Aqca’s family, the Pope requested, and was granted, a full pardon for the man who tried to murder him.

This is uncommon forgiveness.

Follow his lead
Let the madness recede
When we shatter the cycle of pain
Oh, we will live to forgive


—Second verse of “To Forgive” by Steve Taylor

Ronald Reagan

A similar story is told of Ronald Reagan, following his attempted assassination by John Hinkley. In a Seattle Times article from 2004, Ronald Reagan is said to have been inspired by the Pope’s actions and truly desired to do the same for Hinkley, but knowing that Hinkley had been found to be insane by the courts, said he “only wanted to do what was in Mr. Hinckley’s best interests.” In the end, Hinckley’s caretakers decided it would not be wise for the President to visit. This was not the only time that Reagan expressed compassion for Hinkley. The President, according to Hinkley’s own lawyer, was ”a man of grace, great grace.”

This is uncommon forgiveness.

I saw a Man
With a hole in His hand
Who could offer the miracle cure
Oh, He said live, I forgive


—Verse three of “To Forgive” by Steve Taylor

Amish Community at Nickel Miles

Thirteen years ago on October 2, 2006 Charles Roberts IV walked into the one-room schoolhouse in Old Order Amish community of Nickel Mines, took the female students, aged 6-13 hostage and shot 8 of them, killing 5, before killing himself. Read more here. In the midst of grief, questions, and tragic loss, the Amish community did something uncommon. They didn’t point fingers, cast blame, hold press conferences with their attorneys, or demand justice. What they did do was reach out with compassion toward the killer’s family, visiting the Robert’s family to comfort them in their sorrow and pain.

This is uncommon forgiveness.

The Amish seek to closely follow the teachings of Jesus. Anyone who has spent much time in the Scriptures, and particularly with Jesus, will see clearly that forgiveness is a significant theme in his teachings, along with placing the needs of others on par with, if not above, ones own. Vengeance, revenge, and pay-backs are to be left to God. But as Jonah found out, even God is more than willing to offer mercy and forgiveness—a fact that God’s people today, same as Jonah, find that hard to accept and leave alone. It can seem much better—even right—to take things into our own hands.

Uncommon forgiveness is not easy…or natural.

 

Photo by Randy Fath on Unsplash

The killers mother explained in the years following this tragedy that “love just emanated from them.” She recalled one of the Amish fathers saying to her that “none of us would have ever chosen this. But the relationships that we have built through it, you can’t put a price on that.” The Amish community, it seems, understands the power of the “miracle cure” of forgiveness. Some will surely question the wisdom, perhaps even the fairness and honor, of offering such forgiveness. But then we see Jesus, teaching his followers to pray, “forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us” (Mt 6:12).

Jesus taught, and modeled, uncommon love and uncommon forgiveness.

Unfortunately, the Church does not always reflect Christ’s love and forgiveness in it attitudes and actions towards others. Christian leaders to not always model the the humility, and courageous love that causes the victimized to show uncommon grace to the guilty. Followers of Christ, in their daily interactions at school, work, and social media, too often cling to their rights, resort to name-calling, labeling, and general rudeness in order to win the battle of words with those who oppose their own thoughts and ideas. There is a reason stories like Brandt Jean, Pope John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and Amish community of Nickel Mines make headlines. They are uncommon.

“The pillars of true peace are justice and that form of love which is forgiveness.”

—Pope John Paul II

The “Uncommonness” of Uncommon Forgiveness

“Forgiveness is above all a personal choice,” said Pope John Paul on January 1, 2002 celebration of the World Day of Peace, “a decision of the heart to go against the natural instinct to pay back evil with evil.” This can only be done by the power of holy love; the love that God pours into the hearts of those who, in faith, have put their trust in him. Again, the perfect example if Jesus Christ on the cross, praying, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34).

Forgiveness is all about a potential long-term good even when the short-term prognosis seems anything but good, fair, or just. Violence and revenge are all about indulging short-term impulses at the expense of never finding the miracle cure, never breaking the cycle of pain, and never having the opportunity to leave an indelible mark of hope, grace and peace.

Uncommon forgiveness reflects uncommon hope.

The Pope continues, saying that “Forgiveness may seem like weakness, but it demands great spiritual strength and moral courage, both in granting it and in accepting it.” Some will say that forgiveness weakens us, causes us to lose our place of power, or makes us less than what we ought to be. Forgiveness, he says, “leads us to a fuller and richer humanity, more radiant with the splendour of the Creator.”

Uncommon forgiveness requires uncommon strength.

It was said of John Paul II, that he was “unafraid of the vulnerability created by living in forgiveness, of sitting in total love with the enemy. It was a stunning paradox, and one he didn’t just preach about from pulpits far removed from ‘real life,’ but one he lived right to the end.” Or, in the words of Scripture,

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful.

—Colossians 3:12-15 (ESV)

If I must err, let it be in the direction of love…let me learn to forgive.

“We bow before you today in humility, with thankful hearts”

Post 8 of 28

I remember as a child hearing the name “Mother Teresa” but knowing little about her story or her ministry with the Missionaries of Charity.  I remember seeing her on television, an occasional story about her ministry in India among the poorest of the poor, and obvious world-wide fascination—love, perhaps—for the dedicated woman of deep faith.  When she died at the age of 87 in September 1997 in Calcutta, I remember a global outpouring of mourning over the loss of this woman whose life had touched so many others; even those she never met; even those who never came closer to her than a television screen or a newspaper.

 In Colossians 3:12 Pauls tells the faithful of one of the first church plants in history to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.”  We do this because, as “God’s chosen people,” they were “holy and dearly loved.”

 In the garden, after Adam and Eve have eaten of the forbidden tree and realized they were naked—a clear reference to shame that is quickly understood throughout Asia and most of the Eastern world—God is said to have been walking in the garden.  When this happens Adam and Even—apparently unlike previous occasions—hide from God out of their shame. 

 God immediately knows something is not right, but when God is told what has happened, God does not respond in anger.  No, instead God makes clothes for them, covering their nakedness and shame. God’s solution comes in the form of skins, meaning that a sacrifice of life was needed in order to provide the skins with which the clothes were made.

 Without going too far beyond the scope of the Genesis story, I think we can see that God’s solution for our sin and shame also required the sacrifice of life on the cross.  And in the same way that Adam and Eve put on clothes to cover their bodies, we too are asked to put on new clothes…to put on a new life…to become something new.  We are asked to put on the clothes of…

  • …compasssion
  • …kindness
  • …humility
  • …gentleness
  • …patience

 Mother Teresa is said to have offered a few ideas on how we can practice humility:

  • “To speak as little as possible of one’s self”
  • ”To mind one’s own business”
  • “To accept contradictions and correction cheerfully”
  • “To pass over the mistakes of others”
  • “To accept insults and injuries”
  • “To accept being slighted, forgotten and disliked”
  • “To be kind and gentle even under provocation”
  • “Never to stand on one’s dignity”
  • “To choose always the hardest.”

As we approach the throne of God in humility and gratefulness, we might translate some of these into something more like this:

  • Take time to be still and listen
  • Focus our thoughts on the business of God—God’s plan, purpose, and mission
  • Allow the Holy Spirit access to our hearts and minds—to examine, search, and perform a deep-cleaning where necessary
  • Forgive others and seek reconciliation as quickly as possible
  • Love, pray for, and bless those who would not—and do not—do the same to me
  • Persevere in difficult times of trial, testing, disappointment, and failure
  • Always, and in all situations, reflect the grace, hope, peace, and love of Christ
  • Remember that on my own I am not good enough, smart enough, or strong enough.
  • Be willing to do that which is hard, unseen, unrewarded, and undone by others

 Finally, as we bow before God in humility, we do so in gratefulness to all who shown such humility, grace, forgiveness, peace, and love to us.

“In normal life we hardly realize how much more we receive than we give, and life cannot be rich without such gratitude. It is so easy to overestimate the importance of our own achievements compared with what we owe to the help of others.” 

 ― Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Letters and Papers from Prison”

 

"Rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn." --Romans 12:15

Romans 12:15

15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.

 

One of our most powerful tools of witness is our presence rather than our presents; not the stuff we wrap up nicely with a bow and give to people out of our abundance…but rather the giving of ourselves, the gift of being with, whether it’s convenient or not.