Black and Blue

•July 25, 2015 • Leave a Comment

I grew up in a very small town. I could have recited the names of each person of color who lived there… probably in one breath. Actually, yup, just tried it. I inserted “that person” for those whose names I don’t remember anymore. In any case, there weren’t many. And given that setting, I was surprisingly aware of racial issues (Hippie parents for the win!). I was friends with many of the non-white kids in town and even chose a black doll when given a room full of homemade dolls to choose from (take that, Kenneth and Mamie Clark!) Nevertheless, as I grew older and started to learn about issues of racial profiling and police discrimination, for a long time I thought—as many people do—“If you don’t do anything wrong, you won’t have any trouble with the police.”

Given my upbringing and my life experiences, this line of reasoning made genuine sense. After all, I followed the rules and didn’t have any problems with the police. So I understand why many people believe this. It’s just what they have seen, and so it makes sense to them. And truthfully, it should make sense. It should be that simple.

Over the years, however, my experiences have changed. When I moved into the city and started watching what happened around me… when I started getting to know people who were very different from me… when I began truly listening to people who saw things differently, instead of writing them off for making excuses… I could no longer make the claim that things were so simple. I remember a lightbulb moment when a white pastor I respect said, “If racial profiling were happening, we white people would be the last people to know about it, because—by definition—it isn’t happening to us.” And I went, “Duh. How did I miss that. I need to start listening.”

And oh, the things I have heard. Oh, the things I have learned. Oh, the things I have seen.

I have learned that you can, in fact, be stopped, detained, arrested, harassed, even injured by the police for doing nothing at all. Did you know that when the ACLU analyzed the Minneapolis Police Department’s own records, they found that while black drivers are pulled over nine times as often as white drivers during the day, they are only twice as likely to be pulled over at night… when the officer can’t see the race of the driver? You can read about that and more in the ACLU’s report here.

But my guess, however, is that I may not make a lot of headway convincing you in one blog that you really can have trouble with police for no reason whatsoever. So instead, I want to take those cases where people have committed a crime and address the notion that if you’re doing something wrong, the consequences are your fault.

On the surface, of course, this is true. Choices have consequences. But the question is: If you’re doing something wrong, do you deserve any consequences that happen thereafter, however extreme, regardless of the severity of your offense? Does any infraction open up a legitimate free-for-all on the side of the police, since you were the one who misbehaved, and the police wouldn’t be involved in the first place if it weren’t for your behavior? Should there be no expectation of an even-handed response on the side of law enforcement officers?  Should the police be able to beat you to death if they pull you over for speeding?

I can’t support that line of thinking, and I don’t think anyone thinking rationally or justly could either.

So here’s the thing: Even when you have done something wrong, you still have rights. In this country, committing a crime—whether minor or horrific—does not deny you your rights. Or at least it shouldn’t. But we have gotten to a point where if you do one wrong thing, some will say that you deserve whatever happens to you afterwards—legal or not, just or not. There are those who will watch a video of police killing an unarmed citizen, and they’ll say, “Well, he shouldn’t have ___________.”

But hear me now: There is no way to fill in that blank that justifies what came before.

Have we really been so brainwashed to support police that we will justify them executing people? Because unless there is a legitimate and immediate threat to an officer’s life, killing someone is executing them. And police do not have the right to execute people. Even people who are breaking the law.

I think we need to memorize the following sentences:

  • “Resisting arrest is not a capital offense, especially without a trial.”
  • “Selling drugs is not a capital offense, especially without a trial.”
  • “Theft is not a capital offense, especially without a trial.”
  • “Fleeing police is not a capital offense, especially without a trial.”
  • “Mouthing off is not a capital offense, especially without a trial.”

I think the fact that I have to include that last one is what disturbs me most. Because see, mouthing off to a police officer is not illegal. We are not required by law to respect police officers or to speak politely to them. Sure, I think you should, but that’s because I think you should speak respectfully to everyone, not because police deserve to be treated differently from anyone else. Yet many of the incidents we have seen in recent months turned violent because the officer got angry at being disrespected. Sometimes this supposed “disrespect” even takes the form of a person lawfully declining to comply with a request or lawfully asking why they are being detained. Sadly, I have seen this kind of attitude with my own eyes—officers who behave as if they are set apart among humanity, as if they have a status above everyone else that makes them immune to behavioral expectations placed on normal mortals, as if no one has the right to ever question them… about anything… ever… even if the law gives them that right. And when you push back against that attitude, some police get angry. Irrationally angry.

But disrespecting a police officer is not illegal. Asserting your rights is certainly not illegal! And in many of the cases we have seen, even when someone has done something illegal, it is not the crime itself but the disrespect (or what is perceived as disrespect) that sets police officers off. How dare that person struggle? How dare that person run from me? How dare that person not do exactly what I demand, whether I have a legal right to demand it or not? How dare that person not put out her cigarette? Suddenly, the police are angry, their egos have been threatened, and they have to prove something. And they have a gun. Or a taser. Or fists.

Now, many people will say, “Just do what the police officers say, even if it’s not right. You can always sue them later.” And it’s true: There are things people can do to reduce (not eliminate, but reduce) their chances of being beaten, tasered, or killed by police. But can we stop for a moment and realize how sick that line of thinking is? The fact that people have to have strategies to protect themselves from the people who are supposed to be protecting them? The fact that often, that strategy includes knowingly and actively forfeiting their legal rights in order to avoid being harmed by the people who are supposed to be upholding the law? Have we actually gotten to the point where we tell people that it’s dangerous to stand by what the law says when interacting with law enforcement officers? Doesn’t that tell us that something needs to change, and that it needs to change on the side of the people carrying guns and handcuffs, not the ones who those rights they are supposed to protect?

Police should be able to handle being disrespected.
Police should be able to not get uncontrollably angry when someone asserts their legal rights.
Police should be able to not take it personally when someone doesn’t do exactly what they say.
Police should be able to remember that they’re the ones with the guns, and they don’t need to prove anything.

The behavior of the person they are detaining has absolutely nothing to do with those facts. We need to hold police to a higher standard. They are the ones with the power, and they are the trained professionals who are charged with upholding the law (even when dealing with those who are breaking it), and whom we are paying with our tax dollars to protect us (even those of us who are committing a crime)! If we should be expecting more out of anyone, shouldn’t it be them?

What it comes down to is this: Police do not have the right to determine who gets to live or die, and they don’t have the right to beat people who make them angry.

There is no caveat to that sentence. There is no, “But the person did ______” that changes those facts. Police simply do not have those rights.

I don’t care what kind of criminal behavior someone has been up to. I don’t care what their previous record is, or how rude they are. Police are not judge, jury, and executioner. In fact, they are none of those three. So it doesn’t matter what someone did to get into an encounter with the police; their choices—wherever they land on the scale of criminality—do not open them up to whatever treatment an officer might be inclined to inflict on them.

 

One final thing: I opened this blog talking about how some people’s beliefs grow out of genuine ignorance. We don’t know about how non-white people are treated, because we don’t experience it. But this ignorance is becoming less and less legitimate. We have videos now. Lots of videos. More than make the mainstream news but are easy to find if you are inclined to search for them. We can no longer pretend that we don’t see what is happening. But I want to warn you that it is possible to see and yet not see. It is possible to be so determined in our beliefs that new information simply doesn’t get in. Neurologists have shown that when we are confronted with evidence that conflicts with firmly held beliefs, all our brain activity moves from the part of our brain that handles reasoning to the part that triggers “fight or flight.” If we do not actively choose to be open to new information, we literally lose the ability to absorb it in a rational way; we either unthinkingly argue back or just avoid facing the issue at all. I watched this play out in an interview on CNN recently, where a former police officer was discussing Sandra Bland’s arrest: He vehemently insisted that she had been uncooperative and refused to identify herself to the officer. That was what he had seen. Yet it was not what happened. At all. He was so entrenched in his view that the officer had been justified in arresting Ms Bland that he misremembered the information. So be careful with what you think you see. You might need to work hard to see what is truly happening.

Because what is truly happening is horrifying, and we need to see it.

Hey dudes. This one’s for you.

•April 23, 2015 • Leave a Comment

It’s springtime. Which is good. But there is one thing that accompanies warm weather that isn’t quite so welcome. It’s something that everyone was talking about a few months back, but sadly wasn’t magically solved by a few weeks of media attention. So while it might be annoying to be reminded of this all over again when we as a society have moved on to other sensational topics, I’m going to say it: Street harassment is still a thing.

This post hasn’t been prompted by anything that has happened to me (though I did get a chance to deploy my state-of-the-art, it-would-be-exaggerated-if-it-weren’t-actually-warranted eye roll the other day). But the fact that this is still on my mind despite not having been hollered at in a particularly crude fashion recently is kind of the point. Because I don’t want to talk about specific things that have happened to me or to other women I know, since that leaves room for men to say, “Well, I’m not like that.” Rather, I’d like to share the everyday thoughts that function as our internal baseline due to our overall experience of the world. This is what is “normal” for us. And I’d like to ask men to consider whether they have the same inner reality. Because my goal is to show that something is going on in our society that affects the way women think, feel, live, and experience the world around them. And that is an issue for all of us to address, whether or not you have ever catcalled someone on the street.

So, men, let me ask you…

  • When you go up the stairs, do you try to let men go ahead of you so that they aren’t looking at your butt? And if they do end up behind you, do you “jog” up the stairs since you’re very aware that walking up the stairs normally will naturally make your hips sway in a way that could appear sexual to them?
  • Speaking of which, when a man holds the door for you, do you wonder if looking at your butt as you go through?
  • When you’re riding the bus, do you wait to pull the cord as long as you can, hoping that anyone else getting off the bus will pull it first, so that if they get off at the same stop, you know it’s really their stop and they’re not just following you?
  • Similarly, when walking on a sidewalk, are you constantly aware of whether anyone is behind you; and, if so, are you trying to determine whether they’re getting too close, looking at your body, or following you?
  • When you drop something, do you squat down instead of bending over so that people don’t get a view of your butt or a glimpse down your shirt (even though you’ve been in the habit since puberty of holding your shirt to your chest when leaning over if there is any chance at all of it flopping forward)?
  • Are you hyper aware of any expression you say or motion you make that could possibly be interpreted sexually, not wanting men to start associating you with sexual thoughts? [Example 1: My husband and I run a drop-in center where a bunch of dudes hang out.  When I sweep at the end of the night, I squat down to sweep the dirt into the dustpan rather than bend over (as in the previous example), and the easiest way to do that is to spread my knees out and use the broom and pan between my legs. But I’m very aware that that puts a vertical pole between my legs, and I don’t feel comfortable with the images that could conjure up, so I put my knees together on one side and very awkwardly sweep on the other side instead. Example 2: I often tell guys there not to thump their pool cues on the floor since it’s very loud for the people downstairs. I would quite naturally pantomime the motion as I make the request, but I make a conscious effort not to, since I’m aware that holding an imaginary pool cue and moving it up and down in the air can suggest an image of masturbating a man.]
  • Have you had to give up favorite activities (like walking at night in the heat of summer) because it’s not safe?
  • Do you have to suppress your natural personality and the instinct to be friendly to strangers (e.g., smiling, saying hi), because too many of them have assumed you were making yourself available to them? Let me repeat: Have you had to suppress who you are in order to avoid being viewed as a potential sexual conquest?
  • Speaking of natural instinct, have you had enough predatory, inappropriate, creepy, or downright scary interactions that your natural response to a guy talking to you has gone from being welcoming and assuming they’re just being nice, to feeling suspicious, even though you don’t like feeling that way since you actually enjoy interacting with random people? Do you miss feeling uninhibited in talking to people on the street?

I could go on, but that’s probably enough for now.  For me, the last two questions are the most distressing. Everything I’ve written here fairly represents my internal norm (and, I’d be willing to bet, the norm for many women), and they’re all troublesome and certainly symptomatic of the objectification of women in our culture. But the more I realize that I have actually changed who I am because of the looks, comments, and actions directed at me both by men I know and men I don’t know, the sadder I become. I don’t like being suspicious of every person who starts to talk with me. I like smiling at people and chatting with them on the street. But the fact is that almost without fail, even the conversations that start innocuously with a friendly “hello” turn into a come-on within a few sentences. When that happens enough times, you start not wanting to make eye contact anymore. You start not responding when a man says something to you. You start feeling on your guard even when someone is just being friendly.

I hate that. I hate feeling that way. But the experiences we women have in our culture are so pervasive that it’s nearly inevitable.

So men… Maybe you’re not catcalling on the street, but that doesn’t mean this is irrelevant for you. Maybe you even actively try not to look at women’s bodies for your own pleasure. But that still doesn’t mean this is irrelevant for you. This is a culture-wide issue, and it’s going to take all of us to do something about it. The first thing we need from you men is to understand the depth of the problem. That means taking some time to listen. Maybe you’re even doing things that you don’t realize are helping create that culture. So take some feedback from us women about this issue, since we’re the ones living it and affected by it. Don’t think you know what it’s like. But once you do start to get an understanding of the problem, you could start pushing back against it. Here are some really great articles that offer an excellent starting point for how you can be part of changing the culture instead of tacitly accepting it. There is more on that website; or, if you want to get a feel for what it’s like for us out there, check out this woman’s videos of the interactions she has had on the street here in Minneapolis.

Y’know, we’re in this together. I don’t want to look at you like you’re a potential sleaze just because of all the other sleazes out there, and I don’t want to be treated like I exist solely for the gratification of men. So let’s work together; maybe we can actually make a dent in this nonsense.

Thanks, bros.

For My Timothy

•April 16, 2015 • Leave a Comment

“Marriage is hard,” they said. “You’ll work at it every day,” they said. “It’s worth it,” they said, “but it’s so much work.”

Be ready, I thought to myself. Be ready for work, for frustration, for daily struggle. It won’t be fun all the time, or maybe even most of the time, because every day will be work.

I was ready. I knew it was worth it, knew this man I had come to love would make anything worth it. But I was ready. I imagined the days ahead, and the word “brutal” kept coming out of my mouth. A highly structured woman who tends toward being controlling moves in with a laid back man for whom efficiency is not the highest priority, and they try to live together? Get ready, I thought.

And then one friend—one friend—said something different. “Yeah, it’s hard sometimes, but it’s so much fun.” Wait, what? Fun? That was one word I had not anticipated. Worth it, yes, but fun? Sure enough. “I was ready for it to be nothing but hard work, but I was so surprised at how much fun we had. Marriage is the best.”

Thank you, friend (you know who you are), for giving me another possible frame of reference. I still anticipated “brutal,” but your voice was there in the background saying that “fun” was within the realm of possibility.

And goodness, what an understatement.

I’m writing this today because I just need another outlet for how full of joy and gratitude I am. I can only kiss Timothy so many times before we have to get practical and wash the dishes. I can only text him so many times when I know he is at work and needs to focus. And so I’m writing, because I can’t contain it.

I didn’t know it could be like this. I didn’t know this kind of love was possible. And, honestly, I don’t understand how I could be this blessed. I am genuinely confounded. It seems far too good to be real; and yet every day, I wake up with this amazing man on the other side of the bed, loving me and honoring me and cherishing me in ways I didn’t think could exist. I get to spend my life with someone whom I adore and respect to no end, who makes me laugh harder than anyone else, and who doesn’t just possess qualities I value, but who infuses each of them with such goodness that they seem like entirely new virtues. How could I be this lucky? I still don’t understand.

The truth is that I feel utterly incapable of returning his love in ways he deserves. Yet I try, and somehow he seems to think I am good to him, too. We “argue” each day over who is “the best,” “the cutest,” the sweetest,” “the most wonderful”…  After nearly two years, we still do this. Every day. And every day, at some point, we still find ourselves stopping what we’re doing to just look at the other and say, “I can’t believe I get you,” or “I am so grateful we get to be married,” or “Thank you for being my husband/wife,” or “You are such a gift.” It’s not a practice we do out of discipline. We just can’t help it. I truly am baffled that he chose me and continues to choose me and seems to be more in love with me than ever. I am more grateful than I can say, so every day, it just keeps coming out.

We are obnoxious, I know. We try to rein it in when we’re in public, but if anyone saw us behind closed doors, I’m sure they’d want to puke. Our “schmoopiness” is ridiculous; but we mean it. It’s just the only way we can find to begin to express the giddy joy and gratitude that keeps bubbling up from within us every day.

There are moments of frustration, of course. There are areas where I have to work in order to treat him well. (And I in no way want to discredit those marriages that do feel like work a lot of the time. I have so much respect for you, and I honor the work you do. Maybe one day it will be like that for us, too.) But when I think of Timothy and our marriage, those areas of “work” don’t even register on the radar. There is too much joy and gratitude and amazement that something like this could exist to notice the bits of struggle that are part of making the rest possible. Those things help me grow in areas I’d want to change anyway, so I’m still winning. And it just keeps getting better.

I don’t know how to end this, because no amount of words could capture the roiling joy and profound gratitude in my spirit when I think about my husband. So I’ll just share something I realized yesterday:

I only run in two circumstances—when I’m about to miss the bus, and when I hear Timothy open the door to our apartment.

Thank you for being the love I could never have expected and the man I won’t even let take off your shoes before I have to be in your arms. I love you, Timothy.

 

In the Other’s Shoes

•December 4, 2014 • Leave a Comment

I’ve been thinking about an encounter I had a couple months ago. I meant to write about it at the time, but I got busy. Or lazy. Either way, recent events have promoted that task to a higher position on my priority list.

On that day a few months ago, I was leaving a meeting in a part of town that some folks would see as not entirely savory. I was carrying my laptop as I walked about block to my car. It was dark. I was alone. A large African American man was coming toward me on the sidewalk.

As it so happens, I was almost to my car, so I left the sidewalk to go to the driver’s side of the vehicle. And as the man got closer—almost to where we would have intersected each other’s path—he called out gently, “You’re safe.”

I had two very strong emotions in quick succession.

The first was a deep sense of humble gratitude. So often, when I’m shouted at on the street, it is in an exploitative way, a way that diminishes my humanity rather than honors it. I was so deeply touched that this man would step out of his own experience, join me in my perspective, recognize that a very small woman walking after dark might feel unsafe, and offer me a word of peace. I am nearly tearing up as I write that. How very kind.  How lovely of him.

But there was a second emotion that almost immediately followed. It was grief for that man. What must it be like, I wondered, to be someone who is instantly, and without reason, seen as dangerous by so many people that you have developed the habit of letting them know that you aren’t a threat? What must it be like to assume that someone would be scared of you, just for being on the same sidewalk as them? What must it be like to have that aggressive identity thrust upon you, to have to carry the burden of lawlessness and violence regardless of the choices you yourself have made? How horrific that that man’s life has taught him that he needed to let me know he wasn’t going to hurt me. What must it feel like to have had enough people assume that you may well do them harm that you adapt the way you live to accommodate their judgment?

Imagine for a moment. Grieve with me.

Maranatha.

Dear evangelicals who support Israel for religious reasons,

•July 23, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Note to non-Christian folks: This blog is written specifically to respond to a common opinion within evangelical Christianity. Thus, the way I address the issue is situated within that paradigm. In order to work within that framework, I may say some things that sound odd or even offensive to others. Please know that this response does not reflect the entirety of my thinking on this subject. If I were to approach it from a perspective oriented primarily around civil rights or politics, I would use different language and focus on different issues. But in order to address the arguments within evangelical circles, I need to use this approach.

…and God said to [Abram], “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations.… I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”
(Genesis 17:3-8, excerpts)

An everlasting covenant. The whole land. Seems like an open and shut case, right? To many Christians today, it does. The Jews are God’s chosen people, and he has given them the land “from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates” (Genesis 15:18)—indeed “from the desert to Lebanon, and from the great river, the Euphrates… to the Great Sea on the west” (Joshua 1:4). Therefore, out of loyalty to God and his covenant, and out of love for our spiritual forefathers, we as Christians have a responsibility to support Israel’s claim to the land. Period.

But is it really this simple? Does the Bible actually lead us to this conclusion? I submit to you that it does not.

The primary mistake well-meaning Christians often make is to assume that because the covenant God made with Abraham was “everlasting,” it was also “unconditional.” Some of the passages where the land is promised do not list any conditions, so it can seem like a valid assumption. But it doesn’t take much looking to discover that, indeed, the promise of the land was always conditional. For example:

Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture….
Refrain from anger and turn from wrath;
 do not fret—it leads only to evil.  For those who are evil will be destroyed. For evil men will be cut off, but those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land….
The blameless spend their days under the
Lord’s care, and their inheritance will endure forever….
Turn from evil and do good; then you will dwell in the land forever. For the Lord loves the just and will not forsake his faithful ones. Wrongdoers will be completely destroyed; the offspring of the wicked will perish. The righteous will inherit the land and dwell in it forever….
Hope in the
Lord and keep his way. He will exalt you to inherit the land; when the wicked are destroyed, you will see it.
(Psalm 37:3,8-9,18,27-29,34)

 

And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you.
(Leviticus 18:28)

 

Through your own fault you will lose the inheritance I gave you. I will enslave you to your enemies in a land you do not know, for you have kindled my anger, and it will burn forever.”
(
Jeremiah 17:4)

This final quote also serves to make clear that the ancient Israelites used words like “forever” much like we do today. Sometimes it is simply a way of saying “a long time” or to emphasize the seriousness of the issue as it currently stands. Jeremiah prophesied those words just before the Israelites were taken captive to Babylon. But as we know, that “promise” of unending anger was not actually unending; upon their repentance, the Israelites were allowed to return to the land. Thus, in Scripture, we see the conditionality of the promise on both sides—both in being removed from the land and in being allowed to return:

“…and when you and your children return to the Lord your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you.”
(Deuteronomy 30:2-4)

If those verses are not evidence enough that the promise was conditional, we of course need only mention the event referenced in the last few passages: The Exile. Here we have empirical evidence regarding whether or not God treated his promise as unconditional. And what do we see? We see that when the people of Israel were persistently unfaithful to the covenant, God removed them from the land. Period. Their right to the land did not continue when they were not living in accordance with God’s ways. Their claim to the land was conditional and depended on their faithfulness to God.

So, what does this mean for today?

Well, it seems that we must ask whether the current nation of Israel is keeping God’s covenant. We can answer this question a few ways:
1) On the most surface level, we can consider that the State of Israel is not religiously Jewish. It is a secular nation-state, not a theocracy. The political state of Israel today is not keeping covenant with God because it’s not even trying to, let alone claiming to.
2) One could also point out that God’s covenant with Abraham eventually brought about the New Covenant—the one instituted by Jesus. In order to continue to be faithful to God, the Jewish people would have needed to welcome the Messiah. The majority did not embrace this New Covenant, however, and are therefore not living faithfully to God’s promises. Those who did enter into the New Covenant are not influential in the Israeli government today.
3) Finally, we can look at the behavior of the nation. God expected faithfulness from his people not only in correct religious belief but also in behavior. This behavior included humility, justice, and merciful treatment of widows, orphans, the poor, and non-Jewish inhabitants of the land. So, is this taking place? Let us consider that today—to give just a few examples—Palestinians are required to use different roads and buses than Jews, and they must go through military checkpoints where they are often detained arbitrarily, sometimes stripped, sometimes denied food/water, sometimes beaten or harassed in other ways. The Israeli government also forbids Palestinians from living in certain areas, controls utilities, and limits access to water. And the state consistently breaches the Geneva Convention stating that an occupying power may not “transfer parts of its own civilian population into occupied territory” by building settlements in land currently occupied by Palestinians. They’re even destroying olive farms in order to expand their settlements, sometimes razing acres of trees that are hundreds of years old, and have provided generations of Palestinians with their livelihoods. Does this abide by God’s command, “When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34)?

I hope I don’t have to defend why the answer to that question is, “No.” Even if you think there may be some political reason for such treatment, remember that I am speaking from a religious perspective, not a political one, and our allegiance to God’s Kingdom comes before our allegiance to political strategy. So, I say again: Is the State of Israel obeying God’s commands to love the “alien living with [them]” and to treat them the same way they treat their own people? And even if every Palestinian were intent upon the destruction of Israel (which is clearly not the case), are they loving their enemy the way Jesus commanded?

No.

So, if the State of Israel is not acting faithfully to God’s covenant, and if the covenant promising Israel the land was always conditional on their faithfulness, why do we claim that they have an unquestioned right to the land?

I have heard people say: Well, the fact that they are still in possession of the land when surrounded by people who want to destroy them is a sign of God’s favor. We should be on the same side as God. Perhaps. Perhaps it is a sign of God’s favor. But it could also be a sign of the fact that since World War II, the United States has given Israel $121 billion in aid (not adjusted for inflation), most of which has been military aid. Last year alone, we gave them $3.1 billion in military aid. We have also stood in unequivocal support of the country (for example, last week the Senate voted 100-0 in favor of a resolution expressing support for Israel), many times promising to come to their aid if they are attacked. So they not only have their own powerful military but are able to count on the force of our military as well. That is a pretty powerful bargaining chip when it comes to geopolitics. And I hope we can all agree that having the favor of the US is not the same thing as having the favor of God.

Now, let me be clear: None of this means that—for example—I think Hamas is a great organization who deserves our support instead. What it does mean is that we as a country, and especially as Christians, need to stop acting like Israel can do whatever they want because they have some divine right to the land. Even if you believe that today’s secular nation-state of Israel is equated with God’s Chosen People (another claim that I believe can be refuted biblically), they still do not have the blanket right to do whatever evil they want and maintain possession of the Promised Land. God never said that, and if we believe it, we end up condoning all sorts of oppression and, these days, outright slaughter—things that God hates. We as Christians must be able to look at Israel’s behavior with open eyes, not avoid it out of some misconstrued religious ideology. I know that it is well-meaning, but it is wrong—ethically and biblically.

Ygoloeht (We’ve got our theology backwards.)

•March 12, 2014 • Leave a Comment

I saw a quote a while back, and it’s been on my mind ever since.  But not in a good way.  It was this:

“Because of the cross, God is absolutely for you.”

It sounds good at first, doesn’t it.  I think many people who profess faith in Jesus would agree with this statement at first blush.  Which is why I want to point out that it gets things utterly backwards.  God has always been absolutely for us.  That’s why Jesus showed up on earth in the first place.

Consider what we read in the Bible.  God loved us while we were still sinners (Rom 5:8).  And his love is neither love divided nor incomplete.  In fact, he is love (1 Jn 4:8).  So if he loves, he loves absolutely.  Yet the line of thinking expressed in the claim above makes God schizophrenic and divided against himself.  Think about it: It not only pits the Father against us until Jesus dies on the cross, but it also pits the Father and Jesus against each other, since Jesus “sides” with us while we are still sinners and while the Father is still incapable of being fully for us.  It’s as if Jesus says, “No wait, I’ll make them tolerable to you by taking their sin on myself.”  But why did Jesus love us that much and not the Father?  Jesus says that a Kingdom divided against itself cannot stand (Mt 12:25); so what about a God divided against himself?  And what are we to think of the verses that declare Jesus to be the complete representation of the Father (Jn 14:9, Col 1:19, Heb 1:3)?  How could Jesus perfectly display the Father’s character if he were working to quell the Father’s wrath by applying his own mercy?  Are they unified, or not?

So despite how nicely religious it sounds to say, “Because of the cross, God is absolutely for you,” I believe we should be saying precisely the opposite: “God is absolutely for you; therefore, the cross.”

What greater evidence could we have for God being absolutely for us than the cross itself?

If God weren’t already utterly disposed to do us good, why would he offer such a great gift, which came at such great cost?

It is nonsensical.

God was absolutely for you before the cross.  He was absolutely for you before you even took a breath.  He was absolutely for you the first moment you knowingly chose to do wrong, and as your character was bent more and more toward self.  He has always been absolutely for you.  That’s why Jesus came.

Don’t ever let yourself think that God has for one moment been anything other than absolutely for you.  When we allow that thought, we open the door to the idea that our sin (which apparently kept God from loving us before the cross) might keep him from loving us again.  Yes, we’re “covered in the blood” and whatnot, but there will be room for the voice that questions whether God could really love us.  Us, as we are, still unperfected, still selfish, still rather unlike Christ.

See, in the faulty line of thinking represented by that quote, it’s not really us that God loves, not really us that God is “for.”  He is “for” Jesus, and (because of the cross) is looking past who we actually are, to see only Jesus.  But we are still a mess!  The full us is, anyway.  Yet we don’t only exist in some spiritual, “regenerated” state; we still exist in this messy self that sins and fails here in this earthly realm.  And if it’s only Jesus’s blood “covering our sin” that makes God for us, then we are still unloved and unaccepted as our whole selves.

And then, when we fail, when we sin, when we display a character that feels utterly unworthy of love, instead of falling gratefully and easily into God’s grace, we cringe internally.  Our theology tells us that we are loved, but our hearts don’t believe it.  Because if my sin kept God from loving me before the cross, why wouldn’t it do the same now?  He may “impute” Jesus’ righteousness to me, but he doesn’t go blind; he knows I still mess up.  And theological words about sanctification and propitiation don’t mean much to my heart in those moments.

But what if…  what if we rejected the idea that God is only for us because of the cross.

What if we grabbed hold of the idea that God has always been absolutely for us… that our sin could never keep him from loving us with everything he is.  And that, because of that, he came to earth and went to the cross… to give us his own Life, not just to forgive our sins.

And what if we proclaimed, with the apostle John, “If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything” (1 Jn 3:20).

God has always been absolutely for us.  Our hearts may tell us otherwise—that our failures and sin get in the way too much and that we could never be loved all that much the way we are.  But God is greater than our hearts, and he has always—always—been utterly and absolutely and perfectly for us.

Therefore, the cross.

The Christian Sex Trade

•November 26, 2013 • 9 Comments

How many of you have heard the following statement regarding marriage: “Men give love to get sex; women give sex to get love.”  Or perhaps you’ve heard a softened version.  Something more like: “A woman gains access to a man’s heart through physical intimacy.  A man gains access to physical intimacy with a woman by touching her heart.”  This claim is made with a variety of wordings, but if you’ve read many Christian marriage books or listened to teachings from any Christian marriage conferences, you’ve likely come across it.  It might be described as “pathways” to a man’s heart or a woman’s sexuality, or it might be portrayed in terms of being “wired” for “sexual intimacy” vs “emotional intimacy.”  But however it is phrased, and however much you try to soften it, I’m here to say:

THIS IS WRONG. 

I’ve been bothered by this line of thinking for some time, but now that I am married, I feel like I can finally write about it, because I have some personal experience to draw on when discussing it.  So here’s a bit of my experience (without too much detail, don’t worry) that illustrates just how messed up this whole concept is.

As one might expect, when two virgins get married, things are a bit… shall we say… challenging.  Great, and totally worth it, but challenging.  And on top of the basic learning curve we knew to expect, I soon discovered that I had an idea in my head about some supposed wifely obligation I had to “give” my husband sex.  This was the case even though he—an incredible man with deep character who is passionate about justice and genuinely honors women—has  never put anything remotely like that on me.  This sense of obligation was strong enough that, despite being subconscious, it dominated my mind whenever physical intimacy was in view.  In fact, it was making it difficult for me to enter into the experience and fully enjoy it myself, because the whole thing was tainted by this sense of obligation.  Once I realized what was happening, we decided that the answer was to take sex itself off the table for a time so that I could experience physical intimacy without thinking about where it was “supposed” to go, since that tended to rob me of the ability to enter into the moment and experience it myself.

This was a great idea, but I almost immediately felt a sense of guilt, that I was “depriving” my husband of something he “needed.”  I’ve heard Christian teachers talk about how men experience a kick of testosterone every 72 hours that makes them crave sex.  Whether or not this has any basis in scientific reality, I do not know; but nevertheless, I found myself feeling guilty that 3 days were going to pass without “giving” my husband this experience.  Rationally I could tell myself, “Well, he went a good fifteen years as a sexually mature male without having sex, so I think he can handle a couple weeks,” but the sense of obligation was still in my head.

As we talked, however, and as his actions proved his words that he was okay with this break in order to help me enter into the experience better myself, you know what I realized?  Actually realized, in my heart, not just in my head?  It’s kind of the key to this whole thing and illustrates why the initial claim is so sick.  I realized:

IT TURNS OUT, MY HUSBAND LOVES ME MORE THAN HE WANTS SEX.

Shocking, I know.  I mean, it’s only rational, because if it’s true that a woman accesses a man’s heart through physical intimacy, then how does a man ever fall in love with a woman if they’re not sleeping together before marriage?  Did my husband just pull a long con to get sex out of the deal later?

I rather doubt it.  And I think that most men love their wives more than they want sex.  I sure hope so, anyway.  But this kind of thinking creates a paradigm where men are given leave to celebrate unrestrained, self-focused sexuality as “part of being a man,” while women are left thinking they have no hope of being loved unless they put out.

So, to break it down really simply, this whole line of thinking is abhorrent because it is demeaning to both men and women.  If you can’t see why, allow me to elaborate.

First, I am not a sex commodity.  If I “access” my husband’s heart and emotions through sex, then he only values me for sex.  People who teach this philosophy would deny such a statement, of course, but the inverse of the original claim would be: Without sex, a wife cannot gain her husband’s love.  That means that he only values me for sex.  Now, again, I sure hope this is not the case in reality.  But if it’s not, then why are we teaching it as an ideal?  It is something we should be shunning, not writing in books and teaching at seminars!  We tell young women not to allow men to value them only for their bodies, and then we say, “But once you’re married, he’ll only love you if you have lots of sex.”  Excuse me?  What happens if I get sick and can’t have sex for a long time?  In this paradigm, I have no hope that my husband would love me through that trial.  He may stay with me out of duty, but he wouldn’t love me.  Because I (apparently) access his heart through sex.

No.  No, no, and again I say, no.  Women deserve to be loved for who they are, not for their sexual availability.  And I dare say, women in healthy marriages are loved for more than base physicality.  Yet any man who subscribes to this theory is, without thinking, admitting that he would no longer love his wife if she didn’t, or couldn’t, put out.  Think about it.

But let’s not forget, this sick system is just as demeaning to men.  Because it portrays them as animals with no emotion other than arousal.  But my husband is not a mindless, heartless, sex-fueled crave monster.  He is a human.  A thinking—and thoughtful—human.  A gracious human.  A feeling human.  Who loves me.  Whether or not we have sex.  How insulting to imply that he is incapable of loving me without first “getting some.”  He’s more than that.  Our culture has a tendency to portray men as Neanderthals who only think about food and sex and can barely articulate more than a grunt.  But perhaps we could give them a bit more credit.  Especially those we have chosen to marry.  Hopefully we think more highly of them than that?

While these are the main problems, there are plenty more that arise in this system.  For example:

-What if people don’t fit the stereotypes?  What if a wife has a higher sex drive than her husband?  Then each party feels shame for not being “masculine” or “feminine” enough, as if something is wrong with them.  Shame is never a good thing, and I have a feeling it could really mess up your sex life, too.  Backfire!

-What if a woman already struggles to believe that anyone could really love her, or that she is worth more than how her body can be used by a man?  We say, “Wait to have sex until you are married,” and then we say, “A man gives you his love because you give him your body.”  How do we expect a wounded young person to end up on the healthy side of those contradictory claims?

-Because the theory is based on the notion that men only care about sex, many iterations end up creating a highly manipulative relationship on all sides.  Men withhold affection until they get sex, and women use sex to get what they want.  I’ve heard it taught that if your husband won’t do whatever chore you’d like him to do, you should just withhold sex until he does it.  Talk about sick and manipulative.  (By the way, even if the terrible premise were true, that would still be manipulative, since a wife would be denying her husband his primary experience of love if he didn’t perform how she wanted him to!  If a man wouldn’t talk to his wife until she did the dishes, would we think that was okay?  But enough along those lines of thinking…  I don’t even want to validate the premise further by playing hypothetical games assuming it’s right.)

So, to recap, this whole thing is sick.  Trading sex for love should be universally denounced, no matter what the setting, no matter what the relationship status, no matter who is involved.  And that is what this amounts to—trading sex for love.  But my husband loves me more than he wants sex.  And any husband who can’t say the same thing needs to step back, repent, and figure that out before even thinking about touching his wife again.  Because she is more than an avenue for him to get off, and he is more than his sex drive.  Even if he doesn’t know it yet.

Happy Columbus Day, I Guess (It’s a Coincidence that I’m Posting This Today, I Promise)

•October 14, 2013 • 1 Comment

I have a friend who often says, “Look for the fruit of something while it’s still a seed.”  There’s great wisdom in that statement.  And it’s something I began thinking about on a grand scale after seeing the new Lone Ranger movie the other day.  Now, let me be the first to say, it is a silly movie on many fronts.  And one could legitimately be a bit offended that they apparently couldn’t find a Native American to play Tonto (though see my comment below to hear why I think they made the choice to cast Johnny Depp).  In any case, despite its silliness and its potential offensiveness, there was something I really appreciated about it:  It didn’t cover over the ugliness of the European “conquest” of this land, at all.

(This is not a movie review, but I do discuss some general plot themes, so if you care about seeing the film for itself and really hate any kind of spoiler, be warned.)

The movie depicts the origins of the Lone Ranger character, but the interesting twist is that the film presents it as Tonto’s story, not the Lone Ranger’s.  The Lone Ranger joins Tonto on his quest, not vice versa.  And, in keeping with this shift in perspective, instead of hearing another tale of the “taming” of the “Wild West,” we see the corruption, the falsehood, and the inhumanity of the white men—the absolute inexcusability of their greed that drives them to dismiss the humanity of any who would stand in the way of their “progress.”  Even though the film has bizarre, quirky, and lighthearted elements, I left the theater with a sick feeling as I contemplated the foundation of our nation state.

Not that the movie’s portrayal of that time period presented me with any new information, but it got me thinking in a new way.

See, the foundation of something matters.  How something develops depends largely on its foundation.  The future is not independent of the past.  I began thinking even of how, when Luke tells the genealogy of Jesus in his Gospel, he lists a long line of “son of”s, leading all the way back to “…the son of Adam, the son of God.”  It’s hard to miss his point.  Jesus’ earliest ancestor was a son of God in a unique way, and Jesus is the pinnacle on top of the building built on that foundation.

Watching that ridiculous Lone Ranger movie made me think again about our foundations as a nation, and the utter horror of “Manifest Destiny.”  That perverse notion still endures today, now posturing as “American exceptionalism.”  We Europeans came here thinking we were somehow more human than other human beings, believing that we had some divine superiority that granted us the right to whatever we wanted as ours.  We thought we were entitled—nay, ordained by God’s providence—to claim what we could.  And in the process, other people lost their humanity.  Our thirst to further our own desires superseded anything else.  And so we lied to the Native people of the land, cheated them, killed them, and tried to strip the survivors of their own ways.  We took Africans from their homes to use as our property and to force to do our bidding.  We justified it because we were special.  We were entitled.  Our vision of what we could achieve was so important that it trumped anything else.

This is an ugly foundation.  It is a rotten seed.  And the fruit that has grown out of it is predictably ugly.  It struck me that the issues people on each end of our political spectrum find abhorrent in the other all have their roots in this same way of thinking.  War?  Moral relativism?  Social injustice?  Abortion?  Which among those cannot be explained by a person who says, “I deserve what I want.  I am so special that my desire is more important than any other factor”?  Whether on a national scale or an individual one, which cannot be traced to dehumanizing others in favor of elevating ourselves as some unique revelation of humanity?

We invade and kill others, thinking we have the right to judge who deserves to live and who deserves to die; and we do so with a clear slant toward what will benefit our “exceptional” nation.  We decide what is right or wrong based on what we want.  We look down on others who don’t share our background or our experiences, and decide they don’t deserve help.  We see that another person’s life may make ours more difficult, and we think we have the right to kill them.

We further our personal and national progress by denying any external entity the right to impinge on our unique and superior wishes.  And if they do so, we simply remove them from the picture—through disregard, through neglect, or through violence.

Look for the fruit of something while it’s still a seed.  The foundation you lay will determine the quality of the building.  We laid a horrific foundation in this nation, and we are reaping what we sowed.  Conservatives cannot blame the “moral devastation” of the United States on our departure from our “Christian roots.”  Our roots look nothing like Jesus.   We don’t need to get back to our roots; we need to acknowledge how hideous they were and try to plant something new.  Liberals cannot pretend that our violent and greedy tendencies are something new or only come from the influence of those on the other side of the aisle.  These tendencies have been present from the beginning, and we have only been growing in them.  So we must recognize that this sickness not just in other people; it’s at the root of much of our culture.  And you can’t attack it in others without seeing it also in yourself.

I can’t change the history of our country, and I can’t change everyone’s mind about it either (though I do hope you would genuinely think about it if you haven’t done so before).  But I can ask what foundation I am laying for my future life, for my future family, for my future community.  Look for the fruit of something while it’s still a seed.  Lay a foundation that looks like Jesus.  Maybe we can build something beautiful after all.

Sounds of Silence

•October 3, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Elphaba: There are animals that have, somehow, forgotten how to speak?  But how is that possible?
Professor Dillamond: Well, with so much pressure not to…
-The musical, Wicked

I saw this incredible show last week, and the very next night had an experience that brought these lines back to mind.  I’ll be the first to say that I don’t have as much experience being silenced as many people in the world, but on occasion, I have an experience or two that give me a taste of just how true Professor Dillamond’s words are.  And it’s a very bitter taste.

A few nights ago, in the midst of a discussion with a young man a decade my junior, he began dismissing anything I had to say, telling me to “call my husband” and ask him what he thought about our conversation.  This young man is someone who has recognized me as an authority for several years, but apparently now that I am married, I no longer have a voice, or the ability to think for myself.  Apparently now, my thoughts and my ability to express myself must go through my husband.

On the one hand, it is easy to brush off such ridiculous comments.  In fact, at the time, my only response was to laugh rather heartily at him and move on.  But the next night, when I saw him again–this time with my husband sitting next to me–and the young man brought up our conversation and declared, “I don’t want to talk to you; I only want to talk to him,” I realized that on the other hand, it’s not so easy to brush off.

See, in my mind, I know that this was just a kid being ignorant, and intentionally trying to get under my skin to boot.  And I don’t really care what he says.  Which is precisely why I took such note of its impact on me.  See, words like these carry weight—and a disproportionate amount of weight considering the credibility of their source.  They penetrate beyond our mind’s rationality, and even past our emotions.  I am reasonable enough to know they are inconsequential, and I am confident enough to genuinely not care.  But they go past those parts of ourselves, and they attack our spirit—our very being.  They say, “Be quiet.  Go away.  You should be invisible.  You don’t count.  And I’ll teach you so by treating you like you don’t exist.”  Being dismissed—not just having our ideas dismissed, but being dismissed in our very selves—sends a message from one person’s spirit to another’s.  And we as people carry power in our spirits that we translate through our words—power to build up, or power to destroy.  And while one comment may not destroy a person, when this sentiment is repeated again and again, it chips away at our spirit a bit more… and a bit more.  Every time we’re told to be quiet, to go away, to be silent… every time a person denies our humanity… every time we’re told or treated like we don’t count or shouldn’t really exist… every time, the stench of the accuser seeps into our life.  The stench of shame.

And even as our minds brush off those words, and even as our hearts couldn’t care less, our inner being recoils.  And we are less likely to speak the next time.

The little taste of shameful silencing I have experienced in this and other settings is nothing compared to what some people undergo—what they live in every single day.  There are races, classes, cultures, and communities who have been told over and over again to be quiet, to let someone else speak—someone who is worth listening to.  And so often, among all those different people whose voices have been dampened, the women are even more voiceless.

It is a grievous thing when people made in God’s image are silenced.  When they are ultimately convinced that they have no voice, and perhaps that they shouldn’t even exist.  It is grievous for them, but it is also grievous for us—for the world that loses their voices, their unique reflection of God.

Who around us has been told that their voice doesn’t matter, whether overtly through force or cultural doctrine, or simply through chronic disregard?  Who perhaps has begun to believe the lie and embrace their voicelessness?  Who now believes that it is such a part of who they are that they inflict it upon themselves and others of their kind?

This is a tragedy.  And we can’t pretend it’s okay just because it’s normal.  I don’t know how to change entire systems.  But I do know that we can all perhaps be more aware of ways in which we unknowingly silence the voice of another human being.  Perhaps it’s through joking.  Perhaps it’s simply through never asking to hear them.  And perhaps we can begin to rectify this loss by actively choosing to call forth those who have no voice, to give them space to be heard, and by refusing to contribute to their muteness.  Perhaps yesterday, on the bus, I could have spoken up—as I considered doing—when a man shouted into his phone, “I’m the man of the house.  And you’re the woman.  So what I say goes.  And if you can’t respect that, then you can get the f*** out.”  But perhaps I would have been more likely to speak up if I thought others around me would also speak (and hopefully keep me from getting punched).

Our words carry power, including the ones we fail to speak.  Perhaps we can all grow in using our voices to build people up, to deny that shame is their destiny, and ultimately to animate the voices of all God’s people.

Isn’t There a Parable About This?

•November 14, 2012 • Leave a Comment

I used to be different.

Last night, at around 2:30 or so, I was awakened by my doorbell ringing.  And ringing.  And ringing.  Over and over and over again.  And then someone knocking on the door.  I checked my phone to see if someone had called, but there was no missed call.  With trepidation, I went downstairs to the door, wondering what was going on.  Was it someone I knew in an emergency?  Was it someone dangerous doing something weird?  Of course, having just been awakened out of a deep sleep, my thoughts were more to the tune of, “Huhhh??”  But, living as I do with only one young woman even smaller than me, I do tend to feel a bit vulnerable in situations like this, so I was on my guard.

I turned on the outside light and spread open the blinds to see a woman standing there.  Not anyone I knew.  I looked at her, confused, and she said, “I locked my keys in my car, and no one will help me.  Do you have a hanger and a screwdriver?”  She actually said a lot more than that, in a way that made me wonder if she had been drinking a bit, but that was the gist.  I said, “Ummm… hang on… I’ll look,” and went back upstairs to see what I had.  At the same time, I was thinking, “I don’t know if I want to open my door to a random stranger in the middle of the night.  What if she (or some guy standing out of my sight) is planning to shove their way in and rob me?”  Of course, as my brain cleared later, I realized that that would be a stupid plan for a robbery, since I had had a good look at this woman and could easily identify her.  Then again, criminals aren’t always the smartest; and when I told this story to some friends tonight, they all had the same response.  That made me feel better.

In any case, I found a wire hanger and was looking for a sturdy butter knife I could loan this woman when she started banging on the door again.  I admit, I got really irritated.  I went down and opened the blinds and said, “Hang on!  I’m looking!”  She said, “I need a screwdriver…”  I said, “I know!  I’m looking!  You’re going to wake up my roommate, too!  Just wait!”  She started to mumble and motion that she would go ask at another place, and I said, “No!  Don’t wake anybody else up!  It’s the middle of the night!  Just wait!  I’m looking!”  At that point, she walked away from the door.  I went up to find a butter knife, put on something warmish over my pajamas, and went out to find her.  At least, I figured, she wasn’t standing by the door anymore, so she wouldn’t be able to shove her way into my house.

I found her standing just around the corner next to her car, with two big burly guys.  I realized later that normal people would have been kind of worried at that point.   But once I’m out on the street, I don’t spook so easily.   So I walked up and handed the woman the hanger and the knife.  At this point, she started to apologize.  I realized that one of the guys was on the phone, and the other then said to me, “AAA is on the way.”  The lady kept saying she was sorry, but—in my sleep-addled state—I was just so confused at what had just happened that all I could do was say, “So AAA is coming?” and take my stuff and wander back inside, dazed.

It was seriously weird.  Now, the thing is, I finally started to wake up as I got back inside.  And, as I am wont to do, I started evaluating what had just happened.  It suddenly struck me that, if a woman had been banging on my door in the middle of the night five years ago, I would have responded differently.  Very differently.  I think my default would have been to figure out how to bless her.  I might have been annoyed, but I would have quickly become excited at what opportunity could be presenting itself.  As I thought about my behavior with this lady last night, I felt acutely that I could have been more patient, more gracious, and more helpful.  The truth is that, about a block away, we have a car lock kit that we keep at our youth center, and I could have offered to go over there and get it.  Now, as I examined my behavior, I knew that a variety of things had played into my somewhat begrudging response.  There was legitimate caution and self-protection that I would say were fairly healthy and fair.  There was also genuine confusion at what the heck was going on, and an inability to think of the most reasonable response due to the fog in my brain from having been jolted out of sleep.    But there was also my own character thrown in the mix.  And while I tried to tell myself that it was my confusion that had prevented me from offering to go over and get the lock kit from the youth center, the reality is that the majority of my reasoning was that I didn’t want to.  I was annoyed, I was put out, and even the bare minimum I was doing was done out of a sense of obligation, not in a desire to bless.

The thing that really made me cringe was that earlier that day (or the previous day, if you count the few hours I’d been in bed as a night’s sleep…) I had read chapters 3 and 4 of Luke.  There we find the story of Jesus’ baptism and temptation in the wilderness.  I had been struck by some wording in this passage:  When Jesus was baptized, the Holy Spirit descended upon him.  Then he was filled by the Holy Spirit and led into the desert.  But then, after resisting temptation and remaining obedient to God in the desert, we read that he returns in the power of the Holy Spirit.  It is at this point that he begins to heal people, and crowds marvel at his amazing authority.

As I read that, I had felt like God was speaking to me about self-denial—that if we cannot say no to ourselves, we will never experience the power of the Spirit.  And then, that very night, I had the opportunity to get past my grogginess and discomfort, and really bless someone.  And I failed.  Y’know, even after I went out with the hanger and knife—at which point I was at least trying to think about being helpful instead of irritable—upon discovering that they had called AAA, I just let my own dazedness take over again.  I didn’t even think to say, “How long will it be until they get here?  Because if it will be a while, I have a better option.”  Or maybe I thought of it and dismissed it before I even gave the thought a chance.  I wouldn’t put it past me.

When I look back at what has changed in me over the last years—from welcoming bizarre experiences like this and seeing inconveniences as opportunities to show God’s love, to becoming a selfish, irritable grouch—I have to identify something that I think will be unpopular to say.  About five years ago, I read the book Boundaries.  It talks about how we need to say no.  How we have to know what we are responsible for and not take on more than is ours.  And I learned that lesson.  I learned to say no.  In fact, I think I not only learned it, but got quite comfortable with it.  See, it’s a very small step from allowing others be responsible for their own lives… to thinking only about yourself.  I know that it was around then that I started thinking about ME.  About MY RIGHTS.  I have a right to rest.  I have a right not to be woken up in the middle of the night.  I have a right to not wear myself out for others.  Despite Scripture that teaches we are to die to ourselves and “spend ourselves” in behalf of the needy (that’s Isaiah 58:10, in case you’re curious), the teaching of that book allowed me to begin justifying selfishness.

Now, I’ll say, boundaries are needed.  Particularly with unhealthy people.  We need to know what we should carry and what we shouldn’t.  That book has its place.  But Jesus did not set a model of saying no to people all the time and letting them deal with stuff on their own, too bad for them, it’s not my problem, thank you very much.    He pretty clearly taught us self-denial.  He pretty clearly modeled self-denial.  Self-denial was his way.  It is the way of the cross, a cross we are told to take up as our own.  Boundaries are healthy, yes, but only if we are truly acting out of love for the other, not out of love for ourselves.  I don’t want to use “boundaries” as a cover for what is actually just laziness and selfishness.

I knew that I had been trending in this direction.  But last night really brought it into focus for me.  See, I firmly believe that each one of our choices contributes to forming our character.  When we make the right choices in little things, over and over again, then when the time comes that a big challenge arises, we will have formed a character that makes the right choice.  Or, in my case, when my brain is too addled by sleep to think straight about a situation, instead of irritably mulling over the audacity someone would have to have to wake me up in the middle of the night, my default response will be to find a way to bless, even if it takes a few splashes of water in the face to figure out what that would be.

As I finished jotting notes for this blog and began to go back to sleep, I found myself thinking, “What if I missed the chance to ‘entertain angels’?”  But it’s not just that, really.  That’s still about me being awesome.  The real question is:  What if I missed a chance to show the love of God to someone who desperately needs it?  What if I missed a chance to speak a word of truth and kindness to someone who feels lost and alone?  What if I missed a chance to pray for someone who needs healing?  Who knows what I missed.

So I come back to Jesus emerging from the desert in the power of the Spirit.  I think it’s time for some self-denial.  I think it’s time to relearn how to say no to myself.  Perhaps then, when the moment arises that my true character comes out, I will not only respond well but even see God move in power through me.

(And yes, I know that the point of this blog and the point of the parable it resembles are totally different.  But you can’t deny the similarity of the setup.)