If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.
— 1 Corinthians 12:26-27
In her book, Sister Outsider, Audre Lorde states that "Institutionalized rejection of difference is an absolute necessity in a profit economy which needs outsiders as surplus people. As members of such an economy, we have all been programmed to respond to the human differences between us with fear and loathing ... But we have no patterns for relating across our human differences as equals. As a result, those differences have been misnamed and misused in the service of separation and confusion."
Humanity as a species must get past its too frequent tendency of responding to difference with fear and suspicion. Jesus himself points out that "whatsoever you do for the least of these, you do for me." The same would also apply in regard to whatsoever we do TO them as well. A society is most succinctly defined in how it responds to those regarded as the lost, the lowest, and the least.
What happens to any of us affects all of us. If one life is callously extinguished we are all diminished. If one person's talent remains uncultivated, we are all the poorer for it.
In Metropolitan Community Churches, we are learning to embrace our differences and all the attendant diversity that they bring as a source of tremendous strength and enrichment. We have people who hold widely divergent theological positions worshiping together. Community rather than uniformity is the order of the day, and we are all the richer for it. Of course, we don't always get it right on the first try, but we strive nonetheless. In the final analysis, our positive regard for diversity may prove to be the greatest gift we have to offer the world around us.
"Bear one another's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ."
- Galatians 6:2
Some Christians hold to the idea that God helps those who help themselves. The problem is that that's not really a biblical idea. Although proclaimed by those who espouse a prosperity gospel, it is quite at odds with the message we repeatedly see lived out on the pages of scripture, which is that God helps those who help others.
From the Widow in the town of Zarephath caring for Elijah to Jesus' feeding the multitudes, it seems the power and presence of God is most keenly accessible when we care for others. Rather than living lives that are cut off and separate from those around us, the person of faith must engage the needs of others encountered on life's journey.
Archbishop Oscar Romero put it this way, "I'm going to speak to you simply as a pastor, as one who, together with his people, has been learning the beautiful but harsh truth that the Christian faith does not cut us off from the world but immerses us in it; the church is not a fortress set apart from the city. The church follows Jesus, who lived, worked, struggled, and died in the midst of a city, in the polis."
I love the quote I recently read from humorist Stephen Colbert, "If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don't want to do it." Or as Martin Luther King Jr more soberly expressed the idea, "Life's most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?"
Then Jesus said to his disciples, "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me."
— Matthew 16:24
In twenty-one years of pastoring churches, I have encountered a wide diversity of people. Oddly enough, the ones who seemed to be the happiest were those who focused the attention and energy of their lives on themselves the least, while the most miserable were those who were consumed with themselves. Now, by saying that, please understand that I'm not speaking in a therapeutic sense but rather the sort of narcissistic focus on self that we see so often in the world today.
Through advertising and other sources, when we look around, at every turn our culture is conveying that message. From "because I'm worth it" hair products to "you deserve a break today" restaurants to vehicles marketed as much for the vanity of their costs as their real quality, we are bombarded with messages that indicate we have an innate right to "have it your way."
The problem is, of course, that a narcissistic focus on ourselves leads us to a place where we inevitably feel that everyone around us has a right to our opinion. This situation inevitably burdens the self in ways that are difficult to articulate and can serve to alienate one from others.
The challenge, especially in our time, is to grow beyond our preoccupation with ourselves, our wants, and our wills and to embrace selfless service to others instead. I believe this is precisely what Jesus meant when he said, "For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it." (Matthew 16:25)
Renowned theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer expressed it this way: "We can of course shake off the burden which is laid upon us, but only find that we have a still heavier burden to carry -- a yoke of our own choosing, the yoke of our self. But Jesus invites all who travail and are heavy laden to throw off their own yoke and take his yoke upon them -- and his yoke is easy, and his burden is light. The yoke and burden of Christ are his cross." We must strive to be self less and to be Christ more.
"The picture of thistles pulled up and burned is a scene from the final act. The [Human One] will send... angels [to] weed out the thistles..., pitch them in the trash, and be done with them. They are going to complain to high heaven, but nobody is going to listen. At the same time, ripe, holy lives will mature and adorn the [realm] of [God]. Are you listening to this? Really listening?"
- Matthew 13:40-43, The Message
When Christians attack.... It may sound like the latest special from Fox News, but the reality is that it happens more often than anyone wants to admit. We've all seen the people with colorful placards glibly consigning everyone to the depths of hell who differ from them in any way. Much less often does the popular consciousness contemplate why this sort of thing occurs.
What is it about human beings in general that so often requires that what we feel to be right for our lives--in order to be valid--must be what's right for the lives of everyone else? What is it about some Christians in particular that requires that they inflict themselves on others? It's outright bizarre.
Sadly, this type of approach is often the dominant face of Christianity seen by many in our society. Whether it's ascribing the holocaust to the will of God, blaming the Japanese stock market dip to the emperor's demonic fling, or counting our honored dead as the result of a divine grudge brought on by our move toward a more just and open society, it's the extreme (and outright nutty) religious views that garner coverage, while people who lead lives rooted in divine love for all are routinely ignored, or worse unknown.
That is indeed unfortunate. It's unfortunate because many branches of Christianity are becoming more loving, more open, more accepting of basic human diversity as being entirely natural. But the religious extremists seize on this and merely regard it as sauce for the goose, blithely casting one and all into lakes of endless fire. And what's especially unfortunate (for the extremists, with their literal understanding of hell itself) is that the scriptures declare repeatedly that it's those with the most interest in consigning others to hell who are in the most danger of going there themselves.
"But ask the animals, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you;and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of [God] has done this?"
- Job 12:7-9
The human race lives in the world in a way which is rapidly detaching human beings from both creation and each other. We abuse the planet and all but enslave one another in fundamentally unjust economic systems. Fran Lebowitz says, "In the Soviet Union, capitalism triumphed over communism. In this country, capitalism triumphed over democracy." As the rich continue getting richer, the poor keep getting poorer, and corporations wield increasing amounts of political and social power over human lives, who can doubt the disturbing accuracy of her assessment?
As people of faith, we may find the words of Joan Chittisler instructive. In her book, The Monastery of the Heart, she writes, "To allow ourselves to become digital chips in an electronic world, isolates in an interdependent universe, women and men out of touch with the life pulse of a living God, indifferent to creation, concerned only with ourselves, and still call ourselves good -- is to mistake the rituals of religion for the sanctifying dimensions of spirituality."
So, what's the answer? Too often we mistakenly accept ideas as reality, and we concretize them, thereby setting the bounds of the world and our place in it. What if we stopped doing that? After all, as Alan Watts pointed out, they're just words, and words are merely labels on intellectual boxes. Perhaps it was St. Gregory of Nyssa who offered the best spiritual prescription for our perplexing situation. He stated, "Concepts create idols; only wonder comprehends anything. People kill one another over idols. Wonder makes us fall to our knees." Wonder makes us fall to our knees! It's not knowing that does it, not explaining. It is quite simply moving through the world and learning to see the wonder in all things that makes the difference.
"Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgements, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another."
– Zechariah 7:9-10
I have known individuals who were so sure they were right that it seems they never even pause to question the things that they do. They treat others shamefully and yet consider themselves to be devout leaders in their religious tradition.
Why is it so difficult for some people to treat others with kindness? Or at least to apologize when they don't? Why do others allow it without speaking up?
Unfortunately, it's often just the result of millions of years of evolutionary development that has imbued human beings with certain drives which often result in unkind and thoughtless behavior. Sadly, some people lack the self-awareness to realize when these holdovers of evolution are harming their relationships with others. The drive to be "right," the drive to win, becomes the overriding force in their lives, and people can persist in these behaviors often without knowing or caring whom they hurt in the process, as long that they get their way.
Jesus calls us to behave lovingly to the very ones we regard as our enemies. Through the prophet Zechariah, God commands us to "show kindness and mercy to one another." These actions are not optional, nor are they negotiable. They are expected of all who claim to follow the example we have in Jesus, for Jesus is the one who said, "I tell you, love your enemies. Help and give without expecting a return. You'll never — I promise — regret it. Live out this God-created identity the way [God] lives toward us, generously and graciously, even when we're at our worst" (Luke 6:35, The Message).
We can do better; we can be better than that. As one of my favorite characters once put it, "It's instinctive. But the instinct can be fought. We're human beings with the blood of a million savage years on our hands. But we can stop it. We can admit that we're killers... but we're not going to kill today. That's all it takes! Knowing that we're not going to kill today!"
Let's make a point of practicing random acts of love and senseless kindness! Jesus himself says, "You'll never — I promise — regret it."
"So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today."
- Matthew 6:34
I've known people who worried themselves senseless trying to control every aspect of their lives; mostly the things they worried about never came to pass, but it gave them a peculiar sense of comfort to worry nonetheless. Most often worry strikes me as a complete waste of energy. If there's something we can do to influence the outcome for the better, then that at least is an action. But mostly, worry serves the function of helping us feel that we're doing something when just the opposite is true.
I've also known people for whom concern over their own lives proved to be insufficient and who felt the need to insert themselves into the lives and the affairs of others. Sadly, such behavior yields nothing good for either party. In fact, it was Thomas à Kempis who said, "We should have much peace if we would not busy ourselves with the sayings and doings of others." This is true whether we concern ourselves with the latest celebrity gossip or try to exercise undue influence in the lives of others (which is a role none of us are qualified to play).
It was the apostle Paul who cautioned us early on about forming judgments about others' lives when he wrote, "Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things" (Romans 2:1). The reality is that each of us must travel our own path and live our own lives. No one else can do it for us, nor can we do it for anyone else. For each of us, truly living requires a uniquely personal effort.
“You can plant seeds until the cows come home, but if you don't water your garden, you get neither flowers nor fruit.”
– Wayne Allen Galbreath
For over a decade, my partner, Wayne, has repeatedly said, “Water your garden.” It has taken on the role of sacred mantra in our household. He says that one can focus as much attention as one likes on sowing and reaping, but if we neglect to water the garden in between the two, the effort doesn't amount to much. In the context of human relationships, (i.e. family, friendships, job, church, etc.), we may know where we are starting and where we want to end up, but it's watering the garden, the nurturing attention along the way, that gets us there. I've seen many people who focus on their pasts (sowing) or their futures (reaping) and neglect the present (watering) in the process.
To see this more clearly, try using an affirmation like this one: Springs of living water flow from me each day, nurturing the seeds of divine potential in my life and the lives of those I love.
"Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy."
- Proverbs 31:8-9
Scripture enjoins us to "speak out for those who cannot speak." Last Monday, I attended a public forum at First Congregational Church in Topeka. It was an opportunity for representatives of the governor to hear another voice raised about the planned closure of the Kansas Neurological Institute, whose residents are among the most vulnerable of people.
Just yesterday, I was asked about comments made by Topeka's mayor, in which he articulated a very narrow definition of what a family is, excluding many from his vision for our city's future. I challenged that statement in the press.
These are the sorts of stands that are expected of God's people, as I understand the challenge of the gospel to extend care and concern to "the least of these." This is, I believe, exactly what Christ expects of us. It's an opportunity to live our faith in the world, to take the church's values of inclusion and community beyond the walls of our own buildings, and to make a real and positive difference in our world.
Sometimes, when I look around at many Christian groups, their agenda frankly flabbergasts me. Clinging to an idealized (and sanitized) version of 1950s Amercian cultural ideals, they stalwartly resist any change, even when change would be beneficial for themselves or others.
In fact, the sort of arch-conservatism we see in some branches of pop-Christianity, particularly the media-driven and money-driven variety, are totally at odds with the gospel message proclaimed by Jesus. Where Jesus advocated forgiveness and inclusion, they adhere to a steady diet of condemnation and exclusion. Where Jesus was executed by the state, they are pro-death penalty. The list goes on.
There is also an almost medieval adherence to the idea that those in charge are in charge because they were placed there by God, unless, of course, the other candidate wins, in which case God must be punishing us for something.
Institutions, as we all know, are slow to change and religious institutions doubly so. But can we please get our main concern beyond preserving an idealized version of a past that never was and instead get on with the challenge before us. Rather than being called to keep the world in an unending status quo limbo, we need to recognize that we are the ones who are called to confront social injustice and to name and to call to account the oppressive systems in our society. At no point did God call churches to be museums of an earlier time. Let's get on with it.