Monday, September 27, 2010

Growing Season

I recently returned from a trip with my husband, Jim, to Destin, Florida. To get there from Macon involves a long ride through South Georgia farmland. As we rode past field after field of cotton, Jim told me that cotton is a difficult crop to grow because the growing season is quite long, creating many opportunities for something to go wrong that damages or ruins the crop.

I thought about that in relation to my life as I attempt to follow Christ. From the outside looking in, one would think that the longer you do it, the easier it gets. With many things we do in life this is true, but I find that, like the cotton crop, the longer I’ve been on this journey of discipleship, the more I am aware of the ways I fall short in living a Christlike life.

In Luke 8:4-15, Jesus tells a parable about a farmer who sows seed in his field. Some never gets in the ground; some grows, but quickly dies because it grows among rocks. Other seed grows, but gets choked out by plants around it and some seed falls on good soil and produces a bountiful crop. Whenever I’ve read that parable, I don’t visualize a long wait to see what happens to the various seeds. I expect it to be like the radishes in my garden—I plant the seed and within four or five days, I see little green leaves sprouting up. Radishes are the closest thing I’ve found to instant gratification plants!

I wonder if others read this parable like I do and think that once the word is sown in good soil and begins to grow (and grow quickly) everything is wonderful. Maybe I should think of that seed as cotton, or maybe a better example is a tree—something that grows over a long period of time and is subjected to many conditions like drought, flood, heat, cold, disease and bugs. My journey of discipleship has occurred over a long period of time, and hopefully will continue for many more years, but I am realizing that it is a journey from which I never arrive this side of heaven. It is difficult at times and easy at times. There are many days I travel in darkness, unable to feel the presence of God, but there are also days in which I bask in his light. If I think of my discipleship enduring a variety of conditions like a long-lived plant does, 

I am reminded of the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:45: For [God] gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. There will be continual challenges to faithful living, and I expect there will be many who wonder why I even continue on such a journey. I may wonder the same thing myself at times.
The growing season for discipleship is lifelong and requires me to be patient and persistent if I want to grow into Christ’s image. Like the cotton crop, I will face many obstacles to growth, but if I will send my roots deep into Christ’s word and remain there, Jesus will be with me to help me weather whatever conditions threaten my ability to be faithful. 

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Those People

Against you, and you alone, have I sinned.”
                This verse from Psalm 51 was part of our Sunday school discussion today. David wrote this Psalm after being confronted about having committed adultery with Bathsheba and arranging to have her husband killed. We considered why David says that his sin is only against God, since others suffered the consequences of his sinful behavior.

                That’s an interesting question, and as I’ve mulled over it, I wonder if it’s easier for me to excuse my sinful behavior when it’s against another person rather than against God. Consider for a moment what David did. He saw Bathsheba taking a bath one afternoon, has her brought to the palace and then slept with her. He could have excused he behavior by saying she should not have been bathing in view of the palace, or that she should have refused to come to the palace or refused to sleep with him once she was there. At the time of Uriah’s death he offered an excuse, claiming it was a consequence of battle. But when David was confronted with his sin, he made no excuses, recognizing that it was sin against God.

                In a similar vein, I can excuse my ability to help others by blaming others for my failure to act. This really hit me during a conversation about some of the ongoing problems in our community and beyond. I can say it’s the government’s fault, it’s the school’s fault, it’s the parents’ fault, or that “those people” should get a job, go to school, stop having babies, etc. You get the idea. As long as I can find someone else to be responsible, I don’t have to be.

                Like Lee Corso on College Gameday, Jesus tells me, “Not so fast, my friend,” saying that whenever I have not helped one of “those people” (he calls them “the least of these”) I have not helped him. He puts a different face on “those people.” He puts HIS face on them. Suddenly, it’s a lot harder for me to dismiss the unwed mother, the homeless man, the teenager with attitude, the deadbeat dad, and all the others I conveniently refer to as “those people,” because each one of those people IS Jesus Christ to me. His face is on them. If I don’t see it, it’s my fault, not theirs.

                I’m running out of places to point fingers, because every time I point, I see the face of Christ, and he shows up in people I’d rather not see him among, because that means I should be among them as well, serving them without judging or making excuses. The problems in my community and in the world are no longer somebody else’s problems. They are mine. I am responsible because I claim to follow Christ and following him means that I am to live with him and serve him, and he is here, looking back at me in every face I see. 

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Fan or Follower?

Is it enough to be a good person who believes in Jesus Christ, attends church regularly, does some volunteer work, and gives some money to charity? Does this qualify me as a Christian? I have been wrestling with such questions lately.

1 Corinthians 13, hailed as the “Love chapter” and read at many weddings, should not make me feel all warm and fuzzy. It’s a rather challenging and uncomfortable chapter. In the first verses, Paul is basically saying that doing stuff, even dramatic stuff like moving mountains and giving everything I own away to the poor, doesn’t count for anything unless I do it because I love others. He goes on to say that if I love, then I should be completely other-focused, never irritable, and not concerned if others take advantage of me. That’s a pretty tall order, and even among those of us who call ourselves Christians, it’s behavior we don’t see very often. I get mad at others, look down on others, and get my nose out of joint if I don’t get my way—and all within this community that is supposed to be the body of Christ. Ouch!

I wonder if Paul might have put it differently if he were writing today. Maybe he would have talked about how I feed the poor during the day at Macon Outreach, but don’t invite them to our church dinners. Maybe he would tell me to ditch all the committee meetings I attend and instead, go sit in the park and talk to, no, befriend someone who is down on his or her luck. Maybe he would simply say that if I am not on good terms with a fellow church member (or anyone else for that matter) I am just a fan of Jesus, not a follower.

Discipleship is not about making Jesus fit into what is comfortable for me. It’s about me being willing to become uncomfortable with what is deemed acceptable in our culture (and sometimes even in the church) and motivated to be different for the sake of Christ’s kingdom. Following Jesus is risky business. I have to get in the game, get hurt, and give my all. Being a fan means I can sit comfortably on the sidelines and cheer. But the risk of following is worth the reward of knowing Christ intimately and being transformed by him. I pray I have the faith and courage to be a follower.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Words That Kill

One morning this week, while reading Mark 15:12-21, verse 16 caught my attention: The soldiers took Jesus into the courtyard of the governor’s headquarters (called the Praetorium) and called out the entire regiment. Jesus has been tried before Pilate, and the soldiers now have time to have some sick fun with Jesus before his crucifixion. So that no one misses out on the “fun” they gather the entire regiment. I had not noticed that detail in previous readings of this passage. Did all the soldiers who were called up want to be there? Did they all enjoy mocking Jesus? Or were there those who were uncomfortable with the events but failed to speak up? And then, I found myself among them, the events of an earlier day flooding my mind.

I was with friends when some of them began talking about local news and politics. Displeasure with the actions of some of our leaders was expressed, accompanied by derogatory remarks. It certainly wasn’t any worse than what you hear in the media, but I don’t think anyone commenting would have made such remarks to the leaders’ faces. While I didn’t engage in the conversation, I said nothing to discourage it. Reading about the treatment of Jesus at the hands of the Roman soldiers, I realized that I was no better than they were. My silence did nothing to remedy the situation, just as their silence did nothing to end the abuse of Jesus.

We are told in Genesis that we are created in the image of God. Therefore, when I speak ill of another, I am speaking ill of God. When I mock another, I am mocking God. No wonder Jesus says these words in the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that our ancestors were told, ‘You must not murder. If you commit murder, you are subject to judgment.’ But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment! If you call someone an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the court. And if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell.” (Matthew 5:22)

Cursing God was a big deal according to Jewish law, but Jesus reminds me that when I say ugly words about another human being it is no different than saying the same thing about God! Notice that Jesus didn’t limit this to certain people—so I don’t get a free pass to criticize those of other denominations, or no denominations, or even non-Christians.

However, should I be able to muster up the courage to speak up in defense of the person or group being criticized, whatever I say must be said in the spirit of love and gentleness, otherwise, I run the risk of murdering the offender, becoming an offender myself. Speaking the truth in love is not an easy task! Shane Claiborne, in The Irresistible Revolution  puts it this way: “When we look through the eyes of Jesus, we see new things in people. In the murderers, we see our own hatred. In the addicts, we see our own addictions. In the saints, we catch glimpses of our own holiness. We can see our own brokenness, our own violence, our own ability to destroy, and we can see our own sacredness, our own capacity to love and forgive. When we realize that we are both wretched and beautiful, we are freed up to see others the same way.”

If I can look through the eyes of Jesus, I can see God in others and in myself, and maybe, just maybe, I can honor and love God in them and in myself, and in so doing, not only begin to act more Christ-like but also begin to see the Kingdom of God in the world right now.