Actually Choosing “Life”

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live… — Deuteronomy 30:19, NRSV

I am assuming that many of you know about the recent anti-abortion legislation that has recently  been passed in Georgia, Alabama, and now Missouri. If not, hey, now you do. I’m sure many of you are celebrating it, and I am also sure many of you are furious about it. It’s a polarizing topic in that way (Captain Obvious strikes again!).

Unfortunately, though, the abortion debate is one that has pit us against each other in such a way that civil conversation about it is nearly impossible. I get it that it is an emotional concept, but let’s face it, the loudest voices of pro-choice and anti-abortion advocacy groups have a vested interest in fueling our emotional responses to this problem. After all, if we found a way forward together, things would actually have to change, and that is no good for the powers that be.

As a Christian, this debate is just a headache. Scripture and our tradition exhort us to make life-giving and life-preserving choices. For some people, this means simply voting pro-life (a misnomer) and moving on with their day. But is that really a comprehensive and helpful way to ensure the preservation of life and the improvement of its quality for our people?

Shifting gears, the idea that a woman has absolute autonomy over her body and whether or not she decides to bring life into this world is so strong that for some, morality need not enter into the discussion. It’s a personal, private decision that isn’t anyone’s business. Unfortunately, again, I don’t think this appropriately addresses the problem of why abortions are even necessary, and dropping the conversation altogether for the sake of “freedom” doesn’t seem like a healthy option.

Then there are people like me. Having gotten a girl pregnant in high school whose parents made her get an abortion, I can tell you that it is not a positive experience. No one skips into the abortion clinic and high fives everyone as if they are taking their life back. Part of this is due to the ignorant protesters outside, screaming “murder” at people who could just be getting regular OBGYN care.

To those protesters, thanks for your (non) help. Your time is better spent elsewhere.

The other aspect is that something has begun to take shape in this woman’s body, and removing that is not a light or easy decision, even if her parents aren’t forcing it. Needless to say, even with freedom of choice, most women will not be thrilled to have to make this kind of visit to a clinic, which implies that there is something… “off” about the procedure.

In fact, I would bet that most people (whether they pick the pro-choice or anti-abortion camp) would agree that a world without abortions would be ideal. So if that is the case, why all the screaming? Why not find a way forward that adequately addresses the problem?

From the Christian perspective, yes, the teachings of the faith place an emphasis on valuing life (don’t get me started on the devaluing of criminals and women that has also been a part of “tradition”). But those same teachings also tell us that surface-level action is not enough.

Jesus is furious when he chastises the religious leaders of his day, saying, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence” and “you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth” (Matthew 23:25, 27). On the surface, the actions of those leaders could be called “righteous,” but the truth is that the actual causes of sin and death were not being addressed, rendering such actions shallow at best.

Jesus exhorts us to “First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean” (Matthew 23:26). We are to get at the source of our iniquity and do the work of facing our darkness before we can actually hope to improve anything. This is true on a personal level, like treating the cause of addiction rather than just the symptoms. It is also true socially. As a nation, we must find what is causing our problems and deal with those first, rather than blanketing them over with inadequate arguments and decisions.

So what does this mean for those of us trying to find a good way forward with regard to this tricky abortion topic?

Simply passing legislation that just makes abortion illegal doesn’t solve anything. It merely makes some people sleep better at night. The truth is, abortion happens and has happened since humans started having children. When the clinics close, the back-alleys will be back in full swing, costing even more life. The choice isn’t whether the law stops abortion, but what kind of abortion the law is going to allow for: safe and clinical, or the kind of dangerous “procedures” that often end up killing women. That’s the current choice, politically, and simply looking to such useless legislation is not an adequate measure of preserving life.

Also, can fetuses be insured? Can child support be paid as soon as a heartbeat is found? Will a pregnant woman be entitled to all governmental and societal benefits of motherhood from that point on? Odds are the answer is no. So what this amounts to is simply telling women what to do because they are the only ones who actually have bear the consequences of what two people did. Again, this is not life-giving decision making that fully recognizes that humanity of everyone involved.

On the other hand, we don’t want there to be a ton of abortions every year. So how do we trim that down in a manner that will promote a healthier society that honors humanity and the gift of sex?

This would require economic changes, changes to healthcare and adoption protocols, access to birth-control, and evidence-based sexual education made available to all people in all places attending all schools. Ironically, it means taking the church out of sex education, because abstinence-only methods have been proven ineffective. It also means removing the stigma around sex, talking about it and the importance of having it safely, because assuming kids will stop “doing it” is a pipe dream.

For us individuals, this means contacting representatives, attending school board meetings, advocating at our children’s places of learning, and, yes, voting accordingly. We have to talk to our kids realistically and pay attention, suspending judgment. This is a lot more effort than simply voting “pro-choice” or “anti-abortion,” but hey, it takes actual effort to make any kind of a difference.

If everyone got the education, healthcare, and communal help they needed, I guarantee you abortion rates would fall and the legality of the practice would no longer be a major issue. This, in my opinion, is what it would take to truly promote life in this nation. This would be a step forward in recognizing and affirming the humanity and autonomy of women while also eliminating the need for a practice that is a concerning metric of where we are as a society.

If you’ve made it this far, thank you for bearing with me and reading this post. The truth is, I belief that most of us have more in common than we do to divide us, even on a topic such as abortion. Like all other controversial topics, the answer is not in what makes us feel better, but what actually makes this situation better. Our shallow political climate, then, isn’t going to cut it. Further, slinging mud at each other and digging in our heels is also no way to be productive or kind.

It’s my prayer is that all of us, no matter what “camp” we may have settled into, will see beyond the lies and trickery of the current times. All of us have a vested interest in preserving the rights and healthcare of women. All of us have a vested interest in reducing the need for abortion. All of us have a vested interest in moving forward together. If we can recognize that and behave accordingly, we will stand a far better chance of actually choosing and promoting life.

Peace be with you!

 

 

The Dangers of Tunnel Vision

In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes. — Judges 17:6, RSV

Like others who grew up in the United States, I was raised with an emphasis on individuality. Sure, you’re expected to have a respect for family and authority as a child, but as an adult, the goal is to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps and carve your own way in the world. If you end up in an unhappy or undesirable place, that just means you didn’t put in the work or effort to get yourself where you wanted to be.

In recent times, this individualistic mentality has actually intensified. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, even if it is proven to be dead wrong. We get to choose what version of the truth suits us best, and we form tribes that align with our own sense of what is right and wrong. These groups are actually just larger extensions of our individual selves, and we use them to do battle with others.

We have “representatives” upholding party lines, no matter how insane and unhelpful such tribalism might be for us as a nation. As a society, we have carved ourselves into groups that are either entirely supportive of or condemnatory toward police officers. We must be either pro-choice or pro-life, even though solutions exist that could actually appeal to both sides. We can go online and find articles published by terrifically biased sources and share that misleading information, justified only by the fact that we agree with it.

Further, it’s become fashionable to speak and act callously, even cruelly, whether in the name of our specific cause or even just in the name of “freedom.” We are obsessed with our rights while dismissive of our duty to use them responsibly. Using vicious language designed for shock value, we have become more violent in how we think, speak, and act with regard to each other. Should anyone try to correct us, we are quick to remind them of our right to speak and do as we please, and our individual freedom will not be hindered by something so pesky and invasive as compassion.

This is what we see in the Biblical passage referenced at the beginning of this post. The Book of Judges is full of ironic warnings regarding our tendency to depart from the path of God, and the core of the problem is quoted above and appears as the very last sentence of the book. “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6, 21:25). It seems the ancients shared our self-centered problem.

In Judges 17, the unnamed mother of a man named Micah makes a graven image from silver coins (violating the teaching of God). Micah takes this idol and establishes a shrine in his home. Soon after, a Levite happens upon Micah’s home, and Micah makes this Levite the priest of his shrine. Then in Judges 18, the Danites get involved, take the Levite and the idol, and “set up the graven image for themselves” (verse 30). One woman’s sin, perpetuated by her son, becomes the sin of an entire tribe of Israel. To put it more broadly, because one person did what they felt was right, without regard to anyone else, an entire nation suffered violence.

I hope you can see where I am going with this.

As long as we allow our thoughts, words, and  actions to go unrestricted by compassion, our nation and world will suffer violence. If we continue to live our lives in our own little, individual bubbles, our society will face dire consequences. Every individual person has the ability to build up or tear down, to give life or to take it. For us to choose correctly, we must stop caring only about what is right in our own eyes and strive to look through the eyes of others.

What would happen if the staunch, pro-life advocate looked through the eyes of a woman who couldn’t afford to feed herself, much less the healthcare and maternity leave needed to care for a child? What would happen if the most avid pro-choice proponent saw the guilt a young woman carries after having an abortion? The most anti-police demonstrator could learn much if they saw the fear and anxiety that accompanies an officer’s family every time she puts on her uniform and goes to work. A blue-blooded tribe could also stand to experience and understand the fear a patrol car elicits as it rolls down the streets of a low-income, predominantly black neighborhood.

Could the Democrat grow to appreciate the need for a careful, conservative approach to change? Could the Republican see value in loosening our hold on a system that hasn’t been working correctly for quite some time? Maybe those in the public eye could learn that shock value is not the same as substantive content.

Each of us, perhaps, could learn to approach our daily lives with a compassionate heart and an open mind.

None of this means that we need to stop thinking critically for ourselves. It does mean, however, that thoughts and actions rooted in our own narrow perception of life don’t add up to much. When we cease to care about how we affect each other, we abandon the most fundamental commandment of God. We love Him in how we love one another.

I hope you’ll join me in trying to take a more “outward” approach to life. We Christians have just entered into the season of Lent, a time for personal reflection and growth. It is also an ideal time to make compassion a daily practice. We could listen to those that we disagree with, without waiting for our turn to speak. We could imagine what it’s like to be like those who are different from us, and when we are unsure, we could ask questions. We could ask the simple question of how we would like to be interacted with if we were in the same position as someone else.

Transformation is often viewed as a process that comes from power. The law must change, the policy must be altered, and the results must be major. While I agree in a series of just laws and policies guiding us, I believe in Jesus’ model of transformation: One person and relationship at a time. Consistent, intentional effort for the Kingdom of God will lead to far greater things than we can ask or imagine. So let’s get started!

Peace be with you!

 

 

“Oh, Honey… You’re Not That Powerful”

But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”… Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” — Luke 5:8, 10, NRSV

I was having a conversation with a much-beloved friend of mine about the human tendency to exhibit pride through excessive shame. A good example is the person who believes they are too sinful or lost for God to forgive or love them. It’s not that they are intentionally being prideful, but it is in some sense misguided to believe that God’s love (a love that sent Him willingly to execution on a cross) is limited based on our misdeeds. My beloved friend’s response to this was one that made me laugh and think all at once.

“Oh, honey… You’re not that powerful.”

This is, I think, a more sassy interpretation of what Jesus says to Peter in this passage of Luke 5. Jesus instructs Peter’s crew to “put out into the deep water” with the expectation of catching fish, despite them having “worked all night long” without catching a thing (5:4-5). Peter, naturally, expresses some doubt regarding the outcome, but relents.

Not surprisingly, Jesus’ prediction comes to fruition. Tons of fish are caught, and Peter (not for the last time) feels like an ass. In verse 8, he falls down before Jesus and says, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Despite evidence to the contrary, Peter believes his sinfulness should keep him from experiencing the power of Christ.

Jesus responds in a way that makes a world of difference. “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people” (5:10). There are two sides to this wonderful revelation. First, Peter should stop falling down in fear. Christ’s mission is not to condemn, but to save. This brings in the second piece, which tells us that Peter’s sin not only lacks the power to condemn him, but it also is powerless to prevent the work of God from being done through him. Peter is free to fearlessly follow in the footsteps of Jesus.

This interaction should also serve as a powerful lesson for us. We tend to give up on ourselves rather easily. How often have you said or heard someone say, “I am what I am. If I haven’t changed now, I just won’t?” This is really a lack of security masquerading as confidence. Sometimes our insecurities are more pronounced, as we believe ourselves to be so unworthy of love that we almost willingly fall deeper into our self-destructive cycles.

If we examine this passage and allow ourselves a bit of grace, however, we can see that we don’t determine the love that is felt for us by others (especially God). Jesus knew Peter would not only exhibit some disbelief, but that he would also abandon the Son of God to a horrible fate, yet Peter was brought into existence and called to be a leading Apostle. Likewise, God knew all that you would be capable of, both in a positive and negative sense, and He still decided that it would be worth every risk to have you in this world. Further, the same call He offered to Peter is offered to you, that you may experience and participate in the sharing of His unending love.

Of course there will be days when we feel unworthy. We are bound to screw up repeatedly. Luckily, perfection and shame are not requirements for discipleship so much as humility and the willingness to take a chance.

So when you begin to let shame take control, and you fear that you are too low for God to love or forgive, remember the good news of Jesus Christ: “Oh, honey… you’re not that powerful.”

The Benefit of Not Belonging

Life’s hard when you don’t feel like you fit. I’ve felt that way a lot in my life, whether with family, friends, or just observing a world that didn’t feel like home in any way. Other people’s values seldom align with my own, and when you’re surrounded by difference, it can feel like a curse.

I am here to tell you that it is a blessing.

I was reading through Numbers a couple of days ago (the most exciting book of the Bible…), and I stumbled upon a passage that got me thinking about this topic of journeying through a “strange land.” In chapter 2, God is giving Moses the layout for Israel’s camp, how each of the tribes is to line up facing each of the Cardinal Directions with three facing east (2:3-9), three facing south (2:10-16), three facing west (2:18-24), and three facing north (2:25-31).

In verse 17, though, we see that the Levites are set apart. “The tent of meeting, with the camp of the Levites, shall set out in the center of the camps; they shall set out just as they camp, each in position, by their regiments.” While the Levites are technically members of Israel, they camp out in the midst of the tribes rather than with them. Because they are the chosen priesthood of God, they are “not enrolled among the other Israelites” (2:33).

Christians are also meant to be a priesthood chosen by God. You’ve probably heard the phrase “in the world, but not of it,” taken from an interpretation of the Gospel of John, chapter 17. It is intended that Christians find their citizenship in heaven (Philippians 3:20), not anywhere on earth. In short, we are supposed to live our lives in a state of “not belonging.” Why is that?

Put simply, “No one can serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24). Sure, Jesus is talking about wealth in this specific context, but the truth still holds for other aspects of life. Too many people put their political affiliations, personal desires, national identity, or social status before their faith. Many people in today’s world have fallen into the trap of serving a worldly master to the exclusion of God, choosing sides over and against each other.

This is where the outsiders come in. Just as doubt is a gift to be utilized for the benefit of all, so is one’s place as an outsider. The Levites are chosen out of Israel because they are to mediate between the people and God, making atonement for the sins of the people. Prophets were called to proclaim a message of change and repentance to their audiences, no matter who they were. Christians are to be the people of God who live and proclaim the Gospel of Jesus and stand by it, even if it means sacrificing themselves.

People who “don’t fit” have a responsibility to use their voice. The benefit of being “on the outside” while in the midst of this crazy world is that those kinds of people tend not to get sucked into some of the crazy allegiances that pit us against the rest of our earthly brothers and sisters. Don’t get me wrong, we all have our idols, but when we walk as “strangers in a strange land,” we become free enough to ask the tough questions of ourselves and others.

Without blind allegiance, there is nothing that can’t be questioned. This world needs people who are willing to question even the most sacred human institutions and practices. If we don’t do that, we simply fall deeper and deeper into the idolatrous cycles that fuel our hatred and malice toward one another.

So you may feel like you don’t fit. Lord knows I do. As I have said before, this doesn’t mean you are broken. Rather, it means you have something valuable to contribute. If you are finding yourself convicted by this post, that’s fine as well. Let the Scriptures comfort and guide you. If we embrace our “outsider” nature and recognize our hope as being something greater than us and this world, we can rest assured that the Spirit of God will move in our lives to a powerful and transformative degree.

Peace be with you!

Freedom Isn’t A Blank Check

…Jesus said to him, “Then the children are free. However, so that we do not give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me.” — Matthew 17:26-27, NRSV

Why is it that whenever someone defends “freedom of speech” in this country, it’s because they are being a jerk? I suppose it is technically true that one can say (mostly) whatever they want, and people can respond (to an extent) however they feel is appropriate. My issue is that the freedoms we seem so eager to embrace appear to be free of any duty to utilize them responsibly, and this is a problem, especially when we are examining Christian behavior.

Enter Jesus. In the text above, the full passage being found here, Jesus and the disciples are accused of not paying the temple tax, a payment that more or less went to the upkeep of the Jewish Temple. To not pay it would be considered both rude and unlawful according to the mandate set forth in Exodus. Jesus then has a conversation that parallels earthly kingdom practice with the nature of God’s kingdom, and in both of those, Jesus indicates that “the children are free.”

Yeah, buddy! Dang right, we are free. We don’t have to pay a stupid temple tax. Of course, Jesus then says, “However, so that we do not give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me.”

Wait a minute. You just said we were free… Yet we still have to act in a way that is inoffensive and perceived to be costly?!

That’s right.

It concerns me when I see my fellow Americans, particularly Christians, emphasizing freedom when it comes to what they say and do with no regard for how it affects others. The current situation with Judge Kavanaugh and Dr. Ford is a perfect example. For me, the question isn’t even about those two individuals anymore, especially when I  see people react the way they have to Dr. Ford’s accusations. Our nation has once again had its rape culture exposed, this time defended by partisan politics. Little “jokes” and “jabs” here and there have surfaced, many of which amounting to outright attacks that make light of sexual assault survivors in general.

Sure enough, when someone is accosted about these tasteless comments, they use words like “freedom” and “opinion.” But if Christ teaches us anything, it is that our freedom is not a blank check to speak and act however we want, as God is still concerned about how we use our freedom. After all, Adam and Eve had freedom… and their bum choices had severe consequences, yes? So will all of our crappy words and actions.

In Romans 6, Paul encourages us to “No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness,” but to “present your members to God as instruments of righteousness.” Jesus did several things He didn’t have to in order to not ruin His witness to the truth of God. We should follow their lead and stop using our freedoms and feelings to justify our callous comments and actions that could have damaging effects on others.

I hope you will join me this week in keeping better track of how we use our “rights.” While we technically can do many things, that doesn’t mean that we should make use of that freedom at all costs. If we are willing to sacrifice the emotional and physical well-being of others to express our “freedom,” we are still under the slavery of sin and far from accepting of the transformative grace of God. If, however, we temper our freedom with understanding and compassion, we will find ourselves walking in the way of Christ, the way of the Cross, the way that leads to life.

Peace be with you!