Christians: Find your voice!

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Days apart in different parts of the country, two black men were shot dead this week in encounters with the police: Philando Castille in suburban Twin Cities, Minnesota during a routine traffic stop, Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge convenience store parking area.

The incidents were captured in videos that have gone viral. Both men died of multiple gunshot wounds. Social media is awash in outrage. My socially conscious Facebook friends, black and otherwise, are posting non-stop about the perceived injustice and outright danger of being a black man in America.

Then there are those who are strangely silent. Usually vocal supporters of law and order and generous with postings on politics, gun rights, pro-life support and Christianity, they say nothing of these horrendous deaths at the hands of law enforcement. It’s as though they live in an alternate universe in which this is not happening.

I’d like to say that the Christian God is as much a God of the here and now as He is of the ever after. He is God with us. He sees and cares that people are dying. He is just. He is righteous. He is impartial, loving us all equally. What would Jesus do? He would not be silent.

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I am the mother of sons. Young men raised to be honest, respectful, self-supporting, God-fearing. One defends his country in the Armed Forces. The other is headed to college. They are all American guys, athletes, YMCA members, volunteers, workers. Smart, handsome, decent, and honorable.

My sons are black men.

Their blackness is all some people – hateful people – may see when they look at them. Such people view blackness as a dangerous evil that is to be punished, a threat to be extinguished. The reality is that some police officers are among these hateful people. When these officers see blackness, it is all they see to the exclusion of one’s humanity.

It’s telling that black men often die in the presence of police officers while white mass killers live to have their day in court: James Holmes, who killed 12 people in the 2012 Aurora, Colo., movie theater and injured 70 more, was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. Dylann Roof, a white guy accused of killing 9 black churchgoers inside their Charleston, SC, church in June 2015 was arrested alive and is trying to avoid the death penalty.

The silence of some Christian people as black men repeatedly die is deafening. It’s time we found our voice. We are the salt of the earth. It is our Christian duty to be our brothers’ “keeper.” (Genesis 4:9) The Hebrew word is shamar, a verb which means to guard, protect, save life. We are connected by our humanity, each of us vulnerable to injustice in a fallen world.

Consider the words of Martin Niemoller:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me

 

Mercy On Empty: Fill’er Up!

I’m at the gas station three days before Christmas and some imbecile almost backs into my car trying to leave the pump without consulting the rear-view mirror.  I lean on my horn, and a self-appointed good Samaritan tries to tell me the person just wants to back up.

“And she should back into my car?!” I yell. The other driver finally drives forward, where there always was a clear exit.

She pulls away effortlessly. I have to admit, I almost wished she’d hit something as a permanent reminder of her recklessness!  Truth be told, most of us like to see people punished when they do wrong even if we aren’t personally injured.  We want God to condemn the same people we do.

It was the same in Jesus’ day. One day at the Temple, the scribes and Pharisees brought to Jesus a woman they’d found in the act of committing adultery. (There’s no mention of the man involved, though we know there had to be one!)

The penalty for her sin, they reminded Jesus, was death by stoning according to the law of Moses. A holy man, like Himself, would have to agree. If not, they could accuse Him of opposing the law.

To their dismay, Jesus didn’t immediately react.  When He did, His reply was withering: Let him among you who is without sin cast the first stone.

One by one, the men walked away, the oldest ones first. Having lived longer, presumably the elders were conscious of having more sin for which to account.

The woman was left with only One who could rightly condemn her. He did not.  He simply told her to go and sin no more. If it sounds like a free pass, it’s because it is. Jesus didn’t ask her to shed any blood. He didn’t even ask her to apologize.  He told her to change her behavior.

For those of us who prefer to see people suffer for doing wrong, this is hard to take. But here at Christmas,  it’s a great illustration of the real gift God offers each of us: a merciful Savior who didn’t come into the world to condemn it, but to save it.

I embrace this mercy for myself, but I often find it hard to give it away in the everyday world of gas stations, grocery store parking lots and home. Maybe mercy is THE gift to share this Christmas. No one deserves it. But it’s what everyone needs — even when it’s the last thing we may want to give!

Got Compassion?

I grew up in an Army town with a Mom who practiced hospitality. She welcomed my drill sergeant brother-in-law and his Fort Benning friends. They ate, played cards, smoked Kools and sipped Budweiser and Heineken under the trees in the backyard.

She was a church-going Methodist, but she knew a thing or two about relating to people that I had yet to learn.

When I married, I forbid my father from visiting my home if he had to smoke indoors. (He chain-smoked unfiltered Camels; and nobody smokes in my house.) Result?

I was married nearly 20 years by the time he succumbed to lung cancer, and he hadn’t visited once. By valuing my rule over the relationship, I’d say I flunked the “show and tell” test of Christianity.

Jesus, on the other hand, ate and drank with sinners. His demonstrated love, and people opened their lives to Him. They gave Him what my friend calls “a front row seat” to the drama of their lives, an  insider perspective.  They were not disappointed.

Jesus “had compassion.” He embraced people, and their lives were never the same. Never underestimate the power of relationship… or the impotence of lacking one.

A church acquaintance contacted me the other day, wanting to have a heart-to-heart talk.  While I appreciated their “concern,” frankly, we don’t know each other well enough for that kind of conversation.

Oh, we’ve smiled politely at one another in church hallways over the years and shared the quick hellos and obligatory half-hugs that pass for Christian fellowship. But we know nothing about each other’s real lives. We have zero relationship.

Concern is good, but compassion has the idea of “co-suffering.” Stronger than empathy, it’s an intimate understanding that makes you want to do something to alleviate a person’s pain. Jesus lived this. Modern-day saints, on the other hand, are more likely to offer a plastic smile and a platitude than genuine compassion.

It may be easier to phone-in Scriptural cures for people’s ills than to soil ourselves with the messy details, but why would anyone want to bare their soul to someone who has no idea who they are? Christians may have “The Answer,” but we often are unwilling to invest the time to develop the kind of relationships that prompt a question. I regret having made this mistake with my father.

We have to earn the privilege of speaking into people’s lives. It all starts with establishing a loving connection. Such things require time, patience and sacrifice. Like anything worthwhile, it takes effort. Jesus is our model.

So I’ve committed to be more available to people, more open to the quick phone call, the drop-by visit, the inconvenient conversation over coffee. It’s not always easy. I’m still learning what my Mom wordlessly expressed in entertaining those Vietnam vets:  Love covers a multitude of sins, and mercy triumphs over judgment.

Give and take?

This morning, I pulled up to a Cadillac bumper plastered with stickers decrying the “socialist” government in Washington. One read: “The problem with socialism is you eventually run out of other people’s money.”

I hate to sound like a civics teacher, but any money the U.S. government has or ever will have is collectively “somebody else’s money.” Lincoln described our nation as “government of the people, by the people,  for the people.” And, like it or not, we the people pay to run our government with taxes as provided for in the U.S. Constitution.

Article I section VIII states that  “The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;”

Yet, we love to hate taxes. We want good roads and free-flowing traffic, but we don’t want the bill. We demand law and order, but we complain about the cost of paying policemen and building prisons. We want fast ambulance service when we need it, but we insist lawmakers cut the very taxes that pay for it.

Where did we get the idea that we can enjoy the collective benefits of community and pay ala carte?

It may come as a shock, but Jesus paid his taxes. When someone questioned whether they should pay Caesar tribute, a sum of money, Jesus didn’t encourage a Tea Party rebellion. He said to give Caesar what was his. Mark 12:17

At the heart of tax grumbling is selfishness: less money for taxes theoretically means more money for me. In reality, to borrow a sound bite from the Reagan era,  there is no free lunch.

With fewer tax dollars to distribute in a tough economy, governments at every level are facing massive budget shortfalls. The remaining expenses are headed to every mailbox in America in the form of higher fees-for-service.

The bill already arrived at our house as letters from desperate boosters.  My daughter’s choral performances are threatened by less money to buy sheet music and rent concert halls. At a son’s school, we are being encouraged to buy a nearly $200 family athletics pass because Wake County no longer will pay to water, seed and fertilize athletic fields or provide sports medicine kits and several other things necessary to field athletics.

If we want education with some arts and athletics thrown in, we’re being asked to pay for it. At schools where parents won’t or can’t pay, these things likely will become a memory.

No one is thrilled to pay taxes, but it’s biblical to pay what’s due. Want lower taxes? Expect less. Accept fewer services, more potholes, longer lines, shorter hours. We have no right to ask more from our government than we are willing to invest.

After all, the Bible says: “Give, and it will be given…. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Luke 6:38)