Blindness to God and neighbor

The story of Bartimaeus, as told in Mark 10, seems very straightforward: Jesus restores the sight of a blind man.

First, Bartimaeus calls out for Jesus to have mercy on him.

When Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus answers, “I want to see.”

Jesus says, “Go; your faith has healed you.”

And Bartimaeus regains his sight and follows Jesus.

I love Bartimaeus’ response to Jesus (click here to read a post on that), but as I have read, listened to, and told this story several dozen times in the last several months, I have come to appreciate an irony in it.

Bartimaeus is not the only one in the story who is blind, and Jesus is doing two kinds of healing: he is restoring physical sight to Bartimaeus, and he is revealing the spiritual blindness of those who think they already see.

They have good reason to believe this; they see the sun, the sky, the trees, the grass. They see quite well the people around them who are wealthy and powerful. They see those who run in the “same circles” as they do themselves. Most of all, they see themselves.

They even, to a certain extent, see Jesus: see his miracles, see his power, see the possibilities following him might bring them.

But they are spiritually blind, and this is revealed in their response to Bartimaeus. They don’t notice him, don’t acknowledge him, don’t listen to him. They even try to shut him up when he dares to speak.

Bartimaeus, though, is named in Scripture. Though so many others are not, including those with wealth and/or status (the rich young ruler, most of the scribes and Pharisees who interacted with Jesus, the Centurion), both the personal and family names of this blind, begging man are shared. Jesus, the Son of the Creator God, filled with the Spirit of Life, hears and sees Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus. He loves him.

Jesus does not want the crowds to be wowed with his miracles. He does not want them enamored with his power. He wants them to know God; he is revealing God! He wants them to understand that the God who rescued them and made them his people did not do so in order for them to become proud and separated. God did this so he could teach them to love as God loves, with heart and soul and mind, to love both God and neighbor in this full, complete way—and then to be a light to all people, being themselves a mini-revelation of this incredible God.

Bartimaeus somehow understood this, at least on some level. He was not truly blind, for when he regained his physical sight, he didn’t use it for his own purposes. He followed Jesus, and I can imagine Bartimaeus running up to downtrodden individuals all along the way, inviting them to Jesus. “Come and see,” he would say, “Come and see Jesus!”

It was the people around Bartimaeus who were actually blind. They chose not to see God as the Yahweh who had rescued and covenanted with them for no reason other than love. They chose not to see God’s love for all people, and instead they loved as the world self-servingly loves, showing attention only to those whose response might be beneficial.

All this was evident in their attitude toward Bartimaeus. “Be quiet,” the crowds around told him. “We don’t want to hear about your needs. We don’t want Jesus’ attention to be focused on you. Stay down there, on the ground.”

But Jesus stopped to listen to Bartimaeus’ cry, and he responds in an interesting way. He does not call out directly to Bartimaeus. He tells the crowd, “Call him here.” See him, Jesus is saying. Notice him, talk to him, interact with him. You are both creations of the living God. You cannot love God and refuse to love your neighbor.

In Jesus’ view, Bartimaeus already possessed sight; he had faith vision. Maybe he’d heard stories of Jesus announcing himself with Isaiah’s words and then actually doing them, preaching good news to the poor, restoring sight, pronouncing healing and freedom to the downtrodden and burdened. Bartimaeus was convinced by what he’d heard. He knew he needed Jesus; he believed Jesus would want to help him (and could!); and he cried out for help.

The crowds, however, were like the Pharisees, who saw no reason to throw themselves on God’s mercy and lovingkindness. They believed they possessed special favor, and they didn’t want God’s favor to be extended to anyone else.

In Jesus’ estimation, they were the blind.

Jesus longs to heal our blindness. He longs for us to see God more and more clearly, to love him more dearly, to follow him more nearly…

And to love our neighbors–all our neighbors!–as ourselves.

Anything less is blindness.

 

NOTE: I have been thinking about this post for a long time. I do not write it only as a response to the white supremacy march in Charlottesville this past weekend, but it is very linked in my mind. We (meaning the Church) must not ignore the spiritual blindness of racism, especially when it is held by those who say they are following Christ or doing the work of God. Christ did not keep peace with the blind; he named their blindness; he called them to admit it and turn to God. We must do the same. Here’s a blogpost by Michael Frost that is very pertinent to this. And here’s another by Jen Oshman–also excellent.

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An Article Share

An article suggested by one of my friends caught my eye, and I’m posting a link to it here. This past winter, for a class taught by Scot McKnight, I read the book of Acts multiple times in conjunction with Paul’s epistles, and what jumped out at me most was Paul’s insistence on the point of unity of the church. Christ’s Body was brought into reality through God the Son putting on flesh and crossing the greatest barrier, and this Body must strive for unity; it must actively work against division. This article, posted in Christianity Today Women, speaks to this and makes some excellent points. It’s written by Helen Lee, whom I heard speak a number of years ago (the link is to her personal website, where she writes much about diversity and unity), and the article is titled “Why White-Centered Discipleship Hurts Us All: A Vision for Bringing Racial Equity to the Spiritual Training of Women.

Climb in his skin

In To Kill a Mockingbird, one of my favorite books, lawyer Atticus Finch gives his young daughter some advice: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.”

climb in his skin

In the incarnation, Christ did exactly that, didn’t he? He climbed into humanity’s skin, walked around in it, and considered things from humanity’s point of view. He became well acquainted with all the emotions, all the temptations, and all the struggles that come part and parcel with human skin.

But it wasn’t just any old skin he put on. Christ chose a very specific skin, and he walked around in it and considered its very particular point of view for 33 years.

The skin he chose was bundled at birth into whatever cloths happened to be at hand.

Because Christ put on the skin of the poor.

It was nearly skewered when it was still infant soft.

Because Christ put on the skin of the powerless.

It was carried off into a foreign country.

Because Christ put on the skin of the refugee and immigrant.

It was shunned by the religious and those highly reputed.

Because Christ put on the skin of the illegitimate.

It grew rough and callused.

Because Christ put on the skin of the working poor.

It lay itself down on the ground and at times grew tight over ribs.

Because Christ put on the skin of the homeless.

It was bruised and torn by guards.

Because Christ put on the skin of prisoners.

It was naked in the sight of all.

Because Christ put on the skin of all those forced to expose themselves to others.

~~~

“Then the King (Jesus) will say to those at his right, ‘Enter, you who are blessed by my Father: Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation. And here’s why:

I was hungry and you fed me,

I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,

I was homeless and you gave me a room,

I was shivering and you gave me clothes,

I was sick and you stopped to visit,

I was in prison and you came to me.’

Then those ‘sheep’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?’ Then the King will say, ‘I’m telling you the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—

you did it to me.’

Matthew 25:34-40

All children

The verse, “Children are a gift from the Lord” hangs right next to my bed. It was given to me not long after the twins were born. I hung it there mostly because there was already a nail and it fit the space perfectly, but also, in all honesty, because sometimes I need that reminder!

A few weeks ago, I lay in bed late one night staring at that verse, but I wasn’t thinking about my own kids. I was thinking of the two teenage boys who’d been killed in our neighborhood earlier that day. I was thinking of their mothers. Was anyone mourning with them?

I’d read the news account of the killing. The two boys were barely mentioned, just their names and the statement, “Police believe the shooting was gang related.” Much more space was given to the neighbor lady who was injured by a stray bullet.

I get that. She was the “truly innocent bystander,” caught in the crossfire of Chicago’s gang violence.

But they were teenagers; one of them 17, the other 16—the age of my Emily. And though I understand the attitude that glosses over their deaths a bit—because, after all, “they chose to be in a gang and they know how violent they are and who knows what they did to cause retaliation and…”

…they were 16 and 17.

I don’t know about you, but at that age, I was nowhere near ready to make major life decisions. Particularly not ones that involved gangs and mortality. I was nowhere near ready to step completely out of the flow of all my peers. I was nowhere near ready to recognize and then actually carry out logical planning to map out potential options for my future and how to proceed.

Fortunately for me, I didn’t need to do all that. I was guided in that process. I was surrounded by peers who were, for the most part, engaged and busy and active with good things—because they too, for the most part, were being guided—by their parents, by our school, by the structures surrounding us—in the messy, confusing business of growing up. We were guided toward a future we couldn’t even imagine yet. We were shaped into and equipped to be productive members of our society.

I’m pretty sure that’s not the case for those two boys. There was lots of shaping and equipping going on, but I doubt there was much future planning involved. Boys in gang-saturated neighborhoods, going to underfunded schools, coming from broken family structures, living hand to mouth… they often don’t expect to live very long, and the few who do don’t know any other structures to pass on to the next generation. I would argue that most 16-year-old kids involved in a gang have few other options presented to them. It’s not a real choice in the sense of “I’ve got a few good, productive options in front of me and I see them as real and possible.”

Honestly, though, my point in writing today is not to write about the violence in Chicago. It’s not even to protest police or military force (though I think it’s a horrible idea.)

Here’s what’s been itching at my heart the past few weeks. A couple days after those boys were shot, I walked past the house where it happened. There was nothing there to mark it—other than police tape. No signs, no candles, no stuffed animals—nothing. They’d been erased, and it really felt like no one cared.

But they were someone’s babies. They were someone’s boys. They were created by God just as my precious children were. They mattered. And they really had no chance.

At least not like the chances my kids have.

Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God’s children. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.”

I would say that until we see other people’s children as being as valuable as our own, as valuable as the children of our friends and our neighbors and our fellow church members—we will not seek justice for them. In fact, we will place the needs and the safety of our own children above theirs. If we feel that good done to other people’s children might have negative effect on our own, we will choose against them. In other words, we really won’t care that much.

Martin Luther King also said, “If America does not use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty and make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life, she too will go to hell.”

Those are strong words!

But I think they need to be repeated.

And we need to listen.

Till we see all children as precious, precious gifts.

Human Trafficking Awareness Month

It’s Human Trafficking Awareness Month right now. Did your heart just sink a little when you read that? It’s a hard realization, to recognize that beyond even the visible hurts and problems we see in our communities is an entire hidden world of them, a world where the vulnerable are not only not cared for but are horribly exploited. It’s generally easier to distance ourselves from this knowledge, but that is not our calling. So, because that is not our calling, I am sharing two articles today. The first is “When Backpage.com Peddles Schoolgirls for Sex” by Nicholas Kristof, author of Half the Sky (click on the book title for the Half the Sky website and here for a post I wrote that is partly about this book). Kristof is well known for his impassioned research, investigation, and writing in this area.

The second article is by Carolyn Custis James, whom I had the pleasure of hearing speak a  couple months ago (though on a totally unrelated topic). Its title is “Teenagers Sold ‘Like Pizza’–What Will Your Church Do?”  Custis James pulls no punches and this is an interesting read. She ends with the question: What will you do?

What will you do? That’s a hard question, not only because this is a hard issue but because there are so many hurts and epidemics about which we can ask the same question. This week alone I’ve been asked much the same question regarding the underground Church, orphaned children in Uganda, and victims of Hurricane Matthew. I don’t know the exact answer to “What will I do?” but I do know the answer to “What must I not do?” in relation to all areas of brokenness. The answer to that question is, “I must not grow numb. I must not hide. I must not shield myself from difficult truths and realities.”

This difficult position can feel like limbo, so I share one more post, a very short one by pastor-blogger John Piippo titled “You Don’t Need to Know Where You Are Going.” It’s a good reminder.

Blessings, all.

Jen

 

 

 

 

 

Cross-shaped prayer

iron cross at Westminster

A picture taken in London just before heading to Scotland in January 2016–looking into the inner courtyard of Westminster Abbey

In January of 2016 Dave and I led a group of Wheaton Academy students on a trip to Scotland. It was a double-duty trip for us. We were praying for guidance; about which of two very different directions we should pursue. One of those directions was Scotland. We met with the UK field director of GEM (Greater European Missions) during that trip, and it was in many ways an exploratory time for us.

But we were also praying about moving into the city of Chicago, to live in a depressed neighborhood, for Dave to teach/work with underprivileged kids. It was strange how God used the wonderful, spiritually rich trip to Scotland to confirm that it was not the decision for this time, and Chicago is. One of the confirming moments came when we put on the program for an assembly at a Scottish public high school. We began with a video one of our students had made to introduce the team members and their home. After shots of Wheaton Academy and its grounds, the video moved to the downtown area of Chicago. One shot showed hundreds of people milling around the Bean. Watching it for the first time in that assembly, I suddenly got choked up. There were all those people, of all ethnicities and races and religions, gathered together to look at a reflective structure, but going home to segregated neighborhoods, going home to places sorely in need of gospel hope. Behind me in that auditorium sat rows and rows of students who needed to hear about Christ, and I was fervently praying for them, but my heart was pounding for the people of Chicago. When Dave told me—without my saying anything about my own experience—that he’d had much the same reaction when he saw the video, we knew God was stirring in our hearts.

Another affirming moment on that trip came in a coffee shop, where Dave and I had retreated while the students shopped in the area. Here’s what I wrote in my journal about that time:

We were talking about a topic we’ve often discussed: why are some prayers—especially those for “small” things—answered, while others, particularly those for very necessary, very important things, seem to be ignored. This topic had re-surfaced because I told Dave how glad I was that a member of our mission team who’d felt sick the day before was fully recovered. I remarked, “Several of us were praying for her.”

He got a funny look on his face and pulled out the book he’s currently reading: There Are No Children Here, published in 1991, written by Alex Kotlowitz, a Chicago journalist. It follows the lives of brothers Lafayette and Pharaoh, two young boys who lived in the Henry Horner Homes, a public housing complex just blocks from Chicago’s Loop that was a veritable war zone. Dave turned to a passage and gave me a preface before reading it aloud. Nine-year-old Pharaoh, seeking respite from the violence and drama of Henry Horner, has found a condominium complex nearby with green lawns and trees. He goes there to sit under the trees and simply be.

Pharaoh had long sought such a refuge. For a few months last spring, he’d attended Bible classes at the First Congregational Baptist Church. Washington Boulevard was lined with churches, but most of them now served people who had since moved from the neighborhood. Churches had lost their authority in areas like Horner. Pharaoh grew bored with the classes and began to question whether there was indeed a God. He often prayed to him, asking that he let them move from the projects. But, Pharaoh would say, “I be praying but he don’t do nothing. Maybe there ain’t no God.” It was as much a question as it was a statement. (page 143)

Dave read the last line and then looked up at me. “I’m struggling with this right now. How can we pray for such relatively small things as someone’s upset stomach when people all over the world are living lives like this?” He tapped the page in the book. “And how does God see these vastly different prayers? Why are our prayers for someone’s stomach answered when a young kid praying not to be molested or sold for sex doesn’t get the answer they so desperately need? When a mom who has prayed for food to feed her family watches her baby starve to death? I don’t understand!”

I don’t understand either. Part of his question does have to do with God, to be sure, but Scripture tells me God is not indifferent to suffering, and Christ proved to me God is not indifferent to suffering. But we, the people of God, the Church, are the body of Christ here, so why is it that Pharaoh was left so abandoned? Where was the church? Why weren’t the churches of Chicagoland agonized by Henry Horner and the other housing projects? And the violence and hopelessness of areas like Englewood and Lawndale and Garfield Park? Why aren’t we agonized now?

I asked Dave to hand me the book. I wanted to look at one line in particular. I read it aloud to him. “Churches had lost their authority in areas like Horner.”

“What if the churches were supposed to be the answer to Pharaoh’s prayer?” I asked. “What if they were supposed to pray about Henry Horner—along with all the personal requests they had—praying BOTH, until God so changed their hearts they were ready to act and intervene and enter in, even if in small ways at first? Until they served the people who lived right nearby rather than those who’d had the resources to move out?

“I know it’s not really an answer to your question, but I don’t think the answer is an either-or proposition. I think we should pray about all hurts, even the ones we see as small.”

I looked back at this journal entry a few times during the months that followed, as we prayed for both “big” and “small” and received guidance for all and then detours and then more guidance. For us the conversation was about the inner city and inequality in education and racial reconciliation in the church. But even more so, it was a conversation about prayer and change–heart change. And that’s a conversation for everyone. Not everyone is being led to the inner city, but all of us are being led somewhere, even if it’s right out our front door, even if it’s simply onto our knees.

Prayer opens our blinded eyes and guarded hearts to the needs we are meant to see, meant to enter into.

So I’d like to end this post with some words I read recently in The Challenge of Jesus by N. T. Wright.

The Christian vocation is to be in prayer, in the Spirit, at the place where the world is in pain, and as we embrace that vocation, we discover it to be the way of following Christ, shaped according to his messianic vocation to the cross, with arms outstretched, holding on simultaneously to the pain of the world and to the love of God. … Learn new ways of praying with and from the pain, the brokenness, of that crucial part of the world where God has placed you. And out of that prayer discover the ways of being peacemakers, of taking the risk of hearing both sides, of running the risk of being shot at from both sides. Are you or are you not a follower of the crucified Messiah? (The Challenge of Jesus, chapter 8, “The Light of the World”) 

Kingdom Vision

My last post was seen by a few as being somewhat divisive. Division is not my hope for my blog, for my voice, for my life. One of my deepest desires is for unity in the Church, for us to look more and more like the kingdom, where people from every nation and tongue and people stand shoulder to shoulder and worship God together, where we see ourselves as one people—God’s people—together, and THAT is our primary identity, where there are no poor, no mentally ill, no addictions (other than the supreme, life-giving one of being addicted to our God!), no wars…

All right—clearly, the Church can’t do all of that now. That’s a beautiful, Revelation picture of the future when the KING is visibly reigning, but that vision of the Kingdom should drive us now. If that’s what God’s love fulfilled in all our lives looks like, then that should dominate much of the work of the Church. Think of what a picture that would give to the world—to those in our communities who have no eternal hope, who have no community, who recognize a longing deep in their soul.

I think the division in my last blog post came because I was lamenting the election of our new president, and some reading it concluded that I would not have been writing it had Hilary Clinton been elected.

They’re right. I wouldn’t have. But nor would I have rejoiced. She wasn’t my candidate either. I didn’t have one. I don’t think either of them gets us closer to the Kingdom of God vision.

Truth is, they’re not supposed to.

That’s the vision for the CHURCH, not America. The Church is supposed to look different, is supposed to BE different and winsome and beautiful (though messy).

So why did I “rant” about Trump if I wouldn’t have about Clinton?

My answer follows, but, please, before/if you read any further, please know that what I write next comes from years of the Lord moving in my heart, comes from a place of personal repentance and not finger-pointing. It comes from a growing-ever-deeper love for the Church—and from the understanding that I, too, have recognition and continual repenting to do following this election.

So why did I “rant” about Trump?

Because the white church in America (of which I am part) hasn’t done a good job of working with all its might for the Kingdom vision. It hasn’t crossed racial and ethnic divides; it hasn’t encouraged humility and lament for past sins; it hasn’t stayed in the places of greatest need; it hasn’t continually welcomed the stranger and shabby and needy ones.

And because that is the history of the white church in America, and the current white church (I hate that it’s still so divided that this adjective still very much applies) hasn’t made serious steps to heal that history, we must take some ownership in this very divided America, an America in which a lot of marginalized people are seen as “other” by the white majority, an American in which a lot of marginalized people feel they are seen as second-class and not completely welcome among the white majority, not as equals at least.

But, white church, we must go beyond this because this is true inside the Church as well. Inside Jesus’ church here in America, our brothers and sisters who have a skin color other than white often do not feel that the white church at large sees them as equals—they do not feel that the white church fully welcomes them—particularly not in leadership positions. Many see our separateness as a way for us to continue to have our own worlds. Many feel they are welcome to visit or even be in our worlds, as long as it’s not in such large numbers that they affect our culture or have some element of authority. Many have deep wounds of mistrust caused by centuries of supremacy and oppression both outside the Church as well as within it.

With these feelings and this viewpoint, can we understand, have we tried to understand, what it must have felt like when the white church turned out in large numbers and voted for a candidate whose rhetoric and proposed policies support a form of white supremacy? Have we tried to understand why some of our brothers and sisters feel so hurt and so threatened by his election? I understand that many of us voted for Trump for totally unrelated reasons, but now it is time–in the humility Christ calls us to–to look at the other side of it, at another’s view.

We have not progressed beyond separate-but-equal thinking in the white church (there are times I’m not sure we’ve progressed that far). And if you’re reading this and you’re part of the white church and you find yourself thinking that separate-but-equal church sounds okay, if you think, What’s wrong with that? Or if you can say, Well, we have some minorities in our church, and I think that’s great—but no person of color is in a position of leadership in your church and it would be a little surprising to have a person of color in leadership… well, I would say there is work to do, vision-casting work—and acknowledging there is work to do is a wonderful first step.

I know the last few days have put many white evangelicals on the defensive, that they’ve been accused of racism and sexism, and that’s hard. But it’s nothing—nothing!—compared to what our brothers and sisters of color collectively have endured—for centuries—and are enduring even now. As followers of Christ, we must not go on the defensive; we MUST empathize; we MUST try to understand; we MUST listen and learn. We must practice stillness before God and allow the Holy Spirit to give us supernatural insight into the pain of others.

I am not saying this is easy. I am not saying there are any quick solutions (far from it, in fact), but we must remember that we will not be segregated in the kingdom.

And we are called to start practicing the kingdom now.

the Love

As the presidential election results came in last night, one of my sons watched with a Mexican flag wrapped around him. He did this in support of his Mexican-American friends. He did this because he loves them, because he doesn’t want them to be seen as second-class citizens, because he doesn’t want them to live in fear for those among them who are undocumented—like some of their parents.

My husband teared up this morning as he got ready to go in and teach his Latino-American and African-American students. “What do I tell my kids?” he said. “A lot of them have been really scared about this. What do I say?”

A few weeks ago when Trump made comments about African Americans in inner-city neighborhoods living in “hell” and how “stop and frisk” would be a possible solution, my children wanted to know what that meant. Then they asked, “Who would they stop? Our neighbors? On the street?”

They knew it probably wouldn’t be their white dad getting frisked on the way home. The gentleman across the street, though, the one they wave to every day and tell where they’re going and how they’re doing—he might.

A couple weeks ago, an ad popped up of a mother whose son has autism. She was offended by Donald Trump’s hand-flapping gesture. She said something like this: “My son isn’t welcome in Trump’s world. I don’t agree with much of Clinton’s stances, but I can’t vote for him.”

_________ isn’t welcome in Trump’s world. You can fill in the blank with a lot of words, all of them representing human beings, generally marginalized, without much voice. I couldn’t vote for him either.

I know some people reading this would say that my husband and I have filled our children’s heads with a lot of soft, pie-in-the-sky ideology.

But in the course of the evening, one of my older son’s friends—who would identify as a Christian—posted a pro-Trump slogan on social media and followed it with the hashtag “#build that wall.”

My son, tears in his eyes, asked me, “Mom, where’s the love?”

Oh, I’m glad for that heart.

Where is the love?

I understand that some at this point—were this a dialogue—would refer to love for the unborn.

And I get that. I really do, but I also wonder this: if we can’t love those right in front of us, those that some in the majority might see as “not-like-me, might-be-taking-my-tax-dollars” folks, then any love for the unborn, who are easy to love because we’re not changing their diapers and footing their bills, seems a little suspect.

And, I might add, what also seems suspect is that Trump has some sense of love and justice for the unborn.

The electoral college just elected a businessman whose entire career is based on success for himself regardless of the cost to others; a man who sees women as little more than sexual objects; a man who seems to view most others as beneath him (and that’s almost automatic if you have a different skin color or ethnicity than his); a man who wants a return to good old days—days when almost all white churches supported or tolerated racial injustice of many kinds.

I don’t think small government and lower taxes were worth that much.

I know I’m simplifying this—that so many will say there were other issues, but I fail to see the biblical, ethical, righteous concern in many of them. I find a lot of “rights” involved, and I struggle with this because I don’t find my rights touted in Scripture, and I do find a lot of statements about standing up for others when they’re oppressed.

At one point this morning, my children gathered around me in the kitchen, “What do we do?”

“We remember who we are,” I told them. “As Americans, President-elect Trump will be our president, but we are not Americans first. We are followers of Jesus. He is our King, and we live first and foremost as his followers, as his citizens. We will love Him, and we will love our neighbors, and when we need to stand with and for them, we will.”

Made for Good

Chicago night skyline, Em's

photo by Emily Underwood (to see more of her work, click on her name.)

This past Sunday my family and I attended the Missionary Baptist church right around the corner from our house. It was their annual outdoor service, so we sat under a tent in the church parking lot and sang, danced, listened, worshiped—and fanned ourselves—along with the church’s very welcoming congregation. Pastor Turk, speaking about how Christ’s purpose gives us purpose, reminded us near the end of the service that not one of us—not one human being given being by God, made in the image of God—was ever created for evil purposes.

“You were made for good,” he said. “You were made to be a blessing.”

The very next day—Monday—as Em and I drove and walked along North Avenue to shop for her school uniform pants, we saw several people holding signs, asking for money. Begging.

I want to set the record straight right now. This post is NOT about whether those with means should or shouldn’t give cash to homeless people. It’s not about the reasons they are homeless or begging or about what they might do with the money they receive.

This post is about the people themselves: the woman and teenage girl sitting outside one of the upscale clothing stores, jacket hoods pulled tight against the rain; the man who squats with his back against a metal fence, his leashed cat next to him; the guy, clearly strung out, asking for train fare; and the lady who chants the same phrase, “Just a dollar. Only need a dollar,” over and over and over again All. Day. Long.

These human beings make sorrow rise in my heart every time I see them. And whether I give them money or not (I’m not telling.), I try to make eye contact, to say “hello,” to smile, to see them.

This past Monday, there was one man, one man in particular…

An older gentleman, standing at an intersection, his head up, his eyes looking straight ahead, his sign reading, “Lost job. Need help to get back on my feet.”

Grey haired.

And there was something about him that felt like a punch in the gut.

The words of Pastor Turk came back to me. “He was not made for this,” I thought. “He was not made for sorrow and humiliation. He was not made for other human beings to pass by, some obviously trying their hardest NOT to see him, some scanning him as if he were an animal in a zoo. In God’s kingdom, he will not be doing this. No one will be. We will each have a clear understanding of each other’s dignity, of the God image in every single person, including ourselves.”

This—some humans walking past and around those who hold cardboard signs as if they were no more than a tree or a light pole—is not right.

This—those humans holding signs, most of them with their eyes downcast because it’s less painful to not know you’re being blatantly ignored—is not right.

The sorrow lingered. As I prayed, a question wandered into my mind. Jesus, is this how you felt all the time you were on earth? Was there always a sorrow because you knew this is not what we were made for? Because you saw each human, created to be citizens in God’s world, walking around instead without true knowledge of Him, oblivious of each other at best, downright cruel at worst, full of fear and anger.

Did you walk through each day looking at those around you and thinking, “This is wrong. This is not Kingdom life”?

Is this what I am meant to think, to wonder? Is this sorrow supposed to linger, to always color my perspective, to remind me this is not the Kingdom? And is this sorrow ironically supposed to lead to hope? Because a Kingdom must, by definition, have a King—and ours is coming.

And he is good, and He works good.

He works good—even through and among and in his broken people.

Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done,

On earth as it is in heaven.

 

*If you’re a regular reader, you’ll recognize a new look to the blog. The header photo was taken by daughter Emily, and she chose the new format as well. Hope you like it!

Treasured sons

PJ's preschool picIs lament possible without identification? We white mothers must come to the point of understanding that we cannot say, “This could happen to my son—for no good reason—through no fault of his own—through no action of his own,” and really mean it, BUT nearly every African American mother CAN, and with these words a little surge of real terror spikes in her heart.

That is an example of white privilege.

I know it is, because as a white mother of a black son, I have a hard time really believing those words. Though I know my son’s risk factors are high (he is black, very dark-skinned in fact, and he has pronounced ADHD and high impulsivity), I don’t have the history that makes his danger REAL to me. I don’t have the from-birth distrust of a system, of a majority group that sees me as inferior (though they don’t come right out and say so). My skin doesn’t ripple with a subtle prickle of fear when I see a man in uniform. Even though I am truly “in the shoes” of other African American mothers, my white privilege keeps them loose in the day-to-day. They’re not pinching my every step.

I remember, several years ago, driving through rural Indiana with a Latina friend. As we approached one city-limits sign, I remarked, off-hand, casual, “This is a pretty town, but it was a KKK hotbed until just a few years ago. It’s more hidden now, but it’s still here.”

Her response was immediate, and it wasn’t just emotional. Her breathing quickened; her face went pale, and she was unable to relax until we were miles into the country on the other side. I couldn’t identify, but I “got it.” She’s experienced “difference” her entire life. And I, except for when travelling in Africa (and the “difference” I experienced there brought, for the most part, privilege), have not.

This morning I woke early. We are preparing for a move to one of those very neighborhoods where the other mothers in it live everyday with this fear for their children, where I, too, will experience it more, simply because of location. Because of this upcoming move, our house looks like a picked-over junk shop. It is at the stage when everything formerly “in”—cupboards, closets, drawers—is out, and all knickknacks are off shelves and ledges, revealing hidden dust.

Late last night I moved the verse plaque from the windowsill above my kitchen sink. Behind the plaque I found a picture of my black son taken several years ago when he was in preschool. At some point I’d tucked it behind the plaque and forgotten about it.

This morning, up before anyone else, I read updates on the shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. I cried. I prayed. Then I went to the sink to fix myself some tea. And there was the smiling face of my beautiful son, like a treasured photo of a lost loved one, placed in a spot where one sees it several times a day.

And for one moment, the shoes tightened, hard, and I remembered the words I’d read just a few minutes earlier in one of the news reports. Philando Castile’s mother, speaking to a group of African Americans mourning the death of her child, told them, “This could be your son.”

If one is truly to grieve, lament, repent, this is what we must understand.