I Think I’m a Clanging Cymbal

My husband sometimes accuses me of liking controversy. He’s a peacemaker to an extreme. He hates conflict. I think at least half of his life is spent trying to avoid it. I’m not like that. I don’t mind conflict. I’m not sure I’d go as far as he does and say I like controversy, but some kinds of controversies interest me. I don’t mind a little debate.

If you’ve read my blog before, you probably could figure that out. I like to write about things like the struggle between government and religion and the Christian response to it. I don’t do that just to get clicks on my blog. Those are issues I care about. When I see reports of Christians protesting at gay pride celebrations or refusing to serve people who are different from them, I have an internal reaction that tells me something’s not right.

Jesus’ Reaction to Sin

I think some of that reaction comes from reading and studying Jesus’ life and his treatment of people commonly regarded as sinners, people who messed up and got themselves into a lot of trouble. I never, ever see him hurting them. I never see them leaving him feeling judged and mistreated. Instead, I see these people meeting someone whose very essence changes who they are. The grace they receive, the forgiveness they experience before a change has even been made motivates a shift in lifestyle.

Jesus had a handle on what people need to feel loved by God. People wanted to be with him. They came to him because they liked how they felt when they were with him. I’m not saying Jesus was this feel-good hippie who just wanted love and peace and never asked people to change. I think from reading accounts of Jesus’ life that people wanted to change when they were with him, and it had nothing to do with him pointing out what was bad in their lives. When people stand up and say, “I’m a Christian and, by gollly, God says you’re wrong, and I’m gonna tell you in detail why, and I’m gonna do it with a nasty attitude!” I feel what I think is righteous anger. How dare people bring God into such a hurtful exchange? When someone’s attitude is pushing people away from God instead of drawing them to him, I feel not so happy with that person.

Keep Reading…

I’ve written about this stuff so much that I think you’re all like “Oh my goodness, not again!” Don’t stop reading because here’s where it changes. My reaction to Christians judging is just as judgy as the judging they’re doing. The difference is they judge the people they deem as “sinners” and I judge the ones already in the Church. I feel sooo judgy of them. Sometimes I want to stand up to them and say “Shut your mouths because you’re hurting people!” but maybe in doing that I’m participating in their sin as well.

The other day I heard a sermon, and the preacher read the verse in 1 Corinthians 13 that says, “If I speak in tongues of men and angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” An earlier verse (8:1) says “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”

It'd be nice if this were the size of my symbolic cymbals.

It’d be nice if this were the size of my symbolic cymbals.

The moment I heard that familiar passage, I knew it: I am a clanging cymbal. I’m all puffed up with knowledge. My certainty that my understanding of Jesus’ attitude toward sinners is the right way and I know it and all people who think different are wrong, wrong, WRONG is just…wrong.

I admit it. I like to hide behind a holier than thou approach, feeling superior to other Christians who blast people on their Facebook feeds and post all sorts of stuff about kicking out immigrants and standing up for their own rights. But in doing that, I’m no better. I’m not judging the people out in the rest of the world, but I sure do judge those sitting in the pew next to me. I feel quick to empathize with people who don’t know Jesus and don’t conform to Christian values, but I have such a hard time empathizing with Christians caught in the sin of self-righteousness and spiritual pride.

Here’s whats hard for me, though. Jesus treated the religious leaders differently from regular people in society. He did hold them to a higher standard. Their attitudes prevented people from coming to God, and he did not stand for that. Later in the New Testament, we also see Paul talking frankly and even harshly to church leaders whose policies threw stumbling blocks in the way of unbelievers coming to know Jesus.

So how does this fit together? If it’s counter to Jesus’ teachings to treat non-believers in a judgmental, legalistic way but we see him standing up to the religious leaders of his time and not letting them get away with a bad attitude, what’s my responsibility as a Christian who sometimes sees other Christians acting like Pharisees?

And suddenly it dawns on me, even as I type this. Maybe I have trouble empathizing with self-righteous religious people and treating believers with grace because I myself am trapped in that same sin of spiritual pride that the religious leaders of Jesus’ day exhibited. Maybe I’m like the televangelist who preaches so emphatically against sexual sin every Sunday and later reveals that he’s been visiting prostitutes himself all along. Maybe God is pointing this hypocrisy out to me in other people because he wants me to see it in myself.

Or maybe it is more complex than that even. Maybe it’s the motivation and method involved with the reprimand of Christians who falter. Is my motivation to bring them into a closer relationship with God and protect the helpless who sometimes get caught in the crossfire or is it to prove that I have the right answers? And does my method actually help people understand that they’re hurting people or does it just make them dig deeper into the defense of their position and become more entrenched in their ways?

Let’s face it, it’s easier to evaluate other Christians who I think should know better and say things that make me look progressive and accepting and politically correct than it is to step out and actually do something to make the situations we’re debating better. I’d rather write about it from the safety of my high tower than climb down the steps and meet people in their needs.

Change My Mind

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This is the house we worked on for a few hours one morning.

A few weeks ago, I had a chance to volunteer for community service day at the college where I work. One of the students asked me to be on her team. I felt pretty happy about that, actually. My job has always involved a lot of me sitting in my office organizing student records and not a lot of me interacting with those students. Being asked to go made me feel like maybe I’m getting the chance to make some actual relationships with the students now. But the night before the event, I realized I was pretty sick. My nose was horribly sneezy/stuffy/runny, and I felt like a nasty old tissue myself. I tried to get out of going, but I didn’t want to make trouble for this group of girls, and in the end I went.

It was a lot dustier than it appears.

It was a lot dustier than it appears.

I’d love to say that I skipped happily toward cleaning out a gutted house in the inner city, but I didn’t. The extreme dust–EXTREME– and my nasal distress added up to me not being too fun to be around. I just didn’t really feel exuberant about serving Jesus at that point. Why? Not just my nose felt uncomfortable. I felt uncomfortable. I had to drive to a part of town I’d never seen. I had to work with people I didn’t know well. I had to be hot in the 90 degree weather and covered with dust. Uncomfortable.

That’s what it takes, though, isn’t it? Being uncomfortable? Realizing our vulnerabilities in an effort to understand and connect with others who are vulnerable? I wonder if part of conquering spiritual pride takes getting involved in something that makes me uncomfortable. Instead of sticking with the things I’m comfortable with and good at, maybe I need to do something I’m pretty bad at because how proud can I be of my own spirituality when I’m covered in snotty dust?

So here’s a novel idea for me to try: what if I started asking myself in every encounter what it would take for that person to feel loved and cared for? What if I started really thinking about how each person feels, empathizing with them and the confusion and pain that causes some of the mistakes? What if I started extending this empathy to the Christians I sometimes am in contact with who focus on how bad the rest of the world is and tried to see them as Jesus does, as people who struggle to do the right thing? What if I gave them time to change and used a less abrasive method to show them what I saw as necessary in their lives? What if I did some things that made me uncomfortable? What then?

Maybe I’d stop sounding like a clanging cymbal and start making a difference.

 

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Forgiveness Changes Everything

Who could ever stay mad at this sweetie?

The other day, my daughter stayed up too late. This may seem like a harmless event, but in her nine-year-old life, staying up too late produces a sentimental reaction to just about everything. After 9:30, she cries. She cries for the friends she left behind when we moved, she cries for the house we moved out of, she cries for pets that have died. On the particular night in question, she came to me with a sad face and cuddled on my lap and told me she was crying because of the mean things she had said to me in the past.

Right then, not one mean thing she had ever said came to mind. I said, “Honey, I can’t even remember those things anymore. I know you remember them, but I’m your mommy, I love you and I don’t even care what you said to me before.”

At that moment, a light came on in my head. This must surely be how God feels when we come to him with old sins, long forgiven, long forgotten. He loves us. He wants us for his children. He doesn’t even try to remember anything we did so long ago. When we accept Jesus’ sacrifice, those things are gone.

There’s a story I’ve been thinking about that illustrates this point. Jesus ate dinner with a lot of people, and in this story he was eating with the religious leaders of the time. They lived with the assumption that their religious observances and practices would pave their way into God’s good graces. In this particular story, they gathered for dinner. At some point in the party a woman who was known for her sinful life, a prostitute probably, came into the house where they were eating, searching for Jesus.

She saw him and fell at his feet kissing and annointing them with expensive perfume, wiping her tears from his feet with her own hair. The religious leaders in the room expressed their concern. “Don’t you know who that is, Jesus?!” No doubt they nudged each other, eyebrows raised. What did Jesus say? He turned to the woman and said, “Your sins are forgiven.” She came to him for forgiveness, and she received it.

An Expensive Sacrifice in An Unforgiven State

This woman expressed her love for Jesus in an extravagant way. She poured out something expensive. This wasn’t a five dollar Wal Mart special. Perfume cost a lot in Jesus’ day. Now, think for a moment about where she got the money for that perfume. She purchased the perfume with money she got from selling herself. She purchased it with her morality, her dignity, her very soul. She brought that to Jesus, and she sacrificed what she had to honor him.

Not only did she come to him with something expensive, but the woman came to Jesus in her unforgiven state. She came with her sins. She came carrying the jar of perfume that represented her sinful life. Had she never lived that life, she would have had nothing to present to him. She had a past, she had sin, and she gave it to him. Her act of turning that sin over to him, pouring it out on him, that was her sacrifice to him.

There’s a tension in Christianity. It comes from the pull between the freedom that comes from grace and the bondage that comes from sin. It sometimes manifests itself in this difficulty some Christians have in forgiving people who have wronged them, accepting people who live different lives from them, loving people who have made mistakes. I know it because I feel it. I have that tension in my own life. It’s the tension that makes me ask myself how I should treat people I know who mess up royally. How should I treat people who continue to live in their mistakes, who don’t seem to want to change? When I love someone, shouldn’t I want to point out their shortcomings so that they can change those and be somehow worthy of God’s love?

Forgiveness Brings Change

In thinking about the stories of Jesus in the Gospels, I don’t remember any times that he required a person to change before he or she came to him. I don’t remembering Jesus himself ever turning someone away because they weren’t good enough, sinless enough, perfect enough to come to him. They changed because they were with him, not because they heard about him or because someone told them to clean up their act before they made it to him.

Forgiveness breeds something in the forgiven. Maybe it’s not just realizing that we’re sinful that changes us, but maybe the actual forgiveness itself changes us.

I worry about us as believers sometimes. I worry about how we draw lines and create boxes and how we like to say, “This far is ok, but past that and we’re over the line.” I worry that we read the Sermon on the Mount, and instead of noticing that Jesus says that we can’t possibly be good enough and we therefore need his grace, we use his teachings to draw the lines around what we have decided determines sinful behavior and what determines being in God’s good graces even darker than they were before. We say, for example, “Aha! Before we thought murder was wrong. Well, guess what! Now even anger is wrong.” When we do that, we feel justified in ostracizing people who we think have crossed the line, have stepped outside the box. We choose the sins we don’t like and we focus on them, but we ignore the fact that our sins are all destructive and none of us escapes those sins on our own.

What Are We For?

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Tobias, Nebraksa

Even as I write this, I notice something. I notice my well-defined ability to judge people for being judgmental. I pull the Pharisees down from their high horses only to jump right up there in the saddles so I can look down at them from my “perfection.” In our culture today, it’s popular to say everyone has a right to live how they want. It’s hip to be against people who are against everyone different from them. I scroll down my Facebook feed and see people posting about the right to bear arms and restricting immigration, tossing out Muslims and putting (evangelical Christian) prayer back in school, and I feel myself climbing right up on the high horse next to the people who posted those, ready to push them down for their conservative views that go against the current cultural views that say we should love and accept everyone.

Then I realize something. I realize that, just like everyone else, I define myself as what I’m against instead of what I’m for. I judge the judgmental. In championing acceptance and love for those who used to be on the margins of society, I couch my judgmentalism in terms of acceptance, thus enabling myself to continue being judmental but in a politically correct manner that is focused on judging those more conservative than I am.

Set Free for Freedom’s Sake

Our culture of acceptance and tolerance isn’t a bad thing. I like it. I think there are some parts of it that resonate with the Gospel. I’m glad that the new generation of Christians seems to be rising up to love the ones previous generations saw as unlovable. Here’s my fear, though. I hear many Christians advocating love for the sinner and yet scorning other Christians whose opinions about social issues or understanding of theology differ from theirs in the same way that the previous generations scorned the non-believers.

Galatians 5:1 says, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” A Bible college professor once told me that the translation doesn’t quite convey the intensity of the original meaning. It actually means something more like, “Christ set you free. Now start living like you’re free!” We don’t have to set up boxes and draw lines. We don’t have to self-righteously proclaim to the world which groups we’re against. We can love people exactly how they are: sinful and messy, law-bound or lawless. If I’m quick to say that we should love gay people, for example, but turn my back on my friends who see things in a legalistic, conservative Christian way, maybe I’m still missing the point.

A big, fancy church in Honolulu.

Honolulu, Hawaii

What are my motives? Am I zealous for truth and righteousness and freeing the oppressed or am I zealous for maintaining a particular self-image that revolves around condemning those who are different from me? Do I do what I do for God or to promote an image of myself as a particular type of Christian?

This comes back around to the story of the woman with the perfume. These days we like to focus on the woman and on how she was forgiven, and that is very important. However, we also need to remember that Jesus loved and forgave the Pharisees in his midst as well. Those who believed in him–those were also forgiven and accepted, even if they hadn’t quite grasped the idea of freedom from the Law. Maybe even if they never did.