Posted by: 15shekels | January 13, 2014

Ordinary People

“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours…[So] our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love….Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.” -C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

“When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw [Jesus] eating with the ‘sinners’ and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?” -Mark 2:16

“But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed….” -Luke 14:13

ImageI call them the sparkly people. The men and women in every crowd who glitter with humor, beauty, charm, and talent. They are little suns who pull people into their orbits, and I have a particular weakness for trying to get close to them and absorb some of their light. I have been Nick Carraway with Jay Gatsby, Jack Burden with Willie Stark. There is certainly nothing wrong with sparkly people in themselves, although they are often poor friends. The problem lies in the inverse phenomenon. In chasing after the suns alit with earthly glory, we fail to notice the quiet immortals sitting in the corners or outside the door, glowing with a heavenly light that may one day burn our eyes.

There is nothing quite as convicting as reading the promises of Scripture (such as God telling Israel—and by extension His followers today—”I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands” in Isaiah 49:15-16) and realizing that he is talking about the acquaintance whom I find annoying, the homeless man whom I avoid out of discomfort, the political figure whom it is easy to mock. How ashamed I would feel if God gave me His eyes for a day, and revealed to me how I have been treating His precious and beloved—the saints and the lost sheep whom God was delighted to knit together, and for whom He planned to die before He created the world. I walk right past them on the city streets.

Sparkly people tend to keep their misfortunes and messiness hidden away, presenting a lighthearted and fun persona to the world. Spending time with them rarely involves uncomfortable conversations about their problems. In contrast, I have often experienced the temptation to distance myself from those in trouble rather than moving closer to help. I momentarily believe several lies: that I earned my comfort and security, that I couldn’t be in their shoes in a moment, that God’s heart isn’t breaking for them.

And then one thought of Jesus shatters those lies. First, I realize that earthly status and security do not correlate with heavenly status and security. I realize that the comfort I experience draws me further from God as I settle into a sense of self reliance, and that as a result I am in many ways in a far more dangerous position than those who suffer. I realize that the only real security is attained through no power or effort of my own, but from admitting my weakness and asking for help. And finally, I remember that the only one who was truly insulated and comfortable—the Prince of Peace who was sitting on the throne of heaven, the sparkliest!—chose to be born as a poor, vulnerable, baby who would be hated, mocked, and killed in a brutal and violent manner. And I claim to “follow” Him.

ImageChrist “made himself nothing” (Phil. 2:7) to take on the sufferings we deserved. He spent time with the least attractive, respectable, people: corrupt political traitors, women in the sex industry, people with infectious diseases. He saw past earthly status into their precious and valuable souls. So rather than striving to befriend the charming and the beautiful, rather than striving to climb a ladder of status, wealth, security, or fame, we are called to fall to the back of the line, to give to others until we hurt, to befriend the lost and the lonely who may have nothing to offer us. We are called not to the suns, but to the Son who will lead us into the darkness (before later leading us into real glory).

And so I hang my head and ask for the ability to see others with His eyes. Because I realize that on one particularly important day 2000 years ago, I probably would have been drawn into the sparkly orbits of Herod, of the Pharisees, of whichever member of the crowd was crying “Crucify Him!” to the loudest cheers. I would have completely missed the King of the Universe hiding inside the poor, hated carpenter hanging on the cross.

“…He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.” -Isaiah 53:2-3

Posted by: 15shekels | June 14, 2012

The Tribunals of Heaven and Earth

I have found that prosecuting sex traffickers and rapists does not feel good. I have discovered that I don’t relish “putting them away.”  Unlike some of the prosecutors I have met who celebrate after big “wins” and talk about punishing those they view as “really bad people,” I have looked into the eyes of men who have done horrendous things and simply felt sad. Surely it is good and necessary that justice is done, that victims are rescued and given restitution, and that future criminals are deterred. But that does not mean that I want to throw a party after I see someone sentenced to life in prison. I believe that this reaction is due partly to my politics, and partly to my theology. And although my current internship might be much more fun if I took pleasure in these prosecutions, I am grateful for a worldview that instead surrounds these cases—even, perhaps especially, the successful ones—with sadness.

I will first talk briefly about politics, and then more in depth about theology. During my senior year of college, I had the opportunity to work with low-income urban residents of an economically depressed city. The experience taught me more than four years of college classes. I saw men and women whose homelessness, joblessness, drug addictions and criminal records were almost entirely due to circumstances out of their control. I saw that many of them came from abusive or broken families, and from neighborhoods with high levels of violence and drug addiction. I saw how trapped many of my clients felt because they could not get a job without a permanent address, but could not get an apartment without a job. And I saw that crime is usually committed not out of malice but out of desperation. I believe that, even from a totally secular standpoint, nobody has the right to judge criminals or people who cannot “pull themselves up” out of poverty, especially if one has been born into a family that is economically stable and free from addiction and abuse, let alone loving or encouraging. With this perspective, I can look at sex traffickers and see that many of them have been sexually abused, and many of them are economically desperate. I can hate their actions, but I cannot hate or judge them. Now stepping off my bleeding heart soapbox.

More importantly, I cannot hate or judge the traffickers because doing so would fly in the face of what I know to be true about myself, true about the world, and true about God.

Last week, I worked on a case involving a man who had raped a child. I told my husband afterward that I had trouble looking at the man, because I had been told what a vile person he was. My husband replied, “You know how you can look at him when nobody else can? You can look at him as a child of God. When the world is disgusted by him, you can look at him with compassion.” He was completely right.

Because the truth is, I have no right to judge him. I am no better than him. That statement has made even the strongest Christians in my life cringe for at least a moment, because they cannot imagine me trafficking another human being for sex or labor. Neither can I. But God has made clear that there are not “good people” and “bad people.” Instead there is a world of people made in God’s image who choose to rebel against him daily.

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘you shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” Matthew 5:21-22.

“As it is written: ‘there is no one righteous, not even one.” Romans 3:10.

Therefore, I can look at the traffickers and know that literally there but for the grace of God go I. Not only has my upbringing placed me on the other side of the courtroom barrier, but more importantly, I have experienced the transformative work of the Holy Spirit in my life. And here comes the hopeful part. Because if only the politics were true, we would be stuck in a dismal situation in which people could not rise above their circumstances. In contrast, as a Christian I believe that although none of us can be good or righteous apart from God, we are justified by Christ and sanctified by the Holy Spirit. Although we will not be perfect on this side of heaven, we can experience real transformation. And our access to this grace is not determined by our circumstances—it is available to all. This also means that when we do make progress, we will not be self-righteous or judgmental, because we know it was not done out of our own power.

I have considered becoming a defense attorney, because I think that it is incredibly noble to see people as more than the worst things they have ever done—I think it reflects Christ advocating for us. But I think there is also a great need for prosecutors who seek justice for those who commit terrible offenses, especially when they can do so with compassion and some sadness. There is a need for prosecutors who will seek earthly consequences for a person’s crimes, while knowing that Jesus stands ready and willing to be a fierce defense attorney for that same person before the tribunal of heaven.

Posted by: 15shekels | August 18, 2011

Ordinary Saints

“Moses said to the Lord, ‘O Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.’ The Lord said to him, ‘Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute? Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.'” -Exodus 10-12

“Don’t call us saints; we don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” -Dorothy Day

There is nothing wrong, in theory, with celebrating the faithful members of the church who serve God and others in exceptional ways. At their best, such celebrations encourage both the celebrated and the celebrators. I am certainly inspired and moved when I read about the courage of Daniel in the lions’ den or the peace and love of Stephen as he prayed for the forgiveness of those who were stoning him to death. I am inspired and moved when I read about Corrie Ten Boom hiding Jews during the Holocaust or about Mother Teresa devoting her life to caring for lepers in India. These faithful men and women can give us a picture of the fruit that radical love of God can bear.

And yet, when we put these people in stained glass windows and call them saints, it can be a cop-out for the rest of us. When we call them saints in the “better than the rest of us” sense, we create an “us” and “them” that allows us to dismiss their great courage and great love as something laudable but not accessible to us. Calling them saints allows us to continue living selfishly and mundanely, because we tell ourselves we aren’t as strong or as good as they are. It allows us to hold God at arm’s length and tell Him, like Moses did, to go find someone else who is better qualified.

Shane Claiborne has taken the Biblical call to sell his possessions and give to the poor literally, and a few years ago he moved into an impoverished neighborhood in East Philadelphia to live in daily community with the poor and the downtrodden. He expresses frustration at the way people paint him and his friends as saints:

“Sometimes people call folks here at the Simple Way saints. Usually they either want to applaud our lives and live vicariously through us, or they want to write us off as superhuman and create a safe distance.” (Claiborne, Irresistible Revolution, pages 132-133).

He writes, “It’s easy to see these things as spectacular, but I really believe that’s only because we live in a world that has lost its imagination. These things were normal in the early church. It’s just what conversion looked like. We must be careful not to allow ourselves to be written off as radicals when church history and the contemporary Christian landscape are filled with ordinary radicals.” (132)

I returned to Cambodia a few weeks ago, and I was struck once again by the people who are responding to the problem of sex trafficking in the region. Before I met these men and women, I elevated them to superheroes in my mind. After all, what rational and normal woman devotes her life to living in a house with 30 traumatized young girls who have just been rescued from forced prostitution? What rational and normal man ventures into heavily guarded brothels with hidden video cameras to obtain evidence of the selling of children for sex? Who does that? They have to be some kind of saints, right?

I was surprised to find that the men and women in these roles are completely normal and completely relatable. They make corny jokes and they make mistakes. They are from the Philippines, Australia, Indiana and Texas. They aren’t made of stronger stuff than you and me, but they do know a secret.

They know that all God asks of us is faith and obedience, and He does the rest. He says, like he said to Moses, “Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.” As I discussed in my previous post, the Holy Spirit does the rest of the work. Power from on high. The people I met are to be admired: for their faith and for their obedience. But we don’t get that from trying to emulate them. We get that from clinging close to God and spending as much time as possible with Him through prayer, through reading His word, and through spending time with other people who love Him. The faith and obedience come from getting to know Him. And the “saintly” works flow out of that faith and obedience.

Furthermore, these saints that I met are not living austere, joyless lives in strict service to God (an easy thing to miss, as those stained glass saints never really look happy). They are some of the most joyful people I have ever met. They know another secret— when we live in radical obedience to God, He floods our lives with joy and purpose such as we can never experience apart from Him. Even when life is painful or dangerous, we have the surpassing joy of His love and presence, and the thrill of knowing we are doing His work.

And so, the truth is that it doesn’t take martyrdom or a vow of chastity to become a saint. All it takes is faith in Jesus Christ. In his epistles, Paul constantly uses the word “saint” to refer to all believers. He writes “to the saints in Ephesus” (Eph. 1:1), that “all the saints send you greetings” (Phil. 4:22), and about the importance of “service to the saints” (2 Cor 9:1). In one of my favorite passages he writes,

“…giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light. For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (Col 12-14)

If we let God rescue us from the dominion of darkness, we are no longer defined by our sins but by our shared inheritance. And by our shared titles of “saint.”

So we can no longer applaud those “super-Christians” from a comfortable distance. We’re in this together. And, if you simply let Him, there is nothing that God cannot do through your life.

Posted by: 15shekels | June 8, 2011

With Power from On High

“‘Because he loves me,’ says the Lord, ‘I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name.'” -God, Psalm 91:14

“This is what the LORD says: ‘Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed…” -Jeremiah 22:3

“‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear…'” -Jesus, Matthew 6:25

“’When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind…’” -Jesus, Luke 14:12-13

I believe with all my heart that God intervenes directly on this earth. We read in Scripture of the Lord miraculously parting the Red Sea (Exodus 14), literally raining down bread from heaven (Exodus 16), delivering men untouched from fiery furnaces (Daniel 3), keeping whiny prophets alive inside whales for three days (Jonah 1-2); and of course the greatest direct intervention of all—coming to earth as a poor, Middle Eastern carpenter to save rebellious mankind from itself.

Furthermore, I believe that God continues to intervene directly today. I have heard countless stories of people hearing the audible voice of God, experiencing miraculous healings, even stories of dead men literally being raised (when I start doubting modern miracles, I like to browse the blogs of men and women on the World Race, an 11-country global trip where Christians step far out of their comfort zones in faith and see God do incredible things). It is to be expected, really. If God created this world and cares about it, it makes sense that He would intervene to advance His purposes.

And yet, one of the great mysteries of God is that He doesn’t just feed, heal, rescue and redeem his broken world himself, even though that would certainly be the most efficient way to get things done. Instead, for some unfathomable reason, He invites us to help Him. He does so by commanding us to share the good news of his eternal salvation, but he also does so by commanding us to help restore the world here and now. Looking at the scriptures at the beginning of this post, it is no coincidence that God says, “I will rescue” in Psalm 91 and then in Jeremiah commands the king of Judah (and all of us) to rescue the oppressed. It is no coincidence that Jesus tells his followers not to worry about food, and at another time commands them to invite the poor to eat with them. God does not need us to fulfill his promises, and yet he clearly commands us to partner with him to fulfill those promises. Gary Haugen, founder and president of the International Justice Mission explains eloquently how God uses us to respond to injustice in the world:

How does God rescue the life of the needy from the hands of the wicked? Overwhelmingly, he does it through those who choose to follow him in faith and obedience. He doesn’t need our “help,” but he chooses to use us. Looking at the millions of bonded child laborers in India or the thousands of child prostitutes in Asia or thousands of torture victims twisting and bleeding in the world’s forgotten jail cells, we can say to God, “Thank you, thank you… thank you! Thank you for all the power, protection, freedom and justice you have granted us in sparing us from such fates. Thank you, thank you…thank you!’ Or we can ask, ‘What have you given me, Father, that I might help those who don’t have power, who don’t have protection, who don’t have freedom, who don’t have justice?” (Haugen, Good News About Injustice, 101)

Now, these commands can seem crushing, because most of us have a sense of our own weakness and inadequacy in responding to even the broken heart of a friend, let alone torture victims twisting in forgotten jail cells. The good news is that God does not command us to do these things, wish us luck and retreat up into heaven. If we read the end of the gospel of Luke, we do see Jesus saying a temporary farewell to the disciples and ascending into heaven. However, he makes a crucial promise before he leaves: “‘I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.'” (Luke 24:49). Mysterious words that find their fulfillment when the story resumes in the book of Acts:

“When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” -Acts 2:1-4

God doesn’t leave us as orphans; He sends us the Holy Spirit. God himself, dwelling within us. The Holy Spirit is not only described as a comforter and counselor, he is also described as “power from on high.” If you read the rest of Acts 2, you will find the same Peter who had recently denied Jesus preaching boldly in front of a hostile crowd and healing a crippled beggar. You will also find the believers, who had recently been squabbling over who would get the most power, living together, and giving “to anyone as he had need.” (2:42-47). The Holy Spirit comes, and the disciples are transformed from doubting, petty, cowards to powerful agents of God’s kingdom.

It’s a win-win situation for us, really. We are invited into the greatest adventure of all time—God’s redemption of the world—and we are guaranteed victory, because we have been told of Christ’s triumph over death on the cross and God’s promises of restoration. We get the excitement of carrying out much of the action, with the reassurance that it is God in us breathing power into the action. We literally enter into God’s power as it moves through the world, because we become the vessels through which it often moves. How often do we miss out on opportunities to use our power from on high to further God’s purposes? And how often do we cry out for God to act in our lives, and then miss his response because it is through a fellow broken human instead of through lightning from heaven?

A few weeks ago, a young woman who has experienced great injustice and evil told me that she wished God would rescue her and change her situation. In the days that followed, I have watched as God has used many of his children, clothed with power from on high, to surround this woman, to love her, to listen to her, to pray for her, and to provide for her. There is much more to be done, but the body of Christ has mobilized, and I believe it will continue to do so on her behalf. I hope that some day soon she will see that God is in fact rescuing her—that we will all see the ways in which God is rescuing us as well—through what is perhaps His favorite method: His church.

Posted by: 15shekels | May 26, 2011

A Heart of Flesh

“The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt…Well he peeled the beastly stuff right off—just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt—and there it was, lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me—I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on—and threw me into the water.” -C.S. Lewis, “How the Adventure Ended,” The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” -Ezekiel 36:26

“No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” -Hebrews 12:11

I wish there were a way to be transformed by God without it hurting. I wish that I could grow on my own, becoming ever kinder, more talented, and stronger, setting and achieving my own goals, while God continually pats me on the back and affirms me. That would be nice. That would be unthreatening and easy.

I wish I could gently peel off my dragon skin. I wish my heart didn’t have to be cut out and replaced by another one. I wish I could reap a harvest of righteousness without painful discipline.

And yet that’s not how it works. The story from Lewis’s “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” captures it so perfectly: young Eustace finds treasure in a cave and gets so greedy that he literally turns into a dragon. He tries desperately to peel off his scales, but keeps finding more scales underneath. It is only when Aslan shows up and removes the scales with a tear “so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart” that Eustace becomes a boy again.

In Ephesians and Colossians, Paul tells believers to “put on the new self” (Eph 4:24) and to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, etc…” (Col 3:12)  What we sometimes forget is that before we are able to put on the new self, we must “put off” the “old self.” (Ephesians 4:22). And in order to put off our old selves, we must let God perform surgery. We must let him cut off our scales, cut straight to our hearts, remove the stones that work so poorly, and give us real hearts, hearts of flesh that are marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit.

I wouldn’t mind so much if this surgery could be a one-time transaction. Four years ago when I first realized that the King of all Creation had died to save me from my scaly, stony self, I was moved deeply and humbly lay my life at His feet. My repentance wasn’t exactly comfortable—I felt exposed and small—but it felt like a relief to admit that I needed help. I confessed that I was selfish, stubborn and prideful, and I rejoiced that through Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross I could be forgiven and clothed in his righteousness. Sinful self put to death, new redeemed self activated. Painful but finished.

Not exactly. Justification is a one-time event; sanctification is not. What Lewis doesn’t mention (but Hebrews does) is that as we walk through life with Christ and allow him to become not only our savior but our lord, we need him to continue scraping off the scales and performing surgery on our hearts. In order to grow as disciples, we need to diminish (become “smaller than I had been” as Eustace narrates), not once but constantly, because we continue to want to make ourselves bigger. We need to recognize how terribly we fall short of God’s standard, even after we have been redeemed. Over time as we move closer to him, we must allow the Holy Spirit to peel off layer after layer.

As my husband will tell you, I hate criticism and I hate discipline. I received my first speeding ticket two months ago and sobbed uncontrollably for two hours. Tom will make a reasonable and gentle request that I grow in a particular area and I will prepare a case for why he is wrong, complete with evidence and carefully constructed arguments. I am terrible at discipline and I am terrible at humility. I fear that my scales are thicker and stickier than most people’s.

And yet I hand the scalpel back to my loving father. A stone heart may not hurt, but it doesn’t beat or love either.

Posted by: 15shekels | March 12, 2011

Let Justice Roll Down Like Waters

“We stand with victims and activists to prevent discrimination, to uphold political freedom, to protect people from inhumane conduct in wartime, and to bring offenders to justice.” -excerpt from Human Right Watch’s Mission Statement

“We take action to: Stop violence against women, defend the rights and dignity of those trapped in poverty, abolish the death penalty, oppose torture and combat terror with justice, free prisoners of conscience, protect the rights of refugees and migrants, regulate the global arms trade.”  -From Amnesty International’s website

“Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” -Isaiah 1:17

“Speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute…” -Proverbs 31:8

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” -Jesus, preaching in Nazareth, Luke 4:18-19, 21

The enlightened, socially conscious, modern intellectual supports justice, equality and freedom. He admires if not advocates for the work of human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. He respects and empathizes with victims of human rights abuses.

And he is probably not a Christian. Because in the minds of most enlightened, socially conscious, modern intellectuals, Christians are exclusivist, narrow-minded, paternalistic vehicles of oppression and discrimination.

As a Christian and an aspiring human rights advocate, it makes me deeply sad that a few hot-button political issues have led most of the human rights community to view believers as opponents of human rights. And it is true that many Christians and many churches have given them good reason to do so, by demonizing those who don’t share their views, and preaching a religion of moralism instead of one of love and justice.

However, if one can look past the sea of flawed and hypocritical Christians to the figure at the center of the faith, she will see a very different picture indeed. Jesus did not spend his ministry condemning those with whose lifestyles he disagreed or pushing legislation. Instead he went straight to the marginalized, the outcasts, the prostitutes and the poor, and he loved and welcomed them.

Furthermore, when Jesus died on the cross as a willing victim, he set into motion a cultural revolution. He took the side of the victim, and people have been doing so ever since.

The French philosopher and sociologist Rene Girard grew fascinated with the pervasive empathy for victims that he saw in modern society, an empathy that he found no trace of in ancient literature. Philip Yancey writes about Girard’s search for this empathy’s source:

“[Girard found that in ancient literature] victors, not the marginalized, wrote history, and the myths from Babylon, Greece, and elsewhere celebrated strong heroes, not pitiable victims. In his further research, Girard traced the phenomenon back to the historical figure of Jesus. It struck Girard that Jesus’ story cuts against the grain of every heroic story from its time. Indeed, Jesus chose poverty and disgrace, spent his infancy as a refugee, lived in a minority race under a harsh regime, and died as a prisoner. From the very beginning Jesus took the side of the underdog: the poor, the oppressed, the sick, the ‘marginalized.’ His crucifixion, Girard concluded, introduced a new plot to history: the victim becomes a hero by being a victim. To the consternation of his secular colleagues, Girard converted to Christianity.”- Philip Yancey, “What Good is God?”, pages 215-216.

I would argue that this empathy for victims traces back beyond Jesus’s death into the Old Testament where the unchanging and eternal character of God is revealed. Next to idolatry, the thing that makes God angriest at the Israelites is their indifference to justice. Repeatedly throughout the Old Testament God tells the Israelites to seek justice, and to fight for the four groups of people who are most likely to become victims of oppression: orphans, widows, immigrants and the poor. God’s commands to his people thousands of years ago sound strikingly like the mission statements of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

In my own experience, getting to know this God of justice leads naturally to a personal love of justice. Before I came to know God at age 21, I rarely thought about victims of oppression. I had a vague sense of guilt and obligation to them, but I chose to mostly ignore uncomfortable human rights issues.

But as my faith started to grow, I not only began to be agitated by injustices I saw around me, but I also developed a global vision and concern for abuses happening far away from me. As I have grown close to Jesus, the ultimate empathizer of victims, and to his Father, the creator and defender of justice and love, a passion for justice has risen in my heart so strongly that I now want to spend my life defending it.

I am one of many Christians, including Girard, who came to believe that Jesus’ life and death brought forth a new stream in history, one that undermines injustice. “It may take centuries for that stream to erode a hard bank of oppression, as it did with slavery, but the stream of liberation flows on.” -Yancey, page 216.

Yancey goes on to explain that God’s stream of liberation is bigger than the failures or successes of Christians:

“Sometimes Jesus’ own followers join the stream, and sometimes they stand on the bank and watch. Yet over time the gospel works its liberating effect…Women, minorities, the disabled, human rights activists—all these draw their moral force from the power of the gospel unleashed at the cross, when God took the side of the victim. In a great irony, the ‘politically correct’ movement defending these rights often positions itself as an enemy of Christianity, when in fact the gospel has contributed the very underpinnings that make possible such a movement. And those who condemn the church for its episodes of violence, slavery, sexism, and racism do so by gospel principles. The gospel continues to leaven a culture even when the church takes the wrong side on an issue.” -Yancey, p. 216

Human rights activists may be at odds with religion at times, but human rights and the gospel have the same beating heart. Both movements are driven by a love for justice and a desire to defend the oppressed. Some of the most beautiful moments in history have been when these movements have joined forces, such as when the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. led the fight for civil rights. King’s passion and courage were driven by his faith, which he talked about frequently. I conclude with one of King’s most famous lines, one that many people probably don’t know is a verse from the Bible:

“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.” -Amos 5:24

Posted by: 15shekels | February 2, 2011

Fearfully and wonderfully made

“After Mother Teresa died, I was in an interview with some reporter who asked me if Mother Teresa’s spirit will live on. I said, “To be honest, Mother Teresa died a long time ago, when she gave her life to Jesus. The joy and compassion and love that the world finds so magnetic are only Jesus, and that is eternal.'” -Shane Claiborne, Irresistible Revolution, pages 88-89.

“For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.” -Mark 8:35

As I discussed in my previous post, one of the things I initially found most shocking about Christianity was the joy and delight of its citizens. The Christians I met weren’t weighed down by guilt and restraint as I had expected. After this discovery, I regrouped and adjusted my philosophy: Ok, I thought, they might be happy in a brainwashed kind of way. But their lives are about submitting to God’s will and rules. That must come at the price of their freedom and individuality. It would be a fair trade, after all—personality for eternal salvation.

But I was surprised again. I found the Christians I met to be more alive, more dynamic, and more interesting than anyone I knew who had maintained “control” of his life or self. These Christians had somehow managed to surrender everything to God and yet become more themselves in the process.

To some degree, this is one of the mysterious paradoxes of moving closer to God. The best evidence for it is empirical. However, a humble attempt at analyzing how we can both lose ourselves and become more unique and likable at the same time:

1. God > Man. God is more vibrant and interesting than man. So, a man with God will be more vibrant and interesting than a man without God. In fact, as Shane Claiborne points out when talking about Mother Teresa, the less man and the more God in a person, the better (in point 2, I will explain why this doesn’t make us all the same).

All men are created in the image of God and manifest some of His glory and goodness. All men are also fallen sinners and manifest cruelty and selfishness. The man who has accepted Jesus’s offer of new life has something in addition to these two influences. He doesn’t just manifest the thumbprint of the divine, he manifests the divine, because the Holy Spirit (who is God) lives inside of him.

This is not the same as the eastern belief that God is in everything and everything is God. That cheapens God by muddying his goodness with sin. Instead Christianity says that the blindingly good light of God comes to dwell in muddy houses—us. His goodness isn’t polluted by our sin (that only needed to happen once, on the cross). Instead his goodness shines out of us. And so even though the world will still see our sin, it will also see God’s glory.

2. God created each one of us with unique attributes and unique purposes, and He wants us to be different. Even though the best parts of us are the God-parts, we each manifest different aspects of His goodness and glory. He could have created an army of automatons. But instead He delighted in creating billions of unique children:

“For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made…” -Psalm 139:13-14

God’s purpose isn’t to make us boring. It is to make us into unique manifestations of his image, that when brought together form the colorful and glorious kingdom of God. And nobody knows our specific eccentricities like our creator. As the creator of “me,” God obviously knows what my best qualities are, what my worst qualities are, the paths and choices that will make best use of my gifts, and the traps into which I am most prone to stumble. As I get to know God and learn to trust Him, I learn His specific plans for me.

Think about it—God may ask for obedience, but He doesn’t ask for conformity. Fear is what makes us conform. Fear of judgment, fear of unworthiness, fear of failure—these are the forces that make us timid, scared and boring. In contrast, when we understand that we are completely unworthy of God, but that He loved us enough to suffer and die for us, and that nothing can take us out of his hand, we forget to be self-conscious. We know we are loved, worth fighting for, redeemed. And so we are free to become who we were created to be. We are no longer afraid of the judgment of the world, because we play for an audience of one. We can finally take real risks.

3. An outward-focused man has a lot more in his life than an inward-focused man. When we naval-gaze, seek our own pleasure, believe in ourselves, and take all of the other advice of modern Western culture, we end up living very small lives indeed. If, however, we shift our gaze from our puny selves to our glorious king, we will catch our breaths. And when we ask Him to expand our hearts to seek His will and purposes, when we choose to care about the things that break His heart, suddenly life becomes a great (if unpredictable) adventure. As we shrink, our mission and purpose grows, and others will be drawn into the excitement.

There are many other ways to answer this question, and I know I have only begun to understand what happens to our “selves” when we lay them down. Comments, disagreements and elaborations welcomed.

So loosen your grip on the “self” that you prize so highly. It’s not as great as you think it is. But it’s also so much greater—because it was worth dying for.

And its creator has much greater plans for it than you do, if you get out of His way.

Posted by: 15shekels | January 18, 2011

Let them sing for joy on their beds

2 Samuel 6:14-15

“The outer ring of Christianity is a rigid guard of ethical abnegations and professional priests; but inside that inhuman guard you will find the old human life dancing like children, and drinking wine like men; for Christianity is the only frame for pagan freedom. But in the modern philosophy the case is opposite; it is the outer ring that is obviously artistic and emancipated; its despair is within.” (G.K. Chesterton, “Orthodoxy,” page 152)

“The mass of men have been forced to be gay about the little things, but sad about the big ones…[But] melancholy should be an innocent interlude, a tender and fugitive frame of mind; praise should be the permanent pulsation of the soul…Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian.” (Chesterton, p. 154-155)

“As servants of God we [are]…sorrowful, yet always rejoicing…having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” (2 Corinthians 4, 10)

At age 20, I lived for excitement and entertainment. I made very sure that my days were punctuated by sharp and frequent fun.

I say “punctuated by” because my embarrassing secret was the baseline state to which I returned between these highs—a state of quiet despair. This melancholy was all the more frustrating because I was denied nothing. There was nothing left to strive for except more of the same.

As I charged through life taking and tasting, I had to avert my eyes in order to forget that I was barreling toward meaninglessness and death. What is worse, I couldn’t even enjoy the ride, as even pleasures lose their meaning outside of the context of boundaries. Tell a child that he can have any toy he desires, and you will see a near-scientific demonstration of the diminishing returns of pleasure.

This, then, is the quiet despair of Chesterton’s pagan—the one whom our culture calls enlightened, progressive, freed from the archaic constraints of dusty church fathers. They sample and they play, and as life ticks by and beauty and youth trickle down the drain, so does their hope. Their lives look “artistic and emancipated” from the outside, and yet those who enter the circle quickly realize that their idols are one-trick ponies. Pleasure for pleasure’s sake. And when pleasure runs out, the inside of the circle is quiet and sad.

At one time I rejected Christianity because I saw it as a strict disciplinarian who would fence me in with rules and steal my fun and joy. When I did come to accept the faith, it was because I found it to be truth. It was certainly not a lifestyle decision. I feared I was trading in my freedom and fun for eternal life and purpose.

How could I have missed the obvious—that the backdrop of eternal life and purpose sets fire to the joys of life. Once I stepped inside the “outer ring” of Christianity, the “rigid guard of ethical abnegations and professional priests,” I found an unceasing celebration. Yes, they were dancing and drinking wine (take that, Reverend Shaw), but they weren’t doing so to suck every ounce of potential pleasure out of those activities. Instead the Christians were dancing and drinking in celebration of the king, of the triumph of good over evil, of the freedom of having been rescued, of the joy of being deeply loved, of the promise of eternal life with a beautiful and perfect God.

Yes, the life of the Christian involves sacrifice, self-denial, suffering and sadness. But as we face the pain, we see the backdrop of eternal joy behind it. We have the dignity of knowing that right and wrong exist, and that pain and suffering are wrong. We have a Savior who came to earth and wept at death but also drank wine and celebrated. We have the promise that God is restoring the world.

So don’t believe the publicity. If you chase joy, you will discover as Solomon did that you are chasing after the wind. But chase God, and joy will pour down on you like rain.

“Let Israel rejoice in their Maker;
let the people of Zion be glad in their King.
Let them praise his name with dancing
and make music to him with tambourine and harp.
For the Lord delights in his people;
he crowns the humble with salvation.
Let the saints rejoice in this honor
and sing for joy on their beds.” -Psalm 149:2-5

Posted by: 15shekels | January 3, 2011

Discover the Meaning of Life in Three Easy Steps!

We have lost our patience.

In a world of technology, take-out, watch instantly and one-click shopping, we find and get what we want within the span of a breath. If what we want is not available, we choose to want something else.

(I recognize the irony that blogs are a response to this phenomenon and are supposed to provide quick and easy material. I recognize the further irony that since my blog entries are too long, you may not finish this post. But anyway:)

Our lack of patience is true for choices of cuisine, clothes, entertainment, sex partners and now, religion.

Relativism fits nicely within an instant gratification culture because it can be used to justify any choice. Certain eastern religions can be fit into the culture by being broken down into ten easy steps to enlightenment or daily meditation techniques guaranteed to reduce stress. Some Christian teachers have tried to contort Christianity to fit within it as well by presenting the concrete benefits of prayer or selling a life that will be full of purpose and happiness.

It is a culture that has no time for an invisible, eternal God who works in mysterious ways.

courtesy of Writer's First Aid Blog

Many friends have told me that they would believe in God if he gave them a sign or proved his existence to them. One friend said, “I told him if he is real to show himself to me. I’m still waiting.”

Asking God to reveal himself to you personally is wonderful, and for some people there will be an immediate sign or some form of assurance. But to send out such a request and then return to daily life without any further inquiry is to cheat oneself, and to be foolishly impatient.

It is to ignore the fact that God has revealed himself in ways that are accessible to each of us—through Jesus, through the Bible, and through the lives of other Christians. Exploring this evidence takes time and energy, and many will choose to buy a book on meditation for dummies instead. But I would challenge you to consider the possibility that there is absolute truth, and that there is enough of a possibility that Christianity is true that it is worth really looking at the evidence, even if it takes some time.

So, in blog-friendly bullet points, a few suggestions:

1. Read about Jesus: God revealed himself most powerfully when he was born in a human body and walked among us, teaching, healing, making friends, making enemies, and talking a lot about salvation, heaven, life, death and a lot of other important things. Luckily for us, four different men who either knew Jesus personally or knew his friends wrote accounts of his life, death and resurrection. These four accounts can be found in the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John at the beginning of the New Testament of the Bible. I recommend the New International Version or the English Standard Version. The full text of either version can be found at biblegateway.com, for those who do not have the patience to buy a Bible.

*Note—almost no modern historian denies that Jesus was a real person who lived, taught, stirred up controversy, was brutally killed, and was rumored to have later been seen alive. For historical corroboration from non-Christians, read chapter 5 of Josh McDowell’s book, “The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict.”

2. Read the rest of the Bible: No, it’s not a quick read. But think of it this way—even if you get to the end and decide you don’t believe it, you will now catch hundreds of new references in culture and art. The Bible is the story of God’s interactions with humanity, and as such, it tells us a lot about him (and a lot about us). I recommend starting with the above-mentioned gospels and continuing through the New Testament first. Once you have read about Jesus and the birth of the church, the Old Testament makes a lot more sense. All of the references to a coming messiah and salvation are no longer cryptic but amazingly predictive and powerful.

3. Hear from people who know God personally: There are two ways to do this: reading books about the faith and talking to Christians. Different books serve different purposes:

-For the person seeking an intelligent overview of the faith and responses to common objections to it: The Reason for God, by Tim Keller

-For the person who is intimidated by God or the church, or feels unwelcome or unloved: Ragamuffin Gospel, by Brennan Manning

-For the person who wants concrete evidence that the Bible is reliable, and that Christianity is historically and scientifically sound: The Case for Christ, by Lee Strobel

-For a well-written and enjoyable outline of Christianity by the man who brought you the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis

Or, if you know someone who is a Christian, ask him how he came to believe that God is real and that Jesus is the source of life. For me, I read some of the above books and a little bit of the Bible, and then invited God into my life. But at that point it was a leap of faith. It has been in the four years after that day that I have grown absolutely sure that it is true. I have seen God work powerfully in my life and in the lives of others, and have experienced his love in ways that are undeniable. Ask me, or someone else, to share some of those ways with you. Ask us about the Holy Spirit. When God lives in you, you certainly get to know him a lot better.

So, if you are waiting for a sign that God is real, look into some of the evidence while you wait. It may take some time, but it will lead you to the greatest love you have ever known. And really—who has heard of an epic love story in which the characters fall in love just because it’s convenient and they didn’t want to wait for someone else?

“‘You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,'” declares the Lord, ‘and will bring you back from captivity.” -Jeremiah 29:13-14

Posted by: 15shekels | January 2, 2011

—of whom I am the worst.

“Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy…Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.” -Paul, 1 Timothy 1:13, 15-16

“I always say that if we believe terrorists are beyond redemption, we can rip out half of our New Testament, since it was written by a converted terrorist who became an extremist for grace.” -Shane Claiborne, Irresistible Revolution, p. 272

Jesus knew, of course, that his beloved church would be ever prone to the lie that its Savior is only for the squeaky clean. When he started his ministry, the Pharisees had been pushing a similar self-righteous agenda for years. Jesus could not have been clearer in his rebuttal to them—spending his time with prostitutes, tax collectors, and egregious sinners; offering forgiveness to outcasts and telling parables about obnoxious younger sons being welcomed home.

But they did not understand. And the church today, two thousand years after its birth out of a community of tax collectors and prostitutes, still often fails to understand. Again and again, we write off those who scare or anger us. Or we make the opposite mistake, and assume that self-righteous Pharisees are the ones too hardened to be loved, pursued and redeemed by God. Thankfully, Jesus foresaw both of these mistakes. And he gave us Saul of Tarsus.

Saul was the worst combination of violent sinner and self-righteous Pharisee. He had reasons to be self-righteous, as he wrote himself: “If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.” (Phil 3:4-6) Saul was from the right family, from the right social circles, educated at the right school—and he thought he was perfectly right with God.

He was also one of the Pharisees who saw Jesus and his early followers as a problem that needed to be eliminated. And so he persecuted the new church, and successfully sought the death of young Christians like Stephen (Acts 7) while “breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples” (Acts 9:1) Saul was on track to be one of the memorable bad guys in the history of the early church. He was a cocktail of sin and pride, the worst combination.

And then Saul met Jesus:

“As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’
‘Who are you, Lord?’ Saul asked.
‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied. ‘Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.'” -Acts 9:3-6

And in an instant Saul became Paul, the apostle who wrote half of the New Testament.

Jesus changed Saul’s heart of stone and gave him a heart of flesh. As I discussed two posts ago, God has the power to rename us and give us a new identity. New Year’s Resolutions don’t work because we try to become someone different even though nothing has changed in us internally. This was not a New Year’s Resolution—Paul received a new heart and a new identity on the road to Damascus. Within the same chapter, we learn that he “began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.” (Acts 9:20)

Paul, the former king of self-righteousness, went on to write in the book of Romans that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), and to proclaim himself the worst of sinners. He also reprimanded the Jewish Christians who wanted to exclude non-Jews from the church, and spread the gospel throughout the Roman Empire.

Nobody is outside the reach of God’s grace in Jesus. Because the truth is, Jesus doesn’t look at us and see good guys and bad guys, like we do. He grieves with the victims of September 11th, but he also loves the individual terrorists. In terms that are even harder for me: he cries with young girls held by force in brothels, but he also wants the brothel owners and traffickers to turn to him and be redeemed. Jesus knows that we are all bad guys who are lost apart from him, whether our sin manifests in smug self-righteousness, lying, gossip, betrayal, adultery, rape, murder or genocide. Nobody is outside the invitation to turn to Jesus and receive a new heart, a new identity.

And so, to the “bad guys”: don’t let the snotty church-goer fool you; the gospel has always been for you.

And to the “good guys”: try to remember that your beloved St. Paul was once a terrorist.

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